§ Mr. Nicholas Bennett (Pembroke)
(by private notice): To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on the storms over the weekend and on what plans he has to assist with any damage caused.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Christopher Chope)
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to report to the House about the violent storms that hit many coastal areas of the British Isles over the past weekend.
Tragically, it has been reported that eight people lost their lives, and I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in expressing heartfelt condolences to the relatives and friends of those who lost their lives. I also extend my sympathy to those who have suffered damage to property or have been hurt.
It is apparent that the storms were severe and caused widespread damage, particularly in coastal areas. Obviously it is too soon to assess exactly how much damage has been done, the amount of work necessary and how much it will cost to put it right.
I am grateful to all the emergency and voluntary services who took part, often at great personal risk. The primary responsibility for dealing with emergencies lies with local authorities. They have wide discretionary powers to spend money for such purposes under section 138 of the Local Government Act 1972, and they normally include an amount in their budgets to meet such contingencies. They also have the necessary local knowledge, resources and expertise to deal with such emergencies.
My hon. Friend asked whether the Government will bring additional national taxpayers' money to assist with the costs of dealing with the results of the storm. Under a model scheme designed to deal with the extraordinary costs arising from emergencies, known as the Bellwin scheme, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State provides special financial assistance to local authorities in certain exceptional circumstances. These are, in an emergency or disaster involving destruction of or danger to life or property; where, as a result, a local authority incurs expenditure on taking immediate action to safeguard life or property, or to prevent suffering or severe inconvenience in its area; or where those costs are not normally insurable.
The scheme has been used twice in England recently, following emergencies created by the severe weather during the winter of 1986–87 and the great storm of 1987, and once in Wales in 1987, following floods. We cannot yet tell whether the immediate emergency works necessary to deal with the aftermath of the storm will justify activating the scheme, but I have asked my officials to liaise with the local authorities whose areas have been worst affected to enable a judgment to be made as soon as possible. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales will be in touch with local authorities about arrangements there.
§ Mr. Bennett
I thank my hon. Friend for his comprehensive reply and join him in thanking all the emergency services and local authorities in my area who acted so promptly in response to the flooding during the weekend. I am told that Preseli-Pembrokeshire district council dealt magnificently with the floods at Newgale, 22 which were shown on national television, and in which, as far as can be ascertained, we lost a police car. I must also praise the Royal Air Force at Brawdy, which airlifted people out of the Dale peninsula when they were in danger of being drowned. I am sure that the whole House joins the Minister and me in thanking those services for what they have done.
I represent a constituency with a long coast, so we have particular problems. Will specific help be given to coastal authorities in view of the severe damage that has been done? Will he consider assisting local authorities, if severe strain is put on their resources, by giving them extra help over and above that provided through the Bellwin formula?
§ Mr. Chope
I am grateful for my hon. Friend's kind words about the emergency services and all those who pulled together to improve matters in his area. Coastal protection is the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment will examine any submissions from local authorities under the Bellwin formula.
§ Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)
May I first offer my deepest sympathies to the families of the men who were lost in the firth of Clyde? Skipper Billy Irving was a fine professional fisherman and a member of the Clyde Fishing Association, of which I have the honour to be an honorary president. As Skipper Irving was going about his hazardous business when his vessel, the Destiny, foundered just a couple of hundred yards from Gourock, can the Minister, who is not responsible for these matters, convey to the Minister of State, Scottish Office, who I am pleased to see on the Treasury Bench, the need for a fatal accident inquiry? Can he also convey to Scottish Office Ministers our anxieties about this loss?
§ Mr. David Harris (St. Ives)
On behalf of Cornish fishermen, I join those who have expressed their condolences, especially as we lost two of our fishermen just a few weeks ago. As my constituency—the Isles of Scilly and along the arc of Mount's bay—bore the brunt of the storm during the weekend, will my hon. Friend the Minister convey to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food the urgent need to review coastal protection measures, especially in the Porthleven area which, as the whole nation saw on television last night, was especially badly hit by the storm? There is a need for an extension of coastal protection works and possibly a review of their extent. Will my hon. Friend kindly convey that message to the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food? No doubt I shall be knocking on his door very soon with local authorities.
§ Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro)
I also join in sending our condolences to the families of those whose lives were lost. We congratulate on their courage and heroism the emergency and voluntary services, not least in Cornwall and the Isle of Scilly which, as the hon. Member for St.
23 Ives (Mr. Harris) said, bore much of the brunt of the storms. In past occurrences, local authorities have encountered problems with getting funds through quickly enough to tackle the problems, particularly given their current financial constraints. Although I accept what the Minister said about the formula, and that it is not yet possible to ascertain whether it will come into play, will he ensure that everything is done to ensure that any funds that are needed are brought into action as quickly as possible with as few bureaucratic problems as possible?
§ Dame Janet Fookes (Plymouth, Drake)
Will my hon. Friend ensure that central Government make a speedy decision about what help is available, because delay adds to the uncertainties and difficulties of local authorities that are faced with the immense bill for capital works for coastal defences?
§ Mr Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)
May I associate myself with the condolences that have been expressed, and voice my concern about the speed with which the Bellwin scheme is operated? When there was gale damage in the south of England some time ago, when we were in recess, the emergency was handled within five days, but when there was gale damage in Scotland, it was 13 weeks before the Bellwin scheme was applied. Local authorities have not applied the Bellwin scheme to many other cases which it should have covered. I am concerned that it should be applied to this case. The Minister said that the scheme covers amounts that are "not normally insurable". Is that traditionally part of the Bellwin scheme, or has it been added to it?
§ Mr. Chope
That has always been part of the Bellwin scheme. On the last occasion, there was a five-day gap before my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was able to report to the House. This time, the delay has been between 24 and 36 hours. The hon. Gentleman will understand that that is why we are not able to say at this stage whether the Bellwin scheme will apply.
§ Mr. Anthony Steen (South Hams)
As the sea level is rising because of the greenhouse effect, while the Minister is working out his criteria for local authorities under the new community charge, will he give special grant to those areas with coastlines of more than so many miles? My constituency has 88 miles of coastline. Does he agree that some factor should be included in the formula so that, when such a catastrophe occurs, local authorities already have a fund which they can make available to repair any damage which occurs? For example, at Hope cove, a wall was completely destroyed, and at Blackpool sands an entire beach has disappeared.
§ Mr. Chope
I am pleased to be able to tell my hon. Friend that emergency capital and reconstruction works can be undertaken by local authorities and the National 24 Rivers Authority and considered for grant by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if they meet the normal criteria, even if there is no prior approval.
§ Sir Patrick McNair-Wilson (New Forest)
Is my hon. Friend aware that part of Lymington in my constituency was very seriously flooded, to a depth of 5 ft? Is he further aware that, thanks to the New Forest district council setting up a control post at 3.30 am on Sunday, and thanks to the tireless efforts of the police, the fire brigade and the social services, many of the problems have been resolved? Is he further aware that Hurst spit, which provides protection not only to my constituency but to all those along the Solent, has been breached in a number of places? Can he confirm that the compensation to which he referred earlier will cover that, should the district council require financial assistance?
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. I propose to give precedence to those hon. Members whose constituencies have been directly affected.
§ Mr. David Martin (Portsmouth, South)
Will my hon. Friend confirm that any funds allocated will be extra money and will not affect sanctions on local government expenditure when it is reckoned at the end of any particular financial year?
§ Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)
Will my hon. Friend be making a statement before the House rises for the Christmas recess so that local authorities know what their financial position will be? Clearly, the decisions that they must take about what can be afforded will be related to whether the Bellwin formula will be operative.
§ Mr. Chope
I hope that local authorities, which budget to deal with such emergencies, will not be inhibited in making the expenditure necessary to put right the damage. We shall take a decision as quickly as possible about whether the Bellwin formula should apply. The ball is in the local authorities' court, because it is for them to make the necessary application.
§ Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)
Why is it that one Department cannot pay local authorities, which have lost millions of pounds over the past 10 years as a result of the Government's actions, some money to help them out when there has been a disaster, because the Minister says "It is a complicated formula which will take a long time to work out," but when the Department of Energy has to find £250,000 to pay Lord Marshall a tidy sum for kidding the people—
§ Mr. Skinner
Why do the Government have double standards—one for local authorities and another for people such as Lord Marshall?
§ Mr. James Kilfedder (North Down)
The homes of quite a number of families in Holywood in my constituency were flooded at the weekend. Extensive damage was done to homes, furnishings and personal belongings. Insurance companies will not provide rapid or adequate payment. I therefore appeal to the Government to help to mitigate the emergency in the area by ensuring that prompt compensation is made to help them until insurance companies pay out.
§ Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)
While we do not have a seaboard in Newham—or we certainly did not have this morning when I left it—we in the inner city are concerned about the risks that people who supply us with our fish must run. At times such as this, they and their hazardous jobs are high in our minds. It was good of the Minister to praise the emergency services.
As Ministers regularly do so on occasions such as this, would it not be better to pay the emergency services, such as the ambulance workers, the money that they deserve? Will the Minister say whether all the local authorities in the south-east and in London have been fully compensated for the storm damage that he mentioned of October 1987? Certainly in the south-east, there is still much evidence of the damage that occurred on that day.
§ Mr. Chope
So far as I am aware, all the claims made under the Bellwin scheme for the 1987 storm have been settled. We all praise the emergency services, but it is important to remember that many people work in these circumstances for nothing—particularly, for example, those who work for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.
§ Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith)
The whole House will unreservedly agree with the Minister's remarks about compassion for those who lost their lives and for their families; that goes without saying for every hon. Member. We should like to know whether the Government will discuss with insurance companies what they think is a fair assessment for people who are not covered by insurance, including local authorities. That is important, because not all risks are insurable. It falls on the Government to consult insurance companies as well as local authorities.
We are worried about charities. Hon. Members have commented on the important work of the voluntary sector. Will the Government be prepared to recognise its contribution by considering grants for it where it has cost extra money to involve itself in rescue services?
26 Will he take this opportunity to congratulate the emergency services—including, specifically, the ambulance service, which at times has not been given the support of management that it deserves? Now is an opportunity for the Minister to associate himself fully with the work done by the ambulance service, despite the current industrial dispute.
My final point is of immense importance—I believe that this is the first occasion when such an issue has been before the House when Conservative Member after Conservative Member has asked for extra money for the local authorities. Most Conservative Members, especially the hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Bennett), have spent most of their political careers working out ways in which they can cut, undermine and demoralise the power and resources of the local authorities, yet as soon as there is a bit of trouble in their constituencies, they all want the local authorities to solve it.
One answer that I did not hear the Minister give, and which I should like him to give, is in response to his hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Martin) who put his finger on it when he asked, "If the local authorities get any money, will they later lose it?" I want a clear commitment from the Minister now that extra money will be available, not that it may be available. We understand that he cannot say how much, but we need to know that it will be available and that it will not later be taken back, as the Government have consistently taken back such money over the past 10 years, emergency or no emergency.
§ Mr. Chope
It is a pity that the hon. Gentleman should try to make party political points on this occasion. It is common right across the House that we pay tribute to the work of the emergency services, whether the fire service, the ambulance service, the police or the voluntary organisations such as the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. We genuinely appreciate their work. This Government give generous grants to the voluntary sector. We have recently announced some generous arrangements for rate relief for charities' premises. I hope that local authorities will exercise their discretion to make that relief even more generous. The Government have a good record of commitment to the voluntary services.
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that, if any money is paid to local authorities under the Bellwin scheme, that money will belong to the local authorities and will certainly not be taken back by the Government. There would be no purpose in that. However, no decision has yet been taken on whether the Bellwin scheme applies in this case. We shall have to wait to see the submissions from the local authorities. I hope that they will bring them forward as soon as possible.