With permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall repeat a statement that my right hon. and noble Friend the Secretary of State for Transport made about the severe weather, transport networks and public services.
With leave, I will make a statement on the recent prolonged severe weather that we are currently experiencing and on the steps being taken to support our public services. The current cold weather began in mid-December and is the most prolonged spell of freezing conditions across the UK since December 1981. The Met Office forecasts that the current very cold conditions are likely to continue across most of the country for some days longer.
These extreme conditions continue to affect our transport and energy networks, as well as public services, including schools and hospitals. I would like to thank the many hundreds of thousands of people working tirelessly across the country to keep Britain moving in these extreme conditions.
Over the past weeks, we have seen many tremendous examples of Britain’s community spirit in action, with people lending vehicles, digging clear paths to allow ambulances and police vehicles through and visiting neighbours in need. We will do all that we can to support and encourage people helping out in their communities.
Our key priority is to keep open the core transport networks, national and local. All main transport networks are operational, even though with reduced services in some areas. The vast majority of the motorways and major trunk roads remain open. Network Rail and the train operating companies advise that the major rail routes are open, subject to delays and cancellations. The position is similar for air travellers. Eurostar is running a reduced service. Our advice remains that people should check routes before they travel, and I thank all travellers for their forbearance at this time.
To keep our roads open, much of our attention has been on ensuring that ploughs and gritters have got out to where they are needed most. The Highways Agency has had its fleet of 500 salt spreaders and snow ploughs out in force throughout this period, as have local authorities.
Last week, we opened Salt Cell—a collaborative task force involving central Government, the Local Government Association, the Met Office, the devolved Administrations and Transport for London. The group advises salt suppliers on how best to distribute salt.
Last Friday, I directed the Highways Agency to manage its use of salt in response to forecasts of prolonged bad weather, by reducing its daily use of salt by at least 25 per cent. It has achieved that by taking measures such as not directly spreading salt on the hard shoulder of motorways.
For local roads, the Local Government Association and the Mayor of London have agreed to reduce daily use by at least 25 per cent. also, recognising the importance of mutual support to keep Britain moving safely. Local authorities are taking their own decisions on the prioritisation of supplies in their localities. The Highways Agency has played a key role in providing mutual aid of additional salt and gritters to local highway authorities and key organisations, such as Felixstowe port.
We continue to take all possible steps to maximise the production of salt from our principal suppliers. On 29 December, the Highways Agency placed an order for significant additional salt imports, which are due to start arriving later this month.
The energy sector is experiencing high demand due to the extreme conditions. The system has been responding generally well at a time of record demand. However, ongoing supply issues in Norway have caused National Grid to issue a gas balancing alert today, as well as on Saturday, when the problems arose. The gas balancing alert is a tool that National Grid uses to make sure that there is enough gas on tap and there is no shortage of supply for domestic customers.
The Department for Work and Pensions is helping citizens in two ways this winter: with winter fuel payments—first introduced in 1997, and now standing at £250 for pensioner households, rising to £400 for the over-80s—and cold weather payments of £25 for those in receipt of pension credit, where there are sub-zero temperatures over the course of seven consecutive days. Cold weather payments were last year increased to £25 from £8.50 per week. These payments are automatic. Everyone in Great Britain who is entitled will get them and should not worry about turning up their heating.
During times of increased demand, we all need to think responsibly about whether our health issues are a genuine priority and use NHS resources responsibly. Medical advice is available by phone through NHS Direct.
There are no reports of major problems with food supplies reaching retailers. Because the UK has a diverse supply of food from domestic and international suppliers, we are not reliant on just one source of food, which helps maintain stability of supply as well as helping keep prices stable. Last week we relaxed the enforcement of drivers’ hours regulations to ensure that the essential deliveries of rock salt and animal feed could be made. Over the weekend, we further relaxed the enforcement of the regulations to allow the delivery of fuel oil to remote areas of Scotland and of de-icer to airports, and to allow bulk milk tankers to continue making their deliveries.
Schools are making every effort to reopen after last week’s closures, and this week there has been a significant improvement. The Department for Children, Schools and Families reports that virtually all exam centres are able to run their exams as scheduled, or have found alternative locations at which to hold them.
I know that the House will wish to join me in thanking the hundreds of thousands of people across the transport industries, the NHS, the education system, the armed forces, local authorities and other public services for helping all our communities come through this severe weather. However, the forecasts are for a further period of snow and sub-zero overnight temperatures and we must take further steps to keep Britain moving.
In July last year, the UK Roads Liaison Group published a report into the lessons learned from the severe weather experienced in February 2009. Recommendations that were made to central Government were adopted immediately and in full. There were recommendations to local authorities as well, on which individual authorities were expected to act. The key recommendation was that local highway authorities should keep at least six days of salt stocks, and that over and above this the Highways Agency should hold an additional strategic supply to underpin national resilience. To this end, the Highways Agency came into this winter period with a 13-day supply of salt, subject of course to replenishment.
The report also made recommendations for my Department to convene a Salt Cell task force to prioritise supplies in the event of extreme conditions. That we have done. Salt Cell has enabled us to prioritise salt distribution to where it is most needed, and I am grateful for the co-operation of the Local Government Association, the Mayor of London and the devolved Administrations. Salt Cell next meets tomorrow morning.
Given the prolongation of the very cold weather, further measures are likely to be required over the next 48 hours to keep networks open. These are likely to include further steps to conserve salt, to ensure that the Highways Agency and local authorities can manage during the continuing severe weather. The Local Government Association and the Government are in constant contact and we will continue to take the necessary operational decisions to keep networks open as far as possible. We are experiencing the most severe weather conditions for 29 years, in common with much of northern Europe. We need to continue pulling together for the common good, as we have done over the past weeks.
I thank the Minister for advance notice of his statement.
Like the Minister, I pay tribute to all the councils, council workers, salt producers, the armed forces, the police and others who are working so hard to try to keep the country moving during the present crisis. We should remember that many communities have had three solid weeks of this, without the brief respite over Christmas that much of the south-east enjoyed.
Everyone accepts that a degree of disruption is inevitable with such extreme weather, but the Government have important questions to answer about the adequacy of the preparations that they made for the weather episode. It is not acceptable for the Government just to pass the buck to local authorities. Will the Government accept their share of responsibility for the current shortage of gritting salt, particularly in the light of the fact that the Government’s Salt Cell now controls allocations of salt across the country?
What are the local salt stocks now held in the UK, and how long will they last? Which areas in need have the lowest stocks? Does the Minister have any estimate of the proportion of roads and pavements that have not been gritted or cleared? Have our armed services got all the salt that they need? Should the NHS be included in the Salt Cell to help ensure that hospitals and emergency services have access to all the salt that they need? Why did it take until last week to relax drivers’ hours, when these problems have been ongoing for nearly a month?
The media have reported a recent diversion of exported salt to use in this country. What other exports have taken place since the cold weather episode began, and why were steps not taken more quickly to divert exports back for UK use? Why is Salt Cell not meeting today, given the urgency of the situation? What estimate has the Minister made of the cost of repairing the damage to the roads caused by the freezing conditions? Does he agree that it is wholly contrary to common sense if people feel at risk of negligence claims when they clear paths and pavements? Is that not penalising the sort of socially responsible behaviour that all parties should encourage? Is he aware that anxiety about liability was one reason why many schools stayed shut?
The Government accused us of scaremongering about gas supplies, but if everything is fine with energy supplies why did National Grid issue its fourth alert in two weeks today? The Local Government Association, in its July report, “Weathering the Storm: Dealing with Adverse Winter Weather Conditions in the UK”, concluded with the key lesson that should have been learned from last February’s weather crisis and low salt supplies. It stated:
“Effectively, the country is almost completely reliant on two main suppliers operating deliveries on a ‘just in time’ basis.”
Will the Minister acknowledge that the Government’s failure to heed that warning meant that many councils found it almost impossible to obtain resupplies as the cold snap progressed? Does he accept that the scarcity of salt supplies has undermined councils’ ability to grit and clear side roads and pavements? Will he acknowledge the extent of the concern about slippery pavements—shown particularly by the elderly, many of whom have felt reluctant to leave their homes for the past few weeks?
The Secretary of State’s requests for councils to reduce their daily use of salt by 25 per cent. was an admission of failure by the Government. They made inadequate preparations for the cold weather; they sat on the LGA’s report on the issue until two days before the snow started to fall; and they failed to learn the lessons of February 2009, leaving our road network far more vulnerable to disruption than it should have been—to the detriment of families and businesses throughout the country, already struggling with the impact of one of the longest and deepest recessions in modern history.
May I say how disappointed I was by the mean-spiritedness with which the hon. Lady asked the vast majority of her questions? Before I take each point that she raised in turn, may I repeat my tribute to local authorities of whichever party throughout the country? I appreciate some people’s nervousness at the fact that a number of local authorities are Conservative-run, but I am not going to point the finger at them and blame them for the problems that they have had. We have to understand this point: either we are a nanny state, telling local authorities what to do and controlling how much salt they order; or we trust locally elected councillors to order the right amount of salt based on the advice that experts gave in July.
It is worth reminding ourselves of the history of the issue. After February’s severe weather, the then Secretary of State for Transport asked not only for a review but for experts to report on the matter, and they did so in July. Of the many recommendations that were made, four applied to my Department and all were dealt with immediately and in full. A number of recommendations applied to local authorities. I appreciate the difficulties that we have with some authorities that are Conservative-run, but I am not going to point the finger at them. I must say, however, that the idea that we state-produce salt and tell local authorities where to get it from is absurd. These are commercial decisions that local authorities take.
The hon. Lady referred to the decision to reduce the amount of salt that we distribute on our roads—the motorways and trunk roads—by at least 25 per cent. We took that decision for the roads that we control, and the Local Government Association and the Mayor of London agreed to those levels. We could not force them to go down to those levels; they showed that they understand the challenges that we face, and they agreed to reduce the amount to those levels because they actually run things and know when a common-sense decision needs to be taken. They did not oppose it for opposition’s sake.
Over this period we have had constructive dialogue with all key stakeholders, including Government offices, the regional resilience centres and others. It is not true—indeed, it is misleading—to say that the first decision to relax EU hours was taken last week and this weekend; it was taken before Christmas and extended last week and over the weekend.
In relation to Salt Cell’s meetings, again I should say that one benefit of running things is that one gets some experience, and one thing that we have to do before we hold such meetings is to get the information in. Today is therefore important, because, before a decision is taken about where salt goes over the next period, we are actually speaking to local authorities and finding out how much salt they have, and finding out from salt suppliers where the salt went during the previous period.
The hon. Lady was right, however, to express concern about scaremongering in relation to potential litigation and about the prosecution of people showing common sense and a generosity of spirit in clearing their pathways. I would say, however, that the situation is not helped when certain newspapers carry front-page stories causing alarm and distress among some of the elderly people she and I are concerned about.
On the LGA report of July-August, the fact that it could prepare a report after the report by the UK Roads Liaison Group shows that it understood the challenges that it faced. I would say in its defence that this is the most severe and prolonged period of bad weather in 29 years. I am sure that local government would be criticised if it had bought equipment and salt that sat idle for 10, 15, 20 or 30 years, especially when it has been asked to make stringent—some would say savage—cuts over this period. We continue to work constructively with all key stakeholders, whether they be local government, the Mayor of London, the devolved Administrations, or salt suppliers working in the private sector.
I hope that the Opposition have seen the generosity of the British public over the recent period; I would expect that generosity to spread to politicians as well.
May I, too, pass on my thanks to the staff of the Highways Agency and local councils, and indeed the railway industry, for what they have been doing to try to keep our infrastructure going?
I accept that, as the Minister says, much of what takes place is a matter for devolved local council work, or for private companies such as the salt companies, but I hope that he accepts that the Government have an ultimate responsibility to ensure that the national infrastructure is kept operational and intact. With that in mind, will he reflect on the suggestion that local authorities should have had six days’ supply of salt and consider whether that is adequate given the experience that we have had, and given that, as regards the order that was put in on 29 December, it will take some time for overseas stocks to arrive, which means that if the weather deteriorates—it may not—we could run out of salt?
Some local authorities have done extremely well, but some appear to be using the lack of salt as an excuse to cut back on gritting, perhaps unnecessarily. Will the Minister consider whether that is appropriate and examine these procedures to ensure that people across the country have the best transport infrastructure that they possibly can in the circumstances that apply?
Will the Minister confirm that the Highways Agency has been asking local authorities whether they can help with its supplies? For example, Stockport borough council has been asked if it can help the agency by providing extra stocks.
Does the Minister recognise that significant long-term costs will arise for local highways authorities as a result of the damage to the road network that will undoubtedly be caused by the use of salt and grit? There will be a big repair bill at the end of this—will he factor that into the local government settlement for councils?
Notwithstanding the wish that the Minister and I share for devolution to local councils, does he recognise that some councils, including my own, have taken the view that it is inappropriate to treat any pavements at all and have concentrated all their salting and gritting on the roads? Is that not unfair on pedestrians, particularly those who are elderly and infirm, and may, for example, have to get off a bus on to an ice sheet next to the bus stop?
Will the Minister examine the cost to the economy of this episode, which is running into billions? Will he consider whether higher levels of grit and salt maintained by local councils would do more to minimise the damage to the economy, as well as the cost to the NHS arising from people being in hospital unnecessarily as a consequence of falls?
On legality, does the Minister accept that, unfortunately, some people, including those in schools, are genuinely concerned about possible liability issues? In my view, many schools should have opened much sooner but have not done so because of fears of liability. What sense does it make for children to be turning up at school, having trudged their way through ice and snow to get there, only to be told that they have to stay indoors and cannot go out in the playground to play because schools are worried about being sued if the children fall over there?
Finally, will the Minister ensure that there is a review of this whole episode and report back to Parliament in due course on the lessons to be learned?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments and questions. He is right to refer to the issue of six days’ supply of salt. I draw his attention to the UKRLG report, which is a very full report that touches on many of the issues raised. In chapter 8, under the heading “Winter Service Resilience”, it recommended six days’ worth of salt as an adequate amount. In the group’s mind must have been the fact that, in February 2009, we had the worst weather in 18 years. We now have the worst weather in 29 years, and I suspect that once we reach the end of this prolonged period of bad weather and consider our options for reviews and so on, we will need to make a cost-benefit analysis of whether, given that we have had prolonged bad weather in two consecutive years, it makes more sense to save enough salt for a longer period. That analysis would include, for example, investment in salt barns, because one of the big challenges for local authorities and the Highways Agency is the amount of storage space that they have for salt. Local authorities have asked themselves whether it is worth their spending money on salt barns given that they use salt so infrequently. That is for experts to consider, not for me on the Floor of the House, but it is an important question.
The hon. Gentleman raised an important point about diversifying suppliers in the chain. Salt is a geological issue and I cannot invent salt in the mines of England overnight, but as part of the contractual terms with suppliers, even domestic suppliers can be asked to have some foreign imports in their supply chain. The Highways Agency does that to ensure that it protects our supply chain of salt.
The hon. Gentleman made an important point about mutual aid. We can provide central aid to local authorities, but there are also many really good examples of local authorities helping others that have less salt, for obvious reasons, by giving them salt. That is an example of the generosity of spirit that I mentioned, and we need more of it.
The hon. Gentleman referred also to the damage to local authority highways caused by grit and salt, which is one issue that will need to be considered in a cost-benefit analysis of the general pattern of bad weather. He will be aware from the urgent question last week and my response to it that I cannot give advice centrally about which pavements should be gritted and which should not, and Salt Cell, the Government and extreme bad weather cannot be used as an excuse for a local authority not discharging its responsibility as it should. A local authority needs to consider the fact that as a matter of common sense, a pathway that leads to a general practitioner’s practice, for example, is probably more in need of gritting than a road that very few people drive down. Once again, it is for local authorities to take that decision.
The hon. Gentleman’s final point was the very important one of liability, which was also raised by the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers). There are concerns about people being risk-averse or using the weather as an excuse not to do things that they should. I was pleased to see the comments of the president of the Association of British Insurers in the press today and yesterday, which will have given some comfort to schools and local authorities concerned about being defendants in a future civil litigation or prosecution if they open up the schools. As far as individual schools are concerned, most decisions whether to open or close are taken by head teachers. Some local authorities are giving out advice and being prescriptive, but other decisions are being taken by head teachers on a horses-for-courses basis. I am pleased as I am sure the hon. Gentleman is, that so many examination centres are open today, so that the many students who have revised for long periods can take their exams.
True grit, Mr. Speaker. I think the heckling needs to be short as well.
Does the Minister agree that one of the most important priorities must be to reopen the schools, to avoid damaging children’s education but also to allow other vital public sector workers such as ambulance drivers—and dare I say—gritter lorry drivers, NHS staff, firefighters and Highways Agency staff to get to work themselves? Will he commend the approach of Mr. Charlie Clare, head teacher of Geoffrey Field junior school in my constituency, who got together the staff, some private contractors and some parents to clear the snow and ice themselves this weekend, so that his school could open today? Teachers cannot be immune from the challenges faced in cold weather. Other public sector workers have to deal with them.
As ever, I cannot disagree with anything that my hon. Friend has said, and I commend and endorse his points. It is worth bearing in mind that every day a school is closed, not only is children’s education disrupted but the knock-on effect on their carers is phenomenal.
I ask you, Mr. Speaker, and the whole House to join me in congratulating the work force at Winsford rock salt mine on their continuous, 24/7 working, be they down the mine, in the office, the order takers or the management.
I hope that the Minister will take it as a positive and constructive comment that he should look carefully now at avoiding delays in the operation of Salt Cell so that the producers quickly get news of what is required where and can then get on with supplying without further delay. We should also ensure that we learn the lessons of how to resupply in the autumn rather than waiting for the winter.
I hear the hon. Gentleman’s point and will ensure that such delays do not happen. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Paul Clark), reminded me that he visited the salt mine and was very impressed by the work of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents.
May I also put on record my congratulations on the sterling work of Sheffield city council, which has done a fantastic job? That is in contrast with the Liberal leader of the council, who went on BBC radio on the evening of Friday 8 January to say that we would have a weekend of despair in the city because we had no salt and there was no telephone number to ring as people were not working over the weekend. While he was appearing on the news, 280 tonnes of salt were being delivered to Sheffield city council, and another 300 tonnes have subsequently been delivered. Will my right hon. Friend contact the city council to ensure that it has the right information so that the council leader cannot scaremonger in Sheffield?
As ever, my right hon. Friend has highlighted some of the options that people have taken during this difficult time—we can either come together and get through the difficult time, or make picky, silly points, which are factually incorrect, and use the conditions as an excuse to score cheap, party political points.
My constituents are almost on their knees because of the lack of trains due to First Capital Connect. Last Thursday, not a single train stopped in St. Albans—because, I gather, the trains were washed on Wednesday evening and therefore froze. What can be done to get a better service for my constituents, who are in despair about the lack of train services from St. Albans to St. Pancras?
The example beggars belief. May I look into the specific reason for disruption on that day? Network Rail and the train operating companies have told us that the lines are open. For obvious reasons, there are reduced services and some delays. The hon. Lady’s example looks like incompetence rather than a delay caused by severe weather.
The Minister spoke about prioritising salt and grit and putting gritters where they are needed most. May I put in a bid for rural, remote areas such as North-East Derbyshire, where it is still snowing, and ask him to put them at the top of his priority list?
We know that some of the roads and railway lines in the trans-Pennine area are experiencing particular difficulties. I will look into the specific issue that my hon. Friend raises, but we also know that roads are lifelines for rural parts of the country, especially for older people who are cut off from other members of the community and cannot be given simple things such as hot meals and for whom supply is a source of concern. I emphasise that I will consider my hon. Friend’s specific point.
The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point about hours and days lost as a result of school closures. I understand that the Department for Children, Schools and Families gives guidance about the closure caused by extreme weather in which one of the issues is making up lost time.
There is concern in Lancashire that the county council has neglected east Lancashire, where there are many hills, and which has been hard hit. Has my friend given any thought to transferring responsibility to lower-tier authorities in two-tier areas such as Lancashire? Many people want local control of gritting.
We have not looked at devolving gritting even further. One of the lessons that may be learned from the experience of the past two or three weeks is whether there is sense in economies of scale, or in going the other way in some cases. The key point is that those who know their communities best know the places that are in most need of gritting. Local communities’ information can be of huge benefit and a great boon.
May I commend the efforts of local council workers and emergency service workers in Bexhill and Battle? I cannot say the same of the management of Southeastern trains. The train service south of Tunbridge Wells to Hastings has been patchy in the past few days, and it is totally unacceptable that station platforms were not cleared. Not a flake of snow was shifted from the platforms of Battle station from Monday till yesterday, making it extremely dangerous for the travelling public. That is simply not acceptable.
When I was a lad, schools did not shut because of the snow. Before the day is out, will the Minister nail the urban myth that people who clear the snow on the pavement outside their houses or businesses are somehow likely to be held legally liable? Will the Government please nail that urban myth, because it used to be that an uncleared pavement was the exception, but now the cleared pavement is the exception?
Those were the days! Somebody will probably come up with an example of someone being prosecuted or sued, but the hon. Gentleman is right: the message that is sent to the good citizen or somebody who wants to discharge their civic duty is perverse. At a time when schools are closed, we want young people to be doing something constructive. If a school is closed, people expect their young son or daughter to be outside helping a neighbour—perhaps someone who does not have children—to clear their pathways, and not to be frightened of being sued or prosecuted.
What would the Minister say to Conservative-controlled Northamptonshire county council, which was well prepared for the severe weather, but suddenly found that because Salt Cell was activated, supplies it was due to receive were sent elsewhere in the country?
When we talk about generosity of spirit, we hope it applies to local authorities as well as to politicians and members of our community. Salt Cell is about advising salt suppliers which parts of the country need salt most. If a local authority has adequate supplies of salt and another does not because of the prolonged bad weather, it is not going against the spirit of what we are talking about to allow the latter to receive the salt that it needs. That was agreed by the Local Government Association, the devolved Administrations, the Mayor of London and all the key stakeholders, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has reminded people, and it was recommended by the UK Roads Liaison Group.
I pay tribute to all those who have made sterling efforts to try to keep my constituents moving, but what lessons have been learned about the export of British salt and grit at a time when many local authorities, including my own, have not had the orders that they had placed fulfilled? May I gently say to the Minister that perhaps a good watchword for the future would be this: British grit for British roads?
One’s principles and values are challenged at difficult times. Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that we outlaw private companies from exporting to other parts of this planet for a profit? If so, I am happy to look into it—[Laughter.] However, I suggest that it is more sensible for local authorities to look at the market to see where salt is available and to learn from the experience of extreme bad weather. Some local authorities get salt from overseas, as does the Highways Agency itself.
We are still waiting for an answer to the question whether local authorities will have any additional funds made available to them to repair the damage to pavements and roads, but I am more interested in knowing what assessment the Department has made of the risk of flooding after the snow melts.
The second part of the hon. Lady’s question is very important. As the snow melts, there is a real concern about flooding—that is one issue that is being looked into. On her first point, if she is suggesting additional expenditure for additional funding for local authorities over and above the Bellwin funding and other sources, I am sure her hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor will be interested to hear of it, as indeed will we, because it will add to the £34 billion black hole in the Conservatives’ spending plans.
There are some village schools in my constituency, such as Horsington and Berkley schools, that cannot open, despite the best efforts of the staff, because the county council has not cleared the roads to them. The vice-chair of the Berkley governors was told on Friday by the county council: “As of this morning, the control of grit and salt has been taken over by central Government and therefore, even if we wanted to, we would not be able to authorise the clearing of the road to the school.” Is the Minister happy that the Government are now the excuse for Somerset county council?
As has been my experience over the past four and a half years, the hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Over the past few days and weeks, we have seen examples of local authorities and others using central Government as an excuse for their inability to run services in their communities. We need to be vigilant about local authorities that point the finger—most of them, I am afraid, happen to be Conservative authorities, as he will be aware—and that are prayed in aid by ill-briefed spokespeople for Her Majesty’s Opposition, whether for the Department for Communities and Local Government or the Department for Transport.
Can the Minister assure me that the Highways Agency, which he controls, will properly prioritise parts of our national roads? For example, the A5 at Hinckley next to my constituency is extremely dangerous on the Sketchley bends, but other stretches, further down, are not. Will he ensure proper prioritisation?
I undertake to get back in touch with the hon. Gentleman about the example that he raises. One of the key things that we need to do is ensure that the roads for which either the Highways Agency or the highways authorities are statutorily responsible, of which there are more than 150, are covered.
De-icer deliveries are vital to airports, as are deliveries of heating oil to homes and businesses throughout the north of Scotland and elsewhere. Driving restrictions have been relaxed, which I very much welcome, but the deadline for some of those restrictions is coming up. Will the Government review those restrictions, with a view to allowing those vital deliveries to continue?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. The latest relaxation for de-icer products to airports was issued at 4 pm on Friday 8 January, and we know that it will run out imminently. We keep such matters under review and we have ensured that we relax EU directives whenever that is required. We shall of course take on board the various needs of the drivers, as well as the needs of the wider community.
Last week I received a clear assurance at Prime Minister’s questions that there would be sufficient salt supplies to meet the needs of local authorities, yet today most of the pavements and residential roads in my constituency are still treacherous and, in some places, impassable. What went wrong between last Wednesday and today, meaning that Hampshire county council has still not received the salt deliveries that it needs?
I am not sure whether the hon. Lady is suggesting that all the pavements in her constituency and her county should be gritted. As I have said a number of times this afternoon, and as has been said by others too, Salt Cell advises salt suppliers on which parts of the country need the salt the most. It is for local authorities to decide how that salt is used.
On Saturday I congratulated a couple of gritters who had visited Cow Ark near Clitheroe, a hamlet that had been isolated since before Christmas. We know that the gritters cannot do every village straight away, but I understand that in the past the network of farmers was used to clear the roads. However, we are now told that they need NVQs in health and safety. Is that correct? If so, as the Minister has relaxed some rules, can he now make absolutely certain that local authorities can ask farmers to get out there with the equipment that they know how to use and clear those roads?
I have referred all afternoon to the importance of common sense and generosity of spirit. What the hon. Gentleman describes is news to me. I shall get back to him on the points that he has made, because it seems that people who can help to clear pathways, and who want to use their common sense and demonstrate their generosity of spirit, are being deprived of the opportunity to do so. That should not be the case.
In that spirit, let me tell the Minister of the excellent work done by the work force of West Sussex county council, Mid Sussex district council and the town councils in Mid-Sussex, and of the heroic efforts of many other snow heroes, who used their common sense and tried to keep the place going. Does he agree that the lessons learned from the past few days will be extremely important for the future? Will he take the trouble to get examples of best practice from councils all over the country, so that the guidance issued is truly useful?
I cannot disagree with anything the hon. Gentleman has said. I shall merely add that one reason why the UKRLG was asked to produce its review following the February experience—the worst weather for 18 years—was that we could learn the lessons from it. We are now experiencing the worst weather for 29 years. We have a habit in this country of criticising ourselves and what we do when times are bad. However, when we compare what is happening here with the experience in northern Europe, where the weather is equally bad, we find that we have coped a lot better than France, Germany and elsewhere. The examples that the hon. Gentleman gave demonstrate the generosity of spirit and common sense of the people in Sussex and in other parts of the country.
I am grateful to the Minister for his efforts over the weekend to ensure that the working hours rules for drivers delivering heating oil to households across the highlands were relaxed. I understand that that relaxation will expire at midnight tonight, but there is still a significant backlog of heating oil deliveries. This will particularly affect needy families in rural areas, where it would be a disaster if energy supplies were to run short. Will he look urgently into continuing the relaxation of the working hours rules in the days to come, to ensure that the backlog can be cleared?
I have heard the hon. Gentleman’s request, and I have read the three texts that he sent me this morning. I will ensure that, when the relaxation of the rules expires tonight, we make the right decision, to ensure that his constituents, and those in the wider community, get the service that they need.
You will be astounded to learn, Mr. Speaker, that my local council gritted the access to the local Conservative club but totally refused to grit the access to a doctor’s surgery, which is long and dangerous for elderly and frail people. It is still refusing to do so. How can we get some common sense in how local councillors prioritise using their grit?
My constituents want to know who audits the lack of performance by local authorities, many of which have a considerable number of executives who earn more than the Prime Minister. That obviously does not include the Health and Safety Executive, because I reported Lancashire county council to the HSE last year for its blanket non-gritting of side roads and pavements. This year, the Conservative leader of Lancashire county council has berated me for wanting all the bus routes gritted. In fact, he proudly told local radio listeners that he would not do that. This is my question to the Minister: is this what we have to look forward to?
I pay tribute to the Local Government Association for the leadership that it is trying to provide in giving the right guidance to local authorities. Unfortunately, however, it cannot make local authorities do the right thing. My hon. Friend has given examples from her community of the council not providing the service it needs to provide. Councils such as hers are using central Government or Salt Cell as an excuse for not providing the right level of service. They should be prioritising roads that buses use, because that would allow people to catch buses and thus leave their homes. She and I need to ensure that we highlight the parts of the country in which councils have not provided the service that they should have done.