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Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: My Lords, I do not recognise the reference to the penal levels of taxation. The 26p per litre reduction demanded by the protesters would total some £12 billion. That is clearly utterly unrealistic. Also if one factors in the low personal taxes and the lower corporation taxes that we pay, and the fact that our VAT is often lower than elsewhere, one realises that the United Kingdom offers one of the lowest tax regimes in Europe.

I find the accusation of environmental dishonesty quite breathtaking in this context. The fuel duty escalator was introduced in 1993 by a government of

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whom the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, was a member and who justified its introduction by reference to its environmental effect.

Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate: My Lords, living as we do under the rule of law, does the Minister agree that the police role should rightly be that of impartially policing any dispute between parties--whether a domestic dispute or one of the nature we discuss today? Does my noble friend also agree that if there is evidence of people conspiring to commit criminal offences--it may amount to obstructing the road by slow convoy or otherwise--the police should consider offences such as conspiracy to deal with the problem, no matter how fine and upstanding the citizens who have conspired?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: My Lords, I defer to my noble friend's experience. He will know better than anyone else that it is a matter for police discretion. I sympathise with his concern. Statements have been made about bringing about Armageddon. I believe that it was stated yesterday that democracy had run out of time. Such statements, threats to food and fuel supplies and threats that lorries might be pulled across rail crossings, and so on, are unacceptable. However, the police are better prepared and have at their disposal the public order measure and highways legislation which contain provisions for arrestable offences. I am sure that the police can be counted upon to ensure that there is no disruption on a scale which would inconvenience our country.

Lord Ezra: My Lords, will the Minister indicate whether his task force will remain in being after the present crisis is resolved, as we hope that it will be successfully, in order to tackle the longer-term issues to which the Minister and my noble friend Lord McNally referred? I think particularly of forms of transport in the future and the way in which they should be fuelled.

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: My Lords, I hope that there will be no need to continue with our present task force after the Statement to be made next week by my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. There are other ways of approaching the conflation of problems to which the noble Lord referred. Had we time to go into them in detail, I could show him that we are taking action on most of them.

Baroness Greengross: My Lords, does the Minister accept that many disabled, vulnerable and frail people, particularly elderly people, are deeply concerned and very apprehensive about the thought of further petrol shortages? We have heard that the Government are taking steps to maintain essential services, but many such people rely on access to a car to get to services or to have services brought to them that are essential to them. They may need to get food, to go to a day centre, or to visit the doctor. Many of them do not have their own car. They must be able to rely on help from others.

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I heard of one home care scheme whose co-ordinator was deeply worried during the previous shortages that she would lose touch completely with her elderly dependent clients, because her volunteer drivers in their own cars were running out of petrol. I am sure that that worry is replicated nationally. Robust measures need to be taken, particularly given recent weather conditions, to ensure that such voluntary measures can be maintained. If they are not, there will be very sad, if not tragic, consequences.

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: My Lords, I totally agree with the noble Baroness. There was no greater obscenity during the recent events than the pickets outside gates deciding what was essential and what was inessential with very little understanding of how our complex and vulnerable society works. It is not a case simply of keeping blue light services supplied. As I said earlier, millions of our fellow citizens need to be mobile, particularly to look after the vulnerable. As the noble Baroness said, great concerns were beginning to develop at the end of the last set of events about the supply of drugs to people who were ill at home, some of them in a very poor condition. There were also worries about home helps, home care and meals on wheels. All those services require people to turn up at their place of work and get into a car and drive to help the most vulnerable in our society. It may not have been fully appreciated at the time, but it is incumbent on all of us to ensure that there are no illusions about the severity of the consequences of interrupting fuel and food supplies.

Lord Judd: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that one of the most distressing elements in the saga is the distasteful insensitivity of some of those threatening disruptive action? For example, whatever their difficulties, to see any comparison between the hardship that they claim that they suffer and the hardship suffered by the original Jarrow marchers is almost unimaginable from any quarter in our society. That should be treated with the contempt that it deserves.

Does my noble friend also agree that there is a strategic question at stake in the dispute? It is the relationship between our fuel policy and the accelerating dangers of global warming. Is it not important for the Government to give more prominence to that strategic consideration when deploying their case?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: My Lords, I entirely agree with those sentiments. The Jarrow march in the early 1930s, when millions were unemployed and people were in a state of destitution, is in no way comparable with the problems that some hauliers and farmers face today. That is not to underestimate the problems of those industries. As I said earlier, hauliers earn very tight margins--indeed, some of them make almost no margin--and the stresses in the farming community are well known. However, as some of this morning's newspapers have pointed out, some of those

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involved have substantial capital assets and could in no way be compared with those who marched from Jarrow.

I do not accept that we are not addressing the issue of global warming. My right honourable friends the Minister for the Environment, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Prime Minister have all talked recently about the importance of ensuring that our actions today do not imperil this planet in the future.

Lord Boardman: My Lords, the Minister referred to the cuts in expenditure on health, education and other matters that would be a consequence of a reduction in fuel tax. Were not the funding arrangements made at the time of the Budget and based on the price of petrol at that time? Since then, has there not been a massive escalation in the price of petrol and consequent excess revenue for the Government? Is it not provocative to refer to such figures at such a sensitive time, suggesting that, after the bonuses that the Government have received, any reduction in fuel tax would inevitably cut into essential items such as health and education?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: My Lords, I do not accept the thrust of the noble Lord's argument, because the financial situation is always dynamic. I am sure that, like me, he has read this week that the Treasury's take from corporate taxation and capital gains tax may have gone down recently. Demands for a 26p cut in fuel duty have been made to me in private, on television and at many meetings that I have held with some of the groups who are demanding negotiation--as they put it--and who say that we do not listen when what they mean is that we have listened, but we do not agree with them. It is indisputable that that would add up to £11.8 billion. We could not take that out of our resources without consequent damage to other services. Those to whom I have talked have made it clear that it is not in their minds to reduce the £3.8 billion that goes to farmers--and nor should it be. I have pointed out to them that the Prime Minister took charge of the recent negotiations that delivered an extra £200 million to farmers. I have also pointed out that the fishermen who have come to the aid of some of the protesters pay no duty on their diesel. Farmers readily accept that they pay only 3p on their red diesel. The equation is complicated and was not illuminated by the noble Lord's contribution.

Earl Russell: My Lords, I hope it is accepted in every quarter of the House that in times of protest, whatever our opinion of the protest, the Government's first priority must be that the show must go on. Pursuant to that, the Minister may remember that during the last protest, a number of lorry drivers abandoned their lorries in the carriageway in the middle of Hyde Park Corner during rush hour. I must declare an interest, having been personally affected, but I doubt that the view that that is an undesirable practice is particularly controversial. Will the Minister consult his right honourable friend the Home Secretary and ask him to

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discuss with the police whether they see any need for additional powers to deal with that practice, should it be repeated?

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