UK to bid for EU cash to help victims of winter floods
The UK will bid for European Union cash to help victims of the winter floods, the Government has announced.
Communities Minister James Wharton said the UK has confirmed its intention to apply for aid from the EU solidarity fund in relation to Storm Desmond and Storm Eva.
Labour said the announcement is "extremely welcome".
Mr Wharton, replying to an urgent question from Labour in the Commons, said the application would be the UK's first since flooding in 2007.
The Conservative minister said : "I am today announcing that the UK Government will make an application to the European Union solidarity fund (EUSF).
"The EUSF was set up to respond to major natural disasters. The fund was created as a reaction to the severe floods in central Europe in the summer of 2002.
"Since then it has been used for 70 disasters covering a range of different catastrophic events, including floods, forest fires, earthquakes, storms and drought.
"The only time the UK has applied to the fund was following the flooding of 2007, which saw widespread and significant damage across large swathes of England."
MPs have previously heard the deadline for the UK to declare its intent to bid for funding was the end of February.
Mr Wharton said the EU aid is not designed to offer "rapid response" support and can take several months to complete.
He told MPs: "Member states have 12 weeks from the start of an incident to register their intent to claim.
"We have confirmed our intent. Once you have confirmed it, there is time to consider with the commission the element to assessment.
"Following this process the commission assesses the application and, if the application is accepted, proposes an amount of aid to the European Parliament.
"Once the appropriations become available in the EU budget, the commission adopts a decision awarding the aid to the affected state.
"It is then paid out in a single instalment. When aid is paid out, the affected state is responsible for the implementation - including the selection of operations and their audit and control."
Mr Wharton earlier said the UK Government has already provided more than £200 million to help those affected by the winter floods, including recovery and repair costs.
Replying for Labour, shadow environment minister Alex Cunningham told Speaker John Bercow: "I thank the minister and my fellow Stockton MP (Mr Wharton) for his response, which is extremely welcome today.
"And it has taken an urgent question to get the information from the Government - so I'm delighted you granted it, Mr Speaker."
Mr Cunningham criticised the amount of time it had taken the Government to announce the application.
He said the scale of the damage caused by the floods and the associated cost of recovery meant it was "imperative" for the Government to apply to "maximise" available resources.
"Members and their constituents have been left totally in the dark as it appeared the Government would fail to make an application for help from the EU solidarity fund, a fund established to respond to precisely such natural disasters as those experienced in Cumbria, Lancashire, North Yorkshire and Scotland," he said.
Mr Cunningham said countries across the EU had made applications in "similar circumstances".
"We on this side have been extremely anxious that this opportunity could in fact be lost," he said.
"To be clear, the first floods for which an application can be made in Cumbria were some 11 and a half weeks ago, yet it's taken the Government to within a single working day of the deadline to confirm an application is being made.
"We all know there are those who quite wrongly believe we get little from the EU.
"I am clear that the UK should be embracing the offer of additional support, particularly having paid £300 million into the fund since it was set up."
Mr Wharton said the Opposition benches failed to understand the purpose of the fund and how applications work.
He said: "There does seem to be a fundamental misunderstanding that you have.
"The department, the Government has been working on this application for some time.
"You have to draw together a range of information across Government departments, talking with local areas, assessing the cost and impact of events that have taken place.
"That is what we have been doing and that is what we will continue to do."
Mr Wharton repeatedly stressed that the fund is not for "rapid response".
"The European Union solidarity fund is not designed to be a rapid response to events of this kind," he said.
"It is a longer term fund to provide compensation to communities and even though an application is now being made it will take months for that money to be paid."
Ian Liddell-Grainger, Tory MP for Bridgwater and West Somerset, told the House that EU cash is not needed to "do what you have to do" to help people.
He said: "In 2011 we suffered disastrous floods in Somerset. We looked at this fund very closely indeed, the Prime Minister and my local area.
"We made the decision it was not going to be applied for at that time because it was too complicated, too difficult and the benefit to the communities wasn't going to be there.
"It doesn't matter - they can chunter as much as they want on the opposition benches - we have now made the area that was flooded in Somerset safe through UK funding.
"The proof of the pudding is this year we haven't even had to switch on the main pumps.
"It has worked. You don't need this funding to be able to do what you have to do to secure your communities."
The SNP's Calum Kerr (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) welcomed the announcement but also questioned the timing of the application as he asked Mr Wharton: "Where was the rapid decision-making process?"
"It was not a difficult question," he said.
"If you have an insurance policy, yes, of course you are going to cash it in, why would we not cash it in?"
But Mr Wharton hit back.
He said: "I can confirm that one of the factors that has delayed the process, which has made it more difficult to assess this very complicated application that underpins an application to the EU solidarity fund, has been the slowness of getting the information we needed out of the Scottish Government."
Nigel Evans, Tory MP for Ribble Valley, praised the Government for committing to making the application.
"Hallelujah," he said.
"Hallelujah. Three weeks ago I asked the Prime Minister why weren't we applying for these funds. I am delighted that we are now doing so."
Leading Eurosceptic Christopher Chope, Conservative MP for Christchurch, was one of a number of Tories who used the urgent question and the application announcement to criticise the EU.
He urged Mr Wharton to put the value of the fund in the context of Britain's overall contributions to Brussels.
"Every day we pay as British taxpayers £50 million to the European Union," he said.
"How much do you think we are going to get back? Three or four days' contributions?"
Mr Wharton, who has declared he will back a Brexit at the forthcoming referendum, prompted laughter from his colleagues on the Government benches as he neatly dodged commenting on Mr Chope's question.
"You make your point better than I would endeavour to do from the despatch box today," he said.
Chris Heaton-Harris, the Tory MP for Daventry, told the House there is "no guarantee of us actually ever receiving this money".
He said: "The process domestically is complicated enough but when you get to the European process where we apply for some of our own money to come back to this country it becomes even more complicated and the timeline is extremely long."
Meanwhile, Labour MP Liz McInnes (Heywood and Middleton) accused ministers of waiting until the "11th hour" to apply for funding.