15 April 2010

S3M-6142 Fuel Prices (Closing Speech)

Scottish Parliament

Thursday 15 April 2010

[The Presiding Officer opened the meeting at 09:15]
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Fuel Prices

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Alasdair Morgan): The next item of business is a debate on motion S3M-6142, in the name of Liam McArthur, on fuel prices.

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Stewart Stevenson:

The debate has had running through it a strand of agreement on the definition of the problem. I do not think that anyone has suggested that there are not problems in rural areas. That at least gives us a consistent basis on which to argue about what some of the solutions might be.

Agreement on the solutions is perhaps less widespread, but there is a consistent thread. Alex Johnstone highlighted the fact that, in 1997, the price of fuel was 61p a litre. As I look round the chamber, I think that I may be the only member present who remembers when it was half a crown a gallon.

Charlie Gordon: I remember when lager was half a crown a pint.

Stewart Stevenson: Mr Gordon should not pretend that he is the same age as me and that he remembers that—it seems somewhat unlikely.

The fair fuel stabiliser that the Tories have proposed at least has the merit of providing an opportunity for discussion and debate. I note that Murdo Fraser said that there would be consultation on that idea. Ultimately, we should coalesce around whatever can be shown to work. That is the important thing.

Alex Johnstone mentioned that, according to road haulage interests, in essence the problem is the price of fuel and the volatility of that price. It is likely that we all agree on that. He highlighted the fact that independent filling stations have less buying power. That is where Duncan McNeil failed to grasp the nettle in relation to rural areas when he spoke about possible amendments to the planning system to increase competition. On many of our islands and in many of our remote communities, the issue is not competition. There is simply not the volume to support multiple outlets, and there never will be.

Duncan McNeil: I fully accept that. I made it clear that I was making a plea for the situation that urban communities face to be addressed. When will the Scottish Government respond to the Competition Commission's recommendation? Does the Scottish Government intend to progress it through planning legislation rather than competition legislation?

Stewart Stevenson: I will come to that in a minute, but I want to finish my remarks on what Alex Johnstone had to say. We did indeed vote against the Conservative amendment to the Liberal Democrat motion for the debate to which he referred on the basis that, as Liam McArthur described, it appeared to move the issue from centre stage.

I thought that Charlie Gordon was rather unwise to talk about the weakness of the pound making a significant contribution to high prices when the weakness of the pound is, of course, a reflection of the weakness of the economy over which the Labour Government has presided. We accept that there are global difficulties, but relative differences affect relative valuations of currencies. The pound has sunk against the dollar. That tells us that, in relative terms, the UK Administration has been less effective in engaging with the world's economic problems.

Charlie Gordon talked about my role as transport minister. It is a great pleasure to stand before members as the UK's longest-serving transport minister. There is a sense of déjà vu—we have had the reference to skinning a cat on previous occasions.

Mike Rumbles correctly made the important point that in rural areas, the purchase of fuel for cars and for goods transport is a necessity and not the luxury that the purchase of beer might be.

Reference has been made to the correspondence between John Swinney and Alistair Darling. I will quote from Alistair Darling's letter of 9 April, in which he said:

"different fuel duty rates for some parts of the country would be administratively burdensome both for fuel sellers and for the Government."

I do not think that that shows a willingness to engage constructively to solve the problem of rural fuel prices, as has been done elsewhere in the European Union. It can be done: if the Greeks can do it, I hope that the UK Government can do it.

I turn briefly to the competition issue that Duncan McNeil raised. One of the great difficulties of saying when planning permission is granted that a filling station may be operated only by, for the sake of argument, Shell, because BP runs all the other filling stations in the area, is that that would reduce the economic value of Shell's investment, because it would be forbidden from selling the filling station to another operator. In saying that, one would make development less likely. However, if one is blind to the company that makes a planning application—that is a principle of the current planning system—there is nothing to stop the planning permission being transferred to someone else. That would be the case even if account were taken of the company that made the application.

It is important to understand that refining costs are the same, wherever in Scotland fuel is sold.

It has been a good debate, in which we have been united in defining the problem in a similar way. Rural areas of Scotland have substantially higher fuel prices than urban areas do. I hope that the debate has illuminated some of the issues and opportunities that exist, and that all members will unite with political colleagues in other jurisdictions in their efforts to remedy the situation.


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