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House of Lords

Monday, 1st March 1999.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Bristol.

Colombia: Emergency Response

Viscount Montgomery of Alamein asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What assistance has been given to Colombia following the recent earthquake in Armenia.

Baroness Amos: My Lords, the immediate life-saving phase of the emergency response was initially provided by local capacities, including the Colombian Red Cross. The Department for International Development contributes to such preparedness and response measures through its annual support to the International Federation's Disaster Relief Fund which enables national Red Cross societies to respond immediately to crises. The second phase of the emergency was to provide relief to prevent further suffering. The DfID provided support through organisations able to deliver immediate relief on the ground. The Colombian Government have expressed their appreciation of the UK's response.

Viscount Montgomery of Alamein: My Lords, that is an extremely encouraging reply, but the noble Baroness will be aware that the main export industry of the area is coffee and that the processing infrastructure for the industry has been largely destroyed, together with schools, bridges, hospitals and so on, all of which will take a very long time to repair. Can the noble Baroness say what is being considered in the longer term to restore economic activity in that area of Colombia?

Baroness Amos: My Lords, I appreciate the noble Viscount's concern about long-term economic recovery. Assessments of the overall impact of the earthquake are continuing. As the noble Viscount knows, we are always concerned to ensure that there is a co-ordinated response and a co-ordinated effort. Initial estimates indicate that 1.5 billion dollars will be needed for the rehabilitation and reconstruction of the affected areas. A number of people are still living in shelters and public services have not been entirely restored. We have a bilateral aid programme to Colombia which currently amounts to £1.4 million a year. Two of our major projects are based in the region, but they have not been adversely affected and normal activities have resumed. Our support for the reconstruction phase is likely to be through multilateral channels, and the EU and international financial institutions are awaiting the outcome of the needs assessment I have mentioned.

Baroness Hooper: My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness on all that she and her department

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are achieving in response to this terrible tragedy. I understand that some 25,000 homes were destroyed by the initial impact and many thousands more were badly damaged. Initial estimates indicate that the cost of rebuilding will be in excess of £300 million. Can the noble Baroness tell us whether the British Government are making any effort to encourage the private sector--our construction industry--to help by providing expertise and making secondments?

Baroness Amos: My Lords, I can say to the noble Baroness that, in addition to our immediate response, in which a number of organisations such as Oxfam and UNICEF were involved, we are looking at the longer term. However, as I said in response to the noble Viscount, we need to look carefully at the needs assessments that have been undertaken by the UN. As the noble Baroness will know from our White Paper on international development, we are committed to a partnership approach to development. We shall continue to look at the kind of resources that can be provided through the private sector. I shall write to the noble Baroness when I have further concrete information on that point.

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, perhaps I may ask a question out of sheer ignorance. Does Colombia have a national debt? If it does, are not the financial efforts of various countries to help it in its present plight negated by the fact that it is having to repay a national debt?

Baroness Amos: My Lords, Colombia is not one of the heavily indebted poor countries and therefore does not form part of the international initiative. There is one outstanding UK/Colombia loan; the outstanding balance is £170,000. Final repayment is due in November 2005. The Colombians have consistently met the agreed repayment schedule. There is no expectation that they will not continue to do so.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, is it possible for people in the region to carry out much of the reconstruction work themselves, given minimal inputs from the international community in terms of building materials? Will the noble Baroness do everything possible to encourage the authorities in the region to use local labour? In that way, not only can people help to rebuild their own homes; they will have an income to feed their families in the meanwhile.

Baroness Amos: My Lords, one matter on which we are very clear is building around local capacity. We shall certainly encourage the NGOs and other organisations taking part in the reconstruction phase to use local capacity wherever possible.

Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, given that the Red Cross has done a superb job, will the Minister assure the House that government assistance of 1 million dollars which was promised in January is now being properly distributed? The press had reported that the distribution centres were missing.

Baroness Amos: My Lords, I can confirm that in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake we provided

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nearly £750,000 in assistance. The EC Humanitarian Office also provided assistance to the immediate relief effort mounted by the Red Cross. At that time there were some concerns about lack of co-ordination. That is why we have made it clear that, not only in this instance but in others, international co-ordination of needs assessment should be undertaken before development organisations go in. The concerns about co-ordination have now been dealt with. My understanding is that all the aid funding is being properly distributed.

Lord Morris: My Lords, the Minister spoke of the importance of co-operation in international development. Does she realise that this matter has nothing to do with international development, and everything to do with restoration of the status quo ante and with time? Speed of action is infinitely more poetic than words.

Baroness Amos: My Lords, I cannot agree with the noble Lord. It is matter of working in partnership across sectors. The international development effort has been extremely important in the short-term, and will be so in the reconstruction phase in getting the country back on its feet.

New Variant CJD: Beef Bone Controls

2.46 p.m.

Lord Stanley of Alderley asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What are the odds against getting new variant CJD from eating beef on the bone, and what criteria other than risk have a bearing on consumer choice in this matter.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Lord Donoughue): My Lords, the beef bone controls are needed to protect public health and to help maintain consumer confidence in beef and beef products. There continues to be great uncertainty about the nature of new variant CJD with relation to BSE and about how susceptible people may be to infection. It is therefore not possible to estimate the current statistical risk of dying from the disease as a result of consuming beef or beef products which have been cooked on the bone.

Lord Stanley of Alderley: My Lords, I am trying to thank the noble Lord for that remarkable Answer, because my nanny told me I always had to. Unlike my nanny, who allowed me to have a free choice, do the Government intend to apply the same criteria to all foods and alcohol? Like the chicken, shall I be able to cross the road when I want to?

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, I always listen with respect to what noble Lords opposite say about nannying and the nanny state as they have far more experience than we on this side of the House have. It is not our intention to use a common standard of risk for all

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commodities because the situations are not similar; one is not comparing like with like. We attempt to assess degree of risk; however, there is always a very wide statistical range. There is enormous uncertainty about CJD. We know so little about the disease. It is fatal and there is no known treatment. The incubation period is unknown and we have no idea whether or not there is an epidemic ahead. It therefore seems appropriate for governments who have a responsibility to protect public health--and in this case to restore confidence in beef--to apply the proper precautionary principle.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, exactly how many people have died since 1986 from CJD/BSE? I refer to deaths that were definitely due to that cause.

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, my noble friend refers to new variant CJD. Up to about 32 people a year die from conventional CJD. The number of deaths from new variant CJD since 1995 has been 38. That is a serious matter.

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