Below is the full text of my speech in the debate on Mersey Gateway Bridge Tolls, you can also click the link below to watch the full debate where Labour MPs from across the region spoke passionately about why these tolls must be reviewed and scrapped.
I congratulate the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) on obtaining this timely debate, and on the way he set out some of the concerns that have been raised with him. Generally speaking, it is certainly better to have the new bridge than not to have it, and I congratulate Halton Borough Council on taking on the necessary and ambitious scheme to get the bridge built and operating. It is a shame, as a couple of my right hon. and hon. Friends clearly set out, that the bridge has not been delivered in a way that allows my constituents to cross the Mersey at Runcorn without paying a toll.
The Silver Jubilee bridge has been free since it was built in the 1960s. It is now closed, and when it reopens it, too, will be tolled. The tolls, the discount arrangements and the entire administration need to be rethought. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us some comfort on that in his remarks at the end of the debate. I accept that the situation is not primarily the choice of Halton Borough Council; its choice was to build a toll bridge or no bridge, thanks to central Government requirements. We must therefore look to the Government for solutions.
Halton Borough Council has acted in a spirit of a long line of entrepreneurial local government organisations on Merseyside, which have been innovative and ahead of their time when it comes to infrastructure development, whether in respect of that original wet dock back in the mists of time in Liverpool or, more recently, tunnels under the Mersey. Unfortunately, Merseyside people often seem to end up having to pay for infrastructure in a way people do not in other parts of the country.
I will make three basic points which I hope the Minister will address. First, I have many constituents who cannot afford to pay the new tolls and are finding that their imposition, without a sufficiently widespread and generous discount scheme, is making their lives financially unsustainable. I will give some examples of that. Secondly, the administration of the tolling arrangements appears secretive and unresponsive. There are, let us say, teething problems—which may turn out to be basic flaws—in the administration of the tolls. I have some examples of that as well. Thirdly, there is not sufficient public accountability, whether by Merseyflow, which operates the tolls; Mersey Gateway Crossings Boards Ltd and Halton Borough Council, which commissioned and look after the bridge, or the Government, who intervene when it suits them, then wash their hands of any further need to get involved when it does not. None of those things bodes well for the future smooth operation of these arrangements.
On affordability, I do not believe it is fair that residents living near the bridge in Halton receive almost free travel while my constituents, who have made decisions about where they live and work based on the longstanding availability of an untolled bridge, suddenly have to factor significant extra costs into their calculations. The Silver Jubilee bridge has been available and untolled since the 1960s; when it reopens, it will be tolled at the same rate as the Mersey Gateway.
Liz Simon is a teacher who works in Stockton Heath in Warrington. She has been in her job for seven years and has two young children. She says:
“I now have this additional bill to pay when we are only getting a 1% pay rise in the education sector. This will certainly not cover the £1000 a year toll charges.”
She has had to stop buying school dinners for her children to try to offset the additional costs she faced in getting to work. She says:
“It is frustrating that people who I work with who live in Halton pay £10 a year when ‘as the crow flies’ I live a lot closer (to work) than they do.”
Yet she pays 100 times more than her workmates—almost £1,000.
Another of my constituents, who works at the Countess of Chester hospital, also has to use the bridge daily to get to and from work. As a relatively poorly paid health worker, his pay rises are also capped at 1%, but he suddenly has to pay an extra £1,000. He has cancelled his home insurance, but does not know where he is going to find the other £500 per year he will need to pay the extra cost of getting to work. Understandably in my view, he calls this
“a no option commuter tax”.
What does the Minister suggest he does, and is it right that he has had to cancel his home insurance?
I have some constituents who have told me that they will have to give up their jobs because going across the river is no longer financially viable. Some of my constituents, when they are diagnosed with cancer, have to attend the Clatterbridge Centre on the Wirral for treatment on a regular basis over many months. Many of them lose a substantial portion of their income and end up relying on sickness benefits. They are now also having to find the money for bridge tolls, at a time when their income is dwindling and their costs are increasing—one more worry for people who need to avoid worry in order to recover. I have been contacted by constituents in that position who, for understandable reasons, do not want me to reveal their names. There are many similar stories, and my right hon. and hon. Friends have also given some examples.
On the administration of the tolls, the arrangements are unfair and are being operated badly, insensitively and secretively. My constituent, Liz Simon, has already drawn attention in the comments I have quoted to the current anomaly: big discounts for those happening to live within one local authority boundary create inexplicable differences between the treatment of those people and that of individuals who happen to live in other places, because such a demarcation does not take account of the travel-to-work area around the bridge. That can mean people in similar circumstances having to pay 100 times more for crossings over the same bridge.
The former Chancellor, George Osborne, recognised that anomaly when he visited Halton ahead of the 2015 general election. As has been said, he promised to consider financing a similar discount scheme to that operating for Halton residents for those living in Cheshire, Cheshire West and Chester, and Warrington. I am sure that it was an oversight on his part to miss out my constituents in Liverpool and Knowsley, as well as people living in St Helens, who also abut the whereabouts of the bridge. The alternative explanation, offered by some Members in today’s debate, that he was offering discounts only to those living in Tory marginal seats ahead of the general election cannot possibly be true; it would be a breach that the Treasury’s accounting officer would not let him get away with indulging in. The fact that the current Chancellor has not gone ahead with his predecessor’s scheme—indeed has not deigned, as yet, even to reply to my letter asking him to consider it—does not negate the great good sense of having a much fairer tolling scheme than the one currently in place.
In addition, can it be right that a £2 toll attracts a £40 fine for non-payment that escalates to £60 if unpaid for a month? I know that payment within 14 days cuts the penalty to £20, but that is still extortionate. The Liverpool Echo reported yesterday that between £l million and £3 million has been charged in penalties within a month of the bridge opening. Indeed, some people feel as if the arrangements are specially designed to catch them out—again, some of my hon. Friends have referred to that in their remarks.
The signage just after the bridge opened was not clear, and it is still possible to drive over the bridge, unable to see the instructions about how and when to pay. The free-flow system has the advantage of not requiring cars to stop, but has the disadvantage of allowing people to incur costs without realising it. Elderly people and those not used to paying for things online are particularly disadvantaged, as are casual visitors, who often do not even realise that the bridge is tolled. I have had contact on social media from people passing by who end up with a fine and—I might say—a very bad impression of Liverpool because they feel they have been trapped into incurring a charge that they were unaware existed. Businesses are also suffering in administrative and financial terms.
What about tractors? You might not be aware of this, Mr Paisley, but I represent a small number of arable farmers. They were told that there would be no tolls for their tractors. After all, they do not pay road tax, or have number plates on the front. In addition, the plate on the trailer does not have to be the same as the plate on the tractor. However, they are having to pay and, as a consequence of the lack of visible number plates on the front of the tractors, they are incurring fines. That may not seem like a large problem, but to a small number of arable farmers it is a serious issue. Merseyflow, the operator of the bridge, has refused to meet them or to address the issue with the National Farmers Union and has just said that it is all fine. I do not think that is sufficiently responsive.
The system has been going wrong. I have heard from people who have had penalty notices when they have paid and people who have had penalty notices when they are exempt. The Liverpool Echo reported that Alison Hill’s husband had received 10 penalty charge notices demanding £220 in total, even though he is a Halton resident exempt from the charge and registered his vehicle in August. My constituent Phillip Grace has had penalty charge notices totalling £616 for 28 crossings because the signage detailing how to pay was missing for the first few weeks of operation.
My constituent Angela Hitchmough paid for a monthly pass for her car—£100 in total, with a £10 registration fee. Three weeks later, she changed her car but was told that she could not transfer her pass to the new vehicle. She has had to lose a week’s worth of travel, register the new car and buy a new monthly pass. She uses the car to go to work part time in Runcorn, so those extra expenses are considerable for her.
On accountability, the organisations in charge of the bridge and the tolling arrangement are not helpful; I do not see why they should not be more accountable for their actions in public. They have not shown much sign of wanting to engage with the public thus far. That needs to change.
Given the complaints I have received, I wanted to know how many people had been fined. I asked a written question, and the Minister told me in a written answer on 3 November:
“The Department for Transport holds no information on the number of people who have been fined” and I should ask Merseyflow.
I asked Merseyflow on 6 November to tell me how many fines had been issued since the bridge opened. After further prompting by email and telephone on 4 December, I finally received verbal advice that it would not answer my question and I should put in a freedom of information request to Mersey Gateway Crossings Board.
The Liverpool Echo, as we have heard, was told on 20 November that 50,000 penalty charge notices were issued in the first month of operation. That is a suspiciously round number, but a very large one—fine income of between £l million and £3 million in one month, depending on how quickly people pay their penalty charge notices. That is all money being taken out of the Merseyside economy.
The chief executive of Halton, David Parr, who, according to the Liverpool Echo, has refused to answer a freedom of information request about what he gets paid as a director of the Mersey Gateway Crossings Board, refused to say how much money had been raised in fines. Instead, he waxed lyrical about how popular the new bridge is. It is popular to some and not to others. Operators need to be much more open and transparent about what is going on and the Government need to collect information and give it out when asked.
Does the Minister not agree that the answers to the questions about how much money has been raised in fines and how many penalty charge notices have been issued should be in the public domain? Getting answers should not be like getting blood out of a stone, particularly given that the money is coming straight out of the hard-earned cash of local people and businesses, who are struggling to find it. Should the Department not have the information, particularly given the guarantees it has given to stand behind any shortfall? Why should the details of the contract and the scheme not be published as well? The people of Merseyside have a right to know the answers to those and other questions and the Government, having insisted that Merseyside could only get this bridge if it was majority-financed by tolls, should be at the forefront of making sure that we have access to and transparency in the information, and should not be indulging in their usual trick of blaming someone else.
Many of my constituents cannot afford the extra costs imposed by the Mersey Gateway Bridge and its current tolling arrangements. There should be, and needs to be, a full reappraisal of how it works, who pays and how much should be paid, which should include looking at getting rid of tolls completely. We need that review sooner rather than later.