HL Deb 27 May 2002 vol 635 cc1042-4

2.46 p.m.

Lord Hunt of Chesterton

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether, at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in September, they will advocate that governmental and intergovernmental bodies include natural disaster reduction as an essential element in their organisational and funding policies for sustainable development.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Amos)

My Lords, the United Kingdom Government take disaster preparedness seriously. Only by planning for and working to prevent disasters can the international community avoid the terrible damage that disasters inflict on the livelihoods of poor people. The Government's strategic objective for the world summit is to make globalisation work for sustainable development, especially for the poorest. Priority areas for action include energy, fresh water and sanitation.

Lord Hunt of Chesterton

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply. Will she push all the relevant departments and agencies of Her Majesty's Government to make a practical contribution to natural disaster reduction by ensuring that governments and United Nations agencies everywhere improve the exchange of data and the short-term forecasting of natural disasters, such as floods, storms and landslides? We must overcome the many bureaucratic and national security-related obstacles, which can often have fatal effects.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, we are working across government—the Department for International Development, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Ministry of Defence and the Cabinet Office—on issues relating to disaster preparedness and disaster reduction. We are also working to strengthen and improve the international disaster response system, including the exchange of data, under the co-ordination of the United Nations.

Lord Astor of Hever

My Lords, has the Minister assessed the cost to the taxpayer of taking more than 30 civil servants to a pre-summit meeting in Bali? Is it now government policy for ministerial special advisers to travel first-class at public expense, as is happening on this occasion?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, the cost is, I believe, about £150,000. Noble Lords will be aware that sustainable development is not only one of the key planks of our strategy for development but is one of the priority areas for Defra. I attended a UN conference last year—the world conference against racism—and saw how our delegation worked extremely hard to influence the agenda and the outcome. That is the situation in this case, too. We should thank our civil servants for doing such a good job.

Lord Redesdale

My Lords, given the ongoing effects of global warming, will the Minister, with as many staff as she can take, for I hope that the conference contingent will be adequate for the task that it must undertake, push for the setting up of a fund to meet the cost of disasters? Global warming means that they happen more regularly.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, as I said to my noble friend Lord Hunt of Chesterton, we are considering ways of promoting co-ordination through the United Nations system. The noble Lord will be aware that, so far as possible, we try not to set up parallel structures or new funds but endeavour to make the existing mechanisms work as well as possible. We are not considering trying to set up a new fund in this instance; we want to make the existing machinery work as effectively as possible.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, what steps have been taken to liaise with the organisations in this country, particularly with ACOPS, of which I am president? Will she say what particular role is being played by the Government in that respect? Does she not agree with me that it is very important that every effort is made to agree a line with the governmental and non-governmental organisations in this country?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, yes. I agree with my noble friend that we need to consult and liaise as closely as possible with NGOs. We shall continue that process and, of course, ACOPS is an important part of it.

Lord Tanlaw

My Lords, the Minister says that the Government are doing everything possible to alleviate the effects of natural disasters. Can she therefore explain why not one of the 14 recommendations of the Task Force on Potentially Hazardous Near Earth Objects has been implemented or even started to be implemented?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I am afraid that I do not have the detail for which the noble Lord asks, but I shall happily write to him. I am aware that Defra and other departments which are studying disaster reduction and disaster preparedness have been looking at a number of different reports and co-ordinating their response through the UN.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, I refer to the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, about NGOs and declare an interest as chairman of Plan International UK. Does the Minister agree that it is important to recognise that work can be done in disaster areas by NGOs already in place and with knowledge of the community? For example, in Vietnam when floods destroyed the rice crop the NGOs present were able to develop alternative crops in order to prevent starvation.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness. We know from our response to disasters that the best work comes from NGOs already on the ground. The other important element is to ensure that in putting disaster preparedness plans in place, we work with NGOs which have great experience in the field.