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Westminster Hall

Thursday 24 November 2005

[Sir Nicholas Winterton in the Chair]

Road Pricing

[Relevant documents: Seventh Report from the Transport Committee, Session 2004–05, HC 218, and the Government's response thereto, Cm 6560.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the siting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Dhanda.]

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): I call the very distinguished hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody).

2.30 pm

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): I am always very flattered to listen to your kind compliments, Sir Nicholas, which are all to the manner born.

This afternoon's sitting deals, importantly, with the Transport Committee's careful consideration of road pricing. It seems to members of the Committee that this country has a simple and uncomplicated attitude to traffic. We all want to be able to drive wherever we want, park outside our own front door and, if necessary, drive into the centre of cities and drive out again.

There are, however, one or two things that we do not want. We do not want other people to park outside our front door, we do not want to hear the noise of any traffic and we prefer to get exactly where we want to go in exactly the time we have planned, with no other cars on the road. That presents traffic planners—even those with enormous intellectual ability, such as the ones in the Department for Transport—with a slight problem. Our Committee therefore believes that we might be able to assist. I shall begin, however, with something that is not sufficiently discussed.

The Committee made it very clear at the beginning of its report that its one vital caveat was that if road pricing was to be introduced, or even if it was decided that it was the most effective way of reducing congestion, it must be conditional on the risks of diversion, dispersal, road danger, pollution and, above all, social exclusion being fully addressed.

The Secretary of State for Transport is not only exceedingly civilised but very straightforward when it comes to dealing with the Committee—most of the time. He has been kind enough to make it very clear to us in his reply that he is generally in favour of our suggestions. Nevertheless, several questions should be addressed. We said that any strong arguments for road pricing should take its direct effects into account. If the Government want to meet their carbon emission and congestion targets, they had better seriously consider whether road charging should be revenue-neutral or revenue-raising.

The Department for Transport should consider why, when it has control over the urban motorways and appears to be telling local authorities that they should
 
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adopt congestion schemes, it is not prepared to declare very openly its intentions and its time scale. There is no timetable, which is an extraordinary omission from the Government's plans.

We need to be told whether the Government accept the objectives that we have set out, particularly the objective of social inclusion, before road pricing can be introduced. We use fashionable phrases such as social inclusion, but then create a system in which some people can use the motorways because the prices that are considered acceptable are absorbed by their customers, their industries or those for whom they work, while others might find it more difficult. That produces a real dilemma for a Government committed to equal treatment.

Let us consider the issues from the point of view of my Committee. We asked where the timetable was and said that if the Government were going to introduce road pricing, it would be no use their saying in the next 18 months to two years that they would decide on an area or a region of the country in which to pilot it. The decision should be taken and stated openly, and if the Government want to implement the scheme, they should get on with it.

We said that diversion of traffic on to unsuitable roads where the charges would be lower must be avoided. We are talking about varying charges to persuade people to travel on different routes and at different times. Is not the danger of traffic being diverted on to minor roads an implicit part of the scheme? It would be much better to vary the charges only according to the time of day to avoid causing the diversion of traffic and dispersed land use.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Is my hon. Friend encouraged by the fact that the Government appear to have taken a decision in principle to construct a second toll road north from Birmingham to Manchester on the basis of just a few months' data from the M6 toll, which runs close to my constituency? That is not a great start in terms of evidence-based policy, is it?

Mrs. Dunwoody : My hon. Friend raises an important point. The Government sought views on whether to carry out more detailed work on building a private expressway as an alternative to widening the M6, and our report looked at the implications of that. There was a 50:1 ratio of responses against the M6 expressway, but the Department announced that further work would be commissioned. It then said:

As we know from many private finance initiative and public-private partnership schemes, the hazard with such an approach is that very little risk is transferred to the private sector.

What is even worse, as we highlighted, is the absurdity of the Government suggesting that they would produce an integrated charging scheme on the roads for which they had direct responsibility only to disclose to the Committee that a road in the middle of it all was controlled and owned by a private firm. That stretch of road might or might not be doing what it is supposed to do, but the Government have no way of controlling the charging system for it.
 
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We pointed out that it was quite extraordinary for the Government to move forward with what ought to be a unified scheme at national level without considering the implications of reaching an agreement on certain bits of road and issues such as the M6 widening, which would remove the Government's responsibility and control.

David Taylor : My hon. Friend mentioned that control of the M6 toll is almost entirely within the power of Midland Expressway Ltd. Does she hope, as I do, that that is not a precursor—in the same way that small-scale PFIs were a precursor to large-scale PFIs—to transport policy across the national trunk road and motorway network being subcontracted out in an extreme market sense?

Mrs. Dunwoody : If the Government intend to go ahead with a charging scheme, they have several responsibilities. First, they must tell us all what they want out of this scheme; they must say, "We have agreed with this congestion scheme because it is the only way we can control the growth in traffic." At one point in their response, there is a suggestion that they accept that there will be consistent growth in traffic, although they do not call it exponential growth. If so, will the scheme deal with the problems we have highlighted? Will it mesh in with the little bits of private enterprise that are dumped down in the middle of the system? If not, who will control those roads? What effect will their policies have on the rest of the system? Who intends in the long run to at least make it clear on what basis decisions have been taken?

We also discussed the lorry user charge. My Committee had previously discussed with the Department our very real worries about the fact that extra charges are levied on the road transport industry in many parts of Europe, and we said that we were concerned that several European nations were sending more and more units into this country—picking up goods, creating more traffic and developing all the time, but not paying comparable charges to those levied on British hauliers on the continent.

We were told that the lorry road user charge would deal with that difficult problem. I have endeavoured to find out from the police authorities closest to the channel ports how many foreign lorries are being stopped, are breaking the law, are liable for fines and have been fined, but that information seems to be astonishingly confidential. No one is anxious to tell me anything; that is not new in my life, but it worries me considerably.

It would be quite wrong of us to develop, even by default, a system of traffic control in which British hauliers who break road rules and are stopped by the police are taken to court—and fined, if needs be, if they are found guilty—but in which foreign hauliers in the same situation, who may have committed exactly the same crimes, and been stopped and cautioned by the police, are not charged because the local police know that the bother of dealing with them is too great. If we are not to have the lorry road user charge—there are a great many good and sensible reasons not to go ahead with that scheme—what will be the alternative in the
 
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short term? How are we to deal with that anomaly, and what are the Government's plans to charge foreign hauliers for the use of UK roads?

Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD): The hon. Lady will appreciate that the matter is not just about legal equity: overloaded lorries overburden bridges and roads, causing appreciable damage and, therefore, appreciable cost to the public purse.

Mrs. Dunwoody : That is why we took, in the first instance, the decision to move ahead in the way proposed. The Secretary of State told the Committee that he was working with the road haulage industry to introduce measures. Unfortunately, in the same week, the Freight Transport Association said that it would launch a legal challenge over what is effectively a subsidy of foreign hauliers. If the Minister straightens that situation out, it will help us to know where we are, at least.

The lorry road user charge was scrapped to avoid there being two parallel charging schemes, but it is clear that the Government are still going ahead with individual, private arrangements. If they are to go ahead with a system of national, distance-based road charging, will they buy out the M6 toll contract? If not, why not? If not, do they intend somehow to harmonise the dues that would be payable? If so, what would be the cost to the taxpayer?

Have the Government decided to ignore the results of the consultation on the M6 extension, "M6: Giving Motorists a Choice"? If so, why did they bother with it in the first place? I am not sure that there is any defence on that.

My problem is, overall, political. The Secretary of State has openly led the debate on road user charging since the beginning of the year, which is useful. It is helpful that he has been prepared to make public some of the difficulties as well as the advantages. The Government also need—to use a fashionable phrase—to clarify some of their policies, so that we know exactly what they propose.

It is clear that congestion will be with us as long as everybody wants to use their car for trips that they think are essential, and the number of people purchasing cars rises every year. Any policy decided at governmental level will have enormous implications, not just for    public transport, but for our road-building programmes, our expansion of services and certainly how we plan to integrate any local authority congestion schemes with an overall road-pricing toll scheme. I do not believe that those are simple questions or that they will be easy to resolve.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I very much concur with the hon. Lady. Does she agree that problems of congestion will become particularly acute in the growth areas identified by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, into which Kettering falls? My major local road, the A14, carries 70,000 vehicles a day round Kettering, which is well over its planned limit. The Government have placed a statutory duty on local authorities to deliver tens of thousands of new houses in the next 10 years, but there are no plans to expand the capacity of that road until 2012 at the earliest. I was
 
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interested to see the Committee's recommendations on road-building alongside road-pricing. Will not the problems of congestion be particularly acute in some of those growth areas?

Mrs. Dunwoody : I am sure the hon. Gentleman is right to raise the particular problem in his constituency, but he will understand that my Committee wants to put the whole matter in its proper context. The public have to face up to those difficult questions; this is not just a matter for the Government. We have to debate those questions openly, but it will be possible to reach a clarity of view only if the Government state exactly what they want from road user charging, including how it would apply and who would be encouraged to use the various schemes.

David Taylor : In this interesting section of the report, the Committee looks at the impacts on travel behaviour and congestion that can be generated from what it calls "soft factors" such as travel planning and cycle facilities. However, as far as I can see, the report does not refer to the potential of community rail networks to lessen congestion on the adjacent road network. That is particularly relevant for a line for the national forest in the east midlands-west midlands border area.

Mrs. Dunwoody : My hon. Friend is right to take me to task in as much as the Committee did not specifically include a paragraph about community rail. However, it stands to reason that whatever is done in the realm of road pricing and congestion charging will have a direct impact not just on the use of public transport, but on something as basic as emissions. The Government are obviously serious about trying to hit their targets on emissions, and we need to know whether they have considered the implications of those schemes.

If the Government model a revenue-neutral road-pricing scheme and say that that will increase the distance travelled and therefore add to climate change emissions, we need to know whether they intend to go ahead with a revenue-neutral system, or whether they would prefer to use a charging scheme to discourage the extra use and encourage people on to public transport. My hon. Friend made that point earlier, and it remains one of the most important questions in the debate.

I am not clear what analysis has been done of the potential impact of congestion charging on the strategic network. I am not clear why the Government are saying that the case has not been made without setting out why they have reached that conclusion. I do not know why the Government do not seem to recognise that there are congestion problems on inter-urban strategic roads—now—that need to be dealt with. I am not at all sure that the objectives that the Government set out at the beginning of the report have been accepted.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, and apologise to you, Sir Nicholas, for arriving late for the debate. Does the Committee feel that the Government did enough to make the case for road pricing? The Mayor has made a strong case for the congestion charge in the capital, but, sadly, that case could not be sustained for Edinburgh.
 
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Do we need to make much more of a public case for road pricing? If we do not, we shall face the same problems that were faced in Edinburgh.

Mrs. Dunwoody : As I said earlier, what worried the Committee was the feeling that the Government control the inter-urban road system, they say that they believe in congestion charging and they make many sensible arguments in favour of a road charging scheme, but they are also putting pressures on local authorities by saying, "We want you to do this, but if you don't you won't get the extra support for the other schemes that concern you." However, they are not necessarily proceeding with something that would demonstrate that congestion charging works.

I am a bear of little brain, but if one shows people something that works, most are more responsive. Local authorities face enormous pressure from their local population, who are ambivalent about congestion charging schemes, however presented. Even those who benefit from the schemes will still complain about London's congestion scheme.

Local authorities must be given positive signs that the report represents a way forward and that it can help. It is only a management tool, and I hope that my Committee has made it clear that congestion charging, whether inter-urban or local, can only be a management tool. If the United Kingdom continues to buy the combustion engine at the rate at which it does every week, we shall face considerable problems. However, the Government should at least have the honesty, clarity and confidence not to say, "Well, we'll think about this for another two years and then we'll set out where our pilot schemes will be." They should be saying, "We know that we cannot continue this way. We know that traffic is rising at rates that we find uncomfortable—in cities, in villages and on our inter-urban roads. This is a way forward, and this is what we intend to do."

In the next six months, the Government could announce a timetable and a pilot area for the scheme. They could offer incentives to local authorities and positive encouragement to people to face up to difficult questions.

David Taylor : Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mrs. Dunwoody : I am just finishing. Above all, Her Majesty's Government have a special duty not only to offer warm words, but to make difficult decisions and offer a clear line of responsibility. They do not appear to be ready to do that with road planning, even though they have started the debate. They intend to have another four years of debate, without decisions being taken at the end of that debate. There is a suggestion that after the next general election—if we live long enough—the incoming Government will face up to the problems of traffic congestion. That is to condemn our cities and villages—not to mention the United Kingdom's economic development—to chaos and, in the final analysis, very real damage.

The Government do not want to do that. They have a clear view of their own interests at least, but it is about time that they told us what they intend to do, when they intend to do it and how they intend to produce results.


 
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Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): Order. Before the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) speaks, I want to say that I am not sure whether it is post-lunch lethargy, but I had to wait for 10 seconds before a single Member rose to his or her feet. I trust that hon. Members present will be more sprightly hereafter.

2.55 pm

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): Sir Nicholas, as may have become clear as a result of the time that elapsed between the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) sitting down and the next Member rising, I had not intended to intervene. I am attending the debate because I have an historic interest in it. A long time ago, when I was Secretary of State for Transport, it was an issue with which we had to grapple. I am slightly disappointed that so little progress appears to have been made since 1996, when a White Paper set out the broad approach of the previous Administration to road pricing.

I am speaking from memory, because I have not come equipped with the relevant documents, but I recollect that subject to satisfactory trials of the technology at the Transport and Road Research Laboratory, and subject to getting the requisite legislation through the House of Commons, the previous Administration were broadly committed to the concept of road pricing. Again from memory, I think that we gave an illustrative price of 1p per mile on motorways as a means of starting the debate.

I find it disappointing that little appears to have happened since then. We have received several statements from the Secretary of State, one of which was almost identical to one made by Lord MacGregor when he was Secretary of State for Transport in 1992. There seems not to have been an heroic initiative from the new Administration. My brief speech is intended to give the Government some political cover, if they want it.

I have no idea what my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) is about to say on behalf of my great party, and perhaps there will not be an absolute convergence between my approach and that of my party's Front Bench. However, for the strategic reason given by the right hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody)—

Mrs. Dunwoody : Honourable.

Sir George Young : Her time will come. For the strategic reason that she gave, it is necessary to make a decision about how to manage a scarce resource. It can be managed by congestion or by the price mechanism. I am in favour of using sensitive price indications, with variations by time of day and route.

For example, where there is a perfectly good railway line from one city to another and congestion on the motorway between those two cities in the rush hour, I am entirely relaxed about using the price mechanism to encourage the motorist out of the car and off the motorway, on to the railway. I am equally anxious to get the best possible use from the network that we have, which is grossly underused at night, by the use of, for example, zero tariffs on motorways in the small hours of the morning, if that will encourage the efficient distribution of goods.
 
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I accept that there are all sorts of political hurdles to be cleared, and I think that the Secretary of State said, when he last made a statement, that if and when the Government go down the road-pricing route it will be on a cost-neutral basis; in other words, any additional revenue raised from road pricing will be set off against either the vehicle excise duty or fuel duty. To persuade motorists that the initiative is sensible, that deal must be on the table. We are looking not for an ingenious new way for the Treasury to raise additional funds, but for a better way of using a scarce resource in the interest of all who use the roads.

There may be a dialogue between the Department for Transport and the Treasury—it would not be the first time—about what that new, exciting tax or revenue-raising instrument might in due course be used for, but to take motorists with us we must make the statement that the approach is revenue-neutral.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the problem with the whole subject is that it is urban-focused? Is there not a danger that motorists will not be taxed out of their cars, and that rather than deciding not to use motorways or major radial routes they will be persuaded that there is every advantage in using the local network of roads around villages? That would result in congestion in what are currently rat runs. What is a congested rat run? There must be a term for it.

Sir George Young : If road pricing were confined to motorways, the hon. Gentleman would be correct. However, if road pricing were not confined to motorways, he would be wrong because there would be a tariff for using the alternative route. The Government will have to make up their mind about whether they wish to proceed with motorway tolls or total-road charging. I am persuaded by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich that it probably makes sense to have a universal scheme, but with differential tariffs. If one drives on a motorway, it will probably take less time, and the charge would be slightly higher than that of the alternative dual-carriageway road.

I accept the point about diversion, but, as a matter of concern to those of us who represent rural constituencies, if the Government proceeded on a revenue-neutral basis, rural motorists would probably be in pocket as a result of that change. In my constituency, most travel would not be on the high-tariff motorways; it would be on the less highly-charged rural roads for which there is very little case for having a charge because they are underused. There is no particular need to price the motorist off the B3400 or the A343 in North-West Hampshire because there is not much traffic on those roads. There is, however, an argument for using the price mechanism to encourage people not to travel on the M3 or M4 to London during the rush hour.

Dr. Pugh : The hon. Gentleman may or may not support its analysis, but can he explain why the Campaign to Protect Rural England is less than enthusiastic about road charging?

Sir George Young : I confess that I arrived equipped with a sudoku puzzle, with which I had made very little
 
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progress. I did not take the precaution of equipping myself with briefings from the Campaign to Protect Rural England or from the Library. However, the hon. Member is right to point to the political problem that this is not the most fantastically popular case to put across. The matter is best handled on an all-party basis. When the Secretary of State last made an announcement, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight)—who was previously the Member for Derby, North but now represents a slightly safer constituency on the east coast—made a statement that was neutral or perhaps encouraging to the Government. It may be that if no one else speaks in the debate, we shall not reach a consensus. However, if the outcome of the debate indicates that there is not total hostility from all the major parties, perhaps the report of the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich will have made a little progress.

Mr. Love : I thank the right hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene. May I tempt him just a little? There is one successful example of a congestion charging scheme. While all hon. Members accept that changes may be necessary to the way that that scheme is run, and to its coverage, those who support road pricing should support such a scheme as an example of where we should be looking in future. Would the hon. Gentleman agree?

Sir George Young : Is the hon. Gentleman asking whether I support congestion charging?

Mr. Love : Yes.

Sir George Young : Yes, I do. I was among the small number of my party who advocated a slightly more cautious approach to that matter during the last London mayoral elections. Speaking as someone who lives in central London and cycles to the House of Commons, it is a slightly better journey as a result of the congestion charge. The problem now is not the cars; it is the motorcyclists. Motorcycles are more of a problem for cyclists because they use the same lanes and paths through the traffic. I take the hon. Gentleman's point that someone who believes in road pricing should logically also be in favour of congestion charging as a means of allocating a scarce resource, whether in the middle of a city or between cities. I approach the problem as an economist: how does one price a scarce resource in order to maximise the benefit from it?

I hope that I have provided hon. Members with the opportunity to assemble their thoughts, so that when I resume my seat, there is not the same reticence as there was when the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich sat down some 10 minutes ago.

3.5 pm

Mr. Nick Hurd (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): Thank you, Sir Nicholas. I apologise for my earlier lethargy, which had more to do with the absence of lunch than the abundance of it. It may also have had something to do with my reticence to follow the powerful oratory of the Chairperson of the Transport Committee, the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), whom I warmly congratulate on the report, which was
 
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extremely stimulating and touched on an issue of great interest to me as the Member of Parliament for Ruislip-Northwood.

My seat is in the borough of Hillingdon, which enjoys, I think, one of the highest ratios of cars to households in the country, and its motorists express to me a number of the sentiments expressed by the hon. Lady.

David Taylor : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), who linked the nation's congestion problems to the propensity of its travellers to buy 2   million shiny cars a year, is not necessarily correct? Germany has even more cars per head, I would guess, than Hillingdon, but they drive significantly fewer kilometres than we do. That is the problem. We are not trying to discourage the virtues of the car, the numbers bought or the freedom and flexibility that they give. We are trying to give sensible alternatives, are we not?

Mr. Hurd : I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I do not know the data for Germany, but I am happy to take that at face value. I suspect that the problem may be linked in part to public perceptions of the quality of public transport as an alternative to the motor car in this country. The point that I was trying to make is that the issue is of great concern to my constituents, who have to endure highly congested roads and, at the same time, complain to me regularly about the cost of motoring. They are well aware that they pay the second highest petrol costs in Europe and that the Government have taken more money from them in successive years through vehicle excise duty and fuel duties. I think that it was about £28 billion in 2004–05, up some £7 billion since 1997.

My second point of interest relates to tackling one of the great causes of our reducing competitiveness as an economy: the cost of congestion. A few days ago, I went to listen to Sir Digby Jones talk in this place. He expressed his deep-rooted frustration at the failure of successive Governments to get a grip on upgrading the    country's infrastructure and on the cost of congestion in particular, which his organisation puts at some £20 billion. More simply, he made the point that, if we cannot get our people and goods to market and work in time, how on earth can we compete with the economies in Asia and the emerging giants?

A third point of interest is the environmental aspect. It is clear to anyone who takes an interest in the climate change challenge that the transport sector and the growing emissions from it are arguably the biggest cause of concern.

I, like my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), who has left his place, welcome the Government's initiative. I recognise that the Secretary of State for Transport is indulging in bold politics, which is not something with which he is traditionally associated. However, I want to register two concerns. First, if we are to have a public debate the Government should be much clearer about why we are doing this. I distrust a long list of benefits for any big idea. The debate on ID cards is a good example: when the priorities shift and the reasons for doing something get longer, the credibility of the case tends to fail.

The public instinctively will ask whether the plans are about raising more revenue to invest in transport in other areas. I take at face value the Government's
 
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assurance that their intention is to work on a revenue-neutral basis. However, the public will need convincing, because of the sentiments I expressed earlier. Is it about a fairer system to charge the motorist? That seems the really interesting area. My right hon. Friend talked about the effect on rural motorists in particular. The question is, is it worth the money? The report makes it clear that the Government's feasibility study estimates that the start-up cost will be between £14 billion and £60 billion—that is a disturbingly wide range—with ongoing costs of about £5 billion for a national scheme. The Government will have to send us very strong signals to convince us that it is worth that much to introduce a fairer system for charging motorists.

Mrs. Dunwoody : I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's kind words. However, he might like to know that, through Customs and Excise, the Government have already spent £31 million on preparation for the lorry road user scheme, which has now been abandoned.

Mr. Hurd : I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention, which was extremely helpful in reinforcing my point that the Government must make a case for value for money if the prime purpose of the scheme is to introduce a fairer system under which to charge motorists.

The hon. Lady made some extraordinarily relevant remarks about the impact of a national road-pricing scheme on low-income drivers. The report is clear on the Committee's concerns about that. I hope that everybody would agree that it is highly undesirable—if I might create some mood music—to create a situation in which the roads are for the rich only. That would be wholly unwelcome.

Is the reduction of congestion the main reason for introducing the scheme? Do we need a national system? It is worth considering the alternative of targeting hot spots with a pricing mechanism and, particularly, introducing road pricing on new capacity where that is practicable. Congestion is not a problem across the whole network, as my right hon. Friend eloquently pointed out. Do we need a national system, given the huge costs involved?

We need a solution now, not in 10 to 15 years, which the Government have made clear is the time when we can reasonably expect a national scheme to be introduced. In its understandable excitement about pursuing this huge project, the Department risks losing sight of the need for two things. The first is new roads. I am not talking about blanket coverage, but the Government acknowledge that they need to reboot their road-building programme to invest in selective new road capacity. The second is supporting soft measures. That, too, is clear in the report, and is suggested strongly in research that I have seen that suggests that, where soft measures have been introduced by imaginative local authorities, they have made a real impact. I am concerned that, as innovation funding flows into the system that is clearly earmarked for initiatives relating to road pricing, local authorities that have prioritised soft measures will believe that they need not bother applying those.
 
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My other concern about whether the measure will help to reduce congestion is: if it is to be revenue-neutral, will it make an impact if introduced on a national basis? My perception is that even the material petrol price increases that have occurred in the past year have not affected behaviour. British motorists still take their cars to the petrol pump and fill them up. I have not noticed a significant change in behaviour. That might be linked to my earlier point about the public's lack of faith in the public transport alternatives.

Mr. Drew : I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows what I am going to say. The problem is that, in real terms, the cost of motoring is lower now than it was when we came to power in 1997 and the price of cars is dramatically lower than that of going by train or bus or even, to some extent, buying a bike. We are not serious enough about encouraging—in the nicest possible way—people out of their cars.

Mr. Hurd : I know the analysis and I have seen the data. I cannot disprove the fact that the real cost of motoring has fallen—but it does not feel like it to the motorist. When trying to engage the motorist in the political debate on road pricing, we should recognise that he has had it up to here.

Sir George Young : My hon. Friend's speech is much better than the one that preceded it. I press him on whether the motorist is insensitive to variations in charges. The data from the congestion charge in London surely leads to the opposite conclusion to the one that he draws—namely, that motorists are sensitive to increasing costs and that they do adjust their behaviour. That is why there has been a substantial drop in the number of cars in central London during the hours of the congestion charge.

Mr. Hurd : I accept that the congestion charge has changed behaviour. Like my right hon. Friend, I support the charge, although I have criticisms about how it was implemented. I suspect that at the root of the apparent success in changing behaviour was the investment in public transport, and the level of public confidence in London's public transport alternatives. However, I am not sure that that plays out across the country. Although the pricing mechanism can work, my concern is that it will have to be set at a high level in order to make an impact. The congestion charge is expensive at £8, but it has to be at that sort of level in order to bite. What concerns me is the flip-side—what it will do for social inclusion and what its impact will be on low-income motorists.

Mr. Love : I take issue with the hon. Gentleman's earlier comments. I understand that the congestion charge of £5 led to a substantial reduction in traffic when it was introduced. More recently, concern was expressed that people were beginning to take to the roads again. One reason for increasing the charge to £8 was not merely to deal with the revenue deficit but to maintain the impetus in getting people out of their cars. The hon. Gentleman's most recent comment—that only if the economic cost to motorists was significant would they use their cars less—was valid.

Mr. Hurd : I thank the hon. Gentleman for reinforcing that point.
 
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Another concern is about the benefits. The list of benefits cited include environmental ones. Again, I reiterate my point. Are we sure that those benefits can be delivered on a revenue-neutral basis, given what has been said about the psychology of the British motorist and his sensitivity to price? If the Government are serious about reducing transport emissions, they would be better advised to focus their energies and political capital on reducing the cost of green cars and green fuels, whose market share is pitiful. Green fuels have about 0.5 per cent. of the market, and if we are to get a grip on the hugely important agenda of reducing emissions, the future lies in technology, not in demand management. To advance the debate, the Government need to be much clearer about why it will make a difference.

Next, I echo the comments made by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire. Where is the momentum behind the public debate that has been called for? In a speech in June 2005, the Secretary of State said that we needed to answer three questions. First, what sort of system did we need, and what sort of benefits would it bring? Secondly, was the technology available, and could we construct an affordable scheme that would work? Thirdly, what practical steps did we need to take in the meantime? That sounds great, but it seems that the ball has been passed to local authorities. Are they picking it up?

Again, the Committee's report makes it clear that guidance on local transport plans invited local authorities to contact the Department by January 2005 if they were interested in exploring a package of measures to tackle congestion. It reads:

Can the Minister be a little bit more specific about how many councils have expressed enthusiasm about that? Has the Department decided who will lead the pilots, particularly the inter-urban pilot, which the Committee's report identified as being critical to advancing the debate? My sense is that local authorities have real concerns about the lead they are getting from the Government.

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Dr. Stephen Ladyman) : I will answer those questions now. Over 30 councils have expressed an interest and we will be making an announcement shortly about which ones we think are of the most interest.

Mr. Hurd : I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. After the rejection in the Edinburgh referendum, I was worried that there were concerns about the political risk attached to this agenda. Concern has been expressed about the lead being given by the Government on technology, which seems hugely important to this issue, particularly in the context of a phased approach where the Government wish to encourage local schemes, but with a view to that ultimately fitting into a national programme. The technology at play here is fundamental.

It has been put to me that not enough lead has been given by the Government on standardisation. The Committee's report is explicit on that:


 
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Can the Minister respond to that apparent concern about the lead being given by the Government on the standardisation of technology? My over-riding concern is about the lack of strong leadership in this debate. I fear that momentum will be lost. An interesting idea has been introduced. A debate has been called, but I sense a lack of momentum and a potentially wasted opportunity.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): I call Dr. John Pugh.

Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD) rose—

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): May I just say that in calling Dr. Pugh, I am starting the wind-ups, so if any other Member wanted to make a speech, they should have risen to their feet. I am grateful to Dr. Pugh. I am prepared to allow Mr. Hollobone to make a speech in this instance.

3.23 pm

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I am grateful, Sir Nicholas. Thank you for correcting me on the protocol. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), I had not intended to speak in this debate but I have been inspired by the oratory that has preceded me. With your permission, Sir Nicholas, I should like to take a slightly different, if controversial, tack, based primarily on chapter 4 of the Committee's excellent report, which concentrates on setting the road pricing debate in the context of other ways to tackle congestion, and the Government's response to that in paragraph 7.

I have a strong constituency interest in mind. As I mentioned in an earlier intervention, Kettering and Northamptonshire form part of one of the Government's growth areas and north Northamptonshire is obliged to deliver 52,100 houses between 2001 and 2021. That will increase the population of north Northamptonshire by about a third.

The local road network simply cannot cope. The main road—the A14, which is a road of national and European importance—is already beyond its design limits. Some 70,000 cars a day travel around Kettering. You do not need to take my word for it, Sir Nicholas. The Highways Agency itself is tackling congestion locally by imposing article 14 directions on house builders who have planning permission for new developments. Those directions forbid them from building more than a small number of their planning allocations, on the basis that the local road network cannot cope.

The point has been made that although these thoughts about a national road pricing scheme are in many senses welcome, it is already tremendously late. In constituencies such as mine, another Department is driving through another agenda, and it seems to me that the Department for Transport and the Highways Agency have not been made aware of the need for urgency in providing the necessary transport infrastructure up front. My short point is that, as far as
 
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tackling congestion is concerned, road pricing has many merits for the future, but by 2014, which is the earliest date by which the Government say that they can introduce it, there will already be tens of thousands of new houses in and around the Kettering constituency, and the local road network, which is already congested, will be approaching gridlock.

3.26 pm

Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD): Had hundreds of hon. Members appeared here to speak about road user charging, many could have avoided the congestion charge on their way home by staying here until 5.30. I suppose the fact that they did not appear in droves proves that the charge is no significant deterrent to most people, or at least not to people on MPs' salaries.

If road user pricing is the answer, I would like to begin my little contribution by asking what the question is. It appears to be, "What are we going to do about pollution and congestion?" Both are thoroughly unacceptable. Pollution is unacceptable because of its connection with climate change, and congestion is unacceptable because individuals are inconvenienced and gross inefficiency is built into the economy. That will all be aggravated, according to Government statistics, by the projected 30 per cent. increase in road traffic; that will only make pollution and congestion worse.

Pollution and congestion are related, but they are different problems, and solutions to pollution are not necessarily the same as solutions to congestion. For example, increased use of biofuels, which at least one hon. Member has mentioned so far, more efficient engines and so on provide a solution to pollution but do nothing for congestion. In fact, if there are fiscal incentives to use biofuels, the motorist may find that he can travel more cheaply.

Similarly, solutions to the problem of congestion do not necessarily work for the problem of pollution. For example, one criticism made of road pricing in the Institute for Public Policy Research study mentioned in the Select Committee's report is that it runs the marginal risk of encouraging people to travel further, which will clearly do nothing for pollution. Road building is another solution to congestion that does nothing to ameliorate the pollution problem, although if cars wait longer because of congestion, whatever gain has been made by virtue of engine efficiency—and appreciable gains have been made over the last few decades—will be completely negated. The car will be sitting there with the engine revving over, going nowhere and at its polluting worst. There are, however, solutions that attack the problems of both congestion and pollution—for example, car sharing and boosting public transport.

Before moving on to whether road pricing is the solution, may I make a few remarks about the Government's analysis? I would like some help, because they appear to be extrapolating figures for traffic growth from existing statistics and I wonder what that extrapolation is predicated on. A sceptic could argue that with demographic trends and the population becoming ever older—it is a known fact that older people are more reluctant to take long journeys and they travel less and use cars less—there will be disincentives
 
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in future for some people to travel. Is the projected 30 per cent. increase built on the optimistic assumption of economic expansion continuing as ever before? Is it based on increased car ownership? If we compare ourselves with other European countries, we see that there is scope for that. Compared with some other European countries, we have not yet maximised car ownership. Or is there an assumption that there will be a general increase in mobility due to the real cost of motoring remaining relatively static, and, perhaps, improving against people's net incomes?

Does the projection allow for the effect of congestion, which retards mobility to some extent? Clearly, if travelling around the country by car is a deeply frustrating experience and is much slower than one expects, one tends to do it less. This is in no sense a criticism, but I want the 30 per cent. projection to be analysed in a little more detail, or for the Government to share their modelling, which would equally help, as the figure is an important element in considering what should and should not be done.

Apart from road pricing, there are other well known mechanisms for dealing with congestion, one of which is to increase road capacity. That is often lampooned under the heading "Predict and provide." Some people suppose that one has only to build a road and it will immediately fill up with cars, but anyone who has had the lonely experience of travelling up and down the M58 will know that that is not the case. There are examples of roads being built that nobody uses, or that people do not use much.

When increases in road use are analysed, an interesting pattern emerges. Over the past decade, according to figures that I have obtained—presumably the Department for Transport has the same figures—there has been a 36.6 per cent. increase in motorway use and a 21 per cent. increase in rural A road use, but the increase in the use of urban A roads is only 5 per cent., so there is a variant pattern.

When one takes into account the fact that we have fewer motorway miles per car per head of population and by gross domestic product, the case for never increasing capacity and simply taking measures to restrain demand or ration road space is not unassailable. I am sure that all hon. Members will say, when canvassed, that they are against road building per se, but if one speaks to any of them for any length of time, one will find that there is a scheme in their area that they consider to be good and not to have any of the vices that road schemes in general are thought to have.

If one reads the Transport Committee report carefully—I hope that the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) will correct me if I misrepresent anything—one finds that there is an element of hedging bets. Although the capacity issue is not ignored, the Committee says that a pure building capacity solution is not a solution in any sense. That consensus is shared across party divides.

I agree with the Committee that there is still scope to reinvigorate Government support for softer measures, such as quality bus contracts and improved support for public transport as—I believe that this expression is used in the Committee's report—goods in themselves. I do not want to stray into the unfortunate issue of trams
 
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yet. That is a difficult issue because although modal shift is encouraged with trams, it is at an appreciable price, which the Government are increasingly reluctant to pay.

There are other obvious solutions to the congestion problem that should be pursued in parallel with road user pricing, such as the better use of ports and port capacity. I am enthusiastic about the expansion of my local port, Liverpool. Freight and road access to that port is severely hampered, but many containers could be taken off the M6 and the motorway network in general if it were a thriving port with good access. Currently, that situation does not entirely prevail, but it is a mechanism that could be used to do something about congestion, as is freight transfer to rail. I think that the Minister will accept that there is scope for that.

The broad, sensible view—I think it is the Transport Committee's and probably the Minister's view, too—is that road user pricing is part of a tool kit; it is not the sole item or a magic bullet. Indeed, it is not even particularly new or radical, although the Secretary of State for Transport said that it was radical when he introduced it and sought to excite the House with his proposals. As has been said, road user pricing has been on the stocks for a long time and goes back to the turnpikes. All my life, I have paid to go through the Mersey tunnel to the Wirral; at one time, I did not know that that was road user pricing, but that is precisely what it is. There is also the Greater London authority experiment with congestion charging, which has been broadly supported this afternoon. We all agree with the principle of road user pricing and we are all comfortable with it. We do not really have a difficulty with it and we accept it in various contexts, although we perhaps object to it in schemes that we dislike. However, the principle is well embodied in the thinking of all serious people who apply themselves to considering how we can better transport ourselves around the country.

The big issues are how far that principle will be extended and, equally importantly, what the details will be. We can have a brilliant scheme, but if we get the detail wrong, we shall generate a very unfortunate, adverse public response. In years gone by, I was the council leader in Southport, which is the constituency that I now represent. At one stage, I rationed parking on the streets by means of pay and display. I did that against appreciable political opposition, and there were processions through the streets calling for my dismissal, even though I was just a simple councillor at that stage. The scheme had to be introduced, and somebody would ultimately have had to do that, but when it was introduced, some of the details were not quite right and needed fine tuning. Once they were put right, and people understood what the scheme involved and what the benefits were, they rapidly adjusted to it. Obviously, I have lived to tell the tale politically, in so far as the constituents of Southport have, in their wisdom, elected me as their MP in the past two elections. The issue, therefore, is over-extension and detail.

As I understand their current thinking, the Government favour a high-tech and, to some extent, a high-risk solution. It is an historically unprecedented nationwide solution, and I am not aware of anybody in the world who has implemented or is implementing it. According to the Transport Committee's report, it will cost £5 billion a year to run. It is based on new global positioning system technology, which is used
 
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voluntarily by Norwich Union customers. However, it is not used massively across the world and is not the traditional microwave number recognition tag and beacon system.

There might be good reasons for using that system and the thinking might be that it will work extraordinarily well and that there will be no computer glitches. However, there are hitches. There are problems with synchronising what we are doing with what the European Union might want to do. There are privacy issues and issues related to who will own the satellites and what they will do with the information. I am not saying that those issues cannot be bottomed out, but they are complex.

If I were the Minister, I would understandably want to learn more before going for the big-bang solution. Once we do that, it will be difficult to retreat. Like him, I would probably be encouraging pilots. The transport innovation fund perhaps involves some strong-arm tactics, but the Government are taking a carrot-and-stick approach to some extent. Word has gone out to local authorities that if they want to be splendidly rewarded by the Government, one thing they could do is pilot a measure of road charging. I can therefore quite see why the Government want to avoid a big-bang solution and wish to prepare the public, the motoring industry and the freight industry.

As the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich said, the Government have not been helped by the collapse of the lorry charging system. I am a bit bemused by that. There are practical reasons agin it, some of which are in the Select Committee's report and some of which have been spelt out by Ministers. I wonder whether technical problems have been encountered that we might come across later if we opt for a massive scheme across the country. I reflect on the fact that Germany seems to have done something similar, although transport conditions and Government conditions are different in Germany. I wonder whether the Germans decided that there were serious technical problems of the sort that could well come back to bite us.

Pilots have their place, but the cruel dilemma for the Government is that there are also arguments against them. It is often argued that pilots are unrepresentative because the procedure for charging people is not universal across counties, regions or countries, which results in all sorts of displacement effects that are not created if the scheme is nationwide. Some people would advance the different argument that if we keep setting up enough pilots, we may well resolve the real meat of the problem without having to opt for a fully fledged nationwide scheme. That was the line followed by the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd).

The evidence so far is not terribly helpful. We have the examples of London and the M6 toll road. One decreased traffic and the other slightly increased it. It is, however, very difficult to draw obvious conclusions from those examples, because we may not have to the same extent in Manchester, Liverpool or Leeds what we have in London. A city might have a whole range of options—an excellent bus service, many trains and an underground system—and the people who need those options the most are probably the people who cannot pay the charges.
 
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I speculate on the predicament of a cleaner in Manchester under a road charging scheme who must go to work when the building needs cleaning, which is often early in the morning, and return in whatever congestion period has been set. That person does not have a lot of cash and cannot vary their behaviour by choosing to drive at a different time. Buses might not be running at the appropriate time or in sufficient numbers, or they may simply be inconvenient. All those factors could create the problems of social exclusion that the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich mentioned and that would affect ordinary city workers rather than people in the country. That point must be addressed in any scheme, and surely will be.

People who have the opportunity to use the M6 toll road increasingly go via Birmingham. I am one of them, and I hope that I can give Department for Transport officials in the Chamber useful advice about what is actually happening. I used to avoid the M6 altogether because I would simply roll slowly along in my car past the RAC building, and that is a deeply unpleasant and tedious experience surrounded by large lorries.

Mrs. Dunwoody : The hon. Gentleman should have taken the train.

Dr. Pugh : I do sometimes. The hon. Lady suggests that I take a train from a sedentary position—well, one cannot take a train from a sedentary position. I usually take the train, but occasionally I must drive, so I do. Many motorists like me used to drive up the M1 until they almost reached Derby and then drove straight across to Stoke. We have ceased doing that, which might in part explain why the figures have changed. That is not a standard example, however, so it is very difficult to draw satisfactory conclusions from it.

Similarly, none of the schemes under consideration are fiscally neutral. The Government recommend a fiscally neutral solution. The Select Committee, in part, advocates that. I have studied the Government response in some depth and contrasted it with the rather more forceful statement made by the Secretary of State for Transport when, not so long ago, he excited us all with the imminent appearance of a national road pricing scheme. For all the reasons I have given, the language of the Government response to the Select Committee report is far more tentative than that statement. It uses words such as "consensus", "research", "complexity" and "setting milestones"; there are lots of "whethers" and "ifs" in the text.

Such caution is partly justifiable, but three things are certain: first, the Government will not find support, nationally, locally or, probably, in Parliament, unless the evidence for the policy is convincing. Secondly, they will not find support unless the public can, however begrudgingly, see the need for the action. One reason for congestion charging not becoming a political disaster was that most people could, from time to time as they travelled around London, easily identify the futility of the previous arrangements. Anyone who, in 2001, got in a taxi and asked to go anywhere and just sat going nowhere with the clock ticking over recognised that something needed to be done. The public must recognise the necessity for action, and there must be open, manifest and forceful public dialogue.
 
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Thirdly, the detail of any scheme, whether local or national, needs to be carefully thought through. The devil is often in the detail and that is true of road pricing. There is no need to be dogmatic or presumptive, but there is every case for holding a good, open and intelligent debate on the subject.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): I understand that the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) wishes to raise a point of order.

Mrs. Dunwoody : On a point of order, Sir Nicholas. It is extraordinarily kind to call me now, as I was hoping not to interrupt a speech. I apologise to you, to the House and to the Minister and Front-Bench speakers, but I am committed to attending a prize-giving ceremony and my life depends on it. I hope that hon. Members will forgive me if I leave. It is not, I assure them, a sign of any desire to underplay the importance of the debate.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): I congratulate the hon. Lady on her courtesy. I know her constituency and her life would indeed be in jeopardy if she did not make the engagement in question. We understand her predicament and that she must go.

3.48 pm

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): What a good debate we have had, but that comes as no surprise when we are discussing a report prepared under the stewardship of the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). I am delighted that she will be gracing the school with her presence tonight, as she graces us with her presence in the Chamber.

I welcome the debate on road pricing and the Transport Committee report on it. Road pricing is part of the wider debate on our transport system, the acute problem of congestion and the public policy decisions that have put such a strain on our transport infrastructure. In introducing the debate, the hon. Lady identified the effect on traffic; she talked about the displacement effect on smaller roads, and other possible results of road pricing. She dealt with the effect on individuals and communities, when she spoke about social exclusion. I want to deal with that in some detail. She also spoke about the effect on revenue, when she highlighted the tension between revenue-neutral and revenue-raising approaches. Those effects will permeate much of my speech, and they have permeated much of the debate so far. I am sure they will be central to the Minister's considerations.

I am pleased that the Government and the Transport Committee recognise the severe problem of congestion. There is cross-party concern about it, and it is not a matter of partisan politics. I also welcome the willingness of the Committee and the Government to consider new ways of dealing with the problem of traffic on the roads. The Committee has done a good job of identifying the key difficulties, examining the possibility of a road pricing system and posing some key questions for the Government about such a scheme. I want to amplify some of those questions, and I hope to add some of my own.
 
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I intend to continue in this consensual vein, not just out of personal taste, but because we all want to support fair and effective measures that relieve the problems of congestion. However, I hope to ask some of the many remaining fundamental and critical questions about the Government's intentions.

The Department for Transport anticipates a 30 per cent. increase in road traffic compared with 2000 levels by 2015. The Committee states:

The danger of the Government's approach is that it fails to deal with the root causes of that extra demand. The answer cannot be simply to price the poorest and most vulnerable members of our society out of travel, when it is becoming increasingly difficult to go about one's everyday business without embarking on long and numerous journeys.

My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) said that there are two ways of dealing with congestion and, for once, I disagree with him to some extent. He said that the problem can be dealt with either by taking a non-interventionist approach and allowing congestion or by intervening and introducing what I think he described as a measured form of pricing. However, there is a further way of dealing with that problem—by examining and adjusting demand. Indeed, when the Government came to office, they were quite bold about that. In their early days, they recognised that transport policies were not simply a matter of reacting to an inevitable circumstance of ever-growing demand and were prepared to look at how that demand could be altered.

I therefore want to talk a little about the change in traffic, travel and transport, and how public policy can affect demand. Although everyone recognises that growth in the opportunity to travel for pleasure has enriched our lives, the travel revolution has also had less desirable effects on necessary travel. People have become obliged to travel more and for greater distances than ever before in pursuit of everyday objectives. Government policy means that people have to travel further and for longer not only to work, but to access core public services. For example, policing has become increasingly remote: one in four police stations has closed since 1990, obliging people to travel ever greater distances to report a crime, or to deal with the police in an everyday way. The threat of regionalisation of health and other services is also likely to lead to greater demand for travel.

There is also a greater obligation to travel to access shops. The average distance that we now drive to shop for food each year is 898 miles, compared with 747 miles a decade ago. The goods that we buy at supermarkets also travel for longer distances before they reach us. Although our lives have been enriched by the availability of exotic fruits—I imagine, Sir Nicholas, that you enjoy a star fruit or a kiwi fruit with the best of people—many products that could be produced locally now travel ever further to get to us.

I represent a rural constituency in Lincolnshire where people grow a lot of vegetables. If I went into the supermarkets in Holbeach and asked for a cauliflower grown in Holbeach, I suspect that people there would
 
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look at me as though I was mad. They would not know where the cauliflower had come from, and even if it had been grown in Holbeach, it is quite likely that it would have been transported to a distribution centre and then sent back to the supermarket close to where it originated.

We therefore have a serious problem not simply with access to shops, but with the distance travelled by the products sold there. The official figures show that the distance that food travels—known as food miles—increased by 15 per cent. in the 10 years to 2002. The use of heavy goods vehicles to transport food has doubled since 1974, and food transport accounts for 25 per cent. of all miles driven by heavy goods vehicles on our roads. As a result, the CO 2 emitted by food transport has risen dramatically. Some 19 tonnes of CO 2 were emitted in 2002 as a result of the transport of food—an increase of 12 per cent. since 1992.

According to a Government report, time lost through traffic congestion, wear on roads, ill-health caused by air or noise pollution and accidents—all caused by food transport—cost the UK £9 billion a year. That is half the value of the food and drink manufacturing sector, which is £19.8 billion.

The amount that we are obliged to travel has risen also as a result of the Government's housing, planning and employment policies. My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) is a doughty defender of the interests of his constituents, and is known in his area as someone who will stand up against Government plans to create unsustainable communities. He will know that the Government plan to build 200,000 houses in four growth areas in the south-east of England.

To drive that new development through, the Deputy Prime Minister is taking control of planning away from local communities and giving it to unaccountable and distant regional bodies. Incredibly, however, the Government have failed properly to assess the environmental and infrastructural impact of those decisions, despite repeated warnings from Committees of the House. The Environmental Audit Committee recently reported:

In short, it is important that the debate on road pricing and congestion is seen in the context of a broader debate—one about the impact of public policy on the need to travel. It is important that we consider the effect that obligatory travel has on quality of life. We want the Minister to liaise, co-operate and collaborate with other Ministers to ensure that decisions made by Government—the problem is not peculiar to this Government—are consistent in respect of their impact on transport and infrastructural costs, and the environmental consequences of those costs. That is the nature of the fundamental and wide-ranging debate that needs to take place, and I welcome the opportunity to contribute to it briefly.

Early in this splendid report, the Committee says:


 
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The Committee recognised the wider context that I have tried to highlight. An effective road pricing scheme will obviously depend on the evaluation that the Committee suggests. The Government's response to that is that they are

Will the Minister elaborate on what that programme is, and to what timetable it is operating? Can we have a proper debate on finances—the taxation and revenue aspects of the subject?

There is a fundamental difference between revenue-neutral schemes and tax-raising schemes, as the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich made clear. A revenue-neutral scheme would replace existing taxation with a new form open to more subtle manipulation, although the possible effect of displacing traffic from trunk roads to rural and smaller roads has already been highlighted. The logic of a revenue-raising scheme is that the ever-increasing demand for road use can be suppressed only by higher taxation. To tax road use is to treat a symptom, not the disease. The real issue is that we are obliged to travel more as part of our everyday lives. If we do not deal with that, we will be punishing the poorest and most vulnerable of our citizens; we will be restricting their ability to travel, even when it is essential that they travel to maintain a decent quality of life.

I make a special plea to the Minister on behalf of rural motorists. As I have said, I never waste an opportunity to advance the interests of my constituents—something I have in common with you, Sir Nicholas. You will know that I represent a rural constituency with a sparse population, many of whom do not have of the luxury of easy access to public transport. For them, the subject is vital. Imagine if they were charged to do the basic things—getting to school, work or the most fundamental facilities.

Compare that to the example of the citizens of leafy Ruislip-Northwood, who, we understand from the excellent speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd), have more cars than they know what to do with and easier access to all sorts of local services. I have nothing against Ruislip—I do not want to suggest that for a moment—but the challenges and difficulties are entirely different in the two areas described in my speech and that of my hon. Friend.

Let us be clear: it is impossible to have a meaningful debate about road pricing if the Government do not set out their position on the fundamentals. Would road pricing be revenue-neutral or an additional tax? The Government response to the report makes no mention whatever of the Committee's conclusion, which states:

Why have the Government failed to respond, or will the Minister respond today? This is not a question of detail; it is fairly central. It is vital to address it if we are to inspire confidence in the Government's intentions and if we are to have the clarity of purpose mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood as well as an open and honest debate on the difficult issues and the related challenges they throw up.
 
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There is an ethical issue, which the Committee described as an issue of social exclusion. It is perhaps even bigger than that: how do we regard freedom to travel and where is it on the scale of importance? What do we believe people's rights and opportunities should be?

As a Conservative, Sir Nicholas, like you, I do not hold much truck with natural rights, but having said that people have become accustomed to having the opportunity to travel freely and in a way of their own choosing. We need to take the broader ethical question of the balance between obligation and freedom into account as part of this important debate. I know that the Minister takes such matters seriously, and, as I have said, much of the subject goes beyond the partisan Punch-and-Judy politics that sometimes characterises our exchanges in this place and elsewhere.

The report also notes that

I would be interested to hear what discussions the Minister has had with the planning Minister about out-of-town shopping and related planning decisions, which will have an impact on road use and maybe on road pricing.

The Committee also expressed concern that a road pricing scheme would hit the poorest hardest, as I suggested, stating:

To be successful, road pricing must be part of a coherent strategy that addresses the number and length of journeys we are obliged to make as part of our everyday lives. If that is not the case, road user charging will simply displace traffic on to rural roads or make it impossible for vulnerable members of society to go about their business.

There is some doubt in this Chamber, which has been expressed by a number of hon. Members, about whether the scheme would be national or local. The Committee reported in paragraph 58:

In paragraph 62, it went on:

Will the Minister address in his winding-up speech the fundamental point of whether the charging scheme would be a single, national programme or a variety of local schemes? Is there any guarantee that the Government would use the revenue raised by road pricing to benefit motorists? Would that money be hypothecated? Would it be ring-fenced? Would it be ploughed back into the many important causes that are dear to our hearts and which assist travel?
 
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We expect one of the coldest winters in recent years, yet the Government are consulting on a proposal to remove the tax exemptions enjoyed by snow clearers and gritters. That is shocking, and surely not a responsible action. I cannot believe that this sensible Minister would have any truck with such a policy. It must be an error, which I hope his words in this Chamber will put right.

The Association for Public Service Excellence has warned that

I digress a little, Sir Nicholas, and I am grateful for your indulgence.

I shall conclude by posing serious questions: some are amplifications of what the Committee has said while some give further weight to hon. Members' comments. First, as we have heard during the debate, the Government support the development of local and regional demand management road pricing schemes through their transport innovation fund. Will not that give rise to a plethora of schemes that are based on different technologies? If so, those schemes will do little to inform a nationwide scheme that uses one technology only. How will the results be judged and then scaled up for a nationwide scheme?

Secondly, which of the several road pricing schemes around the world have the Government studied? Will the results of those studies be published? Thirdly, what risk is there of the Government abandoning any future national road pricing scheme, as they did the lorry road user charging project? Abandoning that scheme cost the companies that were working to implement it tens of millions of pounds.

I must take the opportunity to say what a powerful point the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich made about foreign heavy goods vehicles escaping the legal obligations that British hauliers endure. It is not really appropriate for our hauliers to be put at a commercial disadvantage because of the Government's inability or unwillingness to create a level playing field on which they could compete with foreign hauliers.

The hon. Lady also said that that is a matter of great concern to her and to her Committee. It is of great concern to the Opposition, too. I hope the Minister can satisfy us that he is on the ball and dealing with that problem; I hope he urgently introduces proposals in the House.

What assessment have the Government made of the possible effect that the local trials will have in displacing shoppers and traffic to neighbouring areas? How will businesses that find themselves suffering inside local congestion charging areas be compensated? Most will be familiar with what is often known as the cliff edge problem, whereby a business is located just inside a congestion charging area, but most of its customers and
 
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clients are outside—for example, a shop or a nursery. Where the scheme begins and ends is a real problem, although the Minister will have thought about that and, with his usual ingenuity, will devise an appropriate solution.

Will any local or regional scheme under which drivers, at their own cost, volunteer to have positioning satellite receivers in their cars produce skewed and irrelevant results? Will car-tracking data be held? If so, by whom and for how long? What work is being done to ensure the compatibility of road pricing schemes across frontiers in the European Union? That matter was mentioned by the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh). How much will the GPS box cost? How can drivers predict how much they must pay for a given route? Will hire cars and foreign cars be treated in the same way as UK ones? We know that in London, for example, within the congestion-charge area, some embassies pay the charge and some do not, or so I am told. Does the Minister know anything about that, and might that precedent spread alongside congestion charging?

It is right in principle to discuss this matter—the Secretary of State has called for a debate, the Transport Committee has examined the issue, we are having this debate and we will have an ongoing discussion on these aspects—but I suggest to the Minister that the debate would be better informed if it were clearer where the Government stand and if they answered some of the questions posed by me and the Committee.

The Minister will not be able to answer all those questions today, in the short time available to him, nor would I expect him to. I am happy for him to write to me, and he will wish to take the matter further in future debates. He might wish to adopt the style of inductive reasoning, whereby he starts with a theory and tests it. At the moment, we must deduce the outcome from sometimes disparate information and from uncertainties, rumours, hints of what might happen and the line that the Government might take. That is no way to hold a meaningful and productive debate.

I hope that the Government can go some way to correct that. We must take these matters seriously: they involve the UK economy, the UK's communities and the well-being of our constituents—the citizens of the United Kingdom.

4.13 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Dr. Stephen Ladyman) : I begin by thanking the Liaison Committee and the Transport Committee for promoting the debate and for giving us the opportunity to discuss these important issues. I seldom get to my feet with the opportunity of speaking uninterrupted for an hour and a quarter. However, since the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) is anxious to be at home for his little boy's birthday—and I am rather anxious that he should get to that party and pass on the whole House's good wishes—I shall try to speak for somewhat less than an hour and a quarter.

One of the dilemmas that the Government face is that when we come forward with a firm plan and a set of proposals, everyone says, "You should have consulted more. Why did you not come to us to ask our views before you came forward with a plan?" When we do
 
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exactly that and come forward with a blank sheet of paper indicating that there is an issue that we must address together, and that we need to grope our way to a solution, we are accused of not having put a plan in place. I rather feel that that has been the theme of this debate; it began with my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) saying that we needed to offer more of a plan and to include a timetable, a point at least partly reiterated by the hon. Gentleman.

We recognise that, as several hon. Members have said, the scheme will only move forward if we can get public agreement that it should move forward. Also, we have to get the public to understand how it will work. We have to deal with the complex problems that people are raising on how the scheme will work and the effects that it will undoubtedly have on social and economic policy. Unless we can deal with all those questions and come up with answers on which there is broad agreement, the scheme will not go ahead. The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) said that he was offering a certain amount of "political cover"; I would not call it that, but he is absolutely right that we will not go ahead with the scheme unless there is political consensus.

We have made it clear that if, ultimately, we end up with a national system of road pricing—and there is still a question as to whether we will, but we have to accept it as a possible objective—it will take at least 10 years to do it. That means probably two, perhaps even three, general elections between now and then. If we do not work together on the scheme, and if there is no political consensus and political understanding on the issue, there will be a temptation for somebody to say to the people, at some point during that time, "If you vote for me, I won't do it." By that point, we may have spent billions of pounds on moving towards the scheme, so it is absolutely vital that we work together across the parties to resolve the matter. I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman has suggested willingness to do so, and that the Liberal Democrats have indicated a willingness to share ideas. I welcome that, whether it means corresponding or meeting. The Secretary of State has said that he is prepared to have discussions with Front-Benchers—shadow spokesmen—from other parties to try to get some understanding on the problems that confront us and the difficulties that we will face in resolving them.

I must say that I do not know the answers to many of the questions posed today, and I am probably closer to the problem than anybody. I do not have answers to all these questions, but I know what many of the questions are, and I have some idea about potential answers to them. I know which questions do not yet have a full answer, and frankly probably never will. We have to accept that if we move along this road, some problems will be caused by the policy, and others will be solved by it. Nothing will be easy. We have to grope towards a solution that we can all buy into. Anything that I say in the next few minutes, and anything that the Government have said in recent weeks, has to be put in that context.
 
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We have started a debate that we genuinely want to hold. We genuinely want to identify the problems and come up with answers that everyone can buy into. We have some ideas and are putting them in the public domain—I will put some more before the House today—but I do not want anyone to think that anything in the debate is locked down or decided yet. None of it is decided; all of it is open to debate, discussion and moving forward. That will also apply to those councils chosen to move forward with us in developing pilots, and those that are involved in the pilots that have applied for money from the transport innovation fund.

I told the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd) that more than 30 councils have shown an interest in working with us on pilots and in being involved in transport innovation funding projects. We are narrowing that number down to a much smaller group that we would like to work with in the immediate future, and we will make an announcement on that shortly. I am sure that hon. Members will forgive me if I do not go into detail now; clearly we have to notify the House first. We will work closely with the short-listed authorities on recognising local issues, identifying how a pilot in their area might contribute towards answering the questions that have been asked today and clarifying the bigger picture.

Mr. Hurd : Can the Minister indicate whether the 30 councils that have expressed an interest present an opportunity to frame the sort of inter-urban pilot that the report suggests would be helpful?

Dr. Ladyman : The 30 or so interested councils present many opportunities, including that of testing behaviour. I would go further and say that there is no point in running a pilot unless we learn something from it. I would also argue that there is no point in running more than one pilot to answer the same question. If we are to learn anything from pilots, we need to identify questions and try to answer them. That might mean that we have one pilot dealing with one subject and another with another. Some pilots might be relatively simple, and able to be started quickly; others more complicated, needing to be run in the medium term; and others might be even longer term. All of them, as has been said by several speakers, have to be run in such a way that they can operate together and can all be part of the final picture. That means that technological and social issues will all have to be brought into line.

I hope that we will be able to answer some of the inter-urban issues with pilots but, because we are shortly to announce who is to work with us in the short term, I must make one point crystal clear: nobody has made any decisions about pilots or road pricing in those areas. All that we are committed to considering is the problems of those areas and the potential for working with them further. I do not want anybody to hear the announcement that a certain area has been included in the pilots and to run into the street screaming, "Oh my goodness, we are getting road pricing in our area." That is not what we are about. We are aiming to identify issues of interest on which we can work together, to look at them in depth and then to decide whether to take the next step.

Mr. Hayes : I take the Minister's point that the pilots and what can be learned from them should be
 
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sufficiently consistent that they can be applied more generally. Has he looked, as I suggested in my speech, at the experiences of countries that have already implemented schemes? That would seem to be a less risky way of achieving the same objective, given what he said about the worries of people who assume that a congestion charge or something similar is to be introduced in their area.

Dr. Ladyman : The hon. Gentleman is right. We can learn from other places, and we are studying schemes around the world. However, many of them do not deal with the sorts of problems that we are trying to address. For instance, some hon. Members have spoken in this debate as though the congestion charging that applies in central London is the sort of road pricing scheme that we are talking about for the rest of the country. The zonal congestion charge in central London, which uses relatively unsophisticated technology, is not applicable to the wider national situation. It might apply to certain towns and areas, and if it does then we might consider it. However, we are talking about ending up with a distance-based road price that will have to vary according to the congestion of the road and the time of day. That is a different concept from a congestion zone. When we consider a foreign scheme, we have to ask whether the problems that it was designed to solve are the problems that we are trying to solve here. If they were, then we will take it on board and will study it closely.

Let me outline some of the technologies that have been suggested. Not only Governments have looked at some of these technologies; a number of insurance companies are interested in moving how they charge for insurance to a road pricing system. One, Norwich Union, has a far advanced pilot scheme under way, in which people use what is basically a GPS positioning system to identify how many miles they have driven and are charged for their insurance accordingly.

There is a tendency for some people to say, "Okay, all the problems have been solved. All the technology we need is there; we can just apply it to our national road pricing scheme." However, the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire talked about the need to make sure that technologies work properly. The GPS system that Norwich Union are using is very good for answering the questions that the company wants to ask: "When are you driving your vehicle?", "Broadly, where are you driving it?" and "How far are you driving it?"

Younger, inexperienced drivers pay a great deal for insurance because they could be out and about on the roads at all hours and we know that many such drivers have accidents between midnight and 4 o'clock in the morning because they are tired, have been partying or are with their friends and showing off. If we want to come up with a system that disincentivises them from driving at that time of night, we need to deploy technology that tells us whether they are on the road at that time of night. That question is different from the one we are trying to answer; if we go to national road pricing, we may need far more specific and accurate information.

For example, one of the things that Transport for London has identified is that there is an effect called canyoning when a person is driving in cities. That means that the person is screened from the satellite by the tall
 
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buildings on either side and that the GPS system does not work that well in cities. That would be entirely unacceptable for a road pricing system such as the one we are considering.

Where do we go from there? Well, the Austrians or Germans have built some sort of gyroscopic system into their technology so that when the GPS system is not working, there is a way of predicting how far a person is travelling. Others have proposed a predictive mapping system whereby cars have an electronic map inside them and a person can work out where they are on that map using the GPS signal.

I hope that the House is starting to get the flavour of the fact that this is a complicated thing and that it does not necessarily have the accuracy that we seek. Different types of GPS technology can be put in vehicles to make the system more accurate. When we manage to get Galileo deployed, we will also have to ask ourselves whether that will increase the accuracy of GPS systems. GPS, of course, is just one technology that we might use. Mobile phone-based technologies are being piloted.

Mr. Hurd : The Minister mentions Galileo. How fundamental is that programme to the Government's vision, or potential vision, of a national scheme, and is there concern at Government level about the apparent uncertainty behind the funding for Galileo?

Dr. Ladyman : Galileo will certainly be a great help, not only for road pricing but for many companies that will be able to build technologies on the back of Galileo signals. I have no doubt that it will be a major boost to high-tech industry across Europe generally.

There is a debate to be had on whether we could build a road pricing system based on available satellite signals or whether we would need Galileo. There is no question but that if Galileo is available, it will be easier. However, some suppliers have said that they could build detector systems to go in a car that would be accurate enough to work with the existing satellite deployment available from the United States. There is not a clear answer to the hon. Gentleman's question, which is a good one. Galileo is not essential for road pricing, and there other types of technology that we can consider deploying. However, Galileo would make things much easier. I hope that we are now making progress towards sorting out the issues in that regard, and that we shall have good news about it in the not-too-distant future.

The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire asked whether the technology is available. Certain types of technology that have been identified immediately as potential elements of the marketplace may be available, but issues arise to be considered. We know of some technologies that are immediately available. Tag and beacon, for example, is relatively easy to deploy, and we know that it will work, but it means that every car must have a tag and we must deploy beacons along every road where we want road pricing, or around the zone of any congestion charge. The technology works well. It works on the Dartford crossing and is available on many toll roads. Some of the pilot systems that we will consider might use tag and beacon technology.

My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich asked how the technologies deployed in the pilots would be built into the final scheme of things. I do not have a
 
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complete answer. It would be wonderful if we could identify now the technology to deploy on pilot schemes, which would be the technology in use in 10 years' time. Realistically, that may not be possible. We may have to start with schemes that use technologies that will help us to answer questions, but that we intend to abandon in the long term because we do not see them as the ultimate answer.

One question to which an answer is vital is whether road pricing will change people's behaviour. If the answer is no we may as well stop now, because road pricing will not be the answer to congestion. Unless it makes people travel at a different time of day or on a different modality or on a different route, what is the point? It will not help us with congestion. There may be trials that we need to conduct to test that. Will road pricing affect the behaviour of the motoring public? The technology with which we ask that question might not, in the circumstances, be so significant.

We may be able to plot a technological road map to where we want to be. We may be able to identify now where the technology that we want to deploy will be in 10 years, and set milestones using different types of technology, as we move towards the final system.

Dr. Pugh : Can the Minister conceive of a situation, when the milestones are reached, in which he would say, to his surprise and against expectation, "The job is broadly done, we need not go further or have a more elaborate scheme, and we do not have to incur further expense"? Might a provisional scheme in some hot spots largely dissipate the congestion problem, or might a programme for motorways do so quite adequately, without the fine-grained satellite inspection of everyone's car movements?

Dr. Ladyman : The hon. Gentleman is right and we must keep that possibility in mind. As we conduct the pilots, we may identify the ability to solve some local problems, and that may deal with the issue sufficiently well to enable us to slow down the progress towards national road pricing, or to decide that we will never need it. On the basis of our projections—I shall come to his point about projections shortly—the Government expect the increase in traffic in the next few years, and the increased congestion that that will cause, to require us seriously to consider the possibility that 10 years from now we will need a national road pricing system for all roads to change people's behaviour.

That is our current conjecture. If it proves to be wrong and we do not need a national road pricing scheme, I have no doubt that we can slow down our progress towards it. That is one reason why it is important that we grope slowly towards such a scheme, using pilots to answer questions, using discussion and trying to establish consensus each step of the way, so that we can be open-minded about where it is necessary for us to go in the long term, but we need the scheme to be a clear possibility.

The hon. Gentleman asked about our figures and whether our modelling is based only on vehicle numbers, or whether we took other factors into account. We take into account a wide range of factors, such as
 
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economic growth, demographics, the age distribution of the population and predictions about people's behaviour. When making any long-term projection, we are somewhat in the area of futurology, so we have to make some simplifying assumptions to come up with any answers at all, but we try to take a range of factors into account. If he wants to consider them in detail, they are on the Department for Transport website for all to see. If he has any questions about them, I shall do my best to clarify the matter for him.

On the question asked by the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings about technology and how much the bit that will go into people's cars will cost, I do not have an answer. I am pretty sure that I do not want the Government to be in the business of designing it. As I have said many times in public, I suspect that if the Government designed it, it would probably be the size of a suitcase and cost several thousand pounds. It would be much better if we identified the standards—what information cars will need to exchange with the road pricing system—so that the private sector can become involved in designing the systems and building in added value.

If and when we have a system of national road pricing, an obvious benefit would be to build the technology alongside satellite navigation, which is increasingly installed in cars as standard, so that the additional cost of providing the required information to the road pricing system might be negligible. People might want to ask not only, "How do I get from A to B?" or "What is the quickest route from A to B?", but "What is the cheapest route from A to B?" They might also want a system that provides them with route-planning advice such as, "You can do this journey most quickly if you do it at this time of day." The private sector would be well equipped to build that added value into the system if one were prepared to pay for it. Therefore, the Government should try to come up with standards that we can publish, which other people can then make equipment for.

The hon. Gentleman asked about privacy, which is an important point. When the Secretary of State first announced what we were considering, there were all sorts of comments about the spy in the sky knowing where people are all the time. That is absolute nonsense and technological buffoonery. The spy in the sky is not a spy; the satellite does not know where people are. All that a positioning satellite does is to beam a signal that anyone in the world can pick up at any time, which tells the receiver the position and identity of the satellite and when it was beamed. Based on the satellite signals that the car receives, the equipment in the car carries out a process rather like triangulation to work out where the car is. Therefore, the equipment in the car knows where someone is, but the satellite and the Government do not.

Of course, if we specified that someone's car must broadcast that information to us, we would know where they were, but we do not have to specify such a system. We could specify that the car must simply broadcast how much someone owes, how far they have travelled, what time of day they have travelled or the price of the road on which they have travelled. In those circumstances, it would not be necessary for the car automatically to broadcast information about its location. We can therefore deal with the privacy issues, and people should insist that we do so. However, they
 
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should not get hung up on the notion that such issues are a showstopper, because we can design a system that does not require that information.

Several hon. Members have mentioned cost and social exclusion. On cost, we have made it clear that we do not intend the system to be revenue raising at this point. We are looking at shifting from the existing way in which motorists contribute to the Exchequer to new ways; we are not looking at the issue as a way of raising additional revenue.

I take issue with what the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire said about the previous Government's 1996 White Paper, which did not deal with road pricing in quite the way that he suggested. In fact, it suggested looking into several possible ways of paying for roads and talked about the possibility of raising additional revenue, rather than the road pricing system that we are debating.

Mr. Hurd : The Minister has made it clear that the Government's preference is for revenue neutrality. Perhaps I can link that to the pilots, which will be critical to shaping political understanding of the issue. If a local authority says, "We have to do this, but there's a lot of political risk involved, so we're only prepared to do it on a revenue-neutral basis," how will central Government deliver on that?

Dr. Ladyman : That is an excellent question, and there is no doubt that we need to explore the issue with local authority partners. We have made it clear that we are prepared to engage in a discussion about how we deal with that. Clearly, we cannot change the whole system of national taxation because one local pilot is going on. If people in that area find that whatever they pay is in addition to their national taxation, they will be entitled to say, "We're not getting a very good deal. How are we going to be repaid?" We have said that we are prepared to look at all manner of options for dealing with that, including giving the money back to the local council, which could then spend it on additional services or even on a council tax rebate—that would be a matter for the council. That might be a way of giving the extra value back to local people.

Mr. Hayes : Can the Minister just explore the regressive nature of the tax? He responded effectively to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd) by saying that there might be some way of returning the money to the community, but that does not deal with the regressive quality of this potential tax. I am particularly worried about essential car users and about rural and semi-rural areas—the pilot could cover a combined suburban and rural area in particular districts. How will the Minister deal with those issues?

Dr. Ladyman : Again, that is an excellent question, which brings me back to the point on which I was intending to conclude. Essentially, the hon. Gentleman asks how we shall deal with the issue of social exclusion, which my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich raised at the start. A congestion charge or road pricing system that created additional opportunities for public transport and for faster public
 
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transport might be one way of dealing with social exclusion. That is essentially how the congestion charge in London has dealt with the issue. The Mayor has raised money through the congestion charge. He has used a significant amount of that money to buy buses. He has designed a road network that gives a high degree of bus priority. The general lower level of congestion, the bus priority lanes, the additional buses and the expenditure on other forms of public transport essentially mean that those people who choose not to or who can no longer afford to use their car have cheap, convenient and workable alternatives. That is one way that the social exclusion problem can be dealt with. We must make sure that by doing this we are providing benefits for people.

Flexible working is another issue that must be explored. If the highest cost for using a road is between the traditional rush hour of 7 am and 9 am, employers could be encouraged to tell their employees to start any time up to midday and thereby avoid the high price roads. No doubt some employers would refuse to do that and would insist on their employees arriving by 9 am regardless of their personal circumstances. I suspect that such an employer would find it difficult to recruit staff, and would be forced by the market either to increase the wages paid to offset the road costs or to think again about the way forward. That is at least a partial answer to the social exclusion problem. Let me repeat: this will be one of the biggest issues with which we have to grapple. I have not given a complete answer to the problem at all.

Mr. Hayes : I am extremely grateful to the Minister for giving way yet again. He is grappling with incisive questions from the rising stars of the official Opposition. Let us deal with the matter of essential car users. He makes a good point about how one might deal with employment issues, but there are those, such as the chronically sick, the frail and elderly and disabled people, for whom public transport is not a practical option. Would remission of charges be a possibility in those cases? Some people could be excluded from charges because they were essential car users and that was the only way in which they could access things that were necessary for their quality of life or well being.

Dr. Ladyman : I certainly accept that we have to discuss such remissions. We must have an open mind. I would not rule them out at all. Let us not forget that, under the existing system, those essential car users already make a significant contribution through fuel duties, vehicle excise duty and the tax they paid when they purchased their car. How we deal with the shift in taxation from the existing system to the new system is not a matter for me. It will be a matter for the Chancellor. Other than my late mother, I do not think that anyone has ever suggested that I am in the running to be the Chancellor. These will be complex issues that have to be grappled with. Remission is certainly a problem.

I recently had discussions with representatives of the disabled driving lobby. They told me that we would get no support from them unless we told them that they would not pay any road charges. My immediate response was that they were already paying road charges, so were they saying that they should pay less in
 
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road charges in future? Were they demanding complete exemption, or do we need to look for a system where they pay a standard road price rather than a variable road price?

During that debate, the leading spokesman admitted that he makes a journey on a reasonably regular basis which takes him from just outside the congestion charging zone to another place just outside the congestion charging zone. If he went around the zone it would add only an extra three or four minutes to his journey, but because he has complete exemption from the congestion charge, he always goes straight through. He admitted that that was not an appropriate way to behave because he knew that the zone was there to eliminate congestion, which he was causing as much as anyone. He was prepared to engage with me and admitted that the issue is not as simple as complete remission of charges for everyone.

Those are complexities that we must debate. I can give the hon. Gentleman and anyone in the essential car-user groups an absolute promise that we are completely prepared to engage with them and discuss how we would tackle the matter through the pilot schemes and any subsequent national scheme that we might ultimately introduce.

Finally, I wish to comment on the assertion of the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) that there were two questions to answer: one about the environment and pollution, and the other on congestion. I do not agree. The question that we must address is that of congestion. Environmental issues might be solvable by other means such as clean engines or incentives to use cleaner cars. We have just introduced the 5 per cent. renewable transport fuel obligation, which is one way we can begin to deal with greenhouse gas. It may be that
 
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once we have designed a perfect system that can deal with the complexities of congestion—we have identified how difficult that alone will be—there will be an obvious way to tweak it, so that it also brings environmental benefits. However, we must first concentrate on the big question of congestion, which is quite complicated enough. Let us not be tempted to get into a debate about a tax on gas guzzlers or other polluting vehicles. Let us deal with the difficult enough questions about how we resolve congestion.

I shall finish where I started by repeating that the Government do not have a plan. We have set out our objectives and, shortly, we will outline how we intend to start groping towards a solution through pilot schemes. We are completely open-minded about technology and the other issues and problems that hon. Members have raised. We are very happy to engage with anyone and everyone including motorists' groups, people who represent transport interests and other political parties. We are happy to engage in that debate because we wish to reach consensus.

No decisions have yet been made about how the matter will ultimately be resolved. We acknowledge the complexity of the issues, but we are starting to gain some clarity about the way forward. Shortly, I hope that we shall be announcing who will participate in the first wave of transport innovation projects, and we shall look for scope for further pilots. At this stage, everything is up for grabs. I and the Secretary of State honestly wish to solve the problem with help from across as wide a spectrum of opinion as possible.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): The House thanks the Minister for his detailed response.

Question put and agreed to.



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