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Mr. George Howarth: I am interested to hear that. Given my hon. Friend's stated position, would not the logical course of action be to allow the Bill to receive a Second Reading and to try to make suitable amendments during the Committee stage?
Mr. Howarth: I am trying my best to follow the logic of my hon. Friend's argument. As I understand itperhaps he will correct me if I am wronghis position is that the Bill has some good aspects and some less good. If so, is not the logical course of action to allow the Bill to have a Second Reading tonight, and to raise those concerns in the form of amendments or in points that he can make in Committee?
Mr. Chapman: I may be reacting rather hastily to my hon. Friend's comments, as I know that he means well and is trying to be helpful, but the fact is that I approve of only one item in the Bill. It is not a matter of trying to destroy or to save the Bill. I am merely pointing out that I have a distinct objection to three provisions of the Bill, but not to the fourth. I am engaging in the debate on the provisions of the Bill as a whole.
As the proponents of the Bill point out, the financial stability of the tunnels depends on the tolls collected from people using them. That is apparent, and I agree up to a point. They also argue that the tunnels' financial stability cannot be guaranteed in the longer term, and I agree with that. It is to some extent a matter of management. The tunnels need to be managed so as to ensure financial stability. The evidence does not suggest to me that that is happening at present. The proponents also say that further toll increases will be necessary in due course to ensure that the tunnels continue to break even. There is thus an admission that they are breaking even, and I have no hard evidence to suggest that they will not be able to continue to break even, given appropriate management.
Stephen Hesford: My hon. Friend, unlike the proponents of the Bill, mentions management, which was dealt with specifically in the previous Bill. One of the reasons for that was that the tunnel had been mismanaged for years, an element with which the present Bill does not deal. Does he agree that if it did, it might receive a fairer wind from us?
In any organisation, there is scope for efficiency improvements. The chairman of Merseytravel always challenges me to say what those might be. Frankly, it is the job of the chairman of Merseytravel to identify them. The MPTA has been reluctant to tackle management issues, but I would look at whether there was a need for 80 policemen for four miles of tunnel. It is no doubt apocryphal, but it is said that there are often more policemen in the tunnel than there are simultaneously in the rest of Liverpool.
Mr. Chapman: I cannot speak for Merseytravel but, in my view, it wants to get out of tackling the issues and to transfer its burden, just as the burden is being transferred now to a readily available increase in tunnel tolls, whether or not they are justified. These increases must be justified. Those involved must demonstrate their stewardship and their prudence in financial management. It must be demonstrated that there are consultation processes and checks and balances before there are toll increases.
Such was the keenness of the MPTA to sell a long-term concession to run the tunnels to an organisation in the private sector, it was prepared virtually to privatise the tunnels, removing the fact that the tunnels hitherto had been operated by the people of Merseyside for the people of Merseyside in the public sector and for the advantage of the people of Merseyside. It may be that that mentality arises from an absence of management skills.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, West (Stephen Hesford) said, to rid itself of its responsibilities, Merseytravel was even prepared to risk the imposition of VAT on tunnel charges by virtual privatisation. How much would that have cost the people of Merseyside and its economy? Moreover, given that, apparently, no Merseyside organisation could offer the services that the concessionaire required, it seemed likely that the operation would be run by a profit-making organisation from elsewhere. That would have involved siphoning off loads of money to another part of the United Kingdom, much to the detriment of the people of Merseyside.
Mr. George Howarth: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I have listened very carefully to my hon. Friend, whomas he probably realisesI normally hold in the highest regard. However, is it in order for him to make a Second Reading speech on a Bill that is not before us, rather than on the one that is?
Mr. Chapman: I was trying to point out that the attributes that characterised Merseytravel's attitude to the previous Bill are still apparent. Rather than justifying increases in tunnel tolls or accounting for its stewardship of our funds, it simply wants to have the money given to it on a plate without any justification, other than the fact that inflation has risen.
Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: I have considered my hon. Friend's comments about the 80 police officers who are employed to maintain safety and traffic throughput in the tunnel. I remind him that the tunnel operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. By my reckoning, that equates to 12 police officers on duty at any given time across what are in fact two tunnels: in other words, six officers per tunnel, with three on each side. I believe that six officers is the minimum necessary to attend to any major emergency that might occur. Does he disagree?
The authority wants increases to be granted to it on a plate. Moreover, as has been pointed out, it wants the ability to raise charges, where appropriate, by more than the rate of inflation. Given that the authority is unskilled as a tunnel operatoror, indeed, as much elseand given that it provides the equivalent role of a board of directors, I am not sure that this is right. A proper board of directors might reasonably include representatives of tunnel users and businesses on Merseyside, and people with expertise in transport, tunnels, finance, accountancy, the environment and management. However, I fear that, by and large, nominations to the authority are based on the principle of Buggins's turn.
Dr. Pugh: The hon. Gentleman suggests that the MPTA contains no representatives of tunnel users, but he will accept that a lot of tunnel users live on Merseyside. He will also accept that many MPTA membersin fact, all of themare representatives of Merseyside people. In other words, the MPTA does include representatives of tunnel users.
Mr. Howarth: I am listening to my hon. Friend with increasing incredulity. He has the privilege of speaking in the House by virtue of the fact that he is an elected representative of the people of Wirral, South. He appears to be saying that those local authority members who sit on the passenger transport authority, who are in their turn elected by the people of their wards, are in some way unfitted to sit on the authority. Is not that a case of pots calling kettles black?