UK charity's aid effort hindered by red tape

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A damaging row broke out between Foreign Secretary William Hague and a leading disaster rescue charity yesterday after a team of British experts were forced to abandon their mission to the Japan earthquake over an alleged failure by diplomats to provide the necessary paperwork.

The International Rescue Corps (IRC), which has more than 30 years of experience dealing with natural disasters around the world, accused the Foreign Office (FCO) of "deplorable" conduct after Mr Hague said the charity was seeking to scapegoat British officials and had arrived in Japan early on Tuesday without sufficient back-up or resources to carry out its humanitarian relief operation.

The British team arrived back in London last night claiming that the UK embassy in Tokyo failed to provide in time a "note verbale" or letter confirming that IRC was a recognised charity. The document had been requested by the Japanese authorities to issue an emergency permit allowing the 12-strong team to enter the disaster zone and buy rationed supplies such as petrol.

After high-level contacts between senior IRC officials and the Government, the letter was eventually provided by the Tokyo embassy early yesterday morning - more than 30 hours after the UK experts had arrived in Japan and, crucially according to IRC, after the British Airways flight carrying the team home had taken off.

The IRC volunteers were to have been the second British emergency team operating in the region devastated by the earthquake and tsunami. A 65-strong official UK government search and rescue team, sent by the Department for International Development, was continuing its work searching the town of Kamaishi, where 1,000 people are missing.

Mr Hague, who has been criticised for his personal performance and that of his department in recent weeks, yesterday attempted to pin the blame for the mix-up on the charity, saying it was "convenient" for it to blame diplomatic red tape. Prime Minister David Cameron said the rescue team had not had the "correct documentation".

Speaking to the House of Commons foreign affairs committee, Mr Hague said: "They arrived there with no transport or logistical or language support in place so I think that gave rise to the difficulty. They are a respected organisation and we want them to be able to help in many occasions in the future but I think sometimes it's convenient to blame our embassies for difficulties which have arisen in other ways."

In a further statement, the FCO described the incident as "most unfortunate" and insisted embassy staff had gone to Tokyo airport to assist the IRC team, which it said was also not equipped with maps.

IRC last night strongly refuted Mr Hague's claims, saying it had arranged an interpreter who was on hand in Tokyo and established there was no issue with hiring vehicles to enter the disaster zone. The team, which IRC said was also equipped with specialist computer navigation equipment that allowed it to access and print detailed maps, brought with them 1.5 tonnes of medical and emergency food supplies.

Willie McMartin, the IRC's operations director, told The Independent: "I find it absolutely deplorable the way that politicians and the Foreign Office have sought to shift around the blame for this situation. We received permission from the Japanese embassy in London and the only problem was this letter simply stating we were an authorised UK charity. It was needed by the Japanese foreign affairs ministry to allow them to issue us with the necessary permit to enter the disaster zone and secure controlled supplies such as fuel.

"We were told by the embassy that they could not provide the document because they believed it would make them legally responsible for our team. They were very intransigent on this point despite us arranging for assurance from London that this would not be the case. It is to say the least gut-wrenching that we were not able to help in Japan because of our own officials. In 30 years of operations, we have never seen a situation like this."

Mr McMartin said the team were forced to leave Japan after British Airways, which had offered its experts free flights, said it had space on a plane leaving Tokyo yesterday morning and the UK embassy was unable to confirm that the letter would be provided.

IRC said the document only arrived after it had donated its medical and food supplies to a Japanese charity and the flight back to London had taken off.