VULNERABLE families are spiralling into debt and being forced to rely on food banks to feed their children because of the controversial Mersey Gateway  Bridge, a charity has claimed. 

The Big Help Project in Knowsley has said  people on low incomes and with mental health issues are being “pushed to the brink”  by the complex toll system, which has seen thousands of drivers hounded by bailiffs.

The £600m bridge has no toll booths, meaning people must remember to pay the £2 a way charge online or in a shop within 24 hours of making their journey.

Drivers who forget to pay the toll face a £20 Penalty Charge Notice (PCN), but this can soar to hundreds if not paid on time, until the fee is eventually handed over to Marston’s Enforcement Company to collect.

The Big Help Project, which runs a debt advice and food bank service,  said clients of theirs have seen unpaid toll fees of as little as £2 balloon into bills of over £2,990 once collection efforts have commenced.

Peter Mitchell, Chief Executive of the charity, said toll company Merseyflow should be “ashamed” of the misery they are inflicting on the region’s most vulnerable.

He has called on Halton Borough Council, the charging authority, to stop sending out bailiffs immediately, and has asked them to  implement a fairer payment system.

In a letter sent to leaders of  Labour-run Halton Council, the charity outlined a number  of shocking situations they’ve encountered because of the bridge, including:

 A 34-year-old mum with one dependent on sick leave with severe anxiety and depression.She has nine Merseyflow charges totalling £955 which are now added to her other debts which she is struggling to afford to repay.

A 46 year old man from Kirkby in a ‘low salary occupation’  whose son used his car without him knowing and accumulated 13 debts which total £624.

A woman from Halewood on a low income job whose 35 Mersey Gateway charges total a staggering £2,990. She has family in Runcorn and uses the bridge often. Her partner has “severe mental health” issues and therefore unable to work.

A  single mother with two children, mental health issues  and is in receipt of benefits. She has five charges which total £250. These add to her other priority debts and leave her struggling more to keep up with her essential bills.

A single parent from Halewood with three dependants. She has six charges totalling £870. She is employed part-time on a very low income and struggles to make ends meet but has family in Runcorn she needs to visit. She has struggled to face up to her debts as they feel so out of control.

Defending their clients, a spokesperson from The Big Help Project said many people don’t willingly forget to pay the toll,  but find the system confusing, difficult to keep up with or don’t have access to internet or phone to pay straight away.

However the response from David Parr, Chief Executive  of Halton Borough Council, was less than promising.

In an email seen by the LDRS, Mr Parr said  the Mersey Gateway had a “reasonable” tolling regime and there were no plans to introduce a cash booth.

He advised the charity to promote how to pay for the bridge through their social media channels,  asking them to share the message that “doing nothing when a PCN arrives is the worst thing to do.”

He did hint a new Pay-as-you-go payment method may be introduced this year- but a Merseyflow spokesperson said they couldn’t comment any further on what this would be like or when it would be.

Mr Parr’s  response did not appear to satisfy the charity, who insist more needs to be done to tackle the financial hardship it is inflicting on people. 

Peter Mitchell, Chief Executive of The Big Project, said:  ’Merseyflow should be ashamed of themselves. How do they expect vulnerable people not to fall through the gaps? Some of our clients don’t have bank accounts, let alone access to the internet.

“What has happened is the most vulnerable, most in need people have been pushed to the brink.

“We call upon Merseyflow to take immediate action to stop using bailiffs which adds huge costs onto what starts as a £2 toll. One of our clients £2 toll has turned into a £800 charge because of bailiff costs.

“They should stop instructing bailiffs immediately. We also call on them to commit to working with FCA registered debt advice providers such as ourselves to support the most vulnerable and most in need.”

The Government required Halton Council to put in place a charge/toll for those using Mersey Gateway.

Halton Council and local MPs have repeatedly  lobbied for a free to use bridge but to date this has been been unsuccessful.

Transport Secretary Chris Grayling has repeatedly quashed hoped the tolls might be scrapped – insisting drivers who benefit from the new crossing “must help pay for it”

The bridge was funded through a £1.86bn private finance deal which effectively means it will be tolled for around 30 years until this is paid off.

A spokesperson from Merseyflow said: “We are constantly working closely with our partners at the Mersey Gateway Crossings Board to look at ways of improving the customer experience and that includes exploring new initiatives and ways to pay

“Our customers are our number priority so we will continue to work on this throughout 2019, making changes and improvements to the Merseyflow website and exploring new payment options for customers.”