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House of Lords

Thursday, 20th June 2002.

The House met at three of the clock (Prayers having been read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by the Lord Bishop of Salisbury): The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.


The Lord Bishop of Lichfield asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What steps they are taking to guard against further flooding in Shrewsbury and the physical and emotional suffering which results.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Whitty): My Lords, my department provides grant aid for flood and coastal defence capital works and associated studies that meet essential technical, economic and environmental criteria and achieve an appropriate priority score. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has approved works for the Frankwell area of Shrewsbury and awaits applications from the Environment Agency for any further works in the town. For areas where permanent defences may not be viable, the Environment Agency is giving advice to individual householders on the installation of flood-proofing devices.

The Lord Bishop of Lichfield: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply, but is he aware of the scale of the human trauma arising from what are now recurrent floodings in Shrewsbury and elsewhere? I refer to losses suffered by businesses, damage to people's homes, difficulties in getting insurance, family stress and health costs. Can the Government not increase funding for defence works in such areas by including those human factors in their cost-benefit calculations for building adequate flood defences?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, expenditure on flood defences has already risen by 90 per cent under this Government. Clearly, the forward programme, under which we are identifying the growing problem of flood vulnerability, will need to be taken into account in the current spending round. As for taking social, environmental and health factors into account in setting priorities for defences, that is already done. It is not done on a purely property value basis.

Lord Hooson: My Lords, is the Minister aware that at a meeting earlier this year, officials of the Environment Agency at Llanidloes—Llanidloes is the first town on the Severn; if Llanidloes floods one day, Shrewsbury floods 24 hours later—gave an undertaking to consider and report on the local and

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broader issues that caused the flooding? Damage was also caused at Llanidloes; I saw for myself some of the damage at Shrewsbury.

Does the Minister know of that undertaking, which was given some time ago? Has there been a report? Does he realise that that report could be of immense significance not solely for Shrewsbury but for towns upstream, such as my own of Llanidloes, and the towns downstream? There are regular patterns of flooding along the Severn. The whole question must be considered in terms of, first, the broad issue of the river tending to flood and, secondly, the local issues of floods in various parts being aggravated by local conditions.

Lord Whitty: Yes, my Lords, in addition to its studies in individual parts of Shrewsbury at present—studies that are in addition to the work already started in the Frankwell area—the Environment Agency is undertaking a study of the whole catchment area. It is important that areas both upstream and downstream from Shrewsbury are taken into account. That study is not yet complete, but my understanding coincides with that of the noble Lord: we need to consider the total picture.

Baroness Knight of Collingtree: My Lords, is the Minister aware that the problem goes much wider than Shrewsbury and the Severn area? Does he have any comment to make about statements from insurance companies that they will no longer insure properties subject to a danger of flooding? That could cause real problems for householders.

Lord Whitty: Yes, my Lords. Although it is true that many areas such as Shrewsbury have been subject to floods for centuries, the frequency and, in some cases, the intensity of those floods has increased in recent years. That has led to problems for insurance companies. My department is in close contact with the insurance industry. The Association of British Insurers has said that it will maintain insurance for another year. Thereafter, there are problems with insurance. We are maintaining close contact with the insurance industry on those matters.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, does the Minister agree that flooding is a deep problem and, indeed, goes wide? How can local authorities resist the pressure from builders to build on flood land? Living, as I do, in the Thames Valley—in Reading—I know perfectly well that that pressure is almost constant. It does not go away whatever the planning authority wants to do. Even when government inspectors recommend against, the builders are still come back. We need to reduce that pressure on the flood plain.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, advice from the Environment Agency on new developments on the flood plain is provided on every occasion. Often, it recommends against developments. In addition, the general guidance to the planning authorities, which must balance the economic and environmental

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aspects, as well as the flooding aspects, is strongly to take into account vulnerability to flooding. But some of those areas have been built on for, as in the case of Shrewsbury, centuries, and it is a question not of new but of old development being subject to flooding. In the Frankwell area, the Environment Agency had to adopt some novel and innovative ways of dealing with defence of those valuable properties.

Lord Glentoran: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the Government must first ensure that the institutional framework for dealing with floods works effectively, efficiently and consistently? Does he further agree that at present the framework suffers from what is frankly an extraordinary degree of bureaucratic complexity, with too many bodies involved: county councils, district councils, town and city councils, parish councils, landowners, internal drainage boards, and so on? What are the Government's plans to deal with that serious bureaucratic mess?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, several agencies are indeed involved, but in most areas there is an established system of co-operation, with the Environment Agency often acting as the lead. Nevertheless, the noble Lord is right to say that co-ordination and funding of those efforts need to be addressed. We are considering how best to co-ordinate the various authorities.

Israel and Palestine

3.8 p.m.

Lord Blaker asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What are their current policies regarding the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

The Minister for Trade (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean): My Lords, Her Majesty's Government condemn unequivocally the most recent suicide bombings, which have resulted in the deaths of 26 Israeli civilians. The loss of life and suffering of both Israelis and Palestinians must end.

The priority is to break the cycle of violence through a ceasefire, the withdrawal of Israeli troops and negotiations based on the vision of two states living side by side within secure and recognised borders. We call for implementation of recent United Nations Security Council resolutions and support an international conference and the renewal of a political process leading to a comprehensive settlement.

Lord Blaker: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for that Answer. Does she agree that all noble Lords will wish to express their horror at the terrible tragedies suffered by both sides in recent days and weeks? Is it not becoming clear that the policies of the Israeli Government are not reducing, but rather increasing, the number of suicide bombers? Is not the

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new Israeli Government policy of occupying land likely to work to the disadvantage of Israel? Finally, is it not clear that it is probable that peace will not come to that area unless and until an American Administration prepared to be firm not only with the Palestinians but with the Israeli Government and the Israeli lobby in the United States?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I support entirely what the noble Lord, Lord Blaker, said about our horror at the casualties on both sides. It is the position of Her Majesty's Government that Israel has, of course, the right to security. Unilateral acts, however, do not provide lasting security. The right way forward is to restart a political process, and Her Majesty's Government will remain engaged in all attempts to do so. I agree with the noble Lord that the United States has an important part to play in that and in persuading both sides to engage seriously in the process.

Lord Wright of Richmond: My Lords, does the Minister agree that, if the purpose of Mr Sharon's present policies is to improve and protect the security of Israel, they are failing? If his policies are designed to isolate and humiliate President Arafat and undermine the Palestinian Authority, leading to a reoccupation of the West Bank and Gaza, it is all the more urgent that Her Majesty's Government, in co-operation with our European partners and, especially, with the United States Administration, should take steps towards the comprehensive peace settlement to which the Minister referred. That must include the urgent withdrawal of Israeli settlers from the West Bank.

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