HC Deb 26 January 1990 vol 165 cc1189-202

11 am

Mr. David Harris (St. Ives) (by private notice)

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he will make a statement on the storms on 25 January and the damage that they caused.

The Minister for Local Government and Inner Cities (Mr. David Hunt)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to tell the House about the violent storm that hit much of the country yesterday. Sadly, we understand that as many as 40 people lost their lives, and many more were injured. I expect that many here today were, as I was, especially saddened to hear of the deaths of the two schoolgirls while at their schools in Swindon and Bristol and the many tragic deaths which occurred. I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in offering heartfelt condolences to the relatives and friends of all those who died, and also in wishing those who have been injured a swift recovery. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]

The storm cut across the south, the midlands and East Anglia, with areas further north also being affected. While I understand that the gusts themselves were not quite as strong as in the great storm of October 1987, they nevertheless hit a much wider area and, of course, this time the storm occurred in the middle of the working day. There has been widespread damage to property. Road and rail links have been blocked and electricity and telephone lines have been down in many areas. We have again lost trees, many apparently weakened by the storm of two years ago. Some casualties were again caused by falling trees.

I am sure that I speak for the whole House in expressing gratitude and admiration for the way in which the emergency and voluntary services, the local authorities, the electricity supply industry and the armed forces have coped with this emergency. They have done a truly magnificent job. The primary responsibility for dealing with emergencies lies with the emergency services and with local authorities. Local authorities have wide discretionary powers to spend money for such purposes under section 138 of the Local Government Act 1972, and they usually 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.

It is, of course, much too soon to obtain an accurate picture of the amount of damage that has been done, or the amount of work that has been necessary and will continue to be necessary. However, it is clear that the scale of yesterday's storm was such that some authorities are likely to have incurred costs in dealing with the emergency that are beyond what they reasonably could be expected to bear. For that reason, we announced last night the Government's decision that the special financial arrangements to help local authorities in emergencies—known as the Bellwin scheme—have now been activated and will be available for the areas affected by the storm. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales will be making a separate announcement about similar arrangements for Wales. The damage in Scotland has been considerably less than south of the border, but my right hon. and learned Friend, the Secretary of State for Scotland, is keeping a close eye on the position.

Under the Bellwin scheme the Government provide financial assistance to local authorities to help with the additional cost of immediate work to safeguard life or property and to prevent suffering or severe inconvenience. Where the expenditure exceeds a threshold equivalent to a 1p rate for a county council and 0.15p for a shire district, the Government will pay 75 per cent. of the cost. My Department is issuing details about the scheme and the arrangements for claiming help. I should make it clear, however, that the scheme as originally conceived does not cover insurable costs. However, the arrangements are well known to all the local authorities concerned. The expenditure covered by insurance will not be constrained by the controls on local authority capital finance. Where authorities do need to incur capital expenditure that is not covered by insurance, they will be expected to find the money from within their own resources, but where they believe they are unable to do so, I shall consider granting supplementary capital allocations, or credit approvals, in order to allow repairs to go ahead as quickly as possible.

I hope that, given those assurances on financial matters, local authorities will not be hindered from doing all that is necessary to ensure a swift and effective response to the storm. We have made available the resources of the armed forces to help local authorities and the emergency services where needed. I am satisfied that all available resources are being applied where necessary.

Mr. Harris

The whole House will be grateful to my hon. Friend for that statement and will join him in expressing sympathy to the relations of those who died and all those who suffered damage to property. The House will also want to join him in paying tribute to all the members of the emergency services, especially the ambulance men—[HON MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]—and to those who worked long and hard to try to deal with the aftermath of the storm.

Is my hon. Friend aware that large areas of the south-west, especially Cornwall, are still without electricity? Will he consider further help to correct that position? My hon. Friend will be aware that this is the second time within a month that Cornwall—and my constituency in particular—has suffered from ferocious storms and gales. In making available to local authorities the money that he has spoken about, will my hon. Friend sympathetically consider including in the calculation the costs involved in dealing with the pre-Christmas storms? That is very important.

Finally, will my hon. Friend consider meeting a delegation from Cornwall county council and district councils to discuss not just the cost of clearing up the storm damage, but the longer-term implications, and especially the cost of improving the sea defences, as this is the second time in a month that Cornwall has been hit? I am glad to see my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food sitting next to the Minister.

Mr. Hunt

First, in paying tribute to the emergency services—as he did at the start of his speech—my hon. Friend received the approval of the whole House.

I will not just consider sympathetically his request that we should take into account the expenditure incurred under the Bellwin scheme in dealing with the emergency on 16 and 17 December: I will say positively now that that expenditure will be taken into account.

On my hon. Friend's second question, I am willing to meet a delegation to discuss the issues that he has outlined. As he said, a considerable number of people are still without electricity, but every effort is being made to secure their position as quickly as possible. The Government's response in all Departments concerned is being co-ordinated by my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary.

Mr. Merlyn Rees (Morley and Leeds, South)

The Minister mentioned the timing of the storm, the emergency services, the police and the ambulance service, because they have to come into action. Were the Meteorological Office warnings sent to local authorities in good time? Was an ops room set up in his Department and the Department of Transport to deal quickly with a storm that should have been known about before it struck?

Mr. Hunt

There were warnings by the Meteorological Office, and that is not in question. All Army districts were warned at 19.28 hours on 24 January of impending storms and were instructed to respond to any requests from local authorities for assistance. I will investigate the right hon. Gentleman's points, but there was an immediate and swift response by the emergency services. I commend them for the way that they responded to the serious position.

Mr. Terence L. Higgins (Worthing)

I join my hon. Friend in congratulating the emergency services and in expressing sympathy for those who have suffered from the storm. Does my hon. Friend recall that a similar statement on finance was made after the hurricane in 1987? It was discovered then that, because of the way in which the grant system worked, local authorities did not get the benefit expected. Initially, it was discovered that West Sussex council would have been refunding money to the Treasury. Will my hon. Friend give an assurance that this will not happen again?

Mr. Hunt

As my right hon. Friend knows, with all his financial experience, a different local authority expenditure regime was in place then. I should like to make it clear that the authorities' expenditure in connection with this emergency will not affect the amount of grant that they receive.

Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro)

I should like to extend our condolences to the families of the bereaved and those who have been injured, and our congratulations to the emergency services—not least the ambulance services—for the effort, hard work and bravery that they have shown once again during these problems.

Has the Minister yet set in place a review of the Bellwin scheme, given the changes that have taken place in local authority funding? Is it possible to bring such a review forward? I believe that the scheme is not sufficiently generous. I very much welcome the hon. Gentleman's response to the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) that the damage caused in the two storms which have already hit Cornwall will be included in the calculations, but more help is needed. This matter needs clarification.

Have the Minister and the military services considered the possibility of the armed forces helping to track down breaks in the electricity lines? As the hon. Member for St. Ives said, large parts of Cornwall still have no electricity service.

Mr. Hunt

The House joins the hon. Gentleman in paying those tributes to the emergency services. Obviously, a 1p rate will no longer be relevant in the new system of local government finance which commences on 1 April. We intend to continue the Bellwin scheme, and we shall announce proposals on which we shall consult local authorities. The hon. Gentleman need have no fears about that.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy is doing everything he can to restore electricity supplies, and is working in conjuction with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence to ensure that all the services are given the support that they need. I understand that all affected police forces issued warnings through the media about the dangers of travel. Devon and Cornwall issued an advance warning in the morning based on the Meteorological Office storm warning. Other forces would have received the Meteorological Office warning and would have been prepared to respond when the situation in their area became threatening.

Sir Peter Emery (Honiton)

Does my hon. Friend appreciate that two groups have worked very hard? Electricity workers have worked constantly since the start of the storm, including all night, to restore electricity supplies. They have been doing a remarkable job in the south-west, as have those who were called in to clear the roads. One of the great problems was the blockage caused by traffic, and considerable work has been done to relieve that problem.

Will my hon. Friend give an assurance that there will be no cut-off date on which funds for damage clearance will be stopped? It will be a considerable time before all the clearance can be completed.

Does my hon. Friend realise that, for most of us in the south-west, the cost will be way above a 1p rate? It has been estimated that it will add 2p to the community charge. That will not be easy to bear. Should not certain areas, especially those that have suffered damage before, be considered more favourably than they would be under the Bellwin scheme? Will my hon. Friend consider the special cases sympathetically?

Mr. Hunt

Having listened to the tributes paid by right hon. and hon. Members, I will ensure as soon as I leave the Chamber that their messages are passed immediately to the emergency services concerned.

I was sad to hear that up to I million consumers are still cut off from electricity supplies. The worst damage has occured in the areas of the south-west, south and south-east boards; the eastern area is fairly badly hit; and there has been some disruption in south Wales and the midlands.

Help is being given by boards further north and by Northern Ireland and Eire when they can spare it. The less badly affected areas aim to restore all supplies today. Sadly, supplies in the south-west, south and south-east board areas may not be restored until Sunday or Monday. Every attempt is being made to help the individuals involved.

I have announced in response to my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) that we shall include the damage caused on 16 and 17 December when calculating the threshold above which the Bellwin scheme will operate.

Mr. Stanley Orme (Salford, East)

When the Minister passes on the views and thanks of the House to the emergency services, whose work has been magnificent, will he also take account of the fact that the ambulance services turned out overwhelmingly, although many were involved in an industrial dispute? Will the hon. Gentleman bear in mind the fact that the police, ambulance and fire services and the armed forces are necessary and that the public find it extraordinary that the Government should continue a dispute with the ambulance services which could be resolved? Will the hon. Gentleman pass on to his colleagues, including the Secretary of State for Health, the message that another endeavour should be made to resolve that dispute?

Mr. Hunt

We are extremely grateful to, and commend, those ambulance men and women who suspended their industrial action and turned out to help, but we should not turn this occasion into an opportunity for making political points about the stoppages.

Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne)

Was not much of the property owned by district and county councils in October 1987 either uninsured or under-insured? Will my hon. Friend make it clear that taxpayers' money will not be used to assist those local authorities which either have decided not to insure against insurable risks or which are under-insured?

Mr. Hunt

I give my hon. Friend that assurance.

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)

I believe that the Minister said that the Army was notified the day before the storm. Will he explain to the public why no public warnings were given? Does he realise that, when a hurricane is pending in the United States, there are constant warnings not just of the scale of the storm but of particular hazards that need to be avoided? Had such warnings been issued yesterday, some of the deaths might well have been avoided.

On Bellwin, will the hon. Gentleman note that to most of us his comments were inadequate? Because of massive damage to council housing stock, my authority will have to meet the first £430,000 of the repair costs plus one quarter of all further costs. We are nearing the end of the financial year: the council has no funds in reserve; and it is under pressure from the Secretary of State for the Environment to hold the poll tax down. We need money from the Government, and we need it now.

Mr. Hunt

As I understand it, public warnings were issued. If the right hon. Gentleman will reflect on what I said, he will understand that I made that absolutely clear.

A Conservative Government introduced the Bellwin scheme, which was the first comprehensive attempt to meet this sort of problem. We have kept the threshold to exactly the level it was several years ago, when the scheme was originally announced. We have not uprated the 1p rate in accordance with inflation. It is a generous scheme. The important thing is that local authorities all know exactly where they stand. It is a long-proven scheme, and they all know its details. Therefore, our announcement last night made it clear how the bills would be paid, so that local authorities and everyone else could concentrate on protecting people and property.

Mr. Roger Gale (Thanet, North)

I know that all right hon. and hon. Members join me and the Minister in expressing sympathy with people who suffered injury, damage and loss last night. Kent county council has asked me to express to the Minister and to his colleagues their tremendous appreciation for the speed with which the Department has moved, and for the statement this morning. The chief executive told me this morning that Kent is likely to have suffered losses of £5 million, and that figure is still rising.

My hon. Friend will know that, following the storms of 1987, there was some delay in processing the claims that the Department were good enough to meet, due to the assessment of damage resulting from the storm and damage that might be construed as improvement. I hope that we shall not suffer the same delays again.

Finally, Mr. Speaker—

Mr. Speaker


Mr. David Hunt

May I deal with the Bellwin points first, so that everyone is clear about the criteria? The damage must have arisen on 25 January and expenditure must be used for carrying out immediate works to safeguard life or property or to prevent suffering or severe inconvenience.

We are writing to local authorities to remind them of details of the scheme, and to outline how claims can be made. I shall certainly consider carefully the matter that my hon. Friend has raised—that claims must be dealt with as quickly as possible.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

I must remind the House that this is a private Members' day, so I urge hon. Members to confine themselves to specific questions, and perhaps ones that have not been asked before.

Mr. John Fraser (Norwood)

May I tell the Minister that the Bellwin scheme is not good enough? Local authorities are at the end of their financial year and some of them, such as my own, are under spending restrictions. We have had to rehouse 70 families from two tower blocks, when we already have 2,000 homeless. First, will he reconsider the matter, because the cost to local authorities that are already hard-pressed could be enormous? Secondly, is it not correct that under the new housing finance regime, housing costs could be ring-fenced and would fall upon other housing tenants? Thirdly, the frames of two tower blocks in my constituency may have been twisted by the wind. In view of that, will he reconsider the restrictions on capital expenditure, which is almost being used as blackmail because people will not accept a housing action trust scheme?

Mr. Hunt

The hon. Gentleman was in the last Labour Government, and if he examines what we are doing on this occasion he will find that there are generous provisions under the Bellwin scheme. Every local authority knows the scheme well and knows how to operate it. Therefore, last night, when we made the immediate decision to invoke the scheme, they were able to concentrate on protecting people and property.

I shall consider the point that the hon. Gentleman raised about ring-fencing the housing revenue account, and write to him. I am unaware that it would have that effect.

I have already made absolutely clear what the effects will be on capital restrictions and the way in which I shall consider supplementary credit approvals and capital allocations.

Mr. Michael Stern (Bristol, North-West)

I thank my hon. Friend for his statement, and in particular, what he said about Bristol. Would he briefly explain the effects of the Bellwin scheme on statutory authorities other than local authorities? I am thinking about the severe damage to the roof of a national landmark—Temple Meads station in Bristol. I am not sure whether provision for repairs will necessarily be made by British Rail.

Mr. Hunt

I am concerned to hear about the damage to Temple Meads station because I know the building well. That gives me an opportunity to pay tribute to British Rail because there was considerable destruction last night and already there has been a significant recovery in services. I wish to commend the staff and all those involved within British Rail who responded so quickly to the emergency. I understand that British Rail provided accommodation for people who were stranded at stations, and I think they set a good example.

I shall study the question of Temple Meads station and write to my hon. Friend.

Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones (Ynys Mon)

Although we welcome the hon. Gentleman's statement and its effects on local authorities, I am concerned that there is no Welsh Office Minister present, bearing in mind that ferocious gales lashed Wales yesterday. In addition to the finance to local authorities, and following on the matter raised by the hon. Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Stern), will he ensure that, if finance is necessary to repair the Cambrian coastline service—I understand that the station at Llangelynnin was demolished yesterday and I pay tribute to the six railway men who worked hard to ensure that no danger to the public resulted—and if British Rail requires funds for that work, its applications will be met by the Government?

Mr. Hunt

My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary is co-ordinating all Government Departments and is closely in touch with Ministers from the Welsh Office and the Scottish Office, as well as other Ministers involved. Therefore, I do not think that the hon. Gentleman is right to make an issue of the absence of a Welsh Office Minister in the House today. I know that they are actively considering the position and doing everything they can.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough and Horncastle)

Following the previous great storm, the Secretary of State asked the Countryside Commission to set up a special programme to save damaged trees. Since then, about £5 million in grants has been paid out, and more than 800,000 trees have been funded as a result. Can my hon. Friend give a commitment today that he will consider extending that scheme to other parts of the country and to continue it if necessary?

Mr Hunt

I should like to respond positively to my hon. Friend. The royal parks are the direct responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. We are assessing the situation, but we are determined to make good the losses and to replant so that future generations will continue to enjoy our heritage of fine trees. My hon. Friend is right to refer to the question raised by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. The unit Task Force Trees has been working through local authorities and other organisations to assess damage and priorities for action and to give advice. It will be arranging payments of grants. We are considering a continuation of Task Force Trees and an extension of its remit to all affected areas of the country.

Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough)

The Secretary of State was kind enough to mention the areas gravely affected by the storm last night. In Cleveland, a Middlesbrough man was killed in his car by a falling tree, and electricity supplies have been cut off. May I have his assurance that the Bellwin scheme will apply to Cleveland? May I also refer the Secretary of State to a statement in today's Daily Mirror which says that Gorden Kaye, the actor, was taken to hospital after being rescued by the ambulance services. On his way to hospital he said to them, "You are worth more than 10 per cent."

Mr. Hunt

On the first point, my announcement about the Bellwin scheme applies throughout England. I am aware that the storm has hit certain parts of the country badly and has left few areas totally unaffected.

On the second point, I am a great admirer of the star of "'Allo 'Allo" and I am sad to hear that he has been injured, but I do not think that he would want the hon. Gentleman to raise the matter he has just raised in this context.

Mr. Michael Brown (Brigg and Cleethorpes)

Is there any possibility that the European Commission will assist us? Will my hon. Friend confirm that they made finance available for those people who lost their lives, for the bereaved and for people who suffered damage in the December storms. Will there be any assistance from the social fund for yesterday's storm?

Mr. Hunt

I understand that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary is in touch with the European Commission. The EC social fund gave the United Kingdom some £220,000, after the December storms, for individuals who lost relatives or suffered loss or hardship. The Commission is meeting this afternoon to consider whether to make a further grant for yesterday's storm, and I hope that it will be sympathetic.

Mr. Bruce Grocott (The Wrekin)

Will the Minister acknowledge that, whenever serious problems of this sort occur, it is not central Government that have the job of clearing up the mess, nor the private sector, but local authorities and local authority manual workers? Will he also acknowledge that the professionalism of local government has been constantly and consistently undermined by 10 years of Conservative Government? As a result of what happened yesterday, rather than take the easy conclusion of the one-off payment to deal with the problem, will the hon. Gentleman draw the more important general conclusion that local authorities must have their confidence and professionalism restored?

Mr. Hunt

The hon. Gentleman has the picture wrong. I made the comment earlier, and I now reinforce it, that I pay warm tribute to all those in local authorities who responded so magnificently to this problem. They have done so with great professionalism and skill and at obvious cost to themselves in their personal lives. I think that the hon. Gentleman will find that the atmosphere in local government is not as he describes. I shall be going from the Chamber to join one local authority which is already dealing very effectively with the situation.

Mr. Anthony Steen (South Hams)

Is the Minister aware that south Devon and Dartmoor were particularly badly hit last night and that north Dorset was hit by a tornado? Two of my constituents who live on the edge of Dartmoor lost their lives. Will he please explain to the South Hams district council, whose 1p rate amounts to only £90,000, how it will be able to repair over £100,000 worth of damage to council houses and over £800,000 worth of damage to roads and other structures?

Mr. Hunt

I made it absolutely clear, to my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) and other hon. Members, that, as yet, it is impossible to calculate what the final bills will be. However, as I said to my hon. Friend, I shall be very pleased to meet officials from his district council and to consider the position with them.

Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)

Should not the Bellwin scheme be used more widely? There is some doubt whether it is to be employed in Scotland. Furthermore, those authorities to which the Bellwin scheme applies will still have to meet well over 25 per cent. of the expenditure out of their contingency funds. That will have a knock-on effect on the poll tax. It will also have a knock-on effect in Scotland in connection with the poll tax. How will the Bellwin scheme rules affect the poll tax?

Mr. Hunt

I thought that what was most important last night was the need to establish certainty and to make it clear to local authorities that the Bellwin scheme, which they know well, will be put into operation immediately. We have done that. As for the amounts involved, I believe that it is a generous scheme. My right hon. Friend and I intend to incorporate the scheme into the new system. It gets the balance right between the taxpayer on the one hand and the ratepayer and the future community charge payer on the other.

Mr. Richard Holt (Langbaurgh)

Does my hon. Friend accept that his statement will be welcomed by local government? I am particularly pleased about his flexible attitude towards the Bellwin plan. I believe that it has cobwebs on it that need to be dusted off. Where there is strict control over the amount of money that can be given by central Government and open-ended expenditure by local authorities, that must give rise to concern.

I also pay tribute to the emergency services. However, on a slightly discordant note, I ought to point out that I believe that the Metropolitan Police could have done a great deal more to move London's traffic by the deployment of 40 to 50 policemen at strategic points where there were bottlenecks. No action whatsoever was taken. Even this morning there is slow-moving traffic in London because of failure by the police to control the traffic flow, which has absolutely nothing to do with the damage.

Mr. Hunt

For the avoidance of any doubt, I should say that I have not announced any flexibility in the Bellwin scheme. I have explained to Opposition Members that it introduces a note of certainty. Every local authority knows exactly where it is with the Bellwin scheme. I said that I intended to incorporate the Bellwin scheme into the new system of local government finance on 1 April. As for the Metropolitan Police, my hon. Friend is being a little unfair. I was in and around Westminster last night where there was a tremendous crush. I thought that the Metropolitan Police handled it extremely well and swiftly. Obviously, however, my hon. Friend's remarks will have been heard by my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Will hon. Members who are rising to their feet please ask brief questions? I realise that the storm has affected most constituencies in the country, so I shall call all those hon. Members, but I ask them to be brief, please.

Mr. Elliot Morley (Glanford and Scunthorpe)

I do not think that anybody can criticise the Met Office this time for its storm prediction. However, when a storm of this intensity hits other countries, notably America, there are regular storm warnings. I refer in particular to the scaffolding and construction sheeting that was blown off buildings yesterday in urban areas, particularly in London. It caused damage, delays and disruption. Will the Government consider providing greater guidance and warning to those in the construction industry so that they can take steps to prevent that happening?

Mr. Hunt

May I just establish what happens over warnings? The emergency services have statutory and common law duties to preserve life and protect the public. In a major emergency, the police are responsible for the overall co-ordination at the scene of an incident and for allowing fire and ambulance staff to carry out their specialist functions. When a storm affects wide areas, the police are responsible for issuing public safety advice about the dangers of travelling, and they would close roads that were judged to be unsafe. That would be in addition to their particular functions. I understand that public warnings were issued. Nevertheless, we shall keep the matter under review in the light of what happened on this occasion. I believe that the emergency services responded in a magnificent and typically professional way.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

Will the Minister ensure that any consequences of the damage caused by the hurricane are not inhibited by the suggestion from the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) and that, if a council has been at fault, the fault should not be a burden on the people of that area because of under-insurance? That seemed to me to be a very mean suggestion. As local authorities will be the main organisations to carry out restoration after storm damage, will the Minister also take on board British Rail's difficult financial position and the fact that storm damage will have cost it several million pounds? Will the Government provide more capital so that British Rail can meet the additional cost? It is already absolutely hamstrung by cash shortages.

Mr. Hunt

I shall of course ensure that the hon. Gentleman's comments about British Rail are passed to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport. As for his point about insurable risks, the Bellwin scheme is very well known and has been in operation for a number of years. Local authorities know exactly where they stand. They know that the damage must, under the criteria, be non-insurable. I should have thought, therefore, that every prudent and careful local authority would have adequate insurance.

Mr. Rhodri Morgan (Cardiff, West)

The Minister will be aware that vesting day in the electricity supply industry is only about 65 days away. According to those in the industry to whom I have spoken, after that date no provision will be made for action such as that which was taken last night to switch linesmen from unaffected areas to carry out emergency repairs in affected areas. That was done magnificently in October 1987 and again last night. That was a well established procedure prior to vesting day. The new distribution companies will have a primary duty only to their shareholders. They will not have a primary duty to participate in emergency work. Is the Minister able to assure me that, if a storm occurs subsequent to vesting day, the same emergency arrangements will still apply, whereby linesmen from unaffected areas will be switched to affected areas where cables have been damaged?

Mr. Hunt

I do not think that that will be affected by statute. In an emergency, everybody responds. Last night, people, voluntarily and in accordance with their duties, combined to produce the maximum impact to help people and to protect property.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Some might argue that the Minister was a little lucky yesterday, with the emergency services being stretched as a result of the ambulance dispute, caused primarily by the Government. It makes sense for the Government in winter, when there are likely to be hurricanes and storms, to have all the emergency services at full tilt all the time. Is the Minister aware that he might well be hamstrung by the fact that he has already spent £30 million—or his hon. Friends have—on financing the alternative to the ambulance workers? As at least three months of the winter still remain, it would make sense to settle the ambulance dispute so that, if there is another emergency, the whole show is back on the road.

Mr. Hunt

I am pleased that so few Opposition Members have sought to make that kind of point. What makes me, and I believe the whole House, proud about our emergency services is that, whatever the background to the emergency, they immediately respond. They do so in a magnificent way, and I have already commended them for that.

Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton)

Before he finishes, will the Minister pay a specific tribute to the ambulance workers for saving lives on a day when the courts at the behest of health managers and the Government, were preventing them from running emergency services in many parts of the country? Does he not think that that was obscene during a full-scale emergency?

Mr. Hunt

As so often, the hon. Gentleman has followed in the steps of his hon. Friend the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner). I have already paid specific tribute to the ambulance men and women who gave so freely of their services and responded so magnificently during the currency of the dispute. I unhesitatingly do so again.

Mr. Bryan Gould (Dagenham)

May I join the Minister in offering our heartfelt sympathy for all those who were tragically bereaved, injured or suffered other serious loss as a consequence of the storms? May we also offer our gratitude and congratulations to the emergency and other services, who again demonstrated how much we depend on them at times of need and how unstintingly they give of their time, effort and courage when the call comes? Will the Minister recognise that the ambulance workers in particular—I am sorry that he did not feel able to mention them in his opening answers—have again shown that their sense of duty to the community overrides all other considerations? Can we hope that, when the current crisis is over, the Government in equal measure will recognise their reciprocal responsibilities to the ambulance workers and offer them a fair settlement?

I express our concern at the extent of the damage and disruption caused to property, to essential services and to our national heritage in Scotland and Wales as well as in England, and our awareness of the huge burden that that will mean for public, and particularly local, authorities. Therefore, I give a qualified welcome to the Minister's assurance that some resources will be available from central Government to meet those new and unexpected commitments.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the immediate problem may be cash flow—a problem exacerbated by the difficulties that many local authorities will face in the run-up to the poll tax—and that the immediacy of the help may be just as important as its quantity? Will he also give an assurance that, when the immediate crisis is cleared, the Government will not revert to their traditional attitude of hostility towards local government spending?

I must therefore express my disappointment and regret that the help being offered to local authorities is constrained by the limits implicit in the Bellwin scheme. As Conservative Members have pointed out, that means that we face a repeat of what happened in 1987, as local authorities are again required to find the first tranche of emergency expenditure from their own resources, but on this occasion those resources are in even scarcer supply, given the problems that local authorities face in relation to the poll tax.

Will the Minister assure us that there is no prospect—and there ought to be no prospect—that local authorities will be faced with penalties or that poll tax payers will be required to pick up the additional bill? Why cannot the Government reimburse local authorities for every penny of such unforeseen expenditure? Will he not reconsider that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) has asked him?

What arrangements has the Minister tried to make with his right hon. Friends in the Department of Social Security for those on income support who may now face substantial and unplanned expenditure?

Finally, although the storm was accurately forecast, we must now surely recognise that such storms are no longer a once-in-a-century phenomenon. Whether that is a consequence of global warming—although that possibility should give urgency to the measures we put in place to deal with that problem—we must now recognise that it is essential to prepare and co-ordinate better arrangements to reduce and prevent damage after such warnings. Will the Minister therefore tell us what long-term arrangements he has set in train to cope with the new situation?

Mr. Hunt

I counted 10 points in that question. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for joining in the tributes that the House has so warmly paid to the emergency services and the sympathy that it has extended to all those who have been seriously affected by what has happened. On the hon. Gentleman's third point about the ambulance services, I made it absolutely clear in my statement, saying: I am sure that I speak for the whole House in expressing gratitude and admiration for the way in which the emergency and voluntary services, the local authorities…coped with this emergency. As soon as one of the emergency services had been singled out, I took the opportunity to pay tribute to it.

As the hon. Gentleman has done so, I must pay tribute to the other emergency services for the magnificent way in which they responded. As soon as the ambulance services had been singled out, I immediately paid tribute to those ambulance men and women who so swiftly came to the assistance of people in trouble. They always do that, and they have a magnificent record, but so have the police, the fire brigade and local authorities.

The hon. Gentleman's fourth point was to give a qualified welcome to my announcement. A qualified welcome from the hon. Gentleman is a great tribute, and I am grateful to him. He is right to welcome the announcement I have made, because local authorities know exactly where they stand. The scheme is long-established; there is no need for any local authority to query its application, as they know how it works. We believe that we have got the balance right between the taxpayer and the ratepayer and the future community charge payer. It is not Government money or local authority money: it is money that is raised from the people, and it is necessary to achieve a balance between the taxpayer and the person who is contributing to local authority spending.

The hon. Gentleman stressed the immediacy of help. Of course help must be immediate and swift, and we are making it clear to local authorities throughout the country that, as and when they have claimed under the scheme, those claims will be met as speedily as we can possibly pay them.

In regard to hostility to local authority spending, the hon. Gentleman is probably a little out of date. Many years ago, one of his right hon. Friends told local authorities, "The party's over." He may not remember that, but I do. There has always been a history of trying to contain local authority spending, and we are doing so more effectively than any previous Government.

There are no penalties on local authorities. I have made it absolutely clear that the expenditure by local authorities will not affect the amount of grant they will receive.

Those on income support will receive help from social security offices if they contact them, and will receive special help in special circumstances which rank for payment under the scheme which my right hon. Friends at the Department of Social Security are advancing.

In regard to global warming, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is now in Africa making a speech about the problems of global warming and following up the lead that Britain has given the world in seeking to address that problem. We should be aware of that, and the Opposition should pay tribute to it.

In the long term, we shall consider every situation to discover how the arrangements can be improved—[Interruption.]—yes, which way improvements can be made to the existing arrangements—but I said absolutely clearly that we are satisfied that there has been an immediate and effective response and we shall do our best under the leadership of my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary, to ensure that that response continues for as long as necessary.