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Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): I always enjoy the hon. Gentleman's contributions. He has been cut loose from the Front Bench and takes opposing views to those of some of the more radical elements of his Front-Bench team. Does he agree that he should encourage his constituents to consider alternatives, such as liquefied petroleum gas, that would not only be more environmentally friendly to his beautiful constituency, but allow them to pay less vehicle excise duty?

John Thurso: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take up my offer of coming to visit me sometime in the north. As far as I am aware, only two garages in my constituency offer LPG. One is in Golspie, and I think that there is one in Thurso, too. For people in vast swathes of Sutherland, having to make a return trip of 100 miles to top up with LPG would not be hugely helpful.
 
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Mr. Jones: I suggest that the hon. Gentleman does something that I did in my early days on Newcastle city council by encouraging his local council to make their vehicles run on LPG. That creates a local market and ensures that bunkering facilities can be provided, even in isolated communities such as his.

John Thurso: I would be delighted to give such encouragement to the Highland council, which covers three, if not four, constituencies. In parentheses, I should tell the hon. Gentleman that any of my councillors in Thurso who go to a council meeting in Inverness make a round trip of 240 miles, which perhaps—

The First Deputy Chairman: Order. I ought to remind hon. Members that we are going a little wide of the amendment. Perhaps we can get back to the specifics once again.

John Thurso: I apologise for straying, Mrs. Heal.

My constituents already pay an increase to the Treasury due to the increased VAT that they pay because of the higher price of their fuel. It is thus perfectly appropriate to offer them some form of alleviation. My hon. Friends have tried to achieve that through an amendment to this imperfect Bill on vehicle excise duty. The way in which they have tried to achieve that in principle, if not in detail, gives us a good way forward.

The key point is that those who live in genuinely remote rural areas suffer a real burden. It was extraordinary that the hon. Member for Wycombe was so dismissive of that burden, although it might explain why the Conservatives regularly come fourth in elections in my constituency and much of the Highlands. His speech has probably done more for my party's prospects in elections in Scotland than anything that I could ever have done. The amendment is a sensible way forward.

Mr. Goodman: As the hon. Gentleman has such confidence in his party's amendment, can he confirm that his party will be putting it to the vote?

John Thurso: I am a humble Back-Bench Member in this army. I do not have the slightest idea what my Front-Bench colleagues intend to do. It may be that the response from the Government Front Bench will be of such wonderful acceptance and pleasure at what my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy) has proposed that all will end well. Never mind, we will hope for the best and move on.

There is a technical problem with the amendment. In drafting it, my hon. Friends have referred to the Countryside Agency, and the agency has no remit in Scotland. A fly was cast over my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne as to what the definition should be. That is always a typical answer of the Treasury when a Member is proposing any scheme. The response is "Ah, tell me where the definition is and I will tell you what the problem is."

We should take on board the fact that the EU has well-defined sparse and remote rural areas and, in many countries, has successfully introduced schemes to help
 
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such areas. It recognises the problems that they have. Whatever the definition, it seems to me that if we accept the principle of helping those who need help, which is what I thought that those of us on the progressive side of politics were seeking to do, and we wish to help people on modest incomes who need help, we can find the means.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne and other Front Bench colleagues for proposing the amendment. I hope that they will press it if the Government do not accept it, and that the House will support it. I congratulate them.

Stewart Hosie: It seems that there is a move to tackle two separate issues. The first is to create a vehicle excise duty regime that will offer a genuine disincentive to unnecessary use of high CO 2 emitting vehicles, and the second is to protect car users in rural areas where there is no alternative to the car and unnecessarily high costs.

The amendment draws attention to a number of flaws. First, the main penalty faced by drivers in remote and rural areas is the regular high cost of fuel, not the one-off cost of VED. The price of fuel went through the £1 a litre barrier in many parts of Scotland some time ago. The issue would be far better resolved by a sensible and sensitive fuel-tax regulator to lower the level of duty when world oil prices rise. It is a great pity that such a regulator was opposed by the Liberal Democrats and others last year.

The issue of fuel cost is extremely important. The last available rural Scotland price survey showed that in all of rural Scotland the price of road fuel was 6.3 per cent. higher on average than in urban areas. In the rural highlands and islands area, the price was 9.7 per cent. higher. This is a genuine issue.

The second flaw is that the amendment does not recognise the difference between genuine working vehicles and other high CO 2 emitting vehicles that happen to be in rural areas, for which a disincentive for high use or unnecessary usage would be welcome. For vehicles that are not used for genuine working purposes where the owners are as close, perhaps, to a supermarket or a filling station as the owners of vehicles in some of the suburban parts of my constituency, a reduction in VED would be unnecessary.

The third flaw is the definition—definition is incredibly important—of a sparsely populated rural area. The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy) referred to the Countryside Agency's definition. Would she prepared to accept amendments to the amendment? Obviously the agency has no locus in Scotland or in Wales. That has been accepted. However, there are a number of definitions. The definition used by the Scottish Executive contains a sixfold description of rural and urban areas. That covers 98 per cent. of Scotland's land mass and 18.7 per cent. of the population. That definition would be wholly inappropriate.

There is also the Randall definition, which is based on sparsity of population. A sparsely populated rural area is defined as one with less than one person per hectare. The definition is based on local authority areas that cover Aberdeenshire, Angus, Argyll and Bute, Dumfries and Galloway, east Ayrshire, the highlands and so on.
 
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That definition would cover 89 per cent. of Scotland's land mass and take in 29 per cent. of the population. The use of such a definition would also be wholly wrong.

6.15 pm

I am on record in this Chamber—twice, and I stand by it—as saying that there is a world of difference between a Land Rover taking animal feed up a snowy field in late spring to early lambs, and a Chelsea tractor sitting outside a flat in Kensington. Of course something needs to be done to help genuine working vehicles.

Mr. Kevan Jones: I hear what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but surely vehicles working in fields are already covered by red diesel, for example.

Stewart Hosie: The Financial Secretary will correct me if I am wrong, but I believe that the Budget documentation referred to discomfort with the red diesel regime, because many on-road vehicles now fall within it. So I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman's point is particularly helpful in this regard.

In intervening on the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) during a previous debate, I argued that there is a difference between working vehicles and Chelsea tractors. He agreed and suggested that there must be a better way of dealing with the problem. I agree entirely. We need to establish a regime that does not penalise genuine working vehicles. We should have started with an analysis of the impact of high fuel and high VED, and I hope that we can soon establish a sensible fuel tax regulator similar to the one proposed previously. I hope, too, that the Government will consider what the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) said in a previous debate about an EU derogation for the areas to which he referred. Of course, there are other ways of defining "remote" and "sparse", but those terms are not defined in the amendments before us.

We will not support the amendments because they are ill-conceived and ill-thought through. They seek to reduce vehicle excise duty for too many people, which would be unhelpful in terms of the environment.


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