Relief to volcano-hit Montserrat showed `bungling incompetence'

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The Independent Online
THE GOVERNMENT'S confused handling of the crisis in volcano-hit Montserrat stemmed from a Whitehall turf war that continues even now, MPs claimed yesterday.

Both Foreign Secretary Robin Cook and International Development Secretary Clare Short have shown a "lack of political will" in failing to improve relations between their officials in the wake of the emergency, the all- party Commons International Development Committee concluded.

"Unnecessary tensions" between the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development (DfID) had dogged efforts to provide effective emergency relief to the Caribbean island, the committee said.

In a withering report on the Government's response to criticism of its reaction to the disaster, the committee stated the two departments suffered from a crucial lack of coordination.

The crisis had shown up the rivalry between the key parts of Whitehall, MPs said.

"We conclude that the Government has failed to address the main organisational weakness identified in our previous report. There will always be unnecessary tensions and inefficiencies if DfID money is used to fund FCO political priorities," the report states.

"Experience over Montserrat suggests that when difficult decisions have to be taken quickly the spirit of inter-departmental cooperation is placed under severe strain."

The committee attacked the Government's decision to ignore its earlier recommendations on improving its relationship with the Montserratian population.

It had urged the Foreign Office to take a more active role in explaining policy to Montserratians and the creation of a single Whitehall department for all dependent territories. Neither move has been taken up.

Tory development spokesman Gary Streeter said it was time the Montserrat and UK public were told exactly who was responsible for the "bumbling incompetence" that had characterised the Government's handling of the crisis.

"The publication of this report shows we cannot tell who is in charge of the Department of International Development. Is it Robin Cook or Clare Short who will take responsibility for the Montserrat shambles?" he said.

A DfID spokeswoman denied the two departments had failed to work closely together in recent months to manage aid to the island.

The committee also claimed that while the UK had a duty to the people of the island, it was clear the pounds 75 million pledged by the UK had distorted the International Development department's aid budget.

The spending meant that more than pounds 25,000 was being invested for every Montserratian, a figure that compared "starkly and unfavourably" with the 11 pence per head spent on India.

The Government had failed to adequately investigate the building of an airport for the island to help future evacuations and boost trade, the MPs said.

They also called on ministers to make a greater effort to restore insurance cover to Montserrat, a move that has been rejected by the Government because it feels it is inappropriate to underwrite insurance on damages relating to natural disasters.

The DfID should produce a realistic Sustainable Development Plan for the island.

"We would value evidence from the department that there is a realistic possibility of Montserrat escaping dependency on UK development assistance," the report stated.