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The Assembly Government has yet to decide what role, if any, road pricing may play in addressing current and future transport challenges.
This power will however enable us to adopt a coherent approach towards any road pricing proposals that may come forward within Wales or any future UK scheme.
The Bill makes clear that the revenues from any trunk road pricing scheme would have to be used for transport purposes in Wales.
towards purposes relating to transport,
but that is a particularly wide expression. In other words, the charges, or the proceeds of the charges, need not be applied to the infrastructure over which the road passes, or even to any other closely associated infrastructureit can be used for any purpose related to transport.
A particular worry of mine, expressed by Conservative peers in another place, is that such a provision effectively amounts to a tax-raising power in favour of the Assembly that goes beyond its competence as set out by the Government of Wales Act 2006. A Government spokesman in another place denied that that was the case, saying that the application of the proceeds of the charge to purposes relating to transport meant that it was not a tax because the proceeds would have to be applied for a defined purpose. However, I remain concerned that it would amount to a charge, given that although the proceeds of the scheme would have to be applied for purposes relating to transport, there would be nothing to prevent the Welsh Assembly Government from applying the proceeds of the charge to the transport budget line and then removing from that budget line an equivalent sum freeing up the sum so released for purposes other than transport. That seems to amount to taxation by the back door and to go well beyond what was contemplated by the devolution settlement set out in the 2006 Act.
My greatest concern, however, is that the imposition of the charge for the use of Welsh roads would amount to a significant additional financial burden on Welsh business. That fear is shared by industry representatives from across Wales. The Freight Transport Association says:
Our Welsh members are concerned that in using Wales as a guinea pig for this scheme, they are putting Welsh businesses and jobs at risk. For example, a company based in Cardiff pitching for business in Wiltshire may soon have to face a Cardiff congestion charge, Welsh road pricing and Avon road pricing schemes to deliver the products, versus a company based in Kent that would not. It would not be surprising who would get the contract for the work.
As a tourism membership organisation representing over 1,300 SMEs throughout North Wales and as a member of the Wales Tourism Alliance, we would strongly oppose the introduction of any road pricing schemes on any roads within Wales. Road pricing would most certainly have a detrimental impact on the tourism industry which is crucial to the economy of North Wales. Tourism contributes in excess of 15 billion pounds per annum to the local economy and provides employment for over 35,000 people. Road pricing for Wales in isolation would most certainly provide England and Scotland with a significant competitive edge. In North Wales one of our main competitors is Englands Lake District and this would further divert business away from our region.
NFU Cymru and the Farmers Union of Wales have expressed concern about the impact that road pricing would have on agriculture, which has recently been hit hard by foot and mouth disease and bluetongue and is a significant user of the road transport network.
Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that if the clauses on Wales were altered in such a way that they pertained to a specific road relief scheme, we would have no problem with the legislation? The trouble is that even when the Plaid Cymru Minister came from the National Assembly to explain the provisions, at no time did he specifically mention a scheme. He has allowed a wide-reaching clause to be drafted, at his request, that will cause great difficulty to all road users in Wales if it is implemented and then acted on.
Mr. Jones: My hon. Friend is quite right. Not only did that Minister make no mention of the M4 when he came to the House, but no mention was made of it in the Welsh Assembly Governments statement. As far as I can see, the only mention of the M4 relief road, which I would support, was made by the right hon. Member for Neath. It is one thing to propose a toll relief road, which I would support, and I believe that other Conservatives would, too, but it is an entirely different matter to impose trunk road charges throughout Wales that would significantly disadvantage the Welsh economy.
The Freight Transport Association referred to Wales being used as a guinea pig for road pricing. Given the Chancellors recent remarks in the Budget statement, when he said that he was setting aside funding to develop road pricing technology, the suspicion arises that Wales is again being used as a guinea pig. Wales was used as a guinea pig for council tax revaluation and rebanding, which was subsequently abandoned in England because it proved so unpopular in Wales. I am, therefore, very concerned at the inclusion of clause 115. If it were intended as a targeted measure, I would support it, but it is not. It would effectively be a tax on the use of Welsh roads.
I would like to question whether Wales is a guinea pig. The issue in question is that the
National Assembly is able to recoup funds and use them for transport purposes, but if we had a national road pricing scheme, which would follow from the guinea pig arrangements, money could be taken by the Exchequer in London to abolish road tax, for example. It would then be difficult for the Exchequer to take money that has already been allocated to the Welsh National Assembly.
Mr. Jones: It certainly would be the case that Wales was used as a guinea pig. The simple fact remains that Welsh road users would have to pay for the use of the trunk road infrastructure in Wales, but that would not apply in England.
If the Welsh Assembly has not yet developed a policy on road pricing, which appears to be the case from the statements I have seen from Welsh Assembly Ministers, there is no reason why it should not wait until the Chancellors proposals have been developed on a UK-wide basis. At that stage, there can be a debate on road pricing in this House, which would no doubt be lively, and if the Government win the day, a uniform pricing structure could be imposed throughout England and Wales. But to disadvantage only Welsh business and Welsh road users is frankly unacceptable. I believe that the devolution of legislative competence to the Welsh Assembly is properly the subject of scrutiny in this House, and I do not believe that the proposals in the Bill stand up to such scrutiny. I therefore express my most serious reservations, and I strongly support the amendment.
Kerry McCarthy: I am glad finally to have the opportunity to speak in this debate, and I am glad that my getting to my feet has been welcomed so warmly by some of my colleagues. My patience has been rewarded.
I welcome the opportunity to speak because it is no exaggeration to say that the Bill could have more of an impact on the lives of my constituents in east Bristol than anything else we are debating in Parliament at the moment. That is because public transport is such a huge issue for them. It is interesting that we have heard three contributions so far from the Conservatives, and I think I am right in saying that there has been virtually no mention at all of public transport in their speeches.
The hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson), who is no longer in his place, focused on what he admitted was the narrow issue of the prosecution of owners of foreign vehicles. We have just heard a contribution from the hon. Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones) that focused solely on the road-charging powers being given to the National Assembly for Wales. Earlier, we heard the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight), who is no longer in his place either
I am sorry; I did not spot the right hon. Gentleman. His contribution was more than half an hour long, but was based, as far as I could see, entirely on the view of the motorist, and he cited a
range of motorist organisations. Apart from making a plea for historic vehicles not to have to be adapted for wheelchair access, he made no mention of other public transport in his constituency. That says an awful lot about the priorities of Opposition Members.
We have, however, heard some excellent speeches from some of my hon. Friends. That is because many of them recognise that public transport is a key factor in social inclusion and something that we must tackle if we are to address poverty and exclusion. That is certainly a factor in my constituency and in the Bristol conurbation as a whole, where congestion is a problem and road traffic is among the slowest in Britain. I have seen figures cited for the average speed of between 13 and 16 mph, but anyone who travels through Bristol in the rush hour will know that that is incredibly optimistic. Indeed, anyone who can manage 3 mph is doing quite well.
We have also suffered from overcrowded and overpriced commuter rail services. A deal was recently reached with First Great Western to try to move that forward, but people who use the service to get to work in Bristol have faced serious problems. We also have an underused local branch linethe Severn Beach linerunning through my constituency, which has suffered from endless cancellations. Somebody who misses the 5.30 am train and has to wait for the next one at 6.30 am will suffer incredibly and might lose their job. Thankfully, more frequent services are being introduced in May, but there is a lot of ground to be made up.
The issue that I receive the most complaints about are the unreliable, overpriced and shabby bus services. It is no coincidence that my hon. Friends the Members for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith) and for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) talked eloquently about the problems with bus services in their constituencies, because FirstBus runs the services there as well as in Bristol. I hope that the measures in the Bill will be able to address the problem.
Unless we can sort out the public transport system, things will eventually just grind to a halt in Bristol. There is already a concern about businesses not wanting to be located in certain parts of Bristol, because it is impossible for people to get to work on time or even to get to work at all because of the cancellation of some services. People going to meetings spend a huge amount of time sitting in traffic jams. Business West is supportive of some of the measures in the Bill, because it hopes that they will address those issues.
Employment is another key issue. We have a big regeneration project in the centre of Bristol called Cabot Circus, which will create about 4,000 new jobs. I hope that those jobs will be filled by people from the deprived inner-city wards that I represent and from some of the wards in Bristol, South which have comparatively high unemployment rates, too. However, as some of my hon. Friends said, unless people can be sure that they will be able to get to work on time and that there are bus services to the areas where they live, they will find it difficult to take up those jobs and to keep them. FirstBuss punctuality rate in the last period for which statistics are available, up to October-November 2007, is 80 per cent. That just is not good enough, because I would
imagine that most of the 20 per cent. of occasions when FirstBus is not punctual are during peak times, which is when congestion is worst.
The Government have a drive to get more lone parents into work when their children reach a certain age, which I support because we want to tackle child poverty. However, the Select Committee on Work and Pensions has just published a good report on that, and all the evidence shows that the issue for lone parents is not finding work in the first place, especially in Bristol, where there are some 10,000 vacancies in the economy. Rather, the issue is what is known as churnpeople entering jobs but not being able to keep them. Sometimes that is because of the hidden costs associated with the jobsfor example, losing the right to free school meals or free prescriptionsbut the cost and reliability of transport are also major factors, particularly for parents with child care responsibilities. They need to base their working lives around getting the kids to school on time, getting to work, then making sure that they are back at the school gate at 3.30 or 4 oclock. Too many lone parents to whom I have spoken are finding that, because they cannot rely on the bus service, they are having to get cabs as a last resort. If they are working for not much more than the minimum wage, having to find a cab fare once or twice a week can make the difference between being better off in workand being able to keep that employmentand deciding that they would be better off on benefits, despite all the associated long-term poverty that that would bring.
I also want to mention a minor point about which I have received a number of complaints in my constituency. FirstBus has now introduced a no-change policy on its buses. If the bus driver did not have enough float to give a passenger the correct change, the passenger used to be able to use their ticket to claim the change from another driver or use their ticket on another service. I am not quite sure how the ticket was earmarked to show that they were owed that money, but they were able to claim it back in that way. FirstBus has now introduced a policy whereby the passenger has to go to a travel shop within a week to claim the money that they are owed. So if someone with child care responsibilities who is juggling a busy life pays for a £1 bus fare with a £10 note, and the driver is unable to give them change, they will have a week to go into the city centre to claim back the money. That is effectively taking the money out of their pocket, and they will also have to incur extra costs by going to collect their change. I have written to FirstBus about this, as I believe that that policy needs to be challenged.
My hon. Friends the Members for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland) and for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods) mentioned concessionary fares for young people. Representatives of the Youth Parliament and the Youth Cabinet in my constituency, and in Bristol as a whole, have also lobbied me about that matter, and I hope that it is something that we can investigate further.
Some good progress has been made. We are considering a package of showcase bus routes in Bristol, and one that has recently opened runs through my constituency in east Bristol. The Department for Transport has earmarked about £42 million as a contribution towards the project. If all the proposed showcase bus routes across the West of England partnership areanot just in Bristolcome on track, there will be 35 to 40 new bus routes, which will make a major difference.
However, a lot more needs to be done. This all hinges on the issue of integrated and strategic leadership. That is why I believe that the provisions in the Bill on integrated transport authorities are so important for such places as Bristol. If we look at all the things we could do to improve transport, we find that most of them will be very difficult to achieve unless the four local authorities that work together on the local transport plan can do so in a much more co-ordinated way than they do at the moment. For example, a long time ago, there were plans for about 19 park-and-ride schemes around the outskirts of Bristol. Obviously, Bristol would have been the beneficiary of those schemes, in that the congestion there tends to be the result of people travelling into the city to work, to shop or for leisure activities. However, it was impossible to get the agreement of the local authorities that surround Bristol to base the park-and-ride schemes in those areas. In the end, about three schemes were established before the whole thing ground to a halt. If those four local authorities could work together in a more co-ordinated way, there would be a significantly greater chance of setting up more of those schemes.
We also need to try to achieve a significant increase in rail capacity, once the current problems with the franchise have been sorted out. Most people accept that the franchise that was entered into when First Great Western won the bid met the current demand but did not anticipate future demand. I believe that there is a lot of latent demand, and that if we run better rail services and increase capacity, many more people would be prepared to use the trains than at the moment.
The most important issue relates to buses, however. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough and, I think, my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) spoke of the advantages of having a transport authority that could introduce improvements to bus services. Bristol has certainly reached the stage at which a quality partnership or, probably, a quality contract will be the solution. It is quite clear that deregulation has not worked; I get more complaints about bus services than almost any other local issue. If we can move towards having an integrated transport authority for what is known as CUBAthe counties that used to be Avonwe can start to look at how we can exert more control over our bus services.
Let me finish by dealing with congestion charging. I occasionally receive letters from constituents complaining about the possibility of such charging and my past support for it. The authors of every one of those letters have in common a lack of faith in the public transport system, which is why they insist on their right to use their cars. There is always the problem of whether we are putting the cart before the horse, but the money raised from pilot schemes dealing with hypothecation can be put into improving public transport. That is a really good move, but we also need to ensure that some of the money comes through for things like the showcase bus routes first. Unless we have done something significantly to improve the bus services as well, when we start charging people it will cause a huge amount of resentment.
Finally, on the two issues of the integrated transport authority and road charging, many business groups in my constituency are certainly very supportive, as long as the policies are implemented properly. As the Bill passes through Parliament, I hope that it will give us the power to take action on both those fronts.
Mr. Lee Scott (Ilford, North) (Con): I apologise for not being in my place for all of this debate, but I have been serving on the Transport Committee this afternoon. I would like to make just two brief points that I have also raised in that Select Committee in the past. The first is about congestion charging.
I want to make it clear that I am not against the principle of congestion charging in any shape or form. What I am against, however, is using congestion charging as a means of taxation, particularly when it does not ease congestion or take into account the consultation that is supposed to happen before it is introduced. I am, of course, referring to congestion charging in London, which could be applicable elsewhere. If congestion charging is brought in to ease road congestionthat is obviously what it is meant to dothat is fine, but there must be full consultation at local level, which must then be taken into account. That has certainly not been the case in London. I can vouch for this personally, as I drive here two days a week and use London transport for the rest of the week, so I know that congestion has not eased in any wayand nothing will convince me otherwise. I believe that people should be honest about the reasons for introducing congestion charging.
That brings me, secondly, to the conditions in which people are expected to travel. We currently experience conditions of travelI am thinking of my constituents in Ilford, North, but this is applicable across London and, indeed, across much of our countrythat are so bad that it would be illegal to transport animals in them. I am not being over-dramatic about that; I am being exact. Standing with someone elses chin in ones face in absolutely abysmal conditions is terrible; and paying an exorbitant amount of money for that privilege makes it worse. What I therefore want is quality local transport that people wish to travel on. That will truly ease the congestion and allow the congestion charge to do what it is meant to do and make things better for all.
I wish to add one brief final point, which I believe my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) raised in my absence. It is to do with foreign vehicles on our roads and how the enforcement of the congestion charge and other matters can be carried out in respect of those vehicles. There are increasing numbers of foreign vehicles on our roads. In some cases, they are not fit to be on our roads, because they have not had the equivalent of our MOT done in their own country and they cause a variety of hazards. Yet their owners do not pay fines and do not obey our laws, which surely need to be enforced. If it could be carried out, enforcement would make a vast difference across our country. It would contribute more income and would help to make the congestion charge fair for owners of all vehicles alike.
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