HC Deb 03 November 1960 vol 629 cc492-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Noble.]

9.59 p.m.

Mrs. Joyce Butler (Wood Green)

Mrs. Vera Amis is a constituent of mine who was involved in a small accident on 13th November last, in Finchley. The accident might almost have seemed a trivial one, but it has had very serious consequences for Mrs. Amis since then. That is why I am glad to have the opportunity to raise her case on the Adjournment.

It being Ten o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Noble.]

Mrs. Butler

The accident occurred at the corner of Lyttleton Road and Bishop's Avenue, Finchley, which, for the purposes of clarity, I will call corner B, because there are two such corners involved. Mrs. Amis tripped over a broken paving stone. She fell very heavily, causing bruising to the left side of her body and injury to her right arm. As a result of the accident, she was unable to continue in her employment as a domestic worker. She lost her job. When I last saw her, a few weeks ago, nearly a year after the accident, she was still not able to resume her employment. She was still attending hospital and still under the care of her doctor, who was recommending her to enter a convalescent home for a period to try to restore the impaired health she suffered as a result of the accident.

There was an inspection of the other corner of Lyttleton Road and Bishop's Avenue, which I will call corner A, on 16th November last year, when damage was discovered which is believed to have been caused by a lorry cutting across the corner. That damage was repaired on 17th November last.

As a result of my approach and Mrs. Amis' approach to the Ministry of Transport—because this is a trunk road maintained by the Middlesex County Council as agents of the Ministry—an inspection was carried out on 19th January of this year. The inspector reported that there was no damage at corner B or any of the other corners. I was a little puzzled by this, because Mrs. Amis was very insistent that the paving stone had been broken, and she had a witness to that effect. I went there and found a pavine stone broken right across. I reported this to the Ministry of Transport, as a result of which a further inspection was carried out on 5th April, when it was discovered that all four corners were damaged and repair was necessary to all of them.

I hesitated to bring this case up on the Adjournment, because the accident was slight. It may seem to be a slight affair altogether. However, I have done so because I feel very strongly that not the least important part of the duties of a Member of Parliament is to act as an intermediary between constituents and those in authority, whether on local councils or in Government offices or Government Departments.

Further, in this case there is the element of doubt. Although the inspector claimed that there was no damage at corner B on 19th January, from my inspection I believe that it could very easily have been overlooked unless a very careful examination was made by the inspector, or he had been directed exactly what to look for. A broken paving stone does not always appear to be dangerous; but, as I described in my letter to the Minister, this one was broken right across, and when I walked down Bishop's Avenue and trod on one half the other half came up like a seesaw, presenting a very sharp edge which it was very easy for anyone to trip over.

It would have been quite easy for the inspector not to have noticed that, unless he had been with Mrs. Amis or one of her representatives and knew the damage that he was looking for. Because of that element of doubt, I have pressed the Ministry to make an ex gratia payment to Mrs. Amis to compensate her in some way for the loss she has suffered all this time as a result.

My other reason for raising this matter tonight is that I know that there are a great many people involved in accidents of this kind who, because of the law on this point, cannot make a claim at all, but who, very often, like my constituent, can ill-afford the loss that such accidents cause. Therefore, although I know the limitations of the Adjournment debate, I feel that I am speaking not only for my own constituent but for many other people who have been involved in cases of this kind and have suffered great loss, and considerable pain and damage because there is no redress for them.

I therefore ask the Minister to look at this case again, recognise the element of doubt, and provide some compensation by way of ex gratia payment to my constituent. For that reason, Mr. Speaker, I am glad to have had the opportunity of raising this case, and I am grateful to you for enabling me to do so.

10.7 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. John Hay)

I mast at once acquit the hon. Lady the Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Butler) of any complaint on my part that she has raised a trivial matter. As she has quite rightly said it is part of the duty of every hon. Member, in the interests of his constituents, to raise a matter, however large or small, in which he thinks that, perhaps, the powers that be are acting either oppressively or without proper consideration.

I come immediately to the facts of the case—which is, in some ways a very distressing one—and explain that the site where Mrs. Amis claims that she had this accident is, as the hon. Lady said, the junction of Lyttleton Road and Bishop's Avenue in Finchley. As she has told the House, Lyttleton Road and its continuation to the south, which is called Aylmer Road, is part of the A.1 trunk road and, therefore, is a road for which my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport is the highway authority. The Middlesex County Council acts as his agent in the maintenance of this road. Of course, in this context, the road includes not only the carriageway but the footway, and that is how my right hon. Friend has a locus standi in this affair.

To understand the attitude that my right hon. Friend has been obliged to adopt, it is important to look first of all at the chronology of the events. The story really begins in the early part of October, 1959, when the Middlesex County Council, acting as agent for the Minister, carried out certain works of repaving on the north-west corner of this junction—the corner to which the hon. Lady has referred as corner A.

The accident took place on 13th November. Mrs. Amis fell and was hurt. It subsequently transpired that the point at which she fell and was hurt was not, in fact, corner A—the north-west corner—but corner B, the south-west corner of the junction. The following day, according to a letter I have seen from her, Mrs. Amis telephoned the Council, reported the facts, and followed that with a letter on 16th November in which she claimed compensation from the Council, and gave the story of what had happened to her.

I think that Mrs. Amis thought then—and the Council certainly thought on receipt of these messages—that she had fallen and had been injured at the northwest corner. Accordingly, on the following day, 17th November, the County Council carried out an inspection of all the four corners of the junction, including both the north-west and the south-west corners. Some damage to paving stones was found at the northwest corner where, at the time, the Council thought the accident had taken place. In all, eleven broken paving stones were found and, as the hon. Member has said, it looked very much as though the damage had been caused by vehicles mounting the pavement when turning round the corner. The damage had obviously been caused within the previous month because, as I have said, the whole corner had been repaved in the early part of October.

That was the position on 17th November, and the Council immediately carried out the necessary repairs to the north-west corner. The south-west corner was also examined, but no broken or defective paving stones at all were discovered. I should like to assure the hon. Member that the inspection that was carried out on this occasion, because there was a claim involved, was extremely careful. Indeed, I can go further and say that the Middlesex County Council is extremely experienced in all these cases. It gets quite a number of them from time to time, I believe, and the people who carry out the inspections are fully versed in the details of this sort of subject. In fact, the Council, I understand, carries out inspections at most of these junctions, including this one, on almost a weekly basis, so there is a regular routine of inspection going on all the time.

That was the situation on 17th November. Broken paving stones were discovered on the north-west corner and they were immediately repaired. On 23rd December, my right hon. Friend's Department replied to Mrs. Amis's letter. The correspondence had been fully considered, as had been the report from the County Council. The Department took the view that it would be obliged to refuse the claim on the ground that the County Council did not know of the broken paving stones and had had no reasonable opportunity to make repairs. I will again emphasise that at this time that I am talking about everyone thought that the accident had taken place on the northwest corner of the junction and not on the south-west corner.

On 4th January of this year the hon. Lady wrote to my right hon. Friend, and for the first time it appeared that the accident had taken place on the southwest corner. As a result of her letter, a further investigation was carried out by the County Council and again all the corners of this junction were inspected by the County Council on 19th January. The County Council discovered on that occasion, also, no signs of defects or damage on the south-west corner where Mrs. Amis claimed to have had her accident. Accordingly on 11th February, I replied to the hon. Lady's letter and explained that this was the situation and that in the circumstances, therefore, we could not entertain a claim.

On 16th March following, the hon. Lady again wrote to my right hon. Friend and said that on this occasion she had been to see the site and had discovered a broken paving stone on the south-west corner where the accident had occurred. As a result, the Middlesex County Council carried out a further inspection on our behalf and on this occasion the Council confirmed that there was breakage to the paving stones at that point. Indeed, it was found that there were breakages to paving stones on all four corners.

From this chronology I think that one can deduce one or two very clear facts. First, the breakage at the south-west corner where the accident took place must have occurred between 17th November and 5th April. Indeed, I think that one can go further and say that it must have occurred between 19th January this year and 5th April, because it was on those two dates, 17th November and 19th January, that inspections were made and no damage was found.

Mrs. Butler

May I interrupt? I should have pointed out that Mrs. Amis had a witness—I have a signed statement from him—who saw with her the broken paving stone on 17th November.

Mr. Hay

That may be so, but so far I have never seen the statement. I have seen a letter which refers to the possibility of some evidence being available, but which has never been submitted to us. I am dealing with the position of the County Council which carried out the inspection, and this is what it discovered on these dates: No damage on 17th November and no damage on 19th January. If Mrs. Amis was injured as a result of a fall through tripping over a broken paving stone on 13th November one sees that there is a conflict of evidence here. Mrs. Amis says that she tripped on 13th November. Four days later the Council's workmen and inspectors could find no trace of a broken paving stone there, and certainly no repairs had been done to that corner in the intervening four days. Therefore, on the facts which I have put as clearly as I can, there is no legal liability on my right hon. Friend.

But the hon. Lady has not put the case forward on that basis, because she recognises that there are certain legal difficulties, which we could not go into at length tonight. She asks, however, that my right hon. Friend should award an ex gratia payment to Mrs. Amis to compensate her for the injury she has suffered. I should like to offer three observations to the House about that. First, as I have said, I think that there is no clear evidence to show that a paving stone was the cause of this accident. Certainly, I have seen no such evidence up to now. Secondly, on the contrary, what evidence there is, which I have already described, shows that on the inspection on 17th November, four days after the accident, there was no broken paving stone, so I do not think that the hon. Lady is right in saying that there is a real doubt about this case.

From all the information that we have—and the Middlesex County Council has no incentive to misrepresent the situation to us because it is our agent and we are responsible, and if there were a broken paving stone the Council would have told us—I cannot see that it is right to say that there is some doubt about this. I do not think that there is any doubt about it.

However that may be, my third observation is this. My right hon. Friend, in the case of trunk roads, is the highway authority. He administers public money and, therefore, he cannot, however much he may feel sympathy towards an individual case, disregard the facts of the case as they have been established to him, or the law and the fact that there are certain defences open in cases of this kind.

I have to point out to the House that one of the things that I have to think about in dealing with this case is the possibility of any acceptance of the hon. Lady's suggestion that we should make an ex gratia payment being treated as a precedent by a number of other people in the years ahead. We receive quite a sizeable number of claims of this kind in relation to trunk roads in the course of a year. I do not think that my right hon. Friend would be right to overlook the repercussive effects of an acceptance of liability or making an ex gratia payment, as I am asked to do, in a case like this particularly when, as I have said, all the evidence seems to be the other way.

Of course, we all feel, as I feel, the greatest sympathy for Mrs. Amis. No doubt, that will not be of great comfort to her, but I hope I have explained to the hon. Lady that there are considerable difficulties in the way of accepting the suggestion she makes, that my right hon. Friend should make an ex gratia payment. Here, I think, the evidence is against Mrs. Amis, and, in the circumstances, much as I should like to give a more favourable reply, I regret that I must say that my right hon. Friend is not prepared, having looked at the case very carefully, to make an ex gratia payment.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eighteen minutes past Ten o'clock.