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4.44 pm

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): Like many other hon. Members, I too was disappointed by the speech from the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman), which seemed full of rhetoric and devoid of new ideas. However, I agree entirely with the part of his speech that had to do with the absence of the Deputy Prime Minister from the Chamber today.

The Minister said in response to the comments of the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells that the Deputy Prime Minister was engaged this afternoon in meetings about the closure of the west coast main line. I was advised two days ago that the Deputy Prime Minister would not attend this debate, so one of two inferences can be drawn: either the Deputy Prime Minister knew two days ago that the closures were going to happen, and therefore should have informed the House about them in his statement yesterday; or the meetings were arranged more recently, in which case time could have been set aside to enable the Deputy Prime Minister to be here for this debate.

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Yesterday, the Deputy Prime Minister told the House that safety was his guiding principle. I have no doubt that, notwithstanding the arguments on either side of the fuel crisis, safety was an important feature of that crisis. If lives were not lost because of the blockades, they were certainly put at risk. If safety is the Deputy Prime Minister's top priority, he should have been here to tell the House what action the Government intended to take to ensure that lives would not be put at risk if similar blockades were imposed.

Mr. Meacher: I wish to make it clear again to the House that not only is my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister attending meetings about the closure of the west coast main line, but he is also taking part in other meetings to do with the Hatfield crash. I made that clear earlier, and the hon. Gentleman should take that information on board.

Mr. Foster: I accept entirely what the Minister says. However, my point is that it would have been possible for the Deputy Prime Minister to arrange to be in the Chamber at least for part of the debate. I, for one, regret his absence today.

However, I wish to remind the House of something else that happened yesterday, apart from the Deputy Prime Minister's statement about the Hatfield crash. For the first time in three and half years, the Prime Minister made a major speech on the environment, in which he acknowledged the explicit link between car use and climate change. He talked about the need for co-operation and leadership to press forward the green agenda, and he made it clear that time was not on our side.

The Prime Minister's speech shows that he has undergone a major conversion and demonstrates a radical shift in his thinking. If the House is not convinced, we need only look back to what was going on at the time of the fuel crisis. On 22 September, all other European countries took part in the European car-free day. Every European Government bar our own formally supported that major European initiative to draw attention to the environmental consequences of our over-reliance on the car.

The fuel crisis was a further example of the Prime Minister's welcome change of heart. Not for a minute do I wish to demean or criticise the Minister for the Environment's environmental credentials, but I wish to point out to the House that he was remarkably absent from our television screens during that crisis. Neither the Prime Minister nor any of the other Ministers who spoke during the fuel crisis at any time mentioned environmental issues in their comments.

Mr. Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central): A year ago, the Liberal Democrat party made promises involving billions of pounds of extra expenditure, almost all of them predicated on income from fuel duty and environmental tax. Overnight, however, the party decided to suspend those promises. Is that not a little odd? The Liberal Democrat policy now is that levies on fuel would not be raised for the next five years, irrespective of whether the world price of oil is $10, $20 or $30 a barrel--what hypocrisy that is.

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Mr. Foster: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I hope in a few minutes to address that very point. Whether a political party continues to believe that environmental issues are crucial but that other ways might be more appropriate to address them in the light of changing circumstances is an interesting point. That is just what we have done.

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

Mr. Foster: No, I wish to make a little progress. Unlike the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells, I want to put some suggestions into the arena on how we might move forward.

During the fuel crisis, I genuinely believed that the protesters had some quite legitimate concerns, particularly those from rural areas who have no adequate public transport and no adequate alternative. The Minister told us to wait for the rural White Paper to come along and solve all these problems. However, the rural White Paper is rather like a rural bus--we wait and wait, but still it does not come along. We look forward to seeing it eventually, although we have been told it has been delayed for yet another few months.

During the entire discussion about the fuel crisis, it has been suggested that this is a simple problem that can be dealt with by simple solutions. The issue is incredibly complex, and it requires a complex solution. It must not only address environmental issues, as I argue strongly, but take into account economic issues and social justice.

We know from studies done at Lancaster university that the growing number of cars on our roads is leading to about 15 million people suffering health problems that are, at the least, aggravated by traffic fumes.

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

Mr. Foster: I will in a moment.

We hear from the British Medical Association that traffic pollution causes at least 3,000 deaths a year and brings forward tens of thousands of others.

Mr. Bercow: I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman, whom I hope will not impale himself too firmly on the fence. Will he confirm that tax on petrol has risen by 34 per cent. in 41 months, that that rise has been far greater than that imposed on champagne, and that those two facts represent the most damning possible indictment of the Government's priorities?

Mr. Foster: The hon. Gentleman makes his point in his own inimitable way. I am delighted that he has as much knowledge about champagne prices as about fuel prices. I suspect that many of the people whom I represent are more concerned about fuel than champagne.

The hon. Gentleman again illustrates single-minded thinking about just one issue. We must take into account environmental as well as economic issues. We know from the Confederation of British Industry that congestion on our roads is costing British industry some £20 billion a year. As for social justice, as others have said, the poorest

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people in rural areas are suffering from what might be called transport poverty. They need to be provided with assistance as well. We must address all three factors. That is why a simplistic solution, such as the one being offered by the Conservative party, cannot be a sensible way forward.

The Conservatives are suggesting a 3p cut in the price of fuel; the protesters want a 15p cut. Let us take the middle road and consider the implications of cutting the price by 9p. It is quite simple--a typical motorist would save less than £110 a year. For a person with a 1.8 litre Ford Focus doing 10,000 miles a year at 38 miles a gallon, the saving would be £109.50.

The Tories are not proposing a cut of 9p, however--they are proposing 3p. According to calculations in a note sent to me by the Library on 11 October, the savings for the average motorist on the Conservative proposals for a 3p cut would amount to £30.50 a year, or 59p a week. That is, I suppose, slightly more than the 42p a week that they are offering pensioners.

The Tory stance on such matters is all over the place. We know that Lord Lamont introduced the fuel escalator in 1993. Despite much more recent Conservative attacks on the Government on the matter, the leaked document, which many hon. Members will have seen and which accompanied the Conservatives' May 1997 general election manifesto, stated that a Tory Government would keep the open-ended commitment to increase petrol duty. When the Tories went into the previous general election, they were in favour of keeping the escalator.

I am delighted that the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) is in the Chamber. The House will recall that at the beginning of the crisis, he suggested that there should be a 5p cut in the price of petrol. However, his right hon. Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo) responded by saying that it would be wrong to change policy in response to the fuel protests. Yet three days later, the shadow Chancellor himself proposed a cut of 3p per litre. The Conservatives are all over the place.

The matter is even more interesting than that. On 31 August--hon. Members should note the date--the Leader of the Opposition put out a press release through Conservative central office. It stated that he was

The right hon. Gentleman also demanded compensation for those who had suffered financial loss and inconvenience because of the blockades.

We have noted the date. Which blockades was the right hon. Gentleman talking about? They were, of course, the French blockades. However, only a few weeks later, when it came to the English blockades, he described those who were blockading as "fine, upstanding citizens".

It is no wonder that Mr. Geoffrey Lean, in The Independent on Sunday, wrote:

The Leader of the Opposition, who should from now on be called "Bandwagon Bill", has really demonstrated the art of jumping on bandwagons.

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During Prime Minister's questions, was it not interesting to hear that rather barbed remark made by the Leader of the Opposition about his right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath)? Perhaps the Leader of the Opposition was a little bit miffed with the Father of the House. I know why. The Father of the House was too honest when he was interviewed on the "Today" programme on 3 October. He said:

that is, the Leader of the Opposition--

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