Road User Charging (Enforcement and Adjudication) (London) Regulations 2001 and Road User Charging (Charges and Penalty Charges) (London) Regulations 2001

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Mr. Spellar: May I ask whether Capita has any contracts with Conservative councils?

Mr. Chope: Unlike the Minister, I do not have shares in Capita. All I know is that it is the firm responsible for the demise of individual learning accounts, and all the resulting egg on the Government's face. I do not, however, blame the Minister personally for that.

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman should bring us back to the subject of the debate.

Mr. Chope: As the pressure builds up against the ludicrous congestion charges in London, it is interesting that this supposed Government of principle is back-pedalling very fast on whether or not they support them. The Minister was present at oral questions when the Secretary of State for Transport seemed to be diffident on the matter of congestion charging.

Mr. Foster: Good word.

Mr. Chope: The Secretary of State for Transport lacked the full-blooded enthusiasm of our friends, the Liberal Democrats. Why was he so diffident, and why does his diffidence fall short of refusing to approve the regulations? If the regulations were not approved, there would be a scheme without sanctions. The Minister will know that it is pretty difficult to make a command stick without sanctions or penalties, in which case the House would be able to articulate its concern on behalf of Londoners that the scheme will not work. The scheme is extremely premature given the shambles of the London underground and other transport issues in London.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West): Will the hon. Gentleman say whether he is in favour of local democracy and decentralisation or not?

Mr. Chope: I am an enthusiastic believer in local democracy and centralisation, which is why I was in favour of abolishing the Greater London Council and the Inner London Education Authority, and returning control of transport affairs to the London boroughs. Extreme resentment is being expressed by the London boroughs and their representatives on the Greater London Authority about the fact that the Mayor is interfering in their interests and refusing to listen to reason.

The hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), who commands a lot of respect among Conservative Members, is not in Committee this afternoon. She stood up and challenged the Prime Minister on the scheme. She represents her constituents articulately, and made the telling point, which the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) will remember, that one adverse consequence that will flow from the ludicrous charges is that it will be more difficult to recruit teachers to schools that are close to

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the perimeter of the charging zone. Teachers in schools in her constituency are already saying that they will leave and go elsewhere to avoid the daily charges. I believe in giving responsibility to local people as far down the line as possible. One of the big mistakes about this scheme is that it does not reflect the concerns of local people.

Mr. Foster: Will the hon. Gentleman remind the Committee whether the Mayor of London included his enthusiasm for congestion charging in his manifesto and whether, having subsequently won the election, he could fairly say that the people of London had voted for that?

Mr. Chope: The hon. Gentleman is probably a greater expert than I am on what happened during the London election and who promised what to whom. All I can say is that I have had differences with the Mayor over a long period. I understand-someone will correct me if I am wrong-that only a few weeks back the Mayor said that if the new charging system does not work within a couple of months he will scrap it. However, it was reported in yesterday's Evening Standard that he had said that he would not scrap it, that it will stay and indeed that he is thinking of extending it more widely across London. If the Mayor can be so inconsistent about that, I am sure he was inconsistent in his election campaign.

Other issues also arise-for example, whether there is sufficient alternative provision if people are forced out of their cars. Rich people will stay in their cars because they can afford the congestion charge, but poor people will be forced on to the underground, which is already overloaded, and we know that schemes to increase capacity on the underground have collapsed or are much delayed because of the conflict between the Government and the Mayor.

I recently asked the Secretary of State for Transport:

    ''if he will set out the matters discussed and the conclusions reached at his meeting with the Mayor of London on 26 September.''

His most junior Minister helpfully replied:

    ''A range of transport issues was discussed.''-[Official Report, 21 October 2002; Vol. 391, c. 26W.]

We now understand from what the Mayor has said that, whatever was discussed, he has decided to withdraw his co-operation with plans for London Underground. We also understand that road user charging was discussed. We know that because Lord McIntosh of Haringey said in the other place on 15 October that

    ''the Government have always been supportive of congestion charges and we have been supportive of the plans for congestion charges put forward by the Mayor of London. That matter was discussed with the Secretary of State on 26 September.''-[Official Report, House of Lords, 15 October 2002; Vol. 639, c. 701.]

Why was the Minister in this House so coy about telling us what was discussed with the Mayor at the meeting on 26 September? Why did he try to distance himself from that clear assertion by Lord McIntosh of Haringey, who has had his own differences with the Mayor of London, as we know from the history books. I am sure it was without spite that he made it

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clear that the Government have always been supportive of congestion charges.

Why did the Secretary of State not say on the ''Today'' programme that he was, of course, enthusiastic about congestion charging and that it would be good news for Londoners and increase Londoners' support for the Labour party? He did not say that because he knows that it will be counterproductive for the Labour party. Its supporters are flocking to the Conservatives, because they realise that we are the only party against the lunacy of congestion charges in London. If, as I fear, the regulations go through today because of the combined support of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, the only way out will be for us to win control of London with a mayoral candidate who will deal with the matter. [Interruption.] I do not want to anticipate decisions of the electorate.

Mr. Foster: As the hon. Gentleman is pursuing that point, will he place firmly on the record his view, if no one else's, that he advises London Conservatives to vote for a candidate who supports congestion charging?

Mr. Chope: Conservatives in London are wise enough to make their own decisions about whom they want to support. I would not want to advise people about that, any more than the chairman or leader of my party would.

The Chairman: Order. We are drifting away from the regulations. Speculating on how Tories will vote is not a matter for the Committee.

Mr. Chope: Absolutely, Mr. Hancock. I was tempted down that path by the hon. Member for Bath.

Congestion charging is an important matter. The Government said that they were enthusiastic about it, but they now seem less enthusiastic because people are realising that it will be a burden on them with no benefit whatever. That is why we are against congestion charges and we are taking this opportunity to demonstrate that. If the Committee votes against the statutory instrument, Londoners and a wider section of road users will be relieved of a burden that will otherwise be imposed on them.

4.56 pm

Tom Brake: I welcome the opportunity to say a few words about road user charging. Hon. Members may be interested to know that, along the Corridor, the Select Committee on Transport is considering multi-modal studies and road user charging. The Select Committee has identified that the consultants who worked on the multi-modal studies were given very confusing messages about the Government's position on road user charging. They have come up with options that support it in some cases, but not in others. The issue is not clear.

I was interested in the point made by the hon. Member for Christchurch about being in favour of local government and centralisation. That must have been a Freudian slip, but it sums up what the Conservatives stand for. We support congestion charging in London and hope that it will be successful. The hon. Gentleman said that it will not

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reduce traffic. When Transport for London last commented on the matter, it suggested that a 10 per cent. reduction could be achieved and was realistic. I hope that that will happen and that it will be a success on 17 February. It needs to be successful, because the Government will not step in with the additional income that will otherwise be raised from congestion charges. They are refusing to fund the £1.5 billion gap for the public-private partnership for the tube. The hon. Member for Vauxhall, to whom the hon. Member for Christchurch referred, was unable to suggest where the additional revenue would come from to improve London's transport system when she gave evidence to the Select Committee on Transport.

We support congestion charging and want it to be successful. The Minister criticises the Liberal Democrats for not supporting road user charging, but the fact that we are supportive of what will be the biggest scheme in the country and possibly the world is indicative of the level of support that we give it.

Mr. Spellar rose-

Tom Brake: Oh, I have given the Minister another opportunity.

Mr. Spellar: In that case, perhaps the hon. Gentleman would explain why, in areas where the Liberal Democrats have formed an administration and could take responsibility for such an operation, they have not proposed congestion charging? As far as I am aware, they have not proposed congestion charging in any local authority area, although I am open to correction.

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Prepared 6 November 2002