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5.15 pm

Mr. Syms: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

We now come to the second of the terrible twins. We have dealt with congestion charging and we are about to consider workplace parking. Although this topic was mentioned in the debate on new clause 28, that new clause referred only to congestion charging. This debate is purely about workplace parking, and I have been asked to make that point clear.

Mr. Gray: In view of what my hon. Friend has said, may I make a quiet apology to the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), who I wrongly accused of not understanding the Bill?

Mr. Syms: I am sure that the whole House will take that apology in the spirit in which it was given and that it will take a constructive approach to this topic.

Workplace parking is one of the key ideas in the Bill. It is another method by which the Government wish to raise money for their transport plans, but it has to be seen in the context of the £36 billion that is raised from motorists in Britain. The Government wish to give local authorities and transport authorities the ability to introduce workplace parking charges in parts or the whole of their areas if they so wish.

The proposal has caused a great deal of concern, to business in particular. Many businesses think that the costs of the scheme will fall on them rather than on their employees and that they would face a heavy burden. I remember that, in my youth, the Harold Wilson Government introduced the selective employment tax, which was a tax on employment. Workplace parking charges will also turn out to be a tax on employment, because the firms that have the most employees and offer the most workplace parking spaces are likely to have the biggest bills. The scheme will probably not affect firms with one or two employees.

As the Bill has gone through the House, representations have been made by some major companies that have been responsible and provided parking places for their staff so that they can get to work and earn their crust. Those companies are aggrieved that the tax will be levied on them. When a local authority collects the business rates, it is likely to list the number of parking spaces for which a company will have to pay and add a further charge to its rates.

A business in that position will be left with a difficult choice. Should it pay the charge for its employees or should it pass it on? There is a slight sting in the tale: if the company passes the charge on to its employees, it may be VAT-able. A higher charge will be paid and the Government will receive even more income in the form of VAT. Many businesses have expressed concern that the effect of the proposal is that businesses will reduce

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the number of parking spaces that they provide, and that may displace parking on to highways and byways nearby and cause disruption.

If one reads the new clause carefully, one understands that it would make this part of the Bill inoperable. That is what we want to do, because we oppose the principle behind the proposal. A totally unjustified burden will be placed on businesses and it is likely to have an effect on jobs.

When the Committee considered the proposal, Ministers made it clear that workplace parking charges could be paid by employees, agents, suppliers, business customers and business visitors. They went on to say that the definition would include

Students, who have already had their grant reduced and have difficulties in paying for their education, would therefore have to pay to park their vehicles at colleges and universities.

In Committee we had a long debate on exemptions, and the only ones allowed by the Government are for NHS hospitals. Apart from that, it will be up to authorities introducing such schemes to determine exemptions. Concerns were expressed about local authorities having great difficulty in deciding what needed to be exempt and, indeed, in varying the charge for different parts of the borough and, perhaps, for different users.

We have therefore tabled new clause 30, which would effectively destroy this part of the Bill. Conservative Members are unashamed about admitting that: we think that workplace parking should go the same way as window taxes did in Georgian times, when the Government tried to collected money on windows.

Mr. Phil Woolas (Oldham, East and Saddleworth): It was a Tory Government.

Mr. Syms: I suspect that the Liberal Democrats were in power at the time.

Mr. Geraint Davies: Liberal Democrats?

Mr. Syms: All right then, Whigs.

We oppose the charge. The Government produced an interesting document entitled "Breaking the Logjam". In Committee, a number of points were made about it in relation to workplace and congestion charging, which may well be used together on traffic management. It was made clear that public transport must be improved to offer motorists a real choice before charging starts. "Breaking the Logjam" sets out an understanding of the potential of charges to damage business and commerce and highlights the need to protect the vitality of towns and city centres, including the need for a regional perspective to protect the sustainability of competing economic centres.

Many of our town and city centres are already struggling because of the cost of doing business in certain areas. A large number are already adversely affected by parking restrictions. Indeed, I believe that congestion charging--which we have just discussed--and charging for workplace parking could impose a real burden on

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businesses trying to keep shops going in town centres. If we are not careful, that will be a great disincentive to the revitalisation of our urban areas, and we should all be concerned about that.

Mr. Geraint Davies: As I understand it, the thrust of the hon. Gentleman's argument is that we should not have workplace parking schemes. However, the new clause says that we should, and proposes that the cost should be taken off business rates, so that there is no net impact on business. It would therefore introduce more and more red tape for business. If the hon. Gentleman does not want workplace parking schemes, he should table an amendment to that effect. The new clause, however, would involve more and more bureaucracy for business, which now knows what the Conservative party stands for.

Mr. Syms: If our new clause is accepted, introducing workplace schemes would not be worth while as they would not generate significant revenue. In most instances, money taken from companies would have to be given back to them. The proposal is therefore virtually revenue-neutral.

No sensible authority would wish to introduce a scheme from which it received no great benefit and which, perhaps, involved a cost to it.

The paper, "Road charging options for London", is relevant as that city is one of the few areas where a study of workplace parking has been done. The paper suggests that, for a parking space in central London, a charge of £3,000 might be levied. The chairman of the London planning advisory committee, Nicky Gavron--who doubtless will be quoted on many occasions in this Chamber--called for a charge of £5,000 a year per parking space in central London.

We are therefore talking about considerable sums, although the figures would be different for charges collected in other regions. However, if one counts parking spaces needed by businesses and comes up with a figure of £100 or £200 a parking space, for many businesses, that adds considerably to their costs throughout their year. That adds to the cost of employing people, which will have a pretty bad effect on business.

Mr. Gray: In addition to the effect on business, is my hon. Friend aware of the recent series of written answers which demonstrates that the Government have about 43,000 workplace parking slots? Given that, what effect will the proposal have on taxes?

Mr. Syms: My hon. Friend makes a good point, but the Government can probably look after themselves. I am concerned about small businesses that are struggling to meet their payrolls and to do business. They already pay substantial tax. On top of business rates, they are to be charged for providing parking for employees.

We go through fashions in this country. Occasionally, planning policy is that firms should have parking spaces, but then it is decided that it ought to be discouraged. I know that in the City of London at one stage, several buildings were built without parking spaces. Eventually, many had to be knocked down because they were not suitable. People wanted parking spaces to enable them to do their jobs.

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We are opposed to workplace parking charges because they will not benefit the nation, business or people who work in businesses. It will put business in the difficult position of having to decide whether to require employees to pay for their parking spaces at work. Then, we come to the question of whether employees should be compensated in higher salaries. The proposal will increase the costs of employment, particularly in urban areas, which is not a good thing.

We have had many representations on this topic. The Confederation of British Industry ran a survey in London in which there was overwhelming opposition to workplace parking charges. Business made comments such as

Those comments apply across the country.

Another business in the CBI survey said of the proposal:

I do not wholly agree with that--responsibility is partly the Government's, although business must play its role--but workplace charging is not the right way forward. Another business commented:

There are many such quotations.

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