Christmas Adjournment debate: Heating Oil

Neil Parish takes the opportunity of the Christmas Adjournment debate to condemn the variation in average prices of heating oil in different parts of the country.Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker, for your Christmas generosity in allowing us an extra minute to speak. I wish you, all Members and those who look after us so well in the House a very happy Christmas.Members have spoken about court closures, racing stables and winter tyres. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) talked about the wonderful food in Norfolk, and I could not let this opportunity pass without saying not only that is Norfolk food good, but that Devon food is excellent. With one's Christmas pudding, one must have some Devonshire cream and make sure that one has some grass-fed Devonshire lamb and beef to go alongside it-perhaps a bit of turkey too.I rise to speak about heating oil, another matter very important to rural constituencies. My constituency is 40 miles long; it starts on Exmoor and ends up in the sea at Seaton. There is a huge rural area within those boundaries, and many of the villages and hamlets there have no mains gas supply. Their only alternative to electricity for heating is oil. That is why the postcode lottery on what people pay for heating oil must stop.During business questions last week, I made the point that during November and early December, crude oil prices went up by 17% and that the price of heating oil went up by 70%. There is no justification for that. Within rural areas, there are many old properties-some are farm houses, some are small cottages-and they are difficult to insulate with modern insulation and expensive to heat. People need more fuel to heat them, and if we lump on to that the huge increase in price, a lot of the heating allowances for poorer people just do not go very far at all.About 2 million properties rely on heating oil; they are mostly in rural areas 828,000 of them are in England. Recently, as I said, there has been a spike in oil prices that could add as much as £540 a year to the average family's heating bill. The price of heating oil tends to rise gradually in the winter months, when demand is at its highest. A home owner might use anything between 2,500 to 4,000 litres of oil. Price rises during winter are unavoidable, but the price rises that we have seen cannot be justified simply by supply and demand.Craig Whittaker: Does my hon. Friend agree with my constituents who have contacted me in the past couple of days to express the real suspicion that the supply of oil is being held back to inflate prices artificially, with the companies knowing full well that the average UK home that uses oil can store only up to 60 days' worth? In effect, those homes have to buy oil when winter is at its worst.Neil Parish: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Furthermore, some oil companies unscrupulously deliver oil at a very high price and hold back on deliveries under contracts that are sold at a lower price. The issue really needs to be sorted out.That brings me neatly to my next point. Crude oil accounts for 48% of the cost of heating oil. The largest next component, accounting for 45%, includes the cost of distribution and marketing. The refining process accounts for only 7%.The average price of a litre of heating oil in Northern Ireland, which has had some of the worst of the recent weather, is 48p per litre, or 52p in Belfast-and given that weather, the cost of delivery and getting the tankers to the houses would be among the greatest. The average price in the south of England at the moment is 80p per litre, while in the middle of England it is 68p, in Wales it is 67p and in Scotland it is 64p per litre. What justification is there for someone in the south of England having to pay nearly twice as much as people in Northern Ireland? During the same period, the price of petrol at the pumps has gone up by only 10p per litre.I say clearly to the Business Secretary that it is time that we did something about the situation. At the moment, he is considering establishing the position of an ombudsman to consider food prices and whether supermarkets' buying power is too great. I urge him to get on with that as quickly as he can. I do not know whether he wants to go down this route, but I suggest that having an adjudicator or ombudsman for heating oil might provide some sort of solution to the problem that I have outlined. I am not thinking of a huge bureaucracy but of somebody people could contact to ask why their heating oil is so expensive in their parts of the country. Those companies would have to justify what they are actually charging. At the moment, there is misery being made out of cold weather and some people have no source of heating other than oil fires, Agas and boilers.As I said, many houses are difficult to heat and insulate, and people are having to pay an extra price before Christmas. The Government cannot just stand by on this matter. All hon. Members probably believe in some form of market forces, but in this case those forces are being used to drive up the cost of fuel unjustifiably. As I have said, weather conditions alone cannot justify what is happening because Northern Ireland has had some of the worst weather in this period, yet it has some of the cheapest fuel. We must ensure that constituents who use oil to heat their houses, wherever they live, pay a fair price for that fuel and are not held to ransom by either the oil companies or those who deliver the oil to houses.| Hansard