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Yvette Cooper: I agree about the importance of child care. We have already done a lot to increase the free child care that is available for three and four-year-olds as part of nursery education, and to develop the child care tax credit and other child care support. As part of the White Paper, we are looking to provide additional child care, travel costs and help for jobseekers in part-time training. Otherwise, they will end up missing out on the chance to train, simply because they cannot get the child care that works for them. We are looking at whether we should develop child care loans for people when they start employment and, for example, have to pay a month's child care costs up front. We are looking at whether we can give additional support in those circumstances. We are also working with the Department for Children, Schools and Families on issues like that, as part of its families Green Paper.
Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Under Standing Order No. 14, the Government are required to name 13 days on which private Members' business has precedence over Government business. Tomorrow the private Members' Bills will be presented, but hon. Members still have no idea on what dates their Second Readings will be. I understand that there is no precedent for that, so could you give some advice to hon. Members about how to get out of that seeming chaos?
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): I say to the hon. Gentleman that tomorrow is, indeed, the day for the presentation of the balloted private Members' Bills for this Session. The House has not yet ordered the Fridays when such Bills will be debated; a motion is on the Order Paper setting out certain Fridays. It is up to those in charge of Bills to decide when to set them down for Second Reading, taking into account the various possibilities that appear on the Order Paper. I cannot pretend that that is a satisfactory situation for Back Benchers, but I hope that it will be resolved soon after the recess.
Mr. Siôn Simon, supported by the Prime Minister, Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretary Ben Bradshaw, Mr. Pat McFadden and Mr. Stephen Timms, presented a Bill to repeal and revive provisions of the Video Recordings Act 1984.
[Relevant Documents: The Sixth Report of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Session 2008-09, on the Draft Flood and Water Management Bill, HC 555-I, and the Government response, Cm 7741 .]
The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), sends his apologies to the House, because he is at the Agriculture and Fisheries Council in Brussels, where important fisheries negotiations are taking place today. We all wish him well. May I also draw the House's attention to the publication today of the latest progress report on the implementation of Sir Michael Pitt's recommendations?
I thank the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee for their pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft Bill that we published in April. The Bill that is now before us has benefited from their thorough and close examination, as well as from more than 650 responses to the public consultation. It is shorter than the original Bill, for reasons that the House will understand, but we remain committed to taking the other measures forward when time allows.
As all too many Members in the Chamber will be aware, the origins of the Bill lie in the devastating floods of 2007. It is never possible to attribute one particular event to our changing climate, but what happened then was a stark reminder of our vulnerability to the force of nature. Important parts of the Bill owe a great deal to Sir Michael Pitt's "lessons learned" report. I am sure that the whole House would wish once again to express its thanks to Sir Michael for the work that he has done. We have responded to many of his recommendations.
Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): I have read the Bill once-I hope that that is sufficient-I cannot see any provision to give the fire and rescue service a statutory duty to deal with flooding, which was one of the Pitt review's recommendations. What do the Government intend to do about that, and when?
Hilary Benn: The Government's view is that it is not necessary for such a duty to be put in legislation because the fire and rescue service already provides a very good service in rescuing people. It has built up capacity. As the House will be aware, we have provided funding and other support to enable it to undertake those duties even better in future. It was not the view of the Government's then adviser, Ken Knight, that such a change was necessary.
Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind):
The Secretary of State knows that I support the Bill, and I thank him for introducing it. He will have heard the Deputy Speaker talking about the presentation of private Members' Bills tomorrow, and may have seen on today's Order Paper that I will present a Bill to require local councils to take account of Environment Agency objections to
building on the flood plain-a highly relevant matter. Will he consider whether that very simple but very necessary measure could be added to this Bill?
Hilary Benn: If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I will come to that precise point in a little while. He raises an important issue about the way in which we take decisions about planning applications.
Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): The right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) referred to the fire and rescue service. Will the Secretary of State put on record his thanks for the work that it did in the summer of 2007 and, more particularly, the outstanding work that it has done in recent weeks in Cumbria, backed by a very influential local Member of Parliament?
Hilary Benn: With the greatest of pleasure. I know that I speak for all Members in the House in saying that we are full of admiration and respect for the outstanding work of the fire and rescue service, but also, to be honest, that of everybody who helps out in times of need and emergency. A lot of people owe a great deal to their skill and determination.
Since the summer of 2007, we have completed 106 flood defence schemes protecting more than 63,800 additional homes in England, we have invested £60 million to help to tackle surface water flooding, and some 140,000 more people have signed up to receive flood warnings in England and Wales. In addition, we have set up the new flood forecasting centre-one of Sir Michael's recommendations-which provides a single forecast, including an extreme rainfall alert. During the floods in Cumbria, it played an important role in giving emergency responders early warning of heavy rainfall as well as expert advice on the risk of flooding. Thirty-six hours before the flooding occurred, the flood forecasting centre indicated a high risk of significant property flooding and a danger to life in Cumbria. That shows the benefit of this change.
What we saw in Cumbria reminds us of the devastating effect that flooding has on homes, on businesses, on communities and, above all, on people's lives. Our sympathies go out to all those affected, as do our thanks to all those who responded with such selflessness and determination. Equally impressive has been the tremendous resolve of the communities affected to get back on their feet.
The 2007 floods affected great swathes of the country, as many hon. Members here today know only too well-from Sheffield, Doncaster and Hull to many communities in Gloucestershire and Worcestershire, the Thames valley and elsewhere. Thirteen lives were lost, 55,000 homes and businesses were affected, and £3 billion-worth of damage was done. For individuals, businesses and home owners, recovery is not quick. We know from previous flooding that getting back on one's feet can take many long, hard months.
The rainfall in Cumbria was truly exceptional, and that in 2007 very unusual, but this may not be the case in future, as climate change will make what are currently extreme events more frequent. Sea levels are also expected to rise. According to the most recent projections by the UK climate impacts programme, that rise could be 36 cm in London before the end of the century.
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): The Secretary of State will know that the source of the River Severn is in my constituency. He mentioned the floods of 2007, many of which were directly related to that river. Does he agree that if the Bill is to be effective, we will have to find ways to mitigate the speed at which water enters the watercourse and comes down the river? To achieve that, we have to find upstream and uphill solutions to increase the absorbency of the mountains. Simply building higher walls will not be the solution.
Hilary Benn: I agree with the hon. Gentleman, and one important purpose of the Bill is flood risk management. Of course defences are important, which is why we have been investing more money in building them, but we also need to think about other ways to handle the flow of water.
Christopher Fraser (South-West Norfolk) (Con): Further to the point that the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) made, flood alleviation programmes work well upstream in places such as Milton Keynes and Bedford, but create major problems in constituencies such as mine. In effect, a different value is placed on the life of people who live in my constituency from that of people who live upstream. Does the Secretary of State accept that the Bill must ensure that the whole length of the river system is taken into full account, so that everybody has an equal chance of alleviating the flood problems that we suffer from?
Hilary Benn: I agree with the hon. Gentleman, and we have catchment flood management plans for precisely that reason. He makes the point that what we do in one place can have a beneficial or negative consequence somewhere else. That is why we have to consider where the water comes from, how it moves and where it ends up, so that we can take the right decisions. Choices have to be made, as I think the House recognises.
Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): When we are talking about choices, we have to talk about funds as well. Understandably, the majority of funding is directed towards dealing with river and coastal flooding, yet many of our constituents face problems of ground and surface water flooding. How can we get the balance right so that we put in place not only the plans but the funding to make a difference to people's lives?
Hilary Benn: I agree with my hon. Friend. Particularly in Sheffield and Hull but also in many other places, surface water flooding was the problem. That is why one of the purposes of the Bill is to make it absolutely clear for the first time who has lead responsibility for taking account of the matter, which will be unitary or upper-tier authorities. They will bring together all the people responsible for the different drainage systems, private culverts and highways and byways that take water away.
We must ensure that we do not add to the problem. I shall turn presently to sustainable urban drainage, and we have made a practical change to planning permission that does not cost any money. Previously, someone could pave, tarmac and concrete over their front garden without needing to ask anybody. Now they have to apply for planning permission if they use non-permeable paving, but not if they put in place permeable paving.
Front gardens tend by definition to drain off into roads. That is a very simple change that we have already put in place at no cost, and it shows that although the solution is about investment, it is also about how we approach the problem. Nobody took responsibility in the past, and if we put the Bill on the statute book we will ensure that somebody has responsibility in future.
Hilary Benn: From the assessment that we have made, to which I shall turn in a moment, we are certainly confident that the transfer of responsibility for private sewers to the water companies, which we intend to put in place, will free up resources. I will be perfectly frank and say that we need to have a discussion with local authorities about funding in the medium to long term, and I undertake that we will do that to ensure that the costs are fully funded.
Two weeks ago we awarded £11 million to 15 local authorities for pathfinder schemes to help them deal with coastal change. They are in the best position to understand what is needed, and the projects will support a range of activities from the creation of new sand dunes and the building of boardwalks to buy-to-let schemes for properties at risk and land purchase for rebuilding.
Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): The Secretary of State is right that what happens in one area can affect another, but under the Bill there will be separate flood management strategies for England and Wales. Clause 8(3) states:
"The Welsh Ministers must consult the Secretary of State"
"so far as the strategy may affect...England."
Hilary Benn: I recognise the hon. Gentleman's point. The holder of my office will have responsibility for trying to weigh up proposals. In the end, what we are seeking to do with this legislation-one of the other purposes of these changes-is to get all parties that have an interest in and responsibilities for such things, including duties placed upon them by the Bill, to work together. As we have already heard in interventions from Members on both sides of the Chamber, what one body does has an impact elsewhere and what happens in one place has an impact elsewhere. The Bill is constructed to ensure that people come together and work co-operatively.
Christopher Fraser: The Environment Agency has justified its position on where it puts flood alleviation schemes in economic terms, confirming that it is complying with the Treasury's Green Book. It states:
"Current Government policy for investment in flood defences favours densely populated areas over rural and agricultural areas and at the moment it does not take account of, for example, future food security".
Hilary Benn: It is certainly true that a formula is used to make a judgment about where the priorities are. That is a combination of where people live and the economic impact. The House and the nation could have a different set of priorities, but even with the additional investment that we are putting in, choices have to be made on where we are going to spend money. As we know, in the east of the country, coastal erosion is a natural process that has been going on for thousands of years.
Lembit Öpik: On that point, does the Secretary of State nevertheless agree that it would not be a sensible strategy explicitly to aim to flood large swathes of, for instance, Montgomeryshire, to protect downstream towns-in other words, to cause problems upstream that are just as expensive and damaging as those downstream? If he can assure me that the Government will not embark on such an insane strategy, I promise not to interrupt him again.
Hilary Benn: That is a very generous offer. The hon. Gentleman illustrates the point that the House acknowledges, namely, that there are choices. I have seen for myself a really good washland scheme protecting Lincoln. When there are high levels of rainfall, the water is diverted into a farmer's fields, with his agreement, and it comes out two, three or four days later. It works well. When I asked the farmer, he told me that the type of crops he grows can cope. It all depends on the circumstances, but there is not always an easy answer to such choices.
It is precisely because one in six homes in England is already at risk of flooding from rivers, the sea, or indeed surface water, that we cannot move every community away from flood risk. That is why we set out a rigorous test in planning policy statement 25. The expert advice of the Environment Agency on flood risk and new buildings is now followed in 98 per cent. of cases, according to the latest figures that I have. I think that shows that altering the guidance and requiring the agency to be consulted has had an impact.
We can also do more to make individual properties resilient and resistant if the water gets in. A recent example of that was when homes and businesses in Appleby got through the flooding because of the Government grant funding that enabled 46 of them to buy and fit protection equipment. We expect to see more work of that type in future. The Bill defines risk, sensibly, as the combination of likelihood and consequence. The Bill will therefore encourage both resistance and resilience as ways of managing the consequences of flooding. That is important, because where properties are at risk we can also work with the insurance industry so that insurance cover remains widely available. Our agreement on a statement of principles with the Association of British Insurers is intended to do this. The ABI wants to see our record investment in flood defence-£2.15 billion in the current three-year period-and it also expects the Bill to help to overhaul how we better manage the rising risk from flooding. It has urged all of us to work together to ensure that the Bill becomes an Act as quickly as possible.
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