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Hurricane Irma: Government Response

Volume 628: debated on Tuesday 12 September 2017

At last Thursday’s statement, Mr Speaker, I undertook to update the House as appropriate, and I thank you for the opportunity to do so now.

At this very moment, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is on his way to the Caribbean to see for himself our stricken overseas territories and further drive the extensive relief efforts that are under way. The thoughts of this House and of the whole country are with those who are suffering the ravages of one of the most powerful Atlantic hurricanes ever recorded. It followed Hurricane Harvey, and was set to be followed by Hurricane Jose. More than half a million British nationals, either residents or tourists, have been in the path of Hurricane Irma, which has caused devastation across an area spanning well over 1,000 miles.

Given the circumstances, the overall death toll is low, but, unfortunately, five people died in the British Virgin Islands and four in Anguilla. At this critical moment, our principal focus is on the 80,000 British citizens who inhabit our overseas territories of Anguilla, the Turks and Caicos Islands and the British Virgin Islands.

Commonwealth realms in the Caribbean have also suffered. They include Antigua and Barbuda and the Bahamas as well as other islands such as St Martin and Cuba. We have around 70 British nationals requiring assistance on St Martin, and we are working with the US, German and Dutch authorities to facilitate the potential departure of the most vulnerable via commercial means today.

To prepare for the hurricane season, the Government acted two months ago—in July—by dispatching the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Mounts Bay to the Caribbean. This 16,000-tonne landing ship from the RFA is one of the most capable vessels at our disposal. Before she left the UK in June, the ship was pre-loaded with disaster relief supplies, facilities for producing clean water and a range of hydraulic vehicles and equipment. In addition to the normal crew, the Government also ensured that a special disaster relief team, consisting of 40 Royal Marines and Army personnel, was also on board. This pre-positioning of one of our most versatile national assets, along with an extra complement of highly skilled personnel, allowed the relief effort to begin immediately after the hurricane had passed. By Friday night, the team from RFA Mounts Bay had managed to restore power supplies at Anguilla’s hospital, rebuild the emergency operation centre, clear the runway and make the island’s airport serviceable. The ship then repositioned to the British Virgin Islands where its experts were able to reopen the airport.

Meanwhile in the UK, the Government dispatched two RAF transport aircraft on Friday carrying 52 personnel and emergency supplies for more than 1,000 people. On Saturday, another two aircraft left for the region to deliver a Puma transport helicopter and ancillary supplies. This steady tempo of relief flights has been sustained and yesterday it included a Voyager and a C-17. I can assure the House that that will continue for as long as required.

Already, 20 tonnes of UK aid has arrived, including more than 2,500 shelter kits and 2,300 solar lanterns. Nine tonnes of food and water supplies are due to be flown out to Anguilla imminently and will be followed by building materials. A further 10,000 buckets, 2,500 solar lanterns and 300 shelter kits will be arriving this week on commercial flights.

As I speak, 997 British military personnel are in the Caribbean. RFA Mounts Bay arrived in Anguilla again yesterday at dusk, as 47 police officers arrived in the British Virgin Islands to assist the local constabulary. We should all acknowledge and thank the first responders of the overseas territories’ own Governments. They have shown leadership from the start and are now being reinforced by personnel from the UK.

Many people—military and civilian—have shown fantastic professionalism and courage in their response to the disaster. I hope that I speak for the whole House in saying a resounding and heartfelt “Thank you” to all of them. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] This initial effort will soon be reinforced by the flagship of the Royal Navy, HMS Ocean. The Government have ordered our biggest warship in service to leave her NATO task in the Mediterranean and steam westwards with all speed. HMS Ocean loaded supplies in Gibraltar yesterday and will be active in the Caribbean in about 10 days.

The Prime Minister announced last Thursday— within 24 hours of the hurricane striking—a £32 million fund for those who have suffered. But in the first desperate stages, it is not about money; it is about just getting on with it. The Foreign Office crisis centre has been operating around the clock since last Wednesday, co-ordinating very closely with Department for International Development and Ministry of Defence colleagues. The crisis centre has taken nearly 2,500 calls since then and is handling 2,251 consular cases. The Government have convened daily meetings of our Cobra crisis committee. Over the weekend, the Foreign Secretary spoke to the Governors of Anguilla and the British Virgin Islands, along with Governor Rick Scott of Florida, where Irma has since made landfall over the weekend.

I have spoken to the United States Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs about the United States Virgin Islands in respect of logistic support for the British Virgin Islands. As well as those affected across the Caribbean, some 420,000 British citizens are in Florida either as residents or visitors, and UK officials are providing every possible help. The Foreign Secretary spoke to our ambassador in Washington and our consul general in Miami, who has deployed teams in Florida’s major airports to offer support and to issue emergency travel documents to those who need them.

The House will note that Irma has now weakened to a tropical storm that is moving north-west into Georgia. I spoke to the Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda on Friday. The hurricane inflicted some of its worst blows on Barbuda, and a DFID team has been deployed on the island to assess the situation and make recommendations. Put starkly, the infrastructure of Barbuda no longer exists. I assured its Prime Minister of our support and I reiterate that this morning. On Saturday, the Foreign Secretary spoke to the Prime Minister of Barbados to thank him for his country’s superb support, acting as a staging post for other UK efforts across the Caribbean.

We should all be humble in the face of the power of nature. Whatever relief we are able to provide will not be enough for many who have lost so much, but hundreds of dedicated British public servants are doing their utmost to help and they will not relent in their efforts.

Let me thank the Minister for advance sight of his statement. I join him in commending the British personnel who are playing such a typically superlative part in leading the relief effort. I also join him in sending my thoughts and those of everyone in the House to those individuals in the British overseas territories and beyond who have lost their lives as a result of the hurricane, and to the tens of thousands more who have lost their homes and livelihoods in its terrible wake.

The unprecedented nature of the devastation makes it all the more important for us to ensure that the Governments and British citizens of the overseas territories, British expats living on the affected islands and British tourists visiting the region receive all the help they need as urgently as they can get it to cope with the immediate aftermath of the disaster, and to begin the long and arduous process of recovery.

I appreciate the efforts spelt out by the Minister today and last Thursday, and I know how hard he and his civil servants have been working over the past week, but he will equally appreciate the widespread criticism that the Government’s response has been both too little and too late. That criticism has come not just from the Opposition or from the respective Chairs of the Select Committee on International Development and the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, but from the very groups I mentioned earlier: the Governments and British citizens of the overseas territories, British expats and British tourists. Theirs is the experience and criticism that really counts. So let us consider what they have been saying and the questions they have been asking, which the Minister will perhaps address today.

First, on the issue of evacuation, I thank the Minister for what he said, but it is alarming to many of us on both sides of the House that almost a week has gone by and he is still talking about the potential evacuation of British citizens, and, even then, only the most vulnerable. By contrast, across the islands, we hear the same accounts that the French, Dutch and American Governments have swiftly evacuated their citizens. It is the British who are left stuck, with the only commercial plane services available charging extortionate rates to get them out. A young British woman on the British Virgin Islands, holidaying with her mum and her two-year-old son, says:

“The UK should be doing more. People need evacuating. It’s becoming dangerous with supplies running low. I’ve looked at getting out but pilots want £2,250.”

That is clearly unacceptable, and it proves the point that, with the security situation deteriorating in many of the affected islands, all British citizens should be considered vulnerable. So can the Minister clarify for the House when all British citizens who want to be evacuated can expect to be evacuated, and what the Government are doing in the meantime to guarantee their safety, their shelter and their security?

On the wider issue of safety and security, the Minister will be aware of the concerns on islands such as Tortola that, as desperation and shortages grow, law and order is completely breaking down. In the absence of a clean-up operation, the threats of disease and water-borne infections are also growing. One resident has said:

“There is debris all over the island… people are running around like headless chickens… there has to be some…coordination.”

So what are the Government doing as part of their emergency support for the overseas territories to help their Governments re-establish some basic command and control, to maintain law and order where it is threatening to break down, and to put in place emergency plans to stop the causes of preventable, water-borne diseases before those diseases begin to spread?

Thirdly and finally, as we talk about the need to help the Governments of the overseas territories, and we hear the reassurances from the Minister and his colleagues that they are in it for the long term, we have to ask what that means. It cannot mean simply cleaning up the damage that has been done, giving people new homes and new livelihoods, and hoping that this will last for a few years until the next hurricane strikes. That is not fixing things for the long term; it is just patching things up until next time. With climate change making such hurricanes more intense and more frequent and showing no signs of slowing down, we urgently need a long-term plan for the overseas territories—a plan that is built around resilience and sustainability. So can the Minister confirm that when the Government sit down with their counterparts in the affected islands, the question of coping with climate change and future extreme weather events will be at the top of the agenda, with financial commitments to match, and will not, as usually happens, be the afterthought that always proves too difficult and too expensive?

I thank the right hon. Lady for her comments. I am glad that, in her opening remarks, she recognised the magnitude of the hurricane—the largest natural disaster of this nature I think we have seen in any of our lifetimes. I am sorry, though, about the criticism she is levelling. Having seen this in the very centre and having watched it, and knowing, as a former DFID Minister, what is possible and what is done by the Government, I am afraid I comprehensively reject her criticisms, which I think are unjustified. It is inevitable that people in distress will want more, but it is essential to appreciate that when half a million people are hit by a hurricane, we cannot evacuate half a million people. What we have to do, particularly for those who wish to reside in the countries in which they permanently live, is to bring them help and, of course, the reconstruction the right hon. Lady mentioned. For instance, on St Martin, which is not one of our overseas territories—it is both Dutch and French—we are working closely with the Dutch and French. As I said in my statement, we hope that people will be evacuated even today.

It is quite right that people are prioritised according to need, and that is exactly what our call centre has done with the over 2,000 calls it has had, which have been logged and prioritised, and people have then, through all the logistical work I described in the statement, been evacuated and helped as required.

Let me say something about security, because that is a perfectly valid point that the right hon. Lady has raised. We had a serious threat of the complete breakdown of law and order in the British Virgin Islands. The prison was breached, and over 100 very serious prisoners escaped. What we then had to contend with—this is what Ministers, the MOD and everyone else are for—was how to cope with the threat that followed from that. So on Friday we put some Marines off RFA Mounts Bay to protect the governor and maintain law and order. I am pleased to say that 48 hours later we have been able significantly to reinforce the Marines. We have maintained and kept law and order on the British Virgin Islands, which at one point could have dramatically threatened the already unfortunate plight of those who have been hit by the hurricane. I hope that the right hon. Lady recognises what the governor there has done, what the Marines did, and what we all did to make sure that law and order was preserved.

On the long term, the right hon. Lady is right. DFID looks at the long term in all its programmes, quite rightly. In the face of growing severe weather incidents, it is important to build resilience and proper defences into the infrastructure wherever possible, but the infrastructure in a lot of these overseas territories is very flimsy, very small and very vulnerable. Perhaps the silver lining in the cloud is that where so much has been swept away, when things are rebuilt they will be better able to withstand the ferocity of the sort of hurricane that we have seen over the past week.

Order. I gently point out that a Member who toddled into the Chamber after the statement started should not then stand expecting to be called. That is in defiance of our conventions.

I am grateful to the Minister for his statement. I would like to reinforce his heartfelt comments about all the personnel who have been involved in sorting out this horrendous damage. For example, in the BVI and Anguilla, there has been total destruction of all the schools. All 15 schools in the BVI have been destroyed. Does he agree that there is a need for a comprehensive, five-year reconstruction package? Does he also agree that one of the lessons coming out of this disaster is the need for a permanent naval base in one of the OTs? If the French and Dutch can do that—they both had two warships on standby before the hurricane—then surely we should. It would send a really strong signal of solidarity to the OTs.

As he is a former Foreign Office Minister, I totally respect the thinking and comments of my hon. Friend. We do not directly govern the overseas territories; they govern themselves. It is perhaps questionable whether it is appropriate, looking at the geography, to have a permanent base at any of them. However, we do rotate our naval assets so as best to cover the danger of hurricanes and to be able to respond to them. I think that in this case that has been shown to be very effective. The trouble is that if we have permanent assets, people or machinery pre-positioned, they can often get hit by the very hurricane that we are trying to respond to a few days later.

First and foremost, our thoughts are once again with those who are affected by the impact of the devastating Hurricane Irma. The SNP echoes the widespread calls for the UK Government to step up their efforts to ensure that those who are in need of urgent assistance receive it as swiftly and safely as possible. We welcome the fact that more than 700 British troops and 50 police officers have been sent to the British Virgin Islands after they were battered by the most powerful storm recorded in the Atlantic ocean. In addition, 20 tonnes of aid and £32 million is a start, but there must be more and we must ask the Minister to provide details of additional help to come. This is too little and too late.

There is real concern about the lack of preparedness by the UK Government in responding to the hurricane. The severity of Hurricane Irma had been predicted and there was time to prepare, but the UK Government did not do so. It is clear that in comparison to other territories’ and Governments’ responses, the UK Government have been lagging behind in their support and strategy. To give just one example to put this beyond any doubt, the French Government deployed their military before the storm, but the one ship sent by the UK Government arrived only on Thursday. Of course, if the UK Government had a proper shipbuilding strategy and this was implemented, they might be able to act sooner. Will the Secretary of State for International Development learn from the example of other Governments with reconstruction efforts and emergency funds? Once the International Development Committee is reconvened in Parliament, an inquiry into the UK Government’s slow response must be made an immediate priority to ensure that the UK is as prepared as it can be in dealing with such disasters.

Why have the UK Government lagged behind other countries in their support and strategy in responding adequately to Hurricane Irma? As I said last week—we have not heard a word about it so far from the Government Benches—it is clear that climate change plays a clear part in the ever-increasing 100-to-500-year storms that we have seen last week, as echoed by Gaston Browne, the Prime Minister of Barbuda. I therefore ask again what further pressures the UK Government are putting on Donald Trump to change his stance on the Paris climate change agreement.

Again, I am rather dismayed by the hon. Gentleman’s sweeping criticisms of the efforts that have been made, because they are unsupported by the facts. For instance, the French do not deploy in advance specifically for hurricanes; they have troops permanently based there because the nature of French overseas territories government is different from ours. Our overseas territories are self-governing; the French govern directly, and therefore they have soldiers there all the time. But if they are there, depending on where the hurricane goes, they may not necessarily be in the right place, and some of their assets which they hoped would help may have been destroyed. Our flexible naval deployment is the best way of helping people in response to a hurricane when we know pretty well only at the last minute exactly where the force of the hurricane is going to hit.

On a shipbuilding strategy, I do not know where the hon. Gentleman has been over the past few weeks, but we have just announced one. Perhaps he might have the good grace to admit that we have announced a shipbuilding strategy and that instead of criticising us, he ought to be standing there saying, “Thank you very much.”

I reiterate the point—perhaps I chose my language imperfectly—that we are not so much evacuating people, because that is not always the right thing to do, particularly for those who want to live there and stay near their homes, as helping them to depart in a way that I would argue, and I think we can prove, is very efficient and is the right way done to the highest standards.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement to the House today, and very much welcome the additional assets that have come forward. I join him particularly in thanking the military units who were so quick to respond. RFA Mounts Bay and the Royal Marines, alongside whom I have served for the best part of a decade, have demonstrated the flexibility that we know they all have. Given the different responses by different countries in different ways, based on their own experience, what lessons learned is he hoping to put in place so that when such an event, sadly, occurs again—as we must expect it to—we are even better prepared?

I am very pleased to welcome praise from the new Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee and delighted at this new experience for me as I stand here today. There are always lessons learned, and there are always exercises after an event like this to make sure that we do learn the lessons. The focus at the moment should not be on levelling criticism where it is not justified; it should be—that is what this statement is about—on giving immediate help to those who desperately need it. The response we are giving is “all hands on deck”, and that is where the focus of our attention needs to be at the moment.

My constituent Mark Wilson has been stuck on St Martin since the hurricane, his house completely demolished, with no access to food and water, and increasingly frightened about roving mobs. He finally managed to get off the island last night under his own steam. I am sorry to have to tell the Minister that he and his family in Exeter have been extremely angry and frustrated by what they see as the inadequacy of the British Government response, particularly compared with that of the French and Dutch Governments. However, my question is on the longer term. These territories receive significant European Union help. Will the Minister guarantee that, if and when we leave the European Union, this will continue?

I have taken a close interest in the calls to the centre, particularly from Members of Parliament. I saw the right hon. Gentleman’s name among those who had called a specific helpline and investigated the plight of his constituent and confirmed that he had come off the island. As I said earlier, we have about 70 British people on St Martin, but I would ask the House to understand that it is not one of our overseas territories. It is half Dutch and half French. That is why we have been working with them, as they are best equipped on an island that is one of theirs, to help the British. I would like to send warm words of gratitude to the French and the Dutch for the co-operation they have shown in helping British citizens as much as they have helped their own.

I am sure that we will all welcome Labour’s latter-day conversion to our responsibilities and obligations to the British overseas territories, but many of the islands that are worst affected in the Caribbean are also part of the Commonwealth family. Has my right hon. Friend or one of his ministerial colleagues yet spoken to the secretary-general of the Commonwealth to see if there could be a co-ordinated Commonwealth response to help out some of the worst affected areas?

I have not done so personally, but I take note of the suggestion that someone should do so. The Commonwealth countries do not necessarily have massive financial resources of their own to spend, but any co-operation to try to work together to address the crisis can only be welcomed and I will make sure that that phone call is made.

Our thoughts are with all those affected and the British personnel who are now helping in the region. I welcome the progress we have seen over the past few days, but will the Minister respond to two concerns that have been raised? The first is that the Royal Navy was unable to land heavy equipment on Anguilla because they could not use the docks or the beach. More broadly, we were less well prepared on the ground than both the French and the Dutch. For example, there was no stored equipment such as water, tents and generators on land, whereas such equipment was stored by those other countries. What lessons will he learn for the future so that we do not have these mistakes again?

The conditions when Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessel Mounts Bay arrived at Anguilla were still very severe, but what they did have was the helicopter so they were able not only to do an immediate assessment across Anguilla but to restore power to the hospital and get the airport going again. What they did was significant. In terms of landing on difficult windy sands, the vessel did not do so on that occasion partly because we were trying to maximise or optimise the utility of the ship by getting it to do what it could urgently to make do and mend in Anguilla before going to the British Virgin Islands, where it became clear that the devastation was greater and where the population is larger. Before the threat of Hurricane Jose came in, which would have meant that they had to sail away again, they brought urgent help to the British Virgin Islands having left half their supplies to help Anguilla. Those operational decisions are to be admired.

HMS Illustrious helped greatly during Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, as did HMS Bulwark during Ebola in Sierra Leone, and now RFA Mounts Bay in the Caribbean followed by HMS Ocean. It is absolutely vital that the Royal Navy and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary have the vessels to back up British work on international development, and we know that HMS Ocean is due to be decommissioned. Can the Minister assure me that this is being fed right into the naval shipbuilding strategy?

There is a shipbuilding strategy for two new aircraft carriers, but obviously on the detail of our shipbuilding and fleet the answer should come from Ministers from the Ministry of Defence rather than me, but I reiterate that Mounts Bay did an incredible job, is perfectly well suited to the task and had been pre-positioned with appropriate supplies. That is the answer to the question asked by the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), the Chairman of the International Development Committee, because to take supplies in from a ship that has not faced the risk of those supplies being destroyed is the best way of bringing urgent relief to where it is most needed. I would point out as well, on the question of co-operation, that we have HMS Ocean leaving Gibraltar, which will also carry helicopters on behalf of the French.

The Minister should know that my constituents Christine and Tony Bibby, who are in their early and late 70s, have been stranded on St Martin since the hurricane. They have a desperately worried family here in Britain and are running out of water and food and have no electricity. There has been very little news about what positive action will help this couple. May I have some clarification? Will they be made safe, will they get the emergency supplies they need to sustain life, and will the evacuation proceed very quickly?

Again, I have seen the hon. Gentleman’s name among those of many colleagues who have been in touch to represent their constituents’ needs. As I have said, there are 70 British on St Martins. It is not one of our overseas territories, but we are working with the French and the Dutch and we are confident that those in most need—and I hope more—can be assisted to depart today. The whole purpose of our hotline and the crisis centre is to ensure that we can properly rank people in order of need so that if, for instance, they are elderly, running out of food, have dependants or suffer from an illness, they will go higher up the list of priorities and will get help more quickly than the more able bodied.

I think that any fair-minded person would recognise the self-evident priority that the Government have given to their responsibilities to the British Virgin Islands and Anguilla. I am sure that my right hon. Friend also welcomes the €2 million that the European Commission has made available to the territories and countries of the member states affected, but that stands in sharp contrast to the £32 million that the Government have made available. Pre-Irma, the only source of development aid for Anguilla was the European Union because of the rules of our development assistance. Anguilla borders the European Union in St Martin. What consideration is now being given to future support for Anguilla after we leave the European Union?

Our focus at the moment is on helping those who require help and who are suffering from the devastating effects of the hurricane. I am sure that these policy issues will be addressed in due course. As my hon. Friend understands well, there are a number of overseas territories that receive assistance. Under the overseas development legislation, we are obliged to meet their reasonable needs. Three of them have been caught up in this, and no doubt assistance in the future will be reviewed following the consequences of the hurricane.

Last week and over the weekend, I raised with the Foreign Office the case of two families caught up in the hurricane— one in the British Virgin Islands and two constituents in St Martin. I acknowledge that the situation is incredibly difficult and pay tribute to the service personnel who have worked hard to provide support, but I would say to the Minister that the resources he has outlined and the rescue operation he has spoken of were simply not what was experienced by people on the ground. May I press him, as other hon. Members have, on the long-term plans to improve future responses?

I am very conscious that the island that has been most mentioned today in terms of the needs and plight of constituents is St Martin, which is, strictly speaking, not ours, although that does not mean that we do not want to extend as much help as we possibly can. All I would say to the hon. Lady is that if she still has constituents facing difficulties I would urge her to get in touch with me directly. I will do my utmost to investigate where they are on the list of priorities, but the latest advice I had, before I made the statement, was that in the case of St Martin the cases of pressing need should largely be addressed today.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that we owe the British overseas territories a special duty of care and that when it comes to long-term reconstruction DFID should be prioritising the interests of those territories, which previous Governments have failed to do?

Intrinsic to my hon. Friend’s question was a reference to DFID, and I hope that he therefore will not mind if I steer him to DFID for a more comprehensive answer, but I am sure that in the light of this hurricane there will be a lot of policy issues that will have to be assessed and reassessed. I am sure that that is one of them.

This has clearly been a terrifying experience for all those caught up in the awesome power of Hurricane Irma and our thoughts are with them. We must also praise the efforts of our brave service personnel. The Minister’s statement contained a lot about inputs but even more important are the outcomes, so will he tell us how many of the 2,000 or so consular cases he mentioned have requested assistance to be airlifted out, how many of those have been evacuated already and how many are due to depart on the flights later today that he mentioned?

I do not have those exact details at my fingertips because this is an unfolding set of affairs. “Evacuation” is a word, but with assisted departure it is not as though we are trying to remove the entire population of an island, although in the case of Barbuda I am afraid that most people have had to go because there is nothing left. The details for which the hon. Lady is asking will become clearer in due course as we analyse how quickly we have been able to help people. We will of course be extremely self-critical and self-examining as to whether we have done this well or not, and whether the people we have put at the top of the priority list were those who most deserved to be there. So far, I am confident that the answer to that question is yes.

Over the weekend I liaised with my right hon. Friend the Minister on behalf of friends of mine in the British Virgin Islands who are co-ordinating the evacuation of 300 British citizens. He was exceptionally helpful and responsive, and I am very grateful to him. Those citizens were very frightened by the breakdown of law and order in the British Virgin Islands, and I would be grateful if he could do everything he can to restore order there. Many of them are also trying to organise private evacuations by chartering private jets and boats to get themselves out, but they need the Ministry of Defence’s assistance to enable flights to land on the island. Will my right hon. Friend also take that matter up for us?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind words. Yes, it was a busy weekend, but his gratitude should not really go to me nearly as much as it should go to the people in my private office and in the crisis centre who have been working flat out and, in many cases, beyond the call of duty. I will put the nice words he has said about me on a plaque and hand it to my staff. He is right about the airport in one sense. We can get an airport going, but it then takes quite a lot of logistical planning to ensure that the right aircraft come in. We have to get in the ones that can deliver aid. It is up to the airport authority to decide which flights can come in and in what order, what sort of planes the airport can take and whether the runway is going to get too congested as supplies are unloaded. I am confident that things are now ramping up quite a lot as a semblance of normality returns.

I have received a number of phone calls from my constituent Mrs Joyce, whose son Brendan works for the Royal Navy in the British Virgin Islands. He has lost everything, and I thank the Minister’s office for dealing with that inquiry. Can the Minister be more specific about the food and water supplies going to the British Virgin Islands? He said that their arrival was imminent. When are they going to arrive on the island, and can he be more specific about assessing these needs in the days and months ahead?

I think that there is water in the BVI. The main issue there, as I said earlier, is law and order, but we have managed to contain the situation. DFID has supported the delivery of more than 5 tonnes of food and water donated by the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency. It has also deployed a field team to find out exactly where the pockets of need are, so that the supplies can get to them as quickly as possible.

I should like to join the Minister in paying tribute to the UK armed services personnel who are delivering vital aid and support as we speak, and who are once again proving that they really are the most versatile and best-trained armed forces in the world. Can my right hon. Friend update the House on any requests from other Governments in the region to utilise our world-leading assets and personnel?

I have just been talking about this with the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood). Yes, we are co-ordinating and there will, for example, be some French assets on HMS Ocean, which I think is leaving Gibraltar today. I was in Gibraltar over the weekend, but obviously I had to come back for last night’s vote so I unfortunately had to leave before she docked. There is co-operation and we are grateful to the French and the Dutch. I have also been speaking to the United States. Everyone is proceeding in a spirit of maximum co-operation and urgency. In a way, it should lift our spirits to know that all countries are working together in the best possible way.

In an interview yesterday, Haydn Hughes, the former Anguillan parliamentary secretary, stated:

“Up to today, six days after Hurricane Irma hit Anguilla, there has been no meaningful action provided by the UK Government”.

He said that there was no sense of a “plan of action” or of

“how any aid moneys would be allocated”.

Anguilla is still without electricity or running water. It is a British overseas territory. The Minister is right to say that this is a cataclysmic disaster, but the scale of the UK’s response does not in any way meet the size of the disaster that has befallen those people, for whom we have a responsibility. Will he ensure that when the Foreign Secretary gets there, there will be a real drive to increase the urgency and the co-ordination on the ground, so that the people of Anguilla can have a real sense that Britain is there for them?

To take one person’s comments and say that they describe the overall picture is deeply unfair. What we have done in Anguilla has been a great help. As I have said, RFA Mounts Bay got the power in the hospital going again and delivered supplies. It also got the airport going again before it went to help the British Virgin Islands. Unlike the British Virgin Islands, however, Anguilla has not asked for UK consular support. The Government are still leading on that. The hon. Gentleman really just needs to hold back on his criticism and appreciate that a lot is being done in the midst of this very complicated post-hurricane mayhem, although any kind of complaint is quite understandable because so many people are in deep distress.

I acknowledge that the Minister does not have direct departmental responsibility for this, but may I press him on the issue of our international aid budget? Given our close connections with, and responsibilities for, the British overseas territories, does he agree that the Government should look urgently at ensuring that that budget will help to provide the necessary wide pipeline of aid in the months and years to come?

I am tempted to commit DFID to spending lots of money, as I would wish, but I am sure that my hon. Friend will appreciate that we will have to assess future budgets. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development will make her plans clear in due course, once we have been able to work out how to proceed in those distressed and, in many cases, devastated islands. May I add a tiny thing to an answer I gave earlier? The Mounts Bay used its helicopter to drop a significant amount of water and food on Jost van Dyke yesterday and has done an enormous amount to prioritise the need that we are addressing.

What discussions is the Minister having with the commercial airlines that operate services in and out of the British Virgin Islands? I have been contacted by a constituent whose sons in Tortola in the BVI have been sheltering in a house with 11 people and assorted dogs. They are all safe, but they were hoping to get out on a flight this afternoon. However, they have been unable to make contact with British Airways to find out whether it will actually depart. Apparently the phone lines just keep ringing out. What steps are the Government taking to support commercial operators in emergency situations to ensure that there are clear lines of communication between those affected, their families and the airlines?

The commercial airlines got quite a lot of people out in advance. When we are in contact with people who are asking for that kind of assistance, we endeavour to help with the communications the hon. Gentleman has described. I stress again that our focus has to be prioritised. Those who are ill, dependent, old or disabled get first treatment and, yes, there will be a bit of a queue. However, I am confident that the civil airlines are doing their utmost. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary spoke at length to the Association of British Travel Agents last night in order to discuss exactly the kind of co-ordination and co-operation the hon. Gentleman has just mentioned.

I am grateful to the Minister for coming to the Chamber and updating us on the situation, and for providing a degree of clarity and a depth of information that is useful to us. The FCO crisis centre and crisis line are clearly providing a vital lifeline to many in the affected areas. Can he give us an indication of the volume of calls involved, and of the workload that the centre is handling at the moment?

Yes; there have been about 2,500 cases. Perhaps I can alert the House to the fact that I am endeavouring to book a room tonight to allow members of our crisis centre to meet colleagues so that the facts can be described and explained. At the moment, I am aiming for a meeting at 6.30 in a Committee room, and if I am successful in organising it, I will try to get a note out through the Whips straight after this statement so that the details of any consular cases, and of what we have been doing and how and why we have done it, can be put directly to colleagues by members of the crisis centre. In that way, colleagues’ detailed questions about the operational performance of the response can be answered directly.

Will the Minister join me in paying tribute to the British overseas territories that have been helping each other to recover from this crisis? For example, later today a relief flight with the Premier of the Cayman Islands on it will go from that territory to Anguilla with medical supplies, and it will evacuate Anguillans to the Cayman Islands for support.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Bermuda and the Cayman Islands have been helpful, and the Government of Gibraltar, where I was at the weekend, are going to put some very helpful vehicles on to HMS Ocean. The spirit of mutual help from overseas territories and Commonwealth countries—indeed, from all countries—is commendable.

May I confirm that I have arranged for a briefing for all Members of Parliament in Committee Room 16 at 6.30 this evening? It will be cross party, and everyone is invited should they wish to quiz someone from the crisis centre or raise any consular concerns.

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is at this moment flying to the British Virgin Islands. I believe he will also be flying to Anguilla, although the logistics are being put in place at the last moment. He is keen to see the devastation for himself and to reassure Governors, who have done a magnificent job under the most incredible pressure. I could not be more full of praise for the Governors and their staff, in the light of what they have withstood, for what they have managed to do to maintain the continuity of government and co-ordinate with us the aid that their populations so desperately need. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will also co-ordinate very closely with DFID and the MOD about what can be done in the next phase of help to our overseas territories and anyone else deemed to be appropriate.