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Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): I thank the Prime Minister for making the statement and for giving me advance sight of it. Two weeks on, it is still difficult to comprehend the awful and awesome scale of this disaster. There could be no more poignant reminder of how frail and fragile is the human condition and of how tragedy can befall any one of us at any time. Our prayers have been for all those who have lost relatives and friends, and our immense thanks go to everyone who has been working so hard in so many ways to provide help to those who have suffered such loss.
Confronted with a disaster on this scale, it would be natural for people to feel helpless, but from the moment the disaster broke, the British people responded with heartfelt and urgent generosity. Spontaneously, quietly, selflessly and typically, they gave their money and their time to help those in need. That required no Whitehall initiative, no grand scheme and no ministerial diktat. The lead has come from the people, not the politicians. I welcome the very substantial amountsover and above the £50 million that the Government expect to contribute in aid over the next few weeksthat have been donated.
The Secretary-General of the United Nations has pointed out that, in the past, not all the money pledged by different countries for natural disasters has actually been given. From now on, every country must measure up to its promises. Does the Prime Minister agree that it would be sensible for the United Nations to produce a regular independent audit of the disaster income received and the expenditure made? Will he also now agree to give Parliament a regular report on the amount of British aid pledged and spent?
We also welcome the decision of the financial institutions and broadcasters here not to charge commission on credit card donations, and the Government's decision in respect of VAT. Many of those who have made telephone donations to the disasters emergency committee wish to maximise their generosity and have asked to have their donations gift aided. As things stand, the disasters emergency committee would have to write to every one, requiring hundreds of thousands of letters, which is clearly not the best use of their time or money. The committee has asked to be released from that obligation, so will the Prime Minister act on that request? What is more, people who put money in collection boxes cannot claim gift aid, so will the Government act to ensure that people's spontaneous generosity is not penalised? We also need to make sure that any lessons from this terrible tragedy are learned and shape our future response. Those grieving deserve no less.
Are the Government satisfied that all the diplomatic help that could have been made available was made availableand with the necessary degree of urgency?
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Can the Prime Minister also tell us how our back-up at home, including our performance in setting up the necessary help lines, compared with that in other countries? How many people were operating the helplines?
Will the Prime Minister tell us whether the civil and military co-operation group set up to help deal with emergencies has yet been deployed to the region and, if so, when? Can he confirm that, in 2001, the group was due to join the Sri Lankans in a training exercise to practise responses to a tsunami but was stopped on grounds of cost? If so, does he agree that that was a false economy?
A number of other countries released estimates within days of the numbers of their nationals who were missing. I realise that this is a difficult decision and judgment. Nevertheless, will the Prime Minister explain the Government's thinking behind the decision not to do so, and their subsequent change of mind?
The British people who have given so generously do not want these shattered communities to be forgotten as soon as the television crews leave. The best way of ensuring that these places are not forgotten is to establish lasting relationships with the area concerned: school to school, church to church, temple to temple, mosque to mosque, community to community. Will the Prime Minister support the setting up of a register of those local authorities who are prepared to join in such a scheme and co-ordinate such efforts?Will he join me in paying tribute to organisations such as Red R, which are already engaged in providing people with technical skills to respond to emergencies around the world?
The Prime Minister is absolutely right to say that while our attention is fixed on the visible catastrophe around the Indian ocean, we should not forget the wider problems of world poverty. It is easy to forget that around the world some 30,000 young children die every day from diseases that are entirely preventable, or that almost 1 billion people live on less than $1 a day.
Britain's presidency of the G8 and of the EU gives us a singular opportunity to help lift people out of poverty by fighting for freer, fairer trade. Does the Prime Minister agree that free and fair trade is the best way to lift people out of poverty? While developed countries give with one hand by providing aid, all too often we take with the other by imposing tariffs.
The earthquake has been a disaster on a global scale. Tectonic plates clashing off the coast of Sumatra led to Britain's worst loss of civilian life since the second world war. Grief has known no boundaries, so why should we still maintain tariff barriers to keep goods out and perpetuate poverty at a time of want? Both the EU and the United States have imposed a tariff on clothes from Sri Lanka. Even since the disaster, new tariffs have been imposed on goods from Thailand. What representation has the Prime Minister made to the EU Trade Commissioner about these tariffs?
Protectionism by developed countries at the expense of the developing world must come to an end. It is both indefensible and immoral. Would not ending it be the most fitting tribute to the generosity of the British people and the most fitting memorial to those who have so tragically lost their lives?
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The Prime Minister: First, I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for his response. I shall try to deal with as many of the issues as I can. In respect of the money pledged, those pledges must be followed through and the money given. The UN will provide an update and we will raise that matter with it. I will make sure that Parliament is regularly updated on our contribution, as I have done today.
In respect of gift aid, I met the members of the DEC the other day and they raised the issue with me. The Inland Revenue is looking at this with them to see what help we can give. Obviously we must be careful as we must make sure that the system works in a proper and robust way. However, it is obviously right that they have better things to do than to send out letters.
In respect of Britain by comparison with other countries, I think that we have operated well by comparison with anyone. The best judges of that are those in other countries. In conversations that I have had with the Presidents of other countries and with the United Nations, great tribute has been paid, frankly, to the organisation and work of the Government, as well as to the generosity of the British people. More than 100 people, at the maximum, were, I believe, working in the call centres.
In respect of the emergency teams, they were deployed pretty much straight away. I do not know the answer to the point on the Sri Lankan team for 2001, but I can find out and let the right hon. and learned Gentleman know.
In respect of the numbers of dead and the figures, different countries have dealt with that in different ways. It is a difficult dilemma. Had we put out right at the beginning the overall number of missingthe people in the regionit would have been 7,000. That could have caused quite unnecessary upset and alarm. We waited until we thought we were in a better position, when the numbers had come substantially down.
We shall carry on updating people regularly on the numbers. The interesting thing is that over the past three days, the figure of 443 in category 1 of last Fridaythat is, those highly likely to have been involvedhas risen by only by 10. It was rising at a far greater rate in the few days before that, when it virtually doubled in a week. I am passing on the advice given me by experts working in the area in saying that there has to be caution even about these figures. There will be people who were in category 1 who have, fortunately and happily, turned up and come out of it. There will be people in category 2currently there are 871, but that figure is down from more than 2,000 late last weekwho will come through. Indeed, the figure may even be different as I stand and speak now.
The difficulty in giving a number is that a lot of caution must be attached to it. I was informed by Home Office research people that in respect of disasters that have happened in this countryfor example, rail crashes and so onthere are still significant numbers of people missing some years after the event, although the overwhelming likelihood is that they are all well and alive. For that second categorythe 871we cannot be sure what will happen ultimately because people may remain on that list for a long period, but that does not necessarily mean that they have died in the disaster.
In respect of how people match up with those abroadschool to school, and community to communityI saw for myself in Shipley the other day
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that people are already doing that. If it can be facilitated through local authorities, that is a sensible suggestion, and Ministers and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister are already looking at that.
In respect of the G8 and Africa, I agree that free and fair trade is obviously extremely important, and representations have, I understand, already been made, on Friday, about trade tariffs on Thailand. I have to say, though, that I think that all that is about more than simply trade, or indeed aid. The G8 deliberations and the Commission for Africa report on which the Government are working, with other countries and people around the world, will deal with trade, but will also deal specifically with the main killer diseases and with two issues that are not often put properly on the agenda in respect of Africaconflict resolution and governance. Those matter, too. What is important is to have a comprehensive package to put forward. That package will be backed up; for the coming financial year, the Government have trebled aid to Africa from what it was a few years ago, and that is a major commitment. In my view, however, unless those other issues are dealt with as well, the public will lose heart about whether the money that they are putting into aid is actually going to be properly spent. That is why the measures in relation to conflict resolution and governance will also be a very important part of what we put forward.
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