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20 Feb 2008 : Column 124WH—continued

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Phil Woolas): I congratulate the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) on securing the debate. He has made a number
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of intelligent points, and I am glad to be able to report that I agree with the main thrust of his comments. I shall respond to his five points before I set out the Government’s policy.

The hon. Gentleman suggested a new floods Act, and that was a recommendation of the interim report from the Pitt review. Giving the Environment Agency strategic overview and responsibilities is something that we are doing anyway: we have already done so for coastal protection, and we are considering it for inland flooding. There are other measures that a new floods Act might introduce, but he would not expect me to make any revelations; indeed, it is not within my power to do so.

On requiring providers of critical infrastructure to examine the protection that they afford, again, that has been taken on board, and the experience in Rochdale highlights its importance, because there was a combination of river flooding and, as the hon. Gentleman said, surface water flooding, which is much more difficult to deal with, particularly as it occurs in areas where people are not used to flooding.

On requiring builders to take action on protection, planning policy statement 25, which has been in place for about a year, gives the Environment Agency the opportunity to make objections and to call in proposals if the planning authority does not meet the agency’s requirements satisfactorily. It is early days for that policy, and local authorities are still learning, but the hon. Gentleman is right that if one is going to build in a flood risk area, it must be protected by flood defence schemes and/or by resilience measures.

The hon. Gentleman is also right about information. We can always do more, and he cited a good example from his constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Jim Dobbin), who has just assumed his place, has always made that point. The hon. Member for Rochdale called for continuing investment, and I am happy to report that the comprehensive spending review provided the Department, and through it, the Environment Agency, with additional capital resources.

I shall turn to the important point that the hon. Gentleman raised. He was gracious enough to acknowledge—for which I thank him—that the flood defences that were put in place in his area by the Environment Agency in 2005 improved the situation, which would have been a great deal worse otherwise. Nevertheless, the river over-topped, and as he said, the flood warning mechanisms did not indicate the level of water that eventually came about. The Roch scheme overview followed two successive floods in 1992, which flooded more than 100 residential and industrial properties in Littleborough and Rochdale, and led to the construction of the flood alleviation scheme.

On risk, the chance of flooding in Rochdale and Littleborough before the scheme was estimated to be between 10 per cent., one in 10 years, and 40 per cent., one in 25 years, in any given year. The scheme included strengthening and raising existing walls, new flood walls and embankments, and ramps to improve access to the river channel to make maintenance easier and safer. The construction works cost some £6 million and were completed within four years. In that scheme, it was agreed that the level of protection would be raised to one in 100 years, which meant that Rochdale and Littleborough had a 1 per cent. chance of flooding in any given year. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the
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formal opening of the scheme was held in July 2005. His points are therefore important. Measures have been put in place, and flooding occurred on different parts of the river. That indicates the issue that our country and others face.

I shall outline the Government’s activities with the Environment Agency to improve the situation by reducing risk, by improving preparedness, warnings and emergency response. I point the House towards three documents. First, there is the cross-Government strategy, “Making Space for Water: Environment Agency strategic overview”, which was published in 2005. That strategy development programme was the most thorough review of flood risk management policy for many years. I say that, because the accusation is sometimes made that it took last summer’s floods to make the Government sit up and take notice. That is unfair. The hon. Gentleman did not make the accusation, but in case others did, I put that statement on the record.

The second document was Sir Michael Pitt’s review, and we published the third document on 7 February, just last week. The new water strategy, “Future Water”, included a range of announcements on surface water drainage management and other aspects of water policy. It confirms our aim to clarify and improve management of the risk nationally by giving the Environment Agency a strategic overview of all forms of flooding in order to address exactly the situation that Rochdale met in microcosm just three weeks ago, when the responsibilities of United Utilities, the local authority and the Environment Agency were not clear.

Paul Rowen: Earlier, the Minister quoted the figures on risk. Does he intend to ask the Environment Agency to reconsider the risk? There are lessons. On investment, he rightly said that there are still areas at risk of flooding. Can we have a review, and will it happen nationally?

Mr. Woolas: Indeed. In the case of Rochdale, as I have said, the risk assessment following the new scheme meant that the risk was put up to one in 100—much less of a chance—yet we nevertheless had floods. We are considering the situation. Whether it was due to climate change is a moot point, but we face the likelihood of increasing rainfall as a result of climate change.

I shall make some more specific points in addition to my clarification of the management of the risk nationally by the Environment Agency. As with the coastal protection overview role, the inland changes will be informed by public consultation. They will also take into account the results of the 15 projects that we are currently funding to help to identify improvements in surface water drainage. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the capacity of drains, which is important. Surface water drainage has a complex interaction of systems, with different responsibilities in different boroughs or sometimes within boroughs, districts and counties. We made a range of announcements on that point in the water strategy document to which I referred.

The partnership between the Environment Agency, local authorities and the water companies, and inland drainage boards in other parts of the country, is crucial. It involves long-term planning as well as the risk management decisions to which the hon. Gentleman
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referred. We are also encouraging better resilience and resistance of buildings themselves, and he and I have mentioned the emergency infrastructure. We have a £500,000 project in partnership with local authorities in six areas, which is exploring the feasibility of providing financial assistance to households in areas where community defences cannot be justified, to make their homes more flood-resilient. We are also working with the insurance industry to consider ways to encourage the public to make greater use of flood resilience in their homes, and the level of premiums is important.

As for the recent event in Rochdale, we understand that last summer, about two thirds of the flooding was caused by surface water rather than over-topping or the breaching of river defences. We are therefore developing flood risk maps for surface water similar to those for fluvial overflow such as happened in Rochdale. Surface water flooding is difficult to predict and often a result of sudden, localised rainfall events of the type that the hon. Gentleman, my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton and I are used to in our part of the country. Such events occur across the United Kingdom.

Often, small variations in the built environment can have significant effects on how water flows. The hon. Member for Rochdale gave examples of buildings in Rochdale that are not themselves at risk of flooding but can cause flooding elsewhere in the drainage or river systems. In his area, the river travels mostly through built-up areas and has done for hundreds of years, which affects how surface water interacts with river water.

We know that we can never prevent all flooding. Flood warning and emergency planning are therefore key, and the Environment Agency is engaged in a £200 million programme to improve its flood forecasting and warning systems, which warn of potential flooding from rivers and the sea. We are looking into developing a warning system for surface water, although, as I have said, there are significant technical challenges.

I reassure the hon. Gentleman that the lessons learned from Rochdale will be important not just for Rochdale but for the rest of the country. It is important to understand why the system there was not as had been predicted. He said that all that requires funding. We have increased the funding significantly within the context of a long-term investment plan, so the whole country knows what it has at the moment, what it can expect and what the risk base is.

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The important thing about public consultation is not just to have warm words from a middle-ranking Minister. It is important that we understand the drainage and river systems, and local people understand them best—in my experience, down to street level. The hon. Gentleman was kind enough to mention my constituency, and I declare an interest: Railway street, in the fabulous village of Newhey, was subjected to flooding. I know the reasons for that flooding from talking to residents there, who can point out to me exactly where it will occur. The Environment Agency does a fantastic job—the hon. Gentleman has made that point publicly. I thank its officials and employees for the work that they did in Rochdale, but even they, with their expertise, cannot replace that local knowledge. I give the hon. Gentleman that reassurance.

We will increase expenditure to £800 million by 2010-11. Is that enough? I do not know; nobody knows. It is more than the Association of British Insurers suggested before last summer’s events, which is important. I have mentioned the strengthening of policy for planning authorities, whereby the Environment Agency is now a statutory consultee on planning applications in relation to flood risk. Powers have been established under the new policy for call-in by the Government.

We all need to take responsibility. I echo the hon. Gentleman’s words about the flood warning systems and appeal to the public to play their part in the preparations. Those who have not already signed up for flood warning systems should do so, and not just in areas that have experienced river flooding, because as we have seen, other areas can suffer from surface water flooding and the interaction of that with other water. The agency provides useful information. I know that not everybody has access to the website, but increasingly people do, and it is a useful source of information. There is also the floodline phone service.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman and take his points seriously. I confirm that in response to his points two, three, four and five, the answer is yes. On point one, we are already doing it but have not ruled out the need for new legislation. I assure him that I take the matter seriously. He gave the example of Rochdale, but flooding has happened in other places and will happen elsewhere. We have to put plans in place. He says that it is not clear where responsibility lies. At the end of the day, it lies here. That is why I give him those undertakings. Thank you, Mr. Gale, for chairing the debate.

4.28 pm

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

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4.52 pm

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): Thank you, Mr. Gale, it is a pleasure to be here under your chairmanship.

I am pleased to have secured a short debate on an issue that has a devastating effect on the lives of people throughout the United Kingdom. I am sure that, like me, all Members of Parliament have been contacted by constituents because either they or a relative have been the victim of a scam of one sort or another, be it a mail scam, an internet scam, a door-to-door salesman scam or a get-rich-quick scheme that seems too good to be true. There is even an internet dating scan, which was exposed just last week on “Tonight with Trevor McDonald”. It is a sad reflection of life today that large numbers of fraudsters are constantly trying to trick people—often elderly and vulnerable people—out of money that they usually cannot afford to pay.

Few people will not have received a scam letter or e-mail. Most of us recognise those for what they are: clever ways of pretending that if people send a cheque for £20, for example, they will win £5,000, or if they phone a number they will hear that they have definitely won a prize. Of course, that phone number is for a premium line and by the time that people have learnt that they have not won the phone call has cost £10. I am sure that even you, Mr. Gale, have received such communications.

Most of us immediately bin such letters and e-mails, but some are sufficiently convinced that if they send the money or make the phone call they will receive money, but they never get anything back and even when the evidence of their own experience should be telling them that this is a scam, they continue to be taken in. We know that that is so, because if there were no return for the fraudsters they would stop. However, instead, they produce even more elaborate letters and become even more sophisticated.

I shall confine my remarks to mail scams and I shall explain why I asked for this debate today. Over the years, a number of constituents have come to me with sacks of mail all demanding money in return for a promise, a gift or a poor-quality item. My advice has always been to put any further letters of that kind in the bin and never to send any money. One lady asked if I could get her money back and I had to say no. One gentleman went to the police with the catalogues for cheap, sub-standard goods that he had bought, but they told him that there was nothing that they could do because the goods originated from outside the United Kingdom. I was not able to help that man get his money back, no matter what bad value the goods were.

My constituents knew that they had been taken for a ride, but they did not want to admit that they had been so gullible as to believe the promises. They just wanted the mail to stop. However, ironically, as long as the mail kept coming, they were constantly tempted to reply because they could not distinguish what might be real from what was part of the scam.

Towards the end of last year, a constituent of mine, Gordon Lennox, came to see me because he was concerned about what had happened to his father-in-law, who had died in the summer. Mr. Lennox and his wife only
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became fully aware that her father, Robert Somerville, had been the victim of multiple scams after he died. At that stage, his mail was redirected to their house and they got control of his bank accounts.

They had suspected that something was going on, because when he was in hospital he used to get very agitated about not being able to pick up his mail. He even went so far as to take taxis from hospital to his home to pick up his mail because no one else would bring it in. Even so, Mr. and Mrs. Lennox were flabbergasted when a deluge of mail arrived addressed to Mr. Somerville. I have one week’s worth of his mail in front of me. When they saw how much he had been paying out, they were even more amazed. In three weeks in May last year, he had sent £650 to fraudsters, trying to claim prizes that they said he had won. Mr. and Mrs. Lennox think that he must have spent between £6,000 and £7,000 during the last year of his life. That was all the money he had, because he was an 87-year-old pensioner who lived on the basic pension and only had attendance allowance as a supplement. He even incurred £240 of bank charges while in hospital because he was still sending money, but had not been able to get to the bank to pay money in.

Mr. Lennox says that his father-in-law was like a gambler and had become obsessed. But he was also of a generation that believed what was written in the letters it received. Why would he not believe that? The letters were addressed to him personally; they were emphatic in their promises; some of them looked like real invoices and real cheques; and sometimes they contained gifts that he felt obliged to pay for, especially when they appeared to have come from a charity. He was also of a generation that believed that it was only polite to reply to mail. However, he did not realise that the more money he sent, the more scam letters he received. By this time, he was on the suckers list, so his name and address were a saleable commodity.

Much of the mail that Mr. Lennox’s father-in-law received was in envelopes with a Royal Mail stamp, even though many of the return addresses were abroad. When he came to me, Mr. Lennox told me that he felt that there was a moral obligation on Royal Mail and that by accepting such bulk postings it was profiting from illegal activity. In his view, that should be illegal, too. He also felt that, as a public company, Royal Mail had a responsibility not to aid and abet people who were making money by deception.

In November 2007, I wrote to Royal Mail expressing Mr. Lennox’s view that it had a responsibility not to take money from people who were clearly fraudsters. The reply that I received said that there was little that Royal Mail could do:

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The letter continues:

such as on sending creatures, something that “is likely to injure” someone else, or “indecent photographs”. So there was no joy from Royal Mail; it appeared that it was not going to accept any responsibility for what was in the envelopes that it took money for delivering. The only part of the reply that gave any hope was a paragraph that stated:

Who is the judge of whether the contents of the letters were fraudulent or misleading? It is the Office of Fair Trading.

I received that reply in November, and I had intended to apply for an Adjournment debate in December or January, but had not got round to it, so I was delighted when I came across a press release from the Office of Fair Trading saying that it had designated February as scams awareness month. That was music to my ears, because it meant that someone was taking the issue seriously, and I was pleased to hear about that initiative, which is called “stamp out scams”.

The OFT has produced a new booklet for carers and care professionals on how to recognise scams, and how to deal with them.

John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. Does she agree that it is not only the Office of Fair Trading, but local communities, local Members of Parliament and local elected representatives who must raise awareness of the issue? The only way of stamping it out is to ensure that people do not respond, so that there is no profit to be made.

Miss Begg: I could not agree more, and I was going to suggest that the OFT should communicate directly with Members of Parliament to say that it has a locus in the issue and is interested in receiving complaints. I was not aware that that avenue was open to me. I was aware of the local trading standards office, but I was not aware that the OFT would treat the matter as seriously as it does. I have since discovered that the OFT has a scam buster unit, and is interested in the problem. I hope that the Minister will tell us how the OFT wants to take the issue forward.

Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising the matter, and for informing us that February is stamp out scams month.

Before Christmas, I pointed out to the Office of Fair Trading what I would call a scam on our high streets with games and consoles being bundled together. I hoped that in the run-up to Christmas, people would be able to buy what they wanted to without games being unnecessarily bundled in to hike up the price and put families into debt. Unfortunately, I did not see much action as a result of my correspondence with the OFT, but I hope that during this month it will try to stamp out that scam also.

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