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Thursday, November 18, 1999 Published at 08:48 GMT

UK Politics

Prescott defends transport plans

Car charges will be spent on public transport, the government says

John Prescott has hit back at the "poll tax on wheels" jibe levelled at car charges set out in the Queen's Speech.

The Queen's Speech
The deputy prime minister insisted new charges would be spent on public transport and motorists would simply have more choice.

And he promised he would not force local authorities to implement his proposals for new driving tolls.

[ image: John Prescott:
John Prescott: "I'm offering motorists a choice"
The Transport Bill is the centrepiece of the coming year's legislative programme. It wraps together plans to allow local councils to levy road and parking charges with the part-privatisation of air traffic control and measures to improve the railways.

Mr Prescott, who is the transport and environment secretary, claimed critics who had sniped at his apparent inability to get transport reform on the parliamentary timetable before were simply wrong.

But facing yet another backlash from the press - with headlines predicting "road rage" and "war on motorists" - he argued the government had to take brave decisions.

"You can't sit and do nothing - that would be the worst solution for the motorist," he said.

John Prescott on cars and Ken Livingstone
He argued those behind the furious response to the road tolls proposals would be shouting about gridlock on the roads if nothing had been done.

"It's the same people who realise that the congestion is getting worse and they want to see the improvement in public transport.

"They want to have the choice first before they are forced to pay any more."

[ image:  ]
Mr Prescott will open the Commons debate on Thursday on the government's programme set out in the Queen's Speech.

Concerns over car charges are likely to figure prominently in the opposition attack.

Conservative leader William Hague described the plans as a "declaration of war" against drivers in the debate after the Queen's Speech .

The party's transport spokesman, John Redwood, continued the theme on Thursday, saying he believed the government had a vendetta against motorists.

Many Labour MPs are also wary of the proposals to sell off 51% of the National Air Traffic Service. Former transport minister Gavin Strang, who has led internal dissent on the issue, branded the move "an own goal with potentially serious consequences".

But the deputy prime minister insisted he was pursuing an integrated transport policy.

The government's strategy was to use money from fuel taxes and extra car charges to fund public transport.

[ image: Car measures overshadowed air traffic plans in Transport Bill]
Car measures overshadowed air traffic plans in Transport Bill
Chancellor Gordon Brown had started the move towards hypothecation in his pre-Budget report when he announced all above inflation fuel duty rises in the future would be ear-marked for transport spending.

This principle applied to new powers to be handed to local councils under the Transport Bill.

"It means that whatever money is raised in this way it has to be raised by a local council and if that money is raised it has to be put in a special pot and used only for public transport," the deputy prime minister said.

But he admitted most local authorities would probably not be keen to burden motorists with new charges, although he argued those that had pursued novel transport policies had reaped rewards.

On the timing of the Transport Bill, Mr Prescott insisted he had agreed with the prime minister that it would not come before the third year of the Blair government. "Given the conventions I couldn't say that before," he said.

BBC Two's Westminster Live wants your views on the Queen's Speech - has the government got its priorities right? Call 0345-514-614, fax 0171-973-6283 or e-mail to take part in a live debate starting at 1430 GMT.

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