HC Deb 10 November 1998 vol 319 cc145-7 3.31 pm
Mr. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Road Traffic Reduction (National Targets) Act 1998 to require the Secretary of State to produce a report on reducing traffic levels to below 1997 levels by 2002.

Only a few months ago, I spent six or seven hours in Committee considering what was then called the Road Traffic Reduction (United Kingdom Targets) Bill—now, of course, the Road Traffic Reduction (National Targets) Act 1998. During debates on that Bill, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson), told hon. Members on at least seven occasions that the Government believed in reducing the level of traffic on the roads. That was no slip of the tongue. When questioned persistently by the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) on whether the Government intended to reduce traffic or merely slow down the rate at which traffic increased, she said: I thought that I had made the position clear … I shall have to be infinitely more precise in my choice of words … My argument—which, I am sure, will be endorsed by all Committee members—is that there should be a reduction in road traffic."—[Official Report, Standing Committee E, 18 March 1998; c. 55.]

That is hardly surprising; after all, the Under-Secretary was only repeating the policy on which Labour fought the election, the promise that she gave her constituents before the election and promises given in an interview in The Guardian by the Deputy Prime Minister. I shall come to those promises in detail later.

Why did the Under-Secretary tell my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker) just one week ago that she intended merely to "reduce traffic growth"? She knows as well as every hon. Member that that falls far short of what she, her colleagues and her party promised before and since the election, and during the election campaign—promises that have been repeated in the House. That is why I am introducing the Bill.

The Bill requires the Government to ensure that, when they publish reports under the Road Traffic Reduction (National Targets) Act 1998, they set out policies and measures aimed at reducing traffic over the lifetime of this Parliament. It is a matter of deep concern that I have to introduce the Bill, but I am so rapidly losing confidence in the Government's intention to keep their promises on traffic reduction that I am left with no alternative.

The Government must be tough on pollution and tough on the causes of pollution, especially as, since the election, the World Health Organisation guidelines on nitrogen dioxide have been exceeded more than 110 times; on ozone, 472 times; and on sulphur dioxide, more than 80 times.

The Government fought the election promising that they would "reduce and then reverse" traffic growth. That promise appeared on Labour's election internet site, in their policy handbook and in policy briefings sent out by Millbank to voters. The message is clear—that they will "reduce and then reverse" traffic growth. Reversing traffic growth means reducing the number of cars and lorries on our roads. There can be no doubt about that.

The Deputy Prime Minister confirmed that policy shortly after the election, when he told The Guardian on 6 June 1997: I will have failed if in five years time there are not many more people using public transport and far fewer journeys by car. It's a tall order, but I urge you to hold me to it.

His hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate was also clear about her belief in reducing traffic. In the run-up to the general election, and at the request of constituents, she signed early-day motion 289, which called for a 10 per cent. traffic reduction target. Two weeks later, in Hampstead high street, she signed a national petition, for which signatures were being collected by the local Friends of the Earth group, calling for exactly the same targets. She could not have made it clearer to those voting for her that she believed that traffic levels in Britain should be reduced.

The hon. Lady also made it clear during the passage of the Road Traffic Reduction (National Targets) Bill that the Government supported reducing traffic. Not only did she state the Government's support for traffic reduction on at least seven occasions: she actually urged Committee members to vote against an amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Christchurch that focused on what he correctly called the "vital issue" of the difference between road traffic reduction and reducing the rate of increase of road traffic. Despite all that, the White Paper failed to set out policies to achieve traffic reduction. In paragraph 2.24, it stated clearly: The New Deal for Transport therefore sets the framework to reduce traffic growth.

Again, Ministers know that that is a step backwards.

I challenged the Deputy Prime Minister on that point at Question Time a couple of weeks ago, when I asked whether he would keep his promise to The Guardian, and Labour's pre-election promises. His reply was clear: I agree to keep to that commitment: judge my performance in five years".—[Official Report, 20 October 1998; Vol. 317. c. 1071.]

Yet, only days later, his Under-Secretary was saying the opposite in a written answer: in order to tackle the congestion and pollution that is caused by road traffic, we need to reduce the rate of road traffic growth. "—[Official Report, 3 November 1998; Vol. 318, c. 458.]

Not only does that break her repeated earlier promises, but it is patently rubbish. Tackling congestion by planning to allow more cars on the road, which is what this policy means, is a policy doomed to fail.

The White Paper predicts that, over the next 20 years, traffic could grow by over one third. The Under-Secretary promises that she will slow that growth. If she reduces it to 30 per cent., will she claim that as a success? Will she claim that congestion has been relieved? Will she admit that she fought the election promising a 10 per cent. reduction in traffic, and achieved 30 per cent. growth instead?

The signals that the Government are planning to backtrack on their election promises are strong. The Under-Secretary seems keen to ditch her own promises, too—a warning sign, perhaps, to voters in the London mayoral election, and one to which I can promise the Liberal Democrats will draw people's attention.

The Deputy Prime Minister at least restated his promise to me last week, yet even his own Ministers seem determined to undermine him, and we have all heard about the teenyboppers at No. 10 destroying his radical intentions. Against that background, my Bill is crucial. As the Under-Secretary told the House on 24 April 1998: The country cannot continue as it is—there must be a reduction in road traffic."—[0fficial Report, 24 April 1998; Vol. 310, c. 1119.]

I urge all Members of the House to support the Bill.

Labour Members, in particular, should back it. I believe that it is a Prescott Bill, as it would put the words of the Deputy Prime Minister into statute. Let the House remember his words: I will have failed if in five years time there are not many more people using public transport and far fewer journeys by car. It's a tall order, but I urge you to hold me to it.

My Bill will hold him to it. I hope that the House will support it enthusiastically.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Tom Brake, Mr. Cynog Dafis, Mr. Jeremy Corbyn, Mr. Peter Bottomley, Mr. Matthew Taylor, Mr. Norman Baker and Mr. Andrew Stunell.