Floods in Somerset look set to spark a Commons row as the Government is accused of misleading the public over how much it is spending on flood defences.
As the row over dredging continues, Prime Minister David Cameron and Environment Secretary Owen Paterson have come under fire for claiming the Government is spending more money on defences than previously.
Critics say Defra officials failed to mention that the spending figures included millions of pounds of contributions expected from developers, councils and other non-government sources.
The row erupted as Somerset MP Ian Liddell-Grainger secured an adjournment debate in the House of Commons in which he intends to highlight what he calls the "catastrophic" failings of the Environment Agency.
Next Wednesday MPs will hear accusations that the agency is failing to maintain the dredging of the rivers Parrett and Tone to save money, a claim the agency denies.
But as conservationists and farmers went into battle over dredging, Mr Paterson came under fire for claiming "this Government is spending more on flood defences than any previous government".
Updated Defra figures show the Government is spending £2.34 billion in the current four-year spending review period (2011–2015) compared with £2.37 billion spent in the previous four years (2007-2011). His claims are based on partnership funding from non-government sources which is expected to reach £148 million over the current spending period.
Mr Cameron told the Commons earlier this month: "In this current four-year period, we are spending £2.3 billion, compared with £2.1 billion in the previous period." It later emerged that the PM's figure of £2.3 billion was for the period 2010-11 to 2013-14, which includes the final year of the last Labour government's financial commitments, when spending reached a high of £670 million. The £2.1 billion was for 2006-7 to 2009-10.
Friends of the Earth climate campaigner Guy Shrubsole said: "Owen Paterson's own department has now been forced to admit it has cut flood defence spending, despite claims to the contrary by the beleaguered Environment Secretary. On the basis of these figures, it appears both Mr Paterson and the Prime Minister have misled Parliament and the public. They must apologise, but most of all they need to get serious about defending the country from increasing flooding as climate change worsens."
Shadow environment secretary Maria Eagle said: "The Prime Minister must now stop repeating his misleading claim that more is being spent in the current four-year period than in the previous four years, when these new figures reveal that is simply not true. The Government should also stop including money that they hope to attract from external contributions but have so far failed to secure."
A spokeswoman for Defra said: "We are spending £2.3 billion on flood defences and along with partnership funding this is more than ever before. We have also committed to record levels of future capital investment."
Mr Liddell-Grainger has asked UK ministers to apply for European Union funding to tackle the flooding, which left 11 per cent of Somerset's Sedgemoor district – some 16,000 acres of top quality farmland – under water. The EA says it spent £20 million on dredging but it may not be the best long term solution.