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Lord Higgins: My Lords, I am mystified by the expression, "visiting powers", which can probably be more correctly described as "carrying out a raid".

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, that was obviously a joke by the noble Lord and I receive it in that way. There is no indication of knocking down doors at 4 a.m. I should like to accuse him of seeing too many "cops and robbers" films on TV, but that would be to impugn the work and attention that he gives to this House. No, any such arrangements will be made at a reasonable time and in co-operation with those involved. Certainly the financial penalties could increase. But they will change from being criminal to civil penalties.

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The private staff about whom the noble Lord was worried will be under the same duties of confidentiality as the Civil Service. This is a path well-trodden by the previous government when they originally constructed the EDS contract, and already well-trodden by local authorities, which have arrangements with private companies to handle quite sensitive information on issues such as housing benefit.

As regards privacy of information, we are not creating any new cross-departmental flow of information, merely protecting the right of the current flow of information.

As for the visiting powers, I am told that they go back 50 years, to 1946. It is estimated that there are some half a dozen or so such cases a year, under a warrant. I understand that visits are always arranged to take place at a reasonable time and in a civilised manner. If the noble Lord has any evidence to the contrary, we should like to know. As I understand matters, there is no substantive change in any of those fields.

The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, gave his support and pressed us particularly on national insurance as a proper scheme. I have tried to answer those points more generally. The noble Lord and the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, raised questions about appeals and the noble Baroness referred particularly to appeals on pension matters. She asked why they should go before the unified appeals tribunal rather than to the tax appeal commissioners, and how many there might be.

Appeals on pension matters are expected to involve relatively complex, specialised issues which we do not believe are appropriate to send to the general commissioners as a lay tribunal, but which are equally not appropriate to send to the special commissioners, who, while legally qualified, do not necessarily have any pensions expertise. By contrast, the unified appeals tribunals can be constituted, and pensions appeals are intended to be constituted, to include a member with personal experience in pensions. I hope that that provides the explanation sought by the noble Baroness.

The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, raised a number of detailed points. He referred to the delays. He asked why there were no notes on clauses. The explanatory notes replaced those and that was regarded as a welcome improvement. With regard to the financial schedule, which was also referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, as I understand it, the change came from the Modernisation Committee, possibly from another place, and has already been applied to other Bills. I am receiving a nod from the Table, so I believe my information is correct. However, if noble Lords are concerned about this matter, I am more than willing to consider it to ensure that, if necessary, we have belt-and-braces information. It is a legitimate and reasonable concern to raise.

The questions of the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, were detailed and I should prefer to answer them in writing; and, if he is not happy with that, to raise them at the pre-Committee meeting with officials that we seek to have.

I hope I have addressed the major points raised with regard to policy issues in the Bill. I thank noble Lords for welcoming the Bill. I hope that the next meeting

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with officials to tease out what are inevitably technical issues--but which, I accept, have a real impact on how people live and organise their working lives--will be helpful.

On Question, Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

Central America: Hurricane

6.1 p.m.

Viscount Montgomery of Alamein rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what progress has been made towards alleviating the devastation caused by the recent hurricane in Central America.

The noble Viscount said: My Lords, it is a great pleasure to welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, who is, I believe, to answer a debate for the first time from the Front Bench as a Minister at the Department for International Development. As this is an Unstarred Question, perhaps I may thank all those who are to speak in the debate on this important subject. We have considered it before, in a small amount of detail, but it is good that we have the opportunity to look at it again at this crucial time.

As your Lordships know, in the 25 years following 1965 this small group of countries suffered a great deal from internal and external conflicts. But over the past 10 years we have seen the restoration of democracy and, as a result, peace has returned to the region, which is so important for the reconstruction of their economies. When all seemed to be going well, they were suddenly struck by this catastrophic natural disaster. It is difficult for us to envisage the degree of the catastrophe. When we last discussed this subject, we heard from the noble Baroness some detail of what had happened. Millions of people were left homeless; thousands of kilometres of road were destroyed; and hundreds of bridges collapsed. The infrastructure of the whole area, particularly of Nicaragua and Honduras, has effectively been destroyed, El Salvador and Guatemala having suffered to a lesser extent. Honduras, in particular, has suffered intense devastation.

When the noble Baroness previously spoke on this subject she indicated that Her Majesty's Government had made a rapid response. It is particularly opportune to mention the contribution made by the Royal Navy, which was most effective and clearly much appreciated by all concerned. But, however generous the response of Her Majesty's Government was at the time, clearly it was not enough and probably never could be enough. The situation is one of major devastation from which it may take many years to recover.

It is interesting to hear what has happened subsequently. The Department for International Development has sent a mission to the area and we look forward to hearing about what they find out and what more can be done.

In the short time at my disposal, I should like to refer to two issues. All four countries, particularly Honduras and Nicaragua, depend on agriculture, and specifically

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on certain crops. Agriculture is what creates their export trade. Seventy per cent. of the export earnings of Honduras and Nicaragua is generated from bananas, coffee and sugar. These crops have been completely wiped out.

Bananas from Latin America are currently penalised under EU regulations, which are in total contravention of the regulations and rules laid out by the newly formed World Trade Organisation. I know that there are reasons for this. The European countries wish to protect their former colonial, and subsequently dependent, territories. If we are to reconstruct the economies of these four countries, some initiative will have to be taken to relieve the situation and to create a level playing field so that they can recover their export earnings. Unless there are export earnings, there is no economic activity. These are not countries which will be able to generate vast industrial enterprises. This is an important matter and I believe that Her Majesty's Government should reconsider with regard to the WTO and the position on bananas.

Looking further ahead, another area of concern is the question of debt relief. As I said, if there are no exports, there are no earnings and there is no economic activity. There is at present a moratorium on the debt. While that is in place, it is vital that the international agencies--the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, the IMF and other institutions--should consider some form of exoneration of the debt and a complete reconstruction. It needs to be done on an international level. Unless that happens, these countries can never recover their position and participate in the world to which they were beginning to become accustomed by virtue of their return to democracy and their wish to participate in the economy of the region. There seems to be an opportunity now for Her Majesty's Government to take a lead within the EU in pressing Washington and the international organisations to take positive action on this matter.

We may not be able to consider these two issues fully tonight but I hope that the noble Baroness will be able to say something about them and that we shall be able to return to them at a later stage. Recovery of the area will take a long time.

I had the good fortune many years ago to live in Central America and I know all the countries concerned. They are occupied by hard-working, dynamic people who respond to initiatives. They are immensely friendly people and these are delightful countries. They deserve our support and assistance and I hope that we can give it to them in the way they have come to expect.

6.8 p.m.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede: My Lords, I begin by thanking the noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery of Alamein. This is an important subject and it is right that the House should have the opportunity to debate the Government's response to Hurricane Mitch. I should correct the noble Viscount. The noble Baroness, Lady Amos, is rarely off her feet. She has taken this House by storm in the past few weeks, having responded to a number of debates.

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I wish to give a personal example relating to this matter. On the 13th November my family received an e-mail from a friend who married a Nicaraguan and who farms in Nicaragua. If your Lordships will allow me, I shall read from the e-mail:

    "Thursday two weeks ago (it hardly seems like it), the river rose up to the bridge for the third time in two days, in the morning we noticed large cracks appearing in the soil between the reinforced wall of the gully and the house and at midday that whole section, downriver of the bridge, went. At around 1 o'clock, the first of the big trees also went, at which point it was obviously time to evacuate the children. When I got back several large trees had hit the bridge head on and so I decided to get the most valuable things out. I was still trying to get the computer unplugged when I felt the wave hit the house and presume that the tremor I felt was a combination of that and the bridge finally going down. Almost all the damage was done by that one wave. In one fell swoop it took everything loose from the house and from my drying shed outside the workshop. The water on the other side of the gully swept over our nursery and vegetable area taking everything with it, (where the vegetable banks were, we now have deposits of up to 2 feet of alluvial sand).

    "We've lost more than 95% of our nursery plants, 100% of our vegetables and herbs and around one third of our total infrastructure--perhaps $8-10,000 worth in all"--

and that is in the context of people who earn only a couple of hundred dollars a year.

    "But all that is recoverable--the irreparable damage is what I find most difficult to come to terms with, it is the amount of land which has just been torn away and rendered useless. The geography has completely changed--you wouldn't believe it".
The writer lists the seeds and help that he hopes to receive from charities in England to replant his farm. It is worth making the point that this friend of my family was not in the worst hit area. There were no deaths. However, in certain areas there was even worse devastation than that described in this correspondence.

I echo the congratulations of the noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery of Alamein. The swiftness of the Government's response has been referred to by several of the NGOs to which I have spoken in the past day or so. There has been little or no history of bilateral aid between this country and the countries of Central America. I think that I am right in saying that aid programmes only started with the incoming Labour Government, so they ought to be congratulated in that respect.

I understand that the aid will mainly go through the UN agencies and the Pan-American health organisation. In the past the original idea was that the aid--it was about £6 million over a two-year programme--would go towards institution building. My first question to the Minister is this. Am I right in assuming that the £6 million or so will now all go into post-Hurricane Mitch reconstruction?

The Government gave a full Answer to a Written Question in the Official Report, Commons, on 3rd December. They assessed the disaster and the DfID's own humanitarian assistance and forward strategy. However, I have three further questions arising from the points made by the Government. I think we would all accept that the region needs long term commitment, not simply to bring it back to its previous parlous state but to try to build something better in order directly to help poor people. To do that, help is needed

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for the civil society and not just the working government of the day. While there will never be enough money, will the Minister be ruthless in ensuring that good policies and practices are properly targeted at government and civil society level and at the NGOs? Hard choices need to be made, because there will never be enough money for all the work that is required.

My second point, which relates to cancellation of debt, was also raised by the noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery of Alamein. The Government are to be congratulated on their initiative on a debt moratorium. Can the Minister tell me whether debt relief will be on the agenda of the EU summit in June, when I believe that it is to talk about Latin American issues?

My third point is on transparency. I hesitate to use that word since it tends to be over-used these days. This point was put to me by some of my friends and colleagues in the NGOs. With funds coming from multilateral agencies, frustration is felt by the NGOs and the people receiving the aid that the decision-making processes are not understood. The Government could have considerable influence in opening up that process.

In conclusion, I echo the words of the noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery. Hurricane Mitch has caused devastation which few of us can imagine in countries which were already among the poorest in the world. I wish to join with the noble Viscount in his generous congratulations on the Government's response.

6.15 p.m.

Baroness Hooper: My Lords, as a result of Hurricane Mitch, thousands have died, hundreds of thousands are homeless and have lost everything they owned; crops have been ruined; industry destroyed; communications interrupted; and entire communities laid waste. The example cited by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, brings the matter home to us all.

However, apart from the damage to property and infrastructure in the countries concerned, threats of famine and disease now hang over the whole region. Cholera, typhoid and malaria are endemic to Central America. Moreover, with the breakdown of sanitation and public health, there is a real prospect of starvation and major epidemics. That is very much an ongoing issue.

The depths and extent of the tragedy have been acknowledged in this short debate. I believe that the media have played an important and responsible role. They have given fair coverage to the event. Of the television programmes I have managed to watch, the balance and real effort to raise awareness in terms of general news coverage and specific programmes have been exemplary. But we must move on. The important factor now is to ensure that the ongoing consequences--they will affect the whole region but in particular Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador--are remembered and that we do not forget those who are suffering, as international events inevitably move on. I am certain that my noble friend Lord Montgomery will ensure that that is so so far as concerns this House and the Government. I know that the Minister and her department intend to keep a close watching brief.

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Some further acknowledgement of efforts are in order. There has been a huge response from the Government, as has been said. I underline the comments already made and thank the Government for their swift response, with emergency aid and support given almost instantaneously. I support also the comments made about ensuring that the Government continue to act to relieve the national debt in the countries concerned. That is essential for their long term future.

As regards the European Union effort, I should like to see the Government taking a firm lead in the action taking place in Central America, in particular in relation to the relief of the national debt. I should also be interested to hear the results of the report of the special United Kingdom mission which went to the region.

As has already been done, I acknowledge the efforts of the non-governmental organisations, including those of some of the small organisations. I am very familiar--as is my noble friend--with the bilateral organisations such as the Central American Society, which is co-ordinating efforts with the Central American British Chamber of Commerce, as well as with the more structured approach of Oxfam, the Red Cross, CAFOD and many others. Their involvement is absolutely essential because of their networks and abilities--subject to all the infrastructure problems that have been mentioned--to get aid to where it is most needed. We all acknowledge the enormous and important role that those organisations have played.

There is another group, which perhaps is not often recognised; that is, the private sector. Its response should also be acknowledged. I did some research via the corporate members of Canning House and the Hispanic and Luso Brazilian Council, of which I am currently the president. The pharmaceutical companies, such as Zeneca, Glaxo Wellcome and SmithKline Beecham, made an immediate response. I shall not go into all the detail and the statistics. There were instant shipments of medicines, vaccines and medical teams to the area. That has been very much welcomed. It is important to acknowledge that effort in the hope that it will be on going.

Finally, I make a very special plea. I was in Honduras at the end of January of this year at the inauguration of the new president. In the course of my few days there I visited a centre called Zamorano. It is a unique centre for agricultural research and training, which covers the whole of Latin America. There are students from that area. It has a very wide international remit with students from all over the world, including from this country.

I communicated with the director of the centre to find out how it had survived the tragedy. He reported that the damage was not as bad as it might have been, but indicated that, nevertheless, in the near future the life-threatening immediate danger will give way to serious, longer-term problems relating to the extensive destruction of food crops that were maturing; the death of hundreds of thousands of farm animals; and the literal washing away of thousands of businesses and jobs involved in the agriculture and agri-business area. As they begin to rebuild their lives, the farmers and businesses will lack the basic inputs which they need to

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be productive again. Therefore, agriculture more than ever is the key to the development and even survival of these societies. Without productivity in rural areas, these countries will be unable to feed themselves when foreign aid organisations move on to the next emergency, as may well happen.

In that context Zamorano is particularly well-prepared in terms of its human resources, experience and infrastructure, to lead significant, sustained and effective actions aimed at restoring rural economies and productivity. So in making this special plea, I hope that the Government--if they are providing aid in relation to agricultural issues and towards the long-term training of agricultural workers--will consider this centre, which is world renowned, and that it will be a recipient of government activity. I look forward to hearing from the noble Baroness as to the progress being made.

6.24 p.m.

Lord Rea: My Lords, practically all the questions that I had thought of have now been asked by the noble Baroness and noble Lords who have already spoken. My reason for speaking in this Unstarred Question is because I have visited Central America and the Caribbean three times, including Nicaragua and Guatemala on one occasion. Therefore, I have an interest in the area quite apart from a general interest in the humanitarian effort that has been put in after the disaster.

I was in Cuba at the end of September at the eastern end of the island in a small town called Baracoa, when hurricane George arrived. We were right in the eye of the hurricane. It was a very mild disturbance by the time it reached Cuba. It ranked number two in a scale of five and it was nothing like as fierce as hurricane Mitch, having spent most of its force on the Dominican Republic and Haiti. It was still quite an experience.

What struck me almost more than the strong wind was the torrential rain, which fell for most of the day at one inch an hour. I gather that that was the main cause of the devastation in Central America; namely, the torrential rain rather than the wind. I was very impressed by the precautions taken. All the hotel windows were criss-crossed with sellotape and so were the windows of public buildings, schools, clinics and hospitals. Villagers living right on the coast moved inland for a day or two while the hurricane blew over. Town dwellers were not allowed to travel. A day or two after the hurricane trees were quickly cut up and removed from roads. Work on re-erecting electric pylons and telephone cables that had fallen was quickly under way, with the aid of the army in some cases. I understand that in Belize anticipatory action was also quite effective in minimising the worst effects of hurricane Mitch. I am sure that the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, with his connections in Belize, will be telling us about it.

While reconstruction and rehabilitation is now beginning in Nicaragua and Honduras, it would be very good to know whether the next hurricane is being borne in mind. Are bridges going to be built more strongly so they can withstand being hit by tree trunks? Are proper surveys to be done to try to ensure that land for housing

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will not be washed away? That may be impossible because there may not be any land available which is safe for poor people. It will be interesting to know whether there is any information on this subject.

Like the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, I ask my noble friend to give a progress report as to how far and well reconstruction is taking place. It is early days yet. Is there any hope that the opportunity can be used--as my noble friend Lord Ponsonby asked--to improve on the infrastructure that was there previously? All the countries affected were desperately poor before the hurricane struck. Can the relief funds that are available be used in such a way that not only farmers--and this is the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper--be given grants and loans to buy seed, tools etc. that they need to begin production again, but can roads, co-operative marketing centres and processing plants be developed or redeveloped on a scale which will help the areas concerned to climb out of poverty?

Obviously, all this will have to be done in conjunction with the governments concerned. As my noble friend said, I hope that local civil society and local communities will be very much involved. Here both local and international NGOs will be able to play an enormous part.

In conclusion, I wish to ask my noble friend for up-to-date figures. Can she give the total amount of our outright aid; low interest rate or interest free loans; the amount of debt which has already been cancelled, both official and commercial; and the amount of the moratoria on debt which have already been agreed? Our contribution needs to be stated in relation to the total provided by the whole world. If it is not possible for her to produce those figures tonight, it would be helpful if she could write to me.

We have read that there have been some outbreaks of cholera. How is the emergency public health rescue operation being carried out? There must have been a great deal of damage to the already poor health infrastructure which existed. Can my noble friend describe how the disaster has affected the health of the people and what has been done to sustain and improve the situation? Yesterday, the Paris Club discussed cancellation of debt, but there is still a long way to go. I am sure that my noble friend will comment on that, so I shall hand over to other noble Lords and then to her.

6.32 p.m.

Viscount Waverley: My Lords, following all the congratulatory messages tonight, I fear that I might be inviting some criticism. However, I shall continue with a view to being realistic and constructive for the future.

Of course, I endorse the broad spirit of all that has been said tonight. But as the question of aid with ensuing issues has been well covered, I wish to go down a different road and ask whether the Government's reaction to this disaster was the right one; what lessons can be learnt; and what must we do to prepare ourselves for the future?

However, perhaps I may make one quick point before doing so. I believe that this House, through the Minister, should show its dissatisfaction with the United States

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for attempting to hijack WTO discussions with the European Union. The United States is attempting to resolve the EU banana regime in advance of settlement procedures.

It is this type of hurricane disaster, which brings us together tonight, that requires sensitive understanding of the dire effects on the majority of banana smallholders in the Caribbean. Bananas are currently the only crop which can produce new fruit for export in reasonably short order. We must keep our markets open at preferential terms for hardship cases. I hope the Minister can give us an undertaking that the Government will not weaken in their resolve to protect those who all too often cannot fend for themselves.

This country's approach to Hurricane Mitch, with regret, was not totally satisfactory. I realise that the Government will wish to defend their position, but the reality is that the DFID's reaction to the disaster was wanting: Whitehall's bureaucratic maze was a severe hindrance; and with no government department wishing to take an immediate lead, the Treasury effectively said that no immediate funding would be forthcoming.

I say that all in the spirit of needing to get it right next time. It was a mercy that we had a training mission at that time in the region and so were able to assist Honduras and Nicaragua with ships, helicopters and soldiers. I believe that without their presence nobody would have been sent. But they were and must be congratulated on being able to implement defence diplomacy at its best.

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