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I turn to the warnings. Obviously, a flood warning was issued to Kendal. However, much depends on the nature of the flooding; there is no warning for surface water flooding, by definition, because unless we know exactly where the rain is going to land, it is hard to indicate where surface water flooding may arise. That is why one of the measures in the Flood and Water Management Bill is to give the local authority, the upper tier or unitary authority lead responsibility for bringing together all the people with responsibility for bits of the drainage infrastructure-they could be the private owners of culverts, the Highways Agency, the council and others-to do precisely what the hon. Gentleman has suggested needs to be done to deal with the problem. I should add that we are also dealing with the legacy of 150 years of paving, tarmacking and concreting over all
the land in our towns and cities. If that is done and huge amounts of rain fall out of the sky, where will the water go? That legacy has to be dealt with.
Local authorities do have the powers in respect of building on floodplains. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, we strengthened the planning guidance; the Environment Agency must now be consulted on planning applications. I am happy to report that in the vast majority of cases the decision goes in line with what the Environment Agency has to say about whether it is safe to build on a floodplain. It all depends on whether homes can be adequately defended.
I very much echo the hon. Gentleman's final point. I hope that people continue to visit Cumbria and support businesses there. As one shop owner in Cockermouth said to me on Saturday, once things are up and running again, the most important thing is that people come and use the shops, to help businesses to get back on their feet.
Mr. John Hutton (Barrow and Furness) (Lab): I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for the prompt action that he and his colleagues have taken. I echo the respect that he has shown for the emergency services in Cumbria. We are very proud of them; they have done a brilliant job.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the best way for us to demonstrate our long-term commitment to the recovery process, which is now inevitable, is to make an announcement soon about the additional resources that will be available to repair the bridges that we have lost? Until we are clear about how we will do that, the long-term health of the Cumbrian economy will still be a concern for many.
Hilary Benn: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. In relation to the bridges, there is a well established scheme, which, as I mentioned a moment ago, operated in 2007, in which the Department for Transport helps with costs that exceed 15 per cent. of the highways budgets of the affected authorities. That paid out a considerable sum in the wake of the 2007 floods. Precisely what will be required will depend on the nature of the damage. We will not know the extent of the damage until engineers have had a chance to inspect all the bridges. In many cases, the high water levels make that very difficult at the moment. I spoke to the Secretary of State for Transport on Saturday evening. Folk from the Highways Agency are working to support the local authorities in undertaking this work, and we will do everything that we can to help.
David Maclean (Penrith and The Border) (Con): I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. I and my constituents pass on our condolences to the family and friends of PC Barker. I phoned the chief constable on Friday to pass on those condolences. I also thank the Secretary of State for his customary courtesy since the crisis broke in keeping Members of Parliament in the county informed of developments. I wish that every Minister would follow his example.
My constituency, on the eastern side of Cumbria, has been less affected on this occasion than it has in the past. When I visited those in Appleby and Eamont Bridge who had been affected, on Saturday, their hearts
went out to their fellow Cumbrians in the west of the county who had been devastated. In Appleby, the experiment by the Environment Agency of individual household floodgates worked about 98 per cent. of the time. The two occasions on which they did not work were in one house that was way below the river level and one that had a wonky doorstep. I plead with the Secretary of State to consider a small-scale scheme in Eamont Bridge, where we will need something different from and better than individual floodgates to help.
I also thank the emergency services in Cumbria and all the other volunteers. I echo the point made by the right hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton). Devastating though this is for the individuals in Cumbria who have been flooded-and there is nothing worse than seeing a house that has been flooded-Cumbrians will get on with drying their places out. We will pull ourselves up by the bootstraps, but we cannot rebuild the bridges and the infrastructure. Cumbria is 300 miles from London, and we depend on transport links to London, and on having the best transport links in our county. I plead with the Secretary of State to ensure that we get our bridges rebuilt, not just our trunk roads.
We have a record amount of flooding in Cumbria. We also have the record for the longest serving temporary Bailey bridge in history. The bridge over the River Eden between Penrith and Langwathby was washed away in 1968, and we are still using the Bailey bridge, which has survived various floods. I know that the Secretary of State will not wish to go down in history as installing the largest number of temporary Bailey bridges.
Hilary Benn: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that important bit of history and for reminding the House that flooding has occurred before and damaged infrastructure. He will be aware from what I have already said that I am acutely conscious of the point that he and other hon. Members have made about the disruption to transport infrastructure. The fact that the Papcastle bridge near Workington is reported to have reopened will offer some relief, given that one bridge has gone and the other is in serious danger. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Regional Economic Development and Co-ordination was briefed on this in her meeting with local authority leaders yesterday, and we will follow that up in the way that I have already indicated.
I also echo what the right hon. Gentleman said about the benefit of the flood guard defences. It will not be possible in every case to build a flood defence scheme, but we need to prepare for the future by making our homes more resilient and that is one very good example of how to do it.
Derek Twigg (Halton) (Lab): Despite previous experiences, is my right hon. Friend confident that insurance companies will actually pay up quickly? Will his officials meet insurance companies to put pressure on them to pay up quickly to the people concerned?
My right hon. Friend the Minister will be meeting the insurance companies-as we did after the 2007 floods. To give an example of the quick response by one insurance company, when I visited the rest centre in Cockermouth for the second time on Saturday, one insurance company had already turned up and was dealing with people's claims there and then. That shows
how it is possible to respond. Insurance companies are very conscious of the need to help people to deal with their claims as quickly as possible, but I can assure my hon. Friend that we will follow that point up.
Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): People in Northumberland, some of whom have only recently returned to their homes after the floods of more than a year ago, will be full of sympathy for their neighbours in Cumbria in this crisis. Will the Secretary of State take particular note of the work done by military search and rescue in rescuing people in the current operation and draw the Secretary of State for Defence's attention to the need to review carefully the lessons from what has happened on the number of helicopters and crew that we need to deal with disasters?
Hilary Benn: As I have indicated, we will indeed learn all the lessons. At one time, in the early hours of Friday morning, the only way to rescue anyone from Cockermouth was by helicopter, because the force of the water was such that the rescue boats could not be used. I pay particular tribute to the skill of those crews, flying in very difficult circumstances indeed.
Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): The establishment of the Flood Forecasting Centre is a welcome development and a good example of investment in the science that we need in that area. However, given the abnormal weather events that are occurring and, of course, climate change, is my right hon. Friend satisfied that sufficient resources are going into that? Will he also ensure that the best scientific advice is sought, to ensure that Britain is at the forefront in that field?
Hilary Benn: The establishment of the Flood Forecasting Centre has been a great step forward. I have visited it and seen EA and Met Office staff sitting side by side, issuing a single, unified forecast, which is a great step forward. We were all well aware that the rainfall was coming, which shows the benefits of one of the recommendations of Sir Michael Pitt's report. The Flood Forecasting Centre is certainly working effectively, and I have put money in to make that to happen.
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): Does the Secretary of State accept that many of the tourists who go to Cockermouth are lovers of Wordsworth's poetry who go to see his birthplace, which is a tourist magnet in that part of the world? Can the Secretary of State assure the House that the National Trust will be given every necessary help to ensure that that birthplace and wonderful historic house is restored?
I am sure that the National Trust-I believe that one of its representatives was on the radio this morning-will do everything that it can to ensure that that great tourist destination and an important part of Cumbria's history is available for people to visit. I am sure, too, that the local Members representing Cumbria will play a part in doing that. In addition to those Members who are in the House today, may I also pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Copeland (Mr. Reed) and, in particular, for Workington (Tony Cunningham)? He has been hard at it since the crisis started, looking after his constituents, which is typical
of the care and concern that all Members who represent Cumbrian constituencies have shown for the people whom they represent.
Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): Clearly it is not feasible to design bridges and other structures to withstand a once-in-one-thousand-year event. However, could the Secretary of State please tell us how the frequency and risk of such events are calculated, when they were last calculated and whether a recalculation, with consequent changes to the design of structures such as bridges, is likely to happen?
Hilary Benn: My hon. Friend raises an extremely important point. The standard that the Environment Agency currently uses is based on the best assessment that it can make, but he is right that the degree of protection that it offers will change as the climate changes and we have a better understanding of the greater risk that we face in the future. However, if I may, I will respond to him in a letter with some more detailed information.
Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): Business and home owners, and not just in the current flood-damaged area but in other flood-risk areas, will be concerned about their prospects of obtaining buildings and contents insurance. The Secretary of State has already indicated that discussions will be held with the insurance industry. Could he urge it to ensure that there is comprehensive advice and information about people's future insurance arrangements, and not just compensation for the current damage?
Hilary Benn: I will certainly do that. The hon. Lady raises a very important point. The Minister for Regional Economic Development and Co-ordination will follow it up in her conversations with the insurance companies, and the regional development agency is offering helpful advice to businesses that are facing a tough time.
Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend urge the Government business managers, including my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip, to allow an early date for the Second Reading of the Flood and Water Management Bill before Christmas, to allow it the maximum opportunity to get through all its stages before Parliament is dissolved?
Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): In 1953, 58 people living on Canvey Island in my constituency were killed in the flood of that year. Will the Secretary of State and the Government ensure that their planning inspectors and the Environment Agency do all that they can to stop local councils going ahead with building on flood plains? Castle Point borough council is stupidly planning to build hundreds of houses on Canvey Island's floodplain.
Hilary Benn: As the hon. Gentleman has heard, we have strengthened the planning guidance to make it clear that local authorities must take flood risk into account, and to ensure that the Environment Agency-the experts-is consulted. I would expect local authorities in all circumstances to listen very seriously to what the Environment Agency has to say about particular applications.
Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Before we commence today's business, may I draw to your attention to the early-day motion on the Order Paper, which has attracted growing support? It calls for a debate, that can be amended and voted on, on Afghanistan. Will you consider that matter when you decide what we are to vote on in the Queen's Speech?
Mr. Speaker: That is not a point of order, but, in so far as it is an important point, it has been noted; it had not escaped my attention. I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that due attention will be given to that matter.
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, as follows:
Most Gracious Sovereign,
We, Your Majesty's most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, in Parliament assembled, beg leave to offer our humble thanks to Your Majesty for the Gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament.
The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (David Miliband): I am pleased to open today's debate, and I apologise that a prior diplomatic engagement means that I will not be here for the wind-up speeches.
Reviewing the debates that we have held since 2005 on successive Gracious Speeches, we can see that two sets of issues have dominated them. The first includes terrorism, weapons proliferation, and broader instability; the second involves the conditions for wider global security and prosperity. Over the past four years, UK leadership in pursuit of British interests and values has supported important changes in both areas. Two examples relate to conflict situations. In Iraq, the overall security situation is now stable and the capability of Iraqi security forces continues to improve. We hope that the progress of the past two years will be consolidated following national elections early next year. In Kosovo, now an independent state, last week's local elections showed that different ethnic communities are increasingly coming together to build a more peaceful and prosperous future.
Meanwhile, in respect of the broader conditions for global security and prosperity, London's summit in April co-ordinated international efforts to revive the global economy, and the prospect of EU membership continues to drive reform and progress in Europe's neighbourhood. Turkey has made progress on human rights and judicial reform, Serbia has stepped up its co-operation with the international war crimes tribunal, and the European Commission has recently assessed that Macedonia is ready to start accession negotiations. The biggest concern in the western Balkans is now Bosnia, as I set out in a written ministerial statement last week.
Activism, multilateralism and internationalism have given Britain real influence. We will capitalise on that in this parliamentary Session. I do not need to tell the House that the biggest challenge is obviously Afghanistan and the related problems in Pakistan. I identified this as the No. 1 foreign policy priority for the Government in my first week as Foreign Secretary, and it continues to be so today. All hon. Members will no doubt want to join me in paying tribute to the 98 soldiers who have given their lives in the year since the last Queen's Speech, to the families left behind, and to the wounded. My visit to Afghanistan last week reinforced for me the bravery,
commitment and professionalism with which all parts of the UK team-soldiers, diplomats and aid workers-are taking their work forward.
Adam Price (Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr) (PC): The Foreign Secretary will be aware that, last month, the Dutch Parliament held a vote following a debate on its military mission in Afghanistan. The German Parliament is due to hold a similar vote next month. May we have a debate and a vote on this matter in the British Parliament, as the amendment on the Order Paper calls for? We have not had such a debate since the beginning of our engagement in Afghanistan eight years ago.
David Miliband: I think you made it clear, Mr. Speaker, in response to the point of order raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field)-or rather, as it was not quite a point of order, an important issue none the less-that you would seriously consider this matter, also raised by the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price).
Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): I am sure that the Foreign Secretary is right to feel, as we all do, that we should be concerned about the morale of our troops fighting on active service abroad. Will he therefore try to ensure that those in the armed forces who are returning from action get priority for local housing when they get back to this country, as they need local social housing if they are not to become homeless, as has happened to a number of returning soldiers in Essex?
David Miliband: As I think the hon. Gentleman will know from the recent Command Paper in respect of provision for armed services personnel, that is one of the issues under discussion, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary will be happy to say more about it either in the summing-up speech later tonight or in direct response to the hon. Gentleman.
There were important undertakings for everyone to welcome in President Karzai's inauguration speech, but I am sure I speak for the whole House when I say that it is key that they are implemented. His commitments to reach out to his opponents, to promote national reconciliation, including through a Loya Jirga, to strengthen the Afghan security forces and to stamp down on corruption are right and important, but implementation is going to be more important than the words.
It is critical that NATO and, over time, the Afghan national army have sufficient strength to beat back the Taliban, but success depends on aligning military resources and development assistance behind a clear political strategy that addresses the root causes of the insurgency rather than just its symptoms. Three points are key.
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