HC Deb 02 December 1985 vol 88 cc16-7
49. Mr. Chapman

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what has been the cost of the Royal Air Force's contribution in distributing emergency aid in Ethiopia; and if he will make a statement about its future role in such situations.

Mr. Raison

As I announced last week, the British airlift, which has made such a magnificent contribution to relief operations in Ethiopia since November 1984, will be discontinued in the latter part of December. I expect the cost to have been about £21 million by the time the operation ends. The services have also made a valuable contribution to the recent relief operations in Mexico and Columbia. I am sure that the Ministry of Defence will continue to do all it can in the future.

Mr. Chapman

I applaud the initiative taken by the Government. Has my right hon. Friend estimated the number of lives that the airlift has saved? Will he confirm that the airlift is being withdrawn because there are sufficient lorries available for the distribution of food, and that roads that were impassable are again capable of use?

Mr. Raison

My hon. Friend has stated the reasons for withdrawing the airlift. I cannot give a realistic figure for the number of lives that have been saved, but about 31,000 tonnes of food aid have been airlifted over the past year, and the Royal Air Force has flown on average 10 hours every day since November 1984—a remarkable performance.

Mr. Stephen Ross

I add my congratulations to the RAF on its magnificent achievement. In view of the terrible happenings in Colombia and Mexico, is there not a case for this relief work to be put on a more permanent basis, if only in reserve?

Mr. Raison

If the hon. Gentleman reflects, he might feel that that is wrong. The valuable part of our contribution in Latin America has been the fact that we have been able to draw on the forces in Belize to operate rapidly. We could not possibly have forces dotted across the world for such a purpose.

Mr. Bowen Wells

I add my congratulations to the RAF, which has set such a fine example to all people in assisting those in dire need and famine conditions. In future, does my right hon. Friend intend to use more charter aircraft, in particular, to help Sudanese famine victims, where we also contributed Hercules transport planes for use as a bridge from east to west Sudan?

Mr. Raison

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his tribute to the RAF, which the House shares. Army air dispatchers have also played a valuable part in the airdrop operations in Ethiopia. It is true that we have used charter aircraft in the Sudan. It is our job to judge what is best and most suited to any emergency that may arise.

Mr. Fisher

Before the Minister made his decision to withdraw this excellent assistance, did he manage to have any discussions with the Ethiopian Government to assure himself that the most remote areas, which have received assistance by this route, will continue to get grain? Contrary to what the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Chapman) said, some areas on the higher plateaux cannot be reached by road.

Mr. Raison

I saw the head of the Ethiopian relief and rehabilitation commission, Major Dawit, and he told me that he had no complaint about our decision. There are and always will be remote areas, but I am satisfied that our decision is right and humane.