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Lord Ackner: My Lords, before my noble and learned friend sits down, I wonder whether he can help me on one point. He referred to the Lord Chancellor's discretion, which is delegated, to remit or to reduce fees as being satisfactory. Would he not accept that adding the qualification that undue financial hardship must be shown and that that hardship must be due to exceptional circumstances renders that discretion very narrow indeed, since "exceptional circumstances" is a very restrictive qualification and rarely has any operation except to make the use of that discretion impossible to justify?
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I start by saying how delighted I was to hear that the noble Baroness, Lady Symons of Vernham Dean, who is to reply to the debate, has already made two visits to the Caribbean. All of us taking part in the debate are delighted to feel that the Caribbean has a friend in her. The Caribbean needs friends.
What was most striking at the conference was the continuing close nature of the relationship between Europe and the Caribbean and the similar approach to the region's concerns. Above all, Europeans saw the region's problems as development issues to be resolved through consensus. Unhappily, the same could not be said of the United States, a country with which I have a strong affinity and affection. While US officials fully recognised the nature of the problems facing the region, the Caribbean's problems were not seen in the context of partnership, but more in the context of trade advantage, security and stability. Few US participants recognised that the region's underlying problems could be resolved through the development over time of sound economic structures within which the private sector and democracy might flourish.
Trade negotiations within the western hemisphere and with Europe now make urgent the need to determine whether small states in the Caribbean are to have a special place in the global trade environment or are simply to be written off as losers. I should therefore welcome particularly any statement from the Minister on the nature of Britain's relationship after the year 2000 with the Caribbean. I say that because the Caribbean needs a significant period of adjustment.
By the year 2005 we shall all have a better picture of the environment within which the Caribbean will have to live. By then a post-Lome arrangement will be in place and the shape of the free trade area of the Americas will be known. There will probably have been significant changes in the structure of Europe. The balance of power between EU member states may have changed and almost certainly the Union will have been enlarged to embrace the now free nations of eastern Europe. A new trans-Atlantic relationship will most probably be emerging as a result of the relationship with Mercosur, Mexico and other important players in the hemisphere.
The challenge for the Caribbean will be to develop a coherent strategy with a clear objective and timetable in mind. That will not be easy as the region will have to deal with the complex negotiating processes of both the free trade area of the Americas and the post-Lome arrangement, as well as responding to significant changes in the trans-Atlantic relationship and the global economic environment. Above all, Caribbean negotiators will have to obtain from Washington and Brussels viable arrangements that ensure a secure economic transition in a manner which also ensures the retention of a high degree of sovereignty. That is something that we all want to see.
Let me voice my concerns. The first is that the US Administration and, to a much lesser extent, some of Europe's member states have not recognised that their present approach may not facilitate this but rather create
If instability occurs in the Caribbean region as a result of poorly thought-through measures aimed only at encouraging trade liberalisation, this may well lead to a direct threat to both the US and our own interests. My fear is that if we and the US do not play a more active role in supporting, on a bilateral and multilateral basis, a more creative but gradual approach to economic transition, we will all lose the economic benefits we derive from the region and may, at worst, come to preside over an area of instability.
What do I mean by this? First, the free trade area of the Americas and any post-Lome emphasis on eventual full reciprocity may make some of the smallest island states in the eastern Caribbean economically unviable. This is a serious charge. But this policy may result in us having to recognise that these states require permanent, special, and differential treatment. Present US trade policies, especially in respect of bananas, towards the eastern Caribbean States are not, if I may say so, in the region's best interest.
An outstanding example is the United States' current attack in the WTO (together with four Latin American states) on the special protection provided to imports from the Caribbean and other ACP countries under the EU's banana regime. Caribbean governments tried, in vain, to persuade the USA not to take this issue to the WTO. Now a WTO panel has ruled that special measures of protection provided by the regime are illegal, notwithstanding a GATT waiver which had been intended to cover them. If the current appeal against this ruling fails, this will pose a dire threat to the economies of the seven Caribbean states which have traditionally exported bananas to the UK.
My second area of concern is that a precipitate end to existing arrangements for these commodities may cause the region's economies to fail before they can change to newer industries, such as tourism, information technology, manufacturing and the service sector. Bananas, rice, rum, and sugar--through price--are already under threat.
The third area of concern is the isolation of Cuba. This, in my view, is counterproductive, and I base this statement on the three visits I have made to Cuba, the most recent in last October. If the approach of the US Congress causes an implosion in Cuba, the Caribbean and the southern US will come to reap the whirlwind of refugees, crime, narcotics trafficking, and even terrorism. These are the hallmarks of an unstable or violent transition from a centralised economy. History does not suggest that democracy would rise like Phoenix from the ashes.
Fourthly, new industries require stability. Tourism, the single largest industry within the Caribbean region, the financial sector, and information technology-based industries can flourish and attract investment only against a background of economic certainty. Achieving this requires external support.
I therefore believe that for reasons of economic and political self-interest, we need to develop now new approaches towards the future development needs of the Caribbean in conjunction with the private sector, NGOs and others.
There are a number of difficult questions that need urgent resolution. We need to consider how the mechanics of transition within a post-Lome arrangement and the FTAA can be harmonised. It is in the interests of the Caribbean that the US and Europe ensure a co-ordinated and well phased economic transition. There is a need to find ways to foster the growth of newer industries in the Caribbean while broadening the economic base through the creation of schemes that encourage small and medium size enterprise and micro-enterprises. In this context there is a need to develop new financing mechanisms that assist in underwriting economic transition. There is a need to recognise that the British and Dutch dependent territories and the French Department d'outre Mer make our three European nations, plus the United States, special partners in the region. These remote parts of Europe and the territories of the United States offer options that to date have not been explored or understood.
I shall not repeat what I said in an earlier debate on dependent territories, save to note that absence of further advancement in our thinking about those nations for which we are responsible will lead to a growing resentment not just in the nations concerned but in the broader Caribbean region. Beyond this we need to engage in a much broader dialogue with the younger generation of Ministers in Cuba. We have a good relationship with that nation but it needs to be taken further. Despite our early start it is clear that in trade and other respects France, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden and others are now outranking us. FCO officials and Ministers need to visit to engage in dialogue on the matters that concern us; invitations need to be issued to senior figures such as Carlos Lage and Roberto Robaina; ECGD needs to give creative thought to the ideas put to it by Sr. Soberon, the President of the Central Bank, for dealing with debt and establishing new forms of credits; we need to listen to the concerns of our businessmen who want to trade with Cuba; and we need to consider seriously the question of humanitarian assistance with medicines halted by the US embargo. We also need to prepare for when Cuba re-asserts its economic power and, together with the Dominican Republic, comes to compete aggressively for the market share presently held by the anglophone Caribbean countries in tourism, services and agriculture. There are also many other areas in which there might be closer co-operation and co-ordination which time does not permit me to raise.
If the Caribbean is truly to benefit from the special relationship it enjoys with us, Europe and the US there has to be a holistic approach that recognises that the best prospect for stability lies in working in a consistent manner over a five to 10-year period with government and the private sector in the region to ensure a measured
Lord Rea: My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Baroness Lady Young for asking this Unstarred Question about a region for which over the years she has shown great concern and of which she has great knowledge. I thank her for the very sound sense that she has embodied in her speech. I should also like to congratulate my noble friend on having acquired her credentials so early for answering this Question by her visits to the Caribbean. Her visit to Montserrat was particularly appreciated. I shall not refer any further to Montserrat. I am sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, will ask all the questions and cover the position of that island very fully. She is more up to date than I am.
As I warned my noble friend's office, I shall be concentrating mainly on Cuba. As the noble Baroness said, she spoke in an earlier debate on Cuba in January this year. That debate was answered by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Fraser of Carmyllie. This is but one of many parliamentary occasions on which the noble Baroness has emphasised the potential benefits of improved Anglo-Cuban relations. Today's Unstarred Question gives the new Government the opportunity to report on new developments since January and to announce their overall position on diplomatic and trade relationships with Cuba.
I have a particular interest in Cuba as a doctor concerned with the health of developing countries. I also went to Cuba on a private family visit in March and April this year. Cuba has an outstanding record in health care. From the start of the revolution the health of the population has been a top priority. This was not made any easier at the beginning by the departure in 1959 of half of the country's 6,000 doctors to the US. Since then new medical schools have been opened. There are now some 30,000 doctors and an equal number of nurses distributed on an equitable basis throughout the country, not merely in Havana where all of them used to practise. In most other developing countries health personnel and facilities are still concentrated mainly in the large centres because of private practice opportunities.
To cut a long story short, this concentration on health has resulted in Cuba enjoying a state of health as reflected in its health statistics which is comparable with that of the developed world. In 1995 it had an infant mortality rate of only 7.9--considerably better than that of Washington DC--and for the past five years life expectancy has been 74.3 years. These statistics are genuine, unlike certain statistics that one used to obtain
My own very limited observations during our visit certainly back up those conclusions. For example, during a visit to the diabetes institute in Havana I was told that it is almost impossible to obtain blood glucose testing strips which form the basis for the effective control of the treatment of diabetes. As a result of poor control, more patients will die from the complications of diabetes or will need hospital admission. During a visit to the main paediatric hospital in Havana, I was told that the most effective chemotherapeutic drugs for the treatment of leukaemia were in critically short supply and that infusion pumps and medications that ameliorate side-effects were virtually unobtainable. The hospital was modern but was in a run-down state because of the lack of maintenance. However, the standard of care seemed excellent. Among the many ordinary, very friendly Cubans whom we met was a young woman who two or three years ago had lost all her front teeth as a result of a bus accident. She had been unable to have them replaced because the materials which her dentist needed were not available. Other Cubans said that their doctors were very good, but there was little point going to see them for most complaints because no drugs were available unless they could be paid for in dollars.
It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the US Government, in order to achieve their unilateral political aims, are prepared to make the population of Cuba suffer. In fact, it seems that they are deliberately doing so. It is the unilateral nature of this action which is so questionable, as much as the suffering of the Cuban people and the economic interests of those who would trade with them.
The embargo might be justified if it were the result of a UN Security Council resolution, as in the case of Iraq. But even there, humanitarian supplies have always been allowed through--and are now finally getting through--under certain conditions. We would all like to see more political openness in Cuba, but it has not broken any international convention that would justify the US sanctions. The comparison of US trade with other nations with a much worse human rights record than Cuba has often been made; for example, Indonesia, China and Turkey, which we are discussing on Friday.
The Organisation of American States, the regional organisation, is opposed to the embargo, although many of its governments are much more likely to face a communist takeover than is the United States. In January, when answering the noble Baroness, Lady Young--who is known well in Havana as La Varonesa--the noble and learned Lord, Lord Fraser, said:
May I ask my noble friend to outline what has happened in the interim six months? So far as I am aware, there has been no high level World Trade Organisation meeting on the issue and discussions are still going on between the European Union and the United States. How long are we going to wait before the World Trade Organisation adjudicates on the matter? Time is very important for the Cubans and for our export trade. For the Americans, the more delay the better because their clear aim seems to be to bring Cuba to its knees economically. We are seeing that through the suffering of its people. Perhaps I may say in parenthesis that recently there were bombs in two hotels in the central tourist part of Havana. I wonder who has been trying to discourage the tourist trade.
Finally, what is the present position on the rescheduling of Cuba's debt to the Paris Club? My information from Cuban sources is that they are prepared to enter discussions on the issue on an open agenda with no preconditions, but that the Paris Club is insisting that certain positions are "non-negotiable". As the British Government were previously not prepared to allow further credit through the ECGD unless the matter was settled, surely it is highly desirable to make progress. Cannot our new Administration take a more open view on these negotiations and on the linking of the ECGD loans to their outcome? It is worth remembering that many British jobs could depend on these decisions, quite apart from the benefit to the people of Cuba. As the noble Baroness, Lady Young,
My love affair with the Caribbean started some years ago. As a MAFF Minister, I was responsible for the really tricky question of bananas and I was fortunate indeed to be privileged to visit several Caribbean countries on behalf of MAFF. Tonight's debate has prompted me to make one point which is not only of the utmost importance to the Caribbean people but also to the United Kingdom. I refer to the disease known as sickle cell disorder.
The disease is an inherited blood condition. It is incurable. It is also extremely painful. It affects people of equatorial African origin and their descendants in north and south America, the Caribbean and Europe. It also affects people around the Mediterranean and central India. Sickle cell disease affects 10,000 patients in the United Kingdom and is an increasingly important cause of ill health.
When some seven years ago I went to Jamaica, I visited the Jamaican Sickle Cell Unit and was tremendously impressed by the dedication and high quality research and care of its patients. I wish to pay tribute to its distinguished and tireless director, Professor Sergeant. There are more than 5,000 people suffering from the disease in Jamaica. That country represents the ideal place for long-term follow-up because of the ease of tracing and the co-operation of parents and families. The lessons learnt have changed the concept of sickle cell disease. The expertise of the unit has permitted it to provide consultative services to the Caribbean, the USA, the UK, Brazil, Greece, Saudi Arabia and India.
I hope that I have given a flavour of the importance of the unit not only to the Caribbean but also to this country. Now comes my plea. At the present time funding for the unit comes from the British Medical Research Council, but this support will be phased out between 1999 and 2002. The Jamaican Ministry of Health has pledged 6 million Jamaican dollars a year to continue the clinical services. The University of the West Indies has pledged 6 million Jamaican dollars towards the research programmes. However, there will be a shortfall of 10 million to 12 million Jamaican dollars, without which the unit will not be able to continue its clinical and research programmes.
My plea is to this Government. The Jamaican unit, perhaps the greatest centre of expertise in the clinical management of sickle cell disease, has a vital role to play in the education and training of UK-based staff responsible for its management in the United Kingdom. If the unit were to close for lack of support, the unique training facility would be lost, to the detriment of training and also research which directly benefits sickle cell patients in the UK and worldwide. It is my hope
Lord Palmer: My Lords, I too wish to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Young, for asking this important question, and I do so much echo many of her words. I am going to limit my few remarks to the plight of St. Lucia, one of the most beautiful of the Caribbean islands. I must declare an interest as I am a residual beneficiary of a large estate on the island producing bananas. There are three points I wish to make; first, not surprisingly, bananas; secondly, ODA; and finally, pensions.
Bananas are St. Lucia's lifeline--65 per cent. of its total foreign exchange earnings come from bananas and 13 per cent. of the total population are involved in banana production, which is 30 per cent. of the working population.
When I first visited the island I was aware how vital it was for St. Lucia to reduce its dependence on bananas. Tourism and financial services are gently expanding but the St. Lucian Government accept that the banana will always remain the core product.
I now urge HMG to: continue robustly to defend the current preferential market access arrangements; to encourage support for the obligations for the banana protocol of the Lome Convention; and to continue to support those policies and mechanisms which will enable banana exports from St. Lucia to enter the EU Market on the basis of fair and remunerative prices.
St. Lucia, like other Commonwealth Caribbean countries no longer qualifies for development grants from HMG on the basis of what is regarded as its "high per capita income". As a result, St. Lucia has been "graduated" out of accessing grants and concessional aid. Bilateral aid from HMG (and other donors) is virtually nonexistent, except for technical assistance.
However, while St. Lucia understands the objectives of Her Majesty's Government's development assistance policies, there is nonetheless a good case for the Government to review their policies and strategies with respect to development assistance to St. Lucia and other member states of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS). In this context, I urge the Government to consider that modern and adequate physical infrastructure is necessary to support St. Lucia's efforts aimed at diversifying its economy and sustaining developmental activities. St. Lucia and other OECS countries are particularly vulnerable to external forces including hurricanes. Huge sums of money are spent on repairs and/or rebuilding in their aftermath.
I now turn to pensions. The pensions of UK national pensioners who reside in this country benefit from cost of living adjustments. The 1,055 retired pensioners who have opted to reside in St. Lucia do not receive these upratings. The rate remains payable on the date of the entitlement. or the date the person left the UK, if they were already a pensioner then. Such a policy appears to be unjust and discriminates against pensioners who might want to relocate for medical or other reasons. This "frozen pension" policy has acted as a deterrent to pensioners who wish to return to their native country on account that they would be deprived of the "upratings".
I urge the Government to review the issue of "frozen pensions" with a view to ensuring that UK pensioners in St. Lucia receive pensions on the same basis as those residing in the UK; in other words, that their pensions are index-linked. With such a small number of pensioners involved, the charge to the Treasury would be minute. I look forward with interest to the noble Baroness's reply.
Viscount Montgomery of Alamein: My Lords, my noble friend Lady Young has spoken at various times on the Caribbean. She has done valiant service over a number of years in drawing those problems to our attention and in making very worthwhile missions there which have always been a great success.
I expected that this debate would concentrate largely on the anglophone Caribbean, which, after all, is the ex-British area for which we should expect Her Majesty's Government to have specific policies. However, like the noble Lord, Lord Rea, I propose to concentrate entirely on Cuba, the largest island in the Caribbean and potentially the most important.
Cuba certainly has needs but they are quite different from those of the anglophone Caribbean. Since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba has found itself living with a quite different sense of reality. The difficulties have been created to a large extent by US intransigence. I suppose that philosophically the US position has somewhat played into the hands of the Cuban leaders, who have been able to establish a fortress mentality behind the patriotic cause. I do not believe that the present system in Cuba could possibly have survived for so long in any normal relationship with its nearest neighbour, US policy having been so short-sighted because it has isolated the island and delayed progress there very considerably. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Rea, rather implied that in his remarks.
Of course, he is somewhat obsessed by the United States and uses that to maintain the zeal of the revolutionary cause and its ideals. But revolutions need to evolve and move on. That has been brought to our attention quite recently in Mexico where a long-standing revolutionary cause was brought to a close by the democratic process and the introduction of a much more pluralist democracy.
I believe that it is quite possible that the socialist model may have been right in 1959, considering the corrupt and appalling regime which existed before. But I do not believe that that is the case today. If the Cubans are convinced of the righteousness of their cause, I believe that they should be able to withstand the rigours of a pluralist democracy and, above all, a free press.
That may seem an intrusion into Cuban affairs, but I have enormous affection for both Cuba and its people and I very much look forward to continuing the dialogue with that dynamic, striking and very hardworking people.
However, despite all those problems, as the noble Lord, Lord Rea, and my noble friend Lady Young pointed out, Cuba is changing and the economy is opening up, albeit somewhat slowly. Indeed, I believe that it would move faster if only the Cubans would realise that we all have to live in an increasingly globalised and interdependent world. But, of course, there is the further problem of Helms-Burton-- a scandalous piece of extra-territorial legislation and a further example of flawed US policy, to which I referred earlier. I am tempted to continue developing the Helms-Burton problem, but as I have a Starred Question on this subject tabled in two days' time, I shall resist and turn to more specific UK interests.
Cuba is a very beautiful country, well endowed with both human and material resources. Cubans want to move away from their inward-looking past and their dependence on the Comecon countries, which no longer exists. Therefore, there are plenty of opportunities for Europe, and Europe is beginning to take a considerable interest. Spain and France seem to have taken the lead, while we are lagging behind. Trade missions have visited Cuba and, indeed, a Caritag mission returned only last week. However, their hands have been somewhat tied in following up those opportunities by the lack of cover from ECGD. I hope that something can be done in that respect.
Ministers have visited Cuba. I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, who seems already to have visited the Caribbean twice, will include Cuba on her next round to that part of the world and also encourage many of her colleagues to do likewise. They can be assured of receiving a very warm welcome indeed. Moreover, by the same token--and my noble friend Lady Young mentioned this--Cuban Ministers should
Therefore, what Cuba needs from the UK, apart from our good will, which I believe exists, is trade and investment. We need to follow up the many opportunities which present themselves and I hope that we can do so as soon as possible.
Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, perhaps I may be the first speaker to express my thanks to the noble "Baronessa" for introducing tonight's debate. I should also like to thank the Minister for her visits to the Caribbean. I heard her say how rewarding those experiences had been. That was a private remark, and one I hope that the noble Baroness will not mind being repeated publicly; indeed, I believe that it says a great deal for her commitment and that of the Government to addressing the issues which arise in the Caribbean.
As ever, I have learnt more this evening than I can possibly contribute to the debate. I had not thought that I would be asked to address the notion of the evolution of revolution. I think I shall leave that issue for later. The discussion of the attitude of the United States in seeing the Caribbean as a market and not a partner was a notion which moved directly from the speech made by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, to that of the noble Lord, Lord Rea. I have to say that I was also struck by the association of the notion of bananas, rum, rice and sugar, which I believe were the commodities mentioned as being under threat, needing to be replaced by new commerce, including tourism. However, when that was followed immediately by reference to narcotics and terrorism, it struck me that the latter must be great threats to tourism.
Since the debate on the dependent territories on 11th June, the volcano in Montserrat has erupted and Hong Kong has been handed over to the Chinese. That has led to some interesting press comment on the treatment of what was this country's empire, although I do not much like to think of it in those terms. I am grateful to the noble Baroness for referring to Montserrat, which she described as being very vulnerable; indeed, it is. Perhaps I may confine my remarks to that island.
I am well aware of the sensitivities of the relationships between the British Government and the local government. I hope that the Minister can make some comment this evening about how relationships are developing. In particular, perhaps she can say whether the time may now be coming to declare a state of emergency in Montserrat which, as I understand it, would give the governor more powers. I should especially like the Minister's assurance that any holding back from declaring a state of emergency is a matter of
With regard to cash, the Government have not shied away from the need to assist the people of Montserrat. I am aware that there has been a further investment--I hope that one might look at it in those terms--of £6.5 million. Can the Minister tell the House how that sum is to be spent? I have heard that it is perhaps to be used for housing some 1,000 people--that being an estimate of those who may be assisted by it. I would be glad to hear the Minister's comments on that in the context of the 1,500 or 2,000 people who had to move following the recent eruptions.
As I understand it, £450,000 out of the previous grant is to be spent on hospital development. That is clearly badly needed in this unhappy island. In that respect, can the Minister comment on the time that will be taken to provide medical facilities? I understand that there is to be a local consultation as to what is to be provided, which may take something like 15 weeks. Often in your Lordships' House I have begged for consultation. I feel somewhat embarrassed to make the point that this may not be an occasion for consultation but one for getting on with the job and spending money. If there is to be such a long period, how many people will be left on the island by the time that the hospital is built? I believe that a health study is in progress at present. However, as I understand it, it will be two or three months before a report is available.
A major issue for the people of Montserrat is how long the island can remain viable. I believe that a comment was made by the governor in a television interview; namely, that when the population dips lower than 4,000, the island may no longer be viable. As your Lordships may well understand, with the threat of further eruptions the population is decreasing very fast, though not I hope on a permanent basis. However, at present, it is decreasing at a great rate. Other dependent territories have tiny populations, certainly that applies to the Pitcairns and the Falkland Islands. If the Minister can assist the House as to the judgment of 4,000 being a viable population, I would be most grateful. I am particularly concerned to be assured that decisions about evacuation will be based not on the future financial viability of the island but on safety grounds.
I raised my next point in the debate on the dependent territories last month. I know that the Minister has shown an interest and an understanding of this problem; namely, the need for someone in this country under the wing of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to act as a liaison person with the community here. The representatives of the Montserrat community here have been most grateful for the Minister's sympathy. They would be even more grateful to know when such a person may be appointed.
In 1974 the United Kingdom joined the European Union without an agreement on Commonwealth sugar which figures so prominently in the third of the Caribbean which comprises the Commonwealth countries. However, there was a commitment from the European Community that it would have--I quote from Protocol 22 of the UK Treaty of Accession--
We have heard reference to the post-Lome era. Our historical commitments to our trading partners in this area, not least in the Commonwealth countries of the Caribbean, are important. In the context of today's debate we seek assurances from the Government that they will uphold their commitments to secure the interests of the Caribbean countries which remain heavily dependent on their trading links with Britain and the Community, and thereby recognise that trading access and opportunity should wherever possible supersede aid in order to maximise effective development potential.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, has lucidly and movingly referred to Montserrat, the tiny island with roughly 6,000 residents which has figured prominently in this debate. As she mentioned, it is a dependent territory which is on the brink of collapse as a result of the volcano which has been simmering and, regrettably, occasionally exploding during the past two years. As I understand it, that threat has led to the island being divided into zones which vary according to their relevant danger. Zone A in the south, nearest to the volcano, is so dangerous that the area may be entered only by scientists when a helicopter is standing by to pick them up in an emergency. Unfortunately, the south is also the most productive region and includes the capital and the airport. It has in the past been agriculturally fertile. This has meant that many of its residents have chosen to go back and work in the area despite the warnings that it should be completely evacuated.
Meanwhile the majority of the population has been rehoused on the north side of the island, but understandably often in unsatisfactory conditions. There are widespread environmental problems as a result of many families being relocated together. The shelters are primitive and are unlikely to survive the hurricane season which is currently under way and will last until late September. What worries many people in this House--and I am sure it worries the Minister--is that the health facilities for the remaining islanders are poor. The hospital which was built with UK aid--that was
This has also had a significant knock-on effect on education. The relocation of families, the annexation of at least one school for health reasons, and the mass exodus of teaching staff, who along with some of the wealthier citizens have been able to leave the island, have created a vacuum of decent education for many. Moreover, on an island where the crime rate has traditionally been low, the strains which inevitably arise from this form of disaster have, I understand, led to an increase in crimes of burglary and violence.
The UK Government and the Minister have commendably taken some steps to alleviate the suffering. The Government have built a new jetty in a designated safe area, but there is some doubt about whether a full scale evacuation could, if necessary, take place at short notice. I would appreciate the Minister's comments on the question of evacuation. This matter has been raised today. The Government also permitted all Montserratians to enter the United Kingdom should they choose. Inevitably only the wealthier citizens have initially at least been in a position to accept that offer. They face an uncertain future, as currently I understand there is no guarantee they will be permitted to stay here indefinitely. At the present time there are some 1,000 people in total here.
I know that a task force of officials has been working with the Government of Montserrat to assist with some of the difficulties. I hope that all my comments will be taken in the spirit of commending the work of that task force and of the Minister and her colleagues. I, for one, greatly admire her energy and the way in which she has committed herself to address these problems caused by what is unquestionably one of the greatest disasters faced by people in the Caribbean for many years. I commend the action of ensuring that helicopters have been mobilised to work on the island. I understand that four of them have been mobilised. A special ferry service is now in operation to and from Antigua which has alleviated the problems caused by the closed airport. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, mentioned, a further £6.8 million has been made available. This is in addition to the £16.5 million found by the previous government to assist the island following the first major volcanic eruption.
I understand that the present Government argue that the first priority is to see that the Montserratians are safe, and that secure housing will follow. There is inevitably a continuing debate over the viability of the island--which we have heard this evening--and the potential need for it to be completely evacuated. Obviously, if this were to be the case, the building of secure housing would have been premature and a sad waste of time. The Government of Montserrat are nevertheless keen to ensure that the island remains inhabited and viable. Of course the economy of the island has nevertheless been seriously disrupted. Although poor, with a per capita GDP of some 3,500 US dollars, the island was previously viable, producing
I welcome the comments of my noble friend about the importance of trading relations and the uncertainty resulting from the considerable change in all those trading relations, not least from the impact of the free trade areas of the Americas and the adverse trade rulings on bananas which my noble friend rightly highlighted. That unquestionably threatens the long-term stability of the area. What is needed is a close and detailed look at the implications of this shifting sand and changing mosaic in the trade arrangements which impacts so deeply on the people who live there.
I wish to mention another subject which has dominated this evening's debate; namely, Cuba. I agree with noble Lords who have said that the Helms-Burton legislation in the United States was not only unwelcome but deeply contentious. Any legislation that aims to penalise companies from anywhere in the world that do business in Cuba by creating "black lists" and boycotts within America--I understand some 318 companies are reportedly doing business with the Castro regime--deserves the sort of response that the Canadian Foreign Minister took with considerable strength in his brave step of organising a state visit to Havana in January of this year to demonstrate his country's clear view on the American ruling.
Generally, international governments have taken the view that this kind of policy is not the right way to encourage a process of transition to a pluralist democracy, and particularly unnecessary at a time when Cuba is beginning to send some new and welcome signals to trading partners following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. That should be encouraged. I think that the confrontational approach that was demonstrated in the Helms-Burton legislation is unwelcome. I look forward with interest to hearing the views of the Minister on that subject.
Finally, I praise and thank my noble friend Lady Young for initiating this debate. After so many years of admiring her outstanding work, it is a privilege to be able to participate in a debate with her. I also congratulate the Minister on her commitment to the region's interests, despite suffering as a result from the necessary cocktail of immunisation jabs--I am pleased to report that she has fully recovered--required for her first visit. If I may say so, it was the only setback in an otherwise exemplary approach to understanding the problems of this vitally important region. I assure the noble Baroness that all noble Lords will support her if she continues to show the commitment and dedication to the people, not least those of Montserrat, and continues to work in the way that she has clearly demonstrated so effectively and vigorously in the early months as Minister responsible for this region.
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