HC Deb 29 January 2001 vol 362 cc21-31 3.31 pm
The Secretary of State for International Development (Clare Short)

On Friday 26 January, a major earthquake measuring 6.9 on the Richter scale occurred in western India. The epicentre was 50 km north-east of the town of Bhuj in Gujarat state. It affected an area as large as Wales and was felt in Pakistan, Nepal and southern India.

The latest estimates are that more than 20,000 people are presumed dead, thousands more are missing and some 50,000 are reported injured. Initial reports suggest that 500,000 have been left homeless. As serious aftershocks continue, hundreds of thousands of people are living outside their homes. Aftershocks are also hampering the search and rescue and relief effort. Provision of water is a particular problem in Bhuj. Aerial assessments carried out by the Government of India, in which staff from my Department participated, described the situation in many areas as "utter devastation". According to the Indian authorities, 95 per cent. of buildings in Bhuj are no longer habitable and many villages are completely flattened.

Infrastructure such as roads, bridges, railways, communication systems and electricity lines have been severely affected and an oil slick is affecting operations at the oil terminal at Kandla port. Communication with Bhuj is gradually being restored using satellite. Indian police are leading the search and rescue effort, aided by 5,000 Indian military personnel. Priorities are water, shelter, blankets and food. The Indian authorities are mobilising significant resources to address those needs. That is being supported by international relief assistance, which has started to arrive.

I am sure that the whole House would wish to join me in expressing our deep sympathy and concern to the people of Gujarat and their relatives and friends in Britain and elsewhere. The Queen and the Prime Minister have sent messages of sympathy to the Government of India.

The Department for International Development's emergency response centre has been working round the clock since the earthquake struck. We dispatched a UK search and rescue team of 69 people comprising 25 UK fire service volunteers from Lancashire, Lincolnshire, Greater Manchester, Chester and Leicestershire and specialist non-governmental organisation personnel. The Ministry of Defence provided a plane at a cost to my Department—I thought that the House may want to know this—of £98,000. Officials from my Department led the team. They arrived in Bhuj at 8 am UK time on 28 January and started work within 15 minutes. At present, they are targeting some of the worst-affected buildings. They are working in close co-operation with the Indian authorities and have so far managed to rescue four people alive.

Also in a joint operation with my Department, 75 search and rescue personnel from the Russian Ministry of Emergencies arrived in Bhachau on 28 January and have rescued eight persons to date. They also have with them an airmobile hospital. A second Russian aircraft, part-funded by my Department, is awaiting clearance from the Indian authorities to bring in 3,280 blankets and 45 family tents.

A United Nations disaster assessment co-ordination team, including one United Kingdom member, has also been dispatched, and will commence operations as soon as possible. Two disaster assessment experts from my Department have helped to organise the nongovernmental organisations' relief co-ordination meeting, and have helped with aerial reconnaissance. The focus of the effort is now moving from search and rescue to the organisation of relief. All existing systems have broken down. People lack housing, blankets, clothes, food and water. We must ensure that those who survived the earthquake are cared for until normal systems can be restored.

My Department has spent £2 million on the provision of immediate relief, and a further £1 million will be allocated today. As the House knows, what is important is not general pledges of money but disbursing the money now, and providing services on the ground in Gujarat now. My right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury has today agreed to make available £9 million from the reserve, so that we can allocate a total of £10 million to support the emergency relief effort without reducing our spending in other parts of India. We will also work in Brussels and elsewhere to ensure that other development agencies make appropriate funding available.

The Indian Government are well organised and are providing food, army personnel, heavy lifting equipment, mobile operating theatres and medical supplies, but the scale of the emergency is such that some of the resources needed cannot be supplied in the region. We are therefore also arranging to fly out three aircraft carrying 1,200 tents and other shelter items from the Department's emergency stockpile in Staffordshire. A fourth aircraft will be dispatched today from Ostend via Brindisi, carrying 10 sets of trauma equipment and plastic sheeting.

This is a very serious disaster. Organisation by the Indian Government is good, but international help is needed to ensure that all who survived the earthquake, but have lost everything, are provided with health care and other basic essentials until they can rebuild their homes and livelihoods.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon)

I thank the Secretary of State for coming to make the statement, and for letting me have a copy earlier.

Let me underline the deep shock and sadness of Conservative Members, and express our sympathy for all who have suffered in this major disaster. The tragedy is brought much closer to home for all of us by the certain knowledge that all over the United Kingdom there will be British citizens who have lost family and loved ones in India—perhaps even in Pakistan—and who are waiting desperately for news of missing relatives. I pay tribute to the Department's rapid response in releasing resources and supporting the dispatch of the British specialist search and rescue teams that are now doing such impressive work in Gujarat, and I pay tribute to the Secretary of State's hard-working officials.

I emphasise that Conservative Members will support any reasonable steps taken by the Government to deal with either the short-term crisis or the longer-term need for restoration work. I know it is early days, but can the Secretary of State say anything at all about the part that Britain might play in the longer-term regeneration that will be necessary? Will the Department support the Indian Government's request to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank for substantial help?

The Secretary of State mentioned the need for shelter, blankets, clothes, food and water. Can she say a little about her assessment of the scale of those requirements—especially in the more remote areas, some of which have not yet received any help at all? Can she also say something about her Department's assessment of the risks of disease? What support can we give to help with medical supplies?

Does the Secretary of State agree that as we enjoy a very close and special relationship with this Commonwealth country, it is right and proper for Britain to be at the forefront of the humanitarian aid effort? I welcome the co-operation between her Department and the Ministry of Defence in making aircraft available.

Can the right hon. Lady say a little more about how the £3 million of aid that we have made available will be disbursed? May I repeat the concerns that I mentioned during discussion on El Salvador about the pumping of our aid through United Nations agencies? I suspect that the right hon. Lady has not done that this time, but does she agree that, more often than not, NGOs and charities based on the ground are the right vehicles for British taxpayers' funds?

Does the Secretary of State agree that although earthquakes are inevitable, death on this scale is not? Does she agree that much more needs to be done the world over in terms of earthquake preparedness? Given that India is by far the largest recipient of British aid, does she ensure that disaster management forms part of the on-going dialogue between our two countries? During her recent trip to India, did she have discussions with Indian Ministers about disaster management? If so, can she say a little about that?

I again thank the Secretary of State and her Department for their rapid response—which is made on behalf of all of us—to a very serious disaster.

Clare Short

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I agree with him very much that the British people can feel proud that we—with some of the fine officials in my Department—are among the fastest in the world in responding to this type of emergency. We can be proud, too, of the fact that British fire fighters and others working in search and rescue operations will drop everything at a moment's notice and fly around the world to try to help people in distress. I think that we are all proud to live in a country that can make such an effort.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman—we are very aware of this—that the families of very many British citizens originated in that part of India. As telephone and other systems have broken down, people here have been unable to receive news of their family in India and are deeply anxious. They are of course devastated and we feel very deeply for them.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the part that we will play in the longer term. As we tend to move faster than others and can get on site very quickly, we will probably make a lot of the early, up-front provision. We can then ensure that organisations such as the European Community make resources available. It will be some months before the big reconstruction effort can begin. People have lost their houses and absolutely everything else, and they will have to be provided with health care and food before the reconstruction effort can start.

It is the reconstruction effort that the IMF and the World Bank will have to help with. I met World Bank authorities recently when I was in India, and they are hoping and planning to increase their support and lending to India. We have also been talking about assisting the bank to be able to deploy more resources in India. I think that we can continue those conversations to ensure that Gujarat receives help for the reconstruction effort.

The hon. Gentleman is right that, in some villages, everything has been destroyed. An aerial reconnaissance has been conducted, but no help has yet been provided to people in some smaller communities which have lost everything. The relief effort has to spread very rapidly. We should remember, however, that very considerable territory—an area the size of Wales—has been devastated and that some of the villages are remote.

There is always a risk of disease after a major disruption, when water, sanitation and health systems are affected. That is why the big relief effort is now focused on ensuring that those who survive do not become ill and perhaps—after surviving the earthquake—die because of a lack of support.

The hon. Gentleman is wrong to suggest that all United Nations agencies are inefficient. UNICEF, for example, is an extremely efficient agency that is particularly good at water supply, which is an issue in this case. We shall use whatever agencies are already present and able to operate in the locality. That is what we always do. It is no good giving grants to non-governmental organisations that are still in the United Kingdom and not in the country concerned. We have to see who is already in the country and provide to them.

The Red Cross was the fastest to the scene and we provided it with the first grant. Blankets are needed, as it is quite cold in that part of India and people are sleeping outside their houses. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall provide to those agencies that are efficient, already at the scene and can get material through to people. However, only the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs can do the co-ordinating job. It can get in there, assess the situation and make calls around the world to ensure that the effort is co-ordinated and resources are not unnecessarily duplicated.

I agree very much with the hon. Gentleman's final point—we are working on the matter throughout the world system—that earthquakes and other disasters are acts of nature or of God, and that perhaps there will be more of them because of greater global warming, atmospheric turbulence and increasing world population, which forces people on to more marginal land. However, people's chances of surviving a disaster depend on local disaster preparedness. Systems in countries around the world have to be strengthened so that people are always there, ready to move instantly. When people are under rubble, it is no good waiting for people and materials to be flown in from elsewhere in the world. We need to have local people who can move very rapidly to the rescue.

As I said, the Indian Government's efforts are very good and organised. However, it is a phenomenal disaster.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

May I express support for the fact that my right hon. Friend did say that the Indian Government and the Indian authorities were well organised? I went last night to a big meeting in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary which was hosted by the police for our Asian communities, and gentle sadness was expressed that the attitude of much of the British press had been somewhat patronising towards the organisation of the Indian authorities. As a member of the Budget Committee of the European Union, I have seen the effects of an earthquake days after it happened. Anyone who has seen that knows that the effects are stunning and appalling. People cannot be well organised, so I am glad that she paid tribute to the Indian authorities.

My right hon. Friend also referred to the oil slick. We have great expertise in such matters, so is British expertise being sent to do something about the slick, which is a real problem?

Clare Short

My hon. Friend is right to say that there is always a tendency for the media to look for someone to blame; they say, "If only there were not all this chaos and disorganisation, it would all be okay." This was a natural disaster of monumental proportions. People were going to be hurt and there was nothing anyone could do to stop that. However, we can respond quickly to people's needs. The Indian Government's lead has been excellent and we have been fast in assisting, which makes a lot of difference. In other countries where disasters have occurred and where there has been bad local organisation, there has been much more disruption, death and ill-health because of the follow-on chaos. In this case, not every village has been reached, but the organisation is good. That is a blessing and the Indian Government are to be congratulated.

The oil slick to which my hon. Friend refers has been caused by a fracture in a tank, as a result of the earthquake. I do not know whether we have offered help, but I shall find out and get back to him.

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park)

My party wishes to join all hon. Members in sending sincere condolences to the Hindu communities affected by the earthquake, both here and in India. We commend the speedy action by organisations such as the UK search and rescue team and the £10 million of assistance pledged by the British Government. We commend also the action taken by the Gujarat communities in the United Kingdom which, amazingly quickly, have established appeals and information centres for Gujarati people who live in this country.

With regard to the point made by the hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter), are any specific measures being taken to combat cholera which no doubt will spread if the water supply is not secured? Does the Minister agree that it is buildings, not earthquakes, that kill people? Can we have an assurance that any reconstruction that takes place with money from this country will involve the building of earthquake-resistant buildings? Can the Government help the relatives from this country to get information about their relatives in India or to go out there to join other family members?

Clare Short

The Red Cross issued an early appeal and, if people want to give, the Red Cross is efficient, on the ground and getting help through. People should be proud that their tax money is contributing, as the £10 million is taxpayers' money. Every British citizen is making a contribution—as they would want—and everyone should be aware of that. That sum is greater than the voluntary donations, welcome though those are.

Many measures have been taken to deal with health problems and possible cholera. The major hospital in Bhuj was flattened, but there is a military hospital and mobile hospitals. A lot of effort is being made to provide health care and prevent the spread of disease. On whether buildings and not earthquakes kill people, we have no evidence of the really dreadful building that was seen following the earthquake in Turkey, although we will find out more as the information comes in. However, many villages with traditional low-rise buildings have been flattened, too. It is a question not of bad building, but of a dreadful earthquake.

On reconstruction, the Indian Government will wish to learn lessons about what kind of buildings should be built. It will take big support from the IMF and the World Bank; we must remember that an area the size of Wales will have to be rebuilt. The UK aid budget will not be enough and major resources will be required. Gujarat is not one of the poorest areas of India and local resources can be mobilised.

The Foreign Office is providing all the help and information to relatives that it can. Satellite communications have been established and telephone calls are getting through. However, I would not advise people to go out to look. The area is in chaos, and it would not be helpful. I understand how worried relatives must be, but if lots of people start arriving, it will add to the strain on airports and make matters worse.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East)

I represent a large Gujarati community, and I add my expressions of sympathy to those of my right hon. Friend, especially to those directly affected, whether they are living in Gujarat, in Bolton or anywhere else. The local community has mobilised very quickly, and the first shipment of clothing and blankets is due to leave Bolton this afternoon. Will my right hon. Friend do everything in her power to help those communities to get goods and finance through to Gujarat as quickly as possible?

Clare Short

Many people in the UK have families in Bhuj, where 95 per cent. of the buildings have been destroyed, so there must be terrible worry in our communities, and we all feel deeply about that, but it is much better to offer money than goods, because of the shipping costs and the organisational effort. I appeal to those who want to help to give money, which is much more flexible. We will then be able to purchase vast supplies of what is needed. The bulk of clothing and other goods makes all the arrangements more difficult. I hope that all hon. Members will encourage their communities to provide money rather than goods.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

I appreciate the report that the Secretary of State has given us. On behalf of my colleagues, I express our sympathy, too. As minister of a church that has been closely associated with work in Gujarat for about 150 years, I know something of what the people there are going through. I know that the House will also feel sympathy with and empathy for the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz), because I understand that his family background is in Gujarat. In the light of press reports that there are some in the Gujarat authorities who want to go ahead with clearing away the rubble, I urge the Secretary of State at least to encourage them to let the searchers continue, in the light of experience elsewhere, where some miraculous escapes have taken place. We understand why they want to get on with clearing up, but it is equally important to consider searching for those who may still be alive. We will pledge our support at any level to the Department, as it continues to co-operate with others in the search and rescue and rebuilding operations.

Clare Short

Yes, indeed, we learned in Turkey that it is extraordinary how long people can survive under the rubble. India has provided a lot of military personnel, but outside teams have the expertise and the listening equipment. Some villages have not yet been reached. We must be careful to save all the lives that we can. Obviously, time is running on, and we all worry about that, but I completely agree that we must save every life that can be saved.

Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North)

There are 10,000 families of Gujarati origin in my constituency, and approximately 3,000 specifically from Bhuj. As can be imagined, the whole community, especially in Wembley and Kenton, has been traumatised by recent events.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her statement, and in particular for the increase to £10 million in the money that is to be made available. Will she ensure that there is co-ordination of local community relief efforts in this country, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) said, are already under way? I understand her point that it is much better to contribute money, because that can buy the necessary goods that are immediately available on the ground, but communities have already mobilised and collected blankets and foodstuffs to send, and there will be an understandable frustration if all the efforts that relatives here have made appear to be thwarted and not to be productive.

My right hon. Friend said that Gujarat was one of the wealthier states in India. That is true: it has a £29 billion development programme of inward investment. Will she consider not only the immediate relief but how Britain can be involved in the long-term programme of building that will be necessary in the state?

My right hon. Friend spoke about remote villages and the need for the relief effort to reach them. Many families in my constituency who have been contacted by their relatives have been told that nothing is happening in the remoter villages. I urge my right hon. Friend to expand the efforts to reach the British citizens' relatives who are trapped and without relief. I also urge her to liaise with her Cabinet colleagues about any counselling that is available to relatives in this country who are traumatised by events in India.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her remarks about the Indian Government, who have made every effort to provide telecommunications for people to contact their relatives. I believe that 2,000 lines have been made available, and I want to record the praise of my community for the Indian Government and also for Sewa International, the Indian charity that is doing much to co-ordinate work on the ground.

Clare Short

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I am sure that we all feel for his constituents. I stress that I am grateful to the Treasury for the £10 million. We are nearly at year's end, and all our money in India is programmed. We were therefore planning to redeploy money that would otherwise be spent elsewhere on other poor people in that country. However, the Treasury came forward with extra money, and I am very pleased about that.

I understand my hon. Friend's comments about people who have collected blankets and foodstuffs. However, I ask anyone who has done that to consider selling them and giving money instead. I am sorry, but it is not right to use resources inefficiently simply to make people feel better when it is desperately urgent to get money to buy food and other necessities. Some people have lost everything; they have simply walked out of their houses. They have no clothes and it is cold. We cannot make ourselves less efficient in those circumstances, and we will not be able to send bulk supplies. I therefore encourage people to give money to the Red Cross or other agencies that are working in India. I am sorry to disappoint people, but the point is important; this is about saving people's lives.

My hon. Friend is right about the massive rebuilding effort. As I told the hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter), it will take a great deal of resources. We shall therefore look to international agencies to which we contribute, such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, to provide large, long-term loans with a low rate of interest to accomplish the enormous rebuilding effort. We work with both banks in India. Apart from our existing commitments to those institutions we will do any partnering that we can to help them bring their programmes forward.

I agree with my hon. Friend about the remote villages. The effort to reach out is happening now. Everything happened so fast, and it is true that some villages have not been reached. We must do everything in our power to get to those people.

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury)

I think that everyone would commend the Chief Secretary on providing the £10 million so speedily. As the Secretary of State says, a massive rebuilding effort will be required, backed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. After the Turkish earthquake, the Minister for Housing and Planning led a construction mission to Turkey. The United Kingdom construction industry is carrying out much rebuilding in the earthquake zone in Turkey. Could the right hon. Lady liaise with the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions to establish whether there is again scope for the UK construction industry to contribute in the Indian earthquake zone?

Clare Short

Yes, indeed. I hope that everyone will welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) to the Front Bench to speak on international development. He said that a Minister from DETR had telephoned earlier on the very matter that the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) raised. We must be ready to go, but we must not go too early and get in the way. Let us get the relief effort organised first. When people can turn their minds to reconstruction, that will be the right time to move.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

I recognise that most of the tragedy has occurred in India, and, as secretary of the all-party Pakistan group, I extend sincere sympathy to all who are affected. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is an opportunity not only for the Commonwealth to respond positively, but for Pakistan, India's nearest neighbour, which is also affected, to work with India, despite those countries' differences, to tackle the tragedy?

Clare Short

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. It is my understanding that, because buildings tumbled, there has been some loss of life in Pakistan and Nepal—but on nothing like the same scale. My hon. Friend is right: if any help can be offered to Gujarat from Pakistan, I am sure that Pakistan would want to consider that. My hon. Friend's suggestion will have been heard and I am sure Pakistan will do what it can to help.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

I congratulate the right hon. Lady on her Department's initial response and, with other right hon. and hon. Members, echo her remarks about the performance thus far of the Government of India. Clearly, this matter is a priority for the UK because of our historic trading and family relations with India. However, as half our aid is disbursed through the European Union, will she tell us how the matter can be made to have the same priority for the EU that it so clearly has for us?

Clare Short

The hon. Gentleman is right: a third of our development budget goes through the EU. We are in touch with Brussels and I think—I speak from memory—that about 3 million euros have been pledged. That is not in proportion to the need, so we shall hold further talks both about the size of the pledge and about speed. Often, in such disasters, Governments make pledges, but it takes months and months before anything arrives and it is then discovered that the money was already in their budget for India in any case. We must make sure that the money is new money and that it is rapidly disbursed—we shall be working on that.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

My right hon. Friend referred to 3 million euros. That is an extremely small amount—incredibly small. Is my right hon. Friend aware of how much individual EU nation states are allocating, bilaterally? Is that information in her departmental briefing? What co-ordination will there be with states outside the EU structure to ensure that there is no overlap?

Clare Short

I agree with my hon. Friend. As I said, I spoke from memory; the figure was mentioned in a meeting and I think that it was 3 million euros. It is not enough in proportion to the need.

At present, a Swiss search and rescue team is in the area—because of the geography of Switzerland, the Swiss are extremely good at such work. The Russians are there; they too are good at that work, because of the size of their country. They have never previously operated internationally, but we have linked up with them and they are going to undertake more of that work.

I do not yet have information about pledges from EU member states. We shall find out, and I shall let my hon. Friend and the House know about that. During the next few months, we shall need a great deal of resources for emergency relief. All development agencies throughout the world will need to contribute because so many people are affected. We shall encourage everyone to do so. I shall keep the House informed.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

I congratulate the right hon. Lady and her Department on the fast action that they have taken. She touched briefly on one aspect of co-operation with the Ministry of Defence. Is she satisfied that arrangements for co-operation and co-ordination between her Department and the MOD are working well? In particular, were there other major MOD assets in the area—such as naval units—that might have been able to help? Have any steps been taken in that direction?

Clare Short

Yes, I am pleased to be able to say that, since the discussions on the Mozambique disaster, arrangements are better and the price is better. I am grateful to the House for securing the outcome that I think everyone, on all sides, wanted to achieve.

I am not aware of any request for naval assets. The Indian armed forces are large and efficient. A large number of them are in theatre. They have not requested our armed forces. I will find out whether we have ships in the vicinity—if we did, I suspect that I would know. The Indian Government are controlling the emergency; they are appealing for certain kinds of help—for example, there are many military bodies, but they do not have search and rescue or listening equipment. We are complementing their capacity to bring many people into play. I will check on that matter.