HC Deb 26 August 1968 vol 769 cc1421-32

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Gourlay.]

10.0 p.m.

Mr. Peter Emery (Honiton)

Turning from international tragedy and pathos to regional exasperation and anger is a short step in this House. I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for allowing me this Adjournment on the question of flood relief for the West Country, at short notice, thus enabling me to raise at least one pleasing aspect in today's proceedings—the landslide of views from the South-West, and bring them to the attention of Ministers. These are views not just from my own constituency, but from Somerset, Wiltshire, Devon, Gloucestershire and Bath and Bristol. I thank the Joint Parliamentary Secretaries for the Ministry of Housing and Local Government and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food for attending the debate.

My worst fears, when my hon. Friend the Member for Torrington (Mr. Peter Mills) and myself divided the House on the Motion for the Summer Recess, have been realised. We felt then that with Parliament out of the way the need for Government help to the relief funds would somehow be pushed under the carpet, and not dealt with in the way that most people believed essential. It is no understatement to say that the West Country is absolutely shocked at the announcement made by the Government 10 days ago, that the total Government donation to all flood relief funds would only be£1,750.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. Arthur Skeffington)

I think that the hon. Gentleman has made a mistake. He said£1,750. It is£170,000.

Mr. Emery

I am sorry. It is still a niggardly amount.

I have suggested that it was worse than niggardly. Colonel Grey, Chairman of Somerset County Council, called it a deplorably inadequate amount. The Chairman of the East Devon Flood Appeal, Brigadier Acland, suggested that it was only a fraction of what was needed. When I first saw the figure, I thought that it was the first contribution being made to East Devon. With approximately the same amount raised by voluntary contribution we will have something like£350,000 available for distribution. At a most conservative estimate, this amounts to less than 4s. in the pound of the total claims received by local authorities.

Many figures have been bandied about, and one quotation I made toThe Times was multiplied by 100 instead of by 10, so giving a figure entirely out of proportion. In order to let us get as near as possible to the working of the Government's mind, would the Minister give an estimate of the total damage, as he sees it, in East Devon, Somerset, Wiltshire, Gloucester, and in Bath and Bristol? He must have the breakdown figures. Perhaps he will give us his estimate of the amount of claims in those six areas.

It seems to me that in my own constituency in East Devon the figure will run to about£350,000, and in the whole of East Devon to about£400,000. The figures put to the Somerset County Council amount to£576,000 and, according to theDaily Telegraph, the claims in the other areas—Bristol, Bath and Gloucester—will be about£604,000, although I am not certain of the Bristol figures.

Mr. Robert Cooke (Bristol, West)

My hon. Friend may care to know that in the City of Bristol£310,000 worth of civic property was damaged or destroyed, quite apart from private property.

Mr. Emery

I thank my hon. Friend for that information. The sums I have already given, total in the region of£1¾ million, and the Wiltshire claims are to come in on top of that. Not all the claims are yet in. We are, therefore, faced with an approximation of about£2,000,000, with relief funds of£350,000 to meet it.

Here, I remind the hon. Gentleman of what was said by the Minister of Housing and Local Government on 15th July last. He then said: The Government welcome this initiative"— that is, the initiative to set up relief funds— and as on similar previous occasions will be prepared to contribute generously to these… Is a sum representing less than 10 per cent. deemed to be a generous contribution? More importantly, the Minister then went on to say: …as soon as the extent of the need has been determined."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 15th July, 1968; Vol. 768, c. 1041–42.] I suggest to the Parliamentary Secretary that it is obvious that this estimate is not yet known and that the amount to which I have referred is just the first instalment. If that is not the case, I cannot believe that the Government intend to live up to their pledge.

I am sure that both the Ministries represented on the Government Front Bench tonight would wish to be more generous and see more funds made available, but that the nigger in the woodpile is the Treasury. I was afraid, as I have said before, that the moment the House was aware that pressure could not be kept on the Treasury, the concrete hearts of the Treasury Ministers would harden on any relief for flood damage.

Let me bring into proportion just how small this£175,000 is. Does the Minister remember that a little less than two years ago£1½ million was given out of public funds in connection with the "Torrey Canyon" disaster—a disaster which spread nowhere as deeply, or as far, or affected as many households or as many people as did this flood disaster.

I wish to refer quickly to help for the farmers. It has been implied that where there has been damage on the domestic side, claim can be made as with any other section of the community. But still no assistance to meet crop loss so far as feedstock is concerned is apparently to be considered. I should like this cleared up. In Honiton, cut grass was spread by the flood. Sometimes it was 10 or 11 ft. high on trees and banks and in hedgerows. That is an indication of the amount of cut grass and hay swept away. For some smallholdings it has been a complete loss. Often flood water in buildings means that some of the gathered crop will be found to be useless, but one cannot tell this until it comes to be used later in the winter. The actual loss factor cannot then be assessed.

When instances of this kind have occurred nationally instead of regionally the matter has been taken into review in the Annual Price Review. When it happens regionally that cannot be done. This is why I believe that further measures ought to be taken than just a grant under the Farm Improvement Scheme. Funds should be made available to meet actual loss in feedingstuffs. This should be done also where top soil has been swept away. How is the farmer to deal with that aspect?

I turn again to the business side. While it is obvious that the domestic situation must come first—indeed, the Government's ruling has always been that limited companies must stand on their own feet—I know a number of instances of small businesses facing ruin unless a greater amount of money than I have mentioned is made available for a percentage repayment. I think of a small engineer in Ottery St. Mary who set up in business 18 months ago. All his electrical machinery has been flooded and ruined. He has lived on the site and every penny he has made has been poured back into the business. He had to be rescued by crane from the top of his home, a caravan on his business site. He faces total ruin if he cannot get more than 4s. in the£towards his damages. The Minister must go to the Treasury and ask for more money with that type of case in mind.

An old couple suddenly found between one and three feet of rubble from a railway embankment swept into their garden and part of their house. Nobody wanted to know about it. It was a disused railway embankment, and nobody acknowledged responsibility. What these people are to do goodness only knows. They feel that they should be able to claim entirely for the removal of the rubble.

There is a problem which arises because of the variation in grant-in-aid or relief payment. Taunton Rural District Council has suggested that the payments would be only for household losses. Other authorities have asked for claims from agricultural interests and small businesses. Are the Government attempting to give any guidance? Sidmouth Council has obtained by means of a small individual fund a larger contribution than has been given in other relief funds. Sidmouth rightly suggests that it should be able to give more to its people than may be given in the neighbouring Borough of Honiton. Are the Government happy about this situation? If that is their wish, how can they believe that they arc encouraging voluntary giving in making up the contributions to these funds?

Will the Joint Parliamentary Secretary say, not that there has been a mistake, but that the Minister will have another look at this matter and that an additional figure will be announced in future when a full assessment has been made? Will the Minister repeat the promise given by his right hon. Friend and repeated by the Prime Minister in correspondence with my right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann), whom I am delighted to see present, that generous help will be given? What do the Government mean by "generous help"? Will the Minister—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I understand that the hon. Gentleman is sharing the debate with other hon. Members. If so, he must leave them some time.

Mr. Emery

I am about to conclude, Mr. Speaker.

I wish to make a plea to the Government—and when I get to that stage, I am always at the end of my speech. Will they give a gleam of hope to the many thousands of flood victims in the South-West that they will be considered and will not be lost in a game of political football between the Ministry of Housing and Local Government and the Treasury, because that is the general feeling in the South-West? These are real people, real financial losses and real ruin is involved. Homes, furniture and livings are involved. These people deserve greater consideration than that which has been given so far by the Government.

10.17 p.m.

Mr. Edward do Cann (Taunton)

I shall be extremely brief. I wish to make four points.

First, for the second time today, I wish to express gratitude to you, Mr. Speaker, for the arrangements which you have kindly made for this debate and to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government for his courtesy in being present. I shall not mind if he does not answer all our detailed points tonight, provided we get a satisfactory answer at some time. I wish also to express gratitude to my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Mr. Emery) for his typical ingenuity and competence in raising this matter and deploying the case so well.

I turn to my other three points. First, I have had correspondence with the Prime Minister about this matter, going back over a considerable time. I do not know whether the Parliamentary Secretary is aware of it. I wish to make one short quotation from the Prime Minister's letter to me dated 23rd July: …the Government know well that there are many cases of personal hardship… I am sure that they do. Perhaps they do not know of them as well as my hon. Friends. None the less, we are grateful for the visits which have been made to the area. The Prime Minister continued: …and a promise has been given that the Government will be prepared to contribute generously to any bona fide relief funds which may be set up as soon as the extent of the need has been determined. First,bona fide relief funds have been set up; secondly, the need has been established; thirdly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton said,£175,000 has been offered by the Government. But that sum will not cover even one tithe of the real need. The amount made available is miserably inadequate. It is deplorable that so small an amount has been made available so tardily It will not begin to meet any of the losses and hardships which have been suffered.

Next, my hon. Friend has referred to agriculture. Agriculture is being considered within the general need. I am grateful to the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture for being here tonight. Representatives of the N.F.U. have been to see the Minister of Agriculture, and they have gone away empty-handed. They are going to see him again. I need not dilate on the needs; they are known by the Minister of Agriculture. Something should be done.

Lastly, there have been flood prevention schemes on which money has been wisely spent. I beg the Government to look with care at the constructive proposals which are being put forward to avoid flooding in future. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will give us an assurance on that point.

10.19 p.m.

Mr. John Ellis (Bristol, North-West)

I would make only one point. I ask my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to bear in mind that in this instance what has happened is quite unusual, because in such cases in the past a central fund has been set up for flood relief by the Lord Mayor of the area in question. Bristol failed to do that. I must make it clear that I regard this as an error on the part of Bristol.

We have a plethora of smaller funds with inconsistencies in the amount. I ask my hon. Friend to take this into account and also to consider that we ought now to give serious thought to a national disaster fund, by which these things would be more amicably settled.

10.20 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. Arthur Skeffington)

I should like to begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Honiton (Mr. Emery) for using the first opportunity—indeed, it is likely to be the only opportunity—in this short recall session of Parliament to focus the attention of the House once again upon the flood disaster in the West Country and the financial arrangements to which the Government have contributed. I am glad that the hon. Member has done so because I hope in the brief time that is available to me—I wanted to allow as many contributions from hon. Members as possible—at least to put some of the facts on record.

I wish perhaps that this debate could have taken place a little later, because we might then have had a still clearer picture than we now have. The hon. Member for Honiton asked for estimates and totals. It is still extremely difficult at this stage to give him the sort of detail that is required. A number of the appeal funds have not yet closed. I think that most of them will be closed by the end of the month, although the East Devon fund may go on longer. We know something of the total amount of some of the claims, but they have not been assessed and I cannot at present give any figure. It might be wildly misleading in either direction, but I would be glad to do so if I could.

A number of hon. Members will be seeing my right hon. Friend the Minister tomorrow about various aspects of the problem. The fact is that we are still facing a situation in which a great many of the details are not clear to us and in which a great many communications and information has to be received from both local authorities and others. That is why I cannot at this stage give the kind of estimate for which the hon. Member asked.

Mr. Robert Cooke


Mr. Skeffington

I have such a short period in which to speak and so much to tell the House that I must not give way, because I want to serve the best interests of the House by putting on record as much as I can.

One thing which I should say in self-defence is that these occasions are bound to be extremely difficult for any Minister, as the right hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) will realise. No one will accuse either of the Ministries represented here tonight or my right hon. Friend of being unsympathetic. We immediately visited the site. I was there before the floods subsided and I went around with the hon. Member for Somerset, North (Mr. Dean), whom I see present. However sympathetic one is, it is always possible to make a convincing and real case that whatever sum the Government can contribute is not generous enough. I must make this point because it is always a bad wicket for a Minister to have to bat on where central contributions of this kind have to be made.

I would, however, hope that in passing judgment, because the hon. Member for Honiton and others have passed judgment on the amount, hon. Members will look at the total picture of Government help in relation not only to what has been raised, but to other matters, one of which was raised by the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Robert Cooke) and to which I hope to refer.

About 30 relief funds have been established. Including the contribution of£8,350 which the local authorities have made,£57,000 has been contributed. It may be that more sums will be received. I very much hope that they will, because the distress is there.

It may be that because loss of life was so small, thank goodness, in this case, the nature of the disaster has not struck people so forcibly as when, unfortunately, there is loss of life. It is, however, safe to say, even though I hope that there will be further contributions to these funds, that the Government figure of£175,000 is certainly much more generous than the contributions of£for£which were made in the 1953 flood disasters and in the storm damage at Sheffield in 1962.

Mr. Paul Dean (Somerset, North)


Mr. Skeffington

I have not time to give way. No doubt there will be other opportunities to pursue this matter and I want to put on record the facts as we see them.

I hope it will be realised that this contribution of£175,000 is by no means the total amount of Government money which in one way or another will be going to the area. The hon. Member for Bristol, West raised the question and gave a figure of damage to civic property in the City of Bristol. Again, I would remind the House that on 15th July my right hon. Friend, who has shown deep personal concern and interest in this matter from the beginning, said in regard to local authorities losses, which are quite separate from the losses we are talking about tonight, which are of personal hardship in the main, that consideration will be given to assistance in the light of the scale of the damage, the availability of specific grants, and insurance cover and the extent of local resources."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 15th July, 1968; Vol. 768, c. 1042.] We shall shortly be asking the local authorities to send us their claims for their own costs which will be costs for restoration of public services or of emergency action which they may have had to take. This will be in addition to the sum of£175,000 and I am glad to put that on the record. This is not, of course, the sum total; this is another form of assistance from central funds to the areas concerned. In addition, the Minister of Transport is making contributions in connection with communications. All trunk roads are aided to the extent of 100 per cent. The Newhaven bridge at Marsh on the A.303 has 100 per cent. grant as indeed does the bridge at Fenny Bridges which has been restored. The hon. Member will remember that we went to see the Pensford Bridge on the principal route, and there the grant was 75 per cent.

These are additional to the sums referred to tonight. The Ministry of Social Security has already contributed£8,000 in emergency grants. More sums will be made for emergencies of one kind or another, and advice and guidance has been set out about this.

The hon. Gentleman raised the question of losses by farmers and he also raised the question of guidance and indeed, asked has any guidance been given. In general, the losses of agriculture will normally be covered by grants—I will say a word or two about it in a moment—by the Ministry of Agriculture. Advice about this was given in very considerable detail by the regional offices on 31st July and followed up on 12th August. This has been gone into in considerable detail—what sorts of claims, how they might be met, the sort of people who can make an assessment, and so on. I will not read out the whole thing, and the House will understand why, for I have not time, but this matter has been looked at, I believe, in considerable detail.

My hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture also visited the area and discussed with the farmers. He said that this aid would be given as generously as possible and that grants are available under the Farm Improvement Scheme for restoration of damaged farm buildings, roads, fixed equipment, for the removal of rubble from fields, and for field drainage and for damaged ditches. The regional offices have given information as to how claims could be made. I have mentioned all this because I think it is right that the public in delivering a judgment on the Government contribution should realise that the£175,000 is in addition to other relief from central funds.

The question has been raised as to whether local authorities can contribute further. I am glad to have this opportunity of putting it on record that they can make contributions. The City of Bristol contribution was made, I gather, under the Local Government (Financial Provisions) Act, 1963, but it is possible under Section 136 of the Local Government Act, 1948, to make a contribution. It requires Ministerial consent, but this will be freely given. I put this on the record. Perhaps authorities which have used the 1963 Act have not realised that this power exists, and they can still make a grant under the provisions of the Act to which I have referred. I hope very much that they will use the 1948 Act because this is a possible way of making this sort of contribution.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman quoted relief given in the case of the "Torrey Canyon" oil disaster. I do not myself think that it is a fair comparison. What he ought to have done, it seems to me, was to compare the amount given in connection with the oil disaster to the sums and contributions which will be paid from central Government to the local authorities, because in that case the grants were for the expenses of the local authorities in dealing with that matter, and not personal damage. So, in due course, the hon. Member will be able to make out a comparison, but I do not think that he can make it out now.

We shall certainly consider most carefully all that has been said in the debate. I am glad that the matter has been raised. I think it right to put the sums in addition to the£175,000 on record, and I hope that when hon. and right hon. Members look at the contributions and the other matters I have referred to they will in their heart of hearts think these contributions not so ungenerous as they have suggested tonight.

Mr. Robert Cooke

If the claims for private damage are not complete, how can the Government—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKERadjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half-past Ten o'clock.