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13 Mar 2003 : Column 473—continued

Norman Baker: I imagine that the Minister will take those criteria into account—it would be extraordinary if he did not—but the hon. Gentleman has put his view on the record, and I am sure that those issues will be part of any review by the Minister.

I want briefly to mention the insurance situation and to welcome what—at least in retrospect, if not at the time—has been the constructive attitude taken by the ABI, which has provided a two-year window of opportunity, which the Government have taken and the ABI has responded accordingly. The detailed mapping that Norwich Union and others have undertaken—like the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire, I pay tribute to the work that Norwich Union has done—has been welcome. It is clear from that that for about 200,000 properties, there is a major flood risk and insurance will be difficult to obtain. Some of those properties may have been bought in the knowledge that such a risk existed, and the price may have been discounted accordingly. It is not the function of Government to subsidise people in that situation. However, given the increasing flood risk as a result of climate change and other factors, a small number of properties will be adversely affected, with no prospect of getting sensible insurance cover. Will the Minister comment on that when he responds to the debate?

I refer to the cost-benefit analysis conducted by the Environment Agency under Government guidelines to determine what flood defences are justifiable in a particular area. I have raised the matter before, and the Minister will know the strong concern in Lewes and elsewhere that the formula applied grossly underestimates the value of properties affected by floods. Had a realistic formula been applied to houses in Lewes—I am sure the same is the case elsewhere—a higher level of flood defences would have been justified on the Department's own criteria.

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As matters stand, some areas of Lewes are not getting the flood defences that they consider appropriate, and the same applies in Uckfield, where the formula adversely affects the constituency of the hon. Member for Wealden. Will the Minister examine the formula to ensure that a proper value is put on properties to guarantee that the flood defences considered are in line with the properties' value, rather than with some artificially low value that has been applied following the floods of 2000?

The hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire mentioned soft measures. In Lewes the Environment Agency has been quite good at producing plans for the centre of town that have identified solid, architecturally robust flood defences. To my surprise, the agency has been less good at negotiating with farmers and those affected downstream to identify land that could be used for overspill, thereby reducing the need for hard defences, which may not only disfigure a town, but be expensive for local communities and the Department. What steps is the Minister taking to encourage the Environment Agency to look at its procedures in respect of soft measures to see whether more could be incorporated and to speed up the process by which they are implemented?

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that one of the soft engineering measures that can be included with flood prevention is reed bed technology to overcome some of the enormous problems with sewerage, which are not disconnected from flooding problems? Too often we look for hard technology answers, when there is a much simpler way that we could work with the environment, rather than against it.

Norman Baker: I agree. I hope the Minister will respond to that intervention when he sums up.

In conclusion, I thank the Minister again for his statement. The Government are moving in the right direction. The new measures that have been suggested and the extra money are welcome in tackling the flood defence challenges that we all face.

3.3 pm

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am sorry to interrupt the flow of the debate, but this is the first opportunity that I have had today to raise the matter, although I advised the Speaker of it this morning.

On 4 March I received an answer from the Northern Ireland Office concerning the granting of work permits for the Movie Star café in Belfast and the contacts that the Department for Employment and Learning had with Work Permits (UK) on the application made for a group work permit. The reply stated:

that is, the Department—

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This morning's mail included a response from the Home Office, which states:

The reply goes on to make it plain that even for dancers, they would have had to be of a very high standard before a work permit would be granted. I therefore believe that, intentionally or unintentionally, someone has been misleading me and, as the matter is now on the record of the House, the House has been misled. I seek your guidance as to what action could be taken.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that this is the first that I have heard of the matters that he raises, which he clearly considers very serious. I suggest that in the first instance he has a word with the Table Office and sees what its reaction is to the problems that he is experiencing. He can then decide where and how to pursue the matter from there.

3.5 pm

Mr. Charles Hendry (Wealden): I am grateful to be called so early in the debate. I begin by apologising to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to the Minister and to the House for the fact that I shall have to leave before the end of the debate for a public meeting in my constituency, where flooding will be one of the issues discussed.

Let me begin with a little background to the problems of flooding in my constituency. As the Minister is well aware, in October 2000 there was severe flooding in Uckfield and flooding in the surrounding villages of Buxted and Isfield, and also in Hellingly on the Cuckmere, rather than on the Ouse. There was an intense period of incredibly heavy rain. It had not been raining for very long; the problems were caused by the amount of rain over the previous day or so. The results were dramatic. Many people will remember from their television screens the sight of a lifeboat in Uckfield high street. Although it caused some amusement to find a lifeboat inland, we should not forget that one person was washed away and almost drowned. There could have been significant loss of life, had the problems been worse.

The frustration in the constituency arises because two and a half years on, there is no serious sign of progress. The Minister will well remember his visit to Uckfield shortly after the floods, and his promise at that time that action would be taken to reduce the risk of flooding again. He knows that shortly afterwards, the Prime Minister called to Downing street councillors from the areas affected by flooding and he, too, made a personal assurance that the issue would be addressed. There was some jocularity in the House recently when my remarks were interpreted as implying that the Prime Minister had promised to stop it raining. We know that he walks on water, but even this Prime Minister would not promise to stop it raining. However, he promised to take action to minimise the risk of flooding affecting those communities in future. It is a great disappointment that two and a half years down the line, nothing concrete has happened.

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The Environment Agency has been trying to drive matters forward, and I join the Minister in paying tribute to the staff, particularly Peter Midgley, who seems to have been taking lessons from the Minister in dealing in the most emollient and caring manner with those difficult and frustrating issues. Peter Midgley has genuinely been seeking to address matters, but he is working with his hands tied. At the end of the day, it is a question of money. If he were given millions of pounds more to spend this month, he could spend millions of pounds more this month.

We all accept that many of the measures that we would like to see implemented would take a long time to assess and evaluate, but there are some cheaper measures that could be introduced quickly. If the funds were available to the agency, that could start straight away. I accept that there is a limit, but I do not believe that it has been reached. Will the Minister speak to his ministerial colleagues about whether a national emergencies fund could be set up, perhaps through the national lottery? The great frustration after the floods of 2000 was the incredibly lengthy process of evaluating every scheme that was proposed. It would be much better if there were a fund, independently administered, and run by people who knew how to say yes, rather than always saying no, hold on or maybe. In the circumstances, when there is a national emergency such as the horrific floods that occurred throughout the country in October 2000, we need money to be quickly available.

It is my contention that most of the positive developments have been local. In particular, I pay credit to the work of the Cuckmere valley flood forum. The hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) and I have both attended meetings of the forum, which works in a positive way in bringing together different parties to try to find agreement on the way forward. While there are difficulties in respect of some of the solutions that are being considered for the Cuckmere, we would all pay tribute to the forum for allowing the issues to be dealt with in the most constructive way possible.

I also pay tribute to the local authorities. Wealden is very keen to make progress. The district authority has put money to one side for work to start straight away, but it is being held up because the Environment Agency says that it needs to take that work into account as part of the whole scheme of things and cannot give it the go ahead. My plea to the Minister is that, where alternative sources of funding are available, he should look to see whether some ideas can be fast-tracked. That does not mean cutting out the necessary work that has to be done; once we know that funding is available from a local authority or elsewhere, he should see whether it is possible to short-circuit, or rather cut short, the system so that those schemes can be carried out more rapidly.

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