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10.55 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Chris Mullin): I welcome the opportunity to respond to the debate initiated by the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) on the terrible incident that took place in Portsmouth on 15 September. He makes a powerful case. I realise that I may not be able to deal with all the points that he has raised, but I shall study his speech and if there are further matters on which I need to respond, I shall do so. I shall also ensure that his speech is drawn to the attention of those people who need to read it--although I imagine that he may do that himself.

I fully sympathise with those people whose properties were flooded in Portsmouth and, more recently, in other parts of the country. On a previous occasion, I was flooded--although not as seriously as the hon. Gentleman's constituents--and I am aware of how distressing it can be.

Many of the recent flooding incidents were caused by swollen rivers, but as the hon. Gentleman points out, the Portsmouth incident was different; it was due to exceptional rainfall over a low-lying area. The Meterological Office stated that, apparently, the rainfall on that day was a one in a 100 year event. The storm was extreme; it could be a further example of the global warming process to which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions referred in his statement to the House last week.

Sewerage undertakings are under a statutory duty to ensure the effectual drainage of their area under section 94 of the Water Industries Act 1991, but that is not an absolute duty to prevent flooding in any circumstances. Portsmouth, like many urban areas, is served by combined sewers that carry both foul water and rainwater; they can usually cope adequately in normal storm conditions. However, in times of exceptionally heavy rainfall, such sewers will sometimes be unable to cope with the significant extra amount of flood water. That can result in their surcharging to such an extent that diluted sewage made up of storm water and foul water overflows into the street. That would be the case whether the flooding was due to swollen rivers or to exceptional rainfall.

Those people who have experienced flooding elsewhere in the country have encountered problems similar to those suffered by the hon. Gentleman's constituents. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced, we are determined to learn the lessons of that experience. However, it must be realised that flood precautions can only protect so far. In extreme conditions, such as we have seen recently, there will be problems.

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In relation to the Portsmouth incident, I am assured that the Eastney sewage pumping station was working at full capacity and managed to cope with the rising levels of surface water until its pumps and the motors driving them were eventually inundated. The rainfall started to peak at 10 am, and the first of Southern Water's large diesel storm pumps was brought into operation at 10.25; the other pumps were used subsequently. All the pumps continued to operate until 13.07--that is the time given by the company, although the hon. Gentleman said it was at 13.30--when the diesel engines powering the pumps were themselves overwhelmed by the rising flood water in the pumping station.

Southern Water was able to restart some of the pumps by 15.30 to enable flood water to be pumped to the long sea outfall. In addition, temporary pumps were used. Since the incident, company staff and contractors have been working to bring all the pumps back on line. The Eastney pumping station houses electric and diesel pumps, and I understand that the diesel pumps suffered severe damage in the flood. Southern Water considered whether to buy new ones, but as delivery could have taken several months and might have prolonged the temporary pumping measures at Eastney until well into next year, the company decided that it would be more effective and efficient to repair the existing pumps than to buy new ones.

I understand that these pumps had never been overwhelmed before. As the hon Gentleman is aware, there have been several more extreme rainfall incidents since 15 September, and I am told that the pumping station has coped with them all. The hon. Gentleman has asked in a recent letter why the pumps were situated below ground level, and he referred to that in his speech. The reason is that the sewerage system is below ground and, to a large extent, it relies on gravitational flow. However, those pumps were protected by concrete walls at least 13 m deep in a dry well shaft which, in normal circumstances, would remain immune to flooding. On 15 September, flooding within the pumping station reached unprecedented levels and penetrated ventilation ducts situated a metre below the top of the concrete walls. Southern Water assures me that it will now be investigating whether further measures can be taken to protect the diesel engines driving the pumps.

Even after the pumps were slowly being brought back on line, Southern Water retained temporary emergency pumping plant at the Eastney pumping station as a precaution in the event of further heavy rainfall. That enabled discharges of waste water to be made into Langstone harbour, as a temporary measure which reduced the risk of more flooding of properties in periods of further heavy rainfall since the incident. The Environment Agency was consulted on those temporary discharges and did not object. It did, however, seek assurances from Southern Water that the repair work to the pumps would proceed with full speed and it continued to monitor the environmental impact of the incident. While I accept that pumping this waste water into Langstone harbour was not ideal, it was a temporary measure. I understand that no discharges have been made into the harbour since 11 October.

On the question of compensation, I hope that those affected are able to recover their losses under their normal household insurance policies, although, as the hon. Gentleman says, some of his constituents are

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under-insured and some are no doubt not insured. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said, the Government will discuss with the Association of British Insurers how the insurance industry might respond quickly and effectively to emergencies such as this and deal with problems of insurability of homes and businesses at risk of flooding.

For those not insured or not fully insured, I understand that limited cash help only for those on income support or jobseeker's allowance may be available from the social fund, which is administered through the Benefits Agency. Help is given in the form of a grant or interest free loan. That is obviously likely to apply to only a small number of people who have particularly low incomes.

Help may also be available, as the hon. Gentleman said, from the fund set up by the Lord Mayor following the incident, to which Southern Water has made a donation. I understand that so far grants of only £6,000 have been made out of the fund. The Lord Mayor has recently relaxed some of the qualifying conditions to enable more of the money to be made available. I am assured that its availability has been well publicised in the area and the hon. Gentleman will no doubt wish to advise his constituents who are suffering hardship to make a claim.

Mr. Hancock: The one condition that has not been relaxed is that if there was an insurable risk, people cannot claim from the hardship fund. However, if someone is not insured, everything that they have is at risk. That is what needs to be changed.

Mr. Mullin: That is a discussion that the hon. Gentleman needs to have with the Lord Mayor, rather than with the Government.

The hon. Gentleman is already aware that the water industry operates a statutory guaranteed standards scheme, which has been further improved by the Government. As the hon. Gentleman said, under the scheme, householders are now entitled to a refund of a year's sewerage charges every time there is sewage flooding of a customer's property from a public sewer, up to a maximum on each occasion of £1,000.

There are however certain circumstances in which a rebate of sewerage charges is not payable. One of these is where the event results from exceptional weather conditions, and I understand that that is why Southern Water did not feel that it was liable to pay any rebate of sewerage charges in respect of this particular incident. In the first instance, that is a matter for its judgment. Where a dispute arises between an undertaker and a customer as to the right of a customer to a payment or credit under the scheme, the matter may be referred to the Director General of Water Services by either party for determination. That is an avenue open to the hon. Gentleman's constituents.

Southern Water has so far received only a handful of claims directly. It believes that the reason for this is that most people affected have been able to claim successfully from their insurance. Although it did not operate the guaranteed standards scheme, it did help with the clean-up operation. I understand that some 260 properties were affected in what is a mainly residential area of Victorian terraced houses. Southern Water's assistance involved pumping water out of properties, disinfecting the affected areas and clearing visible contamination from gardens.

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The Government for their part are directing substantial resources to measures aimed at protecting communities in incidents such as these. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced over the weekend, we will be providing £51 million extra for flood defence work over and above that already agreed in the spending review.

We are taking a number of other steps that we believe will help people and local authorities to cope with weather difficulties. They include improvement to the working of the Bellwin system, which exists to help local authorities defray unexpected costs in floods and other emergencies. Assistance from Bellwin will now be automatic for local authorities dealing with the current floods and the rate of Government support will increase from 85 per cent. to 100 per cent. Valid claims will be settled within 15 workings days and claims for advance payment can be made. Research work at the Hadley centre and the United Kingdom climate impacts programme will be enhanced and speeded up to improve our prediction and assessment of the effects of climatic change.

I understand that Portsmouth city council has already notified my Department of the problems that it has experienced during the flooding, but officials have yet to receive a formal application for assistance under the Bellwin scheme. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman urge the council to make such an application as soon as possible.

On the calls for an inquiry, I understand that the Environment Agency is carrying out an independent investigation into the incident to assess whether an offence has been committed by Southern Water under the Water Resources Act 1991. To come to a decision, the agency has asked Southern Water to provide a large amount of information and data. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that this is not a simple operation. It is not until all the relevant evidence has been accumulated that the agency will be in a position to reach a conclusion with respect to potential legal proceedings. The agency has given assurances that it will provide a full report in due course and that it will be publicly available. I have every confidence that the agency will be very thorough and I look forward to its report.

In the longer term, I understand that Southern Water is now well advanced towards delivery of an improvement scheme for the drainage catchments of both Portsmouth and Havant. The scheme will provide secondary biological treatment before discharge via the long sea outfall. As a direct result of the recent incident, the Environment Agency will also, in conjunction with Southern Water, review the design proposals with particular regard to protection of the pumping station.

Therefore, at the present time, I see no reason for any other form of inquiry. With the best will in the world, there is no way in which every incident of this nature can be provided for in advance. In the end, the only way to mitigate the consequences is for people to be adequately insured. As I have already said, we will discuss with the Association of British Insurers how the insurance industry might better respond to such emergencies.

I hope that I have given some reassurance to the hon. Gentleman. I appreciate that several issues must to be resolved and, if he wishes to pursue any further points, I shall be glad to do reply to him in writing.

Question put and agreed to.

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