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Flood Insurance

Volume 560: debated on Tuesday 26 March 2013

[Relevant document: Oral evidence from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, on Flood Funding, HC 970 i-iv.]

Before I call Mr Dominic Raab to move the motion, I inform the House that he will be able to speak for up to 10 minutes with up to two interventions, and there will be a five-minute limit on Back-Bench contributions, with the usual two interventions.

I beg to move,

That this House notes the Environment Agency’s estimate that 570,000 properties in England and Wales are at significant risk of flooding; recognises the efforts of the insurance industry and past and present governments to reach agreement to ensure flood insurance will be made available to all homes and small businesses beyond June 2013; calls on the insurance industry to negotiate in good faith to conclude those arrangements; and further calls on the Government to acknowledge the need to provide some support for those arrangements and ensure that resilience and adaptation to flood risks and other natural hazards are amongst its highest environmental priorities.

May I first thank the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate and the sponsors of the motion, who represent four parties across the House?

Today’s debate comes just three months before the expiry of the statement of principles agreed by the previous Government with the Association of British Insurers. The statement governs the provision of insurance to properties that are at “significant risk” of flooding—that is, properties that have a one in 75 or greater chance of being flooded in any given year. With the deadline for agreement looming, Ministers and the ABI remain deadlocked in negotiations. The House will be only too aware that the consequences of failing to broker a deal would be devastating.

If we were to move to an entirely free market model it is estimated that 1,113 businesses and homes in my constituency alone would face dramatic hikes in their premiums or even a refusal to insure. Nationwide, 215,000 more homes would face annual insurance premiums of more than £750. For owners who could not obtain affordable insurance, the risks are worse still. With a typical flood causing between £20,000 and £40,000 of damage per property, many small businesses and families would face crushing costs. Meanwhile, the Council of Mortgage Lenders warns:

“Uncertainty about the future cost and availability of insurance may affect the ability to sell or obtain a mortgage on a property,”

affecting up to 83,000 homes. Home insurance premiums are already rising as insurers prepare for a worst-case scenario. Constituents in Thames Ditton in my constituency are already reporting steep rises.

We urgently need a new, sustainable, long-term agreement. As far as I am aware, the only proposal on the table is that from the ABI, namely its “Flood Re” insurance scheme.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this very important subject. Does he agree that another factor to consider is the level of excesses that insurance companies charge? If they set the excess at £20,000, the family affected are, in effect, not insured.

I thank my hon. Friend for his timely intervention and I think that he is on point. We need a comprehensive deal covering all aspects of the insurance premium.

I will not, because I need to make progress and, under the strictures of Mr Deputy Speaker, I will need to give way later.

The “Flood Re” insurance scheme would create a non-profit fund to ensure that cover is available for the 2% of homes that are at significant risk of flooding. Like the current system, the model would be based on cross-subsidisation. High-risk home owners would pay higher premiums, subject to a cap, and benefit from a subsidy levied on lower risk properties. Today that subsidy costs the average property owner about £8 a year—that is the proportion of the insurance premium that they pay. Under “Flood Re” that would rise by an estimated £1. Those owning a band A property at significant risk of flooding would see a 15% increase in their premium, rising to 43% for more expensive homes. The point of the scheme, therefore, is to cushion the most vulnerable. In return, the insurance industry wants the Government to strengthen flood defences, provide access to flood risk assessments and enforce planning regulation on floodplains more rigorously.

The parameters of a balanced deal are emerging. Ministers have, understandably, refused to sign any blank cheques, including for bankrolling “Flood Re” or for providing a temporary overdraft facility underwritten by the taxpayer. That would be difficult to justify at any time, but especially with our public finances under such acute strain.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I strongly support the motion and congratulate him on securing the debate. Is it not important to bear it in mind that the insurance companies do not have a completely free hand in this, because they are required by state regulators to secure reinsurance on the risk that they take on? Unless there is some Government participation to cap that risk, it will be impossible to get it at an affordable price and the disaster that our constituents are threatened with will happen.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He has touched on some of the technical aspects, to which I am sure the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), will respond. It is clear that the state needs to be involved in this. This cannot be left solely to a free market. Even a free-market MP like me would accept that.

It would be useful if Ministers could today explain their position on the gist of the “Flood Re” proposal, and any concerns they have now that the taxpayer is not being asked to underwrite the overdraft facility. One key issue is the balance of contributions by those owning properties at higher risk and ordinary insurance holders. Have Ministers considered the composition of the board of governors of the fund, and in particular the number and character of members who are independent of both the Government and the industry? How will the Government retain control and accountability over future increases in either the levy or ordinary premiums? Both aspects are important; it is a question of balance.

The “Flood Re” scheme inevitably invites comparison with models used elsewhere. In the United States, the national flood insurance programme is not funded on the basis of cross-subsidisation, but as a result was left $17 billion in the red after Hurricane Katrina. “Flood Re” as a model would avoid a situation in which the British taxpayer covers all losses the market will not insure—the Dutch Government have such a commitment. The “Flood Re” model is somewhere between the US and Dutch models.

Alternative models have been proposed but are not in the negotiating mix between the ABI and the Government at this stage. One alternative presented by Marsh, the insurance broker, would involve mutualisation of 50% of flood claims among all home owners. That would pass back to home owners or the Government the risk of paying the remaining 50% of flood claims. What view have Ministers taken on that alternative?

More broadly, the negotiations on flood insurance shed broader light on the UK’s wider environmental policy. The risks of flooding, which is effectively what we are debating, prompt a simple question: have we got our environmental priorities right? Met Office data show that four of the five wettest years on record have occurred since 2000. The Government’s chief scientist has warned that

“in quite a short time scale…we are going to have more floods, we are going to have more sea surges and we are going to have more storms”.

Strengthening flood defences should therefore be a top priority—both in its own right as a matter of sound policy, but also to contain the rising insurance premiums that have prompted today’s debate—and yet environmental resilience has been relatively low down the pecking order of UK environmental policy for more than a decade. By way of illustration, the cost to businesses and consumers of the inefficient green subsidies to solar and onshore wind through the renewables obligation will be £2.6 billion this financial year. That is almost as much as DEFRA will spend on flooding and coastal defences over the entire five-year period of this Parliament. Those are skewed priorities. The Government ought to place greater emphasis on adapting to the reality of climate change—the environmental here and now—and spend less time speculating on technological winners that hike energy bills, particularly for the squeezed middle, without substantially decarbonising the UK economy.

That points to a more systemic, bureaucratic problem, namely the lack of policy coherence between the Department of Energy and Climate Change and DEFRA since they were separated in 2008 by the previous Government. Too often, DEFRA feels like DECC’s more realistic but poorer cousin, and yet DEFRA is left to pick up the pieces when an environmental crisis strikes. Have Ministers considered re-merging the two Departments? That would integrate policy and realise at least £1 billion from cutting bureaucracy, which could be used to invest in flood defences as well as to pay off the deficit more quickly.

The state has a role to play in managing acute and severe risks such as flooding. We need the Government to provide the right framework to meet UK energy demands, especially through nuclear power and shale gas; to invest in flood and coastal defences; and to strike the right deal with industry, and soon, to protect small businesses and vulnerable homes from soaring insurance premiums. I commend the motion to the House.

I commend the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) and agree with most of his comments.

On 7 November 2012 at Prime Minister’s questions, I asked when West Lancashire constituents could expect the Government to introduce plans for a new deal on flood insurance—they had already missed the self-imposed July deadline. The Deputy Prime Minister replied:

“We are devoting a lot of attention to it, and I hope we will be able to make an announcement in the not-too-distant future.”—[Official Report, 7 November 2012; Vol. 552, c. 859.]

Four months have passed, yet there is no deal and no sign of one.

As I understand it, we will need primary legislation to introduce the new scheme. It is very late in the day—it is already nearly April—and I wonder whether the scheme will be ready in July and whether something will be in place this summer to replace the statement of principles.

I hope the Minister can give us reassurances on that towards the end of the debate.

As 30 June fast approaches, the people of West Lancashire are less and less assured of the Government’s ability to protect their homes and businesses. From the insurance companies’ point of view, it is not surprising that a deal is yet to be reached. They are faced with an increasing incidence of extreme weather conditions, a greater frequency of flooding, and more homes and businesses being hit. Residents are looking to a future of potentially massively increased insurance premiums that many will be unable to afford, assuming they can get insurance policy cover in the first place. In any case, they will be left at the mercy of mother nature, waiting in fear of the next time devastation is wrought on their home.

Securing what will be a short-term deal on flood insurance is not a solution to all our problems. Fixing the insurance problem is inextricably linked to fixing the underlying flooding issue. For that to happen, we need to have a change in culture in tackling flooding issues.

At the local level, the flooding response co-ordination is shambolic. There is no single agency responsible for actually tackling flooding when it hits. There is no leadership. In my area, Lancashire county council does not even attend meetings when it is asked to attend, abdicating all responsibility for what is going on. When West Lancashire was hit by flooding on several occasions at the end of last year, I met people who had been forced out of their homes. They were angry and upset. Who do they call when the watercourse is overflowing on to the land, and the water is running off the land through their back garden and down on to the highway where the drains cannot cope with the volume? Many were passed from pillar to post, with the message from different agencies as they asked for help as the flood water headed towards their homes, “We can’t do anything until your home is flooded.” That is the very point at which it was too late to save their homes or give them meaningful help. Local farmers were forced to stand by and watch as the flood waters destroyed millions of pounds of food crops. They were ready, willing and able to take the necessary action to clear the ditches and watercourses to protect their land and to protect the crops, but inadequate land management because of budget cuts, a lack of communication and the need to undertake an environmental impact assessment before they could act all but tied their hands.

Across West Lancashire and Sefton, agriculture and horticulture provide employment for more than 2,500 people and generate more than £230 million in gross value added to the regional economy. We cannot afford for flooding not to be addressed. We cannot afford the prices of food in the shops going up because it has been destroyed in the fields.

We need to be more proactive than reactive. The people of West Lancashire do not want to hear from Ministers about the past. The people need to know that there is a real partnership and that money will not be taken from the Environment Agency’s coffers—from one budget to another—leaving depleted budgets. This is happening on Ministers’ watch, and they have responsibility. They have their ministerial jobs, and now homeowners and business owners are looking to them, calling on them to act and to act now.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) on securing this timely and important debate. I have 1,627 homes and businesses in my constituency that are at significant risk of flooding. I have visited streets in Abingdon, Kidlington and Oxford where ripped-out carpets, kitchen units and discarded furniture were all piled up and abandoned on pavements in 2007, and that sight is branded on my memory. I guarantee that not a single one of those home owners has forgotten that summer, and since then we have had any number of flood warnings that serve, like tremors after an earthquake, to reawaken the anxiety of that week of flooding and the reconstruction that followed. It cost the county £3 million and the country £3 billion.

For those who live at flood risk, there is no respite. Instead, they live in a constant state of uncertainty, never knowing what our delightful British climate will bring. Uncertainty driven by weather is one thing, but uncertainty that is driven by our response to flood risk is another. Other than by inventing a weather machine we are not going to eliminate flood risk, but we have three, interdependent levers to mitigate flood risk and limit the stress that it brings. Those are flood insurance, flood defences and individual property and community resilience.

Whether people are rampant climate sceptics or paid-up members of the Green party, most studies show clearly that changing weather patterns mean that flooding is on the increase, while population increases and poor planning have exacerbated the problem dramatically. We will have to get better at using those levers to mitigate that risk. In particular, overloaded infrastructure, such as drainage capacity, is leaving increasing numbers of constituents at the mercy of not only notoriously hard-to- respond-to surface water, but revolting episodes of effluent flooding. I am aghast that in this day and age I have constituents who have to cope with sewage coming into their homes simply because it is raining. We are supposed to be living in a highly developed country. The worst thing is that the insurance situation means that they feel gagged because they do not want to put their local property market at risk.

My hon. Friend’s description of seeing homes in her constituency flooded reminds me of the problems I saw in Bognor Regis and Littlehampton on 10 and 11 June, when more than 300 homes were flooded. Does she share my view that in addition to the flood insurance issue, we need to spend sufficient capital to ensure that the surface drainage system is sufficient to mitigate such problems when heavy rainfall occurs?

I agree that infrastructure is vital. I believe deeply that many of the problems we face today stem from an inherited legacy of bad planning.

My right hon. Friend—ish—the right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) knows how difficult it can be to get accountability and solutions for constituents when responsibility falls between the Environment Agency, local authorities and Thames Water, and he might want to comment on that point.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend-ish for giving way.

Flood waters are no respecters of constituency boundaries and we work closely on these issues. On planning, does the hon. Lady agree that, given that successive Governments and councils of all complexions have allowed so much development on the floodplain, it is perfectly proper for the state to pick up some of the responsibility by participating in insurance schemes, such as “Flood Re”, which are the only way to protect our constituents from unaffordable premiums?

Clearly, it is vital that flood insurance continues to be widely available and affordable, a point I will come to in a moment. Although there is frustration about the responsibility of different agencies working together to respond to constituents, the emergency response to flood events locally since 2007 has improved dramatically, and there have been positive developments on flood defences in Kidlington and Oxford.

However, none of that addresses the long-term strategic challenges we face, and insurance has to be at the top of that list. That is why, with all the other urgent flooding priorities that we have heard about, we have to focus on the 30 June deadline. That date dominates the lives of far too many of my constituents. They fear that they will suddenly become uninsurable, breach their mortgage conditions and have unsellable properties. While I appreciate that negotiations with the Association of British Insurers have been complex and that there is no easy solution, especially with the current fiscal situation, it is not as if we did not see this coming—it has been coming since the statement of principles was agreed in 2002.

If we are not going to hit the deadline, we need to be clear and transparent with constituents about what will happen between then and any future deal. Until now, the line has been not to undermine negotiations by giving a running commentary on them. That is not unreasonable and had an agreement been reached in time, I think that all would have been forgiven, but people need to know now how to protect themselves. Ministers have been clear about their priorities, which are to ensure that flood insurance remains widely available, affordable and fiscally sustainable. Nobody is going to argue with any of those principles, but they will not help householders to work out how to plan for their financial future.

I therefore ask the Minister the following questions. On the stroke of midnight on 30 June, will we have a free market or will we have some kind of interim extension of the statement of principles? If it is the latter, have there been any discussions about what form it will take? If the Government are going to let the free market emerge in the interim, will Ministers let it be genuinely uncontrolled, with all the pricing risks that holds, or are they considering regulation? If so, what kind of regulation, and how and when? On “Flood Re”, the current cross-subsidy is £8. Yesterday the ABI told me that the proposed levy would also come to £8, but it would have to be formalised as a tax. However, the National Flood Forum brief estimates the levy at £13. What assessment have the Government made of the levy and what mechanism would they need to regulate it? Finally, what measures are being considered to incentivise flood defence investment on a personal, local and national level? That is the only responsible way to manage flood risk on an ongoing basis.

I accept that it takes two to tango. I met the ABI yesterday and I made those points, but I am afraid that today it is the Minister’s turn. My constituents deserve to know whether their homes will be insured in July and on what terms. They deserve at least that measure of certainty, even though they live in a flood-risk zone.

In 2007 my constituency in Hull was badly flooded. Ninety-five per cent. of the city is below sea level, so we have always been prone to flooding, but in 2007 we had surface water flooding, a phenomenon that is now becoming more widespread around the country.

Since 2007, I have on several occasions raised in the House the question of what will happen with flood insurance come the end of June. Last summer, when I asked the then Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs what was happening, I was told on the Floor of the House that an agreement was close, that it would be a much better deal, that premiums would be affordable and that there would be no unaffordable excesses either, so I was quite optimistic. That was last summer. Since then I have written to the new Secretary of State and asked him what is happening. I have to say that it is completely unacceptable that the Government have dragged their feet on this issue, which is so important to so many householders up and down the country.

I have a great deal of respect for the Minister on the Front Bench, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon). I know he works hard to ensure that flooding is on the Government’s agenda. My understanding is that the Treasury is now stopping any agreement being reached. I understand that the Treasury has to look carefully at whatever public money has to be set aside or underwritten for any scheme, but time is running out. This is about people’s lives. People in Hull who were flooded in 2007 feel upset that they could be left high and dry come this summer. They have found it difficult to get flood insurance over the last few years. Premiums have gone up considerably and excesses are now very high. I say to the Minister that action needs to be taken.

I was disappointed that there was nothing in the Budget last week to deal with this issue. There were measures to deal with house building and sort out the housing situation, but if the Minister cannot ensure that householders up and down this country can have flood insurance, that will be a considerable blight on the housing market. People will not be able to get mortgages or sell their homes. I feel strongly that the Minister now needs to express to the highest echelons of the Government the view that this has to be a priority. We are now just three months off the statement of principles ending. I do not want to have to tell my constituents that insurance will no longer be available in the city of Hull, so I ask the Government to get on and sort this out, please.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) on bringing this motion before the House so that we can focus on the urgency of the situation before us, as we contemplate the ending of the statement of principles and the need to find a new way forward for flood insurance.

I cannot think of many things worse than coming home and finding one’s house inundated with water or being there when it happens. As hon. Members know who have experienced this issue from their constituents’ point of view, it is not just water; it is mud and sewage. It is devastating to have that in the house. However, one thing that is worse is for that to happen three years after the last time, as was the case in Stonehaven in my constituency. The safety net of insurance is one of the long-term securities to which people look to recover from the situation. Obviously we thank the emergency services for all they did and could do on the night to rescue people and mitigate the situation. Indeed, I want to place on record the resilience of the local community in Stonehaven, which rallied round. It was the weekend before Christmas and people were turning up with replacement food for Christmas lunches and replacement gifts for those that the children had lost in the floods. In that sense, it was great to see the community spirit, but the insurance response is the issue of long-term importance.

As hon. Members have mentioned, the issue is going to be of wider interest, as the traditional flood areas are going to grow and the randomness of flooding events is going to increase with climate change, the warming of the atmosphere and its ability to hold more moisture, making more rain-intensive events. It is thus in our collective interest to come up with a solution that deals with flooding, as it is going to be a wider risk, which needs to be shared. Planning and flood defences, which are devolved in Scotland, and individual property protection all make a difference and will help to reduce the risk in the long term. It is impressive to see how individual property flood protection can limit the damage on the night.

Before entering politics, I spent a lot of time designing sewerage and drainage systems. One thing that needs to be looked at for long-term protection is the design standards that are used. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we could collaborate with the civil engineering sector and look to how we could design our standards differently in order to respond to the changes in rainfall patterns that we are seeing?

It is important for the standards to reflect the reality of what is to come in the future rather than to cope with what was learned in the past. The hon. Lady makes a very important point. The maintenance and clearing of the drains is also important so that they can take the surge when it comes. We need to be able to deal with the debris that goes through the system and causes blockages, which often mean that the design specifications have not been met effectively.

Let me reinforce the point that insurance is a collective risk. As insurance companies have become more sophisticated with their computers and marketing, the risk base on which individual premiums are based becomes narrower and narrower. Coming up with the solution where we all as a society bear some of the risk of flooding because we do not know where it will strike next seems to provide an important way forward. June 2013 is not far away, so I hope the Minister will go away from this debate recognising the urgency of the situation: we must provide a solution and people must know how and when it is going to be taken forward. As has been said, if people want to continue to mortgage their houses, they must have insurance, and if new people are to move into a house, they need to able to insure it and to avoid any blight on the property.

Is my hon. Friend beginning to receive, as I am, some letters from constituents who are already encountering difficulties in renewing their building insurance and particularly the flooding element of it?

Yes, and the much higher excesses are difficult for a lot of people to carry or cover. This is a problem for businesses as well as for domestic properties.

Last summer, some of my Calder Valley constituents were flooded three times over the course of a month, and they experienced exactly the same problem—that under the statement of priorities they are still struggling to get affordable insurance and sometimes to get any insurance at all. Does my hon. Friend agree that, in that case, the 30 June deadline is perhaps not the highest priority? The highest priority should be getting the right deal for constituents so that they can go forward into the future.

Both are important. The right deal for those not getting a good enough service out of the statement of principles is extremely important, as is knowing what it is going to happen after the deadline. That is important for everyone affected, as they are going to have to renew their insurance and will have to find an affordable way of doing that. I commend the motion as a way of keeping up the pressure and highlighting our constituents’ perspective that there has to be a serious solution to this problem.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) on initiating this timely debate on the Floor of the House. By way of background, I remind Members that on 5 and 6 September 2008 Morpeth—a market town in my constituency—found itself at the centre of the most intensive rainfall in living memory. Some 950 properties in the town, including dozens of businesses, were directly affected. Surrounding villages were hit very hard, too, including Hepscott, which was affected by flash flooding. A number of other properties were badly flooded. The devastation suffered by individuals, families, businesses and the community at large cannot be overstated in any way, shape or form. It was an experience that will haunt their memories for many years.

As we debate the issue today, I am delighted that progress is finally being made in Morpeth. I thank and congratulate Northumberland county council, which has allocated £12 million towards the cost of new flood defences. That money is being delivered with the support and agreement of the three main political parties. It is important to recognise the role that the emergency services have played across the UK, but particularly in Morpeth in my constituency, and the way that they operated to help others during those difficult times. The local community in my constituency, the Morpeth Flood Action Group and many others pulled together, as has happened in the constituencies of many other hon. Members on both sides of the House, in the most difficult of circumstances. It would be remiss of me not to mention the Environment Agency and Ian Hodge, who works at the agency in Newcastle, who has played a huge role in Morpeth.

The problem has been described as immense, but the pooling system—an important component of insurance—will be an integral part of any agreement and, I hope, positive resolution that is reached. The pooling system has been proposed under the “Flood Re” model and the Morpeth model. That system formalises the existing cross-subsidy. It redistributes the risk to keep affordability in place for high-risk properties. It represents the only fair way forward in a changing situation where climate change is giving rise to an increasing number of extreme weather events. The ABI model, the “Flood Re” system and the Morpeth system combine availability with affordability. The “Flood Mu”, or Noah model, does not guarantee that because it does not put a cap on flood premiums.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is important that the insurance industry take into account investment in new flood defence schemes, including the one that he has talked about and the new sea wall at Dymchurch in my constituency? Often insurers base their quotes on generic information that does not take into account investment in new defences.

That is a powerful comment, with which I totally agree.

As has been discussed, the ABI has been in discussion with the Government for several months, perhaps years, on the ending of the statement of principles in June 2013. The clock is ticking. The deadline is fast approaching. People want answers. People in Morpeth have been flooded time and again; hon. Members on both sides of the House have described the experiences of people in their constituencies who have suffered greatly time and again. They cannot get affordable insurance. The excesses are higher than what the properties are worth, so it is meaningless.

Time and again, Members on both sides of the House have mentioned the importance of ensuring that we have a statement that will ensure something affordable and accessible is in place when the statement of principles runs out. We have been told time and again that the discussions with the ABI are at a critical point, that the statement is nearly ready and that things are in place. However, The Times this morning said something completely different. It suggested that there are huge difficulties between the ABI and the Government. Perhaps the Minister, for whom I have a lot of time and who has been very helpful, can explain from the Dispatch Box this afternoon where we are with the ABI and what is likely to happen in the next three months. It is absolutely imperative that we get something in place for the people who have been suffering for some time.

I am sure that the Minister will have much more to say, and it is important that we deal with this issue and that measures are put in place. I hope that we will not hear, “We are still in discussions and we cannot really give any more details, because the matter is confidential and that wouldn’t be right.” We want an answer today for everyone who lives in a property on a floodplain. We do not want to hear, “Something will happen.” Give us the answers, so we can tell our constituents what the situation is and they can feel safe.

I am grateful for the opportunity to make a short contribution to this very important debate on flood insurance, which I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) on securing.

As the Member of Parliament for a constituency that contains two major river courses and surrounds one of the most historic, flood-hit cities in the country, I naturally have constituents who express a great deal of concern about flooding, its impact on the local community and on the availability and affordability of flood insurance. Flood insurance is an issue not only for those who have sadly been flooded, but for those who have not and may never be but are deemed to be in a flood-risk area.

My constituent Sarah McKerlie told me just a few days ago that the sale of her property has fallen through three times because of the ambiguous risk. The current uncertainty is leading to irrational behaviour that does not necessarily relate to insurability. This uncertainty needs to end, so that people can sell their properties. It is a real blight and is causing major distress to many people.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I have a number of constituents in the same boat who bring the same concerns to me.

Given that the statement of principles comes to an end in June, the future looks very uncertain for many of my constituents and those of Members throughout the House, so I welcome the motion today. I want to focus on a village in my constituency situated to the south of York, on the banks of the River Ouse. Large parts of Naburn are at a significant risk of flooding. Late last year, I was contacted by a Naburn resident who informed me that, over the past 37 years, his property has been badly flooded on four separate occasions. In the six months since last autumn’s terrible wet weather, some homes in Naburn have been flooded numerous times. Thankfully, the people of Naburn have a strong sense of community spirit. They are Yorkshire folk, after all, and they are starting to pull together to do all they can to reduce their collective flood risk.

Following a public meeting in the village in November, the parish council and a group of interested residents set up a working group to investigate inexpensive and cost-effective measures that they can swiftly enact to help them deal with flooding before it affects their properties.

I suspect that my hon. Friend is about to describe a flood group like the Oxford Flood Alliance, which he and I are familiar with. It plays a huge role in reducing flood risk in Oxford by coming up with flood plans, mitigating flood risk in communities and developing flood resilience. Does he agree that this is a really important thing to encourage, and that any future flood insurance scheme must encourage such developments?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Local flood groups are very important for our communities. I am sure that, like my community flood group, my hon. Friend’s is working hard with the Environment Agency, the local authority and the local water and drainage boards to improve flood resistance capabilities.

Some ideas that have been considered include allowing local residents to have control over mobile pumping units and sandbag storage and delivery and to use their local knowledge to protect the most vulnerable people. We must not forget that there are some severely vulnerable people in flood-risk areas, and we must make sure that they do not become isolated by flooding. Independently, many people are considering making flood resilience improvements to their own homes.

The hard work, positive action and sense of resolve that I have witnessed in Naburn is extraordinary, and the community should be commended for its collective approach to the problems that it faces. I am well aware that, as has been pointed out, there are similar stories across the country of communities coming together to battle the difficulties of flooding, and they should all be commended.

I, too, praise the Oxford Flood Alliance. Insurance is one aspect being pursued there. The alliance has found that just because one person in one property gets a quote from an insurance company their neighbour may not be able to get anything like a similar quote from the same company, because the companies limit their exposure in these areas. That is driving up premiums and giving people intolerable uncertainty.

I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman, and I have been told of similar circumstances in relation to the accessibility of local flood insurance.

What my constituents fear, as I do, is that their efforts, which I have just explained, could all be in vain if the statement of principles ends without a new agreement in place. Home insurance premiums would sky-rocket for all residents in communities such as Naburn, regardless of whether or not a property is susceptible to flooding. Some people would lose flood insurance altogether, and, as has been said, mortgage agreements could be at risk as a result. I understand the need for negotiations between the Government and the ABI to be private and confidential, but the lack of any specific details emerging from the negotiations is fuelling my constituents’ concerns about how they will cope in the future.

My constituents are prepared to come together to work as a community to face up to the flooding threat on their doorstep. They therefore need the same commitment from the Government and the insurance industry to do all that they can to protect people from the worst excesses of flooding and deliver an agreement that improves the availability and affordability of flooding insurance where flood resilience measures fail. It is time for action.

First, I ask the House to join me in offering our heartfelt condolences to the family of Susan Norman, who suffered a tragic fatal accident during a landslip caused by heavy rainfall in Looe in my constituency on Friday. May I pay a special tribute to all the people from the emergency services who attended the scene and worked tirelessly throughout the day? I also wish to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) for securing today’s important debate.

My constituency has been one of the places worst hit by flooding over the past couple of years. The BBC acknowledged that places such as Looe, Polperro and my own village of Millbrook were some of the worst affected in Britain by flooding in November and December 2012. The heavy rainfall resulted in a lot of damage to highways, infrastructure and homes across my constituency. Cornwall council has estimated the cost of repairing the damage across Cornwall to be about £2.5 million.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) for visiting my constituency to see for himself the devastating effects of the floods. It meant a lot to my constituents and it also meant that he was also able to see for himself the damage and destruction caused by surface water run-off in both east and west Looe.

The most recent fatal landslip occurred just yards away from one that took place last December. So will the Minister join me in calling for the immediate publication of all road surveys and reports that have been undertaken over the past four years on the roads in the town of Looe and in the wider area of Cornwall? That would allow insurance companies and residents to be reassured, given the obvious and understandable concern that there is at the moment.

The House should be aware that the residents raised the possibility of the landslip that took place last week when they wrote to the council on 15 January. They asked:

“Is there a risk of subsidence or landslide on to the back of or even engulfing our properties?”

They also asked whether they and their homes would be safe. The council’s response was:

“The site has been inspected on a number of occasions and all areas giving rise to concern are included within the current works programme.”

That works programme was due to be completed and the road to be reopened at the end of this week.

The residents wrote again and presented a 60-page dossier to the chief executive of the council in February; they are waiting for a reply. I last wrote to the local councillor for an update in February, but again I am still waiting for a reply. A Looe town councillor, Councillor Brian Galipeau, formally proposed that the town council should take on the job of securing reassurance about the stability of Hannafore road and lane and sought a contingency plan in case of road failure to reassure the residents, and I am disappointed that the request has been met with what I understand to be accusations of scaremongering.

I am sure the Minister will agree that securing reassurance about road stability deserves to be treated in a responsible manner, because it can affect the availability of insurance for those residents. I hope that he will join me in calling for the immediate funding he announced yesterday to be used for physical flood prevention measures and not to employ yet another council officer.

Let me finish by highlighting the situation for two of my constituents. The first was being charged £200 to £300 for her flood insurance last year. Her home was flooded and in January, she was informed that it would cost £530 to renew her policy. The huge increase in her costs caused her to look elsewhere, but the majority of companies refuse to take her on at the moment. Another constituent has had major issues obtaining insurance since her property was flooded. She was informed by her insurance company that it needed a report from the Environment Agency, which has not given the necessary guarantees. I hope we will get some answers from the Minister today.

I join my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) in expressing condolences to the family and friends of her constituent, who was so tragically killed. It shows the importance of this debate and the need, as all Members have said, for the Government to get on with the job and provide a solution for what will happen at the end of the statement of principles.

There has been tremendous unanimity across the Chamber. I agreed with every word of what the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood) said and with most of what the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) said, although perhaps not the tone in which she said it. I recognise that the Government have worked hard behind the scenes with the Association of British Insurers to reach a solution, but the clock is ticking.

It gives me no pleasure to be standing in the Chamber talking about flooding again, as I think that this is the fourth or fifth time that I have raised the issue in the House. The key point is the continued availability and affordability of insurance. A second issue, which I shall touch on briefly, is the operation of the Bellwin scheme—that is, shall we say, the insurance policy for local authorities that are hit by the cost of cleaning up floods. Before I do that, I want to join hon. Members from all parties who have paid tribute to the volunteers in their constituencies who are helping to build community resilience. Whether they are in Mevagissey, St Austell, Pentewan or Polmassick—or, perhaps most notably, in St Blazey—I see a huge amount of voluntary work in my constituency, with people coming forward and developing strategies and contingency plans.

As we all know, flooding can be devastating, even when there is no loss of life. It can have a devastating impact on businesses and individuals as possessions and memories are washed away. In the clear-up, people need to know that insurance companies will pay out in a timely way and that they will be able to get insurance again for the future. Sadly, there remains a considerable danger that this simple aspiration for business and home owners will not be guaranteed and that affordable flood insurance will become unavailable in our country.

The scale of the challenge is getting worse, not better: one in every six homes are at risk of flooding; 2.4 million properties are at risk from the sea and rivers; 2.8 million homes are at risk from surface flooding; and 5 million people live or work in flood-risk areas. As my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) said, with the extent and nature of the threat we face changing, surely our response as a society should change, too. We are in an era of climate change and we all face unpredictable flooding risks and the potential for great costs. Therefore, I encourage the Government to recognise that this is not a problem that can be contained to specific areas; it is a national problem that requires a national response.

As my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall made clear, Cornwall has suffered hugely with the costs of repairing flood damage over recent years. The latest estimate I have from Cornwall council is that the cost in November and December for last year’s floods alone is £7.4 million in revenue and capital expenditure. The Government have rightly activated the Bellwin scheme, the insurance policy for local authorities hit by flooding.

Does my hon. Friend agree that under the Bellwin scheme’s rules the fact that Cornwall was changed to a unitary authority from six districts and one county council has disadvantaged Cornwall considerably?

My hon. Friend pre-empts the point I was about to make, and which I have made before. We need to review the Bellwin scheme in order to take account of different types of local authority structure, whether single-tier, such as Cornwall’s unitary council, which I believe gives Cornwall a stronger voice overall, or two-tier, such as Devon, with its district council and county council, which has a lower threshold for activating Government support. In Cornwall’s case, the threshold is £1.4 million of expenditure, which needs to be defrayed before the Bellwin scheme provides any central Government support. If that threshold is not met, the whole bill must be picked up by the local authority. Even if it is met, the local authority will still have to pick up 15% of the additional total.

There are very strange rules relating to different types of expenditure. Although the immediate response to incidents—the £181,000 for the fire and rescue service and the cost of advice to residents and of housing support, for example—might fall within the Bellwin scheme if the threshold is crossed, the repairs to highways and other capital expenditure to put right what the flood damage put wrong are not covered. I say to the Minister that as well as ensuring that flood insurance for homes and businesses remains affordable and available, and recognising that we are all in it together, local authorities need to know that the Government stand behind them, too. With climate change happening, it is clear that flooding will continue, but we must not leave people, businesses and councils hung out to dry when the waters recede.

I begin by drawing attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and to my chairmanship of the all-party group on insurance and financial services. It is in that context that I think it is helpful to share with the House some of the observations that have been made by the insurance press about the discussions with the Government over recent years, which Post magazine has described as “negotiations to nowhere”.

It is astounding that it was in 2008 that the insurance industry made it clear that it would be withdrawing from the statement of principles. May I make it absolutely clear that it is important that it should do so, because many of the individual cases that Members have drawn attention to here are not covered by the statement of principles? They are not in this jeopardy because of the expiry of the statement of principles; the statement of principles does not have an “all circumstances” provision. That is why it is necessary to address the matter.

In 2008 I was in the European Parliament, and I was surprised to see that no progress had been made by the time I came here in 2010. I am astounded, frankly, that here we are in 2013, barely weeks away from the statement of principles ending, and still there is no progress to announce. It is not as though we have not dealt with these issues before. The insurer of last resort is, in fact, the Government. They took on that role in relation to “Pool Re”, when we needed to create terrorism insurance, and it was done in a matter of weeks. The Lloyds-Equitas debacle, which I had ministerial responsibility for resolving, was resolved within 12 months. Following 9/11, no insurance was available to the aviation industry in this country, and that matter was resolved by Government within a matter of days. Yet here we are, years and years later, with no progress to announce.

I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) for securing this debate and for his speech. He has called for good faith on the part of the insurance industry and for a Government contribution. That has also been said by other Members and in The Times leader to which reference has been made.

On good faith in the insurance industry, the all-party group on insurance and financial services has held three meetings since the election specifically on these issues. People have attended from the Association of British Insurers, on every occasion, from the British Insurance Brokers Association, on every occasion, and from the National Flood Forum. People from Aon, from Guy Carpenter and from Marsh have outlined the range of proposals that they have been making to Government. In an all-party group meeting on 12 October, Aon raised for the first time a variation on the “Flood Re” proposal, but we do not know what the Government’s response has been. In November, there was a bit of a spat when the ABI thought that the Government were not going to make any contribution. In response, it was claimed that it was nonsense to say that there was an impasse. Yet here we are, approaching the Easter break, and we still seem to have an impasse.

I do not blame the Minister. He attended a flood summit back in 2010, and he absolutely understands all the issues. However, I wonder to what extent his hands are tied elsewhere, perhaps not so much by the change in Secretary of State but by the involvement of the Cabinet Office in some aspects of these discussions. It is said that the Government may have been spooked by the original discussions, which had been going constructively, when they looked at the overall cost of flooding. However, that is not good enough. We have heard it suggested that there could be an extension of the statement of principles, but that is a voluntary agreement with the industry, and it is not going to happen; we can rule it out. The reality is that we will either see a return to the free market or the Government will have to get their act together, and soon.

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) on securing this debate. I am grateful for the chance to speak, because many of my constituents, especially in Paulsgrove, Cosham, Drayton and Farlington, have been affected by these issues.

We have good sea defences in Portsmouth, but we have a very dilapidated sewerage and drainage system that has caused many of the problems on and around the Portsdown Hill area. A programme of works is now in place to rectify those problems, and so far we have been able to protect local people from the increases in their insurance premiums as they have had to submit repeated claims for repeated flooding and sewerage leaks.

I agree with many of the points that have been made, and I will not go over them again. I wish to touch on two additional issues that add insult to injury. The first of these is planning. Planning applications are approved even when the new build is on a serious floodplain. An applicant for a dementia care home in my constituency attempted to placate the planning committee by saying—I kid you not—that because the building was high-rise, if there were a flood the residents would be able to get to high ground. The application was approved. The advice of local planning committees and the Environment Agency is often ignored, or their decisions overturned.

I hope that there could be an incentive for a slightly more responsible stance on these issues. There is a gap in the market for an “Environment Agency Says No” website, so that whether it is a house or a care home place being purchased, the consumer would be able to check whether the agency has given the site and the development the thumbs up.

My hon. Friend is making some excellent points about Environment Agency approval of floodplains. She began by talking about dilapidated sewerage systems. Does she agree that we need to include Thames Water more in decisions about planning, because a lot of our drainage systems are causing problems with surface water flooding?

My hon. Friend is right. The Environment Agency has told me that it would like to be more involved with such planning decisions and there are many other organisations that we should take advice from.

The transparency that I have described would not deal with current cases, but it would head off future grief by providing an incentive for developers to behave more responsibly.

The final issue that I will touch on is compensation for deliberate flooding. There have been cases in my county, although not in my constituency, of landowners having their land flooded deliberately by the local authority to prevent greater damage elsewhere. That is quite understandable, but in such cases the landowner should be able to access some form of compensation. I would be grateful for the Minister’s views on that.

Finally, I congratulate the Backbench Business Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton and all Members who have made possible this timely debate on an important issue.

It is a great pleasure to speak in this debate. I, too, thank my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) for securing it and the Backbench Business Committee for holding it.

Flooding has been a particular problem in the past year throughout my constituency. Tiverton, Cullompton, Seaton, Axminster and Uplyme have all been affected by flooding and Feniton has been flooded several times. We need to ensure that my constituents and people across the country get flood insurance that they can afford.

I have a great deal of respect for my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North (Jonathan Evans), but he speaks, naturally enough, on behalf of the insurance industry. It is a wonderful industry, but it is not terribly charitable. It is there to make a profit. There is nothing wrong with profit, but we must not set up a system that puts a levy on all insurance payers in order to pay for those in flood-risk areas.

I do not want my hon. Friend to miss the fact that the “Flood Re” scheme, about which everybody has spoken, is a not-for-profit scheme. It is important that everybody recognises that.

I thank my hon. Friend for correcting me about that being a not-for-profit scheme, but that was not the point I was making.

My point is that when we levy all insurance payers to build up a fund that takes the risk of properties in high-risk areas away from the insurance companies, we should not be too generous because insurance companies are all about taking risk. That is what they are in business for. They should therefore be able to take their fair share of risk. I want to ensure that the insurance companies step up to the plate, but also that the Government help those who, in their areas, cannot get flood insurance under a private scheme on the free market. That is the balance that must be struck.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is a precedent for the Government’s participating in the way that we are all advocating in the “Pool Re” arrangements that provide terrorism insurance cover?

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the Government can step up to the plate and be the insurer of last resort. However, the point I am making is that the Government must be the insurer of last resort, not the insurer of first resort.

Because there has been so much flooding in the past year, the insurance companies have naturally been putting the maximum possible pressure on the Government. They are in business, so it is right for them to do so. However, given that everybody who pays insurance across the piece will pay for the scheme, the Government must ensure that everybody is dealt with fairly.

It is essential that people who genuinely cannot get insurance—those who have been flooded two or three times, such as my constituents in Feniton—can get insurance in the future. The current statement of principles does not cover them. I am therefore looking forward to the Government putting in place a much better system so that people can access insurance irrespective of whether they have been flooded several times. It is not their fault that they live in a property that is flooding; in many respects, it is planning decisions that generate floods.

In the village of Feniton, there have been appeal decisions allowing more houses to be built where the appeal inspector has actually recognised in his brief that the village will flood and might flood further as a result of the development, but has allowed the houses anyway because the district council has not got its five-year housing plan up to speed. That means that the poor people down the bottom of Feniton will get flooded even more. What is the logic of that? This must be not only about flood insurance but about a planning policy that says we do not build on floodplains or on hills above villages so that the water runs off and floods the people at the bottom end of the village even more. This is something I get quite excited about, because the people who get flooded should not have to put up with it.

Other hon. Members have talked about ensuring that the money for the Bellwin scheme is available when, for example, roads are washed away by floods. Very often, the Government claim that Bellwin is available to local authorities, but when the latter claim it, the Government and the bureaucracy decide that many of the proposed schemes to cover flood damage are not eligible. That has to be dealt with.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Bellwin scheme is only for immediate and emergency repairs, which it is often not possible for local authorities to carry out?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. If a road or bridge is washed away, the local authority might not be able to put it right immediately, but it will still have an effect on local people and local authority spend.

I am keen for the Government to negotiate a system that gives people access to affordable flood insurance in high-risk areas; otherwise, we will end up putting a levy on all insurance payers, only to find that people cannot get genuinely affordable insurance. That is key. I will want to see in the proposal what the word “affordable” means, because what is affordable to one person is not affordable to another. I do not want the insurance companies gobbling up a great deal of money and then not offering affordable assurance to my constituents in villages and towns that have been flooded.

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in this important debate. It has been a good debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) on securing it and the Backbench Business Committee on giving it the importance it deserves.

We have heard several fantastic speeches and many comments that were true for Members on both sides of the House. My hon. Friend the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper) made a strong argument about the link between flood defences and flood insurance, while the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood) raised concerns on behalf of the 1,627 of her constituents who will be particularly affected if flood insurance is not available. To her point about drainage, I would add that there are six provisions in the Flood and Water Management Act 2010 that have not yet been enacted and which I invite the Government to implement.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), who is a dogged campaigner for her constituents, has made endless attempts to establish the true state of the negotiations and made a powerful argument, while the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) talked about the devastating effects of flooding in his community and made a strong point about how the increasing unpredictability of recent flood events are causing us to ask fundamental questions about the nature of risk.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) made a powerful speech about his constituency and his constituents in Morpeth, where nearly 1,000 properties were devastated in those terrible scenes. The hon. Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) mentioned the village of Leyburn and the problems faced by residents there. He rightly asked a question that I will go on to ask: would it not be terrible if those constituents came together to manage their flood risk but were let down by the Government and the insurance industry in getting a deal?

Hon. Members across the House will, I am sure, agree with comments made by the hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) about the tragic event in Looe last week, and our condolences go out to the families of those concerned. There are other issues elsewhere in Cornwall, and the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert) spoke about the inevitable unwinding of the cross-subsidy in the system, should we move to a free market position.

The hon. Member for Cardiff North (Jonathan Evans) made a powerful speech about the lack of urgency and care from this Government, and he put it best when he said that they must get their act together, and soon—a point I will go on to make. The hon. Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) drew on matters relating to planning and deliberate flooding, reminding us that we must view this issue in the round. Finally, the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish)—a constituency that has seen more water than most in the past 12 months—drew on the key issue of affordability and reminded the House that we are discussing a not-for-profit scheme.

Ninety-six days are all that stand between today’s near-universal coverage for flood damage and an unfettered free market that will leave tens of thousands of people with homes that are uninsurable, unmortgageable and unsellable—96 days, and the clock is ticking.

I am disappointed that the Minister for Government Policy, the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr Letwin), is unable to be with us today as it is clear that he is leading on negotiations. I am sure that his services as a Government troubleshooter are needed elsewhere, but whatever measure of success the Government apply, so far the process leading to whatever deal we will get has been a failure—a failure of competence, ambition and ideology, and a failure of the Prime Minister.

Hon. Members might remember the Prime Minister’s comments during the extensive flooding of November last year:

“I’m sure we will do a deal…We are in negotiations at the moment…We need to take a tough approach frankly and it’s important insurance companies do what they are meant to, which is provide insurance to households and we are going to make sure that happens.”

Just to make it perfectly clear, he said: “I am personally involved.” That was last year, yet 200,000 high-risk homes could find themselves without insurance in 96 days.

In government we negotiated a wide-ranging agreement to ensure near universal access to flooding insurance. The limitations to that scheme have been made clear, which is why in 2008 we agreed, alongside the insurance industry, that a successor deal would be needed. This Government, however, have had three years but they have squandered them. They had an insurance industry willing to negotiate to find a solution, and I made it clear that the Opposition will take a responsible approach and support any deal to ensure affordable and available insurance. The Government had the resources of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Cabinet Office, and even of No. 10 Downing street, yet with 96 days to go there is still no deal.

The consequences of that are stark. Nick Starling from the Association of British Insurers warned that the only alternative to a deal with the Government

“is a free market, meaning up to 200,000 people will find insurance unavailable or unaffordable.”.

Ian Crowder of AA Insurance has stated:

“We are concerned insurance premiums will spiral out of control if no agreement is reached between the ABI and the Government.”,

and Paul Broadhead of the Building Societies Association warned chillingly:

“Failure to reach agreement could also have an effect on mortgage lending in high risk areas”.

The National Flood Forum stated:

“Government needs to accept its responsibilities of protecting its citizens by making a decision. Failure to make a proposal will put thousands of people at risk”.

In short, if the Government fail to get a deal, nearly 200,000 households could find themselves without insurance, unable to sell, and with their properties revalued sharply downwards. That could place them in negative equity and create tranches of property blight across the constituencies we represent. In other words, the stakes could not be higher.

Given those consequences, it is even more worrying that the Government seem unable to admit that they are struggling. In a letter to me of 19 April 2012, the Minister stated:

“I cannot comment on the timing of any future announcements on this issue but have committed to providing a further update this spring”

For the sake of clarity, that was spring 2012. No response. In response to my written question of 18 June 2012, the Minister said that the Government were

“at an advanced stage in intensive negotiations with the industry on alternative arrangements for when the Statement of Principles expires.”—[Official Report, 18 June 2012; Vol. 546, c. 738W.]

In her written ministerial statement of 11 July 2012, the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman), said:

“Intensive discussions with the insurance industry are continuing and we will announce further details in due course.”—[Official Report, 11 July 2012; Vol. 548, c. 30WS.]

Last November, Lord De Mauley said in the other place:

“We are in intense but constructive negotiations with the industry and further announcements will be made in due course”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 1 November 2012; Vol. 740, c. 644.]

When asked a question by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) in January, the Minister said:

“We want to protect those on low incomes in flood-risk areas, and we think we have a method of doing that. We are at an advanced stage in negotiations; I will come to the House shortly, I hope, with details.”—[Official Report, 24 January 2013; Vol. 557, c. 445.]

Come the next set of DEFRA questions in March, the Minister responded to another question asked by my hon. Friend by saying:

“Constructive negotiations continue with the insurance industry, at the highest levels of Government, on a range of approaches that could succeed the current statement of principles.”—[Official Report, 7 March 2013; Vol. 1109, c. 559.]

This situation would be comical if it were not so serious. This is the mañana Department of a mañana Government—always tomorrow and no help for today.

Even if an agreement could be reached, it would require primary legislation. The Minister should admit what we now know to be true—that this will not be in place for 30 June. The 570,000 properties to which this motion applies and the 570,000 families that could find their homes uninsurable, unmortgageable and unsellable are calling for certainty, but there is none.

What is the plan? To deny the risk and the social responsibility that any Government bear would deny one of the most basic laws of political gravity, which is that catastrophic risk resides with us all. When catastrophic floods devastate streets, towns and communities, we rightly expect the Government to be there to help us pick up the pieces. That is what is so short-sighted about the Government’s response to getting a deal done on flood insurance.

As the Minister has previously made clear, there is only one deal on the table. The alternative is a free market that will allow insurers to leave the market for high-risk properties and that will unwind a long-standing settlement that flood insurance should be available as part of every policy.

Climate change is making flooding more prevalent and less predictable, and the UK climate change risk assessment cites it as the No. 1 threat that we need to adapt to. I have made it clear that the Opposition seek to be helpful and constructive in securing a deal that protects home owners, businesses and communities vulnerable to the risk of flooding. Despite our constructive approach, Ministers have refused to brief this House or involve the Opposition in the discussions. As each week passes, it is becoming harder to defend a situation in which Ministers appear to be drifting without giving any indication of when a deal will be concluded.

This Government must get a grip. They have 96 days and the clock is ticking.

I echo the plaudits given by Members on both sides of the House to my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) for securing this debate and to the Backbench Business Committee for agreeing to it.

I say from the start that, yes, the Government are in arduous and urgent negotiations with the insurance industry. We recognise that the Government’s first and primary role is to tackle risk by building flood defences. We are doing that, and I will talk about it later. We must get a good deal for the taxpayer and policyholders and, frankly, a better deal than the statement of principles. Therefore, insurance must be available and affordable, without adding to bills. We are not yet in a position to make an announcement that we have a value for money, deliverable solution and one that is legal within the constraints of state aid, but I can assure hon. Members that we are working extremely hard to achieve that.

The Minister has been assiduous on this issue, and we are looking forward to seeing him in Pagham in my constituency in late April. Will he be able to make an announcement on this issue before 30 June?

I hope that we will be able to do so, and I will give more details on that later. I am looking forward to meeting my hon. Friend’s constituents and to understanding the daily threats that they live with.

Let us be clear: the availability and affordability of home insurance in flood-risk areas beyond the expiry of the statement of principles on 30 June are vital for hon. Members and the Government, and I firmly support the motion.

Flooding has a significant and long-lasting impact on local communities, which I have seen first hand in my constituency. The availability of home insurance in flood-risk areas provides important financial protection and peace of mind to such communities. The Government remain committed to ongoing negotiations with the insurance industry and others on what replaces the statement of principles agreement. We want to find a solution that ensures the availability and affordability of flood insurance and will endeavour to continue working with the industry towards that goal.

I am really short of time, but I will respond to the point that I believe the hon. Gentleman wants to make. If I have time to give way at the end, I will do so.

As Ministers have repeatedly made clear, the main aim of our work has always been to reach an agreement whereby insurance bills remain affordable, without placing unacceptable and unsustainable costs on wider policyholders. The Government have been doing a lot to support the continued availability of affordable insurance. Reducing flood risk will always be the best and most sustainable solution. Despite difficult times, we are on track to spend more than £2.3 billion to deliver better protection from flooding and coastal erosion to more than 165,000 homes over the four years to 2015. Our new system of partnership funding has brought in an additional £148 million on top of that from external partners. Many hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery), have benefited from that in their constituencies. I give full praise to him and his constituents for the leadership that they have shown.

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) asked why there was nothing in the Budget, but £120 million of investment was announced in the autumn statement. Many of those schemes are shovel-ready and proceeding, and they are a great comfort to constituents.

Despite last year being the second wettest on record, more than 200,000 homes were protected from flooding because of defences already in place. The Environment Agency’s flood warning service provided additional support; evidence is emerging that many houses avoid flooding because of the better flood warning system. We have estimated that, for every property that suffered flooding last year and in January, more than 25 homes were protected because of flood defences and maintenance work and because of the work of the Environment Agency, local authorities and other front-line responders. More than 200,000 householders are therefore benefiting from the Government’s continued investment in managing flood risk.

Many hon. Members are impatient for information on the Government’s discussions. I am impatient to share the details, but it would be quite wrong to go into too much detail.

I join my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) in offering commiserations to her constituent and her family for their loss. I entirely agree with her that all available information must be made publicly available, so that we can get to the bottom of what precisely happened.

If I can, I will try to give way in a moment.

We have recently announced a flood resilience community pathfinder scheme for Cornwall and a number of other parts of the country. In my hon. Friend’s case, £476,000 will be spent in Cornwall.

The hon. Member for Luton South (Gavin Shuker) said that the statement of principles was universal insurance.

Perhaps that is not what the hon. Gentleman said. The statement of principles is not universal —not by a long chalk—which is part of the problem. Everything he said in his quote from the Prime Minister is absolutely right, and I thank him for pointing it out.

When Conservatives were in opposition in 2008, it was agreed that a successor to the statement of principles would be required. The previous Government agreed that a market could emerge after the end of the agreement. The statement of principles says that there will be no need for specific agreements after June 2013. All hon. Members disagree with that and believe that we need a follow-up.

My hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton, to whom I want to give time to make a winding-up speech, asked about the Government’s view of a flood mutual, which is an important question. We are looking very closely at the proposal, which is a possible alternative to “Flood Re”. We are working closely with those who are making that proposal.

The Minister said earlier that he was impatient to share information with the House. Can he tell us what the Government’s sticking point—their fundamental problem—is with the “Flood Re” proposal?

I will come on to that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North (Jonathan Evans) talked about flood insurance in the context of terrorism, but those are entirely different types of insurance. The pool model does work for some of them, but the “Flood Re” model would not work in this case, because it does not provide support for the cost of that cover. He made the point that “Flood Re” is a not-for-profit solution. Well, yes and no, in that the Government would pay through a levy—so householders are paying for it with an element of underwriting—but taking away risk from the most at risk is an advantage to the industry. So we must be very careful. The Minister’s job is to look after the taxpayer and householder. Yes, we need a solution, but not at any price. Whoever was standing at the Dispatch Box, they would not want to bring before the House a deal that was unworkable or that would cause the wrong sort of increases for some of the most at risk and hard up of our constituents. We need to get this right.

My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) made a point about farmland and the wider risk. When farmland is flooded as part of a formal flood alleviation scheme, the landowner is compensated.

My hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton introduced the debate with a powerful speech. He made a point about the governance of any arrangements. He was right to do so, and it is important that we take forward his concerns and make those arrangements clear in the announcement. I can assure him that the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are working closely.

I was concerned that the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper) talked about shambolic local flood administration in her constituency. We have implemented the Flood and Water Management Act 2010, which arose from Sir Michael Pitt’s recommendations after 2007. I note that she said that that is not happening in her constituency, and I am happy to take that up.

Many hon. Members made good points, which I could probably summarise as, “We want a decision and an announcement soon, because our constituents are worried.” I can understand that. We are doing other things to help those who might be struggling to find affordable insurance. We have published a guide to obtaining flood insurance in high flood risk areas in collaboration with the National Flood Forum, Which? and insurance industry representatives. The guide helps people navigate through the insurance market and acts as a signpost to actions that individuals can take to reduce their flood risk.

Insurance can be found for reasonable prices if people talk to their insurer about their specific circumstances. The Environment Agency can provide supporting evidence on the local flood risk, for free, which people can use in discussions, and I want to hear from hon. Members if that is not happening. Different companies take different approaches to flood risk and it almost always pays to shop around.

I recognise the great concern on both sides of the House on this matter. I want to give hon. Members and their constituents the assurance that they want, but I will not do it at any price. Yes, it has taken longer than any of us would have wished, but I hope that the deal we bring to the House will be better than what we have now, especially for those of our constituents who are on low incomes.

I thank the Backbench Committee for this debate, and I thank all hon. Members who have contributed for their excellent speeches. Some of them talked about the local dimension and some mentioned the national implications of these issues. Given the lack of time, I will not go into detail on all of the contributions, but the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper) talked about the lack of a joined-up approach locally. My hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood) talked about the human dimension to local flood damage and the importance of planning in the mitigation of flood risk.

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) and the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) talked about the local aspects of flood insurance.

My hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) made an important point about what local community initiatives can do to reduce flood risk, and my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) highlighted the human toll across Cornwall. I am sure the whole House joins her in expressing our condolences to the bereaved family of her constituent.

There were other powerful contributions. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North (Jonathan Evans) made a powerful speech on his work with the all-party group. My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) talked about the problem of planning approvals in the floodplain. Other hon. Members were unable to attend the debate—for example, my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy)—but have expressed support for the motion, and I welcome that.

The shadow Minister gave an important speech. He tracked the recent negotiations with a fine-toothed comb, if, at points, rather selectively. He had rather less to say on the previous Government’s progress, but none the less made some important points.

The Minister described the arduous and urgent negotiations with the ABI and the importance of delivering a legal, workable deal that delivers value for money. I am sure the whole House joins him in wanting to achieve that result. We do not expect him to negotiate in public, but we do need urgently to deliver a new deal on flood insurance. We need to strengthen flood defences, address the planning failures of the past and ensure that UK environmental policies place a greater emphasis on resilience and adaptation in the future. I commend the motion to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House notes the Environment Agency’s estimate that 570,000 properties in England and Wales are at significant risk of flooding; recognises the efforts of the insurance industry and past and present governments to reach agreement to ensure flood insurance will be made available to all homes and small businesses beyond June 2013; calls on the insurance industry to negotiate in good faith to conclude those arrangements; and further calls on the Government to acknowledge the need to provide some support for those arrangements and ensure that resilience and adaptation to flood risks and other natural hazards are amongst its highest environmental priorities.