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

Mr. Snape: I am still mulling over the hon. Gentleman's contribution. He cited an opinion poll of the Institute of Directors. I have never joined the Institute of Directors, because it is not an organisation in which I put much faith in terms of political acumen, but let me ask the hon. Gentleman this: if the same question were put to the Institute of Directors about income tax rather than congestion charges, would it receive a similar response? Of course it would. None of us likes paying taxes: that is the way of the world. I do not like it, and nor does anyone else. However, we must somehow tackle congestion, especially in inner cities, and we wait in vain for any constructive suggestion from the Opposition.

I know why Opposition Members tabled the new clause, and I understand it; but an organisation that is, perhaps, more reputable than the one prayed in aid by the hon. Member for North Shropshire, the Confederation of British Industry, has had a few words to say about the levies. It suggests that there should be a degree of flexibility. It does

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not say that it is in favour of the charges--indeed, it is opposed to them--but it acknowledges that the Government want to tackle congestion, especially, although not exclusively, in inner cities. It says:

the workplace parking charge, that is--

My hon. Friend the Minister will say that the problem with that is enforcement. We all know that there are problems with enforcement of parking charges anywhere, but I do not think the CBI's view unreasonable, and, when we are discussing how to spend revenues raised through the charge, it is worthy of consideration.

Finally, let me repeat that no taxes are popular. This is perhaps less popular than most, but the alternative is to do nothing. Finally--I mean it this time--let me say this. The hon. Member for Bath mentioned the problems of out-of-town shopping centres, and the question of whether charges should be raised from either staff or shoppers. If the hon. Member for North Shropshire came to the west midlands a bit more often--

Mr. Paterson I live there.

Mr. Snape: All right. I meant the west midlands conurbation. If he went somewhere such as Merry Hill, he would see the misery caused to those who live around a major shopping centre as a result of the over-dependence, in their view and in their words--I will show him the letters--on car usage by both staff and shoppers going to and from a major shopping centre.

If we are to have the charges--the hon. Member for Bath mentioned similar situations--my hon. Friend the Minister should look at extending them to out-of-town shopping centres, largely because confining the tax to inner-city areas leads to the type of accusations that we have heard from Conservative Members today. My hon. Friend looks a little incredulous. It may be that I may have misread the legislation and that the go-ahead can be given to the use of such charges in out-of-town shopping centres. I should be surprised if that were the case, but it is an area that we should look at. If we are to discuss and to debate new clauses about how the charges levied are to be spent, it is relevant to look at how they are raised in the first place and, in particular, at the area in which they are raised.

Let me conclude--I mean it this time. As I have said, no taxes are popular. Any neutral who wandered into the Chamber to listen to some of the arguments, which have been well rehashed and well rehearsed by Conservative Members, would believe that there was no congestion problem anywhere in the UK. We all know that there is. It is getting greater and greater. Doing nothing is not an option. From that point of view, the Bill is to be welcomed and the new clause should be resisted.

Mr. Peter Atkinson: It is curious that at this late hour in the history of the Bill, the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape), whose contributions we enjoyed enormously in Committee, is trying to get down

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to the basics of the measure, but he is wrong--it is not about reducing congestion; it is purely and simply about raising a tax on business.

The hon. Gentleman has been in the House a long time and he is an old soldier as far as the Government are concerned. He knows perfectly well that if the Government give local authorities the option to introduce a tax on business, the Treasury will say, "We will cut their money because they can make up the difference by introducing the new tax." If I had time to go to the Library, I am sure that, with some research, I could come back with countless examples of where that has happened. It is purely and simply a tax on business--another one from the Government that business will have to pay.

There is no suggestion that people who need their cars to go to work, particularly in areas such as those that my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) has described, will stop using their cars. They cannot. It would be grossly inefficient for them to park their cars on the outskirts of towns and take public transport. They will just foot the bill, or the company will have to foot the bill. It is another tax that makes companies less competitive. The usual decline of business will be caused by it.

My hon. Friends have been right to introduce the new clause. There has been criticism of it from the representative of the Liberal Democrats, the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), and from Labour Members, but again we are wise to the matter. We know that the Government will introduce the tax. All we are trying to do with the new clause is give some of the money back to the business that is being taxed. That would be fair and justifiable. The Government's warm words about helping business are always belied by their actions. It is a classic case of another stealth tax on business, which business will have to pay. It will not help one jot to reduce congestion on the roads of our city centres.

6.15 pm

Mr. Hill: It has been a fascinating debate, with many important speeches and observations. I hope that time will permit me to return to some of the points that have been made, notably by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Davies), and the hon. Members for Bath (Mr. Foster), for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) and for North Salop who gave his usual rant on the subject of the road haulage industry. It will be a particular pleasure to return to that subject.

It is important, particularly in the light of the helpful and typically highly informed speech by my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape), to clarify that the Government have no present intention to extend licensing schemes to out-of-town shopping centres. I confirm that there are no powers in existing legislation to secure any such extension. It is possible under the terms of the Bill to apply workplace parking provisions to out-of-town situations where there is a congestion problem, but I need to make it crystal clear that the Bill cannot apply to shoppers parking in or out of town.

The hon. Member for Bath looks a little disappointed. I would be happy to learn from him that it is current Liberal Democrat policy to extend such provisions.

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[Interruption.] I take it from his sedentary assent that that is the case. I hope that the electors of Bath will bear that in mind when it comes to the next general election.

Mr. Don Foster: Just to clarify the point, I neither proposed such an extension nor suggested it. Nor is it part of my party's policy, but the voters of Bath might be pleased to see that happen because of the impact it would have on Cribbs Causeway. It might persuade rather more of them to shop in Bath itself and to help the local economy, so I would not be too concerned if I did propose it.

Mr. Hill: I am fascinated by that response because, on a number of occasions in Standing Committee, and indeed in this debate, the hon. Gentleman has sought to persuade the Government to extend the workplace parking provisions to out-of-town shopping centres. Now we learn that it is not his party's policy--that is absolutely typical Liberal Democrat ambivalence.

I return to the substance of our exchanges. I listened with interest to the speech by the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms). We have had a wide-ranging debate, but let me remind the House that new clause 30 would require revenue from workplace parking levy schemes to be used only to reduce business rates on premises in the area of a licensing scheme.

I propose to overlook the fact that the new clause flatly contradicts the previous Conservative new clause because, in my usual spirit of reasonableness, I am willing to acknowledge that, on the face of it, new clause 30 has some merits. That is obviously a source of consternation to the hon. Gentleman because he came as close as dammit--if that is an acceptable parliamentary expression--to conceding that it was a wrecking new clause. However, the fact is that it bears some consideration.

The measure would still give businesses an incentive to reduce the number of workers commuting to work by car--very good. Businesses providing relatively high levels of employee parking would pay a higher levy than those providing lower levels--very good. Recycling the revenue raised to reduce business rates in the area of the licensing scheme would mean that the levy placed no additional costs on business overall, although some individual businesses would be winners and some losers--very good, too.

The drawback to new clause 30 is that there would be no extra funding for local transport improvements. We believe that the success of charging and licensing schemes relies on the twin effect of their acting as a demand management tool and as a source of additional funding for transport improvements. In short, in addition to the workplace parking levy giving an economic incentive to encourage more people to switch from car use, substantial improvements to public transport, traffic management, cycling and walking provision will be vital to tackling congestion successfully. That is why the Bill gives schemes a guarantee of a minimum period of 100 per cent. hypothecation.

In our discussion of the Bill on Second Reading and in Committee, we heard Opposition Members stress the need for people to have alternatives to driving to work before new charges are put in place. We also heard about the particular problems of people in rural areas such as Salop,

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who might drive to a nearby town or city to work. In answer, I have stressed that the Secretary of State will expect public transport improvements to be made in advance of new charges, and that the Bill allows local traffic authorities scope to fund complementary transport improvements in neighbouring rural areas. The hon. Member for Bath raised that issue, and I am very happy to repeat that reassurance. The Bill clearly makes that provision.

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