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Mr. Bercow: I am sure that my hon. Friend enjoyed the speech of the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) almost as much as I did, notwithstanding the fact that the hon. Gentleman was not supported in the Chamber by a single other Liberal Democrat Member. Does my hon. Friend agree that it was especially unfortunate that in his exposition the hon. Gentleman did not mention the dramatic increase in vehicle excise duty in the past three years? His enthusiasm for workplace and congestion charging remains undiminished despite the dramatic new imposts on vehicle users.

Mr. Howarth: My hon. Friend is entirely right to draw attention to that clear omission by the Liberal Democrats. I am sure that they were not anxious to say in their

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campaign in south-west Hampshire that they would impose further charges on motorists. We in the Conservative party recognise that our constituents are exercised about the burdens being imposed on motorists. They feel discriminated against, not only because of the charges that my hon. Friend mentions but because of the tax regime, especially as it applies to those who require a motor car or a van for their job. Travelling by bus or train is simply not realistic for company sales reps or those who work for the utilities. However, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) said at Prime Minister's questions today, the Government have imposed further regulation on motorists in many ways.

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

Mr. Howarth: Of course; I always give way to a representative of the bus industry.

Mr. Snape: I am not here in that capacity, but never mind; I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way anyway. Does he accept that it is our dependence--some would say over-dependence--on the motor car that has enabled many of us to live quite a long way from where we work, which leads to more and more people driving long distances to work every day? If he acknowledges that, does he also accept that the more people drive to work, the more congestion is caused in city centres because that is where most of them are heading? If he is against the Government's proposals, could he come up with any ideas that would enable people to continue commuting by car for ever and ever amen?

Mr. Howarth: I am pleased to say that the hon. Gentleman is a friend of mine. As a west midlands Member, he should be careful about being too critical of the use of the motor car, because he comes from and represents a part of the world--as you do, Madam Speaker--where the motor car is an extremely important component of the local economy. I am a former west midlands Member, and companies in my former constituency were suppliers to the motor industry. We should be careful before we penalise that industry too severely.

The hon. Gentleman invites me to say how I think the matter could be resolved. I know that he has to leave, but if he has a little patience and can stay with us a bit longer I shall try to answer his question.

When my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) intervened, I was about to mention him because he has referred to people's need to use the motor car. It is not the frivolous use of the car that is responsible for congestion on our roads. The motor car clearly confers a flexibility that public transport does not provide. That maxim applies right across transport. When British Midland put on a couple of flights a day between Heathrow and Birmingham, very few people used the service. If there were six flights a day more people would use the service because it would provide flexibility. The flexibility of the motor car is very important.

The motor car also provides an element of safety, which is why so many mums and dads drive their children to school. They do not walk or cycle. A great number go by car because parents are concerned about the safety of their

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children. Those are not frivolous uses of the motor car. They may be undesirable, but they are not frivolous, and it is not for us to tell people that they should not use their motor car if they believe that that is the safest way to convey their children to school and they derive reassurance from that.

Furthermore, I cannot be the only Member who believes that the motor car serves as a mobile office. Twenty years ago we did not have mobile telephones. Before the advent of the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson), we did not have pagers either. We now have pagers and mobile telephones, and there is no doubt that they enable us to do a certain amount of work while travelling. If we are stuck in a traffic jam, there is a silver lining to the cloud in that we can use the mobile phone and do things that we would not be able to do in a Committee meeting in the House.

My former hon. Friend the mayoral candidate, Mr. Steve Norris, once explained the advantages of the motor car. We can listen to the stereo, the news is available and we can have the use of the office. It is unquestionably a fact of life that the motor car provides us all with a mobile office. Another reason why people are prepared to put up with the discomfort of congestion is that they can do something else in the meantime. They are not prepared to trade that flexibility and the advantage of having the motor car for public transport services that may be less reliable, less flexible and not give them the same travelling environment that the motor car does.

4.30 pm

Mr. Bercow: My hon. Friend rightly points out that nowadays the car can be used as a mobile office. Does he agree that, although rail travel has many advantages, one of the besetting sins of modern rail travel is that, while trying to work on the train, one is often obliged to submit oneself to conversations being conducted by others on mobile telephones at a very loud volume--conversations in which one is not in any way interested, but which are very distracting?

Mr. Howarth: My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. The situation that he describes will be familiar not just to Members of Parliament but to the public, and is a cause of great concern.

I promised the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) that I would answer his question. He asked what was the solution. The new clause is helpful, but I think that ultimately the solution will lie in the marketplace. The market will determine--people will decide--that the trials and tribulations of congestion are so great, and cause so much frustration, that the trade-off is not worth it, and they will seek alternative means of transport. That is even more likely to happen when alternative means of transport present themselves as being more attractive than they are today--which is perhaps one of the greatest challenges facing the operators of the private sector train industry.

Earlier this week I was talking to Sir Richard Branson on the Terrace, as I am sure Labour Members were. He has great hopes and is very committed to the new trains that he is introducing on the west coast line. Perhaps it is time that trains offered a more bespoke service to the business traveller. I have travelled with West Anglia Great Northern, which provides a service of a different order to

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that provided by some other companies. It goes out of its way to attract the business traveller--for instance, with free newspapers.

There will come a point at which people will say--indeed, I suspect that they have already said it in communities served by WAGN--that it is better to travel by train, because the company puts itself out to assist the business traveller, than to struggle with the motor car. Ultimately, the marketplace must determine these matters; I am not convinced that we will be able to do so here.

The Minister is providing a panoply of arrangements for congestion charging. A bloke called Frank invited me, and others with London residences, to support him in the mayoral elections last week. I gathered that the said Frank chappie was not in favour of congestion charging. Is that Frank's document that I see before me? The Minister is most helpful. Does he by any chance see a reference to congestion charging in the document? Does he see a reference to Frank's being in favour of congestion charging? I suspect not. It is a bit ambivalent.

If this fellow Frank was not in favour of congestion charging and, indeed, made that the key issue on his platform at last week's mayoral election, and if the Labour candidates for the London Assembly gave an undertaking--which the Prime Minister told us today was irrevocable--not to impose congestion charging, there does not seem to be much point in putting this measure in the Bill. What if, far from espousing the new opportunity presented by the Government, the flagship authorities positively distance themselves from it? We are spending a great deal of time on something that does not seem to have too many legs.

Mr. Tony Clarke: The hon. Gentleman says that the policy does not have too many legs, but, to a man, Conservative Members have opposed congestion charging. The hon. Members for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) and for Poole (Mr. Syms) have both done so. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that congestion charging exists already? If people travel to London or to any other city in Britain, they will find not only high car parking charges but parking meters, which act as congestion charges imposed by local authorities. What is the difference between a high car park charge, a parking meter and a congestion charge sensibly proposed by a local authority to reduce pollution?

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