Brown may postpone fuel duty rises to stop protests

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The Chancellor, Gordon Brown, agreed to reconsider a planned rise in fuel duty last night in an attempt to head off a summer of fuel protests.

In a decision that will be interpreted as a climb-down, Mr Brown said he would consider postponing an increase in fuel duty if the price of petrol continues to rise. Campaigners had threatened to stage protests in major cities this weekend and in the run-up to next week's European and London elections.

But they indicated that they may be prepared to cancel the "go slow" protests and said Mr Brown's promise of a review showed they were being "listened to". They will hold talks today about whether to give the Chancellor more time.

If there is no drop in fuel prices in the next two months, the Chancellor said he would look again at the planned rise in fuel duty, scheduled for September. His comments were interpreted as an indication that the rise in duty may be abandoned completely.

"As far as Britain is concerned, it is in no one's interests to have petrol prices higher than expected. And I understand the worries of motorists, hauliers and business generally," Mr Brown said. "Rather than opportunistic, short-term, day-to-day reactions to fast changing events ­ which do nothing for stability ­ I will review progress in August."

David Handley, chairman of Farmers for Action, who led the fuel protests which brought Britain to a halt in 2000, said he would reconsider whether to continue with the wave of protests after consulting colleagues around the country.

"We will all be taking a decision about whether to go on after we have read the whole script of Mr Brown's remarks," he said. "I certainly think they are starting to listen to us. We will discuss it to see if there is a consensus between us about what to do. If we decide we should give him the next couple of weeks and hold back then that's what we will do." But it is thought that some protesters will only be satisfied with a firm guarantee that the rise in fuel duty will be scrapped.

Mr Brown said he wanted to use the next few months to "maintain the focus on world oil prices" which he blamed for the rising price of fuel in Britain.

He would consider what action to take after an Opec meeting in late July.

But oil industry experts expressed doubts that the increase in production would lower petrol prices. They said the main cause of the rise was fear about more terrorist attacks on refineries and continuing instability in the Middle East. "The poor old British motorist is going to have an expensive summer, I'm afraid," said Bruce Evers of Investec.

Tony Blair told a press conference that Mr Brown was right to wait to see how the world oil price responded to the boost in production. He said the Government did not "need to take the decisions right now but we will take it later".

He added: "Of course we are sympathetic to the concerns of business and indeed motorists and that is why Gordon has said very sensibly earlier today we are going to have to take a decision later about this. But a decision has got to be taken not on a short-term basis but on a basis on the long-term interest of the country and the stability of its finances as well as obviously paying regard to motorists and businesses."