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3.32 pm

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury): I very much enjoyed the Deputy Prime Minister's contribution, but I am confused about the Government's policies and objectives for transport. I am not sure whether they want to increase the revenue to the Exchequer--the right hon. Gentleman implied that that was a priority--to have an

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integrated transport policy or to achieve sustainable development. The Government have certainly succeeded in increasing the revenue to the Exchequer, and the motorist has inevitably been hit hard as a result. However, they have failed to implement an integrated transport policy and to achieve their sustainable development objective.

I declare an interest: smokers receive a poor return on the amount of money that is spent on health care to treat smoking-related diseases, compared to the amount that they contribute to the Exchequer. The same is true of road users because they contribute far more to the Exchequer than they ever receive back in money spent on roads.

According to a written answer from the Minister for Transport, for the most recent year for which figures are available, the Exchequer received a total of £35 billion from all taxation levied on vehicles and those working in the industry. However, only £1.8 billion, a mere fraction of the sum that is collected, is spent on roads. The motorist, like the smoker, therefore gets a very poor return on his investment. That situation is made worse by a number of other Government policies.

First, the amount that the motorist is being asked to contribute is increasing. The insurance premium tax has, from this month, been increased from 4 to 5 per cent. The fuel escalator, which the Government increased, continues to apply. However, the amount of money spent on roads is, by comparison, static. In fact, in a recent discussion, members of my local county council complained to me that because the funding rules have been changed, they are left with a decreasing amount of money to spend on B roads and small country lanes, forcing them to allow those roads to deteriorate.

Secondly, there are further threats to the motorist in the form of direct charging for road use or charges for workplace or supermarket parking. When motorists already contribute such a huge amount to the Exchequer, why should they pay more for something that they now enjoy? In other words, a charge to enjoy a new road is one thing, but charging motorists to use roads that they have already paid for time and again is quite different.

The Government have increased the amount paid to the Exchequer by road users, but have, I accept, improved the ratio of return to those road users on what is paid out by them. The Government have failed, however, to provide the motorist with an alternative to car use. They have failed even to begin to devise an integrated transport policy. I am not sure that anybody knows what that term means, although I am certain that nobody is benefiting from it. In spite of all the discouragement through taxation, car usage remains stubbornly high, and a great deal of freight remains on the roads.

I shall give an example which I am sure all hon. Members will recognise. My constituency is only a two-hour drive from London, or at least it used to be, but now the dedicated bus lane in the fast lane of the motorway--or what CB enthusiasts used to call the suicide lane--has considerably slowed my journey. The only cars that I have seen using that lane are taxis with one passenger, so I am not sure what it has achieved.

What are the rail alternatives for travelling from Tewkesbury to London? I could catch the train from Cheltenham, which usually involves changing trains twice along the way. The service is extremely unreliable, and it would take at least an hour longer than my car journey.

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Following a discussion with members of the county council, I asked the Minister for Transport what discussions she had had with Railtrack and the providers of the rail services. She replied that there had been no discussions. There is not, therefore, a great deal of encouragement to use the trains.

Mr. Quinn: Will the hon. Gentleman tell the House how much discussion he has had with Railtrack and the train operators?

Mr. Robertson: I have had a great deal of discussion with them because of all the complaints that I have received about the level of service. I do not seem to be making any headway, which is why I went to a higher authority and asked the Minister to intervene. Until the date of that written answer, she had not done so, but I hope that, following this debate, she may be persuaded to intervene.

I have referred to the enormous sum--£35 billion--that is taken from the motorist, of which £1.8 billion is spent on roads and £2.6 billion on alternative travel. There is not much encouragement for anybody to do anything other than drive his car.

I sit on the Environmental Audit Committee, and I would welcome any move to reduce car travel and protect the environment if that were possible. The Committee interviewed the Minister about that, and I am not sure whether the Government want to shorten car journeys, to reduce the number of car journeys or to make those journeys cleaner. There is a difference between those objectives, and their achievement would require different policies.

Reducing the level of vehicle excise duty on cars below 1100 cc may have captured a few headlines, but it has achieved very little. If the Government had been serious about reducing the levels of emissions from cars--in other words, if their policies had been environmentally rather than economically driven--they would have set the level at 1500 cc engines. However, I accept that, these days, there is no direct correlation between the size of an engine and the emissions from it. Again, we have a headline-grabbing policy that means very little.

I am advised by the Government that average emissions from cars with engines below 1100 cc are equivalent to 139 g of carbon dioxide per kilometre, and from cars with engines between 1500 and 1600 cc, 160 g. If the level of VED had been reduced for vehicles with larger engines, the policy would have encompassed more people. However, the Exchequer would have lost out, and that is the point--the Government's policy is economically, rather than environmentally, driven.

There is no doubt that the motorist has been hit very hard by the Government's policies, with no benefit to the environment and no alternative transport provided for the motorist. Rural residents and those on low incomes, who have to use their car to travel to work, have been hit particularly hard. As always, those who can least afford it are made to pay the most. I have no objection to sensible, consistent policies to entice motorists to use other forms of transport, but we shall not achieve that by using the blunt instrument of high taxation on its own.

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3.39 pm

Mr. Shaun Woodward (Witney): The hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell (Mr. Taylor), in true Liberal Democrat fashion, managed to misrepresent Conservative policies launched this week. For the record, we are not against traffic calming where it is fair. In rural areas and in villages, it is often--[Interruption.] Labour Members may laugh, but we believe in local choice, and where people in countryside areas, such as villages, want traffic calming, it is entirely appropriate that they should have it. The Labour party may wish to tell them what to do with their lives; we shall listen to people locally.

For the record, we are in favour of traffic-calming measures where they are appropriate, but not where they are wholly inappropriate--on major routes or when they are imposed on people.

Mr. Matthew Taylor: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Woodward: No, I will not give way, because time is short and the hon. Gentleman has had a great deal of time to make his arguments.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) rightly drew attention to the unfair contract that the Government make with the motorist. They take his money in tax, they take it again in tax and they look for another way to take it one more time in tax, yet they offer little or nothing back. My hon. Friend has rightly revealed that Government transport policy is a major disaster area. If you want confirmation of that, Mr. Deputy Speaker, The Guardian/ICM poll this week revealed the depth of public unhappiness with the Deputy Prime Minister's handling of roads, rail and the London underground. The poll showed--doubtless the Deputy Prime Minister is grateful for anything that he can get at the moment--that one third of those surveyed were content, but more than half said that he was doing a bad job.

Congestion on the roads in this country has reached sclerotic proportions. All over Britain, motorists sit in longer and longer queues, going more and more slowly, with many of them going nowhere. The number of standstill areas grows by the day. As the British Road Federation recently said:


Why? As independent research commissioned by the British Road Federation shows, whereas in the mid-1990s, trunk road and motorway infrastructure improvement spending ran at £1 billion a year, under the present Government, who like to claim so much, it has been slashed to £0.3 billion between now and the end of the Parliament.

In addition, the backlog of maintenance on our roads is the longest in 20 years. The 1998 national road maintenance condition survey recorded the worst overall result since the survey was first produced in 1977.

The most recent local transport survey published by the Institution of Civil Engineers has found that the backlog of maintenance of local authority roads stands at £4.9 billion. That is an increase of 20 per cent. in the backlog since 1996--and, as the Minister for Transport knows, the Automobile Association has just reported that the backlog continues to grow by £1 billion a year.

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It will be interesting to see whether Labour Members try to make a genuine case to substantiate any suggestion that the London underground has got better in the past two years.


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