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Mrs. Lawrence: Does the right hon. Gentleman describe as intimidation the names of tanker drivers who wanted to carry out deliveries being given to protesters, who did not threaten the drivers on the line but their families in their homes?
Mr. Maclean: If people were threatening families and individuals in their homes, of course that is intimidation and there would have been some disgraceful examples, which we all deplore. However, the Government are trying to pretend that that was on a massive scale and that everyone was doing it. That is not the case at all, as the police said.
The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) complained about the cosy, relaxed atmosphere on the picket line and at protests, with police and protesters having amenable relations. That, of course, was because there was very little violence and intimidation. The police made it clear that if any single driver wanted through, they would move heaven and earth to make sure that that vehicle got through. That is their job.
As the police pointed out after the Prime Minster appeared on television on that Tuesday night--like a startled rabbit caught in the car headlights--to say that the police would get things through, if owner-drivers were asked by protesters not to go through and decided voluntarily not to do so, there was nothing the police could or should do. Any single driver who wanted to get his vehicle through was allowed to do so.
To begin with, some people did pull vehicles across the road. The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston was careful in his language and said that, at a certain time on the night of 7 September, there was a blockade. How long did it last? When the police asked those involved to move their vehicles to the side, did that not happen almost instantly? When the police said to protesters that they could not stop vehicles and must stand at the side of the road, did they not, on nearly every single occasion, obey that? Of course they did. The Government cannot pretend that an unrepresentative bunch of people blocked the roads and that people who wanted through were stopped, as that is not the case.
The Government must realise that when our hauliers, farmers and rural businesses are faced with the highest fuel duty and the highest vehicle excise duties in Europe, as their businesses go bankrupt and people are laid off, of course they will wish to protest about it. They are desperate to save their businesses. The Government have got to accept that that is the case. They must stop their propaganda exercise of looking for conspiracies and trying to colour the picture.
The Government are trying to blacken the names of those who are protesting in case there is another dispute. If we are looking for conspiracy theories, we should go back to what happened last week, when the BBC suddenly came up with a programme out of thin air, putting on the airwaves a "Today" programme about the terrible intimidation that had apparently taken place a few weeks before. That intimidation was not reported to the police at the time--indeed, it was denied. When the BBC was asked whether it was put up to it by the Government, a spokesman would not comment.
Mr. Maclean: Well, we have got our answer there. How convenient that, on the morning that the BBC decided that there was an apparent intimidation problem that they had not been able to find before, despite efforts to do so with millions of cameras around the country. The BBC was desperate to find examples of intimidation that it could show on television a la miners' strike. It could not find those examples but, two weeks later, unsubstantiated reports appeared. On the day that the fuel task force met, the Home Secretary was able to talk about threats and intimidation, a few hours after the "Today" programme introduced the issue.
Yes, there was a conspiracy, which relates to Millbank and Downing street. We saw that as Minister after Minister was put up to a propaganda exercise, as well as the disaster of the Secretary of State for Health giving an outrageous line on television, which was later denied by the health authorities. The Government have a chance to listen to the protesters who are deeply worried about their situation. Having been given that chance, the Government should listen and cut duty to the rate that existed at the last Budget. The windfall that they have suddenly got from rising oil prices is the people's money, and they should return it to them.
This is a serious and important debate. I am disappointed that more Members have not been able to speak and, indeed, that there are few of us in the Chamber. For a variety of reasons, the cost of fuel has caused deep anger and frustration, especially in rural areas. I speak for my constituents in Shrewsbury and Atcham in a very rural part of Shropshire, and I have a long history of supporting rural car users and road hauliers in their bid to reduce the price of fuel.
I would like to put on record the fact that I have had several meetings in London and Shrewsbury with Ministers and road hauliers. I presented a petition to Parliament on this very subject in March 1999 and even went on the national BBC programme "Panorama" to call for Government action.
I have been criticised by the left of my party, the right of the Conservative party and even the Road Haulage Association, so I feel that I am starting to get something right. The problem is complex and difficult and, as many hon. Members have said, revolves around many factors. There are no easy solutions: we do not need quick-fix Tory tax gimmicks, but well thought out policies.
I shall put the matter in context. My postbag contains far more post from my rural area about health, education and wider transport issues than about the specifics of fuel tax which nevertheless are important. The effects of the tax on rural areas have been underestimated, although in 1997 the Institute for Fiscal Studies reported that poor and rural areas bear a disproportionate effect of the high cost of fuel.
I should like to pay tribute to Shropshire's public services for what they did in those seven days in September to bring fuel into the county. I played a small part on the Wednesday evening, when the leader of Shropshire county council told me that not one litre of fuel could get through, and that that was starting to jeopardise essential services, such as day care, home help and the fire service. The Royal Shrewsbury hospital had to cancel operations, schools were closed and there were even food shortages. It was a desperate time.
Some small rural road hauliers have genuinely suffered. I accept what my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) said about overcapacity, but I should like to mention Jim and Tina Jordan, whom I have known for several years. In October 1997, fuel cost them about 28 per cent. of their haulage business's annual turnover of £400,000, but that proportion is now about 40 per cent. Before Opposition Members get too excited, the year before we were elected, the Jordans spent 31 per cent. of their turnover on fuel. Initially, therefore, the Labour Government helped to bring down that cost.
I am calling for urgent action from the Government. We have 19 days to go and I fear that the protesters will be back. We need a far more genuine and sympathetic understanding of the annoyance and anger in rural areas and must pressurise oil companies to reduce profits and
In summary, I urge the Government to act in the pre-Budget report and urge the protesters not to return. Above all, we do not need Tory tax gimmicks, but real action to help my constituents in the countryside.
We heard two contrasting speeches at the opening of this debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman) delivered an incisive, analytical speech with flair and imagination, in complete contrast to the ducking and weaving of the Minister for the Environment, who has not bothered to turn up for the winding-up speeches. I am not surprised at that--in fact, I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman is still a Minister after his speech, which left Government policy on the fuel duty escalator in complete tatters.
At the weekend, the right hon. Gentleman made a gaffe in a television studio, when he said that the escalator might be brought back. The Treasury was put on the back foot, and The Independent reported:
Under pressure from my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells, the Minister for the Environment talked about the escalator and said that the Government would look at the matter on a case-by-case basis. What does that mean and what is the policy now? How much does the price of fuel have to fall before the Minister will consider the matter on a case-by-case basis? Will the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, who is replying to the debate and has the benefit of the Chief Secretary to the Treasury sitting beside him, provide clarity on the policy? What is the Government's policy on the escalator?
For millions of people the length and breadth of this country, the car is a necessity, not a luxury. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mr. Fraser) said, that message is hopelessly lost on the Government, who continue to attack the car and its use at every opportunity. Just nine months after the election, the then Minister of Transport, the right hon. Member for Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh (Dr. Strang), was asked "Are you prepared to tax us, to persuade us, force us even to get out of our cars?". He replied, "Yes, indeed." He was as good as his word.
The facts are inescapable. In May 1997, the average cost of unleaded petrol was 59p a litre; today it is about 80p. The amount of tax on a litre of such petrol was 46p in 1997. Today it is 61p--an increase of 34 per cent.--yet the Chancellor consistently blames the high price of oil. He is obviously not aware that Britain has almost the cheapest pre-tax petrol in the European Union, behind Germany. However, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) noted in his excellent speech, adding on tax causes Britain to leap to the top of the price league, with petrol that is 23 per cent. more expensive than the EU average.
The reason is straightforward. In the Government's first 21 months in power, they held three Budgets and increased petrol by at least 6 per cent. above inflation each time--that is three annual increases in less than two years. In the 1999 Budget, the Chancellor increased diesel duty by 12 per cent., with a devastating effect on hauliers and farmers.
The net upshot is that, under Labour, people are paying about £7 a week more for their petrol, at a time when the old-age pension has gone up by just over £5 a week. There is the rub: this Government are different from Labour Governments of old. Under Denis Healey, Labour was honest--he said that he would tax the rich until the pips squeaked. Six weeks ago, the pips squeaked all right, except that it was not the rich complaining but ordinary people--hard-working families, and struggling pensioners trying to live on the extra 75p a week. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) said, the families hit hardest are those on the lowest incomes. The rich can afford £350 a year, but people on low incomes in the Labour party's heartlands are the ones who are feeling it most.