European Transport Policy

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Mr. Hoban: I am having lunch with a major coach operator in my constituency later, so this morning seems to be part of a transport day. I am concerned that the White Paper grants the European Union a great say over transport policy in all member states. My hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) referred to page 7 of the Select Committee report, which stated

    ''We are dismayed that the Commission does not aim to reduce the need for people and goods to travel long distances,''

Inevitably, the European Union would not want that change to take place. It could not justify the existence of trans-European rail or road networks if people were encouraged to remain in their own country.

I am also concerned about what we have allowed to happen in Europe. Hon. Members have frequently referred to the maps with which we have been supplied. I refer to map 3.15, which shows the rail network for the United Kingdom. The pink lines represent proposed high-speed routes in accordance with a European Union directive. The map also implies that there is no direct rail link between London and Reading and no west coast main line. The map shows that routes will come into existence as a result of EU action, which is another example of the EU trying to justify its transport policy. In the words of the Select Committee report,

    ''The Commission has created proposals that achieve the convoluted result of being both too general and too detailed, while failing to reflect the commercial, environmental and economic needs of Member States.''

In aggregate, we have a process that does not meet member states' needs. It tries to justify the existence of EU transport policy and does it rather badly. The White Paper is littered with examples of matters on which the EU thinks that it should take actionfor instance, trying to tell people how to deal with traffic congestion in their area. With subsidiarity, member states should be able to deal with such matters rather than Members of the European Parliament or the Commission having to decide how to solve traffic problems in the constituency of Fareham. The EU is even trying to identify the cost of individual loads of transport.

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My first question today was whether the infrastructure charges would be subject to qualified majority voting. I accept the Minister's clarification that a distinction has to be made between charging and recording how many vehicles travel across the EU. My worry is that although the Government may rebut the charge and say that we have been misled, the EU still raises issues about charging, saying that we should identify the cost of different methods of travelling and ensure that users are aware of those costs.

In time, the EU will be pushing for a common charging structure. Given that transport decisions can be made under QMV, we must ensure that the charges are identified as taxes and that they are subject to unanimity. The Government, like all political parties in this country, believe that tax should not be a subject for QMV.

The EU has talked about tighter regulatory controls, about enforcing them across the pan-European networks and about telling member states how often they should check vehicles. Again, it is for member states to decide such matters in line with their own transport and health and safety regulations; it should not be dealt with by diktats imposed from Brussels. There is a host of such matters.

I note with interest that the EU has a clear view about the separation of wheel and rail. The White Paper has adopted the model that the Conservative Government put into effect with the privatisation of the rail industry.

Mr. Spellar: That puts the hon. Gentleman on the spot.

Mr. Hoban: No, I am clear about it; it is for the Government to decide how to restructure the rail industry to recover from the botched nationalisation of Railtrack brought about by Stephen Byers last year.

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman should refer to the hon. Member by the name of his constituency.

Mr. Hoban: I apologise, Mr. Hurst, for failing to remember that the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions is the right hon. Member for Tyneside, North (Mr. Byers).

Mr. Pickles: It was still botched.

Mr. Hoban: As my hon. Friend says, the nationalisation was still botched. It is for the Government to decide how to get themselves out of the hole that they have dug for themselves; they should not follow diktats from the EU.

The problem with the White Paper is that it seeks to extend the competence of the EU beyond what is reasonable. The EU is trying to become involved in issues that should be the preserve of member states. I noted earlier the robust comments of the Minister on matters such as working time and I hope that his robust defence of such issues will continue in Brussels. He must ensure that the EU stays out of those matters that are the preserve of national Governments. I therefore support the amendment to the motion before the Committee.

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12.8 pm

Mr. Spellar: The last remark of the hon. Member for Fareham was slightly ungenerous. He should speak not only to the coach operators at lunch time but to the road haulage operators, who will tell him that we conducted a most vigorous case on behalf of the British road haulage industryand the haulage industry across Europe.

I lament the absence of the hon. Member for Vale of York, in whose name the amendment stands. She is lost somewhere between Tokyo and Committee Room 11. Despite her absence and the splendid defence put up by the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar, we cannot accept the amendment to the Government's motion tabled by the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh). We will take into account the conclusions and recommendations of the Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and Regions when we develop the Government's approach to the White Paper in the discussions of the Transport Council.

We reject the amendment for two main reasons. First, the Committee's report was published only on Friday and we have not had sufficient time to consider in detail the implications of all its conclusions and recommendations. Also, at first glance, we do not agree with some of the conclusions, such as the Committee's statement that,

    ''By refusing to bring forward the European Pedestrian Safety Directive, the Commission has shown a callous disregard for the lives of European citizens.''

By coming to an agreement with the European vehicle manufacturers, we believe that we will benefit the cause of road safety and the reduction of loss of life among pedestrians. Although there was plenty of interesting comment in the report, we cannot accept the amendment.

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Southport is no longer present. From some of his comments about the White Paper and realismhe talked of practicality compared with aspirationhe seemed extremely unsuited to be a Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament. We look forward to his political journey. He also mentioned waterways, in which I take an interest as the MP for a constituency with more canals than there are in Venice, as I am proudly and relentlessly told.

Several Opposition Members commented on the issue of freight coming through the channel tunnel and were uncharacteristically uncharitable about the considerable efforts made by the Government, right up to the Prime Minister, to try to get movement from the French Government. Something slightly unfair was also said about the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport, who rightly pointed out that the French Government had changed legislation on passengers to permit a tightening-up at Gare du Nord.

I fully accept that we are not satisfied with the situation at Fréthun, or the response. However, we are much more satisfied with the response at the Eurostar terminal, even to the extent, as the hon. Member for

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Brentwood and Ongar will be aware, that the previous Chief of the General Staff from this country advised Eurostar on the structure of and some operations involved in the protection of that site. There has been considerable British engagement, but the system still has a fundamental weakness. To some extent, the successes elsewhere have put further pressure on the freight yard.

We have had only a preliminary suggestion of the outcome of last night's meeting in Paris and will need to see what its real effect is. We will continue to press on that. We take on board that there is little point in making statements about a shift in freight from road to rail if we do not have the mechanism to make such a shift, and if there is a shift in the reverse direction. We are united on that. I fully understand the desire and need of the Opposition to make partisan points on the subject, but there have been considerable efforts and will continue to be so.

I was slightly uncertain about the hon. Gentleman's comments on mergers of airlines and the attitude of the European Commission. The Commission has been robust in its response to several member states that have been seeking to maintain national flag carriers by state subsidy rather than allowing them to merge with other airlines. The Commission is to be congratulated on its pragmatic approach. It has also put considerable pressure on the French Government over the situation at the freight terminal.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about the west coast main line, the number of freight paths and state aid. Those issues are the source of considerable discussion, not only with freight companies but with Virgin and the other train operators on that line. A constructive approach is being taken by all those involved in recognising that no one will get all that they are looking for but that there will be a considerable improvement. Those companies are working together to ensure maximum capacity on that line.

On state aid, the Commission has been helpful with the early stages of financing Railtrack in administration and I have no reason to believe that it will be any less positive in recognising the appalling situation that we inherited from a botched

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privatisation--I think that the hon. Member for Fareham made a slight slip of the tongue when he described the root cause of the difficulties. We will work towards bringing Railtrack out of administration and dealing with the mess that we inherited from the Conservative Government.

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Prepared 13 March 2002