HC Deb 04 November 1997 vol 300 cc103-4
7. Mr. Charles Kennedy

If he will make a statement on progress in reducing the Skye bridge tolls. [12044]

Mr. Dewar

Since my announcement on 4 July, which was widely welcomed, negotiations have been in progress about the changes to the very complex agreement that we inherited. The principle of reducing tolls is accepted by the parties, but the matters of detail are taking longer to finalise than I had hoped. I am, however, confident that I shall be able to announce the introduction of discounted tolls at an early date.

Mr. Kennedy

I thank the Secretary of State for that helpful reply and, through him, wish to express my thanks for the helpful and constructive response of the Lord Advocate in dealing with some of the local implications of the matter. I underscore that there is anxiety that the contract—I appreciate that it does not have the signature of the Secretary of State on it and that the problem is not of his making but was inherited from his predecessor—gives stalling powers to the private company, which I suspect is instinctively none too happy about any toll reduction package and its consequent commercial impact. Does he agree that the matter needs to be re-examined? I hope that the Public Accounts Committee will consider it in more detail in due course. The more we see of the matter, the more it commercially and politically stinks.

Mr. Dewar

I offer this consolation to the hon. Gentleman. Although the details have been difficult and the negotiations have taken longer than I would have liked and are not yet complete, it is fair to say that they were entered into in good faith after an agreement in principle about what we are trying to achieve. I hope that we will not have too long to wait before I can report success in the matter. The important thing is to ensure that we get the discounts, which will be a considerable advantage to regular users, in place as soon as possible. The Public Accounts Committee will consider the technicalities of the contract and the National Audit Office report, but as the hon. Gentleman knows this was an early PFI project right at the beginning of the process—and perhaps at the start of the learning curve.