European Transport Policy

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Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby): On behalf of Back-Bench members of the Committee, may I say what a pleasure it is to see you in what might be a new role, Mr. Hurst?

From the deliberations of the Transport Sub-Committee of the Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions, the Minister will note that there is much concern that the White Paper from Europe does not dovetail with the Government's 10-year plan, and might conflict with it in terms of spending priorities during those 10 years. Will he take time to explain how he feels about that suggestion, and to outline how the Government are trying to make the EU modify aspects of the European White Paper so that it is in line with our national priorities?

Mr. Spellar: On Friday, I addressed the annual dinner in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien). I am not sure what I said that has led him not to be present today, but I understood that he was due to chair our Committee. The meal was fine Yorkshire fare.

May I tell my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Lawrie Quinn) that we are concerned, as I have suggested, by the possible tendency of the White Paper to be over-prescriptive and consider arbitrary targets? We believe that there should be broad objectives, but that individual countries need to consider how they can best achieve the outcomes in their own circumstances.

There is considerable scope for co-operation and, given the increase in trade between countries, a need to consider where harmonisation of regulations can be desirable and mutually agreed. We believe that the objectives in the 10-year plan are correct for British circumstances, so we will again engage in vigorous discussion with our European colleagues. There is a Transport Council meeting towards the end of the month. Yesterday I met the Dutch Transport Minister, whose country has a realistic and robust view of transport issues and priorities, and of the proper engagement and balance between the Commission and nation states.

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Mr. Mark Hoban (Fareham): May I take the Minister back to his comments about infrastructure charging? Will he confirm that it will be a tax, and so will not be subject to qualified majority voting?

Mr. Spellar: The hon. Gentleman has slightly mixed up one or two issues. We believe that the legislation should not contain prescriptive rules that require member states to charge in a certain way, or that it should require member states to charge if they do not want to. Therefore, we would not be in favour of a universal imposition of infrastructure charging.

Along with several other countries, especially Holland, Germany and Austria, we are considering infrastructure charging for heavy goods vehicles. There would be an argument for trying to ensure that, on a technical basis, such schemes were interoperable. The hon. Gentleman will know that the idea of charging for the use of the infrastructure by vehicles appeals to the road haulage industry, as long as it is revenue-neutral, because it would ensure that British hauliers were on a level playing field with continental operators, who enjoy certain other benefits. British hauliers are charged when they use a number of roads, particularly the autoroutes in France, whereas foreign hauliers are not charged in the UK. There is a consensus that infrastructure charging, either by time or by distancethere is probably a balance of preference for distancewould be a way of achieving a balance. However, it would have to be revenue-neutral for British hauliers, which would be of advantage to them in relation to foreign competitors.

Given the large number of vehicles that move across national frontiers, a system that allowed for interoperability of technical equipmentnot of chargeswould be desirable.

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North): May I say how pleased I am to see that your eminence as a Chairman has been recognised, Mr. Hurst? I am watching your career with great interest and am sure that today is the start of a great surge forward.

May I ask what is not an unserious or trivial question? In the interests of public and driver safety, has any consideration been given to changing the side of the road on which people drive across the pan-European juggernaut network that is developing? I ask seriously. There is confusion in people's minds when they change to a different side of the road; it puts fear into them. Have we considered the safety implications of the development of the network?

Mr. Spellar: I have always thought that it is a good idea to switch to driving on the right when one goes to Europe. However, as I do not wish to stimulate any scare story in the media, I shall state firmly that we have given no consideration to switching from driving on the left to driving on the right in the United Kingdom, nor do I envisage our doing so.

Norman Lamb (North Norfolk): May I apologise for my late arrival, Mr. Hurst? I was stuck in the foreign travel office of St. Thomas's hospital.

Dr. Gibson: He was trying to get back to Norfolk.

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Norman Lamb: Absolutely. I should explain that the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) lives opposite me in Norwich, so he knows where I am from. May I ask the Minister about low emission fuels, which are dealt with on page 79 of the White Paper? It mentions, in particular, natural gas, biodiesel and zero-sulphur diesel, refers to an objective to replace 20 per cent. of conventional fuels with substitutes by 2020, and proposes certain measures at a Community level. There is reference to a potential directive on a compulsory biofuel element to the overall mix of 2 per cent. initially, increasing to 6 per cent. by 2010, and mention of tax reductions to promote the market for biofuels. I have a special interest in the matter because Norfolk is primarily an arable county. The measures could provide a new market for agriculture, as well as being highly attractive environmentally, in terms of producing low emission fuels. My first question to the Minister is, does he agree that that should be done on a Community basis?

The Chairman: Order. Questions should only be asked one at a time.

Norman Lamb: Does the Minister agree that measures should be introduced on a Community basis or is this an issue in relation to which subsidiarity should applyit should happen in this country and in other member states? If so, what are the Government going to do about it?

Mr. Spellar: I would really have to refer that question to the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson), who takes what is called in the House a ''keen interest''actually a rabid interestin alternative fuels. He has been very active on that question.

I am cautious because I do not think that we should focus completely on one form of alternative fuel, as there is a widespread engineering, commercial and environmental debate over what is the most appropriate fuel. For example, the use of hydrogen in fuel cells is an issue, as is the use of methanol as a fuel source. As the hon. Gentleman rightly says, the use of biofuels is another issue. We should encourage the use of several sources: another possibility is the combination of internal combustion engine and electric charging, which can give well over 100 miles per gallon. There is scope for considering several alternatives. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the 1000th pump for liquefied natural gas was recently opened at a petrol station.

There is a considerable range of climate benefits, but we also need to consider what may happen in an accident, as some of the fuels must be held under pressure. We need, too, to consider what might be the most efficient distribution system and most sustainable long-term action. Some fuels might have a wider application, whereas biofuel may have only a limited one in terms of the number of vehicles that it services.

If the hon. Gentleman wants to pursue the matter, I suggest that he contacts the Under-Secretary, who will be able to give him a full response.

Several hon. Members rose

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The Chairman: Order. For the assistance of hon. Members, they may ask only one question at a time, although they may ask as many questions as they are called upon to ask during the hour's session.

Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye): Thank you, Mr. Hurst. May I add my congratulations to those of my hon. Friends on your appointment and say how great it is to see such a friendly, fair and generous face in the Chair?

It is obvious from the transport network outline plan that the only major part of the network in the south of England consists of the two roads passing through Kent. Nothing is planned between Dover and Southampton. If that is to be the case, and no major improvement is anticipated in that area, might heavy goods vehicles be withdrawn from those areas?

Mr. Spellar: My hon. Friend draws attention to the distinction between matters that the European Commission rightly perceives as its province and those that are the province of the nation state. The issue is not whether some routes are more or less important nationally, but what the routes contribute to the trans-European network. That gives us some difficulty with proposed funding for some routes, as the priority routes are, understandably, those that deal with significant bottlenecks in Europe, especially those across the Alps and the Pyrenees. Therefore, we need to know how much funding will come to the United Kingdom. I understand that the route between Denmark and Germany seems to have been added during discussions, but I shall attend a Transport Council meeting in a couple of weeks before I report back on that matter.

My hon. Friend addresses a proper question, but it is more for consideration by the United Kingdom as a subsidiary matter than by the Commission under the trans-European network.

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Prepared 13 March 2002