HC Deb 10 December 1990 vol 182 cc659-66 3.31 pm
Mr. Roy Hattersley (Birmingham, Sparkbrook) (by private notice)

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will make a statement on the disruption of essential services over the weekend as a result of the severe weather conditions.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Kenneth Baker)

The present situation is that all main roads and railway lines are usable, some requiring special care. Some minor roads are blocked. Train services are near normal on most routes and airports and seaports are operating normally.

At present some 380,000 customers are without an electricity supply. Most reconnections should be achieved today or tomorrow, but it will take longer in some isolated areas. Some 500,000 people are still without piped water. Supplies have already been restored to 1 million people and most of those still without a supply will be reconnected today. Nearly all the telephone subscribers who lost their supplies have been reconnected.

The emergency services in all areas have been working flat out and the House will want to join me in paying tribute to their dedication and efficiency. The armed forces assisted in a number of areas and their work has contributed a great deal to what has been achieved. Much of the work was undertaken by the Territorial Army, proving the worth of our volunteers once again.

The Met Office has said that severe weather is unlikely to recur during the rest of this week. We may therefore hope that repair work can proceed without general interruption. In the meantime, I urge everyone in the worst-affected areas to avoid travel unless that is absolutely necessary.

Unduly harsh weather always presents us with new problems and I shall be considering with my colleagues any lessons that should be learnt from the events of the weekend. I hope that hon. Members will bear it in mind that it was the most severe blizzard suffered in this country so early in the winter for a number of years. The emergency services performed valiantly and demonstrated once again the quality of the public services on which we can rely in such emergencies.

Mr. Hattersley

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his first appearance in the House as Home Secretary.

I should like to express Opposition Members' condolences to the relatives of those who died as a result of the weekend's severe weather, our sympathy to those who were injured or lost property and our gratitude to the emergency services, many other public bodies and private individuals who worked so valiantly—I agree with the word used by the Home Secretary—during the past 36 to 48 hours.

The Home Secretary will know that there is a feeling of surprise that, despite its brief severity, such a storm should have caused such continuous disruption. In the light of that, I shall ask the right hon. Gentleman some specific questions.

Is there still national co-ordination of emergency services? When, for Listance, it was discovered that drivers had been stranded in some areas for 12 hours of more, was additional assistance made available by a central co-ordinating authority? Will the Home Secretary make it unequivocally clear where the legal responsibility lies for clearing motorways, increasingly the arteries of the nation? Can it possibly be left to the varying judgments of financially hard-pressed local authorities?

Does the Home Secretary agree that, in the conditions that we experienced on Saturday and Sunday, it is essential, for safety reasons among other things, to keep railways open? Was British Rail properly prepared? Is it, for example, reasonable that it should possess only two mechanical snow ploughs to clear more than 10,000 miles of track?

Why were some public services, particularly in the west midlands, so vulnerable? How is it that in some areas there had been no water for more than a day? Have water authorities no contingency plans for cuts in electricity, which we are told was the cause of the breakdown in water supplies?

Two questions on policy are directly related to the Government. Since the storm incurred costs on some local authorities that are beyond any reasonable contingency provision, what help is to be provided by central Government? What can the Home Secretary tell us about the thousands of homeless who, these days, sleep in the streets and shop doorways? Why, in particular, were the three special severe weather night shelters, which the Government announced only a few weeks ago would be available in London, not opened on Saturday and Sunday evenings? As it seems that hard-hit pensioners will not qualify for the special cold weather payment, what will the Government do to help them?

Mr. Baker

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the helpful tenor of his questions. I understand from the chief constable of Nottinghamshire that Mr. Raymond Williams's car was one of many that were trapped in the Mansfield area and that Mr. Williams and a friend were inside the car. He was found dead at 2 pm on Saturday, but his passenger survived. The whole House will want to extend sympathy to Mr. Williams's family. I also pay tribute not only to the services but to individuals who made considerable efforts over the past weekend to overcome the severe weather.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me about local and national responsibilities in such emergencies. On 15 June 1989, one of my predecessors made an announcement to the House. After a review of emergency services and the responsibilities of local authorities and others, one conclusion was that the prime responsibility for handling certain disasters should remain at local level, where resources and expertise are to be found and where mutual aid arrangements exist, for example, between neighbouring emergency services. I was in touch with various colleagues yesterday to determine whether extra help had to be provided. [HON. MEMBERS: "It was not."] There was a great deal of co-ordination between the various emergency services and between emergency services in some of the private sector, particularly in the Thames valley.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has announced that he will review current arrangements for dealing with sudden weather crises, concentrating on the movement of passengers and freight, and he will consider comparable countries and report early in the new year. British Rail suspended services late on Saturday afternoon. It was rather wise to do that because it meant that trains were not isolated in remote areas and were kept at stations. British Rail has responded vigorously and well to the crisis and restored services on virtually all lines today.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me about water supplies. The disruption of water supplies was nearly always due to the failure of electricity supplies. That was not due to the failure of the auxiliary pumping equipment; It was due to the water authorities' failure to get through to the remote pumping stations to set off the auxiliary generators. Great efforts are being made today to reconnect services.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about what is known as the Bellwin scheme, under which the Government provide financial assistance towards emergency costs under arrangements that were agreed in 1982. The scheme is activated at Ministers' discretion when weather conditions are clearly exceptional and when, as a result, local authorities are likely to incur expenditure. When the scheme is activated, grant is paid to cover 85 per cent. of expenditure over a threshold that is currently £2 per charge payer. As the House knows, the scheme was activated in 1987 following the hurricane and again earlier this year following the severe winter storms. It is too early to know whether it will be activated this time.

Finally, the right hon. Gentleman asked me about hostels in London and about the cold weather payments. Under what is called the severe weather initiative, various premises are made available, mainly in the centre of London, for the homeless. That scheme is triggered when the temperature has been below zero for three days. The cold weather payments are regulations that were agreed and announced a long time ago. The temperature must be at or below zero for seven days before the scheme is activated. The payments are £5 for each pensioner on income support and for parents of young children who are also on income support.

Mr. Andrew Hargreaves (Birmingham, Hall Green)

As a result of the serious blockages on the M6 in a north-westerly direction, which lasted well into yesterday evening, will my right hon. Friend undertake to inquire into the role played by heavy goods vehicles in causing that blockage? Will he join me and other hon. Members in congratulating the West Midlands police and other forces on all that they were trying to do to rescue people and to bring help to both drivers and passenger vehicles in the area? I know about that from my own experience and wish to express my personal gratitude for all that the police did for myself and my family. However, I was concerned—I am sure that other hon. Members will also be concerned —to see row upon row of heavy goods vehicles that were three abreast on that stretch of motorway, including in the fast lane, for mile after mile after mile. There was simply no way in which the snow ploughs could even get through. The motorway was totally blocked.

Mr. Speaker

Mr. Robert Wareing—[Interruption.] Sorry, I was deflected. We had better have the answer first.

Mr. Baker

I spoke earlier today to the chief constable of the West Midlands police. He commented that, in his judgment, the weather warning was good, the road gritting was good, but the snow was much heavier and thicker than had been expected, affecting especially the M6, the M5 and the M42. The chief constable had his vehicles out on the road at a very early stage, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. Hargreaves) must have noticed because he was involved, lorries jack-knifed and caused blockages. Many vehicles were abandoned in the area and between 2,000 and 3,000 people had to be housed at the NEC overnight. I understand from the chief constable that about 100 vehicles are still abandoned. He wanted me to stress that he had received considerable help from Rover, which lent the West Midlands police 18 four-wheel drive vehicles. I, too, thank Rover for that.

The chief constable also made an interesting comment, which I am sure my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Transport will want to bear in mind in his review of such emergencies. He questioned whether, in severe and sudden bad weather, motorways in urban areas should be closed. That cannot be done in rural areas, but it might be helpful in an area such as the west midlands. Clearly, my right hon. and learned Friend will want to consider that.

Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby)

As one who survived 18 and a half hours on the M6 and M1 motorways, including 12 and a quarter hours in exactly the same place outside Birmingham, may I tell the Home Secretary that the Government's attitude is complacent? These are not new problems, as the Home Secretary suggested; they are old problems. What have the Government done to implement the 1979 report of the World Meteorological Organisation, which called for a proper national research programme into climate and weather conditions, or the 1986 report of the Technical Centre, which was financed by the Government, which called for a network of climatologists, economists and officials to plan resources for tackling such conditions? Is the matter simply to be left to free-market forces?

Mr. Baker

The Ministry of Defence, which has responsibility for the Meteorological Office, has reviewed its procedures. Certainly none of the police forces to which I have spoken today complained that there was not a sufficient lack of warning. There was a sufficient lack of warning.

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

A sufficient lack of warning?

Mr. Baker

There was no lack of warning by the Met Office of what was about to happen. Like many people, I heard the news about the weather as I was driving around on Friday. There was good warning in this case and the Met Office should receive tribute for that. The chief constables of Thames Valley and of the West Midlands told me that they were surprised by the thickness and intensity of the snow, which added an unexpected factor.

Mr. Robert Banks (Harrogate)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that North Yorkshire was particularly hard hit over the weekend and that several rural areas are still without electricity. Is not there a lesson to be learnt here? Buildings can be designed to withstand earthquakes, yet when we have storms, we have difficulty in maintaining our electricity supplies. More especially, will my right hon. Friend take steps to ensure that planning permission for petrol stations includes a condition that stations must be provided with back-up generators to supply petrol to motorists who would otherwise be stranded when such conditions occur and electricity is cut off?

Mr. Baker

I understand that my hon. Friend was almost killed in the severe weather at the weekend. I am glad that the tree did not fall on the room in which he was sleeping. The point that he raised is an interesting one, which I shall draw to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment.

I am told that the major roads in Yorkshire are all clear but some minor roads in the dales are still blocked. The A59 in the south part of Yorkshire is now clear.

Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro)

On behalf of the Liberal Democrats, I extend condolences to families who have been bereaved during the storms. I also extend our thanks and congratulations to the emergency services—not least the linesmen who put themselves at particular risk to restore power. What process is there to ensure that detailed meteorological and other warnings are transmitted to those who have to deal with conditions at local level? On what time scale are such warnings transferred? On that point, I noticed that several hours after the blizzards hit Cornwall and Devon, the BBC and ITV broadcast that there was no snow there. It seems that at least that communications route does not work. Can the Secretary of State tell the House on what time scale decisions on the Bellwin scheme will be taken?

Mr. Baker

On the time scale within which advice is made available, my Department alerted the fire services and the police to the weather news on Friday. The general public was kept informed by radio and television. That is inevitable and it is probably the best way of doing so.

It is too early to say whether payments will be made under the Bellwin scheme. Clearly, the matter will be of some concern to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. It usually takes some time to assess how much extra expenditure has been incurred. That will be the case in dealing with the problems at the weekend.

Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there was unnecessary chaos in the section of the M6 that leads to Corley service station on Saturday? I was stationary for 18 hours, fortunately in the company of my wife and with a certain amount of good Burton beer that I keep with me for emergencies. But there can be no excuse for the authorities not closing the M6 when they saw the trouble that was happening. The trouble had clearly begun a good hour or so before I joined the motorway. There was no gritting of any sort. There were no snowploughs.

I did not see a police officer for 15 hours, and when one arrived he had no idea what was happening. No attempt was made to release the traffic that had been travelling eastward towards the M1 to the entirely empty opposite side of the M6 until 2 am. That reveals a disgraceful lack of co-ordination among local authorities, the police and whoever else may be responsible. Will my right hon. Friend look into that? There are still hundreds of vehicles in the area. Goodness knows how many of those in them were diabetic, unwell or old, who had no access to lavatories and telephones. The whole thing was disgraceful. The shortcomings could be corrected if my right hon. Friend were to devote his attention to ensuring that there is no lack of co-ordination in future.

Mr. Baker

I shall draw the remarks of my hon. and learned Friend to the attention of the chief constables in the areas that he mentioned, including the way in which traffic was controlled. My hon. and learned Friend underlined the idea that was put to me earlier by a chief constable, which was that when those difficulties occur, consideration should be given to early closure of the motorways. I hasten to add that I refer to those in urban areas. It would be much more difficult to close those in more remote rural areas.

I am sure that my hon. and learned Friend's journey, with his wife, was necessary. The chief constable of Thames Valley has told me, however, that his officers dug out quite a few elderly people from their cars on Saturday. Those people, having seen that it was a snowy day, had gone out for a run.

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

Will the Home Secretary investigate as a matter of some urgency a simple precaution? I, too, was stuck on the M6 for 10 or 12 hours on Saturday. I hasten to add that I was not in the car of the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence). Had it not been for a group of young soldiers who were in two coaches, who, with aid of lorry drivers, rescued hundreds of motorists, and who received great thanks, matters would have been much worse. It was noticeable at junction 2 that there was an absence of any drawing vehicles to drag skidded lorries on to the slip road and out of the way. If that had been done, hundreds of motorists, some with young families, would have been released much earlier. Surely it is not a great difficulty to place rescue vehicles at motorway junctions.

Mr. Baker

I shall draw the hon. Gentleman's comments to the attention of police officers and of the local authorities concerned. A substantial number of snowploughs are available. I recall that about 280 are available for work on the—[HON. MEMBERS: "Where were they?"] Hon. Members must appreciate that when there are severe weather conditions, one of the difficulties is physically getting the equipment to the right place. As I said, about 280 snowploughs are available. They are financed by the Department of Transport. Their purpose is to deal with the conditions that hon. Members have talked about on the main motorway network.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)

Will my right hon. Friend pass on to the water authorities the suggestion that they should invest in generators so that in future water supplies are not cut off? In every theatre in the land, for example, there is an automatic switch from mains electricity to an auxiliary supply. Most people find it incomprehensible that the companies do not have such a system.

Perhaps my right hon. Friend will try to ascertain why people were blaming the failure to anticipate the intensity of the snowstorm. If it had been anticipated, would things have been different? Finally, perhaps some of our colleagues might consider using a train instead of driving. If their train had been stopped, it would not have remained stationary for 18 hours.

Mr. Baker

The best advice that one can give to anyone when severe weather is forecast is to stay at home and not to travel unless it is absolutely necessary to do so. Many people were travelling who were not in that position. As for the maintenance of motorways and trunk roads, about £24 million has been allocated for 1991. About 283 snowploughs and 23 snow blowers are dedicated to winter maintenance on 1,600 miles of motorway. About £4.2 million has been provided in the 1990–91 budget for a continuing programme to renew the fleet of winter maintenance vehicles.

My hon. Friend also asked about auxiliary power supplies to water pumping stations. Some of those stations are extremely remote and they tend to have auxiliary generators, but in order to be used, they usually require someone to turn up. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"] If they can be operated in a way other than that, I shall draw it to the attention of the water companies.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I must have regard to the business before the House. We have a statement after this, so I shall allow two more questions from each side and then we must move on.

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

Is the Secretary of State aware of the havoc that the storm caused to the county of Leicestershire? Will he now please ask his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment to state that he will give help to the county council and the city council because they have suffered from cuts in their rates, in their poll tax—call it what you will—and they have not got the money to cope? They need that money. Will he also ensure that an inquiry is made to discover why, because one substation broke down, thousands of people in the county were left without water? Why should they be like the ancient mariner, who had Water, water every where Nor any drop to drink"?

Mr. Baker

I shall draw such points made by the hon. and learned Gentleman as I think worthy to the attention of the relevant authorities. So far we have not had any requests from local authorities, either district councils or county councils, for assistance and we shall have to see how the situation develops.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)

May I say that I am astonished at the lack of foresight of the male Members of this establishment? Having heard that snow was forecast in large measure on Saturday and Sunday and knowing that the King's Cross Railways Bill revival motion, which is of considerable importance to my constituency, was on the Order Paper for today, I simply set my alarm for 3.30 am, left Lancaster at 3.45 and arrived here in good order.

Mr. Baker

I am sure that neither snow nor ice will deter my hon. Friend, who is a credit to us all.

Mr. Allen McKay (Barnsley, West and Penistone)

Will the right hon. Gentleman reconsider what he said about local authorities? As he said, the cold weather has come early, and it has been sharp and drastic. Local authorities such as my own, which has been poll tax-capped, have already reduced their budgets for road maintenance, particularly in rural areas. They have now been forced to make great inroads into that reduced budget. Would not it be helpful to contact all local authorities to assure them that they will not be poll tax-capped purely and simply for spending extra on coping with the weather conditions?

Mr. Baker

It depends entirely on how local authorities spend their money. We are talking about money in the budget for the current year and the necessary provisions will have been made. We have not had any requests from any local authorities at this stage. Such maintenance is one of the services that must be provided by those local authorities.

Mr. Andy Stewart (Sherwood)

My right hon. Friend is well aware that the whole of Nottinghamshire was without electricity for 24 hours and that the north of the county was without it for 48 hours—even now some villages are without electricity. I join my right hon. Friend in thanking the emergency services, especially the East Midlands electricity board workers who, while we were freezing in our homes, were freezing on the job in arctic conditions. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker


Mr. Stewart

May I also say how much we appreciate the work of the water authorities, but will my right hon. Friend remind them that, in future, we could do with standby generators to enable people to receive water at least?

Mr. Baker

I am sure that my hon. Friend will want to ensure that Hansard conveys what he meant, not what he said. My hon. Friend is certainly right to raise the issue of electricity supplies in the east midlands, the most severely affected region. The East Midlands electricity board has done a magnificent job in restoring the supply to many hundreds of thousands of its customers. It has had help from other regional companies, specialist contractors and the Army. I pay tribute to what they have done and I hope that the great majority of people will have their electricity supplies linked up today or tomorrow.