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Mr. Prescott: I am sure that the House will want to agree with my hon. Friend's comments with regard to the many thousands of workers at the weekend--20,000--who got on with attempting to deal with all the problems with the track. Indeed, on Monday, 10,000 of them were transferred to deal with problems that arose from the weather. There have been difficult circumstances, but I think that we would want to congratulate all those people on their efforts. Ultimately, it will be for the inquiries to determine what factors contributed to the accident.
Nevertheless, contracts and the availability of skilled workers, particularly engineers, are matters of grave concern. I have asked the industry--including the Strategic Rail Authority, Railtrack, railway companies and the health and safety authorities--to report back to me, on Thursday, with a Railtrack recovery programme. When we have that programme clear in our minds, we will be able to develop an emergency programme dealing with train arrivals. I think that that is what people want, and that is what I hope to be able to give them very shortly.
Mr. Prescott: On the effectiveness of alarms, I quite agree that it is far better to prevent damage. However, there has been very considerable rainfall in the past couple of days, and, as the hon. Lady will know, the run-off of that rain has considerably increased water levels in rivers, such as the one at York. Such conditions are very difficult to deal with, but we should look into whether there is more that we can do, and I shall do that.
Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish): Does my right hon. Friend accept that the misery of the past few days is a clear indication that he got it spot on at Kyoto? Can he tell us what he intends to do, at the follow-up next month, to persuade all the other countries to co-operate to lower CO 2 emissions? What is the United Kingdom going to do to give a lead in the matter?
Mr. Prescott: I thank my hon. Friend for his questions and for his congratulations on the efforts that we have made on the Kyoto protocol. The process now moves to The Hague, where we will have to get an agreement. Although that agreement will be between the developed countries and the developing countries, it will be up to the developed countries to lead the way. I hope that the complications presented by some developed countries do not lead to suggestions that the developing countries will have to sign up to the agreement, as that will make it extremely difficult to reach an agreement. An awful lot of work is being done, however, and the prospect of agreement looks promising--although one can never tell until one gets into the negotiations.
I think that every incident demonstrating climate change reminds everyone, whether he or she lives in a developing or a developed country, that we are all affected by climate change. Climate issues have no national boundaries and affect people everywhere, whether they live in China, Nigeria or America. All those countries will have to reach an agreement on climate change issues.
Lately, I have done quite a bit of travelling--for which I have been criticised--to try to achieve agreement on some of those issues. If a lot of the work is not done before such conferences, they can break down. We were successful at Kyoto because of that type of work. I think that everyone realises that success at The Hague requires a lot of hard work and commitment, and that, if we are not successful there, an awful lot of children in the future will not forgive us.
Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (Wealden): Will the right hon. Gentleman give very special consideration to people who have properties that have been damaged or who have suffered uninsurable losses? Will he also bear in mind that
Mr. Prescott: Of course, the Bellwin fund is about covering local authorities and uninsurable losses; ultimately, however, to be honest, it does not cover farmers. I think that MAFF and other bodies offer other forms of compensation, which should be taken into account.
Mr. Peter Snape (West Bromwich, East): What comfort can the Deputy Prime Minister offer us in relation to the railway's problems in dealing with inclement weather? Earlier, he referred to things being done on the cheap in this country. Does he agree that it is no coincidence that, as soon as we had anything greater than a summer breeze, the overhead railway lines--not the lines causing global warming, but the ones propelling trains--were the first to collapse? Will he suggest to Railtrack management that they go to Switzerland, where the Swiss have been stringing wires up the sides of mountains for many years, and where the wind has been known to blow without causing undue damage? What can we do to get a decent railway?
Mr. Prescott: My hon. Friend makes a fair point. In opposition, we both made it clear when we felt that cheap options had been taken to the detriment of the long term. A good example is the electrification of the east coast line. Frankly, that was the second cheaper option that was taken. Those of us who use that line regularly have to face the fact that it keeps coming down. It does not seem to take a very strong wind, certainly not gale force. I think that the wrong option was taken and that we should learn from past mistakes. In my statement I suggested that we should invest in building more security and safety into the infrastructure.
Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes): May I add my gratitude and admiration for the emergency services and Lewes district council for their work during the terrible tragedy that hit my constituency, where 400 houses were evacuated and the entire retail and business area of the town remains shut to this day? May I gently suggest to the Deputy Prime Minister that I am pleased that it served as a wake-up call?
In two Adjournment debates last year, I warned the House that the river defences in Lewes were inadequate, but nothing was done. I hope that will now be corrected. I have just come from a meeting with business leaders in the town who tell me that they are losing £3 million a day. They and the residents of Lewes want a pledge from the Government that there will be a strategic overview of the river Ouse and Uck system and that when recommendations are made for improvements--quickly, I hope--the Government will find the money to introduce those improvements so that there is no repetition of the floods that hit my constituency.
Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North): I thank my right hon. Friend for his continuing work to deal with this catastrophe. We now have a new concept for emergency planning. Will he look closely with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Environment Agency at the criteria used to justify expenditure on new flood defences? In respect of the warning that we have now had about global warming, it is essential in the context of the fuel crisis that we have an informed public debate in this country. Is my right hon. Friend prepared to lead that debate and put the issue on the national agenda?
Mr. Prescott: On the latter point, my hon. Friend is aware that the issue is very much on the agenda. I was very careful to make that point, as was my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment. It is difficult for politicians to suggest that global warming may be to blame as it looks as if we are finding an excuse, but the general public read the papers and realise that there is something in it. Those of us who have argued that case for a long time are pleased about that. We are looking at new criteria on cost benefits. It is exactly what we need to do.
Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton): I should like to thank the right hon. Gentleman for his statement and the Minister for the Environment for coming down to Bognor Regis on Sunday to see for himself the damage done to hundreds of homes by the tornado that struck the town on Saturday evening.
The Secretary of State is right to praise the emergency services. On Saturday evening and throughout the weekend the police, fire and ambulance services and trading standards and housing officers worked closely together repairing roofs, closing roads and finding alternative accommodation for people who were evacuated from their homes.
Until recently, tornadoes have been very rare in Britain, but the Secretary of State will be aware that in Pagham, just a few miles west of Bognor Regis, there was a small tornado last year. There were also tornadoes in Selsey in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie). Clearly, weather patterns are changing. On the coast we are now seeing much greater extremes of weather, with storms delivering quantities of rain in very short periods of time.
Therefore, we should be taking measures to deal with changing weather patterns. As well as extra sea defences, surely we should now reconsider the level of new housebuilding that the Secretary of State is demanding for the south coast. It is resulting in houses being built on land that has traditionally been regarded as a flood plain because there is simply nowhere else to put them. Will he now take into account the consequences of more building on flood management policies and reduce the number of houses that he is demanding to be built in West Sussex and the coastal counties?