Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 1:16 pm on 16th March 2000.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Shadow Secretary of State for International Development 1:16 pm, 16th March 2000

The hon. Gentleman can make his own speech later.

Let me ask the Secretary of State three sets of questions. First, where were the helicopters? On 10 February, the Mozambique Government were asking for help. On 11 February, Oxfam highlighted the need for helicopters and boats, and South African Government helicopters began flying in the region. On 14 February, South African experts predicted more heavy rain. On 18 February, UNICEF confirmed fears about the impending cyclone. All the warning signs were there. Why did it take a further two weeks—until Saturday 26 February—for the Department even to investigate with the Ministry of Defence the availability of British helicopters? Why was it only on Tuesday 29 February that the Department asked the MOD for helicopters? If it was right to send helicopters from Britain on 3 March, why was it not right to send them straight away?

It was obvious that, in the critical seven days from Friday 25 February to 3 March, helicopters to rescue people were the overwhelming priority. That was something that aid agencies and charities could not do. It requires Governments and armed forces to undertake such major logistical exercises. Providing helicopters to rescue people was the one thing that they were looking to us to do. The Government failed to deliver.

The Secretary of State's strategy was to locate helicopters in the region, but that strategy largely failed because, she says, she could not find enough. However, there is mystery here, too. Recently, in reply to a written question, she said: We have received many offers for the hire of helicopters both from the region and also further afield.—[Official Report, 7 March 2000; Vol. 345, c. 622W.] If that was the case, why were so few of them taken up? There was a window of opportunity of just a few days to get people to safety before they drowned. It was a now-or-never situation. Why did she turn helicopters away? It cannot have been money because she told the House that money was not the issue. Does she now accept that she could have done more?

Does the Secretary of State now accept that, as soon as the situation over the weekend of 25 February arose, the right strategy was to mobilise helicopters from Europe? Does she accept that she should have explored the availability of Ministry of Defence helicopters well before then? The RAF was ready to go. It was well known that heavy-lift aircraft were available to hire and could get to Mozambique within 24 hours. The needs were obvious. The assets were available. Why did she not act?

Why did the Secretary of State delay so long before sending the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Fort George, which was finally instructed to go on 3 March? She told the House of Commons on Monday 28 February that the situation would get worse before it got better. How could she justify not sending Fort George when she knew that the ship would take a week to get to Mozambique? If it was right to send it on 3 March, why was it not right to send it on 1 March or on the weekend of 26 February? Given that the ship was later dispatched, does she accept that that, too, was an error of judgment?

Where was the joined-up government? The Secretary of State said that she had put in place a system that was very fast, worked very smoothly, could move immediately and could move over a weekend, but, when tested, no such system existed.

In recent years, it has almost always been the case that British aid in a disaster situation has involved the deployment of British forces. Surely, the Secretary of State had built a team approach that included the MOD. It would have been foolish not to, but, when a rapid reaction was necessary, there was no such system or team in place, so her Department and the MOD were at loggerheads for three days over money. That is what the British people find so utterly unacceptable. While people were dying in trees, the Government were wrangling over the price tag for four helicopters.

Having failed to put in place a rapid reaction team that worked, when the Secretary of State first heard that the MOD required £2.2 million for the four Puma helicopters, at the very least she should have picked up the telephone, called the Minister for the Armed Forces and negotiated a satisfactory deal there and then. Given that the Pumas went three days later, the failure to strike an immediate deal with her colleagues was shameful. Is it not true that she turned her back on the best solution because she failed to telephone one of her ministerial colleagues?

Was it because the Secretary of State has had a personal feud with that Minister for several years? Was it because she is in a permanent state of war with many of her Cabinet colleagues? What is the point of giving international development a Cabinet position and then giving it no clout? Where is the joined-up government that we were promised?

Does the Secretary of State think that the MOD should make a separate response to disaster emergencies? The lack of communication between the two Departments was so evident that, when the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) put it to her on Wednesday 1 March that the RAF had hired an Antonov and was sending helicopters, she did not even know.

Whatever happened to collective responsibility? When I ask her about debt relief, she says that that is a matter for the Treasury. When I tackle her about export credit, she refers me to the Department of Trade and Industry. In the midst of a humanitarian crisis for which she has lead ministerial responsibility, she tells the House that it is up to the Ministry of Defence whether it sends helicopters. She tells the Select Committee that it is not her job to tell the MOD how much to charge for helicopters. But surely it is her job to co-ordinate the British relief effort. A key part of that is getting all Departments to work together. On that front, she has completely and utterly failed.

Whenever the Secretary of State is in difficulty, she blames someone else; it was the MOD's fault for charging too much; it was United Nations officials who left too early. Is it not time for her to accept responsibility for the choices and decisions that she has made?

Why does the Secretary of State tell the House of Commons one thing, but the outside world another? Why did the Secretary of State tell the House—on Monday 28 February and Wednesday 1 March—that money was not the issue, when it clearly was? She said:

The problem is not shortage of money, either, but getting resources deployed in theatre quickly. If the problem was not shortage of money, why did she fail to charter more helicopters locally when they were offered?

On Wednesday 1 March, why did she tell the House that there was absolutely no problem in co-operation between her Department and the Ministry of Defence, when that was clearly not the case? She told me: I am sorry, but the hon. Gentleman is misinformed. There is absolutely no problem about co-operation with the Ministry of Defence.—[Official Report, 1 March 2000; Vol. 345, c. 409.] That was not true, was it?

The Secretary of State herself said, on the "Today" programme, that the MOD had asked for too much money. She said that the MOD is charging very high prices and coming in very slow. Was she telling the truth on the "Today" programme or in the House of Commons?

Next came the most cynical act of all—it was so cynical and so typical of the Government. After a weekend of negative press, the Secretary of State decided to try to hide her Department's shame by announcing, via The Observer, an aid package of £70 million for Mozambique over the next two years. The announcement was clearly intended to give the impression of new money. I quote from The Observer—my favourite Sunday newspaper—of 5 March, which said: The British Government was last night accused of cynically attempting to manipulate public opinionm surely not— over its humanitarian response to the Mozambique crisis after announcing an extra £70 million in aid—only to be forced to admit the figure was less than the amount it had already announced would be spent on aid to the country prior to the recent flooding.After a week of chaos over the Government's response to the tragedy in Mozambique, International Development Secretary Clare Short pledged to spend £70 m over the next two years in an aid package. The Government had hoped to offset criticism over Whitehall haggling and lack of financial assistance to the victims by announcing this "new" aid package.In a statement released to The Observer, Short said: "We are also planning to increase our programme of support to Mozambique to £70 m over the next two years and will take a lead role with the World Bank and the EC in assessing the implications of these floods for Mozambique's future needs.Department for International Development officials claimed the extra money had been agreed with senior civil servants at a meeting only last Tuesday.But, following inquiries from The Observer the DFID was forced to admit that its annual report, published last March, had projected spending on Mozambique of £38.5 m in 2000–01 and £38 m in the following year—a total of £76.5 m.Embarrassed DFID officials, confronted by the apparent cut in aid to Mozambique, then quickly increased the aid package to £76.5 m. How cynical to re-announce money already announced, and how incompetent then to get it wrong! The headline perhaps says it all: "Clare Short's £70 million 'boost' for stricken Mozambique is actually a cut in planned spending". What a cheap and cynical publicity stunt. How typical of the Government.