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Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): I agree with what my hon. Friend has said so far. Does she agree that there is a particular problem in the Indian ocean region, in that it is not easily accessible by most European navies and air forces or by the Americans? Access is slightly different from the mediterranean, the Caribbean or west Africa. Should international action be taken to deal with the specific problems of the Indian ocean, east Africa and the Indian subcontinent?

Dr. Tonge: My hon. Friend makes a good point. The Indian ocean area is very isolated in terms of military equipment and help for disaster relief. If my memory serves me correctly, many parts of that area will be subject to flooding in future because of global warming. My hon. Friend is right to say that we need to consider that area in particular and ensure that help is available when it is needed.

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

Dr. Tonge: No, I will not. I have given way many times and I have almost finished.

I would have thought that, without any international structures in place, the Ministry of Defence should have made an offer of help for Mozambique, rather than waiting to be asked.

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

Dr. Tonge: Just once, as the hon. Gentleman is so persistent.

Mr. Duncan Smith: The hon. Lady has now twice alleged that no delay was incurred and therefore no lives were lost, and then she said twice that the MOD was guilty of not responding in time. She said earlier that the MOD was asked for help on the Saturday but did not respond until the Monday. Does she know for certain that the answer to the question asked by DFID was not given on the Sunday?

Dr. Tonge: The hon. Gentleman had a very late night, and I will have to read his question in Hansard tomorrow to make head or tail of it. [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) has just intervened on the hon. Lady, and he ought not then to start making comments from a sedentary position.

Dr. Tonge: Let us make sure that a United Nations or European Union rapid response disaster task force is in place the next time that a country needs us.

The third stage of the disaster in Mozambique is the country's reconstruction. In three weeks, the country has been set back 10 or more years. It has an estimated public debt of $6.4 billion. To its credit, our country has already announced total debt relief on all bilateral debt and export credit guarantees. There was good news from the Paris

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Club yesterday that France and Italy are to reduce Mozambique's debt commitment to them by two thirds, which means that, in total, 40 per cent. of the country's debt will be wiped out. The remaining 60 per cent. is with the USA, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. In the medium and long term, can the Government assure us that they will do all in their power to ensure that Mozambique's debt commitment is wiped out?

When will the UK achieve the target of devoting 0.7 per cent. of gross national product to development? That figure fell under the Conservatives. They seem to have forgotten that in all the kerfuffle today, but it is another thing that they must be very proud of. Despite our economic success, progress is still too slow.

The British public have been as generous as ever in their response to the disaster in Mozambique. While the TV cameras are there, the money pours in, but once they have gone, people no longer see the need to contribute some of their income to people who have nothing. Who now remembers the famine in the Sudan? Hurricane Mitch has been mentioned, but it is rarely talked about. Who remembers the Turkish earthquake or Montserrat? It is no good our snatching new-born babies from trees in front of TV cameras if they are then left to suffer a slow and painful death from disease and starvation. We must do more for the developing world.

2.28 pm

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley): I was there. I was one of four hon. Members, including a Conservative Member, from the Select Committee, who visited Mozambique during the crucial period that we are discussing. I am sorry that Opposition bovver boys have left the Chamber in droves, because I should like them to hear the truth about what went on in Mozambique at that time.

We were supposed to go into Mozambique from Swaziland by road. We were unable to go in on Sunday 20 February because the weather was too bad and the road was already flooded, so we had to fly in over a vast area of the country, which looked like a great sea. It was impossible to say what was land and what was water.

I have listened to the criticisms made of my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for International Development and for Defence, and I do not recognise the picture being painted by Conservative Members.

People in Mozambique were congratulating the British Government on their quick action and on the fact that they had tents and other emergency equipment on the ground during the time that we were there. We saw those supplies being taken off the ground by two helicopters that were working in rapid rotation, carrying the food and tents that had come from the United Kingdom to people who had been without food and shelter for four days.

While we were there, we met representatives of the aid agencies who were working on the ground, members of the Government of Mozambique, and the Prime Minister of Mozambique, who thanked the British Government for their rapid action and for the assistance that they were giving to the country.

I heard no criticism at all while I was in Mozambique. Everyone knows that I am not an apologist for the Government. If I have criticisms to make, I will make them. That is the honest truth: I did not hear any criticism while I was there.

Mr. Streeter: I thank the hon. Lady for giving way on an important point. Can she confirm that she left

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Mozambique on 24 or 25 February, and that the period that we have been discussing is primarily from Friday 25 and Saturday 26 February? That was when people were stranded up trees. What does she make of the comment by the spokesman for President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, who said:

    In any case, the British have responded very late and almost grudgingly.

Was he wrong?

Ann Clwyd: I used a different quote in the Select Committee meeting the other day. I certainly did not see that comment in the speech. Given the knowledge that we gained while we were in Mozambique, I cannot believe that that criticism was made.

The aid agencies were obviously working under a great deal of stress, even during the period 20 to 24 February. There had already been extensive flooding in the country. When we arrived in Maputo, we were taken immediately by one of the aid agencies to see the damage to roads and houses and the flooded areas where poorer people lived in the city. People were already queueing at stand-pipes for water and living under extremely difficult conditions. That was before the period to which the hon. Gentleman refers. Flooding was already a problem in Mozambique when we were there.

We went to one of the briefing meetings held by the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which is an umbrella organisation responsible for co-ordination with Governments of host countries in disaster situations. We heard the representative from the Department for International Development, who at that time seemed to be co-ordinating the aid agencies. We also heard someone from South Africa, who was responsible for running the helicopters, speak about his situation. I came away from that meeting feeling that OCHA was extremely laid back. No sense of urgency was transmitted to me or to the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan), who was also there.

If blame is to be apportioned, we must bear in mind that we all have the same aim--to bring relief to people who are hit by a crisis--and we want to do that better next time. We should look carefully at the role of OCHA.

We as a Committee visited OCHA in Geneva in December. We have our own view of how it operates. OCHA has been continually monitoring and reporting the situation in Mozambique since the rains started on 26 January 2000. Since that date, it has issued about 16 situation reports on the emergency.

Following the very heavy rains from 4 to 7 February, OCHA organised the five-member UN disaster and co-ordination team to Mozambique. One of the questions that I asked on the Select Committee and which I hope we will ask the OCHA representative next week is why OCHA withdrew its team at a particular moment. The first team's tour of duty ended, apparently, on 24 February. A second team was not dispatched to Mozambique until 29 February. That was a crucial period in the operation.

The Department for International Development was being told by people on the ground what was needed at a particular time. I believe that the Department was presented with a rather confused picture. It was not clear at various times what assets were needed, so DFID sent tents, clean drinking water and basic survival items. That is what was being requested at the time.

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Watching the two helicopters working, it was clear to us that they could not get the food and tents off the ground fast enough. They were working in rapid rotation, with 10 to 15 minutes between taking off and landing. They were not switching off the engines, but getting the food and tents stuffed into the helicopters straight away.

Why were not more helicopters taking part in the operation at that time? Why was the UN telling us that it was worried about the funding of the five helicopters that apparently were in Mozambique then? I believe that those five helicopters were funded by the Nordic countries. When DFID realised that there was a problem with the funding, it stepped in and agreed to fuel more aircraft the following week.

As soon as DFID knew what the problem was, it responded rapidly. It was OCHA that underestimated the gravity of the situation and left as the new cyclone came, at the key moment between 25 and 29 February, when people were at their most desperate, when people on roofs and up trees were being shown on film. That was when there was a gap in OCHA's coverage of Mozambique.

There were obviously failures in communication and in responsibility, but it is not fair to blame the British Government, who have done more than any other country to assist during the crisis in Mozambique. People on the ground said that. Oxfam, Christian Aid and the Save the Children Fund said so. We were there and we heard them say it, then we came home and heard my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State heavily criticised, despite the fact that they had already responded as they thought appropriate at the time. That is grossly unfair.

I agree that the international response was slow. It was hesitant and unco-ordinated. However, the responsibility for co-ordination lay not with my right hon. Friends, but elsewhere. It is easy to say that the Government of Mozambique did not do enough. They were elected in December and started work in January, in one of the poorest countries in the world. It is not surprising that they did not respond in the way that some critics think they should have responded.

I pay tribute to the Red Cross and to Medecins sans Frontiers, which as usual were at the forefront of the response. To blame the Government of Mozambique is unfair. The infrastructure of the country was severely damaged and roads were cut off. We went 30 miles outside Maputo, and the road was not there any more. It was just a huge current and a vast expanse of water. People were coming out of the area with their possessions on their heads. I remember a man who came to me with a packet of biscuits which he had carried while trudging through half a mile of water. On the roadside, he offered me a biscuit. When I refused, he said, "Why not?" I said, "Because you have not eaten and I have."

Within a very short time I became aware of the great resilience and dignity of the Mozambique people. They are exceptional people to have pulled themselves up so rapidly after such a long civil war. They have played by all the rules and they saw their economy growing by 10 per cent. in the space of two years. I think that it was the only country in the world to see its economy grow in such a way. These are people of determination and resilience, who, I believe, can overcome the terrible tragedy that has hit them.

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I am a great supporter of the United Nations, but as the members of the Select Committee on International Development will know, we have criticised the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in respect of Macedonia and Albania, whereas we congratulated the World Food Programme, which planned for and responded adequately to the crisis. As a result of our criticism of the UNHCR, some things have improved. When we see an agency not doing what it should do, it is useful to put some questions to those who represent it, and we shall be able to do so here next week.

The cyclone has destroyed roads, rails, schools and health centres. Thousands of people have no homes, thousands are in reception centres and thousands will be without food for a long time. Many people are looking for their relatives because they do not know whether they were lost in the floods or whether they are at a reception centre. There is much that will have to be done for Mozambique. The scale of immediate need is immense, with about 1 million people having left their homes and lost their livelihoods. Their food has gone, as has their crop of maize. Seeds and tools will be immediate needs once the land has dried out.

We must provide reconstruction aid swiftly to help rebuild Mozambique's infrastructure. The World Bank told us on the spot that it was prepared to give money for that purpose. I hope that all countries acknowledge the United Kingdom's lead in cancelling Mozambique's debt, which some other countries have followed.

In such circumstances, there are always many lessons to be learned. The international community must be able to give humanitarian assistance on time. That must be provided on the basis of need and not in the interests of media coverage. Similarly, political or economic interests should not be involved.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence has heard me say that I think that the military has an important role to play in these disasters. When I saw the military at work in Macedonia and Albania, I recognised that it soon brought order to considerable chaos. When we are talking about disaster preparedness, there is a need for institutions and response mechanisms that can adequately address the likelihood of an increasing number of similar emergencies in the coming decades.

The Government deserve a great deal of credit for assisting Mozambique. Perhaps things might have been done better in some instances and faster in others, but the UK was the lead country in bringing help to people faced with devastation and loss of life. Credit must be given where it is due.

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