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Mr. Darvill: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman's patience will be rewarded in due course. I am happy to give my opinion, but other colleagues may have different opinions. When we have formulated our policies, we will have the debate. I believe that there is considerable merit in road charging, provided that the revenues are used to improve public transport. The charges will be unpopular with some people, but, if those who pay them can see the benefits in improved public transport, the policy will be much more popular than Conservative Members think.

Most members of the public who have to travel in and out of London and use their cars to do so realise that a major problem is building up, no matter who is in government and no matter who controls the GLA. Local traffic problems apply in local areas. The public want those problems to be resolved. They know that resolving such problems is difficult and often requires increased capital investment, but the road charging provisions are a way of squaring that circle. That is why I do not believe that they are as unpopular as Conservative Members say.

I hope that hon. Members will oppose the Opposition amendment and support the amendments that would facilitate discussions on hypothecation and the detail of the Bill.

Mr. Brake: I shall speak against the Conservative amendment and in support of the Liberal Democrat amendments.

What would be the effect of the Tory amendment? It would simply remove the possibility--not the certainty--of road user charging. However, if road user charging were implemented after the viable public transport alternatives were put in place, it could play a major role in raising funds for investment in public transport, in improving the health of the one child in seven who suffers from asthma and in helping the United Kingdom to meet its CO 2 reduction targets. Finally, it could play a major role in helping the boroughs to deliver

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on their target of a 10 per cent. reduction in road traffic, which was agreed under the previous Government and which they have to hit.

Mr. Ottaway: May I take it from the hon. Gentleman that the Liberal Democrats will be campaigning in next year's mayoral elections on a pledge to introduce road user charging?

Mr. Brake: I am happy to respond to that intervention. My understanding is that one of the Conservative contenders for mayor, Steve Norris, has indicated his support for the proposals. We have clearly said that we see a role for road user charging in reducing congestion in London. I am happy for that to go on the record.

The official Opposition have to confirm whether they are committed to the targets for CO 2 reduction to which the Government have signed up and whether they are committed to the road traffic reduction targets in the Road Traffic Reduction Act 1997, which was passed when the previous Government were still in office. Are they doing a U-turn on that issue, as on so many others?

Even if the official Opposition are not convinced of the environmental arguments in favour of road user charging, are they not convinced that investment will arise from charges? In the unlikely event of a Conservative mayor or a Conservative Government being elected, how would they fund the investment that was needed? They have been distinctly quiet on that key point.

Mr. Gray: The hon. Gentleman has obviously forgotten that, only last week, he was one of those who voted in favour of the oft-quoted report of the Transport Sub-Committee of the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee. The report said, in absolutely straightforward terms, that road charging must be hypothecated, additional and permanent, and must not be used for revenue streams of any kind. It appears that he is, in classic Liberal fashion, arguing exactly the opposite of what he signed up to last week.

Mr. Brake: On the contrary, I am arguing in favour of everything listed by the Committee in its report. I shall come to those points in a moment.

Road user charging must involve additionality, which is why we tabled an amendment to that effect yesterday. It did not receive the support of the official Opposition, apparently because they did not understand what it meant. Road user charging must be hypothecated for the purposes of public transport, cycling and walking, which is why we have tabled an amendment on that subject. It must also be hypothecated permanently, and we have tabled an amendment to that effect.

It is clear that we cannot possibly support the Conservative amendment, which is all to do with political opportunism--a splurge in the media a few days before an election. It pays no regard to London's environment or to the investment needs of London Transport.

Mr. Gray: I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in a debate that is extraordinarily important--not only to proceedings on the Bill, but to the recent general discussion on transport, particularly in the context of the integrated transport White Paper. The White Paper is much lauded by Labour Members and, as I have had

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occasion to say once or twice, the Transport Sub- Committee studied it recently and produced a report last week.

If we are to address the problems that we all face in cities and towns across this small country of ours, we will have to address the question of congestion. I take issue with speakers on both sides of the House--Liberal Democrat and Labour Members--who have suggested that, somehow or other, Her Majesty's official Opposition are opposed to reducing congestion. Of course we arenot; all along--when we were in government for 18 triumphant years and since--we have made it plain that we are wholeheartedly in favour of reducing congestion. It is terribly important that we should do so for health reasons, because of air pollution and so that people can get about the town.

That brings me on slightly, to a point to which I alluded a moment ago. Most commentators produce ideas on environmental questions, not necessarily because they believe that they will carry them out, but because they hope that everyone else will carry them out. Two or three examples spring to mind. All my constituents talk gaily about how important it is to support village shops--and, indeed, it is--but, goodness me, they spend £5 in the village shop once a week and then zip round to Sainsbury's by road to spend £200 or £300 on their week's shopping. Although they pay lip service to reducing congestion by using the village shop, they contribute to it by going to Safeway or Sainsbury's.

The same applies to road user charging. People talk about reducing congestion in central London, for example. They say, "Until now, I have been using my motor car to get to central London. I would like you, Mr. Mayor, to introduce road user charging. That will hurt me in my pocket, so I will give up my car and get on the underground." Oh, no, that is not what they mean at all. They mean, "I want you, Mr. Mayor, to introduce road user charging. That will mean that there will be a great reduction in traffic across London, so I can drive into the office much more quickly than I have been for the past two or three years." That is entirely selfish and entirely the opposite of what is proposed.

The Government seem to be in nirvana. They think that, somehow, introducing this road tax--an entry fee of £10 according to my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway), although I hope that that figure is wrong--will make people better and make London a better place. All it will mean is that company car users will lob the fee back to their company accountants. Millionaires driving their Rolls-Royces will not be bothered about a fee--they would pay £8 or £10 with no trouble at all, and would pay £10, £20 or £30 for parking. They would not care about that. However, old people who need their motor cars to get to the shops, disabled people who cannot get down the steps into the underground and poor people who cannot afford to pay £10 would be damaged by such a fee.

Road user charges would have exactly the opposite effect to that which the Government describe, but would encourage the people whom I mentioned to say, "Fine. I have a big BMW and I work in a bank in the City of London. I do not care about road user charges. Indeed,

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they will make things even better because the roads of London will be clear for me to zip along at 90 miles an hour."

Mr. Darvill: A borough or a mayor introducing such a scheme would take into account, through concessionary measures, people with disabilities. Would that not answer the hon. Gentleman's point? Moreover, the groups to which he referred would benefit from improved public transport.

7.30 pm

Mr. Gray: The hon. Gentleman reminds me of a point that he made in his thoughtful speech, which was about allowing individual boroughs to do different things. Let us imagine a situation in which the borough of Hackney signs up to road user charging and is determined to keep cars out of the borough. It may say, "We will charge road users £20 so that no one comes through the borough." Given the ring of steel around the City of London, the City of London would almost certainly say, "Fine. We are determined to deter cars from going through the City of London, so we will charge road users £100." My friend the fat cat in his BMW would not care about that. Those who would care are people in the borough of Islington and boroughs south of the river, which would be used as rat runs by those avoiding the heavy charges.

Allowing a borough to make up its own mind on road user charging would have exactly the opposite effect from that described by the hon. Member for Upminster (Mr. Darvill). That point was brought out clearly in the Labour-dominated Select Committee report last week, which deals not with London, but with other parts of the country. It says that it would be wrong if a local authority had the right to make up its own mind about road user charging or parking charges because that would have an appalling effect on neighbouring boroughs and councils. It says that such decisions should be made by the regions. I do not recall exactly what the report says, but it was said in the Select Committee discussions that the regional development agencies, or possibly the elected regional governments--if, heaven forfend, those ever come about--might be the right bodies to make those decisions. If local authorities were allowed to make them, the effect on neighbouring councils would be deleterious.


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