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Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con):
One in 10 of my constituents are from Pakistan or Kashmir, and they will have lost friends and relatives in this horror. Indeed, some of my constituents may be dead or injured. I spoke
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this morning to community leaders who asked me to thank the Secretary of State and the Department for what they are doing and to amplify the point that has just been made about help for rural communities. As he knows, communications in such areas is often extremely poor, and the people in them may be reached less speedily than those in more urban areas. Will he comment on that?
Hilary Benn: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. The support that we are providing and that we will continue to provide, including through our response to the UN appeal when it is issued, is designed to try to ensure that we get support to all the areas affected. Clearly some of the towns are easier to reach in the first instance, but it is very important that the relief effort then spreads out into the countryside. Like many other Members, the hon. Gentleman knows that the geography is very difficult, but we just have to keep up the effort to make sure that help reaches all the people who need it.
Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): May I also commend my right hon. Friend on the efforts that he has made? He was right to praise the Pakistan high commission for setting up the emergency visa facility. Our entry clearance operation in Islamabad is hardly the best in the world at the moment. Will he consider speaking to the Foreign Secretary about deploying to Islamabad some of the entry clearance officers who are currently in the Gulf, who are not overburdened by the number of applications being made there, to help the processing of not only ongoing legitimate immigration cases, but, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) said, those who wish to come on a short-term visit?
Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): After the welcome early response, will the Secretary of State assure us that any further transport, engineering or medical help that is needed will be made available if we are asked for it, or if that need becomes apparent? Has the rest of the Commonwealth been asked to assist these two great Commonwealth countries that are suffering most?
Hilary Benn: I am happy to give the first assurance that the hon. Gentleman wants. We will continue to provide all the assistance that we can, along with others in the international community. I do not know whether a specific request has yet been made through the Commonwealth, but I will find out and contact him.
Mr. Shahid Malik (Dewsbury) (Lab):
I arrived back from Pakistan in the past two hours and was there when the earthquake struck in Islamabadit was a terrifying experience. I have been there with RAPID UK for the past two days and pay tribute to the Department for International Development. The Government of Pakistan have also asked me to convey their tribute to the Secretary of State because we were the first to get in
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there. I was at Margalla towers yesterday where RAPID UK was doing a superb job, although, sadly, it was pulling out more dead bodies than survivors.
We have been talking about helicopters, but I have to tell the Secretary of State that based on information that I have picked up, there is still a desperate need for more helicopters. Aid can reach areas such as Islamabad, but places such as Muzaffarabad, Bagh and Rawala Kot are accessible only by helicopter. Unless we have more helicopters, the aid effort simply will not happen. Will the Secretary of State reassure me that the request for more helicopters will be considered? I believe that we are talking about a 10 to 15-year reconstruction programme and that we are in there for the long haul. What is his view about that?
Hilary Benn: My hon. Friend has experienced the terror of the earthquake at first hand and I join him in paying tribute to the work of the RAPID team, which is doing an extremely professional job. As I indicated earlier, in addition to the American helicopters that have been provided today, NATO is considering that very point. We are examining what more we might be able to do and an appeal has gone out through the European Unionwe have done that as its presidency. I am conscious of the need for such further support and agree that a long-term commitment to reconstruction will be required. We have a programme in Pakistan that has been rapidly increasing in size in recent years. I assure my hon. Friend that we will pledge support, together with others in the international community, to help the reconstruction.
Sarah Teather (Brent, East) (LD): I recently visited Kashmir at the invitation of the Indian Government, but also have many constituents from the Pakistani-administered Kashmiri region. From speaking to those involved in the charitable effort this morning, I know that they will be grateful for the Secretary of State's offer to fund flights for the relief operation. However, to echo the comments made by the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mr. Malik), people stress that their relatives tell them that access to remote areas is still the priority, as the Secretary of State mentioned, and that there is a desperate need for air transport. Will he please consider making further air transport mechanisms available?
Hilary Benn: I certainly will. We will continue, along with others in the international community, to ensure that we provide the resources that are needed. That is being examined urgently, but it is good news that the Americans came in with the helicopters today, which will significantly add to the existing capacity. However, I take the hon. Lady's point.
Mr. Sadiq Khan (Tooting) (Lab):
I endorse the positive comments about the excellent response of the British Government and the non-governmental organisations. It has been said that the Pakistan high commission is giving instant visas here and in Islamabad if British people do not have them. What advice is the Foreign Office giving to Britons who want to travel to Pakistan, bearing in mind that some areas will be
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difficult to access and people might get in the way of experts who are trying to rescue their relatives and friends?
Hilary Benn: On the one hand, the advice is that the relief effort is the priority, as my hon. Friend outlines. On the other, I think about my family being in that situation and understand why people would want to go. We must respect the decisions that individuals make. As I said, the Red Cross is trying to establish a tracing service. If people do go, perhaps they could bear in mind the need to give priority to the relief effort, given that transport is scarce. However, I understand why people are doing everything that they can to discover what has happened to their loved ones.
With respect to the DFID programme, does my right hon. Friend realise that the huge devastation in the rural areas of Kashmir, where all built-up properties have been decimated, means that those people who remain after the tragedy will need long-term assistance? Will he also consider those relatives who are here? This morning I had a meeting with West Midlands police and have also spoken to Tarique Ghaffur, the assistant commissioner in London. They are willing to set up the emergency information helpline. Will my right hon. Friend speak to the consular service of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to get that up and running, so that it is easy for people to be informed about what is happening to their friends and relatives in Kashmir?
Hilary Benn: On the second point, the FCO helpline is already operating, and I will pass on my hon. Friend's important point. We will continue to do all that we can to ensure that there is effective communication with the communities that are most worried. I am happy to consider any suggestions that colleagues make about how we can ensure that good information goes out about what exactly is being done and, in return, to feed information back to our disaster response team so that it can take that into account when carrying out its work.
Kali Mountford (Colne Valley) (Lab): I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for what he just said. Although the generosity in my constituency will be unquestionable, many people will want to give not just money, but their skills, time and effort. We have heard the call for medical professionals, but many people who have different skills will want to make a personal contribution. As the disaster unfolds, can we ensure that those different talents and needs are properly utilised and that people go at the appropriate time?
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