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Cycling Deaths (Abergele)

Volume 463: debated on Tuesday 17 July 2007

On 8 January 2006, Thomas Harland, aged 14, Maurice Broadbent, aged 61, Dave Horrocks, aged 55, and Wayne Wilkes, aged 42—all members of the Rhyl cycling club—were killed when a car ploughed into their group after skidding on ice on the A547 near Abergele. Although the tragedy occurred just outside my constituency, three of the four cyclists were my constituents, and the father of Thomas Harland was a close personal friend. It was and remains Britain’s worst traffic accident involving cyclists.

Following the accident, I asked the Secretary of State for Wales, my right hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr. Hain), to visit the scene of the crash and to meet the victims’ families and the North Wales police. I raised the matter at Prime Minister’s questions, arranged for two members of the Rhyl cycling club to meet a transport Minister here in the House and have tabled a number of parliamentary written questions. I have also tabled Question 3 for Prime Minister’s questions tomorrow, when I shall raise the issue of the coroner’s report with the Prime Minister.

I pay tribute to the relatives of those killed in the accident. They have conducted themselves with dignity. I also pay tribute to the Daily Post, and to its reporter Roland Hughes for his excellent, sensitive and detailed coverage of the accident and the coroner’s inquest. I have brought some of the Daily Post reports with me and I will be drawing on them heavily—I acknowledge that at the outset. Finally, I pay tribute to coroner John Hughes, whose inquiry has raised a number of issues that must be addressed not just in Denbighshire, Conwy and Wales but throughout the nation.

The first issue is police protocol on two matters. When ice is spotted on the road, what is the protocol for reporting accidents to the control room? The other matter is the protocol governing the control room’s reporting of such incidents to the relevant local authority. There are 43 police forces and 430 local authorities in England and Wales. An absence of protocols, or a protocol that is not strictly adhered to, is a recipe for disaster. Will the Minister seek clarification from his advisers on whether such a protocol exists? I have given them at least 20 minutes to find the answer.

I shall describe the police response to the reporting and actioning of numerous accidents involving ice on or near the A547 on the day of the tragic accident in order to illustrate some shortcomings that have not been addressed. On the day of the accident, police did not tell local councils about four crashes and near misses on icy roads near the site of the Rhyl cycling tragedy. Four drivers—including three on and off-duty police officers—skidded on or near the A547 in the hours leading up to the tragedy, but police did not think it necessary to tell Conwy county council’s highways department that the roads should be gritted, despite the fact that one accident occurred within Conwy’s boundary, just two metres from the county boundary and one mile away from the boundary in Denbighshire. The only time that police rang Conwy’s highways staff was when a car skidded on ice more than two miles away.

At the inquest into the cyclists’ death, police admitted that they had no fixed policy on alerting highways chiefs to icy roads, but said that it was expected of them. That is what I want to flush out. What is expected and what is not? I want a better definition.

A police officer who skidded twice on the Denbighshire side of the Borth crossroads, half a mile away, called the control room at about 3.30 am to say:

“The road is like glass here...I’m not sure if it’s policy to call out the council”.

He stated publicly:

“In our opinion, the road needed gritting immediately and the council needed informing at the least. We had expected those messages to have been acted upon.”

He was unsure of the policy. I am sure that if we were to ask other police officers around the country what the policy is, their responses would be similar. Neither Denbighshire county council nor Conwy, whose boundary is only metres away, were alerted by police to the icy conditions.

At 5.30 am, another accident occurred. An off-duty police officer, a friend of mine, was involved. He lost control on the Borth crossroads, only metres inside the Denbighshire boundary. Neither the Denbighshire nor the Conwy highways department was alerted to the conditions. At about 6.45, another off-duty police officer came off the A525 a mile from the tragedy. Again, the highway authorities were not informed. The only time that highway officials were contacted was at about 8.50 am, after two cars skidded on ice at a bridge in Towyn. A police control room worker mistakenly called Denbighshire—some Members might be unaware of the local geography, as indeed were some of the control staff—saying that the accidents had occurred on the Foryd bridge, which straddles the border between Conwy and Denbighshire. The control room informed Denbighshire that the accident was in its jurisdiction, but it was in fact a mile and a half away on the Towyn bridge in Conwy.

The highways department rectified the mistake shortly afterward, but the incident illustrates the need for local knowledge in order to pinpoint locations. It also illustrates the confusion that can occur if control room staff do not have such information at hand. If they do not know the co-ordinates and cannot report exactly where an accident occurred, they could quite easily end up alerting the wrong authority, as they did in the incident that I described, leading to delay or causing the wrong area to be gritted, with deadly consequences.

I have described a catalogue of errors that contributed to the death of the four cyclists. Is the Minister satisfied that robust procedures are in place for the reporting and actioning of accidents involving ice for every police force in England and Wales? Are they sufficiently understood by police and civilian staff? Confusion can arise if control room staff do not have the exact co-ordinates of an accident, but it can also arise without robust procedures for staff shift changes.

The latter had a bearing on the tragic accident that we are debating. As well as those that I have described, one final accident occurred on exactly the same spot as the fatal crash, just one hour before. The control operator mistakenly told her replacement colleague that both Denbighshire and Conwy gritters were operating, so when the accident was reported, no action was taken. Does the Minister feel that the rules governing shift changes in control rooms need to be reviewed? I spent 25 days with the North Wales police under the police parliamentary scheme, and I am aware that when ordinary bobbies on the beat change shifts, a debriefing session is held. Does that take place in control rooms? Should staff sit down together to debrief each other?

The coroner suggested that a hard copy of all reported incidents involving inclement weather should be left on the desk when staff change over, so that operatives do not have to go back into the computer. They would have no excuse—the information would be before them on the table in black and white. They could not ignore it. That simple suggestion could improve safety dramatically.

In summing up after the inquest, Mr. Hughes said that the way in which information was passed on by the police patrol room left a lot to be desired. I share his concerns and urge the Minister to do all that he can to prevent a repetition of such failings in all police forces in England and Wales. I say “England and Wales” because I know that the Minister has jurisdiction for England and Wales, but I also urge him to contact the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly, so that they can learn from these mistakes.

Mr. Harland is a personal friend, and I took the family, including young Tom, on a tour of Parliament two or three years ago. They are a lovely, lovely family. When I contacted him to tell him about this debate and to ask whether he wanted me to relay anything to the Minister, he said that

“the main lesson I would like to see learnt is that a single incident suspected of ice should be treated as a road closure situation in every case until it is clarified/dealt with/made safe.

If you can get that written down as a standard practice for Police Forces throughout the UK then you will have achieved something positive from our tragedy.

The situation of suspected ice should be treated (as standard practice) the same as a chemical/oil spillage, which would result in a road closure, as in all these scenarios death can and does result.”

Will the Minister accede to that request from a bereaved father?

The next issue may not be the Minister’s direct responsibility, but I want to apprise him of it so that he has a full picture of exactly what happened, and of the interplay of his Department with local authorities and justice Departments. The issue is the role played by local authorities’ gritting departments.

One of the key lessons to be learned from this tragic accident is the need for a national review of the protocol that governs arrangements for gritting roads that cross county boundaries. This accident occurred 0.9 miles from the Denbighshire border. The A547 runs for approximately five miles between Rhuddlan in Denbighshire and Abergele in Conwy, and the accident occurred almost on the border. On the day of the accident, the Denbighshire side of the A547 was gritted early in the morning, and I congratulate Denbighshire on that. The Conwy side was not gritted, despite the fact that accidents were reported. Had that road been gritted, this accident might not have occurred. A simple agreement between neighbouring authorities could help to share the gritting of principal highways and known danger spots, so that it does not stop arbitrarily at the county border. That would be eminently sensible. If someone is driving and hears rock salt knocking against the bottom of the car, they alter their driving accordingly. If they hit an icy spot after the county boundary, that can and will cause mayhem.

There was no protocol in place for any formal liaison between adjoining authorities before the accident. In fact, the inquest heard that the two neighbouring councils of Denbighshire and Conwy were always haggling over who should grit the road on which the four cyclists died. One control-room worker told the inquest:

“I never knew quite which council was responsible”.

The on-duty highways officer for Conwy county council at the time of the accident was informed of an earlier accident by the police. He told the police that the road had already been gritted that morning, but that he that he would get someone to the scene of the accident immediately. That did not happen. He had decided to take no action, and to delay his decision to send someone out until he had received more reports of crashes. The coroner also asked why notes were scribbled in the margin next to the entry of the Towyn crash, when the rest of the operative’s records were immaculate and pristine. He even went so far as to suggest that they had been altered.

Over the past five days, I have been trying to find out whether any protocol is up and running between Denbighshire and Conwy, 18 months and one winter after the accident. I have been informed that, in the great tradition of Wales, a committee has been formed, and that Denbighshire, my own local authority, is taking the lead role. When I asked to meet chief constable of North Wales, Richard Brunstrom, the chief executive of Denbighshire, Ian Millar, and the chief executive of Conwy, Derek Barker, I received positive, professional responses from the chief constable and the chief executive of Conwy. However, the chief executive of Denbighshire said:

“It is not clear to me what the locus of the Home Secretary is in matters to do with roads in Wales. Indeed the UK Government has very limited functions in this area: highways are a devolved matter with only limited exceptions such as signage design, national speed limits etc.”

One would not have thought that we were discussing the deaths of four innocent people. I trust that my hon. Friend the Minister is as appalled as I am at that response. Mr. Millar has missed the big picture. Death is not a devolved matter. Wherever it occurs, we must look at the reasons, learn from mistakes and spread best practice around the UK and beyond.

Cross-border issues are of concern in the four nations of the UK. They are of particular concern in Wales, because we have 22 small local authorities with thousands of miles of borders and thousands of miles of roads crossing those boundaries. The matter should be considered seriously.

I now turn to the remaining issues that I want to raise, and again, the Minister may have only tangential, indirect responsibility, but I hope that he will take these issues back to his colleagues. The driver of the car involved in the crash, Mr. Robert Alan Harris, admitted that he was driving too fast for the weather conditions. His car had three defective tyres. A collision expert, PC George Skinner, blamed Mr. Harris for failing to drive at an appropriate speed for the road conditions. The ice on the road was patchy and there were enough dry patches for Mr. Harris to regain control of his vehicle. PC Skinner said that if Mr. Harris had paid attention to the freezing conditions and not driven at 55mph, which was his estimated speed before the crash, it might not have happened. He said:

“It would have to be accepted that he failed to observe the ambient temperature display in his vehicle. He set off on his journey having scraped ice off the window of his car, and subsequently drove through countryside where visible frost lay.”

He also said:

“He drove in an inappropriate manner for the prevailing conditions”

but added:

“In my opinion, there was sufficient grip available to the driver to control the vehicle. Had he driven according to the prevailing road conditions, as had the vast majority of motorists before this collision, then I am of the opinion this collision could have been avoided.”

Despite all that evidence, the Crown Prosecution Service refused to prosecute Mr. Harris. The family have said that they were badly let down by the CPS. The coroner said that, and I say that. The family said:

“Our lawyers, on our behalf, made clear to the Chief Crown Prosecutor our disbelief at the decision not to prosecute Mr Harris for driving offences. We remain unhappy with that decision. In fact we feel badly let down by this decision, and that justice has not been done”.

I want to apprise the Minister of the time taken by the inquest to reach its conclusion, and of the added burden on, and torment of, the families affected. The whole process could have been speeded up if the police, Conwy county council and their legal and insurance advisers had co-operated more fully with the coroner, John Hughes.

I do not expect the Minister to respond to the last two points, but I shall take them up with the Ministry of Justice and with the Prime Minister at Question Time tomorrow. I hope that the Minister will be able to meet me and the families when the police and the local authority have concluded their inquiry into the coroner’s report.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) not only on obtaining this debate and raising the important issue of safety on our roads, but on the dignity with which he has campaigned and the gravitas with which he conducted himself during a difficult debate. That is a credit to him and his constituents.

I was sad to hear of the tragic death of the four cyclists, Thomas Harland, Maurice Broadbent, David Horrocks and Wayne Wilkes, on a practice ride on the A547 near Abergele in north Wales on 8 January 2006. I express my deepest sympathies to their families, and pay tribute, as my hon. Friend did, to the dignity with which the families have conducted themselves following this terrible event.

I am perfectly happy to meet my hon. Friend and the families to discuss with them the matters that he raised and his ideas so that, as Mr. Harland said, something positive comes out of this terrible tragedy. I am perfectly happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the whole issue of reporting to the police, what action the local authority should take and what protocols are in place. As far as I am aware, protocols do not exist, and the issue is an operational matter for each force, which will have systems by which officers report to the control room as they think appropriate, and the control room contacts agencies as it thinks appropriate. Following the accident and the coroner’s report, it will be necessary for North Wales police to consider the situation, and one would hope and expect that following what happened, other police forces will also consider it. Again, we may discuss it at a meeting to understand the way in which we can take the process forward.

My hon. Friend appreciates that I cannot comment in detail about the police handling of individual cases, particularly as I understand that that incident is still the subject of a continuing inquiry by the Independent Police Complaints Commission, which North Wales police voluntarily requested. I shall turn in a while to the inquest into those tragic events, and to what has emerged from it, but first I shall briefly outline the general situation regarding police investigations of fatal road collisions, and the Government’s position with respect to it.

The investigation of road traffic collisions and the enforcement of road traffic law are entirely operational matters for individual chief police officers. However, the police service is duty bound to investigate all serious incidents, particularly those involving death or serious injury, professionally and thoroughly. They will of course be expected to gather all the evidence from the scene, so that follow-up action can be taken as appropriate. In undertaking that work, all police forces now use the Association of Chief Police Officers road death investigation manual.

The manual brings out the need to investigate road deaths and serious injuries in order to serve justice. It recommends best practice for such investigations, and its overall aim is to standardise and improve the criteria observed during an investigation, and to promote a consistent approach. Of course, the manual’s guidance and police best practice are relevant only after the event, when the tragedy has already occurred. What concerns us more is trying to prevent such tragedies in the first place. Indeed, my hon. Friend said that we should learn from what has happened in the incident under discussion, and that, although we cannot rewind the clock, as much as we would all like to, we should work out whether any lessons can be learned from it to prevent such a tragedy occurring again.

Roads policing and police motoring law enforcement have a vital role to play. That is reflected in the roads policing strategy statement, which was agreed by the Home Office, the Department for Transport and ACPO, and published in January 2005. It cites reducing road casualties as one of the five key actions on which roads policing will focus. It may be that during my next conversation with the ACPO lead on road policing, I can mention some of the general issues about the investigation of road traffic accidents, and the way in which the manual is applied, to work out whether lessons can be learned from the tragedy that my hon. Friend has described.

I now turn to the outcome of the inquest, and to any lessons that there might be for the police, especially the North Wales police. The inquest jury ruled out accidental death and returned a narrative verdict, delivering factual statements on events leading to the fatalities. They decided that the deaths were a direct result of an out-of-control vehicle crossing the carriageway and colliding with the oncoming cyclists. From the evidence, the jury deemed the following points to be contributing factors: the vehicle was being driven inappropriately for the adverse weather conditions; there was a serious lack of communications and guidance in the following areas, with critical information not being passed on to key personnel by all parties involved within the North Wales police area control room, between Conwy borough council and Denbighshire county council and between Conwy borough council’s duty officer and his field staff. Conwy borough council lacked a proactive approach to its legal responsibilities, particularly with reference to its out-of-hours service.

The coroner subsequently publicly made his own critical comments about the North Wales police control room, communications between the councils and the failure to prosecute the driver of the vehicle involved—a point that my hon. Friend made. He knows that the last point is a matter for the Crown Prosecution Service, and I cannot comment on it. However, following the inquest, the coroner also wrote highlighting his concerns to the chief constable of North Wales police.

At the inquest, there emerged one issue that I know is of particular interest to my hon. Friend: road gritting. As the inquest jury were informed, North Wales police had earlier that day, following a motorist’s report of skidding, advised Conwy council that roads needed treatment. It was then a matter for the council to review the state of local roads and take action accordingly. I understand that the council has reviewed its procedures, and that it has measures under way to improve communications.

As I said in my speech, one incident was reported, which was actioned by the police control centre. There were, however, another three incidents involving police officers during that morning, and the information was given to the police control centre but not to the local authorities. That is a Home Office responsibility, so may I ask my hon. Friend to comment on it? There was a lack of action on behalf of the police.

As I have said to my hon. Friend, I shall review all his remarks today to work out whether there is anything that we must do in response to them. The point that I was also trying to make is that the lack of communication, as the coroner pointed out, is one of the key aspects that the local authorities have analysed in order to ensure that they do not happen again. It will clearly be something that the police themselves must analyse to ensure that they, too, have listened to the coroner to work out whether they need to change their practices and procedures. In trying to reassure my hon. Friend, I shall of course review his remarks to work out whether there is anything that we must do in respect not only of north Wales, but, as he has made it clear, of the rest of the country in order to prevent any such occurrence, due perhaps to a lack of communication, anywhere else.

More generally, I know that the North Wales police roads policing unit works in collaboration with local authorities and the Mid Wales Trunk Road Agency to identify routes with collision cluster sites. A multi-agency site meeting follows every fatal collision to identify opportunities for remedial engineering work, which is exactly the sort of co-operative working that we need, and I welcome it.

From the comments that my hon. Friend, the families and the north Wales public have made following the accident, the key issue is about people working together and communicating with one another. Whenever something as terrible and awful as that event takes place, it is incumbent on all of us with responsibility to reflect on it, work out whether there are lessons to be learned and put in place, as far as we possibly can, procedures and practices to stop it happening again.

In addition to those actions, the police consider education and enforcement and tailor their activities to address the relevant features of any emerging trend. Where appropriate, “red routes” will be established, enabling local authorities and the Mid Wales Trunk Road Agency to prioritise engineering work, and the North Wales police to deploy roads policing officers to key locations for visibility and enforcement. Again, it is recognised that road safety involves a number of different agencies.

The police will fulfil their role of patrol and enforcement, and I am sure that the local authorities and others will play their part in ensuring a co-ordinated approach. North Wales police also recognises the particular vulnerability of road users who are cyclists, and in partnership with its local authorities, it is seeking to adopt the updated cycling proficiency training and test, Bikeability, which has been introduced in England with the aim of giving cyclists—children and adults—the skills and confidence they need to ride their bikes safely. North Wales police is also involved in implementing the “Safer Routes to Schools” programme.

I have been in touch with North Wales police, and I assure my hon. Friend that it will consider the coroner’s observations very seriously. As I have mentioned, it has already voluntarily referred the handling of the incident to the IPCC, and the investigation is not yet concluded. When it is, the police will have to consider what it says.

I am very happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss in more detail the points that he has raised. The key issue is for everyone with responsibility for safety on our roads to work together and communicate effectively. Although we cannot bring back those who unfortunately have gone from us, all of us, as Mr. Harland and no doubt the other families would wish, can as far as possible try to learn from that tragedy, to ensure that not only in north Wales but elsewhere, any such event does not occur again where it could reasonably have been prevented.