Central America (Hurricane Mitch)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:30 pm on 9th November 1998.

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Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Shadow Secretary of State for International Development 3:30 pm, 9th November 1998

I thank the Secretary of State for that response, and especially for coming back from what I know is an important conference in Birmingham to give it. I know that hon. Members of all parties will want to send a clear message of solidarity and support to the people of central America who have suffered such an appalling catastrophe.

One of my earliest boyhood memories is of the black-and-white television reports of the terrible tragedy at Aberfan. That tragic loss of 114 young lives shocked our nation for many years. We can only imagine what the people of central America are going through in the wake of losing more than 12,000 of their fellow citizens.

Does the Secretary of State agree—in one sense, she has already said she does—that those people will need and deserve our support for many years to come? Will she join me in paying warm tribute to the aid agencies, which have hit the ground running to try to bring emergency relief to the affected communities? Given that the loss of life has been far greater than any that we have witnessed in recent years, does the Secretary of State believe that Britain's response to date has been commensurate? Has it been proportionate to the scale of the disaster? Is the right hon. Lady completely satisfied that her Department has been sufficiently generous in making funds available? Does she have any plans to make further moneys available in the near future?

Will the Secretary of State say a little more about the anticipated role of the Royal Navy ships on their way to the region? When are they expected to arrive and start work? Precisely what role does she expect our armed forces to play, and to whom will they be accountable? Many of them will be my constituents, so I have a particular interest in her reply.

Can the Secretary of State confirm that she has met in person the ambassadors of the central American countries affected by Hurricane Mitch to discuss their specific needs face to face? After two weeks of the crisis, with more lives being lost daily as a result of starvation and disease, what specific steps are being taken to avert the real threat of many more deaths from cholera and other diseases?

Is the Secretary of State aware that an humanitarian crisis, no matter how grave, is no excuse for sloppy government? Will she explain to the House why on the morning of Friday 6 November she dismissed debt relief as misleading and irrelevant, but by the afternoon of Saturday 7 November she issued a joint press statement with the Chancellor of the Exchequer that made debt relief an essential part of Britain's response to the crisis? What changed in those 24 hours? How had debt relief moved from being irrelevant on Friday to being essential on Saturday? If the Secretary of State had planned to call for the speeding up of the heavily indebted poor countries initiative, why did she not say so on Friday? Does she accept that debt relief was relevant to the people of central America the second that Hurricane Mitch struck their towns and villages?

Will the Secretary of State clarify what the Government are now saying about debt relief? On Friday I called for an immediate moratorium on debt repayments from Honduras and Nicaragua to get them through the immediate crisis, and for a review of the situation thereafter. Does she now agree with that? Do the Government intend to suspend those countries' debt repayments? Do they intend to write off debt unilaterally? What is the Government's policy on debt relief? Is the Secretary of State's policy now the same as that of the Chancellor of the Exchequer? If so, at what time on Saturday did their policies coincide? Given its recent track record, will the Secretary of State keep up pressure on the European Community humanitarian office to distribute its funds without delay?

Is the Secretary of State aware that tomorrow, the Disasters Emergency Committee of our leading non-governmental organisations is launching an appeal for funds through the nation's media to provide extra money for central America? Is she aware that the NGOs consider that they need at least £7 million to support their activities on the ground in the short term? Will she confirm that, unlike the Sudan appeal, this appeal will have her unequivocal support, so that the great British public can give their money generously to the people of central America, knowing that they have her full backing?