Over the years party conferences have become something to be endured rather than enjoyed, so it was somewhat unusual to find myself looking forward to Saturday’s one day autumn conference of the Scottish Liberal Democrats.
Not, on this occasion, because I was looking forward to seeing friends from across the country or because I was anticipating a barnstorming leader’s speech by Tavish Scott. I take that much for granted. On this occasion I was eagerly anticipating the conference speech of chief secretary to the treasury Danny Alexander who (I had a small measure of prior notice) was to be making an announcement on the subject of government help to address the high cost of fuel in island communities. The announcement when it came was that the coalition government is making an application to the EU commission to reduce the rate of duty paid in communities like ours by five pence per litre.
The cost of petrol and diesel has been one of the longest running problems facing local people in my time as a member of parliament. It is now routinely 10 to 15 pence per litre more expensive in the isles than it is in mainland communities. A five pence per litre reduction is of course not going to account for the whole of that sum but it is a pretty good start. The elimination of the rest of the price difference can now be pursued with the knowledge that the government has already made a substantial commitment to tackling high fuel prices.
Looking at Danny’s words it is difficult not to be struck by the difference between his approach and that of his predecessors in the last government. I remember the letters from ministers saying that they would not pursue a scheme of this sort as it would encourage people to travel from places like Aberdeen to Orkney or Shetland in order to take advantage of “cheap” petrol (despite the fact that this “cheap” petrol would still be more expensive than that which they would get at home)!
That this announcement has come as early as it has in the life of the coalition government should be the source of particular satisfaction. The coalition is having to tackle a truly massive economic mess which has been its legacy from the last Labour government. We are, however, determined to do it in a way that is as fair as possible. Saturday’s announcement is a recognition of the unfairness of the present market price of fuel in the isles and we are determined to address that unfairness.
People ask me from time to time if the price of entering coalition is worth paying. I answer without hesitation that it is. Whether in relation to the need to maintain Orkney and Shetland and the Western Isles as single constituencies or their willingness to act on high fuel prices the coalition government has shown a willingness to listen to the distinctive problems of the isles and to act on them. That is a government worth having.
Alistair Carmichael MP