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Rogue Traders

Ms Margaret Moran accordingly presented a Bill to amend the Fair Trading Act 1973 to introduce further powers to regulate rogue traders: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 10 November, and to be printed [Bill 176].

25 Oct 2000 : Column 226

Opposition Day

[18th Allotted Day]

Fuel Protests

Mr. Speaker: We now come to the first debate on the Opposition motions. I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister. I also wish to inform the House that Back-Bench speeches will be restricted to 12 minutes.

3.47 pm

Mr. Archie Norman (Tunbridge Wells): I beg to move,


First, Mr. Speaker, may I add my congratulations on your election? This is the first chance that I have had formally to do so.

Can there be any more explicit symbol of the Government's complacency, arrogance and evasion than the failure of the Deputy Prime Minister to be present in the Chamber today?

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher): I find that an astonishing remark from the hon. Gentleman. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister informed the hon. Gentleman exactly why he cannot be present today: he is attending a series of meetings on the closure of the west coast main line and issues related to the Hatfield crash. I am sure that all right hon. and hon. Members who understand the Deputy Prime Minister's priorities will entirely understand the reason for his absence.

Mr. Norman: That is not what the Deputy Prime Minister's office told me. I was informed that the right hon. Gentleman was having meetings in his office, where I imagine he is sitting at this moment. Nobody will detract from the importance of his dealing with the Hatfield crash, but it is clear that he could have spared the time to be in the House today. The debate is about a crisis that almost brought the country to its knees, yet on the first occasion on which the House has had a chance to debate that crisis, the Deputy Prime Minister shows disdain for Parliament and the British people. What is the point of having a Secretary of State who will not appear for a debate on his own handling of a national crisis that almost

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brought the country to its knees? The Deputy Prime Minister has been leading the Government's anti-car campaign. Only yesterday, he said:


That apparently does not apply in a time of national crisis.

Why is the Deputy Prime Minister not here? The truth is that he probably wanted to be here, but he has been told not to be here. He has become the most ridiculous figure in the Government. His attitude is so cynical that he sends his baggage by chauffeured Jaguar to the House of Commons while he takes the train to appear environmentally friendly. His contempt for Parliament is also contempt for farmers, hauliers, pensioners and those who live in the countryside--contempt for the people whom we are elected to represent. They will see that his place is empty today, and they will know that he has learned nothing from the crisis.

Mr. Bill Rammell (Harlow): If we are to pursue such a fatuous debating style, I could ask the hon. Gentleman why the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) was on holiday during the fuel crisis, when, according to the Evening Standard, he had been given advance notice of the protests. I shall not stress that point, because it is fatuous. The hon. Gentleman should explain why his party is being so disingenuous. It launched the fuel escalator and then disclaimed responsibility for it--

Mr. Speaker: Order. That intervention was far too long.

Mr. Norman: For the sake of the hon. Member for Harlow (Mr. Rammell), I shall ignore that ridiculous intervention. We are in a fine state when hon. Members cannot go on holiday without the country coming to a standstill. Perhaps the Deputy Prime Minister is on holiday now. Why is he not here? That is the question.

The Government have created a problem by increasing tax by stealth. They have turned that problem into a crisis through their complacency, and the crisis into humiliation through their sheer incompetence. They had no mandate to raise taxes; they promised not to raise them. The Prime Minister said:


They promised to protect the isolated and pensioners, and not to be a tax-and-spend Government. Fuel duty has become a symbol of the tax betrayal of the British people.

There is no point in the Minister and the hon. Member for Harlow hiding behind the fuel duty escalator, although I am sure that they will try to do that. The Government had three Budgets in 21 months and they increased the escalator to 6 per cent., but they did not use the money for the environment or transport. The motorist now pays £350 more a year in tax, yet the Government have spent less than the previous Government on transport.

In one of the shabbiest manoeuvres of the Parliament, the Government said that they would come off the escalator, and they put up duty by an "inflation" increase of 3.3 per cent., while pensioners got an increase of 1.1 per cent. Seventy-five pence does not buy even one litre of petrol. What sort of a system of social justice

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is that? In three years, a Labour Government have increased fuel taxes by 34 per cent. and the state pension by only 8 per cent.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): Will the hon. Gentleman explain why The Daily Telegraph and the AA described the last Budget as the best Budget for the motorist for eight years?

Mr. Norman: I do not believe that The Daily Telegraph supported the increase in fuel duty. It has been explicit about its view of a manoeuvre that uses a different inflation rate for pensioners from that for fuel tax. That is a shabby manoeuvre.

Let us not have any hiding behind a green smokescreen either. It is technology and not taxation that is reducing pollution from our cars. Since 1997, traffic has increased by about 6 per cent., but pollution is falling because of cleaner car technology. The only effect that the Government's campaign against car users in increasing the price of travelling by car can have is to marginalise those who can least afford to pay the price. The Government are penalising the poor, pensioners living in the countryside and farmers, whose livelihoods are threatened. The Government have used the most regressive tax for their own revenue-raising purposes. We have by far the highest fuel taxes--

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington) rose--

Mr. Norman: I shall not give way. I wish to make some progress.

We have by far the highest fuel taxes in Europe, and there is no excuse for that. The Government have increased the annual tax on road users by £8 billion. They are driving 55,000 hauliers out of a job. Last year alone they destroyed the livelihood of 22,000 farmers. They have penalised those on low incomes who depend on the car, such as farmers, pensioners living in isolated areas and the disabled.

Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it seems that, ironically, people in the countryside--farmers, hauliers, those who work in the countryside and people living in rural areas--are paying the most for fuel even though they tend to depend the most heavily on haulage and private transport?

Mr. Norman: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Farmers and those living in the countryside in constituencies such as his are being marginalised and penalised. We are talking about a regressive tax that hits the most vulnerable first and the Jaguar drivers last.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Norman: No. I wish to make some progress.

Mr. Campbell-Savours: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Norman: Yes.


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