Labour leader Ed Miliband repeatedly asked during Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday if 550 announced cuts to staff at the agency would be reconsidered in light of the flooding emergency and David Cameron’s pledge that “money was no object” in dealing with the crisis.
Mr Cameron announced a series of measures, including grants of up to £5,000 to build in flood defences to homes and businesses as they recover.
But he made no specific comments on staffing at the Environment Agency during the clash.
Mr Cameron said: “We are spending £2.4bn over the four year period between 2010 and 2014, and that compares with just £2.2bn in the previous four-year period.
“What I can say to the House, and I think this is important, is that as the waters recede it will be important for the Environment Agency, for local authorities all to look again at the flood patterns we have seen, at the models they have and work out what fresh flood defences will be necessary.
“In addition to that, I can tell the House we will be introducing a grant for all affected homeowners 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 £10m fund to help farmers who have seen their land waterlogged day after day, week after week.And I can also announce today, we will be deferring the tax payments businesses have to pay and all of the businesses affected by floods will get 100 per cent business rate relief.”
Mr Miliband followed up: “These steps are welcome and will be welcomed across the House but I’m afraid you didn’t answer the specific question I asked – which is about the 550 people the Environment Agency are planning to make redundant that work on flood defences.
“They are people currently working on the clean-up and put in place the flood defences.
“Similarly, on the issue of spending on flood defence, the committee for energy and climate change says we are spending significantly less in flood defence than we should.
“My question is a simple one: given yesterday’s promise to make sure we have a resilient country for the future and spend whatever it takes, are you committing now to reconsider these redundancies, and reconsider the amount of money we invest in flood defences?”
Mr Cameron said the Environment Agency had a set capital spending budget to 2020.
“We have only made capital spending pledges in areas like transport and in terms of flood defences, pledges no-one else is able to match, particularly if they are committed to a zero-based budget review,” Mr Cameron said.
“They are promises we are happy to make so people can see how much money will be spent on flood defences... we are only able to make those pledges because we have managed our economy effectively and managed our budget effectively.”
In his final question, Mr Miliband said the Prime Minister had made a “very grand promise” on money for the recovery and resilience for the future.
And he added: “The simple point I am making is there are real doubts when it comes to making members of the Environment Agency who deal with flooding redundant and the lack of investment the committee on climate change, the expert body that is charged with this, to invest in flood defences, says is not happening.
“You need to reconsider those things.... in the coming days, the Government needs 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 they are getting the help they need.
“If the Government does this, they will have our full support.”
Ending the leaders’ clash, Mr Cameron said: “What I said last night is exactly what I have said today. When it comes to this relief effort, money will be no object.
“I don’t want people to worry about penny-pinching as they see the vital work that is needed to help them with their houses, to help them deal with the floods.
“That is what this Government is doing. We are deploying the military when we have been asked for the military, deploying extra pumps when we were asked for pumps, raising compensation to local government to 100 per cent because that is what local communities should have.”
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