Fuel Blockade

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:00 pm on 28th September 2000.

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Photo of Lord Macdonald of Tradeston Lord Macdonald of Tradeston Minister of State, Department for Transport, Minister of State (Transport), Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, Minister of State (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions) 4:00 pm, 28th September 2000

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, for the Opposition's rejection of direct actions and of ultimatums by unelected groups. I am indeed grateful and should have been even more grateful had that been stated more loudly by the Benches opposite during the blockades.

The noble Lord made several points about our Budgets. I should point out to him that the last Budget was, indeed, the first for 11 years in which fuel duties were not raised above the rate of inflation. As I said earlier, not only did we abolish the fuel duty escalator but we took £1,800 off the vehicle excise duty on a 40-tonne, five-axle lorry in direct response to the concerns of the haulage industry. I should point out that since that Budget, only 2p out of the 19p rise in the price of petrol has been caused by fuel duty.

As for the recent gesture made by the Shadow Cabinet, I should say that when meeting protesters last week, the one thing which united them was their derision about the 3p offered by the Benches opposite on a day when Safeway, responding to the market, put up its fuel prices by 5p per litre.

The noble Lord mentioned the pension index calculation. I believe that that is based on a method of assessment which we inherited from the previous government; but I point out again to the House the dramatic increase in the price of crude oil from 10 dollars a barrel to 30 dollars a barrel at present.

Clearly Budget-setting processes cannot be based on the price of such a volatile commodity. But I point noble Lords opposite towards that budget-setting process as a way for us to advance our arguments in your Lordships' House and to ensure that all parties outside understand the nature of that democratic process.

On the question of the priority filling stations, no doubt when one is issuing orders directed at 3,200 stations across the country, there are inaccuracies. However, I was impressed by the way that the oil companies, the police and the local authorities worked together with the government offices. Our task force will be bringing all of those lists up to date in the process of co-ordination, co-operation and communication in which it is now engaged.

The emergency regulation orders still stand. As I said, it was not necessary to implement them. The actions during the events of the past two weeks were all carried out on a non-statutory basis.

I turn now to the remarks made by the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood. We have met other EU governments. It is well understood that this is a common problem. We had a meeting in Luxembourg at which a number of shared concerns were raised. Many countries were particularly worried about the very low profit margins in the haulage industry and about the competition that was coming in from eastern Europe and the exploitation of loopholes in Community legislation which allowed some countries to bring in east European drivers who were working for well below the rates prevalent in the rest of the EU.

Questions are raised in that regard as to how we can put in place better systems of communication--hotlines--which will ensure that British tourists and British lorry drivers do not suffer the kind of discrimination which was evident in some of the protests, particularly in France in recent times. I met bilaterally with the French Transport Minister to try to emphasise our concern about actions which needed to be taken if that situation arose again.

As for our national emergency plans, I believe that the calling together of the contingency committee and the other supporting organisation inside the Cabinet Office was carried out as expediently as was necessary. That action was taken on Monday, 13th September, to the best of my knowledge. We were in contact with the oil companies over that weekend.

As to why we did not use television and radio, we wanted to try to keep a proportionate response. We felt that what we were doing, in conjunction with the various authorities which were mentioned earlier, got the information over in a way that certainly informed the essential users.

There has been a suggestion of inaction by the police. The police had a very difficult role in balancing the needs of genuine peaceful protest with the need to keep the fuel moving. Ministers clearly expect that the law will be enforced but that was an operational matter. It was for chief officers to decide how best to deal with that.

There are a number of police powers and a range of offences under public order law which can be enforced where behaviour becomes intimidatory or disorderly. The police can also act to prevent obstruction of the highway.

The noble Baroness asked about any instructions which we gave to the police. We did not issue the police with any instructions on how to end the protests as we felt that that would infringe the operational responsibility of the police. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary made it very clear that he expected to see the law upheld vigorously. The police were in regular contact with the Home Office during the protests to keep Ministers informed.

As for fuel prices in rural areas, I understand the problems. I realise the complexities of those issues. But yet again, I believe that those are best addressed inside the Budget process.

The noble Baroness referred to the VAT windfall. Although there may be a windfall from petroleum revenue tax--with the volatility of the price, one will not know that until the end of the financial year--I must emphasise that, as the Chancellor has said, there is no VAT windfall because VAT is very largely recoverable by the businesses involved in this. Of course, in terms of the spending of disposable income, money that is not spent and "VATted" on fuel would be money spent and "VATted" on something else. So there is a displacement factor there.