Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120 - 129)



  120. It does say in paragraph 2.29 that until the Kosovo crisis the Department's policy had been to fund other agencies' interventions. I know you want to protect sister organisations but how far were the United Nations, which you described in an earlier answer to one of my colleagues as having first-line responsibility, up to the job?
  (Sir John Vereker) You are right, Mr Williams, I do not want to be critical of sister organisations.

  121. Can I break in before you say any more. If it is destructive criticism one does not want to hear it. The important thing is we do not lose any of the lessons we can learn and I will come to the reasons why not in a moment.
  (Sir John Vereker) Sure. I think what this kind of crisis shows is that the immediate response, the preparedness in terms of call-down contracts, needs experience of working closely with the military. It needs ease of rapid decision-making at quite a high level. None of those things are easy for the United Nations system. If you remember the politics surrounding the NATO intervention at the time it was not crystal clear in the early stages to what extent NATO action was sanctioned by the United Nations, so there may have been some constraint on activity there. I think we found we could, thanks to our call down contract, deploy capacity and authority to the field quicker than the United Nations could. I believe we have seen that again, we have seen it in East Timor, we have seen it in Sierra Leone.

  122. How far did our European Allies put their weight in this respect? Did they carry a reasonable share of the load?
  (Sir John Vereker) Yes. I think obviously the load embraced both military and civilian operations. I cannot speak for the former but there were plenty of examples of European Union Members playing a part. I do not want to sound arrogant and over-exaggerating it but I think it probably is a fact that we played the leading part. I do not believe that others were so fast or so substantial, but Dr Kapila may want to comment on that.
  (Dr Kapila) I think our comparative advantage in dealing with this crisis has been—and subsequent events and other disasters have proven it—in the early rapid response. In a sense there is a sub-division of labour emerging amongst the international system on the donor side and that is the two or three major donors who are able to respond quickly, pick up the front end of the response and then smaller or other slower donors can then carry on the longer term response to chronic crises. The European Commission, for example, is a big funder, it is the world's largest humanitarian contributor, but because of procedures and so on it can take time for it to get its grants mobilised very quickly. It has a very valuable role to play to sustain the operations that often we start at the very beginning.

  123. Where I am going next and finally is not looking at the past but looking to the future. The Pentagon argue that they are planning themselves in future for their military operations to be quick in, quick out, there are fewer body bags that way, public opinion does not have time to react. They want us to carry more of the load. We are trying to develop the European Defence and Strategic Initiative. Now this clearly has implications for yourselves because these are to be initiatives that will be European based, they may be firefighting, they may be peacekeeping, they may be a combination of the two. I am not sure whether one would have, and whether they would be quick enough anyhow, the UN in a first line situation in that context. How far is Europe as able to organise itself in terms of your type of support action that it is trying? It is going to be desperately difficult to prepare itself for that type of action on the military front.
  (Sir John Vereker) I think the honest answer, Mr Williams, is that there is a reasonable prospect of good co-ordination and co-operation among European Union Members in this kind of crisis. We talk to each other, we know each other, we do not tread on each other's toes, we divide the labour a bit. That is not the same as saying that there is a good prospect of collective joint humanitarian action. From my present perspective I would say that would slow things up and that it is probably best where we have sudden on-set humanitarian crisis, lives are at risk, not to spend, as we would have to at the moment, quite a lot of time negotiating collective action but to get on and those who can do it, do it. I am interested in what you say, of course, about the parallel with what is going on on the defence front. I would say that we are working very closely with our colleagues in the Ministry of Defence and, indeed, the Foreign Office to try and bring together some collective capacity within the UK for responding, particularly in post conflict situations where we can bring together the assets that we in DfID have to deploy more coherently with our diplomatic assets and our military assets.

  124. One final question then and I think the answer is going to be no on this from what you have already said. Do you see a value in developing some form of co-ordinating central organisation, not necessarily intended to slow the initiatives of individual member countries but in order to be in there prioritising, indeed perhaps helping to determine whose assets shall be used, for example in airlift situations?
  (Sir John Vereker) I do indeed. There is such an organisation, the Office of Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the UN, and we have put a lot of our effort into strengthening it.

  125. I am thinking in a European context.
  (Dr Kapila) In the European context on the purely humanitarian side we have the EC Humanitarian Office which is responsible for that. There are meetings that take place regularly. In fact, one took place today, the normal monthly meeting. In addition to that there is a EU mechanism called the EU Crisis Management Committee which has only just started. The Feira Summit agreed its work plan for the next few months. We feel very positive about that because this is a standing mechanism. We are represented on that, there is a secretariat to do it and a network to underpin the secretariat in Brussels. That is precisely for this type of function which you mention. In fact, of course, it will depend how Member States co-operate and how information is shared but an anatomy of it is beginning to be structured now.

  Mr Williams: Thank you. I think we all appreciate what has been achieved. It is just a matter of learning lessons for the future.


  126. Thank you. I am tempted to ask you whether you think that European Co-ordinating Committee will be properly staffed, after what Mr Patten has been saying in the last couple of months. I have got two practical points to raise. One is I am going to ask the National Audit Office to do a tabulation of the costs of the issue that we were discussing earlier. That will mean, Mr Berry, that your organisation will need to provide them with some figures in terms of the management costs that you would apply if you did not have £2.7 million sitting there. An early warning that you need to justify your figures.
  (Mr Berry) Thank you, Chairman, for coming back to that. I would have liked in any case to have re-visited those figures because I am not aware of all the transactions that took place8.

  127. We will need to look at that. So that is a warning. The other thing really is to say, Sir John, that this Report is almost certainly going to be a forward-looking one rather than a backward-looking one. We know what the areas of contention are. If your Department wants to put in a note having gone through this meeting with your thoughts on that area, we would be happy to receive it.
  (Sir John Vereker) That is very kind of you, Chairman, and of course we will reflect on that. Let me say that this Report has at its beginning eight recommendations from the National Audit Office, all of which I accept so I certainly would not want to put in any kind of a dissenting note. I am aware of the fact that we have one or two questions to answer. In particular, I do not believe I adequately answered Mr Rendel's questions about some aspects of the air charter regime, and we will put in a note on that.

  128. If it helps your direction of thought, one of the points that has come up time and again has been the response, "We did not do that because of pressure of events."
  (Sir John Vereker) I must be careful not to say that too often.

  129. You said it enough times for me to notice the systematic nature of it. Your Department is always subject to pressure of events. I know you have a large maintained sector, as it were, of other events but the things that you are probably finding most challenging now range from Kosovo to massive floods in other parts of the world where you have historically reacted pretty well. That may well provide a bigger and bigger component given the nature of the modern world and what you do. It would be quite interesting if you have some thoughts on that and if you want to write to us in the next few weeks I think the Committee would be very happy to receive it. I will leave that with you.
  (Sir John Vereker) I am most grateful.

  Chairman: It is entirely up to you. Otherwise it just remains to thank you very much for turning up today and giving evidence. It has been very interesting, and we wish you the best of luck with your next Kosovo.

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