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Severe Weather: Transport Networks and Public Services

Volume 716: debated on Monday 11 January 2010


My Lords, with leave, I will make a Statement on the prolonged severe weather 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 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, albeit 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 to ensure 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 the 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 this 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 as to 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 to 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. These 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 also 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 their heating up.

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 keeping 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, de-icer to be delivered to airports and 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 learnt from the severe weather experienced in February 2009. Recommendations 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 that 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. This 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. The 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.

My Lords, I thank the Secretary of State for his Statement. He very nearly had the advantage over me since we did not receive it until 2.30 pm, so it has been a bit of a scramble to come up with a timely response. We recognise that this has been a very difficult time for many people across the country. London is beginning to recover, as the Secretary of State said, but many others parts are going to take somewhat more time to get back to normal even if there is not more snow, which is not at all certain yet.

The recent weather has disrupted many communities across the United Kingdom and, specifically, put children in jeopardy of not being able to take their examinations. I am glad to hear from the Secretary of State that most centres have opened. Have any centres not opened and are some children therefore at risk of not being able to take their exams starting today? If so, what will be done for them?

The conditions pertaining in the past couple of weeks have brought out the best in communities, as the noble Lord said, and I dare say that very few people have been left to deal with the conditions alone. I know that local authorities, voluntary services, the Army and neighbours have been working flat out to ensure that support has been provided where necessary. As we know, there have been a number of tragic accidents during the bad weather.

The main criticisms have arisen latterly and been centred on the draining of salt and grit stocks. I understand that most of the main roads and A-roads have now been cleared and are fully open apart from the hard shoulders. However, not only are many B-roads and side roads leading to private houses and villages still extremely treacherous, but some areas are still cut off. Can the Secretary of State tell us whether pulling back the salt supposed to go to Germany will mean that there is enough stock to keep the main roads and A-roads open and to start clearing the B-roads and side lanes, or will we start relying on the importation of other salt? As I understood the Secretary of State, that is not likely to arise in the very near future.

Looking to the future, can the Secretary of State say whether the Government will have discussions with salt and grit producers as well as local authorities? How can adequate stocks be ensured to cover the types of conditions that we have experienced this year? There was a 13-day supply but, in reality, that has not been sufficient. We already know that a new depot for salt has been provided near Heathrow Airport. Can the Secretary of State say whether he will be looking at other storage areas so that bigger stocks can be maintained in the future and, perhaps, distributed more widely across the country?

Is it the intention that the co-ordinating group, Salt Cell—such a wonderful name—will now be the main controller of access to salt supplies? If so, how will this be carried out from now on? I fully understand that local authorities and the Mayor of London are involved in this, but how long will Salt Cell stay in existence? Will it need to reduce even further the salt allowances? What are the total salt stocks now held in the United Kingdom and how long is it expected that they will last?

The Secretary of State has touched on the food supply. The large supermarkets have largely done very well, as they have transport to ensure that they can access the roads and reach all their stores, but does the Secretary of State have any indication of how the smaller shops have done? They have not benefited from the same advantages as the larger supermarkets and often have to use their own private delivery vehicles to collect stocks from elsewhere.

Reports that councils have been asked to reduce by 25 per cent the amount of salt that they use raises a major concern about their ability to keep the roads open. I know that the councils have endorsed the 25 per cent reduction, but will they have to reduce the amount further to ensure that stocks do not run out?

I, too, would like to put on record our thanks to the council workers, road gritters and all those who have been involved in making sure not only that the roads have been kept moving but that people have not been left in jeopardy, as the Secretary of State said. There are hundreds of thousands of them and they deserve our thanks because they have gone well beyond the call of any duty.

I return to salt, because it appears to be the big area that we are troubled about. The national Roads Liaison Group’s report of July last year emphasised the need to broaden the salt supply. Where do we now get our salt from, apart from our own mines, and how can we ensure that we have adequate imports?

There has been much disruption to air and rail travel. Can the Secretary of State tell the House why passengers who landed at Heathrow in the past week or so were kept on the tarmac for four to five hours while pilots tried to locate pods? Can he also tell us what airport authorities did to offer passengers who were stranded, some for up to two days, support during that time? One would hope that there would have been hot drinks, food and blankets, but, from the reports, that does not seem to have happened.

It is reassuring to know that cold weather payments will be paid to the most vulnerable. I know that we all endorse the Secretary of State’s plea to people who do not need to use hospitals to stay away from them.

We can now only wait and see whether the weather will let up permanently to enable everyone to get back to normal. It looks as if we may still have a little time to go before that happens. I would be grateful to have the answers to some or all of my questions to the Secretary of State.

My Lords, I do not know whether the Secretary of State saw the Sunday Telegraph yesterday. It had the headline: “Health and safety rules stop street gritting”. It stated that householders and businesses have been told not to clear icy paths or they could be sued. Will he take this opportunity to say that this is nonsense and that people should feel free to go and clear the road, path or entrance, because these stories have an immediate effect on action? At the same time, he might deplore the persistent rumour-mongering in the press about, for example, food shortages and fuel shortages. Does he believe that such stories are a deliberate attempt by the proprietors of these newspapers to undermine the morale of the British people?

In my view and that of my colleagues, snow-clearing responsibilities away from the main road network properly lie with local authorities. We should make sure that the authorities order salt stocks in good time. It seems to me that you should replenish your salt stocks in May, June and July, as you used to order coal in the summer, because it is not available at short notice in the winter. I heard a leader of a council saying on television that the council had ordered salt at the beginning of December and had not received it. It is rather too late to be ordering emergency stocks in December.

I would like to know how local authorities could be more efficient. Does the Secretary of State agree with me that one way would be for local authorities and farmers, who have the labour available, to get together so that people could have simple snow ploughs fitted to tractors and could clear a lot of roads that are covered with ice? The farmers would get a job and the community would benefit from fixing a fairly simple device on to the front of a tractor.

As to hospitals and medical services, I went to a hospital this morning where I was told that, last week, it suffered a huge number of cancelled appointments. Will the Government ask people who cannot take up an appointment to immediately advise the hospital or surgery, so that the appointment is available to others who urgently need treatment?

Finally, the contracting-out of services by local authorities has left them very short of their own staff. You cannot send people who work for consultants to clear snow, but you can send your own staff. That should be very much borne in mind. With outsourcing and contracting out, local authorities could denude their ability to look after their own area.

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness and the noble Lord for their constructive remarks. I echo all that they said in commendation of our public service workers and the sense of responsibility that is animating people across the country. The noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, invoked the blitz spirit. At home, I have a mug with a wartime slogan on it: “Keep calm and carry on”. That is precisely what the overwhelming majority of people in this country are doing and why Britain is keeping moving so successfully during this period of prolonged, severe cold weather.

I echo what the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, said about people being good neighbours and doing their local duty. It is total nonsense to say that health and safety legislation should stop people being good neighbours or doing their local duty. People should do their local duty. They should show common sense, neighbourliness and generosity of spirit, which the overwhelming majority of people are doing up and down the country.

In respect of the remarks made by the noble Baroness on supplies of salt, I can assure her that as imported salt becomes available there will be adequate storage for it. The Highways Agency has those arrangements in hand. She asked how long the Salt Cell—I echo her comment about the remarkable title of this task force—will remain in existence. It will remain in existence for as long as we have these extreme weather conditions and there is the need to prioritise salt supplies.

I should put on record my sincere thanks to the Local Government Association and to local authorities up and down the country for co-operating with the operation of the Salt Cell, which means tough choices. In particular, some local authorities with larger supplies of salt—dare I say because they prepared that much better?—might not be able to receive supplies that they had ordered, in favour of those with smaller supplies. We are all in this together. It is essential that we get salt supplies to those local authorities that are in danger of running out, precisely for the reason that the noble Baroness gave, so that we can keep as much as possible of the road network open locality by locality. We are seeking to do that in respect of the national Highways Agency.

As the noble Baroness mentioned, the Highways Agency went into this winter with a 13-day supply of salt, which is more than twice the recommended minimum of six days. Yesterday, someone who quizzed me during one of the many interviews that I did asked, “If the Highways Agency went in with 13 days, why did you not tell local authorities to do the same?”. I should stress that the reports of the UK Roads Liaison Group, about which much has been made in recent days, made two clear recommendations: local highways authorities should keep six days of supply and the Highways Agency, for which I am responsible, should keep a reserve supply over and above the six days so that we can help out the entire country in the case of a severe shortage. That is precisely what the Government did. We directed the Highways Agency to keep a larger supply, which is why we have been able to cope as well as we have in this period of severe, prolonged cold weather.

The noble Baroness asked about the adequacy of supplies nationally. It is not possible to give her a single answer because we have more than 200 highways authorities across England, Wales and Scotland. The picture is very variable—from local authorities that are dependent on the meeting of the Salt Cell tomorrow morning for urgently needed additional supplies through to local authorities that still have supplies for some weeks. What we are seeking to do, of course, is to prioritise those that are in danger of running out.

I should also stress that the UK Roads Liaison Group was reporting after a one in 18 year severe weather event, whereas what we have been experiencing this year is a one in 29 year event. The noble Baroness asked whether we will learn from that. Of course we need to do so. When the severe weather is over, we shall look at our experience this year and consider what additional measures must be put in place.

In respect of advice for those using hospitals to behave responsibly, I echo entirely what the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, said. On the points raised by the noble Baroness about the inconvenience to which air travellers have been put, those were operational decisions taken by airport operators and the airlines, so I cannot give an immediate and full account of precisely what happened at Heathrow. However, I undertake to write to her on that.

My Lords, could my noble friend expand a little on the question put by the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, about the Health and Safety Executive? It has allegedly advised—I talked at the weekend to ferry operators in the south-west—that if salt or grit is spread on to the slips on which you drive down into the ferry and there is an accident, the operators will be liable, whereas if they do not do anything and someone has an accident, that is an act of the weather. It means that no one will treat those slopes with salt or grit. I think that the same applies to householders, who are not putting salt or grit outside their houses. Is there any advice that my noble friend could give to stop this rather stupid situation?

My Lords, I am not aware of the advice to which my noble friend refers, but I will look at it immediately and respond to him.

My Lords, one feature of the recent cold spell has been the minuscule contribution of wind power to the nation’s very high energy needs. I know that it is not strictly the Secretary of State’s business, but does he think that his energy colleagues will draw any conclusions from that?

My Lords, there are measures in train to enhance very significantly the supply of wind power and I hope that in future years it will be able to make a much larger contribution to our energy needs.

My Lords, will the Minister thank the managers of the east coast main line rail network, who have performed heroically over the past few weeks? I have had a couple of what could have been quite difficult journeys and they have been tremendous. Would he also undertake to let those managers know that the staff of the train operating company have been thoughtful, helpful and able to tell passengers what is happening at every stage of the journey? This is a vastly improved service.

My Lords, I am happy to do so. Railway workers up and down the country have been doing a fantastic job to keep trains working in these seriously adverse conditions. The noble Baroness has mentioned the east coast main line, but her remarks could apply equally to other railway companies, all of whose workers have been doing a splendid job over the past week. We are deeply indebted to them.

My Lords, can the Secretary of State tell us how a day’s supply of salt and grit, which is the basic measure he has referred to, is estimated? Does that include the salting and gritting of pavements as well as carriageways?

My Lords, we are talking about the maintenance of the road network, but local authorities also have to take decisions about how they intend to handle pavements and other areas that require salting.

My Lords, while joining all others in congratulating people on the communal spirit that they have shown so comprehensively and generously, as well as the Secretary of State on his leadership in this matter, may I return to the question of salt? From all the evidence available, it appears to be the case that British-based salt suppliers have no chance of meeting the demand, whether this acute spell lasts for one week, two weeks or, God forbid, four weeks. There is therefore a necessity for a long-term strategic plan to deal with this fundamental question.

My Lords, the whole point of salt reserves is to enable local authorities and the Highways Agency to have a sufficient degree of resilience to cope with prolonged periods of poor weather, in the knowledge that it is not possible from daily supplies to replenish those stocks which need to be put on the roads and pavements in periods of severe weather. The issue we face is establishing the right level of supplies that those bodies should keep to give them sufficient resilience. The expert group that considered this matter after last February’s severe weather recommended that that should be six days’ worth. In the light of the events we have experienced over the past month or more, we need to revisit the issue and consider whether that figure needs to be raised. I undertake to the House that we will do so after these events.

My Lords, there is only one issue here as far as the Government are concerned: did they estimate as correctly as they could and have they done everything that they could do in the light of that estimation? Does my noble friend agree that it is not possible in this country to give the guarantees against problems in this kind of weather that the United States or Scandinavian countries can give? Would not the amount of investment required to give that kind of guarantee be grossly excessive? I congratulate the Secretary of State on the work that he has done, on the impressive way in which it has been handled and on the way he has presented the case in public.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his kind personal remarks, but I should like to extend them to the hundreds of thousands of people who have been doing the work at the sharp end, if I can put it that way, up and down the country to keep open our transport networks and public services. We have seen the best of the British spirit over the past few weeks, and I know that we will continue to see that in a way that will get us through these serious and prolonged periods of bad weather.

My Lords, following on from the benign experience of the noble Baroness, Lady Harris of Richmond, does the Minister accept that in many cases the travelling public have experienced considerable difficulties in air travel, rail travel, Eurostar and ferry travel due to a lack of information by the operating companies during periods of disruption and delay? One appreciates the management difficulties that result from the uncertainty of the weather, but the most frustrating thing of all, which restricts the ability of the travelling public to make alternative arrangements for their travel, is the lack of information available. I know that this is not the responsibility directly of the Minister, but will he take the opportunity when he meets the management of operating companies to emphasise the need to tell people what is happening and to keep them up to date?

We have been encouraging the train companies to do precisely what the noble Lord wishes them to do—that is, to make information available as readily as they can. We have advised them that they should not take for granted that passengers will know what is going to happen in the evening simply by checking at stations when they set off in the morning and that they should provide real-time information. I am glad to say that most companies are seeking to do so, and I hope that all will rise to the standards of the best.

My Lords, will the Minister look at the issue of school closures? Undoubtedly some schools have had to close for good reason, but parents have been in touch with me to express concern that in other cases perhaps, as the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, referred to, timidity has come along rather than robustness and schools have been closed that were not required to be closed. Perhaps schools are concerned about people falling over in the playground or shortages of staff, but they should adapt to the circumstances. This is having a big impact on people’s personal economies and the national economy; because people cannot get to work, businesses suffer and the finances of the country suffer. Will the Secretary of State look at this issue and ensure that schools are kept open where at all possible?

My Lords, I entirely agree with the noble Lord. I did not respond to the remarks about schools that the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, made in her response to the Statement. I am glad to say that the number of schools closed appears to be reducing significantly. As I said in the Statement, virtually all schools which are examination centres have provided facilities for exams either at the school or at alternative locations.

In respect of the guidance that we give to schools, the Department for Children, Schools and Families last week sent what is described in my briefing as a “red” email to all schools—I assume that that is to do with the nature of its importance, not with the colour of the ink—encouraging them to stay open where possible and asking that, where they are closed, they consider whether it would be possible to open just for exams. That advice appears to have been taken seriously. Where there are no facilities for taking exams, the advice is that candidates can retake them in the summer, but where a candidate is unable to take a re-sit unit because it is the last time that the exam will be taken, the school or college should apply for “special consideration” on their behalf. Special consideration allows an awarding body to award a grade where an examination cannot be taken or the pupil has been disadvantaged, provided there is sufficient evidence to make a reasonable judgment. However, as we have said, the most important priority is that schools which are exam centres are open, so that candidates can take their exams without having to re-sit them at a later date. I am told that that is happening in virtually all cases.

My Lords, I was a bit surprised to hear my noble friend say—assuming I heard him correctly—that he could not answer the question of just how much salt we have in reserve. Did the committee that met last February and produced the report say whether we should be able to estimate how much salt we had in reserve? If it did not, and if it is to review the position, should it not look at it again?

My Lords, the group looking at salting roads in periods of severe weather recommended that all local authorities maintain reserves equivalent to six days’ worth of supply in severe weather. It made very clear recommendations about the amount of salt that should be in held in respect of the needs of local authorities. I cannot give my noble friend the precise sum aggregating from all local highways authorities, because the position is very variable and fluctuating day by day.

Could not the Secretary of State’s undoubted powers of communication, as we have just witnessed in this House, be used to encourage our national press to bring forward some good points about all of this and not always the bad ones? I cite two examples. The first is Southern Railway, which receives enormous criticism. I managed to get home on Thursday because of its communication. I know that hearing at every one of the 16 stations, “Please be careful when you get out of the train, because the platforms are slippery” may have been a case of overcommunication, but its performance was terrific.

Secondly, I was caught up in the pre-Christmas freeze-up when flying. I went to Heathrow and found prone bodies practically everywhere from the day before. British Airways—I declare an interest as having been a director, but it was many years ago—put on additional, large aircraft on its European routes. It took out the club class so that it could get people in and, as a result, everybody got to their destination for Christmas. Not one mention of that has been made in the press, and these things need to be said.

My Lords, I hope that newspaper editors up and down the country are listening intently to the noble Baroness, because she makes very good points.

My Lords, as it is partially connected to the severe weather, can the Secretary of State say anything about what is happening with Eurostar and why it continues to get stuck in the tunnel?

My Lords, Eurostar has, alas, been experiencing technical difficulties. However, it is seeking to overcome them. It is at the moment, I fear, offering a reduced service, but there is a service.

My Lords, is the Secretary of State aware that he did not deal very well with the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, and one of his own Back-Benchers, concerning whether householders and others—landlords, for example—put themselves at risk by partially or imperfectly clearing the pavements outside their premises? I am sure that he has been briefed about it, and it would help very much if he could put that matter to rest.

Secondly, uncharacteristically, the Minister did not deal too well with a question asked by my noble friend about the contribution made during this period to our energy supplies by wind power. Does he have any figure for the percentage of their working capacity at which the turbines worked during that period?

Finally, would the Minister not agree that the fact that this all started during the Copenhagen climate conference rather suggests that God has a very good sense of humour?

My Lords, the Almighty’s timing was clearly impeccable.

I thought that I had dealt with what people should do in their own localities. I regard it as total nonsense to suggest that people would be subject to health and safety laws if they do their duty locally and do their neighbourly best to keep their driveways and pavements clear.

I shall give the noble Lord the figures that he seeks on wind power. I fear that I do not have them at my fingertips.

My Lords, does the Minister recognise the contribution that people who have 4x4s have made during this period? For example, my daughter was out again yesterday delivering meals on wheels because the normal vehicles cannot get through. Normally, owners of 4x4s are pilloried for their excessive use, but on these occasions the meals would not have been delivered without such vehicles. Secondly, I reinforce what the Statement said about exempting the hours that people have worked, particularly on the collection of milk. It is hugely important that milk supplies have been collected; it is not just a question of collecting them—sometimes they have actually frozen in the pipe once they have been collected, and it has taken that much longer. They have had to go back to the centre to come back again. That has been very helpful indeed.

As the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, said, in the past farmers always had snowploughs in the front and were out there straightaway. I should be interested to hear what the present situation is with regard to local authorities and whether that is still in being or not.

My Lords, never has the Chelsea tractor performed a more socially useful purpose.

I echo everything that the noble Baroness said about the huge efforts being put in by farmers and food distributors and suppliers to keep goods moving around the country. I note her remarks about how snowploughs could be better fitted to farm equipment so that roads and pathways could be cleared more effectively.

My Lords, we all agree that the Secretary of State is an excellent performer on transport issues, but on energy matters should it not be more a matter of taking the information to his colleagues rather than bringing it to us? His answers to my noble friend and me were very puzzling. Has not the recent spell shown that wind power is incapable in cold spells of delivering even a tiny fraction of its installed capacity to provide the nation’s vital electricity needs? His answer to me that the solution is to build more wind power seems quite perverse. Would he like to take the opposite message to his colleagues: that wind power cannot help at the most crucial moments, in the nation’s times of need? We could be storing up great danger for our future unless we get this matter clear.

My Lords, I am sure that the right response is that we need a balanced energy supply. Wind power has a significant contribution to make as part of a total energy supply strategy. However, the noble Lord is absolutely right to point out that we need very substantial sources of supply from elsewhere, too—and those sources are available. As we have seen in recent days, the supply of gas, with the exception of a small number of interruptible contracts, has managed to meet domestic needs in a period of huge increase in demand. Therefore, of course those sources of supply will need to be central to our future energy strategy.