South Asia Earthquake

– in the House of Commons at 4:44 pm on 10th October 2005.

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Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development 4:44 pm, 10th October 2005

With permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a statement about the earthquake in south Asia.

On Saturday 8 October, just before nine o'clock in the morning Pakistan time, an earthquake struck measuring 7.6 on the Richter scale. Its epicentre was in the area of Muzaffarabad in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, about 95 kilometres north-east of Islamabad. It caused widespread damage and a significant number of deaths and injuries.

I would like to tell the House about the action taken by the Government and others in support of those affected by this disaster, but first, I am sure that all Members will wish to express their profound sadness at the loss of life. Our thoughts are with all those families, both in the countries affected and here, who have lost loved ones in this terrible tragedy.

This was a major earthquake with tremors felt as far afield as Afghanistan and India, followed by a series of frightening aftershocks. The latest official figures indicate that 20,000 people have lost their lives and 44,000 have been injured. However, given the scale of the destruction and the fact that some areas have not yet been reached, the number of deaths is expected to rise further. There have also been a small number of deaths reported in Afghanistan, and 750 people now confirmed dead in north India, although unconfirmed reports indicate a significantly higher loss of life there, with 80 per cent. of houses in Uri and the surrounding district severely damaged. India has not sought international assistance. The greatest loss of life, however, has been caused by the devastation in Pakistan-administered Kashmir and the North West Frontier Province. Conditions there are difficult for relief workers, with bad weather and problems with access and communications due to landslides. Fifty per cent. of the buildings in Muzaffarabad and 60 per cent. in Balakot appear to have been destroyed.

Across the affected areas the Pakistan authorities, the Pakistan Red Crescent Society and local people have been working tirelessly to support survivors and the injured. As always in disasters, it is local people who have led the effort to saves lives. The Government of Pakistan have set up a national response centre and a relief fund.

When the earthquake struck, the UK immediately offered assistance, and as soon as a request for help was received, the Department for International Development activated the search and rescue teams which we had already put on standby. The first search and rescue team of 12 people, provided by the non-governmental organisation RAPID, left the UK in the early evening. It was the first international team to arrive in Pakistan, and a DFID humanitarian adviser went with it to facilitate its arrival and to begin co-ordination on the ground.

At 2 am GMT on Sunday, an aircraft chartered by DFID left East Midlands airport carrying 75 search and rescue personnel from the fire brigades of Grampian, Lancashire, Lincolnshire and Manchester, the International Rescue Corps, and dog rescue teams from BIRD and CANIS, together with a further team from RAPID. The flight included a four-person DFID team to undertake assessment and co-ordination. The remaining space was loaded with blankets and other supplies. The British high commission and DFID's Pakistan office helped the teams to get into action immediately on arrival yesterday. The first RAPID search and rescue team was deployed to a collapsed tower block in Islamabad to help look for survivors. The second RAPID team and CANIS, with dog support, later joined it. The other search and rescue teams were flown to Muzaffarabad by the Pakistani military, where they have been looking for survivors in collapsed schools. The UK search and rescue teams have already made an important contribution and rescued a number of people.

In addition to this assistance, DFID Pakistan immediately provided financial help in order to buy vital emergency supplies. Also on Saturday we agreed a grant to the World Health Organisation to enable it to send emergency health and trauma kits to support 40,000 people for three months.

Shelter is an urgent priority as night temperatures fall. We are providing 1,000 winter tents and 10,000 tarpaulins to Islamic Relief from our existing stocks in Lahore. These are being trucked to Muzaffarabad as we speak. We are also sending additional tents and blankets from our stocks in Dubai, and we will fly out 19,000 blankets from our Marchington store also for distribution by Islamic Relief. The US Government are providing five Chinook and three Black Hawk helicopters today to help move people and supplies. This will make a significant difference to the relief effort. DFID is currently looking at options for further such assistance in conjunction with the EU and the UN.

I have today informed the Disasters Emergency Committee agencies that the Government will meet the cost of transporting any of its relief supplies from the UK to Pakistan. Total UK assistance so far in the first 48 hours, including through the EU, is already over £1 million and that will increase as we provide further financial support to the relief effort. We will continue to do everything that we can to help.

Acting as the EU presidency, we are liaising with EU member states in offering help, and the European Commission yesterday announced some £2.5 million for emergency assistance. We are working with the United Nations and other agencies, such as the Red Cross and Red Crescent, as well as with the Pakistani authorities, and the UN is expected to launch a flash appeal for emergency relief assistance later today.

Many people in the Pakistani community in Britain have friends and loved ones in the disaster area. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office sent out on the first relief flight a rapid deployment team, which has set up an operations centre in Islamabad to assist British nationals. An FCO helpline in London is assisting concerned relatives. So far, there have been no reports of any British casualties.

The response from within Pakistan and around the world shows the best of human nature at a time of crisis, and the UK will continue to play its full part in helping to ensure that those who have suffered so much in this terrible tragedy get the help and succour that they need over the coming days and weeks.

Photo of Andrew Mitchell Andrew Mitchell Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office)

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for giving me advance sight of it.

Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of those who have lost friends and relatives in this tragedy. As so often in such awful circumstances, we are indebted to those whose hard work and dedicated efforts are helping to bring comfort to those who are in desperate need. In particular, I pay tribute to the efforts of RAPID UK whose search and rescue teams have already saved lives in Pakistan. That is just one example of how the UK is helping.

Many hon. Members have constituents who have relatives in the affected areas. As we speak, thousands of our constituents are waiting anxiously for news about their families and friends, and the thoughts of all of us are with them at this dreadful time.

The Pakistani President has appealed for international assistance, and the British people, and especially those with links to the communities affected, are already giving with their characteristic generosity.

Inevitably, children are suffering most acutely. Perhaps the Secretary of State will say a little more about how he plans to ensure that children's specific needs are addressed in response to this crisis.

The Asian tsunami taught us some painful lessons about the need for a joined-up aid delivery effort. Will the Secretary of State inform us of the steps that he has taken to help ensure that those lessons have been learned and implemented? In particular, what discussions has he had with the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs?

During the tsunami crisis earlier this year, some concern was expressed about the service that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office offered to relatives of those involved in the disaster. Will the Secretary of State assure us that the FCO is doing everything possible to assist those who have relatives in the affected areas—obviously, I acknowledge that that is extremely difficult at this time? Is he satisfied that enough people are manning the emergency information helpline for relatives? Is information about those who are missing being collated and disseminated as effectively as possible? What arrangements have been made for Britons who return to the UK having lost relatives?

The earthquake has struck in a highly sensitive part of the world. What is the Secretary of State's assessment of the appropriate role for British troops stationed in the area? Are British troops in Afghanistan helping with the relief effort there? Is the Secretary of State satisfied that co-ordination between DFID and the Ministry of Defence is adequate?

Will the Secretary of State assure the House that he is doing everything he can to ensure a joined-up approach with the work being done by the leaders of the Muslim, Pakistani and Kashmiri communities in Britain, who are already doing so much to help the relief effort? Perhaps he will say a little more at this early stage about any plans that his Department has to support community-based non-governmental organisations in their response to the disaster?

In the aftermath of the tsunami, concern was expressed about the operation of gift aid tax relief on donations to the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal. At this early stage, what steps will the Government take to encourage such tax relief on donations to appeals for this disaster?

The Secretary of State has proposed a standing UN disasters fund—a pot of money that could be drawn upon in the event of a crisis like this, which would remove the need individually to negotiate with Governments each time a disaster occurs. That idea seems sensible and constructive, and, as he knows, Conservative Members support it. What is the status of the Secretary of State's discussions with his international counterparts on such a fund?

Once again, we thank the Secretary of State for coming to the House and making his statement at the first available opportunity. In the same spirit, I hope that he will continue to keep the House informed through written and oral statements.

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

I thank Mr. Mitchell for his kind words. He gives me the opportunity also to extend my thanks to the DFID team who have been working since the early hours of Saturday morning to do the work that has enabled me to describe the response of the British Government. We owe them a very big debt of gratitude.

I share the hon. Gentleman's concern for the children of the affected region. One thing that is happening immediately is that the search and rescue teams in Muzaffarabad are trying to find the children in the schools. They were first directed to those schools when they arrived, because parents in the local community are desperately worried about those who may still be trapped and can be rescued. I undertake to consider that in the decisions that we reach about funding the UN flash appeal, which, as I say, we expect later today or early tomorrow. Let me tell the House that we will make a significant contribution. I will consider what particularly we can do for children, but their needs for blankets, tents, water and medical supplies are the same as those of their parents and families.

The hon. Gentleman asked about co-ordination. That is very important, which is why we sent a team of four out on the first relief flight to link up with the UN disaster assessment team that arrived from Geneva yesterday and with the co-ordinating unit that the Prime Minister of Pakistan has established. I spoke to the team just before coming to the House. The reports show that the co-ordination is not working badly, bearing in mind the fact that this is a major emergency that is putting great stress and strain on the Government of Pakistan in particular. I am anxious, as ever, that we learn the lessons. There is a premium on good information, because it ensures that the help that is being offered can be sent to the right places as quickly as possible.

I am happy to offer the hon. Gentleman reassurance that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is doing everything that it can; indeed, it put a team on the first relief flight to support the high commission. I pay tribute to Mark Lyall-Grant and his team for the outstanding work that they are doing.

The Red Cross is looking to provide a service on tracing missing relatives. I am conscious of the Pakistani community here in the UK, although most of their families come from the region that is slightly less affected than the epicentre of the earthquake. Thankfully, no British casualties have yet been reported, but we wait to see what happens in time. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I, along with other Members, have large Kashmiri and Pakistani communities in our constituencies.

NATO is considering what contribution the international security assistance force might be able to provide to the effort that is being made. The hon. Gentleman makes a very good suggestion about leaders of the Muslim and Kashmiri community. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will shortly organise a meeting to talk to them. One of the ways in which we will provide support is through our offer to the Disasters Emergency Committee relief agencies to fund the flight. If any smaller community organisations have things that they wish to get there, they can link up with one of the DEC bodies to get them on to the flight, and the Government will pick up the transportation costs.

On gift aid, the hon. Gentleman may be aware that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has announced that he will make it possible for that to be applied to telephone donations, to make it easier for people's money to have a full effect.

Finally, on the humanitarian fund, about three weeks ago the UN summit agreed to support the principle of an enlarged emergency fund. I am able to report to the House that following a meeting that was hosted by a couple of other countries two days later, six nations have already agreed to put $150 million into the fund. Just under half of that will come from the United Kingdom. Several other countries that attended expressed support for the principle and are waiting to see what the arrangements will be. I am hopeful that by the middle of next year we will have a fund up and running, which I called for last December. That will mean that in such circumstances the UN has the money to get on with the job while the rest of us pitch in and help.

Photo of Andrew George Andrew George Shadow Secretary of State for International Development

May I also thank the Secretary of State for providing me with early sight of his statement? On behalf of my hon. Friends, I echo the profound sympathy that has been expressed for those who have been affected by the devastating earthquake.

Like the Secretary of State, I recognise that Britain has a special relationship with Pakistan and India and that, with more than 700,000 Kashmiris resident in the United Kingdom, the support that the Government offer those who fear that they have friends or loved ones who have been caught up in the disaster is greatly appreciated. I welcome the support so far and the efficiency with which it has been provided and planned.

On the Secretary of State's last comment about community-based organisations, the offer of help to agencies that provide emergency relief is much appreciated. I am sure that he knows that, as well as those mentioned in his statement, the Shelter Box appeal, which provided so many shelter boxes after the tsunami, especially for Sri Lanka, is also providing hundreds of shelter boxes this week from Helston in my constituency. The support that the organisation provides and the connection with the rotary club in Islamabad is greatly appreciated.

According to United Nations estimates, 2.5 million people require shelter. The tens of thousands of shelters, tents, blankets and other forms of support that the Secretary of State mentioned will clearly make a contribution but could he please comment on the international community's assessment of its capacity to respond to the urgent need for shelter, especially given the extreme cold at night in the region?

The Secretary of State did not answer the question that Mr. Mitchell asked about assistance that may be available through the Ministry of Defence, especially given the capacity just over the border in Afghanistan. Will he comment on whether resources will be made available from the international security assistance force that is based there?

What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the security situation in Kashmir? Only yesterday, terrorists killed 10 people in Kashmir and Jammu. What support can the UK offer to ensure secure access for humanitarian assistance to that region? What discussions have his officials held with the Kashmir International Relief Fund, which has logistical expertise and volunteers on the ground in Kashmir?

May I probe the Secretary of State a little more about the co-ordination of assistance? The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield rightly raised issues about the important role that the United Nations has to play. In answer, the Secretary of State referred to the co-ordination of assistance in the emergency that we are considering. However, he will know that the Red Cross reported last week that rivalries between hundreds of groups and perceptions of corruption and the politicisation of aid has led to the duplication of effort in some areas and a failure to get the aid to those most in need when responding to such emergencies. Does the Secretary of State agree that the United Nations' capacity must be built up so that it is better able to respond to the support and co-ordination of emergency relief through the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs and its agents?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words and I pay tribute to the work of Shelter Box. When I was in Sri Lanka after the tsunami, I saw some of the Shelter Box tents being put up on a playing field next to a school and I know about the contributions of rotary clubs to making them available to those who need them. I am sure that they will be much appreciated by those who require shelter.

On the great wish of the community in the UK to assist, the best thing that people can do is contribute money because that ensures that the things that are needed are bought. We do not want to end up with an excess of one sort of supply and a shortage of others. If people are looking to assist, the most helpful thing is to contribute money.

I said earlier that NATO was considering what could be done; it is looking specifically at the resources that might be available in ISAF in Afghanistan because it is close by. That is currently being examined.

I am of course aware of the security concerns. The incident to which the hon. Gentleman referred was on the Indian side of the line of control. So far, there is no indication that the fact that this is a sensitive and difficult region has got in the way of the relief effort. Indeed, our experience in Aceh in Indonesia, which was similarly plagued by conflict, showed that when a disaster of this magnitude strikes, people tend to put all that on one side and get on with the task in hand, which is to help people who are in need.

I have not spoken to the Kashmir International Relief Fund, but I will find out whether my officials have done so and let the hon. Gentleman know. The Red Cross report, to which Mr. Mitchell alluded, is an important piece of work. There was particular concern about the number of small relief organisations coming in, but I would just say that the United Nations disaster team has deployed eight people. They have established on-site operations co-ordination centres in both Islamabad and Muzaffarabad, and we are working closely with them and with the Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs to ensure that there is effective co-ordination on the ground.

I completely agree with Andrew George about the capacity of the United Nations system. Indeed, the proposals that I and others have made are precisely to strengthen that capacity, not only through a fund—which will mean that it does not have to wait for the hat to be passed round in order to respond immediately—but through strengthening the quality and capacity of humanitarian co-ordinators, because dealing with this kind of an emergency is a very different task from being the resident co-ordinator. I have also proposed that we introduce benchmarks by which we can measure our progress in responding to emergency needs. There will no doubt be lessons from this disaster that we can put into the work that we and others are undertaking.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. Hon. Members will understand that this is the second major statement of the day, and that I have important business to protect. I understand why many hon. Members wish to question the Secretary of State on this matter, but it would assist us in making progress if we could have brief questions and short answers.

Photo of Gerald Kaufman Gerald Kaufman Labour, Manchester, Gorton

I thank my right hon. Friend for the Government's swift and effective response, and acknowledge that many people in this country will want to give their support and make an active response as well. Those of us who know the stricken areas well—including the devastated city of Muzaffarabad, to which access is difficult at the best of times—will want to send our sympathy to the families and friends of all those who have suffered, and to their loved ones in this country who are so worried about what has taken place. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if there is one encouraging aspect of this disaster, it is that the Indian and Pakistani authorities and troops are working together, and that if any good at all is to come out of this tragedy, it would be for their Governments and others to work together to bring about a settlement for Kashmir?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

I am certain that my right hon. Friend's words of compassion will be gratefully received, and I can only echo his sentiments. One hopes that good will come out of this terrible disaster.

Photo of Malcolm Bruce Malcolm Bruce Chair, International Development Committee

I am also grateful to the Secretary of State for his statement and to the Government for their prompt response in a variety of practical ways, which is what people need. In particular, I notice that President Musharraf asked for helicopters, and that helicopters have been provided. Speed of response to these disasters is crucial, and one of the most anguishing aspects of this one was hearing tales of children crying in the ruins and people not being able to get to them in time. Is there anything that we can do to achieve an even more rapid response in future? Does the Secretary of State also recognise that, after the initial response, the economy of Pakistan will face a major rebuilding challenge? Will that lead to a review of DFID policies and DFID aid programmes in Pakistan and Kashmir?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his questions. We always need to ensure that we get search and rescue teams to a disaster as quickly as possible. As I have said, the first international team to arrive was from the UK, and it was one of the biggest teams. It went out there within a very short period of time, and many other search and rescue teams are now arriving from around the world. They are being deployed to the areas in need. I pay tribute to the speed with which our teams got themselves to East Midlands airport and on to those planes. Of course, we shall review our programme. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have a substantial programme in Pakistan: £74 million this year. As well as committing resources to the relief effort we shall of course do the same for reconstruction, but that is a little way off. For now, we shall concentrate on immediate assistance.

Photo of Tom Clarke Tom Clarke Labour, Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill

I, too, thank my right hon. Friend for his Department's speedy response to the disaster. On television this morning, he will have seen President Musharraf making a moving appeal, especially for doctors, surgeons and consultants. Will that represent part of my right hon. Friend's comprehensive response?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

What we have funded at the moment are the emergency health and trauma kits to which I referred earlier. On Saturday, the World Health Organisation put out an appeal for $500,000-worth of assistance and the UK picked up half the cost of that. We did that straight away on the first day. I have no doubt that when the UN flash appeal comes out shortly there will be a request for support to provide that kind of assistance. It may be helpful if I tell the House that there were two hospitals in Muzaffarabad. One was destroyed; the other is functioning but is severely overstretched and I understand that a French field hospital is on its way to provide help to the people there.

Photo of Tony Baldry Tony Baldry Conservative, Banbury

The argument for a substantially enlarged UN disaster emergency fund is unassailable. The Secretary of State said that so far only six countries had committed to it. Which G8 member states have yet to sign up to the Secretary of State's excellent idea? It must now be unassailable and there can be no excuse, certainly for G8 countries not to dig deep into their pockets to support that initiative.

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

I will send the hon. Gentleman a list of the countries. To be fair, some G8 countries present at the meeting support the idea but are waiting to see exactly what the management arrangements will be. He and I, and many others, think this a good idea; it is timely and if it was in place we could move even faster. We have learned the lessons and the fact that there is now support for the fund means, I hope, that in the future the UN will be able to respond even quicker. It would certainly have helped in Niger.

Photo of Mohammad Sarwar Mohammad Sarwar Labour, Glasgow Central

The devastating earthquake in south Asia has wiped out whole communities in many places. Tens of thousands of people have lost their lives. Millions of people have been made homeless. That huge loss of life is tragic and our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families. The Government's swift response in providing assistance for the relief effort is welcome. People are dying every hour. Does my right hon. Friend agree that due to the magnitude of the tragedy we need to provide greater humanitarian aid and assistance to ensure that the people who survived the disaster do not die of hunger, disease and cold?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

I agree completely. Currently, the issue is not money, because we shall put in the resources that are needed; it is how quickly we can get practical help to those in need. Where can we obtain the blankets, the tents, the medical supplies, the food, the water, the shelter, the heavy digging equipment and the helicopters? That is the issue. We are responding to the requests that have come to us. As I said, we shall fund significantly the UN appeal when it comes out. It is important for the House to recognise that the issue is the practical help that we give, not the sums pledged at the beginning. Britain has an honourable tradition, but some countries pledge large sums yet six months later we find that not all of that money was spent. I am much more interested in concentrating on the practical work in hand, which is turning the passion, commitment and desire of the British people to help into practical assistance on the ground. That is what we did in the first 48 hours and that is exactly what we shall carry on doing.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Conservative, Worthing West

Our communities will welcome what the Secretary of State said and the way in which he said it, especially his point that it is a matter of co-operation rather than competition.

I have two practical points. How long will it take to replace the emergency stocks of tents and other things? Man-made and natural disasters seem to come around rather more regularly than one used to expect. Secondly, on a minor but important point, will there be difficulty in readmitting the search dogs to Britain?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

On the first point that the hon. Gentleman raises, we will look to replace the tents as soon as possible. Indeed, I was discussing that with the team just before I came to the House.

On the second question, as I recollect, I think that quarantine arrangements are applied to those dogs, but I will check on the position and write to the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Roger Godsiff Roger Godsiff Labour, Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath

As I represent the constituency in this country where the largest number of British Kashmiris live—they are mostly from Mirpur, Dadyal and Jakswari—may I extend, as other hon. Members have done, my sincerest condolences to the President, Prime Minister and people of Azad Kashmir on this terrible tragedy? I pay tribute to the work that the British Government have done already, but will the Minister give an assurance that, once the immediate relief efforts have been responded to, the British Government will use their position of presidency of the European Union for six months to seek to co-ordinate long-term relief to ensure that the infrastructure of that area is put back together and that the people are not forgotten at the end of the immediate aftermath?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

I am sure that my hon. Friend's words will be much appreciated by those who are listening. I am happy to give that assurance. Indeed, I will discuss the crisis with EU Development Ministers at our informal meeting, to be held at the end of this month. Clearly, as we move from relief to reconstruction, the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the European Commission will have a very significant role to play. I can assure him that, during our EU presidency, we will ensure that all that support is brought to bear to back the reconstruction of the affected regions, once the immediate need for relief has been dealt with.

Photo of Pete Wishart Pete Wishart Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (International Development)

Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating the Scottish-based charities and international organisations on their superb effort in responding with typical generosity? Does he agree that the next 24 to 48 hours are absolutely critical to demonstrate to an increasingly desperate and frustrated people that the aid is getting through? Can he assure me that the UK Government are doing all that they can to ensure that the infrastructure is being improved so that the aid can get through?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

I am very happy to join the hon. Gentleman in those expressions of thanks to the agencies to which he refers. I can simply give him that assurance. I have reported to the House on what we have done in the first 48 hours. We intend to carry on. I pay tribute particularly to the military in Pakistan who have helped to clear the road to Muzaffarabad, thus allowing buses to go up to support the search and rescue team and tents from Lahore to arrive so that they can be distributed. They are continuing to work to open more roads because a lot more relief supplies can be brought in by road than by helicopters.

Photo of Ann Cryer Ann Cryer Labour, Keighley

Many of us have Pakistani constituents who come from Kashmir, particularly Mirpur. As yet, I have not been able to find out what impact the earthquake has had on Mirpur. I wonder whether my right hon. Friend could inform me of that. My other concern is that, long before the earthquake, there were many homeless people in the area around Muzaffarabad owing to its proximity to the line of control. They were in displaced persons camps or in refugee camps. I wonder what their position is now.

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

The worst of the damage has clearly been around Muzaffarabad, Balakot and those parts around the epicentre. I think that the damage in Mirpur has been less extensive. I will find out whether we have further details that I can give to my hon. Friend. I am not aware of the position of those who were living in the refugee camps around the town, but from the pictures that I have seen and the reports that we have, I am sure that the damage is pretty extensive and that they have been badly affected, along with all the other residents of the town.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Shadow Minister (Defence)

Clearly, the initial search and rescue operation and the speed of our response have been excellent, but does the Secretary of State recall the correspondence that we had quite a few months ago about constituents of mine who went as volunteers into areas that had been devastated by the tsunami only to find that no aid whatsoever for reconstruction had got through months after those vast sums had been raised? Therefore, the report should not have come as a surprise to any of us. Can he suggest measures that will address that concern, which has been expressed from every corner of the House?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point. The issue is partly about ensuring that the right relief supplies come, and I made that point earlier. If things are sent that are not immediately needed, they may rest on one side while more important things pass on their way through. There may be bureaucratic obstacles, but the UN team and, I am sure, the co-ordinating office of the Prime Minister of Pakistan will be working very hard to ensure that they do not happen. A practical example of that here in the United Kingdom is that the Pakistan high commission has set up emergency arrangements for issuing visas for people from Britain who want to travel to Pakistan and Kashmir quickly. I applaud it for what it has done. We will keep the situation under very close review. If difficulties arise, we will do our best to have them sorted out. It is important that we learn the lessons.

Photo of Gordon Prentice Gordon Prentice Labour, Pendle

My friend the Secretary of State told us that 50 per cent. of the buildings in Muzaffarabad had been destroyed, but people may understandably be reluctant to go into the buildings that are still standing. Have any requests been made to us to supply civil engineers and people like that who could pronounce on the integrity of the structures that are still standing?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

We have not had any requests as far as I am aware, but I am told that one of the consequences of the construction of the buildings is that the walls tend to fall outwards when an earthquake strikes and the roofs come in. People will understandably be reluctant to go back into buildings that have been damaged even though they may appear to be standing. We will consider all such requests, but I think that they will come in time. The immediate priority is to get shelter to people who need it and who are out in the cold.

Photo of John Barrett John Barrett Liberal Democrat, Edinburgh West

Many Members on both sides of the House will have constituents who are waiting to hear accurate information about what has happened to their friends and loved ones. In the near future, many people in this country may want to offer a place for these people to come to visit and stay. Will the Secretary of State discuss with the Foreign Secretary what can be done to speed up applications for temporary visits to the UK following this tragedy?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

I am very happy to undertake to talk to my right hon. Friend about this issue. It is one of the things that we will have to look at as a consequence of what has happened.

Photo of Tony Lloyd Tony Lloyd Labour, Manchester Central

Many people, and not just those with Indian and Pakistani family backgrounds, will be grateful to my right hon. Friend for his words and the speed of his action. We know that many of the rural communities affected are extremely distant and that access to them is extremely difficult even under normal circumstances. Although it is early days, can a long-term plan be developed to make sure that the helicopters and air transport remain? With winter approaching and what we believe to be the destruction of residences, it will be a long time before people can be guaranteed to be adequately and properly secured from the effects of the winter elements.

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

My hon. Friend makes an important point. The main helicopter capacity, of course, comes from the Pakistan military, but the Americans have offered five Chinooks and three Black Hawks that will arrive today. The five Chinooks offer significant heavy-lift capability, and we saw in Indonesia that they will remain for as long as necessary to make sure that relief supplies are moved. At the same time, work continues to get the roads clear, but I know that access is difficult to the most remote communities. Together with the UN, we will continue to look at whether further helicopter support is required to ensure that relief supplies and other things that are needed for reconstruction can get to the most remote communities as they are accessed. However, we must recognise that some parts have not yet been reached by rescuers.

Photo of Paul Goodman Paul Goodman (Also PPS To the Chairman of the Party), Work & Pensions & Welfare Reform

One in 10 of my constituents are from Pakistan or Kashmir, and they will have lost friends and relatives in this horror. Indeed, some of my constituents may be dead or injured. I spoke this morning to community leaders who asked me to thank the Secretary of State and the Department for what they are doing and to amplify the point that has just been made about help for rural communities. As he knows, communications in such areas is often extremely poor, and the people in them may be reached less speedily than those in more urban areas. Will he comment on that?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. The support that we are providing and that we will continue to provide, including through our response to the UN appeal when it is issued, is designed to try to ensure that we get support to all the areas affected. Clearly some of the towns are easier to reach in the first instance, but it is very important that the relief effort then spreads out into the countryside. Like many other Members, the hon. Gentleman knows that the geography is very difficult, but we just have to keep up the effort to make sure that help reaches all the people who need it.

Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Labour, Leicester East

May I also commend my right hon. Friend on the efforts that he has made? He was right to praise the Pakistan high commission for setting up the emergency visa facility. Our entry clearance operation in Islamabad is hardly the best in the world at the moment. Will he consider speaking to the Foreign Secretary about deploying to Islamabad some of the entry clearance officers who are currently in the Gulf, who are not overburdened by the number of applications being made there, to help the processing of not only ongoing legitimate immigration cases, but, as John Barrett said, those who wish to come on a short-term visit?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

I will be happy to pass on my hon. Friend's suggestion to the Foreign Secretary. We will consider all these things to see what we can do to help.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Attorney General, Party Chair, Liberal Democrats

After the welcome early response, will the Secretary of State assure us that any further transport, engineering or medical help that is needed will be made available if we are asked for it, or if that need becomes apparent? Has the rest of the Commonwealth been asked to assist these two great Commonwealth countries that are suffering most?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

I am happy to give the first assurance that the hon. Gentleman wants. We will continue to provide all the assistance that we can, along with others in the international community. I do not know whether a specific request has yet been made through the Commonwealth, but I will find out and contact him.

Photo of Shahid Malik Shahid Malik Labour, Dewsbury

I arrived back from Pakistan in the past two hours and was there when the earthquake struck in Islamabad—it was a terrifying experience. I have been there with RAPID UK for the past two days and pay tribute to the Department for International Development. The Government of Pakistan have also asked me to convey their tribute to the Secretary of State because we were the first to get in there. I was at Margalla towers yesterday where RAPID UK was doing a superb job, although, sadly, it was pulling out more dead bodies than survivors.

We have been talking about helicopters, but I have to tell the Secretary of State that based on information that I have picked up, there is still a desperate need for more helicopters. Aid can reach areas such as Islamabad, but places such as Muzaffarabad, Bagh and Rawala Kot are accessible only by helicopter. Unless we have more helicopters, the aid effort simply will not happen. Will the Secretary of State reassure me that the request for more helicopters will be considered? I believe that we are talking about a 10 to 15-year reconstruction programme and that we are in there for the long haul. What is his view about that?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

My hon. Friend has experienced the terror of the earthquake at first hand and I join him in paying tribute to the work of the RAPID team, which is doing an extremely professional job. As I indicated earlier, in addition to the American helicopters that have been provided today, NATO is considering that very point. We are examining what more we might be able to do and an appeal has gone out through the European Union—we have done that as its presidency. I am conscious of the need for such further support and agree that a long-term commitment to reconstruction will be required. We have a programme in Pakistan that has been rapidly increasing in size in recent years. I assure my hon. Friend that we will pledge support, together with others in the international community, to help the reconstruction.

Photo of Sarah Teather Sarah Teather Shadow Minister (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister)

I recently visited Kashmir at the invitation of the Indian Government, but also have many constituents from the Pakistani-administered Kashmiri region. From speaking to those involved in the charitable effort this morning, I know that they will be grateful for the Secretary of State's offer to fund flights for the relief operation. However, to echo the comments made by Mr. Malik, people stress that their relatives tell them that access to remote areas is still the priority, as the Secretary of State mentioned, and that there is a desperate need for air transport. Will he please consider making further air transport mechanisms available?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

I certainly will. We will continue, along with others in the international community, to ensure that we provide the resources that are needed. That is being examined urgently, but it is good news that the Americans came in with the helicopters today, which will significantly add to the existing capacity. However, I take the hon. Lady's point.

Photo of Sadiq Khan Sadiq Khan Labour, Tooting

I endorse the positive comments about the excellent response of the British Government and the non-governmental organisations. It has been said that the Pakistan high commission is giving instant visas here and in Islamabad if British people do not have them. What advice is the Foreign Office giving to Britons who want to travel to Pakistan, bearing in mind that some areas will be difficult to access and people might get in the way of experts who are trying to rescue their relatives and friends?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

On the one hand, the advice is that the relief effort is the priority, as my hon. Friend outlines. On the other, I think about my family being in that situation and understand why people would want to go. We must respect the decisions that individuals make. As I said, the Red Cross is trying to establish a tracing service. If people do go, perhaps they could bear in mind the need to give priority to the relief effort, given that transport is scarce. However, I understand why people are doing everything that they can to discover what has happened to their loved ones.

Photo of Khalid Mahmood Khalid Mahmood Labour, Birmingham, Perry Barr

I join my right hon. Friend in expressing my profound regret that all those people have lost their lives.

With respect to the DFID programme, does my right hon. Friend realise that the huge devastation in the rural areas of Kashmir, where all built-up properties have been decimated, means that those people who remain after the tragedy will need long-term assistance? Will he also consider those relatives who are here? This morning I had a meeting with West Midlands police and have also spoken to Tarique Ghaffur, the assistant commissioner in London. They are willing to set up the emergency information helpline. Will my right hon. Friend speak to the consular service of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to get that up and running, so that it is easy for people to be informed about what is happening to their friends and relatives in Kashmir?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

On the second point, the FCO helpline is already operating, and I will pass on my hon. Friend's important point. We will continue to do all that we can to ensure that there is effective communication with the communities that are most worried. I am happy to consider any suggestions that colleagues make about how we can ensure that good information goes out about what exactly is being done and, in return, to feed information back to our disaster response team so that it can take that into account when carrying out its work.

Photo of Kali Mountford Kali Mountford Labour, Colne Valley

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for what he just said. Although the generosity in my constituency will be unquestionable, many people will want to give not just money, but their skills, time and effort. We have heard the call for medical professionals, but many people who have different skills will want to make a personal contribution. As the disaster unfolds, can we ensure that those different talents and needs are properly utilised and that people go at the appropriate time?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

We certainly will seek to do that. I hope to have available in the next day or so information on the DFID website that will help people who want to offer their skills to direct those to the right place. It is one way in which people want to help and it is important that we harness it in the right way.

Photo of Rob Marris Rob Marris Labour, Wolverhampton South West

I salute the efforts of the UK Government. One problem that often arises after such situations is the spread of disease following the interruption of water supply and sewerage systems. What plans are being made, and what steps are being taken, to address those problems?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

The emergency medical kits that we are helping to fund will be part of that response. I expect the UN appeal will in part look for support to address concerns about disease control and the provision of clean water and sanitation, which is an urgent priority. We will respond to that as soon as we receive it.

Photo of Siôn Simon Siôn Simon Labour, Birmingham, Erdington

The city of Birmingham is a lot closer to Azad Kashmir and Pakistan than can be told from a map. The effect of the tragedy in our communities in terms of grief, loss and trauma is real and as if it happened in our country. Will the Secretary of State say a few more words about what lead DFID could take in giving support and succour inside our communities?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

Hon. Members on both sides of the House have reflected the concern of the communities that they represent. I hope that people take some comfort from the efforts that we are taking, along with others in the international community, to help the families of those who have lost their lives by providing good information, keeping in contact, reflecting in our work ideas that have been suggested, and just acknowledging that it is a terrible trauma for many people, not just in the areas affected thousands of miles away, but in places much closer to home.

Photo of Claire Curtis-Thomas Claire Curtis-Thomas Labour, Crosby

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the British Council will fund a number of educational programmes for people from around the world who will come to the UK to study. Given this disaster, would it not be appropriate to make some of those awards available to young people to undertake disaster engineering courses in the UK so that we increase the capacity of countries to manage their own affairs when disaster strikes?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for International Development

That is an extremely good suggestion which I am happy to consider. In making available funding and support we will look at how we can build into it preparation and preparedness to avoid a similar disaster occurring again. That is one of the lessons we have learned from other crises around the world. Engineers will indeed have a major role to play, both in identifying whether buildings are safe and, more importantly, in designing and helping to construct those buildings that we hope will rise from the rubble of this terrible earthquake.