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I am astonished at the contributions from Tory and Liberal Members. I am sure that the electors of Argyll will be very interested to read the speech made by the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid). The hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) says that he would have tabled an amendment if it had not been for the rules of the House. That just goes to show that the SNP and our colleagues are much more ingenious in
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finding a way forward than Liberal Members. Our proposal may be less than perfect, but theirs is less than visible.
Chris Huhne: The hon. Gentleman has missed the point that his proposal involves a substantial cut in Government revenues with no symmetrical obligation in other circumstances where it would be unwound. He has not specified the circumstances in which that would occur. If he tried to do so, the amendment would probably be ruled out of order and not selected for debate.
Mr. Weir: As usual, the hon. Gentleman disguises Liberal inactivity with some weird justification for not doing anything. The new clause is a real attempt to do something for our rural communities. I represent a largely rural constituency and the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker) made the twin point about green issues and saving rural communities. The crux of the matter is that those issues must be balanced. The problem with using fuel price for green reasons is that it is a blunt instrumenta one-size-fits-all policy that does not cover rural areas in the way that it can perhaps cover urban areas. Our rural communities and businesses are suffering nowthey cannot wait for 10 or 15 years until we work out the environmental consequences. We must do something now.
Mr. Walker: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Liberal Democrats' desire to introduce road pricing as a means to resolve this issue is at least 15 to 20 years away, according to the Government, so it will not address the current problems that he alludes to?
Mr. Weir: The hon. Gentleman is being optimistic, since the Liberals opposed such a policy in Edinburgh, and I understand that the Conservatives oppose the extension to the congestion charge in London as well. I would be surprised if congestion charging
I made the point in an earlier intervention that we are dealing with rural businesses and economies. In my constituency, there are many hauliers which transport goods in and out of the area. As I said earlier, there is one rail line that goes up the coast. Theoretically, we could get goods to Arbroath or Montrose by rail, but we must still use the roads to get them from there to all the other communities in the constituency. There is no rail line up Glen Esk, Glen Isla or any of the other glens of Angus. They were all "Beeching-ed" many years ago by previous Governments. Road transport is necessary to get goods in, and the price of everything that comes into my constituency is affected by the price of fuel.
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Crucially, the price of everything that goes out of my constituency is also affected by the price of fuel. Manufacturing and other industries in Angus need to transport their goods to market and transport is one of their biggest costs. That is also true of industries in Northern Ireland, Wales and many parts of England. Something needs to be done to deal with the cost to industry in rural areas or we will see a leakage of those industries from rural areas to the conurbations.
One problem is that hauliers have entered into long-term contracts with major producersmany of them are food producers in my constituencyso that the goods can be hauled to market or, as is more appropriate in many cases, to the central distribution warehouses for the major supermarkets. The hauliers have to set a price for a considerable period ahead. When they do not know what the price of fuel will be next week, never mind next year, it is difficult to set a contract price for the long term. Some of them have managed to set a sliding scale in the contracts because of the good will of their customers, but the effect is slight because no one can give away too big a change in margins.
The whole point behind the fuel duty regulator as proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, East (Stewart Hosie) is that it would provide certainty over a period. Businesses could plan ahead and know what the fuel price would be for a set period. We would not face the sudden spikes that are so dangerous to the haulage industry and others in my constituency.
Mr. Weir: The whole point is to smooth the price increases. The hon. Gentleman obviously does not understand the proposal, but there is no proposal from the Liberals. This is the only proposal before us that does something now. I should have thought that he would have been interested in doing something for the rural areas of Scotland and Argyll. My hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil) tells me that fuel now costs £1 a litre in the Western Isles. What does that do to industry? The situation must be the same in Argyll, and I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman is not supporting us. Perhaps I should not be, knowing the Liberals.
The new clause is a genuine attempt to try to have some certainty for the foreseeable future and to let businesses flourish by letting them know what their costs will be. If we do not accept this or something similar, more and more businesses will go under and they will not only be haulage businesses. Many other businesses in rural areas will be affected. There have already been closures in these areas, as firms concentrate their factories near the centres of population. All of us could give examples of small firms in our constituencies that have fallen victim as employers concentrate their activities near the major markets or the bigger cities.
I ask Members to support the new clause. It is a real attempt to do something about a serious problem that particularly afflicts rural areas throughout the United Kingdom. It has already been said that the Democratic Unionists, the Scottish National party, Plaid Cymru and all the other Northern Ireland parties have come together on this issue, because it seriously affects us. Possibly the only thing that we agree on is the fact that our rural communities are suffering.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Stewart Hosie) on initiating the debate and welcome his involvement in Finance Bill proceedings in moving the new clause. We can certainly find a place for him on the Standing Committee considering next year's Bill if he feels that he is developing an appetite for our debates.
As the hon. Gentleman listed the small Opposition parties that support the new clause, he included the Road Haulage Association. I know that the association has been interested in such a mechanism for some time and I have regular discussions with Roger King, so I know about the pressures that the industry faces. Indeed, I discussed our decision on the lorry road user charge with him last night.
The hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price) was wrong to say that hauliers will not get a distance-based road charge. We announced yesterday that our plans for lorry road charging will be taken forward as part of the Government's overall work on national road pricing so that we can work towards a single, comprehensive and cost-effective system. The haulage industry has contributed to the process and has worked closely with us, especially on technology and some of the tests that we have run. We have examined the experience of introducing similar systems in other European countries, which has led to us being stronger in our conviction that a distance-based charge represents the right approach and that such a system would be workable.
Susan Kramer: Does the Minister accept that the road haulage industry was banking on the scheme being in place by about 2008 so that charges could be evened up? The fact that the scheme has disappeared, and that the industry has been told that it will have to wait until 2020 before it can have any hope of alleviation, drives many of the passions expressed today.
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