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Last Updated: Sunday, 2 January, 2005, 16:05 GMT
Prescott defends quake response
Indonesian soldiers collect bodies in Aceh province
Politicians praised Britons for their donations to tsunami relief funds
The UK government's response to the Asian tsunami disaster was the quickest possible, John Prescott has said.

The deputy prime minister told BBC News that no country had "moved as fast" as the UK within the first 24 hours.

And he stressed that Tony Blair had been fully involved in the government's response, despite not returning to the UK from a family holiday in Egypt.

Conservative leader Michael Howard said he would have returned had he been in the same position.

However, Mr Howard said Mr Blair's decision was up to the prime minister.

The Tory leader said: "If I had been in his position I would have come back - other leaders have."

The question: 'How can you believe in a God who permits suffering on this scale?' is... very much around at the moment
Dr Rowan Williams
Archbishop of Canterbury

Mr Prescott later dismissed the claim, saying: "He wants to make his political point and that is up to Michael Howard."

He went on: "I think the real point is, what is Britain doing, are we working fast enough?

"And I think if you look at our response rate, with the first 24 hours, I think no country moved as fast as that."

The official British death toll rose to 40 on Sunday, as the Foreign Office confirmed five more deaths. At least 124,000 people have been confirmed dead in total.

Mr Prescott said he and Mr Blair had spoken as soon as they heard of the disaster.

And within 24 hours a committee had been set up in London, with Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and International Development Secretary Hilary Benn working on their contributions, he said.

The prime minister was in contact with this committee "two or three times a day" and had been speaking to world leaders, "while we as ministers concentrate on getting on with doing the job," said Mr Prescott.

John Prescott
Mr Prescott defended Tony Blair's decision not to return from holiday
Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy also rejected Mr Howard's stance.

He said: "All governments internationally were caught somewhat almost unprepared by the sheer scale of events.

"Now it is not an issue, I don't think, so much of where Mr Blair is, I think it is where Britain will be. And Britain is in the chairmanship of the G8, the EU coming up."

Mr Kennedy added: "We don't want any impression created in terms of the British government's perspective, given the scale of the British people's contributions here, that we are anything less than on the case."

International Development Secretary Hilary Benn indicated on Sunday that the government, which has pledged 50m, would be stepping up its efforts to help.

Writing in The Observer, Mr Benn said: "The UK has made a substantial commitment and we will do more as required."

I asked the British people to match the government. Now it is a question of asking the government to match the generosity of the British people
Michael Howard, Tory leader

The frigate HMS Chatham and Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship Diligence have already been despatched and are due to arrive in either Sri Lanka or the Maldives on 4 January.

A Royal Air Force C-17 plane has also been committed, and arrived in Indonesia on Sunday bringing with it supplies and equipment.

Asked about whether UK troops might be further involved in the relief effort, Mr Prescott added: "We are looking now at whether we might do more. But we always take advice first."

Mr Prescott, Mr Howard and Mr Kennedy all praised the response of the British public, who have donated 60m so far towards the relief effort.

The deputy prime minister said the public's response was "tremendous" and showed "they want to give assistance and help".

Mr Howard said: "I asked the British people to match the government. Now it is a question of asking the government to match the generosity of the British people."

All three politicians also defended the United Nations, saying it remained relevant in co-ordinating responses to global issues and should be supported by the international community.


A telephone support line for those directly affected by the tsunami has been set up on 0845 054 74 74.



BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
Michael Howard and John Prescott on the disaster



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