Select Committee on Mersey Tunnels Bills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 600-619)




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 for Birkenhead.

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?


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 the facilities?

(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 being delivered.

(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 you?

(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 charges.

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.

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