Oral Answers to Questions — Overseas Development – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 17th June 1991.

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Photo of Mr Peter Pike Mr Peter Pike , Burnley 12:00 am, 17th June 1991

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if Her Majesty's Government have any proposals to improve response time for aid to meet crisis situations.

Photo of Mrs Lynda Chalker Mrs Lynda Chalker , Wallasey

Yes, we have an excellent record in responding to disasters, but we are always learning from experience. We are currently reviewing our overseas disaster management arrangements and those of the United Nations. Those reviews will be completed shortly.

Photo of Mr Peter Pike Mr Peter Pike , Burnley

I recognise that time is crucial in a crisis or a disaster, but is the Minister satisfied that although the NHS crisis teams were made available on 1 April, they were still in the United Kingdom and not in Iraq a month later on 1 May? Does she have sufficient people in the crisis unit in her Department? Does she receive the necessary co-operation from other Departments to ensure that a speedy response is given?

Photo of Mrs Lynda Chalker Mrs Lynda Chalker , Wallasey

As I think the House knows, I was especially careful to ensure that if anyone went to the Gulf from the national health service as part of a volunteer team, they not only could do their work when they arrived there, but would be accepted by the recipient Government. Teams from other countries had problems which, fortunately, our teams did not encounter because of our preparation work. The people who went gave very good service.

In this three-month period we have doubled the staff in our disaster relief unit. Future plans are for a different organisation, which will respond just as quickly and effectively.

Photo of Mr John Wilkinson Mr John Wilkinson , Ruislip - Northwood

Has my right hon. Friend any plans to respond in double-quick time to the horrendous disaster that is unfolding in the Philippines following the awful volcanic eruption of Mount Pinatubo? Has she been able to consult her European Community partners or the United Nations agencies? The United States is clearly in a better position than we are, as it has military personnel on the spot, and the local Association of South-East Asia Nations powers are also there. Can my right hon. Friend reassure the House, however, that the United Kingdom will do everything in its power to bring assistance to bear?

Photo of Mrs Lynda Chalker Mrs Lynda Chalker , Wallasey

We greatly sympathise with the people and Government of the Philippines, who have experienced yet another major natural disaster. The embassy told us today that the Government would be requesting assistance shortly, and we shall do all that we can to meet their specific needs.

I should inform the House that Manila airport is currently closed. However, we have daily contact with our embassy, as the embassy has with the Government of the Philippines. We should not underestimate that Government's own capacity to handle the emergency, but we are ready to help.

Photo of Mr David Steel Mr David Steel , Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale

Is not the Minister concerned at continuing reports that aid is failing to get through to the populations who need it in parts of the Horn of Africa? Notwithstanding the long-term review that she is currently undertaking, will she support the ad hoc re-establishment of the United Nations office for emergency operations in Africa, which was so successful in 1985–86? When the office was stood down in 1986, we were told that it could be re-established if the need arose. Surely that need has now arisen.

Photo of Mrs Lynda Chalker Mrs Lynda Chalker , Wallasey

A very successful meeting has been held between Jim Ingram of the World Food Programme and the leaders of the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front in Addis about directing relief towards the pressure points and the ports of Africa. We are certainly prepared to consider the re-establishment of the UN office, if it is needed. Our current information is, however, that good news has been received, including that of the agreement in the past 48 hours to the air drop to Nasir in northern Sudan. Last week, I was instrumental in requesting that from the Government of Sudan.

Photo of Mr Richard Luce Mr Richard Luce , Shoreham

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the prompt action that she always takes when any emergency arises, but does she agree that there is no substitute for international machinery to deal with such emergencies? Both she and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister have recommended action on this front; can she tell us what progress has been made?

Photo of Mrs Lynda Chalker Mrs Lynda Chalker , Wallasey

The Anglo-German initiative discussed by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and Herr Genscher on 9 June is already in being. It involves the appointment of a senior figure who would report directly to the UN Secretary General, to direct all relief measures within the UN system and to co-ordinate the relief work of the humanitarian agencies and Governments. We do not know yet who that figure will be; we do not even know whether the initiative will be accepted internationally. There is, however, general support for the idea that we and the German Government have presented.

Photo of Ann Clwyd Ann Clwyd Shadow Secretary of State for International Development

Does the Minister agree that the crisis affecting refugees in Iraq is still unresolved? Has she seen the headlines in today's newspapers—for example, Major's haven plan in tatters in The Independent, and Don't leave the Kurds in the Daily Telegraph? Does she agree with the prediction that if the coalition forces and the United Nations do not guarantee a settlement, another million people will flee Iraq? Is she prepared for that event?

Finally, what would the Minister say to the senior aid worker who, having just returned from Iraq, said: The whole aid exercise has been completely wasted. If there is no artillery unit to hold the line against the Iraqi troops, the Kurds will run for their lives. They feel betrayed and they are terrified."?

Photo of Mrs Lynda Chalker Mrs Lynda Chalker , Wallasey

First, let us get the whole operation of save havens into perspective. We began the exercise in April, and phases 1 and 2 have been successfully completed, providing life-saving relief for people in the mountains and bringing them down into the safe havens. We are now working on phase 3, the aim of which is to give relief to Iraqi people in northern Iraq. That means re-integrating people into their own communities in Iraq, with protection. That is why the representatives of the Iraqi people have combined to form a central development committee, formed of the indigenous organisations, with three specialist sub-committees: one in engineering, one in agriculture and one in health. With the representatives of the Kurdish Democratic party and the PUKPatriotic Union of Kurdistan—working together, it will oversee what happens in the future. That is necessary because we have always agreed—right from the beginning—that allied troops would be deployed temporarily. We have taken no decision about the withdrawal of troops. We are in close touch with our allies and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is discussing the matter with his opposite numbers. I assure the House that, having successfully completed the first two phases, I shall ensure that other phases of the operation are successfully concluded.