6. What assessment she has made of the effect of recent flooding on the agriculture industry. (903450)
Farmers in many parts of the country have been affected by the winter flooding, notably in Cumbria, Lancashire, Yorkshire, Scotland and, of course, areas of Northern Ireland. We identified 600 farmers in Cumbria alone who suffered flooding after Storm Desmond. Unlike the Somerset floods two years ago, the flooding events have been relatively short-lived. However, in their wake, considerable damage has been done to stone walls, hedges and tracks. In England, we have established a farm recovery fund to help farmers get back on their feet.
In Northern Ireland, there is a long-established relationship with the Republic of Ireland Government in relation to Lough Erne and its levels. The UK Government had a relationship, too, from 1950, when that deal was made. Have there been any discussions with the Northern Ireland Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development about reviewing the levels of Lough Erne to stop farmers from being flooded in the area?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, flooding is a devolved matter, but if there is a need for discussion with the Irish Republic and if the Northern Ireland Administration would like me to be involved in that, I would be happy to have that conversation with them.
Farmers in areas in the south of my constituency, around Methley and Mickletown, have had large areas of their land flooded to hold water in order to prevent flooding of housing, which the farmers themselves agree with. However, what they do not agree with is the Environment Agency saying that it could take up to six years for this water to drain off the land. One particular farmer in my constituency had 80% of his land covered. Will my hon. Friend speak to the Environment Agency to speed up the draining of the water from this land?
That is a good point. Natural flood plains play an important role in alleviating the risk of flooding in urban areas. We intend to use the countryside stewardship scheme to help us to deal with flood problems. As for my hon. Friend’s specific point about the length of time for which land has been flooded, I shall be happy to take it up with the Environment Agency and see what can be done.
I am still waiting to hear the date of the meeting with Members whose constituencies lie along the River Wharfe to discuss the flooded farmland in Pool-in-Wharfedale and Arthington, in my constituency. We particularly need to discuss what can be done upstream to prevent the water from coming down and threatening both farms and housing. When can we have that meeting?
I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), the floods Minister, has heard what the hon. Gentleman has said, and will be willing to meet him to discuss his concerns. My hon. Friend has already had many meetings with the many Members who have been affected by winter floods.
The Secretary of State says that DEFRA wants to be able to spend more on flood defences by reducing the millions paid in penalties to the EU every year. However, the National Audit Office says that the Rural Payments Agency fiasco could cost the country a whopping £180 million a year in penalties. Can the Minister confirm the most recent estimate of the amounts that are being paid to Brussels in fines, rather than being spent on British agriculture and dealing with flooding?
The “horizontal” regulation that governs the disallowance system has been changed, and the penalties that the Commission can charge, and their frequency, have increased. That is the issue of concern in this instance, rather than any particular issues involving the rural payments system. I repeat that we are spending £2.3 billion a year on flood defences, and have provided £200 million to help people to get back on their feet after the most recent episode.