Congestion Charging

It may not surprise the Minister that, in securing this debate on congestion charging, I have elected as a central London Member to focus on the practical application rather than simply on the general principles. However, I am aware that the Chairman of the Select Committee on Transport is present, and no doubt she will wish to address the issues that go beyond central London.

There is no doubt that the clock is ticking. There are now six days to go until Ken’s car tax turns London’s already congested roads into utter chaos. Opposition Members have warned and warned again that this ideologically motivated assault on the freedom that comes with the ownership of a private car is being rushed through with woefully inadequate technology. I hold responsible not only Ken Livingstone and his absurd crew of sidekicks at Transport for London, but the Labour Government.

It is not good enough for the Prime Minister simply to wash his hands of the matter, as he did at Prime Minister’s Question Time only last week. The new tax is a gross betrayal of the people of London by those who now think that they are capable of hosting the Olympic Games. As the Member of Parliament most directly affected, I have had a huge mailbag in the past 18 months since the programme came on stream.

As the Prime Minister pointed out at Prime Minister’s Question Time last week, congestion charging may well be part of devolved power, but, unlike this Government, whose Ministers will continue to use their chauffeur-driven cars and be exempt from the tax, I do not consider that our approach should be, "I’m all right, Jack." Residents in my constituency are appalled at the misleading claims of a 90 per cent. discount for those who live in the zone; angered by the discourteous and unprofessional service of Transport for London; and bemused by the amateurishness of the registration process. I understand that only last week Transport for London had to add 300 staff to the 500 in its call centre. They have been drafted in very much at the last minute.

The devolved government argument adopted by the Government seems to be flawed on two main grounds. First and foremost is the Treasury’s refusal properly to fund London. I have said in a number of debates in the House on the underground and a range of devolved issues that I have some sympathy with Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London, on that limited point. He is desperate to have ring-fenced funds. That is one reason why he is pushing ahead with the congestion charge.

When Ken Livingstone was elected almost three years ago, his manifesto made it clear that congestion charging would be brought in only after there had been measurable improvements in public transport. Now, even by the Mayor’s admission – all 7 million people living in London would vouch for this – the London underground will require at least a decade of sustained investment before standards reach even a satisfactory level. That was clear before the Central line shut down. It has become apparent this morning that the Central line will not open until well after the 17 February start date for the congestion charge.

The argument is made about buses. Anyone who has used buses over the past couple of years will admit that there have been improvements. There is no doubt about that, and those improvements are to the Mayor’s credit. However, the notion that a small increase in the number of buses will relieve our roads of the enormous congestion is clearly nonsense. That is only a small part of the answer.

Deliberate sabotage by Transport for London seems to have led to an 18 per cent. reduction in the number of private motor cars on London’s roads over the past two years, yet congestion has got worse. Indeed, the raison d’etre for the congestion charge is a further 15 to 20 per cent. reduction. Where will all the commuters, tourists and residents go? If the Minister had recently used the tube, he would realise that there is no capacity, not only in rush hour but through much of the day. I first suggested as long ago as autumn 2001 that the narrowing of bus lanes and altered sequencing of traffic lights was a deliberate attempt to justify the need for the car tax that is now upon us. That was vehemently denied at the time by the Mayor and Transport for London. They now admit that I was right all along. I still reckon that those measures will be reversed after 17 February and used to spin the notion that the new tax is a success.

The experiment is a test case for the principle of road charging in this country, yet, amazingly, no system is in place to measure its effectiveness in cutting congestion. The Mayor of London and Transport for London assure us that they have their own criteria on which to judge its success. Clearly that is important, because if we are to consider congestion charging beyond central London, we must know whether this big experiment is a success. Unbelievably for such a keen advocate of open government as Mr. Livingstone has been throughout his career, the guidelines for the success of the congestion charge are being kept secret.

I recognise the excellent work of my local authority, Westminster city council, and in particular the leader and deputy leader, Simon Milton and Kit Malthouse, who have highlighted five main tests for approval of the congestion charge. I am not sure where I have heard the idea of five tests before, but they will be readily quantifiable. We will not have to wait till June. I suspect that it will be only a matter of weeks before we can determine whether the tests are satisfied.

Mr. Gareth Thomas (Harrow, West): The hon. Gentleman has made it clear that he is opposed to the principle of the congestion tax. What is his alternative to tackling London’s congestion problems?

Mr. Field : I am opposed to this congestion charge being rushed in now. Having been in business, I approve of market solutions, so I do not rule out a congestion charge as the right solution. However, this charge, which is being rushed through before there has been any improvement in the public transport system – indeed the tube will get worse over the next 10 years – is the wrong way forward. As the hon. Gentleman says, congestion is a problem. Although the changes that Transport for London has implemented over the past two years have resulted in a reduction in the number of cars on the road, congestion has become ever worse. There are no easy solutions, but this charge is not the right way forward, not least because of the way in which it penalises some of the worst off.

There is no doubt that I have a considerable number of relatively wealthy constituents who will grin and bear it and pay their £5 a day, but the people for whom I have most regard are the relatively poor. Only yesterday I was at Knightsbridge barracks, where I met a young mother who was quite desperate. She has two young children; one is at school in the zone and one is at school outside it. There is no way that she cannot use a private car. A charge of £25 a week will blow an enormous hole in her disposable budget. No one seems to be taking any notice of concerns of that kind. Although we must ensure that there is less congestion on our roads, the charge is simply an ideological attack: it is being rushed through at the wrong time and in the wrong way.

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington): I want to encourage the hon. Gentleman to speculate. If now is not the right time to introduce the charge, when does he think would be?

Mr. Field : I am with Professor Galbraith on that. Speculation is always a bad idea: one never knows what will happen. I am looking at the here and now. We must consider the problem that will beset Londoners in six days. That is what concerns me above all. There is no doubt that the tax is precisely the wrong way forward.

I was addressing some of the issues raised by Westminster city council’s five tests. The council considers that cutting congestion is one of the most important tests. By that I mean – I am sure that it means this, too – congestion not just in the central zone but in the area around, much of which is also in my constituency. If the result of the tax is simply to displace traffic, it will have failed. The Mayor reckons that the deterioration in the life of those living around the boundary of the central zone will be a price worth paying, but they will suffer the double whammy of no discount and increased traffic. Again, the tax will have failed if there is increased rat-running and destruction of quiet residential streets around the main central zone.

The third test is cost of living. A number of small businesses inside the zone will not only lose passing trade if the charge is successful in reducing day-to-day traffic by 20 per cent., they will, indirectly, have to fund the cost of deliveries. According to a number of head teachers to whom I have spoken during the past six to nine months, teachers may have to use their motor cars to get into central London. There is therefore great worry about recruitment and retention of teachers in central London at an already difficult time.

The fourth test concerns the overcrowded tube, to which I have already referred. Will the tube be able to cope? Next week, when the Central line will still be down, we shall see ongoing problems. Even with a fully working Central line there is a question mark over whether the current underground and train system can cope with the increased traffic for which it is supposed to cater when people leave their motor cars and take public transport. If the tube and railways become a lot worse, there is little doubt that the tax will have failed.

Finally, I hope to see tangible evidence that the car tax will generate sufficient income to pay for the new transport schemes promised. Many of us appreciate that part of the raison d’aitre for the tax – this is one of the points on which I sympathise with the Mayor – is to use the £130 million or so raised annually to secure Crossrail and other transport projects. That is admirable in many ways, but we must keep an eye on precisely what is happening. Our great worry is that not only will the £130 million be a fantasy – net income may end up being considerably less – but that much of the sum raised will be squirreled away for other projects and the large infrastructure projects that we all want will not occur.

We shall no doubt hear more about the Olympic bid in the next 48 hours, but it is interesting that there has already been an attempt by the International Olympic Committee to decouple its bid from Crossrail. The great worry is that Crossrail will somehow fall through the middle because, on one hand, there will be insufficient funds from the Mayor and the congestion tax, and on the other, Crossrail will not be part and parcel of an Olympic bid.

I am also concerned about the prospect of civil disobedience in central London. I want to make it absolutely clear that, as a Member of Parliament, I do not support civil disobedience and people who break the law. However, one must contrast the actions of Mayor Livingstone today, who is a hardline, no-nonsense tax collector, with those 12 or 13 years ago when the community charge or poll tax came in and he was fined £600 for non-payment. How will he have the authority to uphold a law with which so many of his constituents disagree so vehemently? My own view is that an untried, untested and unready technology is likely to bring the scheme down. I suspect that many people will not be forced to pay, and there is a risk that the experiment will collapse in ridicule, which will make a great difference to any future schemes in other parts of the Untied Kingdom.

I appreciate that other hon. Members want to speak, so in conclusion I look to the Minister to answer a few questions today. I want to hear what he has to say to elderly folk who live within the zone in my constituency, many of whom will be unable to have so many visits from relatives and carers because the use of a private motor car will simply not be affordable and, for reasons of infirmity, they might not be able easily to use public transport. What will he say to small business people in my constituency whose heads are barely above water owing to the difficulties in London and the south-east during the past year or two? What will he say to representatives of some of London’s key bigger tourist industries – those industries are already depressed as a result of BSE during 2000 and 2001 and 11 September 2001 – many of whom feel that the tax will have a devastating effect?

The Minister, on behalf of the Government, cannot simply say that congestion charging is a matter for local government to decide and that it is devolved government. In central London, we are not talking about a small parish council; we are dealing with the most important commercial centre in our entire nation. We all know that if London catches a cold, it applies to the whole country within a matter of months and certainly years. I end this speech with great sadness because a nightmare is about to befall the city that I represent and love. The Government must take a share of the blame.