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Thursday, November 18, 1999 Published at 18:19 GMT

UK Politics

Prescott: We must act on transport

The Transport Bill will establish a Strategic Rail Authority

The Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, has defended plans to introduce congestion charges on Britain's roads.

Under government proposals, local authorities would be able to decide whether such charges should be introduced.

The Conservatives have accused the government of declaring was on motorists and motoring organisations have attacked the proposals as a "poll tax on wheels".

But in the House of Commons, Mr Prescott said action needed to be taken to deal with a worsening situation.

[ image: Tories will oppose congestion charges]
Tories will oppose congestion charges
In a resumed debate on the Queen's Speech, Mr Prescott told MPs: "Carrying on as before would be the most anti-motorist policy of all."

The only way forward was through improved public transport and measures to combat pollution and jams, like congestion charging.

Mr Prescott said the bill would establish the Strategic Rail Authority which had the unanimous support of the Transport Select Committee.

Mr Prescott told MPs that rail remained the safest form of land transport but the government was determined to make it even safer and re-establish public confidence.

Moving to plans for partial privatisation of the National Air Traffic Control system, Mr Prescott said ministers were committed to ensuring the system received the necessary investment.

The preferred option was to keep safety regulation in state hands, for the state to hold 49% of the shares, for a government appointed director to be on the board and for a veto to be built into the licence to protect safety and the public interest.

The Queen's Speech
Shadow environment secretary John Redwood said Tories would oppose the congestion charging plans "because the motorist is already unfairly burdened under this miserable government".

Mr Redwood claimed the prime minister was "seriously worried" that the Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions was "upsetting all of the motorists".

That was why Chancellor Gordon Brown had appeared to signal the end of the automatic annual increase in fuel duties, known as the fuel duty escalator, in his pre-Budget statement, Mr Redwood said.

But the "biggest embarrassment" facing the Deputy Prime Minister was the part-privatisation of National Air Traffic Services, said Mr Redwood.

He told MPs pre-election comments by Andrew Smith, then the shadow transport spokesman and now Chief Secretary to the Treasury, that Britain's air would not be for sale under Labour had turned out to be "another great Labour lie".

[ image: Plans for air traffic control services were essential for investment, MPs heard]
Plans for air traffic control services were essential for investment, MPs heard
Labour's Gwyneth Dunwoody, chairman of the Commons transport select sub-committee, said the work of the Strategic Rail Authority would be supported by the public and should include passenger representatives among its membership.

She asked Mr Prescott to ensure the SRA considered safety and investment records of rail companies when franchises came up for renewal and said Railtrack should no longer be responsible for safety.

Mrs Dunwoody urged Mr Prescott to look at the possibility of non-profit organisations being involved in the Civil Aviation Authority.

Don Foster, for the Liberal Democrats, said it was of "considerable concern" that the government's share of spending on local public transport had gone down.

Mr Foster was particularly critical of plans to part privatise air traffic control and said his party was "implacably opposed" to this "highly unpopular measure".

Former Labour transport minister Dr Gavin Strang warned ministers the NATS sell-off would be a "great mistake".

Britain was a "world leader" on air traffic control, with an excellent record of investment, Dr Strang said.

"I have no doubt that there are many Labour MPs who are still trying to persuade ministers not to go down the road of the privatisation of Britain's air traffic control."

Insisting that safety and security were the decisive issues, Dr Strang said: "The British public will not believe that the privatisation of NATS is being put forward to enhance safety. The airline pilots are against it."

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