HC Deb 02 November 2000 vol 355 cc837-52 12.31 pm
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the contingency arrangements being put in place in the event of further blockades of fuel or other essential supplies.

The background to these arrangements is the severe disruption to fuel supplies which occurred between 7 and 14 September.

Since the protests, a large number of meetings with outside bodies have been held by Ministers across Government to discuss the concerns over fuel prices, in particular as they impact on the farming and haulage industries which are already facing major structural problems. Indeed, prior to the protests, there were many such meetings and in the March Budget, as well as ending the fuel duty escalator, in place since 1993, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer cut vehicle excise duty for the haulage industry and for smaller vehicles.

In the past few weeks, Ministers in various Departments have held numerous meetings with organisations campaigning about the high cost of fuel. These include the Road Haulage Association, the Freight Transport Association, the Fuel Forum, the People's Fuel Lobby, Farmers for Action and the Disabled Drivers' Association. In addition to setting up the fuel taskforce, we have also held a number of meetings with oil company representatives, the trade unions and representatives of the food and other industries affected by the protests. And Ministers have also visited all the main fuel refineries and depots to talk at first hand to the tanker drivers, to company managers, to the police and to others about the lessons to be learned from the protests in September.

As a result, I think that no one can fairly say that we have not made every effort to listen to people's concerns, and of course in the days that remain before the Chancellor's statement, we shall continue to do so.

Let me now explain to the House why it is so important to make proper preparations to protect people, industry and services so far as possible against further disruption.

The United Kingdom now has the fourth largest economy in the world. Employment is at record levels and inflation is the lowest in Europe. But, as with all modern economies, fundamental changes in the way in which we live and work, and all the just-in-time arrangements, increase our vulnerability to those determined to cause disruption.

Whatever the motives of those involved, the disruption that took place in September very nearly caused serious damage to our economy.

The British Chambers of Commerce has published details of the effects of the disruption on the commercial activities of its members across the country. For example, in St. Helens, it reported that more than a quarter of businesses lost orders, 6 per cent. laid off staff and a third predicted a long-term impact on sales. In Peterborough, almost four in 10 firms reported that they had suffered lost sales and 16 per cent. said that they had had to close temporarily. Many other companies suffered financial problems and lost orders. The British Chambers of Commerce concluded from its research that if the protests had "persisted for much longer" they would have caused severe damage to many firms from which some would not have recovered. That conclusion has been endorsed, among many others, by the Confederation of British Industry and the Trades Union Congress.

Later today, I shall be placing in the Library a report summarising information available to Departments about the impact of the disruption.

The blockades also disrupted essential public services. At some blockades, the protesters sought to excuse the impact of the disruption by letting through supplies which they had judged to be essential. However, there are literally millions of people who perform functions without which the health and other essential services would grind to a halt—from nurses, doctors, hospital receptionists and cleaners, to volunteers delivering meals on wheels, cooks, telephone operators and, of course, the patients themselves. They all needed fuel, yet their needs were barely recognised by those who were at the terminal gates.

It is therefore not from any desire whatever for confrontation—[Interruption.] It is not out of any desire on the Labour Benches for confrontation—which we still seek to avoid—but because of our responsibilities as a Government to the country as a whole that we must now make preparations to minimise the risk of that happening again.

So, following the September events, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister asked me to chair a fuel taskforce to help ensure that Government, industry and others were better prepared to ensure a continuity of supplies for the future. The taskforce included Ministers and representatives from the devolved Administrations in Scotland and in Wales, police, the oil industry, trade unions and others. It has met on four occasions. Its members first agreed a memorandum of understanding, which committed all concerned to work together to ensure continuity of oil supplies.

The arrangements include plans to direct fuel supplies to a limited number of designated filling stations and to give priority to essential users. We have upgraded arrangements to ensure that local authorities and other priority users are better prepared for any future disruption. As I told the House in a written statement last week, and as my hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces repeated on Monday, we have asked the Ministry of Defence to train military drivers to help drive tankers should such assistance prove necessary; but that would be very much as a last resort. Preparations have also been made to help to protect food depots, to keep major roads open and to protect potential targets other than oil terminals.

There has of course been a lot of debate about whether intimidation of drivers took place. It could well be that some drivers were sympathetic to the aims of the protesters. Many of those who were involved in the protests were intent on acting lawfully and peacefully, and did so. Peaceful protest is an important right in any properly functioning democracy. It is a right that I regard it as one of my first duties to defend, as do the police. However, the behaviour of some of the protesters did create a climate in which the managers and the drivers themselves judged that it was unsafe to allow normal operations to continue.

Along with ministerial colleagues, I have spoken to a large number of the tanker drivers involved. Those whom I met told me of a real sense of fear that they felt about driving in the face of threats of intimidation and of physical attack. I am placing in the Library of the House a detailed log of 180 incidents of intimidation recorded by the oil companies and amended only to avoid identifying publicly the drivers involved. That picture of intimidation is confirmed by the Transport and General Workers Union, whose members form a substantial majority of the drivers concerned.

Tactics of intimidation are unacceptable in any circumstances, but particularly so against the driver of an oil tanker in personal charge of many thousands of litres of highly explosive fuel. Police and the oil companies have therefore drawn up detailed plans better to safeguard tanker drivers from the threat of intimidation and better to ensure that the tankers can move freely on to and along the highway. Tanker drivers have the right to go about their daily business in security and safety. Ensuring that is a central aim of our preparations.

Let me repeat that the last thing that the Government want is any kind of confrontation. There will always be people who hold strong and opposing views on many issues—including, today, what to do about oil prices, the problems affecting farmers and the difficulties affecting the road haulage industry. Peaceful protest can and does play an important role in drawing such concerns to the attention of Government and of Parliament. It is then for us in Government and Parliament to make choices.

I hope, however, that the whole House will join me in saying that no one has the right to instigate the kind of disruption that we saw in September, and still less to threaten the disruption now being prepared. We have already heard public threats to blockade not only the fuel supply but food distribution depots. The consequences of such disruption are obvious, and they would hit the weakest and the most vulnerable first. There can be no justification for any such action, and it is opposed by every employers' organisation and trade union and by established hauliers' and farmers' representatives.

The measures that I have outlined today should ensure that the Government, industry and our health and other public services are better prepared to cope with the sort of direct action that we witnessed in September, but real risks will remain if people persist in protesting in an extreme and irresponsible way. Those now seeking further disruption must understand that their demands could not be met without great damage to jobs and industry, to essential services, including the national health service, to pensioners and to children. We all have responsibilities.

Whatever the supposed Budget surplus—and some figures being mooted are wildly exaggerated—Government action is necessarily limited in three ways: it must be consistent with keeping interest rates, and so mortgages, at their present low level; it must not prevent us from taking action to support pensioners who also need help; and it must not change the absolutely essential programme of investment in key public services, in schools, hospitals, transport and the police, which my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced in July.

The right to argue, to complain and to protest is an essential feature of our democratic society. Preventing law-abiding people from going about their business, and threatening the well-being of the country, is not. I hope that the whole House will join me in support of the measures and of the approach that I have outlined today.

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 there was a good working rapport between police commanders and the pickets and that the impression among police officers was that the protest was peaceful. We can sort this out right now. Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House how many people have been arrested or prosecuted for violence during the pickets? Will he say whether hauliers who engage in peaceful protests have been or will be threatened with the removal of their operating licences? Have special branch officers been used to spy on fuel protesters' meetings? If so, was the right hon. Gentleman aware of it, and did he authorise it?

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: Well…I…I'm not getting into the business of guarantees. I do not know what "persistent warnings" we were given—until the Leader of the Opposition saw a passing bandwagon and jumped on it.

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.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) has already asked about the territorials. She cannot shout about them while she is sitting down.

Mr. Straw

I do my best with the right hon. Lady, Mr. Speaker.

The right hon. Lady asked about designated petrol stations. We drew up a list and, because it had to be done quickly, it contained some inaccuracies. We have taken steps since to ensure that the list of those that could be used in the event of further disruption is more accurate. The right hon. Lady asked about people with disabilities. I understand the point, and I have to say that the disabled suffered disruption to their lives not because of action that we took, but because of actions taken by people whom the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) has described as "fine upstanding men."

The right hon. Lady accused us of being out of touch. I do not want to intrude on her private grief within her own party, but I am tempted to do so. When it comes to being out of touch not only with the country but with the Conservative party, the right hon. Lady takes first prize for what happened at her party conference. Before she tries to extract the mote in other people's eyes, she might look at the beam in her own eye.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has visited the Stanlow site with me and is aware that the main artery roads, including those in surrounding villages, are in a major hazard zone. Will he confirm that if there are repeats of the activities that occurred on the nights of 7 and 8 September, everything will be done to remove any blockade that impedes the access of emergency services? The people who took that action were subsequently described as "fine upstanding men", but included some who said that they did not care if Stanlow blew up. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that such action does not happen again, and will he condemn anyone who supports such activity?

Mr. Straw

I wish to record my personal thanks to my hon. Friend for the action that he took as the protests became more substantial. He worked overnight with the police to try to ensure some semblance of supply from the major terminal at Stanlow. On the removal of blockades, my hon. Friend and I held discussions with Shell, the oil company that operates Stanlow, and with Cheshire police. Much effort has been made to ensure that, while people should be able to protest peacefully, they cannot take blockading action as they did previously. My hon. Friend will appreciate that operational decisions are a matter for the chief constable and his constables, and are not a matter for the Home Secretary or any politician.

Of course I condemn the utterly irresponsible statements that were made by some of the protesters at Stanlow. The fact that people, or perhaps only one person, spoke about not caring whether Stanlow blew up underlines the fact that we are dealing not with some inert, safe load and product but with a highly explosive product. For that reason, the oil companies, their managers and the drivers have all worked commendably within a safety culture. That has to be taken into account when making a judgment about whether it was reasonable for the drivers, in the face of those threats, not to drive.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

I thank the Home Secretary for his statement. There will not be any equivocation from the Liberal Democrat Benches. The Government have a duty to protect the liberty of the protesters, but they equally have a responsibility to protect the liberty and safety of people going about their proper jobs as drivers and employees of the oil industry. They equally have a duty to make sure that essential supplies can get to their destination so that the country is not disrupted by any protest more than any other. It is important that, although fuel protesters should be able to put their case, the country remembers that there are equally those who believe that fuel prices need not be reduced, and that they have a case. We should also remember that pensioners, who may not have lorries, tractors and mobile phones or the ability to mobilise, have just as much right to have their case heard by the Government as the people who just shout more loudly sometimes, whatever the merit of their case.

Will the Home Secretary confirm his responsibilities? Can we take it that his Department will co-ordinate the operation and that all the information that people need will be obtainable from one central place, namely, the Home Office? Can we take it that there will be no confusion this time about where the supplies can be obtained or about who the priority users are, which was clearly a muddle earlier in the year? Can we take it that the Government will have an education campaign to tell people not only how to respond but how to use fuel less and be less fuel-dependent, so that we have a strategically sensible policy followed by the public as well as the Government?

May I check that the right hon. Gentleman agrees that, just as we have to deal with people who, under the guise of being football supporters, are professional troublemakers, we should be equally tough on people using the fuel dispute to be professional troublemakers? Will the police deal with far left and far right groups just as ferociously and ensure that they do not distort the debate?

The Home Secretary said nothing about when the emergency measures would end. Is there a timetable, and how will the House hold the Government to account for how they are carried out?

Mr. Straw

There is scarcely a need for the hon. Gentleman to say that his party has not equivocated on this issue, because that is on the record. I thank him and his colleagues for being able to distinguish between might and right. People have different opinions about fuel prices. It was not until the protests started that the Conservative party changed its view. [HON. MEMBERS: "Rubbish!"] Conservative Members say that it is rubbish. I am sorry that they are not getting the point; so let me repeat it. On "Breakfast with Frost" on 16 July this year, the shadow Chancellor, when asked whether he would give a guarantee that he would reduce the tax on petrol, waffled for a bit while he thought of an answer and then said: I'm not getting into the business of guarantees. That is the fact of the matter. Words to that effect were repeated, even in the days leading up to the protest. Only after they had seen the bandwagon did the Conservatives decide to offer the 3p cut in fuel duty.

On the issue of co-ordination, I am the responsible Minister. As the hon. Gentleman knows, I chair the civil contingencies committee. It would fall to me to make reports to the House on co-ordination in respect of public safety. If there is trouble of the kind that took place on the previous occasion, the arrangements would be physically sited not in the Home Office but in the Cabinet Office, because that is the best place in which to co-ordinate them.

The hon. Gentleman asks that there should be no confusion next time. We shall do our best to reduce the lack of clarity that existed in certain circumstances previously, but we cannot guarantee that no difficulties will arise—precisely because we cannot fully anticipate the exact nature of the disruption. However, during the past seven weeks, we have, of course, tried to learn lessons from the disruption that took place.

The hon. Gentleman asks about priority users. I understand from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry that a list will be published later today.

I accept the hon. Gentleman's point about education. However, we must acknowledge that the arrangements that we could set up in an extreme situation could not guarantee continuity of supplies at their current levels—as I have already made clear. Supplies would be significantly reduced.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned professional troublemakers—I exempt the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald from that term. However, I accept the hon. Gentleman's point that she and her right hon. and hon. Friends continue to exhibit extraordinary equivocation.

The hon. Gentleman asked when the order would be renewed. The Order in Council obtained from Her Majesty by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry on—I think—8 September has to be renewed before 19 November. It will, I understand, be subject to debate in the House.

Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras)

On behalf of all sensible people, I welcome the measures announced by my right hon. Friend. When he next meets representatives from the oil companies, will he remind them that more than three quarters of this year's increase in the price of petrol and diesel resulted from the increases imposed by the companies, and that the ensuing profiteering has been amply demonstrated by Shell's announcement today of profits for the previous quarter that have risen by 80 per cent., compared with those for the same quarter last year? Will he remind the companies that that is all the more reason why the people managing the terminals and depots should make a much better effort than they made in September to ensure that supplies get through? If they do not, the people of this country will think that the companies are incompetent as well as greedy.

Mr. Straw

There have been intense discussions on co-operation with the oil companies—in almost all of which I was involved—to ensure better arrangements for the future, if they are needed. I am certain that we shall enjoy the full co-operation of the companies.

As for the profits made by the oil companies, I am sure that representatives of all the oil companies will be listening to this debate and to the comments of my right hon. Friend. It is for them—not for me—to explain the level of their profits.

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 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 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 mêlée 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


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 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.

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. Speaker

Order. I call the Home Secretary.

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.

Mr. Straw

With those graphic questions, my hon. Friend illustrates that there are limits to protests. Protest must be peaceful and—

Miss Widdecombe

We do not condone law breaking.

Mr. Straw

I am glad to hear that from the right hon. Lady. She should be saying that rather more clearly than she has in the past.

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 in west Wales were within one and a half days of collapsing. Can the right hon. Gentleman assure me, even at this late stage, that rural areas and west Wales will be looked after with designated fuel stations?

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. The hon. Gentleman will understand that, yes, we are listening carefully, but in the end, because no Government could properly accept all the demands made on them without bankrupting the country, there will have to be choices, which the Government present to Parliament and on which Parliament will have to make its own decisions.

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: This may look like a "mere" fuel protest, but it's really about who rules Britain…Whatever your reason for opposing Blair, this is your chance to join the people like you doing something about it. Does my right hon. Friend think that the internet is being misused, and that, in the light of the content, which is racist and attacks asylum seekers—those genuinely seeking immigration into Britain—much of the fuel protest is being hijacked by extremist and right-wing groups?

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.

Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes)

I welcome the Home Secretary's statement, but will he assure me that the body he chairs will give proper weight to environmental considerations? The statement did not mention the word "environment". Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, while hon. Members have ranted about the need for lower fuel prices in recent weeks, my constituents have been dealing with unprecedented floods whose severity has undoubtedly been caused by global warming to which vehicle emissions have contributed?

Mr. Straw

The hon. Gentleman referred to the civil contingency arrangements body which I chair. Although my responsibilities as Home Secretary are wide, I am happy to say that they do not include direct responsibility to the House for either tax policy or environment policy.

Of course we understand that many communities, not least those in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, have been severely affected by flooding in recent days and weeks. My right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister take that very seriously. Yesterday I attended a meeting, led by the Deputy Prime Minister, with all the local authority associations. Among other things, we discussed how we could better help areas such as that represented by the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

Why can we not designate fuel an essential commodity like gas, electricity and water, and place a legal obligation on oil companies to ensure continuity of supply?

Mr. Straw

As my hon. Friend may know, discussions have taken place in the taskforce about whether the legal framework in which oil companies operate should be changed. It has not been possible to reach conclusions in the short time that we have had so far, but when conclusions are reached they will be reported to the House.

As for a change in the law, our problem was not a breach of obligation on the part of oil companies but a breach of civil duty—civic duty—on the part of the protesters, who went beyond the bounds of peaceful protest and sought to stop the delivery of essential supplies. In some areas, they succeeded.

Electricity, gas and water are delivered without the use of road transport, whereas about 60 per cent. of oil supplies depend on road transport at the last point of delivery.