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The BBC's Stephen Evans
"The government said today the army would do the job"
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Monday, 30 October, 2000, 16:47 GMT
Troops trained to beat blockades
Fuel blockade
Troops will drive fuel tankers in the event of blockades
Armed forces minister John Spellar has told the House of Commons that around 1,000 troops will have been trained to drive oil tankers ahead of the 60-day deadline set by fuel protesters.

Mr Spellar said the troops were being trained in a bid to thwart any repeat of the chaos brought by fuel blockades in September that led to massive petrol and diesel shortages.

What I find quite extraordinary is that there is no comment from the Conservatives that in anyway deplores proposals to disrupt national supplies

John Spellar
In the event of a breakdown of order that prevented civilian drivers from delivering fuel, troops would be deployed if there was a request from civil authorities, he said.

Mr Spellar's comments came during defence questions in the Commons on Monday.

Contingency plans

Defending the potential use of troops, he said that it was "absolutely right to make contingency plans" in order "to maintain the supply of essential services to the nation".

"As a result of that, we have prudently and contingently been training troops which I would estimate, on current progress, after the period of 60 days would approach about 1,000 troops."

Fuel protesters
Chaos caused by protesters
But the government was accused of "sabre rattling" by Tory MP John Wilkinson.

He said: "Is this the best use of military personnel? Is it not the kind of sabre rattling that is likely to inflame industrial relations rather than calm them down?"

Replying to that point, Mr Spellar mocked the Tories, saying that he was "interested" to hear a Conservative MP opposing moves to "safeguard and secure vital supplies to maintain the country".

Accusation of strike busting

Shadow defence secretary Iain Duncan Smith demanded to know who would sanction any deployment of the armed forces to "bust any sort of strike".

But Mr Spellar said he was unaware of any proposal to mount a strike over fuel supplies.

He said he was aware, however, of "threats to blockade, disrupt, barricade" and to conduct potentially illegal action.

He added that troops would be under the command of the armed forces.

"What I find quite extraordinary is that there is no comment from the Conservatives that in anyway deplores proposals to disrupt national supplies," Mr Spellar said.

Support for barricades

He then accused the Tories of supporting people on the barricades at refineries rather than "defending law and order".

After the September fuel protests the government was criticised for its failure to foresee the anger felt by many hauliers and farmers over fuel tax.

The wave of protests that all but brought Britain to a standstill largely caught the government off-guard.

Mr Spellar's announcement of the government's preparations to utilise the military ahead of the expiry of the 60-day deadline is likely to be seen by fuel lobby groups as an attempt to stifle their right to protest.

But the government will not want to allow itself to be held to ransom by another round of blockades.

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See also:

30 Oct 00 | UK Politics
Fuel blockaders discuss tactics
25 Oct 00 | UK Politics
Prescott attacked over fuel crisis
23 Oct 00 | Business
CBI urges Brown to cut fuel tax
18 Oct 00 | UK Politics
Fuel protesters threaten mass rally
13 Sep 00 | Scotland
Greens backing Blair stance
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