HC Deb 02 May 1991 vol 190 cc433-7 3.33 pm
Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)

(by private notice): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on Government assistance to Bangladesh following the cyclone disaster.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Mark Lennox-Boyd)

We are making £2.5 million available for immediate disaster relief. Of this, £1.2 million represents the British Government's share of emergency aid of 10 million ecu from the EC announced earlier today. We shall consider possible further assistance once we have a clearer picture of what is required in this tragic situation.

Mr. Foulkes

Opposition Members would like to join in the many expressions of sympathy to those who have lost relatives, homes and possessions in this appalling disaster. I know that the Minister will join in that sentiment. These disasters occur all too regularly in one of the world's poorest countries.

I hope that the Minister will agree that the Government of Bangladesh are unable to deal with the consequences of the disaster without major outside assistance. From what the Minister has already said, I am afraid that I must say that the Government's response so far fails to match the scale of the disaster.

Will the Minister confirm that the Government will respond speedily and generously to all requests for urgent assistance for food, clothing, medicine and shelter, either directly or by grant aid to voluntary bodies? In the longer term, will he ensure that assistance is available to help with the reconstruction of industry and to help to replace the crops that have been destroyed?

Will the Foreign and Commonwealth Office also now seek a substantial increase in its inadequate aid budget, which is already squeezed by the vital help to the Kurds and for the famine in sub-Saharan Africa, so that we can help properly with this major crisis and with the long-term consequences without affecting our other aid commitments?

Will the Minister also now give an assurance that he will talk to his colleagues in the Ministry of Defence and examine urgently the deployment of personnel and equipment from the Gulf and elsewhere to help with relief and communications, for which my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) and others have called?

Mr. Speaker


Mr. Speaker

Order. I am sorry to interrupt, but this is a private notice question.

Mr. Foulkes

But the answer was inadequate, Mr. Speaker.

Finally, will the Minister recognise that the stricken people of Bangladesh, for whom we in this country have a very special affinity, need our help with the same commitment with which we deployed forces to liberate Kuwait? We demand that kind of commitment and those resources from the Government today.

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

I can most certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman's first comments. The British Government send their sympathy to the acting President of Bangladesh and the Government in Bangladesh and to all the people who have suffered so miserably in this recent disaster.

However, the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) went on to say one or two other things with which I must take issue. He said that our response failed to match the scale of the disaster. This is the immediate response of the British Government. The position is as yet extremely unclear. Of course it is a great disaster, but quite what the British Government will ultimately be able to do will be assessed in the light of developments and a full assessment of the situation. This is the speedy response that we are able to make now. Should emergency food be required in the next few days, it will of course be made available.

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, a large number of non-governmental organisations are operating in Dhaka and in the whole of Bangladesh. They will be able to assess the needs and report back to us and to help us to distribute aid as and when that is appropriate.

It should not be forgotten that this emergency aid is also made in the context of a very substantial aid programme for Bangladesh as a whole. We are currently giving £50 million a year and that is——

Mr. Foulkes

That is not relevant.

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

Well, it is relevant, because the hon. Gentleman asked whether I would ensure that we give aid to rebuild Bangladesh's industry and I make this point under that latter heading. We are currently giving £50 million-worth of aid annually in the context of £211 million-worth of aid over the past four or five years. That is our bilateral aid, and in the past five years we have contributed towards £117 million-worth of multilateral aid. Bangladesh receives the third largest amount of all our aid programmes. The Ministry of Defence matters will be reported to the MOD.

I accept what the hon. Gentleman said about Bangladesh and Britain having a special affinity. He has visited Bangladesh recently and so have I. He has seen the friendship and was able to observe the welcome political developments and the development of democratic institutions in Bangladesh, which only encourages that affinity and our desire to help in this tragic situation.

Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)

It is an appalling tragedy, which has happened within the past 24 hours and caused an enormous loss of life. Will my hon. Friend inquire about what sort of medical aid might be needed? In particular, will he ask whether stocks of cholera vaccine are available, which could be sent to Bangladesh? As his Department's records show, during the Bangladeshi crisis 20 years ago, at the time of its independence from Pakistan, there were 10 million refugees and a massive risk of cholera. This country supplied a great deal of vaccine, which saved a great many lives.

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

Of course, that is something that the ODA will be most happy to assess, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the matter. At present, communications with Bangladesh are extremely poor. It is impossible to make telephone calls from Britain to Bangladesh, and all communication is by telex and telegram. We shall be taking advice from the large number of NGOs operating in Bangladesh, and especially in relation to my hon. Friend's point.

Sir David Steel (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale)

The whole House naturally feels that it is a terrible tragedy, and will support what the Government and the European Community have done. Is the Minister aware that there is an immediate need for collapsible and inflatable boats, and we should be able to help with that within the next 24 hours. In the longer term, will he reconsider the ODA's contingency fund, which must have been severely depleted by a succession of disasters? Armed with the Prime Minister's declaration of intent, will the Minister go back to the Treasury and obtain more funds for the ODA?

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

At this moment, the need for items such as those to which the right hon. Gentleman refers is being assessed by ODA workers, as and when they can, and by NGO operators in Bangladesh. I take note of the right hon. Gentleman's second point, which is certainly something that must be considered.

Sir John Wheeler (Westminster, North)

Does my hon. Friend agree that, in such a disaster, it is most important that there is full contact with the high commission in London? Does he further agree that the high commission's requests will probably be about practical matters, such as the provision of tents, medical supplies and, indeed, boats?

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

We shall certainly take advice from the high commission in London. However, it has grave difficulties communicating with its Government in Bangladesh—indeed, I suspect that its communications are not as good as ours. We shall certainly listen to any requests from the high commissioner.

Mr. Peter Shore (Bethnal Green and Stepney)

The House is shocked by the scale of the tragedy and by the terrible toll of human life that has already been exacted, with many more to come. The House will have noted, and perhaps appreciated, the Minister's initial reaction, but a much more forthcoming and generous reaction will be required as the details of the tragedy start to flow in.

I wish to put two specific questions. First, can the Minister tell us anything about the availability in the United Kingdom of collapsible boats and of medical supplies to deal with cholera and dysentery, to which reference has already been made? Are adequate supplies available? Secondly, for the longer term—this is riot the first awful cyclone to hit the bay of Bengal—what progress has been made with the Bangladeshi Government and others to erect more permanent coastal defences in the bay of Bengal and to build anti-cyclone shelters throughout the area?

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's initial words. I reiterate that we are ready to consider further assistance. This is a first reaction, and I invite the right hon. Gentleman to take note of that. I regret that I cannot comment today on the availability of collapsible boats, but officials who are listening to the debate will immediately investigate that when they leave the House.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me to comment on what the Government are doing to assist the Bangladeshi Government to deal with the perennial problem of horrific floods in their country. In December 1989, the British Government hosted the donor communities attendance at the Bangladeshi flood conference. That resolved that the first stages of the flood action plan should include a rolling five-year plan involving studies and pilot schemes to investigate various means of controlling and alleviating the effects of floods and cyclones.

We supported, and very much promoted, studies in four different areas that included an examination of the effectiveness of previous flood control schemes and ways to improve them. Those reports will be available in due course, and we shall take what action we can in the light of them.

Mr. John Bowis (Battersea)

In welcoming the Government's swift and continuing response to this human tragedy, as announced by my hon. Friend, may I ask him also to remember that many thousands of members of the Bangladeshi communities in this country will have families who are bereaved or suffering at this time, and will he make the pledge to them that, although whatever can be done will be done for the people in Bangladesh, he will also support those communities through the high commission, the Bangladeshi welfare associations and other groups as much as possible with communications and with counselling?

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

My hon. Friend makes an important point. This country has a large Bangladeshi community, and I know that my hon. Friend is in touch with many of its members. The social services will of course be available to help people in difficulty. The Government will almost certainly do everything they can to promote any help that may be needed by the members of that community in Britain.

Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton)

The Minister said that emergency food would be sent if necessary, but should not that food be sent straight away and not when it is too late? Why cannot the Government get the whole of their act together by, for example, galvanising the Ministry of Defence to send well-stocked helicopters and boats into the area to help its people now?

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

As I have said, those words will have been noted. The Government will assess what they should be doing in the light of all the available evidence provided to us by non-governmental organisations, the Bangladeshi Government, the high commission in London and anyone else who can give us help in that regard.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Although I welcome all the aid which is going to Bangladesh, I hope that the Minister will have an open mind about dramatically increasing the level of aid that is necessary to alleviate the terrible suffering in Bangladesh. However, will he also turn his attention to the basic economic problems of Bangladesh, such as that country's substantial foreign debt and the low commodity prices that it receives for its products? In the wake of this latest disaster for the people of Bangladesh, will the Minister see whether a new economic understanding can be achieved with that country that will allow the rebuilding of its economy and greater prosperity for some of the world's poorest people, so that at least something can come out of yet another awful tragedy for the people of Bangladesh?

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

As the House knows, last year when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced the Trinidad initiative at the Commonwealth Finance Ministers conference in Trinidad. That must have some bearing on the situation in Bangladesh. As I have already said, we already have a substantial aid programme to aid Bangladesh.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

Has the Minister had any contact with the Bangladeshi high commissioner, and, if so, has the commissioner given any indication of the sort of help from the British Government that would be most welcome? As the Minister knows that the British people are exceedingly generous in appeals to assist at a crisis such as this, he must be aware that if, as the Opposition have suggested, he were to ask the Treasury for money for the aid budget, that would be popular in the country as a whole. Does he agree that it is now time to think about getting something from the peace dividend and to establish a flexible response force from the military so that we can get aid quickly to those parts of the world that are all too often afflicted by such tragedies?

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

I have already answered the hon. Gentleman's latter questions. In response to his first question, officials in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Overseas Development Administration are in contact with the Bangladeshi high commissioner.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Monklands, West)

The Minister will have noted the ovewhelming support in the House for the statement that he has just made. Does he accept that the view of the House is reflected in the minds of the British people, who would ask him and his hon. Friend the Minister for Overseas Development to discourage some commentators from suggesting, as they did this morning on television, that there is aid fatigue? The British people are not mean-minded, and they expect the British Government to reflect their views. Therefore, in addition to what he has said today, will he encourage the Minister for Overseas Development to inform the Treasury that although, as we heard in the press this morning, it is seeking cuts, it has not been over-generous with her Department? Does the Minister agree that the crisis underlines an overwhelming need which ought to be met?

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

I should have thought that the enormous response of the British Government to the tragic developments in the horn of Africa—aid for famine-affected Africa is £70 million since September last year—coupled with the enormous response of the British Government to the tragedy of the Kurds in recent weeks shows most clearly that there is no such thing as aid fatigue in the British Government when such disasters occur.