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Volume 503: debated on Wednesday 13 January 2010

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for International Development if he will let the House have the most up-to-date information on the recent massive earthquake in Haiti.

The House is aware that Her Majesty’s Government do not have the historic links with Haiti that they have with the rest of the British-speaking Caribbean; none the less, the entire Caribbean will be looking to the Government’s response to this awful tragedy. Haiti has had a turbulent recent history. It has very poor infrastructure and it will be reliant on international help—

Order. The hon. Lady will have an opportunity to develop her thoughts, but at this point we will hear from the Secretary of State.

I am grateful for the opportunity afforded by this question to update the House on the present situation. A series of major earthquakes struck Haiti last night in the area around the capital, Port-au-Prince. The strongest of these was reported at 7.2 on the Richter scale. Up to 13 aftershocks have since taken place. Information on the scale of damage and the number of people killed or injured is slowly emerging. Our initial estimates suggest that some 6 million people live in the affected area, and 1 million people in the worst affected area. Early press reports and limited information from the United States Government and the United Nations describe numerous collapsed buildings, including a hospital, many houses and the presidential palace. By any measure this is a terrible tragedy.

My Department has a four-person field assessment team en route to Port-au-Prince in order to determine the priorities for urgent assistance. We have already mobilised a UK fire and rescue service search and rescue team of 64 people with dogs and heavy rescue equipment. The team and their 10 tonnes of equipment are at present assembling at Gatwick airport and are ready to deploy as soon as the airport reopens following heavy snow. We are urgently looking at all options to ensure that the search and rescue team can deploy as quickly as possible, including the possibility of an RAF flight. I have been informed that the United States currently has two search and rescue teams mobilising and ready to depart from Miami. The Iceland search and rescue team is also mobilising. However, a further complication facing all teams is that Port-au-Prince airport is believed to be unusable. We are urgently assessing alternatives.

Haiti is, of course, one of the poorest countries in the world. The need in the aftermath of this tragedy is likely to be very great. The United Kingdom stands ready, as part of the international community, to provide humanitarian assistance in the wake of this devastating earthquake.

The House is aware that Her Majesty’s Government do not have the historic links with Haiti that they do with the English-speaking Caribbean, but none the less, further instability and privation in Haiti is a matter for the entire region. I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his very full response, which moves us on from the press reports that we have heard this morning. I am sure that people in the Caribbean who are following the debate, and people in Haiti itself, will be grateful that Her Majesty’s Government are so keen to be of assistance.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and of course I wish to pay tribute to the depth of her knowledge and experience of the Caribbean. I am sure that it will be of comfort to her constituents and others across the country that the Government, and I am sure the whole House, are determined for Britain to play its part in response to this tragedy.

My hon. Friend is right to recognise that although Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere, we have not historically had a strong development relationship as a consequence of the fact that the French, the Canadians and the United States have primarily led on development assistance to Haiti. However, as I have said, we stand ready to consider what humanitarian assistance is required once the rescue phase of this tragedy is complete.

I thank the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) for her question and the Secretary of State for the response that he has given the House.

Throughout the country, there will be deep concern for the people of Haiti at this awful time. As the Secretary of State said, it is the poorest country in the western hemisphere, and it is the least well equipped to cope with such a catastrophe. As all the evidence shows, the actions taken in the immediate aftermath of the disaster will determine how effectively the needs that result from it are addressed. In this case, the whole international community should ensure a swift and effective response, although clearly the United States is in the key position to provide help.

Will the Secretary of State give further details about the composition of the UK assessment team being dispatched to the region? When will it arrive, and when will we know what further support the British Government can offer? Can he assure the House that the whole Whitehall machinery, not just the Department for International Development, is firmly joined up on that point?

Can the Secretary of State provide us with any information about the number of British nationals who are currently in Haiti, their situation and the steps being taken to look after them?

As I said, the United States will no doubt have the leading role in the international response. What recent conversations has the Secretary of State had with his counterparts in the United States to ensure that that response is properly co-ordinated?

Many members of the British public will want to do all they can to support the people of Haiti at this time. What guidance can the Secretary of State give as to how their efforts should best be directed? Can he also update the House on how the neighbouring Dominican Republic has been affected?

In 2007 my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), a shadow International Development Minister, became the first senior British politician for some time to visit Haiti and spent time with the UN forces there, who are so important in these circumstances. We hear that they have been hit hard by the earthquake. Can the Secretary of State update the House on the latest news about the impact of the earthquake on the UN mission in Haiti, and what discussions has he had with colleagues at the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations in New York about the matter?

Our total focus at the moment must be on saving lives and getting help to those who need it, but will the Secretary of State accept that in due course and when the time is right, it will be necessary to have a full review of Britain’s emergency response process in such circumstances?

Let me associate myself with the sentiments that the hon. Gentleman expressed. I shall endeavour to answer the range of questions that he put before the House.

I certainly concur about the need for swift and effective action, and as part of the international community we are endeavouring to achieve that. The field assessment team is a four-person team, and is required to give us the opportunity to achieve the co-ordination of which he spoke. I can assure the House that there has been no delay in assembling the search and rescue capability—the 64 British firefighters who are gathering at Gatwick as we speak, to take forward the rescue phase of the effort.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that, as I sought to reflect in my original answer, we are working closely with our colleagues across Whitehall. Discussions are already under way with the Ministry of Defence, and of course with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

The hon. Gentleman asked about British subjects in the affected region. The situation on the ground is chaotic, and as a consequence the information remains sketchy. I sought the advice of the Foreign Office minutes before appearing at the Dispatch Box, and it has had approximately 15 to 20 calls from family members here in the United Kingdom raising concerns about the possibility of UK nationals being in the country. Two of those identified in those calls have already made contact with their families since the calls were made to the Foreign Office earlier this morning. I can assure the House that the Foreign Office is keeping the situation under very close review.

In relation to contacts with the United States Government, the judgment to mobilise the 64 British firefighters was on the basis of conversations with our opposite numbers in the United States. Their assessment was that the need was clearly already so great that assistance in addition to the two American heavy lift and heavy rescue capability teams now en route to Haiti would be required. It was on the basis of conversations with the Americans that we mobilised our team.

As for what British citizens who are concerned about this human tragedy can do, my understanding is that as we speak, a meeting of the major British agencies is taking place. As is the case with similar tragedies, there will then be a judgment as to whether to launch a Disasters Emergency Committee appeal or independent appeals by the charities.

Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, has already issued a statement. As I understand it, the Chinese and the Brazilians have raised concerns in relation to a number of the peacekeepers they have as part of the UN mission in Haiti, but it would perhaps be more appropriate for me to take the opportunity to update the House in due course, as the situation develops, on those and other related matters.

I too thank the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) for giving us the opportunity for this update today, and I associate myself and my colleagues with the comments made by the Secretary of State and the shadow Secretary of State. The horrors in Haiti this morning are utterly unimaginable, and the impact is all the worse for being the latest in a very long list of geographical disasters, which are complicated by political divisions and terrible uncertainty.

The Liberal Democrats welcome the initiative the Secretary has announced and the speedy response he indicated. Will he tell us what other forms of assistance, beyond the rescue teams, he is contemplating, perhaps as the next stage of assistance with the recovery? Others in the European Union and from elsewhere in the world will also be looking to see how they can assist. Will he explain to the House how all those different efforts will be co-ordinated?

The international community has a desperate habit of losing interest in, and forgetting, countries once the television crews have gone home, so looking to the longer-term, will the Secretary of State give us an assurance that with our partners, he will re-examine the support that we provide to Haiti and other vulnerable countries like it, and prepare help for them on a sustainable and secure basis?

Again, I am grateful for those remarks and associate myself with the determination that the hon. Gentleman communicates that the United Kingdom should play its part. Let me deal with two or three of the specific points that he raises. He is right to recognise that in any major disaster such as this one, there is a rescue phase—and that is what our efforts are focused on at the moment. The assessment team will contribute to the recovery phase and to an assessment of the humanitarian requirements.

In the wake of a tragedy such as this, there are always requirements for food, shelter, clean water and medicines. That is why the hon. Gentleman’s point about the co-ordination of the international effort is so apposite. We are already in discussions with OCHA—the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs—which has historically led such efforts. Tragically, because of our familiarity with major disasters over recent years, it has developed real expertise in the cluster system, whereby individual countries can slot their contribution into a more co-ordinated and joined-up international effort.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the European Union, which is historically one of the partners of Haiti. We are already in discussion with European partners, and we anticipate that ECHO—the European Community Humanitarian Office—the EU’s humanitarian assistance arm, will be heavily engaged in the response to the tragedy. Again, I will take the opportunity to update the House on the continued efforts to co-ordinate those international efforts in due course.

Some of the earliest of today’s press reports talk about the overwhelming numbers of people presenting themselves with severe lacerations and broken limbs to hospitals that have collapsed. Will the Secretary of State outline what medical elements are in the package of immediate support that the UK is offering? They will help to keep people alive.

We are delivering a capability through the 64 search and rescue specialists, who have expertise and knowledge. However, in the first instance, our challenge is physically to get people out from under the rubble. The indications are that because the centre of the earthquake affected a very built-up area of Port-au-Prince, there will be a requirement to remove people from the wreckage of buildings.

Alongside that, we are working with others to make sure that the medical supplies and medical professionals required to address this challenge are deployed. The Red Cross—both its international arm and the Red Cross bodies that represent individual nations—is already heavily engaged. I assure my hon. Friend that this is one of the issues that we have already been regularly discussing this morning.

The International Development Committee looked at the Government’s response to emergencies a couple of years ago. I commend the Secretary of State on his ability to show how that works at very short notice. We visited the emergency room in Victoria street.

Can the Secretary of State ensure that the co-ordination that follows from this disaster will avoid a lot of duplication of effort, which can go to waste? That has happened with other disasters. In particular, will the United Nations have the capacity to play that role, as it sought to do in Pakistan?

I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s question and the knowledge and expertise that he and his Committee have brought to bear on these issues. It would be fair to characterise the United Nations capability as significantly improved, although still with significant room for improvement. I am mindful of the lessons that needed to be drawn after the Pakistan earthquake, and we have put significant effort into strengthening the capability for immediate response and co-ordination.

I have already been questioned elsewhere this morning on why we are sending an assessment team in the face of the immediacy of the human tragedy. It is to address exactly the point raised by the right hon. Gentleman—so that we can both understand the scale of the humanitarian need and deploy effectively with our international partners to address that need. Alongside the rescue phase, work is already under way genuinely to understand the needs of a country that we should not forget was desperately poor even before this tragedy. Then we will be working with the United Nations to ensure a co-ordinated and sustained response to this tragedy.

With an island such as Haiti, there is always a danger that an earthquake will be associated with a tsunami, although thankfully that does not appear to have happened on this occasion. However, does my right hon. Friend recall that after the tsunami in the far east, the world pledged to improve the early warning systems for tsunamis and earthquakes? Was there any early warning on this occasion? What are his thoughts about the early warning preparation and the preparedness of the wider Caribbean?

It is one minor consolation in the face of the scale of this tragedy that a tsunami was not one of the features of this earthquake. But I assure my hon. Friend that the issue of early warning systems has been central in many minds following the terrible tsunami on Boxing day some years ago. I was then serving at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and I took the opportunity to visit Aceh at the time. It was clear that many more lives could have been saved if there had been more effective early warning systems. That is why, since the terrible tragedy of the first tsunami in Aceh and Sri Lanka, we have worked closely with the Governments affected to provide that support.

I have to say that it was a great source of pride to me, on behalf of all Members of the House, to see, on a recent visit to Bangladesh, that British taxpayers’ money had helped to contribute to the disaster preparedness of the people there. That had prevented the tragedy of the recent cyclone from being an even greater tragedy, as a result of early warning and the provision of cyclone shelters. There are lessons that can be drawn from elsewhere in the world, and we have been working on this matter for a number of years.

Do we know whether the Government of Haiti are still functioning, or have they taken high-level casualties? Would it not be a double disaster if, in addition to the casualties on the ground, there were further political instability in an island that is already pretty fragile?

The position, I am afraid, is not yet clear. We know that the presidential palace has been damaged, along with other significant Government buildings. A spokesman from the Haitian Government broadcast on CNN this morning, urging help from international partners. However, the situation in the country is both chaotic and unclear. That is why we are working so closely with our friends and colleagues in the United States and elsewhere—to try to get a clearer and quick assessment of the true situation on the ground.

My final point is that the hon. Gentleman is right to recognise that a disaster on this scale would test even the strongest of states; given Haiti’s blighted history, it will undoubtedly require the support of the international community.

Will the Royal Navy be galvanised as part of this important aid and rebuilding programme? Will my right hon. Friend contact the United States to ensure that it uses its extensive naval resources to get important aid, including medical supplies, into Haiti?

I would not wish to prejudge what assets could be required by the international community. The early indications are that although Port-au-Prince airport was unusable this morning, there are other airports both in Haiti and the Dominican Republic that would perhaps provide a more immediate and speedier response than would be offered by the deployment of naval assets. However, I am sure that if that requirement emerges, it will be given serious consideration, given the scale of the United States’ naval assets in the Caribbean and the region.

When the priorities for what is needed in Haiti are established, will the Secretary of State give an assurance that food and actual materials—blankets and so on—will be given, rather than a cheque being made over to the authorities?

As I said, an assessment team is en route at the moment to judge exactly what is required. However, within the capability of the Department for International Development are exactly the kind of supplies of which the hon. Gentleman speaks—whether they are as basic as blankets, tents and canvas to provide shelter or the ability to work with other British agencies to provide water and sanitation; an organisation such as Oxfam is literally world class in the provision of water and sanitation in the wake of such disasters.

We will consider all the requirements and options but I would fully anticipate that, as has consistently been the case in humanitarian responses in recent years, the response will involve material goods, rather than simply the writing of a cheque.

The Secretary of State will be aware that the Turks and Caicos Islands, a British overseas territory, is not too far from Haiti. Is he giving consideration to how the Haitian people living in TCI—there are several thousand people of Haitian origin there—will be affected, and to any assistance that can be given from British territories in the region?

I am sure that the overseas territories department at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will be considering that matter. Our most immediate priority within the Department for International Development has, of course, been the rescue response and the recovery phase. But it is right to recognise that there will be a regional dimension to this tragedy. That is why we have such strong working relationships through the overseas territories department at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. In response to the question that my hon. Friend has raised, I can say that I expect that those will be utilised.

The Secretary of State may know that there are significant numbers of French-speaking people in the UK, who I am sure will have a particular interest. The Churches, particularly the Roman Catholic Church, have strong links with Haiti. Furthermore, organisations such as Voluntary Service Overseas have sent many people with expertise in various fields to work in Haiti over the years. Can the Secretary of State make sure that those groups, among others, are called on? I am sure that they wish to assist, and will be competent and able to do so.

Of course. I pay tribute to the work that Church organisations and non-governmental organisations from the United Kingdom have done for some time to support the people of Haiti, often in extraordinarily difficult and challenging circumstances. As you can imagine, Mr. Speaker, it has been a rather busy morning for us in the Department, but I anticipate that in fairly short order we will bring together the relevant NGOs—those that have worked in Haiti and/or have an interest in responding to this humanitarian tragedy—so that we can update them and assess how they can help.

Bill Presented

United Kingdom Parliamentary Sovereignty Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Mr. William Cash, supported by Mr. John Redwood, Mr. Peter Lilley, Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory, Mr. Edward Leigh, Mr. Bernard Jenkin, Mr. Graham Brady, Sir Peter Tapsell, Mr. Richard Shepherd, Mr. Christopher Chope, Mr. John Whittingdale and Mr. Brian Binley, presented a Bill to reaffirm the sovereignty of the United Kingdom Parliament; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 23 April, and to be printed (Bill 48).