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3.45 pm

There are major problems with congestion charging. We oppose it in principle because we believe that a Government who tax motorists at the rate that they do should not be looking for another means of taxing drivers, of controlling drivers and of discriminating against drivers--because, for most people, the car is not a luxury but a necessity.

Perhaps central London might be the one example where there are some public transport alternatives to car use, but those of us who represent shire counties know that most people do not have an alternative. If my local authority determines that it wishes to use the legislation to introduce congestion charging, it could have dire consequences for people living out in rural Dorset who may wish to visit Poole. The charge will have a deadly

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effect on rural dwellers, who do not get many of the benefits of those who live in towns, and who need a car to get to school or to the health centre, and to go shopping.

Mr. Peter Snape (West Bromwich, East): Does the hon. Gentleman think that his authority should have the right to decide for itself whether to apply that charge?

Mr. Syms: It is probably better that the legislation is framed to allow the local authority to decide for itself, because it gives the Conservatives an opportunity to capture the authority and block it, and it provides a valuable campaigning mechanism for the Conservative party. I admit that, from a political point of view, congestion charging has many benefits for the Conservative party. I am sure that, if such charging is implemented and pursued by many authorities, including Labour authorities--and those controlled by the Liberal Democrats, who have shown a degree of enthusiasm for the policy that would worry any right-thinking person--we in the Conservative party will be the bastion of freedom and will defend people's ability to go about their ordinary life, dealing with the things that they need to deal with without undue state interference and excessive taxation.

New clause 28 would be an improvement on the Bill. I consider that congestion charging is a socialist measure, if I may use that word. When it is implemented throughout the United Kingdom, it will distribute money from people who need to use their vehicle to governmental organisations such as local authorities, who, in my opinion, do not spend money as well as the ordinary British public do.

I have always had a great feeling that money is better spent when it is in the pockets of hard-working people and their families. It is a form of regressive taxation to transfer money in such a way. I regret that the charge will penalise those who are less able to afford it, who I think will see in the Conservative party a one-nation party, standing up for their interests--standing up for people's right to go about their day-to-day business without excessive interference by the state, and without the overlay of further taxation.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): I am not absolutely sure what the hon. Gentleman means. Is he saying that if a local authority already has on its books the right to carry out congestion charging and that money is being directly diverted to a transport system that benefits the people of that community, an incoming local authority that was Conservative controlled would automatically abrogate those powers and insist on the dismantling of the transport system?

Mr. Syms: For local elections, the local manifesto will be produced by the people in each political party who know their local area and its priorities. My party opposes congestion charging in principle, but of course we are a diverse and large party, and we are growing larger by the day. Certainly, since Thursday, there are many more

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Conservatives up and down the land. The number of Conservative councillors has doubled since the present Government came to office.

Mrs. Dunwoody: So?

Mr. Syms: It is basically for the local councillors to determine what they wish to do, given their priorities.

Mr. Tony Clarke (Northampton, South): The hon. Gentleman referred to one-nation Conservatism and almost gave the pledge that all Conservative councils would not introduce congestion charging. For clarity, will he answer the question that he has already been asked? Does he foresee circumstances in which Conservative councils may introduce congestion charging or not use that money for the purposes that my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) described?

Mr. Syms: Of course Conservative councils will have to deal with the situation as they find it. Legislation and local transport plans are drawn up in such a way that, if there is a change of political control, there can be a change of political direction. Any incoming authority will have to judge, as the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) suggested, whether the kerfuffle and fuss of dismantling a scheme will be worse than keeping it going for a while, particularly if set-up costs are taken into account. However, they are matters of detail that responsible Conservative councillors will consider after they have won control of local authorities.

The House is dealing with the Bill and with principles, and the Conservative party is clearly opposed to the proposal.

Mr. Bercow: We have got principles.

Mr. Syms: Conservative Members have principles; that may appear shocking.

The new clause would ensure that, when charging schemes are introduced, the benefits of them actually go to the areas for which they are intended. We had much debate in Committee about whether moneys could be used in other areas or those next door, and all the surveys that I have seen suggest that there is substantial opposition to charging. The only silver lining for the Government is that, when people are asked whether they would support a scheme if the money were used for transport schemes, the response is occasionally more positive.

Our new clause is designed to be helpful. If the Government think that charging is the way forward, they will accept it. That might be a palliative for Conservative Members, who would otherwise consider the proposal to be an offensive socialist measure. I take great pleasure in moving the new clause.

Mr. Snape: It is a pity that the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) chose to move the new clause. In our protracted Committee stage, he was always the voice of sweet reason among Conservative Members. He normally avoided controversy as much as he could. I realise that such conduct would not automatically be approved by some of the Conservative Members sitting behind him, so he has had to stiffen up his act for Report.

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It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman described congestion charging as a socialist measure--Labour Members are not often accused of introducing them these days. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister reminded the House today, such a scheme first saw the light of day in a Conservative party document, so it is difficult to describe it in that way. I am sad that the hon. Gentleman had to go through convolutions as he moved the new clause; he is much better leaving the nasty stuff to the hon. Member for North Essex, who has somewhat belatedly joined us. It was much easier, in Committee, to knock the hon. Member for North Essex around a bit, but, if the hon. Member for Poole has decided to adopt the mantle of North Essex, he can expect to be knocked around a bit himself in this debate.

I do not know how many allies the Conservative party will plead it has for the new clause. The hon. Member for Poole trotted out all the sad old statistics about how much money motorists and road users pay and how little, comparatively speaking, they receive in return. Figures can be bandied around day and night, but they always fail to include to any great extent the costs to the police, the courts and hospitals and the costs of congestion and pollution that road users--most of us fall into that category--create. Motoring organisations all too often use such figures to argue against proposals such as the one that emanated from the Conservative party.

In the hon. Gentleman's private moments--if he is ever allowed any--he will have to concede that we cannot proceed as we are. The fact that more and more people understandably desire to acquire and drive motor cars--most Members are motorists--means that, sooner or later, the point of total gridlock will be reached in many towns and cities even if it has not been reached occasionally already.

Conservative Members, especially the hon. Member for Poole, are always short on solutions to the problems of congestion. They no longer propose to return to the great car economy so beloved of Lady Thatcher, which involved applying the predict-and-provide theory to road space, because they know full well that, in most parts of the country, building new roads is enormously unpopular.

That is especially true of--let me describe them as non-controversially as possible--the more affluent Conservative parts of the country. People living in those areas often demand the freedom, as the hon. Gentleman puts it, to drive their car wherever they like. However, proposals to widen motorways, build new trunk roads or make life easier for motorists are normally greeted with an enormous outcry and the best legal brains are immediately engaged to frustrate any local authority--or even the Government--wishing to bring forward such a proposal. The hon. Gentleman's speech is therefore long on problems and short on solutions.

Amazingly enough, the hon. Gentleman does not, these days, speak for business. The Conservative party always used to claim that it was the voice of business, but, in doing so, it draped itself in a false cloak. Now, however, even business acknowledges that something has to be done about congestion. Indeed, to a limited extent, the voice of business, the Confederation of British Industry--whose comments I shall come to in a moment--has come round to the view that some form of congestion charging is essential in many of our towns and cities if total gridlock is to be avoided.

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I am not saying that we should rush into anything overnight and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will underline that in his reply. There must be adequate consultation. However, is the hon. Member for Poole seriously suggesting that we should deny local authorities the right to make up their own mind on the implementation of such schemes? That appeared to be what he was saying. He went on to claim that there was popular opposition to those schemes, which was likely to boost the Conservative party. I am surprised that he, of all people, should use that populist argument. I accept that times are bad for the Tory party and that any threadbare, right-wing policy is going to be brought out of the locker, dusted down and given a run out.

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