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For seven years, Boris Johnson served the people of the Henley constituency with distinction, dedication and considerable panache. There can be few people in
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public life so well known that a surname is superfluous, and few who have had such an enviable ability to relate to people from all walks of life. London is, indeed, fortunate, and the people of my constituency are proud of Boris’s success and achievement. During the election campaign, it became apparent on the doorsteps just how much Boris had done as a constituency MP. For a man used always to being in the limelight, most of this had been done without fuss, but in the knowledge that it made a real contribution to the lives of the people of south Oxfordshire. People in one village in the constituency recalled Boris making a complicated journey from London simply to play a cameo role in the village panto. His ability to arrive late for almost all occasions must have presented particular challenges for the theatrical management—but arrive on time he did, and he delivered his lines on cue. Incidentally, Boris’s cameo role was playing Boris Johnson—a role he had no trouble playing. Boris’s ability to make politics and life fun are undeniable, but they should not obscure a man of great intellect and ability who will be much missed in the constituency and will be a hard act to follow.

The Henley constituency occupies much of the area between Reading and Oxford and includes delightful and varied countryside from the Thames to the Chilterns. Its rural tranquillity is maintained by an almost complete absence of mobile telephone reception across large areas, which will no doubt prove a particular challenge for the Whips. Of course, many Members have recently had the chance to experience the constituency, and, I hope, to contribute to its local economy. Indeed, local estate agents are hoping that many will now come back permanently and that this will single-handedly buck any downturn in the property market.

It is a constituency that has played a major role in English history. The abbey at Dorchester-on-Thames was once one of England’s premier cathedrals. The town of Thame has managed to retain its market town character despite the pressures of growth, and Henley itself is, of course, famous for its regatta. However, it is one of the anomalies of constituency boundaries that when people attend the regatta they are actually in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May). The advantage of this is that it affords them a magnificent vantage point from which to look back into my constituency and the town itself.

Even within this rural idyll, there are problems. Sandwiched between Oxford, Reading and Didcot, the constituency is constantly under pressure from overdevelopment, particularly in the green belt. Funding for any accompanying infrastructure has been difficult to access, and the situation has not been helped by the caricature of the constituency as too healthy and too wealthy. It contains areas of considerable deprivation, such as the village of Berinsfield and, indeed, parts of Henley itself, but it is typical of the public-spirited nature of those who live in the constituency that there are also thriving voluntary and charity sectors.

The network of small rural villages scattered across the constituency illustrates well what the notion of community is all about. They provide the support and caring environment that has made it a joy to live there for 20 years and to have brought up my family there, but despite that, I remain concerned for the future because
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of the risk to all this from the increasing prospect of rural isolation caused by the steady erosion of local services.

The final stop in this tour of my constituency is RAF Benson, which is one of the UK’s main operational helicopter bases, whose staff are operating in both Iraq and Afghanistan. We must never forget that our military capability depends on the good will of service personnel and their families. Local commanders understand that, and I will have no hesitation in holding the Government to account on delivering the fair deal that service personnel and their families rightly require.

May I turn briefly to the subject of the debate, about which I should like to make three short points? First, in his maiden speech, my predecessor said:

He said that when the average price of a litre of unleaded was just about 80p. He went on to point out that there was no public transport alternative, with many villages having only one service per week. Seven years later, the situation is, in all senses, considerably worse in an area where the car is a necessity, not a luxury.

Secondly, I shall not argue over whose by-election should take credit for the Government’s climbdown over the 2p autumn rise. I think that my constituents would feel that they had a role to play in it, because they regarded their by-election as, in many ways, a referendum on the Government’s whole approach to the motorist and will be glad to have forced the Government into that climbdown.

Finally, if the Government find it hard to listen to us or to my constituents, perhaps they ought to listen to those who once would have been their natural allies. Last Friday, I returned to Oxfordshire county council, where, until recently, I held a portfolio that included human resources and its relationship to the unions. I was asked by the secretary of the Oxfordshire county branch of Unison to help draw to the attention of Treasury Ministers a 2,000 signature petition that it had raised on fuel duty. I was told that, for some reason, the union had been unable to find a Labour Member who was willing to do so. One can disagree with the detail of Unison’s proposed mechanism to achieve the scrapping of the 2p increase and the further 10p reduction in fuel duty for which it is calling, but it is difficult to disagree with the sentiment it expresses: that pump prices are hurting businesses and individuals, particularly the poorest paid. I am pleased to have been elected to this House at a time when Conservatives are clearly trusted to represent the views of trade unionists, and I thank the House for its indulgence in listening to this speech.

5.58 pm

Nigel Griffiths (Edinburgh, South) (Lab): One of the great pleasures of being Deputy Leader of the House of Commons was the enjoyment that I got from all the maiden speeches of colleagues who joined us in 2005. Many distinguished and impressive speeches were made, but none were more impressive than the maiden speech that we heard just now from the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell). He showed great wit, flashes of independence—the Whips will have noted those, so he will be up for a promotion very soon—a keen appreciation of the conventions of this House, which he has clearly
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quickly grasped, and, most important for his constituents, a good knowledge of the issues that face them. Clearly, they are going to have a champion in him.

It is a great pleasure to speak in this debate, because I have rarely seen an Opposition motion so steeped in cant. The truth is that the people who led the charge to keep fuel duty high are on the Opposition Benches— [ Interruption. ] The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) says “Come on!”, but who brought in the fuel duty escalator? The last Conservative Chancellor. No wonder they lost. It is not Heathcliff who is responsible for the problem, but Rushcliffe—the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), who brought in the extra tax at the pump. Heathcliff abolished it. If the Tories had continued, about 30p would have been added through that tax to every litre, every day for the motorist filling up at the pump.

In February, less than five months ago, when petrol was already more than £1 a litre and diesel was more than £1.10, the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo), the Conservative Chairman of the Select Committee on Environmental Audit, criticised the Government for abolishing the fuel duty escalator. He was joined in that by his Conservative friends the hon. Members for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker), for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd), for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) and for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart), but their demands for higher fuel taxes did not stop there. They called in paragraph 14 of the Committee’s report for air tax freight duty to be introduced for the first time. That would send the cost of some foods through the roof.

The Committee’s fourth report of 2006-07 called for a sixfold increase in diesel for airport vehicles, when diesel cost 7.69p a litre. That would have sent up the cost to more than 46p a litre. The report produced in February went on to state that, by April 2009, fuel duties were set to go up by 6p a litre, but reminded the Committee and the House that fuel duty rates were still 11 per cent. below the price in 1999.

Mr. Philip Hammond: I do not quite know what the hon. Gentleman is rambling on about now, but let us get back to his criticism of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke). Will the hon. Gentleman remind the House what the price of a barrel of oil was when my right hon. and learned Friend introduced the fuel duty escalator?

Nigel Griffiths: It was less than it is now, but as the price went up the Conservatives kept the escalator going. That would, of course, have meant that prices now would have been some 30p more than they are at the pump and up to about £1.50 a litre, according to the figures that I mentioned earlier, which were provided by the Automobile Association. The Committee’s report is proof that the Conservatives have not learned a lesson about the fuel escalator. When the five Conservative Members I mentioned signed up to the report, which called for the Government not to back down on the rates of duty, they said that that would be a test for the Treasury. The report states:

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The problem, of course, was that even that was not enough for the Conservative report on green taxes produced by Zac Goldsmith and the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer). It proposed to push up the vehicle excise duty differential to £500. They wanted a new graduated purchase tax with a variable VAT rate that would see a combined tax of 27.5 per cent. on larger cars. That was all aimed at hitting the motorist.

Mr. Redwood: Why does not the hon. Gentleman refer to the report on economic policy that I chaired, which made it clear that we needed lower taxes on the haulage industry to avoid driving it out of business?

Nigel Griffiths: That is because the modern Tory party has abandoned the sort of principles that the right hon. Member espoused. It says one thing to one group, but allows the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal to say another thing to another group.

In the same way, the Leader of the Opposition tries to curry favour by telling Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace what they want to hear, before he goes along to the motor manufacturers and the road lobby to tell them what they want to hear. That is the sort of U-turn that he does: one day it is hug a hoodie, then it is hug a tree, and now it is hug a Hummer. The Opposition cannot make their minds up about whether they are going to be environmental or not, although I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) for his consistency at least.

The problem is that when the cold economic winds blow across the Atlantic and reach Britain and the Leader of the Opposition, the shiver looks in vain for a spine to run down. People want action, not unbelievable and untried policies from an Opposition Front-Bench team that clearly has not bothered even to look at the fuel tax stabiliser in other countries, given that it appears that all of them have rejected the measure as being pie in the sky. What the public want are practical steps such as the action that we have taken today.

Mr. Philip Hammond: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that a fuel duty stabiliser along the lines that we have set out would work only in a country that was both industrialised and an oil producer? There are relatively few candidates available.

Nigel Griffiths: I shall tell the hon. Gentleman how it would work, if it would work at all, and that is if the oil price continues its reduction of the past few days. The hon. Member hopes that that will happen, but he failed to tell the House about what would happen if it keeps going up—and there have been predictions, and not just from the doom merchants, that it will rise inexorably and hit $200 a barrel. If the oil price continues to rise, what mechanism will ensure that people and motorists are weaned off the so-called stabiliser? If oil prices do not fall but keep rising, the stabiliser would have to be removed and fuel prices would rise. The stabiliser does not offer a long-term solution to the problem.

Mr. Hammond: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Nigel Griffiths: No, as I am afraid I shall be in injury time if I give way again.

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The country wants a credible alternative to the stabiliser. The Opposition are offering something that no Government in the advanced industrial world, or indeed anywhere, have proposed. As my hon. Friends have pointed out, other countries are in the same position as Britain, being oil producers with advanced industrial economies. That is why the public will reject this gimmick from the Opposition. They clearly did not have sufficient confidence in it to test it in the Finance Bill Committee where, if it had not been debated to destruction, it would certainly have been thrashed around. To its credit, the Scottish National party allowed the policy to be tested. It was not adopted, but it has been partially stolen.

However, the nationalists have their own problems with fuel. Some months ago, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor set aside a sum of money for England and the devolved regions to ensure that bus companies could offset some of the fuel rises and duties and keep fares frozen. The Scottish National party Administration in Edinburgh did not pass the money on to local bus companies, with the result that very successful companies such as Lothian Buses and others up and down Scotland were forced to put fares up by 10 per cent. That is a direct result of the Scottish National party talking up its concern about fuel, but in fact pocketing the money that had been set aside and using it for something else. As a result, my constituents and other people all over Scotland, including in Dundee, have suffered increased bus fares.

People want the Government to take the sort of practical step that I have described. This Government set money aside, and it is a pity that it was not passed on by the Scottish Nationalist Administration in Edinburgh. However, the money was passed on elsewhere in the country, and it has helped to keep fares down, even at a time when diesel prices have escalated as the world price of oil has soared.

Today’s decision by the Chancellor to defer the 2p fuel duty rise will be widely welcomed. However, it is important that we send the clear, not mixed, message that things will not get easier as regards fuel. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has rightly pressed at summits to ensure that oil production is increased, but we all know that if China—a rapidly advancing, industrialising country—started to use oil at the same per capita rate as the United States of America, the entire world’s current annual output would be consumed solely by China.

It is right that we address issues of climate change and ensure that America—the largest consumer of oil—is part of that regime, recognises Kyoto, as it has started to do, and sets its own targets. We are not in a position to lecture the rest of the world unless we take steps in this country. I am very pleased that colleagues on my party’s Front Bench have taken key steps on renewables. The measure that has been announced is necessary to bring some relief to hard-pressed motorists, and I welcome it. I am sure that they, too, will welcome it as a practical measure, and will reject the Opposition proposal as pie in the sky.

6.10 pm

Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): It is a great honour to speak in the same debate as my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell). In his maiden
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speech, he showed his insight into his constituency. I visited his constituency just before his election and got to know it a little better, so I understand some of the glowing references that he made to villages in the constituency, and to the town of Henley, which is one of the most beautiful parts of south Oxfordshire. It is a great pleasure to have him here, although I think I speak for many Conservative Members, and perhaps a few Labour Members, when I say that we will miss his predecessor, who, in his role as Mayor of London, is doing great things. However, we will miss his charm and wit in this place.

I am pleased to take part in this debate. It is clear that we are in a period of great economic uncertainty, and the situation is somewhat exacerbated by the recent massive fuel price increases. As a result of the Prime Minister’s recent attendance at a meeting of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries in June, he is aware that it is unlikely that there will be any significant increase in oil supply in the next few years. That is why I found the comments of the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) interesting; he seemed, rather optimistically, to think that there might be changes in oil prices over the summer. I think that he may be looking at the world through rather rose-tinted spectacles, because as the Prime Minister said:

All our constituents, across the country, see that first-hand when they go to the pumps to buy fuel and people in rural parts of my constituency, who still have to rely on oil to heat their homes, see that when the lorry turns up to fill up their tanks. We recognise that problem, and constituents will be grateful to us for calling this debate so that we can really press the Government on practical ways to support our constituents.

The Government may say that they recognise the problem, but they are failing to show any of the leadership that we need to find a solution, and are failing to give business certainty; that is what people are crying out for. I am not sure that a six-month delay in implementing the 2p fuel rise will do anything to create the long-term certainty that families and businesses need on fuel costs. Let us consider the intricacies of the 2p delay. The cost of deferring the increase last time was about £550 million. We know that, as a result of the increase in fuel prices, the Government received in the first five months of this year alone a windfall that yielded almost that amount of money. Perhaps we could consider the issue in that context. As the Royal Automobile Club reminds us in its briefing, which sets out its reaction to the Government’s announcement, the measure is just a drop in the ocean, given the £2 billion extra that the Treasury intends to take from motorists in the next two years.

I am very concerned about families across the country, who face the reality of increasing mortgage rates and food prices, as well as ever-increasing fuel prices. That is the case not just in the rural areas of my constituency, but in the town, where we have great problems sustaining the public transport networks that are needed if people are to rely on them rather than their cars. The Government should be listening a little more intently to some of the proposals of my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond).

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