Staff safety is a priority, which is evidenced by the very significant investment that has been made.
With the greatest respect to the hon. Lady, the only thing that is unnecessary is for the PCS union to be continuing a strike that is purported to be about safety when, in fact, £4.2 million has been invested at the DVLA to make it covid- safe. An additional building has been rented. Air conditioning has been changed so that the air comes directly in from outside. Perspex screens have been put in place. Zones and bubbles have been created, and there is a very substantive clean regime. If this dispute is indeed about making sure that the building is covid-secure, then that has been achieved. What we need to know is why the demands then switched to demands about pay and demands about holiday, which have nothing to do with being covid-secure.
It is probably important that we allow those who are experts in these things to follow through. Public Health Wales has signed this off. Swansea Council’s environmental health team has signed this off. The Health and Safety Executive has signed this off. I think we should be listening to all those health experts as they decide what should happen in a site like this and are looking at the data and facts. We can then make the decision from there. I do not think there is any further excuse for preventing vulnerable people from being able to pick up the documentation that they require from the DVLA, which is the only thing this ongoing strike is now achieving.
Thank you very much, Mr Davies. I think this is the first time I have served under your chairmanship. I am sure it will be a pleasure.
Many congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden). For the entire parliamentary career of her predecessor, who was first elected in 1965, this was the dominant issue. If we look back over the years to see how we got into this position, as early as 1936, there was a Bill to build a bridge across the Severn, but to our great shame it was opposed by Newport Council, which did not want one built.
There was, however, the misery of the Beachley-Aust ferry, which I can vividly remember crossing on in the late ’50s in my Mini. I do not know whether anyone else can remember it, but it was a terrifying, nightmare experience—we were packed in such that we could not open the car doors once stuck on the ferry, which followed a zig-zag course across the turbulent waters of the Severn that were rushing past. It was an incredibly hazardous journey, but with huge queues to get on the ferry, so the people of Wales were prepared to take anything to get a bridge there and see the disappearance of the ferry.
A deal was therefore struck, but in later years it became clear that the fragility of a single crossing made a second one necessary. I do not think any Members present were in Parliament at the time, but in 1992 another deal was done. What was put in law, however, was clear. A formula was agreed and the Severn Bridges Act 1992 stated that, once the obligation was paid to the company, bridge tolls would cease. That obligation will end either this year or early next year. The bridges will come into public ownership and will be in exactly the same position as any other part of the motorway system. They should be treated accordingly, as my hon. Friend said. The Humber bridge had £150 million of debt written off, but the Severn ones need a much smaller amount, and it should be written off, making the bridges part of the national, multi-billion-pound bill for all highways. The bridges are in no way different from any other stretch of motorway.
I find the Conservative party’s treatment of the reduction in tolls distasteful. It had to come—it is in the 1992 Act that the tolls have to stop, and it would be illegal not to do so. If the Government do not stop the tolls, there will be a legal challenge, as has been suggested in the Welsh Assembly. That is the legal position. A wonderful picture in the South Wales Argus had a trinity of Tories, all grinning widely, lined up against a background of the bridges. The local MP and the Secretaries of State for Wales and for Transport were all trying to get across this confidence trick: “We’re going to lower tolls for you. We generous Tories are going to get the tolls down—they won’t be £6.70, £5.70 or even £4.70; they will be £3.70.” That was what the Government said.
Absolutely, because both those things would have a major effect. It is a matter of great regret that the Government have not been inclined to spread the very welcome electrification of the railway that far. Certainly, economic vibrancy means everything. The cost of the toll is not huge given other motoring costs that we pay—buying a car, insuring it, fuelling it—but it is a psychological barrier for Wales. It seems to be in the way, and people see it as a great disincentive to business and leisure traffic.
To get back to the trinity of Tories posed by the Severn bridge, £3.70 was the figure they were quoting. I challenged the Secretary of State for Wales about that, because he described £3.70 as a 50% cut. A well-known conclusion about opinion polls is that 50% of the population do not understand what 50% means, and we can include the Secretary of State among those people because in no brand of mathematics is £3.70 half of £6.70. The next week the new rate was announced, with the huckster, the snake-oil salesman, saying, “No, not £3.70, it’s going to be £3”—but no reason why—“or, better than that, £1.50, but, sadly, both ways.” That is how this confidence trick is being sold to the people of Wales and the west of England.
There is no case for continuing with the tolls. If the Government are going to charge £3, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East asked, how is that figure reached? In no way can all the costs be put together and multiplied, even with extra costs added here and there, to get to a figure of £3. The Welsh Affairs Committee investigated, and its figure was an absolute maximum of £1.50, which was very generous in allowing for how things would be run and all kinds of new arrangements for the TAG system. Will the Minister tell us what makes up the £3? I believe that most of the costs are for running the bridge itself—costs that would disappear if the Government abided by the Severn Bridges Act and got rid of the tolls altogether.
For 50 years, the people of south Wales and the west of England have been double taxed. As the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) said, we are all paying our taxes—we pay for roads throughout the country in the same way as everyone else does—so why on earth should we have to pay twice for our local road? The toll is almost unique now, with few others left. The Government should sweep away any debt and take the bridges into the roads spending budget.
You will remember, Mr Davies, from your reading of Welsh history and your deep knowledge of religion, this passage from Genesis, at chapter 24, verse 60:
“And they blessed Rebekah, and said unto her, Thou art our sister, be thou the mother of thousands of millions, and let thy seed possess the gate of those which hate them.”
That verse, in an interesting part of Welsh history, is the reason why the Rebecca riots started. For those less well versed in Welsh history, what happened was that between 1839 and 1843 the Hosts of Rebecca were formed, when men dressed up as Rebecca—a bit of cross-dressing, which was rather unusual at that time in that part of Wales—to charge against the toll gates and destroy them. The toll gates, owned by alien landlords, were barriers to the free movement of goods and people, so the Rebeccas destroyed them. It is time for the Hosts of Rebecca to be revived. We remember their cause, because we now have a similar situation: a Tory Government are out to disguise a rip-off as an act of generosity.
Although my hon. Friend was against HS2, I am pleased that he is already thinking about how it can benefit his area and region. I join him in his partial conversion, and I will take that as a helpful intervention.
HS2 means that businesses will be able to access new markets, drawing their employees from much wider catchment areas, and perhaps for the first time they will consider moving offices away from London. When HS2 construction begins next year, we will be building something much bigger than a new railway; we will be investing in the economic prosperity of the next half century or more, training a new generation of engineers, developing new skills for a new generation of apprentices, and rebalancing growth that for far too long has been concentrated in London and the south-east.
I am glad to say that I have made a lot more progress than was made in 13 years of the last Labour Government. To get to Swansea we must first get to Cardiff. We will get to Cardiff, and then we will get to Swansea, as has been promised—that work is on the way. The hon. Lady will travel on the Great Western line, and she will have seen all the work that has been going on. She will be a regular traveller through Reading, and she will have seen where £800 million has been spent on that scheme. We are doing a fair job in ensuring that her constituents, and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Byron Davies), who has often made the case for electrification to Swansea, will benefit from that.
I promise to be snappy, but first may I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon) on his fantastic maiden speech? It was a pleasure to be in the Chamber for it. His experience, his background, his love for his constituency and home—it all shone through in his speech. I know he will make a huge contribution to this place.
With a constituency on the border with England, one never misses an opportunity to talk about rail, yes, but about the Severn bridge tolls too, which are the subject of many questions to Transport Ministers and of many debates here. I know that this will continue until we know the Government’s plans for tolling in the future when the bridge is returned to public ownership. About 12,000 people in Newport and Monmouthshire commute to work over the bridges every day. As ably highlighted by our Front-Bench team in today’s debate, the cost of commuting has increased substantially.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I thank her for adding weight to the campaign to lower the Severn bridge tolls, which is much appreciated.
My constituents are basically trapped: they must either pay rising fail fares or the Severn bridge tolls. Commuters, as well articulated by our Front-Bench team, face ever-rising rail fares. Since 2010, season tickets for commuters have risen by 25%. Newport to London commuters face having to pay £2,000 a year more than in 2010, and the cost of travelling from Newport to Bristol Temple Meads has gone up by 27%—a £500 increase. Demand for these services is growing fast, yet we see no improvement in services. Trains are heavily overcrowded, and there are frequently not enough carriages, especially for those getting on at the Severn Tunnel junction in my constituency. I get that feedback every week: carriages are overflowing and constituents are often left on the platform when there is insufficient capacity to take them.
There is an alternative—crossing the Severn bridges, and this is probably the local issue that is raised with me most frequently. Since 2011, the bridge tolls have gone up by 20% for cars. This matters for my Newport East constituents, when those in full-time work have seen only a 2.4% increase in their wages. The fundamental point is that the money taken by the Severn River Crossing is protected from inflationary pressures, while my constituents’ wages are not.
Tolls on the Severn bridges are the most expensive in the UK. The Western Mail said a few years ago that they were the most expensive per mile in the world. I very much look forward to seeing Transport Ministers tackling that issue for my constituents. We need to know very soon what the Government’s plans are, as they affect the rail services or the Severn bridge tolls, as we reach the bridges’ return to public ownership in 2018.
I would advise those people to talk to their travel agent or tour operator in the first instance. The advice that we have set down is quite clear: we do not believe that any flights from the United Kingdom should go to Sharm el-Sheikh at this stage. That will obviously have implications in regard to certain insurance claims. We are reviewing the advice regularly.