HL Deb 31 January 2005 vol 669 cc7-10

3 p.m.

Lord Clinton-Davis asked Her Majesty's Government:

How they propose to treat relatives of the deceased victims of earthquakes and tsunamis in south-east Asia.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, the Foreign Office has made available a package of assistance to bereaved families, including return flights to the affected region, accommodation and, where appropriate, meeting the costs of repatriating victims. Police family liaison officers have been appointed to the families of all British nationals killed or missing and highly likely to be involved after the tsunami—over 300 officers in total. Police and FCO staff are working with the relevant local authorities to find and identify those still missing.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, although I acknowledge that the Minister's reply is very acceptable, does she recognise that the relatives of the deceased are in a particularly vulnerable position? The noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, said that an announcement on the matter was likely to be made in a few days. When will the Government say that relatives should not have to wait for seven years? The sooner that the Government are prepared to say that, the better it will be.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I could not agree more. That is why, realising how much family concern was generated over the issue, the Government made the announcement on death certificates on 25 January. In response to the exceptional circumstances, the Government have agreed that where a body has not yet been recovered or identified, we shall register the death overseas and issue a certified copy of the register entry. That will be done at the request of the family and based on police advice, following their inquiries. It will be free of charge. Family liaison officers have been or are getting in touch with all the families of missing people to explain that process to them.

Lord Renton

My Lords, will the noble Baroness bear in mind that the Foreign Office has a primary duty towards the British people who have suffered through the tsunami and that more British people will have gone to Sri Lanka and been caught there than in all the other places put together?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the major problem for our embassy officials has arisen in Thailand, where there were so many British holidaymakers. The first team of staff from the British embassy in Bangkok left for the worst affected area, Phuket, on the day of the disaster, 26 December. They had to travel by car because the airport was not functioning. Between 26 December and 24 January, the Foreign Office sent 105 extra staff to Thailand. As of the end of last week, 51 of those staff remained in Thailand. Regarding Sri Lanka, a rapid deployment team of 10 FCO staff was sent from London to Colombo. That figure has now been reduced to one staff member remaining in Sri Lanka. However, one should remember that there are 80 British police officers helping to identify the bodies that remain in question.

Lord Goodhart

My Lords, we very much welcome what the Government have done so far, but is there not a case for going somewhat further? When the person who has died has been the main earner of the family, for instance, the family may need immediate access to savings and bank accounts in that person's name and so on. That is extremely difficult to achieve. Can the Government provide some help to people in that position? Does the problem which has arisen regarding death certificates in this case not indicate that, in due course, we should look more generally at relaxation of the seven-year rule so that death certificates can be issued whenever it is reasonably apparent that a person has disappeared and is dead?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, this really is a very difficult question. We must remember that this is the worst natural disaster in living memory. The problem is that the numbers of those who are missing and thought to have been involved, and those who are missing and may have been involved, are constantly moving. For example, as of today, 228 individuals are in the category of "missing and highly likely to be involved". Last week that figure was 251. When my right honourable friend the Prime Minister made the original Statement, on 10 January, it was 453.

That is nothing to do with inefficiency on anyone's part. It is to do with the way in which people ring the call centres and say that they think that someone is missing. There is very often double-counting and names are transposed because people use different names, such as nicknames. The numbers may later decrease. So we must be very careful about this question of certification of the dead. The system has been changed in these exceptional circumstances, but I think that the changes will be fairly limited.

Lord Harris of Haringey

My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority. My noble friend has referred several times to the work of the family liaison officers provided by the police, who also provide forensic experts and work in the casualty bureaux. Can she confirm that the police services involved will be reimbursed from central funds for their extra costs?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am not in a position to give your Lordships an assurance on that. I was talking to officials in the Foreign Office only today about the costs of the operation. Of course all assistance must be given in the way that I have indicated to your Lordships, and there is an extensive package in relation to the individuals who are directly concerned. However, the question of accounting as between a government department and the police is still under consideration. If I may, I should like to pay a warm tribute to the police family liaison officers who have been involved. They have done an absolutely extraordinary job—a first-rate job—in keeping very distressed people in touch with what is happening. I shall try to give the noble Lord a specific answer to his question as soon as I am able.

Lord Astor of Hever

My Lords, what are the Government doing to help to speed up the progress of post-mortems of tsunami victims?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the real problem is not so much the question of postmortems but the question of identifying people. That is the major area of distress for people at the moment. It is difficult to identify bodies reliably when they have been dead for some time. Sadly, that is particularly so when the cause of death is drowning. It is not my business to cause further distress to families who may listen to or read my comments, but I think that we all know that it is particularly difficult in these circumstances.

The disaster victim identification process includes matching fingerprints, dental records and DNA, or a combination of those. I am afraid that the further we get on in the process, the more we are relying on DNA, and that takes quite some time. However, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has been in touch with the local authorities concerned and urged them to do everything they can to speed up the process.

The Earl of Listowel

My Lords, can the Minister say whether there are any estimates of the number of British children who have lost one or both parents as a result of the tsunami? Can she give further information on how these children's needs are being met?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I cannot give that information simply because, as I indicated a moment or two ago, the number of people who are missing but are likely to be involved is still changing week on week. There has been a significant change in the number in that category. Last week, it was some 251, and this week it is 228. The figure of 228 takes into account 54 individuals who we know are confirmed dead. However, another 241 individuals are possibly involved, and that is in addition to the figure of 228.

We are alive to the problem of lone children. There has been a great deal of anxiety about them and, of course, those on the ground are doing what they can to help families. I know that some of them are extremely distressed either because they do not know where the children are when their parents are dead or because lone children are still there. Your Lordships may be interested to know that in the UK there is another category. Of those who were originally reported missing, more than 20,600 have now been found alive and well. I think that that gives your Lordships a fairly clear view of the enormity of what we have been dealing with.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, can the Minister say whether the definition of "British citizen" includes citizens of Commonwealth or other countries who are either naturalised or registered as British citizens and play a full part as such? Is any information available on that category of people, and what is being done to pass information to their families in languages with which they may be more familiar?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the categorisation for British citizen is the one that we normally use. I am not dealing here with any figures that may come, for example, from our overseas territories. When we deploy the family liaison services of the police, it is very important that individuals are dealt with in a language that they understand. That, too, is very well recognised.

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