HC Deb 18 December 1996 vol 287 cc931-3
3. Mr. Charles Kennedy

To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what assessment he has made of the impact of the Skye bridge tolls upon the economy of the highlands and western isles; and if he will make a statement. [8133]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. George Kynoch)

All our research shows it has been an enormous success.

Mr. Kennedy

Will the Minister acknowledge that there is recognition throughout the highlands and islands that this vexed issue will probably be resolved only with the outcome of the general election? The Scottish Liberal Democrats will be campaigning on a manifesto commitment to abolish the tolls. In the interim, given the Secretary of State's commitment on Monday at the Highlands and Islands Convention that the economics of all this will be examined, will he take account of the evidence that has been provided by the joint consultants report to the Highland council and Skye and Lochalsh Enterprise, which showed that the number of heavy goods vehicles and coaches using the bridge has declined by no less than 25 per cent. since it opened? That is having a drastic economic impact on Skye and the Western Isles. I hope that we can have the Minister's commitment that that will be taken into account in the pre-election assessment that is to take place.

Mr. Kynoch

I should have hoped that the hon. Gentleman would have recognised what a success the bridge has been for Skye. The figures for the first year, compared with those for the last year of the ferry, show a 16 per cent. increase in throughput. Skye has benefited from the bridge, as has the Mallaig ferry. I should have hoped that he would recognise that the bridge has brought significant benefits to his constituents in Skye.

It was the idea of the Highland regional council that the bridge should be constructed. If tolls were to be removed, that would put a burden on other areas of local authority expenditure. I challenge the hon. Gentleman: if he is willing to put such a pledge in his election manifesto, where would he cut services in the highlands to pay for it?

Mr. Stewart

Does my hon. Friend agree that the cuts might not be in the highlands? If the tolls were paid for by the Scottish Office, the money might come from cuts in programmes that would affect my constituents in Eastwood. Will my hon. Friend send a firm message to the hon. Member for Ross, Cromarty and Skye (Mr. Kennedy) and his campaigners that, if that is a possibility, it is not on?

Mr. Kynoch

My hon. Friend has put his finger on it. The proposals from the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats—(Interruption.] Scottish National party members seem to be indicating that they have the same policies. I am not aware of that party vigorously supporting a tax-raising Parliament other than seeing it as a stepping stone to full independence.

If the Opposition's policy of a tax-raising Parliament came about, my hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart) would be absolutely right. If the cost had to be funded from the Scottish Office, who knows where it might be taken from. It could be taken from Eastwood—it could even be Hamilton. The hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) might have to face the stark reality of telling his constituents how he would fund something—for a change.

Mr. Macdonald

Can the Minister name any other bridge in Britain that is part of the public highway but is not funded, at least in part, out of public taxation? How can he justify using the most remote communities in Britain as the victims of this unique experiment in privatisation?

Mr. Kynoch

I should have hoped that the hon. Gentleman would recognise that, originally, the people of Skye and the tourists visiting Skye had to use a ferry to get there. The tolls charged on the new bridge are significantly less than the ferry fares.

Mr. Macdonald

They are not.

Mr. Kynoch

When one looks at the published fares, even the discount fares, one can see that the tolls are significantly less. Only large buses benefited from a non-seasonal discount. Now, across the board, there are low season discounts on tolls, some of which are significantly less than the fares in the last year of the ferry's operation. The hon. Gentleman should recognise that the bridge has brought about a 16 per cent. increase in throughput for the benefit of the people of Skye.

Mr. John Marshall

The question refers in part to the economy of the highlands and the western isles. Does my hon. Friend agree that the whisky industry is important to that area? Will he congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on being the first Chancellor of the Exchequer to reduce duty on whisky in two consecutive Budgets, and welcome the fact that the Japanese are reducing their discrimination against Scotch? The people of Scotland will drink a toast and a wee dram to the Chancellor—even if mean-minded Opposition Members will not.

Mr. Kynoch

I am glad that my hon. Friend realises the great benefits that my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor has brought to the whisky industry and—as we were talking about the Skye bridge—to the people of Skye. The bridge makes it that much easier to transport product backwards and forwards between Skye and the mainland, and I am sure that distilleries on Skye will benefit significantly from that improved access.

In the past few years, on average, the ferry has not operated—because of bad weather or maintenance—for approximately 80 hours a year, whereas the bridge, in its first year of operation, was closed for only one hour. I argue not only that my right hon. and learned Friend has brought benefits through his whisky tax reduction—which we all welcome—but that the bridge has enabled the people of Skye to live in very much better spirits than they might have with the ferry.

Mrs. Liddell

Will the Minister explain to the House how many crossings of the Skye bridge could be made for the cost of hiring one RAF jet from Inverness to London? Is that an example of Tory transport policy for the highlands—one service for the privileged, and another for the rest?

Mr. Kynoch

The hon. Lady demeans herself by couching a question on the highlands in such terms. It is all about a diversionary tactic by the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson), who spent the first 40 minutes of the first meeting of the Highlands and Islands Convention arguing about procedures.

I think that all those who were present at that meeting agree that, after those first 40 minutes, it was very positive and constructive. We discussed many serious subjects, which was of benefit to the highlands and enabled all the bodies involved in the highlands to get together to co-ordinate their views. We also produced an agenda of topics that future meetings will discuss. Liberal Democrat Members seem to be nodding in agreement. I should think that they would welcome an opportunity to discuss such matters in a sensible forum, without the petty party politics and point-scoring attempted by the hon. Lady.