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Reid on Fuel Duty

November 19, 2011 10:26 AM

Alan Reid MP for Argyll and Bute• [Nov 15] Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute, Liberal Democrat): I CONGRATULATE my hon. Friend Robert Halfon on his campaign to secure today's debate.

I represent a sparsely populated constituency where long drives for essential business are common, so I am well aware of the impact of high fuel prices on individuals and businesses. For example, the price of fuel on some of the larger islands in my constituency, such as Mull and Islay, is typically about 15p to 20p a litre higher than in a city centre supermarket, and on the smaller islands, such as Coll and Colonsay, the price is usually about 30p a litre higher. It should be stressed that this is not because of profiteering by the local filling stations. The reasons for the higher prices are low turnover, compared with all the fixed costs that a rural filling station has to pay, and the costs of the distribution network. The costs of fuel distribution in the highlands and islands are very high, and I hope that the Office of Fair Trading will investigate them.

Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar, Scottish National Party): I understand exactly what the hon. Gentleman is saying about Coll and Colonsay, but he will know that a newspaper on Coll and Colonsay costs the same as in the city centre. Should the Government not move towards more parity and equality between islands such as Coll and Colonsay-or, indeed, Na h-Eileanan an Iar-and city centres?

• Alan Reid: I agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I hope that he will give credit to the Government for what they are doing on fuel duty on islands. The high price of fuel obviously has a great impact on people's living standards, and makes it difficult for anyone trying to run a business on an island or in a remote rural area.

Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, Liberal Democrat): My hon. Friend is making the important point, which has come out again and again in the debate, that people in remote rural areas in constituencies such as ours have no choice but to use a car. Does he agree that, in the long run, the Government will have to look at a system of variable road user pricing that is based on the choices available and that will enable essential users to pay a lower price?

• Alan Reid: I certainly agree with my hon. Friend.

There has always been an environmental argument for higher fuel prices, in order to persuade people to use public transport rather than a car. That argument works fine in a city with plenty of bus and train services, but it falls down completely in a rural area, and particularly in a remote rural area such as Argyll and Bute, where in places there is a bus service only on school days. That might be okay for getting schoolteachers to and from work, but it is no good for anyone who needs to be at work outside school hours. The advantage of road user pricing would be that more could be charged for driving on city roads, with a much lower price for driving on a remote rural road. The problem with fuel duty is that it is a blunt instrument, in that the same level of duty is charged in all parts of the country, irrespective of whether public transport alternatives exist or not.

Damian Collins (Folkestone and Hythe, Conservative): Will my hon. Friend give way?

• Alan Reid: I am sorry; I have used both my interventions.

To go back to the point made by Mr MacNeil, I was delighted when the Government announced their intention to pursue a pilot scheme whereby there will be a 5p a litre fuel duty discount for those on many of the country's islands, including all those in my constituency. That reduction will go part of the way towards removing the price differential between fuel on the islands and fuel on the mainland. I hope that the scheme will be up and running soon, and I ask the Minister to give us an update at the end of the debate on how the negotiations are going in Europe. I am sure that the pilot scheme for the islands will be successful; if it is, I would like it to be extended to remote parts of the mainland. Operating a

rural filling station is clearly not a profitable business these days. On the Kintyre peninsula, two of the five filling stations that the area had at the start of the year have closed.

There was a time when it could be argued that high fuel taxation was needed to discourage people from driving and polluting the environment, but market forces have already achieved that. The environmental argument for high fuel duty is not sustainable in the present circumstances. The high price is already discouraging people from driving, and they are making only journeys that are absolutely essential. Changing people's behaviour is possible only when public transport alternatives are available, which is simply not the case in the highlands and islands.

I was also delighted when the Government abandoned Labour's fuel duty escalator in the Budget, introducing the fuel duty stabiliser instead and bringing down the fuel duty because the price was so high. The Government have scheduled a fuel duty increase for January, because it was hoped at the time of the Budget that prices would have decreased by then. Prices show no sign of coming down, however, so I hope that the Government will listen to everyone who has signed the motion and spoken in the debate, and not proceed with the January fuel duty increase. The price of fuel adds to the price of everything in a rural area. The high cost is holding back economic recovery, so anything that the Government can do to bring the price down would be greatly welcomed in all rural parts of the country, and particularly in the highlands and islands.

. . Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House welcomes the 1p cut in fuel duty at the 2011 Budget, the abolition of the fuel tax escalator, the establishment of a fair fuel stabiliser and the Government's acknowledgement that high petrol and diesel prices are a serious problem;

notes that in the context of the Government's efforts to tackle the deficit and 5 put the public finances on a sustainable path, ensuring stable tax revenues is vital for sustainable growth; however, believes that high fuel prices are causing immense difficulties for small and medium-sized enterprises vital to economic recovery;

further notes reports that some low-paid workers are paying a tenth of their income just to fill up the family car and that high fuel prices are particularly damaging for the road freight industry; considers that high rates of fuel duty may have led to lower tax revenues in recent years, after reports from leading motoring organisations suggested that fuel duty revenues were at least £1 billion lower in the first six months of 2011 compared with 2008;

and calls on the Government to consider the effect that increased taxes on fuel will have on the economy, examine ways of working with industry to ensure that falls in oil prices are passed on to consumers, to take account of market competitiveness, and to consider the feasibility of a price stabilisation mechanism that would work alongside the fair fuel stabiliser to address fluctuations in the pump price.

• Full Debate in Parliament