The Secretary of State for Transport (Justine Greening): With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a statement to update the House on the serious collision that took place on the M5 motorway in Somerset on the evening of Friday 4 November.
As the House will be aware, at approximately 20 minutes past 8 on Friday evening, a road traffic collision occurred on the M5 northbound in Somerset involving multiple vehicles. Some of those vehicles subsequently caught fire. The incident occurred between junction 25, Taunton, and junction 24, Bridgwater north, approximately a third of a mile north of junction 25. The emergency services and the Highways Agency responded to the incident immediately, and therefore a large number of emergency service vehicles and resources were able to attend the scene very quickly.
At approximately 9 pm, based on the numbers of casualties and vehicles involved, Avon and Somerset police declared a major incident. Due to the nature of the incident scene, it took some time to confirm exactly how many people and vehicles were involved in the collision. Avon and Somerset police have now confirmed that 37 vehicles were involved in the collision. Tragically, seven people lost their lives. A further 51 people were injured and were treated at Musgrove Park hospital, Yeovil district hospital or at the scene.
I would like again to offer my condolences—and I am sure those of the House—to those who have lost friends or family in that horrific crash, as well as to offer our thoughts to those who have been injured. The families of those who lost their lives are being supported by specially trained family liaison officers from Avon and Somerset police, who will continue to work with them as long as they are needed.
Police investigations on the motorway were completed at 10 minutes past 4 on Sunday 6 November, and the scene was then handed over to the Highways Agency and its contractors to begin repairs to the carriageway.
The collision incident caused a significant amount of damage to the highway: a stretch of 40 metres of road was damaged by fuel spillage from vehicles and a stretch of 60 metres was damaged by intense fire. Two lanes of the southbound carriageway reopened yesterday at 20 past 5 and, following extensive resurfacing works, all lanes on the northbound carriageway reopened shortly before 9 pm. The final remaining lane closure on the southbound carriageway was removed at 20 past 9 last night, and the road is now running in both directions.
The Minister responsible for roads, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), visited the scene of the incident on Saturday, and I was there yesterday. I was tremendously impressed by the determination and professionalism of staff from the emergency services—police, fire crews and ambulance staff—local hospitals and the Highways Agency. They worked with real dedication in the most difficult of circumstances. Our efforts to deal with the scene also involved the Environment Agency. The way in which all those agencies were able to work together highly effectively was critical in ensuring that those involved in the accident were helped and treated speedily. I pay tribute to Assistant Chief Constable Anthony Bangham who, as gold commander, led those efforts.
It was a harrowing and painstaking task for all concerned to deal with the incident, and I would like to take the opportunity to thank massively all those involved for their efforts and bravery, including individual members of the public who were passing or near the incident, some of whom tried to help those trapped in vehicles. I would particularly like to pay tribute to the local community, people and businesses in and around Taunton. From local people and hotels offering to accommodate relatives of those injured and members of the public offering support, to local off-duty hospital staff turning up at their hospitals to help to provide care, it was humbling and inspiring to see how selflessly so many people were willing to offer their support to others who needed it.
It would be a mistake at this very early stage to speculate about the causes of the collision. Investigations into the cause of the crash are still at a very early stage. To put that in context, the recovery phase finished only yesterday, and it is only today that the investigation phase becomes the key focus. While Avon and Somerset police have indicated that the presence of smoke on the carriageway is a significant line of inquiry, Assistant Chief Constable Bangham has been clear that, in his words to me earlier today, it is “far too early” to jump to conclusions on the causal factors of the incident. Our first priority now must be to ensure that the police are able to conduct a comprehensive and thorough investigation of the crash.
As I said, earlier today I spoke to Assistant Chief Constable Anthony Bangham, whose Avon and Somerset force is leading the ongoing investigation. He told me that, given the large number of vehicles involved, and the need carefully to look at the vehicles recovered and of course to talk to the many witnesses, it may be some weeks until the investigation can conclude on any cause or causes of the incident. The police continue to appeal for witnesses, and I encourage anyone with any information to contact the police directly on 101 or by calling Crimestoppers on 0800 500 111 .
I would like to emphasise to the House the extremely high priority that I attach to road safety. The UK has a proud tradition as a world leader on road safety, and that is a tradition that I am determined to continue. Although the number of deaths and serious injuries on our roads has fallen dramatically over the past 20 years, the horrific crash on Friday has reminded us of the terrible personal consequences of collisions for motorists and local communities. Earlier this year, the Government published a road safety framework that commits us to a range of activities which will enable us to do even better in future. We will of course take full account of any lessons from this terrible collision in developing our future policies and supporting the future safe travel of people.
The safety of our roads also requires effective partnership working across a wide range of organisations—national and local government, police and emergency services, and many others. We need to work together effectively if we are going to do the best job we can of ensuring that people stay safe on our roads. Over the coming weeks, and going beyond any lessons that may be learned from
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this particular incident, I will be considering carefully our forward plans on road safety to ensure that we have the right measures in place to deliver real and urgent progress on tackling the continuing blight of death and injury on our roads. I commend this statement to the House.
Maria Eagle (Garston and Halewood) (Lab): I thank the right hon. Lady for her statement and for early sight of it. I am sure that we would both have preferred the circumstances of her first appearance at the Dispatch Box as Secretary of State for Transport to be different, but may I take this opportunity to congratulate her on her appointment? I wish her well in her new role, and I am sure that her decision to visit the scene of this horrific incident over the weekend will have been appreciated, as will the visit of the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), particularly by those still working to deal with the aftermath. May I associate Labour Members with the sympathy that the Secretary of State expressed for those who have lost loved ones and those who have suffered injuries in this tragedy?
I join the right hon. Lady in thanking the emergency services in Somerset. Tales of extraordinary bravery have emerged from what must have been a terrifying situation, and yet again we have been reminded of the professionalism and dedication of our emergency services. I also add our thanks to the staff of Musgrove Park hospital in Taunton and Yeovil district hospital. They provided an exceptional response after the incident and are continuing to provide the first-class care that we have come to expect and rely on from our national health service.
This is one of the worst road accidents we have suffered for many years, and it is right that the police must now be able to carry out the very thorough investigation they have begun into the cause of this tragedy. The truth is that we do not know today whether there were steps that could have been taken to prevent the incident. We must await the conclusions of the investigation and avoid the temptation to rush to judgment.
While families are struggling to come to terms with their devastating loss and victims lie injured, I do not believe it is the right time to pass judgment on specific policies. The Secretary of State said that lessons will be learned for future policy development. Will she confirm that the conclusions of the investigation into this incident will be fully considered before steps are taken to advance any of her Department’s proposals that she has inherited that may have a bearing on road safety?
The Secretary of State referred to the dramatic fall in the number of deaths and serious injuries on our roads over previous years. However, she will have noticed the increase in deaths over the last year, which was reported just last week. That is something of which she and this House need to take particular note. She should know that she will have the full support of the Opposition if she brings a renewed focus to the challenge of reducing the number of deaths and serious injuries on our roads.
Will the Secretary of State confirm whether she has yet discussed this incident with the Home Secretary, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, who is in his place, and the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills? Have they confirmed whether they intend to review the licensing regime for public events, firework displays and bonfires? Following the fire under the M1 in April, the then Secretary of State for Transport promised a review of the wider lessons that should be learned about the activities that we allow to take place under motorways. Will the right hon. Lady update the House on that work and on any conclusions that have been reached? Will she consider widening that work to consider activities alongside, as well as underneath, our motorways?
Finally, I would be grateful for an assurance that the Secretary of State will make a further statement to the House following the conclusion of the investigation. It is important that there is an opportunity to discuss these issues more fully than feels appropriate today. I thank her for ensuring that the House has been updated at the earliest possible opportunity following this tragedy.
Justine Greening: I am very grateful for the hon. Lady’s kind words welcoming me to my new role. As she says, it is a shame that these are the circumstances under which I arrive at the Dispatch Box.
In response to the points that the hon. Lady made, of course we will consider the lessons that can be learned from this incident, if there are any. As she pointed out, the most important thing is to ensure that the police can get on with their investigation as it unfolds. It is worth reiterating her point that, for the families of people who have been injured and particularly for the families who have lost relatives, it is important that we do not speculate unnecessarily about what might have caused the accident.
On road safety, the hon. Lady pointed out last quarter’s figures, which showed a rise in fatalities. It is also fair to point out that in the 12 months to the end of June, we continued to see an overall reduction in fatalities and injuries on our roads, so the trend is moving in the right direction. The challenge for this House is to ensure that that does not level off and that we take steps to ensure that the figures come down further, as far as possible.
The hon. Lady’s question about licensing arrangements slightly prejudges where the police investigation may end up. She has made the point that there is a question over whether this event falls under the Licensing Act 2003 as a regulated event. That is clearly something that the police and the local authority will consider.
If the police investigation that is under way presents any conclusions that I think it is important for this House to consider, I will of course come back and make a statement. It is possible that the police will conclude that they cannot say absolutely what caused the collision. However, if there are meaningful lessons and conclusions that it is worth this House discussing, I will ensure that we have a follow-up statement.
Mr Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater and West Somerset) (Con): If I may, I will pay tribute to the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne), who is in his place, because it is the nightmare of every MP to face such a tragedy. The Secretary of State and the shadow Secretary of State made it clear that this matter will be thought through logically. One worry is that, as the M5 is the most important arterial route in our county, whatever happens to the M5 affects the whole county. When decisions are made, I ask the Secretary of State please to consult the MPs with constituencies along the M5, so that we have some input into any recommendations that are put forward by the police and the Highways Agency for the future of the road.
Justine Greening: I very much hope that we will be able to have an ongoing dialogue with local MPs about the effectiveness of any measures that end up being proposed. Frankly, I would expect that on any key proposals that affect any Member’s local public transport.
Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab): The right hon. Lady says that the road death figures are still heading in the right direction, but my reading of the latest figures was that, even before this terrible crash, we were looking at the first annual increase in road deaths that this country has seen for 20 years. As she will know, that is deeply worrying to road safety campaigners and others. Will she at the very least have another look at her predecessor’s plan to encourage faster speeds on the motorways by increasing the speed limit?
Justine Greening: To go back over the figures on road safety, of course it is concerning that the most recent quarter’s figures that have been released showed such a rise, but we should still not lose sight of the fact that the trend is in the right direction. We should also be conscious of the fact that levels of road safety can, of course, be affected by the weather, so it is not quite as straightforward as simply saying from looking at those figures that there is an underlying reduction in road safety compared with previous quarters.
One key point to recognise in relation to those numbers and the hon. Gentleman’s point about speed is that people can drive unsafely at any speed and in any weather conditions. It is important that we do not jump to a solution when the police still have to examine the causes of the accident, and that we ensure that we have a measured discussion about action that could be taken in future months to improve road safety. We as a House need to have that discussion in a responsible and balanced way.
Mr David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): I join the Secretary of State and my hon. Friends the Members for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne), for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath), for Wells (Tessa Munt) and for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger), as well as the other local MPs, in congratulating the emergency services on their fantastic response to Friday’s tragedy. From a Yeovil perspective, I particularly pay tribute to the many people from my constituency, including at Yeovil hospital, who did fantastic work on Friday night and Saturday morning.
Although the Secretary of State is absolutely right not to leap to conclusions when we do not know the full facts, there are undoubtedly many positive lessons to be learned from the response of the emergency services on Friday and Saturday. I hope that she will undertake to ensure that that best practice is spread to all emergency forces across the United Kingdom.
Justine Greening: The right hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. During both my trip to the scene and local hospitals and that of the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), the point was constantly made to us about the extremely effective way in which a number of different agencies had worked together. For example, at the hospital that I visited in Taunton, staff talked to me about how they had in place an emergency process for dealing with such an incident, and it worked extremely well when that incident finally happened. There are best practice lessons to be taken from that, and we will certainly work to ensure that they are disseminated to other agencies across the rest of the country. I hope that the Highways Agency will play a key role in that.
Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome the Secretary of State’s personal commitment to road safety, because every single death is a tragedy. May I ask her to look again at the framework that her Department has developed? I believe that there has unfortunately been a tendency to see an increase in safety measures, such as better eyesight testing, as a burden rather than as something that will save lives.
Justine Greening: In all this we must strike the right balance, but I can absolutely assure the hon. Lady that I take incredibly seriously the issue of safety not just on the roads but across the transport system. I will take a very careful look at it to ensure that we always strike that balance. The strategic framework for road safety that we published in May contained a number of steps in the right direction. I would of course like to consider what more we can do, but we have, for example, increased fixed penalty notice fines for many motoring offences. The fixed penalty notice fine for speeding had not risen since 2000. The Government are taking a number of steps to ensure that we have a very proactive approach to road safety.
Mr Gary Streeter (South West Devon) (Con): The Secretary of State will know that the M5 is the major spine road into Devon and Cornwall, and is very busy in both directions. This appalling tragedy has been a real shock to all of us on the peninsula. May I therefore commend her for her calm and measured way of responding to the crisis, and join her in thanking the emergency services? In particular, I thank the Highways Agency for getting the road back together again so quickly.
Justine Greening: I thank my hon. Friend for those words. It is actually a stretch of road that I know very well. In fact, I had driven along it myself only two weekends before. He is absolutely right that we should pay tribute to the Highways Agency, which did an outstanding job in being ready to work with the police and then, critically, in taking the necessary steps once the police had released the scene. The agency not only ensured that the highway was safe for motorists to get back on the southbound carriageway as quickly as possible, but took steps to re-lay the northbound carriageway, which took just five to six hours. That meant that we were able to get that carriageway opened on Sunday night rather than Monday morning.
I should also say that the Highways Agency did an excellent job on the Friday evening of ensuring that the motorists who were not directly involved in the accident but were held up as a result of it were safely and gradually escorted away from the scene.
Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Lab): May I associate myself with the words of condolence to all the families affected and the words of praise for all those involved in what must have been horrific? I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
I believe that the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), will know—hopefully he has whispered it in the ear of the Secretary of State—about the very positive impact that the Heavy Rescue Partnership has had, saving lives in association with Staffordshire fire and rescue. Will the Secretary of State ensure that the investigation will consider whether the availability of such an approach might have made the difference on the night of that terrible incident?
Justine Greening: We will consider all such issues going forward, so the answer is yes.
Tessa Munt (Wells) (LD): I join my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr Laws) in his comments about the emergency services, and I wish particularly to point out the contribution made by the family liaison officers who work in such circumstances.
I was present at the time on the southbound carriageway, and I saw what had happened as I was drawing off the road at the Taunton junction. I do not think I have ever seen anything like what I saw on Friday evening. It was an absolute inferno, and it was impossible for me to leave the car on the southbound carriageway to do anything.
Will the Secretary of State commend the bravery of two of my constituents, both of whom are in their 20s—a young man called Sam Jones and another gentleman by the name of Tom Hamill? Both played their part in rescuing people from the vehicles, particularly Tom, who I understand saved the life of a very small baby. I thank them for doing that.
Justine Greening: I pay tribute again to members of the public who, in many cases, selflessly put themselves in the way of harm to help and save others. We have all read of the many acts of heroism that people instinctively performed to help those whom they saw in need. In a world in which there is a lot of discussion about a big society, the fact that people’s instinct when they saw such a tragedy unfolding was to run towards it and try to help says an awful lot about the spirit of local communities up and down our country, particularly in Taunton.
Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab): Will the Secretary of State join in the heartfelt tributes paid to my constituents and neighbours Tony and Pamela Adams, who died in the accident? We can all empathise with them—they were on a journey that they had made many times before, but within seconds a normal situation descended into hell on earth. They were not just another statistic; they were two lovely people who had been sweethearts for 50 years. They were stalwarts of the Allt-yr-yn community and their local church, St Mark’s. In fact, Tony had organised the order of service for yesterday. No one is expecting any instant solutions from the Government, but may we take it that we as parliamentarians will understand the immeasurable loss to the family and friends, and say that we will do all we can to ensure by the decisions that we take that an accident of this kind is less likely in future?
Justine Greening: Yes. I once again send my condolences to that family. There is very little that anybody can say to their relatives at the moment that will provide any real comfort under the circumstances of this tragedy. As the hon. Gentleman points out, it happened instantaneously, which is a particular challenge for families who lose people in such circumstances. I can assure him that, as I have said to the House already, I take road safety and safety across our transport system incredibly seriously, and I will ensure that if there are any lessons to be learned, they will be acted upon, although we must wait for the outcome of the police investigation.
Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Con): I echo the condolences offered by hon. Members on both sides of the House to the families who have been badly affected. Connectivity with the peninsula not only by railway but by road is a very big issue. The M5 is the only arterial dual carriageway that goes the whole way down. Is my right hon. Friend willing to meet me and people from the south-west to discuss how we can improve that connectivity, and to find ways to ensure that when the motorway is closed, as it had to be, we can get to and from places much more easily?
Justine Greening: My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary with responsibility for roads and I will be quite happy to have that meeting. The broader point that my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) makes on resilience is critical. We saw the challenges for the road network in that area last year. Although my visit yesterday was to show support for the emergency services and the Highways Agency and the wonderful work they had done, I took the opportunity to raise initially some questions on winter resilience for that area, and I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend.
Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): As chair of the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Road Safety, the transport safety charity, I welcome the Secretary of State to her new job. We look forward to working with her on safety issues on a cross-party basis.
This tragic accident reminds us all that speed does kill, and hon. Members must think very carefully about it. I hope that when we analyse—[ Interruption. ] Yes, we must carefully analyse this accident. I hope that one specific thing that the Secretary of State’s experts look at is the fire. It is very unusual in road accidents to have fires of that intensity. Many of us in road safety campaigning organisations have been worried for some time about the vulnerability of the fuel tanks of commercial vehicles. Will she ensure that she looks at that, and will she consider the restoration of the road safety partnerships?
Justine Greening: The hon. Gentleman is right that the fire was a significant factor in the number of fatalities and it is fair to say that it was a particularly unusual occurrence. He asks about fuel tanks on heavy goods vehicles. As he will be aware, there are a number of regulations on ensuring that HGVs are safe, and he will be interested to know that EU harmonisation rules mean that over the next three years those standards will become even tougher. I am very happy to talk with the hon. Gentleman, who has an interest in this area, to see how we can maintain a balanced and informed debate on how to improve road safety.
Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) (Con): May I add my name to those of my right hon. and hon. Friends in commenting on our sympathy for the bereaved and our praise of the security and emergency services in Somerset, particularly the Avon and Somerset constabulary? May I also thank the Secretary of State for being calm in her approach and for being willing to look at the evidence, particularly in relation to the 80 mph speed limit? I do not think that now is the time to be dwelling on those issues, but a full and thorough review must be the right way forward.
Justine Greening: I agree with my hon. Friend. Critically, we must bear in mind that safe driving on motorways is not simply about the maximum speed limit; it is also about smart driving—not driving too close to people in front and braking in a way that is not too quick and that surprises motorists behind. There are an awful lot of different aspects of safe driving on motorways. In fact, we are already considering whether we can ensure that learner drivers have some experience of driving on motorways as part of their training. That proposal has been put to us. We can do a number of things to improve the situation. Clearly, it is important for individual drivers at all times to bear in mind that although there is a speed limit, they must drive according to the conditions of the road and the weather.
Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Moor View) (Lab): May I thank both Front Benchers for voicing so clearly the sentiments felt on both sides of the House for all those involved? Crash barriers save lives, and they are particularly well designed in the UK. We can see from the pictures that the crash barriers prevented vehicles from going on to the southbound carriageway. However, a degree of compression was caused by having crash barriers on both the hard shoulder and the central reservation, where we expect them to be. Such compression exacerbates the potential for fire to spread, as people are funnelled into a particular spot. As part of the Secretary of State’s investigation, will she look at whether having crash barriers on both sides of the road had any impact on the spread of fire among vehicles?
Justine Greening: The hon. Lady is right to point out that the Highways Agency must manage risks. The crash barriers are on the side of that particular stretch of motorway because there is a steep bank. She raises the issue of the compression of vehicles, but alternatively, had the barrier not been there, the risk is that vehicles would have gone down the bank. Nevertheless, the police were quite careful to ensure that they looked around the banks to see whether there were any injured people or fatalities who were not on the motorway itself. The Highways Agency takes a risk-based approach to such things, which is what it had done on that particular stretch of motorway.
Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): I agree with the whole House on our heartfelt sympathy for those who lost loved ones in this absolutely terrible crash. I congratulate the emergency services, which were there within four minutes, which is an excellent response. As other hon. Members have said, the M5 is the great arterial road into the south-west. However, we need to look not only at the M5, but at the A30 and A303, because they are also major roads into the west country.
Justine Greening: I thank my hon. Friend for those comments. It is important that we look across the road network to ensure that roads are maintained safely. As I have said, it is important that we wait for the police to go through their investigation into this particular incident, which could take some weeks, before we can draw conclusions on any actions that need to be taken.
Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): This tragic accident is a salutary reminder to every single one of us just how easy it is to go from cruising along a motorway to ending up in a pile-up. Although I would not make any comment on the initial causes—it is not appropriate for any of us to do so—and although I hear what the Secretary of State says on the complexity of the speed issue, will she remember that faster speeds mean longer stopping distances and greater impacts on collision, and will she abandon plans to raise the speed limit on the motorways?
Justine Greening: As I have said, it is far too early to jump to conclusions about the possible cause or causes of the accident, but I can reassure the hon. Lady that I take road safety incredibly seriously, so I shall, of course, always ensure that I am happy that the measures that we introduce are appropriate.
Mr Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth East) (Con): I join the Secretary of State in paying tribute to the emergency services and in offering my condolences to those affected by this terrible tragedy. Stopping distances are critical. A growing trend on all motorways is the fact that cars drive in such close proximity one behind the other. May I invite her to consider the increased use of chevrons painted on the road, which encourage individuals to think more carefully about their distance from the car in front, allowing that critical stopping distance and therefore saving lives?
Justine Greening: We are in the middle of several pilots considering whether chevrons can help drivers work out how much space they need. One of the challenges is that heavy goods vehicles need much longer stopping distances than cars, which is something to bear in mind as well, because there is no point in cars stopping in time after an accident if the HGVs behind have not left themselves enough stopping distance.
Mr David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): I congratulate the Secretary of State on how she has approached this subject, and echo the comments that have been made today. There will be a report, and I thank her for saying that she will return to the Chamber, but will she also indicate whether she will include Members of the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and Northern Ireland Assembly, so that best practice can be rolled out throughout the UK?
Justine Greening: I shall ensure that we share best practice more broadly. Obviously, I know that the devolved authorities take their own decisions in this area, but I think that they will be happy to learn any lessons that can be learnt.
Dr Andrew Murrison (South West Wiltshire) (Con): This major incident involved emergency services from across the region. I pay tribute to them. What support will be available to them and to members of the public, including one or two of my constituents, involved in this terrible tragedy?
Justine Greening: My hon. Friend is right to raise that point. It was one that I particularly raised with the local hospitals involved, Assistant Chief Constable Bangham and the Highways Agency, and I can provide reassurance that the necessary support will be in place. Of course the emergency services are used to dealing with very serious and harrowing accidents, but they would recognise that this was a particularly large and challenging one. Although many people in the emergency services have attended many such accidents in the past, there are some accidents that require support to be in place, and this was one of them.
Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con): Emma Barton lies in hospital in a coma. She lost her mother a few months ago, and she lost her father and sister in this accident. It is easy in these debates to think of such accidents merely as statistics, so I want to put on the record my condolences to any family she has left, and to her friends and other relatives. I commend the tone in which the Secretary of State made her statement today. Will she join me in ensuring that any additional services that may be required for people involved will be provided?
Justine Greening: I can absolutely confirm that. I understand that Emma Barton’s boyfriend is with her in the hospital. My hon. Friend’s points underline how for some people this is an unfolding drama: there are some in hospital who, because of their condition, are unaware that they have lost their nearest and dearest. That is another reason why it is right to approach any debate on road safety in an incredibly sensitive manner until the police have had time to conduct their investigation.
Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): Successive Governments over the past 40 years can be commended on how they have approached road safety. The number of road deaths last year was the lowest since records began 85 years ago, and by the time the previous Labour Government left office, the annual death toll on our roads had been virtually halved. The Secretary of State said that she attached an extremely high priority to road safety, and I welcome that, but there is no need to speculate because it is clear from all the evidence that if an 80 mph speed limit is introduced on our motorways, if moving traffic is allowed on to hard shoulders, and if there is a reduction in the frequency of MOT vehicle roadworthiness tests, the number of deaths, injuries and crashes will rise. Given the increase in the number of serious injuries and deaths in recent months, does she agree that it would be criminal to pursue those three objectives?
Justine Greening: There is not much that I would like to add at this point. We need to let the police get on with their investigation, rather than prejudging what they might say were the causes of the collision. The other point is that the pilot on hard shoulder running, on the M42, proved it to be safer.
Sir Peter Bottomley (Worthing West) (Con): The public tragedy of these seven deaths, so far, needs to be considered alongside the 35 private tragedies—the average number of deaths per week—in comparison with the 107 deaths each week 25 years ago. I commend my right hon. Friend for saying that we want to look for the causal factors and then consider what further measures we can take. However, will she get the Government to consider whether the question of the change from summertime to wintertime, which brings with it an average death cost in this country of 70 lives a year—two weeks’ worth of deaths—is worth returning to in time? I do not want an answer, or a promise to do it, straight away, but that is one of the decisions that the House could take, and it would save a significant number of lives.
Justine Greening: My hon. Friend, as a former Minister with responsibility for roads, always has an important point to make. I am aware of the arguments about daylight saving time—there are arguments on both sides—but obviously we have to be conscious of how any change would affect not just the south of our country but the north. I have no doubt that we will continue to have that debate over the coming months.
Iain Stewart (Milton Keynes South) (Con): I very much agree with my right hon. Friend’s comments about considering road safety measures more generally and not just speed limits, but may I urge her, as part of her review, to consider the system in France, where they have two levels of mandatory speed limit on motorways—an 80 mph limit for fair-weather driving and a considerably lower limit for adverse conditions?
Justine Greening: I have considered that. In fact, I was in discussion with the AA over the weekend to hear its views on HGVs and the speed limit. It has supported variable limits. However, it made another point too. Organisations such as the AA think that drivers can take decisions for themselves about the right speed to drive at, and that is something that we should be trying to build upon. It is important that drivers take responsibility for driving in a way appropriate for the road conditions.
Mr Rob Wilson (Reading East) (Con): In the context of getting to the truth of what happened in this dreadful accident, will my right hon. Friend tell us whether CCTV or traffic cameras were in operation along that stretch of the M5? If so, are they being used as part of the inquiry?
Justine Greening: When I went to the Highways Agency yesterday I saw some of the monitors on which the footage from those CCTV cameras can be viewed. People are viewing that footage, but the main challenge is that it was dark, which means that the information in the images is less than was hoped for. None the less, that footage will definitely be looked at to see whether it can provide any information that can feed into the inquiry.
Karen Bradley (Staffordshire Moorlands) (Con): I associate myself with the words of sympathy being expressed across the House. Does the Secretary of State agree that while the facts remain uncertain and emotions remain so raw, it is inappropriate for lobbyists and lobby groups to use this terrible tragedy to further their own campaigns?
Justine Greening: We all need to be conscious of our responsibility to approach road safety in a balanced, informed and sensitive way, given the tragic collision on the M5 on Friday, and I hope that the House will show leadership in doing just that.
Mark Pawsey (Rugby) (Con): I was travelling southbound on the M5 in Somerset on Friday evening and was diverted from the motorway, which meant that thankfully, unlike the hon. Member for Wells (Tessa Munt), I did not have to see the incident that led to loss of life. However, I did see a multiple collision in queuing traffic, which added to the demands on the emergency services that night. As part of a review, will the Secretary of State consider what steps could be taken to improve warnings and information for other road users, so that they can be better prepared for what is up ahead?
Justine Greening: My hon. Friend is right to raise the subject of information. It is not just when there are accidents that it is good to give motorists additional information so that they can make their own decisions about how to avoid a congested area. I would also like to look into how we can get better information to motorists on a daily basis, because it can help whatever the driving circumstances.
Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): I welcome my right hon. Friend to her place, endorse her remarks, echo her condolences to the families, and commend her statement. It is absolutely right to take a calm and measured approach towards making road safety the key priority. Given some of the increases in braking technology, for instance, I am sure that she will have the support of the whole House if she does not rush to early conclusions on the remarks about speed at this stage.
Justine Greening: We have always said that any decision we took would follow a consultation, and that is right. These are important areas to get right, and they require a balanced approach. That means understanding all the downsides and upsides before any final decision is taken. I can therefore assure my hon. Friend that we will go through the right process before we take any decisions.
Dr Julian Huppert (Cambridge) (LD): I would like to add my condolences to those affected by this awful tragedy, which is a serious reminder of the continuing toll on our roads. Just last year, in 2010, there were 1,850 deaths and more than 200,000 injuries, or some 600 every day. Mechanical failure contributed to some of those casualties. Will the Secretary of State join me in celebrating the success of the MOT test, which helps to improve safety standards?
Justine Greening: The MOT test has been in place for many years, and of course it plays a role in ensuring that cars are roadworthy. However, we should also recognise its limitations, and the fact that motorists will always need to take the necessary steps to ensure that their vehicles are roadworthy in between tests. If there are indications to suggest that a vehicle is not roadworthy, it is the motorist who has the responsibility to ensure that it is checked by a local garage.
Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): Twenty-nine years ago I had the sad responsibility of identifying several friends who had been killed in circumstances similar to those on the M5 last Friday. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we must not forget those who had the sad responsibility, if not duty, of identifying their friends or family members, or the calm courage that they needed to go through that awful process?
Justine Greening: My hon. Friend is right, and that is one of the reasons why we have to approach this in a measured way. In fact, the formal identification process is still under way for many of those families. Only once we have got through that, and the pathology, can the coroner for the south-west start his inquest, which we would hope can take place later this week. Many of us cannot even begin to understand what it would be like to go through such a traumatic experience, and we always have to bear that in mind.
Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): My right hon. Friend is fortunate to have as the Minister with responsibility for roads the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), who, as a former professional firefighter, brings his personal knowledge and experience to this issue. We have heard from several Members today that one of the sad features of this tragedy was the extent of the flames and the inferno that resulted. Will the Secretary of State ensure that the inquiry asks not just how we can prevent such crashes from happening, but how we can prevent vehicles from bursting into flames?
Justine Greening: My hon. Friend is right on two counts. First, we have a Minister with responsibility for roads who is perhaps uniquely placed to bring his insights to bear in dealing with such incidents. His visit to the site the day after the accident was vital in giving us the assurance that the necessary steps were being
taken. In relation to the fire, there is no doubt that the police will look into not just the precise circumstances that led to the collision, but why things unfolded as they did. As I have said, HGV fuel tank standards will be toughened and get progressively better over the next three years. That is obviously good news, and appropriate, and if there are further lessons to be learnt, they will be.
Chris Kelly (Dudley South) (Con): May I join in the expressions of condolence? What is the scope for increasing the number of miles of lit motorway in this country?
Justine Greening: Again, there is a danger of jumping to what the solutions could be following the police investigation. Suffice it to say, however, that I am of course open-minded about taking any steps that we think can improve road safety and ensure that we maintain—indeed, improve—our road safety record.