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Julia Goldsworthy: A clear definition is set out by the Countryside Agency, with reference to the distance of certain areas from a population centre. It would not be complicated to apply that definition to England and Wales and to find a way to apply similar criteria to Scotland. The amendments could thus be tabled on Report.

Mr. Goodman: If so, the Liberal Democrats might have found a clearer way to spell out a full definition in their amendments. Furthermore, Members and other people with an interest in the measures may find other definitions of "sparsely populated rural area", which could be introduced in the Standing Committee. There could be some controversy—at the very least—in the hon. Lady sticking so precisely to one definition. However, that is merely an introduction to the deep problems posed by amendments Nos. 25 and 21, to which I shall turn shortly.

With reference to the consultation proposed in amendment No. 22, why is the Countryside Agency the only body named? What about other Government bodies with an interest in rural areas or the environment, such as the Environment Agency or the Air Quality Forum? What about non-governmental bodies with an interest in rural affairs, the environment and vehicle excise duty? Transport 2000, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace have made comments on the Government's VED proposals, to which I shall refer in the clause stand part debate. If amendments Nos. 25 and 21 were successful and the Liberal Democrats obtained the changes to VED that they seek, how would those changes be implemented in the time gap between the passing of the Finance Bill—if it is passed—and the subsequent laying of regulations before Parliament?

Other questions follow. Is it right that a multimillionaire driving a polluting vehicle and living in a mansion should pay a reduced rate of VED on that vehicle if he registered it before 23 March? [Hon. Members: "David Cameron."] That was not the gentleman I had in mind, but I am grateful to Labour Members for drawing the matter to my attention. I do not believe that he is a "multimillionaire". Would it be right for such a mythical and imaginary person living in
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a sparsely populated rural area and owning a polluting vehicle to pay a reduced rate and then move out of that area? Is it really fair that someone who does not live in a sparsely populated rural area and who owns a green vehicle does not pay a reduced rate and then moves into that area?

Chris Huhne: Under the proposals, it is clear that if such a person were to own a green vehicle, they would pay zero duty whether they lived in a sparsely populated rural area or not.

Mr. Goodman: I am glad to have that clarification from the person who is clearly leading for the Liberal Democrats in this debate. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the amendment paper, he will see that the amendment to table A, which deals with people who have registered cars before 23 March, applies to a cut in the rate for all vehicles, including the most polluting. I shall come to that point in a moment.

Amendment No. 25 seeks to reduce VED rates for the most polluting vehicles registered before 23 March this year, while amendment No. 21 seeks to leave unchanged VED rates for the most polluting vehicles registered after 23 March. There is a case for leaving unchanged the VED rates levelled on the most polluting vehicles that have already been registered by people who live in sparsely populated rural areas, but I find it very hard to see a convincing case for cutting those rates, which is what the Liberal Democrats are proposing.

There is also a case for leaving unchanged VED rates levelled on the most polluting vehicles registered after 23 March, just as there is a case for raising VED rates levelled on those vehicles, as the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) sought to do—if I can turn metaphysical for about 10 seconds—in amendments that were not selected for debate. However, there is surely no case whatever for seeking simultaneously to leave unchanged VED rates on the most polluting vehicles in some rural areas while seeking to raise VED rates on those vehicles in these areas. The Committee will agree that one cannot do both at once. I do not want to be ruled out of order, so all I will say is that hon. Members only have to read the amendments tabled for the debate to see that one political party has sought to do both at once and, needless to say, it is the Liberal Democrats.

Julia Goldsworthy: Is it therefore my understanding that the hon. Gentleman and his party would make no changes to the VED tables as laid out by the Government in the Finance Bill and that he and his party think that we have a satisfactory state of affairs to take forward?

Mr. Goodman: I shall come to all that in the clause stand debate. If the hon. Lady is not happy with my answer, I will be happy to give way to her.

As I said, we cannot discuss in detail a tax rise proposed in an amendment that was not selected for debate, so I will not seek to explore further the mystery of how the Liberal Democrats propose simultaneously to raise a tax while leaving it completely unchanged. I will, however, assure the Committee that the Conservative party will do all that it can tomorrow, as people vote in the local
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elections, and in the months to come to raise this mystery and the incoherence of these amendments on the doorstep and at every opportunity with voters whenever the issues of green taxes or the environment are raised. I am afraid that it is the same old story. It is one thing for one group of people outside and another thing when it comes to tabling amendments to the Finance Bill. The Liberal Democrats have a choice. They can be a serious potential party of government or they can be fringe operation whose muddled, ill-thought-through and opportunistic contortions provide hours of harmless entertainment for all the rest of us.

On the basis of these amendments, they have chosen to be purveyors of entertainment. I urge the Committee to reject the amendments.

6 pm

John Thurso: I rise to support the Liberal Democrat amendments, but first I want to set out the nature of the problem that my constituents face. Any of my constituents—there are quite a few of them—who are watching this afternoon's proceedings on the parliamentary channel will have been somewhat bemused by both the tone of the remarks and the risible nature of the conduct of the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman), in particular. For them, the amount that they have to pay for motoring is a very real issue, as are the extra costs that they bear not simply through VED—as will happen under the Bill—but through the excess that they pay on fuel costs.

Let me set out the problem in an area that I confidently expect that nobody will dispute is genuinely sparse. I refer to Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross. Some parts of Sutherland have a population density that is somewhat less than that of the Sahara desert. The area is 3,400 square miles and there is no public transport whatsoever available for very large parts of it. The vast majority of people who live there are crofters and small farmers who make a living by operating the croft—as there are so many Members present who have no experience of Scotland, I will remind them what that is. It is a smallholding with two or three acres of in-by land and access to common grazing. It is not something that anybody is going to make a vast amount of money on. Those people will croft part-time and they will work part-time—perhaps going to sea; perhaps doing something else.

The likelihood is that those people—the majority of whom will be on modest or low incomes—will have only one vehicle. That one vehicle will double as the family transport and the farm workhorse. That is the vehicle that they will have to use. They need a vehicle of a certain size to be able to operate the farm and they have to use it for other things that they have to do, such as taking the kids to school. First, people in that area have no choice. There is no public transport, unlike in many of the constituencies represented here this afternoon, where public transport is available. Secondly, and most importantly, there is no congestion of any kind. Of course, all those who are interested in climate change will understand that congestion multiplies the effect of emissions fairly considerably.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): My hon. Friend also needs to make
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the point that public transport would probably be an environmentally inefficient way of providing transport in such a sparsely populated area. It is probably more efficient for people to use their transport when they need it, rather than to rely on the marginal running of buses that would often be empty.

John Thurso: My hon. Friend makes that point extremely well. A bus with one person in it is far more polluting that a car with one person in it. He is absolutely right.

The objective that the Government have set out to achieve with the increase in vehicle excise duty is extremely laudable. It should be the case that more polluting vehicles are punished and, broadly, we want to see a reduction in polluting vehicles and in emissions. However, much of the debate—including the discussions that we have heard today—has been characterised by references to what people are wont to call Chelsea tractors. I am not persuaded that that is the appropriate way for the debate to proceed. We are unable to go into any detail today, but I am not persuaded, as a point of principle, that taxation of ownership—in effect, that is what vehicle excise duty does—is the most appropriate way to tackle pollution and congestion. I would look to a form of national road user charging as the appropriate method to do that. In addition, I very much doubt whether any great increase in vehicle excise duty will have much impact on the owner of a Chelsea tractor. Such people tend to live in million-pound homes and have six-figure incomes, so I do not think that they will notice it very much. However, my constituents on whom the increase is to be imposed will see it as a real burden. As I have already said, such people typically have low or modest incomes.

I have raised this matter before in Westminster Hall. The price of petrol and diesel in Wick, Thurso, Durness or any of the other remote areas in my constituency tends to be between 10p and 15p more than even the dizzy metropolitan heights of the cost in Inverness. Typically, the premium averages out at about 12p a litre. One of my constituents who owns a car with an average consumption of sufficient substance to tow the sheep to market will pay something like £200 a year more for their fuel than a person with exactly the same vehicle who operates in an area with a more competitive market for fuel, such as Inverness, Edinburgh, or even London.

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