Blair makes pledge on disaster funds

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Britain will contribute hundreds of millions of pounds to help rebuild the nations hit by the Indian Ocean disaster, Prime Minister Tony Blair said today.

Britain will contribute hundreds of millions of pounds to help rebuild the nations hit by the Indian Ocean disaster, Prime Minister Tony Blair said today.

He forecast Government spending would "more than match" the generosity of the British people.

And in his first comments since returning from his Christmas holiday break, the premier defended his decision not to return to Downing Street from his luxury Egyptian resort.

He said he decided not to break his holiday because "I took the view that the important thing was to get the job done".

Mr Blair told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that once a series of international conferences had assessed the countries' needs, "my estimate is we will need to spend from Government several hundred million pounds - so we will more than match the generosity of the British people".

Mr Blair said: "I don't think this is a situation in which the British people need me to articulate what they feel. I think they feel - as we all do - shock, horror, and absolute solidarity with those people who have lost their lives.

"The important thing is to get behind that sense and mood with action that helps people who are affected by this crisis, and in particular looks at the long-term future of these countries."

The Prime Minister insisted he had been just as involved in dealing with the crisis as Chancellor Gordon Brown who unveiled a debt relief initiative for the stricken countries yesterday.

"This is precisely what I have been doing," he said.

"I think the best thing I can do is to make sure the procedures are in place to handle the various aspects of this - and I think the ministers concerned have done a superb job on this - and the second thing is to be in contact with the leaders of other countries and the secretary-general of the United Nations.

"That's in order to make sure we are capable of putting in place the long-term measures that are going to be necessary."

Mr Blair said that after the short-term aid crisis had been tackled, long-term measures would be needed.

"Particularly for Sri Lanka and Indonesia - and perhaps especially for Indonesia - there are going to be long-term questions that are going to require me to work with other leaders and the UN."

Asked whether he had simply been too tired to return to work, Mr Blair joked that there had also been a rumour he had been away for plastic surgery.

He went on: "The important thing is, it's action not words. The British people have responded with tremendous generosity."

Mr Blair said the presidents of Sri Lanka and Indonesia had paid tribute to their aid efforts.

The Prime Minister went on: "Throughout the entirety of the time, I have been intimately involved with all the decisions that have been taken and I'm doing now pretty much what I was doing then."

On Government funding for the aftermath of the Boxing Day disaster, Mr Blair said: "We have allocated £50 million for the moment. Of that £50 million we have only spent six to seven million.

"Over the next few weeks I think it will become clearer... it will be easier to assess exactly how much money we need to put in."

That would follow the conference in Jakarta tomorrow, attended by Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, and UN and World Bank conferences in the coming weeks, said Mr Blair.

He went on: "My estimate is we will need to spend from Government several hundred million pounds. So we will far and away more than match the generosity of the British people."

The Prime Minister also pointed out the UK was providing "help in kind" as well as cash, with the use of military assets to help the aid effort.

He went on: "I can assure you that when this is through and done with and we see over the coming weeks exactly what we need to contribute, it will be vastly in excess of what we are spending now."

Mr Blair was asked if the disaster had caused him to question his Christian faith, following a newspaper article by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams which said it would be surprising if such questions were not asked.

The Prime Minister replied: "No, it hasn't, for the reasons he gave in the same article."

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