HL Deb 18 February 2003 vol 644 cc1011-2

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 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.

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