Previous Section Home Page

Column 796

Would we expect those track costs not to be covered? Would we expect them to be covered by a ratio of,perhaps, 0.7:1 or even of 1: 1? That is not the case. The ratio is not even 1.4:1. Those vehicles are not covering their track costs by 1.4:1, they are already covering their track costs by 2.3:1. If they are already doing that, what on earth are the Government doing raising vehicle excise duty on those classes of vehicle? Is there any fairness in what they are doing? I do not believe there is. Is there any equity or justice in it? No. At best it is a muddle, and at worst it is mendacious. The Government realise that there are no votes in the issue; there are no seats to be won. Therefore, they are trying to get money out of people they will never represent, who can least afford to pay. Even though the Government are collecting a very small amount, they are prepared to implement this proposal.

Instead of this proposal, if they had any integrity, they would put these extra charges on goods vehicles over 3.5 tonnes, which are covering costs on a ratio of 1.4:1, because those vehicles use the motorways and the roads on the mainland.

Mr. Salmond: I shall speak not to irritate Conservative Members, but to make two quick points. First, I endorse the comments of the hon. Members who represent island communities about the substantial injustice of this proposal. Secondly, I want to ask the Minister a specific question. The Minister heard the definition of the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson) of the three categories of vehicles involved. I want to make absolutely sure that, when the Minister replies, he will estimate the cost of the change on the first two categories, and not give us the overall cost of stamping out the abuse in respect of the third category.

Very precisely, when the Minister replies, will he give the Treasury estimate of the cost of imposing this unfair tax on the first two categories mentioned by the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North--the vehicles that stay within the islands and the vehicles that ply an island trade--and not fob us off with the overall Treasury estimate of the cost of the third measure?

Mr. Barry Porter: On a point of order, Mr. Morris. Some little time ago, the House voted more or less with enthusiasm for something that I understand was called the Jopling reforms. What has happened?

The Chairman of Ways and Means (Mr. Michael Morris): The Jopling recommendations do not apply to Committee stages.

Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North): I, too, represent an inhabited island--the island of Rathlin. When I was appointed to represent that island in this House, there were no roads on the island, no running water and no lighting system. No public housing had been built for years, and the harbour did not exist.

After 25 years, I am glad to tell the Committee that a good harbour exists now. We have public lighting, public water and public housing. At last we have roads. However, if I have to go back to Rathlin island and tell the people there that, with regard to the new ferry, they are going to pay through the nose for the little track of

Column 797

road to allow them to get their vehicles across to Ballycastle to have them reloaded to bring back their goods, they will cry out and say,

"Oh, that we had been left alone, for our estate now is worse than it was at the first."

Mr. Morris, in case you were not aware, that was a quotation from scripture.

The case has been made for people in the quandary about which we are speaking. It is not very late: I have sat in the House until 3, 4 and 5 am. Surely we should have enough sense tonight, and the Minister instead, of sleeping, should have enough sense, to be wide awake and say, "Yes. There is an anomaly here, and I must face up to it and see that justice is done." I make that plea.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: The Committee has heard that vehicle excise duty at a concessionary rate of £150 is payable on some islands, irrespective of the weight of the lorry concerned. The only requirement is that the operators concerned are registered on those islands. There is no legal provision for that concession under existing law. The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency has granted and continued that concession because of the absence on those islands of a plating and testing station. That point was made by the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie).

However, the introduction of revenue weight as the criterion for setting vehicle excise duty means that that consideration is irrelevant, as plating and testing are no longer going to be used for establishing the eligibility for vehicle excise duty or its concessions.

In addition, in practice there is no limit to the use that can be made of the vehicles elsewhere in the United Kingdom, because a vehicle that is validly licensed in one part of the UK can be used elsewhere. There is nothing to prevent them from competing directly with hauliers for services- -

Mr. Harris: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I will finish the point that I am making.

There is nothing to prevent those vehicles from competing for services between the islands and the mainland. Indeed, there is nothing to stop them working wholly on the mainland. That might have been the issue of abuse which was raised. We have seen the ridiculous situation of a vehicle being advertised for sale "with the benefit of Scottish island registration". That is clearly unfair.

Mr. Harris: The Committee appreciates the point, but the Minister says that there is nothing to stop a lorry moving from one island to the mainland. My hon. Friend knows the isles of Scilly. There is everything to prevent a lorry from moving from the isles of Scilly to the mainland, because there is no roll on/roll off ferry. Does my hon. Friend therefore accept that the isles of Scilly at least should be treated as a special case in that regard?

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: My hon. Friend is not quite right. A vehicle does not even need to be transported from the island to the mainland. It can be registered in the island, but bought and used entirely on the mainland. That is clearly unacceptable.

Column 798

For both legal and practical reasons, I invite--

Sir Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Wallace: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: I am not giving way.

For legal and practical reasons, I invite the Committee to regard the United Kingdom, for taxation purposes, as a single unit, and to reject the amendment.

Mrs. Ray Michie: I thank hon. Members, not least the hon. Members for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) and for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley), for their support. I know all about Rathlin island, and that we want a ferry to come from Ballycastle to Campbeltown in my constituency.

Mr. Wilson: And Ardrossan.

Mrs. Michie: As the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson) says, and Ardrossan.

I am seriously disappointed by the Minister's reply. I hoped that he would say that he would discuss the matter with the Department of Transport, and would come back to the Committee with something worth while.

Sir Patrick Cormack: I had hoped to ask this question of my hon. Friend the Minister, but has she ever put to him the fact that the vehicles that are not causing the abuse should have a special registration number?

Mrs. Michie: That is a valid point. Perhaps the Minister will answer it. As for such vehicles being able to operate somewhere else, that is absolutely ridiculous. Many of those lorries are kept by farmers or builders. They work only on the island. They do not go off the island looking for work elsewhere. Like the hon. Member for St. Ives, I think that there has been a terrible mistake.

Mr. Wallace: My hon. Friend will have heard the Minister give as part of his main reason--indeed, it was almost the centrepiece of his resistance to the amendment--that there is no legal basis to distinguish between hauliers who are genuine and those who are causing abuse. Has it occurred to my hon. Friend that the Minister has been a Member of Parliament for eleven and a half years, and that it might not yet have dawned on him that part of our reason for being here is to make laws? That is what I thought we were doing. Therefore, the Minister's excuse is entirely fatuous.

Mrs. Michie: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. We all know that, if the Minister and his Department want to do something, they have the political will to do it, and they can change things if they need to be changed. I am asking the Minister to change something on behalf of the islanders of Scotland.

Mr. Salmond: The hon. Lady will know that I made a brief intervention to ask only one question of the Minister, which he totally failed to answer. Does the hon. Lady

Column 799

agree that it is a sign of weakness that a Minister sits down because his speech is so ridiculous that he is inciting the anger of Conservative Members behind him?

Mrs. Michie: The hon. Gentleman makes his point in no uncertain terms. I hope that we will be able to press--

Mr. Anthony Steen (South Hams): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Michie: I do not want to detain the Committee.

[Interruption.] I am happy; I thought that Conservative Members wanted to go to bed.

Mr. Steen: Will the hon. Lady give the House some idea of how many vehicles she is talking about? I have an island in my constituency which lies half a mile off the coast. It does not have a haulage contracting business but--from what the hon. Lady has said--I am quite sure that the last thing anybody would do would be to start a haulage contracting business on that island.

Mrs. Michie: One of the bigger contractors about which I told the House and which operates shunt units carries perhaps eight vehicles in a day's passage of ferries. Those shunt units are now to be subject to vehicle excise duty.

On the island of Islay, there are probably eight or 10 lorries used in the building of houses or by farmers for carrying hay and that sort of thing. If one includes all the islands of the Western Isles and Orkney and Shetland, there are plenty of contractors and small lorry operators.

We will put the amendment to a vote, because many Conservative Members have spent lots of happy holidays on the islands of my constituency. They know lots of people on the islands and the people know them, and they will be very interested to see who will vote against the islanders of Argyll and Bute.

11.15 pm

Mr. Macdonald: It is unfortunate that the Minister is detaining the House because of the inadequacy of his reply. The reasons that he gave in reply to hon. Members were shallow indeed. The notion that there is currently no way of distinguishing between those vehicles which remain within the islands and vehicles which abuse the system by being used on the mainland is no excuse.

I pointed out in my initial remarks that the Department of Transport had said to a number of hon. Members on both sides of the House that it was conducting a review to discover a legal basis for distinguishing between vehicles which are abusing the system and genuine vehicles. That review must have happened, because the Minister at the Department of Transport said that it would be happening. We need to know what conclusions were reached and what options were considered and discarded.

The Minister cannot simply stand up and say that there is no legal basis for distinguishing between vehicles, because the Government have said that they are looking at the matter. It is wholly inadequate for the Minister to sit on his haunches and leave it at that. Even if he does not answer tonight--he may not have the papers from the Department of Transport with him--the Minister ought at least to have the courtesy to say that he will reconsider the matter. Unless he can provide an answer to the questions--I shall be happy to give way if he wishes to

Column 800

do so--the Minister should ask his colleagues at the Department of Transport what the result of the review was, and then inform the Committee.

Most especially, the Minister should have the courtesy to inform those hon. Members who were promised by a former Minister at the Department of Transport that there would be a review. As hon. Members were given that promise, the Minister cannot simply wash his hands of the whole matter. It is a simple matter of courtesy, if nothing else.

Dr. Marek: I shall be brief. I listened carefully to the Minister, and he did not provide answers to any of the different questions which were put to him. I have searched my memory and, in the 11 years I have been a Member of Parliament, I have never heard such a wooden and stilted response from a Minister who saw common sense staring him in the face, and turned away. The Minister does not do the House, the people in general or the people on the islands a service by behaving in that wooden and disinterested manner.

Can the Minister consult his officials and the Department of Transport? He can see what the will of the House is. If he has any respect for it, instead of dragooning his hon. Friends, by inviting them to vote for a measure in which they do not believe, he should promise at the Dispatch Box to reconsider the matter and table amended proposals on Report.

Sir Patrick Cormack: I have considerable respect for my hon. Friend the Paymaster General. Can he answer one question? I had hoped to ask him while he was speaking, but he would not give way and I also mentioned the matter to the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie). Why cannot those vehicles that are restricted to the islands and never allowed to go anywhere else have a special registration number and a coloured plate, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) suggested? Why cannot they alone be exempt and given favourable treatment? It would cost very little, it would satisfy my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) and most of the other hon. Members who have spoken, and it would show that my hon. Friend had listened to the arguments.

Mr. Wilson: I am speaking again not merely because of the inadequacy of the Minister's reply, but because of the bogus point of order raised by the hon. Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Porter). The House should understand one thing. We have heard hon. Members on both sides of the House state a rational case in defence of a small number of people and of fragile communities that do not have much representation in this House. It is completely unacceptable for an hon. Member to chastise us for making that case on the ground of the Jopling report and it is even more unacceptable for him to stagger out of the Chamber as soon as he has made that point. If anyone thinks that the Jopling report will be used as a device to stop the weak being heard late at night, they should relieve themselves of that view now. I hope that every hon. Member in every part of the House will agree with that.

The Minister's reply was grossly inadequate. The hon. Member for South Hams asked for numbers. He should not have had to do so because the Minister should have given them in his reply. If he had done so, the small number of hon. Members on both sides of the House who

Column 801

are affected could almost have done the arithmetic on their hands and feet, and told the Government how many genuine operators are affected in each of our constituencies. We could guess how many operators are using the islands as flags of convenience and could say that the problem is, for example, 10:1--one is legitimate and 10 are illegitimate, or whatever the figure might be.

The Minister's incredibly inadequate answer revealed the fact that hon. Members on both sides of the House have argued a reasonable case and that he has no answer. Will the Minister tell me what part of Tory philosophy it is to penalise a small number of legitimate business men--small businesses in island communities--because the Government have not the courage, vision or skill to clamp down on abuse? Why should the people who engage in abuse win? They will do so, in the sense that the Government believe that the only way to deal with that abuse is to clamp down on the people who are not guilty. Why should the big operator, who has never even had a lorry on the island in which he or she is registered according to the Minister's statement, be able to ensure that operators in the Isles of Scilly, in a marginal Tory seat, pay the full whack? Why should someone who runs their lorries out of Birmingham be able to discriminate against my constituents on Arran or Cumbrae because Ministers do not have sufficient interest to clamp down on abuse and would rather clamp down on the legitimate operator?

If the Minister can answer any of those questions, he should get to his feet. If he cannot answer them, he should withdraw the proposal for the time being, seek further advice from the people who have given him bum advice and bring back the issue later.

Rev. William McCrea (Mid-Ulster): Earlier in this debate, the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie) made a carefully presented and thoughtful speech. Powerful arguments were put and questions were posed which have not been answered. The Minister does the House a great discourtesy and his reputation a disservice by failing to answer those specific questions.

If the House is being asked to decide and vote, questions should be answered honourably. The Minister should therefore come to the Dispatch Box and answer the questions before a Division is called.

Mr. Harris: I make an earnest and sincere appeal to my hon. Friend the Minister. He has shown great flexibility in handling the Bill and I am grateful for the changes that he has made. I went to see him with colleagues last week. I am sure that he appreciates the fact that there is real feeling on this matter. I plead with him to take it away and look at it again, otherwise he will put me in a difficult position.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: The House and the Government have many ways of helping various parts of the United Kingdom, including the islands, which are the subject of this amendment. But it is not right to use the taxation system for vehicles as the amendment requires. We have an opportunity to remove not just an anomaly but an abuse. Hon. Members who have spoken in the debate have described how and agreed that such an abuse takes place. It is right that island communities around the United Kingdom should receive differing amounts of help through various systems. Vehicle excise duty is a United Kingdom tax and, in answer to my hon. Friend the

Column 802

Member for Staffordshire, South (Sir P. Cormack), I am not prepared to see various licence plates for different parts of the United Kingdom solely on the basis of concessions granted in those other parts of the United Kingdom.

We assert the unity of the United Kingdom for taxation purposes, which is why I invite the Committee to reject the amendment.

Mr. Macdonald: The Minister's response is as inadequate as the previous one, because it ignores the fact that several hon. Members were assured that the Department of Transport was looking at the matter.

The Minister said that he has ruled on principle that the exception is to close, yet that is not what the Department of Transport told us. It specifically said that it understood the point being made and would actively seek ways to deal with it. We have had no response from the Department of Transport or any other Department on that issue, so it is wrong for the Minister now to say that the matter cannot be considered in principle

The Department of Transport has already conceded the value of the exception and said that it would look at the mechanics of trying to achieve a solution. For the Minister now to turn round and simply say that the review should not have taken place is wholly inadequate. We were promised a review and still need to know what the review discovered.

I do not see the Minister's problem. The wheels of Government will not grind to a halt, nor will their revenues dry up if he takes this opportunity to consult the Department of Transport and return with full information on Report.

Ms Primarolo: Will the Minister reconsider his statement to the House? He conceded that certain island communities will experience difficulties because of the Government's decision to standardise vehicle excise duty. He also admitted that those communities require additional help because of their vulnerabilities and unique position.

So that the Committee can make progress, I suggest that we proceed with the Minister's proposals for vehicle excise duty, but I ask him to give an undertaking that we will deal with the question of concessions to the islanders--whose case has been put this evening--on Report. If he fails to give that assurance, the Committee will be deadlocked and I am sure that he does not want that to occur this evening. We must find a way of drafting solutions to meet the islanders' demands.

11.30 pm

Mr. Salmond: The Minister has been asked on several occasions to quantify the cost of exempting the proper cases which were outlined by the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson). I have listened to the Minister reply to questions about many Opposition amendments during the Committee stage of the Finance Bill and every time he has begun by saying that the amendment will cost the Revenue and the Treasury so much money that he cannot concede it. Although he has been asked about the cost several times tonight, he has chosen not to reply to that question. That leads me to two conclusions: first, that the Minister does not know the cost of retaining the concession for those deserving cases, which means that the matter has

Column 803

not been considered properly and the Minister should withdraw it; or, secondly, he knows how much it will cost but he is not prepared to tell the Committee because the sum is so embarrassingly small that it will expose the Government as doing island communities a grave injustice for the sake of perhaps a few million pounds.

For the third time, I ask the Minister to quantify now the cost of retaining the concession in the category 1 and 2 cases that were outlined earlier by the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North.

Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian): There are no inhabited islands off the coast of my constituency, but I have been following the debate with great interest. It is one of the most extraordinary debates that I have witnessed during my career in the House of Commons.

My hon. Friends the Members for Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald) and for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson), the hon. Members for St. Ives (Mr. Harris), for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley), for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie) and for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) explained that they corresponded and had meetings with the former Minister for Transport, the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key), who has been in his place during the debate. He assured them, as a Minister of the Crown and on behalf of the Government, that ways would be found to ensure that island hauliers were provided for appropriately in any future framework.

However, in responding to the debate a Treasury Minister has discounted all of those assurances and has tried to give the Committee the impression that the discussions never took place. That is a most intolerable position for hon. Members to be in and I do not think that the Committee should accept a reply like that from any Minister in any Government.

I hope that the Minister will return to the Dispatch Box tonight and demonstrate that he is speaking on behalf of a united Government, instead of the Department of Transport saying one thing and the Treasury saying something else. That is no way to run a Government and it is certainly no way to manage fragile island communities in the Western Isles or anywhere else. It will be to his eternal discredit if the hon. Gentleman does not reply to the debate sensibly.

Mr. Wallace: I endorse the proposal put by the Member for Bristol, South (Ms Primarolo); it is a sensible way to proceed. The Minister should give such an undertaking and we can then return to the matter on Report.

Judging from the way that he replied to the Committee this evening, it appears that the Minister was given a brief to deal with an amendment at the fag-end of a sitting which failed totally to address many of the substantive issues that were put to him from both sides of the Committee. No hon. Members on either side of the Committee have attempted to defend the abuse which has taken place; that point was conceded. We ask the Government to devise a means to stamp on abuse so that people who genuinely want to proceed with their businesses--and who do not have a basis for increasing their revenue or the turnover to withstand the amounts in question--can do so. I am not sure what would happen if, a year down the track, some businesses go under and valuable haulage services are lost.

Column 804

It is no use the Paymaster General repeating the mantra of a united taxation system. That principle has already been breached by what has gone before. We heard that the Department of Transport is already reviewing the system and is prepared to countenance a different situation.

Mr. William Ross: The same taxation system has not always applied. I ask the Committee to consider what happened in respect of the community charge.

Mr. Wallace: The hon. Gentleman makes a pertinent and obvious point. Some of us well remember that we had to pay the community charge long before other parts of the United Kingdom.

Mr. William Ross: Northern Ireland never paid it.

Mr. Wallace: As the hon. Gentleman says, Northern Ireland never paid the community charge. The Government's weak arguments have not addressed the substantive issues. It would be helpful and consistent with the mood of the Committee if the Minister would say that we can return to this matter after it has been given proper consideration and we know the outcome of the review promised by the Department of Transport to me and to many other hon. Members.

Dr. Marek: The Paymaster General said that he was responsible for United Kingdom taxation, and the implication was that if duty for a vehicle in central London is to be £500, the same duty would be payable for a vehicle in Canna or any of the other Scottish islands. That cannot be right. Taxation should be fair and seen to be fair. How can a comparison be made between a vehicle on a small Scottish island that can travel only in a circle, for a distance of 12 miles--

Mr. Home Robertson: Or less.

Dr. Marek: Or less, as my hon. Friend says--with a vehicle in London that might travel 10,000 or 12,000 miles a month? It cannot be right for both vehicles to be taxed the same amount.

The Paymaster General says that he is responsible for taxation as a Minister of the United Kingdom Parliament, but he is not weighing all the considerations properly. He must take into account equity and fairness, and appreciate that the public must be satisfied that his proposals are fair. I cannot imagine any member of the public in the British Isles arguing that because a vehicle on a small island in Scotland is to be taxed at £500, the same amount must apply to a vehicle registered in central London. That arrangement would be blatantly unfair.

We are not asking the right hon. Gentleman to make up legislation on the spot, at the Dispatch Box. Hon. Members on both sides of the Committee implored him to think about the points that have been made. Most importantly, the excellent point put by the hon. Member for Staffordshire, South (Sir P. Cormack) deserves consideration in the quiet solitude of the Minister's room, rather than in Committee. It is clear that both sides of the Committee believe that a gross unfairness will be perpetrated unless the Minister does something. Unless we can be sure that the Minister will take cognisance of that, hon. Members in all parts of the Committee will be most disgruntled. I urge the Minister, as a matter of common sense, to think again.

Column 805

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: Of course the House can return to this issue on another occasion--certainly on Report. But I ask the Committee to reject the amendment in the full knowledge that the procedures of the House allow the House to return to it another time.

Mr. Wilson: I make no apology for keeping the debate going. Why on earth should people legislate when they have not the slightest idea of the consequences of what they are legislating for? The moment the Minister rises to give us some information in response to the points that we have been making, I shall sit down. That will be the end of it.

How many vehicles are affected by the provision? How many of them never leave the islands? How many of them have never been on the islands in question?

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: The hon. Gentleman is asking me a question that is impossible to answer. How can anyone know whether a vehicle has left an island? We do not run a police state in which vehicles are followed from the islands to the mainland. It is self-evidently absurd to ask me for information that does not and cannot exist, either in my Department or in the public domain.

The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) asked me about three categories of expenditure on which no information exists. Indeed, they are not possible to identify. If they were, I would be the first to give the hon. Member the information that he requires-- Several hon. Members rose --

The Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Dame Janet Fookes): Order. The Minister is already intervening. We cannot have interventions in interventions.

Mr. Harris: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Can the House return on Report to a matter dealt with by the Committee, unless the Government move an amendment dealing with it?

The Second Deputy Chairman: It is a matter for Madam Speaker whether to select amendments or new clauses on Report.

Rev. Ian Paisley: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. How can we make up our minds when the Minister has told us that he cannot possibly give us the information? He says that there is abuse, but he cannot have it both ways. If he cannot give the numbers to the Committee, how does he know how many people are abusing the system?

The Second Deputy Chairman: The Chair is not responsible for the content of speeches.

Next Section

  Home Page