28 Mar 2012

‘Lives at risk if fuel strike goes ahead,’ says minister

A government minister has advised people to keep a jerry can of fuel in their garage. His words come as petrol stations start to run out of fuel as fears grow of a strike by petrol tanker drivers.

Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude issued the stark warning despite motoring organisations and energy firms urging people not to panic buy.

But his colleague, Energy Minister Charles Hendry, took a different line in an interview with Channel 4 News, telling the programme: “I think at the moment there is no need for people to be going out and panic buying. There is no need for people to do anything apart from acting as they would normally do. There is no strike yet called.”

Mr Hendry advised motorists to “keep the tank two thirds full rather than two thirds empty”.

Speaking outside the Cabinet Office in Whitehall, where the prime minister chaired a meeting on contingency plans, Mr Maude said: “There are lives at risk if this goes ahead as well as massive inconvenience.

“As and when it makes sense, a bit of extra of fuel in a jerry can in the garage is a sensible precaution to take.

“People need to be aware there is a risk to fuel supplies. It’s not immediate, the union has to give seven days notice – so it’s not a mad dash, it’s not panic. But actually people need to be aware of it and we want people to have the chance, at their own time when it makes sense for them in their own arrangements to deal with things in a sensible way.”

Mr Maude said a “couple of hundred” military tanker crews would be trained to cover for striking tanker drivers in a bid to maintain supplies to garages as well as hospitals and schools.

Mixed messages?

However his comments seemed to be at odds with David Cameron, who told a press conference in Downing Street that the government was delivering a “very calm, very sensible” message. “I absolutely do not want to raise the temperature on this any more than is neccessary”, he said, before advising that if a strike was potentially on the way, it would be sensible for drivers to top up their tanks.

Workers in five of seven companies involved in the row over terms and conditions and safety standards have voted in favour of strikes, raising the threat of walkouts over the easter weekend, when millions of families will take to the road for the first major holiday of the year.

Unite will have to give seven days’ notice of any walkouts, but the talks are likely be held soon at the conciliation service Acas in a bid to avert stoppages.

In response to Mr Maude’s comments, Brian Madderson, chairman of the Petrol Retailers Association, called on the government to focus on getting the parties to the dispute round the negotiating table at Acas. Mr Madderson warned that it was likely that further petrol stations would run out of fuel today because of a surge in demand.

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Mr Maude attacked the Unite union and its leader Len McCluskey for threatening industrial action, accusing the union of being “irresponsible.”

He said he was not sure what the dispute was about, suggesting it was part of Mr McCluskey’s “grand plan” to grind the country to a halt.

“He has already threatened to have a strike during the Olympics – this is part of his plan. I hope Ed Miliband (Labour leader) will face up to his responsibilities and condemn the strike called by the union which is the biggest donor to the Labour party.

Energy Secretary Ed Davey has written to Unite asking the union to get round the table with the haulage companies, and suggesting the use of Acas.

He suggested that health and safety issues could be discussed at a reconvened meeting of an industry forum which met last year.

An Acas spokesman said: “We welcome the minister’s suggestion about the parties responding positively to an invitation to come in to Acas.

“We are establishing contact with all the parties involved in this dispute and will be looking to see whether we can enable an Acas process to allow the possibility of some form of dialogue to start.”

The AA said today there was plenty of fuel to go round and the situation will only deteriorate if motorists rush unnecessarily to filling stations.

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