Petrol shortage fears fuel new strike talks

MOVES to start talks to halt a strike by fuel tanker drivers are being stepped up today amid fears that panic buying of petrol will escalate.

Many garages have reported long queues after Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude suggested drivers should fill up any spare jerry cans with petrol and keep them in garages.

But another Government minister admitted Mr Maude had made a “mistake” after fire safety experts warned of the dangers of storing petrol.

“You can’t store that amount of petrol. It was a mistake by the Cabinet minister. He didn’t understand the size of a jerry can. He has apologised since,” transport minister Mike Penning told BBC2’s Newsnight.

However he insisted that Mr Maude was right to advise drivers to keep their petrol tanks full as the seven days notice the union is required to give before going on strike would leave little time to prepare.

“Seven days isn’t enough to actually make sure we have the facilities and the amount of fuel we need to go forward,” Mr Penning said.

“If they go on strike the country will have a problem. Let’s be prepared for that in case it happens.”

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Conciliation service Acas is trying to convene talks between the Unite union and seven companies involved in the dispute over terms and conditions and safety.

Sales of petrol were up 45 per cent on Tuesday and diesel was up 20 per cent, in what appeared to be a sign of panic-buying by motorists, with the trend seeming to continue last night.

Unite has not set any strike dates and has been stressing its willingness to negotiate.

The union will have to make an announcement by tomorrow if it wants to hit the start of the Easter holidays.

It represents around 2,000 drivers in seven distribution companies, although union members in two of the firms voted against strikes.

Prime Minister David Cameron has chaired a meeting of ministers to discuss contingency plans if a strike goes ahead.

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.

An Acas spokesman said: “We are in urgent discussions with the parties involved on an individual basis. It is normal for us to do this to establish the format for talks.

“There are eight parties involved in this dispute - Unite and seven contractors. Acas always encourages the parties involved in a dispute to enter constructive dialogue.”

Unite’s assistant general secretary, Diana Holland, said: “We welcome the prospect of exploratory talks and await a formal invitation from Acas. Unite has said all along that we want a negotiated settlement through meaningful talks.

“Our focus is in finding a settlement that halts the race to the bottom in an increasingly fragmented industry. The minimum standards we are seeking are no different from those covering other parts of the oil industry.

“We trust that the employers, retailers and oil companies will engage with us and that the Government will do everything in their power to help us avoid industrial action.”