HC Deb 14 January 1991 vol 183 cc612-4
38. Mr. Tredinnick

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs whether Her Majesty's Government have any plans to assist with the distribution of food within the Soviet Union and other former eastern bloc countries.

Mrs. Chalker

We believe that economic reform in the Soviet Union is essential if a prosperous and democratic society is to emerge. Reform of food distribution systems is a priority under the know-how fund. However, we deplore the Soviet army's action in Lithuania and we are discussing the whole issue with our EC partners in Brussels today.

Mr. Tredinnick

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I had lunch with President Landsbergis in the House just two months ago. Even then, he was fearful that his country would be taken over by the red army. Does my right hon. Friend agree that what is crucial in the Soviet Union and the eastern bloc is not so much the production and supply of food as its distribution? Does she have any proposals to improve the distribution of food within those countries and is she doing anything to assist studies on that aspect?

Mrs. Chalker

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is no famine in the USSR, which had a record grain harvest—better than the predicted vegetable harvest. The problem is distribution. That is why I am glad that British expertise from private companies has been used in an attempt to determine what can be done to improve food distribution. The Anderson Consulting firm has examined the Soviet bread consortium, and the British Food Consortium has carried out a study of the food chain around Kiev. Major steps can be taken, but, of course, we wish to help the people and any further use of force by the Soviet Government could jeopardise western aid to the Soviet Union greatly.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing

Does the right hon. Lady accept that we all wish to see genuine assistance given to the emergent democracies and, indeed, the ordinary citizens of the Soviet Union? Will the Foreign and Commonwealth Office issue a clear condemnation of the behaviour of President Gorbachev and the Soviet troops in Lithuania and of the continuing threat to the Baltic states, both of which are in clear contradiction to United Nations article 1? We want a clear statement of condemnation from the west at this stage.

Mrs. Chalker

That is why in my initial reply I condemned the action of the Soviet army. The matter is being discussed within the European Community today. We shall have Foreign and Commonwealth diplomatic questions on Wednesday, when I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will have a lot more to say on the matter.

The Baltic states are eligible to receive our aid, but, as yet, they do not seem to be seriously affected by food shortages. It seems that the shortages are in the large industrial cities. We shall give them help and we are already giving technical assistance to the Baltic states. We shall continue to do so if possible.

Sir Bernard Braine

While I imagine that everyone in the House supports the idea of giving food or any other type of aid to the hard-pressed countries of eastern Europe, is not it untimely and even a little indecent to suggest that we should give aid to the Soviet Union at a moment when it is reverting to type and sending armed troops into Lithuania, which, like the other two Baltic states, was forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union and deserves its freedom?

Mrs. Chalker

As my right hon. Friend knows full well, I agree with him entirely. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said yesterday, there is a real danger that the Soviet Union will go back into its Stalinist shell. The freedom of the Baltic states is important and we sincerely hope that the measures put into force some months ago will be allowed to continue to help the Soviet people by the Government of the Soviet Union and its president seeing the sense of stopping the abominable behaviour that we saw over the weekend in Lithuania.

Dr. David Owen

The right hon. Lady is surely right to call it abominable behaviour. Does she agree that it is also wrong to continue giving credit to the Soviet Union and transfering high technology, both of which should be stopped instantly by the European Community and the western democracies?

Mr. Chalker

I am certain that the right hon. Gentleman's points are being discussed at this very moment in Brussels. We telephoned Brussels before we came to the House to answer questions today. I cannot: given the right hon. Gentleman an answer as to what has happened there, but we hope to do so as soon as possible.

Mr. Ian Taylor

Will my right hon. Friend consider the problems that might arise in central European countries such as Poland and Czechoslovakia if there are refugees from the Baltic states? More food aid may well need to be directed to Poland and Czechoslovakia to cope with the terrible problems provoked by the Soviet Union's aggression towards its own people.

Mrs. Chalker

I can assure my hon. Friend that, if Poland or any of the other states needs help to cope with refugees from the Soviet Union, we shall be ready to help. It is most important that diplomatic pressure from all over the world should have its effect on the Government of the Soviet Union so that this deplorable behaviour ceases forthwith in the Baltic states and everywhere else.

Mrs. Clwyd

We all share the great concern about repression in Lithuania. Does the Minister agree that there is plenty of evidence that the Soviet people wish to see a further development of glasnost and perestroika? Given that today she has said that it is important to help those people, may we have her assurance that she will honour the pledges made by the European Community to give emergency food aid to help Soviet citizens weather the winter?

Mrs. Chalker

The hon. Lady knows full well that when the Foreign Ministers of the European Community sit together in Brussels and discuss this very issue I cannot give any undertaking about what they may have decided. I take her point that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick) who raised the question said, the food problem in the Soviet Union is not famine, but distribution. If we can help the Soviet Union to tackle that problem, we shall be making a long-term investment to help the Soviet people make the best of their production.

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