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Humanitarian Crisis in Central America

Baroness Amos: My Lords, with the leave of the House I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer to a Private Notice Question being asked in another place on the humanitarian crisis in central America. The Statement is as follows:

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My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.10 p.m.

Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for repeating as a Statement the Answer given in another place. From these Benches, we fully support the remarks of the noble Baroness about the people of Central America who have suffered such an appalling catastrophe.

One of my earliest memories of working for the Red Cross is of such terrible tragedies. What the people of Central America must be going through in the wake of losing over 12,000 fellow citizens is unimaginable. Does the noble Baroness agree that they will need and deserve our full support for many years to come?

Perhaps I may pay tribute to the aid agencies, especially the Red Cross which was mentioned by the noble Baroness, for acting with such speed in seeking to bring emergency relief to those countries. However, given the scale of this disaster, with a loss of life far greater than any we have seen in recent years, does the noble Baroness believe that Britain's response to date has been commensurate with the need? Does she

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consider that the department has been sufficiently generous in making funds available? What plans does she have to make further funds available?

The noble Baroness rightly paid tribute to the anticipated role of the Royal Navy ships which are on their way to the region. What precise role does she expect our Armed Forces to play and to whom will they be accountable?

Can the noble Baroness confirm that the Secretary of State has now met the ambassadors of the Central American countries affected by Hurricane Mitch to discuss their specific needs face to face?

After two weeks of this crisis, with more lives being lost daily as a result of starvation and disease, what specific steps are being taken to avert the very real threat of more deaths from cholera?

The noble Baroness will understand that, in the context of such a devastating and distressing tragedy, we are reluctant to fire political criticism at Ministers when by far the highest priority is for Britain to play its full part in helping those who have suffered. However, is she aware that a humanitarian crisis, no matter how grave, is no excuse for sloppy government?

Can the noble Baroness therefore explain to your Lordships why, on the morning of Friday 6th November, the Secretary of State dismissed debt relief as misleading and irrelevant, but by the afternoon of Saturday 7th November, she issued a joint press statement with the Chancellor of the Exchequer which made debt relief an essential part of Britain's response to the crisis? Can the noble Baroness explain what changed the Secretary of State's position in that interim period of 24 hours? How had debt relief moved from being irrelevant on the Friday (without the qualification mentioned by the noble Baroness) to essential on the Saturday? Does she now accept that debt relief was relevant to the people of Central America the very second that Hurricane Mitch struck their towns and villages, and possibly even before that?

Far from taking a lead on this vital issue, does the noble Baroness accept that the Secretary of State has been led reluctantly to embrace a policy for which many world leaders had been calling since the crisis struck? Can she specifically confirm that the UK will now unilaterally suspend further debt repayments from these countries as well as calling for the IMF and other donor nations to do the same?

Finally, is the noble Baroness aware that tomorrow the Disasters Emergency Committee of our leading NGOs is launching an appeal for funds through the nation's media to provide for Central America? Can she confirm that this time, unlike with the Sudan appeal, Ministers will give unequivocal support to that appeal so that the great British public can give their money generously to the people of Central America, knowing that they have the Government's full backing?

4.16 p.m.

Lord Redesdale: My Lords, it is fortunate that we have been given this opportunity at such an early stage to learn the Government's reaction to the horrific

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situation in Central America. The death toll, which is staggering at the moment, will undoubtedly rise, not only over the next few weeks or months but also over the next few years because people will continue to be affected by the loss of their possessions, fields, crops and houses.

I have seen the effects of flash floods in Africa. When a bridge was lost it was helpful to know that the waiting supplies could nevertheless be brought across from the other side. The fact that supplies are not readily available seems to be the major problem facing Honduras and Nicaragua. I have also seen the effects of cholera. Work to prevent cholera must take place rapidly.

Debt relief has been mentioned. I support the position taken by the Secretary of State that the immediate concern is to get the aid to where it is needed and to push for food, clothing and monetary support. I was gratified to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, state that money is being supplied to the NGOs in the area rather than to agencies which would have to be flown in. The NGOs on the ground are the most effective and efficient disbursers of aid.

My question on debt relief has already been answered; namely, whether Honduras and Nicaragua can be given post-crisis status. It should not be forgotten--I am sure that the noble Baroness will correct me if I am wrong--that Nicaragua is now paying 1 million dollars a day in debt relief. That figure is totally unsustainable due to the loss of that country's infrastructure.

Is there any evidence that the severity of Hurricane Mitch was caused by global warming? If that was the cause--and it looks as though it was--there could be many more such disasters. The IMF and the World Bank may therefore need to take a new approach to post-crisis status for many countries, especially those likely to face such inclement weather.

I welcome the money that has been found from the DfID budget and from the already stretched disaster relief fund. I should be grateful if at some point--not necessarily now--the noble Baroness could say how much more could be found. How stretched is the disaster relief fund? Are any funds presently being made available to supplement that fund?

4.19 p.m.

Baroness Amos: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, and the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, for sharing our concern on this matter. I shall try to address all the points that have been raised. I should like to start with the point made by the noble Baroness in relation to debt relief and the comments made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for International Development. Perhaps I may make it absolutely clear that there has been no change in government policy as regards this matter. We are clear about the importance of focusing on the immediate need at times like this. Indeed, the immediate need is to ensure that food is taken to those areas where it is necessary and that we try to deal with shelter and the need for medicine.

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There is a separate point involved; namely, the issue of debt relief and the longer term. Debt relief is not instantly possible. There is a complex process which must be followed. There is a need to consider the relationship between exports and debt. Therefore, we are dealing with the immediate and longer term. The statements made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for International Development and the Chancellor of the Exchequer are entirely consistent in that respect. We seek flexibility from international organisations in terms of dealing with such matters.

As regards the question of looking for further funds, I can tell the House that we are aiming to provide an internationally co-ordinated response. The next step in terms of following up immediate relief is to put in hand arrangements to help those countries in what will inevitably be a long process of reconstruction. We are reviewing our proposed development programmes so that we are in a position to help with the rehabilitation effort. In regard to the question about the Secretary of State meeting the ambassadors from the relevant countries, I can tell noble Lords that such meetings have not taken place. However, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and officials from the DfID have been in constant contact with those embassies.

I turn now to the Disaster Emergency Committee. I can confirm that we support fully the DEC appeal. The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, asked about the size of debt relief to Nicaragua. The latter was due to qualify for debt relief next year. Given the scale of the disaster, it is our expectation that that will not now happen. Therefore, we shall have to return to the issue, but we feel that Nicaragua will again qualify for debt relief in the longer term.

The noble Lord also asked about global warming. I can tell the noble Lord that the Government are as concerned as he is that some of the issues surrounding deforestation may be having an impact on the scale of natural disasters in the region. One of the measures that the department will be taking is assessing the scale involved and carrying out some environmental needs analysis. It is better if countries are able to prepare for such disasters. A good example is Belize, whose disaster preparedness was better than that of Nicaragua and Honduras. Belize was able to move people from the areas which were worst affected and there was not such a high loss of life.

The noble Lord also asked how stretched is the disaster relief fund. At this point in time I can tell him that we feel that the amount we have allocated is sufficient to meet those needs. However, the position will be constantly under review.

4.23 p.m.

Viscount Montgomery of Alamein: My Lords, as I am probably the only Peer who has actually lived in central America, having spent two years in El Salvador during the early 1960s, I hope that I may be permitted to ask the noble Baroness a few questions. This is a most terrible tragedy affecting an area which has suffered many different tragedies from natural disasters over the years. To be more specific, is the noble

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Baroness aware that about 106 bridges in Nicaragua and about 93 bridges in Honduras have been destroyed? That represents an infrastructure disaster which will cause tremendous difficulty in terms of repair work and getting the economies of those countries going again.

Both countries have fragile export economies which are largely based on agriculture. Indeed, it is the agricultural potential, amounting to about 70 per cent of their export earnings, which has been effectively destroyed. Therefore, will the noble Baroness accept that one of the most urgent needs is for Bailey bridges, which can be assembled and put on site thus helping to repair the damaged roads and infrastructure? By the same token, there are other aspects involved which will need attention, including technical assistance in helping some of this reconstruction work to take place.

I believe that the noble Baroness has already said that the latter will be co-ordinated on an international basis and that in due course we will return to the subject of debt relief, which, as she rightly said, is a longer-term issue. However, the noble Baroness is perhaps not aware that I tried to table a Starred Question on this subject last week. I was not successful in that respect but tabled a Written Question instead. Therefore, if the noble Baroness does not have all the answers today, perhaps she could use the answer to that Written Question to elaborate further on the various points raised.

Finally, on the subject of non-governmental assistance, is the noble Baroness aware that the Anglo-Central American Society (a cultural and a social-related organisation, based at Canning House, whose president is my noble friend Lady Hooper) has been very active in this scene and launched an appeal which is worthy of support?

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