Petrol station owners call for fuel dispute talks

A sign outside a petrol station on 30 March
Image caption Conciliation service Acas has met with fuel tanker drivers as well as their employers

The chairman of the body representing 5,000 independent petrol stations, has called for urgent talks with ministers amid signs of a fuel shortage sparked by panic buying.

Brian Madderson of the Retail Motor Industry (RMI) said up to half his members were short of fuel.

Fuel tanker drivers and their employers are due to hold talks on Wednesday, chaired by conciliation service Acas.

The drivers are threatening a strike over safety and working conditions.

Unite's General Secretary, Len McCluskey, said: "We welcome this development and thank Acas for their efforts to pull both sides together."

Mr Madderson accused the government of creating a "crisis" where none existed, and said his members should have been involved in talks much earlier.

'Crazy' prices

Petrol stations say they are struggling to restock after last week's run on the pumps and the RMI estimates shortages could continue until at least the Easter weekend and possibly beyond.

In the letter, printed in full on the RMI website, Mr Madderson said his members' had had their "confidence abruptly shaken by the government's perceived inability to manage the issue of a potential industrial dispute".

He goes on to write: "It is now very clear to the public and to the media that government created a crisis out of a concern, with some ill-conceived recommendations and complete lack of engagement with the industry".

Mr McCluskey said: "It is vital that common, minimum standards on safety, training, wages and pensions are agreed to put a floor of best practice in the sector."

The Mail on Sunday claimed it had seen documents from employers which suggested the salary of tanker drivers would rise 27% to £54,000 if employers "gave in" to the strike.

Mr McCluskey said the Acas talks could only succeed if there was an immediate end to "mischievous briefing" against the drivers by politicians and employers.

He said: "Talk of 27% pay rises from nameless employers is a deliberate effort to undermine the drivers' case when employers know full well this is not a demand. Distortions like this must stop."

One of the firms involved in the dispute, Hoyer, said it had had "productive" preliminary contact with Acas.

A spokesman for the company said: "Given that safety is a mantra for our business, we believe there are some fundamental areas of agreement between ourselves and Unite over the need to harmonise health and safety standards across the industry.

"We hope that today's talks will provide an opening for more detailed ongoing discussions around the issues of health and safety, training and pensions and that Unite will return to the table prepared to call off the threat of strike action we believe would be damaging for the industry as well as to business and the general public."

Seven days notice

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg earlier said there was now no threat of a strike over Easter and no need for people to "rush up and fill up their tanks with fuel right now".

"There are talks going on between employers and the trade union. I very much hope that those talks will lead to a resolution with no strikes talking place at all," he said.

The "substantive conciliation talks" follow briefings with all the relevant parties, and will take place on Wednesday morning "at an undisclosed location", an Acas spokesperson said.

The Unite union, which represents the drivers, is calling for for minimum standards of pay, hours, holiday and redundancy.

Under rules governing strikes, the union would have to give seven days notice of any industrial action.

The government has faced widespread criticism for urging motorists to keep their petrol tanks topped up.

Calls have been made for the resignation of Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude, who advised people to store petrol in jerrycans in case of industrial action.

Diane Hill - the woman injured at her York home while pouring petrol from one container to another in her kitchen - was said to be in a "critical but stable condition" on Monday.

'No urgency' to top up

Prime Minister David Cameron's spokesman said motorists should go to the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) website for the latest advice.

The website advises motorists there is "no urgency to top up your tank".

The Downing Street spokesman said the advice had been updated after Unite had made it clear that its members would not strike over Easter.

The spokesman said the government was focused on putting "robust" contingency plans in place for any industrial action. He said David Cameron had full confidence in Francis Maude.

Transport Secretary Justine Greening told BBC Look North the government had "worked hard to keep the cost of petrol down".

"We are making sure petrol stations can get topped-up. Things are getting back to normal," she said.

The seven companies involved in the driver dispute - Wincanton, DHL, BP, Hoyer, JW Suckling, Norbert Dentressangle and Turners - are responsible for supplying 90% of the UK's petrol stations. They also supply the country's airports.

Workers at DHL and JW Suckling voted against strike action but backed action short of a strike.

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