HC Deb 20 January 1982 vol 16 cc279-83 3.30 pm
Mr. Ray Powell (Ogmore) (by private notice)

asked the Secretary of State for Wales if he will make a statement on the latest situation in Wales arising from the extreme weather conditions, in particular with regard to future water supplies.

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Nicholas Edwards)

The recent weather conditions created severe problems in many parts of Wales, but life in the Principality is now returning to normal. I have already paid tribute in the House to all of those who have had to cope with the emergency and I have made clear the basis of the Government's financial support for local authorities.

As the thaw developed, the problems that had been created by the snow were replaced by the problems of burst pipes and interruptions to water supply. But the water supply position generally is improving and the vast majority of consumers are being supplied with properly treated water at normal pressures. The water resources are entirely adequate, but there are local problems due to leaks in distribution systems. All those problems are being attended to as quickly as possible by the Welsh water authority. In some parts of Wales properties are still without water and every effort is being made by the Welsh water authority to reconnect the areas affected.

There will obviously be appreciable financial consequences of the emergency, in particular for the local authorities which had the primary responsibility for dealing with it, and for the farmers. It is far too early to make a realistic assessment of those consequences. We shall continue to assess the position as information about the costs incured by all concerned becomes firmer. Early on, however, the Government announced that the standing arrangements for financial aid to local authorities in an emergency would apply on this occasion, and I have already described those to the House.

Mr. Powell

Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for allowing the private notice question to be asked. The statement of the Secretary of State does not cover all the issues that should be discussed in the House, and time should have been made available for a full debate.

Does the right hon. Gentleman share the widespread concern about the statement on Monday by the Welsh water authority that unless severe restraints are imposed, Wales could lose its entire water supply within a matter of days? Is he not aware that water is gashing out from burst pipes faster than it can be replaced in the reservoirs? Is he aware that areas in West Wales, Anglesey, the Heads of the Valleys and elsewhere are in a desperate position? Will he assure the House that there is no danger from the pollution of water supplies? Will he promise the Welsh water authority Government financial aid to meet the additional costs of repairs and replacement of water treatment and pumping operations?

Will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that industry and workers receive financial help to sustain the financial losses due to the weather conditions and the snow storms? Is he aware that in my constituency of Ogmore people made special efforts to accommodate and feed more than 1,000 stranded people for the best part of a week? Will he express justifiable thanks to them for their commendable efforts?

Mr. Edwards

I have already expressed appreciation in the House to all those, including private citizens, who helped to keep industry and life running in the Principality. I repeat my thanks and include the private individuals in the Bridgend area who were so generous.

On the hon. Gentleman's main point about water, the Welsh water authority was wise to warn of possible difficulties because of the loss of water from burst pipes. The normal consumption of water in the hon. Gentleman's area is 400,000 gallons a day. However, during the past few days consumption has risen to 1 million gallons a day because of numerous burst pipes. The hon. Gentleman greatly exaggerated the general position. The water supply is now under control and the water is fit to drink. Although I have details of certain areas where the water supply has not yet been connected, they are relatively few and reconnection is taking place quickly.

Mr. Geraint Howells (Cardigan)

Will the Secretary of State confirm reports in today's newspapers that financial aid will be forthcoming from the EEC emergency fund?

Mr. Edwards

The Government submitted a prompt claim to the EEC Commission, which is being urgently assessed. Although the statement in the Western Mail this morning is inaccurate both on the amount of aid and the timing, it is hoped that the Commission will make an early announcement. I hope that aid will be forthcoming from that source.

Mr. Delwyn Williams (Montgomery)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that Powys, which has the greatest mileage per head of population in Britain, has received nothing but co-operation from the Welsh Office during the emergency? Is he further aware that none of its emergency services has been curtailed? Will he note the concern— [Interruption.] We would prefer the exclusive rate formula—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker


Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I was simply trying to restore order so that the hon. Member for Montgomery (Mr. Williams) could finish his question.

Mr. Williams

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the weather guru, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Howell), is still remembered with some bitterness for the way in which he refused retrospective aid in emergency conditions?

Mr. Edwards

I pay tribute to the Powys authority which, throughout the winter, has been remarkably skilful in keeping the roads open. I speak from personal experience of the way in which it operated snow ploughs in appalling conditions, even in rural areas. I have praised it elsewhere, and I have pleasure in doing so again in the House today.

On the question of Government financial support, I confess that I do not recall the details of the timing of the previous announcement, but the special Government financial provision this time is intended to apply to the whole of the emergency period.

Mr. Alec Jones (Rhondda)

I join the Secretary of State in paying tribute to all those organisations and individuals in Wales who helped recently. It is not much use the Secretary of State simply saying that he is proposing the same levels of aid as those given by the Labour Government in 1978. Conditions now are far different from what they were then. In 1979 we did not face such severe weather conditions, and local authorities and others were not expected to meet the same problems.

Throughout Wales there is a feeling that the right hon. Gentleman has been less than generous. Those words were used to describe the Government's proposals by the Tory deputy leader of the Mid-Glamorgan county council. Will he confirm that that council will have to spend the equivalent of a 2½p rate before it receives any Government assistance? Should not that matter be reconsidered when up-to-date figures are available?

Wales has been concerned about the water supply, and I am glad to receive the semi-assurances of the Secretary of State. They are only semi-assurances because he cannot possibly know every individual aspect of the water position, and nor can the Under-Secretary. Is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied that the water authority has sufficient staff and resources to restore a full supply as soon as possible?

Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us how he proposes to spend money from the EEC fund? Will it be given to individuals and local authorities? Finally, will he tell the House of the effect of the bad weather conditions on industry in Wales?

Mr. Edwards

The level of aid depends on the extent of the damage and the total costs. The Government have made it clear that they will pay 75 per cent. of the cost of the emergency over and above a 1p rate inclusive of grant. If the costs are large, the Government's contribution will be that much larger. We will pay an appropriate share, and that seems right. It also seems right that local authorities should make some contingency provision every year for emergencies that always arise. That is the basis of the provision in regard to aid in excess of 1p rate inclusive of grant. That is exactly the system employed by the Labour Government in 1978–79 and local authorities needed to have no doubts about it, because it was clarified in a circular in December 1980. The product of a 1p rate inclusive of grant in Mid-Glamorgan is about £950,000.

The water authority is quickly restoring supplies. I am satisfied that its resources are adequate and I see no problems arising from that.

As for EEC aid, it would be right to have a detailed assessment of where costs have fallen and who has suffered most before we make final decisions on the distribution of EEC assistance. It would be useful to know the level of the assistance before making those decisions. We shall certainly look at the precedents and see what is the best way of distributing help if we obtain it.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I remind the House that this is a private notice question and not a statement. It is an extension of Question Time. Exceptionally, I will call two more hon. Members before we move on.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarvon)

Is the Secretary of State aware that many of those who have suffered additional costs need money urgently? Can he give an assurance that money for farmers will be forthcoming quickly and that local authorities will know exactly where they stand—with no chance of a cash cut-off—before they set the rates for next year, bearing in mind the legislation affecting rates that is going through Parliament?

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, as well as farmers and local authorities, many individuals and families have suffered, particularly pensioners who have had to incur additional heating costs? Will he look at ways of helping them as well? As all eight counties in Wales had extremely severe incidents in a difficult period, we could have had a national state of emergency in Wales. Did he consider declaring such a state of emergency, as a Welsh Parliament would certainly have done, and did he approach any international agencies, apart from the EEC, for aid?

Mr. Edwards

I am interested in the hon. Gentleman's view of what a Welsh Parliament would have done. Local authorities know their responsibilities perfectly well. For a considerable period, they have laid snow emergency plans with the Government. Those plans are ready for implementation at any time and the responsibility for implementing them lies with local authorities. The one lesson that clearly emerges from the emergency is that it is right that the responsibility should be at a local level and the Welsh Office should primarily carry out the role of a centre of communication and information, directing resources when specifically asked for. One of those in charge of a county emergency department made it clear to me that even the emergency headquarters had to act in that way and that decisions had to be taken close to the ground.

Farmers understand that they have to accept the general burdens falling on them from adverse weather conditions, but I have agreed to see the NFU later this week to discuss the issues. Sir Richard Butler has confirmed to me that it is much too early to make any assessment of the costs falling on farmers. I confirm that the additional financial assistance from the Government arising from the emergency is not cash limited.

Dr. Ifor Davies (Gower)

The Secretary of State is aware from his flying visit, for which I thank him, that no area suffered greater damage than the Gower peninsula, which was cut off for nearly 10 days, but is he aware that the provision of foodstuffs was ensured only by sea landings through the valiant efforts and initiatives of local people? Is he aware of the general feeling that much damage would have been avoided if the help of the forces had been ensured earlier? I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will learn the lesson that in any future crisis direction and leadership from the centre are necessary. The right hon. Gentleman has acknowledged the help given by local authorities, but that is not enough. Help and direction are needed from the centre, and that involves the Welsh Office.

Mr. Edwards

While expressing sympathy for the hon. Gentleman's constituents who suffered severely, I should say that the first task of the Welsh Office was to establish at the start of the emergency that troops would be available whenever required. I was in touch with the GOC Wales on the Saturday morning and we were in continual touch throughout. Whenever a local authority asked for them, troops were made available, as were Service men generally. However, the responsibility for asking for troops lies with local authorities, which know whether help is needed. Officials in Cardiff cannot know whether troops are needed in a village in Gower. When a local authority asked for troops the Welsh Office ensured that they were available, and I congratulate the GOC Wales on the arrangements that he made to ensure that troops were provided.