Pickles challenged over floods response

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Communities Secretary Eric Pickles has been accused of using the Environment Agency as a "convenient scapegoat" for the government's response to the flooding crisis.

Shadow environment secretary Maria Eagle challenged Mr Pickles after he had appeared to criticise the advice the Environment Agency gave the government on flood defences.

Ms Eagle said the government had reacted too slowly to the flooding, as she asked an urgent question on its handling of the floods on 10 February 2014.

Last week, Mr Pickles described the information released by the Environment Agency as "remarkably good", but on Sunday he suggested the organisation gave ministers bad advice, and gave lukewarm support for the agency and its chairman - the former Labour minister Lord Smith.

Ms Eagle asked him: "Can you explain what changed your mind about the quality of the Environment Agency's advice in the following 48 hours, other than the fact that you spotted a convenient scapegoat in order to distract attention from the government's own failure?

"Do you accept in hindsight that it was wrong to launch such a direct attack on the staff of the Environment Agency, and will you take this opportunity to apologise for it?"

Responding, Mr Pickles denied that he had criticised the "marvellous workforce" at the agency and said it was "entirely wrong" for Ms Eagle to suggest so.

"I believe it's the time for all of us to work together and not to make silly, party political points. And I am confident that with the help of the Environment Agency, the Armed Forces, and the good work of local councils, that's exactly what we will do," he continued.

The secretary of state had earlier praised the agency's 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.

Environment Secretary Owen Paterson and Mr Pickles are thought to be at odds over the performance of the Environment Agency.

MPs were also told the Thames, Severn and Wye rivers were at high risk of flooding "in the middle of the week", and that extra efforts were being made to deal with the problem.

Lib Dem David Heath, the MP for Somerton and Frome in Somerset, which has been badly affected by floods, paid tribute "to all those...dealing with our emergency".

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