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Haiti: Earthquake

Volume 716: debated on Wednesday 13 January 2010


My Lords, with permission, I will repeat the Answer to an Urgent Question given in another place about supporting the people of Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake.

“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 and up to 13 aftershocks have taken place. Information on the scale of damage and the number of people killed or injured is slowly emerging. We estimate 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 an awful disaster.

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 mobilised a UK fire and rescue service search and rescue team of 64 people with dogs and heavy rescue equipment. The team and its 10 tonnes of equipment are at present assembling at Gatwick 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. A further complication facing all teams is that the Port-au-Prince airport is believed to be unusable. We are urgently assessing alternatives. Haiti is 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 is ready to provide whatever humanitarian assistance is required”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, we are deeply grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement made by the Secretary of State in another place. Throughout the country there will be concern for the people of Haiti at this awful time. Haiti, as the Minister said, is one of the poorest countries in the western hemisphere and is the least well equipped to cope with this catastrophe. As all evidence shows, the actions that are taken in the immediate aftermath of this disaster are vital. In this case, the whole international community should make a swift and effective response, although clearly the US is in the key position to provide help. Can the Minister give further detail about the composition of the UK assessment team that has been dispatched to the region? When will it arrive and when will we know what further support the UK Government can offer?

After the earthquake and flooding in east Asia last year, there were worrying reports of problems with the co-ordination of the British response effort and difficulties in arranging transport to the region, not least in facilitating the arrival of British NGOs which had a contribution to make. What discussions has the Minister had with his counterpart at the DCLG, given that UK fire and rescue services now take the lead on international search and rescue? Can he assure the House that the whole Whitehall machinery, as well as just DfID, is firmly joined up at this point? Can the Minister provide us with any information about the number of British nationals currently in Haiti, their situation, and steps that are being taken to look after them?

The United States will no doubt have the leading role in the international response. What recent conversations has the Minister had with his counterparts in the US to make certain that the international 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 Minister give as to how their efforts should best be directed? Can the Minister update the House on how the neighbouring Dominican Republic has been affected?

In 2007 the shadow Minister for International Development became the first senior British politician for some time to visit Haiti and spent some time with the UN forces there. We hear that the UN forces have been severely hit by the earthquake. Can the Minister update the House on the impact of the earthquake on the UN mission in Haiti and what discussions he has had with colleagues at UNDPKO in New York about this? Our total focus at the moment must be on saving lives and getting help for those who need it. As the Chinese say, every crisis is an opportunity. Will the Minister accept that, in due course and when the time is right, we will need a full review of Britain’s emergency response process?

My Lords, I also thank the noble Lord for repeating this Statement and I associate myself and these Benches with the condolences that have already been expressed for those who have suffered in this devastating earthquake.

The picture is not clear. For example, the noble Lord says that the airport is damaged, hampering relief, but the BBC reports that the Haiti ambassador in the US says that it is open. I wondered if he could clarify that. Our own team is going out of Gatwick, which, as I understand it, is closed because of snow until 4 pm this afternoon. What is being done to try to get our own teams out, given the pressure of time? This earthquake has hit the poorest country in the western hemisphere. It is very badly prepared for such an event. Its buildings are weak; many are made of concrete and are very vulnerable in such a situation because of dire poverty. Haiti was hit last year by hurricanes and other storms. It has a very fragile society and the earthquake struck in areas of dense population. We know that when hurricanes hit Haiti and Cuba recently there was much greater loss of life in Haiti, because of an inability to organise there, than in Cuba, where things were organised well. Does the noble Lord see this as a problem?

This earthquake was followed by two significant aftershocks. What tends to happen is that people run out of their homes after the first shake, only to have masonry fall on them in the aftershocks. Is that what seems to have happened here? There are numerous NGOs as well as the UN on the ground which may help in the coming days, but they themselves have been caught up in this, as we have heard. UN peacekeepers were in Haiti, and we have heard of casualties; for example, the head of the UN mission himself and Chinese peacekeepers. Can the Minister confirm these reports? Does he think that there are UK citizens among the casualties? The NGOs with which I have been in touch cannot yet account for all their people. I realise that Haiti has not been a priority for DfID, but could he spell out more precisely what DfID’s own contribution will be? My noble friend Lord McNally points out that the Royal Navy is patrolling in the Caribbean as part of our operation to counter the drugs trade. Is it able to reach Haiti? Is there something that it can do to help?

What help is being accorded to the NGOs that are there? Many of them are moving in: I have heard from the Red Cross, Oxfam and UNICEF this morning and all are mobilising. Plan International, Save the Children and others have expressed extreme worry about children in this disaster, which is a very common problem. Children are extremely vulnerable. What can the noble Lord tell us about their protection? We heard in the Kashmiri earthquake, for example, not only of the death of children but also of their lack of protection and even their being abducted by people traffickers. What is being done internationally in the light of what happened in Kashmir to try to reduce this risk in this very vulnerable society?

We have already heard of looting, so it is clear that things are breaking down in Haiti more than they already were. Can the Minister tell us more about what is being done to try to establish order there? Oxfam has emphasised the need for emergency shelter, water supply and sanitation, which are absolutely critical in this next phase. What is being done multilaterally?

Given the international action in Haiti, what can be done to ensure that basic infrastructure such as hospitals, government buildings and schools is more earthquake-proof? I note that the hospital has been very badly damaged. It is surprising, given the risk of an earthquake in this part of the world, that those buildings were not more earthquake-proof. Earthquakes of a higher level in developed countries do not cause mass casualties because of the way in which the buildings are constructed. Surely buildings that were constructed after the hurricanes should at the very least have been more earthquake-proof, given that Haiti is on a fault line and that pressure on it meant a high likelihood of an earthquake? What can be said about Commonwealth countries in the region? Are they at further risk of earthquakes as a result of what has happened on that same fault line?

This is a terrible situation in a very poor country, and emergency and medical treatment must be got in as soon as possible and the situation stabilised. I hope that DfID will make a contribution to rebuilding based on the enormous knowledge that we have about how best to construct buildings so that they are earthquake-proof, and that one does not have the mass casualties that appear to be the case in this instance.

My Lords, I appreciate the comments of both noble Baronesses. I am sure that they speak not only for this House but for the whole of Britain in expressing their commiserations for the misery that has been visited on this poorest of western-hemisphere countries. Both noble Baronesses asked a number of apposite questions, but they will not be amazed to find that not all the answers are available, which is in the main due to the fact that we are still at the point of not knowing what is happening in much of Port-au-Prince and the areas around it. I shall try to tell the noble Baronesses what we are doing. My colleague the Minister in the other place said in responding to the Urgent Question that there would be a further Statement to Parliament as knowledge of the scale of the disaster, and the assessment of what is needed and what part Britain can play, unfolded.

As we all agree, search and rescue is the first and most immediate requirement, followed by a whole series of actions to put right the difficulties and then a learning of lessons for the future. We set up the operations room in DfID immediately after becoming aware of the disaster. We have seen efficiency and effectiveness in the speed with which we have moved to put together the voluntary team of 64 firefighters, with some 10 tonnes of equipment and dogs, and got it to Gatwick Airport, with a chartered flight to take it out to Port-au-Prince. Unfortunately, as we know, the weather is holding us up. We have arranged priority for that flight to depart as soon as runway space and airspace are available and weather conditions allow. At present, this would still be the quickest way to get those firefighters out. It is crucial to get to those people who require rescue within 72 hours, so that is our first priority.

The assessment team is four people who are expert in this area, including a colleague based in the West Indies who is coming via Barbados and is aware of the region. They will begin reporting back as soon as they start to collect information. They are en route, flying via Santo Domingo where they will have a briefing with our ambassador and staff. This will start to give us a picture that will answer the noble Baroness’s question about the impact within the other country on the island of Hispaniola, and will begin to give us a view on some of the problems that might be faced going into Haiti.

If I can jump towards the end of the noble Baroness’s questions and answer on security, yes, there have been looting attempts in the UN compound, which has collapsed. There are 9,000 UN peacekeeping troops within Haiti—3,000 deployed and 6,000 not yet deployed—and the UN has offered their services to provide protection for rescue groups going in. That protection can be extended to buildings and food supplies and to assist the Haitian civil authorities.

The amount of information available to us, though, is very sparse and the news media updates us with information more quickly, although not necessarily accurately so we have to check. We know, for example, that two high-level officials within the UN team based there are missing but we cannot confirm their deaths or their identities. Those details will, unfortunately, emerge in time.

There is an international effort. There have been very generous offers of assistance made by the United States and Germany, and we will press our colleagues in the European Union to be as generous as possible. However, we know from previous experiences, as the noble Baroness referred to in terms of east Asia, that it is not only a question of generosity of spirit or money—it is a question of efficiency and co-ordination and we are anxious to ensure that we have the best co-ordination possible, hence our looking at the assessment of needs first. One need have no doubt that the UK is more than ready to play its part, as was made very clear by the Prime Minister at PMQs when he said that we stand ready to provide whatever humanitarian assistance is required. That information will start to flow back and action will flow from it across government in the next few days.

A very important part of rescue and rehabilitation during disasters, not only in this country but across the world, is carried out by British NGOs, British faith groups and British-based charities. They play a valuable part in raising funding and in helping countries. There are teams from British NGOs already in Haiti. My colleague the Minister Douglas Alexander is co-coordinating a meeting of British NGOs as soon as possible—this afternoon or more likely tomorrow—to look at precisely what problems they have, what they are doing to fundraise and how best we can together carry forward what has been, on previous occasions, a great generosity of spirit by the British people. We need to harness this to ensure we have the best response to help the people of Haiti.

We have no information from Santo Domingo of any serious effect on the Dominican Republic but this will be clarified when we have a more detailed report.

We are in touch with the Ministry of Defence about the possible use of Royal Naval vessels in the vicinity, and we will co-ordinate with the United States, which has a much more active presence in the country. Two years ago, when four hurricanes hit the country in one month, they were able to send four hospital ships to help, which would be vital on this occasion, when we know that there have been casualties in hospitals.

The information available to us will become available to our international colleagues, whether in the United Nations specialised agencies or other member states. It is the intention of the British Government to work closely in co-ordination with them, which I hope will give us the ability to move very quickly and effectively. There will be a further Statement to Parliament in the next few days to carry forward and answer more fully the apposite questions put by colleagues from the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Front Benches.

Can the noble Lord tell us whether the dogs involved in search and rescue will have to go into quarantine when they return?

The noble Baroness will not be tremendously surprised to know that that has not been central to my thoughts in the past couple of hours on Haiti, and I do not have the answer to that question. However, I shall certainly check it and write to her.

My Lords, we know that the airport at Gatwick is closed, which prohibits flights taking off, but I understood the Minister to say that RAF planes are on standby. What is stopping those RAF planes taking off from one of the military airports? Are there any plans for a high-level official to visit in due course to make an on-the-ground impact assessment and report back on the urgent and imminent needs?

On the first part, it is a question of time and logistics. We have the personnel and 10 tonnes of equipment all ready to go, and we have the aircraft on the ground at Gatwick, waiting for clearance to depart. If the latest information is that the airport will open at 4 pm, departing then is by far the best option. If we knew it was to be delayed by 24 hours, the option of moving by road to another airport and using RAF bases and RAF aircraft is one that would have to be considered. But at the moment, the most effective way in which to move forward is to rely on the good offices of Gatwick Airport getting clearance with the snow and getting an aircraft in the air in the next couple of hours.

On the second part of the noble Lord’s question, on whether a high-level representative should at some stage go to Haiti and make an on-the-ground assessment, that is a matter dependent on the reports that come back, the degree to which we co-ordinate with other bodies and whether such a visit would prove useful. At the moment, we are agnostic on that. We have not decided whether it is necessary but, as the evidence emerges, it will either support or confound the need for such a visit.

My Lords, I am sure that all noble Lords are appalled by the news that we have heard today and cheered by the steps under way. I wanted to follow up on the NGOs, especially those such as Plan, which has had experience in Haiti for more than 30 years and a great deal of influence as regards children. I hope that there will be sufficient co-ordination and involvement of the expertise of government and the NGOs together to do their very best for the country. Already there are tremendous responses to appeals that have been put out, all of which is good; but it is the practical help with the children and the possible exploitation that we have heard about that is so important. I seek reassurance on that and the combination of the medical supplies, which is very important.

My Lords, I could not agree more with the noble Baroness. DfID has been conscious for its whole existence, with perhaps a greater emphasis in later years, of the essential role played by the voluntary community—NGOs, charities and faith groups—particularly in tragedies such as this. I offer the reassurance that she seeks; DfID will seek to use the expertise of all those who can help, because it recognises in these situations that the more one has the ability to co-ordinate urgent well funded and well directed assistance, the more likely we are to minimise the tragedy for families and get people out of the misery in which they find themselves, so that their health can be restored and they have again the normal, basic services of life. I offer the reassurance that the noble Baroness seeks. The fact that my ministerial colleague Mr Alexander is urgently meeting the NGO community this afternoon or tomorrow morning shows the good faith of that.

I thank my noble friend for the Statement and the reassurance that the Government are going to do everything possible, but does he accept that, for any of us who have ever visited Haiti, the thought of what has happened is in every sense a nightmare? The extreme poverty and the marginal nature of existence for so many of the people in Haiti must mean that the punishment and the pain are particularly dreadful. Does my noble friend agree that while it will be important to mobilise large-scale assistance, obviously, as he has said, if such assistance is not well co-ordinated and without an effective context for delivery it could actually do harm, and that therefore it is essential to get that co-ordination right? Can he assure the House that in the consultations with NGOs, which he says are going to take place, particular care will be taken to use their knowledge and expertise in being close to the ground in shaping the programme and the co-ordination, and not simply playing a part within it?

My Lords, I will not call it a privilege, but I have had the opportunity to visit Haiti. I can understand why in the press reports I read today that at least one voice was heard to say, “This is the end of the world”. If you have lived in Haiti and you have put up with 20 years of everything from corruption to dictatorship, natural disasters, abject poverty and impunity for people who kill each other, then you can see why you might think you were the most benighted people in the most benighted country. I think that places a greater responsibility on us. I entirely agree with my noble friend that, in that context, assistance should be provided not just in the form of material aid or funding; it should also be well co-ordinated.

The United Nations itself, very much at the instigation of the UK Government, has been seeking to make its approach—speaking as someone who worked in that system, I confess that its approach has not always been the most co-ordinated—one where the resident co-ordinator, who is the head of the team, seeks to discuss with NGOs and everyone else how best to use the team effort available to rescue and then to rehabilitate. In that sense the NGOs have a part to play. On the other hand, one has to be absolutely clear that in the past not all the NGOs have been as co-ordinated as they might have been. This is a collective effort that requires both discipline and drive. On this occasion, given the goodwill that exists for the benighted people of Haiti, there is a responsibility to ensure that that drive and determination is carried through.

My Lords, first, I endorse the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe. As one who is associated with Plan International, I can say that we have been working in the region for over 30 years. Today, it has released over £60,000 to be able to assist immediately.

My main concern is not only the co-ordination but the amount of financial resources that we collect. Could we ensure quick expedition, unlike during the tsunami when substantial funds were collected in this country and it took years and years to disperse them?

The noble Lord makes a very good point. It seems to me that there are lessons which we have to learn and should have learnt; I have to say that we appear not to have learnt them on all occasions. There is unfortunately sometimes a degree of competition, either between NGOs or between Governments, to prove their generosity but not necessarily to do it in the most efficient and effective way. The noble Lord makes the very good point that expedition is important, but co-ordination is equally important. DfID has that as a very central policy, and seeks to persuade others to that view. I hope that on this occasion the enormity of the problem will stop some of those vanities from getting in the way of effective assistance to the people of Haiti.

My Lords, when the Minister’s department starts to consider the longer-term solution and recovery of Haiti, will he try to ensure that the department considers maximising the amount of hardware and technical assistance and minimising the amount of direct cash, which often ends up in the wrong place? Technical assistance and hardware, when well thought out, produce the best results.

The noble Viscount is absolutely right that there is always a danger, in providing assistance of the financial kind, that cunning and effective minds seek to divert it from its purpose to other purposes. DfID in particular looks to see that that is not the case and, if we do not feel that we can work through agencies of government because of those fears, we look to the NGO community and others whose reputation and history is one of effective and non-corrupt provision. It is right to take the noble Viscount’s words on board, but in each case we have to assess which is the best form of assistance to be given, which is the best form of delivery, and who the best partners are to do that with.

Will the noble Lord give a commitment from the Government that if and when—I am sure that this will happen very shortly—the United Nations launches an appeal for Haiti, the Government will make a substantial contribution to that appeal? Will he recognise that in the case of Haiti—where there is a large UN peace operation, which is not only military but civilian, on the ground—the United Nations is probably quite well placed to help effectively with co-ordination, and that it is therefore important that we work closely with the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs?

My Lords, among the immediate announcements made today of financial assistance, I believe that the Secretary-General of the United Nations has made a commitment to some $10 million. The noble Lord is a great expert and an old enough hand to know that I am not likely to make a commitment to a specific cause when the causes to which we are committed are the most effective way of dealing with the position of the poor people of Haiti. I am sure that he is right about the United Nations and its ability to do that. There will be many calls upon its funds. The important thing is to go back to the co-ordination of funding and how those funds are spent. I fall back with comfort on the words of the Prime Minister; whatever is required, we will do.

My Lords, not so long ago during the hurricanes in the Caribbean there was only one ship at a time in the ocean there. Although the noble Lord, Lord West, did his best, that ship had to leave unfinished business in Grenada, where it first happened; it had to go on to other islands. We were promised then that there would always be more than one ship available should any disaster like this strike. Can my noble friend tell us how many ships are in the region at the moment?

No, my Lords, I cannot directly answer my noble friend’s question. I will seek to provide the answer, and I am sure that that and much more information will come forth in the statement to Parliament that my noble friend the Minister has promised in another place. I hope that that will be within the next few days.

My Lords, the Minister will know that the Turks and Caicos Islands, a British Overseas Territory, are near to Haiti. TCI has suffered in recent years from a fairly large number of illegal immigrants from Haiti. Will he ensure that Ministers talk to the Governor of TCI, where we have imposed direct rule, to give him the best advice possible in case there is another upsurge of illegal immigration from Haiti to TCI?

I thank the noble Lord for that question. I shall certainly refer it to my colleagues in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I suppose this is probably the last question. One small bit of hope that arises—not hope, but the consolation that things could have been worse—is that there was no tsunami to accompany this particular earthquake because of its epicentre. Had there been so, then, yes, within the Caribbean there would have been a much greater impact on life. It may be a small mercy. There are not many mercies to be counted, but I suppose in that sense things could have been even worse.