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Session 2003 - 04
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European Standing Committee A Debates

Trans-European Transport Network

European Standing Committee A

Monday 2 February 2004

[Mr. Kevin Hughes in the Chair]

Trans-European Transport Network

[Relevant Document: European Union Document No. COM(03) 132.]

4 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Dr. Kim Howells): It is a great pleasure to serve on a Committee under your chairmanship, Mr. Hughes. I believe that this is your first time in the Chair, so I feel that I am part of a distinguished gathering on the first of what I am sure will be many such occasions.

The main focus for our discussion is the European Commission document that comprises a communication on developing the trans-European transport network—I shall refer to the network as TEN, or TENs if there is more than one—and a proposal for a directive on the widespread introduction and interoperability of electronic road toll systems. We have also provided documents relating to the Commission's proposal for an amendment of the Community legislation governing the charging of heavy goods vehicles for the use of certain infrastructure—the so-called Eurovignette directive. Rules concerning how road charges may be levied and how they should be collected are clearly closely related, so I thought that it might be helpful to consider both proposals.

Let me say a little about the documents and our approach to them. The Commission's proposals in relation to the revision of guidelines for developing the transport TEN and the level of Community support for TEN projects were debated in this Committee in November. I see little point in going over old ground, especially as the Council reached political agreement on both dossiers before Christmas.

The communication before us is about the overall financing of the TEN, which the Commission estimates will, between now and 2020, cost about £400 billion to complete. As a firm EU budgetary disciplinarian, the United Kingdom will want to guard against unsustainable increases in Community support. We therefore welcome the Commission's intention to explore other options, and in particular, the potential for mobilising further private sector involvement in the development of the TEN—an option that is not being embraced as enthusiastically as it could be throughout the Union. In any case, we are cautious about the assertion that problems with current TENs projects stem from a lack of funding. That ignores the likelihood that delays on some projects are almost certainly down to poor planning, design and management.

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The main aim of the proposed toll interoperability directive is to lay down the necessary conditions for a European electronic toll service based upon the principle of one contract per customer and one box per vehicle. The directive would specify the technology to be used—satellite positioning, mobile communications and microwave—but would not rule out the possibility of adding any further technologies that might emerge. The electronic toll service would be based on elements listed in the directive, but the detailed definition would be developed by the Commission, assisted by a regulatory committee comprising representatives of member states, including this one.

The service would encompass all road infrastructure in the Community on which charges are collected electronically. Member states that have systems of electronic toll collection would need to ensure that the service was offered first to HGVs, coaches and buses, and later to all vehicles, including private cars.

The Government had serious concerns about the Commission's original proposals, particularly in relation to the complexity and potential costs of a system that had yet to be shown to be workable. However, as a result of intense lobbying by UK Ministers and officials, the provisions in the general approach reached by the Council in December are much improved and should provide us with sufficient flexibility and safeguards to implement our policy objectives.

The main aim of the proposed revision to the Eurovignette directive is to reflect the developments in lorry charging in the Community since 1999. Most notable is the fact that a number of member states plan to implement distance-based charges or have already done so, as in the case of Austria.

I shall outline the main elements of the proposal. All goods vehicles weighing more than 3.5 tonnes would be covered by the rules. Only tolls or user charges on the trans-European road network and possibly on roads in direct competition with that network would need to respect the detailed rules of the directive. Countries would be free to apply charges to other roads provided that treaty principles were respected. The total charge collected must be related to the costs of constructing, operating and developing infrastructure, plus the accident costs in so far as they are not covered by insurance. I am sure that the Committee will want to discuss that issue further, as it is a complicated one.

Charges could be varied to reflect vehicle type, time of day, congestion levels, the environmental sensitivity of the area in question, population density or accident risk. Revenue from tolls and/or user charges would have to be hypothecated to the transport sector. Following the implementation of tolls or user charges, member states would be free to pay a proportionate level of compensation to those paying the charge.

In negotiations on the proposal, we are seeking to secure as much flexibility as possible for member states to be able to charge as they see fit. Although we appreciate the merits of a framework for road user charging across the Community, we feel that it is

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important that member states can tailor charging regimes to their circumstances. We have made it clear throughout the negotiations that we do not accept that it is appropriate to hypothecate toll receipts to the transport sector. Many other member states support that position.

I hope that, in the time available, I have provided enough information to stimulate discussion. I shall endeavour to answer any questions that hon. Members may have on the three relevant documents. More importantly, I hope that my introduction was brief enough.

The Chairman: I am sure that it was, and I am grateful for the Minister's kind words of welcome. I am sure that all hon. Members will be helpful throughout the proceedings. We have until 5 o'clock at the latest for questions to the Minister. I remind hon. Members that questions should be brief and asked one at a time. There is likely to be ample opportunity for all hon. Members to ask several questions.

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): May I associate myself with the Minister's kind comments with regard to your taking the Chair, Mr. Hughes?

Is the Minister aware that Opposition Members welcome his scepticism about the need for more Euro-funding? What he had to say in that respect gave us some heart. Will he accept, at least as a starting point, that there is a case for saying to the Commission that it should look to fund the measure from existing budgets, perhaps by making extra efforts to claw back some of the waste and fraud that we know still arise in the EU?

Dr. Howells: As the right hon. Gentleman knows, I am a sworn enemy of waste and fraud and some of the excesses of bureaucracy that have accompanied a number of such projects. I am sure that he will be pleased to know about the increases that are being spoken of. Madame de Palacio, the Transport Commissioner, recently argued that the six-year budget should be increased from £4.2 billion in the current period to 2006, to £30 billion in 2007-13. It is important to control costs. There should be no nonsense about ensuring that, where possible, we claw back funding from ongoing projects if there has been fraud or wrongful expenditure.

Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby) (Lab): As one of the permanent members of the Committee, I add my warm welcome to you, Mr. Hughes, and reflect on the many years that you acted as my regional Whip. You always told me to be brief, and I will attempt to be so today.

The Minister will be aware of the impact on transport management of the new countries acceding to the European Union—the impact of vehicles from eastern Europe is already visible on many roads in the Low Countries and Germany. How far will the recommendations from the Commission be able to adapt to the tremendous increase in traffic on Europe's roads due to enlargement?

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Dr. Howells: I welcome that question. My hon. Friend probably knows that there are worrying signs that the German lorry road user charging scheme might not be in place as quickly as hoped. Germany especially fears the impact on its transport industry of well equipped but lower wage transport and haulage firms from Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and so on. Not many years ago, we were worried about the impact on our haulage industry of firms filling their vehicles with petrol on the continent, with much lower excise duty, and being able to drive 1,000 miles in this country before filling up again, thus being able to undercut businesses in Britain.

Once the accession states have joined, there will be a change in how contracts are shared out and a shift in the business of hauling goods around the European Union. That is at the heart of our transportation system and we must make it a priority. It is an important question and we are acutely aware of the need to answer it.

Norman Lamb (North Norfolk) (LD): I join others in welcoming you to the Chair, Mr. Hughes. I hope that you enjoy the experience. When the Minister wrote to the Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee on 17 November, updating him on the progress of the discussions, there was still a serious concern about the single contract issue. The Minister said today that substantial improvements have been achieved through negotiations, but will he further clarify his view of those improvements and whether there are still areas in which we have not achieved success?


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