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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.
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.
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.
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
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.