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Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West) (LD): I, too, thank the Prime Minister for his detailed statement this afternoon. On behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, I extend our complete sympathy and condolences to all those at home and abroad who have lost loved ones on such a colossal scale.
Despite the acres of television coverage over the past two awful weeks, it still seems hard to believe that, on our first day back after less than three weeks away, we should be having these exchanges about such monumental loss of life from such an unpredictable natural catastrophe, which has encompassed so much of the globe in the intervening period. The Prime Minister was surely right that there can be no one in the House who has not had direct contact with constituents, friends or family members who have been caught up in the aftermath of this catastrophe.
One person from my home area, where I have been spending the recess, Mr. David McCallum, was distraught because his son, daughter-in-law and grandson were in Thailand at the time. Initially, he had great difficulty, as did so many, in making contact through the emergency lines. He wanted me to put on record, however, that once those lines were up and running, he found them extremely helpful. I was glad that the Prime Minister went out of his way to pay tribute to those who have been manning those services. Given the scale of the catastrophe, its instantaneous nature and the difficulty of communications due to the destruction of infrastructure, their contribution has been positively heroic. We should all say that clearly.
That heroism has also been matched, as the Prime Minister rightly said, by the instinctive, spontaneous generosity of the British public. I therefore hope that, although the Prime Minister used the phrase "British
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Government money" in his statement, he would be the first to acknowledge that all British Government money, whether charitable or collected through taxation, is the British public's money, whatever source or means it comes through.
In terms of the lessons that the Prime Minister, the international community and all of us must draw, does he agree that this kind of global catastrophe underlines yet again the need for international responses through international institutions. Some predictable voices elsewhere, not least in north America, have been saying yet again that this is an example of the indolence or incompetence of structures such as the United Nations. Is not the Secretary-General correct to re-emphasise that the United Nations is but the sum of its constituent parts? The emphasis must therefore be to ensure that aid pledged is aid given and that the technological support made available is deployable by the United Nations through its agencies. The challenge to individual member states is to make that institution and others work better for the future.
On the United Nations, the Prime Minister referred rightly to the excellent contribution that the International Development Secretary made in a very considered speech before Christmas. Will one item for the International Development Secretary's New York discussions be the possibility of the UN establishing a well-trained, well-equipped, well-resourced standing rapid reaction disaster relief force, with a view to the future? While not being able to cope instantaneously with any disaster on such a scale, such a force would none the less have a standing infrastructure that could be mobilised more efficiently than is the case with the present more ad hoc approach of individual member states.
In terms of our leadership of the G8, will the Prime Minister agree that this country's response should be viewed not just as Britain in its own right but in terms of the role that we must play in the pivotal chair that we occupy, over this year of all years, against this backdrop? As well as dealing with the aftermath of this disaster, will he also therefore ensure that the agenda that he was rightly putting forward for the British chairmanship of the G8 is not deflected but enhanced as a result of the additional concentration of minds that must take place when we see the natural challenges on us as people?
On the question of money pledged and money delivered, can the Prime Minister say more about putting in place formal tracking systems for aid pledges so that Governments can be held to account? An example that has been cited recently was the last earthquake in Iran where $1 billion was pledged, yet Iran says that only $17.5 million ever found its way directly to the affected area. That is a lamentable reflection on all the countries involved and on the delivery mechanisms.
On debt relief, we very much welcome the Government's pledge to commit £100 million a year to write off debts owed to the UK by the poorest countries. Will that pledge be dependent on the conditionality of previous debt relief measures? Surely, the Prime Minister will agree that we must make sure that the money saved through debt relief is used to build basic poverty alleviation systems in the debtor countries.
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That, too, will be something on which the international community will look to us to give a lead in the G8 during the coming 12 calendar months.
This has been a most hellish and unimaginably grief-stricken period. The grief and grieving will be endless for so many, but what we can do, and what the House of Commons can help to contribute constructively through practical measures, will go some way at least to giving people the sense that their politicians are responding to the most fundamental human needs of all.
The Prime Minister: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his constructive response and ask him to pass on our thanks to Mr. McCallum for his kind words. It is worth pointing out that the maximum number of 999 calls in any day across the whole UK is approximately 25,000 and the centre was receiving 40,000 at its peak. The heroism, as the right hon. Gentleman rightly described it, of the staff everywhere is a tremendous tribute to them.
It is clear, and was clear in the days immediately following the tsunami, that the UN is the proper body to take things forward, and in my conversations with President Bush, he has entirely understood that. In any such situation, people want to make as immediate a response as they possibly can and obviously the United States will be a major player, particularly in respect of Indonesia, in getting help to them, but there is widespread acceptance everywhere that the United Nations is the appropriate body to lead this. That raises the issue of whether it is also the body with the right capability. The points that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development was making in his speech before Christmas are similar to the issue of ensuring that there is a standing capability able to go into action at any point in time. Over the last few years, in our own country, we have established the so-called Cobra process, which allows people to be pulled together quickly. That is not capability that needs to be in a state of constant readiness, but it needs to be able to be deployed in a ready state, if necessary. That is one of the issues that the UN will look at over the time to come.
It is important that we are not deflected from our G8 responsibilities in respect of Africa. Yes, we shall certainly use the G8, as we have set out, to push forward the programme on both Africa and climate change; we have made those two things the centrepiece of our G8 presidency. In the G8, our relationship with both America and the European Union will be immensely important in taking that forward.
On the amount of aid that will be spent, it is interesting that we have already spent £30 million of the £50 million that we immediately allocated; it is now up to £75 million. I think the money will be spent in this case, but it is important that we track it to ensure that.
Finally, on the moratorium on repaymentsthe servicing of the debtthose things will be looked at in the immediate and longer term at the meeting that will, I understand, take place on 5 February. We will play our full part in those discussions and attempt to put in place a long-term framework that backs up the UN reconstruction efforts.
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Donald Anderson (Swansea, East) (Lab): The scale of the disaster is unprecedented in modern times and any comments we now make must be in that context. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the initial misplaced criticisms about the tardiness of our consular services, the jammed switchboards and so on have given way overwhelmingly to admiration by the public, and certainly the travel trade and others, of the quality of the response? Will he also confirm that this is a great opportunity for the United Nations and that he will do all that he can, both as leader of the G8 and, in the second half of the year, in the European Union, to find ways and means of enhancing the status and the co-ordinating role of the United Nations?
The Prime Minister: I agree with both points that my right hon. Friend made. It is also important to pay tribute to some of the companies that have given of their time and effort. There has been a remarkable response right across societybusiness as well as civic society. Yes, this is a chance for the EU to show its worth and the international will is there for it to do so.
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