Haulage firms and Unite union negotiators meet at Acas in the hope of averting a strike by tanker drivers.
Both sides will be in separate rooms, with representatives from the conciliation service shuttling between the two parties.
Tanker drivers who are members of Unite have voted to strike at five companies – Wincanton, Hoyer, BP, Norbert Dentressangle and Turners – but have rejected industrial action at two other firms – JW Suckling and DHL.
The government’s handling of the dispute has been heavily criticised. A poll for ITV News at Ten shows that 77 per cent of people believe ministers were responsible for causing unnecessary panic over fuel supplies, while 72 per cent say Prime Minister David Cameron was wrong to advise motorists to top up their tanks.
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The government’s advice has changed in recent days – from suggesting people keep their tanks full and store spare fuel in jerry cans to telling motorists that there is no need to do this because a strike is not imminent.
The initial advice led to panic buying of fuel and long queues at filling stations across Britain.
Unite has ruled out a strike over easter. It has to give seven days’ notice of industrial action. If the talks at Acas fail, and drivers take action, petrol and diesel stocks could run out within 48 hours of a strike beginning.
The union says the dispute is about terms and conditions of employment, not pay. It is lobbying for a national forum to establish a set of minimum standards on training, pay, pensions and health and safety, but says some employers are opposed.
The Road Haulage Association says standards in the industry are far above the legal minimum and staff are well trained. Firms are resisting Unite’s call for a national pay and conditions package on the basis that they are operating in a free market.
Wincanton says that while it is happy for industry-wide standards on health and safety, pensions, training and holidays, it wants the freedom to set its own pay levels and working hours arrangements.