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RAF St. Mawgan

10. Matthew Taylor (Truro and St. Austell) (LD): What discussions he has had with the Department for Transport on the future of civilian air services at RAF St. Mawgan. [207384]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): In addition to discussions between officials, I will meet the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) to discuss this issue.

Matthew Taylor: I hope that the Minister accepts that as Cornwall is an objective 1 area, and is recognised by
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the Government as one of the poorest in the country, the maintenance of links such as the civilian air service operating from RAF St. Mawgan is particularly important for the area, and for joined-up government. Short-term decisions on military deployment should not outweigh the long-term needs of the military at RAF St. Mawgan—nor, indeed, should they put at risk domestic civilian services. Can the Minister assure me that every effort will be made to ensure continuity so that domestic services can be maintained, irrespective of relatively short-term changes in military requirements?

Mr. Ingram: The situation is a bit more complex than that. If the hon. Gentleman does not understand why, perhaps he should be better briefed. The airfield is part of the review of 73 airfields, including 50 prime airfields, which are being examined in terms of future aircraft capability. If a decision were made to place that capability at St. Mawgan, it would be a significant boost and boon to the local area and economy. However, there may be a knock-on effect for the civilian use of the airfield. The issues are therefore complex, and we must work our way through them, recognising the importance of the aerodrome to the area. I shall meet the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands, and am prepared to meet local Members of Parliament and give them access to officials so that they can be kept up to date on important developments in this big issue.

Scottish Division

11. Pete Wishart (North Tayside) (SNP): How many service personnel are serving in the regiments of the Scottish Division. [207386]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): As at 1 November 2004, the total trained strength of the Scottish Division of the infantry was 3,005. That figure excludes officers and soldiers currently serving away from their battalion, and attached personnel from other armed services.

Pete Wishart: On the day that the Secretary of State has made an arrogant non-statement about the further redeployment of another Scottish regiment, does the Minister appreciate the outrage that abounds in Scotland? While those in another Scottish regiment will do their duty for the Government, the Government will cut their numbers, amalgamate the regiment out of existence, and continue to stab them in the back at home.

Mr. Ingram: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will wait to hear the answer, and not walk out in a huff as he did the last time we discussed the matter. The question comes a little amiss from him and his party, given that they do not want the type of role that is currently undertaken by Her Majesty's armed forces anywhere in the world. We are seeking to strengthen the capability of the Army. We are putting more resources in and we will make the new structure more resilient, more robust and more capable of meeting the threats of the future. That is what serving personnel want to hear. I recognise that the hon. Gentleman wants to play politics with the subject, but we have the defence of the realm to consider.
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Defence Exports

12. Syd Rapson (Portsmouth, North) (Lab): What recent efforts he has made to promote British defence exports on the international market. [207387]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): The Ministry of Defence provides a high standard of support to legitimate defence exports. The Defence ministerial team plays a full part in this work and Ministers have continued to promote UK defence exports vigorously. In recent years we have helped UK defence industry to win orders worth on average around £5 billion annually, including such major achievements as the sale of Hawk to India, worth £800 million.

Syd Rapson: Will my right hon. Friend comment on the Government's refusal to adopt the Archerfish programme, which is designed to destroy underwater munitions? It was invented with the encouragement of the Government, but we failed to take up the programme. Unfortunately, the Americans have grabbed it with both hands, and it looks as if they will develop it and sell it back to us. We have lost a brilliant invention, and export potential for this country.

Mr. Ingram: The British Aerospace bid was deselected in the programme competition to which my hon. Friend refers, on the basis of its performance against the UK's requirement. I know my hon. Friend would agree that we must get the right equipment to support the forces in the job that they have to do. In this case, it was judged that the proposed system was not suitable. However, the UK Government are supporting BAE Systems' Archerfish bid in the current US one-shot mine disposal competition. I stress that the US requirement is substantially different from that of the Royal Navy, but I have taken note of my hon. Friend's strong views on the matter.

Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent) (Con): One of the most successful defence exports of recent times has been the British servicemen who are currently employed by private military and security companies abroad. Does the Ministry of Defence consider that the regulatory guidelines affecting those companies are sufficient? What impact are their activities having on retention in the armed services?

Mr. Ingram: It is too early to say what impact that will have on retention. There is some anecdotal information
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that could indicate that there may be a draw to areas where service personnel with a very high level of skills could be employed. Of course we will do what we can to encourage them to stay in the armed forces. The regulations are not strictly a matter for the Ministry of Defence, but if the hon. Gentleman writes to me accordingly, I will find out the background.

Defence Airfield Review

13. Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): If he will make a statement on the defence airfield review. [207388]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence announced to the House last July, we are undertaking an extensive review of our future requirement for airfields. We currently have in excess of 70 airfields of various sizes—a number based on the requirements of the cold war, and of older aircraft. With changes to the strategic environment and new aircraft scheduled to come into service, we need to ensure that our airfields are configured to meet the requirements of the future.

The defence airfield review is being taken forward through a series of business cases assessing the best basing configuration, both operationally and in value for money terms, for a number of future aircraft types. The possible consequences for airfields included in business cases might be confirmation of a current role, a change in role or, in some cases, closure. Most of the business cases are not due to conclude until later this year. However, some business cases may reach initial conclusions on individual aircraft types sooner. Any final decisions on the consequences for airfields will be announced to the House.

Angus Robertson: I thank the Minister for his very full answer, but what economic and social consequences of any potential base run-down and closure are being factored into the review, and how is that being done?

Mr. Ingram: This is about the basing of aircraft types. Once it is decided what is right for the Royal Air Force and the armed forces generally, there will be further consultation about the impact on local communities. I know that the leader of the hon. Gentleman's party has suggested we should abandon the Eurofighter project, and that would mean the closure of Leuchars air base. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should go there and explain the position to those involved.

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Asian Tsunami

3.31 pm

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): With your permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement following the earthquake and tsunami in the Indian ocean on the morning of Sunday 26 December.

In the early hours of 26 December, the earth moved along some 1,200 km of the sea bed, creating first a sea in retreat, then a sea borne along by a wave of such force that it literally obliterated not just the area of the coast at Aceh nearest to it, but land over 3,000 km from its epicentre. It was a force of nature so unimaginable in its power and catastrophic in its impact that it quite simply washed the life out of villages, towns, tourist resorts and anything alive on the water in areas across the entirety of the Indian ocean. It affected Indonesia, Sri Lanka, south India and the Andaman and Nicobar islands, the Maldives, Thailand, Burma, Malaysia, Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, the Seychelles and Bangladesh.

The estimated number of people killed now stands at over 150,000, with millions of people forced away from their homes. As well as the devastating loss of life and immediate suffering, there are significant longer-term implications. Many people have lost their means of earning a living. Fishermen have lost their boats and nets; farmers' crops have been destroyed; roads, bridges and buildings are damaged or destroyed, as are coastal areas where livelihoods are dependent on tourism.

We should begin by expressing the total unity of the House in giving our deepest condolences for the loss of life in those countries directly affected by the tsunami, and to all in this country who have lost family members, friends and colleagues in the disaster. Scarcely any of us here will not know someone whose life has been touched by this event. None of us will have not been moved to tears as each night we saw, with mounting horror, the human tragedy that followed the natural disaster.

I can announce today that there will be a memorial service later this year for the victims of the tsunami, which will be attended by Her Majesty the Queen. We will give more details in due course, and will obviously wish to take account of the views of relatives in planning the service.

I shall divide my statement into three parts. I shall deal first with the loss of British lives, secondly with immediate humanitarian help for the countries concerned, and finally with the longer-term issues of redevelopment and reconstruction. I hope the House will forgive me if I go into a little detail on those issues.

Let me begin with our own citizens. The number of confirmed dead is now 51. The number of category 1 of the missing—that is, those highly likely to be lost—is, including the 51, now 453, up from 443 last Friday. Of those, 371 are in respect of Thailand and 50 in respect of Sri Lanka. The numbers in category 1 have stopped rising so rapidly. Not all of them will prove actually to be dead, though many may. The category 2 figure, relating to those unaccounted for in the region but not in the "highly likely" category, now stands at 871, down from over 2,000 late last week. Previous experience, I am advised, tells us that that figure may never fall to zero.

On 26 December, the Foreign Office established temporary offices working in all the affected areas. There is now, for example, a temporary office the size of
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a medium-sized embassy in Phuket. Staff have also been deployed at overseas airports to help with any problems of British nationals and to issue emergency passports to those without travel documents.

There are 75 police officers working in Thailand and Sri Lanka, both to assist in an international effort to recover and identify the dead, and to give specialist advice to our Foreign Office teams in those countries. Their work is enormously difficult as well as very distressing.

Sadly, many victims were swept away by the force of the tsunami and their remains may never be recovered. In other cases, and as time goes by, forensic identification of the remains becomes extremely hard. DNA testing may be required and that will take time. I know that that will only add to the agony of the families concerned. I am afraid, however, that no short cuts are possible. The pain and upset that could be caused by mistakes would be even worse.

The Foreign Office has funded the deployment of portable mortuary facilities to the disaster areas in Sri Lanka and Thailand and is working closely with international undertakers to facilitate the repatriation of bodies once they have been positively identified. British officials and police officers are now working with the families of the victims to repatriate remains where appropriate and to help the injured to get home. The Foreign Office has assisted affected families with the cost of repatriating remains; immediate medical expenses for those seriously injured; medical evacuation; and return travel for two members of the victim's family.

The emergency call centre took over 40,000 calls at the peak, and has taken over 135,000 in total. Over 200 family liaison officers have been appointed to support every family of British nationals we think are highly likely to have been involved. I should explain that that figure is lower than the number of likely deaths because some families have unfortunately lost a number of relatives in this terrible tragedy. We are also looking to provide family liaison officers for families in the affected countries where appropriate and are supporting families in the UK who have lost family members who lived in those affected countries, particularly in Sri Lanka, where over 30,000 people were killed.

The Foreign Office has also ensured that there are full reception arrangements at airports for people returning to the UK. That includes tailored medical attention where necessary, assistance with getting home and access to psychological and emotional support services. The British Red Cross has also established a helpline for victims of the disaster and their families and a family support network for those affected.

I would like to say some words about the Foreign Office, police and other staff involved in this operation. The complexity of the operation is obvious. The grief of the families is manifest and absolutely understandable. There could not be circumstances more taxing. There will inevitably be mistakes made or unintended insensitivity in certain cases. However, I am clear that those staff on the whole have done a quite magnificent and exceptional job and I would like to express our heartfelt thanks to them.

Let me now turn to the action that the Government have taken to alleviate the consequences of the tsunami in the countries affected. Within hours of the
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disaster striking, the Department for International Development's crisis operations team was set up and it sent out its first assessment team. The next day, DFID began airlifts of tents and plastic sheeting in response to an urgent request from the Government of Sri Lanka. A series of airlifts followed, including approximately 80 tonnes of water donated to the Maldives and enough basic emergency medical supplies to Indonesia to treat 100,000 people for three months. We focused our immediate effort on support to the United Nations humanitarian organisations, the Red Cross movement, non-governmental organisations and a range of practical actions, such as delivery of urgently needed relief items, including water, water containers, tents and blankets and plastic sheeting.

As time has passed, it has become clear that the biggest challenges are in Indonesia and Sri Lanka. The UN is leading the international humanitarian response, and Britain is supporting the UN co-ordination and logistics effort to improve delivery of assistance. In Indonesia, we have provided equipment to help establish the UN field office in Banda Aceh, plus five helicopters and some vehicles to the UN for use in the Aceh province. We have also provided two experts for its assessment team, two UK emergency teams and three military operations teams, which are working closely with local government and partner nations to assess needs. We also have a range of medium and heavy-lift cargo aircraft—including RAF Hercules and Tristar aircraft, and a number of helicopters—involved in delivering aid to the region. We sent some five flights to Indonesia, carrying almost 4,000 family tents. We are putting together plans for further airlifts, from both Europe and other regions, of relief materials to the region. We are also deploying two fully equipped and manned helicopters from the Gurkha battalion stationed in Brunei.

One of the main challenges in both countries is distributing the massive amount of aid provided. UK forces are playing an important role in this. We are providing significant airlift capacity, including one RAF C-17 plane and five C-130 planes. Two naval vessels—Chatham and Diligence—have been providing assistance off Sri Lanka, together with their Lynx helicopters.

In respect of the money pledged, the first thing is to pay tribute to the remarkable but typical generosity of the British people. Their willingness to contribute—the funds contributed by them now stand at over £100 million—is the best illustration of the British character, and it shows a warmth of spirit and a depth of compassion that have been uplifting, even as we contemplate the tragedy that gave rise to it.

I should set out the Government's contribution so far. In doing so, I should mention that in my conversations with the Presidents of Sri Lanka and of Indonesia—and again this morning with the Indonesian Foreign Minister—all have gone out of their way to express not only their gratitude but their admiration for Britain's response: that of the British people in their own right, and through their Government.

The international pledges now total some £2 billion. The European Union as a whole has already collectively pledged or given €1.5 billion. A meeting of EU Foreign
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Ministers on Friday agreed to ask the European Investment Bank to consider an Indian Ocean tsunami facility of up to €1 billion. The British Government's contribution is as follows. I have agreed that the Government will increase their pledge to the immediate humanitarian response from £50 million to £75 million, with an additional £25 million from the Treasury's central reserve. None of this, incidentally, has been taken from our existing development programmes. Of this £75 million, around £30 million has already been disbursed to the UN and to the non-governmental organisations. Our share of EU budget money allocated is a further £15 million; gift aid tax relief amounts, roughly, to a further £15 million. We will also make a special donation to offset the VAT on goods sold to raise money for the tsunami appeal, and DFID has offered to pay the cost of air freighting equipment and supplies paid for by donations from the public. Six flights have already departed; another goes tomorrow.

In addition, the G7 is agreeing to an immediate moratorium on debt repayments by afflicted countries, for those that request it, until a full needs assessment is completed. The suspension of debt servicing in 2005 for Indonesia alone will, for Britain, total over £70 million. So all in all, around £200 million of British Government money has already been committed or spent. But as I indicated last week, we still have to await the World Bank's full assessment of the long-term reconstruction needed. In all likelihood, that will require further disbursements. In addition, we will continue to meet any immediate requests for humanitarian assistance. I might add that the provision of so much military equipment also has a cost, which the Government rightly bear.

Long-term reconstruction in Sri Lanka, and especially in Indonesia, leads on to the lessons in respect of the international community's response to any future natural events. First, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development—his Department, like the Foreign Office, has performed in an outstanding way in the past two weeks—has set out in a paper to the UN how he believes that the administration of its response capability can be improved. He will go to New York next month to discuss this issue. Presciently, he first made these suggestions in a speech shortly before Christmas.

Secondly, we need urgent work on early warning systems, and not just in the region affected. The Jakarta conference on Thursday agreed that a regional warning system was needed in that region. The world conference on disaster reduction will consider in Japan later this month how that and other similar needs can be met. In addition, I have asked the Government's chief scientific adviser, Sir David King, to put together a small group of experts to advise me on the mechanisms that could and should be established for the detection and early warning of global natural hazards.

Mr. Speaker, the last two weeks have shown a world in shock, but also in solidarity. It is not just the money given: it is the volunteering to help collect it; the doctors and nurses wanting to go out and help in the region; the experts from every field imaginable clamouring for a chance to serve and to give of their time, energy and expertise.

Later this year, the world will turn its attention not just to a natural disaster, but to one that is man-made—Africa. Daily in that continent, thousands die
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preventably from conflict, famine and disease. If the domination of that issue on our TV screens is less dramatic, the suffering of human beings is every bit as severe. If we were, as a result of the strength of our sentiment towards the victims of the tsunami, to turn that same sentiment into action on Africa, perhaps those whose faith has been shaken by the monstrous consequences of the event that we have witnessed would have it renewed. There could be no greater good to come out of it.

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