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Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe): As the Government are in receipt of a huge windfall benefit--largely as a result of increased petroleum revenue tax receipts--which was quite unforeseen at the time of the Budget, why do the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues persist in advancing the completely false argument that they cannot cut fuel duty without affecting their spending plans?

Mr. Straw: Coming from the right hon. and learned Gentleman, the shift in his party's position is quite extraordinary. Of course, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will take account of the revenues available to him. He always does so--as does any prudent Chancellor. However, I think the right hon. and learned Gentleman understands that--as I explained in my statement--my right hon. Friend has to take many other factors into account, including the effect of any changes in revenue levels on the overall level of demand and, as a result, on interest and mortgage rates.

I also have to say to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that he cannot get out of the box that the Opposition are now in on taxing and spending. It was not in March that the shadow Chancellor accused us of excessive spending plans; that was as late as late July, when he said, with the full support of the right hon. and learned Gentleman, that the spending plans of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, which have provided for substantial increases in investment in education, health, transport and the police, amounted to a splurge. The clear implication was not that we should increase spending but that we should cut it.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): Can my right hon. Friend tell me at what point the police underwent their dramatic conversion on all these bosses' blockades, when they changed the attitude that they had displayed in all the strikes and picket lines that I went on, and became all touchy-feely and sensitive to the people on the refinery blockades? Will he also bear it in mind that some of us believe in the language of priorities in relation to spending? Will he convey to the Chancellor of the Exchequer that, now that he has built up a surplus, we do not want an education on how to spend it from people who were experts in building up a deficit?

Will my right hon. Friend listen to me, because I have played a part in building up this surplus? Will he bear in mind--and tell all the fuel protesters--that next week we want more money for the health service, which has given many of us a second mortgage on another life? We want more money for those regional areas where they shut the pits and we need more employment. And we need more money for education. If there is anything left in this surplus--I hope that there is a big chunk--we want the rest of it for the pensioners. When my right hon. Friend

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has done all that, he should remember the old adage that you can only spend the money once, and then tell the fuel protesters, "We've spent it all."

Mr. Straw: I commend my hon. Friend for the prudence that he has just shown. Of course he is right; this is about priorities. We cannot spend the money twice and the Government have to make choices--sometimes very difficult choices. One of the many things that has led members of the Conservative party completely to exclude themselves from the prospect of responsibility in government is their pretence that this money can be spent twice over, as well as their record, as my hon. Friend says, which was not about creating surpluses--except in the late 1980s, when they splurged a surplus, with disastrous consequences for this country. During the period when this lot--these people--were holding ministerial office, there was no surplus and we ended up with a deficit of, I believe, £28 billion.

Let me deal with the point that my hon. Friend raised about methods of policing. Many people have said to me, "The police did not act as swiftly as they did in the miners' strike."

Mr. Skinner: You bet they didn't.

Mr. Straw: I tell my hon. Friend that no more than he did I approve of the tactics of the previous Government--many of those tactics in respect of the miners' strikes. There are also many police officers, who are now in senior positions in the police service, who at the time were very uncomfortable about actions that they felt they were asked to undertake.

In my judgment, the police deserve congratulations on the careful and proportionate way in which they sought to police these actions. These are decisions that they must take, and are not for me. I place it on the record that everyone--the media, the Government, the police and many others--did not anticipate the speed and scale with which the disruption took place, but in a matter of days arrangements were put in place with the police to ensure that their policing was proportionate to the problems, and that every effort was made to reduce the disruption.

The police have assured me, given what we now know and the serious threats being placed on the record about future disruption not only to fuel supplies but to food supplies and other essential supplies in our society, that they will take appropriate action to deal with it.

Sir David Madel (South-West Bedfordshire): In his discussions with senior police officers, did the Home Secretary remind them that secondary picketing is unlawful and that, even when picketing is allowed, there must be no than six people involved at the place of work, because numbers of people can be intimidatory? Has there been close liaison between the police and the Transport and General Workers Union on how drivers will be looked after if--and we hope that this does not happen--there is any form of the trouble that we saw last time?

Mr. Straw: Secondary picketing raises an interesting question. Had it been an industrial dispute, the law, as it now stands, would have meant that employers and the

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police would have been able to take action in respect of the protests outside the terminals. Because it was not an industrial dispute, the police were constrained at the beginning in the action that they felt able to take.

I am sorry that I did not quite hear the hon. Gentleman's second point, but I think that I picked up its gist. He asked whether arrangements are being made between the police, the oil company management and the drivers better to secure the drivers' safety in the event of protests. The answer to that is yes.

Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East): May I say first that I hope that my right hon. Friend's plans will never be put into action? I represent a constituency that contains Grangemouth, Scotland's only refinery. When I talked to the protesters, they said that they wanted to get round the table with the Government and their leader, Robert Burns, said that that was the sensible approach. We have heard today that that has happened, and only the most irresponsible of truck drivers and the most irresponsible of politicians would say anything other than that there should not be another protest.

May I ask my right hon. Friend specifically whether he has talked to the media? When I visited Grangemouth on Tuesday 12 September, I talked to the people on the picket line and they seemed to be very reasonable about talking to the Government. When I returned on 13 September, I found more than 500 ordinary citizens and their children blocking the road to the refinery. The television cameras had broadcast an appeal by one of the so-called leaders of the protests for people to come to the refinery to join the blockade. A melee went on till after midnight on 13 September. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the media do not broadcast stupid messages from the protesters if that brings out ordinary citizens to what they think is a jamboree? As my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) pointed out, such places are dangerous zones where tankers with thousands of litres of fuel in them pass up and down. Such appeals are irresponsible and we must ensure that the media do not allow what happened to take place again.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Speaker: Order. Before the Home Secretary replies, may I point out that we must have brief questions? Otherwise some hon. Members will not be able to take part.

Mr. Straw: I shall try, Mr. Speaker, to give brief answers.

Yes, we have been speaking to all the representatives of the peaceful protests outside the refineries and to many others. However, whatever the media reported, some people took unlawful action to blockade access and egress to terminals. I have not had any discussions with the media about how they report the events, and I do not intend to do so. It is a matter for them.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire): How dare the Home Secretary accuse my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) and Conservative Members of jumping on a bandwagon? His memory is at fault. I had an Adjournment debate on

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11 November 1998 on the issue, and Conservative Members have consistently voted against every vindictive increase in fuel duties--[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. I do not want to hear about voting records. I want a short, sharp question from the hon. Gentleman.

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