HC Deb 14 February 1989 vol 147 cc149-59 3.31 pm
Mr. Brian Wilson(by private notice) (Cunninghame, North)

To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland if he will make a statement on the extent of storm damage in Scotland and what steps the Government propose to take to alleviate any damage caused.

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind)

The effect of the storms in Scotland in the course of 13 February has been very widespread. Damage has been sustained by a wide range of services and facilities, including piers, airports, roads, railways, housing, schools, hospitals, telephone links and power lines. In particular, a high proportion of consumers in the north of Scotland lost power as a result of the storms.

At dawn today, a total of some 56,000 people were without an electricity supply—39,000 in the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board's area and 17,000 in the area of the South of Scotland electricity board. I am glad to say that the SSEB has already reconnected about half of those affected and hopes to be able to reconnect virtually all of the remainder today. There will, however, probably still be a significant number of customers in the north of Scotland without supply tonight. The north board's transmission repair teams are fully deployed and helicopters are being used to locate faults. The SSEB hopes to be able to make available some of its engineers to help the north board tomorrow. On behalf of both boards I would like to thank the Electricity Council and the area boards in England for the offers of help which they have given.

I have received a number of reports of damage to schools and to hospitals throughout the country. For the most part, the damage is to roofing and windows and is relatively minor, although there are some reports of more serious roof damage. A number of schools have been closed because of power failures. As far as transport is concerned, a number of roads were blocked by trees, and rail services were also affected. Most of the affected roads and railway lines will be cleared in the course of today.

I would like to pay tribute to the local authorities, the electricity boards, the emergency services and the community generally for their splendid efforts both to make facilities available for those who have had to leave their homes as a result of the storms and to repair the damage.

It is of course too soon to say what is the full extent of the storm damage, and I am asking for reports from the local authorities and other public bodies involved. We stand ready to play our full part in working with those affected to repair the damage caused by last night's storms.

Mr. Wilson

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that reply. Is he aware that, when storms of comparable ferocity hit the south-east of England in 1987, the Government very quickly announced the allocation of £22.6 million in compensation to local authorities, with additional sums from the Ministry of Agriculture and the Countryside Commission? Does he accept that, once the assessment has been made, the response in Scotland must be no less prompt or adequate? Is he aware that the coastguard stations around the Scottish coast described last night as one of their busiest on record? We pay tribute to the efforts of the coastguard service, and advise the colleagues of the Secretary of State to abandon the idiotic idea of closing coastguard stations.

Is the Secretary of State aware that housing authorities throughout Scotland will face devastating repair bills as a result of last night's storm and those that we are told may be still to come? Will he ensure that special allocations are made to these hard-pressed authorities to help them to meet this act of God? Will he urgently reassess non-housing revenue account allocations to district and island councils to take account of the extensive damage that must have been done to private property already in dire need of repairs.

Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware that the storm damage in the Highlands comes on top of a period of severe flooding? Is he yet in a position to announce the Government's response on that front? In particular, will he assure the House today that there will be no question of railway services north and west of Inverness being lost as a result of the Ness bridge collapse? Will he recognise the particular devastation caused to the fish farming industry, and will he assure us that the non-culpable fish farmers will be compensated with at least the same generosity as the egg producers?

Will the Secretary of State enter immediately into sympathetic discussions with local authorities and health boards to identify the scale of the financial burden that these storms have visited upon them, and will he assure the House today that the Government will be just and generous in their response?

Finally, will the Secretary of State refer to the Official Report of 4 April 1968, where he will find that at that time the total number of unemployed slaters and felters available in Scotland to meet the housing emergency following the last great Scottish storm was 33? Will he recognise that there are an awful lot more than 33 slaters and felters available in Scotland today, and will he ensure that the local authorities have the human resources to meet this crisis?

Mr. Rifkind

First of all, obviously the response of Her Majesty's Government will be in accordance with the needs that are disclosed following these events. Well understood principles apply when there is either storm damage or other civil emergency of this kind, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government's response will be fully appropriate to the occasion.

I agree with the hon. Member in the tribute he paid to the work of the coastguards. They do indeed have a difficult task, and they have responded magnificently over the last 24 hours.

Naturally, we wait to hear from the housing authorities, and, for that matter, from the health boards and other public bodies, about the extent of the damage caused. Once we have had an opportunity to consider the reports we receive from those bodies, we will be in a position to judge what needs to be done by them, by us, or by both.

With regard to the floods in the Highlands last week, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that on Friday I communicated with the convenor of Highland region and of Inverness district council and invited them, and, indeed, any others involved, to let us have the full details of the damage done by last week's flooding. British Rail, of course, has already announced its intention to rebuild the railway bridge at Inverness as soon as that is physically possible, and I am delighted that it was able to give such a speedy and comprehensive response.

With the health boards too, as with the local authorities, we await the details of the damage done. Apparently it is mainly the roofing of various buildings that is affected, although, of course, other damage may become apparent.

The hon. Gentleman asked also about fish farmers. I think that most fish farmers will have been insured to deal with any damage that may have been caused to their farms, as will others in that capacity, but we await further information on that.

Sir Hector Monro (Dumfries)

In commiserating with all those who have borne the brunt of the very rough weather of the last couple of weeks, may I ask my right hon. and learned Friend to look sympathetically at the level of grants that are available for repairs to flood banks, fencing and farm buildings that may have been seriously affected? It is very important, in the long term, that they should be repaired or replaced as soon as possible.

Mr. Rifkind

I thank my hon. Friend for those remarks. There are forms of assistance available to help those with particular problems. The Department of Agriculture and Fisheries in Scotland is currently evaluating the damage that was done. I will take into account my hon. Friend's remarks in due course.

Mr. Norman Hogg (Cumbernauld and Kilsyth)

Recognising the importance of the electricity supply industry to communities in the north of Scotland, may I ask the Secretary of State whether he agrees that the work done by the teams restoring electricity power is extremely important? Will he guarantee that these teams will continue to exist when the service motive is replaced by the profit motive, which will result from privatisation?

Mr. Rifkind

There is no question of those facilities not continuing. The regulatory nature and the provisions of the privatisation proposals will ensure that exactly the same service will continue to be available in circumstances such as we have had in the last 24 hours.

Mr. Alick Buchanan-Smith (Kincardine and Deeside)

From this side of the House, may I join in the tribute to all those in the public services—particularly the linesmen of the electricity boards—and to private individuals as well who worked so hard yesterday and during the night to restore essential services? May I say also that on this side of the House we have confidence in my right hon. and learned Friend that, where help, financial or otherwise, needs to be given, it will be given, but that it is only sensible that the whole extent and the amount involved are properly and thoroughly assessed first?

Mr. Rifkind

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. He is correct in saying that one has to get an assessment of the damage caused and the work that needs to be done to repair that damage before one can reach detailed conclusions. That is what we are doing at present.

Mrs. Ray Michie (Argyll and Bute)

I should like to associate myself with the tributes paid to the emergency services, which worked so hard throughout the west and north of Scotland last night. Can the Secretary of State give any idea of when he will know the overall cost in global terms of the damage done? It must amount to millions of pounds. I am sure the Secretary of State is aware of the damage that has been done in my constituency of Argyll and Bute. He will know that Inverness is reeling for a second time from the effects of the storms, with 15 roofs blown off houses last night and extensive damage done to roads. How will people on low income and on income support find assistance to repair their houses? Will he give assistance to the relevant bodies to replant many of the mature and beautiful trees that were blown down during the storm?

Mr. Rifkind

Obviously, in the first instance, local authorities will be responsible for the repair of any damaged local authority housing. Most owner-occupiers will have insurance to cover damage caused to their housing. That ought to meet that aspect. The Government have various schemes to encourage planting to replace trees damaged as a result of storms. They may be appropriate in the circumstances referred to by the hon. Lady.

As to the time scale involved, we can get information from the health boards and from other Government bodies quickly. I hope that we will also receive information from the relevant local authorities, but that is a matter for them. I agree with the hon. Lady that there has been particular damage in parts of her constituency. I understand, for example, that there was considerable damage to one block at Oban high school. I think the same has been found in other areas.

Mr. Cranley Onslow (Woking)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend accept that anyone in the south of England who experienced the damage 18 months ago will not begrudge any necessary help being given to our friends in Scotland on this occasion?

Mr. Rifkind

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his expression of support at this time.

Dr. John Reid (Motherwell, North)

I am sure that hon. Members on this side will wish to be identified and associated with the tributes that have already been paid, not only to the emergency services for the way they responded, but also to members and staff of local authorities who have been working in some cases throughout the night.

Will the Secretary of State accept that there is a sense in which words are cheap? Will he be prepared to guarantee that his money, or rather our money, will be put where his mouth is by assuring us that financial assistance will be not only "as appropriate", in his words, but commensurate with the financial assistance given after the storms which hit the south-east on 31 October 1987?

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman realise that this is more essential than ever for local authorities in Scotland, because their housing budgets are already sorely pressed and in many cases housing conditions are far below par? Will he accept that in my constituency, Motherwell district council had already had, as of 2 o'clock today, 1,200 emergency telephone calls, and that is an initial estimate of the cost if meeting those claims well in excess of £150,000? Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman therefore—as the Secretary of State for the Environment did in 1987—give us a guarantee that full financial assistance will be forthcoming?

Mr. Rifkind

I obviously await information from the hon. Gentleman's local authority on the circumstances in his constituency. On the general principle, I believe that I can do no better than quote the words of the late Willie Ross, who, when Secretary of State in 1968—after severe storm damage—said: As to the assessment of the cost of the damage done and questions of how this burden should fall, I think that we must wait until we get a proper assessment of the damage."—[Official Report, 16 January 1968; Vol. 756, c. 1629.]

Mr. Allan Stewart (Eastwood)

My right hon. and learned Friend is of course entirely correct in referring to the 1968 precedent and how possible compensation was handled last time. Will he undertake as far as is reasonable to follow that precedent? Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that he should take expert advice on the damage in the north of Scotland? Is he aware that Sir Albert McQuarrie has considerable experience and expertise in this area? Will he consult Sir Albert on the best methods to deal with the problem?

Mr. Rifkind

I thank my hon. Friend. I believe that it is possible that, if I do not consult Sir Albert, he will consult me.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

I offer my tributes to the emergency services and, in doing so, I should like to pay tribute to the work force of the Inverclyde district council, whose members responded so magificently last night. Communities in Iverclyde have suffered widespread damage because of this gale. More than 1,000 houses in the public and private sectors have suffered damage to a greater or lesser extent. In Belville street, Greenock, three rooftops of tower blocks of flats were ripped off. Will the Secretary of State assure us—based on the experience in the aftermath of recent tragedies and accidents—that financial assistance will be given quickly and generously to Inverclyde district council and others, including individuals on the lower Clyde who have suffered so grievously because of this storm?

Mr. Rifkind

I can confirm that there has indeed been some serious damage to certain houses in the Inverclyde area. I naturally hope that the Inverclyde district council will let us have as soon as it is physically able the details of the damage and the extent to which it requires help towards rectifying that damage.

Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that one of the properties currently without electricity is my own home? In addition, also like some of my constituents, I have trees down in my garden. Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that my constituency has suffered badly from floods and that, in addition, the skiing season has been almost non-existent? The problems created by the winds last night have produced the kind of economic havoc that, if it had happened in other parts of the country, would certainly have caused the newscasters last night to give it broad coverage. It was the absence of coverage last night which may have led people to think that the situation is not as serious as it is. It is very serious and requires immediate action. We are grateful to those in the emergency services, who have worked throughout the night.

Mr. Rifkind

I agree that the scale of the damage appears to have been very widespread. Fortunately, at the moment there does not appear to have been loss of life as a direct consequence, but, undoubtedly, a large number of buildings appear to have suffered some damage, especially to their roofs. The other main area of damage appears to have been cuts in electricity supplies. As I have said, the South of Scotland electricity board expects to have all the electricity lines reconnected today. The Hydro Board may take a little longer, but it is getting maximum help not only from the South of Scotland electricity board, but from the English area boards and the Electricity Council.

Mr. Andrew Welsh (Angus, East)

May I also express my gratitude to the rescue services for their tremendous work to bring relief from the hardship caused by the storm? It is now up to the Secretary of State to play his part. Will he personally visit the areas affected? When a similar storm occurred in England, a ministerial statement was instantly available, whereas for Scotland information has had to be dragged out by a private notice question. Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman guarantee that new money will be placed on the table to help local authorities and other organisations on a similar basis to that in England, and preferably a better one?

Mr. Rifkind

The hon. Gentleman does himself a disservice. We were intending to make a statement today, but when the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson) put down his private notice question, it was obviously appropriate to answer in this way. We will respond in a fair, adequate and comprehensive way, given the nature of the problem. Sadly, this is not the first time that such events have occurred in various parts of the United Kingdom. The Government will respond, as previous Governments have done, to ensure that this matter is dealt with sensitively and properly.

Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend bear in mind the incongruity of the fact that the Scottish taxpayers and ratepayers will properly repair the damage to the roads, but that British Rail will have to cope with the damage to the railway, in addition to the disastrous bridge loss that was suffered in Inverness last week? On that basis, does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that ScotRail should certainly qualify for exactly the same level of assistance as all other public utilities in Scotland?

Mr. Rifkind

I pay tribute to ScotRail for the way in which it responded in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the rail bridge at Inverness, to make it clear that it attached considerable importance to the rail connection to the north of Scotland being re-established as quickly as possible. It has said that the bridge will be reconstructed as quickly as physically possible.

In addition, I am naturally anxious that, during the period that must elapse before the bridge is reconstructed, we examine the particular requirements of those who use the railway services as passengers and for the purposes of freight, to ensure that no economic damage is done to the north of Scotland by the lact of availability of those rail services in the immediate future. Obviously, facilities have been made available to enable people to go from the south side of the River Ness to the north side to continue their railway journeys. The freight problem, however, may be more difficult to resolve.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. As one whose own constituency suffered in the storm of 1987, I appreciate the importance of the statement. I shall call those hon. Members who have been rising, but I ask them to be brief, as we have important business to follow.

Mr. Michael J. Martin (Glasgow, Springburn)

As one who had personal experience of the 1968 storm, may I say that the Secretary of State should be aware that many of the families who have been left without a roof at the moment will suffer from the rain and that their homes could be easily flooded, as mine was in 1968. Could the emergency services try to do something to ensure that at least tarpaulins are used to make the houses wind and watertight in this deplorable weather?

I mean no disrespect to a former Member of this House, but it was the proud boast of Albert McQuarrie that he made his first million in the 1968 storm. I know for a fact that a great deal of the money that was handed over to the city of Glasgow by the Government went to the insurance companies, because they claimed that they were replacing new for old. Surely the Secretary of State should have discussions with the insurance companies to ensure that they do not make a fortune out of yet another storm.

Mr. Rifkind

I note what the hon. Gentleman says. On the earlier part of his question, I agree that it will be necessary either to ensure that housing is wind and watertight or, if that is not possible in the immediate future, that emergency accommodation is available to those who are unable to live in their own homes.

Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill)

While we appreciate that it is too early to estimate the total damage to local authority housing, will the Secretary of State at least undertake that paying for this damage will not result in poll tax increases for the already suffering poll tax payers? Will he also guarantee that local authorities will not suffer clawback for spending the necessary money to carry out repairs?

Mr. Rifkind

I can assure the hon. Lady that we would consider very sympathetically any suggestion by local authorities that they might suffer penalties as a consequence of expenditure incurred in this way. The hon. Lady knows that the penalty system is very soon to disappear. I certainly hope to be able to respond to that matter in a sympathetic way.

Mr. Dick Douglas (Dunfirmline)

Will the Secretary of State give us some additional information about what happened to the Mylesmark hospital in Dunfermline, and could he tell us the position with regard to reimbursement of the Fife health board? Because of the age of that hospital, what surveys will be undertaken? Not only is the hospital old, but the patients tend to be senior citizens. Therefore, as well as thanking the hospital board, we have to thank the Fife fire brigade and others who assisted in this very difficult task. Fortunately, I understand that there were no severe injuries.

Mr. Rifkind

I understand that that is correct, and I echo the hon. Gentleman's tribute to the Health Service which was dealing with the problem. I understand that approximately 20 patients have been moved from the hospital. We shall discuss with the health board any repairs that are required to make the hospital fully available for its proper purpose.

Mr. Nigel Griffiths (Edinburgh, South)

Will the Secretary of State make financial help available to those home owners in Scotland whose houses have suffered damage but who may not be insured? Will he also consult the National Trust for Scotland to obtain an assessment of damage to its properties?

Mr. Rifkind

Obviously, one will be interested in hearing from the National Trust for Scotland about the consequences for its properties. With regard to home owners, the hon. Gentleman must appreciate that the whole purpose of insurance is to anticipate these problems. Few people would be inclined to take out insurance if they knew that the taxpayer would pay for any damage when they had failed to ensure their property.

Mr. Dennis Canavan (Falkirk, West)

But bearing in mind the fact that some insurance policies still classify storm damage as an act of God, will the Secretary of State assure us that he will not simply sit back and wait on divine intervention to repair the damage, but use his ministerial powers of intervention, in the same spirit of generosity as the good Lord Willie Ross did back in 1968; as the Secretary of State's own ministerial colleague the Secretary of State for the Environment did when he handed out £22.6 million to people in the south east because of their storm damage in October 1987; and as the Minister of Agriculture did when back in November 1985 he handed out £17 million to the farmers in compensation for bad weather?

Mr. Rifkind

I am sure that precedents are always of interest on these occasions. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we intend to apply the same principles as have been applied in the past to judging the contribution that should be made from the various public bodies concerned to help those affected by these events.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Cromarty and Skye)

Is the Secretary of State aware that, during the weather of the past 24 to 48 hours, in the Conon valley it has been reported by local people that the River Conon was within just a few inches of bursting its banks again and causing further severe flooding of the type that occurred last week, and that the village of Fort Augustus was also put on a flood alert? Do these events not emphasise the need for reparation of the type that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has suggested for the Highland region and Inverness district, and should there not be a full flood prevention scheme involving restoration of banks, which have given way in that valley and caused havoc no less than three times over the past 25 years?

Mr. Rifkind

Naturally, these are matters that we wish to investigate as a result of the events of last week. My hon. Friend the Minister of State has asked, for example, for a report from the Hydro Board about its facilities in the Conon area.

Mr. Norman Buchan (Paisley, South)

I suppose it is appropriate that I should speak near the end of this questioning, as I was one of the Ministers involved in the 1968 clear-up and expenditure. There seem to have been two heroes then, one of whom was Albert McQuarrie and the other Willie Ross. Will the Secretary of State keep in mind Willie Ross's classic answer when he was pestered by the Opposition at that time to send Ministers up to take charge: "It's no' Ministers we need in Glasgow; it's slaters." I remind the Secretary of State that that is exactly what we want now.

The other commitment that the right hon. and learned Gentleman gave was that we would be paying for it. We undertook almost all the finance to repair the damage; we were soaked for it by certain people, but it was necessary to do that.

Secondly, could the right hon. and learned Gentleman accept again from the Labour Benches and pass on, through the Scottish Office, all our thanks to the various bodies that have been involved over the past 24 hours in dealing with this emergency?

Mr. Rifkind

Yes, I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman says. We shall no doubt be receiving the reports that we require from the local authorities which will enable us, in discussion with local authorities and other public bodies, to decide how the damage can most quickly be rectified so that people may return to their homes and the various schools and hospitals carry out their necessary work without the consequences of the storms.

Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)

Will full use be made of the Bellwin scheme in order to assist local authorities as occurred after the gale damage in the south of England? There are some worrying precedents, since the Bellwin scheme was not used after the flood damage in Strabane. It clearly should be used in this case, where the damage is comparable to that experienced in the south of England.

Mr. Rifkind

Yes, the hon. Gentleman is right to refer to what is often described as the Bellwin scheme. We shall certainly have regard to the general principles of that scheme in determining our approach to these matters.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

The coastguard union officials currently campaigning in the Committee Room upstairs will be pleased to hear the Secretary of State describe the work of their colleagues last night as magnificent, but will he accept that they would be even more pleased if he would intervene to stop the rationalisation of that public service which is presently being carried out?

Mr. Rifkind

This is not the occasion to discuss the proposal to which the hon. Gentleman refers, but I shall ensure that his remarks are drawn to the attention of the appropriate quarter.

Mr. Calum Macdonald (Western Isles)

May I too add my tribute to the local authority employees and the emergency services who did such a terrific job during the storm? Granted that the Secretary of State cannot give a precise assessment of the cost of the damage, will he give a commitment that that cost will not fall upon the local authorities and end up being put on to the poll tax, which is already hitting the people in the north of Scotland? Will he also take into account the fact that there is moratorium in my constituency on improvement grants for people who wish to repair private housing? Will he look into that and perhaps provide some extra money to help people repair the damage that the storm caused to their private houses?

Mr. Rifkind

As the hon. Gentleman will have heard from my answer to his hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan), certain principles are applied to such civil emergencies throughout the United Kingdom. We shall expect to apply the same general approach as has been applied on previous occasions. I am conscious of the fact that, quite apart from the housing damage, there has been damage to many educational buildings. For example, the Liniclate secondary school in Benbecula in the hon. Gentleman's constituency has been seriously damaged. Naturally, that is also a matter that we shall wish to discuss with the Islands council to discover the extent of the damage and what will be required to return the school to its proper use as quickly as possible.

Mr. Thomas McAvoy (Glasgow, Rutherglen)

I am sure that the Secretary of State is aware of the widespread damage in my constituency. I appreciate his concern and I welcome his commitment to consider financial support for all those who have experienced loss. Is he aware that, at the height of the storm yesterday afternoon, falling masonry from Rutherglen town hall narrowly avoided killing people on the main street? When he comes to reviewing the financial arrangements, will he specifically consider the needs of Rutherglen town hall?

Mr. Rifkind

Naturally, we shall take into account any representations that we receive from the hon. Gentleman's local authority because, clearly, the town hall is among the buildings that have been damaged by the storm.

Mr. John McAllion (Dundee, East)

The Minister said earlier that local authorities would be expected to take responsibility for repairing council housing, but would not that be an unfair way of dealing with a natural disaster? Surely it is unfair that local authorities should be expected to raise the money to meet such costs, when the only means that the Government have left them is to push up rents, and rents should not go up as a result of a national disaster.

Mr. Rifkind

The hon. Gentleman may have read more into my remarks than I intended. It must, in the first instance, be for the local authorities to take responsibility for repairing damage done to the houses that they own. Whether that should have consequences for their capital allocations, either on the housing revenue account or otherwise, is another matter on which we shall wish to hear local authorities' views on the extent of the problems that they face.

Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)

Will the Secretary of State comment on the contrast between the rather grudging statement made by the Minister of State, the noble Lord, Lord Sanderson, when he visited the Highlands last week, and the conduct of a procession of Ministers who fell over themselves to hand out £23 million to people in the south of England following the storm in October 1987? If this is a united kindom, will equivalent compensation be paid to both countries?

Mr. Rifkind

I assure the hon. Gentleman that exactly the same criteria apply to an emergency in Scotland as applied to an emergency in the south of England. The hon. Gentleman must appreciate that this is a united kingdom and there is no basis on which different criteria should be applied if people lose their lives, homes or properties in various parts of the kingdom. If that is of concern to the hon. Gentleman, I am happy to reassure him.