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There are two issues in the debate, which I would like to try to disaggregate. One is the high premium paid in rural areas and the specific circumstances that apply to it. The other is the general high cost of fuel in the country. Let me deal with the two separately.
Briefly, on the derogation for rural areas, it exists because there is a premium to be paid in those areas. Many Members have provided the arguments, so I will not go over them all again. However, I would point out that it exists not simply because there is a premium. I have researched the issue over many years, so I can tell hon. Members that I have often found that a certain petrol station in Sloane avenue is in the top three or four for prices. That shows that it is not simply a matter of high prices; the problem is that there is high price, a premium and a lack of public transport, coupled with the other deprivation typically seen in the more remote rural areas. It is not high prices alone, but the combination of all those factors that counts.
Secondly, as a number of hon. Members mentioned, I wrote a paper on this subject and it dealt with all the elements that cause worry-imperfectly, I am sure, but Ms Eagle, who was the Exchequer Secretary at the time, took it seriously and her officials looked at it, so it was reasonable enough. I would like to think that the imperfections contained in that scheme are currently being ironed out and that we will shortly know what the Government intend to put forward.
I want to deal more fully with the other question of the generally high price of fuel. I commend to anyone who has not yet had a chance to read it the note produced for this debate by the Library. Among other things, it contains some very interesting facts. For example, it points out that for a number of years, the cost of motoring has actually gone down in this country in real terms, whereas the cost of public transport has by comparison gone up. One of my successors as Liberal Democrat transport spokesman often used to point that out.
It is also interesting to look at the percentage of tax take. It has varied from a high of about 89% at one point in the '90s down to the high mid-50s and now back up to 63%. That is the total tax take percentages. The tax take in real terms today is about equivalent to that of 1997-98. We need to get our facts right and look at the issue in perspective.
We need to take account of some of the external factors. They must include the fluctuation in the oil price, which has once more hit $100 a barrel. A number of economists believe that that is merely a resumption of the upward trend that existed before the recession. It is entirely possible that the price will rise further, in which event we shall have to deal with the consequences of a high fuel price for our economy.
I congratulate the Government on giving thought to the introduction of a fuel stabiliser, although I have some doubts about the practicalities. There is only one thing worse than a stabiliser that works, and that is a stabiliser that does not work, so if we are to have one, let us ensure that it works. However, we might consider how the Government could, as it were, be removed from the equation. There are a number of possibilities, and I should like my hon. Friend the Minister to investigate them.
The first possibility involves VAT. When the last Government reduced it to 15% they also increased duty by 2p, and that remained when VAT rose again. Thus a relationship was established between VAT and duty. I suggest that the reverse should apply: that VAT on fuel should be 5%, in line with VAT on heating fuel, and that the duty should be altered to an amount that the Government considered appropriate. That would remove the variability that comes from the market. It would not affect the Treasury, and it would not have some of the deficiencies of the stabiliser. It is an imperfect mechanism, but it would be of some small comfort to know that when the price at the pump rose, it would be largely a result of what the oil companies were doing rather than what the Government were doing.