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5.52 pm

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): It is always a great pleasure to follow my honourable neighbour, the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton),

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a fellow Cheshire Member. I appreciate the sincerity with which he put his case--and the occasion on which he gave me a lift in his 4.2 litre Range Rover.

I want to explain to the House what happened on the night of 7 September at Stanlow refinery in my constituency--and I hope that hon. Members will listen to my observations and refrain from some of the silly language that has been used during parts of the debate.

Stanlow is a major hazard site to which unimpeded access for emergency vehicles 24 hours a day is vital. The smallest incident at that refinery must, if necessary, be able to be dealt with by the full resources of the north-west fire brigade--including units from further away than the constituency of the hon. Member for Macclesfield. The emergency services need that access in case an incident turns out to be serious.

A few minutes after 10 o'clock on 7 September the refinery was blockaded, and the main oil terminal entrances were physically blocked. That is intolerable as it puts my constituents at physical risk. That is not an acceptable way to conduct a dispute, whatever the rights and wrongs of the issue.

I noticed that in a press report in the Essex Evening Gazette the shadow Transport spokesman's office explained that

In other words, the shadow Transport spokesman had prior notice of the incidents that were to take place in my constituency and put my constituents at risk. When reading the report of my speech, I hope that he will consider that next time he might have the good grace to tell me, so that I can inform the police and the relevant authorities because of the major safety issues involved.

Intimidation has been mentioned, and there was intimidation. A total of 185 incidents have been collated across the country. They were gathered--[Interruption.] Does the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) wish to intervene?

Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border): I apologise for intervening from a sedentary position. I was simply saying that there was prompting from the Government because the Government asked the oil companies to find out. The incidents were not reported to the police. If they had been genuine, they would have been reported at the start.

Mr. Miller: I made a rather angry intervention on the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman). I accept that he knows more than I do about running a supermarket, but I suspect that I know more about cracking oil--and the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border knows a little as well.

It is important to understand the safety culture that surrounds those drivers. Quite rightly, under successive Governments safety standards in the oil industry have been driven higher and higher.

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

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

That is commendable action by the industry and it needs to continue. In one incident a driver was boxed in with a white van at either end of his vehicle, and was

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prevented from proceeding. Is the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border saying that that is not intimidation? Is he saying that the leader of the protest, whom I met at about 3 o'clock in the morning on 8 September, was not being intimidating? I can read from my notes of that meeting--the only notes that exist. The leader of the protest said:

Those may be the words of an angry man, but that is not acceptable, and it is intimidation. I wrote to the Leader of the Opposition with my observations and asked him whether he thought that people making such comments were fine upstanding citizens. He ducked the question, saying:

His language was beginning to shift. He went on:

Despite the fact that the shadow Transport spokesman knew about the protest and must have known about the serious risk to my constituents, and despite the fact that it was apparently the view of the Leader of the Opposition on 13 September that people should withdraw, he did not bother to tell the Leader of the Opposition what was going on. Such protests are entirely unacceptable.

My hon. Friend the Member for Clydesdale (Mr. Hood) advanced an interesting conspiracy theory. I, too, recall the late Norman Buchan--and I know some of his poetry, but I shall not recite it just now. I believe that it is not possible to advance the conspiracy theory too far. The simple fact is that the road being blockaded at Stanlow was a private road. Unfortunately, it belonged not to the Shell oil company but to the Manchester Ship Canal company. At 3 o'clock in the morning it was extremely difficult for the police to find any basis in law on which to act. They eventually did act on the basis of the issues that I have mentioned, and the physical blockade was lifted.

I have seen some splits in my time. I have seen some splits in my party, and I have certainly seen some splits in the Conservative party--but what is clear is the lack of cohesion among the representatives of the farming and haulage industries. When I told the gentlemen leading the fuel protests, whom I met on the night in question, that I had had discussions with the regional officer of the National Farmers Union in Cheshire about some of the issues, they said, "NFU--do you know what those letters stand for?" I shall not say what they said it stood for. Similar remarks were made about the Road Haulage Association.

The Treasury cannot have a rational debate with a disorganised group. There has to be a proper co-ordinated structure. I do not deny that hauliers and farmers have issues that are worthy of raising, but I urge them to raise those issues through the proper channels of the Road Haulage Association, the National Farmers Union and other existing structures.

I tell my right hon. Friend the Minister that the Government will have to address both short and long-term issues. The main short-term issue is how we should

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respond to rocketing crude oil prices. Just the other day, my domestic fuel tank was filled. Thanks to the Government, there was no VAT or fuel duty on that fuel. Nevertheless, because of the huge increase in the price of crude oil, the price of that domestic fuel has increased from 11p to 24p per litre in the past year.

Something has to be done in the short term. I ask the Government to consider carefully what can be done to continue downward pressure on vehicle excise duty. Such action would ensure that car ownership was not penalised, but it would not remove the pressure on those who drive excessive mileage. The fact that VED is a difficult tax to police, and is evaded by many domestic motorists and hauliers, also suggests that it should be reduced significantly. Additionally, deals could probably be done involving emissions reductions in exchange for vehicle excise duty reductions.

Technology--fuel cells and battery power have already been mentioned in the debate--offers some possible longer-term solutions. As technology advances and the nature of power transmission changes, we will be better able to decide where to find the funds necessary to support our road and other transport infrastructure. People in rural areas who tele-work from home also can benefit from a new strategy.

Today, we are trying to address an immensely complicated issue in a very short debate--[Interruption.] Opposition Members think that the issue is simple. I tell the House that we should get away from direct conflict, which does not assist the debate. As the hon. Member for Macclesfield said, we should get round the negotiating table, to find both short and long-term solutions that serve the interests of all our citizens.

6.4 pm

Mr. Christopher Fraser (Mid-Dorset and North Poole): I shall keep my comments short because I know that other hon. Members wish to speak.

As my right hon. and hon. Friends have said, despite the rhetoric that we have heard from the Government in the past few months, the facts are clear: the Library produced the figures showing that the price of fuel, in extra duty and VAT, has increased massively since this Government were elected. The general public do not see diesel and petrol prices in terms of percentage increases in tax as a proportion of the total price, they simply see increase after increase, tax after tax. They have become ever more frustrated at the Government's inability to handle the situation, and they want the Government to admit at last that they have made mistakes.

The Government have told the public--they told us again today--that the increases are due to the price of oil, the need to put money back into the economy and the need to save the environment, the NHS and the transport network itself. I dread to think what would happen if the Deputy Prime Minister's dream of reducing traffic congestion came true. If the Government had achieved those goals, the economy and our vital services would have ground to a halt.

I think that we all accept that the price of oil has increased greatly. However, that fact only makes the Government's spurious remarks about public services, deficits and jobs more ridiculous. The Institute for Fiscal Studies said that by the end of August the increase in the cost of oil had already netted the Chancellor £930 million.

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As my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) said, under Labour petrol tax has increased while public services have been getting worse. If the Government want to link fuel duty and public services, they have to explain why they have given British motorists the highest petrol prices in Europe while at the same time allowing the waiting list to see a consultant to increase by almost 200,000, class sizes in our schools to increase, police numbers to decrease by 3,000, and roads in Britain to deteriorate to their worst condition in 26 years.

If the Government are really prioritising hospital spending, why do they continue to charge fuel tax on NHS vehicles? Last year, £18.5 million of the NHS budget was clawed back by the Treasury in fuel tax on ambulances and other medical vehicles. What Labour gives with one hand, it takes back with the other. Treasury Ministers might ask themselves how many hip operations or junior doctors that money could have paid for.

We are debating an important subject. During the recess I was contacted by hauliers in my constituency, as other hon. Members were in theirs, and I spent some time talking and listening to them. It is a sad situation. They told me that their livelihoods were being destroyed, and their industry was becoming fiercely uncompetitive. They are at their wits' end. They also told me that no one listens to them. At least I listened. I also gave them my assurance that I would push the Government for answers to the questions that so many of them asked about fuel taxes in Britain.

Hauliers in my constituency told me that they hoped that the Government would not do deals in smoke-filled rooms with the oil companies just to get themselves off the hook of possible future protests. Hauliers want real solutions to real problems, and a long-term plan to ensure that our haulage industry can get back on the road. The facts are that the price of fuel duty is too high, that the Government can afford to reduce it, and that, as my right hon. and hon. Friends have said, the haulage industry is on its knees.

Fuel is a vital commodity to my constituents. They use their cars not as a luxury item but to get to work and to the shops, and to get their children to school. They are not impressed by the Government's tired rhetoric or the way in which they continually pass the buck. My postbag, like that of many of my colleagues, has demonstrated the breadth and depth of concern about fuel prices. The view in my constituency is that enough is enough.

A disabled driver in my constituency sent me a copy of a letter that he has written to the Deputy Prime Minister. He wrote:

The concern expressed in that letter is being echoed across the country.

Another constituent wrote:

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I have passed that correspondence to Ministers, and I await their reply. How does the Minister respond to my constituent who sums up the Prime Minister's response to public outrage at the high level of tax in Europe as

My constituent continues:

My constituents will not be impressed by the Government's failure to put forward a senior Minister to answer our and their concerns. They will not be impressed by the Government's stubborn refusal to reduce taxes despite their electoral promises, nor by the fact that the Government are blaming everyone but themselves for a problem that is of their own making.

The Government can call on the police for support. They can call on the armed forces to force through fuel supplies. They can call on motorists to leave their cars at home and struggle to work and school on inadequate public transport--but when the time comes for a general election, the public will have the last call on the Government.

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