HC Deb 07 November 1961 vol 648 cc799-803

The following Questions stood upon the Order Paper:

49. Mr. FISHER

To ask the Secretary of State for the Colonies if he will make a further statement about the hurricane damage at Belize, British Honduras.


To ask the Secretary of State for the Colonies whether he will make a further statement about the extent of the loss of life and the damage done to property by the hurricane in British Honduras; and what further measures he proposes to take to send supplies to the sufferers and to enable them to reconstruct their dwellings and property.

The Secretary of State for the Colonies (Mr. Reginald Maudling)

With permission I will now answer Questions Nos. 49 and 53 together.

It is clear that the devastation caused by the hurricane in British Honduras is widespread and very severe. Casualty lists have not yet been received but the latest available information is that the dead in Belize, the capital, will be more than 160, but there are 70 people known to be missing and it is feared that the final death roll may be a good deal higher.

In outlying districts also there has been heavy damage and casualties. In Stann Creek, destruction of life and property may be even greater than in Belize.

It is impossible for anyone to live in Belize at present and the work of establishing essential services such as shelter and supplies of food and drinking water is being carried out with the help of the naval and military forces which have been brought in by the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force.

We have had the greatest assistance from the United States Navy, who sent two destroyers and an aircraft carrier together with doctors, nurses and other medical personnel.

I fear it will be some time before it will be possible to make any assessment of the damage to property and meanwhile I can only refer to what I said in reply to the right hon. Member for West Bromwich (Mr. Dugdale) on 1st November; in disasters of this kind a Colony like British Honduras will, naturally, look to the United Kingdom for help in reconstruction.

Co-ordination of supplies to cope with the immediate situation is in the hands of the Government of Jamaica, who tell us what they require from the United Kingdom. In all this we are in close touch with the Red Cross, who are rendering the greatest possible assistance.

Apart from military reinforcements, including Royal Engineers and medical personnel, we have despatched engineering and medical supplies, tarpaulins and other temporary roofing material. This will continue both by sea and air.

I should like to pay a special tribute to the Governor, Sir Colin Thornley, who was recovering from pneumonia when the hurricane struck. In spite of this he insisted on carrying on and has given a magnificent lead in all the relief operations.

Mr. Fisher

Would my right hon. Friend say whether there is any danger due to serious shortage of food and any danger to health due to the outbreak of epidemics? Those questions are about the short term. In the long term, has my right hon. Friend yet been able to give any consideration to the proposal that Belize should be rebuilt inland when the time comes?

Mr. Maudling

The medical situation is greatly improved with the arrival of medical supplies and personnel. The food situation, I think, today is better than it was, though is still worrying. In the long term, I think that the question of the removal of the capital needs careful study. It will take a little while before we can assess the position.

Mr. Marquand

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we receive with very much deepened regret the news he has just given to us about the damage in Belize, since it seems to be even more serious than we concluded from the last announcement? Does he not think, in view of this really disastrous situation, that a visit by one of Her Majesty's Ministers —I will not necessarily suggest himself, since we realise how hard pressed he must be —would be helpful in the circumstances?

Is it true that the United States aid administration has contributed 300,000 dollars to relief of distress and that Her Majesty's Government have contributed so far £10,000? Would he not agree that while we greatly appreciate the instant and courageous and valuable aid rendered by the United States Government and their Navy, none the less we must make it absolutely clear that the major responsibility for the major reconstruction which is evidently necessary must rest upon the shoulders of Her Majesty's Government?

Would the right hon. Gentleman also care to say something about the part which he hopes the voluntary societies in this country can play? They are anxious to know what he wants from them.

Mr. Maudling

Yes. While the situation is still extremely confused, the greatest difficulty is the shortage of accommodation. If a visit by myself or any of my colleagues is likely to be of any help, of course it will be made straight away.

As for the voluntary bodies, we are grateful for their offers. I have asked the Governor whether there is anything they can do and as soon as he has answered I will pass the message on to them. The Americans have been a great help. Of course, they were in a position to help being near to the spot. Certainly, in the long run a very heavy financial responsibility will rest upon this country, as it rightly should. We made an initial contribution to the relief fund so as to get the fund started. I understand that an appeal is to be launched in the very near future.

Mr. J. Hynd

Have any contributions been made by any other member of the Commonwealth?

Mr. Maudling

Not as yet.

Mr. Gaitskell

Would the Colonial Secretary consider rather more seriously the suggestion made by my right hon. Friend that a Minister should be sent out? This disaster is on a far greater scale than we at first imagined, and far greater, as far as I can recall, than any which has occurred in a British Colony for years. Would it not be, apart from the desirability of making sure that everything is all right, a very valuable gesture to the people of Honduras that a member of the Government should go out at once?

Mr. Maudling

I will certainly consider that suggestion very seriously. I am very grateful for it and for any suggestions. Frankly, though, I think that a visit by a Minister at the moment in present circumstances might be more of an embarrassment to the people on the spot, but if it should be helpful, of course we should be willing.

Sir J. Vaughan-Morgan

All of us who have visited the Colony in the last year, as I did, will want to be associated with the distress which is being expressed about what has happened —for the second time in six years —in this Colony, and also with the tribute which my right hon. Friend has paid to the Governor, for whom, as he was about to leave the Colony, this must be a terrible blow.

May I ask my right hon. Friend whether he will consider very seriously the suggestion made by my hon. Friend the Member for Surbiton (Mr. Fisher) that as soon as possible a commission should go out at once to help with what is essential, which is the rebuilding of the administrative capital on a far better site than it has been, alas, for two hundred years?

Mr. Maudling

Yes, we will certainly consider that very seriously.

Mr. C. Royle

May I also press the point made in the last part of the supplementary question by the hon. Member for Surbiton (Mr. Fisher)? Will it not be very necessary, in view of the constant recurring of these disasters, to take the capital at least more inland? Cannot consideration be given to that at once, in view of the dangers which still persist?

Mr. Maudling

I do not think that we can give consideration to that till we have considered it with the people on the spot, who are too busy at the moment with the immediate work of rescue. As soon as they are in a position to talk about it we shall be very ready to do so.