I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his statement, and for early sight of it. I begin by joining him in conveying, on behalf of the Opposition, our best wishes to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—we very much hope that he makes a speedy recovery. Can the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government tell us which of the Under-Secretaries of State will be dealing with DEFRA’s response in the Secretary of State’s absence?
As the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government rightly said, the situation facing communities in the Somerset levels remains extremely serious. The floods have not only left homes wrecked, they have left businesses facing ruin and severe difficulties in accessing schools, workplaces and essential services. More families have faced the trauma of being evacuated from their homes overnight. The emergency services and Environment Agency staff continue to do an excellent job on the ground and have been consistently praised by residents, despite the serious criticisms of the lack of national leadership since the crisis began.
The fact is that the Government were caught out by the floods and Ministers took far too long to recognise the seriousness of the situation. Does the right hon. Gentleman understand why the Prime Minister’s claim yesterday that the Government’s response has not been slow will have been met with incredulity by the people of Somerset? The fact that DEFRA cannot answer parliamentary questions on when it first received requests for assistance from Somerset county council and Sedgemoor district council says everything about the chaos and confusion that has beset its response. There have now been 21 meetings of Cobra, but it is far from clear what all the talking has achieved. It is no wonder that the Prime Minister became so exasperated that yesterday he put himself in the chair.
The funding announced by the Prime Minister yesterday, and by the Secretary of State today, is welcome, but let us be clear that that is simply restoring, and for just over one year, the reduction in annual spending on flood protection that has taken place under this Government. The Government’s own figures, published last month by DEFRA, show that they reduced the budget from £670 million in 2010-11 to £573 million in 2011-12, a cut of over £97 million. The budget has remained at a similar level for the past two years. Reversing that cut for just over a year is a complete admission by the Government that they got it wrong. Will the right hon. Gentleman say whether the additional resources will be added to the baseline of the flood protection budget for future years, or is the intention to cut the budget again next year?
How will the Government close the £80 million hole in the partnership funding that Ministers claim they will be able to secure from external contributions but which they have not yet been able to secure? Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that the Prime Minister was wrong when he again claimed yesterday that more would be spent in the four years between 2011 and 2015 than in the previous four years?
DEFRA’s own figures show that £2.37 billion was spent between 2007-8 and 2010-11 and that £2.34 billion will be spent between 2011-12 and 2014-15. The Prime Minister and the Government really must stop fiddling the figures. The Secretary of State again used numbers today that are different from those that the Prime Minister used in the House yesterday. Thanks to a freedom of information request, we know that the Environment Secretary cut more than 40% from the domestic climate change budget last year. Was that really the right priority for the biggest cut to any DEFRA programme?
With regard to the immediate challenges facing people in the south-west, councils will welcome the announcement that support under the Bellwin scheme will now be paid at 100%, but why did the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government say last month that he would pay only 85% of the eligible costs, when the scale of the damage was already clear? Will he also confirm when he expects the electricity supply to be restored to the homes that have been affected by power cuts?
What specific assurances can the right hon. Gentleman give regarding the restoration of rail services west of Exeter? He will understand the disastrous consequences for the region’s economy of the loss of that service. We have all seen how serious the damage in Dawlish is and understand that this is not straightforward, but can he be clearer than the Prime Minister managed to be in his response to my right hon. Friend Mr Bradshaw yesterday about what can be done in the short and long term.
After the 2007 floods, the previous Government commissioned the Pitt review, and Pitt’s report provided the blueprint for action to improve flood resilience and response. Why did the Government stop producing progress reports on the 92 recommendations in January 2012 despite 46 of them still being badged as “ongoing” and many having no planned completion date? At the time of the final update, the recommendations that had not been implemented in full included all the recommendations on knowing where and when it will flood, six on reducing the risk of flooding, 10 on being rescued and cared for during an emergency, and seven on maintaining power supplies. Why have the Government chosen not to establish either the Cabinet Committee on improving the country’s ability to deal with flooding, or the national resilience forum, both of which were recommended by the Pitt review? Will the Secretary of State make a clear commitment to publishing a further progress report on each of the recommendations in the Pitt review by the end of this month?
Yesterday the Prime Minister tweeted that there would be “no restrictions on help” for those affected by the flooding. Will the Secretary of State explain precisely what that means? Will he tell the House whether people are still being charged at a premium rate when they call the floods helpline?