HC Deb 20 June 1984 vol 62 cc357-60

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Dewar

The clearance of snow and ice is one of the subjects to which one's attention is constantly drawn. Perhaps it is not a subject that is imbued with the full dignity of Parliament. It may sound somewhat trivial. However, it is something that affects the quality of life in the winter months in almost every constituency. If I were asked to list the subjects about which my constituents complain to me, the gritting of the streets in severe weather would probably appear among the top half-dozen items. together with blocked drains, leaking roofs and dogs fouling the pavements—matters which understandably irritate a large number of people every day.

I remember, though somewhat vaguely, the Committee stage of the Local Government and Planning (Scotland) Act 1982. The Minister will remember it too. A great deal of debate arose in Committee from the recommendations of the Stodart committee. I understand that the Government's intention is that the clearing of snow and the gritting of roads shall be left firmly in the hands of regional councils. I understand that section 25 of the 1982 Act, read in conjunction with this clause, will make that clear. The Minister may fairly ask why I am making the point if the position is perfectly clear. However, his notes on clauses will remind him that Stodart left the gate open—to use a felicitous phrase—by saying that: Regional councils should be responsible for clearing snow from roads and for gritting but district councils should regard it as an obligation to give positive assistance". The notes on clauses state that: The latter part of the recommendation is not appropriate for legislation. They sweep on to consider the more positive duty placed on the regional council. Can the Minister say a word or two about the part to be played by the district council? I do not wish to be difficult, but I am not clear what the district councils are expected to do in terms of carrying out their obligation to give positive assistance. The obligation may be totally negative—an obligation not to get in the way. If that is so, they will be delighted to shoulder it. It may be merely an obligation to phone the regional council and complain that it is not gritting the roads with sufficient energy, efficiency and thoroughness.

Is the recommendation that there should be positive assistance being adopted by the Government, although not to be enshrined in the legislation because of the difficulties of definition and the danger of retaining in statutory form the ambiguity that Stodart was trying to abolish? The phrasing in Stodart and in the notes on clauses suggests that there should be some positive continuing involvement by the district council in this controversial area of local government activity. If that is so—I accept that it would be only obiter dicta from the Minister and not a legislative obligation—the district council's duty should be defined and explained.

We should be given some further information—the thoughts of the Minister—on the matter. I look forward to hearing the Minister's view about what we can expect from the district councils, particularly those councils which listen to the Scottish Office—a declining number these days, for reasons which the Minister understands although he refuses to do anything about them. What does the Minister expect in terms of the Stodart recommendations and the non-statutory positive obligation which lives on in the notes on clauses if not in the Bill?

8 pm

Mr. Allan Stewart

As the hon. Gentleman has pointed out, clause 33 implements the prime element of the recommendations of the Stodart committee. The background was the apparent confusion about responsibility for snow clearing between the regions, which had a common law duty, and the districts, which had powers and duties to sweep and cleanse the streets. The Bill makes it clear that it is the regional councils that will be responsible for clearing snow from the roads and for gritting.

The hon. Member referred to the district councils' obligation to give positive assistance, as set out by Stodart. One of the reasons why legislation would not be appropriate is that statutory provision already exists in the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973. In section 56 of that Act there is provision for co-operation between authorities. There, is, therefore, no need to give the district councils a statutory obligation.

I hesitate to take up the hon. Gentleman's invitation to set out my ministerial thoughts on the role of district councils in this matter, but it is a matter on which the district authorities can consult with the regional authorities. It is not a matter on which we propose to dictate to them.

Mr. Wallace

Yet again, in clause 33, Parliament is giving the local authorities a statutory duty. From some of the cases that I dealt with at the Bar involving accidents in which people slipped on snow and ice, I recall that when the local authorities had a duty at common law they had a possible defence along the lines that they could grit or take other steps only so far as resources, including financial resources, permitted. As soon as the bad weather comes upon us again, local authorities will warn us that, because of cuts in the amount of money available to them, they will not be able to do as much gritting on roads and pavements as in the past.

Will clause 33 make any difference to the duty of local authorities? Will they be allowed to plead constraints on finance, or do the Government — having imposed a statutory duty on the local authority—intend to make the necessary finance available to them?

Mr. Dewar

The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) has produced an extremely interesting line of argument which could delay us for a long time if we were so minded. However, I recognise that an enormous amount of business has yet to be covered, so I shall ask the Minister two brief questions.

With regard to the point made by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, anyone who has done a little jobbing legal practice in Scotland is familiar with the cracked pavement case and the probing letter to the roads authority. Presumably the Bill will not greatly alter those circumstances, as responsibility for cleaning the roads will remain with the regional authority and any action will fall to be raised against it.

Clause 33 is drafted in terms of the roads authority and the safe passage of pedestrians and vehicles over public roads. Does that refer to the footpath or pavement as well? I see that nods, winks, nudges and inspiration from afar have struck the Minister. I think that I can, with remarkable perception, anticipate the answer that I am about to be given. I congratulate those who, according to the etiquette of the House, do not exist on having got over the problem of the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland having rebelled against his lowly position of servitude and deserted his post as Parliamentary Private Secretary.

Having established to my satisfaction that the duty of the regional council to clear snow and to grit extends to pavements, I have only one other comment to make. I am disappointed that the Minister does not want to speculate on what might constitute positive assistance from the district council. I am sure that, in Scotland, many Conservative councillors would welcome such guidance and the thoughts of the Minister on the matter. I can envisage councillor Brian Meek of Lothian region, whose devotion to the Government's cause has been so openly sported in the past few weeks, being extremely disappointed that he has no particular instructions on this matter. I am genuinely puzzled. I do not see what the positive assistance could be. Is it the lending of equipment? Is it the taking over by arrangement? If the Minister cannot help, I suppose that I must retreat from the field of battle in baffled disappointment.

Mr. Allan Stewart

First, there is a general statutory provision that enables district councils to co-operate, if they so wish, in any way that seems sensible to them. Secondly, I confirm that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) is right about the provision extending to footways and pavements.

In regard to the question asked by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace), there is no change in the position of a roads authority. The Bill confers on it a duty to take such steps as they consider reasonable to prevent snow and ice endangering the safe passage of pedestrians and vehicles over public roads. That is the obligation that roads authorities already have.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 33 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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