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EU Solidarity Fund: Flooding

Volume 606: debated on Thursday 25 February 2016

(Urgent Question): To ask the Minister to make a statement about assistance from the EU solidarity fund for flood-hit communities.

First, I want to pay tribute to all those who have supported the many places that were flooded in December and early January; the local authorities, the emergency services, the Environment Agency staff, the community volunteers, the military and many others made a significant contribution to supporting communities affected by the terrible events that we saw over Christmas, in December and in early January. The whole House will want to recognise the enormous effort that has gone into supporting households and businesses, not just the initial response to the floods, but the ongoing work to get residents back into homes and businesses open.

The responsibility for recovery, including matters relating to the European Union solidarity fund, lies with the Department for Communities and Local Government, and officials in DCLG worked hard throughout that period and continue to work hard to support those communities and those affected by those events. The Government recognise that the immediate priority is to respond to the urgent needs of those affected, which is why we have already provided more than £200 million to help those affected by the floods to support recovery and repair. A key feature of our package of support is the communities and business recovery scheme, which is designed to provide ready support to local authorities affected by Storm Desmond and Storm Eva and, in turn, to help individuals, small and medium-sized businesses and communities return to normality. Additionally, it provides property-level resilience grants of up to £5,000, so that people can protect their homes and businesses against future floods by putting in place resilient repairs. To date, under the communities and business recovery scheme, government has paid out a total of £21 million for Storm Desmond and £26 million for Storm Eva. Further payments will follow, and we are also supporting farmers with grants of up to £20,000 to help restore damaged agricultural land and farm vehicles and access and repair boundaries and to address field drainage.

Having set out what the Government have already done, I want now to turn to what more we can do. I am today announcing that the UK Government will make an application to the EU solidarity fund. The EUSF was set up to respond to major natural disasters. The fund was created as a reaction to the severe floods in central Europe in the summer of 2002. Since then, it has been used for 70 disasters covering a range of different catastrophic events, including floods, forest fires, earthquakes, storms and drought. The only time the UK has applied to the fund was following the flooding of 2007, which saw widespread and significant damage across large swathes of England. Member states have 12 weeks from the start of an incident to register their intent to claim. Once we have confirmed our intent, there is time to consider, with the Commission, the elements of assessment. Following this process, the Commission assesses the application and, if it is accepted, proposes an amount of aid to the European Parliament. Once the appropriations become available in the EU budget, the Commission adopts a decision, awarding the aid to the affected state. It is then paid out in a single instalment. When aid is paid out, the affected state is responsible for the implementation, including the selection of operations, and their audit and control. Emergency measures may be financed retrospectively from day one of the disaster, but the EUSF is not, and nor is it designed to be, a rapid response instrument for dealing with the effects of a natural disaster. Financial aid can be granted to the applying state only following an application and budgetary process, which can take several months to complete.

I thank the Minister, my fellow Stockton MP, for his response, which is extremely welcome today. It has taken an urgent question to get the information from the Government, so I am delighted that you granted it, Mr Speaker. I know there has been considerable confusion in government about which Department was responsible for making the application, and I, for one, am delighted at today’s news. I was pleased when the Environment Secretary told the House last month that she was considering an application, only to have one of her civil servants answer my letter to her by telling me it was a DCLG responsibility. We now know the answer today—it is a DCLG responsibility, and I am glad that that Department has actually taken it on.

What we have always known is that it is a Government responsibility to apply to the solidarity fund, and a failure to do so would have deprived our communities of much-needed additional funding to get their homes, lives and businesses back on track. The whole House knows of the devastation that was caused across the country over the Christmas period and into the first months of this year. Recovery costs in Cumbria alone are estimated at £650 million. Other estimates of the total cost suggest that the clean-up bill will exceed £5 billion. It is therefore imperative that the Government do everything possible to maximise resources from all possible areas to support that operation.

I was pleased that, in her statement to the House on 5 January, the Secretary of State said:

“The Government will continue to do what it takes to get those areas up and running and prepare for future events.”—[Official Report, 5 January 2016; Vol. 604, c. 70.]

However, for nearly three months, while gesturing a willingness to provide support and assistance, she and the Government have been shy about promoting an application. Members and their constituents have been left totally in the dark, as it appeared that the Government would fail to make an application for help from the EU solidarity fund, which was established precisely to respond to such natural disasters as those experienced in Cumbria, Lancashire, north Yorkshire and Scotland.

The fund has been used by states across the EU in response to 70 disasters, ranging from flooding and forest fires to earthquakes and storms. Just last year, Italy, Bulgaria and Romania received more than £40 million in similar circumstances. You will know, Mr Speaker, that we on the Labour Benches have been extremely anxious that this opportunity could be lost. To be clear, the first floods for which an application could be made in Cumbria were some 11 and a half weeks ago, yet it has taken the Government to within a single working day of the deadline to confirm that an application is being made. We all know that there are those who quite wrongly believe that we get little from the EU. I am clear that the UK should be embracing the offer of additional support, particularly as we have paid £300 million into the fund since it was set up.

I have a number of questions for the Minister. Will he outline what discussions he has had across Government and with local authorities in the affected areas in the preparation of the application? Why have Members and communities been left in the dark for so long when it would have been a boost to them to know that more help could soon be on the way? What is the final estimate of the cost of the devastation suffered by our communities, and how much are the Government bidding for? Is there just one application, or will there be multiple applications to reflect the fact that a number of communities were affected and that each could qualify due to the level of devastation they have suffered?

Finally, I am aware that my Stockton neighbour and I will be on opposite sides in another debate—that of whether we remain in the European Union. Does the Minister not agree that it is funds such as this that can, and I hope will, bring great benefits not just to communities hit by natural disasters, but to constituencies such as his and mine where there are large numbers of people suffering considerable deprivation?

There seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding on the part of the hon. Gentleman. The Department has been working on this application for some time. We had to draw together a range of information across Government Departments, talk to local areas, and assess the cost and impact of events that have taken place. That is what we have been doing, and what we will continue to do. As more information comes through and we go through the process of supporting those communities, we will ensure that the application is thorough, and that it accounts for all opportunities to add to it and to recognise the damage that has been done. Those discussions have been taking place across Government in the right way and in the right timeframe, so that we were able to make our announcement.

I congratulate the officials in my Department and in others who have been working hard to bring all the information together so that we can announce that this application will be made. The application will continue to evolve as more information comes through. As I said in my earlier comments, the European Union solidarity fund is not designed to be a rapid response to events of this kind. It is a longer-term fund to provide compensation to communities. Even though an application is now being made, it will take months for that money to be paid. However, we will continue in our commitment to supporting those communities, providing the funding and the backing that they need. That is what we have done so far and what we will continue to do to ensure that the communities affected by the terrible weather events get the support they need to recover as quickly as possible.

I gently say to the Minister and the House, that, in 2011, Somerset suffered from disastrous floods. The Prime Minister and my local area looked at this fund very closely indeed. We made the decision that we would not apply for it at that time, because it was too complicated, too difficult and the benefit to the communities was not there. [Interruption.] Those on the Labour Benches can chunter as much as they want, but we have now made the area in Somerset that was flooded safe through UK funding. The proof of the pudding is evident this year—we have not had to switch on the main pumps. The system has worked. We do not need this funding to do what we have to do to secure our communities.

My hon. Friend has demonstrated an understanding of the European Union solidarity fund that is absent among those on the Opposition Front Bench. It is a complex fund that requires a number of facts to be taken into consideration. There is an administration process that will take a long time and cost a significant amount. That is why we had to carry out a proper assessment to understand whether it would be of net benefit to the UK taxpayer to make an application before we got to the place where we could make the announcement that I have been able to confirm today. That is the right process, and my hon. Friend has demonstrated from his own constituency experience his deep understanding of the issue and the complexities of the matters before the House.

I welcome the statement. The Minister talks about the rapid response. Where was the rapid decision-making process on the Government’s part? I welcome the announcement, but it was not a difficult question. If we have an insurance policy, of course we are going to cash it in. Why would we not do so? That is logical and sensible. I welcome it. In relation to Scotland, have the Minister and his Department calculated how much money will be coming to Scotland, owing to Barnett consequentials? Can he say anything about the timescale and when that might be expected?

The rapid response that I was talking about was the money that the Government immediately made available, the hard work that was done, particularly by my colleagues and officials in DEFRA, the Environment Agency and emergency responders—the work that was done straight away to support the communities affected by flooding. I can confirm that one of the factors that has delayed the process and made it more difficult to carry out the very complicated assessment that underpins the application to the EU solidarity fund has been the slowness of getting the information that we needed out of the Scottish Government. Had they responded more quickly, perhaps we would have been better informed earlier and able to announce with more clarity what would be done.

Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Three weeks ago I asked the Prime Minister why we were not applying for these funds. I am delighted that we are now doing so. More than 300 of my households were hit by the floods. A third of them were not covered by insurance because of the high premiums and eye-watering excesses. Perhaps some of this extra money can help them. In one case a business, the Ribchester Arms, has been closed since Boxing day. It has lost tens of thousands of pounds and still has ongoing costs. It hopes to be open by Easter. Can my hon. Friend make sure that Ministers look again at the number of businesses that were hit during the floods to see how much extra assistance, thanks to this money—our money; we are only bidding for our money—we can give them to help them get back into business?

There are thresholds that have to be met, there is an assessment of damage that has to be done, and there is no guarantee that an application to the fund would yield more money than the cost of applying and delivering it. None the less, we have made that assessment and have come to this decision. I am delighted that it pleases my hon. Friend. I would be happy to have discussions with him about individual businesses in his constituency, but I remind him that regardless of what happens with this fund, the Government have made significant funding available to support local businesses and communities affected by flooding. That funding is available now. We do not have to wait for this fund to come through to support the communities affected.

My constituency was not damaged in the most recent floods, but I know from previous flooding that speed is of the essence. I have known people in my constituency wait not just months, but years, to get their home back to a decent standard. It is all very well for the Minister to be uncharitable and find himself unable to say anything nice about the European Union, which provides the fund. People do not want just the wellies on the day; they want the action after the flooding.

The hon. Gentleman is right—speed is of the essence, which is why the Government have made more than £200 million available to areas affected and made it available as quickly as possible—immediately —for the communities that needed support, so that support is there. This fund will take time to pay out. That is the way the process works. It will take months from the date of application to come to conclusion. We have decided to apply because we have assessed it to be of net benefit to the UK to do so, but the funding that communities needed was provided by this Government straight away.

My hon. Friend says that this is an important application, but will he put it in context? Every day British taxpayers pay £50 million to the European Union. How much does he think we are going to get back: three or four days’ worth of contributions?

The Minister has indicated that all that is required at this stage is a notification of intent to apply. If that is the case, surely he could have got the process under way weeks ago. When did he actually apply? Was it today, or yesterday? How much does he think he will actually recover? The Government have done the assessment, so what do they expect to recover from the European Union? Is he aware that the closure of the A591 in Cumbria is having a massive impact on the local economy—it is costing it £1 million a day—and on local families and businesses? The Government seem to lack a sense of urgency. Will he just get on with it?

I have to make it clear that there was no guarantee that the fund would bring a net benefit to the UK, or that it would be possible to apply, until a proper assessment had been done of the level of damage, the regional thresholds and whether we qualified to make an application. That assessment has now been done and we have announced our intention to apply before the deadline, which is the right thing to do. We will then work through the process to ensure that the UK gets the maximum benefit that can be delivered. Separately from that, the Government are already doing what needs to be done to support communities. The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), has been doing a huge amount of work in Cumbria, as I am sure the right hon. Gentleman knows, to ensure that communities get the support they need, regardless of the progress made with this fund. It will take time, but we are now committed to applying to the fund.

Can the Minister confirm that the UK paid £36.5 million into the EU solidarity fund last year, making us the second largest net contributor, and that we have only ever claimed once, in 2007, when we received £130 million? Is not the reason we have been reluctant to claim that we get very little out of the scheme because of our rebate? Effectively, we are paying into an insurance scheme that we cannot claim from.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that there is an interplay between the application for funds, the funds being paid out and the rebate. The reality is that this is a complex process and there are restrictions on how money that is released can be spent. We have made the assessment and believe that the fund will be of net benefit to the UK, which is why we have today announced our intention to apply.

Today’s announcement is welcome, but it is long overdue. What specific discussions have the Government had with local authorities in Scotland to ensure that the appropriate amount of support is sought for flood-affected communities?

The hon. Gentleman asks an important question. Much of this, as a devolved matter, is dealt with by the Scottish Government, but we have had ongoing discussions with them, including, in the context of the application I have announced today, on the information we need from them to underpin the parts of the application that apply to Scotland.

This is excellent news. I accept that there are complexities in the EU solidarity fund, but what is unpalatable, and a horrendous burden for the people of Calder Valley, is the £32 million of infrastructure damage and the shortfall of £15 million for future flood defences. Now that we have applied to the fund, can my hon. Friend assure the people of Calder Valley that the cost of infrastructure repairs and shortfalls in any future flood defences will be met either by the fund or by the Government?

My hon. Friend has been one of the most diligent and passionate advocates for his area; since the storms in December and January, scarcely a day has gone by when we have not discussed matters pertaining to Calder Valley. The Government are absolutely committed to supporting the affected communities, and we continue to work with the local authority to ensure that is done. His representations have been incredibly helpful in informing the process of recovery already, as I am sure they will continue to be.

May I, too, welcome this announcement, having outlined in my Westminster Hall debate last month the cost of the damage in my constituency and the neighbouring Calder Valley? The Minister has not been quite clear about exactly how much the Government hope to secure from the fund. Following the assessment he has done, can he indicate exactly what value of funding will be available?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question, and I wish to put on the record on the Floor of the House my appreciation for the constructive nature of the debate we had in Westminster Hall—I think it brings out the best in this place when we pull together to do what we can to support the communities we all represent. As I am sure she will appreciate, we are at the stage of having identified that applying will be of net benefit to the UK. We still have a lot of work to do to finalise the costs and figures that we will submit to the Commission, so I am not in a position to confirm what the entire net benefit will be at the end of the process, but we will of course keep the House updated as progress is made.

To not give false hope to the communities everyone is talking about today, the Minister must say at the Dispatch Box that there is no guarantee of our ever receiving this money. Domestically, the process is complicated enough, but when we get to the European process, whereby we apply for some of our own money to come back to this country, it becomes even more complicated, and the timeline is extremely long. Will he give us a rough idea of how long the timeline was in 2007? Will he also assure communities that the Government are spending money now that is helping them, and that we will do well in the future even if this money from Europe does not come?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As I have said, this is not a rapid response fund; the money takes a long time to come through. The Government therefore made more than £200 million available straightaway to provide the support that communities need. My hon. Friend understands Europe better than most, given his experiences and history of working there. What he says is valid, and Opposition Front-Bench Members should perhaps listen to it carefully and take it into account.

We all welcome today’s announcement, and we all really felt the misery of the people affected when we watched the news on our TV screens. My constituents, particularly those in the West Kirby area, which is vulnerable to flooding, will be pleased to hear this news, but they will be a little baffled about why things have taken so long. I appreciate that work has been going on in the background, as the Minister said, but given what a miserable experience people have gone through, it would have been helpful if the Government had communicated their intention earlier. Will the Minister give an assurance that, should these things happen again, the Government will be prepared to apply to the fund?

I cannot give an assurance that the Government will always apply to the fund, because we may not always meet the threshold criteria to apply. We will always have to assess the cost-benefit to ensure that the cost of managing and delivering the fund does not outweigh the benefit that could come from it, and that includes, of course, the impact on the rebate. However, regardless of the fund, we have provided more than £200 million up front to ensure that communities such as those of which the hon. Lady speaks get the support they need.

I welcome the Minister’s decision. Will he give an assurance that, if the application is successful, it will not be used to offset funding already allocated from other resources and that it will actually make more resources available to improve defences along the Humber estuary and elsewhere?

We do not yet know what the final quantum will be, or how long the money will take to be paid. What matters is ensuring that communities get the support they need now. The Government have made, and are making, that support available, and we continue to work with local authorities to deliver it. That is our priority, but we are confirming that this fund will be applied for, and we will, of course, keep hon. Members updated as we progress through the process.

Businesses in my constituency, and in the borough of Rochdale, are absolutely baffled about why the Government have left it until the eleventh hour to apply for this vital funding. Will the Minister please assure me that he will get the application in by Sunday? Does he not also agree that the fund is a great argument for remaining in the European Union?

I am disappointed that the hon. Lady’s local businesses are baffled, but I am sure that, on leaving the House today, she will wait not a moment to explain to them the reality of the process. As I have said, this is not a rapid reaction fund. We have to ensure that we meet thresholds, and we have to assess damage. There is still a lot of work to be done to ensure that we fully understand and apply for every bit of applicable damage, and we have announced that we will undertake that process. In the meantime, we have ensured that we have made funding available. It will still take many months for the fund to pay out, but we are pursuing that process.

Further to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger), will the Minister please advise the House what support the Government can give small businesses and homeowners to improve resilience against future flooding and to prevent these things from happening again?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question, which provides a timely opportunity to remind hon. Members, and indeed local authorities, that the Government are making up to £5,000 available for flooded properties through the property-level resilience grant. We are encouraging owners to apply for that funding to improve resilience. We are being flexible so that grants can be pooled, allowing multiple properties to invest in joint flood defence schemes. We have provided more than £200 million, and that is one aspect of this, but it is important to improve resilience for the future.

If this were not so serious, the antics of the British nationalists on the Government Benches would be quite funny; perhaps they should learn something from The Minister said that the Scottish Government took a long time to respond. The reality is this that the Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure, Investment and Cities wrote to the Department, and the Deputy First Minister raised the issue on the floor of the Scottish Parliament. Is this the Minister’s long-winded, long-awaited response?

I am not sure what the hon. Gentleman’s question was, but the reality is that the UK Government responded immediately to the weather events that we saw over December and January. We made funding available, and we gave local authorities freedom and control over how it was to be spent and delivered to support people affected by flooding. That is the right thing to do. There is still work to be done on the recovery. We are doing that work and will continue to do it until all communities feel that they can get back to normal and back open for business, as so many places already are, and we can move on from what has been a very difficult period for so many.

Hundreds of my constituents in Nottinghamshire have benefited from the repair and renew grants, or resilience grants, which are operated by the Minister’s Department and seem to be operating well in getting money to people very quickly. In my constituency, a number of constituents did something very altruistic and chose to pool their repair and renew grants, not just for small community projects but to put towards whole-village or whole-town flood defence schemes. Thanks to the valiant efforts of the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), we managed to find a work-around so that that was achieved. Will the Minister assure me and other Members that elsewhere in the country such community-wide altruistic schemes can be a way of using the £5,000 repair and renew grants?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Absolutely: the £5,000 resilience grant for each property can be pooled as long as the properties concerned benefit from that pooling. We have designed the schemes to be as flexible as possible in responding to different circumstances in different places, but most importantly to respond quickly, unlike the fund that we are discussing, which, important as it is, will take several months from this date until it is seen to pay out.

My constituents in Hull who were badly flooded in 2007 would have been aghast if the Labour Government at that time had not immediately said they would apply for the solidarity fund. When exactly was the decision made to make the application? The Minister is not offering much reassurance when he says that there is still much work to do if the deadline is this Sunday.

The intention, in accordance with the process that exists, is to indicate our intention to apply. I would be staggered had any Government immediately announced an intention to apply for the fund, because we cannot do so. We have to assess the impact on regional GDP and assess the costs to know whether we qualify. It might be easy to announce an application but then find that we do not qualify to apply. The responsible thing to do is to assess the costs and the potential benefit and then make a decision to apply, in time, if it is appropriate to do so. That is what this Government have done.

I welcome what the Minister has said today and his recent visit to Pendle. I thank him for the Government’s decisive action to address flood risk, including the Environment Agency’s commitment to spend more than £500,000 this year on addressing flood risk in the village of Earby in my constituency. Will he join me in encouraging the many tourists and visitors who regularly visit flood-affected parts of the UK to show their support by visiting this Easter or this summer?

I thank my hon. Friend. Many of the areas that were affected by flooding in December and January are some of the most beautiful parts of our country and of the north of England, and there are businesses across those communities that are very much open for business. We are encouraging people to continue to visit, or to consider visiting, those wonderful places to support their economies and communities. Many of them are open almost as though nothing had happened, working through what has been a trying period that has none the less shown the very best of the community spirit that exists right across the north.

Given that large parts of Greater Manchester were flooded, I welcome the Government signalling their intention to apply for these funds. The Minister implied that they have been working on the detail of the bid for some time, so will he clarify the detail of what they intend to use the funds for? Will it be to assist local authorities with the ongoing reconstruction work after the floods, or will it be to future-proof our flood defences?

The Government’s priority is to support the affected communities today. We have ensured that funding is available immediately to do that. We are still working through the process of the fund application, and we will continue to do that for as long as it looks like it will produce a net benefit to the UK. We will pursue it and ensure it is delivered, because we can see its benefit to communities. What matters to communities such as those that the hon. Gentleman represents is the quick response, the funding that is made available and the support that is given to local authorities to deliver immediately on their immediate needs and for their recovery thereafter. That is what we have done, and we continue to make funds available to do it. We have made that commitment and will stick to it.