Straw's plan could cause 'panic-buying'

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The Independent Online

The government was accused of encouraging panic-buying of petrol last night after the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, admitted its measures to combat another fuel protest would maintain less than half the normal level of supplies.

The government was accused of encouraging panic-buying of petrol last night after the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, admitted its measures to combat another fuel protest would maintain less than half the normal level of supplies.

As ministers played down the prospect of across-the-board cuts in fuel duty, Mr Straw suggested that ordinary motorists would bear the brunt of another fuel crisis as the Government sought to keep essential services going.

"We are aiming to be significantly better prepared than we were in September, and to do our very best to ensure that supplies for essential users are kept going," he said. "But we do not have any way in the world in which we could maintain supplies, even at 50 per cent, if there was very significant disruption."

The Home Secretary, who chairs a task force set up to limit the damage of a new wave of protests, said there was a responsibility on government, industry and organisations like the health service to get in stocks.

But the Tories warned that his remarks about stockpiling would backfire. In a letter to Mr Straw, Bernard Jenkin, the Opposition spokesman on transport, said: "Your comments can only provoke panic buying among the population as a whole."

Mr Straw suggested that Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, would not meet the protesters' demand for a 15p cut in fuel duty when he unveils his draft Budget a week tomorrow, just five days before the 60-day deadline set when the demonstrators ended their action last month.

Mr Straw said: "The overall result would be a temporary reduction, maybe, in fuel duty in return for unquestionably a big increase in interest rates and therefore a loss of jobs."

John Spellar, the Armed Forces Minister, told the Commons that 1,000 troops will have been trained to drive oil tankers by the 13 November deadline. "It's absolutely right to make contingency plans," he said.

But fuel protesters, who met in Manchester yesterday to discuss their tactics, expressed anger at the possible use of troops. Mark Francis, one of their leading figures, said the Government would face a new outbreak of "direct action" after the deadline if it failed to respond to their demands.

He admitted there were some divisions among the protesters, saying there was a "personal rift" between David Handley, chairman of Farmers for Action UK, and Brynle Williams, who headed the six-day stand-off outside the Stanlow refinery in Cheshire which sparked September's protests.

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