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Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Snape: I shall give way in a moment, if he will allow me to finish this thought.

I can well understand the desire of the hon. Member for Poole to pose as the motorists' friend. However, most thinking motorists know full well that we cannot go on as we are. Many of them, even dedicated Conservative voters, must have misgivings about the empty-headed nature of much of the opposition from Conservative Members. This strikes me as an appropriate time to give way to the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray).

Mr. Gray: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is only half-headed, for giving way. His point about the Conservative party having a difficult time is silly. Does he think that the Conservatives winning 600 council seats from the Labour party last Thursday is an indication of bad times for my party? Does he agree that that result is, in part, a consequence of his party hammering the motorist in the past two or three years?

Mr. Snape: If I go too far down that road, I am sure that you will call me to order, Madam Speaker.

The Conservative party reminds me of a boxer who has managed to climb off the canvas and is now on his knees. In those circumstances, any referee would stop the contest. However, if the hon. Gentleman feels that the Tory party is up and running, even though many commentators, like me, believe that it is on its knees, then good luck to him. I am not averse to a bit of good cheer from Tory Members from time to time. It has been pretty hard work sitting on these Benches looking at their miserable faces for as many years as I have done, and anything that cheers them up is to be welcomed.

However, I fear that the Conservatives' joy may well be short lived, because of their mindless opposition to the Government proposal. Talking of mindless opposition, I see that the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) is about to intervene.

4 pm

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham): As one of the mindless Opposition, perhaps I may point out to the hon. Gentleman that, in the rural constituency that I represent, which does not have public transport to any extent--it does not have any buses--the Government's taxes on fuel have hit families, particularly those on below and average earnings, extremely hard. The Government are proposing

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to make the lives of those people even more difficult and costly, because when they drive into a town, they will have to pay a tax to do so. That is why my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) said that the proposal is a regressive tax; it will hurt people who can least afford it.

Mr. Snape: Those people will have to do no such thing. The proposals give local authorities the right--presumably after consultation, as I said to my hon. Friend the Minister--to introduce such schemes. Local authorities are not in the business of committing political suicide. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman's local authority took advantage of the rural bus scheme introduced by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister.

Mr. Atkinson indicated assent.

Mr. Snape: The hon. Gentleman nods, so I am sure that the more concerned members of his electorate will be aware that, under the Conservatives, there were no buses at all but, under a Labour Government, there is a subsidy that would help bus companies to run in his area. I repeat that Conservative Members should stop falling for their own party's propaganda. We are not saying that in every town and city there will be a fence, a barrier through which it will be impossible to drive a car without paying an enormous sum. The Bill is about giving local authorities the right to decide for themselves. That appears eminently democratic.

Mr. Ivan Henderson (Harwich): Is my hon. Friend aware of a recent article on transport in the local paper of the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin)--it is a pity that he is not present--in which it is said of him:

Is that not what some of the Bill is aiming to achieve?

Mr. Snape: Alas, if only such a sensible fellow had ever participated in our deliberations in Committee or the House. I have a copy of the article. The photograph in it is pretty poor, but it looks like the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin). The caption underneath it reads, "suitable traffic on suitable roads". I am sure that, in his heart of hearts, like the hon. Member for Poole, the hon. Gentleman, as principal Opposition spokesperson on transport, agrees that there is much common sense in the Bill and wishes that he did not have to behave in such a daft way in opposing everything that the Government propose, and denouncing it, as did the hon. Member for Poole, as a wicked example of socialism penalising those least able to pay congestion charges.

Enough of the Conservative party; let it enjoy Thursday's minor triumph. I want to put a couple of points to my hon. Friend the Minister.

Before motorists and others are asked to pay congestion charges, they will need some reassurance on how any money raised will be spent. I look forward to my hon. Friend assuring the House that he will indicate to local authorities--I will not say direct because we do not like

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directing local authorities; we believe in democracy in local government--that revenues raised must be spent directly on transport. I hope that he will again say to local authorities that, before introducing such schemes-- I repeat that they have a right to do so--they should ensure that proper public transport is available as an alternative in their areas.

I break off to apologise to the House. I should have declared an interest when I got to my feet as the chairman of a bus company that is part of the National Express group. I apologise to you, Madam Speaker, and to the House for forgetting to do so. I declared the interest in yesterday's debate, but I understand that one must do so daily. Before any Conservative Member points out any of my failings, I apologise.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Snape: I knew that I was letting myself in for something; I give way.

Mr. Howarth: I say to the hon. Gentleman, your neighbour, Madam Speaker, that we are all aware of the important post that he holds and the interest that he carries. We feel that the House is much better informed as a result of his outside interest. He does not need to declare his interest--Opposition Members are aware of it throughout our debates.

Mr. Snape: I am delighted that even a normally combative soul such as the hon. Gentleman recognises expertise when he listens to it.

Mr. Bercow: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Snape: Just a moment; one hon. Member at a time.

I only wish that some of the common sense displayed by the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) would permeate the Conservative Front-Bench team.

Mr. Bercow: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I am a little concerned about my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), who seems to be going soft in his middle age. I am delighted to be reminded that the hon. Gentleman--who has always reminded me of no one more than Detective Inspector Jack Frost--is a successful capitalist. Moreover, his expertise can be invaluable in our deliberations. Will he tell us by how much over the years, in the fulfilment of his important duties, he has managed thereby to enrich himself?

Mr. Snape: Not only would that be the cause of considerable gossip, not least among some of my hon. Friends, but it would be outwith the rules of the House. Any declaration that it is necessary for me to make, I have made in the Register of Members' Interests. I urge that the hon. Gentleman, whose ever-fertile mind all of us on both sides of the House respect, turns up that entry and works it all out for himself.

We should introduce the proposed scheme, after full consultation. In its parliamentary brief on congestion

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charging, which I assume was sent to hon. Members on both sides of the House, the Confederation of British Industry stated that

Nothing could better illustrate the gulf between the Conservative party and reality than the fact that the CBI sees the sense of the proposals that the House is discussing. Even the CBI has written off the Conservative party for the purposes of sensible opposition. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister can give the reassurances that I requested.

As a last duty, Madam Speaker, I apologise for leaving the House for a few moments after I have spoken. I intend to return as quickly as I can.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape). So often over the past five months, he and I have done battle, disagreeing time after time about issue after issue, and I fear that I must do so yet again today.

The hon. Gentleman described the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) as long on problems and short on solutions. Judging by the speech from the hon. Member for Poole, the sad truth is that he is short on the problems. He does not begin to understand the nature of the problem that the Bill is intended to tackle. His total opposition to measures such as congestion charging and his desire to be the friend of the motorist through thick and thin show his total failure to understand the problem that motorists face.

To support the new clause is not to be anti-motorist or anti-car. I enjoy driving my car, but when I drive it I do not like sitting in traffic jams for hours on end. We must find ways of reducing car use so that when people do need to use their cars, they can get about more easily on our road network.

The problem is enormous. According to the Confederation of British Industry, which the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East quoted, the cost of congestion on our roads to business and commerce is £20 billion a year. The Royal Automobile Club estimates that the cost of congestion on our roads to motorists is a staggering £20 billion. In terms of costs to business and commerce and to individual motorists, congestion is a huge problem.

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