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Volume 300: debated on Wednesday 12 November 1997

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If she will make a statement on assistance to Montserrat. [14113]

Since the start of the volcanic crisis, around £45.8 million of emergency aid, development assistance and budgetary aid has been committed by Her Majesty's Government to the needs of Montserrat. When I visited Montserrat in September, we agreed to produce a sustainable development plan for the northern third of the island so that people can continue to live there as long as it remains safe to do so. However, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said, I met the chief scientist of the Montserrat volcanic observatory earlier and there are further doubts about safety which we have to consider urgently.

I am grateful to the Minister for that information. Does he agree with the Chief Minister of Montserrat that it is wrong to use the same budget for assistance to British dependent territories as is used for aid to India, Pakistan and Uganda? Does not aid currently go from London offices to Barbados offices and thence to Montserrat? Could we not cut out one of those stages?

I have some sympathy with the hon. Gentleman, although I am surprised to hear myself say that. He has raised a good point about where the money comes from. If he has had the opportunity to read they White Paper, he will know that the reasonable needs of dependent territories will remain a first call on the aid budget. Barbados has been taken out of the line of decision making; there is a direct link between Montserrat and our Department in the United Kingdom and I talk regularly to the Chief Minister to ensure that things are done as quickly as possible and that the decisions made are implemented as quickly as possible.

Will the Minister look urgently into the problem faced by many people from Montserrat who have been evacuated to this country through no fault of their own but are being subjected to the three-year rule on going into higher and further education and therefore not getting grants from local authorities? Will he discuss that with his colleagues from the Department for Education and Employment to find a way to assist British dependent territory citizens while they are in this country?

My hon. Friend is a little out of date on the arrangements for citizens of Montserrat. Special arrangements have been made for them. On his most recent visit to the United Kingdom, Chief Minister Brandt discussed that issue with Baroness Blackstone and I know that the Department for Education and Employment is particularly concerned about it.

Does the hon. Gentleman recall the assurance that he gave the House on 1 July that he would make strong representations to the defence review on behalf of the West Indies guard ship, which continues to play a vital role in bringing relief to the people of Montserrat? Can he explain the written answer that I have received from the Secretary of State for Defence saying that no such representations have been made? Did it merely slip the Minister's mind that he gave the House such an assurance, or does he no longer consider the role of the guard ship to be as important as it was?

The West Indies guard ship plays an especially important role, as I saw myself when I visited Monserrat and met the captain and many of its crew. I have spoken personally to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence about the guard ship, which is perhaps why the hon. Gentleman got the answer he did. Officials from our Department are participating in discussions on the strategic defence review, and those points and others will be made.