Orders of the Day — Midland Link Motorways

– in the House of Commons at 1:36 am on 28th July 1981.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Lord James Douglas-Hamilton.]

Photo of Mr Jeff Rooker Mr Jeff Rooker , Birmingham, Perry Barr 1:52 am, 28th July 1981

I have no doubt that the staff of the House will be pleased to see that we have reached the Adjournment on this public holiday.

I wish briefly to raise some of the repair problems of the Midland link motorways, dealing in the main with two issues. The first is the Atkins report on the bearings, which is one of the key problems of the whole structure. I was going to concentrate on the Atkins "final report" of January this year, a copy of which I have had for some weeks, but I shall instead—because of the actions of the Department of Transport last Friday—highlight some of the changes made in the version that the Department saw fit to publish last week and that the media have simply swallowed whole.

My second point concerns the more immediate problems of the tenders for the bearing repairs, about which I wrote to the Minister last Friday and which were referred to in the article in The Sunday Times written by the journalist John Coates.

The report presented by Atkins and Partners in January stated on page 3 that Atkins and Partners had proceeded along the lines of its brief and duly presented an interim report before Christmas 1980. This was discussed with the West Midlands County Council on 15th January 1981. Investigations since have proceeded in more detail and this final report describes these findings and covers all the work carried out to date. The report published last Friday stated on page 4 that Atkins and Partners had proceeded along these lines and had duly presented an interim report before Christmas 1980. This was discussed with the West Midlands county council on 15 January 1981. Investigations then proceeded in more detail, and a provisional report describing these findings and covering all the work carried out to that date was presented at the end of January 1981. So we now have the final report of January 1981 referred to as the provisional report in the new version published in July.

Friday's report, which by any means is certainly a laundered version of the previous report, went on to say on page 4 about its own publication: Additionally it was thought desirable to be able to publish this report to allay public fears and to this end it has been edited to omit certain confidential commercial information and other statements directly attributable to third parties. That, I maintain, is a grossly misleading statement. Anyone with both versions of the report can see that that is the case. I shall give four examples.

The first concerns the fact that on page 13 of the laundered version, which was published last week, in the report of discussions with original consultants—and there is no secret of the fact that the original consultants on the Midland link viaduct motorway were Sir Owen Williams and Partners—there is a reference to a visit under a slip road at Gravelly Hill—better known as Spaghetti Junction—as follows: The concrete crossbeams were in particularly poor condition here. In the real Atkins report of January this year, however, the sentence is as follows: The concrete crossbeams were in particularly poor condition here but this was due to faulty workmanship originally. That is quite clearly stated in appendix B, which is not in the laundered version, on sheet 3 on the history notes about a meeting on 9 December 1980 at the Birmingham office of Sir Owen Williams and Partners. This is not simply omitting the attribution of what is said but is altering what was said. And that runs counter to what was said in the report published last week.

My second example is that on page 17 of the laundered version in the report of discussions with the other current principal inspection consultants—there are four groups of consultants—there is the following statement: At Gravelly Hill the bearings were in a poor state—the Consultants generally could not confirm that any mortar was in place centrally under the base-plates". In the real Atkins report the same sentence reads: At Gravelly Hill the bearings were in a poor state—Maunsells generally had no confidence that any mortar was in place centrally under the base-plates". This again is in appendix B of the history note of a telephone discussion of 11 December 1980.

If only the name of the consultants had been left out there might not be too much to argue about. But when had no confide rice that any mortar was in place becomes could not confirm that any mortar was in place between the two versions there is cause for people to worry. The report has been rewritten in a way that is not clearly stated in the quotation I have made.

The third example concerns the opening paragraph of the report's conclusions. This, again, is facelifted, to say the least. In January the report began on page 87: The structural damage so far noted on the viaducts". In July the report began on page 95: The limited structural damage so far noted on the viaducts". Were Atkins and Partners happy to have to rewrite their report with this kind of doctoring? I suspect that they were not.

The fourth example concerns the paragraph I have just mentioned—the opening paragraph of the conclusions. I wish, even given the short time available, to try to put both paragraphs on record. In the January report, paragraph 1 of the conclusions and recommendations reads as follows: The structural damage so far noted on the viaducts can in general be reasonably attributed to the bedding failures. The mortar beddings could have failed from either poor workmanship originally, heavy loadings due to bearing friction or a combination of both factors. If one considers that, for example, Bromford Viaduct, with its reportedly good workmanship has survived since construction with beddings generally still in a good state, whereas Gravelly Hill at the other extreme has had many failures which, it is reported, may be largely attributed to bad workmanship, then one is led to believe that the original poor workmanship could be the major failure factor. In the July version of the Atkins report, the same paragraph reads as follows: The limited structural damage so far noted on the viaducts can, in general, be reasonably attributed to the bedding failures. The mortar beddings could have failed from either poor workmanship originally, heavy loadings due to bearing friction or a combination of both factors. However, if one considers that one viaduct, with reportedly good workmanship has survived since construction with beddings generally still in a good state, whereas other viaducts have had many failures which, it is reported, may be largely attributed to bad workmanship, then one is led to believe that the original poor workmanship could be the major failure factor. Simply by the failure to indicate which viaduct had "reportedly good workmanship" and which had had many failures … largely attributed to bad workmanship", all the original contractors are tarred with the same brush, as this is comm. on information, whether it be Marples Ridgeway who built Bromford or A. Monk and Co. of Warrington who built Gravelly Hill. All of them are smeared, as well as other companies to which I shall refer later.

Any serious journalist who wants a full copy of the Atkins report can have one from me, although he will have to contribute towards the cost of photocopying as at 150 pages it is rather expensive to copy.

As the Minister well knows from the press reports of Friday and the weekend, general media analysis of the report published on Friday was impossible. It was two-thirds of the size of the January report and included reports of the jacking tests carried out in May and June. I therefore suspect that general serious media analysis was riot intended to take place in any event.

So far as I am aware, the only confidential commercial information left out of Friday's laundered version of the report, other than some of the details of different hearing manufacturers asked to supply various alternatives which had been detailed in the appendices, is an example which could lead to a possible charge—I put it no higher than that—of collusive tendering between R. M. Douglas Limited and Dabb Chemicals. In the January report, discussions with both, which are not highlighted in last week's report, throw up the same figure at different places and at different times for the bearing replacement. I shall come to that in greater detail in a moment.

The Minister said in his statement last Friday that the recommendation in the report regarding greasing of the sliding surfaces of the bearing faces was being considered. As he knows, the summary on page 2 of last week's report reads: It is strongly suggested that the bedding replacement contracts should be extended in scope to clean and re-grease the sliding surfaces and that the opportunity be taken to test several alternative insert solutions to gain experience for possible future use should conditions deteriorate. There are two points there. First, it is strongly suggested that they be included in what I take to be the current contracts which are about to be let. Secondly, we are told that there is a high possibility that we shall need to have several alternatives ready for further deterioration of the Midland link motorways.

Did the current tender documents, which were let four or five weeks ago in mid-June, for the three viaducts at Wigmore, Gravelly Hill and Thornbridge and which I understand were sent out to approximately half a dozen firms for each viaduct actually include this work? The work was suggested in the Atkins report published last week—that must have been with the Minister for some time—and highly recommended in the January report, which must have been in the Minister's hands for a considerable time. I suggest that that information was not included in the tender documents. Will those documents be urgently amended to save the taxpayer money?

The tenders were due to be received by the West Midlands county council, acting as the agents—and therefore usually meant to carry the can for the Department—last Friday at 12 noon. I understand that, unusually, they had not been opened until today. Normally they would have been opened after 12 noon on Friday, with the necessary people being present to check that everything was done properly.

Does the Under-Secretary stand by his answer to me of 29 June? He said: However, the recommendations from Atkins final report"— which I presume to be Friday's report— will be considered before contracts are placed."—[Official Report, 29 June 1981; Vol. 7, c. 309.] That was in answer to my specific question about whether contracts for the bearing plinths would receive approval before the Department received the Atkins report.

The main change has been the strong recommendation regarding greasing or lubrication of the sliding surfaces. It is ludicrous to have three major contracts to be let, involving millions of pounds of public money, and perhaps later his year or next year to have the work redone, with the bearings opened up to be greased or regreased.

I wish to ask the Under-Secretary a series of questions about the tenders. The invitation to go on the list to tender for the three contracts was made at about Christmas last year, and it was urgent then that the work be carried out.

I understand that, although A. Monk and Co. applied to the West Midlands county council to go on the list, the council refused to place the firm on the list for any of the contracts at Wigmore, Gravelly and Thornbridge. Did Monk's apply to the Department at any time after the county council refused to put the company on its list?

Why did the Department insist during May or June that Monk's be added to the council's list? Were the council's standing orders complied with? Did the highways committee meet and overrule its previous decision on the instructions of the Minister?

Has the Minister received advice from his chief highways engineer, Mr. Sriskandan, on this matter, which is a key issue for the county council? Why has the Department cut the lists for tendering to almost half of the firms originally approved by the county council? The lists for all three contracts were cut by almost half. I have no interest to declare, but why have local companies such as Wrekin and Bilton been excluded? I understand that they have the necessary specialist equipment to carry out the work.

Is it true that W. C. French, who built Wigmore, and Marples Ridgeway, who built Bromford, refused even to apply to go on the lists—even though the construction industry is so short of work?

I repeat the question that I asked the Minister in a letter. Is it right that Monk's, who built Gravelly, and R. M. Douglas, who built the Thornbridge viaduct, should even be invited to tender for what is, in effect, putting right their own poor workmanship, which is highlighted in the Atkins report?

Why was there the delay from Christmas to last Friday? That was a substantial delay and the best months of the year for regrouting work have slipped by. The Minister knows that the work was regarded as important when Mr. Mustow said in a letter last November, which is contained in the first Atkins report, that it was urgent. He said that there was political pressure to take urgent action and he re-emphasised the urgency of the work. If it was urgent then, it must be urgent now.

A year ago I complained to the Minister about the unsafe scaffolding left underneath Gravelly Hill—Spaghetti Junction—over the canal, which could be got at by youngsters. He gave me an assurance in a letter last September that this would be taken care of. Two weeks ago I saw youngsters climbing that scaffolding, and I ask what action the Department has taken with regard to the contractors who erected that scaffolding. Someone will be killed if that scaffolding is not protected so that youngsters are prevented from climbing 60 feet above the canal.

My last point relates to the problems arising in the Atkins report over the same figures being raised by Dabb Chemicals and R. M. Douglas for the same work—replacing the bearings. The figure that emerged is £112. One company was working as a sub-contractor to the other. The Minister wrote to me on 21 July telling me that Dabb Chemicals had the Wilton contract for £80,000 and that Douglas had the Oldbury contract for £215,000, but he did not tell me that Douglas sub-contracted the Oldbury contract to Dabb, which is a small family business. The name stands for Diane and Brian Bliss. It is not a bucket shop and it is not a multinational. I also question whether it is right and proper that firms which have worked in this close proximity and know each other's figures should be put on the same tender list for the now competitive contracts—the tenders which were received last Friday and which have been opened today. I have raised the questions with the Minister in a letter and I do not intend to repeat them here tonight.

Millions of pounds of public money are involved. I know that the Minister is doing his best and I have great respect for the way in which he has tackled the problem in the last two years. But the repairs to the Midland link motorways have become a gravy train for many firms, and we need some assurances about the matter. I know that the Minister will do his best to answer some of the questions tonight and will write to me about the others. We need to have assurances that the public interest is being fully protected on all counts. That assurance is needed more than ever following the report last Friday of the Atkins inquiry on the bearings and the changes made, which were more substantial than I have been able to go into, compared with the report that was made available in its final version in January of this year.

Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport 2:13 am, 28th July 1981

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) for raising the question of the Midlands link motorways in the Adjournment debate. He has taken a close interest in it for some time and has at last given me the opportunity to answer some of his points.

I once wrote to the hon. Gentleman at an early stage when he raised the matter, asking him what exactly was the point that he was trying to get at in his copious researches on Midlands link motorways. I am still not altogether sure that he knows exactly what he is driving at. He is doing an extraordinary amount of research work into a highly technical and complicated subject and keeps throwing up questions. It is plain from the way in which he puts his questions and the inferences he draws from some of the things he finds that he feels that somewhere some kind of misuse of public funds is taking place, with damage to the public interest, withholding of information and so on. But he is trawling through such a vast amount of material that he never quite gets exactly what it is that he is complaining about. I fear that he is being overwhelmed by the quantity of material available to him.

I have tried to reassure the hon. Gentleman—and I shall try to do so again in the brief time available this evening—that there really is no underlying sinister activity that I have been able to discover in regard to the Midlands link motorways.

I begin by reaffirming briefly what the Government's policy has been towards the difficult problems that we are having in maintaining this complicated, long series of viaducts on the M6 north of Birmingham. Our aim is basically to find out first what is wrong with the structures. We must then go on to carry out effective repairs as speedily as possible at the lowest overall cost and the minimum inconvenience to road users and others who might be affected by the works. Finally, when we have done that, we intend to examine the case thoroughly and to consider whether compensation can be obtained from any people who may be liable for negligence or in any other way for the costs of the repair.

Throughout the investigation of the Midland links viaducts and the repair work undertaken, the West Midlands county council has acted as the Department's agents. That council therefore shares the responsibility with us for keeping the viaducts in good order and repair. There is not and has not been any conflict between ourselves and our agents, the county council. For as long as the agency agreement continues, it is not possible for there to be any conflict.

The hon. Gentleman will receive a reply from me to one of his parliamentary questions. Recently, I met Councillor Clark, the new chairman of the highways committee of West Midlands county council. In the past he has shared some of the hon. Gentleman's concern about the Midland links viaducts If the hon. Gentleman has any doubts, I invite him to consider the questions that I asked Mr. Clark. I asked him what we had asked its engineers to do that the county council did not want them to do. I asked him what the West Midlands county council's engineers were not doing that it wanted them to do. I explained to Councillor Clark that they were his engineers and that his highway committee was responsible for what they did. I pointed out that if, at any time, he wished to tell me that we were in conflict about what his engineers should do, I should be happy to listen to him. However, as long as he is the agent, his authority is the agent authority. He is in charge of the work and, as long as we are doing things in agreement, his responsibility is equal to that of those of us in the Government.

Meanwhile the county council is acting as our agent. Since 1978, it has been appointing firms of consulting engineers to carry out much of the principal inspection work on the viaducts. I regret the latest county council policy of recruiting large numbers of extra staff to try to do the work rather than employing expert consultants. In the past the council has employed outside consulting engineers. An enormous number of principal inspection reports are being produced. I keep updating the information, but as of today we have received 80 principal inspection reports out of the total of about 130 that we hope to have by the end of this year. Every one of those reports has been made available to the public and to whoever wishes to see them. Several of the journalists producing reports about the Midland links viaducts go to our publicly available reports in order to do research and to produce the information.

Throughout that time we have had one report that was not made available to the public. I refer to the Atkins Report on bearings, which was produced in January 1981. I regret—as do the Government—that the report was not made public. However, the problem appears to have been solved, because the hon. Gentleman is making an offer to all and sundry and will allow people to have photocopies of the report that he has. That report on the bearings was produced in January 1981. At that stage the question whether we should make the report publicly available was raised. Atkins is a group of consulting engineers. Such people are not usually active in the political arena. When the report was written it was not known that the report would be made publicly available. Therefore, Atkins incorporated certain commercially confidential information and statements that were based on information that had been given by third parties. All those involved in compiling the report did not realise that the report would be publicly available. Therefore, I was satisfied that it would have been unfair to Atkins to release the report. It was right to give Atkins the chance to decide on the type of report that it wished to make available if it was to be publicly answerable for its statements.

It is also right to refer to the report as an interim one. After the January report, which gave the findings until that date, further jacking tests were carried out in order to check the preliminary observations of the bearings and to come to the final conclusions that appeared in the report published last Friday. Copies of the report are now freely available and one copy has today been posted in the Library. It is true that there are differences in the texts of the report of January 1981 and this report. Everyone will happily be able to examine those differences if the hon. Gentleman makes the original report available. I cannot prevent him from doing so.

All the changes have been made by Atkins. There has been no editing or laundering of any report by the Department. Indeed, if anyone in my Department has been party to suggestions that the proposals be laundered, he is acting totally contrary to my instructions.

When this problem arose on the report in January 1981, I thought that the fair thing to do was to make it clear lo Atkins that we wanted a final report from the company which would be publicly available. Any changes in the text that have been made by Atkins have been made in the judgment of Atkins itself to protect its performance. to put forward opinions which the company is happy to defend in public and to reflect further work that has been done on the jacking tests since then.

Straight away we accepted all the recommendations of the Atkins report. We are still considering the possible need for greasing of the bearings as the plinths are replaced. Although at the moment I am dependent for engineering advice, it is likely that our engineers will agree that it is desirable. The tenders that have gone out for the bearing plinth repairs do not contain any provision for greasing, but there is no question of contracts being placed and the work commenced before we have made a final decision about the greasing. Otherwise we should have to repair the plinths and break them open to put the grease in. If we decide to grease, the tenderers will be approached so that there can be a final adjustment to the price for the greasing to be done.

The other questions concern the firms that have been invited to tender for the bearing plinths. Two of the firms, R. M. Douglas Construction Ltd. and Dabb Chemicals Ltd., have been invited to tender for the repair work on the Wigmore and Thornbridge viaducts and have previously worked together, but that does not mean that their prices will not be truly competitive on this occasion. It is by no means unusual for different contractors sometimes to work together on some work and later to tender separately by work elsewhere or even on the same structures. Our usual practices have been followed in inviting tenders, and that will include clear assurances that the tenders are genuinely competitive with each other.

The other matter that has been raised is that we should not have invited Monk and Douglas to tender for the plinth work because they were involved in work 10 years ago about which there is now doubt. Those firms have done a great deal of work since. They are substantial firms employing many people. We are major public sector purchasers of contracting work. It cannot be argued that because there is now some question that 10 years ago—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o' clock on Tuesday evening, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-two minutes past Two o'clock on Wednesday morning till Thursday 30 July 1981 at half past two o' clock, pursuant to the Resolution of the House of 23 July.