I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the question.
At 17.33 on Saturday 13 January, a major earthquake measuring 7.6 on the Richter scale occurred off the coast of El Salvador. The epicentre was offshore, about 105 km south south-east of the capital, San Salvador. It was also felt in Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and as far afield as Mexico City.
The Government of El Salvador report more than 400 people killed, about 800 injured and more than 1,300 still missing, many of them in an area of San Salvador which has experienced a major landslide. I am sure that the whole House would wish to join me in expressing sympathy to the people of El Salvador. The airport was damaged and, although some relief flights are being allowed to use it, it is closed to civilian traffic. Since the main earthquake, there have been a number of aftershocks, some of which have been of significant strength. The President has declared a national emergency and appealed for international assistance.
The Department for International Development emergency response centre has been operating round the clock since the earthquake struck and is in regular contact with both British embassy officials in El Salvador and operational agencies on the ground in order to obtain further information and to provide advice on regional procurement of urgently needed supplies. We have been in close contact with the Ministry of Defence but, regrettably, the West Indies guard ship is not in the area.
We responded immediately to the preliminary appeal from the United Nations and the Red Cross. We have given financial support to the UN disaster assessment and co-ordination team, which includes a British member, Mr. Joe Bishop; and we have given a commitment to fund Oxfam's emergency water and sanitation programme and the Pan American Health Organisation's programme of emergency medical assistance.
Since Hurricane Mitch hit the region in October 1998, we have been providing support to the Centre for the Co-ordination of Natural Disaster Preparedness in Central America for a disaster preparedness programme in Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala, and plan to support a similar disaster preparedness programme with PAHO focusing on reducing vulnerability in the health sector.
I am sure that the House will agree that, once again, the United Kingdom has responded quickly and effectively to help people struck by a natural disaster. Our commitment to date is now more than £600,000, but I assure the House that we will respond sympathetically to any further requests.
I thank my hon. Friend for that positive response. Given that 1,300 people are missing, is not speed of the essence? What practical help is expected of us in repairing the airport? What will be the role of the DFID emergency response centre over the next fortnight? Is regional procurement part of the answer to what is obviously an urgent problem, where speed must be emphasised?
Once again, I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Speed is of the essence. If people are trapped—not under buildings that have been destroyed, but under the landslip, as they are in this case—we need to get to them as quickly as possible. The Government of El Salvador are well organised and immediate assistance has been provided from their own resources and from the surrounding area. It is, of course, quicker to get in assistance and teams from the area than it is to fly them in from many thousands of miles away.
We shall certainly give consideration to repairing the airport, although I am not sure whether it is included in the list of requests that we have received from the Government. We are going through those requests for various forms of assistance, considering what we might be able to supply from the emergency supplies that we have here in the United Kingdom, and what might be procured locally with financial assistance from the UK. Again, it is quicker, more effective and cheaper to procure many supplies locally. The DFID emergency response centre will remain open 24 hours a day for the foreseeable future to deal with the emergency, as we have done in respect of previous emergencies and shall do in respect of future emergencies.
I wish to express the Opposition's horror and sadness at the tragic events in El Salvador. We welcome the prompt action taken by the Minister to date in sending help on behalf of all of us. I assure him of our full support for any reasonable action that he and the British Government might take to assist in the search and rescue phase immediately after the earthquake and thereafter.
I have five specific and brief questions. Although I welcome the early financial support sent by the Government, does the Minister share my concern about the $50,000 made available to the Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs? He will appreciate the House's concerns about the past performance of that UN agency—its slowness to act and inefficiency have been criticised by hon. Members on both sides of the House. Would not our money be better spent exclusively through respected agencies such as the Red Cross and Oxfam?
Secondly, according to the United Nations resident co-ordinator's office in El Salvador, there appears still to be a need for additional search and rescue teams, and recent television footage appears to show that little, if any, heat-seeking equipment is currently being used to find people under the rubble. What requests were made for such equipment for search and rescue and precisely when were they made? Were we not in a position to send some specialist teams on Saturday or Sunday, and is it now too late?
Thirdly, does the Minister share my disappointment that the West Indies guard ship is not in the area, especially in the light of the great contribution that it made during the crisis in Montserrat? Has he learned from his Ministry of Defence colleagues where the ship is, if it is not in the region, and whether there is any prospect of it being sent nearer in the very near future?
Fourthly, what talks has the Minister had with the Disasters Emergency Committee about an appeal for the region? Would he support such an appeal? Can he tell the public today what they should do and what they should collect if they want to help?
Fifthly, have the Government been in contact with the European Community Humanitarian Office? If so, can the hon. Gentleman give an assurance that, after the emergency phase is over, EU aid will not be delayed in reaching the region as it was in the wake of Hurricane Mitch, when it took two and a half years to reach the area in need? Finally, I again express the Opposition's support for the swift action that the Minister has taken.
First, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his generous remarks, which are appreciated. They will be appreciated above all by the staff of the emergency response team office, who have been working 24 hours a day since the earthquake happened and have contacted me at odd hours to keep me informed of progress.
I do not share the hon. Gentleman's concern about the $50,000 for OCHA. The UN team is already operating on the ground, and Joe Bishop is part of that team. The hon. Gentleman might know that, sadly, another team was in a helicopter that crashed in Mongolia the other day, and one British member of that team was killed. They are brave men who do a great deal of good work under the auspices of the United Nations, and we find the organisation to which they belong effective in the work that it does.
The hon. Gentleman's question on search and rescue teams was precisely that which I asked. We have a number of such teams, and I have met Willie MacMartin and the International Rescue Corps, who do excellent work out of Grangemouth. When I asked why we were not sending out such people quickly, I was told that there are enough search and rescue teams on the ground to deal with the immediate emergency. Because a landslip is causing particular problems—rather than the destruction of buildings that we saw in Turkey, where thermal imaging equipment was useful—I am told that shovels are needed, rather than thermal imaging equipment.
Like the hon. Gentleman, I was disappointed that the guard ship is not in the area. He will be pleased to hear that it is helping us in another emergency, but it is a long way away and cannot be mobilised quickly. On the Disasters Emergency Committee, I have not been in touch with it personally, but, following a request that I made earlier today, my officials are contacting it to see if it plans to have a co-ordinated emergency appeal. That is the committee's decision, not the Government's. In the meantime, however, I support what the hon. Gentleman said, and anyone wanting to helping people in that appalling situation in El Salvador would be well advised to contribute generously to Oxfam, the Red Cross—I am not sure whether Ministers are supposed to say this, but I shall say it nevertheless—and other organisations working in the area.
On the hon. Gentleman's fifth question, the European Community Humanitarian Office has already committed 2 million euros to help the area. There has been substantial improvement in the operation of European development assistance and humanitarian aid in the past few months under pressure which was led, I might add, by the United Kingdom. I was in Rome last Thursday, talking to the Italian Development Minister about co-ordinating pressure on the European Commission to make it more effective. EuropeAid, the new operational arm of the European Commission, started on 1 January, and this will be the first test of how effective it is. Like the hon. Gentleman, I hope that it comes through that test and shows that combined European assistance can be just as effective as that provided bilaterally by countries such as the United Kingdom.
May I join others in congratulating the Minister on his Department's rapid and effective response, which will be much appreciated by people in El Salvador in getting through the terrible times that they face in the next few days? Obviously, any further rapid help that can be given to assist in finding bodies and, hopefully, people who are still alive, will be useful.
Will the Minister cast his mind a little further forward? In the process of reconstruction which, once again, El Salvador and other countries will have to go through, will he assure me that the Government are prepared to support further information and research into earthquake prediction in the region, and in particular assist with planning, building design and advice on how buildings should be constructed to withstand earthquakes? That will help to find the reason why so many houses have been constructed in areas where a mud flow is likely after an earthquake. Once again, it appears that the poorest people in one of the poorest parts of the world are suffering the most from these disasters as a result of the bad planning and bad housing construction with which they must live.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind words. I remind him that, in my statement, I said that we are supporting the Centre for the Co-ordination of Natural Disaster Preparedness following Hurricane Mitch. We learn from those disasters, the way in which we respond to them and, sometimes, the inadequacies in our response. We recognise that prevention is better than cure We cannot stop natural disasters, but we can mitigate their effects as much as possible, which we are eager to do. We do that in our environmental work with developing countries, to try to minimise the effects of floods. Building design is important, as are the places where houses are built. That does not just apply to developing countries—hon. Members and others who live in England will know that recent floods showed that, even in the United Kingdom, we can have problems when houses are built in areas that are prone to flooding or other natural disaster effects.
My party shares the shock and sadness in the House at news of another disaster affecting people who are least able to cope with one, and welcomes the prompt action taken by the Government to send relief to the area. Does the Minister agree that, rather than trying continually to strengthen OCHA, the establishment of a permanent United Nations rapid reaction force would enable assessments of and responses to disasters to be swiftly and more effectively carried out? In view of the fact that the USA is spending $1.3 billion in military aid to Colombia, which is likely to cause far more suffering than it relieves, how much aid is it sending to El Salvador?
I thank the hon. Lady for her kind remarks. I support the principle of a UN rapid reaction force, but we should not necessarily think that it would be a panacea to deal with all disasters and suddenly magic away their results, because it would not. We need a quick response, good organisation by the national Government on the ground and good co-ordination by the international agencies involved, and we are moving towards that without necessarily having the formal structure that she advocates. We are certainly considering ways in which we can co-ordinate the national Governments and the international agencies in our collective response to such natural disasters. I shall leave United States policy on Colombia to other people and stick to the subject before the House.
I thank my hon. Friend for the speedy response. He will know that sanitation problems are great in such situations and that outbreaks of diseases occur. Have the Government made any contacts and can he make any progress on that issue? He knows that there has been great solidarity between the Scottish charity agencies and central America over the years. Are agencies such as the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund, Christian Aid and others being used? They have expertise as they have worked in central America for many years, and they could make a worthwhile contribution to the exercise.
I am grateful to in my hon. Friend. I know of the solidarity between Scotland and El Salvador, which I have visited a number of times. On the radio this morning, I heard Father Michael Campbell-Johnston talk about experiencing the earthquake in his pick-up, in which I have travelled with him during a flood. The pick-up began to float down the road in the direction in which we were not driving, so I know the situation on the ground. We are in touch, and the Department, consistent with the need to respond quickly to what is happening on the ground, is also contacting agencies in the United Kingdom—Christian Aid, SCIAF and others—to find out what they are doing and whether we can give them assistance.
Disease is a problem that will occur and, from our experience, we know that dysentery, cholera and other such diseases will threaten after the first few days. That is why we are working with the Pan American Health Organisation and have given it £300,000 for immediate medical emergency supplies. I hope that my hon. Friend thinks that that is the right way forward.
In a disaster of such magnitude, is not it reassuring that the United Kingdom can send not just sympathy but practical, pre-planned help, mobilised from the region to a large extent? Can any men, women or equipment of Her Majesty's armed forces still in Belize to support the jungle warfare training school be utilised to alleviate suffering?
Again, I am grateful. I have had discussions with the hon. Gentleman, who knows Latin America extremely well and understands the situation. One of the first questions I asked of our officials was whether they had been in touch with the Ministry of Defence not just about the guard ship, but about the residual garrison in Belize. They had, but what we have left there does not meet the needs of El Salvador. Had it done so, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, with whom I spoke earlier, would have made that equipment and those people available as quickly as possible. Sadly, they were not of the kind needed.
Everyone must have been shocked by the media pictures from Santa Tecla. At least it is relatively close to San Salvador and is reasonably accessible. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on the speedy action that has been taken. Will he bear in mind the needs of more remote areas, such as Santiago de Maria, which is near to the coast and where, I have been told, 90 per cent. of all houses have been damaged or destroyed?
My hon. Friend, who also knows the area, has put his finger on an immediate problem. The information we are getting is from San Salvador and the immediate surrounding area. We envisage problems in areas further away from the capital, but we have not heard anything yet. We are trying to get as much information as possible, and to see how we can respond in the area that he mentioned and in other areas remote from the capital. We shall respond as sympathetically as we can to any requests from those areas.