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David Maclean (Penrith and The Border) (Con): I begin by passing on my condolences to the families of Margaret Threlkeld, Margaret Porter and my own constituent Michael Scott, who tragically lost their lives in the severe weather. I pass on my commiserations to all the thousands affected in Carlisle and to those in my constituencyin Penrith, Appleby and other partswho have also been badly affected.
The emergency services performed magnificently, as we always expect them to. I also pay tribute to the excellent response of Cumbria county council and the superb emergency centre that it set up rather quickly, and to the actions of Carlisle city council. The voluntary
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sector was mentioned by the Minister, but I do not know whether people are aware of the huge amount of work done by the Salvation Army, the Women's Royal Voluntary Service and many others, and hundreds of people who are not part of the voluntary sector but just came along to help and brought their little boats to rescue people.
The Minister indicated that there would be emergency help for Cumbria, and that he might be willing to come back to the area. May I suggest a way in which he could help? For the Bellwin formula to trigger, Cumbria county council would have to spend £975,000. The clean-up costs and all the other costs will be enormous but will probably not come to that. They may come to £500,000 or even £800,000, in which case the Government will not contribute a penny. In view of the fact that the Cumbria rate support grant has been severely squeezed by the Government, if the Minister were to pay the £6 million that DEFRA still owes Cumbria from the foot and mouth compensation money which it is still outrageously refusing to pay, Cumbria would get the funding that it requires, he would not have to worry about the Bellwin scheme, justice would be done by all, and all Cumbrians, who have borne the events of the past few days with fortitude and courage, would be content that the Government had behaved fairly. Bring the cheque for the £6 million Minister, and Cumbrians will be content.
Mr. Morley: I shall deal with that point in a moment. I agree that the emergency service response was excellent. The gold command centre was set up quickly and the Carlisle plan was implemented. That is a result of the emergency planning put in place following the Bye report, which is regularly implemented. Wherever there has been a major eventI have attended nearly all of them since 1997that has been applied effectively and efficiently.
On the Bellwin costs, I understand what the right hon. Gentleman says about Cumbria county council. The Bellwin formula was designed by the previous Government, so he will be aware that all local authorities are expected to have within their contingency funds an element for emergencies. That is an obligation. The idea of the Bellwin formula is that there is an expenditure threshold, as the right hon. Gentleman rightly stated. Carlisle city council will have a contingency for emergencies, but we would not expect that to cover the costs of what has happened in Carlisle. It is inevitable that Carlisle city council will qualify for the Bellwin formula.
Local authorities are not being penalised. It is a rule that they must all hold in their reserves contingency funds for emergencies. If the costs go over the agreed level, the Government start to pick up 85 per cent. of the relevant costs. That is not a new scheme; it has been established for many years, following discussion with the Local Government Association.
The right hon. Gentleman mentions the £6 million which is in dispute between the waste disposal company owned by Cumbria county council and DEFRA. He surely would not expect any Government to pay out sums of money unless there were proper invoices and agreements that had been properly approved and
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properly applied. To pay out money without those normal accounting methods and procedures is an irresponsible use of public funds. If that is the attitude of the Conservative party towards anybodywhether a private or a public companywho gives them a gigantic bill without the proper accounting and says "Pay up!", that bodes badly for the future of the Conservatives.
Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham) (Con): I join colleagues in thanking the Minister and his staff for their concern over the weekend and subsequently for the plight of the people of Hexham and surrounding villages, who lost their water supply, ironically, because of the flooding of the River Tyne. Although many businesses have had to shut and are facing losses, the majority of the population have faced the crisis with remarkable stoicism and good humour. I place on record their thanks for all the efforts of the emergency services, the Environment Agency and particularly Northumbrian Water, whose employees have worked tirelessly day and night to restore supplies and provide emergency supplies very efficiently.
For people who have lost their water supply, hopefully it will be reconnected within a day or two, but for those whose homes were flooded, it will be many months before they overcome the damage that has been caused. When the immediate crisis is over and the Minister takes a calm look at what happened, will he look particularly at the situation regarding the protective walls at Corbridge and Warden, where they were breached, to see whether anything should have been done? There was a suggestionwhether it is true, I do not knowthat the banks at Corbridge were damaged by burrowing rabbits over the years and weakened as a consequence. Will the Minister also consider whether the warning system that was in place was adequate?
Mr. Morley: I can give the hon. Gentleman an assurance that we will look at the situation at Corbridge. It sounds as if repairs to the defences will be needed, and I am sure that the Environment Agency will look into that. As he rightly says, when the emergency situation in Cumbria has been dealt with, those are the sort of issues that we will want to examine. If rectification is needed, we will consider the steps that need to be taken.
Many hon. Members in the Cumbria area have been affected. I have spoken to a number of them, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Tony Cunningham), who contacted me over the weekend on behalf of his constituents in relation to the effects that many people had suffered across the Cumbrian region because of the gales and the extreme weather. We take such matters seriously and when the situation improves, all these aspects will be examined in detail.
Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (Con):
Of the 5,500 people in Cumbria who were without power this morning, 1,500 are in my constituency. If the Minister intends to have a word with United Utilities or to invite his colleagues at the Department of Trade and Industry to do so, will he congratulate the engineers on the sterling work that they have been doing by working until 3 am reconnecting people, and suggest that United Utilities needs to improve its call centre, which has not
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been very efficient in giving accurate and timely information to people who have been extremely concerned about when or whether they will be reconnected?
Will the Minister make it clear that any financial assistance that the Government make available to local authorities will be available to all local authorities in Cumbria that have incurred exceptional costs as a result of these events, specifically including South Lakeland district council? Finally, given that further very severe weather is expected tonight and early tomorrow morning, what steps has the Minister taken in the past 48 hours, which have been working days, in consultation with local authorities there to prepare for a possible repetition of recent events in the next few hours?
Mr. Morley: I join the hon. Gentleman in congratulating the engineers of United Utilities who have indeed worked around the clock. I met some of its engineers; they were based in the gold command so that there could be liaison on the work that was being done. They were also able to give me a full and detailed briefing on the situation and on what they were doing to reconnect power.
I can certainly confirm that the Bellwin scheme will apply to any authority in the Cumbrian region that qualifies under the criteria. If there is additional expense above the agreed threshold, any local authority is entitled to make a claim within the one month qualifying period.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman's comments about the call centre will be taken into account by the DTI. Just as we shall evaluate the response of the Government and of public bodies, I am sure that utility companies, too, will in due course want to evaluate their response.
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. You will be aware that each of the statements, and the urgent question, is important; not one of us would in any way resile from the need to discuss those matters on the Floor of the House. However, the difficulty is that we are about to take the Second Reading of a major piece of legislation, so may I ask you, Madam Deputy Speaker, to draw the attention of the Leader of the House and the House authorities to the fact that taking three statements and an urgent question, one after the other, pushes back the time available to Members to discuss an important piece of legislation?
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