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Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): Our communities will welcome what the Secretary of State said and the way in which he said it, especially his point that it is a matter of co-operation rather than competition.
I have two practical points. How long will it take to replace the emergency stocks of tents and other things? Man-made and natural disasters seem to come around
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rather more regularly than one used to expect. Secondly, on a minor but important point, will there be difficulty in readmitting the search dogs to Britain?
Mr. Roger Godsiff (Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath) (Lab): As I represent the constituency in this country where the largest number of British Kashmiris livethey are mostly from Mirpur, Dadyal and Jakswarimay I extend, as other hon. Members have done, my sincerest condolences to the President, Prime Minister and people of Azad Kashmir on this terrible tragedy? I pay tribute to the work that the British Government have done already, but will the Minister give an assurance that, once the immediate relief efforts have been responded to, the British Government will use their position of presidency of the European Union for six months to seek to co-ordinate long-term relief to ensure that the infrastructure of that area is put back together and that the people are not forgotten at the end of the immediate aftermath?
Hilary Benn: I am sure that my hon. Friend's words will be much appreciated by those who are listening. I am happy to give that assurance. Indeed, I will discuss the crisis with EU Development Ministers at our informal meeting, to be held at the end of this month. Clearly, as we move from relief to reconstruction, the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the European Commission will have a very significant role to play. I can assure him that, during our EU presidency, we will ensure that all that support is brought to bear to back the reconstruction of the affected regions, once the immediate need for relief has been dealt with.
Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating the Scottish-based charities and international organisations on their superb effort in responding with typical generosity? Does he agree that the next 24 to 48 hours are absolutely critical to demonstrate to an increasingly desperate and frustrated people that the aid is getting through? Can he assure me that the UK Government are doing all that they can to ensure that the infrastructure is being improved so that the aid can get through?
I am very happy to join the hon. Gentleman in those expressions of thanks to the agencies to which he refers. I can simply give him that assurance. I have reported to the House on what we have done in the first 48 hours. We intend to carry on. I pay tribute particularly to the military in Pakistan who have helped to clear the road to Muzaffarabad, thus allowing buses to go up to support the search and rescue team and tents from Lahore to arrive so that they can be
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distributed. They are continuing to work to open more roads because a lot more relief supplies can be brought in by road than by helicopters.
Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): Many of us have Pakistani constituents who come from Kashmir, particularly Mirpur. As yet, I have not been able to find out what impact the earthquake has had on Mirpur. I wonder whether my right hon. Friend could inform me of that. My other concern is that, long before the earthquake, there were many homeless people in the area around Muzaffarabad owing to its proximity to the line of control. They were in displaced persons camps or in refugee camps. I wonder what their position is now.
Hilary Benn: The worst of the damage has clearly been around Muzaffarabad, Balakot and those parts around the epicentre. I think that the damage in Mirpur has been less extensive. I will find out whether we have further details that I can give to my hon. Friend. I am not aware of the position of those who were living in the refugee camps around the town, but from the pictures that I have seen and the reports that we have, I am sure that the damage is pretty extensive and that they have been badly affected, along with all the other residents of the town.
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): Clearly, the initial search and rescue operation and the speed of our response have been excellent, but does the Secretary of State recall the correspondence that we had quite a few months ago about constituents of mine who went as volunteers into areas that had been devastated by the tsunami only to find that no aid whatsoever for reconstruction had got through months after those vast sums had been raised? Therefore, the report should not have come as a surprise to any of us. Can he suggest measures that will address that concern, which has been expressed from every corner of the House?
Hilary Benn: The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point. The issue is partly about ensuring that the right relief supplies come, and I made that point earlier. If things are sent that are not immediately needed, they may rest on one side while more important things pass on their way through. There may be bureaucratic obstacles, but the UN team and, I am sure, the co-ordinating office of the Prime Minister of Pakistan will be working very hard to ensure that they do not happen. A practical example of that here in the United Kingdom is that the Pakistan high commission has set up emergency arrangements for issuing visas for people from Britain who want to travel to Pakistan and Kashmir quickly. I applaud it for what it has done. We will keep the situation under very close review. If difficulties arise, we will do our best to have them sorted out. It is important that we learn the lessons.
Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab):
My friend the Secretary of State told us that 50 per cent. of the buildings in Muzaffarabad had been destroyed, but people may understandably be reluctant to go into the buildings that are still standing. Have any requests been
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made to us to supply civil engineers and people like that who could pronounce on the integrity of the structures that are still standing?
Hilary Benn: We have not had any requests as far as I am aware, but I am told that one of the consequences of the construction of the buildings is that the walls tend to fall outwards when an earthquake strikes and the roofs come in. People will understandably be reluctant to go back into buildings that have been damaged even though they may appear to be standing. We will consider all such requests, but I think that they will come in time. The immediate priority is to get shelter to people who need it and who are out in the cold.
John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): Many Members on both sides of the House will have constituents who are waiting to hear accurate information about what has happened to their friends and loved ones. In the near future, many people in this country may want to offer a place for these people to come to visit and stay. Will the Secretary of State discuss with the Foreign Secretary what can be done to speed up applications for temporary visits to the UK following this tragedy?
Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): Many people, and not just those with Indian and Pakistani family backgrounds, will be grateful to my right hon. Friend for his words and the speed of his action. We know that many of the rural communities affected are extremely distant and that access to them is extremely difficult even under normal circumstances. Although it is early days, can a long-term plan be developed to make sure that the helicopters and air transport remain? With winter approaching and what we believe to be the destruction of residences, it will be a long time before people can be guaranteed to be adequately and properly secured from the effects of the winter elements.
Hilary Benn: My hon. Friend makes an important point. The main helicopter capacity, of course, comes from the Pakistan military, but the Americans have offered five Chinooks and three Black Hawks that will arrive today. The five Chinooks offer significant heavy-lift capability, and we saw in Indonesia that they will remain for as long as necessary to make sure that relief supplies are moved. At the same time, work continues to get the roads clear, but I know that access is difficult to the most remote communities. Together with the UN, we will continue to look at whether further helicopter support is required to ensure that relief supplies and other things that are needed for reconstruction can get to the most remote communities as they are accessed. However, we must recognise that some parts have not yet been reached by rescuers.
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