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Mr. Miller: I am glad that my hon. Friend made that point, as it is a recognition that we are dealing with journeys that go much further than Merseyside. In the light of that, does she agree that as I represent constituents in Ellesmere Port and Neston it would be appropriate for me and people such as me to be part of the consultation process under best-value legislation?
Mrs. CurtisThomas: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention; I understand his motivation, but I stress that the five Merseyside authorities bear the cost of the tunnels so the future of the tunnels is largely at their discretion.
Although the tunnels are the responsibility of the Merseyside PTA, research has shown that the tunnels are used by only 3 per cent. of the people of Merseyside. Car ownership in the area is relatively low by national standards, and I am pleased to say that its citizens are far more reliant on public transport than those in most conurbations. As I shall explain, it is questionable on grounds of fairness whether the 97 per cent. of Merseysiders who do not use the tunnels should be called on to subsidise them through their council tax when additional financial support is needed. I repeat: 97 per cent. of Merseysiders are called on to subsidise tunnels that they do not use.
Merseytravel has an obligation to put the tunnels on a sound financial footing, to invest in them to ensure that they operate at the highest practicable levels of safety, and to provide alternative public transport services for those increasingly congested river crossings. That is what the Bill does.
It is true that a previous Mersey Tunnels Bill envisaged letting the operation of the tunnels on a long-term concession to a private sector operator. At that time, Merseytravel saw that as the only way to achieve the modernisation of working practices essential to the spirit and letter of the Labour Government's best-value principles. The proposal was scrapped by the Labour leadership of Merseytravel, which is why the current Bill is but a third of the size of the original.
A year ago, the political leadership of Merseytravel offered the five trade unions representing the 300 or so employees of the tunnels the opportunity to be involved in negotiations on the modernisation of working practices while remaining in the public sector. Such modernisation is exactly what the TUC claims is the alternative to private sector involvement in public services. Thus far, however, the trade unions have not attended a single meeting to take that process forward; instead, four of the five unions and the north-west region of the TUC have chosen to petition against the Bill, even though it poses no threat whatever to their members.
The exception was Unison, which has written to its members who serve in this place urging them to support the Bill. It is a source of great regret to Merseytravel that the trade unions did not take up the offer to negotiate the creation of a modern public service. Nevertheless, Merseytravel remains fully committed to the principle of public sector operation and is still ready to enter negotiations with the trade unions at any time. The Bill is not about privatisation.
Having set out the role of Merseytravel and clarified what the Bill does not do, I shall explain what it is actually about. First, it is designed to put the Mersey tunnels on a sound financial footing. Since the abolition of the Merseyside county council by the Conservative Government in 1986, Merseytravel has been responsible for the management, operation and maintenance of the Mersey tunnels.
All Labour Members accept that the sound management of our public finances is necessary if we are to raise the quality of public services. In the case of Mersey tunnels, that ambition is impossible under the current legislation. They are financed through the collection of tolls from the drivers of cars and other vehicles that pass through them. Current legislation stipulates that toll revenue must equal only the cost of operating, refurbishing and financing the tunnels. The tolls must not explicitly produce any surplus revenue that can be aggregated in anticipation of the need for future investment. That means, in reality and actuality, that Merseytravel can seek to raise the tolls only after the tunnels have been pushed into deficit by rising maintenance and other costs.
The process of raising the tolls to cover additional costs can take up to two years. That is because Merseytravel has to apply to the Secretary of State for Transport for authority to raise the tolls. He, in turn, is obliged to call a public inquiry if objectors oppose the rise so requested, and they inevitably do. The toll revision process can take up to two years and will cost hundreds of thousands of pounds. Therefore, the elected councillors of Merseytravel find that they have responsibility for the finances of the tunnels with no power to finance operating losses other than through the levying of the five district councils until a public inquiry, which could take two years, has been completed and the Secretary of State has made his decision. That is exactly what has taken place in the past and it is what the Bill seeks to avoid in future.
The last time that the Merseyside PTA was compelled to request financial assistance from the five district councils for the Mersey tunnels was in 1992. Hon. Members may well ask whether that request was made to advance public transport on Merseyside. The answer is absolutely not. The finance was used to subsidise the private cars, vans and lorries using the Mersey tunnels. This ridiculous arrangement resulted in £28 million having to be paid to the tunnels by the five Merseyside district councils and, hence, by council tax payers. That debt is still being paid out of income from tolls. The authority in my constituency is owed £5 million. The 97 per cent. of Merseysiders who do not use the tunnels subsidise the 3 per cent. who do. Should Parliament fail to enact this Bill, the beast of 1992 will again pick the pocket and purse of every council tax payer on Merseyside. Some of our authorities can least afford that.
Moreover, users of the tunnels resident outside the conurbation have been immune from any additional burden whatever. Research has shown that as many as 10 per cent. of the users of the tunnels reside outside Merseyside and therefore never incur the consequence of the debt that accrues to the facilities.
I fully acknowledge the contribution that commuters from outside Merseyside make to the economy of the county, especially those "workers by brain", as we used to call them in the Labour party, who are employed in the burgeoning financial, technical and academic sectors of Liverpool's economy. We do not doubt their contribution, but we wish to make the situation more equitable for all concerned. Can it be right that the council tax payers of the conurbation, many of whom are on very low earnings compared to the outside commuters, should be called upon to subsidise the travel-to-work costs of those able to reside in the more affluent shires? I ask my right hon. and hon. Friends, especially those representing constituencies in London and other great cities, whether their constituents would be prepared to countenance that.
Clearly, Merseytravel is under an obligation to its constituents to put the tunnels on a sound financial footing so that there is no need for future subsidies from the council tax. We have already paid far too much, and we are already owed a great deal. The Bill, which is promoted by Labour-led Merseytravel, seeks to right that wrong. It would reconfigure the economics of the madhouse in such a way that neither the tunnels nor importantly the council tax payers on Merseyside would be forced to go into debt. That has been the reality for some of the authorities concerned.
A resolution to the problem is even more pressing in the light of a recent report on safety in the Mersey tunnels. An urgent need now exists for additional funding for investment in the tunnels. Let me explain. In April this year, the Allgemeiner Deutscher Automobil Clubthe German motorists' organisationpublished its latest report on safety in 30 road tunnels throughout Europe. The report was commissioned by, and carried out in conjunction with, a range of European Union organisations, including Britain's Automobile Association. Merseytravel volunteered to co-operate with the study, enabling ADAC to examine the Mersey tunnels. The report awarded good marks to the Kingsway tunnel between Wallasey and Liverpool, which came seventh overall in Europe. That reflected, in large part, the relatively modern design from the 1960s and 1970s. However, the Queensway tunnel between Birkenhead and Liverpool scored less highly, rating as acceptable and coming 21st out of 30. That was mainly a result of the way in which it was designed and constructed in the 1920s and 1930s.
The Queensway tunnel's weaknesses include it having only one tube with oncoming traffic, no emergency lanes or lay-bys, narrow traffic lanes, inadequate emergency walkways, 1,500 m gaps between emergency exits and no automatic detection of traffic congestion. The emergency telephones are not soundproofed, the fire ventilation system is not automatically activated and the tunnel is not automatically closed in the event of a fire. Merseytravel has examined the report in detail and has provisionally costed the works recommended to bring both tunnels up to European safety standards at about £8.5 million.
Merseytravel has long anticipated that the need would arise for substantial expenditure in the Queensway tunnel. However, the ADAC report, following on from a number of serious fires in road tunnels on the mainland of Europe in the past few years, has now produced a compelling need to act swiftly and in additional areas.