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The BBC's Stephen Evans
"The politicians are doing some hard thinking"
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Home Secretary, Jack Straw
"People have a right to protest"
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Friday, 15 September, 2000, 17:23 GMT 18:23 UK
Task force to tackle protests threat
Man on 19th Century bike
Mr Straw wants to help prevent more disruption
A task force headed by Home Secretary Jack Straw is being set up to decide how the UK's fuel supplies can be safeguarded in future.

The group, which will include oil chiefs and police officers, will examine ways of preventing any future protests crippling the UK.

There is an issue about the boundaries of protest in a democratic society

Jack Straw
Mr Blair met the oil chiefs in Downing Street on Thursday as protesting hauliers and farmers called off their blockades of oil refineries, allowing fuel deliveries to resume for the first time in days.

The blockades had crippled much of the normal running of the country. Non-urgent operations were cancelled in many hospitals, people stayed away from work, many schools closed and food supplies ran low in supermarkets.

A Downing Street spokesman said: "The prime minister made it clear that some very hard lessons had to be learned to ensure this kind of disruption of the fuel supply did not have such an immediate and damaging effect on the country."

Oil giants' practices

Mr Straw said the task force was about "public order, public safety and, above all, ensuring a free flow of petrol into our economy and our society."

He said one issue the task force would consider was arrangements within oil companies for co-ordination and crisis management.

Jack Straw
Jack Straw: we were taken by surprise
"I went into this thinking if there was a label outside a refinery marked Shell or BP then the people inside the refinery would be employed by that company. But life is not quite what it seems," he said.

"In many cases these refineries are shared facilities and the drivers are not directly employed but self-employed contractors. Those are some of the issues which we will look at."

Mr Straw defended the way the government had handled the fuel crisis, but conceded there were many lessons to be learned.

"Governments face difficulties from time to time and the question is not what you do over a period of two or three days, but what strategy you're following in the long term," he told BBC1's Breakfast News.

He added: "I say to anybody in this country that confidence in this government would have been much, much lower and have been simply destroyed if we had conceded to the demands of the protesters, because that is not the way to run a democratic society."

'Acceptable line passed'

Mr Straw said no-one had anticipated the scale or speed with which the protest had developed.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "The choices available to government have been limited in this situation - we either went the French way or we did what I think people expected of a serious and responsible government... on the issue of protests which had passed an acceptable democratic line."

That meant ensuring fuel supplies were restored to protect vulnerable people, while listening to people's concerns.

As a consequence of these protests, essential services, the basic fabric of our society and national life, was brought to the brink

Jack Straw
"There is an issue about the boundaries of protest in a democratic society."

When asked if those boundaries were crossed, Mr Straw agreed, adding: "As a consequence of these protests, essential services, the basic fabric of our society and national life, was brought to the brink. I was surprised."

The home secretary will be under pressure to come up with ways to handle the 60-day-deadline threat set by protesters when they called off their blockades.

Mixed reaction to taskforce

And Mr Straw's announcement received a mixed reaction from MPs with Labour's Jeremy Corbyn signalling that he would be "very unhappy" if the taskforce came up with any proposals for emergency legislation which could infringe civil liberties.

"We have to ensure disputes are settled by conciliation not by emergency measures rushed through Parliament," he warned.

Another Labour MP, Brian Donohoe, said the priority of the taskforce should be to put a "trigger in place" so that if the protest was ever repeated, the Government could act immediately.

A Liberal Democrat spokesman said the taskforce was "no substitute" for the Government to "open its eyes and ears and recognise the anger at fuel prices.

"They should announce an immediate freeze on future petrol tax rises," he said.

BBC political editor Andrew Marr said the government had been chastened and the prime minister was sounding more emollient with each day.

The real question for the government was how many people who voted Labour in 1997 may not do so again because of fuel prices, he said.

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See also:

15 Sep 00 | UK
UK faces more fuel misery
14 Sep 00 | Health
NHS will take days to recover
14 Sep 00 | Business
Esso scraps price rises
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