HC Deb 09 February 1976 vol 905 cc29-33
Mr. Douglas-Mann

(by Private Notice) asked the Minister for Overseas Development if he will make a statement concerning emergency aid to the earthquake victims in Guatemala.

The Minister for Overseas Development (Mr. Reg Prentice)

I am sure the whole House would wish to record our sense of shock at this disaster and our deep sympathy for the many thousands of bereaved, injured and homeless people.

Her Majesty's Government conveyed through the British Consul in Guatemala City an offer of immediate help as soon as the news of the disaster first reached London. The Guatemalan Foreign Minister conveyed his thanks on 5th February, indicating that Her Majesty's Government would be informed if help was needed when the position was a little clearer. From the outset, the Disaster Unit of the Ministry of Overseas Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have been in close touch with the United Nations Disaster Relief Co-ordinator and with the Disasters Emergency Committee of the voluntary agencies in this country; and, in view of the mounting evidence of human need and suffering, an aircraft has been chartered to take to Guatemala 250 tents, blankets, warm clothing and a sanitation unit. The operation is being jointly financed by Her Majesty's Government and the British voluntary societies. If the necessary clearance can be obtained from the Guatemalan authorities, the plane will leave Gatwick at 10 a.m. on Wednesday.

Mr. Douglas-Mann

While I accept that the statement of the Government's intentions and good wishes will be very much welcomed in the House and the country, may I ask my right hon. Friend to persist in his efforts to ensure that the Guatemalan authorities permit the allocation of the aid which we are so anxious to give? Will he seek to get the acceptance by the Guatemalan authorities of the assistance of the British forces stationed in Belize? Does he agree from past experience that the effects of these disasters are usually very much worse in the aftermath, in terms of deaths from starvation and disease following such disasters, than the immediate effects? Will he ask the Chancellor of the Ex-chequer for additional financial assistance so that we can give long-term rehabilitation aid in addition to and not in substitution for existing aid programmes?

Mr. Prentice

We hope that the Guatemalan authorities will accept the help in the form of the plane-load of relief supplies that I have mentioned and possibly an extension of this. The position at the moment is that massive help is coming from the United States and some Latin American countries, which are clearly in a better position to give immediate help. What is coming from Britain and other European countries at the moment is very small by comparison. But it is right that we should make contributions. It may be that relatively we can do more in the rehabilitation period rather than in the immediate period.

I am glad to tell the House that within the last half hour I have had some discussions with leaders of Oxfam. Their representatives in the country have now been given authority to operate extensively in the San Martin area. I am glad that the authorities are anxious and willing to make use of their help.

Sir Bernard Braine

From this side of the House, may I congratulate the Government on the prompt action they have taken so far? It is right that an immediate and generous response should be made to suffering in this and other natural disasters. Bearing in mind the Nicaraguan experience, however, can the right hon. Gentleman give some reassurance that aid, money and materials—whether from the Government or from the voluntary agencies—now flowing in can be used effectively and that the Guatemalan Government have the facilities to ensure that such aid is swiftly deployed and properly used?

Mr. Prentice

It is important that whatever aid is sent is sent with the agreement of and in co-ordination with the Guatemalan authorities. As the hon. Gentleman says, there is the danger that in these situations the facilities can get clogged with unsolicited supplies. Therefore, we are not sending the sort of help that is not required. For example, it has been made clear to us that expatriate medical staff are not required at this stage, and, therefore, there is no question of that. We shall be looking at this aspect carefully and keeping in very close touch with the situation on the ground through our consul and through the representatives of the voluntary agencies who are there.

Sir G. de Freitas

Does my right hon. Friend recall the excellent record of the RAF in disaster relief, and will he undertake to do all he can to use Service transport whenever it is available rather than outside contractors?

Mr. Prentice

Only if such assistance were welcomed by the Guatemalan authorities.

Mr. Kershaw

Does the Minister realise that the experience of the Nicaraguan disaster, which I saw, suggests that if we can help it would be desirable to do so on a permanent basis with a presence there rather than by a purely financial form of assistance which might be overlooked or forgotten by the Guatemalans?

Mr. Prentice

Help is being given by representatives of a number of voluntary agencies in this country. The supplies we are sending out are those which they think are relevant to the immediate situation and which have also been identified by the United Nations Disaster Relief Co-ordinator.

Dr. Bray

Will my right hon. Friend confirm news reports that, in contrast with the Nicaraguan disaster, freight is being cleared promptly from the airport, that there have been no observed incidents of looting or disorder by troops or police and that the aid being given is being used effectively?

Mr. Prentice

That is my information. None of the British aid has yet arrived. Most of the aid arriving at the moment is from the United States or other countries in North and South America. My information is that it is being disbursed effectively.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

In view of the anxiety among some British families about the mercifully few British people who are apparently in Guatemala, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he can say what is the position about the British Mission in Guatemala City? What arrangements are being made to notify families in this country of the whereabouts and the situation of their relatives as and when that is possible?

Mr. Prentice

That is not strictly a matter for me. I will convey the gist of the question to my right hon. Friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary. No doubt a letter will be sent to the hon. Member.

Mr. Tugendhat

May I confirm that everyone on the Conservative side of the House shares the Minister's shock and sympathy for the people of Guatemala? May I congratulate him on the speed with which his Department has reacted?