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Bringing 20 year volcanic crisis perspective – Recapturing: British Parliament Session on Montserrat

Following are some excerpts of questions and answers as they were reported from the United Kingdom Parliament, on June 30, 1997.

Most of the text is being reproduced because of the relevance of the material.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (by private notice) asked the Secretary of State for International Development what is Her Majesty’s Government’s response to the devastating volcanic eruption on the Caribbean island of Montserrat, which has resulted in serious loss of life, with eight dead, 10 missing presumed dead and a further eight missing.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. George Foulkes)

I am sure that the whole House would want to join me in expressing condolences to those who have lost relatives in this dreadful disaster and in wishing all those who have been injured a speedy recovery.

In view of the seriousness of the eruption last week, my Department established a task force of officials to decide what best could be done to help the Government and people of Montserrat. As a result, we have taken a number of urgent steps. First, four helicopters were mobilised immediately, one of which has a burns treatment capability. I should express the Government’s appreciation for the assistance given in the operation by the Dutch and French Governments.

(The Secretary of State describes further what other steps they have taken such as a further œ6.8 million and as were mentioned by the Baroness – see “Baroness Visits” He further reported the visit.)

We and the Government of Montserrat accept responsibility for the both the immediate safety and the long-term future of the island. As hon. Members know, there will be debate on international development in the House tomorrow. If there is anything further to report, we will let the House know then.

Ms Abbott: The Minister will be aware that it is 16 months since the volcano first erupted. Yesterday, I met representatives of the Montserrat community in Great Britain: the Montserrat Aid Committee 89 and the Montserrat Overseas Progressive Alliance. I was also fortunate to meet the director of the health service in Montserrat, Dr. Ronnie Cooper, who was on a flying visit. They are anxious for me to put the following points to the Government.

First, there is an urgent need for housing in Montserrat because of the displacement of people from the southern part of the island caused by the earlier eruptions of the volcano. I am advised that housing is needed for more than 4,000 people. I put it to the Minister that the deaths that we have heard about this weekend were caused by the lack of housing. I understand that the southern part of the island, which is the volcano zone, is also the main agricultural area of Montserrat. Although people were evacuated from that area, because there was no housing and sufficient arrangements for resettlement were not made, the small farmers went back to the site of the volcano to continue farming as that was the only way that they felt they could survive. Had there been proper housing and had proper arrangements been made for resettlement, they would not have lost their lives.

There are also health care issues. A school has had to become a temporary hospital and it is totally inadequate-it has outside toilets. The temporary hospital is losing health care personnel every week because of the problems.

The Montserrat community is grateful for what the Government have done, but, in view of the tragic situation this weekend and the loss of life, it asks that urgent attention be given to relocation and housing. Can interim arrangements be made to get the temporary hospital up to scratch and can more attention be given to the people of Montserrat, who are having to come here to flee the volcano?

The Minister will be aware that the people of Montserrat did not want to leave the island. They have rejected the idea of evacuating it wholesale. They are very attached to what is a beautiful island in the Antilles, but they are in desperate straits. Advisers have been sent and money has been set aside, but there has been interminable delay in decision making. Unless action is taken urgently, particularly on housing, health care and sanitation, more lives will be lost unnecessarily in that beautiful and loyal British dependency.

Mr. Foulkes: I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for her long and continuing interest in Montserrat and the area in general. We recognise the urgent need for housing. Indeed, when the most recent and most devastating eruption took place, my Department, Baroness Symons and I were discussing the long-term need for housing in the north, so that the housing and hospital facilities that are no longer usable in the south can be replaced. Our first priority now, however, is to take account of the current emergency and ensure that people are safe. We will then consider immediately the longer-term need for housing.

We are satisfied that the temporary hospital is sufficient to deal with immediate needs, but we have already started discussions about long-term hospital provision and will be discussing that immediately upon Baroness Symons’s return to the United Kingdom tomorrow. (that would be yesterday)

I hope that we will be able to establish the future of the island in the long term. We do not want it to be evacuated. We shall certainly encourage people to be there and will do everything in our power along with the Government of Montserrat. I am sure that my hon. Friend would not want us to take over responsibility from the elected Government of Montserrat, even though it is a dependent territory. We are working with them and we want to ensure that, in the long term, the island is viable and that people can continue to live there.

I hope that my hon. Friend will agree that it is only eight weeks since this Government took office. We have already had three or four ministerial meetings about Montserrat. We are dealing with the matter with the urgency that it deserves because there has been a lack of concern for the long-term interests of the people of Montserrat.

Mr. David Faber (Westbury): I thank the hon. Gentleman for his statement and join him and the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) in expressing sympathy on behalf of the Opposition to the families of those who lost their lives. I welcome the action that the Government have undertaken in sending HMS Liverpool and the four helicopters that he mentioned and in making extra aid available to try to prevent further loss of life.

Will the hon. Gentleman give the House a commitment today that the West Indies guard ship, currently HMS Liverpool, which is doing such invaluable work in the area, will be maintained in its current state after the Government’s defence review?

Mr. Foulkes: I welcome the hon. Member to his new responsibilities and I look forward to jousting with him across the Floor of the House on more party-political occasions and co-operating in every way possible. I also look forward to his participation in the debate tomorrow, when we can have a longer discussion of international development issues.

We are very pleased that HMS Liverpool was able to be deployed so quickly and that the Lynx helicopter on the Liverpool was used very effectively in the search- and-rescue operations. That underlines the importance of the West Indies guard ship. As for the defence review, happily that is a matter for my colleagues, not for me.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): I thank the Minister for his statement. Many people in my constituency and other inner-London constituencies come from Montserrat and are desperately concerned about their families and friends back home. They want to know that the Government’s commitment to Montserrat will continue and that there will not be any cash limit put on the immediate help that is so vital, such as the hospital and housing. Above all, they want to know that people from Montserrat who came to this country after the previous eruption will not be forced to return home and that all those in Montserrat who feel the need to come here now will be allowed in without any restrictions on their entry or their stay in this country being imposed by the Home Office.

Mr. Foulkes: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The question about entry to the United Kingdom is, as he says, a matter for the Home Office; my Department and the Foreign Office will be discussing it with our colleagues in the Home Office.

I emphasise the importance of trying to keep Montserrat as a viable island. We hope that there will be no further eruptions, but that cannot be totally assured, so we have an evacuation plan in the event of any serious eruptions. Assuming that there is no serious eruption, we would want to keep Montserrat as a viable entity, which is why we are encouraging people to stay there.

We will give them as much assistance as we can and we will work with the Government of Montserrat to try to make that possible, but if, at the end of the day, they have to seek sanctuary elsewhere, they should be treated as sympathetically as possible.

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park): Liberal Democrat Members would also like to extend their sympathy to the people of Montserrat at this terrible time.

Although I appreciate the need of the people to stay on their island, I understand that the habitable area is becoming less and less and …Are there any plans in the long term to decide whether it is worth trying to persuade people to relocate elsewhere and to help them to do so if that is necessary?

Mr. Foulkes: We hope that there will not be a more serious and more fatal eruption. It is important to remember that this has been a viable island, producing rice for the European Union and acting as a haven for tourists, and we would want it to continue to be viable, if at all possible. We are working with the Government of Montserrat to try to make that possible.

If evacuation has to take place, we will consider the position as sympathetically as possible and do everything we can to make sure that the people of Montserrat are properly dealt with.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): Does not this tragedy highlight once more the fact that there is not adequate communication or facilities for communication between the legislative councils and Chief Ministers of small dependencies and this place?

I listened to the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott). Will the Minister advise the House whether at any stage the legislative council or the Chief Minister tried to raise those points with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office or his Department?

Secondly, will he put in the Library the messages from the Governor, who is responsible for these matters during emergencies, so as to indicate at what stage the gravity of the current situation was flagged up? Those messages are appropriate for scrutiny by Members of Parliament.

Mr. Foulkes: In relation to the period for which I and the Government are responsible, I totally rebut my hon. Friend’s suggestion.

I met the Chief Minister of Montserrat only five weeks ago when I was in Toronto at a meeting of the Caribbean development bank. As I said earlier, my noble Friend Baroness Symons visited Montserrat, met the Government and the Opposition and discussed what was necessary in the short and the long term. We were in the process of considering all of the things that we should provide for the Government and the people of Montserrat when, unfortunately, the eruption took place. It could not be predicted, and I do not think that even my hon. Friend would blame the present Government-or a Conservative Government-for a volcanic eruption.

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury): Will the hon. Gentleman reconsider his remarks about inactivity by the earlier Government, given that that Government paid for the building of a number of new schools and a new general hospital in Montserrat, which were destroyed by the volcano? Can he confirm that Montserrat receives more aid per head of population than any country in the world?

The House would like to know, if not today perhaps in tomorrow’s debate, how much money are Her Majesty’s Government are prepared to earmark to ensure that Montserrat is viable in future.

Mr. Foulkes: I will certainly try to ensure that the hon. Gentleman’s final question is answered in tomorrow’s debate-if not in the introductory speech, then in the reply for which I am directly responsible.

It is not right to compare dependent territories with other countries. We have a special responsibility for dependent territories as long as they remain in that role, which is why I said that we accept, jointly with the elected Government of Montserrat, our responsibility to the people of Montserrat; and that continues.

No doubt if the hon. Gentleman catches Madam Speaker’s eye, he will have the opportunity tomorrow to extend his contribution and tell us what the previous Government did. I do not believe, however, that he will be able to say that they acted with the sense of urgency that has been shown in the past eight weeks.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): In view of the risk to Lynx helicopters because of the nature of the dust from the volcanic explosion, is my hon. Friend satisfied that, in the event of there having to be a major evacuation, there is sufficient seaborne support to bring that about?

Mr. Foulkes: Yes. As well as providing the ferry service, which started yesterday, we have had discussions with the Governments of the other islands in the area, and we are satisfied that there is sufficient seaborne capacity to carry out an evacuation. I can say, however, that we are currently reviewing the evacuation procedures-the second issue of which was produced earlier this year-in the light of recent happenings, to ascertain whether any updating and improvement are necessary.

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Following are some excerpts of questions and answers as they were reported from the United Kingdom Parliament, on June 30, 1997.

Most of the text is being reproduced because of the relevance of the material.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (by private notice) asked the Secretary of State for International Development what is Her Majesty’s Government’s response to the devastating volcanic eruption on the Caribbean island of Montserrat, which has resulted in serious loss of life, with eight dead, 10 missing presumed dead and a further eight missing.

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. George Foulkes)

I am sure that the whole House would want to join me in expressing condolences to those who have lost relatives in this dreadful disaster and in wishing all those who have been injured a speedy recovery.

In view of the seriousness of the eruption last week, my Department established a task force of officials to decide what best could be done to help the Government and people of Montserrat. As a result, we have taken a number of urgent steps. First, four helicopters were mobilised immediately, one of which has a burns treatment capability. I should express the Government’s appreciation for the assistance given in the operation by the Dutch and French Governments.

(The Secretary of State describes further what other steps they have taken such as a further œ6.8 million and as were mentioned by the Baroness – see “Baroness Visits” He further reported the visit.)

We and the Government of Montserrat accept responsibility for the both the immediate safety and the long-term future of the island. As hon. Members know, there will be debate on international development in the House tomorrow. If there is anything further to report, we will let the House know then.

Ms Abbott: The Minister will be aware that it is 16 months since the volcano first erupted. Yesterday, I met representatives of the Montserrat community in Great Britain: the Montserrat Aid Committee 89 and the Montserrat Overseas Progressive Alliance. I was also fortunate to meet the director of the health service in Montserrat, Dr. Ronnie Cooper, who was on a flying visit. They are anxious for me to put the following points to the Government.

First, there is an urgent need for housing in Montserrat because of the displacement of people from the southern part of the island caused by the earlier eruptions of the volcano. I am advised that housing is needed for more than 4,000 people. I put it to the Minister that the deaths that we have heard about this weekend were caused by the lack of housing. I understand that the southern part of the island, which is the volcano zone, is also the main agricultural area of Montserrat. Although people were evacuated from that area, because there was no housing and sufficient arrangements for resettlement were not made, the small farmers went back to the site of the volcano to continue farming as that was the only way that they felt they could survive. Had there been proper housing and had proper arrangements been made for resettlement, they would not have lost their lives.

There are also health care issues. A school has had to become a temporary hospital and it is totally inadequate-it has outside toilets. The temporary hospital is losing health care personnel every week because of the problems.

The Montserrat community is grateful for what the Government have done, but, in view of the tragic situation this weekend and the loss of life, it asks that urgent attention be given to relocation and housing. Can interim arrangements be made to get the temporary hospital up to scratch and can more attention be given to the people of Montserrat, who are having to come here to flee the volcano?

The Minister will be aware that the people of Montserrat did not want to leave the island. They have rejected the idea of evacuating it wholesale. They are very attached to what is a beautiful island in the Antilles, but they are in desperate straits. Advisers have been sent and money has been set aside, but there has been interminable delay in decision making. Unless action is taken urgently, particularly on housing, health care and sanitation, more lives will be lost unnecessarily in that beautiful and loyal British dependency.

Mr. Foulkes: I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for her long and continuing interest in Montserrat and the area in general. We recognise the urgent need for housing. Indeed, when the most recent and most devastating eruption took place, my Department, Baroness Symons and I were discussing the long-term need for housing in the north, so that the housing and hospital facilities that are no longer usable in the south can be replaced. Our first priority now, however, is to take account of the current emergency and ensure that people are safe. We will then consider immediately the longer-term need for housing.

We are satisfied that the temporary hospital is sufficient to deal with immediate needs, but we have already started discussions about long-term hospital provision and will be discussing that immediately upon Baroness Symons’s return to the United Kingdom tomorrow. (that would be yesterday)

I hope that we will be able to establish the future of the island in the long term. We do not want it to be evacuated. We shall certainly encourage people to be there and will do everything in our power along with the Government of Montserrat. I am sure that my hon. Friend would not want us to take over responsibility from the elected Government of Montserrat, even though it is a dependent territory. We are working with them and we want to ensure that, in the long term, the island is viable and that people can continue to live there.

I hope that my hon. Friend will agree that it is only eight weeks since this Government took office. We have already had three or four ministerial meetings about Montserrat. We are dealing with the matter with the urgency that it deserves because there has been a lack of concern for the long-term interests of the people of Montserrat.

Mr. David Faber (Westbury): I thank the hon. Gentleman for his statement and join him and the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) in expressing sympathy on behalf of the Opposition to the families of those who lost their lives. I welcome the action that the Government have undertaken in sending HMS Liverpool and the four helicopters that he mentioned and in making extra aid available to try to prevent further loss of life.

Will the hon. Gentleman give the House a commitment today that the West Indies guard ship, currently HMS Liverpool, which is doing such invaluable work in the area, will be maintained in its current state after the Government’s defence review?

Mr. Foulkes: I welcome the hon. Member to his new responsibilities and I look forward to jousting with him across the Floor of the House on more party-political occasions and co-operating in every way possible. I also look forward to his participation in the debate tomorrow, when we can have a longer discussion of international development issues.

We are very pleased that HMS Liverpool was able to be deployed so quickly and that the Lynx helicopter on the Liverpool was used very effectively in the search- and-rescue operations. That underlines the importance of the West Indies guard ship. As for the defence review, happily that is a matter for my colleagues, not for me.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): I thank the Minister for his statement. Many people in my constituency and other inner-London constituencies come from Montserrat and are desperately concerned about their families and friends back home. They want to know that the Government’s commitment to Montserrat will continue and that there will not be any cash limit put on the immediate help that is so vital, such as the hospital and housing. Above all, they want to know that people from Montserrat who came to this country after the previous eruption will not be forced to return home and that all those in Montserrat who feel the need to come here now will be allowed in without any restrictions on their entry or their stay in this country being imposed by the Home Office.

Mr. Foulkes: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The question about entry to the United Kingdom is, as he says, a matter for the Home Office; my Department and the Foreign Office will be discussing it with our colleagues in the Home Office.

I emphasise the importance of trying to keep Montserrat as a viable island. We hope that there will be no further eruptions, but that cannot be totally assured, so we have an evacuation plan in the event of any serious eruptions. Assuming that there is no serious eruption, we would want to keep Montserrat as a viable entity, which is why we are encouraging people to stay there.

We will give them as much assistance as we can and we will work with the Government of Montserrat to try to make that possible, but if, at the end of the day, they have to seek sanctuary elsewhere, they should be treated as sympathetically as possible.

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park): Liberal Democrat Members would also like to extend their sympathy to the people of Montserrat at this terrible time.

Although I appreciate the need of the people to stay on their island, I understand that the habitable area is becoming less and less and …Are there any plans in the long term to decide whether it is worth trying to persuade people to relocate elsewhere and to help them to do so if that is necessary?

Mr. Foulkes: We hope that there will not be a more serious and more fatal eruption. It is important to remember that this has been a viable island, producing rice for the European Union and acting as a haven for tourists, and we would want it to continue to be viable, if at all possible. We are working with the Government of Montserrat to try to make that possible.

If evacuation has to take place, we will consider the position as sympathetically as possible and do everything we can to make sure that the people of Montserrat are properly dealt with.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): Does not this tragedy highlight once more the fact that there is not adequate communication or facilities for communication between the legislative councils and Chief Ministers of small dependencies and this place?

I listened to the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott). Will the Minister advise the House whether at any stage the legislative council or the Chief Minister tried to raise those points with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office or his Department?

Secondly, will he put in the Library the messages from the Governor, who is responsible for these matters during emergencies, so as to indicate at what stage the gravity of the current situation was flagged up? Those messages are appropriate for scrutiny by Members of Parliament.

Mr. Foulkes: In relation to the period for which I and the Government are responsible, I totally rebut my hon. Friend’s suggestion.

I met the Chief Minister of Montserrat only five weeks ago when I was in Toronto at a meeting of the Caribbean development bank. As I said earlier, my noble Friend Baroness Symons visited Montserrat, met the Government and the Opposition and discussed what was necessary in the short and the long term. We were in the process of considering all of the things that we should provide for the Government and the people of Montserrat when, unfortunately, the eruption took place. It could not be predicted, and I do not think that even my hon. Friend would blame the present Government-or a Conservative Government-for a volcanic eruption.

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury): Will the hon. Gentleman reconsider his remarks about inactivity by the earlier Government, given that that Government paid for the building of a number of new schools and a new general hospital in Montserrat, which were destroyed by the volcano? Can he confirm that Montserrat receives more aid per head of population than any country in the world?

The House would like to know, if not today perhaps in tomorrow’s debate, how much money are Her Majesty’s Government are prepared to earmark to ensure that Montserrat is viable in future.

Mr. Foulkes: I will certainly try to ensure that the hon. Gentleman’s final question is answered in tomorrow’s debate-if not in the introductory speech, then in the reply for which I am directly responsible.

It is not right to compare dependent territories with other countries. We have a special responsibility for dependent territories as long as they remain in that role, which is why I said that we accept, jointly with the elected Government of Montserrat, our responsibility to the people of Montserrat; and that continues.

No doubt if the hon. Gentleman catches Madam Speaker’s eye, he will have the opportunity tomorrow to extend his contribution and tell us what the previous Government did. I do not believe, however, that he will be able to say that they acted with the sense of urgency that has been shown in the past eight weeks.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): In view of the risk to Lynx helicopters because of the nature of the dust from the volcanic explosion, is my hon. Friend satisfied that, in the event of there having to be a major evacuation, there is sufficient seaborne support to bring that about?

Mr. Foulkes: Yes. As well as providing the ferry service, which started yesterday, we have had discussions with the Governments of the other islands in the area, and we are satisfied that there is sufficient seaborne capacity to carry out an evacuation. I can say, however, that we are currently reviewing the evacuation procedures-the second issue of which was produced earlier this year-in the light of recent happenings, to ascertain whether any updating and improvement are necessary.