May I first welcome the Secretary of State and her new team? We have regional and sub-regional connections and I look forward to meeting her across the Dispatch Box from time to time. I thank her for today's statement. It is extremely important that recent significant events be tracked carefully by Parliament and Government, and that we understand exactly how they will unfold and how the Government will engage with the problems that have arisen.
We associate ourselves with the sympathy that the Secretary of State expressed for the many thousands of families who have been affected and the businesses that face disaster as a result of the flooding. We also associate ourselves with the thanks given to the emergency services, the local councils and the voluntary sector—they have done so much work.
We welcome the extension of the Bellwin scheme, but will the Secretary of State confirm that there is to be no threshold on claims made under the scheme by local authorities? Will she also say more about the exceptional circumstances in which capital claims might be considered? As Mr. Prescott made clear, some of the damage is significant and, in some cases, it will be more cost-effective to demolish and rebuild than to clean out and refurbish—one course of action involves capital, and the other revenue. Clearly, if the reconstruction process is to represent value for money, the Bellwin scheme should reflect that fact; it should not be a difficult case that has to be argued. Those decisions need to be made within days and weeks, not months. The plan of action for Hull, for instance, which has many schools out of action and 4,000 damaged council houses, must be developed quickly.
In the medium term, we must consider the resources available for assessment, as loss assessors from the insurance industry seem to be in short supply. There is perhaps a capacity problem in the building industry, too. Will the Secretary of State undertake closely to monitor those issues and to ensure that, if necessary, resources are drafted into the affected areas to maintain steady progress? She herself has said that it is important that the effort should not be relaxed once the media circus has gone. Previous disasters overseas have shown that that is exactly what happens. Those apparently trivial points about capacity are often at the heart of the difficulties that people face in resolving such issues.
Will the Secretary of State give special consideration to the pleas made by one or two local authorities for additional help and support in dealing with the crisis that they face? I am particularly thinking of Hull as, by all accounts, it is the most severely affected local authority. Looking to the longer term, she has referred to the changes that will be made under planning policy statement 25. However, she will be aware that a large slice of the planning applications to which the Environment Agency objected, on the ground that they would result in building on floodplains, has been approved. I would like an assurance that those cases will be given particularly careful consideration, so that we do not build in problems for the future.
Finally, the Secretary of State mentioned the £800 million for flood prevention work, and said that the work would take place up to the year 2010-11. Will she say what the phasing is for that increase? Will she give the House an assurance that that money will kick in, and will be available for expenditure, at the earliest practical moment?