HL Deb 13 December 1985 vol 469 cc467-9

11.30 a.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Transport (The Earl of Caithness)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I beg to repeat the Statement now being made in the other place by my honourable friend the Minister of State for Transport. The Statement is as follows:

"The challenge to my right honourable friend's decision to increase tolls on the Severn Bridge succeeded in the High Court yesterday morning.

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

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

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Earl for repeating that Statement made in the other place. But he will he confirm reports in today's press that the issue first arose because the Gwent County Council and other local authorities objected that they had to meet through tolls the cost of approach roads and also the £19 million cost of strengthening the Severn Bridge? Is this not therefore a case where the whole policy of providing for estuarial crossings should be reviewed and not met in this way, because the Severn bridge is of national importance, including, of course, its importance to South Wales?

I note from the Statement that the Secretary of State and the department have not yet decided whether they should appeal. On reading the judgment it may be decided not to appeal, but if, alternatively, there is an appeal and it does not succeed it will be the fourth time in 12 months that the Secretary of State has fallen foul of the law. Is there something wrong in the legal department of the Department of Transport—for example, inadequate staff to meet all the legislative measures that are going through that department?

Lord Kennet

My Lords, while every Member of both Houses will no doubt have the greatest sympathy with human failings—and it is clear that anybody can be the subject of many human failings—the present Secretary of State for Transport seems to be subject to a special degree of accident proneness. It is not very many weeks since the courts held that his attempt to take £250 million from the Greater London Council, in connection with the transfer of London Transport to the new regional authority, was unlawful, irrational and procedurally improper. We may think he is lucky to have got off a bit lighter from the court this time.

Is it not necessary to place his performance over the last year in the general context of a Government which has been knocked down in the courts on the unionisation of GCHQ and on the Secretary of State's proposed changes in benefits? In short, would it not be a matter worthy of debate, or at least of getting some data out on paper and into Hansard by means of Questions, to consider how this Government's record compares, in the task of not falling foul of the courts, with the record of other Governments?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, for welcoming this Statement. He asked me a number of questions, one of which was whether the policy on tolls would be reviewed. I think that we have to wait until the transcript of the judgment is received, which I understand will be in about 10 days' time. When we have studied that, of course, the policy on tolls, if that is affected by the judgment, will be considered. The noble Lord also asked me what decision we would make on the judgment. I am afraid that the answer is the same. Until we have seen the transcript of the judgment we do not know what action should be taken and how we should proceed.

I turn now to the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, who did not welcome the Statement. He asked me a number of questions not related to the Statement, but if he puts them down in Question form I will do my best to answer them.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that there is a considerable amount of concern in South Wales about this matter, because it is not the first time that the Government have acted imprudently in connection with this bridge. Can he say what amount of money was involved? How much money was mistakenly charged in view of the error of the Secretary of State in this matter?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, I do not know the precise amount of money that was taken during the period when the tolls increased. I can tell him, if it is helpful, that the tolls on cars rose from 20p to 50p, the tolls on motor-cycles dropped from lop to nothing—and I gather they are concerned that the judgment means that they have to continue to pay 10p—and the tolls on lorries increased from 40p to £1.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, if the judgment stands, will there be an attempt to reimburse those who have been improperly charged 90p a time—is it?—for going over the Severn Bridge? There will be a great queue of Welshmen claiming a refund.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I think that the Welsh will be crushed in the rush by the Scots to get there first. No, I do not think that is a practical proposition, because we do not know who has gone across the bridge and there would be no way of proving—as I am sure the noble and learned Lord will understand better than I—that they had done so.

Lord Morris

My Lords, may I suggest that a practical way in which this matter could be handled would be not to raise the toll for a period of time, in order to compensate those who were wrongly overcharged?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, does my noble friend mean that we should increase the toll for motorcyclists to compensate them for when they did not pay anything?

Lord Morris

My Lords, I mean that for a period of time do not charge anything at all.

The Earl of Caithness

But, my Lords, they are at the moment going across free and the tolls will revert to the 1979 figures as soon as the machinery is altered. I think that that is the fair and reasonable thing to do.

Lord Mulley

My Lords, does this not illustrate two points? First, with the increasing use of judicial review by the judicary, on a basis that I have never really understood—often it is based on neither statute law nor common law—every ministerial decision can now be challenged, with the consequence that when judgments come after a long time there is great inconvenience. Is the whole question of our procedures, particularly in the transport field, being looked at? Secondly, is it not much better, if, obviously, in proper fields costs rise in accordance with inflation, to make a regular small increase rather than an enormous one of this character, which understandably causes a very sharp reaction?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Mulley, for those two questions. As I understand it, the tolls are increased as a result of the Severn Bridge Tolls Act 1965 which Parliament approved and tolls can be increased when considered necessary. So I think that when the legislation was drafted provision was made to increase the tolls, and provision was made for an appeal as took place in this case. Once an appeal has been made, it then automatically goes to a public inquiry.