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UK weather: Eric Pickles and Owen Paterson clash over the performance of the Environment Agency


Nigel Morris
Monday 10 February 2014 14:36 GMT
Flood waters engulf a house with a wall of sandbags around it in Burrowbridge
Flood waters engulf a house with a wall of sandbags around it in Burrowbridge (Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images)

An acrimonious Cabinet rift opened Monday over the handling of the flooding crisis that has inundated wide stretches of the south of England.

Conservative colleagues Eric Pickles and Owen Paterson are at odds over the performance of the Environment Agency and its embattled chairman, Lord Smith.

And Mr Paterson, the Environment Secretary, was reported to have been branded “stupid” by another minister over his scepticism about the link between climate change and extreme weather events.

The feuding emerged ahead of a fresh visit by David Cameron to the South West to visit communities forced to leave their homes after being swamped by floodwater.

Mr Paterson, who was initially in charge of the government’s response to the emergency, has faced demands for his resignation over his performance which critics have described as sluggish and complacent.

He has been forced to take time off because of an eye operation and has been replaced by Mr Pickles, the Communities Secretary, who lost no time criticising the Agency and making clear he believed Lord Smith should quit.

His comments contradicted the previous insistence by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which is headed by Mr Paterson, that the Agency and Lord Smith were both doing a good job.

Mr Paterson was reported on Monday to have protested “in the strongest possible terms” to Mr Cameron about Mr Pickles’s “ grandstanding” in his absence.

But the Environment Secretary was dismissed in scathing terms by a fellow Cabinet member. The minister told MailOnline: “He just isn’t very bright. Most of the people around the Cabinet table are bright, even if I disagree with them, but not Owen. He isn’t climate sceptic, he’s climate stupid.”

Downing Street rejected suggestions that the Cabinet was at war over the Government's response to the floods.

“I don't think there is a difference between Eric Pickles and Owen Paterson on this," the Prime Minister's official spokesman said.

Asked whether David Cameron agreed that Mr Paterson was "stupid" on the issue of climate change, the spokesman responded: "The Prime Minister's view is that Owen Paterson does an excellent job.”

He denied accusations of a lack of urgency in the Government’s response during the early stages of the flooding, when the emergency Cobra committee was sometimes chaired by a junior environment minister.

Mr Cameron is visiting the South West over the coming 24 hours because he is “determined to see as much of the impact of the flooding as he can”, said the spokesman.

Cobra is due to meet Monday afternoon in London, and it is thought likely that it will be chaired by Mr Pickles.

Lord Smith broke his silence on the issue Monday, telling BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I have to say I’ve kept my counsel up to now about issues like government rules about what the Environment Agency can spend and what it can't spend.

“But when I hear someone criticising the expertise and the professionalism of my staff in the Environment Agency who know more about flood risk management – 100 times more about flood management than any politician ever does, I’m afraid I’m not going to sit idly by.”

Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, said: “It is a disgrace that you have Government ministers today pointing the finger at each other when they should be rolling their sleeves up and helping those who are affected. “The Government needs to explain why their response to the flooding has been so slow to help the victims and why their planning has been so inadequate.”

Watch an aerial view of the flooding along the River Thames

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