Stormy Petrol

GOVERNMENTS HAVE a habit of treating themselves as a cut above other mortals. Even if there had been no theological rationale to undergird it, it was almost inevitable that the doctrine of the divine right of kings would surface sooner or later.

It may be that those who rule think that their subjects are stupid, or it may be that they just treat them as if they were, but the history books are liberally peppered with instances of rulers overstepping the mark and getting their come-uppance from a frustrated populace

In this country it is common knowledge that the lion’s share of the price of a litre of petrol is accounted for by tax. In fact for every litre you buy, the Government collects something like three times as much in tax as the producers, refiners and distributors get for providing the product. Over the years the situation has got steadily worse.

In the beginning was petroleum tax. Motoring was a pastime of the rich, and therefore presumably taxing petrol provided a growing source of revenue – and the burden of the tax fell on those who were well able to pay. I believe it was even suggested that road fund tax and petroleum tax might be used to improve the infrastructure of roads. That may be no more than mythology dating from the 20s and 30s, but it does provide some sort of spurious legitimacy for the kind of extortion that has gone on ever since.

Some years ago someone had the bright idea of levying VAT on petrol – not the cost of the petrol, you understand, but the price of the petrol including the petroleum tax. What a masterstroke! Whenever the oil companies added a penny to the cost of a gallon, the Government got a windfall of threepence. More than that, they could charge VAT on the increase so they got another halfpenny as well. And if anyone complained, well you could blame the oil companies who were “responsible” for the increase. The best lies, as any schoolboy knows, are those which contain a half-truth. That makes them all the more plausible.

And so we have been paying twice as much for our petrol as our American cousins – and no-one so much as murmured a complaint until September of this year, when someone parked his articulated vehicle across the gates of the Ellesmere Port refinery. Well, you know the rest of the story. Wat Tyler’s peasant’s rebellion reasserted itself and the police professed themselves baffled because nobody seemed to be leading the protest, so who were they to negotiate with? The Government is to have an inquiry – not an enquiry into high petrol prices, of course, but an enquiry into why a motley band of disaffected lorry drivers and farmers were able to turn off the country’s petrol supplies in a matter of 48 hours in true French style.

So is there nothing to be learned from this little cameo of life in the third millennium, or could this be a parable for today?

Just think. Are you old enough to remember the days when the Church Commissioners paid for nearly everything in the Church of England? Do you remember those requests that your parish should pay £100 to the Diocese as your family purse or share? Oh happy days!

But then costs escalated. Some folk thought it was a great idea to force clergy out of their posts by the age of 70. Very enlightened, very humane you may think, but what a pity no-one thought to add up the cost of the pension liabilities the Church Commissioners were being asked to take on. I suppose its easy for me to say (with hindsight) that someone should have realised that it was only a matter of time before all the Church Commissioners money which was, at that time, paying clergy to exercise a parochial ministry would be needed to pay retired clergy not to exercise that ministry.

When General Synod passed the legislation making financial provision for conscientious objectors to the ordination of women, did the Synod have the faintest idea how many millions of pounds was being earmarked to pay priests not to exercise the ministry that God had called them to exercise?

Have you ever checked out the numbers of staff in your diocesan office? If so did you also check out by how many the complement has grown over the last thirty years?

Have you ever asked how many extra dignitaries the Church of England has acquired in the last thirty years? The more congregations (that means quota payers) shrink, the more the number of dignitaries seems to rise!

All this – and more – means that the quota your parish pays to the diocese has been going up by two or three times the rate of inflation year in and year out. The laity have been pretty resilient all this time. Quota has generally been paid, but with a growing number of parishes being asked for six figure sums each year, the pips are beginning to squeak. If you were present at a deanery synod budget debate this year, you’ve probably got the general idea.

It doesn’t have to be like that. Some dioceses, my own included, are managing to keep the increase in quota payments below inflation this year, but others are not.

The real trouble, though, is not in the actual level of the quota, but in the things it is spent on. In our diocese parishes are asked to pay separately for their parochial clergy and for general diocesan costs. I’ve hardly ever heard a parish complain about the cost of their clergy. They know they are getting good value for money, even allowing for the fact that Rochester pays above the national average rate.

The problem is surely with all the diocesan costs. One clergyman told me recently that his PCC had investigated their diocesan accounts and come to the conclusion that his parish had no need of any of the services their diocese provided. They really didn’t need industrial chaplains, diocesan conferences Boards and Councils for this that and the other, and all the rest of the paraphernalia.

You can just imagine a handful of disaffected PCC members parking their old jalopies across the drive of Bishopscourt so the chauffeur can’t get the Bishop’s car out. Within a day or two you might have an Archbishop (Tony Blair style) cutting short one of his visits, summoning press conferences, promising to get the Church of England back to normal within 24 hours and all that sort of thing. And if the postman couldn’t deliver all those quota cheques, it might be left to the bank to deliver the coup de grace by remote control. It doesn’t bear thinking about, does it? But last month no-one thought that a handful of lorry drivers and farmers could cure the congestion problems of the M6 and the M25 all by themselves.

Gerry O’Brien is a lay member of the General Synod. He represents the Diocese of Rochester.