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Mrs. Laing: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Dr. Tonge: No, I will not give way until I am further into my speech.

The purpose of the debate should be to take a cool look at what happened, to see whether we can learn any lessons. I listened to the Secretary of State at a meeting

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of the Select Committee on International Development on Tuesday. She admitted that the United Nations assessment team, which included two people from the Department for International Development, withdrew from Mozambique too early. That was a failure on its part. That was well reported on the website of Independent News World, and we read the report on the net.

Why did the United Nations quick response unit, along with two of our officials, withdraw too early? That is an issue that I would like to address. It must never happen again.

Clare Short: The press reports about our officials were inaccurate. British officials did not withdraw with the United Nations team, and my officials are upset by the report that they did. I did not like the way the reports suggested that the whole thing was the United Nations fault. We have a strengthening and improving UN system, and we need to learn from this experience so that we can strengthen it further. We should not just turn around and attack the UN when it is getting better at co-ordinating responses to such emergencies.

Dr. Tonge: I thank the Secretary of State for that response, but it is an issue that we need to consider carefully. We all remember poor Mr. Fish, the weather forecaster, denying that a hurricane was going to happen. Although the hurricane did a lot of damage, fortunately for us it did not do damage on the scale that has occurred in Mozambique. We must find ways to strengthen the forecasting of emergencies and to make sure that we know in advance what is going to happen.

Mrs. Laing: I thank the hon. Lady for her courtesy in giving way because, after all, this is a debate not a monologue. Does she accept that her opening remarks were not correct? Her Majesty's Opposition are seeking to do their job in holding the Government to account and making sure that the House and the Government learn from some of the mistakes that have been made. That will help to ensure that things are done better in future.

Dr. Tonge: If the hon. Lady listens carefully to my speech, I will teach her how best that can be done.

Mr. Robathan: Come on matron.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I think that we should get on to the main content of the debate. It is a very serious matter.

Dr. Tonge: Before we do that, I want to point out how easy it is in a disaster for people to do the wrong thing. That is a common human failing. Many years ago, I was a casualty officer in a London teaching hospital. I know that to be able to respond correctly to emergencies, one has to be extremely well trained and to have had lots of practice. Whether it is a small disaster or a large one, that is required. If I had a cardiac arrest here and now, most of you would rush around panicking and not know what to do. That might be a very good thing from your point of view and you might enjoy that very much--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Lady is not even using correct parliamentary language. I am sure that she will soon relate her remarks to what has happened in Mozambique.

Dr. Tonge: I will indeed, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but, if anything dreadful happened to me, I am sure that the

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Conservatives would blame it on the fact that the Secretary of State for Health was not sitting on the Front Bench.

From the evidence that I have heard, once DFID and the Secretary of State realised the full extent of the disaster, not even the Ministry of Defence's pricing policy, about which we have heard a great deal, slowed down the response. In fact, it speeded it up because the Secretary of State immediately looked for helicopters that were nearer. As we have heard, we had a much quicker and more efficient response, with helicopters funded by us but procured in South Africa.

The United Kingdom was in the forefront of the relief effort, at one stage funding nine out of 11 helicopters--and they were commissioned locally. We have prepared for the second stage of rebuilding shelters and distributing foods and medicines with our own equipment, which has started to go to Mozambique.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Dr. Tonge: No, I will not.

There are problems for us and for the world. We must look to the future. There is no question but that the United Kingdom and the international community must be able to respond to natural disasters more effectively. The pundits tell us that, with global warming, disasters will be more frequent. Many articles in the newspapers in recent weeks have been on that subject. Therefore, it is imperative that we establish not just a DFID rapid reaction force, but an international rapid response disaster task force.

Mr. Hayes: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Dr. Tonge: No, I wish to make a little progress.

That task force would ideally be based at the United Nations, but the European Union might be able to make a start.

Mr. Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford): Where was the European Union?

Dr. Tonge: Indeed. A rapid response task force would not mean having equipment standing by doing nothing while it waited for something to happen. It would mean that future Secretaries of State would know the location of the helicopters nearest to the disaster area and would know whether they could be commissioned. The Ministry of Defence would not take two days, as I believe it did, to discover that there were no usable UK helicopters less than 3,000 miles away. There would be no problem with funding, because that would be set according to a pre-determined formula.

Mr. Hayes: I was going to make a point in support of the hon. Lady, but perhaps she will answer the question that the Secretary of State failed to answer when I asked it. Following the criticisms of the co-ordination and the response to hurricane Mitch, what plans did the Secretary of State have to establish the sort of rapid reaction force that the hon. Lady has mentioned? She will know that a

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good response is about good planning. Our challenge to the Government is about their competence in emergency, disaster and recovery planning.

Dr. Tonge: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, because I was about to come to that point. Paragraph 52 of the strategic defence review, which is entitled "Peace Support and Humanitarian Operations", sets out the position clearly. It says:

In "Modernising Defence", the response to hurricane Mitch, to which the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) referred, is talked about in glowing terms. The Ministry of Defence describes its action in central America, where

    following the devastation wrought by Hurricane Mitch in October and November 1998 in some of the world's poorest countries, a Royal Navy task group led by NHS Ocean and with Royal Marines embarked, gave emergency life-saving assistance to Nicaragua and Honduras. We helped to search for and rescue people.

Mr. Blunt: One of the major issues in the debate is the MOD's involvement, and it is here that the Secretary of State's customary candour has got her into difficulty. Her Department made a decision about the £2.2 million cost, and then said that cost was not an issue when plainly it was an issue in making the decision about MOD helicopters. That may then have provoked her to look for other helicopters elsewhere, or she may already have been doing that, but that is an issue, as it was in the dispatch of the Fort George, a decision that was not made until 3 March.

Dr. Tonge: I am not here to answer for the Secretary of State for Defence; he will answer for himself. I have made the point that whatever occurred between the DFID and the MOD caused no delay whatsoever, and that is the important point.

Mr. Duncan Smith: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Dr. Tonge: No, I will not give way again. I want to make progress.

Funding is a difficult issue between Departments, and I hope, as I am sure all hon. Members do, that Departments would always protect their budgets. However, there is no time in an emergency to sort out budgets, and a formula must be worked out in advance.

There are other problems, such as that of heavy-lift equipment. The Conservatives seem to think that one can put helicopters in a box and send them out to Mozambique to arrive the next day. That is complete nonsense. We have a problem in moving heavy equipment, which the strategic defence review addressed, which delayed matters even further. I wish that the Conservatives would recognise that.

Such issues must be worked out as part of a plan. Why do we not consult our European partners now that the major crisis is over? A European defence review is

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taking place. Let us do an inventory of all the equipment in Europe and find out whether it can be used in an emergency, or is that too simple?

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