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Mr. Paterson: I bitterly regret that this issue has not been sorted out in Parliament. Should the Government continue with their policy and a crisis be provoked, will the Home Secretary provide a telephone or fax number to which Members of Parliament can address urgent requests from constituents for help? During the previous crisis, I faxed Downing street about a very urgent issue and received no--
Mr. Straw: I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman did not receive details of the designated line that we set up for Members. We shall seek to set up another one. I am sorry that I missed the hon. Gentleman's Adjournment debate. What I have quoted in relation to the shadow Chancellor's attitude is accurate.
Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington): Would not hauliers do well to reflect on what would happen if beer drinkers blocked the breweries and the motorways because they wanted to pay less duty; if smokers blocked tobacco plants and the motorways because they wanted to pay less duty on cigarettes; if peace campaigners blocked the motorways because they wanted to avoid paying tax towards the defence industry; and if environmentalists blocked the motorways because they thought the hauliers should pay more tax? There would be chaos. It is a matter now of who runs Britain.
Of course there are limits to peaceful protests. As for who runs Britain in a democratic society, it is a matter for Parliament and government. It is a matter for Parliament, through the ballot box, in reflecting the will of the people. There are many ways in which people can democratically express either their support for or opposition to the Government of the day. I celebrate, support and defend those avenues, but blocking motorways is not one of them.
Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): I ask the Home Secretary for further reassurances on the number of designated filling stations in rural areas, especially in west Wales, which is at the end of the distribution line. I had only one such station in my constituency. Unfortunately, it had closed four years ago. The one 200 yards down the road could not obtain fuel because it was not on the designated list. My information is that emergency services
Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman is right to say that many people in rural areas were particularly badly affected. Along with the north-west, my region, Wales was perhaps the worst affected part of the United Kingdom.
As the hon. Gentleman may know, my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. Morgan), the First Secretary of the National Assembly for Wales, has been heavily involved in discussions. I pay tribute to him and his colleagues for all their work to ensure that we are fully apprised of the needs of Wales, particularly those of rural areas. We are ensuring that the list of designated filling stations will be much more accurate than previously.
Ms Bridget Prentice (Lewisham, East): I understand my right hon. Friend when he says that the Government do not seek confrontation. However, sometimes some people need to be confronted. It is unacceptable that the leaders of so-called fine upstanding men should be allowed to stand outside the House in an anti-democratic and anarchic fashion and threaten the lives of people by the protests that they intend to make. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that when they have the despicably entitled Jarrow march--they are as ignorant in their understanding of history as in their understanding of democracy--the police will not fail to ensure that they are arrested and that the courts will take the full panoply of the criminal law into account when anyone disrupts our civilised society?
Mr. Straw: On the particular point that my hon. Friend raises, as I have made it clear, operational decisions are a matter for the chief officers of police and their constables, and they operate, properly and necessarily by law, independently of Ministers or the police authorities. I can also tell my hon. Friend that of course the police are taking account of all the known threats and are adjusting their plans accordingly.
Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim): Having had some experience of protest and of endeavouring to ensure that the protest was peaceful, I agree with what has been said. Intimidation, violence and threats damage the case of those who want fuel costs reduced. I ask the Home Secretary to bear in mind the fact that tremendous frustration exists. There is serious frustration in Northern Ireland, where hundreds of millions of pounds'-worth of tax due to the Exchequer is not even being collected, because of the fraudulent operations that go on there. Will the Home Secretary give some assurance today to those who have made representations to Government that the Government are listening?
Mr. Straw: The Government are listening. I spelled out in my statement many of the meetings that Ministers across Government have held with representative organisations. Of course, my right hon. Friends the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland have taken particular account of the points that the hon. Gentleman makes about cross-border smuggling, not only of petrol, but of other material.
Mr. Shaun Woodward (Witney): Has my right hon. Friend had a chance to see a website called www.fuel-protest.com? If he has, he will have noticed links to the Countryside Alliance, the British National party, the UK Independence party, the Hauliers and Farmers Alliance, the Road Haulage Association and others. He will also have noticed that on the website, which is claimed to be the legitimate voice of the fuel protesters, it is stated:
Mr. Straw: I have indeed seen the printout of that internet site. I do not for a moment suggest that a majority of those who were involved in the protests in September share the views shown on the site; perhaps a very small minority do. What is on that site is revolting. As my hon. Friend says, it is straightforwardly racist in its tone. To some extent, we must all be concerned about the company that we keep.
Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): The Home Secretary rightly spoke about the damage that would be done to business and industry by a protracted period of fuel protest. Does he also acknowledge that if the Government persist in having the highest fuel taxes in Europe, the life will be squeezed progressively out of British businesses, especially small businesses, and the Government's policy will do enormous damage to business, as it is doing to the budgets of ordinary families who have to pay such high fuel taxes?
Mr. Straw: If the hon. Gentleman wants a debate about relative tax burdens between the United Kingdom and Europe, he cannot isolate fuel prices, even for the haulage industry. He must look at the tax burden as a whole. Thanks to the magnificent way in which my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has managed the economy, we now have employment at its highest level, inflation at the lowest level in Europe, and one of the lowest tax burdens of any country in Europe. A few weeks ago The Sunday Times stated that whereas our tax burden was about 37 per cent., that of Europe as a whole was about 44 or 45 per cent.
Helen Jones (Warrington, North): Does my right hon. Friend agree that fuel protesters' claims to be protecting emergency services rang very hollow when essential supplies did not get through to hospitals? My local hospital told me that it would have begun to run out of essential supplies within a few days.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning the moral equivocation of the Opposition, who seem content to put the care of sick people at risk, and will he assure me that essential supplies will be protected in the event of further protests?
Mr. Straw: Yes--and those claims did ring hollow, because the protesters set themselves up to arbitrate on what was and was not an emergency service without understanding that, in a modern society, people who do not carry a card saying "I work for an emergency service" may nevertheless have an essential part to play in such services.