HC Deb 28 January 2003 vol 398 cc245-51WH 3.45 pm
Shona Mclsaac (Cleethorpes)

Mr. Deputy Speaker, this is in fact a debate about Humber bridge tolls, not tools.

Tolls to cross the River Humber are nothing new. For example, I noted during my background research for the debate that Edward II granted a charter to the warden and burgesses of Hull to operate a ferry between Hull and Barton-upon-Humber in my constituency. In 1315, the cost of the toll for the ferry was half an old pence.

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby)


Shona McIsaac

It probably was overcharging then. That charge was for a person on foot. If one was wealthy enough to have a horse, the charge was one old pence, and for a horse and cart it was two old pence. We have always had tolls to cross the Humber—they are nothing new.

However, in the 19th century it was acknowledged that the river and the ferry crossings were becoming barriers to trade and communications, so local groups launched campaigns to have a tunnel or bridge built. The lobbying continued until enactment of the Humber Bridge Act 1959, which set up the board. Its raison d'être was to raise money and to construct, operate, maintain and administer the Humber bridge. It comprises representatives from councils in the surrounding area, such as Hull, North Lincolnshire, East Riding of Yorkshire and Lincolnshire councils.

Finally, in 1971, the project was realised and the board set about borrowing money for a major construction project. At the time, it was estimated that the cost of the bridge would be about £28 million, but it had escalated to £151 million by the time the bridge opened in 1981.

Since then, the debt, repayment of loans to the Government and cost of the tolls have been of great local concern. MPs from the area have campaigned tenaciously on the subject. I wish to pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey) and for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), who are here today in support of the debate, and the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), who cannot be here today because of ministerial duties. He too has worked very hard in campaigning on the issue.

We have had successes. In July 1998, the Government responded to our concerns about the escalating debt, the interest and the cost of the tolls, and an order was passed by Parliament writing off £62 million of the debt and to suspend and reschedule the remaining debt to make debt payments more realistic. The interest rate was reduced from about 12 per cent., which was high in 1998, to a fixed rate of 7.75 per cent.

Mr. Ian Cawsey (Brigg and Goole)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. As she will know, I have been a local in the area throughout the period that the bridge went from being a pipe dream to a reality. I have always believed that the potential benefits of movements to and from the north and south banks are considerable but hampered by toll levels.

Is my hon. Friend aware that the absence of tolls during a brief period of industrial action by the bridge board staff in the 1980s resulted in a huge increase in the traffic that went over the bridge, proving that the toll level is a major deterrent to achieving all the benefits that could result from movements between the north and south banks?

Shona Mclsaac

I thank my hon. Friend for that characteristic intervention. He is right to say that traffic across the bridge increased enormously when the industrial action took place, thus proving that the tolls are still a barrier.

A few years later, after campaigning as a team on Humber bridge tolls and achieving success in rescheduling the debt, we were faced with the possibility of VAT being levied on the tolls. To be fair to the Government, however, we fought the case together and the decision that was made in Europe went in our favour and VAT was not levied on the bridge. It is levied only on tolls for private bridges. We have worked successfully with the Government.

The current campaign links in with what my hon. Friend said. The levels of the toll are creating barriers, particularly for people who want to access health care. The system has been dubbed "the toll on health". The campaign was sparked off by the reorganisation of health authorities in the area. It meant that people who used to receive various treatments for cancer, for example, in hospital in Lincoln now have to travel across the bridge to Hull and incur a toll of £2.50 each way.

The vast area of the south bank of the River Humber disadvantages those in Grimsby and Cleethorpes and those who live further west in the Isle of Axholme. In addition to the cost of the tolls, people have to make a lengthy journey to access health care, especially cancer treatment. Tolls should not be a barrier to health. In the 19th century, it was said that the river was a barrier to trade and communication; now the bridge is a toll on health.

I know from my constituency casework—as I am sure do my colleagues—that people are declining appointments because they cannot meet the cost of travelling to hospital. Relatives are having to cut down on their visits to their loved ones, even those who are seriously ill, because they cannot meet the costs of travelling daily over the bridge. It is all very well to say that people can use public transport, but as anyone who has visited that part of the country will know, we do not have direct rail links to Hull. The bus services are infrequent, especially in the evening. Unless people have cars, it is a difficult journey.

I admit that there are concessions and money is available to help a small proportion of people. If a person has the money to pay up front, there are discounts to be had. However, many people on low incomes who do not qualify for the concessions, or pensioners who are above the income support level usually cannot afford to pay £50 up front to receive a 10 per cent. reduction. There is an exemption, however, for people who receive the highest rate of disability living allowance and have a tax exempt vehicle. It is worth while my making that statement today because there are people who do not realise that they are entitled to free trips across the river.

Locally, everyone is in agreement that something must be done to assist people to access health care. The bridge board has said that, in principle, it wants action to be taken. The local authority supports the idea. In fact, my hon. Friends the Members for Scunthorpe and for Brigg and Goole were questioned by North Lincolnshire council about the campaign. They, too, lent their support to it. The primary care trust also supports it. The campaign has been marvellously publicised by the local newspapers, the Grimsby Telegraph and the Scunthorpe Evening Telegraph. Thousands of people have expressed their support for it, either through the newspapers or their MPs. Everyone agrees that such action is desirable. We must find a way forward.

We are taking part in a huge game of pass the parcel. Everyone is saying that we have to do something, but they are also saying, "It's not my responsibility", "There may be legal problems", or "We haven't got the money." I want everybody to get together and come up with a scheme that will actually get rid of this toll on health and the barrier created by the high level of tolls.

Mr. Cawsey

Does my hon. Friend agree that the need to find a quick solution is ever more pressing? The modernisation of the health service is leading to greater use of regional centres and specialisations, which is entirely correct from a medical point of view. However, what is an historic problem is affecting more and more families as the modernisation of the national health service moves on.

Shona McIsaac

My hon. Friend is correct. As I stressed earlier, reorganisation and modernisation mean that people have to incur longer and more costly journeys to access health care. The Government have a role to play. They can provide a solution.

Mr. Austin Mitchell

My hon. Friend has incited me to intervene. She has the backing of all the Members of Parliament in the area, but is not the real problem the Treasury, which could write down the debt? It is now a notional figure. Interest rates are much lower now than when they were fixed. The Treasury demonstrated in the 1990s that it could reduce outlay, and it has done so on many other occasions—for large-scale voluntary transfers, for example. This is a Treasury problem.

Shona Mclsaac

As in the local community, many interested groups are involved. On ministerial responsibility, many Departments have an interest—the Department for Transport, the Department of Health and the Treasury. If my hon. Friend waits a couple more minutes, I will come to my point about interest rates.

Debt is the problem. The Humber bridge makes a substantial operating profit: it raises approximately £18 million a year from tolls, of which £15 million goes to the Exchequer. The Exchequer has received more than £150 million from the tollpayers of Humberside, so the key lies with the Treasury. The Minister can have influence. I want him to re-examine the arrangements put in place in 1998 when the debt was rescheduled and the interest rates were reduced from approximately 12 to 7.75 per cent., which was a fixed rate. Everybody would now agree with my hon. Friend that 7.75 per cent. is high.

The debt arrangements will soon be due for a five-yearly review, and the Minister has scope to do something about the interest rates. He could also look at the length of time over which the debt must be repaid and extend the payment period. Both options would result in more of the money raised by tollpayers staying in the community. It would free up capital to allow organisations in the area to fund schemes to help people to access health care or help visitors to visit loved ones. We could even do something for trainee nurses who have to go to Hull for their training.

Those things could be done easily—they are not difficult. The review is coming up and the Government hold the key to providing the solution. If the Minister will consider those suggestions, I will try, with the support of my colleagues who represent constituencies on the south bank of the Humber, to ask all the interested organisations to come together at a joint meeting so that we can devise a constructive way forward. We will work together and with the Minister to try to provide a solution to this problem. I also hope that the Minister will agree to meet a delegation from those local organisations so that we can scrap the toll on health.

4 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Jamieson)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) on securing this important debate and on the clarity with which she made her points on behalf of her constituents. In my hon. Friend they have a good fighter for their cause who can make their case clearly and with some power and passion. I am pleased to see my hon. Friends the Members for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) and for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey) take an interest on this important matter from south of the Humber.

My hon. Friend gave us a brief history lesson, which I thought was interesting, but above all she gave a clear appraisal of the effects that the toll is having on her constituents, especially on those of limited means. The hon. Lady mentioned in particular the issue of the hospital, in relation to the sick, relatives visiting people there and nurses. If, once the deliberations have taken place and my hon. Friend has met various interested parties, she feels that there is some value in having a meeting, I would be pleased to see her and other hon. Members.

I shall give a brief summary of the bridge's history, which may be helpful in putting the issue, and some of the possible ways forward, in context. The Humber bridge was opened in 1981. It is not a part of the trunk road network, but was built under legislation promoted by the local authority—the Humber Bridge Act 1959, as amended by the Humber Bridge Act 1971. The bridge is managed by the Humber bridge board, which is a local authority body. Most members of the board are from Hull city council, and its local taxpayers stand to finance most of any deficit from the tolls.

The bridge was financed by borrowing from the Secretary of State for Transport and the Public Works Loan Board. It took longer and cost more to construct than was expected and traffic growth was lower than forecast because the population growth that was expected for south Humberside when the bridge was planned never materialised. Toll income failed to cover the interest on debts, so unpaid interest was added to the debt. Capitalisation caused an exponential growth in debt from £181 million in 1981 to £439 million at 31 March 1992. It was recognised that the bridge board's financial situation was unsustainable and that action was needed. Without Government assistance, the debt would have risen to £650 million by 1997.

In July 1991, the Roads Minister announced the Government's intention to legislate in order to obtain express powers to write off or suspend debt. The Humber Bridge (Debts) Act 1996 received Royal Assent in February 1996. In July 1998, a new loan agreement was signed with the Humber bridge board and approved by the Humber Bridge (Debts) Order 1998 under the 1996 Act. That wrote off the debt to the PWLB and fixed a new, lower consolidated loan interest rate and suspended interest payments on some of the Secretary of State for Transport's debt. In the absence of these arrangements, the total interest charges on the Humber bridge debts would have amounted to nearly £50 million, which, without Government action, would have resulted in an impossible burden on the local taxpayers of Hull. The new arrangements initially reduced interest charges to less than £10 million, which were to be accommodated from within the bridge board's operating surplus after operating and maintenance costs had been met.

Although the bridge was built with Government loans, its financing and operation is primarily a matter for the bridge board. It is for the board to propose the tolls charged, and it can revise them only by applying to the Secretary of State for Transport, who must consider the application objectively in accordance with the criteria set out in the Humber Bridge Acts of 1959 and 1971. Under those Acts, the Secretary of State must not be unduly influenced by the debt owed to him.

The toll revision process is lengthy and includes advertising the application and the possibility of a public inquiry into objections. The decision on whether to provide discounts to, or exemptions from, toll charges is a matter for the board, except in the cases of certain groups of people and vehicles defined in the legislation. Although not obliged to do so, the board provides exemptions for disabled drivers in receipt of mobility allowance and for those who receive the higher rate of the mobility component of the disability living allowance. The board has also put in place a discount scheme for all bridge users on whom tolls are levied, which is available when pre-purchasing books of tickets.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes raised the issue of people travelling to hospitals in Hull having to pay the full bridge toll. The matter has also been covered widely in the Humberside press. The last toll revision public inquiry, held in December 2001, discussed whether concessions for bridge crossings should be made on social policy grounds. In his decision letter on the toll application, the Secretary of State for Transport accepted the inspector's view that any subsidies granted on social policy grounds were a matter for those responsible for the provision of health and social services, not the Humber bridge board.

My hon. Friend pointed out that the Humber Bridge (Debts) Order was made in 1998, and has added five to get to 2003. However, my Department and the Humber bridge board are undertaking a review of the debt. Any rescheduling thought necessary as a result of the debt review will, of course, require approval from the Treasury, and would be made by order under section 1 of the Humber Bridge (Debts) Act 1996. The order would have to be laid before the House, and would be subject to an annulment in pursuance of a resolution of the House of Commons—that is, to a negative resolution procedure.

Section 75 of the Humber Bridge Act 1959 sets out how the board shall apply revenues, and it lists nine purposes for which the revenues can be used. The ninth of those reads: ninthly in the reduction of tolls which may be demanded taken and recovered under this Act or for such other purpose as may be approved by the Minister". If the review went well and decided in the board's favour, an interpretation of that ninth category would have to be made to determine whether it would allow a concessionary crossing fee to be applied to those in certain categories. I am sure that my hon. Friend is not expecting any legal advice from me, but it would be for the board to interpret the ninth category, so one route down which people might go, if the five-yearly review goes favourably, would be to seek such advice and find out whether it gives them any comfort.

Shona McIsaac

Peeling away all the layers of legalese, is the Minister basically saying that there is a way forward to try to achieve our aim?

Mr. Jamieson

I have learned in this place that the intricate layers of legalese cannot be ignored. I hope that I have set out the legal position for my hon. Friend. The 1959 Act gives the board the ability to make a decision on the reduction of tolls on the basis that I outlined. However, we make the laws in this place but others interpret them. The board would need expert interpretation of the law and I said that I was not qualified to do that today. Putting this in simple terms, it seems as if there might be an avenue for exploration, at least, of an interpretation of the meaning before the board does what it urgently and earnestly desires.

My hon. Friend said that she had received representations from her constituents setting out their discontent about having to travel to and from Hull for hospital. She cited the example of people receiving daily cancer treatment but not receiving help with paying toll charges for using the bridge although a person visiting someone in prison in Hull could receive assistance with the charge. Let me clarify that because I believe that it has been mentioned in the local media.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will appreciate that this is not a matter for my Department, but for the completeness of the debate, I took the trouble to peruse the websites of Her Majesty's Prison Service and the Departments of Health and for Work and Pensions—you see what I do in my spare time, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The websites provide information on assistance that might be available to some users of the bridge. If a person is visiting a close relative or partner in prison or if a person has a low income and is a prisoner's only visitor, they may be entitled to help with the cost of the journey through the assisted prison visits scheme, which is funded and managed by Her Majesty's Prison Service.

People in receipt of income support, working families tax credit, disabled person's tax credit or income-based jobseeker's allowance can receive help with travel costs when they attend hospital for national health service treatment and when they come out of hospital through the hospital travel costs scheme. They can also receive help with travel costs when they go to and from hospital as an out-patient for NHS treatment. They may also be able to get help with travels costs for someone whom they need to accompany them to hospital, if they cannot go by themselves.

People who are on a low income, but who do not receive income support or income-based jobseeker's allowance, may be able to get help with travel costs through the NHS low income scheme, as may people whom they require to accompany them. Further questions about those schemes should be addressed to the Department of Health; I have outlined only my understanding.

Persons in receipt of income support or income-based jobseeker's allowance who visit an ill person in hospital may be able to get help with travel costs from the community care grant from the social fund. Further questions about that should be directed to the Department for Work and Pensions. My hon. Friend's constituents' concerns might be due in part to a lack of awareness of the funding available from various pots.

Shona McIsaac

I totally agree that some constituents have a lack of awareness about available help. If they contact me or any other Member of Parliament who represents the area, we put them straight. However, it is not only people on low incomes who have a problem. People on moderate incomes find the cost of the tolls a real hardship and barrier.

Mr. Jamieson

I accept that. People who are just over the barrier—on a low income, but not a low enough income to qualify for the benefits—often have problems. There might be a case for better advertising of the schemes. Some people might be paying the toll although they could apply for one of the benefits.

My hon. Friend made an extremely powerful case on behalf of her constituents. The five-yearly review is taking place, although I cannot predict its outcome because there will be discussions between the Department—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. We must turn our attention to the final topic for consideration today: policing in Somerset.