My Lords, the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 requires local authorities, the emergency services and other prime responders to develop appropriate contingency plans to respond to major disruptive incidents, such as the depot explosion at Hemel Hempstead. Financial assistance to affected local authorities is available from the Government, under the Bellwin scheme, operated by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. Under the scheme, assistance is limited to 85 per cent of eligible costs above an annual threshold of 0.2 per cent of the authorities' non-capital budget.
My Lords, on Hemel Hempstead—I apologise if my Question is a bit long, but it is too important to shorten—is the Minister aware that over 2,000 people were evacuated and eight families are still homeless? Is he aware that many windows are still boarded up, thus making any heating inefficient, and fuel costs have rocketed phenomenally for people who are not well off? In the present cold weather, are there no funds from the Government that can help those people?
My Lords, obviously I am aware of the considerable damage caused by the explosion. The Government's reaction has been much praised for its swiftness and the way in which it has worked. Much credit should go to the local authority, which has worked hard to ensure that people return as soon as possible to their home. My information is that four families are still occupying temporary but good quality accommodation and that a number of households are still in need of important repairs. Funds are of course available through the Jobcentre Plus scheme to assist families that are in particular hardship, and efforts have been strenuously made by the local office to ensure that they receive funds as quickly as possible. Indeed, the information that I have suggests that all fire-related claims that went through the Jobcentre Plus scheme were dealt with on the same day.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that the cost to Hertfordshire County Council has been in the region of £2.5 million? Can he tell the House whether the council will receive the full 85 per cent towards that cost? Can he assure the House that, if the council has to meet the shortfall from its own resources, that will be taken into account by the Government when they set the capping regime?
My Lords, this is obviously a delicate area, and careful considerations have to be made. My understanding is that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, through its officials, has advised the local authorities that have been affected. I must say that that is a welcome change from the days when I was a local authority leader, when we did not get much external advice to help us with Bellwin schemes. These exchanges have enabled the ODPM to give the authorities early help with the procedures to follow what would constitute eligible costs. Of course, they will be entitled to receive all those eligible costs above the 0.2 per cent threshold, which I mentioned in my initial response.
My Lords, is there not some liability on the part of the owners of the oil depot? Do they not have insurance, and cannot claims be made against the owners' insurance? Why are the Government paying?
My Lords, that is absolutely right. Again, I am informed that a number of lawyers are in the area working carefully with affected residents to advise them.
Look, this is not the time or place to be cynical. Of course, it has been the policy of successive governments not to pay compensation to householders or businesses for any losses that are insurable. We expect the insurance system to work well in this situation, and I am sure that it will.
My Lords, I do not believe that the Minister has answered my Question. Is he aware that I totally disagree with the noble Countess? What is needed is cash now. Having had absolutely no heating myself, I would not put my trust in lawyers or in British Gas, whose representatives do not come when they say they will and make a mess of it when they do.
My Lords, those are private companies with public responsibilities that they are expected to meet. The local authority and the Jobcentre Plus officials working locally have done everything that they reasonably could to assist those families and households, who have, I know, been getting good help and assistance from the local citizens advice bureau. There may well be some cases that have slipped through the net. If the noble Baroness would like to approach me personally with examples of those, I shall make sure that they are dealt with as promptly as possible.
My Lords, the advice that I have is that Jobcentre Plus has received 50 benefit claims related to the incident and has paid six crisis loans. Of the new claimants, 13 have now come off benefits, thankfully. As I said earlier, all fire-related claims were processed and paid on the same day.
My Lords, does the Minister know what proportion of households in this country has no contents insurance? If not, could he again find out and let us know? He will find that it is significant in the lower income groups.
My Lords, I do not have specific figures on that, as the noble Lord may perhaps expect on a matter related so closely to one particular incident in one place. However, the point made by the noble Lord is very reasonable. I know, from my local government experience, that we used to try to assist low-income households—particularly those living in council housing—to get into insurance schemes. We ran a scheme in my local authority that gave tenants the option of having insurance cover for household contents through their rental.