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Mr. Efford: If accountability comes into it, should the mayor not have the right to choose whether to introduce road charging? By taking his approach, would the hon. Gentleman not be denying the democratic right of the people of London to choose whether they want road pricing?

Mr. Gray: The hon. Gentleman is quite right. However, with the amendment, we are trying to protect

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the people of London from the stealth tax that the Government propose to introduce in the Bill. We are opposed to congestion charging. We do not believe in charging Londoners £8 or £10 to use their own roads. The Labour party does, and the Liberal Democrats may or may not--but, as usual, it is not certain. That is true accountability. I am sure that, if the debate is reported--I hope that it will be reported during the campaign for the mayoral elections--it will be absolutely plain that the Conservative party is wholeheartedly opposed to road congestion charging. We have spoken against it for some time, but the other parties are in favour of it. It is worth putting it on the record that the Conservative party is the only party opposed to road user charging.

It should be made clear that the proposal that the amendment would change is not about congestion, health, air quality or any of the worthy issues that some hon. Members have referred to, but about revenue for the mayor. If done nationally, it is about revenue for the Treasury. That is one of the strongest reasons why we have tabled the amendment.

7.45 pm

Mr. Ken Livingstone (Brent, East): As there is such interest in what intending candidates for mayor would do, I can tell the House that I was initially sceptical about the congestion tax. I was aware of the origins of the tax. It was not drawn up in Labour party headquarters, and it is not some product of a leftie think tank: it comes from the neo-liberal, Thatcherite right. Milton Friedman and others argued for a congestion tax. According to my broader version of it, it is a flat-rate tax, like the poll tax. It would not be my tax of first choice to fund transport, but it is an integral part of the Government's transport strategy for Britain.

London is being given the chance to introduce this tax ahead of the rest of the country, largely because if it cannot work here, it will not work anywhere else in Britain. We still have a good public transport infrastructure and a degree of congestion that makes the case.

I think that there is wide public acceptance that something like a congestion tax must be introduced. The debate will be about the levels. [Interruption.] I see Conservative Members shaking their heads, but I have received detailed documents from broadly business organisations in London calling for a £5 tax. Taxi drivers, who are not normally part of the militant tendency, are talking about £7.50, although they think that they should be exempt. That is understandable, because the taxi trade should be integrated into the overall Government public transport strategy.

Mr. Ottaway: Before the hon. Gentleman is completely seduced by the pleas of the business community in support of the road user tax, he should be aware that it is trying to distract attention from the workplace parking levy, which affects businesses. If he reads on, he will find that businesses are opposed to the workplace parking levy, and that they want the man on the street--or, more to the point, the man behind the wheel--to pay the extra taxes rather than business.

Mr. Livingstone: It will come as no surprise to the hon. Gentleman that I find the car park tax a more attractive proposition, because it is not a flat-rate tax.

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To provide the extra resources that London needs to have a dramatic improvement in the quality of public transport, money has to come from somewhere else. The Government will not suddenly open their coffers to London so that there is a great flood of extra resources. As London is substantially more wealthy than the rest of the United Kingdom, and inner London is the richest region anywhere in the European Union, it is not unreasonable that we look to Londoners to pay part of the price of improving the quality of public transport.

A list of proposals is rapidly building up among candidates across the political spectrum. Jeffrey Archer wants high-speed bus lanes. Proposals for new buses from the outskirts, conductors back on the buses and improved cleaning of the buses will require money. I think that Londoners would be prepared to pay a reasonable sum to see an improvement in the quality of public transport, so that people are encouraged to leave their cars at home.

The tax could be introduced in a divisive and counter-productive way. It could be a massive levy dumped on Londoners without first seeing some improvement in the quality of public transport. I have not the slightest doubt that the Labour party manifesto for the mayor and assembly for London, and all the leading Labour candidates for the assembly and the mayoralty, will propose a phased introduction and tying the tax to a real improvement in the quality of public transport. That will produce the circumstances in which we can recreate the impact that the Greater London council's fares cut had in 1981 of getting people to leave their cars at home and switch to public transport.

Careful handling and planning will be needed. We shall have to listen to what Londoners say about the level at which the charge should be set, and the areas that will be affected. We shall have to be cautious. It would be a great mistake to set this tax at a level that would cause a public backlash, or to create the impression that we favour an anti-car strategy rather than a pro-public transport strategy.

I think that, during the debate that will take place in the coming year as the election of mayor becomes closer, we shall see that Londoners are prepared to pay that bitmore to put a public transport system that previous Administrations have ignored for the best part of two decades back on its feet, and to ensure that it is effective, efficient and clean. At the same time, encouraging people to leave their cars at home by means of the combination of a congestion tax and improved public transport will lead to a better quality of life in London as pollution, congestion and the number of accidents are reduced.

I see the attraction to the Tory party of an opportunity to say, "This is just another tax. We are opposed to it, as we are opposed to every tax." The Tories will have to answer a question, however: where will the money needed to improve public transport come from if they turn their backs on the tax measures that the Government are giving Londoners a chance to implement? For we are talking about Londoners: it will be Londoners who go to the polls next May knowing where their candidates--Tory, Liberal and Labour--stand on the issue. I have no doubt that they will cast their votes, by an overwhelming majority, for candidates who are prepared to use these taxes to improve public transport and the quality of life in our city.

Mr. Edward Davey: I thank the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) for bringing us back

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to reality, and for referring to the need to tackle congestion. The hon. Member for North Wiltshire(Mr. Gray) took us down an odd path when he spoke of paying £5 in his village shop and £300 in the nearest supermarket, especially as no London Conservative Members were present at the time.

Congestion is a huge problem in the capital. The hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) said that it had not increased in the past 20 years, but that is because it is so bad. It is a real problem in both inner and outer London. When I knock on doors in my constituency, I find that people raise the issue of traffic congestion time and again. They want the Government to give a lead.

We have not talked about the market economics behind road use charges. The Conservative party used to be the party that believed in market economics and price signals. One reason for traffic congestion is that public highways are a free good: people do not have to pay to use them. Basic macro-economic theory shows that, when a free good is available, people tend to use far too much, because they do not have to pay for it. When a price mechanism is introduced, people are given a signal to help them to make choices, and resources can be allocated more efficiently across society.

Mr. Howard Flight (Arundel and South Downs): Does the hon. Gentleman apply the same arguments to the national health service, as his logic suggests?

Mr. Davey: I can see from your frown, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you do want me to stray too far from the amendment, so I shall be careful about how I answer that question. The national health service was established to be free at the point of use: that was one of its basic notions.

People want to be able to travel along Britain's roads without the problem of congestion, and they want the Government to come up with policies to prevent it. That is the thinking behind this policy. We need only consider the incentives that will result from road user charging. People will ask themselves, "Do I really have to take that journey in my car? Is there an alternative?" Not only Londoners, but those living in the constituency of the hon. Member for North Wiltshire who are coming to London may think twice. Perhaps they will leave their Mercedes at home and get on the train, even if they are as wealthy as they seem to be.

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