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HMS “Ocean”: Hurricane Relief

Volume 783: debated on Thursday 14 September 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government when HMS Ocean will commence hurricane relief operations; and at which islands.

My Lords, HMS “Ocean” is due to arrive in the hurricane-affected areas on 23 September and will be deployed following an assessment of the highest-priority needs at that stage.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that Answer. Indeed, HMS “Ocean” is a highly capable ship. Sadly, we are getting rid of her at the end of the year. My Question relates to timescales. On Monday 4 September, Hurricane Irma was declared a category 5 hurricane—a really big beast and something to worry about. It is notoriously difficult to predict a hurricane’s track but it was quite clear that it would hit, either leeward or windward, the Greater or Lesser Antilles, where there are a number of British dependencies. On 6 September, it hit Barbuda. Bearing in mind the distances involved—it is about 3,250 miles from Gib to the British Virgin Islands on a great circle route, for example, which would take about seven and a half days at 18 knots—when was the captain of HMS “Ocean” told that his orders were changing? The ship did not sail from Gibraltar until eight days after Irma was declared a category 5. I would be interested to know when his orders changed. As its role at the moment is as the flagship of the Standing NATO Maritime Group 2 in the Med and it is very important to show NATO resolve while the Zapad exercises take place in Russia, which RN ship has now taken up that role? Do we have too few ships to actually do it?

First, I rebut the charge of unpreparedness. When the threat of Hurricane Irma was known, there was intensive diplomatic exchange at the highest possible level between those likely to be affected. In fact, RFA “Mounts Bay”—the Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessel, as the noble Lord will know—was pre-positioned in the Caribbean in order to respond immediately when the hurricane hit. The morning after Irma hit Anguilla, “Mounts Bay” delivered six tonnes of aid to the island, restored power to the hospital, provided emergency shelter and cleared the runway to allow relief flights to land. I think your Lordships will understand that Irma was a devastating force of nature with immense destructive power, carving a path through an extensive geographical area and affecting many, often remote, communities. That poses challenges in responding to such a situation, but the UK response has been clear.

On the specific question of what orders were issued to the captain of HMS “Ocean” and when, perhaps if I had been aboard I would be in a better position to inform the noble Lord, but I am not sure whether such information would be properly disclosable in any event. He will realise that HMS “Ocean” was operating in the Mediterranean as a flagship for Standing NATO Maritime Group 2. It went to Gibraltar because it had to embark personnel and supplies there. It was important that that craft was properly equipped to cross the Atlantic and get to the affected areas with the skills and personnel on board, and the necessary equipment and landing craft, for example, to deliver real and meaningful help to these gravely impacted communities.

My Lords, I do not criticise what the Government have done because such disasters are very difficult to cope with, but would we not have been better able to cope if we had kept the Caribbean guard ship on station in that area, and a garrison at Belize? Will the noble Baroness have a word with the Ministry of Defence and see whether these matters can be revisited?

I simply say that it is not as though we have a dearth or absence of personnel in the Caribbean area. We have a significant presence there in Foreign and Commonwealth Office personnel and diplomatic staff. As we speak, we have more than 1,200 military personnel and 60 police in the Caribbean. As I said, we have RFA “Mounts Bay”; we have two aircraft, two helicopters and one more inbound; we also have 40 tonnes of food, water and construction aid. A great deal is happening and it is a tribute to those involved in these very difficult circumstances that they have been able to respond—

The difference is that I know it.

My Lords, the serious point is that a devastating natural disaster has occurred in the Caribbean, affecting many hundreds of thousands of people. Those of us who have watched the footage on television must be appalled at the impact on people and their lives. It is important that we pay tribute to everybody who has been involved in responding to this extraordinary situation but do so with willingness, commitment and a resolve to get things better as quickly as possible.

My Lords, obviously resources are an important aspect of this problem. To what extent are the costs of deploying HMS “Ocean” in similar circumstances—for emergency aid—repaid to the MoD from the aid budget?

I do not have a specific breakdown on that issue. I undertake to write to my noble friend if I can elicit more information.

My Lords, on Tuesday in your Lordships’ House, I asked the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, about the number of people who are still missing in the affected British Overseas Territories of Anguilla, British Virgin Islands and Turks and Caicos and the Commonwealth island of Barbuda. It is a simple and straightforward question in a disaster situation, but I did not get a satisfactory response. May I have one now?

As the noble Baroness will understand, the situation has been fast changing. The information I have in relation to British nationals is that we do not have any reports of British casualties at this time, and we are also not aware of any British nationals who are injured. As I say, the situation is fast moving. Through the existing channels of communication we now have, we hope to be able to clarify the information with greater detail.