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Mr. Darling: No, the hon. Gentleman thought of that some time later. Consensus may be difficult, but we have to achieve it. The easiest thing in the world is to say and do nothing, but that would be the worst possible option for most motorists, and that is why we must look at these matters.
With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to tell the House that I have made some inquiriesor inquiries have been made on my behalfabout the statement text. Apparently, it left my office at 2.35 pm, but something went wrong subsequently. I apologise to the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Front-Bench spokesmen for that. Their predecessors will know that, when I make statements, I make a point of getting the text to those who need it the requisite hour before.
Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP):
The Secretary of State will know that the highlands and islands have long laboured under very high fuel charges. Should not any road pricing scheme ensure that fuel prices in those areas are substantially lower than at present, given that people currently pay as much as £1 per litre?
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Mr. Darling: The hon. Gentleman knows that I am well aware of the fuel prices in the western isles, as I have paid those high prices on many occasions. He is right, to the extent that road pricing would depend on distance travelled and on a given road's level of congestion. Various prices were modelled in the feasibility study that we published last July, but a lot of work remains to be done. If any national system were established, it would be UK wide. Scottish local authorities' participation in the piloting process would depend on whether they wanted to take part, and on their willingness to work with the Scottish Executive.
Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con): Will the Secretary of State confirm that the fund will not be used for schemes that are not revenue neutral? People are worried that it will be used to raise additional revenue for the Exchequer, so will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that that will not be the case even locally?
Mr. Darling: The pilot schemes would work on the basis that people would be rebated the cost of their fuel, and they would run alongside the present system, so I am not sure the problem identified by the hon. Gentleman would arise. The aim of the pilot studies is to look at the technicalities involved in the scheme, and to determine whether it would work. The studies will also try to find out whether people's behaviour can be changed. The fund is also available for necessary improvements in public and other transport, and will not to be devoted solely to the road pricing scheme. A concerted effort to deal with congestion in a particular area means that money must be put into all aspects of transport, not just one.
Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): Towards the end of his statement, the Secretary of State made an announcement about lorry road user charging being suspended and rolled into total road user charging. The Chancellor promised hauliers a level playing field with the rest of Europe as they move from fuel tax and towards road charging. Will they now see that level playing field disappear over the horizon?
Mr. Darling: The hauliers are concerned about two things. First, they are worried about what they pay in comparison with what lorry drivers from France or Italy pay. Secondly, they are worried that a national scheme would mean that they would have to meet the costs of the lorry scheme, which might be higher than otherwise. The hauliers did not want the complexity that would arise if a scheme for the rest of transport were introduced after a lorry scheme, and that is something of which we are very conscious. The difference is that although the lorry duty charging scheme was first conceived in 2000 or 2001, matters have moved on since. It makes sense, if we are looking at a national schemespecifically, at putting a fair amount of money into a pilot schemeto bring the two things together. It would be a mistake to continue one separately because it was designed with slightly different objectives in mind.
As I said earlier, we are determined to continue to work with the haulage industry, and we work closely with it through the forum that was established five years ago. I hope that the announcement about fuel duty today will also help the industry.
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Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): When the Secretary of State considers technology, why does he always consider hammering the British motorist? Why is he not looking at technologies being researched in the United States to increase traffic density two or three fold, which would allow 100 million cars on our roads without congestion? Has he looked at such research? He talks about spending £2.5 billion on road pricing. Why not spend that money looking at ways to increase traffic density without the congestion that we do not want?
Mr. Darling: There are some 32 million cars on the UK's roads, and I do not know how on earth we would get 100 million cars on them. I would be surprised if the hon. Gentleman runs around his constituency promising to fill the roads to the point of gridlock, because that would not make any sense. If the hon. Gentleman was asking about the management of roads and ensuring the free flow of traffic, he may be aware that we are about to introduce a measure similar to one used in the United States, on the M42 in the west midlandswhich is not a million miles away from the area that he represents.
Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the scheme would provide a genuine incentive for individuals to seek more environmentally friendly forms of transport and that it would also be of benefit to those pensioners who use their cars only once or twice a week and thus do not get value for money out of the present system?
Mr. Darling: If someone uses their car rarely, the scheme will benefit them. It is also important that we maintain measures that encourage people to drive environmentally friendly cars, on top of other measures that the Government have introduced to encourage greater fuel efficiency and the growth in the use of biofuels.
Mr. Nick Hurd (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): Will the Secretary of State clarify one important message in his statement? In paragraph 17, he said that local authorities will be encouraged to bid for development funding, available in the next three years, to support planning for local demand management schemes where pricing is a major element. Does that mean that local authorities that have a different sense of local prioritiesfor example, authorities that wish to invest in a relief road or in soft measures to improve bicycle use or bus useshould take from his statement the message that they should not bother?
No, that is not right. The hon. Gentleman may not be aware of it, but last December, when the issue arose in relation to Manchester and its metro, I made it clear that nobody is telling Manchester that it has to adopt road pricing. The Department supports several measures, including relief roads and measures to encourage cycling. The scheme is one part of my proposals for the transport innovation fund. It is an important part, but it is not the only thing that we are going to do. We are doing, and will continue to do, other things in transport. However, if we are to pilot road pricing, we need to be prepared to spend some money doing so, and that is why I attach considerable
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importance to it. The Department will of course continue to fund other schemes, including relief roads and the other transport measures that the hon. Gentleman mentioned.
Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): The Secretary of State has rightly attacked the rail companies for their proposals for congestion charging on the railways. What proposals does he have to review the system of public transport regulation to ensure that their charging policies complement rather than undermine his welcome move to road pricing?
Mr. Darling: In any transport system, we have to ensure as far as we can that the schemes are complementary. My point about the railways was that a policy predicated on saying to people, "Don't go on the railways"it more or less suggests that they should stay at homeis doomed to failure and I would not support it. The hon. Gentleman is right. As we try to introduce measures to ease the flow of traffic and make it easier for people to get around, other modes of transport need to complement that. We need to continue to invest in a wide range of transport and continue to ensure that we develop schemes that might make transport, and car travel in particular, easier in future. That is why we wish to establish the transport innovation fund.
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