§ The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Mr. Denis Howell)
With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement upon the emergency situation in the West Country caused by an average of 18 inches of snow which fell last weekend, causing drifts of up to 30 feet and completely blocking communications over a wide area.
The local authorities immediately established emergency operational centres to co-ordinate the efforts of the agencies. I cannot speak to highly of the work of 1709 all the services, both public and voluntary. The magnitude of their task can be judged by the fact that some 25,000 houses were without electricity, 100,000 premises were without water, telephone services to 10,000 subscribers were disrupted, and almost all road and rail lines were severed.
On behalf of the Government, I established three priorities: maximum help for people at risk, such as the elderly, the sick and the isolated; to ensure essential supplies of food, water, fuel and feeding stuffs for farm livestock; the restoration of all communications.
As the House would expect, the Armed Services mobilised their resources with first-class efficiency and met every call made upon them. In particular, helicopters provided an emergency ambulance service and transported essential workers to restore vital services.
The Ministry of Agriculture established separate operational centres and received over 200 calls from farmers specifically requesting help in feeding livestock, apart from many more seeking advice on emergency problems. As soon as the fog lifted, 28 helicopters operated this special relief service and are still continuing these duties.
The House will be interested to learn that just one farm in North Devon received 45 tons of feedingstuff yesterday to sustain 400,000 chickens, 2,000 pigs and 200 dairy cattle, and will continue to receive 20 tons per day whilst the emergency lasts.
The House will wish to know the up-to-date position in the West Country at noon today. Electricity supplies have been restored to all but 1,500 homes. One thousand homes are still without piped supplies of water. Telephone services are returning slowly to normal, but this work has been delayed by the flooding of underground cables, and some 8,000 subscribers are still without service.
All rail passenger services have been restored and most of the major trunk roads are now open except for the north-south routes through Dorset. Snow clearing work is proceeding rapidly.
The flood warning system is fully operation and is coping well with the present rate of thaw.
In Wales the situation continues to improve as the thaw progresses. There 1710 were two successful airlifts yesterday of fodder and plastic milk containers. There has been one request so far today for a fodder airlift which is being considered. Milk collection difficulties are now confined to a few areas only. A general thaw and heavy rain during the night have helped to clear the roads and only a few villages in the Vale of Glamorgan and South Pembrokeshire remain inaccessible.
As the House will know, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture made an immediate announcement that, subject to the approval of Parliament, the cost of this airlift will be met by central Government funds. I have also advised my right hon. Friend that the nature of the losses to farmers appears to fall into three categories: the death of animals, the destruction of buildings, and loss of income, particularly from milk. It is far too early for the farming community to calculate those costs but my right hon. Friend is already considering the implications.
So far as local authority emergency expenditure is concerned, I can confirm the statement made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment on 8th February, in respect of the floods and gales of last November and January, that the Government will pay 75 per cent. of all such emergency expenditure in excess of a penny rate.
Finally, the people of the West Country and Wales have good cause to be grateful to the entire work force engaged in this operation—local authority road men, electricity, water, telephone and transport workers, doctors, Health Service and social service personnel, public servants of both central and local government doing the less spectacular but vital organisational work, and, most important, the Service men and police. Everyone did a wonderful job, sometimes working nonstop around the clock for two or three days. I know that the whole House will wish to join in that tribute to them.
§ Mr. Alison
I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman recognises that the whole country and hon. Members in every part of the House have felt deeply involved and deeply concerned and shocked about the blizzard disaster that hit the West Country and Wales, which he has just described very graphically. May I, on behalf of my right hon. and hon. 1711 Friends, echo the expressions of admiration and appreciation that the right hon. Gentleman has expressed for the work of all those concerned, not least the Armed Services but also local authorities and those in the local voluntary organisations for the marvellous job that they have done?
I should like to ask the Minister a couple of questions. First, will he promise the House that the local authorities concerned will know within one week of today exactly what is meant by the promise to pay 75 per cent. of all emergency expenditure in excess of a penny rate? I stress the words "within one week of today" because the Minister will be aware that after the East Anglian flooding, which took place as long as six weeks ago on 11th January, the local authorities there still do not know exactly what the phrase means, have not been able to pay out one penny, and do not know what the Government will be giving them. The Minister must make the same sort of lightning visitation to the bureaucracy in this context as he made to the West Country. They must have information within one week.
Secondly, will the Minister guarantee that loss that might have been covered by insurance but was not covered will not be excluded from the Government's emergency relief? The less affluent sections of the community are usually those who are not insured or who fail to negotiate proper insurance, and the scale of the disaster is outside the normal range of insurable risks. Therefore, may we have a categorical assurance that uninsured private losses—although they could have been insured—will qualify for Government relief?
§ Mr. Howell
First, I thank the hon. Gentleman for joining in the tributes. I know that the fact that they have been made to all those concerned, to the local authorities and all the work people, and the fact that the tributes are supported on all sides of the House, will make them fully appreciated.
As for the hon. Gentleman's two questions, I can say now that the undertaking we have given about local authority expenditure means what it says. There is no need to wait for one week. I assume 1712 that the hon. Gentleman was referring to something said yesterday by the Association of District Councils to the effect that there is bureaucracy. I am able categorically to deny that. There are no foundations at all for the statement made yesterday by that organisation.
No claims have so far been received in respect of flood and gale damage. We have had a number of estimates, and as soon as the claims come in, we shall meet them. The only point on which we have to be satisfied is that the work has been done as a result of flood damage, or in this case as a result of the blizzard during the weekend. I hope that that clears up any uncertainty which might exist.
The question about insurance does not, I think, apply to local authority expenditure but it applies, possibly, to farmers. My right hon. Friend will take note of what is said. I am bound to say that it might cause very considerable difficulties if some people have insured their property and their livestock and others have not, but I am sure that my right hon. Friend will deal with this as sympathetically as he can.
§ Mr. Ioan Evans
I thank my hon. Friend and the Under-Secretary of State for Wales for the prompt way in which the Government have reacted to this serious crisis. In view of the fact that this has been the most serious snowfall for 30 years and has serious financial implications for local authorities, may we take it that the assistance to be given to those in the West Country, 75 per cent. above a 1p rate, will apply also to Wales and to the Mid-Glamorgan authority, which took on unemployed people to help in clearance work, something which might be considered in other affected areas?
§ Mr. Howell
I can confirm to my hon. Friend that these arrangements apply to Wales. Certainly, if the Mid-Glamorgan authority engaged the unemployed to help in clearance work, that was a very commendable action on its part which will rate for consideration.
§ Mr. Emery
Does the Minister realise that certain hon. Members have been trying to draw to the attention of the House aspects of this emergency, over which there has been concern for the last three days? Would he allow me to pay tribute to two categories he did not mention? 1713 First, the railwaymen; I know of one instance where a signalman was working on his own for 27 hours keeping the line open and keeping the points from freezing. The second category is the farmers who, often jointly with next door neighbours, were acting as ambulance drivers getting old people to hospital.
May I ask the Minister three direct questions? Who was the Minister meant to be responsible for co-ordination in such an emergency before the Minister of State was appointed? If the Government considered that the emergency procedure was adequate, why was there a mix-up on the funding for helicopters until the Minister himself got to Devon on the Monday? Secondly, why is there not in existence, or in use, an emergency code of perhaps three or four symbols which could be used by people who are cut off and have no telephone, so that either in the snow or on a blanket they can signify to helicopters their medical requirements and their requirements in food, and animal feed?
Lastly, on the matter of funding, would the Minister consider and have other Departments considered whether the Government should not structure a permanent relief fund with an annual Supply Vote so that whenever there are emergencies of this kind—and they crop up at least every other year, if not every year—money is immediately available to cope with the major problems that arise?
§ Mr. Howell
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for specifically drawing attention to the part played by the railwaymen and ambulance men, and by the firemen, whom I would have hoped to include in my general all-purpose appreciation. On the funding of helicopter flights, local authorities, after establishing their own emergency centres, telephoned the Forces movement centre areas requesting a supply of Forces' helicopters and they were given the normal going rate that would apply for non-essential work. As soon as I realised that that had happened, I gave instructions that all such work was to be carried out and the cost borne by public funds.
On the question of permanent relief, the hon. Gentleman and the areas will be interested to know that the Home Office issued a circular on 2nd September 1975 containing 48 paragraphs of detailed advice on the subject of major accidents 1714 and natural disasters; and many local authorities naturally turned to that immediately to consider what arrangements were appropriate to them in the crisis. I do not think that a permanent fund would be suitable since the scale of these disasters varies enormously, having regard to the scale of damage. These are matters for which the cost should be borne by some central Government fund as and when required.
Mr. R. C. Mitchell
Is the Minister aware that the EEC Commission has a permanent disaster fund and contributed £651,000 in respect of flood damage in South-East England and £325,000 for snow damage in Scotland? Does the Minister expect that we should get some contribution from that fund for the South West?
§ Mr. Howell
It is the case that the EEC Commission offered early help in respect of the cost of the East Coast flood disaster without being approached by the Government, and no doubt the Commission will take account of the situation on this occasion.
§ Mr. du Cann
The Minister is quite right. Many people have done wonderful work in the West Country in recent days in appalling circumstances. But will he accept the thanks of those of us who watched his own efforts in the West Country for his promptness and effectiveness in taking action? Is he aware, however, that the emergency is by no means over? Most of the roads in my constituency still will not be cleared for another 36 hours. This is not an emergency, to use his word, but a catastrophe. Will he appreciate that Somerset has already incurred expenditure of probably over £1 million and that the proposals that he and his colleagues are making for reimbursement are not satisfactory and will not be accepted?
Would the right hon. Gentleman therefore be good enough to agree to meet, as soon as possible next week, a representative group of Members of Parliament from the South-West, and Wales if necessary, to discuss adequate provision of financial help for farmers and all those affected? Last but by no means least, the ratepayers of a county such as Somerset have already been shabbily treated by the Government of which the hon. Gentleman is a member.
§ Mr. Howell
I am most appreciative of the right hon. Gentleman's personal expression of appreciation for myself. On the second part of his question, I am well aware of the situation in his constituency in Somerset. I saw for myself the efforts being made there under the control of the county council and the police to ensure that everything that could be done was done, particularly on communications. I am glad to say that they have most of the main roads open. They have particular problems with Exmoor, particularly the B3188 road, but that is receiving close attention. According to a report I had this morning, a thaw is now proceeding rapidly, and this will assist their efforts, so that they should be through much more quickly than would otherwise have been the case.
Finally, on the formula, I know that whatever the Government offer will be thought by some to be inadequate. I shall certainly be happy to meet a deputation of hon. Members, but the formula that local authorities should bear the first penny rate, involves, after all, a most modest element. We make our rates in local government on the basis of a penny in the pound. Asking local authorities to bear the product of the first penny rate, after which the Government propose to bear the overwhelming share of what remains, is, I should have thought, a very reasonable basis. It is thought to be so in the West Country.
§ Mr. Terry Walker
Does my right hon. Friend see any need for co-ordination of emergency services in the future? Whilst I appreciate what he has said and pay tribute to the local services on what they have done, does he see problems in co-ordination between county and district authorities at very early stages of an emergency and does he consider that greater co-ordination would mean that we could start the job much earlier?
§ Mr. Howell
I cannot believe that the local authorities could have been much more efficient than they were on this occasion. They went into action almost immediately. I asked the same question: what is the relationship between the county councils and the district councils? The regional offices, particularly of the Department of the Environment and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food—and I am sure the same applies to the Welsh Office—were very soon into 1716 action carrying out their overall co-ordinating role, particularly of getting additional machinery from the Services, and from other local authorities brought into the region as quickly as they could by the best possible route.
We shall examine the lessons of these difficulties, as we did with the floods and the drought. If there are any lessons to learn, we shall try to learn them, but I am glad to say that many of the lessons we learnt in the drought two years ago, and the priorities we established then, stood us in very good stead on this occasion.
§ Mr. Pardoe
Will the Minister accept that throughout the House we join him in his congratulations to those involved in the work? No praise can be too high.
What is the right hon. Gentleman's estimate of the farm damage? May we expect a statement from the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food about compensation? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we should not wait for an EEC contribution but should have a firm commitment from the Government on agricultural compensation immediately?
May I ask the right hon. Gentleman about the discussions he has had with my right hon. Friend the Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe)—who has succumbed to the weather and is down with flu—about the possibility of the meteorological forecasts helping to solve this sort of problem, at least in giving fair warning? What investigations is the right hon. Gentleman making of the early forecasts that we receive? How does he believe that these could play their part in helping to solve the problem before we reach the present situation?
§ Mr. Howell
I am sorry that the right hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe) is down with flu, but I am glad that he communicated with me this morning by telephone. I cannot at this stage give an estimate of the damage. For example, most of the sheep on Dartmoor may well have been killed. The farmers cannot yet go out on to the moors to assess the extent of their loss. Therefore, it will take some time before agricultture can accurately inform my right hon. Friend of the position.
The Forces and the police depend on the meteorological forecasts they receive 1717 from central points. There may well be a case for much more localised meteorological forecasts. When trying to go from Devon to Dorset by helicopter yesterday, I was told that I could not get through, on the basis of a forecast that we had. But when I had gone into Somerset I found that I could get through and I was able to change my plans and get a helicopter to take me. However, that sort of thing is inevitable in the present situation.
§ Mr. William Hamilton
Is my right hon. Friend aware that there was adverse comment in the Scottish Press, comparing his statements about financial aid to be given in the South-West with the financial aid given to farmers and others who suffered in Scotland? Will he give an assurance that the treatment of those who suffered in Scotland will be as generous as that of the South-West?
§ Mr. Howell
I cannot believe that there will be any disparity between the treatment of farmers in this country and those in Scotland. If there is any unfair comparison, I am sure that we can all rely on my hon. Friend to see that the matter is put right. I shall convey his sentiments to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, who I have no doubt will be glad to reassure my hon. Friend.
§ Mr. Speaker
I shall do my best to call those hon. Members whose constituencies are in the South-West or Wales and who have been rising—
§ Mr. Speaker
I was addressing one side of the House for a moment, because so many of those constituencies are represented on that side. I shall, of course, call in turn hon. Members of the Government Benches.
§ Mr. Tom King
Although there is a welcome improvement in the main road situation, will the Minister accept that the position is still extremely grave in many of the villages, particularly on Exmoor? Will he ensure that the slight air of complacency that the situation is now much improved in no way handicaps the Government's continuing efforts to support the wonderful work done by the local authorities?
§ Mr. Howell
I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman said. I am sure that there is no complacency on the part of those dealing with the problem. Certainly I have no complacency. The efforts will go on for as long as they are required.
§ Mr. Arthur Lewis
I, too, join in the well-deserved tribute to my right hon. Friend and his Department, but I warn him to be careful. Next week he and the Department will be accused of wasting Government money. He will be told that he should cut Government expenditure.
Will my right hon. Friend reconsider his remarks about the funding of relief work in such disasters? Is it not time that we had a national disaster fund, on the old war damage insurance basis. Whereby everyone can contribute a nominal sum which can then be used to deal with such catastrophies fairly? So often big businesses and big farmers can easily get their needs met but the poorer people cannot. The old war damage insurance scheme was very good. Why not try to resuscitate it?
§ Mr. Howell
I shall convey that suggestion to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who I think would need to consider it. I can understand the logic of it, but, so far at any rate, the Government have been able to carry their own risks in the recent national disasters.
My hon. Friend was absolutely right to say—and it was an interesting point—that when such troubles occur the first demand is for more public expenditure. The moment I stepped out of the train at Exeter I was asked for more public expenditure and assurances that the cost of everything would be met. Because the Government and my hon. Friends believe that it should be met, I was able to give an immediate assurance. I am glad to say that on this occasion the Opposition seem to be joining us.
§ Mr. Paul Dean
As one of those who was stuck in the snow for a time last weekend, may I thank the Government for their prompt response to the emergency and add my tribute to those in the Armed Services, the police, the local authorities and their staff and thousands of volunteers who responded so readily to the emergency?
1719 May I put two brief questions to the Minister? First, in view of the considerable experience that the Armed Forces have had in recent weeks in fighting fires throughout the United Kingdom and blizzards in Scotland and the West Country, will the Government consider the formation of a special emergency service within the Armed Forces to ensure that the experience gained in the recent emergencies is not lost?
Secondly, will the right hon. Gentleman recognise that his answers about meeting of the cost of the operation have not been satisfactory? Will he respond to the call that has been made to meet those concerned—hon. Members, representatives of the local authorities, the National Farmers' Union and others—to consider the matter on its merits, bearing in mind that all the county councils in the South-West were very unhappy about the rate support grant announced a little time ago? It would be a very unhappy situation were the Government to base their share of the cost on a rate support grant that we felt was unfair.
§ Mr. Howell
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's references to myself and most particularly to the people concerned. As for the Armed Forces, when I reached the area I found it tremendously encouraging to be able to talk, for example, to the air vice-marshal in charge of helicopters and to know that he could immediately give me assurances about the helicopter services in all three Services which he had under his control. I am sure that the same applied to the land forces that turned out. This experience must mean that the levels of co-ordination in the Armed Services are very high. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not wish to say anything which would seem to be critical of that situation.
As to the local authorities, if they or the hon. Gentleman would like to see me, I should be very happy, but it was generally thought previously that the formula of the local authorities carrying their own risk up to a penny rate was a reasonable one. If people wish to put forward other ideas we shall be happy to consider them. Our concern is to get the local authorities to deal with the job, in the knowledge that they can be assured that the bulk of exenditure over a penny rate will be met.
§ Mr. Palmer
Has my right hon. Friend made any definition of the area of disaster? Does it, for example, go to the east side of Bristol?
§ Mr. Howell
It goes to any place where emergency work was necessary, and the calculations of the cost of that emergency work will fall within the formula that I have announced.
§ Sir Frederic Bennett
As one who does not spend much time congratulating Ministers, I endorse what my right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) said about the Minister's own efforts in his present appointment, and more particularly as his appointment was followed almost immediately by a change in the weather, as happened on a previous occasion in his career.
Has the Minister been able to make any assessment whether the damage to the roads—the most serious and costly item from the point of view of rehabilitation—is likely to be of a permanent nature? Has the snow and ice been on the ground long enough to do permanent structural damage, as far as he knows?
Does the Minister expect that the worst is over, or does his latest assessment lead him to think that there are still serious possibilities of further damage arising from flooding as the snow melts?
§ Mr. Howell
No doubt one of the reasons that I have good fortune, when I go to the West Country to deal with emergencies, is that I always establish my headquarters in the constituency of the hon. Member for Torbay (Sir F. Bennett), at the Livermead House Hotel, where the services available to Ministers and other visitors alike are excellent.
I have not received reports of adverse road damage of the sort mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, but I have noted the size and weight of some of the equipment brought in by the Armed Forces, and I shall not be surprised if there were permanent damage particularly to some of the small roads over the moors.
I think that the worst is now over. We were waiting to see how the thaw was going before we could make a judgment about flooding, but the flood warning system was operational from the very first day. I am advised that at the moment it is believed that we are over the main risk.
§ Mr. Skinner
Will my right hon. Friend acknowledge that any money which comes from the Common Market towards these disasters will have been paid for by the British taxpayer—and more besides? We still contribute much more to the Common Market fund in total that we get out of it.
Once again we see the Tory monetarists coming to the House to plead to the Government for help. Day after day we have to listen to the Tory monetarists telling the Government to get out of people's hair and allow private enterprise to operate, but as soon as there is a disaster they are the first to come pleading for money from the Government. I tell my right hon. Friend that some of us on the Labour Benches believe that when there is sickness in the family, when people are blind or when people want help over a stile, not just on one day but every day, there is an urgent need for the Government to do a great deal more in that direction as well.
§ Mr. Howell
I am sure that my hon Friend feels that at any rate on this occasion we have come up to the Standards that he has set. We shall endeavour to maintain them in the future.
My hon. Friend is quite right, of course, in what he says about the EEC funds. I am bound to say that all help from public funds has to be paid for by the taxpayers in the end.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. Five hon. Members are on their feet. I hope that hon Members will be brief. Mr. Hicks.
§ Mr. Howell
The fund already exists and therefore it is not necessary for us to make an application. In any case, it would be quite ludicrous to make an application this early, before we know the extent of the damage.
§ Miss Fookes
When does the Minister expect the telephone service to be fully restored to normal operation? This is very important in remote areas.
1722 Will voluntary organisation receive any compensation for the extra work in which they have been involved? I am thinking particularly of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which has done a great deal to help farmers and is continuing to do so.
§ Mr. Howell
I am obliged to the hon. Lady for her point about the telephone service. I am sorry that I am unable to be more specific, but the restoration of facilities depends upon the extent of the underground flooding. As soon as these flooded areas can be pumped dry, the repair men can get down to deal with the telephone lines. I hope that will be the case by the weekend, but I cannot give any guarantees.
I am much obliged to the hon. Lady for her point about the voluntary services, because they have worked extremely well and co-operated with the statutory bodies. It would be right for their expenditure to be included in the local authority claims to Government, but I shall look specifically into that to ensure that we shall help if it is possible to do so.
§ Mr. Hannam
Will the Minister look further into the question of EEC aid? I understand that usually applications have to be made to the EEC from the various organisations and local authorities. Will the Minister advise them how best to apply for financial assistance?
§ Mr. Howell
As I have already explained, an application does not have to be made to the EEC. On the last occasion the EEC took the matter within its compass and offered a grant. One assumes that the EEC will do the same on this occasion. If not, the Government will take up the matter.
§ Mr. Boscawen
I endorse everything that has been said already about the public services, especially in East Somerset, where they behaved magnificently. Will the Minister agree that the ordinary people in the South-West showed extraordinary calm and a very stolid attitude during this surprising event, which has not been experienced in such severity in anyone's lifetime in the area?
Will the Minister acknowledge that when these disasters happen and large numbers of people are cut off, they need, more than anything else, information about what is going on? Usually this 1723 can be obtained only from the police, and the telephone service quickly becomes overloaded. Therefore, surely a great deal more could be done to use the broadcasting services to greater effect, to tell people which roads are closed and what the position is in their area.
§ Mr. Howell
As I think we all know, the British are always at their best in an emergency, and that was certainly so in the West Country, as I saw for myself. Information is very important. That is why, on my tour of the West Country, I attached a good deal of importance to taking with me as may Pressmen as I could, and also to communicating regularly. People are anxious, but the emergency services do not want to have ordinary calls for information cluttering up the switchboards, when they ought to be dealing with urgent calls for help. I take the hon. Gentleman's point.
§ Mrs. Kellett-Bowman
The Minister has referred several times to money coming from the EEC without request, but is he aware that the money which the EEC sends will be distributed according to how the Government request it? Will the Minister please ensure that all areas of the United Kingdom which have suffered from natural disasters during the past winter will receive this help? These areas include the North-West, which was very badly devastated at the end of November and the beginning of December. Will he ensure that it receives a fair share of the EEC funds which are made available? We have already been in contact with the Minister's right hon. Friend, and I am hoping to meet him on this point, which is of vital importance to the North-West at the earliest moment.
§ Mr. Howell
I understand that it is of importance for the North-West, which was very severely hit by the gales. I shall consider the hon. Lady's points and communicate with her.