HC Deb 14 September 2004 vol 424 cc1125-36 12.30 pm
The Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement about Hurricane Ivan.

Hurricane Ivan is the most powerful hurricane to hit the Caribbean for many years. It has been moving across the region for several days, causing devastation in its wake. I am sure that the House would first like to express its sadness at the loss of life, injury and damage to homes that many people have experienced.

Initially, Hurricane Ivan was a category 3 with wind speeds of 111 to 130 mph. It was on a course towards Barbados, but veered south, passing the island by about 100 miles. That was, however, still close enough to create tidal wave surges, uproot trees, bring down power lines, rip off roofs and damage hundreds of properties. Fortunately, there was no serious flooding.

Ivan then strengthened to a category 4 hurricane as it reached Grenada on 7 September, bringing sustained winds of 115 mph and gusts of up to 150 mph. Several hundred people from the low-lying areas of St. George's, the Grenadian capital, were evacuated, but 17 people were reported to have been killed, with 60 taken to hospital. Approximately 60,000 people were made temporarily homeless—about two thirds of the island's population. Water and electricity supplies were severely affected. Telephone lines were cut, thus making initial contact with the island very difficult. There were also problems of looting, so security personnel were deployed from Barbados, Antigua, St. Kitts and Trinidad and Tobago to assist security officials in Grenada to restore law and order.

The hurricane caused structural damage to nearly every major building in St. George's, including the island's emergency operations centre, the Prime Minister's residence, several schools, the main hospital and a nearby prison. The immediate help requested by the Government of Grenada was for supplies of plastic sheeting, tarpaulins, tents, roofing material, building supplies, construction tools, food and batteries.

Ever since the development of the first hurricane system to affect the region, which was Hurricane Frances, the Ministry of Defence, the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have been working closely together to ensure that HMS Richmond and Royal Fleet Auxiliary Wave Ruler were available, equipped and in position to provide immediate assistance. HMS Richmond and RFA Wave Ruler began helping the Grenadian relief effort at the earliest opportunity on 8 September. They provided a party of 48 sailors to clear debris and undertake the most urgent repairs, including restoring electricity supplies to the hospital. They were also able to provide medical staff, deliver medicines, offer basic air traffic control for the island and help to reestablish the island's emergency operations centre. A helicopter was made available to the Prime Minister and officials for aerial surveillance of the island to help with initial damage assessment.

As a result of preparation for the hurricane by the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Response Agency, and of collaboration between DFID and the United States Agency for International Development, arrangements were in hand to access relief stores from USAID's Miami warehouse. The first emergency relief supplies, funded by USAID, arrived in Grenada on 9 September, including blankets, plastic sheeting, dry food and water for 20,000 people. The Governments of Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago also shipped bottled water, food, tents, generators, plastic sheeting and water bladders using coastguard vessels.

Following a request on 10 September from the Pan American Health Organisation, the UK provided an immediate contribution of £83,000, which enabled emergency personnel to undertake disease surveillance and control, and provide urgently needed medical supplies. DFID also had an aircraft on standby in Miami to deliver 140 rolls of plastic sheeting—enough for 1,400 families—and 11,000 jerry cans. Because of conditions on the ground, the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Response Agency asked for the flight to be held back 24 hours. It arrived in Grenada on 11 September.

The International Federation of the Red Cross has released money from its disaster relief emergency fund—DFID contributes to it annually—which exists to provide urgent help. Further assessment of needs on Grenada is now being undertaken.

The eye of Hurricane Ivan then moved to the south of Jamaica on the night of 10 and 11 September and moved across the Cayman Islands on 12 September. Its strength varied, reaching category 4 in passing Jamaica and variable 4 to 5 on its approach to the Cayman Islands. Initial reports from Jamaica indicate that the impact has, fortunately, not been as severe as first feared, although, tragically, 15 people have reportedly lost their lives and there has been widespread damage. The Jamaican Government have declared a state of emergency and called for international assistance. Initial assessments have been undertaken by the international and regional Red Cross teams, Save the Children UK and Oxfam, and the UK has sent two humanitarian advisers to the region to advise on what help is needed. They are in Jamaica now and will report this afternoon.

Initial reports indicate that the Cayman Islands have been severely affected. There has been extensive roof damage to many homes. As of last night, there were no reports of loss of life, but there are unconfirmed reports of injuries. Contact with the island authorities is still extremely difficult, but HMS Richmond, which is now offshore, reports that travel is very restricted, with 25 per cent. of Grand Cayman under water. The sewerage system is flooded and there has been no power since Saturday. The governor has requested immediate supplies, including plastic sheeting, cots for small children and water purification equipment. We are looking to dispatch those in the next 24 hours. The governor has also imposed a curfew. The DFID assessment team will try to get to Grand Cayman tomorrow.

The hurricane has since moved on to Cuba. Initial reports suggest that it has affected only the far west and south-west of the island, which had been evacuated. There are, however, reports of flooding. We are ready to provide assistance if requested.

We will continue to monitor the situation on the ground across the Caribbean. The International Red Cross intends to launch a regional appeal in the coming days, and we will contribute to it. I am sure that the thoughts of the whole House are with all those who have been affected by this terrible force of nature. We will continue to do all that we can to help them as they seek to rebuild their homes and their lives.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton) (Con)

May I, first, say that I am delighted to have been appointed the Secretary of State's opposite number? I also thank him for giving me advance sight of his statement. I certainly look forward to working with him to argue for the best way that Britain can champion and help the poorest in the world. I look forward, too, to working with the voluntary and charitable organisations that do so much to alleviate the plight of the world's least fortunate.

May I, briefly, also take this opportunity to thank my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), for what Members on both sides of the House say was very sincere work over the past year? I am regularly mistaken for him, but that is, perhaps, what makes us so readily interchangeable.

It is a rewarding part of being British that we all know that we are part of a country whose global reach and historic experience equip us to give so much help to others when they desperately need it, and now is just such a moment. A quick scan of the satellite imagery illustrates the immensity of Hurricane Ivan, with its destructive force extending far beyond the passive eye of the storm. The Secretary of State graphically described fierce winds of over 150 mph whipping through the region, leaving in their path a trail of death and despair. Thousands of homes have been damaged and scores of people have died. Eight countries are affected, five of which are members of the Commonwealth.

The scale of the calamity is enormous, and unless Britain and the international community take immediate and effective action those countries face a miserable aftermath.

Modern weather forecasting allowed us to see that the hurricane was building up, and I congratulate the Secretary of State and his Department on their preparatory action and on sending advisers to Jamaica at the earliest possible opportunity. It is clear from his statement that, through our efforts, we are seriously engaged with host Governments and the United States to do all that we can to help, which I applaud. What, however, is his assessment of how much his Department will spend to alleviate the effects of the hurricane? What are his priorities for the way in which the money will be spent? How will he channel it to the people who need it most? Will he give it directly to the Caribbean Governments, or will he channel it through NGOs on the ground? How does he intend to set the balance between the two? If NGOs are to be given any money, it is best that they know now, so that they know where they stand and can set about their business urgently in the knowledge that they can pay for it.

I salute HMS Richmond and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Wave Ruler for their rapid response and superb rescue work. Their presence is a timely reminder of the vital importance of the role that British forces can play in humanitarian relief, and is a testament to the professionalism and adaptability of the men and women who serve in them. Given that hurricanes are an annual phenomenon in the Caribbean, however, will the Secretary of State reassure the House that despite the Government's proposed defence cuts the same level of Royal Navy assistance will be stationed in the Caribbean in future? My right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition delivered a speech yesterday about climate change and, indeed, the Prime Minister will refer to the topic today. My right hon. and learned Friend said that the problem is inevitable and that there is a serious need to address it. Hurricane Ivan is an acute example of that phenomenon. Will the Secretary of State refocus his Department's resources to adapt to the growing threat posed by climate change, given that the risk of such natural disasters is probably growing rather than receding?

As with any humanitarian disaster, so far we have only seen the initial impact. I do not doubt that the Secretary of State will do all that he can to help everyone hit by the hurricane, but as the news cameras redirect their gaze, we know that the deepest need is just beginning. We all hope that when those hard-hit countries are out of the news the hard work of helping them will still continue.

Hilary Benn

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. I extend my sincere congratulations to him, and I warmly welcome him to his new responsibilities. I genuinely wish him well in the work that he will undertake. As he will rapidly discover—if he has not done so already—it is a privilege to have the chance to speak for our respective parties on international development in the House. I join him in expressing personal appreciation for the role played by the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), who will be missed.

I thank the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) for his kind words about staff from DFID, the MOD, the FCO and, indeed, personnel serving on HMS Richmond and Royal Fleet Auxiliary Wave Ruler for the part that they have played. Our disaster response team, which is part of DFID's conflict and humanitarian affairs department, has been tracking the hurricane for some time, and the fact that I have been able to report to the House the steps that we have already taken is a testament to that preparation. We are proud to have played our part, but the hon. Gentleman is right that much more needs to be done. I cannot at this stage tell him the total spend in response to the hurricane, because that will depend on the assessment of need. Our immediate priority is to deal with the most urgent and pressing problems, and I set out in my statement the steps that we have already taken to respond to the needs communicated to us by people with whom we have been in contact, particularly on Grenada and the Cayman Islands, and by sailors and other personnel serving on HMS Richmond. That assistance will be used to support the Governments of the countries affected and at the same time—this will become more apparent when the Red Cross regional appeal is shortly launched—we will work, as we do wherever possible, through relief agencies on the ground, because they have the capacity. The best thing that we can do is use the resources that I am prepared to make available through them, thus ensuring that they can undertake the work that is required.

I agree that the presence of HMS Richmond has proved extremely important. It has played a valuable role and shows the continuing importance of that presence to deal with such disasters.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there have been a large number of hurricanes this year. Nobody knows for sure whether this is a manifestation of climate change, but he rightly draws attention to the challenge, and the world must respond to it. That is the point that the Prime Minister will make in his speech today. It is often the very poorest people who suffer most from the impact of climate change. We are talking today about flooding in the Caribbean, but only a short time ago there was flooding in Bangladesh, a country uniquely vulnerable to a rise in the water level because so many people live so close to sea level. The UK has made it clear that we intend to make climate change a priority for our G8 presidency next year.

The other truth, which I am sure the hon. Gentleman would recognise, is that unless in the long term we get an agreement that involves action by all the countries of the world, including developing countries and including some, such as China, which are in the process of becoming big emitters, we will never solve the problem.

On the final point that the hon. Gentleman makes about the long term, I recognise that although the cameras have moved on, the process of reconstruction will continue. I can tell the House that the Caribbean Development Bank and the International Monetary Fund have concessionary lending facilities that are designed to help countries recover from disasters of this sort. We will be looking at the assessments that are made by our own people, we will be responding to the appeals made by the Red Cross and others, and particularly in relation to Grenada, where we have a small programme of technical assistance, I will be looking at how we might refocus that to support the country to recover.

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD)

I thank the Secretary of State for providing an advance copy of the statement, and echo the condolences and sympathies that he expressed to people affected by the tragedy. I also pay tribute to the role that British forces are playing in the region. Their presence underlines the need for long-term engagement in that area.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), who was a real friend of international development. I hope that his successor, the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan), will prove to be so too, and I wish him well in that position.

It is appropriate that the Government's response has been generous and immediate. I should like to ask the Secretary of State about the other action that the Government intend to take. What contacts have we had with other leading Commonwealth countries to see what role they could play? On the Government's position in relation to short-term commitment in the form of humanitarian aid and, just as important, in relation to their longer-term commitment to the region, particularly the need to rebuild the infrastructure, some details about Government plans would be appreciated.

Climate change has been mentioned. Will the Secretary of State raise the matter with the Prime Minister and ask him to raise it in due course with President Bush? The hurricane is the most recent and forceful evidence of climate change in a region close to the United States.

Finally, with reference to Grenada, could the Secretary of State set out what assistance Grenada has asked for, and whether the UK Government would be willing to provide people to assist on the ground? I understand that the problem is not necessarily the quantity of aid available, but getting it out reliably and safely to the people who need it. Grenada, Jamaica and the Cayman Islands are all facing a tragedy. I am sure that if the Secretary of State chooses to push Britain's role even harder and faster in the region, he will receive support from all parts of the House.

Hilary Benn

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words about those who have worked so hard to respond to the crisis. On his first point about the Commonwealth, as I said, a number of Commonwealth countries have already responded—the provision of practical support is, of course, a natural inclination, not least among neighbours and friends.

On the hon. Gentleman's second point about longterm plans, as I indicated to the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton, we must make an assessment based on priorities and the extent to which countries can help themselves. For instance, the Cayman Islands has suffered grievously, and we are providing immediate humanitarian assistance, but it has a relatively high GDP, and its need for long-term support will be different from that of Grenada or, indeed, Jamaica, which is why we must reflect on relative need in deciding how to support long-term reconstruction. We will examine the provision of further assistance, including a response to the Red Cross appeal.

On climate change, the hon. Gentleman knows that we have already raised that point internationally, including making clear our wish that the United States should sign up to the Kyoto protocol, but the United States Administration are not persuaded. We have been strong on both the targets that we have set ourselves in the United Kingdom and pressing the rest of the world to recognise that climate change is a challenge that we must do something about.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab)

The whole House is grateful to the Secretary of State for his prompt oral statement. He knows that millions of British residents, who have either friends or family in those countries, have watched the course of the hurricane with extreme anxiety hour by hour. Obviously, the Government must wait for a detailed assessment of need before taking steps, but we may need to examine special immigration arrangements for the residents of Grenada. Flexibility was introduced after the volcano in Montserrat, and many Grenadian families have elderly relatives who have nowhere to live. Will the Secretary of State consider whether his officials can brief Grenadian and Jamaican people who are over here and who want up-to-date information?

The real problem for those countries is not the provision of immediate humanitarian aid or even rebuilding infrastructure, but the savage blow that the hurricane has dealt to agriculture and tourism, which are the pillars of their economies. They need serious long-term help to rebuild and restructure their economies, because if we leave an economic vacuum in Grenada and Jamaica, the drug trade will move into it. We may need to examine large-scale, sustained economic advice and help so that those societies can remain stable and secure.

Hilary Benn

I thank my hon. Friend for her remarks, and I know that she takes a close interest in the matter. In addition to flights that have left Grenada, which removed people who were there on holiday, I understand that the one flight in carried friends and relatives who want to provide assistance. We will put my statement and other information on to the Department for International Development website, and I am happy to discuss other ideas that my hon. Friend and other hon. Members may have about how those communities that are particularly concerned can be kept in touch with events. I am happy to examine any proposals on reassuring people or telling people how they can provide practical assistance.

I undertake to raise my hon. Friend's point about arrangements for those who might want to bring relatives over to care for them with my right hon. Friends the Home Secretary and the Foreign Secretary. I do not know the answer, but I undertake to look into the matter and to ensure that either my right hon. Friends or I reply to my hon. Friend on that point.

Finally, my hon. Friend made a powerful point about the hurricane's possible long-term impact. The international community's response includes the Caribbean Development Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the European Community. Once we have dealt with the immediate crisis, on which we are focused today, particularly in Grand Cayman, where no one has been able to go ashore, it is essential that we examine supporting those countries in recovering from that terrible catastrophe.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con)

When climatic disasters, whether hurricanes in the Caribbean or flooding in Bangladesh, occur, the poorest suffer most, are most vulnerable and are least able to cope with the aftershocks. Britain's presidency of the G8 will be subject to one clear test: can the Prime Minister persuade the United States to sign up to the Kyoto protocol? It is no good the Prime Minister making further speeches unless some action occurs.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that because the Cayman Islands is an overseas territory, it has a particular claim under international development legislation on the first slice of the overseas development budget? Will he estimate the assistance that will specifically go to the Cayman Islands under that claim?

Hilary Benn

The hon. Gentleman is right about the impact of climate change and the importance of dealing with it. He knows the consistent line that the Government have taken in expressing the hope that the United States Administration will sign up to the Kyoto protocol. In the end, it is for the US Administration to take that decision—we hope that they will—but so far they remain unpersuaded, whether it is by the United Kingdom or the other countries that have signed up and have given the same advice.

The hon. Gentleman is right about the Cayman Islands' particular status as an overseas territory, for which we therefore have a special responsibility. As I said, we are exercising that responsibility by providing immediate assistance. We must talk to the Governor and to the Cayman Islands Administration about how we can balance further support with, as I indicated earlier, a recognition that the Cayman Islands is a well-off overseas territory and an assessment of the extent to which it can contribute from its own resources.

Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab)

Our relationship with the Caribbean goes back hundreds of years to a time before the Union between England and Scotland and our presence in Canada, Australia or New Zealand. Members of my wife's family who live in the Caribbean have told me about the enormously high regard in which Britain is held, because of the speed with which we have responded to previous disasters, and that memory goes back years. I urge the Secretary of State to recognise that speed is everything. It is extremely important that this country retains a naval presence in the Caribbean in order to respond at times such as this.

Hilary Benn

Speed is, indeed, of the essence. We have already seen the benefit of that naval presence, which has been the main means by which we have been able to provide assistance. I hope that the hon. Gentleman and the House feel that our actions, which I described earlier, demonstrate not only that we were tracking the hurricane and were prepared, but that we moved as quickly as could reasonably be expected in the circumstances, bearing it in mind that it is difficult to get in while the hurricane is still blowing.

I pay tribute to the staff at DFID. I am continually and genuinely impressed by the effectiveness with which they go about their job, the information that they have at their disposal and the assiduity with which they deal with crises. It is principally because of their efforts that I can report to the House that we have taken steps, but we must do more.

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park) (LD)

I echo other hon. Members' remarks about putting real pressure on the United States of America to sign up to the Kyoto agreement. It is no good doing everything that America wants if America does not act in the interests of the whole world in return.

I want to raise the question of the general hospital in St. George's, Grenada. One of my constituents, Dr. Gary Symons, set up the intensive care unit, which has just been completed, in that hospital. Yesterday, he reported to me that although the hospital has its own generator, it has medical and surgical supplies for one more week only. Will the Secretary of State reassure us that it will get the supplies that it needs immediately?

Hilary Benn

The whole House is agreed on Kyoto. I thank the hon. Lady for her report on the availability of medical supplies. As she will know, HMS Richmond brought supplies on to the island as part of its initial response. I undertake to find out from my officials how long those supplies are likely to last, and then I will respond to the hon. Lady on what can be done to ensure their continuity over the coming weeks.

Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on making this early statement and on the prompt action taken by his Department and our armed forces. The response of our armed forces in the Caribbean is absolutely vital. In that context, can he comment on the security and communications situations in place—Grenada, Jamaica and, perhaps with less certainty, the Cayman Islands—where we have responsibility?

If the hurricane turns towards Mexico, as still seems to be a possibility, will our armed forces be available to undertake the same kind of work, particularly on communications, in the fragile communities on the Mexican gulf coast?

Hilary Benn

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words. On communications, the airports in Grenada and Kingston are open. The airport on Grand Cayman—the other two Cayman islands have been evacuated in anticipation of the arrival of the hurricane, and the entire population is on Grand Cayman—is open for light aircraft, and it is hoped in due course to make it available for larger relief aircraft. One way or another, everyone will do all that they can to get supplies in by that means. As I said, communications remain particularly difficult on Grand Cayman.

On security, there has been some looting in Grenada. Security forces from neighbouring countries have come to help, and there is a curfew. Some looting has taken place in Jamaica, with unconfirmed reports of three people having been killed as a result of the violence. There have been concerns about law and order in the Cayman Islands, where a curfew has been imposed. I hope that that gives my hon. Friend the information that he needs.

On Mexico, the honest truth is that we will need to identify the continuing requirements in providing support to the countries in the Caribbean for which we have a particular responsibility. At the moment, the immediate priority for HMS Richmond is to provide support to the Cayman Islands.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con)

To continue on that theme, this morning my office received a phone call from a constituent who is extremely worried about his family on Grand Cayman but is unable to contact them. I understand that no electricity is available and that mobile phones have gone down. Can the Secretary of State give us some idea of how communications can be secured on the island and whether HMS Richmond will do that as a matter of priority? Is there a helpline that concerned people in this country can ring, either at the Foreign Office or in his Department, to enable contact to be made swiftly?

When the assessment teams have gone into Grand Cayman, how swiftly will the Secretary of State be able to react to the demands of that community?

Hilary Benn

There has been some communication, albeit intermittent, with the governor of Grand Cayman. As the hon. Lady suggests, re-establishing communications will be a priority for HMS Richmond and the team that it hopes to send ashore as soon as possible. As intermittent telephone conversations have been the only means of talking to those on the island, there is no way in which relatives, who are understandably deeply concerned, can make those links. That is why it is very important that communication be re-established as soon as possible. We are considering how to get in as quickly as possible—I hope that it will be within the next 24 hours—the initial relief supplies for which we have been asked. That is our immediate priority.

I shall reflect on the hon. Lady's point about sources of information and contact for concerned relatives. I recognise that concern, but at the moment we are having real difficulty in talking to people on the island ourselves.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab)

Bearing in mind the United Kingdom's historic association with many of the countries in the region, it is important that we play a vital role in providing health and assistance. However, given that many other countries in the European Union have historic ties with the Caribbean, how much co-ordination has there been with our European friends who have relations with the Caribbean? In particular, has Commissioner Nielson been involved in co-ordination or co-operation between member states?

Hilary Benn

My hon. Friend raises an important point. So far, our priority has been to do everything that we can to help. Now that we have provided that immediate response—although getting the help that is needed to Grand Cayman remains the urgent priority—I intend to find out about the response from other European countries. The Red Cross appeal is open to any other countries, including EU member states, that wish to give money. That is intended to help agencies with the capacity to get on to the ground as soon as possible, which is, historically, the most effective way of providing help. That is how we work in principle, because it gets relief there by the quickest route.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con)

I congratulate the Secretary of State on his exemplary attitude and approach. Will he build on that by keeping the House informed of the situation? If there is significant further information, will he make a written statement on Thursday; and when we come back in October, can we have at least a detailed written statement outlining precisely what has been done, especially with regard to those territories for which we have a political responsibility?

Hilary Benn

I am happy to do both those things, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his suggestion.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD)

In recent days, I have been in contact with my constituent, Mr. Gerry Copsey, who runs a company called Just Grenada and has been desperately working with other tour operators and airlines to evacuate people from Grenada. He tells me that there are two overriding problems there: the breakdown of law and order and lack of policing; and the lack of prefabricated housing. Is the Secretary of State satisfied that the welcome support from troops from Barbados and Trinidad is sufficient to restore governmental systems and policing on the island; and is there scope for providing a greater supply of prefabricated housing so that people can get back into solid houses, rather than tents, at the earliest opportunity?

Hilary Benn

I am grateful for the information that the hon. Gentleman's constituent has provided. I do not know whether the steps taken with the assistance of those countries have dealt with the problem that was identified, but I can tell him that the response from neighbouring countries and islands is being led by Trinidad and Tobago. As I said, there is a curfew in Grenada. The authorities will no doubt consider what further steps are needed to ensure the peace and stability that are the building blocks of any progress.

I am sure that housing is one of the issues that will be considered in further assessments of what can be done in the medium term, but the hon. Gentleman will understand that the priority has been to ensure that people who had the roofs blown off their houses have sheeting or tarpaulin to put over them so that they at least get shelter from the rain; that is what we are working towards.

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking) (Con)

I, too, thank the Secretary of State for his full and helpful statement. Will he say a little more about climate change, particularly as it may affect this country? In other words—I hope this is not a naive question—could this awful hurricane perhaps be an indication that we in this country should brace ourselves against possible changes in climate and weather patterns that may affect us as well as other parts of the world?

Hilary Benn

I understand why the hon. Gentleman raises that point, but I am not in a position to forecast the potential impact of climate change on this country. That is beyond my responsibilities and, indeed, my knowledge of meteorology.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con)

Surely not.

Hilary Benn

Definitely so. Many people say that we are experiencing increasingly frequent severe weather patterns, and that is understandably generating a debate about whether it is a consequence of climate change. Whether or not that is so, we can see the impact that increasing CO2 emissions are having. The weight of scientific opinion is clear, and we need to respond. It will be incumbent on all countries, including the UK, to be in a position to prepare themselves in case such eventualities affect them.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet) (Con)

The Secretary of State has graphically described the death, damage and destruction that was wreaked by a hurricane, which could perhaps be most aptly called Ivan the Terrible. As he said, it is the worst one for some years. Given that nearly every hon. Member has mentioned global warming and climate change in the context of such natural disasters, will he assure the House that scientific research is being conducted nationally, internationally or both? If a link can be shown, perhaps that will be the greatest fillip for hon. Members of all parties who want the Kyoto protocol to be adhered to and mankind to take urgent and immediate action. We are all responsible for wrecking, probably irreversibly, mother earth's fragile ecosystem.

Hilary Benn

The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point, not least about the threat of the process of change to us all, wherever we live in the world. As he knows, a great deal of scientific research is being undertaken. The Government's chief scientific adviser, Sir David King, has spoken about that forcefully. However, Governments and politicians are also required to act. Frankly, that is the biggest challenge that the world faces.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con)

As the Secretary of State knows, Britain has a proud tradition of helping the residents of all the Caribbean islands when natural disasters occur. As my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) pointed out, we have an extra special obligation to British overseas territories. The Secretary of State mentioned that the Caymans constitute a wealthy overseas territory, but its residents are nevertheless proud British subjects. Surely that should never be forgotten.

Hilary Benn

I agree entirely. That is why we are trying to fulfil our particular responsibility to the Cayman Islands in the ways I have described, and why we shall continue to do that.