Hauliers could be forced to move fuel

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Indy Politics

The Government is threatening to withdraw the operating licences of hauliers who refuse to transport petrol if there is a repeat of the blockades that caused this month's fuel crisis.

The Government is threatening to withdraw the operating licences of hauliers who refuse to transport petrol if there is a repeat of the blockades that caused this month's fuel crisis.

Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, has asked his officials to draw up proposals to enable the Government to stop hauliers working if they fail to maintain petrol supplies. "We are looking at the withdrawal of licences; this is under consideration," a Home Office source said.

Ministers are convinced that farmers and hauliers, who came close to bringing the country to a standstill two weeks ago, will attempt a similar protest if, as expected, the Government has not cut fuel duty before the protesters' 60-day deadline expires on November 13.

The controversial proposal to punish hauliers, which was condemned by the companies and the Tories, would form part of the legislation introduced in the second stage of the Government's plan to prevent a repeat of the crisis.

The first stage will involve the publication today of a "memorandum of understanding" between the Government, the oil companies and the police. It has been drawn up by a task force, chaired by Mr Straw, on which the three groups are represented. The memo is expected to promise a faster response to any further blockades of oil refineries through a better exchange of information between the groups.

The police would adopt a tougher approach than before, offering to provide escorts to tanker drivers to prevent intimidation as soon as the demonstrators appeared. They would also crack down swiftly on farmers and hauliers who block motorways and roads through "go-slow" calvacades, by using powers to prevent people obstructing the highway.

A government source said: "The police adopted a softly, softly approach last time, on the grounds that people would disperse from the refineries after making their point. But that didn't happen and so there would be a different attitude next time."

Under the plan, Whitehall would be geared up for a rapid response to a new fuel crisis. All departments, such as Health and Education, will monitor fuel supplies and an emergency committee would be set up as soon as a protest became likely, to direct supplies to emergency services and to different parts of the country.

Ministers deny they want to find a way to force tanker drivers to work normally when they are faced with protesters. But the threat to revoke licences will be seen as a way of putting pressure on the hauliers and drivers, whose jobs could be at risk.

The Road Haulage Association said it would oppose a move that could put firms out of business without giving them any right of appeal. "Such legislation seems very, very harsh indeed," said Kate Gibbs, a spokeswoman for the RHA. "The group it would apply to would not have committed any offence."

Ann Widdecombe, the shadow Home Secretary, said: "We recognise the need to keep fuel supplies flowing. But this heavy-handed approach shows a respect for neither the due processes of law-making or for the anger of the British public and road haulage industry at the excessive taxation on fuel."

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston, a Transport minister, told the Lords that the memo would cover the practical arrangements needed to protect essential services. Other options for new legislation include giving police greater powers to deal with public disorder and imposing a legal duty on the oil companies to maintain essential supplies.

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