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The Lord Bishop of Guildford: My Lords, I accept all that has been said about the character of the protests. However, would the Minister also accept that there is a huge level of public frustration around these issues? That is partly to do with the feeling that a policy of trying to control fuel consumption by rising prices is doomed to create frustration rather than success. Moreover, there are significant numbers of people, not least in our rural communities, who suffer real hardship as a consequence.
I accept that there are provisions for our farming communities. Nevertheless, their families and the communities in which they live have considerable distances to travel to get their children to school and to get to services. Can the Minister assure the House that, having abandoned the regulator on fuel, the Government will give fresh thought to the principles at stake in the pricing policy on fuel? Can he give the House any evidence that the policy which has been pursued by successive governments over a long time has had any success in controlling fuel consumption?
Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: My Lords, in recent years, the growth in the levels of traffic has reduced. The price of fuel may have contributed to that reduction, as may congestion. The decision by the Chancellor to abolish the fuel duty escalator was evidence that the high price of oil was doing a job which made it unnecessary to introduce further taxation, and the price of oil has pushed beyond that.
The problems of the countryside are complex. We have tried to address them through our investment in 2,000 new rural bus services. A rural White Paper is in prospect and should be published in a few weeks' time. It will deal in detail with the whole question of transport in the countryside. It should be noted that the fuel duty escalator, introduced by the previous government, was designed to have an environmental impact. It has been estimated that the increase in duty between 1996 and 1999 will reduce the carbon output between 1 million and 2.5 million tonnes by 2010. So it appears to have had a beneficial environmental impact.
Lord Prior: My Lords, I do not wish to appear too harsh. However, in view of the Government's new policy of listening and contrition, would not it be appropriate if the Minister made some apology to the country for the complete mess the Government have made of the whole petrol crisis?
Lord Hoyle: My Lords, in view of the Opposition statement that they are against direct action, does my noble friend join with me in asking them to disown their leader when he refers to the demonstrators as being fine upstanding citizens? Will he also ask them to point out to those people that action in favour of tax cuts, which puts lives at risk, is totally unnecessary in the democratic society we have in Britain?
Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: My Lords, I confirm that among those I met who had been on blockades were many decent, concerned and properly anxious people who were trying to run businesses on tight margins. However, I also listened to John Ashton, a brave executive from the health service on Merseyside who went along to Stanlow. He stated that, while there were fine, upstanding citizens there, there were also some people who were very unpleasant, particularly when it became clear that one was not in support of their cause. There is nothing exceptional in that situation. It is probably one which could have been found on many a barricade and protest in the past.
Lord Bradshaw: My Lords, first does the Minister agree that oil is a scarce and diminishing resource which we must use more economically in future? The sooner the country and the world takes on board that message, the better. Most of my comments result from my experience in the police authority and county council during the fuel crisis. Perhaps I may say that the channels of communication to which the Minister referred were slow to act. If there is a future crisis, they will need to act more quickly.
Secondly, it is clear from the work of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution that speed reduction, less use of the accelerator, and not using the car for the 50 per cent of journeys which are less than two miles, will save far more than 3p a litre; and probably 6p or 7p per litre. If people really wish to economise, there is a means at their disposal which is easy to take and, according to my information, results in much slower speeds, fewer accidents and less air pollution.
Perhaps I may ask the Minister to consider whether the obstruction of the highway by heavy moving lorries is covered by the present law. I believe the law of obstruction relates to stationary vehicles, and that may need to be attended to. We know that we live in "just in time" supply days. All bus companies and
As regards rural dwellers, does the Minister agree that spending money on home insulation would do far more than having cuts in fuel duty? Lastly, would he consider the question of extending fuel duty rebate for buses and community transport? Bus fares in rural areas are affected and services are being cut back hard because of the cost of fuel.
Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: My Lords, I endorse the comments of the noble Lord regarding the encouragement of alternative fuels. As he will know, in the budget we put more money into the Powershift Programme. There were many enlightening examples of the use of alternative fuels during the recent problems.
I welcome the emphasis placed by the noble Lord on what is a current DETR advertising campaign--that is, what can be gained from more intelligent and economical driving--and his emphasis on better insulation. The channels of communication may at times not have been up to the mark. That is a matter which will be addressed by the task force, along with the question of what stocks might be held and where they would best be held.
As regards obstruction of the highway, the highway authorities can sue for obstruction. There are also traffic commissioners who keep their eye on various offences and try to ensure that licensed hauliers are people of good repute. The Highways Act 1980 makes it an arrestable offence wilfully to obstruct the free passage of traffic. But through the task force the police will no doubt be advising us as to whether they feel the need for further powers.
Lord Hardy of Wath: My Lords, does my noble friend accept that as well as listening, which is to be commended, the Government must also remember? In that connection, I live fairly close to Cortonwood colliery where, as the constituency MP, I was assured that the colliery had five years' life and learnt five weeks later that it was to close straightaway.
The men at Cortonwood campaigned. They were not called "salt of the earth"; they were called "the enemy within" by noble Lords opposite, one of whom may be speaking shortly. Is my noble friend aware that those men committed no crime which led them to be sacked when the strike ended, but scores of them were prosecuted for obstruction? Has that law changed? What would have happened to the miners if they had driven at five miles an hour in an agricultural vehicle fuelled by red diesel? Does my noble friend also accept that, in listening, the Government should not take action whereby the farmers forfeit the public sympathy which allowed the Government to provide substantial support for that industry?