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Philippines: Emergency Aid

Volume 749: debated on Tuesday 12 November 2013

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they are taking to get emergency aid to the people of the Philippines.

My Lords, Her Majesty’s Government have so far committed £10 million to support relief efforts in the Philippines. This includes rapid funding for non-governmental organisations, emergency shelter and household items and the deployment of public health experts. HMS “Daring” will also redeploy to the affected region in order to support relief efforts. A UK team in Manila is guiding the UK’s response.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that response. This natural disaster looks like being one of the worst to have been experienced worldwide in the past decade. Does the Minister really believe that £10 million is sufficient, given that there are 800,000 people in immediate and dire need of water, medical supplies and food? Can she give us an assurance that this figure will be kept under constant review? I understand that HMS “Daring” is on the way and I think that a C17 is being deployed, but there will be a need for vehicles on the ground to get to the isolated communities that those big transport carriers cannot reach. Will the noble Baroness also tell us what advice the Foreign Office is giving to UK nationals who may be in difficulty in the Philippines? What advice are they able to give people in this country who have family members or loved ones in the Philippines about whom they have very understandable anxieties?

I thank the noble Baroness for asking this extremely important Question. There is a dedicated team at the moment working continuously on this in Whitehall and things are constantly under review. The noble Baroness mentioned a number of things that we are doing. I shall expand on the points about vehicles. She is quite right that we need to get to some of the affected areas and there are flights going to the Philippines. Two flights are going in at the moment and three more cargo flights will go from Dubai shortly. We are delivering 4x4 vehicles to get to these areas and the noble Baroness mentioned the C17s. Noble Lords will probably be aware that the United Nations has just launched an appeal for $301 million. All the numbers are under review. We have published a Written Ministerial Statement today, but I should point out that it mentions that 4.3 million people have been affected by what is the strongest ever tropical cyclone on record. The figure is now 6.9 million people, and no doubt it will increase.

My Lords, given that the Prime Minister is leading our delegation to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Sri Lanka imminently, what discussions will he have with other heads, particularly those from countries in the region such as India, Singapore and Malaysia, which could provide timely logistical support? Of course, Brunei Darussalam could help with financial aid. Will the Commonwealth get behind the relief effort as well?

I am sure that all countries, and certainly those that are close by, will wish to help. Our colleague, the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, who is the head of UN OCHA, has just arrived in Manila. The Government of the Philippines are in overall control of what is happening, although of course they are working closely with the United Nations. Our NGOs are being co-ordinated by the Disasters Emergency Committee. It is extremely important that everyone works well together, and for that to extend internationally as well as nationally.

My Lords, anyone who has seen the distressing pictures on the TV and in the newspapers today will understand the need for urgent relief, and I certainly welcome the Government’s action. I also share the concern of my noble friend Lady Symons that the amount of money needs to be kept under constant review. However, I have another point that I want to focus on. Will the Government combine their efforts with the international community to commit to longer-term aid and support? While there are short-term concerns, it will be a tough job for the country to recover fully and ensure that people can get back their livelihoods.

The noble Lord of course knows that the United Kingdom has a long-term commitment, which is why we have committed 0.7% of our GNI to aid. He is quite right to emphasise the need for long-term reconstruction. One of the lessons that came out of the report penned by my noble friend Lord Ashdown was that when bringing in aid in this sort of circumstance, one needs also to look at long-term reconstruction. However, right now we need to deliver immediate assistance to people in the form of shelters, water supplies and so on. I note that we are also bringing in solar lanterns with built-in mobile phone chargers because the need for communication is absolutely essential in these circumstances. However, we are well aware of the need to ensure that reconstruction looks to the long term.

My Lords, after Haiti, the tsunami and now this appallingly tragic and devastating catastrophe, is there not a case for the Government to have a larger contingency fund within the aid budget? Some of us are a little concerned that nations which have space programmes are helped, as are nations whose regimes are not beyond the accusation of corruption. We need a much larger contingency fund so that not only can we go in quickly with large sums, we can also deal with what the noble Lord, Lord Collins, talked about—the aftermath.

It was in the light of the Humanitarian Emergency Response Review by the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, that we set up the Rapid Response Facility, which has been brought into operation here. Money is set aside for just this kind of situation because clearly that is important.

Perhaps I may come back to a question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, about FCO advice, which I do not think I answered at that point. The FCO is advising against all travel to the Philippines, and the embassy in Manila is working to support UK nationals in the country.

My Lords, in the context of absolutely indispensable international co-ordination, does the Minister accept that what has been demonstrated over and over again in situations of this kind is the vital importance of local knowledge to the reconstruction effort as well as for short-term relief? A number of distinguished and effective NGOs in this country have been working in the Philippines for a long time. Have they already been consulted and how can we make the most effective use of their assistance?

That is why it is important that the Government of the Philippines are in overall charge of this. The noble Lord will be aware that in some circumstances the Government of a particular country are knocked out by whatever disaster occurs, but the Government of the Philippines ordered mass evacuation. They took all sorts of measures to try to reduce the impact of the disaster, but it was an unprecedented typhoon. They have the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council, which has been co-ordinating aid. Internationally, and certainly within the United Kingdom, we are well aware of the great importance of making sure that what happens now and thereafter is something that makes sense within the country and that can be best determined within the country.

My Lords, my noble friend mentioned the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, the former Leader of the House. Will she accept how many of us appreciate the immensely valuable work that she is doing in her post at the United Nations, particularly in this crisis? My noble friend Lady Falkner also mentioned the current Commonwealth meeting in Colombo. Is she aware, as I am sure she is, that the Chinese and the Japanese—not members of the Commonwealth, of course—are sending enormous delegations to the business forum in Colombo? Will that be an opportunity to remind them that, as aspiring world powers and key players in the international landscape, they too have a task—which I am sure they can be encouraged to perform—to bring the maximum help of their enormous economic power to the Philippines, to which they are considerably nearer than we are?

My noble friend makes some very important points. We owe a great deal to the noble Baroness, Lady Amos. She is formidable in making sure that she gets assistance from wherever she requires it, as she has sought to do in the case of Syria. I am sure that the points that he has made will be picked up.