House of Commons
Monday 27 February 2017
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business Before Questions
Death of a Member (Father of the House)
It is with great sadness that I have to report to the House the death of the right hon. Sir Gerald Kaufman, Labour Member of Parliament for Manchester Gorton. He will be sorely missed by his relatives, by his friends, by his constituents and by his parliamentary colleagues, not to mention very large numbers of people across this country and around the world.
Colleagues, before Gerald entered Parliament, and after leaving Leeds Grammar School and Oxford University, Gerald worked as assistant general secretary of the Fabian Society and subsequently as a journalist on the Daily Mirror and for the New Statesman. Thereafter, he was parliamentary press liaison officer for the Labour party, working closely with Harold Wilson.
He entered this House, as colleagues will know, in June 1970, as the Member of Parliament for Manchester, Ardwick, which constituency he represented until 1983. Thereafter, and following boundary changes, he represented Manchester Gorton from 1983 without interruption. He was, as we know, the Father of the House. He served in this place diligently, with principle and utter dedication, for well over 46 years.
Under Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan, Gerald served as a Minister with responsibility for the environment and subsequently with responsibility for industry. In opposition, he was a long-serving and distinguished member of Labour’s shadow Cabinet, serving as shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, as shadow Home Secretary and, indeed, as shadow Foreign Secretary. Many people will know that he was a prolific writer and the author of several books, not least, and perhaps most memorably, a book entitled “How to be a Minister”.
After he ceased to serve on the Front Bench, Gerald chaired, initially, the Select Committee on National Heritage for, if memory serves, a full Parliament, and then, when the Committee took its new form—the Culture, Media and Sport Committee—Gerald chaired that Committee for two whole Parliaments.
Since 2010, Gerald has been the longest serving Labour Member of Parliament, and since 2015 he has, of course, been Father of the House. In more recent years, I have been privileged to be supported by Gerald on the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, of which he was, if I can put it this way, a highly distinguished ornament.
Gerald was, of course, a passionate, eloquent, relentless, indefatigable campaigner for social justice at home and abroad. I will not pretend that he was always the easiest of colleagues. If you were lauded or praised by Gerald, you doubtless took delight in the experience; if you were attacked or denounced by Sir Gerald, you could be in no doubt on the matter. But there was that fidelity to principle, that commitment to causes and that insistence on doing his duty by his constituents, by his party and by his country.
Gerald will be mourned very widely indeed, and in expressing, I hope on behalf of the House, our condolences to his relatives and friends, I should perhaps just take this opportunity to say to the House that colleagues will have a chance to pay tribute to Sir Gerald later this week.
Oral Answers to Questions
Communities and Local Government
The Secretary of State was asked—
If I may, I would like to join you, Mr Speaker, in paying tribute to the late Member for Manchester Gorton. I was always grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for showing us that it is possible for the children of immigrants to treasure their roots while still embracing their Britishness and the active role they can play in public life. I am sure I speak for the whole House when I say he will be deeply missed, and my sympathies go to his family and friends.
One person sleeping on the streets is one too many. All too often, support is provided at crisis point. That is why we are supporting 84 projects through our £50 million homelessness prevention programme—an end-to-end approach to tackling homelessness and rough sleeping.
May I, too, Mr Speaker, associate myself with your comments regarding the late Father of the House? It is a sad day and a sad loss, and we shall all miss him dearly.
Official figures confirm that rough sleeping has more than doubled since 2010, after falling by more than three quarters under Labour. Why does the Secretary of State think that homelessness fell under Labour but has risen so dramatically under the Tories?
The hon. Lady touches on the record of the previous Labour Government. It would be fair to point out that the level of statutory homelessness acceptances was higher in every year of the previous Labour Government, bar one, than it is today. That shows that homelessness, whether rough sleeping or other forms, is a chronic long-term issue that has been challenging for successive Governments. If we can all work together on this and take a more cross-party approach, that can help. The support from Members across this House for the Homeless Reduction Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) is a great example of how we can all work together.
Despite the great efforts of voluntary groups such as the King’s Arms project and the Salvation Army in Bedford, Bedford borough is a hotspot for people sleeping rough. What will the Secretary of State do to ensure that the measures that are coming forward in the areas where people are particularly at risk of rough sleeping are having the impact intended?
I know that my hon. Friend cares deeply about this issue, which he has raised with me in the past. I reassure him that the Government do take the issue of rough sleeping very seriously. I can point to the recent announcement of the £20 million rough sleeping fund, and also the work we are doing on social impact bonds to find new, creative methods that can also help.
Will the Secretary of State take the short trip up the M5 from Bromsgrove to the Black country, where he can visit the YMCA’s brilliant Open Door project, which finds stable family homes for homeless young people in the area, and achieves phenomenal results, getting the majority into college, into work, and even into university? Will he come and look at that and consider whether he can fund a similar scheme nationwide, because it really does achieve remarkable results?
I join the hon. Gentleman in commending the work of the YMCA in this field, particularly its Open Door project—I would like to learn more about that. It is just these kinds of projects that we want to see more of and provide support for. Our £50 million homelessness prevention fund, which is already supporting over 80 projects, can help in that.
Would not the good efforts of my right hon. Friend’s Department be assisted by a cross-Government strategy on homelessness that would deal with some of the underlying issues such as addictions, in encouraging the Department of Health to support more addiction services, and encouraging the Chancellor to increase the price of super-strength ciders in the forthcoming Budget?
I am pleased that my hon. Friend talks again about a cross-party approach to this very important issue. He highlights the need to look at the causes of homelessness. I think that when any Member of the House comes across anyone who is homeless, they will see that their needs are often complex—it can be to do with addiction, for example, or mental health issues. We would all do well to take those issues more seriously.
Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the reasons that people end up homeless and sleeping on the streets is the action taken by private landlords, very often in houses in multiple occupation? Will he look at what more could be done to regulate the private rented sector to prevent conditions arising that drive people on to the streets?
The right hon. Lady makes a good point. I do not think that that is the primary cause of homelessness, and nor is she suggesting that, but it is worth looking at it. I hope she will welcome our decision to extend licensing to smaller HMOs, because that can help with the situation.
While there remains much to do, the Scottish Government have pushed ahead with measures to help those who need it most, including the Scottish welfare fund, which has issued grants totalling £116 million since the scheme was established, groundbreaking homelessness legislation and regulation of private landlords and rents. What similar measures have the UK Government taken?
Some similar measures have been taken in England. For example, on the issue of providing enough funding, the last spending review set aside £550 million to tackle homelessness, and I have mentioned the homelessness prevention programme. There is also £100 million for a new programme to deliver at least 2,000 low-cost accommodation places, which I think will also help.
The Government are committed to building the homes that our country needs. Measures in the recent White Paper will ensure that more homes are planned for where they are needed most and that homes are built more quickly once they have planning permission, and they will diversify the housing market to make sure that it works for everyone.
What actions is the Department taking to ensure that unused public sector land in London is released more quickly for housing development?
My hon. Friend is right to raise the issue of the broken housing market in London. I know that he takes the issue seriously and has done much to help in his own area. My hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning, who co-chairs the London Land Commission, is working on identifying new opportunities to release public land for housing. My hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) may also be interested to know that the last autumn statement allocated £3.15 billion to affordable homes in London. The Government have done their very important bit; I now expect the Mayor of London to step up and do his.
Gloucester City Council and Gloucester City Homes have put together a strong bid, with my support, to the estates regeneration programme, which will transform the old estates and wards of Matson and Podsmead in my constituency. Will my right hon. Friend agree to meet us briefly to hear our case, and when does he think decisions will be made on the bids?
My hon. Friend is a strong advocate of regeneration for Matson and Podsmead; he has talked to me about the issue a number of times and I am pleased that he has raised it again. My Department has received a number of bids for regeneration funding across England. We will make funding announcements shortly, but I would be more than happy to meet him and a delegation to discuss the issue further.
Will the Secretary of State come to Huddersfield to see how many private sector new homes have been built? Unfortunately they are nearly all for students. Is it not about time that elderly people up and down our country had the right kinds of buildings and homes? Why can more councils not be liberated to build those homes?
One thing that might have helped is if Labour-run Kirklees Council had thought about all the different types of people from different backgrounds who live in the local area when it put together its local plan. The hon. Gentleman may be happy to learn that our White Paper sets out further requirements for all local authorities to make sure that they look carefully at the needs of their area, including those of older people.
May I extend the condolences of the Scottish National party to the family, friends and colleagues of Gerald Kaufman? He made a considerable impact—more than many others ever get to do—during his career, and we will miss his dignity and experience and his contributions to the House.
The right to buy is not just the right to buy, but the right to buy at a discount of up to £100,000. Anne Baxendale of Shelter has said that the
“extension of Right to Buy would jeopardise any potential profit needed for future housebuilding”.
Will the Secretary of State explain why he wants to make it more difficult for people to access truly affordable housing, as built by local government housing companies?
The Government believe that the right-to-buy policy, including in relation to council housing and its extension to housing association homes, is very important. We will continue to back it, and where a tenant does exercise that right we expect that home to be replaced.
Neighbourhood plans have incentivised parish and town councils to build and deliver more houses by giving them 25% of the community infrastructure levy. Given that the levy is subject to review, is there a plan to continue providing that proportion for local parishes and towns?
I fully agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of neighbourhood plans in getting more ownership of local plans at the local or parish level. That is why the measures we are taking in the Neighbourhood Planning Bill to do just that are very welcome. When it comes to the share of the levy, it is very important to maintain that principle.
Will the Secretary of State consider bringing forward legislation in this House to end the practice of land banking? My constituents are fed up with seeing developers sitting on properties or places without any sign of their building the new homes that we so badly need.
In the year to September 2016, 277,000 planning permissions were granted in England, which is a record high since 2007. I share some of the hon. Lady’s frustration. We want those planning permissions to be turned into homes—people cannot live in a planning permission—and that is why our housing White Paper has a number of measures to deal with just this issue.
Prefabricated dwellings are now built to extremely high standards of both quality and durability. Will the Secretary of State be kind enough to accept an invitation to visit Prestige Park & Leisure Homes in Kettering, which is a pre-eminent manufacturer of high-quality park homes, to see how this sort of dwelling might help him to address the housing problems in this country?
I very much agree with the point made by my hon. Friend. We want to see more innovation and creativity in house building in this country, and factory-built, modular, custom-built or prefabricated homes—call them what you will—have an important role to play. I have seen examples of factories in England, such as those in Bedford and Leeds, and I would be very happy to visit one in Kettering too.
Mr Speaker, from the Labour Front Bench, may I fully endorse the full tribute that you have paid to our dear friend and colleague Gerald Kaufman? Certainly those of us who knew him best will miss him most.
After seven years of Conservative failure on housing, we were told by the Secretary of State that his White Paper would be “a bold, radical plan”, yet when he launched it, he said that his top priority was
“a proper conversation about housing need”.—[Official Report, 7 February 2017; Vol. 621, c. 230.]
After new figures showed that new house building actually fell last year, the White Paper was meant to be a plan to fix the housing crisis, so let me ask the Secretary of State a simple question: how many more new homes will be built by the end of this Parliament as a result of the White Paper?
Time and again, the right hon. Gentleman gets up at the Dispatch Box and talks about the failure to build homes when the evidence is very different. He never refers to his own track record: we saw housing starts fall to their lowest peacetime level since the 1920s. The right hon. Gentleman asked me about the White Paper and its reception, so let me share with him some responses to the White Paper. The National Housing Federation called it a
“positive step in the right direction”.
The Royal Town Planning Institute said that it welcomed the measures, which it had “long campaigned for”. Another one—perhaps he can guess where this came from—is that
“yesterday’s housing white paper points us in a better direction… the proposals…show some promising signs for Londoners.”
Where did that come from? The Mayor of London.
All those organisations will be interested in the question that the Secretary of State cannot and will not answer, which is how many extra new homes will be built as a result of what he calls his new measures in the White Paper? In truth, the White Paper was a white flag on housing, especially on help for first-time homebuyers. Home ownership rose by 1 million under Labour; it has fallen under Tory Ministers since 2010, and it is in freefall for young first-time buyers. Given this, why is Help to Buy helping 20,000 people who are not even first-time buyers, and why is Help to Buy helping over 3,000 people who earn more than £100,000 a year? Will he use the Budget next week to target this taxpayers’ help better and do more for first-time buyers on ordinary incomes?
The right hon. Gentleman will know that we have taken a number of actions since July to boost home building in this country—not just the action outlined in the White Paper, but the £1.7 billion accelerated construction programme, the £3 billion home building fund, the £2.3 billion for the housing infrastructure fund and £1.4 billion extra for affordable homes. The right hon. Gentleman raises the issue of home ownership. As a former housing Minister, he should know that home ownership rates under Labour fell from a peak of 71% to 64%. I have another quote—from him—about the decline in home ownership which, word for word, is that
“I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing”.
In the past few weeks, the Government have reaffirmed our commitment to the midlands engine, announcing two new midlands enterprise zones—one in Brierley Hill in Dudley, and the other in Leicester and Loughborough. The first ever midlands engine trade summit will take place in Birmingham on 9 March.
Will my right hon. Friend outline how the midlands engine will help Northampton?
As a midlands MP, I am pleased to see a strong and successful midlands engine, as well as the economic benefits it will bring throughout the region. In Northampton, small businesses will be eligible for the £250 million midlands engine investment fund, which will open shortly. In addition, Northampton will benefit from more than £5 billion of investment in midlands transport infrastructure.
London gets shedloads of money for public transport and Manchester has far more miles of tram network than the urban west midlands. As a west midlands MP, what discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Secretary of State for Transport on extending the tram network massively in the urban west midlands?
As a local MP, the hon. Gentleman will know about some of the work that is going on, especially around Birmingham, to extend the tram network, which could make a big difference. He will also know about our recent announcement of £392 million of local growth funding for the region. There will be more detail shortly, but a large part of that will go to transport projects.
Green Belt: Bury
Our recent housing White Paper underlines the Government’s continuing commitment to the green belt. Local councils should remove land only in exceptional circumstances, and the White Paper clarifies what that means: when they can demonstrate that they have fully examined all other reasonable options for meeting housing need.
When a plan proposes large-scale development on the green belt, as in the case of the Greater Manchester spatial framework, will my hon. Friend assure me that he will carefully assess how realistic the various projections and assumptions are for things such as population growth and household size?
I assure my hon. Friend that the approach that is taken will be robustly tested by a planning inspector in public, and that he will be able to give evidence. My hon. Friend is right that before councils think about releasing green-belt land, they should consider brownfield land, surplus Government land, density and how their neighbours can help to meet housing need.
Plans to build on the green belt in Bury are part of the Greater Manchester spatial strategy, which also affects Flixton in my constituency. Does the Minister agree that Greater Manchester councils should look at using brownfield and other sites in preference to green belt, as he says, and perhaps at increasing density when possible?
I very much agree with hon. Lady. The White Paper sets out clearly what “exceptional circumstances” means. It is a phrase in the national planning policy framework that has not been defined previously. This is about looking at brownfield land, surplus public sector land, density and what neighbouring areas can do before precious green-belt land is released.
Small builders tell us that the two key constraints that they face are access to land and finance. Our home building fund includes £1 billion of short-term loan funding for small builders, and our recent White Paper will ensure that councils make small sites available.
I thank the Minister for that answer, because the time it takes to get a site through the planning process is often a challenge for small builders, who are less able to bear the risk involved and the funding required. Will he continue with the reforms he is making to the planning system to ensure that local planning authorities can deal speedily with small sites?
My hon. Friend is right to raise the challenges that small builders face. We plan to boost the capacity of planning authorities by allowing them to increase planning fees. With regard to the designation regime, the Government will take action when councils are not taking sufficient decisions within a certain timescale. I also draw the House’s attention to the new permission in principle regime, which is a way for small builders to find out the planning certainty for a site without their having to do the full preparation work.
My local authority of Flintshire, which is just over the border from England, is building 500 new council homes, which are being constructed by small builders. Is not this approach, which is putting people into housing and creating jobs in the private building sector, a good way forward?
The White Paper is very clear on this point—we absolutely want councils to get back into the business of building homes. There is a huge need for more housing and the more people who are involved in the building of homes the happier the Government will be.
Our recent housing White Paper sets out measures to increase the use of modern methods of construction in housebuilding. The key is to provide a pipeline of work to encourage suppliers to invest in new plant. We will do that through our accelerated construction and home building fund, and through the growing build-to-rent and custom build markets.
Does the Minister not agree that custom built homes, which can often be built more quickly and cheaply, and often to a higher standard than other types of housing, have a real part to play in solving housing supply issues?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Not only can homes be built more quickly and with a better environmental performance, which means that they are cheaper for people to live in when they move there but, in terms of the real skills challenge we face if we are going to build many more homes, that is a way of getting new people involved in the building of homes.
I recently had the pleasure of meeting one of the partners of Waugh Thistleton, the architects behind a new housing development at Dalston Lane in Hackney, which uses more timber than any other project in the world. Is cross-laminated timber on the Department’s radar, and what are the Government doing to help to support architects who are exploring this very sustainable material?
It is absolutely on our agenda. The term “modern methods of construction” covers a wide range of different techniques. The key policy area is our home building fund, which provides £1 billion of loan funding for people who are innovating. Too many homes are still built in exactly the same way as they were 100 years ago. We are determined to change that, and I am very happy to hear about the example provided by the hon. Lady.
My hon. Friend is right to say that it is not good enough just to get new homes built. They need to be built well and to stand the test of time. Building inspectors check to ensure that building regulation requirements are met, but we are also considering the recommendations in the report of the all-party group on excellence in the built environment.
At the weekend, we learned that Bovis Homes is to pay £7 million in compensation for poorly built new homes. Will the Minister tell the House what he will do to improve the quality of new homes, including those built by new methods of construction, and to ensure they are built in well-planned communities with appropriate infrastructure? Unfortunately, while the housing White Paper had warm words, it lacked any substance whatsoever on quality and place-making issues.
Despite what the hon. Lady says, there has been a very warm reaction to the housing White Paper from right across the housing sector. I have spent the past week travelling around the country and holding meetings with housing professionals, including, interestingly, Labour councillors, who are very keen to get behind the Government’s agenda to build the homes that Governments of both colours, over 30 or 40 years, have failed to build.
For reasons best known to themselves, about two years ago Reading Borough Council and West Berkshire Council challenged the Government’s policy of assisting brownfield development via vacant building credit. Will the Minister update us on whether the Government are still committed to vacant building credit to release more residential homes on brownfield land?
We are certainly absolutely committed to trying to get a greater proportion of the homes we need built on brownfield land. The White Paper sets out a huge range of different things that we will do to achieve that, but I will happily write to my hon. Friend about the details of the issue he raises.
I welcome the Minister’s commitment to new construction methods, but will he confirm to the House that the Government’s commitment to starter homes, which are designed to encourage home ownership, remains undiminished?
Absolutely. Starter homes are an important part of the way in which the Government are going to try to help people to get into home ownership. There are a number of different schemes—[Interruption.] We are not proceeding with a statutory obligation because that reflects the view expressed to us by large numbers of people. Starter homes go alongside shared ownership and the Help to Buy scheme. None of these schemes existed when the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) was housing Minister and did nothing to reverse to the decline in home ownership.
Our devolution deals will support economic growth across the country by devolving powers and, more importantly, funding from this place so that they can be determined by local people. By May this year, 33% of England’s population will have gone to the polls to elect their directly elected Mayors.
As the Minister no doubt knows, two years ago West Yorkshire council agreed a devolution deal for the Leeds city region. Why has there been no progress? What plans does he have to give West Yorkshire the devolution deal it wants, and why the delay?
We have made good on the city deals we negotiated with the Leeds city region. The problem on broader Yorkshire devolution, given that this is a bottom-up approach, is that there has not been agreement across Yorkshire about what form it should take. Some of the hon. Lady’s colleagues have not helped in recent weeks by proposing solutions on a boundary of a nature not within the legal framework.
Does my hon. Friend not agree that—to paraphrase President Kennedy —it is not so much what the Government can do to assist devolution deals, but what devolution deals can do for themselves through strong leadership following the election of effective Mayors?
Absolutely. For an example of the sort of leadership we will require in these mayoralties, my hon. Friend need look no further than the west midlands, where Andy Street is a fantastic candidate who I am sure will be a strong mayor and champion for the west midlands.
I thank the Minister for his continued efforts to keep the Sheffield city region devolution deal moving forward. I understand that the mayoral election will be postponed until next year but that it might be possible in the meantime for local authorities to access the £30 million on offer if they agree to appoint an interim mayor. Will he confirm that that is the case? If so, what criteria will he want to see in place for it to happen?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his unwavering support for the South Yorkshire and Sheffield city region deal. It is a good deal that will deliver funding and powers to South Yorkshire to help to drive forward its economy. We can look at interim mayors if necessary. I assure him that the Government are absolutely committed to the deal and will try to bring it forward as quickly as possible, but with the agreement of the four local authorities in the Sheffield city region.
In recent weeks and months, we have of course introduced the first northern powerhouse strategy and, more importantly, put £556 million behind it through the local growth funding allocations, with the north receiving the largest proportion from the broader £1.8 billion fund.
I thank the Minister for his recent visit to Pendle and the Government for the £4 million investment that will create more than 1,100 new full-time jobs on the Lomeshaye industrial estate. We have seen strong growth in small and medium-sized enterprises across the north of England in recent years, but what more can we do to help them to grow?
It was a delight to visit the Lomeshaye industrial estate on a wet Lancashire day—is there any other kind?—only the other week, and I thank my hon. Friend for his support for that. On his specific interest in small and medium-sized businesses, just last week I joined other funding partners in launching a £400 million investment fund for northern powerhouse businesses. This will provide loans to businesses of between £25,000 and £2 million, and support our wonderful small and medium-sized businesses across the north.
Small businesses form an important part of York’s economy as part of the northern powerhouse, but businesses are struggling with the new deal on business rates. Overseas landlords are pushing up rents, and that is then pushing up rateable values. What discussions has the Minister had with the Treasury so that in next week’s Budget we will see a fair deal on business rates?
I was in York just last Friday to speak to Make It York and celebrate our funding for the York Central enterprise zones. As the hon. Lady will be aware, business rates bills across the north will be falling, but as the Chancellor and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State have made absolutely clear, we are committed to supporting further those businesses that are hardest impacted by rises. Across the north more generally, however, we will see falls in business rates.
As the Minister knows, the Humber local enterprise partnership was recently allocated £27 million under the growth fund. The two local authorities that serve the Cleethorpes constituency are also members of the Lincolnshire LEP. Will he enlighten us on when their settlement is due?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we recently allocated £27 million to the Humber in the growth deal. It is important to remember that, on a per-head basis, that is more than has been received in large parts of the south of England. We will announce in the coming weeks the Greater Lincolnshire LEP allocations that also cover North and North East Lincolnshire as part of the £392 million package for the midlands.
Business Rates Revaluation: Dover
Business rates are based on valuations carried out independently of Ministers by the Valuation Office Agency. My hon. Friend may be reassured to know that the change in average business rates in Dover is largely a consequence of the significant increase in the rateable value of the English side of the channel tunnel.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that very helpful answer. Can he confirm that leaving aside the channel tunnel, which has done very well in recent years and has gone up an awful lot in value, business rates across the Dover district as a whole are down 8%? Will he also look at the case of small businesses and transitional relief as they leave business rate relief?
I can tell my hon. Friend that as a result of the recent revaluation, the English side of the channel tunnel has seen its rateable value more than double to £35 million, which accounts for roughly a third of the local ratings list. If this were excluded, average rateable values in my hon. Friend’s local authority would fall in line with those in the rest of Kent.
With exclusive reference to Dover, given that the Dover road does not go through Hackney.
It is not just the Dover district that is having these problems but businesses up and down the country, particularly in London and the south-east. I met small businesses in Hackney—not that far from Dover—on Friday. The reality surely is that the system is bust and that small businesses with a small turnover are being hit with huge and unsustainable bills, so what is the Secretary of State going to do to make life better for businesses in Dover, Hackney and around the country?
I think the hon. Lady deserves an answer to that, Mr Speaker. First, transitional relief is in place—it is worth some £3.6 billion—to help businesses across the board, including smaller businesses. Secondly, the extension of small business rate relief will mean that 600,000 companies will pay zero in business rates from April this year. I am sure that the hon. Lady would join me in welcoming that.
Local Housing Provision
As we set out in the recent housing White Paper, we will consult on options for introducing a standardised approach to assessing housing requirements. We will do this at the earliest opportunity, and the outcome will be reflected in changes to the national planning policy framework.
Can my right hon. Friend confirm that now that the Borough Council of King’s Lynn and West Norfolk has an excellent local plan in place, it will not be overruled on appeal, so long as that plan is followed? Can he also confirm that the White Paper means that inspectors will now apply uniform criteria when calculating five-year land supply?
It would be inappropriate for me to comment on any particular plan that is in front of the inspectors, but we do want local authorities to put in place up-to-date robust plans, and we want to incentivise them to do so. Once adopted, we want plans to be respected and adhered to. My hon. Friend will know that having that five-year supply in place enables local authorities to protect their areas against unwanted development.
The North East Lincolnshire local plan includes an estimated 13,340 additional homes that need to be built up to 2032—an average of 702 homes a year. The number of homes classified as affordable that are being built in England has fallen to its lowest level for 24 years. Last year in North East Lincolnshire only 150 of those homes were completed, compared with 220 back in 2010—a fall of a third. Can the Secretary of State please explain why after seven years under this Government, affordable housebuilding is at its lowest—
We have put record amounts of investment into affordable homes, and we have listened to housing associations and asked them to clarify what will help them to deliver across the country, including in Lincolnshire. One thing they have asked for is more flexibility in the types of affordable homes that can be delivered, and we have provided just that.
Is it not vital that key decisions on housing targets in a local area are made by councils elected by local people?
I agree with my right hon. Friend. When it comes to planning in this country, it is a very important principle that the key decisions around allocating land for development and making decisions on planning permissions should be led by local areas.
Every area needs housing that is affordable to those on low incomes, but the building of social housing for rent is at a record low. In 2009-10, when my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) was housing Minister, there were 40,000 new starts, but last year there were fewer than 1,000. Why is there next to nothing in the White Paper that will increase the amount of social rented housing, and why will the Minister not let councils borrow in order to build an adequate amount?
The Labour Government has form in this regard. The number of units available for social rent declined by 410,000 during their 13 years in office. Under this Government we have seen record levels of investment, including the £3.15 billion that was allocated to London alone in the last autumn statement.
Business Rates Revaluation: Pubs
Rateable values are, of course, set independently of Ministers. The approach to the valuation of pubs has been agreed with all five bodies representing the pub sector, including the British Beer & Pub Association and the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers.
Twenty-nine pubs are closing every week, and the industry estimates that it will need to increase prices by 30p per pint to deal with the £421 million rates increase after the revaluation. All small businesses—many of them in my constituency—are in the firing line. Given the public outcry from local businesses, local authorities and even his own Back Benchers, does the Minister agree with Labour that there should be a full review of the operation of business rates?
Pubs and pub-restaurants in Yorkshire and the Humber will see a 4% cut in their rates overall, and many will also benefit from the doubling of small business rate relief. However, as I said in response to an earlier question, the Secretary of State and the Chancellor are continuing to look closely at what further support can be made available to those most affected by rises.
Pubs appear to be the net losers from the revaluation in my constituency. The Government have done an awful lot to protect pubs in recent years. Is this not another example of the need to get a grip on the Valuation Office Agency? It seems to be defying what the Government are trying to do by carrying out rate revaluations which are driving important companies that we value out of business.
As I said a moment ago, the guide for agreeing valuations—I have it in my hand—was agreed with all five groups representing pubs. The picture will vary across the country, with many pubs seeing a reduction in their rates. As I have said, however, we remain committed to trying to help further those on whom the impact has been heaviest.
Needs-based Funding Formula
As it is nearly a decade since the current needs assessment formula was looked at thoroughly, we are currently undertaking a fair funding review to consider how to introduce a more up-to-date, more transparent and fairer formula.
I warmly welcome the review that the Secretary of State has announced. I share his enthusiasm for it, and that of councils in Somerset. What will be its likely structure, and what is the minimum time that it may take to complete?
As my hon. Friend will know, I was in Somerset only last week, helping to launch the excellent election manifesto for that great county, and fair funding was one of the issues that came up. Our plan is that the new formula will determine the baseline funding allocations as we implement the 100% business rates retention programme planned for 2019-20.
My right hon. Friend will know that one of the local authorities in my constituency, Oadby and Wigston Borough Council, is in dire financial straits. It has run itself incompetently, with the result that, with a revenue budget of £7 million or £8 million a year, it now plans to have an annual deficit of about £1.5 million. That is small in the great scheme of things, but in local terms it is hugely important. I know that my right hon. Friend and the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones), have been looking into the matter, but will my right hon. Friend take a special interest in the council’s management to ensure that council taxpayers are not being mistreated?
I share the concerns of my right hon. and learned Friend. He has written to me and talked to me and my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for local government about this, and I can assure him that we are both taking a special interest in this.
We are investing nearly £250,000 in Colchester and Tendring to identify those at risk of rough sleeping and support them into accommodation. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince) for the role he played in the Homelessness Reduction Bill and join in his tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman).
I thank the Minister for that response. May I pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), whose Homelessness Reduction Bill will play such a large part in tackling homelessness? As the Minister said, from having sat on that Bill Committee and seen cross-party working in action, does he agree with me that it is by taking party politics out of this issue and working on a cross-party basis that we will tackle homelessness?
My hon. Friend is right, and the Secretary of State said exactly that earlier in our questions. There is a real need not just to invest more money in this crucial area, but also to change the law, to ensure both that we have a full safety net and that we intervene earlier to prevent people from becoming homeless, rather than just at the point of crisis.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the work that Chelmsford City Council is doing to tackle the totally unacceptable problem of rough sleeping in Chelmsford is both innovative and positive?
I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend. I thank him for his personal commitment to this issue and say to him that the work that Chelmsford is doing is being supported by nearly £1 million from the £50 million that the Secretary of State referred to.
If the Department for Work and Pensions cuts housing support, that immediately adds to homelessness pressures for the Department for Communities and Local Government. Does the Minister think that the DWP should go ahead with cuts to housing benefit for 18 to 21-year-olds in a month’s time, and if not, is he making representations to his colleagues in other Departments to stop it?
This Government have increased discretionary housing payment to £870 million across this Parliament; that is a 55% increase, and thus far 60% of—[Interruption.] The hon. Lady says it is nowhere near enough; 60% of local councils have not taken up their full allocation.
We are supporting local growth through the £1.8 billion local growth fund, £31 million of which was recently announced for my hon. Friend’s local enterprise partnership in the Solent.
I thank the Minister for his answer. Solent LEP has played a key role in delivering the Havant business support fund and the Dunsbury Park business park. Will the Minister continue to support LEPs so that Members of this House, councils and businesses continue to reform to work together to drive economic growth?
Absolutely, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on his work in securing the funding for the Havant business support fund. LEPs are playing an important role across the country; they are helping to drive economic growth, and they continue to have our support.
In the past month the Local Government Finance Bill has passed its Report stage and the Neighbourhood Planning Bill has almost completed its passage through the Lords. Our housing White Paper has been published and my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning has been touring the country sharing its bold vision, and I am continuing to meet councillors and council leaders from across the political spectrum to see how we can work together to shape the future of local government.
Councils are rightly using their powers more broadly and competitively. May I ask the Secretary of State and his Department to keep looking at the issues in my constituency, where Eastleigh Borough Council is using commercial sensitivity, public works loans and exempt business to hide behind a deficit, or debt, of £240 million by 2020 and buying unneeded former banks to become libraries? Can the Minister confirm that these details will not be kept from those who voted the council into office?
I am glad that my hon. Friend is shining a light on these issues, which are of concern. She will know that transparency is the foundation of local accountability. We have made councils publish data—for example, on spending, procurement and contracts—online and any councillor who hides information from the electorate should be wary of the power of the ballot box.
With 1 million-plus adults in England with unmet care needs and the head of the NHS warning of the impact the social care crisis is having, does the Secretary of State now agree with, among others, the Chair of the Health Committee today that the Government can no longer ignore the funding crisis in adult social care?
What I agree with is that we must constantly look at what more we can do to support the most vulnerable and those who rely on adult social care. That is why I am sure the hon. Gentleman will welcome the £3.5 billion that was allocated at the last spending review and the announcement that I made a few months ago of an additional almost £900 million for the adult care sector across England.
No one will be surprised by the lack of urgency in the Secretary of State’s response, not least No. 10, so let me ask him another question. The Local Government Association estimates that, taking into account social care, there will be a funding gap of almost £6 billion for critical local services for the people of England by 2020. What is the Secretary of State going to do about that funding gap?
The £3.5 billion that was allocated in the last spending review was more than the Local Government Association set out at that time. Despite that, we have acted, as demand has grown, with the announcement of the additional £900 million. As I have made clear a number of times at the Dispatch Box, this is not all about money; it is also about reform and especially about promoting more integration between the work done by local authorities and the health sector.
The White Paper sets out a number of measures that we are taking to deal with that situation. First, we have the £2.3 billion infrastructure fund that the Chancellor announced in the autumn statement. Secondly, as I mentioned to the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire), we are giving local authorities real power to intervene to ensure that schemes get built out. We cannot just plan for the right number of homes; we need to ensure that they also get built.
Waste collection and processing is currently regulated and underpinned by the EU waste framework directive and the Environmental Protection Act 1990. Local government takes on a great deal of responsibility for waste management and has invested significant sums in bins, fleets, staffing and processing centres to meet those obligations. What certainty can the Secretary of State give to local government on this and on future waste investment plans?
I should like to assure the hon. Lady that we take this issue very seriously. It is a national issue. I have discussed it a number of times with my colleagues, and we want to see how we can take further action. I would be more than happy to write to her about this.
I can share with my hon. Friend the fact that this issue was identified back in 2010 when there was a change of Government. The Cabinet Office has already done a significant amount of work to make it easier for small firms to win procurement competitions, but there is more that could be done. I hope that it will encourage my hon. Friend to learn that, as we go through the process of leaving the EU, we will be taking a clear look at many of the EU rules that can cause those challenges.
No, I do not agree with that. We have been absolutely clear in our commitment to maintain EU structural funds up until 2020. That commitment could not have been clearer. I remind the hon. Gentleman that this is British taxpayers’ money anyway, at the end of the day.
Councils in my area require a definition of housing supply. They do not really worry about the methodology; they just want to know what it is. Could we have some clarification on that? Also, could the Secretary of State tell me whether he thinks the Liberal Democrats are wholly supporting the Government, because no Liberal Democrat has been in the Chamber until three minutes ago?
Ministers have no responsibility for the whereabouts of Liberal Democrat Members—or those of any other party, for that matter. However, the hon. Gentleman has made his point in his own way, with force and alacrity.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. All I can say is, “Thank goodness for that!”
On housing supply, we are measuring the total size of the housing stock, and local authorities are being asked to plan for not only the necessary number of homes but, as was clear in the discussion we had earlier, the right mix of homes for the changing demography of their area.
Why is the Minister abolishing the requirement for Parliament to approve the local government finance settlement through the Local Government Finance Bill? Is it because the Government have inflicted so much damage to local government services through cuts that they want to hide that and not be accountable to Parliament?
The hon. Gentleman is referring to some of the measures in the Local Government Finance Bill. When we move to 100% business rates retention, all local councils will be fully funded, so there will be no legal requirement for an annual settlement because no money will be forthcoming directly from central Government.
Some London authorities have an average of 40% more spending power than somewhere like North Yorkshire despite often having younger, wealthier populations. As part of the fair funding review, does the Minister agree that future allocations should be based on the cost drivers of need and the cost of delivering services?
I agree with my hon. Friend, who spoke eloquently on this issue in the local government financial settlement debate last week. He highlights the need to look again at the outdated formulae, which are not transparent, and to ensure that funding is allocated on a needs basis.
The chief executive of Centrepoint recently said that the Government’s plan to axe housing benefit for 18 to 21-year-olds
“could cost the taxpayer more money than it saves”.
In the light of cross-party support for the Homelessness Reduction Bill, will the Minister scrap that damaging policy and focus instead on delivering the genuinely affordable homes that our young people need?
I can certainly commit to the last part of what the hon. Lady asked for. In London, the Government are providing £3.15 billion of funding to the Mayor, who has been generous enough to say that that is the best ever settlement for affordable housing in London. On the other matter, we need to ensure that private landlords still have the confidence to let to younger people and we are considering that issue.
As important as the funding formula debate is, does my right hon. Friend agree that the way in which councils organise themselves is also important to ensure the maximum bang for the taxpayers’ buck? Against that backdrop, I hope that my right hon. Friend will give Dorset’s innovative proposals the thumbs-up, because they are the best way—indeed the only way—of securing services for local people.
My hon. Friend highlights that we have rightly encouraged councils to be creative and innovative as they deal with challenges, and some have come forward with proposals to reorganise. It would be inappropriate for me to comment on any particular one at this stage, but we will consider those proposals carefully and seriously.
The Leasehold Advisory Service should play an important role in providing advice to leaseholders. However, the current chair Roger Southam has extensive previous business interests with freeholders and has even boasted of maximising ground rent opportunities for them. Can Ministers not see how that looks? In order to regain leaseholders’ confidence, will Ministers agree to an urgent review into the suitability of Mr Southam to continue as chair?
I am well aware of the hon. Gentleman’s passion for this issue; he spoke powerfully in a debate on this matter a few weeks ago. I recently announced that funding for LEASE will continue to come purely from the Government so that no one can be in any doubt that its job is to stand up for the interests of leaseholders.
Local authorities come in for a bit of stick in this Chamber from time to time, but the Secretary of State will be fully aware of the tremendous work that North Yorkshire County Council did in Tadcaster over the past year. Will he take this opportunity to thank North Yorkshire and David Bowe in particular, who did so much great work in ensuring the restoration of the bridge? Will he also thank the local enterprise partnership for its help?
I was pleased to join my hon. Friend and many of his great constituents at the reopening of Tadcaster bridge. It was lovely to see so many young people celebrating that moment. I am more than happy to join him in congratulating the county council and the local enterprise partnership on their work. I also congratulate my hon. Friend on all his work to help bring that bridge back to life.
We always want to make sure—we saw this in the debate on the local government finance settlement—that local authorities are funded adequately to deal with the challenges they face. If Labour Members are so concerned about local government finance, it is interesting that only four Back-Bench Labour Members bothered to turn up and speak in last week’s debate.
The hon. Gentleman has a very small second bite of the cherry.
Does the Secretary of State agree that, by virtue of their closeness to residents, district councils continue to be the most effective tier of local government and have a strong future?
I agree with my hon. Friend that district councils are hugely important to local democracy. Alongside other councillors, district councillors are the bedrock of local government, and they have the full support of this Government.
Last week I met Lakeside Energy from Waste, a company that is enabling local authorities in my area to reduce the amount of waste going to landfill. As the Secretary of State knows, the plant is due to be knocked down as a result of the creation of the third runway at Heathrow, yet Lakeside Energy from Waste is anxious because there is no reference to the plant’s future in the national policy statement. Will he or one of his colleagues meet me and Lakeside Energy from Waste to discuss how we can ensure that this important plant is re-provided?
This may well be an issue for the Department for Transport, but I would be more than happy if the right hon. Lady wrote to ask me to take a look.
Can the Minister say what plans he has to introduce a new homes ombudsman?
I said in response to an earlier question that the Government are currently looking at the report from the all-party parliamentary group for excellence in the built environment. The Government are determined to build the homes that this country needs, but the homes must be built to a sufficient quality, too.
I will be brief. I have elicited three positive responses about the possibility of a Belfast city deal. Instead of a fourth positive response, can we have a meeting?
I would be more than happy to meet the hon. Gentleman, and I will make sure that a meeting is arranged. I am keen to see what my Department can do to work across and help all regions of the United Kingdom including, of course, Northern Ireland.
The following Member made and subscribed the Affirmation required by law:
Gareth Craig Snell, for Stoke-on-Trent Central.
NHS Shared Business Services
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Health to make a statement on the loss of confidential NHS correspondence by NHS Shared Business Services.
On 24 March 2016, I was informed of a serious incident involving a large backlog of unprocessed NHS patient correspondence by the company contracted to deliver it to general practitioners’ surgeries, NHS Shared Business Services—SBS. The backlog arose from the primary care services GP mail redirection service that SBS was contracted to run between 2011 and 2016. However, in three areas of England—the east midlands, north-east London and the south-west of England—this did not happen, affecting 708,000 items of correspondence. None of the documents was lost and all were kept in secure storage, but my immediate concern was that patient safety might have been compromised by the delay in forwarding correspondence, so a rapid process was started to identify whether anyone had been put at risk. The Department of Health and NHS England immediately established an incident team led by Jill Matthews, who heads the NHS England primary care support services team.
All the documentation has now been sent on to the relevant GP surgery, where it is possible to do so, following an initial clinical assessment of where any patient risk might lie. Some 200,000 pieces were temporary residence forms, and a further 500,000 pieces were assessed as low risk. A first triage identified a further 2,500 items that had potential risk of harm and needed further investigation, but follow-up by local GPs has already identified nearly 2,000 of those as having “no patient harm”. The remainder are still being assessed, but so far no patient harm has been identified.
As well as patient safety, transparency for both the public and this House has been my priority. I was advised by officials not to make the issue public last March until an assessment of the risks to patient safety had been completed and all relevant GP surgeries informed. I accepted that advice, for the very simple reason that publicising the issue could have meant GP surgeries being inundated with inquiries from worried patients, which would have prevented them from doing the most important work—namely, investigating the named patients who were potentially at risk.
For the same reasons, and in good faith, a proactive statement about what had happened was again not recommended by my Department in July. However, on balance I decided it was important for the House to know what had happened before we broke for recess, so I did not follow that advice and placed a written statement before the House on 21 July. Since then, the Public Accounts Committee has been kept regularly informed, most recently being updated by my permanent secretary only last Friday. The Information Commissioner was updated in August, and the National Audit Office is currently reviewing the response. I committed in July 2016 to keeping the House updated once the investigations were complete and more was known, and will continue to do so.
Let us be under no illusions: this is a catastrophic breach of data protection. More than half a million pieces of patient data—including blood test results, cancer screening results, biopsy results, and even correspondence relating to cases of child protection—were all undelivered, languishing in a warehouse, on the Secretary of State’s watch. It is an absolute scandal.
Time and again this Health Secretary promises us transparency; today, he stands accused of a cover-up. The Department of Health knew about this in March 2016, so why did it take this self-proclaimed champion of transparency until the last day before the House rose last summer to issue a 138-word statement to Parliament? That statement said that just “some correspondence” had not reached the intended recipients. When the Secretary of State made that statement, was he aware that it amounted to more than 700,000 letters? If so, why did he not inform Parliament? If he did not know, does that not call into question his competence?
What guarantees can the Secretary of State give us that no more warehouses of letters are yet to be discovered? Was the private contractor involved paid for the delivery of the letters? If so, what steps are being taken to recover the money? How many patients were harmed because their GP did not receive information about their ongoing treatment? Do patients remain at risk? The Secretary of State talks about NHS England’s ongoing investigation into 2,500 items; when are we likely to know the outcome?
We understand that Capita now has the contract to deliver these services. What scrutiny is the Secretary of State putting Capita under so that it does not happen again? Is it not better that, rather than this relentless pursuit of privatisation, we bring services back in-house?
Two months into 2017 and the Health Secretary lurches from one crisis to another: hospitals overcrowded and waiting lists out of control. He cannot deliver the investment that our NHS needs; he cannot deliver a social care solution; he cannot deliver patient safety; and now he cannot even deliver the post. He has overseen a shambles that puts patient safety at risk. Patients deserve answers and they deserve an apology.
The hon. Gentleman is reasonable and sensible, but sadly those commendable sides to his character have not been on display this afternoon, not least because I answered a number of his questions before he read out his pre-prepared script. He said that there had been a catastrophic breach of data protection. Let me remind him that no patient data were lost and all patient data were kept in secure settings. I know that it is a great temptation to go on about the privatisation agenda, but may I gently tell him that, since SBS lost this account, this particular work has been taken in-house? It is being done not by Capita, but by the NHS—so much for the Government’s “relentless pursuit” of the private sector.
More seriously, the hon. Gentleman is quoted in this morning’s edition of The Guardian as saying:
“Patient safety will have been put seriously at risk.”
As he knows, patient safety is always our primary concern, but if he had listened to my response he would have heard that, as things stand, there is no evidence so far that patients’ safety has been put at risk. [Interruption.] Well, we have been through more than 700,000 documents, and so far, we can find no such evidence. We are now doing a second check, with GPs, on 2,500 documents—so a second clinical opinion is being sought—nearly 2,000 of which we believe will not show any evidence, and we are now going through the remaining ones.
Let me say that it was indeed totally incompetent of SBS to allow this incident to happen, and we take full responsibility as a Government, because we were responsible at the time. None the less, the measure of the competence of a Government is not when suppliers make mistakes—I gently remind the hon. Gentleman that that did happen a few times when Labour was running the NHS—but what we do to sort out the problem. We immediately set up a national incident team. Every single piece of correspondence has been assessed, and around 80% of the higher risk cases have been assessed by a second clinician.
The hon. Gentleman then went on to suggest that the Government have been trying to hide the matter. If he had listened to what I said, he would have heard that I did not follow the advice that I got from my officials, which was not to publicise the matter. I actually decided that the House needed to know about it. It was only a week after I was reappointed to this job last summer that I not only laid a written ministerial statement, but referred to the matter in my Department’s annual report and accounts. He said this morning that I played down the severity of what happened, but what did that annual report say? It said that a “serious incident was identified”, and it talked about
“a large backlog of unprocessed correspondence relating to patients.”
It could not have been clearer.
This Government have always cared about patient safety. We have listened to the advice of people—as the hon. Gentleman would have done had he been in office—who said that if we had gone public right away, GP surgeries could have been prevented from doing what we needed them to do, which is making detailed assessments of a small number of at-risk cases. That was why we paused, but as soon as we judged that it was possible to do so, we informed this House and the public and we stayed absolutely true to our commitment both to patient safety and to transparency.
This is undoubtedly a very serious incident, but I welcome the detailed and thorough steps that the Secretary of State has taken to protect patient safety. However, he will know that there are ongoing problems with the transfer of patient records. GPs and hospitals spend endless hours chasing up results, investigations and letters on a daily basis. Is it not time that patients were given direct control of their own records, and will the Secretary of State provide an update on that to the House?
I thank my hon. Friend for her sensible contribution. She is right that, although the process of sending on these particular documents has been taken in-house, other parts of the contract were taken on by a company called Capita—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) cannot stop, can he? Let me repeat that the work in question has been taken in-house. The other work, which is being done by Capita, has had some teething problems, of which we are very aware. We know it has been causing problems for GPs. The Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood) has been meeting Capita and people relating to that contract on a fortnightly basis to try to identify the problems.
My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) is right that the aim in the long run is to give people control of their records. I am proud that, under this Government, we have become the first country in the world to give every patient access to their own records online. From September, people will be able to do that without having to go to their GP’s surgery.
I am sure that everyone across the House is glad that these 750,000 incidents have not, so far, resulted in patients suffering. Frankly, that is luck, rather than plan, for which we should all be grateful. This is yet another situation similar to that of Concentrix and others we have seen. When we are outsourcing and taking on these companies, what is the basis of the contract and what is the governance? The Secretary of State mentioned the other incidents of transferring data when a patient moves to another GP’s surgery, and that has also been an issue. When will data in England become more digital so that things are not sent by post? We have not used that method for several years in Scotland, and it is holding back the entire primary care and hospital system here. When will the Secretary of State’s vision for that come about?
The hon. Lady is always very good at telling the House things that Scotland does better than the NHS in England; there are, indeed, some. She is a little bit coyer about things that Scotland does less well than the NHS in England. If we put aside those issues, I think we can both agree that the sooner the NHS across the whole UK goes electronic, the better. That has been a big priority for this Government, and we have made big progress. More than two thirds of hospital A&E departments can now access a summary of people’s GP records, and we are going further every month.
As the affected patients could have moved anywhere in the country, will my right hon. Friend assure me or let me know, either today or by writing to me, whether any of my constituents in Bury North have been affected?
I do not have the information about Bury North patients immediately to hand, but I am happy to write to my hon. Friend to tell him whether we think any of his constituents have been affected.
I raised my concerns about the contracting out of the patient record service to SBS back in 2011, and I was told by the Secretary of State’s predecessor that this was about saving money. Will he tell us how much money has been saved, given all the problems, and how many of the 708,000 patients affected are in the south-west?
The south-west was one of the regions affected, as I mentioned in my statement. I am happy to write to the right hon. Gentleman to tell him exactly how many patients I think were affected in the south-west. I gently say to him that the use of the private sector was championed when his Government were in office and when he was a Health Minister. I know that this is not very fashionable in his party at the moment, but on this side of the House, we think that if we want the NHS to be the safest and best in the world, we should be open—
How much have you saved?
Order. The right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) is shouting noisily from a sedentary position. I cannot imagine that that is an offence that I would have committed when I sat on the Opposition Benches. I just do not think it would have happened. I do not know what has happened to standards.
The Secretary of State is not answering the question.
Objection to the manner and content of a ministerial response is not a novel phenomenon in the House of Commons.
There have been cries of privatisation from the Opposition. Is not the truth that in 2007, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs lost the entire collection of child benefit records, affecting 25 million people? Is not the point that all data holders, whether in the private or public sector, must hold our private information securely?
That is absolutely the point. What people will be wondering is, when we were faced with this issue, which was indeed serious, did we react as quickly as we could to keep patients safe? I believe the answer is yes. Did that happen under the last Labour Government? I will leave the House to draw its own conclusions.
The Secretary of State just stated with great authority that no patient data were lost. I would be interested to know how he can be so certain, given that all these data were missing for a long time without anybody noticing. What controls are in place now that were not in place then that mean he can make that statement with such confidence?
I welcome the hon. Lady to the House. I do not know whether she has done a Health question with me before, but let me say to her that we are assured that the data were not lost: they were kept in a secure setting, which means they were safe, they were not breached and they were not accessed by anyone else. What should have happened, but did not, was passing on the data to the right GP surgery, and that is why we have taken all the steps we have to try to make sure patients are kept safe.
My right hon. Friend may recall times when we found ourselves in opposition and hoped we had a huge success on our hands, and the image that springs to mind at present is of foxes and shooting them. Does he agree that the Department he so expertly guides now needs to focus its attention on using electronic data for all our citizens and patients, rather than dealing with spurious Opposition problems?
As ever, my right hon. Friend is thinking extremely intelligently about the problems we really face. The hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) asked about the security of the data files, but the security of electronic files is the issue we are going to have to think about much more seriously as we give everyone access to their electronic records, and because of the known issues around hacking. This is an issue we are taking very seriously and doing more work on.
I wrote to the Secretary of State on this subject on behalf of the Jubilee medical centre in Croxteth, in my constituency, on 13 January. I have not yet had a reply from him, but perhaps he could respond today to the point I raised about staff safety. We have had the issue of patient safety, but what about the potential danger to staff from these records not being available about patients?
I would like to reflect on the hon. Gentleman’s question in a bit more detail rather than giving an instant answer, because, to date, no one has brought to my notice particular issues about staff safety, but that is always something we take extremely seriously. We are aware of the extra administrative pressure on staff caused by needing to go through records where there is a higher risk of harm to patients—indeed, we have given GP surgeries extra resources to cover that additional time—but I will look into the issue the hon. Gentleman raises.
Since at least 2015, it has been a statutory requirement to use a unique and consistent identifier on health and social care records. Given that that would, as the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) said, help with putting data electronically on health and social care systems, will the Secretary of State update the House on the issue?
I am very happy to do so. Clearly, when we are all able to access our health records electronically, there are potentially huge benefits for patients. In particular, people with long-term conditions who use the NHS a lot would be able to take more control of what happens and also to spot mistakes, which sometimes happen in medical records—that is one of the big findings from the US, where people have had more widespread access to electronic records for longer. The issue is the security with which people access those records online, and we are looking very closely at the systems used by banks, for example. Those are pretty robust, but we are looking at whether we can have systems that are even more robust, because it is very important that patients have confidence that only they and those they give permission to can access those records.
Can the Secretary of State tell us a little more about which areas in the east midlands have been particularly affected? Given the opaque and byzantine structures of the NHS, can he specifically tell the House which member of his ministerial team had the job of keeping watch on NHS Shared Business Services?
The Minister responsible is the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon. This case happened before she was in post, so I took personal responsibility given it was such an important issue. I will write to the hon. Gentleman with more details about how the east midlands has been affected.
Does the Secretary of State agree that it is vital that we move towards a fully paperless national health service, but that it will be very difficult to do so as long as national health service trusts cannot talk to each other electronically? Radiological images, for example, are often not available when consultants see patients, who therefore have to have the test again, which is contrary to all the precepts of good practice in the Ionising Radiations Regulations 1999.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is a very big part of our transformation plans for the NHS. Where the NHS does well internationally is in out-of-hospital records; our GP records are among the best of any country’s. GPs have done a fantastic job over the past 15 years in keeping all their records electronically, and they provide a lifetime snapshot of a patient’s history. Where we are less good is in our hospital records, where one can still find paper records in widespread use. That is not just very, very expensive but—he is quite right—unsafe at times.
I used to work in a pathology lab, and it absolutely pains me to think of those results generated by the hard work of pathology staff languishing in a warehouse somewhere, unseen by anybody. If GPs do not get lab results, they will ring the laboratory and ask for them, so has the Secretary of State made any estimate of the time wasted in phone calls from GP surgeries to pathology labs?
I am sure that, regrettably, because of what happened extra work was created for GPs. However, because of GPs’ commitment to their patients, it appears that in the vast majority of cases patient harm was avoided. When results do not come through that a GP is expecting, the GP chases them to make sure that the right thing is done for patients—but of course, as the hon. Lady rightly says, at the cost of extra work.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that had the then Labour Government not made such a catastrophe of implementing the NHS computer system, such records would have been digitised many years ago and problems with storage of paper records would not have impacted on the patients who are currently suffering?
My hon. Friend speaks wisely. Many members of the public will be faintly amused to hear Labour Members say how important it is that we move to electronic health records. The NHS IT project was an absolute catastrophe, costing billions of pounds. The intention was right but the delivery was wrong, and that is what we are trying to sort out.
I understand that large numbers of patients in north-east London were affected by this failure of the service. How many of my constituents were affected, how many of them were cancer patients, and how many would have been subjected therefore to an inordinate delay in receiving referrals for treatment? Can the Secretary of State give that itemised breakdown to all Members of Parliament who will have constituents affected by this?
I am very happy to write to hon. Members in the areas affected with any extra information that we are able to provide. However, I reassure the hon. Gentleman that to date we have not been able to identify any patient in any part of the country who has come to harm as a result of what happened.
It is a shame that the synthetic outrage from Labour Members was not apparent when they were calling for a public inquiry into deaths in Mid Staffordshire, or, officially, the worst ever IT white elephant disaster, with £12 billion of costs uncovered by the Public Accounts Committee in 2013. Has not my right hon. Friend observed the appropriate parliamentary accountability protocols? He not only employed clinical expertise but came to the House in July, his officials updated the PAC in September, and he came here again today? There is no cover-up.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. As he rightly points out, this was a judgment call, because going public at a very early stage about what happened risked overwhelming GP surgeries, with GPs being unable to investigate the most serious cases as quickly as possible. That is why I received very sensible advice to hold back, but I did decide that the House needed to know before the summer break, which is why I made the effort.
A number of GP practices in Wirral West have made clear to me their concerns about Capita’s handling of confidential patient records. There have been cases of patient records being delayed when they move to another practice, and in some instances confidential records have not arrived at all. As my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) has said, there is also concern that, if a patient is a risk to a doctor because of a mental health issue, that has not been flagged up to medical staff. That is a very serious risk to put staff under. Does the Secretary of State share the view of the chair of the British Medical Association’s GP committee, who said that this is
“an example of what happens when the NHS tries to cut costs by inviting private companies to do work which they don’t do properly”?
The hon. Lady makes very important points about the need for the rapid transfer of records when people move GP surgeries. I gently point out to her—I am sure she was asked to ask her question—that the reality is that, because of the failures of this contract, we have taken this work in-house. It is not about the Government pressing on with privatisation irresponsibly, or whatever it is that she is trying to say. This work is now being done in-house.
We have an excellent Secretary of State and the Government seem to have taken the appropriate action. My only concern is what he said about his Department’s officials recommending that this House not be informed. Under Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, I remember that we would get 80-odd written statements on the last day of term. May I gently suggest to the Secretary of State that it would have been better if the written statement had been made earlier in the week so that Members could have considered whether an urgent question was appropriate?
In ordinary circumstances, my hon. Friend’s point would be completely fair and reasonable. He may remember that certain other things were happening at that time last year and, as I have said, it had been only a week since I had been reappointed to my post, so there were a number of other issues. However, my priority was to make sure that we did not go away for the summer without the House being informed of the situation.
The Secretary of State says that he has paid people—I assume that they are GPs—to clear the backlog. How much have you paid the GPs, and do you intend to recoup that money to the NHS?
I have made no such payment and I have no plans to recoup anything, but the Secretary of State might have.
I regret to say that the £2.2 million has not gone to you, Mr Speaker, but it has been paid to GPs for the extra administrative work that needs to be done. That is fair payment for the extra time that they are taking. It is, indeed, a cost to the taxpayer, but it was the right thing to do.
For the second time, it was £2.2 million.
Will the Secretary of State reassure the House that appropriate staffing resources have been made available throughout to deal with the backlogs, not just nationally but in the east midlands?
We have always been concerned to make sure that, because of the extra administrative work involved in going through more than 700,000 records, other patients using the NHS do not find that their care is delayed. We made extra resources available for GP practices so that they could do that without interrupting the ordinary work that they have to do for their patients.
Surely the Secretary of State agrees that if everything were going swimmingly in the NHS, if we were investing in it like our European neighbours and if people were confident that their A&E departments and trusts were safe and that the whole health service was not in trouble, with privatisation biting into it, this issue could be put in perspective. But the NHS, under his watch, is in chaos. That is why we are so worried about this issue.
Let me gently remind the hon. Gentleman that, because of the decisions this Government have taken, we are actually now investing more than the European average in the NHS, which would have been much more difficult to do if we had followed his party’s spending plans. He tries to characterise our approach as one of suggesting that the NHS does not have problems. We think the NHS has some very big problems—it is working very hard to tackle them—but we are providing more doctors, more nurses, more funding and more operations than ever before in its history.
May I commend the Secretary of State for his response to the situation once he was told about it and welcome his pledge to provide constituency-wide data to the House? However, my constituents in Kettering will be amazed that, for five years, no one spotted that 700,000 records had gone missing. How was that discovered, and why in the three areas did such a large amount of data in effect disappear from public view?
I wish I could give my hon. Friend the answer to that question. I think it is completely extraordinary that for such a long period it was not noticed that the data had gone missing. It was discovered towards the end of the SPS contract. There are lessons for the NHS—this relates very closely to what other hon. Members have said—about the dangers of over-reliance on paper rather than electronic systems, with which it is much easier to keep track of what is happening. [Interruption.] Let me say to the hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth), who continues to make comments from a sedentary position, that when it comes to making the NHS electronic, people will compare his Government’s records and ours and will say which is better.
I am sure all Members will be able to identify with people with anxiety caused by waiting for test results or diagnoses—I certainly can—so does the Secretary of State concur that it is scant consolation to those 700,000-odd people to be told that their letters were not lost, but are residing in a warehouse somewhere?
It is a completely unacceptable lapse of efficiency, and this supplier is no longer performing that job for the NHS. Of course it causes many people frustration when the information they are waiting for does not reach their GP’s surgery. However, the most important thing, as the hon. Lady and I would agree, is the safety of patients. That is why our biggest priority has been not the administrative inconvenience, frustrating though it is, but making sure we understand whether any patients have actually been put at risk.
This morning, I was very pleased to tour the new clinical assessment unit that was opened last month at Crawley hospital. That was made possible partly because the hospital used to store paper records in that space, but has now moved to electronic records. May I commend the Secretary of State for increasing the drive to using electronic rather than paper records, and urge him to redouble his efforts?
I am very happy to follow my hon. Friend’s advice in that respect. I think we all know that although the proper use of electronic records creates huge opportunities, we have to carry the public with us and make sure they are confident that the data will be held securely. That is why we have introduced the new post of a National Data Guardian, Dame Fiona Caldicott, who is the patients’ watchdog in this area.
NHS Shared Business Services Ltd exists for one reason only, which is to deliver £1 billion in savings by 2020. The results of this Government’s ideological obsession with savings and austerity have surely now been laid bare for all to see, and we are quite lucky that this did not, quite literally, kill anyone. Will the Secretary of State agree to meet the Chancellor urgently to discuss increased funding for a health service that is being starved of the resources it needs to run effectively?
The result of our “ideological obsession” with savings and austerity is that we have increased spending on the NHS twice as fast in England as the hon. Lady’s party has in Scotland.
As the Secretary of State is aware, patient safety is paramount. For the benefit of my constituents, will he confirm that patient safety was throughout the process and remains his primary concern?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right—that has been our primary concern. It needs to be our primary concern as we examine the lessons that need to be learned in both the setting and the monitoring of contracts with the private sector, which were clearly deficient in this case.
The Secretary of State was responsible for the entirety of the contract, yet has come to the House to respond to the urgent question and told us that he does not know how the situation came to light to NHS England, and that he has no answers. Mr Speaker, do you think he should have been better prepared today? What assurances can he give us that he now has controls in place to monitor any future contracts?
The hon. Lady should have listened to the facts when I told her. When this came to light, more than 700,000 records were checked: 2,500 of the higher-risk ones are being checked by two clinicians—80% of them have already been checked. A huge amount of work has been done to clear up the situation. I completely agree with her that it was unacceptable that it happened in the first place, but I gently say to her that we are not the first Government to be let down by suppliers.
A few moments ago, the Secretary of State alluded to teething problems with the Capita contract. I must tell him that GP practices in my constituency told me only a couple of weeks ago that those problems not only continue but are worsening. How much longer will the Secretary of State give Capita to perform under the contract it has with the Department of Health? If it cannot perform, how quickly can we expect the Secretary of State to decide to take that work back in-house?
If Capita does not perform what it is contracted to do, we will take all necessary measures, including ending the contract. The hon. Lady is right that there have been a number of problems with that contract in its early days. We believe that the situation on the ground is beginning to improve, but a lot of progress still needs to be made.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Last Friday, after the debates on private Members’ Bills, the hon. Member for Redcar (Anna Turley), to whom I have given notice of this point of order, left the Chamber and briefed on social media and the media at large that my speech on the Istanbul convention—the Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (Ratification of Convention) Bill, which was first on the Order Paper—stopped her Bill, the Animal Cruelty (Sentencing) Bill, from being debated, and that I had in effect blocked it, despite my telling her that I supported her Bill. That led to my office receiving widespread, unjustified and terrible abuse, to which my staff should not be subjected.
The hon. Lady’s Bill was the eighth to be considered on Friday. You have a better memory of parliamentary proceedings, Mr Speaker, and perhaps you could tell us the last time the eighth Bill on Friday was reached for debate. I have asked the House of Commons Library to find out. In the time the Library has had so far, it has gone back 12 years and found not one example of when the eighth Bill for debate was reached. Clearly, we would still not have reached the eighth Bill had I not spoken at all. By that logic, the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) should be blamed for blocking the Animal Cruelty (Sentencing) Bill by choosing to debate her Bill on Report, which would be ludicrous. [Interruption.]
Order. The hon. Gentleman must come to a point of order for me, but equally he must be heard, and will be.
The Animal Cruelty (Sentencing) Bill could still have been nodded through at the end of the day. It was clearly blocked by somebody, but not by me—I was not even in the Chamber at that time. Could you confirm, Mr Speaker, that no reasonable analysis of proceedings could lead anyone to think that my speech on the first Bill prevented a debate on the eighth Bill from taking place; that I cannot have blocked the Bill because I was not in the Chamber when somebody else objected to it when it could have been nodded through; and that I am a rather straightforward kind of person who, if I say I support a Bill I support it—I support the Animal Cruelty (Sentencing) Bill—and if I say I oppose a Bill I oppose it? Finally, can you make it clear that it is irresponsible for Members to give the public a false picture of our proceedings, and that it is dangerous to do so because it encourages vile abuse of our staff, which is not justified and can have dangerous consequences?
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order and for advance notice of it; I thank him for raising the matter with me. Let me confirm the following. First of all, nothing disorderly occurred on Friday. Secondly, although I absolutely understand the disappointment of the hon. Member for Redcar (Anna Turley) at the failure of her Bill to progress, it would in my experience be extremely unusual for the eighth Bill to make progress. Thirdly, I think the record shows that, when moved, the Bill was objected to at the point at which business was interrupted, namely 2.30 pm. I have been informed by the hon. Gentleman, and I do not dispute it for a moment, that he was not present at that point and therefore could not have objected to it.
Let me conclude by saying this in response to the hon. Gentleman. He has, on a number of occasions, very explicitly blocked Bills, possibly by shouting “Object” and certainly by developing his arguments at a leisurely pace and in detail, which he thinks have required his forensic scrutiny. In other words, he has, by one means or another, blocked many Bills. He did not block this Bill. Simply as a point of fact, because I believe in the intelligibility of our proceedings and people not running away with the wrong idea, he did not block the hon. Lady’s Bill.
The last point I would make—I make it to the hon. Gentleman and to other hon. Members—is that I really think it would help if Members in all parts of the House treated each other with courtesy. I do not want to be in the position of having to arbitrate in matters of this kind, but where I have been asked factual questions I have given factual answers. Having heard the hon. Gentleman’s point of order and responded very fully to it, I think it only fair to hear from the hon. Lady, if she wishes to speak.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to speak. I would also like to thank the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) for advance sight of his comments.
There is never, ever any excuse for people to abuse Members of Parliament and the hon. Gentleman’s staff certainly should not have had to wade through such messages. Feelings around animal cruelty run very high. People are very passionate about it, but there is never any excuse for abuse.
I would like to make a point of clarification. First, I was very clear, in what I put out to the media, that it was the Tory Whips who ultimately blocked the Bill. Secondly, this is my first private Member’s Bill, and I had had positive conversations with colleagues on the Government Benches who were very encouraging of it and were, even up until that day, discussing the possibility of it going through. It is a matter of record that the hon. Gentleman spoke for over 90 minutes on the first Bill. Everyone in this House needs to be aware of the consequences of their actions on Bills further down the Order Paper, whether they agree with them or not.
I note what the hon. Lady says. I do not think I should adjudicate on that, because the hon. Gentleman was perfectly in order in speaking as he did, but she has made her point and some people will agree with her.
With reference to what she said about the Whips having objected, I must admit that at that point I was not here. I was here to see the success of the Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence (Ratification of Convention) Bill. Thereafter I had to go to my own constituency, so I was not present. The hon. Lady tells me that the Whips objected. Well, Whips do tend to do these things. It is quite commonplace. It is what they think of as one of their functions from time to time, among other miscellaneous functions—sometimes subterranean functions, but we had better not dwell on that. [Interruption.] I certainly would not make such a disobliging remark about Whips. I always had a relationship with my Whips characterised by trust and understanding: I did not trust them and they did not understand me.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In a written statement last Thursday, which was published without notice, Ministers announced restrictions on eligibility for the personal independence payment. Over the weekend, a Minister referring to those restrictions made comments which belittled the needs of people with mental health problems. Have you, Mr Speaker, had any notice of a request from a Minister to come to the House to explain to us the changes to PIP entitlement? If there has not been any such request, can you advise us on how we can ensure that Ministers answer questions on what they are doing and why, given the great importance of these matters, which I know you understand as well as any other Member of the House?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for putting me in the picture. I understand that there was a written statement on this matter last Thursday. It may be that that does not satisfy his palate or that of other Members, but that is where matters stand at present. I must not lead the witness, but he is an experienced and assiduous Member of the House, and if he is dissatisfied and wishes to use a parliamentary vehicle to shine further light on this matter, he must deploy his wits and sagacity to ensure that he has that opportunity. I get the impression he feels that insufficient attention has been paid to the matter. I am not aware of insulting or disobliging remarks having been made, but I am sorry if they have. I cannot adjudicate because I am not familiar with those points, but I hope that he will pursue the matter further, if he wishes to do so, through the use of the Table Office and such mechanisms as are provided for in the Standing Orders of the House.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Given that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman) is not present to elucidate his views and that the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) has potentially inadvertently impugned them, by convention should he not have given my hon. Friend notice before impugning or misquoting him in anyway?
As I have just been advised, and as I would have been inclined in any case to say, in this case the answer is no, because there has been no imputation of dishonour against a particular individual. The requirement to notify applies where a personal attack is intended to be directed. Where there is a more generalised complaint, no such prior notification is required. That would have been my view, but in any case, thanks to a speedy swivelling around by the Clerk of the House, I am fortified in my conviction by his advice, which is based on his 40 years’ experience in this place. Nevertheless, I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising his legitimate concern.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. My constituent Shiromini Satkunarajah is due to be expelled from the UK tomorrow and sent to Sri Lanka, from where she and her family, who are Tamils, fled here from the war when she was just 12 years old. In three months, Shiromini could complete here degree in electrical engineering at Bangor University and would be expected to get a first. Her head of school describes her as “exceptionally able and diligent”. There is a worldwide shortage of graduates in her subject. Despite following the immigration regulations meticulously, she was called to Caernarfon police station last week, arrested, detained in a cell for three days and then transferred to Yarl’s Wood. I have contacted the Immigration Minister repeatedly to ask him to exercise discretion in her case, which has widespread support among the public—30,000 people signed a petition this weekend alone—and from Members of the House, but so far he has not replied. She is due to leave tomorrow. What advice can you give me, Mr Speaker, so that I, as a Back Bencher, can hold the Government to account on this scandalous case, and do so in good time?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for notice of his point of order. He has spoken with his customary eloquence in support of his constituent. He will understand that this is not a point of order for the Chair, but his remarks on this serious and pressing matter will have been heard—and noted, I hope—on the Treasury Bench. My advice is that he seek today to contact the Immigration Minister—from memory, the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill)—personally.
2nd Allotted Day
DEPARTMENT FOR ENVIRONMENT, FOOD AND RURAL AFFAIRS
Future Flood Prevention
[Relevant Documents: Second Report of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Future flood prevention, HC 115, the Government response, HC 926, and the further Government response, HC 1032. Second Report of the Environmental Audit Committee, Flooding: Cooperation across Government, HC 183, and the Government response, HC 645.]
Motion made, and Question proposed.
That, for the year ending with 31 March 2017, for expenditure by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs:
(1) further resources, not exceeding £420,838,000 be authorised for use for current purposes as set out in HC 946,
(2) further resources, not exceeding £61,363,000 be authorised for use for capital purposes as so set out, and
(3) a further sum, not exceeding £100,109,000 be granted to Her Majesty to be issued by the Treasury out of the Consolidated Fund and applied for expenditure on the use of resources authorised by Parliament.—(Graham Stuart.)
It is a great pleasure to open today’s estimates debate on the future of flood prevention. Flooding is one of those issues that is rarely considered until it actually happens. When the weather is dry, we talk about drought, and as soon as it starts to rain we have to deal with floods. In the round, we have to deal with both. Because of that, it can be tempting for the Government sometimes to disregard flood defences and resilience measures when the weather is much drier and budgets are under pressure. I believe, and the Select Committee believes, that this would be a grave error.
Effective flood defences, both hard and soft, are a vital part of this country’s infrastructure. With the UK’s experience over the years of more severe storms as climate change continues, flooding is likely only to get worse. We have recently seen the high tide that came down the eastern side of the country. Fortunately, this did not cause massive flooding, but it might well do in the future. I was flooded back in the ’80s and particularly 1981, when we lost a lot of sheep after huge tidal floods in the west of the country. When the barriers are overcome, we must have the right infrastructure in place.
In November 2016, the Select Committee on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs published its “Future flood prevention” report. We found that flood prevention work in the UK is fragmented, can be inefficient and sometimes ineffective, and has let people down. The winter of 2015-16 broke rainfall records, and storms Desmond, Eva and Frank disrupted communities across northern parts of the UK, particularly Cumbria and York. Storm Desmond alone cost the UK more than £5 billion, but the impact is not just economic. It is very much about individual businesses, individual residents and all those hugely affected by flooding—and sometimes about the amount of time it can take to get people back into their homes or to get their businesses up and running again. Many communities live in fear that a disaster is just one downpour away.
There is no doubt that we are now encountering long periods of dry weather, followed by a huge amount of rain—200 or 300 mm in just 20 or 30 hours. Believe it or not, I do not blame the Minister or the Government for that amount of rainfall coming down so quickly, but we do need to be aware that it can happen and we need to be ready to try to mitigate some of the worst of the disaster that happens when we get these very high levels of rainfall occurring over a very short period.
I personally understand the concerns of many parts of the country that experience being under water for perhaps many months. We need to reflect only on what has happened in the past. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) will talk later about what happened in Somerset, when a huge amount of water fell and remained for up to three months, devastating not only property, but the land. A huge amount of debris was created, and the vegetation and much of the wildlife was lost. This was a disaster not only from a residential and farming point of view, but from a conservation point of view.
While frontline staff and rescue service workers worked tirelessly to support those affected, our system for managing flood risk can and does fail on occasions. That is why I want to talk about the importance of the recommendations that our Select Committee made in our “Future flood prevention” report. I shall touch briefly on the Government’s response and on what action DEFRA has taken to date. I shall conclude by outlining what the Committee believes the Government must do to improve the situation further.
What, then, were our recommendations? We recommended to the Government how to reduce the flood risk to 5 million people and we looked into the “one in 100 years” flood and how to deal with risk. One problem is that, if we are not careful, people living in an area with a “one in 100 years” risk which is flooded are inclined to think that they will be safe from floods for another 99 years. Of course, that is not the case. An area with a high flood risk will continue to have that risk until better defences are created or resilience measures are introduced, and it will probably always be a pretty high-risk area.
My hon. Friend is bringing back a great many memories of those terrible floods. Does he agree that communication is very important? One of the points made in the Select Committee report was that perhaps we should stop using the “one in 100 years” terminology. We should adopt a way of warning people about how serious floods are that does not involve years, because the current terminology is misleading.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The evidence that the Committee took, and what we heard from people who came to talk to us, suggested that it is very helpful when communities are able to get together and warn each other about exactly what is happening. The Environment Agency and others can give the warnings, and the agency, the fire brigade and local authority staff are there to help, but the flooded communities themselves have built up a resilience that will help them in the future.
Will my hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to flood wardens? Earby, in my constituency, was badly affected by flooding, and is now waiting for three different schemes to be introduced by the Environment Agency this year. Flood warnings, local flood plans, floodgates, and all the work that those volunteers do is extremely important to the response when flood waters start to rise.
My hon. Friend is right. Local authorities, the Environment Agency and the drainage boards can do a great deal, but when local people come together, they know exactly what is happening on the ground, and flood wardens can react very quickly.
In Axminster, a shopping trolley went into a culvert and became full of wood. The whole place flooded, including three or four bungalows. If someone local had been there to hoick—I am not sure whether that is a word in the English language—the trolley out of the culvert, the flood would have been stopped. Such actions also ensure that resources go further. We are learning all the time.
One of the Committee’s most important recommendations was for a more holistic approach. It sounds obvious, but we need to work with nature rather than against it. If we slow the flow of the water by using natural remedies such as planting more trees, restoring wetlands and improving soil management, we are likely to see more and better flood prevention. We must allow water to flood fields naturally sometimes if they are on a natural flood plain rather than in an urban area. That would be a much cheaper and more cost-effective way of preventing floods.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that as we think about how we ought to spend our farming subsidies in the wake of Brexit, we should look to them to address the issue that he has mentioned? They could perhaps enable farmers to allow their fields to be flooded sometimes as a form of natural flood defence.
I think the hon. Lady must have X-ray sight, because the next paragraph of my notes refers to how we deal with farming and farmers. Now that we need not follow the common agricultural policy exactly, we have an opportunity to introduce a cost-effective measure to allow farmers to store water when they are able to do so. If they have to store it for a short period and it is on grassland, it will probably have very little effect on their crops and profitability, but if it has to be stored on arable land for a long period, they will require more compensation. We need to consider that in some detail, and I believe that we shall have an opportunity to do so.
I am listening with great interest to my hon. Friend’s speech. Is he familiar with the practice undertaken by some local authorities of diverting floodwater from roads on to farmers’ fields without permission, thus washing away topsoil of the sort that I think he is about to touch on, and also potentially introducing pollutants into sensitive sites?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. If we are going to allow water to go out on to land in order to save a town or a village from flooding, the landowner first needs to know about it and, secondly, needs to be able to manage it properly, and it has to be done by agreement. Sometimes, naturally, these things are done in exceptional circumstances, but, once done, there needs to be a plan if that needs to be done again in the future. Agricultural land can be very useful for storing water, but we must remember that it is also used for growing crops and keeping stock, and therefore we have to be sure that the farmer can farm that land, as well as manage it for water. That is why we need to deal with this by agreement.
As my hon. Friend knows, we had severe flooding in the Ribble valley and throughout Lancashire in 2015. He mentions agricultural land: on Friday, along with the Woodland Trust and the Ribble Rivers Trust, I planted some trees along one of the river banks. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to look again at the number of trees being planted, and the usefulness of planting trees in stopping soil erosion and, indeed, holding a lot of the water that otherwise would go to the ground?
My hon. Friend makes a good point, because it is not just about planting the trees; it is also about where we plant them. If we plant them along the edges of the fields or the banks of the streams and rivers, we can hold back the water and hold back the soil. Very often, the soil and debris being washed from the field is also contributing to the flood. So this is not just about the number of trees; it is about making sure we are smart in where we plant them. The way we plant them is important, too. We visited the north of England, and when the old Forestry Commission was planting trees it turned the soil up and put it up into a furrow and planted the trees on the top of it. The only trouble is that there are then two gullies either side of it, which then allow the water to run down very quickly if the trees are planted on a slope. Therefore, over the years there are many things we can do, but my hon. Friend makes a very good point that this is about planting trees, holding that soil back and holding the water back long enough for the major flood to go through, and that was what much of the work was done on.
My hon. Friend is talking about soil, and I cannot let the moment pass without intervening to stress that soil is a very important part of our ecosystem. Does my hon. Friend agree that we lose it in floodwater at our peril, because it is the lifeblood that we use to grow our crops?
My hon. Friend will also be very aware that many fields only have so much topsoil on them, and it is the topsoil that is fertile and that we grow our crop in. Therefore, if farmers lose much of their topsoil to the streams and rivers, they have lost a lot of the very fertile soil in their fields. I think most farmers, when presented with a plan that can save their topsoil and the way they manage their fields, can see a big advantage in this, but we have to work with the farming community, rather than, as perhaps has sometimes been the case, just imposing our will upon them. If we can persuade them that there are many good reasons for managing soils in a slightly different way, we can perhaps get a lot further with that. We can sometimes use carrots, and not necessarily sticks. I am sure our Minister has many carrots to offer today, and we will be interested to hear about that when she sums up the debate.
We also need to take a closer look at development in built-up areas affected by flood risk. Naturally, we have laws that we hope will restrict most building on floodplains —sometimes it is breached, but on the whole it is not. When an area is flooded, very little of the water has actually landed on the flooded area. It usually comes from higher up. Rather than stopping building in flood-risk areas, we need to think when building developments of several hundred or 1,000 houses about capturing the run-off water from everywhere on those estates, including the roads. It could be captured in ponds or in reservoirs or tanks underneath some of the homes. Building in resilience measures to ensure that the water from a development could be held would make the situation better rather than worse. We can build developments, but we do not always give enough consideration to what is going to happen further downstream.
A lot of house building is going on in Whalley in my constituency, and one of the conditions was that tanks should be put in before the houses were built. Sadly, the houses seem to be being built and occupied before the tanks have been put in. Does my hon. Friend agree that developers need to take planning conditions seriously and abide by the rules and regulations set down by the local authorities, because of the misery that flooding can cause if they do not get these things right?
My hon. Friend makes another good point. Planning conditions can be flouted, and they are sometimes not properly enforced. It is sometimes claimed that resilience measures cannot be put in place because of the economic situation, but we must ensure that houses are not built unless those measures are taken. I am sure that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minister present will pass on that point to her colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government, because this is a planning matter. If we are going to plan for the developments that we need, we must plan them properly. I do not think that any of us are against development, but we must have the right kind of development and hold the water back. Indeed, if we could make a feature of those measures, we might also create some leisure facilities as well. That would be a planning gain.
The recommendations in our report also include the need for a new governance model to deal with flooding. As part of our inquiry, the EFRA Committee visited the Netherlands to learn how that low-lying country manages flooding. We learned that 25% of the land there is below sea level, and that half of its 17 million population live in flood-prone areas, so they know a lot about flooding. The threat of flooding led to local government and water management being administered hand in hand from as early as the 13th century. As the threat of flooding in the UK grows, we need to borrow some ideas from the Dutch and to mirror their focus on dealing with floods locally and nationally. The fens in this country were drained by Dutch engineers, as was the part of Somerset where I still have my farm. They know exactly how to deal with water, because if they did not deal with it, they would not have a country. It is as simple as that.
Does the hon. Gentleman share my disappointment that many of the things in this very useful report from the EFRA Committee were being discussed in this House a dozen years ago and have still not been implemented? An example is the recommendation about “building back better” that appears in paragraph 60 of the report. I discussed that matter with the Association of British Insurers in, from memory, 2006, but we have made almost no progress on it. Since then, the Labour Government and the coalition Government have cut spending on flood defences.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. We have tried to ensure that the report is not party political. Under the last Labour Government, the spending on flooding went down in dry times and up in wet times. The same thing happened under the coalition. We can argue about the figures, but they very much follow that same pattern. The report recommends learning from what has happened and putting in the proper resilience measures.
As I said, the report discussed the Dutch system. The idea would be to set up a regional flood and coastal board and then involve local authorities and local drainage boards, where they exist, and then landowners and businesses in order to have a broad catchment basis. As such, the Government should completely overhaul flood risk management, to include a new English rivers and coastal authority that is accountable for the delivery of flood protection. The Netherlands has a flood commissioner who is answerable to the Dutch Parliament and at a local level, which provides real focus. We may not need a full management system like that of the Dutch, but we can learn many things from it, such as how to alter the system through the Environment Agency and others to make it more answerable to Parliament, local authorities, drainage boards and landowners. I am convinced that, until we get a system that works from the top down and from the bottom up, we will not make the best use of our resources, because they will always be pressed. The commissioner would be able to hold those carrying out flood prevention work to account for their performance, because we have to get the best value for money.
The report states that firefighters provide a vital “first-line service” to flooded areas. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government should go further towards making that a statutory duty? That has been asked for throughout the past 12 years, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West (Rob Marris) said. Why can we not do this? Scotland has done it, Northern Ireland has done it, and I think Wales is about to do it. Surely it must happen.
The hon. Lady makes a good point. I think the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), who is behind her, will be making some good points about the fire service. The Committee took evidence from the fire services, and their work on flooding and the time they put in are not always recognised. The Environment Agency has large pumps that can move huge volumes of water over short distances, but the fire services can pump out people’s properties and deal with things on the ground. That is not recognised enough within the system, and there is work to be done on that. It will be interesting to hear the Minister’s reply to that point. By overhauling the way we manage the whole system, we can go a long way to minimising the devastating toll of flooding on local areas and local people.
Unfortunately, the Government’s response, which was published last month, was a little disappointing. It was not up to standard and addressed our key recommendations in only a cursory manner. We then asked for more information from Ministers in time for this debate, and my hon. Friend the Minister wrote to the Committee on 16 February. We welcome her commitment to record and report, from 2018-19 onwards, on how many schemes include natural flood management. That will be important, because we must ensure that more such management is carried out. We welcome that step, but we also welcome the commitment to refresh the national flood and coastal erosion management strategy for England, which we hope will reflect many of our inquiry’s findings.
The report recommended some actions and, to be fair to the Government, DEFRA has made progress on some of those issues, including on catchment scale approaches and embedding natural flood management more firmly in flood management plans. Local partnerships have also made progress on co-ordinating action in some river basins. I think the Government agree with the Select Committee that not all flood areas fit neatly into local authority boundaries and that we need to introduce catchment areas to hold the water. We will need to speed up the water in some areas to get it out to sea, and in other areas we will need to slow the water down by introducing leaky dams to hold the water. Some areas will need to be dredged or desilted—whatever language we want to use—to get the water flowing more quickly.
My hon. Friend is making an impassioned speech. Does he recognise the work of the Environment Agency along the Medway river and its excellent work, as he rightly says, on bringing together stakeholders from across the area so that we have a theme of continuous progress, rather than the bittiness where one area is fixed only to flood an area further downstream?
I welcome the Environment Agency’s work on the Medway, where the water can move quite quickly. If we are not careful, the water will move too quickly and flood areas further downstream. Such work is essential.
Throughout the inquiry we saw that one size does not fit all. Some areas need the water to be slowed down, and other areas need it to be speeded up. We have to deal with it catchment area by catchment area. Of course it is fascinating that, before too long, we will probably move into more of a drought situation and will be talking about how to use our rivers to move water around so that we have enough water. For my first two years in this House, between 2010 and 2012, the Select Committee talked about nothing but drought. It was only when it started raining in 2012 and did not stop for two years that we talked about floods.
On funding for flood risk management, the Government have committed to a six-year programme with a capital budget of £2.5 billion. Although welcoming that increased funding, our report noted that it is unlikely to deliver sufficient protection in future decades. We stated that, by the end of 2017, the Government must publish their 25-year ambition for flood risk reduction and the cost of securing that reduction against different climate change scenarios. Disappointingly, the Government rejected that recommendation. The public need to know how their communities will be affected in coming years, and plans need to be put in place to ensure that they will be protected against flood risk. Flood risk comes not only from freshwater that falls in the form of rain but from coastal flooding, too.
We initially recommended that catchment scale measures be adopted on a much wider scale, and DEFRA is doing more to promote such approaches by, for example, trialling natural flood management measures—such as installing leaky dams, planting trees and improving soil management—alongside other measures. We welcome that, as well as the additional £15 million of funding in the autumn statement.
However, we need more detail on how much of the £2.5 billion capital programme for flood risk management will use natural flood management. The Minister’s commitment to include that indicator in reporting from 2018-19 is therefore welcome, but we would welcome more information on how she plans to ensure that every catchment area uses natural flood management to the maximum extent appropriate to its river basin. We saw that the Netherlands has re-meandered some rivers and is storing more water in the rivers, as well as on farmland.
I look forward to Members’ contributions to the debate, and I look forward to the Minister’s summing-up.
Order. Before I call Mary Creagh to speak, I should say that twice the number of Members wish to speak in the next debate as in this one, so I suggest an informal six-minute limit for speeches by Back Benchers. We will see how we get on with that, but there really are twice as many Members who wish to speak in the next debate, so without a limit their speeches will be squeezed by an even shorter time limit.
I rise to speak on behalf of the Environmental Audit Committee, which has published a report on flooding. We found a lack of long-term strategic planning for flood risk and that the Government had not been doing enough to ensure the resilience of nationally significant infrastructure. Crucially, there has been a stop-start approach to flood defence funding and a lack of support for local councils. Our report called on the Government to take a proactive approach to funding and to make companies that operate key digital, energy and transport infrastructure report on their preparedness levels for flooding and their resilience targets. We called for more support for councils to prepare plans to deal with the risk of flooding, and for the Government to publish a 25-year plan for flooding alongside the long-awaited and much delayed 25-year plan for the environment, for which, yes, we are indeed still waiting.
Before I discuss the detail of our report, I wish to say a few words about climate change. Flooding is the greatest risk our country faces from climate change. As hon. Members have said, the risks are already significant and will increase as a result of climate change. Even if global temperature rises are kept below 2°, the UK faces a rising threat from surface water as a result of the intense rain patterns, from coastal erosion and tidal surges, and from fluvial flooding. It is important to stress that cities such as Hull face all three of those threats—some areas are much more vulnerable than others.
Sea-level rise forecasts vary from 50 cm to 100 cm by the end of the century. That will make tidal surges bigger. We saw how exposed is our North sea coast on the east of England in January’s storm surge, when the coastal town of Jaywick in Essex, which suffered so grievously in the 1950s, had to be evacuated by the Army. It is good to see a faster response time from the Government in such fast-moving, life-and-death situations, but we need to be able to scale that up if the North sea surge happens simultaneously along the whole eastern coast.
Various predictions, including the forecasts in the Government’s national flood resilience review, say that monthly winter rainfall could be 20% to 30% higher over the next 10 years, so as well as planning for the next 80 years, for our children’s lifetimes, we need to be thinking about the next 10 years. There are risks to all nations and all sectors of the economy. In its latest risk assessment, the Committee on Climate Change said:
“Current levels of adaptation are projected to be insufficient to avoid flood and coastal erosion risks”.
We are not yet doing what we need to do to match the scale of the risk.
I hope my hon. Friend shares my disappointment at the slow rate of progress. The adaptation measures in the Climate Change Act 2008 are the direct result of a private Member’s Bill I introduced around 10 years ago. As she points out, we have made almost no progress.
There has been some progress, but we need to move much further and faster as the scale and nature of the risk becomes more apparent and as the science develops. My concern is that Government policy is not changing fast enough to meet the changes in the scientific forecasts.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern that it was found that when the floods hit Cumbria and other areas at Christmas 2015 the Government were not using the most up-to-date modelling? Surely the most important thing is that we try, to the very best of our ability, to predict what is going to come next.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. She has joined me on the Environmental Audit Committee, and her expertise on this subject has been invaluable.
The Committee on Climate Change warns that increased flood risk affects property values and business revenues, and, in extreme cases, threatens the viability of some communities. A much worse scenario is set out in the climate change risk assessment: if global temperatures rise by 4° above pre-industrial levels, the number of UK households predicted to be at significant risk of flooding will double from 860,000 today to 1.9 million in 2050. Those are very stark and very concerning figures.
I know from my own constituency the misery that flooding can bring. In the 2007 floods, 1,000 homes in Wakefield were flooded. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West (Rob Marris) said, successive Government have cut funding over the years, and 2007 was one such year—it was Labour that cut the funding that year. Our flood defence programme was cut, and I lobbied very hard to get that money reinstated. We got £15 million for flood defences to protect our cities. Thanks to those defences, which were completed in 2012, Wakefield managed to escape the worst of the 2015 storms. That was really, really important.
Nationally, the Government have taken a rollercoaster approach to funding. During the previous Parliament, flood funding was initially cut by 27%. The money was then reinstated after the 2013-14 floods. Mark Worsfield’s review of flood defences, which was published by my Committee, showed that those Government cuts had resulted in a decline in the condition of critical flood defences. It showed that the proportion of key flood defence assets that met the Environment Agency’s required condition fell from 99% in 2011-12 to 94% in 2013-14. Therefore, in three years we had a pretty large decline in the condition of mission critical flood defence assets, which posed an unacceptable risk for communities—I am talking about those communities that think that they have their flood defences in place and that they can sleep easy in their beds at night when it is raining. The more flood defences that the Government build, the more they need to increase the maintenance budgets. We cannot keep spending more on capital and then cut the revenue budget.
The failure of the Foss Barrier in York shows what happens when critical flood assets fail. It was built on the cheap in the 1980s. It was not built to the correct height and it had just two mechanisms. Once one of those mechanisms failed, the water overtopped its banks and reached the electrical switch rooms. Local flood engineers were left with no choice but to raise the barrier with very little notice, which led to hundreds of homes being flooded. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) will have a great deal to say on that.
The Government are talking about spending more on flood defences. One mechanism they are using is the so-called partnership funding. My Committee looked into the sources of that funding and found that 85% of it was coming from public sector bodies. Therefore, the Government are cutting funds centrally, and then putting pressure on hard-pressed local councils, which have seen their budgets fall by 30% over the past seven years, to boost their flood defence assets. When they say, “Do you fancy stomping up for some flood defence assets for your town or city.” those councils are left with no choice but to say yes. Just 15% of the money is coming from the private sector. Of course, it is not a level playing field, because any private sector company that gives the Government money for partnership funding gets tax relief on that so-called donation.
At the start of each spending review, the Government announce how much they will spend. In 2015, they allocated £2.5 billion for flood defences, but after storms Desmond, Eva and Frank, the Government announced, in Budget 2016, that the funding was not adequate and that they were going to invest an extra £700 million. Once again, we have this stop-start approach—cut when it is dry and spend when it is raining. The hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), who was then a Minister in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said that the extra money would be spent according to a “political calculation”.
Let me point out that we have increased our budget, not cut it.
The coalition Government in 2010—I know that the hon. Lady was not a Minister then—cut the flood defence budget by 27%. Of course, the way in which the Minister is raising the money—the extra £700 million that was announced in the Budget in March 2016—came from a stealth tax: an increase in insurance premium tax. That raises £200 million a year and goes on every insurance policy in the country, so car drivers and people who own pets are paying for flood defences. We can argue about whether that is the most transparent way of raising money for flood infrastructure.
I will talk about the Committee’s report and the criticisms that we have made, particularly about infrastructure resilience. Storm Angus caused landslips and ballast washaways on railway lines in Devon, Cornwall, the north-east and Scotland before Christmas, bringing travel disruption—as storms always do—as we saw last week with Storm Doris. Last winter’s floods, particularly those in Leeds, which the Committee visited, showed that key energy, digital and transport infrastructures are not well protected. Let us not forget the bridge being washed away in Tadcaster. The replacement bridge has only just reopened, over a year after those floods. Roads and railways going down have a huge impact on the economics of an area.
The Government’s national flood resilience review, published last summer, found that 500 sites with nationally significant infrastructure are vulnerable to flooding. During the winter floods of 2015-16, nine electricity sub-stations, and 110 water pumping stations or sewage works in Yorkshire were affected by flooding. Keeping the water supply going and the sewage under control is vital. My Committee recommended that the Government mandate energy and water companies to meet a one-in-200-year flood resilience target for risk. I am afraid that the Government’s response was hugely disappointing, simply saying, “We don’t think that’s the best way of doing it”, but not saying what the best way is. I am interested to hear that. Our strategy cannot just be tumbleweed—listening for the wind and hoping that it is not coming our way.
Minimum standards for energy, transport infrastructure and digital telecommunications companies are vital. Let us not forget that the railway lines were flooded out of Leeds. The police Airwave response radios went down, so West Yorkshire police were unable to work out where to send their blue light emergency response vehicles in the middle of a civil emergency. That is simply not good enough. If that had happened not on Boxing day, but on a normal working day a couple of days later, tens of thousands of people would have been stranded in Leeds city centre with nowhere to spend the night. There would have been a much bigger civil emergency response.
The Government’s long awaited national flood resilience review was published in September. It was good to hear about some of the things that are happening, such as the mobile flood defences. However, the Committee thinks that flood defences are essentially a sticking plaster solution: they are good as far as they go, but fail one third of the times they are used, so they work only twice in every three times. The review said nothing about the risk from heavy rainfall overwhelming sewers. No one likes to talk about sewage, although some people might think that a lot of it goes on in this place, Madam Deputy Speaker, but clearly not in this debate and under your excellent chairmanship.
The Government need a comprehensive long-term strategy properly to deal with some of the granular issues around flood risk, none more important than the way in which local authorities have to deal with flood planning and prevention. Some 30% of local authorities in September 2016 simply did not have a complete plan for flood risk, and a quarter of lead local flood authorities did not have a strategy. How are the public and Members of this place meant to scrutinise whether the plans and responses are adequate if they simply do not exist?
The Environment Agency provides advice to local councils about where new housing developments should be built in order to minimise flood risk, and the Committee heard that such advice is usually followed. However, almost 10,000 homes were built in high flood-risk areas in 2013-14. The extent to which the Environment Agency’s advice on where or whether to build homes is systematically monitored, reported or followed up through the planning system is simply not known. There is nothing wrong with building new homes in flood-risk areas, as long as those areas are adequately protected—Southwark and this place are at risk of flooding, and people are obviously still building new homes in London because there is a thing called the Thames barrier—but the situation is not being systematically monitored. We would therefore like to see much more help going from DEFRA and the DCLG to enable councils to adopt local flood plans and then actually follow them up.
In the wake of the winter storms in 2015-16, the then Prime Minister appointed two Ministers as flood envoys to co-ordinate the response to flooding in two areas: the hon. Members for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) in Cumbria and for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill) in Yorkshire. A question was raised about whether those posts transferred under the new Government and the new Prime Minister. I wrote to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in July. She responded in September, saying she was thinking about it. Finally, on 7 January, we got a reply saying, “Actually, they are still in post.” It should not take six months for the Secretary of State to reply to a Committee Chair of this House to let us know whether, in the event of a flood, those two Ministers are still co-ordinating the response. What would have happened if flooding had taken place in Jaywick? That is simply not acceptable.
Finally, on insurance, last winter’s devastating floods cost over £1.3 billion in insured losses and about £5 billion across the whole economy. As I said, my Committee visited Leeds, and we had particular access to insurance. We had people coming across from Calderdale, where 70% to 80% of businesses were affected by the flooding—they have been affected almost annually by fluvial flooding and surface flooding. The floods cost small and medium-sized enterprises an estimated £47 million, with indirect costs totalling £170 million.
The floods in Leeds were the worst since 1866. Leeds University, which has done some research into this issue, told my Committee that 60% of local businesses have been unable to obtain a quotation for insurance since last winter’s floods. We heard of one business whose excess had risen from £1,000 to £250,000 after the floods. We heard of another business whose buildings insurance premium rose 60%, to £10,000, and whose excess increased 40%, to £10,000, but it would get the insurance only if it stumped up £400,000 to build new flood defences. The Committee on Climate Change says that the economic viability of some areas is being threatened, and the way insurance companies are failing to rise to meet this risk and failing to stand with communities is putting whole parts of our country at risk of becoming economically unviable.
Has the hon. Lady taken a cursory glance at the other report we are discussing, which asserts that there is no market failure when it comes to providing affordable insurance for businesses at risk of flooding? If these excesses are not market failure, I wonder what is.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: there is market failure in these areas. Businesses are encouraged to shop around, and there are some excellent community Flood Save schemes, where people try to get together to use market power to purchase insurance collectively, and one of those schemes is now up and running in Calderdale, but it should not have to come to that. We want to see insurance companies standing alongside communities. The insurance companies lobbied long and hard to mitigate their risk from climate change, and the Government set up the Flood Re scheme —another insurance tax on contents premiums and buildings premiums, with every homeowner in the country stumping up for the access risk so that the insurers do not have to pay it and can transfer it to the Government. Insurers need to cut businesses some slack and rise to meet some of these challenges.
A few businesses in my area have been hit. One of them is relatively small, but it has been hit a couple of times by flooding, so the insurance premium is now running way into the thousands. The premises is also a mixed hereditament, which makes things more complicated, because people live where the business is. Surely, if Flood Re kicks in to help domestic premises, it should kick in for businesses as well. If there is a market failure, which I believe there is, and if it is suitable to have that sort of pooling of risk for houses, it should be the same for businesses.
It is important that we do not end up with every taxpayer subsidising the private sector. The Government need to look again at the use of different, innovative mechanisms that do not place yet another burden on the already hard-pressed householder or car driver who has seen their insurance premiums go up as a result of mitigating and pooling some of this risk.
Failing to fund flood defences adequately is playing Russian roulette with people’s homes and with people’s businesses. I have talked about my Committee’s concerns about rollercoaster funding instead of steady-state funding; vague targets; vulnerable transport, energy and digital infrastructure, where again the Government simply lack the political will to work with companies across Government to get them to have flood-resilient assets; and local councils left to just get on with it by themselves. The storms may have receded for the moment, but the clean-up in some areas of Yorkshire, and in other areas across the country, is still going on. The lessons that we draw from this debate and these two Committee reports will shape our winters and our summers for decades to come.
The financing of flood defences is of absolutely paramount importance to my constituents, as my borough has been hit by flooding on a number of occasions, most notoriously the devastating North sea flood of 1953, which breached the old Canvey Island sea wall defences and caused the loss of life of 58 residents and the evacuation of the entire remaining population. To avert a similar catastrophe, the island is now protected by a concrete wall that runs along its entire 28 km to protect the population of 40,000 from tidal surges. This wall is still judged to be good for a one-in-1,000-years event. I note that the residents of Canvey Island were not encouraged to evacuate because of a threatened tidal surge when those of Jaywick were. The wall is judged to be sound right up until the end of this century provided that there is regular monitoring and maintenance. The concern of my residents is to ensure that the money is always there to make sure that we are upgrading the maintenance.
Notwithstanding how good the sea walls are, Canvey Island and other parts of my borough, including South Benfleet and Hadleigh, still remain subject to a serious risk of surface water flooding, as occurred dramatically in the summer of 2013 and again in 2014, when homes right across the borough were flooded, including 1,000 homes on the island alone. Despite the great sea defences, this is a serious problem for an island that remains 1 metre below sea level at high tide and is entirely flat. It presents a particular problem for effective surface water drainage. There was an absolute outcry in 2014 at the second significant flooding event in less than 11 months. That led to calls for an investigation into whether this could be dismissed as a mere act of God or whether much more serious defects in the water management system were at fault, and what measures were needed to be put in place to assure residents that it would not occur again. I was extremely grateful to the then Cabinet Office Ministers and Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who agreed to an investigation by the Government chief scientist, Sir Mark Walport, to establish the facts and make recommendations for the various agencies locally. His report found that the coincidence of extreme rainfall, problems with the performance of the drainage system, a power cut, and pumps overheating and tripping out were all foreseeable, although unusual, and many could be avoided in future. Sir Mark made a number of recommendations, the majority of which, I am pleased to say, have already been acted on.
Since those last floods, an extraordinary amount of work has taken place right across Castle Point, with considerable amounts of money spent on improvements and mitigation measures. The Environment Agency has invested large sums in improvements to its eight sluices and 13 pumping stations. In this financial year alone, it has invested over £500,000, including £89,000 on the Benfleet and East Haven barriers, which are key to protecting South Benfleet as well as the island. Webcams have been installed to monitor pumps and ditches. Some £620,000 has been spent on refurbishing 28 floodgates, and the remaining six will be completed by the end of this year.
The county council and Anglian Water have worked hard to map the drainage network underground and to make thousands of repairs and remove blockages in the system, as well as identifying the most serious faults. Anglian Water has invested millions since 2014 and has also been highly proactive in a public awareness campaign locally to raise the critical importance of maintaining free-flowing water courses. The county council is undertaking a huge rolling programme of property-level protection, with grants of up to £5,000 for homes affected by flooding previously.
The improved partnership working of Essex County Council, Anglian Water, the Environment Agency and the Essex fire and rescue service, as recommended by the chief scientist, is exemplary and has even resulted in a national award. Although the investigation focused on the island, improvements in multi-agency co-operation have had real benefits for the entire borough and it is now an exemplar for the rest of the UK.
The partnership has concluded a comprehensive urban drainage study of the problems underground and to model any future problems, to help make sure that this does not happen to my borough again. Proposals include the creation of additional storage ditches on roadsides and open areas, green roofs, water butts, porous paving and increased pipe sizes. It will shortly submit bids for some of those projects to the South East local enterprise partnership and central Government.
Previously, DEFRA Ministers have supported our bids. I hope that the Government will continue that support, acknowledge the economic importance of those bids and stress, not only to my LEP but to others, the importance of flood alleviation schemes in ensuring that communities remain economically viable. It is absolutely essential for the continued economic regeneration of my borough that it is recognised as protected from non-tidal surface water, as well as from tidal flood risk, especially given the increased likelihood of future events.
My borough is grateful for the introduction of the Flood Re scheme, which means that residents are not priced out of insuring their homes. It is not, however, available to businesses in my area. I hope that more work can be done in that regard, because a lot of them suffer great hardship. Nor does the scheme apply to new builds. I urge the Government to do more to ensure that there is better defence of our floodplains from developers and to press planning departments to incorporate more surface water mitigation for developments. Perhaps they could even reverse developers’ current right to connect surface water to the sewerage system, as it does not incentivise them to consider sustainable drainage systems.
I am conscious that time is short, so I will end by encouraging the Minister to visit Castle Point, if she can find the time in her diary, to see the incredible work that has been done in Benfleet and on Canvey Island, and to meet local agencies to discuss what more is needed and how we can further help the borough.
My interest in the issue of flooding started in 2007, when south Yorkshire was badly flooded. Of course, those events led to the Pitt review, which recommended better and more co-ordinated planning, improved resilience and more strategic planning decisions by local authorities with regard to water and its potential impacts. However, weaknesses have materialised in the delivery of the Pitt review and, on top of that, the flooding challenges remain.
Peak river flows could be more than twice their current levels in some English regions by 2070, and some 5 million people in England alone are at risk of flooding. The national flood resilience review established, through Met Office modelling, that it is plausible that over the next 10 years we could experience rainfall that is between 20% and 30% higher than usual. It was always likely, therefore, that the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, of which I am a member, would return to this all-important topic. That decision was accelerated by the 2015-16 floods, which impacted so badly on Cumbria, Yorkshire and Somerset. The need to look again at the issue became imperative, especially in the context of the Government’s own flood resilience review.
I want to focus on one particular aspect of the Committee’s recommendations, namely the strategic approach that this country needs to take to flood risk management, with a special focus on the need for catchment-scale planning.
I was a member of the delegation that visited Holland, which was critical to framing the Committee’s recommendations. Our report focused heavily on that fact-finding visit, and every member was impressed by the rigorous approach taken by the Dutch to risk management. The Dutch system is clear and accountable—locally, regionally and nationally—and I am mightily disappointed that the Government were so quick to dismiss our recommendations, especially given the evidence we received that too much of what we do in England remains badly disjointed.
The Dutch model is particularly impressive in placing water at the heart of the country’s approach not just to water supply, but to strategic, spatial and economic planning. In other words, in Holland water—its management, its uses and its maintenance as an essential environmental resource—is seen as a No. 1 priority in the country, and so it should be in the UK. A start would be to have more of a catchment-scale approach to planning for flood risk management. That would involve integrating the widest possible range of both hard and soft engineering measures, including natural flood management.
Evidence presented to the Committee underlined that point. Some witnesses considered that the Environment Agency relied too much on constructing defences at the point of flood impacts on town centres, and did not give adequate consideration to preventing flood waters from building up at source and along the river path. The Government’s own advisory bodies, the adaptation sub-committee of the Committee on Climate Change and Natural England, told the Committee that downstream flood prevention and resilience measures must be accompanied by action upstream.
All the evidence is that the Government are not taking sufficiently seriously the need to consider larger, catchment-scale investment. For instance, their flood resilience review encourages bids for its core cities pilot, which refers principally to
“financing flood resilience in urban areas, harnessing private investment to design new defences while delivering economic development and regeneration for the local area.”
There is absolutely no mention whatsoever of the need for a catchment-scale response.
In that context, Sheffield is developing its own scheme. Although it is worthy in some respects, it nevertheless fails to provide a robust mix of hard and soft measures. For instance, it provides no evidence of how it will make its water storage proposals work, and it provides no evidence that landowners will co-operate with it. References to natural flood management measures, such as tree planting and catchment restoration at source, are perfunctory. More than anything else, there is nothing in the scheme that would cover Barnsley, Doncaster or Rotherham, so it is not a catchment-scale scheme. If we do not stop or slow the flow in Barnsley, what is the point of putting in place measures in Sheffield, because all we will do is push the water further downstream to Doncaster? The Don is the spine of the South Yorkshire water network and it would be ideal for a catchment-level response.
I will conclude by making the point that I do not blame Sheffield for the approach it has taken. It has been encouraged to take such an approach by the Government, who seem more interested in leveraging in private finance for the purpose of delivering traditional, narrowly focused flood risk management schemes and in finding other pots of money than in taking the holistic view emerging from all the evidence presented to us on the Select Committee. I call on the Government to think again, and to support our recommendation on the need for large catchment-scale schemes that would go with the grain of all the emerging evidence.
I would have liked to talk about other aspects of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee report, such as resilience and the role of sustainable urban drainage systems in managing flood risk, but time is very limited. I look forward to the Minister’s response, and I hope that she and the Government will think again about the need to consider proper catchment-scale responses to this issue and the need for a more integrated approach to flood management in this country.
I took part in the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee flood prevention inquiry and was involved with the Environmental Audit Committee’s flooding report. I very much welcome the recent focus on what is a very serious area, as we know only too well in Taunton Deane, where we have experienced such serious flooding in recent years.
The Government have been somewhat under attack, but I must start by saying that they have committed an incredible £2.5 billion to flood relief work, and I applaud the excellent schemes under way or in place that we have heard about. Indeed, this represents a real-terms increase in capital investment, which is up from £1.7 billion during the last Parliament and from £1.5 billion between 2005 and 2010.
I want to raise some of the issues addressed in the inquiries, but I begin with Somerset. We are used to winter flooding on the Somerset levels—it is natural—but not to the degree witnessed in those severe weather conditions in 2012, December 2013 and January 2014. The whole area effectively turned into an inland sea. It is my home area and I witnessed that at first hand. An incredible 11,500 hectares of land were under 65 million cubic meters of water, largely owing to the build-up of silt in the rivers and drainage channels, which was not effectively dealt with over the many years since the channels were engineered in the 1960s.
The knock-on effects were enormous. Utter disruption and despair was caused to people in their daily lives. The economic impact assessment estimated that the floods cost the local economy £147 million and that 50% of businesses were affected.
I welcome the Government’s reaction, and we are looking ahead optimistically to never having to suffer such serious consequences again in Somerset. They committed £20 million to flood defences to protect properties—£4.2 million was focused only on the Somerset levels and moors. Every £1 spent on flood defences gives a benefit of between £4 and £9, so it is definitely money well spent.
The Government oversaw the establishment of the Somerset Rivers Authority. It was set up to work with many organisations and still exists, and will go on to run and manage the area. It is funded through a precept on council tax bills—initially, the Government committed £1.9 million to start it up. I welcome the Government’s continuing work with the SRA on its long-term funding arrangements. I urge them to find time to give the SRA a statutory basis. It is such a good model that I believe it could be copied elsewhere. It will do both dredging and the wider catchment work about which so many hon. Members have spoken. It involves a range of organisations, which I must praise, including the farming and wildlife advisory group, and the Royal Bath and West Society, which has raised money to help to advise farmers on their forward planning. It is essential that we enable the SRA to continue to operate.
Many hon. Members have referred to the wider catchment approach. I held one of my popular environment forums in Taunton Deane. We were delighted and honoured to have my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) to speak to a cross-party gathering, when we discussed a holistic approach to flooding, which went down exceptionally well. Minister, there is an awful lot of positive feeling about engaging that approach much more widely, with leaky dams, more tree planting and better soil management, which has been referred to. There is a raft of traditional and modern environmental techniques, working with science to slow the flow of water into the rivers and reduce flooding. It will not work everywhere, but it will help—it can be part and parcel of everything else.
With Brexit heading our way, we have a marvellous opportunity to have a new think about land management. I was heartened to read in the response to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee second report on flood prevention that the Government are thinking of a catchment-based approach in DEFRA’s 25-year environment plan. That is a good direction to work in.
We need to consider how much public good is achieved from flood protection work. I urge the Minister to do some early work to calculate how we can value work so that farmers know how much it will cost them if they store water on their land for the short or long term, what it will achieve, what the forgone effect is of not growing crops but storing water, and how much we should pay them. I declare a slight interest in that I come from a farming background and family. Farmers are cautious folk. They do not want to flood their land if there is not a good reason to do so, or no good results or consequences. If we can prove that there will be good results, I am sure they would do it.
I urge the Minister to look at running a large-scale catchment project, another recommendation from the Select Committee’s inquiry, to gather evidence on a wider scale. There are many very good small-scale projects—we have heard many examples today—but we do not have a large-scale project that is able to demonstrate what really works, why it works and what we should do. I therefore urge the Minister to consider running such a project.
Another issue raised in the Select Committee report is whether it is possible to engage water companies more in this approach to handling flooding. After all, they deal with our water day in, day out. I note with interest that the recently published “Natural Capital Committee’s fourth state of natural capital report” recommends natural capital catchment-based approaches by encouraging Ofwat in particular to get involved. This is definitely an idea that has come into the public domain.
I want to touch on housing. We are seeing a huge and necessary increase in house building to address the housing shortage, but let us ensure that those houses are not exacerbating the flooding problems. Sustainable drainage systems and green infrastructure such as ponds can contribute to protecting communities from flooding. It is welcome that the Government recognise that and I urge other Departments to work them into their plans, too. Water has no boundaries, so we need to look at all aspects of its impact on our lives.
Finally, I may have sounded rather biased towards Somerset, but much accumulated knowledge on flooding has now been gathered, including a comprehensive real-time system devised by the Met Office for feeding in rainfall data and river levels. Will the Minister consider applying this model elsewhere?
The Government are committed to tackling flooding. I know that because of all the money they have already committed to it. However, there is so much more that we could do. Brexit offers an opportunity to look again at how we manage our land, and how we could have a whole new and effective approach to flooding to benefit us all.
Order. May I just remind hon. Members that the guidance on time limits for speeches is six minutes, not nine minutes? It just bites into the next debate.
It is a real pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow). I found what she had to say to be genuinely fascinating.
The impact of the 2015 Boxing day floods are still being felt in Rochdale and Littleborough, after water devastated over 500 homes. For many in my constituency, the recovery is still ongoing. Local businesses were also hit very hard. Their operations were severely disrupted, with many losing stock and trade. I worry that the fear of future floods and the cost of insurance will force some of those businesses to close or relocate.
I am grateful for the assistance given by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs so far. In particular, the flood resilience community pathfinder has provided support for the most vulnerable throughout this stressful time. I hope that efforts to increase resilience in these communities will continue. Likewise, I commend efforts by Rochdale Council to address the problems caused by heavy rainfall in November 2016. Fortunately, far fewer people were affected than in the previous year’s floods. Nevertheless, Rochdale Council, under the direction of council leader Richard Farnell, was quick to provide emergency funds to residents and undertake a program of extensive gully clearing.
I welcome efforts to alleviate the suffering of those affected and to quickly resolve emergencies, but it is clear that real protection from flooding must be delivered. This means preventing flooding in the first place. In Rochdale, we all know the main threat to our community remains the River Roch and its tributaries. I am pleased that Rochdale Council and the regional flood and coastal committee are committed to managing and reducing flood risks caused by the river. They both want to see a successful flood alleviation project delivered as soon as possible, and have worked closely with the Environment Agency to put together a plan for the borough. They have already committed £7 million of their own money towards the project, which will protect at least 800 homes and 400 businesses. In addition, the council has already finished opening up the river in the town centre and completed a flood storage scheme in Calderbrook, yet it needs more support from central Government. Funding from Whitehall would allow us to build more badly needed storage sites.
I appreciate the Government’s commitment to investing in flood defences across the country, and I am grateful for the support given by DEFRA to projects in Rochdale so far. I have raised this issue with the Minister previously, and I am grateful for her response, but I am somewhat dismayed that rather than offering financial support, she asked me to find further partnership funding. Rochdale Council has worked extensively with the Environment Agency to maximise partnership funding, and I am sure that such efforts will continue, but I believe that such an urgent scheme as the one in Rochdale should be eligible for more central Government funding.
We also need some momentum. An early decision on committing funding for this scheme is essential. Such programmes are complicated and have a long lead-in time. For it to progress further, we need a decision from the Government on future investment. I hope that DEFRA and the Treasury will bear this in mind and ensure that Rochdale is given the priority it deserves. Last year, many in Rochdale had anticipated extra funding to tackle flooding in the town in the Chancellor’s autumn statement but were left disappointed. I hope the Minister will act now to ensure that the fears of residents and local businesses are no longer prolonged.
I start by thanking the Government for listing this estimates day debate so conveniently—it follows on from the monumental event of my second flood forum in Sandilands on Friday evening. I hope to be able to help the House with the conclusions drawn from that important event.
The reason I hold flood forums in my constituency is that it provides a chance to bring experts together so that local residents can raise issues with them and so that together we can find solutions. Flooding is a real risk in my constituency, both along the magnificent Lincolnshire coastline and further inland in the beautiful Lincolnshire wolds. Sadly, that threat was demonstrated only too keenly on Friday 13 January, when a state of civil emergency was declared along the Lincolnshire coastline, weather forecasts having suggested that a tidal surge could overtop the already substantial sea defences and put many tens of thousands of lives at risk.
As soon as the state of civil emergency was declared, more than 30 local and national organisations pulled together to ensure that residents were kept as safe as possible. I am extremely grateful to the Minister here today and the Armed Forces Minister for putting together a plan to bring more than 200 soldiers from Catterick to Louth and the surrounding area. They knocked on more than 1,000 doors in 72 hours to ensure that the most vulnerable people were offered the option of evacuation if they wanted it. I had better also mention the Burma and Quebec Company of 2nd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment, because they have been very good on Facebook.
We also had an incredible response from our emergency services. Fire officers, police officers, the ambulance teams, as well as volunteers, including from LIVES and the Red Cross, all played a vital role in our response. Emergency rescue centres were set up in a matter of hours. I had the pleasure of visiting the one at the Meridian centre in Louth to see for myself the comfort that vulnerable residents were receiving there. I also had the privilege of visiting the gold command centre in Lincoln, led capably by Chief Superintendent Shaun West, on that Friday night to see all the teams working together as they happily reached the decision locally and nationally that the weather had turned and the risk had been averted. I place on the record my thanks to everyone involved in that huge effort. I am proud that Lincolnshire showed the rest of the country how to respond calmly and professionally to such threats when they arise. It is better to be safe than sorry in those circumstances.
Today, however, we are talking about future flood prevention. I am grateful to the Government because for the last five years to 2015, more than £50 million has been provided through grant in aid to protect more than 23,000 households from flooding along the coast. I am delighted that this scheme is continuing under the current Government with a £39 million programme of grant-in-aid capital to extend protection to a further 14,500 households.
When it comes to flood prevention on the coast, the future is an interesting one. We discussed in the flood forum on Friday night the possibility of building groynes into the coastline, which can provide in turn marinas and interesting environments for tourists to enjoy the wonders of the Lincolnshire coastline even more. Both smaller investment schemes and the full flood protection scheme are important. For example, £1 million is being spent on replacing the Saltfleet pumping station and £385,000 is being used to refurbish Theddlethorpe pumping station. All these measures play their own vital role in making sure that my constituency remains resilient to whatever threat the sea throws at us.
What of inland flooding? Not many people know that Lincolnshire has hills. Indeed, the Lincolnshire wolds have some beautiful hills. Sadly, though, with that beauty comes some rainfall, and the market towns and villages in the wolds have to deal with fluvial flooding from time to time. That is why the new flood alleviation schemes in Louth and in Horncastle are overwhelmingly welcomed by the local communities. This is particularly important as developers seek to build yet more houses between the wolds and the coast. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) is concentrating on this issue, too.
I add my own to the voices of colleagues who have urged the Minister to encourage insurance businesses in considering insurance policy protections not just to look at households, but to extend those protections to businesses. This is critical to small businesses in my constituency, including pubs and restaurants that rely on the beautiful architecture of their market towns to entice people to visit them. We need this insurance to protect businesses as much as to protect homes.
I am extremely grateful for having had the opportunity to share the delights of my constituency and the thoughts of constituents from the second flood forum in Louth and Horncastle. I look forward to holding many more of those forums. I am going to develop a rolling programme of them over the years, so that my constituents can come to me with problems—and if we cannot sort them out, I will write to the Minister in the hope that she can do so. I express the wish that everyone in my constituency and everyone living in flood risk areas will stay safe and dry for the rest of this year.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute, and I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins). I do not want to speak to the whole report or the Government’s response. I shall focus rather on our Select Committee’s recommendation 15 on the statutory duty for the fire and rescue service. This recommendation is consistent with our other recommendations 16 to 21, which all raise concerns about governance, command and control, structures and relationships. The evidence the Committee heard led us to the conclusion we reached. Sadly, however, the Government disagree.
Under recommendation 15:
“We recommend that the Government places a statutory duty on the Fire and Rescue Service in England and Wales to provide an emergency response to flood events and commits the necessary additional funding and staff resources to support delivery of this responsibility”—
a point to which I shall return later. The Government’s response states:
“Fire and Rescue Services in England already have the discretionary powers they need…A Statutory Duty would potentially reduce flexibility with a one size fits all approach, and there are clear advantages to a permissive regime”.
That sounds like civil service and ministerial double-speak or euphemism if I ever heard it.
I am grateful to Pat Strickland in the House of Commons Library for its briefing, “Should Fire and Rescue Services have a Statutory Duty to deal with flooding?” It outlines that the 2008 Pitt review into the 2007 floods said that there should be fully funded national capability for flood rescue
“underpinned as necessary by a statutory duty”.
In a written answer in December 2015, the then Minister with responsibility for policing and fire said that the good response of the fire services to flooding in that year suggested that there was “no need for review”. The Labour Government had arrived at the same conclusion in 2008, but we have seen more and more serious flood events since then, so the situation is changing.
The briefing paper details the law as it stands:
“The Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 does not place a statutory duty…to respond to floods, although there is a power to do so…the Act sets out the statutory ‘core functions’ of FRA…to provide for…fire safety…fire-fighting…rescuing people and protecting people from harm in the event of road traffic accidents”—
or road traffic collisions in 21st-century jargon. The law in Scotland is different. There has been a statutory duty since 2013, and the Pitt review took a similar view to the one that now exists in Scotland:
“The Review believes that clarifying and communicating the role of each of these bodies would improve the response to flooding. However, we are concerned that the systems, structures and protocols developed to support national coordination of multi-agency flood rescue assets remain ad-hoc. We believe that the Fire and Rescue Service should take on a leading role in this area, based on fully funded capability. This will be most effective if supported by a statutory duty.”
That is essentially the core of recommendations 15 to 21 and, as I say, nothing much has changed.
The Library briefing goes on to examine the history of the proposal and the debates in the House. I would like to focus on the history of the fire and rescue service’s statutory duties. Colleagues might expect that the fire service has always had a duty to attend fires, but it was partly the fire that destroyed most of this Palace of Westminster in 1834 that led to the creation of the London Fire Brigade, which celebrated its 150th anniversary last year. Most colleagues would also probably expect that the fire and rescue service has a duty to prevent fires, and I suspect most would consider the role of the fire service in dealing with road traffic collisions to be a statutory duty. That is not the case. On fire, the statutory duty was created only in 1938. On fire safety, it was the Fire Services Act 1947 that created it. As for road accidents and road crashes, it was the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 that created the statutory duty.
When the Government say that the fire and rescue service will deal with floods because it has, it does and it will, that was also the case for fires, fire prevention and road traffic collisions until the prevailing wisdom decided that an expectation was not enough and the Government had to do more than just expect. There not only has to be a legal requirement for a duty; it has to be resourced and paid for, and the Government need to legislate for that outcome.
The Select Committee report makes the case for changes in structures. Part of our recommendations for better preparedness, better governance and stronger resilience is to confer a duty on the fire service to boost all those elements. The Government clearly do not want to proceed in that direction at present.
Does my hon. Friend share my suspicion that the Government’s refusal to create a statutory duty for the fire and rescue service in this regard is driven principally by their desire not to commit resources to this area of endeavour?
My hon. Friend perfectly anticipates my next point. I was about to quote a statistic to demonstrate that the Government do not want to proceed in this direction—because staff reductions in fire and rescue services since 2010 have been significant, with nearly 7,000 jobs having been lost. By my estimate, that amounts to 20% of the British fire service disappearing since 2010. Those numbers are very worrying.
Furthermore, the transfer of responsibilities of the fire and rescue service to more and more police and crime commissioners, and budget pressures on both the police and the fire services suggest that there is real fear of further reductions. The fire and rescue service needs to be able to maintain the staff and equipment necessary to continue to play a prominent role in dealing with floods, preparing for them and mitigating them. To achieve that, they need recognition in law. The Select Committee believes that that needs to be done. It is an issue that is not going to go away. I suspect that at some point—perhaps not now—the Government will get the message.
Some 453 residential properties and 174 commercial properties in York were flooded following Storm Eva, yet we know that in extreme flooding that could rise to as many as 7,200 properties. The city is therefore saying, “What is going to happen next?”
Just last month, York’s own flood inquiry produced a report containing about 90 ambitious recommendations, but no framework to govern their implementation. We need to look back on what has happened after each flood. Resources dry up, and then we do not seem to move much further forward. As we have just heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), services should operate between floods, dealing not just with the issue of flooding itself but with issues of flood literacy, prevention and resilience. The fire and rescue authority would be well placed to address such issues. In that context, I was disappointed by the Government’s response to the excellent reports from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Environmental Audit Committees.
The Bellwin scheme provides an immediate response, but it does not take account of the need for resilience measures to be taken during the dry seasons. I should like to hear from the Minister how the scheme could be used more proactively to provide incentives for such measures, and how the Government will work with Flood Re and the insurance industry to ensure that resilience is built into properties when the sun is shining, rather than waiting for the next floods to occur. I should also like to hear what plans the Minister has to review the Flood Re scheme. It has been in place for nearly a year, but we know that there are a number of problems. Some properties, such as leasehold properties and properties built after 2009, cannot gain access to the insurance,
We continue to call for a proper scheme for businesses, for which there is such a need. We believe that it is possible to create a matrix model for that purpose. What progress has the Minister made in considering the opportunities for such action? I know that the British Insurance Brokers Association has instituted a scheme in the interim, but businesses have still not heard about it. What is the Minister doing to promote it?
In York, emergency improvements are being made to the Foss Barrier, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh). A total of £17 million is being spent on an upgrade which should have taken place over the last 30 years. I am grateful to the Minister’s predecessor for ensuring that we would be able to shift the water—50 tonnes a second—from the river should the barrier need to be used. However, people in our city are saying that more needs to be done. I am not talking about the £45 million that is being spent on building defences; I am talking about catchment management.
The Environment Agency has told me that we shall have to wait for 2021 and the next comprehensive spending review. The Government response boasts about £15 million being spent, but I must say to the Minister that that is a drop in the ocean—or in the flood water—when it comes to building resilience measures. We need proper investment, now, in mapping out catchment areas and working out what needs to be done for the future in relation to, for instance, the “slow the flow” measures. The Government have shown a lack of ambition in respect of the national tree-planting programme, but they need to think about how agroforestry can play a major role in catchment management.
I am interested in the work being done by the University of York on the management of soil and the moorlands. I urge the Minister to commit herself today to full funding of the second phase of the university’s research. Better land management is essential. More water needs to be absorbed upstream rather than running downstream.
I was disturbed to read in the Government’s response that all the action that is needed will appear in a 25-year environment plan. It would be great if we could see the plan, but it is already eight months late. Will the Minister tell us when it will be published—or have I misunderstood the title? Perhaps it refers to the 25 years that it will take to write the plan. We really do want to see what it has to say. I hope that next week’s Budget will contain measures to ensure that proper investment is made in proper catchment management now, rather than our having to wait until 2021. I trust that the Minister will move that forward.
I want to say something about governance. York was left with no plan for managing the floods, and was badly let down by the lack of action from the city council. There was also poor governance from the Environment Agency when it came to risk management. What governance structures is the Minister introducing to ensure that local authority plans are subject to professional oversight, and are risk-assessed to establish that they are robust and fit for purpose? We cannot expect local authorities to mark their own homework when lives could be put at risk. Planning for resilience is vital, and it should be done in the dry seasons. Authorities should not wait to test the plans until the rain and the floods.
I ask the Minister to tell us what further steps she plans to take now, to ensure that we have a flood-resilient nation.
This debate follows major inquiries into the social, economic and environmental impact of flooding in England which were undertaken by the Environmental Audit and Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committees. I participated in the EFRA Committee’s inquiry, and I took a close interest in the development of the Committee’s conclusions and the preparation of the final comprehensive report, which focused heavily on the future management of flood risk. That report called for the UK Government to strengthen policies to protect communities in England from increasing flood risk.
Last November, when the EFRA Committee published its report, we criticised the UK Government’s fragmented, inefficient and ineffective approaches to flood risk management. I should make it clear that the report was not an academic exercise, but the product of a great deal of work and time spent visiting areas of England that had been badly affected by poor and inadequate flood prevention, and also the Netherlands, where we sought out a number of governmental organisations and inspected world-class flood prevention measures to understand how prevention was managed in a country where it is considered absolutely critical.
The evidence that we collected in the Netherlands stood in stark contrast to the evidence collected in England. When visiting communities in England that had been badly affected by storms Desmond, Eva and Frank, we observed a great deal of activity directed towards the purchase of large displacement pumps and the implementation of risk management systems that could only sensibly be described as reactive. There was nothing new, novel, innovative or insightful in any of the activity that I observed in England, and I was left with the impression that communities shared my disappointment and lingering concerns. In England, a predominant view that emerged was that flooding represented a failure to deliver an adequate emergency response at a time of crisis.
In the Netherlands, the situation could not have been more different. Our detailed conversations with the Delta commissioner, the special envoy for international water affairs, and many other internationally renowned experts were insightful, and highlighted many new, novel and innovative methods of proactively managing and controlling the flow of water to eradicate the risk of flooding. The people of the Netherlands would view a flood as a failure of water management governance arrangements.
The contrast is perhaps best explained by the fact that the Netherlands views flood prevention as a social issue that requires a determined and co-ordinated strategic political approach to guarantee effective water management and the protection of life and property. The approach implemented by the UK Government’s Environment Agency suggests that flooding is considered to be a largely unpredictable but occasionally inevitable consequence of extraordinary weather conditions that require an effective emergency response.
The EFRA Committee did not focus on the purchase of more or larger displacement pumps, but proposed a new and innovative governance model to recognise flooding as a social problem. Like the Netherlands, we advocated a strategic focus on co-ordinated, efficient action to deliver flood prevention. We recommended that the UK Government establish a new national floods commissioner for England, to be accountable for the delivery of strategic, long-term flood risk reduction outcomes agreed with the Government. The commissioner would deliver the strategy through new regional flood and coastal boards to co-ordinate the regional delivery of national plans, in partnership with local stakeholders. The boards would take on current lead local flood authority and regional flood and coastal committee roles, and a new English rivers and coastal authority would assume the Environment Agency’s current role in focusing on the efficient delivery of national flood risk management plans. That governance model would streamline organisational responsibilities, co-ordinate resources and pool expertise to allow each body to deliver their unique role, with funding firmly linked to outcomes, including financial outcomes.
Our recommendations were intended to deliver the following: first, the adoption of catchment measures on a much wider scale, including sustainable drainage systems; secondly, simplified flood risk communications; and, thirdly, improved organisational and resource resilience in all its forms, including spatial planning, building regulations, insurance and emergency response. In addition to shifting the UK Government from a reactive approach directed at flood management towards a more informed and insightful proactive approach focused on flood prevention, the Committee’s recommendations were designed to make better use of financial resources and to recognise the negative impact of fluctuating funding.
The UK Government’s pattern of spending is as unpredictable as the pattern of flooding. Indeed, funding arguably fluctuates reactively in correlation with unpredictable flood events, with budgets topped up above planned levels. The 2016 Budget, for example, committed an additional £700 million in response to the winter 2014-15 floods. The Environmental Audit Committee criticised this for “political calculation”.
The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee’s initial report was followed by a very disappointing response from the UK Government. Indeed, the UK Government’s response is summed up in one sentence:
“We do not agree that there is a need for substantial change to the existing national and local governance provisions for flood risk management.”
When challenged on the inadequacy of this response, the EFRA Committee received a letter from the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), which noted:
“Although we do not agree there is a need for substantial structural change, we are always looking for ways to improve and adapt the way we work to meet current and future needs.”
How bizarre—the UK Government want improvement, but just not the improvement recommended by two Select Committees.
By ignoring the considered and detailed reports of two Select Committees, the UK Government are missing opportunities to act on a wide range of recommendations that would improve and adapt the way the Government work to meet current and future demands. The failure to improve and adapt existing reactive models of operation is not only wasting money, it is leaving households, communities and businesses across England at risk of disaster. The Government’s response continues to fall far short of the recommendations.
This debate takes place as part of the supply estimates process, a means through which the UK Government technically seek Parliament’s authority for spending plans. These are known as “estimates days”. In practice, these debates are three days of general debate when the one thing that is not discussed is the actual estimates, and generally there is no vote. In fact, this House has largely abandoned all opportunities for direct control of public expenditure by means of debate and vote on the estimates presented to the House.
This is particularly important to Scottish MPs, because the former Leader of the House repeatedly claimed that the estimates process provides an avenue for Scottish MPs to scrutinise the financial implications of Bills from which the English votes for English laws procedure excludes us. I conclude by noting that the arcane estimates process fails to function as an effective method of scrutinising UK Government expenditure, and that is to the detriment of everyone.
To follow on from the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Dr Monaghan), I have not seen this produced today, but I have in my hand the estimates book. The estimates for DEFRA, which we are supposed to be debating today, are contained within it. I must admit to feeling somewhat confused by today’s proceedings. As if Fridays in this place were not strange enough, today has been a real eye-opener. I have not heard any discussion surrounding the figures estimated for DEFRA, and I have heard no critical analysis of departmental spend within those figures. As my hon. Friend acknowledged to me and made clear, this is the stage at which we as Scottish MPs are supposed critically to analyse the estimates to deal with the consequences of policy and UK legislation, but there appears to be little, if no, discussion. However, I want to discuss a few points from the estimates within the books today, which I assume will be in order.