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Hilary Benn: We will certainly give the maximum help that we can under the arrangements that I have outlined through both the crisis loans and the community care grant. There is a real issue, which I am sure my
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hon. Friend would acknowledge, that if the Government were generally to compensate people who were not insured, people might draw the conclusion that they did not need to insure themselves because in the end they would be bailed out. But he makes a really important point about the cost of premiums, and I undertake to talk to the ABI, both in relation to responding as quickly as possible in providing assistance to those who are insured in regard to the current emergency, but also in relation to what might be done in future to deal with the problem that he has rightly identified.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): On behalf of myself and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, I congratulate the Secretary of State on his appointment. We look forward to our dialogue with him on flooding and other matters.

Sir David King, the Government’s chief scientist, produced a foresight report that counselled us to take into account extreme weather events when looking at flooding issues. Most people would say that June’s weather has been, to say the least, extreme, so will the Secretary of State think about asking Sir David King to chair an expert group as soon as possible to re-examine our preparedness for extreme weather events and, in particular, the models that exist to enable us to predict the effects in the light of the welcome increase in funding to ensure that it is applied in the most effective way?

Hilary Benn: I thank the right hon. Gentleman, who so ably chairs the Select Committee, for his kind words, and I look forward to working with him and members of his Committee on all the matters for which I now have responsibility. I am happy to go away and think about his suggestion; I said that I wanted to learn the lessons. There are a number of matters on which we will need to reflect and I will add his proposal to the list.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): When my right hon. Friend talks to the ABI, will he also mention that, in 2002, 200 families in my constituency were rendered homeless by the floods at Stockbridge, and more than anything else that their situation was exacerbated by the attitude of just one major insurance company, which I will not name? However, I threatened to do so at the time, and that was the only thing that led it to exercise its brain to sort the matter out. One elderly lady was out of her house for a year because the insurance firm insisted that she accepted the lowest tender, which meant that cowboys took over and worked only part-time. It was only when I threatened the company that it took action and employed some decent workers. Will my right hon. Friend mention that?

Hilary Benn: I am concerned to hear about that case after the previous flooding in my hon. Friend’s constituency. If Members have concerns about the way in which insurance companies or others are responding to the floods, and they think that I can be of assistance, I ask them to get in touch with me, as I shall be happy to raise such issues with the ABI in general, and if necessary in serious cases, with particular companies, too.

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Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle) (Con): I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his ministerial appointment, although I am sorry that he is leaving the Department for International Development where he has done such a splendid job.

As the right hon. Gentleman indicated, a great majority of the houses I have visited in my Lincolnshire constituency in recent days were uninsured against flood. It is a serious and urgent problem, which is difficult to resolve. People were uninsured not because they were feckless, but because they had repeatedly been refused insurance cover, and the few who thought they could obtain it could not afford the high premiums. In addition to crisis loans, which are welcome but will worry people who do not want to get themselves into debt repaying them, will the Secretary of State hold a meeting with the insurance industry as a whole to see whether there could be some form of Government subsidy for such uninsured flood groups? As the Prime Minister said in another context, the first duty of a Government is to protect their citizens, and that applies to flooding as well as to terrorism.

Hilary Benn: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. I have moved from dealing with one group of farmers—in the developing world—to another group here in the UK, some of whom I met at the Royal show this morning.

The hon. Gentleman raises an extremely important point. The Government have worked with the ABI over time to ensure that the possibility of insurance is available to most homes, but I know that does not cover all properties so I recognise the dilemma that he raises of people who cannot get insurance. As I said in answer to a previous question, I undertake to add his point to the list of issues that I shall raise with the ABI.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): Exactly a week ago, my constituency of Rotherham and the wider borough were turned into a maze of lakes, rivers and streams where houses, roads and shops had stood. I pay tribute in particular to the work of Rotherham council in co-ordinating relief help and to the chamber of commerce, which has not been mentioned, but has been out and about helping to dry out business properties. I have three specific questions for my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. May we perhaps just have one?

Mr. MacShane: In that case, I shall write to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: That is very helpful.

Dr. Richard Taylor (Wyre Forest) (Ind): As vice-chair of the all-party flood prevention group, I welcome the Secretary of State to his new post and I welcome, too, his thoughtful and caring approach. Obviously, I welcome the extra money for flood alleviation. In my area, the problem this time was not the big rivers but surface water, so I should like to suggest just three things for the Environment Agency to—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I point out to the hon. Gentleman and to the House generally that this is the second statement today. I am anxious to call as many people as I possibly can but I have to protect further
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business. Unless Members are brief and ask only one question at a time and the Secretary of State gives reasonably brief answers, an awful lot of people will not be called.

Dr. Taylor: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Will the Secretary of State encourage the Environment Agency to carry out camera studies of culverts under new builds and to look at the new type of grids that are more effective and let water through more easily, while holding back extra detritus?

Hilary Benn: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. I shall willingly raise both issues with the Environment Agency.

Ms Angela C. Smith (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab): I welcome my right hon. Friend to his post. I welcome, too, the support he has offered the people of south Yorkshire. Last Friday, I visited a large number of constituents who were badly traumatised by the flood. That experience persuaded me that I shall have to continue to press my right hon. Friend to ensure that support is delivered as quickly as possible to people who need it. Will he talk to the ABI on the varied experience that is already materialising in relation to insurance claims? Will he ensure that—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Lady has made her point.

Hilary Benn: I can certainly assure my hon. Friend that we will continue to provide all the support that we can. I visited one of the rest centres in Doncaster with the Minister for the Cabinet Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, North (Edward Miliband), and the care being provided was frankly outstanding and was an example of the community at its best. If she lets me know the rest of the point that she started to make, I will happily raise it with the ABI.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): The very future of many parts of my constituency depends on proper sea defences. Can the Secretary of State confirm that the promised increase in expenditure will cover sea defences as well as inshore flood defences?

Hilary Benn: I will need to write to the hon. Gentleman about that, because I am still in the process of understanding exactly how all the bits work. I hope that he will accept that reply.

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): When the present crisis is over, will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State look at how resources are allocated to rural areas? Villages in Nottinghamshire, such as Lowdham, Lambley and Woodborough, have been badly flooded, but on the present cost-benefit analysis look unlikely ever to receive any protection. Should not people be safe and secure in both urban and rural areas?

Hilary Benn: People certainly should be protected, but in this emergency lots of places have been affected and, in the end, the Environment Agency, with its resources, has to decide on priorities.

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I can save the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) the cost of a stamp, because the answer to his question is yes. Both coastal defences and inland defences will be covered.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Will the Secretary of State tell the Environment Agency that people expect it to maintain its flood defences to a good standard, which it does not, and to improve those defences to stop flooding, rather than putting people’s homes on a map of properties at risk, which makes it very dear to insure them?

Hilary Benn: I am sure that the Environment Agency would say that it does its best to make sure not only that new flood defences are provided, but that the existing ones are properly maintained. If the right hon. Gentleman has concerns about particular flood defences where he thinks that that is not the case, will he please draw them to my attention and I will raise them with the Environment Agency?

Colin Burgon (Elmet) (Lab): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, as a Leeds MP, will be aware that both the River Aire and the River Wharfe have given us great problems, along with surface water. In the light of recent experiences, what plans are there to improve co-ordination between the Environment Agency, Leeds city council and Yorkshire Water? Many of my constituents are really confused about who is in charge.

Hilary Benn: If my hon. Friend would like me to look at that matter as a response to the flooding that Leeds has recently experienced, I would be happy to do so. I know that the Environment Agency works hard in partnership with a wide range of agencies to ensure that there is clarity of responsibility, but I am happy to take up the point he raised.

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con): It is only just over three months ago that we were told that, due to the acute lack of rainfall, no matter what happened later in the year, we would probably face hosepipes bans and standpipes. Presumably that is no longer the case. Can the Secretary of State tell us what plans he has to build more reservoirs so that we can find somewhere to put the rainfall when it comes so that we can use it when we have dry period?

Hilary Benn: The problem that we are dealing with and to which the hon. Gentleman draws attention is that there is not enough rain in some places and far too much in others. In the end, we are going to have to ensure that we have got the right systems in place to cope with both, and I would be happy to come back to him and tell him more about how we might do that.

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will know that I represent the constituency of Crosby, which has 15 miles of coastline, a river and thousands of properties that are either below sea level or at sea level. I am particularly concerned about my constituents who live in Hightown. The Environment Agency proposes to extend the ditch-and-dike system there and I thank him for the work that his Department has done to introduce that. However, the local council
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has just written to the parish council in Hightown to inform it that more than £1 million, which was provided by house builders for coastal works, will have to be returned to the Government because it has not been spent. Will he please do all he can to encourage Sefton council to put forward plans to spend that money quickly, given the level of concern and the demand for measures to address the terrible problem that my constituents face regularly?

Hilary Benn: I will be happy to examine the case that my hon. Friend raises and come back to her.

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): I, too, congratulate the Secretary of State on his new appointment. Hundreds of homes in Beverley and Holderness were flooded last week. Untold misery was caused to residents, despite the heroic efforts of the emergency services and the local community. Residents want to know why pumps were not installed on the Burstwick drain, why the outlets into the Humber appeared not to work fully and properly, and why it appeared that the Environment Agency had not carried out basic maintenance of the drain ways. Will the Secretary of State visit my constituency and hear from local people and drainage boards about the solutions that they feel could be put in place so that devastation of such an extent need not be repeated?

Hilary Benn: I cannot guarantee that I will be able to come to the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, but if he would like to give me further details about the issues that he raises, I would be happy to meet him so that I can put the points to the Environment Agency and he can provide an answer for his constituents.

Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend and his team on their new appointments.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will want to join me in paying tribute to the staff at St. Catherine’s church in Agbrigg, where 10 streets have been flooded and, sadly, four arrests were made for looting this weekend, and to council staff at the Lightwaves leisure centre. Both places opened crisis centres to deal with people who were temporarily homeless. In the past few days, insurance companies, Yorkshire Water, Yorkshire Forward, the council and the Environment Agency have given me information about what to do in the event of flooding. However, when I went to the East Flanshaw estate on Friday to visit people who had been flooded, they did not seem to have received any of that information directly from the agencies themselves. Is it not time for us to look at how councils can work together, bring information together and send it out, perhaps with council tax bills, to people who are at risk of flooding?

Hilary Benn: I agree completely with my hon. Friend. The most striking aspect of the visit that my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office and I made on Thursday night was the issue of communication. People want to know how they might prepare in advance, and, when such circumstances arise, they want to know what is going on, what efforts are being made and where they can go for assistance. I assure my hon. Friend that we will examine that as part of the lessons-learned
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exercise. There must be clarity about who is responsible for providing such information to local communities. Local authorities should take the lead.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): The Secretary of State is both a caring and thoughtful Minister. In 1953, 58 people on Canvey Island lost their lives in the floods, so this is a matter of great concern to my constituents. Can he give them a commitment to, and details of, changes to Government policy to give the fire service a statutory role in flood rescue that would make them, and their fire stations, safer?

Hilary Benn: Under the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, fire services and all other statutory agencies have a responsibility to participate in activities when such emergencies arise. We are prepared to examine the specific question of the flood rescue duty—I mentioned that in reply to an earlier question—when the fire service has the necessary equipment in place. I hope that that will satisfy the hon. Gentleman. If he requires anything further, will he please let me know?

Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): May I commend to the Secretary of State the work that Shropshire’s local authority’s emergency services have done in Shropshire over the past 10 days or so? If he has not already done so, may I suggest that he reads with his usual diligence the National Audit Office report on flood risk management, which was reviewed last week by the Public Accounts Committee? He will see from the report that last year’s funding for flood defence in inland waters was down by £70 million on the previous year. He will also establish that the Bellwin formula does not of course apply to the Environment Agency. Will he discuss with the chief executive of the Environment Agency how much of the additional funding that he has committed today will be available to the agency? The chief executive told the Public Accounts Committee last week that

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How much of the £800 million will go to the Environment Agency and how much will go to Bellwin?

Hilary Benn: May I echo the hon. Gentleman’s praise of everybody in Shropshire for their response to the flooding? I will read the National Audit Office report; I have not had time to do so, because I have been dealing with the practical problems on the ground. The funding that I announced is available to the Environment Agency, but it also supports the local authorities concerned, and later I will announce exactly what the rise will be that will ensure the £800 million figure. I informed the chief executive of the Environment Agency of the figure this afternoon when I was briefing in preparation for my statement to the House, and I think that it will be widely welcomed.


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No.83A(7) (Programme motions) ,

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