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Hurricane Irma

Volume 783: debated on Friday 8 September 2017

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what emergency funds they are providing and plan to provide to United Kingdom Overseas Territories in the Caribbean following the devastation caused by Hurricane Irma.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask a Question of which I have given private notice. I declare an interest in having members of my family in the Caribbean.

My Lords, the Government’s priority is to provide immediate emergency relief and to support British nationals. We have moved swiftly and have people and military assets on the ground now. More are on the way. We have also made £32 million available for emergency assistance. We are working in support of the territories’ Governments to develop the best possible assessment of their immediate and long-term needs. As my right honourable friend the Prime Minister said on 7 September,

“we will continue to look at what is needed, and we will provide what is necessary”.

I am most grateful to the Lord Speaker for accepting this Question, and to the Government and indeed the Opposition for co-operating. This is in effect an emergency Question but I recognise that it is late on a Friday afternoon so I am grateful to all parties. With hundreds of thousands of British citizens at risk and potentially in peril, it is vital.

At lunchtime today the Governor of the Virgin Islands announced a disaster emergency for that territory. I fear the same will happen in Turks and Caicos, either tonight or tomorrow. I ask my noble friend: given that hurricanes are not new in the Caribbean and that they always happen at this time of year, why was there no standby facility to deal with this sort of emergency, particularly when we see that France and Holland had prepared and were able to react speedily, much more speedily than we have been able to?

I also ask my noble friend: last weekend, when it was quite clear that this was potentially the worst hurricane that has ever hit the Caribbean, why was there nothing—no questioning or Statement—from DfID? Why did it take until Wednesday for there to be any news of what action it was taking, and Thursday evening for COBRA to be called? I ask my noble friend: for the future at least, can we not ensure that when this sort of disaster is clearly going to happen, Her Majesty’s Government will move with a great deal more speed?

Finally, will my noble friend confirm that, as I understand it, there are two naval ships out to help? One is the Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship, “Mounts Bay” but does it have lifting gear? It may not. Does it have a standby facility for transmissions, given that none of the mastheads is available now as they have all been washed away? Secondly, I understand that HMS “Ocean” has set sail from the middle of the Mediterranean. Is it correct that it will take nine to 11 days before she arrives? If that is the situation, will Her Majesty’s Government seek some help from neighbouring countries for heavy lifting machinery, which is vital to getting rid of all the trees—I assure my noble friend that they are not small trees—so that that work can proceed long before HMS “Ocean” gets there and docks?

I thank Her Majesty’s Government for increasing the funds from £12 million to £32 million. But it would be much more reassuring to the hundreds of thousands of our citizens—British citizens—if the Government found themselves in a position to say that whatever it costs to restore these islands, that money will be paid out and the restoration will be undertaken.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his questions. He first raised the point of France and Holland being in action faster than British assets. I think he is aware that France and Holland have a military base on their island.

As far as our own assets are concerned, he mentioned the Royal Fleet Auxiliary “Mounts Bay”, which was in action very quickly in Anguilla. It was not tied up against a dock because that was not a very safe place to be. From the initial warnings of the event, it was not exactly clear where the hurricanes would hit.

My noble friend also mentioned lifting gear. I am not in a position to tell him whether there is lifting gear, but we will no doubt co-coordinate with the Dutch and French on this matter. I should add that there are 40 Royal Marines and Army engineers on board, plus a range of equipment including vehicles, tents and facilities to purify water.

My noble friend also drew attention to HMS “Ocean”, which is on its way, but there are also three transport planes which either have or are about to set off. One is landing this afternoon in Barbados. It is part of an MoD task force, with helicopters and several hundred troops, that is en route to the region today to support the relief effort.

My Lords, I am sure that this House would like to join Members of the other place in sending our deepest sympathies to the people whose lives and livelihoods have been lost to the devastation caused by Hurricane Irma.

Yesterday, there was the urgent Statement in the other place and we had a debate in Grand Committee, in which the noble Lord, Lord Bates, was able to update us on what the Government were doing. That included an emergency meeting of COBRA, chaired by the Defence Secretary. Then of course this morning we had a detailed list of responses from DfID, partly in response to the criticism that we had not acted fast enough—including from my noble friend Lady Amos, who felt that the response had been too slow. There has been a further meeting of COBRA this afternoon, chaired by the Prime Minister. Can the noble Earl tell us a bit about that? For me, the most important issue is ensuring that we have the immediate support for the islands. But we also need to guarantee—this was addressed by the noble Lord, Lord Naseby—that there will be a sustained commitment to reconstruction. This is not just about tomorrow but about building sustainability in the long term. If the Minister is unable to do so this afternoon, can he commit to update the House at the earliest opportunity on the actions following COBRA’s meeting today, chaired by the Prime Minister?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Collins, for his questions. In many ways, they support what Her Majesty’s Government are doing. I do not have any details on the COBRA meeting this afternoon, which was chaired by the Prime Minister, because it has not long finished, but I will ensure that the noble Lord is made aware of anything that comes up from that. The noble Lord spoke about the long-term situation in this part of the world. We have announced £32 million, but he will no doubt be aware that two years ago we announced a £300 million infrastructure plan for this part of the world, which will help with development for long-term aims.

My Lords, I express my deepest sympathy to the families and loved ones of those who have lost their lives in the devastation caused by Hurricane Irma. We now know of 19 deaths, and that figure may yet rise. How many of those deaths were on British Overseas Territories?

Barbuda, whose Prime Minister says it is nearly uninhabitable after the devastation wrought by Hurricane Irma, lies in the path of Hurricane Jose, which is currently categorised as a category 3. Have the Government had discussions with the Government of Antigua and Barbuda to assist with the evacuation of Barbuda? If that were necessary, do we have the resources in place to do so? For example, would RFA “Mounts Bay” be in a position to assist? Do we have sufficient helicopters, which are so essential in disasters of this nature?

Also, what were the thought processes behind sending a second relief vessel to the region which will not arrive for 10 to 14 days? Was no other option available? Given the catastrophic scale of the emergency, does this not risk leaving the Government open to accusations of adding insult to injury?

My Lords, I should have made it clear in my earlier answer that the Government are taking this extremely seriously. The assets being moved into this part of the world will be quite considerable. One of the MoD task force planes has already arrived in Barbados. The task force consists of several hundred troops as well as helicopters and other assets which will help to alleviate some of the problems. I should make it clear that initially, we must assess what is needed on these islands. In the past, great relief efforts have been put into disasters. We want to make sure that the correct logistics—communications, electricity, safe drinking water—are there for those who are suffering under these conditions.

The noble Baroness mentioned the death toll. I do not have exact figures at the moment, but it is appalling that this disaster has caused deaths. As the noble Baroness knows, the majority of people in British Overseas Territories are British nationals with full or British Overseas Territories citizenship. Officials from cross-government crisis teams are meeting today to assess the information we have. DfID assessors are already on the ground and are looking at what they can do to help. Over the next few days, more will be decided.

Can I please object to the truncation of these proceedings? This is an extremely important matter and the House should have been given more time.

House adjourned at 4.49 pm.