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2.44 pm

Mr. Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford): I am delighted to take up the remarks of my colleague on the Select Committee on International Development, the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), who speaks with the knowledge that she gained from the Committee's visit to Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia and South Africa. She knows what was going on. If matters had been left to my Committee, I am sure that we would have been able to advise the Secretary of State for International Development when we were in the area in the week of 20 to 24 February that helicopters were already needed and that there was a need for more.

Nobody can be happy about the loss of life in Mozambique. We do not know exactly what the figure is because we were not able to deploy sufficient helicopters

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to get people to safety in the middle of an exceptionally large flood in the week of 26 February. Certainly the number of dead must run well into thousands. We must contrast that with the number of people who died in the equally exceptional flood that overtook Bangladesh only a year ago. There, we believe that only three lives were sacrificed. That is because Bangladesh has built up capacity both in its Government and non-governmental organisations, as has the international community, to anticipate floods and to get the right equipment into the right places at the right time to save people from the disasters that flooding can bring. That is not the position in Mozambique, and that is why there has been great loss of life.

We must turn to the calendar to address these matters sensibly and to recognise the problems to which the hon. Member for Cynon Valley has drawn attention. The rain began exceptionally late in the season in Africa. However, it started with exceptional severity. It must be remembered that it began between 10 and 26 January. That led inevitably to flooding in the Limpopo and Zambezi valleys in the central provinces of Mozambique.

We should have appreciated--I do not think that we did--that that rain flowing down the rivers after an exceptionally dry and hot period would lead inevitably to serious difficulties in and around Maputo in the Limpopo estuary. However, the Department for International Development understood the position. It knew that some homes would be flooded and got into position with tents, blankets and food so as to be ready to help people inundated by floodwater. The supplies were in place and being distributed when the Select Committee visited.

During the week of 20 February, helicopters had already been deployed by the South African Government. They were fuelled by Norway and the Netherlands because President Mbeki said that he did not have enough fuel. Only two of the helicopters had winches to take people off the top of trees and out of the floods. We heard that there was not enough fuel for the following week. The Secretary of State for International Development stepped in and provided the fuel to keep the five helicopters flying.

My only criticism is of the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which on 12 February deployed to Maputo. It wrongly assessed the situation and severely underestimated it. It should have asked the international community--I am sure that the Department for International Development would have responded quickly that week--for further helicopter reinforcements to stand by for the possibility of additional flooding.

I am speaking with hindsight, which is easy, but I think that OCHA made a wrong assessment, and certainly a miscalculation, when the main team left. After launching an appeal on 23 February, it went home on 24 February. The difficulties were therefore underestimated, and we could have got more helicopters in place and saved more lives if that assessment had been more accurate. That is not easy to do, but the criticism has to be made.

For a fortnight, five helicopters were working. They were reinforced in the following week by five more helicopters, which the Department for International Development chartered. Three had winches to help remove people from flooded areas where their lives were at risk.

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We were a bit late, but we were there, and DFID was very supportive. Only South Africa put more into the disaster than the Department. That remains the case. The Department's financial contribution has well overtaken that of South Africa. That was the position until the floods began to abate and we needed to get more helicopters in place to save more lives.

Let us consider the Ministry of Defence, which was late in assessing the position. If I understood the evidence that the Secretary of State for Defence gave the Select Committee on International Development correctly, planning started as late as 28 February and then accelerated fast. As the Secretary of State for International Development said, the Department did not have helicopters that could have reached the crisis area in Mozambique in time to save lives in the last week in February.

The helicopters arrived in the Antonov on 5 March, and RFA Fort George reached Beira on 11 March. Those helicopters and that support will help with the third phase of reconstruction and avoiding the serious threat of death through disease such as cholera, and lack of shelter.

Mr. Hoon: The hon. Gentleman is making a careful and thoughtful case. I query only one point. When should the Ministry of Defence have begun the planning to which he referred?

Mr. Wells: The answer partly depended on the assessment of the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, but I would have hoped that, after the Ministry of Defence had realised that South African helicopters were deployed in the second week of February and that the South African armed forces knew that there was a crisis, it would have started planning. The Secretary of State sent out a recce party on his own initiative on 29 February. I should have liked it to have been sent a couple of weeks earlier.

Mr. Hoon: The hon. Gentleman is Chairman of the responsible Select Committee. Did he raise the matter with the Ministry of Defence, or any Minister?

Mr. Wells: No, at the time, I was visiting Mozambique, Zambia and Malawi with the hon. Member for Cynon Valley. I was therefore not in a position to raise those matters personally. It should have occurred to someone in the Ministry of Defence to consider ways of supporting the Department for International Development.

Mr. Duncan Smith: If that is my hon. Friend's view, does he believe that the Ministry's action depends on it being requested to make that calculation and devising a plan? In his opinion, at what stage was the Ministry asked to do that?

Mr. Wells: That question goes to the heart of the problem that I would like to consider so that we can react better next time. The Ministry of Defence should fulfil the second objective to which the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) referred and support the Department for International Development in deploying military equipment when a humanitarian disaster has occurred. Rightly, the MOD is being built up and has an

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impressive helicopter capacity. However, that capacity is expensive and not tuned to working in difficult circumstances that require an immediate response.

Clare Short: Getting to the truth of the matter is important, and I respect the hon. Gentleman's attempt to do that. However, there were two stages of the emergency. The big floods did not happen until 25 February. People might have sent helicopters, but they were not needed in the early stages. They are expensive and when people had simply gone to higher ground, they needed help but not through helicopters. When the massive flood occurred, and people were trapped up trees and on roofs, helicopters were essential to rescue them. That necessity did not arise until after the big flood and cyclone Eline on 25 February.

Mr. Wells: As the right hon. Lady said, the highly dangerous period was between 25 February and the following week. As she knows, the helicopters, albeit only two with winches, from South Africa were working in the previous week to rescue people. We should have deployed earlier. However, that depended on the assessment that had been made. That assessment was not available to the Secretary of State for International Development, or the Secretary of State for Defence.

Mr. Blunt: We have military and air attaches in South Africa. In that period, they must have reported the deployment of the South African air force. That should have triggered some form of planning in the Ministry of Defence. Perhaps the Secretary of State can outline the telegram traffic from South Africa and say whether the defence attache reported on it and what action the Ministry took.

Mr. Wells: That is the point that I am trying to make. The South Africans deployed their helicopters in the previous week and, as the hon. Member for Cynon Valley described, were beginning to rescue people because the floods were continually rising. The crisis happened the following week. The Secretary of State for International Development was right to say that we had to get the helicopters there in a hurry and that we hired five additional helicopters as well as fuelling the South African helicopters.

The Ministry of Defence must be in a position to carry out its military and humanitarian tasks. There is a difference. The operation must be cost-effective. The MOD cannot make a military deployment and ask DFID to pay for it. As I understood the evidence that was given to the Select Committee, the military deployment involves a huge amount of support staff. The figure was 100, but the original suggestion was that 140 people would service two or three helicopters. The South African deployment had 10 support staff. As the Secretary of State for International Development told the Committee, all those people get in the way and need to be accommodated. They also need to have jabs before their departure from the United Kingdom to fulfil Ministry of Defence rules and regulations about deployment of personnel. All those matters delay deployment and add to the cost.

A problem has haunted the Ministry of Defence for 20 years. At base, it is a Treasury problem. When there is no emergency, officials and Ministers need to agree a

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price for deploying military equipment in a humanitarian emergency. The calculations suggested to the Select Committee were absurd in a time of crisis. The Department for International Development needs to know where it stands and how much a helicopter costs before it asks the Ministry of Defence to intervene. We need to establish, both in this country and worldwide, a rapid reaction force to tackle humanitarian disasters and I support the suggestions of the hon. Member for Richmond Park.

In giving evidence to the Select Committee, the Secretary of State for International Development also said that we are too slow to organise ourselves internationally, and that OCHA is too slow to react. We have to put money in place to enable those agencies to take command because things can change when people take command. When the OCHA representative arrived on 29 February, he began to sort things out and made what was required clear to Ministry officials, who could then react much more quickly. That is now happening.

De-mining, and the reconstruction of roads, schools and hospitals, all of which have been lost, need to take place as rapidly as possible as the floods recede. I pay great compliment to the military personnel and the non-governmental organisations undertaking that difficult work. People have been displaced from their farms in their hundreds of thousands and they have to be helped back to plant their crops. They must be given seed, fertiliser and every assistance with planting so that they do not starve in the coming year. All the personnel of the RFA Fort George--who are well equipped to help with that in the Beira area and are, I understand, moving south to the River Save--will add hugely to Mozambique's ability to recover from this terrible disaster. They should be thoroughly congratulated and thanked for keeping Britain's name at the forefront of those who are willing and able to assist in these terrible tragedies.

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