Row over Montserrat aid package

Britain announced details of an assistance package for the inhabitants of Montserrat yesterday, but it fell far short of what the volcano-stricken island's authorities had recommended. The country's Chief Minister Bertrand Osborne immediately called the aid package "totally unacceptable".

The delays and confusion in arranging help for the beleaguered inhabitants have led to anti-British demonstrations on the normally placid island against the Governor, Frank Savage, and sparked claim and counter-claim from Whitehall and Montserrat.

The Government moved quickly to try to defuse the row, defending itself against claims of inactivity and hesitation. "I understand that people are disgruntled but we have acted very quickly and reasonably," said Clare Short, Secretary of State for International Development. "We provided funds for people who want to travel to Britain, we're now announcing a package for people who want to relocate in the Caribbean," she told the BBC.

Adults moving to other countries in the Caribbean would get pounds 2,400 over the next six months, provided they did not have savings and assets worth more than pounds 10,000 pounds. Those under 18 would get pounds 600. Britain would also pay air fares to nearby countries. But that is a long way short of the recommendations made by local officials.

The package is pegged to average earnings on Montserrat and is for those living on the island on August 16, when scientists said the volcano was becoming much more dangerous. Those who left earlier can apply for help under another scheme yet to be announced.

In a live broadcast to Radio ZJB Montserrat, Ms Short warned islanders that "money did not grow on trees".

"We have to account to our Parliament for the way we spend our money. We have to compare it with what British people get when they have a disaster." She added: "Some kind of crazy figures have been thrown around," but said much higher payments had "never been on the cards".

Britain has already waived work permit regulations for Montserratians arriving in Britain, and allowed them to claim social security. This is a temporary concession and 1400 have already taken up the offer.

Defending itself against critics, the Foreign Office said yesterday that "there may be a breakdown in communication between the government in Montserrat and its own citizens". But the issue is currently being handled by three departments - the Foreign Office, the Department for International Development and the Home Office - and there are signs of weak co-ordination.

There were also clashes between local officials and the Foreign Office over whether an evacuation was under way. "Those people who want to leave are leaving," a Foreign Office spokesman said. "Some people are taking up the offer of voluntary evacuation, not in great numbers but in an orderly fashion. There's no emergency."

Montserrat officials said the Foreign Office was wrong. Eugene Skerritt, permanent secretary to the chief minister, said: "The evacuation has not started and the false reports are causing us a lot of trouble. People believe we are hiding something from them."

There is also mounting anger on the islands neighbouring Montserrat, which have taken in those who have fled the wrath of the volcano. Antigua now hosts 4,000 Montserratians - as many as remain in Montserrat itself. "I have written to the Secretary of State and said that the situation is now dire and requires urgent attention," said Ronald Sanders, High Commissioner of Antigua and Barbuda in London.

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