Charlie Elphicke is MP for Dover & Deal, and Chairman of the APPG for FairFuel.
Ten million drivers are really angry. Rightly so. They were mis-sold the benefits of buying diesel cars by the previous Labour Government. Now they are expected to pay for the clean-up costs of a problem which is not of their making. And we know how Labour responds – even when it turns out that their own expert scientist knew about the problems of diesel engines. For it’s how Sadiq Khan, Labour’s Mayor of London is responding: tax, tax, tax.
Yet diesel is problematic for us Conservatives too – how can we ensure fairness in dealing with the issue. That’s why my report, A Fair Deal for Diesel Drivers, seeks to set out a fair and affordable way to solve the diesel question. One that fits with the values of fair play and not moving the goal posts after the event.
We have a deep sense of fairness. Not the Labour kind, that involves taking money from people who have worked hard for it and handing it to other people. That isn’t fair at all. It is redistribution. When Conservatives talk of fairness they mean fair play.
The strong reaction from the media and the general public on diesel underlines why this matters so much. And why we forget it at our peril. For people feel deeply – as the Prime Minister has rightly acknowledged – that they were encouraged to buy diesel cars by the last Labour Government. They thought they were doing the right thing and helping the environment. Now they are told that diesels are producing dangerous nitrogen oxide. It would not be fair play to then punish motorists for having followed Government advice.
The Government says it is required by European Law to act. Enabling towns and cities to impose diesel “toxin taxes” is an option being considered. Diesel drivers staring at falling resale values, higher motoring taxes and the loss of personal wealth are aggrieved. They fear a triple whammy of higher parking taxes, pollution charges and a new general tax increase in the autumn. It is not hard to see why this growing resentment has become front page news.
Ours is a party whose values include lower taxes. A party that backs motorists. And a party that supports small businesses and entrepreneurs – many of whom drive diesel vans.
We are against imposing taxes on motorists and white van drivers unless there is a very good reason. Most Conservative voters will tell you that allowing local councils to use pollution taxes on diesel cars as a smokescreen to plug their funding gaps is not a good reason. We should be very sceptical about environmental taxes and only impose them if the case is overwhelming.
The Conservative Party is the great pragmatic party. So what is the pragmatic approach to solving the diesel conundrum? The Kyoto climate change agreement of 1997 focussed on cutting carbon dioxide. Diesels produce less CO2 and so were encouraged. Only now, years later, do we know that diesels produce more nitrogen oxide. This has halved in the past decade, yet more needs to be done.
Naturally, anti-car environmental groups see an opportunity to attack motorists. Yet where does nitrogen oxide come from? A London Assembly Report (chart below) shows that in London some 11 per cent comes from diesel cars. The other 90 per cent comes from elsewhere – for example, ten per cent comes from London buses and coaches:
Why are we focusing on 11 per cent of the problem when much faster action could be taken to clean up filthy construction sites and polluting buses? The risk is that focussing on cars will mean we fail to take effective action on the other 90 per cent. What’s more, as Shaun Bailey recently argued on this site, the London Mayor’s “toxic tax” levy on cars would make no significant difference to nitrogen oxide emissions.
So we should take action across the board – including cleaning up dirty construction sites and replacing clapped out buses. Rather than talking about a one per cent reduction that might be achieved by attacking diesel cars, we should be ambitious and aim for a far greater fall. Not just in London, but across Britain. Because this is not just a London problem – it is a national problem, requiring a national solution.
A fair solution
Of course action should be taken on diesel cars, too. The oldest and dirtiest diesels from 2005 and before should be scrapped under a fair scrappage scheme. How could such a scheme be funded? By a levy on the top five per cent most highly emitting brand new cars – so called gas-guzzlers. That way we can ensure fair play. Helping to replace older diesels, discourage new very high emission cars and safeguard the public finances. A fair scrappage scheme would not depend on buying a new car, so it wouldn’t favour the most well off – it would be open to all.
The diesel problem was created by a Labour Government. It is now being exploited by Labour Mayors and councils across the country seeking a smokescreen to raise extra taxes. There is a real opportunity to take forward a Conservative solution that is fair to the owners of diesel cars and fair to the public finances. By targeting the whole pollution problem rather than just part of it. Getting the oldest and dirtiest diesel cars off the road – while at the same time discouraging the sale of new very high emission cars. A way forward that fits with our sense of fair play, pragmatism and our Conservative values.