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Written Ministerial StatementsMonday 5 January 2004


British Energy

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Ms Patricia Hewitt): On 1 December 2003, Official Report, cols 50–51WS, I informed the House that, following a request from British Energy, I was temporarily increasing the maximum amount available to the company under the Government's credit facility to £275 million. The increase was subject to the condition that it was limited to the period prior to the expected receipt of the proceeds from the sale of the company's interest in Amergen, or 22 February 2004, if earlier, whereafter it would be reduced to £200 million.

This is the first opportunity I have had to inform the House that British Energy announced on 23 December it had completed, and received the proceeds from, the sale of its interest in Amergen. Accordingly, the maximum amount available to the company under the facility has been reduced back to £200 million. Subject to the conditions of the restructuring, the facility will continue to be available to the company while the restructuring is agreed.


Equitable Life

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Ruth Kelly): Lord Penrose delivered the report of his inquiry into Equitable Life on 23 December. The Treasury and its legal advisers and a limited number of people at the FSA are now reviewing the contents of the report. Subject to these discussions, it is the Treasury's intention to publish the report in full as soon as possible. Further details will be announced in due course.


Iran Earthquake

The Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn): On 26 December 2003, at 1.57 am Greenwich Mean Time (5.27 am local time) a powerful earthquake, of magnitude 6.7 on the Richter scale, struck Kerman Province in south eastern Iran. The epicentre was near to the city of Bam. The earthquake hit the city while people were sleeping and the resultant human tragedy has been immense. The Government of Iran now estimate that between 30,000 and 32,000-people have lost their lives. Some 16,000 suffered injuries and 70,000 have been left homeless.

The Iranian Government has long experience of dealing with earthquakes and other natural disasters, but the sheer scale of this disaster meant that it

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welcomed international assistance. The situation was compounded by the fact that many of the city officials in Bam were themselves killed during the earthquake.

The first priority was search and rescue support for those still trapped in the rubble, and the provision of medical care for the injured. With Bam's only surviving hospital completely overwhelmed, the injured were flown to Kerman, 125 miles away, where they were stabilised before being flown on to Tehran and Isfahan. Providing shelter for those facing the freezing desert night was also critical. Water and electricity supplies took a while to be restored, so some local people were relying on open fires, in low winter temperatures. The Iranian authorities mobilised 20,000 volunteers for the relief effort and the Iranian Red Crescent treated approximately 30,000 casualties in the first four days, of which 10,000 were evacuated to receive tertiary care in seven other centres in Iran. The United Nations report that food and water supply is now adequate at this stage and that health needs are being addressed.

The United Kingdom played its part in responding quickly to the tragedy. In London, DFID opened its emergency crisis co-ordination room on the morning the earthquake happened, from where staff helped to co-ordinate efforts on the ground, liaise with other international relief organisations and worked with the Iranian Government and the British Embassy in Tehran to ensure that humanitarian assistance was delivered as quickly as possible. The Foreign Secretary spoke to the Iranian Foreign Minister, Kamal Kharrazi, on the afternoon of 26 December, to express his deep condolences at the loss of so many Iranian people in the earthquake and to offer the Iranian Government the services of specialised search and rescue teams to help in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake.

On 27 December, the day after the earthquake, 68 search and rescue specialists from the UK landed in Kerman on a DFID-organised charter flight from Stansted. The team, comprising UK fire service teams, specialists from British non-governmental organisations including the International Rescue Corps, Canis, Rapid and Bird, and four staff from DFID, took with them sniffer dogs and thermal imaging equipment. They were amongst the first international teams to reach Bam. The search and rescue phase has now come to a close and the UK teams have returned home. The United Nations report that the collective efforts of the Iranian and international search and rescue teams saved approximately 1,000 lives.

In addition to the immediate search and rescue effort, DFID immediately committed £150,000 towards the International Federation of the Red Cross/Red Crescent appeal for shelter, heating and water purification equipment and on 29 December organised an airlift of 450 winter tents and other shelter materials, from DFID's warehouse, for distribution by the Iranian Red Crescent. We also leased two Antonov 12 cargo aircraft and put them at the disposal of the Government of Iran for the first few days to assist in maintaining the flow of relief items from congested airports to the areas where they are most needed. Also, following an urgent appeal from the World Health Organisation, DFID allocated £59,000 for the immediate purchase of 20,000 doses of tetanus vaccine, to be donated to the Ministry of Health and the Iranian Red Crescent. To date, in total, we have contributed some £900,000, including the

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UK share (approximately £280,000) of the European Community commitment towards the international relief effort. DFID is maintaining a presence in the country to look at potential further help in the light of assessments currently underway.

The Government of Iran has asked the United Nations to develop and launch a Flash appeal. It will address the relief, recovery and early rehabilitation needs of those affected by the disaster and cover a period of three months. The Flash appeal is expected to be launched, in Tehran, on 8 January 2004.

I want to pay tribute to the professionalism and dedication of the teams from Britain and Iran, and from other nations, that immediately responded to the call for help. The preparedness of the British teams meant that the UK was able to react as soon as news of the earthquake began to reach us. I am also grateful for the excellent assistance provided by the British Embassy in Tehran in facilitating and supporting the teams during

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this period. Since the start of the crisis DFID has made available its situation reports on the DFID website. A copy of the latest report will also be placed in the Libraries of the House.

Helping the people of Bam has become a genuinely global effort, with assistance pouring in from all around the world. One thousand, six hundred international search and rescue, health and relief personnel drawn from 44 countries operated in the disaster area. Since the earthquake, the UN in Bam and Kerman has registered 1,400 flights carrying relief teams and emergency supplies. At moments of great human need like this, the international community must do all that it can to help. It is notable that over 50 countries are doing so, including significant commitments from the Gulf Co-operation Council for reconstruction.

Finally, I am sure that the House will wish to express its heartfelt condolences to the people of Bam and of Iran on the terrible tragedy that they have suffered. Our thoughts are with them.