Hurricane Irma - Statement

– in the House of Lords at 5:48 pm on 12th September 2017.

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Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State 5:48 pm, 12th September 2017

My Lords, I shall now repeat a Statement made in the other place earlier today by my right honourable friend Sir Alan Duncan:

“At last Thursday’s Statement I undertook to update the House as appropriate—and thank you, Mr Speaker, for the opportunity to do so now. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary is on his way to the Caribbean to see for himself our stricken overseas territories and further drive the extensive relief efforts that are under way.

The thoughts of this House and the whole country are with those who are suffering the ravages of one of the most powerful Atlantic hurricanes ever recorded. It followed Hurricane Harvey and was set to be followed by Hurricane Jose. Over half a million British nationals—either residents or tourists—have been in the path of Hurricane Irma, which has caused devastation across an area spanning well over 1,000 miles. The overall death toll in the circumstances is low, but unfortunately five people died in the British Virgin Islands and four in Anguilla. At this critical moment, our principal focus is on the 80,000 British citizens who inhabit our overseas territories of Anguilla, the Turks and Caicos Islands and the British Virgin Islands.

Commonwealth realms in the Caribbean have also suffered, including Antigua and Barbuda and the Bahamas, as well as other islands such as St Martin and Cuba. We have around 70 British nationals requiring assistance on St Martin and are working with United States, German and Dutch authorities to facilitate the potential departure of the most vulnerable via commercial means today.

To prepare for the hurricane season, the Government acted two months ago by dispatching RFAMounts Bay” to the Caribbean in July. DfID humanitarian advisers were also deployed to the region ahead of the hurricane to co-ordinate the response effort. This 16,000-ton landing ship from the Royal Fleet Auxiliary is one of the most capable vessels at our disposal. Before she left the UK in June, the ship was preloaded with UK aid disaster relief supplies, facilities for producing clean water and a range of hydraulic vehicles and equipment. In addition to the normal crew, the Government ensured that a special disaster relief team, consisting of 40 Royal Marines and Army personnel, was on board.

This pre-positioning of one of our most versatile national assets, along with an extra complement of highly skilled personnel, allowed the relief effort to begin immediately after the hurricane had passed. By Friday night, the team from RFA “Mounts Bay” had managed to restore power supplies at Anguilla’s hospital, rebuild the emergency operations centre, clear the runway and make the island’s airport serviceable. The ship then repositioned to the British Virgin Islands, where its experts were able to reopen the airport.

Meanwhile, in the UK the Government dispatched two RAF transport aircraft on Friday, carrying 52 personnel and UK aid emergency supplies. On Saturday, another two aircraft left for the region to deliver a Puma transport helicopter and ancillary supplies. This steady tempo of relief flights has been sustained. Yesterday it included a Voyager and a C17, and I can assure the House that this will continue for as long as required.

Already 40 tonnes of UK aid has arrived, including over 2,500 shelter kits and 2,300 solar lanterns. Nine tonnes of food and water are being procured locally today for onward delivery, and thousands more shelter kits and buckets will be on the way from the UK shortly. HMS “Ocean” is being loaded with 200 pallets of DfID aid and 60 pallets of emergency relief stores today. Five thousand hygiene kits, 10,000 buckets and 504,000 Aquatabs, all DfID funded, are going on to the vessel. As I speak, 997 British military personnel are in the Caribbean. RFA “Mounts Bay” arrived in Anguilla again yesterday at dusk as 47 police officers arrived in the British Virgin Islands to assist the local constabulary.

We should all acknowledge and thank the first responders of the overseas territories’ own Governments, who have shown leadership from the start and who are being reinforced by personnel from the UK. Many people, military and civilian, have shown fantastic professionalism and courage in their response to this disaster, and I hope I speak for the whole House in saying a resounding and heartfelt thank you to them all.

This initial effort will soon be reinforced by the flagship of the Royal Navy, HMS “Ocean”. The Government have ordered our biggest warship in service to leave her NATO task in the Mediterranean and steam westwards with all speed. HMS “Ocean” loaded supplies in Gibraltar yesterday and will be active in the Caribbean in about 10 days. Within 24 hours of the hurricane striking, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister announced, last Thursday, a £32-million fund for those who have suffered. But in the first desperate stages it is not about money; it is about just getting on with it.

The Foreign Office crisis centre has been operating around the clock since last Wednesday, co-ordinating with DfID and MoD colleagues. It has taken nearly 2,500 calls since then and is handling 2,251 consular cases. The Government have convened daily meetings of our COBRA crisis committee.

Over the weekend, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary spoke to the governors of Anguilla and the British Virgin Islands, along with Governor Rick Scott of Florida, where Irma has since made landfall over the weekend. I have spoken to the US Assistant Secretary of State for Europe about the US Virgin Islands in respect of logistics support for the British Virgin Islands. As well as those affected across the Caribbean, some 420,000 British citizens are in Florida, either as residents or visitors, and UK officials are providing every possible help. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary spoke to our ambassador in Washington and to our consul-general in Miami, who has deployed teams in Florida’s major airports to offer support and issue emergency travel documents to those who need them.

The House will note that Irma has now weakened to a tropical storm, which is moving north-west into Georgia. On Friday, I spoke to the Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda. The hurricane inflicted some of its worst blows upon Barbuda, and a DfID team has been deployed on the island to assess the situation and make recommendations. Put starkly, the infrastructure of Barbuda no longer exists. I assured the Prime Minister of our support.

On Saturday, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary spoke to the Prime Minister of Barbados to thank him for his country’s superb support, acting as a staging post for other UK efforts across the Caribbean.

We should all be humble in the face of the power of nature. Whatever relief we are able to provide will not be enough for many who have lost so much. But hundreds of dedicated British public servants are doing their utmost to help and they will not relent in their efforts. I commend this Statement to the House”.

Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (International Development) 5:56 pm, 12th September 2017

My Lords, once again I express our deepest sympathies to the people whose lives and livelihoods have been lost to the devastation caused by Hurricane Irma. I join the Minister in paying tribute to all British personnel who are playing such a critical part in leading the relief effort.

I also welcome the Government’s approach in keeping Parliament informed of the UK’s response to the hurricane. In this House last week, we had a debate in Grand Committee in which the noble Lord, Lord Bates, was able to give us an immediate update on what the Government were doing. This was followed on Friday by a PNQ, in which the noble Earl, Lord Courtown, responded.

Whoever replies to this matter, what is clear is the requirement for a fully co-ordinated response from the key government departments, particularly the FCO, DfID and the MoD. Of course, the reports that we have received have made reference to emergency meetings of COBRA, one chaired by the Defence Secretary last week and one chaired by the Prime Minister on Friday. I would be grateful if the Minister could indicate just how COBRA has improved co-ordination and our response time to this devastating hurricane.

I know how hard Ministers and civil servants have been working over the last week to respond. Today’s Statement, like last week’s, details all the actions that we have taken. However, we have also heard criticism, including from my noble friend Lady Amos, who felt that the response had been too slow. There has been criticism not just from this side of the House but, indeed, from the respective chairs of the Foreign Affairs and International Development Select Committees. I appreciate that the Minister has responded to Members of the other place, particularly on the prioritisation process for British citizens who need or want to be evacuated. I know that many Members of Parliament have raised that. However, the key issue is what the Government are doing in the meantime to guarantee their safety, shelter and security.

We heard about the emergency situation in the British Virgin Islands following a prison break-out and about the Marines going in to restore order, but what support is being offered to the overseas territories to help their Governments re-establish some basic command and control systems to maintain law and order, particularly where it is threatening to break down, and to put in place emergency plans to stop the causes of preventable, waterborne diseases before they begin to spread? The priority must be addressing people’s needs in these affected areas.

Climate change is making these types of hurricanes more intense and more frequent. We urgently need a long-term plan for the overseas territories that is built around resilience and sustainability. There is value in cross-learning and development between islands. I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm that this issue will be a priority for the joint ministerial council and the Overseas Territories Consultative Committee so that lessons are learned, ensuring that we are better prepared in future. There is no doubt that sharing best practice in these committees could deliver vital, important results.

We need to guarantee that there will be a sustained commitment to reconstruction. It is not just about this week; it is about a longer term future and building sustainability in the long term.

Photo of Baroness Northover Baroness Northover Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating this Statement. From these Benches, we also express our sympathy to those whose lives have been so devastated by the hurricane. I commend the efforts of those who are assisting. As the Minister said, more than half a million British nationals have been affected.

Clearly, this is an area which is prone to hurricanes but this hurricane was, as he said, one of the most powerful ever recorded. That said, there were clear warning signs. For some time it was tracked across the Atlantic and its very severe risks were known. It is, therefore, puzzling as to why we were so tardy in our response, compared to the Dutch, the French, the Americans and other national Governments. It is also surprising that, initially, our offer of assistance was so limited and it is still at a level which does not seem commensurate with the damage caused. Perhaps the Minister could comment on this. There are varying reports of what RFAMounts Bay” was able to achieve. HMS “Ocean” will take more than a week to come from the Mediterranean.

At the request of the right honourable Andrew Mitchell, in around 2012 my noble friend Lord Ashdown headed a commission to look at how we should deal with such disasters and the pre-planning required. After that, we led the world in this regard. So what happened here? As a former DfID Minister, I am really puzzled at the tardy reaction. It is concerning, too, to hear of possible turf wars between DfID and the MoD over what might happen and, of key significance, where funds would be channelled. I know that that can happen, and I realise that the MoD is under financial pressure. Clearly, security was—and is—required. What plans have been made in that regard, and what plans are there for rebuilding homes, schools and hospitals? Are we sure that adequate food, water and shelter are now there? Why did it take so long for COBRA to be put in place?

I found myself wondering if Brexit had been deflecting Ministers from all their other responsibilities. What happens when we leave the EU and are no longer able to support the ACP countries in which we have a particular, historic interest? I hope that this does not augur poorly.

I realise that we do not yet know whether this hurricane was so strong because of climate change, but the warmer sea suggests that that may have been a factor. In the light of this, will the Government reiterate their commitment to combatting climate change—and have they conveyed this to the Americans?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Collins and the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, for showing support for the Government’s position and expressing solidarity with all the people across the region. I will take some of the key issues raised in turn.

First, on the issue of co-ordination across Whitehall, I am pleased to report that we are working in a co-ordinated fashion—and not just in COBRA. I am accompanied on the Front Bench today by my noble friend Lord Bates. We are working hand in glove with the Ministry of Defence, DfID and the FCO to ensure a co-ordinated response. I think that our response was demonstrable during the course of the Statement; the noble Lord, Lord Collins acknowledged this. I will come specifically to the issue of the response when I deal with the points raised by the noble Baroness.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked how COBRA’s response has been aligned. COBRA has been meeting every day. It is not just my right honourable friend the Prime Minister who has chaired COBRA; my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence and my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary have also done so. I can assure noble Lords that, although I was out of the country, as the Minister responsible for the overseas territories I was in direct communication with the governor of the British Virgin Islands as the hurricane hit. There was not just practical support, as shown by the facts and figures I have presented, but also pastoral support. Sometimes, in such a situation, you need a voice on the other end of the phone who can highlight some of the challenges. That direct contact has enabled us to provide focused assistance, both in terms of development, with food and water and, on the BVI, with the security situation. That was very much first hand; personnel from both the military and the police have been deployed directly. We are working with the respective overseas territories’ Governments, as well as with our governors, who are on location, to ensure focused and prioritised assistance in whatever fields are highlighted.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, also talked of the importance of addressing climate change. Through my responsibilities as Minister for the Commonwealth, I was recently—indeed as this crisis started—visiting a series of Pacific island countries. Nothing resonated more strongly with those particular islands about what was happening across the way in the Caribbean than the long-term planning issues around climate change and how to address it. I can assure the noble Lord that discussions were already under way prior to this event but, of course, natural disasters such as this also help to focus greater attention on the priorities that he listed.

I take issue with the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, about the response of the British Government. She mentioned reports which I would say are perhaps more media-based. I have already indicated how quickly my right honourable friend responded. The noble Baroness shakes her head, but it is just not the case. She mentioned the French—we are helping the French. HMS “Ocean” is helping to take French assistance. We are helping the Dutch. We want to put the record straight—that is actually happening. This is not about saying, “Oh, look at us and what we are doing”—this is the level of co-operation that we are seeing across the Caribbean.

I assure noble Lords that this is not a time for posturing; this is about facts on the ground. We are in direct contact with all the authorities to ensure that aid and assistance and, indeed, the security situation, which the noble Baroness and the noble Lord raised, are addressed head on. The fact is that we are providing assistance to our colleagues from across Europe. This is not an issue about Europe more broadly, and let us not turn it into one. Wherever assistance is needed, countries come together at the time of need. I would also particularly acknowledge the Prime Ministers and Governments of Barbados and the Cayman Islands, who have provided valuable assistance to the region. So, there is a co-ordinated response—not just across Whitehall, but across all areas, irrespective of where the territories are or where the Governments lie.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, talked about the communication with Parliament. As I speak, my noble friend Sir Alan Duncan is holding a briefing with MPs. The noble Lord mentioned specific, consular cases, which are being addressed head on. We are making arrangements for anyone who wishes to leave the islands—be they the overseas territories or the wider region. Arrangements are being put in place and we are co-ordinating these efforts. My noble friend Lord Bates and I will be hosting a briefing for Peers on Thursday, immediately after Questions, again to bring noble Lords across the House up to date as to the efforts that are being made.

On a personal front, I can assure noble Lords that I have been talking directly to Premiers and governors. Most recently, on Saturday, I had a constructive conversation with the Prime Minister of the Bahamas about ensuring that we prioritise the needs not only of our overseas territories—where, rightly, the focus has been—but the needs on the ground of the wider Caribbean as well.

As to the assistance we can provide—be it through the sea, through the air or through personnel—I have indicated the first priorities. In both the BVI and Anguilla it was about getting the airports functional, and that has happened. As I have said, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary will be arriving in the region shortly and will visit the overseas territories to get a direct assessment of their longer term needs.

I assure noble Lords, again, that, whether it is from the Ministry of Defence, DfID or the FCO, this response is co-ordinated and reflects the priorities as we see them. It also reflect the priorities as seen by our governors on the ground in the territories and countries as they are made known to us.

I commend the efforts of all personnel involved and the voluntary services on the ground. They were prepared, and that is why we had a vessel loaded and ready to go. The noble Baroness shakes her head, but it arrived there the next day. You would not send it in the middle of a hurricane. It went to both overseas territories directly.

Having worked with the noble Baroness over a long period of time, I hope that along with the noble Lord, Lord Collins, we will work together in a co-ordinated fashion. I will, of course, continue to update the whole House regularly but, equally, whatever particular information the noble Baroness and noble Lord may need or questions they may have, I will be willing to answer accordingly.

Photo of Lord West of Spithead Lord West of Spithead Labour 6:11 pm, 12th September 2017

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his response. I am proud of what the men and women of the Armed Forces are doing but we are being economical with the actuality of far-sightedness and deploying RFAMounts Bay”. We have historically deployed a ship to the West Indies—it used to be called the West Indies guard ship—all the time precisely for hurricane relief of our dependencies and to counter drugs.

The RFA “Largs Bay” has gone because we do not have enough frigates. A frigate has about 200 men. Every ship in the Royal Navy exercises and has to pass a big exam about disaster relief before it goes off to sea. The RFA “Mounts Bay” has a Royal Fleet Auxiliary civilian crew—they have done some work on that—and that is part of the reason we need 40 Marines and engineers on board. The amount of effort it could put in was probably less than could have been done by a frigate.

Having a ship there makes a great deal of sense. However, it was not far-sightedness for this particular operation because we always have one there. It is wrong to pretend that it was far-sightedness in regard to this particular hurricane.

However, my question is not about that. I have been concerned at the reports of British citizens in various places, such as St Martin, not being collected by the Americans because we have no agreement with America. If we do not have agreements with America and other allied nations to withdraw our own nationals—not only for hurricane relief but for other things that might happen in different parts of the world—something has gone very wrong. Can we ensure that in the future that this does not happen and that there are links in place to ensure that people will be recovered?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State

The noble Lord speaks from great experience but the RFAMounts Bay” was dispatched two months ago. I acknowledge his point that this has been an ongoing deployment through different ships and different vessels but, equally, I am sure he will acknowledge that this is done exactly for the reason that the hurricane season in the Caribbean is not a new phenomenon. What was different was the force of Hurricane Irma, a category 5. The deployment ensured that we had immediate assistance on board the RFA “Mounts Bay”, which was already in the region. It acted on that and she was able to visit both Anguilla and the British Virgin Islands. Today she has returned to Anguilla to help in providing basic reconstruction material.

The noble Lord made a point about the consular support we have made available for the population and for evacuation. Consular support is, in a general sense, exactly that. It establishes who needs what. I said earlier that, for anyone who needs to leave any of the affected territories, we are working with the appropriate authorities to make that happen. He mentioned St Martin specifically. The US, Germans and the Dutch are sending in flights today and we are liaising directly with them to ensure that those Brits who want to leave that territory are able to do so. They are prioritising according to need.

We are currently also working on this across other capitals in Europe, including Paris and The Hague. As I indicated earlier, we have had great assistance from the Cayman Islands and Barbados.

I emphasise again that this is about co-ordination with those in the region. The noble Lord mentioned the US and, yes, we are working directly with it. I indicated in the Statement about how we are working collectively with the US. We have had no pushback from the other countries, nor in our support have we resisted others. When crises hit we come together collaboratively in our humanitarian efforts, and that has been reflected in this crisis.

Photo of Lord Naseby Lord Naseby Conservative

I declare an interest as having family on the Cayman Islands.

Is my noble friend clear that forward planning was missing? The Government have available remote sensing and satellite technology, which give a wonderful forward look into today’s world. That technology indicated that this was not an ordinary hurricane but the largest and most damaging that nature has seen. It therefore does not take a genius to work out that there will be devastation.

I can say as a former RAF pilot that I am surprised that RAF Brize Norton was not immediately on standby, with its aircraft loaded, so that the minute the hurricane struck the islands that have been mentioned they would take off. It takes the best part of 10 hours to get out there so, by the time they got there, there would have definitely been places to land. Why were they not ready? That is the key question.

Sixteen minutes ago, I believe, the Premier of the Cayman Islands, along with a number of medical teams, back-up facilities and medical facilities, arrived on their own Boeing-345 or 347. As far as I can see, they are providing considerably more medical back-up than we in the UK have provided so far.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State

On my noble friend’s final point, I was aware of that and, of course, that has been co-ordinated with the visit of the Foreign Secretary to the islands. I have already acknowledged that the support from the Cayman Islands has been greatly appreciated. Returning to a point made earlier by the noble Lord, Lord West, who is not in his place at the moment, I say that we are co-ordinating with our partners and all countries across the region to ensure that aid is provided in the quickest way along the quickest route possible.

On the issue of the state of preparedness, the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, is right about satellite technology but, equally, as he will know from his own experience—and as we have seen with the path of Hurricane Irma—tracking a hurricane is not scientific in itself because it can change direction. That said, of course there are always things that can be learned from any experience and a full assessment will be made in the medium term. However, as I am sure my noble friend appreciates, the immediate need is about ensuring that the priorities required in the overseas territories and the wider Caribbean are met. I can assure him that we are responding accordingly across the board.

Photo of Lord Campbell-Savours Lord Campbell-Savours Labour

Following on from what the noble Lord, Lord West of Spithead, referred to, the fact is that our failure to co-ordinate with other countries the evacuation of people has been shameful. People should be held to account for their failure to sort out that problem as they should have done.

However, recognising our responsibilities for overseas territories and for the increased incidence of hurricanes and other environmental disasters, particularly in the Caribbean, have we looked at what the Americans established many years ago, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and its work? In the light of what has happened in this case, will the British Government now look closely at FEMA’s operations to see if we can establish a similar operation here within the United Kingdom?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State

I do not accept the noble Lord’s first point. The reality is that we are working as rapidly as we can in a co-ordinated fashion. I do not know how many times I will have to repeat this fact, but I will repeat it. We are not only getting assistance but we are providing it.

Let me put it into context. Half a million British nationals have been affected by this storm. We are assessing each case individually and providing support to the foremost in the most vulnerable areas.

The noble Lord made a further point about the evacuation. I have already indicated that we are evacuating those who wish to leave the territories or the wider region and making appropriate and suitable evacuation plans for them.

The noble Lord’s final point was about learning from others. In all this I have already indicated that I have been talking, as I was prior to this event, through the Commonwealth to many countries in the Pacific that face similar challenges. I agree on the principle that from any such events we always learn—history has told us that—and we will continue to do so. However, the response that has been provided to date is co-ordinated, I reiterate, not just across Whitehall but across the wider region and with our partners including the French, the Dutch, who we are providing support to, and—yes—the United States.

Photo of Lord Birt Lord Birt Crossbench

Noble Lords have focused, understandably, on the pressing short-term need, not least for food, water and shelter, but I ask the Minister to say something about the mid to long-term need. It is clear from the broadcast footage that has emerged over the last few days, including from drones, that the level of destruction of these islands is simply extraordinary, and that there will need to be a major programme of rebuilding of housing and infrastructure once the short-term need is dealt with. Has any thought been given as to how we can help over the mid-to-longer term?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State

The noble Lord is right to raise that issue. I acknowledge, and I am thankful that he accepts, the principle that some basic needs—food, water or power supply—have been addressed. I will give him a specific example to illustrate what has been done. On Anguilla, which was one of the territories affected, the first issue was about getting specific aid in terms of water and food. RFAMounts Bay” got the airfield up, which has allowed further access, and six tonnes of aid got through. As I indicated earlier, “Mounts Bay” returned yesterday to Anguilla for the next stage and provided building materials for essential repairs.

The noble Lord will be aware that in the Caribbean bank for reconstruction there was £300 million prior to this, all to do with infrastructure spending. Of course, we have already started the medium and long-term planning across Whitehall, looking at what options are available to ensure that as soon as we get out of the immediate emergency phase we can talk about the important element of rebuilding these communities.

Photo of Baroness Sheehan Baroness Sheehan Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Development)

My Lords, the figures for the death tolls that we have been given for both the British Overseas Territories and the Commonwealth island of Barbuda seem, mercifully, to be low. However, there are media reports which suggest that many people remain unaccounted for. I wonder whether the Minister has any indication yet of how many people remain missing and, if not, when does he expect to receive that figure?

I also ask the Minister about the 997 British military personnel that he mentioned were in the Caribbean. How many are on each of the British Overseas Territories affected by Hurricane Irma—Anguilla, British Virgin Islands, and Turks and Caicos? How many are present on the Commonwealth island of Barbuda where, in the words of the Statement, “infrastructure no longer exists”?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State

I can give a few facts, but in the interests of time I will write to the noble Baroness with a complete answer. In the BVI, current staffing is 120 troops, which includes engineers, medics and marines. Sixteen police officers, with co-ordination from the Cayman Islands, are working with the local police—we heard earlier about the issue with the prison and the law and order situation, which is a priority. Specialist FCO staff have also provided direct and additional support to the governor in terms of the consular support. In Anguilla, there is immediate staffing of 15 military personnel; nine police officers and two FCO staff have arrived with kit, including building supplies to repair the hospital. Regarding other territories and questions, in the interests of time I will write to the noble Baroness, if I may.

Photo of Lord Blencathra Lord Blencathra Chair, Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee

I congratulate my noble friend on his excellent and detailed Statement today, and the passion which he obviously brought to helping British citizens in need in our overseas territories. I think he was right to be robust in his rebuttal of the noble Baroness, Lady Northover. I think her criticism that we were slow and tawdry is a bit unfair. The Americans have huge bases in the Caribbean and dozens of ships; we do not, and our response was as good and as fast as I believe it could be.

I want to look at the future and press the Government to ensure that we spend, from our overseas aid budget, whatever it takes to reconstruct these British Overseas Territories. I am told that DfID does not have brief to fund the overseas territories; if that is the case we had better change it. Thirty two million pounds is good for a few days or weeks of relief, but if it takes £132 million, or £1.32 billion, we should find it from the £13 billion spent on overseas aid. These people are British citizens, they fly the union flag, they are loyal to this country; they should take priority, followed by assistance to Commonwealth countries.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State

I thank my noble friend for his support and the suggestion that he has put forward. I am conscious of time, so all I will say at this juncture is that he makes important points and, as the Minister responsible for overseas territories, I assure him of the same passion and vigour in ensuring that we focus on the rebuilding of these communities at the earliest possible opportunity. On the wider discussion about reconstruction and financing, I think it is important to ensure that there is a full look across all funding, both public and private sector, to see how we can rebuild those communities and provide the essential services as well as the community services which will be required for the territories.

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Chair, International Relations Committee

My Lords, a previous Prime Minister, Jim Callaghan—who was a very good Prime Minister, in my view—used to remind us that, a lie can get halfway round the world before the truth can get its boots on. I was glad to hear the Minister refute some of the wilder allegations that have been made in the press and elsewhere about the apparent weakness of our effort. It was not weak at all. Furthermore, as he reminded us, we actually made a pre-positioning move by having a ship in the area. Of course we all want more frigates—I always support the noble Lord, Lord West, in his call for frigates—and of course there were immediate, individual and tragic problems which we have to address, but on the whole I think the reaction and co-ordination have been excellent.

In his role as Minister for the Commonwealth, could the noble Lord give as much encouragement as possible to co-ordination by all Commonwealth member states involved in this tragedy? This is applies particularly to Canada, which I think is very much involved in the Caribbean and Antigua and Barbuda anyway. Could he reassure us he is really working with the Commonwealth members to see that we give the maximum benefit from that direction as well as the benefit we can provide to our own overseas territories?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State

I thank my noble friend for his words of support. The short answer is yes. He knows I am a passionate advocate for the Commonwealth. We have been working hand in glove with the Commonwealth Secretary-General, who attended the Pacific Islands Forum, and I would acknowledge her assistance and the support that was provided. Noble Lords have mentioned how we work in ensuring co-ordination in this respect for the longer term. We have of course prioritised support that we have extended to other parts of the Commonwealth family within the region. I have been particularly struck, as I said, by the support that we have received from those islands within the Commonwealth family that have not been affected. Equally, we need to recognise, for example with Antigua, the tragedy that has unfolded in one part of that country. We are also working closely with the Bahamas to ensure a co-ordinated response. These responses are only possible because they are strengthened by the fact that we are all part of the Commonwealth family. We continue to work for the medium and long term within the context of the Commonwealth to ensure that we get rapid responses wherever such challenges occur.

Photo of Lord Campbell-Savours Lord Campbell-Savours Labour

My Lords, can I take the Minister back again to the question I asked, and the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord West? Is the reality not that Ministers are brushing over the fact that British passport holders were denied access to aircraft that were evacuating citizens because they were not citizens of the nations to which those aircraft belonged? Is that not an example of the lack of co-ordination? There have been many reports in the press of people who were denied access to those aircraft. How can he stand there and simply brush over this fact as if there has been the fullest possible co-ordination?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State

My Lords, we are not “brushing over”—I take exception to that, because it has not been the case. If the noble Lord were to talk directly to the governors of those territories, he would see the passion and vigour with which the British representation has prioritised the situation on the ground. On security, the noble Lord asked a question; I will co-ordinate an appropriate response to him. He needs to understand that this was a category 5 storm which had an impact on UK overseas territories and the wider Caribbean. There has been co-ordination. Great support has been given to us by countries within the region, but, equally, we have extended support to others. The noble Lord said that he is talking specifics; I believe that he is not. If there are specific cases that he wishes to highlight to me, I will take them up. We will provide the support at consular level to ensure that, for anyone seeking to evacuate, whether it is in the overseas territories or the wider Caribbean, we make appropriate arrangements. The noble Lord has not acknowledged the efforts of our military personnel and our governors on the ground. I assure him that I was talking directly to Gus Jaspert as the hurricane hit. He was outlining exactly the situation on the ground. That allowed us to prioritise security and to ensure that we provided support and security personnel on the ground as the prison security broke down. If that is not a direct response to the priorities of a particular region, I am not sure what is.