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Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. May I refer you to a debate that took place in Westminster Hall yesterday, during which the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas) referred in detail to a planning application in my constituency? He concluded by inviting the Minister to intervene in that planning application in my constituency. He did that without consulting or even informing me. I submit to you, Madam Speaker, that that is a gross parliamentary discourtesy, and I invite you now to so rule.
Madam Speaker: It is usual that, when Members refer to issues relating to another Member's constituency, in the House, in Committee or in the parallel Chamber, it is a common courtesy for that Member to let the hon. Member representing the constituency know that he will be doing so. It is a good practice that has operated in the House for some time, and I hope that it will continue to be maintained.
Mr. Gareth R. Thomas (Harrow, West): With the benefit of hindsight, Madam Speaker, and following your guidance, I clearly should have informed the hon. Gentleman, and I apologise to him and to the House. I make no apology for raising the issue, and if the hon. Gentleman is serious about protecting the countryside, perhaps he will make common cause with me on this issue.
Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. On a related but separate issue, the Minister of State, Home Office, the right hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng) did not inform me of a recent visit to my constituency. I read about it in the Manchester Evening News. He had been in a car parked just a few hundred yards from my home in Altrincham. Is that not another instance of normal parliamentary courtesies being forgotten?
Madam Speaker: The hon. Gentleman is in a most unfortunate position. I often get letters from him in which he raises similar points of order. He must have a most attractive constituency. But of course, it is a common practice that Members--certainly Ministers, who have a staff--should notify the Member concerned when a visit is being made. When I come, I shall let the hon. Gentleman know, because he obviously has an interesting and attractive constituency.
'Moneys collected under a charging scheme shall be used solely and exclusively for the purpose of improving roads and public transport for the benefit of those who are subject to the charge.'.--[Mr. Syms.]
First, I wish to declare an interest. Hon. Members should be aware of it from the Register of Members' Interests. I am a director of a family business with interests in road haulage and building and which owns property that may be affected by workplace parking. So hon. Members should see any comments that I make on congestion charging or workplace parking within the context of my interest.
In general, Conservative Members are opposed to congestion charging. We believe that it is a tax, and should be seen within the context of a Government who take £36 billion in road taxes and put only just over £5 billion back into transport spending.
Rather than spending the money raised from taxation, the Government's solution to transport problems is to seek further ways to tax the motorist and interfere in people's lives so that they may gain a little more money for public transport schemes. The millions of motorists in the UK pay substantial sums for using their vehicles. People often use their cars for their business or their family--the necessities of life--and will be upset that the Government's desire is that they should pay substantially more for the privilege.
The Bill sets out a regime under which local authorities or the Greater London mayor may set up schemes for congestion charging. That is bad news, but those of last Thursday's elections that returned Conservative councillors were good news for people against congestion charging, because Conservative councils will oppose it.
Given the exchanges during Prime Minister's questions a few moments ago, it is interesting that the elected mayor of London--the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone)--is committed to charging, but that nine Conservative members were elected to the Greater London authority. Will the Minister confirm that, as the Prime Minister said, Labour members of the authority will stand by their manifesto and oppose congestion charging? The regime for Greater London is such that, if two thirds of the authority oppose the mayor, they will carry the day. The arithmetic of nine Conservative and nine Labour members means that congestion charging for central London can be blocked. It would be useful if the Minister would confirm that that is so.
The public and the electors of London would be interested to have confirmed the attitude of the Labour party and its members of the GLA. Big money is involved, and the matter will have a major effect on the new authority and the mayor.
Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): In speaking out against congestion charging, does my hon. Friend agree that the Conservative opposition on the GLA is reinforced by the election in the west central area of Angie Bray, which we warmly celebrate? She can be relied on to be a continuing and articulate opponent of the mayor of London on that and other matters.
Mr. Syms: I am sure that Angie Bray will be an excellent member, and that all nine Conservatives will make a major contribution to the new authority. It would be good to have some clarification of where the Labour party stands on whether it is worth pursuing some of the schemes involved. Motorists pay £36 billion in road taxes--nearly £1 in every £7 collected in taxation. Yet the Government's policy is to collect more tax from the long-suffering motorist.
We should have preferred to strike schemes out completely, but we have tabled the new clause because it is not always possible on Report to table the amendments that one would want. We aim to ensure that if, in the face of Conservative opposition, a local authority unfortunate enough to have a Liberal or Labour majority or a coalition, wants to proceed with a scheme, the money collected must be spent on improving the area subject to charge. It is a belt-and-braces proposal; the Bill reflects the Government's intention that money should be spent within the area, but we wish to re-emphasise that point to protect those who pay what may be large amounts.
The Government set up ROCOL--the review of charging options for London--because of the provisions in the Greater London Authority Act 1999. The ROCOL study considered various options and charges that ranged from £2.50 to £10 a day for driving in central London. The most likely figure seemed to be £5 a day according to the study. Such charges could affect 200,000 cars and 50,000 commercial vehicles and could result in traffic being diverted, as most charging schemes do--up to 50,000 vehicles could be diverted out of the central area.
The ROCOL study suggested that one would need 150 places where vehicles could be stopped and inspected and about 400 enforcement staff. My understanding of the study--the Minister may have a different view--was that such charging would have a marginal benefit in terms of traffic congestion. However, we already have capacity problems on the underground and on buses, and charging would lead to even more overcrowding even if only a few more people decided to travel in that way.
If the charge were £5 a day, the yield would be between £260 million and £320 million in central London. No doubt the exchanges during Prime Minister's questions could mean big money. If that sort of money could be taken off people who have to come into central London, as well as a lower figure in other city centres throughout the United Kingdom, motorists would be paying substantial sums. The ROCOL study suggested that operating costs might be £50 million a year.
New clause 28 sets out to ensure that, if the measure were implemented in the teeth of opposition, the moneys would be used to benefit those who are subject to the charge. The genesis of the argument on the issue is that when charging was first proposed for London, in the Greater London Authority Bill, the Opposition moved an amendment to ensure that there would be a link between the charge and where the money was spent. A 10-year guarantee was written into the 1999 Act to ensure that the income generated from congestion charging would be used to the benefit of transport in the area concerned.
New clause 28 does not propose a definite period. It would be unfair to institute a new system, particularly given the £36 billion raised in road taxes, to raise money for an area, only to abandon that system and use the money for other things--as another means of taxation.
The Opposition are concerned because, even though there has been talk of hypothecation, it has been suggested only for a limited period. The cost of setting up and implementing charging schemes will not be insubstantial. Although the income from the schemes would initially cover the costs, in the long term we are concerned that the money should be spent to benefit the people who pay the charge.
There are concerns about congestion charging in general. Who should be exempt? During our many hours of happy deliberations in Committee about who should be exempt, we received representations from all sorts of organisations. Trade organisations, such as the Association of International Courier and Express Services, raised concerns, as did organisations that deliver parcels and always have to be nipping in and out of city centres. We were informed about some exemptions for emergency vehicles, but the Automobile Association, the Royal Automobile Club and so on expressed concerns about whether those exemptions affected them.