UNCORRECTED TRANSCRIPT To be published

HOUSE OF COMMONS

REPRESENTATIONS

TAKEN BEFORE THE

BACKBENCH BUSINESS COMMITTEE

BACKBENCH DEBATES

TUESDAY 26 JUNE 2012

RIGHT HON. MR FRANK FIELD

RIGHT HON. MR MICHAEL MEACHER, STEVE BAKER and RIGHT HON. SIMON HUGHES

MR BERNARD JENKIN, GREG MULHOLLAND, PRITI PATEL and LINDSAY ROY

ROBERT HALFON and GUY OPPERMAN

Evidence heard in Public

Questions 1 - 25

USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT

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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Backbench Business Committee

on Tuesday 26 June 2012

Members present:

Natascha Engel (Chair)

Mr David Amess

Bob Blackman

Jane Ellison

Mr Marcus Jones

Ian Mearns

Right hon. Mr Frank Field made representations.

Q1 Chair: Members are more than welcome to sit at the horseshoe. I am sorry about the squash.

Frank, thank you very much for coming back. This is a bid for a debate on immigration and population. I just wanted to point out that this was a representation that you made in the last sitting of the previous Committee, which had already promised you effectively that it would schedule this. It was on the back of an e-petition that reached 100,000 signatures. You have kindly agreed to come back and make a rebid to the new Committee. So thank you very much for that.

Mr Field: Natascha, thank you very much. I give apologies from Nicholas Soames, who has an engagement that he cannot break.

You are right in the background, Natascha. We made a bid for a whole-day debate on immigration and population growth. The Committee was minded to grant us that debate, but at that point the Government had not outlined the full measures that they had promised to give the House on how they thought they could control the growth in population. Now, with Family Links, the fourth part of that strategy is complete. Therefore, we would like to apply for when you have the opportunity to grant us a full-day debate. Our application is on the basis that we have cross-party support and that in almost no time the e-petition gave us 140,000 people wanting to say no to a population of 70 million. Our motion, which was submitted then and which we submit again today, is about seeking ways for the Government to have an effective strategy so that the population is kept as near to what it is now as possible, and certainly not a strategy allowing it to go to 70 million.

Q2 Chair: Thank you very much. The other thing that I wanted to say before we started was that we actually have half a day-a three-hour slot-on 5 July. We have the pre-recess Adjournment debate, but we are minded to have the usual debate. We have a provisional two days in September. So could you let us know, in terms of timing, whether there is an absolute urgency for this, or can it wait until we come back after the summer recess?

Mr Field: I do not have my colleague here to consult. I would have thought that the September days would be more preferable.

Q3 Mr Amess: Is this a take-note debate, or would we vote on it?

Mr Field: The idea is to look seriously at the Government strategy, to engage with the new debate, because we have not had that opportunity in the House, and where necessary to get the Government to strengthen strategy. It is not to try and trip them up and to have votes and so on-we would just get voted down anyway.

Q4 Mr Jones: In relation to support for the debate, apart from yourself and Nicholas Soames, how wide-ranging is support for the debate among Back Benchers?

Mr Field: I think it is quite wide, with names such as John Mann, which I could have put down. Some of those who are appearing later would willingly add a signature to this debate as well.

Q5 Chair: It would be very helpful to us, to demonstrate that support. Is it three hours or a full day that you are asking for?

Mr Field: A full day’s debate.

Q6 Chair: Well, certainly for a full day we would need to have a demonstration that there is a lot of support for it. Thank you very much for coming back, Frank, we are very grateful.

May I call Michael Meacher, simply because he has to leave early?

Right hon. Mr Michael Meacher, Right hon. Simon Hughes and Steve Baker made representations.

Mr Meacher: This is a request for a debate on tax avoidance, by which I mean the need for a more robust crackdown, specifically on what are blatantly artificial contrivances and what George Osborne calls aggressive tax avoidance. It is obviously very topical, with, as all Members know, the cases of Jimmy Carr, Gary Barlow, Chris Hoy and, no doubt, others that the media will find. The Chancellor said in his Budget that it was morally repugnant and, only a few days ago, the Prime Minister said it was morally wrong. So the question is, what can and should be done? It is also a very important issue, because it is not just a matter of whacking off certain celebrities, it is a tax loss each year of about £40 billion-the latest figure, in 2008-09, was £42 billion-with the total in the past six years £228 billion. We are talking big figures, and it is very important, because the current deficit is about £125 billion and the tax forgone is therefore about one third of the current deficit.

In terms of breadth of interest, I am lucky enough to have drawn a private Member’s Bill-at No. 18, I don’t think it will get very far-but there are 12 names on that Bill, and I have spoken to a number of other Members in all parties who have also supported it.

Q7 Mr Amess: So you need this debate quickly to get a packed Gallery?

Mr Meacher: Well, in terms of topicality, yes. This issue does not rise to the top of the agenda very often-it has been there for a long time, but it is pretty much a hot political issue now.

May I ask my colleagues to speak, in particular Simon who has got to go shortly?

Steve Baker: I am happy to support Mr Meacher on this one, because I think, as he said, it does not come up very often, but also it is absolutely central to what we are here for-Parliament was founded in order to legitimise taxes. We need to have a very broad debate about why people have constructed these schemes, and there are other issues about the rule of law and the simplicity and levels of taxation. How should it be structured in our society? The frank hypocrisies that have emerged are indicative of the tax system’s operation in all territories. So although we are not always known for having aligned views, I certainly agree that there should be a debate.

Simon Hughes: I am very keen to support Michael. I have got an oral question on this down for the Chancellor this afternoon. From the beginning of this Government, I would say that they have seen this as an important issue, in the sense of both Budgets and both public expenditure statements. However, the timing is not just relevant because it is topical but because if we are going to have a public opportunity to debate the details of what we are talking about in time to influence the autumn statement and the Budget next year, we have to get it in early enough to get it into the slipstream to influence that effectively.

The last point is that these things are often debated in this place, but normally in the Finance Bill Committee among the cognoscenti as opposed to on the Floor of the House where they get the full glare of publicity. I am not aware we have ever had, in recent times, a detailed extended debate about what exactly we are talking about. It is very easy to make the general proposition, "We are against tax avoidance," but we need to talk through what that means to help the Government to come to a view ideally with the maximum cross-party support. That is timely and something that will enhance the reputation of Parliament by being debated as soon as is practically possible.

Q8 Jane Ellison: Actually, the previous two contributions in part answered my question, which was about understanding the nature of the range of the debate. Clearly, just saying tax avoidance is not very nice would not make for an exciting debate. It seems that what you are saying is that it will go a bit deeper than that. Do you anticipate there being a lot of different points of view being expressed and people being very robust about it?

Steve Baker: I would certainly expect that because Michael asked me to support his Bill, and I do not support it, but I do support having the conversation. It is indicative of where we are coming from. I also object to these obvious, well let us say, "taking the mickey" schemes where people are pushing the boat out. There are underlying issues that we need to talk about regarding the predictability of the tax system in relation to our behaviours. There should be quite a range of debate that goes to the heart of the matter.

Simon Hughes: I have one sentence in response to Jane’s question. Lots of constituents write to us about specific concerns about this. A broad debate gives us the opportunity to put different examples and test them, as well as compare what the Government have done and are planning to do with what other countries do. You have to be quite clever to get this right and stop people escaping HMRC. There may not be huge disagreement, but I hope that there will be lots of variants on what should be done effectively, which will make it interesting as well as useful.

Q9 Mr Jones: I think Simon partly answered what I am going to ask, but I just wanted to clarify whether you are looking for a debate in the main Chamber? If so, bearing in mind what Michael said about the need to move this forward quite quickly because of its topicality at the moment, we have three hours in Westminster Hall before the recess as well. Because it is a general debate, would it be acceptable to you to go into Westminster Hall, or are you adamant that it should be in the Chamber on the Floor of the House?

Mr Meacher: My feeling is that that is tempting, but this really is a matter of such magnitude that it should be debated on the Floor of the House, and, as Simon said, we have not had such a debate on the Floor of the House. I have been here a long time and I cannot remember one. It is very important. This issue is now one of very high public importance. There is a change in public attitudes and we need to put a marker down. This would be an excellent opportunity to do so. You cannot really do that in Westminster Hall.

Q10 Chair: May I just add to that? We have a three-hour slot before recess in the Chamber and we have a three-hour slot in Westminster Hall. If we were to offer you Westminster Hall or nothing before recess, is that something you would take or leave?

Mr Meacher: Well, I would prefer to wait. As I say, I just do not think it would have the impact in Westminster Hall that it would have on the Floor of the House. If it cannot be before recess, I would prefer to wait.

Chair: You would be participating in our campaign to raise the status of Westminster Hall, Michael.

Mr Meacher: I am sure that others will also assist in that.

Q11 Ian Mearns: Before coming to this meeting, I attended the penultimate session of the Finance Bill Committee stage. I am delighted so say that that is coming to an end some time this evening. Of course, on next Monday and Tuesday, the Finance Bill will come back to the Floor of the House. Do you not feel that there is an opportunity to discuss that very topical part of the tax and revenue collection system during those two days?

Mr Meacher: That is a possibility. I think one has to scour the Finance Bill to see if there is an appropriate place for it. You cannot just put down an amendment for general discussion. I suppose you can insert a new clause, but, again, that does not get the same attention. Unfortunately, there are usually a very few number of people who attend and there is a sort of tribal vote immediately afterwards. It does not actually engage the attention of the House in the same way that this would.

Steve Baker: To give you an indication of how it would work, I primarily intend to discuss the 2020 Tax Commission’s proposals for a single income tax rate for all income. I do not see how it could be in order in the Finance Bill to discuss that quite substantial report on wholesale tax reform. The report offers quite profound opportunities to crack down on tax avoidance, but I don’t think we can discuss that in a Finance Bill.

Q12 Ian Mearns: It is a pity you did not table that as an amendment in Committee. We would have enjoyed debating that.

Chair: Thank you.

Mr Bernard Jenkin, Greg Mulholland, Priti Patel and Lindsay Roy made representations.

Chair: Thank you for coming back, Bernard. You came to us last week, and we are grateful that you are returning with forces. For the sake of the record, will you skip through your presentation again?

Mr Jenkin: Yes, certainly, and thank you very much for inviting me back. I have submitted proper bits of paper this time, and I commend the Committee on its determination to be rigorous and persistent in the way in which it approaches its responsibilities.

I am joined by some of my colleagues on the Public Administration Select Committee, all of whom have signed the motion, and support the application for this debate, with the exception of Michael Dugher, who is a sleeping member of the Committee because he is on the Opposition Front Bench and has not yet been replaced.

This is an application for a debate on a votable motion on the Floor of the House on the role of the Prime Minister’s independent adviser on Ministers’ interests. I also have the support of Alan Beith, Chair of the Justice Committee and the Liaison Committee, Graham Allen, John Whittingdale of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Keith Vaz of the Home Affairs Committee, Andrew Tyrie of the Treasury Committee, Bill Cash of the European Scrutiny Committee, Margaret Hodge of the Public Accounts Committee, Anne McIntosh of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Graham Stuart of the Education Committee, Joan Walley of the Environmental Audit Committee, Laurence Robertson of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Andrew Miller of the Science and Technology Committee, and Hywel Francis of the Welsh Affairs Committee. I dare say that other Select Committee Chairman will add their names as I get round to them.

The motion in front of you reads:

"That this House calls on the Government to implement the recommendation by the Public Administration Select Committee at paragraph 44 of its Twenty Second Report of Session 2010-12, that the Independent Adviser on Minister’s Interests ‘should be empowered to instigate his own investigations’; and notes that this motion has been agreed by the Public Administration Select Committee."

The role of the adviser is a regular subject of controversy arising from the fact that he does not have the power at present to investigate breaches of the ministerial code without a reference to the Prime Minister. Every time the Prime Minister is confronted with this question, both he and the Minister under scrutiny are left in the most invidious position. Either the Prime Minister is accused of protecting someone from proper scrutiny or, like Julius Caesar, he is giving the thumbs down by referring the person to the independent adviser.

Our recommendation reflects a broad consensus, certainly outside Parliament, that this change should be made. The House has never expressed an opinion either on this recommendation or on the recommendation of our predecessor Committee. It is surely time that it does so. It is important that the House as a whole should express its view, and that is why the matter should be debated in the House on a votable motion.

There are no other means of securing such a debate on a votable motion, and we are asking only for three hours. On the topicality of the issue, some time has passed since the immediacy of the question surrounding certain Ministers who have been under scrutiny. Indeed, on Jeremy Hunt, the House has clearly passed an opinion, so this is not about a particular case; it is about the principle.

I want to add one thing. I appreciate that ordinary members of the public will not be petitioning in their thousands for this debate, but every time the issue of the code arises, it turns into a very unseemly spat on the Floor of the House at Prime Minister’s questions or at business questions or, indeed, what we saw in that most unpleasant debate we had a couple of weeks ago. That is an appalling advertisement for politics in general and for the House of Commons in particular. I think that the House should have an opportunity to decide whether there is a better way of dealing with these matters so that the properly responsible person has an opportunity to adjudicate on these matters before they turn into a party political spat, which does nobody any good.

Q13 Chair: May I press you on the issue of the distance in terms of time between the Opposition day debate that was specifically about a Minister and what you are talking about? It is almost an argument for saying that the greater the distance, the better, when what we are doing in looking at the value of a bid is just assessing where we can slot things in when. We have one three-hour slot between now and the recess and will almost certainly be given two days in the September sitting, when we return. Is there any strong argument to say that you must have that three-hour slot on 5 July or could the debate be scheduled in the September sitting?

Mr Jenkin: There is a balance to be struck. I am grateful for that question, Madam Chair. I think that if we leave the debate till September, the issue will have really gone off the boil and people’s attention will have been diverted elsewhere. People’s memories will not be so fresh. The topicality of this debate at this time-preferably on 5 July-is suitably distant from the immediate controversies that we have just had, but the issues will still be fresh in people’s minds and, while they are, they will recall that we don’t want to go there again and do things in that way again. I think that it is timely for the House to express a view on the principle of this issue at this time.

Lindsay Roy: May I endorse entirely what the Chairman of the PASC has said? He has set out a very clear rationale for the debate. There is cross-party support. I do not think that what has happened has reflected well on the House of Commons.

Greg Mulholland: Put simply, we have seen that there is a fundamental flaw in part of the accountability. That is what these Committees are there for and, indeed, what Parliament is there for. That failure has to be seen to be addressed quickly. I think that, to do so, we need to act before the summer recess. It is also a very exciting opportunity for all of us, because here is a votable motion on something that I think the Government would find it very difficult to disagree with and, indeed, to whip against. It is an opportunity to say, "There is a flaw, but this is a very simple way of putting it right." I think that it is an opportunity that must not be missed and must not be delayed any longer-obviously, within the time constraints that you have.

Priti Patel: I agree with all the points that have been mentioned. I think that timing is critical, in the sense that this is an opportunity not just to have the debate, but to demonstrate that Parliament is doing its job of scrutiny and oversight and, in particular, to restore integrity to this process at a time when there has been, yes, a degree of controversy and much public scepticism about some of the decisions that have been made in this respect.

Q14 Jane Ellison: Clearly, it is very important that this is done. In the last Parliament, it was not tackled. I think that there was a report in the last Parliament; and you have a fantastic array of Select Committee Chairmen. I am slightly confused by the presentation by the four of you as to the topicality versus distance debate. It seemed to me that you, Mr Jenkin, made a very powerful case the first time you came to see us that it was really important that this debate was not framed in the context of an individual Minister’s situation or fate, but that there should be a more dispassionate consideration of the process. The debate referred to feels very recent to me. There is consensus that it was an ugly debate. I just wonder whether you feel that if this is about correcting a process, then even though it would perhaps not capture as much attention, it would be better to put further distance-using your own argument-between this debate and the fate of a particular Minister, which inevitably would get wrapped up in it.

Mr Jenkin: I thoroughly understand the latter concern, but I think that if we left it until September, people would ask, "Why have you raised this now?" There comes a point when an issue goes right out of the public mind and out of the minds of colleagues. People will understand exactly why we are raising it now. I accept that there is nothing to stop colleagues raising individual cases in such a debate. I do not think however that that can absolve the House of the responsibility of addressing the issue in a timely manner-please, before another issue of the ministerial code arises before the House has a chance to address it. We are waiting for a Government response to our latest report containing the recommendation. It would be a great shame if the Government expressed their view before the House had expressed its view. Therefore, we have an obligation to ensure that the House has an opportunity to express a view in order to influence how the Government determine their response to our report.

Q15 Bob Blackman: Thank you, Bernard, for coming back-with reinforcements. Obviously you are putting forward your perspective about making this a dispassionate debate on a process issue, which is understandable. May I ask about the amount of time that you would need for such a debate? At the moment, it is listed for a half-day. We have a certain amount of time that we can allocate and I am minded to take a view. I am not sure who would argue against it in a debate on the Floor of the House of Commons, so possibly less than a half-day debate-perhaps a one-and-a-half-hour debate-might be sufficient. I am trying to tease out what issues are likely to be raised during the debate and how much interest there would be in participating.

Mr Jenkin: That is an interesting question. It depends what Government policy will be on this matter. The only indication we have had has been from the Leader of the House, who, when pressed by the Opposition, quoted back what the Opposition had said then, but did not commit the Government to a policy. I think that they are reflecting on it. I agree. There is time. If we are granted the debate today, the motion will go down today, and I should have thought that we will pretty quickly find out what the Government’s view is on the matter. If the Government are minded to accept our motion, by all means cut down the time, but I suggest that if the Government were to oppose our motion, three hours would be necessary. You have an opportunity to revisit the time next Tuesday, if the Government have given an indication before then.

Chair: That is how it is calculated anyway when it is two half-days. How the time is allocated depends on how many speakers are down for each debate.

Q16 Mr Jones: To return to Greg’s comments, I think that I probably agree with pretty much all he said, but the point was in terms of the timing of the debate. I think that you, Greg, mentioned it in relation to how the debate would be perceived by the public and to having a full and frank debate over the particular process, not over individuals. I know that you, Bernard, mentioned it as well.

Obviously, we are literally only two or three weeks from the previous debate, which turned into what you could describe as a bit of a bloodbath. It was a very unpleasant and unseemly debate, which probably did not put the House in a very good light at all with the general public. It looked as though it was a Westminster village scrap and political fight, rather than a structured and focused debate on ensuring that the process is delivered better in future. Do all Members here really think that enough water has gone under the bridge to ensure that we do not have a repeat of that next time?

Greg Mulholland: I think you make precisely the point: that was a fairly unseemly spectacle, and clearly party political posturing. The fact that this debate has been put forward by a cross-party Committee-one of the two cross-departmental Committees of the House-shows that it is very different. It is about us all putting Parliament’s house in order and addressing this flaw. Clearly, we are responding to not just that incident but the unsatisfactory situation that arose with Liam Fox. I do not think that anyone-probably not even the Prime Minister himself-thinks that the current system of the Prime Minister having to make those referrals is satisfactory. It is a flaw that could be very easily rectified. If we are not seen to respond promptly to this as the British Parliament, we will be seen as not doing our job, and the memory that people will have will be the unseemly one and the personal one, rather than the fact that this is a flaw in the system of accountability that can be very easily, simply and quickly rectified.

Q17 Jane Ellison: Just a quick follow-up, as we have a lot of business today-as you can see we have a full room. We have all sorts of interesting balancing acts to perform with the time in the next couple of weeks, as we move towards the end of the session. If you were offered a slot very early-in the first week-of the September sitting, would that be acceptable? It is important for us to know that before we go into private session.

Mr Jenkin: Obviously, if we didn’t get 5 July and were offered something in September, we would accept that, but I would make two points. First, in my experience, no two debates ever turn out to be the same, so I don’t think that the House will just rerun the debate that we had three weeks ago. It just does not happen like that.

Secondly, one of the visions of the original Wright Committee in setting up the Backbench Business Committee was that recommendations by Select Committees could be debated. I would just ask: how many Select Committee recommendations have been debated since the Backbench Business Committee was set up? There is an enormous amount of competition for the all-too-little time that you have to allocate, but if there was ever an occasion when a Select Committee recommendation should be debated, it is this one, and it should be now, because of the topicality of the issue.

I think that the House has an opportunity to determine that it will rise above what happened three weeks ago, and if it resolves to accept our recommendation, to give the Government that guidance-it is not a binding resolution in that respect-I think that the House of Commons will come well out of this, and the Backbench Business Committee would be fulfilling the vision that was set out in the Wright Committee report.

Greg Mulholland: If that happens, the rather unseemly events cannot ever happen again, because we will have an independent system. So, that’s the end of it-no more debates at all.

Chair: You may underestimate that.

That is wonderful. Thank you very much for returning. We are really grateful, because you came last week and you have come again.

Robert Halfon and Guy Opperman made representations.

Robert Halfon: Good afternoon. It is a pleasure to be in front of the Committee once again. Bernard has just asked me to remind the Committee that I am also on the Public Administration Select Committee. Although I am here with Guy Opperman, Martin Vickers has also offered his support, and Frank Field has generously offered his support for the motion, which is particularly generous given that he himself is bidding for a debate.

We are asking for a debate on fair competition, regarding the oil companies and the price of petrol and diesel, and we want Parliament to give a clear decision about whether it believes that the Office of Fair Trading should mount an investigation into cartels and unfair competition by the oil companies. The debate would consider the non-tax element-the proportion of pump prices that is not determined by fuel duty-so it is different from other debates there have been on the subject. Several other G20 economies-America, Austria and Germany-have already taken major regulatory action to deal with alleged cartels. Independent British forecourts have repeatedly said that Britain is facing price fixing from oil wholesalers and that fuel deserts are being created in rural areas, as retail forecourts are driven out of business. We are asking for a debate of three to five hours so that all Members can contribute on a votable motion in the main Chamber to ensure that the OFT, which cannot be instructed by Ministers, understands the will of Parliament on this issue.

Q18 Chair: This business came to us quite late. Therefore, I fully appreciate that the number of Members in support of this motion is quite low. Certainly, for a bid for three to five hours we would need a lot more Members to demonstrate that you could fill a debate. Did you want to add something, Guy?

Guy Opperman: May I add a few points? I accept that it is a little late, and I apologise for that. Bear it in mind that previously when Robert and others put the fuel issue before the House, there were 160s Members supporting that particular motion. This is not a debate that will be appropriate for Westminster Hall. Arising out of the previous discussion on fuel prices generally, we then had a Westminster Hall debate in which approximately 20 people spoke. In circumstances where the OFT point is almost the biggest thing to arise out of that, this is a derivation of the debate; it is not a rehash. The crucial point in relation to the OFT is that Government cannot force it act; no Government can. But, and there is a precedent for this, if Parliament sets out a motion such as the one we have here and individual Members provide evidence of price-fixing in their particular area, we will be in a position where it will be almost impossible for the OFT not to act. The whole purpose of this type of debate is exactly what the Backbench Business Committee is all about. It is about expressing the will of Parliament in a way in which the Government cannot.

Q19 Mr Jones: Guy, you have made it quite clear that you are looking for a debate in the House rather than in Westminster Hall. Bearing in mind that we only have one half-day to allocate between now and the recess, why do you think that it is critical that this matter comes before the House within that time, and why can it not wait until September to be debated?

Robert Halfon: As everyone knows, we are about to face a rise in the cost of fuel, with fuel duty going up in August. The reason that this debate has come to you late is that I only discovered recently that the Government could not initiate an OFT inquiry. Therefore, it is urgent that we put every possible pressure on the oil and diesel companies to bear their share of responsibility in order to keep down the price of petrol and diesel at the pump. As all the evidence shows, when the international oil price falls it takes a long time to push that price down to the motorist.

Q20 Ian Mearns: Just to be devil’s advocate, Robert and Guy, there is likely to be an Opposition amendment regarding the 3p hike on the fuel duty. You could always support that as a first move. I know that for you, Guy, this is a very different principle from the VAT on ambulances. It is important that there is an investigation if there is a belief out there that the oil companies are acting as cartels, even in local distribution networks. It is at not just at the macro level, but at the regional levels where this kind of price fixing can take place.

Guy Opperman: If I may deal with that particular point. There is a precedent for this type of work by Parliament. You will be aware that in the north-east we have 24% fuel poverty. We have repeatedly attacked the oil companies that provide heating oil. As a result of a series of debates in Parliament, and the work of Parliament, the OFT eventually did specifically investigate remote communities and the cost and competition issues on heating oil. We see it as a totally natural extension to persuade the OFT to investigate the price and the competition cartel basis of oil, petrol and fuel.

Robert Halfon: I think no one in this Committee or outside this room could doubt my position on the August tax rise, but I want first to say that this will probably come under BIS matters rather than Treasury issues. Secondly, we need to make a distinction. One argument has always been that it is not just the Government but the oil companies that bear their fair share of responsibility. It is they that are operating an unfair competition.

Guy Opperman: It is dealing with the problem from both ends of the telescope. Everybody accepts that Government has some tax on petrol, to a greater or lesser degree. Governments can argue about the height or lowness of that particular tax, but it also addresses the fact that a significant proportion of the cost to the consumer comes from the cost provided by the individual oil companies.

Q21 Bob Blackman: I have two quick points. Have you raised the issue with the OFT to ask for an investigation? What has been its response?

Guy Opperman: It has been done, and it cannot be forced to do so.

Q22 Bob Blackman: I understand that it cannot be forced to, but what does it say about doing it?

Robert Halfon: As Guy said, I secured a debate on this in Westminster Hall, and other MPs have raised it. We have written to the OFT, and have had some very nice Sir Humphrey replies. We need to show the OFT clearly that MPs are concerned about the issue. With the will of Parliament-that is why it must be a votable motion-I think the OFT will be forced into action.

Guy Opperman: MPs can specifically provide evidence, which is exactly what we did on the fuel price for heating oil. We can say, "In my constituency, there is evidence of x, y and z." That is where the crucial difference is.

Q23 Bob Blackman: The other issue is that pump prices are declared on the road. You can see the signboards; funnily enough, whatever area you go to, they are remarkably similar, but they may differ from one area to another. Supermarkets say openly that they run loss leaders on fuel to attract customers. Is that part of the investigation, without rehearsing the debate? I am just going for the scope and breadth of the debate that you are likely to want to have.

Robert Halfon: It can be summed up in two words: unfair competition. That is what we want the OFT to look into.

Q24 Jane Ellison: We have a lot of bids and not much time. We have not yet decided what we will do. We are almost certainly going to be given the last afternoon for the pre-recess Adjournment debate. We have not always gone down the traditional route, and we have not yet discussed it with the Committee. Maybe we could mix and match. It would be really helpful for us to know: if by any chance a slot can be found on that last afternoon, ahead of the August price rises, would lots of rural MPs stay to contribute to it?

Guy Opperman: Not just rural-all MPs. We will be ready, and we will take it. If you only give us two and a half hours, because we know how Thursdays pan out, so be it.

Jane Ellison: This would be Tuesday the 17th.

Robert Halfon: I had a half-hour debate in Westminster Hall. If you look in Hansard, 20-odd MPs came. I let everyone intervene who turned up to that debate. The Chair of the debate said that she had never seen so many interventions in a half-hour Westminster Hall debate.

Guy Opperman: It is not just rural; everyone is affected.

Q25 Chair: Okay. I will bring this to a close. We understand that you are saying that the topicality is pre-August, so you are looking for something before the summer recess. That is great. Thank you very much for coming.

Prepared 4th July 2012