Short to be quizzed on handling of Montserrat

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The Independent Online
Clare Short, the International Development Secretary, is to be invited to give evidence to a Commons select committee about her handling of the Montserrat volcano crisis.

Ms Short will be questioned by MPs on the cross-party international Development Select Committee.

It was announced last night the committee is launching an urgent inquiry into the emergency and the Government's reaction to it. Both Ms Short and the Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, have been asked to submit memos on the matter and this would be followed by invitation to be questioned by MPs.

Bowen Wells, the committee's Tory chairman, said he had seen Ms Short briefly and she was happy about the launch of the inquiry. He said: "She has welcomed the fact that we are doing a report."

"We hope it will inform a proper debate on what we can do to help the Monserratian people, as well as those who have already left the island."

Mr Wells said that if the money was available, committee members were keen to visit the island, and neighbouring Antigua and Barbados.

A row erupted between the island's government and London over allegations that the British Government has failed to provide enough help. Locals claimed that little has been done with the pounds 41m Britain allocated as emergency aid.

Anger on the island reached a peak over the weekend when Ms Short accused senior Montserrat politicians of seeking "golden elephants" in compensation for their plight - a remark she later conceded had been unfortunate.

Ms Short's position was further undermined when the crisis management was taken out of her hands and given to a task force of Whitehall officials reporting directly to the Foreign Secretary. Asked about the handling of the crisis until then Mr Cook responded "There has obviously been a failure of communication over the last few weeks, but not a failure of policy."

Announcing a six-month review of Britain's treatment of its dependant territories, Mr Cook added: " We have to ensure there is no suspicion of any neglect". Ms Short had tried to reassert her authority by announcing that her deputy, George Ffoulkes will visit Montserrat next weekend. The island's chief minister, David Brandt, has welcomed the visit.

Bernie Grant, the Labour MP for Tottenham, arrived in Montserrat yesterday hoping to improve relations between the islanders and London.

Touching down on the island following a helicopter flight from Antigua, Mr Grant, who plans to spend several days assessing the situation in the region, sought to strike a conciliatory tone.

"We have to sit down face to face to discuss these issues. What I don't accept is that the British government can see from Whitehall and determine what is necessary for the Montserrat people. What I am interested in doing is bringing people together so we can sit down and discuss the situation," he told BBC Television.

Earlier Mr Grant, who is chairman of the all-party Parliamentary group on the Caribbean and is from the region himself, had blamed "megaphone diplomacy" for the rift.

He said some of the remarks by Ms Short had not been very helpful.

Mr Grant's trip is at the invitation of the island's chief minister.