Prime Minister's Questions
Ed Miliband (Leader of the Opposition): I join the Prime Minister in expressing all my sympathies with people who have been affected by the floods, who have been driven out of their homes, and who are facing disruption to their lives. I also join him in paying tribute to all those helping with relief efforts and to the extraordinary resilience we have seen in the past few weeks of the people of our country. He will know that people in affected communities are relieved that help from the armed forces and emergency services has now arrived, but many feel they were sent in too late. With further flooding expected in the coming hours and days, can the Prime Minister provide an assurance that people will be getting help in time, not after the event?
David Cameron (Prime Minister): I can certainly give that assurance. Let me repeat again that it is important, as the right honourable Gentleman said, to praise our emergency services, to praise volunteers, and to praise all those working for the Environment Agency, who have worked night and day, round the clock, to help our communities. They really have done amazing work, and we should thank them.
In terms of the engagement of the military, I think that this is important. It has always been possible for gold commanders in these emergency situations to call on military assets. Indeed, a military liaison officer is supposed to sit with those gold commanders and liaise with them. What we have done in recent days is to say very clearly to all the local authorities concerned, which we have contacted individually, “If you want military assistance, don’t think twice about it: think once, then ask, and they’ll be there.” We have now got thousands of military at a state of readiness to help out. A huge number have already been deployed; and yes, as we see the levels potentially rising on the Thames again coming into this weekend, we should do everything we can now to get extra help into those communities that could be affected and make sure that they are helped. All the military assistance that is required is there; people only have to ask.
Ed Miliband (Leader of the Opposition): I welcome that promise of proactive help from the Prime Minister. Given the forecasts of extreme weather and that river levels are rising, one of the key issues that will concern people is not just their homes but continuing gas and electricity supplies. We have learned from experience in 2007 that protecting electricity substations that can be responsible for power for hundreds of thousands of homes is of particular importance. Can he reassure the House about the steps being taken to protect these vital services?
David Cameron (Prime Minister): I can give the right honourable Gentleman that assurance. My right honourable Friend the Minister for Government Policy carried out a review into the resilience of our infrastructure. A lot of extra steps were taken following that, and that has made a difference. Also, in the Cobra system, we are monitoring every day those particular bits of infrastructure that could be under threat. In recent days, it has more been about water-treatment works than electricity works.
I also spoke to the Minister responsible for energy policy at this morning’s Cobra to make sure that everything is done to contact the energy companies to stand up the people who will be necessary if there are further supply interruptions over the coming days. Since the experience of the problems in Kent after Christmas, the energy companies and the network companies have done a better job at reconnecting people more quickly.
Ed Miliband (Leader of the Opposition): I thank the Prime Minister for that answer. One of the reassurances that he provided yesterday, as he said in an earlier answer, was to say that money was no object, but this morning the Transport Secretary said that it is not a “blank cheque”. Will the Prime Minister tell the House exactly what areas of spending yesterday’s promise covers?
David Cameron (Prime Minister): I was very clear last night, and let me repeat again that, as I said last night, money is no object in this relief effort. I want communities who are suffering and people who see water lapping at their doors to know that when it comes to the military, sandbags, the emergency services, restoring broken flood defences—all of those things—money is no object. To be fair to the Transport Secretary, this is what he said this morning: “money is not the issue while we’re in this relief job.” That is what he said. He is absolutely right.
Ed Miliband (Leader of the Opposition): The Prime Minister is of course absolutely right about the relief effort. He also said yesterday that he will “spend whatever it takes to recover from this” and make sure that we have a “resilient country for the future.”
Let me give him an example in that context. Yesterday, he praised the staff of the Environment Agency, but it is in the process, this year, of making 550 people dealing with flooding redundant. These are staff who help put in place and maintain flood defences, and help deal with clean-up. If money is no object, as he said, is he committing now to reconsidering these redundancies?
David Cameron (Prime Minister): Let me tell the right honourable Gentleman exactly what we are doing with the Environment Agency and with the flood defence budget. We are spending £2.4 billion over the four-year period between 2010 and 2014, which compares with just £2.2 billion in the previous four-year period. What I can say to the House—I think that this is important—is that as the waters recede, it will be important for the Environment Agency and for local authorities all to look again at the flood patterns we have seen and the models that they have, and to work out what fresh flood defences will be necessary.
In addition to that, I can tell the House that we will be introducing a grant for all affected home owners and businesses to build in better flood protection as they repair their properties. That will be up to £5,000 per house and per business. On top of that, we are announcing a £10 million fund to help farmers who have seen their land waterlogged day after day, week after week. I can also announce today that we will be deferring the tax payments that businesses have to pay, and all the businesses that have been affected by floods will get 100% business rate relief.
Ed Miliband (Leader of the Opposition): Those steps are welcome and will be welcomed across the House, but I am afraid that the Prime Minister did not answer the specific question I asked, which is about the 550 people who work on flood defences who the Environment Agency is planning to make redundant. They are people who are currently helping with the clean-up, and who put in place the flood defences.
Similarly, on the issue of spending on flood defence, the Committee on Climate Change says that we are spending significantly less on flood defence than we should. My question is a simple one: given yesterday’s promise to make sure that we have a “resilient country for the future” and will “spend whatever it takes”, is the Prime Minister committing now to reconsidering these redundancies and the amount of money we invest in flood defences?
David Cameron (Prime Minister): Let me tell the right honourable Gentleman what we are doing with the Environment Agency budget into the future. We have set out the figures for the Environment Agency budget in terms of capital spending all the way up to 2020. We have made capital spending pledges only in areas such as transport and flood defences—pledges that no one else is able to match, particularly not if they are committed to a zero-based budget review, but promises we are happy to make so that people can see how much money will be spent on flood defences in 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020. We are only able to make those pledges because we have managed our economy effectively and managed our Budgets effectively.
Ed Miliband (Leader of the Opposition): I say to the Prime Minister that he came along to his press conference yesterday and made what sounded like a very grand promise to“spend whatever it takes to recover from this and to make sure we have a resilient country for the future”.
The simple point that I am making to him is that there are real doubts about that when it comes to making members of the Environment Agency who deal with flooding redundant and the Committee on Climate Change—the expert body that is charged with this—says that the investment in flood defences is not happening. He needs to reconsider those things.
I urge the Prime Minister to ensure this in the coming days: the Government need to speak with one voice on this issue; the response needs to be speedier than it has been in the past; and everyone affected needs to feel that they are getting the help they need. If the Government do that, they will have our full support.