§ 2.41 p.m.
THE JOINT PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY, MINISTRY OF AGRICULTURE, FISHERIES AND FOOD (EARL WALDEGRAVE)
My Lords, with your Lordships' permission, I should like now to make a statement which my right honourable friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government is at this present moment making in another place. I will use his own words:Flood prevention in England and Wales is the responsibility locally of the river boards, and centrally of my right honourable friend 29 the Minister of Agriculture. I have his authority to say that he is in touch with the river boards responsible for the worst flooded areas about the immediate measures required; and also that the Land Drainage Bill, to which reference was made in the gracious Speech, will give new flood prevention powers to local authorities, as well as increasing the resources of river boards in dealing with longer term improvements, for which Exchequer assistance is available.In Scotland, flooding has fortunately not been so extensive, but my right honourable friend the Secretary of State asks me to say that there also a Bill, which he hopes to introduce very shortly, will confer flood prevention powers on local authorities and provide Exchequer aid for that purpose.As regards the costs entailed in repairing the flood damage which has already occurred, we do not yet know what these will prove to be; until we do, we cannot tell what order of assistance will be needed.So far as public services are concerned, some of the cost will rank for grant aid in the ordinary way. But in any area which has suffered from the present floods, the Government will be prepared to consider sympathetically requests for special assistance from authorities, once it is clear that without such assistance an unreasonable burden would fall en the rates.So far as private interests are concerned, I know that the floods have caused grievous distress, and on behalf of Her Majesty's Government—and, I believe, of the whole House—I should like to express our deep sympathy for all those who have suffered. The Government are ready to help. Some of the losses will be covered by insurance, but many, I understand, may not. Locally administered funds, raised principally by way of appeal. provide the traditional way of giving help quickly where it is needed, but wherever it becomes clear that funds thus raised will not suffice to meet the needs, the Government will be prepared to supplement them.To the best of my belief, no work is meanwhile being held up, nor is anyone in immediate distress for lack of assistance. The local authorities and the voluntary organisations, including the Civil Defence, the Auxiliary Fire Service and the Women's Voluntary Services, have responded as they can always be relied upon to do. Fortified by this statement of mine, they should be able to continue in confidence that any necessary help will be forthcoming. I wish to express to all of them the Government's appreciation of their prompt and vigorous action which has done so much to relieve immediate anxiety and suffering.
VISCOUNT ALEXANDER OF HILLS-BOROUGH
My Lords, we are grateful to the Parliamentary Secretary for acquainting us with the statement that is being made in another place on the floods. In all parts of your Lordships' House we have been very concerned at the reports which have reached us, and 30 I am glad that the Government have foreshadowed legislation of a remedial character to the principal problem.
However, I must say that, while they express their sympathy with those who are in distress—and I am very glad they have done so—there is very widespread distress, especially among householders, both in the rural areas and in many of the built-up areas. I am just wondering how far the existing organisation as such for rendering immediate physical and financial assistance is working, or whether it is intended still to leave it to a kind of central relief fund such as was raised for the Lynmouth disaster some years ago. Incidentally, perhaps it might he as well to ask the Parliamentary Secretary what is the exact situation about the further use of any funds of that kind which still remain, because I think we ought to know what the position is. If immediate help is required by the people who have suffered grievous loss within their households, which they require to use every day, I think we ought to have more immediate help than a mere promise to help if necessary.
My Lords, I do not think I have very much to add to what has been said, but I hope that the noble Earl will be good enough to call his right honourable friend's attention to the views of the noble Viscount, the Leader of the Opposition, which no doubt sums up the view of many of us. It is possible that there might have been a little more forethought in this matter, but I do not think it is any use jobbing backwards or crying over spilt water. We hope that those in trouble are getting help in the way the noble Earl says. May I add that I think it has been very much appreciated in the country that the noble Earl who has made this statement here has himself taken the trouble to go down and inspect the damage and talk to people there and to do what he could, at least as an individual.
My Lords, perhaps I might reply at once to the point the noble Viscount who leads the Opposition lies made about the Lyn-mouth fund, because I think it is in many people's minds. Such funds as the Lynmouth disaster fund are, of course, available to relieve further distress within the beneficial area of the appeal, but I understand that the Charity Commissioners will be prepared to consider 31 applications from the trustees of the fund for any desirable alteration in the beneficial areas of the fund. I think that will be of considerable Whelp to the administrators of that fund.
VISCOUNT ALEXANDER OF HILLS-BOROUGH
I am obliged to the noble Earl, but I am afraid that the Parliamentary Secretary has missed my main point, as to what is being done to help immediate distress.
When the noble Viscount has studied the statement which my right honourable friend has made and which I have repeated here, surely he will see that all proper measures are being taken to alleviate immediate distress, and that the Government stand fully by the pledge given by the previous Chancellor of the Exchequer on another occasion, that, if it is necessary to provide Central Government funds, then they will be provided.
VISCOUNT ALEXANDER OF HILLS-BOROUGH
Well, I am not really satisfied. After all, some of these cases have been going on now for the last four to five weeks. I understand that it has not been possible to make a statement to Parliament before, but it might have been possible to make some more public statement direct to the local authorities concerned which could have been published in the Press. As I say, many householders have suffered grievously through repeated assaults from floods over the last four or five weeks; it has not happened just in the last week.
§ LORD SILKIN
My Lords, would the noble Earl ask his right honourable friend to consider the Charities Act, which was passed by Parliament last Session and which is designed to deal with the exact situation that has arisen as regards the Lynmouth fund? As a result of an Amendment which originated in this House it was determined and provided in the Charities Act that any surplus funds of one charity could be used for similar purposes in connection with another case of that kind. I think it was expressly designed to meet a case of this kind. I hope that the noble Earl will draw his right honourable friend's attention to this Act, which can be of great help.
I am obliged to the noble Lord for having drawn my attention to that Act, and I will draw my right honourable friend's attention to it; but I think that that is no doubt the reason why my right honourable friend is advised that the Charity Commissioners can widen the original area if the trustees of the Lynmouth fund ask them to do so. As the trustees of that fund, I understand, are, among others, the Lords Lieutenants of the Counties of Somerset and Devon, I suspect that, after what has been said to-day, they may very well approach the Charity Commissioners for such leave.
My Lords, arising out of the question of prevention of flooding, may I ask the noble Earl whether he is aware that it is essential that the banks of the River Rother should hold, to avoid a flood in Romney Marsh? The Rother Drainage Board and farmers are sandbagging the banks of the Rother at the moment. My question is: Have the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries the power to stop individual farmers pumping water off their land into ditches which drain into petty sewers which eventually drain into the Rother? This pumping increases the height and flow of the river and accelerates the danger of the river banks bursting. Have the Ministry the power, and will they use it immediately?
My Lords, I am afraid that I do not carry all the river board by-laws in my head. Of course my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is the confirming authority for river board by-laws, but without sufficient notice (the noble Lord did tell me that he was going to raise this question, but only a few moments ago) I cannot say what power this particular river board has. In comfort to the noble Lord, however, I can say that it is now the general practice for drainage authorities to be consulted before grants are paid on private pumping installations. I will look into this matter, but I think that it is a question for local negotiation between the river board and the farmers.
§ LORD SHEPHERD
My Lords, the noble Earl must be well aware of the concern felt on all sides of the House about this important matter. Could he 33 undertake to make a statement next week on what the Government propose to do to bring speedy relief to the unfortunate people in South-Western England?
My Lords, I think that when the noble Lord studies carefully the statement that my right honourable friend has made in another place he will see that the Government are taking all proper measures to deal with this situation, if it cannot be dealt with locally.
§ LORD SHEPHERD
My Lords, we accept that from the noble Earl, but I think that the House and the country now need to see a few facts.