HC Deb 10 December 1964 vol 703 cc1925-48

Order for Second Reading read.

8.25 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. Stephen Swingler)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The main purpose of the Bill is to empower my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport to levy tolls on the new Severn Bridge. The principle of charging tolls on public highways is something which undoubtedly gives rise to strong reactions among hon. Members. The arguments for and against it were discussed at some length during the debate on 1st December when the Ways and Means Resolution was considered in Committee.

The principle of levying tolls on this bridge was then accepted by the Committee, but perhaps I should now repeat the principal reasons why we have decided to proceed with the proposal embodied in this Bill. This is not a new proposal. The previous Government announced in 1960 their intention that tolls should be charged on the Severn Bridge. This was in accord with their declared policy that tolls should be charged on costly new river crossings. They are already charged on the Dartford Tunnel, the Forth Bridge and the Tamar Bridge, all of which have been completed within the last few years, and legislation has been passed under which tolls will be charged on the Tay Bridge and the Tyne funnel when they are completed.

Up to the present, the Severn Bridge is the only toll project to be financed entirely from central Government funds. We have at present in mind no other trunk road projects on which we think it will be appropriate to charge tolls, and our decision to go ahead with the proposal to charge tolls on the Severn Bridge does not in any way imply that we are considering levying tolls on motorways or other long stretches of new roads.

Large river crossings are a special class. First of all, they are exceptionally costly. The Severn Bridge project will cost more than £13 million for a 2frac34;-mile length of road. Secondly, they provide substantial savings in time and in fuel costs for those who have the advantage of using them. For example, on a journey by car between Bristol and Cardiff use of the new bridge instead of the existing route via Gloucester will cut the journey by 45 miles and will save something like 8s. in petrol costs alone for somebody using a medium-size car.

Savings of this magnitude and the corresponding savings in time are produced only by major river crossings of this kind. One does not achieve anything as spectacular as this by using the M.1 instead of the A.5 on a journey from London to Birmingham. The Severn crossing, therefore, will provide considerable savings to a well-defined group of road users, and it does not seem unreasonable that they should share some part of the saving with the national Exchequer, which is paying for the construction of the crossing. As long as toll charges do not outweigh the savings, users will derive immense benefits and will not be deterred in any way by the existence of tolls.

The Explanatory and Financial Memorandum attached to the Bill indicates the order of expenditure required if tolls are to be collected on the bridge. The capital cost of the necessary buildings, equipment and so on for collection is estimated to be about £320,000. This covers such things as the provision of toll booths, collecting and recording equipment of the most modern type and an administration building. Annual expenditure of about £40,000 will be needed to cover such things as staff and administration costs and the maintenance of the toll buildings and equipment. If toll revenue were required to recover these costs plus the maintenance cost of the bridge itself, together with amortisation of the capital cost of the whole project—more than £13 million—an average annual toll revenue of about £1,100,000 would be needed. We have provisionally in mind amortisation over a period of 30 to 40 years.

It is not sought by the Bill to specify toll charges or to impose any obligation on the Government to secure toll revenue sufficient to cover any particular costs, or to set any time limit on the power to charge tolls. As the entire construction cost is being met by the national Exchequer, there is in this case no loan to be repaid. So it would be inappropriate to lay down that toll revenue must be devoted to particular purposes or that the power to levy tolls should cease at any particular time. As the power under the Bill to levy tolls will be permissive, any Government will be free to cease levying tolls whenever they choose to do so.

The House will probably not wish me to go through the Bill in detail Clause by Clause, but I wish to draw attention to the principal provisions. I have already mentioned the main points in connection with the levying of tolls themselves. It is my right hon. Friend's intention to appoint a local authority as his agent for the collection of tolls, and provision is made for this in the Bill.

There are provisions for preventing obstruction to traffic and damage to the structure of the bridge. The most important of these are contained in Clause 6, where there is provision for making regulations for preventing obstruction to the motorway on the Severn and Wye Bridges. On this section of the motorway there will not be the usual hard shoulder to which broken-down vehicle can be removed. Any vehicle which breaks down on this section will be a potential cause of serious congestion and danger because the carriageways will have only two lanes each. It is essential, therefore, for the police to have power to order the removal of broken-down vehicle and that arrangements should be made for a removal service to be immediately available.

The Bill deals also with the ferry which operates across the River Severn at the point where the bridge is now under construction. The ferry rights are derived from two ancient franchises. The owners of these wish them to be extinguished after the bridge is open to traffic. Therefore there will cease to be any duty to continue the ferry. The Bill accordingly includes in Clause 9 a provision whereby they could apply to my right hon. Friend for the extinguishment of the franchises.

The ferry operators to whom a lease of the franchise has been granted have asked that provision should be made in the Bill for compensating them. Clause 10 provides for the payment of compensation if certain requirements are satisfied, in accordance with the principles there set out.

The House will appreciate that the Bill has been found by the Examiners to be a Hybrid Bill. Therefore, in accordance with usual practice, it may decide to commit the Bill to a Select Committee, to which any petition against the Bill would be referred. In this case, questions of compensation would fall to be considered and to be argued in detail during later proceedings before the Select Committee. At the present stage, hon. Members might think it inappropriate or improper for me to discuss such matters in detail. I say only that, although there have been negotiations with the ferry operators, these have been on a confidential basis and without prejudice on both sides.

I need not at this stage go into the remaining provisions of the Bill, many of which are consequential. Broadly, they provide for matters which are incidental and supplementary to the points which I have already mentioned.

This great new river crossing over the Severn and the Wye will bring enormous benefits to the area which it serves, particularly south-west England and South Wales. It is a fine example of modern engineering and it will form an important link in the national motorway system.

The proposal to charge tolls on the bridge has for a long time been an integral part of the project and it will not, I believe, prejudice the part that the crossing will play in the future prosperity of the areas it is intended to serve. Therefore it is in that spirit that I submit the Bill for the approval of the House.

8.35 p.m.

Mr. T. G. D. Galbraith (Glasgow, Hillhead)

I do not want to detain the House for too long, but there are one or two remarks I should like to make. First, I congratulate the right hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Tom Fraser) on what I think is the first Bill of his term of office as Minister of Transport. Basically, it is our Bill almost as much as it is his. When we formed the Government we intended introducing a Bill to legalise the payment of tolls on the Severn Bridge. Indeed, as the Joint Parliamentary Secretary has pointed out, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Mr. Marples) announced this as long ago as November, 1960.

Naturally we are delighted that the Government are giving effect so soon to one of our provisions and we welcome the Bill in principle for this reason. But I must admit that, while I am delighted by the Government's action, I am a little surprised at what I can only describe as as complete about-turn—although, I suppose, we ought to be getting used to this sort of thing by now.

In introducing the Bill, the Government are again showing that what they said at or before the General Election has little relevance to what they do when they have achieved office. The right hon. Gentleman himself is a notable example. I am glad that he is here so that I can say this in his presence, although, if he had not been, his Joint Parliamentary Secretary no doubt would have defended him. As I say, the right hon. Gentleman is a notable example of the tendency to say one thing and do another. He wanted to nationalise the North Sea and spoke vehemently about it before the election. He is now a member of a Government who are encouraging private enterprise in North Sea developments.

The Minister of Transport (Mr. Tom Fraser)

What is the reference?

Mr. Galbraith

The reference is what I read during the election in the Glasgow Herald.

A few years ago the party opposite made vicious criticism when, in order to strengthen the economy, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Wirral (Mr. Selwyn Lloyd) introduced a 7 per cent. Bank Rate. We were told that this was not the sort of thing that the Socialists would ever do. Now they are deflating as fast as they can possibly deflate with stop-go-stop.

We now have exactly the same unprincipled about-turn regarding tolls. The right hon. Gentleman will be well aware of the document "Signposts for Scotland", published by the party opposite for the election and for which he himself, as a Scottish Member of Parliament, a former Opposition Front Bench spokesman and now a member of the Cabinet, must accept responsibility. We have these incredible words in that document The Government's"— the Conservative Government— projected imposition of tolls … is indefensible. That was one of the issues on which right hon. and hon. Members opposite fought the election in Scotland. They said, in effect, "Vote for us and there will not be any tolls." How many votes they gained through that I do not know.

Mr. Tom Fraser

indicated dissent.

Mr. Galbraith

It is no good the right hon. Gentleman shaking his head. The statement is on page 10 of "Signposts for Scotland".

Mr. Fraser

Read it all.

Mr. Galbraith

If I did, I would keep the House longer than hon. Members and, indeed, I myself would want. A few weeks after the election all this is forgotten. Tolls are no longer indefensible but become indispensable, hence this Bill.

I am not against tolls, but I protest most strongly against this rather unprincipled conduct of the Labour Party which fought the election on what amounts to a false prospectus. That is shocking. [Laughter.] This is not a laughing matter. Hon. Members opposite ought to have the guts to stick to what they say.

The only good thing is that they seemed to have learned quickly that they were wrong about tolls. I hope that they will learn equally quickly the folly of their ideas on other transport subjects, such as their hostility to Dr. Beeching's reshaping report on the railways. I do not know when we shall hear about Dr. Beeching's position, but I hope that it will not be too long.

The Government may be learning the wisdom of following the path which we have marked and mapped out for them, but some of their supporters, as was evidenced by the remarks of the hon. Members for Gloucestershire, West (Mr. Loughlin) and West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) in the debate on the Financial Resolution, seem to have their own views. Indeed, the reply by the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for Scotland to the hon. Member for West Lothian does not exactly encourage me to believe that the Government are speaking on the subject of tolls with one voice. What the Secretary of State said was: I will keep under review its effect that is, the effect of the toll on the development of the area served by the Bridge".—[OFFICIAL REPORT. 11th November, 1964; Vol. 701, c. 81.] There is no doubt that the Secretary of State for Scotland thinks that it is the development of the area which counts.

But that is quite different from what the Financial Secretary to the Treasury said when introducing the Financial Resolution. There was nothing in his statement about the effect of the development on the area served by the bridge. He said: We think that … there is a clearly defined category of people who derive the benefit and who can, without great administrative cost, be made to pay for it, it is right that they should be the ones to pay, rather than the general taxpayer or the ratepayer."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 1st December, 1964; Vol. 703, c. 412.] That is absolutely first class. That sort of stuff is good Conservative doctrine—that the people who benefit are the people who should pay.

However, that does not seem to be entirely accepted by the Secretary of State for Scotland and I wonder whether there is a split on this subject of tolls in the Labour Party, because we know that hon. Members opposite specialise in splits of this sort. It is not a matter where Scotland and England are to be treated differently. Either hon. Gentlemen opposite believe in tolls, or they do not. I ask the Minister of Transport to state categorically the policy about tolls and to assure us that hon. Gentlemen opposite are not at sixes and sevens on this as they are on so many other subjects and that the reason for the toll is not that the bridge is due to be completed next year and that they have not had time to think up anything else, but that they genuinely believe that tolls are a proper way to finance bridges of this nature across rivers like the Severn and the Forth.

Our view on tolls is well known. It is that where there is a bridge or tunnel of an exceptional nature which creates great saving in time and distance, as is the case with the Forth and Severn Bridges, it is perfectly proper to make a toll charge, particularly if that will help to finance and hasten the work of construction. This principle was announced by my right hon. Friend the then Minister of Transport as long ago as 1955 and it has been my party's policy ever since. I am glad that policy is now being followed, even if faintheartedly and not with entire unanimity, by hon. Gentlemen opposite.

What is almost as important as the principle is the application of the principle in practice. There will be an opportunity to examine some of the practical details in Committee, but there are one or two questions which I want to raise now and to which I should be grateful if the Minister would give me some answers. First, there is the question of the amount of the toll and what it is likely to be. The Financial Secretary, moving the Financial Resolution, and the Parliamentary Secretary whetted our appetites by mentioning some figures for the overall cost—£1,100 million per annum—but there has been no indication of how much it is likely to cost the driver of the car, lorry, or other vehicle, and it would be helpful if the right hon. Gentleman could now give some indication. I should also like to be assured in the light of experience of the amount of traffic that is generated by the bridge that the Minister will keep the charges under constant review to make certain that the traffic neither makes a profit for the Exchequer nor becomes a burden on the taxpayer, but that, in so far as it is practicable, it pays its way, and also that the rate of the toll is adjusted regularly to ensure that this is achieved.

Clause 2, in the way I interpret it, refers to charges for different kinds of vehicles. Could the right hon. Gentleman tell us how he intends to evaluate the appropriate charge for different types of vehicle? There seems to be a good deal of difference of opinion on this, if the evidence submitted to the Geddes Committee is anything to go by, as to the extra cost, for example, that a heavy lorry imposes on the constructional cost of the bridge. I should be interested to know how the right hon. Gentleman will reach figures for different types of vehicles.

Another point on which I should like some assurance from the right hon. Gentleman is with regard to Clause 11, which provides for a removal service in the case of accidents or breakdowns. I do not believe that it is the intention of the Minister to provide this service himself, and presumably someone will get a licence to do it for him. I imagine that this licence will be in the nature of a monopoly, and, if it is to be a monopoly it is very important that the Minister should make certain that overcharging does not take place. Can he tell us how he envisages that the charge for these removal operations will be fixed?

Finally, there is the question of com-pension under Clause 10, to which the Parliamentary Secretary referred, payable to the ferry owners. He told us that this was to be discussed in the Select Committee. I do not know whether the Minister can tell us whether he is the judge in his own case—whether, in the event of there being a difference of opinion as to what is fair compensation between the Minister and the ferry owners, he will judge it, the Select Committee will judge, or whether there will be some other body to make certain that a fair figure is reached.

These are mainly points of detail and there may be others that we shall want to discuss in Committee. For example, I am not quite certain about the extent of the fine mentioned in Clause 12. But I do not wish to delay the House because in principle we on this side welcome the Bill, not only because the idea of it is basically our own, but because it is an indication that the Government realise that the coffers of the Treasury are not a bottomless pit out of which to get money the whole time and that people who receive special benefits should be prepared to pay for them. That is the only way, we believe, in which we can get things moving, and not by regarding everything as a kind of social service. In the past that has been too often the trouble with the party opposite. They have believed in putting everything on the Exchequer. If the problem of paying for bridges, like the Severn Bridge, has removed the scales from the eyes of hon. and right hon. Members opposite, and if it has made them realise that it is not always right to burden the community with all expenditure, then this Bill will have fulfilled a dual purpose. In welcoming it, I wish it well on its journey to the Statute Book.

8.50 p.m.

Mr. Ernest Popplewell (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, West)

On the whole, one welcomes the proposal to build this bridge. It has been discussed for many years and it has been needed for more years than people care to remember. I am sure that the people in the area must be very pleased to see their hopes realised. I have a fellow feeling for them, because in my part of the country we wanted a Tyne tunnel years before the war, just as people in the South-West wanted a Severn Bridge.

First, I should like to compliment my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary on his performance on his first appearance at the Dispatch Box. To use the usual jargon of congratulation to maiden speakers, my hon. Friend acquitted himself very well.

Having said that, I want to adopt a much more critical attitude. The Bill is the legacy of the Tory Party. It is part of Tory philosophy on transport matters. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galbraith) has just referred to the decisions on tolls by the Tory Party way back in 1955 and repeated in 1960. Hon. Members opposite have said that for any of the new crossings of our large waterways a toll must be imposed. My right hon. Friend had no option but to introduce the Bill because of the promises given and the negotiations and agreements entered into long before he took office.

I can visualise exactly what took place, because in my part of the world we know how the local authorities and the people were prepared to face a considerable financial burden in the building of a Tyne tunnel free of tolls. I know that the people in the South-West were prepared to do the same, but the Tory attitude was: "Tolls or nothing".

I was a little alarmed when my hon. Friend—and I hope he will not use this Tory attitude too much—said that the justification for tolls was the considerable saving of time and fuel which they effected. It is only a short step from saying that the same thing should apply to many motorways.

Mr. G. R. Strauss (Vauxhall)

And trunk roads. too.

Mr. Popplewell

Yes. It may be said that because trunk roads and motorways reduce the mileage and time of a journey, the same principle should apply.

This principle is dear to the Tory Party's heart. There was a strong suspicion on this side of the House that the Tories were near to adopting a policy of tolls for motorways and various other forms of road. My right hon. Friend must justify the Bill in one way or another. As the hon. Member for Hillhead said, the Bill was prepared before the Tories left office and it was inevitable that it should be introduced. However, I hope that, unless we cannot withdraw without losing honour, we will not introduce tolls for future projects. It is archaic, going back to the ages long ago. One can almost imagine that famous ride—

Mr. Strauss

Dick Turpin to York.

Mr. Popplewell

He ignored the toll. The one I had in mind was Gilpin when he had fun at the toll. We are going back almost to that stage.

We have got to learn to live in the motoring age. It is with us. We cannot ignore it. It is part of our way of life. I am not noted too much for defending lorries on the roads, especially to the extent that they are on the road today. The motoring industry, however, pays a tremendous sum in road tax. It is argued that that tax should be used for road development. I cannot share that view. The tax is something upon which the Chancellor of the Exchequer must depend to assist in meeting his expenditure, in the same way as with other taxes. Having said that, however, I feel that the motoring industry is entitled to expect service roads of the necessary type in this modern age.

My City of Newcastle is undertaking a large development programme. We are attempting to turn an old industrial city into a city to meet the needs of the motoring age. It is a costly venture but it is something which it is essential for the nation to face. The imposition of tolls is not a fair basis of assessment. Transport is essential. It is necessary for getting goods from one part of the country to another. It is necessary for our people to move with speed in this modern age and it is totally unfair to continue any question of tolls.

I know that the economic situation of the nation is such that we must look carefully at every penny of expenditure. I do not think, however, that my right hon. Friend the Minister requires a great deal of prodding from this side of the House. I am certain that he will to a large extent share my feelings and will ensure that transport is lifted to the proper level and plays a higher part in the priorities of our national plan.

8.58 p.m.

Mr. W. A. Wilkins (Bristol, South)

As I listened to the hon. Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galbraith), it occurred to me that no case gains by exaggeration. We often hear the hon. Member in the rôle of an attacking Member of the Opposition. I sometimes wonder why he does not bring his bagpipes and play them to us instead of speaking.

What would the hon. Member have said tonight if my right hon. Friend had come with a proposal to abolish the tolls? He would have accused my right hon. Friend of breach of faith. We had to accept the position which the hon. Member's Government laid down for us before we came to power. Surely, we would not have had the Severn Bridge, by the authority at least of the Treasury, unless we in this House had agreed that it should be a toll bridge. I suppose that probably all of us in this House object fundamentally and basically to tolls on bridges, on roads or anything else. The hon. Member for Hillhead shakes his head. It must apply to his side of the House, but I am sure it applies to the majority of my hon. Friends on this side.

Mr. Galbraith

It obviously does not apply to his hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, who enunciated a perfectly acceptable Conservative doctrine.

Mr. Wilkins

Not everyone objects to paying tolls for the use of roads or bridges. I always pay a bob to go up the toll road at Porlock, because I prefer it to going up Porlock Hill. That is my own free choice.

We have to look at this realistically. There has been an almost constant demand in the West Country for a bridge across the Severn. My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, West (Mr. Popplewell) referred to it. I can tell him exactly how long we have been asking for this bridge in the West Country. It is over 40 years.

That is why I interjected. We ought to have had this bridge over the Severn before either the Tyne Tunnel or the Forth Road Bridge was built. I have the report in my filing cabinet in the House to show that I actually sat on the Committee considering the proposal that there should be a hydro-electric barrage on the Severn which would combine a road transport bridge. I represented the local authority in Bristol. I was an interested party: I was chairman of the municipal electricity undertaking and our generating station at Portishead was likely to be affected by the proposal.

Because of technical reasons the proposal was eventually turned down. This whole story goes back as far as 1922 when the Committee was first sitting to examine the possibilities of the Severn, which is a tidal river of great strength. It had to give it detailed examination. We have asked for this bridge for a long time. I can assure my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport that we shall be only too delighted when this bridge is open. I think that the Parliamentary Secretary underestimated the saving of mileage, and, consequently, of transport costs, which the use of this bridge will mean. It could not possibly be less than 50 miles for every journey, and remembering that the journey would probably be a double journey, there and back.

The people this bridge will affect, and who have been clamouring for it for years, are largely the industrialists and the distributors in the south-west of England, as far west as Devon and Cornwall. This will be an immense saving of transport costs to them. We can only hope that with their patriotic instincts they will pass on the saving represented by the reduced charges for the goods they transport to the people who buy them. I doubt, however, whether they will do so.

My principal criticism—and it is a restricted one; I am not going to be too violent about this—is that there is no suggestion in the Bill of any possible period of duration of the tolls. I believe that this was also the case with the Forth Road Bridge. In this connection, I believe that we could learn something from the Americans. I understand from the Minister of Transport that the toll charge on the Forth Bridge is 2s. 6d. In the United States, where they have built many bridges of this kind over much wider rivers and at very much higher costs than we do, their costing system for the building is to charge, shall we say, the peak toll on the opening of the bridge and then gradually, as the capital costs are reduced, to reduce the amount of the toll. I see that the hon. Member for Hill-head has been joined by one of his hon. Friends. It has saved him from glorious isolation. Those who know America well will know that they gradually reduce the charge until it is, literally, a small maintenance charge.

I believe that this idea of paying tolls for road bridges or for turnpike roads, as they are called in the United States, would be more acceptable to our people if they knew that the money would be used simply to meet the original capital cost and that at some time the tolls would either be abolished or would be reduced to a comparatively small maintenance charge for the purpose of maintaining the bridge.

My right hon. Friend advised me that a toll of 2s. 6d. is being charged for the Forth Bridge. When the nation lays out a huge capital sum, such as has been required for the Forth Bridge and the Severn Bridge, the charge to the user of the bridge should be commensurate with the use made of it. I am inclined to disagree with the principle of charging, say, 2s. 6d. irrespective of the type of vehicle which will use the bridge. For example, industrialists will take 20-ton lorries across the bridge, if it is strong enough. Perhaps I should say 10-ton lorries.

Mr. Popplewell

There are 20-ton lorries.

Mr. Wilkins

I do not know whether there is any load limit on this type of bridge.

We have statistics from the Road Research Laboratory into these matters. We know that the amount of licence duty paid for lorries is quite incommensurate with the duty paid by the driver of a private car. A mini-car is charged motor tax at £15 a year. My hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, East (Mr. Mapp), who is very knowledgeable on these matters, told me the other day that the charge for a licence for one of these huge lorries is about £125. From its experiments with these vehicles, which average about 930 miles a week, the Road Research Laboratory knows that they do 66 times more damage to a road surface than does a small motor car. Yet the motor car licence fee is £15 compared with £125 or £130 charged for the heavy lorries. The lorry is estimated by the Road Research Laboratory, as I say, to do 66 times more damage.

It is about time we started to reexamine the taxation system of road vehicles and to take into account the amount of damage which they do to the road surfaces. If these industrialists and distributors were called upon to pay their due share of the charges required to meet the cost of these bridges, they would have to pay far more than 2s. 6d. If they paid very much more they would only then be in fair competition with the railways. If they had to pay the right dues to meet the cost of the damage which they did to the roads, I doubt whether they would be as successful as they are today in competing with railway freight.

We ought to get down to this business, and this may be a very valuable opportunity to do so when the Minister of Transport is using the authority which he is seeking in the Bill to decide about tolls. This is an opportunity for him to get down to the business of what the charges ought to be for a bridge of this kind.

9.10 p.m.

Colonel Sir Harwood Harrison (Eye)

I did not anticipate speaking in this debate, but I hoped to catch your eye later, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. However, I cannot remain seated and allow that attack on my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Hill-head (Mr. Galbraith) to go by unmentioned, for my hon. Friend made an extremely good speech and did a good deal of work on the Bill when he was at the Ministry of Transport.

I can well understand the dislike of the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, West (Mr. Popplewell) of tolls. Has he realised that there is nothing compelling the Minister of Transport to leave the charges on and allow them to remain in the Bill? After all, what is a change of heart to the Labour Party? They have been doing nothing but tearing up past agreements ever since they took office. Obviously, if they wished to remove tolls they have the power to do so.

The hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, West seemed to imply that tolls were something archaic and dated back to the Middle Ages. I hope that he realises that many other industrialised countries have tolls on their bridges and roads, as the hon. Member for Bristol, South (Mr. Wilkins) indicated.

The hon. Member for Bristol, South implied that industrialists were going to have a great deal of money put into their pockets as a result of this bridge. Not industrialists as such but industrial firms, which will get their goods not only to the people of this country but to our vital export markets, will be the ones to benefit. He went on to imply that these firms would make larger profits as a result of the bridge, but would not pass them on to the public. Do they not need some easier means of transport to make up for the additional tax on petrol, remembering that a great part of our export costs is made up of transport charges?

Mr. Wilkins

So it was when the hon. and gallant Member's party put 1s. 1½ on petrol after Suez.

Sir H. Harrison

But only a quarter of what the hon. Member's party put on.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Samuel Storey)

Order. We are talking about the Severn, not Suez.

Sir H. Harrison

I certainly did not put anything on petrol at the time of Suez. My remarks obviously got under the skin of the hon. Member for Bristol, South, judging from the way in which he sprang to his feet.

We are debating something which will provide an opportunity for our export trade to be helped. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Hillhead and my right hon. Friend who was then the Minister of Transport had this in mind when they did so much work on the Bill. All hon. Members are grateful for the work they did for better transport facilities, and I welcome the Bill.

9.14 p.m.

The Minister of Transport (Mr. Tom Fraser)

I am grateful to hon. Members for the reception they have given to our Bill. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galbraith) began his speech, after my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary had so lucidly explained the Bill's provisions, by having a little fun and commented that the Bill was the first I had been able to introduce since taking office. The hon. Gentleman must have a very short memory, because this is, in fact, the second Bill I have introduced. I distinctly remember the hon. Gentleman being in his place throughout the Second Reading of the first one. Indeed, he made a speech on it, although he has forgotten all about that.

The hon. Gentleman went on, charging his very undistinguished memory, to assert that during the summer I had made some ridiculous speeches begging that the North Sea should be nationalised. Had he consulted Parliamentary records he would have discovered that when the relevant Bill was before Parliament I made it clear that the resources lying under the North Sea were just as clearly nationalised by the last Tory Government as was the coal that lies under our soil. That was all done a long time ago.

What happened during the summer and early autumn was that, as we moved forward to the General Election, one of the hon. Gentleman's right hon. Friends granted concessions to applicants to exploit the North Sea in circumstances in which I thought he should not have done so. I still think that he was wrong to have done what he did.

Mr. Galbraith

Then the Minister cannot charge me with being unfair to him, because he wanted this concession to be run by someone other than private industry. To that extent, my charge was perfectly justified.

Mr. Fraser

We are getting a little way from the Severn and its toll bridge, but I did not at all claim that all this exploitation should be undertaken by the State. Never at any time have claimed that, and again I challenge the hon. Gentleman to produce references to show that I did so.

The hon. Gentleman also said that I had referred to tolls in the past in a way that made it quite inconsistent for me to introduce this Bill. Once again, he will find it very difficult to produce his references—they do not exist, not even in the document he now holds. He also quoted the reply the other week of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland to my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) about tolls. If he looks at the Labour Party's election literature, let alone our election speeches in Scotland, he will see that my right hon. Friend said exactly the same before 15th October as he has been saying since about the tolls charged on the Forth Bridge.

Mr. Galbraith

I do not complain in any way of the right hon. Gentleman contradicting himself, but there seems to be a difference in interpretation in what his right hon. Friend said in reply to the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) and what the Financial Secretary said in moving the Financial Resolution that enabled the Bill to be introduced.

Mr. Fraser

I am not aware of there being any inconsistency between what my right hon. Friend and my hon. and learned Friend said; it is just possible that the fault lies in the mind of the hon. Member.

He asked me to say what the toll charge would be—a question that was repeated in some measure by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South (Mr. Wilkins). It would be wrong of me at this stage to say what I think the toll should be. The amount of the toll, and whether it will differentiate between one type of vehicle and another will, when I get the power, once the Bill is enacted, be contained in a draft Order. That draft Order will be published in the local newspapers at either end of the bridge, and in the London Gazette. There may be objections to it, and there may well be a public inquiry. Following on all that, it will then be for me to present an Order to the House. If I were now to guess what the toll might be, I do not think that it would be very helpful to an objective consideration of the draft Order, as and when it is produced. It would be much fairer if I were not to make any guesses at the present time.

The hon. Member for Hillhead also asked about the removal operations, for which provision is made in Clause 11 of the Bill. It is my intention that arrangements shall be made by a contractor, a firm, or probably a garage owner, to clear stationary vehicles which have broken down on the bridge, but probably it will be necessary to give the police authority to use other garages also. Again, in this connection the charges which will be imposed will be laid down by Regulation subject to negative Resolution of both Houses of Parliament, and it is a little early to say what the charges should be.

The hon. Member further asked who will be the judge of what compensation will be paid under Clause 10. He asked if I would be judge in my own cause. As the Parliamentary Secretary explained in moving the Second Reading, this Bill has been considered by the Examiners to be a Hybrid Bill. Therefore, there will be a Motion to commit it to a Select Committee. The Select Committee will then be free to consider any representations made by those who feel that they are suffering injuries under its provisions, and those are the people who might get compensation under Clause 10. In the course of consideration of those representations it is conceivable that the Select Com- mittee will give some advice to the House as to what the compensation should be.

So it is possible that I shall be advised and the House will be advised by the Select Committee as to the precise amount of compensation. It is also possible that the discussions which are under way at present with the operators of the ferry will result in agreement being reached. If agreement is reached, before the Select Committee has any need to consider any such representations, the amount of compensation would be settled by agreement. I think it likely that the amount of compensation will be determined either by agreement in the consultations now going on or ultimately by the Select Committee.

There has very properly been some discussion as to whether or not tolls should be charged on this bridge. My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, West (Mr. Popplewell) very properly called attention to the difference between major river crossings, of which this is one, and motorways or trunk roads. I repeat what the Parliamentary Secretary said in moving the Second Reading. We have no intention whatever of introducing legislation to enable tolls to be charged on motorways or trunk roads.

When my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South was talking about experience in the United States of America, I recalled that in the United States on their turnpike roads, freeways or express ways—they give different names to them in different States—it is not uncommon to charge tolls. I rather thought that my hon. Friend suggested that it would be a good thing to follow their example in this.

Mr. Wilkins

Oh, no.

Mr. Fraser

He wanted us to follow their example, but that was in another respect. He said that in the early years the toll charge could be high and then it could be run down. I wish to bring out the fact that we shall not follow the United States in every respect because we shall not impose tolls on motorways or trunk roads. There is a difference between a major river crossing and a motorway or a trunk road. If I were to put it in its most crude way, it would be this. When a motorway is construc ted, the Government of the day have it constructed with a view to easing the flow of traffic. There is always an alternative road to the motorway—the alternative from which the traffic has just come. If a toll charge were to be imposed on those trunk roads, it might well be found that the traffic would be diverted from the motorway back on to the road from which the traffic had just been taken.

A major river crossing which will save the road user a very long journey indeed, as is the case here, is a very different matter. In this case everyone who uses this major river crossing will be saved very considerable expense. It is fair to say that those who campaigned over a great many years for this river crossing did so on the assumption that when it was built tolls would be charged.

Another consideration which I ask my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, West to take into account is that the railways pay for their river crossing over the Tyne and for going through the Severn Tunnel. The railways have to pay for all of their very expensive estuarial crossings. Inasmuch as road bridges are used to a considerable extent for the conveyance of freight—if they are to be used to a considerable extent by road haulage—the railways would have a perfect right to complain if the taxpayers in general were to pay.

Mr. Popplewell

This is shocking!

Mr. Fraser

My hon. Friend may think that it is shocking, but it happens to be the fact that we give road haulage a very great advantage over the railways if we provide a road crossing for which the road haulier does not have to pay, although the railways and the railway users have to pay the whole cost of the railway crossing over the same river and very near to the same point.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South said that the Bill made no mention of the duration of the tolls. This is true. As my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary said, we did not think, and we still do not think, that we should put any provision in the Bill about the duration of the tolls. We think that another Government and another Parliament at any time should be perfectly free to reduce, vary or dis- continue the tolls. We think that the proposed tolls in relation to this river crossing are very different from some of the others which have been mentioned. The others, such as the Tamar Bridge and the Forth Bridge, are bridges financed partly from local funds. They are controlled by local authorities. The money to build them has been raised by way of loan which is to be repaid over a set period—30 or 40 years. That consideration does not apply in this case, although if we had decided not to charge tolls in the case of the Severn crossing it would have been very difficult indeed to withstand the claim that tolls which have already been imposed on other crossings should be removed.

Mr. Wilkins

How would this be achieved? Would it be achieved by a variation of the draft Regulations? As I read the Bill, I do not find any authority for a succeeding Government to make any change. Does my right hon. Friend rest his case on the fact that another Government could bring in a new set of Regulations? Has he given any consideration to my suggestion that we should think in terms of a gradual reduction in the charges over a number of years?

Mr. Fraser

I had not previously thought in terms of providing for a gradual reduction in the tolls over the years, but I take note of what my hon. Friend has said. I think that it would be difficult to put it into a Statutory Instrument in the first place, but I believe that the Bill gives me power to bring in varying Regulations in the future. If it does not, I will endeavour to see that before it goes on the Statute Book it does, because I want the Minister of Transport from time to time to be able to reduce or to increase the charges. I want him to be free to vary the charges falling on certain classes of vehicles using the crossing. I want him to be free to do what my hon. Friend asks, that is to say, to provide that a very heavy vehicle would not necessarily be charged the same as a mini.

Mr. Wilkins

I hope that my right hon. Friend will not pursue that idea when we come to later stages of the Bill. I would not object to writing into the Bill something that would enable charges to be reduced as the capital charge is met, but my right hon. Friend will create a dangerous precedent if he writes into the Bill powers enabling the charges to be increased, because we all remember what hon. and right hon. Members opposite did with the Health Service prescription charges.

Mr. Fraser

I hope that my hon. Friend has more confidence in the good sense of the electorate. We are going to be here in office for a long time.

I think that I have answered all the points raised in the debate. I know that the Bill is not strenuously opposed in the part of the country where the tolls will be paid. I also know from my few weeks in office that there are a good many other parts of the country with a demand now for major river crossings, and they have been at me telling me how anxious they are to get on with the projects. All of them, without exception, tell me that they will charge tolls when the major crossings are provided.

Mr. Popplewell

Surely not.

Mr. Fraser

Yes, this is true.

Mr. Popplewell

I do not argue that it is not true, but I feel that my right hon. Friend is placing too much reliance on his brief and his Department's approach in this connection. There are areas in the country which certainly want these crossings. They want them but they feel that they have been unjustly held to ransom by the requirements to impose a toll, but just as our people on the Tyne have had to agree to a toll, they would agree to a toll to enable a bridge to be built. I think that that is a fair summary of the position. I know that my right hon. Friend's Department has a particular slant in this direction, guided by Tory philosophy in the past. I hope that he will give serious consideration to this matter.

Mr. Fraser

My hon. Friend is quite wrong in thinking that in what I was saying I was relying on a brief from my Department. I assure him that I was not misinforming the House when I spoke of representations made to me—and they were made to me personally and not to the Department—in favour of my giving sympathetic consideration to the inclusion in the highway programme of two major river crossings. The case being made for them was that the local authorities concerned would raise the money for them by way of loan and pay for them by way of tolls. This being so, I thought that I had not only the right but the duty to inform the House of Commons of the position when it was considering this Bill.

I hope that I have replied to the points which have been raised in the discussion and I now commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Select Committee.—[Mr. Lawson.]