The first of the two debates is on fuel prices and the cost of living. I inform the House that, in the first debate, I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.
As colleagues will be aware, in the light of the level of interest in participating in the two debates, I have imposed a six-minute limit on Back Benchers’ speeches in each of the two debates. There is, of course, no formal time limit on Front Benchers’ speeches, but in view of the interest I appeal to Front Benchers to exercise a certain self-denying ordinance.
I beg to move,
That this House recognises that rising world oil, food and commodity prices are increasing the cost of living and adding to the squeeze on families on low and middle incomes across Britain; believes this has been compounded by the Government’s decision to increase VAT to 20 per cent., which will cost a family with children an annual average of £450, has helped to push up the consumer prices index annual inflation to 4 per cent. and, according to the House of Commons Library, is adding £1.35 to the cost of filling up a vehicle with a 50 litre tank; notes that the AA announced last week that the cost of unleaded petrol has now reached an average of £6 a gallon and that the fuel duty stabiliser promised in the 2010 Conservative Party manifesto has not yet been announced or implemented; further notes that the previous administration regularly postponed planned fuel duty rises when world oil prices were increasing sharply, as they are now; and demands that the Government takes immediate steps to reverse January’s VAT rise on road fuels, using the extra £800 million from the bank levy and securing the appropriate EU derogation, in order to provide relief to hard-pressed motorists and, at the time of the Budget, looks again at the annual duty rise due in April.
It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram), whose ten-minute rule Bill seeks to address an issue that is close to the hearts of all of us from Merseyside.
Times are increasingly tough for millions of ordinary hard-working people and families in our country. Since May last year, we have seen this Government embark on a reckless gamble with our future prosperity. Public expenditure is being cut too deep and too fast, and up and down the country millions of people are really beginning to feel the pinch. Families are facing the biggest squeeze in their living standards for 80 years, and some economists are warning that it could get still worse. Real wages are static, even falling. With recruitment freezes, job losses and rising unemployment, people are right to be worried about the future.
Will the hon. Lady help the House? Over the past 13 years, in every aspect of Government policy, the Labour Government were deliberately and decisively anti-motorist. Does the motion before the House today represent a seismic shift in policy, or is it, as we suspect, a transient spat of opportunism?
I am rather sorry that I gave way so early in my remarks to that kind of comment. I do not recognise the right hon. Gentleman’s caricature of our policies for motorists. Perhaps he has been reading too much of the Daily Express. [Interruption.] Well, I am a motorist as well. He should realise that motorists are not confined to the Conservative Benches.
I will come to the details of the motion later. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will do us the honour of staying in the Chamber and listening to that.
Taxes such as VAT are rising, and the Chancellor’s huge cuts in benefits and services are only just starting to bite. The Government are doing all this while the world economy is still very fragile after the international banking crisis. Global commodity prices are soaring, and these price increases are hitting people and businesses in Britain hard.
I am pleased that the competition authorities have launched an investigation into what has been going on with heating oil. My hon. Friend is right to point out that transport in rural areas is a particular issue.
People who are already financially stretched by this Government’s slash-and-burn approach now find themselves trying to cope with sudden sharp increases in the price of essentials such as food, energy and fuel. Recent OECD figures put UK food inflation at 6.3%. That is higher than the consumer prices index, higher than the retail prices index, and higher than in most of the rest of Europe. In my constituency, parents are now worried about the rising cost of providing balanced meals for their children.
Does the hon. Lady agree that the fuel duty escalator is an important tool to send a clear message that oil prices are going to have to continue to rise, not only for geopolitical reasons but because of peak oil and climate change, and that a way of ensuring that the poorest are not hardest hit would be to scrap the recent VAT increase in totality and replace it with a crackdown on things such as tax evasion and tax avoidance?
The hon. Lady is right that there has to be a balance between the environmental aspects of taxes on fuel and living standards. However, I find, all too often, that on the green side of the argument the social justice aspects of imposing environmental tax rises are not thought about enough, and such measures tend to hit hardest people whom we are least able to help. She needs to help all of us, when we are thinking about this, by bearing in mind the effects on poverty of environmental taxes.
The fuel duty escalator was introduced by the former Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke). One of the first things that the Labour Government did on assuming office was to make sure that we did not pursue that policy. [Interruption.] Oh, yes. That is why, on several occasions in our 13 years, the Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer got rid of the fuel duty increase. That is the truth.
I thank the hon. Lady for being so generous in giving way. Will she confirm that, despite what has been said, my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) is right: there were 12 fuel duty rises under the Labour Government, and six more were set to come into force before they left office and would have done in the next few years?
As I said, we had six years when we did not even increase the price of fuel by inflation, so there were real-terms price falls. The number of increases in all sorts of duties tends to expand the more one is in government. We will see what this Government do in the Budget next week.
The difference in our approach is that we are looking to help people across all parts of the economy. Surely the people at the Freight Transport Association who have been campaigning solely for a fuel duty rise not to be imposed, which would benefit them, should realise that they must build an alliance with other people by campaigning for the striking down of the increase in VAT to 20%, which is hurting everyone, including not only themselves as the people who deliver goods, but the people who have to purchase those goods.
No. I have given way a few times, and I am going to get on with my remarks.
It is absolutely clear that increased fuel duty costs are eating further and further into already stretched household budgets, making the squeeze on living standards even worse. Businesses are suffering from problems caused by inflating commodity costs, tighter margins and restricted access to credit from the banks. Many are anxious about how they will get by in the next few years, and the continuing rise in the price of fuel is adding to that worry.
I will get on with my remarks and give way to the hon. Lady shortly.
The cost of oil has been rising on world markets as a result of underlying increases in demand from Asia and uncertainty because of the unrest in the middle east. Just a week ago, petrol prices hit a new high at the pumps. The average price for unleaded fuel is, a week later, still £1.32 a litre. That means that the cost of fuel has risen 7p a litre since the beginning of the year. The AA pointed out that the £6 gallon has arrived for the first time, and that prices for diesel have soared even higher, currently averaging £1.38 a litre.
Order. That is not an orderly way in which to conduct the debate. An hon. Member should not stand up in the Chamber with an electronic device and read from an e-mail as a means of debating. That is the current position—such matters are always subject to review, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that that is the position at the moment, and we will leave it there.
I am not willing to give way to the hon. Gentleman. [Interruption.] He can show me the e-mail afterwards.
The Conservative-led Government’s decisions to raise VAT to 20% may have been expertly disguised before the election so that the voters were kept in the dark about it, but we all know about it now. Increased VAT has added an average of £450 a year in extra cost to a family with children and has pushed the headline CPI figure to 4%, which is double the Bank of England’s target.
I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman.
As we all know, VAT applies to petrol. The Library calculated that the Conservative Government’s 2.5% increase in VAT has added nearly 3p to the cost of a litre of petrol when people are least able to absorb that extra cost.
Perhaps the hon. Lady will confirm and clarify her party’s position on—I think—fuel duty. I am not sure because on ITV’s “Daybreak” the shadow Chancellor said: “We’re saying today, as well as the duty thing, which I’ll think you’ll freeze”—I presume that he was not saying that explicitly to Christine Bleakley—“I think you should reverse the VAT rise.” Specifically on the “duty thing”, is the shadow Chancellor talking about freezing the 1p rise, the RIP rise—[Hon. Members: “RIP?”] Sorry, I mean the RPI plus one rise. Which is it? [Interruption.] I might have made a slip, but I was thinking about the Opposition and their policy.
Order. Before we continue, may I appeal to Members, including Ministers and other Front Benchers who are intervening, to do that economically? I remind the House that the Chair’s responsibility is to seek to protect the rights of Back-Bench Members who wish to speak. I put it to Front Benchers that Back Benchers will be not inconsiderably irritated if long speeches from the Front Bench stop them getting in.
I was trying to help hon. Members by giving way. Obviously, that extends the time that one’s remarks take, but I think that some exchange helps the debate.
I hoped that the Chief Secretary would be here today, but we have the Economic Secretary instead. Why will the Chief Secretary not turn up to one of his own debates? Where is he? Why has he not come to tell us about what he has been doing on all those issues?
The hon. Lady will recall that when she was a Treasury Minister, she received a delegation of highlands and islands Members of Parliament, including the Chief Secretary, and that we asked for a fuel duty derogation for remote rural areas. We had tea and sympathy, but no action. The Chief Secretary is now implementing that policy. Does the Labour party now support reduced fuel duty for the islands?
We want to do something that helps everyone in the country, not one third of 1%.
As we all know, VAT applies to petrol. As I said , the Library has calculated that the 2.5% increase in VAT has added nearly 3p to the cost of a litre of petrol when people are least able to absorb that extra cost. We all know that an extra fuel duty increase of 1p above inflation is factored into the Chancellor’s Budget arithmetic and due to be implemented next month. Taken with rising inflation, those changes could put 5p a litre on to fuel duty rates. The combination of sharp rises in world oil prices, ongoing uncertainty in the middle east and the self-inflicted rise in VAT is creating real hardship for many people. It causes higher inflation, lowers consumer spending power, which is already weak, and reduces both consumer and business confidence, thereby putting any prospect of growth at risk. The economy shrank by a shock 0.6% in the last quarter of 2010. People are getting increasingly desperate for some relief from the Conservative Government, but there is precious little sign of it.
I am trying to get on with my remarks, as the Speaker wishes me to do.
What help has been put in place to tackle rising fuel prices since the Government took power last May? The Business Secretary was reported as telling the Press Gallery over lunch recently:
“It’s quite likely that we are going to get a nasty period of high fuel prices”.
Top marks for observation, but most people would think that, at an average of £1.32 a litre, we already have a nasty period of high fuel prices. However, the Minister of State for International Development does not seem to think that they are high. As a former oil trader, he was unable to resist the urge to speculate. His irresponsible guesswork succeeded in generating front-page headlines in The Sunday Times on 6 March, when he announced that he thought that the record price of $147 a barrel for oil reached at the height of the oil price spike in 2008 would be smashed. He said:
“I’ve been saying in Government for two months that if this does go wrong, £1.30 at the pump could look like a luxury, $200 a barrel is on the cards”.
His words of wisdom, which were hardly calculated to bring calm to the international oil markets, were reported around the globe. His headline-grabbing antics succeeded only in making a bad situation worse, and, I would imagine, swift removal from No. 11 Downing street’s Christmas card list.
Meanwhile, total incoherence was breaking out in the oddly named “quad”, which, for those who do not know, consists of the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Chief Secretary. Apparently, they are meant to be the ones who actually run the Government, and it seems that they are falling out over the Conservative manifesto promise to introduce a so-called fuel duty stabiliser, which would cut duty when prices were high but raise the tax when prices fall.
I will not give way. I am trying to get on. [Interruption.] I hope that the hon. Member for Devizes (Claire Perry) will stay in order. I have said that I want to get on with my remarks because the Speaker is trying to protect Back-Bench business, and I have given way a lot. She should now be patient if she wishes to contribute to the debate.
The fuel duty stabiliser relies on the view that increasing oil prices provide the Treasury with a windfall from North sea oil revenues that can be distributed to hard-hit fuel users. Where is the fuel duty stabiliser? In April last year—conveniently before the general election—the Prime Minister, after a huge song and dance on the issue, which we saw on the front pages, suggested that a Conservative Government would cut the cost of petrol by 10p a litre if oil prices remained high. At that time, petrol cost 12p a litre less than it does now. The Daily Telegraph reported that the Tory fuel duty stabiliser
“is expected to be launched within months if Mr Cameron is successful.”
As oil prices soar, voters who remember that promise are still waiting.
Since then, the Prime Minister has dropped lots of little hints about his pet policy, without actually doing anything about it. Every time he mentions it, he is quickly slapped down by the Chief Secretary. That happened in January just after a prime ministerial fuel price hint. Speaking on the BBC’s “Politics Show”, the Chief Secretary said of the stabiliser mechanism:
“It’s a complicated idea and it’s difficult to see precisely how we achieve it”.
Of course, that did not stop the Conservatives dangling the idea cynically before the electorate last April. In the same BBC interview, the Chief Secretary rejected calls to scrap the 1p rise in fuel duty that is due to be introduced this April, saying—
No, let me finish. The Chief Secretary rejected calls to scrap the 1p increase, saying that he was not prepared to “sacrifice income willy-nilly” to help motorists. That is the Chief Secretary who is not at this debate. Perhaps Conservative Members should be asking him their questions. He proceeded to champion the fuel derogation for remote islands, which will help just a third of 1% of Great Britain’s almost 34 million registered vehicles and 60 million people. To be fair to him, he has battled for 10 months to get that policy up and running and, showing the energy and drive for which he is famous, he has managed to get around to asking the EU for permission to think about doing it. That is a perfect example of a policy from this Government: it generates a satisfyingly large amount of headlines, helps virtually nobody and costs almost nothing.
Meanwhile, the Chancellor asked the Office for Budget Responsibility to undertake an assessment of the effect of oil price fluctuations on the public finances, in order to design a stabiliser mechanism. It produced that assessment last September.
I have given way to the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) already.
The Office for Budget Responsibility produced the assessment last September, and it failed to make the numbers stack up for the policy. It calculated that the overall effect on the public finances of a temporary oil price rise would be close to zero, and that a permanent rise would create a loss to the public finances. In other words, there is no windfall for the Treasury to redistribute using a so-called fuel duty stabiliser mechanism.
No one appears to have told the Prime Minister about that and he clearly has not bothered to read the OBR report, because at Prime Minister’s questions a couple of weeks ago, he promised a fuel duty stabiliser in the Budget:
“we will look at the fact that extra revenue comes to the Treasury when there is a higher oil price, and see if we can share some of the benefit of that with the motorist.”—[Official Report, 2 March 2011; Vol. 524, c. 300.]
The Daily Telegraph called that statement “misleading and economically illiterate”. I could not have put it better myself.
I have given way to the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth.
That statement shows that this Government are run by a Prime Minister who does not do detail and who appears to be at odds with his own Chief Secretary. The OBR has shown that a temporary rise in oil prices generates a £100 million surplus in the first year for the Treasury, but that that turns rapidly to a net revenue loss of £700 million the year after. What the Government gain from higher oil tax revenues, they lose from the effects of higher prices on consumption and the requirement to spend more on indexing pensions and benefits. A permanent rise causes permanent losses to the public finances. The Prime Minister has to stop pretending that there is a windfall in rising oil prices that he can share out, because it simply does not exist. [Interruption.]
Order. I apologise for interrupting the hon. Lady. I say to the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) that loud conversations in the middle of a speech are discourteous and must not happen. That is not a proper way to conduct debate. I am not having it, and that is the end of it.
I was saying that the Office for Budget Responsibility has given the lie to the view that a fuel duty stabiliser mechanism can be financed by the windfall that rising oil prices give the Government by revealing that that surplus does not exist.
The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills was caught recently saying that the Liberal Democrats are in a “constant battle” inside the Government, especially over tax proposals. They are obviously in a battle over the fuel duty stabiliser. In debates on the 2008 Finance Bill, he said that fuel duty stabilisers were “unbelievably complicated and unpredictable”. He also said:
“May I suggest that there might not be any net windfall at all?”—[Official Report, 16 July 2008; Vol. 479, c. 339.]
The OBR has since confirmed that there is not. The Liberal Democrat bit of the Government is saying one thing and its Tory masters another. Together, there is total inaction on fuel prices.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies has concluded that introducing a fuel duty stabiliser would inject more uncertainty into the public finances rather than less. Analysis by the Policy Studies Institute found that if a stabiliser had existed for the 12 months to last December, when the price of petrol rose by 13p a litre, it would have cost the Exchequer a staggering £6 billion. The Government’s flagship policy on fuel, which they used cynically before the election to generate so many favourable headlines and to gather votes, is not only late in arriving, but looks shambolic and incoherent.
The Labour party’s apparent damascene conversion on fuel taxes will amaze and intrigue the bulk of the electorate. Will the hon. Lady confirm whether she supported the crafty action of the previous Chancellor of the Exchequer, who effectively excluded fuel from a VAT reduction in 2008 by raising duty, and then put the VAT on fuel back up to 17.5% in January 2010?
One minute Government Members say that we have no plan to deal with the deficit, and the next minute they complain that we had a plan that would have raised money. They really do try to have it both ways and are not remotely coherent.
The time for action is now. The Chancellor should take immediate action on fuel prices to ease the cost of living crisis in Britain. He does not even have to wait until the Budget. We are calling on him to reverse immediately the 2.5 percentage point increase in VAT on petrol that he imposed in January.
The hon. Gentleman should not believe the propaganda from Tory central office. Of course we do not want the country to go bankrupt. We had a plan that would have halved the deficit, rather than dealing with it in four years. If I were in the Conservative party, I would not be quite so proud of producing the third largest fiscal consolidation—public spending cuts in ordinary language—of the top 29 industrialised countries, beaten only by Iceland and Ireland. As the hardship and the squeeze on living standards in this country become clearer in the coming year, the Government will come to rue their decision to cut too far and too fast. People will suffer day in and day out as a result of that decision.
I am not sure what the hon. Lady thought about living standards in the Outer Hebrides when, time after time, she stood at the Dispatch Box as a Minister and said what she could not do and why she could not do it. Does she, in her quieter moments, regret not approaching the European Commission for a rural fuel derogation for the Hebrides and other islands in Scotland?
I must continue.
The Chancellor should use the Budget to look again at the annual fuel duty rise due in April, because of the price of fuel in world markets. At this time of instability and change in the middle east and north Africa, the Chancellor has to work with other Finance Ministers to try to keep oil supplies flowing and get world oil prices down.
At the weekend, the Deputy Prime Minister claimed that the Liberal Democrats were
“in the middle, for the middle”.
I say to them this afternoon: prove it. If they really cared about the struggles facing hard-pressed families in Britain, they would join us in the Lobby and vote for our motion. I for one look forward to seeing them.
My hon. Friend has laid out clearly why a fuel duty stabiliser or regulator would not work in fiscal terms. The tragedy is that the wider UK public, on the back of the Fair Fuel UK campaign, have been sold the idea of a stabiliser while at the same time talking about a reasonable price. Does she have any idea what would be a reasonable price with which people would be satisfied? It would be quite unsustainable, I think.
I thank my hon. Friend for his observations, and he is quite right. The stabiliser mechanism relies on our having some idea of the price at which petrol ought to be stabilised, which means guessing right. A wrong guess could lose the Exchequer a lot of money. The question is, when is a rise in fuel prices a blip and when is it a trend? A stabiliser would require a judgment call on that point, too, and if the Government got it wrong it could cost a lot of money.
We have had nothing but delay and dithering on the issue from the coalition parties, despite their electoral promises, which were lavish in the extreme. The Government should be taking action now. Instead, just 10 months in, what do we have? A Foreign Secretary who is looking for his mojo, a Deputy Prime Minister publicly denying being taken hostage by the Prime Minister from inside his £2 million ring of Sheffield steel, and a Business Secretary who is so full of self-importance that he claimed he could bring the Government down single-handed if he was pushed too far. Millions of Britons struggling in the middle of the largest squeeze in living standards for 80 years are hoping and praying that somebody will push him, and push him fast.
Families are crying out for help now, but the Government are cutting too far, too fast and pursuing a dangerous and extreme experiment on the UK economy. Since they came to power, growth has stalled. Today’s unemployment figures are the worst since 1994, and inflation is double the Bank of England’s target. They need to recognise that families need help now, and they need to forget the dogma and join us in the Lobby to vote for this cut.
I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “House” to the end of the Question and add:
“notes that the Government inherited the largest deficit in UK peacetime history and that the previous Government and current Opposition has no credible plan to deal with the deficit; further notes that this Government has already taken steps to support families and that those on low and middle incomes will benefit from April 2011 from a £1,000 increase in the income tax personal allowance, above-indexation increases in Child Tax Credit and that pensioners will receive new ‘triple-lock’ increases in the basic State Pension; further notes the significant impact on fuel prices in the UK of the dramatic increase in the world oil price to over $100 per barrel and the impact on households and business; notes that the previous Government increased fuel duty no less than four times between December 2008 and April 2010, proposed introducing a fuel escalator from 2011 and planned for a further series of six consecutive fuel duty rises up to 2014; nonetheless recognises the significant impact of high fuel prices on motorists, hauliers and businesses and that the Government is considering a fair fuel stabiliser that could support motorists and businesses when oil prices are high; and in addition notes that a reduction in VAT on fuel would be deemed illegal under EU law and that the Chancellor will update the House on this issue at the time of the Budget.”.
There we have it, from the party that came into government with fuel duty at 36.86p a litre and left it at 57.19p a litre—a whole load of moaning and insubstantial comments about what it cannot do to help motorists. The Government, unlike the Opposition, understand the seriousness of the issues that we are debating today. We know that the increase in the world’s oil price, as it feeds though to all other goods, is leaving many people out of pocket, and that families up and down the country are finding it hard to make ends meet. The Opposition clearly have no grasp of the issues at hand, as we have just heard; to them, it is just politics. They are simply not interested in how people on the ground actually feel about things, and they have no credible policies to back up their claims.
The Labour motion mentions
“securing the appropriate EU derogation”.
I hoped that the shadow Minister would give way to me, so that I could ask her what European derogation that is, and how many times in the past 13 years Labour attempted to seek it. Has the Economic Secretary seen anything in the records of the Treasury suggesting an answer to those questions?
Officials are not aware that the last Government sought any derogation in relation to VAT on fuel at any point in the past 13 years. In fact, if the shadow Chancellor had gone off to Europe with his influencing strategy, which was clearly so unsuccessful when he was running for the leadership, I doubt that there would have been any prospect whatever of his making any progress. The Labour party seems to have about as much understanding today of the economic situation that it has left our country in as it did of the situation two years ago, when it ran this country into the deepest and longest recession in living memory.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In fact, the EU directive on VAT states:
“Member States may apply either one or two reduced rates…The reduced rates shall apply only to supplies of goods or services in the categories set out in Annex III.”
That annex does not include road fuel, and other amending articles do not permit a reduced rate or exemption to be applied to transport fuel. That in is European Council directive 2006/112/EC of 28 November 2006 on the common system of value added tax, at article 98 and annex III.
That is absolutely what it is, and it is something else as well—it is a smokescreen. The Labour party has no plan whatever to tackle the deficit, and this Opposition day debate is all about trying to divert attention from that. It had no plans when it was in government, and it has no plans now it is in opposition.
One of the most important components of the cost of living is the interest rate, which in turn determines mortgage rates. Does my hon. Friend agree that, because of the action this Government have taken, Britain today has a lower interest rate than countries in Europe that have far higher deficits? That is the very action that the shadow Minister sought to criticise.
One of the problems is that the Labour party and the shadow Chancellor do not even accept that there is a structural deficit. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out that the steps we are taking to tackle the deficit and bring our public finances back under control and into a sustainable shape, so that we can fund public services affordably for the long term, will give us a much better chance of keeping interest rates and inflation low. That is critical to ensuring that we can support our economy more broadly.
I am sure the hon. Gentleman was quite happy trotting through the Aye Lobby when his party brought forward its 12 fuel duty rises and the Budget in which it announced a further six. His question is particularly disingenuous because at that time the Conservative party was campaigning against unreasonable and unfair rises in such things as road tax. The Labour party paid no attention and continued to hammer motorists again and again.
I shall answer the hon. Gentleman, who is hectoring from a sedentary position. When his party was in government, it knew all about raising taxes. In fact, it formed the ultimate tax-and-spend Government, who got us into such a situation that their final Chief Secretary wrote a note saying that there was no money left. I really do think that if the Labour party wants to be taken seriously on the economy, it must start living in the real world instead of the fantasy world that it currently finds itself in, particularly in relation to EU VAT directives.
Order. I apologise for interrupting the Minister. I said to the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) a few minutes ago that he was making an excessive noise—[Interruption.] That was my best effort at the pronunciation of his important constituency. However, my remonstrance extends more widely. The debate has been notably scratchy, and it needs to calm down a bit from now on.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
The Government are taking steps to help the poorest and most vulnerable in our society. From April this year, we are raising the income tax personal threshold by £1,000, taking nearly 900,000 of the lowest-income workers in our country out of tax altogether.
I shall make a bit more progress, because I want to talk about the Labour party’s so-called fuel duty proposals, which are of course VAT proposals.
We are increasing child tax credits above the rate of inflation, giving lower-earning families an extra £210 over the next two years. Of course, poorer families will still receive more in child credits than they received under the previous Government, and, as I said, lower earners will be better off as a result of this Government’s changes to the personal allowance.
The hon. Lady’s point is about how to strike the balance between achieving environmental change and managing to raise revenues for the Exchequer to fund public services, which I am sure she agrees need the right level of funding. I think we have got the balance right in our approach to fuel duty and VAT on fuel. The challenge is that if we do not go ahead with the previous Government’s increases, we could fundamentally damage our ability to tackle the deficit. This Government are constrained purely because of the terrible financial situation that the previous Labour Government handed over to us.
If I may I shall make a little progress, mindful of what Mr Speaker said about ensuring that hon. Members get a chance to have their say after the opening speeches.
One of the many things that this Government are doing to help people in Britain—it is the last one I will mention—is changing the state pension. The shadow Chancellor knows all about that, because he was chief economic adviser to the Chancellor who later became Prime Minister in the previous Government when he proposed increasing pensions by 75p. Many thought at the time that that was a real slap in the face for pensioners.
This Government have gone further than the previous one ever did. We have already introduced proposals to re-establish the earnings link, and introduced the triple-lock guarantee, so that each and every year the basic state pension will increase by the greater: earnings, prices or 2.5%. Of course, when things improve—when inflation comes back down below 2%, which is the Bank of England’s aim, and when the economy recovers from the years of Labour’s irresponsibility—those in retirement will still have higher pensions, poorer families will still receive more in tax credits, and lower earners will still be better off as a result of our changes to personal allowances. Those are real, credible, long-term policies that will stand the test of time, not half-baked initiatives conjured up over a weekend that do not last even the course of a single debate.
That brings me on quite nicely to the impact of the rising cost of fuels. Opposition Members know all about that, because as we have heard, the previous Government increased fuel duty four times in their last 16 months in office.
Absolutely. They left many tax bombshells, but perhaps that pre-planned tax increase was the tax road mine. There was a pre-planned additional per pence increase on fuel and a pre-planned year-on-year RPI increase—the so-called escalator. Ironically and utterly bizarrely, we are today debating a Labour motion that goes against the policy introduced by the previous Labour Government.
Given that I and several Conservative Members were not in the House for Labour’s last Budget, will the Minister confirm whether the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) and her colleagues on the Opposition Front Bench voted for the seven increases in fuel duty proposed by the Chancellor at that time?
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way—at the end of the day, she is a fair person. She talks about the increases imposed by the previous Labour Government, but she must also recognise that on 11 occasions over a nine-year period, they saw fit to suspend or abandon any proposed increases simply because of the rising price of fuel. I sincerely hope that she and her colleagues remember that in the light of the motion.
The hon. Gentleman is talking about postponements, because those fuel duty increases eventually came through. That is one reason why in their final months in office—from December 2008 to April 2010—the previous Government increased fuel duty no fewer than four times.
Over the weekend, the shadow Chancellor confidently proposed cutting VAT on fuel.
The Minister quite rightly highlights in her amendment the previous Government’s fuel duty increases, but the motion recognises that people are feeling pain now, and holds out the hope that the Government will do something about fuel duty. Rather than talk about what the previous Government did, will she tell us what she intends to do to alleviate the hardship for people in places such as Northern Ireland?
I shall not pre-empt next week’s Budget, but the hon. Gentleman knows that both parties in the coalition Government spoke in opposition about the effect of fuel duty on motorists. Conservatives spoke in opposition about how the oil price fed through into fuel prices at the pump, and Liberal Democrats talked about the impact of fuel prices on people living in remote rural areas. The coalition Government are now looking at how to tackle both those problems, but I cannot pre-empt the Budget.
Will the Minister now admit that although before the election the Conservatives said they would reduce fuel by 10p a litre if petrol prices were high, they have actually increased fuel duty twice—once in October and once in January—since getting into power?
Listening to the Opposition is stunning. The outgoing Chief Secretary’s message to the incoming Government was that there was no money left. Worse than that, the previous Government had pre-planned increases, which were due to come in now, as the hon. Lady just pointed out. The bottom line is that it is outrageous for the Labour party to cry crocodile tears about tax increases that it had planned—it is disingenuous in the extreme, and shows that it has no credibility and no leadership on the issues that matter to people, such as motoring, which we are debating today. The audacity of the motion is stunning.
Let me turn—as I was about to—to the Opposition’s proposal to cut VAT on fuel. [Interruption.] The shadow Chancellor is hectoring from a sedentary position, and I think the reason is that he is worried that we are about to talk about his policy—a policy that unravelled within hours of his announcing it. He has come late to the debate on motoring. Obviously he spent many years being driven around in a Government car that the taxpayer paid for. I understand that it was reported in the papers that he used to use it for journeys of just 100 yards. Perhaps he was not aware at that point of how much it cost people to fill up their cars, but perhaps he knows now, and perhaps that is why he has suddenly realised that this is an issue, as we did in opposition. He has come to this debate late, but his policy-making suggestions are, to put it bluntly, illegal under EU law.
It is quite an achievement to make a proposal along those lines. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) , the shadow Chancellor is quite wrong to say that we can reverse the VAT rise on fuel, because doing so would be illegal under the EU VAT directive. However, if the right hon. Gentleman thinks that the UK operates under a different VAT directive, perhaps he would like to intervene on me right now. [Interruption.] I think we have established that there is only one EU VAT directive, and his proposal is illegal under that directive. The other big flaw in his argument—[Interruption.] Does he want to intervene?
When we have only one reduced rate, but Italy, France and Poland have three reduced rates, and when the French President secured a VAT rate cut for French restaurants, is the hon. Lady really saying that she is going to hide behind European law and fail to stand up for the British motorist? Is that really what she is saying?
If the right hon. Gentleman just calms down for a second, I will answer him; if he then wants to intervene on me, he can do so. However, if he is that desperate to get in on this debate, perhaps he should have opened it instead of his hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle).
The right hon. Gentleman is right to point out that across Europe different products have different VAT rates. Some are exempt from VAT, some have a zero rate, some have a reduced rate and some have a standard rate. Indeed, he should be well aware of that because he was an economic adviser at the Treasury the last time the negotiations that he referred to started. In fact, they took six years. He mentioned President Sarkozy’s determination to secure a reduced VAT rate for restaurants, which is indeed what he did. However, in that renegotiation of the rules governing which products would be in which categories and which would no longer have standard VAT rates, I am not aware of the UK Government at any stage pressing for anything other than the standard rate to apply to road fuel. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman can confirm that: yes or no?
At no point did we apply for a special reduced VAT rate for road fuel, and the reason was that we never raised VAT on fuel. The people who have raised VAT are this Government. Can the Minister confirm that it is entirely in her gift and that of the Chancellor, who is not here, and the Chief Secretary, who has not turned up either, to apply for a derogation to reverse their mistaken increase in VAT? They have not done so and will not, but they could if they wanted to stand up for the British motorist.
I do not think the right hon. Gentleman even believes that himself. The bottom line is that he wants—[Interruption.] The shadow Chief Secretary says that we need to take action now, but he wants us to embark on a process that took six to seven years the last time it happened. How is that taking action now?
Let me tell the House on which items the rate was changed. Here are a few of the products and services to which a reduced VAT rate is now applied in other countries:
“minor repairing of bicycles, shoes and leather goods, clothing and household linen”.
Window cleaning was also one, and hairdressing was another. The Government at that time—a Government of whom the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls) was part—did not seek to add road fuel to that list. He says that that was because the previous Government never raised VAT on fuel. That is not strictly true, of course: they reduced it, but then put it back up again, as we have heard. The other reason was that, year on year—and, in the final stages, month on month—they were consistently raising fuel duty, so they had no need to use VAT as a tool. They were getting plenty of additional tax from the motorist.
The last Government might not have increased VAT, but they certainly increased fuel duty. When Labour came to power in ’97, duty on unleaded petrol was 36p a litre; when the last Government left office in 2010, it had risen to 57.9p a litre. Does my hon. Friend think that Labour Members should take some responsibility for increasing fuel duty by more than 20%?
And a huge fiscal deficit and debt to boot, so we will take no lectures from the Labour party. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can discuss with the shadow Chancellor how he thinks the huge deficit that his party left our country—it costs us £120 million a day to service our debt interest—should be addressed. The elephant in the room, which we have not talked about so far today because it is not in the Opposition’s motion, is how they would tackle the deficit. The answer is that they would not tackle it, which is why it is so lucky that Labour is not in government at the moment.
I will not give way to any more Opposition Members, and I will tell the House exactly why. This is not the first time that there has been an opportunity to debate fuel duty rises: last month a Conservative MP had a debate in Westminster Hall. The reason the Opposition have now gone quiet is that they probably did not know that that debate was due to take place, but if they did, it is even more disgraceful. How many Opposition Members turned up to participate in that debate and represent their constituents?
Absolutely none, so all this is nothing more than political opportunism in advance of the Budget, and it is incredibly poor quality opportunism too, because the Opposition have made a proposal that is impossible to implement and is utterly flawed in every respect.
The other reason why the Opposition’s proposal is flawed is that they say in their motion that they would pay for the proposal with receipts from the bank levy. The first thing to say about that is that we introduced a bank levy—something that Labour never managed to do—but, secondly, we brought forward the rate at which it would fully kick in early, because the banks were doing better and therefore could afford it. The money is a one-off additional revenue stream that we are getting a year earlier, but the Opposition are so economically illiterate that they want to use it to fund a long-term, permanent tax reduction on fuel. Looking at their faces, I do not think they necessarily realise that yet, so as well as their proposal being illegal, their figures do not add up.
To finalise my comments, it is only this Government who are serious about helping British motorists. We tasked the Office for Budget Responsibility with investigating the impact of oil price fluctuations on the economy and we are actively considering proposals for a fair fuel stabiliser.
No, I will not.
Motorists deserve better than a VAT proposal on fuel that everyone knows is completely unrealistic and unworkable. It is disingenuous of the Opposition to suggest it, and it is unaffordable, given the economic mess that we inherited. They want a derogation that would be unsuccessful and take six to seven years to implement. We are talking about taking action to tackle the cost of living now. That is the choice facing the House today. At the end of the day, we all know that this motion is just a smokescreen, and that the Opposition have no plans whatever to tackle the deficit. Yet again, they have missed a chance to be credible on the economy. Yet again, they have failed to show any leadership on their solutions to the big problems facing Britain today. I sincerely hope that the House will vote against their motion, because it is one of the lowest-quality and most disingenuous motions that we have debated on the Floor of the House recently.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, as the Minister did not. The Minister talked about living in the real world, but I am sure that we on the Opposition Benches know more about that than she does. I am sure that my hon. Friend’s constituents will be struggling with the £450 a year increase—
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. The hon. Lady has just made an accusation about what I do or do not know about living in the real world. That goes beyond what I think is a personal comment. She has no understanding of what I do or do not understand. I can assure her that I get on the District line every day to come into work and I know exactly what is going on in the real world. I only wish that the Opposition did.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am obviously going to have to treat the Minister with kid gloves as she is so sensitive.
East Lothian is a largely rural constituency made up of small gatherings of communities that rely heavily on the use of their cars. I suspect that the hundreds of e-mails that I have received over the past few weeks will now be followed by hundreds more, as my constituents will be bitterly disappointed by the Minister’s utterly sterile contribution to the debate.
Not at this stage.
The e-mails that I have received have not been the standard campaign e-mails that many of us find in our inboxes every day. I have been genuinely moved and angered by the stories that they have told. They have been from motorists, some of them older people living on pensions, people surviving on disability living allowance—Lord knows, they have enough to worry about under this Government—or people stuck on fixed incomes. This rise in the cost of fuel is hitting them hard.
I have also had e-mails from employers in my constituency. East Lothian relies heavily on small employers, but they are struggling. Two have already told me that their businesses will close this month, and that is bad news for East Lothian and for my constituents. We are promised that we will have a Budget for growth next week, but in East Lothian, the Government’s policy is not working; it is going in the opposite direction.
I am sure that all my constituents will feel so much better after hearing that intervention. They do not want to hear the hon. Gentleman’s political point scoring and opportunism; they want to hear what the Government are going to do for hard-working families, for pensioners and for those with disabilities in my constituency.
I have had e-mails from people who have lost their jobs. People living in East Lothian need to be able to keep their cars on the road in order to access the services that will help them get back into work, to turn up for job interviews and to get out there to find and keep a job. I have also had e-mails from people who have been struggling throughout the past few years. I am going to admit that, for those on fixed incomes, times have been difficult, but the message is now clear that, under this Government, they are getting tougher.
I am also going to be unusually generous and congratulate the Tory party on a splendid result in the general election in East Lothian, where it moved up to second place. The Scottish National party—I see that its Members have now deserted us—moved down to fourth. Before the Tories get too excited, however, I should point out that that result involved a 0% swing from Labour. Many of the people who have contacted me voted for the Tories at the election, and I am representing them today without fear or favour. They want to know when the Government are going to deliver for them. If the Government will not listen to me or to those on our Front Bench, I urge them to listen to my constituents.
I know that the first questions that my constituents would want me to ask today are, “Where is the Chief Secretary to the Treasury?” and “Where is the Chancellor of the Exchequer?” They will be insulted that the Chancellor and the Chief Secretary have not had the guts to turn up and take part in this debate and to answer my constituents’ questions. I have something of interest to tell the House. I went to the same school as the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. The right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Mr Kennedy) also went to that school, and he has remarked to me, “That’s now one of us from each of the political parties.” I am particularly disappointed that the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who represents a rural constituency, does not see the impact that the increase in fuel prices is having.
I try hard not to be judgmental about the Conservatives, and I try hard not to make the kind of comments that the Minister finds so harsh. But when they talk about the tough choices that they face in government, I have no sympathy for them. I am sick and tired of hearing them talk about that. Being in government and having a chance to reach out to families in East Lothian is not what is tough in life; what is tough for people is working out how they are going to fill up their car at the Co-op in Tranent next weekend in order to keep their family on the road. That is what is tough.
Mr Speaker rightly criticised the hon. Member for Burnley (Gordon Birtwistle) for bringing an electronic device into the Chamber. I presume that the hon. Gentleman has been running around for the past half hour trying to find a printer somewhere on the estate. I have gone to the trouble of printing off a couple of the representations that I have received from my constituents, and I should like to read them out to the House. One comes from Alec Flynn in Tranent, who says of the fuel price rise:
“We are a small family road haulage business…and we would like your support to fight the price the government plan to put on in the budget”.
I want the Minister to address Alec Flynn’s concerns, and to stop moaning about tough choices.
Perhaps I have some responsibility here. I have not formally congratulated the Government on winning the general election, so perhaps it is my fault that they have not grasped the fact that they are now in government. They are in a position to change their minds, to lower the VAT rate on fuel and to make a difference to Mr Flynn and to ensure that the people he employs continue to have jobs. I suspect that Mr Flynn will remain disappointed, however. We were certainly not planning to increase VAT or to make life even more difficult for people.
No thank you.
Then there is the case of Mary Johnston from Haddington, who said:
“My husband and I are senior citizens. We live in a farm cottage 2.5 miles outside Haddington”.
Let me summarise by saying that the rising costs of motoring are making it virtually impossible for them to leave their house. I hope that at some point during this debate we will hear some words of comfort from a Government who have let down my constituency.
I will be brief, as I know many other Members want to speak in this short debate.
I am glad that the Opposition have chosen the subject of fuel prices, as it is an issue that affects all our constituents and MPs of all parties have already urged the Government to take action. I have signed cross-party early-day motions 1252 and 1241, which call for progress on a fair fuel stabiliser. Along with colleagues of all parties, I have also supported the Federation of Small Businesses in its campaigns. There is a great deal of ground for cross-party consensus on this issue. We all recognise that the cost of living is rising and that fuel prices play an important part in it. We all recognise that the soaring costs of petrol and diesel have knock-on effects on the price of everything—from food and clothing and the cost of getting to work to the cost of educating children.
The hon. Gentleman is right to refer to the rising cost of living. The big difference between now and a few months ago is, in many ways, the rate of inflation. The Governor of the Bank of England has been clear that he has no way of further loosening monetary policy right now. The talk before Christmas was about such further loosening, perhaps with a further round of quantitative easing. That is clearly no longer an option, which means that the only option is to alter fiscal policy, yet we have heard not a single word from the Minister to suggest that there will be any change in fiscal policy. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that the Government are right to sit on their hands when they are in a position to act to relieve the burden on people like my constituents?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that long intervention, but we are likely to hear what action the Government are planning in the Budget next week, which I would not want to pre-empt at this stage, so I shall continue with my argument.
There would be no disagreement about the underlying premise of today’s motion—that fuel prices drive up the cost of living. We can legitimately debate the action that Governments are able to take. Like many other Members, I believe the Government should take action on fuel prices by introducing a fair fuel stabiliser and by looking at whether they can put off any increase in fuel duty suggested under the last Government’s escalator policy. It is vital to take into account the real impact on the cost of living but, perhaps even more importantly, the cost to the economy of the rising price of petrol at the pumps.
In fact, having read the detailed response of the Office for Budget Responsibility to the Government’s initial suggestion of a fair fuel stabiliser, I believe that it strongly makes the case for intervention in the fuel price. What the OBR showed was that, contrary to the belief that Government revenues rise as a result of higher fuel prices, the depressing effect on the economy, output and therefore tax receipts, along with the impact on inflation, mean that in the long term, Government net revenues are hurt by higher prices. While that might make more challenging the worthy aim of coming up with a revenue-neutral stabiliser, it clearly shows that success in limiting fuel price rises will bring long-term dividends to Government in terms of tax receipts and lower inflation. The real lesson of the OBR’s report is that the Government need to act on fuel prices, through the fuel duty, to avoid a substantial loss of revenue through economic growth. I am confident that that lesson will be taken into account when we receive next week’s Budget—a Budget for growth in the UK.
I know that the Government have already promised action in remote and rural areas, which I welcome, but I represent an urban constituency that has also been badly affected by rising prices, so I want to remind the Government of the need for action everywhere. As a county town, Worcester’s economy is affected by high fuel prices in rural areas, but our city suffers from higher prices than many other urban areas around it.
My constituents have often pointed out that there is a substantial differential of around 5p a litre between prices in Worcester and prices in Gloucester or Birmingham, just a short drive away. Driving as regularly as I do between Westminster and Worcester in my small diesel car, I feel this price differential very directly and often find it is as cheap to fill up at a motorway service station as it would be in my own constituency. The website petrolprices.com quotes prices as high as £1.45 a litre of diesel in Worcester today compared with an average of £1.39 in Gloucester just 28 miles away or £1.38 in Birmingham. I therefore urge Ministers to look into the differential pricing around the country, whereby some areas, whether urban or rural, pay much more for their fuel, and to assess what can be done to address the problem.
I certainly accept that people in rural areas have greater need for their cars, but I urge Ministers to accept that action on fuel prices across the board will benefit the whole economy. We have seen in previous fuel crises that when fuel prices spike, economic growth slows down, both globally and domestically.
I therefore support taking action on the cost of fuel, but I do not support this Opposition motion, which I believe is poorly targeted and opportunistic. It hits the wrong target in focusing on the impact of VAT and only touching lightly on the far more significant issue of fuel duty. Perhaps that is because the Labour party did so much to encourage the escalation of fuel duty when it was in power. As the Government amendment points out, the Labour Government planned for six consecutive fuel duty rises up to 2014 on top of the 12 increases they made when they were in power. It is fair to say that those increases, like the introduction of the fuel duty escalator under the Conservatives, were made in a different environment from today’s, when the uncertainty in the middle east is adding to the upward pressure on prices. There has been no indication, however, that Labour has shifted from its ideological attachment to ever-higher duties on fuel, which rose from 36p to nearly 58p when they were in government, with Labour Members boasting that they left the duty intact at 65% of the cost of fuel at the end of their term.
It is cynical and opportunistic for a party whose last Chancellor laid the groundwork for the increase in VAT to be lashing out at its implementation, and it is beyond the bounds of belief that Labour Members should want to earmark all the proceeds of a bank levy they failed to make on to a rebate they know they could not have given—even if they had been in power. It is even more astonishing, when they have already suggested other plans to spend this levy many times over through opposing changes to child benefit, that they suggest funding more capital spending and reversing changes to tax credits. The Opposition motion has no credibility on this very important issue.
I urge the Government to act on fuel prices, but I urge them to do so through a fair fuel stabiliser on which there is a broad political consensus, and through looking at the broader case for changes in fuel duty to reflect the economic circumstances of today.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), who talked about disingenuous and spurious policies. I am sure it was disingenuous to promise not to increase VAT before the general election and then to increase it immediately after it. There is nothing more disingenuous than lying to the electorate.
I would like to follow my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Fiona O'Donnell) in talking about some of the personal stories that have been brought to my attention and which relate to the Opposition motion.
I would like to make some progress.
My constituents wrote to ask me to bring their stories to the House and put them directly to the Chancellor and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, so I am disappointed that neither of them is in their place. It shows a real disregard for this place when those two senior Ministers are not present to debate such an important issue. Of course the two Ministers on the Treasury Bench are among my favourites, but it would have been nice for my constituents to have had a response directly from the horse’s mouth.
Let us examine what fuel price rises are doing to the cost of living. I shall start with the case of a constituent in Edinburgh South who runs a small business. Let us look at what these particular fuel increases are doing to growth in the economy; in so doing, I shall echo some of the points made by the hon. Member for Worcester. My constituent runs a business in the service sector, so she uses a lot of suppliers. However, suppliers’ price increases are going through the roof, mainly because of additional fuel costs. She told me that some of her suppliers were charging as much as an additional £5 per delivery to cover their own increased fuel charges. My constituent faces a dilemma of what to do about that £5 increase. Should she pass it on to her customers? She finds doing so difficult. Why? Her problem is compounded by the fact that VAT has increased from 17.5% to 20%, which has also impacted directly on prices to her customers.
My hon. Friend makes the important point that this debate is about the cost of living, as well as about fuel prices. He also rightly raises the problem faced by businesses in deciding whether to pass the increases on to their customers. My constituents live in one of the 15 most deprived areas in the country. They have an appalling bus service after the network was privatised by the Conservatives. People in that situation, like my hon. Friend’s constituents, will suffer both from increased costs from fuel charges and from having to pay £450 a year in increased VAT. Does he agree that our constituents are suffering heinously from that?
Of course. The poorest suffer disproportionately because they have to use public transport and face the increased costs, while also having to pay more in VAT for all the supplies they buy. Prices are going up because small business issues, such as the one I am highlighting from my constituency, further compound the problem. I noticed that the Economic Secretary was upset when my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) suggested that she did not live in the real world, but we are talking about what is happening in the real world and I do not think that the Minister’s 40-minute contribution dealt with any of the real issues for our constituents that are happening at the coal face.
The owner of the small business that I mentioned is faced with a dilemma, but it seems that she must increase prices at a time when consumer confidence is at its lowest. People are worried about their jobs, they are worried about prices going through the roof, they are worried about commodity prices, and they are worried about how they are to fill up the family car. It is a quadruple whammy for businesses, which, as I have explained, face increased core costs as well as increased supplier costs, increased prices owing to the VAT rise, and increased borrowing costs. All that is creating unstable consumer demand, which, I am told by small firms in my constituency, is depressing their businesses.
On Friday I was visited by someone who works as a middle manager at Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. He has two small children, he is not a high earner by any means, and he and his wife live in my constituency. He described to me plainly how he has been affected by what the Government have done in the past 10 months. It is clear that he is being squeezed from all angles because of this Government, and fuel and the cost of living are part of that. Let me go through the list. He faces increased national insurance contributions, the increase in VAT to 20%, and the fact that his pension will be linked to the consumer prices index rather than the retail prices index, along with the additional pension contributions that he must make. He faces tuition fees for his children, he has lost his child benefit because he is the sole earner in the relevant bracket, and he faces record commodity prices.
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful speech about the impact of high fuel prices on his constituents and mine. Like him, I should like to see action from the Government, but will he tell us what he would do to secure the reduction in the deficit to which all the tax rises are contributing? I understand that, because of the legacy of the last Government, the present Government’s net debt will rise in every year of the current Parliament—that, in the final year of this Parliament, we shall still be borrowing more money because of the deficit left to us by the last Government. We should love to be given some idea of how, in the real world, we could both make the savings and deliver the benefit.
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has managed to ingrain himself with the propaganda being put out by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties about the deficit. He has given me a wonderful opportunity to go back to the start of that list so that he can take it all in.
There is no doubt that the Government’s cuts in public services are going too far, too fast and too deep. Everyone knows that the deficit must be reduced, but reducing it over time would protect my constituents from the ideological cuts that the Government are introducing under the veil of the deficit.
Let me return to what is happening to that squeezed middle manager at HMRC. He faces increased national insurance contributions and an increase in VAT to 20%. His pension will be cut because it will be linked to CPI instead of RPI. He faces tuition fees for his two children. He has lost his child benefit because he is a higher-rate taxpayer, and record commodity prices are pushing up food prices. He faces a high inflation rate, partly owing to the increase in VAT to 20%. His salary has been frozen. He has job insecurity. He faces increased energy prices, increased borrowing costs and lower interest on his savings, all because of this Government. Moreover—this brings us back to the motion—the price of fuel means that the cost of filling up the family car has gone through the roof. The Chancellor of the Exchequer is taking an extra £59 million from the Scottish people because of the increase in VAT, which is directly related to the cost of the fuel that they put in their cars.
I will not, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind.
Each time people drive down the street, they see the large neon sign at every petrol station, and that is having yet another damaging effect on consumer confidence.
What are we left with? We are left with a broken promise from the Government on VAT, and a broken promise on the fuel duty stabiliser. Many people in East Lothian and Edinburgh South voted for the Conservatives because they had made that promise before the election. Time after time, promises made to ordinary people in my constituency and throughout the country are broken, and it is about time that Ministers did something about it.
It is a pleasure to be invited to speak in the debate, and a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray), who made a passionate if somewhat partisan speech. The Opposition’s problem is that out there in the country no one believes a word that they say about this topic. We all know of their record during 13 years of government, but, just in case a reminder is needed, let me point out that when they took office in 1997 the price of a litre of unleaded petrol was about 56p, which included 43p of duty and VAT. When they left office nearly a year ago, the price was about £1.20 a litre, including tax amounting to about 75p. We hear talk of fuel duty rising “ahead of inflation” or “in real terms”, but if the price of petrol had risen in line with RPI throughout Labour’s term of office, it would have been 80p a litre at the last election rather than £1.20. That is the hike that we have all had to suffer.
As the contents of my inbox make very plain, fuel price rises are a real problem for people and businesses throughout my constituency. In many areas people have no alternative to driving a car if they want to go to work, but the fuel price rises are preventing them from being able to afford to go to work—let alone the damage that they are doing to all manner of small businesses all over the constituency. The Government must take action in next week’s Budget.
I am grateful for that intervention from a fellow Derbyshire Member, and I entirely agree with him.
The hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann), who is no longer in the Chamber, said that all Governments had chosen to increase fuel duty over the years. We must accept that it was our Government who, nearly 20 years ago, introduced the fuel duty escalator, but the aim then was to encourage people to improve their behaviour by driving smaller and more fuel-efficient cars and considering alternative means of transport. I think we can tell the Government that we have all got that message. Many of us have started using diesel and have bought cars with smaller engines in an attempt to cut our spending on fuel. I know that many of my constituents have done that. However, the scope for such measures is limited, as many people still cannot afford to drive a car. If the nudge is the order of the day, I think that we have got the message and do not need any more nudging.
I am grateful for that intervention—I think. The cost incurred in driving to and from work is clearly a factor when people are deciding whether work pays, which is why the increase planned for 1 April really should not go ahead.
Let me return to the topic of nudging. I think we all accept that tax can influence behaviour, and that if we further increase the tax on driving we will see the changes in behaviour that we would expect. People will drive to work less, and businesses will not be able to survive, prosper and grow because they will not be able to cope with the increased cost base. We can all cite small haulage businesses in our constituencies that are struggling to deal with the duty rise. As has been pointed out, reversing the VAT rise will not help those businesses at all; it is the level of duty that we need to consider. If the Government want to find another way of raising some revenue from the haulage industry to help compensate for the loss of fuel duty, I urge them to accelerate their plan to charge foreign road hauliers for using our roads.
I am afraid that I have already given way twice.
There is anecdotal evidence that foreign hauliers drive into our country with full tanks of petrol, which in many instances means that they can do all their work here without paying any fuel duty. We are making our haulage industry uncompetitive through the prices that we are charging hauliers to buy diesel in this country and the road taxes that they have to pay. Meanwhile, we are not charging foreign hauliers anything to use our roads. Let us collect that revenue as soon as possible, and use it to help support our own small businesses.
We have heard that, according to the review by the Office for Budget Responsibility, rising prices do not necessarily generate rising tax revenues. As was demonstrated by my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), that is because of the damage that increasing fuel prices do to the overall health of the economy, which depresses tax revenues. The Government are looking for tax cuts to try to enhance growth. We have plans to reduce corporation tax, but we should consider the damage that fuel tax rises do to growth. There must be some scope for a reduction in fuel tax. Even if it were not revenue-neutral, it might make a positive contribution to the growth that we need if we are to tackle the deficit.
I cannot support this Labour motion. The fact is that we could not reverse the impact of the VAT rise, because that would be illegal. Even if we could try, it might take six years. I urge the Front-Bench team, and the Chancellor when he delivers his Budget next week, not to go ahead with that planned fuel rise. We need some sort of fuel duty balance, to try to ensure that the shock of oil price rises does not do the real, serious and predictable damage to our economy that it could, and we must also bear in mind that if the middle east situation worsens, the shock could become much more severe than at present. We could be faced with the real damage to jobs that those significant price hikes could do.
Many Members have concentrated on prices at the pump, but there are much wider issues to do with fuel in general and the cost of living, and I want to focus on fuel poverty, which has an immense impact on family life. It is an issue that is close to my heart.
According to the House of Commons Library, between 1996 and 2004 the number of households in fuel poverty fell from 6.5 million to less than 2 million, largely due to the measures put in place by successive Labour Governments. Now, in the face of massive increases in energy prices, the number of households in fuel poverty is estimated to be 5.5 million, or more than one in five households
Petrol price rises add to poverty. That is a new type of fuel poverty—if any fuel-poor households can actually afford a car. Domestic fuel prices fell by 17% in real terms between 1996 and 2003, but then increased by a massive 74% in the following six years. Those dependent on oil have suffered particularly badly, especially those who need oil to heat their homes. Our motorists have also suffered as prices have increased. The average standard credit gas bill for a typical consumer in 2010 was £683, which is 80% above the 2001 low in real terms. In 2009 the electricity bill for a typical consumer was £440, almost 50% above the 2003 price.
I know that energy companies do much to promote energy efficiency—mostly financed through a levy on their customers’ bills, I believe—but they, and the Government for that matter, need to do much more. There are several good reasons to do so. More than three out of four of the poorest 10% of households in England were in fuel poverty in 2008; I do not think they can afford a car, in fact. That means that the poor are getting poorer as prices increase way beyond the inflation rate, and inflation is already far too high under this Tory-led Government.
In 2008 more than half a million households needed to spend more than 20% of their income on energy to maintain a satisfactory heating regime. They are those in so-called extreme fuel poverty. Under Labour’s decent homes programme, 750,000 social homes had insulation works and 900,000 had new central heating systems. Warm Front assisted vulnerable people in more than 1.7 million homes, and large numbers of rented homes were improved under Warm Zones, Warm Wales and other initiatives. Now we need to see clear, comprehensive and well-funded initiatives from the Tory-led Government to deal with fuel poverty, because as they squeeze wages, raise taxes—such as those on fuel—cut benefits and hit our people’s pockets in so many other ways, more people will fall back into the group who will see 10% or more of their money disappear on just buying fuel.
This month the Government have announced that they have appointed a fuel poverty tsar, Professor John Hills. I hope that is not just a publicity stunt, as much more needs to be done to address this issue. His independent review will redefine and measure fuel poverty. I hope that does not mean we just change the numbers, and lift many out of fuel poverty by simply changing the way the numbers are added up. It does not matter what the numbers say: if people cannot afford to heat their home or put fuel in their car tank because they have not got enough money, they are still cold and still poor. I hope there will be no dragging of feet on that.
One area in which we may see some recommendations is the need to ensure that privately rented accommodation is properly insulated—and again, we can do that without waiting. Some of our poorest people live in privately rented property, where many landlords are happy just to pick up the rent without investing as they ought to. I hope the Minister will do a bit of cross-Government thinking today, and tell us how this issue will be dealt with under their new plan to tackle fuel poverty.
There are other solutions, and the Energy Bill, which is currently in the other place and is due to come to the House of Commons, may help if sufficient capacity is built in to make things happen on a similar, or greater, scale than in recent years. It allows for the implementation of a green deal scheme from 2012, which will allow householders to install energy efficiency improvements without having to meet any of the up-front costs. Those will be met by energy companies and will be paid back over a period of up to 25 years—but is that really the good news it is made out to be? We need to ensure that the financial environment in which such schemes are taken forward is the right one. Will potential changes to the feed-in tariff in respect of the installation of photovoltaic panels, for example, provide the right financial incentive to deliver that day-time free electricity for householders? We will need to wait and see, but the Government will miss a major opportunity if they mess about with the tariff and negate the incentive that investors and householders need.
I have concentrated on fuel poverty in terms of the household budget. This Tory-led Government are helping to create a new type of fuel poverty. Many people cannot afford to buy petrol or diesel, and that particularly affects the rural communities in my constituency, such as Stillington.
The hon. Gentleman speaks passionately on a subject about which I know he cares a great deal. He and I represent different halves of the same town, and we often disagree on political matters, but I suspect we share some common ground on this issue, in wanting to see the costs to our constituents brought down at every possible opportunity. Does he agree that if the Government could introduce a fair fuels stabiliser, that would be useful in allowing people who particularly need to be able to do so to plan their budgets and manage their money better, so that they could help themselves by planning their finances and avoiding the problems of poverty that, sadly, we so often see in the north-east?
This is amazing, but I find myself in agreement with my colleague who represents the opposite side of the Stockton borough. Any measure that reduces costs for the people whom he and I represent has got to be important. That is particularly the case in places such as Stillington in my constituency, where people need to commute, often to low-paid jobs, and have limited public transport services. They are hit the hardest by the current economic policies.
I hope that the Government will see sense. I hope that they will avoid a fudge on the need for a comprehensive programme to tackle fuel poverty, and I hope that they will reverse the VAT increase at the pump, and introduce the fuel duty stabiliser—and maybe even keep a couple of the promises they made to our people during the election campaign.
First, I want to strike a note of empathy with people both in my constituency and around the country who are struggling with the spike in prices that we have all witnessed in recent months—and, indeed, the last couple of years. This morning, I asked those in my office to check the petrol prices at the garage nearest to my home in St Andrews in Bristol: the Texaco garage on Gloucester road. For the first time, prices in Bristol have risen above 140p. One of the most popular places to fill up in the city is Tesco in Eastville; my constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), will be familiar with it. Prices there are now 136.9p. Everywhere in the city of Bristol, prices are now above 130p, yet only a couple of years ago I remember being surprised when prices went through the £1 barrier.
In cities, there is competition: there is competition on the forecourts, and there are also alternatives on public transport. Many rural constituencies, such as those in the south-west, mid-Wales or, indeed, Scotland, cannot benefit from that price competition, however. My hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr Reid) was present for the earlier part of the debate, but has had to leave to attend a Scottish Affairs Committee meeting. He told me that on the island of Colonsay in his constituency, the price of diesel is 163.3p, a full 23p higher than the price in my constituency.
We face a fourfold political challenge. We have to decide how to respond to the pressure on household budgets, how to make that response against a background of having to maintain the taxes and duties necessary to tackle the appalling fiscal legacy left us by the last Government, and how to continue to incentivise a switch to a lower-emissions and lower-carbon economy. Finally, we must consider the background of international factors, such as movements in the oil price and in exchange rates, which are effectively beyond our control. We have to respond to those factors and political challenges responsibly, not in the blatantly opportunist way set out in this motion.
My constituents, like those in many rural areas, are not just suffering from the price of fuel at the pump. As they do not have gas at home but oil-fired central heating, the price of which has increased too, there is a double whammy of cost. There is therefore a strong moral case for making sure that the Government find ways to help the most vulnerable people in rural areas, despite the appalling legacy left, as my hon. Friend rightly says, by the Labour party.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point about the price of heating oil, which many households in rural communities have no choice but to use.
The first challenge is how to respond to the pressures on household budgets that I was describing. The coalition Government have said that their priority is to ensure that as we make difficult decisions, the poorest and most vulnerable households are protected. We have already made progress on reducing income tax for the lowest-paid, and I look forward to further progress being made in the Budget. We have a triple lock in place for pensioner households and we are going to introduce work incentives in order to tackle worklessness, which is the major cause of poverty in our country.
However, we also have to tackle the deficit. We have been waiting 10 months for a specific proposal from the Labour Opposition on tax, and this motion is the first detailed one that we have received. The critique that we have heard repeatedly from them is that they want fewer cuts in public expenditure and more emphasis on raising tax, yet their first detailed proposal is for a reduction in tax. In effect, this is another uncosted spending pledge. The hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle), who led for the Opposition, rightly said that the increase in VAT represents about 3p on the pump price that we all have to pay. We know that each penny of that pump price raises about £500 million for the Exchequer, so the motion is proposing a £1.5 billion spending pledge. However, the Opposition cannot tell us, other than in an allusion in the motion to the banking levy, how on earth they are going to find that £1.5 billion. As has been said, they are in effect proposing a new VAT rate of 17.5%, but they know that under international law, they cannot do that.
This duty as a whole raises about £30 billion as a contribution to reducing the deficit, and it makes up about 62% of the pump price. That is a considerably lower proportion than a decade ago, when the share of the pump price represented by taxes was in excess of 80%. I well remember, when I was on the Opposition Benches and the Labour party was in government, that the person who is now leading the Labour party had much promise when he became Energy Secretary. He certainly talked a good talk in that post, although he was perhaps making up for the rather “brown” years of the Labour Government. Now that he is in opposition, we find that his words were hollow and he has moved on to opportunist ground.
We need to move to a transport system that is more sustainable, with more efficient engines, a different mix of fuels, and electric cars, as proposed in the coalition agreement. As our dependency on hydrocarbons declines, we also need to move to a completely new fiscal model for taxing the use of road space, because road fuel duty and vehicle excise duty are a blunt fiscal instrument.
I have listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman has been saying, and I was very interested in some of his points. What would he say to the family in the rural part of my constituency who live a mile and a half up a farm track, who have no access to public transport and who cannot wait for the kind of interventions that he is talking about to come along somewhere down the line? Does he support the Government reconsidering in the Budget the fuel duty rise that is due?
I do not know whether the hon. Lady was listening at the time, but I acknowledged right at the start of my speech that the pressures in rural constituencies are much harder than those in my urban constituency; I have been made fully aware of that by my colleagues. I do not know the details about her constituency, but I certainly empathise with the situation and I am sure that the Government will respond to what she says.
As I was saying, I wish to see a move towards a more sustainable model for taxing motoring and haulage in our country—road pricing, which would make us better able to respond to changed circumstances. But that is the future, and what we have to do now is respond to the genuine concerns of our constituents and motorists up and down the country. It is only a week before the Budget, and although the Chancellor is not in his place I am sure that he is carefully listening to and being informed by his colleagues about what is being said in this debate. I am sure that when he does respond to those pressures and demands from around the country, he will do so in a way that is not fiscally reckless, is environmentally sustainable, and certainly does not follow the opportunistic advice in the motion.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate and convey the feelings of my constituents about fuel prices. In Na h-Eileanan an Iar—as the good Speaker himself would say and, of course, did say—we are paying the highest tax per litre in the UK; we are doing so consistently, at a range of fuel stations throughout the entire constituency. That has been the situation throughout the life of this Government and indeed the previous one. The last lot—the Labour Government—made excuses; this lot—the Tory and Liberal Government—are making promises. The upshot at the pumps in Ness, in Uig, in Back, in Stornoway, in Lochs, in Tarbert, Harris, in Lochmaddy, in Balivanich, in Creagorry, in Daliburgh and in Castlebay is the same; excuses and promises equal exactly the same.
The rural fuel derogation has been announced twice at Liberal Democrat conferences that have been six months apart, but there has still been no formal approach to the EU Commission. Can we be given an indication of how long it typically takes to get such a measure approved by the EU Commission, especially as it has given approvals in respect of far less rural areas in other places in Europe than the Hebrides and other Scottish islands?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, and as I have demonstrated in the past, I have great sympathy for the Isle of Wight and indeed for the Cornish Isles of Scilly, so I hope that this will extend to them as well.
May I suggest that the Government put in place a maximum percentage that can be taken at the pumps in taxation, or at the very least a desired percentage to be taken in taxation, just as the inflation rate seems to be a desired rate and a target for the country? I say that because in the UK 62% of the price of petrol is duty, which is the highest level in Europe—the lowest level in Europe is 46%. May I also ask the Government to examine the fuel distribution network, because many people have long had deep concerns about profiteering between refineries and retailers in what seems to be a very opaque business model? We have to ensure that any gains we make in the—so far promised—rural fuel derogation are felt at island pumps and are not snaffled away elsewhere.
We know what fuel tax is doing to people’s pockets on a daily basis up and down the land: it is affecting the poorest more, as this is a highly regressive tax. In areas such as mine, where wages are below the national average, the cost of living is higher and fuel poverty is high—my constituency has the highest in the land—the regressive nature of this tax is really felt. The tax pulls money out of the economy from families, businesses and individuals, and from local authority budgets and health board budgets. Clearly we need help and I ask the Government to provide it in tackling fuel tax and in taking the foot of high fuel tax off the neck of the islands’ economy.
When I last spoke in the House on this matter, on 7 February, I said—I have checked the Hansard record—that fuel was £1.44 a litre. My office in Stornoway tells me that it is now £1.48 a litre, and I shudder to think what it might be the next time I speak on this issue in the House, because the cost seems to be going in one direction. Before the staff at Benbecula airport correct me, yet again, on the price, I point out that the price in Uist will inevitably be higher. I understand that the price in Uist and Benbecula is more than £1.50 a litre. Consistently, throughout the length of my constituency, we are paying the highest fuel tax in the UK. The simple re-announcements of the intention to have a rural fuel derogation without any change coming at the island pumps are greeted with nausea by my constituents, who are tired of hearing pious words and are instead looking for pious actions.
I will indeed. I imagine that in West Dunbartonshire the price of fuel is 15p to 20p a litre lower. How I wish we could enjoy the prices of West Dunbartonshire. I also wish that the hon. Lady could express some sympathy for the voters, constituents and people of the Western Isles who have suffered higher fuel prices than many other areas in the UK as a result of the policies of successive Governments.
I have every sympathy for the people of West Dunbartonshire—those are high prices—but with our prices of £1.48 and £1.50 a litre, I wish that we could enjoy prices such as £1.36 a litre. If I went back to the Outer Hebrides tomorrow and announced a price of £1.36, I would be regarded as some sort of hero, but unfortunately I cannot do that. I have sympathy with the hon. Lady but I am afraid that she must reciprocate and understand the problems that come when fuel poverty is higher, the cost of living is higher and wages are lower. The pilot project in the Outer Hebrides and other islands in Scotland is the right way to go. If it is a success, I hope we can extend it. I find the lack of sympathy from Labour Members about the problems in the Outer Hebrides somewhat distressing.
Having visited the hon. Gentleman’s constituency in the past, I understand some of the difficulties his constituents face, but does he agree that although we are talking about derogations, stabilisers and all sorts of things people want action now and that there is an opportunity for the Government to act next week? Will he support the Labour motion today to ensure that the maximum pressure is piled on the Government?
I probably will support the Labour amendment, but at my own risk. I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s words. She is very welcome back in Na h-Eileanan an Iar at any time of her choosing. I would be more than pleased to show her around the islands or to entertain her in Stornoway—at my expense.
I must wind up, because I have to speak at a meeting at 3 o’clock about coastguards, which are a very important issue in my constituency. The last time I spoke about this issue I said that the rural fuel derogation was not like Christmas because Christmas had been and gone. It seems to me that it will not be like Easter either, because it looks like Easter will also come and go while we are still waiting.
It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil). I represent a large, rural constituency in Wiltshire, and when I filled up my car on Monday morning, I found that we, too, are paying £1.40 for diesel and £1.35 for unleaded fuel. The point was very well made by the hon. Member for Bristol West (Stephen Williams) that once one gets out of London and the major metropolitan areas there is a real problem with competition. That problem is shared by many constituencies across the UK.
I am afraid that the Labour motion is breathtakingly cynical. Not one Labour Member bothered to show up at the recent debate on this issue in Westminster Hall, and the Labour Government consistently penalised motorists across the country for 13 years, with unused bus lanes, underinvestment in rural transport and 12 rises in fuel duty over 13 years, of which four were in the last 16 months of their term of office. They also planned, as part of their scorched earth economic policy before the election, six further rises to come into effect over four years, so their cynicism in presenting this motion is breathtaking.
The hon. Lady is very keen to talk about what the previous Labour Government did, but does she want to think a little about what is happening now? The Road Haulage Association says that in the last week alone £850 was added to the cost per year of running an average-sized lorry—that was under her Government’s watch.
I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s intervention and I will come to my “demand” for something to be done about this problem. I think we both have in our constituencies small haulage businesses that are really suffering from the increases in fuel prices.
I find the motion muddled and inaccurate. This is yet another unfunded spending commitment from the shadow Chancellor and the Opposition. We cannot use a one-off levy of £800 million to fund a permanent reduction in VAT costing several times that amount. The maths just does not add up. I had always thought that the shadow Chancellor, who is not in his place, was a fairly financially literate fellow.
Is my hon. Friend aware that this is the 10th spending pledge that Labour has made from this banking levy? It has spent that money 10 times—is that not typical of the overspending and double-counting of its years in government, which got us into this mess in the first place?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. The shadow Chancellor’s predecessor referred to a financial primer that he felt he should read. Might I suggest that the current shadow Chancellor should borrow a copy? I would be delighted to lend him my calculator because I think that a financially literate Opposition would be a quality Opposition and one that the country would welcome.
I find this muddled and inaccurate motion extremely worrying because it is illegal. The EU directive on VAT states:
“Member States may apply either one or two reduced rates…The reduced rates shall apply only to supplies of goods or services in the categories set out in Annex III”,
but annex III does not list road fuel and other amending articles do not permit a reduced rate or an exemption to be applied to transport fuel. Even if we wanted to do this—if the motion were passed—it would be impossible. This is yet another inaccurate attempt to create a political narrative that joins words such as “bankers”, “tax” and “too far too fast”, but does nothing to address the fundamental problem that the Labour Government left, which we are having to clear up. I do not know about you, Mr Deputy Speaker, but people in my constituency are sick to death of this political posturing and narrative.
I am afraid that I will not at the moment.
The motion is a sham attempt to create dividing lines when we should be working together to get the country growing and out of this mess. It is cynical, muddled and inaccurate, but, as in all our debates on this issue, I welcome the chance to speak about these matters. Outside London, in many parts of rural Britain, people use their cars. Some 43% of households in London do not own or have access to a car, whereas the figure for my constituency is only 15%. That is not because it is a wealthy constituency—the average income in Devizes is well below the national average—but because in large parts of rural Britain people must have a car to go about their everyday business, to get to their job, to take their children to school and to carry out normal day-to-day activities. It is a necessity.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point, which many Members across the House who represent rural constituencies will recognise. Devizes has one of the lowest population densities per hectare of all English constituencies. We have real problems with our road services and thanks to the very misguided policies of the Labour party our rural services were hollowed out. We lost a third of our post offices and, shockingly, all the minor injuries units in the constituency, so people have to use their car to access even the most basic services.
Like many Opposition Members, I am calling on the Chancellor to bring to fruition some of the plans that we all talked about before the election. I do not underestimate the difficulty of introducing a unilateral fair fuel stabiliser, which would be a tricky thing to do. Unlike the Opposition’s proposals, however, it would be legal, and it would be extremely welcome to many Members on both sides of the House and their constituents.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Devizes (Claire Perry), who spoke with her usual panache, confidence and strength of purpose—rather like the Economic Secretary to the Treasury did in setting out the agenda from the Government’s point of view, which she set out very well. I do not agree with that agenda at all, but at least she was here to set it out, unlike the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. Like my hon. Friends who have made this point, I wonder where he is. I am rather reminded of a children’s book that was very popular with my children and I wonder, where’s Wally?
It is admirable that Labour Members should be so disciplined in following the line they have been given, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that those on the Front Bench should spend as much time crafting their message so as not to table a motion that is illegal, impractical and careless? They should pay more attention to that rather than just drilling their Members to keep asking where’s Wally, which perhaps sums up the state of their politics today.
I think I was the first person to ask that in this debate. Of course, we have a clear economic message that runs counter to the posturing successfully used by the parties in government to suggest that there is a need to cut fast and deeply. Our message is that there is no need for such cuts. Three tools are at our disposal to manage our way out of the economic challenge: growth, taxes and service reductions. The Government are using only taxes and service reductions, at a heinous rate, when we should have a policy for growth. Their policy is for the opposite of growth.
Let me draw attention to the headlines sought by the Conservative party as long ago as 2008: “Tories vow to slash fuel duty”, from the Press Association on 6 July 2008; and “Tory tax cut to beat hike in fuel” from The Sun on 7 July 2008. In a sense, since 2008 the Conservative party has made promises to the British people on fuel duties that it has singularly failed to meet in government.
I recall one of the parties in government saying to the other party that it was telling an untruth when it said that it would not put up VAT. It turns out that both parties were planning to put up VAT all the while.
People face real difficulties because of the situation in the middle east, the fuel duty rises that the Government have already imposed and the burden of putting VAT up, totally unacceptably, to an all-time high. That favourite Tory tax is now at 20% and that is causing real difficulties for people—we need to listen to them.
When there were huge economic challenges caused by the great global banking crisis, the Labour Government reduced VAT on fuel and on everything else—they did not put it up and worsen the situation, which is the policy of the parties on the Government Benches.
Let us look at the impact of this tax on growth on people and businesses. Alongside the tax on growth, we have cuts in public services, rising prices, inflation wobbling out of control, cuts to the education maintenance allowance—given to the poorest of our young people so that they can continue and aspire in education—and tuition fees being set at record levels. Unemployment among young people is, on this Prime Minister’s watch, the highest it has been for almost 30 years. That is the Government’s disgraceful economic record.
People on fixed incomes—including pensioners and those on disability living allowance—are hugely worried about the mobility effect of the hike in fuel prices and the difficulties it will make to their lives. Only today, a witness appeared before the Select Committee on Education—David Lawrence, the principal of Easton college in Norfolk—who said, “Higher fuel costs are a disincentive to participation.” That is what is happening in the real world.
Let me quote one letter that I have received this week, which illustrates the sort of correspondence that we all receive from our constituents. It reads:
“I am thirty eight years old, married with a family of six running two small cars to keep the cost down on tax and running costs. The biggest cost that we are finding hard to cover is fuel, since the beginning of last year, average petrol pump prices have risen from just under 111p/litre to almost 128p/litre. Diesel now costs more than 132p/litre, compared to 112.5p a year ago. I would like to explain to you what impact this is having on my ability to drive and go about my everyday life. The price of fuel not only affects work but personally the cost of running my car has significantly increased so that I only can afford to travel to work, any family trips to visit other areas of the region/country I simply just can not afford.
I am employed as a Transport Manager for a local business that relies heavily on local haulage transport companies and also sub-contractors that travel to our region making deliveries. To keep cost down along with trying to keep our CO2 emissions down we use these sub-contractors as back hauliers as a reduced rate. Over the past few months we have seen transport companies we use either going to administration or just closing the business whilst they can pay back the creditors. This has a big impact on the business I work for as we can not be competitive in a tight margin industry we work in.”
That illustrates the difficulties caused in people’s private and working lives by fuel prices getting out of control and their impact on the economy.
In my area, as Government Members who represent Humberside constituencies know, we also have the spectre of the Humber bridge board threatening to put up the cost of Humber bridge tolls—an outrageous suggestion of yet another tax on local people and a tax on local businesses.
Let us look forward at what we can do. There are things we can do and messages about what we can look forward to. I agree with the hon. Member for Devizes that we should be careful not to engage in political posturing. We all, on both sides of the House, do that from time to time—I think she did a little bit, and I probably have, too—but there are practical things we can do. There is no need for the planned fuel duty increase. It should be postponed or stopped completely because of the circumstances that we are in. We can also consider what can be done about VAT. It did not need to go up on everything and there ought to be imagination and resolution in the EU to ensure that VAT is treated properly for people who drive vehicles in this country.
There are things we can do and it is time to do them. It is time to stop talking and time for action.