HC Deb 20 December 1995 vol 268 cc1551-94

Order for Second Reading read.

4.34 pm
The Minister for Railways and Roads (Mr. John Watts)

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

The Bill provides an exceptional solution to an exceptional problem. For parts of the Humber Bridge Board's debt due to the Secretary of State, it provides the power to suspend interest payments and to write off debt. It will enable both parties to secure a long-term solution to the problem of managing the debt. Its two clauses implement an undertaking given to Parliament in July 1991 that the Government would, at an early opportunity, promote legislation to provide express powers for the writing off and suspension of parts of the Humber bridge debt.

The Humber bridge was promoted by the local authorities of Humberside through the Humber Bridge Acts of 1959 and 1971. They established the Humber Bridge Board with a preponderance of members from Hull but also with representation from other local authorities which supported the building of the bridge. Those Acts empowered the board to borrow but did not provide express powers for the Secretary of State to pay grant to meet unpaid debt or interest, or otherwise to write off debt or suspend payment of interest on it.

The local authorities of Humberside promoted the Acts of 1959 and 1971 to provide powers for the construction of the bridge—but it still had to be financed. The Government view at that time—1965—was that the bridge was not needed; but in 1966 the Government executed a U-turn. I cannot begin to speculate as to the motives for such a sudden change of policy.

Mr. Toby Jesse! (Twickenham)

May I tell my hon. Friend that if I catch the Speaker's eye, I shall seek to explain the reason for the sudden change of policy?

Mr. Watts

We await my hon. Friend's contribution with interest.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North)

Would the Minister be kind enough to tell the House the opinion of Her Majesty's Opposition at the time?

Mr. Watts

I shall certainly come to that. The more cynical among us—perhaps I should say, behind me—might say that it was the looming by-election in Kingston upon Hull, North that tipped the balance in favour of the project; for it was on 18 January 1966, shortly before the election, that the then Secretary of State for Transport—now the Baroness Castle—announced from the hustings that the Humber bridge would be built. The late lamented lain Macleod said at the time that this was not a sensible project. The history of the financial difficulties of the project suggest that he was probably right about that, as about so many other things during his distinguished career in public service.

In 1971, the Government confirmed that they would provide loans for the Humber Bridge Board to finance the costs of constructing the bridge. It opened in 1981, plagued by the industrial disputes that were a feature of the era in which it was built.

Mr. McNamara

Will the Minister be kind enough to say which Government were in power in 1971, and whether any binding contracts had been entered into before June 1970?

Mr. Watts

It was of course the Labour Government in 1965 who said that the bridge was not needed and who executed a U-turn in 1966, promising, for whatever motives, that the bridge would be built. In 1971, a Conservative Government led by my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath) came to the rescue of the promoters of the scheme by agreeing to provide loans—

Mr. McNamara

Answer the question.

Mr. Watts

When the hon. Gentleman reads the record he will see that I have answered his question—and given him rather more information than he wanted.

Mr. McNamara

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Watts

Not again. I want to make progress. The bridge took nine years to build. How times have changed! The new Dartford bridge was built in just over three years and the new Severn bridge should be built in less than four. In both cases, it is the private sector, not the taxpayer, on which the costs of construction and debt fall. The bridge took a long time to build and the cost was greater than originally planned. Above all, it has carried less traffic than expected. It was built to promote the regeneration of South Humberside but the expected economic growth did not occur.

Sir Anthony Durant (Reading, West)

The building of the bridge represents a public scandal of the time. The losses are about £14 million a year. What contribution has been made by Hull city council? Has it paid anything?

Mr. Watts

Local authorities' contributions have not been significant. A substantial amount of toll revenue is generated but it is nowhere near enough to provide the necessary funding. In recent years, the national taxpayer has been contributing £40 million a year as grant in aid pending legislation.

It was always envisaged that toll income would be insufficient to service the debt in the early years. Legislation therefore provided that unpaid interest could be capitalised. That led, however, to an exponential growth in the board's debt, which rose from £151 million in 1981 to £439 million in March 1992.

After tolls were set at their present levels in August 1989, the board formally presented my Department with a case for financial assistance in July 1990. The board undertook to promote a private Bill to index its tolls from the date of the last toll increase in 1989. For their part, the Government undertook to promote a Bill to provide express powers for writing off and suspension of some of the debt. The promise to legislate has enabled the Government, since February 1992, to meet unpaid annual interest charges of about £40 million by grants under the appropriation Acts. It is a temporary expedient and it cannot be allowed to continue much longer. We need a restructuring of the debt that will enable as much of it as possible to be repaid over the maximum 60-year period that legislation provides for repaying the debts.

The bridge board's Bill, by which it sought to index its tolls, was introduced in another place in November 1991. It did not make progress and it was lost at the end of October 1994. Unfortunately, the board has done nothing in the meantime to increase tolls from their 1989 levels. It is now at last preparing an application to increase tolls under current legislation.

Mr. Stuart Randall (Kingston upon Hull, West)

Was not the system of funding wrong or flawed? The interest charges were £15 million a year and revenue from tolls was £10 million. Surely it is common sense that the system was flawed. It was clear that those using the bridge would not provide the necessary finance.

Mr. Watts

The assessment of the project that took place before the bridge was built must have been flawed in many instances. If such a project had been presented to a Conservative Government—I explained this by quoting the remarks of the late Iain Macleod—it would not have been given a green light, as it was given in the circumstances of a by-election in 1966.

We shall be continuing our discussions with the board on its financial position as we prepare to implement legislation, should the House approve the proposed legislation.

Mr. Michael Brown (Brigg and Cleethorpes)

I shall seek to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so that I might speak in support of the Bill. I am sure that my constituents will welcome the Bill, and they have only two questions—I suspect that that applies to the constituents of all hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber. My constituents want to know how much of the debt the Government will write off under the powers of the Bill, and by how much tolls will increase in the event that the board comes before the Department with a request to increase tolls. Those are the two questions that everyone is asking, on both sides of the bridge.

Mr. Watts

The board must decide what level of toll increase it wishes to promote. Once it has made that proposal, there is a period during which those who are affected by the proposed increase can raise objections. If required, there can then be a public inquiry. At the end of such an inquiry, it would fall to my right hon. Friend to decide whether to confirm the order promoted by the bridge board. Because that decision is of a quasi-judicial nature, I cannot anticipate either what level of toll the bridge board might promote or what level of toll my right hon. Friend might be prepared to approve after the proper authorisation procedures have been carried out.

As for the way in which the powers will be exercised, before I can give a clear answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes (Mr. Brown) and others who are interested, we must first have further discussions with the bridge board to ascertain what level of debt can reasonably be serviced from tolls and how much it is reasonable to place as a continuing burden on national taxpayers to bail out this disastrous project.

The exercise of powers under the Bill requires an order to be laid before the House with the consent of the Treasury. It would be subject to the usual negative procedure, so there will be an opportunity for parliamentary scrutiny of the way in which the powers are exercised.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Cromarty and Skye)

I apologise to the Minister for missing the first minute or so of his speech. Will he reflect on the fact that many of my constituents, who live a long way from the bridge in question, have identified what they perceive as an inconsistency in Government policy? A monopoly has been established in relation to access to the Isle of Skye over the bridge that has just been built, and tolls are very high. When one considers the cumulative sums from the public purse which have been poured into the Humber bridge project for 30 years, the injustice visited on a low-income, fragile part of the UK economy seem even more outrageous. Will the Minister reflect on that fact and perhaps have a word with his Scottish Office colleagues about it?

Mr. Watts

The hon. Gentleman will know that I am responsible for railways in Scotland, not roads. I am sure that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, would not wish me to deviate too far from the specific issue of the Humber bridge. However, I have no doubt that the people of the city of Hull will have noted the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that they should presumably be burdened with the extra cost of £40 million a year, all in the interests of ensuring equity with his constituents.

Mr. Jessel

Although my hon. Friend referred to putting some of the cost on to the users of the bridge—everyone accepts that they cannot cover all of the interest losses—and, although he said that part of the cost will have to be paid by the taxpayer, does he accept that there is a case for putting even a small part of the cost on to the city of Hull?

Mr. Watts

According to the legislation under which the bridge was promoted, any part of the debt that is not paid from tolls is a charge mainly on the taxpayers of Hull, although two other authorities have a smaller obligation. Clearly, it is not the Government's intention that the whole of that burden should so fall. Whatever the errors of the past, we do not consider it reasonable that such an extra burden—a burden presumably wished on the people of the city of Hull for several decades by their elected representatives—should fall on them.

Equally, I must have regard to what is equitable for national taxpayers. In assessing how the powers should be exercised, we shall therefore have to consider what level of debt cannot possibly be paid from tolls, even on the most optimistic assumptions. We shall then consider what cannot, in the medium term, be so funded and determine a suitable amount to be covered by the suspension of interest payments. There will then remain an amount of debt that we expect to be funded in other ways. That would be through a mixture of tolls and, possibly, burdens by precept; the bridge board has precepting powers. It will be for the bridge board to propose how that funding should he arranged. If it involves a large increase in tolls, as I explained to my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes, a procedure allows for objections, appeal, public inquiry and, ultimately, a decision by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

I referred earlier to the lack of action by the bridge board to maintain the value of its tolled income. In our continuing discussions with the board on the financial position and how we may implement the proposed legislation, I will hear in mind the fact that the failure of its Bill and the hoard's failure to make use of other procedures that are available to maintain toll increases in line with inflation since August 1989 resulted in the forgoing of at least £10 million to £11 million of revenue. For an average council tax payer in Hull, that would be, roughly, an additional £37—or 7 per cent. each year.

Clause 1 confers powers on the Secretary of State for Transport to write off sums and suspend payment of interest on sums payable to him by the bridge board. It provides that that power to remit debt should be exercisable by an order, subject to the negative procedure in the House. Before my right hon. Friend can make such an order, Treasury consent is needed.

In seeking to provide a long-term solution to the problem of managing the Humber bridge debt, we shall seek to safeguard the national taxpayer from any unnecessary contributions. It should be clear to the House that the national taxpayer's existing contribution of £40 million a year is already substantial. It will also be our aim to ensure that the local taxpayers of Hull, and Humberside generally, are rid of the threat of an intolerable long-term burden of debt. The bridge board is able to issue precepts to meet deficits in its accounts, but the liability to precept is not spread evenly among the local authorities of Humberside.

Sir Anthony Durant

Who appoints the bridge board? Who are the appointees?

Mr. Watts

It is appointed by the authorities and the successor authorities to those that promoted the bridge in the first place. It is a local authority bridge that is promoted by local authorities and managed by a board on their behalf.

Two small areas—Barton-upon-Humber, which is now part of Glanford, and Haltemprice, which is now part of Beverley—are liable to the current value of an old fourpenny rate. There is, however, unlimited liability for the city of Kingston upon Hull. A precept levied by the board would therefore fall mainly on the council tax payers of Hull. As I have said, if they had to meet current deficits, they would face an additional council tax charge of something in excess of £200 per taxpayer per annum in perpetuity.

Mr. Michael Brown

My hon. Friend should be wearing a red outfit and a white beard today, because he is really playing the role of Father Christmas to the city of Hull, is he not? The city of Hull has the largest share of members of the board. It wanted the bridge more than anybody else. It drove the legislation through the House. There is only a small representation from the old Glanford borough council, Barton-upon-Humber urban district council and Haltemprice urban district council. The vast majority of the liability for the bridge lies in the legislation that Hull city council, more than anybody else, drove before the House. Why is my hon. Friend playing Santa Claus to the city of Hull?

Mr. Watts

I suppose it is because we are not very far from Christmas, and I would rather be in the role for which my hon. Friend suggests that I may be auditioning than the role of Scrooge. I am sure that the people of Hull will have recognised that they should be wary in future of the false Father Christmases who gave them this present, which has turned out to be such a heavy liability.

We have not ruled out precepting, and it could, for example, be a useful safety net to cope with short-term fluctuations and any special items of expenditure for a limited time. At the end of the day, it is the board's responsibility to decide whether any deficit is best met by precepting or by tolls.

Our objective would be to encourage the bridge board to set and maintain a high but realistic level of tolls; however, it must be borne in mind that, under the current legislation, the Secretary of State has a role in considering toll applications fairly following a public inquiry. As I have said, that role could be prejudiced if he required a specific level of tolls, or if I gave an idea of what I thought that level should be.

At this stage, I cannot be specific about the proportion of debt that would be written off, and the proportion on which interest payments would be suspended. We shall need to discuss that in detail with the Treasury and the bridge board. We do not propose to write off all the debt that is not currently serviceable. Given the long time scale over which debt may be repaid, it is possible that some could be reactivated in the future, so we shall seek to write off only debt that is clearly irrecoverable for ever. We envisage that a proportion of debt not written off but on which interest payments will be suspended will provide a cushion—a safeguard for the national taxpayer against the possibility of writing off now debt that could be serviced in future.

In reaching a decision on the amount of debt owed to the Secretary of State for Transport that can be serviced, we shall have regard to a range of financial projections that reflect different estimates of traffic growth, operating and maintenance costs, inflation and interest rates. In making use of the Bill's provisions, we shall monitor the board's performance very closely.

After the initial discussions, we shall conduct major reviews of the bridge's finances at least every five years. In those reviews, we shall consider whether the existing arrangements for suspending debt need modification—for example, by reactivation of debt that has been suspended, requiring the reactivation of interest payments. My Department and the Humber Bridge Board will have a great deal of work to do to make the best use of the powers conferred by the Bill. I do not think that there should be any doubt about the need for those powers: they give my Department and the bridge board the tools that they need to sort the matter out.

I very much regret that the Bill is needed; but Conservative Administrations have always had to follow Labour Governments with a bucket and shovel.

Mr. McNamara

Will the Minister now answer the question that he refused to answer earlier? Will he confirm that no contracts had been let and no tenders accepted up to June 1970; that those that were accepted were accepted with the full knowledge and consent of the then Conservative Minister of Transport; and that they could not have gone ahead if a Conservative Government had not provided the money? Far from a Conservative Government having to tidy up a Labour mess—if there was a mess, an idea that I do not accept—the arrangement was countenanced and approved by a Conservative Prime Minister and Minister of Transport, and the ordure had the seal of approval.

Mr. Watts

I understand from what the hon. Gentleman has just said that the promise given on 18 January 1966 was an empty promise which the Labour Government of the day had no intention of fulfilling, and certainly did not fulfil until they were reaching the end of their term in office at the time of the 1970 general election. The need for the Bill is a testament to the failure of the Humber bridge to meet the financial objectives originally set for it. It is a monument to false expectations of traffic growth that would finance the bridge. It may have been a bridge too far, but it was built, and we must now deal—however reluctantly—with the consequences. I commend the Bill to the House.

4.58 pm
Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North)

I do not know whether the Minister shares my sense of intruding on a family reunion, or even an old family feud. I hesitate to talk of the family feud involving the Beverley Hillbillies in the presence of the hon. Member for Beverley (Mr. Cran). Who would play the parts of Ma and Pa? I do not know whether my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) and the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) would fit the roles. We certainly have a sense of having been here before, although I cannot trace many debates on this subject on the Floor of the House. It seems that we will be here again, because there will be a negative order before the House. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House will relish the opportunity to discuss that order, if and when it is finally put before the House.

Before we get into the Bill's nitty-gritty, it is worth putting on record the achievement of building the bridge. Mr. Roger Evans, the bridgemaster and engineer, always quotes it as

imposing proof of British engineering skill. It is genuinely a world wonder, with two 533-ft towers, which are set almost two inches out of parallel to allow for the earth's curvature. It is the longest single-span suspension bridge in the world, although that record may soon be challenged by bridges being built elsewhere. I understand that 50 million vehicles have used the bridge since it was built. There are therefore some clear concrete, one might say, things to say about the bridge, which are worth saying to put some perspective on the debate.

The latest review that I have read of the financial position of such crossings was undertaken by the Select Committee on Transport in 1983–84. It said that only three of the 11 major estuarial crossings—the Forth, Tamar and Tay crossings—were in a position to meet their interest payments, capital amortisation and other charges. The other eight crossings failed to generate sufficient income to meet interest charges and were borrowing to meet them, thus leading to a continuing rise in outstanding debt, which amounted to £516 million.

Let us not forget that that was 10 years ago. The Committee added that the Humber bridge accounted for 40 per cent. of the total debt. This is not, therefore, a unique case, although it may be an extreme one, so I concur with the Minister's view that special reasons exist for viewing the Humber bridge in the way we do.

It is worth briefly going over the history; I do so not to provoke any challenge from colleagues who have been more intimately involved in the matter over the years. As a Labour Member of Parliament, I take my full share of the blame for the bridge's initial construction being granted in 1959. I was six years old at the time, and gladly admit to my full part in that decision, with the passing of the Humber Bridge Act 1959 and the creation of the Humber Bridge Board in 1959.

Construction, however, was not begun until 1973, during the Government of the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath). At that point, the bridge and approach roads cost £98 million to build, but by the time the bridge opened, under another Conservative Government in 1981, the debt had already risen to £150 million as a result of interest charges during construction. I am sure that we are all aware of the high interest and inflation rates of the early 1970s, when Tony Barber was Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Construction costs were originally estimated at £29 million. The Humber Bridge Board attributes most of that cost increase not only to high inflation rates during construction, but to the fact that the bridge took nine years to build, instead of the proposed four or five. There were, I understand, technical difficulties, labour relations problems and unusually poor weather.

The bridge's construction was funded, as the Minister has said, by way of loans from the Department of Transport and the Public Works Loans Board, which were to be repaid out of toll income, with the Humber Bridge Board being given powers under section 74 of the Humber Bridge Act to make up any deficit via rate precepts. As I have pointed out with the Select Committee on Transport's review of river crossings, it is unusual, although not unique, for a bridge to be able to pay out such money through toll revenues.

Since the bridge's opening, income from tolls and charges has been more than sufficient to cover the operating and maintenance costs, but has not created a surplus large enough to cover the interest charges. The Secretary of State for Transport and the board entered into an agreement, again referred to by the Minister, on 29 March 1972 to capitalise the interest on borrowed money for 13 years from the opening of the bridge until 1994. That has since been extended to 1999.

At the same time as agreeing that, the then Minister for Roads and Traffic, Mr. Chope, reconfirmed that the Government intended to lift the prospect of a burden of debt falling on local Humberside taxpayers by promoting a Bill to write off or suspend debt, and instituting a five-yearly review period.

The precise amount of debt that will be written off arising from an agreement between the Government and the Humber Bridge Board will be the subject of negotiation—that much we have been told today. The Bill contains no specific amount, and we will need to revisit that when and if a negative instrument is brought before the House.

Mr. Michael Brown

As the hon. Gentleman is speaking in the name of Her Majesty's Opposition, will he say what sort of figure, between zero and £435 million, he thinks the Government should write off?

Mr. Allen

I would be happy to allow the Minister to make that decision while he remains on the Government Front Bench, and perhaps to come to a similar or dissimilar decision when we change places.

The Department of Transport has remitted part of the interest falling due since 1991–92 under the Appropriation Acts to stabilise the debt. The grant to the board was £7.6 million in 1991–92, and provision was made for £43.5 million to be repaid in 1992–93. That has stabilised the debt at around £435 million. A number of further questions arise from the way in which the Bill has been introduced, which I hope the Minister will note and perhaps, if he speaks again in the debate, be in a position to answer.

First, is the Bill the forerunner of other Bills on other estuarial crossings? The Minister may feel that a number of other crossings merit further consideration, either by Bill or by announcements on further works or debts.

Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)

Will the hon. Gentleman please tell us what estuarial crossings, anywhere in Britain, arose from a political bribe, for which the electorate must now pick up a bill for £435 million?

Mr. Allen

The hon. Gentleman should not make such disparaging remarks about the Macmillan Government in 1959 and the Heath Government of 1971, who initially approved the bridge's construction and then approved the moneys to create the bridge. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman seeks to attack distinguished former Conservative Prime Ministers in that way. [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Geoffrey Lofthouse)

Order. These conversations across the Chamber are interesting, but it would be more useful to have them outside. Let us stick to the debate on the Bill.

Mr. Allen

The second question that I should like to ask the Minister involves the level of tolls. He was a little unkind about the Humber Bridge Board and its attempts to review the tolls level. He criticised it for being slow in making proposals. Will he therefore be a little more forthcoming about whether he would be prepared to support whatever emerged from a public inquiry launched by the Humber Bridge Board, which would review the bridge toll levels being and to be paid?

Mr. Watts

I think that I made it clear that I expect the Humber Bridge Board to make proposals for updating tolls, but, as I also explained, because the decision that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport would have to make following any inquiry is a quasi-judicial one, it is not possible for me, before I have seen the board's proposals, and considered any objections to its proposals, or the public inquiry's recommendations, to give an indication in advance of what level I would think reasonable, or that I would wish my right hon. Friend to consider reasonable.

Mr. Allen

I fully accept the quasi-judicial nature of the decisions that the Minister or the Secretary of State may need to take. Perhaps he would extend that quasi-judicial caution to attacks on the Humber Bridge Board over its efforts to present proposals on tolling. If he does that, perhaps he will be seen to be even-handed in carrying out his quasi-judicial function.

My third question relates to the deregulation of the tolled river crossings. I understand that, in the past year, the Department of Transport issued a consultation document on this matter, and that it has suggested three options. The first is the continuation of the current regulation; the second is partial deregulation, with tolls rising annually to a prescribed limit, under which key groups of users would have a right to object; and the third is full deregulation, with undertakings setting their own charges. How has that consultation gone, and how will it affect the bridge and the other river crossings in the United Kingdom?

I am sure that my suspicions about privatisation will be quickly allayed by the Minister. Is there any connection whatever between the Bill examining the debts—[Interruption.] Conservative Members seek to cast doubt on whether privatisation could follow. As a former member of the Public Accounts Committee and a mere reader of newspapers, I know that cancellation or elimination of debt was followed by the privatisation of a number of industries. That happened as surely as night follows day.

It is not beyond the wit of the Government to devise ways to pour money into the open pockets of those in the private sector, and they could do that from the most unlikely starting point, which may be the Bill. Perhaps the Minister will reassure us that there is no connection, however tenuous or long term, between the Bill and privatisation.

Mr. Jacques Arnold

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Allen

I have already given way to the hon. Gentleman, and he rather abused the privilege.

My final question is about roads. The Minister and his colleagues were characterised by the hon. Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes (Mr. Brown) as like Santa Claus. Yesterday, local authorities did not regard the Minister as Santa Claus, because he and his colleagues cut by 17 per cent. the grant to local authorities for transport needs. That cut is in addition to the cut in the Budget settlement for roads. Has the Minister any proposals to enhance the north and south road links to the bridge?

The issue of the Humber bridge comes before us every so often, and I have a feeling that this will not be the last time that we shall discuss its importance. We fully support the Bill, and wish it speedy progress.

5.13 pm
Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)

Thank you for calling me, Mr. Deputy Speaker. So far, the debate has been much too low key. There is a serious scandal, in that a bribe by the Labour party for the Hull, North by-election in January 1966 is crystallised in the Bill, so that taxpayers will permanently have to pay for it. That matter should not be allowed to pass without comment. Of course, many waters have flowed since January 1966.

Mr. McNamara

Particularly under the bridge.

Mr. Jessel

Yes—and probably sleaze as well. As a matter of courtesy, I notified the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) that I intended to speak in the debate and I am glad to see him here recovered from his flu. I ought to declare a sort of interest, because I was the defeated Conservative candidate in the Hull, North by-election on 25 January 1966. I feel no rancour about that because, had I got in, it is highly likely that I would have been out again by 1974, if not sooner.

My defeat paved the way for me to stand in Twickenham in 1970, and it has been a tremendous honour and privilege to represent that constituency ever since. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North did me a good turn, because my defeat in that by-election was one of the best things that ever happened to me.

As I have said, this matter cannot pass without comment. I should have liked the Minister to comment with even more force and I shall add some comments of my own. We are supposed to be the guardians of taxpayers' money, but, as a result of that by-election bribe, taxpayers will have to pay several hundred million pounds.

It is not clear exactly how much is to be written off, but let us be in no doubt about what "writing off' means. It does not mean that the loss just disappears: it means that we have given up hope of recovering the money. But the money has gone, and £456 million has so far gone down the drain for this no doubt highly architecturally impressive, but greatly under-used bridge.

That means that £456 million less is available for our health services, education, social security, national defences or other useful purposes. It follows that people who might want to be treated sooner by the national health service, for example, have a direct interest in the fact that several hundred million pounds have been written off as a result of the bribe in that by-election.

The bribe occurred because, in the general election of October 1964, Hull, North, which was a marginal seat, was gained by the Labour party; unfortunately, the newly elected Member, Mr. Solomons, died about 13 months later, in November 1965; the by-election was fixed for two months later, but his death reduced Harold Wilson's majority from three to two; if the by-election had gone the other way, it would have been reduced to one.

At the time, there was enormous interest in the by-election. There were very big public meetings. I remember one that was addressed by the late Lord Home, at which 1,200 people were present in Hull city hall. On 18 January, Mrs. Barbara Castle, the then Transport Minister, pledged to construct the Humber bridge, and that led to the debt which is the subject of the Bill. On page 95 of the Castle memoirs, she wrote:

Off to Hull to speak in the by-election. Photographers at the station. Standing room only at meetings. I told them categorically they would have their bridge. Speech went down well. She wrote that in her diary. The day before yesterday, I had it on the authority of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Sir K. Speed), who cannot be present, that he was at Mrs. Castle's meeting on 18 January 1966, that she said, "You will get your bridge," and that there were loud cheers. The Minister has already quoted the words of the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer at that time, that great man lain Macleod, who referred to the plan for the Humber bridge as a pre-election bribe. He went on:

'First one of the junior Transport Ministers said that one was not needed. Then came the by-election. The same junior Minister promptly became much more enthusiastic about a new bridge. 'But the by-election continued to turn … and something more was needed. So Mrs. Castle says in Hull that … there will be a new bridge."' Mr. Macleod was quoted as saying that in The Times on 22 January 1966. Anyone could predict—and many people did at the time—that the bridge would never pay. If the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) drove from Nottingham to Hull, regardless of whether he used the M1 or the A614, he would go along the motorway that skirts the southern side of Doncaster. The shortest way from there to Hull—well, the quickest way—is by using the M62 and not to go south of the Humber and then across the Humber bridge. With a toll, it will be more expensive as well as slower. From looking at the map, one sees that there are no large cities to the south of Hull.

Mr. Elliot Morley (Glanford and Scunthorpe)

As someone who regularly drives from Scunthorpe, which is not very far from the Humber bridge, to London, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that it is 177 miles exactly from Scunthorpe to Westminster via the A1. It is 200 miles via the M62 and the M1 . The route is shorter and saves money to go south to London, crossing the bridge at Hull, contrary to what he is saying.

Mr. Jessel

But one would have to pay to go across the bridge. Across Lincolnshire, one would travel a long way along A-class roads, which are not of dual-carriageway standard on the whole. Therefore, although it is a squeak shorter, it is slower. That is why the Humber bridge will never pay. The losses on it are absolutely enormous.

I accept that one cannot put the whole of the cost of the bridge on the people of Hull.

Mr. Michael Brown

Why not?

Mr. Jessel

Because it has escalated with accumulated interest to between £400 million and £500 million, and would cost every man, woman and child in the city of Hull about £2,000. The interest on it is not far short of £200 a year a head. It would therefore be impossible to put all that on the ordinary householders in Hull without it having a large impact on their welfare. The cost is so vast that it is simply too much now for them to pay.

I do not see why, however, beyond what comes in in tolls, the whole of the rest of the cost should be shouldered by the national taxpayers, who are thereby being made to pay for the Labour party's by-election bribe. A token amount ought to be borne by the council tax of Hull city council—perhaps only 1, 2 or 3 per cent. of it—just so that people are reminded of the expense that was incurred in their name. Perhaps the Bill could be amended so that part of the cost was attributable by law to be paid by the Labour party via Transport house. It would thereby have to pay part of the cost of the bribe with which it sought to distort the decision of the electors of Hull.

Mr. Watts

My hon. Friend makes an intriguing suggestion, but I fear that it would probably hybridise the Bill.

Mr. Jessel

Where there's a will, there's a way. It could be done if the House really wanted it to be done. Indeed, I hope to have some support from my hon. Friends in wanting it to happen.

We cannot go on letting Opposition Members bribe their way through elections when the cost of their bribe comes to 12 times the figure of £29 million in the 1960s, as stated by the hon. Member for Nottingham, North. Labour Members should be made to pay a part of the cost of the bridge, and we should remind them of it day in, day out, week in, week out and month in, month out, for the rest of next year, so that the whole country can see what they are up to.

5.23 pm
Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North)

I am very pleased that the Government are introducing this important Bill. I support the important point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen). Whatever chaff goes from one side of the House to the other, we should realise that we are talking about one of the most stupendous examples of civil engineering in Europe, which is of enormous credit to British builders, designers and workmen. It was built on the most difficult terrain over a very wide estuary.

The building of the bridge was delayed because of problems on the south bank of the river—in a Tory constituency, but I do not hold that against the hon. Member responsible—when the south towers were being built. In addition, it is one of two very important bridges in the area. There are two great examples of civil engineering; the other is the bridge over the River Ouse. It was built on a bog, it has no bottom, it carries the M62 and has no toll at all.

The point that we should be addressing is what is the difference in principle between part of our transport infrastructure—the M62 bridge, a great engineering feat in itself—which carries no toll, and the Humber bridge? That is of the utmost importance.

Mr. Jacques Arnold

On that point—

Mr. McNamara

I shall not give way. I will let the young man chat later.

The hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) said that the bridge was the crystallisation of a bribe. I must make a confession to the House. I did not know on the night that Barbara Castle was going to make that statement. The advice that I gave throughout the campaign had been, "Don't. You don't need to."

In many ways the campaign for the bridge at that time was media-led by the Hull Daily Mail. The demand for the bridge emanated from that newspaper, which had long campaigned for it. It saw a Government whom it felt might be vulnerable on that point, and led a very strong and powerful campaign for the bridge. I salute those at the paper for their effort, especially Charles Levitt, who was political correspondent at the time. Mr. Levitt was in fact—and still is, I understand—a Liberal.

I agree with the hon. Member for Ross, Cromarty and Skye (Mr. Kennedy) that it is outrageous that private money had to fund the building of the bridge to Skye. The tolls that are to be levied make it even worse. There should not be any tolls.

The campaign for the Humber bridge was media-led, as I have said. Indeed, I have been since told by those who conducted in-depth polls at the time among groups of people who discussed such things, that the Humber bridge scarcely appeared in the list of priorities of people in the Kingston upon Hull, North constituency who were seeking to re-elect a Labour Member of Parliament.

I turn to the history of the bridge and the myths surrounding it, especially those that have been put forward by the hon. Member for Twickenham. He says that he is grateful that I beat him and thereby enabled him to get his seat in Twickenham. I do not think that the people of Twickenham are particularly happy about it, since over the years his majority has gone down—he might well be out next time—whereas, on the contrary, mine has gone up and up. The hon. Gentleman said that the bridge crystallised the bribe, but let us consider the situation.

In 1959, a private Member's Bill was introduced with the approval of the then Conservative Government to establish the bridge board. In 1965, the House debated the Humber bridge and some of us listened from the Gallery. The Minister of Transport—the late Stephen Swingler, a very fine man—poured cold water on the idea and wished that my former colleague the late Mr. James Johnson had not introduced it.

We then had a campaign in Hull, which Lady Castle attended. Her words at the meeting in Lambert Street school were:

When the planning is completed, then you will have your bridge. I did not attend that meeting because I was at a meeting at Endyke school. In those days, great election meetings were held.

Ian Macleod, to whom the hon. Member for Twickenham referred, was Chancellor of the Exchequer for part of the time when the Conservative Government gave the go-ahead, allowed the contracts and tenders to go out and voted the money, and the noble Lord Peyton was Minister of Transport. They could have stopped the building of the bridge. I understand that the Tories' complaint is that the Conservative Government fulfilled a Labour election promise. I wish that the Tories would keep some of their own promises, too, such as lowering taxation. The issue is that the building of the bridge was agreed then.

Mr. Michael Brown

I understand what the hon. Gentleman is trying to say. I do not dispute the fact that the bridge was given the "go-ahead" in 1971 following Lady Castle's commitment in 1966, but does the hon. Gentleman accept that the then Conservative Government made it clear that they were not giving but lending money? I have the copy of Hansard before me that shows that.

Mr. McNamara

Yes, but the building of the bridge could not have gone ahead had the money not been lent. The hon. Gentleman has said far more than the Minister of State was prepared to admit. He dodged the question every time that I asked it, and it is important that the House knows the answer.

The original cost was to be £19 million. By 1973, after two years of Barber and hyperinflation, it had risen to £35 million. It was escalating all the time that the Tories were in power because of their inability to control interest rates and inflation. Those are the reasons for the debt and people should be prepared to accept that. I do not blame the Tories for it completely. I blame them only for winning the 1970 election; otherwise sound finance under the then Mr. Jenkins would have continued. The only thing to his credit is that he was a successful Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Last week, the hon. Member for Twickenham said:

As to next Wednesday's debate on the Humber Bridge (Debts) Bill, I was the defeated Conservative candidate in the Hull, North by-election in January 1966, nearly 30 years ago. He went on to ask:

Will there be time in Wednesday's debate for us to discuss whether the amount—nearly £500 million—should be charged to the Labour party and not to the unfortunate taxpayer, as a consequence of Labour's disgraceful electoral bribe?"—[Official Report, 14 December 1995; Vol. 268, c. 1105.] Everything that the hon. Gentleman said in the House last Thursday and today was incorrect, apart from the fact that he was a defeated Conservative candidate in 1966.

My constituents and the area have benefited from the Humber bridge.

Mr. Jacques Arnold

So have you.

Mr. McNamara

The hon. Gentleman says that I have benefited. All the polls at that time showed that my constituents regarded the Humber bridge as a less important issue in the by-election than the media made it out to be. I do not hesitate in saying that I welcome the bridge and every hon. Member should be proud of it. It has the additional merit of joining Yorkshire with Lincolnshire and thus bringing the opportunity of civilisation to Lincolnshire. We should be happy about that, too.

But for the almighty debt, the bridge has an operating surplus. It can pay its maintenance costs of £1.7 million to £2 million a year and make a profit, but the debt is dragging it down. The debt has arisen because of what has happened over time. I do not seek to blame the debt entirely on the Conservatives; I simply ask them not to shirk their part of the responsibility for what has happened. We can then all join in welcoming the Bill.

Mr. John Hutton (Barrow and Furness)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. This afternoon, I learned that the Ministry of Defence has decided to award a contract for the design and building of up to three Trafalgar-class submarines to a team led by GEC-Marconi in preference to a bid by Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering Ltd. in my constituency. The total value of the contract exceeds £2.5 billion.

Involvement in the contract is essential for the future of VSEL and the jobs of thousands of my constituents. The Government's decision today will, at the very least, create unwelcome uncertainty about the future of VSEL, where nearly 10,000 jobs have already been lost—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. What is the point of order for the Chair?

Mr. Hutton

The fact that no statement has been made in the House on that major contract is an insult to my constituents and denies me an opportunity to raise my concerns about the contract in the House. Have you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, received a request from a Minister of the Crown to make a statement to the House about that major contract decision?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I am not aware of an intention to make such a statement. This is not a matter for the Chair. The hon. Gentleman is aware that there are other avenues that he can take to air his concerns.

Mr. John Spellar (Warley, West)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Is it the same point of order?

Mr. Spellar


Mr. Deputy Speaker

I have now ruled on that point of order. The hon. Gentleman cannot raise a point of order further to a point of order on which I have ruled. Is it a different point of order?

Mr. Spellar

It is a different aspect of that point of order.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

In that case, I shall listen to it.

Mr. Spellar

Is it not a great discourtesy to the House and individual Members that, at this late stage, just before the Christmas recess, that announcement has been sneaked out and therefore—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is taking advantage. I have already ruled on that matter and told the hon. Gentleman so. He assured me that his was a different point of order. It was not. I call Mr. Michael Brown.

5.37 pm
Mr. Michael Brown (Brigg and Cleethorpes)

We have had an interesting and entertaining afternoon, being reminded what used to go on in politics in the 1960s, when Labour was in power and trying to cling on to power. My hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) and the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) were protagonists in the events of January and February 1966, when I was 14 years old. I recall the night of the sad defeat of my hon. Friend and the election of the hon. Gentleman. I remember staying up and listening to the wireless—we did not have a television in my home in those days—because I was interested in politics and knew that, if Mr. Wilson succeeded in holding that seat, there would probably be a general election and a Labour win. I was anxious that that should not happen. I remember the events from the perspective of a boy still at school. Little did I realise that, 15 years later in 1981, I would welcome Her Majesty the Queen to my constituency when she was the first person to drive over the Humber bridge.

I do not dissent from what the hon. Members for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) and for Kingston upon Hull, North said: the bridge is a magnificent sight. I can see it from where I live some eight miles away in Ulceby. It is wonderful. It looks good. And so it jolly well should when we consider how much it has cost for one reason or another.

Let us not get away from the fact that the bridge was not proposed by the Labour Government until a by-election occurred. My hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham told the House that the first intimation of a Government go-ahead came at the point of a critical by-election. The Humber Bridge (Debts) Bill should indeed be sent as an election expenses bill to the Labour party, if not to the agent for the Kingston upon Hull, North constituency Labour party. I am prepared to put the burden on Walworth road, rather than the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. McNamara

If the hon. Gentleman is going to send the bill to my agent, we are not certain where it should go, but I am sure that he would give him the benefit of the doubt.

Mr. Brown

In that case, as my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham proposed, there should be a clause suggesting that part of the bill should go to Walworth road. I accept that we would then have a hybrid Bill that would suffer all the difficulties that the Humber Bridge Bill—a private Bill—suffered the year before last.

My hon. Friend the Minister has come here as Santa Claus on behalf of the British taxpayer. My constituents and I will benefit from this wonderful deliverance, which other hon. Members on both sides of the House are going to give us by supporting the Bill. Why should I object to the possibility of up to £435 million of taxpayers' money being spent, which may rule out a bypass in Twickenham, north Kent or anywhere else? I have an interest to declare—that of my constituents. I cannot believe their luck; they are to have the privilege of the Bill.

Mr. Allen

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way; he is very generous. Although, like myself, he was probably still a small child in short trousers at the time, can he tell us why the Conservative Government gave a fair wind to the Humber Bridge Act 1959 and to the creation of the board?

Mr. Brown

Yes, I can easily do so. When I was still having to be convinced of the merits of the Bill, I got a copy of the Humber Bridge Act 1959 and I have here all the yellowing pages of the proceedings. It was a private Bill and, as the hon. Gentleman knows, Governments usually do not take sides on private Bills. There was no debate in the House of Commons on any of the Readings, which all occurred after Prayers and before the start of public business.

Presumably, the Government had no problem with the 1959 Act because not a penny piece of taxpayers' money was involved in that Act, which is now on the statute book. I presume that the Macmillan Government took the view that, because section 77 of the Act states that, in the event of any unpaid debt being outstanding to the Secretary of State for Transport, the corporation of the city of Hull and the urban district councils of Beverley and Barton-upon-Humber would pay back every penny, there would be no taxpayers' involvement and, for that reason, they allowed the legislation to go through.

I expect that the hon. Gentleman will want to turn to the Humber Bridge Act 1971, when the Tories were in power again, and ask the same question. Why did they allow the 1971 Act to go through without objecting to it? For the same reason. Because that Act of Parliament also made it absolutely clear that, despite all the powers sought by the Humber Bridge Board, there would not be one penny piece of taxpayers' money for the venture. All the taxpayers' money that was to be lent to the Humber Bridge Board would be repaid to the Secretary of State. That is why neither Conservative Government of 1959 or of 1971 had any objections to those Acts.

It has been patently obvious to those of us who have had anything to do with politics and with the debate surrounding the Humber bridge in the past 10 years and, indeed, since the day it opened—to all of us locally, whether Labour or Conservative Members of Parliament, whether from North Lincolnshire or the East Riding of Yorkshire, or from what will be called Humberside for just three more months until next April—that the traffic that was forecast in the 1960s and 1970s and that justified the repayment of the debt, would not materialise.

If the Minister wants to take full advantage of the legislation that is available to him on the statute book, a mechanism is available. My hon. Friend did not need to come here today. In future, when bodies come to this House—be they local authorities or private organisations—with private legislation and make it clear that there are no financial implications for the taxpayer, we have to be much more careful about the viability of the projects involved.

In 1959 and 1971, the House was clearly somewhat tardy in considering those pieces of private legislation. In the past 10 years, it has been patently obvious to all concerned that none of those provisions could be achieved. If my hon. Friend the Minister wanted to do nothing, he could empower the local authorities, through the Humber Bridge Board, to take the necessary action under those Acts of Parliament, which would bankrupt the city of Hull.

No Labour Member has any cause to be critical of my hon. Friend the Minister. The only people who might be critical are Conservative colleagues who might yesterday have been reflecting with sadness on the announcements relating to capital programmes throughout the country made by the Department of Transport. At the end of the day, my hon. Friend has to take this money out of his Department's budget—with Treasury approval. He is to be congratulated by everyone on Labour Benches. In so far as there is any criticism, it is likely to come from the Conservative Benches.

Locally, we recognise that the bridge is wonderful, but the blunt truth is that there are not the traffic figures to justify it. What concerns me about the possibility of an increase in the tolls is that some of my constituents have to use the bridge, whether they like it or not. If one has a heart attack or a brain tumour in my constituency, one has to go to Hull hospital and one has to use the bridge. We do not have the option of going to Grimsby, Scunthorpe or Lincoln hospitals. If one suffers from certain diseases, the health authority requires one to cross that bridge.

I am concerned that there is no price on the face of the Bill to show the extent to which the Department will wipe off the irrecoverable amounts, because I want to know what the balance will be between toll increases and the amount of debt that the Minister says is irrecoverable. For those of my constituents who have no choice but to use the bridge, the level of the toll is very important. I accept that the Humber Bridge Board has been tardy since 1989, in not seeking to be responsible for making regular increases in line with inflation. Unfortunately, to the ordinary citizen in my constituency faced with paying £1.60, an increase in the toll to £2 or £2.50 will seem a massive hike.

I am glad that my hon. Friend the Minister is not trying to change the system whereby my constituents and I can go to a public inquiry to present our case in the event of the board increasingly the toll unreasonably. In 1989, I attended the public inquiry and gave evidence on behalf of my constituents.

I acknowledge that the bridge is a convenience for many people, including my constituents who choose to work in Hull rather than in Grimsby, Lincoln or Scunthorpe. They choose to take advantage of the bridge and they gain the benefits of travelling shorter distances and saving time. That is an economic choice that they must make. Those of my constituents who, while the county of Humberside remains, have to go to county hall to transact business, have no option but to use the bridge.

I hope that many of my constituents will not have to use the bridge so often after 1 April, when the local authority boundaries will be changed, Humberside will be expunged as a local government authority and we shall have, instead, North Lincolnshire and North-East Lincolnshire. But at present, some people have no option but to use the bridge and they look to their Member of Parliament to be able to attend the public inquiries to put their case. I am glad that my hon. Friend the Minister is not seeking to alter that system—at least for now—although, as the hon. Member for Nottingham, North said, consultation proposals are being discussed about the future of toll crossings.

The hon. Member for Nottingham, North suggested that if all the debt was wiped off, privatisation would be terrible. If I were the shadow Chancellor and somebody said to me, "Is there no debt left on the bridge because of that wonderful Minister whom the Tories had? I understand that you are against privatisation, but I should like to buy and operate that bridge," I can assure the hon. Gentleman that, as shadow Chancellor, I would jump at the offer like a shot. There will be no such offer because I do not accept—as the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North said earlier—that, if the debt is wiped off, the traffic will justify the operation of the bridge. Some sort of support system will always be needed, if not from the general taxpayer, certainly from the local authorities.

The local authorities have a part to play, and the Humber Bridge Board will have to be much more imaginative than it has been. I regret that the Humber Bridge Board has not increased toll traffic using the bridge by introducing a more imaginative discounted ticket scheme. Many of my constituents would be prepared to use the bridge more often if there were discounts on some occasions.

There are leisure opportunities, including the leisure centre, on the north bank. My constituents pay council tax to support the leisure centre, the Hull ice arena—they are shareholders in it—but they do not use it because they have to pay a toll to travel over the bridge. If the board were prepared to introduce a system of discounted tickets at weekends to encourage greater use of the bridge, it could generate more income. The board is trapped in a local authority style and has not shown imagination in trying to make more of the circumstances.

The bridge exists; in retrospect, if the Governments of either 1966 or 1971 had known what the future would bring in terms of the national motorway network, neither of them would have gone ahead with such a proposal. If there were no Humber bridge today, I cannot believe that either the Chancellor of the Exchequer or the shadow Chancellor would go ahead with such a proposal. But the bridge exists and, short of knocking it down, we can do nothing but make something of it.

We obviously have to do something about the problem of increasing debt. I am aware that my constituents benefit to a considerable extent from the revenues of the rest of the taxpayers. The bridge is surrounded by far too much politics and does not have enough to do with the local economy. I accept that there has been some economic investment around the area, both north and south, which might have been partly due to the good communications in the area generally. But I do not believe that when expanding industries come to my constituency, as dozens of them do, they want to locate their factories there because of the Humber bridge. They locate their factories in my constituency because of the national motorway network, the airport, the skilled labour, the good industrial relations and for a host of other reasons. The bridge is certainly part of the local infrastructure and will be there for ever; we cannot let it fall into disrepair.

The Humber Bridge Board must recognise that it has failed in its attempts to increase the tolls in a sensible way, in line with inflation. If we are not careful, we shall face a gigantic increase in tolls that will cost some of my constituents far too much. I press my hon. Friend the Minister—if not today, when the order comes before the House—to say precisely how much of the £435 million will be irrecoverable. I appreciate that he cannot tell me today.

I also want to press my hon. Friend the Minister and the board on the precise toll figure that we can expect. We could fall into a terrible trap: if the toll is increased too much, many of my constituents who have the opportunity not to use the bridge will decide not to work in Hull as it is not worth their while because of the costs of travelling over the bridge. They may decide that it is better for them to take a job with lower wages in Lincoln, Scunthorpe or Grimsby, because after they have paid their return tolls, they may have spent £40 or £50 a week. We could find ourselves in a spiral of decline and the debt could begin to increase again.

The Government and the Humber Bridge Board must be careful: if they decide to let the local user pay as much as possible and to milk the local user with no option but to use the bridge, they may find that local users—other than those poor people who have no choice but to use Hull hospital—will make alternative arrangements. The Government and the board must be wary of a dramatic leap in the toll rate.

We are now just four or five days from Christmas and my hon. Friend the Minister has come here as Santa Claus. If I did not represent Brigg and Cleethorpes as a Conservative Member, but represented another constituency elsewhere in the United Kingdom, and if I had not been able to obtain a bypass for my constituents, I would probably vote against the Bill. However, I shall certainly support the Bill today.

5.57 pm
Mr. Stuart Randall (Kingston upon Hull, West)

Much of today's Second Reading debate has involved the history of the Humber bridge. As we are near Christmas, I shall let the House into a little secret: at the back end of 1981, when I was selected to represent Kingston upon Hull, West, I was given some advice before I attended the selection meeting. I was told to mention the Humber bridge because the people of the area were proud of it. I do not think that that tip swung the contest my way—I won it with a great landslide—but I record the incident as it reveals people's attitude towards the Humber bridge then.

I shall not stray too far back into the history except to say that, before the 1966 by-election in Kingston upon Hull, North, there had been much discussion for many years about modernising the Humber crossing. It would be outrageous for the House even to suggest that we—a major industrial country—should have retained a ferry crossing at one of our most important estuaries.

After the boundary changes, my new constituency border will probably be within a mile of the Humber bridge. The area that I represent—I say this as a worried person—has a lot of economic and social deprivation, and we need to modernise. We need a mechanism to improve the development of the area and to gain economically and socially.

The bridge itself is a fine piece of work. I have always regarded the Minister as a competent person, but I will not follow the hon. Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes (Mr. Brown) in describing him as Father Christmas. We do not know whether he will be Father Christmas, because we do not know the figures. Until we know, we shall not be able to respond to the very uncharacteristic comments by the hon. Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes and by the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) that the cost should be dumped on to the people of Hull. That kind of comment is not very becoming just before Christmas.

Funding is at the heart of the matter. The project escalated in price because it was advanced, there were problems with subsidence on the south side of the river, and there were changes in the specification. However, the funding of the project was based on loans, at a time of high inflation and when interest rates were very high. The system of funding for that magnificent project was not viable. There was no possibility, in the economic circumstances that prevailed at that time, that the project could be viable.

I welcome the Bill in principle, because I believe that it will offload much of the debt that is interest-rate linked and will enable the books to be balanced. That is just plain common sense. The Bill will be good for Hull, as long as there is no massive offloading of the financial problems on to the people of Kingston upon Hull, West, which will include Hessle under the boundary changes.

The escalation in cost was horrific. My figures show that in 1970, the cost was £19 million; that rose to £35 million; to £67 million; to £98 million; and finally to £151 million. Those figures are horrific, but we had huge inflation rates at the time—11 per cent. for a long time. We were also capitalising the debt, which resulted in the loan rising as it has.

Traffic levels have been acceptable. Some people say that the bridge is not used, and hon. Members have said that today. That is absurd. The bridge is used extensively. The problem of financial viability is not related directly to the traffic. The mismatch between the debt arising from the interest rates and the income from the tolls is so great that it is impossible to solve the problem from the tolls. The Minister's speech alluded to that.

The main problem has been the Government's inaction. It is clear that the funding arrangements were not viable, and I regret that we have not taken action sooner. There has been a regrettable amount of procrastination. I also regret that the Humber Bridge Board was not aware that the Bill was going to be published. The board had no forewarning of the Bill, and in May it decided to increase the tolls by 32.5 per cent. to try to balance the books.

I wish to ask the Minister about privatisation. There is rumour whizzing around that the Bill is part of a devious scheme to prepare the ground, and to get rid of the debt so that the project can be become viable and ready for privatisation. I would also like to know more about the deregulation. At the moment, the bridge board has powers, but are there plans to change the system of regulation to total deregulation? Specifically, is there a plan to allow the tolls to be changed at any time rather than annually? An answer to that would be helpful.

I have focused on viability, and the failure to get to grips with the financial arrangements. The debt is now running at the stupid and absurd figure of £439 million. That is the latest figure I have. It is unacceptable to allow that to continue. As I said earlier, the interest charges on the long-term money have gone up by £50 million per annum. The toll income is about £10 million, of which about £1.75 million is used in operational costs. We are a long way from achieving balance in the books, so I welcome in principle the idea that at last we shall wipe out some of the debt.

We must make the Humber bridge operate viably, because that is important for economic regeneration. We do not want high tolls, because they stifle use, and that is wrong. Many man hours and years have been spent tackling the problem of debt, and nobody likes that. I hope that, when my constituents ask me whether the Minister will be a Father Christmas, I can say that I think he will. However, we need to see the impact on the council tax payers in Hull. I hope that the Bill will be good news.

6.8 pm

Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)

Earlier this afternoon, at the request of the Labour Opposition, we spent 42 minutes on allegations of sleaze against a public official—the director general of Oflot, Peter Davis. He was accused because he had tried to save the taxpayer the cost of his travelling expenses on official business. There was a busy House then, but look at the House now. This debate is about perhaps the biggest political sleaze scandal of all time.

We are being asked to write off £435 million because of a political and electoral bribe by the Labour party some 30 years ago. Let us be clear what that was about. In the other place, when he was replying for the Labour Government, Lord Lindgren said about the Humber bridge:

at the present time our limited resources do not allow us to give construction of such a bridge the highest priority."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 30 November 1965: Vol. 270, c. 1136] Yet two months later, the then Minister, Mrs. Barbara Castle, made it clear in her diaries, which my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) so aptly quoted, that the Labour Government intended to offer a clear electoral bribe. She wrote in her diary:

Off to Hull to speak in the by-election: photographers at station, standing room only at meetings. I told them categorically that, as soon as the development plan was decided for Humberside, they would have their bridge. Speeches went down well. I bet they did. I have been absolutely amazed, and perhaps have felt a tinge of admiration, at the brass face of the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara), who has been the beneficiary of what is perhaps the biggest political bribe in history. The cost of it is far more than his own weight in gold. The taxpayers have paid for that gold. The hon. Gentleman has stood up today, however, and said it was quite wrong to set tolls on the bridge in the first place. We are passing on to the taxpayer a debt of £435 million, but he now wants to pass on even more debt. He is about to get up and tell us how much the debt would be if no tolls had been set.

Mr. McNamara

I just want to ask the hon. Gentleman what proportion of the development costs of Concorde were written off in order to make it a suitable object for Lord King and privatisation. What about the debts of British Steel, British Rail and all the other debts that have been wiped out to enable the hon. Gentleman and his friends in the City to line their pockets from privatisations?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I want to stop this once and for all. It serves no useful purpose in a debate to exchange insulting remarks across the Chamber. Responsible and good debate can well do without insulting personal remarks, whoever they come from and whoever they are aimed at. I hope that we will not hear any more insults.

Mr. Arnold

I do not recall a by-election at Heathrow, east or west or north. I notice that the hon. Gentleman did not even try to quantify the cost to the taxpayer had no tolls been set for 30 years. Now we are being asked to pass on to the taxpayer a debt of £435 million.

I noticed earlier that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North accused Peter Davis of sleaze because his wife and the wife of an American business man had been friends for 20 years. The hon. Gentleman has been friends with the bridge for 30 years because it started his political career.

The brass face of the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North is exceeded only by the contemptuous dismissal of the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), who has not even bothered to turn up. He is usually ready to throw around wild allegations of sleaze, but when the Labour party is on the receiving end of such allegations, he is not here. Perhaps that is a commentary on how any future Labour Government would deal with difficult questions.

Was the bridge an electoral bribe or was it not? The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North denied that the project had any electoral impact, but the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Randall) well and truly let the cat out of the bag when he said that at his first election to the western division of Hull his agent said, "Don't forget to mention the bridge. It will go down awfully well."

Mr. Randall

It is important for me to clarify the matter. I was advised that the people of our area are very proud of the bridge. That is perfectly reasonable. That pride has nothing to do with bribery.

Mr. Arnold

If they are delighted with the bridge, obviously they are delighted with the people who ran up the bill, which everyone is now having to settle, including my constituents in Kent.

The people of north-west Kent particularly resent paying that bill because for many years our roads by the two Dartford tunnels were clogged up every morning. We waited and we waited, but the Labour Government never gave us a Dartford bridge to solve our problems. Perhaps it was because we did not have a by-election in the immediate vicinity. We had to wait for a Conservative Government to introduce a scheme to raise private investment to build a far more beautiful bridge than the Humber bridge, the Queen Elizabeth II bridge on the Thames. My constituents resent paying a proportion of the Humber bridge debt.

When my hon. Friend the Minister finally works out on whom the enormous debt will land, I hope he ensures that the city of Hull jolly well pays a considerable proportion of it. Let the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North, who was a beneficiary of the bridge, explain that to the people of Hull.

I must confess that I felt a certain amount of irritation throughout my hon. Friend the Minister's speech. I sometimes think the Government commit the cardinal sin of being too responsible. They work out the accounts of our country far too responsibly. If a bill is run up, and is then to be written off, I would prefer it if my hon. Friend came to the Dispatch Box, put the Humber Bridge (Debts) Bill on it and said to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, "I propose this formally, and I expect the people who incurred the debt of £435 million to stand at the Dispatch Box and justify why we should impose that enormous debt on the people of this country."

Mr. Watts

I am not quite ready to change places with the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen).

Mr. Arnold

That was not my point. As a Minister, my hon. Friend had to draft the Bill—he acted responsibly—but the Opposition incurred the debt for the British public and they should come to the Dispatch Box to justify it.

The speech of the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen), the Opposition spokesman, was uncharacteristically subdued, as well it might be. He was quite happy to shelter under the skirts of the Minister and let my hon. Friend bear the weight of explaining the Bill's purpose.

Who were the beneficiaries of the Humber bridge project? The answer is the Labour party. Where is it today? There is not a single Labour Member here other than those from the immediate vicinity of the bridge, and what a lot of apologies we have heard from them.

Our taxpayers have been treated with contempt. One does not need to raise one's eyes particularly high to notice that the press do not seem to give a damn about the taxpayer either.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes (Mr. Brown) was right when he said that the £435 million is coming out of the capital programme of the Department of Transport. Many of us were in the Chamber yesterday to discover what will become of our capital programmes, and the allocations for them were far lower than we might otherwise have hoped. My constituents in Gravesham did not get their Northfleet bypass. I can blame the Labour-Liberal council for making that a secondary priority, but—

Mr. Allen

It is because the Government grant is down 17 per cent.

Mr. Arnold

I note that sedentary intervention from the Opposition spokesman. I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman knows that 17 per cent. is part of the impact of swallowing £435 million in one go. Has he quantified that? It is disgraceful that because of the Labour party's political sleaze taxpayers across the country will have to foot a bill of £435 million.

Mr. Allen

Let me just reply to the hon. Gentleman's tirade. If he continues to support ever-larger tax cuts in the basic rate of income tax—taxes are increased in other areas—he must accept that that money must be found from somewhere. Yesterday's announcement of a 17 per cent. reduction in local transport projects, which are funded by central Government, must be found from some source. Of course the hon. Gentleman cannot disguise that fact. He cannot have his cake and eat it. If he votes for reductions in income tax, I am afraid that he must realise that they need to be paid for.

Mr. Michael Brown

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The problem may have been solved, but my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) says that he had sat down.

Mr. Allen

No, he gave way.

Mr. Arnold

No, I did not.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The Chair was under the impression that the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) had given way. However, the Chair was deceived as the hon. Gentleman had sat down.

6.19 pm
Mr. Elliot Morley (Glanford and Scunthorpe)

During this very interesting debate we have explored the history of the Humber bridge and people's attitudes to it. However, the hon. Members for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) and for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) are on very dangerous ground when they comment on the cost of the Humber bridge. In response, we can easily ask: what about the poll tax and the £3 billion that was wasted on it? Will that cost be borne by the Conservative party?

If the same rules applied to local government, Conservative Members would face surcharges for the poll tax and for selling public assets at below their book value as election bribes. They would he surcharged for the give-away Budgets in the 1980s, which caused tremendous damage to industry and to this country's economy. Conservative Members are in no position to talk about the Humber bridge. The hon. Member for Gravesham talked about brass necks, but we have seen brass cheek from Conservative Members in this debate.

Let us return to the issue of the Humber bridge and the importance of it. To be fair, hon. Members on both sides of the House mentioned the tremendous engineering achievement that the bridge represents and to the pride that local people take in it. The bridge is a wonderful showcase for British engineering and the engineering industry has benefited from that experience. It has gone on to build bridges abroad, which has had a beneficial impact on our exports and on British Steel, in which I have an interest.

There is also the question of need. I have no doubt that the Humber bridge meets a vital infrastructure need in Humberside. Without the bridge, Humberside's economic development would have been constrained. I remember what it was like before the bridge was built. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Randall) referred to the ferry service. Although it was a very inefficient service, I used it regularly. As a student, I did teaching practice in Cleethorpes in the winter—the digs in Cleethorpes were very cheap in winter—and I would catch the ferry every Monday morning. In those days, the journey across the Humber was a long and complicated affair, but many people made the journey even then. Many of them hoped that the ferry would run aground in the middle of the river, as it often did, so that the bar would be open for a few hours before the ferry eventually reached Barton-upon-Humber.

The construction of the bridge reduced the 100-mile journey between Grimsby and Hull to a convenient, short crossing and it allowed the economy to develop on both sides of the Humber. I am surprised that hon. Members who have spoken in the debate—particularly the Minister for Railways and Roads—did not refer to the haulage industry and the importance of the Humber bridge to it. The introduction of tolls has had a major impact on the haulage industry. Has the Minister met representatives of the Road Haulage Association recently? I have met them to discuss their concerns about the impact of tolls on their members in my constituency.

The hon. Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes (Mr. Brown) mentioned the impact of the Humber bridge on his constituency. We have very good communications and an airport in the area, but when I talk to people in South Humberside, including some very large investors, they all emphasise the fact that the Humber bridge provides access to the deep-water ports of Hull and the daily roll-on, roll-off ferries to Holland. That is very important to many local businesses. The Humber bridge is a vital part of the local infrastructure.

There is no denying that the Humber bridge has not been able to cover its debt. It was never going to, and in that respect the Government have recognised the inevitable and introduced the Bill to deal with that debt. Labour Members welcome the legislation as a recognition of the real situation, as the problem can by solved only by writing off the debt in that way.

As to the cost of the Humber bridge, I draw the House's attention to the cost of other road developments, which will not be recovered. One development that springs to mind is the recent Limehouse link construction in north London. The construction of the road link tunnel cost £360 million and it cost a further £89.2 million to relocate people whose houses were demolished to make way for the link. The Limehouse link—a road of only 1.8 km—cost the taxpayer a total of £449.2 million.

Tonight we are talking about a total debt of £435 million for the Humber bridge. The cost of the Limehouse link at only 1.8 km is far more than the debt that we are talking about in this debate. The Humber bridge will continue to contribute towards its cost through its tolls, while the Limehouse link will have no such tolls and is part of the national road network.

Many of my constituents are confused by that logic. They ask why such a big fuss is made about the Humber bridge when the motorway network—including the Limehouse link—is simply regarded as part of infrastructure investment in this country, although it is just as costly. Let us put the debate into perspective. Yes, we are writing off debt on the Humber bridge; I believe that we are correct to do so. The Humber bridge is an important piece of infrastructure and its cost pales into insignificance when compared with other major road and communications infrastructure investments in this country.

I echo some of the comments of the hon. Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes regarding the people of Humberside. My constituents have no choice but to use the bridge regularly, particularly when travelling to Hull royal infirmary. The infirmary provides medical treatment that is not available in any other part of the region. The only other hospital is at Cottingham. When people are hospitalised at the infirmary, their relatives must travel across the Humber bridge regularly and the costs can be very high. People who live and work on different sides of the Humber must also bear that cost.

I was such a person. When I was selected to contest the Glanford and Scunthorpe seat in 1985, I travelled across the bridge daily. My family moved to Winterton and I travelled to work in Hull each day. My wife and I had to pay the toll daily, and sometimes twice a day.

Mr. Jacques Arnold

The hon. Gentleman referred to the Limehouse link. A proportion of the cost of that link was paid for by the developers of Canary wharf. Will he inform the House what contribution he believes the city of Hull should make to the cost of the Humber bridge?

Mr. Morley

I have read the Public Accounts Committee's report on the Limehouse link and it does not mention any contribution by developers towards its cost. It says that the link was commissioned by the London Docklands development corporation, which was established as a non-executive body by the Department of the Environment. As far as I know, the bulk of the money came from taxpayers. Even if there was a contribution from the private sector, it was still a major investment by the public sector. There is no toll on that road and none is expected to be introduced. Many people who use the Limehouse link to travel to work in the City are in a much better position to pay tolls than many of my constituents in Glanford and Scunthorpe—or those in Brigg and Cleethorpes, for that matter. We should put the matter in perspective.

I commuted to work via the Humber bridge for some years; I made that choice. I once remarked to the former chairman of the bridge board, Councillor Alex Clarke, that I had crossed the bridge so many times that I must have paid for part of it. I asked whether my name could be written on it and he replied that, given the escalation in debt, in all my daily journeys I may have paid for only one rivet in the bridge. He said that I could put my name on that if I wanted to. That puts in perspective the escalation of debt, which is dealt with under the Bill.

I hope that the Minister will give some assurances about future tolls. It is not good enough for him to say that it is purely a matter for the bridge board. We all know that tolls will be determined by how much debt the Government are prepared to write off under the powers that they are taking in the Bill. The private Bill that the Government were blackmailing the bridge board to introduce would have proposed that no public inquiries be held. I am glad that there is no such suggestion now as local people have a right to make representations about toll increases.

It was also clear from the discussions that the Government wanted that private Bill to include the automatic index-linking of tolls. That would put an intolerable burden on people who use the bridge because they have no choice. Some people have to use the bridge as a direct result of Government policy—for example, the location of health care facilities. They have no option but to cross the bridge and pay the tolls. There must be some consideration for such people's needs and the impact on them.

There must also be consideration for local businesses—the Minister failed to mention them in his opening remarks—and the impact of tolls on lorry companies and local distribution businesses with bases on both sides of the bridge. A sharp increase in tolls would put an intolerable burden on their profitability. That has to be taken into account.

The Minister said that he could not tell the House what the tolls would be, but it would be useful if he gave us an assurance that whatever the increase was, it would be within reasonable limits—perhaps the level of inflation. I would be interested to hear the Minister's opinions on that.

The Minister has been described as a Father Christmas figure as he is writing off the debt. If we have no idea of what future tolls will be, he will not be a Father Christmas figure but the ghost of Christmas yet to come and we should remember that that ghost foreshadowed some unpleasant consequences and implications. There will be unpleasant implications in the Bill unless the Minister ensures that any future increase in tolls is reasonable for the people whom it will hit.

6.32 pm
Mr. Watts

With the leave of the House, I shall reply to the debate. The hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) asked me about further Bills in respect of other crossings. I have no such proposals. There are only two other bridges, the Tyne and the Mersey, where there is any debt owed to the Government and in both those cases that debt is now being repaid by the setting of appropriate toll levels by the bridge operators.

In respect of the proposal to deregulate tolls, the consultation period has finished. We are now considering the responses to consultation. I am not in a position today to state what our reaction will be, but I hope to make an announcement at the earliest opportunity when we have finished our consideration. I can confirm, however, that the Humber bridge was included in the consultation and I expect that it will be included within any powers that we might take in any such legislation.

Privatisation is not an objective of the Bill. Although my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes (Mr. Brown) made a very good case for privatisation as a longer-term solution to the problem, that is not in any way connected with the Bill, which relates to the undertaking given by one of my predecessors in 1991.

The hon. Member for Nottingham, North also asked me about improvements to the road links to the bridge. At present, we have no such proposals. I really could not begin to improve upon the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel), which brought great pleasure to both sides of the House.

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) questioned some of the timings to which I referred. I understand that the final decision to build the bridge was taken in 1969 and my source of information for that is a publication by the bridge board, which would have no particular reason to give false information. Loans were agreed in May 1971 and my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes explained why the Government of the day were not concerned about that because the responsibility for repaying the loans rested firmly and squarely with the local authorities that promoted the bridge.

It was a bit rich for the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North to mention sound finance and to criticise my noble friend Lord Barber. His memory conveniently slipped over 1976, when we experienced some of the highest levels of inflation Britain has ever known. If, as he said—of course I accept what he said on this point—the promise to build the bridge was not necessary to secure his election as the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North, it was even more a waste of money. Although I have no doubt that at the time we would have liked to see my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham representing Kingston upon Hull, North, he has told us that he is well satisfied with his continuing election in perpetuity in Twickenham. Nobody on either side of the House bears any malice towards the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North, who is a distinguished Member of the House, and who has added to its variety.

I owe my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes a debt of gratitude, as he has given me another new alibi. When Members ask me why they cannot have their bypass in future, I shall say that all the money has been expended on the Humber bridge. He also stressed—as he has on many occasions—as did the hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), the importance of the bridge to his constituents, who require access to a hospital located on the north side of the river.

My hon. Friend may know that when I had a meeting with the bridge board on my birthday on 19 April this year, we discussed the burden of tolls on those needing to go to hospital for treatment. I told those on the board that if they wished to put forward a workable scheme for a concession to such essential users, I would look at it sympathetically as part of the package of proposals.

Mr. James Cran (Beverley)

I have no difficulty with increasing tolls because they have not increased since 1989. The question is by how much. My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes (Mr. Brown) was absolutely right to stress those special categories, but we shall want to encourage usage of the bridge. My hon. Friend the Minister said that tolls must be high but realistic. However, those two conditions may be mutually exclusive. All I want to hear from him tonight is that he is not leading the board by the snout and telling it to do what he wishes. If he does that, it will simply put a very large increase to the public inquiry and we shall all have to give our views on it.

Mr. Watts

I would not seek, nor would the board promote, a level of tolls that would reduce the traffic and the revenue. That would be counter-productive. As I have said before, it is for the board to promote a new toll tariff and then for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to determine it when the other procedures have been completed.

In view of the assurance from the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Randall) that the bridge did not assist his election to this House, I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes will not try to send him a bill for part of the cost.

The hon. Gentleman seemed to have some of the arguments the wrong way round. He seemed worried that I might be trying to offload a problem on to local taxpayers. On the contrary: the purpose of this generous legislation is to take some of the burden off them. The local authorities promoted the legislation authorising the bridge in such a way as to put the whole burden—£435 million as it now is—firmly on local taxpayers, chiefly those of Hull. So the hon. Gentleman must not reverse the argument; he must accept that the burden arose in the first place because of the way that the project was taken forward. I am taking powers that will enable the Government to relieve the local taxpayer of some of the burden. The precise amount of write-off and suspension will have to be determined and then contained in the order that I shall put before the House in due course.

On the whole, the constituents of the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West ought to view me as Father Christmas; but he will recognise that Father Christmas does not always give children everything they want. It is not, as he suggested, a lack of action on the part of the Government that has allowed the problem to accumulate. The board has procrastinated by not coming up with proposals to maintain the levels of its tolls. Certainly, it tried to introduce a Bill, but if it had acted sensibly, it would have promoted an increase in tolls using the procedures currently available to it. It would also have promoted a Bill to provide for a more efficacious method of keeping the value of the tolls up to date in future. The board should not have sat back and waited for a private Bill to be taken through the House.

I remind the House that the Bill failed because not a single hon. Member was prepared to pick it up and sponsor it, even though it went through the other place—

Mr. Morley

Quite right.

Mr. Watts

But the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West has suggested that the Government are responsible for the board's inability to maintain its toll charges.

Mr. Michael Brown

I plead guilty, and I do so publicly along with the hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley). I objected to the Humber Bridge Board seeking to use private legislation to deal with its problems. A clause in the Bill would have enabled the board to abdicate responsibility for setting tolls; it handed over to the Secretary of State unlimited powers over future tolls. I had to have regard to the fact that one day there might be a Labour Secretary of State who might misuse those powers.

Mr. Watts

I was not necessarily criticising my hon. Friend—only Opposition Members who suggested that the Government failed to help bring about a solution. If Opposition Members had wished to do so, they could have sponsored the Bill on behalf of their local authorities.

The hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe almost led us astray today by saying that £3 billion was wasted on the poll tax. He will know that any such figure represented the increase in revenue support grant from central Government to local government. If he really thinks the money should not have been spent, he is advocating a reduction in central Government support for local government by that amount. I am sure that he will want to reconsider; it would be a most inconvenient proposition for Labour Front Benchers.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about the impact of tolls on road haulage. The current toll for the largest heavy goods vehicle is £10.90. He will know, from the excellent information provided by the bridge board, that on the journey from Hull to Grimsby using the bridge involves a saving of 47.9 miles. Most hauliers would consider the toll good value for money, given that the alternative would involve more fuel and more time for the driver.

Comparisons with other crossings and links on the trunk road network are invalid. I remind the House that the bridge was promoted by local authorities to serve a local purpose. Once a local authority has done such a thing and accepted that the financial responsibility for it should rest with its local taxpayers, it is a bit rich to compare the bridge with crossings on other parts of the trunk road network promoted by my Department to serve national strategic needs.

Mr. Morley

I mentioned the Limehouse link earlier. No private sector contribution was forthcoming for it, and the Public Accounts Committee criticised the Department of the Environment—the funding agency—for that, recognising that the link benefited the private developers of Canary wharf who contributed nothing. So there was an even poorer return for the money put into that link, which amounted to more than the cost of the Humber bridge. Surely in any case the Minister must recognise that the bridge is part of our national infrastructure network.

Mr. Watts

One's perception of the value of that link depends on the value one places on the redevelopment of docklands. Some of the hon. Gentleman's hon. Friends who represent parts of east London might take a rather different view.

For all the reasons adduced in this debate, I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the whole House.—[Mr. Bates.]

Further proceedings postponed, pursuant to Order [19 December].

    1. c1582
    2. War Medals (Replacement) 187 words
  3. Textile Effluent 5,716 words