Secret plan to ration fuel on the forecourt

Ministers draw up crisis strategy to combat petrol protests as prices soar
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Indy Politics

Motorists face rationing at petrol stations under emergency plans that are being drawn up by ministers to combat this week's fuel protests, The Independent on Sunday has learnt.

Ministers met secretly last week to finalise the Government's response to blockades of Britain's refineries threatened for Wednesday.

Petrol prices - which passed the £1-a-litre mark in the wake of Hurricane Katrina - are expected to remain at record highs in the coming weeks because of damaged refineries on the US Gulf Coast.

Soaring petrol prices are likely to add to growing demands for fuel tax cuts and further encourage militant hauliers and farmers into taking direct action in order to force the Government's hand.

Planned measures to combat a successful blockade include rationing of supplies, limiting the hours during which petrol can be sold and reserving some filling stations for "priority users". Leading hauliers were called in for a meeting with Department of Trade and Industry officials last week, at which they were warned that police have new powers to remove blockades.

Nevertheless, protesters are determined to press ahead with plans to cause traffic chaos with a mass go-slow. The South Wales Hauliers' Association is to mount a rolling blockade on the M4 on Wednesday, before deciding whether to advance on refineries. Another group, Fuel Lobby, has already announced that it plans to prevent supplies from reaching filling stations from 6am on Wednesday.

The Government is taking seriously the prospect of a repeat of the 2000 fuel protests, Mr Blair's most serious domestic crisis until the 7 July bombings.

"I think that you can be sure that we are not going to get caught napping," one well-placed senior official said yesterday. Ministers meeting last week discussed a document, "Downstream Oil Resilience", setting out its response to threatened shortages.

"Specific measures ... may include a restriction in some form of the amount of fuel a motorist is able to purchase at any given time," states the document under a section entitled "Forecourt Supply Management". It continues: "Measures may also be introduced to discourage motorists from the practice of topping up their fuel tanks at frequent intervals. The Secretary of State may also restrict the hours during which filling stations may sell fuel."

Additional emergency measures to be introduced under the Energy Act of 1976 include setting aside designated filling stations for the exclusive use of "priority users".

Police were placed on alert to expect protests from this weekend in a memo sent to all forces last week. It stated: "Intelligence indicates that spontaneous protests and blockades may occur as early as Saturday 10."

Gordon Brown yesterday described surging oil prices as a "global problem which requires global solutions". The Chancellor urged oil producers to serve their "common interest" and boost supplies during a meeting of European Union finance ministers in Manchester.

Britain may come under increasing pressure to follow France's lead in threatening a windfall tax on petrol companies unless they agree to reduce prices. Mr Brown insists the economic impact of crude oil prices will be "limited". Motorists facing the prospect of paying £1 a litre for unleaded petrol for months to come may disagree.

Disquiet about rising fuel costs is set to deepen over the coming days as more energy suppliers introduce sharp price hikes. British Gas led the way last week when it increased prices by an astonishing 14.2 per cent.

The week-long blockade five years ago closed more than 1,000 petrol stations across the country as panic buying took hold.