§ Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon)
(by private notice): To ask the Secretary of State for International Development if she will make a statement on the humanitarian crisis in Central America and the aid being supplied by the United Kingdom.
§ The Secretary of State for International Development (Clare Short)
I apologise to the hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) for the lateness of his receiving a copy of my answer; we have just come back from a meeting of our national policy forum in Birmingham, and I wrote it on the train.
This year has seen a record number of major natural disasters, and when the crisis is brought under control we should look at how far environmental degradation is one of the causes. Hurricane Mitch, the 13th and fiercest storm of the 1998 hurricane season, has caused widespread damage and severe loss of life across central America, particularly affecting Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua are the worst affected countries.
Official reports suggest that 7,000 people have lost their lives, 9,000 people are missing and about 2.5 million people are badly affected. The terrible contrast between the death toll in central America and the much lower loss of life in the equally terrible floods in Bangladesh cruelly demonstrates the importance of disaster preparedness in countries that are vulnerable to natural disasters.
Since May 1997—a significant date—my Department has been working to strengthen the capacity of the international system to respond very quickly to emergencies wherever they arise. In the past, unco-ordinated shipments of aid and expertise often exacerbated such crises rather than helping.
The first step following Hurricane Mitch was the mobilisation of the United Nations disaster assessment teams; a British expert was made available. HMS Sheffield was in the vicinity and, at the request of the local authorities, was able to make available helicopters, engineers and medical support. My Department immediately offered support to non-governmental organisations that were already working in the countries and so could move very quickly. We have made available £200,000 to the Red Cross regional appeal, and supplies were flown in yesterday.
In Honduras, we have contributed £60,000 to the Pan American Health Organisation for basic health care needs; £94,525 to the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development for food and household items; and a grant of £100,000 to Christian Aid to supply medicines, temporary shelters, blankets and water containers. In Nicaragua, we have channelled £32,585 through the NGO Christian Action, Research and Education for the provision of safe water, food and clothes. We are also sending medical supplies to El Salvador to meet the needs of 20,000 people for three months. HMS Ocean and RFA Sir Tristram are also in the area and, at local request, are providing search and rescue and reconnaissance services.
In the past few days, the European Commission humanitarian office has allocated 6.8 million ecu for the disaster. We will do our best to ensure that that money is disbursed as soon as possible.
22 My Department has recently agreed a new, enlarged development programme for central America, to which we have committed £6 million. We are currently refocusing the programme to assist with reconstruction when the immediate crisis is under control.
Debt relief is, of course, irrelevant to coping with the immediate crisis, although crucial for reconstruction. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor and I have been working since we formed our Government to speed up the implementation of the heavily indebted poor countries initiative. Our aim is to ensure that every heavily indebted poor country that adopts economic policies that will reduce poverty will be on track for debt relief by the year 2000.
Before the crisis, Nicaragua was on track to qualify, and Honduras was unlikely to need debt relief. Obviously, the crisis will disrupt Nicaragua's International Monetary Fund programme and, sadly, Honduras's economy is likely to deteriorate so that it may well qualify for debt relief—not a good thing.
The Chancellor and I have announced that we are approaching the IMF and the World bank to try to get agreement that post-crisis countries should be treated more flexibly for debt relief. We are pursuing a similar proposal to benefit post-conflict countries such as Rwanda and Liberia. Progress on debt relief will be crucial to the reconstruction effort but does not assist in the immediate crisis. We must also ensure that post-crisis countries that are not heavily indebted, such as Bangladesh, also receive assistance for reconstruction.
Sadly, it is likely that the region will suffer similar hurricanes in future, so we must ensure that the reconstruction effort focuses on reducing vulnerability, for example through flood protection and the appropriate location of new housing. It will also be necessary to strengthen local and regional capacity to respond when disaster strikes. We have very recently agreed a major programme with the International Red Cross to strengthen such capacity in all developing countries.
We will continue to monitor the situation carefully through the United Nations and the International Red Cross and at local embassies. My Department will still be working in central America when media interest has moved elsewhere.
§ Mr. Streeter
I thank the Secretary of State for that response, and especially for coming back from what I know is an important conference in Birmingham to give it. I know that hon. Members of all parties will want to send a clear message of solidarity and support to the people of central America who have suffered such an appalling catastrophe.
One of my earliest boyhood memories is of the black-and-white television reports of the terrible tragedy at Aberfan. That tragic loss of 114 young lives shocked our nation for many years. We can only imagine what the people of central America are going through in the wake of losing more than 12,000 of their fellow citizens.
Does the Secretary of State agree—in one sense, she has already said she does—that those people will need and deserve our support for many years to come? Will she join me in paying warm tribute to the aid agencies, which have hit the ground running to try to bring emergency relief to the affected communities? 23 Given that the loss of life has been far greater than any that we have witnessed in recent years, does the Secretary of State believe that Britain's response to date has been commensurate? Has it been proportionate to the scale of the disaster? Is the right hon. Lady completely satisfied that her Department has been sufficiently generous in making funds available? Does she have any plans to make further moneys available in the near future?
Will the Secretary of State say a little more about the anticipated role of the Royal Navy ships on their way to the region? When are they expected to arrive and start work? Precisely what role does she expect our armed forces to play, and to whom will they be accountable? Many of them will be my constituents, so I have a particular interest in her reply.
Can the Secretary of State confirm that she has met in person the ambassadors of the central American countries affected by Hurricane Mitch to discuss their specific needs face to face? After two weeks of the crisis, with more lives being lost daily as a result of starvation and disease, what specific steps are being taken to avert the real threat of many more deaths from cholera and other diseases?
Is the Secretary of State aware that an humanitarian crisis, no matter how grave, is no excuse for sloppy government? Will she explain to the House why on the morning of Friday 6 November she dismissed debt relief as misleading and irrelevant, but by the afternoon of Saturday 7 November she issued a joint press statement with the Chancellor of the Exchequer that made debt relief an essential part of Britain's response to the crisis? What changed in those 24 hours? How had debt relief moved from being irrelevant on Friday to being essential on Saturday? If the Secretary of State had planned to call for the speeding up of the heavily indebted poor countries initiative, why did she not say so on Friday? Does she accept that debt relief was relevant to the people of central America the second that Hurricane Mitch struck their towns and villages?
Will the Secretary of State clarify what the Government are now saying about debt relief? On Friday I called for an immediate moratorium on debt repayments from Honduras and Nicaragua to get them through the immediate crisis, and for a review of the situation thereafter. Does she now agree with that? Do the Government intend to suspend those countries' debt repayments? Do they intend to write off debt unilaterally? What is the Government's policy on debt relief? Is the Secretary of State's policy now the same as that of the Chancellor of the Exchequer? If so, at what time on Saturday did their policies coincide? Given its recent track record, will the Secretary of State keep up pressure on the European Community humanitarian office to distribute its funds without delay?
Is the Secretary of State aware that tomorrow, the Disasters Emergency Committee of our leading non-governmental organisations is launching an appeal for funds through the nation's media to provide extra money for central America? Is she aware that the NGOs consider that they need at least £7 million to support their activities on the ground in the short term? Will she confirm that, unlike the Sudan appeal, this appeal will 24 have her unequivocal support, so that the great British public can give their money generously to the people of central America, knowing that they have her full backing?
§ Clare Short
It is nice to hear a Tory Member start by sending a message of solidarity to people who are suffering in central America. That is an historic move. Sadly the hon. Gentleman is trying to make cheap points and does not understand some of the points that he is making.
The ships that the hon. Gentleman mentioned are already there. HMS Sheffield was helping in Belize. The contrast between events there and in central America tells us something about disaster preparedness. The hurricane was predicted. Belize moved people, so, although there is devastation, there has been very little loss of life. After helping with reconstruction in Belize, HMS Sheffield asked my Department whether it was wanted in central America. We contacted the United Nations team. Sheffield has engineers, medical expertise and, importantly, helicopters. The other two ships are also in the vicinity, and are providing helicopters for reconnaissance.
I have not met the ambassadors. My Department has more direct contact with United Nations teams in the region than with the ambassadors, and communications are difficult. I shall meet them later, but getting things right on the ground is our priority.
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman now understands that preventing cholera and hunger is the most immediate need. Like many people in the media, he seems not to understand how debt relief works. In such a crisis, when the mud slides, a person's chances of survival depend on those who are already in the country pulling them out. The international community can help only by having strengthened those capacities in a country.
The second stage, on which the international community needs to move quickly—we are among the best in the world at moving quickly—is bringing in food, water purification tablets and measures that prevent disease and hunger to stop the crisis getting even worse. That is what we are doing. When people are still being pulled out of the mud, anyone who asks whether debt relief will solve the problem clearly does not understand the nature of debt relief.
Britain did not announce large amounts of money on television—unlike some others, including the European Union—while not disbursing anything. We are good at finding out which non-governmental organisations are in the country and getting resources to them immediately so that they can act on the ground immediately and stop cholera. The list of detailed programmes in the statement shows what we have already done. We will try to make sure that the EU money that has been promised is disbursed as soon as possible, because that has not yet happened.
As my statement made clear, debt relief is complex, and I have offered the hon. Gentleman a briefing on the subject from my Department. Unilateral action in relation to IMF or World bank debt is impossible. It would be silly of one country to move alone on export credits, because the good country would simply ensure that ungenerous countries were paid. Moving together is the way to get progress on debt relief. The hon. Gentleman's call for unilateral action shows that he does not understand what he is talking about.
We have acted quickly to deal with the emergency. We had already acted to try to speed up debt relief, but the crisis means that Nicaragua, which would have qualified, 25 will now be in difficulties. We are talking to the IMF, the World bank and many of our partner countries to try to achieve a flexible attitude towards Nicaragua and Honduras, but that has not yet been secured. It is clear from what the hon. Gentleman has said, here and in the media, that he does not understand debt relief, and I repeat that I would be happy to arrange a briefing for him.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal. My view, along with the view of most people who are serious about Sudan, is that the problem there is the need to bring energy to the peace process. Britain has contributed to that. There is a ceasefire, and it is being extended. We are working hard to get more of the world interested in peace in Sudan. There was never a shortage of money for humanitarian relief there, but there was an ever-spreading crisis because of the war. The DEC appeal will be announced tomorrow, following the appeal already made by the Red Cross, which is working in Sudan. Under pressure from us, the DEC has changed its policy so that money from the appeal will go only to organisations already working in the Sudan. That is an improvement.
§ Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge and Chryston)
Does my right hon. Friend accept that many hon. Members and people who follow the media understand perfectly that she has made an excellent and comprehensive response? Does she agree that, as a Minister in the Cabinet who is working with her colleagues, particularly my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, she does not have much to learn from an Opposition who never included their Overseas Development Ministers in the Cabinet? We all recall that Tim Raison, in an open letter to his successor, Chris Patten, said that the only time he spoke to the then Prime Minister about his Department was on the day that he was sacked. May I thank my right hon. Friend, and encourage her to continue with her work and to ensure that the European Union treats the problems with the same urgency that she has shown?
§ Clare Short
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I want cross-party support in Britain for the Government's greatly enlarged commitment to international development. We need more united public support if we are to achieve real progress towards helping every country better to protect itself from disasters, to avoid loss of life on the current scale, and to meet international poverty eradication targets. I would even appreciate support from the hon. Member for South-West Devon, but I believe that he needs some briefing.
§ Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park)
Does the Secretary of State share my sense of deja vu? I recall not only the Bangladesh disaster, but that this time last year we deplored delays and mistakes in sending aid to the island of Montserrat after the volcanic eruption there. I agree with the right hon. Lady that debt relief is essential in the medium term but of no use in the short term. However, will she explain why it has taken two weeks to send aid to central America? Will the review of her Department's disaster preparedness, which was promised after Montserrat, take place? Will she ensure that the aid going to central America is not just swift but appropriate?
§ Clare Short
I do not share the hon. Lady's sense of deja vu. In fact, the contrast between Bangladesh and 26 central America is very sharp. Half of Bangladesh was devastated. The loss of life was tiny, and the immediate recovery massive, because the people of Bangladesh have made arrangements to deal with such disasters. We cannot stop nature, except perhaps through environmental programmes, planting trees and so forth. However, we can be well prepared to prevent loss of life. In Belize, people were warned about the hurricane and were moved. Property was lost, but not people. Sadly, those arrangements are not in place in central America, and, after this disaster, we must ensure that they are.
Therefore, it is a case not of deja vu but of learning the lessons of progress. Our Government have been a leading force in the international effort to move rapidly everywhere—whether or not the cameras are there. Progress is being made, but we need more progress in central America. Montserrat is a different case. It was a complete mess under the previous Administration, and it is properly organised now.
It is not true to say that aid took two weeks to start. As the statement makes clear, HMS Sheffield was in the vicinity, but hon. Members must understand that, when mud slides down a hill, the international community is not there. Organisations have to be in the country to act quickly. That is why the Red Cross is undertaking an international training programme throughout the world—so that every country will have that sort of capacity.
We must go in quickly with food supplies and measures to bolster the health service and so forth. Through the World Health Organisation, we have been working with the Pan American Health Organisation so that we have the regional capacity to move quickly, and that organisation did move quickly—it was in before two weeks. Aid is not as good as it should be, but some of our efforts to strengthen capacity in the region came into effect because the Pan American Health Organisation was able to move quickly.
§ Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North)
I warmly welcome all that my right hon. Friend is doing in her Department and with other Departments to deal speedily with the situation. Is there more scope for the Royal Air Force to assist in the immediate aftermath of the disaster? Also, when we are in a position to take stock of what needs to be done in future, will we consider the role of environmental degradation when deciding how to prevent such disasters in the first place? Can Government Departments also work together on that matter so that, as far as possible, we can try to prevent further disasters being caused by, for example, global warming and environmental degradation?
§ Clare Short
First, it is not sensible to ask military forces from all over the world to fly into a small country to deal with a crisis. It is sensible for them to do so if they are in the vicinity. We had three ships nearby which could move in quickly with helicopters when they were needed. It is unlikely that armed forces brought in from a long way away could do as well as existing local people, who know their country best, in rebuilding bridges and so forth.
I agree with my hon. Friend's second point. Today, I met my chief natural resources adviser, who arrived in Birmingham by train just as I was about to leave, and we had a similar conversation. We must consider such factors 27 more deeply. He told me that the disaster was partly due to the backwash of El Niño, but there is little doubt that deforestation has contributed. However, it is not a simple matter and I have arranged a meeting with our natural resource advisers after which we will make available the best advice. Obviously, if environmental factors are leading to the increase in the number of disasters, reconstruction must take that into account.
§ Mr. Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford)
Surely the Secretary of State is right about the debt question, which could not have contributed given the emergency that the people of Nicaragua and Honduras were facing. Debt relief is a long-term process, although I hope that the right hon. Lady agrees that we need to speed up the processes of the heavily indebted poor countries initiative and ensure that it is more quickly available where it is required for redevelopment.
What is the position in Belize? I agree that it was more prepared because a new capital has been built, but what sort of condition is it in? Furthermore, does she agree that the United States has primary responsibility for the area? What efforts is that country making?
§ Clare Short
I agree about debt, and I know that members of the Select Committee on International Development understand the questions. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are trying to speed up the implementation of the HIPC initiative. We will need to press for similar flexibility for post-conflict countries, which would not normally have the track record to qualify for debt relief, and I think that we can achieve that.
I do not know much about Belize, because it has coped so well. The hon. Gentleman will know that the Caribbean is prone to disasters, but the area has enormous preparedness, with much good local organisation—for example, knowing where to put housing and with what materials to build—with the result that lives are rarely lost and the countries can quickly reconstruct. HMS Sheffield was there to help; that is why it was in the region. I understand that Belize, like Bangladesh, has coped very well.
The hon. Gentleman talked about US responsibility. I agree that we need an international system that can move everywhere. We should all be able to move in our regions because that is how we can move quickly. It is the American region that is involved, but we have our part to play. We have committed a £6 million development programme to Central America. The programme is not so much a bilateral programme with Britain as one that works with multilateral agencies to assist development. We are refocusing it to assist reconstruction. We will make our contribution, but the region should make the biggest one.
§ Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside)
Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Liverpool school of tropical medicine is already working to combat disease in Honduras and Nicaragua and received this morning a report directly from its associates in Honduras describing the devastation there and warning of fears of a cholera epidemic? Will she support all possible measures to enable the school to continue its excellent work in 28 combating disease in Honduras? Does she regard that as a contribution to its centenary celebrations, which are taking place this week?
§ Clare Short
My hon. Friend knows that I have visited the Liverpool school of tropical medicine. My chief health adviser, who was recently headhunted by the World Health Organisation to head its worldwide roll back malaria campaign—a tribute to Britain—came from the school. The Department works closely with the school and has enormous respect for its work, as do I. However, in the middle of a disaster, one does not get the best medical school in the world to rush into Honduras. We must strengthen local capacity. We have been working with the Pan American Health Organisation to get immediate support in. The school may be able to give long-term advice and help but the old system of flying in experts from all over the world was too slow and created chaos. We are building on regional structures to get the immediate response that is needed.
§ Mr. William Cash (Stone)
The Secretary of State said that she thought that an all-party approach to such questions would be a good idea. Does she accept that there is an all-party committee on third-world debt, of which I happen to be chairman, with well over 150 members? Only recently, I tabled an early-day motion on third-world debt that 320 hon. Members, including many Labour Members, signed. I would not be surprised if she was one. Does the right hon. Lady agree that it is possible, and certainly not irrelevant, to adopt a twin-track approach? We need proper immediate relief to deal with this horrific tragedy but we also need to engage in a serious attempt to tackle world debt as it applies to countries concerned. Should she not consider whether there should be a moratorium on interest alone, which, for Honduras, would, I understand, amount to only £173 million, whereas a moratorium on the debt itself would involve about £564 million? Will she explain the position and take the necessary steps to deal with both debt relief and the immediate disasters? If she does not, she is liable to become irrelevant herself.
§ Clare Short
I thought that the hon. Gentleman's last remark was a bit silly, but I know that he takes a particular interest in east Africa, and I am aware of the work of the committee. I guess that so many hon. Members signed the early-day motion because there is so much public activity on debt. It is an example of democracy working: the public care about debt, so MPs start signing early-day motions.
I extend the offer of a seminar on debt to the all-party committee because the public campaigning means that many people think that debt relief is a magic bullet—that if we could only get debt written off, everything would be okay. That it is not true. It is no good pretending that there is a magic bullet. Debt relief is crucial to serious programmes for development and poverty eradication, but it cannot do everything on its own—it goes alongside other activities. I made it clear in my original answer that action on debt relief post-crisis needs to be taken to assist reconstruction. There is no doubt about that, and it is what the initiative undertaken by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor and me is all about.
May I just point out that this is all media-driven, and driven by people who do not understand debt? The British people call for a moratorium on payments, but the 29 commitment of the IMF, the World bank and export credit departments across the world is needed, so it is not in our power to deliver such a moratorium. It is in our power to work with our partner countries and with the World Bank and the IMF and to use our influence to achieve the proper flexibility that Nicaragua now needs. Pre-crisis, Nicaragua would have qualified for, and Honduras would not have needed, debt relief. Now, sadly, Honduras almost certainly will need it, and we will work for that. However, it is not in the Government's power to call for a moratorium. There has to be international co-operation if we want to help those countries.
§ Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)
Does my right hon. Friend recall that the Labour Government in 1979 spent 0.52 per cent. of gross domestic product on aid and development, whereas the Conservatives halved that expenditure to less than 0.26 per cent. of GDP? Is it not welcome that the present Government are increasing our aid budget, thereby making more resources available for Central America and elsewhere? Is my right hon. Friend aware that many thousands of people working within the voluntary sector for non-governmental organisations, Churches and other bodies are delighted by her work to change the focus of aid and development, which contrasts with the Conservatives' hypocrisy?
§ Clare Short
As my hon. Friend and everybody else knows, the Tory Treasury team is calling for cuts in public expenditure, saying that we have dangerously increased public spending; yet each individual shadow Minister for a spending Department is calling for more spending. That is the Tories for you, Madam Speaker—not serious at all.
I am proud to be a member of a Government who have kept their word on increasing our commitment to development, strengthening my Department, and reversing the long decline in spending of the Conservative years. However, spend alone is not enough; what matters is how effectively the money is spent. We are driving the system, both in our own country and internationally, to turn to measuring outputs, such as reduction in poverty, children not dying and being educated, and the provision of health care. Only in that way will we achieve really efficient development.
§ Mr. Andrew Rowe (Faversham and Mid-Kent)
Through the Select Committee, I have just had the opportunity of visiting the World bank and the IMF. The message that came out more clearly than any other was that countries whose Governments are pursuing the right policies and have the capacity to deliver make by far the best recipients of aid. Will the Secretary of State confirm that, while giving aid directly—and sensibly—to the NGOs working in the affected countries, she is making every effort to ensure that the Governments of those countries feel empowered by the policies pursued, not sidelined by direct intervention?
§ Clare Short
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The evidence is now clear: even though the Governments concerned agree because they need the money, reform programmes imposed on reluctant Governments by donors, the IMF or the World bank tend to fail and slip. Only when the local Government want reform, and donors and the World bank get behind them, do we see real and measurable progress on development. We are reorienting 30 all our programmes to get behind Governments who are really serious about poverty eradication. Badly governed people need solidarity to build their civil society and we try to help, but that is not long-term development.
In central America—although, in the immediate crisis, reaching out to NGOs and anyone who is on the ground and can act to get food and health care through is the right thing to do in the short term—we have consulted the Governments of the region about how to work together on development. Now we have to focus on reconstruction, and, if we can get agreement on sensible strong programmes, we can get behind the Governments and get the World bank behind them as well. The sort of pessimistic talk that we have been hearing about 30 years being lost need not be true. If the Governments agree to strong and sensible programmes, we will back them. That is how to achieve considerable progress.
§ Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)
While expressing real appreciation for the expert efforts of Royal Navy personnel and British NGO personnel in particular, may I ask the Secretary of State to look to the longer term and talk to her right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry so as to ensure that the British Government tries to persuade the European Union to adapt its trade policies—perhaps starting with the banana regime—to facilitate exports from central and Latin America to Europe, so that the countries can regenerate their economies more effectively?
§ Clare Short
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that developing countries need trade opportunities, and we take that seriously. We worked hard during our EU presidency on the mandate for the renegotiation of the Lomé convention and to give good access to the European market not only to the least developed countries but to developing countries so that they can build up their economies through trade and exports. We are also working with the United Nations conference on trade and development to provide developing countries with training capacity on their trade rights so that they can exercise them. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that organising trade access and making sure that developing countries have the capacity to take up those opportunities is crucial to their sustained long-term development.
§ Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)
The right hon. Lady said that HMS Sheffield was moored off Belize on what sounded like a DFID matter rather than an MOD matter, and I should be grateful if she clarified that.
More important, the right hon. Lady announced £486,000 of grants from her Department to NGOs. The Ministry of Defence will be faced with substantial expense in marginal costs from HMS Ocean and its associated fleet auxiliary, which has had to steam to the area. If those ships are to give effective aid, they must use their own supplies, aircraft fuel and spares. Will that be a charge to the MOD or to her Department, or does a mechanism exist to enable those MOD assets to be used as effectively as possible in the pursuit of development objectives?
§ Clare Short
As the hon. Gentleman knows, HMS Sheffield is the West Indies guard ship and was therefore in the vicinity. It moved to Belize immediately because that country was devastated in the way that I 31 described, although there was no loss of life. Later, when the crisis hit central America, HMS Sheffield had done its basic work in Belize and asked where else in the region it was needed. We asked locally, and the ship was wanted because it has helicopters, engineers and staff with medical skills that could be put to work immediately.
The other two ships were also, coincidentally, in the region, rather than having gone there specifically for the crisis. They offered their services and again we checked because it is no good if ships just turn up. We told the locals what was available and the ships were asked to come in since helicopters, in particular, are needed because all the bridges are broken.
I am pleased to say that the Ministry of Defence is bearing the costs. The additional cost to the Ministry is small because all the ships were already there, but it is not asking my Department to pay anything. That is important because, as the hon. Gentleman knows, military costs are high and, whenever we are offered military assistance, the costs tend to be prohibitive compared with other forms of assistance. We like collaborating with the MOD and are doing so more, but in this case it volunteered to provide the services without charge to my Department.
§ Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)
On the deployment of HMS Ocean and RFA Sir Tristram, the right hon. Lady will be aware that after Hurricane Mitch struck, there were immediate pleas for manpower assistance. HMS Ocean was, as she said, in the area coincidentally. On board HMS Ocean, RFA Sir Tristram and associated ships are more than 1,000 men of 45 Commando Royal Marines who have amphibious capability—the capability to land quickly. When the right hon. Lady said that HMS Ocean would be involved in search and rescue exercises, she made no 32 mention of 45 Commando. What measures can 45 Commando take to assist and why were they not taken two weeks ago when that plea was first made?
§ Clare Short
Everyone always looks for a fault. The ships offered their services only in the past few days. We now have—I am proud to say, because Britain helped to build it—an international system that is capable of checking whether the resources on offer will be of any help. HMS Sheffield offered help first, and we immediately communicated that locally. The ship was wanted because the helicopters and engineering and medical skills would be enormously helpful. In addition, the crew had been doing similar work in Belize so they had great knowledge and skill.
The other two ships offered help later. The request then came to my Department and we communicated with the UN agencies locally. Helicopters in particular were wanted. I do not know the answer to the hon. Gentleman's question about 45 Commando, but I can find out for him. I have checked and the two latest ships are providing reconnaissance and helicopters. I shall find out more details for the hon. Gentleman. What I have described is efficient operation rather than sending everything that moves into the area and causing chaos. The best way to deal with such crises is to provide systematic and co-ordinated assistance.