Budget 2013: George Osborne must scrap the fuel duty rise

Families urgently need help with the cost of living. The Chancellor should take action on fuel duty and then examine a 10p tax rate.

I am a moderniser. But I believe that the one area of modernisation that the Conservative Party should focus on is helping those on lower incomes, who are struggling to make a living. We need a Ronseal politics, which is easy to define. This is not about getting hung up about backgrounds, or what school you went to. In fact, most families would love to send their children to posh schools. But it's about being on the side of the poorest, even if we don't believe in the big state redistributionist welfarism of the Labour Party. David Cameron’s declaration that "Conservatives are not the party of the better off, but the party for the want-to-be-better-off" should run through everything that we do - every speech, every Budget line, every policy decision. It must be our narrative, our metaphorical "washing line", holding all the clothes pegs together.

 
This means picking some battles. Policies only get attention if there is a scrap to get them through. I will come on to the cost of living in a moment, but other suggestions might include support for the family around housing and the right to buy; the cost of childcare; and Michael Gove’s education reforms. These need to be pursued relentlessly, both through intellectual firepower and personal stories. A mirror image of what Labour have done on the 50p rate.
 
Modernisation also means being counter-intuitive. Conservatives should not be afraid to appropriate the language of the left, or build alliances with trade unions, pressure groups and the Big Society. We must show that our policies are compassionate. Language and manner are incredibly important.
 
So when it comes to the Budget, this means a focus on lower earners and the cost of living. There is no more toxic tax than fuel duty. In my constituency of Harlow, the question is not whether you can afford to have a car, but whether you can afford not to. Like it or not, Britain is a great car economy. Seventy one per cent of us still drive to work. Rocketing fuel prices are also draining investment away from the more productive parts of the economy. The AA estimates that a 3p rise at the pumps switches an extra £1.8m into fuel sales, out of peoples’ pockets, every day. In 2011, Sir Terry Leahy of Tesco blamed fuel prices for the GDP slowdown, saying: "Filling up the family car has gone up 70 per cent in two years, causing what was a steady recovery to go sideways."
 
Petrol prices are also an issue of social justice. In reality, fuel duty is a tax on everything as it pushes up the cost of public transport and road haulage. In November 2011, the ONS stated that fuel taxes are shockingly regressive. Two years ago, an ordinary car-owner in Harlow was spending £1,700 a year on filling up the family car. Sadly, this trend has got worse, not better. According to the RAC Foundation, 800,000 British families now spend a quarter of their income on running a car. The poorest decile of households in the UK are shelling out at least 27 per cent of their disposable income on buying and running a vehicle. This is a national scandal. Given that two-thirds of the pump-price of petrol and diesel is tax, this is largely a crisis of our own making. All sensible people agree that taxes should be broadly progressive. That is why fuel duty needs reform.
 
George Osborne gets this. He has cancelled or delayed every single fuel duty rise that Labour left behind in their 2009 and 2010 Budgets - and he has done this at a time of immense strain on the public finances.
 
Fuel is now 10p cheaper per litre as a result. According to the AA, that has meant £6m more for families to spend in Britain’s real economy, every single day; £2.2bn more annually left in Britain’s collective pocket. Given his record, I am urging the Chancellor to go further in this Budget and to scrap September’s planned rise in fuel duty.
 
The second campaign that I am pressing for - in the longer term - is a major tax reform: something that is easily understood; is totemic; and helps those on lowest incomes. Namely: the restoration of the 10p income tax-rate. I believe that progressive reductions of income tax must be a moral mission for Conservatives. For example, a 10p band introduced above the current personal allowance (say between £9,440 and £12,000) would hand back more than £250 a year to a worker on minimum wage, and would help them to earn much closer to a living wage in cash-terms. Conservatives could also look to widen out a 10p band over time. This could help more middle earners as well.
 
Restoring a proper, generous 10p rate would be totemic. People would notice it. In my view, Ed Miliband's half-hearted conversion to the idea was a missed opportunity, as Labour’s proposals would only mean an extra £34 a year for a family (according to Policy Exchange) and even their new "mansion tax" doesn't fund it all. Such a tax will set a dangerous precedent, and no doubt will rapidly become a "homes tax" as the band gets lower and lower. That's not what Britain needs. Besides, the coalition have already brought in a de facto "mansion tax" by hiking stamp duty on more expensive homes. What we need instead is a substantive income tax reform - as set out on Great Gordon Brown Repeal Bill
 
Some people say, "just keep raising the personal allowance". I think this would be unwise. Everyone should pay something towards public services, even if only a little. Nigel Lawson started off as a Chancellor prioritising tax allowances. But later he changed course. He said: "I wished to create a large constituency in favour of income-tax reductions. The last thing I wanted to do was to reduce the size of that constituency by taking people out of tax altogether."
 
Consider a second analogy. Suppose that you and your friends have have gone out to an expensive restaurant for a large meal, and finally it comes to splitting the bill. Under my proposals, most people would still contribute something, albeit the poorest would pay the least as a share of their income. But is it really sensible that more and more of the table have a totally free ride, on the grounds that this "avoids complexity"? As a Conservative, this makes me uneasy. What lavish choices will your friends order next time, if they know that you are paying the cheque?
 
For the Budget next week, money is tight. So how might we pay for a freeze in fuel duty? There are many places to start: restricting elderly benefits to poorer pensioners, for example, or ringfencing the extra revenues that are expected from the new 45p rate of income tax. But it is striking, how one-sided this debate is. Whenever one argues for tax cuts, there is a clamour of voices saying, "how are you going to pay for it?" And yet, when large unfunded rises in government spending are announced - Vince Cable’s £1bn "British business bank" for example, or several of DECC’s carbon schemes - nobody really asks where the money is coming from. Fiscal discipline must be about controlling spending, as much as a broad tax base.
 
But, however it is paid for, families urgently need help with the cost of living. If Conservatives are to win the next general election, it will be because we have helped fundamentally with things like the cost of filling up the family car. Fuel duty has become a toxic tax. Keeping petrol and diesel costs down will reduce poverty, help to boost jobs, and secure the GDP growth that we so desperately need. When the economy recovers, then we can look at other reforms - such as the 10p rate - but what we need right now is a cost of living Budget
 
Robert Halfon is Conservative MP for Harlow. He tweets at @halfon4harlowMP

 

Fuel duty protestors stand outside Parliament on March 7, 2012 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Robert Halfon is Conservative MP for Harlow. He tweets at @halfon4harlowMP

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.