A private Bill promoted by Merseyside Passenger Transport Authority - which has limped through the commons for about two years and has divided north west MPs across party lines - was finally given its third reading.
However, it left the commons amid objections that the government had broken tradition and imposed a whipped vote in favour of private legislation, the Mersey Tunnels Bill. Senior MPs, including Frank Field, Labour MP for Birkenhead, and former environment minister Christopher Chope, Conservative MP for Christchurch, warned that the refusal of the Bill's promoters and parliamentary sponsors to amend the Bill in response to well-founded criticism would not be accepted in the lords.
Mr Chope attempted to amend the Bill to prevent the PTA using tunnel toll profits to subsidise the passenger transport executive's ferry services and other wider Merseyside transport services. He said this was in line with the results of a consultation carried out by Merseytravel in 2001 in which 67% of respondents were against cross-subsidisation.
Another question asked whether there should be a requirement to reduce tolls when the tunnel debt was paid off. In response, 71% said that the requirement should not be removed and only 17% said that it should be.
Mr Field, supporting Mr Chope's amendment, said that if the transport authority had not included the power to tax in the measure it would have had its Bill 'many moons ago'.
Mr Chope commented: 'When dealing with private legislation the house works best when there is a spirit of compromise. I do not understand why, disappointingly, we have not seen any of that spirit from the Bill's promoter'.
He added: 'We record our surprise that throughout the Bill's passage the government, instead of abiding by the conventions that pri vate legislation should be dealt with as unwhipped business and that honourable members should be able to decide such issues on their merits, used their majority to force the measures through. That is most regrettable, because it is unnecessary, unhelpful and does not benefit the people of Merseyside'.
Ben Chapman, Labour MP for Wirral South, said it was curious the MPTA was applying for an increase under the old finance regime at the same time as it was applying for automatic increases through the Bill.
'I have no problem with tunnel toll increases that are justified and rationalised. I do have a problem with increases that are automatic and unjustified...On that ground and others, I believe that this is a bad Bill'.
The Bill's sponsor, Claire Curtis-Thomas, Labour MP for Crosby, said she was convinced the Bill 'executes the requirements of its work with regard to consultation with a diligence for which I have a great regard'.
Surprisingly, for private legislation, there was a large turnout when it came to the vote. Mr Chope's amendment was defeated by 209 votes to 108.
Hansard 29 October 2003: Column 360 - 406