Examination of Witnesses (Questions 600-619)
MR CHARLES GEORGE QC and MISS JOANNA CLAYTON.
BIRCHAM DYSON BELL and MR JOHN McGOLDRICK examined
MR FRANK FIELD, Sworn
Examined by MR McGOLDRICK
600. MR McGOLDRICK: Mr Field, could you
tell the Committee why you object to Merseytravel seeking the
power to raise tolls in line with inflation?
601. CHAIRMAN: We know who Frank Field is,
but I think it might be correct if Mr Field was to say who he
is for the record.
(Mr Field) My
Lord Chairman, my name is Frank Field. I am the Member of Parliament
602. CHAIRMAN: Thank you. Please go on.
603. MR McGOLDRICK: I am sorry about that,
my Lord Chairman. Mr Field, can you tell us why you object to
Merseytravel seeking power to raise tolls in line with inflation.
(Mr Field) Chairman,
I think there is a great deal of sense in the travel authority
seeking many of the powers in this Bill, including the one which
would link the tariff for use of the tunnel to inflation but with
two very important provisos. The first is that when the tunnel
was built and then the second tunnel was built the powers to levy
a toll were granted both to repay the debt and to maintain the
tunnel. You will have noticed in the Bill that they are now seeking,
in the most radical manner, to extend their powers as to what
that tunnel toll can be used for. Nobody locally believes anything
other than that there should be a toll to maintain maintenance
and to pay off the debts, but if the Bill goes through unamended
Merseytravel will be able to levy an additional tax on my constituents
and other constituents from the Wirral and inner Liverpool not
simply to pay what most of us regard as legitimate costs for the
tunnel toll but to engage in any other form of expenditure within
the travel area and charge it to our constituents. I believe
that my constituents should not be discriminated in this way,
which would ensure, if the Bill went through unamended, that they
had additional powers of taxation placed upon them. The second
objection I have to the Bill as it is at present in respect of
the toll is that Merseytravel is now trying to claim a status
which no other public authority has. If you look at all the agreements
that the Chancellor of the Exchequer signs with the public sector,
they are public sector agreements, he puts into them an efficiency
clause so that each year the aim is that the body who is using
public money uses that money more efficiently than it did the
previous year. There is no such efficiency clause added to the
formula of the Bill. So it is very thoughtful of Merseytravel
to save Parliament's time in passing regulations to irregularly
increase the toll. I am not against that, my Lord Chairman.
What I am against is that they are seeking also, in addition to
that, to tax my constituents for travel arrangements anywhere
in the Merseyside area, the likelihood of which is that they will
not use it and they are seeking to get tax raising power without
Parliament insisting that each year they become more efficient
in spending public money.
604. MR McGOLDRICK: Thank you, Mr Field.
605. CHAIRMAN: Do you have any other questions
to ask of your witness?
606. MR McGOLDRICK: No.
607. CHAIRMAN: Mr George, do you wish to
cross-examine Mr Field?
Cross-examined by MR GEORGE
608. MR GEORGE: Very few. So far as the
RPI mechanism is concerned, which of course applies in the Severn
Tunnel and applies to Dartford, you have no objection to the clause
which includes that being in the Bill, have you?
(Mr Field) My
Lord Chairman, I have no objection to the clause being there providing
there is this efficiency factor added to it. I do not believe
it is totally fair to compare what Merseytravel is seeking in
this Bill with other bodies in that they are not coming back asking
for the power forever and a day to increase tolls. Other authorities
have to seek parliamentary approval at each change Parliament
has the chance to say they are not using this money efficiently,
they will not grant the whole of the increase. Of course Merseytravel
should have the power to raise the toll when necessary but that
money should be used only to maintain the tunnels and to pay off
the debt and the one or two other smaller items such as the soundproofing
around the Wallasey Tunnel. I hope the Committee will not give
them the power to use monies in excess of those needed to finance
any scheme which they may have not only now but some time in the
future, of which we do not know what those schemes are, or the
power to tax my constituents.
609. Secondly, Mr Field, do I understand, so far
as the noise insulation provisions that you accept and welcome,
that you would accept that one needs to have a provision in the
Bill not only that there is a power to provide that noise insulation
but a power to spend the tolls on the one-off installation of
(Mr Field) Yes.
My Lord Chairman, when we debated this in the other place we
were told that Merseytravel could not legally undertake this work
that it wishes to undertake and there were no objections in the
other place for them having that very specific and clearly defined
power to spend additional monies on that over and above the maintenance
of the tunnel and the repayment of debt.
610. The third matter is you are no doubt aware
that Merseytravel is what is termed a best value authority, that
is it is subject to the Local Government Act 2000 and under a
statutory duty, therefore, to seek best value and under an obligation
to have its accounts audited each year by the District Auditor,
with the District Auditor charged to ensure that best value is
(Mr Field) My
Lord Chairman, that always sounds very good in theory, but when
we see these things in practice we find that sometimes the work
is not carried out with the sort of scrutiny that we might wish
to see. The District Auditor will still have these powers, but
I do not believe that would excuse Parliament from saying that
when people are raising taxes on a selected group of the population
we should not ensure specifically that that money is spent more
efficiently each year.
611. Can I take two parallel examples and simply
seek your observations on them? Under the Transport Act 2000
local authorities are given powers to have congestion charging
schemes subject to certain procedures or to have workplace parking
schemes again subject to certain procedures and you are no doubt
familiar with that. In both those cases the money raised thereafter
has to be spent on a certain specified list of items. For instance
in London the Mayor has to have a list of items which are in his
transport strategy and you are no doubt familiar with that. So
far as I am aware there is no provision in the Transport Act 2000
which says that any of those local authorities, if they embark
upon those schemes, are also to be subject to an additional tier
of financial responsibilities, that is achieving year on year
efficiencies in the way you are suggesting should be put into
this Bill. So what would be put in would be quite unlike any
other provisions under the 2000 Act.
(Mr Field) My
Lord Chairman, we are only considering this Bill. Had the Act
of 2000 been considered in the detail that you are giving this
Bill then maybe you would have wished to have amended that. I
think it is false reasoning to say that because the House of Commons,
on a Whips system, on a timetable, passed a Bill which, on reflection,
we might wish to change, we should, therefore, forever and a day
continue what some of us would regard as bad practice. In addition
to that, there is, even on your own submission, a fundamental
difference. Nobody knows on what projects the additional money
raised by the toll might be spent. As you have just said, when
the tolls are agreed to for congestion there is a list of the
projects on which the additional money will be spent. That is
not so with this Bill. The House of Commons was unable to find
what the list was.
612. You have seen there is a specific reference,
is there not, to the local transport plan and, as you are probably
aware, a local transport plan is made every five years and then
each year there is a review and some projects can get written
off because they have already been passed, other projects brought
in. First of all, that is a democratic process in that all the
local authorities involved in it have to sign up to the document.
Secondly, there is always consultation on the plan. Mr Field,
with due respect, there is the list. It is what is in the local
transport plan, is it not?
(Mr Field) I do
not believe it is, my Lord Chairman, and also, with due respect,
that local plan is used to negotiate the central government grants
and any monies which may come from local authorities. Those monies,
as we know, are raised more fairly than a partial tax would be
raising money and that would be the basis on which revenue was
raised if this Bill goes through unamended.
613. Mr Field, when the matter was in another place
I had understood that one of your complaints was that the projects
were to be pan-Merseyside projects, whereas you would not have
objected if the projects had been projects in Birkenhead, Beechwood
and Wirral West area, is that right?
(Mr Field) And
in Central Liverpool. That suggestion was rejected in a grotesque
manner, my Lord Chairman.
614. The important fact is that at that stage you
were positively supporting the principle of using the tolls for
public transport purposes. The only difference was you wanted
them to be projects within a smaller area. That is the position,
is it not?
(Mr Field) No.
You present a partial picture of what actually occurred. I am
not by nature, my Lord Chairman, a wrecker and, therefore, I was
trying to find a manner of Merseytravel getting their main objectives
without my constituents being discriminated against. I suggested
as a compromise that they might consider this. They did not consider
that and on that basis I then opposed the Bill.
615. Do I take it that you yourself constitutionally
find also objectionable what happens in the Dartford Crossing
and what happens on the Forth Crossing where the toll money is
used more widely, fairly narrowly in the Forth area, although,
as we heard yesterday, covering some rail services at a distance?
In Dartford £50 million a year is to be spent entirely wherever
the Secretary of State thinks appropriate on transport purposes
and it is probably going to be throughout the Thames Gateway area.
Again you would regard that as simply unconstitutional and unfair
to motorists on the M25 who have to go across that bridge, do
(Mr Field) I would
regard it as irrelevant in consideration of this Bill. I do not
believe one should pass Bills on the basis that something unsatisfactory
occurs somewhere else in the country, therefore it is of little
account if it occurs in Merseyside. It is similar to saying that
just because there have been two murders in Sefton it does not
matter if there are two in Birkenhead.
616. That is if one assumes one of them is a murder.
If the situation is in fact that what has been done at Dartford,
far from being a murder, is a very sensible transport provision
done for motives, should not one look at it and consider it appropriate
to follow it unless there are very special circumstances here
in the Wirral which mean that it is not a useful precedent? That
is surely the correct approach, is it not, rather than just to
talk the language of murder?
(Mr Field) I
think the Committee will not need any advice from me on what is
sensible and what is not sensible and whether it is relevant to
take two other measures which would have had very specific circumstances
supporting their calculations and without in detail considering
those assuming that the same must apply to Merseyside.
617. MR GEORGE: Thank you very much indeed,
Mr Field, those are my questions.
Re-examined by MR McGOLDRICK
618. MR McGOLDRICK: Can I come back on three
points. Would you say, Mr Field, that there was a difference
between a congestion charge such as there is within central London
which applies whether you come in from the north, south, east
or the west and a charge such as tunnel tolls which particularly
affect certain areas such as your own area, the constituency of
Birkenhead where one of the tunnel exits is situated?
(Mr Field) I
would agree that there is all the difference in the world between
those two situations and particularly when I spent 25 years of
my parliamentary life trying to secure what my constituents thought
they had signed up to which was that the tolls would be used to
pay off the debt and the tolls would then be reduced as the debt
was repaid. That has never ever been suggested with congestion
619. A lot of the people that Merseytravel have
consulted on the Bill have said that they do not disagree with
toll increases, even automatic toll increases, providing that
they are primarily used to pay off the debt and potentially bring
forward the point at which the tunnel tolls might be free. Is
that the way in which you would be supporting toll increases?
(Mr Field) It
would, although I would be very surprised if Merseytravel had
not been able to produce polls that showed overall in Merseyside
there was great support for this measure. As we know, many people
support taxation if they do not have to pay it themselves. That
is the problem the Government is up against.