HL Deb 05 March 1953 vol 180 cc1012-36

4.38 p.m.

LORD STRABOLGI rose to call attention to the recent damage to life and property by storm and flood; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, in moving the Motion standing in my name, I would ask for certain assurances. I hope the fact that I have just voted with the Government will count in my favour and that I can get some concession in return. The sympathy of your Lordships' House and of another place, and also of the whole country, has been very well expressed by the Leaders of the Parties for our own people and for the people of Holland and Belgium who suffered so terribly in the disaster which is so vivid in your Lordships' minds. There have also been worthy expressions of appreciation of the fine spirit and courage of the people affected, of the ready help given by all classes and of the fine work done by the members of the Armed Forces, the Civil Defence and other organisations. All that has been done in a worthy and dignified manner in your Lordships' House and in another place, and I shall not attempt to add to those appreciations. We have also given thanks for the substantial gifts in cash and kind from foreign Governments and nationals of other countries and from our own kith and kin in the Commonwealth.

I am going to venture to give an appreciation in my own words of all that the Government Departments concerned did immediately on the emergency. I shall come to that in a moment. This has been the greatest disaster by flood and storm. I believe, since the great floods in 1571. I am informed that that is historically correct. Whether there were comparable disasters prior to that date, between then and the Great Deluge, I do not know. It was certainly an unusual and extraordinary occurrence to have abnormally high tides and a northern tempest. The result was this terrible damage and loss of life and property. On this occasion I am not going to make any reference to the horrible devastation of the beautiful forests of Scotland, because I understand that the noble Earl, Lord Mansfield, and other noble Lords from Scotland are going to raise the matter particularly in a. few days' time.

I must inform your Lordships that a great many people—and I would not say that they are altogether wrong—attribute the abnormal eccentricities of the climate all over the world in recent years, of which this is one of the most terrible manifestations, to the general upset to the forces of nature by tinkering with nuclear energy. In other words, the explosion of atom bombs in America, Japan, the Pacific and Australia, and, if we can believe what we are told, in Eastern Siberia, has upset the climate of the world. I am sorry the noble Lord, Lord Cherwell, is not in his place, because I should have liked to hear his views on that matter. I would not rule that theory out altogether. After all, rain can be created by bombing the clouds, and these atom bombs and, I think, hydrogen bombs, could have caused an upset in the delicate forces of nature for which we have had to pay with terrible winters and dreadful floods on both sides of the North Sea. I am not able to give a scientific judgment on that point, but there may be something in it. If so, it is a lesson to all of us.

I was involved in this disaster from early on. Like many of your Lordships, I suffered personal losses, and properties in which I am interested were heavily damaged. I must say that at once, because it means that I am indirectly interested, as are others of your Lordships. I heard of this trouble early on Sunday morning, soon after the first inflows of the sea. It was most unfortunate that the great inundation took place early on Sunday morning, because the worst day for anything important to happen in this country is a Sunday. Dictators usually make war on us on a Sunday, because the British week-end means that nearly all the important people are away, and nothing is functioning. I was informed that there was very heavy damage and loss, that people had already been killed, and that something must be done at once. I got into contact with various Government Departments, and I must say that they were all most helpful. When the machine got into action early in the week, it functioned admirably. The Departments I had to deal with directly were the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries—represented so brilliantly in your Lordships' House by the noble Lord, Lord Carrington—the War Office, the Air Ministry and the Prime Minister's political department. All of them were most helpful and efficient and acted very quickly. All this talk about red tape strangling Governments, and the delays of bureaucracy, were in this case without foundation. The greatest help was given by these Departments, without any undue delay, and we should all be most grateful to them. I am very glad indeed to make that contribution from my own personal and first-hand knowledge.

We have been told by the Home Secretary in another place that at the moment the damage has been estimated—I suppose a more accurate figure will be available later—at between £40 million and £50 million. What the damage to farmlands is out of this total I do not know precisely, but I do know it is enormous; and the loss of stock has been terrible indeed—one of my own friends lost 1,000 pedigree sheep. We are further told that the cost of the emergency repairs that were carried out at once, without any formalities, Treasury approval or anything else, will be borne by the Treasury. That was stated by the Home Secretary in the debate in another place on February 19 (OFFICIAL REPORT, Commons, Vol. 511, col. 1476). The Prime Minister on February 2 in another place said (OFFICIAL REPORT, Commons, Vol. 510, col. 1483): It is clear that the catastrophe is one which will require to be treated on a national basis and, broadly, as a national responsibility.

Damage amounting to £40 million to £50 million—which I should have thought, if anything, was rather on the low side—cannot be dealt with by private charity. The response of the public to the appeal of the Lord Mayor has been magnificent: a large amount of money has been raised, and generous gifts have come from all over the world. To that Her Majesty's Government, I think quite properly, propose to add pound for pound, thus doubling the amount subscribed by the public here and abroad. But that, I suppose, will amount altogether to only about £4 million, representing about 10 per cent., or less, of the total damage—perhaps the noble Lord who is to reply can give us the latest figure. We all understand that the Lord Mayor's Fund (this has been stated by Sir Trustram Eve) is primarily for the individual, for making good hardships and losses suffered by householders in the way of damage to furniture, the cost of immediate repairs to houses, and so on. That is right and proper, and I hope that nothing said in this debate will in any way dry up the stream of contributions to the Lord Mayor' Fund. The advantage of the Lord Mayor's Fund is, of course, that, under the leadership of Sir Trustram Eve and the Lord Mayor himself, help can be given immediately where it is most needed, to people who have suffered grievously. That is the advantage of the Lord Mayor's Fund, and I hope that that fund will continue to grow.

But that cannot be enough to meet all the losses that have been suffered. Quite properly, Sir Trustram Eve, the Lord Mayor and the Home Secretary, in describing the uses to which the Lord Mayor' Fund can be put, have said that there will be no relief from it to local or public authorities or to public limited companies; and that, although small businesses can be compensated, the ceiling there is to be £2,500. That is one of the matters which I should like to take up with Her Majesty's Government. If, according to the Prime Minister, The catastrophe is one which will require to be treated on a national basis and, broadly, as a national responsibility, then obviously these farmers and businessmen, who have lost far more than £2,500 in scores and scores of cases, the limited liability companies and the local and public authorities, will have to derive some assistance from the Treasury. I understand that that is the intention, but I feel that a statement should be made as soon as possible, because the uncertainty is harmful.

The Dutch Government—and the sufferings of the Dutch have been even greater than ours and they are deserving of all the sympathy that we and others have given—have announced that they will regard damage in their flooded areas as war damage, and compensation will be made on a war damage basis. I hope that we may do something similar. We have available the war damage assessors, who are being used to assist the administrators of the Lord Mayor's Fund—they are practised and experienced—and we have the machinery in existence which is accepted and known about. I hope, however, that they will not insist on looking at the damage before any repairs are done. That works all right where a bomb or a shell has fallen on a building, but when flood water has entered in you cannot delay too long before you begin cleaning up and starting repairs. Therefore, that is one of the points I venture to make to Her Majesty's Government and to your Lordships' House, and I hope that we shall have a sympathetic response.

It may be said. "Ah, yes, but these business are covered by insurance." Well, they are not always covered by insurance. On the East coast the premium for insurance against flood. I am informed, would be prohibitive. What they did was to subscribe—as they were bound to do, of course—to the various authorities responsible for sea defences. They thought that that was insurance enough, and that they would be made safe. They might well have been made safe if we had not had the two world wars, and particularly the Second World War. I think it is fair to say that had it not been for the Second World War, especially, more money, more material and more labour would have been spent on the sea defences; and the flood, though I think it could not have been prevented completely in the circumstances, could have been very greatly reduced. Therefore, I think it is not unfair or unjust to say that this is one of the results of the Second World War, and the case for treating it as war damage on that basis is a strong one. The very high rate of taxation which all Governments have imposed on the citizens of this country for a generation, and especially in recent years, has, in my opinion, made it very difficult for many businesses to build up reserves, and they have not the reserves to meet an emergency of this kind. Therefore, they will either have to make good the losses out of capital, if they can, or out of revenue over a great many years; and a good many will be unable to do either and will just go out of business. Those are two matters of detail, and I shall come again—and I shall not keep your Lordships very long—to some questions of general principle.

A great deal of the emergency defence work was by sandbags, and these sandbags rot quickly under the action of sea water. I am told it is a matter of months before these sandbags will fall to pieces. It is necessary, therefore, that something more permanent should be put in place of them as soon as possible. I gave notice to the noble Lord that I was going to raise this particular detailed question, which is of importance, taken over the whole vast length of the East coast which is affected. The other question, of which I regret to say I could give only very short notice to the noble Lord who will answer for the Government, is the position of the Customs and Excise with regard to dutiable goods which have been damaged. This matter has been brought to my notice only recently, but it affects a great many small business men and is important. I can describe it briefly as follows. Duty is paid on cigarettes, matches and, of course, alcoholic drinks, liquors and so on, before they go to the retailer. That duty is paid to the Customs. In the case of damage by fire, for example, to stocks of cigarettes and tobacco, if the damage is proved the Customs give a draw-back. In this case, particularly in the seaside resorts of Mablethorpe, Sutton and so on, there has been a heavy loss amongst the Café, hotel and kiosk keepers of their stocks of tobacco and matches. No decision can yet be obtained from the Customs authorities as to whether there is going to be a draw-back. In some cases the manufacturers will make a refund if the damaged packages of cigarettes, for example, are sent back to them. But where the whole of the stocks have been pulped or completely lost that cannot be done, and in any case I understand that there is no legal obligation on the manufacturers. It really comes back on the Customs.

What is happening is this. Stocks have had to be renewed again and Customs duty is paid on them, so the Treasury are making a profit on this transaction, even allowing—I have had the figures worked out—for the pound per pound which the Government are giving to the Lord Mayor's Fund. They have had the duty on the goods that have been damaged or destroyed, and they are now getting duty on the replenishments that have to go out, so they are doing very well. But that is not their intention, I am sure. The Customs authorities—I do not blame them—say, "This is a national question which must be considered on a national basis," and at the present time they cannot give a decision; which is making things very awkward for the people concerned. In spite of the short notice, I hope some information of a comforting nature will be available from the noble Lord, Lord Carrington. Those are the two detailed questions, and I submit they have some importance.

The question of coast protection is a very large one. I do not want to go into it in detail, but I think it will be agreed that we have been neglectful in the past and that we must make amends and not be caught like this a second time. The late Government have a good record on this matter. They passed the Coast Protection Act and provided, I think it was, £1 million for coast protection, but there has not been time for all the new works to be put in hand, with the result we all know to our sad cost. I think it is true to say that abnormal floods, like the one we are discussing, cannot be wholly guarded against. The cost of defences giving complete immunity against a flood like that which devastated so much of the East coast a few weeks ago would be greater than the value of the property damaged. Therefore, there must be a balance. That all our coastal defences are inadequate at the present time I am afraid is only too evident, and this matter should be treated as an emergency. I suggest that more money will have to be made available and also more labour and material, and no time should be lost. The parts of Essex that I know best are very much a case in point. The defences there have been so damaged that a very high tide with a very strong north wind—a storm which, in normal times, would not cause much trouble—this time, because of the damage and because of the necessarily flimsy nature of the temporary defences which have been put up, will cause trouble again. Something should be done at once on those parts of the coast. The work should be begun during the coming summer or we shall have still further loss, particularly to the agricultural properties.

This is not a Party question at all, and I am not addressing your Lordships from the Party point of view. I am glad to say that a Coast Protection Committee of both Houses, which I have been invited to join, has been formed on an all-Party basis, under the chairmanship of an honourable friend of mine in another place who has great experience on this matter, Mr. Edward Evans. He was a prophet in the wilderness for a long time on this subject. He badgered the late Government into the Coast Protection Act, which at any rate did something, and if he had been listened to and the magnitude of the task had been appreciated in time, some, at any rate, of the recent damage, disaster and suffering could have been avoided. However, we have had our lesson. I do not think there can be any excuse now for any Government, and especially Her Majesty's Government at the present time, to delay or to avoid taking the necessary measures to prevent, at any rate, the worst damage of the recent disaster recurring. I beg to move for Papers.

5.1 p.m.


My Lords, I am glad that the noble Lord has put down this Motion to-day. We all appreciate the way in which he has introduced it. I think that he was right in saying that the Government Departments have been most helpful in the way in which they have got on with this matter. If I may say so in passing, though I do not want to follow the noble Lord into the question of atomic energy and its results, he did say that he knew it was possible to bomb the clouds and so produce rain. It rather reminds me of the time when I was at the Ministry of Aircraft Production. We asked for suggestions on how we could improve matters in aircraft production. One of the suggestions found in a week's batch that I looked at was a suggestion that we might mount our anti-aircraft batteries on the clouds, because they then would be able to shoot the aircraft as one shoots driven grouse, and not so high up. It was not, of course, practicable to mount anti-aircraft batteries on the clouds, and I really do not know how the noble Lord is going to explode a bomb on a cloud. However, be that as it may, I am delighted that he has introduced this matter this afternoon.

I particularly wanted to speak to-day because, when we discussed this matter on February 19. I said that I thought, at any rate in one case, that the troops who were so promptly sent for to help in these areas of destruction had perhaps been prematurely withdrawn. I am very much obliged to my noble friend Lord Carrington for the action that he took in this matter. There had been, in my view, a rather premature withdrawal of troops, but owing to the action of my noble friend, and perhaps of others—I do not know—the troops are now back at this spot and have an opportunity over the low tides of this week-end of repairing that gap to which I drew attention. I believe that, if they all work with a will, they will be able to put the sandbags around it. I am much obliged for the prompt action that has been taken in that regard.

Like the noble Lord who has just sat down, I realise that sandbags are no permanent defence. They are the most convenient things quickly to fill a gap, especially when there is available a large force of men who can put them into place when the tide is low. But, of course, they will have to be backed up later by bulldozers and cranes making a real stalwart coastal wall. I have not the slightest doubt that that will be done at most of these places. I thank the Government for their prompt action in this regard throughout this emergency. I hope it is realised that, on the question of agricultural land—and we must all realise that the longer land remains under salt water the more difficult it is to get it back into cultivation—these prompt steps may save a great deal of expense later on. I believe the one thing that it is fatal to do is to plough the salt into the ground. Therefore, it is necessary to take some steps to neutralise the effect of the salt. I believe that gypsum, or something of that sort, may be applied. It is important thereafter to see that the fields are well drained. I hope that the main assistance which the Government will give will be the provision of those materials and of the draining machines, so that the farmers themselves may be able to do the work, with apparatus supplied by the Ministry of Agriculture through the local county agricultural committees, or through some other agency of that sort.

Another thing that I am told is liable to happen on agricultural land after being flooded by sea water, is that very rank grass starts growing up, or is liable to grow up, a year or two later. It may well be that free weedkiller, or whatever is appropriate—because it cannot be ploughed in—or cutting machines, should be provided. It is that kind of practical step which the Government can take to help the farmers to help themselves to get the land back into cultivation as quickly as possible. I should like to hear that some such ideas are contemplated for the future by Her Majesty's Government. Like the noble Lord who has just sat down, I very much hope that the Government will, through the appropriate local people, survey all these coast defences and see that they are quickly put into such a state that something like this cannot occur again. But, from the attitude that has been shown by the Government in the whole of this matter, I am quite certain that they will do that, and that they will also take any proper steps to help those farmers to get their land back into cultivation.

5.7 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure that we are grateful to my noble friend Lord Strabolgi for raising this matter this afternoon. Noble Lords on the other side will, I think, acquit me of any undue liking for their policy generally, but in this instance I wish to pay tribute, if they will allow me, to the work of the Prime Minister's Committee, and particularly the energetic, broad, sympathetic and understanding way in which Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, the Home Secretary, handled that work. As my noble friend said, the red tape was cut. It was not only cut, but it was completely done away with for the time being. I hope that that broad, sympathetic outlook will continue and that the great machine will not once again get back into its stride and go grinding away in the old way that we all know so well.

I think it is right, bearing in mind all that is being done, that we should also pay tribute to the way in which the great firms of public works contractors rose to their responsibilities in this matter. To name them would, of course, be invidious. Not only the public works contractors but, in this instance, I think one can say, quite justly and rightly, the great insurance companies, have played their part in helping many families to tide over a period of great distress. But there were not only the Government Departments; there were the local authorities, the regional hospital boards, the hospital management committees, and so on. I know how one chairman of a hospital management committee group arranged for all possible cases to be sent home, in preparation for cases of pneumonia that were likely to be brought in. Up to the time that I last saw the chairman, over 150 cases had been provided for in that way.

It is this great spirit of improvisation latent in our people which has been called out by this tragedy. May I, perhaps, declare an interest in this, and ask your Lordships to remember the work of such voluntary organisations as the citizens advice bureaux, who immediately arranged for trained, skilled bodies of helpers to proceed to the stricken areas, where they rendered invaluable assistance. This takes me back to the grim, dark days of the war, when I was chairman of a civil defence committee in a not unimportant county borough. In those days I came across several individual deeds of courage and self-sacrifice. Let us remember the many instances of courage and self-sacrifice which obtained in this crisis. Just one such instance came to my notice; no doubt others could tell of similar cases. There was the case of a nurse whose home had been practically destroyed by the surging flood; her elderly parents had also been flooded out, and she was not aware what had happened to them. Yet, on that dark, cold, grey morning she insisted that the team of R.A.F. rescuers should go from one to another of the elderly and sick cases of which she knew, and should rescue those people, before she herself accepted any offer of assistance to proceed to a rest centre. In times like these it is deeds of that sort that make one proud of the people of this country.

I should like to conclude by asking the Government as did my noble friend, what is going to happen in the coming winter? The sandbagging has been a wonderful achievement in order to deal with a temporary position, but in the winter, from October onwards, many of these areas will again become vulnerable. I do not ask this question in any spirit of complaint, because I feel that the Government have got along so splendidly up to now that they will envisage the state of affairs that is likely to prevail when winter again comes upon us. I thank my noble friend for raising this matter, and again express the thanks of the noble Lords on this side for all that the Government and others have done in this Great national emergency.

5.13 p.m.


My Lords. I am sure that the whole House would wish to be associated with the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, and the noble Lord, Lord Burden, and also those of my noble friend Lord Llewellin, when they express appreciation of the truly remarkable efforts which have been put forward by all the organisations concerned in the relief of distress and the repair of damage caused by the storm and floods on the night of January 31. I think we can all be proud of what has been done.

I myself had the opportunity of visiting the flooded areas in Lincolnshire, Norfolk and Essex, and the devastation that I saw just after the floods had taken place was truly dreadful, not only in terms of human suffering and loss of homes and personal belongings, but also to the sea defences and to agricultural land. Concrete sea walls had been smashed to smithereens, and sand dunes 30 feet high had completely disappeared. Sea walls which had been perfectly adequate for centuries had been swept away. Certainly the task which confronted the rescuers on that Sunday morning was a formidable one, but I can bear personal witness to the energy and determination, and the skill, which they brought to their task and, indeed, the success which they achieved. As the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi said, the tidal conditions on that night were far worse than anything that previous experience could have led us to expect or provide against. I am not in a position, any more than he or my noble friend Lord Llewellin, is to discuss why that was so—whether it was due to atomic bombs, to changes in the climate, or to some other cause. But certainly the tidal conditions were quite unique.

After the flooding of Horsey, in Norfolk, and of other places, in 1938, new standards were set for sea defences. In 1949, when record tidal levels were reached and floods occurred again in many places in Norfolk, still higher standards of sea defence were adopted. Yet the tides on the night of January 31 were nearly 2 feet above the record tides of 1949, and the sea defences were overtopped for a great part of their length. Of course, the disaster was made much worse by the fact that it was dark, so that people were trapped in their homes. The scale of the problem which faced the authorities is difficult to imagine. Over 32,000 people had to be evacuated from their homes, and many of these had to be housed by the public authorities. Fortunately, the response by private householders who had offered temporary billets to the homeless was most prompt and generous. In the areas most seriously affected, from Yorkshire in the north, to Kent, in the south, there was an immediate response by the public and by the local authorities to give every help to all who had been forced to leave their homes. Householders in the safer parts of the flooded districts threw open the doors of their homes, and the district councils, without waiting for instructions from central authority, county councils, or anybody else immediately made preparations to receive families who had nowhere to go. I know that the Government Departments concerned, and the district and county councils, will read with interest and gratitude the tribute which was paid to them by the noble Lords, Lord Strabolgi and Lord Burden. They have been complimented on the way in which they worked, without red tape. They acted very promptly. They get a good many kicks, and I know that they will be very grateful indeed for the words which the noble Lords have spoken.

By February 14 the number of homeless remaining in rest centres had gone down to a little over 2,000. The payment of lodging allowance was, of course, a distinct encouragement to householders to take in evacuees. But as time went by, many of the evacuees returned to their houses to begin cleaning up operations, and by March 1 the numbers in rest centres had dropped to about 500. The emergency feeding arrangements have worked very well throughout, and special attention has been given to the needs of babies. The sick and the old have, so far as possible, been segregated and provided with care in sick bays, many of which are manned night and day by members of the British Red Cross Society and the St. John Ambulance Brigade. Our grateful thanks are due to these and to all other voluntary organisations which have helped in the emergency.

It has not proved possible to state the exact amount of damage to dwellings, but preliminary surveys show that about 25,000 houses were flooded and that 350 to 450 were destroyed. In addition, 200 houses may be beyond repair. However, this is no measure of the loss to individuals. When houses were flooded a great deal of furniture was destroyed or badly damaged. Many houses had inches, or in some cases feet, of mud or sand washed into them, and a good many others were thick with evil-smelling mud. The work of repair has gone on well and local authorities have now done enough first-aid repairs to ensure bare habitability, so that people can get back to their homes. Many overseas Governments have made generous contributions to the work of restoration, and we are extremely grateful to them. So much for the damage to property.

A considerable amount of interest has been shown in the system of flood warnings that was introduced shortly after the first disastrous floods at the end of January. This system, fortunately, has not been tested by an actual emergency, but on the whole it appears that the arrangements have been helpful and have worked efficiently. We have therefore made arrangements for a similar system to be operated during the two periods of spring tides, one of which ends to-morrow and the next of which begins on March 13 and lasts until March 20. This system is operating in much the same way as the earlier one. It may be of interest to your Lordships to know exactly what we are doing in this way. The headquarters office of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries receives information on weather conditions from the Meteorological Office, and information about tide conditions from the harbour masters at five selected points on the East coast. The points are Aberdeen, Middlesbrough, Grimsby, Great Yarmouth and Harwich. In the light of this information, the Ministry's office informs the river board in each case of the expected height of the tide above the predicted level, while the B.B.C., for the purposes of their hourly announcements, are given the expected levels of tides as compared with the previous tides. Each river board has a liaison officer from the police, who is appointed by the chief constable. We feel sure that by this method it will be possible to give adequate warning of any threatened danger of further flooding.


Do I understand that the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries are the overriding and superior authority on this matter? Do they receive information from the Admiralty and the Air Ministry of storm warnings and the like? In other words, is all meteorological and weather information concentrated in them?


The information we get is from the Meteorological Office, so far as weather conditions are concerned, and from the harbour masters at these various points on tide conditions. We also have, to help us, somebody who is expert in reading the signs about tide conditions, so that we can tell as soon as possible what the tide is going to be. But the information is all co-ordinated in my Department in London.

Now that the first emergency has passed, the main task remaining, as the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi has stressed, is the restoration of our sea defences and the consolidation of the emergency work that has already been done. This is the concern of my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries, and for that reason I think it would be proper for me to tell your Lordships as much as I can about that particular aspect of the problem and our plans for the future. It is the river boards who are responsible for the maintenance of the embankments which were damaged during the storm. Six river boards are chiefly concerned in this case and these control about 1,000 miles of embankments, from Kent to Yorkshire. These boards took the first shock of the disaster, and have exercised local control of the repair work ever since. Perhaps may say here that the country owes an immense debt to the river board engineers in charge of the emergency work. They worked day and night, and were often without sleep for long periods. Without their specialist knowledge and their common sense this crisis could never have been mastered and brought under control as it has been.

The Ministry's organisation was strengthened by bringing in engineers from the provinces, and the London office was linked by teleprinter to each of the river boards' flood headquarters. The engineering staff of the river boards was considerably strengthened, over sixty engineers from others areas being brought in to strengthen the staffs of the river board chief engineers. The Association of Consulting Engineers also made contact with the Ministry at an early stage so that the fullest use could be made of their services in the emergency. The Association continues to co-ordinate requests by river boards for the services of consultants.

In all this work the Services gave the greatest help, and at the peak some 14,000 men were employed on emergency work. Practically the whole of the work has now been taken on by the river boards' own organisations and contractors' organisations, and at present at least sixty firms of contractors are engaged. The Federation of Civil Engineering Contractors and the Contractors Plant Association put their organisations at the disposal of the Ministry, and offers of help from their members have been matched with requests for help from river boards. Nearly 100 large pumps—some from a reserve created after the 1947 freshwater floods—were mobilised by the Ministry and sent to the affected areas so that the flood water could be cleared quickly from the land.

Fortunately, the weather has been kind during recent high spring tides, and so far the repaired defences have held. However it is by no means an overstatement to say that the need for restoring our broken sea defences has presented us with one of the greatest civil engineering problems we have ever had to face. Completely up-to-date figures are not available but the flooded area has now been reduced to roughly 12,000 acres. This compares with an earlier estimate of between 150,000 and 175,000 acres of agricultural land which was originally flooded on the night of January 31. Approximately 95 per cent. of the breaches have been closed, and with a few exceptions those remaining open are relatively unimportant, such as the one at Narpips, which we hope will be closed during these low tides.

Looking ahead from emergency to permanent works—the point which interested Lord Strabolgi—defences along a thousand miles of coastline have to be restored and made strong during the spring and summer to withstand the tides and storms which next autumn and winter will inevitably bring. In six or seven months, work will have to be planned, and will have to be done, which would in normal times be spread over ten to fifteen years. This is an immense task, but Her Majesty's Government are determined that nothing shall stand in the way of achieving it. The river boards concerned have been told that the Government will meet the full cost of all sea defence works which they do before the end of September to provide, so far as may be, the same standard of protection as existed before January 31. I might remind your Lordships that the normal maximum rate of grant payable by the Government is 85 per cent.

Time will not generally allow more than the restoration of the original standard of protection, and we shall have to consider whether in the long run more should be attempted. But where major industries, dwelling-houses or important farming areas are affected, it is obvious that risks must not be taken, and plans will be made immediately to give greater protection than existed before. Where such further works are done an appropriate rate of grant will be negotiated by the Ministry with the river board concerned. The financing of works outstanding at the end of September will have to be considered later in the light of progress made by then. The immediate task is to do as much as is humanly possible in restoring our sea defences before the autumn. It is perhaps a little premature to estimate the volume or work to be done, and the labour, plant and materials needed, but my estimate is that the cost of work may be of the order of £8 million to £10 million.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries and the river boards will work speedily together in drawing up plans for permanent works, and putting them into execution. My right honourable friend the Minister is setting up an inter-Departmental committee of officials to speed up the help that other Departments may be able to give and to see that any problems the works may raise are solved promptly. When plans for works are ready there must be no delay in acting on them; and a Bill will be introduced shortly to give river boards special emergency powers until the end of this year to acquire land for erecting sea defences and flood embankments and, where necessary, for securing clay or other material to build them. We think that this is an essential and urgent measure, because it would obviously be disastrous if, when works had been planned and were ready to go ahead, they were held up by procedural delays. We therefore have to choose between drastic powers and the risk of entering next winter inadequately prepared to meet the normal winter tides and storms. I feel that there can be no doubt what our choice ought to be and must be.

It has already been announced that any main drains or ditches leading to those drains that had become blocked by flood debris and which were cleared within one month of the appropriate breach in the wall being closed would attract a grant covering the whole cost. We have now decided because of the difficulties which have been encountered that the period for which that work will attract a 100 per cent. grant shall be extended until April 30, 1953, The scope of the grant has already been extended to cover all drains and ditches and the repair of culverts—whether these are within the responsibility of a drainage authority or a private owner—where remedial work was made necessary by flood borne debris. Appropriate information and instructions have been sent to the river boards, internal drainage boards and county agricultural executive committees in the areas affected and I have no doubt that they will give whatever assistance they can with this work. We are faced, as I have said, with an immense task in the next seven months, and nothing must be allowed to stand in the way of achieving it so far as human energy and resources can provide. I trust that your. Lordships will support the Government in the action they have taken and are proposing to take to provide the greatest possible degree of protection for our coastal areas before next Autumn.

I now turn to the important question of restoring the fertility of agricultural land which has been flooded—a matter which Lord Llewellin touched upon. In most respects this is a long-term problem. Farmers have been advised not to attempt to cultivate land that has been flooded until samples of the soil have been taken and analysed for their salt content. The Ministry's Soil Analytical Service has been organised to deal with large numbers of samples free of charge to farmers. This work is well under way and expert advice will be given by the county agricultural executive committees and the National Agricultural Advisory Service as to the steps that should be taken to get the land back into production. In order to ensure that technical advice to farmers should be based on all available knowledge, a conference was held on February 24 last. This was attended by two experts from the Netherlands, one from France and one from the Food and Agriculture Organisation, as well as British research workers and advisory officers. At this conference there was a full exchange of information and the members of the National Agricultural Advisory Service will have the benefit of the advice of these international experts.

The first survey of the salt content of the soil is being carried out as soon as possible after the flood waters have cleared from each particular area. Further analyses will be made to determine the degree of salting throughout the soil and sub-soil. Provisional recommendations will be made as to treatment and cropping as soon as the analytical results are available. As regards the treatment itself, the application of gypsum to arable land will hasten its recovery by counteracting the effect of salt impregnation on the soil structure. The quantity needed as determined by the soil analyses will be supplied free to arable farmers. In some instances they may have to collect it from a central distributive point. There are some areas that may need special measures if they are to be kept in agriculture. In the main they comprise heavy land, much of it of a marginal nature, that was so heavily impregnated with salt that economic cultivation or grazing is unlikely for several years. The Government are studying what can be done with land of this kind. As an additional help, we have announced that farmers who have ploughed grassland under the ploughing grants scheme but have been prevented by the floods from carrying out further operations will be eligible for special payments at the statutory rates.

I now turn to the financial help which has been and will be given. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary recently made some mention in another place of the scale of effort which had already been made by the Government in bringing immediate relief to the affected areas. As I have said, members of Her Majesty's Forces have been made available in large numbers. Multitudes of sandbags have been provided. These items represent an expenditure of more than £2,500,000. The provision of emergency feeding facilities, lodging allowances and national assistance grants may amount to about another £100,000. In addition, first-aid repairs to houses fall to be paid for in full from the Exchequer. I have already told the House of the assistance which the Government propose to give in the restoration of the sea defences and the rehabilitation of agricultural land which we have acknowledged as our responsibility. This adds up to a very considerable sum indeed.

In broad terms the relief of personal distress is a matter for the Lord Mayor's Flood and Tempest Distress Fund, and we are greatly indebted to the Lord Mayor for his initiative in this respect and for the time and energy with which he has tackled a vital task in the midst of so many other preoccupations. As was clearly stated by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary in another place, the losses caused by these floods are very large, and I cannot emphasise too strongly that to give reasonable relief for the personal losses of those whose homes, furniture and clothing have been severely damaged or swept away, for the damage sustained by small shopkeepers, farmers, fishermen and others will require a large sum, even taking into account the Government's pound for pound contribution. There is, therefore, full scope for the generosity of the people of this country.

The noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, asked me earlier what total the Lord Mayor's Fund had reached. I understand that this morning it reached £2,000,000. I can safely say that donations will not be misused, for the Lord Mayor has gathered round him a very strong and experienced advisory council which has quickly got to work, and I know that arrangements for giving relief are well in hand. Having said this about the Lord Mayor's Fund, I think I should make it clear that its administration is entirely a matter for the Lord Mayor. The Government cannot, and should not, be expected to answer questions on that subject. No doubt, the Lord Mayor will, in due time, render some account of his stewardship, and if there are any detailed points which noble Lords wish to raise, I suggest that they should approach the Secretary of the Fund at the Mansion House. The question of what types of person or body are to receive payments for relief of distress is primarily a matter for the Committee set up by the Lord Mayor. No arrangements have been made for payments to public limited liability companies since their position differs in many ways from that of individuals or small firms. In any case in which distress to individuals is involved, application can be made to the Lord Mayor's Fund.

The noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, asked me a question about damage to duty-paid tobacco or other goods. A small shopkeeper who may be eligible for relief from the Lord Mayor's Fund can put in for the full replacement value of any damaged goods. Public companies which have insurance cover should include the full value of the goods in any claim under their polices. It is not the practice of Governments to make any repayment of Customs and Excise duty in such cases. In addition, the tax element cannot always be readily identified.


May I ask the noble Lord a question on that point? This is a matter of great importance to the people concerned; it is in regard to this limit of £2,500. Suppose a shopkeeper has had dutiable goods to the value of more than £2,500 damaged or destroyed, what happens then?


I have intimated, the administration of the Lord Mayor's Fund is a matter for the Lord Mayor. As I understand this point, it depends very much on what total the Lord Mayor's Fund reaches. I do not think there is anything sacrosanct, so to speak, about the figure of £2,500.

Finally, I am sure the House will agree with me that the sensible thing for the Government to do is to ensure that any lessons which this disaster can teach us do not go unlearned. It was with this in mind that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary, in the debate in another place about a fortnight ago, announced that the Government intended to set up a Committee of Inquiry into the recent floods. I am glad to be able to announce that the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, has consented to become the Chairman. I know that your Lordships will agree that nobody is more fitted by his wide experience of public affairs, and also by the authority which attaches to his name, than the noble Viscount, to carry out this very important task. Her Majesty's Government are grateful to the noble Viscount for agreeing so willingly to undertake the chairmanship of this Committee.

The Committee's terms of reference are as follows:

  1. 1. To examine the causes of the recent floods and the possibilities of a recurrence in Great Britain.
  2. 2. To consider what margin of safety for sea defences would be reasonable and practicable having regard on the one hand to the estimated risks involved and, on the other, to the cost of protective measures.
  3. 3. To consider whether any further measures should be taken by a system of warning or otherwise to lessen the risk of loss of life and serious damage to property.
  4. 1034
  5. 4. To review the lessens to be learned from the disaster and the administrative and financial responsibilities of the various bodies concerned in providing and maintaining sea defences and replacing them in the event of damage; and to make recommendations.
We hope to be able to announce the full membership of the Committee in the course of the next few days.

I cannot end my remarks without thanking all those who have so kindly given help to us from abroad. We have had very many generous gifts from countries all over the world, both inside and outside the Commonwealth, and we are most grateful to all those warmhearted Governments and peoples. May I end as I began? All the organisations and individuals affected by the floods have made remarkable efforts and met with great success. I hope your Lordships will agree, after having heard what I have had to say, that included among that number is Her Majesty's Government, who have acted promptly and efficiently and with considerable generosity.

5.41 p.m.


My Lords, before I withdraw my Motion, I should like to address myself to the noble Viscount the Acting Leader of the House. We have had a most important statement from the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, for which I am sure your Lordships are grateful, and I am very glad that for once this House has been the scene in which an important statement has been made, particularly in regard to agriculture. The statement about the payment for sea defences completed before September is most satisfactory and most important. It is a real act of statesmanship. With regard to the appointment of the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, as Chairman of the Committee of Inquiry, may I say, speaking, I am sure, on behalf of my noble friends sitting on these Benches, that no appointment could be more welcome? I am certain the work this Committee will do under such an able Chairman will be of the greatest value to the country.

The distressing thing is that 12,000 acres are still under sea water. That is a terrible business, and I want here to make a suggestion. The Government of Israel have a great deal of up-to-date scientific knowledge of clearing soil of salt. If the noble Lord or his Department would communicate with the Hebrew University at Jerusalem, they would get information on the wonderful work that has been done there in clearing the verges of the Dead Sea of salt. Land that was considered useless for centuries is now growing wonderful crops as a result of the scientific treatment by scientists, mainly emigrés from German persecution.


I will certainly look into that.


Unless that has been thought of, I am very glad to make that suggestion.

Why I wanted to address myself particularly to the noble Viscount the Acting Leader of the House is that the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, apparently was not authorised to make any reply to the questions I asked, of which I gave notice, about compensation for businesses outside the scope of the Lord Mayor's Fund. We all know the work of the Lord Mayor's Fund, and we all admire it and have every confidence in it, but it is for individual cases of distress. There are cases of businesses that cannot possibly be helped by the Lord Mayor's Fund and which will go out of existence altogether unless something is done. This is a serious matter. We are now treating farmers—and I make this remark in your Lordships' House with great trepidation—as a privileged class. We are following the custom in France, where the peasants can do no wrong and are nurtured, fostered and cosseted in every kind of way because of their political power. Here we are doing the same thing with our farmers. It is lucky for the farmers—I congratulate them—but we are putting them in a privileged and special position. A wealthy farmer cultivating a large area of fruitful soil is a capitalist and businessman: he has to be nowadays. He is going to get full compensation, presumably not from the Lord Mayor's Fund, but from the Treasury. The compensation cannot possibly come out of the Lord Mayor's Fund.


My Lords, is it for that reason? Is it not because we all realise that food production is so essential that we must get this land restored to such a condition that it can go on producing, food for us?


We have realised that after a good many years. The noble Lord has always been preaching alone that line. I realise that. But other businesses are important also.


My Lords, farmers will get compensation for the loss of livestock from the Lord Mayor's Fund in exactly the same way as everybody else.


I understood from statements in another place that it would be a Government responsibility.


The rehabilitation of land is the Government's responsibility.


That is not from the Lord Mayor's Fund?


There is a difference between rehabilitation of land and the loss of livestock.


I am very much obliged; I appreciate that. I thought there would also be compensation, according to the statements made in another place.


My Lords, there are two different things: the cow and the land. The cow is compensated for out of the Lord Mayor's Fund and the land is a national charge.


Why is the land made a national charge and not plant and machinery in businesses? That is my complaint. We are picking out the farmer for special treatment. I am glad from the farmer's point of view. I imagine the time has not really come for a decision to be taken on this national question—and it is a national question. I want to take advantage here of the welcome presence of the noble Viscount the Deputy Leader of the House, who is a member of the Cabinet, to press this matter home. More will be heard about this question. The position of uncertainty is doing harm and I hope it will be relieved. I thank the noble Lord for his most interesting statement and for the answers he gave to my questions. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.