I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
It gives me great pleasure to speak to new clause 4, which calls for the reinstatement of rail freight facilities grants and track access grants. The Minister will be aware of the significant damage that is being caused by the suspension of the two sets of grants for the next financial year, 2003–04, especially to those who have been left high and dry without alternative means. Initially, the conservative estimate—
My hon. Friend is right. The conservative estimate was that, over the coming 12-month period, 2.75 million tonnes of freight are at risk of being moved by road. All hon. Members will deplore that fact, not least because those freight movements will come from the aggregates, construction and metals sectors. The combined impact of the freight facilities grants and track access grants awards that were made in the years for which the most recent figures are available—2000–01 and 2001–-02—is considerable. To move the same volume of freight by road each year would require a fleet of 3,000 heavy lorries, which is equivalent to more than 3 per cent. of the total UK heavy goods vehicles fleet. For the financial year 2002–03, nearly 17 million lorry journeys will have been removed from the road network as a result of the two grants. For the same period, 1 million tonnes of toxic emissions will have been removed from the atmosphere for the same reason. For the period 2003–04, it was expected that more than 12 million lorry journeys would have been removed from the British road network had the two grants proceeded.
Those reductions can no longer be achieved, which will result in increasing road congestion, increasing emissions and increasing numbers of accidents and casualties on the road network. We therefore request that the Government think again about the withdrawal of the freight facilities grants and track access grants for the coming 12-month period. Will they give an early indication that they might reconsider the position for 2003-04 and reinstate the grants at the earliest opportunity, but at the very latest for the financial year 2004-05?
I very much welcome the new clause and the hon. Lady can be assured of our full support for it. In some senses, it is a shame that it does not go further, because, tragically, the Government have scrapped other freight schemes, including the incremental output statement and the small freight grant, both of which we should like to have been included. Other grants that have been cut include the rail passenger partnership schemes, which would have brought significant improvement to passengers in the same way that the freight grants would have improved the availability of freight by rail, thereby reducing the need for freight on our already congested roads.
The new clause would place a financial burden on the Government, but, as I am sure that the hon. Lady is aware, the Chancellor's capital modernisation fund contains some £2.3 billion that will be available over the next two or three years. That would be an eminently sensible source of funding. The Government would have no excuse for not making the money available, because it already sits in the Chancellor's piggybank and could be used to ensure that this sensible and modest new clause can be accepted.
There are issues of substance in the sentiments that hon. Members expressed, but this is not the right way to process them. A declaration of policy is not the appropriate mechanism for enshrining such a matter in a Bill. There are many other ways of arguing about such policy issues outside the context of what should strictly be a consideration of powers and legal mechanisms, which is what the law is for.
I appreciate the concerns that hon. Members on both sides of the House have recently raised about short-term provision for rail freight grants. The management of the freight grant schemes, including the level of funding that is made available, is primarily a matter for the Strategic Rail Authority. As the authority has made clear, its suspension of freight grants for next year does not mark a change in policy, but is a short-term budgetary decision and, as such, a matter on which hon. Members need to reflect as to whether the Government should seek to intervene. The SRA has responsibility for the global budget that the Government have allocated to it.
The Government recognise that the Strategic Rail Authority's decision to suspend its freight grant scheme for the time being has been a difficult one, but it must be a judgment for it to make in the light of available funding and the balance between income and expenditure. The SRA is conscious of the considerable effort that its partners, including local authorities and freight customers, have made to put together viable funding packages, and it is aware that concerns will exist about ongoing support. That is why it sought to avoid wasted effort and expense on the part of stakeholders by informing them of the decision at the earliest possible opportunity. The authority has also taken the opportunity to assure those who already receive awards that it will honour its contractual commitments, and it will continue to provide an advisory service through its internal expert teams.
I accept that a result of the decision will be to halt or delay the development of a number of potentially useful local projects, but I assure hon. Members that the Government and the SRA remain committed to our sustainable distribution objectives. That includes seeking a significant increase in modal share for rail freight where it provides value for money.
Earlier, the Minister acknowledged that responsibility for gritting motorways lay with the Highways Agency. Nevertheless, the Government made it absolutely clear that they were unhappy with the decision of the Highways Agency with regard to the problems of
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will accept that that is not an exact analogy. The problem with the Highways Agency was that it was already spending money but people were not getting the service required. The travelling public on the M11 were not getting a service either from the agency or from the county police forces. On this issue, the SRA has to consider its overall budget and its budgetary constraints and priorities. It says that it has had to take temporary decisions on some of its schemes. It has done that and made announcements as soon as possible so that many stakeholders did not have to incur unnecessary expenditure. However, it will consider how it can get back to its schemes.
I hope that the Government will think about the implications for the opencast coal industry, where strenuous efforts have been made to transfer freight on to the railways, thereby reducing the enormous problems on the roads in some already congested areas. I hope that the Government will consider whether they should intervene—especially in view of the massive increase that there will be in the transportation of coal by road. That is one of our biggest and most dangerous problems.