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Overseas Territories: Humanitarian and Disaster Relief

Volume 810: debated on Tuesday 9 February 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the United Kingdom Overseas Territories’ preparedness for humanitarian and disaster relief operations.

My Lords, the FCDO and MoD provide significant support to Bermuda and the Caribbean territories to ensure that they are ready for the annual hurricane season. The FCDO has helped to establish search and rescue capabilities in the territories, and new defence regiments in the Cayman Islands and the Turks and Caicos Islands will be trained to respond to such disasters. The FCDO continues to invest in capability building to ensure that territories are ready for a range of humanitarian and disaster operations.

The Royal Navy has a forward presence in the Caribbean during hurricane season to support our overseas territories, but the real challenge is getting access to islands once the hurricanes hit, as the ports and airports can be damaged. That is why in 2017, post Hurricane Irma, we raised two new Army Reserve units on the Cayman Islands and the Turks and Caicos Islands to deliver humanitarian assistance and disaster relief on island and open those ports. These have been a tremendous success with strong local support, and I was privileged in my military capacity to see the commissioning of the first officers at Sandhurst last year. Can my noble friend the Minister tell us whether there are now plans to raise similar units on Anguilla and the British Virgin Islands?

My Lords, I first pay tribute to my noble friend for his work during his term as Minister for the Armed Forces in creating, and being instrumental in establishing, these new units in both the Cayman Islands and the Turks and Caicos Islands, which joined Bermuda in this respect. He is quite right: these provide operational capacity and capability within the territories. No other territory has yet expressed an interest in establishing defence forces, but I assure my noble friend that we stand ready to support them if indeed they wish to do so.

My Lords, as we speak, HMS “Medway” is on station in the West Indies, providing reassurance and support, safeguarding our north Atlantic Caribbean territories and getting to know the many islands and their civilian emergency services and support facilities, so as to assist in an emergency, whether it be a hurricane, volcanic eruption or instability caused by the drugs trade. Warships can move hundreds of miles a day, and offer communications, engineers, medics, food, fresh water and resilient, disciplined manpower. Bearing in mind that we have overseas territories across the south Atlantic, in the Indian and Pacific oceans, some with the largest marine protection zones in the world, does the Minister believe we have sufficient ships to safeguard them and their resources appropriately?

My Lords, I can assure the noble Lord that we have sufficient resources, in respect of both the military operations and the support. I have myself seen the strength of having military assets within the territories during and in the aftermath of such hurricanes. We all remember RFA “Mounts Bay” playing a sterling role as first responder. I assure him that, together with our military assets and the other investments we have made, we stand ready to support our territories within the region.

My Lords, as the Minister himself has admitted, the Government reacted too slowly to the devastating 2017 hurricanes in the Caribbean. In 2018, the Government, including the noble Lord, Lord Lancaster, announced that they hoped to secure multinational co-ordination in the region. What progress has been made?

My Lords, I will look at Hansard—I do not think I admitted to that. What I did say was that we had to respond afterwards; we had assets in the region. I am sure the noble Baroness will recall that we were among the first countries to react and work with key regional partners. I can assure her that we have been investing and working with regional partners. The multinational co-ordination cell of the Caribbean is a UK concept, and we are working with key partners from the United States and France and the Netherlands and Canadian militaries to co-ordinate a large-scale response if indeed the tragedy of hurricanes should hit again.

My Lords, given the rich biodiversity of the overseas territories, where it is generally recognised that 94% of unique British species are to be found, what special assessment and consideration is given by the Government to this aspect of preparations for disaster relief emergencies?

My Lords, my noble friend is right to draw attention to the important work in this respect. The UK’s Darwin Initiative supports the OTs to increase their resilience in the face of climate change by funding projects. The CSSF has also provided OTs with over £4.6 million for capacity building through the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, and we are very proud of the 4.3 million square kilometres of MPAs within our overseas territories.

My Lords, the Government and our Navy are to be congratulated on their timely assistance to our Caribbean and other overseas territories. Does the Minister agree that recurring natural disasters are a fact of life for many, and that the best way of mitigating suffering is to facilitate co-operation between territories in the regions to share best practice and ensure the pooling and rapid deployment of resources to the affected areas?

I can assure the noble Lord of that, as I said to the noble Baroness, Lady Northover. We work very closely with CDEMA, the regional emergency response agency in the region.

My Lords, in an FCO press release in July 18, announcing the measures that we were taking to support the overseas territories following 2017, the Minister said we were going to work with partners for an “effective and strategic response” for future hurricanes. One of the four priorities of the Sendai framework is disaster risk governance and how we manage disaster risk. Can he tell us what mechanism the Government have put in place to support the overseas territories to do exactly that?

My Lords, I assure the noble Lord that we have done just that. In the event of a major hurricane impact, the relief and recovery unit leads on providing immediate and medium-term programme funding response. I have already referred to the multinational co-ordination cell within the Caribbean, and we work very closely with CDEMA specifically. It is based in Bermuda but, at the moment, given the Covid crisis, it is set up on a virtual basis.

My Lords, the Minister said that other overseas territories have not asked to have reserve units to deal with crisis response. Will the Government consider being proactive and suggesting to some of our overseas territories that it would be a good idea to follow the example of the Turks and Caicos?

My Lords, we were proactive; in this I pay tribute once again to my noble friend. It was he who wrote to me and we then acted together; he facilitated the training. However, I take on board the noble Baroness’s point, and we will continue to present the benefits of such regiments to all the territories.

My Lords, climate change is the context in which this conversation is happening. Given the marine diversity and repository of so much of the world’s biodiversity in the overseas territories, how will the Government ensure that the voices of the overseas territories will be amplified in the forthcoming COP 26 summit?

My Lords, as the Minister for the Overseas Territories, I assure the noble Lord that I have a loud voice in the Government, and I will ensure we do just that.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a trustee of the UK Overseas Territories Conservation Forum. My noble friend the Minister will be aware of the environmental disaster affecting the coral reefs in the Caribbean, caused by stony coral tissue loss disease. This will have an enormous knock-on effect on tourism and, consequently, the economy of these overseas territories. Our noble friend Lord Goldsmith of Richmond is being extremely helpful with the environmental side, but will the Minister look into what further the FCDO can do to assist and avert what potentially could be a real disaster for those overseas territories?

I assure my noble friend that my noble friend Lord Goldsmith does not carry responsibilities only in Defra; he is also a Minister at the FCDO, and his views are well represented in our discussions on the point that my noble friend raises.

My Lords, when the United Nations sustainable development goals were agreed in 2015, resilience from the shocks of extreme weather events was a key element of the purpose behind agreeing them in such a comprehensive fashion. In their discussions with the overseas territories and others, will the Government ensure that setting a framework within the sustainable development goals is part of the long-term strategy for improving resilience to extreme weather events, rather than just reacting to them?

The noble Lord makes a very valid and practical point. That is exactly the focus for ensuring long-term resilience, as he suggests.

My Lords, sending disaster relief can be less than successful and very expensive. There is thus a case for overseas territories having their own reserve units. As an example of those set up through my noble friend’s help, the Caymans and the Turks and Caicos have their own units. I believe that the Channel Islands have had reserve units for two or three centuries, or more. For how many other British Overseas Territories would it be viable to have their own reserve units?

I assure my noble friend that we are taking the example of the territories that have established these reserve units to see how others can build up their capacity and capability. I continue to engage with my noble friend who initiated this process. I assure my noble friend Lord Flight further that the overseas territories work very much in a collaborative fashion, as I have seen myself, whether in the sharing of assets or training, or in learning from each other. We as a Government facilitate those discussions.