HC Deb 13 December 1985 vol 88 cc1205-10

11 am

The Minister of State, Department of Transport (Mrs. Lynda Chalker)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement. The challenge to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's decision to increase tolls on the Severn bridge succeeded in the High Court yesterday morning.

The judge held that there were procedural improprieties at the inquiry in that the inspector did not evaluate and recommend on matters germane to the decision. This was not, the judge found, cured in the decision letter. The order was therefore held null and void. No transcript of the judgment has yet been seen. When we have studied this, an appeal will be considered.

Action was taken immediately so that tolls could be charged at the old level as soon as practicable, probably some time later today. Vehicles are being allowed to cross without payment while the necessary mechanical changes to the toll booths are being prepared.

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)

I thank the Minister for that statement. I am truly sorry that it is she who is having to carry the can before the House today. Is it not unbelievable that for the third time the Secretary of State for Transport has been overruled in the courts, and this a leading member of the so-called law and order Government?

Does the hon. Lady remember that earlier this year the Court of Appeal overruled the Secretary of State and told him that he could not stop the GLC lorry ban? Does she remember that the High Court ruled that he had wrongly demanded £250 million from the GLC and said that his action was unlawful, irrational and procedurally improper I underline that last point —procedurally improper.

Now we have a third case. The High Court has again ruled that there was procedural impropriety —failure to consider wider objections. As a result of his procedural impropriety the right hon. Gentleman has illegally increased the tolls on the Severn bridge. The poor man is becoming a persistent offender. Is it not just as well that these are not criminal cases? Imagine what would happen when the judge came to sentencing and the record was read out. The judge would say, "Life without remission".

Does the hon. Lady recognise that the Secretary of State has a defence of sorts? He could plead fool not felon and we would readily recognise the validity of that claim. But it must be a matter of grave concern that the Minister who has just refused a proper inquiry into the Channel tunnel has already twice been found guilty of procedural impropriety and, according to the court, has failed to consider all factors. I advise those would-be sponsors of the fixed link proposals to take care. Imagine the hilarity when they break through on the French side only to be met by the right hon. Gentleman saying, "Excuse me, but I have news for you".

But what about those motorists who have paid an extra 30p a day —35,000 of them? The motorists have been robbed of over £10,000 a day. Who will compensate them, and how, or does the robber keep the swag? What apology does the Minister make to the people of Wales? It has been decreed that he ignored the fact that the new tolls could frustrate efforts to bring new jobs to Wales.

Is it not typical of the effrontery of the Secretary of State that he is not even here to make the statement today, despite the request from the Opposition Front Bench that he make the statement yesterday and despite a request from the Opposition Front Bench for an emergency debate on the subject? He should have been here today if only to say goodbye.

Mrs. Chalker

I have a good memory of all the facts but the House will understand if I ignore some of the right hon. Gentleman's remarks which were completely irrelevant and he knows it as well as I do.

I will now try to help the right hon. Gentleman. First, the court did not find for the appellants that the Secretary of State had misdirected himself in law when making his decision. The judge said that certain objections to the order should have been subject to evaluation by the inspector and the inspector should have recommended upon them. The inspector heard and recorded the objections, but he did not recommend upon them because he had held that they were beyond the scope of the inquiry. That was the decision of the inspector alone.

Some of the right hon. Gentleman's words fall strangely when one considers the facts behind the case. In 1966 tolls started with a 12½p equivalent toll fare across the bridge. Thirteen years later, in 1979, tolls were raised to 20p. In June this year tolls were raised further. In all that time the tolls have not kept up with inflation.

I have a report from the court but I do not have a transcript. I understand that no transcript will be available for about 10 days. Any further discussion on the matter cannot really take place until we have studied that transcript.

Sir Anthony Meyer (Clwyd, North-West)

Is my hon. Friend aware that, whatever may be the arguments for imposing toll charges —there are strong and varied arguments —in the particular circumstances of the Severn bridge, where the arrangements for the collection of the tolls are such as to produce a monstrous bottleneck on what is already a somewhat overcrowded crossing the events of this judicial decision now provide the Government with a pretext, for which they ought to have been looking for some time, to do away with tolls altogether since they undoubtedly considerably inhibit the economic development of Wales?

Mrs. Chalker

I well understand my hon. Friend's case, but Britain would not have had many structures on the dates when they were finalised unless it had been possible to take some measure of the cost of providing those structures from those who use them in preference to the long detours that they formerly had to make.

Mr. Michael Cocks (Bristol, South)

As a Member for Avon county I am gratified by this turn of events. The Minister says that no detail is available yet. In the event that costs are not allowed, will the Government reimburse the local authorities that have taken the action? Secondly, since the Government are hell-bent on privatisation, instead of tampering about with something like the gas industry, why not privatise the Department's legal work because it seems to be the fastest growing sector of the Government?

Mrs. Chalker

As the daughter, and sister, of lawyers, I do not think that I should comment on the right hon. Gentleman's last remark. I might be held to be prejudicing the situation in some way. I realise that Avon was one of five county councils, together with Gwent, Mid-Glamorgan, West Glamorgan and Dyfed, which were the challengers of the Secretary of State's decision. I am not in a position to tell him about any reimbursement but I can assure him that I shall write to him when the judgment has been studied.

Mr. William Cash (Stafford)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it comes ill from Labour Members to criticise the Government in relation to the matter that has been referred to the High Court when they, when in Government, were responsible for some of the classic cases —for example, the Tameside case, the Laker Airways case and the Congreve television licence case. These things do happen from time to time and it comes ill from Labour Members to take such cheap points.

Mrs. Chalker

My hon. Friend is much more expert in legal matters than I am. I well remember cases going against Governments of all hues over the years. That is one of the parts of our legal system which are safeguards in many ways. I have tried to confine myself to the issue before me and I hope that my hon. Friend will, therefore, understand if I do not comment further on his very fair comments about the Opposition's initial response.

Mr. Speaker

Mr. Donald Stewart. This is a statement about the Severn bridge.

Mr. Donald Stewart (Western Isles)

I take your point, Mr. Speaker, but I wish to support the general point sensibly made by the hon. Member for Clwyd, North-West (Sir A. Meyer) about bridge tolls generally. Is the Minister aware of the situation on the Scottish bridges where the—

Mr. Speaker

Order. That is what I feared.

Mr. Roger King (Birmingham, Northfield)

As the toll on the Severn bridge 19 years ago was 12½p, and the Secretary of State is seeking to raise it to 50p, is not that a very low increase, bearing in mind the substantial benefits that the bridge affords the local community and those who use it?

Mrs. Chalker

My right hon. Friend would not have gone ahead with the order, which he did before there was any question of a legal challenge from the five county councils, unless he had thought the increase to be reasonable. Nevertheless, until the equipment is changed we are returning to a free passage and then to 1979 levels until a decision is made, following receipt of the transcript, on what should be done.

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)

Why is the Secretary of State for Transport not here to make the statement? Has he not carefully avoided one of the judge's comments? The judge said: The points would and should have assisted the Secretary of State in the exercise of his discretion and power. Has not the Secretary of State overstepped his discretion and his power, and is not this the third time in a year in which he has done that?

Is not this the 15th time that the Government have been hauled before the courts in the past two years? They have spent more time being arraigned by the courts than the Lord Chancellor has spent in the courts upholding the law. Does the Minister not realise that in many people's view those facts demonstrate a strange and worrying hypocrisy from the Government who dare to lecture us about values and upholding the law? When will the Government begin to adopt some decent standards in the governing of this country?

Mrs. Chalker

The Government will never cease trying to adopt the highest standards. There are, nevertheless, in the judgment on any matters of this nature myriad factors to be taken into consideration. The hon. Gentleman is seeking to make cheap political points about a situation that is far more complex than probably even he can understand. I was informed at ten minutes to 10 this morning of this matter. That was the notice that I had. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was not in the office at that time —he is elsewhere, on a visit —it would have been impossible for him to return. That is why I was asked to make the statement in his stead. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the statement would not have been in any other form, even if my right hon. Friend had made it.

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)

Now that the courts have decided that the 150 per cent. increase put on by the Government in June is null and void, will the real objectors to the toll increases be heard by the Department of Transport? Those objectors are the people involved in commerce and those commuting out of unemployment-ridden south Wales to get jobs in south-west England. Will they be heard and will the Government stop these ridiculous increases and help the people who need to use the bridge?

Mrs. Chalker

I said in answer to the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) that the inspector who conducted the inquiry heard and recorded the objections. He did not recommend upon them because he held that they were beyond the scope of the inquiry that he was nominated to conduct by the Lord Chancellor. I realise well and truly how difficult it has been for many people in south Wales and many other areas of the country who need to travel long distances and to be absent from their families to find work. However, this country has long needed that flexibility of movement. The fact that they are on the other side of a waterway is one fact—

Mr. Barron

An increase of 150 per cent.

Mrs. Chalker

The increase has to be judged over 19 years and not, as the hon. Gentleman likes to do, over a single year or so.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

As the Secretary of State has yet again ignored all the evidence given to him from the area about the direct barrier to the creation of employment that an increase in the tolls would present, how many times must he be brought before the courts before he has the decenty to resign? How long do we have to wait before he understands that he must take account of the interests of the people of this country and not behave in this arrogant manner?

Mrs. Chalker

I assure the hon. Lady that my right hon. Friend is very fully aware of, and sympathetic to, the interests of the people of this country, but it never does to allow one's heart to rule one's head and it is high time that the hon. Lady learnt that valuable lesson. I make no further comment about that.

My right hon. Friend, in reaching his decision, followed the recommendations of the inspector, which were clear: the tolls should be raised.

Mr. Tim Rathbone (Lewes)

Did my hon. Friend have any indication from the Opposition that a private notice question was to be asked on this subject—

Mr. Speaker

Order. This is not a private notice question; it is a statement.

Mr. Rathbone

That is the point of my question. It is only because of the willingness of the Minister that we are having the statement. The criticisms of the Opposition are ill-founded, because they had no keenness to find out the truth in the first place.

Mrs. Chalker

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House informs me that the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) said in the House yesterday that he intended to ask for a statement. I apologise to the right hon. Gentleman, but I have not yet had time to read yesterday's Hansard. I would have been better prepared if I had realised the import of what he had said.

It is always difficult when something happens on a Thursday and the House sits at 9.30 on a Friday and a statement has to be made at 11 o'clock. It is difficult to have as much information as I should genuinely like to give the House. However, as the transcript is not yet available, I have no means of informing the House further in the way that hon. Members would obviously like.

Mr. John Ryman (Blyth Valley)

May I ask the Minister calmly to give us a few more necessary facts? Although no transcript is available, a detailed note must have been taken by counsel representing the Secretary of State in court and by the instructing solicitor. Presumably the hon. Lady has that note and can refer to it. If she does not have it, she should have it.

What is the position about costs? In more than 15 cases since the Government were elected in 1983 the courts have ruled that there have been serious errors of law and that orders made by Ministers pursuant to legislation were rendered null and void because of illegalities. Orders for costs must have been made against the Secretary of State on those occasions, which means that the taxpayer is having to fund the litigation resulting from the incompetence and negligence of Ministers.


Mr. Speaker

Order. Briefly, please.

Mr. Ryman

What do the Government intend to do as a result of this disgraceful act of negligence? Is it intended that the inspector should conduct another inquiry? That would normally be the procedure. The inspector having been found by the courts to be in error in law, do the Government intend to set up another inquiry, with a more competent inspector, to go through the evidence again?

Mrs. Chalker

I shall tell the hon. Gentleman as much as possible. A full note was taken by counsel in court yesterday, but it is not yet available in type and has not yet arrived in my office. As soon as we receive it, we shall read it with care. I make the statement the day after the court case in response to a request. I shall make the information available as soon as possible, but I cannot do the impossible, hard as I might try.

Costs will be awarded to the applicants. That was stated yesterday. The funding of other cases falls outside the terms of this statement, but obviously we shall be looking into the matter with care. Nobody likes the situation and no one is prepared, where it is avoidable, to let it happen again. I say that to the House with all sincerity. Judgments which might not be totally clear will have to be taken on board and we might, indeed, have to look at what should be said in the law.

Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby)

In view of what my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) said about jobs in south Wales and the west country Thirdly—which will be affected by the monstrous increases in tolls since June Thirdly —will the Secretary of State take on board this important issue, notwithstanding the inspector's report?

The Secretary of State has absented himself this morning. What engagements can be more important than making such an announcement to the House? Does the hon. Lady enjoy being a surrogate for someone who is involved in illegalities? Will she call upon her right hon. Friend to do the decent thing and to come to the House with a resignation statement?

Mrs. Chalker

The hon. Gentleman's last comments carried him in an unwise direction. I am no one's surrogate. I am the Minister of State at the Department of Transport. The Secretary of State had an important engagement. He would not have known about a possible statement until he was many miles from London. It was physically impossible for him to be here at 11 o'clock this morning.

Of course we understand the importance of the issue and we understand the problems for people who travel daily over any estuarial crossing. I must remind the hon. Gentleman that moving from a 12½p toll in 1966, to a 20p toll in 1979, and to a 50p toll in 1985 is way below the inflation level over the last 19 years.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

This is private Member's motions day. Mr. Rathbone.