HC Deb 25 January 1961 vol 633 cc170-6

The following Question stood upon the Order Paper:


To ask the Lord Privy Seal if he is aware of the continued and increasing starvation in the Congo, especially among children; and what additional measures are contemplated by the United Nations in view of the urgency of the matter.

The Lord Privy Seal (Mr. Edward Heath)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I will answer Question No. 67.

Her Majesty's Government are, naturally, concerned about famine conditions in South Kasai. These have been caused by the movement into the Bakwanga area of large numbers of Baluba tribesmen as a result of the tribal conflicts in their own area.

Emergency action has been taken both by the United Nations Civil Administration in the Congo and also by the Food and Agriculture Organisation. The United Nations Civil Administration has at its disposal the Secretary-General's Special Fund for the Congo, to which Her Majesty's Government have already promised a total of the equivalent in sterling of 5 million dollars.

Of this, 3 million dollars has already been paid over, and the remaining 2 million dollars will be made available later if it is needed, provided that others do their share, and subject, of course, to Parliamentary approval. Our contribution of 5 million dollars forms a very substantial proportion of the funds promised to the Secretary-General which. at present, total about 15 million dollars. I understand that some of this money has already been used for famine relief.

On 29th December, the Food and Agriculture Organisation issued an urgent appeal for food and seed for which Her Majesty's Government at once gave £5,000. I am informed that the programme for the supply of seeds and agricultural implements for which Her Majesty's Government's contribution was used has now been completed. According to the latest information, this aspect of United Nations emergency action is fast becoming effective and stands a good chance of success if planting can be completed before the heavy rains begin in the middle of February. Her Majesty's Government have also provided 150 12-man tents, and these are being flown in from Kenya.

I am assured that the United Nations is in a position to carry out the operation of transporting food to the area and there is a continuous airlift of flour from Leopoldville. Groundnuts are being brought from Nigeria and a considerable amount of maize seed and maize flour has come from Rhodesia. There are still some shortages, particularly in rice and in dried fish. Some fish is being brought in from Uganda and there may be some available in Nyasaland. I am making further inquiries about this.

Her Majesty's Ambassador at Leopoldville, who wished to send a member of his staff to visit the area last week to see conditions, was told, understandably, that it would not be easy to receive visitors at that time. I have now heard that a member of the staff of the Embassy is visiting the famine area today, accompanied by a representative of the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief. We shall receive a report from him in due course.

Mr. Hamilton

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that reply, but I wonder whether it would have been given had the Question not been put on the Order Paper. Does he not agree that the original response of Her Majesty's Government led the people of this country unanimously to feel thoroughly ashamed of our Government's response, and that it was only the force of public opinion generally, and through the Press and television, which brought the Government to a real appreciation of the size of the problem?

Will the right hon. Gentleman undertake not to rest content with what the Government have done now, but to give a much better lead even yet in the solution of what is probably one of the most poignant problems of the present day?

Mr. Heath

The famine situation is being dealt with from two sources. The first is the Special Fund. Her Majesty's Government were, I think, the first to respond to the Secretary-General's appeal for the Special Fund. The total contribution paid and promised of 5 million dollars is one-third of the total amount so far promised, which is a very substantial proportion.

The appeal of the Food and Agriculture Organisation for food and seed, also, was answered at once. We intended it to be supplied in kind, as it was requested, and we intended to hand over the seed ourselves. It was then found, after consultation, that the kind of seed available was not suitable. Therefore, the contribution was turned into finance, the £5,000, which has been used by the F.A.O. to purchase seed and farming implements. That response was made at once.

Although members of the public may not have understood the total contribution which is being made by Her Majesty's Government, the response has been immediate on the request being made. Naturally, of course, we shall watch the matter very carefully.

To put the matter into perspective, I should add that these quite large sums are in addition to the 4,1 million dollars which Her Majesty's Government are contributing towards the cost of military operations in the Congo up to the end of 1960.

Sir J. Duncan

I congratulate Her Majesty's Government on the prompt action they have taken and the welcome news which my right hon. Friend has given today, but I should like to know how much British food has been sent. I gather from what my right hon. Friend has said that some of it comes from the Colonies, and it may well be that the rest comes from America. Cannot Britain make a contribution in kind as well as in cash?

Mr. Heath

As I have said, we shall continue to watch this most carefully. The food is being sent from many countries all over the world. The instances I gave were from our own Commonwealth and some of the Colonial Dependencies. We are in consultation with Uganda and Nyasaland about what provision they can make; they are, after all, the nearest countries which have suitable food, namely, dried fish.

The other shortage of the moment is rice, in which our own particular territories nearby are not, apparently, able to help. Other countries, including Sweden, the United Arab Republic and the United States—I have a list of them here—have all provided in kind that amount of suitable food which they had available.

Mr. Healey

Is not the Special Fund, to which, I agree, our contribution is adequate, intended for long-term rehabilitation in the Congo? We on this side of the House are concerned about Her Majesty's Government's contribution to the emergency appeal of the Food and Agriculture Organisation, which estimated its needs at about £2 million over the next six months. Does not the completely derisory contribution of £5,000 entirely fail to represent the deep feelings which the people of this country have for the suffering of the people of South Kasai?

Mr. Heath

I must reject that approach to this matter. The Special Fund, to which we have contributed, as the hon. Gentleman says, a large amount, is not only available for, but is being used for, famine relief in the Congo. Its purpose was for all internal relief in the Congo apart from the actual military operations, for which there is a separate fund. The original appeal of the F.A.O. was for food and seed in kind. In fact, there still remains the main problem of finding food of the appropriate kind and then transporting it to the Congo. In that respect, we are endeavouring to do all we can.

Mr. Healey

Does the right hon. Gentleman deny that the Food and Agriculture Organisation estimated its requirements at £2 million, and is he telling the House that he regards the contribution of £5,000 by Her Majesty's Government as adequate in the circumstances?

Mr. Heath

I first saw the figure of £2 million mentioned in the speech which the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition made in the country. We ourselves have not seen the appeal in terms of finance. It was an appeal for food in kind. If it is calculated at £2 million, then, obviously, it is for a considerable period, and the matter must be considered as circumstances develop.

Mr. Nabarro

Will my right hon. Friend make an early statement to the House about what is being done to replace the withdrawn United Nations security forces in the Congo? Without their presence, is it not a fact that it is impossible to distribute adequately and fairly these large additional supplies of food which are being freely given? Can my right hon. Friend say, next week, who is to replace, for example, the Swedish forces, the Indonesian forces and the United Arab Republic forces, and the remainder of the forces which are now withdrawn, or under threat of withdrawal?

Mr. Heath

I recognise that there is a close connection between these two things. This famine has arisen because of tribal disputes which have grown up between the Baluba and the Lulua. The Lulua have driven the Baluba into this area. Therefore, if the position had been different in respect of the United Nations forces we might not have had this situation. As it is such a wide question, however, perhaps my hon. Friend will allow me to answer it when an opportunity occurs next week.

Mr. J. Griffiths

Will the Lord Privy Seal direct special attention to the problem of getting seed to this area in time to be planted before the heavy rains come? Otherwise, from the information available to some of us, there will be an appalling situation within the next six or twelve months. Will the right hon. Gentleman also bear in mind that Her Majesty's Government and all the others should direct their special attention to getting both food and seed transported to this area—which is a very difficult and inaccessible area—in time? May I further ask him to realise, from one who has had great pleasure in making an appeal to the public, that the people of this country will applaud the contribution made by the Government to the people of the Congo?

Mr. Heath

The Government are endeavouring to live up to the expectations of the people. I should like to pay my tribute to the voluntary efforts which have raised various amounts of money, handled through the Red Cross and the Oxford Famine Relief, and in other ways. As for the programme, as I said in my original statement we are informed by the Food and Agriculture Organisation that the programme of supplying seed and implements, and getting them there, has been completed. We are also told that the whole scheme stands a very good chance of success if planting can be completed. There are difficulties about planting, again very largely because of the tribal situation in the area. It is the object of those there to complete planting before the heavy rains come, in the middle of next month.

Mr. Wade

In expressing his appreciation of the efforts which have been made, will the right hon. Gentleman include those individuals in the Congo who have been endeavouring to deal with this extremely difficult situation, and trying to relieve starvation under extremely awkward and severe circum stances? Secondly, will he clarify an expression he used, namely, "so long as others do likewise", or words to that effect? Does this mean that if Her Majesty's Government have money available, and if the machinery is still there for granting relief, and the need still exists, Her Majesty's Government will withhold the money if other Governments are not prepared to contribute?

Mr. Heath

I gladly join with the hon. Member and other hon. Members in paying tribute to those on the ground in the Congo who are carrying out this work.

As for my statement about the payment of the remaining 2 million dollars, I repeat what I said in my original statement to the House, which implies that the United Nations is a world organisation and that in a situation like that which exists in the Congo we are entitled to look to a large number of countries in the world to make their contribution.