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Fuel strike threat: Ministers' 'top up' advice criticised


The government is facing criticism for its handling of the threat of a strike by fuel tanker drivers.

It advised "sensible precautions", saying drivers should top up their tanks but there was no fuel shortage.

Petrol retailers said the government was intent on "creating a crisis out of a serious concern" while Labour said it was making the situation worse.

Unite union drivers, who supply 90% of UK forecourts, have voted to strike, although no dates have been set.

Advice 'dangerous'

An earlier suggestion by Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude for drivers to store petrol - "maybe a little bit in the garage as well in a jerrycan" - also provoked criticism.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) and the AA said the advice was potentially dangerous and asked Mr Maude to withdraw it.

The government later said Mr Maude's comments were wrong.

Speaking on BBC Two's Newsnight, Minister for Roads Mike Penning said Mr Maude's comments had been "a mistake".

He said his colleague had not understood the size of a jerrycan, which can hold 20 litres - more than the official limit for the amount that can be safely stored at home.

"What we were trying to say to people was be prepared. Let's not panic, let's not queue but be prepared," Mr Penning said.

After a meeting of the civil contingencies committee Cobra on Wednesday, a Downing Street spokesman said: "There is no need to queue for petrol, but in the normal course of business, motorists should consider keeping their tanks topped up.

"But there is no shortage of fuel at present and forecourts are being replenished."

He reiterated Prime Minister David Cameron's earlier message that any strike would be "unjustified" and said talks needed to continue to avert industrial action.

"The government has learnt lessons from the past and stands ready to act to manage the impact of any strike, in particular, to our emergency and essential services," the spokesman said.

The committee discussed how to maintain fuel supplies, which included increasing the potential number of military drivers.

Brian Madderson, of the Retail Motor Industry Federation, called for ministers and the public to keep "a cool head".

"Yesterday we polled a good proportion of our members right across the UK and petrol was 45% up compared to a normal Tuesday and diesel was 20% up."

Labour Treasury spokesman Chris Leslie told the BBC: "I heard Francis Maude was telling people to start filling jerrycans, panicking people all around the country, which is an incredibly irresponsible action to take.

"What they should do is get a date for Acas where they can all get around the table, sort out these difficulties and avoid the strike."

Labour leader Ed Miliband also said "it was in the interests" of the public for all sides to meet and negotiate.

Conciliation service Acas had said it would contact the five oil firms affected and Unite to agree a timetable for talks.

'Business as normal'

Unite has said it "welcomed the prospect of meaningful talks" but was waiting for a formal invitation.

There are reports of increased demand for fuel at some petrol stations, with Esso saying that "some sites may temporarily be out of one or two types of fuel."

Shell reported it was "business as normal".

Tesco said it was experiencing "an increase in sales in some areas" but reassured customers it was working hard to meet that demand.

Asda said it was "working flat out behind the scenes to keep petrol in stock. We apologise to customers if they find some pumps are running low."

A statement added: "We'd encourage customers to heed the advice of the AA. There are no strike dates planned and there'd be seven days' notice should there be any industrial action. Therefore there's no need for customers to change their petrol-buying routine. "

Geoff Dunning, chief executive of the Road Haulage Association, told the BBC he did not know if there was any real difference "between what people call panic-buying and prudent precautions".

The AA's Edmund King said there was enough fuel for everyone but the situation would get worse if people panicked.

Mr Cameron had earlier advised people to take any "opportunity to top up".

"There is no imminent strike. The unions would have to give seven days' notice of any strike so there is no need to queue to buy petrol," he said.

The government also has plans to train military personnel with an eight-day course.

More than 80 "highly qualified" drivers from the Royal Air Force were due to begin initial training by one oil haulage firm on Wednesday.

Unite, the UK's biggest union, has called for minimum standards covering pay, hours, holiday and redundancy for tanker drivers.

Workers involved in the dispute over terms, conditions and safety standards have already voted to walk out.

The union represents about 2,000 drivers who deliver fuel to Shell and Esso garages, as well as supermarkets such as Tesco and Sainsbury's.

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