It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I congratulate the hon. Members for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) and for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) on securing this important and timely debate.
If the UK is going to meet our legally binding pledge to meet net-zero by 2050, we need to step up the transition to a green economy and deliver more sustainable transport options. I was pleased that the hon. Member for Bath mentioned the importance of the national grid to EV charging. I was reflecting that we were the victims of the most appalling storm—storm Arwen—two weeks ago. It showed up a systematic lack of investment in the power grid system in the north-east, as many thousands of my constituents were left without the most basic of utilities—power—for over 10 days. I am trying to understand how my communities would have survived if we were solely dependent on electric vehicles. If we are going to facilitate the transition to a green economy, the Government need to get the basics right and climate-proof our power grid.
The basic infrastructure required to facilitate electric vehicles does not exist in communities such as mine in Easington, County Durham. There is a massive disparity between the capital and the rest of the country in terms of accessing charging points, with more public charging points in London and the south-east than in the rest of England and Wales combined. We also need to advance technology, because until we have wireless, accessible, on-street parking charging points, replacing conventional vehicles with EV vehicles is not a viable option for people living in built-up areas—in my case, in former colliery terraces or blocks of flats.
We are potentially falling into a trap when it comes to infrastructure, so the Government need to change their mindset and, rather than focusing on the one-to-one replacement of vehicles, create an affordable, frequent and reliable public transport network. That should be the foundation for creating a sustainable green economy.
I frequently complain about the Northern Rail failure on the Durham coastline that serves my constituency. The service is unreliable and dangerous, and I can see the potential of improved public transport. You might be wondering, Mr Twigg, what that has to do with electric cars, but the subject of the debate is electric vehicles, and it is important that we consider what the options are.
Despite often-repeated Government rhetoric about levelling up, the transport infrastructure gap in the UK is widening. Improved public transport can deliver employment opportunities. My constituency is very close to Nissan in Sunderland, and I accept that there are many jobs in the automotive manufacturing sector and in the manufacture of EV battery technology. Indeed, Nissan in Sunderland is Europe’s biggest and most efficient car plant. I should declare an interest as a member and chair of the Unite group in Parliament. Nissan provides employment for many thousands of people, including many in the supply chain in my constituency.
However, there are other businesses that could benefit from this technological revolution. Vivarail, for example, is the only domestically based manufacturer of battery-powered trains in the UK. It has a production site in my constituency. Its cutting-edge green technology and innovative, fast-charging battery-electric train has enormous domestic and, indeed, export potential. Vivarail showcased its clean, green and reliable service in Glasgow at COP26, hosting my colleague, the Chair of the Transport Committee, Huw Merriman, who saw the fast-charging battery-powered train that was on show.
Many people want affordable and reliable green options, but making the switch to electric vehicles is difficult because of the up-front cost. We know that the long-term financial benefits of electric vehicles, which have been pointed out in the debate, include lower running and servicing costs, but there is an up-front barrier in making the transition. We need greater Government incentives until such time as entry costs for new and used vehicles fall.
One issue, which was highlighted by the Transport Committee, on which I have the honour to serve, is the cost of VAT. I raised that with the Minister in the Fourth Delegated Legislation Committee yesterday, and I am afraid that I did not get an answer. The current policy on VAT on charging points penalises electric vehicle owners who do not have access to private parking and their own charging points. Those without access are forced to use public charging points and pay four times the VAT. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs says:
“Supplies of electric vehicle charging through charging points in public places are charged at the standard rate of VAT”, which is 20%. It goes on:
“There is no exemption or relief that reduces the rate of VAT charged.”
I know that the Minister is not responsible for tax policy, but will she raise that issue with Treasury colleagues?
This debate is far from simple, and a comprehensive approach is required. The transition to electric vehicles is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform public transport and create a cleaner, greener and stronger economy in places such as east Durham. If only we had an ambitious Government willing to seize the opportunity and spread the benefits more equally.