HC Deb 14 February 1984 vol 54 cc127-9 3.33 pm
Mr. Guy Barnett (Greenwich)

(by private notice) asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs whether he will make a statement on the British Government's response to the flood disaster affecting south Mozambique.

The Minister for Overseas Development (Mr. Timothy Raison)

The Government heard with the greatest concern of the devastation and flooding caused in Mozambique, Swaziland and part of South Africa by the recent cyclone. Last Sunday, we sent relief supplies by air freight to the British embassy in Maputo for the Mozambique authorities. These consist of 415 tents, 12,500 blankets, 500,000 water-purifying tablets and 200 cases of tinned meat. The total cost was £205,000. We are also making one Land Rover available to Oxfam for flood relief work. This will cost about £10,000.

Just before the cyclone struck, we had provided drought relief, which can also help flood victims. This relief consists of four Leyland lorries, 150 tonnes of protein-enriched soup powder and seeds, worth in all about £100,000. Part of this is still to be delivered. We are also providing substantial assistance to Swaziland.

Mr. Barnett

I am grateful to the Minister for his statement. Millions of people will have been horrified by the pictures on television last night of the disaster of huge dimensions that has struck particularly Mozambique as a result of the cyclone to which he referred. Is he aware that a serious crisis faces the whole of the Southern Africa Development Co-ordination Conference countries because of the three years of drought and of the double blow that has hit south Mozambique?

The Minister was present at the Lusaka SADC conference. What requests were made to him then for help? Were the reports true that he offered no new funds on that occasion? Does he realise that Mozambique is facing a tragedy of enormous proportions, that hundreds of people are dying, that $75 million worth of damage has already been done, that newly planted crops have been destroyed and cattle lost, and that there is a desperate need for a large quantity of food, clothing and medicines? Does he agree that a major response is needed from this country? Will a disaster relief committee be set up to centralise voluntary assistance?

Mr. Raison

The hon. Gentleman has strayed a little wide of the private notice question. Of course, I am very much aware both of the scale of the immediate disaster caused by the cyclone and of the great problem of drought in southern Africa. We have acted in conjuction with our partners in this matter. We are prepared to consider further requests to deal with the problem of the cyclone. Of course, we have continuing programmes of food and other forms of aid. We have recently started to provide a substantial programme for Mozambique.

Mr. Matthew Parris (Derbyshire, West)

As one who knows that part of southern Africa very well, having been at school there for 10 years, may I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his prompt and effective response to the problem and hope that it will be sustained and, if necessary, amplified as events demand?

Mr. Raison

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he has just said. May I add that I have arranged for a team of four highway engineers to spend up to three months in Swaziland to help to assess and carry out repairs to roads and bridges? I have also told the Swazi authorities that we can provide immediate reconstruction aid of up to £600,000 for this financial year.

Mr. Ted Rowlands (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney)

Having witnessed personally in the last fortnight the terrible devastation and heartbreaking consequences of the cyclone in southern Mozambique, may I underline the situation? After many have suffered death by drought, there is now death by drowning for many others. In village after village and district after district that I visited during the past fortnight there were simple requests. The first was for seeds because they have no seeds to plant. We must be concerned not only about present starvation but possible future starvation. Secondly, they want British water pumps from Listers, a British company that every village and every community admires. Thirdly, bridges have been destroyed in the rural communities in southern Mozambique, not just between Swaziland, South Africa and Mozambique. They need bridges, something we are very good at providing. I acknowledge the effort the Government have already made, but could they not respond to simple demands which we could answer effectively?

Mr. Raison

I have already said that we will consider further requests as they come in. I was, of course, aware that the hon. Gentleman has just been there, and I shall be happy to have a talk with him about the points he has made.

Mr. Michael Morris (Northampton, South)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Government's prompt response is welcome? Has Her Majesty's ambassador an element of discretion in making payments, because in the end the person on the ground is better able than anyone in London to make decisions? Can the Minister expand on whether we are giving extra medical supplies?

Mr. Raison

Ambassadors have very small sums of money which are spent at their discretion, but, of course, they report promptly to us on what they believe to be the needs involved, and we then consider them most carefully. My Department's record on handling disaster problems has, I think, been very good. I cannot add to what I have said about medical supplies, but I shall be happy to talk to my hon. Friend, if he so wishes.

Mr. Russell Johnston (Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber)

Can the Minister confirm that part of the disaster — the washing away of a village called Salamanga, with a population of about 3,000—was due to the South Africans opening a dam on the Maputo? If so, will he make representations to the South African Government to the effect that they should make reparations?

Mr. Raison

I have seen a report to that effect, but I am afraid that I do not know the facts. I shall certainly inquire into them.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Crawley)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the prompt action that he has taken. Does not he agree that there is great sympathy throughout the country for the intolerable suffering that goes on in many Third world countries? However exemplary the Government's programme may be, will my right hon. Friend persuade his right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary to grant his Department more money so that we may do more and more for these poor people?

Mr. Raison

I share my hon. Friend's view about the concern over such events. In response to his question about the Department's budget, I should point out that we are bound by the Government's general public expenditure policy. However, if in time our economy strengthens and more money is available, we will not have any difficulty in spending it.

Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East)

Notwithstanding the terrible tragedy of a flood following a drought and the fact that 100,000 people in the region have died as a result, is not the real problem a lack of distribution of home-grown or imported grain that is caused by South Africa's backing of terrorism and by the fact that southern Mozambique is controlled by terrorists who prevent food from reaching those people?

Mr. Raison

Many different factors contribute to the problem, but it is unquestionable that drought is predominant among them. No doubt the hon. Gentleman will have noticed that recently the Mozambique authorities and the South Africans have been engaging in talks.

Mr. Stuart Holland (Vauxhall)

The Minister will be aware that there is great concern on both sides of the House about the scale of the problems caused by the drought. He must also be aware that some of the measures that he has proposed are pitiful. That is clear, in that he has been talking about making available one Land Rover for an Oxfam programme although it clearly had already been scheduled. Surely the Minister is aware that Oxfam and others have argued that, in long-term development planning, attention should be paid, in particular, to the crises caused by weather and rapid weather changes. Will he take advantage of that emphasis in his Department and of the disaster response unit which was established by my right hon. Friend the Member for Clydesdale (Dame J. Hart) 10 years ago? Will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that he takes the initiative in finding out how the Government can give aid instead of waiting for the Mozambique authorities to come to him?

Mr. Raison

Our missions are in close touch with the Governments of those countries concerned. It is for them to put formal requests to us, but plenty of consultation goes on. I believe that we have shown that we can respond promptly.