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8.20 pm

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): It is a pleasure to speak from the Opposition Dispatch Box again. I have had the opportunity to do so only once during the past 16 months due to my previous party

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responsibilities. I note that my return to the Opposition Front Bench has been marked by a remarkable presence in the Chamber this evening.

Bob Spink: Of men.

Mrs. May: Well, no. The Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), is present on the Treasury Bench. Also, I am pleased to see that the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) is in her place.

The debate has ranged quite widely. The hon. Members for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts), for South Dorset (Jim Knight), for Edmonton (Mr. Love) and for Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East (Dr. Kumar) spoke within the remit of local government, the environment and transport, the topics on which we were focusing today. Others, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink), my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) and my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) ranged more widely to touch on matters such as tuition fees, House of Lords reform and the European constitution.

The subjects for the debate are characterised by a common theme. They are all areas where the Government promised much but have failed to deliver. That may be a constant refrain from Opposition Members but it is also a well-used theme among members of the general public, and that increases rather than reduces the validity of the point.

As for local government, the Government have promised certain councils more freedoms and have crowed about increased funding. However, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) made clear in his excellent opening speech, the Queen's Speech will increase the burdens on local authorities. We support the need to increase councils' responsibilities and powers, but we believe in giving them freedom to do what is right for their local communities. We do not believe in imposing burdens and restrictions on them from Whitehall.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks referred to education and argued that devolution of power, which gives back to professionals the ability to get on with their job and the freedom to do what they believe is right, benefits the production of the service that the professionals provide and benefits children in schools.

I have mentioned that the Government make much about local authority funding, yet in this year's settlement councils such as the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead—my council—have a grant increase that is only equal to their passported increases in schools' funding. The problem is exacerbated for residents of Maidenhead by the presence of a Liberal Democrat council.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon focused on local government. I shall concentrate on the environment and transport. Only one Bill in the Queen's Speech comes under the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs or the Department for Transport, and that is the traffic management Bill. I agree that there is a desperate need to do something about the endless holes in the roads,

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and about the seemingly endless times when people dig up the roads, which causes congestion. A number of right hon. and hon. Members have made much of that.

There have been many attempts in the past to control the digging up of roads, and there is no evidence that the Government's response will provide the answer. The Government talk of lane rental, but 10 days ago, in a written answer, they smuggled out a report on the pilot projects of lane rental that showed that those projects had not worked, yet those are the very ideas that the Government are proposing to introduce in their Bill.

I hope that the Government will take advice from various disability organisations about the way in which they could introduce measures to manage roadworks that would help disabled people. They will have received representations from, for example, the Royal National Institute of the Blind. Beyond those positive aspects, however, there are parts of the Bill that give real cause for concern. We are told that the Bill will allow the Highways Agency to move from being primarily a road builder and maintainer to become a network operator managing traffic flow on trunk roads and responding quickly to incidents. The aim is to relieve the police of the job of responding to incidents that occur on our roads so that they can be used for other duties. That aim is admirable in itself but we shall find that police officers will not be released to the extent that the Government suggest. If an incident takes place that leads, for example, to the death of an individual in a car accident, the police will have to be present. If criminal charges are to be brought, the police will need to be present, not some form of traffic police under the control of the Highways Agency.

Of equal concern is the way in which the Government are moving the Highways Agency from its prime focus on road building and road maintenance to that of network operator. We know that in the five years between 1998 and 2002–03 only 79 km of road building were started under the Government. In the previous five years under the Conservative Government, 574 km of road began construction. The impact of that is real in economic terms. A third of small firms in the UK claim that road congestion has a serious impact upon their business, leading to lost man hours and increased cost. One in four of those firms believes that that is damaging its competitiveness.

There are those right hon. and hon. Members who say that road building is bad because it creates an environmental problem. However, in some areas the building of a new stretch of road can have a beneficial impact on the environment. I refer, for example, to Sonning, a village in my constituency. The ancient bridge has to carry 15,000 vehicles a day and pollution levels are above the recommended threshold of the World Health Organisation. Another bridge across the Thames would solve that problem. If the Highways Agency is not to be in the business of road building and maintenance, we shall see under the Government yet more congestion and safety problems because proper road maintenance is important to ensure safety.

The proposed traffic management Bill will not simply solve the problem of digging up endless holes in our roads. The measure will change significantly the role of the Highways Agency, and I believe that in so doing it will lead to further problems of congestion on our roads, particularly given the way that the Government, in their

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management of transport, are throwing more and more people on to the roads because of the problems that they have caused on the railways.

Jim Knight: I have been listening closely to what the hon. Lady has been saying about the Highways Agency becoming a network operator, or whatever the phrase was. However, if it was responsible both for maintaining the flow of traffic and for the maintenance and construction of roads, would that not balance its risk as a network operator? Many people would like something similar on the railways—if the same people were managing maintenance and the flow of trains, we might get a rather more reliable service.

Mrs. May: It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman supports that proposal. From his earlier remarks, it seems that his own constituency would benefit from extra road building. Perhaps he should hold discussions with his hon. Friends on the Front Bench about the way in which the Government have signally failed to improve the road network, at the cost of the environment, people and business in this country.

Jim Knight rose—

Mrs. May: I should like to make a little more progress, if the hon. Gentleman will excuse me.

The problems that the Government have caused by forcing people on to the roads could, I am afraid, be exacerbated by the proposed school transport Bill. The hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Lyons) showed us the problems that will result from that Bill. The threat of the increased cost of school transport for many families and the means test that will be introduced—yet another means test from the Government—may force more parents on to the roads instead of getting their children to use school transport. The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich asked my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon whether we supported an extension of school transport. We do indeed believe that there is an argument for extending school transport, and we should look at the regulations that apply to it. However, I do not believe that the answer is to force parents to pay, nor do I believe that the answer is to force a school-gate tax on parents, as the Government may be proposing by charging parents for dropping their children off at school.

We need innovation in school transport, as the hon. Member for South Dorset himself said. However, we must look at good examples around the country, such as Conservative-controlled Runnymede council, which has introduced yellow school buses to improve transport and congestion problems in the area, despite the fact that it is not a local education authority. The Minister may wish to reflect on the fact that the discretionary funding used for that scheme may well come under significant pressure as a result of the Government's local authority settlement this year.

The Government have made many promises on transport. When they came to power in 1997, they promised "immediate benefits" for the travelling public. The Deputy Prime Minister promised to make

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He also promised to

However, the Government have cut choice and increased congestion. The Deputy Prime Minister said:

Since then, however, traffic on all roads has increased by 7 per cent. The CBI has warned that

On the railways, the percentage of trains arriving on time has fallen year on year under the Government, and rail delays have doubled. That goes for all train operators. The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich spoke from her knowledge and experience of the transport scene. She and I do not always agree on transport matters, but I do agree that there is a desperate need for the Government to clarify the role and responsibilities of the Strategic Rail Authority. There are great hopes for the SRA and what it is doing for the railways, but it is effectively trying to recreate British Rail and remove from the system the benefits of competition. By cutting the number of services for rail passengers, it is yet again reducing the rail service in this country and forcing more people to use the roads. In the merging of franchises, such as the merging of Thames Trains and First Great Western, there is a genuine threat to local and branch line services as a direct result of the Government's policy and the actions of the SRA.

I should like to make some remarks about what is not in the Queen's Speech. My right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon in his opening speech referred to the lack of a Bill on regional assemblies. People will have to vote before they know what they are voting on. That is hardly surprising given that when the White Paper was introduced, the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) was asked how the Government would decide in which areas to hold referendums. He said that they would hear voices—hardly a good basis for Government decisions. Those voices, I fear, would come from No. 10 Downing street, inviting him in through the back door yet again. My hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) set out clearly the failings of the Government's proposals on regional assemblies.

Many people throughout the country will be severely disappointed that the Government have not included an animal welfare Bill in the Queen's Speech.

There is a real need to update our animal welfare legislation, and the Government have missed the opportunity.

There is nothing in the Queen's Speech that will improve the lot of rural communities, but perhaps the biggest area that is missing from that brief is the environment. Yet again, the Government have promised much, but have signally failed to deliver. One of the reasons why they fail to deliver is that, far from having the joined-up government that they have claimed to have had over six and a half years, we have dysfunctional government. When the Deputy Prime Minister wants to put more houses in the south-east, he has to reveal that the Government have not thought of the transport consequences, let alone the consequences

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for water supply and the general infrastructure needed to support those new houses. He made a number of references to sustainability and even claimed that the sellers' packs would contribute to sustainable communities. I think that that shows that he does not know the meaning of any of the words in that sentence.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon referred to the specific example of aviation policy and its impact on local communities. If this Government really believe in joined-up government and sustainable development, they must look across the board and ensure that Departments talk to each other and make proper assessments of the impact of their policies, just as putting environment and transport together should ensure that the two can be looked at properly and that their impact on each other can be properly considered.

The Government came to power promising much on the environment. They promised that they would achieve a 25 per cent. recycling target by 2005, but they will not reach it and will probably take another 10 years to do so. Even in local government, it is Labour councils that are failing to recycle. Eight of the top 10 recycling councils are Conservative and none of them is Labour controlled. On so many aspects of the environment, the Government simply do not have a grip and do not know what they are doing. They have failed to address the issues and have squandered their opportunities. That is clear when we consider how they have responded to European Union directives, the fridge mountain, the prospect of yet further mountains of discarded electrical goods resulting from an EU directive and the fact that we are one of the few countries in the developed world that does not recycle batteries. The Government also have no response to the end of vehicle life directive. They have simply failed to get a grip on many environmental issues.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) put his finger on the Government's problem when he said that they had simply lost purpose and direction. After six and a half years of a Government who promised so much and had so much going for them—two large majorities and a strong economy—they have simply let the country down. There have been 18 Department of Health Acts, but 1 million people are still on waiting lists; there have been 30 Home Office Acts, but violent crime is at the highest level ever; and there have been five transport Acts, but rail delay is doubled and congestion has increased. This Government are indeed tired. They have run out of ideas and failed to deliver. After six and a half years, this is simply a Government who have lost their way under a Prime Minister who has lost his grip.

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