Up to half of garages will not have fuel, amid fears the cost of a litre at the pump could rise by as much as 10p in the coming week, Energy Secretary Ed Davey was told yesterday.
The warning came in a letter to him from Brian Madderson, chairman of RMI Petrol, which represents the UK’s 5,000 independent retailers, including about 500 in Scotland. Mr Madderson also said the crisis could result in the closure of many more garages, as owners struggle to meet the challenges of rising petrol prices, taxation and the panic buying that has seen many of them run out of fuel.
The letter hit Mr Davey’s desk as Unite, the union that represents the tanker drivers threatening to strike, agreed to start talks with employers tomorrow to settle health and safety issues and pay claims.
The union has said there will be no strike over the Easter holidays, but in his letter to the Energy Secretary, Mr Madderson said it was now too late for many forecourts and he suggested the government’s decision to ease EU restrictions on tanker drivers’ working time from nine to 11 hours a day would have little impact.
He told Mr Davey his members’ had had their “confidence abruptly shaken by the government’s perceived inability to manage the issue of a potential industrial dispute”.
Referring to reports that Conservative ministers had briefed local constituencies that the fuel crisis was their “Thatcher moment” against the unions, he said: “It is now very clear to the public and to the media that government created a crisis out of a concern, with some ill-conceived recommendations and complete lack of engagement with the industry.”
Research carried out by RMI Petrol showed that “at least 30 per cent, possibly up to 50 per cent” of filling stations would be without fuel, Mr Madderson said.
He pointed out the number of garages had dropped by more than half to 5,000 since 1998 and that it was “unreasonable” to ask independent retailers to pay the £25,000 tax on a tanker of fuel up front. He claimed the advance cost was making the crisis worse.
He also said relaxing the rules on tanker drivers’ working hours was “too little, too late” for his members.
Some of Scotland’s 500 independent retailers will be among those at risk going out of business, particularly the ones in rural areas where the cost of petrol has risen fastest during the crisis.
The AA said last night it did not believe the crisis had been responsible for a significant impact on fuel costs across the UK and said warnings by RMI Petrol of a 10p hike would simply see drivers go elsewhere, with supermarkets promising to keep the cost of fuel down.
But a spokesman conceded people living in remote rural areas such as the Highlands and Islands could be hit harder.
The government insisted Mr Madderson’s claims were wrong.
A spokesman for the Department of Energy and Climate Change said: “This doesn’t reflect the whole picture. Suppliers are telling us that there is no shortage of supply, that forecourts are being re-stocked, and are returning to normal levels.”
Transport Secretary Justine Greening said: “We are making sure petrol stations can get topped up”.
But opposition parties argued the government was responsible for causing chaos in Britain over Easter.
Shadow transport secretary Maria Eagle called for the resignation of emergency planning minister Francis Maude, whose initial advice to the public was to stock up petrol in jerry cans.
She said: “Prices are rising at the pump and motorists are being hit in the pocket thanks to [David] Cameron and his ministers’ incompetence.
“Rising prices and queues on forecourts make clear what should have been obvious to the Prime Minister long before he sidelined Francis Maude – his government should never have chosen to play party politics with the fuel talks.”
She added: “The Transport Secretary’s claim that things are getting back to normal is completely out of touch with what is happening across the country.
“Justine Greening should be listening to the warning from the body representing thousands of independent petrol stations, that half their members are still short of fuel and says prices are ‘going crazy’ as a result.”
The opening of talks at Acas has brought some optimism that a strike can be avoided.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said there was no need for people to “rush up and fill up their tanks with fuel right now”.
He went on: “There are talks going on between employers and the trade union. I very much hope that those talks will lead to a resolution, with no strikes talking place at all.”
Following the announcement by Acas after exploratory talks yesterday, Unite general secretary Len McCluskey said it had taken almost two years to get the employers in the distribution sector to sit down and discuss the issues concerning tanker drivers.
He said: “It is vital that common, minimum standards on safety, training, wages and pensions are agreed to put a floor of best practice in the sector.
“This is the only way that the good employers can be supported and the public can be reassured that safe practice is the norm across the industry.”
He claimed that his members had been the victims of “mischievous briefings” but insisted there was “every chance of success” for the talks.
Mr McCluskey went on: “Talk of 27 per cent pay rises from nameless employers is a deliberate effort to undermine the drivers’ case, when employers know full well this is not a demand. Distortions like this must stop.
“These talks must be given the best chance of succeeding. The issues facing this industry are serious.
“It is beholden on all parties now to work constructively to solve them.”