HC Deb 23 October 2001 vol 373 cc133-6
5. Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South)

If he will exercise his veto over the introduction of the congestion tax in London. [5571]

10. Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central)

What assessment he has made of the impact of congestion charging in London on rail capacity. [5576]

The Minister for Transport (Mr. John Spellar)

Under the Greater London Authority Act 1999, the Mayor is required to seek the Secretary of State's approval only to his 10-year expenditure plan for the use of revenues from the scheme. I understand that the Mayor will submit the plan when he has considered the results of the recent public consultations.

When he does so, one of the issues that will need to be resolved is the provision for diverted commuters and the financing of that provision.

Richard Ottaway

I am surprised by that answer. If the Minister reads section 143 of the 1999 Act, he will find that he has powers to make directions. I am surprised that he does not make such directions. It was only last May—if I may have the Minister's attention—that the Labour party was campaigning against the congestion tax in the elections for the Greater London Authority. Will not the hon. Gentleman accept that the fundamental premise of the congestion tax has changed with the introduction of season tickets, which is likely to increase traffic and not decrease it? There will be a tax on congestion, not a congestion tax. I suggest that the Minister should return to the drawing board and adhere to his election pledges.

Mr. Spellar

I shall clarify the constitutional position. The Mayor and Transport for London are able to draw up the plan. The Department's discretion relates to the use of moneys obtained and financing in terms of commuters who may previously have travelled into London by car and who have now been diverted to other forms of transport. That is tied in with financial considerations. Considerable consultation is taking place. In some instances, it has been increased at the request of certain local authorities.

There are differing views throughout London within parties as well as within other groups. Issues are arising that stem possibly from some of the consequences not only on the periphery of the congestion charging area but further out. Those are issues on which there will have to be consultation. They will have to be drawn together and resolved. When that has happened, the Mayor will present his plan. It will need to be both practical and acceptable to the people of London.

Geraint Davies

When celebrations over the demise of Railtrack have subsided, will my right hon. Friend give careful consideration to building on the tripartite body of the Strategic Rail Authority, Transport for London and the Government in providing strategic investment for railways in London, and to extending that programme to operational management so that, alongside congestion charges, we can move towards a truly integrated system of buses, trams and trains enabling Londoners to move about more easily?

Mr. Spellar

Although it is north of the river, the tripartite body has made considerable progress with crossrail, which is of huge interest to the City and the business community. We are moving on and we have appointed Sir Christopher Benson as chair of crossrail.

My hon. Friend must acknowledge that many of the rail lines and routes originate from outside the London area. To put that system into the control of Transport for London, where accountability lies with voters in London, might cause considerable concern in surrounding areas of the south-east development area and the eastern region. There are broader issues that would have to be resolved. Integration of transport modes is extremely important, and co-operation between the various bodies is not precluded.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

Is it the Government's view that Members should be charged the congestion tax? If so, does that not breach the Standing Order about the right of free and unfettered access from constituencies to Westminster, especially for Members travelling daily from their constituencies? If not, will the public at large not rightly resent an unacceptable privilege?

Mr. Spellar

I do not suggest that the hon. Gentleman try that argument with the next cabbie he rides with.

The question of exemptions is a serious one, which the Mayor is examining in consultation with a number of bodies, including major employers and services—not only the emergency services but many other essential services. The hon. Gentleman has highlighted—in slightly quixotic fashion, as is his wont—the difficulties that arise when exemptions create a demand for further exemptions. Transport for London and the Mayor are well aware of those difficulties, which will apply not only to congestion charging in London, but also where such proposals are being considered by authorities elsewhere in the country. There may need to be at the very least a minimum list of exemptions, but we shall need to see the outcome of the consultations and consider the feasibility of financing that will arise as a consequence of the level of exemptions.

Mr. Gareth R. Thomas (Harrow, West)

My right hon. Friend encouraged Transport for London to set aside some of the revenues that it might receive from congestion charging. Perhaps those could be used for any innovative tram schemes that might be proposed in attractive, highly desirable, northern outer-London suburbs, such as Harrow?

Mr. Spellar

That is certainly a request that my hon. Friend and the London borough of Harrow—whose excellent leader is a mutual friend of ours—would do well to put to Transport for London. We already have the Docklands light railway and the extremely successful Croydon light railway, and other proposals are being examined. Bringing all those together and examining the allocation of transport funding for London is the role of Transport for London, but the allocation of moneys collected from congestion charging—if that is the route that London decides to take—will be a matter for the Mayor, who will put forward a plan, and it is for us to decide whether it is appropriate and adequate.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar)

With regard to the second part of the question put by the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Geraint Davies), surely the rail regulator will have an important role to play in increasing the capacity on the railways. Does the Minister believe that, in an independent market, the independence of the regulator should be paramount? If so, will he explain why it was necessary to threaten the regulator, Mr. Winsor, with emergency legislation—apparently already drafted—if he sought to exercise the right to obtain an interim financial review of Railtrack? Does the Minister not trust the regulator's judgment? Or did he fear that the regulator would come up with an option that was cheaper and more viable for the public purse than the Government's?

Mr. Spellar

We have concern for the public purse, and I remind the hon. Gentleman that it was Railtrack that sought relief from the regulator. We had to have a range of contingencies—which I am sure will be examined in the debate that is to follow—in which we examined the various possibilities that might arise, and that we should have to handle in the event of a decision being made that Railtrack was unable to continue. One such consideration was that we could not have unlimited liability on the public purse, and that was the basis of our decision when we had to apply to the court. I hope that in our later debate the hon. Gentleman or one of his colleagues will be able to explain how much their unlimited liability on the public purse would cost, and whether the shadow Chancellor has signed off on it.