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Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of those who have lost friends and relatives in this tragedy. As so often in such awful circumstances, we are indebted to those whose hard work and dedicated efforts are helping to bring comfort to those who are in desperate need. In particular, I pay tribute to the efforts of RAPID UK whose search and rescue teams have already saved lives in Pakistan. That is just one example of how the UK is helping.
Many hon. Members have constituents who have relatives in the affected areas. As we speak, thousands of our constituents are waiting anxiously for news about their families and friends, and the thoughts of all of us are with them at this dreadful time.
The Pakistani President has appealed for international assistance, and the British people, and especially those with links to the communities affected, are already giving with their characteristic generosity.
Inevitably, children are suffering most acutely. Perhaps the Secretary of State will say a little more about how he plans to ensure that children's specific needs are addressed in response to this crisis.
The Asian tsunami taught us some painful lessons about the need for a joined-up aid delivery effort. Will the Secretary of State inform us of the steps that he has taken to help ensure that those lessons have been learned and implemented? In particular, what discussions has he had with the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs?
During the tsunami crisis earlier this year, some concern was expressed about the service that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office offered to relatives of those involved in the disaster. Will the Secretary of State assure us that the FCO is doing everything possible to assist those who have relatives in the affected areasobviously, I acknowledge that that is extremely difficult at this time? Is he satisfied that enough people are manning the emergency information helpline for relatives? Is information about those who are missing being collated and disseminated as effectively as possible? What arrangements have been made for Britons who return to the UK having lost relatives?
The earthquake has struck in a highly sensitive part of the world. What is the Secretary of State's assessment of the appropriate role for British troops stationed in the area? Are British troops in Afghanistan helping with the relief effort there? Is the Secretary of State satisfied that co-ordination between DFID and the Ministry of Defence is adequate?
Will the Secretary of State assure the House that he is doing everything he can to ensure a joined-up approach with the work being done by the leaders of the Muslim, Pakistani and Kashmiri communities in Britain, who are already doing so much to help the relief effort? Perhaps he will say a little more at this early stage about
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any plans that his Department has to support community-based non-governmental organisations in their response to the disaster?
In the aftermath of the tsunami, concern was expressed about the operation of gift aid tax relief on donations to the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal. At this early stage, what steps will the Government take to encourage such tax relief on donations to appeals for this disaster?
The Secretary of State has proposed a standing UN disasters funda pot of money that could be drawn upon in the event of a crisis like this, which would remove the need individually to negotiate with Governments each time a disaster occurs. That idea seems sensible and constructive, and, as he knows, Conservative Members support it. What is the status of the Secretary of State's discussions with his international counterparts on such a fund?
Once again, we thank the Secretary of State for coming to the House and making his statement at the first available opportunity. In the same spirit, I hope that he will continue to keep the House informed through written and oral statements.
Hilary Benn: I thank the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) for his kind words. He gives me the opportunity also to extend my thanks to the DFID team who have been working since the early hours of Saturday morning to do the work that has enabled me to describe the response of the British Government. We owe them a very big debt of gratitude.
I share the hon. Gentleman's concern for the children of the affected region. One thing that is happening immediately is that the search and rescue teams in Muzaffarabad are trying to find the children in the schools. They were first directed to those schools when they arrived, because parents in the local community are desperately worried about those who may still be trapped and can be rescued. I undertake to consider that in the decisions that we reach about funding the UN flash appeal, which, as I say, we expect later today or early tomorrow. Let me tell the House that we will make a significant contribution. I will consider what particularly we can do for children, but their needs for blankets, tents, water and medical supplies are the same as those of their parents and families.
The hon. Gentleman asked about co-ordination. That is very important, which is why we sent a team of four out on the first relief flight to link up with the UN disaster assessment team that arrived from Geneva yesterday and with the co-ordinating unit that the Prime Minister of Pakistan has established. I spoke to the team just before coming to the House. The reports show that the co-ordination is not working badly, bearing in mind the fact that this is a major emergency that is putting great stress and strain on the Government of Pakistan in particular. I am anxious, as ever, that we learn the lessons. There is a premium on good information, because it ensures that the help that is being offered can be sent to the right places as quickly as possible.
I am happy to offer the hon. Gentleman reassurance that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is doing everything that it can; indeed, it put a team on the first relief flight to support the high commission. I pay tribute to Mark Lyall-Grant and his team for the outstanding work that they are doing.
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The Red Cross is looking to provide a service on tracing missing relatives. I am conscious of the Pakistani community here in the UK, although most of their families come from the region that is slightly less affected than the epicentre of the earthquake. Thankfully, no British casualties have yet been reported, but we wait to see what happens in time. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I, along with other Members, have large Kashmiri and Pakistani communities in our constituencies.
NATO is considering what contribution the international security assistance force might be able to provide to the effort that is being made. The hon. Gentleman makes a very good suggestion about leaders of the Muslim and Kashmiri community. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will shortly organise a meeting to talk to them. One of the ways in which we will provide support is through our offer to the Disasters Emergency Committee relief agencies to fund the flight. If any smaller community organisations have things that they wish to get there, they can link up with one of the DEC bodies to get them on to the flight, and the Government will pick up the transportation costs.
On gift aid, the hon. Gentleman may be aware that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has announced that he will make it possible for that to be applied to telephone donations, to make it easier for people's money to have a full effect.
Finally, on the humanitarian fund, about three weeks ago the UN summit agreed to support the principle of an enlarged emergency fund. I am able to report to the House that following a meeting that was hosted by a couple of other countries two days later, six nations have already agreed to put $150 million into the fund. Just under half of that will come from the United Kingdom. Several other countries that attended expressed support for the principle and are waiting to see what the arrangements will be. I am hopeful that by the middle of next year we will have a fund up and running, which I called for last December. That will mean that in such circumstances the UN has the money to get on with the job while the rest of us pitch in and help.
Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): May I also thank the Secretary of State for providing me with early sight of his statement? On behalf of my hon. Friends, I echo the profound sympathy that has been expressed for those who have been affected by the devastating earthquake.
Like the Secretary of State, I recognise that Britain has a special relationship with Pakistan and India and that, with more than 700,000 Kashmiris resident in the United Kingdom, the support that the Government offer those who fear that they have friends or loved ones who have been caught up in the disaster is greatly appreciated. I welcome the support so far and the efficiency with which it has been provided and planned.
On the Secretary of State's last comment about community-based organisations, the offer of help to agencies that provide emergency relief is much appreciated. I am sure that he knows that, as well as those mentioned in his statement, the Shelter Box appeal, which provided so many shelter boxes after the tsunami, especially for Sri Lanka, is also providing hundreds of shelter boxes this week from Helston in my
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constituency. The support that the organisation provides and the connection with the rotary club in Islamabad is greatly appreciated.
According to United Nations estimates, 2.5 million people require shelter. The tens of thousands of shelters, tents, blankets and other forms of support that the Secretary of State mentioned will clearly make a contribution but could he please comment on the international community's assessment of its capacity to respond to the urgent need for shelter, especially given the extreme cold at night in the region?
The Secretary of State did not answer the question that the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) asked about assistance that may be available through the Ministry of Defence, especially given the capacity just over the border in Afghanistan. Will he comment on whether resources will be made available from the international security assistance force that is based there?
What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the security situation in Kashmir? Only yesterday, terrorists killed 10 people in Kashmir and Jammu. What support can the UK offer to ensure secure access for humanitarian assistance to that region? What discussions have his officials held with the Kashmir International Relief Fund, which has logistical expertise and volunteers on the ground in Kashmir?
May I probe the Secretary of State a little more about the co-ordination of assistance? The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield rightly raised issues about the important role that the United Nations has to play. In answer, the Secretary of State referred to the co-ordination of assistance in the emergency that we are considering. However, he will know that the Red Cross reported last week that rivalries between hundreds of groups and perceptions of corruption and the politicisation of aid has led to the duplication of effort in some areas and a failure to get the aid to those most in need when responding to such emergencies. Does the Secretary of State agree that the United Nations' capacity must be built up so that it is better able to respond to the support and co-ordination of emergency relief through the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs and its agents?
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