Government forms civilian disaster response group

British construction experts are helping rebuild prisons in disaster-struck Haiti as part of a new aid network launched by the Government today.

More than a thousand professionals from the UK are ready to deploy to countries emerging from conflict and crisis under the new Civilian Stabilisation Group.

Deployed with less than 24 hours notice, they will bring reconstruction and stabilisation expertise in fields ranging from law enforcement to building local institutions, a spokesman for the scheme said.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown said: "This 1,000-strong Civilian Stabilisation Group will further strengthen our ability to offer rapid help in rebuilding countries after conflict or disaster."

The group will boost the civilian effort in countries including Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, Kosovo, Georgia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The unit is deploying civilian experts to help the Haitian government in its efforts to rebuild prisons and help the World Bank identify priority needs.

Mr Brown added: "The new Civilian Stabilisation Group will combine the skills and energy of people both inside and outside government - helping bring the stability and humanitarian assistance that is urgently needed, but also hope for the future through reconstruction and development."

Sheelagh Stewart, head of the group, said: "The unit is the Government's centre of expertise and best practice in stabilisation, responding to the complex challenges of fragile and conflict-afflicted states.

"This is about getting the right people to fragile countries fast enough to reduce threats to their stability."

The magnitude 7.0 tremor which struck Haiti in mid-January killed more than 200,000 people and left more than one million people in need of aid.

The UK Government is deploying a prison building expert and a project manager to help re-establish the basic functioning of at least three prisons over a three to six-month period.

Shadow international development secretary Andrew Mitchell dismissed today's launch as "classic Labour smoke and mirrors", pointing out that only a couple of dozen members of the unit are actually in action abroad.

In response to a parliamentary question from Mr Mitchell last month, International Development Secretary Douglas Alexander said there were 23 civilian experts deployed in Afghanistan, two in the Democratic Republic of Congo and one in Kenya.

There were also two members of the Civil Service Stabilisation Cadre in Afghanistan. At least two more were due to be deployed to Afghanistan in the coming weeks, while others had recently returned.

Mr Mitchell said: "It is deeply disingenuous of the Government to trumpet their thousand-strong civilian stabilisation force, when only a tiny fraction of them are actually out on the ground making a difference.

"This is classic Labour smoke and mirrors. Instead of spinning up eye-catching, headline-grabbing announcements, they should focus on ensuring that our efforts in Afghanistan are properly supported by effective poverty reduction and development."