HC Deb 31 October 2000 vol 355 cc607-25 3.31 pm
The Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. John Prescott)

With permission, I wish to make a statement about the violent storms that hit much of England and Wales late Sunday night and early yesterday morning.

We offer deepest sympathy to the relatives and friends of those who tragically lost their lives. There has been tremendous inconvenience and disruption, but our thoughts are especially with those whose homes have been flooded or damaged.

According to the Meteorological Office, the storm that we experienced was the most severe since 1987. There was widespread flooding, very high rainfall and high winds. There were blizzards in the north-west and tornadoes on the south coast. Electricity and gas supplies were disrupted, road and rail links were blocked, airports and sea ports were closed. There was considerable damage to property, especially in coastal areas.

From Sunday evening, emergency teams have been working constantly. There were teams from local authorities, the Environment Agency, Railtrack and the electricity and gas supply industry. The police, fire and ambulance services, and coastguard and lifeboat crews have, with their usual professionalism, provided valuable help and assistance. All have done a magnificent job. I am sure that the House will join me in recording not only our admiration but our heartfelt thanks for a job well done in difficult circumstances.

Normal services are now being restored. The Environment Agency reported that, overall, there has been a general improvement in the flood situation overnight. However, 33 severe flood warnings remain in place, and still more properties are under threat from flooding.

Early indications suggest that the new flood warning systems now used by the Environment Agency have been effective and that lessons have been learned from the past. The Environment Agency will draw up a report on the lessons to be learned from the floods two weeks ago in East Sussex and from the current floods. The report will be circulated to all hon. Members. I believe that an Adjournment debate on such matters took place last week.

The Bellwin scheme, which the previous Government introduced, is in place to provide financial help to local authorities in England in emergencies such as this storm. The arrangements also apply to police and fire authorities, and the National Assembly for Wales operates similar arrangements.

Money is available to help with uninsurable clear-up costs following a serious disaster or emergency. In March this year, my Department wrote to all local authorities to tell them about the scheme and how to use it. Under the scheme, each authority is responsible for expenditure on emergency work up to a threshold of just 0.2 per cent. of its annual budget. Expenditure above the threshold is eligible for 85 per cent. assistance from central Government. Several authorities are already in contact with my Department and we will ensure that their requests for help are dealt with as quickly as possible.

As my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food told the House last Wednesday, we are increasing funding for flood and coastal defence. The Environment Agency's total flood defence expenditure was £261.8 million in 1998–99. In 1999–2000, that increased to £276.1 million. The budget for 2000–01 is £283.1 million, and planned expenditure for 2001–02 is £290.1 million.

There has been considerable discussion of the important planning issues that often arise in connection with these matters. We consulted earlier this year on draft new planning guidance, which will deal with the issue of development in flood risk areas. That considerably improves on the 1992 circular.

Our policy is clear: it is to discourage inappropriate development in flood risk areas. We intend to issue the final version of the new guidance in December. We are therefore—together with the Environment Agency—improving flood warnings; encouraging, and providing more funding for, flood and coastal defence; and encouraging development away from flood risk areas.

The storm that we experienced was certainly extreme. There is much discussion about the influence of global warning on our weather—[interruption] I mean, global warming. It is still very much a global warning—perhaps that is the word that I should have used. We cannot say that any one storm is due to global warming, but there is growing evidence that the pattern of weather around the world is increasingly stormy and extreme.

The UK is taking a leading role in securing the Kyoto global agreement to reduce greenhouse gases to limit climate change in future. However, we must take practical action now so that we are prepared for a future where extreme weather events are more frequent. That is why we have produced the climate change impacts study for the UK, and why we are producing a series of regional climate change impact studies on how different parts of the United Kingdom will be affected. We can now accurately predict and forecast extreme weather events.

We have to ask ourselves if we are doing enough to cope with the new situation. Should our power lines for trains and homes come down every time we have such storms? Should 1,000 trees fall across our railway lines in the south-east? Should we do more to prevent flooding? Are the drainage systems on our roads really adequate? The storm should be a wake-up call for everyone. Our infrastructure should be robust enough and our preparations rigorous enough to withstand the sort of weather that we have just experienced.

Tomorrow, I will be attending a meeting of the central local partnership with the leaders of central and local government, who have to deal with a great deal of this emergency planning and action. We will want to discuss how to undertake a more in-depth analysis of what is needed to be done. Together with my ministerial colleagues, the emergency services, the Environment Agency and others, we will want to look at how to review our systems for dealing with such emergencies. I have spoken with Sir John Harman, the chairman of the Environment Agency. He intends to play a leading role in this work.

We have measures in place to deal with the immediate effects of this storm. We need to take a longer term look at how we can as a country be better placed to deal with the extreme weather events which we expect to be more frequent in future.

The House will wish to join me in thanking local authorities, the emergency services and many others involved for their unstinting efforts, and in offering sympathy on the loss and suffering experienced by people in the areas affected.

Mr. Archie Norman (Tunbridge Wells)

First, I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for his statement. We are grateful for his unprompted and timely response. I join him in expressing sympathy for those who are bereaved or injured, and for the many thousands of people throughout the country who are suffering the misery of seeing their homes ruined by the flooding. In many instances, this is the second or third time in recent months that they have been flooded. I take this opportunity to join the right hon. Gentleman in thanking the emergency services for their magnificent response to the crisis.

The floods now form a pattern that perhaps first became evident in Easter 1998, with the extensive flooding in middle England. The writing has been on the wall for a little while, and we must recognise that this is a serious problem and will remain so for years to come. Today's response is very welcome, but I ask the Deputy Prime Minister to address a number of issues arising from what is now a very worrying trend.

Does the Deputy Prime Minister feel that there are any lessons to be learned now—I appreciate that these are early days—about the handling of the crisis? For example, the right hon. Gentleman mentioned power lines, and there are widespread reports from Kent today that the switchboard of the local utility company has been jammed solid for the past two days. People who are dangerously affected by power lines are unable to get through to the company to seek advice. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that there is a case, perhaps, for looking into the co-ordination and integration of the crisis response, and providing a single information line to which the public can turn?

Secondly, although we welcome the right hon. Gentleman's confirmation that compensation for local authorities will be forthcoming, will he comment on the remarks made by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, who mentioned in the House last week that the process of compensation had been slow? The right hon. Gentleman said that he would respond swiftly, but can he reassure local authorities on what specific action will be taken to ensure that the response is swift and compensation is received?

In the light of the recurring instances of flooding, does the right hon. Gentleman think with hindsight—obviously, he has the benefit of hindsight—that the response of the Environment Agency is a cause for concern? Does he recall that, after the deaths and distress caused by the 1998 floods, the independent review team commented that some of the problem can be attributed to weaknesses in the planning and delivery of flood and defence warning policies, and even taking into account all the mitigating circumstances described in this Report, the Environment Agency did not achieve its own performance standards. Can he reassure the House that, in addition to the inquiry conducted by the Environment Agency, there will be an investigation into its performance, powers and effectiveness in dealing with future flood crises?

Does the right hon. Gentleman believe that the funding for flood defences are adequate? He mentioned that funds are increasing, which is true, but the figures suggest that flood defence expenditure will rise by only about 7 to 8 per cent. over the next two years—I think I am right in that—which is scarcely enough to meet inflation in construction costs alone. The Environment Agency today reports that it has a substantial backlog of expenditure to be met. Does he think that current expenditure plans are adequate?

Finally, on the longer term issues, does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that the commitment to accelerate housebuilding on greenfield land in the south-east and south-west—against the wishes of local people and local councils—may exacerbate the risk of flooding? The Environment Agency warned in 1998 that the Government's estimates for new housebuilding were adding to the pressure and that an area of flood plain the size of Bristol—I appreciate that the guidelines have changed since then—could be built on over the next 20 years. Does he accept that decisions to build in river valley areas that may or may not be designated flood plains but which play an important role in absorbing rainfall—such as Lewes, Hertfordshire north of Stevenage, and the flood plains of Ashford and the Nene valley in Northamptonshire—are exactly what the Environment Agency warned against?

Will the right hon. Gentleman investigate and set out in full the relationship between housebuilding and the development of flood risk and, indeed, the effect of other development in the countryside on flood risk? In the meantime, will he suspend his plans to override the south-east regional planning committee and the wishes of councils in the south-east and south-west? Does he recognise that that is another reason why the Government should reconsider their plans to concrete over the countryside by building the wrong houses in the wrong places, and that doing so risks contributing to future misery caused by the loss of greenfield land and, more important, flooding in our towns and villages?

Mr. Prescott

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his expressions of sympathy and support for the emergency services. All hon. Members would give their full support to those remarks.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the Easter flooding in 1998. I visited Stratford at the time and saw for myself how bad the flood was. A main complaint when I was there was that no prior warnings were received. In light of last week's Adjournment debate on the earlier floods, it is clear that, on the whole, warnings have improved considerably. Sir John Harman has given me one or two examples of failure to give sufficient warning, but in the main there has been a considerable improvement.

The report to which the hon. Gentleman referred was acted on by the Government to ensure that more resources were provided and more warnings were given. It is clear that we have learned some lessons, but there are an awful lot more to learn. That is why I want to bring the parties together, which is important in the handling of a crisis. The Environment Agency now has a responsibility to produce a report at the end of the event to show how it dealt with the crisis. Hon. Members whose constituents were affected can read the report and conclude whether the Environment Agency gave sufficient warnings and acted effectively in the emergency. That demonstrates transparency and accountability. We will wait to see what the report says. I shall certainly be very interested to see it.

As every Member with a constituent who has experienced these problems knows, compensation always takes a long time—even for those who succeed in obtaining Bellwin funding—and there are constant complaints about that. Assessing all the damage obviously takes time, but I think that the complaint is legitimate. Ministers hide behind the Bellwin fund, saying, "Don't worry, there is a fund to help", but they know that it can be difficult to gain access to the money. I shall review the rules that apply in such circumstances in the forum that I mentioned.

We—my Department and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food—have increased funding from our own resources considerably, but what worries me is that we tend to plan for circumstances that are far less serious than we should reasonably expect. I do not think that what we assume to be extreme circumstances are being catered for by the present arrangements. For instance, are the pumps on the roads strong enough to disperse the floods that we are currently experiencing? Structures on the east coast railway lines are regularly pulled down because they were built on the cheap, and there was no proper investment. I am not making a political point—it happened under both parties—but the fact remains that we are not devoting the necessary resources to conditions that we may describe as extreme, but must now accept as normal.

I assume that the hon. Gentleman was making a political point at the end of his question, when he spoke of the housing requirements of the south-east. The Conservatives are getting very excited about them, but they are being discussed by local authorities and in the House, and we must make judgments about them. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Serplan requirement was for 33,000 homes a year. Professor Crow suggested 55,000; we anticipated 43,000, and the current figure is about 39,000.

If the Opposition argue that local authorities should not be forced to accept a higher figure, why did Kent county council, in the last year of Tory government, increase the number of dwellings by 3,000 over and above the local authority requirement? I do not know whether they were built on the flood plains to which the hon. Gentleman referred, but who decided that houses should be built on flood plains? The answer is local authorities. That, I believe, is the Opposition's approach. They say, "Do not let central Government have a role; leave it to local authorities." Local authorities, not central Government, were responsible for building on the flood plains.

I could make my political points, but I do not think that that would help. Let us get on seriously with doing the job. The Opposition should look to their past as well as to the future, and show a little more humility.

Mr. Christopher Leslie (Shipley)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, as we speak, the River Aire in the Bradford district in the north of England is at a 50-year high, flooding many homes and cutting off bridges and towns including Bingley, Shipley, Baildon and Burley-in-Wharfedale? There are no rail services and few road services. There have been several evacuations, in which hundreds have been evacuated. Obviously, many local people are very concerned. Will my right hon. Friend monitor the developments closely and liaise with the local authority about the financial implications?

Mr. Prescott

I shall certainly do those things. Monitoring is very important. As I said in my statement, I consider this to be a wake-up call. I think that all of us—the Government, local authorities and public and private operators—should ask ourselves whether we could do more to prevent the misery which many of our citizens suffer on such occasions.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath)

I welcome the Deputy Prime Minister's statement, especially given that only yesterday the Prime Minister's official spokesman told journalists that there were no plans for such a statement to be made. Interestingly, Mr. Alastair Campbell used a rather cryptic expression, saying, "The weather has been devolved." I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman understands what that means.

I join the right hon. Gentleman in offering sympathy to the bereaved families, and to those who have been injured. I also join him in congratulating both the emergency services and local authorities. Does he agree, however, that we should thank the many private individuals who have voluntarily given a great deal of support to those in greater need? In particular, will he congratulate Lewes council, which has had to deal with the problems of floods for more than two weeks?

Given that the right hon. Gentleman has rightly addressed, perhaps for the first time, genuine concern about the impact of global warming, leading to these particular problems, who does he think the Minister for the Environment had in mind when he said in The Guardian today: It is…remarkable that, during the recent fuel crisis hardly anyone mentioned the environment…? I wonder to whom the Minister for the Environment was referring.

Why did the Deputy Prime Minister say in his statement that the Government are offering more money for flood defences, when the figures, which he even read out, demonstrate that there is no increase whatever over and above inflation? Does he accept that, given that he has admitted that there is more likelihood of severe weather, there should be an increase in funding?

Several hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. Before I call the Deputy Prime Minister, may I say that every hon. Member has a constituency interest in the matter. I want to call everyone. I can do so with the co-operation of the House, if hon. Members' questions are brief.

Mr. Prescott

I thank the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) for his support for the emergency services. I—no one else—make statements to the House. I am responsible to the House—no parliamentary or news spokesman is. If I decide that it is right to make a statement to the House, that is what I do. That is what I have done. I did not consult anyone else. [Interruption.] Sorry, Alastair.

Like the hon. Member for Bath, I give my support to the voluntary organisations. They are always there. Individuals helped, too—I should have mentioned them in my statement, as I did in the previous statement on rail. They play an impressive role in such circumstances. They are at home doing nothing and then, all of a sudden, they become heroes. I am sure that the House wishes them well and thanks them for all that they do.

I congratulate the local authority in Lewes. In the past couple of weeks, it has had difficulties; those difficulties did not start just at the weekend. I read about the events to which the hon. Gentleman refers.

With regard to what my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment was referring to in The Guardian, I am always a bit sceptical about what we can believe in any paper, including The Guardian, but I asked him whether he meant the Liberal party. He said he did not; he meant non-governmental organisations. I might add that it was the Minister for the Environment and I who convened an environmental conference in London during the dispute, so we were constantly making our points. I am not sure that the green groups were, but I shall leave that aside; I have made my point about that before.

As for the giving of more resources, if we put all the groups together, the total amount of money that I should have reported to the House is about £400 million—considerably more than just taking inflation into account.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle)

We all know that a massive amount of work was done on the railways this weekend, and then we had the crisis because of the weather. May we thank the workers who have been on the railways, out in all weathers?

We still have chaos on the rail railways. Is that because we do not have the number of workers with the skills required? If we are going to maintain a railway—it is crucial that we get lines back working as quickly as possible—we need more skills. Will my right hon. Friend look at the situation, do a skills audit to find out how many more railway men we need to maintain a modern railway, get the industry together and ensure that we get those workers.

Mr. Prescott

I am sure that the House will want to agree with my hon. Friend's comments with regard to the many thousands of workers at the weekend—20,000—who got on with attempting to deal with all the problems with the track. Indeed, on Monday, 10,000 of them were transferred to deal with problems that arose from the weather. There have been difficult circumstances, but I think that we would want to congratulate all those people on their efforts. Ultimately, it will be for the inquiries to determine what factors contributed to the accident.

Nevertheless, contracts and the availability of skilled workers, particularly engineers, are matters of grave concern. I have asked the industry—including the Strategic Rail Authority, Railtrack, railway companies and the health and safety authorities—to report back to me, on Thursday, with a Railtrack recovery programme. When we have that programme clear in our minds, we will be able to develop an emergency programme dealing with train arrivals. I think that that is what people want, and that is what I hope to be able to give them very shortly.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for his statement. It will be some consolation to those who have been flooded, or who are about to be flooded, that the alarms work better than they used to. However, could we look more thoroughly into the causes of flooding? Specifically, has the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions been able to assess the contribution made by overhead power lines to global warming?

Mr. Prescott

On the effectiveness of alarms, I quite agree that it is far better to prevent damage. However, there has been very considerable rainfall in the past couple of days, and, as the hon. Lady will know, the run-off of that rain has considerably increased water levels in rivers, such as the one at York. Such conditions are very difficult to deal with, but we should look into whether there is more that we can do, and I shall do that.

I am sorry, but I missed the hon. Lady's point on power lines.

Miss McIntosh

What is their effect on global warming?

Mr. Prescott

I shall write to the hon. Lady.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the misery of the past few days is a clear indication that he got it spot on at Kyoto? Can he tell us what he intends to do, at the follow-up next month, to persuade all the other countries to co-operate to lower CO2 emissions? What is the United Kingdom going to do to give a lead in the matter?

Mr. Prescott

I thank my hon. Friend for his questions and for his congratulations on the efforts that we have made on the Kyoto protocol. The process now moves to The Hague, where we will have to get an agreement. Although that agreement will be between the developed countries and the developing countries, it will be up to the developed countries to lead the way. I hope that the complications presented by some developed countries do not lead to suggestions that the developing countries will have to sign up to the agreement, as that will make it extremely difficult to reach an agreement. An awful lot of work is being done, however, and the prospect of agreement looks promising—although one can never tell until one gets into the negotiations.

I think that every incident demonstrating climate change reminds everyone, whether he or she lives in a developing or a developed country, that we are all affected by climate change. Climate issues have no national boundaries and affect people everywhere, whether they live in China, Nigeria or America. All those countries will have to reach an agreement on climate change issues.

Lately, I have done quite a bit of travelling—for which I have been criticised—to try to achieve agreement on some of those issues. If a lot of the work is not done before such conferences, they can break down. We were successful at Kyoto because of that type of work. I think that everyone realises that success at The Hague requires a lot of hard work and commitment, and that, if we are not successful there, an awful lot of children in the future will not forgive us.

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (Wealden)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give very special consideration to people who have properties that have been damaged or who have suffered uninsurable losses? Will he also bear in mind that many farmers' crops have been totally destroyed and that those crops were not insured? Additionally, people whose houses may or may not have been on a flood plain have suffered losses that they never expected, because they never expected such a freakish storm.

Mr. Prescott

Of course, the Bellwin fund is about covering local authorities and uninsurable losses; ultimately, however, to be honest, it does not cover farmers. I think that MAFF and other bodies offer other forms of compensation, which should be taken into account.

Mr. Peter Snape (West Bromwich, East)

What comfort can the Deputy Prime Minister offer us in relation to the railway's problems in dealing with inclement weather? Earlier, he referred to things being done on the cheap in this country. Does he agree that it is no coincidence that, as soon as we had anything greater than a summer breeze, the overhead railway lines—not the lines causing global warming, but the ones propelling trains—were the first to collapse? Will he suggest to Railtrack management that they go to Switzerland, where the Swiss have been stringing wires up the sides of mountains for many years, and where the wind has been known to blow without causing undue damage? What can we do to get a decent railway?

Mr. Prescott

My hon. Friend makes a fair point. In opposition, we both made it clear when we felt that cheap options had been taken to the detriment of the long term. A good example is the electrification of the east coast line. Frankly, that was the second cheaper option that was taken. Those of us who use that line regularly have to face the fact that it keeps coming down. It does not seem to take a very strong wind, certainly not gale force. I think that the wrong option was taken and that we should learn from past mistakes. In my statement I suggested that we should invest in building more security and safety into the infrastructure.

Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes)

May I add my gratitude and admiration for the emergency services and Lewes district council for their work during the terrible tragedy that hit my constituency, where 400 houses were evacuated and the entire retail and business area of the town remains shut to this day? May I gently suggest to the Deputy Prime Minister that I am pleased that it served as a wake-up call?

In two Adjournment debates last year, I warned the House that the river defences in Lewes were inadequate, but nothing was done. I hope that will now be corrected. I have just come from a meeting with business leaders in the town who tell me that they are losing £3 million a day. They and the residents of Lewes want a pledge from the Government that there will be a strategic overview of the river Ouse and Uck system and that when recommendations are made for improvements—quickly, I hope—the Government will find the money to introduce those improvements so that there is no repetition of the floods that hit my constituency.

Mr. Prescott

I am advised that the Government are looking at proposals, but I shall write to the hon. Gentleman, as he raises a point that I am not too conversant with in detail, except that I am aware of the problems in respect of private property ownership in the area.

Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North)

I thank my right hon. Friend for his continuing work to deal with this catastrophe. We now have a new concept for emergency planning. Will he look closely with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Environment Agency at the criteria used to justify expenditure on new flood defences? In respect of the warning that we have now had about global warming, it is essential in the context of the fuel crisis that we have an informed public debate in this country. Is my right hon. Friend prepared to lead that debate and put the issue on the national agenda?

Mr. Prescott

On the latter point, my hon. Friend is aware that the issue is very much on the agenda. I was very careful to make that point, as was my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment. It is difficult for politicians to suggest that global warming may be to blame as it looks as if we are finding an excuse, but the general public read the papers and realise that there is something in it. Those of us who have argued that case for a long time are pleased about that. We are looking at new criteria on cost benefits. It is exactly what we need to do.

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton)

I should like to thank the right hon. Gentleman for his statement and the Minister for the Environment for coming down to Bognor Regis on Sunday to see for himself the damage done to hundreds of homes by the tornado that struck the town on Saturday evening.

The Secretary of State is right to praise the emergency services. On Saturday evening and throughout the weekend the police, fire and ambulance services and trading standards and housing officers worked closely together repairing roofs, closing roads and finding alternative accommodation for people who were evacuated from their homes.

Until recently, tornadoes have been very rare in Britain, but the Secretary of State will be aware that in Pagham, just a few miles west of Bognor Regis, there was a small tornado last year. There were also tornadoes in Selsey in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie). Clearly, weather patterns are changing. On the coast we are now seeing much greater extremes of weather, with storms delivering quantities of rain in very short periods of time.

Therefore, we should be taking measures to deal with changing weather patterns. As well as extra sea defences, surely we should now reconsider the level of new housebuilding that the Secretary of State is demanding for the south coast. It is resulting in houses being built on land that has traditionally been regarded as a flood plain because there is simply nowhere else to put them. Will he now take into account the consequences of more building on flood management policies and reduce the number of houses that he is demanding to be built in West Sussex and the coastal counties?

Mr. Prescott

I note that the hon. Gentleman got in his political postscript, but I am grateful for his remarks about my right hon. Friend's visit to Bognor Regis. The House would want to express its sympathy for the people there, who faced great difficulties with the tornadoes. He made a valuable point about the increasing number of tornadoes. They are very difficult to deal with, whatever preparations are made. We should remember that France lost 10 million trees last year in a tornado that would have hit the south-east but changed direction at the last minute. We must not assume that tornadoes will not hit this country. They are much more difficult to deal with than the flooding and some of the other problems.

Presumably, the hon. Gentleman believes that we are trying to force more housing on his local authority. As I said to the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman), the previous Administration increased housebuilding in Kent, against the wishes of the local authority, so they must have thought that more houses were needed than the local authority thought. Also, one must not make the assumption that more houses mean more land. We made it clear that the amount of land considered necessary for housing in Serplan and in our calculation is the same. We simply need a higher density of housing.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Does the experience of the fragmentation of the railways enhance the case for the privatisation of air traffic control?

Mr. Prescott


Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

Will the Secretary of State please take a personal interest in the lack of joined-up government which is having a serious effect on Lindfield in my constituency, where an on-going dispute between the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and the Environment Agency has led to no action being taken, for a very long time, on a serious flooding problem? I join the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) in calling for urgent work to be done on refining the criteria for flood defences.

Will the Secretary of State consider seriously the points made by other hon. Members from Sussex and elsewhere about overbuilding on the flood plain?

Mr. Prescott

It would help us all if I assumed that every Tory thought that, so they would not have to bring it up in every question.

I do not know the details about the flooding in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, but I am concerned about it, so I will investigate and write to him.

Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement. This morning I visited a constituent, Mr. Alan Butt, who runs the Anchor inn, beside Tintern abbey. The inn was severely flooded a couple of days ago and has been flooded eight times in the past 10 years. The flooding was caused not by the River Wye but by excess water running off the local hillsides. That reveals the lack of investment that local authorities have been able to put into flood prevention. In his review of these matters, will my right hon. Friend consider the powers and resources available to local authorities, so that they can have a similar flood prevention role to that of the Environment Agency?

Mr. Prescott

On local authority finances, we have increased the amount for flood management in the standard spending assessment. My hon. Friend makes an important point about water from hillsides, and buildings can also cause flooding. We shall certainly consider those matters in the review.

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South)

I remind the Secretary of State that the first instance of flooding this year was on 15 September in my constituency and that the Environment Agency has still failed to report on the causes. Will he ensure that the agency has sufficient resources to deal with the matter properly, quickly and effectively? Will he investigate the role of Southern Water and the incompetent way in which it failed to protect the Portsmouth pumping station, causing many hundreds of people to go through the traumatic experience of losing their homes? Will he also consider the fact that many of those people were not properly insured or not insured at all? Will the Government sympathetically consider supporting the hardship funds that have been set up to help those people through this very difficult situation?

Mr. Prescott

I do not know in sufficient detail the matter to which the hon. Gentleman refers, but I shall certainly investigate it. Sewerage was more of a problem than flooding, but the point is academic if the water is coming in through the front door. I shall certainly investigate Southern Water's inefficiencies in dealing with the problem.

In respect of insurance, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would agree that the answer is not to have blanket cover for those who have failed to take out insurance. However, I am concerned that an increasingly serious problem will be that insurance companies might tell people regularly faced with floods that they were not prepared to insure them.

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the only reason that my town of Reading is not suffering the serious flood damage experienced elsewhere is that many millions of gallons of water at present cover the ancient water meadows to the south of the town? Does he agree that that wholly justifies Labour-controlled Reading borough council's decision consistently to oppose development on that vital flood plain? Such development is suggested every year by Conservative and Liberal Democrat councillors in Berkshire.

Mr. Prescott

That sounds correct. I will go along with it.

Mr. Charles Wardle (Bexhill and Battle)

May I add to the praise for the emergency services? The Deputy Prime Minister knows that Robertsbridge in my constituency has been flooded four times in a year, and twice in the past three weeks. I am sure that he will understand the sense of devastation among local residents. Will he assure them that he will eliminate delays in Bellwin scheme assistance? Will he urge the Environment Agency to hold a meeting in the village as soon as possible, to ensure that the questions raised in last week's Adjournment debate can be answered and that local voices are heard in planning what else can be done to try to prevent the flooding happening again?

Mr. Prescott

Sir John Harman has told me that the agency does hold meetings, but I shall take up the matter with him. What the hon. Gentleman suggests certainly should happen, and I believe that it will. The agency's relationships with Members of Parliament and constituents are very important.

I shall also look into the point that the hon. Gentleman makes about what we can do to improve what has already been achieved. No hon. Member ever believes that the Bellwin mechanism is fast enough, and I shall certainly look into the matter.

Mr. Andy King (Rugby and Kenilworth)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his determination to do everything possible to alleviate the suffering caused to people by floods. I was amazed at the near hypocrisy expressed by Conservative Members about building on flood plains. I urge them to come to Kenilworth to see for themselves what has happened there as a result of building on the flood plain by Conservative councils and under the previous Conservative Government.

The Environment Agency is working very hard to implement a flood alleviation scheme in Kenilworth, to which it has allocated £200,000. However, the scheme has run up against an obstacle in English Heritage, which is talking about a scheme that would require much more in the way of funds. Will my right hon. Friend use every power available to him to bring the two agencies together with the local authorities so that a flood alleviation scheme in Kenilworth can be put in place that will end my constituents' suffering?

Mr. Prescott

I shall certainly see what I can do to bring the agencies together. There is no reason why they should not come together to reach some agreement, even if it is one that is not acceptable to my hon. Friend. I reserve judgment on the matter, but it is important and I will do what I can.

My hon. Friend makes some powerful points about flood plains. The House should remember that the previous Administration merely published a circular—a type of advice note—on the problem in 1992. Most houses on flood plains were built by Tory councils under a Tory Government. The Opposition still want local councils to make such decisions, even though difficulties such as my hon. Friend described tend to arise. However, 10 per cent. of the population live in houses built on what are presently defined as flood plain fields, and we have to take that into account.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon)

The regulator apparently puts repairs to foul water and surface water drainage low on the list of priorities contained in his guidance to water companies. Given the increased incidence of flooding, will the Deputy Prime Minister invite the regulator to reconsider those priorities and to encourage water companies to give repairs to drainage pipes for foul and surface water a far higher priority than hitherto?

Mr. Prescott

One of the first things that the Government did on coming to office was to make it clear to the water authorities that there was far too much wastage of water, and that they had to start mending the pipes. They have done that, and wastage has fallen from something over 30 per cent. on average to nearer 20 per cent. That is a step forward.

I do not know enough about the point that the hon. Gentleman makes to be specific in my reply, but I will draw what he has said to the regulator's attention. I will then write to the hon. Gentleman with the regulator's response.

Sir David Madel (South-West Bedfordshire)

At his meeting on Thursday, will the right hon. Gentleman urge Railtrack to have an extensive local advertising campaign so that commuters may know how long it will take to do this vital work and when the rail timetables will be restored to normalcy?

Secondly, does he agree that if we are to make real progress on the reduction of global warming, somebody has to find a way of persuading the Americans to use less energy?

Mr. Prescott

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, which I have made constantly to the Vice-President and others, about how America must lead the way in these matters. The Americans have committed themselves to targets; however, it is one thing to do that but another to achieve them, particularly where the use of oil and energy is concerned. Still, we have to continue with the arguments. Some people said that the Americans would not sign up for anything, but they did. Now we must ensure that the policies are implemented. That is what The Hague meeting is about.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about getting Railtrack and others to give more information. I went to my railway station on Sunday to find out about the trains on Monday morning. There was a big queue, but only one person was giving advice and selling tickets. I should have thought, given the crisis, that more people would have been available at the stations to give such information. We have asked Railtrack to report on that on Thursday. People are entitled to know what is happening and what is causing problems—not knowing leads to frustration, and we intend to try and end that.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

I join my hon. Friends the Members for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) and for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) in congratulating my right hon. Friend on his tremendous work in taking a lead in Kyoto. Now that it is clear from nearly all the scientific evidence around the world that climate change is real and is here to stay, we must redouble our efforts to improve public understanding of some of the issues so that people can use direct measures to reduce their energy consumption. We need to improve the debate about the future of power generation in this country to ensure that we do more and more to improve our contribution to the future of Kyoto protocols.

Mr. Prescott

My hon. Friend makes important points. Perhaps we could start here, by reducing the temperature in our offices and in the House of Commons. That would be a step in the right direction. With regard to power and energy efficiency, our climate change levy is designed to do precisely that.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

Speaking for a constituency that floods each and every year, I suggest that prevention is better than cure. We will not deal with the problem simply by building higher and higher walls. Should we not look at the management of whole river catchment systems and consider involving more than one Department in that process? For instance, we could use farms that would otherwise be lying idle to retain water and prevent the flooding of places where people live.

Mr. Prescott

I support the hon. Gentleman's idea, and we will look at it seriously. It is not just about building banks—the rise and fall of water is so great—but about how much water is getting into our waterways and whether we can manage the system more effectively. I think that we can, and it means looking again at planning and building regulations and other things that need to be considered to manage the situation properly, and we intend to do that.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North)

Is it not the case that the real cause of these extreme weather conditions has very little to do with housebuilding in Kent and far more to do with 100 years of burning fossil fuels such as gas, coal and oil? Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that, when the Government consider their future policy on fuel duty, the principles of the Kyoto protocol and the tough targets on CO2 emissions will underpin that policy?

Mr. Prescott

My hon. Friend can be sure that that is exactly the course that I advocate with my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe)

For my constituents in Folkestone, the considerable disruption and inconvenience caused by the weather were aggravated by the closure of the M20 motorway for use, yet again, as a lorry park under Operation Stack. Now that Kent county council has identified alternatives to the motorway for this purpose, will the Government take action to put an end to a state of affairs which, for my constituents, is quite unacceptable?

Mr. Prescott

It is difficult to deal with such problems unless the lorries can be moved on. That is probably the best way to deal with the matter. I am prepared to listen to other ideas, although it is hard to think what they might be. I support the action.

Mr. Hilary Benn (Leeds, Central)

My right hon. Friend referred to the many homes built on flood plains. Bearing in mind our current knowledge, does he think that those who, contrary to the advice of the Environment Agency, build homes on flood plains, bear some responsibility towards those whose homes flood? Might that responsibility include making a contribution towards compensation?

Mr. Prescott

The Environment Agency has objected to building on flood plains in relatively few cases. Our new planning guidance, which I mentioned in my statement, will make it clear that our preference is against building on flood plains and that the approach has to be scaled in different ways, because there are many different types of flood plain. For example, although Holland is one entire flood plain, houses can be built everywhere because the appropriate investments are made to deal with water dispersal.

Mr. David Chidgey (Eastleigh)

Will the Deputy Prime Minister join me in extending the House's sympathy to the residents of Allbrook, which is in my constituency? They and their properties were engulfed by 5 ft of mud and water on Monday morning. I am sure that other hon. Members have similar stories. Will he also congratulate those residents on using their own resources to clear out their homes with equipment and pumps?

I believe that the right hon. Gentleman suggested in his statement that 0.2 per cent. of a local authority's annual budget should be allocated for contingencies and emergencies. If that is correct, what plans does he have to upgrade or modify the guidelines that are issued to local authorities to ensure that they have adequate contingency and emergency plans in place to deal with such events?

Mr. Prescott

That is a fair point. In such situations, we make statements in the House but the reality is that people may have to spend weeks drying out their homes with heaters or pumps. I learned many lessons in Stratford, and I shall take up the points that the hon. Gentleman made in my discussions with local authorities.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham)

What immediate action will the Deputy Prime Minister and the Environment Agency take to ensure that, the next time there are heavy rains, we can keep open the M25, the A3, other motorways and main trunk roads, and railway lines? It is his responsibility to offer protection against flooding. What will he do to ensure that my constituents can get to work and school next time that there are heavy rains, although they could not do so this time?

Mr. Prescott

It is becoming increasingly clear—I referred to this earlier—that roads, including the M25, were flooded because inadequate pumps were used in an attempt to save money. The right hon. Gentleman should consider whether he covered every eventuality when he was in government. On the railway system, it is certain that inadequate investment for a couple of decades at least—more, I think—resulted in the failures that we are trying to deal with today. It is a pity that he does not show a bit more humility.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion)

The Deputy Prime Minister earlier said that he had had to travel a lot recently. Does he accept that there is a link between increases in air travel and global warming? Will he note that there is no tax on air fuel and that the present system wastes fuel? What ideas will he take to the Netherlands next month to secure an international agreement on that, and what proposals do the Government have to regulate the current waste of air fuel and its environmental consequences, and on the polluter pays principle?

Mr. Prescott

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that important point. We have argued the international case in all the national and international arenas. All nations need to reach agreement—we need a global agreement and a global solution. Although that matter is not in the Kyoto agreement, we are pressing the case very hard.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest)

I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for the sympathy that he expressed for those, including the hundreds in my constituency, who have suffered great loss in their homes and of their possessions because of flooding. Will he join me in paying tribute to the Epping Forest district council emergency response team, which was able to go straight into action late on Sunday night because of good early warning systems, and which helped to alleviate problems? Will he also pay tribute to the many voluntary organisations, including the Women's Royal Voluntary Service and the Red Cross, which helped people who had to be evacuated, and the Royal Engineers? Will he also thank those who provided lifeboats? We do not have any in Epping forest, because we rarely need them.

If the Secretary of State is right about the fact that flood alleviation schemes are not suitable for the more severe weather conditions that he has predicted, will the Government give us more money to provide more efficient schemes?

Mr. Prescott

I have already told the House that we have been giving more funds, but in the end it is about reorganising. Of course I will join the hon. Lady in thanking all the people who helped. They are the unsung heroes, and I hope that she makes the front page.

Dr. Peter Brand (Isle of Wight)

The Deputy Prime Minister has had to make a statement because of exceptional weather circumstances. Does he recognise the anxiety of the people in Ryde in my constituency, who live in fear of flooding every time that there is moderate rainfall because they rely on pumps that are 30 years old for their land drainage? Will he ensure that, when we finally have an agreed scheme, that is funded? In the meantime, will he look sympathetically at the plight of people who cannot insure their homes, not because of exceptional weather circumstances but because of the failure of the public authorities to install a proper drainage scheme?

Mr. Prescott

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point and it is one to which I referred. If one is constantly under threat, one cannot get insurance. Those are the people who face real difficulties in areas where flooding is likely. I imagine that the matter comes under the flood defence authority, or perhaps one of the drainage or water authorities. I will make inquiries and write to him.

Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester)

The Secretary of State knows that Selsey in my constituency has now been hit twice by tornadoes in three years, although yesterday's was much less severe than the very worrying tornado that did great damage three years ago. Given the huge amount of water that has fallen on the downs, Chichester will be vulnerable to flooding for the whole winter. My constituents were heartened by the remarks of the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food last week in an Adjournment debate. He said that grant aid was ready and waiting to ensure that the scheme to alleviate the danger of sea flooding in Selsey and the Chichester flood relief scheme are not delayed.

Let me bring the Secretary of State back to building in the flood plain. I am not making a party political point and I hope that he will take it in a non-partisan way, but if huge numbers of extra houses are demanded in an area such as Chichester, where large areas are virtually off-limits for construction because they are areas of outstanding natural beauty—part may soon be a national park—much of the construction will have to be in places that are vulnerable to flooding. Therefore, when he looks at planning policy guidance 25, will he reconsider the level that he is demanding for the construction of new housing in my constituency?

Mr. Prescott

The hon. Gentleman raised the matter in an Adjournment debate, which was answered by my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary. As I understand it, the funding is available, but it is a matter of getting the preferred option and agreement so that it is there. We will put on pressure to achieve that as quickly as possible and we will get a settlement. On Chichester and housing, I do not know the exact details. The hon. Gentleman knows that, in December, we will respond to the various controversies concerning the amount of housing to be available. I am not sure of the allocation for Chichester. In general—this is a sound point—we have made it clear that our housing requirements could be met with the same amount of land used by Serplan by imaginative planning and much higher density housing. I suspect that the housing density in Chichester is one of the lowest in the south-east.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford)

Yesterday, homes in Ross-on-Wye in my constituency were flooded for the first time and, in the city of Hereford, the Belmont roundabout was again under water, causing a traffic gridlock at the junction of two trunk roads. The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Environment Agency has applied to become the navigation authority for the River Wye and that the public inquiry into the matter closed in July 1997. The Government have not decided whether to accept the recommendations of the inquiry. Will he look into the matter, consult with his colleagues in the Welsh Office and the Welsh Assembly and ensure that that gridlock is soon past?

Mr. Prescott

I do not know the reason, but I will certainly look into the matter and write to the hon. Gentleman. I do not know whether a navigation authority would have a direct effect in cases such as the flooding to which he referred, but I will look into the matter.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Is the Secretary of State aware that one of the consequences of the floods—by no means the most serious, but not insignificant—is that many right hon. and hon. Members, certainly those with offices in No. 7 Millbank and possibly those in other buildings, received no delivery of mail yesterday and that it was a source of particular distress to me to be deprived of the concerns and opinions of my Buckingham constituents? Will the right hon. Gentleman at least undertake to talk to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to find out whether we can establish from the Post Office how much, if any, mail was damaged or destroyed?

Mr. Prescott

That is a matter for the House authorities. I have no doubt that, as the hon. Gentleman has raised the matter in this way, it will be brought up, although perhaps we are all glad that he was not able to get his mail out.

Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)

Is the Minister aware that, in mid-Wales, where we regularly experience flooding, we have experimented with lowering the water level in one of the reservoirs and that has helped a little? Will he consider a similar experiment in other places that suffer heavy flooding? Will he also ensure that some of the £400 million comes to mid-Wales, where we regularly suffer a great deal because the water table is already saturated?

Mr. Prescott

As the hon. Gentleman is aware, that matter is devolved to the Welsh Assembly, where a statement is being made on it today. Nevertheless, he makes a central point and I shall take it into account.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

In my constituency, there are at least 12 flooding hot spots, which flood regularly when there is heavy rain. First, may I again draw the Deputy Prime Minister's attention to the issue raised by the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett)? As the regulator has told Thames Water that, within its pricing formula, for the next two years, it can protect no houses from the threat of sewage flooding, the matter must be addressed. If the proposed water Bill is the right vehicle to do so, I hope that it can be used in that way.

Secondly, will the right hon. Gentleman restore to the borough of Reigate and Banstead the money earmarked for flood defences that was removed from the standard spending assessment about 18 months ago?

Mr. Prescott

In these circumstances, it is possible for local authorities and people affected by flooding to take an interim determination. I am not sure how that works or whether it fits the present circumstances, but I shall write to the hon. Gentleman and try to spell the matter out.