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I want to pay tribute to my hon. Friend and colleague, who contacted me immediately about the emergency that his constituents faced. He is a flood victim himself, and has been severely affected, but he took time out to go around the various centres and to talk to people and the local authorities involved. He did everything that he could to support his constituents in the emergency. I join him in paying tribute to BBC Radio Cumbria, which did a sterling job in passing on information and keeping people informed.
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I assure my hon. Friend that a full and complete assessment will be made of the response to the emergency when the flood's immediate effects have been dealt with. There will be time then to begin the process of identifying any weaknesses in the warning system. If any such weaknesses are found, they will need to be rectified.
My Department has been in touch with the ABI which, along with many individual insurance companies, has a lot of experience with such problems. The record in relation to getting assessors out to people quickly is good. Assessments are made quickly so that people can get builders in and begin to replace damaged goods. I am sure that the ABI will take note of what has been said and that it will act accordingly.
As I said, local authorities will take the lead in the post-flood recovery programme. However, I have asked the Government office for the north-west to work with local authorities and the local regional development agency to determine what support it can give and which issues need to be addressed. I am sorry to hear what my hon. Friend says about United Utilities Water. Its staff worked around the clock and did a fantastic job in reconnecting a severely damaged electricity sub-station as quickly as possible. It is possible that some of the good will gained could be lost if there are difficulties over the detail of the agreed compensation packages. I assure my hon. Friend that I will draw his comments to the attention of colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry, who I am sure will want to examine what he has said.
Finally, I accept that much attention is given to the immediate consequences of a flood. There is a lot of media attention, and people show a great deal of support at that time, but afterwardswhen the clean-up and repair work is startedpeople can feel that they have been forgotten. I want to assure the people of Carlisle and the other affected areas that they will not be forgotten. I shall certainly look at my diary, with a view to returning to the area to see how the recovery process is progressing.
Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): I also express, on behalf of my Liberal Democrat colleagues, my sympathy to the people of Carlisle and the neighbouring areas. The severe weather at the weekend must have been a dreadful experience, especially for the families who sadly lost their lives. I also want to endorse the thanks that have been extended to the emergency services, the local and central Government agencies that have been involved, and the voluntary sector. The help that has been given has been invaluable, as it has been on other occasions elsewhere in the country.
It is important to restore life to normal as soon as possible. I welcome what the Minister said in that regard, and I recognise the work that he and his colleagues in DEFRA and other Departments are doing.
The Minister spoke about the lessons to be learned. Does he agree that, in essence, there are two such lessons? The first is that we must accelerate even more our proactive efforts to put in place measures to tackle and limit the impact of climate change. The Minister will be aware that the Government's chief scientist, Sir David King, believes that flooding will be the first manifestation of that change to affect this country in an extensive manner.
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That is already beginning to happen. I asked a parliamentary question about how many times the Thames barrier has been opened. I was told that the figure has risen from two or three times a year in the 1980s to a projected 325 times a year by the end of this century. It is clear that we are going to have major problems with water and flooding in this century.
The second lesson is that we must take measures to deal with the consequences of climate change, and to limit as far as possible the impact that it has on individuals and communities. I agree with the Minister that it is impossible to eliminate all floods all the time, but does he agree that there is a need to improve flood defences even faster than the current rate? I acknowledge that the Government have put more money into that, and that they have sorted out some of the delivery problems. However, even more must be done, because the risks are increasing dramatically.
Will the Minister tell the people of Carlisle when they are likely to have flood defences in place that will eliminate the greater part of the risk that they face at present? Will he reflect on what happened in the year 2000, when another series of severe floods hit Britain? My constituency of Lewes, and other areas, were badly hit, and the Deputy Prime Minister regarded what happened as a wake-up call. How many of the towns affected in 2000 have flood defence schemes in place now? How many have had such schemes authorised, and in how many areas has nothing been done?
With the best will in the worldand I accept that the Government are doing their best in many respectsI fear that we have not made as much progress as we should have done. Lewes in my constituency has had only a tiny part of the necessary flood defence work completed. Nothing else has been approved, but once again we have floods up to the bridge today.
Will the Minister look again at PPG25, paying particular regard to the Deputy Prime Minister's so-called sustainable communities east of London? Will he quantify the additional flood risk that will be caused by those communities if they are built in the way that has been set out?
Will the Minister encourage insurance companies to continue to provide cover for people in Carlisle and elsewhere? He will know that, after 2000, there was some dispute about whether cover should be provided for flood-affected properties. It can be a very unwelcome realisation for people who have been flooded to discover that they can have no insurance subsequently. Will he encourage the insurance industry to be creative in its response? Companies should not go for like-for-like replacements but should, for example, move electrical sockets up from floorboard level and place them higher up walls to minimise the impact of any future flood.
Britain will suffer more, and more severe, flooding in the future. The Government have begun to move on the matter, but we have not yet seen the step change that we need.
The hon. Gentleman is right about the implications of climate change. The Prime Minister has given a very clear and international lead on this matter. It is one of the key themes of our G8 presidency, and I have already mentioned the conference that we will hold. The matter will be discussed at a joint conference
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for Environment and Development Ministersthe first of its kind to be held under the aegis of the G8. Some of the developing economies, such as Brazil, India and China, will also be invited to participate in the conference, at which climate change will be one of the subjects for discussion.
Consultations in respect of the Carlisle flood defence scheme are already well advanced, as the process was already under way. The effects of the recent events on Carlisle will be taken into account when the scheme is designed. I hope that the matter can be progressed as quickly as humanly possible. In Carlisle, I was accompanied by Sir John Harman, the chair of the Environment Agency, who said that the scheme would be examined to determine how it could be taken forward as smoothly as possible.
I understand the point made about Lewes, but I can tell the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) that if he were to table a parliamentary question on this matter, I think that he would find that every community affected in 2000 either has a flood defence scheme in place now, or that there is one being put in place. In those areas where such schemes are not possible for technical reasons, we have put in place catchment area plans, and we have also made use of temporary, portable barriers with some success.
Our record is a good one. Spending has increased from some £300 million in 1997 to a projected £570 million this year. That is a significant investment in respect of flood defence. The hon. Member for Lewes asked whether it was possible to take things forward more quickly, but it is likely that the level of spending now implemented will absorb our total capacity when it comes to engineers and consultants. Moreover, the design and planning processes must also be taken into account. Unfortunately, neither of those processes is quick, but they are both necessary and important. Sometimes technical issues arise. For example, one complication in Lewes involved the question of which of the various riparian owners were responsible for the town's walls. That is another dimension that has to be taken into account. We have the latest strategy, which has been sent to DEFRA, and we are considering it in relation to Lewes.
With reference to insurance, the Association of British Insurers issued a statement of principles, whereby its members would continue to provide insurance because of the continued investment by the Government. The Government have met their side of the bargain, and I am glad to say that with that statement the ABI has done so too.
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