Motion made, and Question proposed,
That a supplementary sum, not exceeding £1,000 be granted to Her Majesty out of the Consolidated Fund to defray the charges which will come in course of payment during the year ending on 31st March 1988 for expenditure by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on market support, grants and loans for capital and other improvements, support for agriculture in special areas and compensation to sheep producers, animal health, arterial drainage, flood and coast protection, and certain other services.—[Mr. Donald Thompson.]
May I remind the House that the Vote chosen for the debate was recommended by the Liaison Committee, as far as it relates to the storm damage recovery scheme 1987.
The House agreed to the Liaison Committee's report of 3 March, and the Standing Order No. 131 recommendations of the Liaison Committee thereby have effect as if they were orders of the House. The debate should be confined, therefore, to the storm damage recovery scheme in 1987.
As a result of what you have announced, Mr. Speaker, the House will already know that sub-head 3(c) of the Supplementary Estimates provides a mere £350,000 for the storm damage recovery scheme, but I should not wish the debate to be diverted to that technical point, as we have rather more to say about the storm damage.
On the night of 16 October 1987, the country was hit by a hurricane so damaging that there has never been one so great in either living or recorded memory. The damage is estimated, in insurance terms alone, at over £900 million and the total damage is likely to be well in excess of £1 billion. It was infinitely the worst natural disaster that this country has ever seen. The storm blew down some 15 million trees and has left lying on the ground over 4 million cu m of wood.
At the beginning of the Session, the Select Committee on Agriculture resolved that it would investigate in the long term forestry and land use and it proposed that, in the circumstances of the disaster and of the problems already being experienced by December among those afflicted by the damage, we would do a rapid study of the matter and see who was affected and in what way.
Before my hon. Friend starts making magnificent exaggerations about the worst disaster that this country has ever seen, I remind him of the floods in Scotland in 1942 and 1947 and of the gales in 1950, 1958 and 1968 in which our timber crop was decimated; but we were not so greedy as to ask for help and we were not so selfish as to demand it.
I shall have something to say later about the merits, or otherwise, of Government assistance for storm damage and natural disasters. However, I advise my hon. and learned Friend that, in financial terms, none of the disasters he mentioned were of anything like the same scale as the storm in October. There is a precedent for Government assistance in that the last great storm in Scotland—I think that it was the 1968 storm that he mentioned—achieved a Government grant for the transport of fallen timber—[Interruption.] I am afraid that my hon. and learned Friend is not correct—there is a precedent for assistance. It is not a question of competition. The Committee dealt with one particular matter and we have looked at it in considerable detail.
I begin by dealing with some of the modest and less important aspects as they pertain to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. It is true that the Government responded by producing greater flexibility under the agricultural improvement scheme. We believe that that will be of some assistance to some farmers, providing that they do not rub up against the overall limits that have been imposed by the Community. We should like the Minister to exercise some flexibility about the deadline for notifications under the storm damage recovery scheme as the closing date approaches.
We fully acknowledge the comments of my right hon. Friend the Minister of State who gave evidence before the Committee. I am sorry that he is not with us this afternoon, but I am certain that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will reply to the debate with great competence. There is a feeling in the affected counties that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has not absorbed the seriousness of the storm, its extent or the damage that it has done, not only to landowners, but to tenants and to many other people involved in horticulture and agriculture.
Without interrupting my hon. Friend's train of thought or anticipating what he is about to say, may I ask him to confirm that it is estimated that each acre of woodland that has been affected will cost over £1,000 just in terms of clear felling, let alone replanting? I am sure that my hon. Friend will come to that point.
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend although I do not think that "clear felling" is the right phrase for timber that has already fallen; my hon. Friend means clearing up the damage. I agree entirely with the figure that he has quoted, but I think that in some cases it will be rather higher.
The Ministry of Agriculture commendably produced the storm damage recovery scheme, about which I was speaking and £1 million allocated to it. The purpose of the scheme — I am sure that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will elaborate on this—was to assist farmers to cope with environmental damage, such as fallen trees in hedgerows, and damage to the countryside—separate from forestry and local authority damage. We believe that £1 million is likely to prove totally inadequate and, as we gain experience I hope that the Government will remain flexible and revise the figure if the Select Committee should be proved correct.
We then turned to the problem of glasshouses. I fully accept —as does the Committee—the principle that insurable risks should not be assisted by central Government in such circumstances. It is normal practice for glasshouse growers to insure their glasshouses, as even minor storms can affect glasshouses and most growers take out insurance to cover that risk. However, the damage was so widespread and so huge that it seems that the figures used for insurance purposes have almost universally proved inadequate.
We were told that, perhaps not unreasonably, glaziers working on 15 October would charge, with overheads, about £10 per hour, but by the following morning that figure had risen threefold to £30 per hour or more—that is, if anybody could be found to do the work. That is market forces. If one had insured one's glasshouse for £10 per hour for repair costs, finding that one had to pay £30 per hour would be a serious imposition. We received substantial evidence, from responsible bodies such as the National Farmers Union of England and Wales, that the majority of glasshouse growers were at least 20 per cent. under-insured.
I do not have to remind my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary of the competitive nature of the glasshouse industry. It faces competition from across the water. Indeed, many of us believe that it faces unfair competition, especially from Holland. Because of the magnitude of the storm, the ability to replace fallen glasshouses was much reduced. Manufacturers' order books are full and, of course, they are unlikely to wish to expand their capacity too greatly because this is a one-off. I hope that sympathetic attention will be given to the needs of that important sector of the horticultural industry.
We commend the grant that was given to those whose fruit trees were knocked over—£2 per tree is welcome assistance. I know that the Government will he assiduous is seeing that only those who suffered genuine storm damage can receive that subsidy. However, it seems unfair that if, instead of growing apples, pears, cherries or whatever, across the fence one grows gooseberries, strawberries, vines or even hops and suffer the same damage, no subsidy is payable on those crops. That is a point of equity which I am sure that the Government will consider.
Perhaps the most important evidence that we took was that from the Forestry Commission. The House knows that the Forestry Commission is the agency of my hon. Friend's Department in England. We examined the Forestry Commission in some detail and endorsed its policy of restraining the production of pine and hardwoods, so far as it could. The huge surplus of fallen timber in the south-east has not only reduced prices but completely consumed the capacity of all the mills in the area.
We commend the service and advice that the Forestry Commission has given. It has put its experts into the area to provide assistance to all woodland owners who were affected by the storm. We recommend that the proposals put to the Government on tax concessions for woodland growers who were badly affected are considered sympathetically, although at this time of the year I do not expect the Minister to respond to that in any detail.
I turn now to the most important aspect, which was emphasised to us wherever we went and by all those who gave evidence to us. Many of my hon. Friends have spoken to me about it. I refer to the problem of clearance. The difficulty of clearing timber that has fallen in such circumstances has to be witnessed to be understood. It is not a question of trees falling in line, which can be neatly recovered. Trees have fallen higgledy-piggledy, with their roots torn up and boughs smashed. In some cases the impossibility of even getting inside the woods to assess the damage makes the cost of the operation infinitely greater than in any other circumstances.
I once saw the damage done by the explosion at Mount St. Helens, where hundreds of thousands of acres of trees were flattened, but they were flattened in the same direction. In this case, trees have fallen in different directions. Indeed, it reminds one more of the battle of the Somme than of a former grand forest.
Owners are assessing their position. Many find that the sort of figures that my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone) mentioned earlier of £1,000 per acre or £1,200 per acre for clearing the fallen wood are simply beyond their means, let alone the practical business considerations that would merit such expenditure. For that reason we take the recommendation of the action committee — a rather unfortunate name for the committee, but it was set up promptly with the Forestry Commission's assistance. A timber merchant was the chairman and timber growers were well represented.
The committee argued, we believe too modestly, that a grant for clearance would he best in the form of a transport grant to move fallen timber from the afflicted area to mills elsewhere in the country that had the capacity to process the wood.
It came up with suggestions for doing that, just before Christmas. We are now into March, almost six months after the disaster, and not one peep has been heard from the Forestry Commission and not one comment has been made by the Government.
In the interim, the fallen beechwood, which stains very rapidly, is deteriorating, possibly to the point of having no commercial value. It is expected that fallen pine will be consumed within the next few months by some avaricious beetle that attacks fallen timber of that type. By the end of the summer, if nothing has been done, a large natural resource will have been allowed to go to waste. That is another reason for sympathetic consideration by the Government for getting things moving.
The Committee examined, although it was not strictly within its purview, evidence from the Department of the Environment, which is charged with dealing with smaller woodlands. We came across a sorry story. The Government have used the Bellwin proposals drafted by Lord Bellwin, who was a Minister in 1981, when he was asked—
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He was a Minister from 1979. In 1983 he was asked to draw up a formula to deal with natural disasters to recompense local authorities that were forced to go out the next morning and deal with a massive disaster. Some 87 authorities were affected by the storm. They went forth and spent £98·6 million on clearing storm damage in the immediate aftermath of last October's storm.
Under the formula provided—based on figures from the Association of County Councils, which sent formal evidence to the Committee on 24 February — the Government will provide a special grant of £18·3 million, but on expenditure below the 1p rate threshold the authorities will lose block grants of £9·8 million. The Government's net contribution will be £8·5 million, so their approach to the enormous burden facing local authorities is to give a grant of less than 20 per cent. and then to more than halve the benefit of even that level of support by clawing back block grants. The association claims that 24 local authorities expect to lose more in grant than they receive in special grants. I am sure that the House will find that unacceptable.
Although the Secretary of State for the Environment made a statement on the matter, it did nothing to put right the problem, and although the Government said that their basic principle was that authorities should not profit from the storm, they will hardly be seen to be generous if they give away with one hand and take back with the other.
I have great respect for the authenticity of the Committee report, but on this matter my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) has been overtaken by events, as I will make clear in my speech. There is no question of the Government making a profit out of East Sussex, but at the time my hon. Friend was doing his preparatory work, that was the impression.
I am prepared to accept that in the case of East and West Sussex, as I believe that both authorities are relatively satisfied. I have a letter dated 24 February, which is not so very long ago, from the Association of County Councils. It has not been questioned subsequently by those who have had access to the letter, and it says that 24 local authorities are worse off. I am glad that the authorities my hon. Friends represent are not, but none should be. The whole idea of assistance after a storm is to help out.
I represent the county of Suffolk, which falls very much into the category my hon. Friend describes. We have suffered a penalty, by being allowed to spend only up to a 1p rate on storm damage, which means that the Treasury will benefit from Suffolk's misfortune.
That confirms what I have been saying. I do not wish to be drawn into this matter, because I believe that the rate support grant basis is bonkers and I have consistently voted against it. It shows that the Bellwin scheme for assistance does not always apply as it ought to. We strongly recommend that the Government should put right the wrong in relation to the storm and should devise a formula so that criticisms are not made in the future.
The French Government have indicated that they will spend some £15 million on storm damage. We have received evidence that they are considering how they can help with the recovery of second quality wood which is proving almost unsaleable. The French lost about twice as much woodland as we did. My Committee wishes to keep an eye on the matter as it progresses and, if there is little action or if complaints continue to be made, we shall investigate the matter. We will follow the progress of the French to see how our Government compare with theirs in the matter.
We strongly urge the Government to take account of the evidence from local authorities about the scale and timetable of the clearance problem. Government strategy to support general amenity restoration can be meaningful only if it is based on realistic, realisable objectives. It must be properly financed over an orderly, five-year programme.
I am fully seized, having sat in the seat that my hon. Friend the Minister now occupies, of the Government principle that public money is not always readily available to assist in all disasters. A substantial principle is involved. On the other hand, the Government have breached the principle—in my view justifiably, and with the support of all Conservative Members — in recent disasters. Donations were given after Bradford and Zeebrugge. When I had a serious disaster in my constituency the Government did not contribute, but they have changed their view and there may be a necessary humanity in that, which I am not criticising.
With a natural disaster of this size, where people may not be able to do anything about the damage, in a civilised and responsible country we have a duty to consider our countryside and resources and to look after people who, if we do not assist them, will leave the shambles to deteriorate, which will affect wildlife, scenery and our natural resources. For those reasons, my Committee has made the recommendations it has.
I should like to conclude on a happy note, by commending very strongly the immediate reaction to the storm by the various Government Departments, in particular the Ministry of Agriculture, the local authorities, the electricity boards, the Army, the police and various private organisations, which acted so promptly and efficiently in the immediate aftermath of the storm.
We believe that the Government must have a more thorough and more long-term strategy in this matter. They can help with advice, but in this case they must now help with some finance. It would be unforgivable if, 10 years from now, we could still see the wreckage that that disastrous night produced in such a very large part of the south-east of our country.
Opposition Members, accept Mr. Speaker's guidance at the beginning of the debate that it should be restricted, as the Liaison Committee recommended, to the storm damage recovery scheme—a very narrow topic indeed. But I must place it on record that, while we accept that ruling in its entirety, we do not find this method of debating the Estimates the most satisfactory one.
It seems to us that one of the most important roles of Parliament is to monitor the Estimates, and those before us are very important indeed, covering as they do such issues as the dairy outgoers' scheme and, the storm damage, and revealing the fact that the Government had no contingency moneys to deal with compensation for the Chernobyl-affected farmers in this financial year. However, we are not able to discuss those issues; we are restricted by the Liaison Committee's ruling. Therefore, we must accept that we can only debate the storm damage recovery scheme and, of course, the Select Committee's report.
In the light of the hon. Gentleman's comments, perhaps I should say that the House, through its Select Committees, can look at the whole range of Estimates. It is then up to the Houue, through the Select Committees, to decide which ones to examine and which to suggest for debate. So there is no reason why any of the Estimates should not have been debated if the Select Committees had looked at them.
I thank the right hon. Member for that comment, but perhaps I should explain why it is particularly inappropriate today. Alongside the debate on the storm damage recovery scheme, we are debating the report of the Select Committee on Agriculture. I suggest that this is not the most appropriate time. The report was published on Thursday. The evidence is not yet available; it has not yet been published. We still do not have the Government's response, and we have placed a very unfair burden on the Parliamentary Secretary in that, within 72 or 100 hours, he will have to give the Government's response on this very complicated issue. This is a very important issue, as the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) has said, and we are not doing the work of the Select Committee justice by discussing the report today. But we have no option; that is all that we can do.
I confess to being a beginner in this matter—this is the first Select Committee that I have attended, let alone chaired—but I thought that it was highly commendable that not only were we able to come forward very quickly with our report but that hardly was the ink dry on the paper than we could debate it on the Floor of the House. The alternative, I suggest to the hon. Gentleman, was that it should lie on a shelf gathering dust while other Select Committees made reports that the Liaison Committee might consider more important. So I grasped the opportunity for a debate and welcomed it. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not be churlish, because the Chairman of the Liaison Committee is sitting here listening and he may not let me have another go next time when we deal with Chernobyl.
I take that point, but I find it rather strange that the Liaison Committee recommended to the House that we should debate this report before it was published. It may be a matter of prophecy on the part of the hon. Gentleman, but it is a very strange phenomenon indeed.
I welcome the debate, but the hon. Gentleman has the advantage, as have his fellow members of the Select Committee, of having had an opportunity to see the evidence. We in the House have not had that advantage. Therefore, we must make our judgment on the report itself, which, I am sure the hon. Gentleman will admit—and I understand the reason—is a short, quickie report.
It is five and half pages long and there is not a great deal in it to debate. Nevertheless, that is what we have to try and do.
I have made my point and I hope that right hon. and hon. Members who have an influence in this will take the point on board. We are not criticising the way that it is done; we are criticising the timing. I am sure that everyone of good will will understand the point that I am making in this respect.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare on his presentation, on his analysis of the Select Committee's work and on explaining to us the reasons why it came to the conclusions that it did—conclusions with which, in general, I concur. It is a very worthwhile report. It is short, and I understand the reasons why, but even that short report provides evidence of the Government's lack of will to help alleviate the effect of the storm damage, which will affect our landscape for years to come and the livelihood of many farmers and horticulturists in the south-east of England, who are in great difficulty as they struggle, in many cases, to get their businesses hack on an even keel and start earning their living.
The Select Committee has produced this worthwile report and it is the duty of the House to press the Minister today to give us some reaction to the submissions put forward. Perhaps I might add the voice of the Labour party to that of the Select Committee in commending the speed and initiative of all the public servants concerned in their efforts to tackle the immediate aftermath of the storm. I only observe that it is a great pity that, as the report shows, their efforts were not reflected later in the Government's action.
However, the great storm, as it is now called, of 16 October will remain a non-event for the vast majority of people in this country. For those of us who live in the more temperate climes of the north of Britain it was a complete non-event. As the hon. and learned Member for Perth and Kinross (Mr. Fairbairn) reminded us, there have been very many great storms, certainly north of the border. I well remember the 1968 wind-blow, which left many forests in Scotland completely flattened. The right hon. and learned Gentleman got it slightly wrong. There was Government aid on that occasion, to the extent of 75 per cent. I do not grumble. That was quite right, and it was a Labour Government who provided that finance to try and help put the matter right.
Not having experienced the storm at first hand in the south, I paid a visit to Kew gardens and other parts of the south of England in the days following the storm. I was shaken by the extent of the damage, as indeed was my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies), who accompanied me. It was a stark reminder of the terrible force of nature and of how small are the works of man. The sight of trees not only flattened but with their centres completely taken out as if by a corkscrew is something that I shall remember for many years.
I was also impressed by the fortitude of the farmers and horticulturists whose years of dedicated labour and whose investment were often lost in the force of that hurricane on that single night. The effect was traumatic.
I wish that the Government had been more generous in their response. I draw the attention of the House to paragraph 24 of the Select Committee's report, in which it rejects the applications of the Bellwin formula. The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare said that this was perhaps the main bone of contention that his Committee had with the Government, and it is a bone of contention which Opposition Members share. We agree with the sentiment, because we find it reprehensible that even by accident the Treasury should make a profit out of this disaster.
We have heard from Conservative Members that certain counties have lost, and certain other counties have not been penalised by this formula. I remind the House that the Government agreed to grant-aid the local authorities in their efforts to deal with storm damage at the rate of 75 per cent. in excess of the penny rate levy. However, any expenditure within that amount would count for penalty, and would therefore be subject to a clawback by the Treasury. The letter from the Association of County Councils, dated 24 February and read out by the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare, is worth repeating. The association was referring to the general application of the rule as it affected the totality of councils, not individual councils.
Let me mention a bone of contention in this important matter. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment constantly assured the House, and wrote in letters, that there was no question of the Government making a profit out of the disaster, and I believed him. Then I heard from the leader of my county council that that did not seem to be the case: there was some dubiety about it. I am assured that it has all been cleared up now. I cannot believe that there is one law for East and West Sussex and another for the rest of the country, so that we do well and no one else does, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister can reassure us.
I hope so as well, but I should like to express my anxieties. An up-to-date letter received only today or yesterday by my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) from the Secretary of State for the Environment may clarify the position.
The Association of County Councils made the point that on an expenditure of a penny rate threshold the 87 authorities concerned would lose the block grant of £9·8 million. It is worth quoting the last sentence of the association's letter:
In other words, the Government's approach to the enormous burden facing local authorities is to give a grant of less than 20 per cent., and then to more than halve the benefit of even that level of support by clawing back block grant.
Let me also quote from a letter from the chief executive of the London borough of Barnet, an area to which, I understand, every Minister is to pay special attention for some reason. On 23 November, the chief executive wrote to the Secretary of State:
For Barnet, the scheme requires a local contribution equal to the product of a penny rate, after which the Government will contribute 75 per cent. The effect of this is that the Council will have to finance the first £612,000 of the cost of rectifying the storm damage, together with 25 per cent. of the balance if the ultimate bill is above that figure. As the Council's budget is in excess of its GREA, all additional expenditure will bring a grant loss of £70,000 for each further £100,000 spent. Thus even at a one penny rate level, the effective cost to the Council could exceed £1 million.
Let me spell that out in my own words. The Barnet experience shows how the Department of the Environment and the Treasury together will profit to the extent of £70,000 for every £100,000 spent by the council on storm damage repair. Barnet ratepayers, in common with many
others, will have to raise £170,00 to spend £100,000 on storm repairs. That is a deliberate and established feature of Government controls on local authority expenditure.
The Barnet chief executive continued:
The Council feels that the Government's scheme of special financial assistance is quite inadequate to meet the circumstances of this natural disaster and moreover considers that the severity of this storm was such that the ratepayers of the Borough should not be put to a considerable extra burden.
That point was also exemplified by the Select Committee.
We have had assurances and counter-assurances, and I hope that the Minister will give us the definitive assurance tonight. But in a letter dated 8 March headed
Storm damage: agricultural committee report",
to my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland, the Secretary of State for the Environment explained why he believed that there would be no penalty:
I continue to believe that prudent authorities should have budgeted for a contingency up to the threshold, including the block grant consequences, and that it is right therefore for them to bear these costs.
What the Secretary of State is saying is that every local authority in the country should have had contingency funds to meet any emergency. The Parliamentary Secretary, the hon. Member for Calder Valley (Mr. Thompson) says that he agrees with that, but the view of the Select Committee and of the hon. Member for Western-super-Mare is that the storm was not a normal contingency, but a national disaster par excellence. They believe that the Government should recognise that as well.
Under the Government's formula, those authorities will be penalised, because it is a fact of life that almost every local authority in the country did not have sufficient contingency funds to meet the effect of the disaster. That is why authorities such as Suffolk have openly come out and said that they had been penalised. I ask the Minister to examine the matter, and, if he cannot answer today—it is very complicated—to try to get to the bottom of it. If there is any chance of anyone losing out, let us put the matter right. That, I am sure, is the will of both sides of the House.
Paragraph 10 of the Select Committee report deals with the scale of damage affecting the glasshouse industry. As the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare rightly pointed out, immediately after the disaster the laws of the market were brought into play. Money to pay for new glass, and the skilled labour required for the reconstruction, were found to be in short supply.
Given that problem, and the exceptional difficulties in which growers will be placed in the coming season—for the storm damage was not limited to one night; it will affect their livelihoods and production in the ensuing weeks, months and, in some cases, years—will the Minister reconsider the possibility of providing extra help for horticulture? I remind him that it is of tremendous value to the country, providing high-quality products such as fresh vegetables and fruit, and is often neglected. It is the Cinderella of the agricultural industry, and is facing severe foreign competition, which will take every possible opportunity to squeeze out of the market many of those affected by the storm.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the horticultural industry is also one of the least subsidised, and does not depend on Government grants for anything in the normal course of events? An extraordinary event such as this surely justifies the provision of help.
I happily take the hon. Gentleman's point. Indeed, I shall take it a stage further. I believe that the scheme drawn up by the Minister was too narrow, and I find it difficult to understand why hop and soft fruit growers were excluded. That point was seized on by the Select Committee with some force. Why are the Government not prepared to help growers who were affected by the storm?
I hope that the Minister will not reiterate the evidence of his colleague to the Select Committee that the Government could not support growers
on the grounds that overall damage to these sectors was not great
although he acknowledged cases of individual hardship. That is no excuse for meanness. Even if only one person had been affected on that night, he would have to claim.
In its report, the Select Committee paid much attention to the subject of timber. As the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare reminded us, we lost approximately 15 million trees on the night of the storm, which represents approximately 4 million cu m of timber—about seven or eight years supply. Some 20 per cent. of the woodlands in the worst affected areas of East and West Sussex, Kent and Suffolk were destroyed.
On top of the ravages of the Dutch elm disease, the significance of those losses is even more poignant. Woodland owners in the private and public sectors are faced with the formidable task of clearing up and replanting trees and with a financial loss as a result of the glut of timber on the market.
It is only right and proper for the House to put on record its debt of gratitude to the Forestry Commission for the policy that it has adopted. It has reduced the amount of its timber to be felled to help to keep up the price of timber for the private woodland owner. However, it is still quite likely that the price of some timber will fall by 30 per cent.
The Forestry Commission's flexible approach has shown the nation the value of having a mix of privately and publicly owned woodland. The Forestry Commission, because it is publicly owned, was able to limit the supply of timber in the national interest. None of us would have expected the privately run forestry industry to make such a sacrifice because its investors would not have permitted it. In essence, the Forestry Commission has created an intervention store to manage a surplus product.
That example is one good reason why we should attempt to achieve a consensus on forest policy and obtain the right mix of private and public forestry. For many years there was agreement among hon. Members on this matter. I regret that the Government have seen fit to renege on that policy. I hope that the lessons of the storm will persuade them to think again.
One general matter that is repeatedly referred to in the Select Committee's report is the need for flexibility. The effects of the storm were far greater than anyone imagined. I hope that the Minister will be sympathetic to the Select Committee's proposals to exercise flexibility, especially in relation to the deadline for notifications under the storm damage recovery scheme.
We accept that such storms are rare. However, there is evidence from eminent scientists that the way in which we are treating our natural environment could result in many more natural disasters. Those eminent scientists are saying that the greenhouse effect could result in more climatic changes that will lead to more hurricanes, floods and droughts. Dr. Karas and Dr. Kelly of the climatic research unit of the university of East Anglia are working on a thesis and they expect proof within the next few years of whether the increase in the global temperature will surpass natural variations. On three occasions during this decade alone that has happened. They claim that one result could be more natural disasters.
We must spend more time considering how we cope with natural disasters. The House is right to question the Government about whether they have learnt from the experiences of the storm or from those of Chernobyl. They have manifestly not learnt the lessons of Chernobyl, and I am sceptical about whether they have fully learnt the lessons of the storm.
I associate myself and the Labour party with the concluding sentence of the Select Committee report, which says:
A more thorough and long term Government strategy, particularly financial, but advisory as well, is now needed.
I was pleased to hear the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) give such warm-hearted and generous support to the Select Committee report. His concluding remarks rightly drew attention to the lessons that need to be learnt, particularly given the possibility of climatic changes. However, whether there are climatic changes or not, there is a need to develop a more comprehensive strategy to deal with natural disasters.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) and the other members of the Committee on producing a report that is thorough, comprehensive and objective. Its conclusions bear no hint of a political compromise in an effort to present a united front. Sometimes Select Committees pull their punches to present a united front, but on this occasion there was no need for the Committee to approach the matter on a political basis because the report is not concerned with political theory or party politics. It is a fact-finding report and it is a pity that we do not have much of the evidence to support the report. Fortunately, I have some of the evidence with me and I know the people who presented some of it. However, it would have helped the House to have that evidence.
I have no doubt that the Committee has produced a thoroughly good fact-finding report about the physical impact of the hurricane which swept through the south-east on the night of 16 October. It was the most ferocious hurricane for 285 years.
I have no doubt that the report tells the truth, because I was present on the night and I saw the storm's devastating effects the following morning. I have spoken to many people who suffered the most grievous damage to their farms, woodlands and houses. Therefore, there is nothing that I can or wish to say that would embellish or seek to exaggerate the effects of the hurricane on a county that was in the path of the storm and which bore the full brunt of it. Its countryside is the most heavily wooded in England.
Largely because the storm struck at about 4 am, there was no loss of life. I dread to think what would have happened if it had arrived earlier when people were about. Communications broke down. I know that this matter was not dealt with at length in the report, but it is part and parcel of the lessons that we should learn to help us to develop a strategy. There was a catastrophic lack of communication, and had there been loss of life it would have had serious effects on our ability to deliver suitable aid.
I said that there was no loss of life, but that is not quite true. While reconnecting the essential electricity services, which was often a hazardous operation, two men lost their lives—Ian Rice of the Merseyside and North Wales electricity board and Gordon Marsh of the East Midlands electricity board. I am sure that the House would like to express its deepest sympathy to their families. They, and other electricity board employees, did a sterling job. They responded quickly and came front all over the country to help. British Telecom managed to obtain aid from elsewhere to help it to carry out its very complicated job.
I am sure that all hon. Members will endorse wholeheartedly the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare in the report, that the public authorities and the Government played their part as best they could, bearing in mind the suddenness of the onslaught and the fact that communications had broken down.
Before I deal with the measures recommended, and which have been taken to help farmers, the orchards and woodlands, I should like to say a few words about the cost facing East Sussex county council. The report says in paragraphs 23 and 24 that the Government have not honoured their pledge not to make a profit out of the clawback arrangements operating under the rate support grant formula. The hon. Member for South Shields spoke of that.
We have been very fussed about it in East Sussex. My understanding, having met the leader of the county council who has been persistently pursuing the matter, and having met Ministers, is that the Government are not making a profit out of this heavy disaster. To that extent, the Government have been as good as their word. But there remains the vexatious problem of the closing date for eligibility for financial assistance. The date was originally the end of January and it has been extended until the end of February. In no way could East Sussex put in its bid to meet such a deadline. The scale of the damage precluded it from doing so.
There is not time for me to give details of the damage, but it has been costed at about £5 million for East Sussex. Fifteen schools were wholly or partly closed, and more than 500 pupils are still away from their usual schools. Repairs were needed to roads, footpaths, and street lights, of which 4,000 were damaged, and 2·8 million trees were lost in the county. I could go on.
The damage caused by the storm in the county of East Sussex cost about £5 million, compared to £2 million for West Sussex, £500,000 for Surrey, and £4·5 million for Kent. There is little doubt that even in a town like Brighton there is much work still to be done, although it did not bear the brunt of the storm damage. My hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. Bowden) has asked me to make that point on his behalf.
The scale of damage to many schools means that the cost of transporting pupils and hiring temporary accommodation, will continue through the summer term. Work to reinstate all highways, embankments and footpaths will take even longer. None of that cost could have been known to the county or the Government at the outset. In my judgment, it is vital to change the time scale for financial assistance.
I move on to the rural scene generally. There, too, the question of time scale for financial assistance applies. Under the storm damage recovery scheme, the closing date for notification is later, on 31 March this year. The report rightly focuses attention on the costs of clearing up the damage caused to hedges, trees and farm buildings and emphasises the need for help.
The Agriculture Committee was told by almost all the witnesses that the amount of work to be done had been severely underestimated. The Committee reported that officials from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food seemed to rely rather lukewarmly on the farm and countryside initiative, which the Committee did not regard as a necessarily adequate response. I went to some meetings of the East Sussex National Farmers Union, and its members did not regard it as very adequate. No doubt, ground has been made up since then.
I know from my own experience how difficult the problem is. I have two fields, one of which is 4 acres, but there are 12 trees across it. We shall clear them up, of course, voluntarily out of our own pocket. But the Government must recognise that it was only possible for people to move around the county to estimate damage and to start work after volunteers had cleared the damage. The report rightly recommends that the Government examine their policy of minimal support for clearance in the wholly exceptional circumstances following the storm.
The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture rightly recognised this fact in a letter to me on 24 February. He said:
Extra harvesting capacity has already moved into the area, but it has to be recognised that the scale of the windblow was such that it is likely to take years, not months, to clear all the fallen trees. I know that the Forestry Commission is doing its best to see that priority is given to clearing those species—pine and beech—which will begin to deteriorate if they are not lifted quickly.
The Minister added:
I am very conscious of the problems that many woodland owners have to face, and I do see how real has been the devastation in respect of your constituency.
How right he was.
The report is correct to recommend that the Government should re-examine their policy of a minimal approach, but they need to do more. For the owners of commercial and non-commercial woodlands, the scene is a physical tragedy and a financial disaster. Their priority is not so much payment for replanting, about which we have heard a great deal, as money and labour to clear up the mess. Again, the report rightly recognises this difficulty. It says:
On our tour of Sussex we could see the problems of getting into the centre or thick of woods which have become virtually impenetrable because of fallen trees.
That was underlined by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State in his letter to me.
The practical difficulties of clearance are immense. In my judgment, the variety of tasks that must be undertaken by woodland owners could not have been foreseen by those in London. For instance, the Ashdown forest, which is in my constituency, is not run for commercial use. The conservators who are responsible for its maintenance have special obligations to preserve the ecology of the forest.
In their judgment, if they are to do that job properly, it will take two or three years. 'The financial implications of that decision, as the clerk and forest superintendent said to me, are that expenditure on clearing up after the storm will be spread over three years and cannot be spent in the next few months to take advantage of possible Government grants.
The Minister must address himself to that practical point, and if he cannot do so tonight I hope that it will be dealt with later. In the Ashdown forest, an area of outstanding natural beauty which is especially preserved, the conservators cannot do the job of clearance unless they are given more time. It is ludicrous that the time scale is to be so short that they are effectively forbidden from doing so.
For the owners of large commercial woodlands who have run their woods for decades as commercial enterprises, the task is every bit as difficult. I should like to quote from a letter sent to me by an owner.
No one will be applying for grants to replace fences, shelter belts, woodlands, anything, if we do not clear the timber that is on the ground.
He goes on to say that that would cost about £1,500 an acre, and that the estimated cost for his estate is £1·4 million, which he says
is clearly beyond my pocket.
He goes on to say that there is a time element relating to cleaning softwoods:
We are in the middle of a wet winter and there will be a fairly short window between the end of the wet weather and the brambles taking over by which time we need to have got our access roads for timber tug … built.
He asks whether it is possible for the Minister to give a grant at least towards that and adds:
At the moment our rights of way are closed because of the danger from fallen timber, some of which is fairly precariously balanced. We would undertake to reopen all the rights of way within, let us say, nine months if we could get some assistance to do so and use the money also to give us the sort of access that we have to have.
He is not the only one who has drawn my attention to the difficulties of getting access to the hinterland of their woodlands.
I understand that the Government are not prepared to consider this a disaster zone because of the possible repercussions. Nor are they prepared at the moment to consider giving assistance where there was an insurable risk. The firm of Dolwin and Gray, which gave evidence to the Select Committee, manages about 3,500 acres of woodland in the south-east. It estimates that 95 per cent. of woodland owners were not covered for storm damage to mature hardwoods.
Why should they be? Was their judgment so wrong and were they so short-sighted, bearing in mind that the previous hurricane took place 285 years ago? Or could it be that the rates and conditions of insurance are ludicrously impractical? A woodland owner who is a constituent of mine inquired a few years ago about insurance. He was told that it was available, at a price. The only thing that he could insure against and would be paid out on was a tree that was completely destroyed—not a tree that had been badly damaged and would no longer grow or was leaning at 15 degrees. It would have to be totally destroyed.
It is little wonder, bearing in mind the climatic conditions, that in such circumstances people do not think it worthwhile insuring on a vast scale. The Government claim that they do not give assistance where there is an insurable risk, but they gave transport assistance following the 1968 storms in Scotland. Why, therefore, have they so far refused to do so in 1988? I ask the Government for their estimate of the cost of a reasonable insurance policy when dealing with woodlands such as I have described. Do they consider it commercially rational to insure against freak hurricanes of a kind which we last experienced in the south-east in 1703?
There is another point on the extension of time. Did the Government feel that they should not extend the time because people would sit on their backsides and not do anything or invent claims? Did the Government think that people would make false claims if they were insured or, if they were not insured, that they would gang up together against the Government? Anyone should know how difficult it is following a hurricane to work out exactly what needs to be done and how much it will cost. Certainly people were not helped by the wet weather which followed.
Timber Growers United Kingdom Ltd. and the Sussex branch of the Council for the Protection of Rural England agree on the need for special action. I suspect that many of those people do not have a direct axe to grind and should know the nature of the problem. The Forestry Commission, through its forest windblow action committee — we are masters of the under-statement, but windblow is a real masterpiece—has recommended that a restoration supplement should be paid in addition to standard grants. Because the trees were blown down, owners are under no legal obligation to replant. Those who cannot afford to do so will not undertake the work of clearance and replanting.
Bearing in mind some of the whispers about taxation policy in respect of woodlands, and given the high cost of clearance, I wonder whether the Government believe that the timber growers organisation is right when it recommends that the schedule D taxpayer should be allowed to carry forward losses over five years, as restoration will have to take place over a prolonged period. In any case, as the organisation says,
any changes in the tax structure which prevent owners setting off costs against income will make the task of restoration practically impossible.
As the Country Landowners Association rightly points out, these are not all big landowners who own vast forests; many of them own small woodlands and have modest resources. I have little doubt that the tax regime needs to be benevolent if we are to get done the job which is so essential.
There are many other matters which one could raise, but other hon. Members want to take part in the debate. There are many activities whose needs have not been adequately met. There should be a fresh look at the glasshouse sector. The NFU is right to point out that some of the inequities and complications of the glasshouse package could have been avoided if there had been a special storm recovery scheme similar to that introduced in the orchard sector. The NFU was also right to point out that the omission of plastic structures and their products from assistance is very short sighted.
In his eloquent speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare mentioned the value that we attach to the beauty of our countryside. One feature on which we pride ourselves is our farm architectural heritage. Old farm buildings are not always suited to modern agricultural requirements, but they are still used for farming purposes. To try to insure a 17th or 16th-century building is prohibitive and many of them suffered grievously. If we want to preserve our architectural heritage, surely such buildings should be eligible for special help as listed buildings under the Local Authorities (Historic Buildings) Act 1962.
Those are some of the comments and opinions which have been put to me and which I hope I have reflected adequately. I believe them to be based not on special pleading or on the begging bowl philosophy but on basic need. I agree with the Select Committee that the Government are to be commended for their swift response, but with all the benefit of hindsight we can see, with the help of the report, that the scale of the problem has underestimated by the Government. I therefore urge them to take the necessary further remedial action.
Mr. Geraint Howells:
May I remind the House that in 1948, 40 years ago, hon. Members agreed unanimously to set up a disaster fund after the snowstorm of 1947, which was one of the worst in the history of the country? I was at home on the farm in those days, and we were cut off for seven full weeks. All the villages in Wales were under severe strain and we could not get food into the local communities.
The disaster fund of 1948 was similar to the fund that has been requested by the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) and the other members of the Select Committee in their plea to the Government. In 1947, it was sheep that were important. In 1987, it was trees. The disaster fund of 1948 safeguarded the future of many small farmers in Wales and other parts of the country and enabled them to keep farming going for many generations. Many of us who were on the land in those days are indebted to the Government of the day for securing the future of many viable units which were under financial strain because of the storm.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare and his colleagues, who worked very hard in the Select Committee on Agriculture to try to persuade the Government to give financial aid to the unfortunate people who lost many of their assets, which often comprised trees. We cannot blame the Government or the Opposition for what happened. When a storm of such magnitude hits a country, there is very little that any of us can do. I travelled through Hyde park the following week, and all the trees that were down were a sight that I will never forget.
I believe that the Government, in their wisdom, will consider again the recommendations of the Select Committee. I shall not try to cover all the ground that has already been dealt with by other hon. Members. I have here the Committee's 16 recommendations, but I shall refer only to the eight that need top priority. The first recommendation is
that the measures for greater flexibility under the Agricultural Improvement Scheme should achieve the objective of relief to farmers with improvement plans.
I am in favour of that.
The most important recommendation is No. 3:
we conclude that it is now quite clear that the overall allocation, just over £1 million, is still entirely inadequate. It should be urgently revised.
That recommendation should take precedence over all the others. In 1948 the Government reviewed the position and gave an extra sum of money. I believe that the Government will do the same today.
Recommendation No. 4 is also very important, as is recommendation No. 5, that
the Minister looks again at possibilities of greater support for an important sector of the horticultural industry while its producers attempt to re-establish their businesses in the face of constant and fierce foreign competition.
Recommendation No. 9 should also be noted. Recommendation No. 11 deals with the clearance problem that will face many farmers who have big trees on their farms. Recommendation No. 13 is very important, and it has been suggested by hon. Members on both sides of the House that the Government should consider it. Hon. Members have also referred to recommendation No. 16:
A more thorough and long-term Government strategy, particularly financial, but advisory as well, is now needed.
I have always held the view that the Government should have a contingency fund at the ready to help when disaster hits our forests, farms or ports. We are a very wealthy nation and we should have funds ready to safeguard the interests of those less fortunate than ourselves when a storm hits. I hope that the Government will consider the pleas of hon. Members on both sides of the House, because those who were unfortunate in the storm badly need help.
I add my congratulations to those expressed to my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) on his Committee's report. The report was commendably brief, following a thorough examination carried out very swiftly. This is our first opportunity to debate the matter fully, so I thank the Leader of the House for making it available to us.
On the morning following the night of 16 October, there was a scene of devastation in West Sussex and the other constituencies in the south-east affected by the hurricane. The storm was a complete catastrophe, which affected not only woodland owners. It had an almost universal effect on trees in the grounds of large and small houses throughout the counties of Sussex and Kent, and further afield. It was a catastrophe whose effects will be felt for many years to come. We talk about compensation, but there can be no financial compensation sufficient to repair the damage caused by the storm. Even when the trees have been replanted it will be many years before they reach anything like their previous stature.
When I say that the face of West Sussex was changed completely, I mean it. Some old familiar landmarks, such as Chanctonbury Ring, will take many years to restore to their former glory. The storm was not just a local but a national tragedy. Like my hon. Friends I congratulate the public authorities — especially Seeboard and British Telecom — on their wonderful work in repairing the damage and restoring normality so quickly.
We should be aware that the damage affected not only woodland owners, but small householders—a topic not mentioned in the report. I was struck by the number of letters that I received from pensioners who had been charged up to £2,000 to have one or two large trees removed from their gardens. Cowboys charged elderly people with no means of payment colossal sums at that time. Therefore, while we talk about relieving the anxiety of woodland owners with large acreages of woodland, we must bear in mind the real privations suffered by small householders. I remind the House that they had no choice in the matter. They had to remove the trees very quickly, whereas a woodland owner could at least choose how and when to have them removed.
May I ask my hon. Friend the Minister what will be the loss of grant, if any, to county authorities. I have it in writing from the county treasurer that
For West Sussex our £8·5 million will generate an estimated £4 million of net additional grant. There is no question of central government making a profit out of our storm damage expenditure.
That comes from an authority that has not always been very pleased with the Government. My hon. Friends and I have been known to vote against the Government on the rate support grant settlements—for very good reasons. We are not in the habit of congratulating my hon. Friend the Minister, but West Sussex appears to have nothing to complain of in this respect. Therefore, I congratulate the Government on their speedy response to our representations.
We should be aware of the full cost of implementing the recommendations in the report. I do not suppose that it is possible to estimate exactly how much that will be—unless the Government can make an informed guess—but I should think that it would be a substantial sum. Before agreeing that large sums should be given to forest, woodland and landowners, we should consider the effect of such grants on the many small householders who suffered commensurate hardship as a result of the storm. I should not like to think that the Government favoured large landowners at the expense of small householders whose properties suffered damage.
Many large woodland owners plant trees as a form of investment. I recognise the hardship that they suffered, but many people with other forms of investment suffered greatly as a result of black Monday last year, and they are not asking for or expecting compensation. I have met many large landowners in my constituency and, to my knowledge, they are not asking for extra special help. They recognise that theirs is private land in which they have made a substantial investment and they do not blame the Government for what has happened. The only request that I would make is that, with large woodland areas open to the public, such as Chanctonbury Ring, there is a strong case for granting assistance to repair the ravages of the storm so that people can continue to enjoy the woodlands.
I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will not only consider sympathetically the plight of large landowners—I hope that those with properties and woodlands open to the public will receive some assistance—but will bear in mind the plight of small householders and woodland owners who have asked for no compensation at all.
I am essentially a townie boy and I have very little knowledge of the farming community, although I enjoy the countryside from time to time and I should like to express my great sympathy for those in horticulture and farming who suffered a loss of livelihood as a result of what was described as the hurricane of 16 October. It was, indeed, a devastating storm and although I understand that it fell just short of a hurricane in ferocity, it was nevertheless a phenomenon that we hope we shall not see again in our lifetime.
I recall that I toured my constituency because I was extremely worried about the extent of the damage and the possibility of injury. I agree with the hon. Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith), who described it as nothing short of a miracle that no one was killed. People would certainly have died if it had happened at another time of day, but many people were in bed, and sound sleepers were quite unaware of what was happening in the early hours of the morning. People just thought that the wind was getting up a bit. But it was indeed devastating and something we hope not to see again. I hope that the Government, in looking at this excellent Select Committee report, will not be all that worried if they have to arrange with the Chancellor of the Exchequer to take a more generous attitude. It is not something that is likely to recur every year; that possibility is quite remote.
I join in congratulating the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) on his excellent report, to which the Government should pay very close attention. I checked with the hard-pressed London borough of Ealing, which has just been rate-capped by the Ministers concerned—quite unjustly and unfairly, I think. It should not have to shoulder almost the entire burden of all the activity that resulted from the storm.
I entirely support paragraph 24, which reads:
We entirely reject that decision by the Secretary of State. We urge him to reconsider his policy on the Bellwin Scheme in the light of the evidence we had which shows that its effects on financing emergency work by local authorities are quite unacceptable.
I feel that, despite party political differences in other directions, that view would be reflected in almost every local authority.
Given the locality of my constituency, I particularly endorse paragraph 29 of the report, which states:
We put on record our commendation of all those in various government departments, local authorities, the electricity boards, the army, police and various private organisations who acted so promptly and so efficiently in the immediate aftermath of the storm.
I recall from where I live a tree which had fallen across three houses. It was a miracle that it did not fall the other way and destroy roofs and possibly take the lives of a number of people. I saw the effects, and it is truly a miracle that the effect on human life was much less than it might have been.
Had the storm occurred at 4 O'clock in the afternoon, I am sure the story would have been different, because in numerous places the roads would have been cluttered up with traffic and many people would have suffered as a consequence. I recall that on the route that I take to this place every day there was concern about falling branches or timber, so lanes were shut off in the interests of safety.
I conclude with this thought about the matter, which is proficiently dealt with in the report and which calls for a proper reply today. There should be proper consideration of the mean attitude taken by central Government. We are coming near to the time of the Chancellor of the Exchequer's speech—a long-winded speech, I may say—and one hopes he will be able to include in it some reference to the hurricane disaster and what he suggests might be done financially to assist those who have been so severely affected and those local authorities that could do with a hit of a handout—particularly the London borough of Ealing.
I follow others in paying a hearty tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) for compiling an impressive and compelling report for the House. Mine was one of those constituencies most badly affected by the great storm on 16 October. Its impact was immediately apparent, though only to those in the locality, for much of the area was cut off and unapproachable.
My own home, which is just outside Midhurst, in the middle of my constituency, was typical of the communities that could not be approached by any road because of the fallen woodlands surrounding it. There was hardly a family or household in the whole district that was not affected in one way or another by the disaster.
There was among the people there, as is often the case after a disaster, a feeling that they wanted to tell others what had happened. It was not so much that they wanted immediate relief; they wanted others to listen, and to tell them of their own experiences. Indeed, I found that one of the traits amongst my constituents was the remarkably public-spirited way in which many of them—with the Dunkirk spirit—immediately took up chainsaws and helped to clear public roads as well as their own land, and went to the assistance of the elderly in the community who were not fully able to look after themselves to ensure that their lifelines were open.
In the ensuing period, which lasted many weeks in some cases, when there was no lighting, electricity or fuel available to many houses, particularly in the northern part of my district, there was a stoic attitude among many of my constituents which should be recorded during this debate.
Like many other Members of Parliament in the areas affected, I made it my business to try to see for myself the impact of the damage. My constituency, which comprises a very large agricultural district, reflected a wide range of damage. There was damage to virtually every household in Chichester and the other major towns of Selsey, Southwater, Midhurst and Petworth in the form of missing roof tiles and fallen trees. In many cases there were personal and sometimes tragic injuries.
There was also agricultural and horticultural devastation in particular. In horticulture, dairy farmers were unable to have their herds milked adequately and promptly. There was also the problem, well publicised, in horticulture of having to clear away large amounts of broken glass and losing the crop being grown at the time. That caused serious cash-flow difficulties, as well as personal problems in getting the work done.
It was not simply agriculture and horticulture that suffered. Many commercial businesses suffered because of the breakdown in communications and people's inability to get to work for a long time. The environment also suffered — not just the natural environment but the architecture and heritage of ancient Roman cities such as Chichester, with their Georgian image of the present time, and also the great estates and fine houses. Although they are not typical of those occupied by the majority of my constituents, they are a national treasure and a feature that people from throughout the country enjoy. Great homes such as Petworth house and Goodwood house, which have large woodland estates, suffered enormous damage—as did Westdean and the estate on which I live, which is Lord Cowdray's estate at Midhurst.
I pay tribute to many of those estates and estate workers who worked then, who continue to work, and who will have to do so for many years, to clear the enormous damage, which I believe was never sufficiently recognised nationally at the time. Indeed, because many areas were so unapproachable, many people did riot appreciate the extent of the devastation.
For all those reasons, when my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare and our hon. Friends on the Select Committee undertook their visit, it was very welcome. I took the opportunity to speak to my hon. Friend, before and after, about his visit. Pictures of him, my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) and others appeared in all the local press and on television, and I can tell them now, as I have said since, that their visit was very much appreciated in my constituency and elsewhere. It showed that our problems were being taken seriously, were being understood and were being given a sympathetic ear by the House.
When later I joined my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Sir P. Hordern) and other colleagues from west Sussex to meet my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment to gain assurances that the Treasury would not make a profit and that we would not lose out in terms of rate support grant from any financial assistance, I was encouraged by governmental, as well as by parliamentary, response to believe that our problems were receiving more serious consideration and understanding than I felt they were in the immediate aftermath of the crisis.
Therefore, I join others in broadly welcoming the Government's response and their sympathetic ear to the problems that have been discussed. I still feel that there is an element of Catch 22 for many constituents and sectors adversely affected by the crisis. Many of my constituents were told, when I raised the matter with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister immediately after the storm, that, for understandable reasons, the Government would not consider subventing or paving for damage which was insurable. One understands the reasons for that, but when one looks at the damage that is not insurable one finds that in many instances it is not eligible, and could not be eligible, for Government support or local authority recompense.
When the glass falls down in a newly-built glasshouse the large cost of clearing that glass, which is time-consuming, is not covered by insurance, even though replacement of the glass may be. Similarly, as many growers have told me—this is just one example—when a glasshouse which is, say, 12 or 13 years old collapses, the insurance company will pay only for the insurable cost of that, bearing in mind the age of the glass. Yet the grower is faced with replacing that glass at the modern-day cost. Very few insurance policies, even for those who have sought to cover such liabilities, cover the cost of reconstruction.
Happily, the financial state of horticulture is a good deal sounder today than it was a few years ago. I welcome that, as does my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel (Mr. Marshall), who is a neighbour of mine. He cannot be here today, but he has asked me to associate him with my remarks. Two weeks ago we visited, with the West Sussex Growers Association, some of the glasshouse industry in the area which had been devastated by the storm, and which still shows serious signs of that damage. It will take time and money to recover from that, but the Select Committee's report has gone some way to drawing to the Government's attention what can reasonably be done to alleviate the problems.
The only other aspect that I want to mention is the ingenious and positive suggestion of the transport subsidy on trees. I welcome that recommendation, despite all its problems. I can see why there may well be reluctance to use public funds to transport wood from one end of the country to the other, perhaps to sell it at a different price. I can see why that might not appeal to a free market approach, but the fact is that we have a serious tragedy on our hands in my corner of Britain, and just as other parts of Britain would look to us to play our part and be sympathetic and constructive were a natural disaster to strike them, so I say that that proposal should be given a fair wind.
I hope that the Government will seriously consider spending what I think will be a relatively small amount of money, but which will go a long way towards assisting the viability of many of the concerns and ensuring that there is tree clearance, so that many of the woods, particularly the pine woods, do not rot more than is necessary and so that some order is brought to a market where there has already been a massive collapse in prices in the south. That is in nobody's interests and we can take some action in the short term at relatively minor cost which will have long-term benefits.
For all those reasons, the House has been done a service by my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) and the Select Committee, and I look forward, with my hon. Friends, to hearing the reply of my hon. Friend the Minister.
As a member of the Select Committee, I endorse the findings of the report, but I want to stress several aspects.
We learned that 87 local authorities consider themselves significantly affected, and although it is difficult, for all sorts of valid reasons, to estimate the total cost to those authorities, it is expected to be in excess of £98 million.
It is typical of the Government that what they give with one hand they take away with the other. Their special grant of £18·3 million will be reduced to £8·5 million. The disparity between the effects on counties obviously depends on how near such authorities are to their grant-related expenditure ceiling.
The £1 million for hedges and shelter belts will, as the Minister said he intended, have to be flexible, but it will have to be flexible upwards since the estimate of damage will be finalised only on a time scale of years, not months, as areas become open to examination.
A transport subsidy is the largest omission from the Government's reaction to the disaster. There is no sense in providing a replanting subsidy to commercial fruit growers, whether insured or not, yet leaving hop growers, soft fruit growers and vineyard owners to fend for themselves.
I hope that efforts will be made to direct replanting in such a way as to preserve the environment and the ecology of the areas affected in the long term.
I endorse the commendations of the public services, especially the electricity boards. I strongly suspect that, had they been broken down into competing private companies with different equipment and employment priorities, they could not have reacted in such a coordinated and publicly useful way.
I understand that the hon. Member for Clywd, South-West (Mr. Jones) is an expert on the brewing industry, so I am glad that he took the opportunity, as I would have expected, to mention the position of hop growers. That gives me the chance to mention the specific problem affecting, not a large number of people, but a number of hop growers and soft fruit growers, who, inexplicably, in terms of all equity, have been excluded from assistance. The amount is not great, but the principle is considerable, and I hope that when my hon. Friend the Minister replies he will say that there is some scope for making the scheme more flexible in order to help people such as the hop growers and soft fruit growers who have been hit. They are not many, but the position is serious for them.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the work of the electricity boards. I repeat what has been said, because the compliments are not empty ones. The work done by many of the emergency services and organisations was stupendous. Some of the woodland areas were devastated, with telegraph poles and trees entangled, with lines down for miles and villages totally isolated, and the work of the telephone companies and electricity boards in particular was stupendous. I suspect that we all saw the pictures of the Gurkhas cutting their way through some of the undergrowth. In many ways, that symbolises the work done by the defence authorities, the police, local authorities and others in a short time. We are grateful for and proud of their work.
An immense amount of voluntary work was also undertaken at that time. Because the farmers had the heavier equipment and the cutting equipment, it was often they who came out to clear the roads. They have not asked for payment for that. If they get some, I shall be delighted, but, generally speaking, it was in a spirit of voluntary enterprise that the farming community cleared the roads and gained access to areas that were otherwise cut off.
Let us pay tribute to all those who did so much, particularly during the weekend after the catastrophe and the weeks that followed. I echo what my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Sir P. Hordern) said. He stressed that the farmers are not asking for very much. He referred to the estate owners. Very few estate owners are demanding total compensation for the damage that they sustained. In view of the total estimate of damage of £1 billion, it is clear that the amount that is being offered by the Government, or asked for on top of the amount from the Government, is very small indeed.
The orchard growers in my constituency welcome the £2 a tree scheme, but, even if they receive that, many of them face immense losses which they are taking on the chin. They do not expect to receive payment for barns that in effect were uninsurable because of their structure. They do not expect to get very much payment for clearance and other work. They do not expect compensation for the loss of income that they will sustain for many years to come.
We are grateful to the Government for what they have done. Equally, we must recognise that the industry, individual private householders, estate owners and land-owners will carry immense losses for many years to come. I was glad to hear the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) say that he had toured the area and had been shaken. If one lives in one part of the country, it is easy, when a national disaster occurs in a different part of the country, to he oblivious to it. It was shattering and devastating and the damage it has done will leave scars on the countryside for decades to come. Unless one saw and experienced it, one could not know how great was its scale.
However, the damage could have been so much worse. That is hard to believe, when one sees woodlands shattered and devastated and one cannot get access to hundreds of acres of woodlands, and one does not know how to clear it because the cost of clearing could be hundreds of thousands of pounds. Had the storms continued for another day or two, many trees that were weakened but still standing would have been flattened, and many more buildings would have been flattened. Had the storm occurred when there were standing crops across a larger area of the country, we would have been measuring the costs not in terms of the report, but in terms of billions of pounds more of uninsured and insurable losses.
It worries me that our response to disasters is always ad hoc. In my years as a Member of Parliament, in my constituency we have had major flooding and major snow damage on a national disaster scale, and we have now had the hurricane. Every time, it comes as a surprise. It will come as a surprise next time and after a month, two months or three months of consideration, the Government will offer some modest assistance. However, the time could come when the damage and the loss go beyond that. It worries me that we never seem to have thought about how we could cope. Geologists and seismologists say that we cannot have earthquakes in Britain. I hope that they are right, but how would our great insurance companies cope with a national disaster that inflicted billions of pounds worth of damage?
I particularly welcome the report and the opportunity to debate it today because it gives us a chance to say to the Government that we do not know whether a disaster fund is the right way to handle it, but surely the Government should he doing a great deal of thinking about how to react to major disasters and not always be taken by surprise. We are grateful to the Government for their response, but I have to say that a tremendous amount of debate between the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Treasury was generated before we got what we were offered. If there were such a debate on a disaster of that scale, how much longer would it take if the damage was on a totally national scale, or on a more serious level?
I urge the Government to take up the point in the report about the need for a proper structured response and to follow one of the conclusions in the report, recommendation 30, which states:
A more thorough and long-term Government strategy, particularly financial but advisory as well, is now needed.
That is fundamental. Let us please take it on board.
Another more modest point is the need for flexibility. I support absolutely the point made in the report about the need for a more flexible approach to the grant already on offer. The Government would spoil what they are doing if they maintained the 31 March cut-off date. I hope that when my hon. Friend replies he will say that that deadline will not be applied.
I ask the Government to provide total flexibility in the administration of this scheme. Let us extend it, if we can, to certain growers who are currently excluded in the horticulture industry, which is a very precarious and tough business with very small margins. Let us make it more flexible. Above all, will the Government devise a long-term strategy for responding to such disasters?
As a Kentish Member who slept through the eye of the storm until half my roof blew off, I can say that that experience at my home and further afield was indeed traumatic. In my constituency, which was in the main path of the storm, some of the most beautiful woodland in south-east England has been reduced to aspects of a lumber yard. Many ancient barns in our farming community were completely destroyed and blown away. The horticultural industry has seen far too many hundreds of trees uprooted and pushed aside with an immense amount of work involved for people on those farms to replace the trees even if they had not had to bulldoze the trees completely away and start afresh.
I should like to pay tribute to the work of the staff of Kent county council and its sub-contractor, Gravesham borough council, for their sterling work in overcoming the problems of dangerous structures and leaning trees which were causing danger to the public. I should like to include in that tribute the work force in the electricity industry and in British Telecom, who worked around the clock to restore public services to our part of Kent.
I should like to take up a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Sir P. Hordern) because he put his finger on a major problem. Relatively modest householders who had large trees in small gardens suddenly, literally overnight, found themselves with an urgent and very expensive problem in dealing with those large trees. The cowboys certainly were at work, and many of my constituents had to pay over the odds to bring safety to their homes by the removal of such trees. I should like to refer to one particular example.
In my constituency there is a development known as Vigo village which consists of 786 houses built during the past 20 years literally in the middle of a wood. In the height of summer it is a beautiful place to live and in the winter it is bleak, dark and shadowy. In that storm, more than 20 per cent. of the trees were made unstable. That must have been a very frightening experience. The village was developed in such way that there are many walkways and communal lands throughout the development of housing which were not conveyed to individual householders. They were conveyed to a newly established organisation, the Vigo village trust. Every householder pays £25 a year towards the maintenance of the wooded area and the walkways.
However they did not, and could not, provide for the fact that more than 20 per cent. of those trees would become unstable and need to be felled and cleared away, apart from the trees from the communal areas of the trust that were leaning on the houses. It has been calculated that the cost of removing the trees and making them safe amounts to £20,000.
The householders have already spent £4,000 on making the trees safe, and they have an immense way to go. However, no cash is forthcoming from the public authorities to assist in that task. While I note that the Government are providing not ungenerous support of 75 per cent. of costs to local government, subject to the 1p rate proviso, is it not rather straightlaced for that kind of support not to be available to other corporate bodies that represent the community at large such as the Vigo village trust? At the end of the day, the borough and county councils represent and serve the people in a particular area. Exactly the same function and service is provided by trusts like the Vigo village trust. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will consider that point to discover whether organisations like the Vigo village trust can be given assistance with this exceptional problem.
Many of my hon. Friends have referred to the welling up of public spirit brought about by the tragedy. Like other hon. Members, I travelled around my constituency to discover what could and was being done. I was very impressed to see groups of people voluntarily using chain saws and the like, making dangerous trees and dangerous structures safe and opening up the roads in support of the public authorities. We should commend those people on their work and be aware that public spirit has not been lost in our communities.
I begin by saying how much I enjoyed serving as a member of the Select Committee on Agriculture. As a Back Bencher, it felt good to be seen to be doing something useful rather than simply participating in sterile debates.
I speak for my Labour party colleagues when I say that we did not approach this matter in a political way. We did not intend to ambush the Government. In fact, we produced a unanimous report. We praised the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when that was necessary, but we were critical of the Government on occasions. More than that, we pointed the way to the future. We recommended what should happen instead of concentrating on what had gone wrong. That was a useful approach and I hope that it will continue to be the approach in Select Committees, especially in the Select Committee on Agriculture.
Paragraph 28 of the Select Committee report states that the
£2·7 million was planned for replanting in the current financial year only.
We included that to emphasise that the Government seemed to concentrate their minds on the following year only when they were questioned. If we had not raised the issue, the £2·7 million or the grant for next year would not have been considered. That was certainly an achievement on our part.
More important, we explain in paragraph 19 that an immediate decision should be taken about the transport grant. It is essential that we discover very soon how much will be available to transport trees from the storm-damage areas to the sawmills in the midlands, Wales, Cumbria and Scotland. If we do not transport those trees at one end of the country, they will rot, be attacked by pests or become stained there, while the other end of the country will be importing timber—and we are all aware of the current balance of payments position. In fact, trees will be cut down at the other end of the country unnecessarily. That would be a terrible waste. I hope that the Minister will tell us that he will agree to the transport grant.
I realise that other hon. Members want to speak, so I will be brief. I believe that the Government have underestimated the problem that was created last October. Therefore, they have underestimated the funds that will be necessary to put matters right.
As I am probably the last member of the Select Committee on Agriculture to be called to speak today, I want to thank the House for the courtesy that it has shown to the report and the kind of comments that have been made about it. If it is not invidious, I want to commend my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) for his leadership of the Committee and also mention our Clerk, Malcolm Jack, who served the Committee well and helped us to produce the report. He is due to carry out other business in the House. I also want to mention those who arranged for the early publication of the report, albeit without its voluminous appendices, which has allowed us to have an early debate in what must be record time. That is entirely appropriate in view of the urgency of the situation.
When we visited areas south of the Thames, I was struck by two particular points. Little comment has been made about the first. I was struck by the extremely capricious nature of the storm. I live only a county and a a bit away from the areas most severely affected by the storm's impact, yet the problems that I experienced were typical only of a normal severe storm. The position in the south-east was diabolical, awful and "shocking"—the word that we all used to describe the scenes.
There was no uniform effect in the south-east. In what had been a row of trees, half were standing and the other half had been felled. One glasshouse might have been demolished and three left standing, and the wind might have taken another one out on the other side of the nursery garden. Those effects are extraordinary and extremely difficult to assess, compute and calculate for loss.
My second point is more familiar. In a sense, the storm was unprecedented. With respect to the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), we do not know when the next storm will occur, but we know that it is nearly 300 years since a storm on this scale hit this part of the country. That has major implications for what private citizens and the Government can do to meet almost unforeseen contingencies.
It is not a common practice for Conservative Members to argue for the expenditure of more public money, but there is a contingency fund. What is the point of a public contingency reserve unless it is used for contingencies of this kind? I have great sympathy with the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate) and it is distressing that when the need to approach the contingency occurs the matter must be picked over with the Treasury, item by item, before appropriate measures are taken. That may be the way of the world, but we must address that matter and improve the procedure.
In making my case that the scale of the disaster overwhelmed our provisions, I am in no sense attacking the emergency provisions of the public authorities. Indeed, the Committee made no such attack. Those emergency provisions were most commendable, and appropriate reference has been made to them today. I want to add to that the evidence that we received about the work carried out by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Department of the Environment, local authorities and public utilities. In particular, I want to state that the Forestry Commission set to work straight away and established the windblow action group. All those measures were businesslike and brisk and intended to deal with an unprecedented situation.
There are four things that could not have been foreseen and can be dealt with only after the event. First, I want to consider the impact on glasshouses, and reference has already been made to this. No prudent nurseryman could have insured to cover, not simply the replacement cost of glass today, but the expected replacement cost if a significant proportion of the industry was taken out. The House may not fully appreciate that accidents and natural disasters frequently affect one or two glasshouses or growers. Indeed, we visited a site at Barnham where such problems have occurred several times recently. Storm damage on the scale that we are considering could not have been anticipated, and that damage must have had a direct effect on the market for replacement glass and the labour to replace that glass.
Secondly, I want to consider the deadline for the Ministry's storm damage recovery scheme. In particular, I am referring to the impact on orchard trees. In its evidence, the Ministry referred to the extreme difficulty of assessing the damage at this stage, and that fact has not been sufficiently highlighted. The trees are still in bud and have not come into full leaf. In some cases they may not come into full leaf because of latent damage from root disturbance or salt spray. It is extremely difficult to assess the real damage now, only three weeks before the deadline. Will my hon. Friend the Minister give us a report on the progress of applications under that scheme to date and, better still, tell us that he is prepared to lift or delay the deadline for applications?
The third matter concerns the Department of the Environment and the Bellwin rules. The Committee was privileged to meet that rare individual, the official who fully understood those rules. In the mind and experience of some local authorities there is still a residual feeling that even if they have not lost out, which they probably have, they have not received Government grant commensurate with the tremendous costs and problems that they face.
Finally, there is the issue of forestry and the Forestry Commission, which I have already commended. It gave us a most valuable contribution, as did the timber growers and private interests. I must mention, first, the age structure of trees that were blown out of the ground or whose tops were snapped off in the storms. It was evident in places such as Slindon woods of the National Trust, which we visited, that to some extent, in the parklands at least, many trees in the south-east were over-mature. To a certain extent we have killed our landscape with kindness.
I know that I would feel that the beautiful trees and fine oaks on my land, which have not yet gone completely stag-headed, let alone started dying down the centre, should be taken out in time only with the greatest reluctance—even more so if they were part of an avenue. It is an agonising decision for any landowner, public or private, to know what to do. Tree preservation orders are there in the background. We must all take this experience back and think about it again and try to obtain a better age distribution and balance in our hedgerow timber and woodland provision.
This means that the chaos of the clearance operation presents us with an opportunity. The difficulties that there will be in restocking the woods are perhaps a benefit. We will not be able to restore them physically all in the twinkling of an eye. It will take years and decades, but perhaps there is wisdom in that. I have heard the storm described as "God's felling licence." We must think about how to restore these landscapes.
In doing so, and in calling for some public money, I stress the modest proposals made by the windblow action group. Members of the Committee felt that the group could have gone further. These are small sums compared with the scale of the damage. I remind the House of the cost of the proposal in the windblow action group report. There is a proposal for a transport subsidy to be applied over 15 months at £2·5 million, and for a restoration grant to be applied to replanting thereafter, supplementing the existing planting grant, of about £4 million—
Over five years, as my hon. Friend reminds me. These are modest sums compared with the damage incurred. It is incumbent upon the Government at least to fund these amounts, because they would go some way towards removing the problem.
The problem remains awful. It seems awful to us on the outside: how much more so to those who live in and experience it every day? I share the opinions of my hon. Friends and of Opposition Members who have mentioned the problems of small growers. Perhaps the larger greenhouse nurseymen are kitted up to meet these disasters, but many people's businesses and morale will literally have been destroyed.
There can be no criticism of the initial action of the official bodies, which was commendably prompt. However, there is a residual doubt about the ability of the Government to wheel themselves in and respond on a structured basis to these disasters with cash, without people having to fight each and every battle with the Treasury. When there is a contingency such as this, a better way should be found. The scale of the storm overtook and overwhelmed the prudent provisions made by private individuals and public authorities.
No mechanisms were in place that could cope with the disaster. The Bellwin rules are not bad in principle, but they cannot cope with a hurricane of this sort. The storm brought grievous private loss and great private grief. There is a public interest in effective clearance and recovery of the woodland areas and in learning the lessons for the future, so that in due course—it will take time—the glory of these forests and areas of beautiful countryside will be even greater than it was.
I shall be brief because I want to give the Minister time to respond to the many points made in the debate.
It might appear strange that the hon. Member from the Western Isles, the furthest north-west corner of the country, should speak about an event that occurred in the south-east corner, but there is a connection, apart from the fact that I was also a member of the Select Committee.
I wholly endorse the Committee's findings and associate myself with the remarks of the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) and my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) about the conduct of the Committee and the non-partisan way it went about its business. I also agree with the tribute that has been paid to the guidance of the Chairman and the work of the Clerk of the Committee.
The Committee's report praised the work of the public and local authorities and all in the public services who helped to tackle the damage caused by the storm. As has been mentioned, two electricity board staff died while working to bring back power to the south-east. That shows something that we too often forget—that much dedicated, hard and sometimes dangerous work is done in the public service industries. Sometimes we focus on the more glamorous public services such as the police or the Army, but in many industries there is an undercurrent of constant danger and it is good to acknowledge that and praise the people who work in spite of it.
Although Conservative Members frequently prefer to support the notion of unfettered market forces, they have recognised here a case for public intervention and support and for positive policies by the Government to help the hard-pressed growers, horticulturists and people in the south-east who were affected by the storm. That irony was justified by referring to the major natural tragedy caused by the storm which, it was said, necessitated public support and intervention. I certainly agree with that.
On later occasions, when I rise to seek public support intervention for areas of the country that are naturally disadvantaged throughout the year rather than as a result of one storm, I hope that I will receive equal sympathy from the Conservative Benches. What happened in the south-east of England on one night was a concentrated form of the natural disadvantages that are suffered in other areas throughout the year, especially in my constituency and the rest of the Highlands and Islands.
Although it may have appeared strange for me to contribute to this debate, given my geographical origin, I hope that Conservative Members will appreciate that there is a connection, will take the lessons of the storm to heart and will consider other parts of the country on other occasions.
The debate has been fair and informed and it has allowed us to arrive at a considerable measure of consensus. As my hon. Friend the Member for Western Isles pointed out, it has united free marketeers calling for greater public subsidies and Socialist planners arguing the case for the Country Landowners Association.
The contributions from Conservative Members representing rural areas have been reinforced by the contribution for the urban areas from my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Bidwell), who I am sure will join us presently. Hon. Members who have spoken with great concern on behalf of their constituents have had their views reinforced by, dare I say it, provincial Members in the shape of my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, South-West (Mr. Jones), the hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North (Mr. Howells), who has tendered his apology for his absence as a result of another engagement, as well as by my hon. Friend the Member for Western Isles. The north of England was represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew). Therefore, there is a wealth of pressure on the Government and we look forward with interest to the Minister's reply.
I thank my hon. Friends who served on the Committee for their presence in the Chamber and I am aware that the Chairman, the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) appreciated their presence on the Committee. My hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle has already said that its report was unanimous, and that adds additional weight to it.
I have no doubt that the consensus that has been arrived at is, in large part, due to the considered and careful way in which the Committee approached its task. Among its members there has been general unity in taking issue with the Government. It is general unity because there was one lone voice—it was the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), of course—who gently prodded the Government. He declined to join his colleagues in pressing the Government more forcefully.
I always enjoy listening to the hon. Gentleman's comments and criticisms of me. Would he please accept that I stand by every word of the Committee's report? I notice that there are certain points in that report that are more than mildly critical of the Government and, in common with the hon. Gentleman, I look forward to my hon. Friend's reply.
I am delighted to have that confirmation of the unanimity of the House and of the Select Committee. I note that the Minister is having a quick word with the representative from the Whips Office—doubtless he is looking for some sustenance for times to come. It is worth reminding him that the House and the Committee are united in support of the 16 conclusions and recommendations of the report, 12 of which are critical of the Government and call for more Government action.
If there is one message that the Minister should carry with him at the conclusion of the debate it is that there is a great deal of concern about the way in which the compensation scheme has operated and the way in which it has been laid before the House. However, I am not seeking to criticise that scheme unduly.
The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare introduced the Committee's report—the first report under his Chairmanship—with a graphic description of the events of last October and of the havoc and destruction that befell this corner of the south-east of England. We are not debating our concern about those events, but the nature of the Government's response to that concern and its adequacy.
We await with interest the considered response from the Government to the evidence submitted to the Committee. That evidence is not yet available and there is only one "unproofed" copy of it in the Library. I know that some of my hon. Friends have managed to look at it, but the House will appreciate the particular difficulties involved when there is only one copy available — and that evidence is voluminous. We await with interest the Government's response tonight, as well as their response after they have had the chance to read the evidence submitted to the Committee and evaluate what has happened.
The debate is restricted to the scheme that the Government have laid before us. In common with other hon. Members — I single out the hon. Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith) because he was the first to express his sympathy — I should like to express sympathy to those families who lost someone either through accident or in service to others, to people who suffered injury—perhaps not grabbing headlines at the time—and to those who suffered domestic upheaval, many of them in isolated rural areas, who were without power and access for many days. We all wish to pay tribute to their fortitude and that of' the public services that attempted to ease the situation.
The economic losses have been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), who mentioned the damage to horticulture, and the hon. Member for Suffolk, Central (Mr. Lord). The hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Nelson) spoke movingly about the problems for growers in the southern part of Sussex. We all recognise the problems that they face. It is adequate for me to say that those problems have been described and I would be labouring the point if I made any further mention of them.
It is ironic that, give the attention that most of the day's proceedings have been afforded by the Press Gallery, it falls to me, at 7 o'clock, when the Press Gallery is empty, to put the case for the hop growers and vineyard proprietors. I am afraid that I will receive no plaudits tomorrow and no special treats during the summer.
Paragraphs 5 and 6 of the Committee's report forcefully put the case for glasshouse growers, the soft fruit growers, the hop growers and the vineyard owners. Their case was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, South-West. We agree with the conclusions arrived at in those paragraphs.
Hon. Members who have read the Committee's report in detail will recognise the inescapable fact that the compensation scheme is inadequately funded. Can the Minister tell us how much the Government are prepared to make available in compensation at this stage? Will that sum be cash-limited? How many applications have been received? What percentage of those applications have been processed? How many of them have been accepted? In the event of a high proportion of applications not being accepted, and if cash limits are introduced, will the Government be prepared to revise those limits? Those are realistic questions to which the hon. Member for Chichester, for one, seeks answers.
I hope that the Chairman and members of the Select Committee will listen with interest to the Minister's answers, but, if he is unable to provide those answers tonight, I hope that he will arrange for them to be sent to me in a letter, and I shall ensure that my hon. Friends receive the reply.
I wish to turn now to an issue which, I confess, has a personal interest, and on which I see almost eye to eye with the hon. Member for Daventry—the damage inflicted on trees, either as individuals or as stands, and on woodlands. There has been an economic impact, through the loss of timber, and a visual impact on the landscape.
I have toured the counties of Kent, Suffolk and Sussex and seen much of the damage which was horrific and beyond imagination. There has been a considerable effect on the landscape and a considerable loss of wildlife habitat and sporting and recreational facilities.
We must be aware of those considerations and I hope that, when the Minister considers his woodland policy in future years, he will recognise that his policy should be guided not only by economic loss but by those other considerations.
I wish to make two particular points to the Minister. First, recommendation 3 refers to the environmental damage. There has been much debate about the impact of the Bellwin scheme and I do not propose to go over that ground again. We endorse without equivocation the finding in recommendation 3 which describes the extra amount for environmental damage as entirely inadequate. The Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare, drew attention to the fact that, with a timber loss of some 4 million cu m in the United Kingdom, the compensation fund amounted to £1 million whereas, in France, for a timber loss which was almost double, the compensation made available was 15 times greater. Those are significant figures
We are in a slight danger of confusing different schemes. The £1 million to which the hon. Gentleman refers relates to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food scheme for farmers. There is also the Department of the Environment scheme and others. Although we have criticised that £1 million sum, it would be wrong to say that that is all that the Government have given and to give too much emphasis to it, when it is simply one part.
I accept that, but I think that the hon. Gentleman will accept that the money available from the Department of the Environment was substantially for a different purpose and not for the type of woodland loss that we have seen in the counties of the south and east.
Secondly—I was interested in the comments made by the hon. Member for Daventry on this point, both earlier and in Committee — I should like to draw to the attention of the House a point which arose from the evidence given by Mr. Francis of the Forestry Commission in reply to a question from the hon. Member for Daventry. He was referring to the factors which affected the extent and nature of windblow damage. He said:
The other factor which is, in my mind, quite significant on this occasion is the fact that the population of trees which existed was, in a sense, a very vulnerable one, because it had a high component of trees which were over-mature and whose quality was often much deteriorated. Like any other living thing, trees as they get older become more susceptible to a variety of things, including in this instance stormblow. So that I think one of the implications of the storm in the long term is to consider that perhaps on occasions we might be keeping trees for far too long, simply because we treasure the appearance of them in the landscape—as we do—and that we do not readily accept the challenge of taking them away and replacing them.
The hon. Member for Daventry stressed that point. It is a difficult matter, which will have to be addressed.
I do not want to pre-empt next week's debate on the farm woodlands scheme, but it is worth saying that we must all consider the record of the Forestry Commission. I am not criticising officials who cannot defend themselves. In a sense, I am criticising politicians from both parties for the policies that they required and encouraged the Forestry Commission to follow. Certainly, until the present decade, it was an accepted Forestry Commission policy to allow, with the encouragement of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the clearance of broadleaved woods and the conversion of that land to agriculture. That is not a criticism of the present Minister, but of all Governments of the past 20 or 30 years. It is ironic that, in 1988, the Government are embarking, with our full support, on a programme of taking that land out of agriculture and reconverting it to broadleaved woodland. That is one aspect of policy that the Forestry Commission had got wrong.
The second aspect that the Forestry Commission had got wrong was its policy of allowing the clearance of broadleaved woodlands and their replacement with coniferous afforestation. The third aspect that the Commission had got wrong was the fact that it gave little attention to the use of woodlands for wider purposes, either for the enjoyment of the environment, for habitat creation or for the recreation of those natural woodlands. Those are major areas where forestry policy has been wrong.
One of the consequences—it may well have been a Freudian slip on the part of the hon. Member for Daventry when he referred to timber preservation orders—has been the overwillingness of all of us, on both sides of the House and of all shades of political opinion, to think that tree preservation orders are the answer. Those orders preserve individual species and allow the woodland area to go without protection. It is a difficult matter. We do not want to lose the existing protection, but we should be looking to expand our forestry policy. The events of last autumn provide an opportunity for such reconsideration.
I wish to ask the Minister one particular question. Has his Department considered allowing management grants to be available under the Farm Land and Rural Development Bill for new woodlands which will be created by replanting in those areas where the existing woodland has been destroyed by windblow? The answer to that question would be interesting because it would show Opposition Members how the Government intend to approach future forestry policy.
By and large, I endorse the evidence given by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds to the Select Committee on Agriculture when it said that, in some of the areas damaged — the hon. Member for Wealden referred particularly to the problems of access—there must be a strong case for allowing some of the timber which has fallen to remain and to rot in its place because it will have immense benefits for wildlife conservation and for the creation of a variety of wildlife habitats. That will he difficult, but, when the six-month period has elapsed and the timber starts to deteriorate on the ground, there must be a case for making the best of a bad job and leaving the timber there to provide environmental benefits.
I hope that the Minister will consider the opportunities in planting schemes generally for the creation of new habitats for flora and fauna. I hope that he will consider particularly the issue of phased stocking because, if there is agreement that one of the problems is the over-mature, even aged, nature of our timber stocks, one of the solutions must be a phased programme of restocking. I hope that the Minister will carefully consider the possibility of extending support under the existing scheme so that planting can take place over a five, 10, 15 or 20-year period.
My conclusion is that which many hon. Members have reached and which was put in a paragraph 16 of the Committee's summary of conclusions and recommendations:
A more thorough and long-term Government strategy, particularly financial but advisory as well, is now needed.'
All I can add is that Opposition Members warmly endorse that final recommendation from the Select Committee. We will certainly offer our political and nonpartisan support to the Government if they are prepared to embark on that programme of rethinking their financial and advisory support.
This has been a good, most interesting and full debate.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) for chairing his first Committee so effectively that he has managed to get its report debated in the House so urgently and so quickly. That cannot be bad. I shall mention in a moment all those hon. Members who have had experience of a Select Committee for the first time. Back in 1979, I served on what was then the new Trade and Industry Select Committee. I enjoyed every minute of it, although I am not eager to return to it.
I should like to thank the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) for the way in which he responded to my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare and I shall deal later with the various points that he made.
As the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies) has just said, my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith) dealt with the important matters of taxation, insurance and time in his usual urbane way. I shall try to take up many of the points that he made.
The hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North (Mr. Howells), representing the alliance, has left his apologies because he has had to leave the debate to go to another meeting. He mentioned horticulture and what happened in 1947. Unfortunately, some of us remember the days of 1947, although we did not know what the Government were doing. Indeed, I am not sure whether we were grumbling or cheering at the time.
My hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Sir P. Hordern) raised the subject of householders and how bravely—I think that that is the right word—they met the disaster and managed to sort it out for themselves. I took his comment about points of public awareness relating to public areas of beauty.
I think that it was the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Bidwell) who said that I should give the Government's full and proper answer tonight. I cannot give the Government's full and proper answer tonight because the Government have not yet considered every aspect of the evidence that was collected by the Committee. I act in what is perhaps one of my proper roles as a sponge and a listener. If anybody else had said that, I think that we would have had another question of privilege.
I wonder whether my hon. Friend can clarify a point about timing. We fully understand his point about the need for consideration of the report before the Government give a full and considered reply, but at the beginning of the debate the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) asked why the debate was taking place now. My hon. Friend will appreciate that the debate is taking place on an Estimate, which is a request by the Government for money and that that necessarily has a tight timetable so that the money can be provided. That is why the debate is taking place now. If we had not taken this opportunity, it would have been a considerable time before we could raise the matter again. The report has been produced at short notice—I am sure that it is worth while—but that is the reason for the hurry with which it has been produced.
I thank my right hon. Friend. I could not have put it better myself. I cannot say for one moment that I was coming to that, so I thank my right hon. Friend, who, as Chairman of the Liaison Committee, has cleared up that point efficiently.
The hon. Member for Caerphilly mentioned the years to come. I fully agree with a great deal, if not with all, that he said about the years to come. I am talking not especially about paragraph 16, but about the way in which we must plan our forestry provision in the years to come. We must harvest it and use it as a resource. Planners and other people must not be surprised when a wood is suddenly chopped down tree by tree and when saplings and new trees are planted in their place. We must use all our present knowledge of woodlands to ensure that we leave cover for animals, the natural habitat and for the flora and fauna that the hon. Member for Caerphilly mentioned. That was a point well made and I am sure that he will make it even more forcefully to my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, who sends his apologies tonight from Brussels—[Interruption.] Well, I am sure that he would have been here if he had known that the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) would be here.
I was surprised by the devastation when I recently went to look at woods in the south. I was surprised at the way in which whole swathes had been cut and trees had been broken up, smashed and twisted. I was also surprised at the neglect of some of the woods. This point was mentioned by the hon. Member for Caerphilly and by my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell). I had not realised that there was such neglect. Now, when travelling home on the train — I travel by public transport whenever I can—I look most carefully at the trees and the woods and notice the amount of neglect and that they represent a great deal of money lying around that could be used in all sorts of ways. I was glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry raised that point.
The hon. Member for Southall spoke about London. I am sure that we were all surprised to see the devastation in London parks and on London commons and to see the great trees that had been blown down. My hon. Friends the Members for Chichester (Mr. Nelson) and for Arundel (Mr. Marshall) were among the first into my office after the great disaster. I was pleased to hear my hon. Friends make their points so clearly and promptly. My hon. Friend the Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate) was also helpful at the time, although perhaps he would now like to be an astrologer.
I will not follow my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) at present in what he said about the village of Vigo, but I should like him to write to me about that and we shall see what we can do, without making any promises.
I was glad to hear that the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) had enjoyed his first Committee. I am sure that he will enjoy many more. I shall not follow him or be teased by him on the political points that he raised. I was glad to see the hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald) in his place, emphasising the unity of the United Kingdom, with the Western Isles supporting those in the south and casting a doubt on the ten-minute Bill this afternoon. I was glad to hear that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Daventry contributed in his usual efficient way and I have no criticism of what he said, even if the hon. Member for Caerphilly has.
We have had a useful debate. Last week Task Force Trees produced a beautiful document. It is available free from the Countryside Commission. I commend it to those who take an interest in trees, even to the hon. Member for Southall. The document is superbly produced. I had begun to think that the Department of Trade and Industry had a monopoly on such productions, but this is a very good document.
The Government were anxious to make clear at the outset their determination actively to encourage the restoration of our damaged landscape. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment announced on 21 October that £2·75 million would be available for tree planting through the Countryside Commission. At the same time, he was able to announce the intention of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to offer grants of up to 60 per cent. for the replanting on lowland farms of hedges, shelter belts and windbreaks, and for the replacement of stone walls in traditional materials. The rates are double those normally available in those areas under capital grant schemes.
On 30 November, we introduced the storm damage recovery scheme, which not only provided grants for the replacement of the damaged environment but introduced a new payment of £2 per tree for damaged fruit trees—and that payment is not cash-restricted. Additional assistance will be provided to the glasshouse sector, which was particularly hard hit.
My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare referred to the French Government's offer of 280 million francs. At the new improved rate of 10 francs to the pound, that is £28 million. The Government have provided, or will provide, £32 million, so the French still have £4 million to go. I wish we could do as well at rugby.
We have provided £3 million for the Countryside Commission to plant amenity trees; £250,000 for the royal parks; £250,000 for Kew gardens; £2 million for I he replacement of orchard trees up to 1991; a significant amount for glasshouses; £1 million for replacement of hedges, shelter belts and windbreaks up to 1990; £200,000 for the farm and countryside initiative; £250,000 for English Heritage; an additional £800,000 to the Countryside Commission for 1988–89—we are reviewing the need for a long-term programme; £400,000 for the National Heritage Memorial Fund; and £300,000 for historic gardens.
I am delighted to say—it will not be said often at the Dispatch Box—that the Treasury has been very good.
Once the scheme was agreed upon, the Treasury has not nit-picked or gone through it with a fine-tooth comb, as other people have sometimes experienced it doing.
I do not have time to go into details.
Many hon. Members have been concerned about the £25 million provided to local authorities under the Bellwin formula. Opposition Members have been wound up by their local authorities to shout foul and to say that the Government are making a profit. I know how much local authorities abhor the word "profit", even more if the Government are making it. Fortunately, in this case the authorities are not right.
We wrote to 200 local authorities and the Government made available a substantial and generous package of measures to assist them with storm damage. Special financial assistance is available at 75 per cent. of eligible expenditure above a threshold amount. Additional capital allowances are available for 1987–88 and authorities have been relieved of block grant lost on all storm-related expenditure in 1987–88 above the threshold and on loan charges resulting from capital expenditure incurred up to the end of 1988–89 for the remainder of the present rate support grant period.
I am grateful for that reassurance. Is the Minister telling us that the London borough of Barnet will receive no penalty at all on its storm damage expenditure? The matter is of interest to all hon. Members.
It is indeed. I was pleased to see my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment in the Chamber while Barnet was being discussed, and I will put to him again the question of the hon. Member for South Shields. I cannot answer it in detail, but I reiterate that the Government do not intend to make a profit out of the storm damage.
The problem of clearance is enormous, and clearance cannot be accomplished overnight, as the primary responsibility rests with landowners, whether they be local authorities, public utilities or private individuals.
The report of the Agriculture Committee may have given a slightly misleading impression about the Government's contribution through the farm and countryside initiative. Many people think that the initiative has been of small import, but work is being done on sites which stretch across the wind belt, and a good job is being done. The initiative is being used as wisely as possible to clear up the damage.
I have heard what hon. Members have said about a transport subsidy to move trees, to find more readily available markets in other parts of the country. I will pass the concern of right hon. and hon. Members to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.
I welcome the Committee's endorsement of the special measures taken by the Government to help glasshouse growers. We will consider carefully the recommendation of the Committee and consider what more may be done, but I underline the help already offered. Glasshouse growers benefit from a higher rate of grant than other production sectors. For the past five years, we have paid grants of 50 per cent. of replacement for heated glasshouses, up to £136,000, which far exceeds the rate of grant provided under the relevant EC legislation, and we have been able to operate only on a special time-limited derogation from those rules.
Insurance plays some part and is the norm. Most growers are prudent men and were insured. I recognise that, given the extra demand arising from the storm damage, the cost of materials and labour may have increased considerably. However, insofar as the costs increase the amount of grant payable, which is fixed as a percentage of the total, that will increase. We recognise also that growers who already had improvement plans could face difficulty in meeting their commitments under those plans because of the shortage of labour and materials, so we have extended by six months the deadline for insurance claims.
The date for notification of claims under the storm damage recovery scheme is set at 31 March, but that does not mean that all the i's must be dotted and t's must be crossed by that date. People can make a general claim and then we can go through it afterwards. It would be impossible for people to go into such detail when, as hon. Members have said, the trees are still growing and their businesses are still flourishing. It is peculiar how quickly things come in at the end, and we are asking claimants not to make definite notification but to let us, have their schemes.
There is a need for a longer-term replacement strategy. The programme of assistance by Task Force Trees has made a useful and immediate contribution to that. For the longer term, the Government will take careful note of the Committee's observations.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment is already discussing with the Countryside Commission the need for the continuation of its special programme of grants and to assess how this will fit in with the efforts of local authorities, other bodies and individual owners. The Government will make a statement of their intentions in good time for the start of the next planting season. They will be aided by the report, expected shortly, by the technical committee chaired by the Department of the Environment, which is preparing a comprehensive assessment of the damage caused to trees. We shall also take continuous account of the need to ensure that adequate advice is available on planting and aftercare. As an important step, we have the action pack.
This has been a wide-ranging debate and I am sure that it has given hon. Members a valuable opportunity to look at and talk through many of the problems caused by the great storm. I hope that I have been able to allay some of the fears expressed today, partly on what hon. Gentlemen were expecting to be the rigidity of the Government—it is clear that there is no such rigidity—partly on what was seen as the parsimony of the Government—obviously, in the light of the magnificent record and other action being considered, there has been no parsimony—and partly on how we shall treat other sectors.
I am going to see the vineyard owners myself—[AN HON. MEMBER: "The hon. Gentleman will not be going on public transport after that."] With any luck at all, I shall only be fit to go on public transport after that! I have heard what has been said about the soft fruit and hop growers. There is, of course, aid available under the AIS plan for both those sectors—for polythene tunnels at the rate of 25 per cent. and for stakes and wirework for hops and cane fruit at the rate of 15 per cent., with a ceiling of £50,000. No special help has been sought by the NFU for that sector, but I have heard what hon. Gentlemen have said about it.
I once again thank all hon. Members for a very good debate.