“Member States may apply either one or two reduced rates…The reduced rates shall apply only to supplies of goods or services in the categories set out in Annex III.”
That annex does not include road fuel, and other amending articles do not permit a reduced rate or exemption to be applied to transport fuel. That in is European Council directive 2006/112/EC of 28 November 2006 on the common system of value added tax, at article 98 and annex III.
Charlie Elphicke: In the light of what my hon. Friend has just said, is not the motion before the House a shamelessly opportunistic preying on the justly held fears of the British people about the cost of fuel?
Justine Greening: That is absolutely what it is, and it is something else as well—it is a smokescreen. The Labour party has no plan whatever to tackle the deficit, and this Opposition day debate is all about trying to divert attention from that. It had no plans when it was in government, and it has no plans now it is in opposition.
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Sajid Javid: One of the most important components of the cost of living is the interest rate, which in turn determines mortgage rates. Does my hon. Friend agree that, because of the action this Government have taken, Britain today has a lower interest rate than countries in Europe that have far higher deficits? That is the very action that the shadow Minister sought to criticise.
Justine Greening: One of the problems is that the Labour party and the shadow Chancellor do not even accept that there is a structural deficit. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out that the steps we are taking to tackle the deficit and bring our public finances back under control and into a sustainable shape, so that we can fund public services affordably for the long term, will give us a much better chance of keeping interest rates and inflation low. That is critical to ensuring that we can support our economy more broadly.
Justine Greening: I am sure the hon. Gentleman was quite happy trotting through the Aye Lobby when his party brought forward its 12 fuel duty rises and the Budget in which it announced a further six. His question is particularly disingenuous because at that time the Conservative party was campaigning against unreasonable and unfair rises in such things as road tax. The Labour party paid no attention and continued to hammer motorists again and again.
Justine Greening: I shall answer the hon. Gentleman, who is hectoring from a sedentary position. When his party was in government, it knew all about raising taxes. In fact, it formed the ultimate tax-and-spend Government, who got us into such a situation that their final Chief Secretary wrote a note saying that there was no money left. I really do think that if the Labour party wants to be taken seriously on the economy, it must start living in the real world instead of the fantasy world that it currently finds itself in, particularly in relation to EU VAT directives.
Mr Speaker: Order. I apologise for interrupting the Minister. I said to the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) a few minutes ago that he was making an excessive noise—[ Interruption. ] That was my best effort at the pronunciation of his important constituency. However, my remonstrance extends more widely. The debate has been notably scratchy, and it needs to calm down a bit from now on.
The Government are taking steps to help the poorest and most vulnerable in our society. From April this year, we are raising the income tax personal threshold by £1,000, taking nearly 900,000 of the lowest-income workers in our country out of tax altogether.
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We are increasing child tax credits above the rate of inflation, giving lower-earning families an extra £210 over the next two years. Of course, poorer families will still receive more in child credits than they received under the previous Government, and, as I said, lower earners will be better off as a result of this Government’s changes to the personal allowance.
Caroline Lucas: Will the Minister explain how it is compatible for a Government who claim to be the greenest ever to duck this opportunity to introduce a shift to green taxation—in other words, to keep the fuel duty escalator but to reduce other taxes accordingly?
Justine Greening: The hon. Lady’s point is about how to strike the balance between achieving environmental change and managing to raise revenues for the Exchequer to fund public services, which I am sure she agrees need the right level of funding. I think we have got the balance right in our approach to fuel duty and VAT on fuel. The challenge is that if we do not go ahead with the previous Government’s increases, we could fundamentally damage our ability to tackle the deficit. This Government are constrained purely because of the terrible financial situation that the previous Labour Government handed over to us.
One of the many things that this Government are doing to help people in Britain—it is the last one I will mention—is changing the state pension. The shadow Chancellor knows all about that, because he was chief economic adviser to the Chancellor who later became Prime Minister in the previous Government when he proposed increasing pensions by 75p. Many thought at the time that that was a real slap in the face for pensioners.
This Government have gone further than the previous one ever did. We have already introduced proposals to re-establish the earnings link, and introduced the triple-lock guarantee, so that each and every year the basic state pension will increase by the greater: earnings, prices or 2.5%. Of course, when things improve—when inflation comes back down below 2%, which is the Bank of England’s aim, and when the economy recovers from the years of Labour’s irresponsibility—those in retirement will still have higher pensions, poorer families will still receive more in tax credits, and lower earners will still be better off as a result of our changes to personal allowances. Those are real, credible, long-term policies that will stand the test of time, not half-baked initiatives conjured up over a weekend that do not last even the course of a single debate.
That brings me on quite nicely to the impact of the rising cost of fuels. Opposition Members know all about that, because as we have heard, the previous Government increased fuel duty four times in their last 16 months in office.
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Justine Greening: Absolutely. They left many tax bombshells, but perhaps that pre-planned tax increase was the tax road mine. There was a pre-planned additional per pence increase on fuel and a pre-planned year-on-year RPI increase—the so-called escalator. Ironically and utterly bizarrely, we are today debating a Labour motion that goes against the policy introduced by the previous Labour Government.
Richard Graham (Gloucester) (Con): Given that I and several Conservative Members were not in the House for Labour’s last Budget, will the Minister confirm whether the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) and her colleagues on the Opposition Front Bench voted for the seven increases in fuel duty proposed by the Chancellor at that time?
Mr Russell Brown: I thank the hon. Lady for giving way—at the end of the day, she is a fair person. She talks about the increases imposed by the previous Labour Government, but she must also recognise that on 11 occasions over a nine-year period, they saw fit to suspend or abandon any proposed increases simply because of the rising price of fuel. I sincerely hope that she and her colleagues remember that in the light of the motion.
Justine Greening: The hon. Gentleman is talking about postponements, because those fuel duty increases eventually came through. That is one reason why in their final months in office—from December 2008 to April 2010—the previous Government increased fuel duty no fewer than four times.
Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): The Minister quite rightly highlights in her amendment the previous Government’s fuel duty increases, but the motion recognises that people are feeling pain now, and holds out the hope that the Government will do something about fuel duty. Rather than talk about what the previous Government did, will she tell us what she intends to do to alleviate the hardship for people in places such as Northern Ireland?
Justine Greening: I shall not pre-empt next week’s Budget, but the hon. Gentleman knows that both parties in the coalition Government spoke in opposition about the effect of fuel duty on motorists. Conservatives spoke in opposition about how the oil price fed through into fuel prices at the pump, and Liberal Democrats talked about the impact of fuel prices on people living in remote rural areas. The coalition Government are now looking at how to tackle both those problems, but I cannot pre-empt the Budget.
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high, they have actually increased fuel duty twice—once in October and once in January—since getting into power?
Justine Greening: Listening to the Opposition is stunning. The outgoing Chief Secretary’s message to the incoming Government was that there was no money left. Worse than that, the previous Government had pre-planned increases, which were due to come in now, as the hon. Lady just pointed out. The bottom line is that it is outrageous for the Labour party to cry crocodile tears about tax increases that it had planned—it is disingenuous in the extreme, and shows that it has no credibility and no leadership on the issues that matter to people, such as motoring, which we are debating today. The audacity of the motion is stunning.
Let me turn—as I was about to—to the Opposition’s proposal to cut VAT on fuel. [ Interruption. ] The shadow Chancellor is hectoring from a sedentary position, and I think the reason is that he is worried that we are about to talk about his policy—a policy that unravelled within hours of his announcing it. He has come late to the debate on motoring. Obviously he spent many years being driven around in a Government car that the taxpayer paid for. I understand that it was reported in the papers that he used to use it for journeys of just 100 yards. Perhaps he was not aware at that point of how much it cost people to fill up their cars, but perhaps he knows now, and perhaps that is why he has suddenly realised that this is an issue, as we did in opposition. He has come to this debate late, but his policy-making suggestions are, to put it bluntly, illegal under EU law.
It is quite an achievement to make a proposal along those lines. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) , the shadow Chancellor is quite wrong to say that we can reverse the VAT rise on fuel, because doing so would be illegal under the EU VAT directive. However, if the right hon. Gentleman thinks that the UK operates under a different VAT directive, perhaps he would like to intervene on me right now. [ Interruption. ] I think we have established that there is only one EU VAT directive, and his proposal is illegal under that directive. The other big flaw in his argument—[ Interruption. ] Does he want to intervene?
Ed Balls: When we have only one reduced rate, but Italy, France and Poland have three reduced rates, and when the French President secured a VAT rate cut for French restaurants, is the hon. Lady really saying that she is going to hide behind European law and fail to stand up for the British motorist? Is that really what she is saying?
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Justine Greening: If the right hon. Gentleman just calms down for a second, I will answer him; if he then wants to intervene on me, he can do so. However, if he is that desperate to get in on this debate, perhaps he should have opened it instead of his hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle).
The right hon. Gentleman is right to point out that across Europe different products have different VAT rates. Some are exempt from VAT, some have a zero rate, some have a reduced rate and some have a standard rate. Indeed, he should be well aware of that because he was an economic adviser at the Treasury the last time the negotiations that he referred to started. In fact, they took six years. He mentioned President Sarkozy’s determination to secure a reduced VAT rate for restaurants, which is indeed what he did. However, in that renegotiation of the rules governing which products would be in which categories and which would no longer have standard VAT rates, I am not aware of the UK Government at any stage pressing for anything other than the standard rate to apply to road fuel. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman can confirm that: yes or no?
Ed Balls: At no point did we apply for a special reduced VAT rate for road fuel, and the reason was that we never raised VAT on fuel. The people who have raised VAT are this Government. Can the Minister confirm that it is entirely in her gift and that of the Chancellor, who is not here, and the Chief Secretary, who has not turned up either, to apply for a derogation to reverse their mistaken increase in VAT? They have not done so and will not, but they could if they wanted to stand up for the British motorist.
Justine Greening: I do not think the right hon. Gentleman even believes that himself. The bottom line is that he wants—[ Interruption. ] The shadow Chief Secretary says that we need to take action now, but he wants us to embark on a process that took six to seven years the last time it happened. How is that taking action now?
“minor repairing of bicycles, shoes and leather goods, clothing and household linen”.
Window cleaning was also one, and hairdressing was another. The Government at that time—a Government of whom the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls) was part—did not seek to add road fuel to that list. He says that that was because the previous Government never raised VAT on fuel. That is not strictly true, of course: they reduced it, but then put it back up again, as we have heard. The other reason was that, year on year—and, in the final stages, month on month—they were consistently raising fuel duty, so they had no need to use VAT as a tool. They were getting plenty of additional tax from the motorist.
Mr Aidan Burley (Cannock Chase) (Con):
The last Government might not have increased VAT, but they certainly increased fuel duty. When Labour came to power in ’97, duty on unleaded petrol was 36p a litre; when the last Government left office in 2010, it had
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risen to 57.9p a litre. Does my hon. Friend think that Labour Members should take some responsibility for increasing fuel duty by more than 20%?
Mr Brown: I am indebted to the hon. Lady, but may I just put the record straight? When Labour came to power in 1997, the duty and tax left by the previous Conservative Government accounted for 74%; when we left office, duty and tax accounted for 65%.
Justine Greening: And a huge fiscal deficit and debt to boot, so we will take no lectures from the Labour party. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can discuss with the shadow Chancellor how he thinks the huge deficit that his party left our country—it costs us £120 million a day to service our debt interest—should be addressed. The elephant in the room, which we have not talked about so far today because it is not in the Opposition’s motion, is how they would tackle the deficit. The answer is that they would not tackle it, which is why it is so lucky that Labour is not in government at the moment.
Justine Greening: I will not give way to any more Opposition Members, and I will tell the House exactly why. This is not the first time that there has been an opportunity to debate fuel duty rises: last month a Conservative MP had a debate in Westminster Hall. The reason the Opposition have now gone quiet is that they probably did not know that that debate was due to take place, but if they did, it is even more disgraceful. How many Opposition Members turned up to participate in that debate and represent their constituents?
Justine Greening: Absolutely none, so all this is nothing more than political opportunism in advance of the Budget, and it is incredibly poor quality opportunism too, because the Opposition have made a proposal that is impossible to implement and is utterly flawed in every respect.
The other reason why the Opposition’s proposal is flawed is that they say in their motion that they would pay for the proposal with receipts from the bank levy. The first thing to say about that is that we introduced a bank levy—something that Labour never managed to do—but, secondly, we brought forward the rate at which it would fully kick in early, because the banks were doing better and therefore could afford it. The money is a one-off additional revenue stream that we are getting a year earlier, but the Opposition are so economically
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illiterate that they want to use it to fund a long-term, permanent tax reduction on fuel. Looking at their faces, I do not think they necessarily realise that yet, so as well as their proposal being illegal, their figures do not add up.
To finalise my comments, it is only this Government who are serious about helping British motorists. We tasked the Office for Budget Responsibility with investigating the impact of oil price fluctuations on the economy and we are actively considering proposals for a fair fuel stabiliser.
Motorists deserve better than a VAT proposal on fuel that everyone knows is completely unrealistic and unworkable. It is disingenuous of the Opposition to suggest it, and it is unaffordable, given the economic mess that we inherited. They want a derogation that would be unsuccessful and take six to seven years to implement. We are talking about taking action to tackle the cost of living now. That is the choice facing the House today. At the end of the day, we all know that this motion is just a smokescreen, and that the Opposition have no plans whatever to tackle the deficit. Yet again, they have missed a chance to be credible on the economy. Yet again, they have failed to show any leadership on their solutions to the big problems facing Britain today. I sincerely hope that the House will vote against their motion, because it is one of the lowest-quality and most disingenuous motions that we have debated on the Floor of the House recently.
Fiona O’Donnell (East Lothian) (Lab): I am genuinely grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate. The increase in VAT has been a matter of great concern to my constituents and I am unashamedly going to concentrate on how it is affecting them.
Barbara Keeley (Worsley and Eccles South) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, as the Minister did not. The Minister talked about living in the real world, but I am sure that we on the Opposition Benches know more about that than she does. I am sure that my hon. Friend’s constituents will be struggling with the £450 a year increase—
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. The hon. Lady has just made an accusation about what I do or do not know about living in the real world. That goes beyond what I think is a personal comment. She has no understanding of what I do or do not understand. I can assure her that I get on the
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District line every day to come into work and I know exactly what is going on in the real world. I only wish that the Opposition did.
East Lothian is a largely rural constituency made up of small gatherings of communities that rely heavily on the use of their cars. I suspect that the hundreds of e-mails that I have received over the past few weeks will now be followed by hundreds more, as my constituents will be bitterly disappointed by the Minister’s utterly sterile contribution to the debate.
The e-mails that I have received have not been the standard campaign e-mails that many of us find in our inboxes every day. I have been genuinely moved and angered by the stories that they have told. They have been from motorists, some of them older people living on pensions, people surviving on disability living allowance—Lord knows, they have enough to worry about under this Government—or people stuck on fixed incomes. This rise in the cost of fuel is hitting them hard.
I have also had e-mails from employers in my constituency. East Lothian relies heavily on small employers, but they are struggling. Two have already told me that their businesses will close this month, and that is bad news for East Lothian and for my constituents. We are promised that we will have a Budget for growth next week, but in East Lothian, the Government’s policy is not working; it is going in the opposite direction.
Mr Reid: Like the hon. Lady, I represent a rural constituency and, like her, I agree that we need action on fuel prices now. However, we need action in the Budget next week, not in the six years it would take for this Labour motion to be implemented.
Fiona O’Donnell: I am sure that all my constituents will feel so much better after hearing that intervention. They do not want to hear the hon. Gentleman’s political point scoring and opportunism; they want to hear what the Government are going to do for hard-working families, for pensioners and for those with disabilities in my constituency.
I have had e-mails from people who have lost their jobs. People living in East Lothian need to be able to keep their cars on the road in order to access the services that will help them get back into work, to turn up for job interviews and to get out there to find and keep a job. I have also had e-mails from people who have been struggling throughout the past few years. I am going to admit that, for those on fixed incomes, times have been difficult, but the message is now clear that, under this Government, they are getting tougher.
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place. The Scottish National party—I see that its Members have now deserted us—moved down to fourth. Before the Tories get too excited, however, I should point out that that result involved a 0% swing from Labour. Many of the people who have contacted me voted for the Tories at the election, and I am representing them today without fear or favour. They want to know when the Government are going to deliver for them. If the Government will not listen to me or to those on our Front Bench, I urge them to listen to my constituents.
I know that the first questions that my constituents would want me to ask today are, “Where is the Chief Secretary to the Treasury?” and “Where is the Chancellor of the Exchequer?” They will be insulted that the Chancellor and the Chief Secretary have not had the guts to turn up and take part in this debate and to answer my constituents’ questions. I have something of interest to tell the House. I went to the same school as the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. The right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Mr Kennedy) also went to that school, and he has remarked to me, “That’s now one of us from each of the political parties.” I am particularly disappointed that the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who represents a rural constituency, does not see the impact that the increase in fuel prices is having.
I try hard not to be judgmental about the Conservatives, and I try hard not to make the kind of comments that the Minister finds so harsh. But when they talk about the tough choices that they face in government, I have no sympathy for them. I am sick and tired of hearing them talk about that. Being in government and having a chance to reach out to families in East Lothian is not what is tough in life; what is tough for people is working out how they are going to fill up their car at the Co-op in Tranent next weekend in order to keep their family on the road. That is what is tough.
Mr Speaker rightly criticised the hon. Member for Burnley (Gordon Birtwistle) for bringing an electronic device into the Chamber. I presume that the hon. Gentleman has been running around for the past half hour trying to find a printer somewhere on the estate. I have gone to the trouble of printing off a couple of the representations that I have received from my constituents, and I should like to read them out to the House. One comes from Alec Flynn in Tranent, who says of the fuel price rise:
“We are a small family road haulage business…and we would like your support to fight the price the government plan to put on in the budget”.
Perhaps I have some responsibility here. I have not formally congratulated the Government on winning the general election, so perhaps it is my fault that they have not grasped the fact that they are now in government. They are in a position to change their minds, to lower the VAT rate on fuel and to make a difference to Mr Flynn and to ensure that the people he employs continue to have jobs. I suspect that Mr Flynn
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will remain disappointed, however. We were certainly not planning to increase VAT or to make life even more difficult for people.
“My husband and I are senior citizens. We live in a farm cottage 2.5 miles outside Haddington”.
Let me summarise by saying that the rising costs of motoring are making it virtually impossible for them to leave their house. I hope that at some point during this debate we will hear some words of comfort from a Government who have let down my constituency.
I am glad that the Opposition have chosen the subject of fuel prices, as it is an issue that affects all our constituents and MPs of all parties have already urged the Government to take action. I have signed cross-party early-day motions 1252 and 1241, which call for progress on a fair fuel stabiliser. Along with colleagues of all parties, I have also supported the Federation of Small Businesses in its campaigns. There is a great deal of ground for cross-party consensus on this issue. We all recognise that the cost of living is rising and that fuel prices play an important part in it. We all recognise that the soaring costs of petrol and diesel have knock-on effects on the price of everything—from food and clothing and the cost of getting to work to the cost of educating children.
Mr Chuka Umunna (Streatham) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman is right to refer to the rising cost of living. The big difference between now and a few months ago is, in many ways, the rate of inflation. The Governor of the Bank of England has been clear that he has no way of further loosening monetary policy right now. The talk before Christmas was about such further loosening, perhaps with a further round of quantitative easing. That is clearly no longer an option, which means that the only option is to alter fiscal policy, yet we have heard not a single word from the Minister to suggest that there will be any change in fiscal policy. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that the Government are right to sit on their hands when they are in a position to act to relieve the burden on people like my constituents?
Mr Walker: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that long intervention, but we are likely to hear what action the Government are planning in the Budget next week, which I would not want to pre-empt at this stage, so I shall continue with my argument.
There would be no disagreement about the underlying premise of today’s motion—that fuel prices drive up the cost of living. We can legitimately debate the action that Governments are able to take. Like many other Members, I believe the Government should take action on fuel prices by introducing a fair fuel stabiliser and by looking at whether they can put off any increase in fuel duty
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suggested under the last Government’s escalator policy. It is vital to take into account the real impact on the cost of living but, perhaps even more importantly, the cost to the economy of the rising price of petrol at the pumps.
In fact, having read the detailed response of the Office for Budget Responsibility to the Government’s initial suggestion of a fair fuel stabiliser, I believe that it strongly makes the case for intervention in the fuel price. What the OBR showed was that, contrary to the belief that Government revenues rise as a result of higher fuel prices, the depressing effect on the economy, output and therefore tax receipts, along with the impact on inflation, mean that in the long term, Government net revenues are hurt by higher prices. While that might make more challenging the worthy aim of coming up with a revenue-neutral stabiliser, it clearly shows that success in limiting fuel price rises will bring long-term dividends to Government in terms of tax receipts and lower inflation. The real lesson of the OBR’s report is that the Government need to act on fuel prices, through the fuel duty, to avoid a substantial loss of revenue through economic growth. I am confident that that lesson will be taken into account when we receive next week’s Budget—a Budget for growth in the UK.
I know that the Government have already promised action in remote and rural areas, which I welcome, but I represent an urban constituency that has also been badly affected by rising prices, so I want to remind the Government of the need for action everywhere. As a county town, Worcester’s economy is affected by high fuel prices in rural areas, but our city suffers from higher prices than many other urban areas around it.
My constituents have often pointed out that there is a substantial differential of around 5p a litre between prices in Worcester and prices in Gloucester or Birmingham, just a short drive away. Driving as regularly as I do between Westminster and Worcester in my small diesel car, I feel this price differential very directly and often find it is as cheap to fill up at a motorway service station as it would be in my own constituency. The website petrolprices.com quotes prices as high as £1.45 a litre of diesel in Worcester today compared with an average of £1.39 in Gloucester just 28 miles away or £1.38 in Birmingham. I therefore urge Ministers to look into the differential pricing around the country, whereby some areas, whether urban or rural, pay much more for their fuel, and to assess what can be done to address the problem.
I certainly accept that people in rural areas have greater need for their cars, but I urge Ministers to accept that action on fuel prices across the board will benefit the whole economy. We have seen in previous fuel crises that when fuel prices spike, economic growth slows down, both globally and domestically.
I therefore support taking action on the cost of fuel, but I do not support this Opposition motion, which I believe is poorly targeted and opportunistic. It hits the wrong target in focusing on the impact of VAT and only touching lightly on the far more significant issue of fuel duty. Perhaps that is because the Labour party did so much to encourage the escalation of fuel duty when it was in power. As the Government amendment points out, the Labour Government planned for six consecutive
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fuel duty rises up to 2014 on top of the 12 increases they made when they were in power. It is fair to say that those increases, like the introduction of the fuel duty escalator under the Conservatives, were made in a different environment from today’s, when the uncertainty in the middle east is adding to the upward pressure on prices. There has been no indication, however, that Labour has shifted from its ideological attachment to ever-higher duties on fuel, which rose from 36p to nearly 58p when they were in government, with Labour Members boasting that they left the duty intact at 65% of the cost of fuel at the end of their term.
It is cynical and opportunistic for a party whose last Chancellor laid the groundwork for the increase in VAT to be lashing out at its implementation, and it is beyond the bounds of belief that Labour Members should want to earmark all the proceeds of a bank levy they failed to make on to a rebate they know they could not have given—even if they had been in power. It is even more astonishing, when they have already suggested other plans to spend this levy many times over through opposing changes to child benefit, that they suggest funding more capital spending and reversing changes to tax credits. The Opposition motion has no credibility on this very important issue.
I urge the Government to act on fuel prices, but I urge them to do so through a fair fuel stabiliser on which there is a broad political consensus, and through looking at the broader case for changes in fuel duty to reflect the economic circumstances of today.
Ian Murray (Edinburgh South) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), who talked about disingenuous and spurious policies. I am sure it was disingenuous to promise not to increase VAT before the general election and then to increase it immediately after it. There is nothing more disingenuous than lying to the electorate.
I would like to follow my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Fiona O'Donnell) in talking about some of the personal stories that have been brought to my attention and which relate to the Opposition motion.
My constituents wrote to ask me to bring their stories to the House and put them directly to the Chancellor and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, so I am disappointed that neither of them is in their place. It shows a real disregard for this place when those two senior Ministers are not present to debate such an important issue. Of course the two Ministers on the Treasury Bench are among my favourites, but it would have been nice for my constituents to have had a response directly from the horse’s mouth.
Let us examine what fuel price rises are doing to the cost of living. I shall start with the case of a constituent in Edinburgh South who runs a small business. Let us look at what these particular fuel increases are doing to growth in the economy; in so doing, I shall echo some of the points made by the hon. Member for Worcester. My constituent runs a business in the service sector, so she uses a lot of suppliers. However, suppliers’ price
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increases are going through the roof, mainly because of additional fuel costs. She told me that some of her suppliers were charging as much as an additional £5 per delivery to cover their own increased fuel charges. My constituent faces a dilemma of what to do about that £5 increase. Should she pass it on to her customers? She finds doing so difficult. Why? Her problem is compounded by the fact that VAT has increased from 17.5% to 20%, which has also impacted directly on prices to her customers.
Barbara Keeley: My hon. Friend makes the important point that this debate is about the cost of living, as well as about fuel prices. He also rightly raises the problem faced by businesses in deciding whether to pass the increases on to their customers. My constituents live in one of the 15 most deprived areas in the country. They have an appalling bus service after the network was privatised by the Conservatives. People in that situation, like my hon. Friend’s constituents, will suffer both from increased costs from fuel charges and from having to pay £450 a year in increased VAT. Does he agree that our constituents are suffering heinously from that?
Ian Murray: Of course. The poorest suffer disproportionately because they have to use public transport and face the increased costs, while also having to pay more in VAT for all the supplies they buy. Prices are going up because small business issues, such as the one I am highlighting from my constituency, further compound the problem. I noticed that the Economic Secretary was upset when my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) suggested that she did not live in the real world, but we are talking about what is happening in the real world and I do not think that the Minister’s 40-minute contribution dealt with any of the real issues for our constituents that are happening at the coal face.
The owner of the small business that I mentioned is faced with a dilemma, but it seems that she must increase prices at a time when consumer confidence is at its lowest. People are worried about their jobs, they are worried about prices going through the roof, they are worried about commodity prices, and they are worried about how they are to fill up the family car. It is a quadruple whammy for businesses, which, as I have explained, face increased core costs as well as increased supplier costs, increased prices owing to the VAT rise, and increased borrowing costs. All that is creating unstable consumer demand, which, I am told by small firms in my constituency, is depressing their businesses.
On Friday I was visited by someone who works as a middle manager at Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. He has two small children, he is not a high earner by any means, and he and his wife live in my constituency. He described to me plainly how he has been affected by what the Government have done in the past 10 months. It is clear that he is being squeezed from all angles because of this Government, and fuel and the cost of living are part of that. Let me go through the list. He faces increased national insurance contributions, the increase in VAT to 20%, and the fact that his pension will be linked to the consumer prices index rather than the retail prices index, along with the additional pension contributions that he must make. He faces tuition fees for his children, he has lost his child benefit because he is the sole earner in the relevant bracket, and he faces record commodity prices.
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Mr Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful speech about the impact of high fuel prices on his constituents and mine. Like him, I should like to see action from the Government, but will he tell us what he would do to secure the reduction in the deficit to which all the tax rises are contributing? I understand that, because of the legacy of the last Government, the present Government’s net debt will rise in every year of the current Parliament—that, in the final year of this Parliament, we shall still be borrowing more money because of the deficit left to us by the last Government. We should love to be given some idea of how, in the real world, we could both make the savings and deliver the benefit.
Ian Murray: I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has managed to ingrain himself with the propaganda being put out by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties about the deficit. He has given me a wonderful opportunity to go back to the start of that list so that he can take it all in.
There is no doubt that the Government’s cuts in public services are going too far, too fast and too deep. Everyone knows that the deficit must be reduced, but reducing it over time would protect my constituents from the ideological cuts that the Government are introducing under the veil of the deficit.
Let me return to what is happening to that squeezed middle manager at HMRC. He faces increased national insurance contributions and an increase in VAT to 20%. His pension will be cut because it will be linked to CPI instead of RPI. He faces tuition fees for his two children. He has lost his child benefit because he is a higher-rate taxpayer, and record commodity prices are pushing up food prices. He faces a high inflation rate, partly owing to the increase in VAT to 20%. His salary has been frozen. He has job insecurity. He faces increased energy prices, increased borrowing costs and lower interest on his savings, all because of this Government. Moreover—this brings us back to the motion—the price of fuel means that the cost of filling up the family car has gone through the roof. The Chancellor of the Exchequer is taking an extra £59 million from the Scottish people because of the increase in VAT, which is directly related to the cost of the fuel that they put in their cars.
What are we left with? We are left with a broken promise from the Government on VAT, and a broken promise on the fuel duty stabiliser. Many people in East Lothian and Edinburgh South voted for the Conservatives because they had made that promise before the election. Time after time, promises made to ordinary people in my constituency and throughout the country are broken, and it is about time that Ministers did something about it.
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who made a passionate if somewhat partisan speech. The Opposition’s problem is that out there in the country no one believes a word that they say about this topic. We all know of their record during 13 years of government, but, just in case a reminder is needed, let me point out that when they took office in 1997 the price of a litre of unleaded petrol was about 56p, which included 43p of duty and VAT. When they left office nearly a year ago, the price was about £1.20 a litre, including tax amounting to about 75p. We hear talk of fuel duty rising “ahead of inflation” or “in real terms”, but if the price of petrol had risen in line with RPI throughout Labour’s term of office, it would have been 80p a litre at the last election rather than £1.20. That is the hike that we have all had to suffer.
As the contents of my inbox make very plain, fuel price rises are a real problem for people and businesses throughout my constituency. In many areas people have no alternative to driving a car if they want to go to work, but the fuel price rises are preventing them from being able to afford to go to work—let alone the damage that they are doing to all manner of small businesses all over the constituency. The Government must take action in next week’s Budget.
Andrew Bingham: As a fellow Derbyshire Member, I agree with everything that my hon. Friend is saying. Does not the rural character of both his constituency and mine, High Peak, exacerbate the pressures and difficulties experienced by small businesses, in particular?
The hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann), who is no longer in the Chamber, said that all Governments had chosen to increase fuel duty over the years. We must accept that it was our Government who, nearly 20 years ago, introduced the fuel duty escalator, but the aim then was to encourage people to improve their behaviour by driving smaller and more fuel-efficient cars and considering alternative means of transport. I think we can tell the Government that we have all got that message. Many of us have started using diesel and have bought cars with smaller engines in an attempt to cut our spending on fuel. I know that many of my constituents have done that. However, the scope for such measures is limited, as many people still cannot afford to drive a car. If the nudge is the order of the day, I think that we have got the message and do not need any more nudging.
Fiona O'Donnell: I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we too have got the message from the Government, who claim that they want to make work pay. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that for many working people, fuel price increases mean that work is not paying?
Nigel Mills: I am grateful for that intervention—I think. The cost incurred in driving to and from work is clearly a factor when people are deciding whether work pays, which is why the increase planned for 1 April really should not go ahead.
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Let me return to the topic of nudging. I think we all accept that tax can influence behaviour, and that if we further increase the tax on driving we will see the changes in behaviour that we would expect. People will drive to work less, and businesses will not be able to survive, prosper and grow because they will not be able to cope with the increased cost base. We can all cite small haulage businesses in our constituencies that are struggling to deal with the duty rise. As has been pointed out, reversing the VAT rise will not help those businesses at all; it is the level of duty that we need to consider. If the Government want to find another way of raising some revenue from the haulage industry to help compensate for the loss of fuel duty, I urge them to accelerate their plan to charge foreign road hauliers for using our roads.
There is anecdotal evidence that foreign hauliers drive into our country with full tanks of petrol, which in many instances means that they can do all their work here without paying any fuel duty. We are making our haulage industry uncompetitive through the prices that we are charging hauliers to buy diesel in this country and the road taxes that they have to pay. Meanwhile, we are not charging foreign hauliers anything to use our roads. Let us collect that revenue as soon as possible, and use it to help support our own small businesses.
We have heard that, according to the review by the Office for Budget Responsibility, rising prices do not necessarily generate rising tax revenues. As was demonstrated by my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), that is because of the damage that increasing fuel prices do to the overall health of the economy, which depresses tax revenues. The Government are looking for tax cuts to try to enhance growth. We have plans to reduce corporation tax, but we should consider the damage that fuel tax rises do to growth. There must be some scope for a reduction in fuel tax. Even if it were not revenue-neutral, it might make a positive contribution to the growth that we need if we are to tackle the deficit.
I cannot support this Labour motion. The fact is that we could not reverse the impact of the VAT rise, because that would be illegal. Even if we could try, it might take six years. I urge the Front-Bench team, and the Chancellor when he delivers his Budget next week, not to go ahead with that planned fuel rise. We need some sort of fuel duty balance, to try to ensure that the shock of oil price rises does not do the real, serious and predictable damage to our economy that it could, and we must also bear in mind that if the middle east situation worsens, the shock could become much more severe than at present. We could be faced with the real damage to jobs that those significant price hikes could do.
Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab): Many Members have concentrated on prices at the pump, but there are much wider issues to do with fuel in general and the cost of living, and I want to focus on fuel poverty, which has an immense impact on family life. It is an issue that is close to my heart.
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According to the House of Commons Library, between 1996 and 2004 the number of households in fuel poverty fell from 6.5 million to less than 2 million, largely due to the measures put in place by successive Labour Governments. Now, in the face of massive increases in energy prices, the number of households in fuel poverty is estimated to be 5.5 million, or more than one in five households
Petrol price rises add to poverty. That is a new type of fuel poverty—if any fuel-poor households can actually afford a car. Domestic fuel prices fell by 17% in real terms between 1996 and 2003, but then increased by a massive 74% in the following six years. Those dependent on oil have suffered particularly badly, especially those who need oil to heat their homes. Our motorists have also suffered as prices have increased. The average standard credit gas bill for a typical consumer in 2010 was £683, which is 80% above the 2001 low in real terms. In 2009 the electricity bill for a typical consumer was £440, almost 50% above the 2003 price.
I know that energy companies do much to promote energy efficiency—mostly financed through a levy on their customers’ bills, I believe—but they, and the Government for that matter, need to do much more. There are several good reasons to do so. More than three out of four of the poorest 10% of households in England were in fuel poverty in 2008; I do not think they can afford a car, in fact. That means that the poor are getting poorer as prices increase way beyond the inflation rate, and inflation is already far too high under this Tory-led Government.
In 2008 more than half a million households needed to spend more than 20% of their income on energy to maintain a satisfactory heating regime. They are those in so-called extreme fuel poverty. Under Labour’s decent homes programme, 750,000 social homes had insulation works and 900,000 had new central heating systems. Warm Front assisted vulnerable people in more than 1.7 million homes, and large numbers of rented homes were improved under Warm Zones, Warm Wales and other initiatives. Now we need to see clear, comprehensive and well-funded initiatives from the Tory-led Government to deal with fuel poverty, because as they squeeze wages, raise taxes—such as those on fuel—cut benefits and hit our people’s pockets in so many other ways, more people will fall back into the group who will see 10% or more of their money disappear on just buying fuel.
This month the Government have announced that they have appointed a fuel poverty tsar, Professor John Hills. I hope that is not just a publicity stunt, as much more needs to be done to address this issue. His independent review will redefine and measure fuel poverty. I hope that does not mean we just change the numbers, and lift many out of fuel poverty by simply changing the way the numbers are added up. It does not matter what the numbers say: if people cannot afford to heat their home or put fuel in their car tank because they have not got enough money, they are still cold and still poor. I hope there will be no dragging of feet on that.
One area in which we may see some recommendations is the need to ensure that privately rented accommodation is properly insulated—and again, we can do that without waiting. Some of our poorest people live in privately rented property, where many landlords are happy just to pick up the rent without investing as they ought to. I hope the Minister will do a bit of cross-Government
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thinking today, and tell us how this issue will be dealt with under their new plan to tackle fuel poverty.
There are other solutions, and the Energy Bill, which is currently in the other place and is due to come to the House of Commons, may help if sufficient capacity is built in to make things happen on a similar, or greater, scale than in recent years. It allows for the implementation of a green deal scheme from 2012, which will allow householders to install energy efficiency improvements without having to meet any of the up-front costs. Those will be met by energy companies and will be paid back over a period of up to 25 years—but is that really the good news it is made out to be? We need to ensure that the financial environment in which such schemes are taken forward is the right one. Will potential changes to the feed-in tariff in respect of the installation of photovoltaic panels, for example, provide the right financial incentive to deliver that day-time free electricity for householders? We will need to wait and see, but the Government will miss a major opportunity if they mess about with the tariff and negate the incentive that investors and householders need.
I have concentrated on fuel poverty in terms of the household budget. This Tory-led Government are helping to create a new type of fuel poverty. Many people cannot afford to buy petrol or diesel, and that particularly affects the rural communities in my constituency, such as Stillington.
James Wharton (Stockton South) (Con): The hon. Gentleman speaks passionately on a subject about which I know he cares a great deal. He and I represent different halves of the same town, and we often disagree on political matters, but I suspect we share some common ground on this issue, in wanting to see the costs to our constituents brought down at every possible opportunity. Does he agree that if the Government could introduce a fair fuels stabiliser, that would be useful in allowing people who particularly need to be able to do so to plan their budgets and manage their money better, so that they could help themselves by planning their finances and avoiding the problems of poverty that, sadly, we so often see in the north-east?
Alex Cunningham: This is amazing, but I find myself in agreement with my colleague who represents the opposite side of the Stockton borough. Any measure that reduces costs for the people whom he and I represent has got to be important. That is particularly the case in places such as Stillington in my constituency, where people need to commute, often to low-paid jobs, and have limited public transport services. They are hit the hardest by the current economic policies.
I hope that the Government will see sense. I hope that they will avoid a fudge on the need for a comprehensive programme to tackle fuel poverty, and I hope that they will reverse the VAT increase at the pump, and introduce the fuel duty stabiliser—and maybe even keep a couple of the promises they made to our people during the election campaign.
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with the spike in prices that we have all witnessed in recent months—and, indeed, the last couple of years. This morning, I asked those in my office to check the petrol prices at the garage nearest to my home in St Andrews in Bristol: the Texaco garage on Gloucester road. For the first time, prices in Bristol have risen above 140p. One of the most popular places to fill up in the city is Tesco in Eastville; my constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), will be familiar with it. Prices there are now 136.9p. Everywhere in the city of Bristol, prices are now above 130p, yet only a couple of years ago I remember being surprised when prices went through the £1 barrier.
In cities, there is competition: there is competition on the forecourts, and there are also alternatives on public transport. Many rural constituencies, such as those in the south-west, mid-Wales or, indeed, Scotland, cannot benefit from that price competition, however. My hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr Reid) was present for the earlier part of the debate, but has had to leave to attend a Scottish Affairs Committee meeting. He told me that on the island of Colonsay in his constituency, the price of diesel is 163.3p, a full 23p higher than the price in my constituency.
We face a fourfold political challenge. We have to decide how to respond to the pressure on household budgets, how to make that response against a background of having to maintain the taxes and duties necessary to tackle the appalling fiscal legacy left us by the last Government, and how to continue to incentivise a switch to a lower-emissions and lower-carbon economy. Finally, we must consider the background of international factors, such as movements in the oil price and in exchange rates, which are effectively beyond our control. We have to respond to those factors and political challenges responsibly, not in the blatantly opportunist way set out in this motion.
Mr Graham Stuart: My constituents, like those in many rural areas, are not just suffering from the price of fuel at the pump. As they do not have gas at home but oil-fired central heating, the price of which has increased too, there is a double whammy of cost. There is therefore a strong moral case for making sure that the Government find ways to help the most vulnerable people in rural areas, despite the appalling legacy left, as my hon. Friend rightly says, by the Labour party.
The first challenge is how to respond to the pressures on household budgets that I was describing. The coalition Government have said that their priority is to ensure that as we make difficult decisions, the poorest and most vulnerable households are protected. We have already made progress on reducing income tax for the lowest-paid, and I look forward to further progress being made in the Budget. We have a triple lock in place for pensioner households and we are going to introduce work incentives in order to tackle worklessness, which is the major cause of poverty in our country.
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detailed one that we have received. The critique that we have heard repeatedly from them is that they want fewer cuts in public expenditure and more emphasis on raising tax, yet their first detailed proposal is for a reduction in tax. In effect, this is another uncosted spending pledge. The hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle), who led for the Opposition, rightly said that the increase in VAT represents about 3p on the pump price that we all have to pay. We know that each penny of that pump price raises about £500 million for the Exchequer, so the motion is proposing a £1.5 billion spending pledge. However, the Opposition cannot tell us, other than in an allusion in the motion to the banking levy, how on earth they are going to find that £1.5 billion. As has been said, they are in effect proposing a new VAT rate of 17.5%, but they know that under international law, they cannot do that.
This duty as a whole raises about £30 billion as a contribution to reducing the deficit, and it makes up about 62% of the pump price. That is a considerably lower proportion than a decade ago, when the share of the pump price represented by taxes was in excess of 80%. I well remember, when I was on the Opposition Benches and the Labour party was in government, that the person who is now leading the Labour party had much promise when he became Energy Secretary. He certainly talked a good talk in that post, although he was perhaps making up for the rather “brown” years of the Labour Government. Now that he is in opposition, we find that his words were hollow and he has moved on to opportunist ground.
We need to move to a transport system that is more sustainable, with more efficient engines, a different mix of fuels, and electric cars, as proposed in the coalition agreement. As our dependency on hydrocarbons declines, we also need to move to a completely new fiscal model for taxing the use of road space, because road fuel duty and vehicle excise duty are a blunt fiscal instrument.
Cathy Jamieson (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (Lab/Co-op): I have listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman has been saying, and I was very interested in some of his points. What would he say to the family in the rural part of my constituency who live a mile and a half up a farm track, who have no access to public transport and who cannot wait for the kind of interventions that he is talking about to come along somewhere down the line? Does he support the Government reconsidering in the Budget the fuel duty rise that is due?
Stephen Williams: I do not know whether the hon. Lady was listening at the time, but I acknowledged right at the start of my speech that the pressures in rural constituencies are much harder than those in my urban constituency; I have been made fully aware of that by my colleagues. I do not know the details about her constituency, but I certainly empathise with the situation and I am sure that the Government will respond to what she says.
As I was saying, I wish to see a move towards a more sustainable model for taxing motoring and haulage in our country—road pricing, which would make us better able to respond to changed circumstances. But that is the future, and what we have to do now is respond to the genuine concerns of our constituents and motorists up and down the country. It is only a week before the
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Budget, and although the Chancellor is not in his place I am sure that he is carefully listening to and being informed by his colleagues about what is being said in this debate. I am sure that when he does respond to those pressures and demands from around the country, he will do so in a way that is not fiscally reckless, is environmentally sustainable, and certainly does not follow the opportunistic advice in the motion.
Mr Angus Brendan MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate and convey the feelings of my constituents about fuel prices. In Na h-Eileanan an Iar—as the good Speaker himself would say and, of course, did say—we are paying the highest tax per litre in the UK; we are doing so consistently, at a range of fuel stations throughout the entire constituency. That has been the situation throughout the life of this Government and indeed the previous one. The last lot—the Labour Government—made excuses; this lot—the Tory and Liberal Government—are making promises. The upshot at the pumps in Ness, in Uig, in Back, in Stornoway, in Lochs, in Tarbert, Harris, in Lochmaddy, in Balivanich, in Creagorry, in Daliburgh and in Castlebay is the same; excuses and promises equal exactly the same.
The rural fuel derogation has been announced twice at Liberal Democrat conferences that have been six months apart, but there has still been no formal approach to the EU Commission. Can we be given an indication of how long it typically takes to get such a measure approved by the EU Commission, especially as it has given approvals in respect of far less rural areas in other places in Europe than the Hebrides and other Scottish islands?
Mr Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not speaking only of Scottish islands, because the Isles of Scilly are included in this and I hope that the Isle of Wight will be too.
Mr MacNeil: As the hon. Gentleman knows, and as I have demonstrated in the past, I have great sympathy for the Isle of Wight and indeed for the Cornish Isles of Scilly, so I hope that this will extend to them as well.
May I suggest that the Government put in place a maximum percentage that can be taken at the pumps in taxation, or at the very least a desired percentage to be taken in taxation, just as the inflation rate seems to be a desired rate and a target for the country? I say that because in the UK 62% of the price of petrol is duty, which is the highest level in Europe—the lowest level in Europe is 46%. May I also ask the Government to examine the fuel distribution network, because many people have long had deep concerns about profiteering between refineries and retailers in what seems to be a very opaque business model? We have to ensure that any gains we make in the—so far promised—rural fuel derogation are felt at island pumps and are not snaffled away elsewhere.
We know what fuel tax is doing to people’s pockets on a daily basis up and down the land: it is affecting the poorest more, as this is a highly regressive tax. In areas such as mine, where wages are below the national average, the cost of living is higher and fuel poverty is high—my constituency has the highest in the land—the regressive
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nature of this tax is really felt. The tax pulls money out of the economy from families, businesses and individuals, and from local authority budgets and health board budgets. Clearly we need help and I ask the Government to provide it in tackling fuel tax and in taking the foot of high fuel tax off the neck of the islands’ economy.
When I last spoke in the House on this matter, on 7 February, I said—I have checked the Hansard record—that fuel was £1.44 a litre. My office in Stornoway tells me that it is now £1.48 a litre, and I shudder to think what it might be the next time I speak on this issue in the House, because the cost seems to be going in one direction. Before the staff at Benbecula airport correct me, yet again, on the price, I point out that the price in Uist will inevitably be higher. I understand that the price in Uist and Benbecula is more than £1.50 a litre. Consistently, throughout the length of my constituency, we are paying the highest fuel tax in the UK. The simple re-announcements of the intention to have a rural fuel derogation without any change coming at the island pumps are greeted with nausea by my constituents, who are tired of hearing pious words and are instead looking for pious actions.
Gemma Doyle (West Dunbartonshire) (Lab/Co-op): Can the hon. Gentleman explain to my constituents why his party is interested in giving help only to Scots in rural areas and not to people in my constituency?
Mr MacNeil: I will indeed. I imagine that in West Dunbartonshire the price of fuel is 15p to 20p a litre lower. How I wish we could enjoy the prices of West Dunbartonshire. I also wish that the hon. Lady could express some sympathy for the voters, constituents and people of the Western Isles who have suffered higher fuel prices than many other areas in the UK as a result of the policies of successive Governments.
Gemma Doyle: For the purposes of clarification, let me assure the hon. Gentleman that fuel in West Dunbartonshire is currently £1.36 a litre for unleaded and £1.43 for diesel—not far behind the prices he quoted for his area.
Mr MacNeil: I have every sympathy for the people of West Dunbartonshire—those are high prices—but with our prices of £1.48 and £1.50 a litre, I wish that we could enjoy prices such as £1.36 a litre. If I went back to the Outer Hebrides tomorrow and announced a price of £1.36, I would be regarded as some sort of hero, but unfortunately I cannot do that. I have sympathy with the hon. Lady but I am afraid that she must reciprocate and understand the problems that come when fuel poverty is higher, the cost of living is higher and wages are lower. The pilot project in the Outer Hebrides and other islands in Scotland is the right way to go. If it is a success, I hope we can extend it. I find the lack of sympathy from Labour Members about the problems in the Outer Hebrides somewhat distressing.
Having visited the hon. Gentleman’s constituency in the past, I understand some of the difficulties his constituents face, but does he agree that although we are talking about derogations, stabilisers and all sorts of things people want action now and that there is an opportunity for the Government to act next
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week? Will he support the Labour motion today to ensure that the maximum pressure is piled on the Government?
Mr MacNeil: I probably will support the Labour amendment, but at my own risk. I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s words. She is very welcome back in Na h-Eileanan an Iar at any time of her choosing. I would be more than pleased to show her around the islands or to entertain her in Stornoway—at my expense.
I must wind up, because I have to speak at a meeting at 3 o’clock about coastguards, which are a very important issue in my constituency. The last time I spoke about this issue I said that the rural fuel derogation was not like Christmas because Christmas had been and gone. It seems to me that it will not be like Easter either, because it looks like Easter will also come and go while we are still waiting.
Claire Perry (Devizes) (Con): It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil). I represent a large, rural constituency in Wiltshire, and when I filled up my car on Monday morning, I found that we, too, are paying £1.40 for diesel and £1.35 for unleaded fuel. The point was very well made by the hon. Member for Bristol West (Stephen Williams) that once one gets out of London and the major metropolitan areas there is a real problem with competition. That problem is shared by many constituencies across the UK.
I am afraid that the Labour motion is breathtakingly cynical. Not one Labour Member bothered to show up at the recent debate on this issue in Westminster Hall, and the Labour Government consistently penalised motorists across the country for 13 years, with unused bus lanes, underinvestment in rural transport and 12 rises in fuel duty over 13 years, of which four were in the last 16 months of their term of office. They also planned, as part of their scorched earth economic policy before the election, six further rises to come into effect over four years, so their cynicism in presenting this motion is breathtaking.
Julie Hilling: The hon. Lady is very keen to talk about what the previous Labour Government did, but does she want to think a little about what is happening now? The Road Haulage Association says that in the last week alone £850 was added to the cost per year of running an average-sized lorry—that was under her Government’s watch.
Claire Perry: I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s intervention and I will come to my “demand” for something to be done about this problem. I think we both have in our constituencies small haulage businesses that are really suffering from the increases in fuel prices.
I find the motion muddled and inaccurate. This is yet another unfunded spending commitment from the shadow Chancellor and the Opposition. We cannot use a one-off levy of £800 million to fund a permanent reduction in VAT costing several times that amount. The maths just does not add up. I had always thought that the shadow Chancellor, who is not in his place, was a fairly financially literate fellow.
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Andrew Bingham: Is my hon. Friend aware that this is the 10th spending pledge that Labour has made from this banking levy? It has spent that money 10 times—is that not typical of the overspending and double-counting of its years in government, which got us into this mess in the first place?
Claire Perry: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. The shadow Chancellor’s predecessor referred to a financial primer that he felt he should read. Might I suggest that the current shadow Chancellor should borrow a copy? I would be delighted to lend him my calculator because I think that a financially literate Opposition would be a quality Opposition and one that the country would welcome.
“Member States may apply either one or two reduced rates…The reduced rates shall apply only to supplies of goods or services in the categories set out in Annex III”,
but annex III does not list road fuel and other amending articles do not permit a reduced rate or an exemption to be applied to transport fuel. Even if we wanted to do this—if the motion were passed—it would be impossible. This is yet another inaccurate attempt to create a political narrative that joins words such as “bankers”, “tax” and “too far too fast”, but does nothing to address the fundamental problem that the Labour Government left, which we are having to clear up. I do not know about you, Mr Deputy Speaker, but people in my constituency are sick to death of this political posturing and narrative.
The motion is a sham attempt to create dividing lines when we should be working together to get the country growing and out of this mess. It is cynical, muddled and inaccurate, but, as in all our debates on this issue, I welcome the chance to speak about these matters. Outside London, in many parts of rural Britain, people use their cars. Some 43% of households in London do not own or have access to a car, whereas the figure for my constituency is only 15%. That is not because it is a wealthy constituency—the average income in Devizes is well below the national average—but because in large parts of rural Britain people must have a car to go about their everyday business, to get to their job, to take their children to school and to carry out normal day-to-day activities. It is a necessity.
Sarah Newton (Truro and Falmouth) (Con): A car is also a necessity for families in Cornwall. Does my hon. Friend agree that the prices are much higher in such areas? In my constituency, the cost of diesel is almost 6p a litre higher than here in London.
Claire Perry: My hon. Friend makes a very good point, which many Members across the House who represent rural constituencies will recognise. Devizes has one of the lowest population densities per hectare of all English constituencies. We have real problems with our road services and thanks to the very misguided policies of the Labour party our rural services were hollowed out. We lost a third of our post offices and, shockingly, all the minor injuries units in the constituency, so people have to use their car to access even the most basic services.
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Like many Opposition Members, I am calling on the Chancellor to bring to fruition some of the plans that we all talked about before the election. I do not underestimate the difficulty of introducing a unilateral fair fuel stabiliser, which would be a tricky thing to do. Unlike the Opposition’s proposals, however, it would be legal, and it would be extremely welcome to many Members on both sides of the House and their constituents.
Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Devizes (Claire Perry), who spoke with her usual panache, confidence and strength of purpose—rather like the Economic Secretary to the Treasury did in setting out the agenda from the Government’s point of view, which she set out very well. I do not agree with that agenda at all, but at least she was here to set it out, unlike the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. Like my hon. Friends who have made this point, I wonder where he is. I am rather reminded of a children’s book that was very popular with my children and I wonder, where’s Wally?
Mr Graham Stuart: It is admirable that Labour Members should be so disciplined in following the line they have been given, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that those on the Front Bench should spend as much time crafting their message so as not to table a motion that is illegal, impractical and careless? They should pay more attention to that rather than just drilling their Members to keep asking where’s Wally, which perhaps sums up the state of their politics today.
Nic Dakin: I think I was the first person to ask that in this debate. Of course, we have a clear economic message that runs counter to the posturing successfully used by the parties in government to suggest that there is a need to cut fast and deeply. Our message is that there is no need for such cuts. Three tools are at our disposal to manage our way out of the economic challenge: growth, taxes and service reductions. The Government are using only taxes and service reductions, at a heinous rate, when we should have a policy for growth. Their policy is for the opposite of growth.
Let me draw attention to the headlines sought by the Conservative party as long ago as 2008: “Tories vow to slash fuel duty”, from the Press Association on 6 July 2008; and “Tory tax cut to beat hike in fuel” from The Sun on 7 July 2008. In a sense, since 2008 the Conservative party has made promises to the British people on fuel duties that it has singularly failed to meet in government.
Nic Dakin: I recall one of the parties in government saying to the other party that it was telling an untruth when it said that it would not put up VAT. It turns out that both parties were planning to put up VAT all the while.
People face real difficulties because of the situation in the middle east, the fuel duty rises that the Government have already imposed and the burden of putting VAT up, totally unacceptably, to an all-time high. That favourite Tory tax is now at 20% and that is causing real difficulties for people—we need to listen to them.
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Neil Carmichael (Stroud) (Con): May I clarify that it was the Labour Government who introduced most of the VAT increases, which needs to be discussed? Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is wise for the Chancellor to be considering a fuel stabilisation change?
Nic Dakin: When there were huge economic challenges caused by the great global banking crisis, the Labour Government reduced VAT on fuel and on everything else—they did not put it up and worsen the situation, which is the policy of the parties on the Government Benches.
Let us look at the impact of this tax on growth on people and businesses. Alongside the tax on growth, we have cuts in public services, rising prices, inflation wobbling out of control, cuts to the education maintenance allowance—given to the poorest of our young people so that they can continue and aspire in education—and tuition fees being set at record levels. Unemployment among young people is, on this Prime Minister’s watch, the highest it has been for almost 30 years. That is the Government’s disgraceful economic record.
People on fixed incomes—including pensioners and those on disability living allowance—are hugely worried about the mobility effect of the hike in fuel prices and the difficulties it will make to their lives. Only today, a witness appeared before the Select Committee on Education—David Lawrence, the principal of Easton college in Norfolk—who said, “Higher fuel costs are a disincentive to participation.” That is what is happening in the real world.
“I am thirty eight years old, married with a family of six running two small cars to keep the cost down on tax and running costs. The biggest cost that we are finding hard to cover is fuel, since the beginning of last year, average petrol pump prices have risen from just under 111p/litre to almost 128p/litre. Diesel now costs more than 132p/litre, compared to 112.5p a year ago. I would like to explain to you what impact this is having on my ability to drive and go about my everyday life. The price of fuel not only affects work but personally the cost of running my car has significantly increased so that I only can afford to travel to work, any family trips to visit other areas of the region/country I simply just can not afford.
I am employed as a Transport Manager for a local business that relies heavily on local haulage transport companies and also sub-contractors that travel to our region making deliveries. To keep cost down along with trying to keep our CO2 emissions down we use these sub-contractors as back hauliers as a reduced rate. Over the past few months we have seen transport companies we use either going to administration or just closing the business whilst they can pay back the creditors. This has a big impact on the business I work for as we can not be competitive in a tight margin industry we work in.”
In my area, as Government Members who represent Humberside constituencies know, we also have the spectre of the Humber bridge board threatening to put up the cost of Humber bridge tolls—an outrageous suggestion of yet another tax on local people and a tax on local businesses.
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that we should be careful not to engage in political posturing. We all, on both sides of the House, do that from time to time—I think she did a little bit, and I probably have, too—but there are practical things we can do. There is no need for the planned fuel duty increase. It should be postponed or stopped completely because of the circumstances that we are in. We can also consider what can be done about VAT. It did not need to go up on everything and there ought to be imagination and resolution in the EU to ensure that VAT is treated properly for people who drive vehicles in this country.
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Fuel Prices and the Cost of Living
Mark Pawsey (Rugby) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin), but I am disappointed that he chose to repeat the remarks of Opposition Members on the attendance of Front Benchers in this debate. It is pretty reasonable for us to expect that they would be working hard on a most important Budget, which will be delivered in this Chamber in only a week’s time.
I want to concentrate on the effects of fuel costs on small businesses. The success of our small businesses will be crucial to our work in rebalancing our economy, achieving economic growth and clearing up the economic mess left behind by the Labour party. Certainty and stability in the price of fuel are critical for small businesses—in some cases, they are more important than the price itself, although small businesses suffered massively as a result of rising fuel prices implemented by the previous Government over the past few years. In 13 years, the duty increased from 36p to 57p a litre.
Let me give the example of a medium-sized business in my constituency, Rugby. It is a business that I know well, because I owned and ran it for 25 years before arriving in this place. With 10 vehicles—five delivery vans and five cars for representatives—we served customers around the midlands, and the cost of fuel was a major budget consideration for us. In November each year, I would set my budgets for the following year, and try to estimate the price of fuel over the coming year. In recent years, that became almost impossible. In just the past two years—between January 2009 and January 2011—fuel costs have increased by £1,000 a month. The price per litre went up from 98p to £1.29 in that period; it is now closer to £1.40. The business is now spending £3,000 a month on fuel instead of £2,000. That is £12,000 in additional annual costs attributable to fuel alone. That comes directly from the bottom line; it is a reduction in the profitability of the business, which means that there is less available to reinvest in the business.
As was alluded to earlier, there is evidence from the business community that some suppliers are using the increase in the cost of delivering goods as a reason for price increases to small businesses. That is detrimental to small business profits and is inflationary. When fuel costs change, there are significant implications for distribution costs. Small businesses suffer disproportionately, because they are often in a weaker negotiating position and are thus unable to recoup the shortfall from their customers.
Certainty of price is what small businesses need, so that they can plan. That is often more important to them than price in isolation. I am therefore very sympathetic to the fuel duty campaigns calling on the Government either to freeze fuel duty or to implement the fuel stabiliser. To me, the fuel stabiliser seems a responsible decision, and although I recognise the complexity involved, I support any measure that will decrease the burden on small business.
The motion calls for a reduction in VAT on road fuel to take it back to 17.5%. As the Economic Secretary to the Treasury reminded us, a separate rate of VAT, as well as being illegal under EU law, will have no impact
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whatever on small businesses, because most of them simply reclaim VAT. If the motion were accepted, it would, of course, lead to additional tax complication for small businesses and make it more difficult for them to prepare their paperwork.
Tom Blenkinsop (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent case on small business and its financial concerns, but how does he think the price of fuel will affect the cost of running vehicles in the Home Office, the Royal Mail fleet, and the Department of Health?
Mark Pawsey: The point that I am making is that the most important thing in any organisation is the ability to budget accurately across the business. The stabiliser proposal will deal with that; a reduction in VAT simply will not have any effect on that at all.
It is my contention that Labour Members are to blame for the situation that we are in, because this January, the Government implemented a rise in fuel duty for which the previous Government had legislated; the previous Government raised fuel duty 12 times when in office, and they planned for six further rises to take place after the general election. Businesses are looking forward to seeing what measures the Chancellor will bring forward in the Budget in a week’s time to ease the burden on the important small business sector.
Gemma Doyle (West Dunbartonshire) (Lab/Co-op): I am delighted to speak in this debate, which is an important opportunity to highlight the real difficulties faced by people the length and breadth of the country as a consequence of the record price of fuel at the pumps and the squeeze that is being forced on people’s incomes by the Government. Those issues, along with the reckless pace of public spending cuts, are the concerns most widely raised by people in my constituency, and it is easy to understand why. The area has significant economic challenges, which are being made much greater in the current climate by the Government’s approach to the cost of living.
Unemployment in West Dunbartonshire is higher than across the rest of Scotland and the UK. According to the latest figures, published today, the local claimant count has risen to 6.5%, compared with 4.3% for Scotland and 3.8% for the UK as a whole. Recent analysis of pay across Scotland has highlighted that wages in West Dunbartonshire are 11% below the Scottish average, and of course unemployment and low pay have a clear relationship with poverty. West Dunbartonshire has a disproportionately high number of people living in deprivation, and people living there have a disproportionately low life expectancy. I say that not with pride, but to try to communicate to the Government the challenges found in areas such as mine—challenges to which they have seemed impervious, particularly in this debate.
West Dunbartonshire has a high percentage of people employed in the public sector. Of course, the Government are slashing jobs in the public sector; they seem to believe that the private sector will magically rush in to fill the gaps in employment. The last thing any business needs to contend with at the moment is record fuel prices. Far from growing the private sector, they may
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mean that even more people lose their jobs. Just this afternoon, the owner of a delivery business in my constituency contacted my office to outline the impact of record fuel prices on his business.
Given all those factors, it is clear to see why people in West Dunbartonshire are struggling to afford the squeeze on their family budgets and businesses as a result of record fuel prices, rising inflation, and cuts to the help for families on low and middle incomes.
Justin Tomlinson (North Swindon) (Con): I agree with the hon. Lady’s comments on the effects of high fuel costs. Does she agree that there should be some regret for the Labour Government’s 12 fuel duty increases?
Gemma Doyle: There should be regret that this Government have raised VAT to 20% with no regard for people in my constituency. Never before have people in West Dunbartonshire been forced to pay £1.36 for a litre of unleaded or £1.43 for diesel, as they do now at some local forecourts. Every time they make a trip to the filling station, they find that it costs them a bigger share of their income to fill up their car.
As we know, the recent spike in the price of fuel has been driven in part by rising world oil costs, especially as a consequence of the crisis in the middle east, but the Government have heaped unnecessary extra pain on people by hiking VAT to 20%, adding 3p to a litre of fuel. It is astonishing that the Government have acted so callously in driving up the cost of fuel, given the pre-election promises made by both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats last year. I am sure that I am not the only Member who saw leaflets promising action to keep fuel prices down circulated at the last election by one or both parties, although to the best of my knowledge, the Lib Dems did not even bother using their Royal Mail freepost in my constituency in the election last year.
That the price of fuel at the pumps is now at a record level as a consequence of the Government’s actions is an unforgivable betrayal, but that is of course something that we are getting used to from the Government. The attack on ordinary families’ standard of living goes much further than rising fuel prices driven by the actions of this Government. The VAT hike will cost families with children around £450 a year. Unfair cuts to tax credits, child benefit and housing benefit will further erode the incomes of families who rely on that support.
Pamela Nash (Airdrie and Shotts) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government have failed to recognise the impact that the VAT rise on fuel will have even on products that are protected from VAT, such as food and children’s clothing?
My hon. Friend makes a significant point. I was about to say that a number of factors are adding up to put intense pressure on family incomes. For example, 1,000 families in my constituency will lose a further £400 a year as a result of the Government’s cuts to the child care element of the working tax credit. What makes that all so much worse is that while the Government are choking off help for hard-working families and recklessly cutting jobs and services, they have given the banks a huge tax cut this year. I know my constituents find it hard to understand how that can be squared with the Prime Minister’s claim that we are all
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in it together—a frankly laughable claim from a Cabinet of millionaires.
I am sorry if Government Members do not like to be reminded of how many millionaires are in the Cabinet, but I am afraid that that is a matter of fact.
The Government have heaped pain on families, but they could have made a different choice and relieved some of that pain. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) said, the Government could use the £800 million raised from the bank levy immediately to reverse the VAT rise on fuel. Just as the previous Government often postponed fuel duty rises when oil prices were rising, as they are now, the Chancellor should look again at the Budget—that is why he should be here today, listening to the arguments—ahead of the planned 1% rise in April.
Charlie Elphicke: Has the hon. Lady considered that the reason the Chancellor is not here today is that he is busy trying to sort out the Budget to undo the massive financial mess left by the Labour Government and deal with their economic incompetence?
Gemma Doyle: It is the duty of the Chancellor to listen to Members as he is putting together his Budget. Both he and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury should be present, listening to Members as we debate this important subject.
I have outlined a different approach, which would be the right approach. I notice that none of the Scottish National party MPs is present. Their proposal for a fuel duty cut in remote areas would do nothing to help my constituents in West Dunbartonshire. The name of the constituency may include the word “shire”, but on the whole it is not a rural area, although a small number of my constituents would consider themselves to be in a remote area. The majority of my constituents live in an urban or a suburban area and they are struggling with the record price of fuel. We need to go much further and bring down fuel costs for everyone in urban and rural areas.
I will of course support the motion in the name of the Leader of the Opposition. The Government can and must take action to provide some relief to people in my constituency and across the country. They can do this in the ways outlined today. Like numerous other Members, I urge the Chancellor to take that action and go some small way towards showing that he has not completely lost touch with the pain that British motorists are suffering.
Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): I can assure the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Gemma Doyle) that I am not a millionaire. I would, in the words of Travie McCoy, quite like to be a billionaire, but I do not expect that will happen. There are plenty of rich people on the Opposition Benches—people in glass houses and all that.
We should begin by recognising that over the past couple of decades, Governments of all shades have hiked up fuel duty and, broadly, people have been in general agreement with that because it has been seen as
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a green tax. That is why it was created. An injection of honesty is needed to counteract the feigned anger that has suddenly appeared and the damascene conversion that has taken place among Opposition Members. Everybody supported fuel duty rises over the year, and their position lacks credibility.
I agree with much that is in the Opposition motion. We all have concerns about fuel costs. Obviously I do not agree with the part that asks us to do something that is illegal under EU law. My radical solution to that would be to leave the European Union, but that is a debate for another day. Before we accuse the Opposition of cynicism, it is incumbent on those of us on the Government Benches to prove that the pledges we made at the general election were not cynical. That is why I look forward to the Budget, on which the Chancellor and Chief Secretary are working so hard, and I look forward to the answers on fuel duty. I hope they include a fair fuel duty stabiliser.
I dished out leaflets to the good voters of Brigg and Goole—hounded them with leaflets, one might say—on the fuel duty stabiliser. I supported it, knowing of the work that had gone into that policy at Conservative central office. I look forward to the Budget next week, when I hope we will hear more details about stabiliser. The price of fuel is having a massive impact on my constituents across north Lincolnshire and east Yorkshire. I note the proposals in relation to the islands and I heard the comments from the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil). He has been a passionate advocate on behalf of his constituents. I would say to him if he were here—I know that he is off trying to save coastguards, and I wish him the best of luck on that too—that the effect of fuel prices is not limited to the islands.
Constituents such as mine have to travel an awful long way to their places of work. I represent a largely rural constituency, and most of my constituents travel considerable distances, whether to Lincoln, Leeds, Hull, York or Doncaster. Much of the time they sit in traffic, which is not good for fuel consumption, I am told. The pressures that affect the islands of Scotland and the Scilly Isles affect our constituents too.
Justin Tomlinson: I echo the comments of my hon. Friend. My constituency, North Swindon, has a considerable number of commuters who have no choice but to travel by car. The increased fuel costs impact on them as well.
Andrew Percy: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. What we are both saying is that if any solution is applied to one part of the United Kingdom, it must be applied to other parts of it as well. If we are all about fairness, as I am sure we are, it must be a solution that is fair to everybody in the United Kingdom.
Simon Hart (Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire) (Con): Does my hon. Friend share my concern for 1,000 dairy farmers in west Wales, who cannot pass on the additional fuel duty to their customers because their milk price is fixed by supermarkets?
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My constituency is a logistics hub. We have many transportation firms. A business owner, Paul Emms, came to see me at my surgery in Epworth this weekend. He said that because of fuel prices, he now faces the possibility of laying people off. Rather than contributing tax to the economy, not only has he been stung by tax rises on fuel, but he is putting people out of work whose payroll taxes will be lost and who will have to be funded by the taxpayer through their benefits.
Fuel prices are a particular issue to my constituents and to businesses in our area. In our patch we also suffer the problems of rural transport. We have very little rural transport. My local Labour council—this is my dig at it—is proposing to scrap the Axholme shopper bus service, which costs only £13,000 a year to run. A political assistant at the council is still being paid several thousand pounds, but we are losing many of our rural bus subsidies. My constituents are not even in the privileged position of being able to rely on public transport as an alternative.
My plea to the Government is to listen to the genuine concerns that have been expressed. I greatly respect the Economic Secretary. She is one of the Ministers who accepts my invitations to visit Brigg and Goole. I heard what she said, and there seemed to be the possibility of some positive messages coming out of the Budget. My constituents cannot bear the prices as they are.
Figures out today show that the average wage in northern Lincolnshire is much lower than in the rest of the country. We pay a lot for our petrol and we have to drive a long way to get to a petrol station these days. This is a massive problem for my constituents, and I urge the Government to pay heed to the promises that we made at the general election—promises on which I was elected—which included doing something about fuel duty and introducing a fuel duty stabiliser. As I said, I am sure that was a well thought out policy before the election and will be implemented shortly.
Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): I welcome the opportunity to bring a Northern Ireland perspective to the debate, although I expect that it will not be all that different from what we have heard from all round Great Britain. There are a number of particular problems which the escalation of fuel prices brings to a place that is on the periphery of Europe and on the edge of the United Kingdom, with all the attendant costs for industry, whether for the transport of raw materials in or for the transport of goods out.
At a time when the Northern Ireland Executive are trying to rebalance the economy and promote the private sector, such increases in costs present particular difficulties. They also present a difficulty when the fuel duty in Northern Ireland is much higher than in other parts of the island. For example, on diesel there is a 60% tax take, whereas across the border in the Republic it is 55%. That distorts competition in industry. Northern Ireland also has a large and dispersed rural community with high levels of rural poverty, so escalating costs will hit people who can ill afford them, as many Members have highlighted for their constituencies.
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Mr Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP): Does my hon. Friend agree that an added problem in Northern Ireland is that it is the only part of the UK that has a land border with another state and that fuel smuggling has been endemic for many years? Would the Government not be better served by putting more resources into HMRC’s capacity to tackle fuel smuggling and apprehend those engaged in that unlawful activity, as that could bring in a lot more revenue to the Exchequer?
Although there are differences in approach, there seems to be a fair degree of unanimity that this issue needs to be dealt with. In fact, the only dissenting voice I have heard is that of the member of the Green party who sits in front of me, the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), who seems to think that it is a good idea that fuel prices go up. I think she is more interested in influencing temperatures in the world in 100 years’ time than dealing with the poverty people face in the present day—it is a quirky party, so of course it has quirky ideas.
A number of criticisms have been made of the motion before us, and I must say that I have some sympathy with them. I know that getting a derogation from Europe will not be easy. Indeed, after this debate I will be speaking with the Minister about the aggregates levy and derogations for it, and even for something that simple we are looking at more than a year for Europe to agree a variation on something that it has already accepted. One must bear it in mind that that is not a quick remedy. However, the motion at least highlights the issue, which is one reason I support it, and it does so in stark terms, setting out the impact that fuel price rises have on people.
The Economic Secretary’s response has been threefold. First, she spent quite a lot of her speech looking back. I suppose it is difficult for someone from Northern Ireland to criticise another for looking back, so you will have to allow me to overcome that irony, Madam Deputy Speaker. I admire the way the Economic Secretary made her argument. In fact, I like her style—head-butt the opponent, get them on the ground and kick them when they’re down. She should be an honorary Ulsterwoman. I appreciate her approach, but although the previous Government have a case to answer, I think that people outside are interested not so much in who did what in the past, but in what will happen in future. Although it was good to hear her robust response, it has to go further.
Secondly, the Economic Secretary gave a number of reasons why things could not be done. She talked about deficit reduction and the fact that there would be a cost attached to any action on fuel prices, but one point that has escaped mention in the debate is that we are talking about a windfall for the Government. The increase in money that has resulted from the price rises was not anticipated in the deficit reduction plan in the first place—at least I do not think that the Government anticipated there would be a war in Libya and that that would put up fuel prices and built that into their Budget. If they did, God help us, because if that kind of planning goes into a long-term Budget we should be very worried. It is a windfall tax, so the Government
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have an opportunity to give it back to the people; it does not impact on the deficit reduction plan and it alleviates a problem that they have identified.
Thirdly, the Economic Secretary said that she cannot pre-empt the Budget, and I suppose we must have some sympathy with that. I do not think that anyone would want her to do so, but if there is to be some good news in the Budget, I would have liked her to have at least softened us all up by giving some hope that that will happen.
Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Lab): I am thoroughly enjoying the hon. Gentleman’s speech, but, to pick up on that point, Government Front Benchers could pre-empt the Budget by announcing now, as Labour did in the past, that the proposed increase will not happen. They do not have to wait until the Budget.
Sammy Wilson: I was just coming to that point. Government Front Benchers could today at least have offered us some softening up, some promise or some hope held out, but that was not apparent in the speech we heard. Perhaps in the winding-up speech there will be such an opportunity. The one thing we do know is that in opposition and faced with increasing fuel prices and protests about them, the current Chancellor said that when prices and the tax take go up, taxes should go down, and that when prices go down, taxes should go up. That was the policy enunciated when Government Members were in opposition. I look forward to next Wednesday to see whether that promise and policy will be given some effect in the Budget. If that happens, this motion and this debate will have been worth while and there will be at least some alleviation of the hardship that fuel price increases have brought.
Charlie Elphicke (Dover) (Con): It is a privilege and honour to follow the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), who made an entertaining, engaging and thoughtful speech on this issue, which we all feel strongly about. It has been an emotional debate on both sides of the House. Constituents write to me daily expressing concern about the cost of living and how they will manage, given the way the cost of fuel has risen in recent times. It is a just concern that is understood on both sides of the House. Hauliers in my constituency write to me expressing grave concern about the situation they find themselves in and their ability to compete with operators on the continent who undercut them.
However, I must say that for the Opposition to bring forward such a motion is the most extraordinary and shameless opportunism I can recall seeing in this House. It is shameful because we know that the Labour party increased duty 12 times in its period in office. We know that it took away the 10p tax rate. We know that tax discs went through the roof, and we know that the haulage industry was decimated in the last decade because the Labour Government had no interest or desire to ensure that that industry was safeguarded.
Chris Evans (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op):
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the most damning verdict on the coalition’s first year in government was when someone wrote to me and said, “Mr Evans, thanks to the increase
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in VAT on fuel duty, I’m worse off than I was a year ago”? Does the hon. Gentleman agree that most people in this country are worse off than they were a year ago?
Charlie Elphicke: Measures taken by this Government will take 800,000 of the poorest people in the land out of tax. The Chancellor is not in his place today; I hope very much that he is working out how he can look after the least well-off people in this country in his Budget. I hope that he will be listening and thinking carefully about how he can engage with people’s understandable concern about the cost of fuel and how the country can be put right after 10 years of being driven into the international sidings.
Elizabeth Truss (South West Norfolk) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that in his Budget the Chancellor should be looking at areas such as South West Norfolk, where people have little alternative but to use their cars both for business and domestic purposes? In particular, does he agree that the rural fuel reduction should be extended to areas such as Norfolk, where there is very little public transport?
Charlie Elphicke: My hon. Friend makes a powerful point on behalf of her constituents, for whom she is such a brilliant advocate. As she and I know, the difficulty is the amount of money in the kitty, which is massively in the red. We have a structural deficit of £109 billion and borrowings this year of more than £150 billion. That is the poisoned economic inheritance that the previous Government left, having maxed out the nation’s credit card and brought this country to the brink of bankruptcy. What do they urge us to do? Opportunistically, they urge us to cut taxes. How would they do that? They would borrow more money, as we know from the shadow Chancellor’s Bloomberg speech, and raise interest rates on mortgages for the average householder, who struggles to get by as it is.
Sheila Gilmore: Did the hon. Gentleman actually listen to what his hon. Friend the Economic Secretary to the Treasury said earlier about the impact of VAT rises and fuel cost rises on businesses? They mean that businesses go under, people are put out of work and they then buy less? Is that not the crux of the issue? If we want growth, we need to give people income with which to purchase things.
Charlie Elphicke: The crux of the issue is that we have to stop the draining of money from the public finances, right the nation’s finances and get this country growing with a pro-business agenda. That is what the Government are looking at, and I hope that in the Budget next week we will see a pro-growth, pro-business, pro-jobs and pro-money economic policy, which we have not had for the past decade. We have been brought to the brink of ruin by the amount of debt that the previous Government encouraged ordinary people to get into and, indeed, managed to get the public finances into. This Government are about putting those things right: ensuring that our housekeeping personally and as a nation is put back on the level. That is really important.
Fiona O'Donnell: Among all those tough choices, which does the hon. Gentleman think his Chancellor found tougher: taking money from his friends in the City and in the banks, or taking money from hard-working families in my constituency?
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Charlie Elphicke: I gently encourage the hon. Lady to be cautious when making remarks about rich people. The other day her right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition talked about how his house is worth millions and millions, so we should be careful before we start trading such ludicrous insults. This is a serious debate; we have people in our constituencies living in deprivation, and all she can do is trade political barbs. I encourage her to consider how we can create more jobs and money, and how we can grow the private sector, so that it includes real jobs and real money that will take this country forward and grow our economy. The priority has to be to ensure that this country gets back into the fast lane of economic growth in the international arena. We have been slipping down the global competitiveness league over the past 10 years, and we need to ensure that this country goes back to the head of the economic river.
Pamela Nash: Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that rapidly rising fuel prices are doing exactly the opposite of what he says his Government are trying to achieve, with economic growth and the number of jobs throughout the country decreasing?
Charlie Elphicke: I cannot control the weather; God controls that. Nor can I control world oil prices; they are controlled by the global markets. Would that we could just magic away the fact that global oil prices have risen, but we cannot, and global oil prices have been rising and creating the problem felt deeply by many of our constituents. The situation has not been helped by the past decade’s 12 rises in fuel duty, which saw it go up from 36p to 57p. That is a massive, 20p increase, and on top of that there is VAT. But, to come to this House and say, “Well, why don’t we just chop the VAT by 2.5%,” knowing that is illegal and unlawful, and that it would take six years to secure such a derogation, is a shameless and craven exercise in opportunism.
Tom Blenkinsop: The Government are proposing enterprise action zones, so if I were to set up a petrol station in one of them, would I be able to sell petrol exempt of all taxes? That would present a problem for the hon. Gentleman’s argument that, under EU law, we are not able to roll back VAT.
Just as ridiculous is the fact that the previous Government did so little about smuggling across the border. We see it daily in Dover, where local hauliers complain to me bitterly about the people who fill up in Luxembourg but not in the United Kingdom. They bring goods in, pick up another load, leave and then fill up again in Luxembourg. They contribute nothing to duty, road funds or vehicle excise duty in this country; they come on a free pass, and the previous Government did nothing about it.
Dr William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP):
Does the hon. Gentleman understand the anger felt by law-abiding people in these days of great financial constraint about the fact that on Tuesday the UK’s biggest fuel laundering plant was found in Crossmaglen in Northern Ireland? That industrial-scale plant was capable of producing more than 30 million litres of illicit fuel a
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year, representing the equivalent of £20 million in lost revenue. Surely it is about time that such despicable action was stamped out.
Charlie Elphicke: I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman, who makes a very fair point. We need to be firmer and tougher on smuggling and ensure that everyone pays their fair share. Two hauliers in my constituency, Martin Husk, and Tony Thompson of Comfret, stopped me the other day in Dover, complaining bitterly about the way they are hobbled by international competition, and I said that we should look carefully at daily road-user pricing. That would need a European derogation, but all other countries seem able to do it. We should look at introducing that as a longer-term, well thought-out, non-opportunistic measure.
We need measures on fuel which are lawful and affordable. We cannot just prey on people’s fears and be cravenly opportunistic; we have to be considered and careful. We need the Government to continue carefully considering the policy for the Budget next week, and to bring forward something that is affordable, credible, sensible and well thought-out, not the sort of ludicrous opportunism that we have seen from the Opposition.
Gregg McClymont (Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East) (Lab): Time is running away from me, so I will keep my contribution short. The Opposition have called the debate today because we have certain questions about the Government’s attitude to fuel, to living standards and to the economy more widely.
First, do the Government understand the squeeze on working families? Secondly, do the Government understand the need for a political economy that puts growth and jobs at the heart of everything government do? Thirdly, are they a Government who put the interests of the many above those of the few? [Hon. Members: “Yes.”] Well, I have to say—
Government Members say “Yes”, but nothing I have heard so far in this debate leads me to believe that they have an affirmative answer to those questions. Reversing the VAT rise on fuel would be a statement—a declaration—of faith in working families in this country.
Reversing the VAT rise in fuel would be a small concession in the context of a cocktail of economic policies that amount to a sustained assault on the living standards of ordinary families in this country. The Chancellor, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and other Front Benchers will claim that the squeeze in
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living standards is beyond their control, but the Deputy Prime Minister admitted at the weekend that this Government’s policies are their choices. They have chosen to make ordinary families pay the price for their chosen economic policy. Regressive indirect taxes are going up; taxes on bankers and financial services are falling. A return of the bonus tax on bankers would be strongly welcomed by Labour Members. Support for families and for children has been cut aggressively this year. The cut to the child care element in working tax credit will hit hard families up and down this country from April.
Ministers talk of rebalancing the economy, but over the next five years the Office for Budget Responsibility has predicted falling savings rates and a lower share of GDP going into the wages of ordinary families. We already know that lower wages, squeezed living standards and lower savings rates lead to higher personal debt, higher financial stress and more personal bankruptcy. Is this the rebalancing of the economy that we really want, where debt is shifted from Government to families? I, for one, do not think so.
Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): We have heard today from Members on both sides of the Chamber about how ordinary working families and people are feeling the squeeze in these tough economic times.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Fiona O’Donnell) made an excellent speech in which she spoke up for the constituents who have contacted her by e-mail telling stories of how they are being hit by the fuel price rises. My hon. Friends the Members for West Dunbartonshire (Gemma Doyle) and for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) added their tales of woe from constituents who are finding times difficult. My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) mentioned a constituent who wrote to him about being hit from all sides by a litany of blows rained down on him by this Government. My hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Gregg McClymont) referred to a cocktail of economic policies that amount to an assault on the living standards of ordinary working families.
My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South talked about the impact on small businesses, as did the hon. Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey), who spoke from first-hand experience as someone who used to run his own business. He said that the cost of fuel had gone up from £2,000 per month to £3,000 per month, which was obviously having a major impact on the ability to run a profitable business.
Robert Flello: Is my hon. Friend aware that organisations such as the Road Rescue Recovery Association, the Freight Transport Association, the Road Haulage Association and the Scottish Vehicle Recovery Association are asking, “When are the party in government going to honour their pledge about the stabiliser?” They are desperate for that to happen.