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Mr. McLoughlin: The sixth final point?

Mr. Maclean: Never trust a politician.

The final point on rural areas is our concern about the new regional development areas. The northern part of Cumbria is to be amalgamated with Liverpool. That means that representation from Cumbria, which would have been small in the north-western area, is likely to be even smaller in the combined area of Liverpool and north-west Cumbria.

Ideally, if a county such as Cumbria, which does not properly fall in with the north-east or the north-west, is in the north-west development area, it needs three representatives on the board. It needs someone from the industrialised west country who shares the concerns of west Cumbria and understands the needs there, as well as the industrial needs of Barrow, which are similar; it needs someone from the central lakes and the uplands there, who understands the needs of tourism and England's most important tourist area; and it needs someone from the agricultural areas and the Eden valley, to express the concerns of that part of the county.

It is likely that, for the whole of Cumbria, we might end up with one person on the board. I should hate to have to suggest who, from such a gigantic county, should serve on a regional development agency that covers Liverpool, Manchester, Lancashire and the entire huge and important north-west area. Who in the name of goodness could we get to represent Cumbria, where we have important industries such as Sellafield--the nuclear industry--and England's biggest tourist area, as well as the agricultural areas? I plead with the right hon. Lady to tell the new Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, without setting any quotas, that Cumbria needs three people on the new regional development board, covering skills and disciplines wide enough to represent the whole county.

On that point, which I am sure the right hon. Lady will take on board, I once again wish her success in her new job, and successful and happy holidays, when they come.

10.54 am

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley): I shall try not to raise as many points as the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean), or no other hon. Members will get in.

I welcome the Leader of the House to her new position. She will be sadly missed as President of the Board of Trade.

The topics on which I shall speak are car pricing, vehicle emissions and public transport. There are 24 million cars on the road in the United Kingdom, and the number is rapidly increasing. The UK car industry is extensive.

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It is well documented that car prices in the UK are massively different from those in the rest of the European Union. The EU publishes the figures in six-monthly reports, and the UK is consistently at the top of the list for car prices. On 1 May, the European Commission published its 11th report on car prices, which shows that cars in Britain are 58 per cent. dearer than anywhere else in the EU. Of the 74 best-selling models, 60 were dearest in the UK.

The greatest discrepancy involves the Ford Mondeo--the car for the world. That leading model from Ford costs us in the UK a staggering 58.5 per cent. more than elsewhere. The Ford Fiesta costs 44.7 per cent. more in the UK than in Spain. The Rover is built in Britain, but the 214, the 414, the 620 and the Land Rover Discovery models are 50 per cent. more expensive in Britain than in Holland. The Renault Clio, which we see in the advertisements--the sexy car, as it is called--costs 33.8 per cent. more in the UK than in Italy. The list goes on and on.

Why is there such a difference? Why should UK consumers have to pay more for a car than our continental friends? What is good for the EU should be good for this country. We are part of the EU, and we should have the same benefits.

The list price of cars is determined by general market conditions. Manufacturers tend to take account of the tax linked to car purchase. Therefore, it is believed that, in countries where special taxes are due for cars, the manufacturers will ensure that net car prices are among the lowest for any models. That is the case in Ireland, Holland and Portugal. However, where no such taxes are due, as in Britain, pre-tax prices are set at a higher level. That has a knock-on effect, which results in the higher retail price.

Manufacturers argue that factors such as exchange rate differences, differences in specification and discounts offered by dealers account for the variation in price between Britain and the rest of Europe. That is not the case. Even if those factors are taken into account, Britain still pays about 10 per cent. more than other EU countries.

Car manufacturers argue that the costs involved in producing right-hand drive vehicles are higher. That holds little water. In any case, under EU competition laws, all EU countries are required to produce right-hand drive cars. It is still possible to buy such a car on the continent and bring it back to the UK more cheaply than to buy it in the UK. That anomaly must be resolved.

The strong pound has not made foreign vehicles such as BMW, Mercedes, Volkswagen, Renault, Fiat and those from other continental producers any cheaper. The prices are pegged and held deliberately. For example, one can buy a Nissan hatchback from Holland for £10,000. Even after paying VAT and bringing the car to Britain, one will still have made a considerable saving.

Although car dealers are permitted to set their own prices, it is alleged that they are reluctant to lower prices because of agreements with the manufacturers. The manufacturers comprise that great body of people who claim to look after those who buy cars, but that is not the case. Manufacturers have been known to manipulate prices by threatening to remove the franchise from dealers should they lower their prices. Manufacturers are pegging prices, and that is not fair to the consumer.

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Car pricing was raised at a meeting of EU Finance Ministers at York in March. That initiated an investigation into price disparities between EU markets. I hope that the outcome of that study promotes positive action. Something needs to be done to remedy the problem, as the consumer is already becoming more and more dissatisfied and more and more taken for a ride--if the House will excuse the pun.

We do not want people to be forced to shop abroad for their cars. We should be encouraging people to buy cars from United Kingdom dealers. Personally, I should like to see them buy cars that are built in the UK. An important factor is to introduce measures to lower car prices. I hope that the Government will make that a priority, and take action on this important matter. First, that approach would certainly help UK manufacturing. Secondly, it would help to secure more jobs in that sector.

There is a link between new cars, pollution and emissions. Perhaps, if car prices were lowered, the result would be more new cars with reduced emissions, which would have a beneficial effect on global warming. It would also allow us to get rid of the old bangers--the polluters that we see throughout the country. Lower new car prices would make more emission-efficient cars available to the public, which would be better for the community. Much could be done in that direction. As I have said, the problem of global warming could be reduced through this factor.

I am keen to know whether the Government will assist in promoting the use of more environmentally friendly fuel for vehicles. Already the Government provide funding for energy savings--the powershift programme, which gives grants of up to half the capital cost of converting vehicles to run on alternative fuels. I would welcome that factor being taken on board.

The Government have also conducted research into the use of alternative fuels. Local authority fleets and taxis have been tested. However, it is important to understand that fewer than 1 per cent. of vehicles in the UK rely on an alternative fuel. In 1997, 9,100 vehicles were registered as running on gas. There were 17,400 vehicles running on electricity. I would like to see these numbers increase. With an ever-increasing number of vehicles on the roads, I hope that the Government will continue seriously to consider the environmental damage that is caused by car pollution and all its implications.

I hope that the Government will work on measures to improve the assistance that is given to the public and private firms who wish to convert their vehicles. Perhaps incentives can be offered to car manufacturers to produce more cleaner vehicles for general use.

I recently supported an early-day motion that calls on the Government to look into the possibility of providing incentives to bus and taxi companies to convert their vehicles to liquefied petroleum gas or natural compressed gas. The motion has been supported by about 50 Members so far. Traffic pollution would be significantly alleviated if we set targets for converting vehicles to run on LPG or natural compressed gas.

Vehicles such as buses and taxis run through our cities all day and all night. They are continually polluting our cities and the countryside. There is a golden opportunity

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for the Government to undertake some radical tests, and to conduct trials to clean up our cities. That would not take much doing. I believe that LPG and compressed natural gas are the ways forward, and we should take that on board.

My hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) represents a constituency that is a near neighbour of mine. He will initiate an Adjournment debate tonight on the cylinders that are produced by Lucas in his constituency. They are made for cars that run on LPG or compressed natural gas. Unfortunately, Lucas will close that factory, which is sad. I think that there should be investment to keep production in the United Kingdom. I welcome my hon. Friend's Adjournment debate.

We should not lose sight of the fact that the car has an important role, but there should be an alternative to it, and that is public transport. Public transport must play a part, but it must be more widely available. That is why I welcome the important White Paper presented by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions. We must ensure that public transport is not only available but more welcoming and more efficient, and that applies to bus stations and train stations. They must feel friendly and welcoming to the travelling public as well as safe at night. They must provide facilities.

I shall give an example that shows how bad some companies are. Stagecoach, in my constituency, operates the bus station at Chorley, on land owned by the local authority, on a peppercorn rent. The bus station itself is owned by Stagecoach. When Stagecoach took over the bus station, the lease clearly stated that a public toilet must be provided. Everybody would expect that the general public could use that toilet. Stagecoach was taken to court by the local authority to be asked why the toilet had not been opened. Stagecoach objected, saying, "It states in the lease that a toilet must be provided, but it does not say that it should be open to the general public."

That approach will not allow improvements to be made to public transport in bus and train stations. Improvements will not be made if companies do not provide facilities for the travelling public. That approach is not good enough, and it is not the way forward.

I wish to take the view forward that there should be cheaper vehicles, alternative fuels, better public transport and better facilities for those who use public transport.


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