Emergency bill set to restore

(pounds) 100,000 weekly charges

lost by blunder

TOLL charges for drivers crossing the Erskine bridge will be restored in a matter of days, Scottish ministers pledged yesterday.

Their reintroduction follows parliament's backing for an emergency bill to correct the embarrassing administrative error which resulted in payments having to be suspended a week ago.

Ministers told MSPs that once royal assent to the legislation had been received, the 60p-each-way tolls would come back into force. They intended this should be ''at the earliest possible time''.

As the bill was rushed through parliament, Sarah Boyack, the embattled transport minister, revealed that the executive's ''deeply regrettable'' failure to renew the tolling order was costing the public purse (pounds) 100,000 a week in lost revenue.

She warned that if the tolls were not restored, the shortfall would have to be met from the roads and transport budget.

But the SNP accused ministers of seeking ''a quick political fix'' at the expense of proper democratic scrutiny by pushing emergency legislation through parliament in a single day.

Attempting to widen the argument, the Nationalists demanded an inquiry into the economic and legal implications of bridge tolls in Scotland.

But with Tory support, the executive won a vote to have the short Erskine bridge tolls bill treated as emergency legislation.

Later, parliament voted by 78 votes to 26 to pass the bill which restores the necessary authority to levy the tolls.

The bridge for vehicles crossing the Clyde from Erskine to Old Kirkpatrick was opened on July 2, 1971, and recently successive governments have renewed the authority to levy the tolls for five years at a time.

The embarrassing discovery that that officials had failed to lay the necessary order before parliament this year forced Ms Boyack to suspend the now illegal payments last week.

She has ordered a departmental inquiry to prevent any similar blunder and yesterday the Tories urged her to include an independent element in that investigation.

The minister said the inquiry would look at the use of IT systems for statutory instruments that required periodic renewal or amendment.

''The recommendations will be made available in accordance with our policies and practices on freedom of information. It will not, however, name names. What matters in the long term is that we learn the lessons of this unfortunate error.''

But Adam Ingram, the SNP transport spokesman, insisted that the use of emergency procedures meant the public and the local authorities, such as West Dumbartonsbire council and Renfrewshire, were being denied the right to object.

''It is vital that public consultation and parliamentary scrutiny precedes legislation.

''Only by adhering to this democratic practice will we stay faithful to the founding principles of the Scottish parliament,'' he claimed.

Mr Ingram attacked the Erskine bridge tolls as ''an economically inefficient stealth tax'' and said it made no sense excessively to tax a key access point for the tourism and service routes to Argyll and the West Highlands.

The SNP called for the bill to be properly scrutinised by the transport and environment committee which should also investigate the impact of the tolls.

However Murray Tosh, the Tory transport spokesman, threw his party's weight behind the Labour/Liberal Democrat executive and accused the Nationalists of being opportunistic.

He claimed they were seeking to use the blunder over the tolling order to score political points and he asked why they had never previously called for a review of charging on the Erskine bridge.

''There has been an administrative foul-up. The idea that we should simply stop collecting the tolls and carry out a consultation is rampant opportunism because what the SNP want is a ferocious political debate on an issue which has not been a running sore,'' he told MSPs.

During the debate on the bill, Des McNulty, Labour MSP for Clydebank and Milngavie, questioned the whole issue of tolling.

He said it was not credible to claim it was still being used to recover building costs, because while (pounds) 1.1m had been spent on bridge maintenance in the last three years, (pounds) 13m had been raised by tolls. He also highlighted the difficulties for those in his constituency looking for work on the other side of the bridge caused by the lack of public transport across it.

John Farquhar Munro, Liberal Democrat MSP for Ross, Skye and Inverness West, used the debate to highlight continuing opposition to the charging of tolls on the Skye Bridge.

He urged ministers to examine the toll order for that crossing and claimed there was plenty of evidence to suggest it was never looked at by parliament and remained unsigned and dated.

After the bill was passed yesterday, Robbie the Pict, a long-time campaigner against the Skye bridge tolls, wrote to Henry McLeish, the first minister, claiming the new legislation was neither ''competent nor lawful'' based on the terms of the original act.