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Hilary Benn: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words and I pay tribute to the work of Shelter Box. When I was in Sri Lanka after the tsunami, I saw some of the Shelter Box tents being put up on a playing field next to a school and I know about the contributions of rotary clubs to making them available to those who need them. I am sure that they will be much appreciated by those who require shelter.
On the great wish of the community in the UK to assist, the best thing that people can do is contribute money because that ensures that the things that are needed are bought. We do not want to end up with an excess of one sort of supply and a shortage of others. If people are looking to assist, the most helpful thing is to contribute money.
I said earlier that NATO was considering what could be done; it is looking specifically at the resources that might be available in ISAF in Afghanistan because it is close by. That is currently being examined.
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I am of course aware of the security concerns. The incident to which the hon. Gentleman referred was on the Indian side of the line of control. So far, there is no indication that the fact that this is a sensitive and difficult region has got in the way of the relief effort. Indeed, our experience in Aceh in Indonesia, which was similarly plagued by conflict, showed that when a disaster of this magnitude strikes, people tend to put all that on one side and get on with the task in hand, which is to help people who are in need.
I have not spoken to the Kashmir International Relief Fund, but I will find out whether my officials have done so and let the hon. Gentleman know. The Red Cross report, to which the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) alluded, is an important piece of work. There was particular concern about the number of small relief organisations coming in, but I would just say that the United Nations disaster team has deployed eight people. They have established on-site operations co-ordination centres in both Islamabad and Muzaffarabad, and we are working closely with them and with the Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs to ensure that there is effective co-ordination on the ground.
I completely agree with the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) about the capacity of the United Nations system. Indeed, the proposals that I and others have made are precisely to strengthen that capacity, not only through a fundwhich will mean that it does not have to wait for the hat to be passed round in order to respond immediatelybut through strengthening the quality and capacity of humanitarian co-ordinators, because dealing with this kind of an emergency is a very different task from being the resident co-ordinator. I have also proposed that we introduce benchmarks by which we can measure our progress in responding to emergency needs. There will no doubt be lessons from this disaster that we can put into the work that we and others are undertaking.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. Hon. Members will understand that this is the second major statement of the day, and that I have important business to protect. I understand why many hon. Members wish to question the Secretary of State on this matter, but it would assist us in making progress if we could have brief questions and short answers.
Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab):
I thank my right hon. Friend for the Government's swift and effective response, and acknowledge that many people in this country will want to give their support and make an active response as well. Those of us who know the stricken areas wellincluding the devastated city of Muzaffarabad, to which access is difficult at the best of timeswill want to send our sympathy to the families and friends of all those who have suffered, and to their loved ones in this country who are so worried about what has taken place. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if there is one encouraging aspect of this disaster, it is that the Indian and Pakistani authorities and troops are working together, and that if any good at all is to
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come out of this tragedy, it would be for their Governments and others to work together to bring about a settlement for Kashmir?
Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): I am also grateful to the Secretary of State for his statement and to the Government for their prompt response in a variety of practical ways, which is what people need. In particular, I notice that President Musharraf asked for helicopters, and that helicopters have been provided. Speed of response to these disasters is crucial, and one of the most anguishing aspects of this one was hearing tales of children crying in the ruins and people not being able to get to them in time. Is there anything that we can do to achieve an even more rapid response in future? Does the Secretary of State also recognise that, after the initial response, the economy of Pakistan will face a major rebuilding challenge? Will that lead to a review of DFID policies and DFID aid programmes in Pakistan and Kashmir?
Hilary Benn: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his questions. We always need to ensure that we get search and rescue teams to a disaster as quickly as possible. As I have said, the first international team to arrive was from the UK, and it was one of the biggest teams. It went out there within a very short period of time, and many other search and rescue teams are now arriving from around the world. They are being deployed to the areas in need. I pay tribute to the speed with which our teams got themselves to East Midlands airport and on to those planes. Of course, we shall review our programme. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have a substantial programme in Pakistan: £74 million this year. As well as committing resources to the relief effort we shall of course do the same for reconstruction, but that is a little way off. For now, we shall concentrate on immediate assistance.
Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab): I, too, thank my right hon. Friend for his Department's speedy response to the disaster. On television this morning, he will have seen President Musharraf making a moving appeal, especially for doctors, surgeons and consultants. Will that represent part of my right hon. Friend's comprehensive response?
Hilary Benn: What we have funded at the moment are the emergency health and trauma kits to which I referred earlier. On Saturday, the World Health Organisation put out an appeal for $500,000-worth of assistance and the UK picked up half the cost of that. We did that straight away on the first day. I have no doubt that when the UN flash appeal comes out shortly there will be a request for support to provide that kind of assistance. It may be helpful if I tell the House that there were two hospitals in Muzaffarabad. One was destroyed; the other is functioning but is severely overstretched and I understand that a French field hospital is on its way to provide help to the people there.
Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con):
The argument for a substantially enlarged UN disaster emergency fund is
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unassailable. The Secretary of State said that so far only six countries had committed to it. Which G8 member states have yet to sign up to the Secretary of State's excellent idea? It must now be unassailable and there can be no excuse, certainly for G8 countries not to dig deep into their pockets to support that initiative.
Hilary Benn: I will send the hon. Gentleman a list of the countries. To be fair, some G8 countries present at the meeting support the idea but are waiting to see exactly what the management arrangements will be. He and I, and many others, think this a good idea; it is timely and if it was in place we could move even faster. We have learned the lessons and the fact that there is now support for the fund means, I hope, that in the future the UN will be able to respond even quicker. It would certainly have helped in Niger.
Mr. Mohammad Sarwar (Glasgow, Central) (Lab): The devastating earthquake in south Asia has wiped out whole communities in many places. Tens of thousands of people have lost their lives. Millions of people have been made homeless. That huge loss of life is tragic and our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families. The Government's swift response in providing assistance for the relief effort is welcome. People are dying every hour. Does my right hon. Friend agree that due to the magnitude of the tragedy we need to provide greater humanitarian aid and assistance to ensure that the people who survived the disaster do not die of hunger, disease and cold?
Hilary Benn: I agree completely. Currently, the issue is not money, because we shall put in the resources that are needed; it is how quickly we can get practical help to those in need. Where can we obtain the blankets, the tents, the medical supplies, the food, the water, the shelter, the heavy digging equipment and the helicopters? That is the issue. We are responding to the requests that have come to us. As I said, we shall fund significantly the UN appeal when it comes out. It is important for the House to recognise that the issue is the practical help that we give, not the sums pledged at the beginning. Britain has an honourable tradition, but some countries pledge large sums yet six months later we find that not all of that money was spent. I am much more interested in concentrating on the practical work in hand, which is turning the passion, commitment and desire of the British people to help into practical assistance on the ground. That is what we did in the first 48 hours and that is exactly what we shall carry on doing.
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