Foreign Office should have been ‘better prepared’ for Hurricane Irma, say MPs

Foreign Affairs Committee argues FCO failed to do sufficient crisis planning despite Caribbean’s known vulnerability to hurricanes

Damage to the Caribbean island Sint Marteen after Hurricane Irma hit in September 2017. Credit: Utrecht Robin/ ABACA/ PA Images

By Nicholas Mairs

07 Mar 2018

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office should have been better prepared as some of the most ferocious hurricanes the Caribbean has ever seen hit the region last year, MPs have argued.

The FCO was commended for its role in coordinating government’s cross-departmental response, which was described as “swift and strategic” by some of the islands affected.

But MPs were surprised the Foreign Office did not have full understanding of resources available and an agreed collaborative international strategy in place, given the Caribbean’s vulnerability to hurricanes.


The FCO has now launched an exercise to identify regional and international assets that could be used in response to major natural disasters in future.

Theresa May defended ministers as having acted “swiftly” in response to hurricanes Irma and Maria in September, which left dozens dead and battered territories including Anguilla, Montserrat and the British Virgin Islands.

The prime minister went on to pledge £70m of taxpayers' money to help rebuild British islands in November, with a further £300m of loan guarantees.

However, in a report published today, the Foreign Affairs Committee said while they welcomed the Foreign Office’s commitment to identify assets that could help in future natural disasters, it was “regrettable that this had not been done previously as part of wider crisis planning”.

MPs on the committee said: “Given the Caribbean’s vulnerability to hurricanes we would have expected the FCO already to have had a good understanding of the resources available and an agreed collaborative international strategy in place.”

They said they welcomed May’s pledge to provide government funding for the recovery efforts, but argued that more “preventative” investment in improving infrastructure, in cooperation with the territories, "might have been more cost-effective".

Among their recommendations is an international strategy for disaster relief and for clarity on whether British islands will continue to receive EU-funded development assistance after Brexit.

The MPs also criticised ministers for being “heavily dependent” on naval assets and say the disaster should help inform the renewal of its future surface fleet.

Tom Tugendhat, chair of the committee, said: “The work of all those involved in the rescue efforts in the immediate aftermath of the hurricanes and since, are to be commended.

“However, ministers need to offer the UK’s Overseas Territories a more structured response in any such future event.

“The Overseas Territories in the Caribbean were known to be vulnerable to the risk of hurricanes. With six territories in relatively close proximity, the FCO should have an agreed, collaborative, international strategy ready to go.

“Access to development aid, help with recovery, resilience-building activity – there is still much to be done by the government.

“The [Foreign and Commonwealth Office] should also consider whether the relationship between government and the UK’s Overseas Territories requires attention. The Committee intends to return to this issue later this year.”

The committee called on the FCO to explore the possibility of establishing an independent, formal channel through which Overseas Territories can provide feedback on the department’s performance and their relationships with the department.

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