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Even after three months, the horrors of the Boxing day tsunami are fresh in all our memories, and our thoughts and prayers go out to all those who lost loved ones or who were injured themselves. Equally, our continuing thoughts must be with those who lost homes and livelihoods in the devastated areas.
The immediate response of the British people to the disaster was immensely warm-hearted and generous in respect of the donations and the enormous voluntary effort that was put into ensuring that specifically needed aid was made readily available and delivered effectively. I pay tribute to all those involved in that voluntary work.
I welcome today's statement. It is comprehensive and the accompanying memorandum shows that British officials made substantial efforts in the aftermath of the disaster and we owe them our thanks. I particularly welcome those efforts because it is in the nature of such events that, with the passing of time, it is easy for international attention to be diverted elsewhere. In the aftermath of this human catastrophe, it is vital that that does not happen, which is why I ask the Foreign Secretary a number of questions.
The Disasters Emergency Committee raised a staggering £300 million, plus the £40 million that went directly to charities. What plans do the Government have to ensure that the auditing of the dispersal and application of the funds will be robust, in order to reassure the British people that their generosity is being used effectively?
Earlier this month, the noble Baroness Amos said in the other place that the Government would "match the amount" and might well "go beyond it". However, the
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Under-Secretary of State for International Development, who is in his place, said less than two weeks later that the Government's response would be
"guided by the findings of need assessments of the affected countries currently being finalised . . . rather than by linking the Government's contribution to that of the British public".[Official Report, 15 March 2005; Vol. 432, c. 181W.]
Overall, how much money have the Government made available so far? They have pledged debt relief of £45 million to Sri Lanka, but the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister told the BBC on 18 March that his country has not yet received any of the money promised by Governments. Perhaps the Foreign Secretary will clarify that. Will he also assure the House that any needs assessment, as referred to by the Under-Secretary, will not result in the Government contributing less than what was raised privately, as that would be regarded internationally as a breach of faith?
The Asian Development Bank reported a shortfall of £4 billion in the money promised to India, Indonesia, the Maldives and Sri Lanka. How is that shortfall likely to be made up? What is the Government's assessment of the allegations that Indonesia is using reconstruction as a cover for forcible moves of population in Aceh?
What is the Foreign Secretary's estimate of the number of people who died in Burma as a result of the tsunami? Does he consider the junta's official figures of the number of dead reliable? If not, have independent organisations been able to make their own assessments?
Italy, France and Portugal have blocked reductions in EU trade barriers that would have helped countries affected by the tsunami to rebuild their economies. Do the Government agree that this is a disgrace and merely piles man-made punishment on to an already devastating natural disaster?
I welcome the internal review that the Foreign Office is carrying out, announced today by the Foreign Secretary. In particular, I welcome his announcement of the setting up of regional rapid deployment teams, and I am pleased that there is at last to be a co-ordinating Minister. I wish the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport well in that important task.
We must ensure that we continue to support the victims of the tsunami, both at home and abroad, and that we do not allow time to undermine our commitment. I believe that the Government should regularly report to the House by way of oral statement on how reconstruction and aid is proceeding, on how much has been spent and on what, on whether other countries are defaulting on their pledges and on what further measures can be taken to assist the recovery of the economies of the devastated countries.
This is an issue that brings the House of Commons together. We must use that consensus to ensure that the victims of the tsunami at home and abroad continue to receive the support that, publicly and privately, we have promised them.
I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for what he said and for the tone of his remarks. First, he made the point about the passage of time tending to diminish people's recollection of the
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event. It was partly because of that, but also because of the continuing needs of all those affected by the tsunami, that I made my statement today. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport has kindly agreed to take on the co-ordinating role. I endorse the suggestion that regular oral statements should continue to be made to the House by whichever Minister is appropriate, and I shall ensure that that is taken forward with business managers.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman asked me a series of questions, a number of which were in respect of development aid. I have made a note of as many as I could, but the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas), has promised to write to him and place a copy in the Library in respect of those questions I am unable to answer.
On the time scale, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport reminds me that, in respect of the victims and families of 11 September, support was needed for at least a further three years. We must appreciate that and we are putting in place measures to ensure that we can continue to support families here and British citizens affected abroad for quite a long time, while recognising that the development aid challenge will be long lasting.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman asked me about auditing arrangements. I understand that the Department for International Development money is audited in the normal way by the National Audit Office. The Disasters Emergency Committee, a consortium of well established charities, has its own auditing arrangements and, in turn, must report matters to the Charity Commission.
As far as currently allocated money is concerned, I understand that £75 million is in the process of being spent and a further £65 million has been announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development. Detailed joint work is taking place with the World Bank.
On debt relief, I met the Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka last week and had an extensive conversation with him. He did not complain to me about the speed of debt relief. I understand that the reason that there may have been a delay is that the Paris Club, which has to agree these matters, only met last week.
On overall spending, the issue at the moment is not the availability of resources, either from charities or from the British Government and other aid donors, but the capacity of the recipients to ensure that it is spent effectively.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman asked whether there was any evidence that reconstruction in Indonesia had been used as a front to prevent the movement of individuals and to avoid a political settlement with the GAM rebel movement. When I was in Indonesia on 6 January, I raised the matter with the President of Indonesia, and my hon. Friend the Minister for Trade and Investment was there very recently. We have seen no evidence that the Indonesian Government are acting in that way. NGOs were effectively excluded from Aceh from some time in 2004 until the tsunami but my understanding is that they have since been allowed back freely.
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In respect of Burma, I understand that the figures endorsed by the UN are 90 killed and 21 missing. I remember seeing a presentation about this; it was just a matter of fortune that the tsunami did not strike Burma as much as other areas in the region.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman raises concerns about the lack of agreement in the EU in respect of what is called GSP-plus, the globalised system of preferences. We have actively sought some change in the GSP-plus arrangement in order better to benefit the countries affected by the tsunami. I regret that we were unable to reach agreement last week, but we continue to negotiate. It is a matter of fact that we work with our EU colleagues in respect of trade. There are many reasons why that is sensible. However, we continue to press the case for a sensible level for GSP-plus.
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