Blair defends his decision to raise duty on petrol

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The Independent Online

Tony Blair yesterday denied it had been a mistake to raise petrol duties earlier this year, stressing the need for sustained investment in public transport.

Tony Blair yesterday denied it had been a mistake to raise petrol duties earlier this year, stressing the need for sustained investment in public transport.

Mr Blair, facing fierce attacks by William Hague, the Tory leader, at the first Prime Minister's Question Time since the summer recess, said: "I believe the position set out in the Budget was the right one."

However, Mr Hague, who was speaking before an Opposition debate on the fuel blockades, repeatedly accused him of being "out of touch".

He said: "You have increased petrol duties twice as fast as the last government, by more in three years than any prime minister in history.

"As First Lord of the Treasury you've given us the most expensive petrol in Europe and brought the country to a standstill. Will you now admit it was a mistake to increase petrol duties in this year's Budget?"

But Mr Blair said he would not take risks with economic stability and vital investment in public services. "Your policy is a policy for boom and bust and instability," he told Mr Hague.

He continued: "I believe the position set out in the Budget was the right one. What is more, it was the position that you also supported. Your shadow Chancellor [Michael Portillo] was asked in July whether they were committed to cutting petrol duty. He said 'no' and then you were asked about cutting fuel duty on the Jimmy Young programme on September 14 and said 'It's my job to provide the country with an alternative government, not to ride around on whatever bandwagon comes along'."

Mr Hague said: "So you believe the petrol-price rises are nothing to do with you. We all voted against the Budget increases in petrol duties. We voted against them in March and April. Now you think the petrol rises are nothing to do with you. What a load of unleaded nonsense."

Mr Blair told him: "I continue to say that these decisions should be made in the budget process in the proper way. And I have to say also we must not do anything that takes risks with economic stability or with vital investment in public services. The truth is that your policy is a policy for boom and bust and instability. And it is a policy for £16bn worth of cuts in our public services. We reject both of those policies and we will carry on until we get answers from you between now and the general election."

During later debate Archie Norman, shadow Environment, Transport and Regions secretary, said the lack of attendance by John Prescott, Deputy Prime Minister, was an "explicit symbol of the Government's complacency, arrogance and evasion", adding: "This is a debate about a crisis that brought the country to its knees. Yet on the first occasion the Commons has a chance to debate it, he has shown disdain - disdain for Parliament and disdain for the British people."

Mr Norman repeated claims that there had been no intimidation of drivers, despite evidence last week to the contrary by oil companies and union leaders. He said: "What could be more disgraceful than the attempts through smear and leaks to claim the crisis was a result of driver intimidation?

"Perhaps the Government will tell us exactly how many official complaints the police received in the week of the crisis. We know what they know - there were no more than a handful of isolated cases."

Mr Hague told Mr Blair: "We simply want to give the people of this country back the money that you and the Chancellor have stolen from them and you only want for your own re-election purposes. We see a government ... still determined to scrap the pound, still not listening to the people ... on petrol taxes, presiding over rising crime, facing a growing shortage of teachers, turning the National Lottery into a national shambles. Wasn't the real story of the Government this autumn that it is lost in its own ... failure and a prime minister who won't listen, won't learn and won't learn?"

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