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Transport Minister's mythspeaks...

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We said they'd be sorry when the Ten Downing Street e-petitions system first opened for business. And just a few months later we are confronted by the spectacle of a 'stop road pricing' petition soaring effortlessly past the million mark, and Transport Minister Douglas Alexander trudging round the media claiming that the signatories have been misled by "misplaced fears", "falsehoods" and "myths."

Alexander contrived to say "myths" three times on this morning's Today programme, but regrettably neglected to either detail them or refute them. He did however say that he would "listen to the people", and that is was important to deliberate, discuss and then to take a decision. Over the weekend he had said that although trials were due to start in the next few years, no decision had yet been made on whether or not to introduce a national road pricing system.

Which, if so, possibly allows us to nail one myth. In July 2005, explaining the cancellation of the Lorry Road User Charging scheme (which had been going through development as a notapilot for a national road charging scheme), then Transport Minister Alistair Darling told Parliament:

"Mr Speaker a great deal of work has already been done on some of these issues in the development of the Lorry Road User Charging scheme. This has confirmed that a distance-based charge has the potential to be a workable and practical way forward.

"But our thinking on national road pricing has developed further. We are now taking forward work on a national system of road pricing, so it is right for us to take forward the plans for distance based lorry charging as part of the wider work on national road pricing - to work for a single comprehensive, cost-effective system.

"So although the current procurement for lorry road user charging will not continue, we will continue to work with industry and ensure that we carry the full experience gained from the project into the wider work to develop a national road pricing system for cars and lorries."

There remains just about enough wiggle room there for it not to be read as an absolute commitment to a national scheme, but it's close, so it's helpful for Alexander to be dispelling the myths that were inadvertently (surely...) presented to Parliament by his predecessor.

But what about the "myths" promulgated by the backers of the petition? It's difficult to nail down the 'many' claims Alexander says are unfounded, but he did identify two in an interview with the Times. These are that a national road pricing scheme will be used for 24x7 surveillance of motorists, and that it will be used to police speed limits. Alexander has responded by saying that there would be "safeguards" to deal with the privacy issue, and that the system would not be used to catch drivers for speeding.

Observers of the government data kleptocracy will be familiar with the "safeguards" gambit, and of course one would not need to implement privacy safeguards if one were not threatening privacy, right? So it's not exactly a denial.

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