Yes, Sir. I have considered further the question of Government assistance to local authorities whose areas have suffered substantial damage in the floods and gales of November 1977 and January 1978.
In order to ensure that local ratepayers do not have to carry an excessive burden, a local authority that has incurred, as a direct result of these floods and gales, net additional expenditure that is in excess of its product of a 1p rate will receive, by way of special financial assistance, 75 per cent. of that excess.
Details of the application of this formula will be given to local authorities, which will, of course, have to submit claims for consideration by my Department.
A Supplementary Estimate will be presented to Parliament for approval at the earliest opportunity.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his reply will give considerable pleasure, particularly in places, such as Cleethorpes, which have suffered twice from flooding in the past two years? Can he assure us that if there should be further flooding at future high tides, similar help will be made available?
The formula will stand. I thought it right to make that clear in order to remove any uncertainties that may be in the minds of local authorities that have, unhappily, been affected by recent floods.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the vital elements in any disaster is the warning system, whether for floods caused by the sea or by the unhappy releasing of water from one controlled source which floods another source? Will my right hon. Friend ask the Minister of Agriculture why the GLC warning system failed lamentably in August last year and resulted in 300 or 400 homes in my constituency being, if not unnecessarily flooded, certainly flooded without any warning being given?
My hon. Friend is right in emphasising the key importance of the warning services and systems. I know that my right hon. Friend is very much concerned that they should operate at the highest level of efficiency. I know that he is considering their performance, which I believe has been pretty good overall.
I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker. Unusual as it may be at Question Time, I thank the Secretary of State, on behalf of my constituents at Whitstable and Herne Bay, for his statement on the contribution towards flood relief. In those two towns the calculations of damage suffered by the local authority and private individuals are in excess of £1 million. I am grateful on behalf of my constituents.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You did say that you were relaxing the normal rules in respect of hon. Members having a particular constituency interest in Question No. 21. However, Question No. 22, which is my Question, has a wide-ranging interest for other hon. Members, as it concerns mortgage interest rates for council houses, which is just as important a matter. I do not see why a privilege should be extended to a certain section.
I am sorry that we did not reach the Question of the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Dean) before 3.30 p.m., but the hon. Gentleman knows well why we did not reach it. The reason lies with the inordinately long questions and answers that we had today. The questions were longer than the answers, except in one instance. I think now that it is the will of the House that when a Question is reached in which hon. Members are directly interested, their constituents having been so gravely involved, I should give them an opportunity to ask supplementary questions.
I, too, wish to express my thanks to the right hon. Gentleman for the help that he has given. However, does he agree that it is unsatisfactory that it has taken nearly one month to establish what assistance can be given to local authorities? Will he look again at Section 138, bearing in mind the help that local authorities have given in different ways to those who have suffered from the floods because they had no knowledge of what resources were to be made available to them? Will he consider some way of giving a clear guideline so that when a future disaster occurs local authorities will know exactly what they can and should do immediately after the disaster has occurred?
It is precisely to give local authorities that major guideline in terms of the resource contribution that the Government would make that I have made my statement. Beyond that, I do not really think that there is any great problem that we cannot solve with local authorities in the ordinary course of discussion.
I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman would give a word of commendation to the local authorities of Great Yarmouth, the town on the East Coast that was the worst affected in the 1953 floods and that has done so well since that time. Does the right hon. Gentleman appreciate that this time the town escaped almost scot-free?
Without detracting from what the right hon. Gentleman has said, may I ask whether he agrees that he has merely touched on one aspect? When will the right hon. Gentleman and his colleague, the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, make a more comprehensive statement on the whole situation?
The Secretary of State will know, because we have had conversations, that an assurance has been given that my local authority—I represent Fenland, which suffered as badly as any other area—will not be unduly helped by payments that were made and will be made under Section 138. Does the right hon. Gentleman appreciate that the extent of the damage at Wisbech is in the neighbourhood of £3 million, and that 25 per cent. of that will put about 6p on the rate? Does he accept that that it is a considerable blow to the ratepayers, who are already suffering an 11p increase over last year?
I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern, especially as Wisbech was one of the worst affected areas. I ask the hon. Gentleman not to jump to conclusions on quick arithmetic based on my statement, which I believe will be far more helpful to his area than his initial reaction suggests.
The Secretary of State's announcement has been generally welcomed, but I ask him about one aspect of it. Does he appreciate that it will be the poorer authorities, which have a low product of a 1p rate, which will have an excessive burden placed upon them if they have to raise the 25 per cent. margin of grant? Will the right hon. Gentleman consider whether it is possible to adapt the percentage so that the poorer authorities have a 100 per cent. grant?
I think that the hon. Gentleman will find that the system will work out reasonably well. That is because it is related to the resources of a particular area. I do not believe that any requirement beyond about 2 per cent. on the average rate bill will accrue to those in the local authorities concerned. The Government will be able to help with the rest.