HC Deb 19 February 1979 vol 963 cc28-39
The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Mr. Denis Howell)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I should like to make a statement.

The House will be aware that the extremely severe weather conditions of last week brought widespread interruptions with communications and very considerable difficulties for hundreds of communities throughout the country.

The Government thought it necessary to use the regional emergency centres and to contact immediately each local authority with responsibility for highways. The local authorities were immediately made aware of the circumstances in which Government assistance would be made available to them. The first were the normal arrangements when the Services give support to authorities overwhelmed by natural hazards—military aid to the civil community. I can inform the House that under this contingency many calls were responded to, chiefly in the form of helicopter assistance to provide fodder and to sustain livestock.

The second were the special measures to help with salting and gritting problems arising from the current industrial dispute. On this, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, whose responsibility this is, said in a reply to the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) on 29 January, the Government are ready to use troops so long as certain conditions are met. These include confirmation by the chief constable for the area that a serious threat to public safety exists involving risks to life and limb if the roads are not salted or gritted. No such action has been requested.

Throughout this snow emergency the Ministry of Agriculture has been ready to respond with supplies of food and fodder in urgent cases and the Ministry of Defence has been available to deliver it.

I should like to pay tribute to the magnificent effort of the work force throughout the country, who struggled with considerable success to keep British Rail main line trains operating, to London Transport, and, most importantly, to the labour force responsible for clearing and gritting our motorways, all of which are now passable. They had to work in appalling conditions. The police force and Service men responded in like manner, and I am sure that the House will wish to register its appreciation.

Over the weekend, I have visited three of the worst affected areas of the country—South Yorkshire, Suffolk and Norfolk. Two matters of importance were raised with me. The first of these concerned the critically low supplies of salt. I have been able to make special arrangements with the suppliers to meet these difficulties and they were put in hand at once. The second area of concern was on the question of cost.

It is clear that considerable additional expense has been incurred by local authorities in order to maintain the essential services and communications and there will also be an aftermath from additional road maintenance problems arising from the prolonged period of bad weather. I therefore informed those authorities that the Government would again make additional financial assistance available to them on the same basis as that which we provided during the storms and blizzards of last year. We shall pay 75 per cent. of all relevant additional expenditure over and above the sum raised by a penny rate in their respective areas where we are satisfied that it arises from this emergency.

Mr. Alison

Is the Minister of State aware that with the best will in the world there is nothing that he or any hon. Mem- ber can do about the weather? However, he can take urgent steps to deal with the real emergency by jumping on a bicycle, if necessary, and going to see the TUC, to ask for something to be done immediately about the industrial dispute aspect of the failure of the relevant workers to come out, grit the roads and put sand down when the weather is bad.

Is the Minister aware that the relevant section in the latest concordat statement makes it clear that the TUC believes that in the industrial action it is vitally necessary that special steps should be taken to provide essential services and to avoid a situation where the health or safety of the community is put at risk? Will the Minister of State tell us what he will do to bring into play an appeal by the principal union leaders concerned, on the lines of that proposed in the ambulance dispute, to get the men responsible for gritting back at work straight away?

Secondly, will the Minister tell us, in respect of the sums that have been mentioned, whether he is aware that in the last snow emergency—when he flew to the West Country in a helicopter to inspect the snow damage—the formula of a product of a penny rate was such that no West Country authority at that time succeeded in getting the special 75 per cent. grant? Will he now make it clear that the 75 per cent. level of support will be available for the gritting needs arising from the special emergency and that it will be possible to aggregate expenditure for this emergency with the flooding hazard that may arise subsequently and the exceptional cost of road repairs which will certainly arise with the thaw? It must be the responsibility of the Government to help local authorities up to and over £1 million worth of expenditure by this kind of grant aid.

Mr. Howell

The hon. Gentleman asked me three questions. First, he said that I had no responsibility or control over the weather. That is another Conservative Party view which, I am glad to say, does not seem to be shared by the rest of the country.

The matter of the TUC is more important. I take note of the agreement that we reached last week. Wherever, in the last three or four days, within the spirit of that agreement, I made an appeal to the work force who were not gritting the motorways and highways for which the Government have responsibility, I had a considerable response. Indeed, I am able to give the House up-to-date news about the one 22-mile stretch of the Ml which was not being gritted until just before I came into the House. I am glad to report that the unions affected have met. I understand that they have agreed to recommend an immediate recommencement of gritting in those circumstances. I am grateful, therefore, that the concordat is producing the response for which the Government and the House hoped.

As to the penny rate, I apologise to the hon. Gentleman. I know that he did not receive a copy of my statement in time, with the usual courtesy. I am sorry about that. If he looks at it again he will notice that I specifically included the aftermath, including maintenance and floods. I appreciate the point that he made. When I was in Norfolk yesterday it was estimated by the local authority leaders that the cost of all this to them would be about £ 2½ million. Under this formula, about half of that cost will be met by additional expenditure from the Government.

Mr. Beith

Is the Minister aware that in counties such as Northumberland large numbers of council workers have turned out in appalling conditions and done a tremendous job, not simply in gritting but in opening up roads on to which most people would be frightened to go? This puts a very heavy financial burden on the county. Will the Minister explain how his proposed financial help will work out? When did the emergency start? Is the whole of the recent period of snow, which goes back to beyond Christmas, eligible for the assistance that the Minister has mentioned?

Mr. Howell

I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for emphasising that tremendous work has been carried out during these weeks, and especially last week, under terrible and deplorable conditions, in which few of us would wish to work. That applies to Northumberland as well as to other parts of the country. Undoubtedly we should express our appreciation.

Concerning the matter of aggregation—I am now adding to the answer just given to the hon. Member for Barkston Ash (Mr. Alison)—there have now been two such crises in this financial year, that is to say, the Christmas and January crisis, and the recurring one. In Norfolk and Suffolk, over the weekend, I undertook to consider the request put to me that the costs arising from both emergencies should be aggregated under the formula that I have announced to the House. Probably the answer is that it will be related to the additional expenditure on emergencies during the course of one current financial year. That would allow us to do it. But I do not want to give an absolutely specific assurance until I have had some time to consider it.

Mr. Arthur

Lewis: I thank the Minister for the speed with which he and the Government have acted and pay tribute to him for paying some well-deserved compliments to the lower-paid workers who have done so well. I hope that their efforts will be borne in mind when their salaries are discussed.

With reference to the Minister's remarks about the dangers that will arise from floods, will he tell the House why action cannot be taken now, before the floods arrive? The authorities know the danger areas. Is it not possible for the Minister to make an appeal now, so that prompt and early action may be taken to obviate at least some of the more serious aspects of the floods, as and when they come?

Mr. Howell

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for referring to our thanks to the workers concerned, He is quite right in saying that there are known trouble spots at which flooding usually occurs. In this emergency I am in touch with the water authorities chiefly responsible, for the purpose of ensuring that they will do everything possible to assist the local population in advance of any flooding which is likely to occur.

Mr. du Cann

On the financial aspect of the emergency, will the Minister be good enough to give early attention to correspondence that I sent to him this morning as soon as I received it? In relation to past events, there is an indication that there has been a substantial hold-up in payment. The correspondence is from the Somerset council and the Taunton council. It would be a great pity if the good will engendered by the Minister's visits to the West County in the past, and lately to East Anglia, were dissipated because of some difficulty over payments. Early attention to the matter would be much appreciated.

Mr. Howell

I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman's remarks. I do not think that these authorities have written to me directly, although I know the problems to which he referred. If he has written to me today, I shall look into the matter immediately.

Mr. Madden

I accept our general debt to many public service workers, but has the Minister received any reports about the number of occasions during this winter on which the M62, linking Yorkshire and Lancashire, has been closed? Can he say which body is responsible for deciding to close this and other motorways? Is he aware of the general criticism of local authorities in my district about the snow clearance arrangements of the West Yorkshire county council, and will he look into this matter, upon which he has received correspondence?

Mr. Howell

I shall look into anything that my hon. Friend puts to me. Speaking from memory, I think that the M62 has been closed this year on two occasions, not just two days. As I made clear in my statement, it is closed upon the judgment of the chief constable in each of the areas affected. The Government act on the chief constable's professional judgment.

Sir Timothy Kitson

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that since the blizzard started eight weeks ago it is probable that North Yorkshire, Durham and Northumberland have been hit harder than most areas? In North Yorkshire alone, 150 miles of road are still blocked with snow. Since the emergency started, £2 million has been spent on gritting, salting and snow clearance. That is double the estimated cost to the county council for this year. It is anticipated that about £750,000 worth of damage will have been done to the roads by frost, and that the Government's bill will be 75 per cent. of £1,500,000. Will the Minister give an assurance that he will meet that 75 per cent. grant in full?

Mr. John Ellis

What about the cuts in public expenditure?

Mr. Howell

Notwithstanding the demands of Conservative Members to reduce public expenditure, I can give the assurance—which I thought I had already given here—that that formula will apply in that position.

Mr. Fell

Does the Minister recall that some of the local authorities on the East Coast had a very heavy burden to bear because of the "Eleni V"—that was not all through the fault of the Government—but the authorities have not yet received one penny in reimbursement for all this trouble? Will he ensure that when the payments are due to be made they will be made quickly in respect of the local authorities that are able to claim the financial assistance of which he has spoken this afternoon? Is he satisfied that the financial assistance will be anything like enough to meet the enormous burden on these local authorities?

Mr. Howell

I think that in a national emergency affecting its own area it is reasonable to expect a local authority to meet the cost of the first penny rate. It is probably a generous formula for the Government to accept 75 per cent. after that, certainly in regard to the fact that no such formula previously existed.

On the first part of the hon. Member's question, we had a little talk about this when I was in Norfolk over the weekend. It was not put to me that there was any dissatisfaction with the formula reached by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment over the oil pollution problem. If there is a difficulty about the speed in paying out upon the certification of expense, I shall look into it and write to the hon. Gentleman.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. I shall call those hon. Members who have been rising and hoping to catch my eye.

Mr. John Ellis

Will my right hon. Friend note that while he may not be able to prevent the occurrence of the bad weather, timely warning and the forecasting of its arrival are a necessity for all those who have to take decisions? I do not wish to be unduly critical of the Meteorological Office, but will the Minister try to find out whether the advice that it is giving is in the right form? It is one thing to give a forecast of impending snow or gales, but is special attention being drawn to these conditions by, for example, the use of flash warnings on radio and television? This is particularly important where there is some local differentiation in the extremely severe conditions, which arise only about once every seven years. Does the Minister agree that it is very important for everybody to be adequately warned about what is expected to happen in these one-off conditions that we are now experiencing?

Mr. Howell

Following the problems that arose in January, I instituted an immediate inquiry with all the local authorities. As a result of that, I have just received—and will make available to hon. Members if they want to see it—a report that tells me the time at which the appropriate warnings were received by the local authorities and the time at which they responded to them In almost every case the response was about 12 hours after the receipt of information. I understand that the authorities have to get their men out and get their arrangements working, but there seems to have been a time lag of about 12 hours between the receipt of the warning and the commencement of operations. That seemed to be adequate.

The second point raised by my hon. Friend is a very interesting ore. He asks whether, when there are national warnings to be given, something special ought to be done about giving warning flashes on radio and television. I shall look into my hon. Friend's suggestion.

Mr. John H. Osborn

Will the Minister comment on the complete failure of the local government and public services responsible for gritting, salting and snow clearance last week? Should not the Government have taken action earlier in South Yorkshire and Sheffield? I tried to press this matter on Wednesday. Will the right hon. Gentleman comment on the fact that when volunteers went out this weekend those in the public works department responsible for gritting and salting withdrew even emergency services and condemned that very action? The citizens of Sheffield were desperate. Did the right hon. Gentleman discuss this on the occasion of his visit there on Friday? Is he aware that the cost to industry already is about £2 million?

Mr. Howell

I went to Sheffield first because reports which I studied overnight on Thursday and early on Friday morning showed me that it had the most urgent problems. During that visit I had several conversations with the leaders of the authority with their professional advisers not least the chief constable and his staff. Those discussions have continued every day, including today, so I am well aware of the situation.

As I explained to the House, no request was received by the Government, certainly not from South Yorkshire, to provide the assistance which we would have provided in an emergency.

Mr. John H. Osborn

Why not?

Mr. Howell

The hon. Gentleman must ask his authority that. I am answerable in this House for the Government, not for the South Yorkshire local authority or the police authority. No request was received. I think it is true to say that the authority preferred to continue negotiations with the unions. That process has taken longer than any of us would have liked. But, as I have just reported to the House, it has today brought, I hope, a satisfactory conclusion at long last.

Mr. Ward

Will my right hon. Friend convey to his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence the appreciation of the House of the way in which my constituents at the Royal Air Force station, Wittering, opened their doors to many hundreds of travellers on the A1 last Thursday and gave them shelter for the night, food and, I believe, a very enjoyable time? Will he also note that I think that those travellers included at least two hon. Members?

Mr. Howell

I shall certainly convey my hon. Friend's thanks to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, together with the public acknowledgment that if one must be stranded anywhere it should be in my hon. Friend's constituency.

Mr. Costain

Will the Minister take the opportunity, when he has cleared up the snow, to have a special report on how the roads have deteriorated because of lack of maintenance last year? Will he draw to the attention of the Minister responsible that it was false economy? The county councils tried to point that out to him, but that advice was never accepted.

Mr. Howell

I shall not ask for reports of that detail, but I note that the hon. Gentleman is yet another Opposition Member who wishes considerably to increase public expenditure.

Mr. Woodall

I apologise to you, Mr. Speaker, and the House if you have difficulty in hearing what I have to say. I rise to echo the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr. Ward), as I was one of those two hon. Members who were stuck last Thursday outside RAF Wittering. Will my right hon. Friend pass the deepest appreciation of the House to Group Captain Bridges and all ranks of RAF Wittering for their wonderful hospitality and the wonderful job they did last Thursday?

May I take up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe (Mr. Ellis)? The only message we received on car radios last Thursday was to the effect that the Ml was closed in places. The result was that most of the heavy traffic switched to the A1(M), which was in fact much worse that the Ml. That caused all the confusion and the stoppage on the A1(M).

But my principal point is to ask my right hon. Friend please to pass congratulations to all concerned at RAF Wittering. They did a marvellous job.

Mr. Howell

I shall certainly do that. I was due to be entertained by my hon. Friend on Friday night in his constituency. What he has said no doubt explains why my invitation was cancelled at the last minute.

In South Yorkshire, Suffolk and Norfolk the police chief made a special point of asking me to express appreciation to the local radio service, which did a wonderful job in informing people locally about the immediate difficulties. As I saw for myself, the local radio station at Sheffield had a man moved into police headquarters, and he could give the information immediately.

I have already picked up the national point made by my hon. Friend, and I shall follow it up.

Mr. Moate

In order to allow the House to judge whether the compensation formula is helpful in practice as well as in theory, can the right hon. Gentleman say how much compensation—if any—has yet been paid out for the emergency conditions of last year, when the formula was first introduced? In order to make it more helpful, will he reconsider the answer he gave me some time ago after devastating floods in my constituency, particularly in the town of Sheerness, and say that the local authority should be able to aggregate all the losses arising from any freak weather conditions occurring during any one financial year, so that no local authority should pay out more than a total of a 1p rate product?

Mr. Howell

I have already said that I shall look at the hon. Gentleman's last point. I shall soon be meeting a deputation from the hon. Gentleman's constituency, or nearby, on that specific matter.

On the question of the practice and the theory, as an old local government man I can say with great satisfaction and without fear of contradiction that the 1p rate is a 1p rate. That is the basis on which all local government expenditure is already calculated. If one tells people "You should be able to meet the cost of a first 1p rate locally and then the Government will pay for three-quarters thereafter", that provides for large and small authorities alike.

Mrs. Knight

When the Minister has finished dealing with the present crisis, will he consider the representations made by those who feel that there should be some long-term planning in this matter? Does he agree that it should not be a question of bafflement and astonishment that bad weather, snow and ice may come in January and February, and that some projects should be started to try to deal with the problems before they even arise? Will the right hon. Gentleman recognise that there is a great reservoir of volunteers who would be willing to help in this regard?

Mr. Howell

Of course, volunteers do work in national emergencies. I am not quite sure what the hon. Lady means by long-term planning. The planning for the contingency arrangements which are in hand in my Department, the Department of Transport, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Ministry of Defence and so on was of the greatest possible assistance to me. I was able to bring the arrangements into operation within a matter of hours of taking up my responsibility.

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