Indian Ocean Tsunami

– in the House of Commons at 1:15 pm on 22nd March 2005.

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Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary 1:15 pm, 22nd March 2005

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement in order to update the House on the aftermath of the tsunami in the Indian ocean on 26 December.

Let me deal first with the number of British casualties. As of today, 95 British citizens and residents have been confirmed dead: 78 in Thailand, 14 in Sri Lanka and three in the Maldives. A further 74 are considered by the Metropolitan police as highly likely to have been involved as victims—63 in Thailand and 11 in Sri Lanka—so the number either killed or highly likely to have been involved totals 169.

The police have now conducted a review of "category 2" cases—that is, people possibly involved and unaccounted for. Each of these cases has now been determined as, tragically, either highly likely to have been involved and has therefore been moved into "category 1"; or it has been removed from "category 2"—this applies to the majority of cases—because there is no evidence to suggest that the individual in question was involved in the tsunami. In the light of that, the Foreign Office website will shift from daily to weekly publication of updates of the figures for British casualties.

British consular officials and police deployed rapidly to the areas affected from 26 December. They continue to do superb work in difficult and traumatic circumstances, and I pay tribute to them. The UK has the largest of all the international consular and police teams in Phuket in Thailand, and it has a significant presence in Sri Lanka. These staff are now focusing their efforts on identifying the bodies recovered, and on arranging the repatriation of remains to the United Kingdom where that is the families' wish. So far, 62 have been repatriated to the UK and a further 33 have been given local funerals or repatriated elsewhere, or remain in our care while we await instructions from their next of kin.

The task of identification is unprecedented in terms of the number of victims, the geographical extent of the tragedy and the many nations involved. Today, some 1,000 of the estimated 2,000 non-Thai victims in Thailand remain to be identified. The scale of this task required international agreement that, where necessary, we use the so-called disaster victims identification process. This process is painstaking and time-consuming and, as I said in Thailand on 7 January, I understand and deeply sympathise with the frustration felt by grieving families as they wait for their loved ones to be identified. But the DVI process is vital in minimising the risk of misidentification and the even greater distress that that could cause.

The west London coroner is handling inquests for almost all the British victims of the tsunami. She has made it clear that using the DVI process to reduce the risk of misidentification enables victims' remains to be released to their families quickly once they have been repatriated to the UK.

On 11 February, the UK took on the chairmanship of the international information management centre, which co-ordinates work on identification. Since then, the process has speeded up considerably: confirmed identifications have risen from 200 to more than 1,000. By way of comparison, at the same stage following the terrorist outrages of 11 September 2001, only 600 positive identifications had been achieved.

Let me turn now to our support for the victims of this tragedy and their families here in the UK. In the aftermath of the tsunami, an unprecedented number of police family liaison officers were deployed to support the families of those killed or missing, with some 300 officers involved at the peak. The Department of Health has co-ordinated information and guidance on health and psychological support services, including those of the NHS, local authorities and voluntary organisations.

The Minister for Trade and Investment, who is responsible for Asia, announced on 24 January that, in order to ease the terrible burden on families, we would allow deaths to be registered where no body has been found. I also established, in partnership with the British Red Cross and with financial support from the Foreign Office budget, a tsunami support network for victims, survivors and their families. The telephone number is 0845 054 7474. As the House is aware, the Red Cross and I have separately written to hon. Members to encourage those with constituents affected by this tragedy to put them in touch, if they are not already, with the network.

As the focus of our support to survivors and bereaved families increases here at home, we want to reinforce and to raise awareness of that support among those affected. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport has had considerable experience in dealing with the aftercare of the British families affected by the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. I am therefore pleased to tell the House that she will now be taking on a new role with overall responsibility for co-ordinating support for those affected by the tsunami across Departments and across our public services.

We have established a single telephone number for each of the main Government Departments involved in this work to ensure that families know where to turn for help. For the Department of Health, this will be the same number as for NHS Direct: 0845 4647. For the Department for Work and Pensions, the number is 020 7712 2171 and for the Foreign Office the number is 020 7008 8877. The existing Red Cross helpline will continue to act as the first point of contact for families in difficulties, and will be able to put them in touch with the appropriate Department. Those details, along with a range of other support and information, are available on the Foreign Office website.

Members of the House have been assiduous in representing constituents caught up in the tsunami, and Ministers and their Departments have sought to respond promptly to all such representations. They will, of course, continue to be given the highest priority.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced on 10 January that a national memorial service for the victims of the Indian ocean tsunami would be held, and it will take place in St. Paul's cathedral on 11 May. Invitations to the families will be issued soon. As well as remembering the British victims, the memorial service will recognise the enormous suffering endured by the countries most directly affected by the tsunami. Their representatives, as well as those from faith communities and from international relief agencies, are being invited to the service.

Although the impact of the tragedy on British families has been enormous, most victims were not from the UK or Europe, but from the 13 countries most directly affected. All told, nearly 300,000 people are estimated to have died and millions of lives and livelihoods have been shattered.

The generosity of the British public in response to the tsunami has been staggering, with some £300 million donated to the Disasters Emergency Committee, and a further £40 million directly to its member charities. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development has been working closely with the Disasters Emergency Committee to co-ordinate our relief effort. To date, he has allocated more than £75 million in response to the catastrophe, and the aid will increase substantially as we move from immediate humanitarian relief to longer-term reconstruction. He has also funded flights to transport relief supplies, so as to ensure that money donated by the public is spent only on equipment that directly benefits those affected.

Holding the presidency of the G8 this year, the UK will work with our international and regional partners on sustainable ways to reduce people's vulnerability to the threat of future such disasters. The Government's chief scientific adviser, Sir David King, is chairing a group of scientists and experts to study the risks presented by natural hazards and working on early warning systems. Through debt relief and trade measures, we have already taken action to help people in the region to rebuild their lives.

Let me conclude by considering what lessons we can learn from our response to the tsunami. Following the attacks of 11 September 2001 and the Bali bombing in October 2002, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office implemented new procedures, including a 24-hour response centre and the establishment of rapid deployment teams to operate in the immediate aftermath of a crisis. Those procedures enabled staff to be deployed to the regions affected by the tsunami far more quickly and effectively than would otherwise have been possible, and British teams were among the very first to arrive.

We have been conducting a full internal review of the Foreign Office's response to the tsunami, in order to learn lessons for the future. Following up that review, we will ensure that all our staff going overseas have training in handling emergencies and we will set up and train regional rapid deployment teams at some of our posts most distant from London and improve how such teams work. We will also improve our handling of telephone calls from the public and establish better guidelines for our work with the police, as well as improving the emergency plans for every one of our posts abroad.

At its request, I wrote to the Foreign Affairs Committee two weeks ago with a detailed memorandum setting out a summary of the lessons learned, along with a chronology of our actions in response to the crisis. I am grateful to the Chairman of the Select Committee for the decision to place the memorandum in the Library; copies will be made available to hon. Members in the Vote Office. I understand that the Committee will publish the memorandum, together with its own observations, this Thursday. The National Audit Office is also considering the Foreign Office's response to the tsunami as part of its review of FCO's consular services worldwide. We have also discussed with our partners in the European Union and elsewhere and with the private sector how we can better co-ordinate our response to future such events.

It will be some time before the painstaking process of identification of all of the victims of the tsunami is complete, and longer still before those in the region can rebuild their shattered lives. The grief of families who have lost loved ones will always be with them. I know that the whole House will join me in renewing to them our sympathies and condolences. The Government remain determined to offer all the support that we can to them and to all the victims of this terrible tragedy.

Photo of Michael Ancram Michael Ancram Shadow Foreign Secretary & Deputy Leader, Foreign Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State, Deputy Leader of the Conservative Party, Shadow Foreign Secretary

I thank the Foreign Secretary for making his statement and for advance sight of it.

Even after three months, the horrors of the Boxing day tsunami are fresh in all our memories, and our thoughts and prayers go out to all those who lost loved ones or who were injured themselves. Equally, our continuing thoughts must be with those who lost homes and livelihoods in the devastated areas.

The immediate response of the British people to the disaster was immensely warm-hearted and generous in respect of the donations and the enormous voluntary effort that was put into ensuring that specifically needed aid was made readily available and delivered effectively. I pay tribute to all those involved in that voluntary work.

I welcome today's statement. It is comprehensive and the accompanying memorandum shows that British officials made substantial efforts in the aftermath of the disaster and we owe them our thanks. I particularly welcome those efforts because it is in the nature of such events that, with the passing of time, it is easy for international attention to be diverted elsewhere. In the aftermath of this human catastrophe, it is vital that that does not happen, which is why I ask the Foreign Secretary a number of questions.

The Disasters Emergency Committee raised a staggering £300 million, plus the £40 million that went directly to charities. What plans do the Government have to ensure that the auditing of the dispersal and application of the funds will be robust, in order to reassure the British people that their generosity is being used effectively?

Can the Foreign Secretary clarify the position of the Government's own contribution? At the beginning of January, the Prime Minister said:

"My estimate is we will need to spend from Government several hundred million pounds. So we will far and away more than match the generosity of the British people."

Earlier this month, the noble Baroness Amos said in the other place that the Government would "match the amount" and might well "go beyond it". However, the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, who is in his place, said less than two weeks later that the Government's response would be

"guided by the findings of need assessments of the affected countries currently being finalised . . . rather than by linking the Government's contribution to that of the British public".—[Hansard, 15 March 2005; Vol. 432, c. 181W.]

So we have had three rather different statements and it would be helpful to know which of those variants is, in fact, Government policy.

Overall, how much money have the Government made available so far? They have pledged debt relief of £45 million to Sri Lanka, but the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister told the BBC on 18 March that his country has not yet received any of the money promised by Governments. Perhaps the Foreign Secretary will clarify that. Will he also assure the House that any needs assessment, as referred to by the Under-Secretary, will not result in the Government contributing less than what was raised privately, as that would be regarded internationally as a breach of faith?

The Asian Development Bank reported a shortfall of £4 billion in the money promised to India, Indonesia, the Maldives and Sri Lanka. How is that shortfall likely to be made up? What is the Government's assessment of the allegations that Indonesia is using reconstruction as a cover for forcible moves of population in Aceh?

What is the Foreign Secretary's estimate of the number of people who died in Burma as a result of the tsunami? Does he consider the junta's official figures of the number of dead reliable? If not, have independent organisations been able to make their own assessments?

Italy, France and Portugal have blocked reductions in EU trade barriers that would have helped countries affected by the tsunami to rebuild their economies. Do the Government agree that this is a disgrace and merely piles man-made punishment on to an already devastating natural disaster?

I welcome the internal review that the Foreign Office is carrying out, announced today by the Foreign Secretary. In particular, I welcome his announcement of the setting up of regional rapid deployment teams, and I am pleased that there is at last to be a co-ordinating Minister. I wish the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport well in that important task.

We must ensure that we continue to support the victims of the tsunami, both at home and abroad, and that we do not allow time to undermine our commitment. I believe that the Government should regularly report to the House by way of oral statement on how reconstruction and aid is proceeding, on how much has been spent and on what, on whether other countries are defaulting on their pledges and on what further measures can be taken to assist the recovery of the economies of the devastated countries.

This is an issue that brings the House of Commons together. We must use that consensus to ensure that the victims of the tsunami at home and abroad continue to receive the support that, publicly and privately, we have promised them.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for what he said and for the tone of his remarks. First, he made the point about the passage of time tending to diminish people's recollection of the event. It was partly because of that, but also because of the continuing needs of all those affected by the tsunami, that I made my statement today. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport has kindly agreed to take on the co-ordinating role. I endorse the suggestion that regular oral statements should continue to be made to the House by whichever Minister is appropriate, and I shall ensure that that is taken forward with business managers.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman asked me a series of questions, a number of which were in respect of development aid. I have made a note of as many as I could, but the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, my hon. Friend Mr. Thomas, has promised to write to him and place a copy in the Library in respect of those questions I am unable to answer.

On the time scale, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport reminds me that, in respect of the victims and families of 11 September, support was needed for at least a further three years. We must appreciate that and we are putting in place measures to ensure that we can continue to support families here and British citizens affected abroad for quite a long time, while recognising that the development aid challenge will be long lasting.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman asked me about auditing arrangements. I understand that the Department for International Development money is audited in the normal way by the National Audit Office. The Disasters Emergency Committee, a consortium of well established charities, has its own auditing arrangements and, in turn, must report matters to the Charity Commission.

As far as currently allocated money is concerned, I understand that £75 million is in the process of being spent and a further £65 million has been announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development. Detailed joint work is taking place with the World Bank.

On debt relief, I met the Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka last week and had an extensive conversation with him. He did not complain to me about the speed of debt relief. I understand that the reason that there may have been a delay is that the Paris Club, which has to agree these matters, only met last week.

On overall spending, the issue at the moment is not the availability of resources, either from charities or from the British Government and other aid donors, but the capacity of the recipients to ensure that it is spent effectively.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman asked whether there was any evidence that reconstruction in Indonesia had been used as a front to prevent the movement of individuals and to avoid a political settlement with the GAM rebel movement. When I was in Indonesia on 6 January, I raised the matter with the President of Indonesia, and my hon. Friend the Minister for Trade and Investment was there very recently. We have seen no evidence that the Indonesian Government are acting in that way. NGOs were effectively excluded from Aceh from some time in 2004 until the tsunami but my understanding is that they have since been allowed back freely.

In respect of Burma, I understand that the figures endorsed by the UN are 90 killed and 21 missing. I remember seeing a presentation about this; it was just a matter of fortune that the tsunami did not strike Burma as much as other areas in the region.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman raises concerns about the lack of agreement in the EU in respect of what is called GSP-plus, the globalised system of preferences. We have actively sought some change in the GSP-plus arrangement in order better to benefit the countries affected by the tsunami. I regret that we were unable to reach agreement last week, but we continue to negotiate. It is a matter of fact that we work with our EU colleagues in respect of trade. There are many reasons why that is sensible. However, we continue to press the case for a sensible level for GSP-plus.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman's last point was about the internal review, and I will of course ensure that the final conclusions from it will be made known to the House.

Photo of Mr Donald Anderson Mr Donald Anderson Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee, Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee

The comprehensive response of the Foreign Office to a tragedy unprecedented in scale has been most commendable, and the response of staff has been magnificent. I understand that many Foreign Office staff volunteered to go to the region and many were redeployed. Clearly, there were costs involved in terms of accommodation and transport. Are the Treasury prepared to pick up the additional bill that the Foreign Office has very properly incurred for those?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

I thank my right hon. Friend for his tributes. On costs, there is a consular premium on the passport fee that, by arrangements made after 11 September, provides us with a fund to cope with the costs of most emergencies. This is currently running at £7 million. To the extent that that is exceeded, I shall be going along to my excellent and ever-generous right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, seeking a claim on the reserve. As he recognises always the quality of requests from myself for claims on the reserve, and the justice, in any event, of the claim, I know that I will receive a good reception.

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government)

I thank the Secretary of State for giving me an advance copy of his statement and take the opportunity to renew my sympathies and those of my colleagues for those who lost loved ones or who may be waiting for the outcome of any identification process. I commend the work of the UK staff involved in identification and repatriation and congratulate the Government on identifying single points of contact to simplify the process for people seeking support. I welcome the fact that a date has been agreed for the national memorial service.

I want to raise a few points with the Foreign Secretary. First, on the £340 million that was contributed, the Government made a specific pledge and it would be appropriate for him to tell us when he expects that funding to be delivered and that generosity to be matched. Does he have any evidence that the generosity to the tsunami victims has had a regressive impact on appeals for other regions? I understand that for every $500 raised for tsunami victims, just 50 cents has been raised for those affected by the war in northern Uganda.

On the early warning systems, there have been reports in the past couple of weeks of an increased risk of another tsunami in the region, and I wonder whether anything has been done about the time scale for delivering those early warning systems.

Indonesia suffered the greatest impact. Has the Foreign Secretary had any discussions with the Indonesian authorities about pulling out foreign troops and plans for the aid agencies to pull out in the next couple of months? Is he satisfied that sufficient resources will be available for the victims' basic needs?

The tsunami took 300,000 lives nearly three months ago. The communities affected will have to live with that memory for generations and our contribution should not be just financial. We should demonstrate that we have learnt from the disaster and that we will be able to respond more effectively next time. I hope that the Foreign Secretary will be willing to return to the House—he has suggested that he will—to report on the progress of the initiatives set out at the end of his statement. Good progress on those will be suitable demonstration of our even greater willingness to play our part internationally and to show international solidarity.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

As I said to other colleagues, I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's congratulations to the staff of the Foreign Office and many other Departments, as well as police officers, for the extraordinary way in which they responded. We all accept, not least those families who were affected, that there were some failings in the way we operated. That is not a criticism of any of the staff involved, who worked longer hours than it was reasonable to ask anyone to do. We faced a scale of disaster that we had never anticipated; I do not believe that anyone in the world had anticipated a disaster of such a scale. We must learn the lessons; we owe it to all the victims and their families to do so.

The hon. Gentleman asked, as did Mr. Ancram, about the £340 million donated by private individuals and how the Government will match that. That will be dealt with in the letter that the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West, will write to the right hon. and learned Gentleman and Tom Brake. I shall ensure that I see the letter first—I am responsible for my statement—and that it is placed before the House.

There is a risk of another tsunami, but we do not know when. I attended the international meeting in Jakarta on 6 January which was called by the President of Indonesia. There was high-level discussion about putting in place an early-warning system. The Under-Secretary of State for International Development and the Minister for Trade and Investment have been actively involved in taking that forward. The Association of South East Asian Nations has already committed itself to such an early-warning system and the European Commission has committed €2 million to put the project on track.

Our troops have now left Indonesia, and my hon. Friend the Minister for Trade and Investment and the Vice-President for Indonesia had discussions last week about Indonesian troops and ensuring proper access to non-governmental organisations. I believe that those conversations were satisfactory.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Minister

The impact of the humanitarian relief carried out by the British Navy was incredibly impressive and showed its professionalism and training. Does the Foreign Secretary not feel that the Indonesian Government's rejection of help from the Gurkha regiment stationed in Brunei was unfortunate, although understandable for historic reasons? Did he consider deploying that unit to Sri Lanka or India?

The right hon. Gentleman referred in his statement to improving the emergency plans of our diplomatic posts abroad. Might not that run into problems because he is thinking, is he not, of closing some of the posts in the Pacific area where tsunamis are likely to threaten?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

May I make a correction so that the authority with which the undertakings were given is appreciated? My hon. Friend the Minister for Trade and Investment had discussions with the President of Indonesia, and the British ambassador in Jakarta had discussions with the Vice-President. Both produced the same assurances.

I am grateful for the tribute paid by Mr. Bellingham to British troops who did, as always, a fantastic job and are a credit to this country. We offered the help of the Gurkhas, but there are special reasons why the Indonesians were sensitive about that so we worked round the matter and provided naval helicopters. I cannot be certain, but I believe that consideration was given by the chiefs of staff to deployment elsewhere, but that was a matter for my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary. The assessment was that there was urgent need in Indonesia which was not being met from elsewhere.

On the closing of diplomatic posts abroad, we face constraints on spending and I have had to look at the network of posts. I made an announcement to the House on 15 December. With a bit of luck, this is an ecumenical occasion and I ask the hon. Gentleman to consider whether his party, if it were in power, would expand the number of posts or whether it would feel not just similarly constrained but even more so.

Photo of Gisela Stuart Gisela Stuart Labour, Birmingham, Edgbaston

May I recommend to the House the paper submitted by the Foreign Office to the Foreign Affairs Committee which shows the work that the Foreign Office in particular did at that time? Will my right hon. Friend and the new co-ordinating Minister bear it in mind that some charities that may not immediately be thought to be related to such a disaster—for example, Cruse Bereavement Care, of which I am a patron—have played an important part in helping suffering relatives? When their future funding is considered, will he take into account the extra role that they take on when disasters arise abroad and reward them sufficiently?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

Again, I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her commendation of the Foreign Office. [Interruption.] I apologise for my cough, which I am told is not as bad as it sounds.

My hon. Friend is right in saying that some charities inevitably received greater publicity from their work with the disaster than others and that some charities that did important work have gone unsung. That includes agencies working with bereaved people. I pay tribute to them and will certainly take on board her point about their future funding.

Photo of John Randall John Randall Opposition Whip (Commons)

The Foreign Secretary may have read, as I have, some anecdotal reports of access difficulties for aid and individuals to some parts of Sri Lanka, notably the Tamil-held areas. Has the Foreign Office looked into that and does the right hon. Gentleman have any updates?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

There were problems with access to the Tamil-held areas, but I understand from my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for International Development that aid is getting through. However, in some Tamil-held areas there have had to be negotiations and brokering with the LTT to get it through.