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Mr. Foulkes: First, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his generous remarks, which are appreciated. They will be appreciated above all by the staff of the emergency response team office, who have been working 24 hours a day since the earthquake happened and have contacted me at odd hours to keep me informed of progress.

I do not share the hon. Gentleman's concern about the $50,000 for OCHA. The UN team is already operating on the ground, and Joe Bishop is part of that team. The hon. Gentleman might know that, sadly, another team was in a helicopter that crashed in Mongolia the other day, and one British member of that team was killed. They are brave men who do a great deal of good work under the auspices of the United Nations, and we find the organisation to which they belong effective in the work that it does.

The hon. Gentleman's question on search and rescue teams was precisely that which I asked. We have a number of such teams, and I have met Willie MacMartin and the International Rescue Corps, who do excellent work out of Grangemouth. When I asked why we were not sending out such people quickly, I was told that there are enough search and rescue teams on the ground to deal with the immediate emergency. Because a landslip is causing particular problems--rather than the destruction of buildings that we saw in Turkey, where thermal imaging equipment was useful--I am told that shovels are needed, rather than thermal imaging equipment.

Like the hon. Gentleman, I was disappointed that the guard ship is not in the area. He will be pleased to hear that it is helping us in another emergency, but it is a long way away and cannot be mobilised quickly. On the Disasters Emergency Committee, I have not been in touch with it personally, but, following a request that I made earlier today, my officials are contacting it to see if it plans to have a co-ordinated emergency appeal. That is the committee's decision, not the Government's. In the meantime, however, I support what the hon. Gentleman said, and anyone wanting to helping people in that appalling situation in El Salvador would be well advised to contribute generously to Oxfam, the Red Cross--I am not sure whether Ministers are supposed to say this, but I shall say it nevertheless--and other organisations working in the area.

On the hon. Gentleman's fifth question, the European Community Humanitarian Office has already committed 2 million euros to help the area. There has been substantial improvement in the operation of European development assistance and humanitarian aid in the past few months under pressure which was led, I might add,

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by the United Kingdom. I was in Rome last Thursday, talking to the Italian Development Minister about co-ordinating pressure on the European Commission to make it more effective. EuropeAid, the new operational arm of the European Commission, started on 1 January, and this will be the first test of how effective it is. Like the hon. Gentleman, I hope that it comes through that test and shows that combined European assistance can be just as effective as that provided bilaterally by countries such as the United Kingdom.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): May I join others in congratulating the Minister on his Department's rapid and effective response, which will be much appreciated by people in El Salvador in getting through the terrible times that they face in the next few days? Obviously, any further rapid help that can be given to assist in finding bodies and, hopefully, people who are still alive, will be useful.

Will the Minister cast his mind a little further forward? In the process of reconstruction which, once again, El Salvador and other countries will have to go through, will he assure me that the Government are prepared to support further information and research into earthquake prediction in the region, and in particular assist with planning, building design and advice on how buildings should be constructed to withstand earthquakes? That will help to find the reason why so many houses have been constructed in areas where a mud flow is likely after an earthquake. Once again, it appears that the poorest people in one of the poorest parts of the world are suffering the most from these disasters as a result of the bad planning and bad housing construction with which they must live.

Mr. Foulkes: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind words. I remind him that, in my statement, I said that we are supporting the Centre for the Co-ordination of Natural Disaster Preparedness following Hurricane Mitch. We learn from those disasters, the way in which we respond to them and, sometimes, the inadequacies in our response. We recognise that prevention is better than cure. We cannot stop natural disasters, but we can mitigate their effects as much as possible, which we are eager to do. We do that in our environmental work with developing countries, to try to minimise the effects of floods. Building design is important, as are the places where houses are built. That does not just apply to developing countries--hon. Members and others who live in England will know that recent floods showed that, even in the United Kingdom, we can have problems when houses are built in areas that are prone to flooding or other natural disaster effects.

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park): My party shares the shock and sadness in the House at news of another disaster affecting people who are least able to cope with one, and welcomes the prompt action taken by the Government to send relief to the area. Does the Minister agree that, rather than trying continually to strengthen OCHA, the establishment of a permanent United Nations rapid reaction force would enable assessments of and responses to disasters to be swiftly and more effectively carried out? In view of the fact that the USA is spending

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$1.3 billion in military aid to Colombia, which is likely to cause far more suffering than it relieves, how much aid is it sending to El Salvador?

Mr. Foulkes: I thank the hon. Lady for her kind remarks. I support the principle of a UN rapid reaction force, but we should not necessarily think that it would be a panacea to deal with all disasters and suddenly magic away their results, because it would not. We need a quick response, good organisation by the national Government on the ground and good co-ordination by the international agencies involved, and we are moving towards that without necessarily having the formal structure that she advocates. We are certainly considering ways in which we can co-ordinate the national Governments and the international agencies in our collective response to such natural disasters. I shall leave United States policy on Colombia to other people and stick to the subject before the House.

Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton): I thank my hon. Friend for the speedy response. He will know that sanitation problems are great in such situations and that outbreaks of diseases occur. Have the Government made any contacts and can he make any progress on that issue? He knows that there has been great solidarity between the Scottish charity agencies and central America over the years. Are agencies such as the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund, Christian Aid and others being used? They have expertise as they have worked in central America for many years, and they could make a worthwhile contribution to the exercise.

Mr. Foulkes: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I know of the solidarity between Scotland and El Salvador, which I have visited a number of times. On the radio this morning, I heard Father Michael Campbell-Johnston talk about experiencing the earthquake in his pick-up, in which I have travelled with him during a flood. The pick-up began to float down the road in the direction in which we were not driving, so I know the situation on the ground. We are in touch, and the Department, consistent with the need to respond quickly to what is happening on the ground, is also contacting agencies in the United Kingdom--Christian Aid, SCIAF and others--to find out what they are doing and whether we can give them assistance.

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Disease is a problem that will occur and, from our experience, we know that dysentery, cholera and other such diseases will threaten after the first few days. That is why we are working with the Pan American Health Organisation and have given it £300,000 for immediate medical emergency supplies. I hope that my hon. Friend thinks that that is the right way forward.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): In a disaster of such magnitude, is not it reassuring that the United Kingdom can send not just sympathy but practical, pre-planned help, mobilised from the region to a large extent? Can any men, women or equipment of Her Majesty's armed forces still in Belize to support the jungle warfare training school be utilised to alleviate suffering?

Mr. Foulkes: Again, I am grateful. I have had discussions with the hon. Gentleman, who knows Latin America extremely well and understands the situation. One of the first questions I asked of our officials was whether they had been in touch with the Ministry of Defence not just about the guard ship, but about the residual garrison in Belize. They had, but what we have left there does not meet the needs of El Salvador. Had it done so, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, with whom I spoke earlier, would have made that equipment and those people available as quickly as possible. Sadly, they were not of the kind needed.


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