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Flooding: EU Solidarity Fund

Volume 769: debated on Thursday 25 February 2016


My Lords, with the leave of the House I will now repeat a Statement made earlier today in the other place by the Minister of State for Local Growth and the Northern Powerhouse. The Statement is as follows.

“I want to pay tribute to all those who have in whatever way supported the many places that were flooded in December and early January. The whole House will want to recognise the enormous amount of effort that has gone into supporting households and businesses, not just in the initial response to the floods but also in the ongoing work to get residents back into homes and businesses open.

The Government recognise that the immediate priority is to respond to the urgent needs of those affected. That is why we have already provided over £200 million to help those affected by the floods to support recovery and repair. A key feature of our package of support is the Communities and Business Recovery Scheme. It is designed to provide ready support to local authorities affected by Storm Desmond and Storm Eva to in turn help individuals, small and medium-sized businesses and communities to return to normality. Additionally, it provides property level resilience grants of up to £5,000 so that people can protect their homes and businesses against future floods by putting in place resilient repairs. To date under the Communities and Business Recovery Scheme, government has paid out a total of £21 million for Storm Desmond and £26 million for Storm Eva. Further payments will follow. We are also supporting farmers with grants worth up to £20,000 to help restore damaged agricultural land and farm vehicle access, repair boundaries and carry out field drainage.

Having set out what the Government have already done, I want to turn now to what more we can do. Today, I would like to announce our intention to make an application to the European Union Solidarity Fund. The fund was set up to respond to major natural disasters and to express European solidarity with disaster-stricken regions within Europe. The fund was created as a reaction to the severe floods in central Europe in the summer of 2002. Since then, it has been used for 70 disasters covering a range of catastrophic events, including floods, forest fires, earthquakes, storms and drought. The only time the UK applied to the fund was following the flooding of 2007, which saw widespread and significant damage across large swathes of England.

Member states have 12 weeks from the start of an incident to register their intention to claim. Once we have confirmed our intent, there is time to consider with the Commission the elements of assessment. Following this process, the Commission assesses the application and, if it is accepted, proposes an amount of aid to the European Parliament. Once the appropriations become available in the EU budget, the Commission adopts a decision awarding the aid to the affected state, following which the aid is paid out in a single instalment. When the aid is paid out, the affected state is responsible for the implementation, including the selection of operations and their audit and control. Emergency measures may be financed retrospectively from day one of the disaster. The EUSF is not, and nor is it designed to be, a rapid response instrument for dealing with the effects of a natural disaster. Financial aid can be granted to the applying state only following an application and the budgetary process, which can take several months to complete”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating that Statement. However, it seems perverse that the Government are only now announcing that an application is being made—four days before the deadline—when it could have been made in early December, when the first evidence of the devastation in the flood areas became apparent. During that time, communities have been left in the dark about whether an application to the fund would be made, despite the fact that it was established to respond precisely to natural disasters such as those experienced in the north and north-east of the UK.

Can the noble Baroness clarify why this unnecessary delay has occurred? Can she say what scope there is to make multiple applications to reflect the wide geographical spread of communities affected over this time? Can she guarantee that all the aid received will be channelled directly into the affected communities rather than being used to refill the Government’s coffers for the financial support already provided? Finally, can she clarify whether part of the fund will be used to assist residents who have not yet been able to return to their properties, where the need is very urgent? I look forward to her response.

My Lords, in response to the point about the time taken, thresholds have to be met and the damage assessed, so these things necessarily take time. We will be making a regional claim. I am sure that under the rules of the structural fund the money would not be able to be diverted into anything other than repairs following the flood damage, and there is no intention to do so. Therefore, I can confirm that the funds will not be used for anything other than the purposes for which they are intended. I remind the noble Baroness that back in 2007, when an application was made by the then Labour Government, they took eight weeks to signal their intention and to make the application. That was a recognition that these things take time.

My Lords, I am delighted that the Government have now decided to apply. I asked them to do so in this Chamber on two occasions—on 7 December and 14 January, when I was very grateful to the Defra Minister for the reply that I received. This scheme is yet another example of why we are better off being in Europe. The funding could make a huge difference—for example, in repairing the damage to the A591, which I know is known to many Members of this House. Its closure has been disastrous for local people, local businesses and tourism. Therefore, I ask the Minister to confirm that the inevitable time lag in receiving any funding will not delay the plans for reconstruction of the critical infrastructure and that the Government will guarantee those funds.

The noble Baroness is absolutely right about the A591 and indeed about some of the more local infrastructure repairs that need to be done. In fact, I drove up the A591 as far as I could only last week when I was in Grasmere. Work is under way to repair that road, which is vital not just for businesses but for tourism in the region. I am glad that the noble Baroness was grateful for the reply that she received. Following the floods, on a couple of occasions at this Dispatch Box I signalled that we were considering making an application, and today it is good to say that we are intending to do so.

My Lords, as a member of Cumbria County Council, perhaps I may say that the Minister’s announcement will be very welcome in the county, even if she has had to spend several months arguing with the Secretary of State for Justice that this does not represent a terrible affront to national sovereignty. It is vital that we proceed—as the Minister knows, there is a huge problem. The Government have been helpful so far but the infrastructure costs to the public sector alone amount to not many tens of millions but possibly hundreds of millions in the county of Cumbria alone. Does the Minister accept that there needs to be the quickest possible analysis of the total costs so that a proper application can be submitted and we can try to get as much of this money into the county and into other affected areas as quickly as possible?

The noble Lord is absolutely right: the devastation in Cumbria has been quite significant. He and I have talked both across the Dispatch Box and privately about the needs of Cumbria, and I hope that the flood envoy, as well as Ministers, have been useful in their visits there. The Government are doing everything they can to work with the flood-affected areas to make right the damage. However, they were very keen to make an immediate response and moved very quickly to remedy some of the immediate problems. This is a much longer-term payment—back in 2007, it took months to come through—so we need to separate the immediate recovery operation from some of the more long-term funding that will come through.

My Lords, I witnessed the Boxing Day floods from my front-room window and am aware of the damage that has been done in the Calder Valley between Brighouse and Todmorden, and beyond. Liz Truss has been to the Calder Valley and has made certain promises, particularly to Mytholmroyd, where a great wall is to be built and other work is to be carried out. Can the Minister confirm that none of those promises will be contingent on this European money, that the promises will be honoured, and that the European money that we are talking about will be used to fund other very important work that is still required?

I can confirm that any obligations or promises that the Government have made will be fulfilled. I can say that quite firmly from this Dispatch Box today. Unlike the noble Lord, I did not see the flooding from my front window on Boxing Day, but when I went up to some of the affected communities in Greater Manchester a couple of days afterwards, I saw that it was really quite devastating—the noble Lord is absolutely right about that. In fact, it is difficult to appreciate the devastation that communities feel until you actually see it for yourself.

My Lords, I warmly welcome the Minister’s statement, and I particularly warmly welcome hearing a Conservative Minister say “EU” and “solidarity” in the same breath. I accept what she said about it taking some time to put an application together, but I do not think it takes that much time to state an intent to put an application together. The Government could have come forward and provided that reassurance sooner. Can I press the Minister on the point made by my noble friend from the Dispatch Box around an assurance that this money will not be used to back-fill what the Treasury has already promised and is already spending? There must be new money from the Treasury, if new money is needed, to match the very welcome money from the European Union.

My Lords, in terms of what is expected from the European Union Solidarity Fund, the Government will fulfil their obligations under what they have already committed to. This will not be a sly way to circumvent what we have already promised, and I can confirm that a lot of the money has already gone out of the £200 million that we committed. As for the time it takes to make an application, the noble Lord will appreciate that certain thresholds have to be met. It is in analysing those thresholds that the Government know whether they can make an application. These things take time, and there was no intention of delay on our part.

My Lords, I want to place on record the appreciation of my former constituency in Keswick, a place where I have spent much of my life, for the work done by Julie Ward, the Member of the European Parliament, in pressing the Government here and working in Brussels to ensure that this process would work. She has been campaigning extensively on the very issue of this fund. Does the Minister have any idea of how much this will actually mean for areas such as the county of Cumbria? Can we have some numbers, please?

I am sorry to say that those numbers have not been finalised at this stage. I do not know the noble Lord’s colleague, but I believe him when he says that she has been working hard. In fact, Keswick is another place that I passed the other day. Perhaps, at this point, the House will indulge me in commending businesses in Keswick, Windermere and Grasmere, where I stayed, for having the grit and determination to get back up and running. Coming into Grasmere, I saw a sign that read, “Grasmere is open for business”, and it certainly was full of tourists. I congratulate people who have gone there, and also the businesses for being so warmly welcoming of tourists so quickly after such devastating events.