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Strike talk activates emergency oil plans

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Strike talk activates emergency oil plans

By George Parker, Andrew Taylor and Ed Crooks in London

Published: June 9 2008 23:31 | Last updated: June 9 2008 23:31

Ministers have activated emergency procedures with the oil industry ahead of a threatened four-day strike by tanker drivers, amid fears that filling stations across Britain could start running out of fuel from this weekend.

John Hutton, business secretary, fears the strike could prompt much more widespread fuel shortages than those caused by the strike at the Grangemouth oil refinery in April, and has ordered officials to draw up contingency plans. Industry executives believe these fears are well founded and said they were working with the government to implement measures to minimise disruption.

The emergency measures – activated discreetly last Friday in an attempt to reduce the risk of panic buying – would safeguard fuel for emergency services and provide for supplies to be moved around the country to areas of shortages.

About 500 tanker drivers employed by haulage companies Hoyer UK and Suckling Transport are threatening to strike for four days from Friday after their claim for a 13 per cent pay rise was rejected.

The two companies are sole suppliers to almost 1,000 Shell forecourts, which are concentrated in the south-east, the north-west, central Scotland and parts of the Midlands.

But Mr Hutton fears that the striking drivers could picket distribution depots used by other companies, leading to wider disruption.

“It is difficult to gauge what the impact of the strike would be if it went ahead,” the Department for Business said. “Shell accounts for about one in 10 filling stations and it is inevitable there would be some stock-outs.

“If the strike were to affect other retailers, it would have a more significant impact. The government is working with the wider fuel industry on what could be done to reduce any disruption to the public and business.”

Shell said on Monday night: “We are doing everything we can to avoid and minimise the impact of Unite’s industrial action.”

Mr Hutton accepts the need to strike a balance between preparing for fuel shortages and causing public panic. He is hoping that union and employers can resolve their differences at Acas, the conciliation and advisory service, when they meet for 11th-hour talks later this week.

The emergency measures include a suspension of anticartel rules to allow oil companies to exchange information about stocks.

The haulage companies have offered to raise drivers’ annual average salaries, currently £36,000, by 6.5 per cent. Hoyer says it has been “disappointed” by the reaction of Unite, the drivers’ union. It says it has increased pay by 27 per cent in the past four years.

The union, however, blames Shell for putting pressure on hauliers to keep wages down. It says the average salary of £36,000 includes a lot of overtime.

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