The prospect of a strike by fuel tanker drivers which could cripple petrol supplies has grown closer after union officials overwhelmingly rejected a proposed deal aimed at averting industrial action
Around 60 Unite officials turned down the deal which was thrashed out during six days of talks between the union and representatives of six fuel distribution companies.
Motorists were urged not to panic buy fuel as Unite said it wanted a negotiated settlement and stressed that it had not yet decided whether to name dates for action.
The Government expressed disappointment with rejection of the deal, with Energy and Climate Change Secretary Edward Davey saying that "any strike action would be wrong and unnecessary".
Despite the rejection it is believed that progress was made on a number of issues including pensions, health and safety and training.
Diana Holland, assistant general secretary of Unite, said: "While there has been some progress it is clear that our members need more guarantees and assurances from the employers about their commitment to meaningful minimum standards. We remain committed to achieving a negotiated settlement that brings stability and security to a vital industry and gives this workforce, and the public, confidence that the race to the bottom is ending."
Unite officials have contacted the conciliation service Acas, which has been facilitating talks between both sides, and said it hoped employers would agree to hold fresh negotiations in the coming days.
The union will have to name strike dates, or other forms of industrial action, by Friday afternoon unless employers agree to extend the deadline.
A spokesman for Hoyer, one of the firms involved, said: "The decision by Unite to reject the proposals agreed between employers and the union after six days of constructive dialogue through Acas is a serious blow. However, we have made comprehensive contingencies as a business and we remain committed to ensuring that despite any strike action by Unite, we make every effort, together with the armed forces, to maintain fuel supplies to a level that keeps disruption to business and the general public to an absolute minimum."
Brian Madderson, chairman of RMI Petrol, the trade association representing independent forecourt retailers in the UK, said: "We had hoped the discussions between Unite members and their employers would result in a resolution. We hope that further talks announced today will resolve the issues as soon as possible."