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Mr. Alasdair Morgan: Unlike other Members who have spoken this evening, I do not have any significantly large quarries in my constituency. However, there is a fair number of small quarries, all of which are run by large operators. The small number of jobs that those quarries provide is important in the rural context, in which it would be significant to lose even half a dozen jobs in a small village or town.
The amendment deals with environmental protection, which is a worthy objective. However, in my four years in the House, I have not had a single complaint from any of my constituents about any of the quarries operating in my constituency. They are carrying on blithely unaware that their environment needs protection from the quarries in their midst.
In terms of the amendment, it seems eminently reasonable that if protection measures have been taken, are being taken, or are to be taken in future, there should be some rebate to compensate the companies for so doing. However, if protection has to be put in place and measured, we need something against which to measure it. We need to be able to assess the damage that has allegedly been caused--or could be caused--by the quarries.
Initially, when I heard about this tax, I thought, in my naivete, that some assessment or measurement of the damage being caused had been undertaken. It was only after some probing that I came across the measurements to which the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) referred, relating to the environmental costs and benefits of the supply of aggregates, which are, in effect, a glorified opinion poll asking people how much they would pay to have the quarry on their doorstep taken away.
That reminds me of how people are asked how much they would pay for organically produced foods in their supermarkets. Of course, when they go to the supermarkets, they do not, by and large, pay the extra money for such goods. They simply take the goods that represent the best buy. That is perhaps what we should be doing with aggregates, rather than listening to this sort of nonsense. Incidentally, no survey was ever undertaken in my constituency. None of my constituents was ever asked whether they felt that any environmental costs were being
The small local quarries to which I have referred produce mainly for local consumption. The aggregates produced in my constituency are not trucked long distances, except perhaps within the constituency itself, because it is more than 100 miles long and about 100 miles wide. If those quarries were closed, the product would have to be brought in from elsewhere, at greater cost to the environment. That cost would not be measured, and nothing in the Bill would prevent it.
Where there will be environmental benefits, we should help them. However, the best protection for such benefits in my constituency would be to keep open the quarries that are currently producing there. The best way to protect the environment would be to scrap this tax. The second best way might be to pass the amendment.
Mr. Edward Davey: If the hon. Member for High Peak (Mr. Levitt) was not guilty of sycophancy today, he was certainly guilty of casuistry in developing his case. He also made an error in saying that provision for the sustainability fund was in the Bill. It is not, and that is why the amendment--and new clause 12, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), which we shall debate later--are so important.
The Liberal Democrats believe that the acceptability of the aggregates levy might live or die by whether an environmental protection scheme and a rebate scheme are incorporated in the provision at the same time. That is what the Government promised. Indeed, in the Red Book of March this year, they reiterated the promise that the rebate scheme would be introduced at the same time as the levy. Yet we are faced with a Bill that contains no such scheme.
We have been told, when the Minister went before the Environmental Audit Committee, that the Government are finding such a scheme very complex, and difficult to design. What faith are we supposed to have in the Government if they state so openly that they are having problems drawing up such a scheme? Can we believe that they will produce one? Until they do, the aggregates levy should not be allowed to commence. That is why the amendment is so important.
Sir Robert Smith: Is it not very damaging to the cause of any environmental debate that the Government should be cynical enough to be seen to introduce a tax that purely raises money for the Treasury, when they have not worked out how to give the money back?
Time and again, Governments--Conservative Governments, and the current Labour Government--have introduced environmental taxes saying that they will give the money back, and have then not fulfilled the pledge. That is indeed very damaging to the cause of the environment. It undermines the faith of consumers, both individual and corporate, who, when they hear future Governments talk
I support the amendment. My hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome spoke with great authority; I think that those who read the report of this debate will be impressed by his grasp of the detail, and the Committee is indebted to him.
I agree, broadly, with nearly all that has been said by Members on both sides of the Committee about the desirability of an amendment of this kind if we are to have clause 16 at all, but I shall reserve virtually all my remarks for the extreme desirability of not having the clause in the first place. I shall therefore forgo my opportunity to rehearse all the arguments that have already been advanced so pellucidly.
The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Stephen Timms): I shall be brief and confine my observations primarily to the points made in the amendment, although we have had a rather more wide- ranging discussion. I hope that we shall have further debate once the amendment has been dealt with.
I do not accept Opposition Members' complaints about the arrangements for the debate. It was Opposition Members who said that they wanted two days' debate on the Floor of the House, and those two days have been provided. They also said that they wanted to discuss the aggregates levy, hydrocarbons and income tax, and all those topics will be discussed over the two days.
The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) suggested that there should be a debate on new clauses at this point, but debates on new clauses always take place at the end of Finance Bill debates. That is not a feature of the timetabling arrangements; it is a long-standing arrangement in itself.
The Minister was present for my point of order at the beginning, when I pointed out that the instructions on procedures of the House written by the Clerks made it clear that new clauses could be debated on the Floor of the House.
The levy will directly help to address issues raised by the hon. Gentleman and others, in three ways. It will ensure that the price of aggregates reflects the environmental costs of obtaining aggregates through quarrying; it will give an additional price advantage to recycled aggregates; and it will provide resources for a sustainability fund.
Mr. Timms: I can indeed. The environmental costs and benefits of aggregates have been the subject of extensive research published by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, which my hon. Friend may not have had a chance to see. It is probably the most authoritative study of its kind in the world. As the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) said, it is a contingent valuation methodology study. It concludes that the average environmental cost is £1.80 per tonne. We have taken a prudent and cautious view, and gone for a levy of £1.60 per tonne.
The third way in which the levy will help directly to address the issues relates, as I said, to the sustainability fund, which will deal with the impact of quarrying in the communities that are affected. Initially, it will amount to £35 million a year.
The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome feared that some responses to the consultation had not been taken into account in the consultation summary. Owing to difficulties, some submissions, including the one from Somerset that he mentioned, did not reach officials in time to be included in the summary. However, I can reassure him that all responses received, including those received after the deadline, will be taken fully into account in decisions on how the sustainability fund will be used, and that those decisions will be announced in due course.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) argued that there should be further regulation. The Government are considering revising mineral planning guidance to improve the sustainability of quarrying for aggregates, and to reduce further the environmental impacts of extraction, but it is right to address cost issues as well. He spoke of a tax on jobs, but this is the opposite: the package will use the proceeds primarily to reduce employers' national insurance contributions, thus reducing the tax on jobs.
The hon. Member for East Londonderry suggested that the package was not revenue-neutral, but it is, for the very reason that I have just given. The proceeds of the levy will be used to reduce employers' national insurance