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Engagements

Volume 575: debated on Wednesday 12 February 2014

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.

Our hearts go out to everyone whose lives are being devastated by the current floods. I am sure we all welcome the Prime Minister’s promise yesterday that he will do everything he can both with the relief effort and in building a more resilient country into the future. Does he therefore agree that it would be both complacent and ignorant to flout the warnings of the Met Office and his own advisers, who warn that climate change will lead to even more such events in the future? Can he confirm for the House and for everyone in my Brighton constituency that doing everything he can will include not only reversing cuts to the Environment Agency budget and giving proper funding for flood prevention but, crucially, removing anyone from the Cabinet—[Interruption.]

Let me reassure the hon. Lady that I listen very carefully to my experts in the Met Office and in the Environment Agency. Every Cobra meeting starts with a briefing from the Met Office. I think it is clear that we are seeing more extreme weather events, and I suspect that we will go on seeing more extreme weather events. We need to do everything we can to improve the resilience of our country. Let me repeat again that, as I said yesterday, when it comes to this relief effort, money is no object. We will spend what is necessary to help families, to help people and to help communities get through this very difficult time. I have to say that things are likely to get worse before they get better, because of the very high levels of rainfall we have seen—and we are seeing very serious high winds as we speak here in the House today—but whatever can be done to help will be done.

Q2. Last year, my constituent Georgia Williams was brutally murdered. At the subsequent trial, it was revealed that her attacker had previously attacked another young girl five years earlier. Yet, unbelievably, that attacker got off the earlier offence with just a police caution—a written warning. Will the Prime Minister join me in calling on West Mercia police to publish all relevant material relating to that earlier case in order that any lessons that can be learned will be learned? (902544)

First of all, my hon. Friend is absolutely right to take up his constituent’s case in this way. He has written to me about this specific case. My sympathy goes out to the family and friends of Georgia Williams. As he has asked, I understand that the Independent Police Complaints Commission is currently considering its response to a referral from West Mercia police into the handling of this case and what needs to be published. On the issue of cautions, we announced last year that we are banning the use of simple cautions for all of the most serious offences, including manslaughter, rape and robbery, as well as a range of other offences that devastate lives and tear apart communities. Clearly, this is a tragic case and we must get to the bottom of what went wrong.

I join the Prime Minister in expressing all my sympathies with people who have been affected by the floods, who have been driven out of their homes, and who are facing disruption to their lives. I also join him in paying tribute to all those helping with relief efforts and to the extraordinary resilience we have seen in the past few weeks of the people of our country. He will know that people in affected communities are relieved that help from the armed forces and emergency services has now arrived, but many feel they were sent in too late. With further flooding expected in the coming hours and days, can the Prime Minister provide an assurance that people will be getting help in time, not after the event?

I can certainly give that assurance. Let me repeat again that it is important, as the right hon. Gentleman said, to praise our emergency services, to praise volunteers, and to praise all those working for the Environment Agency, who have worked night and day, round the clock, to help our communities. They really have done amazing work, and we should thank them.

In terms of the engagement of the military, I think that this is important. It has always been possible for gold commanders in these emergency situations to call on military assets. Indeed, a military liaison officer is supposed to sit with those gold commanders and liaise with them. What we have done in recent days is to say very clearly to all the local authorities concerned, which we have contacted individually, “If you want military assistance, don’t think twice about it: think once, then ask, and they’ll be there.” We have now got thousands of military at a state of readiness to help out. A huge number have already been deployed; and yes, as we see the levels potentially rising on the Thames again coming into this weekend, we should do everything we can now to get extra help into those communities that could be affected and make sure that they are helped. All the military assistance that is required is there; people only have to ask.

I welcome that promise of proactive help from the Prime Minister. Given the forecasts of extreme weather and that river levels are rising, one of the key issues that will concern people is not just their homes but continuing gas and electricity supplies. We have learned from experience in 2007 that protecting electricity substations that can be responsible for power for hundreds of thousands of homes is of particular importance. Can he reassure the House about the steps being taken to protect these vital services?

I can give the right hon. Gentleman that assurance. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Government Policy carried out a review into the resilience of our infrastructure. A lot of extra steps were taken following that, and that has made a difference. Also, in the Cobra system, we are monitoring every day those particular bits of infrastructure that could be under threat. In recent days, it has more been about water-treatment works than electricity works.

I also spoke to the Minister responsible for energy policy, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon), at this morning’s Cobra to make sure that everything is done to contact the energy companies to stand up the people who will be necessary if there are further supply interruptions over the coming days. Since the experience of the problems in Kent after Christmas, the energy companies and the network companies have done a better job at reconnecting people more quickly.

I thank the Prime Minister for that answer. One of the reassurances that he provided yesterday, as he said in an earlier answer, was to say that money was no object, but this morning the Transport Secretary said that it is not a “blank cheque”. Will the Prime Minister tell the House exactly what areas of spending yesterday’s promise covers?

I was very clear last night, and let me repeat again that, as I said last night, money is no object in this relief effort. I want communities who are suffering and people who see water lapping at their doors to know that when it comes to the military, sandbags, the emergency services, restoring broken flood defences—all of those things—money is no object. To be fair to the Transport Secretary, this is what he said this morning:

“money is not the issue while we’re in this relief job.”

That is what he said. He is absolutely right.

The Prime Minister is of course absolutely right about the relief effort. He also said yesterday that he will

“spend whatever it takes to recover from this”

and make sure that we have a

“resilient country for the future.”

Let me give him an example in that context. Yesterday, he praised the staff of the Environment Agency, but it is in the process, this year, of making 550 people dealing with flooding redundant. These are staff who help put in place and maintain flood defences, and help deal with clean-up. If money is no object, as he said, is he committing now to reconsidering these redundancies?

Let me tell the right hon. Gentleman exactly what we are doing with the Environment Agency and with the flood defence budget. We are spending £2.4 billion over the four-year period between 2010 and 2014, which compares with just £2.2 billion in the previous four-year period. What I can say to the House—I think that this is important—is that as the waters recede, it will be important for the Environment Agency and for local authorities all to look again at the flood patterns we have seen and the models that they have, and to work out what fresh flood defences will be necessary.

In addition to that, I can tell the House that we will be introducing a grant for all affected home owners and businesses to build in better flood protection as they repair their properties. That will be up to £5,000 per house and per business. On top of that, we are announcing a £10 million fund to help farmers who have seen their land waterlogged day after day, week after week. I can also announce today that we will be deferring the tax payments that businesses have to pay, and all the businesses that have been affected by floods will get 100% business rate relief.

Those steps are welcome and will be welcomed across the House, but I am afraid that the Prime Minister did not answer the specific question I asked, which is about the 550 people who work on flood defences who the Environment Agency is planning to make redundant. They are people who are currently helping with the clean-up, and who put in place the flood defences.

Similarly, on the issue of spending on flood defence, the Committee on Climate Change says that we are spending significantly less on flood defence than we should. My question is a simple one: given yesterday’s promise to make sure that we have a

“resilient country for the future”

and will

“spend whatever it takes”,

is the Prime Minister committing now to reconsidering these redundancies and the amount of money we invest in flood defences?

Let me tell the right hon. Gentleman what we are doing with the Environment Agency budget into the future. We have set out the figures for the Environment Agency budget in terms of capital spending all the way up to 2020. We have made capital spending pledges only in areas such as transport and flood defences—pledges that no one else is able to match, particularly not if they are committed to a zero-based budget review, but promises we are happy to make so that people can see how much money will be spent on flood defences in 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020. We are only able to make those pledges because we have managed our economy effectively and managed our Budgets effectively.

I say to the Prime Minister that he came along to his press conference yesterday and made what sounded like a very grand promise to

“spend whatever it takes to recover from this and to make sure we have a resilient country for the future”.

The simple point that I am making to him is that there are real doubts about that when it comes to making members of the Environment Agency who deal with flooding redundant and the Committee on Climate Change—the expert body that is charged with this—says that the investment in flood defences is not happening. He needs to reconsider those things.

I urge the Prime Minister to ensure this in the coming days: the Government need to speak with one voice on this issue; the response needs to be speedier than it has been in the past; and everyone affected needs to feel that they are getting the help they need. If the Government do that, they will have our full support.

What I said last night is exactly what I have said today: when it comes to this relief effort, money will be no object. I do not want people to worry about penny-pinching as they see the vital work that is needed to help them with their houses and to deal with the floods. This is what this Government are doing: we are deploying the military when we are asked for the military; we deployed extra pumps when we were asked for pumps; we are raising the compensation to local government to 100%, because that is what local communities should have. I am only sorry that the right hon. Gentleman seeks to divide the House, when we should be coming together for the nation.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his recent visit to Plymouth to discuss our broken rail link. Will he commit our Government to finding long-term solutions to providing rail resilience in the far south-west? Will he join me today in sending a very clear signal to the rest of the country that, despite our current problems, Devon and Cornwall are firmly open for business?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That message needs to go out loud and clear. Businesses, including tourism businesses, in Cornwall and Devon want people’s custom and want people to know that the peninsula is very much open for business. On his specific question, yes we are finding £31 million to fund 10 rail-resilience projects in the south-west to improve the resilience against flooding. That will include work at Cowley bridge junction, Chipping Sodbury, Hinksey, Whiteball tunnel and a number of other places including Honiton and Crewkerne. Clearly, the most important thing is that Dawlish rail link. I saw for myself yesterday the intense damage that has been done to that track and the huge destruction that was wrought by the waves. That work will take up to six weeks. I know that Network Rail is working as hard as it can. I have said to it that for any help that it needs, it needs only to ask.