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Floods: Cameron 'Backs The Environment Agency'
The Prime Minister gave his unequivocal backing to the work of the Environment Agency as he visited the flood-stricken South West.
David Cameron stopped short of backing the chairman Lord Smith, however, he did say that now was not the time to change personnel.
The Prime Minister's comments were aimed at defusing the escalating political row over who is to blame for the flooding crisis after Eric Pickles, who is in charge of the Government's flooding response, pointed the finger at the Environment Agency.
The Communities and Local Government Secretary, who has taken over from the Environment Secretary Owen Paterson while he is treated for a detached retina, was particularly critical of the agency chairman Lord Smith in his remarks on Sunday.
Mr Pickles apologised for "mistakes" in not dredging rivers in Somerset but said it had acted on the advice of the Environment Agency.
He told Sky News: "It think it's been a very unhappy time for Lord Smith and no doubt his lordship is reflecting on the feedback he has got from the people of Somerset."
His comments sparked a fierce response from Lord Smith who accused Mr Pickles of using the work of the agency as a "political football for a good media story".
Mr Cameron, who was visiting the South West for the second time in four days following criticism over a slow reaction to the crisis, said: "Environment Agency staff on the ground - and I have been watching them in Somerset, here in Dorset, I met them in Norfolk and also in Kent - and they are doing an amazing job, the staff of the Environment Agency and they deserve our support and our thanks.
"I am only interested in one thing and that's in making sure that everything the Government can do is being done and will go on being done to help people."
When asked if he backed Lord Smith or felt the chairman should resign from his £110,000-a-year role, he said: "This is a time for everyone to get on with the jobs that they have whether it's running the Environment Agency ...
"This is not the time to change personnel, this is the time to get on and do everything we can to help people. I back the Environment Agency. I back the work they are doing."
Speaking in the House of Commons on Monday afternoon, Mr Pickles denied criticising the agency and said it was time to work together.
Mr Paterson's spokeswoman was earlier forced to deny that the Environment Secretary had complained to No 10 about the heavy-handed approach of Mr Pickles.
She said: "Owen and Eric both agree there should have been more dredging in Somerset. They are working closely to deal with the problems caused by floods and severe weather - and to help the businesses and families affected."
The Prime Minister's spokesman said: "I don't think there is a difference between Eric Pickles and Owen Paterson on this."
Asked about a Cabinet rift over the way the flooding crisis has been dealt and whether Mr Cameron agreed with a Cabinet minister, who had had reportedly described Mr Paterson as "stupid", the spokesman said: "The Prime Minister's view is that Owen Paterson does an excellent job."
The Government has come under fire for its slow response to the flooding crisis and Mr Cameron for failing to visit the flood-hit communities in Somerset, some of whom have been under water for a month.
Over the weekend an unedifying row broke out over who was to blame for the problem with Mr Pickles saying it had been a mistake not to dredge rivers in Somerset to prevent flooding problems but that they were acting on the advise of the Environment Agency.
The chairman, Lord Smith, who has faced sharp criticism for failing to admit mistakes have been made and for being slow to visit areas affected by the crisis, hit back saying the Government had not given enough funding for the dredging to take place.
EA board members said that the row was "undermining" public confidence and "belittling" the work of staff working hard to minimise the impact of extreme weather.
"Of course it is open to anyone to take issue with expert scientific opinion," the agency's independent board members said in a statement.
"But at a time of emergency it is more important for us all to focus relentlessly on managing the current floods and helping to minimise their impact."
Amid the row, police in the Thames Valley declared a major incident, as rising water levels threatened "significant flooding" across swathes of southern Britain.
In Wraysbury, Berkshire, a flood warden helping people evacuate their homes begged Mr Cameron to send in the Army to stop people's homes from being flooded.
Labour leader Ed Miliband 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."
Lord Smith finally visited Somerset on Friday, shortly followed by a 30-minute visit from Mr Cameron.
On Sunday UKIP's Nigel Farage used his visit to the Somerset Levels to call on the Government to redirect its overseas aid budget to those who had been hit by the flooding crisis.
Responding to his suggestion in the House of Commons on Monday, Mr Pickles said it was wrong to "pit helping flood victims at home against those suffering abroad. We can and should help both."
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg visited flooded Burrowbridge, Somerset, on Monday where he also said that it was not time to "point the finger of blame" and that Lord Smith and the Environment Agency had a "difficult job to do".
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