National Alliance Against Tolls - Scottish Parliament 2004

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27 Jan 2004 - Written Answers

Kenny MacAskill(Lothians) (SNP):To ask the Scottish Executive whether the introduction of road tolls, as has been implemented in England, would be effective in Scotland; what discussions would have to be undertaken and by whom, if road tolls were to be introduced; what powers it would have not to agree to, or to seek to vary, any tolls; to whom any revenue accrued would go, and who would be responsible for the upkeep of roads with tolls.

Nicol Stephen: There are no provisions in the Transport (Scotland) Act 2001 for tolling of motorways and trunk roads and no proposals to proceed with any tolling projects in Scotland.

12 Feb 2004 - Written Answers

Des McNulty (Clydebank and Milngavie) (Lab): To ask the Scottish Executive how much, and what percentage, of money collected from tolls on the Erskine Bridge was diverted to matters not directly concerned with the management of the bridge in each of the last three years.

Nicol Stephen: Receipts from tolls collected at Erskine Bridge, along with expenditure related to the bridges, are included in the Executive's main transport programme. Latest expenditure is detailed in the Erskine Bridge accounts 2002-03 a copy of which is available in the Parliament's Reference Centre, Bib. number 30370.

Des McNulty (Clydebank and Milngavie) (Lab): To ask the Scottish Executive what the operating costs of the Erskine Bridge were in each of the last three years.

Des McNulty (Clydebank and Milngavie) (Lab): To ask the Scottish Executive what the cost of collecting the Erskine Bridge tolls was in each of the last three years.

Nicol Stephen: The information requested is detailed in the Erskine Bridge Accounts 2000-2001, 2001-02 and 2002-03, copies of which are available in the Parliament's Reference Centre, Bib. numbers 24147, 25778 and 30370 respectively.

Des McNulty (Clydebank and Milngavie) (Lab): To ask the Scottish Executive what costs are payable annually to APCOA Parking (UK) Ltd for the collection of tolls at the Erskine Bridge and what percentage of tolls collected is received by the company as a fee.

Nicol Stephen: Costs vary year on year under the terms of the toll collection contract. Costs in the current year will be 555,594 excluding VAT. These costs represent an agreed management fee under contract and are not calculated as a percentage of tolls collected.

Des McNulty (Clydebank and Milngavie) (Lab): To ask the Scottish Executive what the annual costs are to its Development Department of monitoring the implementation of the Erskine Bridge Tolls Act 1968 and the Erskine Bridge Tolls Act 2001.

Nicol Stephen: Costs vary year on year. The estimated cost in 2002-03 was 34,719.

Des McNulty (Clydebank and Milngavie) (Lab): To ask the Scottish Executive what costs were paid to Amey Highways Ltd for the management and operation of the Erskine Bridge last year and what costs were paid to local authorities for maintenance and upkeep of those access roads to the bridge for which they are responsible.

Nicol Stephen: The total paid to Amey Highways for the management and maintenance of the Erskine Bridge in 2002-03 was 461,650. Funding for local roads and bridges forms part of the general Local Government Finance Settlement.

Des McNulty (Clydebank and Milngavie) (Lab): To ask the Scottish Executive which companies received payments for the provision of services in relation to the Erskine Bridge in each of the last three years.

Nicol Stephen: The information requested is as follows:

Alliance & Leicester Building Society, Amey Highways, APCOA Parking (UK) Ltd, Astron, Audit Scotland, C Spencer Ltd, Data Controls, David Smith (Fabricators) Ltd, Fibaform, Fortoak, Parkburn Engineering, Post Office, The Stationery Office.

In addition, payments were made in 2000-01 to Clyde Local Authority Consortium.

Des McNulty (Clydebank and Milngavie) (Lab): To ask the Scottish Executive what long-term expenditure is projected for maintenance of the Erskine Bridge.

Nicol Stephen: A 4 million strengthening and upgrading programme commenced in 2002 and is expected to be completed in 2005. In addition to routine maintenance works, long term expenditure plans are set in the light of regular inspections of the bridge. Such work is likely to include repainting, resurfacing and structural works but it is not currently possible to estimate the timing or costs of such works.

Des McNulty (Clydebank and Milngavie) (Lab): To ask the Scottish Executive whether it estimates that total expenditure on maintenance of the Erskine Bridge will total more that 1.1 billion over the next 90 years.

Nicol Stephen: The need for maintenance is identified from inspections. This enables maintenance to be planned on a rational basis. Most major maintenance does not follow a fixed cycle and it is therefore not possible to predict accurately the maintenance costs over a 90 year period.

Des McNulty (Clydebank and Milngavie) (Lab): To ask the Scottish Executive what studies have been undertaken to examine the impact of the elimination of Erskine Bridge tolls on congestion on other Clyde crossings.

Nicol Stephen: The Executive has not conducted any studies into the potential impact of removing tolls at Erskine.

12 Feb 2004 - Debate - Erskine Bridge Tolls

Jackie Baillie (Dumbarton) (Lab): To ask the Scottish Executive when it will remove tolls from the Erskine bridge.

Deputy Minister for Finance and Public Services (Tavish Scott): The Executive has no plans to remove tolls from the Erskine bridge, but the matter will be considered as part of the review of existing bridge tolls in Scotland.

Jackie Baillie: The minister will be aware that the tolls were established under the Erskine Bridge Tolls Act 1968 to pay for construction of the bridge. Given that we have now paid for the bridge's construction not just once, but five times over, will the minister recognise the significant economic, environmental and social benefit that would be gained by removing the tolls, and will he encourage his colleague, Minister for Transport, to remove the tolls from the Erskine bridge, once and for all?

Tavish Scott: Jackie Baillie will be familiar with the terms of the partnership agreement, which states:

"We will improve access for our ... communities by ... Reviewing existing bridge tolls in Scotland".

It is important that, in the review that will shortly be under way, we consider the issues that Jackie Baillie raises and all the issues that will be raised in relation both to the specific issues of bridges and to the Executive's plans for the new transport authority and regional partnerships. It is too early to determine when that review will be finished, but Minister for Transport will make an announcement-

Members: In due course.

Tavish Scott:-in due course.

Des McNulty (Clydebank and Milngavie) (Lab): The minister will be well aware of previous representations that I and my colleague Trish Godman have made regarding the socioeconomic impact of tolls on the Erskine bridge, which runs between our constituencies. Will the minister work with the relevant local and national agencies to quantify the positive impact that removal of the tolls would have on West Dunbartonshire and Renfrewshire? Will he also ask his officials to investigate the effect that removal of the tolls would have on congestion at the Clyde tunnel and the Kingston bridge? Surely removal of tolls on the Erskine bridge would represent even better value for money than the Executive's investment in the M74 extension.

Tavish Scott: Mr McNulty raises a number of important issues that I will be happy to bring to the attention of my officials and of Minister for Transport. Such issues and the detailed socioeconomic arguments that he has put forward will certainly be part of the review, when it takes place

27 Feb 2004 - Written Answers

Des McNulty (Clydebank and Milngavie) (Lab): To ask the Scottish Executive whether the 13,712,663 accumulated surplus identified in the Erskine Bridge accounts for 2000-01 is consistent with section 4(2) of the Erskine Bridge Tolls Act 1968.

Holding answer issued: 13 February 2004

Nicol Stephen: Yes. Audit Scotland have certified that the 2000-2001 accounts were properly prepared in accordance with Erskine Bridge Tolls Act 1968.

4 Mar 2004 - Debate - Erskine Bridge (Tolls)

Trish Godman (West Renfrewshire) (Lab): To ask the Scottish Executive whether there are any plans to allow for the suspension of tolls on the Erskine bridge during the period when the Clyde tunnel is under repair.

Minister for Transport (Nicol Stephen): There are no current plans to suspend tolls on the Erskine bridge.

Trish Godman: I thank the minister, but his answer was less than helpful. I remind him that, from day one of the Parliament, Des McNulty and I have been asking for the tolls to be lifted. Other Members, including Jackie Baillie, have done the same. What has the ministers' response been? There will be no lifting of the tolls despite the fact that the bridge has paid for itself. There will be no financial support for Glasgow City Council when it has to upgrade the Clyde tunnel. When does the minister expect to receive the report of the group that is reviewing tolls on bridges all over Scotland? An answer of, "Some time soon," will not be acceptable.

Nicol Stephen: I hope to receive the report quicker than that-it will be later this year. I realise the importance of the wider review to all the toll bridges in Scotland. We will make early progress on the review and that is a clear commitment from the partnership agreement.

With regard to the points that Trish Godman raises, the works that are being carried out are related to new safety regulations and to the fire that took place in the Mont Blanc tunnel.

It is important that the work goes ahead as soon as possible. It will start on 19 April, last approximately 57 weeks and end in mid-May 2005. At no stage will the tunnel be shut completely and all the works will be carried out overnight from 7 pm until 6 am. During that night-time period, a contraflow system will be in operation in the other section of the tunnel. The work will not affect daytime traffic.

Tolls on the Erskine bridge have been suspended on previous occasions. There were three such occasions, but that was when the Kingston bridge was closed fully for periods of greater than 24 hours. That is the justification for the current position. If there were to be any change to that position, powers would require to be taken through some temporary suspension of tolls order. We have no such order in place at present.

Des McNulty (Clydebank and Milngavie) (Lab): The minister has said repeatedly that dealing with congestion is at the top of his agenda of priorities. Does he understand the frustration that people in the west of Scotland feel, given that the Kingston bridge and the Clyde tunnel are the major congestion pinch points with which we have to deal? Removing the tolls from the Erskine bridge would present a third option to people who have to cross the river. In the context of an almost 60 per cent increase in investment in transport since 1999, it makes absolute sense to stop penalising the people in the west of Glasgow and West Dunbartonshire by continuing to impose those tolls when we could improve economic infrastructure, reduce congestion and deal with what is seen as a great annoyance at a stroke.

Nicol Stephen: I accept fully the importance of the matter and the fact that it is of regional significance. That is why we are setting up the Scottish transport agency and why we intend to give greater powers and statutory strength to regional transport partnerships so that we are better able to tackle major public transport, roads and bridges issues of regional or strategic significance in Scotland. We will produce a white paper on that subject soon. We are progressing with the tolls review. We are doing a lot of work to address the problems that Members have raised today. I give them a final commitment that we will make progress on those problems in the coming months.

9 Mar 2004 - Written Answers

Jackie Baillie (Dumbarton) (Lab): To ask the Scottish Executive what the remit, Membership and work programme will be of the review group set up to consider tolls on Scottish bridges.

Nicol Stephen: I am currently considering these matters and will make an announcement in due course.

18 Mar 2004 - Written Answers

Jim Mather (Highlands and Islands) (SNP): To ask the Scottish Executive how much was collected in tolls on the Skye Bridge in 2002-03.

Nicol Stephen: Total tolls collected on the Skye Bridge in the financial year 2002-03 amounted to 3,960,852.

22 Apr 2004 - Debate - Tolled Bridges (Review)

Helen Eadie (Dunfermline East) (Lab): To ask the Scottish Executive when it intends to start the review of tolled bridges referred to in "A Partnership for a Better Scotland".

Minister for Transport (Nicol Stephen): Preparations for the review are at an advanced stage and I will make an announcement on the remit and programme for taking forward this work in due course.

Helen Eadie: In light of the calls for removal of the tolls on the Skye and Erskine bridges, will the minister have regard to the fact that the capital costs of building the Forth road bridge were repaid in 1996? Will he further note the economic situation in Fife, where the level of unemployment in central Fife is acute and is higher than in many other parts of Scotland? As one of the solutions to the problem, will he hear my call for the Forth road bridge tolls to be abolished as an outcome of the review? Will he join me in welcoming the news that the Scottish Trades Union Congress yesterday agreed a motion calling for another multimodal crossing over or under the Forth?

Nicol Stephen: All those issues will certainly be taken into consideration as part of the review. I met representatives of FETA-the Forth Estuary Transport Authority, which is responsible for the bridge-to discuss the pressures that it faces and to encourage it to develop proposals for the crossing over the coming months.
It would be wrong for me to signal the removal of tolls on any of the bridges that will be included in the review, particularly the Forth bridge. The toll on that bridge is being increased from 80p to 1 and I know that that funding is crucial to FETA's future plans in relation to the maintenance of the bridge. The structure is around 40 years old and will require significant maintenance and investment over the coming decades. We will require to consider that matter, too, as part of the review.

Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green): Does the minister agree that a study into yet another Forth road bridge is a waste of resources and that we should focus on upgrading the existing infrastructure, starting with the signalling on the Forth rail bridge and finishing with the opening of stations at Methil, Leven and St Andrews?

Nicol Stephen: I agree there are significant shorter-term measures that we can take, such as the introduction of the Stirling-Alloa-Kincardine line, which will take pressure off the Forth rail bridge and allow us to upgrade to improve services to Fife. In relation to our longer-term view of the Forth crossing, which is vital for Scotland, I would like to see the balance of investment swing towards public transport and better public transport services for that crossing, but it would be wrong at this stage to rule out any of the options for the future.

20 May 2004 - Debate - Skye Bridge Tolls

John Farquhar Munro (Ross, Skye and Inverness West) (LD): To ask the Scottish Executive whether it has assessed the impact of Skye bridge tolls on the tourism industry of Skye and Lochalsh.

Minister for Tourism, Culture and Sport (Mr Frank McAveety): There has been no specific assessment of the impact of Skye Bridge tolls on the tourism industry of Skye and Lochalsh, but we have not seen any evidence of visitors to the island being discouraged by tolls.

John Farquhar Munro: I am sure that the minister is aware that tourism and related activities are the main economic planks of Skye and Lochalsh. As we approach the coming tourism season, will the minister encourage his Cabinet colleagues to honour the commitment in the partnership agreement to remove the discredited toll regime from the Skye bridge, in order to support the area's economy?

Mr McAveety: As the member is aware, we are in discussions and negotiations about how to deal with the Skye bridge toll regime. That issue forms part of the broader discussions that I, along with fellow Cabinet ministers such as the Minister for Finance and Public Services, will need to have in the near future. Between 2001 and 2002, traffic across the bridge increased by 8 per cent. Since 1996, traffic across the bridge has increased by 17 per cent. There is still an opportunity. I am sure that the member agrees that the fundamental issue is that we increase opportunities for tourism in Skye and Lochalsh by continuing to make progress on investing in the marketing of Scottish tourism, both nationally and internationally. We hope that in that way tourism investment in the economy-about which the member is right to care passionately-can be delivered.

Rob Gibson (Highlands and Islands) (SNP): That is an interesting reply. Given that last year the minister made it known that 27 million in bridge tolls had been collected and that the terms of the tolling licence, which were to collect 23.64 million at 1990 prices, may now have been fulfilled, what is his response to the opinion of Mark Poustie, professor of law at Strathclyde University, that there is now "doubt regarding the lawfulness of the continued collection of tolls by the concessionaire"?

Mr McAveety: That question does not fall within my ministerial responsibility. I am sure that the Executive ministers responsible are addressing the concerns to which the member refers. The critical issue is how we deliver on both the partnership commitment that has been mentioned and the partnership commitment on tourism. The evidence of the past few months suggests that the new money that has been injected into Scottish tourism will benefit the Skye and Lochalsh area and, I am sure, its inhabitants.

Alasdair Morrison (Western Isles) (Lab): As the minister knows, the cost of crossing the bridge was frozen in December 1999 and it will never increase-that is thanks to the Executive's intervention and it obviously benefits both locals and tourists. An issue that is constantly raised by my constituents, and indeed by tourists, is that books of tickets are valid for only one year. Given that the price will not increase, will the minister consider discussing with Minister for Transport a change to the rules to allow books of tickets to be valid for two years?

Mr McAveety: I am happy to take that matter up with the minister who has responsibility for it. We can address those broad issues, but I welcome the initial comments in the member's contribution. We have made substantial inroads in relation to the cost-effectiveness of the bridge tolls, and our ambition is to assess the future viability of tolls, not just on the Skye bridge, but elsewhere in Scotland.

21 May 2004 - Written Answers - Skye Bridge

Carolyn Leckie (Central Scotland) (SSP): To ask the Scottish Executive whether 23.64 million, the agreed cost of the Skye Bridge at July 1990 prices, has been collected in tolls and, if not, when it estimates that this figure will be reached.

Nicol Stephen: The agreed costs have not yet been recovered through tolling. Information on this issue and the detailed terms of the contract itself, are now the subject of commercially confidential negotiations with Skye Bridge Limited, with a view to ending the discredited toll regime for the Skye Bridge.

Carolyn Leckie (Central Scotland) (SSP): To ask the Scottish Executive by what statutory authority it permits the charging of road tolls on the A87 at the Plock of Kyle and how this is consistent with the prohibition on tolling in Inverness-shire granted by William I, King of Scots, in perpetuity in 1180.

Nicol Stephen: The power to charge tolls at the Skye Bridge is set out in section 27 of the New Roads and Street Works Act 1991, and is implemented by The Invergarry - Kyle of Lochalsh Trunk Road (A87) Extension (Skye Bridge Crossing) Toll Order 1992. The interpretation and application of a Royal Charter of 1180 in the light of these more recent powers is a matter for the courts.

Carolyn Leckie (Central Scotland) (SSP): To ask the Scottish Executive, given that only the road authority or a concessionaire with lawfully assigned powers might properly charge and collect tolls, on what statutory basis other organisations are permitted to charge tolls on the Skye Bridge.

Nicol Stephen: No other organisations are permitted to charge tolls on the Skye Bridge.

Jim Mather (Highlands and Islands) (SNP): To ask the Scottish Executive whether it can confirm that William I, King of Scots, by royal charter declared a prohibition in perpetuity on tolling in Inverness-shire and Moray in 1180 and that this declaration is protected by the terms of Article 21 of the Act of Union 1707, concerning the rights of royal burghs, and has never been repealed.

Nicol Stephen: The question of whether such a charter is still in force and its effects, interpretation and application is a matter for the courts to determine.

3 Jun 2004 - Written Answers

Ted Brocklebank (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con): To ask the Scottish Executive what consultations or reviews it (a) has conducted, (b) is conducting and (c) plans in relation to tolls on the Forth Road Bridge and the Tay Road Bridge.

Holding answer issued: 25 May 2004

Nicol Stephen: The Executive is committed to reviewing existing bridge tolls in Scotland, including those at the Forth Road and Tay Road Bridges. I shall make an announcement on the terms of reference of the review in due course.

Ted Brocklebank (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con): To ask the Scottish Executive whether it plans to introduce discounts for regular users of the Tay Road Bridge.

Holding answer issued: 26 May 2004

Nicol Stephen: The level of tolls and any discounts offered are, in the first instance, a matter for the Tay Road Bridge Joint Board, which owns and operates the Tay Road Bridge.

Ted Brocklebank (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con): To ask the Scottish Executive whether it plans to increase discounts for regular users of the Forth Road Bridge.

Holding answer issued: 26 May 2004

Nicol Stephen: The level of tolls and any discounts offered are, in the first instance, a matter for the Forth Estuary Transport Authority (FETA), which owns and operates the Forth Road Bridge. FETA currently offers discounts to drivers of cars, light goods and heavy goods vehicles.

3 June 2004 - Debate - Skye Bridge

John Farquhar Munro (Ross, Skye and Inverness West) (LD): As the minister is dealing with transport in his speech, does he accept that one of the main impediments to the economy of the Highlands and Islands is the tolls that are charged on the Skye bridge? Would he care to indicate when we might see the end of that discredited toll regime?

Mr Wallace: I wonder how I anticipated that question. I am sure that John Farquhar Munro would agree that Skye has had a good economic success story over recent times. However, I reaffirm and reassure Members and John Farquhar Munro that the Executive is committed to ending the discredited tolling regime on the Skye bridge. Professional advisers have been appointed and discussions with Skye Bridge Ltd have already begun. Having conferred with Minister for Transport on the issue in anticipation of such a question, I believe that we can achieve our goal by the end of this year.

Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green): ...I welcome the Executive's announcement today that the Skye bridge tolls will be removed, not soon or in due course, but by the end of the year. I congratulate the Executive on actually setting a timescale. Surely the bridge represents one of the worst excesses of free market globalisation and I say to Murdo Fraser that I see no reason why we should build any more bridges in Scotland under similar arrangements.

3 June 2004 - Debate - Edinburgh Toll

David McLetchie: I hope that the Cabinet will consider tolls and taxes on our motorists. I wonder whether I can explore with First Minister an answer that he gave to Mr Swinney a few minutes ago. Do I take it from First Minister's remarks on a referendum in Edinburgh on so-called congestion charging or tolls that First Minister favours that proposal and the introduction of a 2 a day charge on motorists coming into our city? How does he reconcile his position with the whole-hearted opposition to the tolls that has been expressed by every Labour council that surrounds Edinburgh? Midlothian Council, West Lothian Council, East Lothian Council and Fife Council have all recognised that our motorists are paying quite enough, thank you, and that they do not need any further encouragement or additions from First Minister or the Scottish Executive?

First Minister: Mr McLetchie will know that we cannot, as an Executive, take a position on that issue until nearer the time, when we will be asked to take a formal position on it. Therefore, we are careful about what we say about the specific proposals that will go to a referendum in Edinburgh. What has been important all along, however, is our insistence that the City of Edinburgh Council test public opinion in the city and that that become part of the final decision-making process.

Let us also be very clear about this: we cannot sit in the chamber month after month and year after year-as we have done over the past five years-and talk about reducing car use, which every party in here has done, about protecting the environment, which every party in here has done, about reducing congestion, which every party in here has done, but then not be brave enough to take the measures that might actually reduce congestion and deal with protection of the environment, which we all seek. That will mean that Scotland must at some point face up to the issue of charging on some of our roads. That will be the right thing for us to do. It will be the right thing in the right local circumstances. When somebody locally is brave enough to do it, we should back them and not just score points by opposing them.

David McLetchie: First Minister seems to be swinging all over the place. First, he tells Mr Swinney that basically he backs tolls, then he tells us that the Scottish Executive cannot take a position on the matter because the matter has to come to the Executive for a decision. He then rounds off his remarks by saying that he is in favour of the tolls again. So what is it? First Minister should appreciate that people in Scotland are sick of the high levels of taxes that we pay-we pay the highest fuel taxes in Europe, thanks to Gordon Brown. The primary responsibility for the price of petrol is not with OPEC or the Sheik of Araby; it is with the Kirkcaldy con man, Gordon Brown. That is the fact of the matter.
The Scottish Executive, with its support for tolls and congestion charging, is compounding the problem for our motorists in the city and making life difficult for our motorists and hauliers in rural communities. Will First Minister finally take the opportunity to fight the increasing tax burden on Scotland's road users and tell the chancellor that enough is enough? While he is at it, will First Minister reject the absurd tolls plan that has no friends in Edinburgh or anywhere else in Scotland?

First Minister: I am happy to deal with both issues as one question and in one answer. No, I will not do as Mr McLetchie asked. I believe that the chancellor should examine fuel duty after the outcome of the international negotiations. If those produce a reduction in the price of oil, that reduction will be more sustainable and will be much more significant for Scottish road users and for the road haulage industry in Scotland than will simply taking away the 1.92p September increase. If the international negotiations are not successful, the chancellor should of course examine that increase.
On tolls, can we just be clear about this? Mr McLetchie is happy to quote a few Labour-run councils on the outskirts of Edinburgh that have commented on the tolls scheme, but he did not mention the fact that the Scottish Borders Council, in which the Tories are the largest political party, has not rejected the scheme for Edinburgh. I presume that that is because the council realises that there is a serious issue that has to be dealt with. We in Scotland have to be aware that, if people in London are prepared to run a scheme that is a success, are brave enough to make the difficult decision to do that and have been able to win public support for it, at some time, somewhere in Scotland, somebody has to do something about city congestion. Whether it is proposed in Edinburgh, Glasgow or Aberdeen or on our motorways, I am prepared to consider those options and to put the environment and the long-term interests of Scotland's car users first.

8 Jun 2004 - Written Answers

Jim Mather (Highlands and Islands) (SNP): To ask the Scottish Executive what its response is to the opinion of Professor Mark Poustie, Professor of Law at Strathclyde University, that there is now doubt regarding the legality of the continued collection of tolls at the Skye Bridge by the concessionaire in light of the information from Minister for Transport last year that 27 million had been collected and that subsequent toll collection could now have fulfilled the terms of the tolling licence by collecting 23.64 million at 1990 prices.

The member has provided the following Gaelic translation:
A dh' fhaighneachd de Riaghaltas na h-Alba, dè an fhreagairt a tha aige do bheachd an Àrd-ollaimh Mark Poustie, Àrd-ollamh Lagha ann an Oilthigh Shrath Chluaidh, gu bheil mì-chinnt a-nis ann air laghalachd nan cìsean a tha an Neach-togail-chìsean fhathast a' cruinneachadh air Drochaid an Eilean Sgitheanaich, às dèidh do Mhinistear na Còmhdhail ainmeachadh an-uiridh gun deach 27 millean a chruinneachadh, agus gum b' urrainn do na cìsean a chaidh a thogail bhon uairsin a bhith air cumhachan a' chunnraidh airson nan cìsean a choilionadh às dèidh dhaibh airgead a chruinneachadh a tha luach 23.64 millean aig prìsean 1990.

Nicol Stephen: I refer the member to the answer given to question S2W-8105 on 25 May 2004. All answers to written parliamentary questions are available on the Parliament's website.

The Scottish Executive has provided the following translation:
Tha mi airson aire a' bhuill a thoirt chun fhreagairt a chaidh a thoirt do cheist S2W-08105, 25/4/2004. Tha freagairtean nan CP sgrìobhte rim faotainn air làrach-lìn na Pàrlamaid, agus lorgar an goireas-rannsachaidh aig.

10 Jun 2004 - Written Answers

Carolyn Leckie (Central Scotland) (SSP): To ask the Scottish Executive, further to the answer to question S2W-8107 by Nicol Stephen on 21 May 2004, on what statutory basis organisations, other than the road authority or a concessionaire with lawfully assigned powers, are permitted to demand or collect tolls on the Skye Bridge.

Nicol Stephen: No other organisations are permitted to demand or collect tolls on the Skye Bridge unless operating as contractors or agents.

Carolyn Leckie (Central Scotland) (SSP): To ask the Scottish Executive, further to the answer to question S2W-8105 by Nicol Stephen on 21 May 2004, in what sense it considers the toll regime for the Skye Bridge to be "discredited."

Nicol Stephen: Ministers regard the toll regime for the Skye Bridge to be "discredited" in every sense.

16 Jun 2004 - Debate - Transport

Minister for Transport (Nicol Stephen): In the context of the new national and regional transport arrangements, we also intend to carry out a two-phase review of our toll bridges. The review will examine all Scotland's toll bridges-Skye, Erskine, Tay and Forth-and we expect to have completed the first phase by the autumn of this year, with the overall review completed by summer 2005. The first phase will assess all existing tolls, including the way in which changes to tolls could help to achieve our environmental and economic objectives of reducing pollution and congestion. The second phase will include an examination of the broader issues of the management, operation and maintenance of the bridges.
We have already made it clear that we are committed to ending the discredited toll regime on the Skye bridge. Professional advisers have been appointed, discussions with Skye Bridge Ltd have begun and I believe that we can achieve that goal by the end of this year.

Jackie Baillie (Dumbarton) (Lab): I welcome the minister's announcement about the toll bridges review group. Along with Trish Godman and Des McNulty, I hope that he will encourage the group to consider closely the Erskine bridge-another of Scotland's most discredited toll regimes. The minister will be aware that the tolls were introduced for the sole purpose of paying for the construction of the bridge some three decades ago. He will also be aware that we have now paid for the bridge not once, not twice, but five times over. Unlike other bridges, it is one that the Executive owns. Can we look forward to early action being taken on removing the tolls from the Erskine bridge?

Nicol Stephen: Those will be key considerations for us in relation to the bridges review.

Jackie Baillie: Yes or no?

Nicol Stephen: The short answer is yes. There are, however, issues to do with the cost of the maintenance of our bridges and, as I said in my statement, we have to consider economic and environmental issues. I give Members the commitment that all the issues will be fairly assessed in the bridges review.

Helen Eadie (Dunfermline East) (Lab): How will the minister address the issues that Des McNulty highlighted earlier about deprivation? As Des McNulty said, Fife is one of the areas with particularly high unemployment. Will the minister look at the economic issues as well as the transportation issues when he comes to prioritise matters such as whether there will be a new Forth road bridge? As I crossed the bridge this morning, the traffic going towards Fife was queueing all the way back to Newton-a distance of 6 or 7 miles. Will he give that problem some priority? I welcome the review of tolls in Scotland and I hope that Fife will be included in that.

Nicol Stephen: Economic opportunities are absolutely central to the white paper to ensure that areas of deprivation have access to good-quality communications and that we have linkages between where people sTay and where they can gain employment. That is crucial to our future transport strategy.
In relation to the proposals for the Forth road bridge and an additional crossing, we have proposals for a second bridge at Kincardine. We have encouraged the Forth Estuary Transport Authority, which is responsible for the Forth road bridge, to think about the longer-term opportunities for a new bridge. We await its consultancy proposals and recommendations with interest.

29 Jun 2004 - Written Answers

Fergus Ewing (Inverness East, Nairn and Lochaber) (SNP): To ask the Scottish Executive which consultants are advising it in relation to the Skye Bridge PFI buy-out; whether it has set any date by which the consultants must report to it; whether negotiations with the Skye Bridge Company have commenced and when they expect them to be concluded; whether it will then complete the purchase of the owners' rights under the PFI, and whether it will hold a public inquiry into the issues raised and, if so, whether all documents will be made public giving the reasons for its position on this issue.

Nicol Stephen: The Executive has engaged Commerzbank AG to identify and analyse options to end the Skye Bridge tolls. In addition, JMP Consultants is providing technical advice and Scott Wilson Scotland is providing traffic analysis. We are taking all of this work forward as a priority, and have received a number of reports to date.
Discussions with Skye Bridge Limited have begun. Our aim is to end the discredited toll regime by the end of the year.
We have no current plans to hold a public inquiry or to make the relevant documents public. Decisions on such matters will be taken at a later date.

8 Sep 2004 - Debate - Scottish Executive's Programme

Scott Barrie (Dunfermline West) (Lab): .....If we are serious about providing realistic alternatives to the people who travel by car over the Forth bridge, convenient, clean and comfortable public transport needs to be provided. Higher bridge tolls and congestion charging alone will not stop motorists. The Ferry Toll park and ride scheme and new bus lanes have improved bus travel to and from Edinburgh, but that needs to be built on. This week, Fife Council agreed that a new ferry link across the Forth between central Fife and north Edinburgh was a viable option and I hope that other Members, especially Minister for Transport, would welcome such a link as a valuable addition to travel across the Forth estuary.....

Jackie Baillie (Dumbarton) (Lab): ......I would like the Executive to do two things. It should remove economic barriers that hamper the flow of people and businesses by abolishing tolls on the Erskine bridge. I know that that is supported by at least two of Presiding Officers and by my colleague Des McNulty.....

16 Sep 2004 - Written Answers

Scott Barrie (Dunfermline West) (Lab): To ask the Scottish Executive what its position is on reviewing bridge tolls.

Nicol Stephen: We have stated in our partnership agreement that we are committed to reviewing existing tolls on the Erskine, Forth, Skye and Tay road bridges. The review is being carried out in two phases. The first phase will deal with existing tolls including the way they help achieve environmental objectives. The 2nd phase will look at the management of the tolled bridges in the context of the partnership commitment to establishing Transport Scotland and Regional Transport Partnerships as set out in our transport white paper - Scotland's transport future.
Work on the review is well advanced and I expect to receive a report on the 1st phase of the review this autumn

6 October 2004 - Debate - Skye Bridge

John Farquhar Munro (Ross, Skye and Inverness West) (LD): To ask the Scottish Executive when it will review the criminal convictions of Skye bridge protesters convicted of refusing to pay the bridge toll, in light of the European Union ruling that the toll is a service charge, not a tax.

Minister for Justice (Cathy Jamieson): It is not for the Scottish Executive to review criminal convictions. If a person considers that he or she has been wrongly convicted of a criminal offence, they may appeal against that conviction to the High Court of Justiciary acting in its capacity as the court of criminal appeal. If all appeal avenues have been exhausted, they may take their case to the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission, which will consider whether a case should be referred back to the appeal court.

John Farquhar Munro: The minister will be aware that the protesters were wrongly charged and were given a criminal conviction for refusing to pay a tax, but it has been decreed that the toll is, in fact, a service charge and subject to VAT. Accordingly, the matter is a civil matter in any court of law. What steps does the Executive propose to take to quash the convictions? Would it not be more appropriate to prevent further legal confusion by abolishing the tolls immediately?

Cathy Jamieson: I can do no better than refer back to previous answers that have been given by Minister for Transport, who has answered a number of questions on the matter and has stated how the Executive intends to deal with the Skye bridge tolls.

28 October 2004 - Debate - Edinburgh & General

Murdo Fraser (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con): To ask the Scottish Executive what the economic impact on Fife would be of Edinburgh introducing road tolls.

Minister for Transport (Nicol Stephen): The City of Edinburgh Council has not yet finalised its draft charging order or submitted it to ministers. Due to the Scottish ministers' statutory role in relation to the order, it would be inappropriate for me to comment further at this time.

Murdo Fraser: I will try to tease something out of the minister. Is he aware that many people who live in Fife commute in daily to make a valuable contribution to the Edinburgh economy and that for many of them public transport is not a suitable alternative? Does he consider it acceptable that under Edinburgh's proposals people who live in North Queensferry will have to pay a toll to enter the city while people who live in South Queensferry-who cause every bit as much congestion-will get off scot free? Will the minister make the strongest representation to the City of Edinburgh Council that that discrimination against Fifers is completely unacceptable?

Nicol Stephen: I am aware of the views of Fife Council, for example, on the issue and I am aware of the work that has been done to analyse the impact that a road user charge would have on businesses in Fife. All that I can do at this stage is assure Murdo Fraser that if a road user charging scheme is submitted in due course to Scottish ministers the views of businesses and local communities in Fife will be taken into consideration when Scottish ministers reach a view on the proposal.

Scott Barrie (Dunfermline West) (Lab): My views on the unfairness of the detail of Edinburgh's tolling proposals are well known. In the context of the possible economic impact on Fife, does the minister agree that there might be an opportunity to attract businesses to locate or relocate north of the Forth, where charges would not apply? That might have the twin benefits of decreasing unemployment rates in Fife and cutting down commuter traffic on the Forth road bridge.

Nicol Stephen: I agree that all those issues need to be carefully considered. That includes the issue that Scott Barrie fairly raised and the interaction between the toll on the Forth road bridge and any road user toll. Ministers will consider those issues in due course, but we have made it clear that under the powers for road user charging in the Transport (Scotland) Act 2001, if a local authority wishes to propose such a scheme, Scottish ministers will be willing to consent if the scheme is reasonable and appropriate and there is clear evidence of local support for it. We must examine this particular scheme in due course; our options are to reject it, to approve it or to amend it and we have powers to do any of those things.

Bruce Crawford (Mid Scotland and Fife) (SNP): I hope that today the minister will at least confirm that he is aware of the deep hostility that exists in Fife, particularly among businesses, because of the impact on the Fife economy. Is he aware that businesses in Fife are screaming about the drain on their bottom line that is the daily nightmare of travel across the Forth estuary? Is the minister planning a new bridge, the introduction of new ferry services or additional park-and-ride facilities? People in Fife simply want to know whether the Scottish Government has the vision and courage to start making decisions. Fife businesses can wait no longer for decisions to be made. For instance, building a new bridge will take 10 to 15 years.

Presiding Officer: Question.

Bruce Crawford: When will the minister act? When will he tell the people of Fife what is planned?

Presiding Officer: That was pretty wide of tolls, but Mr Stephen may answer as he will.

Nicol Stephen: We are anxious about congestion levels throughout Scotland. As Members know, most of the transport budget used to be spent on roads, but the budget was small-it was just over 300 million per year in 1999, when the Parliament was established. The transport budget is now somewhere over 900 million a year and will rise to 1.4 billion a year by 2007-08. A considerable amount of that budget will be spent on public transport initiatives. The simple answer is that I want better public transport, better park-and-ride schemes and better rail connections throughout Scotland. The Executive is investing in exactly that.

Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green): Does the minister agree that we must tackle congestion, in part through congestion charging? Congestion has a twin negative impact on the quality of life and the economy for people in Fife and the Lothians. Will he rule out a second Forth road bridge, which would only add to congestion in Fife and the Lothians while gobbling up all the Executive's transport budget, which needs to be spent on public transport alternatives to take people out of the traffic jams that are causing a lot of damage to our economy and quality of life?

Nicol Stephen: We must tackle congestion, which is an increasing problem in Scotland. It has a major impact on people and communities and has a significant impact on business. One issue on which business lobbies all ministers is the need for transport infrastructure improvements, which I am determined to deliver. To get rid of congestion, improve the situation and make transport connections flow, I rule out no approach. It is important to examine all the options.

1 Dec 2004 - Written Answer

S2W-12350 - Mary Scanlon (Highlands and Islands) (Con) : To ask the Scottish Executive how much compensation will require to be paid to Skye Bridge Ltd when tolls are abolished on 31 December 2004.

Answered by Nicol Stephen (1 December 2004): The Executive is committed to ending the discredited tolling regime on Skye Bridge and has entered negotiations with Skye Bridge Ltd. These negotiations are commercially confidential, and any further comment would be inappropriate at this time.

16 Dec 2004 - Debate - Forth Estuary (Travel)

Nicol Stephen: Those are matters for the Forth Estuary Transport Authority. I meet the authority and the bridgemaster regularly. They are doing a lot of good work and are looking to the long term. As Keith Raffan knows, they are considering whether there should be another crossing of the Forth estuary. They are also examining ways of managing the traffic on the bridge through measures such as tolls that vary according to the time of day people cross the bridge and according to whether a vehicle has a single occupant. About 70 per cent of the vehicles that cross the bridge have single occupants, so there is real potential to reduce congestion on the bridge through innovative new measures.

21 Dec 2004 - Written Answer

S2W-12790 - John Farquhar Munro (Ross, Skye and Inverness West) (LD) : To ask the Scottish Executive when it will end Skye Bridge tolls.

Holding reply by Nicol Stephen (17 December 2004): I shall reply to the member as soon as possible.

Answered by Nicol Stephen (21 December 2004): I am pleased to announce that, following the successful conclusion of negotiations with Skye Bridge Ltd, tolls will be removed from the Skye Bridge as of today.

22 Dec 2004 - Debate -Congestion Charging Scheme Referenda

Deputy Presiding Officer (Murray Tosh): The final item of business is a Members' business debate on motion S2M-2175, in the name of David McLetchie, on congestion charging scheme referenda. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,
That the Parliament congratulates West Lothian Council for agreeing to hold a consultative referendum on the City of Edinburgh Council's congestion charging scheme and for setting a question which conforms with the guidelines issued by the Electoral Commission and regrets that the City of Edinburgh Council, in its referendum, has proposed for answer a question which does not conform with these guidelines and intends to circulate an information leaflet with the ballot paper which will not include statements from parties opposed to the scheme.

David McLetchie (Edinburgh Pentlands) (Con): Next February, referenda are scheduled to be held in Edinburgh and West Lothian to consult residents on whether they approve of the congestion charging scheme that has been proposed by City of Edinburgh Council. It is a matter of regret to me that Midlothian Council, East Lothian Council and Fife Council are not holding referenda on the same day. Many tens of thousands of residents in those areas commute to Edinburgh on a regular, if not daily, basis for work or social purposes. They will pay dearly if the congestion charging scheme goes ahead, although they will receive little in return through public transport improvements. This would have been an opportunity to assess opinion across the area as a whole.
The referendum plan in Edinburgh was born out of blind political panic following a by-election in the Balerno ward of my constituency in September 2002, when the Labour vote completely and utterly collapsed. The referendum was devised partly to save Iain Gray's political career, and partly to defuse the controversy about road tolls as a council election issue in May 2003 and save the seats of the majority group of Labour councillors. As I know better than most, the strategy was only partially successful.
Whatever the origins, we should all acknowledge that all parties now support the use of referenda to decide issues of local and national significance. In recognition of that, the independent Electoral Commission has produced guidelines for assessing the fairness of the all-important question to be asked in any referendum. In summary, the guidelines say first that the question "should be clear" and "prompt an immediate response". They go on to say: "Words and phrases ... should not have positive or negative connotations. ... Words and phrases ... should not be leading" or "loaded", "should not contain jargon" and "should reflect the language used and understood by the voter".
Finally, the guidelines point out that questions "should not provide too much information ... should not be too long" and "should be well structured".
Let us apply those tests to the questions that will be put in the West Lothian Council and City of Edinburgh Council referenda. In West Lothian, the question is:
"Are you in favour of City of Edinburgh Council's congestion charging scheme?"
I submit that that yes or no question is readily understood, straightforward and clear-cut and uses neutral language.
The contrast with the Edinburgh question could not be greater. Members will have to bear with me as I read it out, because it will take some time. The question reads:
"The leaflet enclosed with this ballot paper gives information on the Council's transport proposals for Edinburgh. The Council's 'preferred' strategy includes congestion charging and increased transport investment funded by it. Do you support the Council's 'preferred' strategy?"
The question is not just about congestion charging; it is about a transport strategy. It is certainly not readily understood in its own terms, because it requires reference to a leaflet and familiarity with what on earth the so-called preferred strategy is. The question is leading and loaded and its language is far from neutral.
It is not just me-or even West Lothian Labour councillors-who says this. Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University described the questions as "completely biased". Professor James Mitchell of the same university said that it was highly unusual to circulate an information leaflet with the ballot paper. Moreover, the latest information leaflet is another remarkable piece of work from the City of Edinburgh Council in the finest and dishonourable tradition of the other so-called information leaflets that it has produced over the past couple of years to try and con the public into supporting road tolls. In the latest leaflet, neither of the opposition parties that is represented on the council-the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats-is to be permitted to submit any statement about why voters should vote no, even though the leaflet is effusive about the virtues of the council's preferred strategy.

Mark Ballard (Lothians) (Green): Will the member give way?

David McLetchie: In a second.
Why not? Are voters not entitled to read about both sides of the argument? Why is the council so afraid and why does it have so little faith in its own case that it will not permit a contrary view to be put to the public?
Unlike the council, I am delighted to hear a contrary view and shall give way to Mr Ballard.

Mark Ballard: I am slightly confused by David McLetchie's speech so far. He acknowledges that we are talking about a transport strategy, which includes investment in public transport, even though he questions the amount that goes to regional authorities-

Deputy Presiding Officer: Quickly. What is your point?

Mark Ballard: Surely the question should be about the transport strategy. Does not the member acknowledge that the council has taken independent legal advice from Queen's counsel and that Electoral Commission guidelines have been checked-

Deputy Presiding Officer: Come on.

Mark Ballard: -to ensure that the leaflet actually-

Deputy Presiding Officer: That is enough, Mr Ballard. You will get a speech later if you are lucky.

David McLetchie: The council took legal advice, but it conspicuously failed to consult the Electoral Commission. We all know that, by and large, one can get any answer one wants when one takes legal advice, and I have no doubt that the questions were framed with that very much in mind. Some of us know that better than others.
The rigged referendum is, quite simply, a last desperate throw of the dice by City of Edinburgh Council, which will stop at nothing to impose yet another tax on our motorists. City of Edinburgh Council, of course, is the council that, in a previous consultation exercise in 2002, was found to have invented responses to a questionnaire to try to demonstrate some support for its proposals. It is the council that, in a consultation exercise publicised earlier this year, found that fewer than 5 per cent of respondents were in favour of the congestion charging scheme, but it still pressed ahead. It is the council that says in its latest information leaflet that the scheme was backed by the recent public inquiry, whereas, as is well known, the inquiry was highly critical of the proposed exemption for city residents who live outwith the tolls cordon. It is the council that has twisted and turned in every direction over the past three years and has already squandered the best part of 6 million on promoting the toll scheme.
Members will have read today that Midlothian Council is mounting a legal challenge and now wants to prevent the Edinburgh referendum from taking place, on the basis that the proposed congestion charging scheme is illegal. I fully understand why councils around Edinburgh are keen to stop the introduction of tolls, but in my view the way to do that is not through some legal manoeuvre but by letting people speak loud and clear in the referenda that are planned. Let us trust the people and we can stop the tolls at the polls.
My intention in lodging the motion was not to debate for or against congestion charging, but to underline a key principle-that people's views should be properly heard and that, where a referendum is to be held, it should be conducted fairly in accordance with Electoral Commission guidelines. Unless that has been done, Scottish Executive ministers should not approve any congestion charging scheme that may be submitted by any council for approval. The deceit-I use that word advisedly-of City of Edinburgh Council needs to be exposed in this Parliament. My message to people in Edinburgh is quite simple: never mind this loaded question, the answer is still no.
Deputy Presiding Officer: There is a very long list of Members who wish to speak, so I shall restrict time to three minutes each.

Bristow Muldoon (Livingston) (Lab): Given the shortage of time, I want to restrict myself to dealing with two specific issues: the referenda that are proposed by the City of Edinburgh Council and West Lothian Council; and the issue of fairness and fair treatment in the proposed scheme.
It is with some regret that I speak in yet another debate on congestion charging, because I believe that congestion charging has a role to play as a traffic management tool for alleviating congestion, particularly in some of our most congested cities. However, I think that the approach that is being taken by the City of Edinburgh Council is badly flawed, and I have spoken against the proposals on a number of occasions.
First, on the question of the referenda, I believe that the referendum that is proposed for Edinburgh is based on a biased and unclear question. It is dubious that only material in support of the proposed scheme is to be distributed with the ballot paper, and I recognise that the referendum has been criticised by independent academics such as John Curtice of the University of Strathclyde. It is a referendum that also disfranchises many thousands of people, because it is not based on the full electoral register, and it takes into account only the views of Edinburgh residents, although I believe that the issue is one for the whole Lothian-Fife city region.
The West Lothian Council approach is helpful in that it provides an opportunity for non-Edinburgh residents to express their views. The West Lothian referendum is based on a neutral and clear question, and I understand that material both for and against the congestion charging scheme is to be distributed with the ballot paper. Of course, the West Lothian referendum also suffers from having to use the edited register. On a side issue, I urge the minister to discuss with his colleagues at Westminster the possibility that future referenda that are conducted by local government can use the full electoral register.
I ask the minister to emphasise to the City of Edinburgh Council that it needs to ensure that its referendum is fair, which I do not believe it currently is, and to review the question that it intends to ask.
The second issue that I will raise is the congestion charging scheme itself. I have opposed the scheme for a long time because of its lack of fairness, in particular in respect of the exemption for residents of places such as South Queensferry, Currie and Balerno. The inquiry into the scheme found that it was essential that that exemption should be abandoned to ensure fair treatment. I therefore find it unbelievable that the City of Edinburgh Council intends to proceed with the scheme. The public inquiry report on the City of Edinburgh Council's scheme states:
"We consider that those considerations are of such importance that the proposed exemption must be removed. Otherwise we are driven to the conclusion that the proposed scheme would be unfair and inequitable not because of characteristics endemic in an otherwise acceptable set of arrangements but because the council had deliberately made it so."
The Parliament should make it clear that we cannot accept a proposed scheme that fails the fair treatment test and that we cannot accept a scheme that is not based on a fair referendum.

Fergus Ewing (Inverness East, Nairn and Lochaber) (SNP): This is an extremely serious debate. There is no doubt that the arguments that have been advanced by David McLetchie seem to be correct. Although I am no legal expert in this field, it seems to me to be self-evident that in an electoral process one cannot have leading questions, biased propositions or the use of language that contains positive or negative statements. Neither can one have material accompanying the ballot paper that is plainly biased towards one side of the argument. That is so basic that I find it extraordinary that anyone-far less reputedly responsible politicians and officials-could put forward such a ludicrous suggestion.
It is a waste of taxpayers' money that Midlothian Council and possibly West Lothian Council, which may come into the action if it is raised and has to proceed, would both be using public funds to take on another council. Three parties would be involved and the taxpayer would pay for the whole lot. In his reply to the debate, the minister should state what role the Scottish Executive plans to play.
I will mention the case that Brian Wilson raised at the time of the devolution referendum in 1979. That case clearly established the principle that in a referendum there should be equivalence of treatment between one side and the other. That meant that the yes side in that devolution campaign, which of course failed, had only one shot on television-one party-political broadcast-and the no side had one. I did not like that at the time, but I had to recognise that there was a certain fairness about it. The idea that those opposed to the congestion charges should be denied the opportunity to submit material is preposterous. An election was held recently in the Ukraine that many of us have seen described as a rigged election. It seems to me that there is a touch of the Ukraines about the whole process in the City of Edinburgh Council's proposed referendum. It is incumbent on the council to withdraw the referendum. If the council does not withdraw the referendum and proceeds with it, I suspect that any result-we are not here to debate the merits of the proposals, but I mention that the SNP is against them and would advocate that people vote against them-would have no validity because, for the reasons that have been outlined, the referendum is flawed. The Electoral Commission has given an opinion to that effect.
I hope that in his closing remarks the minister will indicate the legal power and responsibility of the Executive in this regard and, perhaps more important on a practical level, what it proposes to do.

Margaret Smith (Edinburgh West) (LD): Like the Conservatives in Edinburgh, the local Liberal Democrats oppose the City of Edinburgh Council's congestion charging scheme and, most pertinent to this debate, oppose the Labour council's discredited proposals for the referendum ballot question-a question that will cost taxpayers 600,000. The Liberal Democrats in Edinburgh argue against the scheme, but not against the principle of road pricing in the right place and in the right circumstances. A case for congestion charging as part of a package can be made, but the scheme that is proposed for Edinburgh is not the right one. In this debate we are rightly focusing on the referendum. I voted for the Transport (Scotland) Act 2001, which gave councils the power to introduce road tolls provided that the scheme is fair, alternative public transport solutions are in place and, crucially, the scheme has clear public support. Ministers-indeed even First Minister-have reiterated that the Executive will give the go-ahead for a scheme only if the scheme has clear public support. That is why I have always supported a city-wide referendum on such a controversial issue. The scheme is controversial. The Scottish Executive Development Department inquiry reporters who considered it earlier in the year told the City of Edinburgh Council to "proceed with caution". Meanwhile, the City of Edinburgh Council's neighbouring councils-West Lothian Council, Midlothian Council and East Lothian Council-oppose the proposals, particularly now that the City of Edinburgh Council has said that it would exempt Edinburgh council tax payers in areas such as Queensferry and Kirkliston from paying the charge, partly because of the inadequacies of the bus services. I thought that that was the right approach, because the charge would affect my constituents.
Like David McLetchie, I welcome the fact that West Lothian Council is balloting its residents, because the charge would impact not only on the people of Edinburgh but on other councils' residents. I also welcome the fact that West Lothian Council appears to be able to follow Electoral Commission guidance, which says that words and phrases used in questions in a referendum should not "have positive or negative connotations ... be intentionally leading ... contain 'jargon' ... be loaded" or "provide more information than is necessary to answer the question meaningfully".
The West Lothian question-or a version of it-will be quite simple. The council will ask, "Are you in favour of the City of Edinburgh Council's congestion charging scheme?" However, the City of Edinburgh Council's question will come with the information leaflet that has been mentioned, which John Curtice and others say is completely biased.
The question would use the word "preferred", which has a positive connotation. I have yet to see literature produced by the council that has not been completely one-sided. There should be a simple, unbiased, clear question and the ballot paper should be accompanied by information leaflets or literature that represent more than one viewpoint. Can Members imagine how everyone would react if there were an all-postal general election ballot and the Government was the only party that could include an election address with the ballot paper? The referendum will be paid for by taxpayers' money and should be treated in the same way as any other election.
It is farcical that an edited register would be used, which means that 30 per cent of my constituents would not be able to take part in the referendum. I cannot believe that it was the intention of the bright spark who came up with the rules that citizens would give up their right to vote at the same time as their right to buy a fitted kitchen. The question is biased and it is backed up with a biased leaflet.
The minister and his colleagues said that the scheme would have to have clear public support. I urge the minister to intervene now and to suggest to the City of Edinburgh Council that it follow West Lothian Council's line. If the minister does not intervene now, he will be sending a message to the City of Edinburgh Council that he approves of the referendum question. Taxpayers' money will be wasted and others will take the council to court. I ask the minister to prevent that from happening. Let us have a clear answer from the people of Edinburgh on the question.

Colin Fox (Lothians) (SSP): I congratulate David McLetchie on securing the debate and I am grateful to Presiding Officer for allowing me to speak early. I apologise to Members because I will not be able to hear all the speeches-I must pick up my son from the nursery.
Mr McLetchie suggested that the referendum question that the City of Edinburgh Council will pose is biased and will attempt unduly to influence the outcome of the vote. He might well be right, but I fear that the City of Edinburgh Council is making a big mistake if it thinks that asking people at any time whether they support the council will encourage a yes vote. Although I agree with Mr McLetchie that in a truly democratic debate both sides of the argument would be presented, unfortunately the Tories' record in upholding that democratic tradition is woeful-it is certainly no better than new Labour's record.
Congestion is a serious problem, which other Members have addressed. How do we reduce congestion, pollution levels and the gridlock that seriously affect our city? In my opinion, we should provide people with an option that is more attractive than their car. However, instead of highlighting the need to combat congestion and the awful levels of pollution across the city, the Edinburgh scheme has from the outset been about raising money. Supporters of the charge have failed to counter the view that the scheme has more to do with paying up front for public transport improvements that might or might not happen during the next 20 years. Working people in Edinburgh are expected to shell out 720 million, with nothing to show for it up front. That is the commerce of the con man. I am surprised that Mr McLetchie is not in favour of it-he normally is. The supporters of congestion charges talk longingly of the London experience. However, Ken Livingstone's central warning is that a congestion charging scheme that is predicated on a need to raise money is seriously flawed. The artist previously known as red Ken advises us that there are better and more effective ways of raising money than via the route of congestion charging. Ken Livingstone has reflected in hindsight on the London experience and concluded that public transport improvements ought to be put in place first and thereafter congestion charges can be used punitively. I sympathise with that position.
The problem with Edinburgh's proposed scheme is that the 2 flat-rate charge would disproportionately affect working people and the poor. Interestingly, as Members will have appreciated, there is a proposal to increase the charge in London from 5 to 8, because anticipated revenues from the charges have not materialised.
The Scottish Socialist Party is serious about reducing congestion, pollution levels and traffic volumes in Edinburgh. Unfortunately, the council's proposed scheme is not the answer. Therefore, we will call for a no vote in the referendum. We believe that public transport improvements should be put in place first to give people a real and attractive alternative to using their cars. The money for the improvements should come from general taxation. There is no shortage of money for the war in Iraq and for tax breaks for the rich. A more progressive tax system would be rather more effective than congestion charges and would ensure that those who can afford to pay, do so.

Mary Mulligan (Linlithgow) (Lab): I join David McLetchie in congratulating West Lothian Council on holding a referendum on congestion charging. I would expect nothing less of the council. However, beyond that, I depart from David McLetchie's comments.
Let me be clear that I believe that, in certain circumstances, congestion charging could be used to reduce congestion, improve the environment of people who live in congested areas and help businesses that suffer from the effects of congestion. However, I have two major concerns about the City of Edinburgh Council's proposal. First, I am not reassured that congestion charges, if they achieve their aim to reduce traffic, will raise sufficient revenue to invest in public transport. Many of my constituents who travel to work in Edinburgh do so by public transport-either by train or by bus-and the main complaint that I get from them is about overcrowding at peak times. If my constituents left their cars at home because of congestion charges, how could they be expected to use buses and trains that are already overcrowded?
My second major concern, to which Members have referred, is the unfairness regarding who would pay and who would not. Why should my constituents in Newton village, for example, pay congestion charges for the outer ring, when people along the road in South Queensferry-I mean no offence to Margaret Smith-would not have to pay that charge? I think that that would be unfair. It was shown up by the public inquiry and it is recognised as an anomaly. I am sorry that the City of Edinburgh Council has not taken that on board.
I find the debate ironic, given that the Conservatives do not have any other ideas about how to deal with congestion. Back in the 1980s, the Tories' big idea in Edinburgh was to build the western relief road. I must say that it would have been anything but a relief. It would have led to greater congestion on Lothian Road and in the west end. We only have to look at the situation in Glasgow to see that building motorways and dual carriageways into a city centre does nothing to relieve congestion.
I do not know where David McLetchie gets the idea that we are all wonderfully happy about referendums. Only last week, at a meeting in Balerno High School, he accepted that to ask a simple question that requires a yes or no answer is not always the easiest thing to do.

David McLetchie: Will the member give way?

Mary Mulligan: No. I am sorry, but I do not have time. Therefore, I think that this debate is a smokescreen. It is about criticising the words of a referendum to hide the fact that the Conservatives and David McLetchie have no ideas about how to address congestion. People need to think carefully about what is a serious problem that will get worse if nothing is done about it.

Kenny MacAskill(Lothians) (SNP): I congratulate Mr McLetchie on bringing this issue to the Parliament and on his measured speech, with much of which I did not disagree.
It is clear that there are two aspects to the debate: the question of congestion charging and the question of a referendum. London has congestion charging. However, it is to Ken Livingstone's credit that he made it clear that if he was voted in as mayor, he would introduce congestion charging. He got the electoral mandate to do so and he has delivered. There can be no dispute about the democracy of that. To be fair to Mr McLetchie, I do not think that he disagrees that that is one weapon with which to introduce congestion charging. Edinburgh did not seek to do that. We have a history in Scotland of using referenda, whether on the creation of this Parliament or the fluoridation of water in Strathclyde. They were successful and welcomed by the population.

Mary Mulligan: Will the member give way?

Kenny MacAskill: I do not have time.
What is taking place in Edinburgh is unacceptable. However, I differentiate between the referendums in Edinburgh and West Lothian and fully accept Mr McLetchie's points about how referenda should be run.
We should all be worried about what the City of Edinburgh Council is up to, whether we are for or against congestion charging. First, it is fundamentally wrong. It brings all of us as politicians into disrepute. To use such a loaded question in such an unfair manner denigrates the whole body politic. We all know that no matter what political party, if any, we represent, all politicians are universally condemned and viewed as chancers. When such a loaded referendum is to be used, what else can we expect?
The referendum could cause difficulties for the minister due to the difference in position between Liberal Democrat councillors and a Liberal Democrat minister. With the referendum it could be difficult to work out what was meant, especially if there is a close result. It is fundamentally bad for the body politic.
I congratulate West Lothian Council on its referendum. West Lothian is part of the congestion problem in Edinburgh, so it has to be part of the solution. The way forward is to follow the path down which we are heading to regional transport authorities that allow such matters to be dealt with, because Edinburgh cannot address congestion that comes from elsewhere. West Lothian has to be brought on board, as do East Lothian, the Borders and other areas.
Edinburgh cannot drive forward the issue as it is doing, because it is fundamentally wrong. We did not think that that was part of the body politic in Edinburgh. Someone referred to it being typical of the west of Scotland mafia, but it is not even that. This is a political matter that brings to mind Ukraine or North Korea. It is simply unacceptable. I back Mr McLetchie in raising the matter.

Mark Ballard (Lothians) (Green): I congratulate David McLetchie on securing a debate on congestion charging, but I am disappointed that instead of focusing on the impact of congestion charging, he chose to debate the referenda. As Mary Mulligan said, it shows the weakness of those who are against the City of Edinburgh Council's congestion charging scheme that having failed to come up with any realistic alternative proposals to reduce congestion and fund the world-class public transport system that we need, they end up quibbling over the referendum process. It is the lawyer's principle that once one has lost the argument, one should argue about the process.

David McLetchie: Does the member not agree that many of the decisions taken by the City of Edinburgh Council on the narrowing and closure of streets and roads in our city have created congestion? It is a bit of a cheek to ask people to pay a charge to solve a problem that in many parts the council created.

Mark Ballard: I am sorry, but that is nonsense.
There has been a massive rise in congestion in Edinburgh, and it is predicted that it will rise by 30 per cent by 2021 if nothing is done. That is the problem. We cannot build our way out of congestion-something the Tories fail to understand, which is why they have always proposed new roads going through a world heritage site as the solution to congestion.
The truth is that the process has gone through a public inquiry and the council has taken counsel's advice. I will quote from a letter from Tom Aitchison, the returning officer for Edinburgh and for the whole of Scotland at the last European elections. The letter states:
"We have taken independent legal advice from Counsel and the leaflet has been carefully checked against the law of the land and guidance provided by the Electoral Commission. I am confident the leaflet represents a fair and balanced introduction to the issues related to congestion charging".
Tom Aitchison has seen the leaflet. We have heard speculation, and nothing but speculation, from the other parties.
The truth is that congestion charging is part of a package that will bring world-class public transport not just to Edinburgh but to the whole region. That is why it is important. We have to consider congestion charging in the context of the package. I am disappointed that David McLetchie and other speakers have chosen to focus on the process, rather than talk about how we are going to tackle congestion. They have no alternatives to the whole package put forward by the council.
We need to discuss the whole package in the referendum. The City of Edinburgh Council has done the right thing by making it clear that the referendum is about a package, not just about one element of that package. As an Edinburgh citizen, I will support the council in the referendum.

Mike Pringle (Edinburgh South) (LD): I, too, congratulate David McLetchie on securing the debate. I will focus specifically on the Edinburgh referendum question because the motion is about that, not about what Mr Ballard talked about. Our view on the toll scheme is clear and consistent and has been well explained by the Liberal Democrat council group. The scheme is the wrong one at the wrong time. It is simply a disgrace for the City of Edinburgh Council to try to justify the scheme through a flawed referendum. The council is spending a further 600,000 on its test of opinion. Given that the whole process is a sham before we even begin, that is a ludicrous waste of council tax payers' money. The decision of the council's Labour group to go ahead with a fatally flawed referendum is terrible for the people of Edinburgh, Fife, the Lothians and the Borders. The biased question means that people will be hoodwinked into supporting a preferred transport strategy that will include tolls that will actually increase congestion by 40 per cent in parts of my constituency of Edinburgh South-that is a fact. I am sure that the council's information leaflet will not tell the voters that, because it is clearly fishing for one answer. It is not only opposition politicians in Edinburgh who are saying that. Professor James Mitchell of the department of government at the University of Strathclyde has said that sending out a separate leaflet is highly unusual.

Mark Ballard: Will the member take an intervention?

Mike Pringle: No, not after my previous experience, when the member spoke for a minute.
Professor Mitchell said:
"I would not have thought the council would have done this for the sake of the credibility and independence of the poll."

Mark Ballard: I have a point of information. Will the member give way?

Mike Pringle: No.
The problem of the leaflet is bad enough, but the issue surrounding the question is worse. As David McLetchie said, "Guideline two" of the Electoral Commission's guidelines on referendums, including regional ones such as that which we are discussing, states:
"Words and phrases ... should not have positive or negative connotations". However, the proposed preamble and question contain the word "preferred" twice and the word "increased". The wording could be more positive only if it asked people to vote yes directly. Recently, the question for the referendum on the European Union constitution was changed because the original question referred to a bill that Parliament had approved. If that is biased, so is the use of the word "preferred". The guideline is clearly broken and thus the Electoral Commission would consider the question to be unintelligible. However, the council admits that it has not contacted the commission. What is it up to? Professor John Curtice of the University of Strathclyde has suggested that the question sounds like that in the old trade union ballots that asked, "Are you in favour of strike action?"
Questions exist about the legitimacy of the test of opinion-I am not sure that we can call it a referendum-given that up to 17 per cent of Edinburgh people may not be able to vote, as they have unwittingly disenfranchised themselves by opting out of junk mail. The council has made little effort to sign people up, which again takes away from the poll's legitimacy. Overall, it is appropriate that the referendum should be classified in the same category as junk mail, cheap loans and free prize draws. It promises much, but it ultimately has no credibility. I predict that the sensible people of Edinburgh will reject the proposal overwhelmingly.

Susan Deacon (Edinburgh East and Musselburgh) (Lab): Kenny MacAskill said that the leaflet that the City of Edinburgh Council will include in the referendum process will bring the business of politics into disrepute. Frankly, some of the speeches tonight are precisely the kind of thing that brings politics into disrepute. As a national Parliament, we should focus on the big picture of the huge transport challenges that are faced by our country in general and our capital city in particular. I put on record my unequivocal appreciation of the efforts that the City of Edinburgh Council is making, under its Labour leadership, to attempt to tackle those challenges.
I do not doubt that certain aspects of how the council has gone about the process have been imperfect, but I doubt whether any of us could have designed a perfect process, given the uncharted territory that we are discussing. However, the council deserves congratulations on attempting to grapple with the issues. We should stop questioning the council's motives in attempting to make progress. Colleagues say that the scheme is the wrong one at the wrong time, but that they are really behind the principles. Right from the start, Members have been casting around for reasons to oppose the scheme.
There are legitimate concerns. I represent a constituency that spans the city boundary-it goes into East Lothian as well as the City of Edinburgh-and I have my views and concerns about issues such as the west Edinburgh exemptions, which I have expressed in discussions and communication with the council.
I have my own opinions about aspects of how the consultation process has been carried out. However, on the whole, I have heard no viable alternative proposal about how this city's congestion problems can be tackled. We in this national Parliament should be having that debate, and national politicians should be engaging in that debate rather than concentrating on the minutiae of the process.
There is going to be 720 million of investment into the area, not just the city. Almost half of that investment will go into East Lothian, West Lothian and Midlothian. I want there to be transport improvements that will benefit the areas of my constituency that are inside and outwith the city.
I know how easy it is for people to oppose particular proposals and call for change, but the difficult thing is putting together an investment programme that will make a difference. On the whole, the City of Edinburgh Council has gone some considerable way towards doing that.
I make this plea to the minister for this evening and for the months to come. He should by all means be robust in his scrutiny of the City of Edinburgh Council and the process that it has followed, but the Parliament and the Government should take head-on some of the tough choices, decisions and challenges that we need to address to ensure that our capital and our country is fit for the future.

Fiona Hyslop (Lothians) (SNP): We have just passed a bill about emergency workers. Nurses who used to work in the emergency surgery unit at St John's hospital in Livingston and who now have to travel to Edinburgh because of the health policy of centralisation will have to pay the price if the vote goes in favour of tolls. The impact on people who travel from West Lothian will be immense. Many of those people are low-paid workers who live in West Lothian because they cannot afford the house prices in Edinburgh. They staff the Edinburgh economy and they have a right to have their views taken into account. It is wrong for politicians to say that this debate is a smokescreen for those who are against the congestion charging scheme. We will return to the issue of local government and referendums again and again. David McLetchie's speech was measured, and the minister must take back to the Cabinet the fact that we will face the issue again and that we will have to consider it properly and fairly. Members should remember that the wording on the ballot paper was decided by one vote. One vote can make all the difference, which is why referendums have to be fair and have to be seen to be fair. Even those who support the scheme would feel that their case was strengthened if a fair referendum was held. The impact of congestion charging will not be trivial. The scheme will undoubtedly have a major impact on low-paid workers and it will affect the Edinburgh economy. The City of Edinburgh Council cannot be seen in isolation on this issue.
I agree with Susan Deacon that we must argue the case about why Edinburgh is not only central to the region, but central to the Scottish economy. We cannot have the situation that has gone on for decades, whereby every time that a scheme is proposed, it disappears. There must be consensus that this is about not party-political point scoring, but driving the local and national economies. However, we have a problem because people are disengaged from politics. They see a major decision being taken even though there are questions about the referendum that should not have needed to be asked. People would take the issue far more seriously if they had respect for the decision-making process. Last year, the Scottish Executive explained the need for fair treatment of those who would have to pay the charge and those who would benefit from any improvements. I appeal to the minister to acknowledge-I see that he is returning to his seat-that that fair treatment should not just be about the scheme; it should also apply to the decision-making process. The Parliament can make a useful contribution to the debate. We cannot put off considering the issues any longer.
The issues of congestion charging and revenue raising should be separated. The aim is to reduce the congestion level in Edinburgh to that which exists in the summer holidays. I do not want West Lothian commuters to have to pay for the Edinburgh school run. Let us be a bit more imaginative. Let us try to build consensus and drive Edinburgh and Scotland forward.

Deputy Presiding Officer: I was relieved to note that the minister had a return ticket from the back of the chamber, and I invite him to respond to the debate.

Minister for Transport (Nicol Stephen): I assure you, Presiding Officer, that I did not leave the chamber; I was consulting officials at the back of the room on a technical point.
I am pleased to contribute to the debate, which is important, and I congratulate David McLetchie on bringing this important issue before the Parliament. The City of Edinburgh Council has decided to move forward and seek the views of local people on its proposals early next year. That brings us up to date with a matter that was debated in the Parliament on 18 December 2003. In fact, it was the final debate in the Parliament that year, and it was on a motion in Bristow Muldoon's name. At that point, we were at an earlier stage in the process, but, assuming that the test of public opinion proceeds, we expect to see the results of that exercise in February.
As the City of Edinburgh Council's proposal is developed, at each stage, it is for the council, local people and other neighbouring councils to make representations and make their views known. However, it is principally for the City of Edinburgh Council to ensure that all issues are handled properly and appropriately, and I make it clear that the conduct of the vote is a matter entirely for the council; the Executive has no locus to intervene. Clearly, issues of law and natural justice are important. In so far as those relate to the vote, they are matters for the council to consider-it has clearly done so-and, ultimately, for the courts to decide on.

David McLetchie: The minister says that the whole process, including the conduct of the referendum, is a matter for the council, but I put to him the point that was well made by Margaret Smith: if the conduct of the referendum is flawed, how can he, in assessing the outcome, have any confidence in the judgment that is delivered? Does not the Executive have a responsibility to ensure that the referendum is conducted fairly so that, in the evaluation that the minister has to make, he can have confidence in the result that is pronounced?

Nicol Stephen: David McLetchie makes a fair point, to which I will come. The Scottish ministers have a role in the evaluation and scrutiny of the proposal; I will examine that role and explain it to Members.
Depending on the result of the council's consultation, the scheme could be submitted to ministers for confirmation because of the legislative requirements that must be fulfilled before any road-user charging proposal can proceed. The Transport (Scotland) Act 2001 requires that, before a scheme can come into force, it must be submitted to and confirmed by the Scottish ministers. I am sure that Members appreciate that, due to the quasi-judicial role that ministers play in confirming the order, it would be inappropriate for me to comment at this stage on the proposed City of Edinburgh Council scheme. However, I will of course take into account the views that I have heard in the debate.
I have made it clear that I would approve any charging scheme-in these comments, I am not referring specifically to the Edinburgh scheme-provided that it was fair and appropriate and that there was clear evidence of public support. If the proposal comes before ministers, they will have the options of confirming the order in the form in which it is submitted, confirming the order subject to such modifications as they specify or rejecting the order. We are not at that stage just yet, and the proposal faces several weeks of controversy before the vote. If, in due course, the matter comes to me for consideration, I will examine carefully all the issues that have been raised in the debate, all the issues that the council has presented to me and all the representations that other councils, other organisations and individuals have made.
In the meantime, I wish all Members and officials present a happy Christmas.

22 Dec 2004 - Motions

*S2M-2200 John Farquhar Munro: Abolition of Skye Bridge Tolls-That the Parliament welcomes the delivery of the Partnership Agreement commitment to abolish the discredited toll regime on the Skye Bridge and looks forward to the social and economic benefits that this will bring the residents of Skye and Lochalsh.

23 Dec 2004 - First Minister's Question Time

Cabinet (Meetings)
David McLetchie: I hope that among the topics that the Scottish Executive's Cabinet will discuss will be transport issues. Almost every objective observer of the City of Edinburgh Council's Forthcoming referendum on road tolls-or congestion charging-has concluded that the question that is posed is loaded. Those observers include First Minister's colleague, Mr Bristow Muldoon, who in Parliament yesterday described it as "biased and unclear". Does First Minister believe that such questions should conform with the Electoral Commission's guidelines on how they should be framed?

First Minister: The conduct of the referendum in Edinburgh is a matter for the City of Edinburgh Council and, much more important, for the people of Edinburgh who will vote in the referendum. I am sure that they will express their opinion when they vote.

David McLetchie: It is not only a matter for the City of Edinburgh Council; it is a matter for First Minister. He cannot leave it to the council, because the Scottish Executive is on record as saying that it will only give the go-ahead to congestion charging schemes that have clear public support. On 3 June, First Minister stated his "insistence that the City of Edinburgh Council test public opinion in the city and that that become part of the final decision-making process." -[Official Report, 3 June 2004; c 8894.]
If the conduct of the referendum is flawed, how can he and his Executive have any confidence in the result? Do not he and his Executive have a responsibility to ensure that the referendum is conducted fairly, so that when they make their decision under their statutory responsibilities they can be confident that it is soundly based?

First Minister: I do not want to and cannot comment specifically on the details of the issue, because, after any referendum in Edinburgh, we have a role to play in taking a clear view on the final proposals. One point that I will make is that it seems to me that those who attack the process are perhaps losing the argument on the substance. Perhaps Mr McLetchie should deal with the substance of the issues not only in Edinburgh but elsewhere, where local authorities and others are genuinely trying to deal with serious problems of traffic management and congestion.
I see that this week the Conservatives not only have been trying to attack the process in the referendum rather than deal with the content of the debate, but have been opposing speed cameras, which save lives throughout Scotland, and other measures that are designed not only to improve the lives of motorists but to ensure that lives are saved and that Scotland is a safer place. Sometimes when the Conservatives try to be on the side of the motorist, they can get it wrong. I would welcome a proper debate on the issue, in Edinburgh and elsewhere, in which we discuss the content of the issue, the objectives that have been set and the mechanisms that will be tried. That is the best way to ensure that we make the right decisions for the future.

David McLetchie: First Minister will have an honest debate if he has an honest referendum and an honest question. The evidence that the poll is rigged is clear for all to see. The question is biased, tens of thousands of people may be denied a vote and a piece of pro-tolls propaganda is going out with every ballot paper. Does First Minister agree with his colleague Margaret Smith MSP, who said yesterday in Parliament that this is akin to an all-postal general election ballot in which "the Government was the only party that could include an election address with the ballot paper?"-[Official Report, 22 December 2004; c 13237.]
Does First Minister call that democracy and a shining example to the rest of Scotland?

First Minister: There have been times over the past 12 months when the Scottish Conservatives have raised substantial issues at question time and have used this forum for the purposes for which it was designed. Sometimes, that has been in stark contrast to the other major Opposition party. However, I say to Mr McLetchie that this is not the council chamber of the City of Edinburgh Council. This is not the place to debate the wording on a referendum form that was designed by the City of Edinburgh Council for the people of Edinburgh to vote on. This is a place for serious debate on serious issues that affect the future of Scotland. We need to rise to the occasion and debate the issues, not the process, and ensure that, at the end of the day, we in Scotland-and in Edinburgh, too-make the right decisions for the future.

Des McNulty (Clydebank and Milngavie) (Lab): If removing the tolls from the Erskine bridge can be shown to advantage the West Dunbartonshire and Renfrewshire local economies, as well as to relieve congestion on the Kingston bridge and the Clyde tunnel, will First Minister move quickly, not only to remove the tolls but to consider what road improvements, including the Ochil relief road, would deliver full connectivity?

First Minister: As we announced on Tuesday, there will be a second phase of our review of tolled bridges in Scotland. We say in the outcome of the first phase of that review that different circumstances pertain to the Erskine bridge from those that pertain to the Forth and Tay bridges. I am sure that Mr McNulty will make his points during the second phase of the review. Those points will be welcome, and we will need to consider them in the light of all the facts.

Skye Bridge (Tolls)
5. Fergus Ewing (Inverness East, Nairn and Lochaber) (SNP): To ask First Minister whether tolls will still be charged for crossing the Skye bridge on and after 1 January 2005. (S2F-1327)

First Minister (Mr Jack McConnell): No one will be surprised to hear me say that the answer is no, they will not still be charged on new year's day. Fergus Ewing: I am gratified that, within 24 hours of my lodging that question, the Executive has taken such action. It is a welcome development and an improvement on the situation in respect of the previous 2,000 or so questions that I have asked.
If it was right to scrap the tolls in 2004, why was it not right to scrap the tolls in 1999, when the Scottish Parliament had a chance to build a good reputation for itself?
If the reason for the decision to scrap the tolls is that this particular private-finance initiative project is, in First Minister's words, a "discredited, Tory PFI", how quickly will First Minister move to scrap the discredited Tory PFI for the Inverness airport terminal?

First Minister: I confirmed, not only this week but also a considerable time ago, that we were concerned about the Inverness airport PFI and the charges that are being incurred in that regard. The discussions on that subject continue. On Mr Ewing's first question, we made the decision at the right time and for the right cost, in the interests of taxpayers as well as of those who use the bridge. The announcement that was made this week represents good value for the taxpayer, because it will save money for local people and for the Government, and is the right decision not only for Skye but for people in Lochalsh and the other Western Isles, who use Skye as part of the route to their location, and for the whole western Highlands. I hope that we will move on to seize the opportunities that the toll-free bridge gives to boost tourism, the economy and the quality of life in Skye, Lochalsh and the surrounding area.

John Farquhar Munro (Ross, Skye and Inverness West) (LD): I am delighted to hear First Minister agree that the removal of tolls from the Skye bridge creates a tremendous economic opportunity for the Highlands and Islands, especially Skye and Lochalsh. Will First Minister ensure that VisitScotland and other organisations that promote the Highlands and Islands make it clear in their literature that iniquitous tolls are no longer charged on the Skye bridge and that entry to Skye and the west Highlands is free to all?

First Minister: I am sure that VisitScotland, Highland Council and others will want to consider that suggestion seriously. For a long time, I have been conscious that one of the impacts of the Skye bridge tolls was busloads of tourists turning away at the bridge and not going over to Skye. I hope that, from this week, increased numbers of tourists will enjoy the fabulous location of Skye and the experience that they can have there, not just the outstanding, international-class landscape but the friendly and warm reception from the people of Skye, which I enjoyed on Tuesday morning.

Alasdair Morrison (Western Isles) (Lab): As an islander, First Minister will know and appreciate that residents of the inner and outer Hebrides use the bridge facilities that are provided by Caledonian MacBrayne. Now that First Minister has ensured that the discredited toll regime on the Skye bridge has been taken care of, does he agree that he and the Executive must urgently examine ways to reduce the tolls that are paid by my constituents and other ferry users?

First Minister: I thought for a minute that Alasdair Morrison was going to suggest a toll-free bridge to Arran, but his question did not come out that way. I recognise that there are concerns throughout the islands about the fares that are in place, particularly for local people who regularly use ferries to Scotland's islands and particularly on routes to the more remote islands. I understand that Alasdair Morrison regularly makes representations on the issue. I am sure that he will continue to do so, perhaps adding this week's decision to his list of arguments in favour of his position.

24 Dec 2004 - Motions

S2M-2206 Trish Godman: Abolition of Tolls on Erskine Bridge-That the Parliament considers that the abolition of the tolls on the Erskine Bridge would help to relieve congestion and pollution problems on other river crossings; further considers that the local economies on either side of the Clyde would be likely to benefit, and therefore urges the Scottish Executive to move quickly to complete the work needed so that the tolls on the bridge can be removed. Supported by: Des McNulty, Jackie Baillie

S2M-2200 John Farquhar Munro: Abolition of Skye Bridge Tolls-That the Parliament welcomes the delivery of the Partnership Agreement commitment to abolish the discredited toll regime on the Skye Bridge and looks forward to the social and economic benefits that this will bring the residents of Skye and Lochalsh.Supported by: Donald Gorrie, Tommy Sheridan, Iain Smith* >

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