[Relevant documents: First Report from the International Development Committee, Session 1997–98, on Montserrat (HC 267), and the Government's Response contained in the Committee's First Special Report (HC 532); Memorandum from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office: Current Situation of Montserratians in the United Kingdom (to be printed as HC 555).]
In debating this subject this morning, we should always remember the people of Montserrat, who have suffered grievously from the eruption of the volcano, which started in June 1995. It has meant that many of them—the vast majority—have not only lost their homes, most of which were their own property, but have lost their livelihoods, their schools and their community. They have had to move from one area to another of Montserrat. Many of them have had to go overseas to find a new life. In short, the eruption of the volcano has destroyed their lives and changed them irrevocably.
What this debate must concentrate on, and what we must all think about throughout our praise and criticisms of the policies that have been followed, is our concern for the people of Montserrat. I honestly believe that all those involved on the government side—the Governor, the Government of Montserrat, the Department for International Development and its predecessor, the Overseas Development Administration, and the Foreign Office—have all attempted in their different ways to help the people of Montserrat.
There have been some mistakes and failures, and I am afraid that this debate will, of course, concentrate on them, but before we begin on that criticism, we should also remember the dedicated and sensitive work done by many people on the island of Montserrat, in the Department for International Development and in the Foreign Office, who have done a great deal to alleviate the suffering of the people of Montserrat. I know from their testimony to our Committee, the Select Committee on International Development, that they would have liked to do more. Many hours of dedicated work have been involved, and we should pay tribute to that.
Undoubtedly, the basic problem arises from difficulties that we have invented for ourselves. The island of Montserrat is a beautiful island 12 miles by seven miles in the most beautiful blue warm sea of the Caribbean. It has had connections with Britain for more than 450 years. It is an island in which 11,000 people dwelt under the British flag. It is unusual for a Caribbean island in that it is not an obvious place for tourist development. It does not have the white sand beaches of many of the beautiful islands in the West Indies. It has a different economy; it has been a successful economy in many ways.
In the past five or six years, Montserrat has suffered several serious setbacks. The first was a human one. The elected Government of Montserrat indulged in offshore banking in a way that was, to put it mildly, unsatisfactory. That was followed by a devastating hurricane that destroyed the whole of the main city of Plymouth, which was painstakingly rebuilt at considerable expense to the Department for International Development over the following three or four years. By the time Montserrat recovered in June 1995, it was no longer dependent on budgetary aid from the United Kingdom. It had restored its economy under the leadership of an able development economist, Prime Minister Rueben Meade. Once more, Montserrat was able to look forward to an exciting and rosy future—whereupon the volcano began to erupt for the first time in 300 years. From that moment on, the livelihoods and lives of the people of Montserrat have been destroyed.
The government of the island is divided between the United Kingdom, in the person of the Governor on the island, who reports to the Foreign Office, and the elected Government of Montserrat. However, the Governor does not report directly to the Foreign Office, because the Foreign Office set up the dependent territories regional secretariat in Barbados. The Governor reports to the Foreign Office in London via the DTRS in Barbados and to the elected Government of Montserrat—no wonder that several Governors have described their condition as schizophrenic. It is not an easy post to fill: on the one hand, the Governor has to be the representative of the elected Government of Montserrat to the Government of Britain; and on the other, he has to be the representative of the United Kingdom Government to the elected Government of Montserrat and the people of Montserrat.
Into that mixture, we have introduced further complications by the way in which we deliver assistance to Montserrat through the Department for International Development, whose development division is also located in Barbados. It has three pockets out of which to finance Montserrat: first, emergency aid, which came into operation because of the volcanic devastation; secondly, budgetary aid to support the budget of the Government of Montserrat, over which rigid control is exercised; and thirdly, development finance. The Barbados development division also mans the DTRS—the Foreign Office outpost in Barbados—in respect of the delivery of development aid. Emergency aid is delivered direct from London, as it was when these events started. Budgetary aid is administered from the Department's office in Barbados.
I describe that complicated organisation because it leads me to the points that must be addressed. No one in that system has both the responsibility for the government of Montserrat and the money with which to do anything on the island. The result is an elongated, complicated and contradictory system of management on the island. The recommendation of the report of the International Development Committee, which has not been resolved by the Government's response, is that that should stop. We should provide the island with a management system that is efficient and comprehensible, and serves the people of Montserrat. The Committee believes that that can only be achieved if one Department has both the responsibility and the budget to meet that responsibility. Our report states that we believe that that Department should be the Foreign Office, although it could be another Department—for example, the Department for International Development, if the Government so chose. However, if the Foreign Office claims and acknowledges responsibility, it must be given a separate budget to run affairs in Montserrat, because only then can we simplify the lines of authority and manage events efficiently.
The budget for Montserrat should not come within the budget of the Department for International Development; it should be a separate budget. Indeed, the emergency expenditure, which has already cost the British Government more than £50 million—a huge sum to come out of the international development budget—should have been met, not from the contingency reserve of the Department for International Development, as the Government have suggested, but from the contingency reserve of the Treasury, because no one can forecast a volcano's eruption or make provision for it. The emergency was therefore truly unforeseen, and should have been met by an emergency injection of money.
Why does the Committee say that? The House should understand exactly what the contingency reserve of the Department for International Development is used for if it is not used to meet expenditure arising from the volcano's eruption on Montserrat. It is generally set aside at the beginning of the year to accommodate and provide flexibility in the administration of the Department's budget. By the end of the year, it has always been entirely utilised—that is, it has been spent on good international development objectives, providing assistance to some of the poorest countries in the world.
If we use that money to meet the problems resulting from the volcanic eruption in Montserrat, it is obviously not available for use in respect of the other aspects of aid. That is why we say that an emergency of that sort should not lead to a reduction in the Department's investment in its other aid objectives—expenditure on an emergency should come from the contingency reserve of the Treasury. The Government's response deliberately fudges those issues, and the House should understand what was implied and what the Committee recommended.
We have to sort out, first, the aid management scheme and, secondly, who is responsible for what in Montserrat. We have to give the Governor and the elected Government clear powers, and those powers should not overlap as they currently do. Let me give one example from the evidence in the report. Governor Savage recommended to the Foreign Office that we should build 1,000 houses in the north of Montserrat, away from the volcano, so that we could accommodate those who would have to move because of the volcanic activity. He told the Committee that, if the volcano had not erupted in a way that destroyed homes, he would have looked very silly having spent money on 1,000 homes in a safe part of the island which were not needed.
That recommendation was made in 1995 and 100 houses have so far been built. Their construction was authorised by the Secretary of State after 19 lives were lost in Montserrat on 25 June last year. The houses have been erected relatively quickly, but, in the meantime, because of the lack of alternative housing in the north, many of Montserrat's people have been living in deplorable conditions in makeshift shelters for more than two years, and they frequently have to move from one shelter to another. None of us would want to live in such conditions, nor would we want any of those people to have to continue to do so, but they are still living there.
Why did that happen? Why were 1,000 houses not built? The reason is that the Government of Montserrat did not want them to be built. They thought that, if we built 1,000 houses, it would signal to the people of Montserrat that they must evacuate the island because it had no future and that the people would therefore leave Montserrat; so the muddle continued. That is why I say that we have to sort out the constitution and government responsibilities properly, so that there is no overlap or confusion and so that we give the people of Montserrat a proper system of government of which we and they can be proud.
The combination of the British effort on the island of Montserrat and British support for its people is vital for its future. Montserrat will have a rosy future once the volcanic activity has died down. The people of Montserrat have great ingenuity and a strong system of values. In spite of all the difficulties affecting schools, Montserrat's excellent education system still achieves much higher results than any other comparable West Indian island.
The people of Montserrat offer us a challenge—to sort out the management, efficiency and control of our aid programme. I do not think that the Government have begun to give us the answers.
I agree with every word that the Chairman of the Select Committee on International Development, the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells), has said. His chairmanship of the Committee has been excellent—especially in relation to the issue of Montserrat—because of his great knowledge of the Caribbean and his many contacts there. It has been a pleasure to work with him; it is a pity that he is in the wrong party. I think that everyone will agree with those sentiments.
I have been involved with this issue for two to three years. In fact, my father recently told me that my great-grandmother came from Montserrat—I have a direct connection with the island, even though I was not aware of it.
Last August, the Montserrat Government asked me to visit the island to help them, as there was great conflict between the Governments of Britain and of Montserrat. I was astonished by the chaos that I found when I arrived. Departments were vying with each other, various fiefdoms had been set up, and the Foreign Office was arguing with the Department for International Development, the health Ministry, the observatory and the scientists—it was sheer confusion.
It became clear to me that politicians in Montserrat and the British Government needed to do some straight talking. I was pleased that, soon after my visit, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for International Development went to the island to continue the dialogue and assure the Montserratians that the British Government took their plight seriously. I believe that the attention paid by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and my noble Friend Baroness Symons has been extensive; they have worked as hard as they can to help.
During my visit to Montserrat, I noticed three clear areas of difficulty. The first was the situation in Montserrat itself after the volcano had erupted. Despite the fact that some of the best scientists in the world were there, their reports were conflicting. There was general confusion about what to do, and people were under pressure.
The second area of difficulty was Antigua, where the British high commissioner and others had failed to make adequate preparations to receive the Montserratians who had fled there after the volcano erupted in June and August. The Antigua Government told me about the difficulties that they faced when some 3,000 people descended on the island—they had no facilities to cope. I arranged a number of meetings, and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary was able to give reassurances, so that those matters were sorted out.
The third question involves the Montserratians who came to Britain; I believe that the previous Government must accept some responsibility for the difficulties that those people faced. Britain is known throughout the world for its organisation, but why was there so little organisation in Montserrat, Antigua and Britain to relieve the plight of the Montserratians?
Much water has passed under the bridge, and we do not want to rake over the past. Suffice it to say that, when I returned to Montserrat in September with the Select Committee, I saw a marked improvement. Some of the officials had been replaced by fresh, younger-looking people, who seemed to have much greater empathy with the people's plight and to be more anxious to ensure that the situation improved. Generally, I was pleased with the changes that had occurred in the month or so between my first and second visits.
Nevertheless, serious problems still had to be overcome, and the Select Committee's report pointed to a number of areas in which we felt that there was room for improvement. I found the Government's response to our report disappointing; with the exception of one of our recommendations, they have not responded positively. The Select Committee will discuss its other recommendations with the Government, as we want proper explanations.
I shall concentrate briefly on the plight of the Montserratians who came to Britain. They have been badly hurt by their treatment, as they have always believed that they are British citizens. They may have been called British overseas citizens, British dependent territory citizens or whatever, but they always felt that they were British and that Britain would protect them— Britain was the mother country. As Montserratians have said to me, they fought in the war and did all they could to assist Britain.
We must recognise what it is like to come from a small country, especially in the Caribbean and south America. The Caribbean islands are caught in the middle of a huge drug trade between north and south America. Safety and security are paramount, and Montserrat has always looked to the British Government for protection. As one person said to me, half a dozen bandidos with submachine-guns could take over the country overnight were it not for Britain. Montserratians depend on Britain, but they feel that they were let down when they were in dire straits, not by the British people, but by both the previous and current British Governments—many Montserratians particularly blame the previous Government.
Montserratians have not had a very good reception; no special arrangements were made. As they have found, a refugee or an asylum seeker has a better chance of being met and properly dealt with than a British overseas citizen. They have not even been told how long they can stay—that matter has still not been resolved. The Home Office said that they could stay for two years or for as long as the crisis lasted, but no one has stated categorically what the position is.
Montserratians have been told that they will be treated as British citizens, which, on the face of it, sounds very good. If one is treated as a British citizen, one is entitled to social security and so on, which sounds fine. However, these people come from a small Caribbean country where they are accustomed to a certain standard of living, warm weather and owning their own homes—some even have swimming pools. They have suddenly been thrust—if they are lucky—into cold, damp, mildew-ridden council flats in Tottenham, Hackney or Deptford. Some have been put into bed-and-breakfast accommodation—in one case, a woman aged about 35, her 17-year-old son and 16-year-old daughter were put into one room. In those circumstances, it is extremely difficult to see Britain as the mother country.
Those Montserratians have been treated abominably. A measure of how they have been treated on arrival in the United Kingdom is the fact that the group that has been given the task of looking after the Montserratians— belatedly, from January 1998—has been the refugee action group, an offshoot of the Refugee Council. The British Government are treating the Montserratians not as citizens, but as refugees and asylum seekers. Apart from everything else, the status that they have been given has caused the Montserratians great grief, which they have felt very deeply indeed.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the many indicators of how badly Montserratians have been treated, and how little care has been given to their resettlement, is the fact that although—as we both know—the largest group of Montserratian evacuees is in Hackney, my borough, Haringey, his borough, and surrounding areas, the Government admit, in a memorandum sent to the International Development Committee, that they have not even bothered to keep central records of Montserratian evacuees in the London area?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I am glad that she raised that point. She would be as amazed as I and the Committee were to discover that, not only did the British Government not know how many refugees were coming to the United Kingdom, but they did not even know how many Montserratians there were—and there are only about 3,000 of them. A member of the Committee said, "You have a lot of redundant teachers because there are no schools. Could not you send them round to count the people?" Twenty people could count the population of Montserrat in a day, but the British Government were not clued up enough to do so.
To a large extent, Montserratians who have come here, in the most seriously reduced circumstances, have been left to fend for themselves. They have been expected to use the existing services available to the homeless and the penniless domestically, which are, by and large, entirely inappropriate to their circumstances. Some of them have been traumatised, having lost everything, and they have found themselves in unfamiliar surroundings. They should not have had to grapple with the social security system, or with the intricacies of the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977, as operated by local authorities. A proper system, specifically for them, with adequate financial aid, should have been established by the previous Government as soon as it became clear that Montserratians would come to the United Kingdom in considerable numbers.
Many Montserratians have been left without sufficient funds to buy essential items of furniture and clothing. One family came to me who had asked for a social security grant and been told that they could get a loan to buy furniture. We may find it hard to understand how those people felt about borrowing money. They are independent people who have never had to borrow anything in their life, and when they are asked to borrow money from the state, they feel insulted.
Several families who visited me had little but the tropical clothing they stood up in, yet they were entitled to no help to equip themselves with warm clothing for the British climate. When one person came to my surgery, I had to give her my overcoat to go home in because she was shivering from the cold.
There has been no one to assist the displaced Montserratians. At Department of Social Security offices, they are met with hard-faced individuals who say, "We have been told that we need not make special allowances for you, so you must cope as best you can."
Often, Montserratians have been housed in the most disgraceful temporary accommodation imaginable. There has been some anxiety about unfairness in the method of subsidising local authorities that have had the responsibility of housing the displaced Montserratians. The local authorities that have drawn most Montserratians to their areas—such as those of my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) and myself—because they already have a sizeable population of Montserratians in their area, have struggled to cope.
We have had little or no subsidy from the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions scheme. The scheme has been used, in effect, to bribe unwilling local authorities to take Montserratians, and they have tended to be those most able to help in the first place. My local authority—already under severe pressure because we have the highest concentration of refugees of any constituency in the country—has been willing to do what it can to assist, with hardly any subsidy, and I know that the same has been true of Hackney and other London boroughs.
I understand that the Home Office is running a scheme that beggars belief. When Montserratians arrive at Heathrow or Gatwick airport, they are allocated to certain local authorities. If, because of family connections or other reasons, they do not wish to go to those authorities, the authorities that they go to are not given any housing subsidy by the Government, whereas, if people go where they are sent, the authority that houses them is given a subsidy. I find that amazing. One would expect a sympathetic Government to welcome the fact that people have connections in this country and to be pleased that they go to those connections instead of going into strange parts.
I received representations on that subject from a Member of the Legislative Council in Montserrat, who was very worried about the vulnerable people who had been sent to accommodation in the north of England. He told me that ill, frail, elderly people, and some mentally ill people, who were supposed to have gone into that accommodation in Durham for two weeks, had been there for several months. Although they are very pleased that the authorities in Durham took them on board, there is no Montserratian community in Durham. Those elderly people have been taken out of their warm sunshine and plonked into an old people's home or other accommodation in Durham, where they feel isolated. The surroundings are unfamiliar. The people do not eat the same food and they cannot understand what they are saying. One can understand how difficult that is for an elderly person who has been traumatised by the volcanic eruption.
I know that in my area, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche), a hospice is available, with very nice gardens in the middle. There are many people from Montserrat in the area. We have asked the Home Office why it cannot put those people in my constituency, in the next constituency, or in Hackney, provided that there is accommodation. I am sure that there will be.
Why is it not possible for the Government to do something about housing? There are a number of specialist Caribbean housing associations, such as Carib Housing and Ujima. There are several other black housing associations, which would have been pleased to house the Montserratians. They know what the Montserratians like; they know what to expect; they would have put them in nice, friendly houses. The Montserratians would have been welcomed and they would have been in touch with their people. Instead, we get stone walling from the Government generally, or the Montserratians are told, "You go where we send you and that is the end of it." There is no discussion—no communication.
Montserratians in this country feel that they have a grievance. They feel that, when they came to this country, they should have been given a resettlement grant, like those who went to Antigua and other parts of the Caribbean. They feel that they needed something. The Government should have said to them, "Here you are; here is a package"—perhaps a bundle of warm clothes plus X pounds—"so that you can settle yourselves down." That has not happened, and there is grave concern about it.
I also raise the question of the return of people to Montserrat. What will happen if people wish to return to the island? Will their fares be paid? What about those who paid their own fares and arrived in this country just before the assisted fares scheme began? Are they entitled to a rebate?
I appreciate that Ministers have devoted a great deal of time to this question and that the matter has been difficult to deal with because of the number of Departments involved. I appreciate also that the Government inherited considerable chaos from the previous Administration. However, there is much to be learnt from the difficulties that have been experienced in co-ordinating these matters. I hope that the Government will continue to reflect on the gap between the promises made and the help delivered. It has been an important learning curve for all concerned.
When I first visited Montserrat, I blamed many people for the Montserratians' plight, which I said was aggravated by out-and-out racism. I still believe that an element of that is involved. However, I have now met several officials, particularly those from the Department for International Development, in Montserrat and elsewhere, and I believe that they genuinely wish to assist. I must be honest about that. The volcano caused a disaster of such magnitude that the bureaucracy simply could not cope. Underlying my criticism, I am sure that the people of Montserrat would want me to say that they appreciate the help that has been given. I hope that the Government will continue their good work on Montserrat in the future.
I wish to address several aspects of the disaster that concern me most. Before I do that, I thank the Chairman of the International Development Committee, the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells), who has done an excellent job, and the Committee Clerk, who also worked extremely hard. Their efforts are much appreciated.
Like the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Grant), during my visit to Montserrat, I discovered that I had a connection with the island. My surname, which is very rare in this country, is apparently a common family name on Montserrat. I have checked my background and my husband tells me that his great-great-uncle did an awful lot of travelling—and it rather seems as if he did an awful lot of other things as well. I shall check in other countries as I travel around the world.
I agree with the commitment made in the first paragraph of the Government's response, which refers to making
it possible for those Montserratians who want to do so, to remain on the island as long as the scientists advise that it is relatively safe for them to be there.
However, I was extremely concerned to hear recently that the Government of Montserrat are encouraging people to return to the island while the volcano remains active. I consider that to be irresponsible behaviour. Many of the actions of the Government of Montserrat suggest that they are sometimes more concerned with their position than with the safety of the people whom they represent. Those are harsh words, but I think that they may be true.
I am glad to learn from the response that the Montserrat Government's leaflet to residents has been distributed, and that much effort has been made to inform people of the situation on the island. However, I was very disappointed in the leaflet, which purports to describe the situation in layman's terms. If the health education department from my previous job had seen that leaflet, it would have said that it was incomprehensible to many people. The leaflet is not designed for easy reading. It is complete nonsense to use words such as "prognosis" in a leaflet to be distributed all over Montserrat. I suggest that the leaflet be urgently revised and made readable.
I found one sentence in Sir Robert May's report particularly enlightening. On page 2, he says:
We should be wary of placing too much faith in the predictions of future activity as a foundation for making decisions.
Elsewhere in the report, Sir Robert says:
do not place too much emphasis on results…never before done
a risk assessment on an erupting volcano".
Sir Robert May says time and again, "Please do not take what I say as gospel. Take it with a pinch of salt, as I cannot make accurate estimations."
The rest of my remarks are set against that background of uncertainty. The Government's response mentions the hospital and medical programme on Montserrat. During our visit, I was absolutely appalled by the rudimentary nature of the care at the island's hospital. One doctor and several demoralised nurses working in an old school building constituted the hospital. The wards were dirty, the paint was peeling, the beds were broken and a few old screens and curtains were erected around a seriously ill patient who had just returned from Guadeloupe, where he had undergone treatment for severe burns received during the explosion last August.
That was two years after the volcano's first eruption. The Committee's report asked where the equipment from the hospital in Plymouth had gone. No one on Montserrat seemed to know, and the Government's response says that it is "in storage". We still do not know where that storage is or where the equipment has gone. If that equipment comprises beds, screens or basic provisions for hospital wards, why is it not being used at St. John's hospital on Montserrat?
The news of the upgrading is welcome. However, the Health Minister on Montserrat said only last week that very little had been done and that health conditions on the island remained appalling. Without returning to Montserrat, it is difficult to know whether the promises have been delivered.
I refer now to the health risk posed by the silica dust in the volcano ash. When we were in Antigua, there was a thick layer of dust all over that island and in the north of Montserrat. We have been told that prevailing weather conditions make the north of the island a lot safer than the rest of Montserrat. Nevertheless, there are still children and small babies on Montserrat who are inhaling volcanic dust that contains very fine particles called cristobalite, which could cause silicosis in the future—we are not sure whether it will, but it could. Sir Robert May suggests that Montserratians may attribute any future illnesses to their exposure to ash. They may be quite justified in doing so. Who will pay them compensation? That issue is not addressed in the Government's response.
We also recommended that Montserratians in this country should undergo health monitoring and lung examinations in future years. However, the Foreign Office letter reveals that the Government do not know where those people have gone. No one has kept a record of their movements. How can we check on people's health if we do not know where they are?
During our visit, the Committee was concerned about the island's evacuation plans. There seemed to be any number of such plans, all of which conflicted with each other, and the island's residents had no clear idea of what they should do in an emergency. Even though the Government claim that evacuation plans are being developed, I am concerned about whether people are aware of them and have practised evacuation procedures.
How will the Government of Montserrat manage sick, elderly and mentally ill patients in an emergency? How will helicopters fly if there are ash clouds over the island? How will boats land at the temporary jetty? The eruption on Boxing day last year caused a huge tidal wave around the island that rendered the jetty useless. How will people be evacuated from the island in an emergency? I refer again to Sir Robert May's report, which states:
People must also take into account that in the improbable event of a major eruption affecting the North there would be no time for evacuation.
Such an event may be improbable, but it could happen.
There is no mention in the Government's response of the Wadge and Isaacs report of 1987. That recommended against establishing communities in the Plymouth area of the island. A great deal of money—our money, from the Overseas Development Administration, as it was then— was spent after the hurricane in rebuilding an area of the island that scientists had assessed as probably not safe because of the volcano.
I know that this is all hindsight, but where are the explanations from Government Departments? Why was action not taken on that report? What were the vested interests, if any, in the Plymouth area to allow development to take place? Why, after the hurricane, did the previous Government not take the report into account before spending all that money on rebuilding?
Why has the Foreign and Commonwealth Office not investigated the disappearance of the report? We are told that it was blown away from the Governor's residence in Montserrat by the hurricane, but no hurricane affected the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Where did the report go? Is not the FCO concerned that a report commissioned by it and costing public money disappeared without trace until the report from Christian Aid brought it to light?
I have covered only a few points from the Select Committee report and the Government's response, but there are many others. The Department for International Development has made great strides since last May. If the suggestions of the Chairman of our Select Committee are adopted, it is to be hoped that new lines of management and accountability will speed up our country's response in the future.
I ask myself time and again whether a natural disaster in Kent or Surrey would have been dealt with in the same way. I think not. I am still ashamed that our people in Montserrat have been treated so badly.
I am pleased to have a chance to contribute to the debate. It has been a privilege to serve on the Select Committee for International Development, and I, too, pay tribute to our Chairman and the Clerk, and to all the work that has been done by Ministers, the Department for International Development and the people in Monserrat to deal with the crisis.
Many of the points that I wanted to touch on have been raised by other members of the Committee, so I shall not hark back over those. I stress strongly the issue of communications. The convoluted problems experienced in dealing with the crisis come back to the labyrinth of lines of responsibility and lines of communication, as the Select Committee discovered.
I recall one sitting in which we were trying to get a grip on who did what in which Department. We heard that a matter was dealt with by the British Development Division in the Caribbean, the West Indies and Atlantic department, the Governor of Montserrat, the Overseas Development Administration as it was, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Governor of Monserrat again and the Department for International Development. At one point, I asked for a diagram, in the vain hope that that might make matters clearer, but the diagram was laughable—it was a spider's network of squares, and we gave up.
I cannot emphasise enough that the situation needs to be sorted out. I am pleased to say that the new Government, in the first nine months, having been pushed into the situation, are taking seriously the task of sorting out the responsibility and communication problems.
The Committee made two clear recommendations, Nos. 13 and 20, about lines of communication. Are not members of the Committee concerned that, in their response, the Government have totally ignored those recommendations? Nowhere in the Government's response is there any reference to them. It is as if those conclusions had never been reached by the Committee. Why does the hon. Lady think that the Government have ignored them?
There is still a long way to go, and several things that need to be done. It is worth recognising that the situation did not arise just in the past nine months. We have not reached this terrible state of confusion overnight. There is an historic problem. The previous Government did not exactly bend over backwards to try to sort out the Kafkaesque situations that the Select Committee encountered. At one point, I wondered whether I had stumbled into a bad episode of "Yes, Minister", being a new Member of Parliament.
I welcome the fact that, as a new Government, we have started to get to grips with issues such as the dependent territories now becoming overseas territories, and ensuring that the same people will have responsibility for decision-making and for allocating resources.
So far, we have spent about £50 million in UK aid money in trying to deal with the crisis and development in Montserrat. Unless we deal with the communications issues and the lines of responsibility, that money will not be well spent to bring aid and long-term development to the people of Montserrat, who so desperately need it.
We have heard reference to the Wadge and Isaacs report, which was funded by the United Nations disaster relief organisation. It examined the long-term chances of disasters occurring on the island—hurricanes as well as volcanoes. A copy was sent to the Government of Montserrat and to the Governor of Montserrat. The FCO did not get a copy. The ODA, as it was, did have a copy, but we do not know who it was sent to and what happened to it.
The report stated clearly that the volcano was a threat to people in Montserrat and that development in Plymouth was not recommended. The FCO at the time did not know that, so the previous Government spent £16.8 million in 1989 on redevelopments around the Plymouth area which were destroyed almost as soon as they were put up. That includes the water supply and the Glendon hospital development.
The Select Committee report says that that was administrative incompetence. It was a clear case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand was doing. The new Government must take that on board and guarantee that we shall never be left in that position again.
We have heard about good communication with the residents of Montserrat. I confess to having been a tabloid journalist and knowing that the average reading age of a person in the UK is between eight and 10 years. The advice to residents of Montserrat—the leaflet telling them what to do and what the long-term prognosis was for the island—made disturbing reading. I shall quote one paragraph on the assessment of risk which people in Montserrat are supposed to understand. It states:
The risk assessment based on the assessment of the status of the volcano and its hazards suggests that in terms of fatalities the individual risk to people living north of Lawyers River…is 'minimal', 'low' for those in North Olveston and Woodlands…'moderate' for anyone in the Salem area…and 'high' in the 6remainder of the exclusion zone".
Pardon? What are people supposed to do with that information?
The section on health risks states:
There is also a risk to health from exposure to volcanic ash, of which the ash from pyroclastic flows is the most dangerous. Ash from the volcano is known to contain cristobalite, a toxic form of silica which can cause silicosis following prolonged exposure.
We must tackle this as a communications problem. If that is the advice that people are given, the new Department for International Development must ensure that its communications staff put the information into plain English which I and my family could understand, and which the people of Montserrat could understand, too.
Communication is a crucial element of the final draft of the sustainable development plan for the long-term future of Montserrat. If people in Montserrat are to have faith that the north of the island can offer their families a future, and that the island towards the south and centre can eventually be resettled, they must have a stake in the sustainable development plan and be involved in drawing it up.
The plan must examine issues such as the insurance problems, because at present, there is no insurance cover on the island, so if people want to build new houses or redevelop their businesses, they cannot get insurance. It must consider food production, small and medium-size enterprise development and housing. It is crucial that the plan is communicated effectively to the residents of Montserrat and the people who are currently overseas, but who may wish to return, so that they can become part of that process.
The Government have given us a response. There are still aspects on which much more work needs to be done. The Government accept that lessons must be learnt from the handling of the Montserrat crisis. They have agreed to produce a frank and open report of the administration and handling of the crisis and its lessons. That is to be welcomed.
The point has been clearly made by my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Grant) and by the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) that the people of Montserrat consider themselves to be United Kingdom citizens. The population of Montserrat is about the size of a small market town in Gloucestershire, for example. It is horrifying to think that if, God forbid, there were a disaster in Gloucestershire at one of the market towns, people would have to jump through the hoops and processes that confronted the people of Montserrat before receiving the aid and assistance which they deserved and to which they have a right. We are talking about people who have UK protection.
I am sure that the appropriate lessons have been learnt by the Government. I am pretty sure that in nine months, we have made enormous strides. The situation has not, however, developed overnight and those who were members of the previous Administration should answer some strong questions about whether they closed their eyes to a terrible convoluted mess of responsibility and communications and thereby allowed the situation to get to the stage that confronted the Labour Government.
I shall be brief, because I know that the Minister and my right hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Sir A. Goodlad) wish to make serious contributions.
I do not share the optimism of the hon. Member for Gloucester (Ms Kingham) that the lessons will be learnt. I am sure that it is intended that they should be learned, but it is clear from the sorry saga of which we are aware that the British Government's administrative machine, of whichever party, wants to do the best that it can without disturbing its own settled procedures. That is by no means good enough. When the Secretary of State for International Development came before us, she said that there are
so many players in this thing it is very difficult to have authority over people who make the decisions or know the answers".
When the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Baroness Symons, came before the Committee, she said:
I am sure you would find that those departments would be very angry indeed if the Foreign and Commonwealth Office came along and tried to issue anything that looked a bit like an order.
This is not just a matter for Montserrat. What would happen if, God forbid, some disaster befell the Falkland Islands, Tristan da Cunha, St. Helena or any of the other dependent territories? Would we have a situation in which the various Government Departments could not be pushed about because a junior Minister in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, or the International Development Office, did not have the clout to tell them what to do? That is nonsense. It is high time that the Government set up a structure to respond to such emergencies and to carry clout across Whitehall.
It has been said already that it is nonsensical for the Government to say in their bland reply to the Committee that they accept all its recommendations except the 46 that they are not really accepting. What is the merit in saying that structures are being worked out to try to find out where the Montserratians who may be at risk from ash are now located, when, in an earlier part of the Government's reply, they say that it is not impossible to track down the Montserratians who are in this country because they have been absorbed in the social security system like any other citizen?
The Government cannot have it both ways. Either we can find these Montserratians or we cannot. It is nonsense to suggest that they cannot be found. A tiny number of people left an island by one exit only. At no stage did anyone count them or analyse who was leaving. That is nonsense. We have no idea whether the people who came from Montserrat are older or younger than the average age of the population. We have no idea whether the people left in Montserrat are older or younger, although I believe that some effort has been made to count who is still there. I have no knowledge they have been analysed in terms of age or infirmity.
I do not know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, whether you have ever kept a hamster in your family. One of the characteristics of hamsters is that they pedal like blazes in a wheel. As that wheel is not connected to anything, however hard the hamster works, nothing else happens. From the point of view of the hamster, such activity is purely a matter of personal health. I have the impression that well-meaning officials and Ministers throughout the Government machine have also been pedalling like blazes. Unfortunately, the machine to which they are attached cannot deliver. It is time that something was done about that.
If nothing else comes out of this sorry story, a unit must be set up that can deliver across Whitehall when emergencies arise that affect dependent territories, as they used to be called, for which we have a responsibility. If nothing else apart from such a unit emerges from the report, it will still have been worth while.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to the debate. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Grant), I have been involved in the Montserrat issue for many years.
Monserrat is a tiny jewel of an island which is a long way away from the United Kingdom. The House should be aware that the entire Caribbean is looking to see how the Government are dealing with the issue. The way in which the Government deal with the Montserrat crisis is a test of their commitment to the region. Every dependent territory, wherever it may be, is looking to see how the Government deal with the issue. For the dependent territories, Montserrat is a test of the UK's commitment to them. In addition, Britain's entire Afro-Caribbean community is looking to see how the Government deal with Montserrat,
We know that, when another dependent territory—the Falklands—was in its time of trial, the UK did not count the cost. We would like to think that in helping the people of Montserrat in a tragedy that those of us who have not been to the island can only imagine—imagine three quarters of our country being covered in volcanic dust— this country will not count the cost.
I wish to make three main points. First, tremendous difficulties have been caused by the complications of decision making and the divisions of responsibility between London, Barbados and the Governor. There is also the division of responsibilities in the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development. We have seen in the case of Montserrat what happens when responsibilities are divided between two Cabinet Ministers. We have seen that that division of responsibilities does not work.
In any situation of this sort, the Foreign Office—the lead Department—would have to call on the expertise of officials in DFID. We have seen what happens, however, when there is split responsibility. Through no fault of their own, the people of Montserrat have been caught up in an administrative tangle. Worse, they have been caught up in turf wars. I hope that we shall learn from this and that a system and organisation will be put in place to deal with such problems so that split responsibilities and turf wars are not seen again.
Secondly, there is the situation on the island. In June 1997, 19 people died because of the volcanic explosion. I tabled a private notice question and pressed my hon. Friend the Minister on the state of the hospital on the island and housing generally. I am sad that, eight months later, so little progress has been made.
I referred to the state of the hospital, its outside toilets and the disillusionment and demoralisation of the nurses and doctors, and my hon. Friend the Minister had soothing words. He may have come to the House today with more soothing words, but for the people in the hospital, including nurses and doctors—in fact, it is a makeshift building, not a hospital—soothing words are not enough.
We know that the Government inherited a terrible situation from the Conservative Government. However, the people of Montserrat have waited long enough for action on specific issues, such as housing and the hospital, which have been raised time and again.
Thirdly, I am disturbed about the situation of Monserrat evacuees in this country. The Government have not even bothered to carry out a comprehensive survey of the number of evacuees who are here, especially in north-east London in areas such as Hackney and Haringey, where there is the largest group. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office produced a memorandum on the position of Montserratians in the United Kingdom, which refers to benefits and states that districts are able to provide access to a contingency reserve so as to provide loans and grants. The memorandum tells us that the districts have been reminded of this.
I went to the benefits office in Hackney in my constituency not so many weeks ago. Those responsible had no knowledge of the reserve that is referred to in the memorandum. I want an assurance that benefits offices in areas where we know that there are many Montserratians will be approached and asked to apply for the contingency reserve. In Hackney, Haringey and other areas, Montserratians with no clothes, heating or blankets are turning up at social security offices and are being offered loans. How are they supposed to repay these loans? They are not able to claim on insurance.
The Minister shakes his head. I invite him to come to the Hackney benefit office with some of my Montserratian evacuees, and shake his head at them and see what they say.
I represent and live with the people who are suffering, and what the Minister says at the Dispatch Box about how the benefits system is working does not match the experience of Montserratian evacuees when they go to benefit offices and ask for help. The problem is that we have Government documents and soothing words from Ministers, but on the ground, the experience of Montserratian evacuees is very different.
There are many issues that one can raise in relation to Montserratian evacuees: housing, the lack of help for housing associations to provide for Montserratians' specific needs and education. One of the problems that Montserratian parents find, which might surprise some hon. Members, is that their children are rather further ahead than some of the children in our inner-city schools.
At the end of last year, I held a public meeting in Hackney, where more than 200 Montserratian evacuees live. They feel most strongly and are most wounded about the nationality issue, because they believe themselves to be loyal British subjects. I am heartened and pleased that the Foreign Secretary is considering making all citizens of dependent territories British citizens, as they were not so long ago. That would help the Montserratians, and it would be a significant gesture to every citizen of a dependent territory. I am sorry that there has been some turf war or struggle about the Foreign Secretary's statement, but one thing—apart from the financial and organisational issues—that the Government could do to show good faith to the people of Montserrat and the people of dependent territories is restore them to full British citizenship.
We have heard of the hard work that has been done by the officials from DFID, and the energy and activity of Ministers, but if there are any true heroes and heroines in this story, they are the people of Montserrat, who have undergone a tragedy and disaster, which we can only imagine, with unparalleled dignity and restraint. Just as the people of Montserrat and the dependent territories have always been loyal to this country, so we should be loyal to them now.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells) and the Select Committee on International Development on their first choice of subject for investigation and analysis. Their decision to visit Montserrat and to hold an extended series of interviews reflects the concern that is felt in this country and on both sides of the House.
The report and the Government's response to it remind us of the enormity of the tragedy that has taken place, and refuel our deep sympathy for the islanders. It is worth repeating the first and undisputed conclusion of the Select Committee. It was appalled at what it saw on Montserrat, at the conditions that people were having to endure, and at the mismanagement and confusion that have been evident throughout the crisis.
As hon. Members have pointed out, many emerge from the affair with credit: the commanding officer and crew of the Royal Navy guard ship; the Governors of the island, Frank Savage and Anthony Abbott; the island's dedicated but beleaguered civil servants; and, of course, the volcano watchers, who monitored the rumblings of the hills.
Most outstanding, however, is the stoicism of the people of Montserrat. They have had their homes destroyed and their employment lost. Many have been forced abroad, including to our own shores. Nevertheless, there remains an overwhelming desire to rebuild their lives. As my meetings with Chief Minister Brandt have confirmed, enterprise and self-help are strongly held values on the island. The Montserratians naturally turned to the British Government for assistance that was necessary, not assistance that was unreasonable. They have expressed gratitude for the help that they received, but have felt rebuffed and ignored by the Government on too many occasions.
As hon. Members on both sides of the House have demonstrated, the Government's response to the report is less than adequate. Part of the criticism came because the people on Montserrat were talked down to when they were not being ignored by the Government. The Montserratians felt that they were viewed as a burden on other aid programmes. The traditional assumption that British dependent territories have first call on aid for all reasonable purposes seemed to be in jeopardy. Certain remarks were made that clearly resounded around the Caribbean and made matters worse. The Government were seen as aloof and patronising.
I understand that at a press conference on Montserrat on 12 September, the Under-Secretary of State promised to return to the island in three months to assess progress on implementation of the promises made during his visit. It is now more than five months since that press conference, and the islanders are awaiting to hear when he will fulfil that promise.
The memorandum raises questions that require answering. Many were touched on today. The Select Committee recommended that the Government inform all neighbouring islands of the evacuation plans for Montserrat. Measures to improve regional co-ordination were promised, but none has been spelled out. They are needed and would be welcome today.
The Government accepted that a full, frank and impartial report on the lessons of Montserrat should be commissioned. Whom will the Minister's Department nominate, and what will the report's exact remit be? Will the person be a judge? Will the report be impartial? Can the Minister confirm a timetable? Can he explain what its relationship will be with the current discussions on the future of what hitherto were called dependent territories?
The Minister will be aware of the disappointment on the island at the Government's decision not to provide support for its building society savers. Will he tell the House what affect that has had on small savers, and what proposals he has to help them?
Housing has been covered by other hon. Members. Perhaps the Minister will lead us a little further down the path of what can now be expected. Can he also confirm that the city of Durham, which has no links with the Caribbean, took in Montserratians with special needs, and discovered that no British Government Department would take responsibility for their care? Although the House would wish to recognise Durham's generosity, what has the Minister said to other Departments to ensure that Montserratians with special needs are properly cared for? Who in the Government is monitoring their interests?
A number of hon. Members referred to the division between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development, and the exacerbation of the crisis by bureaucratic buck passing. The problem stems from the division between the old Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the new Department for International Development. One has responsibility without the money; the other has money, but not the responsibility. We now learn that the problem is expected to be resolved by the creation of a third department, apparently responsible to both the others. I fear that that option may increase the existing discord exponentially.
The Select Committee has produced a useful report. The Government's response has left many questions unanswered. The Minister has an opportunity today to confirm that the interests of the people of Montserrat are paramount, as both sides of the House would wish, and that they should not be penalised by tinkering with departmental structures. As the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) said, many eyes outside the House are watching the Government and our proceedings today.
I also congratulate the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells), who has been a colleague and friend of mine since we entered the House together in 1979, on bringing this subject to the Floor of the House so quickly, and on his eloquent introduction. As he said, this dreadful natural disaster has devastated the lives of the people of Montserrat, as I saw on my visit.
I am prepared to go again, as quickly as possible. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary went last week to see for himself what was happening. I hope that when I do go again, the right hon. Member for Eddisbury (Sir A. Goodlad), who is the Opposition spokesman, will join me. I do not think that he has yet been to see the devastation for himself. The people of Montserrat are in an awful plight. I am sure that my hon. Friends will realise that there is no monopoly of concern for the people of Montserrat on the Back Benches; I share that concern. I was pleased that the Select Committee's report provided a balanced view. I was grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Grant) for recognising the hard work—the heroic effort in some cases—of officials on behalf of this Parliament and the Government.
The Development Committee made 35 recommendations in its report: eight have already been implemented; II are being implemented; six will be implemented; and four are being actively considered. That is a positive response to the Development Committee. Of the 10 critical conclusions, we have endorsed three and defended our position on seven.
For example, it was suggested that there had been no meetings with Caribbean leaders to inform them and discuss the matter. I met Caribbean leaders, chaired by Prime Minister Denzil Douglas, in Antigua on 2 September and we have already had three meetings with Caribbean high commissioners. The Committee proposed a further meeting between the Government and Caribbean regional Governments.
Last week, when I attended the Caribbean Regional Forum in the Bahamas, I reported on the position in Montserrat—on what we had done and what the people there wanted us to do. I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) that the Caribbean leaders welcomed what we had done and paid great tribute to the British Government for what we were now doing.
One theme that has come through strongly in this debate, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford and others, is the complicated decision-making procedure. As my hon. Friends said, we inherited that procedure. I was absolutely appalled by the complicated nature of decision making, but the new Government have changed and streamlined it, and have taken Barbados completely out of the loop. The aid management office now reports directly to the Montserrat unit here in the UK, which has speeded up and streamlined decision making.
I shall come to that in a moment. I am talking about the delivery of emergency assistance, development aid and support to the island. We are now discussing the matter with the Foreign Office, and account will be taken of the Select Committee's views. However, we must also take account of the fact that the skills for emergency assistance and development are in the Department for International Development, which helps other countries as well as overseas territories. We must also recognise that accountability to Parliament for our money rests in our Department, and we cannot gainsay that.
I liked the hamster analogy, although I certainly do not want to be regarded as a hamster. I want clout, but I also want accountability to the elected House of Commons so that we can have these debates and I can be accountable to Members of Parliament, as I am trying to be today. I think that the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) had that in mind.
However, I am also concerned that certain quarters— not the Select Committee—have not adequately recognised what has been done. The Government have provided emergency and development support on-island, amounting to a commitment since the beginning of the crisis of more than £51 million, of which £44 million has already been spent. That makes Montserrat one of the largest recipients of British aid. I do not say that grudgingly, but just to show that it is now on a par with Bangladesh, where 100 million people live in abject poverty. We are also concerned about them.
We all recognise that my hon. Friend is making an important point, but it shows that the budget of the Department for International Development is far too low. We all hope that it will increase. I know that my hon. Friend will get his head in his hands to play with if he sits there today and says that more money should come from the Treasury contingency fund, but all those sitting around him in the Chamber today think that that is the answer to this problem. Given that it is such a tiny island, Montserrat is getting a huge proportion of the small budget available.
I would welcome that support. Without giving too much away, may I say that the next few weeks might be an appropriate time to make representations.
We have put in essential infrastructure for the north, including air and sea transport links, a jetty, power, fuel and water supplies, road rehabilitation, and school and health facilities. Moreover, in response to the request, we have doubled the sum spent on upgrading the hospital and have now spent some £1 million. We have, therefore, taken account of what my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington said. Had we not taken all those measures, the island would be uninhabitable. All that has been achieved against a background of unpredictable and continuing volcanic activity.
I want to deal with the Montserratians who have left the island since the beginning of the volcanic emergency in July 1995. Many of them have chosen to relocate in the Caribbean region. We are providing relocation grants and support for travel costs for that group. I stress that the group chose to live in the region, and we have been working all along on the basis of informed choice. Most Montserratians live on Antigua and they will benefit from the £1 million allocated to assist them to establish small-scale businesses in Antigua. We have approved an initial £410,000 for support this year, and are willing to consider adding to that.
The Government also share the Committee's concern that some Montserratians in the region may experience hardship once their relocation grant ends. For the first wave of regional relocation grant beneficiaries, that will be at the end of March, which is coming up soon. We are therefore examining urgently options for targeted assistance to those who would otherwise experience great hardship.
Some 3,500 Montserratians have chosen to relocate in the United Kingdom, through either voluntary evacuation or the assisted passage scheme. The Home Office has granted all evacuees leave to enter the UK for two years in the first place and is currently considering evacuees' future immigration status. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham will be pleased about that.
Resettling Montserratians in Britain has been a complex process, involving co-ordination between agencies responsible for housing, social services, benefits, health care, employment and education. There have been teething troubles because it has taken time for some of the agencies to get into gear, and Montserratians have needed help to learn of their entitlements. We have taken a number of steps to deal with that. We are supporting Travelcare, the voluntary organisation that looks after Montserratians when they arrive at Heathrow and Gatwick. This year, the Home Office is also funding the Montserrat project to the tune of £800,000. The project provides community support to Montserratians to enable them to get their full range of entitlements.
In relation to social fund support, most Montserratians in need are receiving not loans but community care grants, and local offices have asked for more money. For example, the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham), has authorised £32,165 of additional money for Birmingham and is considering requests from Bristol, South and for Euston. I am sure that he would consider a request from Hackney as well. My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington can tell that to her colleagues there.
The population on Montserrat has fallen—everyone wants to know the exact figure—to 2,850, so we do know how many people now live on Montserrat. We are meeting their needs by providing housing, schools, health services, infrastructure and transport links. I am pleased to announce that the remand centre has also now been agreed.
In the time left to me this morning, I want to look at the future and discuss the long-term development assistance programme. We have discussed an initial draft of the sustainable development plan, which I agreed on 1 September with the Government of Montserrat. However, the most important element is the health and safety of the people of Montserrat, as the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) rightly said. That is paramount, which is why we have taken seriously the recommendations of the chief scientific adviser. Because of the risk assessment from the combined effect of ash and the continuing threat of the volcano, which has put further pressure on already overstretched facilities in the north, particularly housing, people are being advised to move out of the danger zone.
On 28 January, the Secretary of State for International Development announced our intention to construct a third tranche of 50 houses, and to accelerate the servicing of an additional 120 plots. I am glad to inform the House that my right hon. Friend has now approved £4.8 million for that purpose, and for a further 100 prefabricated houses to enable all those in shelters in the danger zone to relocate to the north. That meets in full our July 1997 commitment to provide 250 houses, and increases the total approved for development in Montserrat to £55 million. I hope that that will end once and for all the activities of those who put it around that we are trying to depopulate the island. We are committed to the people and the island of Montserrat, and as long as I am the Minister and this Government are in office, we shall continue to maintain that commitment.