UK floods: Pickles insists ministers not divided
- 10 February 2014
- From the section UK Politics
Communities Secretary Eric Pickles has dismissed Labour claims of a "damaging" rift at the top of government in its response to the floods crisis.
He hit back at claims of a "damaging row" between himself and Environment Secretary Owen Paterson, joking that they were "two peas in a pod".
He told MPs ministers were "working together closely" but warned flooding was likely to worsen in coming days.
Labour has accused ministers of fighting "like ferrets in a sack".
Shadow environment secretary Maria Eagle said Mr Pickles was treating the Environment Agency as a "convenient scapegoat" but Mr Pickles responded by accusing the opposition of stirring up dissent.
"Frankly to play this rather pathetic game of who is to blame - there will be a time... when we will be able to look very closely into the causes of the floods and the reaction of government.
"But right now we should get on with the job," he told MPs.
There has been an escalating political row over the UK's preparedness for the crisis, which has seen more than 5,000 properties flooded in the past two months.
River levels continued to rise across south-east England on Monday, threatening homes in Berkshire and Surrey.
There are 14 severe flood warnings - indicating a danger to life - at present in the south-east of England while two severe warnings remain in place for the Somerset Levels.
Prime Minister David Cameron is staying overnight in the South West, having visited those affected by flooding.
Mr Pickles chaired a meeting of the government's Cobra emergency committee on Monday, afterwards promising to "work tirelessly" to relieve the situation.
He said: "As we continue to face these extraordinary weather events, I want to make clear again this evening that work is being done to identify and prioritise any sites where we may experience problems in the coming days."
Mr Pickles and Environment Secretary Owen Paterson are thought to be at odds over the Environment Agency's performance.
With Mr Paterson still recovering from an eye operation, Mr Pickles was called to Parliament to defend the government's handling of the crisis before going on to chair the government's latest Cobra emergency meeting.
He said there was likely to be further flooding this week along the course of the River Thames, Severn and Wye and it would take weeks to remove surface water from the Somerset Levels once there was a spell of dry weather.
Mr Pickles praised Environment Agency staff working "on the ground" but said it must "learn lessons" about policy with regard to river dredging and how much of its budget it spent on key priorities.
"For me, sorry is not the hardest word. I have been criticised for saying sorry to the people of Somerset...We are prepared to say we got it wrong, along with the Environment Agency, on dredging."
While there would be an opportunity, in the future, to "look very closely into the causes of the floods and the reaction of government" he said now was not the right moment for such an inquest.
"It is time for all of us to work together and not to make silly party political points."
On Sunday, Mr Pickles suggested that the Environment Agency gave ministers bad advice and gave lukewarm support for the agency and its chairman - the former Labour minister Lord Smith.
The BBC understands that Mr Paterson complained "in the strongest possible terms" to the prime minister about what he called Mr Pickles' "grandstanding".
Pressed by Labour's Wayne David about the need for the government to speak with one voice, he joked that he was the "mere custodian of his (Mr Paterson) wishes" while the latter was on sick leave.
"We are two peas in a pod, we are two brothers from a different mother and we speak on a regular basis," he said.
But former Labour minister Peter Hain accused Mr Pickles of "arrogant bluster", adding that "he ought to be apologising instead of continuously passing the buck".
Speaking earlier on a visit to Portland in Dorset, Mr Cameron praised Environment Agency staff and said it was not the time for a "change in personnel" at the top of the organisation.
"This is the time for everyone to get on with the jobs they have," he said. "Everyone has got to focus on the job in hand - the Environment Agency, every department of government."
Lord Smith has urged all sides to refrain from the "briefing and sniping of recent times" and focus on the "serious business" of protecting people's homes and livelihoods.