Here is a confession: I didn’t enter Parliament in 2010 with the intention of becoming a campaigner to keep fuel duty down.
I came to it in a rather different way: not just because of many many local residents contacting me about the huge cost of petrol and diesel at the pumps, but also because of a fast food car park.
I remember going to a McDonalds by the M11 roundabout near Harlow and asking why there was a two-hour parking limit, with payment required after the allotted time had been reached.
I was told that commuters were using the car park to sleep in overnight, because they could not afford the fuel costs to drive back home to their families. The Sun newspaper had also published a report of a local police officer doing the same, sleeping overnight in the McDonalds car park because it was too expensive to drive back to Cambridgeshire every night.
All this made it clear that keeping fuel costs down was not just about cutting taxes, but about social justice too. If we wanted everyone to have that chance of climbing the ladder of opportunity, we need to ensure that they had an equal chance of travelling to that ladder in the first place.
High prices at the pumps had a huge, negative impact on the incomes of millions of people, and increased poverty rather than diminished it. It did not just mean a significant loss of income for commuter drivers but also public transport users too.
Why? Because when the cost of fuel rose, the price of using buses rose too. It increased the cost of food in the supermarkets due to transportation costs. It burdened small business – especially those who depended on transport – thus having an impact on investment and employment.
This is why the signal given by the Conservative Government, not just in cutting fuel duty once but freezing it year after year, has been so important: it says to millions of people who may be working, but are struggling too, that Conservatives recognise the incredible burden of high fuel costs on workers and their families.
Whilst fuel prices are not as high as they were a few years ago, it is the duty of a Conservative Government to keep those costs down. It is not as if fuel duty – even with the freeze – doesn’t raise considerable revenues for the Treasury. The Office of Budget Responsibility states that “we expect fuel duty to raise £27.9 billion in 2016-17. That would represent 3.9 per cent of all receipts and is equivalent to £1,000 per household and 1.4 per cent of national income”.
For those ‘economic Conservatives’, it seems that the lower the duty, the greater the economic growth. As Fair Fuel UK pointed out:
“A report published by the Centre for Business and Economic Research confirms that the lower petrol and diesel prices of 2015 have raised UK GDP by at least 0.6 per cent, created an extra £11.6bn of economic activity, 121,000 jobs and boosted government tax revenues.”
So there are both social justice and economic reasons for maintaining the fuel duty freeze. Any retreat would hit those who are ‘just about managing’ and potentially our GDP too.
Rather than thinking of ways to raise taxes, why not build on the success of the fuel duty freeze, and really become the friend of the motorist? How about ensuring fair competition so that the oil companies have to really cut prices at the pump. speedily, when the international oil price falls?
What about introducing a real scrappage scheme to give motorists a financial incentive to get rid of diesel vans and cars – vehicles that they were told to buy in the first place by the then-Labour Government?
And instead of giving the green light to local councils to pile extra costs on diesel cars, we should say that any monies subsequently raised from charges must be ring-fenced and redistributed first to lower-income motorists to replace their diesel vehicles with cleaner cars.
This Conservative Government has a real chance to get millions of motorists on side. Conservatism should be in alliance with motorists: reducing burdens, rather than increasing them, in pursuit of practical solutions.