Select Committee on Mersey Tunnels Bills Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 720-739)

MR CHARLES GEORGE QC and MISS JOANNA CLAYTON.

BIRCHAM DYSON BELL and MR JOHN McGOLDRICK examined

720. MR GEORGE: As I understand it, a witness has given evidence, Mr Field, and I believe that evidence having been given I am entitled to close the matter generally. However, I am going to be extremely brief whatever happens. I think I might have asked for a right to cross-examination on the mass of new material which has come in which should not have come in on a submission but again I am going to waive my right to that subject to inviting your Lordship to let me comment on two figures that have been given. I hope to be as brief as I can and I aim to be through in certain less than 15 minutes and if I can do better than that I will do so.

721. CHAIRMAN: My apologies if I thought to steer you in a slightly different direction. We are all new to it.

722. MR GEORGE: This is my final closing, I have no further bite.

723. Two matters of figures. The three per cent which has been mentioned, I ought to just clarify that. The population of Merseyside is 1.35 million. The regular tunnel users are 40,000. That is the origin of the three per cent figure, so it is three per cent of the population who are regular tunnel users. I accept the point that there will be others who occasionally use the tunnel. I hope it is helpful to clarify that.

724.My Lord, secondly, I think there was a suggestion both from Mr McGoldrick and Mr Field after I had asked questions that in the other place it was eventually a very narrow vote. I do not suppose your Lordships are remotely impressed by numbers but I think I ought to tell your Lordship that on the second reading the voting was 105 to 22 on 9 July 2002 which I do not think is a very close vote, which your Lordships might otherwise have supposed. My Lord, that is simply to set the record straight.

725. My Lords, I do not propose to go through every paragraph of the Petition. It is sufficient if I remind your Lordship that it seems to be the three key matters which I identified at paragraph 103 at page 18 on day one are made out and not seriously challenged.

726. CHAIRMAN: Are you now on the record?

727. MR GEORGE: I am on the record of yesterday's proceedings.

728. CHAIRMAN: Say it again.

729. MR GEORGE: Page 18, paragraph 103. First of all, at paragraph 103 I said: "It will secure financial stability and remove the need for occasional revision orders or local authority precepts." That is unchallenged. My Lords, it is the position under existing legislation that a single person by objecting can cause and oblige the Secretary of State to call a public inquiry. That letter which was put in by Mr McGoldrick from some other source has misquoted the Act. It is quite plain in A26, page 123, which is section 92 8D that a single person can object and if he does not withdraw his objection then there is a public inquiry and it is a mandatory requirement. Your Lordships should observe at the top of page 123 ----

730. CHAIRMAN: Could you just lead us to the Bill itself?

731. MR GEORGE: I am looking at the existing provision in the County of Merseyside Act 1980, page 123. It is exhibit A36. At the top of page 123, it is little (d) which is in section 92, 8(d), "Before making an Order, the Minister shall, if required by any person who has objected to the Order and who has not withdrawn his objection, cause a local inquiry". It is a mandatory obligation.

732. The letter which Mr McGoldrick put in, and I do not criticise him for this for a moment because it was a misleading letter which was sent to him, but it was quoting back from 8(a) on the opposite page, says that you have to be a body of persons to apply for a toll rise, either to be the PTA or a body of persons, not just an individual, but in the relevant provision for objection, a single person can cause an inquiry and that is what I described yesterday as being a very cumbersome procedure and I hope your Lordships will agree with that submission.

733. My Lords, the second matter which I referred to in paragraph 103 was that the Bill would ensure that the existing balance of costs between public and private means of crossing the Mersey was maintained and thereby the time when the tunnels reached saturation point was delayed. Now, that point is completely unchallenged by the Petitioners. You have seen the charts and so forth and it is a very telling matter that there is no dispute that on the latest figures in the morning peak period you have got that count of 6,400 vehicles referred to at paragraph 214, page 36 of the record of yesterday's proceedings, nor is there any suggestion that the capacity is not 6,800. Your Lordships have heard Mr Field this afternoon asked by Lord Bradshaw, "Do you have any other alternative?" He had no other alternative, he said no. The only matter he left your Lordships to contemplate is, "Might it not be better effectively if car drivers stewed in their own juice and", in other words, "were delayed?" That was the best answer. Your Lordships, therefore, have that alternative. Is one to have drivers simply clogged up and totally delayed or is one to have a measure such as this which will ensure that saturation is not reached as early as it would otherwise be?

734. The third matter I mentioned in paragraph 103 was that it would make available funds. There is no dispute that it would make available those funds. There is no dispute, as I understand it, about the mechanism. What is questioned is as to whether it is fair that these sums should be raised.

735.I turn from there and I mention and I remind your Lordships of the various safeguards that are in the Bill and they have been gradually added to as the Bill has progressed and your Lordships will recall that although you have got the RPI increases, every time before it bites, the Passenger Transport Authority has got to pause and to ask itself whether in the circumstances then prevailing and having regard to the various matters which are set out in clause 92(c)(2), it is appropriate to take the full RPI rise or whether the rise ought to be either a lower rise or no rise at all. Your Lordships must bear in mind, in my submission, that provision and I addressed your Lordships on how of course the PTA are answerable in the courts to show that they properly observe that provision, so that safeguard is there in the Bill itself.

736. Now, apart from those safeguards, there are two further provisions. First of all, there is district audit. It is the practice of the PTA to make all its accounts available to the District Auditor. He does look at all those accounts. If he were to find something awry, he would point it out. That has never happened and your Lordships have heard from Mr Wilkinson that there has been no criticism made of the accounts for many years passed. Your Lordships may be wondering, "Is it appropriate to follow Mr Field in writing into the Bill some extra provision requiring year-on-year efficiencies?" One asks rhetorically, "Why on earth?" It is not written into every single piece of legislation, whichever confers powers on a local authority, and it is not written in because there is an obligation on them to act efficiently.That is what the Local Government Act 2000 is all about. The duties are there and it would be inappropriate. Nor are your Lordships in any position to say what should be the appropriate amount of savings made each year and, therefore, your Lordships would merely be inserting or suggesting an amendment which contained a provision which simply duplicated existing legislation because you could not specify a precise figure. I would ask your Lordships to conclude that an additional provision of that nature is simply not necessary given the code within which the PTA acts. In opening, I said that they were democratic in that they were made up of councillors who are answerable. I also referred to the fact of the legal controls on them and I emphasised the controls on them through district audit.

737. That then leads, as I understand it, to two areas where possible amendments have been mentioned. The first is: is it right and proper that the surplus tolls be spent on the entire Merseyside area or should it be more narrowly confined? That is a matter which, your Lordships will recall, Mr Field, as a compromise measure in the Commons, had suggested that perhaps it should be Wallasey and Liverpool City alone. Your Lordships heard this morning from Mr Phil Bates and he gave your Lordships what I hope your Lordships found to be four compelling reasons why it should be devoted to the entirety of Merseyside. Your Lordships may recall that he split them up. The first was the multi-leg point, the second was the multi-mode point, the third was that every driver benefited from anyone who transferred, and the fourth was that planning in this area, by democratic agreement of the local authorities and the highway authorities, is done on a pan-Merseyside basis and it would really be illogical to put this on to a different basis. I might add that the same argument would have run against congestion charging in London, saying that all the money must be spent on the central area or only on the outer area, but it was not; it was left to be spent on the area which is the transport authority, the whole of the Greater London Authority area. It is the same principle which applies, but it is simply artificial to draw boundaries in the way that at one stage was suggested.

738. That finally then brings me to subclause 3(e) as to how that matter stands. I deliberately addressed the matter in opening when I expressed the view that of course an amendment could be devised, but we have given this matter a great deal of consideration. On the evidence, your Lordships already know that the power is needed to cover the situation of the debt to the local authorities and the non-controversial noise insulation. If I just pause there, your Lordships will see that it is no easy task to draft an amendment to cover the first of those when your Lordships recall the situation is that this is not repaying a debt, but it is repaying monies which were paid as a precept, but where it has been advised that there is a right of recovery and that, therefore, it should be treated as a debt and repaid with the interest that would have been payable if it had been incurred as a debt. No doubt an appropriate provision can be drafted, but your Lordships will immediately see that it is not just, as I may put it, a one-liner to deal with that position.

739. There is one other circumstance to which I would also refer your Lordships. A Local Transport Plan is a five-year document, as I think everyone knows. Every year there is a progress report, but a progress report is not itself the Local Transport Plan, albeit it identifies, as I put it this morning, what has already happened and refers to certain new projects. Your Lordships may think that it would be rather absurd if in year two of a Transport Plan there came forward a new project which might be regarded as a very urgent project. It had been the subject of the annual progress report and had support from all the authorities, which is why it is in that report, it has been the subject of the consultation that takes place in connection with the annual reports, but is it to be the position that any toll money cannot be spent on it until another four years have elapsed and it has formally been incorporated in the next five-year Local Transport Plan? Your Lordships may think that that would not be a very sensible arrangement and that is another matter which would fall within the "other purposes" provision which there is at present.


 
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