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There are alternatives to petrol and diesel that are more environmentally friendly. One of them is biodiesel, produced from used cooking oil. Over the last year, 99 million litres of used cooking oil was collected from restaurants, food manufacturers and caterers. It is an entirely sustainable fuel derived from a waste product and devoid of some of the negative impacts traditionally associated with biofuels. Therefore, if taxation on fuel is partly about encouraging behavioural change, rather than just being about revenue raising, the Government should encourage the use of this fuel, rather than see it as another target for increasing duty. The removal of the 20p per litre duty differential on this type of fuel, which is an excellent source of green energy, sends entirely the wrong message.

Several hon. Members rose

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. Before I call the next speaker, may I remind Members that when they rise to intervene they are addressing the House, not their colleague behind them, and they are to turn around and face the Speaker’s Chair? That will stop them saying “you”, because they will see that they are addressing me, and what they have to say has nothing to do with me. We will also be able to hear the interventions, which I have not been able to do thus far.

3.57 pm

Graeme Morrice (Livingston) (Lab): I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate, and I join other Members in paying tribute to the FairFuelUK campaign and the thousands of businesses and individuals who have backed it. I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) for securing a debate on this important matter.

There can be no doubt that for many months now high fuel prices have been hitting families and businesses hard. Indeed, the October AA monthly fuel price report highlighted that summer prices—those from April to mid-October—compared with those in 2010 were on average 17.5p per litre higher for petrol and 19.7p higher for diesel. These high price increases are an important element of the wider financial squeeze that so many middle and low-income families are currently experiencing.

New AA research published yesterday also underlined the fact that less well-off drivers have suffered more since the price of fuel peaked earlier this year. The research shows that those cutting back on car use and/or other spending rose dramatically among those living on lower incomes. That is a very worrying development. The constituents who have contacted me over the last few weeks are absolutely clear about what they want: lower fuel duty and lower fuel prices at the pumps.

On fuel duty, the Conservatives in opposition said that pump prices would be benchmarked and allowed only to move by 5p per litre in either direction, in response to the changing price of oil. The limited fair fuel stabiliser plan announced in the Budget does not equate to what the public might expect from a fuel duty stabiliser. Commenting after the Budget announcement, Edmund King, the president of the AA, said:

“In effect it is a stabiliser on an escalator rather than a stabiliser on prices. It does not reduce prices. All it does is to reduce increases in duty.”

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That is not what consumers were expecting and, as the motion states, it is time for the Government to look again at a “price stabilisation mechanism”.

When the Government increased VAT to 20% in January, they contributed to a further increase in fuel prices. It was the wrong tax at the wrong time, and it has kept petrol prices high and hit economic growth. I support the call, along with my Labour colleagues, for a temporary VAT cut to 17.5%, which would immediately bring the cost of fuel down by about 3p a litre.

We must also be grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) for the excellent research that he published earlier this year on the political responsibility for increases in fuel duty. His revealing figures show that Conservative Governments have presided over increases in duty and VAT that have actually cost motorists twice as much as increases made by Labour Administrations. His figures demonstrate clearly that Labour Members have always been on the side of the ordinary motorist and the business person, whereas the Conservatives have been content to use fuel duties as a punitive means of raising revenue.

Toby Perkins: My hon. Friend has not only laid out the case with tremendous vision, but he has used some research, which is very welcome. Does he not think that the many people from Chesterfield who wrote to me supporting the fair fuel debate will be surprised to see how meek the motion is? They were expecting a hell of a lot more from this debate than what is to be voted on.

Graeme Morrice: I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that the public are expecting more, and we are not going to see any action unless the Government do something about this imminently.

Nick Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab): Filling up a commercial van costs £15 more now than it did last year. In January, I asked the Prime Minister about help for hauliers who are struggling with their fuel bills and he told me that the Government were looking at a discount for haulage firms. So far there has been little action on that. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is vital to support our truckers at this time?

Graeme Morrice: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Immediate action needs to be taken to ensure that our hauliers, and our commercial and transport businesses, are supported in this regard.

Christopher Pincher (Tamworth) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Graeme Morrice: No, I am going to carry on because I have taken some interventions and I do not have much time. I am coming to the conclusion of my speech. [Interruption.] We hear all the jeers from those on the Government Benches, but we must not forget that in 1993 it was a Conservative Government who introduced the fuel duty escalator. It is a Conservative fuel escalator, despite the protestations from Conservative Members. The families and businesses that have contacted all Members of this House on this issue need and expect action that will bring about a tangible reduction in the price of petrol and diesel, sooner rather than later. I hope that today’s debate will act as a stimulus for real change on this issue in the weeks and months ahead.

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4.3 pm

Rory Stewart (Penrith and The Border) (Con): I join so many colleagues in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) on securing this fantastic debate. It is such a great example of how the Back-Bench system should operate. On that note, I will try to keep my speech as short as possible, limiting it to less than two minutes in order to let others speak.

I wish to make one very simple point on behalf of Cumbria: rural isolation is not just a question of sparse population; it is also about the terrible hollowing out of rural areas over the past 15 years. When I look out of my window at home, I see the disappearance of a school, a shop and a police station. In the past 15 years, we have lost 2,200 schools, 550 clinics and 150 police stations—that is across the nation, not across Cumbria.

Simon Hart (Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire) (Con): My hon. Friend will also be aware that 600 filling stations are closing every year, making the distance that rural inhabitants must travel to fill up their car even more demanding.

Rory Stewart: I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. The loss of pumps is an incredibly important issue, as is the loss of all the other services that are going such as pubs and shops. Currently, my neighbour, who has Parkinson’s disease, has to travel for two and a half hours to see a neurologist in Newcastle, and our schoolchildren are travelling further and further. There are things we can do to deal effectively with these problems, including with broadband and smart metering. It is a real disgrace that we have not sorted out smart metering. There is much better technology available. However, I should like to make a small plea for an extension, as rapidly as possible, of the 5p rebate that is currently offered in the highlands and islands to other sparsely populated areas of Britain.

Graham Jones (Hyndburn) (Lab): I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman is making a rural point and that there are all sorts of issues about bridges and roads and the amount that goes into them, certainly in Lancashire. However, on his point about unfairness, was it not a previous Tory Minister who said, “When it doesn’t fit, get on your bike and get somewhere else”?

Rory Stewart: The hon. Gentleman will be astonished to discover that I disagree very strongly with the idea that the solution to problems of rural isolation is to “get on one’s bike and move somewhere else.” Our rural communities are the lifeblood of this country. When we think about our rural areas, we think about this country. Farming communities and all the other forms of rural community have a value that goes well beyond their economic value. We would be terribly sorry to lose them.

George Freeman (Mid Norfolk) (Con): My hon. Friend is a passionate advocate of all things rural. Does he agree that the disproportionate impact of the tax on rural economies effectively makes it a tax on rural areas? It is a tax on the rural big society and on the rebalanced economy. If we are not careful, it will trigger a serious tax revolt in our rural communities.

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Rory Stewart: I would never be able to speak with such eloquence as my hon. Friend, who makes a wonderful point. In order to fulfil my commitment and in honour of my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow and the Backbench Business Committee, I shall now sit down after making my plea: “5p for Cumbria.”

4.7 pm

Mr Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) (DUP): I am grateful to be taking part in the debate and I congratulate the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) and his colleagues on having secured it. I also congratulate the many individuals who signed the e-petition and those others who managed to persuade the Backbench Business Committee to have this debate today.

This issue is one of our constituents’ major concerns; indeed, surveys have put it right at the top of that particular poll. The fact that households in the United Kingdom pay on average £677 a year purely on fuel duty illustrates the extent to which this issue affects ordinary working people and those in the poorer sectors of society. The poorest 20% are generally paying twice as much of their income on fuel duty as the richest 20%, which cannot be right. It is clear that the impact is not just on poorer people but on those in rural areas, as has so eloquently been pointed out already, and there is also a disproportionate impact on younger people. We had a debate in the House not long ago about car insurance and it is clear that younger people face a big premium for car insurance. As a result, they are finding it very difficult to stay mobile, to get jobs and to stay in employment.

Tessa Munt: Just two Fridays ago in the Youth Parliament debate, transport was identified as a main issue of concern for the Youth Council's campaigns over the next year. I hope that the Minister will take that into account when she responds to the debate.

Mr Dodds: Yes; transport is a big issue for young people, because in order to get jobs, stay in employment, get around and socialise they need to be mobile. In rural areas and poorer areas it is difficult for people to sustain that at the current price of diesel and petrol.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): We are urging people to get into work, but people who live in rural areas in Strangford and who travel to my right hon. Friend’s constituency of Belfast North will find that a two-hour round trip costs £10 a day. That is £50 a week or £250 a month, which is a large chunk out of anyone’s wage packet. Does my right hon. Friend agree that a reduction in the price of diesel and petrol would help the unemployed to get a job and would help the employed to stay in work?

Mr Dodds: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who makes a good point and illustrates it with the facts. I will come on to the situation in Northern Ireland, but it is clear that a car is a necessity, not a luxury, for many people in his constituency, so he makes a valid point.

The fact is that Northern Ireland has the highest-cost fuel of any region in the United Kingdom. The Automobile Association’s October fuel price report showed that of the 12 regions of the UK, Northern Ireland was, on average, the most expensive for unleaded petrol, diesel

15 Nov 2011 : Column 763

and super-unleaded. On top of that, its energy prices more generally are among the highest in the United Kingdom. I mentioned car insurance; Northern Ireland’s car insurance premiums are by far the highest in the United Kingdom. They are, on average, 83% more expensive per person than in the rest of the United Kingdom. Earlier, someone mentioned a double whammy for their constituents; in Northern Ireland, we have a severe triple whammy when it comes to energy, fuel prices and car insurance. Those issues have to be addressed. Some will have to be addressed by the devolved Administration, and there are Ministers working on the issues, here and at home, but there are also issues that can be addressed only at the level of the Westminster Government.

I hope that this debate will contribute to focusing the Government’s mind on this serious problem. Some 83% of people in Northern Ireland go to work by car, van or minibus, compared with only 70% in the rest of the United Kingdom. That shows the rural nature of much of Northern Ireland, and the fact that we have an underdeveloped public transport network; for example, large parts of the west of the Province are not served by the railway network. Clearly, the car is therefore a necessity there, not a luxury.

Claire Perry (Devizes) (Con): The right hon. Gentleman and I normally talk about pig farming, but on this occasion, we can talk about the fact that in our very rural areas—particularly in my constituency of Devizes—the issue is the lack of competition among petrol stations and heating oil providers. None of us is on a grid; we are all reliant on heating oil. My area has similarities, in microcosm, with the right hon. Gentleman’s area.

Mr Dodds: Absolutely. We in Northern Ireland have a higher dependence on off-grid energy supplies than other places in the United Kingdom, but there are many similarities. We in Northern Ireland have a unique situation: we share a land border with the Irish Republic. As the per-litre price for petrol is, on average, 5p cheaper in the Irish Republic—15p a litre cheaper for diesel—we have the problem of fuel smuggling, which costs the Exchequer about £200 million to £300 million a year. One way to deal with that is for the Serious Organised Crime Agency and others to be tougher in tackling the problem, but there also needs to be an extension of the rural fuel pilots to Northern Ireland. That would not only reduce the cost of petrol and diesel and boost the economy, but increase the tax take for the Revenue. That has been clearly shown.

People in my constituency tell me all the time that they are appalled by massive oil company profits; BP had profits of £3.2 billion in the second quarter of this year. They want those profits passed on to people in difficulties. They are appalled by the difference in petrol prices across the Province. They cannot understand why supermarkets—I will mention supermarkets—in my constituency charge one price in one area and another elsewhere, simply because they can get away with it. People in my constituency want the planned fuel duty increases for next year to be scrapped to boost the economy, reduce costs and boost the tax take, which is only at 66% today, compared with 81% in 2001-02;

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that shows that the current policy of ramping up tax and fuel duty increases is not working for the Government. People in my constituency want the measure of inflation used to upgrade fuel prices changed from the retail prices index to the consumer prices index, which is used for everything else.

4.13 pm

Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes) (Con): This is a vital debate that affects every household in the country. As an officer of the all-party group on fair fuel for motorists and hauliers, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) on securing the debate, and the Backbench Business Committee on recognising its importance, particularly as the call for a debate was supported by an e-petition—a valuable resource that the Government must be congratulated on introducing. This is not an anti-Government motion; I and other hon. Members who have signed it recognise the reality of the situation. Let us be honest: it is not the ideal time to suggest anything that will reduce the Government’s income streams. We accept that we are in a financial black hole, but I pay tribute to the Government’s handling of the nation’s finances.

Damian Collins: Does my hon. Friend agree that something that would increase the amount in the nation’s coffers and would be good for the haulage industry is the introduction of a levy on foreign lorries, which do not pay any UK taxes? That is particularly galling for hauliers in my Kent constituency, who pass by them on our motorways, knowing that they have made no financial contribution to them at all.

Martin Vickers: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. My constituency, which I shall come on to, is another centre for the road haulage industry. It, too, would welcome such a proposal.

Unemployment in my constituency is above the national average, and incomes are below the national average. Much of the available work is seasonal, and jobs can be many miles away. For many people, travel costs are compounded by the Humber bridge tolls, but that is a debate for another day. My constituency not only includes the premier resort on the east coast, also known as Cleethorpes, but the industrial and port complex on the Humber bank, including oil refineries, which are major employers. Indeed, they are good employers that provide the area with much of its wealth, but today I am speaking for my constituents, who are finding travel costs an increasing burden.

My constituency is a major centre for the road haulage industry, which, needless to say, suffers from the present levels of tax and duty on petrol and diesel. That, coupled with the fact that there are many small towns and villages in the vast, rural areas that are a feature of Lincolnshire, means that people do not live close to their place of work or to the essential services that they need to access. Walking and cycling are not realistic alternatives.

Motoring taxes are a greater burden for people living outside major conurbations. The Countryside Alliance has produced figures that show that people in rural areas spent £1.34 per week more in petrol at the beginning of this month than they did at the beginning of the year. They also draw attention to the fact that an-above

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average number of low-income groups in rural areas are car owners, and that accounts for a much greater proportion of their income. The people I represent think that paying 60% of the cost of a litre of petrol in tax and duty is too much—it is unfair. I have said before in the Chamber that it is a risky business for Governments to talk about fairness, because it is human nature for someone to regard as fair what is beneficial to them, but to regard something as unfair if it benefits someone else.

What people do regard as unfair is the fact that, based on the most recent figures available, £31 billion per annum is collected in tax and duty. Total annual expenditure by the Department for Transport is only £23 billion, so they regard that as unfair.

Richard Fuller (Bedford) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that fairness is another reason people are animated by the debate, and support the motion? Too often under the previous Government, both with fuel duty and with council tax, people saw taxes go up year after year with no justification. It is the justification for the tax that is the source of the unfairness in this instance.

Martin Vickers: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, who strengthens my case.

I was discussing fairness. In the two unitary authorities that cover northern Lincolnshire, it is estimated that constituents pay £167 million a year in motoring taxes, compared with the £95 million that is spent on roads infrastructure—again, that is clearly unfair.

Mr Watts: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Martin Vickers: I think that I am running out of time.

I said earlier that my constituency is a major centre for the road haulage industry. Most large commercial vehicles do about 8 miles per gallon. The planned increase due in January will add £15 a week to the running costs of a single vehicle, which will impact not only on individual businesses but on the supply chain. The Federation of Small Businesses has produced figures that detail the impact on businesses in that category.

I recognise, as I said earlier, that the Government must protect their income streams. There has been much talk in recent weeks about the 50p tax rate. That must be secondary to a reduction in car taxes. Very few people in my constituency can even dream of earning an income that would demand a 50p tax rate. I want to get rid of it as soon as possible, but now is not the time. Rural bus services have been reduced. The Government understand the impact on local people in northern constituencies in particular, and I urge them to act as soon as is practicable.

4.20 pm

Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Lab): I begin by adding my congratulations to the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) on securing today’s extremely important debate, which is long overdue. We have heard today of double whammies and triple whammies. I shall not go for quadruple or quintuple whammies, but simply point out that the price of fuel pervades every aspect of what we do.

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Whether in a rural community or in a heavily urbanised community such as Stoke-on-Trent, everything happens because of the cost of fuel—constituents going to the local shop and travelling there by car or constituents going to work by bus are all affected by the costs of fuel. The goods in the shops will have got there by means of the haulage industry, and some of those goods will have come from the farming community that produced them. At some level, the cost of fuel will be a component of the cost of every item on the shelves.

John Glen (Salisbury) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one group that is particularly vulnerable to the cost of fuel is the disabled? Those who are on Motability schemes, such as the constituent who contacted me, have no choice—they have to use their car and are therefore subject to the high cost of fuel.

Robert Flello: I could not agree more. All our poorest communities, whether they are people with any form of disability requiring a mobility allowance or special vehicles, or the poorest communities trying their best to get to work in difficult circumstances, are the people most heavily affected. The point was made earlier about who is paying the tax. It is being paid by the poorest. Who is not paying the tax? The oil companies and the speculators, who are taking the opportunity of the Arab spring and in some cases the continuing troubles to speculate a little more in the belief that the price will go up, until that becomes self-fulfilling. We end up with petrol prices continually going up, irrespective almost of fuel taxes. We should have a thorough root-and-branch review of that.

In the few minutes available to me, I want to turn my attention predominantly to the impact on the haulage industry and the associated industry, the road rescue services. I place on record my thanks to the Road Rescue Recovery Association, the Scottish Vehicle Recovery Association, the Road Haulage Association and the Freight Transport Association for the campaigns that they have been running, alongside the FairFuelUK campaign, and the pressure that they have been bringing to bear to get the issue debated seriously on the Floor of the House.

Lindsay Roy (Glenrothes) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that the high fuel duty is having a particularly damaging effect on the construction industry, which is going through a difficult time at present?

Robert Flello: Indeed. Every aspect of what we do is affected by the price of fuel, whether at the pumps, domestically, or at the heavy duty pumps that the haulage industry and other industries use. All sorts of other issues then come into play. For example, hauliers will be looking to ensure that their vehicles are running as efficiently as possible, yet on the European stage there is the possibility of a reduction in the height of trailers to 4 metres, which will have a negative impact on our haulage industry in the United Kingdom, exacerbate the problem of the price of fuel and increase the need for a cut in the fuel duty.

As has been said, a temporary VAT cut would be absolutely the right thing to do to secure an immediate impact for the domestic motorist, but something different is needed for the haulage industry in the longer term. A VAT cut would obviously have a wash-through effect,

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but we need a more serious change and a restructuring of the way the fuel costs of the industry and associated industries are met.

Other factors that impact on the haulage industry, such as London’s low emissions zone, also have a knock-on effect. I wish that Mayor Boris would respond to my letters and agree to meet to discuss the impact on the haulage and haulage recovery industries. It has a direct impact on fuel efficiency and keeping traffic moving on London’s streets if vehicles that should be on the streets helping to recover other vehicles and keep traffic flowing are prohibited from doing so. That will of course become a greater concern in the run-up to the Olympics.

Indeed, other aspects of the price of fuel will affect the membership organisations—I will not name them—that come out when their members break down by the side of the road, and those organisations’ costs are passed on to their members through the running costs of the yellow or orange vehicles that assist people at the roadside. That industry will also be hit by Green Flag’s terrible announcement that it is devastating the number of contractors who work for it. Some of them will unfortunately end up unemployed.

Nia Griffith: Does my hon. Friend recognise the real danger to haulage companies from foreign competition because of the price differentials?

Robert Flello: My hon. Friend makes her point well.

In the 20 seconds remaining, I wish to make two points. First, instead of cutting the top tax rate of 50p for high earners, we should be helping motorists. Secondly, we should be looking at ways of taxing the speculators and the people who are making a profit from the ordinary motorist and make them pay instead.

4.27 pm

Andrew Griffiths (Burton) (Con): It is a privilege to follow a fellow Staffordshire MP in this important debate. I would like to join the long line of hon. Members who have congratulated my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) on securing this hugely important debate. Few debates that have taken place in this House have prompted such a response from my constituents, and I have received numerous letters, telephone calls and e-mails asking me to take part. I congratulate the Backbench Business Committee, in particular, because this is a perfect example of the kind of issue that matters to our constituents and that we should be talking about in this House.

The Prime Minister said a little while ago that he wanted our country to be a nation that makes things. Well, my constituency of Burton makes things. I am proud to say that it is the home of British beer. We make diggers, car seats and produce many other things. I am proud of that and am doing my best to maintain it for the future, but those industries are being particularly badly hit by the massive hike in fuel prices in recent months. I think that this is the Economic Secretary’s first opportunity to reply to a debate in the House and I am pleased to welcome her to her new post and wish her luck. I hope that she will have some positive things to say, because businesses in my constituency are saying that fuel price rises are having a real impact on their competitiveness.

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Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the industries that will be hardest hit by the increases in fuel duty is the bus industry? Does he agree that it will be hit not only by two increases in duty next year, but by the Government’s decision to cut 20% from the bus service operators grant? What impact does he think that will have on passengers?

Andrew Griffiths: I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention, but I am staggered by the collective amnesia on the Opposition Benches. I will gladly give way again if she can name a single time in all the years her party was in government when it cut fuel taxes.

Lilian Greenwood: My understanding is that on numerous occasions we decided not to press ahead with increases in fuel duty, and that had an enormous impact.

Andrew Griffiths: That point will not be lost on the House.

Something else that will not be lost on the House is the fact that this coalition Government took the bold steps to reduce fuel duty, to bring in the fair fuel stabiliser and to look at what we can do to help rural businesses. That is hugely important.

Mr Brian H. Donohoe (Central Ayrshire) (Lab) rose

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP) rose

Andrew Griffiths: I will not give way again; I have given way a few times.

I must tell the House what motorists and families in my constituency tell me about the high price of fuel and how it is impacting on them. They, like the constituents of many right hon. and hon. Members, are suffering because they have had pay freezes and, in some cases, pay cuts, because of inflation, and because they have had to cope with large rises in electricity and gas prices. So spiralling fuel prices are starting to impact on their quality of life, and on their ability to survive in these difficult times.

More than one constituent has told me recently that they have had to choose between doing regular maintenance on their vehicle and filling it up every month to get to and from work and to pick up the kids. We have to look at the impact, because our constituents have only so much to spend on motoring every month and every year, and, if we do not do something to help them soon, they will have to find savings elsewhere, and that could affect road safety.

Gemma Doyle (West Dunbartonshire) (Lab/Co-op): The hon. Gentleman is making a good argument for bringing down fuel prices. Will he therefore support Labour’s plan to cut VAT?

Andrew Griffiths: I am sorry, but the hon. Lady’s argument would have more strength if her party had done something to cut fuel duty when it was in power.

In the few minutes that I have left, I will raise an issue of particular importance to my constituents.

Nick Smith: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

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Andrew Griffiths: I have given way a number of times; I will continue, if I may.

I represent Uttoxeter, a fine market town situated between Stoke and Derby. It has a race course, and it is a great place to live and to do business, but my constituents have to pay 6p a litre more for their fuel than motorists who live just a few miles down the road in Stoke and Derby, because—I believe—of the supermarkets’ power and their virtual monopoly on forecourts throughout the country.

I have already written to the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, and he has advised me to write to the Office of Fair Trading to make an argument, but it is time we looked at how the supermarkets operate, because they have an anti-competitive effect on the market place and drive prices up. It will not be lost on colleagues that petrol companies quickly put up prices on the forecourt when there is an increase in the price of a barrel of oil, but are much slower to reduce them when the price of a barrel comes down. It is time that the supermarkets and the big petrol companies starting acting fairly towards our constituents, and I urge the Economic Secretary to do what she can to help.

4.33 pm

Stewart Hosie (Dundee East) (SNP): I congratulate the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) on securing this debate. It is important, and he will know that in the previous Parliament there were a number of debates on the subject and a number of attempts in Finance Bills to introduce a fuel duty regulator—precisely the price stabilisation mechanism that he describes in the motion today.

Going back over such debates from the previous Parliament is quite instructive, because it tells us why there is such anger among the general public. In the report of a debate in 2005 we read that the price of unleaded petrol had risen to 86p a litre, a rise of 6p in six months; by 15 May 2008 it had gone up to something over £1.10 a litre; and by the time of the Finance Bill debate in July 2008 it averaged £1.32 a litre.

The underlying price is more intriguing, however. In 2005 Brent crude had risen to $60 a barrel, up a massive $10 on the previous year. By the time of the debate on the 2007 pre-Budget report it had risen to around $84 a barrel. In the run-up to the 2008 Budget the price was $94 a barrel. As someone mentioned earlier, prices crashed through and spiked at around $140 a barrel. This week the price has stabilised at $114 a barrel, but the price at the pump has risen inexorably.

From 86p a litre in 2005, diesel prices in Dundee this week had risen as high as 140p a litre—£6.40 a gallon. In the constituency of the Chief Secretary to the Treasury diesel was nearly 145p a litre—£6.60 a gallon. In Kirkwall, in the constituency of the Liberal Deputy Chief Whip, the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), diesel is 152p a litre—£6.90 gallon—and in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) it is almost £1.54 a litre. That is £7 a gallon, so it now costs £90 to fill up the tank of the average family saloon car. One can quickly see why people are so angry.

In our past debates, we heard about support outside Parliament from many organisations. The Road Haulage Association said:

“UK hauliers are struggling as never before to cope with continually rising fuel prices”.

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Nothing has changed. The National Farmers Union and the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation said similar things. The Federation of Small Businesses said that it was

“behind the introduction of any mechanism which automatically uses extra tax revenues…to reduce prices at the pumps”.

And, my goodness, we need that now.

Sheryll Murray (South East Cornwall) (Con): The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation. Does he agree that many fishing vessels can reclaim the duty, so it does not affect them?

Stewart Hosie: Indeed, they can. What that organisation said at the time was:

“Transport is…a vital component of the fishing industry and cost increases there have applied even greater pressure, felt more acutely by the more remote fishing areas of the North West and the Northern Isles.”

I was paraphrasing what it said, as we have a whole four minutes each to speak. The point is that the response to spiralling costs under Labour was a fuel duty escalator, not a fuel duty stabiliser. The Labour Government set their face against every attempt to introduce a price stabilisation mechanism and, most cynically of all, increased duty to compensate for the temporary reduction in VAT.

The coalition’s response was to introduce the “fair fuel stabiliser”. That is what they called it. However, instead of using the windfall they already had from the North sea, they engaged in a smash-and-grab raid of £2 billion extra, with an increase in the supplementary charge. Hon. Members will remember that that led EnCore Oil to suggest that no tax would be paid on undeveloped and undiscovered oil. Other organisations said that very large projects were no longer viable because of the surprise Budget move. Chevron warned that the measure had

“shaken investor confidence to the core.”

Everyone was singing from the same hymn sheet except the Chancellor, who said that he

“did not expect investment to be damaged.”—[Official Report, 3 May 2011; Vol. 527, c. 604.]

Mr MacNeil: Does my hon. Friend agree that the Chancellor’s reckless smash-and-grab of North sea taxation has endangered investment in Scotland?

Stewart Hosie: It has indeed. There were stark and powerful warnings from the sector at the time that went on for a considerable time, and forced some limited changes to the regime. In the cold light of day, this month, the Aberdeen and Grampian chamber of commerce, along with others, carried out a survey that revealed that:

“50% of operators say Chancellor’s tax hike harmed North Sea investment.”

That policy did little to help the haulier and the motorist, but it did a great deal to damage the oil and gas sector.

Of course, it is not just the oil and gas sector and the traditional users of haulage who have been damaged. This week I have been contacted by a building company—a static business, not a haulage business—in my constituency, which told me that over the past few years, fuel as a proportion of its overheads has rocketed to 20%. We are

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not just causing inflation for goods that are moved, we are not just putting the haulage sector under pressure, we are not just making it difficult for people even to afford to go to work: the increasing cost of fuel as a proportion of overheads is driving other sectors to the wall too. These are very difficult times indeed.

This is only a Back-Bench debate—I am delighted that we have secured it—but the strength of feeling is very clear. There is now a body of opinion saying that constant high price rises, and the spikes in the price at the pump, are damaging the entire economy. I hope that the Minister is listening carefully to what has been said, and that action will be taken quickly.

4.40 pm

Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con): The high cost of fuel is impacting detrimentally on families, pensioners and businesses in my constituency, comprising as it does rural areas interspersed with market towns. I want to concentrate particularly on the small businesses in my constituency and the impact it is having on them.

In my constituency there are just a handful of large businesses, the largest of which employs just over 500 people, but there are 4,000 small businesses, which are therefore the engine of the local economy. For most of them, car travel and other vehicle travel is not an option but a necessity. As someone who has run a small business for 20 years, I know the reality behind the phrase “living on the margins”. That is a constant reality for many small businesses today. Because transport costs are a substantial component of their outgoings, fuel price rises have eroded those margins to almost unsustainable levels.

Stephen Lloyd (Eastbourne) (LD): I share my hon. Friend’s concern about small businesses, and I recently found a statistic of which she may not be aware. Over the past year the UK’s 4.8 million small and medium-sized businesses have paid over £260 million more for fuel than they did only 12 months ago. Does she agree that sometimes the price of fuel becomes a step too far for small businesses?

Fiona Bruce: I entirely agree. Small businesses are being forced into an impossible predicament. Do they transfer the increased costs to their customers, do they lose their customers, or do they sacrifice the making of any profit just to keep going, which is not sustainable in the long term?

Esther McVey: We are talking about small businesses, which I too represent here today. In the Wirral there is the double whammy of not only increasing fuel prices but increasing toll prices. Marginal profit is completely wiped away when both of those are taken into account.

Fiona Bruce: My hon. Friend makes a very good point.

Let me give the House some specific examples of small businesses in my constituency that are suffering in that way. Smallwood Storage Ltd is a transport and storage business in Sandbach employing nine people. This week it told me:

“We need a level playing field, the price of fuel has become too high as a percentage of our overheads and is out of proportion

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with the rates we charge. As a small business, we do not have the power of larger companies and are being squeezed from all sides.”

Another local company, B Lakin Transport, a haulage businesses in Somerford employing 10 people, said:

“Increased fuel costs have knock-on effects on everything…as the price continues to creep up, customers will go elsewhere and even look to foreign drivers who can use cheaper fuel from the continent; avoiding the extortionate prices in Britain.”

It continued:

“A driver from Luxembourg can fill up their petrol tank in Luxembourg at a fraction of the cost here. In October 2011, 1000 litres of unleaded fuel would cost £1130 in Luxembourg compared to £1350 in the United Kingdom—that’s a saving of £220 each time the tank is filled.”

Let us remember that haulage competitors from Luxembourg can fill their tanks there, drive to the UK and then return to Luxembourg without having to fill up here at all. B Lakin Transport tells me:

“Combine this with the exemption from road tax for foreign drivers, and we are clearly at a significant disadvantage to these foreign drivers from the outset.”

Mr Watts: Does the hon. Lady agree that it is very important that we are honest with the British public in saying exactly what sort of cut we are looking for? I expect that the level that the Chancellor will look at will be a lot less than is being suggested here today.

Fiona Bruce: Through the motion, we are asking the Government to explore a number of ways in which they could assist small businesses, such as the ones that I am describing, with this predicament.

I will cite another business in Cheshire. It is not a small business, but it is an interesting comparison, because it is not a haulage company. Roberts Bakery is a large family business that produces bread in Northwich, just outside my constituency. Just yesterday, it informed me that the increase in fuel prices since last year alone has added £10,000 a week, or £500,000 a year, to its delivery costs. That is a serious additional overhead for such a family company.

The price of fuel is hindering such businesses from playing their essential role in the economic recovery and job creation that we so desperately need in this country. It is effectively pricing UK businesses off the road, driving people out of work, preventing companies from taking on and holding on to contracts, and fuelling further economic difficulties.

I signed up to support the motion, and I applaud all the other Members who have done so. I ask the Government to consider as a matter of urgency the impact that high fuel duty rates are having on local economies such as the one in my constituency, and to take action to address the issue accordingly.

4.46 pm

Mr Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon). I rise to speak on behalf of my constituents who have expressed to me their deeply held views about the rising cost of fuel.

People are angry in unprecedented numbers right across my constituency. The same is true throughout Britain. At my weekend surgeries there has been a steady flow of constituents who have not held back

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from telling me what causes the most hardship in their domestic finances. One of the dominant themes is rising petrol pump prices, which are a constant weekly battle for motorists.

Mr Donohoe: I understand that my right hon. Friend has an Asda in his constituency. Asda has introduced a price of 128.9p per litre across the whole nation. Surely if the Government are to do anything, it should be to reintroduce universal prices for petrol. He is old enough, as I am, to remember when we had those.

Mr Clarke: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I have a big constituency, which stretches from Cumbernauld right through to Chryston, Coatbridge and Bellshill. The prices at Asda, welcome as they are, do not deal with the problems elsewhere.

These are truly worrying times. We have sluggish growth, rising unemployment, falling confidence in the manufacturing sector and depressed business confidence, so this is no time for complacency from the Government.

By September 2011 the cost of petrol had increased by 17.7% in a year. Our constituents are now paying petrol prices that are the highest in all 27 countries of the European Union. The only country in the world that seems to beat us on motoring taxes is Turkey.

Andrew Griffiths: The right hon. Gentleman is making the point that we are the most expensive country in Europe. Will he tell us when our prices became the highest in Europe?

Mr Clarke: We are where we are.

What the Chancellor does on fuel duty increases next year could make or break many people’s ability to go about their everyday lives, whether they are looking after their family or running a business. Failure by the Government to take effective action would mean winding the clock back on travel and mobility to a time when the freedom of the road was the preserve of the middle class. That cannot be right or fair. It would be a retrograde step for my constituents and would place their finances in an intolerable position.

With 80% of the population living in a car-owning household, a car is now a necessity, not a luxury. Unlike here in London, where vast transport links provide the necessary infrastructure for people to live their lives effectively, in constituencies such as mine people use and rely on their cars daily. Lower-income families, elderly people and those living in rural areas will be the most adversely affected and hit by rising fuel prices. In September, the then Secretary of State for Transport suggested that the railways had become a rich man’s toy. If that is the case, how can the Government’s policy, which is allowing exorbitant fuel prices literally to drive people off the roads, be justified?

Despite the Government’s seemingly generous gesture of a 1p cut in fuel duty, the public will simply not be fooled. The simultaneous increase of 2.5 percentage points in petrol tax that accompanied the VAT rise from 17.5% to 20% in January makes a mockery of the Government’s proposal. Their meagre attempt to placate motorists will benefit only the Treasury.

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The fuel duty stabiliser has not shielded drivers from pump price volatility. That is why I believe that the Government need to take real urgent action now to help ease the squeeze on struggling families and kick-start the economy by temporarily reversing the VAT increase.

Karl Turner (Kingston upon Hull East) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr Clarke: I am sorry, but I will not.

I know that when times are tough, tax revenues are seen as vital to the Treasury. My constituents know that, too, because most of them have been through tough times. However, let us be clear that those revenues cannot be loaded on to the backs of the poorest and most vulnerable in our society. It is they who are suffering most from rising fuel prices, and it is for them that the House ought to speak tonight.

4.52 pm

Andrew Bingham (High Peak) (Con): First, I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), who is no longer in his place, not only on securing the debate but on the tenacious way he has pursued the issue relentlessly since his election last year.

I rise to support the motion and highlight the extra impact of fuel prices on High Peak. We have a large number of quarries, all of which produce the finest quality limestone in the country. That limestone has to be moved by road or rail, but predominantly by road. Quarries have to be where the stone is, so they cannot be moved around. I wish to tell the House a short tale about a constituent of mine, Mark Pearson, who operates his own wagon. He is a single operator who carries 17.5 tonnes of limestone with every load. In the past three years his fuel bill has increased from £1,600 a month to £3,200 a month. That huge increase in his overheads has to be borne by somebody, whether by Mark himself or the end users of the stone. Such overheads will restrict employment and business growth.

Karl Turner: The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point on behalf of his constituent, who is clearly being squeezed. Did he bother to ask his constituent how much the increase in VAT is costing him?

Andrew Bingham: As I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware, many businesses are registered for VAT and so will be able to reclaim it. It is the other tax that is the addition to their costs.

Karl Turner: What about his employees?

Andrew Bingham: If the hon. Gentleman had been paying attention, he would know that I said my constituent was an owner-operator with his own truck.

Andrew Percy: If that owner-operator did have employees, does my hon. Friend think that he would be happy with the six planned rises under Labour?

Karl Turner: What about VAT?

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Andrew Percy: Does my hon. Friend think that those pretend employees would have been happy with the fact that the previous Labour Government escalated the fuel escalator?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. We cannot have shouting across the Chamber. It is absolutely unacceptable, Mr Turner. We will have proper debate.

Andrew Bingham: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, as he always does.

High Peak businesses suffer from rurality. We are midway between Sheffield, Manchester and Derby. The distances from our businesses’ customers and their suppliers mean that bringing goods in or sending them out costs more. My big concern is that as increases in fuel costs are borne more and more by local businesses, they will eventually say, “Enough is enough” and move out of the countryside into urban areas, further exacerbating the difference between the rural and urban economies.

We must remember that families are affected too. Although I understand that this debate is predominantly about fuel costs, I have to mention the increased energy costs that families are having to bear at the moment. I venture to suggest that High Peak is probably the coldest constituency in England. We have had a cricket match snowed off in Buxton in June, so we feel the winters, which are deeper and longer. That puts a further burden on family budgets.

Other Members have made the point that increased car use is required in rural areas. The proportion of households without a car in London is 43%, while in metropolitan areas it is 31%. In rural areas, only 10% of households do not have a motor vehicle. The reason is—

Lilian Greenwood: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Andrew Bingham: No, I am going to move on, if the hon. Lady does not mind, because we are short of time. Also, I note what the former occupant of the Chair said about those making interventions not being called to speak, and I would not like to deprive the House of her speech later on.

When public transport links are not as good, a motor vehicle becomes a crucial part of family life. Someone spoke earlier about four-wheel drive vehicles. I understand the image they have as Chelsea tractors, but we should remember that sometimes four-wheel drive vehicles are vital in rural areas, as they are the only way that people can get about. As for public transport in my area, anyone who wanted to travel between the two major towns of Glossop and Buxton by bus would need to take a meandering route through New Mills, Whaley Bridge and Furness Vale. A car is the best way.

I believe that one day vehicle movements will perhaps fall slightly as communications improve, but broadband in rural areas is not as fast as it is in urban areas. That reduces people’s ability to work from home, which means that they have to travel to work, again putting more pressures on budgets. Cities and urban areas have faster broadband, better public transport and, more often than not, a better climate. In High Peak it is colder for longer, we have fewer public transport options and families and businesses need to travel further.

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Given that I still have about one minute, I shall mention one further aspect. Local mountain rescue teams are staffed by volunteers who use vehicles, but also pay duty. I give hon. Members the image of a cold, snowy mountain in High Peak, with a sheep in one field and a human being in another, and a farmer going to save the sheep and a mountain rescue team going to rescue the human being. Which one pays less for fuel? The farmer will quite rightly use red diesel and pay no duty; the mountain rescue team, as a not-for-profit group of volunteers saving a human life, is faced with paying all the duty on that fuel. However, that is a debate for another day. I put my hon. Friend the Minister on notice that I keep putting in for a Westminster Hall debate on the issue. I hope that one day I may get lucky.

To sum up, rural areas face the challenges of using more fuel, and in High Peak we pay more.

4.58 pm

Mr Michael McCann (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow) (Lab): I, too, welcome this debate, which gives Members the opportunity to discuss an issue that is close to our constituents’ pockets. Like many others, my constituency is a mixture of the urban and the rural, and everyone is feeling the pressure at the pumps. Today’s motion was necessary to create the opportunity for this debate, but sadly it omits some crucial aspects. I am disappointed that the amendment in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North (Mr Watts) was not selected, because it would have filled the debate with all the pertinent issues that we need to discuss.

During the speech by the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), his bipartisan mask slipped as he made certain political points about the motion. My constituents want to know how the Government plan to tackle the high cost of fuel now. They also want to hear the longer-term plan to enable the country to become less dependent on petrol and diesel. The hon. Gentleman purports to be a champion of the consumer’s cause, but although this debate partly covers the issue, important facts have been left out and the bigger story remains untold.

John Peel said:

“I never make stupid mistakes. Only very, very clever ones.”

I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman has indulged in John Peel’s rhetoric in the motion. It contains faint praise for the Government’s austerity programme, yet that programme is a significant part of the problem, rather than part of the solution, because it goes too far and too fast. Also, there is no mention whatever of the whopping 20p a gallon on the price of fuel following the latest VAT rise.

Gareth Johnson (Dartford) (Con): Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Labour Government increased the cost of petrol no fewer than 12 times? We would not be having this debate if that had not happened.

Mr McCann: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me an additional minute. I remind him that it was a Conservative Government who introduced the fuel duty escalator.

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Tom Blenkinsop (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland) (Lab): On that point, I was looking at the AA website this morning and comparing unleaded fuel prices in my region of the north between May 2006 and May 2010. Over that four-year period, the price increased by 24.2p, yet in just one year between May 2010 and May 2011, we have seen a 16p jump. That is two thirds of the increase that we saw under four years of a Labour Government.

Mr McCann: That gives us the real picture. I shall say more about that in a moment.

My constituents know that the price of oil is linked to the complexities of production, of exchange rates and of international stability, and that interference in one or more of those factors can cause prices to spiral out of control. They lose comprehension, however, when they see little evidence of price reductions when those factors are reversed. I remember well that in 2008 the price of oil was $147 a barrel and the price of unleaded in my town was £1.15. Yesterday, the price of oil was $114 a barrel, and the price of petrol £1.35.

Mr Watts: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr McCann: I have already taken a couple of interventions. If my hon. Friend does not mind, I want to allow a couple of other Members to get in.

We need some answers from the Minister to explain the phenomenon that I have just outlined, because the public just do not understand it. If this debate is to have any credibility, it also needs to address some other issues. I do not believe the hon. Member for Harlow’s simplistic proposal that reduced prices will bring in more income. If he believes that we need to reduce fuel duty, he must tell us where the resulting cuts would be made. Or would he advocate increasing other indirect taxation, or direct taxation, to fill the gap?

Robert Halfon: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and for signing the motion. As I mentioned earlier, the AA has proved that the Treasury is getting £1 billion less in revenue because of the high cost of petrol. People are unable to afford to drive their cars, and the Treasury is therefore losing money. If we cut taxes, more money will go into the Treasury.

Mr McCann: That is the same explanation that the hon. Gentleman offered before, but I still do not understand it. I signed the motion because it was the only way of getting an opportunity to discuss this issue, which is important for our constituents. I would have preferred that the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North—[ Interruption. ] Well, the hon. Member for Harlow is going to have to tell us how he proposes to fill the gap if fuel duty is cut. And if he believes that the gap does not need to be filled and that we should be taxed less, he will have to tell us what public services would suffer as a result.

A former Member of this House was once described as a vacuum surrounded by charisma. I think we all hope that, at the end of the day, this debate will not become a vacuum surrounded by synthetic anger.

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5.4 pm

Mr Robin Walker (Worcester) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) on his passionate speech, on his many campaigns on this issue and on securing this debate, and I welcome the huge interest and support across the House for it. The price of fuel remains, week in, week out, one of the most important and pressing issues raised by people in Worcester. It is an issue on which I, like many other hon. Members, am determined to see real progress.

I wholeheartedly support today’s motion and was proud to put my name to it as a long-term advocate of fuel price stabilisers. I want to put forward one more argument for action that has not been sufficiently covered in this debate and I want to raise a couple of further concerns, which I hope the Minister will be able to respond to in her reply.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) set out and as the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr McCann) acknowledged, the Government have to pay attention to balancing the budget. The motion notes, however, that fuel duty revenues are lower now than they were in 2008 despite the fact that the level of taxation has increased since. In my view, that makes but understates the case for rethinking further increases. As I have argued in Westminster Hall debates, that case was admirably set out by the Office for Budget Responsibility when it first looked at, and then rejected, the idea of a fair fuel stabiliser. It concluded that although higher prices added to Government revenues in the short term, by increasing the take from fuel duty, their longer-term impact was to reduce Government revenue through the combination of discouraging usage and the wider negative impacts of high fuel costs on the economy. Although the OBR used this argument to reject the original plan for a stabiliser, I have said many times that the logic of its argument is that lower fuel duties could result in higher tax revenues, and I am happy to put that case again today.

We should look not only at the impact on fuel duty receipts themselves, substantial though they might be, but consider the effect of sky-high prices on business profits and thence corporation tax, their impact on the rate of inflation and thus the rate of increase in costs to Government in everything from wage inflation to benefit uprating. We should consider the depressing impact of high fuel costs on the whole economy and in particular on business and enterprise.

Mr Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that it is a central Conservative insight that we can lower the rate and up the take so that small companies in rural areas such as mine are able to do more work, earn more, pay more tax and keep the economy going?

Mr Walker: I completely agree with my hon. Friend. This is one great advantage of cutting fuel duty rather than cutting VAT, which Labour Members argue for.

Mark Pawsey (Rugby) (Con): I would like to make the point that a lot of freight companies are filling up on the continent. If we reduced the amount of duty,

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particularly on diesel, they would be encouraged to fill up in the UK, which would bring additional revenue to the Exchequer.

Mr Walker: My hon. Friend brilliantly pre-empts my next point. I was going to say that most business users also use diesel, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) pointed out, is an important issue. One concern I particularly wanted to raise is the fact that diesel in this country is so much more expensive than anywhere else in Europe. I am told that this is not simply a matter of taxation as the rates of fuel duty are set equally for unleaded petrol and for diesel, but of refining capacity, which the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen), who is no longer in his place, also mentioned. Also relevant is the fact that North sea oil has traditionally been better suited for the production of unleaded petrol than for diesel. However, it does seem extraordinary that one can drive across most of Europe seeing prices for diesel consistently lower than those for unleaded, only to arrive in this country and find that there is a 7p differential in the other direction. In fact, we are one of the few countries that treats diesel and unleaded exactly the same for tax purposes, and many others, including France and Spain, tax diesel much less than we do.

Perhaps I should declare an interest at this point as the driver of a rather battered Y-registration diesel Golf with more than 150,000 miles on the clock, but my prime interest is that diesel tends to be the fuel of choice for business users and the freight and haulage industries. Its cost and the extent of taxation on it thus have a more direct impact on our economy and on prices in the shops than does unleaded petrol. Given the importance of diesel to business and the economy, will the Minister give special consideration to steps that could be taken to encourage the closure or reversal of that price differential, whether it be directly through fuel duty or indirectly through encouraging investment in refining capacity.

Like others, including my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier), I am very concerned at the wide geographical price differentials within the UK. Although many have argued that this is a matter of rural sparsity and have put the case for a rural fuel derogation, which I accept, I want to put the case for urban centres such as Worcester that find themselves paying a higher price for fuel than their neighbours or competitors.

Mr McCann: Is the hon. Gentleman against a free market in the fuel industry?

Mr Walker: I was just coming on to that, but I am very much in favour of the free market and want to encourage competition.

A glance at petrolprices.com shows the average price for diesel in Worcester yesterday was 142p compared to 139p in Cheltenham or 140p in Birmingham—two cities that it sits between. For the lowest priced unleaded, however, the differential increases from that 2p or 3p to a staggering 5p, with Worcester drivers paying 134p compared to 129p in Birmingham or Cheltenham. My constituents regularly raise concerns about that. They fear that there

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is insufficient competition affecting prices in Worcester. I realise that it is not the Minister’s job to set prices everywhere in the country, but I would appreciate a reassurance from her that the Government are determined to see active competition between retailers, and are doing all they can to stimulate it.

Other Members have mentioned supermarkets. I have been led to believe by constituents that Tesco and Sainsbury have changed their policies, and that rather than trying to be the lowest-price retailers of petrol in any given area, they now aim to sell at the average price for the area. Their purpose may be to prevent accusations of predatory pricing, but this is a very counter-productive way of doing that. I hope that the arrival of a new Asda store in Worcester next year will increase competition in the area.

Like many other Members, I am worried about the fact that constituents who need their cars to travel to work, and businesses in my constituency that need to use road transport, are paying too much for their fuel, and that too much of that cost consists of tax. I welcome the steps that the Government have already taken to protect our economy from the previous Government’s planned increases, the fact that fuel is 6p cheaper now than it would have been otherwise, and the Chancellor’s declaration that he wants to

“put fuel into the tank of the British economy.”—[Official Report, 23 March 2011; Vol. 525, c. 966.]

I believe that it has never been more important to do so, and I commend the motion to the House.

5.11 pm

Mr Elfyn Llwyd (Dwyfor Meirionnydd) (PC): I congratulate the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) on securing the debate. I was pleased to sign the motion, and to support his application to the Backbench Business Committee.

I have seldom witnessed so much unanimity across the Chamber, and I think that that is a sign of the seriousness with which people out there view the fuel situation. For a long time, my party—along with our friends in the Scottish National party—has argued in favour of some form of stabiliser. We tabled amendments to Budget motions in 2005 and 2008, and received support from outside organisations including the Freight Transport Association, the Road Haulage Association, the Federation of Small Businesses, and farming unions such as the National Farmers Union and the Farmers’ Union of Wales. Along with our colleagues in the SNP, we held an Opposition day debate on this matter in February this year, before the 2011 Budget in March.

According to the FairFuelUK campaign, fuel accounts for over 40% of all business transport costs. It is clear that continuing rises in fuel costs as a direct result of fuel duty rises will increase the pressure on companies that are already struggling to stay afloat, or perhaps already going under.

Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): I agree with the right hon. Gentleman about the effect of high fuel prices on businesses. One way in which businesses can deal with it is by upgrading their fleets so that their lorries become more fuel-efficient, but that will not be possible if the current proposal to phase out 100% capital allowances is implemented.

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Mr Llwyd: It is difficult enough to find a bank that will provide the money in the first place—when it rains, the banks want their umbrellas back—but I take the hon. Gentleman’s point.

Of course, it is not just businesses that are suffering. Families have been gravely hit by the rise in fuel prices, and, as has already been pointed out, fuel duty has a disproportionate impact on those who are least able to pay it.

Mr Watts: Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the difference between this and earlier fuel price rises is that the Government’s present policy is to impose a pay freeze, while also allowing inflation to run at 5%? Families are being hit by the treble whammy of higher prices, inflation, and the increased price of petrol and other fuels.

Mr Llwyd: That is true. As we heard earlier from the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) and others, families are being squeezed from all directions. According to figures issued yesterday by the Office for National Statistics, the poorest 20% of households pay proportionally twice as much in duty as the better off.

In rural areas such as my constituency, the cost of running a car is as important to people as their food budgets, because they cannot do without a motor vehicle. We have proposed the introduction of a fair fuel duty regulator that would prevent unexpected spikes affecting people at the pump through increased VAT, which is then pocketed by the Treasury. We suggested that an estimate be made of the fuel price over the coming six months, showing the amount of revenue that the Government would expect to receive, and that a cap be imposed if the price reaches an upper limit and VAT and fuel duty be frozen until the end of that period. The Government would, of course, receive their predicted amount, rather than a windfall from consumers who are already squeezed by the price hikes and unable to spend their income elsewhere.

Unfortunately, the then Labour Government in London stubbornly ignored the problems of rising fuel prices, and the motions in 2005 and 2008 addressing the issue were defeated. The Conservatives abstained in the vote on the 2008 Finance Bill, but decided only a few weeks later—in July 2008—that they would support a fuel duty stabiliser, a move that we welcomed at the time, believing that if they came to office they would introduce a mechanism similar to that we had been advocating. Sadly, when the matter was put to the vote in February this year, the voting pattern was reversed: the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats voted down our motion, while the Labour party abstained. This ever-changing position on a fuel duty stabiliser shows the political expediency of many politicians.

In March 2011 the UK Government cut fuel tax by 1p per litre and delayed some future rises, but the VAT increases have had a significant impact on prices. We voted against that move in summer 2010 and recommended a cut in June this year. The stabiliser model that we suggested is not the one that has been introduced by the UK Government, and it is clear that the problem has not yet been solved. Two further duty rises are scheduled for 2012, which could have dire consequences for business and motorists alike, especially given the ongoing economic difficulties, which are not likely to be solved in the near future.

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We therefore need an effective and fair fuel duty stabiliser, and we must also look at pricing in rural areas. We must address the amount of VAT being levied, too. Most importantly however—and moving away from the impact of future fuel duty price rises—we also need to invest in renewable energy alternatives, to reduce our reliance on oil and other fossil fuels.

I heard the arguments about so-called Chelsea tractors. Where I live such vehicles are an absolute necessity—although they are often more downmarket than most Chelsea tractors. When I drive around the country, I have to do so because I cannot take public transport. In London and other conurbations, including Cardiff and Swansea, there is a choice. We need to make that choice viable. We urgently need to address this issue.

5.47 pm

Dr Sarah Wollaston (Totnes) (Con): When Labour came to power in 1997, fuel duty stood at 36.8p per litre. When it left office in 2010, the price was more than 57p per litre—“a pain in the gas” as they say in the United States. I therefore welcome the early and decisive action taken by the Treasury in taking 1p off fuel duty, scrapping the duty escalator and delaying the 3p per litre rise. Many Members have today made a compelling case for why we now need the Treasury to go further, however.

I represent a large rural constituency in south Devon, and having a car in order to get to work or exercise choice in education is not a luxury; it is an absolute essential. My constituents spend a far greater proportion of their disposable income on fuel than those who live in cities.

A further 3p rise in January would not just hit householders, however; it would hit essential local businesses, too. Some 65% of all the UK’s groceries are delivered on retread tyres produced by a company in my constituency: Bandvulc tyres. It also exports to cities across Europe. It is a significant employer and wealth generator, but a 3p a litre rise in fuel duty would cost it an additional £24,000 a year, because it uses more than 500,000 litres of fuel a year. It is a family-run manufacturing business producing a sustainable product and creating local jobs. It wants to stay in Devon but knows that it would make economic sense to relocate part of its business to eastern Europe as a result of the fuel duty rise. There are similar examples among other businesses in my constituency.

Another very important sector in my constituency is tourism. I am talking about businesses such as Sharpham wines and cheeses, which attracts 7,500 tourists a year and employs up to 40 people. More importantly, it is in the top six wine producers in the UK and it is another wealth creator that exports across Europe. That business spoke of the ripple effects of a further rise in fuel duty, as did many others. A business that I visited last week, Palladium Building Supplies, told me of the knock-on effect to the entire building industry across south Devon that there would be if we go ahead with this rise.

Mel Stride (Central Devon) (Con): My hon. Friend is making a powerful point about the effect on businesses. Does she accept that not only are these high fuel prices damaging businesses, but that, in turn, that is leading to less revenue to the Exchequer, because businesses are becoming less profitable?

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Dr Wollaston: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. This is about whether a 3p a litre increase will generate any income. Many of my constituents feel that it will lead to a drop in income, because they will simply not be able to fill up their cars.

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): I agree with the hon. Lady’s case, which has been made by others, that the Government need to take account of the impact of the high price of fuel and the hurt it is causing to families, individuals and businesses. She mentions an important short-term measure, but does she agree that in the medium and long-term it is also important that the Government take action to reduce our dependency on oil, the price of which is only likely to rise, and look towards investment in things such as electric cars and charging infrastructure across the country, so that we will be set for the rest of the 21st century?

Dr Wollaston: My hon. Friend makes a good point. Indeed, one organic business in my constituency said that it would find a rise more acceptable if it could be seen directly as a green tax. Unfortunately, that is not the case. In my constituency, people will be badly hit by a double whammy, in that the bus service operators grant is set to be reduced by 20% next year. Just when they cannot afford to use their cars, people are being hit by a real threat to rural bus services, which are already at a critical level in south Devon. I hope that the Minister will set out what proportion of the rise will be set aside for green taxation purposes.

Priti Patel (Witham) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that the points she is making show precisely why motorists need to see greater transparency in how fuel prices are determined? I am thinking, in particular, about the disparity between pump prices and the price of oil.

Dr Wollaston: I fully support that, because in south Devon those on the lowest incomes will be hardest hit. They will be spending yet more of their disposable income on fuel or they will be waiting at the side of a road for a bus service that can no longer afford to operate.

5.22 pm

Fiona O'Donnell (East Lothian) (Lab): I will keep my remarks brief and the reason for that makes me rise to my feet with a rather heavy heart. The reason is that I want to hear more Government Members speak, because they are playing us off the park today; their damning analysis of the Government’s lack of strategy for economic growth far exceeds the efforts of those of us on the Opposition Benches. It is almost incredible listening to them. We would not believe that they are in government; it is as if somebody else did this.

I would not go as far as to say that I rise to bury the motion, but I certainly do not rise to praise it. [Interruption.] These are the benefits of a classical, if comprehensive, education, which some Government Members may have had. I rise because many of my constituents have been in touch with me in support of this campaign. I have to say that I have gone back to them trying to dampen down their expectations. What we actually have before us reminds me of when my children have done something really bad and they are working up to telling me. They say, “Mummy, I love you. Mummy, your hair looks

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really nice today. Mummy, I have been really good” and that seems to be the approach of the motion. It is almost simpering in the way in which it cosies up to the Government, praising them for action which it then goes on to identify has clearly failed in its objectives. These are objectives that my constituents want. I have been back to my constituents and pointed out the strong language of this motion, which acknowledges the problem, “notes” there is a wee bit of a problem and “further notes” the problem. It says that all this will be considered and, best of all, says that all this is being done in the name of “sustainable growth”. I presume that means keeping it low, with no growth at all, because that is what the Government are delivering.

Several hon. Members rose

Fiona O'Donnell: I shall not give way at this point because I am keen to make progress and allow others to contribute.

My constituency is largely rural and my constituents rely heavily on their cars not just to get to the shops but to engage in the big society—to take their daughters to Brownies and their sons to Scouts, or their sons to Brownies and their daughters to Scouts. They go out to reach the cheaper petrol at Asda up at Dunbar. That is the reality of living in East Lothian. My constituents suffer a double whammy and I find it really hard to listen to the hon. Member for Dundee East (Stewart Hosie) going on about what this Government have not done, because another Government could do something to make things easier for my constituents to get around East Lothian—the Scottish National party Government in Holyrood could re-regulate the buses.

Mr MacNeil: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Fiona O'Donnell: No I will not. The hon. Gentleman should sit down and listen to what I am going to say before being so eager to get to his feet. He should let me finish this point.

The Scottish Government could have re-regulated the buses so that we could have a service in East Lothian that meets the needs of my constituents, instead of meeting the party election funding of the SNP Government. They have not taken advantage of that option, so in East Lothian we have the double whammy of rising prices at the pumps and a poor local bus service that is being further cut by an SNP council.

Mr David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): As my hon. Friend’s neighbour in Midlothian, and given that 56% of our people travel to work in Edinburgh every day, may I say that bus availability is a really big issue? The re-regulation of bus services is key, but the only people who can do that are that lot over there on the SNP Benches.

Fiona O'Donnell: My hon. Friend and neighbour is absolutely right. The SNP should stop talking about what they want other people to do and which other powers they want and instead start using the powers they have.

Mr MacNeil: The hon. Lady has to ask herself whether she wants the Conservative Government here in Westminster to have taxation powers over Scotland or whether she wants Scotland’s powers back in Scotland at the Scottish Parliament.

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Fiona O'Donnell: That is not the only choice. I want a UK Government who do the best for all the people in the UK—not just those in the Western Isles, Glasgow and Edinburgh, but those in Liverpool and London too. I note that the hon. Gentleman did not say why his party in Holyrood did not support a private Member’s Bill to re-regulate the buses. He should stop whingeing about what he cannot do and start doing something with the powers he has.

Mr MacNeil: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Fiona O'Donnell: No; the last interruption was not very satisfactory—I am not taking another risk.

I find myself in a familiar situation. I spoke in a similar debate not very long ago about a haulage company in East Lothian that was about to go bust because of fuel prices. I remember an hon. Member from somewhere on the Government Benches saying something about claiming back VAT. Unfortunately, I did not realise at that time that the company was not even registered for VAT, so that was not an option. The company has gone out of business and those jobs have gone. Others in East Lothian are trying to find work but the reality is that those jobs as a rule are not in the county—they are in Edinburgh. Given the poor local provision of public transport, they are forced to take to their cars. That is a real problem for making work pay for my constituents. If the Government are serious about getting people back to work they have to enable rural communities.

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) is not here. His contribution was not so much a speech as a postcard from some rural fantasy that he sent to the House. He spoke about how important this debate and this motion are, but I remember the last time there was a debate on this issue in which the will of the House was unanimously expressed—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order.

5.29 pm

George Eustice (Camborne and Redruth) (Con): I welcome this debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) on securing it. I also welcome some of the very good actions that the Government have taken to date, most notably the suspension of the fuel duty escalator, the cut in fuel duty, and the rural rebate that is being considered, which we hope will be piloted in the Isles of Scilly, not far from my constituency. I agree with the many Members who have said today that fuel tax is a regressive tax that tends to hit the poorest, and rural areas, hardest.

Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): I find interesting the discovery by Government Members, including the hon. Gentleman, that taxes on spending are regressive. When that argument was about the increase in VAT, it seemed to be ignored, so has he changed his mind on VAT, too?

George Eustice: The issue of VAT has been covered widely by others. I would just say that I think all Government Members regret the fact that the Labour party made such a pig’s ear of running the economy that we had a £150 billion black hole in our finances.

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I would like to focus on a separate but linked fact: fuel tax has a disproportionate impact on areas that are geographically peripheral. I come from Cornwall, and there is no doubt that fuel tax is a regressive tax that hits Cornish businesses far harder than businesses in the main population centres.

Glyn Davies (Montgomeryshire) (Con): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, because the issue is particularly important in my constituency too. High fuel prices act as an anti-regional-development policy. Not only are they a cost on business, but they discourage business from locating in certain places. They work very much against the thread of Government policy in other areas.

George Eustice: I completely agree. That will be the main thrust of what I say. I was in business in Cornwall; indeed, on many occasions, I drove a lorry that took our excellent Cornish strawberries to Birmingham. The reality is that Cornwall is 300 miles away from London, and 260 miles away from Birmingham. We have to drive the best part of 100 miles just to get to the seat of my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston). Let us look at how that translates into tax. A typical 16-tonne lorry doing a round trip to London would incur, in total, tax of £220, just on that one trip. Let us compare that with a lorry driving from Birmingham to London: the tax taken for that would be only £80. A similar operation in Cornwall has to pay three times more tax. That is unfair, and it is felt acutely by businesses in the primary sector, particularly in areas such as fishing and farming, in which Cornwall has a comparative advantage.

If we are serious about developing a regional policy, we have to help the most peripheral regions to develop industries and jobs in the sectors in which they have a comparative advantage. The irony is that places such as Cornwall have EU grants to help develop businesses in the areas where we have strengths, which include food processing, farming, and green energy. The regional growth fund has a similar purpose. We are undermining those efforts by having a regressive tax through high fuel duties. The impact is to compound the single most important disadvantage that the regions have, which is their distance from the market. As I say, that is particularly noticeable in Cornwall. Our climate gives us a comparative advantage; we grow potatoes early, and can grow cauliflowers in winter—bulky commodities that cost a lot to transport. Of course, with our marine resources, we have fishing, too.

I want to finish with a suggestion on how we might go forward. Alongside the rural rebate, which is due to be piloted, we should consider, perhaps as a strand of regional policy, some kind of rebate for businesses in peripheral regions such as Cornwall. It should not be beyond the wit of man to devise such a scheme. To be eligible, a business would have to be located in a county such as Cornwall. The rebate would be available only on fuel supplies delivered to an address in the area. As for how we would give the rebate, we have heard that most businesses that run a transport fleet would be VAT-registered, so it would be possible to have some kind of fuel duty rebate that runs alongside the VAT return. I know that none of these things is easy; it would take some work to develop the detail of such a policy, but it would be an interesting idea to look at. It could be a very powerful regional policy. In the meantime, I commend

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the motion to the House, because it is important that there be cross-party consensus on how to deal with the issue.

5.35 pm

Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) (Lab): More than 100,000 people have added their names to an e-petition, and they and many millions more want to know whether the Government are prepared to listen to them and take the necessary action to ease the burden on hard-working families and businesses and, indeed, on our struggling economy. Out of that desire for action, and to support people in my constituency, I added my name to the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North (Mr Watts) that called on the Government to reverse their VAT increase and, in doing so,

“cut 3p off a litre of petrol”.

Nick Smith: Very shortly, the Chancellor will give his autumn statement, so does my hon. Friend agree that that is a terrific opportunity for the Government to signal a temporary cut in VAT that will both help drivers and boost our economy?

Rosie Cooper: I do indeed, because the general public are simply not interested in any more words, any more knockabout, or any more “he said, she said”. They have signed up in their thousands for action to reduce the cost of fuel and its impact on families and businesses. Study after study shows that transport is integral to an individual’s ability to access employment opportunities and to take part in social and cultural activities. For many people, access to transport is the difference between social exclusion and social inclusion. I could give examples from my West Lancashire constituency that illustrate that the cost of fuel has a significant impact on people, whether they live in urban or rural areas.

The sixties town of Skelmersdale was designed with the car as king. There is no railway station or pavement system to allow people to walk across town, and public transport services are limited. That means that residents rely on their car to get to work and to get around. In many cases, workers are forced to use taxis to travel to work, and if fuel costs increase, residents in those hard-pressed areas must decide whether travelling to work is financially viable.

Tom Blenkinsop: Is my hon. Friend concerned, as I am, that the policy of the Department for Work and Pensions of forcing unemployed people to look for work within a radius of 90 miles might be undermined by the fact that fuel costs are so high?

Rosie Cooper: In my constituency, to be forced to look for work within 9 miles is darn near impossible because there is no transport infrastructure.

Andrew Selous (South West Bedfordshire) (Con): I think that the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) meant to say that it was 90 minutes, rather than 90 miles, which is quite a significant difference.

Rosie Cooper: Fine: my answer remains the same.

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There are many rural communities in West Lancashire, and in those areas, public transport is almost non-existent. The main services in villages have closed down, so people have to travel to the main towns to shop, to go to the doctors or to go to work. They rely on their car to get about or, in the case of some older people, on the kindness of a friend to give them a lift. Yet again, if people cannot run their car because of costs, that has a negative effect on all aspects of their life. I am concerned about the impact on both the young and older people in rural communities, as they may become ever more isolated, making them more vulnerable. How do pensioners on a fixed income that has been stretched to the limit find the extra money to cope with further fuel increases?

Some people argue that a reduction in fuel duty and thus fuel prices would mean an increase in the number of journeys and carbon emissions. I absolutely understand that argument, which reflects the fact that there is a difficult balance between our desire to tackle climate change and enabling people to go about their daily business, go to work, support their family, and run their company. Simply pricing people out of their car is not a real solution, especially in areas such as West Lancashire, where there is no real alternative in place.

It strikes me that with a flatlining economy, rising unemployment and businesses unwilling to invest because of the current uncertainty, now is exactly the time for flexibility and common sense. People like those living in West Lancashire—hard-working families and local businesses employing people—are looking to the Government to help them out just a little. They want help to ease that burden, and it is probably the least they are owed, after broken promises to introduce a fuel duty stabiliser, a failure to scrap the planned fuel duty increase and a decision to increase VAT. It is time for social justice and fairness. It is time for the Government to listen and to act. People want them to do it, and to do it now.

5.40 pm

Mr Marcus Jones (Nuneaton) (Con): I begin by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) for working so hard with colleagues and with the public to secure this vital debate, which affects not only drivers, but every citizen in this country. Virtually everything we consume is carried by road, so when the cost of fuel increases, we all feel the extra burden. When we do our weekly shop, when we pop down the local pub for a swift half or when we buy virtually anything else, we notice that the cost has increased. That is why, in my response to the Chancellor’s last Budget, I said in the House that my constituents would have breathed a sigh of relief when the Chancellor scrapped the duty escalator increase programmed into the Budget by the previous Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling).

Graham Jones: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point that family budgets are under pressure. The subject of the debate is important to my constituents—I received about 60 letters. Does he agree, though, that the increase in VAT to 20% is hitting family budgets and adding £450 to the average family’s tax bill?

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Mr Jones: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comment. Like many Opposition Members, he is presenting a confused view of things. His party did not vote against the VAT increase. One minute the Opposition seem to want a VAT reduction only on fuel, which would be difficult to achieve because of the situation with the EU. In fact, as has been pointed out, it would be illegal. The next minute the Opposition want a full VAT cut, which I find strange. It is yet another uncosted policy to add to the other five points in the five-point plan. Perhaps we should call it the six-point plan for bankruptcy that the Labour party is advocating.

I remind the House that in the last Budget the Chancellor also cut 1p off the price of a litre of fuel. Although that is a small cut, it was welcomed by many. Thus at the last Budget the Chancellor saved the motorist from an impending increase of about 26p a gallon. That move showed that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor had listened to the people of the country and the FairFuelUK and other campaigns that have lobbied MPs and the Government in a reasoned, fair and pragmatic fashion. My right hon. Friend was probably wise to listen, because we all know now that certain surveys tell us that 85% of the public think the cost of fuel is hurting people and businesses.

I sincerely thank the Chancellor for taking that course of action. I hope that after today’s debate the Minister will pass on to the Chancellor the comments made by Members, and that he will think very hard, as he did before, and try to mitigate or not put through the increases in fuel duty programmed in for 2012.

Graham Jones rose—

Mr Jones: I will not give way, as other Members want to get in.

Jason McCartney (Colne Valley) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr Jones: Indeed.

Jason McCartney: To follow up my hon. Friend’s earlier comments about having a swift half, I recently spent an evening serving behind the bar in one of my local rural pubs to celebrate British pub week—the Wills O’Nats in Meltham, a very rural pub a mile from the nearest houses. All the staff have to drive there. All the customers drive there, of course, with a designated driver and with soft drinks. So it is important not just for enjoying a drink, but for employment opportunities that we support our rural pubs and that we try to do what we can with the fuel duty to help such employment.

Mr Jones: As my hon. Friend rightly points out, that is a vital issue for our local communities.

The road transport angle is vital to my constituency, where many jobs depend on the industry, as it is a major road and network hub for UK distribution. Many transport and haulage companies are suffering greatly. As we have heard, most heavy goods vehicles do about 8 miles to the gallon, so the planned 3p increase in January 2012 will add about £15 a week to the cost of running a vehicle, according to figures I have received from the Freight Transport Association. For companies with fleets of more than 50 vehicles, of which there are several in my constituency, the planned increase will increase their costs by £37,000 a year. They will either absorb the cost or pass it on to their customers. With

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such low operating margins in the transport sector these days, I suspect that it is inevitable that the increase will be passed on, thus adding further inflation to the supply chain.

Furthermore, an increase would also widen the gap between UK and continental fuel prices and increase the number of foreign trucks operating in the UK. We should think carefully about that, because foreign trucks pay no UK fuel duty, no UK road fund licence and no UK employment taxes. That will increase their ability to undercut UK hauliers, potentially put UK jobs at risk and exacerbate the loss of tax take that hon. Members have mentioned this evening. Smaller haulage companies tell me that fuel prices are crippling their cash flow, as they have to pay at the pump or on very short seven-day credit terms, whereas their customers want 30, 60 or 90-day credit terms.

I would like to say more on this important matter and talk about the general motorist and car driver, but unfortunately I am running short of time. In conclusion, deficit reduction is rightly the Government’s first priority, but I appeal to the Chancellor to listen to the public on this vital issue, particularly before his autumn statement, and see what he can do to minimise the impact that it might have on our hauliers and motorists.

5.47 pm

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate, because the price of fuel is an important concern for many of our constituents. I will start with two observations. First, I am glad that there has been little evidence today in the House of the green zealotry that drove the increase in fuel prices—a point we must not forget, because it was argued that that was a way of weaning the population off fossil fuels. Secondly, although Members have talked about the role of petrol and oil companies, let us not forget that 60% of the cost of fuel is accounted for by Government action. Therefore, this is the appropriate place to debate what can be done about it.

The Government’s record on this differs from what they said in opposition. They had many fine ideas in opposition. Indeed, in “A Fair Fuel Stabiliser” they indicated that any reform should help families when the cost of living is rising and reduce the inflationary impact on the economy—but what has the record been since they came into power? In Northern Ireland, fuel bills for families have increased by an average of £254 a year for those using diesel and £284 a year for those using petrol. The Government promised in opposition to do something for families when the cost of living was rising, but their actions have been different.

They made clear in opposition what they thought about an increase in VAT. Indeed, in an intervention in this House in 2008, a Conservative Member asked the then shadow Chancellor:

“Does my hon. Friend not agree that Labour’s plans to increase VAT to… perhaps even 19.5 per cent…. after the next election will hit hard-working families hardest? Should the Government not be ashamed of themselves?”

The answer was “absolutely”, and that the Conservatives would keep reminding the then Government of that

“every…day between now and the…election.”—[Official Report, 26 November 2008; Vol. 483, c. 741.]

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The Conservatives did that, but as soon as the election was over and VAT went up to 20%, it all went quiet on the Government Benches, and we did not hear much from them about VAT hitting the poorest families hardest.

During this debate, Government Members have said, “Ah, yes, but we reduced fuel duty.” On the one hand, fuel duty was reduced; on the other, VAT was put up. The Chancellor gave, and the Chancellor took away. That is the truth for hard-working families.

Jim Shannon: I thank my hon. Friend for his passionate speech. As he represents a rural constituency similar to mine, has he been contacted by farming communities regarding the effect of fuel prices on food production, which affects everybody in the country? There is the price of the fuel for their machinery, but the increased fuel prices also get passed on to them in the price of fertiliser and other things that they use on the farm. Is he concerned about that, and about its impact on food prices?

Sammy Wilson: That just illustrates the inflationary impact of the situation, not just on individual families but throughout the economy, and the Government ought to bear it in mind as they ask themselves, “What shall we do to regenerate the economy?”

Various reasons why it is difficult to do something have been given. The first, which we have heard from Government Members, is that if we try to reduce VAT Europe will intervene. That is another reason for renegotiating our position on Europe—but leaving that aside, I note that 75% of the tax is not VAT but fuel duty, so even if there is a problem with Europe, the Government have another way of dealing with the problem.

The second reason that has been given has involved asking, “What about deficit reduction?”, but there does not seem to have been any difficulty with deficit reduction when it has come to bailing out the euro, with £12.5 billion having already been pumped into it and the Government talking about more money going to the International Monetary Fund. Indeed, as Government Members have said, the measure could almost be self-financing anyway: if, for example, it led to a rise in demand, there would be more duty; if it cut costs, more corporation tax would be paid.

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): Does the hon. Gentleman recall that previously, whenever the Scottish National party or Plaid Cymru moved their various motions, Labour voted them down and the Tories abstained, and then the Tories voted them down and Labour abstained? Does he believe that there must be something particularly volatile in fuel prices on the road to Damascus to bring about such changes in outlook?

Sammy Wilson: I believe in Damascus road experiences, and if they help the consumer that is a good thing, so I look forward to that. I hope that the Government will have a Damascus road experience on this issue. Consumers would be pleased if they did.

In opposition, the Conservatives made promises. Now that they are in government they hold in their hands the levers to help consumers, and from this debate will

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come the expectation that promises made in the past will be delivered by those who hold the levers and have the ability to use them in the present.

5.53 pm

Andrew Selous (South West Bedfordshire) (Con): I, like others, warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) on bringing this important debate to the House today.

In my constituency the car is essential really to all my constituents. We have three market towns and 14 villages, and although the bus companies do valiantly they cannot serve all my constituents, many of whom have to commute a long way—for 90 minutes or even longer—out of my constituency to find regular work. When there were difficulties with the buses in villages such as Hockliffe and Eggington there was enormous upset, because many people in those areas find motoring so expensive.

In rural areas, on average only 10% of people do not have a car, because they are so necessary, and more than half of households need two cars to get their families around.

Anne Marie Morris (Newton Abbot) (Con): Is my hon. Friend aware that in rural constituencies such as ours the cost of filling up at the petrol pump comes to 10% of the wages of an individual on the lowest income? That is an enormous amount, and does he agree that it puts a particular burden on those living in rural communities?

Andrew Selous: My hon. Friend is absolutely right: that adds insult to injury.

The huge disparity in petrol prices experienced by so many of our constituents is extremely difficult. In addition, the disparity between the price of diesel and unleaded petrol concerns me greatly. Diesel used to be more expensive. We then had parity, and now diesel has shot up again. It is apparent that we have an inadequate supply of UK refining capacity for diesel in this country. We have to import much of our diesel from Russia, which causes particular problems given that around half of all car sales are of diesel vehicles.

Tessa Munt: There is also the increase in prices for liquefied petroleum gas, which has gone up astronomically in the past few years.

Andrew Selous: My hon. Friend makes a good point, and I am glad that she has been able to get it on the record.

Of course, the Government are in a very difficult fiscal position because of the economic mismanagement we inherited. Every day we are still spending around £330 million more than our income, and these things are not easy for Treasury Ministers. In spite of that we have managed to reduce the cost of fuel by around 6p per gallon, which my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow said would equate to around £274 less spent on fuel per motorist in this Parliament. That is very welcome. Government Members are instinctive tax cutters, which is why we have set out plans to reduce corporation tax to the lowest rate in the G7 by the end of this Parliament. That is where our instincts lie, and my hon. Friend the Minister knows that.

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In contrast to some of the other speakers today, I want to consider the future in relation to fuel prices and talk about how some of the new technologies will be able to help save our constituents money. On 10 May I held a debate in Westminster Hall, in response to which the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), told hon. Members that people who buy a Nissan Leaf would have an average reduction in their motoring costs of around £1,000 per year, and that there would be a payback on the total costs within seven years. He also sent me further information to show that the seven-year fuel costs of a Ford Focus are £6,827. For a Toyota Prius that figure is £4,034, and for a Nissan Leaf coming on sale next year, it is just £517. Some 48 other makes of electric vehicle will be available soon—for example, the Vauxhall Ampera and others. I am delighted that in my constituency, charging points for electric cars will be installed at Ashton square by the Grove theatre car park in Dunstable, and at the West street and Hockliffe street car parks in Leighton Buzzard.

We have rightly heard much about the problems faced by small businesses. We need to consider the use of biomethane for trucks and hydrogen fuel cell technology for buses and heavy vehicles. At Nagoya airport in Japan all the buses are powered by hydrogen fuel cells. We need to ensure that we develop a hydrogen refuelling network, as we are doing for electric vehicles. Our constituents will then be able to enjoy cheaper fuel.

We also need to look at what is happening internationally. In Israel and Denmark the Better Place company is engaged across the whole economy. On 1 November Mr van Erck of that company told a meeting of the Westminster Energy, Environment and Transport Forum, at which some hon. Members were also present, that within three years the best-selling vehicle would be electric. Not only can we have cheaper motoring for our constituents, but the UK is also on track for a sizeable share of what HSBC estimates to be a $677 billion market by 2020. That was mentioned by Michael Hurwitz, a director of the Government’s Office for Low Emission Vehicles on 1 November. Such a plan would stimulate the economy and create British jobs for British workers, as well as lower prices for our constituents.

The UK is in a race to design, manufacture and power cheaper low-carbon vehicles. We have a once in a lifetime opportunity to lead in this industry as we lead in Formula 1, with eight of the Formula 1 teams based in “motorsport valley" in the United Kingdom. Such a challenge will be good for our constituents’ pockets and good for the economy. I recommend to the Government that we power forward in this area, for the whole of the United Kingdom.

5.59 pm

Tom Blenkinsop (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland) (Lab): I want to address this debate from the perspective of a low-paid part-time worker. Working families will be told to earn at least £212.80 a week or face having tax credits removed. In my constituency, particularly in places such as rural east Cleveland, as well as suburbs such as Hemlington and Coulby Newham in Middlesbrough, many women work part-time at or just above the minimum wage. After recent public transport cuts by the Government affecting over 90% of local authorities outside London, those women are forced,

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in the main, to travel by private car. This will become even more the case next year when the Government remove the subsidy for bus fares, further increasing by 20% the cost to the customer of public transport in the form of buses.

Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that women are particularly badly affected by fuel prices?

Tom Blenkinsop: That is precisely the point I am making. The lack of a Government growth strategy is making it even more difficult for women to exist within or get into the labour market.

Those women and other workers, particularly in my constituency, need affordable transport, and the Chancellor’s 20% VAT rate is counter-intuitive to that requirement. The economic climate is such that growth in private sector jobs is flatlining, and such jobs are mainly part-time and low paid. The problem is that people who want to work full-time can only get part-time jobs. Part-time employment cannot fund the everyday necessity of a car, and part-time workers are increasingly reliant on a diminishing—

Jim Shannon: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that over the past 50 years car ownership has increased from 5% to some 51%, and that those in a lower income bracket are most affected? Does he not think that that clearly underlines the case that we need lower prices?

Tom Blenkinsop: Yes. We have heard today the very good arguments about the differences between rural and urban areas, but in certain rural communities in my constituency there is less than 30% car ownership, so there are also class and income issues, as well as a diminishing public transport system that is becoming more and more expensive because of Tory cuts and rising fuel prices.

Female part-time workers often visit two or three workplaces. I used to cover, as a community trade union official, Teesside Cast Products, a steelworks in Redcar. I also represented those in OCS, who worked not only as cleaners and canteen staff but elsewhere as carers on a part-time basis. One of the women I knew did a total round trip of approximately 40 miles a day between two or three work sites. Her employers frequently attempted to remove or decrease her company subsidised fuel costs through unilateral variations in terms and conditions. The Government’s attack on her tax credits and their policy of 20% VAT made it almost impossible for her to work on a day-to-day basis. If it were not for the union fighting for her terms and conditions on fuel payments from her employers, she would undoubtedly have become a Department for Work and Pensions statistic and have been downgraded into a burden on the state rather than the hard-working unionised woman I know her to be.

The Office for National Statistics has demonstrated that in 2010 the poorest 20% of households spent 3.5% of their disposable income on petrol and diesel, compared with 1.8% in the case of the richest fifth of the population. Meanwhile, in the same period, Shell’s profits more than doubled to £4.3 billion, Exxon Mobil made £6.5 billion, and BP made £3.2 billion. We must take note that the squeeze caused by the Chancellor increasing VAT from 17.5% to 20% has added 3p to the price of a litre of petrol. Diesel keeps industry, and the

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vital service sector that it requires, flowing, much like capital and skills. More than this, public services, including Royal Mail, such as it is—it is going to be fractured and regionalised by privatisation—police vehicle response units, ambulances, fire services and councils incur increased costs via the 3% VAT increase.

Christopher Pincher: I know that the hon. Gentleman is a decent man, but will he explain why, if he really wants to see fuel price reductions, he fought the general election on a manifesto to support the fuel duty escalator that would have put 5p on a litre of petrol this April and increased the duty every year for the next three years?

Tom Blenkinsop: That was not in our manifesto, although the Tories’ manifesto clearly stated that they would not raise VAT.

Budgets in Middlesbrough, Redcar and Cleveland have been most severely cut by this Tory-Liberal Democrat Government, with cuts of up to 10% for those local authorities. Leafy areas in the south-west such as Dorset have had a 1% budget increase, and we are feeling the pain the most. Our area provides the manufacturing-led recovery for this country, but we are not getting the financial benefits from this Government. The 20% VAT rise and its effect on fuel is hurting us.

The public organisations that I have spoken about consequently reduce their contracting of car and van fleet services, which hurts small businesses in communities such as mine. Those small businesses in turn reduce their staff numbers as they are squeezed by the direct increase in fuel prices due to VAT and the indirect negative multiplier effect of public service cuts.

As Opposition Members predicted, killing off public services will not, in and of itself, evacuate space for the private sector to fill. It has simply intensified the pain of already difficult budget cuts. That has happened because of the Chancellor’s economic decisions before the eurozone crisis. The statistics from the Office for National Statistics and the Office for Budget Responsibility show that the cuts were happening before the eurozone crisis, despite the Government’s attempts to use it as a smokescreen for their failed economic policies.

6.5 pm

Sarah Newton (Truro and Falmouth) (Con): This is an important issue that affects every home in my constituency. I add my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) for securing this debate.

That appreciation is shared by my constituent Annalise Lucas from Cubert. She is a member of Network Cornwall, which is a network for female small business owners in Cornwall. Like many mums with small children, she balances work—running her costume design business—with looking after her family. Like many hard-working families in my constituency, Annalise and her husband, who works at Newquay Tretherras school, are finding the ever-increasing fuel prices, coupled with the higher costs of living in Cornwall, a real struggle.

Andrea Leadsom (South Northamptonshire) (Con): Is my hon. Friend aware of the many young mothers who work part time and who struggle to afford the cost of filling their car to get to work?

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Sarah Newton: I am aware of that concern, especially in rural areas where there is no option but to use a car because of the limitations of public transport.

Hard-working families and mums who are raising their children are the backbone of communities across my constituency. I look forward to hearing from the Minister what more the Government can do to support those families. We all agree that it is vital to sort out the nation’s finances, but we must support people to carry on looking after their families.

Sir Robert Smith: The hon. Lady is making an important point, which has been expressed across the House, on the strength of feeling about the need to tackle fuel price rises. Perhaps one challenge that comes from this debate is how the Office for Budget Responsibility calculates the benefit that the Government get from higher fuel prices through the windfall in VAT revenues and other revenues. The OBR argues that that does not count for anything. Perhaps in revisiting that we could also address the argument that a reduction in fuel duty might increase revenues by increasing spending.

Sarah Newton: What we are all agreed on today—I hope we will hear this from the Minister—is that we should leave no stone unturned in finding ways to stop the increases in fuel prices and in starting to tackle the problems that we have heard about in this debate.

I will not use the limited time that I have to duplicate the points that have been made by my colleagues, the majority of which I agree with. However, I will develop the issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) about the impact of rising fuel prices on volunteer transport schemes. Like many rural areas, my constituency does not have good public transport. It also has a high proportion of elderly people, many of whom are living in poverty.

We have one acute hospital that serves everybody living in west Cornwall. Volunteer drivers play a vital role in taking people to hospital, to their GPs and to other therapeutic appointments. Volunteer-run minibuses are also very important. One such service, Transport Access People, run by Age UK Cornwall, is based in my constituency. TAP has just under 30,000 clients and its volunteer drivers have clocked up more than 2.6 million miles. It currently has 250 volunteer drivers, but it has lost six in the past couple of months because of rising fuel prices.

Sheryll Murray (South East Cornwall) (Con): Transport Access People covers not only the west of Cornwall but the whole of Cornwall. In my constituency, TAP is finding it extremely difficult to get volunteer drivers because of the excessive fuel costs that they have to pay.

Sarah Newton: My hon. Friend makes a very good point, as usual. To cover the increased costs that she mentions, TAP has had to put its price up to 41p a mile. It is worried about the future, because it may have to raise it to 45p a mile, which is what similar organisations in other parts of the country are having to charge. Given that the average journey is 25 miles, and that it is not uncommon for patients to travel 50 miles for an appointment, we can see how prices are mounting up for patients. Some are entitled to free travel, but many people on very modest incomes are not.

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A report by CAB Cornwall, the citizens advice bureau, has highlighted the fact that some people are not attending hospital appointments because they cannot afford to. That is a waste of precious NHS resources and not at all good for the patients concerned. Work is being done locally to try to address that, with more NHS services being moved closer to people’s homes, but that will take time. I hope that the Minister will commit to considering what further help the Government can provide to keep these much-needed volunteer drivers on the road.

Matthew Hancock (West Suffolk) (Con): Are there not unfair differences in the local price of fuel as well as the national price? In Haverhill, in my constituency, fuel is up to 10p more expensive than in nearby Bury. Is that not patently unfair?

Sarah Newton: It certainly is, and I am sure that that is the experience of drivers right across my constituency and Cornwall.

We have heard from all Government Members who have spoken that they absolutely understand that the Government’s priority is to reduce the deficit and sort out the nation’s finances. People in my constituency broadly understand that. However, I hope that we can ensure that cuts are made and revenues increased fairly, so that they do not adversely affect some of the most vulnerable and poorest people in my constituency who are being affected by the lack of volunteer drivers to take them to hospital.