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Volume 300: debated on Wednesday 12 November 1997

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What progress has been made in implementing the housing programme for Montserrat. [14109]

I authorised the provision of £6.5 million for new houses in July 1997. Fifty new permanent houses have been completed and are being handed over to the Government of Montserrat this week. They are due to be occupied from 12 November. A further 50 are under construction and are scheduled to be ready for occupation by the end of December 1997.

I should add for the benefit of the House that the recent scientific evidence from Montserrat is extremely worrying. There is new evidence that the north of the island may not be as safe as was previously thought. Obviously, we must press on, but we have to review the position due to those worrying developments.

No one underestimates the difficulties on Montserrat and the challenges that the Government face there. Is it not slightly surprising that the Secretary of State has yet to find time to visit Montserrat? Had she done so, some of the confusion in recent weeks might not have been quite so great.

The line from the Government has been that the slowness of the housing programme was due to an alleged strike on Montserrat, whereas the Chief Minister of Montserrat says that there has been no strike whatsoever but simply a slowness of funds from our Government to the Government of Montserrat to pay for the housing programme. Perhaps it is all part of the confusion that no one is quite sure which bits the right hon. Lady is responsible for and which bits are the responsibility of Baroness Symons. Perhaps the Secretary of State will take the opportunity to clarify the issue. Has there been a delay in getting funds to Montserrat? And for which matters is she now responsible?

The right hon. Gentleman might like to look at the dates. Fifty houses were authorised in July. They were built and handed over. There was some delay in installing the electrics because of a "sick-out", as strikes are called in Montserrat. That is regrettable in the current circumstances.

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the fracturing of responsibility in Montserrat is a serious problem. My Department is responsible for expenditures from our budget for projects on Montserrat. The Foreign Office is responsible for co-ordination and lead decision making. There is an elected Government of Montserrat and there is also a governor. That creates great difficulties for efficient decision making.

When we have dealt with the present crisis, we need to review how we manage dependent territories, as there is room for improvement.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that more than 300 people in Montserrat are still in temporary shelters? Many of them have been in those shelters for more than two years, often in appalling conditions. Men, women and children are separated only by thin curtains and there is no sanitation. Is she aware of the concern on Montserrat about the slowness of the Government's house building programme?

I am aware of those conditions, but my hon. Friend referred to a two-year delay. She will be aware that we have not been in power for all that time. I authorised a house-building programme in July, and the first 50 houses are about to be occupied. I am aware that the management of the shelters leaves a lot to be desired.

In addition, large numbers of people who live on Montserrat have expressed a wish to leave the island, and I am worried that their desires have not been properly processed. As I said in my main answer, the recent scientific advice is extremely worrying: we have to review new building in the north of the island and whether it remains safe for large numbers of people to remain there.

Will the Secretary of State clarify whether, in her view, the north of the island is safely habitable? What plans are there for a large-scale evacuation while a sustainable development plan is being prepared for the island?

As I said to the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry), that is a decision for the Foreign Office. We received reports in September that the volcanic ash, which is predominantly in the south of the island but blows everywhere, is more dangerous than was previously thought and can cause silicosis. It was thought that the north of the island would be safe, but the ash blowing around could affect human health. We have just received new advice from the scientists that the volcano could produce droppings—clast, or whatever it is called—on the north of the island, creating new dangers. We have just received that advice, and it needs to be reviewed urgently.