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Humanitarian Emergency Response Review

Volume 529: debated on Wednesday 15 June 2011

I appeal, as always on these occasions, to hon. and right hon. Members leaving the Chamber to do so quickly and quietly so that those remaining can listen uninterrupted to the Secretary of State’s statement.

I should like to make a statement on the Government’s response, which I will publish in detail online later today, to the humanitarian and emergency response review carried out by Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon.

The Ashdown report is a deeply impressive document. It makes a compelling, clear and powerful case for reform. The Government agree with and endorse the review’s central thesis and will accept the vast majority of its specific recommendations. Indeed, in many areas we will go beyond its specific recommendations in order to drive faster improvement in the international response to disasters. I am extremely grateful to Lord Ashdown and his team for the work they have done to produce such a compelling and well-argued review. His formidable insight and experience shine through it. I am also grateful to all those who have taken the time and trouble to respond to the consultation and whose experience has added to the quality of the recommendations.

I pay tribute today to those Brits around the world who are working tirelessly in extreme circumstances to save lives during humanitarian crises. Their work, which is often unsung and undertaken at real personal risk, is truly heroic. I also pay tribute to the role of the British armed forces in responding to humanitarian emergencies. In Pakistan last year our armed forces provided swift and effective relief, flying in emergency bridges to reconnect families separated by the floods. In Haiti they brought life-saving equipment and supplies to those stricken by the earthquake.

The report sets a challenging agenda for the 21st century. It recognises that, although disasters are nothing new, we are experiencing a sudden increase in their intensity and frequency. It makes it clear that this trend will only grow with climate change, population growth and greater urbanisation. The review concluded that the Department for International Development has played a strong role in improving the quality of the wider international response. It is an area where Britain is well respected and well regarded, but there is no room for complacency, which is why I commissioned the review and why the Government will take action to implement it.

In the Government’s response to the review, I have set out how, in collaboration with others, we will rise to the challenges presented and how we will do even more to help people stricken by disasters and emergencies. There are some fundamental principles that will guide our response to humanitarian emergencies. First, we will continue to apply the core principles of humanity, impartiality and neutrality to all Government humanitarian action. Secondly, we will respect, and promote respect for, international humanitarian law. Thirdly, and crucially, we will be motivated not by political, security or economic objectives, but by need and need alone.

We will deliver humanitarian assistance in three main ways. We will provide predictable support for our multilateral humanitarian partners, including the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and the United Nations. In humanitarian emergencies, where there is compelling and overwhelming need, we will provide additional resources to the international system, Governments, charities and non-governmental organisations. We will intervene directly where the UK can contribute in ways that others cannot or where there is substantial public interest in our doing so.

Let me turn to the detail of our response. Lord Ashdown’s report identifies seven specific themes: resilience, anticipation, leadership, innovation, accountability, partnership and humanitarian space. I will address each in turn. It is not enough for us simply to pick up the pieces once a disaster has struck. We need to help vulnerable communities to prepare for disasters and to become more resilient. That is where we can have most impact and where we can prevent lives from being lost. More resilient communities and countries will also recover faster from disaster. I commit DFID therefore to build resilience into all its country programmes.

We must anticipate and be prepared for disasters. We will work with Governments and the international system to become better at understanding where climate change, seismic activity, seasonal fluctuations and conflict will lead to humanitarian disasters. With others, we will set up a global risk register of those countries most at risk, so that the international effort can be more focused.

The review calls for stronger leadership by the international community. We strongly agree that the United Nations must be central to this, and I am extremely pleased that, under the leadership of the emergency relief co-ordinator, Baroness Amos, the UN has already made that a priority. Britain will specifically back her agenda for change, but I accept that significant challenges remain. Members from all parts of the House need only look back to the Haiti earthquake or the Pakistan floods to see examples of the United Nations failing to deliver the leadership that was badly needed, so we will work with other donors for much needed reforms.

The review highlights the role that innovation and science can play in every aspect of humanitarian response. We will establish an innovations team to embed humanitarian research and innovation in our core work.

We must always be accountable for and transparent about how we spend our development budget. It is taxpayers’ money. That duty of accountability extends not only to British citizens and taxpayers, but to those who depend upon our aid. We will therefore make accountability central to our humanitarian work and do more to measure our own impact and that of our partners.

Rarely is partnership more important than in the delivery of humanitarian aid. The strength and quality of that co-ordination can make the difference between life and death. We must therefore strive to develop stronger alliances, particularly with new donors, including the Gulf states, China and Brazil. We must improve the quality of our relationships with other key bilateral donors, making sure that our efforts are better co-ordinated and the burden of responsibility shared. I also want to involve fully charities, NGOs, faith groups, the diaspora and the private sector in our emergency response work.

The review calls for the protection and expansion of humanitarian space, including for people brutally affected by armed conflict. That is crucial to our aim of protecting civilians in conflict situations. We must make a consolidated effort throughout the Government, using all diplomatic, legal, humanitarian and military tools, to secure unfettered and immediate access for humanitarian relief wherever we can.

We recognise that to deliver this ambitious agenda, it is right that we change the way in which we fund the system, making it more effective and efficient, particularly in the first hours of an emergency. I have looked at the performance and efficiency that different humanitarian agencies offer. Many offer good value for money and have a sound track record in delivering results, saving lives and reducing suffering in some of the world’s most difficult places. Some, however, do not. I am therefore outlining today increased core support for the best performing humanitarian multilaterals. I have also commissioned detailed work to design a new facility that will enable prequalified charities and NGOs to respond to crises within the first 72 hours, and to design a new mechanism to support the strongest performing British charities to improve the timeliness and quality of responses to humanitarian causes. The Government will consult further on the details of those two instruments.

This country is a world leader in responding to humanitarian emergencies. By implementing Lord Ashdown’s recommendations, and by working alongside new partners, the private sector and other countries’ Governments, we can be even better. I want this House and this country to be proud of our efforts, knowing that we in Britain will be there when the disaster strikes.

Let me end with the words of a survivor of a cyclone in Haiti:

“The water started to rise, and it did not stop...the water was already so high and strong that I could not hold on to one of my children and the water swept her away. Luckily someone was there to grab her.”

I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for advance sight of the Government’s response to Lord Ashdown’s report. May I advise the House that I am responding today because my right hon. and learned Friend the shadow Secretary of State is currently visiting Sierra Leone? We welcome Lord Ashdown’s important report. I pay tribute to him and to those who worked with him to produce an impressive and excellent set of proposals.

Over the past year, in Pakistan, Haiti, Chile, Japan, New Zealand and Indonesia, we have seen the terrible destruction caused by a range of natural disasters. In Libya and Ivory Coast, we have seen how humanitarian crises can develop incredibly rapidly, threatening the lives and livelihoods of thousands of people. Lord Ashdown’s report reminds us that the number of humanitarian crises is likely to increase, and we must be ready to respond rapidly and effectively. We welcome the report’s emphasis on working through multilateral organisations. Does the Secretary of State agree that working multilaterally is generally the best way to ensure greater co-ordination and coherence in response to disaster and to prevent it?

The report recognises that DFID has been widely praised for its leading role in the international humanitarian community. The Secretary of State will know that since 2005 the Department has been one of the leading voices in calling for reforms in the international humanitarian system. We welcome the fact that the Government’s response recognises the need to strengthen international leadership, but what specific steps will he take to bring about that change? Will the Government take the lead in initiating a new round of high-level talks at the UN to push for greater reform, as the Labour Government did back in 2005? Why have the Government rejected a recommendation in the report to encourage the convening of a UN high-level panel to look at ways of improving the international system to face future challenges?

Our efforts in government also led to an expansion of the important central emergency response fund, and the report says that the fund should be expanded further. We welcome the extra $40 million that the Government announced for the fund in December last year, but can the Secretary of State tell us what the UK is doing to push other donor countries to make a similar substantial contribution? Does he agree that, as well as improvements in its response to disaster, the international community must do more to help to prevent and predict disasters, as Lord Ashdown’s report underlines?

As we have recently seen in Libya, gaining access to deliver humanitarian relief can be extremely difficult. I pay tribute to the many organisations, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, Islamic Relief, World Vision and Save the Children, which are often the first to reach those who need help. Will the Secretary of State assure us that he will do all he can to ensure that aid workers can operate in safety and that aid is delivered in a way that ensures its neutrality and impartiality?

DFID is indeed rightly recognised around the world for its leadership in responding at times of crisis, and I pay tribute to its expert staff. Does the Secretary of State agree that in anticipating and responding to humanitarian emergencies, it is essential to have expert and skilled people? As DFID is reducing its administration budget by a third, can he assure us the necessary investment in humanitarian skills will be made given the scale of such cuts?

Lord Ashdown’s report recognises that the international humanitarian system is poorly equipped to ensure an equitable response for the most vulnerable—for example, women, children, the elderly and people with disabilities. I welcome what the Secretary of State said in that regard and what the Government say in response to the full report. Will he assure us, however, that the Government will ensure that across the areas identified in the report, women in particular will be fully involved in the response to disaster, wherever it occurs?

Lord Ashdown’s report underlines the important role that diaspora communities play in responding to disaster, both through remittances and by raising awareness. I am glad that the Secretary of State recognised that in his statement. Can he give us more information on what he will do to ensure that there is greater recognition of the money that hard-working people in people in the UK send home to help people in the developing world?

The Ashdown report is an important step forward. Labour provided a strong lead on this issue in government, which produced real reform, but we know that there is much more to do. As Lord Ashdown said, humanitarian work

“cannot be the sticking plaster for a lack of political action”,

but it can make an important contribution to alleviating suffering around the world. Today’s welcome words need to be transferred into concrete action to ensure that in times of crisis our aid helps those who need it most.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his welcome and for his words about the team who constructed the Ashdown report under Lord Ashdown, and about the response from my team, particularly those in DFID’s conflict, humanitarian and security department.

The hon. Gentleman is right that there is a huge amount of common ground on this matter. In opposition, we long realised that there was a necessity not to be complacent, but to accept that we could do some things better. That is why my right hon. Friend the present Prime Minister, some two years before the election, called for a report such as this, and why we have carried it out.

The hon. Gentleman was right to underline that all serious research suggests that the number of disasters will increase by as much as 50% over the next 15 years. That adds additional urgency to the work that we are doing. He was right to make it clear that the right way to lead in these disasters is through the multilateral system. That is why we are determined to play our part in making that system better. The cluster system that operates within it, in which Britain takes a leading role, is the right approach and we will do everything we can to see that it improves.

The central emergency response fund was set up by the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), who is sitting alongside the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz), and we supported it strongly in opposition. We think that it works extremely well and that it provides additional and immediate money in the event of a disaster. That is why we have significantly increased resources to the CERF. The additional fund that I announced today for help in the first 72 hours from pre-qualified charities and NGOs will enable us to carry on the principle of that work in, I believe, a more effective way.

The hon. Gentleman was right to make the point that building in resilience from day one is vital in all the work we do, and that is now happening. He was equally correct about the importance of gaining access for humanitarian relief, which we have called for consistently in Libya and will continue to call for in Syria and South Kordofan in Sudan. He was right that women should always be involved in such work. The role of women as people who suffer from humanitarian disasters on the front line is well understood. We give that issue our strong support through this work.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s point about remittancing and that there must be transparency in all that we do. As he pointed out, the money that we spend is taxpayers’ money. We are committed to recognising that. That is why we published the transparency guarantee early in the lifetime of the Government. When taxpayers’ money was used to alleviate the results of the floods in Pakistan last year, we had a floods monitor online so that people could see how hard-earned British taxpayers’ money was being spent and what relief it was securing.

In respect of these proposals, I believe that the International Development Committee has announced that it will consider in about a year’s time whether we have enacted what we have said we will do.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and Lord Ashdown for his excellent report. On behalf of the International Development Committee, I thank Lord Ashdown for his active engagement with us on two separate occasions when we were preparing our report on the Pakistan floods. I note that the Secretary of State said that he will publish more detail than he could put in the statement on the steps that are being taken to improve the UK response.

Will the Secretary of State say what role the UK can play in getting UN leadership, not least to ensure that in the most vulnerable countries the UN co-ordinator has both the competence and the line-management authority to execute effective rescue operations? He spoke about the co-ordination of NGOs and lead NGOs. Will he ensure that that is not just a UK response, but that such co-ordination will happen internationally so that NGOs do not get in each other’s way and have the opposite effect to helping in the disaster?

My right hon. Friend is entirely right about those dangers, which he and his Select Committee have identified in their work, not least on the crisis in Haiti and the international response to it, particularly in the early hours.

On co-ordination, I did not answer the question from the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) about the high-level panel. It is important to make it clear that Baroness Amos is leading an effective reform programme as the emergency relief co-ordinator. We back her strongly in that role, as do the heads of the UN agencies. I continue to talk to her and others at the UN about the findings of the multilateral aid review and the humanitarian emergency response review. That is the right way to take this agenda forward, so let us see how we get on with that.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and Lord Ashdown for a comprehensive report. On partnership, does the Secretary of State agree with Lord Ashdown’s very strong view that we should consult those who receive aid, civil society in developing countries, and NGOs in areas where there is an established need, because those are the people on the ground who are best placed to tell us what is going on?

The right hon. Gentleman is extremely experienced in these matters and he is absolutely right. I am grateful for his comments about the Ashdown report. The issue of partnership, which Lord Ashdown identifies so clearly, and the issue of accountability are at the forefront of what we seek to do. For example, when we published the multilateral aid review, we did not keep it as an internal document, but put it online. We invited those we were assessing to comment on what we said and the recipients of the money to hold us to account. We will continue to do that. The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that in the poorest parts of the world, understanding the effect of what we do on those we are seeking to help is vital to making the whole operation more effective.

I welcome this report and the Government’s response to it. Will the Secretary of State confirm that he sees a significant role in the reshaped British humanitarian response to disasters for small, niche charities, such as the west country-based ShelterBox, which are often the first on the scene with important life-saving equipment such as tents, cooking facilities and water? I am sure that he does.

My hon. Friend is right about the absolute priority that the Government place on supporting such smaller charities. Many Members on both sides of the House will have seen them doing brilliant work overseas. There are a number of mechanisms through which they are supported. There is, of course, the global poverty action fund, which will have a fresh round for NGOs and charities in a month or two. ShelterBox, which my hon. Friend mentioned, will be known to many Members. It does a brilliant job and we support it strongly.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s words today, in particular his praise for the contribution of British NGOs in responding to humanitarian disasters. I appreciate his continuing support for the central role of the UN, in particular the agency that Valerie Amos leads so well. I gently point out to him that it was disappointing that no British Minister attended the CERF annual meeting in December. Given that America and France, two of our leading allies in the development debate, do not contribute to the CERF, will he set out how his leadership on this issue will lead to the topic being placed on the agendas of the G8, European Development Ministers and perhaps a No. 10 summit, so that there is more investment in the CERF to help the UN give the leadership it so desperately needs to give?

The hon. Gentleman will understand that we consider attendance at such meetings on the basis of need. We consider whether our attendance or our work in advance of a meeting will have the most effect. I and my ministerial colleagues travel ferociously in pursuit of this agenda. We have contributed in a large number of ways to the shape of the international community’s handling of humanitarian emergencies. The multilateral aid review played a significant part in that and the Ashdown review has played an enormous part in it. The Ashdown review is being read avidly by most of those who are engaged in this important work. For the future, we will consider, as we always do, what is the most effective way in which Britain can intervene to ensure the overall effectiveness of this vital work.

The UN has been notoriously slow and unco-ordinated in the past in responding to certain disasters, as a result of the poor leadership that has been identified. Notwithstanding the report on the agenda for change by Baroness Amos, will the Secretary of State assure us that his Department will relentlessly keep up the pressure on the UN? The next disaster, God forbid, may come tomorrow, and we need to know that the UN is fit for purpose today.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to make that point. It is the quality of local leadership on the ground that determines how quickly we can respond. Inevitably, although the UN actors on the ground are extremely good at what they do in normal times, they are sometimes not the right people to respond to disasters. That is why it is essential to get people there who can provide the necessary quality of leadership. For example, it was very interesting that the presence of John Ging, the No. 2 to Valerie Amos, in Libya very shortly after the conflict started led to an immediate response of a much better quality than we had previously seen.

Many communities in my constituency—particularly those from Pakistan and Bangladesh, although I could name many others—have a commendable record of contributing to relief when humanitarian disaster strikes. Given that, will the Secretary of State give us some more details of how he expects to involve diaspora communities in emergency relief work and ensure that their expertise is taken advantage of?

It depends on the disaster, but the hon. Gentleman is entirely correct to point to the valuable work that diaspora communities do. In the case of the Pakistan floods last year, the Pakistani diaspora, not least in the midlands, made a tremendous contribution not only financially but through a number of different charities to which it gave strong support, not least Islamic Relief. That meant that it played a vital part in the overall British relief effort that was mobilised.

I welcome this excellent report and the Government’s response to it. Does my right hon. Friend agree that many of the most deprived and threatened people are those in war zones? Does he further agree that the inter-agency working that he stressed so heavily, bringing together diplomatic, military and aid effort and the best of the non-governmental organisations, is in the very best interests of the criterion of need, and does not compromise it, as has occasionally been suggested?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. Of course, people who live in conflict areas lose out twice over, first because they are very poor and secondly because they are permanently frightened by the conflict that is going on around them. That is why the coalition Government have made an absolute priority of doing much more in conflicted areas to bring help to people who are doubly cursed in that way. He is also right to point out that although humanitarian relief should always be circumstance-blind and help those who are in great need, proper co-ordination among all those who can help is essential.

As the Secretary of State knows, there is a continuing argument in the development community about whether it is appropriate for the military to deliver humanitarian aid. I should like to pay my own tribute to the British armed forces, whom I have seen in many parts of the world delivering humanitarian aid to people who would have died if they had not been there at the appropriate time.

The right hon. Lady makes a truly excellent point. Like her, I have seen how the military have delivered to desperate people at times of great need. We saw it, indeed, in Pakistan last year. We have not needed military support to deliver aid in Libya so far, although the military have been willing to provide it. I have discussed the matter frequently with Valerie Amos, who takes a sensible and pragmatic view in the interests, which we all serve, of trying to get aid and support through to people who are in great need.

I welcome the excellent Secretary of State’s statement. One problem appears to be the loss of life in the early hours of a disaster. We have seen emergency response teams ready to go from this country but being stopped because they do not have clearance to land in the areas affected. What can be done about that problem?

I think my hon. Friend is referring to a particular incident involving a Scottish charity. I have looked at that incident in detail, and I am happy that what he says about it is not actually correct. However, it is extremely important that there should be really good co-ordination. We should not have the situation that we saw all too frequently in Haiti, which was a huge number of people heading towards a disaster target without the co-ordination to ensure that they could be effective on the ground.

May I add my own voice to the welcome for the report of the noble Lord Ashdown and the Government’s response to it? As part of its inquiry into the humanitarian response to the Pakistan floods, the International Development Committee found that some eight months after the disaster, and with millions still in need of assistance, only one third of the $2 billion UN appeal funds had been disbursed in Pakistan. The noble Lord’s report states that that was disappointing, maybe even inadequate, and adds that it cost money, opportunities and perhaps even lives. What leadership will the Government show at UN level to ensure that that does not happen again?

The hon. Gentleman identifies one of the problems with the relief effort that the international community mounted in Pakistan. Indeed, the Select Committee on which he serves has produced a most valuable report, from which the international system will learn relevant lessons. I think it would be fair to say that Britain was concerned, we were the first country to come in great scale to give strong support to the people of Pakistan in their hours of greatest need. Britain also continually pushed and prodded the international system to up its game. That was what we did at the time, and those are also the tactics that we are using now. The report will be helpful in achieving them.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s positive response to my noble Friend’s report. Together with the Government’s pledge to fulfil the 40-year-old promise to spend 0.7% of our national income on development assistance, including the outstanding promise to the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation, that puts us in a potentially world-leading position in international development and humanitarian assistance. Will he reassure us, though, that the pre-qualification process that he described will not inadvertently disadvantage the smaller local NGOs that are obviously on the ground first and, as the review makes clear, often do an excellent job at very low cost?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. We are going to consult about the pre-qualification process, to ensure that that does not happen. The fund will be there to help those who are already on the ground, so that in the first 72 hours, when action is critical for reasons that the House will acknowledge, we can ensure that money is not a barrier to immediate and effective action. I therefore think I can reassure him on that point.

The GAVI pledging conference that took place yesterday will have a direct effect on disaster relief, because it will prevent children from getting sick. We should all be enormously proud of the leadership of Britain and the Prime Minister. As a result of the replenishment conference exceeding its target yesterday by some $600 million, we will be able to vaccinate more than a quarter of a billion children over the next five years in the poorest parts of the world and save nearly 5 million lives.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s thinking on a standing faculty for emergency response, including NGOs. Will he assure us that there will be no tension in practice between the follow-through on the Ashdown review and the follow-through on the previous DFID reviews, which put particular emphasis on buying results? The Ashdown review particularly emphasises resilience, innovation and science, and humanitarian space in areas of conflict, the benefits of which are not always as quantifiable as those of some other measures. Will the Secretary of State ensure that the Ashdown recommendations are not casualties of the results-buying emphasis of previous reviews?

All three reviews to which the hon. Gentleman refers focus directly on the results that we are achieving, not only in delivering real value for money to British taxpayers, whose money we are deploying, but for those whom we are trying to help. Whereas the Ashdown review was a review given to the Government, to which I am responding today, the first two were reviews by the Government. If the hon. Gentleman looks carefully at all three, he will find that they are seamlessly joined by the common interest of ensuring that international development work from Britain is more effective and buys yet greater results.

I cannot think of anyone better than Lord Ashdown to have produced such a report, and I congratulate the Secretary of State on commissioning it. The real lead on humanitarian responses is, properly, the United Nations. We have a first-class person for emergency co-ordination in the UN, in Baroness Amos. However, above her in the UN is the Security Council, which too often makes decisions at the speed of a striking slug. Is there any way in which we, as a permanent member of the Security Council, can encourage other members and ourselves to make a special case for emergency responses, so that we are not constrained by the requirements of veto, unanimity or majority voting?

My hon. Friend, who knows a great deal about these issues, tempts me to stray beyond my areas of competence. However, I can tell him that the Foreign Secretary has been ceaselessly engaged over the last week in precisely that way in respect of a new resolution on Syria.

I am conscious of my hon. Friend’s point, and I agree that it was absolutely right to appoint Lord Ashdown, whose peculiar combination of talent and experience has led to this extremely good, wise and sensible report. I also agree with my hon. Friend that it is important to prioritise the UN, and to understand that at the end of the day, only the UN can be the chief co-ordinator. The UN is essential if we are to have an effective response on the ground.

The Secretary of State says that he wishes to put women and girls at the heart of his development policy. He will be aware that violence against women and girls is a feature in such crises. How do we deal with that problem better?

It is an absolute priority of the Government to try to stop violence against women—we have some 15 country programmes for which that is an absolute priority. I attended the Home Secretary’s meeting of Ministers yesterday on that very subject, and spoke about the international dimension of it. The hon. Lady may rest assured that it remains right at the top of our agenda. Of course, women and girls suffer most in such crises. We have provided protection for children and displaced women, not least in respect of the Ivory Coast-Liberian border, on which my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State leads. That is the most important aspect of the work that we do there.

I welcome both the Ashdown report and the Government response. DFID is a world-class organisation with a world-class reputation.

It is particularly important to focus on anticipation. The risk register is a great addition to the tools that DFID can use. On that basis, will we also develop strategies to mitigate that risk and that can ensure that we push and help countries to move along a pathway to reduce the risk that they face from, for example, climate change?

My hon. Friend identifies entirely accurately one of the seven key points made by Lord Ashdown and his advisory committee in their report. Anticipating disaster and ensuring that we develop a comprehensive risk register, and working on disaster reduction, which is one thing that the Minister of State has focused on in Nepal, are essential if we are to take that agenda forward.

Even though the Secretary of State has been in office for only a year, he is turning out to be outstanding at his job, supported by a very fine team of Ministers. Will he confirm that nothing in his statement will affect the Government’s ability to deliver relief to the people of Yemen? It is one of the poorest countries in the world, and it is on the brink of civil war. Will he confirm that we can still help the Yemeni people?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks. We understand the importance of Yemen, which remains on a humanitarian knife edge. With the Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, we are looking specifically at needs mapping within Yemen for when we can get back there. We continue to give very strong support to the agencies that conduct humanitarian relief in Yemen, and to bear in mind at all times whether we can do more to assist.

I warmly welcome the Ashdown report and the Government’s response. May I urge the Government to take an integrated, cross-departmental approach to this that includes the Department of Energy and Climate Change, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence as well as DFID, in order to anticipate better how different risk factors can combine to threaten human life? For example, water shortage in a politically volatile area could trigger conflict, turning a humanitarian problem into a humanitarian disaster.

I thank my hon. Friend for her comments, which are extremely helpful. She is right to talk about the absolute importance of integration. I can reassure her to this extent: proposals on climate change, on which we are involved in much work, come to a cross-ministerial board, which includes DECC, DFID, the Treasury and other Departments that have a direct interest. As I indicated in my statement, we will not forget the importance of strong, cross-Whitehall collaboration.

I welcome what the Secretary of State says about resilience and enabling countries to respond better if a crisis strikes, but does he recognise that some humanitarian crises can be avoided? If we did more work on food security and pre-positioning food stocks—in the horn of Africa, say—on climate change or on regional integration, such as by getting an upstream country to warn a downstream country when a flood is coming, we could avoid crises. Work must be done by DFID and the UN on that.

The hon. Gentleman is entirely correct. That is why we have, for example, consistently sought to pre-position food and shelter in respect of Sudan, which until very recently has not been required. In respect of Pakistan, we are trying to ensure that we understand the monsoon pattern and whether any flooding will take place this year. The review and the Government’s response rightly recognise his point on encouraging resilience and anticipation.

May I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement? He will know that there was an earthquake in Nepal 70 or so years ago and that another is predicted imminently. What steps are his Department taking to plan for that and to assist if that need arises?

My hon. Friend accurately recognises a serious threat within Nepal. That is one reason why the Minister of State has taken a close interest, including by visiting Nepal and talking to all those who are involved there about the role of disaster reduction. We take very strong account in our planning of the points that my hon. Friend rightly makes, not only in respect of Nepal, but in other areas of stress and vulnerability.

May I, too, welcome Lord Ashdown’s report and the Secretary of State’s statement? Does he agree that there are particular dangers for those involved when a humanitarian emergency results from a political crisis? He will remember the kidnapping of the head of Caritas earlier this year during the crisis in Côte d’Ivoire. Soldiers will continue to play an important role in providing humanitarian relief, but will he ensure that assistance is always given on its merits, and that it is not conditional on political strategy or military engagement?

The right hon. Gentleman makes a good point on which I sought to be absolutely clear in my opening remarks. Humanitarian relief must be needs-based, and must not take account of such extraneous factors. That is the commitment of the British Government —it has long been a commitment of Governments of all parties, and it continues just as strongly today.

Whenever disaster strikes, and in almost whatever form it takes, there always seems to be a shortage of helicopters. What can we do to improve international co-ordination to ensure a quicker and better helicopter lift capacity in emergency zones?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. He rightly identifies that problem as one of the critical pinch points, as it was particularly in Pakistan last summer. We are considering that and a number of similar issues, and I hope to have more to say in due course.

In his introduction, the Secretary of State said that “we will intervene directly where the UK can contribute in ways that others cannot”. I welcome that, but will he clarify whether that means intervening for the sake of the responsibility to protect agenda? If so, does he agree that often humanitarian disasters occur in areas of conflict or failed states, and that we therefore have a responsibility to recognise that we must sometimes act quickly and without the agreement of the relevant Government?

In respect of the responsibility to protect, the hon. Gentleman will know that that is a technical UN term that triggers certain other actions. The point that I was making was narrower and it was that if Britain has a unique skill or the capacity to intervene in a humanitarian situation, we should always consider whether it is right to do so. That was my point and it is narrower than the basis on which he seeks to get me to proceed.

I warmly welcome both Lord Ashdown’s report and the Government’s response. In a humanitarian crisis, securing access to clean water and sanitation is often one of the key challenges. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is hugely important that engineering charities such as RedR and WaterAid are given the support they need to provide technical assistance in an emergency and upskill local people to make that sustainable?

The hon. Lady makes a very good point. She identifies two of Britain’s brilliant NGOs, RedR and WaterAid, which both do such good work in some of the most challenging places anywhere in the world. She also identifies the importance of clean water and sanitation. Britain is doing this in terms of steady state development, with a commitment to get more clean water and sanitation to people in the poor world than the total population of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and in terms of our work through the cluster system, giving strong support on water and sanitation, not least to Oxfam. That is an absolute priority in almost all humanitarian disasters.

The objectives set out in Lord Ashdown’s report will require what he calls “transformational change” across the Department to give greater prominence to the humanitarian agenda. In the Government’s response, will the Secretary of State set out in more detail how he intends to bring forward that transformational change, in particular with regard to staffing and programming of DFID projects?

The answer is that I will and I have. I commend to the hon. Lady the 35-page report, which should now be on the internet, and I urge her to have a look at it and respond if she has any additional comments—as I urge all hon. Members to do.

All the humanitarian aid we give for natural disasters, such as that in Pakistan, or to countries with civil unrest, such as Syria, Egypt and Sudan, is good news. However, the feedback from some of those countries is that those of a Christian faith and in evangelical Churches are at the back of the queue and ignored when it comes to humanitarian aid. What steps will the Minister take to ensure that that two-tier system of assistance will not continue to disadvantage those of that faith in those countries?

I hear those allegations from time to time and I always ensure that they are investigated with the seriousness and rigour that such allegations obviously deserve. We have set up a working party with all the faith communities, which will commence work shortly. That will be quite a good issue for the faith communities to address and advise on. On the hon. Gentleman’s specific point, we take all such matters extremely seriously and investigate them immediately.