HC Deb 15 July 1985 vol 83 cc21-5
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

(by private notice) asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if the Government will urgently make available additional lorries to famine relief organisations in Ethiopia and Sudan.

3.34 pm
The Minister for Overseas Development (Mr. Timothy Raison)

I have decided to provide £1.6 million to Save the Children Fund for the purchase of 40 heavy trucks for Sudan. A further £400,000 will cover local bodywork for the 60 Leyland trucks already presented to SCF, continuing costs of their logistics team, and 10 Landrovers.

I announced on 10 June that we were providing £750,000 for trailers and truck hire costs in Ethiopia. I shall be reviewing the transport position when I arrive in Ethiopia tomorrow.

Mr. Dalyell

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman's visit to Ethiopia and the provision of more transport, which we were told over the weekend was still necessary. But what should I say to constituents of mine who see £40 million-worth of mostly suitable trucks sitting in the car park of British Leyland at Bathgate and hear at the same time on the radio that after all the exchanges in the House there is still a shortage of trucks both for the Sudan and for Ethiopia?

Mr. Raison

I suggest that the hon. Gentleman tells his constituents that, for the 40 heavy trucks, the provision of which I have just announced, we shall be going to British Leyland first to see whether it can provide them.

Dr. David Owen (Plymouth, Devonport)

Will the right hon. Gentleman make it clear whether this is additional to the aid budget or simply, as has happened before, a transfer from one part of the aid budget to another part? Will the right hon. Gentleman look into the possibility of seconding British Railways personnel to Sudan, where the railway network is in a critical state and needs skilled people—as do the ports?

Mr. Raison

The money comes out of the sum that I have set aside for dealing with this very serious problem in Africa, and that is as it should be. We have already provided expert personnel to help solve this very difficult problem with the railway line in the Sudan. We shall continue to do everything possible to make sure that the railway line operates as effectively and as rapidly as possible.

Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

Although the extra transport is welcomed, is it not deplorable that, as revealed by my right hon. Friend in answer to me on Friday, only 43 per cent. of the food aid promised by the EEC at Dublin last December has been delivered? Is my right hon. Friend willing to discuss with his colleagues how the pledge made to drought-stricken Africa might now be kept?

Mr. Raison

It is not deplorable. There is at present enough food in the ports of the Sudan and Ethiopia and there is no point in piling more food into those ports until it is possible to distribute it. The European Community pledges will be of the greatest value in the months to come. Let us remember that this is not a short-term problem but one that will last for many months yet. Thank goodness the European Community is doing so much to help.

Mr. Torn Clarke (Monklands, West)

In view of the Minister's reference to the Save the Children Fund, has he had time to consider last Thursday's request by that organisation that the Government should rescind their decision to withdraw the Hercules aircraft from Ethiopia and Sudan? Has he responded to that request, and will he announce his answer in Ethiopia tomorrow?

Mr. Raison

As I said, when I go to Ethiopia tomorrow I shall be reviewing the transport situation there. The great need now is for road transport. The RAF is doing a splendid job, but when the rainy season is over it may not be necessary for it to continue that job.

Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)

Will my right hon. Friend be having any contact in Ethiopia with the military authorities, who seem to throw all the people out of the camps, though their Government deny that they have instructed the army to do that? Will he see that the useful aid that is given is not frustrated by being directed to camps that are then emptied by the army?

Mr. Raison

I do not expect to have discussions with the military authorities, but I certainly shall be having discussions with Ethiopian Ministers. The whole question of the effective use of the aid that is being provided will, of course, feature prominently in those discussions.

Mr. Tom Cox (Tooting)

The Minister has rightly referred to Sudan and Ethiopia. May we have an assurance that the problems faced by Somalia will not be forgotten? Somalia also has a famine, it has also had many refugees coming across its borders and it also needs help.

Mr. Raison

I recognise that Somalia has difficult problems. The European Community will be able to help Somalia, and we shall certainly bear its needs in mind.

Mr. Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford)

My right hon. Friend has provided considerable aid by way of transport—lorries and aircraft—in helping to deal with the terrible drought, and he is to be congratulated on that. Does he agree, however, that the current need is not for more trucks—in view of the rainy season in the Sudan, when trucks cannot get through the desert, which is flooded—but for research into, and support for, arid agriculture, so as to find a way in which the people can plant crops and reap them year after year, to avoid this problem in future? Will he therefore review the statement, published today, that he made in reply to the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, in which he said that he did not believe that additional money should be made available? As the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) said, my right hon. Friend has transferred money. In so doing, has he not deprived his Department of the ability to enter into long-term and vital commitments?

Mr. Raison

The short-term and long-term needs are of the greatest importance. We have found the money for the short-term needs out of the contingency fund, from the shortfall and by reallocating the food aid programme, and that has been a wise and successful policy. For the long-term, we provide substantial resources for development, including the development of agriculture, and we are spending well over £200 million a year on development in sub-Saharan Africa.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I remind the House that I granted the private notice question on the question of additional lorries for famine relief.

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

Will the Minister respond to the remarkable generosity of people to the Live Aid concerts at the weekend by agreeing to match pound for pound the amount contributed by the British public following the Wembley concert?

Mr. Raison

I entirely share the view that the Live Aid concert was a magnificient occasion, and everybody who helped to put it together deserves the greatest possible congratulations. In the last financial year we provided £95 million of famine-related aid. This year we are targeting to provide another large amount. That, together with the long-term development aid that we are providing, adds up a very significant sum indeed, and certainly not one about which I need be apologetic.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the point he made about the need for lorries and the fact that in the long-term we shall have to replace them demonstrates the need for a continuing and expanding programme? Is he aware that there would be support in all parts of the House and throughout the country for an increase in the budget spent on the Overseas Development Administration of the Foreign Office?

Mr. Raison

I believe that there is great concern throughout the country about the events in Africa, and that is as it should be. We are, of course, bound by our public expenditure policy. However, I can tell the House that within my budget I shall do everything possible to ensure that we apply our resources where they will be of most effect—and Africa, of course, takes very high priority in that.

Mr. Michael Meadowcroft (Leeds, West)

Is there not a very significant contrast between the voluntary money raised by the amazing Live Aid concerts at the weekend and the attitude of the Government? As there is quite clearly tremendous resonance among the public for support for aid to Ethiopia and the Sudan, why do not the Government look at ways and means of forgoing the money that will go to them from the concerts, which would pay for lorries for Ethiopia and the Sudan?

Mr. Raison

I believe that a sympathetic view is being taken about the tax aspect. Surely the point is that it is uniquely a chance for people to show directly that they wish to contribute. It is entirely admirable that there should be so much voluntary contribution in addition to the large amounts provided by the same people through their taxes. I think that we have nothing of which to be ashamed.

Mr. Colin Moynihan (Lewisham, East)

The whole Chamber echoes the outstanding admiration for and support of all participants in the Live Aid concerts. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that spares for trucks are sent not only in the impending rainy season but going right into next season, which is essential?

Mr. Raison

I think that my hon. Friend is right. Throughout, I have taken the view that the provision of spares for transport is one of the most valuable things that we can do. I certainly do not intend to turn my back on that policy.

Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East)

While the Minister basks in the reflected glory of the weekend's events at Wembley and Philadelphia, may I ask whether he considers it hypocritical of his Government to run down the bus and truck industry of this country, losing 40,000 car and other related jobs in the city of Coventry during the past 10 years, while at the same time building up EEC food stocks in that city to the tune of £3 million, and to the tune of many hundreds of millions of pounds throughout the country as a whole? Instead of platitudes from the Box, why do we not have a plan for building trucks to take the surplus food from Britain and Europe to where it is needed in Africa?

Mr. Raison

The very substantial contribution of food by the European Community comes, of course, from exactly those surpluses. Without them, it would be very much harder to find the food.

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that, a short time ago, the Ethiopian Government promised that they would release a large number of military trucks for use in transporting grain. Recent reports suggest that they have not been wholly forthcoming in meeting that commitment. When my right hon. Friend is in Addis Ababa, will he make it clear to the Ethiopian authorities that the international community expects the Ethiopian Government to co-operate wholeheartedly with Kurt Jansson and the United Nations authorities if they are to continue to receive the same levels of support from the international community that they have received hitherto.

Mr. Raison

I fully understand my hon. Friend's point. It is one of the most important topics that I shall be discussing in Addis Ababa this week.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

Does not the Minister agree that the transport crisis was both predictable and predicted some nine months ago? Have not we and the EEC failed in this crucial last stage of delivery from the ports to the people who actually need help?

Will the Minister now consider air-freighting spares for the lorries? Is he convinced that there are adequate teams of mechanics who will be available on the spot to deal with the lorries? Will he reconsider the withdrawal of the Hercules, a point already put to him? Will he give the present position of the trains for which our British manufacturers tendered in January and to which the slow EEC bureaucracy agreed only in June?

Is not part of the tragedy, as has been mentioned, the contrast between the fantastic response of our people and that of the Government, who have not matched that response, who have given not a penny extra in aid in spite of the crisis, and who in real terms in this year, compared with last year, are giving £30 million to £40 million less in Government aid, which almost wipes out the amount of private money given?

Mr. Raison

The hon. Gentleman's remarks are predictable and misleading. We have made the provision of spares a priority throughout. Nobody could have worked harder in trying to help with the transport problems, particularly on the railways, where we have made an exceptional effort. Our RAF Hercules team is unique. It has carried out operational sorties every day since November.

Of course transport difficulties are great, but we must remember that we are not the Government of Ethiopia or Sudan. Those Governments take the ultimate decisions. We are doing all that we can to help them, but we cannot take over the running of their railway systems.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement that more transport will be made available to Ethiopia and Sudan, but has internal security in Tigré and Eritrea improved, since the Ethiopian Government's genocidal policy is, to a large extent, the root cause of the misery?

Mr. Raison

As the House knows, the civil war which has been raging in Ethiopia—in Tigré and Eritrea—is one problem which has made it so difficult to get aid to those people who most desperately need it. I shall be talking about that problem during my visit.