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3.45 pm

Bill Rammell: I am more than happy to give that commitment. That will help in the understanding of the debate and the Bill that we are considering.

I shall clarify some of the issues raised by the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings in relation to the steps that the LSC must take when it intervenes. The LSC must give prior notice. At that stage, the Secretary of State can take action, but does not have to do so on receipt of such a notice. It is correct that the Secretary of State has a greater opportunity to scrutinise the LSC as it takes that action and, if he chooses, to stop the LSC taking such action.

On another point that the hon. Gentleman raised, the comparison of the current powers of the Secretary of State to intervene and the proposed powers for the LSC, I want to place it explicitly on the record that the Bill does not empower the LSC to intervene in ways that the Secretary of State cannot at present. Rather, it specifies that the power to give directions may include a direction to make collaboration arrangements. It also specifies that the LSC would not be able to direct a governing body to dismiss a senior postholder. Instead, it would be able to direct the governing body to initiate dismissal proceedings.

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The comments made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), the former Secretary of State for Wales, were exceedingly constructive. His point about nurturing the relationship between the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills and the Welsh Assembly Government is important. Devolution does not mean divorce. There is a continuing need for co-operation and overlap. I entirely take his point about dialogue. The Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy), has recently had discussions with Jane Hutt about some of these matters. My right hon. Friend’s important point about the need for effective scrutiny will have been heard.

On scrutiny in general, it is important to make it clear that the Bill has been subject to scrutiny and the role of Welsh Ministers has been scrutinised. With reference to the exercise of the powers of intervention, the Welsh Assembly Minister will be subject to scrutiny by the Welsh Assembly. The comments that were made have been extremely constructive and helpful.

Mr. Hayes: First, it may be helpful to the House if the Minister comments on the ability of the Secretary of State to intervene if any of the parties feel that the intervention has been mishandled or inappropriate. The Minister deals with that in his letter to me, but it might be worth articulating it.

Secondly, if the powers were transferred at a future point so some other body—we do not know what the future of the LSC would be—would that require further legislation, as opposed to being done in a more slight and unsatisfactory way?

Bill Rammell: I thought that I had already made that clear, but I am happy to do so again. If there were changes in future, that would require legislation, which would be open to scrutiny. Will the hon. Gentleman remind me of his first point?

Mr. Hayes: That is the trouble with making two points. In his letter to me, the Minister makes it clear that if the powers were exercised in a way which the parties concerned felt was inappropriate, or if the process of the exercise of the powers went wrong, the Secretary of State could at any point intervene to deal with the matter and draw it to a conclusion. We spoke about that at a meeting and it is confirmed in the hon. Gentleman’s letter, but it would be useful to have it on the record in this place.

Bill Rammell: I am happy to confirm that the Secretary of State has the power to direct the process. If the notification comes from the Learning and Skills Council and if, as a result of his own judgment or as a result of representations, the Secretary of State is not happy for that intervention to proceed, he may stop it. That is an important commitment.

To conclude, I should say that I think we have given reassurance. For the record, I reiterate that Ministers intend to use the power of the Secretary of State under section 28(2) of the Learning and Skills Act 2000 to direct the LSC to include in its published annual report a statement summarising how it has used its intervention powers. In answer to the point made by the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings, I should say that if future changes to the role, functions and structure of the LSC led to
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proposals to transfer the statutory intervention powers to another body, new legislation would be required to enact that transfer. The Bill does not empower the LSC to intervene in ways that the Secretary of State cannot currently. Ministers envisage that the LSC would use its powers to direct a governing body to initiate dismissal proceedings against a senior post holder other than the principal when wider intervention, which included possible dismissal of the principal, was also being considered. That important point has been raised with me before. We intend the power to be used to address unsatisfactory provision, not to decide who should hold a particular appointment in an institution.

It is important that the House should be clear about such significant matters. In the spirit of our recent work, I hope that we can take forward the point on which the hon. Gentleman pressed me today. Specifically, he asked exactly what the Secretary of State could do if, on receipt of a notice from the LSC that it intended to exercise its statutory intervention powers, he had concerns. I have addressed that point already. However, for the record I say again that, on receipt of a notice of the sort that we propose, it would be open to the Secretary of State, if he was satisfied that the LSC’s proposed intervention was not appropriate, to exercise his powers under proposed section 56C of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 to direct the LSC on the exercise of its statutory intervention powers.

Under section 25 of the 2000 Act, the Secretary of State could also direct the LSC not to act if he was satisfied that the LSC was proposing to act unreasonably in relation to its statutory powers or duties, or if it had failed to discharge a statutory duty. Any such direction by the Secretary of State might be as a result of any failure by the LSC to have regard to its most recently published statement of its intervention policy, so the issue would be framed within the context set out by the LSC. As I explained earlier, the Bill provides that the statement must be approved by the Secretary of State and that he must lay a copy of the approved statement before each House of Parliament. If the Secretary of State directed the LSC under proposed section 56C or section 25 of the 2000 Act, he would be accountable to the House for that decision.

At the end of a constructive exchange, I hope that what I have said gives the reassurance hoped for by hon. Members of all parties. It should conclude proceedings on an important Bill that gives power, status and influence to our further education colleges so that they can continue the hugely important task that they face.

Question put and agreed to.

Amendments (a) to (f) agreed to.


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

Question agreed to.

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Flooding (Gloucestershire)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Mr. Watts.]

3.53 pm

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): I note that we have a little longer for this debate than might have been expected, but I assure the Minister that I do not intend to drag it out just for the sake of it. However, there are, of course, important issues to address, and I am pleased to have secured the debate for that reason. I thank Mr. Speaker for awarding it to me, and the Minister for attending today.

My hon. Friends and colleagues from other seats in Gloucestershire—Forest of Dean, Cheltenham, Gloucester, Stroud and Cotswold—have all taken an interest in what I am discussing, although unfortunately they are not able to be here because of other pressures. They, too, have suffered in recent months, and I pay tribute to their work in fighting against the difficulties that we have experienced.

I want to approach this debate in three parts. I want to consider what happened on 20 July and since, what is happening now and what should happen in the future. In June of this year, I remember visiting a number of people in my constituency and, by invitation, slightly beyond, to look at the difficulties they had experienced following floods in that month. I visited people who told me that they had lived in their properties for 40 years and never been flooded. There was some kind of warning there, I suppose. The storms were similar, although obviously those in July were a lot worse. There was a warning in June that there was a problem because places flooded that had never flooded before, and it was depressing to me to have to visit those people again in July, when they had been flooded for a second time.

I suppose that 20 July started like any other day, but the rain came down very heavily. Perhaps it should not have, but it seemed to take us by surprise. The rain continued for a lot of the day, probably all of it, and people’s journeys home became extremely difficult. A journey that should have taken me one hour took me four. The mobile phone network went down completely and it was impossible to phone home or make any arrangements. I was one of the lucky ones: many people did not get home at all. My house is not that far from the M5 motorway, and I know that people slept in their cars on the motorway, including police officers, who had no way of getting away from the situation. People slept in borough council offices, and some slept in public houses, which was probably the preferable option, but not one they would necessarily have chosen. It seemed to get worse.

On the Saturday, there seemed to be a little respite, but water continued to come from the hills and down the rivers, and on Sunday, things got very much worse. As things progressed, the town of Tewkesbury got cut off and became an island, as probably the whole world knows—Tewkesbury is now world famous for the wrong reasons. I have to stress that other parts of my constituency were also very badly flooded. Part of the hospital at Tewkesbury had to be evacuated, the doctor’s surgery was flooded and had to be evacuated, meaning that the doctors were displaced, and many
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businesses were closed. Of course, many people had to leave their homes; some of them had to be rescued from their top floor. It was a desperate situation. When we lost the water supply, we had to live off water supplied by bowsers—a word I had never come across before 20 July—and the filling of bowsers and the delivery of bottled water became a major issue. [ Interruption. ] I am glad to welcome the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), who has managed to make it to the debate.

Tragically, and worst of all, during the next few days, three people lost their lives as a direct result of the flooding; Bramwell and Christopher Lane, and Mitchell Taylor were all killed. That was extremely tragic, but it could have been so much worse. We lost our mains water supply—some people lost it for up to three weeks—and as many as 350,000 properties were affected in this way. We very nearly lost our electricity supplies. It was estimated that up to 600,000 households could have lost electricity.

At this point, I would like to congratulate the emergency services, particularly Gold Command, under the direction of Dr. Tim Brain, the chief constable of Gloucestershire. I would like to congratulate the armed forces, Tewkesbury borough council, parish councils and many others—particularly those individuals who helped rescue people and deliver bottled water. It really brought out the very best in 99 per cent. of people. There were no divisions and no party politics; everybody made a tremendous effort. I personally knew many people who worked hard, but there were many others whom I did not know and whom I will probably not meet again.

Perhaps unusually for a politician, I would like to congratulate the media on their role, especially Radio Gloucestershire, a local radio station, which broadcast accurate and up-to-date information every minute. That was extremely helpful. Perhaps unusually again for a politician, I would like to thank and congratulate the supermarkets and those who supplied the bottled water.

Most hon. Members realise the importance of their staff. I want especially to congratulate my constituency assistant, Mark Calway, who worked night and day to try to help people with their problems. Far be it from me, as a Conservative Member of Parliament, to try to brighten up the Prime Minister’s week, but I must thank him for what he did. He showed a great deal of interest and I am not prepared to play party politics about the matter. His many interventions were welcome. I also thank and congratulate the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and everybody at every level, including those in Cobra and Gold Command, who tried to help to alleviate the disaster. I am told that it was the biggest operation in peacetime Britain, and that is significant.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I apologise for being late and leaving early. My hon. Friend—in this context—knows that I am going to meet the rural advocate to discuss flooding. Does he agree that one of the problems was the apparent lack of knowledge about the susceptibility of the critical infrastructure, including the water treatment plant at Mythe and the sub-station at Walham? I appreciate that we discussed that yesterday in a Select Committee meeting with the
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Environment Agency, but some uncertainty remains about who takes the lead when those facilities are threatened. Does he agree that we need to determine how we protect those critical infrastructure facilities and who takes command when they are threatened?

Mr. Robertson: I am grateful for that intervention. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right and has made one of the most important points. I shall deal with that a little later, but I emphasise that he is right.

The second part of my speech is about the current position. Tewkesbury and the surrounding areas have recovered well but many people are still living in caravans on their own drives, and will do so for many months. In a discussion with the chief constable this morning, I was reminded that they will have to eat their Christmas dinner in caravans unless they are fortunate enough to be invited elsewhere. Many people remain displaced from their homes. Businesses, especially shops, pubs and restaurants, lost much business. When we lost the water supply, restaurants could not prepare food properly and consequently lost an awful lot of business. However, I want to convey the message that, although some people believe that Tewkesbury was like New Orleans, it was not that bad. Tewkesbury was not affected in quite the same way and it is open for business. I hope that I am allowed to make that plug.

Of course, people have still got to get their houses back together and make insurance claims. The process of claiming appears to have gone fairly smoothly—I have not heard many complaints about it—although it took time for assessors and others to come out. Given the scale of the problem, that was understandable, but matters are progressing.

Concern has been expressed about future insurance premiums and the future availability of insurance. I want to spend some time considering that because, yesterday, the Association of British Insurers made the worrying statement that it could not guarantee insuring people against flooding in future because of the Chancellor’s statement the other day and the lack of money, as the association put it, from him for the alleviation of floods. I hope that the Chancellor will provide enough money to guard against future problems, and I want to discuss shortly some of the things that I hope will be done.

I am also a little concerned about the ABI’s position, although I do not want to be too much against it. I asked the ABI what specific schemes it felt would not be able to go ahead, because of the Government’s position, that it felt should go ahead. Again, I am not defending the Government at all, but I was a bit concerned this morning to receive an e-mail from the ABI that in answer—or non-answer—to my question said:

I am not defending the Government—I will say quite a few things that I want the Government to do—but I do not want the ABI to use the Government’s position as a cop-out. That is not the ABI’s role. Insurers take the premiums and they have to pay out. It will be difficult for people if they cannot get insurance. There might be some justifiable criticism of people or businesses who did not take out insurance, but if insurance is not
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available to them, that is a different proposition. I should like the Minister to address that concern.

I come to part three of my speech: what do I think should happen in the future? We live on the confluence of two rivers in Tewkesbury. It is a beautiful place. We have the abbey and we have a lot going for us. The rivers brought a lot of trade in the past, but of course we recognise that Tewkesbury is on a floodplain and that the rivers flood frequently. The fields around Tewkesbury flood probably two, three or four times a year. That is not a problem; what is a problem is the kind of situation that we face currently.

Although we accept that we live on a floodplain and that sometimes we will be flooded, people’s primary concern now is that we should learn lessons from what happened. It is far too easy for the headlines to disappear, for people to forget about the situation and for nothing to happen. I hope that we will learn the lessons. I make no apology for returning to the fact that three people died in my constituency because of the flooding or that people beyond have suffered. We must learn the lessons. What do I think those lessons are? The biggest one is that we should not build houses or other buildings on or near floodplains. If we do that, the water obviously has nowhere to go or not as many places to go, whereas if the floodplain is a green field, the water can rest on it and eventually disappear. If there are buildings on that field, that cannot happen.

One area of building in my constituency, in a place called Bredon Road, was part built and flooded. That was not a good calculation. In a written answer to my question number 146213, the Minister for Housing quoted planning policy statement 25, with regard to strategic flood risk assessments. That is welcome as far as it goes, but I do not think that it goes far enough. I know that the role of the Environment Agency has to some extent been strengthened on that point—I shall return to that—but the provision does not go anywhere near far enough.

I am also concerned about how we determine what constitutes a floodplain. When the Environment Secretary came to Tewkesbury he told me that the flooding that had occurred was far worse than the definitive map, which suggested where the flooding might take place if the 1947 floods were repeated. The flooding this time was worse. I had a meeting with somebody from the Environment Agency who suggested that if water lay beneath the surface of land, it was okay to build on. That is profoundly wrong and dangerous.

There is currently an application, which will be with the Secretary of State any day now, at a village called Longford in my constituency, which is very close to Walham electric works, which almost flooded and which we almost lost. The appeal to the Secretary of State is by Hitchins and is to build some 600 houses on an area that floods and to which the access roads also flood. Surely that application must be turned down when it reaches the Secretary of State’s office, otherwise we will have heard just empty words.

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