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I accept that, as the Minister says, much of what takes place is a matter for devolved local council work, or for private companies such as the salt companies, but
I hope that he accepts that the Government have an ultimate responsibility to ensure that the national infrastructure is kept operational and intact. With that in mind, will he reflect on the suggestion that local authorities should have had six days' supply of salt and consider whether that is adequate given the experience that we have had, and given that, as regards the order that was put in on 29 December, it will take some time for overseas stocks to arrive, which means that if the weather deteriorates-it may not-we could run out of salt?
Some local authorities have done extremely well, but some appear to be using the lack of salt as an excuse to cut back on gritting, perhaps unnecessarily. Will the Minister consider whether that is appropriate and examine these procedures to ensure that people across the country have the best transport infrastructure that they possibly can in the circumstances that apply?
Will the Minister confirm that the Highways Agency has been asking local authorities whether they can help with its supplies? For example, Stockport borough council has been asked if it can help the agency by providing extra stocks.
Does the Minister recognise that significant long-term costs will arise for local highways authorities as a result of the damage to the road network that will undoubtedly be caused by the use of salt and grit? There will be a big repair bill at the end of this-will he factor that into the local government settlement for councils?
Notwithstanding the wish that the Minister and I share for devolution to local councils, does he recognise that some councils, including my own, have taken the view that it is inappropriate to treat any pavements at all and have concentrated all their salting and gritting on the roads? Is that not unfair on pedestrians, particularly those who are elderly and infirm, and may, for example, have to get off a bus on to an ice sheet next to the bus stop?
Will the Minister examine the cost to the economy of this episode, which is running into billions? Will he consider whether higher levels of grit and salt maintained by local councils would do more to minimise the damage to the economy, as well as the cost to the NHS arising from people being in hospital unnecessarily as a consequence of falls?
On legality, does the Minister accept that, unfortunately, some people, including those in schools, are genuinely concerned about possible liability issues? In my view, many schools should have opened much sooner but have not done so because of fears of liability. What sense does it make for children to be turning up at school, having trudged their way through ice and snow to get there, only to be told that they have to stay indoors and cannot go out in the playground to play because schools are worried about being sued if the children fall over there?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments and questions. He is right to refer to the issue of six days' supply of salt. I draw his attention to the UKRLG report, which is a very full report that touches on many of the issues raised. In chapter 8, under the heading
"Winter Service Resilience", it recommended six days' worth of salt as an adequate amount. In the group's mind must have been the fact that, in February 2009, we had the worst weather in 18 years. We now have the worst weather in 29 years, and I suspect that once we reach the end of this prolonged period of bad weather and consider our options for reviews and so on, we will need to make a cost-benefit analysis of whether, given that we have had prolonged bad weather in two consecutive years, it makes more sense to save enough salt for a longer period. That analysis would include, for example, investment in salt barns, because one of the big challenges for local authorities and the Highways Agency is the amount of storage space that they have for salt. Local authorities have asked themselves whether it is worth their spending money on salt barns given that they use salt so infrequently. That is for experts to consider, not for me on the Floor of the House, but it is an important question.
The hon. Gentleman raised an important point about diversifying suppliers in the chain. Salt is a geological issue and I cannot invent salt in the mines of England overnight, but as part of the contractual terms with suppliers, even domestic suppliers can be asked to have some foreign imports in their supply chain. The Highways Agency does that to ensure that it protects our supply chain of salt.
The hon. Gentleman made an important point about mutual aid. We can provide central aid to local authorities, but there are also many really good examples of local authorities helping others that have less salt, for obvious reasons, by giving them salt. That is an example of the generosity of spirit that I mentioned, and we need more of it.
The hon. Gentleman referred also to the damage to local authority highways caused by grit and salt, which is one issue that will need to be considered in a cost-benefit analysis of the general pattern of bad weather. He will be aware from the urgent question last week and my response to it that I cannot give advice centrally about which pavements should be gritted and which should not, and Salt Cell, the Government and extreme bad weather cannot be used as an excuse for a local authority not discharging its responsibility as it should. A local authority needs to consider the fact that as a matter of common sense, a pathway that leads to a general practitioner's practice, for example, is probably more in need of gritting than a road that very few people drive down. Once again, it is for local authorities to take that decision.
The hon. Gentleman's final point was the very important one of liability, which was also raised by the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers). There are concerns about people being risk-averse or using the weather as an excuse not to do things that they should. I was pleased to see the comments of the president of the Association of British Insurers in the press today and yesterday, which will have given some comfort to schools and local authorities concerned about being defendants in a future civil litigation or prosecution if they open up the schools. As far as individual schools are concerned, most decisions whether to open or close are taken by head teachers. Some local authorities are giving out advice and being prescriptive, but other decisions are
being taken by head teachers on a horses-for-courses basis. I am pleased as I am sure the hon. Gentleman is, that so many examination centres are open today, so that the many students who have revised for long periods can take their exams.
Mr. Speaker: Order. Some 21 hon. and right hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye, so as ever short questions and short answers will be required if I am to have any chance of accommodating everybody. I call Mr. Martin Salter. [Laughter.]
Does the Minister agree that one of the most important priorities must be to reopen the schools, to avoid damaging children's education but also to allow other vital public sector workers such as ambulance drivers-and dare I say-gritter lorry drivers, NHS staff, firefighters and Highways Agency staff to get to work themselves? Will he commend the approach of Mr. Charlie Clare, head teacher of Geoffrey Field junior school in my constituency, who got together the staff, some private contractors and some parents to clear the snow and ice themselves this weekend, so that his school could open today? Teachers cannot be immune from the challenges faced in cold weather. Other public sector workers have to deal with them.
Mr. Khan: As ever, I cannot disagree with anything that my hon. Friend has said, and I commend and endorse his points. It is worth bearing in mind that every day a school is closed, not only is children's education disrupted but the knock-on effect on their carers is phenomenal.
Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury) (Con): I ask you, Mr. Speaker, and the whole House to join me in congratulating the work force at Winsford rock salt mine on their continuous, 24/7 working, be they down the mine, in the office, the order takers or the management.
I hope that the Minister will take it as a positive and constructive comment that he should look carefully now at avoiding delays in the operation of Salt Cell so that the producers quickly get news of what is required where and can then get on with supplying without further delay. We should also ensure that we learn the lessons of how to resupply in the autumn rather than waiting for the winter.
Mr. Khan: I hear the hon. Gentleman's point and will ensure that such delays do not happen. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Paul Clark), reminded me that he visited the salt mine and was very impressed by the work of the hon. Gentleman's constituents.
Mr. Richard Caborn (Sheffield, Central) (Lab):
May I also put on record my congratulations on the sterling work of Sheffield city council, which has done a fantastic job? That is in contrast with the Liberal leader of the council, who went on BBC radio on the evening of Friday 8 January to say that we would have a weekend
of despair in the city because we had no salt and there was no telephone number to ring as people were not working over the weekend. While he was appearing on the news, 280 tonnes of salt were being delivered to Sheffield city council, and another 300 tonnes have subsequently been delivered. Will my right hon. Friend contact the city council to ensure that it has the right information so that the council leader cannot scaremonger in Sheffield?
Mr. Khan: As ever, my right hon. Friend has highlighted some of the options that people have taken during this difficult time-we can either come together and get through the difficult time, or make picky, silly points, which are factually incorrect, and use the conditions as an excuse to score cheap, party political points.
Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): My constituents are almost on their knees because of the lack of trains due to First Capital Connect. Last Thursday, not a single train stopped in St. Albans-because, I gather, the trains were washed on Wednesday evening and therefore froze. What can be done to get a better service for my constituents, who are in despair about the lack of train services from St. Albans to St. Pancras?
Mr. Khan: The example beggars belief. May I look into the specific reason for disruption on that day? Network Rail and the train operating companies have told us that the lines are open. For obvious reasons, there are reduced services and some delays. The hon. Lady's example looks like incompetence rather than a delay caused by severe weather.
Natascha Engel (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab): The Minister spoke about prioritising salt and grit and putting gritters where they are needed most. May I put in a bid for rural, remote areas such as North-East Derbyshire, where it is still snowing, and ask him to put them at the top of his priority list?
Mr. Khan: We know that some of the roads and railway lines in the trans-Pennine area are experiencing particular difficulties. I will look into the specific issue that my hon. Friend raises, but we also know that roads are lifelines for rural parts of the country, especially for older people who are cut off from other members of the community and cannot be given simple things such as hot meals and for whom supply is a source of concern. I emphasise that I will consider my hon. Friend's specific point.
Mr. Khan: The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point about hours and days lost as a result of school closures. I understand that the Department for Children, Schools and Families gives guidance about the closure caused by extreme weather in which one of the issues is making up lost time.
Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab):
There is concern in Lancashire that the county council has neglected east Lancashire, where there are many hills, and which has
been hard hit. Has my friend given any thought to transferring responsibility to lower-tier authorities in two-tier areas such as Lancashire? Many people want local control of gritting.
Mr. Khan: We have not looked at devolving gritting even further. One of the lessons that may be learned from the experience of the past two or three weeks is whether there is sense in economies of scale, or in going the other way in some cases. The key point is that those who know their communities best know the places that are in most need of gritting. Local communities' information can be of huge benefit and a great boon.
Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle) (Con): May I commend the efforts of local council workers and emergency service workers in Bexhill and Battle? I cannot say the same of the management of Southeastern trains. The train service south of Tunbridge Wells to Hastings has been patchy in the past few days, and it is totally unacceptable that station platforms were not cleared. Not a flake of snow was shifted from the platforms of Battle station from Monday till yesterday, making it extremely dangerous for the travelling public. That is simply not acceptable.
Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): When I was a lad, schools did not shut because of the snow. Before the day is out, will the Minister nail the urban myth that people who clear the snow on the pavement outside their houses or businesses are somehow likely to be held legally liable? Will the Government please nail that urban myth, because it used to be that an uncleared pavement was the exception, but now the cleared pavement is the exception?
Mr. Khan: Those were the days! Somebody will probably come up with an example of someone being prosecuted or sued, but the hon. Gentleman is right: the message that is sent to the good citizen or somebody who wants to discharge their civic duty is perverse. At a time when schools are closed, we want young people to be doing something constructive. If a school is closed, people expect their young son or daughter to be outside helping a neighbour-perhaps someone who does not have children-to clear their pathways, and not to be frightened of being sued or prosecuted.
Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): What would the Minister say to Conservative-controlled Northamptonshire county council, which was well prepared for the severe weather, but suddenly found that because Salt Cell was activated, supplies it was due to receive were sent elsewhere in the country?
When we talk about generosity of spirit, we hope it applies to local authorities as well as to politicians and members of our community. Salt Cell is about advising salt suppliers which parts of the country need salt most. If a local authority has adequate supplies of salt and another does not because of the prolonged bad weather, it is not going against the spirit of what we are talking about to allow the latter to receive the salt
that it needs. That was agreed by the Local Government Association, the devolved Administrations, the Mayor of London and all the key stakeholders, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has reminded people, and it was recommended by the UK Roads Liaison Group.
Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): I pay tribute to all those who have made sterling efforts to try to keep my constituents moving, but what lessons have been learned about the export of British salt and grit at a time when many local authorities, including my own, have not had the orders that they had placed fulfilled? May I gently say to the Minister that perhaps a good watchword for the future would be this: British grit for British roads?
Mr. Khan: One's principles and values are challenged at difficult times. Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that we outlaw private companies from exporting to other parts of this planet for a profit? If so, I am happy to look into it- [Laughter.] However, I suggest that it is more sensible for local authorities to look at the market to see where salt is available and to learn from the experience of extreme bad weather. Some local authorities get salt from overseas, as does the Highways Agency itself.
Anne Milton (Guildford) (Con): We are still waiting for an answer to the question whether local authorities will have any additional funds made available to them to repair the damage to pavements and roads, but I am more interested in knowing what assessment the Department has made of the risk of flooding after the snow melts.
Mr. Khan: The second part of the hon. Lady's question is very important. As the snow melts, there is a real concern about flooding-that is one issue that is being looked into. On her first point, if she is suggesting additional expenditure for additional funding for local authorities over and above the Bellwin funding and other sources, I am sure her hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor will be interested to hear of it, as indeed will we, because it will add to the £34 billion black hole in the Conservatives' spending plans.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): There are some village schools in my constituency, such as Horsington and Berkley schools, that cannot open, despite the best efforts of the staff, because the county council has not cleared the roads to them. The vice-chair of the Berkley governors was told on Friday by the county council: "As of this morning, the control of grit and salt has been taken over by central Government and therefore, even if we wanted to, we would not be able to authorise the clearing of the road to the school." Is the Minister happy that the Government are now the excuse for Somerset county council?
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