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On Mythe, Severn Trent Water says that a full restoration of services could take between seven and 14 days. It is difficult to say for sure, because
that will depend on what it finds when the water is pumped out and it discovers how much damage has been done to the equipment. There has indeed been flooding in Oxford. As I said earlier, we are not anticipating further extensive flooding, but that really depends on exactly how the flow of water comes down the system.
I can tell the hon. Gentleman that an assessment of other critical infrastructuredown the course of the Thames, in particularhas been carried out, because Cobra asked about that. We have been advised that there is nothing that needs to be worried about, given the pulse of water that we have currently. There is a longer-term issue about infrastructure in general, to which I have already alluded. With great respect to the hon. Gentleman, however, it is not possible for me to answer his related question on whether I could identify any other infrastructure that might be at risk from further flooding and extreme weather in the next few weeks and months. If he will kindly tell me where it is going to rain, I might be able to answer the question. I can confirm that the emergency services are receiving mutual aid from other services, which has allowed staff who are very tiredthe hon. Gentleman was right about thatto have a rest.
On the Making space for water strategy, I emphatically reject the charge that we have let it lie. I have already saidand I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman did not appear to be listeningthat we have already made arrangements to put the coastal overview in place. We have been dealing with this since 2004, and we recognise that it is a problem. Building on what I said yesterday, I said today that we were getting on with itthe consultation has taken placeand that we will also draw on the lessons to be learned from the review that is now being undertaken.
If the hon. Gentleman is able to draw to my attention any flooding that has taken place because the flood defences failed at the level that they were meant to protect, I will undertake to go away and look into that. However, many of the flood defences were overtopped. The National Audit Office acknowledged the progress that the Environment Agency had made in trying to improve the maintenance of flood defences, and that is something that the agency will continue to work on.
Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. While recognising Members concerns about what is happening in their constituencies, may I please ask them to limit themselves to one supplementary question? I hope that that will enable us to accommodate a greater number of contributions.
Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op):
I thank my right hon. Friend and all his ministerial colleagues for this statement and for treating this matter so seriously. I also pay tribute to all those who have performed so well in such trying circumstances over recent days. Will he consider the request from Gloucestershire county council for funding up front to meet the huge costs that are already being incurred? Will he also urgently look
into the situation at Severn Trent? There is certainly misinformation about who is to have their mains water supply turned off, which is causing problems. It is also completely unacceptable to say that it will take up to 14 days to get people back on to mains water when there are other water suppliers in the area. Wessex Water and Bristol Water supply customers in my constituency, and I am sure that in this day and age it is possible, in an emergency, to tap into that water supply and get households, farms and businesses back on to some form of mains supply. It is catastrophic that people should be without water for 14 days.
Hilary Benn: I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, who will be allocating the funding announced today according to need, will seek to do so as quickly as possible. Secondly, if there is any confusion about who has lost water supply, I will take the matter further if my hon. Friend provides the details. Thirdly, I share my hon. Friends concern that Mythe should be brought back on line as quickly as possiblea point that I have already made to the Severn Trent company. I have also already said to the chief executive that if he needs any further assistance to make that happen, we will give it.
Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con): My constituency is located further downstream and, unusually, the peak flows are expected in 48 to 72 hours in areas such as Datchet, Horton, Wraysbury and Old Windsor. The Jubilee river has protected Maidenhead, but channelled the water further down. Given that the Environment Agency has said that it needs £1 billion to deal with flood defences in the UK, and that it does not quite have that budget, I seek the Secretary of States assurance that he will re-examine the vital lower Thames protection scheme.
Hilary Benn: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Environment Agency has a process through which the priority of schemes is determined, and that the formula is currently under review. The Jubilee river has done its work, but I acknowledge that it protects one part of the area rather than elsewhere. That shows how interrelated the movement of water is and that protecting one area can have a knock-on consequence further down the line. On the question of funding, the £1 billion a year was a sum that resulted from a foresight study looking ahead over the rest of the century. If my memory serves me correctly, I think that the case was that we should be working towards the £1 billion a year by 2024. The House will be aware that we will already have got to £800 million by 2010-1113 years earlier.
Mr. Elliot Morley (Scunthorpe) (Lab):
I thank my right hon. Friend for keeping the House so well informed, and also for the money made available to north Lincolnshire, which has been used very wisely by North Lincolnshire council to help flood victims. Does he agree that it is not the case that reports are not being acted on? Going back to 1998, the Bye report led to improved contingency arrangements, and Making space for water brought about changes in planning and institutional change, and strengthened the role of the Environment Agency. There have been huge improvements over those years.
Although the Government are involved through the public sector, it is important to recognise that there are private sector players, particularly in respect of infrastructure. I welcome what my right hon. Friend said about the inquiry and the need to look further into co-ordination and adaptation of the central infrastructure in flood risk areas.
Hilary Benn: I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for that contribution, particularly as over recent years he played such an important part in helping to implement the steps that he has mentioned. It is precisely because of the complex interrelationship, including with the private sector, that we are taking this work forward. Everyone has to play their part in dealing with the problem.
Mr. Edward Vaizey (Wantage) (Con): May I echo the comments about the importance of local media, particularly BBC Radio Oxford? Given that I spent Sunday afternoon filling sandbags in East Challow for use in Abingdon, will the Secretary of State look urgently into ensuring that sand and sandbags are in place in the towns most likely to be flooded in future?
Hilary Benn: I happily give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. My hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment has already encountered that issue on his visits to affected areas, and we will certainly look further into it. It is one important lesson that can be learned. I echo what the hon. Gentleman said about local radio, which is often the best-informed source of advice and information about what is going on and what people should do.
Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): In Nottinghamshire, much of the flooding was caused by localised torrential rainfall, which simply overran the surface water systems. The Secretary of State has already pointed out the diffuse responsibilities involved. May I press him to take early decisions about a lead agency and, in the review, to take account of new solutions such as sustainable urban drainage systemsSUDSand the factors that hinder their implementation?
Hilary Benn: I am very happy to give my hon. Friend assurances on both those points. Clearly, it is important that we should make progress as quickly as possible and that we should look at how, practically, those responsible are going to improve surface water drainage, given the experience that we have had.
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): Will the Secretary of State, whose conduct has been exemplary and who talked movingly about the human tragedy, discuss with the Chancellor the possibility of the Government launching a fund by putting £10 million down to help private individuals? Others could then add to that. It might be a good idea if those in the House had the opportunity to contribute.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about what further assistance can be given to individuals. As the House may be aware, the Red Cross has issued an appeal today, which covers all the victims of the floodingvictims both of the recent events and of what happened in Yorkshire and Humberside and
elsewhere. I am sure that the public will want to contribute generously to that. There is also the funding that the Government have made available previously, what I have announced today, and the funding available under the Bellwin rules.
Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): Although I appreciate that my right hon. Friend's immediate thoughts are with the crisis in the south and in the midlands, does he accept that in the longer term he and his colleagues should look into trying to stop potential lasting damage to local economies? A welcome help fund for small businesses has been set up by Yorkshire Forward, but the chief executive of the chamber of commerce has already said that it has identified quite a lot of small firms that, although insured, are often not insured to replace damaged equipment with brand-new equipment, and are certainly not insured for loss of business. There is a risk to hundreds or even thousands of jobs in the Sheffield area. That could also damage the complicated supply chain in the engineering industry. I wonder whether the Government could eventually give some thought and attention to what they can do to help.
Hilary Benn: I know that my hon. Friend is meeting the Minister for Local Government to discuss that very issue tomorrow. He draws attention to one of the consequences of the flooding that has hit Sheffield particularly badly, including its industrial base. We will try to draw on those lessons and to talk to the insurance industry about the points that he has raised.
Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): When I left Oxford at 3 o'clock, the water was rising on the Botley road, in the Osney island area, and on roads off the Botley road, which the Minister for the Environment visited on Sunday; we were grateful for that visit. I hope that the Secretary of State is right, and that there will not be additional significant flooding. It is not clear how many properties will be affected. However, those properties have been flooded in 2000, 2003 and again this year. There are no longer floods every 40 years or every 20 years; instead there have been three floods in seven years. Can he see his way to giving an assurance that the Environment Agency budget will be front-loaded over the period that he envisages to give urgent protection to frequently flooded areas, because they will need it?
Hilary Benn: As I said to the House yesterday, I will be looking at how we phase the increase to the £800 million as part of the comprehensive spending review announcement. I do not know, in the case of the particular properties to which the hon. Gentleman refers, whether the Environment Agency has yet done any work on what a scheme may look like. I undertake to make inquiries about that, as he has raised it with me.
Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con):
Can the Secretary of State answer the question that I put to him yesterday? The number of members of the armed forces has been cut because of the policies of the Prime Minister in a previous life, as Chancellor of the Exchequer. Barracks that could be used as operation-mounting bases to assist the civil authorities have been sold off. Can the
Secretary of State tell me how many troops are available to Cobra to deploy to assist in emergencies such as this? Have any been taken off leave? Have any been taken off training for Iraq and Afghanistan, which are very dangerous places, for which they need training?
Hilary Benn: As I indicated to the hon. Gentleman yesterday, I will answer his questionbut I hope that he will recognise and understand that, with respect, the most important priority in the last 24 hours has not been to provide people with the details of precisely where the troops came from. The most important priority has been to ensure that the resources are available both for the extraordinary operation at Walham and elsewhere. As I indicated yesterday, on a number of occasions, I have asked those responsible for responding to the emergency whether they have the resources that they need. I have been assured that that is the case. I hope that, given the hon. Gentlemans interest in the armed forces, which is long lasting and deeply felt, he will join me in praising the extraordinary efforts of the armed forces and all the other people who have been working so hard in this emergency.
Dr. Richard Taylor (Wyre Forest) (Ind): I have today been informed that Environment Agency staff are being moved from vital duties elsewhere to guard the flood defences at Bewdley from theft. Will the Secretary of State consider introducing swingeing penalties for such attempted theft, and penalties for scrap dealers who are tempted to trade in those highly recognisable metal objects?
Hilary Benn: I am very concerned to hear that in the current circumstances some individuals might think that it is sensible to try to steal flood defences in place for the protection of the public. I undertake to raise that in the meeting at half past 5and if the hon. Gentleman is able to join us, he can raise it himself.
Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): When these events are over, will it not be time to look again at creating an upstream water grid to take water across watersheds? That would be useful both in times of drought, to secure water supplies, and in times of heavy rainfall, to relieve floods downstream.
Hilary Benn: I understand that that has been looked into in the past. There are some obvious practical difficulties, including the considerable cost of shifting water from parts of the country where there is an excess of itat present, that would be large parts of the country, but I am thinking in particular of the north and the Kielder damto areas which experience greater water stress. The immediate priority is to ensure that the resilience of the existing pumping supply system can be safeguarded in the face of events such as those we currently face.
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con):
My parliamentary neighbours in Gloucestershire have raised several points, but many hundreds of homes in my constituency have been flooded, spread over a wide
area, which poses problems in itself. May I first pay tribute to the emergency services, who worked tirelessly throughout Friday night? I also wish to say that there has been great community spirit in Gloucestershire: everyone I met yesterday was cheerful, and helpful to their neighbours.
I have three requests. First, will the Secretary of State confirm that when the Bellwin scheme arrangements kick in, Gloucestershire will qualify without limit for all the qualifying items? Secondly, will he make money available up front to Gloucestershire county council, as it has already incurred huge costs? Thirdly, will he assure us that the Environment Agency will have sufficient funds to carry out its maintenance responsibilities for watercourses better? Some flooding has been caused by poor maintenance of watercourses, and the EA says it does not have enough money to improve maintenance.
The issue of investment by water companies has not been raised. Before the recent flooding, they told me that their capital investment was rationed because the Government had set a formula specifying how much of their profits they could invest. Will the Secretary of State look again at that?
Hilary Benn: On the last point, what we tell the companies is how much they must investand if they wish to invest more, that is up to them. On the Bellwin rules, funding is available for purposes that are clearly set out under long-established arrangements, and payments are made as and when claims are brought forward. On the Environment Agency and the maintenance of flood defences, over the past decade we have increased the money available for that from £300 million to £600 million, and over the next few years we will further increase it to £800 million. The agency has responsibility for that and expertise in it, so it is right that it should take decisions on how much to allocate to particular projects, and on ensuring that the flood defences that are in place are adequately maintained.
John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): The right hon. Gentlemans characteristically detailed and courteous statement will be of great interest to my constituents, 55 of whom were evacuated from their homes to the Radcliffe centre in Church street, Buckingham in the early hours of Saturday morning.
As many Members have testified, there was a serious incidence of flooding as long ago as 1998. It impacted significantly on my constituency, and it caused the Environment Agency to commission a survey from W.S. Atkins that produced many recommendations. I ask the right hon. Gentlemanin a genuine spirit of inquiry, as I did not hear him give an answer to my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth)how many of those recommendations have been fully implemented nine years later.
Hilary Benn: I have not yet read that report, but as the hon. Gentleman has raised it I undertake to go away and have a look at it, and do my best to answer the question. I thank him for what he said about the efforts that have been made to help his constituents who have been affected.
Derek Conway (Old Bexley and Sidcup) (Con): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is right that the House has had statements today, yesterday and many days before that from Secretaries of State. Many written ministerial statements have also been made, and one wonders whether there is some kind of league table in operation. We know that the Prime Minister is keen on quoting league tables at us. I wish to draw your attention to the statement in the Official Report for Monday 23 July at column 46WS, in which the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor says that he will make a statement on the matter on which he is making a statement. We are a little concerned about whether such statements on potential statements are helping the Prime Minister to develop a league table on informing the House that is not entirely accurate. I hope that you and Mr. Speaker will reflect on that point.
Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that point of order. As I have said before, the occupant of the Chair has many responsibilities, but when it comes to Ministers making statements, that is entirely their responsibility.
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