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24 January 2011

Why a “fair fuel stabiliser” would be bad policy

The government does not receive a “windfall” from higher petrol prices.

By George Eaton

There’s a notable interview with Robert Chote, the head of the Office for Budget Responsibility, in today’s Financial Times in which he repudiates the notion of a “fair fuel stabiliser”.

Philip Hammond, the Transport Secretary, has promised to “look at the practicality” of this measure in time for the next Budget and the government is under significant pressure from the tabloids to limit petrol prices. But Chote warns that the fuel stabiliser is premised on the false assumption that the state receives a windfall in tax revenues when oil prices rise. In fact, higher prices rarely increase revenue because of the overall effect on economic performance.

Chote refers to a summer analysis by the OBR which concluded that the “overall effect of a temporary oil-price rise would be ‘close to zero’ ” and that “a permanent rise would create a loss to the public finances”. This is because higher pump prices “reduce the demand for fuel, lowering fuel duty receipts” and push up the indexation of tax thresholds, benefits, public-service pensions and index-linked gilts.

As the data below confirms, higher oil prices would generally lead to a fall in tax revenues.

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This doesn’t mean that a fuel stabiliser is unworkable, but it does mean that the government would need to raise taxes elsewhere if it lowered duty on petrol.

Chote’s conclusion is that “a fair fuel stabiliser would be likely to make the public finances less stable rather than more stable”. But will ministers put short-term political considerations first? We’ll soon find out.