Stories about the high cost of fuel in Shetland and other island communties are legion. The one about the petrol retailer who told MP Alistair Carmichael’s staff this week that it would be cheaper to buy fuel (with VAT and duty included) at a petrol station in Aberdeen than from wholesaler GB Oils, is a variation on a seemingly eternal theme.
That said, there was a surprise at Westminster this week when Mr Carmichael was informed by a Treasury minister that her department would be carrying out a study into the practicality of operating a scheme for lower fuel duty in remote and island locations. It was a surprise because the minister in question, Sarah McCarthy-Fry, had moments earlier concluded her reply in a 90-minute debate secured by Mr Carmichael in Westminster Hall with a robust defence of government policy and philosophy in this area: a single rate of fuel duty for the whole country; difficulty in making differential rates work; and scepticism that lower rates would result in lower prices at the pumps.
Naturally, Mr Carmichael is not jumping for joy – yet. In years of campaigning on this issue, he has by his own admission got nowhere with an intransigent government. Rightly, he intends to help the Treasury out by informing officials of practice in other European countries, notably France, Greece and Portugal, where islands have secured derogations, or partial opt-outs, from European Union legislation that imposes uniform tax rates within member states. We must hope that the officials listen and carry out a proper study. Previous work in this area from the Treasury has been decidely D-grade.
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It would appear to be only a matter of time before the council dispenses with the services of chief executive David Clark. The oustanding issue will be whether he departs with a wad of our money in his back pocket or goes away empty-handed. The public appetite for a pay-off is non-existent. The decision should be made quickly so that Shetland can begin to look forwards rather than inwards again.