• Situation with school Is fast moving and I am reassured by attitude of school and council to keeping parents informed
  • Good meeting with parents and Council this evening to discuss school . I will do everything I can to help find solution
  • RT : A moving gesture from our German friends as the Brandenburg Gate is lit up with the Union Jack following

November 2005 Monthly Archives

Road Pricing

November 24, 2005

Nick Hurd makes a speech during a debate on Road Pricing. He highlights motoring costs, congestion and environmental concerns.

Mr. Nick Hurd (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): Thank you, Sir Nicholas. I apologise for my earlier lethargy, which had more to do with the absence of lunch than the abundance of it. It may also have had something to do with my reticence to follow the powerful oratory of the Chairperson of the Transport Committee, the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), who I warmly congratulate on the report, which was extremely stimulating and touched on an issue of great interest to me as the Member of Parliament for Ruislip-Northwood.

My seat is in the borough of Hillingdon, which enjoys, I think, one of the highest ratios of cars to households in the country, and its motorists express to me a number of the sentiments expressed by the hon. Lady.

David Taylor : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), who linked the nation’s congestion problems to the propensity of its travellers to buy 2 million shiny cars a year, is not necessarily correct? Germany has even more cars per head, I would guess, than Hillingdon, but they drive significantly fewer kilometres than we do. That is the problem. We are not trying to discourage the virtues of the car, the numbers bought or the freedom and flexibility that they give. We are trying to give sensible alternatives, are we not?

Mr. Hurd : I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I do not know the data for Germany, but I am happy to take that at face value. I suspect that the problem may be linked in part to public perceptions of the quality of public transport as an alternative to the motor car in this country. The point that I was trying to make is that the issue is of great concern to my constituents, who have to endure highly congested roads and, at the same time, complain to me regularly about the cost of motoring. They are well aware that they pay the second highest petrol costs in Europe and that the Government have taken more money from them in successive years through vehicle excise duty and fuel duties. I think that it was about £28 billion in 2004-05, up some £7 billion since 1997.

My second point of interest relates to tackling one of the great causes of our reducing competitiveness as an economy: the cost of congestion. A few days ago, I went to listen to Sir Digby Jones talk in this place. He expressed his deep-rooted frustration at the failure of successive Governments to get a grip on upgrading the country’s infrastructure and on the cost of congestion in particular, which his organisation puts at some £20 billion. More simply, he made the point that, if we cannot get our people and goods to market and work in time, how on earth can we compete with the economies in Asia and the emerging giants?

A third point of interest is the environmental aspect. It is clear to anyone who takes an interest in the climate change challenge that the transport sector and the growing emissions from it are arguably the biggest cause of concern.

I, like my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), who has left his place, welcome the Government’s initiative. I recognise that the Secretary of State for Transport is indulging in bold politics, which is not something with which he is traditionally associated. However, I want to register two concerns. First, if we are to have a public debate the Government should be much clearer about why we are doing this. I distrust a long list of benefits for any big idea. The debate on ID cards is a good example: when the priorities shift and the reasons for doing something get longer, the credibility of the case tends to fail.

The public instinctively will ask whether the plans are about raising more revenue to invest in transport in other areas. I take at face value the Government’s assurance that their intention is to work on a revenue-neutral basis. However, the public will need convincing, because of the sentiments I expressed earlier. Is it about a fairer system to charge the motorist? That seems the really interesting area. My right hon. Friend talked about the effect on rural motorists in particular. The question is, is it worth the money? The report makes it clear that the Government’s feasibility study estimates that the start-up cost will be between £14 billion and £60 billion-that is a disturbingly wide range-with ongoing costs of about £5 billion for a national scheme. The Government will have to send us very strong signals to convince us that it is worth that much to introduce a fairer system for charging motorists.

Mrs. Dunwoody : I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s kind words. However, he might like to know that, through Customs and Excise, the Government have already spent £31 million on preparation for the lorry road user scheme, which has now been abandoned.

Mr. Hurd : I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention, which was extremely helpful in reinforcing my point that the Government must make a case for value for money if the prime purpose of the scheme is to introduce a fairer system under which to charge motorists.

The hon. Lady made some extraordinarily relevant remarks about the impact of a national road-pricing scheme on low-income drivers. The report is clear on the Committee’s concerns about that. I hope that everybody would agree that it is highly undesirable-if I might create some mood music-to create a situation in which the roads are for the rich only. That would be wholly unwelcome.

Is the reduction of congestion the main reason for introducing the scheme? Do we need a national system? It is worth considering the alternative of targeting hot spots with a pricing mechanism and, particularly, introducing road pricing on new capacity where that is practicable. Congestion is not a problem across the whole network, as my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire eloquently pointed out. Do we need a national system, given the huge costs involved?

We need a solution now, not in 10 to 15 years, which the Government have made clear is the time when we can reasonably expect a national scheme to be introduced. In its understandable excitement about pursuing this huge project, the Department risks losing sight of the need for two things. The first is new roads. I am not talking about blanket coverage, but the Government acknowledge that they need to reboot their road-building programme to invest in selective new road capacity. The second is supporting soft measures. That, too, is clear in the report, and is suggested strongly in research that I have seen that suggests that, where soft measures have been introduced by imaginative local authorities, they have made a real impact. I am concerned that, as innovation funding flows into the system that is clearly earmarked for initiatives relating to road pricing, local authorities that have prioritised soft measures will believe that they need not bother applying those.

My other concern about whether the measure will help to reduce congestion is: if it is to be revenue-neutral, will it make an impact if introduced on a national basis? My perception is that even the material petrol price increases that have occurred in the past year have not affected behaviour. British motorists still take their cars to the petrol pump and fill them up. I have not noticed a significant change in behaviour. That might be linked to my earlier point about the public’s lack of faith in the public transport alternatives.

Mr. Drew : I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows what I am going to say. The problem is that, in real terms, the cost of motoring is lower now than it was when we came to power in 1997 and the price of cars is dramatically lower than that of going by train or bus or even, to some extent, buying a bike. We are not serious enough about encouraging-in the nicest possible way-people out of their cars.

Mr. Hurd : I know the analysis and I have seen the data. I cannot disprove the fact that the real cost of motoring has fallen-but it does not feel like it to the motorist. When trying to engage the motorist in the political debate on road pricing, we should recognise that he has had it up to here.

Sir George Young : My hon. Friend’s speech is much better than the one that preceded it. I press him on whether the motorist is insensitive to variations in charges. The data from the congestion charge in London surely leads to the opposite conclusion to the one that he draws-namely, that motorists are sensitive to increasing costs and that they do adjust their behaviour. That is why there has been a substantial drop in the number of cars in central London during the hours of the congestion charge.

Mr. Hurd : I accept that the congestion charge has changed behaviour. Like my right hon. Friend, I support the charge, although I have criticisms about how it was implemented. I suspect that at the root of the apparent success in changing behaviour was the investment in public transport, and the level of public confidence in London’s public transport alternatives. However, I am not sure that that plays out across the country. Although the pricing mechanism can work, my concern is that it will have to be set at a high level in order to make an impact. The congestion charge is expensive at £8, but it has to be at that sort of level in order to bite. What concerns me is the flip-side-what it will do for social inclusion and what its impact will be on low-income motorists.

Mr. Love : I take issue with the hon. Gentleman’s earlier comments. I understand that the congestion charge of £5 led to a substantial reduction in traffic when it was introduced. More recently, concern was expressed that people were beginning to take to the roads again. One reason for increasing the charge to £8 charge was not merely to deal with the revenue deficit but to maintain the impetus in getting people out of their cars. The hon. Gentleman’s most recent comment-that only if the economic cost to motorists was significant would they use their cars less-was valid.

Mr. Hurd : I thank the hon. Gentleman for reinforcing that point.

Another concern is about the benefits. The list of benefits cited include environmental ones. Again, I reiterate my point. Are we sure that those benefits can be delivered on a revenue-neutral basis, given what has been said about the psychology of the British motorist and his sensitivity to price? If the Government are serious about reducing transport emissions, they would be better advised to focus their energies and political capital on reducing the cost of green cars and green fuels, whose market share is pitiful. Green fuels have about 0.5 per cent. of the market, and if we are to get a grip on the hugely important agenda of reducing emissions, the future lies in technology, not in demand management. To advance the debate, the Government need to be much clearer about why it will make a difference.

Next, I echo the comments made by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire. Where is the momentum behind the public debate that has been called for? In a speech in June 2005, the Secretary of State said that we needed to answer three questions. First, what sort of system did we need, and what sort of benefits would it bring? Secondly, was the technology available, and could we construct an affordable scheme that would work? Thirdly, what practical steps did we need to take in the meantime? That sounds great, but it seems that the ball has been passed to local authorities. Are they picking it up?

Again, the Committee’s report makes clear that guidance on local transport plans invited local authorities to contact the Department by January 2005 if they were interested in exploring a package of measures to tackle congestion. It reads:
“The Secretary of State told us that he had received a positive approach from local authorities.”

Can the Minister be a little bit more specific about how many councils have expressed enthusiasm about that? Has the Department decided who will lead the pilots, particularly the inter-urban pilot, which the Committee’s report identified as being critical to advancing the debate? My sense is that local authorities have real concerns about the lead they are getting from the Government.

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Dr. Stephen Ladyman) : I will answer those questions now. Over 30 councils have expressed an interest and we will be making an announcement shortly about which ones we think are of the most interest.

Mr. Hurd : I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. After the rejection in the Edinburgh referendum, I was worried that there were concerns about the political risk attached to this agenda. Concern has been expressed about the lead being given by the Government on technology, which seems hugely important to this issue, particularly in the context of a phased approach where the Government wish to encourage local schemes, but with a view to that ultimately fitting into a national programme. The technology at play here is fundamental.

It has been put to me that not enough lead has been given by the Government on standardisation. The Committee’s report is explicit on that:

“the Government should establish a national framework within which local authorities can design the finer detail of the scheme . . . The Secretary of State told us that he would seek to get some standardisation agreed in the near future:
‘That is why I say that if we were going to go down this road, we would want to get that standardisation in at the start, otherwise it would make it extremely expensive.’”

Can the Minister respond to that apparent concern about the lead being given by the Government on the standardisation of technology? My over-riding concern is about the lack of strong leadership in this debate. I fear that momentum will be lost. An interesting idea has been introduced. A debate has been called, but I sense a lack of momentum and a potentially wasted opportunity.

Climate Change

November 22, 2005

Nick Hurd makes a major speech in a debate on Climate Change. He highlights the problems of industrial development in China, India and Brazil and the consequent necessity to accelerate the development, deployment and sharing of new technologies.

Mr. Nick Hurd (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to follow the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher), whose credibility and sincerity in the matter are well known.

The Government amendment asks us to congratulate them on the leadership that they have shown on climate change. It is ironic that in the same amendment they also ask us to welcome the publication of a climate change programme review, which was set up in acknowledgement of the probability of failure-specifically, the failure to hit the 2010 carbon dioxide reduction target that is at the heart of that claim to effective leadership. The logic is tortuous. The more honest truth is that the global challenge of climate change faces a vacuum of credible leadership, not least with the imminent departure of the Prime Minister, at the very point when we reach a critical crossroad in the run-up to 2012 and the expiry of the Kyoto treaty.

The issue remains riddled with uncertainties, both in terms of risk and the cost/benefits of alternative approaches to managing that risk. It is clear that we are living a dangerous experiment with current levels of carbon concentration in our atmosphere. We are at 381 parts per million and growing, according to Sir David King, at 2 parts per million per annum. We do not know what a safe level is. The working scientific assumption is 550 parts per million, which is thought to be compatible with an increase of 2° this century. Even if we could stabilise concentrations at 550 parts per million-and it remains a huge “if”-we face, in the words of Sir David King, very severe impacts around the world, leaving aside the impact on biodiversity.

The scale and pace of these impacts are uncertain, but the message from the scientific community is that the risks are rising, not falling. The political response to the challenge to date has been the pursuit of international treaties to impose a top-down interventionist centralising solution. We should be honest and recognise that that has failed. Fifteen years of political effort went into producing the Rio agreement and the Kyoto treaty. They are milestones of a sort, but on a journey that has not taken us very far in controlling emissions or incentivising the technology breakthroughs that offer our best chance. They represent a vessel holed below the waterline by the absence of the big polluters-the USA and the emerging giants.

In the absence of a lead from the superpower, Britain-Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair-has tried to take a lead but has found the going tough. The Prime Minister acknowledges that he is rethinking his international strategy. Although he inherited a healthy platform for showing Britain as a role model for how to cut emissions without sacrificing growth, emissions have risen since 1997. It seems that everything, including climate change policy and energy policy, is up for review again, and the non-governmental organisations are lining up to express their disappointment and frustration.

Where do we go from here? First, we must take stock of the priorities. As has been pointed out in numerous interventions from the Opposition Benches, the most urgent priority must be to minimise the carbon intensity of industrial development in China, India and Brazil. If we do not, we will find ourselves locked quickly into an even higher level of carbon concentrations. The solution, as the Prime Minister knows, lies in technology. That technology is increasingly available, whether it be micro-generation, solar, wind or new generation nuclear power, clean coal or hybrid cars, but it is relatively expensive.

Colin Challen: The hon. Gentleman and I both serve on the Environmental Audit Committee. Sir David King told us last week that the target for reductions by 2050 is closer to 80 per cent. than 60 per cent., which shows us that the task is urgent. Does he agree that the necessary technologies must be brought on stream now and not in 10 or 15 years’ time?

Mr. Hurd: The hon. Gentleman has anticipated my second point, which is key: how can we accelerate the development and deployment of those technologies to make them more affordable? Why should we expect countries such as China to pay a premium for their basic infrastructure as they develop? The response of Governments must surely focus on this question: what can we do to accelerate the deployment, development and sharing of technology? That makes not only environmental sense, but commercial sense, because it is in our interests to grow those markets, which is a point that is not lost on the French. I did not hear anything in the Minister’s remarks to suggest that the Government are any clearer on how to accelerate and share the technology.

As has been said, a further priority must be to establish a framework for an agreement post-2012, which is do-able and would bind the big polluters into a common objective. As most people know, the challenge lies in reconciling the objectives of countries at different stages of development, and there is no shortage of ideas on the table-for example, the ideas set out by the international climate change taskforce make good reading.

The Government are going to Montreal in two weeks’ time to open negotiations, but this House knows nothing of what is in their mind. It would be so much more effective if Ministers went to that conference having established a consensus. At the moment, the situation is a complete mystery, possibly even to them.

My third point does not come up often enough in these debates. An urgent priority for Governments must be to support a sustained effort to reduce scientific uncertainty on the impacts and correlations between emissions growth and temperature increase. We desperately need the debate to be framed by more certainty, and an urgent role for Governments is to support that scientific process.

The fourth priority, which has been raised throughout the debate, is the urgent need to engage consumers and businesses, who will be agents of sustainable change. Arguably, that is the greatest political failure of the past 15 years. The key argument to win is that it is in the world interest to reduce the carbon intensity of our development. The chance of a stable climate with less pollution is not the only prize. Reduced dependence on the major producers of fossil fuels should mean greater energy security, which is a big issue for the United States and a growing issue for Britain. The law of supply and demand means that fossil fuels will become more expensive, and it is therefore in our economic interest to develop a cost-effective alternative.

Last but by no means least, the development of low-carbon technology will create a new global market that can help to drive more sustainable economic growth. The way forward surely lies in focusing minds on that win-win analysis, because the politics then becomes easy. At the famous summit in New York, which the Prime Minister attended, President Clinton discussed a clean energy future:
“If people really thought it was the next biggest way to create a new generation of jobs in every continent in the world, nobody would be fighting about the deadlines; they would be fighting to get there ahead of the next person.”

I believe that he was right.

What is Britain’s role? We have an opportunity to show the world that it is possible to reduce carbon emissions without sacrificing growth, but we must put our house in order because emissions have risen since 1997, and we are undermining the argument. When one engages with non-governmental organisations or submissions to Committees, it is clear that we could do so much more. Sonning common cries out for solar panels.

Mr. Boris Johnson: I cannot think of anything more serious or more practical that this House could do tonight to alleviate the problems of climate change than to get rid of the ludicrous burden of the £135 charge, in addition to the cost of architectural drawings, that falls upon people who want to install solar panels.

Mr. Hurd: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention; I could not agree more. I hope that the Minister responds on behalf of Sonning common.

There is much more room for the Government to send clearer market signals to consumers, businesses and investors about policy direction in terms of what kind of energy mix we want and the desire to grow markets for cleaner cars and cleaner fuels. They should set a much better example in terms of the standards that we expect from manufacturers of cars, electrical appliances and new homes. The Environmental Audit Committee produced a report that showed the Government’s deficiencies in setting standards for public procurement. They are spending £500 billion of our money-a serious amount.

The Government should be doing more to develop market instruments that will get them out of the business of picking winners. In the European Union emissions trading scheme, which was very diluted and weakened in its first phase, lies the key opportunity to set a real price for carbon that will change the framework of this debate.

All this is in our national interest and in the global interest. It is do-able with political will, and it would be helped by political consensus. I am therefore very disappointed by the Minister’s reaction to our motion. The major breakthrough required is the inclusion of the United States of America and the giants, and the emergence of an American President who sees it as being in the interest of the United States to lead this debate, not follow it.

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Rehabilitation of Prisoners

November 17, 2005

Nick Hurd makes a major speech in a debate on Rehabilitation of Prisoners, highlighting the high number of prisoners who reoffend.

Mr. Nick Hurd (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): I did not serve on the Committee, I have no prison in my constituency and, as will become painfully obvious, I do not know a great deal about this subject, but I am drawn to it by the simple statistic that three in five prisoners reoffend within two years. That starkly highlights that the problem we are discussing represents a great waste of both money and lives. I congratulate the Committee on throwing a spotlight on this important issue.

I listened closely to the opening remarks of the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham), and it seems to me that there is a major cultural problem within the Prison Service that needs to be tackled. I noted that there were comments throughout the report-more in regret than anger-that the Government might not attach great enough priority to that issue; in particular, there was concern about the dropping or reclassifying of targets, such as public service agreement target 5.

One of the keys to making progress on rehabilitation is getting to know our prison populations better. Information technology has an important role to play in that. I read with interest about the OASys programme, and I look forward to the Minister’s comments on the process of connectivity in that respect, not least because I suspect that I am not the only Member present who has concerns about the track record of the Government in implementing and co-ordinating IT programmes, particularly through the Home Office.

I was shocked by the statistics on drugs. Regardless of whether 55 per cent. or 80 per cent. of prisoners enter prison with serious drug or alcohol problems, it is clear that drugs use is a major driver of reoffending, and tackling it must therefore be at the heart of any Government strategy to get serious about the problem that we are discussing.

Susan Kramer : I have talked with my local prison governor, the local police and local community safety staff. Although a lot of extra money has been made available for drug rehabilitation for prisoners, similar programmes with the same kind of energy do not seem to be available for tackling the alcohol problem that so many prisoners have and that is far more widespread than drug problems.

Mr. Hurd : I thank the hon. Lady for that comment. I am not in a position to address her point, but I hope that the Minister will do so in her closing remarks. Although the report places a heavy emphasis on drugs, arguably, it does not place enough emphasis on alcohol.

I welcome the introduction of drug rehabilitation for short-term prisoners. I would like the Minister to expand a little on the comments that the pilot that triggered the expansion of the programme was helpful. What is the statistical evidence about the effectiveness of such programmes?

I also welcome the Government’s comments on the targets for increasing capacity in terms of drug rehabilitation. However, as we have grown to learn, targets are one thing, and meeting them is another. I would also be grateful if the Minister could update us on the progress that has been made, particularly in achieving the March 2006 target of 9,000 offenders on drug rehabilitation programmes.

Overcrowding seems to be a hugely important issue that is clearly undermining the whole process of rehabilitation, and I agree with the comments of the previous speakers. As a society, collectively, we need to get more comfortable with revising the culture of sentencing. We need to go back to the basic principle that prisons should be for those who are dangerous to the community. I would like to associate myself with those saying to the Government that a significant effort needs to be put behind the message that community sentencing is not a soft option.

There seems to be no getting away from the need to increase capacity in our prisons and to build new prisons. I will be interested to hear how the Minister refutes the charge, which is regularly made, that the Government prison-building programme is a case of too little too late. I would be interested to hear her views on the degree to which the Government are prepared to involve the private and voluntary sectors in that expansion of capacity.

Lastly, I would like to introduce a separate concept-apparently absent from the report and from the work of the Committee-which is the possibility that increasing an offender’s awareness of the impact of their crime on victims could have a beneficial effect on future behaviour and reduce the likelihood of reoffending. I do not know whether the Committee addressed that issue-I have not had time to read all the submissions-but I point the Minister to the work of the Sycamore Tree Project, which is under the umbrella of the Centre for Justice and Reconciliation. There seems to be some statistical evidence that such an approach can introduce significant changes in attitudes to offending, putting us back on the path to recognising that we must get people off the conveyor belt of crime if we are to reduce our prison population.

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