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6.10 pm

Mrs. Jackie Lawrence (Preseli Pembrokeshire): Let me say first that I disagree whole-heartedly with the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton). I consider hon. Members' car allowances to be extremely generous and I would willingly see them cut if it would encourage hon. Members to use smaller vehicles that are more fuel efficient.

I am surprised that the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) is willing to tolerate the bully-boy tactics that resulted in cancelled operations and radiotherapy and losses for business in my constituency. It even provoked the comment from the brother of Brinley Williams, one of the protagonists in the campaign, that he had lost a considerable amount of money. He accused his brother of playground bullying.

My constituency is a large rural area and it has not taken recent events to make me aware of the concerns of many of my constituents who rely heavily on their cars to gain access to essential services. It is an issue that I have been raising with Ministers for the past three and a half years, unlike the Opposition, who have pursued one course in office and another out of office.

Although the Opposition may wish to focus the debate on fuel taxation, a glance at the other underlying issues will show that it is precisely because of their action, or in many cases lack of action, that the United Kingdom faced the problems it did during the protests in September.

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

Mrs. Lawrence: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will have the opportunity to make his own speech. He has intervened many times and I have only 12 minutes.

It is important to look at the underlying issues. They include the declining world oil supplies and the failure of former UK Governments to plan for that decline; the level of continued dependence on fossil fuels and the failure of past UK Governments to invest in alternative energy supplies and to recognise the need to support essential

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services in rural areas so that people are now more than ever dependent on transport to reach those essential services.

In Pembrokeshire we have two oil refineries, one in my constituency. They were both affected by the blockades in September when protesters held the country to ransom. Other specific issues highlighted at the time included emergency planning, the role of the oil companies in recent events--I shall turn to those in a moment in relation to the comments by my hon. Friend the Member for Clydesdale (Mr. Hood)--the implications of changes by the previous Tory Government in 1992 to the oil warehousing regulations and whether we are prepared to allow a group of bully boys, however noble they see their cause, holding the country to ransom without any comprehension of the damage that they have caused to others in society.

In relation to dependence on oil, during the protests I received an e-mail from a group of oil experts and academics pointing out that by 2009--only nine years away--it is estimated that world demand for oil will exceed supply. If that is correct, it is inevitable by the very nature of supply and demand economics that oil prices will escalate. That brings me to my second point: the failure of the previous British Government to invest in alternative sources of energy and renewables in particular.

I recently returned from a trip to Denmark with the parliamentary renewable and sustainable energy group. Denmark has a commitment to renewable energy and has already met its target for energy production from renewable sources of 1,500 MW by 2005. The UK is producing only 350 MW from renewable sources.

Until recently, electricity generators were unable to produce energy from wind turbines economically--due, regrettably, to the unfortunate lack of action on the part of the previous Government--unless they applied for sites with wind velocity of between 8.5 and 9 m per second. This put pressure for sites in some of the most wild and beautiful locations in the UK and resulted in 89 per cent. of such applications being refused by planning authorities. The previous Government failed to address the issue.

Only now has the system changed and I am told that energy generation would be viable from sites with wind velocity of 7 m per second. This opens up the possibility of development on redundant and auxiliary power station sites currently not used. These are mainly in industrial settings and do not threaten our wild and beautiful areas. A conversation I had with a representative from National Wind Power on my recent visit to Denmark indicated that this could open up a further 1,000 MW of wind turbine production. Those issues are crucial to the debate and show the extent to which the Opposition, when in government, let the people of the United Kingdom down.

My constituents depend heavily on their cars. In many instances this can be traced back to the action, or lack of action, by the previous Government to support rural dwellers. We have already heard that by 1997 only one in four parishes in rural areas had a daily bus service. The previous Government closed 30 rural schools a year and 3,000 post offices while they were in office. I recall from my own experience as a member of the Dyfed-Powys police authority the closure of rural police stations and the refusal of the previous Government to allow our local

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police authority to increase the number of officers. The introduction of market forces into health services meant increased centralisation as a result of funding pressures and led to the need for rural dwellers to travel to reach those services.

Fuel taxation--which the Opposition have tried to concentrate on this afternoon--is high and we are faced with a dilemma. I want my constituents to be able to access the services that they need, but we must also have a mind to future generations. If we fail to do that, we are not behaving responsibly.

In 1997 the Tories said on page 386 of their campaign guide:

Why have they suddenly shifted to irresponsibility? It smacks of sitting on the fence and facing both ways depending on which audience they are talking to. Surely the responsible approach to the dilemma of fuel taxation is to use the taxation to restore services in rural areas, to invest in alternative fuels and vehicle technology, to reinvest in renewable energy to meet the future needs of British industry and to target motoring tax breaks at essential car users, such as those in rural areas.

It is also interesting that the Conservative party website refers to fuel prices in Denmark and Holland as being 73p and 75p respectively. I have visited both countries in the past few weeks. Those are indeed the fuel prices, but the Conservative website does not mention that in Denmark income tax starts at 50 per cent. and increases to 75 per cent. while in Holland it starts at 40 per cent. and increases to 55 per cent. That compares with a starting rate of 10p and a standard rate of 22p in the UK.

I now turn to the protests in September and their impact on my local area. The staff at the Elf refinery in Milford Haven were quick thinking and coped extremely well with what could have been a serious safety problem. I cannot praise them enough. Although I have only praise for the local refinery employees, I question the role of the oil companies as multinational organisations in these events. Had it been a trade union dispute, I am sure that there would have been no question of protesters using refinery facilities such as canteens, showers and toilets. I was interested to hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Clydesdale that the same happened elsewhere.

Indeed, when I visited the refinery at the time of the dispute there was a line of Portaloos on the grass verge outside the refinery for the use of the protesters. That is hardly an indication of a spontaneous protest. It is also interesting to note that on 20 September the Evening Gazette reported that the wife of the Opposition Transport spokesman explained that they were away on holiday because they had been informed by hauliers that the protest would take place the following week and they had planned to be back by then. I would like a detailed investigation into the role of the oil companies and others in these protests which caused so much inconvenience and hardship to my constituents.

I am concerned about the shortcomings in emergency planning. Throughout the UK, we have emergency planning teams that look at all sorts of potential incidents. This one was overlooked. I would like the Government to

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look at the oil warehousing regulations which mean that supermarkets keep a small stock of supplies while oil refineries must keep over 60 days' supply.

Finally, I hope that the House will uphold the principle that bully-boy tactics employed by any group against society as a whole--however noble they feel their cause to be--are unacceptable.

6.20 pm

Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border): The Government and Labour Members still have not learned, have they? They still have not listened to what is going on out there. We have heard today about thugs, bully boys and blockades. We have heard about conspiracy theories, and hon. Members have been critical of the RHA and the NFU for not pulling together. There cannot be much of a conspiracy if everyone was doing their own thing.

The fact is that those protesting in my constituency were hard-pressed owner-drivers, farmers and rural people. It was a spontaneous and popular uprising against the highest fuel prices in Europe.

The Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), criticised the Minister for the Environment, the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher), for not appearing on television. Of course, the right hon. Gentleman did not appear on television. I regard him as an honest and decent Minister. He is too honest for his own good, as he found out on Sunday when he admitted that the Government might bring back the escalator. We saw Ministers getting their orders to go on television and tell whopping big untruths about thuggery, intimidation, violence and the imminent collapse of the health service. There was a whole pile of spin and propaganda. Despite the fact that I think that the right hon. Gentleman has policies that are totally wrong, I know that he is too decent to do that dirty, grubby work for the Government.

We heard today about climate change which, of course, is happening. However, it is not being caused solely and uniquely by Britain. The burden of solving the problem should not fall only on United Kingdom businesses. China, India, the United States--these huge consumers of fossil fuels are putting infinitely more pollution into the atmosphere than Britain and should play their part. Why have the Government decided--and boasted after the Kyoto summit--that Britain would take a heavier share of the burden than anyone else?

Oil prices have risen in the last few months and are now up to approximately $35 a barrel. However, oil is the same price throughout the world. The French are paying the same price for crude oil as we are in Britain, yet their fuel is taxed at least 15p a litre lower than ours. The Germans pay the same price for crude oil and their fuel is taxed at least 20p lower than ours. That is why our people protested and why small business men, farmers and lorry drivers protested against a situation that the Government created.

Although I am happy to defend the Minister for the Environment on many occasions, I cannot defend one aspect of his speech today. He was very careful to pick a finely defined time limit, saying that, in the last 18 months, crude oil prices had risen and therefore that the oil price has had a disproportionate effect, rather than the Government's taxation policies. However, the Government boast that they reinvented history from May

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1997 and that a new world order began when they came in. The Government have been in power now for three years and it is perfectly legitimate to compare the price of fuel in May 1997 with the price now. In May 1997, the average price was £2.68 per gallon. In September of this year, the average was £3.91 and there are some parts of the country where the price is more than £4 per gallon.

Since May 1997, it is not the price increase in crude oil that has resulted in us having the highest fuel costs in Europe; it is the extra taxes imposed unfairly by the Government on our motorists and businesses because they want to bring in extra revenue.

We have heard stories today about intimidation and, no doubt, there was some. I deplore it, as everyone does. But it was nothing like on the scale of the gross exaggeration that we are hearing from Labour Members and the Government. If there had been intimidation, the British police service would moved immediately to stop it.

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