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Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey) (Con): I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and the advance notice that he provided of it. I entirely endorse his remarks about the three people who tragically lost their lives. Our thoughts and prayers are with them, their friends and families.

I join the Secretary of State in paying tribute to the immense hard work of the emergency services and those in the police, local authorities, the Environment Agency and the armed forces, who responded to the crisis with courage and the highest standard of professionalism. Will he join me in sending a message of admiration to the people of Leeds, Sheffield, Hull, Rotherham, Doncaster, Shropshire and so many other places, who have shown great resilience and fortitude in the face of the worst flooding in living memory? Our thoughts are with them as they struggle to come to terms with what has happened.

Clearly, the weather conditions that led to the events are almost unprecedented, but how satisfied is the Secretary of State that the warning systems in place were operated effectively? The Met Office issued a weather warning on 12 June, which stated:

On 15 June, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) raised his concerns in the House and called on the Secretary of State to make an urgent statement on the action that he would take to prevent people from facing the misery of having their homes flooded.

In the light of those warnings, what action did the Secretary of State take in advance of the problem? They were not the only warnings that the Government received. On 14 June, the National Audit Office issued a damning report on the adequacy of our flood defence systems. It noted that the north-east had received less funding for flood defences than other parts of England, where the risk of flooding was assessed as less acute. The Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee also drew attention to the imbalance in spending. In other words, several warnings were issued within days of each other and of the dreadful events. Is the Secretary of State entirely satisfied that his response to them was not complacent?

The statement stressed the importance of the local response system, but what of the Government’s responsibilities? Does the Secretary of State regret the fact that the Environment Agency was forced to make cuts in its flood protection budget last year to compensate for financial mismanagement in his Department? Does he know that the Environment Agency and the Association of British Insurers have been urging the Department to take the risks of flooding far more seriously for several years? Does he regret that he has failed to do that? He said that he is keen to learn lessons. Is not one of them that it is normally a good idea to listen to the experts when they provide expert advice?

In Sheffield, much of the damage has occurred in Brightside, one of the poorest districts. Can the Secretary of State make an assessment at this stage of the amount of uninsured losses that have occurred?

The Environment Agency has said that what we have experienced in the past 48 hours is consistent with the effects of climate change, and that the risk of flooding
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and extreme weather events will only increase. As the Secretary of State knows, climate change scientists have been warning the Government for years of the need to adapt to climate change. How have the Government responded to those warnings? Will the Secretary of State take the opportunity of the forthcoming Climate Change Bill to introduce annual reporting on the measures taken to adapt to climate change as well as those taken to mitigate its effects?

Will the Secretary of State take the opportunity of the forthcoming water price review to issue new advice to Ofwat and the Environment Agency to ensure that adequate investment in adaptation measures is funded in future? Will he also hold urgent discussions with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, or her successor, on the lunacy of continuing to build houses on flood plains?

Does the Secretary of State accept that if his Government fail to respond to the challenges of climate change with a coherent, joined-up approach and a much greater sense of urgency, the terrible events that we have witnessed in the past few days are likely to happen again and again?

David Miliband: If the hon. Gentleman chooses, in the cold light of day tomorrow, to look at the contents of his remarks in Hansard, he will see that, unusually for him, they did not do justice to his knowledge in this area or to the way in which he has approached these issues, certainly in the 15 months that I have been in this post. The people of Sheffield and the other affected areas will have listened with some dismay to the way in which he approached this task.

The hon. Gentleman rightly sent a message of admiration, and I am sure that it was inadvertent that he did not mention the health services. It is important that all the public services should be recognised for the important work that they have been doing. As he said, these are almost unprecedented conditions. We shall have to wait for the historians to tell us whether they were completely unprecedented. The weather warnings are an important part of our local planning system, and the reason why the local system has worked well is that the local people in charge took heed of those weather warnings. In my conversations with people on the ground, they have told me that, where the emergency services have been brought into play and local authorities’ own social services provision has been needed, the systems have worked well. That is testimony to the good preparation that has been done.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the NAO report. The chief executive of the Environment Agency will be speaking to the PAC tomorrow. I do not want to get in the way of her defence of what has happened, but it is important to point out to the House that, between 2003-04 and 2005-06, the agency exceeded its target for protection, achieving flood protection for 100,000 houses, rather than the 80,000 target. Furthermore, there are 24,000 miles of flood defences around the country that are maintained by the Environment Agency. Many people who know this area will have been astonished that the hon. Gentleman—who speaks for a party that left us with a flood budget of £307 million in 1996-97—failed to mention that that budget is now £615 million. It has doubled under this Government. I hasten to add that, on almost every occasion, the Conservatives have voted against the measures designed to raise that budget.

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I do not yet have a listing of the uninsured losses, but I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman with that information in due course. He made the link with climate change, which I am sure is in many people’s thoughts. I want to make two points on that. First, climate change involves not only global warming but extreme weather events. However, it is unwise to seize on one event before the scientists have had a chance to make a full assessment of it, and before I did so, I would want to be sure that they were clear about the links to climate change.

Secondly, the hon. Gentleman raised the question of adaptation, which I am pleased about, and asked for annual reports on that matter. We have made it clear in the Climate Change Bill that there should be regular reports, but we think that a five-yearly basis is the right strategic basis on which to make these judgments. However, I will take into consideration his comments when we consider the draft representations of the Special Committee that is considering these issues.

Mr. David Blunkett (Sheffield, Brightside) (Lab): All Members from the affected areas will welcome the Secretary of State’s statement, and the fact that he has come to the House so quickly today to make it. I reiterate that our hearts go out to those who have been bereaved and to those who have lost so much in terms of their homes and businesses. I also commend the Gold Command for the direction that has taken place over the past 48 hours, and the public and emergency services and the RAF, all of whom have done a phenomenal job.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that he is prepared to cut through the bureaucracy that often surrounds financial intervention on occasions such as this by ensuring that, alongside rapidly dealing with the Bellwin formula once the claims are in, there is assistance, perhaps through emergency loans, to help the families and businesses who are faced with sheer devastation? He mentioned that the armed services were on standby, so will he consider getting them and their engineers in as quickly as possible to ensure that if there is a further deluge, as predicted by the weathermen, we have other emergency measures in place by this weekend, so that there is no repeat of what has happened over the last 48 hours?

David Miliband: My right hon. Friend speaks with considerable authority having played a central role, if not in creating, certainly in upgrading the Gold Command structure that has proved its worth over the past 24 hours. We will certainly look at all suggestions about how we can support local people in coming to terms with this unprecedented event. In respect of a further deluge, the decision-making structure deliberately puts power in the hands of local people so rather than me making the decisions I assure him that all appropriate forces and provisions are at the disposal of local people in preparing for whatever contingencies lie ahead.

Chris Huhne (Eastleigh) (LD): I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. As he said, our sympathies go very much to the families of the
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three people who we know have died as a result of the floods and to all the others who have suffered such terrible losses. My admiration, too, goes to the emergency services, the Environment Agency staff and all the other public services doing gruelling work to avert worse calamities.

My admiration, however, does not yet extend to the Secretary of State, who has—it seems to me—mishandled the issue of flood defences ever since he took over the Department. Is it not astonishing at a time of climate change that the Government cut spending on flood defences last year, in-year, by £15 million? Will the Secretary of State confirm that in York and elsewhere those cuts delayed projects by delaying feasibility studies? Is it not even more astonishing that last month the regional flood defence committees were sent a document by the Environment Agency, which said:

Will the Secretary of State confirm that as late as last week the Treasury was continuing to press his Department for real cuts in flood defences? Does not that show a devastating lack of foresight on the part of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and is it not yet another example of how lamentably he fails to understand the significance of climate change?

David Miliband: I assure the hon. Gentleman that his admiration for me is fully reciprocated. He has confirmed his unenviable reputation for being someone who never misses an opportunity for opportunism and I congratulate him on his consistency.

The hon. Gentleman knows that it is simply not true that capital spending was cut last year— [ Interruption. ] My hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) nods because he knows that. The hon. Gentleman will also know that in respect of revenue spending the delays last year to which he referred have been more than made up in 2007-08 already, so in the context of a doubling of spending his point is pretty weak. In respect of the Environment Agency’s planning assumptions, the hon. Gentleman claims a knowledge of economics so I do not know what other basis he thinks the agency should be using to plan for the future. Given that we have not yet made a settlement, it seems prudent to act on that basis, just as it would be prudent for the hon. Gentleman to wait until our comprehensive spending review announcement to see how the Government will continue to do justice to the important issues of flood defence.

Mr. George Mudie (Leeds, East) (Lab): I warmly support the remarks made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) on the need for urgent action before the weekend. In the longer term, will the Secretary of State agree to review the decision of the Environment Agency to shelve the £100 million scheme that was designed to protect Leeds city centre? Will he also ask the Environment Agency to expedite the Wyke Beck scheme in my constituency, which will help to alleviate flooding in an area that has been flooded three times in three years, to the great distress of hundreds of people?

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David Miliband: My hon. Friend makes an important point. I will certainly take up those issues with the Environment Agency, and write to him as soon as possible.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): Does the Secretary of State understand the frustration and anger of people in Ripon, which has had its second bout of major flooding in seven years, not because there are no plans to deal with the flooding, but because the plans have been in existence and ready to go for several years, and have been deferred each year? How many once-in-a-century events must take place before something is done?

David Miliband: The tenor of most of today’s contributions has been to recognise that such events are likely to happen much less frequently than once in a century—they are almost unprecedented events. The right hon. Gentleman, however, makes an important point. Like many other hon. Members, he wants increased spending on flood defence. Perhaps I might gently suggest to him that he persuade some of his colleagues to be as enthusiastic in their support of Government policy as he sometimes is.

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. Obviously, I associate myself with the expressions of condolence to the families of those who have lost their lives and sympathy for everyone who has suffered in this appalling tragedy. I thank council officers and all the other workers in Sheffield who strived so hard last night to ensure that an appalling situation did not become even worse.

May I make two financial requests? First, a lot of the damage last night was done in the main industrial area of Sheffield, which has been doing well in recent years. Some businesses, however, will now be out of action for several days, if not weeks, and will have lost a lot of specialist and expensive work in hand. Eventually, that may be recoverable from insurance companies, but in the meantime they will probably need some help through an emergency fund for cash-flow purposes. Will the Secretary of State consider that? Secondly, the public infrastructure of the city has been badly damaged. While the Bellwin formula will help with the clean-up, we will need longer-term help with investment in that public infrastructure, to ensure that the city’s economy can be kept going forward. Can the Secretary of State give assurances on both those points?

David Miliband: From speaking to my hon. Friend last night, I know that he is in close touch with many of his constituents. I echo what he said about the excellent work of council officers in preparing for and responding to the event. He makes an important point in respect of local industry, and I concur completely that Sheffield’s renaissance has been magnificent in the past few years. I will speak this afternoon to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry about the industrial issues raised. In respect of long-term investment, my hon. Friend will know better than I that an extensive plan is in place for upgrading the public infrastructure in the heart of Sheffield. Obviously, we will talk with the city council about how that can be taken forward in the new circumstances.

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Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): With unerring accuracy, the Government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir David King, in his foresight report a few years ago, predicted that we were moving into a period of more extreme weather events. With that in mind, will the Secretary of State assure the House that resources will be made available to the Environment Agency to revise its flood prediction computer model so that it can take into account what now appears to be an established change in the nature of our climate and weather and make our predictions on flooding more accurate?

David Miliband: With the small proviso that the change in weather patterns means that there is less of a pattern, and that it is harder and harder for any model to predict with certainty some future patterns, the right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I am happy to talk to the Environment Agency again about the way in which it works. We are coming up to the beginning of a three-year comprehensive spending review period, and that is a good moment to ensure that the money is being spent in the right places.

Ms Diana R. Johnson (Kingston upon Hull, North) (Lab): I join hon. Members in paying tribute to everyone who is coping so well with the flooding. In particular, I pay tribute to the public services in Hull, which valiantly tried to rescue Michael Barnett yesterday, who sadly died in a drain in Hull. Will my right hon. Friend reassure me that the public health implications of flooding are being addressed?

David Miliband: There is no suggestion that they are not being addressed. I am happy to ensure that either myself or my hon. Friend the Minister for Climate Change and the Environment, who is in south Yorkshire, checks on that. If she has a particular issue to raise, perhaps she could let my office know. She makes an important point. We would certainly want to ensure that all the right measures were in place.

Mr. Nick Clegg (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD): Obviously, I endorse the salute that has been given to the emergency services and specifically to the council officers in Sheffield, including Sir Bob Kerslake, the chief executive, who have done a magnificent job overnight, not least by keeping all Sheffield MPs and others updated on the events. Will the Secretary of State join me in extending special condolences to the family and friends of Ryan Joe Parry, a young 14-year-old boy? He attended King Ecgbert school in my constituency and tragically, at such a tender young age, lost his life when he was swept up by the River Sheaf in Millhouses park.

Much was said in the statement about the need for insurance companies to move quickly, and for health and safety and long-term funding issues to be addressed, but will the Secretary of State address himself to one thing, which I think might be overlooked? It might sound parochial, but my constituents have got in touch with me this morning in large numbers to say that one of the real problems, and one reason why so much water from the hills in Sheffield has swept down with the velocity that it has, is the degraded state of large parts of the road surface and drainage system in Sheffield. That is a familiar problem to all Sheffielders. It cannot, frankly, be dealt with with the resources available to Sheffield city council on its own; it requires central Government long-term assistance.

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