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Volume 463: debated on Thursday 19 July 2007

7. What steps he is taking to draw lessons from the recent severe flooding; and if he will make a statement. (150594)

We have set up a wide-ranging review to identify lessons to be learned from the recent flooding to help us to manage and respond to such events in future. We aim to publish initial findings by the end of the year and subsequently a formal Government report.

May I warmly congratulate my right hon. Friend on his recent appointment and on the high-quality nature of his team?

Will my right hon. Friend report to the House any discussions that he has been having with representatives of British insurers regarding the recent flooding? I have in mind the difficulties that I experienced in my constituency in 2002, when one elderly lady was rendered homeless for 12 months because a big insurance company forced her to accept the lowest bid, which meant bringing in cowboys, and she had a very unhappy time.

I thank my hon. Friend for her kind words. I join her in welcoming the new ministerial team at DEFRA. I am greatly looking forward to working with my colleagues.

I have already spoken to the Association of British Insurers on the issues that my hon. Friend raises, and I know of the efforts that insurance companies are making to get round to visiting people and processing claims as quickly as possible, including changing some of the arrangements whereby they would usually require more than one quote. There will be big demands on the building and repairs industry to deal with the problems that people have experienced. My hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government, who is leading the recovery group, is also talking to the ABI about these issues.

I welcome the Secretary of State to his post. Will he commit to ensuring that farmers such as Peter Vaughan in my constituency, who has lost 150 acres of potatoes, are guaranteed at least a large percentage of their single farm payment by Christmas? Many other members of the rural community have lost crops because of flooding, and constituents of mine in Tenbury Wells were flooded again this week. What can he do for Andrea Harrison and Mike Button of Phaze Computer Services who, despite the fact that they are not located in the rural community but in the more urban parts of my constituency, are very worried about their business?

I am acutely conscious of, and have discussed, the problems facing farmers in many constituencies, not least at last week’s Great Yorkshire show. Two issues were raised with me of which the hon. Gentleman will be aware: the cross-compliance arrangements, which normally prevent farmers from going on to waterlogged land, and the use of set-aside land for grazing and foraging. I went away to consider them, and within 24 hours we lifted the rules on cross-compliance and waterlogged land until the end of this month to enable farmers to get on to the land and do what they can to rescue their crops. By notifying the Rural Payments Agency, they are able to use set-aside land for grazing and foraging—unless the agency says there is a difficulty—in recognition of the fact that the land they would otherwise use is currently underwater.

We made those changes in direct response to representations made to me. We set the RPA a target for 2007—it having achieved the target of paying 96 per cent. of the money due by 30 June by reaching a figure of 98 per cent.—of paying 75 per cent. of the amount due by the end of March and 90 per cent. by the end of May. We shall look further at the position in the autumn.

I met the agency’s chief executive yesterday; I recognise that the service it has provided has not been acceptable, but things are improving. I am determined that we shall maintain that improvement and I am grateful to agency staff for their efforts.