Skip to main content

Hurricane Dorian

Volume 799: debated on Monday 9 September 2019

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what diplomatic support they have provided to the Government of the Bahamas in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian and what steps they are taking to ensure the safe delivery of aid to the Bahamas.

My Lords, Hurricane Dorian has caused untold damage to the Abaco Islands and Grand Bahama. I am sure that I speak for every Member of your Lordships’ House when I say that our thoughts and prayers are with those who have lost their lives or their homes or have been injured. The United Kingdom was among the first to provide support and we are pleased to see that the international response has since been ramping up. The Government have also committed up to £1.5 million, which has enabled the delivery of critical aid, and we have deployed emergency and consular teams to the Bahamas.

I thank the Minister for that response. Indeed, last Friday the noble Baroness, Lady Sugg, also kindly informed me of developments as regards what we are doing to support both the MoD and DfID. But, of course, if noble Lords listened to the “Today” programme this morning, they will have heard the local concerns about the efficiency of the Nassau distribution of aid and support, particularly to those in the cays and the small islands around Abaco. What administrative and logistical support has been given to the Government of the Bahamas to ensure that everyone in need is supported?

My Lords, I reassure the noble Lord and pay tribute to my colleagues in the Department for International Development. I am delighted that my noble friend Lady Sugg has joined me on the Front Bench. The MoD has provided support. The FCO has provided consular assistance and 13 members of its staff have been deployed to the region at the high commission in Nassau. Indeed, we are the only embassy or high commission from the EU operating in the Bahamas. DfID has also deployed a team of five humanitarian experts, with a sixth on the way.

Yesterday I spoke to the Bahamas Foreign Affairs Minister, Darren Henfield, whose constituency is Abaco, and I have been in constant liaison with both our high commissioner on the ground there and the Bahamas’ high commissioner in London. I assure the noble Lord that through the support that we have provided across the three departments—and let us not forget RFA “Mounts Bay”, which has been providing vital assistance to those directly hit on the two islands—we have been at the forefront of assistance to both our citizens and those of the Bahamas.

My Lords, I associate these Benches with the condolences that the Minister has just expressed. Does he agree that while it is vital to help those who have been so terribly affected by the hurricane, it is important that, as lives and places are rebuilt, resilience is built in? In fact—this question follows on from the previous one—given that this is the worst hurricane to have hit the area, does this not reinforce the fact that we have to work together to tackle climate change? As the Minister knows, in the EU we were able to lead on that in the run-up to the Paris climate change conference, which was so important. How are we going to ensure that we can play any such role in the future?

My Lords, we have been recognised by the UN Secretary-General—among others—for our primary role in building resilience, both in the Caribbean post hurricanes Irma and Maria, and in the Pacific. As the noble Baroness may be aware, the United Kingdom and a number of other countries are leading on the resilience strand at the UN conference that will take place during high-level week later this month in New York.

On the specifics, I assure the noble Baroness and the noble Lord that we were there two years ago and subsequently we have expended a great deal of effort, time, energy and focus on co-ordination in the region, both with our overseas territories and with international partners, including our European partners: the Netherlands and France. It is as a result of that that we have seen the co-ordinated response on the ground.

However, I reflect on the words of the Foreign Minister of the Bahamas yesterday. He thanked the United Kingdom for our support and prayers, but he also said, poignantly, that there is little you can do when Mother Nature takes her course. I assured him that we as a House and a country stand in support of their efforts and we will continue to support the Bahamas, not just in providing immediate relief but in reconstruction.

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the fate of Bimini, a chain of islands in the Bahamas, which has been pulled apart by developers, who have destroyed the ecosystem of dolphins, whales and reefs? Will he take this into account when formulating a future development policy as a result of the hurricane?

My Lords, I assure the noble Viscount that we have been working across the Caribbean, not just on resilience but on the very issue that he raised about protecting natural habitats. That is why the United Kingdom within our own territories has been at the forefront of introducing marine protection areas, with 4.3 million kilometres of them around key habitats, protecting them. I will take the specific issue of the Bahamas back and if there are updates I will write to the noble Viscount.

My Lords, can my noble friend assure me that since, as is usual on these occasions, the aid has been delivered by our military forces, the cost the forces incurred in delivering that aid should fall on the overseas aid budget and not the military one?

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, has partly answered my noble friend’s question—this does not come under ODA eligibility. Indeed, the funds that we have allocated have been set up specifically for that reason, so I can give my noble friend that reassurance.

My Lords, we have heard of admirable amounts offered by way of support to the victims of this terrible storm. However, perhaps I may ask a question about the modalities for distributing the aid and the extent to which it involves local people with local knowledge, bearing in mind that those who administer what is given might reach wiser conclusions about the distribution.

The noble Lord is absolutely right to raise that, and I refer to my response to the noble Baroness, Lady Northover. We have been working with regional partners and, most importantly, with CDEMA, the aid agency that responds to these issues in the Caribbean. We have been bolstering its responsibility and investing with our key partners. I assure the noble Lord that my conversation yesterday with the Foreign Affairs Minister of the Bahamas focused specifically on ensuring that the technical support and the reports that we are getting reflect the type and focus of the assistance that can be provided. For example, we are working with American colleagues on ensuring that the airport is functional so that more aid and support can be provided.

As my noble friend will recall, lessons were learned from Hurricane Irma, one of which concerned the speed of the response. Can he assure the House that we are using the facilities at Brize Norton? If planes cannot land at Nassau, they should at least land at the Cayman Islands and be trans-shipped. Can my noble friend bring us up to date? Are we using the facilities and heavy-lift equipment at Brize Norton on the ground in the Bahamas now?

My noble friend raises an important point about lessons learned. I believe that I have already indicated the importance of staying focused after Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria. On the specific issues raised, RFA “Mounts Bay” was the only vessel that had the ability to access the Bahamas. As many noble Lords know, the hurricane stayed over the Bahamas, at one point moving only at about 1 mph, so for two consecutive days the Abaco Islands, in particular, were battered quite considerably. We provided support at the first point of access. The runway needed to be cleared to allow access and the US has been leading in providing support in that respect. In terms of the wider response, my noble friend talked about the Caymans and so on. I have been pleased that, because of co-ordination, we have seen support from the British Overseas Territories—namely, the Turks and Caicos and the Cayman Islands—in alleviating the suffering of the people of the Bahamas, and that co-ordination continues.

My Lords, the Minister will have seen that the Prime Minister of the Bahamas has described Hurricane Dorian as “catastrophic and devastating”. Can he confirm that more than 70,000 people have been displaced and provide an updated figure on the number of fatalities, which is said to be 44? Will he also confirm that 3,500 evacuees have now arrived in the capital, Nassau, and can he say what truth there is in the reported suggestion that no food, medical aid or water have arrived, particularly in the destroyed shanty towns where many Haitian workers were living?

My Lords, the issue on the ground is very fluid. The noble Lord talks of various numbers—he is correct that they have been widely reported—both for the people impacted and the fatalities. However, hearing the reports, I fear that that latter number will increase. As I said, I have been in touch directly with the authorities in the Bahamas and, most importantly, with the Foreign Affairs Minister to ensure that we are kept abreast of the immediate requirements. In terms of aid being received, there have been challenges in providing access to some of the hard-to-reach areas because of the nature of the hurricane. However, it is my understanding that we have provided the support that has been required and that aid has been getting through to those who require it.