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11 Jan 2010 : Column 410

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): In my constituency returning veterans and their families are made homeless. That is no way to treat them. Will the Minister take steps to force recalcitrant councils to give housing priority to our returning heroes and their families?

Mr. Kevan Jones: The housing priority is already in place, but I shall roll out the welfare pathway, which was launched in Kent in November. That is about councils working together with other agencies, the Ministry of Defence and service charities to bring together maximum help for veterans, service personnel and their families. There is now one phone number for anyone who needs help; it is 08000 223366.

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): I, too, have a constituent who was tragically bereaved by the Chinook accident. Will the Minister indicate whether there are any circumstances in which he might reopen the matter and review a decision that is increasingly challenged and that looks more and more unhappy?

Bill Rammell: The Ministry of Defence has always made it clear that if new evidence is brought forward that directly focuses on the issues and provides evidence of technical failure, we would reopen the investigation. No such new evidence has been forthcoming.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): Will Ministers learn the lesson from the tragic death last year of Andrew Watson, my constituent, who, having served in Iraq, had continuing mental health problems, and will they make sure that when servicemen and women return, they always have 24-hour-a-day access to mental health services that understand their past and their difficulties?

Mr. Kevan Jones: They already do, in terms of decompression at Camp Bloodhound in Cyprus, but I am pleased that today, my counterpart, the Minister of State, Department of Health, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien) and I signed a memorandum of understanding with Combat Stress, concentrating not just on veterans but on their expertise, and on how we can ensure that the lessons from the six mental health pilots are included in mainstream services in the NHS.

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Severe Weather (Transport and Public Services)

3.34 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mr. Sadiq Khan): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall repeat a statement that my right hon. and noble Friend the Secretary of State for Transport made about the severe weather, transport networks and public services.

With leave, I will make a statement on the recent prolonged severe weather that we are currently experiencing and on the steps being taken to support our public services. The current cold weather began in mid-December and is the most prolonged spell of freezing conditions across the UK since December 1981. The Met Office forecasts that the current very cold conditions are likely to continue across most of the country for some days longer.

These extreme conditions continue to affect our transport and energy networks, as well as public services, including schools and hospitals. I would like to thank the many hundreds of thousands of people working tirelessly across the country to keep Britain moving in these extreme conditions.

Over the past weeks, we have seen many tremendous examples of Britain's community spirit in action, with people lending vehicles, digging clear paths to allow ambulances and police vehicles through and visiting neighbours in need. We will do all that we can to support and encourage people helping out in their communities.

Our key priority is to keep open the core transport networks, national and local. All main transport networks are operational, even though with reduced services in some areas. The vast majority of the motorways and major trunk roads remain open. Network Rail and the train operating companies advise that the major rail routes are open, subject to delays and cancellations. The position is similar for air travellers. Eurostar is running a reduced service. Our advice remains that people should check routes before they travel, and I thank all travellers for their forbearance at this time.

To keep our roads open, much of our attention has been on ensuring that ploughs and gritters have got out to where they are needed most. The Highways Agency has had its fleet of 500 salt spreaders and snow ploughs out in force throughout this period, as have local authorities.

Last week, we opened Salt Cell-a collaborative task force involving central Government, the Local Government Association, the Met Office, the devolved Administrations and Transport for London. The group advises salt suppliers on how best to distribute salt.

Last Friday, I directed the Highways Agency to manage its use of salt in response to forecasts of prolonged bad weather, by reducing its daily use of salt by at least 25 per cent. It has achieved that by taking measures such as not directly spreading salt on the hard shoulder of motorways.

For local roads, the Local Government Association and the Mayor of London have agreed to reduce daily use by at least 25 per cent. also, recognising the importance of mutual support to keep Britain moving safely. Local authorities are taking their own decisions on the prioritisation of supplies in their localities. The Highways
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Agency has played a key role in providing mutual aid of additional salt and gritters to local highway authorities and key organisations, such as Felixstowe port.

We continue to take all possible steps to maximise the production of salt from our principal suppliers. On 29 December, the Highways Agency placed an order for significant additional salt imports, which are due to start arriving later this month.

The energy sector is experiencing high demand due to the extreme conditions. The system has been responding generally well at a time of record demand. However, ongoing supply issues in Norway have caused National Grid to issue a gas balancing alert today, as well as on Saturday, when the problems arose. The gas balancing alert is a tool that National Grid uses to make sure that there is enough gas on tap and there is no shortage of supply for domestic customers.

The Department for Work and Pensions is helping citizens in two ways this winter: with winter fuel payments-first introduced in 1997, and now standing at £250 for pensioner households, rising to £400 for the over-80s-and cold weather payments of £25 for those in receipt of pension credit, where there are sub-zero temperatures over the course of seven consecutive days. Cold weather payments were last year increased to £25 from £8.50 per week. These payments are automatic. Everyone in Great Britain who is entitled will get them and should not worry about turning up their heating.

During times of increased demand, we all need to think responsibly about whether our health issues are a genuine priority and use NHS resources responsibly. Medical advice is available by phone through NHS Direct.

There are no reports of major problems with food supplies reaching retailers. Because the UK has a diverse supply of food from domestic and international suppliers, we are not reliant on just one source of food, which helps maintain stability of supply as well as helping keep prices stable. Last week we relaxed the enforcement of drivers' hours regulations to ensure that the essential deliveries of rock salt and animal feed could be made. Over the weekend, we further relaxed the enforcement of the regulations to allow the delivery of fuel oil to remote areas of Scotland and of de-icer to airports, and to allow bulk milk tankers to continue making their deliveries.

Schools are making every effort to reopen after last week's closures, and this week there has been a significant improvement. The Department for Children, Schools and Families reports that virtually all exam centres are able to run their exams as scheduled, or have found alternative locations at which to hold them.

I know that the House will wish to join me in thanking the hundreds of thousands of people across the transport industries, the NHS, the education system, the armed forces, local authorities and other public services for helping all our communities come through this severe weather. However, the forecasts are for a further period of snow and sub-zero overnight temperatures and we must take further steps to keep Britain moving.

In July last year, the UK Roads Liaison Group published a report into the lessons learned from the severe weather experienced in February 2009. Recommendations that were made to central Government were adopted immediately and in full. There were
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recommendations to local authorities as well, on which individual authorities were expected to act. The key recommendation was that local highway authorities should keep at least six days of salt stocks, and that over and above this the Highways Agency should hold an additional strategic supply to underpin national resilience. To this end, the Highways Agency came into this winter period with a 13-day supply of salt, subject of course to replenishment.

The report also made recommendations for my Department to convene a Salt Cell task force to prioritise supplies in the event of extreme conditions. That we have done. Salt Cell has enabled us to prioritise salt distribution to where it is most needed, and I am grateful for the co-operation of the Local Government Association, the Mayor of London and the devolved Administrations. Salt Cell next meets tomorrow morning.

Given the prolongation of the very cold weather, further measures are likely to be required over the next 48 hours to keep networks open. These are likely to include further steps to conserve salt, to ensure that the Highways Agency and local authorities can manage during the continuing severe weather. The Local Government Association and the Government are in constant contact and we will continue to take the necessary operational decisions to keep networks open as far as possible. We are experiencing the most severe weather conditions for 29 years, in common with much of northern Europe. We need to continue pulling together for the common good, as we have done over the past weeks.

Mrs. Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con): I thank the Minister for advance notice of his statement.

Like the Minister, I pay tribute to all the councils, council workers, salt producers, the armed forces, the police and others who are working so hard to try to keep the country moving during the present crisis. We should remember that many communities have had three solid weeks of this, without the brief respite over Christmas that much of the south-east enjoyed.

Everyone accepts that a degree of disruption is inevitable with such extreme weather, but the Government have important questions to answer about the adequacy of the preparations that they made for the weather episode. It is not acceptable for the Government just to pass the buck to local authorities. Will the Government accept their share of responsibility for the current shortage of gritting salt, particularly in the light of the fact that the Government's Salt Cell now controls allocations of salt across the country?

What are the local salt stocks now held in the UK, and how long will they last? Which areas in need have the lowest stocks? Does the Minister have any estimate of the proportion of roads and pavements that have not been gritted or cleared? Have our armed services got all the salt that they need? Should the NHS be included in the Salt Cell to help ensure that hospitals and emergency services have access to all the salt that they need? Why did it take until last week to relax drivers' hours, when these problems have been ongoing for nearly a month?

The media have reported a recent diversion of exported salt to use in this country. What other exports have taken place since the cold weather episode began, and why were steps not taken more quickly to divert exports
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back for UK use? Why is Salt Cell not meeting today, given the urgency of the situation? What estimate has the Minister made of the cost of repairing the damage to the roads caused by the freezing conditions? Does he agree that it is wholly contrary to common sense if people feel at risk of negligence claims when they clear paths and pavements? Is that not penalising the sort of socially responsible behaviour that all parties should encourage? Is he aware that anxiety about liability was one reason why many schools stayed shut?

The Government accused us of scaremongering about gas supplies, but if everything is fine with energy supplies why did National Grid issue its fourth alert in two weeks today? The Local Government Association, in its July report, "Weathering the Storm: Dealing with Adverse Winter Weather Conditions in the UK", concluded with the key lesson that should have been learned from last February's weather crisis and low salt supplies. It stated:

Will the Minister acknowledge that the Government's failure to heed that warning meant that many councils found it almost impossible to obtain resupplies as the cold snap progressed? Does he accept that the scarcity of salt supplies has undermined councils' ability to grit and clear side roads and pavements? Will he acknowledge the extent of the concern about slippery pavements-shown particularly by the elderly, many of whom have felt reluctant to leave their homes for the past few weeks?

The Secretary of State's requests for councils to reduce their daily use of salt by 25 per cent. was an admission of failure by the Government. They made inadequate preparations for the cold weather; they sat on the LGA's report on the issue until two days before the snow started to fall; and they failed to learn the lessons of February 2009, leaving our road network far more vulnerable to disruption than it should have been-to the detriment of families and businesses throughout the country, already struggling with the impact of one of the longest and deepest recessions in modern history.

Mr. Khan: May I say how disappointed I was by the mean-spiritedness with which the hon. Lady asked the vast majority of her questions? Before I take each point that she raised in turn, may I repeat my tribute to local authorities of whichever party throughout the country? I appreciate some people's nervousness at the fact that a number of local authorities are Conservative-run, but I am not going to point the finger at them and blame them for the problems that they have had. We have to understand this point: either we are a nanny state, telling local authorities what to do and controlling how much salt they order; or we trust locally elected councillors to order the right amount of salt based on the advice that experts gave in July.

It is worth reminding ourselves of the history of the issue. After February's severe weather, the then Secretary of State for Transport asked not only for a review but for experts to report on the matter, and they did so in July. Of the many recommendations that were made, four applied to my Department and all were dealt with immediately and in full. A number of recommendations applied to local authorities. I appreciate the difficulties that we have with some authorities that are Conservative-run, but I am not going to point the finger at them.
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I must say, however, that the idea that we state-produce salt and tell local authorities where to get it from is absurd. These are commercial decisions that local authorities take.

The hon. Lady referred to the decision to reduce the amount of salt that we distribute on our roads-the motorways and trunk roads-by at least 25 per cent. We took that decision for the roads that we control, and the Local Government Association and the Mayor of London agreed to those levels. We could not force them to go down to those levels; they showed that they understand the challenges that we face, and they agreed to reduce the amount to those levels because they actually run things and know when a common-sense decision needs to be taken. They did not oppose it for opposition's sake.

Over this period we have had constructive dialogue with all key stakeholders, including Government offices, the regional resilience centres and others. It is not true-indeed, it is misleading-to say that the first decision to relax EU hours was taken last week and this weekend; it was taken before Christmas and extended last week and over the weekend.

In relation to Salt Cell's meetings, again I should say that one benefit of running things is that one gets some experience, and one thing that we have to do before we hold such meetings is to get the information in. Today is therefore important, because, before a decision is taken about where salt goes over the next period, we are actually speaking to local authorities and finding out how much salt they have, and finding out from salt suppliers where the salt went during the previous period.

The hon. Lady was right, however, to express concern about scaremongering in relation to potential litigation and about the prosecution of people showing common sense and a generosity of spirit in clearing their pathways. I would say, however, that the situation is not helped when certain newspapers carry front-page stories causing alarm and distress among some of the elderly people she and I are concerned about.

On the LGA report of July-August, the fact that it could prepare a report after the report by the UK Roads Liaison Group shows that it understood the challenges that it faced. I would say in its defence that this is the most severe and prolonged period of bad weather in 29 years. I am sure that local government would be criticised if it had bought equipment and salt that sat idle for 10, 15, 20 or 30 years, especially when it has been asked to make stringent-some would say savage-cuts over this period. We continue to work constructively with all key stakeholders, whether they be local government, the Mayor of London, the devolved Administrations, or salt suppliers working in the private sector.

I hope that the Opposition have seen the generosity of the British public over the recent period; I would expect that generosity to spread to politicians as well.

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): May I, too, pass on my thanks to the staff of the Highways Agency and local councils, and indeed the railway industry, for what they have been doing to try to keep our infrastructure going?

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