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Hurricane Irma: Disaster Relief

Volume 785: debated on Tuesday 10 October 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they intend to undertake an urgent review of the anticipation, preparation, speed of response and chain of command for the United Kingdom’s disaster relief operations in the Caribbean, in the light of the United Kingdom’s response to Hurricane Irma; and if so, whether they will publish the results and any recommendations for change.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare an interest in that I have family living in the Caymans.

My Lords, we are conducting an internal review to identify the lessons learned from the Government’s response to Hurricane Irma, as indeed we do in response to all crisis situations. These findings will of course be incorporated into future crisis responses. The timing of this review will be considered alongside the ongoing recovery efforts in the Caribbean, including the overseas territories. Meanwhile, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will continue to co-ordinate a cross-government response to any new crisis which may arise.

The Minister’s Answer is very welcome, but in this review will he go back to the review after the tsunami in 2005, when it was clearly stated that the most vital part was for help to arrive in the first 24 hours, or, if that is not absolutely possible, in the first 36 hours? Against that background, will he make sure that the review looks at the date at which the FCO crisis committee met, on 5 September, and say why it did not meet in the previous week? Will that review look at the situation regarding the movement of aircraft from Brize Norton and say why they did not get into the air immediately after the hurricane had left the British Virgin Islands, instead going two days later? Finally, will the review look at why HMS “Ocean” was not moved at least a week earlier to somewhere nearer this side of the Atlantic rather than the middle of the Mediterranean, even though, sadly, it broke down en route in any case?

My noble friend raises a series of questions; in the interest of allowing more questions to be asked, I will write to him specifically to answer them. However, I will pick up on one or two of his points. The UK Government responded within 24 hours. My noble friend may well be aware that RFA “Mounts Bay” arrived within 24 hours of the storm’s impact and restored power supplies at Anguilla’s hospital, rebuilt the emergency operations centres and, importantly, cleared the runway to allow planes that were waiting to arrive at the airports to come in. It then followed on and delivered a similar response to BVI. However, I will respond to the issues my noble friend raised in his other questions.

My Lords, the aid budget is 37% of the defence budget, and the defence budget is under immense pressure. Does the Minister not think that the fantastic work being done by HMS “Ocean” and RFA “Mounts Bay” out in the West Indies should be covered by the aid budget, because, quite clearly, that describes what they are doing?

The noble Lord raises an important question, and it is necessary to put it in the context of the international rules to which we subscribe. As he may be aware, my right honourable friend the International Development Secretary has directly responded to the issue. She has raised it with the OECD and we are also raising the eligibility of ODA spending on the overseas territories and other countries to ensure that, when such crises hit, we are able to make funding available. That said, as the noble Lord may also be aware, we have already allocated £62 million to the aid effort. More is being done, and an additional £5 million was pledged to Dominica, which was recently hit by a hurricane.

My Lords, Hurricane Irma was tracked from the end of August and it hit the first of our overseas territories overnight from 5 to 6 September, but the first COBRA meeting was not until the 7th. Might the review conclude that the Government are distracted by something?

Perhaps the noble Baroness should have enlightened us on what she was alluding to in her question. The short answer is that the Government acted promptly. I have already alluded to the fact that RFA “Mounts Bay” responded. I think that we should take a step back and acknowledge the incredible efforts of our military, the FCO and DfID, as well as neighbouring states, including the assistance given by places such as the Cayman Islands, in responding to the tragedy which hit three of our territories and other regions of the Caribbean.

My Lords, I welcome the information that the Minister has given, and I certainly welcomed the information given by the noble Lord, Lord Bates, in briefing Members of this House. However, one thing that concerned me was the unsightly debate at the Conservative Party conference about where the money should come from. We have a responsibility to our overseas territories, whether they are in need of ODA support or not. It should not be a question of taking money out of Africa to put it into where our responsibilities should lie, and I hope that the noble Lord will reassure us on that.

The noble Lord makes a very valid point about the commitment that the Government made to spending 0.7% of GDI—indeed, it was voted for in this Chamber—and that remains the position. I assure him that, in reviewing any spend, we will continue to prioritise the countries that need development assistance—for example, in the important area of education for girls. I repeat that that will continue to be reflected as a priority. However, at the same time I am sure that we all readily acknowledge the tragedy that has hit the overseas territories. I can tell noble Lords that I was not able to accompany my noble friend Lord Bates to that briefing because I went out to the Turks and Caicos Islands. Seeing the devastation first hand, as I did in Grand Turk, really puts the situation clearly into perspective.

My Lords, what is the very latest date that this review will be published? It will obviously be very important for future disasters such as this. I declare my interest in the Caribbean as according to the register.

I can tell the noble Lord that there is no specific date at this juncture because much of the information is still being collated. We are working very closely with the Governments of the overseas territories on their exact needs. Personnel from DfID, including a team led by a senior DfID official, are collating the current requirements of our overseas territories. I can also share with the noble Lord and the whole House that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has convened a senior meeting, chaired by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary, to bring together all parts of government to ensure a full HMG response to this issue. When I have the final date for the review, I shall of course share it with the noble Lord and others in the Chamber.