HC Deb 05 February 1958 vol 581 cc1313-22

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Colonel J. H. Harrison.]

9.40 p.m.

Sir John Barlow (Middleton and Prestwich)

During the Christmas Recess, it was my good fortune to visit Ceylon again after an absence of very many years. Probably, several people here are familiar with that lovely island and its charming people, but for those who are not, I will say that Ceylon is an island about half the size of England and Wales, with a density of population about half that which exists in this country.

Everyone will know that, comparatively recently, Ceylon obtained her independence. In fact, the people of Ceylon celebrated the tenth anniversary of that event yesterday in Colombo. Unlike many other countries which have recently attained independence, Ceylon, of course, has a very long history and a very ancient civilisation. During the course of my visit, I was fortunate to have the opportunity of speaking with the Governor - General, Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, and the Prime Minister, Mr. Bandaranaike, as well as with other Cabinet Ministers.

I was rather touched by the amount of good will towards this country shown on every side. That was illustrated during the course of my visit, because, owing to my homeward plane being twenty-four hours late, my visit overlapped by twenty-four hours that of our Prime Minister, who was on his way to Australia. With many others, I went to the airport twenty miles outside Colombo to meet him, and went in a convoy behind his car through the festooned roads and streets back into Colombo. Throughout our journey, there were everywhere indications of enthusiasm for our British Prime Minister. It was sometimes comic to hear gramophone records, very familiar to us at home but perhaps rather inappropriate at the time, blaring on either side. But there was genuine enthusiasm about seeing our Prime Minister.

I wish tonight to call attention to the devastation and hardship caused by the appalling floods which occurred just before my arrival in Ceylon. In the third week of December, rains which have no parallel in recent records caused widespread and extensive damage throughout the island. The death roll exceeded 300, and at least 300,000 people, many of them the poorest peasants, suffered as a result of the floods through the destruction of their paddy lands, the loss of their homes, and the loss of all their livestock, The damage caused is now being investigated, but a provisional estimate suggests that it will cost in the neighbourhood of £40 million or £50 million to restore.

The floods were caused by continuous rains during the north-east monsoon. At one place I visited, I was told that there had been eleven inches of rain in twenty-four hours, a thing difficult for us in this country to appreciate. Such rains as these caused the breach of bunds of several of the larger irrigation reservoirs in the North, Central and Eastern provinces. These are the main rice producing areas of Ceylon, and in many cases the floods completely wiped out all the harvest which was expected this year.

During the last twenty-five years, it has been the policy of the Government of Ceylon, which they are now implementing, to help by State-aid schemes the object of which was to increase home food production and resettle the landless peasantry from the over-populated areas. Their purpose was achieved by the restoration and construction of large irrigation dams in the dry zone and reclamation of land from jungle and its conversion into good farming land. This policy was beginning to show satisfactory results in the form of increased home production and well-settled peasantry.

These great schemes have suffered a severe setback, and many of the people involved have not only lost their homes but their livelihoods as well. Extensive damage has been caused to roads by landslides, the collapse of railway bridges and subsidences. Internal communications were seriously interrupted and many roads were closed for a comparatively long period.

The initial phase of rescue work and the supply of food, clothing, medicine and other necessities by air lifts was made possible by generous and spontaneous international aid. I am glad to say that we contributed substantially in this way and I hope that the Under-Secretary will be able to give more details.

The next phase of rehabilitation and construction is now being organised by a national co-ordination committee presided over by the Prime Minister. The Ceylon Government are naturally giving this programme of rehabilitation every priority, and there is every indication that they are tackling it with the necessary energy. Naturally, there will be heavy calls on finance and material and in some instances technical aid will be of the greatest importance.

To give an indication of the loss of food involved, probably 600,000 acres of land have been seriously damaged, which represents the loss of 250,000 tons of paddy. I am informed that the cost to the local exchequer of importing that which they failed to produce themselves will be £10 million.

Some people may think that this disaster is no concern of ours now that Ceylon has achieved her independence. It is for that reason that I wish to emphasise our responsibility to our friends. Ceylon is a loyal member of the Commonwealth and we, as fellow members, would like to share in helping the people in their adversity. It is our privilege and responsibility to contribute. Their troubles are our troubles, and I hope that we shall do everything to help our friends when their needs are as urgent as they are today.

As I have said, the Singhalese are a nation and a proud people. They are tackling their problems of independence and democratic Government with vigour and determination. Now they have had this great disaster thrust upon them. We wish them well and we should like to do everything we can to help them in their difficulties. I urge the Government to extend the hand of friendship and help the people of Ceylon generously in their hour of need and adversity.

9.50 p.m.

Mr. John Arbuthnot (Dover)

We should all like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Middleton and Prestwich (Sir J. Barlow) on taking the opportunity, having been successful in the Ballot for the Adjournment, to raise the problem of the plight of the people in Ceylon. I was very glad to see this debate announced, because I happened to be in Ceylon when the worst of the floods occurred.

What has happened has been that the north-east monsoon, which normally would be expected to finish towards the end of October, went on right through until after Christmas, which is quite unprecedented in the history of the island. Not only that, but the severity of individual days of rainfall was quite extraordinary, not only for the Christmas season, but for any time of year even in Ceylon. In fact, nine and a half inches fell on Christmas Eve, when I was quite close to Nuwara Elya. Nine and a half inches of rain in one night is something at which our imagination boggles in this country. Nonetheless, the people of Ceylon have stood up wonderfully to the adversity that has befallen them.

An enormous amount of damage has been done, not so much up-country, where the water got away, but in the low-lying northern part of Ceylon, where the water coming down from up-country created terrific floods, and around Batticoloa and elsewhere. Many of the roads were completely impassable and bridges were swept away—not only road bridges, but railway bridges also. I shall never forget looking up at a railway line quite close to Demodera to see that the bank of the railway had been completely swept away and that the railway line was hanging rather like a string of beads across a wide chasm.

It will be a long time before all the damage can be repaired. Whether it costs £40 or £50 million, or whatever the figure may be, it will not be possible to repair the damage that has been done to many families who have lost their near and dear ones. They have suffered damage that is beyond any form of financial recompense.

When I was there, I felt proud to know that we from Britain had been the first to come to the help of our friends in their time of need. It was British aid that was the first to arrive in the island. We should congratulate those who were responsible for the speed with which they reacted to the problems facing Ceylon and for the way in which they threw all other commitments aside and came to the rescue most effectively and promptly. It is at a time of adversity such as Ceylon is undergoing that she realises where her friends lie.

Not only did Britain come to Ceylon's aid, but India, the United States and other countries came to her aid also. What impressed me greatly was the way in which the Singhalese themselves came to the aid of those people in trouble and those areas which were so badly stricken.

I fully support the plea that has been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Middleton and Prestwich that when a careful assessment has been made of the damage which has been done to our good friends in Ceylon, we shall be generous in the financial and material response that we make to try to help her to overcome her difficulties.

9.55 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations (Mr. C. J. M. Alport)

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Arbuthnot), I greatly welcome the initiative of my hon. Friend the Member for Middleton and Prestwich (Sir J. Barlow) in using the opportunity of this Adjournment debate to call attention to the problems facing the people of Ceylon as a result of the recent disaster. I would go further and say that, if I may, I should like to take this opportunity of mentioning two other matters at the beginning of my remarks.

The first is to say how sorry we are to lose from the distinguished circle of Commonwealth representatives in London, Sir Claude Corea, who until recently was the High Commissioner for Ceylon and who was such a distinguished representative of his country in our midst. I am glad to have the opportunity of welcoming his successor, Mr. de Soyza. Although he is here for a relatively temporary assignment, we know from his background of long experience as Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Defence and External Affairs in Colombo, that we have again a most worthy representative of his country in our midst. I am sure that the House will join with me in wishing him a very warm welcome.

My hon. Friend the Member for Middleton and Prestwich mentioned the fact that yesterday Ceylon was celebrating the tenth anniversary of its independence. I should like to join with him in expressing our congratulations and good wishes, with which I am sure the whole House will wish to be associated, on this important occasion. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister had the good fortune to visit Ceylon only three weeks ago. It was unfortunate that he could not be there for the actual celebrations of yesterday, but Her Majesty's Government are being represented by my noble Friend the Lord Lansdowne, who will deliver in person the good wishes of the people of this country for the future happiness and prosperity of the people of Ceylon.

It was tragic that the preparations for what was to be the occasion for unmarred happiness should have been preceded by the disastrous floods at the end of December to which my hon. Friends have referred, and we sympathise deeply with the Government and people of Ceylon in this misfortune. We know very well, as my hon. Friends have themselves witnessed on the spot, the energy with which the Government and people of Ceylon have turned towards repairing the damage which occurred as a result of a natural disaster unprecedented in their country. If there is any help that we can give, we shall do our very best.

As my hon. Friends have said, heavy and unseasonable rains around Christmas resulted in landslides in the central hills and floods in the low-lying areas of Eastern and Northern Ceylon. It is estimated that 300 people lost their lives, and that the large number of 300,000 were made homeless. Crops, earthworks of irrigation reservoirs, roads and railways were seriously damaged. Although the country is accustomed to periodic floods the devastation on this occasion has been exceptional and amounts to a national disaster.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dover said with great truth that he felt a pride, which we all share, in the contribution which our Service representatives on the spot were able to make to the immediate work of rescue and repair. The help which we were able to give was speedy; and in circumstances such as these speed is to a large extent of the essence of the problem. The Royal Navy made available emergency supplies of foodstuffs and medical stores from Singapore and Trincomalee, and assisted in the distribution of supplies to the stricken areas. Assistance was given, including the provision of naval craft, in rescuing marooned inhabitants and in evacuating the Mutur area. Doctors and medical staff helped in removing patients from the Mutur Hospital who had to be carried by stretcher through jungle and chest-high floods.

It being Ten o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Colonel J. H. Harrison.]

Mr. Alport

Other assistance included the initial provision of hygiene, lighting and telephone facilities in a camp set up at a former aircraft repair yard at China Bay.

Her Majesty's Ship "Cockade" was specially diverted to Colombo, and then took foodstuffs from Colombo round the coast to Trincomalee. That was the Royal Navy's contribution.

The Royal Air Force gave immediate help in dropping supplies from Valetta and Pembroke aircraft, and later by helicopters specially sent from Singapore. It also delivered supplies by mechanical transport, and assisted in rescue work in which a special jungle rescue team was engaged. Supplies furnished included 10,000 packed rations. R.A.F. aircraft carried urgent medical supplies to Ceylon from this country and from Singapore.

The Air Ministry provided experts and civil engineering equipment for emergency restoration work, including the loan of a variety of heavy earth-moving equipment.

As for the Army, the Army Command at Singapore also made its contribution in the form of the provision of urgently required drugs, and it provided transport and other facilities for the loading of ships before they sailed to Ceylon.

For all this help and the many other incidental services rendered by our Service representatives there, the Prime Minister of Ceylon expressed his Government's appreciation in the most generous terms. At a ceremony attended by the Governor-General and several Cabinet Ministers, inscribed Kandyan silver trays were presented as tokens of gratitude to the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force, and similarly to the Indian Air Force and Army and to the United States Navy.

In addition to this initial assistance, which was continued for as long as it was needed, Her Majesty's Government made a special allocation of £10,000 for supplies in kind, and this was later increased to £20,000 as a result of the Prime Minister's visit to Ceylon, when he had an opportunity of discussing the position personally with Mr. Bandaranaike. The House will be asked in due course to make provision for this expenditure.

The House may be interested to have some details of the way in which these funds have been applied. On 4th January, a Hastings aircraft of No. 24 (Commonwealth) Squadron, R.A.F. Transport Command, left this country for Ceylon with our first ton of drugs together with some medical supplies which the British Red Cross Society was giving to the Ceylon Red Cross. Further consignments of medical supplies by air have followed. We are also giving tractors with agricultural equipment which the Ceylon Government need for the initial restoration work.

I have dealt so far with the help which we are giving in respect of the immediate problems created by the floods in Ceylon, but I should like in closing to say a word about the longer-term association between Ceylon and this country, and something, too, about the part which this country has played in the past in association with the people of Ceylon in the development of their territory. I do so because it is from the basis of that long association that the friendship to which my two hon. Friends have referred springs.

The ties between our countries are, as I have said, intimate and of long standing. They have grown over one and a half centuries during times of peace and, as I know from my own experience of the island, during times of common danger in a war in which we were joined together against common enemies. Our merchants and investors have helped to develop the basic commodities on which the wealth and standard of living of the island largely depends, tea, rubber and coconuts. Through the Colombo Plan we have found a ready means of supplying that kind of help which the Government of Ceylon may from time to time require.

Since the commencement of the Colombo Plan, which, after all, is so closely associated with the capital of Ceylon, we have spent on training equipment, the services of experts and in training Ceylonese in this country over £¾ million. We have sent to the island 98 experts and we have at present in this country 80 Ceylonese undergoing various courses of instruction. Already 333 have returned to Ceylon after studying a wide range of technical skills in this country. The association and co-operation is continuing and we hope, as my hon. Friends have said, that it will always continue to be so.

We do not yet know the extent of the damage to the Ceylonese economy nor, as yet, all its implications. Such information as is available suggests that Ceylon's three great export crops, tea, coconuts and rubber, have not been materially affected by the floods so far. But much of the current rice crop has been destroyed and, as my hon. Friends have said and seen, there has been considerable damage to irrigation which may reduce the yield of the next crop. Railways, roads and bridges in different parts of the island have suffered damage.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, when in Colombo, expressed both to the Government and to the people of Ceylon the readiness of the United Kingdom to offer whatever technical help might be required in framing a programme of reconstruction. I should like to repeat the hope that the Government of Ceylon will not hesitate to ask us for any technical help in that way which they may need.

I am sure that hon. Members will join with me in expressing our deep and sincere sympathy to the Government and people of Ceylon in the disaster which has overtaken them. We hope that the efforts which they are making may bring about a restoration of their country quicker than perhaps at the present time seems possible; and that we may play whatever part is possible with the resources available to us in assisting a sister country in the Commonwealth in overcoming a difficult and disastrous incident in her life.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nine minutes past Ten o'clock.