HL Deb 19 January 2005 vol 668 cc778-80

3.4 p.m.

Lord Laidlaw: moved Her Majesty's Government:

What assessment they have made of the handling of the tsunami disaster by the Diplomatic Service and the service provided to United Kingdom citizens affected.

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, since the tsunami struck, British officials and police teams have worked tirelessly in support of UK victims and relatives. The Government are immensely grateful to all those who have devoted themselves to the biggest consular operation that we have ever mounted. In the light of this tragedy, there are a number of issues relating to our emergency response which we shall need to look at again—and we shall do so.

Lord Laidlaw

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that response, and congratulate all the people who have worked so tirelessly in helping those who have lost family and friends in this terrible disaster. However, I am sure that the Government are aware that very many of the survivors and families feel very let down by the performance of the Diplomatic Service both in Thailand and the UK. It is clear that communications, particularly initially, were totally inadequate. Even today, we have only one pathologist and one dental expert in Thailand. Will the Government institute an inquiry, report back on the performance of the Diplomatic Service and make a public response as soon as possible?

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, of course we shall look into such criticisms very carefully. People suffering in these terrible circumstances deserve the very best help that should be given to them. I am confident that in the majority of cases, the very best help was given and is indeed being given as we speak. The Foreign Office and police are working hard to get British victims who have already been informally identified home as soon as possible. They are also fully involved in the international efforts led by the Thai and other governments to identify all remaining victims.

Of course, the noble Lord, Lord Laidlaw, is absolutely right: there are lessons to be learned. We are looking in detail at all aspects of the handling of this tragedy.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, does my noble friend appreciate the uncertainty surrounding relatives of the deceased persons, victims of the earthquake as well as the tsunami? As I understand it, they face years of uncertainty. Would she hold out to them, so as to avoid the complexity and delay involved in making applications to the probate court, that the Government will move swiftly with regard to this matter?

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, the Government do appreciate the uncertainty to which my noble friend referred. In making progress on the legal status of those missing in the tsunami, we see that as a priority for the families and the Government. We are working very hard to resolve the issue. As a matter of urgency, the Foreign Office, the Home Office, the Department for Constitutional Affairs and the police are working to clarify the legal status. I hope that we shall be able to make an announcement on that in the next few days.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, the first reply that the noble Baroness gave to my noble friend Lord Laidlaw is a little worrying in the sense that there has been very widespread criticism and unfavourable comparisons with the apparently more efficient operations of the German, French, Swedish and Japanese foreign offices, and others. Clearly there are some very important lessons to learn here, in case, God help us, we ever face such a tragedy again. Will she assure us that there will be a very stringent look at what went wrong and how it can be put right?

Could the noble Baroness just confirm, following what she has just said, that the rules following the freezing of assets of victims, when their bodies are not found, which would normally last for seven years, are going to be revised to bring some comfort and reassurance to the victims' relatives?

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, as I said, this matter is very much under investigation and an announcement will be made shortly.

On the matter of the lessons, I reassure noble Lords that in an incident of this size it is inevitably important that lessons are there for all of us, and it is crucial that we learn from them. But our staff were immediately deployed, as soon as this dreadful disaster happened. The Government's response, as soon as the earthquake happened, was that there was an immediate deployment of staff from our High Commission in Sri Lanka and our embassy in Thailand to the worst affected areas.

On 26 December, we immediately—that is, within two hours—set up an FCO emergency response centre in London. We had such a large number of calls that, when numbers were at their very height, there were 40,000 calls a day coming in to the police centre that took them. They had 350 staff working on those calls. In an ordinary day in this country there are 25,000 999 calls—in this case there were 40,000 a day. People were working flat out.

Police and forensic teams are now in those areas. They went out on 30 December, and there are now 97 police officers looking at identification, which is one of the most important problems in the whole issue.

Baroness Falkner of Margravine

My Lords, having experienced the events in Thailand, I beg to disagree with some of the points made by the Minister. On the ground it did not feel as if there were an immediate response.

Moving to the broader issue, when repeating the Prime Minister's Statement of 10 January the Minister assured us that elements of the review would include the length of time taken to deploy logistically. The Minister has just told us that it took five days in Thailand—until 30 December. Five days, arguably, is a little bit too long. Can the Minister confirm whether in talking about lessons learnt and reviews that a cross-departmental review will include not only, naturally, the lead departments—the FCO and DfID—but also the Casualty Bureau Appeal Centre in Hendon and the Centre for International Forensic Assistance? Will she also assure us that the results of this review will be made public? Finally, will she look into the request I made in that earlier debate of putting in place local and regional contingency planning so that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and DfID can react somewhat faster?

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, in answer to that final question, local teams already exist. But I shall write to the noble Baroness if I need to develop that. As far as deployment is concerned, the ambassador and his staff in the areas were deployed immediately; there was no wait of the number of days that the noble Baroness referred to. Of course, I respect her view because she was there at the time. I am giving the House the overall point of view and the statistics that we have.

The sheer scale of the tragedy was unprecedented. It required constant reinforcement of staff and flexibility. The noble Baroness referred to the casualty figures and their compilation at the centre in Hendon. I hope that the House will be interested to know that those figures are falling. They are available in the Library. I will not take up time now, but, thankfully, the figures are falling in most categories each day.

Lord Laming

My Lords, in the spirit of learning lessons from what must have been an overwhelming experience for everybody involved, would the Minister be willing to look at the Foreign Office helpline to which she has referred? A neighbour of mine had a son in Thailand and spent two days trying to get through and never succeeded. I appreciate that this was an unprecedented emergency, but will she look at the Foreign Office helpline?

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, we will certainly look at that as part of the lessons learnt. I would remind noble Lords that some members of the public were using the emergency number not to report friends and relatives in the area but to ask for information about travel advice and where to send donations. That clogged up the telephone helpline.