Yesterday was an Opposition day in the Commons, when the Conservative party was able to chose the topics of debate. We used the second half of the day to highlight the robbery at the petrol pumps, and to demand a reduction in fuel duty. The government responded by announcing it would not be going ahead with the 2p a litre increase scheduled for the autumn, though this was more likely to be response to the Glasgow by election than to our Parliamentary pressure.
During the course of the debate the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Mrs Yvette Balls (nee Cooper) showed a marked reluctance to share any figures with us. The Governmentâ€™s number cruncher in chief was apparently unable â€“ or unwilling â€“ to answer the following questions:
1. How much revenue will be lost by cancelling the forecast 2p tax rise this autumn?
2. What has been the increase in total revenue from oil and oil products since the budget over and above budget forecasts, resulting from higher oil prices?
3. By how much has the pump price of fuel risen since the Budget as a result of tax?
Mrs Balls is an intelligent woman. She would have expected us to ask these basic questions in a debate which majored on the issue of tax revenue from fuel duty, VAT on fuel and North Sea taxes. As the governmentâ€™s chief number cruncher these should be a pretty elementary part of her brief. We must assume that when she announced the cancellation of the 2p tax rise she not only knew how much this would â€œcostâ€ the Treasury, but would also know how much extra revenue they are gaining anyway. It is pathetic that she was unwilling to tell us these basic figures despite frequent probing, showing just how â€œpoliticalâ€ these Ministers are. Donâ€™t they realise that it merely makes them look shifty that they refuse to answer such basic questions or supply the rudimentary information Parliament needs for a proper debate on these topics? Far from protecting them from unhelpful comment or criticism, it intensifies the criticisms and the anger of the public. They have come to end of the Spin show, yet pretend it is still going down well with the taxpayers.
Our guesses of the answers did not get challenged in the debate. We ventured that the government had enjoyed a windfall of more than Â£500 million in the first six weeks of the new financial year from oil taxes, and suggested the revenue loss this year from taking away the extra 2p would be around Â£550 million. The government is clearly better off on oil tax account with the price rises and their impact on VAT and North Sea taxes, even after the 2p cancellation.
The Opposition was right to ask for a cut in Fuel Duty now. It would cut the inflation rate, show the government was getting the message of how people are suffering, and would help the lower paid especially. This government seems to take the Marie Antoinette approach to travellers. To all those who are finding it is now too dear to run a car thanks to higher VED and higher fuel duty, they say â€œLet them go by taxiâ€. It is their own erstwhile supporters they are hitting most by high petrol prices and ever higher VED. It is going to take another revolt or two by Labour backbenchers to get the message through to Mrs Balls.