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House of Lords

Tuesday, 18th February 2003.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Chelmsford.

Congestion Charging

Viscount Astor asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will bring forward regulations under Section 143 of the Greater London Authority Act 1999 to extend exemptions from the central London road user charge.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, exemptions from the central London congestion charge are primarily a matter for the Mayor. The Government are committed to providing a uniform minimum standard of exemptions or concessions from local road user charges in England. We will consult on their scope and form once we have had an opportunity to assess the experiences gained from the schemes in London and Durham.

Viscount Astor: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his Answer. When the Government consider that matter, will they also consider extending the exemption to low-paid workers in essential services whose transport in and out of London will cost them a considerable sum? Can the Secretary of State, under the powers in the Greater London Authority Act 1999, examine the charging scheme to determine whether it is consistent with national road policies? What method will the Government use to decide whether the scheme is consistent with those policies? Finally, is the Minister aware that, yesterday, many drivers attempted to pay the congestion charge but could not because the website was unavailable and the telephone lines were blocked? Does he think it fair that they should be fined and have to pay an extra sum?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I suppose that I can choose which two of those questions I answer. On the first question, I think that the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, should be aware that the Mayor's proposed exemptions go wider than the national minimum exemption that we are talking about. In any case, exemptions from the charging system do not fall within the powers of the Secretary of State under the Greater London Authority Act 1999, which relate only to transport strategies. As the noble Viscount knows, the Secretary of State did not raise any objection to the Mayor of London's transport strategies. There is therefore no question of our intervening, and certainly not along the lines of Mr Christopher Chope, in another place, who wanted exemptions for parents taking young children to school, night workers, key workers in the public

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services, small businesses and residents living a short distance outside the charging zone. We would not have a congestion charge if we had all those exemptions.

I hear what the noble Viscount says about payment. I think that it is too early to judge how effective it has been. My understanding is that 100,000 payments have successfully been made, which does not sound too bad.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market: My Lords, I have been waiting a long time for a transport Question and now three have come along at once. Is the noble Lord aware that local authorities across the country are rather bewildered by the Government's ambivalence towards the London congestion charging scheme, given that they legislated for congestion charging in the Transport Act 2000? If they are in favour of congestion charging, why do they not say so? If they are not, why did they legislate for it?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, we have always been in favour of congestion charging in principle. We have always taken the view that it is not conceivable that all types of vehicle should travel on all types of road without any charge for ever. That must be the case. London is a very important start. If London works, then clearly there will be encouragement for many other local authorities to undertake congestion charging schemes. We hope that it works.

Lord Borrie: My Lords, will my noble friend take this opportunity to express at least cautious pleasure at the initial success of the congestion charge so far?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I think that what I have already said gives the game away. However, caution is necessary. This is, after all, half-term week for a large number of schools in London. It is possible that the very threat of a bloody business which the Mayor expected yesterday might have frightened away some people. I think that it is far too early to make any definitive judgments.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, can the Minister give us an update on when a machine will be available in the Palace of Westminster? We were told that there would be one in April. Has a new date been set?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: No, my Lords. I am happy to answer for all government departments, but that is a matter for the House authorities.

Road Cleanliness

2.41 p.m.

Lord Marlesford asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they intend to take any action to improve the cleanliness of Britain's roads.

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Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, we have already introduced a local environmental quality survey to measure litter, a new code of practice for the routine maintenance of local roads, and environmental performance indicators for routine maintenance contracts on trunk roads and motorways. Later this year, we shall introduce a "Car Litter Campaign" to discourage drivers from throwing litter from vehicles.

Lord Marlesford: My Lords, that sounds like an awful lot of action, but does the Minister agree that England's roads in general are filthy, particularly in comparison with places such as France, Italy and Germany, to name just a few of the places to which one travels frequently? Does he agree that the only test of whether the job has been properly done is whether the roads are clean? Will he therefore at least try to find a test, and report back on what the test should be and whether it has been met? The only proper way would probably be to take photographs of a location and then see how long the litter remains there. Will he consider as a method of reducing the prison population using people convicted of offences to clean up litter rather than sending them to prison, which is very expensive?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, Whips in this House are confined to barracks most of the time and do not have much opportunity to confirm from personal experience the cleanliness of roads in this country. As I said, we have already introduced a local environmental quality survey, which I believe is what the noble Lord is talking about, in terms of measuring the amount of litter in order to find out how to deal with it more appropriately. As regards those undergoing community service orders carrying out roadside works, I do not suppose that is ruled out. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, is not suggesting chain gangs though.

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, do abandoned cars come under the heading of litter? That subject has come up before but I still see the very unpleasant sight of abandoned cars on the side of roads far too often.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I agree with that. Strictly speaking, the term "litter" refers to actions which are dealt with by sweeping and cleansing. I do not think that one can get rid of abandoned cars in that way. The noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, is entirely right that there are still far too many abandoned cars. I understand that part of the reason for that is that cars have no scrap value and that charges are levied if one scraps a car at the end of its useful life. The Brussels end-of-life vehicle directives are desirable from an environmental point of view but may cause some people to break the law.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, is the Minister aware that residents of villages such as the one in which I live in Oxfordshire have been told that they can no longer have skips in which to place large

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items of litter as that is against government recycling policy, which is being forced upon local authorities? Does he not think that that will result in much more rubbish which is at present put into skips, such as old pieces of furniture, being left on the side of roads?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I should like to be given more details of that matter and then write to the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner. That situation sounds most implausible to me. There is a skip permanently situated on the other side of the road in which I live to take exactly the kind of rubbish to which the noble Baroness referred. That is certainly not a matter of government policy. I suspect that it is a case of local authorities passing the blame to someone else, but I may be wrong.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market: My Lords, does the noble Lord share my concern about very low fines being levied by magistrates where successful prosecutions for fly tipping are brought? In a recent case of fly tipping on the highway in Oxfordshire a fine of 100 was levied despite the fact that the maximum penalty was 20,000.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I do not know the details of the case to which the noble Baroness referred. A fine of 100 sounds minimal to me when one bears in mind that litter wardens can levy a 50 penalty fine and that there is a 2,500 maximum fine on conviction for dropping litter. Fly tipping is clearly a much more serious offence and should be treated accordingly.

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