Fuel Blockade

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:53 pm on 28th September 2000.

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Photo of Baroness Thomas of Walliswood Baroness Thomas of Walliswood Liberal Democrat 3:53 pm, 28th September 2000

My Lords, we thank the Minister for a long, complicated and detailed Statement. I am sure he will forgive me if I do not respond to or ask a question on every point. Indeed, he will probably be thankful if I do not! It is certainly alarming that not just the United Kingdom but much of the developed world can be thrown into economic and political trauma by the actions of OPEC. Will the noble Lord tell us what the Government can do to prevent more of what might be called "economic terrorism"? Have the Government met with EU governments to discuss the prevention of any further disruption and to consider whether international action could be taken to prevent it? After all, it has all happened before.

The Minister referred to just-in-time deliveries as a special factor in our current vulnerability. But the vulnerability of the economy to a rapid rise in fuel prices was demonstrated in 1973 and the winter of discontent showed us the result of fuel shortages. Will the noble Lord tell us what national emergency plans were already in existence to deal with a fuel crisis? The Government were criticised for their slow response to the crisis and it is interesting that the Statement contains not a single date or day on which an action was taken. At what point was the civil contingency unit put on alert? On what date did the Government first make contact with the oil companies about the breakdown of supplies to the pumps?

The Government are also vulnerable to a charge of not advising the public on how to cope with the crisis. During a drought, government and others advise consumers about how to use less water. I am not aware that television, radio and the rest of the media were used by the Government to advise people how to use less fuel during the crisis by car sharing and driving at lower speeds. Why was that not done?

We on these Benches would be the last to wish to reduce the right of peaceful protest, but another cause for concern was the perceived inaction of the police faced with a need to keep the highways open and to ensure the free flow of goods. As the Minister said, tanker drivers did feel threatened. That is the evidence we have. Members of trade unions, it might be pointed out, are not allowed to behave as these protestors did. If I sat down with 20 friends and blocked Dorking High Street we would be removed. So I have some more questions of the Minister. What is the proper role of the police in these circumstances? Did that particular group of protestors get any special treatment? Did the Home Secretary issue advice to the police or were local forces left to exercise their own judgement?

I now turn to the part of the Statement in which the Minister was looking ahead. Will he explain why there may be a need to use legislation to increase the powers of the police to deal with public disorder? The Minister outlined a wide range of measures which the Government are now taking to cope with a possible recurrence of the protest. I welcome the comment made by the Chancellor that this national debate is too important ever to be decided by those who shout the loudest or push the hardest.

It is to be hoped that the measures being taken will result in there not being a recommencement of protests at the end of the so-called 60-day ultimatum issued by the protestors. That manner of dealing with what is real public policy is unacceptable. We on these Benches very much support the Government in their refusal to bow to this kind of protest.

Towards the end of the Statement, the Minister referred to those words of the Chancellor about balancing the claims of those demanding cheaper fuel and those demanding a cleaner environment. The problem is that the fuel duty escalator which has now been abandoned by the Government has never been an environmental tax. As the Chancellor made clear on several occasions during the crisis, fuel duty goes to the Treasury and funds general expenditure. It has not been spent on better public transport. It is not a different sort of taxation. It is simply an extra tax. It is no wonder that motorists resented it, particularly those in rural areas or those whose livelihoods were at stake.

Will the Minister tell us what plans he has to try to temper the wind to the shorn lamb in terms of ensuring, for example, that fuel prices are not additionally expensive in rural areas as they currently are? Will the Minister now tell us whether the Government will use the VAT windfall arising from higher oil prices to support better public transport?