HC Deb 12 November 1984 vol 67 cc413-4
72. Mr. Alan Howarth

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what plans he has for improving the international co-ordination of disaster relief.

75. Mr. Chapman

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what initiatives he proposes to take to encourage the setting up of an effective international task force to help people on the outbreak of famine and after other major catastrophes.

Mr. Raison

I am not convinced that a new international body is needed. It may be that in relation to a particular crisis there is a need for special co-ordination beyond the role played by the United Nations disaster relief office, supported by other United Nations' agencies. In the case of Ethiopia, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has been in touch with the United Nations' secretary-general about special co-ordination requirements. He recently announced the appointment of Mr. Kurt Jansson, as assistant secretary-general for emergency operations in Ethiopia.

Mr. Howarth

I note what my right hon. Friend says, and I know of his strong humanitarian concern, but does he agree that it is utterly unacceptable that, whenever a great disaster occurs, whether it is famine, as in Ethiopia and sub-Saharan Africa now, or flood or earthquake, the fortunate nations of the world lack remotely adequate contingency plans to give help? Will the Government do everything in their power to ensure that the existing institutional arrangements are overhauled so that in future we shall have an effective international disaster relief agency, which is properly prepared to deal with crises and which has all the resources necessary to get help to the relevant areas rapidly and on an adequate scale?

Mr. Raison

I agree with my hon. Friend that we must be absolutely certain that we have the right mechanism for dealing with the disasters which the world must, sadly, face. I do not believe that a new organisation is necessarily the right answer. It is essential that we have proper plans to ensure that we can distribute aid when we are faced with such problems.

Mr. Chapman

I appreciate the work done by the United Nations disaster relief organisation, but, bearing in mind the outbreak of famine in Ethiopia and other African countries, does my right hon. Friend agree that the UN should be given more resources and greater responsibilities—for example, the gathering, storing and distributing of surplus food—if it is to do its job effectively?

Mr. Raison

There has been much talk about whether it is a good idea to have stockpiles. Having stockpiles in every area that might need them could be hideously expensive, but we must find the right answer. The world food programme projections for the arrival of grain at the port of Assab are 61,000 tonnes in December, 53,000 tonnes in January and 57,000 tonnes in February. Food is now being sent inland from Assab at the rate of 3,000 tonnes a day. That is a considerable quantity of food.

Mr. Buchan

Is not the point that we already have the stockpile? If we are looking for an international organisation, we have the Common Market, which has grain coming out of its ears. Will the Minister use his best efforts to ensure that the food is distributed quickly and will he remind his friend, the leader of the Tory group in Europe—Sir Henry Plumb—that we do not accept his cynical comment that grain stores should be sold? They have already been paid for and should be sent off to market.

Mr. Raison

It is essential to find the most effective way in which to handle the problem. I am committed to that. We have seen that food can be got hold of quickly, as can other emergency equipment. We are not suffering from a bottleneck in supplies.

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