HC Deb 14 November 2000 vol 356 cc785-7
1. Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon)

If he will provide an additional allowance to those in receipt of income support in rural areas of Scotland to take account of the essential travel costs that they incur; and if he will make a statement. [136321]

Minister of State, Scotland Office (Mr. Brian Wilson)

No. The Government and the Scottish Executive have other measures in place to help rural areas.

Mr. Bruce

That is a rather disappointing if forthright answer. I remind the Minister of the first report of the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs which identified car ownership as essential even for poor people in rural areas, and transport as a specific problem. The Government have pursued a policy of consistently increasing transport costs across the board, applying the inflation addition only to the increase in benefits. Is it not time that representations were made to the Secretary of State for Social Security to review the extent to which that has increased poverty in rural Scotland?

Mr. Wilson

Before coming here, I took the precaution of checking on comparative petrol prices, and I was interested to learn that the Esso filling station in Inverurie, where the hon. Gentleman's face is undoubtedly well kent, is selling unleaded petrol at 81.9p a litre, which is exactly the same as in West Hampstead. Therefore, it is difficult to say that rural motoring costs are more expensive than urban motoring costs. I also note today that the Liberal Democrats in Anniesland are against means-testing for pensioners and those in receipt of other benefits. I cannot think of a more divisive piece of means-testing anywhere in the country than giving people on income support additional help with motoring costs while not giving it to those who are not.

Mr. Calum Macdonald (Western Isles)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Chancellor's package last week will make a big difference to rural motorists in my constituency and elsewhere? However, he will be aware that there is a big discrepancy in petrol pricing between my constituency and the rest of Scotland, a matter which is being investigated by the Office of Fair Trading. When will that report be finished, and will my hon. Friend undertake to take whatever action is recommended by the OFT as quickly as possible?

Mr. Wilson

I am well aware of that report, which I await with keen interest. My hon. Friend is right: there is a huge discrepancy in petrol prices within what is generically known as rural areas and, for instance, between the Western Isles and places such as Inverness and Inverurie. My primary concern in the matter is the genuinely peripheral areas where people are paying perhaps 10p a litre more than they are in what are sometimes called rural areas but which offer urban prices, and I want to tackle that differential. There is a real case for the OFT to investigate in the Western Isles, and I for one will be extremely curious to discover why filling stations with large volume turnover which are not paying a higher wholesale price than on the mainland are charging much higher retail prices.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

I congratulate you on your appointment, Mr. Speaker, as this is the first time that I have been here since your elevation to your post.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

Oh really.

Mrs. Ewing

I am honest.

We have had endless reports about price differentials in rural areas from the OFT, the Highlands and Islands convention and the Highland council, yet the matter has not been effectively addressed despite what was said late last night in the House on the Energy Act 1976 and the reserve powers order. I also draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to the fact that the issue pertains particularly to those on low incomes, and those who want to go to the Benefits Agency to discuss the new deal are often deterred by the extensive costs that they have to pay to reach their destination.

Mr. Wilson

I agree with the hon. Lady's basic point. Through the new deal and other innovative approaches by the Employment Service and the Benefits Agency, help is available to people looking for jobs, and it is right that that should be so, whatever their specific needs and whether they are in rural or urban areas. If that helps people to obtain sustainable employment, that is a cost worth paying. Price differentials between areas need to be tackled, but we should not forget that taxation is the same throughout the country, so wherever else the differentials come from, they do not come through the tax system.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries)

My hon. Friend is fully aware that fuel costs impact not only on private motorists but on business. Within the past 60 days, however, it has been drawn to my attention that some small businesses, usually in the habit of receiving bulk deliveries, have found that a few companies have escalated fuel prices for them, and it is cheaper to buy fuel at local filling stations. Surely that merits an investigation into what those fuel companies are doing.

Mr. Wilson

It is certainly not part of my role to defend every action of the fuel companies. I shall be pleased to refer my hon. Friend's comments to the Department of Trade and Industry.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest)

It is interesting to hear the Minister avoiding the question again and again. I am not sure whether he has got his facts right about the filling station in Inverurie. I happen to know it well because my late grandmother-in-law used to own and operate it. [Laughter.] I do not see what is funny about that. She used to own it and serve the petrol there. If hon. Members had ever been to Inverurie, they would have seen her.

If the Minister accepts that petrol prices are an important part of essential travel costs in rural areas, why will the Government not listen to people who are suffering because we have the highest fuel tax in Europe, and cut fuel duty now? Is he proud of the fact that the Government have created in Scotland a level of rural poverty that we believed had been consigned to history?

Mr. Wilson

We have been waiting for some time to ascertain the Tories' remaining connections in Scotland. The hon. Lady had not previously struck me as a quine from Inverurie, but I am sure that she is proud of the designation. I received the figure from Inverurie shortly before lunch; unless a rapid price escalation has occurred in the meantime, my facts are right.

The hon. Lady said that we had the highest fuel taxation in Europe and she is right. However, she omits two salient facts. First, the proportion of the price of fuel that is taxation is significantly lower than when the Government came to power. We have reduced the proportion of tax in the cost of a litre of fuel.

The second fact is much more important. While our fuel taxation is high, a new study by Colin Buchanan and Partners has shown that our overall motoring taxation is below the median in Europe. In most countries, including France, Ireland and the Netherlands, motorists pay more in taxation although they do not pay so much of it at the pump.

Back to