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7.30 pm

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset): This will be one of my shortest speeches, as my voice will not last very long, and I am grateful to be called to speak so early. Upstairs, in my locker, I have a small bottle of vodka that I have not opened in about three years. I think that, immediately after my speech, I shall do so.

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It was particularly pleasant to hear my right hon. Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo) make his very welcome speech. Although we have had to wait two and a half years for him to return to the House, I know that his career will continue strongly.

It was also interesting to be present in the Chamber with some of the candidates for the London mayoralty. The candidates, and the official Opposition motion, really highlighted the London aspect of the debate. In many ways, it is very easy to criticise the Deputy Prime Minister for his lack of progress on transport in London, but anyone doing the job would have made a mess of it. The Deputy Prime Minister has certainly not disappointed us in that probability. In many ways, however, the London aspect of the debate is only a distraction.

Transport problems in the rest of the United Kingdom--such as, as the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) was saying, those affecting the west coast main line and cities and towns outside London--could be solved. Not every UK town and city suffers from the same traffic problems afflicting London. As many hon. Members represent London constituencies, and all hon. Members know and suffer from London's traffic problems, our analysis of the traffic problem has been Londoncentric. We shall have to decide on solutions without reference solely to London.

Some interesting statistics have been bandied about in the debate--such as those on how the previous Government, in 18 years, allowed road traffic to increase by 40 per cent. In the past two and a half years, however, road traffic has increased by 13 per cent. Therefore, under the previous Government, traffic increased by 2.25 per cent. annually, whereas, now, it is increasing by 7 per cent. annually. That increase is regarded by some hon. Members as something of which we should be ashamed, but that is nonsense.

The Government should be saying, "Isn't it brilliant--aren't we doing well? Every year, 7 per cent. more people are driving cars--which is 4.75 per cent. more than under the Tories. That increase is possible because the economy is working very well." When one stops to examine how real people are using--and paying to operate--real cars, one realises that they are able to do so only because they are getting jobs. In the past three or four years, unemployment has been declining rapidly, and we should welcome that.

We should welcome the fact that people can afford cars, and develop our policies to deal with that fact. It is nonsense simply to play King Canute and say, "The car is bad. Let's ban cars." However, the Government are beginning, slowly--but, I hope, increasingly rapidly, once the Deputy Prime Minister realises that he is on the skids--to change their anti-car policies.

What have the Government done to deal with road congestion in London? They have done very little to develop policies on overground and underground train transport or on car use. In the past two years, the Greenwich dome and the London Eye have been the Government's real, big policies for London. What are those policies designed to do? Their major purpose is to bring more people into London--the most congested place in the world.

Mr. Christopher Leslie (Shipley): Is the hon. Gentleman aware that 70 per cent. of expected visitors to

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the millennium dome will travel by London underground, and that there are no private car-parking spaces around the dome?

Mr. Bruce: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman gave me that information, especially as the intervention allowed me to take a sip of water, so that I might keep speaking that bit longer. I am doubly grateful to him.

If the hon. Gentleman had accompanied us on the countryside march--some Labour Members came along--he would have known what it was like trying to reach the beginning of the march using the underground. Although I know that the Jubilee line will--touch wood--be opening on time to carry passengers to the millennium dome, for the countryside march--which was on a Sunday, not during the week--the underground simply ground to a halt.

If the hon. Gentleman had ever travelled on the underground--from his remarks, I rather suspect that he has not--he would know that it is ludicrous to think that those hundreds of thousands of people will travel to the dome in the off-peak period. The tickets are expensive, and people will want to get their money's worth. At Disneyland, in America and in Paris, for example, people turn up very early in the morning.

I am not a spoilsport, and want such events to be held and a success, but such events do not comprise a policy on the underground.

Mr. Bercow: Does my hon. Friend agree that, although his comments on the ability to afford the purchase of a car are entirely justified, in that context, he should properly also note that, between April 1993 and May 1997, the unemployment rate was falling at a faster rate than it has done since the general election?

Mr. Bruce: My hon. Friend and I know those facts very well, but I was trying to get Opposition Members on our side--not to remind them that progress has slowed down. As they will know very well, since the new deal for young people was introduced, the situation for young people has become worse. The Labour Government were doing brilliantly until they introduced that policy.

Let us assume that the Government will be successful in that new deal policy, and that all young people will find a job when they leave school. What is the first thing that youngsters want when they find a job, or even before finding a job? They want to go out and buy a car. I have four kids and--I am sorry--I cannot stop any of them from buying a car. I certainly did not pay for any of the cars--

Mr. Bercow: Too mean.

Mr. Bruce: Yes. Nevertheless, as their father, I could not stop them from buying a car. They went out and bought their own cars. If I cannot stop such a purchase as a father, I do not think that I shall be able to do so as a politician.

We are constantly being told about technology. We should remember that, of all forms of transport, pollution levels have been reduced only in automobiles. There may be schemes to allow people to reach the dome by public

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transport and to ensure that there is no public car-parking, but people will still drive--to an underground station, probably in a neighbourhood in London, where they will park--[Interruption.]

The hon. Member for Shipley (Mr. Leslie) is shaking his head, but he really should make a speech on the subject later. The fact is that people going to the dome will park across London, clogging up streets in neighbourhoods in which people are trying to go about their ordinary business, before boarding the underground to the dome.

We should also be rejoicing, as there is a silver lining to every problem. People are using their cars more, but road taxes are very high. Even without putting another penny on fuel tax, tax revenue is increasing massively. As we heard earlier in the debate, the Red Book shows massive sums being raised in fuel tax, and I think that the Red Book even underestimates the sums.

The Government are raising massive additional sums from their stealth and direct taxes, and that money should be going, now, to local authorities. I do not believe that local authorities in the type of constituency that I represent will impose congestion charging.

I am speaking in this debate primarily to try to express to the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill) what I was trying, in a very short time, to tell him yesterday. Yesterday, I spent 10 minutes talking to him about a road scheme in my constituency, and spent eight of those minutes trying to convince him that his civil servants were wrong to stop him from taking an information package from the leader of the Labour group on my local council, who wanted the Minister to see that information.

When one is talking to a Minister about a specific problem, one often discovers that civil servants have captured that Minister--who simply does not know what is going on. Ministers are cloistered in their headquarters, at the top of Victoria street, and have their own individual cars to bring them to Question Time. I suspect that there are many ministerial cars outside right now. Each minister has a car--the engine of which is usually kept running, just in case the Minister wants to make a fast getaway, or because the chauffeur is trying to keep warm. They are all using a car.

As so many new properties were being built off the main road in my constituency--the Dorchester road--it was decided, 40 years ago, that we should have a relief road. In that 40 years, we have withstood the usual planning inquiries and meetings on route changes.

Twelve years ago, when I arrived in my constituency, I went to the opening of the first part of the Dorchester relief road, which linked the old Dorchester road round the town. The machinery that had been used was still parked there because the authorities thought that they were about to be given permission by the Government to build the rest of the road to Weymouth. Unfortunately, a nature conservation group persuaded the Government to instigate an inquiry. A cetis warbler, which is a common bird in the north of France, had flown across the Channel and set up shop in my constituency. That was such a rare occurrence that we could not have the road. The birds did not nest on the roadside, but they were likely to fly across it once a year or so.

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We have gone through the whole procedure. We have had two public inquiries and every political party has signed up to the brown route. Just when the Conservatives lost power, the project was ready to go ahead under the private finance initiative. It was on the Minister's desk at the time. It has been sitting there for two and a half years, although the Government have sent the scheme back to the council, asking for plans for an integrated transport system rather than just a road. They wanted car parks, bus lanes and cycle tracks. That has all been done and the project is still sitting on the Minister's desk.

I understand that, on 15 December, the Minister will have a chance to overturn my majority of 77 at one stroke. Most people who voted Labour in my constituency want the brown route to go ahead. Very few road schemes are popular, but this one is. In a poll conducted by the local newspaper recently, 76 per cent. of people said that they wanted it. I appeal to the Minister to make my evening. I have a terrible cold, but I will not need the vodka if he tells us that the brown route will be built. I am very worried, because the civil servants and the Government office for the south-west said that the Government were not going to build any new roads and I could go and whistle for it. They said that the fact that the Government kept asking for more information was just a delaying tactic. The Minister is an honourable and pleasant guy. I hope that he will take his civil servants by the scruff of the neck--or possibly a bit higher up than that--and say "I've got to get this scheme. He's only got a majority of 77. If we can get that road scheme in, we can overturn him at the next general election."

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