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Public Accounts Committee Report

14. Mr. David Rendel (Newbury): When he plans to respond to the 45th report of the Committee of Public Accounts, Session 1999-2000, HC975. [143725]

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The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. John Spellar): We will respond to that report shortly.

Mr. Rendel: The Ministry keeps saying that it cannot overturn the findings of the air inquiry because no new evidence has been produced. Will the Minister confirm that no new evidence emerged between the original finding by Wing Commander Pulford that the pilots were in no way to be criticised and the final finding by Air Chief Marshal Sir William Wratten that the pilots were to blame?

Mr. Spellar: That point has been made several times and it demonstrates a misunderstanding of the engagement of the Air Marshals. The initial process aimed to establish fact and the final process aimed fully to evaluate it. We have said a number of times to hon. Members and others that if new evidence emerges we will examine it. A member of the other place has submitted a dossier, which we are fully evaluating. We are also considering the Public Accounts Committee report. We will respond to both in due course, and if no new evidence emerges we will stand by our previous decision.

Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead): Why do not Ministers say to the head of the air inquiry and the RAF, "Thank you for your detailed work, which we appreciate, but we want to make a political decision that the situation subsequent to the inquiry, in which guilt does not have to be found, should apply and the pilots in this case absolved of blame"?

Mr. Spellar: It would be quite inappropriate to make a "political decision" in a matter that is for the judgment of those with professional expertise. They have made their best judgment of the circumstances. That is what we pay them for, and that is what we expect them to do as part of their duty. If subsequent evidence invalidates that judgment, there will of course be grounds for reopening the inquiry, but until that happens there are no grounds for doing so.

European Security

15. Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): What recent meetings he has had with European Commission officials to discuss European security. [143726]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): The development of European security and defence policy is a matter for the European Council, not the European Commission. I have therefore had no meetings with Commission officials on this subject, nor do I have any planned.

Mr. Leigh: It would be nice if Defence Ministers, in attempting to answer the question, tried to give the House the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, rather than having it dragged out of them inch by inch, week by week. Will the Secretary of State now answer the question put to him earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), to which he received a waffly non-reply? What will be the role of DSACEUR?

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What will be the command structure? Why did the Secretary of State most revealingly say that these matters will be taken forward in consultation with EU planners, when until now we have been told that there is no separate planning role for that force? What is going on? Can we have the whole truth?

Mr. Hoon: On the subject of things being nice, it would be nice if an hon. Member and former Minister knew what he was talking about when tabling questions. Clearly, he did not; otherwise, he would not have referred to the European Commission.

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We have made it absolutely clear time and again that it is important that there should be a close connection between the European Union and NATO. We have said that the planning process should be the responsibility of NATO; that is where planning will be most effectively conducted. Obviously, there are still matters that require further negotiation and discussion. In the light of those negotiations, it is strongly the British Government's view that the process should conclude that it is for NATO to provide the planning assets rather than any other organisation--not least the European Commission--that may be in the hon. Gentleman's mind.

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El Salvador

3.31 pm

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) (by private notice): To ask the Secretary of State for International Development if, in the light of the horrendous earthquake, she will make a statement on Government aid to El Salvador.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. George Foulkes): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the question.

At 17.33 on Saturday 13 January, a major earthquake measuring 7.6 on the Richter scale occurred off the coast of El Salvador. The epicentre was offshore, about 105 km south south-east of the capital, San Salvador. It was also felt in Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and as far afield as Mexico City.

The Government of El Salvador report more than 400 people killed, about 800 injured and more than 1,300 still missing, many of them in an area of San Salvador which has experienced a major landslide. I am sure that the whole House would wish to join me in expressing sympathy to the people of El Salvador. The airport was damaged and, although some relief flights are being allowed to use it, it is closed to civilian traffic. Since the main earthquake, there have been a number of aftershocks, some of which have been of significant strength. The President has declared a national emergency and appealed for international assistance.

The Department for International Development emergency response centre has been operating round the clock since the earthquake struck and is in regular contact with both British embassy officials in El Salvador and operational agencies on the ground in order to obtain further information and to provide advice on regional procurement of urgently needed supplies. We have been in close contact with the Ministry of Defence but, regrettably, the West Indies guard ship is not in the area.

We responded immediately to the preliminary appeal from the United Nations and the Red Cross. We have given financial support to the UN disaster assessment and co-ordination team, which includes a British member, Mr. Joe Bishop; and we have given a commitment to fund Oxfam's emergency water and sanitation programme and the Pan American Health Organisation's programme of emergency medical assistance.

Since Hurricane Mitch hit the region in October 1998, we have been providing support to the Centre for the Co-ordination of Natural Disaster Preparedness in Central America for a disaster preparedness programme in Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala, and plan to support a similar disaster preparedness programme with PAHO focusing on reducing vulnerability in the health sector.

I am sure that the House will agree that, once again, the United Kingdom has responded quickly and effectively to help people struck by a natural disaster. Our commitment to date is now more than £600,000, but I assure the House that we will respond sympathetically to any further requests.

Mr. Dalyell: I thank my hon. Friend for that positive response. Given that 1,300 people are missing, is not speed of the essence? What practical help is expected of

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us in repairing the airport? What will be the role of the DFID emergency response centre over the next fortnight? Is regional procurement part of the answer to what is obviously an urgent problem, where speed must be emphasised?

Mr. Foulkes: Once again, I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Speed is of the essence. If people are trapped--not under buildings that have been destroyed, but under the landslip, as they are in this case--we need to get to them as quickly as possible. The Government of El Salvador are well organised and immediate assistance has been provided from their own resources and from the surrounding area. It is, of course, quicker to get in assistance and teams from the area than it is to fly them in from many thousands of miles away.

We shall certainly give consideration to repairing the airport, although I am not sure whether it is included in the list of requests that we have received from the Government. We are going through those requests for various forms of assistance, considering what we might be able to supply from the emergency supplies that we have here in the United Kingdom, and what might be procured locally with financial assistance from the UK. Again, it is quicker, more effective and cheaper to procure many supplies locally. The DFID emergency response centre will remain open 24 hours a day for the foreseeable future to deal with the emergency, as we have done in respect of previous emergencies and shall do in respect of future emergencies.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon): I wish to express the Opposition's horror and sadness at the tragic events in El Salvador. We welcome the prompt action taken by the Minister to date in sending help on behalf of all of us. I assure him of our full support for any reasonable action that he and the British Government might take to assist in the search and rescue phase immediately after the earthquake and thereafter.

I have five specific and brief questions. Although I welcome the early financial support sent by the Government, does the Minister share my concern about the $50,000 made available to the Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs? He will appreciate the House's concerns about the past performance of that UN agency--its slowness to act and inefficiency have been criticised by hon. Members on both sides of the House. Would not our money be better spent exclusively through respected agencies such as the Red Cross and Oxfam?

Secondly, according to the United Nations resident co-ordinator's office in El Salvador, there appears still to be a need for additional search and rescue teams, and recent television footage appears to show that little, if any, heat-seeking equipment is currently being used to find people under the rubble. What requests were made for such equipment for search and rescue and precisely when were they made? Were we not in a position to send some specialist teams on Saturday or Sunday, and is it now too late?

Thirdly, does the Minister share my disappointment that the West Indies guard ship is not in the area, especially in the light of the great contribution that it made during the crisis in Montserrat? Has he learned from his Ministry of Defence colleagues where the ship is, if it is not in the region, and whether there is any prospect of it being sent nearer in the very near future?

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Fourthly, what talks has the Minister had with the Disasters Emergency Committee about an appeal for the region? Would he support such an appeal? Can he tell the public today what they should do and what they should collect if they want to help?

Fifthly, have the Government been in contact with the European Community Humanitarian Office? If so, can the hon. Gentleman give an assurance that, after the emergency phase is over, EU aid will not be delayed in reaching the region as it was in the wake of Hurricane Mitch, when it took two and a half years to reach the area in need? Finally, I again express the Opposition's support for the swift action that the Minister has taken.

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