HC Deb 31 October 2000 vol 355 cc596-9
6. Sandra Gidley (Romsey)

What steps he is taking to improve rural transport. [133306]

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher)

We have made an extra £175 million available to support the transport needs of rural communities. The 10-year plan for transport provides more, so that we can support more scheduled rural bus services, expand the rural bus challenge to support more innovative services and deliver up to 500 new community-based transport schemes in the next three years through the rural transport partnership fund.

Sandra Gidley

Does the Minister agree that it would be exceedingly helpful if he extended the fuel duty rebate to include all forms of community transport, to aid people in villages who rely on the community bus? Also, should not more money be invested in research on liquid petroleum gas and its availability?

Mr. Meacher

The conclusion that we should draw from the fuel crisis is that we need to reduce our overdependence on oil and to speed the switch-away to alternative fuels and renewable sources of energy. To that extent, I agree with the hon. Lady. Of course, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will deal with that matter in the pre-Budget report and we shall soon return to the issue in the rural White Paper.

Mr. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire)

Is the Minister happy that, in Transport 2010, to which he has just referred, sufficient emphasis is given to the potential for rural rail lines, such as the Ivanhoe line through west Leicestershire, south Derbyshire and east Staffordshire? Does he know that Leicestershire county council feels that present funding regimes are unduly restrictive and that they prevent the recreation of passenger services on this mineral railway, thus contributing to our overall transport objectives?

Mr. Meacher

My hon. Friend is right; the 10-year transport plan is certainly not confined to roads. We propose expenditure of just less than £60 billion on the rail system in addition; indeed, we should see a considerable increase in ridership and a doubling of the amount of freight carried by rail.

As to the rail line to which my hon. Friend referred, I am sure that the extra resources that we are making available over the next 10 years will open the possibility of investment in precisely that type of railway.

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire)

The Chancellor made much of the £15 billion a year rural bus grant. However, will the Minister confirm that that modest amount is dwarfed by the extra costs faced by bus companies, such as the cost of the working time directive and higher fuel prices, and by the fact that shire counties have had their rural transport budgets cut by the Government?

Mr. Meacher

I entirely understand the point the hon. Gentleman makes, but I think that he is entirely wrong to suggest that the considerable expenditure that has gone into rural transport—£175 million—is swamped or dwarfed by what he refers to. VAT and duty on petrol now make up a lower proportion of the total price than in 1997. The UK has the lowest total tax burden in the European Union—far lower than the average. Foreign hauliers and others who operate abroad have to pay road tolls and are subject to higher VAT and corporation tax. When all those relevant factors are taken into account, the picture is very different from that suggested by the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth)

Does my right hon. Friend share the concern of my constituents, who recently heard that Stagecoach gave only six weeks' notice of the withdrawal of all their bus services to Abergavenny, Chepstow and Monmouth, in order to secure as much money as it could from local authorities through the rural bus initiative? Does he agree that that matter must be looked at, so that private operators such as Stagecoach, which exercise a monopoly, do not hold local authorities and the public to ransom in that way?

Mr. Meacher

I very much support what my hon. Friend says. Although the 10-year transport plan is about the expenditure of substantial increases of money—42 per cent. in real terms on the previous 10 years—it must also take into account the restrictive practices or monopolisation that can exist and the need to deal with that. We certainly intend to look at the matter.

Mr. Archie Norman (Tunbridge Wells)

Despite all that the Minister said, will he confirm that rural passenger bus journeys have actually decreased every year under the Labour Government; that the countryside is in crisis; and that the grants for rural bus services are peanuts compared with the amount of extra fuel tax levied on country people by the Government? Will he confirm exactly what he meant during last week's debate on the fuel crisis—that the Deputy Prime Minister could not be bothered to attend—when he said that, far from being abolished, the fuel duty escalator may be brought back by the Government and will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis in the future?

Mr. Meacher

The hon. Gentleman has, once again, got virtually all his facts wrong. First, there has not been declining ridership on bus services—he should get his facts right; the £175 million has funded 1,800 new and enhanced services. There has been increased ridership—an extra 16 million passenger journeys.

Secondly, it takes a bit of brass neck for the hon. Gentleman to suggest that the countryside is in crisis. In 1997, when his Government completed 18 years in office, only a quarter of parishes had a daily bus service.

Thirdly, I repeat that since 1997 the level of duties has actually declined as a proportion of the total price. The reasons for the increase are the tripling of international crude oil prices and the shortage of petrol on wholesale markets. We intend to deal with that issue, and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will make a statement.

Let me clarify what the hon. Gentleman wrongly quoted me as saying in the debate last week. I did not say that the fuel duty escalator would be brought back; I specifically denied that. [Interruption.] That is on the transcript, so the hon. Gentleman can read it. I said that the Chancellor had abandoned the fuel duty escalator—which the Tory Administration introduced in 1993, and which is responsible for the largest part of the increase in petrol prices since then—and would now review the situation on a case-by-case and year-by-year basis. If the hon. Gentleman wants to make an attack, he should get his facts right.

Mr. Norman

Again, the Government appear to be in denial both on the fuel crisis and on the crisis in the countryside. What could be more provocative than Ministers seeking to claim that the Government have not put up fuel duty in the past three years? Nothing could be more provocative for the protesters, and nothing could be more unwise, in advance of the events of next week. What could be more provocative than a Minister standing at the Dispatch Box claiming that the number of bus passenger journeys in the countryside has increased, when the Government's own figures show that that number may have gone up in London, but has declined in the shire counties in the past three years? If the Minister disagrees with me, why does he not quote the figures in his response?

Has the Minister disowned the comments in his 1996 document "Consensus for Change", which said: it is essential that taxation does not result in further isolation of those in rural areas…? Who does he think has been disadvantaged most by the Government's increase in the fuel duty, other than those who are most vulnerable—farmers and those who live in the countryside in relative poverty?

Several hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. Before the Minister responds, may I point out that I want brief questions from those on the Opposition Front Bench, and brief answers from Ministers.

Mr. Meacher

I will be brief, Mr. Speaker, because it is easy to be so. The hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman) made a very long, dreary and ineffective speech last week, and he appears to have the same habit when he asks questions. May I respond to the one point that he made? I did not say that there had been no increase in duty; I said that VAT and duty as a proportion of the total petrol price were now lower than in 1997. To blame the Government is completely wrong. The cause is the tripling of oil prices.