§ Angus Robertson (Moray)
The House will appreciate that the recent floods in Moray were a terrible event, which wrought misery close to Christmas for a great many of my constituents. May I express my appreciation for the opportunity to raise this important constituency issue at greater length than normal and to hear the Government's response? I start with a word of commendation for the Minister's officials who have been very proactive and understanding in seeking advance notice of various questions so that she can give a full and informed response. I also declare my interest: I am patron of the Moray flood relief fund, although I am not directly involved in the dispensation of assistance to flood victims. I should also like to put on record my appreciation to the Lord Lieutenant, Air Vice Marshal George Chesworth and the other trustees and committee members of the fund who are doing such an important job.
Before coming to the debate, I sought the views of a great many people in Moray, especially the victims. That includes many residents who have lost literally everything and business men and women whose commercial future is in doubt. I spoke to community representatives such as Councillor Pearl Paul of Rothes who represents one of the worst hit areas, and only this morning I spoke to Roma Hossack, the convenor of Elgin community council. I held meetings with the council, and this morning I discussed issues with the chief executive, Alastair Keddie. I spoke to the emergency services, the RAF and volunteers who assisted when the waters were rising, then dispersing, and in the clean-up operations. There is a tremendous appreciation for everyone who worked hard to help the flood victims and to prevent the waters from damaging even more. I pay tribute to them all again.
On 15 and 16 November 2002, the third flood in five years devastated parts of Moray when the rivers Lossie and Spey and the Mosset burn burst their banks causing flooding in the county town, Elgin, as well as in Rothes, Forres and a number of villages and rural areas. At its worst, the Lossie was flowing at 140 tonnes per second through Elgin. After bursting the riverbank, water swamped Boroughbriggs, parts of Kingsmills, South Lesmurdie, Pansport, Ashgrove, the Tyock industrial estate and other areas. In Rothes, waters flooded much of the town, swamping houses and causing structural damage to roads and bridges. In Forres, the Mosset burn burst its banks on to the streets.
Hundreds of residents, especially in Elgin and Rothes, were forced to leave their homes, losing many of their possessions to flood damage, and a considerable number of businesses have had to cease trading because of the floods. I am pleased to report that a number of those businesses have worked extremely hard to try to get their operations back on track in the busy build-up to Christmas. There is a great appreciation for the work that has been done, much of it by volunteers and customers of those businesses. I have visited most of the affected areas, several times in some cases. Despite the waters receding, the damage is still clear to see. Many streets have skips outside every house, which are full to overflowing with discarded and often irreplaceable 118WH family possessions. A great number of businesses are still closed because of the damage to their stock, their machinery, their records and the wherewithal to trade.
It is impossible to put a price tag on the damage caused, or to calculate exactly what might have happened if various other policy options had been pursued before the floods. Certainly there are still outstanding questions about the reallocation of millions of pounds of flood prevention investment by Moray council, which has not been spent on measures that could have made a difference. Nevertheless, the task before everybody in authority at present is to act swiftly and decisively to ease the plight of so many people in Moray. That is why I am glad to be able to put the case for maximum Government assistance here today.
Much of the response to the floods has to come from Moray council and the Scottish Executive, as local government and flood issues are devolved to the Scottish Parliament, where Margaret Ewing, the Moray MSP and my Scottish National party colleague, has regularly raised the question of flooding. I am glad that she and Bruce Crawford MSP, the shadow Scottish Minister for the Environment, have been pushing for a national flood strategy in the Scottish Parliament. I hope that the Labour-Liberal Democrat Executive reconsider their opposition to that in the light of the Moray experience.
In the meantime we need to consider how the UK Government can best respond through key areas such as social security, Treasury powers over landfill tax, the financial services industry, military aid to the civil power and Scotland's representation within the European Union. Those are all reserved matters to Westminster. The Minister will appreciate that I would far rather that all those questions could be resolved in Scotland, just as in any other normal independent European country. This debate is not about political difference, but rather to secure a joined-up response to this disaster.
As I mentioned, the floods seriously affected parts of Elgin, Rothes and Forres and other villages and rural areas. It was the third flooding in five years. This is a double whammy for the constituency, as coastal communities brace themselves for massive cuts in fishing, which, together with the floods, will cause untold misery and job losses. Recently at Prime Minister's questions, I asked:Will the Prime Minister outline what the Westminster Government will do to assist, how long that will take and whether he will visit Moray as a matter of urgency to see the devastation at first hand?The Prime Minister replied:First, Moray council will apply to the Scottish Executive for assistance under the Bellwin scheme … Secondly, people who have no other safety net can apply to the Department for Work and Pensions for immediate emergency assistance through the social fund. Thirdly, Her Majesty's Customs will work with businesses on VAT payments and other problems".—[Official Report,20 November 2002; Vol. 394. c. 241.]I was grateful to the Prime Minister for outlining the help that will be offered, although I was disappointed that he did not refer to my request to visit Moray to see the damage at first hand. This is an extremely serious issue and the people of Moray need to know that Government at the very top in both Edinburgh and Westminster are doing everything possible to assist.
119WH This debate is extremely important so that Moray residents can hear in detail exactly what the Westminster Government are doing to help them. Social security is one mechanism that the Westminster Government can use to assist. A great number of victims live in low-income areas. According to a recent survey by the General, Municipal, Boilermakers and Allied Trades Union, Moray—not central Scotland or urban inner-city Scotland—has the lowest average weekly income of any constituency in Scotland. The floods occurred in areas of the lowest income in Moray.
The Minister will appreciate that social security can play a key role. For example, officials in the Department for Work and Pensions can assess requests sympathetically. I am aware that staff locally intend to do that, and I would be grateful if the Minister could give an overview of support to victims such as crisis loans and social fund payments. How many people have been seen by Jobcentre Plus staff in Moray in connection with the effects of the floods? Does she share my concern that there is a lack of flexibility in the rules when dealing with clients who have already reached a £1,000 ceiling on social fund grants or loans? Are clear instructions being given that would allow for a generous but responsible handling of claims by such flood victims?
The Minister might not be aware that the two current social security offices in Elgin are in the process of being unified into one office. That single office is in the middle of one of the worst-hit flood areas in Boroughbriggs. Does she share my concern for the future, that if, God forbid, there is another flood, staff will find it almost impossible to assist at all, unlike this time?
Another major area where the Westminster Parliament holds reserved powers is in connection with the financial services industry. That encompasses insurance, which is a critical guarantee for residents and businesses alike. In a written answer in the Scottish Parliament to Margaret Ewing, MSP, on 28 November, Minister Alan Wilson, who visited Moray after the floods, said:Recent guidance from the Association of British Insurers is that the industry will look to continue to provide insurance cover in areas with defences in place or where these are planned to be in place by 2007.The Moray council intends to have improved flood defences in place by 2007, but there are a great many people who already cannot secure insurance in Moray. Many businesses and householders had a major problem getting insurance even before the most recent flood. Most residents and business people think that that will get worse, with serious knock-on effects for residents and the housing market, for the viability of businesses and for jobs.
The difficulties are great for residents as access to mortgages is endangered and people cannot properly insure their property. It is not dissimilar for businesses; one must consider the losses from the recent flood which, in the case of one distillery alone, amounted to more than £500,000. Massive losses were suffered by other businesses too, and there are fears that many more enterprises and residents will not be able to secure insurance cover. There are huge question marks over whether there will be any cover at all in the future, regardless of the premium. That, of course, has a knock-on effect on employers' liability.
120WH At a meeting in Elgin last night, one insurance broker said that an insurance company had informed him that the framework agreement on flood cover by the Association of British Insurers does not apply to Scotland. Does the Minister have any knowledge of that and does she agree with me that insurance companies need to take their responsibilities seriously, regardless of where in the UK people live? She will appreciate that with the level of destruction, a great deal of material from people's homes and businesses is beyond repair and needs to be disposed of. As I said earlier, many streets have skips outside every house.
Moray council has made arrangements for the pickup and disposal of the material, which will cost more than £50,000, and it is not certain that the Bellwin scheme will compensate the council. That is why I have already asked the UK Government to look at landfill tax and to suspend charges in connection with flood damage. They have said that they have no plans at present to do so. Why not? It would make a major difference to Moray. Is no discretion available to Ministers to suspend landfill tax in extreme circumstances? If this is not such a case, I do not know what is.
Despite the fact that I would far rather Scotland had normal representation and was able to make applications for funding directly, we are reliant on Westminster Ministers to apply for European Union funding. That is why I raise the matter in connection with this issue. Recently, European Commission President Romano Prodi wrote to my SNP colleague Ian Hudghton MEP. In that letter, he said that a considerable range of options are open to the member state to apply for special funding to areas that have been flooded or where flood prevention measures are set to be constructed. I should be grateful to know what the UK Government have done, or will be doing, to ensure that maximum benefit can be derived for flood-hit or flood-prone communities such as those in Moray. On the basis of what President Prodi said, has the Commission been contacted since the Moray floods to discuss those possibilities, and if so, what was the outcome?
The third flood in five years in Moray was devastating for many people throughout the constituency. It came only weeks before Christmas, and families have lost their homes and possessions and businesses have been washed out. The United Kingdom Government have the ability to make a difference. They can act in key areas such as social security, to give people on low incomes a helping hand; the Treasury can assist with the suspension of landfill tax; Ministers can remind the insurance industry of its responsibilities to cover households and businesses; and the Government can access European Union funding to help Moray.
It is in times of crisis that Governments need to act if they are to have credibility. The floods in Moray are such a crisis, and it is time for the Government to act.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Maria Eagle)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) on looking after his constituents so assiduously in this regard. I am not surprised that he is doing so, because of the consequences of the floods that he described. As he said, 121WH it is not the first time that his constituents have been in the situation in which they found themselves on the weekend of 15 and 16 November. It was clear from his declaration of interest that he does everything he can to assist his constituents, as one would expect. I commend him for doing so and for taking the opportunity of this debate to raise the matter on behalf of those of his constituents who are affected by the flood.
I take this opportunity to say directly to the hon. Gentleman's constituents, many of whom have lost everything in this event, how concerned the Government are to do what we can to assist them. I shall do my best to respond in the debate to the issues that he has raised with me. However, if I cannot deal with all the points that he made in the inevitably restricted time available, I undertake to contact him further.
We are well aware of the efforts that were made by volunteers, by the statutory services, by the emergency services and by the forces to try to deal with the sudden inundation that overtook parts of the hon. Gentleman's constituency. I pay tribute to the efforts that were made, whether by people who were only doing their job or by those who just turned out to help. Such efforts were deeply appreciated by the community and by the constituents who were affected.
When considering the efforts made to cope with these sudden problems, I was impressed at the success of our staff in Jobcentre Plus. Despite the fact that their office was flooded, they were able to maintain a service for customers on the Monday following the floods, which showed me that our contingency planning in respect of such matters worked well at a time when it was tremendously important that it did so. The hon. Gentleman referred to the low level of income of many of those affected. It was vital that people could get their benefits, pensions, or whatever we were due to pay them, as speedily as possible. I am glad that our contingency arrangements worked so well.
The hon. Gentleman asked me to give an overview of the support that people who have been affected by these events might obtain from the Department for Work and Pensions, especially from the social fund, which is one of the funds designed to deal with such contingencies. The social fund can provide emergency financial help to those who are affected by flooding or other such disasters. He referred to crisis loans, which are indeed available to people with limited resources to protect their health and safety and to meet the cost of essential items that are urgently needed to replace those lost or damaged through floods.
Community care grants are the other resource within the social fund to which people can turn at such times. They are available to people receiving income support or income-based jobseeker's allowance. They can help people to rebuild their homes after a natural disaster such as a flood by meeting the reasonable costs of replacing destroyed or damaged household items, such as carpets, cookers, beds and furniture.
The hon. Gentleman asked how many people had been seen by DWP staff in Moray in connection with the effects of the floods. There have been 29 crisis loan applications as a consequence of the floods, and all have been allowed, to a total of £2,968.71—he wanted me to be precise. The loans have been made, and the average was £100. Two community care grants have also been 122WH awarded, totalling £744. A further six are being processed as speedily as possible, and the amount applied for is £10,369.
The hon. Gentleman will know better than anyone that 400 to 500 households were affected in some way by the flooding, so those numbers may seem small to him, but we expect more applications, particularly as people return to their homes over the next few months. In many ways, that is the time when one would expect them to make applications. We will do our best to ensure that they are dealt with as speedily and sympathetically as possible.
The hon. Gentleman asked what lessons could be learned from the reaction to the floods. As I said, our staff and our business continuity planning certainly kicked in and worked quite well. That is probably because we devolved responsibility to the lowest level that we could. Each of our business units not only devises its business continuity planning but is responsible for implementing it. They are the best people to have that responsibility and power: they know what the situation is locally. We were pleased that Jobcentre Plus staff in Elgin were able to continue to deliver a service to customers straight after the floods. That is a testament to their success.
We were able to visit elderly and perhaps more vulnerable people in their homes to ensure that they received their pensions. To the extent that they did not quite know where to go to get their payments, because of the floods, we ensured that they were all made. I am pleased that we were able to do that.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether more could be done on insurance. I am aware from what he said and from my briefing for the debate that this is not the first time that his constituents have been affected. Living on a flood plain, they appear to have had a number of problems. Quite rightly, he spoke about how people can ensure that they are protected against the financial loss that repeated inundations can cause them, whether they are businesses or individuals.
I can confirm that the Government have been talking to the Association of British Insurers about those issues countrywide. The hon. Gentleman reported that an insurance broker in his constituency had suggested that those discussions, and the agreements reached between the ABI and the Government in an attempt to ensure continuity of insurance cover for people living on flood plains where there have been problems, did not apply in Scotland. That is right in the sense that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Treasury and the Environment Agency have been working closely with the ABI this year and talking about the issue with the aim of ensuring continued availability of affordable insurance. However, the Scottish Executive have held similar discussions with the ABI relating to flood issues specifically in Scotland.
Those discussions are ongoing, and we think that they are likely to reach the same conclusions and the same kind of agreement as in England. In that sense, there should not be a big difference between arrangements in England and those in Scotland.
§ Angus Robertson
My question is a bit unfair, because the Minister is not responsible for this matter in Scotland, but she says that discussions are ongoing in Scotland to try to establish the same system that exists in England and Wales. Does she not share my concern that some insurance companies might use the fact that no agreement exists in Scotland as an excuse not to fulfil for the people of Moray the obligations that they would—rightly—have to fulfil in England and Wales?
§ Maria Eagle
I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. As ever in debates touching on reserved and devolved issues, I have to be careful not to step on the toes of others who have responsibilities. I often do not know as much about what is happening as they do. I say that with some care. I am unaware of the latest state of ongoing discussions.
In discussions with the ABI, the aim of the authorities, whether the Scottish Executive or the Westminster Government, is to prevent petty avoidance of responsibility for issues that must be dealt with. We found that the industry was willing to discuss problems and come to some agreement. The industry has gained a reputation for trying to avoid its responsibilities: we all know of instances when the small print is referred to. We hope that that will not continue, that the discussions will be constructive and that no one will seek—on the grounds of the current state of negotiations—to avoid responsibilities for paying out to those who should be paid. The Scottish Executive expect, and we hope, that similar sensible arrangements will be made in Scotland.
Reference was made to the Bellwin scheme, which was established under the Local Government and Housing Act 1989 as a means of offering financial support to local authorities that have to deal with disasters or emergencies. It is obviously relevant to our concerns. These are devolved matters, so the council's application will go to the Scottish Executive.
A meeting is being held today between Scottish Executive officials and those of Moray council to discuss the level of claims. A claim has not yet been submitted, but the amount requested is likely to be about £1 million. The scheme is intended to provide additional support when exceptional incidents take place. Local authorities should plan for the unexpected. Floods have 124WH broken out before, so it is likely that the council has built contingency planning into its reserve balance arrangements.
§ Angus Robertson
I seek clarification. Was I correct in hearing that Moray council has applied for £1 million under the Bellwin scheme? In 1997, it applied for £2.5 million.
§ Maria Eagle
No, I said that a claim had not yet been submitted. A health warning is necessary: neither the Westminster Government nor I are involved in these negotiations, which are a matter between the Scottish Executive and the Moray council. I said that although a claim had not yet been submitted, it was expected to be in the order of £1 million. Doubtless the Scottish Executive and the council will agree a suitable figure. I have no knowledge beyond what officials discovered and informed me about for today's debate. I cannot assist the hon. Gentleman about whether the sum is sufficient, but the Bellwin scheme has certainly been activated and invoked, and further discussions about additional help are ongoing.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the possibility of benefits from European funds. He mentioned a letter sent to an MEP colleague by the Commission President, Romano Prodi, which states:Furthermore, a number of current regional programmes, including those of the UK, enable European funds to be used for the financing of a wide range of measures in the area of flood protection. Prevention programmes can also benefit from the additional funds available for the performance reserve, which could be earmarked to support projects in areas affected by natural disasters.The hon. Gentleman has been assiduous in seeking sources of funding to deal with the problems debated today. I understand that decisions on the distribution of European funds are a devolved matter and that Moray council could make an application for funding to the Highlands and Islands development partnership.
I hope that I have answered some of the hon. Gentleman's questions. He asked several other detailed questions that I will not have time to deal with, but I undertake to write to him to clear up those issues. I finish as I started, by expressing my sympathy with his constituents who have been affected—and not for the first time. I hope that all agencies of Government—statutory authorities, volunteer forces, emergency services, MPs, MEPs or whoever—can do their best to help alleviate their plight.