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Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. If Ministers are content to accept this benefit for themselves, do they agree that it

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is morally wrong that low-paid public service employees such as teachers and nurses, and unpaid volunteers such as the Samaritans, all of whom must use their cars, should not get a similar benefit? Will the Minister suggest to other Ministers that they follow the example of my right honourable friend the leader of my party, who is adamant that he will not allow the taxpayer to pay his congestion charge?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: My Lords, many organisations in both the private and public sectors provide cars and vans to enable staff to carry out their jobs. There will be active exemptions; for example, essential workers with Westminster City Council and the National Health Service and fire fighters. That will be a matter for employers.

The government guidance on travel by Ministers, which is available in your Lordships' Library, makes clear that Ministers are allowed to use official cars on the understanding that they will normally be working on classified papers. Security issues may also be relevant. That justifies the departments' reimbursing the GCDA for the cost of congestion charges.

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, if public servants do not have to pay congestion charges, is it not logical that businesses cover their employees' costs?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: My Lords, it is for employers to decide the procedures for their employees. It is not the only tax that employees must pay when travelling. There are parking taxes, road, bridge and tunnel tolls, and so on. We believe that the Government's policies have been tried and tested over many years.

Lord Tebbit: My Lords, is it the mark of a socialist government that a Minister's driver coming to work must pay the charge himself but the Minister swans around in the car at the expense of the taxpayer; that is to say, his driver?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: My Lords, that need not be the case. Ministers who drive to their place of work must pay the congestion charge. If they are picked up within the congestion-charging zone, the charge will be reimbursed by the Government.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it is so long since the party opposite was in government that it has forgotten what it means to have a ministerial job—I hope noble Lords enjoyed that—and to have red boxes, which are confidential? Some of the questions are absurd. Will my noble friend say that the congestion charge—if the details are right, and there are doubts about that—will make a sensible contribution to traffic management in London and other cities?

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Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: My Lords, I am sure we all hope, for the sake of Londoners, that the congestion charging scheme will be a success. We believe that, done properly, congestion charging is one way of dealing with traffic problems.

Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, on the general point, should not the proceeds from these charges go to the local authorities involved? If the revenues do not cover the administrative costs, is it equitable to pass the bill to United Kingdom taxpayers?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: My Lords, the proceeds of congestion charging in London will go to Transport for London. The Government will be involved in consultations on how that money would best be spent. Obviously, it will be spent on trying to improve travel conditions for Londoners.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester: My Lords, given that vehicles converted to run on LPG and electricity are exempt from the charge, what proportion of the government car fleet is already converted, and what progress has been made on speeding up the programme?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: My Lords, around one-third of the government car fleet has already been converted, presumably to the power-shift register using liquid petroleum gas. The target is to have 75 per cent of the car fleet running on power-shift registered fuels.

The Lord Bishop of Oxford: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the most efficient and effective way of getting around London is the Underground? When it works, it works extremely well. When it works! Just now, I travelled from King's Cross in around a quarter of an hour—far quicker than taking a taxi from north London, particularly in recent months, as noble Lords know too well. Will the Minister consider using some of the proceeds of congestion charging to improve the Underground where necessary, particularly the Circle line?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: My Lords, we should be clear that the money will not come to the Government. It will go to Transport for London and will be controlled by the Mayor in consultation with the Government. However, the public/private partnership put in place initially on 31st December will make a considerable difference to Londoners' satisfaction with Tube services.

Lord Bradshaw: My Lords, we have heard a lot from the Official Opposition about congestion charging. Has the Minister heard any constructive proposal from them on how to deal with the terrible problems of congestion in London?

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Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: Not often, my Lords, but there are many honourable exceptions. I look to the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, as the man who brought home to me the importance of holes in the road. Since then, we have been working very hard to fill them.

Lord Saatchi: My Lords—

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords—

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords—

Noble Lords: Peyton!

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, is the Minister aware of how warmly I welcome that tribute—so long as I can take it as sincerely meant? Is he aware that implicit in one of his earlier answers was the advice that the papers that Ministers carry are much more important than Ministers themselves?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: My Lords, I have a feeling that our newest colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Wilson of Dinton, could probably assure the noble Lord that his analysis is correct. There is, however, a serious point. As former government members on the Benches opposite will know, Ministers are not allowed to take their red boxes on to the street and there are restrictions on taking them on public transport as they often contain very sensitive classified papers. So although a bracing walk may occasionally be tempting, one is sometimes forced to take the car.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, it seems to be the habit—it has happened twice this week—for Ministers to provoke the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, into rising to his feet when he had not intended to do so. On a technical point, can the Minister say whether any progress has been made in ensuring that there is a payment point in the Palace of Westminster where some 4,000 people are employed? It may not be his responsibility, but, as a transport spokesmen, perhaps he should interest himself in it.

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: My Lords, it is a pertinent point. I believe I can assure the House that Black Rod is looking into it.

Lord Saatchi: My Lords, may I offer the Minister a constructive suggestion from the Official Opposition? Will he have a look at Hamlet's soliloquy,

    "To be or not to be",

and its despair at the corruption in the court of the King of Denmark? Shakespeare has a striking phrase for the abuse of power by those on high—he calls it the

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insolence of office. Is that not a fitting description of Ministers who impose a tax on the rest of us but duck out of it themselves?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: My Lords—

A noble Lord: Show us your Shakespeare!

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: My Lords, I certainly would not follow the noble Lord, Lord Saatchi, in such a convoluted example. As on so many other occasions, I wonder who his copywriters are.


3.13 p.m.

Lord Astor of Hever asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What reports they have received on power-sharing talks between Zanu-PF and the Movement for Democratic Change in Zimbabwe.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Amos): My Lords, both ZANU-PF and the MDC have issued statements denying that they have been involved in any recent discussions on power-sharing. The United Kingdom has encouraged efforts, led by the presidents of South Africa and Nigeria, to build inter-party dialogue in Zimbabwe.

Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the two names linked with this initiative have been closely involved with some of the worst excesses of the Mugabe regime, and that normal relations with Zimbabwe should not be resumed until after free and fair elections?

Baroness Amos: My Lords, the Government's position is absolutely clear. We have said that we want to see the restoration of democracy and human rights in Zimbabwe. We want to see a stable Zimbabwe. We also want to see Zimbabwe's economy restored so that the current humanitarian crisis can be dealt with from within Zimbabwe.

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