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8.13 p.m.

Baroness Young rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what is the situation in Montserrat.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in introducing this short debate this evening I start by saying that I am grateful that the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, is able to be present tonight. I am glad that we have been able to find a mutually convenient time for the debate to take place. I wish to thank all those who are taking part in the debate at this late hour. I much regret that my noble friend Lady Hooper and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, have both expressed their regrets that the change of date has made it impossible for them to be present. One or two others have expressed similar regrets.

I make no apology for raising the subject of Montserrat so soon after my debate on the Caribbean which took place on 14th July. I note that at that time, although I wished to talk about the wider issues of the Caribbean, I concluded by saying--it is not often that I feel able to quote myself--

That quotation forms the start of my speech this evening.

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When I first proposed a debate on the question of Montserrat and the manner in which the problems that followed from the eruption of the volcano had been dealt with, my concern was to highlight the plight of those Montserratians remaining on the island and the need for government to respond more quickly. However, the issues that have arisen during the parliamentary Recess and the quite extraordinarily ill-judged remarks of the Secretary of State for International Development, Ms Short--which are the most amazing that I have ever heard from a Cabinet Minister addressed to people in one of our own dependent territories--and the apparent failure of Ministers to take seriously their responsibilities in this matter, which is now the subject of an inquiry by the Select Committee on International Development in another place, give rise, I believe to new concerns about the fate of the people of Montserrat and the nature of the relationship Britain has with its dependent territories in the Caribbean.

The facts surrounding the volcanic activity and its effects on the people of Montserrat are well known. However, I understand that we still do not know exactly how many people there are on the island of Montserrat. We know that the capital, Plymouth, is derelict. We know that the hospital is a disgrace. The operating theatre is about a mile away from the main part of the hospital and there are only outside lavatories. The able bodied have either moved abroad or to other parts of the island. However, I understand that there are at least 500 old, sick and handicapped people who were left behind and who move from shelter to shelter, and that 85 per cent. of the population have left the place where they used to live. That is a terrible situation.

Over the years successive governments have made it clear to the House that British dependent territories have the first call on the time and resources of the British Government. They are, after all, our legal and moral responsibility. It is right that that should be so. However, there is now every indication that in the event of a major catastrophe, such as that in Montserrat, the Government are not prepared to meet fully their duty towards the people of the dependent territories. Indeed, there is a lingering suspicion that the Government are more concerned about the cost of resolving the problems that followed the eruption of Montserrat's Soufriere volcano than with their responsibility for delivering adequate care and protection for the citizens of that country. That has been evidenced by the painfully slow progress that has been made in constructing accommodation in the north of the island; the absence of any serious provision of adequate facilities for education, healthcare or the administration of government, and a failure to provide secure facilities for banking and other such services. At its most serious there is strong evidence to suggest that Montserratians were not--this is still the case--made fully aware of the medium to long-term health problems that may arise from breathing in the ash and fumes emitted from the volcano.

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I point out these facts because the situation is a tragedy. I am simply astonished to read on page 44 of the White Paper emanating from the Department for International Development, published only today, that,

    "In responding to disasters, we aim to provide swift, appropriate and cost-effective financial, material and technical assistance, based on analysis of actual need. We shall endeavour to do this in ways that encourage"--

the original text used the word "encourages" which is not quite grammatical--

    "the participation of all stakeholders"--

I suppose in this case the people of Montserrat--

    "in decisions that affect their lives, builds local capacity and lays a solid foundation for rehabilitation and recovery. The UK's capacity to respond to disasters overseas will be strengthened",

and so on. It is incredible that that can be written today, when we see what has happened against the background of this disaster.

I have been in Government. I well understand the problems the Minister faces. I appreciate, if I may say so, the difficulties of dealing with the advice of officials, the representations of an elected government with responsibility but little power, and the pressures of the Treasury. However, in this case many of the problems that have arisen could have been avoided if we had had a simple, honest and transparent system for managing our relations with our overseas territories. The present system involves a Whitehall committee, a large proportion of the resources of the West Indian and Atlantic department of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the dependent territories regional secretariat in Barbados, and the governor's office in Montserrat. This has been further complicated in Montserrat by the fact that the Department for International Development is now responsible for policy and the delivery of aid programmes and humanitarian relief. As I have said previously to the House, the system is cumbersome, not understood in conditions of normality, and, as we have now seen, is simply inoperable in a crisis.

The reality is that the problems of Montserrat and the fast-emerging problems surrounding the relief effort to date are symptomatic of much wider problems relating to our policy towards the British overseas territories: that is a failure to address the fact that the status granted to them no longer provides Britain with a rational basis on which to be able to manage a crisis of the type that has emerged in Montserrat.

Let us consider how we would feel if this event were happening, let us say, in the Channel Islands, or in another part of the United Kingdom. No matter how remote, the whole machinery of government would be mobilised in a co-ordinated relief effort of significant proportions. Indeed, having read part of the White Paper published today, I believe that if this were happening in Central Africa the aid specialists who concentrate on the poorest would have been mobilised in significant numbers and in a timely fashion. But despite the fact that Montserrat is a dependent territory for which Britain has a legal responsibility, the Government have been unable to deliver resources

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swiftly or in any significant way for the approximately 4,000 people who remain on Montserrat. I believe that this is a scandal. It is a denial of the duty of care that Ministers personally have for our dependent territories. Remarks about golden elephants are painful, very ill advised, and do not help in this situation.

I accept that the wholly elected Government of Montserrat also have a responsibility to deliver certain aspects of relief. But the lack of clarity over responsibility shows that there is something fundamentally wrong in the manner in which we relate to our overseas territories.

On a number of occasions over the past few years I have pointed out to this House the need to review fully the status of dependent territories. Small islands have the capacity to create some of the greatest problems that governments have to face. Events in Montserrat point once again to the fact that we cannot go on as we have done in our dealings with our Caribbean overseas territories.

Earlier this year the Foreign Secretary announced what appeared to be a policy review for dependent territories. It seems to have become subsequently, in the hands of spin doctors, a new look at our relationship. Perhaps the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, will tell us more about that policy review. What are its terms of reference? Who is serving on the body? When will it report? And who has been consulted? Those are just a few of the questions which come to mind.

If Britain is to avoid the problems that now surround Montserrat in future dealings with overseas territories, there needs to be creative new thinking about what our relationship should be with our micro states in the next millennium. There has to be an alternative to the simplistic choice between independence and more management from London. I believe that the time has come to look at a wholly new relationship. The range of options is vast. At one end there is the possibility of full incorporation into the United Kingdom. Another choice might be a modernised form of associate status, perhaps with the European Union, not just with the United Kingdom. Yet another might be the development of new forms of functional integration of social, legal and administrative services with those in the United Kingdom. There is no shortage of different models. France, the Netherlands, the United States and others have overseas territories, often managed in creative ways which ultimately reduce the tax burden on the metropolitan power and even provide incentives for development.

To a lesser extent, on earlier occasions I have suggested that it might be constructive and helpful in this situation to consider seconding senior civil servants from the dependencies to serve in London or Brussels for a period of six months or so, so that they gain a real working understanding of Britain, Europe and the wider world. I still believe that that suggestion is worth considering.

Our overseas territories lock us into the Caribbean. That is good and is welcomed by our independent Caribbean partners. If I may say so, it seemed to me unfortunate that in the final communique from CHOGM

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no mention is made of the Caribbean, except very indirectly, over the banana regime. That is a serious issue. I am sorry that it was not identified clearly in the CHOGM Statement. I must say quite frankly that if we think we have problems in Montserrat, and we have, I believe that the future problems we could have in St. Lucia and Dominica, possibly Jamaica and St. Vincent, and in other islands of the Caribbean if the banana regime breaks down completely will be infinitely greater. At present, if the bananas go it looks as though there will be no other substitute but drugs, with disastrous consequences for everyone.

Stemming from the CHOGM conferences, I understand that Ministers met the heads of Caribbean countries and made a number of proposals. Among others is the suggestion of a forum for the region. I hope that that will work and that it will be constructive. But we have to recognise that the real problems of these islands are economic. Those islands do not want great gatherings of people to discuss great issues. They need an alternative for, or the maintenance of, the banana regime. That is the issue facing those countries. They need money for the establishment of many microeconomic businesses. That is a subject for debate on another occasion, but it is one to which I shall return.

At the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting the Foreign Secretary announced a number of measures which appear to suggest that Britain feels it still has an important role to play in the Caribbean. Nothing could indicate that more clearly than a public expression on the part of Ministers that they have learned the lessons of Montserrat and now intend to modernise Britain's relationship with its overseas territories to mark a new beginning in the Caribbean region.

8.29 p.m.

Lord Rea: My Lords, the whole House will be grateful that the noble Baroness is again raising the question of the interests of the people of Montserrat and of the whole Caribbean region. We are impressed that she is doing so robustly, as is proper for a responsible Member of Her Majesty's Opposition. The noble Baroness has picked the right evening--Bonfire Night--to emphasise her case.

I restrict my case to one aspect of the problem: the health and medical care arrangements needed by the remaining population of Montserrat. More than half the population has left, but those who remain are mainly prepared to dig in and face the consequences. Their desire to do so should be respected. There is a significant threat that the whole island may be involved in an escalation of volcanic activity, but those who are staying on are prepared to face that possibility.

In a report on the island's healthcare needs, which I shall describe, by surgeons Jeremy Booth and M. Grocutt, a local woman is quoted. She said: "The volcano will do its business, we will do ours and God is in charge".

The report was commissioned by the Department for International Development and is based on a visit in August this year. The authors are both accident and

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emergency consultants and their main recommendations concern arrangements should the danger increase or evacuation become necessary. They have a great deal of useful advice on the current health needs of the population. Their report builds on a previous more general report on the health services on Montserrat.

One recommendation which seems basic and which the two doctors make is that the present acute admissions ward in the makeshift hospital at St. John's should be cleared of most of its occupants and redeveloped into a proper treatment unit. Apparently 10 out of the 14 patients in the ward--a single ward--had no active medical problems and were simply blocking beds there, presumably because of difficulties in housing them and providing domiciliary care. As the noble Baroness pointed out, the problem of housing is clearly of overriding importance. That is just one illustration of it.

I wish to ask about the current housing situation in St. John's, Salem and the other habitable parts of the island. There are in existence plans for low cost housing projects which were designed specifically for Montserrat. When I last heard, they were waiting on the drawing board. Can my noble friend say whether and what building has started on new housing developments? How many units have been built? How many are planned? The buildings could quickly be built, surely--light structures, possibly prefabricated. They could later be upgraded for semi-permanent use, since even if the volcano subsides, it will still be some time before housing in the south of the island in the exclusion zone, now largely destroyed, can be brought back into use.

Another possibility which may have been explored--and if not it should be--is the requisitioning of empty houses or large under-used houses, if such exist, perhaps belonging to ex-patriates who used to use them as vacation homes. Noble Lords will remember well that that was frequently done in the United Kingdom in the 1939-45 war. In the series on Channel 4 that we have just seen, "A Dance to the Music of Time", a stately home was taken over by the Army. Such homes were given back to their owners when the emergency was over, sometimes in a somewhat dilapidated state, but that was paid for.

The Booth/Grocutt Report--which I believe is known to the Minister because I sent her a copy--makes a number of other recommendations which I shall not spell out in detail. To single out a few, they suggest greater integration with off-island treatment facilities on Antigua and Guadelope which has first-class major surgery facilities in case disaster strikes. The report also recommends preparation of a casualty clearing station and a helicopter landing site in an area of relative safety, away from the treatment unit and the established helicopter landing site. All those are to be sited after consultation with experts, including aviation personnel.

The authors have useful suggestions for revision of "Operation Exodus", a plan which they feel is unrealistic as it stands. They have other recommendations for the future medical and nursing staffing of the island's healthcare system which would

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improve its present low morale. I wish to ask the Minister: what is the present status of the report and what action is proposed on its recommendations? It would be useful if my noble friend were able to give a health report on the present state of morale, as well as on the physical and mental state of the remaining population of Montserrat.

8.35 p.m.

Lord Brightman: My Lords, it had not originally been my intention to intervene in this important debate because until last Monday I knew almost nothing about the island of Montserrat. However, last Monday I found myself at the Royal Geographical Society--of which I have the honour to be a member--listening to a talk on Montserrat by Dr. Peter Francis. I have since been in correspondence with him.

Dr. Francis is a volcanologist of national, and indeed international, renown. He made two visits to the island in 1996 and two more this year. He returned from his last visit only five weeks ago. I accordingly felt that it might be of some interest to your Lordships if I passed on a little of what I have learnt from so distinguished a source.

The centre-piece of the problem is a very large volcano on a very small island. The island only measures eight miles from north to south. The volcano is totally out of proportion to the size of the island on which it stands. There are only two towns of any note: St. John's to the north and Plymouth, now totally devastated, to the south. The island was formerly a paradise with lush vegetation, almost no crime, inhabited by friendly people and virtually untouched by tourism, as there are no sandy beaches. It is a very British island. The red telephone booth which stood in the main square of Plymouth would make the visitor from Britain feel quite at home. The last eruption of the volcano is thought to have taken place in or about the year 1450. During the past 100 years, signs of activity in the form of earth tremors occurred about every 30 years. In 1992, the pattern began to change, when an earthquake heralded a period of greater activity. In 1994, the volcano began to awaken from its long sleep and in the middle of 1995 there was the first visible manifestation of the trouble to come. Plymouth, the southern town, was evacuated for a time, but the seaport and the airport were always kept going.

The initial reaction of those living in Montserrat was to learn to live with the volcano, just as the Japanese have done in the vicinity of their volcanoes. But conditions worsened. In September this year, Plymouth was entirely destroyed. All services were put out of action, the houses fell victim to falling ash and intense heat and the airport was destroyed by an avalanche of burning ash.

I should like to turn for a moment to the nature of the eruptions which have been taking place and what it is like to live in the shadow of a volcano. When an explosion takes place the volcano spews out a jet of hot material at the astonishing rate of some 200 to 500 metres a second, with a temperature measured in hundreds of degrees centigrade. Boulders fall out, some

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as large as a double-decker bus, and cascade down the side of a mountain. A column of steam and ash continues to rise into the sky to a height of some 20,000 feet or more. Thunder and lightning play round the column. I am told it is quite an awesome sight.

An immense cloud of hot dust then drifts downwind. Rivers of burning ash may advance down the valleys of the mountain-side, consuming any houses and farmsteads which stand in their way. At the foot of these rivers an observer will see many large cylinders. These are gas cylinders which, owing to their light weight and strength, ride the molten rivers until they come to rest at the foot of the flow when it ceases. Each cylinder represents a house which has been totally consumed, and only the gas cylinder remains to mark its demise. The billowing clouds of ash deposit a gentle rain of fine dry pumice, which settles on everything until it is brushed away. The land becomes covered with a sort of dirty "snow", which kills off all the vegetation beneath it.

However, the effects of the eruptions are to a large extent localised. Farms may be kept going quite near the volcano, but it is dangerous to be there. If an avalanche of burning ash descends towards a house or farmstead there may be no escape, owing to the speed at which the avalanche travels. An avalanche of red hot ash may start its journey down the mountainside as fast as 50 to 100 kilometres per hour, reducing downslope to 20 or 30 kilometres per hour before it comes to a halt.

During the period that the airport near Plymouth remained untouched some intrepid people continued to live in the houses close by, but when in September an avalanche took out the airport they perished. About 25 people lost their lives. What is the effect on people when ash starts to fall? The ash contains an ingredient known as cristobalite. It is damaging to the lungs, somewhat like asbestos, but not quite so dangerous. It is a harmful form of silica which, when blown around in dust in very small particles, lodges in the lungs. To counter this, people have been issued with a type of gas mask which fits over the mouth and nose. It is effective, but to wear the mask for any length of time is intolerable in the climate of Montserrat so people tend to stay indoors when there is a fall of ash rather than wear a mask.

There is another danger: the ash is lethal to jet propelled aircraft, and this is a great worry. Air France flies to this part of the Caribbean every day and British Airways twice a week. There are inter-island planes as well. If a jet plane runs into the ash, the engine cuts out and the plane becomes a glider unless and until the engines can be restarted. Tragedy was narrowly averted in Indonesia and in Alaska in just those circumstances. The threat to aircraft arises because when there is an eruption clouds of ash climb so quickly, measured in Montserrat at a rate in the order of a kilometre a minute. There may be little time for an aircraft to get out of the way.

Perhaps I may tell your Lordships a little about what has been happening during the past few weeks. In the days leading up to 21st September this year there was a rapid extrusion of lava, and a building-up of the lava

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dome on the volcano. On 21st September there was a large collapse of the dome and an avalanche of debris demolished the airport buildings. The dome growth then ceased, but a series of powerful explosions took place roughly every 10 hours and there was a fall of ash which affected many parts of the island. This continued until two weeks ago. The explosions then ceased. They were replaced by a vigorous growth of the lava dome at an estimated rate of eight cubic centimetres per second. This is as fast as at any time over the past two years. As a result, further large red-hot avalanches down the mountainside are to be expected. To put it shortly, a lot of the island is extremely dangerous. There is a fear among some that the tragedy of St. Pierre in Martinique might be repeated. Your Lordships will know that in 1902 the eruption of Mont Pele killed at least 28,000 people in a few minutes. The shadow of Martinique broods over Montserrat.

I turn to the most important question of all: what is the prognosis? The answer is simple: nobody knows. The eruptions could stop tomorrow or they could last for 50 years, like a volcano in Guatemala. Montserrat's volcano does not conform to the usual pattern. A volcano will usually wane after the initial eruptions. Montserrat's volcano does the reverse. It appears to be waxing. This makes planning very difficult.

I have a few comments, which I offer with diffidence on the basis of what Dr. Francis has told me. I much regret that I have not had the time to give the Minister adequate notice of these points, and naturally I do not expect any answers this evening. First, as it is not possible to forecast the course of the eruptions, would it be best for planners to assume that the eruptions could last for some years at the present level of activity? Secondly, I am told that the scientific consensus is that the north part of the island is unlikely to be subjected to catastrophic events. However, it has been and will probably remain subjected to ash falls. Such ash falls, while not immediately hazardous, cause a range of side-effects which I have mentioned. The most serious are long-term respiratory problems for residents. In addition, there are obviously long-term problems of mental stress imposed by living under such difficult conditions.

Thirdly, this is a crisis situation where robust, clear management is needed with clear identification of goals and of the resources required to achieve those goals. Fourthly, is it right to continue, in this catastrophic situation, the pre-volcano mode of administration? I am told that, while the island and the governor are under the jurisdiction of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the purse strings are controlled by an agency which I understand is usually referred to as "DfID".

Fifthly, would it be right to say, as has been suggested in some quarters, that the roles of the governor and chief minister tend to be confused? Lastly, ought we to look at the responsibility and funding of the Montserrat Volcano Observatory?

I know nothing whatever about the politics of the island or the wishes of the islanders. All I can do this evening is to seek to draw an accurate picture of the island as matters now stand for the benefit of any who

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are interested. From what I have heard Montserrat used to be one of the nicest, most friendly and unspoilt of all the Caribbean islands. I should like to end my contribution to this most welcome debate with the same words that Dr. Francis used to close his talk to the Royal Geographical Society two days ago:

    "Spare a thought for Montserrat".

8.52 p.m.

Lord Redesdale: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Young, for initiating this debate. It seems timely that we should be debating Montserrat after the Statement on the White Paper this afternoon. However, the volcano did not erupt a mere six months ago when the present Government took office; the volcano erupted in 1995 and there were a number of debates when the previous government were dealing with the situation in which many of the same questions were asked as have been asked today. It perhaps shows the failure of the administration that after this amount of time these problems still exist.

It is unfortunate perhaps that the debate is not taking place in two weeks' time. The Select Committee on International Development will publish the conclusions of its report at that time. I believe it will be a detailed report and I look forward to some of its findings.

One of the problems that Montserrat faces concerns the decision-making process, which seems to have been labyrinthine and confusing in its complexity. From the outside it is difficult to work out who is actually in control of the situation: whether it is the FCO, DfID or the Montserrat Government, all of whom have degrees of influence on how the situation should be dealt with.

Many assumptions have been made as to how the situation should be governed in the light of the uncertainty that the volcano brings about. Until recently the north of the island was seen to be a safe haven, but wind changes making the ash fall in the north of the island have made the viability of that area questionable. How do the Government assess the viability of the island in the long term?

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman, gave a clear indication of the problems caused by ash falls. Indeed, I recently saw aerial photographs of the island taken from a helicopter which show areas that were once verdant, green, luscious valleys as grey wastelands. One of the long-term implications of the ash is that very little will grow in those areas over the next few years and it is possible that they will be uninhabitable for a long time to come.

The question is whether there will be a viable population on Montserrat in the next 10 to 15 years. Can the Minister say to what extent the ash will have long-term implications for those still living on the island? I saw pictures of children running around in the north of the island who were not wearing masks. Have the Government done any surveys or studies into how they will be affected? There must be an accumulation in their lungs of the type of ash dust described earlier.

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I apologise for asking so many questions, but it seems that Montserrat at the moment raises more questions than answers. Can the Government say how many people will be left on the island because they are infirm, old or suffer from mental illness which means that they can make no provision to leave the island? I hope the Minister has some figures in that regard and also on what provision is being made for them. If they have no family and are left on the island they must rely on the Government for their future support.

Also, what is being done to help those who have come to Britain already? Our information indicates that many people who come from Montserrat have to rely on their families or local authorities for support. In fact, a large number of people have decided to stay in Hackney and that is placing a considerable financial burden on that borough. Does the Minister have any plans to give assistance in that direction?

Looking to the future, can the Minister say who will be in charge of the immediate situation on the island? Is responsibility to be moved to the FCO or is DfID to have a further role? It seems that the FCO is spending the DfID contingency reserve on the island. If that is so, should not DfID have a role in spending its own money? Or, if the FCO is taking charge of the situation, should not the money for Montserrat come out of the FCO budget?

I have asked a great raft of questions and suspect that I shall not receive many answers. However, I hope that the Minister will say whether she believes that Montserrat has a sustainable future and will give us some indication as to what action is being taken to make that sustainable future bearable for those who wish to live on the island.

8.58 p.m.

Lord Moynihan: My Lords, I should like to join in praising and thanking my noble friend Lady Young on initiating today's debate. As always, it is a privilege to be able to participate in a debate with her, and today's debate, coming as it does at such a timely moment for the people of Montserrat, is no exception.

No one in your Lordships' House doubts the enormousness of the appalling tragedy that has befallen Montserrat. I do not think that it is too strong to say that the eruption of the Soufriere Hills volcano is one of the biggest natural disasters to wreak havoc in the Caribbean this century, leaving a trail of devastation and despair in its wake. I should like to join in paying tribute to the stoicism of the Montserratian people in the face of adversity. They have seen their homes destroyed and their livelihoods lost; yet there is the overwhelming desire to rebuild their lives despite the cloud of volcanic dust that hangs over their island.

I should like to congratulate the new governor, Anthony Abbott, on his appointment. I am sure that he will undertake his task in the days ahead with efficiency and compassion, as did his predecessor. On behalf of the Opposition, I should like to pay tribute also to the work of the former governor, Frank Savage, for his effective and competent representation of the Government on Montserrat during a most difficult period in the island's recent history.

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The dependent territories were debated admirably by your Lordships' House in June, and I believe this debate should be revisited in the New Year when the Foreign Secretary will announce the results of his comprehensive policy review. But I should like to ask the Minister whether the review was a knee-jerk reaction to the Government's handling of the Montserrat crisis in the summer. I ask this only because in that same debate in June the Minister informed your Lordships' House that there would be no change in the Government's policy towards dependent territories and, moreover, that there were,

    "unlikely to be any fundamental changes in the relationship between the United Kingdom and the dependent territories for some time to come".--[Official Report, 11/6/97; col. 919.]
The Secretary of State for International Development was quoted as saying that,

    "the budget [in Britain] exists to assist the poorest people in the world".
Is this also a change of policy by the Government? Previous government policy stated that the British dependent territories should have first call on British aid for all reasonable purposes. Or does it perhaps reflect the different agendas and conflicting priorities between the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development and even within the Department for International Development itself, as the Minister for International Development informed another place that,

    "it was not right to compare dependent territories with other countries...we have a special responsibility for dependent territories".
The Minister herself has told us that the Government are continuing the previous Administration's policy, that the,

    "dependent territories rank high in the UK's external priorities",
and that,

    "their reasonable needs are a first charge on UK aid funds".

On the subject of conflicting agendas, can the Minister also confirm for the House that the pressure on the Secretary of State for International Development to use part of her department's aid budget to build a maximum security prison in Montserrat originates from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and not, as implied this afternoon, from the Government of Montserrat?

During the past two years of volcanic eruptions and pyroclastic flows the island has changed from a bustling "Emerald Isle" to a pale shadow of its former self, its capital Plymouth abandoned and reduced to an ash-covered ghost town; its airport destroyed. The island has seen day by day, month by month, eruption after eruption, evacuation of two-thirds of the island.

The safety of the Montserratian people relies on the expertise of scientists. I pay tribute to the work of the British Geological Survey and the Montserrat Volcano Observatory for the work they have done. But volcanology and seismology are not exact sciences. Predictions can be made; but, like politics, there are no guarantees. The situation in Montserrat poses extremely difficult decisions both for the British Government and our colleagues in Montserrat. The Governments must use their information, gathered from expert opinion, to

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make a judgment grounded in compassion and knowledge. In making this judgment, they are caught between the danger of a premature return to normal life or the disruption of what may, in hindsight, be an unnecessary evacuation which will rip out the island's economic and cultural heart and scatter its population to the four winds. This dilemma is clearly understood in your Lordships' House.

Previous government policy used a twin-track approach to reconcile this need to keep the island viable with the paramount importance placed on the safety and the well-being of the islanders. £25 million pounds was dedicated to a development aid package to improve the infrastructure in the north, in addition to a commitment to supplement the island's recurrent budget. The voluntary evacuation scheme was set up last year to enable islanders to come to this country. The Opposition have fully supported the Government in bringing relief to the stricken island and recognise the importance of the aid the present Government have continued to give. The Opposition fully support the speed with which the Government responded to the fatal eruption in June and the vital emergency work undertaken in sending four helicopters for search and rescue expeditions; in setting up communications equipment and maintaining fuel supplies; in establishing a ferry service from Little Bay Jetty, which, I am pleased to say, was constructed from ODA funds under the previous Administration, to replace air services to Antigua; and in providing the support and services of the West Indies guard ship, HMS "Liverpool", to the island.

On that note, I hope that the future of the West Indies guard ship, which does such invaluable work in the Caribbean, will be protected in the Government's strategic defence review. I would be glad if the Minister could give the House a firm commitment that this will be the case. Failure to give this assurance would cause concern to all those who value Britain's commitment to the region.

I know that I shall have the support of your Lordships' House when I say that the handling of the disaster in Montserrat and the island's future is an issue which should be above party politics. The eruption of the Soufriere Hills volcano is a natural disaster. No government are to blame for the volcano, although a government can be held to account for their reaction to a crisis. The Minister had the full support of the Opposition for her two visits to Montserrat this year. Indeed, I commend her for her early interest in and commitment to the problems of the people of Montserrat. However, the goodwill generated by the Minister's visit appeared to evaporate over the summer. I have to say categorically that our relationship with Montserrat--that of responsible power to dependent territory--was damaged by the Government's actions in August. The Minister's statement of 25th July that,

    "The islanders know that British Ministers stand with them and will maintain the closest dialogue in the future",
now sounds like an empty and hollow promise.

The charges against the Government made by David Brandt, Montserrat's Chief Minister, in his evidence to the Select Committee on International Development,

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weigh heavy indeed and I would be neglecting my duty as responsible Opposition spokesman not to probe behind them.

The Chief Minister was unequivocal in his criticism of the Government, claiming that the Secretary of State for International Development had given "inaccurate and misleading" evidence to the Select Committee; that the Government's response to the crisis had been "disturbing and inappropriate"; that the Government's policy was,

    "geared towards systematically depopulating Montserrat",

    "scandalous haste and energy".
To deny these charges would seem to question the integrity of the Chief Minister of Montserrat.

The evidence seems to point to a divided, rattled and rudderless government, scuppered by their own rhetoric, abandoning promises to the Montserratians, denying them the "real choices" pledged so faithfully by the Secretary of State for International Development, by encouraging a programme of supposedly limited and voluntary evacuation, while at the same time cutting off the islanders' real hopes of staying in their own homes by suspending aid. This was compounded by a series of thoughtless, insensitive blunders. At the best interpretation, the Government's record is a catalogue of incompetent bungling. At the worst, it is a record of cynical manipulation.

I should like the Minister's comments on why this has happened. Certainly, following the Minister's visit to Montserrat, the Government seemed to be continuing the previous Administration's policy of providing emergency aid immediately, while committing funds to a long-term programme to maintain the economic and social viability of the island in the future. The Minister herself stated:

    "I wish to make it clear that the British Government has no intention of evacuating Montserrat in the present circumstances".

Can the Minister tell the House what changed between her visit to Montserrat and her press release of 25th July and the subsequent announcement of voluntary, off-island evacuation by the Secretary of State for International Development on 18th August? The limited, voluntary evacuation seemed to be a response to the fact that the people of Salem, the largest population centre remaining in Montserrat, were forced to leave their homes, which put further pressure on the cramped facilities in the north or was it simply a pragmatic decision taken to relieve overcrowding in the north or had the danger posed by the volcano become more serious?

Certainly, the Minister of State for International Development seemed to think this was the case. His interpretation of the scientific analysis contained in a report presented to the British and Montserrat Governments, led him to talk of the risk of a "cataclysmic-intensive eruption". If that were the case, should the Government not have discussed full-scale evacuation with its Montserratian colleagues? Surely, if we are agreed that the safety of the islanders is paramount, the risk of a "cataclysmic-intensive

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eruption" merited more than "limited voluntary evacuation"? Can the Minister say whether such discussions took place?

Yet it seems that the Minister of International Development made a mistake. His comments caused the chief scientist at the Montserrat Observatory, Professor Stephen Sparks, to say that, in misinterpreting the advice of the report, Mr. Foulkes had got it "hopelessly wrong". Professor Sparks explained this by the fact that

    "the interaction over this document between the scientific community and politicians in London has been close to zero".
Can the Minister say whether there were indeed discussions with the scientists over this document? If so, why did the Minister of International Development make those remarks, which have had such disastrous and far-reaching consequences? If not, how could the Government justify suspending long-term aid for development of the north and offering an evacuation programme ostensibly based upon a scientific report which they had not even discussed with the authors?

Indeed, did this suspension of long-term aid on such shaky foundation not make a mockery of the Government's repeated promises to,

    "place the highest priority on sustaining and improving the economic and social structure of Montserrat"
and their commitment to,

    "ensuring the viability of the north of the island for all those who wish to remain or return to Montserrat",
prompting the comment from David Brandt that Britain's lack of commitment to invest in the island was forcing his people to choose between, "misery and the unknown"?

Does the Minister agree that events of 19th to 21st August; namely, the unprecedented street demonstrations, the riots in Salem, the protests outside the Governor's residence and the resultant forced resignation of the Chief Minister, Bertrand Osborne, reflect the prevarication and confusion of the Government in London? If London did not know what course of action to take, how were the islanders supposed to reach an "informed" choice?

On this note, can the Minister say what became of the Department for International Development's consultation process, which was under way to enable all Montserratians to make such an informed choice about their future? It is my understanding that this consultation process was abandoned in August, indicating that the Government had indeed abandoned the twin-track policy of assistance for those who wished to relocate, and long-term re-development of the north for those who wished to stay, and instead were pursuing a policy of evacuation. How can the Government parade the rhetoric of a Montserrat policy based on real choices when Montserratians themselves were never asked?

Does the Minister further agree that, given the confusion generated by the Minister for International Development, islanders were led to believe that there was no alternative to evacuation, hence the despair and panic witnessed in reaction to the prevarication and confusion over compensation and relocation allowances?

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Will the Minister comment on the suggestion that the Foreign Secretary's commitment that,

    "arrangements are being made to explain fully the options available to Montserratians to enable informed choice".
was wholly unfulfilled and therefore that the Government must take responsibility for the forced resignation of the Chief Minister, Bertrand Osborne?

The Chief Minister resigned after it was announced that Montserratians would receive a total of the equivalent of six months' average wages when they had been expecting 18 months' wages. Truth is regrettably a precious commodity in this sorry saga, but can the Minister shed light on David Brandt's statement that in fact the local department for the International Development Agency, the Montserrat Aid Management Office, drew up a plan for compensation of 18 months' wages per adult to relocate within the Caribbean and therefore the proposal cannot have been the surprise that the Secretary of State for International Development has since indicated that it was?

Like the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, I am also concerned about the numbers. There still seems to be confusion and contradiction between Montserrat and the Government on the most basic questions. The answers to these questions are vital to determine what action should be taken. Vague estimations will not suffice. To my mind that indicates a worrying lack of knowledge, co-ordination and communication between the two parties. I am sorry to burden the Minister with these questions. Her personal commitment and dedication to this sorry saga is not being questioned by either myself or my noble friends on this side of the House tonight.

However, I must ask the Minister whether she can tell us how many people are still living on Montserrat. In the Select Committee, the Secretary of State said up to 3,000--or 2,500 to 3,000, to be precise. David Brandt has said 4,000. How many Montserratians currently live in crowded conditions in temporary shelters? Estimates vary from 1,100 to 2,000. The Government have reiterated their awareness of the housing crisis. How many houses have now been built of the 250 units originally planned?

How many Montserratians applied to leave and how many actually left under the Government's assisted voluntary evacuation programme announced on 18th August? Is it not the case that the Government's voluntary evacuation was a farce? Thanks to the confusion of the Government's policy, more Montserratians returned on the ferry from Antigua than left under the programme.

On the subject of voluntary evacuation, I should be grateful if the Minister could also tell the House what decision has been taken for those Montserratians who have come to the United Kingdom. What will happen when their two-year term of residence expires?

I should be grateful if the Minister could clear up the confusion on a specific issue which has caused much distress. I refer to the desperate state of the sewage tanks on Montserrat and the responsibility for emptying them. Did the Department for International Development indeed supply two unsuitable, ageing sludge wagons to Montserrat in the first instance and then compound the

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problem by delaying handing over the third, working, vehicle when it arrived; or is Montserrat's Chief Minister lying?

On 16th September, the Department for International Development announced a feasibility study of the options for re-establishing the air strip which had been agreed in principle by the Government. I would be glad to hear what progress has been made on that feasibility study and what decisions have been taken as a result of it.

The Government's handling of the crisis has left a bitter taste in many mouths. It fell to Mr. Patterson, the Jamaican Prime Minister and chairman of Caricom to put into words the world's opinion that:

    "Britain's assistance to the island was an object lesson in how not to respond to a disaster".

We are united in our desire to work towards a happy and prosperous future for the people of Montserrat. The British Government's role is to act as a facilitator and co-ordinator, together with the locally elected officials, so that only the unpredictability of the volcano is an obstacle to the islanders' dreams for their future.

9.16 p.m.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I have listened to the debate with a great deal of interest, as one would expect, and should like to express my warm gratitude, as well as my congratulations, to the noble Baroness, Lady Young, on introducing this debate and to thank her for her personal courtesy in changing the date of the debate.

I should like to stress that gratitude particularly because, like the noble Baroness, I am concerned that the attention of this House should be drawn, and drawn again, to the plight of the people of Montserrat. As the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, indicated, I have been to the island twice this year. I have seen for myself what the island is like. I have seen the devastation. I have talked to the bereaved, to the homeless and to the frightened.

I should like to put on record once again this Government's commitment to the people of Montserrat. That commitment is absolute. I had hoped that this evening's debate would not be party political. We have dedicated £45.8 million to Montserrat, making it the third largest recipient of our international aid after India and Bangladesh. The noble Baroness referred to the White Paper. If she looks again at the White Paper, she will see that the dependent territories continue to have the "first call"--those are the words used--on aid for reasonable needs. The people of Montserrat are citizens of a British territory and this Government will under no circumstances abandon them in the way that the noble Baroness suggested that we might.

As the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, pointed out, these problems did not begin on 1st May--nor on 25th June with the further dreadful cataclysmic eruptions that took place then. These problems began in late 1995, when the Soufriere Hills originally erupted. I am bound to say that on my first visit, before the 25th June eruption, I met people then who had been in shelters for 17 months. Therefore, it is perhaps a little overdoing it

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to try to claim that all the problems can be laid at the door of this Administration. The problems were already well entrenched. People had been living in shelters for a very long time even before 1st May this year. If there is blame, then perhaps, in the spirit of unity and to take the issue forward, those on the other side of the House might have the humility to accept that some of the blame lies with them as well.

This has also been a very difficult situation to manage because the parameters have changed as the crisis has developed. The imperatives in this situation have changed and the requirements of the Government and the people of Montserrat have changed. I hope that noble Lords will recognise that this Government's response to that situation and to those requirements has also developed. Noble Lords would not expect me to claim--nor do I--that there are no areas where we need to do more, but I hope they will acknowledge that considerable efforts have been, and are being, made not only by my own department, which has overall political responsibility, but by several other departments of state which in some cases have a much larger executive role in dealing with the specific and practical problems that have arisen from this crisis.

I should like to begin my detailed response by answering directly the question put by the noble Baroness, Lady Young. The situation in Montserrat is dominated by the volcano and its activity. Because of the destruction wreaked by pyroclastic flows and the dangers of falling pumice stone, approximately the southern two-thirds of the island have been declared unsafe and remain evacuated under the advice of the scientists. For those noble Lords familiar with the geography of the island, this is in effect up to the Nantes River in the west. On the east of the island buildings as far north as the airport have also been destroyed.

As volcanic activity has increased, it has been necessary for Montserratians to move further north to safer areas. These moves have been largely successful. But Her Majesty's Government were deeply saddened by the death of 19 Montserratians who returned to the exclusion zone against advice and were killed on 25th June. Measures to prevent further reoccupation of the exclusion zone have been taken.

After a period of frequent explosions over the past month, the volcano is now relatively quiet, with no recorded explosions since 21st October. Scientific advice is that there is now a further build-up of the dome in the crater of the volcano. There is continuing seismic activity. In response to this, and conscious of the risk of a substantial explosion, the Governor has put in place as of today a further strict enforcement of the exclusion zone in the southern part of the island. We hope that that will be fully in force in the next 24 hours.

The Government of Montserrat and Her Majesty's Government are continually conscious of the risk of further serious explosive volcanic activity. They and we are ready to respond immediately in the light of different possible eventualities. There is, of course, an emergency evacuation plan. This has recently been updated in the light of current circumstances on the island. In essence, it involves moving the population to the north of the

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island, where emergency supplies are stored and from where, if circumstances made this necessary, they could be evacuated. We are constantly examining this planning in order to strengthen it. As part of this process, departments involved have also looked at what other assets, including military assets, could be brought to bear in support of the existing evacuation plan if that became necessary. A military reconnaissance team recently visited Montserrat for this purpose.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman, made various observations about the scientific history of the island. Scientists at the Montserrat Volcano Observatory report daily to the Governor, the Government of Montserrat and the public. The observatory is staffed by an international team of scientists, including scientists from Britain, France and America and from the Seismic Research Unit of the University of the West Indies. It is operated by the British Geological Survey with funding from the Department for International Development.

Reference has been made to the comments of Professor Sparks. I do not believe that those comments are entirely correct in their implication that there has been no contact between scientists and Ministers. My honourable friend Mr. George Foulkes and I have seen scientists. Indeed, I am due to see Professor Sparks next Monday in London.

Her Majesty's Government have been, and will continue to be, guided by advice from those scientists, and they have always taken into account the wishes of the people of Montserrat. We have extended the exclusion zone in line with that advice, most recently in September, to the line I described. Scientists have identified an intermediate zone, between the Nantes and Lawyers rivers, which is currently the focus of our attention. Approximately 800 people live in this area, including many senior government personnel and businessmen. We are, of course, considering the contingency that a further extension of the exclusion zone might require this intermediate area to be evacuated, but this is not an immediate prospect.

A number of your Lordships asked about the most recent population count of the island. The most recent count, made last week, shows that there are 4,058 people remaining on Montserrat. Of these, some 790 are accommodated in emergency shelters. Furthermore, 1,824 people have departed the island under the voluntary evacuation scheme since its inception in August. While home departments have been working to put in place arrangements for those Montserratians who have chosen to come to this country, on-island FCO and DfID staff have been working intensively with the Government of Montserrat to improve the circumstances of those who remain.

As I have said, £45.8 million in aid has already gone into the island. Emergency aid comprises £22 million for emergency shelters and health facilities in the north, a ferry and a helicopter service and other essential facilities. Infrastructural development in the north includes the construction of additional school buildings, the upgrading of power and water supplies, greater watershed protection and some improvement of the temporary medical facilities at St. John's.

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The noble Baroness, Lady Young, and the noble Lord, Lord Rea, were critical of the Government's response to health issues. In late September, Sir Kenneth Calman, Chief Medical Officer, led a team of senior healthcare professionals to Montserrat in response to a request from the Government of Montserrat for a report on public health and healthcare services. Fundamental to the subsequent report were a number of recommendations made by the medical team. A key recommendation was the suggestion that a health programme manager should be appointed on Montserrat charged with the responsibility for healthcare services. I understand that having agreed his terms of reference with the Governor of Montserrat, the DfID has now identified and appointed a suitably qualified individual, Dr. Tim Carter.

All the other recommendations in the report of the chief medical adviser have been accepted and are being implemented. The aid management office in Montserrat has already implemented some, such as the temporary hospital located in St. John's, which has been upgraded to function as a permanent five bed facility. Further improvements are being completed. Dust monitoring devices are in place in the northern zone and better emergency facilities have been established on the island.

The noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, raised the question of the prison. Prisoners on Montserrat are currently being held in an insecure private residence. Five prisoners are to be paroled and a further six will be transferred to a prison in the Turks and Caicos Islands. Costs for the transfer and accommodation of the prisoners are being paid for by the DfID. The two remaining prisoners must remain on the island for access to their lawyers and the judiciary. We are considering a proposal for a new remand centre capable of holding six prisoners.

The noble Lord, Lord Rea, and others raised the question of housing. The Government of Montserrat have for some time created small-scale housing projects to encourage resettlement in the north. However, by June 1997 it was clear that the capital, Plymouth, would not be habitable for some years--probably not at all. The Department for International Development therefore decided that it was necessary to construct housing in the north on a larger scale and it announced a £6.5 million project to house 1,000 people in 250 houses. The first 50 prefabricated houses have been completed and are now ready for occupation. Another 50 concrete panel houses are scheduled for completion by mid-December. The DfID tells us that the foundations for the remaining 150 houses will be ready at that time. In order to assist the Government of Montserrat with the move of Montserratians into these houses and with future housing policy, Her Majesty's Government have sent a housing officer to the island. I must emphasise that such action is not always easy. The northern part of the island is extremely rocky, the infrastructure is very difficult and the sewerage, to which the noble Lord referred, has been a problem. I am happy to say that that sewerage problem has been overcome and that the sewerage arrangements in the northern part of the island are working properly, as I understand it.

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The noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman, asked whether it was possible to forecast the course of the eruptions. He asked whether there would be eruptions for years to come. The answer to that question is that we are relying on the advice of the scientists. Yes, it is possible that there will be eruptions for years to come; it is equally possible that the Soufriere mountains will go to sleep, as they did for many hundreds of years, as the noble and learned Lord described.

The northern part of the island, we are told, is safe for the time being. It appears that the possibility of a cataclysmic event is as low as 1:10,000.

The noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, asked about the air strip. The terms of reference for the feasibility study were recently accepted by the Government of Montserrat and we believe that the study should be completed in December. The noble Lord asked for reassurance in relation to the guard ship and the evacuation plans. I can assure the noble Lord that the guard ship will be there for as long as it is needed in terms of those evacuation plans.

I was further asked by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman, about the evacuation of those with special needs. The Department for International Development is organising a charter flight for those evacuees with special needs who are unable to travel by scheduled flights. The first such flight is due to arrive in the United Kingdom on 7th November. Two British nurses have been sent to help with those people with special needs and to provide a proper assessment of the situation before they travel to the United Kingdom. So those people will be properly looked after.

I was asked about resettlement in the United Kingdom. The Home Office has announced within the last couple of days funding for a community support project to assist Montserratians arriving under the scheme to access statutory benefits and services and to support the work of the volunteers in the Montserratian communities. They will fund a project co-ordinator, two teams of advice and development workers in London and in the Midlands with administration and office costs, a peripatetic team of sessional workers to provide support as necessary in other parts of the country and training and expenses for the volunteers involved.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Young, for her suggestions about the training of civil servants from the dependent territories. There certainly would be advantages in civil servants in the dependent territories attending courses at the Civil Service College, and we shall be considering the proposals that she put to us.

Several noble Lords have referred to the remarks made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State in August this year. I am sure that noble Lords know that my right honourable friend has already apologised, and apologised publicly, for those remarks. She has expressed her regret that those remarks were taken out of context and for the fact that she expressed herself in those terms. I hope that her apologies will be accepted in the spirit in which they were offered.

The noble Lord also asked about informed consultation on the island of Montserrat. The noble Lord may not know that both the previous Chief Minister and

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the current Chief Minister were extremely hostile to the idea of the consultative exercise going forward. It is in the spirit of listening to what the elected government of the people of Montserrat were advising the Government of the United Kingdom that the decision was taken not to go ahead with the consultative exercise. After all, we are in the hands of an elected government; we are not about to overrule the advice that they give us when we come to assess the needs of the people on the island.

Perhaps I may also say that I hope the Government's commitment to the future of Montserrat has been seen in the setting up of the Montserrat Action Group. I believe it has become clear that, as a central organising committee with oversight of the aspects of the crisis which we have been discussing this evening, that group needs to exercise more direct executive authority. With the agreement of the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State at the FCO has decided that I should henceforward chair the group. I will do so from the next meeting, which will take place next Monday.

Questions were raised about the review of the dependent territories and about the Caribbean initiative. I am afraid that time is against me and I ask the

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indulgence of noble Lords who raised those questions to allow me to respond to those points in writing as quickly as I can.

I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in the debate this evening. We have covered many important issues. There has been an increasing take-up in recent weeks of our evacuation package for those wishing to come to the United Kingdom and the much larger number of Monserratians who have gone to Antigua and the nearby islands. We are very grateful to the governments of those islands for the help that they have given us. I believe that that underlines the unwillingness of many people on Montserrat to abandon their homes, however tragically those homes have been ravaged. Our first and overriding priority remains the safety of the people of Montserrat. The Government consider themselves duty bound to do everything possible to enable a viable community to continue in the north so long as that viable community is feasible. Therefore, we shall continue in our efforts to ensure that the people of Montserrat have real choices in their desperately difficult situation.

        House adjourned at twenty-five minutes before ten o'clock.

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