HC Deb 13 July 1999 vol 335 cc152-4
7. Mrs. Eleanor laing (Epping Forest)

When he last met representatives from the Automobile Association to discuss his proposals to tackle traffic congestion. [89481]

The Minister for Transport (Mrs. Helen Liddell)

I met representatives of the AA on Wednesday 7 July.

Mrs. Laing

I thank the Minister for that answer. I am sure that she will not agree with me that it is very sad that she is willing to talk in soundbites about congestion, but not willing to put any investment into road improvements.

Can she tell the House whether the Deputy Prime Minister had an opportunity to discuss congestion problems with the RAC when he visited the British grand prix on Sunday? Was he able to see from his helicopter the people whom his party purports to represent, who were stuck in traffic jams on the motorways below him?

Mrs. Liddell

The hon. Lady's party yesterday published its new deal for motorists, promising investment in vital, undefined road improvements, funded by new innovative schemes—which were also undefined, but likely to cost a minimum of £10 billion. It also proposed that freight should be encouraged on to the railways in some unknown manner. It is not this Government who will do nothing about congestion: it is the Conservatives, whose proposals will lead to congestion. The hon. Lady asked about the RAC, which has been supportive of the Government in the development of the White Paper strategy for integrated transport. I remind her that, if a policy is to be developed by an Opposition, it should be costed. Otherwise, the only conclusion we can come to is that the Conservatives would be prepared to increase taxation, cut public expenditure—or both. If not, perhaps they do not know how to do their sums.

Mr. Clive Efford (Eltham)

May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the vital role that public transport plays in tackling road congestion? My journey today to Westminster involved catching a train at 8.20 at Eltham station. Connex South Eastern could not get me to Charing Cross until 9.55. Such performance will inevitably have a damaging impact on how much traffic uses the roads in south-east London. The document that is about to be published by the Opposition, with the overt intention of placing them closer to the motorist, will merely lead to jams on our roads—and jam for inefficient, privatised rail services.

Mrs. Liddell

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. The mess on the railways inherited by this Government was very considerable, as a result of the fragmentation of the rail network and the absence of proper accountability for that network. The establishment of the shadow Strategic Rail Authority will provide an opportunity to put a proper rail network back in place, with targets for the rail operators and penalties for poor performance. Adequate public transport is vital if we are to reduce congestion on our roads, and it must be safe, efficient and pleasant to use. There was no chance of that under the previous Government.

Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro and St. Austell)

Under the previous Conservative Government, £25 billion in extra taxes was levied on motorists. The present Chancellor has increased that amount. Given her responsibility for transport, will the Minister press the Chancellor, before the next Budget, to agree to return some of that money to motorists by abolishing the annual car tax on family cars?

Mrs. Liddell

It is interesting that the Liberal Democrats, who purport to be supporters of the environment, are taking that line. However, one of the proposals in yesterday's statement from the Conservative party was to reduce vehicle excise duty on vehicles more than 25 years old, which are the vehicles that pollute the most. That is a charter for the old banger. We want motorists to travel on well-maintained roads, in cost-effective vehicles that make travelling a pleasant experience again. As for fiscal policy, I suggest that people who want a reduction in the tax take should say where the money is to come from to fund public expenditure on health and education.