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31 Mar 2003 : Column 720—continued

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): I shall speak briefly in support of new clause 10 and new clause 3, which the Opposition intend to withdraw. I rise from the same place in the Chamber that I spoke three years ago to propose precisely the measures that are now before us.

It is extremely important that we do something about road gritting. About 1,000 people a year are injured or killed as a result of icy and snowy conditions. Until the Goodes v. East Sussex case of 1999, or thereabouts, there was a requirement on local authorities to grit their roads to a satisfactory standard. That is why, backed by the Automobile Association, Age Concern and other organisations, I chose to introduce precisely these proposals in my private Member's Bill.

I understood to begin with, and throughout most of the debate, that my proposals had the general support of Her Majesty's Government. I was told informally that that was indeed the case. My surprise can be imagined when people whom one could only describe as the usual suspects who are here every Friday—the hon. Members for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), who has now moved on to greater things

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as the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) and for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner)—went to great trouble to talk out my Bill, ably assisted by the hon. Member for Streatham (Keith Hill), who was then a Transport Minister but is now the deputy Chief Whip of the Labour party. He was on his feet when the Bill was finally talked out that morning.

That was a strange situation, as gritting is demonstrably worth while. At the moment, thanks to the case in the House of Lords, there is no requirement on local authorities to grit the roads, but there should be. The Government talked out my Bill, but they have now changed their mind. That is not due to the eloquence of my speech two years ago nor, I regret, is it due to the powers of persuasion that my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh), to whom I pay tribute, demonstrated in Committee. At the beginning of January this year, I was asked on to a host of radio and television programmes to talk about gritting, and the Government were suddenly terribly interested in the matter because the M11 had seized up and there were problems across England.

In those radio and TV stations, I did not find myself up against the Secretary of State or even the Under-Secretary, who were noticeable by their absence. There was no comment by them in the media of any kind whatever in the aftermath of the M11 crisis in January. The people who were put up to speak included the chief executive of the Highways Agency, an unfortunate civil servant who was forced in to the front line to try and defend the indefensible and explain why people were stuck on the M11 for several hours.

Only one other person made some sort of comment—a nameless official in the Department for Transport. Official sources, it was said, whether someone close to Ministers or a person from the Department for Transport said that, in view of the problem on the M11, the Department intended to introduce legislative proposals on gritting. Ministers did not have the guts to go on television and say that they had talked out my Bill three years ago and, as a result, there had been deaths and injuries on the road in the meantime. They did not admit that they had killed the Bill off, but put up a nameless official from the Department to say that they intended to introduce legislation soon.

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk): I was stuck on the M11 for about eight hours on the way to my constituency, where I was due to address a meeting of Equitable Life policy holders who have suffered because of the Government's actions. Unfortunately, I was not able to make that meeting because of the failure to grit the roads.

Bob Russell (Colchester): A double whammy.

Mr. Bacon: Indeed.

Does my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) agree that his sad and painful story is clear evidence that there would be better legislation if Governments did less and Members did more through private Members' Bills?

Mr. Gray: My hon. Friend makes a good point. If only the Government, instead of their knee-jerk reaction

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to private Members' Bills, had listened carefully to what was said in the Chamber two or three years ago, they would already have the relevant legislation on the statute book. They would not have to turn around now and introduce a measure as a result of a little snow and ice on the M11.

Before the Under-Secretary says that in fact the Government may possibly have allowed my Bill to be discussed in Committee and go through, may I tell him that I have come across a letter written by the then Leader of the House, who is now Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs? She wrote about my Bill to the hon. Member for Streatham, who was then responsible, and said:

She continued:

She went on:

The Government would indeed be challenged about why they could not support my Bill. They are now being challenged about why they failed to support it three years ago, and they will be challenged about why there have been countless accidents throughout England in the meantime. They will be challenged to explain why they are now coming to the House with a similar provision as the result of one little episode on the M11, seeking to justify it in that way. I entirely support new clause 3, which is a good measure. I am glad that its spirit will be included in the Bill, and that the Under-Secretary has seen the error of his ways and accepts the sense of what I was saying two or three years ago. However, he owes it to the House and the nation to explain why he has taken two and a half years to do so.

Mr. Don Foster: I congratulate the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) on his speech and the passion with which he made it. He challenged the Minister to give answers on the Government's response to his Bill three years ago, and the whole House will be fascinated to hear the reply from the Minister who, we know, is prepared to listen and respond. Fascinatingly, the Opposition parties are each attempting to keep a tally of their successes over the Government so far. My calculation is that it is Liberal Democrats 3, Conservatives 2. However, the Conservatives will be on the verge of scoring an additional success when we come to vote on new clause 10. If that new clause is agreed, I am prepared to accept that we will have a three-all draw.

It is interesting to consider where the credit for that provision lies. As the hon. Member for North Wiltshire pointed out, the disaster and chaos on 30 January on the M11 led to a number of interesting and remarkable responses from various people. He has already referred to the poor official—the operations director, I think—from the Highways Agency who said on the BBC

Action was promised, and an interesting comment appeared in a BBC press report on the following day, 31 January, which stated:

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The Secretary of State demanded to know why gritting had not been done, but others were demanding that action be taken. Given that we are in the business of scoring minor points off each other, it is worth reflecting that in another place on 10 February, at column WA 72, my noble Friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill, using the different linguistic formulation that they appear able to get away with in another place, asked Her Majesty's Government

I wish that we were allowed such blunt speaking more often in the Commons. As a result of my noble Friend's question, the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Lord Macdonald of Tradeston said, as the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) has already noted:

As we have heard, the Government were prompt in finding that opportunity. We welcome that, and believe that new clause 10 is preferable to the Conservatives' formulation, although the spirit is the same. We certainly support it, but we have an additional concern about the growing number of reports from local councils throughout the land that, because of financial pressures on their budgets, are cutting or planning to cut road-gritting activities. For example, Durham county council proposes a £400,000 cut in its gritting budget.

Mr. Gray: Is the hon. Gentleman concerned that every outing of a gritting lorry costs about £25,000? If they are going to go out as often as the provision requires, the Government will surely have to fund local authorities properly?

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