Fuel protesters demand 15p tax cut

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The Independent Online

Fuel protesters toughened their stance against the Government last night, insisting that help targeted at hauliers was not enough and enlisting the aid of fishermen to bring the country to a halt in protests planned for later this month.

Fuel protesters toughened their stance against the Government last night, insisting that help targeted at hauliers was not enough and enlisting the aid of fishermen to bring the country to a halt in protests planned for later this month.

There were signs of renewed panic-buying among the public, and it became clear that fishermen were prepared to join farmers and lorry drivers by protesting at harbours and quaysides. They have made plans to send a flotilla along the Thames unless the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, offers a substantial cut in fuel taxes in his autumn statement.

The Prime Minister warned that big cuts in petrol duty would disrupt the economy, force up inflation, raise mortgage rates, destroy jobs and reduce help for groups such as pensioners.

But David Handley, the chairman of the People's Fuel Lobby, maintained that unless there was an across-the-board tax cut in the region of 15p, he would continue with plans to launch a mass protest starting on 14 November.

On Tuesday, Mr Handley met Barrie Deas, chief executive of the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations, to plan the quayside protests.

As many as 1,500 fishing boats are expected to be involved in plans to picket harbours at Hastings, Hull and Hartlepool in solidarity with the fuel tax campaign, and - weather permitting - a flotilla of fishing boats will also pass the House of Commons.

Mr Deas said: "There will be a number of vessels up the Thames. For us our objections are about the fuel price but not tax, because marine oil doesn't attract duty. The brutal fact is that if these price levels carry on there will be more bankruptcies. What we are doing is showing common cause."

Fuel protest leaders, who said preparations were under way for a renewed blockade of oil refineries, announced that the November protest would include a convoy of up to 25,000 lorries converging on London, bringing with them "men, women and children" from towns across the country. After giving evidence to MPs on the Select Committee on Trade and Industry, Mr Handley said that the convoy from Jarrow, Tyne and Wear, would not be a "go-slow" protest but would stop at towns across the country.

Petrol stations in Pinner, north-west London, and Henley-on-Thames reported the first signs of panic-buying yesterday as the public dug in for fresh blockades. Halfords, the car accessories chain, said it had seen a 500 per cent increase in sales of petrol storage cans.

The Government reacted by hardening its line against the protesters and said their initial demand for a 26.2p cut in fuel duty was "wholly unacceptable".

Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, is expected to make a Commons statement today on government measures to combat new protests, which are likely to include instructions to police to keep roads and refineries open.

Ministers signalled yesterday that Gordon Brown would not meet the campaigners' demands but would produce a package of measures designed to help groups such as hauliers and farmers. Stephen Timms, the Financial Secretary, produced a dossier saying that a 26.2p cut would cost £11.8bn and force up inflation and interest rates, leading to higher mortgage costs and unemployment.

"As the Chancellor made clear last week, we will proceed with caution and prudence and resist calls for irresponsible and unsustainable pre-election handouts, from whichever quarter they come," he said.

The protest leaders also dismissed the Tory position on fuel - to introduce a 3p cut in duty - but signalled that they would be happy with a 15p cut.

Amid signs of rifts between the protest groups, Mr Handley dismissed reports that some protesters intended to blockade supermarkets. He said that he "totally condemned" anyone who suggested blockading food distribution centres, rail depots or the national grid, and said that he had instructed protesters to abide by the law.

Mr Handley said "time has run out" for democracy and that people "had had enough of waiting".

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