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Mr. Prescott: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his expressions of sympathy and support for the emergency services. All hon. Members would give their full support to those remarks.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the Easter flooding in 1998. I visited Stratford at the time and saw for myself how bad the flood was. A main complaint when I was there was that no prior warnings were received. In light of last week's Adjournment debate on the earlier floods, it is clear that, on the whole, warnings have improved considerably. Sir John Harman has given me one or two examples of failure to give sufficient warning, but in the main there has been a considerable improvement.

The report to which the hon. Gentleman referred was acted on by the Government to ensure that more resources were provided and more warnings were given. It is clear that we have learned some lessons, but there are an awful lot more to learn. That is why I want to bring the parties together, which is important in the handling of a crisis. The Environment Agency now has a responsibility to produce a report at the end of the event to show how it dealt with the crisis. Hon. Members whose constituents were affected can read the report and conclude whether the Environment Agency gave sufficient warnings and acted effectively in the emergency. That demonstrates transparency and accountability. We will wait to see what the report says. I shall certainly be very interested to see it.

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As every Member with a constituent who has experienced these problems knows, compensation always takes a long time--even for those who succeed in obtaining Bellwin funding--and there are constant complaints about that. Assessing all the damage obviously takes time, but I think that the complaint is legitimate. Ministers hide behind the Bellwin fund, saying, "Don't worry, there is a fund to help", but they know that it can be difficult to gain access to the money. I shall review the rules that apply in such circumstances in the forum that I mentioned.

We--my Department and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food--have increased funding from our own resources considerably, but what worries me is that we tend to plan for circumstances that are far less serious than we should reasonably expect. I do not think that what we assume to be extreme circumstances are being catered for by the present arrangements. For instance, are the pumps on the roads strong enough to disperse the floods that we are currently experiencing? Structures on the east coast railway lines are regularly pulled down because they were built on the cheap, and there was no proper investment. I am not making a political point--it happened under both parties--but the fact remains that we are not devoting the necessary resources to conditions that we may describe as extreme, but must now accept as normal.

I assume that the hon. Gentleman was making a political point at the end of his question, when he spoke of the housing requirements of the south-east. The Conservatives are getting very excited about them, but they are being discussed by local authorities and in the House, and we must make judgments about them. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Serplan requirement was for 33,000 homes a year. Professor Crow suggested 55,000; we anticipated 43,000, and the current figure is about 39,000.

If the Opposition argue that local authorities should not be forced to accept a higher figure, why did Kent county council, in the last year of Tory government, increase the number of dwellings by 3,000 over and above the local authority requirement? I do not know whether they were built on the flood plains to which the hon. Gentleman referred, but who decided that houses should be built on flood plains? The answer is local authorities. That, I believe, is the Opposition's approach. They say, "Do not let central Government have a role; leave it to local authorities." Local authorities, not central Government, were responsible for building on the flood plains.

I could make my political points, but I do not think that that would help. Let us get on seriously with doing the job. The Opposition should look to their past as well as to the future, and show a little more humility.

Mr. Christopher Leslie (Shipley): Is my right hon. Friend aware that, as we speak, the River Aire in the Bradford district in the north of England is at a 50-year high, flooding many homes and cutting off bridges and towns including Bingley, Shipley, Baildon and Burley- in-Wharfedale? There are no rail services and few road services. There have been several evacuations, in which hundreds have been evacuated. Obviously, many local

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people are very concerned. Will my right hon. Friend monitor the developments closely and liaise with the local authority about the financial implications?

Mr. Prescott: I shall certainly do those things. Monitoring is very important. As I said in my statement, I consider this to be a wake-up call. I think that all of us--the Government, local authorities and public and private operators--should ask ourselves whether we could do more to prevent the misery which many of our citizens suffer on such occasions.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): I welcome the Deputy Prime Minister's statement, especially given that only yesterday the Prime Minister's official spokesman told journalists that there were no plans for such a statement to be made. Interestingly, Mr. Alastair Campbell used a rather cryptic expression, saying, "The weather has been devolved." I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman understands what that means.

I join the right hon. Gentleman in offering sympathy to the bereaved families, and to those who have been injured. I also join him in congratulating both the emergency services and local authorities. Does he agree, however, that we should thank the many private individuals who have voluntarily given a great deal of support to those in greater need? In particular, will he congratulate Lewes council, which has had to deal with the problems of floods for more than two weeks?

Given that the right hon. Gentleman has rightly addressed, perhaps for the first time, genuine concern about the impact of global warming, leading to these particular problems, who does he think the Minister for the Environment had in mind when he said in The Guardian today:


I wonder to whom the Minister for the Environment was referring.

Why did the Deputy Prime Minister say in his statement that the Government are offering more money for flood defences, when the figures, which he even read out, demonstrate that there is no increase whatever over and above inflation? Does he accept that, given that he has admitted that there is more likelihood of severe weather, there should be an increase in funding?

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Speaker: Order. Before I call the Deputy Prime Minister, may I say that every hon. Member has a constituency interest in the matter. I want to call everyone. I can do so with the co-operation of the House, if hon. Members' questions are brief.

Mr. Prescott: I thank the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) for his support for the emergency services. I--no one else--make statements to the House. I am responsible to the House--no parliamentary or news spokesman is. If I decide that it is right to make a statement to the House, that is what I do. That is what I have done. I did not consult anyone else. [Interruption.] Sorry, Alastair.

Like the hon. Member for Bath, I give my support to the voluntary organisations. They are always there. Individuals helped, too--I should have mentioned them

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in my statement, as I did in the previous statement on rail. They play an impressive role in such circumstances. They are at home doing nothing and then, all of a sudden, they become heroes. I am sure that the House wishes them well and thanks them for all that they do.

I congratulate the local authority in Lewes. In the past couple of weeks, it has had difficulties; those difficulties did not start just at the weekend. I read about the events to which the hon. Gentleman refers.

With regard to what my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment was referring to in The Guardian, I am always a bit sceptical about what we can believe in any paper, including The Guardian, but I asked him whether he meant the Liberal party. He said he did not; he meant non-governmental organisations. I might add that it was the Minister for the Environment and I who convened an environmental conference in London during the dispute, so we were constantly making our points. I am not sure that the green groups were, but I shall leave that aside; I have made my point about that before.

As for the giving of more resources, if we put all the groups together, the total amount of money that I should have reported to the House is about £400 million--considerably more than just taking inflation into account.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): We all know that a massive amount of work was done on the railways this weekend, and then we had the crisis because of the weather. May we thank the workers who have been on the railways, out in all weathers?

We still have chaos on the rail railways. Is that because we do not have the number of workers with the skills required? If we are going to maintain a railway--it is crucial that we get lines back working as quickly as possible--we need more skills. Will my right hon. Friend look at the situation, do a skills audit to find out how many more railway men we need to maintain a modern railway, get the industry together and ensure that we get those workers.


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