6.49 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Richard Benyon): Despite some of the remarks that have been made, this has been an interesting debate with some good contributions from Members on both sides of the House. The ash is one of the best-loved species of tree in this country—it is one of my favourites. It is fundamental to our landscape, our ecology and our ecosystems. It is not just an important economic and environmental issue; it is deeply emotive, too. The House should remember that we are at our best when we join together to face a national crisis of this kind, and at our worst when we seek to trivialise and to make cheap party political points.

The Opposition could have handled the debate differently. Sadly, they have cheapened the subject through the wording of the motion, which they know cannot be supported. They could have been bigger than that, treating the matter as a serious one that concerns people outside this building: not just rural communities but urban communities that are worried about the loss of a much-loved tree. It is a great shame they did not do that.

Let me address one point made by the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Mr Harris). My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State updated the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee on this issue on 6 November. He met the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) to discuss ash dieback, also on 6 November, and the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) on 7 November. He issued a science factsheet, sent to all Members, on 7 November and published a written ministerial statement on 9 November. I am beginning to wonder what more he could have done to keep hon. Members informed.

For those of us old enough to remember Dutch elm disease in the 1970s, which was mentioned by many hon. Members, the prospect of our ash trees suffering the same fate is deeply depressing. Although the scientists tell us that we will not be able to eradicate Chalara, they have also given us hope. By acting now and learning from experiences in Europe, we might be able to slow its spread and find resistant strains. To do that, we need the resolve to work together. We should not waste energy blaming each other. Above all, mobilising all those whose care for these trees in both town and countryside can assist Government to find a way forward.

Government cannot do this alone. Industry must be involved, and land managers, environmental groups and the public can all play their part. We know that there is a real will out there to do that. We will play our part, too. We are investing in world-class research and surveillance and improving our ability to diagnose the disease quickly. We are putting tools and advice in the hands of those who live and work among the nation’s woodlands.

I particularly pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman), who pointed out that, long before Chalara hit the headlines, the Government recognised the increasing threat to the health of our trees. In October 2011, we launched the tree health and plant biosecurity action plan, which sets out a UK-wide

12 Nov 2012 : Column 83

integrated approach to dealing with serious tree pests and pathogens. The plan included a commitment for £7 million of new funding for tree health research, which was increased to £8 million earlier this year and is available until 2015-16. That has unlocked a further £4 million from research councils in support of long-term support initiatives, led by Living With Environmental Change. We have grasped the very good points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) and the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), who, along with other colleagues, addressed important points about the potential threat from other diseases and how we must work to see what is coming and to be better prepared for such diseases.

Let me comment on one point made by the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller). We convened Cobra because this is an important issue, both for the rural economy and for the environment. It is important that we draw together a range of different stakeholders and players, particularly from local government, as has been made clear. We should not quibble about why we are doing that; it is a serious matter and it is important to see the involvement of government across the piece.

Other Members raised important questions about other tree diseases, such as Asian longhorn beetle, Phytophthora ramorum, oak processionary moth and sudden oak death syndrome. Those are all serious. I agree with hon. Members who have raised points about the need to promote home-grown industries for saplings and plant propagation. We must take that forward in the work we do.

I do not hold with those who believe that there is some dark conspiracy. I can honestly say that the scientists I have met to discuss the issue are not the sort of people to be pushed around by politicians to make points that would assist them. They give us advice and we take it; we have had some very good advice on this important issue.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman), who stated accurately that such outbreaks should be a wake-up call to us all. He gave a responsible message from one of the areas most affected by the disease and talked about the importance of a science of resistance, promoting a centre of excellence in this country that can take forward work in UK plant sciences. There is a good economic reason for doing that. I have just returned from New Zealand and completely concur with the many points made about countries such as Australia, New Zealand and the United States. DEFRA has made big steps forward in trying to get that message across and my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden mentioned the warnings that are now given on aeroplanes about the importance of biosecurity. We can do much more not just in the United Kingdom but in Europe.

I take the point that the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion made about the grant schemes. We will consider that. When we get resistant species, some work could be done to encourage people to plant them as part of their grant schemes.

The key message that the House needs to recognise is that the Government acted straight away to deal with Chalara fraxinea as soon as it was identified in England. We will focus our efforts on reducing the rate of the

12 Nov 2012 : Column 84

spread of the disease. We will continue to trace recently planted saplings and nursery stock and will destroy infected trees, as we have been doing through the summer. We are getting the public to help to identify diseased trees through raising awareness. We are looking for genetic strains that are resistant to the disease and getting land managers to look for healthy trees in affected areas.

We have taken swift action to identify where the trees were being sent to and arranged for infected trees to be destroyed. We have worked with the industry to deal with infected plants and encouraged best practice in sourcing plants. We have been the first to produce pest-risk analysis on the issue, ensuring that our approach is technically and scientifically robust. We have provided all relevant groups with an opportunity to contribute to how things are being handled through a consultation process.

We are now doing all we can to protect our native ash trees. A ban on imports is now in place, well before the start of the planting season. We are taking the threat to ash trees extremely seriously. Work is being done to control the spread of the disease; we have undertaken an unprecedented, rapid and intensive survey of Britain’s established woodlands; and much more action is being taken besides. However, although there has been a lot of urgent action to get a grip on the problem, more can be done.

There is a long-term commitment to tackling this disease, and it has made us take a long, hard look at the way we respond to plant health risks more widely. Other threats, as hon. Members have said, are on the horizon. As the Secretary of State announced on Friday, we are reviewing the current arrangements and are prepared to introduce radical reforms if necessary.

Key work is being done by Professor Ian Boyd’s tree health and plant biosecurity taskforce, which is made up of an eminent group of scientists. Its interim report will be available at the end of the month. The Secretary of State has given a commitment to update the House on proposals for controlling Chalara.

The motion is nothing but a cheap party political game when we are dealing with a problem. I urge the House to reject it.

Question put.

The House divided:

Ayes 204, Noes 271.

Division No. 99]

[

6.59 pm

AYES

Abbott, Ms Diane

Ainsworth, rh Mr Bob

Ali, Rushanara

Allen, Mr Graham

Anderson, Mr David

Ashworth, Jonathan

Bailey, Mr Adrian

Bain, Mr William

Banks, Gordon

Barron, rh Mr Kevin

Begg, Dame Anne

Benn, rh Hilary

Berger, Luciana

Betts, Mr Clive

Blackman-Woods, Roberta

Blears, rh Hazel

Blenkinsop, Tom

Blomfield, Paul

Bradshaw, rh Mr Ben

Brennan, Kevin

Brown, Lyn

Brown, rh Mr Nicholas

Brown, Mr Russell

Bryant, Chris

Buck, Ms Karen

Burden, Richard

Burnham, rh Andy

Campbell, Mr Alan

Campbell, Mr Gregory

Campbell, Mr Ronnie

Caton, Martin

Chapman, Jenny

Clark, Katy

Clarke, rh Mr Tom

Clwyd, rh Ann

Coaker, Vernon

Coffey, Ann

Connarty, Michael

Cooper, Rosie

Cooper, rh Yvette

Corbyn, Jeremy

Crausby, Mr David

Creagh, Mary

Creasy, Stella

Cruddas, Jon

Cryer, John

Cunningham, Alex

Cunningham, Mr Jim

Danczuk, Simon

Darling, rh Mr Alistair

David, Wayne

Davidson, Mr Ian

Davies, Geraint

De Piero, Gloria

Denham, rh Mr John

Dobbin, Jim

Dobson, rh Frank

Donaldson, rh Mr Jeffrey M.

Donohoe, Mr Brian H.

Dowd, Jim

Doyle, Gemma

Dromey, Jack

Dugher, Michael

Durkan, Mark

Eagle, Ms Angela

Efford, Clive

Ellman, Mrs Louise

Engel, Natascha

Esterson, Bill

Evans, Chris

Farrelly, Paul

Field, rh Mr Frank

Fitzpatrick, Jim

Flello, Robert

Flynn, Paul

Fovargue, Yvonne

Gardiner, Barry

Gilmore, Sheila

Glass, Pat

Glindon, Mrs Mary

Godsiff, Mr Roger

Goggins, rh Paul

Goodman, Helen

Greatrex, Tom

Green, Kate

Greenwood, Lilian

Gwynne, Andrew

Hain, rh Mr Peter

Hamilton, Mr David

Hanson, rh Mr David

Harman, rh Ms Harriet

Harris, Mr Tom

Havard, Mr Dai

Healey, rh John

Hendrick, Mark

Hepburn, Mr Stephen

Hermon, Lady

Heyes, David

Hilling, Julie

Hodgson, Mrs Sharon

Hoey, Kate

Hopkins, Kelvin

Hosie, Stewart

Howarth, rh Mr George

Hunt, Tristram

Irranca-Davies, Huw

Jackson, Glenda

James, Mrs Siân C.

Jamieson, Cathy

Johnson, rh Alan

Johnson, Diana

Jones, Helen

Jones, Susan Elan

Jowell, rh Dame Tessa

Kaufman, rh Sir Gerald

Keeley, Barbara

Kendall, Liz

Khan, rh Sadiq

Lammy, rh Mr David

Lavery, Ian

Lazarowicz, Mark

Lewis, Mr Ivan

Lucas, Caroline

MacNeil, Mr Angus Brendan

Mactaggart, Fiona

Mahmood, Mr Khalid

Mahmood, Shabana

Mann, John

Marsden, Mr Gordon

McCann, Mr Michael

McCarthy, Kerry

McClymont, Gregg

McDonagh, Siobhain

McDonnell, John

McFadden, rh Mr Pat

McGovern, Alison

McGovern, Jim

McKechin, Ann

McKenzie, Mr Iain

McKinnell, Catherine

Meacher, rh Mr Michael

Mearns, Ian

Miller, Andrew

Mitchell, Austin

Morrice, Graeme

(Livingston)

Morris, Grahame M.

(Easington)

Mudie, Mr George

Murphy, rh Mr Jim

Murphy, rh Paul

Murray, Ian

Nandy, Lisa

Nash, Pamela

O'Donnell, Fiona

Onwurah, Chi

Owen, Albert

Pearce, Teresa

Phillipson, Bridget

Pound, Stephen

Qureshi, Yasmin

Raynsford, rh Mr Nick

Reed, Mr Jamie

Reeves, Rachel

Riordan, Mrs Linda

Ritchie, Ms Margaret

Robertson, Angus

Rotheram, Steve

Roy, Mr Frank

Roy, Lindsay

Ruane, Chris

Sarwar, Anas

Seabeck, Alison

Shannon, Jim

Sheerman, Mr Barry

Sheridan, Jim

Shuker, Gavin

Skinner, Mr Dennis

Slaughter, Mr Andy

Smith, rh Mr Andrew

Smith, Angela

Smith, Nick

Spellar, rh Mr John

Straw, rh Mr Jack

Stringer, Graham

Stuart, Ms Gisela

Sutcliffe, Mr Gerry

Tami, Mark

Timms, rh Stephen

Trickett, Jon

Turner, Karl

Twigg, Derek

Vaz, rh Keith

Vaz, Valerie

Walley, Joan

Watson, Mr Tom

Watts, Mr Dave

Weir, Mr Mike

Whiteford, Dr Eilidh

Williamson, Chris

Winnick, Mr David

Winterton, rh Ms Rosie

Wishart, Pete

Wood, Mike

Wright, David

Wright, Mr Iain

Tellers for the Ayes:

Nic Dakin

and

Graham Jones

NOES

Afriyie, Adam

Aldous, Peter

Alexander, rh Danny

Amess, Mr David

Bacon, Mr Richard

Baker, Norman

Baker, Steve

Baldry, Sir Tony

Baldwin, Harriett

Barclay, Stephen

Barker, rh Gregory

Baron, Mr John

Barwell, Gavin

Bebb, Guto

Beith, rh Sir Alan

Benyon, Richard

Beresford, Sir Paul

Berry, Jake

Binley, Mr Brian

Birtwistle, Gordon

Blackman, Bob

Blunt, Mr Crispin

Boles, Nick

Bone, Mr Peter

Bottomley, Sir Peter

Bradley, Karen

Brady, Mr Graham

Brake, rh Tom

Brazier, Mr Julian

Bridgen, Andrew

Brine, Steve

Brooke, Annette

Browne, Mr Jeremy

Bruce, Fiona

Bruce, rh Sir Malcolm

Buckland, Mr Robert

Burley, Mr Aidan

Burns, rh Mr Simon

Burrowes, Mr David

Burstow, rh Paul

Burt, Alistair

Burt, Lorely

Byles, Dan

Cairns, Alun

Carmichael, rh Mr Alistair

Carmichael, Neil

Carswell, Mr Douglas

Cash, Mr William

Chishti, Rehman

Clappison, Mr James

Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey

Coffey, Dr Thérèse

Collins, Damian

Colvile, Oliver

Cox, Mr Geoffrey

Crouch, Tracey

Davey, rh Mr Edward

Davies, David T. C.

(Monmouth)

Davies, Glyn

Davies, Philip

Davis, rh Mr David

de Bois, Nick

Dinenage, Caroline

Djanogly, Mr Jonathan

Dorrell, rh Mr Stephen

Doyle-Price, Jackie

Drax, Richard

Duncan Smith, rh Mr Iain

Dunne, Mr Philip

Ellis, Michael

Ellison, Jane

Elphicke, Charlie

Eustice, George

Evans, Graham

Evans, Jonathan

Fallon, rh Michael

Foster, rh Mr Don

Freeman, George

Freer, Mike

Fuller, Richard

Garnier, Sir Edward

Garnier, Mark

Gauke, Mr David

George, Andrew

Gibb, Mr Nick

Gilbert, Stephen

Glen, John

Goldsmith, Zac

Goodwill, Mr Robert

Gove, rh Michael

Grant, Mrs Helen

Gray, Mr James

Greening, rh Justine

Gummer, Ben

Gyimah, Mr Sam

Halfon, Robert

Hames, Duncan

Hammond, rh Mr Philip

Hammond, Stephen

Hancock, Matthew

Hands, Greg

Harris, Rebecca

Hart, Simon

Harvey, Sir Nick

Hayes, Mr John

Heald, Oliver

Heath, Mr David

Hemming, John

Henderson, Gordon

Hendry, Charles

Herbert, rh Nick

Hinds, Damian

Hoban, Mr Mark

Hollingbery, George

Hollobone, Mr Philip

Horwood, Martin

Howarth, Sir Gerald

Hughes, rh Simon

Hunt, rh Mr Jeremy

Huppert, Dr Julian

Hurd, Mr Nick

Jackson, Mr Stewart

James, Margot

Javid, Sajid

Jenkin, Mr Bernard

Johnson, Gareth

Johnson, Joseph

Jones, Andrew

Jones, Mr Marcus

Kawczynski, Daniel

Kennedy, rh Mr Charles

Kirby, Simon

Knight, rh Mr Greg

Kwarteng, Kwasi

Laing, Mrs Eleanor

Lamb, Norman

Lansley, rh Mr Andrew

Latham, Pauline

Laws, rh Mr David

Leadsom, Andrea

Leech, Mr John

Lefroy, Jeremy

Leigh, Mr Edward

Leslie, Charlotte

Letwin, rh Mr Oliver

Lewis, Brandon

Lewis, Dr Julian

Liddell-Grainger, Mr Ian

Lidington, rh Mr David

Lilley, rh Mr Peter

Lord, Jonathan

Loughton, Tim

Luff, Peter

Lumley, Karen

Macleod, Mary

Main, Mrs Anne

Maynard, Paul

McCartney, Karl

McLoughlin, rh Mr Patrick

McPartland, Stephen

Menzies, Mark

Mercer, Patrick

Metcalfe, Stephen

Miller, rh Maria

Mills, Nigel

Milton, Anne

Moore, rh Michael

Mordaunt, Penny

Morgan, Nicky

Morris, David

Morris, James

Mosley, Stephen

Mowat, David

Mulholland, Greg

Munt, Tessa

Murray, Sheryll

Murrison, Dr Andrew

Neill, Robert

Newmark, Mr Brooks

Newton, Sarah

Nokes, Caroline

Norman, Jesse

Nuttall, Mr David

O'Brien, Mr Stephen

Offord, Dr Matthew

Ollerenshaw, Eric

Ottaway, Richard

Paice, rh Sir James

Parish, Neil

Patel, Priti

Pawsey, Mark

Penning, Mike

Penrose, John

Percy, Andrew

Perry, Claire

Pickles, rh Mr Eric

Pincher, Christopher

Poulter, Dr Daniel

Randall, rh Mr John

Reckless, Mark

Redwood, rh Mr John

Rees-Mogg, Jacob

Reid, Mr Alan

Rifkind, rh Sir Malcolm

Rogerson, Dan

Rudd, Amber

Ruffley, Mr David

Russell, Sir Bob

Rutley, David

Sanders, Mr Adrian

Sandys, Laura

Scott, Mr Lee

Selous, Andrew

Shapps, rh Grant

Sharma, Alok

Shelbrooke, Alec

Shepherd, Mr Richard

Simpson, Mr Keith

Skidmore, Chris

Smith, Henry

Smith, Julian

Smith, Sir Robert

Soames, rh Nicholas

Soubry, Anna

Spelman, rh Mrs Caroline

Spencer, Mr Mark

Stephenson, Andrew

Stevenson, John

Stewart, Bob

Stewart, Iain

Streeter, Mr Gary

Stride, Mel

Stuart, Mr Graham

Stunell, rh Andrew

Sturdy, Julian

Swales, Ian

Swayne, rh Mr Desmond

Swinson, Jo

Syms, Mr Robert

Tapsell, rh Sir Peter

Teather, Sarah

Thurso, John

Timpson, Mr Edward

Tomlinson, Justin

Truss, Elizabeth

Turner, Mr Andrew

Tyrie, Mr Andrew

Vaizey, Mr Edward

Vara, Mr Shailesh

Vickers, Martin

Walker, Mr Charles

Walker, Mr Robin

Watkinson, Angela

Weatherley, Mike

Webb, Steve

Wharton, James

Wheeler, Heather

White, Chris

Whittaker, Craig

Wiggin, Bill

Williams, Mr Mark

Williams, Roger

Williamson, Gavin

Willott, Jenny

Wilson, Mr Rob

Wollaston, Dr Sarah

Wright, Simon

Yeo, Mr Tim

Young, rh Sir George

Zahawi, Nadhim

Tellers for the Noes:

Mark Hunter

and

Mr David Evennett

Question accordingly negatived.

12 Nov 2012 : Column 85

12 Nov 2012 : Column 86

12 Nov 2012 : Column 87

12 Nov 2012 : Column 88



12 Nov 2012 : Column 89

Fuel Duty

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): I inform the House that the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister has been selected.

7.13 pm

Cathy Jamieson (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (Lab/Co-op): I beg to move,

That this House believes that, at a time when the cost of living is rising and our economic recovery is fragile, it cannot be right to increase fuel duty by the planned 3 pence in January 2013; calls upon the Chancellor of the Exchequer to cancel this rise in fuel duty at least until next April; and believes that this change could be funded by clamping down on known tax avoidance schemes.

Everyone in the House knows that families are feeling the squeeze, that low and middle-income families are hardest hit, that prices are rising higher than wages, that small businesses are struggling and that the economy is still fragile, all of which makes it exactly the wrong time to hike up fuel costs. At the outset, I urge hon. Members on both sides of the House to join us and back our call to delay the January fuel duty rise. I particularly appeal to hon. Members who have rightly voiced concerns in recent months to do so. Difficult decisions have to be made to get the deficit down—we understand that. Yes, there were times in the past when Labour put up fuel duty, and no one disputes that.

Several hon. Members rose

Cathy Jamieson: I shall give way to the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), who I am sure is going to tell me that he supports our motion.

Andrew Selous (South West Bedfordshire) (Con): Will the hon. Lady tell the House how many times her Government put up fuel duty?

Cathy Jamieson: I can tell the hon. Gentleman that on about 13 occasions the Labour Government decided not to put up fuel duty, to delay an increase or to change it because of economic circumstances, which was absolutely the right thing to do. We looked at the economic circumstances, and made decisions to delay or cancel when that was the right thing to do, including at the height of the economic crisis.

Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): I hope my hon. Friend noted that about a fortnight ago there was an Adjournment debate in the House with cross-party support for a freeze on the increase. Although Conservative Members may go on about the increase under Labour, we must remember that they are in government now and that they could have stopped this 18 months ago.

Cathy Jamieson: My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is regrettable that some hon. Members who only a few weeks ago called for the very thing that our motion calls for now seem to have cold feet. Given that the economic recovery is fragile, the Government should back the motion.

Mr Brian H. Donohoe (Central Ayrshire) (Lab): What is the total taxation on a litre of petrol, how does it affect the general public, and should that be advertised in every forecourt in the land?

12 Nov 2012 : Column 90

Cathy Jamieson: My hon. Friend makes an interesting point, because it is about 81p per litre at the moment. He is absolutely right: when people go to the forecourt to fill up their car, they want to know exactly how much it is going to cost. They do not go to the forecourt and think about what might have been; they think about what the price is in the here and now. Petrol is 15p a litre more than it was at the general election, and it is 5p a litre more than it was in the summer, when the Government last deferred a rise. Let us remember that the Chancellor made that decision after pressure from the Opposition.

Several hon. Members rose

Cathy Jamieson: I shall give way to the hon. Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke), who I am sure is going to tell me how many of his constituents have contacted him asking him to back our motion.

Charlie Elphicke (Dover) (Con): I am not sure that this will quite fuel the hon. Lady’s bandwagon, but why did the Labour Government, in their closing stages, include in their Budget six further rises for this Parliament?

Cathy Jamieson: It may have escaped the hon. Gentleman’s notice that his party is now in government, and it has to take responsibility for its actions, including the Chancellor’s VAT rise, which has added 3p to the price of a litre of petrol, costing motorists on average over £100 more.

Several hon. Members rose

Cathy Jamieson: May I make a bit more progress, as we want to hear what the Government are doing? Their own figures tell us that the price of petrol is now more than 136p a litre. In my constituency, prices at a rural petrol station at the weekend were 139.9p a litre for petrol, and 144.9p for diesel. Only this morning, I heard a price of 160p a litre in the Scottish highlands.

Mr Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): When Labour was in power, other island MPs and I consistently went to see Labour Ministers to ask for an island fuel duty discount. It was refused. Within a year, this Government introduced that policy. Will the hon. Lady tell us what the Labour party’s policy is on a rural fuel discount?

Cathy Jamieson: I hope that when he goes back to his area, the hon. Gentleman is able to explain to his constituents why he has not backed the motion tonight.

Mr Angus Brendan MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): The hon. Lady said at the outset that this is not the time to put up fuel duty. Will she tell us whether, each and every time Labour put up fuel duty over the past 13 years, it was the right thing to do, or do we have great joy in heaven with the repenting of the Labour hordes this evening?

Cathy Jamieson: Once again, I am rather disappointed with the hon. Gentleman’s approach. I should have thought that he, too, would want to be able to go back and tell his constituents that he had supported a motion to ensure that the rise did not go ahead. The tax on a tank of petrol at the general election was £37.60. It has now risen to £40.30, and if the 3p rise goes ahead on 1 January it will rise again to £42.20.

12 Nov 2012 : Column 91

Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green): On the day that the International Energy Agency has warned that two thirds of fossil fuels need to remain under the ground if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change, does the hon. Lady not see a contradiction in arguing for lower fuel prices, especially since the cost of motoring has fallen in the past 10 years while the cost of public transport has risen? Would a more consistent position not be to seek to support struggling households directly, using the money—

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. The hon. Lady is testing the patience of the House. It is unfair. We are going to have to introduce a time limit already. If she wishes to speak, would she please put her name down? She cannot make a speech now. Short interventions are needed on both sides

Cathy Jamieson: I gave way because I respect what the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) has to say, but I hope she will understand the real pressures on families and the pressures that individuals are facing as they try to get to work and go about their business.

It is not just Labour that is calling for the increase to be postponed. FairFuelUK, backed by the RAC and the Road Haulage Association, among others, has consistently and determinedly campaigned for lower fuel duty.

Mr Gerry Sutcliffe (Bradford South) (Lab): The public are seldom interested in Opposition day debates, but they are interested in this one. My constituents have contacted me about it. Many organisations have contacted us because they care passionately about the issue. Should the Government not recognise that this is a big worry for all our constituents?

Cathy Jamieson: I hope the Government recognise that this is a big worry for constituents. We are all familiar with the e-mail campaigns and the correspondence that we have had through the FairFuelUK campaigns and from our constituents. FairFuelUK has produced a comprehensive report, which I know it has presented to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. It sets out the impact of retaining the January rise, and gives a stark warning that about 35,000 jobs could be at risk.

Mr John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Cathy Jamieson: No, I want to make a little progress.

The Federation of Small Businesses says that 85% of its members said that their car or van is crucial or very important to their business, and just over half its members said that rising fuel costs were one of the main concerns for their businesses in the third quarter of 2012.

Mr Redwood rose

Cathy Jamieson: No. I have given way already and I want to make some progress. It is important that people hear why we are proposing the motion tonight.

Almost 20% of FSB members identified fuel costs as a barrier to growth. Not only those organisations but—[Interruption.] Hon. Members on the Government

12 Nov 2012 : Column 92

Benches—those who tend to think they are the champions of industry—might want to listen to the voice of industry. The Petrol Retailers Association has reminded us of the impact of VAT and the impact on the price of fuel if the 3p per litre increase goes ahead in January.

Those are the voices of industry, but it is not just industry that will be affected:

“We must remember that motorists are not a lobby group. They are mums driving to school, children on buses and pensioners hit by inflation. When the cost of road haulage rises, the price of everything else rises too.”—[Official Report, 23 May 2012; Vol. 545, c. 140WH.]

Credit where it is due—those are not my words; they are the words of the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) in a Westminster Hall debate in May 2012.

Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): I am hugely grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way, but my constituents in Harlow will have much more trust in the Chancellor, who cut fuel duty last year, which the Opposition opposed, and provided two fuel duty freezes, than in the political opportunism that the hon. Lady is proposing today.

Cathy Jamieson: I am genuinely sorry that the hon. Gentleman adopts that tone because I know that he has worked determinedly to raise the issue. I am sure that his constituents will want to know exactly what the Chancellor is going to do. Our shadow Chancellor has said what he thinks, whereas the Chancellor seems to be debating by a nod and a wink, and nothing is determined.

Mr Redwood rose—

Cathy Jamieson: Those on the Government Benches may want to listen to the consumer organisation Which?. It has told us that 85% of people polled recently were worried about the cost of fuel. That is up nine points since the previous poll in July. One in 10 people polled admitted that they had had to dip into savings to meet the costs of motoring. Many of these people rely on their cars to get to work, to get their kids to school, to take up education and training opportunities, or perhaps to care for elderly relatives.

As I said earlier, these are tough economic times and hard-pressed families out there know that only too well. They are the ones who are suffering most from this out-of-touch Government’s failed austerity plan, which has delivered the longest double-dip recession since the second world war—a plan that is failing on the deficit, with borrowing higher so far this year than last.

Several hon. Members rose

Cathy Jamieson: Not only are the Government’s plans failing—they are also deeply unfair.

Several hon. Members rose—

Cathy Jamieson: I will give way in a moment, but it is important that this is heard.

The Prime Minister once promised not to balance the books on the backs of the poor. He also says that we’re all in it together, so perhaps the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) would like to tell me what his constituents think should be done in January. Should the 3p rise be delayed?

12 Nov 2012 : Column 93

Mr Marcus Jones (Nuneaton) (Con): I thank the hon. Lady for giving way. She said that we should listen to the voice of industry and of consumer groups. Did the Labour party listen to those groups when it put fuel duty up by 55% during its time in government?

Cathy Jamieson: Again, I regret the tone of the hon. Gentleman’s contribution. This is one issue on which we had the opportunity to unite and send a message to constituents, to all those who have contacted us and to businesses that are struggling, that the whole House could come together and agree. It is disappointing that the parties on the Government Benches have not done that.

My constituents and others are disappointed that while the Prime Minister and the Chancellor focus on giving tax cuts to millionaires, millions of families, businesses and pensioners are being forced to pay more. The cuts in child tax credits and child benefit, the hike in VAT and the cuts in age-related personal allowances have hit people hard throughout the country, just at the time when they and the economy need help.

The Leader of the Opposition has called this slow, remorseless squeeze

“a quiet crisis that is unfolding day by day in kitchens and living rooms in every town, village and city up and down this country”.

That is exactly what it is.

Several hon. Members rose

Cathy Jamieson: I will give way in a moment.

I suspect that I can predict what those on the Government Benches are going to say. They will tell us that we should celebrate the fact that the economy is finally out of a double-dip recession and things are back on track. Perhaps the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) is, however, going to tell me how many e-mails and letters he has had, asking him to back the 3p cut.

Mr Mark Spencer (Sherwood) (Con): Does the hon. Lady acknowledge that words are cheap and deeds are what count? That is a simple philosophy. Her Government put up the tax and our Government have frozen it. It seems simple to me.

Cathy Jamieson: I agree that words are cheap and deeds are more important. That is why every constituent is going to be looking tonight to see which Lobby hon. Members are walking through and whether they back the delay or not.

Several hon. Members rose

Cathy Jamieson: I want to move on, because it is important that we get to the meat of the debate.

As has been said in earlier discussions on the economy, any recovery we have seen so far is fragile at best. Labour has put forward proposals that we believe the Government should put in place: a jobs plan to boost the economy, including using funds from the 4G mobile auction to build 100,000 affordable homes; a temporary VAT cut, which would cut around 3p off the price of a litre of petrol and give an immediate £450 boost for a couple with children; help for our high streets and pensioners; and a bank bonus tax to fund jobs for young people who are out of work. The Opposition

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believe that the Chancellor should use his autumn statement to help those on low and middle incomes with the rising cost of living.

Charlie Elphicke: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Cathy Jamieson: I have given way to the hon. Gentleman already and want to make some progress.

We believe that the Chancellor should rethink his plan to give a tax cut to millionaires in April while putting up taxes for pensioners. As the shadow Chancellor announced on Friday, we believe that the Chancellor should cancel the 3p rise in fuel duty planned for January until at least April.

Dr Eilidh Whiteford (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): Does the hon. Lady agree that one of the unfairest aspects of the planned duty rise is the disproportionate effect of such taxation on folk in rural areas, as they have no alternative forms of transport and have further to travel?

Cathy Jamieson: The hon. Lady makes a valid point. I am certainly well aware of the problems faced by people in rural areas where there might be no alternative. I hope that she will support our motion this evening.

The Chancellor and the Prime Minister might never have had to worry about the cost of filling up their cars, but millions of people across the country worry about that every day, as we are hearing. To be fair, some Government Members recognise that and have been vocal about it, or at least they were until today, when they suddenly appeared to go quiet.

Mr Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): Surely this is a no-brainer. If the Chancellor decided before August to freeze fuel duty and not introduce the additional 3p rise, surely the same logic should be used today, when fuel costs even more, and the increase should not be introduced in January.

Cathy Jamieson: My hon. Friend makes a valid point. We have neighbouring constituencies, so I am certainly aware of the difficulties some of his constituents face in trying to access fuel at an affordable cost. He will also be aware that although there have been some price reductions by the big supermarkets, which can afford to use fuel as a loss leader, the small and independent garages, many of which his constituents rely on, do not have that luxury. Many of those small retailers are under increasing pressure as a result of tighter margins and are having to take smaller deliveries of fuel to ensure that cash flow does not become a problem. Those are often the businesses that serve rural areas. If they cannot continue to operate, customers will face having to travel many more miles just to fill up the tank.

It was only after pressure from Labour and campaigns such as FairFuelUK that the Chancellor decided to delay the last rise until 2013. Indeed, if we look back on what could be called the fastest U-turn in history, we see that he backed down only hours after Labour called for that help for businesses and families. We welcomed his climbdown then, and we and millions of motorists up and down the country would welcome a renewed commitment from the Government.

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Andrea Leadsom (South Northamptonshire) (Con) rose

Cathy Jamieson: I will give way to the hon. Lady if she can give that commitment.

Andrea Leadsom: Does the hon. Lady acknowledge that it was her Government who put in place the fuel duty escalator, which is the whole problem facing British motorists today? Does she accept that?

Cathy Jamieson: The hon. Lady must also recognise that it was in her Government’s Budget. What we are asking the Chancellor to do is listen. We have heard a great deal about how he is in listening mode, but I do not know how long he must listen before making the decision. According to the House of Commons Library, the cost of delaying the fuel duty rise again until April 2013 would be around £350 million, and we think that could be paid for through a clampdown on tax avoidance. I am conscious that the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood) wishes to intervene.

Mr Redwood: I am very grateful. Will the hon. Lady explain which specific tax loopholes Labour would close that the Government are not already closing, and why does Labour not provide any money after April when they would be putting the tax up again?

Cathy Jamieson: I absolutely will explain that. We think that there are loopholes that can be closed, and I am sure that the Government will also want to close every possible loophole. For example, there is a growing problem with some employment agencies forcing workers to become employees of umbrella companies. They then falsely inflate the workers’ travel and other expense claims, reducing tax and national insurance and pocketing the avoided tax as profits. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs forecast in 2008 that the cost to the Exchequer of that avoidance would be around £650 million by 2012-13. More recent reports have suggested that the current tax loss could be as high as £1 billion. Even if only a proportion of that money was recouped, it could pay for the fuel duty rise to be postponed.

As I said earlier, I know that many Government Members feel strongly about this issue. We have heard over the weekend and today all the talk about the Chancellor being in listening mode, but at the same time the Treasury’s official line is that no decision has been taken. Nods and winks are no good to families struggling in the run-up to Christmas. The approach that says “It will be all right on the night” is no use to the small business trying to balance the books and plan for the first quarter of next year. If the Chancellor has made up his mind to delay the duty rise, his Ministers should say so, and they should say so today. If we do not hear that announcement loud and clear, every hon. Member who wants to see the increase dropped should not only talk the talk tonight, but walk the walk; they should walk into the Lobby with us and vote for the 3p increase to be delayed.

7.36 pm

The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Sajid Javid): I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “House” to the end and add:

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“notes that as a result of the action this Government has taken to cut, cancel and delay fuel duty rises families will save around £159 on fuel costs by April 2013; further notes that under the previous administration’s plans, voted for by the Leader of the Opposition and the Shadow Chancellor, pump prices would be 10 pence higher than they currently are; also notes that motorists in island communities are benefiting from the fuel duty discount pilot scheme; recognises that this Government has introduced a number of other measures to support families including a £1,100 increase in the personal income tax allowance from April 2013, three years of council tax freezes and a cap on rail fares; commends that these measures have been in part affordable because of the Government’s record of success in tackling tax avoidance and evasion which is on track to raise an additional £7 billion per annum by the end of this Parliament; and welcomes the Government’s commitment to do more to help with the cost of living in the future subject to the constraints of the public finances.”

I see that the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Cathy Jamieson) has been abandoned by her boss—

Rachel Reeves (Leeds West) (Lab): Where is your boss?

Sajid Javid: My boss is in Brussels on Government business. The hon. Lady’s boss is probably too busy cooking lasagne for someone. As usual, he is busy chasing the headlines and has left her to pick up the pieces.

Rising living costs have made life difficult for millions of households. I know that first hand. Like millions of others, I have lived under financial distress, so I know what it is like to worry about paying the bills and living within a tight budget, and the Government know about that, too. Times are tough. We inherited the biggest deficit in the developed world and the largest in our peacetime history, and international commodity prices continue to rise, raising the cost of living. Since May 2010, the price of wheat is up 72% and the price of Brent crude is up 31%. While talking about commodity prices, I note that the price of gold is up 40%. Had the previous Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), not recklessly sold off the nation’s gold reserves, our country would be £10 billion richer. That is money we could have used to help hard-working families.

To clear up the mess left by the Labour party, we have had to make tough decisions, but we have prioritised the cost of living wherever we can. We have cut income tax, frozen council tax, capped rail fare increases and, moving on to the Opposition’s motion, we have delayed and cancelled the fuel duty rises that they supported.

Mr MacNeil: The Minister states that the price of wheat has gone up. Bread and butter prices have clearly increased dramatically. Is this not exactly the wrong time for the Government to put 3p on the price of a litre of fuel?

Sajid Javid: That is exactly why the Government have taken action on the cost of living, which I will move on to shortly. Let me first talk about the Labour party’s record. It will not admit that it delivered the biggest deficit in the developed world. The shadow Chancellor said only three weeks ago that under Labour

“there was not a structural deficit”.

In fact, there was a structural deficit of £71 billion in 2007-08—more than 5% of this country’s GDP. We should thank him. Whenever anyone might need reminding

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why the Labour party must never be allowed to run this country again, the shadow Chancellor steps up to the plate—and this motion is another reminder.

Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): Does the Minister accept that it is misleading constantly to give a cash figure for the size of deficit and say that it is higher than in countries with a far lower GDP?

Sajid Javid: I think that the hon. Lady needs to study the figures and understand what “percentage of GDP” means.

Andrew Selous: On tax avoidance, will my hon. Friend confirm that this Government have done far more than Labour ever did to reclaim tax due to the Exchequer, and does he agree that the Opposition should give credit where it is due?

Sajid Javid: As always, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. I will come to that later.

In the Budgets of 2009 and 2010, the shadow Chancellor and his colleagues endorsed seven rises in fuel duty between 2010 and 2014.

Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): The Minister finds himself in a strange set of circumstances whereby he is having to take the Opposition’s advice to abandon the policy that they pursued in government. What does he think it will be next—returning the top rate of income tax to the 40% that it was for most of their time in office, or perhaps reintroducing the 10p rate?

Sajid Javid: My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out that the Opposition are all over the place.

If we had found a way to halt all the rises that Labour had planned, we would have done so, but if we had gone ahead with its plans, fuel duty would have continued to rise. Fuel would be 10p per litre more expensive by now, costing the average Ford Focus driver £159 extra by April 2013. Let us put to bed once and for all the idea that Labour is the party fighting to support people on the cost of living.

Mr Donohoe: As the Minister was in his place earlier he will have heard me ask what is the amount of tax on a litre of petrol. Does he agree that, for the first time, a Government should allow that figure to be displayed on the forecourts of all our petrol stations?

Sajid Javid: I can tell the hon. Gentleman that because of the policies of the Government he supported, there were 12 rises in fuel duty, so it is a lot higher today than it would have been otherwise.

This Government are taking action. Since the coalition came together, our economic plans have won international credibility. We have cut the deficit by a quarter. Because of this, we have secured record low interest rates and opened up Britain for business once again.

Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): The Opposition’s motion has absolutely no credibility given their record in government, and that is why I certainly will not support it. My hon. Friend is right to point out that the Government have done some good things in this respect. May I send him a message from the people of Brigg and

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Goole, which is that we welcome what has been done thus far but desperately want this rise to be cancelled or delayed again?

Sajid Javid: My hon. Friend makes himself absolutely clear. He has been an avid campaigner on this issue, and his point of view is certainly being taken on board.

These low interest rates have helped hard-working families up and down the country with their cost of living. With interest rates low, mortgage bills are also low. If interest rates rose by just 1%, average mortgage bills would increase by almost £1,000 a year.

Bill Esterson (Sefton Central) (Lab): The hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) said that his constituents want the planned rise in fuel duty to be cancelled—as do my constituents—and the Minister said that he agreed with him, so why does he not support our motion?

Sajid Javid: If the hon. Gentleman is patient he will hear about the action we have taken to help with the cost of living.

Mr Marcus Jones: Who is trying more to help hard-working people with the cost of living—a Government who have frozen council tax for the past three years or a Government who doubled council tax during their term in office?

Sajid Javid: My hon. Friend knows that the answer to that question is that it is this Government who are on the side of hard-working families.

Mr Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): As my hon. Friend knows, many of my constituents live in sparsely populated rural areas, and the cost of fuel has an immense impact on their family finances, yet they realise that running the country with massive deficits puts their children’s futures at risk and means that money that could have been spent on public services is instead spent as Labour wants—on interest.

Sajid Javid: My hon. Friend is absolutely right.

Charlie Elphicke: There is opportunism not only on fuel duty but on tax avoidance. Under the previous Government, income tax paid by hard-working families in the working nation rose by 81%, but Labour Members let business off the hook, with corporation tax receipts going up by only 6%, because they were so obsessed with the prawn cocktail circuit.

Sajid Javid: My hon. Friend has done a lot of work in this area and speaks with great knowledge. He is absolutely right to point out Labour’s inaction.

Guto Bebb (Aberconwy) (Con): I speak as a Member of Parliament representing a Welsh constituency. Is my hon. Friend aware that this Government made available to the Labour Administration in Cardiff money to freeze council tax in Wales, but they declined to do so?

Sajid Javid: That is a shocking disclosure, but what more could we expect from Labour?

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Dr Whiteford: We all know that the Government inherited a mess, but does the Minister accept that the increase in fuel duty will harm recovery by holding back businesses and households?

Sajid Javid: I think that the hon. Lady would welcome the action that the Government have already taken on the cost of living and on fuel duty.

This Government have also been working hard to get people into work. There are more people in employment than ever before. Unlike Labour, we have no problem in welcoming the fact that the private sector has created over 1 million jobs over the past two years. That equates to more net new jobs created in the private sector in two years than were created in 10 years under Labour. With this support in place, we have strained every sinew to cut taxes where we can to ease the cost of living. We have cut fuel duty—a cut that Labour opposed—and frozen it for nearly two years. Fuel is now 10p cheaper than it would have been under Labour, helping family budgets. We have cut income tax for 25 million people and lifted 2 million people out of income tax altogether. We have frozen council tax for two years and announced that we will do it again next year. This Government have saved families £220 per annum on the average council tax bill. We have capped increases in rail fares so that commuters do not face substantially above-inflation rises.

Gloria De Piero (Ashfield) (Lab): Can the Minister explain how tax cuts for millionaires helped hard-working families?

Sajid Javid: If the hon. Lady is referring to the previous Budget, the changes we made to the top tax rate were covered more than six times by other changes that we announced. This Government want to create a tax system that is both efficient and helps to create jobs.

Ian Swales (Redcar) (LD): Does the Minister share my surprise that the previous Government thought it was fine to give tax relief of £250,000 a year on pensions contributions, and may I confirm that not one of my constituents has complained about the cut to £50,000?

Sajid Javid: My hon. Friend makes a good point and shows again where this Government are taking action to balance the nation’s finances.

We are doing a lot more to try to help those in need. We are investing more than £4.5 billion over this Parliament in affordable housing, delivering 170,000 new homes. We have replaced Labour's ineffective stamp duty relief with schemes that work, such as Firstbuy and NewBuy, helping more than 25,000 first-time buyers to find their way on to the first rung of the housing ladder.

Let us look at Labour's claims on tax avoidance. It wants us to clamp down on a scheme that uses a specific tax relief around travel expenses—a relief about which in 2008 the Labour Government, when presented with the facts, chose to do nothing.

Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab): Will the Minister give way?

Sajid Javid: I will in a moment.

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The Labour Government, when presented with the facts about this tax relief in 2008, chose to do nothing. They declared:

“The Government has considered—

Lyn Brown: Will the Minister give way?

Sajid Javid: If the hon. Lady is patient, I will give way in a moment—[Interruption.]

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. I do not need an answer back; I am just saying that the hon. Lady does not need to keep jumping to her feet. The Minister has promised to give way, but I do not know whether he is giving way now.

Sajid Javid: Not yet.

The hon. Lady does not want me to tell the House what the Labour Government did when they looked at this tax loophole. They declared:

“The Government has considered all the consultation responses and believes that on balance the negative effects of changing existing legislation outweigh the benefits"

To address just this issue, this Government have already strengthened HMRC's enforcement and compliance teams, and protected tens of millions of pounds of revenue. So the nub of today's debate is a call to clamp down on avoidance of a relief that the Opposition declared they could do nothing about, to pay for a cut in fuel duty that they supported. Mr Deputy Speaker, you couldn't make it up.

Stewart Hosie (Dundee East) (SNP): The Minister said he wanted to talk about tax avoidance, so let us talk about it. Why did the Chief Secretary to the Treasury promise at his party’s conference last year thousands of extra tax inspectors, and why have the Government failed to deliver any of them?

Sajid Javid: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question; I will come on to it.

Bill Esterson: It would be great if the Minister spoke to the fuel duty motion—[Interruption.] The fuel duty part of the motion. He talks about tax avoidance. Many of my constituents used to work at HMRC—they do not any more because his Government got rid of them. How can he be serious about tax avoidance when he has not provided the new inspectors he promised and has cut some of the staff who were there when the Government took office?

Sajid Javid: The motion mentions tax avoidance—he really should read his own party’s motion. The number of HMRC employees went down from 96,000 to 66,000 under his Government.

Labour Members had 13 years to clamp down more widely on tax avoidance. They had 13 years to do what they are calling for today. Did they take that chance? No. There were 13 years of inaction, and a consultation gathering dust in the Treasury archives. Even then, their figures simply do not add up. They claim that clamping down on this tax relief would bring in £650 million, but figures released while they were in power show it would bring in significantly less. If they ever want to regain

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credibility on the economy, they need to apologise for the mess in which they left the economy and learn to stop making irresponsible, unfunded promises.

Christopher Pincher (Tamworth) (Con): Only the deluded or those who want to avoid tax will oppose the closing of tax loopholes. Many people have criticised some companies for avoiding tax, but a company called Stemcor pays only £163,000 from the £65 million of profits it makes each year—about 0.1% of its revenues. If companies are to be criticised, should not Stemcor be criticised?

Sajid Javid: I thank my hon. Friend for that point. It would not be appropriate for me to talk about any individual company, but he makes a good point. Any company that is engaged in aggressive tax avoidance needs to explain itself.

Tax avoidance ran rife under Labour. We have taken action. We are investing £900 million to tackle tax avoidance and evasion, which will deliver £7 billion a year by 2014. We have already signed a groundbreaking agreement with Switzerland to make it much more difficult to evade tax. In March this year, HMRC closed a business property loss scheme within a week of its disclosure. At the G20, the Chancellor and his German counterpart announced concerted co-operation to close gaps in international standards and to crack down on international tax avoidance. Labour's former City Minister, Lord Myners, was on the radio only this morning welcoming this progress.

Underpinning all this progress, we are introducing a general anti-abuse rule so that no one can follow the letter of the law but abuse the spirit and get away with it—something else on which the Labour party never delivered. This is what real action on tax avoidance looks like.

Fiona O'Donnell (East Lothian) (Lab): If it is all going so well, why cannot the Minister do something to help my constituents who cannot afford to fill up their cars?

Sajid Javid: This Government do not shy away from making tough decisions. We are getting on with cleaning up the mess left behind by the previous Government, and we are doing everything we can to help hard-working families with the cost of living and putting money back into their pockets. Our action on fuel duty is a part of this. Fuel duty is currently 20% lower in real terms compared with its peak in March 2000, and 7% lower compared with May 2010. If we had continued the policies of the previous Government, pump prices would, quite simply, be higher—fuel would be 10p more expensive per litre. I know that some hon. Members will call for a further freeze in fuel duty today. I can assure them that the Government understand the financial pressures that hard-working families are facing. Subject to the constraints of the public finances, this Government are determined to keep helping families with the cost of living.

I urge hon. Members to reject the Opposition's motion and to support the Government's amendment.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. I remind Members that the time limit on speeches is seven minutes.

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7.57 pm

Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): I am disappointed by the Minister’s speech—I have heard it several times before. Whenever he addresses the House he uses the same argument: the previous Government got us into a mess. Today, my constituents are suffering from high petrol and diesel prices, which is why the motion, which I shall support, was tabled.

I have consistently supported the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) over a period. Indeed, I opposed the Labour Government increasing fuel duties because I thought the timing was wrong.

Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Albert Owen: I will in a moment, but given the time limit I do want to make some progress.

I want to raise three issues, the first of which is the impact of fuel duty on businesses, especially those in peripheral areas of the United Kingdom. The Government also chose to impose a VAT increase, despite the Prime Minister having told the country before the election that they had no intention of doing so. Every time constituents throughout the country put petrol or diesel in their cars they pay an extra 3p per litre because of the tax introduced by this Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): I am genuinely confused. What is the difference between a Labour fuel tax hike and a Conservative one?

Albert Owen: Scottish National party Members always use that line on fuel duty, and I am not going to waste my time on it—[Interruption.] If the hon. Gentleman had checked the record, he would know that I have been consistent on fuel duty. I have followed SNP Members through the Lobby on that. Previous Labour Chancellors froze the duty following pressure from people. That is on the record. We can play games about previous Governments, but the serious issue is the cost—

Henry Smith: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Albert Owen: No. I want to make progress. The serious problem is that our constituents are paying 15p per litre more for petrol under this Government than they paid under the previous Government. Government Members can use nonsense hypotheticals, and say, “It would be 10p more expensive under a Labour Government,” but the fuel escalator was introduced by the Major Government. We could use the same argument, and say, “Had we stuck to that, fuel would by so many pence more expensive.” The reality is that it is 15% more expensive today.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Albert Owen: I will not give way—I want to make progress.

VAT is hurting families and businesses. Hauliers and small businesses in my constituency are paying extra fuel duty and VAT on their fuel. The impact is on goods—[Interruption.] The Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury, the hon. Member for Scarborough

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and Whitby (Mr Goodwill), says from a sedentary position that they get the money back, but he should listen to businesses. They tell me that fuel duty and VAT impacts on their businesses. Are they wrong? He needs to listen to businesses rather than make silly party political points in the Chamber. That is the reality of the situation: they pay more for fuel.

There is a double whammy because, as the Minister said, businesses also pay more for raw materials. They are being badly hurt. The debate should concentrate on what our constituents are telling us.

Jim Shannon rose—

Albert Owen: I will give way once more, and then I need to make progress.

Jim Shannon: In Northern Ireland, 25% of every worker’s wage is spent on fuel getting to and from work. Another 10% is spent on heating oil. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that the VAT increase should not go ahead for that reason, and that concessions should be made for people in Northern Ireland, where the price of fuel is higher than anywhere else in the UK?

Albert Owen: The motion calls for a freeze on duty, but Labour introduced a previous debate on temporarily cutting VAT to help hard-working businesses and people across the country. Businesses are being hurt.

We rightly say that road transport is hit hard, but ferry companies—this is a serious point that nobody raises—must, because of the high prices, put fares up and cut back on the time their service takes so they can cut fuel costs. The problems that British businesses face are real. In my part of the world, the extra fuel duties mean problems getting goods to market and getting people to the workplace. This is a real issue for real people. I hope hon. Members remember that tonight.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned periphery areas. Northern Ireland has the highest fuel duty in the UK, but it is closely followed by periphery areas of Wales. The hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb), who is not in his place, made a political point about council tax in Wales. The reality is that the Government cut revenue and capital spend in Wales, so those authorities have to make their decisions, but they are not responsible for fuel tax. Fuel tax lies at the door of the Government. Incumbents have the opportunity to increase fuel duty when they believe that is necessary and to reduce it when it hurts business and our constituents. Now is the time for this Government to think seriously about that.

The Minister is listening—he says the Government always listen and that they are in listening mode—but he needs to take action, and to tell businesses tonight whether or not he intends do so. It is no use the Chancellor and Government Back Benchers getting together, cloak and dagger, to say that the motion is opportunism. The reality is that many of those same Back Benchers have introduced the same motion and supported it in a Back-Bench debate. We need consistency from Government Members, because they know their constituents are feeling the pinch.

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Mr Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): The hon. Gentleman makes a strong speech. He has shown personal consistency, but it is reasonable for Government Members to say that many of his colleagues show anything but. If he wants this duty freeze, what does he want to do to raise the money? Can tax loopholes instantly provide the money, does he want a cut in Government spending, or is he, like most of his colleagues, in favour of ever more borrowing?

Albert Owen: FairFuelUK’s argument is that money is lost to the Exchequer because of the serious impact of fuel duty on businesses. If we had growth in our economy, which all hon. Members want, the Exchequer would get more money, and businesses would be able to reinvest. That is one way. I would like the 4G windfall money to be used to help to alleviate small businesses—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby says the Opposition have spent the money, but that is not true—we are not sure how much it will be or how it will be spent. I should also point out to him that the Opposition do not spend the money; the Treasury makes those decisions. It is about time the Government took responsibility for their actions rather than making knockabout comments.

My final remark is about the ordinary family. In my part of the UK and many periphery areas, motorists do not go on luxury outings. Motorists are families taking their children to school and students getting to college and university. People in remote areas need their cars for the weekly shop because public transport is not available. It is great when people can take alternative transport, such as in central London and large cities, but that is not a choice in periphery and remote areas.

There is a choice tonight: hon. Members can vote for the motion or the amendment. They should vote for what their constituents want, and do what Members on both sides of the House have been asked to do. They should put loud and clear pressure on the Chancellor. If he is in listening mode, he will listen to the will of the House and suspend the 3p tax increase that he proposes to introduce in January, so that families can have a bit of a break and go into Christmas and the new year in the knowledge that they will have more money to spend, and so that businesses have more money to reinvest.

8.7 pm

Ben Gummer (Ipswich) (Con): The hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) has shown the merit of consistency over many years, but that is not a quality shared by the first two signatories to the Opposition motion—the Leader of the Opposition and the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls)—who, in proposing the motion, have shown that they are a very long way from being ready to form a Government. As my hon. Friend the Minister has shown so eloquently, the motion is riddled with contradictions and hypocritical, and shows that the Opposition do not understand in any way the appalling legacy with which the coalition Government have been charged with dealing by the British people.

I hope Opposition Members, and especially Opposition Front Benchers, have read the motion—at least one of them will be a little embarrassed by it—which states:

“That this House believes that, at a time when the cost of living is rising and our economic recovery is fragile”.

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At least we have a begrudging admission from them that there is an economic recovery. That there is a recovery has taken a while to come out.

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Moor View) (Lab): I thank the hon. Gentleman for acknowledging that the Opposition motion openly states that there is a fragile economic recovery. Will he do likewise and acknowledge that there was a fragile economic recovery in June 2010?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Before the hon. Gentleman answers that question, I remind hon. Members that, if they intervene, and if they drop down the speaking list, they will understand why—they keep adding minutes to the debate.

Ben Gummer: I thank the hon. Lady for her comment, because it helps me to remind her that, when Britain was in recession at the back end of 2008, fuel duty went up by 2p. When it was in recession at the beginning of 2009, fuel duty went up by 2p. When it was in recession in September 2009, fuel duty went up by 2p. When there was a faltering recovery—which was probably credit fuelled—in March 2010, on the eve of an election, at the point when the figures showed that the economy was recovering, fuel duty went up by 1p. So much for the correlation between recession and fuel duty increases.

Bill Esterson rose—

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. Those who think they are bottom of the list will also have minutes removed.

Bill Esterson: I am always happy to be guided by you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman is aware of the research—

Sajid Javid: Reading!

Bill Esterson: Thank you. I wonder whether the hon. Member for Ipswich (Ben Gummer) is aware of the research by FairFuelUK that points out that a 3p increase in duty would deliver a 0.1% drop in GDP and the loss of 35,000 jobs. Does he accept those figures?

Ben Gummer: At least FairFuelUK sticks to its position. My point is that Labour put up fuel duty in government when the country was in a deep recession and increased it by marginally less when the country was showing signs of a credit-fuelled recovery—coincidentally, on the eve of an election—yet now, when there has been 1% growth in GDP, Labour objects to an increase in fuel duty that was programmed at that point by the previous Government. What Labour lacks in consistency it also lacks in remembrance of what it did previously, faced with the worst recession this country has ever suffered, when the Labour Government put duel duty up by 6p over 18 months.

Susan Elan Jones (Clwyd South) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman speaks of remembrance, yet he seems to have forgotten the rise in VAT. Will he say how that impacted on fuel duty and how it affected his constituents?

Ben Gummer: I shall turn to disposable incomes and the cost of living in the round now, as it is mentioned in the motion. Of course times are incredibly difficult, for

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my constituents and most of our constituents. The cost of living and disposable incomes have come under considerable pressure, but a large part of that has resulted from the need to balance the books. We were left the largest deficit in peacetime history, which—as the Minister reminded us—we now understand was £71 billion before the recession came. Yet the inheritance was not just one of deficit in 2008, but one where real wages fell in the period from 2003 to 2008, when GDP figures showed at least nominal growth—of 11% perhaps —in the economy. Real wages for anyone who happened to be a middle-income earner stagnated in that period, while real wages for those in the bottom quartile fell by 0.4%. Therefore, when the country was growing under the previous Administration, incomes were falling for the vast majority of people in real terms.

The reason we now have to take painful steps to rebalance the economy is to address the fundamental problems that the previous Government not only failed to address, but in many instances laid the foundations for. This country cannot survive on the economic model built by a previous Chancellor of the Exchequer and leader of this nation. It was that model which broke so spectacularly in 2008, and it is this model which we are trying, little by little, to repair. The least the Opposition could do is recognise the problems that they gave this new coalition Government to sort out, yet we have before us a motion that is a consummate exploration of inconsistency and hypocrisy. What I would say to those on the Government Front Bench is this: do not listen to the Opposition when they give lectures on tax avoidance or fuel duty, because they have none to give.

I suggest that we have a system that will not work in the long term. The problem with fuel taxation is that—as the Office for Budget Responsibility has probably underestimated—it will cost the Exchequer some £13 billion by 2026. Fuel taxation is a system that has been modified so many times to allow for low-emission vehicles, heavy goods vehicles and rural drivers that it is becoming a sieve for the Exchequer, and it needs fundamental reform. I would push Ministers to think seriously again about road tolling, so that we can stop this silly exercise, which we now have year in, year out, of deciding whether to put up taxes—decisions that are often completely countermanded the next day or within a week by volatile rises and drops in the price of oil—and moreover allow ourselves to manage the vast assets that we have in the road infrastructure in this country. At the moment, there is no demand management and complete resource misallocation in maintenance and investment, all of which could be remedied by a sensible road tolling system, which would help us to target help specifically at those constituents whom many in this Chamber will talk about this evening.

We have before us an inconsistent and hypocritical motion—a motion that tells us nothing, apart from the fact that Her Majesty’s Opposition are a long way from forming Her Majesty’s Government. I therefore commend the amendment, which my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary has moved, and, in so doing, hope that he will look again at road tolling, so that we can stop this perennial debate once and for all.

8.16 pm

Mr Iain McKenzie (Inverclyde) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Ipswich (Ben Gummer). He will be glad to know that I intend not to lecture, but

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to plead for hard-pressed motorists up and down the country, who are seeing fuel prices devastating both the private motorist and businesses.

In Inverclyde, my constituents are forced into choosing between paying more for fuel and doing without other essentials, or digging into their savings to meet the ever-increasing cost of motoring. A car is an absolute necessity for many of my constituents. I have a varied constituency. Many people live in outlaying areas some distance from the main bus and train links, so they are required to use their cars daily, with the increase in rail and bus fares giving them little consolation.

The weekly cost of filling up the fuel tank is for ever growing. The additional financial outlay to bring that fuel gauge to where it once used to reach means people digging deep into their resources. That is on top of road tax and insurance costs, not to mention maintenance against wear and tear, all of which adds to the joys of motoring. In Inverclyde, the price of a litre of fuel averages around £1.39 a litre. The two large supermarket petrol stations in my constituency kindly keep close to each other’s price, thus making it relatively easy to work out the average, although I do one supermarket an injustice. Morrisons in Inverclyde has decided to offer 15p off a litre for those spending £60 or more in the shop—and yes, Mr Deputy Speaker, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

This House has been united before on fuel prices, calling on the Government to drop the intended fuel escalator rise planned for earlier this year. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) for securing that earlier debate. We on the Opposition Benches believe that a freeze in fuel duty will stimulate growth and create jobs. Fuel duty is having a huge effect on the UK’s road freight industry. The 3p increase in fuel duty planned for January will add £15 a week to the running cost of a vehicle. A fleet of 50 vehicles will have to recover £37,000 a year. The recovery of such costs simply drives up inflation in the supply chain and makes our haulage industry uncompetitive compared with its foreign rivals, who pay much less for their fuel. Indeed, foreign trucks enter the UK full of cheaper fuel—they have enough to work in the UK for a full week. Because they pay no fuel duty here, they can easily undercut our UK hauliers, thereby driving them out of business and creating unemployment in the UK.

Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): May I take up the hon. Gentleman’s point about drivers from other jurisdictions? Does he agree that the Treasury is actually losing money because of the duty increase? Drivers in Northern Ireland, particularly haulage drivers, cross the border to the Irish Republic to avail themselves of cheaper fuel. Tens of thousands of litres of fuel per day have been purchased in the Republic rather than in Northern Ireland, and duty has been lost to the Treasury as a result.

Mr McKenzie: I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. Moreover, I can tell the House that 30% of lorries carrying goods across the border from Scotland to the south-east of the UK are not from this country.

I hope that Members on both sides of the House will be able to unite again in calling on the Government not to apply the 3p increase in January and to give the

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hard-pressed motorist a better start to the new year. If the Government really want to enter into the festive spirit, the Chancellor may wish to drop the VAT increase on fuel, thus taking yet another 3p off the price at the pump.

8.21 pm

Mr John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): The Opposition are right to highlight the issue of the cost of living, and it is timely that we are having a debate about the pressures on it. It is particularly timely that we are having a debate about the pressures that the outgoing Labour Government imposed on the cost of living, which still remain. I am thinking of the hidden increases in petrol duty, and all the other measures that they left in place or that were needed if we were to try to combat the deficit.

There is no doubt that the squeeze on people’s real living standards has been very severe in the last four years. It was most severe under Labour during its slump, but it has continued under the coalition Government. One of the reasons for the intensity of that squeeze on real incomes is the fact that price inflation has remained obstinately high, partly as a result of indirect taxation and partly, as the Minister said, as a result of world pressures on commodity markets.

I find myself unable to support the motion, which may come as no surprise to any Member on either side of the House. I consider it to be defective in two important ways. First, I do not think that a temporary three-month freeze will solve the problem. A double whammy in April, which is what Labour proposes, could be even worse, because people will not have become used to the rising fuel price that was inherent in the Labour plans.

Fiona O’Donnell: The right hon. Gentleman suggests that three months do not constitute a long period, but they will be three months of cold weather, during which people will be having to cope with an increase of up to 11% in their energy bills. The three-month freeze would make a difference.

Mr Redwood: I am all in favour of lowering energy bills, although that is probably a topic for another day and another debate. I have made many suggestions to the Government, all of which I think Labour would find unpalatable. I have, for instance, suggested possible methods of making gas much cheaper, thus reducing prices for all our constituents and affecting real incomes in a way that would please me, but is not often favoured by my party.

I think that the first part of the motion is flawed because what it proposes would not solve the underlying problem, namely, the tax increases left by the outgoing Government, but I am not very happy with the second part either. The Minister said that he did not think the Opposition had done their sums properly before proposing the measure to deal with tax avoidance, which they say would pay for the temporary lower duty rate. It was interesting to hear from him that the Labour Government had considered a scheme relating to travel costs, but had decided that it would be unwise to pursue it. We do not know whether they made that decision because of the impact that it would have on people or because it would not bring in enough revenue, but it appears from what the Minister said that there was an issue involving the amount of revenue that it would raise. For those two

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reasons—it would not solve the duty problem, and the numbers do not add up—I think that it would be unwise for the House to support the motion.

As for the coalition Government’s amendment, I find myself particularly in agreement with the final words, in which we are asked to welcome

“the Government’s commitment to do more to help with the cost of living in future”.

I was interested to hear the Minister not only say that he understood the points that many of my right hon. and hon. Friends had been making about the level of fuel duties, but imply that action might be forthcoming in the autumn statement and the subsequent Budget statement to tackle that or related problems. I shall be happy if the Government tackle the over-burden of taxation in a variety of ways. I do not think that we need be too prescriptive tonight. We know that an autumn statement is coming up, and we know that there will be a Budget statement after that. However, I want to address my few remarks in this short debate to the issue of what the commitment to do more to help people in the future might amount to in those two important statements of Government policy.

The first point that I hope the Government will grasp is that this country’s problem is not that it is undertaxed. If we look at the budgets and the state of the national finances, we see that there is every sign that successive Governments have tried to increase the tax burden substantially to keep pace with accelerating current public spending. I think that we have now reached the point of no return—the point of saturation. The high rate of income tax introduced by Labour has led to a big fall in income tax receipts at the top level, which is not very surprising—and which, of course, is of no interest to Labour Members. They had their little jibe about millionaires, but they should be asking themselves what tax rate will cause rich people to make the maximum contribution to filling the massive financial hole in which we find ourselves.

We are well above that rate now, as the figures clearly indicate. I think that the Government will find that their higher rate of capital gains tax also collects rather less revenue than before, or than they would like, and that fuel duties, while probably still contributing some increment to taxation, are not creating as big an increment as they would like either, as people simply cannot afford all the fuel that they used to buy because the duties are so high.

We know that more than 60% of the pump price—and the price of petrol and diesel in this country is currently very high—goes, in one form or another, to the UK Government. Of course, part of the rest of the price goes in taxes to other Governments so that they can produce the fuel in the first place. A massive amount of tax is being taken by the British Government directly, along with the 60%-plus that is taken by them indirectly through the tax on oil companies, and by foreign Governments in their taxation on the oil. The motorist is seen as an easy target for huge amounts of tax in an attempt to meet the bills. I hope that, when considering ways of easing the cost of living, the Government will bear in mind that motorists and business drivers—people who are trying to power the economic recovery—are incurring very large bills through this particular tax.

I think that all Members agree with two propositions about the economy. First, we would like it to grow faster, and secondly we would like to make big cuts in public spending by getting people back to work, so that

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they can earn more in jobs than they can receive in out-of-work benefits. Those are the aims that the Government must pursue. They have told us that they wish to make work more worth while. It is now clear that the economy has had a good job generation capability in the private sector over the last couple of years or so, and that is very welcome. However, we now need to ensure that we can reduce public spending by getting many more people into jobs, so that they require less benefit support, and we need to do that partly by cutting tax rates, so that we can collect more revenue in a friendlier way.

There is no doubt that we have tax saturation, and the Government need to take that on board for the purposes of the autumn statement and the Budget. We should reject the rather foolish motion, which was never going to ensnare many Conservatives—Labour will have to get better at ensnaring Conservatives, if that is its game—and support, and ensure that the Government deliver on, their proposal to do more about the cost of living, because that is a very real issue which worries many of our constituents.

8.29 pm

Mr William Bain (Glasgow North East) (Lab): I was intrigued by the Economic Secretary’s arguments when he moved the amendment. He is no longer in his place, but wherever he is at the moment, I hope he can afford enough fuel to return to planet Earth, as that was not a place he was able to inhabit much during his contribution. He spoke of the fanfare of international approval for the Chancellor’s policies, yet the OECD says that this year demand in our country will be one tenth of that in the United States and in the lowest fifth among EU countries. He said this Government dealt in costed spending commitments, from the very Dispatch Box where a few weeks ago the Prime Minister caused chaos in the energy industry by saying every consumer would be on the lowest possible tariff. The Economic Secretary also boasted about taking action on high commodity prices on behalf of a Government who are blocking the enactment of a global Dodd-Frank Bill in line with the successful approach in the United States.

Last week’s election in the United States showed that for voters both across the Atlantic and in the United Kingdom the key issue is living standards. During the longest journey out of an economic slump in Britain for 140 years, living standards have declined at a more prolific rate than during the recessions presided over by the Conservative party in the 1980s and 1990s. As last month’s Office for National Statistics study of well-being showed, on the net national incomes measure, incomes in the second quarter of 2012 were 13.2% lower than before the start of the great recession in 2008. We should be under no illusion: a real economic recovery for millions of lower and middle-income people in this country will not happen until these trends show signs of being reversed.

Mr Redwood: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the biggest fall in living standards occurred on Labour’s watch, when boom went to bust?

Mr Bain: Tax credits helped to sustain family incomes in that period, but that is precisely the part of the tax and benefit system that is under such great assault from the Government the right hon. Gentleman supports.

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We need a long-term strategy to tackle declining living standards, but there are short-term measures we can take now that will help ordinary families. We can have a cut in VAT and not proceed with the 3p rise in fuel duty next January. Both those measures would help to restore growth to an economy that has been starved of it for a year, and which is smaller now than at the time of the Chancellor’s comprehensive spending review of October 2010.

Despite a decrease in the headline consumer prices index inflation rate from 5.2% to 2.2% since last October, costs of basic goods such as electricity and food are going up. Average electricity bills are up by £200 since the coalition took office, taking the average bill to £1,310 a year. Costs for childminders for the over-2s in Scotland have risen at nearly twice the CPI inflation rate this year. Living costs are, therefore, soaring for millions of people.

Fiona O’Donnell: My hon. Friend missed out one boast the Minister made, which was about the creation of private sector jobs. In my constituency, many of those jobs are for care workers on the minimum wage and on a zero-hours contract. Those workers need a car to be able to sustain even that level of employment.

Mr Bain: I entirely agree. Most of the jobs that have been created over the last couple of years have been part-time, insecure, low-hours posts. We have soaring under-employment in our country, with as many as 3.3 million people unable to secure sufficient working hours to make work pay. Nothing in the amendment would deal with that trend.

Combined with a VAT rise under this Government, fuel duty rises are particularly regressive. In 2009-10 the poorest quintile paid 3.5% of their disposable income in fuel duty, compared with just 1.8% paid by the top quintile. Overall, in the first year of this Government indirect taxes took 31% of the disposable income of people in the lowest fifth of earners, compared with just 13% among the wealthiest fifth of earners, and that was an increase from the previous fiscal year. According to the latest ONS study of factors affecting the retail prices index and CPI inflation measures, two of the major factors driving upward pressures were the price of clothing and footwear, which rose by 4.7% between August and September this year, and the rising cost of motor fuel, with petrol up by 3.9p per litre and diesel up by 3.5p per litre, compared with falls of 0.3p per litre in the previous year. These changes contributed 0.12% to the shift in the CPI inflation rate. In the year to this September, motor fuel costs alone rose by 2.8%. The case for action is therefore clear.

All these trends must be considered in the context of our low growth. The International Monetary Fund recently downgraded its estimate for UK GDP by 0.6% for this year and by a further 0.3% for next year. That is a crushing verdict, showing that the Government’s policies have sucked even more demand from the economy—as much as an additional £76 billion given the new evidence of the destructive multiplier effects of the Chancellor’s austerity measures. As the National Institute of Economic and Social Research has established, implementing the Government’s preferred rise in fuel duty in January

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would further weaken growth by 0.1% of GDP next year and keep unemployment higher than it needs to be some 48 months since the downturn began.

That is why I hope Members across the House will tonight take this opportunity to release some of the pressures ordinary households and businesses are facing by voting to postpone any rise in fuel duty until at least April.

Mr Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): The hon. Gentleman referred only to postponing the fuel duty increase. I want to put it on record that I think the Government should cancel the increase, and I hope they will do so. Why is the hon. Gentleman only in favour of postponing it? Why not cancel it?

Mr Bain: If the hon. Gentleman has the courage of the convictions he has just expressed, he should join us in the Lobby tonight. That will be the evidence his constituents will be looking for tomorrow morning.

On incomes, millions of ordinary people are under huge pressure because of the collapse in real wages, which has hit particularly hard since the onset of the current recession.

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Bain: I am running out of time, and I am sure the hon. Gentleman will have a chance to make his own speech.

Since 2007, real wages have declined by about 4% for the vast majority of ordinary people, damaging their spending power and weakening prospects for a consumer-led economic recovery. In my constituency, almost three in 10 workers, including half of all the 10,000 part-time workers, earn less than the living wage of £7.45 an hour. The increases in fuel duty have hit them especially hard. As the Resolution Foundation’s recent Commission on Living Standards report established, just 12p in every £1 of growth generated in Britain finds its way into the pay packets of workers in the lower half of the income scale. They need help on fuel costs tonight.

Britain stands at a crossroads. Without a change in policy, people will be no better off in 2020 than they were in 2001, but with the right kind of reforms on pay, tax and benefits, that can be reversed and we can see the gap between rich and poor falling once again. Tonight we can make our contribution to supporting growth and improving the living standards of our constituents over the next few months, by rejecting the Government amendment and boosting much needed job creation by cutting fuel duty.

8.38 pm

Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): I believe that, as has been said, fuel duty has become a toxic tax, and that the public have just had enough. I also believe that the Government are listening, and that that is shown by their amendment, as highlighted by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood). I am disappointed with Labour’s smokescreen. This debate is really about hiding the record of the shadow Chancellor and many years of putting up fuel duty. I have to say to the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun

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(Cathy Jamieson) that when I was campaigning hard last year, organising and working hard with FairFuelUK to get the Government to cut fuel duty, the Government cut fuel duty in the 2011 Budget but the hon. Lady, the shadow Chancellor and their party voted to keep fuel duty up, so let us have no discussion about who is being opportunistic. I am disappointed that the Labour party has chosen to conduct the debate in this way.

The heart of the debate should be the figures published by the Office for National Statistics almost a year ago. Its data proved that fuel duty is regressive and hits poorest Brits the hardest. It is with that fact in mind that we should consider the recent history, or at least the past five years, of the debate in the House on petrol taxes. In 2007, the shadow Chancellor said:

“In this Budget, we have set out further actions to advance the environment agenda, including…a fuel duty increase of more than inflation”,

and that that

“demonstrates the Government’s commitment to tackling climate change”.—[Official Report, 26 March 2007; Vol. 458, c. 1265.]

I think that that sums up the shadow Chancellor’s principles on the issue. I have to say that he makes the Vicar of Bray look like Gandhi. In reality, the shadow Chancellor’s petrol tax had very little to do with climate change, because families could not change their behaviour to respond to it. Like scrapping the 10p rate, it was a tax on the poor.

That is why I am sceptical when the Opposition motion makes much of the small delays that Labour has sometimes applied to its increases in fuel duty. If one looks at the substance of the Budgets of 2009 and 2010, one sees that it programmed in massive fuel hikes for 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013. That is what we are dealing with today, and why I have campaigned, with many of my colleagues, to cut the cost of fuel duty. The argument is therefore not about whether we believe that the fuel duty rise should not go ahead—I passionately believe that—but about tactics. It is sensible and right to wait for the autumn statement. Given the Government’s record—they cut fuel duty last year and have stopped two planned fuel duty rises—I believe it is right to wait for the autumn statement.

Albert Owen: The hon. Gentleman has been consistent on this issue. He has also been campaigning hard for transparency on fuel duty matters. On that theme, will he tell the House what discussions he has had with the Chancellor? Which report in the newspapers is right: that the 3p rise will not go ahead and there will be a cut, or that there will be a 2p increase in the autumn statement?

Robert Halfon: Unfortunately, I am just a brand-new MP and I do not have the luxury of having discussions with the Chancellor. I have no idea what is in his lunchbox, but I do know that the Government have a record of cutting fuel duty. That is something that I am proud of and to which I can give strong support.

Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): Will my hon. Friend accept the assurance, as least from Government Members, that if the rise does not go ahead it will have far more to do with his campaign than anything the Opposition have done?

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Robert Halfon: I am hugely grateful to my hon. Friend and, I have to say, to many colleagues in this House, some of whom are on the Opposition Benches. My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) has done a huge amount of work behind the scenes, as have many other colleagues. We will have to wait and see what the Government say in the autumn statement, but I am happy to support them because I believe that they are in serious listening mode.

I have three concerns about the Labour motion. First, it is a non-binding motion; it is just gesture politics. My constituents care about the price of petrol, not the politics. Secondly, the only way that we can stop the petrol tax is through the autumn statement on 5 December. That is how it has been done in the past few years. Yes, I am asking the Treasury for action on fuel, but what my constituents want is action on the policy—the substance. My constituents will not be looking at what happens today; they will be looking when the Chancellor makes his speech on 5 December. That is when we hope the Chancellor will listen to British motorists.

Thirdly, we need a long-term settlement for cheaper petrol. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham is exactly right. The motion proposes a three-month oil rush, which would lead to motorists being hammered with a 7p tax rise in April 2013. The only way to get the long-term settlement is to work constructively with the Government and look at reform and how we can permanently lower fuel duty.

David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Robert Halfon: I may if I have time, but I will continue for the moment.

I believe that the Government are in strong listening mode, and I would not go into their Lobby tonight if I did not believe that to be the case. If we look at the Treasury amendment carefully, we see that it does not rule out stopping the planned rise in January. That is a significant move from a few months ago, when the Government said that the rise would go ahead. As I said, the Treasury team have done more to cut fuel prices than Labour did in a decade. We do not have to work at Bletchley Park to read the signals the Treasury is sending about helping with the cost of living—it is written in black and white.

I will continue to ask the Government to lower fuel duty, but I want to end where I started: this is a matter of social justice. I have stuck my head above the parapet and tabled several motions urging the Government to cut fuel duty. Inevitably, the focus in the media today has been on the economics, but this is about social justice. The average person in Harlow spends £1,700 a year filling up the family car—one tenth of their income. In essence, those families are facing fuel poverty. According to data published last year, three quarters of bankruptcies in the transport sector were the result of fuel costs. High fuel prices are adding to Britain’s dole queues. Furthermore, as the AA shows, families are choosing between buying food and filling up at the pumps.

I urge the Chancellor and the Treasury to listen to the thousands of Harlow residents who have written to me, and take action. Given everything the Treasury team have done in the past two years to cut fuel duty and

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given that the Chancellor’s amendment leaves the door open to cuts in fuel duty, we should at least wait for the autumn statement before casting judgment. That is why I will be proud to vote with the Government tonight, and I urge the House to vote for the amendment. I would not support the Government if I did not believe they had genuinely taken this on board. I hope they do not let us down.

8.46 pm

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Moor View) (Lab): We have heard many high-quality speeches tonight, including a powerful argument from my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Cathy Jamieson) and from the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), who made a genuine plea—I think—to the Chancellor at the end of his speech, urging him to listen carefully.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the social issues around the fuel price increase, but it is not just the fuel increase that is causing problems. The cost of living has risen across the country, and these higher costs are taking particular hold in the south-west and my constituency. Average wages are rising nowhere close to inflation, and hard-working families are finding it harder to make ends meet—and this at a time when the south-west has been dealt another blow from this out-of-touch Government, who have allowed 20 NHS trusts to create a pay cartel in order to slash wages for NHS workers in Plymouth and across the region.

Wages in the south-west are already among the lowest in the country, with more than one in five employees—430,000 working people—earning less than the living wage. With prices for almost all commodities rising, in a recent survey more than 40% of workers in the region said that their finances were worse off now than just a month ago—and fuel has clearly been a major part of both the increase in the cost of living and their perception of how hard things are getting.

Families in the south-west have experienced a double burden in terms of wages and the cost of utilities. Water charges in the south-west are among the highest in the country, with customers paying £150 more than the national average on their yearly water bills, while energy bills and fuel prices are increasingly unaffordable across whole swathes of the country, as we have heard. Figures given in a written answer on 7 November showed that 16.4% of families living in England in 2010 were in fuel poverty, but that number is expected to rise significantly.

The south-west has a large rural population. My constituency is not rural, but Plymouth depends on its hinterland. The wider economic benefits to the region and Plymouth come from people in our travel-to-work area, which is largely rural. In addition to the high water costs and low wages, people in the rural hinterland are paying about £10 a week more on petrol, diesel and motor oil than the average UK household. Rural populations are struggling with the cost of living in general—on average about £2,000 per year for a rural household over and above that of urban inner-city town dwellers such as my constituents. Of course, some of the people in the south-west will have chosen to live in a rural area. Some might well have a second home there and be quite well off, but there are huge swathes of the

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population across Cornwall and Devon who are agriculture workers or who are working in small food processing factories, and they are not on very high incomes at all.

Bus services in rural areas are infrequent, so elderly people often need to drive to Derriford hospital. That can be a long journey for a lot of people. They might need to be driven to the hospital. This all costs money. Young people can feel isolated in rural areas. Unless their parents can afford to drive them into town, they can be stuck and feel very much out of the loop. That is not good for social cohesion. We know that many families are having to curtail the number of journeys they make. Travelling to and from rural areas for work can also be extortionately expensive. I recently met a Plymouth man who travelled out to Liskeard to work. He had been unemployed, and he was delighted to have got a job in Liskeard, but the petrol was costing him between £60 and £70 a week and the situation was becoming unsustainable. He was really keen to work, and he was willing to travel long distances, but it was becoming impossible.

David Simpson: I am sure that the hon. Lady is aware that we have a land border in Northern Ireland. The hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) seemed to have inside knowledge that the price of fuel might not go up, but if it were to do so the amount of fuel smuggling from the Republic of Ireland to Northern Ireland would increase, and the Exchequer would lose a lot of revenue.

Alison Seabeck: The hon. Gentleman speaks from the experience of his own constituency, and the Chancellor will need to consider that very serious point when he sets out his Budget later this year.

There has also been a huge increase in housing costs. Average house prices are now 11.5 times higher than the median income, and private rents are set to rise by an estimated 65% over the next 10 years. That will create huge cost of living issues for people in my constituency. Road fuel prices are higher by about 2.1p a litre in rural areas and, on average, people who live in rural areas travel 53% further than those who live in urban areas. They are also less able to access public transport alternatives. In my area, there are poor rail services down to Plymouth and we have no airport. All those factors push people into cars, and rises in the price of fuel make it extremely difficult for our economy and the economies of individual families to thrive.

I shall finish my speech early because you pulled me up for intervening, Mr Deputy Speaker. I hope that the Chancellor will have listened to his colleagues on the Government Benches, and that he will also take seriously those on the Opposition Benches as we go through the Lobby tonight to make it absolutely clear that we need a temporary halt to the increase.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): I should just like to point out to the hon. Lady that she has not given me back a minute, because she has taken an intervention. So we ended up with nothing!

8.53 pm

Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck) who, like me, represents a periphery

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constituency. It is appropriate that we are having this debate now, less than a month before the Chancellor delivers his autumn statement on 5 December, when I expect him to set out his strategy on fuel duty, at least for the short to medium term. It is important, in deciding whether to proceed with the planned 3p increase in January, that he should be fully aware of the impact that fuel duty increases have on hard-pressed families and on businesses, particularly small and medium-sized enterprises. It is a concern that my constituents very much emphasise to me both in conversation and in correspondence.

Fuel duty is a highly regressive form of taxation that hits those on low and fixed incomes particularly hard. Those in isolated, more remote periphery locations such as East Anglia and my Waveney constituency feel the impact hardest. The car there is very much a necessity and not a luxury. In Waveney, the average monthly distance to travel to work is just over 400 miles, while in Kensington and Chelsea, where salaries are dramatically higher and where there is a far better public transport system, it is just under 210 miles.

I am acutely aware of the dilemma of those constituents who travel to work from, say, Lowestoft to Norwich—a round trip of 50 miles every day. At the moment, their commuting costs are biting savagely into their weekly budgets. Moreover, there are jobs in the leisure, tourism and care sectors where the hours of work are such that using public transport is no option whatsoever.

I am very much aware of the excellent campaigning work carried out by FairFuelUK, championed by my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon). As well as highlighting the crippling impact of fuel duty on households and businesses, it backed up its case with hard evidence. Its most recent research, carried out by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, shows that if the 3p rise goes ahead, 35,000 jobs will be placed at risk, growth will be cut by 0.1% and 40% less tax revenue than the Government had predicted will be raised. In the weeks leading up to 5 December, it is important that the Government look at this evidence very carefully.

Over the past two and a half years, the Government have pursued the right course for the British economy. There is no such place as a safe harbour in the world today, but they have taken us out of the eye of the storm. Interest rates remain low; there has been no run on the pound; and the markets are looking at other countries that have failed to put their houses in order. Plenty of obstacles remain ahead: the ongoing crisis in the eurozone; rising food prices as a result of poor harvests around the globe; and fluctuating oil prices, which have the potential to stall the recovery.

There is a concern, too, that anti-competitive practices in the petrol trade are distorting the market. It has been suggested that £30 a barrel is added through speculation. This results in consumers not paying a fair price at the pumps. It is vital that the UK economy is not exposed to such unfair profiteering. I urge the Government to ensure that the oil market is fully transparent and that a suitable supervisory framework is in place, with increased fines for market manipulation.

While it is right that we are having this debate tonight, there are fundamental flaws in the Opposition motion. First, the Government have a proven track record of listening and of understanding the impact of fuel duty

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on families and businesses. They have already delayed and cancelled increases that the previous Administration put in place. Fuel is 10p a litre cheaper than it would otherwise have been, while the Government’s policies in this area have delivered savings to families of £159 a year.

Secondly, the feedback from FairFuelUK’s meeting with my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury suggests that the Treasury is studying seriously the report produced and presented to it. I get the impression that its findings are being carefully considered and will be taken fully into account in the autumn statement.

Finally, I fear that the Opposition’s means of paying for this postponement do not stand up to scrutiny. The Government have already secured many of the savings that can be achieved through successful clamping down on tax evasion and avoidance. I fear there is nothing much left there.

I shall oppose the Opposition motion and support the amendment. In doing so, I say that the time to scrap the increase in fuel duty is in the autumn statement on 5 December. I urge the Government to do so at that time.

8.59 pm

Pamela Nash (Airdrie and Shotts) (Lab): I am disappointed that we have been forced to call this debate this evening. It shows just how out of touch with the public this Government are that they have yet to postpone January’s 3p increase in fuel tax. Dropping hints about the autumn statement is just not good enough at this stage.

I am sure that the high volume of correspondence I have received on fuel prices is replicated among Members across the Chamber, as fuel prices are now cutting into the quality of life of each of our constituents. In particular, I have been hearing from those who live in the rural and farming areas of my constituency. Rural sparsity, combined with the ongoing decline in rural bus services and a loss of local services, means that a car is a necessity in many rural areas, not a luxury. The Scottish Labour party has been calling for the re-regulation of bus services, as the Scottish Government’s policies have resulted in essential routes being unsubsidised and in many cases scrapped. Although voluntary projects such as the “Getting Better Together” project, in Shotts, and our regional transport partnership, Strathclyde Partnership for Transport, are working hard to fill the gaps, it will take direct action from the Government—to start with, by regulating our bus services—to fix this problem across the board.

The point is that the public transport infrastructure at this point is not at a level that could possibly allow the majority of people in rural communities to give up their cars without risking their quality of life and becoming increasingly isolated. The situation is becoming impossible for those who are having to decide to give up their cars, when there are little, if any, alternative forms of transport where they live. Every rise in fuel costs places a disproportionate burden on our rural communities, and now they feel that enough is enough.

It makes no sense to the Opposition that the Government, who postponed the fuel tax rise in August, seem to be ploughing ahead with this rise. Although we are cautiously

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coming out of a double-dip recession, most people have yet to feel this in their pockets. They are not yet seeing the difference in their bank statements at the end of the month. Incomes are still frozen, and the cost of essential bills continues to rocket. Those living in our towns are not escaping the assault on their standard of living, either. Increasingly, many have had to make difficult choices every day about using their car or paying other important bills.

Chapelhall, where I live, is home to many commuters. Commuters live where they can access more affordable housing, and homes are cheaper the further away they are from public transport links. Commuters also have to travel further to find jobs, as the employment market has yet to recover fully. This means that millions of commuters across the UK depend entirely on their cars to access work. Rocketing fuel costs are making work pay less.

I am particularly concerned about those of my constituents living with a disability that makes it difficult to travel. Labour introduced Motability way back in the 1970s to ensure that those living with a disability who require a car in order to travel can afford it. However, the costs are mounting for those running a car on Motability, and I have yet to hear the Government announce an increase in disability living allowance alongside the planned increase in fuel tax in order to plug the gaps caused by these additional costs. Some of the most vulnerable in our society will have to limit their car use, to the extent that it will jeopardise their chances of having a decent quality of life.

Robert Halfon: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way, and for her speech. Given what she has just said, does she not recognise that the Government increased benefits by 5% and still froze fuel duty this year?

Pamela Nash: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but the Government have taken other measures such as increasing VAT and cutting other benefits, which have had an adverse effect on the people I am speaking about. The fact that the Office of Fair Trading is conducting an inquiry into fuel prices reflects the public’s deep concern about the cost of fuel.

In press reports today, Government Back Benchers referred repeatedly to this debate as the cost of living debate; I have not heard it called the fuel duty debate at all. In his opening speech, the Minister seemed to talk about everything but fuel duty. It seems that Government Members want to talk about anything other than fuel tonight, because they know that the country is not on their side. I expected more Tory Back Benchers to be in the Chamber this evening trying to explain to their constituents why they are voting against our motion on fuel duty. I suspect that many of them are watching ITV to see their colleague in the “bug burial” in the jungle.

It is clear to Opposition Members, and to the thousands of constituents who have written to us about fuel duty in recent weeks and months, that the Government will be out of touch with the people of this country, who have been drastically affected by the increased cost of living, if they do not announce this evening the postponement of January’s fuel tax increase.

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9.5 pm

Christopher Pincher (Tamworth) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Pamela Nash). I gently point out to her that there are twice as many Government Back Benchers here tonight than Labour Back Benchers, and that is for an Opposition day debate, but we will let that one lie.

It is great pleasure to participate in this debate, and I congratulate the Opposition on tabling this motion, because it gives us all an opportunity to stand back and admire the brazen brass neck, the unbridled cynicism and the naked opportunism that characterises it. It seems that the shadow Chancellor is almost congenitally unable to stand and watch a bandwagon pass by without having the urge to jump aboard it. However, it seems that he has been overtaken with uncharacteristic modesty this evening, because he is not here; he has fallen silent. For the past few days he has been beating his chest, beating the drum and complaining about fuel duty increases, but now, this evening, he has donned the mantle of the mute. A week after Guy Fawkes night, he has lit the blue touch paper and withdrawn to a safe distance, leaving his ciphers and his sidekicks to propose and support his motion—and well he might, because we have heard a chorus of amnesia from Labour Members. We have heard them speak forgetting all they have done in the past, forgetting what they are saying while they are saying it and forgetting everything they have said when they have sat down. But we will not forget: we will not forget the meagre 75p increase in pensions; we will not forget the 12 hikes in fuel duty; and we will not forget the increase in fuel poverty between 2004 and 2009. I want to touch on that issue, because during Labour’s tenure—

Bill Esterson: According to the House of Commons Library, the proportion of a litre of fuel paid in tax rose from 59% to 75% between 1990 and 1997, whereas between 1997 and 2010 it fell back to 65%. Does the hon. Gentleman accept those figures?

Christopher Pincher: All I will confirm is that fuel duty would have increased many more times had Labour’s Budget been implemented and that 2.8 million more people fell into fuel poverty between 2004 and 2010 as a result of the policies that the Labour Government pursued. The fact of the matter is that energy prices went up on the watch of the Leader of the Opposition, when he was Secretary of State—that is all he did; he stood there and watched as millions more people fell into fuel poverty.

I am pleased to say that in my constituency fuel poverty has fallen by 5% in the past year or so, and we estimate that by 2020 it will have fallen by about 25%. Thanks to the Government introducing and increasing the cold weather payments, and thanks to the discount of about £120 a year that will help 600,000 vulnerable pensioners, these people will be better off. The Government are helping them, but it is not enough. If we try to stick sticking plaster over a problem such as fuel poverty, we will not resolve it. That is like treating pneumonia with Angiers junior aspirin. What we really need to do is get to the actual causes of fuel poverty. In the 10 years between 2000 and 2010, under the previous Labour Government, £25 billion was spent on trying to alleviate fuel poverty yet the increases in fuel prices swamped

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those measures. Now, three quarters of those who live in the most energy-inefficient homes are in fuel poverty compared with one in 20 of those living in the most energy-efficient.

If we are serious about dealing with the problem of fuel poverty and dealing with one of the greatest challenges in the cost of living, we need to get a grip on the demand side of the equation. That means ensuring that homes are properly insulated. Not only that, but they should have proper and modern boilers and smart meters so that people can for the first time take control of their energy demands and reduce them. That is what the green deal is all about.

We need also to deal with the supply side of the energy equation. A generation ago, there were 15 energy suppliers, but that number has now reduced to just six. A generation ago, energy bills were relatively straightforward but now people are confused by an array of tariffs. A generation ago, 75% of people rarely if ever switched their energy suppliers. That is still the case. If we are serious about dealing with one of the biggest challenges and biggest drains on people’s means, we need to deal with energy costs.

I hope that the Government’s proposals in the draft Energy Bill, to which I look forward, will ensure that people are put on the best and cheapest tariffs and that we invest in new nuclear and shale gas, which Labour left behind for 10 years, so that we secure our energy supply and are not exposed to international gas and hydrocarbon volatility, which has caused so much distress to bill payers over the past 10 years. The Government must also be careful in that Bill, because although we need to ensure that we have a sufficient, resilient and diverse supply of energy, we must ensure that the mechanism to deliver that capacity does not place undue burdens on the industry that will deliver it.

The industry reckons that the capacity mechanism could increase its costs, which it could pass on, by anywhere between £3 billion and £13 billion, meaning that anywhere north of £14 a year could be added to energy bills. We need to ensure that the Energy Bill does not have the perverse effect of adding to energy bills as it tries to reduce them. I hope that the Minister will pass on that message to his colleagues in the Department of Energy and Climate Change.

For the moment, let us thank the Labour party for tabling the motion and enjoy the theatre of the absurd. It is an absurd prospect: the Labour party introduced the fuel duty escalator, increased fuel duty and wanted to hike it again if it won the last election, but it is now proposing to freeze fuel duty by closing the tax loopholes that its own labyrinthine Treasury policies allowed. I am sure that the Chancellor is aware of the cost to the country of fuel duty, but I think that the country is also aware of the cost to it of the previous Labour Government—a grisly experiment that it will not want to repeat.

9.13 pm