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Mr. Murphy: I understand the hon. Gentleman's frustration. We are all frustrated by what has happened—but I always try to think about what the people of Northern Ireland would like to happen. Important as withdrawing facilities from the House of Commons might be, and important as withdrawing allowances from parties that can afford it might be from the hon. Gentleman's point of view—whatever the penalties might be—the most important thing for us to do in Northern Ireland is to stop the criminality and bring about a political process that can proceed without it. That matters more than anything else in Northern Ireland. I am not dismissing the penalties and all the rest of it. We will consider that with our Irish Government partners during the next week or two. But the most important thing for the people of Northern Ireland is to stop the brutality, savagery and criminality that I described in my statement.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab): The Government have been looking at the whole picture in Northern Ireland for seven years, since the Belfast agreement. To an extent I have been one of those who have gone along with that approach, suggesting that we should nudge a bit further each time—but is there not a point at which the picture needs to be completed? We have now seen what has been involved, as confirmed by the Secretary of State. Surely we are now reaching that point. Must we wait for a "next time" before decisions are made and action taken against Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA?

Mr. Murphy: I repeat what I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon). The whole picture is important, because no one, but no one, wants to return to 30 or 40 years of troubles in Northern Ireland. I do not think that that will happen: I think we have come too far for it to happen.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh that we may have reached a stage at which we must deal with different negotiating arrangements, but if that happens it must be based on discussion with all the political parties in Northern Ireland, particularly those represented here who have spoken today. Although we may have to act in that way, we must not give up the hope that we can have a Northern Ireland that is free of criminality and has wholesome politics. We will continue in that hope. I do agree with my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) that the impact of this event has been so enormous that we need to rethink many things.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): It has indeed been nearly seven years since the Belfast agreement. At our last Northern Ireland Question Time, I asked the Secretary of State when he would stop believing Sinn Fein lies. That they are lies is now proven beyond any doubt, so will he now cease speaking to the people who are lying, and stop believing them until—if ever—they
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prove their good faith beyond peradventure? I respect the Secretary of State, but I beg him to give us no more sorrowful words and no hand-wringing, and please to take action against those terrorist crooks. Will he start by suspending them from the House of Commons, and taking away the public money that is subsidising terrorism and criminality in part of the United Kingdom? The rule of law should apply throughout the United Kingdom. The Secretary of State has it in his power to take action. Will he do so now?

Mr. Murphy: I think that the idea of proof beyond peradventure is right, but I also think that the passion should be directed towards stopping the criminality and the things that I described in the earlier part of my statement. The Organised Crime Task Force, other agencies in Northern Ireland—the police, Customs or others—and indeed all of us must concentrate on stopping that criminality and ensuring that it does not profit people either politically or financially. We may well have to consider different sanctions and penalties, but I emphasise that ultimately the most important thing for those who live in Northern Ireland is stopping the kind of action that has necessitated my coming here today.

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down) (SDLP): Will the Secretary of State, and indeed all Members, send a message of hope for the well-being of the families who were involved, or coerced, in this terrible, savage and brutal crime? My constituents the McMullen family, who are both neighbours and friends, were savagely treated.

The Secretary of State often says, as he did last Friday, that there can be no place for terrorist or criminal activity. Let me say bluntly that we have heard that mantra in different forms for a number of years. What about the intelligence to which the Secretary of State has been privy over those years, and what has been reiterated by me in the House month after month? Political Sinn Fein is mainly the Provisional IRA in lounge suits, and every day in my community it is imposing its will and diktat. When will the Government get real, and stop Sinn Fein's criminal and paramilitary activities being made to seem credible and proper?

Mr. Murphy: My hon. Friend has a long history of opposing criminality and similar activity in the part of Northern Ireland that he represents, and exposing it in the House of Commons. I do not disagree with a word that he has said, but the document that I have here, agreed before Christmas—"Proposals by the British and Irish Governments for a Comprehensive Agreement"—addresses the issue of criminality.

No one has suggested—certainly I have not, during my time as Secretary of State—that there has not been criminality on the part of paramilitary organisations
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linked to political parties, including the IRA. That has been said time and again. What we are dealing with today is this: the enormity of the robbery, and the savagery that accompanied it, were such that people can take no more. That is why the House has taken the view it has taken. But my hon. Friend and I know, because we were involved in negotiations for many years, that our aim must be to achieve a peaceful democratic Northern Ireland. His party worked very hard for that, and for a non-violent future for the people whom he and his colleagues represent.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East) (DUP): The Secretary of State has already indicated his respect for the views of the people of Northern Ireland. How does he respond to the prevailing view in Northern Ireland that on this issue, there are two certainties? The first is that the Provisional IRA will continue with its terrorism and criminality; the second is that after a very short time passes, the Secretary of State's tough talk will dissolve and the Government will be back to holding their hands again.How is it that in paragraphs 7, 8 and 9 of the Secretary of State's statement, the clearest of indications is given to Provisional Sinn Fein that he will not allow the process to move on without it? Why is democracy in Northern Ireland to be held back because of gunmen and gangsters? Surely the time has come to make it very clear that politics moves on, and moves on without it.

Mr. Murphy: It may have to be that. Over past months, the hon. Gentleman and his party colleagues have worked hard to establish an agreement between the two Governments and the other parties on the way forward, and I know that, like everybody else, he is deeply disappointed that that has not occurred. I also know that he and other members of his party rightly want restoration of the institutions in Northern Ireland as quickly as possible. I share that view completely, and I made it clear in my statement that there can be no place in the government of Northern Ireland for a party linked to people who carry out the sort of robberies that I described today. The hon. Gentleman knows, however, that in order to get any substitute for what was agreed before Christmas, it is important for us to talk to the political parties that have raised issues here today about the way ahead. I simply say to him that we are not ruling anything in or anything out until we have had those discussions, which it is important to have. He speaks robustly and with great strength, but he knows that in order to deal with these issues, we have to sit down and discuss them—as I will do with him in an hour's time.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I have other important business to protect, so we must move on.
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Flooding (North-West)

2.42 pm

The Minister for the Environment and Agri-environment (Mr. Elliot Morley): With permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the serious flooding that affected northern England, especially Carlisle, at the weekend. I also want to refer to the loss of drinking water supplies in Hexham, Northumberland.

The flooding was caused by a major storm that produced truly exceptional amounts of rain: some 9 in fell in a 36-hour period on already saturated land. This rainfall quickly reached the rivers Eden, in Cumbria, and Tyne, in Northumberland. They were unable to cope with such torrential loads, and flood banks were overtopped. I have to report that very sadly, three lives were lost in the Carlisle area. The coroner reported that two deaths were caused by drowning, and one by trauma when a wall collapsed in high winds. Inquests have been opened and adjourned.

Nearly 3,000 properties have been flooded in Carlisle. Elsewhere in northern England, nearly 100 properties were flooded along the River Tyne. The Carlisle major incident plan was activated and many residents were evacuated. Some stayed with family and friends; others have been housed in reception centres. There are continuing problems with the electricity supply and telephone connections to many houses. I saw for myself on Sunday just how serious the flooding was in Carlisle, and I know from this and previous experience how utterly devastating flooding can be for those affected. The thoughts of the Government—and, I am sure, those of the whole House—are with everyone affected, and especially with those who have lost loved ones.

I pay tribute to all those involved in the emergency response over the weekend—including the fire, ambulance and police services, the local authority, the Environment Agency, the coastguard, mountain rescue, and the military—who assisted greatly in rescuing those trapped by the flooding. I also want to thank the voluntary organisations that have given so much help in caring for those affected.

As a Government, we shall seek to ensure that all that can be done is being done to return the community to normal as quickly as possible. Emergency financial assistance is available to local authorities, under the Bellwin scheme, to help with non-insurable clear-up costs following a disaster or emergency in their area. Such an authority has one month from the end of an incident to notify the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister that it intends to apply for activation of the Bellwin scheme. If it is approved, the Department will usually reimburse 85 per cent. of eligible costs above a threshold related to the authority's annual budget.

I am also pleased to note that the Association of British Insurers has encouraged its members to play their part in the recovery by ensuring that they have sufficient capacity to deal with the exceptional volume of claims from Carlisle and elsewhere, especially given that further exceptional storms are expected imminently in northern Britain. As with all major flooding events, we will work with the Environment Agency in considering the lessons learned. We will do this once the agency has dealt with the immediate aftermath of the flooding,
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which is clearly its first priority, and there has been an opportunity to analyse the event and the response. However, preliminary indications are that this was the most serious flood in Cumbria since 1822. Although flood defences on the River Eden remained intact, they were overtopped by the extreme water flows. There were breaches of defences at Corbridge, on the River Tyne, but the event was so severe that those defences were overtopped anyway.

I should also inform the House that proposals are being developed for a new Environment Agency flood defence scheme to provide added protection for Carlisle. A number of options are being considered, and this analysis will now take account of the last weekend's flooding. However, I emphasise that whatever flood defences we provide—the Government have committed record levels of investment: almost £480 million in this financial year and £570 million for 2005–06—we cannot provide absolute protection in all areas against all conceivable flooding events. There is always the risk that truly exceptional storms and rainfall such as occurred at the weekend will strike somewhere.

I should further inform the House that the mains drinking water supply has been lost to properties in Hexham, Northumberland. Two water mains that pass under the River Tyne in the town were severely damaged by a fallen tree passing in the flooded river. The water company was able to maintain the supply to all but 1,100 properties until yesterday, but now, 10,000 are without mains supply. Northumbrian Water is providing emergency supplies of water in static tanks and bottles. The mains are about 1.5 m below the river bed and cannot be immediately accessed for repair. However, as an interim measure to restore the mains supply, the company is laying temporary overland pipework, which it expects to complete tonight. Some customers' supplies should be restored tomorrow, and others' throughout this week.

Soon, responsibility for the short-term and longer-term recovery effort will pass to the local authorities in Cumbria, and I am sure that elected members and officials will rise to the challenge. The Government office for the north-west and the Northwest Development Agency are already working with the local authorities to support them in that process.

What the Government can, and will, do is to ensure that we provide the investment for the Environment Agency and for others involved in flood defence to undertake works where they are most needed. We have always made it clear that nobody can guarantee that there will not be extreme weather events or flooding, but we can continually reduce risk—as we are doing—by investing in defences and warning systems, and by ensuring that there are efficient and effective emergency arrangements to cope with such extreme events. I repeat that commitment to the House.

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