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Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish): I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in the debate, but I am extremely disappointed that we heard no positive policies from the Opposition--we merely had a knockabout. I understand that they like to have a go at the Government but, surely, if there really is a crisis, we should have heard something positive from them about their alternative proposals.
The Opposition said how hard pressed some farmers are. I accept that some hill farmers in particular are suffering, but what did they offer them? They said that they understood that the effect of a cut in the duty on red diesel would be insignificant. Then they talked about livestock going to market. Livestock does go to market, but not so regularly that the increase in fuel duty would significantly affect hill farmers' incomes. We need to
Truckers do have problems, but there was no recognition of them from the Opposition. The basic problem for the truckers is that there are too many drivers and too many vehicles. Part of the problem is of their own making. They lobbied for much higher axle weights. They said that it would result in an improvement in productivity, and it has done so for some individuals, but it means that there is not enough work to go around.
That is not the only problem for the truckers. Britain has also seen a steady change in the amount of trucking going on. Huge amounts of coal were once taken to power stations by lorries, but most of that business has disappeared. People have gradually come to recognise that it is much better to put goods back on to the railways. For example, the construction of the second runway at Manchester airport by the filling in of the Bollin valley originally required thousands of lorryloads of limestone from the Pennines, but an extra two miles of railway were put in and it was all transported by rail.
Everyone talked about the policy of getting more trade off the roads and on to the railways, but the consequence of that is that we now have too many drivers. That is sad for someone who has become an owner-driver, mortgaging his house to do so, but such people are now in a market where there is a glut. We must look at ways in which to take some of that surplus out of the market. That will be of far more use to the drivers and the owner-drivers than reducing fuel duty because too many people are still chasing too little business.
Mr. Paterson: If the hon. Gentleman is right, why do the House of Commons figures show that, in 1997, 600,000 lorries entered Britain from the continent, and this year, 2000, it is projected that there will be 900,000?
Mr. Bennett: I accept that some extra lorries are coming from Europe, but in almost every European country the balance of trade is in our favour. It may be that we should be trying at least to protect our trade. The Opposition could have come up with some proposals, but they have not done so today. There are many arguments in favour of the introduction of a Brit disc. We need to look at some positive measures, and the first would be to reduce the number of truckers in an over-supplied market.
Mr. Bennett: I accept that haulage costs will be forced up, but the basic problem is one of too many people looking for the business. That is why so many of them are going out of business. That has nothing to do with fuel charges.
I accept that my constituents find the fuel duty increase burdensome, but most could change their behaviour to meet the difference created by the tax. First, far more of them could simply observe the speed limits. In areas such as mine, considerable sums are being spent on installing traffic calming measures because people drive far too fast. If they drove more slowly, their cars would work more
The Opposition must recognise that global warming is a major problem. If we are to tackle it, we must all use transport less. It would be far better for us to do that now than to have to spend huge sums of money on increasing coastal defences, dealing with flooding and so on. Gradually, my constituents are accepting that message. They all say to me that, if we must use motor cars less and if we must transport goods less to deal with global warming, we need better public transport now.
I am delighted that the Government have given the go-ahead in Greater Manchester for the new metro system to be expanded. They should be commended for that, but I plead with them to consider a few more points while the Transport Bill is going through the House of Lords.
First, there is the relationship between the local transport plans and the Strategic Rail Authority. I hope that the Government will consider giving a higher priority to the local plans, to allow some balance in bargaining. In my constituency, there is a conflict about the priority that should be given to people getting from Newcastle to Liverpool or simply from Guide Bridge to Fairfield. It involves the use of the same bits of track for one purpose or the other.
My next point concerns bus lanes. In much of Greater Manchester, there will not be trams. Bus lanes will work if people see the buses getting to their destination more quickly than cars, but it is important that, when we get the bus lanes in place, contracts can be let so that we have bus operators competing for the contract, rather than buses competing down the bus lane for the business. Again, in the legislation that is going through the other place, the Government could achieve a better balance.
Finally, we need to encourage one system in this country for people to pay their fares. On buses, a huge amount of time is wasted while the driver collects the fares. In most European cities, a carnet or similar system is used so that people can get on and off buses quickly, without having to slow down the entire process to pay their fares.
My plea to the Government is that they should re-examine one or two of the measures in the Transport Bill and get on with the commitment to get good public transport in place, so that we can reduce our dependence on carbon fossil fuels and make a real contribution to reducing the risk of global warming.
Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham): I have declared my interests in the Register of Members' Interests, but perhaps I should remind the House of one interest that I share with the Deputy Prime Minister: both he and I are Jaguar drivers. There is, of course, a very big difference. I have to pay for all my own fuel, whereas the Deputy Prime Minister, I believe, often has his fuel bought for him by the taxpayer.
One of the most worrying aspects of this unpleasant saga is how out of touch the Government have become in such a short time. It is not as though we failed to warn them. On many occasions, the Opposition have brought to the House the democratic cases for lower fuel taxation and for more justice for road haulage industry participants, for farmers and for the many other people who need diesel and petrol to go about their daily business.
I remember attending a Treasury Question Time long before the protests built up on streets. I asked the Chancellor the simple question: what was the price of a litre of petrol, and how much of that was tax? The Chancellor could answer neither part of the question, so out of touch was the man who had just massively increased taxes in the Budget. He did not even know that the tax was so high.
The Government have increased the tax by 34 per cent.; they increased diesel tax by 12 per cent. in one go. They ignored the advice of the Conservative Opposition that the fuel escalator was high enough. They not only stayed on the escalator, but decided to invent another, with an even sharper ascent so that even more hauliers could be driven out of business more quickly, and more people could be driven into fuel poverty on the forecourt, by the pump.
Mr. Bercow: What change of behaviour does my right hon. Friend believe that the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) expects from my 83-year-old, law-abiding constituent, who lives in the heart of rural Buckingham and undertakes journeys to outlying villages to perform her charity work, and is savagely clobbered by the Administration?
Mr. Redwood: The Government seem to believe that poor people have no right to drive a car. It is obvious that they will drive poor people off the roads before those on better salaries. The Government are perpetrating highway robbery without the charisma of Dick Turpin or the good intentions of Robin Hood. We are considering a pariah Government, who rob the poor to give to the rich. Indeed, they give to the super-rich; they give to themselves, and to the Treasury, which has more money than it knows what to do with, and more than it budgeted to receive. The Chancellor is about to make a statement to explain that he got all his Budget figures wrong earlier this year, and that he has a bigger surplus than planned.
The Labour party and the Liberal Democrats ask how the Conservative party would afford the cut in taxes on motorists and the haulage industry. It is easy. The windfall that the Government are receiving is huge; it is bringing in far more money than the Chancellor budgeted for only a few months ago. We do not even recommend returning all the windfall because my right hon. Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo), the shadow Chancellor, is such a prudent and cautious man. However, we recommend giving some of it back because it is taxpayers' money. The Government's intention to pocket all the unexpected windfall money is a rip-off.