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Mr. Wilson: I am genuinely grateful to the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce), because I did not know that. To be honest, I have not corresponded on the issue with the present Under-Secretary. I was asked about the matter recently, and I told my constituents--I thought in good faith--that the matter was pending, because I had an assurance from the hon. Member for Salisbury that it was under review.
Column 817I wrote to the Secretary of State for Transport two or three weeks ago and I passed on the renewed concern of my constituents. I congratulate the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute if, in the interim, she has been in touch with the present Under-Secretary. It is obvious either that none of the information has been communicated to Treasury Ministers, or that they have just brushed it aside, saying that it is all nonsense and that nobody cares about promises given in the House any more.
Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow): Surely my hon. Friend is not surprised at the Government's indifference to those highland communities. About eight or nine months ago, he and I met the Minister of State at the Scottish Office to discuss the real fears surrounding the Glenlight shipping company, which has now ceased to trade largely because of the Government's failure to provide the subsidies that it needed.
Mr. Wilson: My hon. Friend is absolutely right and the problem is compounded. Not only did the Glenlight shipping company--a privately operated company--go out of business because that arrangement was ended, but at least two of the other coaster companies that operated at that time and whose existence Ministers used as a justification for not supporting Glenlight, have also gone out of business since. The Easdale Island company was the most recent. It operated the last puffers in the western isles and it too has gone out of business. The relevance of that, Mr. Deputy Speaker, is that, as coastal shipping declines, everything else is piled on to the roads and on to the car ferry system, and vehicle excise duty becomes crucial to all trade between the islands and the mainland.
Mr. Graham: My hon. Friend will be aware that the headquarters of Caledonian MacBrayne, which services most of the isles, is in my constituency. Tonight's announcement will create terrible stress and problems for my constituents who service the islands. They will be wondering whether the change in duty will mean a reduction in jobs because there will not be enough money to go around. Does that mean that, once again, my constituents will have to suffer further unemployment? Does it mean that the islands will suffer further unemployment because there will not be enough money to invest?
Mr. Wilson: My hon. Friend's concern for the employees of CalMac is well known. Indeed, we and my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) once jointly fought quite a successful campaign to keep CalMac's headquarters in Gourock. More recently, we fought a successful campaign to keep the company in the private sector.
I do not want to disturb the Minister responsible for cricket, who is nodding off--
Mrs. Helen Liddell (Monklands, East): I am impressed by my hon. Friend's comments about the effect of the coastal trade in Scotland. Our Scottish heritage has a great impact on our tourist trade. Is it not ironic that many hon. Members on both sides of the House have been very attracted by the stories of the Vital Spark and the history of Scotland that is connected with the puffers? When we study the background to our coastal trade and the effect that this schedule could have on it, we realise that we are
Column 818losing a vital part of our community, of our heritage and of what makes Scotland different--a vital part of our vital spark.
Mr. Wilson: My hon. Friend the Member for Monklands, East (Mrs. Liddell) makes a vital point, Mr. Morris. Our national heritage has many dimensions. I contend that the economic well-being of island communities is a very important part.
The Chairman: May I help the hon. Gentleman? He obviously has important matters to raise on schedule 4 concerning vehicle excise duty. Perhaps he will deal with those rather than worrying too much about the dead.
Mr. Macdonald: Will my hon. Friend reflect on the principle which the Minister announced to us tonight, that taxation must be absolutely uniform throughout the length and breadth of the United Kingdom, and must apply to Lewis in the Hebrides as it does to Lewes in Sussex? Where does my hon. Friend think that that law--if it is a law--comes from? Does he agree that it is absurd to apply it to the Scottish islands?
Mr. Wilson: I agree entirely. It is not a law. If we were here long enough, and if you, Mr. Morris, allowed us to deviate far enough, we could give several examples of exceptions and anomalies that are allowed in recognition of geographical circumstances. I do not blame the Minister for what he said on the ground that he did not know what he was talking about. It was an ad hoc response.
Mr. Salmond: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that a number of exemptions apply even to vehicle taxation. For example, police vehicles are exempt from vehicle taxation. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) says that the lorries on the islands could be fitted with blue flashing lights, which
Column 819would enable them to be exempt. Alternatively, they could be reclassified in some way. There is no uniform vehicle excise duty for police vehicles.
My hon. Friend the Member for Renfrew, West and Inverclyde mentioned Caledonian MacBrayne. It is a dreadful confession from the Minister that he has no idea which vehicles commute between islands and mainland and which are fraudulently based on the mainland. It would not be difficult to check the returns of the ferry operators to find the activity pattern of each of those vehicles.
The Minister has consistently failed to say why he refuses to distinguish between fraudulent and legitimate operators. [Interruption.] Now he does not even have the courtesy to listen to the debate. Will he make some effort tonight to distinguish between those who operate fraudulently and those who operate legitimately, or are they all part of the same picture in the Tory book?
Mr. Skinner: My hon. Friend mentioned fact that the Minister had not the decency to listen to what he was saying. I suggest that he was not listening to my hon. Friend because the Tory Whips were in a huddle proposing that, despite the fact that my hon. Friend has been speaking for a relatively few minutes, they try to move a closure on this specific debate. The plan is that the Tory Whip will ask the Chair, Mr. Morris, to have a closure. It will be argued on the basis that, as there has been an important debate on the amendment beforehand, that time and this should be added together in order to gag my hon. Friend or anybody who follows him. That is the plan.
I wish to return to a serious point which the Government must answer. This debate has now been going on in correspondence with Ministers for about nine months. Why have they never sought to identify vehicles that are genuinely island-based? Why is the Tory party the party of legitimate fraud? Why have the Government allowed people to act fraudulently and advertise island licences when they know perfectly well that they are not island operators? Why have the Government done nothing about that? Why is their only solution based on a refusal to draw a distinction and therefore discriminate unfairly against the island operators?
The Minister has not made the slightest effort to answer any of those questions. I think that that is a discourtesy to the Committee--more than that, it is a disgrace--although
Column 820it is a very minor discourtesy compared with the sleazebag activities of the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Knight).
Mr. Graham: My hon. Friend will be aware that the vehicle excise duty will affect snow ploughs. There were blizzards in Scotland the other day and if snow ploughs are taxed to the hilt it will affect the lifeline to the islands. Will the roads be cleared or will Scotland suffer once again because the Government have not seen fit to recognise the difficulties of island living? Snow ploughs are essential to living on the islands and we must ensure that the roads are clear and free of snow. I ask my hon. Friend to consider that point in his deliberations on the schedule.
Mr. Wilson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, although I do not want to get on to the subject of snow ploughs. Many hon. Members wish to speak in the debate tonight, and in light of the strictures of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), I will bring my remarks to a close.
Mr. Wilson: I know that the hon. Gentleman wants to hear a bit more about the islands. I was going to ask him if there is any particular island that he would like me to dwell upon, but that might be a dangerous invitation.
Mr. Home Robertson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. There is a lot of meat in the schedule. I think that paragraph 23, which refers to "false or misleading information", is particularly relevant to the position tonight. Sub-paragraph (3A) states:
"A person who, in supplying information or producing documents for the purposes of any regulations made under section 61A-- (a)makes a statement which to his knowledge is false or in any material respect misleading or recklessly makes a statement which is false or in any material respect misleading . . . is guilty of an offence".
Does it occur to my hon. Friend that the Minister, and more specifically the Government Whips, were "recklessly misleading" in their conduct in relation to an earlier amendment to the schedule? If people will be guilty in future of an offence under the terms of the schedule and subject to legal sanctions, why are Ministers not prepared to live up to those same standards?
Mr. Wilson: My hon. Friend makes his own point. I believe that the little things which happen in the Chamber have much greater reverberations outside it. The story of what happened earlier this evening will be told for months and years to come. In one fell swoop, the hon. Member for Derby, North wrote off any chance that the Tories had of winning back the marginal seat of Argyll and Bute. He has also made a significant contribution to doing in the
Column 821hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris), and there may be an effect on other seats because many people who do not live on the islands are interested in them.
The Tories will pay for their actions earlier tonight in one way or another. They do not have the wit to realise it when the events are taking place--they think that everything can be stitched up in here. If they can cheat and deceive and use those sorts of tactics--
The Chairman: Order. Firstly, the hon. Gentleman is not talking to the schedule; and, secondly, I would be grateful if he would again rephrase the word that he used. Does he know which word I am referring to? The hon. Gentleman used the word "cheat", which is not appropriate.
Mr. Wilson: That is a very seasonal word. Would "sleekit" be all right, Mr. Morris? It is used in a well-known poem by Robert Burns as an adjective to describe vermin, so I will halfway compromise on it and we will bear in mind Bevan's famous maxim.
Rev. William McCrea: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that a strange philosophy is being advanced tonight? The Government, instead of taking action against people who act fraudulently, intend to put legitimate island operators out of business to solve the problem.
Mr. Wilson: I agree. That is something for which the Paymaster General should answer, but he refuses. The Government's philosophy is that it is easier to use a sledgehammer than to make sensible adjustments, to separate the wheat of legitimate island operators from the chaff of fraudulent operators who are abusing the system. 12.45 am
Dr. Godman: Does my hon. Friend agree that the sleekit behaviour of Ministers tonight may damage the interests of people who are attempting to bring some prosperity to remote communities? I refer to the importance of transport costs to fish farms in remote island communities. The measure could damage not just hauliers but fish farms and the employment that they offer.
Mr. Wilson: I could talk at length about fish farms but will not do so. The same argument applies to distilleries. Island economies are dependent on transport and transport costs. The Government are gratuitously heaping an additional cost on transport, which will affect the cost of everything else.
Mr. Home Robertson rose --
Mr. Wilson: I will not accept any further interventions because I do not want to prolong my speech, and I do not want this debate to descend into farce. It is not a farcical matter, but a serious one. This speech is not a ploy. I am making it because I care passionately about the well-being of the islands and particularly of those in my constituency.
Even after seven years in the House, I was naive enough to believe that, if one argued a good non-political case--which in this instance concerns communities in my constituency that generally do not vote for me--one could win it, because virtually nothing is at stake. I was
Column 822encouraged by the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key), who encouraged a good dialogue--but out of the blue, the whole thing was dashed in a most insulting way.
I am not sure whether the Minister acted alone or in a conspiracy with the hon. Member for Derby, North. They dealt with the matter in a way that I am not allowed by you, Mr. Morris, to describe. The judgment will out, and this debate will have its reverberations. Hell mend those responsible.
Mr. Macdonald: My hon. Friend said that Tory Members will pay for their activities this evening. They are already beginning to pay, because they could have been home a long time ago if their Whips had not scored an extraordinary own goal, trying to scupper the possibility of returning to this debate on a future occasion. They did not succeed in that either, because--
I will not confine myself to the topic touched on earlier, because schedule 4 concerns many other relevant matters.
I cannot refrain from mentioning what the Minister described as the principle involved in not allowing the exemption for island vehicles. The schedule itself offers a simple way of resolving the problem, which is how to identify vehicles used only on the islands and not misused by being taken to the mainland. The Minister said that this could not be done because the Treasury does not make geographical or regional exceptions in the matter of vehicle taxation.
Part II of the schedule, paragraph 2(h), mentions
"vehicles used for short journeys between different parts of a person's land".
Why not rephrase that to read "vehicles used for short journeys between different parts of an island"? That would offer a good definition of the sort of vehicles for which we are seeking an exemption. It does not refer to the Scottish islands, so it does not pose the regional problem that the Minister says goes against the Treasury grain.
Vehicles used for short journeys within islands could then be marked to ensure that they could not be taken to the mainland, thus putting an end to the abuses that the Minister is so keen to stamp out.
The Minister has been unable to give us a single statistic to show the extent of a problem with which he is clearly obsessed. He is willing to deal this heavy blow to fragile island communities in order to get rid of the problem, yet he has told us that he has no idea of how great the problem really is. That is quite extraordinary.
The Minister thought that the abuse was so considerable that he had to take action against island communities and ignore the work being done by the Department of Transport. We might have expected him to make an effort to ascertain the scale of the problem first: how many operators are abusing the exemption? How much money is being lost to the Treasury--thousands or tens of thousands of pounds?
Column 823The Minister has no answer to these questions, yet he is willing to detain us all here--
Mr. Home Robertson: My hon. Friend is being unfair to the Minister. Surely the Treasury must know how many vehicles are covered by the current exemption. By the simple process of calculating the difference between the discounted rate and the top rate, and multiplying by the number of vehicles covered by the exemption, even this Minister should be able to work out the answer. Is my hon. Friend telling us that the Minister and the Government do not even know that?
Mr. Macdonald: The Minister told us all earlier that he had no idea of the total number of vehicles claiming the exemption, or of the total revenue lost to the Treasury thereby. He could not even hazard a guess as to what proportion constitutes abuse. If he had an idea of the total number, he could have simply given us some kind of ceiling, above which the abuse could not be said to take place. He could say that the amount being lost because of the abuse was a certain figure below that amount, because there would be a total amount involved in terms of vehicles claiming the exemption. I do not want to press that particular point with the Minister, but he must go back tomorrow morning and ask those who advise him in the Treasury how we came to be discussing the matter at this hour of the morning, when it could all have been settled and resolved with a little foresight and thought, a little consideration, a little bit of communication between his Department and the Department of Transport, which is currently considering the issue. Does he believe that the principle of uniform vehicle taxation throughout the United Kingdom is so important that it cannot be deviated from in this specific instance, which has the support of both sides of the Committee? Is it threatened at all as a principle by the exemptions that we propose? I suggest that, if the Minister asked the civil servants to exercise a little bit of ingenuity and brain power, they would soon come up with a form of words that would achieve the purpose that hon. Members on both sides of the Committee wish to achieve, but which would also not break the principle that he so cherishes.
I would like to move away from that specific topic in case hon. Members believe that it is becoming exhausted, bearing in mind the strictures of the hon. Member for Bolsover about the two debates potentially being added together.
Mr. Home Robertson: Before my hon. Friend moves on from the Minister's cherished principle, I would like to clarify one point, because I studied very carefully the manifesto issued by the Conservative candidate in East Lothian at the last general election and I can assure my hon. Friend that nothing was in it about an undertaking to get to the root of the vicious problem of islanders freeloading on the mainlanders because of the exemption. Did the Conservative candidate in Western Isles promise in his manifesto to do away with the exemption?
Column 824Minister was apparently telling us a few seconds before the conclusion of the debate, and given the actions of his hon. Friends the Whips in undermining the commitment that he had apparently made to hon. Members about being able to return to the matter on Report.
Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: No undertaking has been undermined. I stand by the remarks that I made, which were that the House clearly wishes to return to the issue. It is most appropriately done later on Report. If there was any procedural difficulty about the matter being raised by the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie), I would use the Government Benches to ensure that the matter was raised on Report. I gave that undertaking, but I also indicated, in response to a question, that I would be happy to meet the hon. Lady or other hon. Members to discuss it, because I have never refused to meet an hon. Member about an issue of public concern.
I am very happy to repeat those points for the benefit of the Committee. At this late hour, I do not think that it is very fruitful for me to continue to debate the issue with the hon. Gentleman, but in the light of the assurances that I have given, I hope that he will agree that it is my full intention--as it has always been--to return to the issue in due course.
Mr. Macdonald: That is a welcome announcement, which makes it all the more extraordinary that the Whips should have forced a Division in the first place. They have saved themselves no time tonight, nor have they precluded a subsequent return to the issue. This is the most self-defeating action that I have ever witnessed on the part of a Whip.
Does my hon. Friend agree that double standards are operating here? A Tory Minister says that it is wrong to have variation in relation to taxes for the islands, yet the Government are prepared to attack the Labour party when it talks about devolution because they say that it will put up taxes for Scotland. They cannot have it both ways; this really is hypocritical.
Mr. Macdonald: I thank my hon. Friend for reminding the Committee of that, but I should like to return to the Minister's offer. He said that the matter could--indeed, I think he said "would"--be returned to on Report following a meeting between the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie) and other hon. Members.
Dr. Godman: In the light of the Minister's offer, may I ask my hon. Friend whether he believes that schedule 4, suitably amended, would meet the needs voiced by him and the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute?
Column 825the Minister suggested that, if a proposal emerges as a result of meetings that he held with the hon. Lady and others, the Government might be willing to consider tabling such an amendment on Report. I must consider the impact of schedule 4 on certain operators in my consituency: it is likely to drive them out of business. If the Minister suggested that the Government might table amendments as a result of meetings with hon. Members, that would relieve my constituents and, I am sure, many of his hon. Friends who are present tonight.
I remember a parallel case--almost--in last year's Finance Bill, involving the passenger tax. A similar principle was invoked then. It might have been more applicable then because some people were seeking regional exceptions. However, I do not see how the principle applies in this instance. It should be easy to find a simple way to define the matter in a manner that does not breach Treasury guidelines. The matter is hugely important to my constituents because transport communications are crucial to the livelihood of people in the Scottish islands. Communities there are fragile and average incomes are considerably below the United Kingdom average. Car ownership is proportionately high precisely because communications in remote rural areas are impossible by any normal means of public transport and car ownership is a necessity. Any measure that increases the costs of transport to my consistituents and other island inhabitants strikes at the very root of those communities and their ability to survive. I hope that when the Minister meets the hon. Lady and other hon. Members he will be open-minded, will look at the issues afresh, and will have requested a report from the Department of Transport. I hope that he will ask his Treasury officials to look as hard as they can for a means to achieve this exception.
Rev. Ian Paisley: I am glad that I waited until the end of this debate, because if what the Minister said had been said a little earlier, we would not have reached such an impasse. I am critical of what the Whips did but I shall look carefully at what the Minister does. He has said that he will use the Government's power to return the issue to the Floor of the House. Time will tell, but I accept that assurance. As I have said, if it had been given sooner and more fully we would not have reached the impasse.
Question put and agreed to.
Schedule 4, as amended, agreed to.
Bill (Clauses 2, 5, 8, 15, 52, 64 and 91, Schedules 1, 4, 11 and 14, and any new clauses first appearing on the Order Paper not later than 19 January and designed to continue the statutory effect of the Ways and Means Resolutions of the House of 13 December) as amended, to be reported.
To lie upon the Table.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 101(5) (Standing Committees on Statutory Instruments, &c.) , That the draft High Court and County Courts Jurisdiction (Amendment) Order 1994, which was laid before this House on 29th November, be approved.
That the draft County Court Remedies (Amendment) Regulations 1994, which were laid before this House on 29th November, be approved.-- [Mr. Andrew Mitchell.]
Question agreed to.