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Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): I agree with the tenor of most of the hon. Gentleman's comments. However, a problem remains in rural areas, where a double jeopardy, or double whammy, is imposed on rural dwellers. The figures quoted for the price of petrol per litre by the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman would not be recognisable to the people in my constituency, who have to buy petrol at 2p, 3p or 4p a litre more than that. Does the hon. Gentleman have any suggestions as to how,
Mr. Moore: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention and I acknowledge his credentials in these matters. He raises the issue of the environment with great regularity. This is a difficult issue for all of us. Our view is that the funds that will be made available through congestion charging must allow us to create alternative public transport systems. That will apply not only in urban areas but in rural areas, where people will be able to use those facilities to get into the towns and cities where many of them have to work. I suspect that the answer to the hon. Gentleman's question is in nobody's mind just yet. However, we must ensure that, when we put forward these arguments, we do not lose sight of the environmental aspects as we rightly and properly focus attention on the problems in rural areas.
Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro and St. Austell): My hon. Friend referred to urban congestion charging. Is it not the case that, in urban areas where public transport could be made available, if properly funded through urban congestion charging, there would not only be a renaissance of public transport, but higher costs for those who chose to use their cars needlessly? That would mean that those in rural areas would pay far less, because there would not be the same availability of public transport or the same need to get people out of their cars.
We should ask what lies behind the amendment--what the intention is. The Scottish National party's petrol price policies have a sorry history: few survive, and this one is likely to fare no better. We have been told that what is proposed is an initial cut of 10p a gallon, which is tantalising stuff. Nowadays we tend to buy our fuel in litres rather than gallons, although we measure our cars' fuel economy in miles per gallon. My point is, however, that there may be just a hint of politics in this, rather than any real concern about the issues that are at the heart of the debate.
What is behind the policy? Is it the environment? Clearly not: we have heard virtually no mention of that, except in the form of attacks on others' views. Is it a desire to help small petrol stations, in the teeth of competition from the major oil companies and the supermarkets? That is unlikely; there was certainly no evidence of it in the speech of the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan. Is it the fluctuating oil price? Well, we have heard a little more about that.
Andrew Wilson, the SNP's finance spokesman, relaunched his policy a few days ago, trumpeting it as a response to a price increase announced by Shell. The problem is that the policy had been announced earlier, before the price increase. The "auction" approach that many other parties now seem to espouse does not take account of the fact that the oil price is fluctuating wildly. What we have not been given today is any sense that the objective is to tie us to a particular petrol price at a particular time. We have seen massive shifts in the oil price over the past year; to keep up with that would
Mr. Salmond: What is breathtaking is the position taken by the Liberal Democrats over a number of years. It is based on the politics of the Kincardine and Deeside by-election: the Liberal candidate was busy attacking the price of petrol under the Conservative party, only for it to be revealed that Liberal policy would make it even higher. Indeed, Liberal policy over most of the last few years would make it even higher than it is under the present Government.
If the hon. Gentleman consults the record, he will note that every fuel tax debate that has taken place while I have been a Member of Parliament has featured an extremely consistent position, to which some Members of his own party have been extremely sympathetic. What a pity that a Liberal Democrat Front-Bench spokesman will have to reveal to the people of Scotland that he is not prepared to vote for lower petrol prices in existing circumstances.
Over the past two or three years, my Liberal Democrat colleagues and I have consistently opposed increases in fuel taxation that have not been accompanied by the requisite investment in public transport. Such investment has been completely lacking under the current Government, and it is still lacking. We hear lots about the £180 billion in the 10-year transport plan--I shall be very surprised if we escape another reference to that this afternoon--but that vague and notional amount is not, in fact, committed. The private sector amounts are not known; and, as we noted earlier during questions to the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, we are still stuck in multimodal studies halfway around the country, which means that no serious investment is going on.
The hon. Gentleman need not lecture the Liberal Democrats on fuel policy. We believe that there is a link between any fuel tax, the revenues that are raised, and the public transport that is created as a result. The hon. Gentleman has not demonstrated this afternoon that he cares much about that.
Mr. Alasdair Morgan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale): I want to talk briefly about the effect that the amendment would have on rural areas such as the one that I represent. As the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) said, in rural areas, we are talking about a cut in the retail price, which is already much higher than in many urban areas.
Galloway and Upper Nithsdale is one of the six constituencies with the lowest average income in Scotland. Household incomes in Dumfries and Galloway, in which the constituency is situated, are the second lowest of all the local authorities in the UK, yet Galloway and Upper Nithsdale is in the top six constituencies in Scotland for car ownership.
That is not because my constituents are particularly perverse. It is not because, although they have much lower incomes than the average, they want many more cars than the average. It is because it is essential for them to have those cars to get to work. Another consequence of the lower incomes is that people's cars are often much older; more difficult and more expensive to maintain; and less fuel efficient.
People in areas such as mine--as in many other areas in Scotland and the UK--have to travel considerable distances to work. That is largely due to the decline in agriculture, which is on-going even as we speak. In many cases, two members of the family have to travel to work separately: because wages are so low, both parents have to work but they cannot work at the same time because of child care and other commitments, so they need two cars--a fact which to some extent accounts for the increase in car ownership.
In many such areas, public transport is not an option. Dumfries and Galloway offers a very generous subsidy to public transport in the area, yet services will never be frequent enough or at the right times to allow the majority of my constituents to get to work when they want to. I was recently at a meeting in Dalbeattie, where a factory was shutting down, with about 50 redundancies. One young chap said that he had been able to get a job in Dumfries, the nearest major town some 10 miles away, but that the job started at 7.30 am and the first bus in the morning could not get him to work in time. The only alternative for him was to buy a car. It is all very well to talk about alternative transport systems and investment in alternative transport systems, but the harsh fact is that, in many rural areas, no matter how much we invest in those systems, they will never be good enough to enable the vast number of people to get to the jobs that are on offer.
There exists an alternative for those people: to get on their proverbial bike and move out of rural areas. Interestingly, the latest population statistics for Scotland, which were published this week, show that in all areas except Edinburgh, and particularly in rural areas, the population has declined over the past 10 years. At the same time, the number of older people in those areas has increased. The younger people--those who need work--are moving out of the countryside because they cannot afford to travel to work and cannot get jobs in rural areas. As that happens, a vicious circle develops. Local incomes drop even further because fewer people are in employment in rural areas, and the cost of services increases in those areas because more elderly people are putting a burden on social services. There is a cycle of decline in our rural economy.
Many of the imperatives to use private transport are created by changes in our public services. For example, the centralisation of hospital services is going on throughout the country. From Stranraer, the biggest town in my constituency, it is a journey of 150 miles to the nearest general hospital. From the Mull of Galloway, it is a return trip of 210 miles to the nearest general hospital.
People cannot do that sensibly in a day by public transport. They have to have a car to visit a relative in hospital or to go to an out-patient appointment. And that is only for those specialties that can still be dealt with in Dumfries infirmary. For many others, people have to go either to Edinburgh or to Glasgow. So the nature of public services in rural areas is driving people to use their cars.
Although modern technology can enable the economy in rural areas to expand, the Government's policy is to leave telecommunications development, particularly in relation to broadband, to the market. We know what the market is doing in rural areas--it is not investing in them, so in those areas of the modern economy that include some opportunity for rural areas to prosper, nothing is happening.
I remember Government Back Benchers in previous Budget debates saying that the tax was being imposed for the sake of the environment, but we have not heard that story so much lately. That argument cut little ice with my constituents, who are relatively few in number and who did not see that they were individually causing much of a problem to the environment in Dumfries and Galloway, although they could see that the far more highly paid drivers who clog the M25 every day were contributing to the detriment of the environment. The tax did not stop those drivers, who simply absorbed the cost in the higher wages paid in their areas.
It is a pattern that so-called environmental taxes hit rural areas harder. Yesterday, we debated the aggregates tax, which affects quarries, some 99.9 per cent. of which are situated in rural environments. That tax will be redistributed, allegedly, through cuts in employers' national insurance contributions, but--surprise, surprise--most of those with jobs work in urban areas, so the subsidy flows to those areas from a tax raised in rural areas.
Another effect of the fuel duty is the significant impact on commercial hauliers, including those in my constituency. The hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) mentioned competition from Northern Ireland, and that is significant for my constituency because it is the closest mainland constituency to that area. Many hauliers come across to Galloway from Northern Ireland, having filled up with cheap DERV in the south of Ireland, and can undercut local hauliers in my constituency--many of whom have gone out of business as a result.
I suspect that the Government will not accept the amendment, even though they could earn some brownie points for the coming election if they did so. However, the Government must seriously consider mechanisms designed to help rural areas, and I have a suggestion for them. We know that the tourism industry is in deep crisis and we also know that rural bus services receive an essential rebate on DERV duty. Why not extend that duty rebate to operators of touring coaches? That would encourage them to come into country areas. Many hotels in my constituency, and other constituencies throughout rural Britain, have been affected by cancellations from tour operators because they have not had the bookings. Fuel duty is a significant cost for tour operators, and a reduction in it would enable them to reduce their prices and bring more tourists into the countryside. As we heard from the Minister for the Environment in his statement yesterday, we need to encourage more people to come to the countryside, and the Government could play their part today.