Oil firms 'allowed protesters a free run'

Union to send Blair dossier claiming serious security lapses, threats to their members and 'inaction of police'
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The Independent Online

Oil companies allowed protesters "free run" of refineries and petrol depots during the fuel crisis, says the tanker drivers' union. It called yesterday for a public inquiry into the "inaction" of the police and management, and said it would pass a dossier of serious security lapses to Tony Blair.

Oil companies allowed protesters "free run" of refineries and petrol depots during the fuel crisis, says the tanker drivers' union. It called yesterday for a public inquiry into the "inaction" of the police and management, and said it would pass a dossier of serious security lapses to Tony Blair.

Bill Morris, general secretary of the the Transport and General Workers' Union, said Esso's oil terminal at Fawley near Southampton allowed protesters to park their vehicles, including tractors, overnight in restricted areas. Demonstrators with the wives and children were seen to be "virtually picnicking" at a depot at Immingham near Grimsby before joining a demonstration.

The union, which counts nearly all the oil tanker drivers among its members, said there were no security checks on entry or exit to some refineries or depots and people were seen wandering around in "top security" areas.

Union officials said their members were placed in jeopardy because of the breakdown in security.

At Stanlow refinery, Cheshire, the union said drivers told management they were prepared to deliver supplies if they were given a police escort, but no back-up was provided. Also at Stanlow, one demonstrator with a video camera allegedly threatened drivers and said their pictures would be published on the internet. No action was taken by police. Drivers were told: "We may not get you this time, but we'll get you next time you are on the motorway," the union claimed.

Police outside Shell's Cheshire complex were seen giving interviews in front of lorries parked across the road and yet the police said breaches of the law were not being committed, the union said.

Union officials and a television camera crew walked unchecked into the BP Grangemouth plant in Scotland.

Mr Morris said drivers were threatened and spat at on petrol forecourts and told: "We know where you live." Tankers were cut up by motorcyclists on motorways but the police took no action, he said. He stopped short of accusing police and oil companies of colluding with protesters, although many union officials privately believed that happened.

The T&G, which has backed the campaign for lower fuel prices, agreed many of its drivers supported the protesters. But union officials said many of their members felt intimidated.

Mr Morris said a public inquiry would be better than any "knee-jerk" response by ministers to implement new laws that might stop the fuel protesters but which could alsoremove the right of workersto take legitimate industrial action.

"This preliminary report raises a number of unanswered questions," he said. "The role of the police, the oil companies and the protesters all need to be investigated if we are to avoid blockades of this sort in the future. My members are keen to know why the police failed to use their considerable public order powers to restore safety to the roads."

The union said it wanted to know why oil companies failed to take out injunctions over the blockades and why police failed to challenge "mass invasions" by motorcyclists and taxi drivers.

"The Government should investigate why the existing legislation was not effective before they rush to implement new laws that would impinge on the rights of union members to take legitimate lawful action."

A Shell spokesman said they had asked for police help to begin petrol deliveries from Stanlow, but were not satisfied the back-up available was sufficient to ensure the safety of the drivers or their vehicles.

Cheshire police said escorts were provided when the tankers began to move and a spokesman said at no time did protesters block the highway outside the refinery. The spokesman said he believed the incident with the video camera did not involve the Cheshire refinery.

At Grangemouth a BP manager said the film crew was allowed into the depot because security staff thought it was part of the T&G delegation. Other companies were not available for comment.

About 200 schools in England were closed yesterday because of fuel shortages, the Department for Education and Employment said.

More were shut than last Friday, though most petrol stations around the country have now been resupplied.

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