HC Deb 08 December 1987 vol 124 cc397-411 7.39 am
Mr. William Ross (Londonderry, East)

I have no doubt, Mr. Speaker, that hon. Gentlemen who took part in the last debate had a very long night because, unlike me, they were not able to slip home for a few hours in bed. I do hope that you managed to get a few hours' sleep yourself before the rigours of the coming day.

We in Northern Ireland are particularly grateful to the hon. Members for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro), for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. McKelvey) and for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) for raising the matter that they raised, because it has a bearing on transport from Northern Ireland where there are some people who simply do not like flying all the time. Believing that if the good Lord had meant us to fly he would have given us wings, they prefer to keep their bottoms on something that runs on four wheels. I must confess that if I lived in Great Britain rather than in Northern Ireland I would tend to travel by rail rather than by aeroplane. I do not like aircraft anyway, and I feel most unsafe up there all the time. In any event, we hope that those who look after transport arrangements from Northern Ireland will add their voices to those of the hon. Members who have spoken for south-west Scotland on this matter, because we consider it serious for people who travel by rail from Northern Ireland.

As we come to the end of this long debate, I rise to bring to the attention of the House and the Minister responsible the consequences of the damage suffered in Northern Ireland In the very severe rainstorm in October of this year.

The House will appreciate that there were three swathes of destruction that swept across the United Kingdom in a matter of two or three weeks. The first to suffer was the south of England, which had hurricane winds which caused immense damage, and there was, no doubt, also damage caused by the rain which accompanied or followed the wind. Then there was the enormous amount of damage in Wales, caused by the rainstorm there, followed a week later by rainstorm damage in Northern Ireland. The amount of water that came down in a 24-hour period was quite phenomenal.

The Minister will be aware that I put down a number of questions to him and to other Northern Ireland Ministers about the damage. It was indicated to me that in Strabane district alone 300 dwellings were flooded, in Omagh 84, in Fermanagh 52, in Craigavon 35, in Coleraine 28, in Banbridge 24, in Armagh 16 and in Limavady 13. I believe that those figures are not complete, for there are isolated dwellings in the rural areas which were flooded and which I am sure do not appear in those figures. I have come across one or two in my own area. There were many other areas where there was a considerable amount of damage to a small number of dwellings. In addition, a considerable number of roads were damaged, and some bridges will have to be replaced. At least 25 have been found to be damaged, and I feel sure that that is not the complete list.

There is a real problem in funding from public sources the public works which will have to be carried out as a result of the damage suffered on this occasion. Of course, in so far as the public representatives there are concerned, Strabane district council and Omagh district council have been particularly active in bringing to the attention of Government the damage that was suffered in their areas, and the hardship and loss which were occasioned to many living in those areas as a result of the enormous amount of rain that fell. I would like to commend Strabane district council for the manner in which it has produced a briefing booklet on this matter, which it sent to a number of right hon. and hon. Members, detailing the damage.

I must say that the damage was not limited to that area and, while I have great concern for all who suffered, I know more about what happened in my constituency than in Northern Ireland as a whole. I am just sorry that there are not more hon. Members from Northern Ireland here to take part in this brief debate.

The interesting thing, as those of us who watched television forecasts at the time will be aware—perhaps a word to the House would not be amiss—is that most of the rainstorms that we get in the United Kingdom result from a relatively narrow band of cloud, perhaps 70 to 100 miles wide, sweeping across the British Isles, giving a comparatively short period of time during which rain actually falls. Those who watch the excellent weather forecasts on television will have noted that on this occasion, instead of sweeping across the British Isles, the band of rain seemed to travel along the line of cloud, so that it was prolonged and heavy, which led to serious flooding.

I am told by the Ministry of Defence that the daily rainfall totals were very rare, and have a return rate of 200 years or more. There has been heavier rainfall in the past, but it was over much smaller areas. To be told that this rain storm will occur only once every 200 years is quite horrific, but it proves how serious, unusual and damaging this rain storm was.

The Minister will recall answering a question that I asked on 12 November regarding the flows of the River Roe at that time. He said that the maximum flow recorded in this last flood was 171 cu m per second at 2 am on 22 October. At that time, the banks were widely breached upstream, so the recording gauge was showing a much lower figure than the amount of water that was coming down the river.

Will the Minister check the figures that he gave for the rainfall for that river? It is a fairly substantial stream at that point. The river was flowing fairly fast. I visited the main breaches just above that measuring point a few days afterwards. I noticed that at one point the bank was out for 15 yds and that at another it was out for 20 yds. The flood waters were near the top of a 9 ft high bank, so there was a 35 yd width of water coming through on to the agricultural land behind it. If one measures it, which is not hard to do, the breach in the banks was 35 yds wide, and, even at a depth of 6 ft and a speed of only 3 ft per second, that is nearly 70 cu m per second going through the bank.

I am sure that far more water was travelling down the river. The Minister should ask his officials to check their figures again. When I look at the minimum flow in cubic metres that is recorded for the River Roe at that point and the maximum that was recorded in this and other exceptional floods, I question whether, as an interested lay observer, they have got it right. I believe that far more water was travelling down the river because there is a substantial channel in the river at that point. I know that it can be affected by tides, but not to a great extent.

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has written to me and pointed out a number of problems with regard to the flood banks. The reality is that 3 in of rain fell in the catchment area of the river within a few hours, and that was bound to lead to a considerable flood.

How much rainfall are the river banks of Northern Ireland expected to contain? Whenever drainage officials and engineers plan the height, width and size of the banks for any drainage scheme, they have an exceptional rainfall pattern in mind. While the rainfall return period for large areas may be 200 years, there is a shorter return period for rainfall in a given catchment area. I know that there have been rainfalls in various areas heavier than we experienced which have led to extremely large floods in individual rivers. When the engineers are planning flood banks, they obviously have in mind a maximum flood that they should be able to contain and control. What is the figure? What is the frequency of floods of that nature?

We have to ask: what qualifies as a disaster? If we have a normal flood and a normal rainfall the Government will say, naturally, "This is a fairly normal level of risk and we have no responsibility." If there is an abnormal incident, such as we experienced, the Government will say that it was unforeseen, no one could have thought that it would happen and, therefore, they are not guilty again because the flood banks are designed to contain much less rain. For the Government it is, "Heads I win, tails you lose." I believe that we have to define a natural disaster as an event which is unforeseen and causes large losses and damage to individuals and groups.

In many parts of the world such unforeseen events can be tidal waves, earthquakes, volcanoes or drought. In our case it was heavy rainfall. Other parts of the world experience heavy rainfall as well. However, the problem is that the Government put up their hands in horror and wash their hands thoroughly of any responsibility or need to provide adequate compensation and help for those who suffer. I question whether the attitude that has been taken by the Government hitherto is adequate in this day and age when we look at the problems suffered by the people in our country.

The leader of my party received a letter from Lord Lyell in which he said: A high standard of flood protection is set in drainage scheme designs but the Department does not, and could not, claim to prevent flooding in all circumstances … the Department of Agriculture is specifically exempted from liability for damage resulting from accidental overflowing of a watercourse. The letter said that the Government did not consider it appropriate to declare a natural disaster as prompt and significant assistance has already been provided in a variety of measures and EC aid is on its way. That is nonsense. The aid that has been provided is infinitesimal in relation to the scale of the damage and loss suffered. In that letter we see the Government washing their hands of any willingness to help on a major scale.

Whenever there is drought in Ethiopia, which sadly seems to be recurring, and when there are major disasters such as earthquakes, floods or fires in Third-world countries, Ministers come to the Dispatch Box and announce a package of aid. A considerable amount of help is often sent to foreign countries. Does charity not begin at home? Have we forgotten the needs of our own people, many of whom suffer grievously? As I have pointed out already, the floods in Northern Ireland were the third occurrence in a group of natural disasters hitting the United Kingdom. They happened one after another, ranging from the south of England to Wales and Northern Ireland.

Looking at the number of dwellings and commercial properties that were damaged in Northern Ireland, one begins to get an impression of the scale of the damage. Five hundred houses were damaged, as were 200 commercial properties, which included some shops in which the stock was washed out of the doors. Six manufacturing premises, schools, houses and hospitals were damaged, poultry, sheep, pigs, and cattle were drowned, and heaven alone knows what else. I know that in my area 70 acres of potatoes simply disappeared under water and have been a complete loss.

Mr. Roy Beggs (Antrim, East)

Does my hon. Friend agree that, in 1985, the Department of the Environment acknowledged that the stone barrier wall running parallel to the river along Lower Main street from Strabane bridge to the camel's hump was faulty and perforated in no fewer than 10 places, and that an earlier report had been commissioned by the Department of Agriculture? Does he further agree that the Minister should have that latter report published, as it is perceived that the failure by those Departments to act has contributed to the flood damage to premises and property in the area?

Mr. Ross

The wall has been there for a long time. We must ask why repairs were not carried out promptly. One exceptional flood showed up all its weaknesses, and its collapse led to millions of pounds worth of damage in Strabane. The damage which would arise as a result of the wall collapsing was bound to be considerable, and the Government had a responsibility to maintain it.

The Minister may say that the Government do not cover people for matters that are normally dealt with by insurance, but that they have instructed Northern Ireland Departments to act as sympathetically as possible on individual problems. The problem is that not all damage is insurable, and some is insurable only at prohibitive cost. Farmers Union insurance covers most agricultural insurance in Northern Ireland, and I am informed that flood damage is covered as an extension of storm damage where the flood risk is normal. That means flood damage is covered when the risk is tiny.

A farmyard on the top of a hill will not be flooded very often, but some people have to live in flood plains because that is where their land is situated. Insurance companies do not want to know such people. If there is a history of flooding, the chance of getting cover disappears. The result is that the individual has to bear the cost. I believe that it is time that that cost was spread more widely. A relatively small proportion of people live in flood areas.

There are similar problems associated with insuring livestock in buildings. There is not much choice with poultry. One cannot let them out of the house, so they simply drown. A constituent suffered just that, and he faces a loss of £15,000 or £16,000. Stock in fields can be covered, but it rarely is. I have constituents who knew that the water was coming but could do nothing about it because the land was so flat and the area so extensive. Stock simply stayed out until it drowned. Sheep and cattle lose their heads, of course, and the poor things get frightened, so when there is water around their knees in the middle of the night it is impossible to chase them out of danger and in some cases it would have been a risk to human life to try to rescue the stock.

There were two breaches in the banks of the River Roe 35 yd total width at Ardnargle just below Limavady. Ardnargle is at the upper end of the lower flood plain, much of which has been reclaimed. It is perhaps the only area in Ireland where the land has to be pumped to keep it dry, as some of it is below sea level. A huge amount of water got out and flooded at least 1,000 acres several feet deep. The farmers discovered that although the floods dropped in a matter of hours, there was no way that they could get the water off the land. It simply stayed there because the outlets are 12 in or 15 in pipes. It was there for a week, and when I went there it was like looking at Lough Neagh. One man had a pool of water in a brand-new house. That did not look very nice. He lost many things. Other householders also suffered grievously at Limavady and Articlave where, although living 12 ft or 13 ft above the stream, they still had 3 ft of water in their houses. That was completely abnormal and unexpected. In some cases people were not insured and lost all their furniture and everything else that they possessed.

When the flood banks broke at Ardnargle the water went down behind the banks and stayed there. I have put a number of suggestions to the drainage division to try to have works constructed which will get the water out quickly. The officials and engineers are making arrangements to see me in the near future about that to see whether my ideas are feasible. I think that they are, but they may be rather costly.

I can only say that in an area of such valuable agricultural land one must take exceptional measures to protect it in future. It is also important to realise that my proposals will simply do what should have been done when the river was first banked nearly 30 years ago. There is no point in building banks to keep water out when there is no way of getting it out once it goes over or through breaches. This is not the only area where that can happen, but it is certainly serious here.

I hope that the Minister will give an undertaking to look seriously at my proposals, and, if they are not acceptable, to come up with something that will work.

In some areas no banking has been done because of the nature of the subsoil. I refer here to the Rivers Agivey and Bann where there are serious problems which cannot easily be righted. Will the Government find a means of paying grant to farmers and others to protect their dwellings by erecting low banks, or let the drainage division do it? Many dwellings in those areas could be protected in future by a bank 4 ft or 5 ft high with a long sloping profile. Many other measures could and should be taken to give future protection, but that does not compensate for the suffering caused by this most recent event.

The local councils, the Housing Executive and even the Coal Board, God rest them, did their best, but I have a bit of a crib against them all. Councils cannot take powers to deal with flood damage on this scale. The Housing Executive was caught without any means of drying out houses, although it did its best, and the coal board donated 50 tonnes of coal, but only to Strabane and Omagh. But, as I pointed out, the damage was far more widespread than that. It does not matter whether it is one of the 300 individuals who suffered loss as a result of 3 ft or 5 ft of water in a house in Strabane, or a farmer or other rural dweller who suffers the same sort of damage, the individual hardship is the same in all cases. Yet here one group of people received aid which was not made available to all. Surely that is inequitable and unjust and simply should not happen.

The DHSS made emergency payments and then asked for them to be paid back. Those emergency payments could only be made to one class of people—those who qualified in normal circumstances. Many people simply did not qualify for that aid.

Most modern furniture, especially kitchen furniture, being made of chipboard, was good for nothing but throwing out once water got into it. In many cases, furniture worth many thousands of pounds has had to be dumped. Of course, some of the people affected had insurance, but, for one reason or another, others did not.

The EEC appears to have made available £150,000, but the damage runs into millions of pounds. I do not know how that money will be shared out, but, even if it is shared equally, it is a tiny sum. Can the Minister tell me exactly how much aid has been made available, how much it represents per household, how it will be shared out and why the decisions were made as they were? There seems to be quite a lot of inequity in the system that was used.

Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne)

Before the hon. Gentleman leaves that point, will he remind the House which Ministers came to see the results of the flooding that he has described to the House?

Mr. Ross

As I understand it, Lord Lyell visited some farmers and the Secretary of State visited one or two farms that were affected. I believe that most of the Ministers with this responsibility came down. Indeed, people were glad to see them. However, it is not really the Minister's face that those people want to see; they want to know whether some active, concrete help can be provided.

I turn now to the repair of public utilities, including roads and bridges. This will run into several million pounds. How will that be funded? Will it come out of the normal allocation of money, or will it be treated as an extra, which must be met from, for example, the Contingency Fund?

The plain truth is that the Government have a responsibility when banks have been breached. I think that they are trying to dodge that responsibility, and I do not blame them for that in the light of the cost that would be involved. However, I do not think that they should be allowed to get away with it either. A great problem is that there does not seem to be any system in Northern Ireland—or, indeed, in the United Kingdom—for dealing with natural disasters. It is all very well to say that the security forces, the councils, the Housing Executive and the voluntary agencies behaved magnificently, but there does not seem to be any cohesive plan to put into action. There does not seem to be any means whereby everbody is told to get out and do something when the disaster is actually happening. Above all, there does not seem to be any means of providing financial aid to those who have suffered, without any possibility of an insurance settlement. Indeed, they will not have much chance of getting insurance in the future, having been flooded once.

There does not seem to be much understanding of the emotional disturbance, specially to old people of being flooded. If the Minister were to consider the research that has been carrried out into this subject, he would find several consequences, a number of which are unquantifiable. There is the sheer destruction of the quality of lifestyle, the anxiety that it will happen again, and the problem of damage to health, which, is a real problem to those who have suffered. There is also the risk to life. No-one lost their life, but some people came close to doing so.

Above all, can the Minister give me an assurance that the Government are to consider more seriously and sympathetically the way in which people will be compensated or helped for the damage and loss that they have suffered? It is not good enough for the Government to say, "Yes, it has been a dreadful time we are very sorry. We are going to help the Ethiopians, because of their starvation and drought problems, but we are only going to be sorry for the folk at home and not provide any real help for those who have suffered a substantial loss, whether it be furniture or belongings or the loss of thousands of pounds worth of crop and stock to farmers." In some cases, that will wipe out the farmers' profits for two to three years. It is not enough for the Government to say that they are sorry, because they have a greater responsibility than that.

Society should have a greater responsibility for those who are unfortunate enough to suffer in such circumstances and extend a helping hand to them. A helping hand is needed at this time. There is a catalogue of hardship and trouble not only in my constituency but throughout Northern Ireland, and it needs to be met. Although no hon. Members from the south of England or Wales are present, the Government should be far more sympathetic to people who suffer in extreme weather conditions. Their plight should be met with extreme and exceptional measures.

8.20 am
Mr. Roy Beggs (Antrim, East)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross) on the manner in which he brought this serious matter to the attention of the House. I shall make only a brief comment to the Minister. We have been corresponding about many areas in my constituency in which flooding regularly occurs. I hope that the Minister's statements will bring positive results and prevention in such areas in future.

In October this year, two locations in my constituency which normally would not be flooded, were flooded. It is possible that there will be repeated flooding through similar circumstances elsewhere. Such circumstances are preventable. First, flooding occurred at a house at Cairn castle, which is outside Lame. It was the direct result of the construction of a new building at a higher level. No consideration had been given to the drainage of the site. It is believed that the natural drainage had been upset by the developers. They simply filled in the drains to make a driveway to the new property. The result was that when heavy rainfall occurred water did not follow its natural course, but literally gushed down the steep roadway and flooded the unfortunate householder's property.

The second incident occurred at Inverary heights, which, again, is just outside Lame. It is a new private development. I have no doubt that before the development could proceed and planning permission could be given the approval of the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food drainage division had to be sought and advice given about the size of the piping that was required to culvert a natural watercourse. However, the grille that was erected at the edge of the estate, behind the back garden of No. 7, became blocked. No. 7 has been flooded on two occasions this year. That has never happened before in the history of residents who have lived in Carrickfergus road for 30 or 40 years. Water penetrated housing foundations through the ventilators and the residents are alarmed that it could happen again.

I bring the matter to the Minister's attention and request that the planning service for which he has responsibility take steps to persuade new developers, be they large or small, to take proper account of natural drainage and avoid upsetting it. In addition, will the Minister ensure that where a grille has been installed with culverting, a secondary grille is put in front of it so that if the first becomes blocked and there is an overflow, the newly-installed culvert will catch the water and the surrounding areas will not be flooded?

More important, can the Minister tell me who is responsible for maintaining and cleaning the grilles at the entrances to culverted water courses if such permission is given? Is it the Department of the Environment, or the Department of Agriculture? Does responsibility revert to the land owner who has benefited from the sale of development land? Someone must be responsible, as presently people suffer neglect by whoever is responsible. I hope that it will be possible to avert flooding in future by closer co-operation between the Department of the Environment and the Department of Agriculture.

8.26 am
Mr. Jim Marshall (Leicester, South)

The House is indebted to the hon. Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross) for bringing the issue to our attention. He is right to say that floods in the south west of Britain and in Wales received much attention in the press, but the disaster in Northern Ireland has not received the attention that it warrants or the aid that is needed from the Government. The hon. Gentleman is correct to press the Government to provide more assistance for rebuilding the infrastructure destroyed by the floods, and to provide additional financial assistance to those who have lost their property. The hon. Gentleman is doing a duty to all the people of Northern Ireland by bringing the matter to our attention.

I am pleased that the Minister is here to answer some of the specific questions put to him by the hon. Member for Londonderry. If the Minister is not an expert on meteorology, some of those advising him are and they should be able to provide us with information about the speed of water flow in rivers and the likely effects of erosion during a flood, and over 200 years. I am not sure that those questions can be answered at this time in the morning, but the Minister has notice of them. They might usefully occupy the Minister, or someone in the Northern Ireland Office, in a PhD study for the next three years. The questions are posing and imposing, and I look forward to hearing the Minister give his answers—which I hope I will understand—in a few moments.

It is a pleasure to speak in a debate on Northern Ireland that does not begin with a criticism of the hour of the day or night at which it is held. We all realise the crucial importance of this issue and we are pleased that it is being debated, even at the fag end of a very long day.

As the House knows, we are concerned with the floods that occurred as a consequence of heavy rainfall on 21 and 22 October, particularly in the western part of the Province. As the hon. Member for Londonderry, East said, many hundreds of homes were damaged, if not destroyed, by the flood.

I shall rehearse the figures again, for the benefit of the Minister and of the House, to show the scale of the financial losses involved. At least £1.3 million worth of damage was done to household contents; about £5 million to £6 million worth of damage was done to shops and their contents; and an unknown quantity of damage was done to farms, farmlands and the cattle or other beasts on that land. The roughest estimate that can be given is that about £10 million worth of damage was caused by the flood.

The Northern Ireland citizens advice bureau described the area affected around Strabane as a disaster area. Strabane district council described the flood's results as a catastrophe. I am sure the Minister will have read the council's report, to which the hon. Member for Londonderry, East referred. I want to associate myself with the hon. Gentleman's remarks about it. It was a first class effort on the part of the council to highlight the difficulties and the plight of people living in that area.

The Government have readily accepted some of their responsibility for the damage. At least some of the seven bridges that were destroyed in the Strabane area have already been replaced by temporary ones, and plans are afoot to replace them more permanently. A plan has been announced to build a new flood wall in the Strabane area at a cost of £4.5 million. I see the Minister nodding his agreement to that. I might add that that is rather like locking the stable door after the horse has bolted. The Minister and the Government know that an incident in 1985 showed that the flood walls could be breached—as they were — and that there was a danger that if high floods occurred in the future the kind of catastrophe that took place on 27 October might result.

Mr. William Ross

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should draw to the Minister's attention the fact that the Government are largely responsible for unlocking the stable door in the first place. With regard to land drainage, there have been large grants to farmers and others all over the country for many years, which increases the flood over a shorter period of time. In other words, the flood profile, although not measurable, has certainly altered in a serious and disastrous fashion.

Mr. Marshall

I accept what the hon. Gentleman has said. I am sure that the Minister heard the question, and will, we hope, reply to it eventually, perhaps in the form of a written reply.

It is right to ask the Government why the flood wall was not repaired after the incident in 1985, and why it took two years to bring to the design stage a scheme to replace the existing flood wall.

I shall now deal with the question of compensation for personal and business losses. As the hon. Member for Londonderry, East said, the Government have taken the line that it is not their responsibility, but the responsibility of people to seek compensation on their own insurance. That is a ridulous attitude for the Government to adopt. As the Minister must know, about 66 per cent. of the people affected by the disaster have no relevant insurance. That is not through any lack of forethought on their part. As the hon. Member for Londonderry, East said, one reason is that the cost of taking out insurance is prohibitively high. Another important reason is that the unemployment rate of about 44 per cent. in this part of the Province is not only the highest rate in the United Kingdom, but is among the highest in western Europe. It is hardly surprising that these poor souls cannot afford insurance. In that context, the £500,000 that the Government have made available is totally inadequate to meet the scale of the problem and the needs of the area.

It is time that the Government accepted their responsibility and their liability. The floods resulted from Government failure to take action on the flood wall. The danger was brought to the attention of the Government in 1985. I understand that it was reported to the Department of Agriculture and was known by the Government. Because of that, the Government should accept their responsibility. They should declare Strabane and the surrounding area a disaster area, admit their liability and negligence and be prepared to accept claims for compensation.

Mr. William Ross

While Strabane had many flooded houses, the damage throughout Northern Ireland was great. Instead of asking for help only for Strabane and Omagh, the hon. Gentleman should extend his remarks to the whole of the Province. As I said in my speech, the damage to a person in a rural area is just as substantial to that person as is the damage to a person in Strabane.

Mr. Marshall

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I am not trying to ignore the difficulties in the other parts of the Province and I fully accept what he has said. However, I think he will agree that the concentration of destruction was far higher in the Strabane area than elsewhere in the Province. If the Government were to accept liability for the consequences of their negligence, all the people in the Province would be able to claim against the Government. I emphasised Strabane and district because of the concentration of destruction that took place there.

As I have said, the Government should declare Strabane and the surrounding area a disaster area and admit their liability and negligence in respect of the burst river banks and the river wall. I understand that the Minister visited the area on Thursday and, as is his fashion, he had many pleasant words for the people who live in the area. Unfortunately, his warm words bring cold comfort to those who are suffering financial hardship. He could give more succour and hope if, as a result of the debate, he was able to offer more financial assistance. I hope that after the debate the people in the area will no longer feel that they have been ignored by the Government at a time of desperate need. I hope that the Government can offer some comfort to the people of Northern Ireland, and especially to the people in Strabane and the surrounding area.

8.40 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Richard Needham)

As the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall) said, it is usually at the fag end of the day that we conduct our debates on Northern Ireland. Perhaps at this hour of the morning we are sharper in our wits than we are at midnight.

I welcome the opportunity afforded by this debate to discuss the important issues that the hon. Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross) raised concerning the appalling flooding that took place on the night of 21–22 October. As hon. Members have pointed out, the damage was extensive, particularly in Strabane and Omagh, but also on an even wider geographical basis than that.

The survey that I initiated after the Secretary of State asked me to take overall ministerial responsibility for the floods—and I pay tribute at the outset to the work that is being done by the Omagh and Strabane district councils in discovering the extent of the problems in their areas —showed that 337 houses in Strabane were affected, of which 199 are owned by the Housing Executive and 138 are either privately owned or rented. Structural damage was estimated at £370,000, with a loss of contents figure of £1.3 million. Of those 337 houses, 227 were not insured.

In Omagh, 148 properties were affected, of which 139 were privately owned and nine were owned by the Housing Executive. Estimated structural damage was £480,000 and contents damage £470,000, and in that case only 59 of those properties were not insured. About 50 properties outside Strabane and Omagh, to our knowledge, were affected, but I accept that it probably goes wider than that, and we shall do whatever we can to discover the numbers because, as the hon. Member for Londonderry, East said, it does not matter, when one is flooded, whether one is in a residential park of 20 or on one's own in the countryside.

In both towns, Strabane and Omagh, 200 commercial properties were flooded with substantial losses of contents and stock, which we have not yet been adequately able to identify, and six major industrial sites — Nestles in Omagh and Sintons in Tandragee, for example—also suffered severely.

In terms of agricultural land, fixtures and fittings, we estimate that £300,000 worth of damage was done in the constituency of the hon. Member for Londonderry, East, with the loss of 310 sheep, 13,000 poultry, 33 hectares of potatoes, 100 hectares of cereals and oil seed rape, of which about 50 per cent. may have to be resown.

It is right to bring to the attention of the House the size of the flooding on that night. It was an exceptional flood, one which would not normally occur more than once in perhaps 140 years. That gives an idea of the size of the downfall of water.

We must pay tribute to the work that was done that night by the emergency services throughout Northern Ireland. They behaved splendidly in dealing with the problems in appalling conditions. The police, the UDR, the fire service, the DOE, the Housing Executive, the electricity service, the district councils, the Health and Social Services Board, local voluntary groups, Help the Aged, the Red Cross, the Churches, St. Vincent de Paul and so on, all worked remorselessly to assist those who were suffering.

I accept what the hon. Member for Londonderry, East said about the need for departmental organisation to ensure that we have adequate co-ordination if such an eventuality should recur. In reporting back to the Secretary of State, I shall be looking at all these matters and making suggestions where necessary about the organisational structure which is currently in place for dealing with catastrophes of this sort.

The Government take their responsibilities extremely seriously. The action that we have taken already can be considered within two broad categories—action to help individuals, and action to replace and repair the damaged infrastructure. Under the assistance to individuals, we have paid out more than £250,000 in social security urgent payments to more than 500 individuals. Some of that money may be recoverable under the terms of the legislation. However, if some is repayable—and I cannot unilaterally change the existing rules of the social security system—we will ensure that any necessary repayments are carefully and sensitively handled and that people will not be asked to repay in quantity or in time more than they can possibly afford taking into account their problems as a result of being flooded. We will consider each case with great care.

There may be people in the hon. Gentleman's constituency of Londonderry, East who have not made claims under the urgent needs provision but who may well be entitled to those payments. They should go to their local DHSS office to discover whether they are entitled to claim. Even if a repayment is required, it is probably better to follow that route than to borrow money and pay interest to a bank or a money lender. Once the needs have been considered, repayments may not be necessary in any event. I have specifically asked DHSS offices to ensure that anyone who comes in now to make a claim will have that claim considered and met if possible.

Some £25,000 was given in residential and other help by the western health and social services board; and the Housing Executive has done everything possible to assist in drying out with the provision of humidifiers. I agree with the hon. Member for Londonderry, East that it is not necessarily possible to have the right amount of humidifiers and drying out equipment to cope with a sudden disaster of this magnitude.

Rehousing has been undertaken where necessary. As the hon. Gentleman remarked, 70 tonnes, not 50 tonnes, of coal were distributed in those areas that suffered the greatest calamity. I do not deny that there were a few properties elsewhere that also suffered. However, the Government decided that the maximum assistance must go to the areas that were worst affected. That also applied with the aid from the European Commission of about £57,000 which has been distributed to 500 households and represents about £126 each. We have also undertaken to repay any money paid out by the voluntary organisations so that the EEC money can go direct to families concerned and we covered £13,000 worth of the costs that the voluntary organisations had to pay out during the first few weeks. We are also in touch with the Industrial Development Board and the Local Economic Development Unit which are considering their client companies to see what can be done to help if their insurance was inadequate.

We have advised on disturbance and redecoration allowances, where applicable. The Strabane district council has set up a trust fund, and there are statutory provisions for local authorities to help in these circumstances if they wish. That has been done by Strabane.

Mr. William Ross

Councils can make available only very small sums, so they are only a drop in the ocean compared with the damage. Secondly, are the EEC funds being restricted to Strabane and Omagh, or will they be spread over all the people, including my constituents, who suffered? Thirdly, when he talks about the IDB and LEDU industries, this could introduce another inequity if LEDU industries were not able to get insurance as they were in a flood plain. The whole mess must be sorted out.

Mr. Needham

EEC money was directed specifically at Strabane and Omagh as the worst affected areas. The European Commission asked that that be done, and it has been done. It has also been done at other times when natural disasters have occurred in the EEC, not just in Northern Ireland but in Spain or Italy, and money has been directed to those areas worst affected.

It has long been accepted, not only by the Government but by their predecessor, that Governments do not cover insurable losses, and I do not believe that any incoming Government would change that view. If people are not insured, I accept the point of the hon. Member for Leicester, South about deprivation, but many people who are unemployed have taken out insurance cover and paid their premiums over the years. Neither the Government nor any other Government would pick up the tab for insurable losses in calamities such as this, when insurance companies exist to cover them. It does not make any difference whether it is domestic, commercial, industrial or farming insurance.

The hon. Member for Londonderry, East asked whether there is difficulty in people getting insurance, because their land may be flat or the houses in an area which may be prone to flooding. I have looked carefully at this and I have had no evidence put to me that it is difficult to get insurance to cover the one-in-140-years flood. No evidence has been given to me that the premiums were such in the areas affected that farmers, individuals, companies or commercial properties found difficulty in gaining insurance cover. If the hon. Member for Londonderry, East tells me that is not the case, I shall consider it when he writes and gives me the examples. As the Minister responsible, I would welcome any evidence of that.

We have tried to help those people who were not insured and to ensure that we can replace what they have lost, as best we can, through a whole raft of measures. For example, we have given the voluntary organisations in Strabane and Omagh an additional 45 ACE workers. If the hon. Member for Londonderry, East has voluntary organisations in his constituency which wish to undertake work to help others who were not insured and have had losses, if he comes to me with a proposal for additional ACE workers or for help through voluntary organisations — through YTPC schemes or other schemes that voluntary organisations would like to undertake — I assure him that I will look at it sympathetically. We shall do all that we can to help because the fact that somebody has been flooded in Londonderry is no different from somebody being flooded in Strabane or Omagh. I shall try to help the constituents of the hon. Member for Londonderry, East.

Mr. William Ross

I am sorry to intervene as I appreciate that we are running out of time, but since the Minister is in charge of councils in Northern Ireland, will he ask them to quantify the extent of the problem? Will he also ask those councils to conduct the surveys in a similar way to that adopted by the councils in Strabane and Omagh?

Mr. Needham

That is up to the councils. I can ask those councils all sorts of things, but whether they do anything will be entirely up to them. If councils feel that such a survey is worth undertaking, they are Free to conduct one—there is no reason why they should not.

I have already said that the greatest amount of damage occurred in Strabane and Omagh. I accept that there are pockets of problems elsewhere. If the local councils feel that they should conduct a survey and then come back to me with ideas regarding what should be done, I shall consider them most carefully.

The hon. Member for Londonderry, East has had great experience. Indeed, during his years in this House I have listened to him on many occasions. I acknowledge his background knowledge of agriculture. We shall check the figures regarding the water flow of the River Roe in the way that the hon. Gentleman has suggested and I shall come back to him with the answers.

Let us consider the parameters used by the Department of Agriculture when building flood banks. The Department considers the cost effectiveness of any flood schemes that are brought forward. On agricultural land a flood protection scheme would be created to guard against a flood that happened every five years. If that land was used for cereal crops, such a flood bank might be considered for flooding that occurred once every 20 years. For urban areas protection would be afforded against a flood occurring once every 100 years.

There are grants available to farmers, and if they want to make use of them they should get in touch with the Department to consider what could be made available. I urge the hon. Member for Londonderry, East to tell his constituents to do that.

The hon. Members for Londonderry, East and for Leicester, South invited me to accept liability for what happened at Strabane. They will not be surprised to learn that I shall do no such thing. The Department of Agriculture does not accept liability. If some people believe that the Department is liable, they have recourse through the courts and the courts will decide. I am concerned to make sure that everything is being done to ensure that those who have suffered as a result of the disaster and who are not insured are helped in every way possible within the rules.

I have explained to the House that the Government are doing all that they can to help and that we will bring assistance to all those, certainly in the Omagh and Strabane areas, whose domestic circumstances have suffered. The Government are committed to alleviate those people's problems.

Mr. Jim Marshall

I believe that the Minister visited the Strabane area last Thursday. In the minute that is left to him, will he give the House an idea of the representations that were made to him and his reply to such representations?

Mr. Needham

I went through the same proposals that I have gone through tonight. I also explained, which I have not had time to do on this occasion, about our spending on the infrastructure. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the money that we need to spend to replace the infrastructure will not mean cuts in other services in Northern Ireland.

I also went through the plans that we have, jointly with the councils, for assisting people through the voluntary organisations. Clearly the councils would have wished me to do more, and to compensate those who were not insured. I understand that, but I have explained to them and to the House why I was not able to do what they wanted.

Let me briefly turn to the points made by the hon. Member for—

It being Nine o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.