Previous Section Index Home Page

29 Oct 2008 : Column 250WH—continued

My role as the Minister responsible for humanitarian assistance started at the time of 9/11. I was then asked to provide co-ordination and support for the families
29 Oct 2008 : Column 251WH
whose relatives had died in Bali and, later, for the relatives affected by the tsunami. Then, at a time I remember so vividly, I was given responsibility for those who had suffered, who had been bereaved and who had died in the London bombings of 7 July 2005. As Minister for the Olympics, I had been in Singapore celebrating the fact that London had won the Olympics. The day after, the news began to come through of the attack on London. As Seb Coe, Ken Livingstone—the then Mayor of London—and I boarded a plane in Singapore, the celebrations were cancelled. We arrived in London the next morning and stepped into an armoured convoy. Ken Livingstone was to go to the emergency centre. I was to help to set up the family reception centre for the family members who were still wandering around London trying to find out, in the intensive care units of London, whether their mother, their son or their daughter was alive.

From the ad hoc, we now have proper ministerial function, with the humanitarian assistance unit established in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. There will always be questions about the appropriate machinery of government. I place on record my tribute to all the staff who, over the past seven years, have worked in the humanitarian assistance unit and shown the capacity of public service to go beyond any call of duty or job description. They have, in so many cases, altered the course of grief for the families with whom they have worked, and I am intensely proud of them.

That advocacy role is embodied in the humanitarian assistance unit; it is advocacy across Government. That is why the issues of speed of compensation, the level of compensation and the ability to identify the gaps in the compensation system have become so sharply defined. The humanitarian assistance unit is in regular contact with bereaved families and survivors from 11 separate terrorist incidents since 2001. By listening to victims and their families, we have been better able to understand the support and care that they need. The process ranges from dealing with the immediate incident to support in the aftermath, to the memorial service, to the second memorial service, to the development of the memorial, to the dedication of the memorial, to the establishment of the friends and long-term support group, and then making it clear that, for as long as necessary, we will continue to be available.

Obviously, much of the humanitarian assistance work for victims abroad is led by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Again, I commend the extent to which some of the very harsh lessons and the harsh things said about the treatment that survivors have received have been incorporated by the consular services around the world.

In the time available, let me focus specifically on financial assistance. Because of the critical gap in the compensation system created by the fact that the criminal injuries compensation scheme does not extend to UK citizens killed or injured abroad, we secured the establishment of a charitable fund for UK victims of overseas terrorism.

The fund was launched in May 2007 with a Government contribution of £1 million. Because of its size, the fund has a specific scope and remit. It makes immediate payments to all UK residents injured or bereaved through acts of overseas terrorism. Those payments are immediate
29 Oct 2008 : Column 252WH
so that relatives do not have to worry about the costs of getting home. The fund has made a total of 22 initial payments of £3,000 and 19 second-stage payments of £12,000 for five overseas incidents. That total of £294,000 takes us up to 30 September this year.

I underline the fact that those payments are intended to meet immediate financial needs, such as mortgage or rent payments, long-distance phone calls and travel to the affected area, but the speed and simplicity of the way in which the payments are made is most important. Speed and simplicity are the tests against which any further measures are judged.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office also provides a package of assistance, through its exceptional assistance measures, to cover actual expenditure in the immediate aftermath of terrorist incidents overseas if no alternative funds are available. That provision takes account of the exceptional nature of terrorism, in which individuals are the random victims of attacks directed at society as a whole and not specifically at British nationals. However, I absolutely recognise that neither the Red Cross charitable fund nor the FCO’s measures provide compensation. That leaves a disparity in the levels of financial assistance available to victims of terrorism, depending upon where the act of terrorism occurs.

I shall try to do justice to the question of why such a simple proposition is a matter of complexity for the Government. We have been looking closely at the various financial options available for victims of overseas terrorism. For a start, a proposal for compensation has to consider two key questions of principle.

The first question is whether we should continue to look to the country where the attack occurs to provide compensation for UK citizens. In the aftermath of Sharm-el Sheikh, I raised that question repeatedly with the relevant Egyptian Ministers on visits to Egypt, but no agreement on compensation was forthcoming. As we know, many countries offer their own compensation schemes. A 2004 EU directive compels member states to offer “fair and appropriate” compensation to victims of violent intentional crime, including terrorism, committed within their territory. However, none of the overseas terrorist incidents that involved British residents over the last few years have occurred in EU member states. Through the FCO, I will obviously continue to pursue the question of compensation more broadly, through bilateral policy agreements with other countries. However, I do not hold out much hope of that being fruitful in the short term.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): This is an important debate, and I fully support the remarks made by other speakers on the importance of compensation. I have met victims of 7/7 and of other terrorist acts in Northern Ireland and elsewhere. Is there not a real concern among victims about the difference in approach taken by our Government compared with that taken by other Governments in Europe and elsewhere? Last week, there was a debate in Westminster Hall on compensation for the victims of state-sponsored terrorism. There is a difference in the approach taken by the American and French Governments and ours. Surely it is time for our Government to take the same approach as other Governments, and say that compensation needs to be paid wherever terrorists strike against our citizens.


29 Oct 2008 : Column 253WH

Tessa Jowell: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. That is precisely the issue with which we are grappling. He is right to say that the EU makes provision, but within that the schemes offered by EU member states are substantially different, and they are often represented as being more comprehensive than they are. Of course, the many people who died as a result of the conflict in Northern Ireland are very much on our mind in shaping a fair long-term response.

The second principle is whether we should treat victims of terrorism differently from victims of other crimes, many of which are just as horrific and life changing. The criminal injuries compensation scheme recognises terrorism as a crime, so victims of terrorism are treated exactly the same as victims of other crime. The scheme is not perfect, but I pay tribute to the efforts made in the aftermath of the bombings of 7 July to ensure that claims were settled as quickly as possible.

It is my view—I hope it is clear—that British residents affected by terrorism overseas should be treated in exactly the same way. I recognise that such an arrangement would create an anomaly, as British victims of violent crime overseas would not be covered. The Government also recognise that any commitment to provide compensation would have to open-ended and thus impossible to cost with any degree of accuracy. Despite those difficulties, I am committed under those two principles to finding a solution.

I pay tribute to Lord Brennan for adding further impetus to the debate through his private Member’s Bill. Since then, a lot of work has been done by the insurance industry to ensure that travel insurance policies that include terrorism cover are readily available. Sixty per cent. of British travel insurance companies now cover terrorism through their policies—that is major progress—and a further 30 per cent. of companies now
29 Oct 2008 : Column 254WH
explicitly exclude it, although they may offer an ex-gratia payment. Those percentages are increasing year on year.

I welcome the fact that, in 2007, the insurance industry called for a “strong partnership” between it and national Governments to manage the risk of global terrorism. The way forward is through a partnership between the insurance industry and Government. I hosted a meeting earlier this month for insurance industry representatives to start building the next stage of that discussion. Trevor Lakin, whose son Jeremy was killed Sharm el-Sheikh, has been working tirelessly to seek a resolution on the issue—not for his own benefit, but for future victims.

Lovells is contributing to the development of that work on a pro bono basis. Given the current difficult economic climate, the response has been encouraging. I believe that we now have a fresh momentum, moving forward in a spirit of partnership with the industry. However, because that work is at a very early stage, I am not in a position to set out the detail of the conclusions that I hope for, but I undertake to keep the House informed.

Today’s debate has shown the extent and breadth of cross-party interest. We must find a solution—and not be prompted only by the next atrocity. Nothing is more compelling and impelling to finding a solution than the memory of those whose lives have been wasted, and the misery and hurt that will be with their families for ever. I thank Members on both sides.

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): I thank all Members who have taken part in this excellent debate. It is a lesson to the House. I hope that others will read the report and watch out for the progress that the Minister has promised. I congratulate everyone that has taken part; it was a first-class effort by the House to bring home to others the problems that we face in this area.


29 Oct 2008 : Column 255WH

Sierra Leone

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Hancock. I am sorry to bring this to your attention but there was a minor degree of panic, in that there was no Opposition spokesman for this debate. There is a misprint on the front of the Order Paper today—it says that this debate should take place between 10 o’clock and half-past 11; of course, it should say that it will begin at 11 o’clock. I do not wish to be picky about this, but we need to get these things right.

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): We do indeed, Mr. Clifton-Brown. However, I know for a fact that your hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood), did credit to himself and your party.

11 am

Laura Moffatt (Crawley) (Lab): It is a delight to be able to introduce this debate under your chairmanship, Mr. Hancock.

It is quite unusual for a Member of Parliament to decide to spend three weeks of August in a country that they have never visited before. I had read about Sierra Leone and taken part in debates in the House on it, but I decided to get more involved. I was able to do so via a new scheme run by Voluntary Service Overseas called Volpol, which allows Members of Parliament to immerse themselves as other volunteers would in countries in which VSO is present. It was an amazing experience—one that I shall never forget.

I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Minister is replying to the debate. I had enormous respect for him in his previous role and I know that he will be a great champion for Britain and its development work in the world. I am looking forward to hearing his response to my remarks on some of the things that I found Sierra Leone, and the fact that I would like to see that work continue. I believe that the work is valuable and that it is making progress in that country.

Sometimes, we feel a little bit guilty when we do things outside our constituency, but my largest regular postbag from people in my constituency contains letters from those who care about the poverty of some overseas people and the conditions in which they have to live. It was with that in mind that I felt able to travel and work there for three weeks in August. I should like to pay tribute to Dawn Powell, one of my constituents. She is a tireless campaigner on world poverty, and never stops beating a path to my door to tell me to encourage the Government to do more. Nevertheless, it is widely recognised that the Government have done more than any previous Government to develop the way in which we engage with the rest of the world—we need to have that on the record before we go further.

Most people will have seen the old Bounty bar advert in which a gorgeous girl bites into a Bounty bar on the most fabulous beach in the world. That advert was made in Sierra Leone. It should be paradise, but in fact it is hell. It is hell for women who deliver babies—it is the most dangerous place in the world to have a baby. Mothers are also likely to lose children to a preventable disease such as malaria; one in four children dies that way. Health care is almost non-existent, and what there is has to be paid for. People have to scrimp and scrape to save someone who might be the person who earns a
29 Oct 2008 : Column 256WH
living for the family. The nation was born in what should have been a fantastic spirit of freedom from the slave trade—the capital is called Freetown—but it has become one of the most difficult places on earth to live. That is why I wanted to go. I felt that there was no point in taking part in a programme such as Volpol unless I was going to engage fully in the things that other people immerse themselves in.

Of course, the country has seen the horror of a war that lasted for more than a decade. The effects are apparent everywhere. Roads and buildings have been destroyed, and infrastructure no longer exists for most people. Day-to-day living in Sierra Leone is difficult, which is why I was delighted that VSO went back into the country following the war. The organisation works not in countries where there is strife or difficulty, but in places where it can build capacity and work with people to develop their skills. In just three short years, the organisation has done an amazing job.

I want to focus on the work of VSO and the Department for International Development—many other aid organisations are doing fantastic work in Sierra Leone—because you will be very cross with me, Mr. Hancock, if I do not focus on issues that directly relate to the Government. DFID is the major donor to VSO— £28 million of the £40 million it receives comes directly from the Government. I should like to demonstrate why I believe that that is good value for money. The organisation uses its resources to procure skills, and not only in the UK. Amazingly, although most are from the UK, volunteers come from around the world. Those volunteers could earn thousands of pounds here working as consultants, for example, but they do not. Instead, they get only a stipend, and go to live and work in the community that they are trying to develop. They become immersed in the culture, thereby gaining the strength and the commitment of people who, on the whole, feel utterly hopeless about the conditions in which they have to live. The volunteers learn to lift those people’s spirits and skills to a level that allows VSO to walk away and say that those people are able to get on with the job themselves. That is what is spectacular about their work.

I should like to pay tribute to those fantastic volunteers. I was slightly worried that I would be unable to live up to their fantastic reputation, being a lowly Member of Parliament, and I probably did not do so most of the time. The volunteers truly were amazing people, dedicated to their work, and a credit to this country. It was impossible to walk down the high street in Freetown without people asking whether I was from the UK or from VSO, so people have a real sense that we are doing good work in the country.

I wanted to focus on nursing and nurse education, because that was my profession. The needs of Sierra Leone are overwhelming, so it was vital that I stuck to that one aspect. What patients have to endure, day in, day out, in the Connaught hospital in Freetown—it is the major hospital—is appalling, but what nurses and nurses in training have to endure made me break down in tears in the first week. Those dedicated people have little or no equipment to work with, or leadership, and although they tried their best, and were paying to become nurses, they were faced a most difficult task. We often complain in the UK. I talk to student nurses here all the time about what is happening in their lives but
29 Oct 2008 : Column 257WH
frankly, having seen those students in Sierra Leone, I can say that we have absolutely no idea of how difficult things can be.

I also felt it necessary to talk to all the other aid agencies in the country. The United Nations is pulling out bit by bit because the emergency situation is relaxing, and World Health Organisation officials are there in numbers, but the most impressive organisation that I found in the country was DFID. I was utterly impressed with Joanna Reid, who does an amazing job developing a child and maternal health strategy to ensure that the system has capacity, so that not as many children are lost and not as many women die in childbirth. Listening to the day-to-day stories of the struggle to build capacity in the health and sanitation department was amazing. I am utterly in awe of the quiet and steady work that Joanna Reid did. The work was not easy and not many people hear about it, but I want to ensure that the work being done out there is properly recognised in the House.

I am sure that the Minister will be kind enough to tell us about the sums that are involved. Although I was given an indication of the spend in Sierra Leone, that is not the only issue; it is about helping those who are working in the Department to lift their game, so that they use the money effectively and ensure that it does not get lost in the system or go missing through corruption.

It was such a struggle to see the work going on in Sierra Leone, but it was excellent work and I have a huge admiration for it. It is okay for someone such as me to skip in for three weeks and then walk away—although I have no intention of walking away from those fantastic nurses in Sierra Leone—and quite another to work day in, day out with the huge structural problems of Sierra Leone.

With its little office in the heart of Freetown, VSO looks after its volunteers very well. During our stay in the country, we lived with the volunteers. There were no grand hotels in which to stay. The visit was about immersing Members of Parliament in the work. Eleven of us were working in nine different countries over the summer. I felt that the best thing that I could do was to support those who were trying to provide a decent education for the nurses in Freetown.

I was working on the day that the student nurses’ exam results came out. I was amazed because, overwhelmingly, they had passed. Those students had no equipment. They did not even have the equipment to take someone’s temperature or blood pressure, or to raise a bed properly. They did not even have proper pillows to make patients comfortable, and yet, through their dedication in reading their textbooks, they learned how to nurse. I, like others in Sierra Leone, want to assist those nurses to ensure that they have the equipment to do their work.

I was so impressed with Matron Thomas, who was looking after me in the Connaught hospital. She was a truly formidable matron. She reminded me of the matrons who were about when I was doing my training decades ago. All the nurses respected her tremendously because she was doing such a fantastic job.


Next Section Index Home Page