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The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Elliot Morley): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) on his knowledgeable and very comprehensive speech, in which he described the dreadful
I know, too, that my hon. Friend spent many hours talking to local emergency services, the Environment Agency, British Waterways and the Army. All those organisations did a great job in the area, and often worked around the clock to try to strengthen the defences around Selby. There is no doubt that, without that work, those defences would have given way in places, and many more houses would have been affected. I also express my sympathy for all my hon. Friend's constituents who have been affected.
As my hon. Friend noted, the situation with the floods was an extreme. In some places, they were the worst for hundreds of years, and in others they were the worst on record. The huge effort that was made meant that the flood defences in the Selby area held back the water beyond their designed capacity. I am glad that that work was successful. As a matter of interest, one of the Army regiments that I met at the control centre in Selby was the Royal Artillery Regiment from Kirton-in-Lindsey in my constituency. I was very pleased to see those soldiers there, and to witness the sterling work that they had done.
I was also very interested in my hon. Friend's comments about holding a full day of hearings for local people. That is a good idea. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is anxious that we do not forget about the people who have been affected in flood-hit areas, although the floods are no longer in the national media. Consequently, he has set up a Cabinet taskforce group, which he has asked me to chair. We have considered a range of issues, including all those that my hon. Friend raised in the debate.
We have been considering examples of good practice in flood-hit areas and the way in which people have learned some of the lessons of the floods. We can thus try to improve the support that people get and ascertain what might need to be done to strengthen defences, construct new defences or improve reaction times or organisation.
I understand my hon. Friend's support for local companies. I spoke to the managing director of Hazelwood Foods, which was badly affected. We have done what we can, especially through the Government office in the area, to provide support to local companies and local industry.
My hon. Friend rightly mentioned the cost of flood defences. That is an important consideration. The Government have announced that we are making an additional £51 million available for new flood defences on top of what was already a rising spend on providing flood defences nationally.
My hon. Friend also mentioned the exceptional costs that the Environment Agency has incurred and the enormous damage that has been done to existing defences throughout the country, especially in Yorkshire. As he rightly stated, approximately £250,000 has already been spent in the Selby area on essential repairs to the flood defences. He was right to say that we have been discussing those costs with the Environment Agency. We are currently evaluating the bid that has been made in relation to the costs and discussing it in Government.
My hon. Friend knows that the Government have improved and enhanced the Bellwin scheme, which deals with the exceptional costs that local authorities incur in the aftermath of floods: the clean-up costs, the cost of overtime and of equipment that may have to be brought in. Those extra costs may run into many millions of pounds. However, from a central Government perspective, we accept that we have responsibilities. We will not duck our responsibility for supporting local councils and, through them, local people.
As my hon. Friend said, however, regional flood defence committees must play their part in raising the finances for flood defences. I strongly support the Yorkshire regional flood defence committee on the levy that it has requested to improve flood defences in the area. Regional flood defence committees have not always increased the levy in line with the standard spending assessment, which central Government provide. For the past three years, the SSA has been above inflation. My hon. Friend is right to say that levy increases are not the same as a council tax increase. Sometimes the levy increases sound high, but the levy might be a small sum that is being raised locally.
I also confirm that any increase in levy will be accompanied by an increase in the SSA the following year. As my hon. Friend knows, local people should remember that the more money raised through the levy, the more schemes can be financed and the more capital grant will go from central Government to Selby and Yorkshire to uprate flood defences.
I understand my hon. Friend's point about school funding. I am sure that my colleagues in the Department for Education and Employment will consider it sympathetically. I also understand his point about mining, and I strongly agree with his comments about the unfortunate example of yet another bandwagon that the Conservative party seems to have jumped on. This time it is an underground bandwagon. However, I hope that the people of Selby will bear it in mind that, for the sake of a few populist comments, the Conservative party seems to be putting 3,000 jobs at risk in my hon. Friend's constituency. That would also affect all the associated industries.
My hon. Friend was absolutely right to say that defences could be designed to deal effectively with subsidence. Subsidence does not necessarily mean that communities will be put at risk. He was also right to say that companies such as RJB Mining have responsibilities, in terms of the financial commitments that they must make in connection with dealing with subsidence, and the fact that defences may have to be improved.
I understand my hon. Friend's point about the Environment Agency. I am sure that the agency takes this seriously, but, although it is responsible for ensuring that RJB Mining delivers on its legal and financial commitments, I will raise the issue with it in order to satisfy myself that it is being dealt with satisfactorily.
My hon. Friend mentioned farming. As he said, I have already announced flexibility on set-aside, which will give some support to farmers in his area. Other regulations on subsidies are called into question; difficulties are involved in cropping, and in getting machinery on to waterlogged ground. We are talking to the European Commission about that, and seeking flexibility in the application of the regulations to give maximum support to farmers in flood-hit areas. The National Farmers Union has presented my right hon. Friend the Minister with a dossier on flood damage, which is currently being examined.
Selby was one of the areas worst affected by the floods. It was given national prominence at the time, and was visited by a number of Ministers, including my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence. He went to observe the actions of the military, who are doing a great job. I went there, too, given my responsibility for flood defence, and I understand that members of the royal family went to express their sympathy.
What we must do now is consider the aftermath. We must think about what needs to be done about defences. We must take seriously my hon. Friend's point about the condition of many of those defences, and the fact that money may well have to be spent to bring them to a satisfactory standard.
The Government accept that more expenditure will be required. We will make extra resources available, but this must be a partnership effort, involving the regional flood defence committees. Part of the money will be raised locally for the benefit of local people, as has always been the case, but we will provide aid through capital grants. We will also increase the grant for river flood defence systems by 20 per cent., which will help my hon. Friend's constituents.
I shall continue to take a close interest in all issues involved in the aftermath of the floods, including issues of insurance. If my hon. Friend is worried about insurance companies, or suspects that there are failings in the way in which his constituents are dealt with--now and in the future--when it comes to reinsurance, I shall be only too pleased to hear about it. I know that he will be meeting the Association of British Insurers. I have already had a meeting with its chief executive, but I should be delighted to take up any further issues relating to my hon. Friend's constituents, and if the Government can give any further assistance I would ask those concerned to write in--