§ 8.33 p.m.
§ Major Legge-Bourke (Isle of Ely)
I think it was on 15th March that this country was suddenly to hear the drone of aircraft over great stretches of agricultural land which were rapidly disappearing under water. We have been listening today to a great deal about civil aircraft, and I think that anyone who has been in a flooded area would say that they were certainly put to very good use during that period. But I wish tonight to draw attention particularly to the effect of these floods which we have had, because I believe that first and foremost the response which has been given—obviously very generous individually—to the funds which are being raised is not collectively as great as it might have been. That, I believe, is a very tragic thing if we remember the enormous damage which has been done.
1345 The National Farmers' Union have assessed the damage at 20 million for the snow and flood havoc in capital losses alone, not to mention the loss of livelihood. I do not propose tonight to dwell too long on the compensation side but rather to bring to the attention of the House other aspects of the floods in the hope that by my so doing the country will, perhaps, revive its interest in the great losses which have been suffered. I think it is important, first of all, to see what is Parliament's part in this matter. Having been in the area of the Fens in the early part of the floods I was most anxious to avoid bringing the floods to the notice of the House too soon because I believed that if I did I should hinder the work which was being done by the various authorities who were responsible for seeing the crisis through.
For that reason this matter has not been raised by any hon. Member as a matter of urgent public importance, however much it may have been that, but I should like to remind the House that in 1937, at the height of the floods, the present acting Leader of the House did in fact raise this matter himself in the Debate on the Consolidated Fund No. 2 Bill. He raised it by saying that it was a matter of urgent and definite national importance, and drew the attention of the House in particular to the flooding of the Fens. I do not say that the Fens are more important than any other area because I realise, as does everyone in the Fens, that other areas have suffered very grieviously, but there is this particular aspect of the Fens which I want to impress upon the House tonight. Nearly all the rivers there run through high embankments and therefore, when there is flooding, the flood water does not subside automatically as soon as the level of the river goes down. The water stays on the land a great deal longer than would be the case elsewhere. That in itself would be bad enough even without the fact that the land is, perhaps, the best in England and produces a particularly important part of our ration at the moment—namely, potatoes. The right hon. Gentleman has given the figures for this and I do not propose to repeat them.
What I want to stress is that for very many years it has been the principle that the Fens are looked upon as being little more than a soak-away for some of the highland areas of England. When we 1346 come to drainage matters we are apt to be a little insular, and people are concerned only with their own difficulties and omit to consider where the water goes when it leaves them. We have already had one mention of a Bill which is to come before Parliament—I believe in the next Session—namely, the River Boards Bill. That Measure will bring together under some Statutory body all the interest of fishing, pollution, drainage and catchment, and I think it is important therefore that we should say a few things tonight which may perhaps be borne in mind by the Minister before he finally presents the Bill. Otherwise, there will be serious repercussions, particularly in the Fens. One of the criticisms which the Fen area has of the whole of the drainage problem is, as I have said, that the water comes down from an area outside the Fens and in past years has tended to do so at a greater rate than before.
During the war, the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act enabled various schemes to be carried out to improve our agriculture. There is a belief—I am not saying whether it is correct or not—among many people in the Fens that the results of this work has brought the water down to the Fens a great deal quicker. I have not the figures for the Ouse, the Witham, the Nene and the Welland, but I have seen the figures for the Thames, which do not bear out that theory. Such experts as members of the Great Ouse Catchment Board have said something on this matter, and I will give the House one quotation from the speech made by the chairman of the Board to the Geographical Society in April, 1941, after listening to the chief engineer. He said:Those now living in the Fens are every year facing the acute danger of being flooded out. The position is even more serious at the present time, because of the necessity, arising out of the war, of producing more food. An enormous amount of work has to be done in the upper reaches if we are to improve the land for food production, and strangely enough, the very fact of land cultivation is increasing the danger every winter, and the anxiety of the farmers … I do not believe the nation can today afford to lose an area containing some of the most fertile land in England, merely because of the danger of it being flooded every winter.This land has been flooded this year to a very wide extent. The total land flooded in the Fenland district is seven per cent. in the case of the Great Ouse Catchment 1347 Board area, and, I should say, it is as high as 10 per cent. if we take all the areas into consideration. This is a tragedy, because not only have we lost an enormous amount of crops, but the livelihood of those people who live there has suffered, because, as I have said, this water does not run off the land as soon as the rivers go down; it has to be pumped out, or it has to wait until the rivers fall so low that it is drained off by gravity. very often it means that the land cannot be cropped for this year, and in certain cases there will be nothing coming into the farms until the harvest of 1948. When we think of the small farmers employing two or three men, it can be seen that this is a very serious problem indeed. I ask the Minister to deal tonight particularly with the labour problem, because some of these farmers are very worried that if they let their men go to work on drainage repairs they will not see them back again. That is a sorry outlook for those in small villages or with isolated farms. The Parliamentary Secretary, in reply today to a Question I put, said that everything is being done through the agricultural executive committees to ensure that labour does not drift away. I want to impress on the Minister that during this period when the land has been flooded, a great many farmers have been paying their men the minimum wage to retain them. That is, perhaps, the most important problem, other than compensation, which I do not propose to deal with tonight, because I understand we are to have an opportunity later to deal with that aspect.
As I understand it, the work which will have to be done to put right the damage cannot possibly be completed by next winter, and it certainly will be very far from complete by then, unless the labour is made available. We all know something about the labour situation at the moment, and that men are drifting away in the shape of German prisoners-of-war. We also know the response to the various calls to get men back on the land is nothing like what we should like to see. I ask the Minister to bear in mind that if labour is diverted to work on the banks, it is going to be a pretty sorry outlook for agriculture as a whole, because there is a great deal of work to be done on the farms. Not only is it a question of getting in all the crops that can be gathered, but there is a good deal of work to be 1348 done in digging out ditches and putting right internal drainage. The Minister has granted to the Catchment Board a maximum of 90 per cent. for the work they have to do as a result of these floods. He has differentiated in the case of the internal boards, in that he is only paying them 75 per cent. I know it is an increase over what they have had before, but I submit that their case is just as strong for making the grant up to 90 per cent. as it is for the Catchment Board.
I have already mentioned the River Boards Bill, and I hope that in it the Minister will try to see what he can do to remedy the faults which have appeared as a result of the floods, as between the internal boards and the Catchment Board. For a long time there has been this difference between the uplands and the Fens. We have the situation today where the internal drainage boards are represented to the extent of one-third on the Catchment Board, with a two-thirds representation by the county councils, and yet the contributions are 50–50, though until last year they were two-thirds by the internal board and one-third by the county councils. I know that the uplands may feel that the people from whom the county council rates are drawn are the people who are not going to benefit directly from the work done in the Fens. But I would ask them to think again, because according to the Economic Survey, we are to spend £725 million on food this year. We have also had the President of the Board of Trade saying that British agriculture is a valuable saver of imports, and both that figure and that statement was made before the floods came, and already we know that we have lost a great deal this year. There is a far stronger case than ever before for the uplands to revise their views about the Fens.
The only way in which the Minister can treat the Fens fairly in this case is for him to hold inquiries. He has already said that he is getting reports from his own engineers, and that he will then consider the possibility of having inquiries. May I ask him to consider this: that memories often retain impressions for many years, but the fact remains that those impressions are apt to get distorted in time. I agree, with him that at the beginning it would have been a mistake to have started an inquiry while the flood was at its peak, but it is not at its peak now, despite the fact that many thousands of acres are still 1349 under water, but there is dissatisfaction at things which happened before the flood took place. There is, in fact, some misunderstanding as to what the Joint Parliamentary Secretary meant when, on the 27th February, in reply to a Question from my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Horncastle (Commander Maitland), when asked what precautions had been taken to avoid serious damage from flooding in the event of a quick thaw, he said:Beyond the normal precautions which experience has shown to be necessary, such as the employment by catchment boards of special patrols equipped to take emergency action, no special measures are practicable."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 27th February, 1947; Vol. 433, c. 340.]Now "no special measures are practicable", but I ask the Minister whether or not he considers some of the action taken after the floods could be claimed to be special action because, surely, the cooperation that was afforded by the troops and a very noble job of work they did, was of great value, but I believe it would have been a little easier had they been nearer the likely places to be flooded. It is without doubt the case that Ely in particular is a danger spot. I say that, not just because it is in my constituency, but because it is a fact that in that district you have the Great Ouse, the old West River, as it is now known, you have the Cam joining it, the Soham Lode joining it, you have the Lark, the Little Ouse joining it, the two Bedford rivers coming in up north of Denver and you have the Wissey joining it. For that reason it is a danger spot, and is bound to be so as long as the existing system is as it has been during the war.
There have been many criticisms about the work done during the war, and I want to say a few words about that. I have seen the figures of expenditure of this particular Board, the Great Ouse Catchment Board, during the war. They have spent £880,000 during the war in the Fen district and, in addition, on the outfall side of the river in the tidal part, they have spent another £354,500. It is interesting to note the comparison of those two expenditures because, while there are many people who say that the outfall is the place where the expenditure should first take place, it is important to remember that any engineer would agree on that principle except for the fact that during 1350 the war improved land drainage had to take place on agricultural considerations.
I have seen criticisms saying that if in the past the 1931 project had been carried out, there would have been no flood this year. Now the 1931 project has been criticised by many expert engineers and, since the 1937 flood, a great deal of work has been done, a great deal of research has been carried on, and several plans have been produced. I understand that the Ministry has now approved a plan which would prevent floods for many years to come. I should like to know from the Minister tonight exactly what is the plan which has been approved, which plan it is, and when it is to start, because it will cost many millions of pounds and it will take many years to complete, but the fact remains that, until it is done, the Fens will be liable to be flooded every time the rivers rise above a certain level, every time there are unusual weather conditions. I hope that the Minister will be able to say tonight that the work which will be done in the meantime will be done with the greatest possible expedition, the work of putting the banks back in the state they were before these floods this year, and that the long-term project is to be entered into straight away. But let him and the House remember this: that these schemes cost many millions of pounds— the big schemes. It is not only the Great Ouse that is concerned, other rivers have them too, and it is important that adequate finance should be provided.
It is sometimes thought that because the State provides finance, therefore automatically the State must have a good deal to say in how the affair is run. I would stress this, that if ever it was necessary to have local knowledge, it is necessary in drainage. I am not an engineer but I have seen sufficient of the work of the catchment boards and of the internal boards during this recent crisis to know perfectly well that it is absolutely essential to have natural leaders coming forward at the critical moment, and that however much you may have planned it is eventually dependent on individual leaders. The plan to control the banks depends on the individual eventually, and if we are to have too much centralisation or too much interference from outside, that will be endangered.
§ The Minister of Agriculture (Mr. Thomas Williams)
Before the hon. and 1351 gallant Gentleman leaves that point, I would like to be clear on what he now appears to be implying. Does he imply that Ministry engineers have interfered with the catchment board or internal drainage board engineers?
§ Major Legge-Bourke
I beg the right hon. Gentleman's pardon, and I am glad that, if he thought that, he mentioned it. What I am getting at is this, that engineers are the experts who advise, but the work of patrolling the banks, the work or organising the labour, has to be done by leaders. If you do not have leaders, something gets left out, and if something gets left out in a serious emergency such as we have just been through, then disaster almost invariably follows. I have already paid a tribute to the Minister's engineers, and he knows it very well. I do not withdraw that congratulation because it is merited, but I say that local knowledge is essential, that one of the difficulties which the catchment boards have laboured under, and particularly the Great Ouse Catchment Board, is the fact that, for ordinary maintenance purposes, a small office with a few engineers and a small staff are adequate, but when it comes to an emergency it is essential that that staff should be expanded as rapidly as possible. That staff cannot be expanded as rapidly as possible if it means that, by doing so, you bring in people who do not know the district where they have to work. It is essential that they know where every spot in the banks is that is mentioned over the telephone, calling for more clay, more sacks, whatever it may be. It is most important, therefore, that we do not destroy that local knowledge.
I want to put a suggestion to the Minister. If the final flood prevention scheme is put into operation and eventually completed, well and good, when that has been done, but, in the interim period, I maintain that some urgent action has to be taken to enable an expert staff to be available should an emergency arise. I believe that the shaking up the banks have had this year has been so great that there is a large risk of flooding if we have anything like the same weather conditions next winter that we have had this year. For that reason I hope he will bear in mind the possibility—put a very high priority on it, indeed—of increasing the staff in some way or another. There are 1352 many Royal Engineer officers who have been down in the district over this crisis. Cannot something be done to obtain from the Secretary of State for War the loan of those officers, or something of the sort? It is a great help to have local knowledge, and I hope the Minister will keep this staff well organised, with the great knowledge available should the need arise. I hope the Minister will also consider what arrangements should be made for a tie-up between the various local authorities in whose areas flooding takes place. When I say local authorities, I include internal drainage boards, and catchment boards. Sometimes there is a little lack of liaison which is most unfortunate. It delays matters although I do not think it can all be avoided altogether at such times—
§ Mr. T. Williams
Again, I am sorry to interrupt the hon. and gallant Gentleman, but I am sure it will be for the benefit of the House if we get as straight as we can exactly what he means. If he is making a constructive suggestion, I would like to be clear upon it, but he has left me rather confused. He points out, quite accurately, that we must have expert engineers to arrange to patrol the banks and so on. That is clearly understood. I am glad the hon. and gallant Gentleman does not suggest that the Ministry interferes with catchment boards doing their job in their own way. He says the War Office engineers have done a grand job of work, and I entirely agree, but that we ought to keep them mobilised for an emergency of this kind. It is very difficult, if that is the suggestion he wishes to make; that outsiders keep outside, but that outside engineers, War Office or otherwise, should be mobilised for the purpose of dealing with flooding if it occurs.
§ Major Legge-Bourke
What I said was that during the recent crisis—and the risk of crisis is likely to recur until a flood prevention scheme is put into operation— we have had a good many Royal Engineer officers coming into the area, and getting to know the area well. Are we to let them scatter, and if there is another crisis next year, or the year after, have we to collect a new lot, and start again? Is this not a great chance, now these officers have had an opportunity of getting to know the 1353 district, at least to keep them in mind should another crisis occur? The right hon. Gentleman interrupted me when I was making the point that I hoped he will consider getting better liaison between the counties and other local authorities concerned. I suggest that emergency flood committees should be established in all the areas where floods are likely, to enable very quick means, information and co-operation to be established between the local authorities should a real crisis happen.
I ask the House to consider the tragedy which has taken place, not in a spirit simply of charity, but in a spirit of realising what is best for the nation. I am quite convinced that the old idea that the Fens can be left to make what they can in dry times, and lose what they have to in flood times, has to come to an end. It is too valuable an area, there is too much money in it, to make it a sound risk, and the future of our agriculture I believe very greatly depends on the answer the country gives to this. I hope the Minister will do his best to try to persuade and encourage some who have lived in a rather insular atmosphere on the higher ground to realise that the disaster which overtakes the Fens is something which is so great that they should certainly have 50 per cent. representation on any river board or catchment board, and I suggest that in some cases it should be greater than that.
§ 9.5 p.m.
§ Mr. Deer (Lincoln)
I am glad that the question of flooding has been raised on the Civil Estimates, because it gives representatives of urban areas an opportunity of putting their point of view equally with the representatives of agricultural areas. One of the difficulties with which we are faced is that in a constituency like mine, where the River Witham runs through very narrow channels, the better land drainage there is on the high land, obviously the more water comes down, and the more difficulties there are. We are faced with the position that in the last few weeks over 3,000 houses in the city of Lincoln have been troubled by flooding because of the exceptional and abnormal circumstances that have prevailed. The irony of the situation is that the people who have had all the trouble, all the difficulties and all the hardship arising out of the floods, are the people who 1354 have been paying increasingly higher sums as drainage rates to the internal drainage boards. In other words, in a city like my own, the people within the flood land, all of whom have been troubled by floods in the last few weeks, are the people who have paid the equivalent of roughly £20,000 a year, which is equivalent to a 10d. rate in the city which I represent, as a drainage rate. The reward they have got is that better drainage in the Upper Witham has meant that they have been submerged.
I wish to put one or two points to the Minister for his consideration. I believe that, in the main, the 1930 Act was a good one because it gave us drainage. Under the old boards, when the drainage rate was levied on the acre, it never raised enough money to do the job. The 1930 Act gave us at least an opportunity of getting a drainage system going. The difficulty I see is, first, an administrative one. Certain flood levels were reached, and those above them paid nothing, while those below them, who were in danger of flooding, were the people who had to pay for the better drainage of the very areas the water from which came down upon them and flooded them out. This seems to me to be an anomaly which must he tackled by the Minister. I am told that in the rural areas this position largely balances itself, in that land below the flood level may be more easily acquired at a lower rent, while for that above the flood level higher rents are paid. Therefore, the burden of land drainage in the rural areas is obviously offset by the question of rent.
In my area, one can find in one street six houses paying a drainage rate because, on the Ordnance map, they are in the position of being within the flood area, while those houses higher up escape. The majority of the citizens I represent take the view that this idea of making a certain section within the flood area pay rates, others being left out, is a matter to which attention must be given, either by administration or legislation, in order to see that everybody pays their share of drainage rate. Obviously, there should be a national charge. Can the Minister review the question whether the flood levels fixed many years ago are the accurate flood levels today? If, by administration, the flood levels could be altered that would bring more people in to bear 1355 the burden, to pay for the strengthening of the banks and for the drainage work that must be done.
Also I would like to ask whether the terrific burden imposed on the smaller internal drainage areas cannot be relieved. This is important. To give one example, the Witham and Steeping Catchment Board, which deals with drainage in Lincolnshire, has a number of internal drainage boards. There are three which deal with the city of Lincoln, each levying a different rate. There are three different drainage areas, and one can see the advantage of that. Each of the adjoining areas has taken a slice of Lincoln because of its high Schedule A value of property, in order to help with their drainage rate. That position calls for some alteration in the law. The very people whose Schedule A assessment, was very high, including large industrial works, have been the very people who have been flooded. Ruston's Bucyrus and Dawson's leather works both pay a very high drainage rate and both have been flooded and unable to carry on work.
We do not need an inquiry into it. What we need is immediate consultation to see how far we can get agreement either through the new Rivers Board, if they will deal with the matter, or by amendment of the Land Drainage Act of 1930. That has been in force for 17 years, and we have had some experience of its value. The Minister must look into the matter. Whilst we are most anxious to help the countryside and to ensure that the land is brought into full productivity, nevertheless, the better drainage of the land must not mean the flooding of Lincoln, Gainsborough, Selby, York and the rest. In addition to the rate which is levied by the internal drainage boards upon the property within the flood level, we have the county boroughs and the county councils which pay a drainage rate to the catchment board direct. I suggest that there is reason for the Minister to inquire into the whole question in an effort to get some form of equity in regard to this burden.
I wish to put several points to the Minister. First, I agree with the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for the Isle of Ely (Major Legge-Bourke) when he points out that a 75 per cent. grant to the internal drainage boards is too low 1356 to meet their present difficulties. If there is an argument for the 90 per cent. grant to the main drainage board, then there is an equal argument for a similar grant in the case of the internal drainage boards. We must face the position that land drainage is too big a job for the internal drainage boards. I do not wish to criticise those boards or the main drainage boards. I join with the hon. and gallant Member in saying that we are deeply indebted to them for their vigilance in the last few weeks. Had not the engineers and their staffs worked night and day when the Trent waters threatened to break the Torksey locks, and had not the military been called in to co-operate, the damage would have been much more severe. I pay a tribute to those people. It is asking an impossible task with the present financial arrangements which leave a number of people outside any responsibility. The present situation leaves one half of the city free and calls upon the other half to meet not only the drainage rate but all the difficulties and hardships of flooding.
I urge the Minister to implement a new Bill as quickly as possible to deal with this matter. If he is to make an inquiry, not only must the farmers and catchment boards be consulted but also the great Association of Municipal Corporations must be brought in, because they have a considerable contribution to make. We urgently need either new legislation or a change of administration in order to see that the hardships of the last few weeks are prevented by reasonable foresight and by doing the job that needs to be done, and in addition to that, we have to see that the cost is spread over the whole nation and not over just a few individuals living in a certain area. I appeal to the Minister to give this urgent consideration.
§ 9.16 p.m.
Lieut.-Colonel Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Bury St. Edmunds)
As we have had very little time in which to discuss this important question and time is short, I hope that the hon. Member for Lincoln (Mr. Deer) will excuse me if I do not comment on any of his points. I do not want to touch on the actual cash compensation side. That is a very big subject which will come in at a later date. My remarks will only deal with the fen country. I know that many other people have had equal difficulties, but it is not quite the same as the flooding in the Fens. Perhaps 1357 it is worth mentioning that unless one has been in the fenlands when there is flooding, it is very difficult to understand it. I will just give one example. When the floods were at their height I was standing on one of the dykes a few inches above the water level of the river which was at that spot 13 feet 3 inches above sea level. Down below flooded fen under the ground measurement was minus nine inches above sea level. That is something like 30 miles from the sea, which will give one a little idea of the position.
I do not really want to look at the long-term project. That of course has still to be worked out further, but I hope that these plans are well advanced and that the present plans for the immediate future can work in with what may come. What is the position now? I have one big fen in my constituency with over three miles in each direction. There is something like four feet of water on it now a month after the flood. That water will be there for weeks, if not months. The only way to get it out is by digging even deeper the breaches made at flood time in order to let that water flow back into the river. A start has been made, but as a result of the wind, more rain and big tides that water is not now going away. That water will go away to a certain level, perhaps two or three feet, if we can get fine weather, but it is not going lower than that of its own accord. The breaches must then be blocked up to prevent the water from higher up coming back into the Fens. The pump to clear the rest cannot be used at present because the water is still above piston height. That pump was installed during the war, and at the time the locals said it ought to be put on top of the bank, but they were told that in these modern days it was not efficient to do that. So the pump was put at the bottom of the bank, and now it is under water. Fortunately, there is still the old pump built some 50 years ago at the top of the bank, and that can still be worked.
I hope the Minister has in mind a big plan ready to have as many mobile pumps, the same as those which have done excellent work during the worst period. I am referring to the pumps of the N.F.S. and the fire units, and perhaps pumps from abroad. While on the question of pumps from abroad, why was it not possible to send to Holland the day the floods came? The expert that went 1358 was sent, I believe, on the initiative of the Ouse Catchment Board, something like a fortnight after the flooding was at its worst. He ought to have been sent the day after the flooding started, because it takes a long time to collect the pumps; they have to be hunted for in Holland, to be sent over by barge, and then to be re-erected. I was also to ask whether the Minister has plans ready for the time when the water goes off the surface, plans to clean out the bigger drains, and plans to get on to the smaller drains. In my area there is one little fen which had only about two inches of water on it, and that water was pumped off the surface over a week ago, but this morning when one of the farmers went on to the land, he sunk below his knees in a minute. That is the position after a week of reasonably fine weather. Are all the plans made ready for the time when the water is taken off the large fens? Are the plans ready to start clearing the drains? Have arrangements been made for the machinery and labour?
It is extremely doubtful whether it will be possible to grow anything this year on the Fens which are now under water. But there is a chance, I feel, that a certain amount of vegetables and catch crops that are normally sown later in the summer may be grown if the work can be got in hand the moment the ground is suitable, and if not a day is wasted. It will be necessary to have crawler tractors, since it is impossible to use ordinary wheel tractors, and there are very few crawler tractors available. It is very important to have all the plans made to meet the situation from now until the end of the season. A tremendous amount of work has been done during the last month, and I ask the Minister to keep it up now until the land is brought back into production. If the work is not done immediately, the districts will not be right by the autumn, and as the banks are very weak it will not take very much winter flooding to have a recurrence of the whole position.
There is one other thing I would ask, and that is that the right hon. Gentleman and his Ministry should from now on form a co-ordinating body, perhaps larger than we have ever seen before, so that they can co-ordinate the plans, the money allotted, the machinery available and so on, in conjunction with those 1359 excellent bodies like the Ouse Catchment Board and other area Boards. The machinery and labour available cannot be used to the best advantage unless there is co-ordination on a very big scale at the top. If we can see these things done in the next few months I think we shall find that there is just a chance that some of the land which is still under four feet of water will be able to grow a little this year, to help out those farmers who, as my hon. and gallant Friend has said, are now sitting about paying their men's wages and praying for the day when the water will be got rid of.
§ 9.26 p.m.
§ Mr. Butcher (Holland with Boston)
; The floods which have occurred in all parts of the country have taken on the character of a national disaster, which has been emphasised by the fact that the Lord Mayor of London has thought fit to open a relief fund to which His Majesty's Government have made a generous contribution, and that further relief funds have been formed by the Farmers' Union as well as certain local funds in the areas which have been affected. But I venture to say that the disaster which has fallen upon the country is of such a magnitude that it cannot really be dealt with in terms of relief funds, which after all are a form of charity. This is a risk to which the country as a whole is exposed, as it was to air raid damage, and it should be dealt with on precisely the same lines. The hon. Member for Lincoln (Mr. Deer) referred to the desirability of levying rates for drainage purposes on a nation-wide scale. I do not propose to develop that argument this evening. There is much to be said on both sides, but in this case I say that no greater disaster has come upon the country and that the community which has suffered should not be expected to accept charity but should have its needs properly assessed and paid from national funds.
I would like to say to the Minister of Agriculture how much he is to be congratulated on the amount of good will he has shown towards the farming community in the distress which has come upon them. If I congratulate him on his good will, he will forgive me if I do not congratulate him on foresight or planning. Indeed, one of the lamentable things 1360 that this flood disaster has shown us is the lack of planning and co-ordination between Government Departments.
§ Mr. Harold Davies (Leek)
I am sure the hon. Gentleman does not wish to misguide the House or the public, but to accuse the present Minister of Agriculture for these flood disasters, which are actually the result of 20 or 40 years of national neglect, is fantastic.
§ Mr. Butcher
The hon. Gentleman interrupted me perhaps a little too soon, otherwise he would have learned that I have no intention of attacking the present Minister either on personal grounds or on the dignity with which he exercises his high office, or yet in terms of past disasters, but I do attack the Government as a whole for their lack of planning in dealing with this matter.
§ Mr. Butcher
This Government, which is in office now. I propose to indicate the grounds of my attack, and leave myself to the judgment of the House as to whether I have grounds for my case or not. In this matter of repairing the damage there were three bodies principally concerned. They were the Nene Catchment Area Board, the North Level Drainage Board, and the Ministry of Agriculture. All were concerned with this problem of land drainage. All sent keen, enthusiastic, and expert representatives to the spot, but none came to the village of Crowland and stopped there, so that they were available from the time the breach occurred until it was mended. After the breach had been repaired, the troops were removed, and there was no representative of any of these three authorities there at the time the second breach occurred. What was the result of this lack of co-ordination? At that time, when we had thousands of acres of land under water, there were hundreds of good English workmen, farm workers, out of work. Yet German prisoners were brought in by lorry, from a long distance, to work on the breach. It is that sort of thing which our people could not understand—
§ Mr. Gooch (Norfolk, Northern)
Was not that soon remedied? Were not the prisoners stood off, and British farm workers put on to the drainage work?
§ Mr. Butcher
I do not think it is a "bull" point to say that a mistake that should never have been permitted to occur was rectified after representations had been made by certain people of whom the hon. Gentleman and I have some knowledge. Why put German prisoners on to this work, when Englishmen were there? Although this large amount of labour was being employed for the repair of the breach, why were no proper arrangements made, at an early date, to pay the men their proper wages? I am not attacking the right hon. Gentleman personally, because I know that he is heavily engaged these days. His visit to my constituency was welcome, but I think it is a great pity that he did not take advantage of meeting, and consulting with, people on the spot. Twenty minutes' talk with the people of Lincolnshire, listening to their words, would have done the right hon. Gentleman far more good than the time he spent reading reports, however skilfully they might have been prepared, by his experts.
§ Mr. T. Williams
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that I met at least three catchment or internal drainage boards during the time I was roaming the flooded area.
§ Mr. Butcher
I am sure that the time the right hon. Gentleman spent in the flooded area was well spent, but he will recollect that he was to have driven to the village of Crowland, and that although many people desired to meet him, and congregated to meet him, his programme was such that he found he was unable to stop there, and discuss matters with them. During the first breach, a great deal of voluntary work was done on the banks, in an attempt to prevent damage occurring. Men turned out, and worked night and day, and I hope the Minister will be able to assure us that those men who can prove that they put in long and laborious hours, on a voluntary basis, and who now, as a result of the flooding, find their livelihoods in jeopardy, will receive compensation for the time they devoted to endeavouring to save their community.
I would like to comment on the lack of co-operation between Government Departments. I am not, here, making the cheap point that after a certain time the pumps which were sent there were still pumping water back into the main channel, 1362 although the second breach had occurred. But I do say that certain Ministries—and I am not particularly alluding to the Ministry of Agriculture, but the Ministry of Food—come out of this disaster in the most deplorable manner. Would you believe that on the occasion when gangs of farm workers were working during the night filling and carrying bags of earth along the banks exposed to all the elements, although representations had been made for adequate food supplies to the Ministry of Food, yet they would not sanction any further supplies other than sandwiches? What a different thing it would be in certain areas in certain occupations. The National Fire Service were sent down to do some pumping. Very noble work they did, above their knees in many cases in mud and water. When they had been there seven days all that had been made available for them by the Ministry of Food were B.Us., and it was not until I sent a telegram to the hon. Lady the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food that action was taken in this matter.
§ Mr. Tiffany (Peterborough)
Will the hon. Gentleman allow me to say that I received a 'phone call from the N.F.S. in the Colne area expressing their deep satisfaction and appreciation of the assistance given them by the various Ministries?
§ Mr. Butcher
I should be obliged to the hon. Gentleman if he and I could compare our respective data on a future occasion. This is the point in which I would join with the hon. and gallant Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Lieut.-Colonel Clifton-Brown) and that is this, that if this is a national disaster, as I believe it to be, we must learn from the experience of the past, and really the thing that is most important is to take all steps we can to ensure that the moment this flooded land is fit to carry implements, tractors and so on, those implements are available. I hope the Minister will be able to give us an assurance that there will be no more exports of agricultural machinery permitted whatsoever until he is satisfied that everyone in the flooded areas who needs a tractor will have one the day he can get his land fit to work. Secondly, I hope he will assure us that other Ministries —the Ministry of Supply—who have certain tractors, crawler tractors, available for placing at the disposal of the Ministry 1363 of Agriculture shall move them into the area. Finally, I would again stress that many smallholders are going to have no financial return until the harvest of 1948 has been gathered and sown, and we must ask the Minister what steps he is going to take to see that these men are able to play a useful part until that time, and we must ask for an assurance that they are not going to be dependent upon charity until that time.
§ Mr, Harrison (Nottingham, East)
We on the upper reaches of the river appreciate fully the tragic plight at present of the people in the Fen districts. I have seen during the flood period some of our main road bridges washed away completely. Thousands of our houses have been flooded and it will take months of really decent summer weather to enable in any way the drying of lower floors to make them respectable dwellings in the future. What I particularly want to mention during this Debate was this fact, that we believe in the Nottingham and South Derbyshire districts that the question of flood prevention has long since passed beyond the ability of the Fen Catchment Board regulations and arrangements.
The Minister should consider introducing immediately legislation that will make flood prevention a question of national responsibility. The hon. Member for Holland with Boston (Mr. Butcher) seemed to be pointing his finger directly at the Minister of Agriculture as the man responsible for the recent flooding, when it is a well-known fact that unfortunately for, scores of years there was little drainage sponsored by previous Governments, and that we had this year weather conditions which involved the congealing of about three months of snow and rain, which was suddenly liberated in the great thaw. I am quite positive that on this occasion the flooding could not have been prevented, no matter what steps had been taken by the Minister or by the Government.
What we feel is that for the future something can be done but only on a national scale, and we are grieved to think that some of the long-distance plans that are envisaged for the Trent Valley necessitate the sending away to Holland for Dutch experts to work on this scheme. Models are being constructed in Holland with a view to flood prevention schemes.
1364 We are of the opinion that to tackle this question of national flooding seriously we ought to be in a position in this country to construct the necessary models here and have the immediate advantage of the highly technical knowledge with the Ministry and with the Government so that we can put into operation the vast plans that are necessary to prevent flooding in the future, not only in the Fens but in all river districts in this country.
§ 9.43 p.m.
§ The Minister of Agriculture (Mr. Thomas Williams)
I would much prefer to have listened to one or two hon. Members from any part of the House than that I should be called upon to make a speech at all this evening, for I hardly think that this is the appropriate occasion for me to attempt to deal with the flooding situation in this country. I have to return thanks to the hon. and gallant Member for the Isle of Ely (Major Legge-Bourke) for his personal assistance in the Ely area when my own engineers went there. There were words of gratitude from all those with whom they came in contact. It is true that the loss in food due to the flooding of the Fens and indeed of other areas is little less than tragic. It is equally true to say that the personal loss and damage are also disastrous, but it is just as ridiculous for any hon. Member of this House, wherever he happens to sit, to suggest that the unprecedented volume of water which we had during this spring or the flooding that resulted could have been prevented by anything that this or any other Government could have done.
There seems to be a general view on all sides that we ought at least to nationalise drainage. I have heard similar expressions many times in this House before, but, unfortunately, despite what the hon. Member for Holland with Boston (Mr. Butcher) said, little or nothing was done for a century with regard to central drainage in this country until the Labour Government of 1930 passed their Land Drainage Act. Whatever the disaster may have been over the past few weeks and we all appreciate how disastrous it has been from the point of view of the individual as well as the State—these floods would have been infinitely worse had it not been for many major measures that have been carried through during the past 12 or 14 years. The hon. and gallant Member for the Isle of Ely made certain suggestions, some of which, quite frankly, 1365 I could not understand. He brought to the notice of the House the importance of the Fens, which we all appreciate, but he mentioned the River Boards Bill and said that that might have a terrific effect upon the Fens. He did not suggest why, however, and left me in doubt as to why he thought that Measure might affect the Fens at all. If I understand the Bill it is merely designed to combine the main Catchment Boards with Fishery Boards and pollution authorities, which will neither extend nor contract their drainage responsibilities.
§ Major Legge-Bourke
I am sorry the right hon. Gentleman has not understood my point. It was that by bringing in these other authorities the Bill would make the representation of the Fens on that body a smaller one than they have already on the Catchment Board.
§ Mr. T. Williams
The hon. and gallant Gentleman must wait and see just what the representation happens to be in the Bill. I am not too sure of it myself yet, so perhaps he has advance information. I did not quite appreciate what his point was, and whatever the representation may be the general responsibility of the main Catchment Boards—or the future River Boards—will not be affected one way or the other with regard to drainage problems. The hon. and gallant Gentleman also complained that we should not take agricultural workers away from their farms—even though there is no work for them to do—and put them on drainage undertakings, otherwise we might not be able to attract them back to the farms once the floods have gone. The hon. Member for Holland with Boston, on the other hand, complained that we were employing prisoners of war when our own agricultural workers were out of work. Perhaps the hon. and gallant Member for the Isle of Ely and the hon. Member for Holland with Boston will have a cup of tea together and decide which would be the right policy to adopt. I could not have adopted both, and if I adopted either, I must apparently find myself in difficulties with one or the other.
The hon. and gallant Member for the Isle of Ely also explained that in the Fens area, in particular, there must be engineers who know almost every bank, to organise the patrols and carry out the necessary tasks. I entirely agree with him, but he seemed to imply that by some means the 1366 Ministry ought to play a part. If I understood him aright—and I hope he will acquit me of any deliberate attempt to misrepresent him—he said that the Army engineers who have done such a good job during the floods ought not now to be allowed to leave completely but should be held in readiness for any floods which may occur in the future.
§ Mr. T. Williams
The hon. and gallant Member must be aware that these engineers are in the Army and cannot be kept just round the corner waiting for a flood in the Fens. What he did imply was that these Army Engineers came along, not knowing the district, acquired such knowledge as they could in quick time and did a grand job while they were there. I hope that there are going to be no more floods of this description for a very long time, but should there be in future years I am quite sure that the Army authorities will then be as generous and as helpful as on this occasion. I am afraid that I could not go beyond that. Somehow or other men do get older every year, and I suppose that some of these Army engineers will eventually retire and their jobs will be taken over by equally efficient Army Engineers. My hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Mr. Deer) referred to the flooding of 3,000 houses in the city of Lincoln. I know that that sort of thing unfortunately occurred, not only in Lincoln, but in Gloucester, Nottingham, Derby, Selby, Gainsborough, and in my own Division.
§ Mr. T. Williams
And, I understand, in Bedford, and in various other parts of the country as well. It is very unfortunate, but these floods were widespread, and many counties suffered. At one period we had no less than 690,000 acres under water. The House may be interested to learn that these 690,000 acres have now been reduced to 80,000, and I am hopeful that some of these 80,000 acres, still under water, may be available for cropping, even though they may be catch crops for 1947. Questions were asked as to what preparations we were making for the future. All I can say is that this Government have not been backward in coming for- 1367 ward to help those in distress in the agricultural industry. They have been more forthcoming than any Government I can recall in the last 25 years. The Central Advisory Water Committee of the Ministry of Health are considering what Amendments, if any, to the land drainage Acts are really necessary. The moment their report is available, I am convinced that the Government will not hesitate to take the advice that is available to them, and where there may be any weaknesses, they will not hesitate to try and effect a remedy. Beyond that, I cannot go.
The hon. and gallant Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Lieut.-Colonel Clifton-Brown) asked us when the water could be pumped out in those areas where there is no gravitation, and whether we had laid on all the arrangements so that the land could be cultivated. I can assure the hon. and gallant Member that everything has been laid on for several weeks to bring to the aid of the flooded areas equipment of any sort or kind which may be useful, and that that equipment will be there ready when the water leaves the land.
§ Mr. Williams
I cannot guarantee special implements, but I can guarantee that as far as the Government could organise equipment which might be useful, that has been done, and that every conceivable help, by a series of Government Departments, has been made available ready for immediate action. The hon. Member for Holland with Boston made some reference to the lack of co-ordination. May I tell him that for the first time in the last 50 years there was, as a result of these floods, a special inter-departmental committee organising supplies of manpower and equipment, from a whole series of Departments, for the purpose of helping those in the flooded areas. I know of no comparable action taken by any Government in the past, and in spite of what the hon. Member has said in his speech, we have not had a solitary complaint from Crowland, or any part of the Fen area, in regard to any failure of the Ministry of Agriculture or any other Government Department to do what they could during the recent disaster. If I may say so, we have been embarrassed by the expressions of gratitude from every section of the community in the area.
§ Mr. Butcher
I am delighted to hear that, but will the right hon. Gentleman allow me to send him certain samples from my own postbag, so that he may get a fair average?
§ Mr. T. Williams
I should be glad to receive any advice or guidance from the hon. Gentleman, but my experience is that I am usually the first to know if there is something wrong in any area. I repeat that not one solitary complaint has been forthcoming about lack of initiative on the part of the Ministry of Agriculture and other Government Departments or that they were unable to render assistance. Indeed, we should have been remiss in our duty if we had not anticipated as far as we could what was almost inevitable. We anticipated many things; preparations were made in advance; perhaps more preparations were made by the Ministry of Agriculture and its engineers than were made by some of those responsible for the catchment boards in the various areas.
I appreciate that this problem must be dealt with much more fully at a later date, in a much more comprehensive manner, when catchment board engineers have been able to supply us with their reports of what has happened, why it happened, and what remedial measures they think should be taken in future. When my own engineers have also collected all the information they can, then and only then will it be possible for us to make an intelligent and comprehensive review of the problem.
§ Question put, and agreed to.
§ Supply accordingly considered in Committee.
§ [Mr. HUBERT BEAUMONT in the Chair]