HL Deb 03 December 2002 vol 641 cc1024-7

2.53 p.m.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry

ask Her Majesty's Government:

What plans they have to deal with emergencies arising from a breakdown of the central London congestion charging scheme.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the decision to set up the scheme was entirely the mayor's. Similarly, it is the mayor's responsibility to deal with any problems that arise. The mayor has gone on record as saying that the scheme could be switched off if it does not work.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry

My Lords, will the Minister tell us honestly whether he thinks the scheme will work? Is not the trouble at present that it seems to be mind-blowingly complex? Have not the rules for those living in central London to claim exemption and discounts been unflatteringly compared to the self-assessment tax papers? Will it not be dangerously easy for a visitor to London to stray unwittingly into the central London area without knowing it, and to find at the end of the day that he has an £80 fine to pay?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I am certainly not going to express a view on whether or not the scheme will work. That would put me in the worst of all possible positions, would it not? The mayor would get the credit if it did work, and we should get the blame if it did not. We are not going to have that.

The Secretary of State has made it clear that any congestion charging scheme (I refer not only to London) has to be workable technically—I hear what the noble Lord says about the complexity for residents of inner London; it must be supported by adequate public transport alternatives—the mayor has given us assurances on that point; and it must have broad public acceptance.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the Minister is responsible for the emergency services in London, and my noble friend's Question refers to emergencies. If the scheme means that emergency services will not be able get through the centre of London, will the Government look at the matter again? What is more, if the introduction of the scheme means that the centre of London becomes empty but the surrounding boroughs become totally congested, that will be the Government's responsibility. Will they then repeal the legislation that they brought in allowing congestion charging to happen in the first place?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, there are a lot of extreme suppositions there. There are full exemptions from the congestion charge for fire, police and ambulance services. Therefore, there is no extra cost to the emergency services. They will clearly have free access to central London. According to the objectives of the scheme as I understand them, it is hoped that there will be less traffic in central London. Presumably, their response times will therefore be faster. As to the effects on congestion in outer London, these are exactly the things that will have to be seen when the scheme comes into force.

Baroness Hamwee

My Lords, will the Minister continue to resist calls for central government to interfere in matters which are properly, as he has said, those for devolved government? If he agrees, will he make the same point to his colleague, the Secretary of State for Transport, who appears to have the new idea of a so-called "holes tsar" to deal with holes in the road? These are admittedly a major issue, but would it not be better for the powers to be given to the devolved government to deal with the matter, and so contribute to the reduction in congestion?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I hope that the noble Baroness will agree that I have always resisted invitations to intervene in the responsibilities of the mayor and the Greater London Assembly. I do not think that the Secretary of State has talked about a "holes tsar", even if he used the word "tsar". What he has been talking about is the idea, particularly outside London, of having traffic managers who would take responsibility for all aspects of roads. The noble Baroness cannot deny that there is divided responsibility between the mayor and the Greater London government and the 32 boroughs in London. That has sometimes caused problems. It would be better, as the Secretary of State says, if these matters were under one central control.

Lord Imbert

My Lords, is the Minister aware that for a disabled person to apply for exemption from the congestion charge he or she has to supply an original birth certificate or marriage certificate and a copy of both sides of his or her blue or orange badge and pay a £10 administration charge—to relieve the disabled person of paying a £5 congestion charge?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, no, I was not aware of that. This is, of course, the responsibility of the mayor. I will communicate the noble Lord's views to him.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree on reflection that it is simply no good for him or the Government to continue to try to distance themselves from the Mayor of London and the damage that he is likely to cause? If that damage is only slight, maybe they can get away with it. But if the consequences are muddle and expensive chaos, they can be very sure that they will be deeply involved in answering for it.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the noble Lord is making a political judgment, which he is entirely entitled to make. But I am concerned that we should reflect the law as we have it in this country which was passed by Parliament. We passed an Act of devolution of power in London to the mayor and the Greater London Assembly. That was agreed by all parties at the time to be the right thing to do. You do not then—when there are worries about the mayor's particular policies or even about a number of issues—go on to demand the repeal of legislation.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, did I hear correctly that adequate means of public transport must be provided? Is that what the mayor said? How can residents of Battersea find adequate public transport when there is no Tube and, to get from Battersea to Parliament Square, for instance, one must take a series of buses?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the Secretary of State said it, not the mayor. He said that any congestion charging scheme must be supported by public transport alternatives. We are assured by the mayor, in particular, that the bus service has provision for increased capacity to meet the expected extra demand.

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, can the Minister shed any light on the suggestion that the extended period for red traffic lights in central London is likely to be dramatically reduced upon the introduction of congest ion charges in order to suggest that congestion charging is responsible for the easier flow of traffic that will result?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

I can report only what we are told by Transport for London, which reports to the mayor. It says that there are two aspects of traffic light phasing, which is entirely the mayor's responsibility in central London. One has been that, until the works in Trafalgar Square are complete next summer, there has been phasing to choke off a certain amount of traffic to the square. The other, which is undoubtedly true, is that London was one of the few places t hat did not observe the phasing for pedestrians to cross roads, which followed the Department of Transport's guidelines set out in 1981. Transport for London is now observing those guidelines.