Scots MP fears anti-foreigner feeling in England will lead to more strikes

WILDCAT strikes will become a regular occurrence if European law continues to be used as an excuse for protests fuelled by xenophobia, a senior Scottish MP warned last night.

Michael Connarty, whose constituency covers the Grangemouth oil refinery affected by unofficial action, said the week of unrest owed more to hostility towards foreigners working in England than genuine grievances against European laws.

He said he was concerned long-standing working practices in Scotland that allow workers living within 40 miles of a plant to be prioritised for work were at risk of being compromised amid "nationalist" protests breaking out south of the Border.

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His remarks came as unions this morning hoped to convince protesters at the Lindsey oil refinery in Lincolnshire, where the dispute over foreign labour began, and at Longannet power station in Fife, to return to work.

Protesters walked out after an Italian sub-contractor at Lindsey said it would use 400 of its permanent staff, mainly Italians and Portuguese, to carry out a job. This sparked claims that EU regulations were being used to discriminate against homegrown workers.

Last night, Mr Connarty, the Labour MP for Linlithgow and East Falkirk, told The Scotsman: "I don't think this is about the legislation. What I think this has become is a neo-nationalist argument. I really do believe that it's not about protecting the rights of workers.

"I'm not surprised it's flared up in England. There have been a lot of signals. There is a natural protectionist instinct and a natural instinct against people from other countries. I don't think it has any place in Scotland and I hope we will be able to root it out."

Mr Connarty said that the "half-and-half" deal to ensure 50 per cent of jobs went to UK workers at the Lindsey factory would "take the heat" out of the current dispute.

He added: "But we are stoking up massive trouble for ourselves in the future unless we can get people to accept that the terms and conditions of employment are based on skills and not on nationality.

"It seems (the Lindsey protesters] have bullied the employers into making an agreement that is against the interests of people because of their nationality."

His European scrutiny committee yesterday decided to launch an immediate investigation into the application of the EU posted workers directive at the centre of the row. This is likely to see Lord Mandelson, the Business Secretary, called to give evidence.

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Committee member Angus Robertson, the SNP group leader at Westminster, said: "There sadly has been an absence of important information relating to European legislation in the last few weeks as industrial action has spread.

"Everyone has an interest in better understanding these laws and whether any changes are necessary to ensure that no discrimination takes place at this time of worsening recession."

Gordon Brown was under fierce pressure at Prime Minister's Questions yesterday to apologise for pledging "British jobs for British workers" and to promise not do use the controversial phrase again.

Tory leader David Cameron accused Mr Brown of showing a "lack of judgment" and "pandering to protectionist fears".

The phrase was used by protesters as justification for demanding that Total, the French company that runs the Lindsey plant, reconsiders the award of the contract to the Italian firm.