Thursday, July 17, 2008

High petrol prices are good for us, says Cabinet minister

Daily Mail

A Cabinet minister welcomed spiralling petrol prices last night as an incentive for drivers to make fewer car journeys.

Environment Secretary Hilary Benn said the high cost of oil helps force people off the road and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

He also launched a robust defence of road tax rises for more than 9million cars - insisting it was right that they should also apply to second-hand vehicles.

Mr Benn's remarks triggered a backlash from motoring groups, who accused him of 'rejoicing in drivers' despair'.

At the G8 summit last week, Gordon Brown said he wanted motorists to switch to electric or hybrid vehicles by 2020 and a combination of petrol prices and taxes could help them do so.

But Downing Street, which has said the Prime Minister is focusing on the rising costs of fuel, food and family finances, is still likely to be dismayed by Mr Benn's remarks.

Mr Brown is so concerned about voter unrest that a 2p rise in fuel duty due in October is expected to be cancelled.

Motorists are being warned that petrol could reach £1.50 a litre this summer as oil prices keep rising.

About 60 per cent of the retail price of fuel is accounted for by tax.

But Mr Benn defended high prices, insisting they were 'acting as an incentive to everyone to try and reduce use of fuel and reduce emissions at the same time'.

He told the BBC's Politics Show prices were due to global demand and were a 'fact of life' that motorists had to get used to.

Mr Benn added: 'I think we're seeing people thinking more carefully about the journeys that they make, where they can do so.

'This is a resource crunch. Making the transition now from a high-carbon, oil-dependent economy to a low-carbon future is absolutely essential and the countries that do it first will be in a stronger position.'

Mr Benn also dismissed criticism of the Government's proposed reform of vehicle excise duty, which some Labour MPs fear is fast turning into a 'poll tax on wheels'.

He said: 'If we're going to tackle climate change, there are some hard choices and we want to encourage all of us to choose less polluting vehicles.

'As three out of every four cars sold in the country are actually second-hand cars, it's important you have a change that also applies to the second-hand market.'

But Paul Watters, head of public affairs at the AA, said: 'Motorists will be bitterly upset to be told that the pain they are feeling is a good thing. People have to get from A to B, many have to drive to work, and the vast majority of trips aren't discretionary.

'It's also short-sighted to be celebrating the fact that people are cutting down on journeys, since they will be trips for meals out or to the cinema. That, of course, will be bad for the economy.'

Tory spokesman Justine Greening said: 'Hilary Benn seems completely out of touch with the pressures families are facing.

'His comments also show that Gordon Brown does not have a grip on his ministers. Only two weeks ago, facing a potential backbench rebellion, Treasury ministers were clearly indicating that they were looking at backing down on road tax hikes.

'Today Hilary Benn is saying the complete opposite.'