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Mr. Robathan: My hon. Friend may be right in his analysis of events, but I think that the delay occurred partly because of the personal antipathy--which has been denied--between the Minister for the Armed Forces, the hon. Member for Warley (Mr. Spellar) and the Secretary of State for International Development, and partly because of the Labour party's history in Birmingham. Although the Minister for the Armed Forces says that such an antipathy is rubbish, in the Birmingham Labour party, they talk of little else.

Mr. Duncan Smith: My hon. Friend has made that point absolutely clear.

As my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Devon and hon. Members on both sides of the House have said, if the Secretary of State for International Development wants to think of this inquiry into the matter as a witch hunt and to take it personally, she may do as she pleases. However, we have to know what went wrong. The buck must stop with her if the Government had decided that Mozambique was a priority; if DFID chose not to tell the Secretary of State the answers that it received from the MOD; and if the MOD provided requested information, but that information was not acted on. She can delegate as much as she likes, but, ultimately, delegation is only an extension of the responsibility of the person at the top--she is the person who makes the final decision.

Far too often, the Secretary of State for International Development was kept out of the loop. Therefore, far too often she failed to take a timely decision. Surely she could have asked the MOD earlier for a range of options, and it would have provided it. I do not believe that the MOD should automatically present such options. If she really thought that she needed some options, she should have asked for them earlier, so that she could have acted more quickly.

As my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Devon said, DFID tried to get out of the situation by spin, counter-spin and re-presenting the sums that it would pump into Mozambique. Again, however, it was only a silly game in which DFID tried to gain credit, whereas the Department was without credit in the matter.

Today, all we heard from the Secretary of State was a history lesson, followed by an appalling geography lesson, yet we want to know the real lessons to be learned. Had those lessons been learned earlier, it could have saved the lives that were lost because of delay.

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3.45 pm

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): I should like to start by making some straightforward, but fundamental points which are relevant to the debate, not least because there has been a complete contrast between the two speeches by the Opposition Front Benchers and every other speech in the debate.

The hon. Members for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) and for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) have failed to get any hon. Member, even any other Conservative Member, to speak in support of their motion. Neither the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells) nor the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) spoke to the motion, but I leave that to the internal management of the Conservative party to resolve.

The fundamental points are these. First, the United Kingdom's contribution to the relief effort in Mozambique has been, and continues to be, a success. Both military and civilian personnel are making a real difference there.

Secondly, there has been no dispute between the Department for International Development and the Ministry of Defence in putting that contribution together. The two Departments have worked together to ensure that, as the crisis developed, the United Kingdom's response was, at each stage, the most appropriate and most effective available.

Thirdly--despite much media excitement, and the forlorn efforts of the hon. Member for South-West Devon to generate some excitement in this debate--there was no question of haggling over costs at the expense of delivering the assistance required. It is entirely right and completely consistent with the practice of previous Governments that the Department with the policy lead should make the judgment about how best to allocate the available resources.

Given the nature of the debate, I shall try to set out the sequence of events in some detail. The House has heard from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development that her Department was involved in the flood relief efforts in January, from the moment that they began. That has been confirmed by my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) in an excellent, thoughtful and well-considered speech. I thank her particularly for her comments on the contribution made by the armed forces.

A massive surge of water, over the weekend of Saturday 26 February, caused the situation to deteriorate still further. Although further flooding had been anticipated, its sheer scale took everyone by surprise, including, of course, the people of Mozambique. It would also have taken the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford by surprise. I was a little surprised that he criticised the Ministry of Defence for failing to plan before that date, because at no stage when I gave evidence to the International Development Committee did he raise that matter with me. Moreover, the criticism that he made dealt with a completely different time frame from the one complained about by the Opposition spokesmen.

Mr. Blunt: What advice was the right hon. Gentleman receiving from the defence attache at the British high commission in South Africa and from the high commission in South Africa on the course of the crisis and on the involvement of the South African air force,

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which by that stage was already flying in Mozambique, supported and paid for by the Nordic countries? At some point, we took over the responsibility of paying for that.

Mr. Hoon: The point that I shall be making, in response to the criticism by the Opposition spokesmen, is that the acute need for helicopters followed on from the flood surge that occurred over that weekend. Therefore, although we were receiving advice about the general situation, it confirmed the type of advice that we heard about today from my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley. As I said, the judgment on the type of response was necessary was made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development.

Mr. Wells: Of course the flood was greater than any of us foresaw. However, the fact is that surges of water down rivers such as the Limpopo do not happen overnight. The surge was caused by the very considerable rainfall inland. As the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) said, the Committee was in the middle of that, and we knew that the surge was coming down. It should have been anticipated.

Mr. Hoon: I could have given the hon. Gentleman a fuller answer if he had made that criticism when I appeared before the Select Committee the other day. I feel bound to point out that he did not raise it when he had that opportunity.

I was trying to set out the sequence of events. The Department for International Development approached the Ministry of Defence and others to ask whether the United Kingdom had any people or equipment in the region that could be of assistance. Unfortunately, we did not. The Department was told that the nearest appropriate people and equipment were 3,000 miles away in the Persian gulf. As a result, the Department for International Development continued to look locally for assistance. It successfully guaranteed the funding to ensure that South African air force helicopters could continue saving people, as well as hiring other helicopters nearby that could commence operations immediately.

At the same time as the Department for International Development was searching southern Africa for more practical assistance, the Ministry of Defence looked at whether there was anything that could be done from further afield. On Monday 28 February, my hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces asked officials to look into the possible options to help further the effort already being made by the Department for International Development.

Officials were able to identify three suitable options: first, four Puma helicopters with support personnel and equipment; secondly, a detachment of Royal Marines with hovercraft and boats; and, thirdly, the RFA Fort George, which was part of a naval task group operating in the Gulf. At the earliest opportunity, Ministry of Defence officials held discussions with their colleagues in the Department for International Development to establish whether the deployment of any of those assets might be of assistance.

Mr. David Heath: The right hon. Gentleman knows the value that I put on the Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships.

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Does he agree that the enhanced role that the RFA could play in humanitarian relief should be considered? Will he look in particular at the future role of RFA Fort Grange?

Mr. Hoon: I agree that we can use those ships in that role, but one of the dilemmas that we faced on the deployment of Fort George--it would have been the same for the deployment of any ship--is that it would take nine days to get where it was needed. A certain amount of clairvoyance is needed to determine whether the problem will be the same after nine days. That has to be taken into account.

Work on those options was carried forward urgently. Contingency plans were drawn up, personnel were placed on standby, equipment was prepared, an Antonov aircraft was reserved and a reconnaissance team was deployed to Mozambique in advance of a final decision. Those are all standard military procedures, designed to maximise readiness and avoid delay.

Given the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington), it might be helpful if I explain why we decided to hire a commercially chartered aircraft to transport the helicopters to the region. It was the only aircraft big enough and readily available to do the job as quickly as we wanted. We decided that the use of the RAF's C130 aircraft, which was mentioned during the debate, was not appropriate, because it would have taken longer to dismantle the helicopters, longer to fly them to Mozambique and longer to reassemble them at the other end. It would also have required a fleet of aircraft--one for each Puma helicopter and another one for additional equipment. That answers my hon. Friend's point. I look forward to his vigorous support in ensuring that the United Kingdom has its own heavy lift capacity in due course.

Despite the lack of suitable heavy lift aircraft, it is important to emphasise that the British Government were the first from outside the immediate region to have military helicopters operational and contributing to the relief effort. Where, therefore, was the delay that people are complaining about?


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