HC Deb 24 April 1972 vol 835 cc1039-42
13. Mr. Barnes

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what information he has from the Commonwealth Secretariat about the admission of Bangladesh to the Commonwealth.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

As the Commonwealth Secretary-General announced last week, Bangladesh has now been admitted to the Commonwealth. This is welcome news and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister sent a message to Sheik Mujib to say so.

Mr. Barnes

I warmly welcome the admission of Bangladesh to the Commonwealth. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is encouraging for the future of the Commonwealth that a new nation such as Bangladesh should set the value which it appears to have done on Commonwealth membership? Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House when he expects to visit Bangladesh?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I agree with the hon. Gentleman on the first part of his question. I hope to visit Bangladesh at either the end of June or the beginning of July.

Mr. Mather

Has my right hon. Friend any information about the release of Pakistani prisoners of war by Bangladesh?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

Not as yet. Most of the prisoners of war are in India. If my hon. Friend would like a more detailed answer, perhaps he would put down a Question.

22. Mr. Woodhouse

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if, in the course of discussions on continuing aid to Bangladesh, he will make representations to the Government on the desirability of humane treatment of the Bihari population.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

This is, of course, primarily a matter for the Bangladesh Government, but it has inevitably arisen in the course of my exchanges with them. Sheik Mujibur Rahman has assured me that he has taken all measures necessary for ensuring the safety and security of the minorities. The International Red Cross has been concerned with the welfare of the Biharis and Her Majesty's Government have given financial support for its work.

Mr. Woodhouse

I am obliged to my right hon. Friend for that reply, and I appreciate the caution with which he has to approach a matter of this kind, but would it not at least be reasonable to point out to the Government of Bangladesh that the number of Biharis in Bangladesh is about the same as the number of Bengalis in West Pakistan, and the latter have not been molested in any way whatever?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I should correct my hon. Friend's figures. There are about 1 million Biharis in Bangladesh and 200,000 Bengalis in Pakistan, so there is a discrepancy there. I believe that Sheik Mujib wants, about all, that the Biharis should be able to live peacefully in Bangladesh, and I think that this is the right answer. There may be some exchanges arranged, but my hon. Friend will see the magnitude of the task if it is to be extended very far.

Mr. Tinn

Have we had independent confirmation of Sheik Mujib's assurance regarding the security of the Biharis either from our own relief teams in Dacca or from our mission there?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

Yes, Sir; we have constant reports from our mission there, and we have reports also from the International Red Cross. At one time there was a fear that there might be risings and massacres but, happily, very little has occurred, and one must hope that the Biharis will be safe in Bangladesh. As I say, the possibility of a limited exchange is one matter, but the problem is very large, as the hon. Gentleman realises.

30. Mr. Leslie Huckfield

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs whether he will make a statement about British aid or technical assistance towards the rebuilding of the Hardinge Bridge in north-west Bangladesh.

The Minister for Overseas Development (Mr. Richard Wood)

At the request of the Bangladesh Government, we have concluded a contract with Selco Ltd., a Singapore firm, to remove and salvage the fallen spans of the Hardinge and King George VI railway bridges. We havealso engaged a British firm of consulting engineers to supervise this work.

Mr. Huckfield

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that that news will be greatly welcomed by the Government of Bangladesh, particularly as we built this bridge originally and should, in my view, have some responsibility for it? Will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that this project goes through in the fastest possible manner to enable Indian grain trains to get through before the monsoon season starts?

Mr. Wood

I understand the urgency of the matter. The firm started mobilising vessels and equipment 10 days ago and the consulting engineer has been discussing with the company recently and hopes to be in Dacca today, so no time should be lost.

Mr. Douglas-Mann

While also welcoming the news which the right hon. Gentleman has announced, may I ask whether he is aware that the most acute problem in Bangladesh is that of transport? Does he appreciate that the measures which he has announced represent one important step forward but that other forms of aid, particularly those directed to the transport of food and materials, and especially housing materials, are urgently required and that the rest of the developed world could be of great assistance in this respect at comparatively small cost?

Mr. Wood

Further Questions appear on the Order Paper about Bangladesh and I am sure that when they are answered the hon. Gentleman will learn the other information he requires.

The following Questions stood upon the Order Paper:


To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will give the latest convenient figures for British aid to Bangladesh.


To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a further statement on British aid to Bangladesh.

34. Mr. BARNES

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he is now in a position to make a further statement about British aid for Bangladesh.


To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, and Commonwealth Affairs if he will help Bangladesh to avoid the danger of famine by sending trucks, buses, boats, fuel and technicians as requested publicly by Sheik Mujibur Rahman on 14th March.

37. Mr. TORNEY

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what further action he proposes to aid Bangladesh.

Mr. Speaker

I understand that the Foreign Secretary wishes to answer Questions Nos. 32, 33, 34, 36 and 37 at the end of Question Time.

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