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Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald): I thank the Home Secretary for that statement. I feel obliged to observe that for the second time he has failed to deliver to the Opposition a copy of the statement in reasonable time. The conventions of the House--[Interruption.]
Mr. Speaker: Order. The right hon. Lady must have a hearing.
Miss Widdecombe: Thank you, Mr. Speaker.
The conventions of the House, which are there for the purpose of calling the Government to account, suggest that the Government should give statements to the Opposition at least 30 minutes in advance of delivery. We received this statement little more than a quarter of an hour before it was due to be made. [Interruption.] The mood of the House indicates the defensiveness on the Government side. [Interruption.]
Mr. Speaker: Order. Mr. Caplin, you must be calm.
Miss Widdecombe: The Opposition will support all measures that are reasonable and sensible to keep the economy moving, to keep food in the shops and fuel in the pumps and, above all, to keep the emergency services in action. Nevertheless, is not the real reason for any impending fuel crisis this arrogant and out-of-touch Government's refusal to cut fuel taxes? Is it not the case that, having reached the top of the escalator, they simply refuse to get off? Is it not the case that they have such limited experience of filling up a petrol tank for themselves that they have no idea of the effect on ordinary, hard-working families? I assume that the Home Secretary's driver fills up his tank and carries the can for that.
The Government have caused this crisis by their refusal to listen to the hard-pressed people of Britain or to the consistent warnings of the Opposition. Will the Home Secretary say now, simply and straightforwardly and in words of one syllable, whether he accepts that fuel tax is too high? Is not the Home Secretary stoking up a crisis by advocating panic buying and stockpiling? Presumably to divert attention from his failures, is not the right hon. Gentleman attempting to scare the nation with the ghost of this Government's credibility?
Is the Home Secretary aware of the statements made by several police forces across the country, and by Sir John Evans on behalf of the Association of Chief Police Officers, that the previous protests were overwhelmingly peaceful? The right hon. Gentleman makes large claims about intimidation and violence, but the police organisations have said that
Will the Home Secretary tell the House how many drivers are being trained by the military for the emergency? Will he largely be using members of the Territorial Army? If so, does he not see the supreme irony that many of those troops who are trained Army drivers will in civilian life be tanker and lorry drivers, and that they will therefore be paid by the taxpayer for doing a job that they would have been doing anyway? I want the exact figures--[Interruption.]
Mr. Speaker: Order. I cannot hear the right hon. Lady. I must be able to hear her.
Miss Widdecombe: I accept that he may need a bit of notice before he can produce them, but I want the exact figures from the Home Secretary on the number of regular drivers being trained, the numbers of Territorial Army personnel involved, and the numbers of those personnel who are lorry drivers in civilian life.
Will the Home Secretary comment on the fact that the list of designated petrol stations dated from the time of the Gulf war, 10 years ago? As a result, many of the stations designated were closed or were inadequate. Is not the right hon. Gentleman responsible for that? What is he going to do to rectify the matter next time?
This time, will the Home Secretary also designate for priority vehicles which transport people with disabilities for essential purposes? He did not do that last time. Disabled organisations say that the fact that those vehicles were not designated last time caused real hardship. I should be grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's confirmation that those vehicles will be so designated if that is necessary this time.
On behalf of the Opposition, I urge protesters not to resort to unlawful action, but rather to use the ballot box to get rid of this lying, cheating, arrogant, stealth-taxing Labour Government.
Mr. Straw: I seem to recall that Sir Winston Churchill once observed, "If you have a weak case, shout." The more the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) ranted, the less convincing her case became. As someone who has dined out for years on moral absolutes, her equivocation on this issue will be as unconvincing outside the House as it was inside it.
Let me deal with the points that the right hon. Lady raised. First, I am sorry that the statement was delivered late. My understanding was that she received it at 12.10 pm. The former Home Secretary, the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), was very good about ensuring that, whenever possible, I received statements well in advance. However, as the right hon. Lady knows--and she often places this on the record--I have sought whenever possible to give her sometimes even more notice than I was given in opposition. She often has three or four hours in which to read documents. There were good reasons why the detail of the statement could not be delivered to her until 12.10 pm.
The right hon. Lady spoke about the Opposition's persistent warnings that fuel taxes were too high. Her recollection must be very different from mine. The previous Government introduced the fuel duty escalator in March 1993 and increased it from 3 per cent. to 5 per cent. in November 1993. At the election, at which they stood with such spectacular results--for us--they boasted in their campaign guide about the way in which they had increased the fuel duty escalator. The shadow Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo) said in this place that the fuel escalator was intended to raise revenue. The same right hon. Gentleman said to Sir David Frost in July of this year, when asked whether he would definitely reduce the tax on petrol:
The right hon. Lady asked me about whether the protests were overwhelmingly peaceful last time. I have already said that many protesters acted lawfully and peacefully. When will we hear unequivocal condemnation from the right hon. Lady and the Leader of the Opposition of the fact that some of the protesters went way beyond the bounds of peaceful protest, and that there was intimidation? There is no way that she and others can deny the truth of that--the log shows it.
The right hon. Lady asked about operators' licences.
Miss Widdecombe: What about arrests?
Mr. Straw: The number of arrests is well known. I think it was about two. When action is plainly unlawful--for example, in areas of high crime, where equal intimidation takes place and where witnesses are intimidated--the Opposition are normally the first to say that the police should have made more arrests, not fewer, in the face of that evidence. Yet in the face of 180 separately recorded instances of disruption, the right hon. Lady seems to be saying that it is a good thing, not a bad thing, that few arrests were made.
The right hon. Lady asked about operators' licences. Of course, if hauliers conduct themselves peacefully, there is no threat to their operators' licences. [Hon. Members: "Ah.] Well of course that is true. If they conduct themselves in a way that breaches the law, however, there may be a threat to their licences.
The right hon. Lady asked me about special branch. She was a Home Office Minister, so she very well knows that there are no circumstances in which a Home Secretary will tell the House which actions of particular groups are being investigated by law enforcement agencies. I have two things to say to her: I have ensured that all the law enforcement agencies properly observe the strictly laid down requirements of the law, and I shall continue to do so.
The right hon. Lady asked how many drivers in the Army had been trained for possible use. I understand that up to 1,000 have been trained, and that they are regular members of the armed forces.
The right hon. Lady asked about designated petrol stations--
Miss Widdecombe: What about territorials?
Mr. Straw: I have just said they are regulars. There is a difference between regular soldiers and territorials.
The right hon. Lady asked about designated petrol--[Interruption.]