HC Deb 31 March 2003 vol 402 cc718-27

'After section 41(1) of the Highways Act 1980 (c. 66) (duty of highway authority to maintain highway) insert— (IA) In particular, a highway authority is under a duty to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that safe passage along a highway is not endangered by snow or ice."'.—[Mr. Jamieson.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Jamieson

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

New clause 3—Clearance of snow and ice— 'Highways authorities shall take such steps as they consider reasonable to prevent snow and ice endangering the safe passage of pedestrians and vehicles over public roads.'. New clause 11—Annual report on road safety statistics— '.—(1) The Secretary of State shall prepare and lay before Parliament an annual report on the incidence and causes of major road traffic accidents that have occurred in the preceding 12 months. (2) For the purposes of this section "major road traffic accident" shall mean any road traffic accident involving a fatality or a serious injury likely to lead to permanent disability. (3) A report under subsection (1) shall include—

  1. (a) a summary and analysis of the statistics collected by the relevant bodies responsible for road safety or for investigating road traffic accidents, and
  2. (b) an assessment of those statistics for improving the safety of road design.'.

Mr. Jamieson

This is a small but important amendment. The Government have made it clear for some time that we are minded to introduce a duty for highways authorities to remove snow and ice so as to ensure safe passage on our highways. We welcome the principle behind the Opposition new clause. However, on this occasion we think that our clause is better than theirs, and I urge the House to support it.

The Opposition's new clause mirrors the current duty in Scotland that is contained in section 34 of the Roads (Scotland) Act 1984. It would not properly fit the legislative framework in England and Wales. I hope that the Opposition will agree that the Government new clause deals satisfactorily with the matter and will see fit to withdraw new clause 3.

6.45 pm

Miss McIntosh: I was bowled over by our success with new clause 9 and now we move on to snow and grit. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) for raising the issue by means of a parliamentary question some time ago. She asked the Secretary of State whether he would list the authorities in England that have direct responsibility for gritting trunk roads and set out the new responsibilities of the authorities for gritting. The Under-Secretary assured the hon. Lady that such gritting is the responsibility of the Highways Agency. In England, there is no statutory duty on a highway authority to remove ice, but he added that such a duty would be introduced at a "suitable legislative opportunity." Here we have it. Indeed, we had the first legislative opportunity in Committee.

At first, the Under-Secretary and the Minister of State were loth to consider any aspect of road transport despite the temptations put before them by us and the Liberal Democrats—not in alliance, but acting independently. I pay tribute to the sterling work of my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray), who introduced the same provision in clause 1 of the Road Transport Bill of 2001, which was defeated at the hands of the Government. That was extremely disappointing. About 1,000 people are killed or seriously injured on icy or snow-covered roads, and it is clear that snow and ice clearance is essential to prevent that toll. As recently as July 2000, the House of Lords ruled in the case of Goodes v. East Sussex county council that there is no duty on highway authorities to pre-salt any roads. However, it is worthy of note—I am sure that the House would expect me to note it—that, based on Scots law, new clause 3 would invite highway authorities to take such steps as they consider reasonable.

As I have said, we have modest resources at our disposal. Only four of us were involved in these matters. I am delighted to see my hon. Friends the Members for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) and for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall), who gave me sterling support throughout our proceedings in Committee. We were hugely dedicated to the task of amending the Bill. The Department can draw on much greater resources—we pay our respectful compliments to it—and it is proper that we withdraw new clause 3 in favour of the Government's new clause.

Clearly, many county councils take their responsibilities extremely seriously. North Yorkshire county council, for example, is particularly mindful that there are a number of highways in its area on which more snow and ice is to be found than elsewhere. That approach can be contrasted with that of the Highways Agency. I think that the excuse was used that its equipment was defective. Perhaps it did not give sufficient notice to enable those responsible to get out their ploughs. Early this year, in January or February, we saw dreadful events on the M11 and on most roads leaving London one Thursday evening. That re-emphasises the need for responsibility to be enshrined in law.

I hope that the Minister will be mindful that on both sides of the Pennines we have high ground and inclement weather. I believe that the de-trunking of roads has been postponed for a year, but I hope also that sufficient provision will be made for highways authorities—those that are county councils—to ensure that they will have the means at their disposal to fulfil their responsibility.

I am sure that the Minister will share my concern that liability will be strictly interpreted and that there will not be a flood of cases where highway authorities were seen to have fulfilled their obligations but accidents occurred. I hope that he will join me in ensuring that the proposed provisions are interpreted strictly.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)

I shall speak briefly in support of new clause 10 and new clause 3, which the Opposition intend to withdraw. I rise from the same place in the Chamber that I spoke three years ago to propose precisely the measures that are now before us.

It is extremely important that we do something about road gritting. About 1,000 people a year are injured or killed as a result of icy and snowy conditions. Until the Goodes v. East Sussex case of 1999, or thereabouts, there was a requirement on local authorities to grit their roads to a satisfactory standard. That is why, backed by the Automobile Association, Age Concern and other organisations, I chose to introduce precisely these proposals in my private Member's Bill.

I understood to begin with, and throughout most of the debate, that my proposals had the general support of Her Majesty's Government. I was told informally that that was indeed the case. My surprise can be imagined when people whom one could only describe as the usual suspects who are here every Friday—the hon. Members for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), who has now moved on to greater things as the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) and for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner)—went to great trouble to talk out my Bill, ably assisted by the hon. Member for Streatham (Keith Hill), who was then a Transport Minister but is now the deputy Chief Whip of the Labour party. He was on his feet when the Bill was finally talked out that morning.

That was a strange situation, as gritting is demonstrably worth while. At the moment, thanks to the case in the House of Lords, there is no requirement on local authorities to grit the roads, but there should be. The Government talked out my Bill, but they have now changed their mind. That is not due to the eloquence of my speech two years ago nor, I regret, is it due to the powers of persuasion that my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh), to whom I pay tribute, demonstrated in Committee. At the beginning of January this year, I was asked on to a host of radio and television programmes to talk about gritting, and the Government were suddenly terribly interested in the matter because the M11 had seized up and there were problems across England.

In those radio and TV stations, I did not find myself up against the Secretary of State or even the Under-Secretary, who were noticeable by their absence. There was no comment by them in the media of any kind whatever in the aftermath of the M11 crisis in January. The people who were put up to speak included the chief executive of the Highways Agency, an unfortunate civil servant who was forced in to the front line to try and defend the indefensible and explain why people were stuck on the M11 for several hours.

Only one other person made some sort of comment—a nameless official in the Department for Transport. Official sources, it was said, whether someone close to Ministers or a person from the Department for Transport said that, in view of the problem on the M11, the Department intended to introduce legislative proposals on gritting. Ministers did not have the guts to go on television and say that they had talked out my Bill three years ago and, as a result, there had been deaths and injuries on the road in the meantime. They did not admit that they had killed the Bill off, but put up a nameless official from the Department to say that they intended to introduce legislation soon.

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk)

I was stuck on the M11 for about eight hours on the way to my constituency, where I was due to address a meeting of Equitable Life policy holders who have suffered because of the Government's actions. Unfortunately, I was not able to make that meeting because of the failure to grit the roads.

Bob Russell (Colchester)

A double whammy.

Mr. Bacon


Does my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) agree that his sad and painful story is clear evidence that there would be better legislation if Governments did less and Members did more through private Members' Bills?

Mr. Gray

My hon. Friend makes a good point. If only the Government, instead of their knee-jerk reaction to private Members' Bills, had listened carefully to what was said in the Chamber two or three years ago, they would already have the relevant legislation on the statute book. They would not have to turn around now and introduce a measure as a result of a little snow and ice on the M11.

Before the Under-Secretary says that in fact the Government may possibly have allowed my Bill to be discussed in Committee and go through, may I tell him that I have come across a letter written by the then Leader of the House, who is now Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs? She wrote about my Bill to the hon. Member for Streatham, who was then responsible, and said: the Government remain neutral on Second Reading". She continued: If the Bill proceeds to Committee, then we would make it clear to James Gray that it would be blocked on Report unless all the provisions apart from those on seatbelts were removed. She went on: You should develop a robust handling strategy in the event that we do have to block the Bill, as the Government will be challenged as to why it cannot support it The Government would indeed be challenged about why they could not support my Bill. They are now being challenged about why they failed to support it three years ago, and they will be challenged about why there have been countless accidents throughout England in the meantime. They will be challenged to explain why they are now coming to the House with a similar provision as the result of one little episode on the M11, seeking to justify it in that way. I entirely support new clause 3, which is a good measure. I am glad that its spirit will be included in the Bill, and that the Under-Secretary has seen the error of his ways and accepts the sense of what I was saying two or three years ago. However, he owes it to the House and the nation to explain why he has taken two and a half years to do so.

Mr. Don Foster

I congratulate the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) on his speech and the passion with which he made it. He challenged the Minister to give answers on the Government's response to his Bill three years ago, and the whole House will be fascinated to hear the reply from the Minister who, we know, is prepared to listen and respond. Fascinatingly, the Opposition parties are each attempting to keep a tally of their successes over the Government so far. My calculation is that it is Liberal Democrats 3, Conservatives 2. However, the Conservatives will be on the verge of scoring an additional success when we come to vote on new clause 10. If that new clause is agreed, I ant prepared to accept that we will have a three-all draw.

It is interesting to consider where the credit for that provision lies. As the hon. Member for North Wiltshire pointed out, the disaster and chaos on 30 January on the M 11 led to a number of interesting and remarkable responses from various people. He has already referred to the poor official—the operations director, I think—from the Highways Agency who said on the BBC I would like to apologise to people who have had to put up with these atrocious conditions". Action was promised, and an interesting comment appeared in a BBC press report on the following day, 31 January, which stated: Transport Secretary Alistair Darling responded to the chaos by demanding the road, rail and local authorities explain why they had not been prepared for freezing weather in the middle of winter. The Secretary of State demanded to know why gritting had not been done, but others were demanding that action be taken. Given that we are in the business of scoring minor points off each other, it is worth reflecting that in another place on 10 February, at column WA 72, my noble Friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill, using the different linguistic formulation that they appear able to get away with in another place, asked Her Majesty's Government Whether they will introduce legislation requiring local authorities in England and Wales to grit the road promptly where adverse weather conditions so require; and if not, why not"? I wish that we were allowed such blunt speaking more often in the Commons. As a result of my noble Friend's question, the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Lord Macdonald of Tradeston said, as the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) has already noted: We shall introduce a duty for a highway authority to remove ice when a suitable legislative opportunity presents itself."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 10 February 2003; Vol. 644, c. WA 72.] As we have heard, the Government were prompt in finding that opportunity. We welcome that, and believe that new clause 10 is preferable to the Conservatives' formulation, although the spirit is the same. We certainly support it, but we have an additional concern about the growing number of reports from local councils throughout the land that, because of financial pressures on their budgets, are cutting or planning to cut road-gritting activities. For example, Durham county council proposes a £400,000 cut in its gritting budget.

Mr. Gray

Is the hon. Gentleman concerned that every outing of a gritting lorry costs about £25,000? If they are going to go out as often as the provision requires, the Government will surely have to fund local authorities properly?

Mr. Foster

The hon. Gentleman is right. I am sure that you would rule me out of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if we had a detailed debate about the nature of local government funding. However, I accept the hon. Gentleman's hint that the Government often tell us that they are going to allow something to happen, but they turn out only to be allowing the local authority to spend money that it is responsible for raising.

Bob Russell

The cost to local authorities of gritting vehicles was mentioned. Will my hon. Friend bring into the equation the cost to the public purse of a fatal road crash, a serious injury and a slight injury resulting from a less serious accident? Does he agree that £1 million spent on preventing 10 fatal accidents is money well spent?

7 pm

Mr. Foster

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point, with which the hon. Member for North Wiltshire and many others would no doubt concur. One of the concerns echoed in all parts of the Committee was that so little attention had been given in the Bill to road accidents and road deaths. That is why, for example, we proposed in Committee the establishment of a road accident investigation branch to mirror the rail accident investigation branch and the branches that cover aviation and shipping.

The hon. Member for Vale of York introduced new clause 11, which goes nowhere near as far as we would like in regard to the establishment of such a body, but nevertheless proposes an annual report. She probably recalls the statistics that were cited several times in Committee. For example, it is worth reflecting that, since the present Government came to power in 1997, about 150 people have died on our railways and a staggering 17,000 on our roads. The focus on roads is crucial. Much that would be published under new clause 11 will already be contained in the annual publication "Road Accidents in Great Britain", but because it focuses on the issue. and perhaps elicits some additional information that could be used to improve road safety, we support new clause 11, just as we support new clause 10.

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) for his party's support for new clause 11. As he rightly said, there are already a number of documents that bring together statistics relating to road accidents in Great Britain, not least the document with that title. Nevertheless, the new clause would require the Secretary of State personally to express his views in such a report, so that it would be not merely a gathering together of statistics, but an expression of conclusions that the Secretary of State draws from those statistics—lessons that he believes need to be learned and policies that will be pursued.

At an early stage in our proceedings, the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) rightly pointed out that far more lives are lost on the roads than on rail; rail is a basically safe way of travelling, whereas the motor car, sadly, involves a greater degree of risk. That is not the widespread public perception. It is our view, expressed on Second Reading, that we should take any and every opportunity to raise the level of road safety, and in particular do so on the basis of proper, adequate, continuous and comparative research. Although some such work is being done, it is our belief that more could be done.

We have received representations from, among others, the Royal National Institute of the Blind, which reported that its members have serious concerns about the present design of level crossings and how that may have an impact on the likelihood of accidents taking place. Mr. Edmund King of the RAC Foundation stated that he believes that certain aspects of road design can contribute towards accidents, in particular the design and the approach that motorists take towards road junctions. When the House chooses from time to time to introduce safety measures, whether in relation to speed cameras, alcohol restrictions or other factors, it is important that motorists should understand that the House is doing so on the basis of the best research and for no other reason than to save lives and improve the prospects of reducing the tragically large number of deaths and serious injuries on our roads.

We therefore are strongly in favour of new clause 11. We hope that the Minister will address the reasons why the Government may not be able to support it at this stage, but if he cannot support it, we give him advance notice that we propose to press it to a Division. We also hope that even if, as is always possible, especially in the present House of Commons, the Government happen to squeak by in such a vote, they will reflect carefully on the importance of the matter—I do not imagine for a moment that they have anything other than a serious and personal commitment to improving road safety—and that they look carefully at the present range of statistical compilations that is available, and consider whether it might be a good idea for the Secretary of State to have a duty every year to publish his policies for Improving road safety. With that, we commend new clause 11 to the House.

Mr. Jamieson

I am glad that new clause 10 has received such widespread support. It brings the necessary clarity to the law. The hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) spoke with passion about the number of people killed and injured on our roads each year, and some of them are killed or injured as a result of snow and ice that was not removed at an appropriate time.

With reference to the Highways Agency, no one can make apologies for what happened in January this year on the M11. Mistakes were made. We were clear about that at the time. It was quite proper that the chief executive of the Highways Agency should answer for those. He is initially responsible for operational matters and it is proper that he answered on that occasion. However, I should say that all highways authorities and the Highways Agency realise that proper attention to ice and snow on our roads is far from an exact science. Weather is unpredictable, and sometimes a decision has to be made whether to grit too early, thereby losing the effect of the gritting, or too late or too often. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that there are also environmental issues involved, as a result of salt and grit entering the watercourses. A careful balance must be struck.

Mr. Gray

Does the Under-Secretary agree, none the less, that the curious thing is that there is already a statutory duty on the Highways Agency to grit on motorways? The new clause deals not with the M11, but with county councils and A roads.

Mr. Jamieson

Indeed. That is why we announced back in October 2002 that our view was that we should introduce legislation at the earliest opportunity. We now have that opportunity, and the measures for which the hon. Gentleman called have been introduced.

In his intervention, the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) said that Governments should do less and private Members should do more. Perhaps he should have a chat with the shadow Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), who seems to think that private Members should not introduce any legislation in this place. There is many a Member on the Government Benches and a few on the Opposition Benches whose Bills have been lost, thanks to the right hon. Gentleman and his cohorts.

The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) essentially accused us of doing the right thing, although I accept his support for what we propose. I am always happy to be accused of doing the right thing, not least by the hon. Gentleman. In response to one of his points, I can tell him that an independent survey of 29 shire counties in 2002 found that not one of them intended cutting back on gritting. Durham is an exception. That is a matter that the council must square with its electorate and with the legislation. Once the measure is on the statute book, all authorities will have to give careful consideration to the matter.

I turn to new clause 11 and the annual reporting of road accidents. New clause 11 seems to disregard the fact that sound arrangements already exist for the investigation of road accidents, for monitoring the associated circumstances and for disseminating the valuable information that is obtained. There is already a well-established investigation process for fatal road accidents, which was improved last year with the introduction of the police national road death investigation manual. I assure the h on. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) that the police investigate such accidents thoroughly, not least because in some cases a prosecution could be brought against a driver. Such investigations sometimes take several weeks.

My Department maintains a national database of road accident statistics and uses those data to inform research studies and, through those, policy development. I assure hon. Members that such information is central to our policy thinking. It also enables us to check that we are delivering our targets to improve road safety by reducing deaths and injuries.

Several research studies are under way to consider the contributory factors in accidents. The studies include detailed on-the-spot investigations of a sample of accidents as soon as they occur and in-depth analysis of detailed police files. By analysing data from a large number of accidents and looking for common threads, that research is much more likely to lead to improved safety measures.

Individual police forces and their respective local authorities share information that helps them to improve their local roads to reduce the risk of accidents. For many years, such data have proved especially helpful to highway authorities for design purposes. Furthermore, analysing the total number of accidents, including slight injuries, provides a far better indicator for remedial action than focusing only on fatal and serious accidents. When an accident is under investigation it would not be apparent to the police officer concerned that a serious injury could lead to permanent disability. That could give rise to issues of confidentiality. I think, therefore, that subsection (2) of new clause 11 is unworkable.

Mr. Clapham

My hon. Friend will be aware that many road accidents befall people who are working. It is not often appreciated that the road is a workplace for many people. Has he considered whether the Health and Safety Executive should be involved in investigating accidents where it is proved that the person was actually at work?

Mr. Jamieson

Indeed, we have. It is an important and complicated matter. Between 20 and 25 per cent. of all injury accidents take place while people are working. We are concerned that a minority of companies may have unrealistic expectations of their drivers and may require them to meet certain targets too rapidly, which involves them in injury or accidents. Good companies, of which there are many, do the opposite: they ensure that drivers have realistic targets. For example, they do not expect drivers to answer mobile phones while they are driving.

I assure my hon. Friend that my Department is giving careful consideration to the point that he raised, but the matter is complex. We are dealing with tens of thousands of companies and the issue cannot he resolved simply and easily, but we are working on it actively at present.

Mr. Gray

Does the Minister realise that another of the proposals in my private Member's Bill was that the use of mobile phones while driving should be outlawed?

Mr. Jamieson

I assure the hon. Gentleman that at the earliest possible legislative opportunity we shall introduce measures on that and look forward to his support. As he knows, we have just held wide consultations on the issue. That was important because we learned a great deal from the process—as we always do. We are analysing the results and will announce some proposals shortly. One of my hon. Friends also tried to introduce a private Members' Bill to deal with the problem, so I hope that our proposals will bring joy to both hon. Members.

I commend the Government new clause, but ask hon. Members to resist new clause 11, not least because if we introduced the measures proposed by the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale, they would set up a new layer of bureaucracy and extra paperwork that would not bring many extra benefits in road safety.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

7.15 pm
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