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

Mr. Norman: No. The hon. Gentleman has had his chance and blown it; he has made far too much noise already.

The protest was supported by the vast majority of decent people in the country--hard-working people, car drivers and non-car drivers. According to the MORI poll,

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it was supported by 84 per cent. of the public. Astonishingly, 76 per cent. of those who had no car supported the protest. If the Government still seriously think--as they evidently do--that they can drive a wedge between the protesters and the public, they are making yet another fatal mistake.

We are not talking about special interest groups. We understand the demands for a Brit disc scheme. We understand the case for special rebates, but people do not just want special tax breaks, loopholes or fiddles; they want a tax cut. The protest was a taxpayers' revolt. Only the Government could think of a taxpayers' revolt as a hauliers' blockade. People are saying that they want fairness and honesty in taxation. They want no more stealth tax. They want a cut in fuel duty now.

The Prime Minister sought refuge in the argument, which we heard again earlier, that a cut in tax means a cut in health or education.

Mr. Efford: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Norman: No, I will not give way.

Everyone knows that the Chancellor has a war chest and that he is planning to spend it for his own purposes ahead of the election. He knows it; we know it; the public know it--perhaps the only person who does not know it is the Prime Minister.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Norman: No, I will not give way. I have given way plenty of times and many other Members want to speak.

Only this week, the Ernst and Young report confirmed that there will be a £16 billion surplus this year. The fact is that the Chancellor is profiteering from the increase in crude oil prices. Every time the oil price increases by $1, he makes an extra £330 million in revenue from petroleum revenue tax and VAT. He has not only a financial but a moral duty to alleviate the hardship that he has created. If there was a green argument for increasing duty when the price was low, there can be no such argument when the price is at an all-time high.

The Government must act now to save the countryside and those who live in it. If there is a green argument, it is not about the cost of petrol and pricing people off the roads, but about the future of the countryside as a working environment in which farmers can earn an honest living.

Mr. Efford rose--

Mr. Jon Owen Jones rose--

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells is not giving way. It is not the done thing to stand while another Member is addressing the House.

Mr. Norman: The Government must act to save the road hauliers who are going out of business and those who are conceding their businesses to foreigners. The number of foreign lorries is growing in this country.

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The Government must act to help those who are less well off and depend on their cars. If they do not act, the public will--and the Government will have only themselves to blame--not just on the streets, but at the ballot box.

September was a watershed in the life of new Labour, and the clock is now ticking. The Prime Minister, who made his political creed out of being in touch, has now made a principle of being out of touch. The Deputy Prime Minister said that he was always available for debate, but he dare not show his face today. They created the crisis; they raised taxes with no mandate; they manufactured their own humiliation and they have been living in denial ever since. The Prime Minister said that everything would get back to normal within 24 hours. On the contrary, for new Labour, things will never be the same again.

Mr. Speaker: I call Mr. Meacher to move the amendment.

Mr. Campbell-Savours: On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker: The hon. Gentleman has intervened several times. Many hon. Members want to get into the debate. I have had to put a time limit on speeches and he is taking away their time. Does he still have a point of order?

Mr. Campbell-Savours indicated dissent.

4.15 pm

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher): I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

May I take the opportunity--it is my first--to congratulate you warmly, Mr. Speaker, on your elevation to the Chair? I hope that you enjoy your speakership as much as we are delighted to see you occupy it.

It is always a pleasure to welcome the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman) to the Dispatch Box, on this occasion to debate the countryside, fuel prices and the environment. It is not so much what he says as the way he tells them.

One would never guess, listening to the hon. Gentleman's speech about transport and the countryside, that his Government left the countryside so denuded of public transport that, by the end of their Administration, fewer than one in four parishes had even a single bus service once a day. One would never guess from his denunciation of the fuel duty escalator that it was his

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Government who started it and we who ended it. One would never guess, when he referred to his party's concern for the countryside, that his party was responsible for the biggest concreting-over of the countryside in road-building programmes since Roman times. One would never guess that the biggest invasions of the green belt--the sell-off of 3,000 acres of green belt for development, together with the most extensive damage of sites of special scientific interest--all occurred in those years of wanton destruction.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Meacher: I will in a moment.

One would never guess, when the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells finally came to his killer fact--that his party would cut 3p per litre off fuel duty--how that was to be paid for, let alone what it would do to the environment. It would, in fact, cost more than £1 billion. That is perhaps rather small beer for a party that has a £16 billion hole in its public accounts.

The hon. Gentleman's speech was, let us be fair, an entertaining flight of fancy, but it was more devoid of answers and more full of holes than a Swiss cheese. For a change, let us turn to the facts.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Meacher: I will in a moment.

September saw widespread protests in the UK, throughout Europe and further afield about the cost of fuel. Those protests followed large increases, as we are all aware, in the price of crude oil: from around $10 a barrel at the beginning of last year to more than $30. That has been a global problem. Other countries affected by the protests included France, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Holland and even Australia.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Meacher: I will as soon as I have made the point.

Since the March 1999 Budget, petrol prices in the UK have risen from 66p per litre to about 80p per litre today, an increase of 14p, but only a very small percentage--1.9p--of that increase was caused by the 2000 Budget. That was the lowest Budget increase in fuel duty for 11 years.

Mr. McLoughlin: I am grateful to the Minister for the way in which he is putting his explanation. What has caused the biggest increase in fuel cost? Has it the been the increase in crude oil prices, or the effects of the Chancellor of the Exchequer's Budgets since he became Chancellor?

Mr. Meacher: Over the past 18 months [Interruption.] I can talk about a longer period if that is what the hon. Gentleman wants. It is true that, under his Administration and this Administration there has been a long-term and continuing reduction in the price of oil. In 1993, the hon. Gentleman's Government decided, quite rightly in my view, to introduce the fuel duty escalator. As the

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hon. Gentleman knows, we continued it because when the price of oil continues to go down steadily and over a long period it is right to remind motorists that there is an environmental external cost of motoring that needs to be read into the petrol price.

Now that we have had a tidal wave of price increases from the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries it is absurd to continue with the fuel duty escalator. That is exactly why the Chancellor has abandoned it. He has also said--it is sensible and right--that he will take account of all the relevant factors--environmental and others--in determining, on a case-by-case basis, the appropriate rate of duty. He will certainly take account of the environmental cost.

Having said that, I want to take issue with what was said by the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells. The Government have recognised--of course we have--that strong feelings are aroused by the issue of fuel prices. We have been listening and we will continue to listen carefully and in detail to those concerns. Having listened, we have already taken substantial action.

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