Professor blows top over Montserrat shambles

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British officials in Montserrat can buy costly cars and the latest technology, while islanders left homeless by a volcanic eruption live in shelters with no proper sanitation, according to a report being studied by MPs.

The evidence by Stephen Sparks, one of the chief scientists on the island, follows anger over a comment by Clare Short, Secretary of State for International Development, that Montserratians would be asking for "golden elephants" next.

The civil servants dealing with the crisis indulged in "extravagant and disproportionate" spending on themselves while others had their every request scrutinised, Professor Sparks says in a submission to a Commons inquiry. Delivery of 10 new computers and air-conditioned four-wheel-drive vehicles for government staff upset scientists who at one stage had to use clapped-out hire-cars to go into the dangerous areas, he says. "No doubt the many Montserratians who have been living in primitive shelters for nearly two years were even less impressed."

Prof Sparks's report says senior scientists were asked to spend valuable hours justifying requests for radios which were vital to their safety. Lines of communication with officials were "frustrating and confusing," and the whole system of running the dependent territory was "byzantine."

"The natural catastrophe of an erupting and dangerous volcano has been exacerbated by anachronistic administrative systems more suited to our colonial past," he writes. Prof Sparks told the Independent the scientists' frustration stemmed not from lack of money but lack of the flexibility enjoyed by Department for International Development (DfID) officials.

In March last year, eight months after the volcano started erupting, a meeting was held on a development plan for the island. The agenda did not mention the volcano, and scientists were not invited.

A report on the health hazards of volcanic ash has only just been completed, despite warnings a year ago that it was toxic and could cause silicosis. The report also says there are 11 volcanic islands in the Caribbean, all of which will suffer eruptions similar to the one on Montserrat, up to five of them in the next century.

A DfID spokesman the scientists had seemed happy with their equipment when George Foulkes, a minister in the department, visited in September.