HC Deb 08 June 1971 vol 818 cc862-76
The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Sir Alec Douglas-Home)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I should like to make a statement.

Since the House debated the situation in Pakistan there has been a serious deterioration due to the flow of refugees from East Pakistan into India. The number is now estimated as upwards of 4 million.

It was clear in April that events in East Pakistan could be followed by the gravest consequences, particularly in relation to food supplies. That is why, when the American Secretary of State was here for the South-East Asia Treaty Organisation meeting, we jointly approached the Secretary-General of the United Nations and urged him to establish a United Nations team in East Pakistan so as to estimate future needs and to organise international relief on an adequate scale.

To the first appeal for money issued by U Thant in relation to the refugees in India, Her Majesty's Government subscribed £1 million on the following day, the money to be used for that relief which seemed to those on the spot to be most urgent. In addition, we have pledged £750,000 worth of food. Of the contributions made in the two weeks following the appeal, Her Majesty's Government's represented 30 to 40 per cent. of the total subscribed. Other countries have subscribed direct to the Indian Government and I am glad to say that more are now subscribing to the United Nations relief effort, but much more is required if the Secretary-General's target of 175 million dollars is to be reached.

We have also promised to give more when we are told by those working on the spot what assistance is more urgently required. We made this immediate grant to ensure that the United Nations would not be short of funds and that essential needs would be met while the necessary international organisation was being set up to co-ordinate relief.

With the increasing flood of refugees and the declaration by the Indian Government of a cholera epidemic on 4th June certain priorities can now be identified—shelter, medical supplies, transport and food.

To help towards the first, the British charities sent tents out as early as 6th May in transport for which Her Majesty's Government have paid. We are now arranging to send large tents from Singapore. As I announced yesterday, we are prepared to pay for cholera vaccine, syringes and saline fluid, so that finance need cause no delay. Two mass injectors, over one million doses of vaccine and a mobile hospital have been despatched by the British charities. We have made available the transport necessary to make sure that the supplies arrive and we will continue to do this as necessary. I have told U Thant that we are ready to supply medical and qualified administrative staff. As far as food is concerned, our pledged aid will be channeled through the United Nations.

The response of the British charities to the challenge has been magnificent, but the size of this problem requires coordination and direction by a central body. The Indian Government have responded with generosity and resource but clearly the burden is such that it must not rest solely on them. Her Majesty's Government believe therefore that the responsibility must be assumed by the United Nations.

U Thant has appointed the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees as co-ordinator. The High Commissioner himself is now in Pakistan and has representatives on the ground in West Bengal and in East Pakistan.

I have told U Thant that we are ready to make further contributions in money and kind as the situation demands and that I hope the co-ordinator will ensure that all the help from public bodies and private sources will be applied to the best advantage.

There are three problems which are inter-related. The first is that of the refugees. To halt the flow and to arrange their return to Pakistan requires the restoration of confidence in East Pakistan which in turn depends upon a political settlement. Secondly there is the ability of the Pakistan economy to sustain life throughout the whole country. No new aid is being supplied, but to stop development schemes already under way would throw thousands out of work and simply add new areas of misery to an already heart-rending situation.

There is, finally, the possibility of widespread starvation later in the year in East Pakistan by reason of the disruption of communications and of a shortfall in the rice harvest. Plans must be made by the Pakistan Government in co-operation with the United Nations coordinator urgently to anticipate this need.

I will keep the House informed as the situation develops.

Mrs. Judith Hart

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that statement and very much share his own appreciation of the efforts of the British voluntary aid organisation. May I put three questions to him?

First, given the sheer scale of suffering and need, will he not consider giving substantially more now to assist the relief operations, both to U Thant's United Nations fund and directly to India, having regard to the fact that up to £2 million, even with the promise of more to come, is not a sufficient immediate measure of present British concern about the problem?

Second, as to the future aid programme to Pakistan, will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that, at the forthcoming meeting of the Pakistan aid consortium, against the background of the extremely serious foreign exchange and economic crisis in Pakistan, the Government will, as they have said, regard a peaceful political settlement as essential for any resumed or future aid programme?

Third, given that the effects of this conflict—a conflict which began within Pakistan—have now extended beyond the borders of Pakistan and constitute a very real threat to international peace and security in Asia, will the right hon. Gentleman agree that the matter can no longer be regarded as one of purely internal concern within Pakistan? Will he consider raising it as a matter of urgency within the Security Council or within some other suitable international body?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

The answer to the right hon. Lady's question about more money being made available now is that we will certainly consider whether that should be done. We have had no direct request from the Indian Government, though there will be a meeting of the Indian consortium on 17th June. I would rather wait to see if there is an Indian request, as we anticipate, at that time.

The Pakistan consortium on aid will meet before long. All the members of the consortium have made it clear to the Pakistan Government that there must be a proper political framework within which aid can be injected.

The answer to the right hon. Lady's final point about this not being an internal matter for Pakistan or India any longer, and about it being raised at the Security Council, is that this must be an issue first for Pakistan or India, and neither proposes taking such action at present.

Mr. Harold Wilson

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the whole House, and, I believe, all our constituents throughout the country, regard this in terms of sheer scale as the worst human tragedy that the world has known since the war, apart from war itself?

While certainly not at this stage wishing to approach this matter in anything of a censorious way, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman if he is aware that there is some feeling in the country that there seems to have been a lack of urgency over this matter? [HON. MEMBERS: "Nonsense."] If hon. Gentlemen opposite insist on interrupting, I must repeat what I said, which is that there is a feeling that there has been rather too much concern with "protocolaire" questions rather than getting on with the job of getting aid through.

Is the Foreign Secretary aware, for example, that it is several weeks since the Prime Minister asked me not to press him on a matter of urgency and importance and that the House has not had a report from him on that question in the weeks that have elapsed?

The right hon. Gentleman is now talking about waiting, on an important aspect of this, until 17th June. Will he make urgent representations, preferably here and now from the Government Dispatch Box, to the Leader of the House to discuss through the usual channels within a matter of hours whether the House can be given an opportunity to debate this urgent subject tomorrow? [HON. MEMBERS: "There will be a debate."] I said that we should debate this urgent matter. The aid debate tomorrow will be constrictive in terms of all the various aspects that hon. Members on both sides may wish to raise. It would be unfair if in a general aid debate most of the speeches were about Pakistan.

Will the right hon. Gentleman therefore urge his right hon. Friend to rearrange the business of the House—we do not want the Government to lose time—to make a debate on this important subject possible, perhaps by making the aid debate longer? This is one of the most urgent human problems we have ever had to face. We would be guilty of showing a lack of urgency if we did not arrange to debate this matter tomorrow.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

This is, of course, one of the most terrible tragedies we have seen for many a day, and nobody has ever sought to disguise that. The right hon. Gentleman spoke of urgency. Perhaps he did not hear what I said, which was that 40 per cent. of the help that had been given in this past week or so had come from the United Kingdom.

As for the date, to which I referred, of 17th June, that was mentioned because the right hon. Lady the Member for Lanark (Mrs. Hart) had asked me about a request from India. I understand that that is the date on which such a request is likely to be made by India in the consortium which will be meeting then. If between now and then anything extra is sought, we will supply it.

I hope that instead of concentrating on criticism of this country, which is not justified—[Interruption.]—the right hon. Gentleman will use his influence to help other people to subscribe to this international effort.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

While applauding the vigorous lead from the point of view of aid which has been given by Her Majesty's Government and which has been an example to the world, may I ask my right hon. Friend whether, through the Pakistan Government or through our Deputy High Commissioner at Dacca, he has been able to ascertain what are the factors which are causing this immense number of human beings to flee from their homes to a foreign country, whether these factors still continue and whether they can be reversed?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

The overriding influence on these people is fear. They fled because they felt that the Pakistan Army was using measures to suppress the population which were intolerable to them. They have, therefore, fled over the Indian frontier. The only way to get these refugees back is for a political settlement to be contrived which will give them the necessary confidence to return to their homes. I have seen the Pakistan High Commissioner frequently. We have impressed on the President of Pakistan the need for such a political settlement. He says that it is his intention to try to contrive this as soon as he possibly can. When that happens we will find some of the refugees returning, but I am afraid that they will not return until that happens.

Mr. Michael Stewart

Can the right hon. Gentleman explain why, at this stage, it is apparently proposed to withdraw Her Majesty's representative in Dacca; and what arrangements are being made to replace him?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

He is being withdrawn because he has been under severe strain and must have a short rest. We are replacing him now.

Mr. Dodds-Parker

To what extent are the facilities, personnel and supplies in Singapore proving useful in this eventuality?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

We have been able to use aircraft from Singapore and we have been able to supply between 30 and 40 large marquees, as well as other forms of shelter, from Singapore. This has been a useful place, therefore, and we have used it as much as possible.

Mr. David Steel

Were the Government aware of the report of the co-ordinator of the British charities dated 7th April, three months ago, forecasting the indescribably desperate situation which, alas, has occurred? If so, is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied that there has been enough co-ordination between his Department and the Ministry of Defence and between the British Government and other Governments about the use of military aircraft to speed up the delivery of urgently required supplies to this area?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I think it is true to say that all the transport that is required can be provided and that there is some to spare if further requests are made in the next few days or weeks.

Sir H. Legge-Bourke

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the prompt action which Her Majesty's Government have taken in this matter and the measure of what they have done well expresses the feelings of the whole nation over this issue?

Will my right hon. Friend give particular consideration to a problem which seems to be arising in the acutest possible form, namely, the need to prevent these refugees from getting into Calcutta? Is he aware that this prevention may have to take priority over cure from the cholera point of view? This being so, will he give as full consideration as possible to any request that he may receive from the Indian Government for Commonwealth co-operation to help to provide physical strength on the ground to prevent the refugees from getting to Calcutta?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I understand that the Indian Government feel that they have this matter under control. However, if they want any help they have only to ask for it.

Mr. Douglas-Mann

I appreciate what the Foreign Secretary has said about the necessity to achieve a political solution if the refugees are to return home. Is he ruling out not only the suspension of development aid, to which he referred in his statement, but a restriction on credit, in view of the fact that the Pakistan authorities will not be able to continue with this war unless the rest of the world provides them with the finance? Will he seek to ensure not only that we but other international organisations are not providing the money with which Pakistan can continue this war?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

We are not providing money for Pakistan to continue the war. The aid that we are giving to Pakistan is strictly related to development projects; these provide employment, and I have pointed out that if this were stopped serious misery would be caused. I see no point in doing that and thereby adding another area of misery to that which already exists. However, the consortium will give careful consideration to the conditions under which aid should go to Pakistan.

Sir F. Bennett

Recent reports suggest that the refugees are increasingly and predominantly Hindu. Can my right hon. Friend confirm or deny these reports? It is obvious, looking back to 1947, that a different situation now arises. If they are leaving on communal religious grounds, then the question of fear being removed—my right hon. Friend referred to this in answer to an earlier supplementary question—would not seem to have any effect, because the bulk of those who went out of India into Pakistan and out of Pakistan into India never in fact returned to their homes.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I think that fear is the overriding influence.

Mr. Alfred Morris

Does the right hon. Gentleman recall his reply of 24th November about my proposal for a world disaster stockpile, a suggestion which I made at the I.P.U. Conference at the Hague? Does he recall using the word "urgency" and saying that he would act urgently in the matter? Could not this have been the subject of an important British initiative?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I hope the hon. Gentleman will not accuse me of dragging my feet, as I think he did yesterday, after I tell him what I did. I wrote then to the Secretary-General of the United Nations. He set up machinery to examine the possibility of a permanent body to try to use preventive action so that we could anticipate the worst dangers in advance of such tragedies. The report is coming out in a month's time. If that report can be expedited, I will ask the Secretary-General to do so, but he has given very full consideration to these possibilities.

Sir R. Thompson

Is my right hon. Friend satisfied with the arrangements in hand for the co-ordination of the flow of foreign aid to this disaster? Is he aware that all kinds of aid from voluntary and governmental sources will converge on to an area where administration is virtually collapsing? Does he think that the United Nations will have the necessary resources to inject personnel capable of dealing with this, and might it not be wiser to ask the Indian Government to devote additional personnel to handle this, which is their problem on their own ground?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I do not think that the administration is in a state of collapse. The Indian Government are doing a great deal, and it is for them to judge whether they can do more. What is wanted is co-ordination of all the supplies of aid which are coming from overseas. This cannot be put on the shoulders of the Indian Government alone, but must be undertaken by the United Nations co-ordinator. He and his team are now on the spot. We have offered U Thant help and administrative personnel, and we will send them if he requires them.

Mr. Shore

I welcome the aid which has been given and the further aid pledged by the Foreign Secretary to help the refugees, but is not the heart of the matter the policy of the Pakistan Government in East Bengal which is continuing to cause the efflux of refugees across the border? Has the Foreign Secretary any suggestions or proposals to make to ease the situation and help to bring forward the political settlement which he rightly believes is the only possible answer?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

The first thing to do is to carry conviction with the President of Pakistan that such a settlement is absolutely necessary if this country is to be reunited. I think that the President of Pakistan is convinced of this. He tells us that he is busily engaged in trying to create the political structure on the ground in East Pakistan which will give the necessary confidence to the refugees to return. I gather that he has acquainted the High Commissioner for Refugees with the prospect of some political settlement in East Pakistan which may give confidence to some of the refugees to return. I do not think that we can do anything more at the moment, but I am naturally keeping a very close eye on this.

Mr. Longden

While welcoming what my right hon. Friend has said, and in no way criticising Her Majesty's Government for what they have done, may I revert to the future? Why is it that there are inevitably these endless, unconscionable delays between the happening of an international catastrophe and the world's waking up to do something about it? Why has not the United Nations long since set up this central body on a permanent basis?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

This is a matter for the United Nations. I told the hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Alfred Morris) of the initiative I took following the proposal he had made. I hope that the examination by U Thant will reveal that it is possible to set up such a body, so that we can lay hands on medical supplies and personnel as required and in good time, not missing the vital days so often missed when emergencies take place. The report, as I say, is coming out shortly.

Mr. Carter-Jones

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his statement about the help which has already been given to India, but do not his figures reveal that the amount of aid required is out of all proportion to the amount of aid already given, and that what is needed is a massive demonstration of what can be done for these suffering millions now?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I am sure that there will be enough money. What is wanted now on the ground is organisation and administration, in the hope that the cholera epidemic can be checked. The equipment is there, the vaccine is there and there is enough saline there, and one hopes that the epidemic will be controlled.

Mr. Tom King

I appreciate the short-term concern about this urgent problem, but does not my right hon. Friend agree that East Pakistan is the clearest warning of what the population explosion problem will present to the world? Does he not recognise the need for Her Majesty's Government to give greater urgency to world discussion of this problem?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

The Indian Government have taken an initiative in this matter, and certainly Her Majesty's Government are interested in the point my hon. Friend has raised.

Mr. John Mendelson

With reference to an earlier reply made by the Foreign Secretary to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, my experience, which must have been that of other hon. Members during the last few days, is that when I have deliberately quoted all that Her Majesty's Government are already doing many constituents of all political and religious persuasions have asked whether there could not be more urgency and whether there has not been too much delay. It is the duty of hon. Members to raise this matter here and the Foreign Secretary should welcome the opportunity to reply and not be irritable about it. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] I knew this would be controversial, but the right hon. Gentleman should welcome the opportunity to reply to questions genuinely raised. Has not the time now come to go beyond relief and ask the President of Pakistan to accept a United Nations Commission in East Pakistan so that the people who are afraid to return or to stay could have international supervision to make them feel more secure?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

There is now an international team in Pakistan assessing the need for aid. I must remind the hon. Gentleman that Pakistan is an independent country and we cannot dictate a political settlement. I hope that I showed no irritation at the right hon. Gentleman, but I think I am justified in asking the House when we have done so much to recognise that and perhaps urge other people to do more.

Mr. Braine

My right hon. Friend has indicated this afternoon that a catastrophe of even greater proportions will loom ahead in East Pakistan as a result of the failure of crops and the break-down of communications. In view of the slowness of the United Nations to respond to this terrible situation, will my right hon. Friend say whether there could be preliminary talks with the food-producing Commonwealth countries—Canada, Australia and New Zealand in particular—about stock-piling against the day when food on a massive scale may be required?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

This is why the Americn Secretary of State and I took the initiative we did in April. Now there is a United Nations team on the spot which should be able to assess quickly what the needs may be in September, October and November. I will certainly press for that estimate and if we can assist by alerting Commonwealth countries to the possible need to supply food and keep it in reserve, I will do so.

Mr. Stonehouse

Is the Foreign Secretary aware that there is widespread appreciation among the charities in Britain of the humane and sympathetic way in which he responded to their requests? Reverting to the earlier answer he gave about approaches to the United Nations, does not he appreciate that there are special reasons why India has not asked for this to be raised? India does not wish to be accused of trying to stir up trouble in East Bengal, and has been meticulous about that. If the Foreign Secretary will discuss this question with the Indian Foreign Minister when he arrives next week, and if the Indians feel that they would like this to be raised in the Security Council, will the Foreign Secretary do so on behalf of Her Majesty's Government and of the world community who are now utterly disgusted that a military régime is suppressing the population of East Bengal in the way the Foreign Secretary revealed in answer to the question raised by his right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter)?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

Of course I will talk over all these matters with the Indian Foreign Minister. If the Indian Government make a direct request to us for assistance we shall of course consider it favourably. I hope I made it clear to the right hon. Lady and others that we accept no limit to the additional money we could give. We want to see what is needed, and we will give more money if it is required. The question of the Security Council must be for the Indian Government.

Mr. Harold Wilson

Will the Foreign Secretary or, if he prefers, his right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, now say whether he is prepared to have discussions through the usual channels so that there can be an urgent debate? It would not be the intention of anyone in the House to make it a debate in which there would be a vote, but the concern shown by the whole House on the problem, both national and international, surely justifies a debate. May I further ask the right hon. Gentleman, or whoever answers, if he is aware that there will naturally be a desire for a Standing Order No. 9 Adjournment debate, which might be difficult because of the aid debate. The aid debate is not the right way for this subject to be handled, because many of the questions put to the right hon. Gentleman, and many of his answers, go far wider than would be in order in a debate on aid.

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. William Whitelaw)

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I fully appreciate the concern of the House in this matter. Tomorrow, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, it has been planned to have a debate on aid on the Motion for the Adjournment of the House. What is raised on the Motion for the Adjournment is not for us but will naturally range widely. Of course, I am prepared to discuss through the usual channels the possibility of seeing whether today and tomorrow might be split between these two subjects, or some similar arrangement. I am very ready to have discussions through the usual channels.

Mr. Harold Wilson

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his ready response. We shall be ready to co-operate in such a way that the Government do not lose Government time: for instance, by having a debate until 7 o'clock or 8 o'clock on the problem of India and Pakistan and then, if the House is agreeable, extending the period so that there could still be a reasonably full debate thereafter on all other aid aspects.

Mr. Barnes

I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House under Standing Order No. 9 for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration, namely, the need for the British Government to increase greatly their contribution towards providing for the refugees who have come from East Pakistan to India, and at the same time to clarify their policy towards Pakistan. I realise that there is an overseas aid debate tomorrow, but the question of Britain's contribution is so urgent and so specific that it would be entirely wrong for it to become submerged in a general overseas aid debate. Secondly, it should be known in this House that there is considerable confusion in India and also in the British High Commission about exactly where Britain stands on the question of coming to the rescue of the Pakistan economy, which is a totally separate question from the overseas aid commitments referred to by the Foreign Secretary and which are to be debated tomorrow.

For these reasons and in view of the great concern both in the country at large and in the Press, I beg to suggest that this is a fit subject to be debated specifically on its own as an emergency tomorrow.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member asks leave to move the Adjournment of the House under Standing Order No. 9 for the purpose of discussing a specific and urgent matter of public importance, namely, the need for the British Government to increase greatly their contribution towards providing for the refugees who have come from East Pakistan to India, and at the same time to clarify their policy towards Pakistan. Under Standing Order No. 9, Mr. Speaker is assumed to take account of the factors set out in the Standing Order and also, I think, to take note of what takes place on the Floor of the House. Having regard to these matters, I have considered the hon. Member's application, of which the hon. Member was kind enough to give me notice, but I am afraid that I cannot accede to his request.


Mr. Whitelaw

In view of the exchanges I had with the Leader of the Opposition, it might be helpful for the House to know that discussions have already taken place through the usual channels. It is proposed that tomorrow's debate on the Adjournment—the situation in Pakistan—should continue till about eight o'clock and that the debate on aid should start thereafter, with a suspension of the Rule for one hour for that debate till about eleven o'clock. The Orders of the Day will be taken thereafter. I hope that this arrangement will be considered satisfactory to the House and that at the same time it will be thought that adequate notice has been given to the House of the change in tomorrow's business.