HL Deb 09 November 1998 vol 594 cc523-31
Baroness Amos

My Lords, with the leave of the House I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer to a Private Notice Question being asked in another place on the humanitarian crisis in central America. The Statement is as follows:

"Nineteen ninety-eight has seen a record number of major natural disasters. Hurricane Mitch, the 13th and fiercest storm of the 1998 hurricane season, has caused widespread damage and severe loss of life across central America, particularly affecting Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatamala, Honduras and Nicaragua. Guatamala, Honduras and Nicaragua are worst affected.

"Official reports indicate that 7,000 people have lost their lives; 9,000 are missing and about 2.5 million people are badly affected. The terrible contrast between the death toll in central America and the much lower loss of life in the equally terrible floods in Bangladesh cruelly demonstrates the importance of disaster preparedness in countries that are vulnerable to natural disasters.

"Since May 1997 my department has been working to strengthen the capacity of the international system to respond very quickly to emergencies wherever they arise. In the past, unco-ordinated shipments of aid and expertise often exacerbated rather than assisted such crises. The first step following Hurricane Mitch was that UN disaster assessment teams were mobilised. A British expert was made available. HMS "Sheffield" was in the vicinity and at the request of the local authorities was able to make available helicopters, engineers and medical support. DfID immediately contacted NGOs who were already working in the countries concerned to offer support. We have made available £200,000 to the Red Cross Regional Appeal and supplies were flown in yesterday. In Honduras, we have contributed £60,000 to the Pan American Health organisation for basic health care needs; £94,525 to CAFOD for food and household items and a grant of £100,000 to Christian Aid to supply medicines, temporary shelters, blankets and water containers. In Nicaragua, we have channelled £32,585 through the NGO CARE for the provision of safe water, food and clothes. We are also sending medical supplies to El Salvador to meet the needs of 20,000 people for three months. HMS "Ocean" and RFA "Sir Tristram" are also in the area and, at local request, are providing search and rescue and reconnaissance service.

"The EC Humanitarian Office has in the past few days allocated 6.8 million ecu for the disaster. We will do our best to ensure that this is disbursed as soon as possible.

"DfID recently agreed a new, enlarged development programme for central America to which we have committed £6 million. We are currently refocusing the programme to assist with reconstruction when the immediate crisis is under control.

"On debt relief, which is of course irrelevant to coping with the immediate crisis but crucial for reconstruction, the Chancellor and I have been working since we formed our government to speed up the implementation of the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries initiative. Our aim is to ensure that every heavily indebted poor country that adopts economic policies which will reduce poverty will be on track for debt relief by the year 2000. Before the crisis, Nicaragua was on track to qualify and Honduras was unlikely to need debt relief. Obviously the crisis will disrupt Nicaragua's IMF programme and, sadly, Honduras's economy is likely to deteriorate so that it may well qualify for debt relief.

"The Chancellor and I announced that we are approaching the IMF and World Bank to try to get agreement that post crisis countries should be treated more flexibly for debt relief. We are pursuing a similar proposal to benefit post conflict countries. Progress on debt relief will be crucial to the reconstruction effort but does not of course assist the immediate crisis. We must also ensure that post-crisis countries, such as Bangladesh, which are not heavily indebted receive assistance for reconstruction.

"Sadly, it is likely that the region will suffer similar hurricanes in future. We must therefore ensure that the reconstruction effort focuses on reducing vulnerability; for example, by flood protection and through the appropriate location of new housing. It will also be necessary to strengthen local and regional capacity to respond when disaster strikes. We have recently agreed a major programme with the International Red Cross to strengthen such capacity in all developing countries.

"We will continue to monitor the situation carefully through the United Nations, the International Red Cross and at local embassies. We will still be working in central America when media interest has moved elsewhere".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.10 p.m.

Baroness Rawlings

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for repeating as a Statement the Answer given in another place. From these Benches, we fully support the remarks of the noble Baroness about the people of Central America who have suffered such an appalling catastrophe.

One of my earliest memories of working for the Red Cross is of such terrible tragedies. What the people of Central America must be going through in the wake of losing over 12,000 fellow citizens is unimaginable. Does the noble Baroness agree that they will need and deserve our full support for many years to come?

Perhaps I may pay tribute to the aid agencies, especially the Red Cross which was mentioned by the noble Baroness, for acting with such speed in seeking to bring emergency relief to those countries. However, given the scale of this disaster, with a loss of life far greater than any we have seen in recent years, does the noble Baroness believe that Britain's response to date has been commensurate with the need? Does she consider that the department has been sufficiently generous in making funds available? What plans does she have to make further funds available?

The noble Baroness rightly paid tribute to the anticipated role of the Royal Navy ships which are on their way to the region. What precise role does she expect our Armed Forces to play and to whom will they be accountable?

Can the noble Baroness confirm that the Secretary of State has now met the ambassadors of the Central American countries affected by Hurricane Mitch to discuss their specific needs face to face?

After two weeks of this crisis, with more lives being lost daily as a result of starvation and disease, what specific steps are being taken to avert the very real threat of more deaths from cholera?

The noble Baroness will understand that, in the context of such a devastating and distressing tragedy, we are reluctant to fire political criticism at Ministers when by far the highest priority is for Britain to play its full part in helping those who have suffered. However, is she aware that a humanitarian crisis, no matter how grave, is no excuse for sloppy government?

Can the noble Baroness therefore explain to your Lordships why, on the morning of Friday 6th November, the Secretary of State dismissed debt relief as misleading and irrelevant, but by the afternoon of Saturday 7th November, she issued a joint press statement with the Chancellor of the Exchequer which made debt relief an essential part of Britain's response to the crisis? Can the noble Baroness explain what changed the Secretary of State's position in that interim period of 24 hours? How had debt relief moved from being irrelevant on the Friday (without the qualification mentioned by the noble Baroness) to essential on the Saturday? Does she now accept that debt relief was relevant to the people of Central America the very second that Hurricane Mitch struck their towns and villages, and possibly even before that?

Far from taking a lead on this vital issue, does the noble Baroness accept that the Secretary of State has been led reluctantly to embrace a policy for which many world leaders had been calling since the crisis struck? Can she specifically confirm that the UK will now unilaterally suspend further debt repayments from these countries as well as calling for the IMF and other donor nations to do the same?

Finally, is the noble Baroness aware that tomorrow the Disasters Emergency Committee of our leading NGOs is launching an appeal for funds through the nation's media to provide for Central America? Can she confirm that this time, unlike with the Sudan appeal, Ministers will give unequivocal support to that appeal so that the great British public can give their money generously to the people of Central America, knowing that they have the Government's full backing?

4.16 p.m.

Lord Redesdale

My Lords, it is fortunate that we have been given this opportunity at such an early stage to learn the Government's reaction to the horrific situation in Central America. The death toll, which is staggering at the moment, will undoubtedly rise, not only over the next few weeks or months but also over the next few years because people will continue to be affected by the loss of their possessions, fields, crops and houses.

I have seen the effects of flash floods in Africa. When a bridge was lost it was helpful to know that the waiting supplies could nevertheless be brought across from the other side. The fact that supplies are not readily available seems to be the major problem facing Honduras and Nicaragua. I have also seen the effects of cholera. Work to prevent cholera must take place rapidly.

Debt relief has been mentioned. I support the position taken by the Secretary of Rtate that the immediate concern is to get the aid to where it is needed and to push for food, clothing and monetary support. I was gratified to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, state that money is being supplied to the NGOs in the area rather than to agencies which would have to be flown in. The NGOs on the ground are the most effective and efficient disbursers of aid.

My question on debt relief has already been answered; namely, whether Honduras and Nicaragua can be given post-crisis status. It should not be forgotten—I am sure that the noble Baroness will correct me if I am wrong—that Nicaragua is now paying 1 million dollars a day in debt relief. That figure is totally unsustainable due to the loss of that country's infrastructure.

Is there any evidence that the severity of Hurricane Mitch was caused by global warming? If that was the cause—and it looks as though it was—there could be many more such disasters. The IMF and the World Bank may therefore need to take a new approach to post-crisis status for many countries, especially those likely to face such inclement weather.

I welcome the money that has been found from the DflD budget and from the already stretched disaster relief fund. I should be grateful if at some point—not necessarily now—the noble Baroness could say how much more could be found. How stretched is the disaster relief fund? Are any funds presently being made available to supplement that fund?

4.19 p.m.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, and the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, for sharing our concern on this matter. I shall try to address all the points that have been raised. I should like to start with the point made by the noble Baroness in relation to debt relief and the comments made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for International Development. Perhaps I may make it absolutely clear that there has been no change in government policy as regards this matter. We are clear about the importance of focusing on the immediate need at times like this. Indeed, the immediate need is to ensure that food is taken to those areas where it is necessary and that we try to deal with shelter and the need for medicine.

There is a separate point involved; namely, the issue of debt relief and the longer term. Debt relief is not instantly possible. There is a complex process which must be followed. There is a need to consider the relationship between exports and debt. Therefore, we are dealing with the immediate and longer term. The statements made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for International Development and the Chancellor of the Exchequer are entirely consistent in that respect. We seek flexibility from international organisations in terms of dealing with such matters.

As regards the question of looking for further funds, I can tell the House that we are aiming to provide an internationally co-ordinated response. The next step in terms of following up immediate relief is to put in hand arrangements to help those countries in what will inevitably be a long process of reconstruction. We are reviewing our proposed development programmes so that we are in a position to help with the rehabilitation effort. In regard to the question about the Secretary of State meeting the ambassadors from the relevant countries, I can tell noble Lords that such meetings have not taken place. However, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and officials from the DfID have been in constant contact with those embassies.

I turn now to the Disaster Emergency Committee. I can confirm that we support fully the DEC appeal. The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, asked about the size of debt relief to Nicaragua. The latter was due to qualify for debt relief next year. Given the scale of the disaster, it is our expectation that that will not now happen. Therefore, we shall have to return to the issue, but we feel that Nicaragua will again qualify for debt relief in the longer term.

The noble Lord also asked about global warming. I can tell the noble Lord that the Government are as concerned as he is that some of the issues surrounding deforestation may be having an impact on the scale of natural disasters in the region. One of the measures that the department will be taking is assessing the scale involved and carrying out some environmental needs analysis. It is better if countries are able to prepare for such disasters. A good example is Belize, whose disaster preparedness was better than that of Nicaragua and Honduras. Belize was able to move people from the areas which were worst affected and there was not such a high loss of life.

The noble Lord also asked how stretched is the disaster relief fund. At this point in time I can tell him that we feel that the amount we have allocated is sufficient to meet those needs. However, the position will be constantly under review.

4.23 p.m.

Viscount Montgomery of Alamein

My Lords, as I am probably the only Peer who has actually lived in central America, having spent two years in El Salvador during the early 1960s, I hope that I may be permitted to ask the noble Baroness a few questions. This is a most terrible tragedy affecting an area which has suffered many different tragedies from natural disasters over the years. To be more specific, is the noble Baroness aware that about 106 bridges in Nicaragua and about 93 bridges in Honduras have been destroyed? That represents an infrastructure disaster which will cause tremendous difficulty in terms of repair work and getting the economies of those countries going again.

Both countries have fragile export economies which are largely based on agriculture. Indeed, it is the agricultural potential, amounting to about 70 per cent of their export earnings, which has been effectively destroyed. Therefore, will the noble Baroness accept that one of the most urgent needs is for Bailey bridges, which can be assembled and put on site thus helping to repair the damaged roads and infrastructure? By the same token, there are other aspects involved which will need attention, including technical assistance in helping some of this reconstruction work to take place.

I believe that the noble Baroness has already said that the latter will be co-ordinated on an international basis and that in due course we will return to the subject of debt relief, which, as she rightly said, is a longer-term issue. However, the noble Baroness is perhaps not aware that I tried to table a Starred Question on this subject last week. I was not successful in that respect but tabled a Written Question instead. Therefore, if the noble Baroness does not have all the answers today, perhaps she could use the answer to that Written Question to elaborate further on the various points raised.

Finally, on the subject of non-governmental assistance, is the noble Baroness aware that the Anglo-Central American Society (a cultural and a social-related organisation, based at Canning House, whose president is my noble friend Lady Hooper) has been very active in this scene and launched an appeal which is worthy of support?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount for his questions. In particular, he mentioned the problems caused by infrastructure damage within Nicaragua. I should tell him that access has been opened up and communication has been re-established in that country. We need to focus particularly on reconstruction and on the long term. Indeed, the replacement of bridges would be an important part of that process. At present, the UN is engaged in a needs assessment exercise and we await the outcome of that process. As I said when repeating the Statement, the DfID has an adviser who is part of that needs assessment team.

As the noble Viscount will know, one of the strengths of the Department for International Development is its relationship with NGOs on the ground in Nicaragua. We have focused on using our relationships with those NGOs to ensure that we get immediate relief to people as they need it. We are concerned to ensure that all the relief efforts are co-ordinated so that they are as efficient and effective as possible. I shall write to the noble Viscount to deal with any other issues he raised that I did not fully address in my response today.

Lord Crickhowell

My Lords, when repeating the Statement the noble Baroness referred to the need to be prepared for disasters. However, how is it possible to prepare for a disaster so great that is destroys a very high proportion of the road and bridge network of the region, as my noble friend pointed out? Frankly, I was flabbergasted by the response of the noble Baroness to the effect that the communications infrastructure has already been substantially replaced. I simply do not believe that to be the case. Indeed, the evidence which is being presented on television programmes suggests that that is not so.

Can the noble Baroness tell the House what, in addition to the helicopters of HMS "Sheffield", this country can do—possibly through our Armed Forces—to provide the Bailey bridges and other equipment so urgently needed to re-establish basic communications? Without that equipment it will simply not be possible to get the badly needed food, water and medical supplies to the suffering populations of these two unhappy countries.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, in relation to the noble Lord's point about how it is possible to prepare for disasters, I should stress again the examples of Bangladesh and Belize. Hurricanes are not new in these regions, neither are floods. One of the things that we have tried to do is support those countries to enable them to prepare both in terms of strengthening the institutions and also by working with the populations, so that they know precisely what to do when a hurricane or a flood is predicted. This has resulted in not such a great loss of life when these disasters occur. That is an important point.

As regards the point about communications, I wish to make clear that access and communications are being re-established. I did not intend to say that these had been replaced, but we are pleased that access has been re-established because it allows us to work on the ground. Our ships were in the vicinity and have been asked to help not only with the provision of helicopters but also to give support with engineering and other such matters.

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness. I understand this may be the first time she has answered questions on a Statement from the Dispatch Box. I know that it can be a gruelling experience. Given the scale of the disaster, the loss of life and the great human tragedy that has occurred and the great significance of the loss of life to the small populations involved, it seems to me that the 6.8 million ecu being offered as help from the European Union as a whole is very much a drop in the ocean. Does that represent a first tranche of aid from the European Union? If not, will the British Government push our partners in the European Union to increase the amount?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her kind words. The £4.8 million allocated by the EC Humanitarian Office has not yet been disbursed. I think it is too early to say whether more money will be needed. We shall be in close touch with the EC Humanitarian Office on the need for further assistance for both relief and rehabilitation once the needs assessment has been carried out and once we know how the £4.8 million will be used. The priority right now is to ensure that what has been committed is spent quickly and effectively on those most in need in the region. We shall be keeping a watchful eye on the matter.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, will the Minister convey the warmest congratulations of your Lordships to the personnel of the British ships in the area on their wonderful rescue work and particularly the work of the helicopter crews in bringing to safety the lady who was adrift for five days in the ocean and whose remarkable recovery we all greatly welcome? Can the noble Baroness say whether the rescue efforts of Her Majesty's ships were sufficient to meet the needs or can any other ships be brought in from elsewhere in the region to supplement the tremendous work already done?

Further to the question of the noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery, has any thought been given to training units of the British Armed Forces, particularly the Royal Engineers, in emergency reconstruction work so that they may enter a region such as Nicaragua or Honduras immediately after a crisis such as this and restore communications as rapidly as possible?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I shall certainly pass on the warm congratulations of the noble Lord to the Armed Forces. As regards the point about whether the rescue efforts have been sufficient, certainly to date all the requests that we have had from local authorities have been met. At this time we do not anticipate a need for other ships to enter the region. We shall consider the matter, but clearly timing is important. As regards the training of the British Armed Forces, I shall write to the noble Lord on the training that currently takes place and any additional training which is being considered.

Lord Selkirk of Douglas

My Lords, the noble Baroness is to be strongly congratulated on the positive Statement. I should mention that I am president of the International Rescue Corps. Is the Minister aware that there is a team of the International Rescue Corps who wish to express gratitude for the help they have received from government agencies and in particular from the joint operation which has included HMS "Sheffield" as they work their way towards Waspán in Nicaragua on the Rio Coco? Is she further aware that first reports indicate that notwithstanding the immensity of the problems facing them they are achieving positive results along with other groups?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, we are all extremely proud of the efforts made by all the agencies and organisations which have been involved in the relief effort. Like the noble Lord, I believe that we need to pass on our thanks to those agencies and organisations which have been involved.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, I, too, congratulate the Minister on her performance at the Dispatch Box. Will she elaborate on the role of the Armed Forces and in particular to whom they will be accountable?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, the Armed Forces will, as usual, report to their commanding officers and through them to the Ministry of Defence. There will be close liaison between their work and the work of the Department for International Development.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords, does the Minister accept that many of us are glad to hear what I think I understood her to say; namely, that the suspension of debt repayment is under consideration? Has she any idea of the kind of timetable we can look for?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, as regards debt relief, we are trying to ensure through working with our international partners that there is some flexibility in the process. At this time I am unable to tell the noble Baroness exactly what the timescale will be. However, once those discussions have taken place, I shall write and give a fuller reply.

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