HC Deb 19 November 1970 vol 806 cc1444-51
The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Sir Alec Douglas-Home)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House I wish to make a statement about the disaster which has overtaken areas of East Pakistan.

Since my answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Essex, South-East (Mr. Braine) on 16th November, it has become clear that the extent of the calamity is even greater than was then known. The Pakistan Government have officially stated that the number of people who have lost their lives exceeds 200,000. In terms of human suffering this is a disaster of unprecedented proportions, and I am sure the House would wish me to renew our heartfelt sympathy to the Government of Pakistan and to the people in the stricken areas.

It is vital that relief operations should not be hindered by lack of funds. Accordingly, the Government decided to set aside a further sum of £500,000 for the provision of relief supplies. We will if necessary be ready to make available additional funds for relief and rehabilitation as the operation develops.

Some relief supplies in aircraft of the Royal Air Force have already reached East Pakistan from Singapore. The main immediate need, however, is for transport for the distribution of relief. To meet this, 13 powered assault boats have been delivered to Dacca and more will follow. Two further consignments of medical stores and other supplies purchased in Singapore by Her Majesty's Government and by private relief agencies are due to leave as soon as loads can be assembled. Further flights are planned.

H.M.S. "Intrepid", an 11,000 ton assault ship, and H.M.S. "Triumph", a heavy repair ship with a landing deck, are due to sail tomorrow morning from Singapore to the Bay of Bengal. They will between them by carrying helicopters and assault craft for the distribution of relief supplies and to help in any other way they can. They will also carry relief stores. A logistics ship, the "Sir Galahad", is also being diverted to the area, after disembarking her present load. In addition to their other capabilities, these ships can produce drinking water. H.M.S. "Hydra", a survey ship, is also on her way from the Malacca Straits and will be able to assist in working out new navigational channels. Finally, a reconnaissance party with two helicopters will be flown to Dacca tonight to determine how best H.M. ships and aircraft can help when they arrive.

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Overseas Development, who is flying to Pakistan today, will also be informing the Pakistan Government that we are prepared to offer long-term assistance in the form of food under the Food Aid Convention to the value of £500,000. This, will inevitably take some time to procure and ship. During his visit my right hon. Friend should be able to assess personally not only the Pakistan Government's immediate needs but also to discuss longer term plans for the stricken area.

Before the disaster, we had informed the Pakistan Government that we were ready to participate in an international aid effort for flood control in East Pakistan as part of our aid programme to that country. Plans for such a programme of flood control were in fact being drawn up with the co-operation of the World Bank when the cyclone hit the area on 13th November. These plans will no doubt now require to be revised and there will clearly be a long term need for assistance in which the British Government will be prepared to participate.

Mr. Healey

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the whole House, and indeed the whole country, will welcome his statement? It has been clear for some time that the magnitude of the disaster justifies far greater aid than was thought necessary a few days ago. Indeed, this is one of the most tragic catastrophes in recorded history. The magnitude of the assistance now so generously offered is more commensurate with the scale of the need, and I am particularly glad, and I think that everybody will be glad, that the Government are looking at the possibility of long-term assistance as well as shorter term assistance.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that this disaster has revealed the urgent need for some international contingency planning to deal with international disasters on this scale? Can the right hon. Gentleman assure the House that Her Majesty's Government will take the initiative in making proposals to the United Nations or elsewhere to see whether some permanent standing organisation to deal with situations of this sort can be established?

Finally, as a small point, will the right hon. Gentleman consider the possibility of using hovercraft in this area, which seems particularly suited to the capabilities of this type of craft?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I will certainly look into the last point. I will also consider the question of international planning of relief for disasters of this kind so that there may be something in being when these terrible disasters strike.

Sir R. Cary

May I reinforce what has been said by the right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey)? Will my right hon. Friend, with other strong and powerful Governments, take immediate steps to create an international organisation which can deal with disasters of this character, be they hurricane, flood or earthquake?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

Yes. I said that we would give favourable consideration to that matter.

Mr. Prentice

May I press the right hon. Gentleman on the last point? The need for a standing international organisation has been recognised for many years. It was formally recognised at the Skopje conference in 1966. But the urgency seems to go out of the situation once a disaster disappears from the headlines. Will Her Majesty's Government follow up this matter with a greater sense of urgency? Is there not a need for a permanent cadre of people, with skilled personnel, supplies and transport available, to go into action urgently when a disaster of this kind occurs anywhere in the world?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

The right hon. Gentleman is quite accurate on the history when he says that the planning stops when a disaster recedes. We must look at this matter afresh with a new sense of urgency.

Mr. Tapsell

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the most immediately urgent need seems to be for helicopters capable of dropping supplies within the next 48 or 72 hours? Is it not possible for us to send helicopters there in that period in addition to the two which my right hon. Friend mentioned which are to be used just for reconnaissance?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

There will be additional helicopters. The "Intrepid" carries helicopters. As a result of our contribution, plus the American contribution, about 14 helicopters will be on the job quite quickly.

Mr. Thorpe

The whole world has been shocked and saddened by the disaster, and the right hon. Gentleman will be aware that the House and the country will back the Government in whatever assistance they can give.

First, may we take it that the Minister for Overseas Development will be having very full discussions to find out whether nurses, technicians or other personnel are required? Secondly, may I reiterate what every other hon. and right hon. Gentleman who has spoken has said, namely, that it is vital that we try to get an emergency international organisation set up through the United Nations, because aid is most needed within a few hours of catastrophes of this kind overtaking people?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

Yes. It is my right hon. Friend's purpose to discover for himself what is needed, and if nurses and personnel are required in addition to what we have already there, certainly he will report and will be able to help in this matter.

Mr. Braine

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the statement he has made today will be welcomed by the whole House and the nation as evidence that we shall spare no effort to bring succour to the suffering people of East Pakistan? In looking to the future, is my right hon. Friend aware that the path of the cyclone which hit East Pakistan had been tracked for several days before by weather satellites, but that the organisation and the knowledge to cope with this was lacking in East Pakistan? Does this not underline the necessity for some international organisation to give early warning in regard to this sort of natural disaster? Will Her Majesty's Government therefore take the initiative in making such a proposal?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

Yes. I have said, in response to many questions, that we will most carefully look at this and see whether some initiative can be taken which will help to anticipate disasters of this kind and therefore save life.

Mr. Bidwell

To what extent has the right hon. Gentleman been in consultation with the United States about their part in providing aid in that area? Has it been suggested that they might use some of the military equipment and helicopters now operating in the Indo-China area?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

It must be for the United States to say where they bring their helicopters and boats from. There are many international contributions. Contributions have been made by many different countries. The United States has, among other things, granted 50,000 tons of wheat, I think at a cost of about 5 million dollars. But they are also helping with helicopters.

Mr. Burden

Has consideration been given to the possibility of obtaining helicopters from other than Forces sources, because they might be available much more quickly and of much more use to the sort of work to be carried out?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

Yes. The Commander-in-Chief, South-East Asia, has appointed a liaison officer to the Pakistan Mission which is co-ordinating all the relief activities. If more helicopters are wanted they can be obtained. One difficulty at the moment is fuel. I think probably they are employing as many helicopters as they can at present.

Mr. Alfred Morris

While welcoming the increased scale of aid, may I ask whether the right hon. Gentleman is satisfied that it is a big enough contribution from one Commonwealth country to another? Moreover, has he seen the statement made on behalf of the British group of the Interparliamentary Union at the recent annual congress at The Hague on the need for a world disaster stockpile documenting the points made by my right hon. Friend? Will he urgently, from the Foreign Office, request a copy of that statement?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

Yes, I can certainly do that. I am not satisfied that the amount of aid which we have promised is necessarily enough. That is why I have said £500,000 now is to make certain that there is no shortage of money for immediate needs. But I also added that we were willing to make available additional funds.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

Is not the immediate problem one of transport rather than stocks, and could my right hon. Friend say what is the position regarding the supply of landing craft?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

H.M.S. "Intrepid" has dock facilities of its own. As I said, I think there are 13 landing craft that are now in a position to operate. But of course, H.M.S. "Intrepid" is so equipped that it could make a headquarters for this operation—we have to discuss that with the Pakistan Government. We will favourably consider this if it is thought right.

Mr. Shore

As regards aid, the speed with which it arrives is crucial. I wonder if the Foreign Secretary can tell us when the various aid measures we are taking are likely to arrive in the disaster area?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

Some are arriving tonight and some tomorrow. We hope to be able to begin the distribution of some of these supplies as soon as it is known exactly what is the best plan on which to operate.

Sir F. Bennett

We are all delighted to hear about the thoughts on long-term assistance, and by that I mean also taking precautions that this sort of thing does not happen again. But all this takes a long time. One organisation in that part of the world, the Colombo Plan, has both resources and organisation. My right hon. Friend might think it worth considering using some of the funds of that organisation to get things going, without all the delay in setting up a new organisation.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

That can be considered.

Mr. Wellbeloved

In considering the long-term organisation for dealing with international disasters of this nature, can the Foreign Secretary confirm that it is the continuing policy of the Government to support the N.A.T.O. Committee on the Challenge of Modern Society, which, as he is aware, is dealing in discussions with setting up disaster funds and organisations for these specific purposes.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I am glad to say that the S.E.A.T.O. Alliance has made a contribution to this particular disaster.

Mr. Wilkinson

While welcoming most wholeheartedly the generous aid promised by my right hon. Friend, will he please inform the House clearly that there is still a great need for private aid and assistance, and particularly, draw attention to the magnanimous gesture of the Lord Mayor of Bradford, where many Pakistanis reside, to which members of the general public may subscribe?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

Perhaps I ought to mention some of the private efforts being made. For example, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution has chartered an aeroplane, to leave London on Saturday, carrying 30 tons of food and medical supplies. And there has been a great response from the public.

Mrs. Hart

I understand that the Secretary General of the United Nations has had before him for some time the question of the possible creation of an international agency which could prevent the agonising delays we are seeing in this case. Would the Foreign Secretary undertake to inform the House, in whatever way he thinks suitable, what the present state of play is about that, and what further initiative he plans to take when he has had an opportunity of looking into the whole question.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

Yes, Sir.

Mr. Allason

My right hon. Friend has spoken about the supply of helicopters. Is it not the heavy helicopters which are required? Can he make a statement about that?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

The helicopters in H.M.S. "Intrepid" are the heavy helicopters.

Mr. Alexander W. Lyon

Could the Foreign Secretary assure us that the welcomed assistance he is giving will not come out of the money allocated to the Ministry for Overseas Development for future aid development? Otherwise, the relief of suffering in this part of the world will be paid for by deprivation and suffering in other parts of the world.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

We will examine this. I think my right hon. Friend will be talking to the Pakistan Government about it. And the long-term assistance in the form of food was to be offered under the Food Aid Convention to the value of £500,000. I will examine this matter.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. This is indeed a grave matter, but I must protect the business of the House.

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