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White Paper

Volume 929: debated on Wednesday 6 April 1977

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asked the Secretary of State for Transport when he expects to publish his transport White Paper.

May I put in a plea to the Secretary of State that the White Paper should deal more seriously with the commuting problem than in the consultation document, in his speech in the recent debate on transport, or, frankly, in his answers earlier today? In particular, before he makes further cracks about public expenditure, will he ensure that serious consideration is given to the expenditure that could arise if more commuters were forced on to the roads or if more firms were driven out of London because of their employees' travel problems?

The hon. Gentleman should be careful in his choice of words. I made no crack about public expenditure; I simply sought to remind the House that we cannot have it both ways. It is necessary to face reality, whatever conclusion we may reach about the levels of subsidies. As the hon. Gentleman knows, there is still a high level of subsidy to commuters in the London area. Of course it is necessary to take account of the alternative costs that would arise if rail commuters took to road. We have discussed these matters many times in the House. I am only sorry that the hon. Gentleman's debate on Friday had to be curtailed. That was no fault of mine.

Will my right hon. Friend again take note that the Conservative Party, while having a policy against public expenditure, is asking for more public expenditure? Does he accept that on this point the Opposition are in a cleft stick, from which they can never escape as long as that is their line?

My hon. Friend is right. Labour Members have always argued, and rightly so, that there was a substantial case for a subsidy to public transport. I appreciate the difficulties of hon. Gentlemen opposite who have constituency interests which they must fairly represent, but we also have a job to educate the public to the reality of public expenditure. Money does not grow on trees; it is raised through rates and taxes, which nobody likes to pay.

Is the Secretary of State aware that in his Budget Statement the Chancellor of the Exchequer said that there were "reasons of transport policy" for increasing the petrol tax? Will he say what those reasons of transport policy are? Surely the reasons of transport policy in rural areas are totally against such an increase.

I think that it is generally recognised that there is a need to make sure that a proper balance is maintained between private motoring and public transport. As the House recognised, heavy goods vehicles should pay a higher proportion of their true costs. This is a matter concerned not only with having a heavier vehicle excise duty, but with the cost of fuel. The whole question of rural transport is far more complicated than the price of fuel. I shall have to deal with that matter in my White Paper.