By Mark Wallace
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Traditionally, the debate over fuel prices has split three ways. There are the Brownites and Greens who like high fuel costs – either because it stuffs the Treasury's coffers or because it supposedly deters motorists from driving (it doesn't, of course, it simply impoverishes people who have no choice but to drive for work or because they live outside the cities).
Then there are those who think high prices at the pumps are the work of greedy oil companies squeezing drivers for everything they can get away with.
Thirdly, there are the tax-cutters who point out that the majority of the fuel price is tax, and want the state to stop ripping motorists off.
The first point of view is unfair and economically damaging. We need people to be able to commute and lorries to be able to deliver goods to shops and raw materials to factories. In quality of life terms, it is wrong to punish people for using their cars to travel to see their families, go on holiday or just enjoy the many sights and attractions Britain has to offer. High fuel prices do us harm as a nation.
That leaves us with the two campaigns against high prices. Despite being traditionally divided between those who hate big government and those who hate big oil, there are signs that both groups are right.
On the tax-cutting front, Rob Halfon MP has led the charge with his fantastic campaign in recent years to reduce fuel duty. He has had much success, with George Osborne not only postponing but cancelling planned rises in the tax rate. That decision means that petrol is now 13p per litre cheaper than it would have been had he stuck with Labour's plans for constant increases.
There is further to go, of course, but stopping the rise in tax is a good start.
Today, EU Commission investigators raided the offices of several major fuel firms over allegations of price fixing which, if true, could have cost British motorists billions of pounds over the last decade.
It is important to note that as the investigation is ongoing, we don't know if any offence has been committed. The allegations are of something very similar to the banks' fixing of the LIBOR rate – in that some companies may have been deliberately misreporting data in order to increase their profits.
Notably, Halfon and others in Parliament raised concerns about such behaviour last year on the strength of whistleblower evidence, and he is now asking searching questions as to why the Office for Fair Trading failed to act. It is troubling that this issue has apparently been left for EU officials to deal with while our own authorities shrugged their shoulders.
The cost of living is set to be the major issue of the next election. Average incomes have been stangant or falling, depending which data you use, and many voters will be looking to see which party is offering the best chance of a good quality of life for them and their families.
The Conservative Party should learn from Rob Halfon's example. He placed himself on the side of the people hit by excessive fuel prices, and therefore went after those responsible. He didn't feel the need to make a blinkered choice as to whether he disliked the tax man or the fuel companies more – he recognised that both are part of the problem, and attacked both head on.
We should be true supporters of the free market, and stay vigilant against abuses by overmighty government or overmighty corporations – not just in the fuel market, but in every sector. As well as identifying and punishing wrongdoing by dominant companies, the Government should also seek to make it easier for new entrants to break up hidebound sectors.
Banking is a classic example of a market to target. When MetroBank was launched in 2010, it became the first new High Street bank in over 100 years – and its founder said that had he known how difficult it would be to jump through the regulatory hoops, he might not have done it. With limited new competition, it is hardly surprising the big banks have become so greedy.
Every sector needs a constant influx of new blood and an ever-present threat of disruptive change. It is no coincidence that the firms making some of the most exciting contributions to the lives of customers are in the technology sector – an area where the barriers to entry for entrepreneurs are notably low.
The Conservative Party should become the party of the consumer and the entrepreneur – slapping the hands of the tax man and the exploitative corporation. That is the only way we will protect the interests of the public, who are otherwise trapped between two anticompetitive forces, both grasping for the contents of their wallets.