Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

I, too, would like to put on record our thanks to the council workers, road gritters and all those who have been involved in making sure not only that the roads have been kept moving but that people have not been left in jeopardy, as the Secretary of State said. There are hundreds of thousands of them and they deserve our thanks because they have gone well beyond the call of any duty.

I return to salt, because it appears to be the big area that we are troubled about. The national Roads Liaison Group's report of July last year emphasised the need to broaden the salt supply. Where do we now get our salt from, apart from our own mines, and how can we ensure that we have adequate imports?

11 Jan 2010 : Column 291

There has been much disruption to air and rail travel. Can the Secretary of State tell the House why passengers who landed at Heathrow in the past week or so were kept on the tarmac for four to five hours while pilots tried to locate pods? Can he also tell us what airport authorities did to offer passengers who were stranded, some for up to two days, support during that time? One would hope that there would have been hot drinks, food and blankets, but, from the reports, that does not seem to have happened.

It is reassuring to know that cold weather payments will be paid to the most vulnerable. I know that we all endorse the Secretary of State's plea to people who do not need to use hospitals to stay away from them.

We can now only wait and see whether the weather will let up permanently to enable everyone to get back to normal. It looks as if we may still have a little time to go before that happens. I would be grateful to have the answers to some or all of my questions to the Secretary of State.

3.22 pm

Lord Bradshaw: My Lords, I do not know whether the Secretary of State saw the Sunday Telegraph yesterday. It had the headline: "Health and safety rules stop street gritting". It stated that householders and businesses have been told not to clear icy paths or they could be sued. Will he take this opportunity to say that this is nonsense and that people should feel free to go and clear the road, path or entrance, because these stories have an immediate effect on action? At the same time, he might deplore the persistent rumour-mongering in the press about, for example, food shortages and fuel shortages. Does he believe that such stories are a deliberate attempt by the proprietors of these newspapers to undermine the morale of the British people?

In my view and that of my colleagues, snow-clearing responsibilities away from the main road network properly lie with local authorities. We should make sure that the authorities order salt stocks in good time. It seems to me that you should replenish your salt stocks in May, June and July, as you used to order coal in the summer, because it is not available at short notice in the winter. I heard a leader of a council saying on television that the council had ordered salt at the beginning of December and had not received it. It is rather too late to be ordering emergency stocks in December.

I would like to know how local authorities could be more efficient. Does the Secretary of State agree with me that one way would be for local authorities and farmers, who have the labour available, to get together so that people could have simple snow ploughs fitted to tractors and could clear a lot of roads that are covered with ice? The farmers would get a job and the community would benefit from fixing a fairly simple device on to the front of a tractor.

As to hospitals and medical services, I went to a hospital this morning where I was told that, last week, it suffered a huge number of cancelled appointments. Will the Government ask people who cannot take up an appointment to immediately advise the hospital or surgery, so that the appointment is available to others who urgently need treatment?

11 Jan 2010 : Column 292

Finally, the contracting-out of services by local authorities has left them very short of their own staff. You cannot send people who work for consultants to clear snow, but you can send your own staff. That should be very much borne in mind. With outsourcing and contracting out, local authorities could denude their ability to look after their own area.

3.25 pm

Lord Adonis: My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness and the noble Lord for their constructive remarks. I echo all that they said in commendation of our public service workers and the sense of responsibility that is animating people across the country. The noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, invoked the blitz spirit. At home, I have a mug with a wartime slogan on it: "Keep calm and carry on". That is precisely what the overwhelming majority of people in this country are doing and why Britain is keeping moving so successfully during this period of prolonged, severe cold weather.

I echo what the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, said about people being good neighbours and doing their local duty. It is total nonsense to say that health and safety legislation should stop people being good neighbours or doing their local duty. People should do their local duty. They should show common sense, neighbourliness and generosity of spirit, which the overwhelming majority of people are doing up and down the country.

In respect of the remarks made by the noble Baroness on supplies of salt, I can assure her that as imported salt becomes available there will be adequate storage for it. The Highways Agency has those arrangements in hand. She asked how long the Salt Cell-I echo her comment about the remarkable title of this task force-will remain in existence. It will remain in existence for as long as we have these extreme weather conditions and there is the need to prioritise salt supplies.

I should put on record my sincere thanks to the Local Government Association and to local authorities up and down the country for co-operating with the operation of the Salt Cell, which means tough choices. In particular, some local authorities with larger supplies of salt-dare I say because they prepared that much better?-might not be able to receive supplies that they had ordered, in favour of those with smaller supplies. We are all in this together. It is essential that we get salt supplies to those local authorities that are in danger of running out, precisely for the reason that the noble Baroness gave, so that we can keep as much as possible of the road network open locality by locality. We are seeking to do that in respect of the national Highways Agency.

As the noble Baroness mentioned, the Highways Agency went into this winter with a 13-day supply of salt, which is more than twice the recommended minimum of six days. Yesterday, someone who quizzed me during one of the many interviews that I did asked, "If the Highways Agency went in with 13 days, why did you not tell local authorities to do the same?". I should stress that the reports of the UK Roads Liaison Group, about which much has been made in recent days, made two clear recommendations: local highways authorities should keep six days of supply and the Highways Agency, for which I am responsible, should keep a

11 Jan 2010 : Column 293

reserve supply over and above the six days so that we can help out the entire country in the case of a severe shortage. That is precisely what the Government did. We directed the Highways Agency to keep a larger supply, which is why we have been able to cope as well as we have in this period of severe, prolonged cold weather.

The noble Baroness asked about the adequacy of supplies nationally. It is not possible to give her a single answer because we have more than 200 highways authorities across England, Wales and Scotland. The picture is very variable-from local authorities that are dependent on the meeting of the Salt Cell tomorrow morning for urgently needed additional supplies through to local authorities that still have supplies for some weeks. What we are seeking to do, of course, is to prioritise those that are in danger of running out.

I should also stress that the UK Roads Liaison Group was reporting after a one in 18 year severe weather event, whereas what we have been experiencing this year is a one in 29 year event. The noble Baroness asked whether we will learn from that. Of course we need to do so. When the severe weather is over, we shall look at our experience this year and consider what additional measures must be put in place.

In respect of advice for those using hospitals to behave responsibly, I echo entirely what the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, said. On the points raised by the noble Baroness about the inconvenience to which air travellers have been put, those were operational decisions taken by airport operators and the airlines, so I cannot give an immediate and full account of precisely what happened at Heathrow. However, I undertake to write to her on that.

3.30 pm

Lord Berkeley: My Lords, could my noble friend expand a little on the question put by the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, about the Health and Safety Executive? It has allegedly advised-I talked at the weekend to ferry operators in the south-west-that if salt or grit is spread on to the slips on which you drive down into the ferry and there is an accident, the operators will be liable, whereas if they do not do anything and someone has an accident, that is an act of the weather. It means that no one will treat those slopes with salt or grit. I think that the same applies to householders, who are not putting salt or grit outside their houses. Is there any advice that my noble friend could give to stop this rather stupid situation?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, I am not aware of the advice to which my noble friend refers, but I will look at it immediately and respond to him.

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, one feature of the recent cold spell has been the minuscule contribution of wind power to the nation's very high energy needs. I know that it is not strictly the Secretary of State's business, but does he think that his energy colleagues will draw any conclusions from that?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, there are measures in train to enhance very significantly the supply of wind power and I hope that in future years it will be able to make a much larger contribution to our energy needs.

11 Jan 2010 : Column 294

Baroness Harris of Richmond: My Lords, will the Minister thank the managers of the east coast main line rail network, who have performed heroically over the past few weeks? I have had a couple of what could have been quite difficult journeys and they have been tremendous. Would he also undertake to let those managers know that the staff of the train operating company have been thoughtful, helpful and able to tell passengers what is happening at every stage of the journey? This is a vastly improved service.

Lord Adonis: My Lords, I am happy to do so. Railway workers up and down the country have been doing a fantastic job to keep trains working in these seriously adverse conditions. The noble Baroness has mentioned the east coast main line, but her remarks could apply equally to other railway companies, all of whose workers have been doing a splendid job over the past week. We are deeply indebted to them.

Lord Mackay of Clashfern: My Lords, can the Secretary of State tell us how a day's supply of salt and grit, which is the basic measure he has referred to, is estimated? Does that include the salting and gritting of pavements as well as carriageways?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, we are talking about the maintenance of the road network, but local authorities also have to take decisions about how they intend to handle pavements and other areas that require salting.

Lord Elystan-Morgan: My Lords, while joining all others in congratulating people on the communal spirit that they have shown so comprehensively and generously, as well as the Secretary of State on his leadership in this matter, may I return to the question of salt? From all the evidence available, it appears to be the case that British-based salt suppliers have no chance of meeting the demand, whether this acute spell lasts for one week, two weeks or, God forbid, four weeks. There is therefore a necessity for a long-term strategic plan to deal with this fundamental question.

Lord Adonis: My Lords, the whole point of salt reserves is to enable local authorities and the Highways Agency to have a sufficient degree of resilience to cope with prolonged periods of poor weather, in the knowledge that it is not possible from daily supplies to replenish those stocks which need to be put on the roads and pavements in periods of severe weather. The issue we face is establishing the right level of supplies that those bodies should keep to give them sufficient resilience. The expert group that considered this matter after last February's severe weather recommended that that should be six days' worth. In the light of the events we have experienced over the past month or more, we need to revisit the issue and consider whether that figure needs to be raised. I undertake to the House that we will do so after these events.

Lord Richard: My Lords, there is only one issue here as far as the Government are concerned: did they estimate as correctly as they could and have they done everything that they could do in the light of that estimation? Does my noble friend agree that it is not possible in this country to give the guarantees against problems in this kind of weather that the United States or Scandinavian countries can give? Would not

11 Jan 2010 : Column 295

the amount of investment required to give that kind of guarantee be grossly excessive? I congratulate the Secretary of State on the work that he has done, on the impressive way in which it has been handled and on the way he has presented the case in public.

Lord Adonis: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his kind personal remarks, but I should like to extend them to the hundreds of thousands of people who have been doing the work at the sharp end, if I can put it that way, up and down the country to keep open our transport networks and public services. We have seen the best of the British spirit over the past few weeks, and I know that we will continue to see that in a way that will get us through these serious and prolonged periods of bad weather.

Lord Lang of Monkton: My Lords, following on from the benign experience of the noble Baroness, Lady Harris of Richmond, does the Minister accept that in many cases the travelling public have experienced considerable difficulties in air travel, rail travel, Eurostar and ferry travel due to a lack of information by the operating companies during periods of disruption and delay? One appreciates the management difficulties that result from the uncertainty of the weather, but the most frustrating thing of all, which restricts the ability of the travelling public to make alternative arrangements for their travel, is the lack of information available. I know that this is not the responsibility directly of the Minister, but will he take the opportunity when he meets the management of operating companies to emphasise the need to tell people what is happening and to keep them up to date?

Lord Adonis: We have been encouraging the train companies to do precisely what the noble Lord wishes them to do-that is, to make information available as readily as they can. We have advised them that they should not take for granted that passengers will know what is going to happen in the evening simply by checking at stations when they set off in the morning and that they should provide real-time information. I am glad to say that most companies are seeking to do so, and I hope that all will rise to the standards of the best.

Lord Cotter: My Lords, will the Minister look at the issue of school closures? Undoubtedly some schools have had to close for good reason, but parents have been in touch with me to express concern that in other cases perhaps, as the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, referred to, timidity has come along rather than robustness and schools have been closed that were not required to be closed. Perhaps schools are concerned about people falling over in the playground or shortages of staff, but they should adapt to the circumstances. This is having a big impact on people's personal economies and the national economy; because people cannot get to work, businesses suffer and the finances of the country suffer. Will the Secretary of State look at this issue and ensure that schools are kept open where at all possible?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, I entirely agree with the noble Lord. I did not respond to the remarks about schools that the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, made

11 Jan 2010 : Column 296

in her response to the Statement. I am glad to say that the number of schools closed appears to be reducing significantly. As I said in the Statement, virtually all schools which are examination centres have provided facilities for exams either at the school or at alternative locations.

In respect of the guidance that we give to schools, the Department for Children, Schools and Families last week sent what is described in my briefing as a "red" email to all schools-I assume that that is to do with the nature of its importance, not with the colour of the ink-encouraging them to stay open where possible and asking that, where they are closed, they consider whether it would be possible to open just for exams. That advice appears to have been taken seriously. Where there are no facilities for taking exams, the advice is that candidates can retake them in the summer, but where a candidate is unable to take a re-sit unit because it is the last time that the exam will be taken, the school or college should apply for "special consideration" on their behalf. Special consideration allows an awarding body to award a grade where an examination cannot be taken or the pupil has been disadvantaged, provided there is sufficient evidence to make a reasonable judgment. However, as we have said, the most important priority is that schools which are exam centres are open, so that candidates can take their exams without having to re-sit them at a later date. I am told that that is happening in virtually all cases.

Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe: My Lords, I was a bit surprised to hear my noble friend say-assuming I heard him correctly-that he could not answer the question of just how much salt we have in reserve. Did the committee that met last February and produced the report say whether we should be able to estimate how much salt we had in reserve? If it did not, and if it is to review the position, should it not look at it again?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, the group looking at salting roads in periods of severe weather recommended that all local authorities maintain reserves equivalent to six days' worth of supply in severe weather. It made very clear recommendations about the amount of salt that should be in held in respect of the needs of local authorities. I cannot give my noble friend the precise sum aggregating from all local highways authorities, because the position is very variable and fluctuating day by day.

Baroness O'Cathain: Could not the Secretary of State's undoubted powers of communication, as we have just witnessed in this House, be used to encourage our national press to bring forward some good points about all of this and not always the bad ones? I cite two examples. The first is Southern Railway, which receives enormous criticism. I managed to get home on Thursday because of its communication. I know that hearing at every one of the 16 stations, "Please be careful when you get out of the train, because the platforms are slippery" may have been a case of overcommunication, but its performance was terrific.

Secondly, I was caught up in the pre-Christmas freeze-up when flying. I went to Heathrow and found prone bodies practically everywhere from the day before. British Airways-I declare an interest as having been a

11 Jan 2010 : Column 297

director, but it was many years ago-put on additional, large aircraft on its European routes. It took out the club class so that it could get people in and, as a result, everybody got to their destination for Christmas. Not one mention of that has been made in the press, and these things need to be said.

Lord Adonis: My Lords, I hope that newspaper editors up and down the country are listening intently to the noble Baroness, because she makes very good points.

Viscount Montgomery of Alamein: My Lords, as it is partially connected to the severe weather, can the Secretary of State say anything about what is happening with Eurostar and why it continues to get stuck in the tunnel?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, Eurostar has, alas, been experiencing technical difficulties. However, it is seeking to overcome them. It is at the moment, I fear, offering a reduced service, but there is a service.

Lord Tebbit: My Lords, is the Secretary of State aware that he did not deal very well with the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, and one of his own Back-Benchers, concerning whether householders and others-landlords, for example-put themselves at risk by partially or imperfectly clearing the pavements outside their premises? I am sure that he has been briefed about it, and it would help very much if he could put that matter to rest.

Secondly, uncharacteristically, the Minister did not deal too well with a question asked by my noble friend about the contribution made during this period to our energy supplies by wind power. Does he have any figure for the percentage of their working capacity at which the turbines worked during that period?

Finally, would the Minister not agree that the fact that this all started during the Copenhagen climate conference rather suggests that God has a very good sense of humour?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, the Almighty's timing was clearly impeccable.

I thought that I had dealt with what people should do in their own localities. I regard it as total nonsense to suggest that people would be subject to health and safety laws if they do their duty locally and do their neighbourly best to keep their driveways and pavements clear.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page