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IN feudal times the serf, obliged to wear a special collar or some other distinguishing sign of his inferior status, very likely resented the symbol more than the actual servitude. In the same way, the commercialvehicle operator who uses oil fuel seems less concerned with the abolition of the fuel tax than he is to seek relief from the responsibility of keeping records of consumption. His representative organizations regularly discuss resolutions calling for an approach to the Commissioners of Customs and Excise, and if those resolutions are not always passed, it is not for lack of agreement with their general purpose.
A proposal to discontinue the keeping of records should preferably be coupled with an alternative, and it is on this that unanimity is not always possible. If no records were kept, there would be difficulty in checking the observance of the regulations. On the ground that it is not seemly to get rid of a burden by foisting it upon somebody else, many operators hesitate to make the obvious suggestion that the keeping of records should be the obligation of those users who escape the tax.
One ingenious variant is that all users should pay the tax, after which the exempted users could claim a rebate. This would mean, however, that they would he put to the necessity of finding extra money, which they might not get back for some time. The work involved would be much greater than with the present system of keeping records, and it would fall particularly heavily upon the Government Department concerned.
Limit Control The Customs and Excise Department have been definite in their refusal to adopt any of the alternatives so far put forward. They have on their side the fact that commercial-vehicle operators use only a small proportion of the total consumption of heavy hydrocarbon oils. It is economical to limit control to the smaller category of users. There seems no particular purpose in having records kept by tax-free users, who by definition cannot contravene the regulations while they are using the fuel to meet their own requirements.
Many operators themselves would confess that the individual hardship involved in keeping the records is not great. What may be more irksome is that the records are a symbol of the distinction between the two classes of user. The sterile argument about who should keep them might be abandoned in favour of what seems to be a more practical demand—the complete abolition of the tax itself.
There is no logical basis for the distinction. In general, a vehicle able to carry goods or passengers must use fuel on which tax has been paid. There are certain exceptions, conveniently summarized by noting the cit tegories of vehicle that may use rebated oil as fuel. Mowing machines and road rollers are favoured, as well as mobile cranes and vehicles used for trench digging, excavating or shovelling, provided they never carry goods.
Exemption is also granted for -locomotive ploughing engines, tractors, agricultural tractors and other agricultural engines. These are allowed to carry certain items on public roads. They may haul their own necessary gear, threshing appliances, farming implements, a living van for persons employed in connection with the vehicle, and supplies of water or fuel required for the vehicle or for agricultural purposes. They may take from one part of a farm to another the produce of that farm or articles required for it.
The farm vehicles described above may also be used with rebated fuel by their owner for carrying, within 15 miles of the farm he occupies, the produce of the farm or fuel required for the farm or for the domestic purposes of workers on the farm. They may bring articles for a farm, provided that the owner of the vehicle is the owner or occupier of the farm, or a contractor engaged to do agricultural work upon it.
To qualify for a fuel rebate, the vehicle must at no time carry goods, save for the exceptions provided. As soon as it steps outside the magic circle it ceases altogether to be an exempted vehicle. Full duty must be paid on all the oil it uses until it reverts to operation exclusively for exempted purposes.
Useful Concessions Vehicles that may use rebated fuel pay a Road Fund licence duty of £2 per annum (except that road rollers are exempt from licence duty), and they obviously are not primarily 'intended for the carriage of goods. The farmer is given a number of useful concessions, which relieve him of the necessity of paying tax on oil fuel used in his farm vehicles, and put him to this extent on an equality with the owners of stationary engines, and with the railways.
This is as it should be, and there seems no reason against going further. The farmer's other vehicles, operating under C licences, and the vehicles of other traders „and of hauliers, 'as well as passenger vehicles, have as much justification to escape taxation when they use heavy oil as fuel. The carriage of goods and passengers seems no less important than the use of a mobile crane, or of a mowing machine.
Operators may lust as well ask for the lot. Instead of complaining at the need to keep records, they should agitate for the total abolition of the tax on that type of fuel.
Difficult to Answer
There would be no easy answer to their claim. The Government could not say that road transport is less important than other industries that use rebated fuel,. Nor would there be much in the argument that the tax was necessary in order to pay for the roads. For one thing, use on the roads is not the criterion as to whether or not the tax is due, and the Government have consistently refused to agree that there should be any connection between taxation of road users and expendi,ture on road construction.
It must be admitted that a campaign for the total abolition of the tax on oil fuel has no chance of success. On the other hand, as I have pointed out, the same must be said of the campaign against keeping fuel records. It might be better policy to ignore the records and attack the basic injustice of which they are merely the symbol. Even to secure some reduction in the tax would be a not inconsiderable achievement.