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Volume 554: debated on Thursday 6 December 2012

First, I offer my condolences to those who lost family and friends in the recent floods, and my sympathies to those whose lives have been disrupted.

I have had many discussions recently on flooding. On 23 November, I met representatives from all the public services in Northampton to discuss their experiences. Last week, I visited Exeter and Kennford to talk about flooding with local communities there. My ministerial colleagues, my officials and I are also in regular contact with our counterparts in other Departments and agencies on flooding issues.

I associate myself with the Secretary of State’s remarks about those who suffered in the recent floods. Given the misery caused by flooding to many people throughout the country, does he agree that we should do everything we can to prevent building on land that floods? Will he remind the planning Minister that his comments about building on the countryside have caused great concern among those facing the risk of flooding?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments about those who have suffered so much in the recent floods.

The recent national planning policy framework is absolutely clear. It seeks to ensure that development is located away from flood risk wherever possible; that the development that is needed in flood-risk areas is safe and resilient; that flood risk is assessed so it can be avoided and managed; and that opportunities offered by new development are used to reduce the causes and impacts of flooding.

The Secretary of State’s hon. Friend, the Under-Secretary of State, will have seen the heart-wrenching devastation caused by terrible flooding last weekend in the town of Malmesbury in my constituency. They were not new houses on flood plains; 500-year-old cottages on the verge of the river were particularly badly affected. The people there are badly affected by the fact that they cannot get contents insurance. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to enter into negotiations with the Association of British Insurers to reach a solution that will allow everyone, whether in flood-affected areas or not, to insure the contents of their houses?

I wholeheartedly concur with my hon. Friend’s comments about the real difficulties faced in Malmesbury, which was visited by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State.

The first meeting I had outside the office was with the ABI in September, and we have been working closely in recent weeks. We are involved in detailed negotiations, as the statement of principles was always going to come to an end in 2013. We want to achieve a better system of insurance that is as comprehensive as possible, provides affordability, and is not a huge burden on the taxpayer. Those detailed negotiations are continuing. The ball is in the ABI’s court and we look forward to hearing from it shortly.

13. The floods in the past few weeks have highlighted the importance of affordable home insurance for home owners in constituencies such as Easington, Wansbeck, and across the north-east and the whole country. We were promised a deal on flood insurance by July this year. We heard from the Prime Minister that Oliver Letwin is in charge of the negotiations. Will the Secretary of State tell us why this policy has been so badly delayed? Will he clarify the position to the House? (131739)

I remind the hon. Gentleman that the statement of principles was always going to run out in 2013. That was confirmed in 2008, and we inherited absolutely nothing from his Government. We have been working closely with the ABI. We are in detailed negotiations and I totally agree with him that we want to achieve a system that is affordable and as comprehensive as possible, and which is not a burden on the taxpayer. We are working towards that. These are detailed negotiations, but I cannot conduct them in public or on the Floor of the House of Commons.

I thank you, Mr Speaker, and my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Tessa Munt).

I am glad that the Secretary of State has been to Exeter. From that visit, he will know that the recent floods disrupted the vital train link between the far south-west and London. Will he ensure that any future investment in flood defences takes into account protecting vital transport infrastructure, not just homes and businesses?

I enjoyed my visit to Exeter and I pay tribute to everyone who pulled together—councils, public services, the Environment Agency and all those who managed to repair the railway line. I saw where it had been breached and they got the line working the day after I was there. I hope it reassures my hon. Friend to hear that the first phone call I made on leaving Exeter was to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport who had already been on the case to ensure that the vital rail link was restored. I totally endorse my hon. Friend’s point about transport links and flooding.

I echo the condolences of the Secretary of State to the families and friends of those who lost their lives in the floods.

Last week, there was an announcement of a new £120 million U-turn on flood defence spending. However, even after that announcement, the Government will still spend less on flood defences in 2013 than Labour spent in 2008. Just 30% of that money will be spent next year because the Environment Agency no longer has the staff capacity to get the money out of the door. It is difficult to decide which is more incompetent: cutting the budget too far in the first place or, when they change their mind, not having the capacity to get the money out of the door and to the communities that need it.

I love the way the hon. Lady always looks for the downside in a story—her ingenuity is tremendous. The fact is that on 11 September, within a week of coming in, I met the chairman of the Environment Agency, Lord Smith. We saw a great scheme, which, in fairness, her Government launched in Nottingham. I asked him to come forward with proposals for future flood schemes, as the benefits in Nottingham were clear—not just 16,000 houses protected by the £45 million scheme, but the 500 acres freed up for development, which had previously been blighted. He wrote to me, quickly, on 26 September, and I am happy to give the hon. Lady the letter. We have put what he asked for into practice, to the letter: another £120 million, which will be of great benefit and save a further 60,000 houses from flooding.

I appeal to colleagues to speed up the exchanges. We have a lot to get through, and questions and answers are too long.

Of course, it is great to build flood defences, but it is just as important to maintain the ones we already have and to keep our rivers clear. Yesterday, however, the Chancellor announced that a further £60 million would be cut from DEFRA’s budget, so can the Secretary of State guarantee that no further cuts will fall on the Environment Agency’s river-dredging and maintenance budget, which is already set to fall from £108 million in 2010 to just £60 million in 2015?

As the hon. Lady knows, we inherited a hideous mess from her Government and are taking time to put it right in a very difficult world environment. I have to go back to my early reading, when I came into the House, of “Erskine May”, but she must stick to the truth on these issues. In total, with all the agencies involved, the Government will spend more over the four-year term than the Labour Government spent over their last four-year spending round.

I know that the Secretary of State was not suggesting that the hon. Lady would knowingly tell an untruth. He would not suggest that, I am sure, because he would be in breach of the conventions of the House if he were to do so. Will he confirm that he was not suggesting that she would knowingly tell an untruth?

Order. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I think we will take that as a no. He is not suggesting anything of the sort, but simply seeking to put his own position on the record, for which we are grateful.