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23 Oct 2002 : Column 349—continued

8.17 pm

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury): I am a little disappointed that the Minister had to leave the Chamber, but in the light of recent events, he may have had to rush out to take a telephone call. We shall have to await the outcome. Perhaps he will not hold the same position when he returns.

I apologise that I was unable to be present for the first few minutes of the debate; I was otherwise detained on parliamentary business. We are considering an important matter within the narrow limits of the motion. It pertains to my constituents, and I echo the wise counsel of the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), who said that those of us in Cheshire must tread carefully in dealing with an internecine dispute between those who represent Liverpool. However, as other Cheshire Members have said, we have a genuine constituency interest in so far as many of our constituents use the tunnels daily. They bring jobs and prosperity to Liverpool and therefore have a genuine connection with the city.

I decided to make a short contribution to tonight's debate because I am the Conservative Member whose constituency is closest to the tunnels. The motion has given me the opportunity to reflect on the way in which the process is being handled.

Stephen Hesford: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. O'Brien: Yes. I thought that the hon. Gentleman had an adequate opportunity to develop his points, but I shall listen to him again.

Stephen Hesford: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that his constituency is not very close to the tunnels?

Mr. O'Brien: I am sure that no hon. Member needs a geography lesson. The motor car is an amazing invention; perhaps the hon. Gentleman has come across it. It makes us very close to the tunnels.

Mrs. Dunwoody: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that many Cheshire people not only travel rapidly through the tunnels but frequently take the wrong one?

Mr. O'Brien: Given the personal point that the hon. Lady raises, I shall declare an interest, having done just that myself.

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There is a genuine reason to look carefully at whether the motion should be passed tonight. I listened carefully to my neighbouring MP from the constituency of Crewe and Nantwich. I was nearly persuaded by her approach, but not quite. I also have to say that the hon. Member for Wirral, West (Stephen Hesford) did not advance the cause of encouraging those who might vote against the continuation of the Bill into the next Session. He did his cause no favours, particularly as he based so much of his argument on the competence of the promoters of the Bill. I did not feel that competence was a highlight of his contribution this evening, when it came to the use of the procedures of the House, so there was a slight irony in that. Luckily, Hansard tends not to record irony, so there may be some mercy in the way in which his efforts are recorded for posterity.

The most important point is that my constituents have a right to feel aggrieved by the promoters of the Bill, who have approached this matter in a very narrow, Liverpool way, rather than consulting widely among all the potential users of the tunnel. I do not just mean users from Cheshire. I mean users from Ireland and users of the great transport links that combine with our motorway network to facilitate trade. Such consultation seems neither to have been effective nor genuinely to have taken place.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: I appreciate the point that the hon. Gentleman is making, but is he also arguing that his constituents might be prepared to fund the deficit that might arise unless the Bill is allowed to proceed this evening?

Mr. O'Brien: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that point. I want to be careful not to stray into the substance of the Bill—which is a matter for a future occasion, however it arises—but the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) made it perfectly clear that at heart of the matter is the issue of local tax-raising powers. Without going into that, may I say that it has a genuine connection with the reason why my constituents feel aggrieved? In relation to that, is it better for the Bill to be allowed to continue into the next Session, with the possibility of amendments being tabled, to reflect the concerns that my constituents have increasingly been presenting to me and to other MPs from Cheshire and other counties, or to give the promoters—given the record to date—a chance to think again about the process and the way in which the Bill is constructed to take into account all the interested parties, including those who would not be caught in the net in terms of the tax being raised?

Dr. Pugh: I understand the hon. Gentleman's point that consultation on the Bill has been somewhat imperfect. He mentioned Ireland, which is quite a way away from the tunnels. Eddisbury is possibly a little bit nearer. How far would he cast the net in this case? As I understand it, Members of Parliament in all parts of England have been informed about this. Will the hon. Gentleman give the House some idea of where exactly he would draw the line—how far south, how far east? Is he including Ireland?

Mr. O'Brien: As my name has an XO'" at the beginning, I do have a certain partiality to the Irish.

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That said, given that the Chairman of the Transport Committee is in her place, I must say that it is critical to the consideration of the Mersey Tunnels Bill to recognise that this matter is integral to our national transport network. It has not only a transport element but a national competitiveness element which must be considered. That involves all user groups, which could include those from this country engaged in trade to Ireland, and those coming from Ireland. My view is that we should not look at this geographically, but engage in consultation with user groups and those who will be affected by anything that takes place that pertains to the tunnels. I hope that that answers the point raised by the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh).

Mr. Ben Chapman rose—

Mr. O'Brien: I would like to present to the House the balance of judgment that I have had to make, but I shall do so after I have given way to the hon. Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Chapman).

Mr. Chapman: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is a particular Irish dimension to this matter, in that we now have a new Irish ferry going from Birkenhead to various points in Ireland? It is a roll on/roll off service that has just commenced operations, and to reach it, vehicles will have to travel from various parts of the United Kingdom to Birkenhead through the tunnel. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that that represents a very particular Irish dimension, and that the commercial dimension also has a national dimension?

Mr. O'Brien: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, which illustrates the need to ensure that all the user groups affected by whatever may take place in the tunnels should be incorporated in the process of the Bill, which has hitherto been very narrowly focused by the promoters on the needs of the areas on the north side of the Mersey which they, quite rightly, seek to represent.

Mrs. Dunwoody: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that if the Bill were carried forward, the points that he is making could easily be encompassed in amendments. There would be no difficulty at all in that, because what we are talking about is the finance to be made available for a major transport infrastructure that—like some of us—is not as young as it once was.

Mr. O'Brien: I hope that I made it clear earlier that I was very persuaded by what the hon. Lady had to say in her speech, and I accept that the Bill would be amendable if it were carried over into the next Session. If that were allowed, it would, subject to the Orders of the House, appear in the next Session. I believe, however, that that would give insufficient time for the consultation of user groups and others with an interest in the matter that has so far failed to take place effectively. Otherwise, I might well be minded to agree with the hon. Lady. Although we have already had four years, they have been four missed years in terms of consultation at a level that I think is necessary to incorporate all those interests.

Dr. Pugh: May I take the hon. Gentleman back for a moment to the Irish dimension? He is perhaps not a

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veteran of these debates, as some of us have been, but after the last debate, a good number of Ulster Unionist MPs voted in favour of the Bill, and those who opposed the Bill actually complained that they had expressed an opinion. Is the hon. Gentleman aware of that?

Mr. O'Brien: On the contrary, my view is that the House survives—just—by being the representative House of the United Kingdom, and I am delighted that any Member from any part of the United Kingdom has the opportunity to express their views, both on behalf of their constituents and in the national interest. I therefore make no complaint about that whatever.

We need to consider the time needed to consult at a level necessary to encompass all those who have a genuine interest in this matter, including my constituents, and to adopt a more imaginative approach than the more narrowly based one taken by the promoters. Such consultation would need to incorporate many of those from whom the Chairman of the Transport Committee takes evidence in her Committee. It would need to include the various hauliers and associations. They have taken a view, but I would like to see something more overarching in terms of our national transport policy.

I do not wish to stray beyond the indulgence of the Chair, but I think that, for instance, it would take longer than a carry-over would permit to negotiate a deal involving heavy goods vehicles that would enable the Bill to become law and enable the tax-raising powers to be established. An ever-increasing number of HGVs use the tunnel. They often travel down the Wirral and then do not leave the motorway network because of the difficulties in the Birmingham area. Instead, they go down the trunk roads, often using my constituency and my neighbour's to the great detriment of those constituencies, despite the fact that a motorway network is available.

As I have said, a large overarching deal would be needed but would take longer than a carry-over would allow. I do not support the carry-over, because I think the promoter should have a chance to think again and start the consultation again.

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