UK Politics

UK floods: Commons row over 'phoney' spending figures

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Media captionDavid Cameron says flood spending is higher over the past four years "and those are the facts"

David Cameron has been accused of using "phoney" data to support his claim that spending on flood defences has increased under his government.

The prime minister has repeatedly said more will be spent between 2011 and 2015 than during the last four years of the previous Labour government.

But the statistics watchdog said last week that outlay during the "current spending period" was set to be lower.

Labour leader Ed Miliband suggested the prime minister had been "caught out".

But Mr Cameron hit back during Prime Minister's Questions, saying the figures cited by the government were "the facts" and urging everyone to unite behind the task of making the UK's defences more resilient.

He repeated figures he has used frequently during the flooding crisis, saying the government had spent £2.4bn on flood and coastal erosion defence between 2010-11 and 2014-15, compared with £2.2bn spent by Labour between 2005-06 and 2009-10.

In the Commons exchanges, Mr Miliband cited comments by the UK Statistics Authority, which was asked to look into the veracity of the figures by Labour MP Hugh Bayley.

Watchdog intervention

In a letter to Mr Bayley last week, the authority's head, Sir Andrew Dilnot, said "government funding for flood defences was expected to be lower in both nominal and real terms during the current spending period than during the last spending period".

Chancellor George Osborne set out his spending plans for 2011-2015 in October 2010.

Sir Andrew said the watchdog endorsed figures from the House of Commons library, issued last month, that suggested government spending on flood defences was due to fall by 6% between 2011-12 and 2014-15 under plans set out in the 2010 Spending Review.

The Commons research quoted figures from the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, stating that £2.34bn would be spent in nominal terms between 2011 and 2015, compared with £2.37bn between 2007 and 2011.

Stripping out inflation, coalition spending would total £2.31bn compared with £2.56bn by Labour over a similar period.

In the same letter, Sir Andrew added that the government's claim that more was currently being spent on flood defences than ever before was correct only if inflation and outside sources of funding were discounted.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption More than 6,500 properties have been flooded since early December

"It [the claim] is supported by statistics if the comparison is made in nominal terms and includes external funding but it is not supported by the statistics if the comparison is made in real terms or if external funding is excluded."

Raising the matter at PMQs, Mr Miliband urged the prime minister to admit that his government had cut funding for flood defence, saying the public were more likely to believe an independent watchdog than him.

"The figures the prime minister is quoting are phoney and I believe he knows it. They have cut flood defence spending and he has been caught out."

'Pointless'

But Mr Cameron retorted: "The fact is that if you take the period 2010, when I became prime minister, to 2014, the spending has been £2.4bn - more than the £2.2bn in the previous four years.

"If you take the five-year period of this Parliament.... the spending has been higher than the previous five years. These are the facts."

Describing the debate over figures as "slightly pointless", he said the country should be coming together to do what it could to prevent a repeat of the damage caused in the past four months, during which 6,500 homes have been flooded.

Mr Cameron recently announced £130m in extra support for emergency repairs but a leading engineering organisation has said this is not sufficient to make up for funding cuts since 2010.

The Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) said the Environment Agency's annual maintenance budget for flood defences had fallen from more than £100m in 2010-11 to £60.7m in 2014-15.

It said ministers should commit to a longer-term investment programme for flood defences beyond the current five-year programme, to provide the certainty needed to improve flood resilience.

Ministers say annual capital investment in new flood defences and major refurbishment of existing ones will rise to £370m in 2015-16 and spending will be protected, in real terms, every year until 2020-21.

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