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Flooding: Environment Agency Report

Baroness Mallalieu asked Her Majesty's Government:

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Baroness Hayman): We are today publishing this report, copies of which are being placed in the House Libraries, copies of the regional reports will be placed in the Libraries by 30 March. We welcome publication of this report, which I

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commissioned the Environment Agency to produce in partnership with the other bodies responsible for responding to the flooding, particularly local authorities and the emergency services.

The report shows that since last October we have seen the worst flooding for half a century, following the wettest autumn on record. Thankfully no loss of life was directly associated with the floods, though 10,000 properties suffered flooding--some repeatedly--and we again extend the Government's sympathies to all those who were affected.

We endorse the key finding that the agency, and those responsible for the emergency response, performed well. We are particularly pleased to note that the seamless and integrated service of flood forecasting, warning and response for which we called after the Easter 1998 floods was delivered in most if not all areas. We are also pleased to note that in a number of localities the emergency response arrangements benefited from exercises conducted last summer between the Environment Agency, local authorities and the emergency services. The new flood warning codes, introduced by the agency within weeks of the floods, also worked well.

We want to thank the agency, and all of the other organisations and individuals involved, for their efforts in response to the flooding. This involved many hours of long, hard work, rapid decisions which needed to be made, and also individual acts of bravery, for which the country must express its gratitude. The effects of the flooding would almost certainly have been much worse were it not for their efforts.

Nevertheless, the report identifies some further lessons to be learned, the key ones being:

    The flood warning arrangements worked well but there are some detailed lessons for further improvement. We have asked the agency to provide me with their proposals for implementing changes by September 2001. Also, the report notes some deficiencies in the weather forecasts received by the agency. A review will be taken forward by the Environment Agency in conjunction with the Met Office, to report by September 2001.

    There is a need for the current Home Office review of local authority emergency planning arrangements to take account of the lessons learned from the floods.

    There remains some confusion in the minds of the public about responsiblity for measures to prevent flooding, and for responding to it. The key to sound action is planning, partnership and provision of information. Through the Ministry's High Level Targets operating authorities are required to provide policy statements which will indicate flood risk locally and how it will be managed, and to describe local partnerships. Such statements are due to be completed soon. These statements will provide information on "assumed" responsiblity which will provide a useful basis for determining if further action on attribution is necessary in specific instances and

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    developing a sound local partnership. Provision of a "one stop shop" may then be possible by local agreement.

    We have a High Level Target in place for the Environment Agency to organise a programme of local and regional emergency exercises and should also conduct a national emergency exercise during the course of 2001. While local and regional exercises should continue, we have accepted the agency's recommendation that it is unnecessary to conduct a national exercise this year. We shall consider with the agency the timetable for a future national exercise.

    We need to determine the appropriate level of investment in flood and coastal defence. Substantial increases were made in the Comprehensive Spending Review and the 2000 Spending Review. An additional £51 million was announced in November, and we have also put together an £11.6 million package to fund the exceptional costs of the Environment Agency in responding to the flooding and in undertaking emergency repairs. However, we recognise that we need to be ready to consider whether further expenditure may be justified. We have already instituted additional research to identify in broad terms what future investment may be required so that this can be considered in future spending reviews. Other developments such as strategic catchment studies should assist in the future production of more realistic needs-based expenditure programmes.

    We have established a series of High Level Targets to ensure government policy for flood and coastal defence is delivered by the operating authorities and others. One group of targets requires the Environment Agency to establish a database of flood and coastal defences and to record information on their condition, based on inspections undertaken by the operating authorities. The database is an important development, for which MAFF is currently contributing towards the cost; we will consider whether additional funding is needed. It is also necessary to ensure that inspections of defences are completed by the operating authorities accurately and to time. We are asking the Environment Agency to report on this, as part of the report on the inspections and assessment of flood risk required under the High Level Targets.

    The Environment Agency's report raises questions about the process for making investment decisions. I have asked the agency to provide me with supporting evidence by September 2001 and will consider with it, and the other operating authorities, whether changes are required. This issue will be relevant to the review, already under way, of the priority scoring arrangements for consideration of MAFF financial support for flood and coastal defence schemes.

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    Also under way is a review of the current funding arrangements for flood and coastal defence. We shall ensure that relevant recommendations in the report are considered by the Review Steering Group.

    The agency has also undertaken to carry forward further reviews and studies, which we anticipate receiving with interest.

My right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister was right when, on 31 October [Hansard, col. 607 et seq], he referred to the effects of the earlier violent storm as a "wake-up call". We can certainly expect climate change to mean that events of this type will occur more frequently in future. Another inevitable fact is that governments--past, present and future--cannot prevent all flooding; but where it is sensible and sustainable to do so, we can take further action to reduce the risk.

We can also take action to ensure that as a nation we are prepared to deal with the effects of severe weather, including but not limited to flooding, and that our key national infrastructure can withstand these effects. This is a matter on which we are working closely with local authorities and other key players through the Central Local Partnership.

In summary, if it had not been for the effective response of the agency and others, the flooding would have had much more serious effects than it did. There are still lessons to be learned, but we have all come a long way since the flooding three years ago.

National Taxing Team: Untaxed Claims

Baroness Buscombe asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What was the percentage of claims for the Criminal Defence Crown Court fees made to the National Taxing Team in Maidstone which in January 2001 remained untaxed after three months of becoming ready to tax.[HL1099]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Lord Bach): At the end of January, 35 per cent of the outstanding claims at the National Taxing Team in Maidstone remained untaxed after three months of being ready to tax.

European Development Fund: Disbursement Rate

Lord Judd asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What is now the average disbursement time for European Union aid from the European Development Fund; what improvement in the rate of disbursement in comparison to the average of the past five years this represents; whether they are satisfied with the current situation; and, if not, what action they are taking with other European Union member states to ensure an acceptable standard.[HL1073]

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Baroness Amos: There are no published figures for the disbursement time of the European Development Fund. However, at the beginning of 2000, of the total commitments of 6.8 billion euros which had been made from the EDF and were awaiting payment, approximately 1.3 billion euros were either over five years old or had been inactive for at least two years. This was a clear indication of slow disbursement. As part of the present reform process, the Commission is making a significant effort during this year to clear this backlog of commitments. In addition, changes to Commission management procedures and to the EC's Financial Regulation have been proposed which would require commitments entered into in external programmes to be paid within three years. The UK has pressed hard for these changes, which, if adopted, would bring a significant improvement in the EC's disbursement rates.

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