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Road Fuel Duties

Volume 532: debated on Tuesday 13 September 2011

I welcome you to your rightful place in the Chair, Mr Hancock, and I also welcome the Economic Secretary to the Treasury and my hon. Friend on the Front Bench, the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), to this extremely important debate. It is also good to see that all parties in the House are, I think, represented here, and I look forward to what they have to say. I particularly want to hear what the Economic Secretary has to say about the high levels of road fuel duties in this country. I also want to put on record my thanks to the Speaker for allowing the debate to take place at this time.

This year, 2011, has been eventful in every sense of the word. It has perhaps been the most financially eventful year in the history of politics. It has been a rollercoaster. We have seen global financial turmoil, and the stock market has fluctuated at a rate that I have never seen before. We are seeing the beginnings of high unemployment levels, along with a rise in inflation, increasing transport costs, and tax changes that I have never witnessed in my time in the House—I have been here some 20 years. The past eight months have delivered a record-breaking run of price rises, those of petrol and diesel being among the most alarming.

Across the UK—there are, of course, highs and lows across the country—the average price of petrol reached a high in May of 137.43p per litre, and an examination of the relevant website just last night showed that the average price just now is not far from that. There is a differential of some 24p per litre between the highest and the lowest price across the country. I remember that when the Labour party was in government there was a near revolution when the truckers blockaded the refineries as a consequence of high fuel prices. Interestingly, we have not seen anything like that since, and I wonder why.

I am not certain from the tone of the hon. Gentleman’s voice whether he wants a blockade of refineries by truckers across the United Kingdom.

The hon. Gentleman should know, as should all Members, that I would be the last person in this place to call for a revolution and civil disobedience.

There is absolutely no doubt, however, that the high fuel prices are at the point of driving people out of jobs, which is the most serious aspect of the matter. I shall give an example, which makes me angry, of the desperate situation of a nurse in my constituency. She has had to put up with a wage freeze for the next two years, her pension contributions have gone up, she has to pay double for parking at the hospital in Glasgow where she works, and she has to find £100 extra a month to get to and from work because of the high fuel prices. That proposition cannot feasibly be sustained for too long, but she cannot use public transport because of where she stays and where the hospital is. That problem must be looked at.

Regarding what the Government take per litre, I always remember a case from some years ago of a retailer who was determined to show the breakdown of the price of petrol and diesel. He was told that that was not the form, and the petrol company said that it would no longer supply him, for some obscure reason. When one considers that of the average 135p price of a litre of fuel, 81p is taken, one starts to understand the cost to the individual buying the petrol or the diesel. A good 60% goes on dealing with Government intervention in the form of fuel duty, and there is also VAT. Indeed, 20% VAT increases the price of petrol by 2.5%, putting something like 2.5p on it. In addition, outside of Government intervention in the price, there are the oil companies, and it is time to argue for a windfall tax on their profits. I know that there has already been a tax, which a lot of colleagues are very concerned about in relation to the oil companies’ continued investment, but I believe that the Government should look at the correlation between profit and price.

I have already argued that a significant portion of the price of petrol and diesel in this country is made up of the Government take, and I argue that it is higher than in most other European countries as a consequence of the high level of tax. Is there any opportunity to make the price cheaper? I am sure that the Economic Secretary will argue that in the present climate there is no leeway—no room for manoeuvre—but I suggest that there might be, and I shall come on to that later.

The reason for this debate is obvious: the price of fuel is crippling a great number of the people whom I represent and, I am sure, a great many of those represented by other Members here this morning. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has announced that the living standards of UK families will decline by more than 10% over the next three years, and it predicts that in real terms the typical household income will fall by 3.5% in the year to April, which will be the steepest drop since 1981. We understand that there is little room for offsetting falling living standards by cutting taxes, but the matter must be looked at. The level of tax and duties on petrol and diesel is cutting off the prospects of many struggling families and small businesses, and since I secured this debate I have had dozens of e-mails from small businesses with examples of just what it is doing to them.

The situation is also destroying job prospects, in particular among young people. I have already had a summit in my constituency, attended by the Secretaries of State for Work and Pensions and for Scotland. Youth unemployment is reaching levels that I never thought possible—it is as high as 70% in many areas. That cannot be sustainable and it is not helped at all by the cost of living today, particularly in more rural areas—I see that the hon. Members for Argyll and Bute (Mr Reid) and for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) are present.

I am delighted that the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr Donohoe) has brought this important topic for debate. Is he aware that the current Chief Secretary to the Treasury called in 2007 for a rural fuel discount scheme, and so may have a favourable view? Like the hon. Gentleman, I am concerned, because the south-west has a very rural community. Three quarters of the land is agricultural holdings, so a rural discount would be of great benefit.

We will have to wait for the Economic Secretary’s response on that point. As an Opposition Member, I am not in a position to give any assurances.

We must consider the problems with the Government’s approach. Although they have frozen fuel tax duty for the next couple of years, we must take into account the fact that the freeze will be more than offset by the rise in inflation. As petrol is always an easy revenue raiser, it is widely expected that the Government will make up their losses, leaving the consumer no better off in the long term.

I will highlight three areas of concern. The first is environmental, the second is economic and the third involves the social impact of the road fuel duty. The removal of the duty differential will affect the green economy. The UK Sustainable Biodiesel Alliance has raised concerns about the Government’s decision to remove the 20p duty differential for biodiesel produced from used cooking oil by April 2012. I ask the Economic Secretary to consider that loss more closely. It does not stack up against the Government’s views on the green economy. Many see the impact of the removal of the duty differential for biodiesel as a disastrous blow for the growth of the green economy. Just outside my constituency is the company Stagecoach, which runs buses on biodiesel. It is highly successful, and particularly popular with youngsters, but it will come to an end if the differential is not maintained. Will the Minister clarify why on earth the Government, whom we have heard are the greenest Government ever, continue to consider it?

On the economic side, we risk the demise of the independent fuel sector. Retail Motor Industry Petrol told me that MRH, the UK’s largest independent forecourt operator, has highlighted the unfair pricing practices used against it by both hypermarket chains and oil companies. That is a concern. In addition, the four big supermarket chains are struggling with their own retail this year due to the downturn, which in turn is placing greater pressure on and compounding the problems of independent retailers.

Such relentless competition has been going on for some years. It is responsible for the closure of around 400 independent forecourts, and it continues. It will lead to a sparse population of fuel retailers, obliging motorists to drive great distances to top up their tanks, which is not sustainable. More than 6,000 garages have closed since 1998, which is a problem, as anybody knows who travels off motorways. Particularly in more rural areas, as I have seen at first hand, running out of fuel because there are no petrol or diesel stations is always a danger.

The hon. Gentleman has outlined the issues relating to road fuel duty and mentioned garages running short. Does he share my concern—I suspect that he does—that it is not only about garages running short but about elderly people in our community? This winter, they will be asking themselves, “Should we use oil, electric, coal or gas?”, but they will be stuck with oil and the cost that that entails. Does he not feel that the Government should consider what help they can give elderly people to ensure that this winter will not be a hard one?

The blasé slogan “Either eat or heat” is becoming a reality faced by many of my constituents, particularly the elderly. The hon. Gentleman is right. It is a major concern, and it should concern the Government.

To return to the economic point, the industry should look into the fact that some oil providers supply their own forecourts with fuel at one price while selling the same fuel to a second retailer down the road at a higher cost. Something must be done about that. Anyone who travels two miles along the road from Prestwick to Ayr in my constituency can see it at first hand. Prices at forecourts using the same supplier vary 6p from one end to the other, which should not be allowed. Two-tier pricing is becoming a joke.

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about two-tier pricing, but I am sure that he will sympathise with areas of one-tier pricing, such as my constituency, where all prices are high and the closest cheaper fuel is a ferry ride away. Does he not feel that there has been too much inaction by successive Governments on tackling the problem?

I agree entirely. It is interesting to note that Shetland has some of the highest petrol prices in Scotland, although half the United Kingdom’s total oil supply flows through two pipelines there. Another instance is Grangemouth, where the refinery for Scotland is based. The price of fuel there is also among the highest in Scotland. That does not stack up.

I was interested by the intervention of the hon. Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris), because not far from Newton Abbot is the Devonshire coast. I was down there about 12 months ago or more, and it was amazing to see the number of tankers lined up that were not being unloaded. Does my hon. Friend not think that there might be a case for an investigation into oil companies and hoarding to force up prices? Price is as much an element of the problem as taxes.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I am sure that the Economic Secretary will address that issue when she sums up, along with the points made by other hon. Members.

My third point concerns the social and economic consequences of the situation. Everybody can see that many kinds of damage have been done to consumers and businesses, particularly small businesses. As I have mentioned, the erosion in the number of forecourts is obvious, particularly in rural areas, and it will lead to fuel deserts in many parts of the UK. A vital immunity for low-income families, pensioners and the disabled has been lost. Journeys to fill fuel tanks are longer, increasing carbon emissions needlessly. Consumer choice has been reduced. There are fewer facilities for HGV and van users, as supermarkets do not cater for them. The impact on the UK’s ability to cope with emergencies has also been massive. Perhaps most importantly, jobs and job opportunities are being lost.

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, an e-petition is circulating that has some 62,000 signatures at the moment. If it gets 100,000 signatures, we can debate the matter in the House of Commons. Does he not feel that he should encourage people to sign it so that the matter can be debated at length in the House, as it needs to be?

That was one of my conclusions, so it is useful that the hon. Gentleman has made that point. This morning, the Fair Fuel UK campaign e-mailed me, as I am sure it mailed everybody. Like everybody in this room, barring perhaps the Economic Secretary, I signed the e-petition. As a consequence, only 17,000 signatures are now required to reach 100,000. I urge everybody—not just those here but anybody listening to this debate who is concerned about high fuel prices—to sign the petition so that a full debate can be held. This is, after all, only an Adjournment debate. Important as it might be, we need a full debate in the House with the Government leading. I look forward to it.

In conclusion, we must consider the issues that I have highlighted. The Government know that the Labour party opposes 20% VAT, which has helped to push up petrol prices to their current levels. I did not realise until I was preparing for this debate that VAT is put on top of the tax, so the duty is taxed with VAT. If the tax is 50p, 20% VAT is put on top of that fuel duty. The Government should look at that. If, as is being argued, a reduction in VAT is not an option because of the bureaucracy across the water in Brussels, we could consider a reduction in fuel duty to lower the cost of taxation, which, as I have said, is initially some 80p per litre. The Economic Secretary and the Treasury should look at that.

On VAT, I have been in discussions with a representative from a coach company in my constituency, which has put on hold plans to employ more staff because of the extent of fuel duty. One of the issues that he raised was VAT. He actually argued in favour of a higher rate of VAT for diesel and petrol, because, as a business, he can reclaim the VAT but not the fuel duty. I wonder whether the Treasury has an opinion on that.

That is a matter for the Economic Secretary, not me, to address, but I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. A tax increase is being proposed for next January and August, but I would like an assurance from the Economic Secretary that it will not be implemented. The best way to help hard-pressed consumers would be for the Government not to adjust the tax on families, who are already feeling the squeeze as a consequence of the Government’s policy on pay freezes and pension hikes.

We also have to look at the big six energy providers, which recently announced large price rises and bigger profits. The Government must have scope to look at that in order to redress, via a windfall tax, the whole problem of taxation. There is also the issue of the Government’s policy—if it is a policy—to move people from the road to public transport. The Government have just increased the cost of rail travel by 10%, which seems to go against everything that is being argued. Is that policy supported and likely to continue to be supported by the Treasury?

A number of representatives from rural areas are present. More emphasis needs to be put on trying to allay the problems associated with living in the countryside, which are an enormous burden on businesses and the consumer in those areas. I have already mentioned the removal of the duty differential for biodiesel, but the position of that industry needs to be addressed by the Government. It is a growing industry and one that is useful in addressing both public and private transport in my constituency. I have already mentioned the prices set by supermarkets and oil providers, which have to be addressed.

I have two final points. The Government must reduce the tax on petrol. That would increase employment prospects, particularly those of the nurse whom I mentioned earlier, as well as those of people who rely on public transport to get to work. Finally, I am old enough to remember when fuel prices were fixed universally throughout the whole country. A lot of the commodities that were deemed at that time to be essential, such as bread and milk, were all the same price. Given the disparity between the highest and lowest price in this country, will the Government examine the issue so that the disparity is overcome and the price of petrol is not a commodity with which the supermarkets and some of the country’s suppliers play?

Thank you, Mr Donohoe. A lot of Members want to speak, but we do not have a great deal of time. Will those Members who speak be careful about the number of interventions they take? Perhaps that way everyone will get in.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hancock. I congratulate the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr Donohoe) on securing this debate and on bringing this important issue before the House.

I represent a sparsely populated constituency, so I am well aware of the impact of high fuel prices on people and businesses. I represent many of the islands of the Inner Hebrides. The price of fuel on the larger islands, such as Mull and Islay, is typically 15p a litre higher than at a city centre supermarket, and on the smaller islands, such as Coll and Colonsay, the price is usually about 30p a litre higher. That is not due to any profiteering by local filling stations; Office of Fair Trading investigations have shown that there is no local profiteering. The main reason is the low turnover. The high fixed costs of running a filling station mean a high price.

On that point, Donald MacNeil of the Burnside filling station in Daliburgh, South Uist, has told me that, if he paid somebody to sell fuel all day, they would not raise their own wage from the amount they sold, which is a reflection of why the price of rural fuel is so high. There is no profiteering. Apart from the high prices, we also know that there are distribution issues.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He is correct that there is no profiteering at the local filling station, although the distribution network, as he has indicated, might be another issue.

The high price obviously has a great impact on people’s living standards and on anyone trying to run a business on an island or in a remote rural area. I was therefore delighted when the Government announced their intention to pursue a pilot scheme under which there will be a 5p a litre fuel duty discount on many of the country’s islands, including all the islands of the Inner Hebrides and the Clyde. The Treasury is currently consulting filling station operators on the terms of the pilot scheme. Its original consultation proposals were met with significant concern by filling station operators, because they would have caused a cash-flow problem. I was pleased when the Government responded quickly to those concerns and revised their proposals in a way that removes the cash-flow problem.

The revised consultation proposals envisage two possible schemes—a distributor-based scheme and a retailer-based scheme. Of the two, it looks like the distributor-based scheme would be easier to operate, because the distributor has the resources to carry out the administration, which the small retailer would often find more difficult. I appreciate, however, the Government’s concern that a distributor-based scheme may fall foul of EU state aid rules and might not be approved by the European Commission. I hope that a distributor-based scheme can be devised that is acceptable to the Commission. If not, we would have to proceed with a retailer-based scheme.

The cash-flow problem in the original proposals has been overcome, but filling station operators are still concerned that it is not clear how they can prove to the Treasury that they are passing on the discount to the consumer. An essential principle of the scheme is that the 5p discount is passed on to the consumer. What retailers have asked me is whether the Government can provide clarity on how they should demonstrate that they are passing on the discount. That clarity would be welcomed because, as I say, the retailers are still not clear what they would have to do to comply with the scheme—and, of course, they are all keen to participate. If the islands’ pilot scheme is successful, as I am sure it will be, I would like it to be extended to remote areas of the mainland.

I absolutely endorse what my hon. Friend says, but some of the rebates that have been given in France, Portugal and so on are not limited just to the islands. The Government’s current view is that it is only in an island situation that such relief can be made available, but that does not seem valid.

I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend. As she said, other EU countries are operating a similar scheme, so I am sure that it can be successful here.

The Chairman asked for limited interventions and I have already given way to the hon. Gentleman.

I have accepted the Government’s view that we must have an islands pilot first, but after that I would certainly press for it to be extended to remote areas of the mainland.

The hon. Gentleman refers to the mainland; obviously, I am very keen for the same opportunities to exist for the people of Northern Ireland. Will he address that issue and does he agree that Northern Ireland also needs to have a similar pilot scheme, because the prices there are equal to those in the western islands of Scotland?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. From the perspective of a Scottish island, the mainland is the mainland of Great Britain, but I accept that there is another part of the United Kingdom. I am not sure whether calling it the mainland is the correct way to refer to it or not.

We are straying into another debate here. I think we will stick to fuel duty, which is probably a lot less contentious.

Operating a rural filling station is clearly not a profitable business these days, and we heard from the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire about how many have closed. In my constituency, I can point to 10 that have closed since I became an MP in 2001, and that is fairly typical of the country as a whole. On the Kintyre peninsula, only three of the five filling stations that the area had at the beginning of the year are still open. Two have closed this year, which is causing real concerns on the peninsula. As the hon. Gentleman who opened the debate pointed out, people are therefore driving longer distances to fill up their tanks and the choices available to rural motorists have been reduced. Action to help rural motorists is certainly badly needed.

There was a time when it could be argued that high fuel taxation was needed to discourage people from polluting the environment, but market forces have already achieved that. Nobody drives for the fun of it these days unless they literally have money to burn and, of course, anyone in such a position would not be deterred by high fuel duty anyway. High fuel duty has played its part in discouraging people from using their cars when public transport alternatives were available but, of course, in a rural area those alternatives are not often available. The price of fuel is already very high and the Government should not be considering putting duty up any further.

I was delighted when the Government abandoned Labour’s fuel duty escalator in the Budget, introduced the fuel duty stabiliser instead and brought down the fuel duty because the price was so high. The Government have scheduled a fuel duty increase for January as it was hoped at the time of the Budget that prices would have decreased by then, although they show no sign of doing so. If prices are still at this level in January, I hope that the Government will not press ahead with the increase.

My final point, which was also touched on by the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire, is about what exactly is causing the high price of fuel. The hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) referred to oil companies storing fuel rather than putting it on to the market. I want to ask the Government whether any collective action can be taken internationally—for example, through the G20—to bring the price of fuel down. The price of fuel adds to the price of everything in a rural area, so anything that the Government can do to bring the price down would be greatly appreciated by my constituents and all hon. Members who represent a rural constituency.

This is the first time I have taken part in a debate that you have chaired, Mr Hancock, and so far you have been handling the discussion very well.

I want only to make one or two points of emphasis because I am conscious that all hon. Members present represent constituencies that are under the cosh in certain ways regarding fuel prices. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr Donohoe) on securing the debate. I know that there is high feeling in the country about fuel prices because I get regular letters about the subject. I also note one of the points that he made earlier: so far, we have not seen the lorry drivers demonstrating. I do not know and would not like to say whether that will happen, but I would not like it to. I would prefer to think that the Government will take action, as they promised in the run-up to the general election when they were condemning us for the fuel price escalator.

It is worth noting and reminding the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr Reid) that the fuel price escalator was introduced by a Conservative Government—in fact, it was the previous Conservative Government. I was also interested to note that the hon. Gentleman mentioned that the Government had taken action to try to stabilise fuel prices. I think it was 1p or something that they knocked off so, frankly, they did not take very much action.

As well as knocking 1p off, the Government did not go ahead with the increase that the previous Chancellor’s fuel price escalator would have caused.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s response because he is only apologising for the Government of whom he is part. When he was in opposition, he said the opposite; but never mind, we shall carry on.

Although we cannot broaden the debate, I would like to mention that one of the major implications of the fuel price increase is its impact on the wider economy. We could talk about pensioners who are on fixed incomes, one-parent families or people who rely on transport—whether it is the motor car or the bus. I need to check this out, but I think that, a couple of weeks ago, National Express announced that it may have to reconsider off-peak fares for pensioners because of the subsidy situation. That is something that the Minister may want to investigate.

I join my hon. Friend in congratulating our hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr Donohoe) on securing the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) mentioned the impact on pensioners. In the city of Glasgow, 100,000 pensioners face cuts to their winter fuel allowance this year as well as increases in the cost of fuel and of living. Sadly, too many pensioners right across the country will have to choose between putting food on the table, heating their homes and getting out and about around the country. Would he like there to be some real Government action to support pensioners?

The previous Government certainly went a long way to try to address some of those problems. Some Labour Members did not necessarily think that they went far enough, but that is another argument. We now have the present Government. If they want to talk about the big society, they must get a grip of the issue and try to do something more positive. It is no good relying on a pilot scheme somewhere and a double-tier price index for fuel. We must tackle the problem in a proper way. Someone mentioned the European scheme, which may well be something that the Government can consider.

I return to the issues that affect the economy. Haulage prices must be affecting businesses, particularly small businesses—for example, in relation to builders. We rely on builders to generate much of the economy. There are one or two examples of that. In addition, small businesses cannot always get credit and have cash-flow problems, which impacts on small and other businesses and therefore on the economy.

It is also worth noting that this Government, like the previous Conservative Government, changed the retail prices index; we now have a new invention called the consumer prices index. Such an approach shows that the Government are concealing the real impact of their policies, particularly in relation to inflation. I hope that the Minister will address that because the retail prices index is a way in which the public can get a good measure of what is happening in the economy in respect of inflation. If we consider current inflation levels, the public are not sure whether they are getting a true measure. The household budget is mucked around with, to use an expression, but the real cost cannot be measured. I hope the Government will look at that.

In relation to the islands, I know a lot more about Cornwall. Some years ago, I sat on the Trade and Industry Committee. We discovered to our surprise that one of the poorest areas in the country was Cornwall. Like the highlands and islands, Cornwall relies on the tourist trade, as everybody knows; a lot of its jobs depend on the tourist trade and a lot of them depend on public transport. That has an impact on public transport and bus fares. That is bound to affect the poorest areas in Britain, whether we are talking about the islands, the south or the south-west.

I remember one scheme where the post office used postal vans as a method of public transport in order to pick people up. There have been cuts in public transport in the south-west; the frequency of buses, that public mode of travel, has been reduced drastically. I wonder what has happened to what we used to call the transport subsidy.

I have covered some of the main points that I thought needed emphasis. My hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire has covered the major areas, so it was worth pointing one or two other things out. The seriousness of the situation has now developed, whether we talk about inflation measurements or the impact on ordinary people who have been encouraged to take part in what is called the big society.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr Donohoe) on securing this important debate, a debate that is in my ears every week of the year. I think the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) used the words, “under the cosh”—and we are certainly under the cosh.

Road fuel in my constituency is at ridiculous rates, and has remained at ridiculous rates in the lifetime of this Government and the previous one. Road fuel is between £1.50 and £1.57 a litre. My constituency has the highest fuel poverty in the UK. In Stornoway, at the north end, fuel is £1.50 a litre. At a small fuel station in South Uist, where I stopped on Friday in a rush to the ferry—I was almost late, as usual—I paid £1.57 a litre for diesel for my car.

In the Faroe Islands, which are halfway between the Hebrides and Iceland, the price of fuel is usually 50p a litre less. That was confirmed to me this morning: it is £1.06 a litre in Torshavn in the Faroe Islands. The price is not a function of geography; it is a function of Treasury taxation. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) asked me whether I wanted to move. Given how we are taxed from London, as Scotland does not yet control fuel tax, we may have to move to all sorts of strange, weird and wonderful places to avoid the Sheriff of Nottingham tax behaviour from the London Treasury, regardless of which sheriff is in charge. Be it the red sheriff or the blue sheriff, the prices are much the same from London.

Iceland has prices that follow the Faroese model. It is interesting to note, and probably no coincidence that, despite its problems three years ago, Iceland has bounced back better. Its unemployment is lower than that of the United Kingdom and its GDP per capita is higher—Iceland is moving on and putting the past behind it far better than the UK. In my constituency, higher fuel costs are bleeding the economy dry.

Unlike in Iceland, which is able to move on, we are still being bled dry and left in a very weakened state. Higher fuel costs are pulling money from councils, health boards, the police, the fire service, small businesses, pensioners and families. The hon. Member for Coventry South made that point very well. He also mentioned rural postal vans. My father used to drive one of those postal vans. They were certainly a crucible of politics when passengers came on from whichever part of the island of Barra, where I lived when I was younger, and where I still live.

When I spoke in the House of Commons on 7 February —I went back over Hansard this morning—I said that Alec MacIntosh at Benbecula airport was haranguing me about the price of fuel and telling me to sort them out in London. He said the same thing yesterday morning as I boarded the plane from Benbecula to Glasgow. Fuel in Benbecula is about 10p a litre higher than it was when I spoke in the House of Commons on 7 February 2011; it is 19p a litre up on the price it was in Stornoway last year. Orkney, Shetland and the islands of Argyll are suffering the same, and Northern Ireland is probably suffering the same.

That is all the more galling when we think of the oil around the islands of Scotland. Shetland, of course, is pumping oil at the moment, as is Orkney. West of the Hebrides, we apparently have 25% of the UK reserve of fossil fuels—$1 million for every man, woman and child in the Hebrides—but we are paying 50p a litre more than the Faroese, who have no proven or found reserves at all.

When the Government came to power, they talked about a rural fuel derogation, and that was welcome. We are having problems, of course, because the Scottish Government do not control this issue and we are left with the red sheriff or the blue sheriff in London. The previous sheriff played Pontius Pilate to the issues of rural fuel. They were not interested in the rural fuel derogation; spurious and ridiculous reasons came about why they could not do anything. They sat on their hands. There was no fair fuel stabiliser, absolutely no rural fuel derogation, daft excuses and—still dafter—they had no apologies. There is still no apology from the previous Labour Government for their inaction.

This Government came in and their words were like a fresh breeze. Being the fair and earnest fellow that I am, I welcomed their words and their stated intentions. They blamed Europe for the slow progress of the rural fuel derogation and, being the fair and earnest fellow that I am, I was minded to believe them and accept them at their word. Then, of course, the green light came from Europe. The Government are now in danger of eclipsing the previous Government in their cynicism.

Treasury rules are now so cumbersome that they might actually cause small rural fuel stations to go out of business. The Government are looking for every device to slow this down when we know that in rural France, 10 km from a main population centre, people enjoy rural fuel derogations. What is the difficulty? Please get it into place. I warned the Liberals in February—in the House of Commons, as recorded in Hansardthat if the rural fuel derogation was not in place before May, they would suffer at the polls for the Scottish elections. They did suffer in rural areas and they are now known as the “not so famous five” in the Scottish Parliament.

There is a good argument, as I think the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire or the hon. Member for Coventry South said, for fixing fuel across the country, just as the prices of newspapers are fixed. If we are to have any fairness, we will have people across the UK paying the same amount of tax; my constituents, and probably those in Argyll, Orkney and Shetland, are paying the highest tax per litre of any part of the United Kingdom.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the best ways to try to sort the problem out—it is becoming like a ping pong game between the political parties—is to have a proper public inquiry into the price of fuel and fuel hoarding?

I have some sympathy for what the hon. Gentleman says, and I will come on to distribution in a second, but we have played the patient game long enough. I think it was Martin Luther King who said that it was not the time for the “tranquilising drug of gradualism”. This is a time for action. At £1.50 and £1.57 a litre, people are hurting and hurting badly.

I am aware that I have taken six or seven minutes, Mr Hancock, and that others want to speak. I would finally like to mention fuel distribution. I have asked the Secretary of State for Scotland, the right hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Michael Moore), about distribution from refineries to retailers, and he has assured me that he is looking into the issue.

On distribution, I would like to underline how the issue affects Northern Ireland. The same oil that comes into Belfast goes out all over the whole of the province and the prices vary incredibly. Does the hon. Gentleman feel that there is a need to address how oil companies distribute fuel across the whole of Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom?

Yes, I could not agree more. I had a feeling that that was going to be a helpful intervention and indeed it was. As I was saying, I spoke to the Secretary of State for Scotland in the House and he has assured me that he will look into the matter of fuel distribution. I am not sure what progress there has been on that.

There is a difficulty between refineries and small rural fuel stations, and the habits of the distribution companies. They hold retailers very tightly and do not allow them the freedom to shop around and buy their fuel from different suppliers. A tanker in a certain area of the west highlands can move to a port further down and the fuel can be more expensive. It can go into another port and it can be cheaper. Batches of fuel, within a discharge at a small island port, can have different prices, depending on the amount that is bought. There is, in my view, predatory parasitical behaviour. I use those words with some thought. There is parasitical behaviour from fuel distribution companies when it comes to small rural and island areas.

I am not sure what the Scotland Office is managing to do, but I ask whether the Treasury might look into parasitical behaviour by fuel distribution companies, which are basically leeching off small, vulnerable island communities. That has to stop. At £1.50 to £1.57 a litre, there is utter anger at the price people are having to pay, and that in an area where the cost of living is generally higher—often thanks to the Co-op—where the wages are lower and, as I said, where we have the highest fuel poverty in the United Kingdom. I am making a plea to the Treasury.

The issue comes around every six months, but it is serious and affects people badly. If the powers were held in Scotland, we would not be coming every six months to talk to the Treasury or the Scotland Office in London, to make a plea about how tough things were in areas of Scotland.

I am aware that other Members want to get in, and some throats are being cleared around me, so I will leave it at that—I have said my piece. I am more than annoyed, and I hope that I am not back here in six months repeating part of my speeches of February 2011 and September 2011. We need the rural fuel derogation to come soon.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr Donohoe) for securing the debate on what is clearly an important issue for all our constituents and the future of our economy. All right hon. and hon. Members will have had constituents approaching us and expressing their concerns about the current high cost of fuel. Individual constituents and local businesses have certainly raised it with me.

Fuel costs in West Lothian, where my constituency of Livingston is, are currently almost exactly in line with the national average: about £1.35 or a little more for a litre of unleaded, and £1.38 a litre for diesel—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) confirms that from a sedentary position.

High fuel costs form an important element of the general increase in household outgoings currently experienced by so many families, in many cases coupled with frozen or reduced household incomes. A constituent recently contacted me to describe her own circumstances: she has not had a pay increase for two years, yet she is having to pay an extra £10 to fill up her car with petrol, meaning that she must now prioritise her journeys to remain within her budget.

Interestingly, recent AA research found that one in four of its members is now in the position of having to restrict the amount spent when refuelling and to prioritise car use. Alarmingly, that figure rises to 40% among those on lower incomes. Edmund King, the AA’s president, commented:

“Members tell us that driving to work represents the priority use of their car and that other trips have to suffer to make financial ends meet.”

With the Institute for Fiscal Studies warning recently that household budgets are set to be squeezed for a decade, it is vital that we get a grip on the issue of fuel costs now, so that consumers do not continue to suffer misery year after year.

Other constituents have expressed their frustration at being told that they should use public transport when they live in areas where public transport links are simply inadequate, or the costs are as high as for using their own vehicle. We touched on that earlier in the debate, and I do not want to go into the detail. The impact of high fuel costs is also seriously hurting businesses, however, and I want to focus the remainder of my remarks on that aspect of today’s debate.

We have seen some welcome, if limited, respite for consumers in the past few weeks, with pump prices in supermarket forecourts falling in response to a reduction in wholesale costs. Even if that is of some small assistance to individual consumers, it does little to help businesses and, in particular, haulage and transport companies. Speaking about that recent round of price cuts, the Road Haulage Association chief executive, Geoff Dunning, said:

“These price cuts can only ever be short term. What is desperately needed and would help everyone would be a reduction in the actual rate of fuel duty.”

He went on:

“However, January’s planned duty rise, combined with the proposed August increase will drive up fuel duty by a massive 10.4%. This will suck more money out of the economy and further undermine efforts to regenerate growth.”

Only last week, the Freight Transport Association revealed research showing that, on average, vehicle operating costs for rigid, articulated and drawbar vehicles had risen by 5.6% in the year to 1 July 2011 and that they have remained close to record, all-time highs since April this year. The largest contribution to the rise is the 12% increase for diesel over the same period. The FTA said that, while hauliers could ride out the recession by reducing margins and delaying vehicle replacements, they continue to feel the pinch and that it is likely that some hauliers might not be able to sustain their businesses in such circumstances.

That is of particular concern in my Livingston constituency because of its central position in Scotland, which makes it a popular location for businesses that need to transport goods throughout Scotland and often to other parts of the United Kingdom. Before the previous Budget, Dave McDougall, the chief executive of the West Lothian chamber of commerce, highlighted that point and the importance of getting the cost of fuel down for businesses in West Lothian. He said:

“Fuel prices are crippling all types of business. West Lothian is a location of choice for many companies because of its access to all of central Scotland. But this means that the effects are even worse for our Chamber members.”

He urged the Chancellor to take action to reduce the costs but, of course, we know that the 1p cut in fuel duty announced in the Budget was wiped out within weeks by soaring world oil prices.

Also speaking before the Budget, in March, the Federation of Small Business’s Scottish policy convener, Andy Willox, said:

“Scotland is suffering disproportionately due to the spiralling cost at the pumps.”

The hon. Gentleman has just said that Scotland is suffering disproportionately. Would he prefer those powers to be held by the most democratic forum representing Scotland, the Scottish Parliament, or to be controlled by the Tory and Liberal Government here in London?

I do not want to get bogged down in a debate on the constitution or the whole question of more powers for the Scottish Parliament. I certainly support the Scotland Bill, which we have been discussing, and fiscal autonomy for Scotland—but not independence, of course.

[Jim Dobbin in the Chair]

The impact has also been felt by retailers, with Asda stating last month that its customers were cutting back on trips to its stores because of high fuel prices. It estimated that families have, on average, £9 less disposable income each week compared with this time last year, largely due to increased petrol costs. So there is absolute agreement about businesses needing more help with high and rising fuel costs.

The all-important question is what can be done with road fuel duties to reduce the pressure on businesses and individuals and to bring about a halt to spiralling price rises. Fuel duty accounts for more than 60% of the pump price of petrol and just less than 60% for diesel, with VAT on top of that—the highest percentage of duty in the European Union. While the anger and frustration of individuals at suffering such high duties are understandable, once again the major concerns that business has are also clear. How can we expect businesses to compete on a level playing field with European competitors when they face such high taxes and duties?

When the Government increased VAT to 20% in January, they contributed to a further hike in fuel costs. It was the wrong tax at the wrong time, hitting families and businesses hard, just when they were least able to absorb such an increase. I support the calls to look at reversing the VAT increase for road fuel. We know it is feasible to obtain approval at the EU level for such a cut, but the Government refuse to entertain the idea because it is politically inconvenient for them to do so.

In a debate on motoring fuel costs here in Westminster Hall back in June, the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) called for a commitment to no more petrol tax rises in this Parliament. He urged the Government to consider abolishing even inflationary rises on fuel duty during the Parliament. Such calls have largely come about as a result of the work of Fair Fuel UK, which is a broadly representative body and is making a strong case for reducing fuel costs for both motorists and businesses.

How do such calls square with the Government’s position? In opposition, the Conservatives made much of plans to “slash fuel duty”, as the headlines screamed at the time, with their fair fuel stabiliser. The concept of fuel duty falling when fuel prices go up and rising when prices fall, seems, on the surface at least, like a winningly simple and effective idea. Many of my constituents certainly believed so and contacted me about supporting it. However, the Office for Budget Responsibility, the Institute for Fiscal Studies and others have raised problems with that approach. It remains to be seen whether the fair fuel stabiliser will deliver what businesses and individual motorists want.

When the Office for Budget Responsibility looked at the fair fuel stabiliser, it said that one of its fiscal problems was that the benefits to the Government of higher fuel prices were wiped out over time by the harm to the economy. Is that not evidence for intervention, and for the Government to set a lower fuel duty to stimulate the economy?

The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. I am all for Government intervention in many walks of life, but I would have thought that reducing VAT would be a good start. My hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire made the interesting point that putting VAT on top of the total cost of fuel is a tax on a tax, and the Treasury should look at that.

In summing up, I again thank my hon. Friend for this debate. It will not solve the problem, but I hope that it will at least provide further food for thought about what we can do to find a solution to this most thorny of problems in the longer term, and eventually to bring about a settlement that provides relief for hard-pressed families and businesses. I look forward to the Economic Secretary’s response.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr Donohoe) on securing this debate. I am aware that the number of signatures on the e-petition that is doing the rounds calling for a debate on fuel duty is rapidly approaching 100,000. Since joining the shadow Treasury team, I have spent much of my time debating fuel duty with the Economic Secretary. It is indicative of just how strongly Members of Parliament feel about the matter, and of how much their constituents are affected by high fuel prices, that we have returned to the issue. It also suggests that the Government’s limited action so far—the 1p cut in fuel duty—has not done enough to satisfy people’s concern and its impact on their lives. For example, my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire referred to the impact on a nurse in his constituency.

The small increases in the cost of living and the small cuts add up. The cost of parking at a hospital may have doubled, and travel to work may cost an extra £100 a month. Such increases make the difference between people being able to get by on a modest income and being unable to make ends meet. Sometimes they must make the tough decision to give up work, because they simply cannot afford it. I want to allow plenty of time for the Economic Secretary to reply, so I will not elaborate further, but people are being hit across the board. Fuel duty rises and the cost of petrol are obviously a significant element in that.

Before the Budget in March, we called on the Chancellor to review the duty increase, and we welcomed his decision following the example of previous Labour Governments, who had cancelled or postponed rises in duty when circumstances suggested that would be a good idea because fuel prices were putting too harsh a burden on people. We welcomed the 1p cut in duty, but the savings lasted only a short time, and prices at the pump remained high. According to figures published by the Department of Energy and Climate Change this morning, the price of one litre of petrol has increased over the past seven days by 0.38p to 135p and diesel by 0.44p to 139.4p. That makes prices 20p and 22p respectively more expensive than in the equivalent week last year. I am sure that some hon. Members in rural constituencies will say that those average prices do not reflect the real prices in areas that are ill-served by petrol stations.

Clearly, the 1p cut has not been sufficient for motorists feeling the squeeze. That is partly because the Government added another 3p to the price of a litre of petrol by hiking up VAT in January 2011. Motorists are also facing the prospect of a 3p increase in January 2012, and a further increase in August 2012. That comes at a time when the Institute for Fiscal Studies is warning that the coalition’s tax rises and spending cuts will squeeze household budgets for the next 10 years, with families over the past year having suffered the largest fall in living standards for 30 years. Median net household income is down 3.5%, the consumer prices index stands at 4.4%, and the retail prices index stands at 5%, which is more than double the rate at which earnings are growing. The Office for National Statistics has highlighted that fuel costs are one of the most significant contributors to the CPI and are adding indirectly to the cost of our weekly food shopping, because distribution costs rise with fuel prices.

I need not remind hon. Members that fuel prices affect not only affect households, but are having a serious impact on businesses, which are already struggling in a flatlining economy. Only this month, the Freight Transport Association reported that the high cost of fuel remains the biggest cause for concern among haulage operators. A survey by the Federation of Small Businesses found that its members were most concerned about the fuel tax rise in January. It warned that small and medium-sized enterprises would be severely affected.

I shall move on to what the Government have said they will do about the problem. Before the election, great play was made of the fair fuel stabiliser. David Cameron said that he would introduce a mechanism to ensure that when oil prices went up, prices at the pump would go down and vice versa. That was widely seen to be unworkable, and has been proven by the fact that since coming to power the Government have not acted on it. The stabiliser in the form suggested by the Prime Minister and the Chancellor has not materialised. Even the Office for Budget Responsibility said that it would make fuel prices less stable rather than more stable.

The Treasury then moved to funding the 1p fuel duty cut with the windfall tax on the oil companies, which the Scottish First Minister described as cack-handed. It was introduced almost at the last minute, and the oil companies that it affected were not consulted. The reduced duty is funded by a rise in the supplementary charge on oil companies from 20% to 32%. The Government were then hit by evidence that that would lead to fewer new fields being developed, and greater reliance on foreign imports, which are, of course, more expensive. Under pressure, the Treasury announced in the summer that it would allow companies to offset some start-up costs against tax, but that only served to show the Government’s muddle on the fuel duty regime. They float various ideas, but when those ideas are subject to any scrutiny they do not stand up to cross-examination, and the Government have to make policy on the hoof.

That is partly why we tried to amend the Finance Bill to require the Chancellor to assess the impact of tax on ring-fenced profits. As I argued at the time, that seemed to be in line with the Government’s professed commitment to more consultation and greater transparency in tax policy, instead of coming up with measures without consulting industry and then having to make U-turns..

Another measure that the Chief Secretary announced and which seems to be running out of steam is the pilot scheme for the rural fuel duty rebate, which he announced last October. He was keen on that when he was in opposition, but it seems to be more complicated than the Treasury expected. The rebate would allow a discount of up to 5p a litre on petrol in the inner and outer Hebrides—

There is talk in London of the scheme being complicated, but it need not be. It is happening in many places throughout Europe. The only complication seems to be the length of time it is taking to put it in place.

At the moment, it is suggested that the scheme will apply to the inner and outer Hebrides, the northern isles and the Isles of Scilly. The Minister will have to explain, but perhaps the delay is due to the fact that there is considerable pressure from other areas where fuel prices are very high. The hon. Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) is no longer in her place, but she made the case for her constituency in the south-west having a similar scheme.

People in the Scottish Highlands, where large distances need to be travelled and the scarcity of retail petrol stations adds to the cost of petrol, think that they, too, should be included in the scheme. Do the Government think that the scheme should be restricted only to the islands, or should it be extended? If the islands are a particular case, perhaps the Minister will clarify what that is. It is not clear whether the island populations would feel any benefit or how the discount could be delivered, and there have been warnings that such a scheme would risk putting petrol stations out of business.

Under the original idea, upfront costs would fall on retailers who might have to wait two months to be reimbursed by the Treasury. For many small retailers that is simply not viable, and if petrol stations in remote areas are forced to close, motorists will have to travel even further to fill up their tanks. I would appreciate a response from the Minister about how that could be avoided if the pilot schemes for rural islands are introduced.

The hon. Lady has referred to the original consultation proposals, which the Government quickly changed because of feedback from retailers and the cash-flow problem that would have occurred. That feature is no longer in the revised proposals, so the issue has been solved.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that clarification. It seems that the briefings from people lobbying on the issue are slightly out of date.

In conclusion, the Government’s efforts to reduce the burden of high fuel bills on households and businesses seem to have run out of steam, rather like a car running out of petrol. Ministers continually try to ignore the fact that their VAT rise has had the greatest impact on petrol and diesel prices by adding almost 3p to the price of a litre of petrol and £450 to the average family’s annual bills. As we know, VAT has a disproportionate impact on those who can least afford it, and evidence shows that that is harming the economy. The Treasury is happy to ask the EU for a derogation on fuel duty for the remote Scottish islands but, as we have heard today, people’s budgets all over Scotland and around the UK are being put under pressure by the cost of petrol and diesel, and the Government refuse to listen.

Does my hon. Friend recall that after the 1997 election, the first thing the Labour Government did was cut VAT on fuel? That helped fuel poverty.

I recall that, and there are various other examples. Hon. Members are keen for the Minister to respond so I will not elaborate on that point, but the fact is that the Government have not even tried to get a derogation from the EU on fuel prices. Opposition Members argue that the rise in VAT earlier this year is having a seriously damaging impact on the economy and, at least in the short term until the economy recovers and economic growth returns, that it should be reversed.

I have posed a number of questions to the Minister, and I look forward to hearing not only a recognition that fuel prices are impacting on families and warm words about how the Government appreciate that people are being hit by the cost of fuel, particularly in rural or remote areas, but something clear about what the Government intend to do. The 1p cut in duty is incredibly insignificant in the grand scheme of things, and the Government must act because people and businesses are suffering. It is time for action.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Dobbin, into which you seamlessly moved during the course of the debate. First, let me congratulate the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr Donohoe) on securing the debate. As the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) said, the House has had a number of opportunities to debate the pressures that the high cost of petrol puts on individuals, families and businesses. The Government continue to view the issue as incredibly important, and the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire was right to raise it. In the time that remains, I will do my best to respond to the points that he raised, and those raised by my hon. Friends. I also hope to provide an update on some of the questions raised about the rural fuel duty discount.

Even though average pump prices fell slightly over the summer, there is little doubt that the cost of fuel remains a difficult issue and concerns many families and businesses across the country. The Government have recognised that for some time, and as hon. Members will know, in the Budget we announced a second rise in the personal tax allowance that aimed to take more people out of income tax altogether. In total, that benefited about 23 million or 24 million people who pay the lower rate of tax on their household income. The Government have worked hard to recognise and tackle the cost of living.

There were extensive debates in the House and the Finance Bill Committee about the cost of fuel and the Government’s plans to support motorists. I welcome the opportunity to revisit those issues, but before I address some of the points raised today I want to explain why the Government acted as they did in the Budget, and set out why the approach proposed by the Labour party is not only illegal but unworkable. Perhaps if I explain to the Chamber why I believe that to be the case, we can put the issue and the alternative proposals to bed once and for all, and perhaps I can save Labour Members from continuing with the hole they are digging in pressing for them, although that is obviously up to them.

The coalition Government recognise that motoring is an essential part of everyday life for many households and businesses. The cost of fuel affects us all and the Government recognise that the rising price of petrol has become an increasingly significant part of day-to-day spending. We know that high oil prices are causing real difficulties in trying to ensure that motoring remains affordable, and it is important that when shocks such as the steep rise in the price of oil occur, a responsible Government are able to listen, consider and respond.

The hon. Member for Bristol East mentioned the fuel duty escalator. That was introduced in the 2009 Budget by the previous Government and involved seven increases in fuel duty. The previous Government had planned for an above-inflation increase at the start of April—that was the position we inherited, and we had to make a decision about whether to go ahead with the pre-planned rises left by the previous Government. Had we gone ahead with those rises, pump prices would, on average, have been 6p per litre higher than they are currently. I take on board many of the points raised by the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire about the impact of high petrol prices, but he must recognise that had we done nothing, that extra 6p would only have created more pain for motorists and businesses. On top of that—let us be clear—the plans that we inherited would have introduced further above-inflation increases in duty in 2012, 2013 and 2014. On taking office, we had to come up with a plan to support motorists, because the previous Government did not have one—it was the exact opposite.

From the start, the coalition Government have been actively looking at how we can ease the burden on motorists, although that is incredibly challenging given the constrained and difficult fiscal situation that we inherited. One of the first things we did, as the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) mentioned, was ask the Office for Budget Responsibility to look at how high oil prices flow through to impact on the economy and try to understand that. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, we were concerned to understand the impact on businesses and jobs. That was part of our work in looking at how we could construct a fair fuel stabiliser, which I will come to in a moment.

As part of the Budget, we finally announced our plan to ease the burden on motorists with a £1.9 billion package. The Government listened to hard-pressed motorists and businesses and acted. What did we do? We acted by cutting fuel duty. The hon. Member for Central Ayrshire clearly wants us to go further in cutting fuel duty, but he should at least be able to welcome the fact that we have already cut fuel duty by 1p a litre from 6 pm on Budget day. We acted by cancelling the previous Government’s plan for a fuel duty escalator for the rest of the Parliament. We acted by introducing a fair fuel stabiliser that will better share the burden of high oil prices between motorists and oil companies, so fuel duty will increase by inflation only when oil prices are high.

Does the Minister accept that there is a correlation between the duty and the increase in VAT? Indeed, the cost of the VAT increase to the motorist was 2.8p a litre. If the Government are to do anything to redress the imbalance, it is that amount, not the 1p that she talks of, that should be taken from the price, because the consequence of increasing VAT to 20% has been an increase in the price to the motorist of 2.8p.

I take the hon. Gentleman’s point. The issue was raised of VAT being applied to the total price of fuel, including fuel duty. For clarification, that is in line with EU rules. That is the reason why that approach is taken. However, I will say two things to the hon. Gentleman. First, we have introduced a £1.9 billion package to support motorists. Secondly, I have heard a number of Opposition Members bemoan the increase in VAT, but they have had several chances in the Division Lobby to vote against that VAT rise and they have not taken them. I would be happy for any hon. Member who voted against the VAT rise to intervene on me now, but having checked Hansard[Interruption.] Let me be clear that I am not referring to the Scottish National party contribution to this debate, because of course it called the vote. I think that both I and the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil), who represents the SNP, would recognise that the Labour party abstained in that vote and did nothing, despite its words. It never followed them up with action. Those Members owe it to their communities to be a little more frank about the fact that they waved through the VAT increase themselves.

I did not hear the whole of that intervention. I am sure that if the hon. Gentleman repeats it, I can respond.

Well, of course, that is one of the key measures that we had to put in place—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman laughs, but he is—

I would rather be in my position, voting for things that I believe in, being clear to my constituents and accountable and being part of a Government who are tackling a huge fiscal deficit. I think it is the worst fiscal deficit handed to any incoming Government. It is one of the deepest seen in a developed country.

It was not caused by the banks, actually. Let me explain to the hon. Gentleman what a structural deficit is. Even in the good times, the previous Government were spending more money than they were taking in taxation. That did not have to do with the banks. The banks simply dramatically exacerbated that problem. That was what we were talking about when we said that the previous Government did not fix the roof when the sun was shining. My point is that there is no point in Opposition Members complaining about the VAT rise when they have not taken the opportunity to vote against it. I think that most people in Britain would think that that was slightly disingenuous.

But we are not in government. When the sun was shining, we built schools and hospitals and improved public services. We spent the money on the people’s priorities. The current Government are now cutting that.

There are many people with schools in their constituencies—I can certainly think of one in mine—that saw none of that investment. Frankly, it is easy to spend, spend, spend. That is the Labour party’s legacy to Britain—a debt that is so high that it is costing taxpayers £120 million of interest every day. It is always the same. Let us not forget that the other legacy was unemployment that was 400,000 higher.

I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, but then I would like to make some progress and talk about fuel, because that is clearly the point of the debate. However, I am happy to have a debate on the economy, because many people in Britain recognise exactly whose fault it is that the economy is in the state that it is in today—it is the fault of the Labour party.

I give the Minister some credit for being able to rewrite history in the way that she has. Can she tell me why the Conservative party supported Labour’s spending plans before the financial crisis?

You always know that you are making progress in an argument, Mr Dobbin, when people have to turn back to things that happened decades—[Interruption.] Opposition Members can make this into a political issue. I would like to make it into an issue that involves people outside this place. Frankly, if those in the Labour party had spent less time arguing among themselves, as we now know they were doing, and a little more time moving away from political stunts to manage the economy responsibly, perhaps the public finances in this country would not have been in the mess that they were in when they were handed over to us at the last election. [Interruption.] An Opposition Member says, “You are in government.” Yes, there’s a good reason for that—because the British people had just about had enough of the Labour party being in control of the purse strings. I think we all hope that it will be an awfully long time before it is given control of the purse strings again. [Interruption.] I now want to make some progress on fuel duty and I particularly want to —[Interruption.]

Thank you, Mr Dobbin. I want to make some progress on fuel duty, because that is the key concern in our minds today. The issue of hauliers was raised. The package that we introduced has meant that hauliers have been able to benefit on average by about £1,700 a year.

I know that time is getting on—we meandered down a funny road there. I want to pull the Minister back to two important points. First, when are we likely to see the rural fuel derogation in place? That is very important. Secondly, does the Minister have any sympathy with my point of view that I am tired of the red and the blue sheriff and I would like to see some of this controlled in Scotland?

We will update the House very shortly on what is happening with the rural fuel duty discount. We have made progress with the European Union. That will be good news for the hon. Gentleman. It will mean that we can get on with our pilot. I am sure that he very much welcomes that. In terms of other issues raised by the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr Reid), he will be aware that of course his islands will be part of that pilot. As he pointed out, we have within the Treasury met stakeholders—petrol retail associations and of course regional owners and operators—to talk about how we can ensure that any rural fuel duty discount scheme works effectively. I think that we are making good progress with that. Clearly, whenever we bring in such a scheme, we must ensure that we understand that it will do what we want it to do and that it will work in the way that we want it to work. We want it to be of help. We were therefore keen to sit down and work through some of the issues that came up, for example, in relation to cash flow. It is also important to ensure that the scheme is not administratively over-burdensome. We are making good progress with those discussions. We have made good progress with the EU. Perhaps we will be able to give further details of that in coming days.

Finally, I want to point out once and for all why it is simply not possible to go down the route of creating a separate VAT rate for petrol. I am surprised that I still hear the Labour party talking about that. We rejected that proposal for a number of reasons. One was that it would take six years—possibly more—to come into effect. The other was that it is illegal, because fuel is standard-rated in terms of VAT, as part of EU rules. If we want to reduce the rate of VAT on fuel, we need a revision of the VAT directive. In fact, we would have to have unanimous agreement from all member states, and the European Commission would have to approve. As I said, it could take six years or more. I say that because that is what the French found when they sought a reduced VAT rate. Just in case that is not enough of a problem, the EU has also agreed a moratorium on revising the VAT directive. That was agreed under the previous Chancellor of the Exchequer. That route is not the route to help motorists, whereas the route that we took of a £1.9 billion package to support motorists was.