Army on standby as petrol tanker drivers vote on strike acti

Preparations are being made to call in the military to deliver petrol if tanker drivers stage a national strike, in an attempt to prevent a repeat of the chaotic scenes that followed blockades by fuel protesters in 2000.

The Cabinet Office minister, Francis Maude, called on the Unite union, which is balloting drivers at seven fuel distribution firms, to seek an agreement with distribution companies. But he said the government had "learned the lessons of the past" and was prepared to do what was necessary to prevent fuel shortages for motorists and the emergency services.

While the government is refusing to publicly confirm specific contingency plans, officials say ministers are prepared to use emergency powers to allow 300 army tanker drivers to distribute fuel if needed. The military drivers will begin extra training next week in preparation for a possible strike, the BBC reported separately.

Ballot results from about 2,000 tanker drivers, about 90% of all those who deliver fuel to UK petrol stations, will be announced by Unite on Monday. The vote was called last month amid union concerns about safety and training, among other issues. A strike could begin from 3 April.

Maude said: "We are calling on Unite and the employers involved to work together to reach an agreement that will avert industrial action. Widespread strike action affecting fuel supply at our supermarkets, garages and airports could cause disruption across the country. The general public should not and must not suffer from this dispute and strike action is manifestly not the answer.

"Although we are pushing for an agreement, we have learned the lessons of the past and stand ready to act to minimise disruption to motorists, to industry and, in particular, to our emergency services, in the event of a strike."

The government is desperate to avoid the sorts of scenes that dented Tony Blair's image during his first term in office. In the summer and autumn of 2000 a series of blockades of fuel refineries and distribution centres by protesters complaining about high fuel prices prompted panic buying as thousands of petrol stations closed due to a lack of supplies, hampering distribution of food and other essentials.

The protests lost impetus relatively quickly, but the impression of a government at a loss to halt the mounting chaos was a PR disaster for Labour ministers.

The Petrol Retailers' Association, which represents more than 5,500 petrol stations, said it knew nothing about any government contingency plans and was advising members to keep stock levels high. "We have had no word from the Department of Energy and Climate Change whatsoever," the group's chairman, Brian Madderson, told the BBC.

A spokesman for the energy department said plans were in place to "minimise disruption to essential services, public transport and motorists". He said: "We would do everything possible to keep the country running especially in the current difficult economic situation."

Unite argues that outsourcing in the haulage industry has triggered relentless pressure on costs, with the likes of Asda, Shell and Esso all contracting out their deliveries.

According to union officials, fracturing the industry into a patchwork of smaller suppliers is leading to a lowering of standards and pay. Because fuel and truck costs cannot be lowered easily, Unite claims that haulage firms are targeting staff and training costs instead. As a consequence, hauliers are seeking a minimum wage rate and an agreed set of pan-industry standards.

The most significant single ballot result will be at Hoyer, the logistics company which delivers Shell fuel, among others, and whose staff comprise about a quarter of the 2,000 drivers.

A Unite spokesman said: "We want to avoid a strike and would prefer to sit down with the companies and discuss these issues. When the results are in we will discuss what happens next."

While he would not comment on whether soldiers would be sufficiently qualified to transport fuel around the country, he stressed it was a complex and potentially dangerous task: "There is a lot of training which goes into being a tanker driver. It's not just a case of shipping cargo around. It's a very volatile substance."