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17 Dec 2008 : Column 1110

Hilary Benn: I agree, but we are not waiting for the powers that are needed to get on with trying to deal with the problem. Even in the absence of a formal power to require, it is possible to get members of the local community together in a room and say “A particular problem is this culvert here, and that is the person responsible.” As Members will know only too well, there are many ways of encouraging change in the absence of legislation, and I am sure that Members will employ them in order to look after their constituents.

Mr. Fabian Hamilton (Leeds, North-East) (Lab): I, too, warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement and, in particular, the money for Leeds, which is one of the trial areas for the surface water management.

As my right hon. Friend will know, residents of the Wellhouses in my constituency are regularly flooded because of the overflow of Gledhow beck, which, further downstream, will affect his constituents as well. Can he confirm that, after 2011, Gledhow beck will be one of the areas transferred to public responsibility, and Leeds city council will be able to take over responsibility for it? Residents often have no idea when they move to the area that they are responsible for maintaining its banks.

Will my right hon. Friend also put pressure on Leeds city council to do something about the balancing lake at Roundhay park, which is often the cause of the huge amount of flooding in the Wellhouses?

Hilary Benn: I shall need to check whether Gledhow will be covered by the transfer arrangements. I think it will depend on the definitions, but I will pursue the point. As for my hon. Friend’s second question, that is exactly what the council’s surface water management plans are intended to identify.

I pay tribute to the work of the staff of Leeds city council. I think it fair to say that the council has a pretty good national reputation for its work on flooding. Following the efforts to protect the people who have been affected by the flooding of Wyke beck three or four times over the past four years, they have certainly noticed a difference. For instance, one of the pilot schemes involved the introduction of flood guards and other flood protection, which has helped to prevent their houses from being damaged in future.

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): May I remind the Secretary of State that a great many people in Northumberland are still out of their houses following this year’s floods, and many more feel that their houses are vulnerable and will remain so unless the Environment Agency agrees to changes in river management? Will he use his good offices to ensure that his own Department deals with the serious damage to the harbour at Amble, and also to persuade the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the right hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy) to deal with the issue of funding for the district, county and unitary authorities?

Hilary Benn: I believe that the new chair of the Environment Agency will visit the region tomorrow to see how matters have been progressing, and I shall be happy to take up the issues raised by the right hon. Gentleman with the agency.

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Colin Burgon (Elmet) (Lab): I welcome the money provided for Leeds city council to draw up a surface water management plan. Will the Secretary of State use his considerable influence in our city to ensure that the Liberal-Conservative-controlled council speaks to people like me so that we can raise the issues affecting people living beside Kippax and Collingham becks, people in Methley living by the River Aire, and people in West Garforth? Will he assure me that he will use that power to ensure that they speak to me, and to other councillors?

Hilary Benn: It is very kind of my hon. Friend to say that I have the power to make that happen, but I hope that all local authorities—including Leeds city council—always talk to all Members of Parliament in their areas.

Paul Holmes (Chesterfield) (LD): The floods in the summer of 2007 affected four rivers in Chesterfield: the Rother, the Hipper, the Whitting and the Holmebrook. The Environment Agency moved quickly to draw up plans to prevent the worst two offenders, the Rother and the Hipper, from flooding again by introducing upriver catchment areas, but the Environment Agency has warned my constituents in the affected areas that it will be at least five to 10 years before Government money will be available to enable them to be built. Can the Secretary of State offer any hope of more urgent action, or is the Government’s response to residents of areas such as Alma street in my constituency, and many others, that they should simply cross their fingers and hope that it does not rain for another 10 years, because otherwise they will be flooded again?

Hilary Benn: I have great sympathy with the hon. Gentleman’s constituents who have suffered in the way that he has described. The Government’s job is to ensure that we play our part by providing more funding for the Environment Agency for flood defence work, and that is exactly what we are doing. I think I had been in the job for about a week when I stood at this Dispatch Box and announced an increase of £200 million over the three years to 2010-11. It is because we have been putting in more money that we have been able to protect an additional 37,000 homes since the summer of 2007, and 145,000 homes will be protected by the end of 2010-11. We all have a responsibility to ensure that we argue the case for further investment in flood defence, because that is the only way in which we shall be able to help the hon. Gentleman’s constituents.

Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): Following the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), may I refer particularly to recommendation 45 of the report? It states:

That has been done in the village of Elvington in my constituency, and there is a prospect of its being done in the village of Saxton. Should it perhaps be more of a priority for the Environment Agency, where possible, to provide technical advice and support for such schemes, as it is beginning to do in Yorkshire and the Humber?

Hilary Benn: That is a very sensible suggestion. I think it inevitable that communities and others will increasingly wish to participate in the carrying out of works, and in some cases contribute to the cost, on top of what is provided by Government expenditure.

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My hon. Friend will be well aware of the benefits of big flood service schemes. Only yesterday, I saw a photograph of him sitting atop the defences at Selby that have been protecting his constituents.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): When homes and businesses are flooded, very often the first help comes from the fire and rescue services—I speak from experience as the cellar of my constituency office was flooded last summer—but I am told that the funding formula for the fire and rescue services does not include any flood work or the resources to do that work. The Secretary of State said in his statement that he was also putting money into improving our flood rescue capability. Does that mean that the fire and rescue services will now get real support for the work that they do, which is so valued during times of flooding?

Hilary Benn: I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the skill, expertise and, in some cases, bravery of our fire and rescue services in helping people when flooding strikes, and I am sure all Members would wish to applaud them for that. The fact is that a considerable number of fire and rescue services have built up their capability; they have bought boats and undertaken training, for example. The additional money I am now providing is to help ensure we make the best use of the assets, because there are quite a lot of boats around from various sources and we must ensure both that they are in the right place when they are needed and that there is the personnel with the training to use them. That is what we should focus our efforts on. Most people not unreasonably think that if they are in danger because of rising water and they ring 999, they can expect the fire and rescue service to come and help. That is what the fire and rescue service does—its overriding responsibility is to help people in trouble.

Helen Southworth (Warrington, South) (Lab): First, may I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement? It will give a lot of hope to those of my constituents who have had some very nasty experiences with flooding over the past few years. We have been working extremely hard to try to tackle the flooding that has taken place in my constituency, particularly in Great Sankey and Penketh, which has caused horrible experiences, sometimes for vulnerable people. That flooding has been caused by two things: in some cases, ineffective management of current water systems; and also the extensive building growth in Warrington over the past 20 years. Will my right hon. Friend make sure that there is effective information sharing and communication between the local authority, the Environment Agency and the utilities companies so that they can both manage current situations and plan for the continued housing growth that is due to take place in Warrington, as a designated housing growth area, over the next few years?

Hilary Benn: The single most important step we have taken to deal with the problem that my hon. Friend identifies is PPS25, because it clearly lays the responsibility with local authorities to take full account of flood risk in taking decisions. It gives the Environment Agency a statutory responsibility to be consulted—the agency is, after all, the expert. The experiences of my hon. Friend’s constituents, and of the many other constituents who have been talked about today by other Members, reinforce
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the importance of people getting themselves on to the flood warning system and of the practical change we are making to get more telephone numbers on the system, because if people get the phone call, the text or the e-mail—whichever they have asked for—they might be able to take upstairs the kinds of valuable possessions that have been mentioned, and they will not suffer quite as much as when they have been completely unprepared. We have a responsibility to get on that system; the number is 08459881188. If anyone is not on it, they should get on it, so they can get a warning if flooding threatens.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): The source of the River Severn is in my constituency and settlements such as Llandrinio, Crew Green, Meifod, Bettws, Tregynon and Caersws have always lived with flooding. However, these communities are concerned that they could be deliberately flooded more often in order to protect larger conurbations downstream. Can the Secretary of State confirm that rural communities will not be sacrificed for the sake of towns and cities, and that we will instead find creative solutions that work for town and country alike?

Hilary Benn: We certainly do need to find ways of dealing with the problem in order to protect as many people as possible, but, as Members are only too well aware, in the end water is going to find somewhere to go. That is why understanding the likely path of that water and looking at the options for dealing with it is part of the process that we have now started and the responsibility that local authorities and others will take on.

Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab): I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. I am sure he will recall that last year in both Barnsley and Doncaster in my constituency 5,000 homes were affected as a direct consequence of the bursting of the banks of the Rivers Dove, Dearne and Don. I certainly welcome the greater role local authorities will now play in flood alleviation, in the hope that they will be able to provide a more rapid response. However, will my right hon. Friend also look at trying to tap into the willing support
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from parish and town councils for their bigger metropolitan district councils in terms of methods of flood alleviation, even if it is only to provide more flood warnings?

Hilary Benn: I certainly would encourage the parish and town councils to get involved. The truth is that this is a job for everyone; and the sooner everyone gets on with it, the better we will be able to deal with it.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): My constituents in Kidlington, west Oxford, South Hinksey, north Abingdon and south Abingdon have been flooded by five or six tributaries of the Thames, and the Secretary of State was kind enough to visit some of those communities last year. Some of them have been flooded four times in the past nine years, and they are terrified each time that it rains that it might happen again. Therefore, can the right hon. Gentleman explain why the timetable for the adoption of private sewers appears to have slipped to 2011, and might it be possible to front-load some of the funding in the spending plan, which would enable extra schemes that cannot otherwise pass the threshold to be started now and also give a boost, as part of the fiscal stimulus, to the construction industry, which could usefully do some of the work next year, rather than in two years’ time when some engineering firms may be out of business?

Hilary Benn: I do not think that the transfer of the private sewers will help the hon. Gentleman’s constituents; it depends on the source of the flooding, and it will take time to deal with that. Some of the houses I visited when I came to his constituency would certainly benefit from some of the flood resilience works—we saw some homemade versions as we walked around on that occasion. We have, indeed, brought forward expenditure. The £20 million identified in the pre-Budget report is in addition to the increase in expenditure we had already put in place, and it will allow more schemes to start earlier so that protection is provided faster than would otherwise be the case.

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con) rose—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman must be present to hear the statement before he questions it.

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Points of Order

1.27 pm

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You responded yesterday to the letter written to you last week, signed by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) and me. In that letter, we asked you to give precedence to our complaint of breach of privilege in respect of the arrest of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green). You have declined that request, which means the House does not have the opportunity to consider whether the matter should be referred to the Standards and Privileges Committee. I wonder, Mr. Speaker, whether you will be prepared to give the House this afternoon your reasons for declining that request?

Mr. Speaker: No. The right hon. and learned Gentleman knows well that I do not give my reasons. I have declined the invitation from him and his parliamentary colleagues, but I do not give reasons.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Am I right in saying that nothing you said in your statement earlier today implies that the entry and search in the precincts of the House by the Metropolitan police was lawful, as asserted by them, or that the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 overrides article 9 of the Bill of Rights, which protects our constituents’ confidential information, the national interest and freedom of speech in this House? To help to get to the bottom of all this and to protect those rights, I ask you, Mr. Speaker, to insist on the production of the Johnston report and that it be placed in the Library of the House. In order to avoid confusion on the question of criminal proceedings, will you be kind enough to do that?

Mr. Speaker: The hon. Gentleman knows that last night I explained to him that I only got word of this matter when I came downstairs. I promised to come back to him and to the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon). That I have done, through a statement that I made less than an hour ago. I have made my position clear, and I cannot expand on that.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. This is a separate point, but it is linked to both of your statements, which I heard and for which I am grateful, and to the points of order raised by the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) and the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash). You have made the position clear about the Committee and about giving your permission for a motion on standards and privileges, but there is the remaining ring-fenced issue of the report to consider. I understand that the report, which the Met police commissioned from another police force, the British Transport police, has either been completed or is in draft and is about to be completed. Irrespective of procedures that have been decided on by two of our Select Committees or that may happen later in this House, may we ask you whether you would be willing at
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least to request before we break for the Christmas recess that the British Transport police chief constable or the acting commissioner of the Met police furnish us with that report, so that all those in this House who have jobs to do to inquire into what happened when the office of the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) was invaded by the police can have the facts, as discovered and assessed by the chief constable of the British Transport police?

Mr. Speaker: This is not a matter before the House; this is a report that has gone from one chief constable to another. There is nothing to prevent the hon. Gentleman from requesting—

Simon Hughes: I am going to.

Mr. Speaker: Sorry, I did not pick that up. Did the hon. Gentleman say that he has requested the report?

Simon Hughes: I said that I intend to do that, but I was hoping that the authority of the Chair could assist.

Mr. Speaker: The hon. Gentleman does well on his own, without seeking assistance from me. I have set out what he should do. If he or any other hon. Member wants that report, they should ask the chief constable to produce it.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe) (Con): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Your ruling in respect of the Standards and Privileges Committee is, of course, entirely in accordance with the practice of the House; you have declined the request and, under your practices, you do not give your reasons. But I am sure you appreciate that it leaves us in an unusual situation, because there is a complaint, essentially, of a breach of privilege relating to the police entering these premises and the office of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green). The Government have tried to set up one Committee of the House, which they have not, so far, been able to establish, and several Select Committees are inquiring into the matter, but the Standards and Privileges Committee is not empowered to discuss a rather serious matter of privilege. I wonder whether you would perhaps consider whether we should examine our practices and think of some other route by which the obvious Committee to consider this might, of its own volition, decide to conduct an investigation. It seems to me that the House is looking into this matter by every conceivable route apart from the obvious one, for which the Standards and Privileges Committee exists.

Mr. Speaker: There is nothing to stop the right hon. and learned Gentleman raising that matter with the Procedure Committee, because it is the one that would look at the points he raises. Let us cast our minds back to the situation on 3 December. I made a statement and the House then made a decision on the Monday following. I stated that I wanted a Committee to investigate the matter and to look into all the circumstances, but then the House came along and made a decision. I know the arguments about the fact that there was a small majority, but there have been smaller majorities in this House. But I serve the House and the House has made a decision—I am bound by that decision, as long as the criminal proceedings go on.

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