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Mr. Dismore: A particular problem in cities relates to housing estates. Sometimes it is a little ambiguous which road is under the control of the local authority's highway authority and which is under the control of the housing department. That has certainly led to confusion and problems in my area. Is it the same in Liverpool?
Maria Eagle: Indeed--not here, for certain. One problem is that if there is any dispute, or if the ice is on a minor road or on one in an estate, people simply do not grit. There is no argument about who should do it; it simply is not done. I am sure that that is a problem in many areas apart from my own.
The judgment in Goodes v. East Sussex County Council was unwelcome for several reasons. One has a great deal of sympathy with the original plaintiff in this case, who suffered catastrophic injuries as a result of skidding on black ice. From what I can tell, there is no indication that he was driving badly. His car simply hit a patch of black ice which had not been treated. The case went all the way up to the House of Lords, and the judgment changed at every stage; the plaintiff lost at first, won in the Court of Appeal and lost in the House of Lords.
Mr. Robert Syms (Poole): Even with gritting, there will be bad conditions on roads. One cannot get away from the fact that there will be ice on the roads--a driver's responsibility is to drive with regard to prevailing conditions. Whether the road is icy, or whether salt or grit has gone down, one should have regard to the conditions. I have a slightly different view of the judgment and whether it was right to compensate someone for crashing a car in those conditions, when, as a driver he should have been aware of them.
Maria Eagle: The hon. Gentleman is right that the driver should have been aware of conditions. However, one cannot see black ice on the road, so the hon. Gentleman takes a harsh view of the matter. My sympathy with the original plaintiff, who is not a constituent or anything like that, may derive from the fact that, when I practised as a solicitor, I tended to act for plaintiffs in personal injury cases. I do not think that that is an interest that I should declare, but I used to deal with cases on
My concern about the law, as it has been left by Goodes v. East Sussex County Council, is that there is clearly no liability on any local authority faced with similar litigation. During my time in the House, and from my own experience, I have noticed that when there is no potential liability on an authority for failing to carry out what one thought was a statutory duty, or when that liability is wiped out by such cases, it can be tremendously tempting not to continue to make sure that the liability is protected against. I understand, that in this case, local authority associations, as one would expect, have acted responsibly and said that they will continue to implement their code of practice. However, the case of Goodes v. East Sussex County Council cries out for legislative action to clarify the situation.
In general, local authorities have reacted by saying that they will continue to implement the code of practice. East Sussex did that, but that did not prevent Mr. Goodes's accident. I am slightly concerned because, without a change in the law to clarify whether or not liability lies with the local authority in any instance, the case leaves us with no one liable for problems on the road surface rather than those that relate to the fabric of the road surface--it all centres on a definition of maintenance--which cry out for action to be put right as quickly as possible. Clearly liability would not lie with the local authority in every instance: as the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) suggested, if the driver was irresponsible, one is looking at contributory negligence or no liability at all.
I noticed with interest--as may have some of the lawyers here--that the thing that swung Lord Hoffman and the unanimous decision of the House of Lords, went back to a judgment made by Lord Denning when he was Master of the Rolls. One is not surprised about that: Lord Denning always wrote startlingly good, persuasive judgments that were extremely well argued and made a good analysis of previous common law. It may be slightly unfair of me, but I also remember that many of his judgments left us with an absurd piece of law. However, they were beautifully argued, excellently analysed and often persuasive, so I am not surprised that the judgment can be traced back to Lord Denning's minority opinion in a previous case.
One main argument led Lord Hoffman to the conclusion that English law, in its current form as the Highways Act 1980, does not allow for the clearing of snow and ice. He says that a modern provision similar to the Scottish provision that he cites--which the hon. Member for North Wiltshire has reproduced in clause 1--is to be found in section 150(1) of the Highways Act. Lord Hoffman went on to say:
In Liverpool over Christmas, we had unexpected snow and ice, when we had a couple of bad days of snow followed by sleet and ice. Liverpool does not get much bad weather because of the gulf stream--my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) knows what I am talking about--but that was not the case over Christmas. The local authority completely failed to clear the snow and ice.
On 27 and 28 December, there was utter chaos in Liverpool. The gritting was not done in time, and then there was an enormous fall of snow. The gritting was then done, but it was too late. The city had no snow plough of any kind. In fact, most of the main bus routes were not gritted and buses could not run. People could not get to work and many cars were involved in minor shunts. The council was severely criticised by the local media, rightly, for failing to deal with the snow and ice. Every other city did fairly well, but Liverpool did not, and people wanted to know why.
The council said that the gritters had been out, and they had, spreading 1,220 tonnes of rock salt. The salt spreaders have adjustable nozzles which were turned to maximum, but it was all too late. It should have been done in advance. The council worked out that its eight gritting
There were a number of reasons for the chaos. Not only did the city not have a snow plough, it did not take many of the precautions taken by other cities. Many cities have monitors and sensors which allow meteorological officers to forecast in more detail when bad weather is coming. Liverpool does not have those, but it did have gritters.
Were the steps that the local authority took reasonable, subjectively? Would the council think that? If we believe the press coverage, the local authority said that staff had worked hard and that it had done all it could. A senior Liberal Democrat councillor said that the salt was the problem because it did not work to a low-enough temperature. It was the wrong kind of salt. The salt is mined in Cheshire in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall).
Instead, the authority was going to use zoo poo. [Hon. Members: "What?"] Zoo poo. I think that is excrement obtained from zoo animals. It was said that that would have worked. I find it ironic that a spokesman from a party that usually gets elected by promising to remove dog dirt from streets was now proposing to spread it on every road in the city. However, this was probably a diversionary tactic; the council has gone quiet about zoo poo and has decided that rock salt works well. I am glad to hear it. We need to support our local industries and not put a lot of salt miners out of work in Cheshire.