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Severe Winter Weather

Volume 520: debated on Monday 20 December 2010

With permission, I would like to make a statement on the continuing severe winter weather. We are facing exceptional conditions. It looks set to be the coldest December since 1910 with average temperatures 4°C to 5°C below the norm for December. Many areas have had record low temperatures, and snowfall has been the most widespread since 1981. The forecast is for continued severe cold and further snowfall through the coming week and over Christmas and the new year.

Transport services have suffered extensive disruption in the past few days, and there is a likelihood, I am afraid, of further disruption through this week. I recognise that this is particularly stressful just a few days ahead of the Christmas break, and I understand the frustration of those who are trying to get away or, indeed, trying to get home.

Transport services were also disrupted in the first spell of winter weather that came unusually early, at the end of November. That period tested the systems which, in some case, had performed so very poorly earlier this year. The then Government asked David Quarmby, chairman of the RAC Foundation and a former chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority, to conduct a review of last winter’s resilience. His initial report was issued in July and a final report was published in October. It made 28 recommendations, some of them directed at central Government, some at local government, and some at transport operators. Many of those recommendations have already been implemented, although some will necessarily take longer.

On 2 December I asked David Quarmby, in the light of the weather conditions that we were then experiencing, to conduct an audit of the implementation of his recommendations and to make any further observations that he felt necessary. This is an independent report and I understand that David Quarmby intends to publish it tomorrow.

One of the principal recommendations of the first Quarmby report concerned salt—levels of stocks that local authorities should hold, dosage rates for optimum use of stocks and the acquisition of a strategic stockpile by central Government. Local authorities went into this period with significantly better salt stocks than last winter and the Highways Agency, on the Government’s behalf, had purchased 300,000 tonnes of salt to form a strategic stockpile, of which over 150,000 tonnes is already at UK ports, with the remainder scheduled for delivery through December and early January.

Over the past few days, highway authorities across England have been focused on delivering their planned salting and snow clearance to keep their local strategic road networks open. Together they had ready some 1.25 million tonnes of salt at the start of the winter. As hon. Members would expect, salt usage has been significantly above the norm for the time of year and so my Department decided two weeks ago to procure, as a precautionary measure, up to an additional 250,000 tonnes of salt, to replenish the strategic stockpile as salt from it is released to local authorities. Last Friday the Department for Transport offered 30,000 tonnes from the strategic stockpile to local authorities to provide reassurance over the holiday period. That allocation has been taken up and will be delivered over the next few days.

The strategic road network inevitably suffered severe disruption in the wake of heavy snowfall this weekend, but recovered reasonably rapidly and, with isolated exceptions, has operated effectively since Saturday afternoon. Similarly, heavy snow and the formation of ice at very low temperatures caused some disruption on rail networks on Friday and Saturday, but the rail industry has pulled together to keep essential services running, using special timetables where necessary, and I am pleased to report that commuter services into main conurbations this morning are close to normal. Transport for London has successfully followed its winter weather plans and has been able to run a near-normal service across its network. However, issues with Eurostar are ongoing and have been well reported today, including the impacts of very severe weather in northern France.

Disruption due to weather conditions of this extremity is inevitable, and the measure of resilience is the networks’ speed of recovery from such events. On that measure, the strategic road network and the rail network have performed broadly satisfactorily, in view of the exceptional circumstances. The experience at airports, and at Heathrow in particular, has however been different. Conditions have been difficult throughout north-west Europe, with Frankfurt, Charles de Gaulle and Schiphol airports all struggling to cope at times. This afternoon, just before I came into the Chamber, it was being reported that Brussels airport will close until Wednesday because it has run out of de-icer. But, yesterday’s whole-day virtual closure at Heathrow, coupled with continued substantially reduced capacity, presents a very real challenge from which the system will struggle to recover quickly.

I spoke this morning to BAA, the airport operator, and to British Airways, its principal user. I am clear that BA made the right call on Saturday to cancel its flights in anticipation of the airport’s closure. Had it not done so, the scenes of the terminals on Saturday night that we witnessed on our TV screens could have been much worse.

Heathrow operates, at normal times, at some 98% of full capacity, so when there is disruption caused by snow or by the need repeatedly to close runways or taxiways for de-icing, capacity is inevitably lost and a backlog builds up. There is still a large amount of work to be done to restore Heathrow to full capacity, and further snow and severe icing is anticipated over the next few days.

The immediate focus at Heathrow must therefore be on maximising the number of flights with the available infrastructure, and in order to do that I agreed with BAA this morning to a relaxation of restrictions on night flights for the next four days. Operating hours will be extended until 1 am, and arrivals for repatriation flights will be allowed through the night. None the less, BAA advises that, with further severe weather forecast, Heathrow is likely to be operating at reduced capacity until Christmas.

Conditions in the terminals overnight on Saturday were very difficult, with some 2,000 passengers stranded. Once the airport has returned to normal operation, my officials will work with BAA to understand how that situation arose and what it plans to change to ensure that we do not experience a repeat. It is clear from my discussions this morning that some preliminary conclusions have already been drawn.

We recognise that the cost, both economic and social, of this level of disruption can be great. Winters such as this year’s and last have been rare in modern Britain, but we need to consider whether we are now seeing in our weather a step change that might justify investment in equipment and technologies to reduce the impact of severe weather. I will assess advice on that subject from the Government’s chief scientific adviser, Professor Sir John Beddington, and we will work with transport operators to examine the business case in each sector for increased investment in winter resilience where that makes sense—recognising always that spending more on winter preparedness inevitably means that there will be less to spend on other priorities.

This is not just about making sure that people can travel and goods can be delivered. Disrupted transport links, combined with cold weather, increasingly impact on other essential services. In particular, they threaten the vulnerable in our communities. To help those most in need to stay warm in the coldest parts of the country, the Government have so far this winter paid out some £355 million in cold weather payments, through an estimated 14.2 million payments to affected households. In addition. winter fuel payments for pensioners have been protected at the higher rate for this winter, with 12.9 million payments made to those older people who meet the qualifying conditions. We have also taken precautionary steps to ensure that the health services are well prepared, with local plans in place to deal with the extra demands that this type of weather brings.

Despite those steps, weather of this severity can cause unexpected problems for many people, including those who would not normally consider themselves vulnerable, but who might be in serious difficulty if, for example, their boiler breaks down or they cannot get to the local chemist to collect their medication. With support from the Government, the Local Government Association will therefore work closely with local authorities in England to ensure that appropriate arrangements are in place across the country. Individual local authorities will publicise information locally on how to access those advice services ahead of the Christmas holiday period.

Severe weather poses significant challenges to the energy supply industry. Difficult driving conditions have affected fuel oil and coal suppliers’ ability to make deliveries, particularly to more remote areas away from the strategic road network. That has resulted in delivery backlogs, which suppliers have been working hard to reduce in difficult circumstances. Distributors are doing all they can to prioritise deliveries to vulnerable customers and to people who are running short of fuel. Working with the Government, the Federation of Petroleum Suppliers has issued a code of practice to its members to help them prioritise orders to those most in need and to alert local authorities when they are aware of a risk of potentially vulnerable households running short of heating oil.

The severe weather has also led to a very high forecast of demand for gas, which is expected to be more than 26% above the normal for this time of year. As a result, the National Grid issued a gas-balancing alert yesterday to provide a signal to the market to bring on additional supplies and to reduce demand from large users on interruptible contracts. There is no reason to expect any disruption to domestic customers, or to commercial customers unless they have interruptible contracts. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change has today issued a written statement that provides more information on that issue.

Nationally, we will continue to do whatever is necessary to support essential services and provide advice to businesses and householders on steps they can take to help themselves and others. So, for example, we have published a snow code to give common-sense advice to householders and businesses to help them clear snow and ice safely from pavements and public spaces without fear of legal action. As an emergency measure, we have relaxed the enforcement of EU drivers’ hours and working-time rules to mitigate the effect of the severe weather on critical parts of the supply chain that have been badly hit by the weather. We published guidance for local highway authorities on the range of actions that can be taken to ensure optimum use of salt stocks, and over the next few days we will publish updated technical advice based on the latest research findings, so that all authorities can adopt best practice. We have also confirmed to farmers that they can use red diesel in tractors and other equipment to help salt and clear snow from public roads during extreme weather.

We are not yet through this period of extreme weather. My priority at the moment remains working with the transport industries to allow us to return to normal as fast as the continued freezing temperatures this week permit. I will also be working with ministerial colleagues and officials from other Departments, with whom I have been in contact daily since Friday, to continue monitoring the situation, assessing the risk of further disruption and taking whatever action is needed. Those arrangements will continue for as long as necessary through the holiday period. I can assure the House that wherever Government action can help to ease the impact of severe weather or mitigate its effects, we will not hesitate to take such action. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for updating the House. After a weekend of chaos across the country, during which there have been severe transport problems on our roads, railways and runways, families struggling to get together for Christmas are furious that they have spent hours stuck in their cars at stations or airport terminals. What has really frustrated people has been the total lack of information available. They understand that things will go wrong when we experience such severe weather and no one—not even me—is suggesting that the Government can, or ought to be able to, control the weather. However, the Government should be able to control how prepared we are for that weather, and they can co-ordinate information so that those travelling can make and alter their plans accordingly.

Right from the first hit of severe weather at the start of this month, the right hon. Gentleman and his Department have seemed woefully ill-prepared for winter, despite the fact that the report on winter resilience that we ordered in government has been sitting on his desk since July. The 17 recommendations in the interim report and the 11 recommendations in the final report have clearly not been put into action with the urgency that they demanded. At the last Transport questions, he said that those recommendations had been implemented, yet in his statement he said that some of them will necessarily take longer. Well, which is it?

The reality is that Transport Ministers were caught off guard by the arrival of winter early this year, and failed to keep the country moving at a time when so many people need to travel to be with their family and friends. I am afraid that some of the right hon. Gentleman’s words today still sound complacent. Why was only 100,000 tonnes of salt for the roads in place at the start of the month, when the report said that 250,000 tonnes was needed? Can he confirm which local authorities currently have salt stocks below the new benchmark of 12 days’ worth of salt? What conversations has he had about services to deal with the abandoned cars and jack-knifed vehicles that have caused much of the delay? What steps has he considered to manage traffic flows better—for example, by not letting people join a motorway such as the M5 when it is already blocked, so that they will end up sitting in their cars not going anywhere? He said in his statement that the strategic routes have operated effectively since Saturday afternoon or evening: tell that to the people who were stuck for 13 and a half hours on the M40 trying to travel towards London.

On our railways, why does the update report that the Secretary of State has received in the past few days contradict the claim that the rail industry has sufficient equipment? Why are essential measures such as anti-icing capability on trains and new hot fluid distribution on to tracks not going to be in place until February, according to the most recent update—a little bit too late?

Does the Secretary of State accept that the most frustrating thing for passengers is lack of information? Why is it, therefore, that the new unified national real-time passenger transport information system to allow passengers to find out where their trains actually are, not what the timetable says, will not be in place until 2014? He said that the railways had kept essential services running and that commuter services were running well and close to normal, but people were stuck at Peterborough and King’s Cross last night with very little information about when the east coast main line was going to get back to normal.

The chaos that we have seen at our major airports is not only unacceptable but risks damaging our international reputation. It is just not good enough to pass this off as a private sector problem, as the Secretary of State did earlier. Passengers stuck at Heathrow and Gatwick for days on end have every right to feel abandoned by this Government. Other countries have kept planes flying and airports open, yet here passengers have been left on planes for hours on end without food and drink, and others have been forced to sleep on terminal floors with no blankets and poor information. The winter resilience report found that those in the aviation sector

“anticipate and manage the effects of severe winter weather to a very high standard of resilience”.

That is surprising given what we have seen in the past few days. Will he examine whether there has been any complacency among those at our airports? He referred to some preliminary conclusions following his conversations today, but he has not told us what they are. It might be useful to know.

Is it not the case that the chaos that we have seen has as much to do with this Government’s values as their competence? The Prime Minister’s close ally, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), gave the game away this weekend when he said:

“I mean, bluntly, there comes a question in life…Do you believe planning works…or do you believe it can’t work? I believe it can’t work, David Cameron believes it can’t, Nick Clegg believes it can’t. Chaos therefore in our vocabulary is a good thing.”

The right hon. Gentleman has obviously volunteered his Department to pilot this new approach to government and become the official Department for Chaos. He is doing quite well, actually. No wonder he has been dubbed the “No Transport Secretary” this morning.

People want competence from Ministers. They want good-quality information when disruption happens. They want co-ordination of recovery and mitigation across the entire system. They want help when they need it; they do not want to be left to fend for themselves as though there were no such thing as society. Will the right hon. Gentleman now learn the lessons of the past month and finally get a grip on the transport chaos that threatens to see Christmas cancelled for families up and down the country?

After a heavy dump of snow, we have had a heavy dump of political opportunism from the hon. Lady. She talks of chaos, but does she remember the chaos last year when the Government of whom she was a member ran out of salt and had to stop gritting the roads because they had not bought enough of the stuff? They had not prepared at all. I will take no lectures from her on preparedness. Local authorities, the Highways Agency, rail operators and Network Rail have all entered this winter better prepared than they were last winter.

The hon. Lady talked about Quarmby’s interim report and final report, and the implementation of his recommendations. Of course action on some of the recommendations has not been completed yet—it requires capital investment and the procurement of new equipment, such as de-icing equipment for trains in the south-east. The first of that equipment has been delivered and fitted, and is undergoing proving trials. As soon as the proving is complete, the remaining 20 units will be rolled out. She cannot sit here with no plan, no suggestion and nothing constructive to offer, simply lobbing rocks from the sidelines, and expect to be treated seriously. As for our delivery on Quarmby’s recommendations, I suggest that she wait to see his report on the audit that he has carried out. He is their man, he was appointed by their Government, and he is now auditing our response to his recommendations. She should wait and see what he has to say before making such ridiculous points.

We were not caught off guard by the onset of winter, but we were caught off guard by the severity of the weather, as was everybody in this country. The hon. Lady asked about the recommendation that a strategic stockpile of 250,000 tonnes of salt be built. The Highways Agency has purchased 300,000 tonnes of salt, 156,000 tonnes of which has been delivered. The remainder is scheduled to be delivered over the next three weeks. If one is building a strategic stockpile, there is no need to replenish local authority stocks throughout the length of the winter, nor for every last ounce of it to be sitting in place on 30 November.

The hon. Lady asked how many local authorities are below the 12 days’ resilience level recommended by Quarmby. That threshold was recommended for the beginning of winter. Of course, many local authorities that were operating at or close to the threshold are now considerably below the 12 days’ resilience level, although some local authorities have much more substantial stocks. If they wish, local authorities will be resupplied from the strategic reserve that we have built. In turn, the strategic reserve will be replenished from the salt that we are currently sourcing from locations across the world, including south America, the middle east, India and Australia.

The hon. Lady asked about vehicles joining motorways. The police have powers to prevent vehicles from entering a motorway, if they deem it appropriate to do so.

The hon. Lady also mentioned the situation at the airports, and I am happy to agree that what has happened at Heathrow airport is not acceptable. We have to work with the airport operators and the airlines to work out how to avoid such situations. I can give her further clarification on the early conclusions that have been shared with me by the airport operator. It recognises that it was a mistake to continue trying to operate the schedules that it was using on Saturday, and that it should have made a decision earlier to cut severely the number of flights departing and arriving, so that the airport would not be congested with aircraft when the snow came in. That is the kind of practical lesson learning that must be done. We will work with the airport operators to ensure that next time such lessons are learned and implemented.

Finally, the hon. Lady had the audacity to ask why the rail equipment that Quarmby recommended in his October report is not in place and operating. The answer is clear: Labour did not order it when it was in government. We have ordered it, but it does not appear by magic, simply by snapping your fingers; these things have a lead time and must be done properly. The equipment will be in place by the end of the winter, and it will make our railways operate more effectively.

Northumberland has had very heavy snowfall over a very long period, so I welcome the efforts being made to get domestic oil deliveries to remote homes, where people are getting really desperate. May I ask the Secretary of State to talk to his colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government? Local authorities such as Northumberland are having to spend heavily from their reserves to keep roads open, at just the time when that Department is saying that using reserves is the way to fund redundancies.

My understanding, which the Local Government Association confirms, is that all local authorities are saying that they are adequately funded to deal with the contingencies of the severe weather, and that funding constraint will not be a problem in responding to the situation this winter.

In this exceptional weather, can the Secretary of State assure us that he has adequate means of becoming aware of the emerging problems as well as the current ones? Will he explain the powers and influence that he is ready to use to alleviate the situation, whether by providing additional resources, improving co-ordination or ensuring a better flow of information?

We are operating a cross-departmental ministerial team approach, because we need to consider matters such as health, the protection of vulnerable people and energy supplies. There is also a huge role for local government in responding to a situation such as the current one. We are receiving four-hourly update reports on the situation, including Met Office forward forecasts, and over the past few days we have been convening daily to consider the current situation, the expectations for the next 24 hours and the actions that are needed. As I said in my statement, when there is something that the Government can do, bearing in mind that we do not own or operate many of the transport networks—such as relaxing the ban on night flying at Heathrow or the restrictions on drivers’ hours—we will do it.

I spent eight hours at Heathrow terminal 3 on Saturday, and there was no information whatever about what was happening to flights. On the other hand, people who were due to fly with British Airways from terminal 5 had advance notice and did not travel to the airport. The question must be: why did operators such as Virgin Atlantic not cancel their programmes? Will the Government look into that?

We will, and my hon. Friend’s question has to be addressed to the operators. British Airways made the call on Saturday morning to cancel all flights, because it considered it certain that the airport would have to close. I have spoken to Willie Walsh today, and he has told me that based on the forecast he saw on Saturday morning, any airport anywhere in Europe, bar none, would have had to close. BA therefore made the decision to pull all its flights.

The lesson that is emerging for BAA, which it will take away from the situation, is that it has to be more proactive in examining forward forecasts, and that when airlines do not make a decision to stop flights, the operator might have to make that decision for them, to avoid large numbers of people being stranded in terminals.

I hope that the Secretary of State will join me in thanking many of my constituents and their colleagues who work at Heathrow for trying to get the airport open and fully operational again in the most difficult circumstances.

I join the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) in saying that the lesson to be learned from the last occasion when such a problem occurred, although not on the same scale, was about information. We thought that lesson had been learned. BAA and the individual airlines must be required not only to take decisions soon enough, but to communicate them proactively and directly to customers travelling with them.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to record my thanks, and the thanks of the Government, to the hundreds of workers who have been out, often in temperatures of minus 10°C or minus 11° C, clearing snow and de-icing through the night, as well as caring for passengers stranded in terminals. They have done a fantastic job, and I am afraid they will have to go on doing that fantastic job for the next few days.

The hon. Gentleman is also right to focus on information. Nobody likes to have their travel plans disrupted, but one of the interesting features of human psychology is that somehow, things are never quite as bad if people know what is going on. As he will know, we have committed to introducing an airport economic regulation Bill during this Parliament. One thing that we are committed to doing in that Bill is ensuring that airport operators’ financial incentives are clearly aligned with the needs and interests of passengers. I will ensure that supplying information is part of that matrix, so that the operators will do it because it is in their financial interests. That certainly seems to be a motivating factor.

The Secretary of State will be aware that a delegation of Kent MPs recently met the management of Southeastern Trains to discuss the chaos and deep passenger dissatisfaction caused by the bad weather a few weeks ago. The latest conditions have yet again led to much disruption to services for Southeastern passengers. When the franchise is considered for extension in 2012 will he consider, among the other necessary factors, Southeastern’s poor service delivery during adverse weather?

Of course we examine the performance of train operators, and it is absolutely right that Southeastern’s performance was very poor during the bout of cold weather at the end of November. However, in the current weather conditions, the information that I have on Southeastern’s performance over the past 72 hours is far less clear-cut. The disruption has been no more than is to be expected in the extreme weather, and as I understand it, commuter services into London on Southeastern by and large operated normally this morning.

The public expect Ministers to be players, not just spectators. Snow happens, but it is the urgency of the response that matters. The Secretary of State said nothing about whether Cobra has been meeting, nothing about what the Government offices are doing to co-ordinate their response, and very little about what he has done with the various companies and airports. He has not said whether he has asked them why they do not have senior management down there dealing with the problems, why the train companies have not got information to people who have waited for hour after hour on trains and platforms, or why the police are not taking action to get people off the motorway. With the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change sitting next to him, he did not say why he has not done anything about the exploitation of fuel oil and bottled gas. Does he think that that is why he is rumoured to be one of the early victims of the new year reshuffle?

May I say that we want very short questions? Obviously, it would be helpful—[Interruption.] Order, Mr Penning. It would be helpful if the Secretary of State could also shorten his answers, although I understand that this is a very important subject.

I can shorten the answer to that question, Mr Deputy Speaker. The right hon. Gentleman offered nothing constructive, and people watching will see that he has nothing to offer except a meaningless rant. I told him in the statement that a cross-ministerial team is meeting regularly and that regional resilience teams are in operation.

What is the right hon. Gentleman talking about, saying that none of the senior management are at airports? Of course senior management, both of the operators and the airlines, are there managing the situation hands-on. He had better ask the police why they are not taking action, because they take the action that they believe is appropriate.

As for fuel, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change has asked the Office of Fair Trading to look into—[Interruption.] Labour Members seem to think that we should introduce some kind of Moscow-style central control over everything. The fuel oil business in this country is operated through hundreds of small independent firms, and if price collusion or illegal activity is driving up the price to consumers, the OFT will report back to my right hon. Friend and he will take the appropriate action.

Will my right hon. Friend explain why some operators stopped flying when runways had been cleared and were still open? Secondly, why did it take four hours to remove a tanker from the M1, the country’s main arterial road, on Saturday afternoon, resulting in massive delays for southbound traffic?

I am not sure whether my hon. Friend is referring to a tanker accident on the M25 on Saturday afternoon.

There are problems in recovering tankers after accidents. I am aware of the accident on the M25, after which there was some possibility at first of having to pump the contents out of the tanker before it could be moved. In the end the fire brigade allowed it to be moved without the contents being removed, shortening the closure of the motorway by about three and a half hours.

What my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (Mr Spellar) was asking for was leadership. People are sleeping on airport floors, being turfed off trains, and frozen in their cars, and they are cold in their homes because they are not getting deliveries of domestic fuel. Where is the Prime Minister? He is the invisible “Cam”, but he should be taking the leadership position on this.

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that people who are sleeping on airport floors and who are having their travel plans disrupted are not helped by such ridiculous rants from him and his colleagues. Those people need a calm, measured and considered response to the problems, which is what the Government are giving. This is an extreme weather event, and this Government will do better than the previous Government did last year.

In his statement, the Secretary of State touched upon the steps that are being taken to ensure that health services are well prepared throughout this cold snap, but he will also recall that last winter, a number of A and E departments were forced to close because of the severe weather, including ones close to my constituency. What discussions has he had with the Department of Health to ensure that the emergency services, and particularly the ambulance service, are given robust support to ensure that they can continue to give a full service throughout this difficult time?

I have been in discussion with my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary. As I understand it, this morning, there were no major problems across the NHS—all NHS services are operating reasonably well. Of course, there have been isolated problems of getting staff into hospitals. In some cases, including in my county, Surrey, local 4x4 owners have volunteered to drive staff to A and E departments. Such voluntary action will help to reinforce the resilience of the NHS. Ambulance services are coping well at the moment, but if there are difficulties, the military stands ready to provide support with 4x4 vehicles if it is needed.

The last time the Secretary of State gave a statement on the weather, I asked him about winter tyres. He told me that he did not think them appropriate for this climate and this country, and indeed that David Quarmby looked at the matter. Try as I may, I could find no reference to winter tyres in the Quarmby report. The only advice I found was from the Highways Agency, which says:

“The safest option in these conditions is to fit winter weather tyres which are specifically designed to provide extra grip and improved levels of safety”.

Will the Secretary of State please now reconsider his response?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving me the opportunity to clear something up—I clearly mangled my words in my reply to her. I was trying to convey that in the circumstances of the UK, and given the cost of fitting winter tyres, I do not believe it appropriate to mandate their use. However, I am happy to confirm on the record that for those who can afford winter tyres—not just the cost of buying them, but the costs of putting them on and changing them back at the end of the winter, and of storing summer tyres—they provide significant additional grip for motoring in such cold conditions.

Snow chains, however, are a different matter. It is illegal to use snow chains on roads that are not covered in compacted snow, because they cause considerable damage to the road surface.

Will the Secretary of State join me in commending the nation’s army of gritters who were out overnight—in Suffolk, that involved temperatures down to minus 12°C—to keep our roads open? Will he also answer a question that was put to me by several constituents? Can he continue his steadfast and solid leadership of the past few days, rather than responding to the histrionic opportunism displayed by the Labour party?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. People who are watching this debate on the BBC News channel in an airport terminal will not find the laughter and hilarity of Opposition Members, or the unconstructive rants from some but not all Opposition Back Benchers, at all edifying or helpful to their cause. I am happy to join him in commending the stalwart work of the people who man the fleets of gritters, who are out every night in all conditions doing their important work.

What assessment have the Government made of the ability of aircraft and train operators to advise people who have been delayed of their statutory rights in respect of compensation? In slower time, will he arrange to meet insurance companies to ensure that they respond positively to the demands of people who have missed trains and flights, and had holidays ruined, or who have had pipes burst or damage done to their homes?

The right hon. Gentleman raises some important points. I can tell him that the Treasury has been talking to the insurance companies to ensure that people have the appropriate information and that companies can respond to inquiries about the extent of their cover. Often, those people will be in a real-time situation—stranded in an airport, for example—and will want to know what costs they can and cannot incur in trying to complete their journey. That is important.

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that there have been developments in the past year or so in European jurisprudence with regard to compensation arrangements and the obligations on airlines to look after people who are stranded at airports. However, when the problem is caused by, for example, extreme weather conditions, compensation would not normally be payable as such.

What discussions has the Secretary of State had with Southern Railway about its performance during this bad weather? Do Southern Railway and Network Rail need to invest in snow-clearing equipment to ensure that services run more smoothly in future?

I can tell my hon. Friend that I had a conference call with Southern Railway management and Network Rail’s route director on Wednesday afternoon to talk about their preparations for this bout of cold weather. We also spoke about some of the medium-term plans—I hesitate to call them that, but I am talking about plans for beyond the end of this week. They are looking to install experimental heated rail sections as well as to invest in additional clearance equipment. Clearing snow and ice from the railway is primarily a Network Rail responsibility, but train operators are increasingly considering installing anti-icing equipment on their trains to supplement what Network Rail does.

Will the Minister at least consider additional funding for local authorities? In my area, the local authority is struggling desperately to keep streets open and roads clear, but an additional problem that people tend to forget is pavements. Many of my constituents are fearful of leaving their homes in case they fall, so will he at least consider additional funding?

As I said a few moments ago, local authorities indicate—the Local Government Association confirms this—that they will not have difficulty this year in funding their winter activities. However, the hon. Gentleman raises an important point about the extent of gritting and salting that local authorities plan to carry out. Those resilience plans will have been put in place well ahead of the winter, and they should be well publicised locally. In some areas, the plans will not include the salting and gritting of footways. I believe that there is a role for civic society to play in that. Many people, if they can get their hands on a supply of salt and grit, would be prepared to shovel a bit on to the pavements around their homes and their neighbours’ homes. I commend local authorities that have taken action to make supplies of salt and grit available for such neighbourly action.

Does the Minister share my concerns that in stark contrast to the excellent work of many local authorities, developers responsible for unadopted roads all too often do not react quickly enough to adverse weather conditions?

I am afraid that I must tell my hon. Friend that the maintenance of unadopted roads is entirely a matter for the owners of those roads. Typically, that will ultimately be a matter for the owners of properties that front on to those roads, who often finance such work through their service charges. Like the rest of us, but through a rather different mechanism, they must decide whether they want to pay more in service charges so that they have a greater level of winter resilience for their roads.

Despite some of the heaviest snowfalls for decades in Newcastle, we managed to keep most of the public transport system going for most of the time. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Tony Cunningham) said, many people found that they could not make it to the end of their streets because of ice and snow on the pavements. Given that, rather than simply commending councils that make grit available to local residents, is it not time for a requirement for people to have access to the grit that will enable them to get on with their lives?

The hon. Lady might revel in the thought of a centralised state where people in Whitehall press buttons and issue commands to local authorities, but we happen to take a different view of the world. Local authorities are responsible bodies answerable to their electors. They must make decisions about their priorities, and if they get it wrong, local residents know what to do about it.

This time last year, the ramp leading down to the parliamentary car park was covered in snow. It closed the car park. I offered to clear it myself, but was told that I was not qualified to do the job. I said, “Well, I’ve done it before”, but the answer came back, “Well, you can’t do it because of health and safety”. Will my right hon. Friend clarify the snow code he has introduced to ensure that we do not succumb to these ambulance-chasers? There are people in Britain who have that get-up-and-go attitude and who want to get out there and clean the streets, but who are worried about being sued under legislation and the direction of travel introduced by Labour, with health and safety getting such precedence. [Laughter.]

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Labour Members may laugh, but they will remember this being a serious problem last winter, with people being afraid to clear snow and ice outside their homes and afraid to act as good neighbours. One of Quarmby’s recommendations was that we publish a snow code, compliance with which would give people a high level of protection from civil action. We have done that, and I hope that people will respond by acting in that neighbourly fashion.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Government have failed to keep the emergency grit stocks at full capacity? Despite warnings of arctic blasts for weeks, grit stocks have been rationed, and emergency supplies are said to be 80,000 tonnes lower than they should be. If this is true, why has it happened and which Minister will be resigning?

I know that the hon. Gentleman is new and was not in the House last winter. He asked whether we are keeping emergency grit stocks at full capacity. There were no emergency grit stocks last winter. In fact, there were no grit stocks at all last winter. Local authorities and the Highways Agency have bought grit for their own use, and this year, for the first time ever, we have a strategic stockpile of salt—more than 300,000 tonnes of salt have been ordered for that stockpile, 156,000 tonnes of which have been delivered, and the remainder of which will be delivered between now and the middle of January. A further 250,000 tonnes have been sourced, and we are currently arranging transport to get it to the UK. I do not suppose that he has the faintest notion of the logistics involved in trying to uplift 250,000 tonnes of salt from around the world at short notice and to ship it to the UK in specialist vessels, so perhaps, before asking such a silly question again, he will think about what is involved.

The Secretary of State will have noticed that the spirit of Christmas has augmented the already happy-go-lucky nature of the shadow Secretary of State. However, she made one serious point in her reply to the statement, and it was about information. Some companies are using premium rate telephone numbers to get information to travellers. Surely the Secretary of State will be able to use some of his fantastic influence to try to make these information lines free of charge in this current crisis.

My hon. Friend is right that in many cases the only lever we have over private companies is to apply pressure. This is the first I have heard of this issue, but if he has specific examples, I will be happy to follow them up.

Many emergency and council workers will be working over the Christmas period dealing with the aftermath—and, indeed, the ongoing nature—of the weather conditions. Will the Secretary of State prove that he is not complacent by guaranteeing to the House that either he or one of his team will be in Whitehall during the recess, not at the end of the phone or travelling to some place else—not that they could—but at their desks, every day of the recess?

We have said—I said it in the statement—that we will continue with the arrangements in place for as long as necessary. We held teleconferences over the weekend with Welsh Assembly Government members, Scottish Ministers and regional resilience teams around the country. It is not practical to get all those people together in a single room—nor is it desirable when travel is dangerous and difficult—but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the team in place will continue to monitor the situation on a daily basis for as long as it is necessary.

I agree with the Secretary of State that in these times, calm and focused action is more important than histrionic responses. Will he let me know what steps he has taken to ensure that the airport de-icer supply chain is sufficiently robust and resilient to cope with the adverse weather conditions over the coming days?

My hon. Friend raises a real issue. I talked to Gatwick airport on Wednesday, and it told me that it was full to capacity with runway de-icing fluid. By yesterday evening, however, it had used about 90% of those supplies, although fortunately it will be resupplied tomorrow. However, the supply chain for airport de-icer is tightly stretched, and we are monitoring the situation on a daily basis with operators. Alternative products can be—and are—used in other places around Europe, and if supplies get really tight, operators will have to display some flexibility.

My constituents are now enduring their 23rd successive day of arctic weather. Schooling has been disrupted, the economy impacted and elderly and vulnerable constituents have effectively been imprisoned in their own homes for more than three weeks. Owing to the exceptional weather, North Lanarkshire council requested military assistance, but it was denied. Will the Secretary of State tell me now, or find out on my behalf, who took the decision to deny military assistance, and on what grounds?

I can look into the specific case, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman the general rules on the provision of military assistance. The Ministry of Defence will offer assistance to local authorities or other responders where the latter can demonstrate that no other means of delivering the required response are available. If contractors or own resources are available, military assistance will not normally be provided. Where the military has unique equipment, or where no alternative source of manpower is available, the MOD will look at requests sympathetically. We have to do it that way. We must not end up in a situation where local authorities think that they can reach for military manpower as a simple, low-cost solution to every problem. They have to exhaust all other avenues first. However, I will look into the case he raised and write to him later this afternoon.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and commitment to consider when “just in time” becomes “just too late”. I ask him to remind the Opposition that salt is not a panacea and that when temperatures fall below minus 5°C, there is little that can be done. That should be recognised. One of the legacies left to this Government by the Opposition is insufficient gas storage. Not only that, but it was not completely full at the start of winter. Furthermore, gas has been exported when taken out of storage. Will he commit to talking to the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change about this issue? I am particularly concerned that we are not maintaining storage when we could.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is aware of the issue that my hon. Friend raises. Historically, the UK has had lower gas storage capability than many of our continental neighbours, but it is an issue that my right hon. Friend intends to address as soon as possible.

Stafford is a proud railway town. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating rail workers up and down the country who have kept services going under often atrocious conditions? I pay particular tribute to staff in Stafford last night, who went the extra mile in giving information under difficult circumstances.

I am happy to join my hon. Friend in congratulating staff across the railways. They have been operating in extremely difficult conditions, and I have seen for myself something of a blitz spirit where people have been mucking in. Some of the old divisions between Network Rail and train operators seem to have melted away under the weight of the snow—if that is the right way to put it. Railway staff put in a fantastic performance over the weekend to get the railways operating normally—by and large—this morning.