UK Politics

UK floods: David Cameron seeks to calm ministerial row

David Cameron is urging unity after reports of a clash between senior ministers over the UK's response to the flooding crisis.

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

But the prime minister said everyone should "get on with their jobs" and deal with the current difficulties.

The government will have to defend its response later in Parliament.

Commons Speaker John Bercow has granted Labour an urgent question to ask about the government's handling of the floods crisis while the government's latest Cobra emergency meeting will take place at 16:00 GMT.

'Get a grip'

Mr Paterson is still recovering from an eye operation and Mr Pickles will appear at the dispatch box to defend the government's handling of the crisis at 15:30 GMT.

Labour has accused ministers of fighting "like ferrets in a sack".

"It is a disgrace that you have got government ministers pointing the finger of blame at each other when they should be rolling their sleeves up and helping those affected," said opposition leader Ed Miliband.

"The prime minister has got to get a grip on the government's response to flooding."

The escalating political row over the UK's preparedness came as river levels continued to rise along the River Thames in Berkshire and Surrey - leading to 16 severe flood warnings.

On Sunday, Mr Pickles - currently co-ordinating the UK's floods response - suggested the government relied too much on Environment Agency advice and "made a mistake" by not dredging the flood-hit Somerset Levels earlier.

He also gave lukewarm support for the agency and its chair - the former Labour minister Lord Smith - saying he would "not wear a save Chris Smith T-shirt".

The BBC understands that Mr Paterson has complained "in the strongest possible terms" to the prime minister about what he called Mr Pickles' "grandstanding".

Asked about the issue, No 10 did not deny that Mr Paterson had protested at his colleague's comments and would not confirm who would co-ordinate the response when the environment secretary returns to work.

"What needs to happen and is happening is for the government to come together," a spokesman said.

Speaking 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, who is due to retire later this year, has acknowledged he could have done more to make the case for river dredging last year but said he would not allow ministers to question his staff's "expertise and professionalism".

"I am there to be a punchbag. My staff are not," he told the BBC News Channel, adding that he would not "take lessons" from Mr Pickles on running his organisation.

But he 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.

Lord Smith, who has rejected calls for some quarters to resign, said the agency's response had been dictated by Treasury rules on how much could be spent on individual flood defence schemes.

He said the body had stumped up £400,000 last year for dredging in the Somerset Levels - "the maximum amount the Treasury rules allowed us to do" - but the government and other organisations had not provided similar sums to enable the work, estimated to cost £4m, to go ahead.

"I will apologise for probably not having done enough to twist arms with county councils, district councils, drainage boards and others in order to come to the table along with us to get those funds on the table for dredging last year.

"We should have done more to persuade people".

But he said he would not apologise for the Treasury rules and the "limitations" they placed on his agency.

Visiting flooded villages in Somerset on Monday, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said although there may be grounds for a future review of the government's response, "now is not the time to point the finger of blame".

Image caption Lord Smith said the agency was bound by government rules on flooding
Image caption Nick Clegg said the Environment Agency had a "very difficult job" to do
Image caption Ministers have clashed over the government's response to flooding

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