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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Jamieson) indicated dissent.

Dr. Pugh: Given that the measure is so thoroughly in line with Government thinking, the mystery is why the Government have not thrown their weight behind it—why it is a private Bill and not a Government Bill. After all, as I said earlier, if they want a national integrated transport scheme, they must support local integrated schemes as well. The tragedy may be that if the Bill falls tonight, it will be the Government's fault. In a sense, it will be the Government's tragedy, because a slice of their own national integrated transport plan will not be accomplished.

8.38 pm

Mr. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South): I differ on a number of points from the Bill's sponsor, my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas), but I recognise the sincerity with which she holds her views and the commitment with which she has pursued these ends. I wanted to begin with that introduction.

Before I go on to the main body of my speech, I shall address some of the particulars of the points that my hon. Friend made. She referred to the benefits that might flow to the Wirral. There may have been a suggestion that there was a quid pro quo—that the Wirral was looking to get benefits out of the measure that would not otherwise have come its way. However, the projects that are mentioned are in the transport plan and would have come to the Wirral anyway.

It is not, let me stress, a matter of us and them. I do not object to the Bill because it disadvantages the Wirral or favours other parts of Merseyside. I take a different view from the sponsor of the Bill in that I object to the principle.

Angela Eagle: Will my hon. Friend admit that there is at least one group of people in the Wirral—my constituents who live in those 200 houses next to the Wallasey tunnel—who will not get the benefits unless the Bill or something like it closes the loophole in the law which currently makes it illegal for them to get their soundproofing, just at a time when the ro-ro which is likely to open soon will increase the weight of heavy traffic through the tunnel and make their plight even worse? They have been waiting for 30 years.

Mr. Chapman: I intended to deal with that point. Of course I agree with my hon. Friend. Those provisions of the Bill have my wholehearted support. I fear that there are not many others that do.

Mr. Kilfoyle: If my hon. Friend accepts that there are provisions in the Bill that will benefit people—notwithstanding any debate about the projected rises in the tunnel fees—if the Bill is talked out tonight, will there not be a grave danger of our throwing the baby out with the bath water? The Bill is part of an integrated transport plan for the whole of Merseyside. Does my hon. Friend accept that many aspects of the plan would be contingent

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on those increases, and presumably a diminution in the amount of money taken out of the precept in order to support the tunnels as they are?

Mr. Chapman: By definition, because of the ADAC report and the comments about the £2.5 million a year for safety improvements in the first four years at least of the Bill being in force, if such a thing were ever to happen, the money could not be spent on the projects that have been outlined. In any case, those are not contingent on the Bill; they are part of the local transport plan.

I return to my point that there is no quid pro quo. The concerns of the people who oppose the Bill relate to the effects on Merseyside as a whole, not on the individual components of Merseyside. We are not saying that one part suffers more than another, or that one part gains more than another, but that the Bill—in my view, at least—damages the whole of Merseyside, or has the potential to do so.

As it was mentioned in the opening remarks, I shall touch on the fabled 10p increase that is always spoken about—only 10p, we are told, every three years. So it may be while inflation continues at its present level, but even with the present Chancellor and the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England, global economic circumstances change, interest rates may not be at their present level for ever, and there is a potential, as I shall demonstrate later, for the increases to be very much larger than the mythical 10p that is often quoted.

It was said that the consultation was effective and in accordance with Government guidelines and God knows what else, but in my view at least, the consultation was inadequate. For example, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) said, it did not include him. He was not consulted about the matter, nor were other Members of Parliament who have an interest in the tunnels but who are not Merseyside Members. It did not include, for example, the Federation of Small Businesses, which has 6,000 members on Merseyside. It did not include a great many people.

Stephen Hesford: Does my hon. Friend recall that one of the great offences in respect of the previous Bill—he may agree that it has been rolled over to this Bill—was that nobody was consulted about it? It came out of the blue to most hon. Members and merely appeared on the Floor of the House. Representations were made about that, and does my hon. Friend recall that between the appearance of that Bill and the introduction of the Bill before us, it was suggested that there should be a Merseyside forum—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman's interventions are getting longer as the debate progresses. He must remember that there is distinction between an intervention and a speech. If he is hoping to catch my eye later, he might like to avoid spending too much time on interventions.

Stephen Hesford: I am obliged to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

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Does my hon. Friend not recall that a forum was promised—I think that he was mooted as its chairman—but never came into being?

Mr. Ben Chapman: My hon. Friend made two points. He said that the Bill that was formerly proposed to deal with Mersey tunnels has, to some extent, merged into this one. I think that that is true, although the difference is that the former Bill was a de facto privatisation measure. At least this Bill drops that suggestion entirely. Of course, that is very welcome.

I should like now to move on to the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby. It was suggested that the MPTA was merely a vehicle for carrying out Government policy in all that it did, and that all that was proposed in the Bill was in accordance with Government policy. I take some issue with that suggestion, but I shall deal with it later.

My hon. Friend the Member for Crosby also said that the petition carried only 251 signatures. That is often said, and I should like to lay that theory to rest, as it was me who presented the petition to the House. There were petitions, e-mails and filled-in forms cut out from the newspapers. A variety of signatures were collected in the streets and at railway stations by people who saw the iniquity of what was proposed. The urgency of submitting the petition and the fact that House of Commons petition procedure meant that some petitions were not regarded as appropriate ensured that the number of signatures handed in was less than the 2,000 figure that was roundly proclaimed. However, the fact of the matter was that there were many more than 2,000 signatures. Let that not be doubted. Equally, let it not be doubted that, if we had allowed the petitioning to continue, the number would have been in multiples of 2,000. Let there be no doubt that the bulk of the people of Merseyside, given the opportunity, oppose the measure. There is no question about that, so let us not get carried away with talking about 251 signatures. It is simply not so.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: It is, actually.

Mr. Chapman: I say again that it is not the case. I was the hon. Member who submitted the petition and I can tell the House that there were many more than 2,000 signatures. That is the fact of the matter.

Mr. Wareing: Would it not be very interesting to know how many individual constituents have written to hon. Members suggesting that they support an increase in the tolls and are in favour of the Bill?

Mr. Chapman: It would indeed be interesting to have those figures. I can give the figures for my constituency, but I fear that I cannot speak for other Members. To be fair, I received one letter saying that it was a good idea to increase the tunnel charges. I think that it was from an employee of Merseytravel, but I am sure that it was a neutrally made point, for all that.

Mr. Kilfoyle: May I enlighten my hon. Friend in another sense? I have not had a single letter against the proposed changes to the tunnel fees, but if it will help him, I will, as his constituent, write to him and let him know that I do not object—I want the fees to go up.

Mr. Chapman: Some points were made about the affluent shires, and I shall deal with those later on.

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The Bill is promoted by the Merseyside passenger transport authority, about which I shall have more to say. I also want to deal with the generic issue of passenger transport authorities, which is relevant not only because the powers in the Bill are unique in the context of a private Bill, but because my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby dealt with the issue of the PTA generically as well as particularly.

I want to deal with the history of the tunnels and of their financing, together with the nature, role and powers of the PTA, because that is crucial in setting the Bill in context. I shall also discuss other forms of transport on Merseyside, since one of the arguments advanced in favour of the Bill is that it will move people on to other forms of transport. I need to deal with that in terms of the other forms of transport in Wirral, South, because that is the area of which I have the closest experience. I shall also talk about the orientation of the Wirral, because it is relevant to what the Bill would do to the whole of Merseyside.

The Bill relates to the Mersey tunnels, which comprise the road tunnel between Liverpool and Birkenhead—the Queensway tunnel, also known as the Birkenhead tunnel—and the two road tunnels between Liverpool and Wallasey called the Kingsway tunnel, but also known, unsurprisingly, as the Wallasey tunnel. The Queensway tunnel was completed in 1934 and the Kingsway tunnel was completed in 1974. I mention those dates because they are relevant to the financial issues.

Although the Wirral is clearly and demonstrably part of Merseyside in local government terms, its allegiances and economic linkages vary. Some people hark back nostalgically to the time when it was part of Cheshire, which in a physical sense it still is. Rightly or wrongly, and although it was more a matter of form than substance, many very much welcomed the change to the postcode some years ago that meant that it began with "CH", not "L". That did not mean that services improved; if anything, they deteriorated. However, people in some parts of the Wirral are comforted simply by having "CH" as part of the postcode.

Economic links matter not only with Cheshire and Chester, although people go to Chester for shopping, the races and work in the business park and firms such as MBNA. People also work in north Wales, not least at Airbus. The Deeside economy is unitary in many respects. Our links with Ireland are historic and remain strong. King Billy sailed to Ireland from the Wirral. People remember cattle from Ireland coming into the lairage at Birkenhead. The new roll on/roll off ferry service will further strengthen our links with Ireland. We have connections with Ellesmere Port, where people work at, for example, Vauxhall. We also have links with Halton, where people work in the chemical industry.

However, our cultural and leisure links are overwhelmingly with Liverpool and the rest of Merseyside. For both sides of the Mersey, the tunnel is a vital artery and a daily lifeline. Unnecessarily increasing the charges for using the tunnels is deeply damaging and divisive. The Wirral and the rest of Merseyside have been connected throughout history, but it was in the first part of the 20th century that Liverpool traders, ship owners, brokers, merchants and business people started to move across the Mersey to live in the Wirral and enjoy what were viewed as its bucolic pleasures. The relationship is almost umbilical.

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In 1922, Sir Archibald Salvidge tabled a motion in Liverpool city council to inquire into and report on the feasibility of a tunnel or a bridge to improve traffic facilities across the Mersey. The engineers' report emphatically supported a tunnel. They pointed out that although a high-level bridge would add to the appearance of the port and river, it would be a susceptible target in the event of war. If subject to a direct hit, it could lead to the closure of the port of Liverpool. A bridge would be impossible to guard. That was wise counsel in view of the bombing of Liverpool in the second world war. Furthermore, the cost of continuous painting and maintenance of a bridge was viewed as astronomical.

It was therefore reported that a road tunnel would cost less to construct and offer considerable economy in maintenance. On 8 August 1925, a private Bill that authorised the project and established the Mersey Tunnel Joint Committee received Royal Assent. On 16 December 1925, Her Royal Highness the Princess Royal switched on the power to the pneumatic drills and formally inaugurated an undertaking without parallel in engineering history.

The tunnels are part of our psyche on Merseyside. King George V opened the Queensway tunnel on 18 July 1934. It cost £8 million to construct in eight years and eight months. It ranked financially as the biggest municipal enterprise ever undertaken in the country. As the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) said, people remember walking through the tunnel on its opening in 1934.

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