HC Deb 02 November 1960 vol 629 cc163-9
The Minister of Housing and Local Government and Minister for Welsh Affairs (Mr. Henry Brooke)

With permission, Sir, I wish to make a statement about the recent floods.

Flood prevention in England and Wales is the responsibility locally of the river boards, and centrally of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. I have his authority to say that he is in touch with the river boards responsible for the worst flooded areas about the immediate measures required; and, also, that the Land Drainage Bill, to which reference was made in the Gracious Speech, will give new flood prevention powers to local authorities as well as increasing the resources of river boards in dealing with longer term improvements, for which Exchequer assistance is available.

In Scotland, flooding has, fortunately, not been so extensive, but my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State asks me to say that there also a Bill, which he hopes to introduce very shortly, will confer flood prevention powers on local authorities and provide Exchequer aid for that purpose.

As regards the costs entailed in repairing the flood damage which has already occurred, we do not yet know what these will prove to be; until we do, we cannot tell what order of assistance will be needed.

So far as public services are concerned, some of the cost will rank for grant aid in the ordinary way. But in any area which has suffered from the present floods the Government will be prepared to consider sympathetically requests for special assistance from authorities, once it is clear that without such assistance an unreasonable burden would fall on the rates.

So far as private interests are concerned, I know that the floods have caused grievous distress, and on behalf of Her Majesty's Government and, I believe, of the whole House, I would like to express our deep sympathy for all those who have suffered. The Government are ready to help. Some of the losses will be covered by insurance, but many, I understand, may not. Locally administered funds, raised principally by way of appeal, provide the traditional way of giving help quickly where it is needed, but wherever it becomes clear that funds thus raised will not suffice to meet the needs the Government will be prepared to supplement them.

To the best of my belief, no work is meanwhile being held up nor is anyone in immediate distress for lack of assistance. The local authorities and the voluntary organisations—including Civil Defence, the Auxiliary Fire Service and the Women's Voluntary Services—have responded as they can always be relied on to do. Fortified by this statement of mine, they should be able to continue in confidence that any necessary help will be forthcoming.

I wish to express to all of them the Government's appreciation of their prompt and vigorous action which has done so much to relieve immediate anxiety and suffering.

Mr. Dudley Williams

While thanking my right hon. Friend—[HON. MEMBERS: "What for?"]—for his expression of sympathy [Laughter.] This is not a laughing matter where my constituency is concerned.

As one whose constituency has suffered very severely as the result of floods, may I ask one question? Is it a fact that any surplus funds from previous charitable expenditure, such as those in the earlier Devon appeal, cannot be used on this occasion?

Mr. Brooke

I know that my hon. Friend's constituency is one which has suffered severely. Funds from previous flood appeals are, of course, available to relieve further distress within the beneficial area of the appeal. I understand, however, that the Charity Commissioners will be prepared to consider applications from the trustees of such funds for any desirable alteration of the beneficial area of the fund.

Mr. M. Stewart

On behalf of hon. Members on this side of the House, may I say that we should like to be associated with the Minister's expression of sympathy with those who have suffered and with the tribute that he has paid to the local authorities and the voluntary services.

We note also, with some satisfaction, what he said about the Government's readiness to help, but I could have wished that that part of his statement had been couched in more definite terms. May I ask whether he has seen the letter in The Times this morning, which points out that in 1956, on 3rd July, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer gave an assurance that £3 million which the Government had pledged to give for the East Coast flood disaster and had not been required to give, would be, in effect, made available if similar disasters occurred elsewhere? Would the right hon. Gentleman comment on that?

May I ask this, also? The Minister said, "To the best of my belief, no work is meanwhile being held up nor is anyone in immediate distress for lack of assistance." Will he very shortly be in a position to state that, not with that qualification, but beyond any doubt at all?

On the more long-term aspects of the problem, may I ask, in view of the reference to the resources of river boards, whether he would take the view that river boards need to be able to collect revenue over a rather wider area if they are to deal with this kind of problem? Is it not the fact that we have been handling this on the old "ship money" principle whereby only seaside towns paid for the Navy, and that that is not really an applicable arrangement in the case of a disaster of this kind?

Mr. Brooke

On the last point, I invite the attention of the hon. Member to the Long Title of the Bill that is about to be presented in a minute or two. I would ask him to await the terms of that Bill which will be presented by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, who is the Minister responsible. As to the words, "To the best of my belief" I put those in my statement, because, though I myself have no doubt that all the work that is necessary is in progress, nevertheless, if any information should come to light that work was being held up the Government would wish to know about it so as to make certain that any obstacles were removed.

As to the terms of my statement, I think that there may be some misunderstanding in the mind of the hon. Member, because my statement was perfectly specific. If any voluntary appeal funds prove not to suffice to meet the needs the Government will be prepared to supplement them.

With reference to the letter in The Times, it is quite true that a pledge was given in relation to the money that was not required for the East Coast disaster fund. I think that if the hon. Member will examine the statement which I have just made he will see that we are honouring that pledge in full by the undertaking I have just given to help wherever the need arises.

Mr. Mathew

Regarding the long-term undertakings which my right hon. Friend has given and so far as private losses are concerned, since flooding is becoming very widespread in a number of areas throughout the country, should not local flood relief funds be merged in a national fund, in which the Government should give a lead?

Regarding the difficulties of local authorities and other bodies, cannot my right hon. Friend be more specific and say that first-aid repairs, and defences now being erected, or which should now be being erected, against an early recurrence of flooding will be covered in every case if necessary?

Mr. Brooke

If my hon. Friend, whose constituency I know has also suffered, is referring to the idea of a national disaster fund, which has been canvassed recently, I think that he will appreciate that a question of that magnitude requires some consideration and that it would not be possible to give a reply forthwith. The immediate concern of the Government is to see that nobody who is suffering is prevented from receiving immediate assistance. Other questions may well be thrown up which will require a decision in due course. Again, I think that if my hon. Friend will examine the statement I have made, he will see that it is a thorough-going pledge that the Government will stand behind both private interests and local authorities in every area.

Mr. Thorpe

While thanking the right hon. Gentleman for his expression of sympathy and associating myself with what he said about the work of the voluntary associations, may I ask whether he is satisfied that voluntary charity should remain the traditional way of helping the people affected? Does not he really feel that we must go further and set up a distress fund? The right hon. Gentleman talked about the magnitude of the problem. Would not he agree that the magnitude of the problem is the extent of the distress? Is he really satisfied that by ad hoc grants to individual boards the safety of our rivers and, indeed, our coastline will be guaranteed?

Does not the right hon. Gentleman feel that this is now a national responsibility, a responsibility on his Ministry? Does not he feel that the river boards should now be appointed the agents of his Ministry in the same way as the highway authorities are the agents of the Ministry of Transport? Does not he feel that very much more is needed than the statement he has made?

Mr. Brooke

The hon. Member is under a misapprehension. The river boards in this context are not the responsibility of my Department.

Mr. Thorpe

They should be.

Mr. Brooke

They are the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, who is about to present a Bill to the House dealing with their functions on which all these matters can be debated.

As regards the question of a national fund, quite frankly I believe that whenever a disaster of this kind occurs anywhere a great number of people want to give their money voluntarily towards relieving the distress. It would be most unfortunate if we were to take over all responsibility centrally and nationally in such a way as would dry up the fount of private giving.

Sir J. Maitland

So that local appeal committees can understand exactly what it is they have to do to get money from the Government if the amount they are raising is not enough, will my right hon. Friend consider issuing a circular telling them exactly what they have to do?

Mr. Brooke

I will certainly consider that, but my first consideration was to make a statement to Parliament as early as possible. When my statement is examined I think that it will be found by all concerned that it is quite clear. Nevertheless, I wish to help local authorities in every way I can.

Mr. de Freitas

So far as the long-term problem is concerned, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his statement and the Long Title of the Bill are both equally disappointing? Is not this a problem which, together with that of water conservation, must be tackled nationally and imaginatively and can no longer be left to the small local boards?

Mr. Brooke

I do not think that my statement, with its promise of Government help, will be considered disappointing by any of those in the areas which have been suffering. I am aware that there are long-term questions, many of which will be debated, no doubt, on the Second Reading of the Land Drainage Bill.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. The House knows my difficulty. We cannot pursue this further now, with no Question before the House.