asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what is his estimate for expenditure by his Department on sea defences in the current year.
My Department's estimates for the current year include the sum of about £13 million for grant-aid towards expenditure on sea defences by water authorities, excluding the Thames tidal defences. My Department also expects to pay grants totalling just under £.1 million to local authorities for other sea defence works.
Does my hon. Friend accept that this is a matter of the utmost importance to all those whose homes or lives have been threatened or have suffered severe damage as a result of sea flooding? Does she accept that we are grateful for the high priority that the Government have attached to the maintenance of this programme? Will she assure the House that this special priority will. be maintained, particularly for all areas where lives are threatened and where property could be severely damaged?
My hon. Friend will be aware that my Department's role is to judge whether sufficient resources can be made available through the public expenditure programme to allow water authorities to carry out the sea defence work which they properly consider to be essential. I am glad to say that, since the Government took office, we have met all their demands, and no cuts have been imposed on the sea defences budget. I trust that I have reassured my hon. Friend about our priorities.
Will the hon. Lady discuss with her right hon. Friend the Minister of State, who knows the case full well, the two-year delay in providing help for Amble harbour, which has resulted from a bar that has been put down by the Department of the Environment? Does she not realise the importance of such help to the town's sea defences, to which the council is fully committed, which should receive appropriate grant-aid from the Department?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that this is primarily a matter for the Department of the Environment and for the local council. However, we shall watch the situation carefully in so far as it affects the responsibilities of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.
Is my hon. Friend aware of the amount of good agricultural land that is lost every year due to erosion on the Holderness coast? Is she aware that where the land immediately behind the coastline is below sea level, there is a danger of flooding? Will she discuss with her colleagues in the Department of the Environment how the problem in rural areas can be solved, as no grants are available?
I shall certainly raise the matters to which my hon. Friend has referred with my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department of the Environment.
Do the funds that the Minister mentioned include emergency funds to meet the possibility of sea defences being breached and of extensive flooding taking place on parts of the coast for which the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is responsible? Will assistance be given to local authorities? If local authorities need to levy a supplementary rate to cover such damage, will they have to hold referendums?
The last question is, again, a matter for the Department of the Environment. My information is that those funds represent the amount allocated during this year. Any other sums would be subject to special consideration.