FairFuel UK wins Government U turn Article icon


When Chancellor George Osborne unexpectedly announced a climb down on the Government's planned fuel tax rise in June, The Sun immediately claimed credit with the crowing front page TANKS - 3p fuel hike axed after our campaign.

But while Britain's most popular tabloid might have some justification in claiming that it had secured the recent pasty tax back down, this is not the first time that Osborne has had a change of heart over fuel tax duties. Many attribute his indecisiveness to a sustained campaign that started long before this year's Budget and will probably continue long after.

FairFuelUK might not be a household name but the pressure group, which is backed by 12 groups who represent the interests of road users, currently claims three policy victories which it calculates have led to the  deferral of £5.5 billion of fuel duty over the past 18 months - or roughly £160 per licensed vehicle.

The campaign won its first key concession in March 2011 when it secured a penny reduction on fuel duty and the axing of a planned future rise of up to 5p per litre. At the same time, the Chancellor also announced plans to scrap the fuel price escalator, first introduced in 1993, which resulted in an annual increase in fuel duty equivalent to the rate of inflation plus one penny.

Its second achievement was to secure a debate in the House of Commons on the need for lower fuel duty, which took place on 15 November before the Christmas recess, after an e-petition to the government secured more than 100,000 signatures. FairFuelUK's motion secured cross party support from more than 120 MPs. Robert Halfon, the Conservative MP for Harlow in Essex, and an ally of the campaign, claimed the debate proved a major factor in persuading the Government to defer its planned fuel duty rise in January.

The volte face in June means that the planned fuel duty rise has now been deferred twice, within just six months. While the latest move was met with reservations in some quarters, few could deny the campaign had been a powerful one. The Times, while criticising the Chancellor's U-turn, also noted that the topic had become so politicised that there was no option but for the Government to rescind the proposal.

Its leader read: 'Petrol duty is one of the most unpopular taxes and a very effective campaign against another increase has made it politically perilous for the Government to press ahead.'

The anonymous lobby group

Forcing a climb down once is an achievement, but prompting the Government to change tack so often and so unexpectedly that even its junior Treasury Minister, Chloe Smith, seemed unprepared under Jeremy Paxman's scrutiny on Newsnight is rare. If its success echoes that of the recent Gurkha Campaign, it is because both were spearheaded by former haulier Peter Carroll.

The FairFuelUK campaign started life in January 2011. It marks the first time that many road users, businesses and trade associations had been brought together nationally on one issue. The campaign is backed by 12 groups ranging from pensioners to the RAC and the Road Haulage Association (RHA). But FairfuelUK is separate from the organisations that back it, a feature which, Carroll explains, allows them to be more  responsive.

FairFuelUK launched at a time of record petrol prices caused, in part, by the rise in VAT duty to 20 per cent and a hike in fuel duty. James Hookham, managing director, policy and communications for the Freight Transport Association, one of the bodies backing the campaign, recalls Carroll's approach.

'He presented a plan to run a campaign on fuel duty that would develop the synergistic relationship between members of the public and the business lobby,' he explains.

The campaign has had other elements in its favour. The Gurkha Campaign greatly benefited from its association with Joanna Lumley and early on FairFuelUK secured motoring journalist Quentin Willson as a spokesperson. The former Top Gear presenter has both provided the face and voice of the campaign, attending party conference fringe events and appearing for photo opportunities. He has also written regular blogs, under the header FFUK, and articles about the campaign on FairFuelUK's website. His musings have been responsible for 70 per cent of the site's one million hits per year.

But the campaign also needed supporters to take direct action. Using Blue State Digital's email marketing software, FairFuelUK galvanised its 300,000 plus members into action by communicating up to three times a  week during busy periods and between two and three times a month when the pressure was less intense.

Carroll wanted to make it as easy possible for members to email their MPs at key points throughout the campaign. Ahead of the last planned duty rise, 33,000 FairFuelUK members emailed their local parliamentarians using templates that were easily customised. By simply inputting their postcode, the emails arrived directly in the inboxes their relevant MP.

The fuel campaigners also polled supporters to generate research which was used to lobby the Government and generate press coverage. One poll asked supporters which tax change would be best for the UK  economy and another asked them who they blamed for rising fuel prices. The Labour party, which had been pushing for a reduction in VAT, changed its focus after seeing the number of people who believed freezing fuel duty would boost the UK economy more than a cut to VAT. Similarly, the Coalition was alarmed to see that most consumers blamed the Government for the rising price of fuel rather than oil companies or oil speculators.

The campaign was also supported by a robust Twitter and Facebook effort. Carroll monitors all his followers on Twitter and engages directly with critics on FairFuelUK's Facebook page. The team also tweet at all times of day or night, either in person or using a programme that automatically send pre-written tweets all through the night.

Facing opposition

But while the campaign generated substantial momentum, it is not without its opponents and often finds itself pitched against environmentalists on television and radio. When faced with this kind of opposition the  campaign selects case studies from its members.

'We have hundreds of case studies on our website and one is from a nurse in rural Cambridgeshire who has been having to dip into her own pocket to pay for fuel in order to carry out her normal work of going to visit patients,' explains Carroll. 'What possible benefit could an increase in fuel duty have in a situation like that? It's hard for someone to disagree with that.'

While the human story is important to winning the argument, Carroll and Hookham think a piece of research they commissioned was crucial to their latest success. Hookham explains that the report, produced by the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR), was a key part of the lobbying approach and made the economic case for a cut to fuel duty.

It argued that curbing petrol duty hikes would significantly stimulate consumer spending. In fact, the report suggested that a 2.5p reduction in fuel duty would result in the creation of 175,000 jobs within a year and 180,000 jobs within five years. Without any fiscal loss to the Government, the CEBR suggested such a move would also boost gross domestic product by 0.32 per cent within a year and 0.34 per cent within five years.

Clearly the report resonated with some MPs. Just hours before the June climb down, FairFuelUK met with chief secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, giving the campaigners a final chance to lobby at the most senior level.

Hard fought

But the campaigners always believed they were facing an uphill battle. 'I was told by Westminster officials after the Budget that it would be impossible to stop a rise in duty in August. Insiders said the nation's finances desperately needed the revenue and some people laughed when the Scottish National Party initially proposed the Budget amendment,' Carroll recalls. The campaigners also knew that MPs expected the rise to go ahead and had been informing constituents that they had no choice. But they carried on.

'We reached a point 48 hours before the announcement where the Whips did the arithmetic and realised the Government wouldn't win a vote in the Commons on the price rise,' adds Carroll.

Not everyone will be fans of the duty freezes, and the Government's deference to the campaign has arguably undermined its commitment to deficit reduction, but it does go to show that the right campaign on the right issue at the right time can be a potent combination.

'I really believe with campaigns you reach a point of unstoppable momentum, a combination of political events, public support and social media and the height of that momentum was on Monday night (the night before the Chancellor changed his mind),' Carroll explains. 'It's just a bit galling when The Sun tries to take all the credit for it.'