HC Deb 08 May 1991 vol 190 cc723-41 3.30 pm
The Minister for Overseas Development (Mrs. Lynda Chalker)

The cyclone which struck Bangladesh on the night of 29 to 30 April was one of the most serious disasters in the region's history. Eye witness accounts have underlined the scale of the tragedy. The whole House shares in our grief and sympathy for the Bangladeshi people.

Precise assessments have been hindered by the severe damage to communications caused by the cyclone, and by continuing bad weather. Neither international donors nor the Bangladesh Government waited for information before starting relief operations. On 30 April we authorised our high commissioner in Dhaka to spend up to £250,000 on immediate relief needs. This formed part of the £2.5 million initial contribution announced in the House on 2 May by my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Mr. Lennox-Boyd). On 3 May I announced a further £2 million, bringing our total support for immediate disaster relief to £4.5 million.

A major relief effort is now well under way. Fifteen bilateral donors have offered assistance as well as some international organisations. The British response is one of the first and the largest. The physical difficulties involved are massive. Severe damage extends over an area the size of that part of England south of a line drawn between London and Bristol. Much of it still remains under water. Up to 15 million people have been affected.

The port of Chittagong and its equipment have been severely damaged. Rough seas continue to limit access to the islands, which are hardest hit.

The international relief effort must be co-ordinated and duplication avoided wherever possible. At the request of the Government of Bangladesh the United Nations Development Programme is acting as co-ordinator of the relief programmes of the international donor community. To assist in this task we are meeting the costs of two United Nations disaster relief staff.

British experience with previous disasters in Bangladesh, like the major floods of 1987 and 1988, is that non-governmental organisations, working with the support of the Government of Bangladesh, can operate very effectively providing relief. In the immediate aftermath of the cyclone, the priority has been to move stocks of food, clothing, medicines and shelter already in the country to the disaster zone, and to ensure adequate supplies of clean drinking water.

Of the £3.3 million of bilateral assistance announced last week, some £2.5 million is already being spent through a number of British NGOs and international agencies on food, shelter, clothing and medicines. A further £50,000 has been allocated for urgent medical supplies and water purification tablets, recommended by our medical adviser based in Dhaka. Staff from our irrigation project have already gone to assist local and British NGOs, who, together with UNICEF, are working to secure cleaner water in the affected areas. Our aid vehicles have also been made avilable to transport urgently needed supplies.

We have established an emergency office in Chittagong that is providing on-the-spot assessments. This will promote co-ordination with other agencies and Government officials. It is staffed by a highly experienced British aid official who undertook similar work during the 1988 floods.

Some hon. Members have asked why we have not sent boats and helicopters. Our high commissioner in Dhaka is in constant touch with the Bangladesh authorities and other donors. He advises us daily on the most effective uses to which our money can be put, taking into account what is being provided by others. We have just heard that large numbers of boats, including at least 100 collapsible boats provided by Japan following the 1988 floods, are available in Bangladesh. Ten Royal National Lifeboat Institution boats which were donated by Britain in 1988 are being used by the Bangladesh Red Crescent. The high commissioner does not recommend provision of further boats from the United Kingdom. Six Bangladesh Navy ships are engaged in getting supplies to offshore islands. Relief goods are also being transported to Chittagong by rail.

Helicopters clearly have an important part to play as long as large areas remain inaccessible to surface transport. In the first instance this need can most effectively be met by countries within the region. India and Pakistan have already provided some helicopters, and I hope that other neighbouring countries may do likewise.

We are playing a full part in addressing Bangladesh's immediate relief needs as they become known. The co-ordination machinery is in place in Dhaka to try to ensure that all efforts are used to maximum effect and with the minimum duplication. I met the high commissioner of Bangladesh in London yesterday to discuss priorities.

I am pleased to announce that we are making available a further £2 million. This brings our total emergency commitment to date to £6.5 million. The £2 million will cover requests from NGOs for further priority relief supplies and the cost of sending the Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship, Fort Grange, equipped with medical facilities and disaster relief stores and two Sea King helicopters to assist with relief operations.

In the longer term, we have to accept that it will never be possible to protect Bangladesh totally against floods and cyclones, but certain things can be done to mitigate the effects of such natural disasters. The international community is already helping Bangladesh to develop its flood action plan, which includes further measures for cyclone protection. Other rehabilitation and construction needs will be considered once the immediate relief requirements have been met.

Mrs. Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

With such a terrible death toll in Bangladesh, where tens of thousands of lives have been lost and millions of people are without homes, how can the Minister expect us to believe that that is an adequate response to their plight? Welcome as it is, an extra £2 million brings the total to just £6.5 million for what the Minister herself called one of the most serious disasters in the region's history. Ten days after the tragedy, people in Bangladesh are asking, "Where is the help? Why doesn't it come?" They need water, food, medicines and shovels to bury the dead. They need to rebuild their homes and telecommunications system. They need money for cattle, tools and seeds for planting the next harvest. Delivering those is a massive logistical task. It cannot be left to charities. It must be done by Governments, so why has a military operation not been set up?

Is it not the case that the Minister's Department is virtually paralysed because the value of the aid budget is still 12 per cent. less in real terms than it was in 1979? Why has the Minister consistently failed to get more money from the Treasury? Does the right hon. Lady recall that, when a cyclone swept 1 million lives away in Bangladesh in 1970, a British amphibious squadron was there in just over a week, and the Minister was there in under a week, like the present French Minister?

Two years ago, when Hurricane Hugo hit Monserrat, HMS Alacrity served as a centre of communications. Surely there must be a frigate that could do the same in Bangladesh now from the Gulf—or is it that, because of the high rates charged by the Ministry of Defence for the use of planes, the cost of military operations will decimate the aid budget in a matter of days unless the ODA gets new money? Is that why the Minister wasted 10 valuable days before sending two Sea King helicopters? Why were only two sent, when the high commission says that at least 30 are needed?

The German Defence Ministry recognises the training value of using the military in civilian disasters, and the military training budget bears much of the cost while the aid budget bears only a fraction. Why cannot we do the same? Is it not true that the ODA's disaster unit is totally overwhelmed? Why is the disaster unit tucked away as part of the information unit? Why did the Foreign Office set up a round-the-clock Gulf crisis unit on 2 August with 50 staff, while the ODA's disaster unit has just six officials? Excellent though they are, those six officials are struggling to co-ordinate aid to victims of famine, cyclone and Iraqi persecution.

The Minister stressed the importance of international co-ordination, and said that the United Nations Development Programme is co-ordinating the relief effort in Bangladesh. Can she tell us why the United Kingdom's contribution to the UNDP has been cut by 52 per cent. in real terms since 1979? Bangladesh is one of our largest recipients of bilateral aid. Why has disaster preparedness not played a larger part in our long-term aid? Can the Minister assure us that British aid will be provided for reconstruction over the coming months and for cyclone shelters over the coming years?

Finally, will the Minister recognise that there will be more terrible and unnecessary deaths from cyclones and other disasters unless rich countries such as ours care enough about the poorest people in the world to match the killer winds and waves of Bengal with a hugh global effort to fight poverty and deprivation?

Mrs. Chalker

The extra £2 million that I have announced makes Britain the largest single national donor. I will consider further assistance for immediate relief or, to pick up the hon. Lady's last point, for longer-term rehabilitation as it is needed. In that respect work, has already started.

The hon. Lady asked many questions. The help has been in action since Tuesday of last week. The fact that all the detail has not been available even to me has a great deal to do with the awful problems of communication. It is perfectly true that France and Switzerland have been helping with internal communications, but those are by no means all restored. I received a telegram literally after I walked into the Chamber informing me that the problem of reaching the Bangladeshi people is caused not so much by transport difficulties as by the very poor weather.

The hon. Lady may not know that a tornado struck north of Dhaka last night and has obviously stretched resources there. When we were in contact with the high commission this morning, I made available a further £100,000 for the immediate needs of the people affected by that tornado.

The hon. Lady went on about the delivery of assistance within Bangladesh. A donor cannot expect to go into a country and act at variance with the Government of that country. One must act through the Government and the non-governmental organisations, and that is exactly what we are doing.

The hon. Lady mentioned a possible ministerial visit. Willing as I am to go, I do not think that that is immediately appropriate. I am thinking carefully about it, but I am anxious not to tie up necessary helicopter transport. Sadly, that is what happened last week when, I am told, three out of four relief helicopters were involved in ferrying visitors around rather than doing their relief job. I will go once the immediate crisis is over, provided that I can do something truly productive.

Rehabilitation and reconstruction are already part of the Bangladeshi flood action plan on which Britain has been engaged for a considerable time. We shall look at the disaster preparedness in such regions, particularly in Bangladesh, with the international agencies, as we started to do last year.

Sir Timothy Raison (Aylesbury)

I thank my right hon. Friend for the help that she has given in meeting this ghastly tragedy and for the assurance that she will consider making further contributions, which look as though they will inevitably be needed. Is the system of stockpiling that already exists to deal with the recurring crises in Bangladesh adequate? If not, will she assure us that that will be a high priority in future help?

Mrs. Chalker

I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments. Stockpiling of tents, sheeting and blankets must take place in the countries and regions involved. It is not sufficient simply to stockpile in this country as we have done, which has helped us to deal with the three simultaneous crises that we now face as a donor country. It is not sensible to stockpile food which could not be used within a reasonable period because food may not remain suitable for human consumption during that time. But I am told that adequate food is available in Bangladesh and we have made money available to the non-governmental agencies to enable them to buy food in Bangladesh for the people affected by the awful cyclone.

Sir David Steel (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale)

The cash and personnel help that the Government are giving is, of course, extremely welcome, but the right hon. Lady will know that six days ago in the House hon. Members from both sides raised the question of the supply of inflatable boats and helicopters. The right hon. Lady has just described the area affected as being equivalent in size to the south of England below the London-Bristol line, including 15 million people. In those circumstances, are not 10 rubber boats and three helicopters pitifully inadequate in comparison with the actual need?

Has the right hon. Lady approached our American allies, who have a large amphibious force in the Gulf which is no longer required there and which could be made available in the bay of Bengal?

Finally, did I understand the right hon. Lady to say that the Ministry of Defence has sent her Department a bill for the use of RFA Fort Grange? If so, will she send it back?

Mrs. Chalker

I am well aware of the right hon. Gentleman's efforts to keep the needs of the Bangladeshi people in the forefront of the news. We are not just talking about 10 boats; 100 boats are already there from our previous donation. We knew that they were there, but they had to be found by the Bangladeshi people before they could be used. It was far quicker to do that than to send 100 new boats, which would have had to be acquired.

We have said that we will consider further needs, so the right hon. Gentleman need not be in any doubt about our intention to obtain not only a daily report but a many-times-daily report from the people who are there and who can judge far better than I or any other hon. Member what can best be done to help the people most effectively and quickly. I am in touch with other Governments about their plans, and I shall remain so to see what can be delivered quickly to the area. It is important to ensure that the Bangladeshi Government get the help that they can best use, as was done last week.

Sir Richard Luce (Shoreham)

I warmly congratulate my right hon. Friend on her prompt action, which is an example to many other Governments. Does she agree that this latest tragedy reinforces the urgent need for some permanent international machinery which can stand ready to advise vulnerable Governments and nations on how to deal speedily and urgently with catastrophes of this kind? Will my right hon. Friend take a lead on that?

Mrs. Chalker

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. After my visit to Jordan, when we faced the crisis of Asian refugees from then occupied Kuwait and other parts of the region, I started to put work in hand to examine this issue of the international response. The United Nations disaster relief organisation has always been ready to get into situations which these days seem far beyond its capacity. That is why I am discussing with fellow members of the Community and with international organisations how a better immediate international response could be provided. Work has already begun, and I hope that, before too long, other countries will follow our lead in making the same level of response.

Mr. Peter Shore (Bethnal Green and Stepney)

I thank the right hon. Lady for her swift response to the desire on both sides of the House for a statement today. The House will understand the great logistical difficulties involved in getting help to the remote and damaged areas of Bangladesh, and the problems caused by the breakdown of telecommunications between Bangladesh and this country.

What the Minister has already said makes it clear how crucial is the supply of helicopters. The collapsible boats would be fine in ordinary circumstances, but apparently the bay of Bengal has been so rough that people have not been able to use boats. In fact, many boats were sunk during the cyclone, so helicopters are the only way to bring assistance to the people who have been so badly affected. However, there are only nine helicopters in Bangladesh at the moment—four of its own, three from India, two from Pakistan, and two from Britain. I am delighted that we have sent those helicopters—they will play a crucial role —but could we not bring ourselves to make a bigger effort to secure the means to get supplies to the people most in need of them?

Lastly, the House and the country most want to know whether, in reacting to that great and continuing disaster, the Government are clearly committed to sustaining a suitable and adequate response. We should like to hear not only that the right hon. Lady will take action, but that she has the backing of the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and the Chancellor of the Exchequer in meeting the further demands that will certainly be made by the people of that terribly damaged area.

Mrs. Chalker

The right hon. Member is absolutely right to draw great attention to the enormous waves and continuing bad weather conditions in the area, and to the fact that boats there could not operate. We were sorry to note the sinking in the bay of Bengal of a trawler, which I believe was carrying representatives of the non-governmental organisation CARE. We have to consider what is feasible, out there on the water. At the moment, that means making some deliveries by boat and some by helicopter. However, I have been informed that weather conditions have been such that not even helicopters could fly safely into the affected areas.

It is far better to wait—although that is very painful for the people on the ground—than to lose a helicopter, its pilot, and all the medicines aboard. That is why the operation is taking time. I understand hon. Members' frustration that things seem to be taking so long, and I share that feeling, but I must ensure that we continue to be able to look after the equipment that we and other nations supply.

I have been in touch with our chargé in Bangkok to support the request by the Bangladeshi Government to the Thai army for the loan of its helicopters. Those helicopters are nearby in flying terms, and are suitable for operating in the adverse weather conditions that so often exist in that part of the world.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the support of my right hon. Friends. I assure him that I have the fullest support of the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and of all the other members of the Cabinet.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I am sure that the whole House is pleased that there is a statement on this important matter today. Will hon. Members ask brief question so that, hopefully, I may call every hon. Member who wishes to put a question?

Mr. Rupert Allason (Torbay)

Given the apparent disagreement among the NGOs, is there not a danger of wasteful duplication? Does my right hon. Friend agree that, in future, more aid should be channelled through the United Nations disaster relief organisation?

Mrs. Chalker

I do not find from my discussions with the non-governmental agencies that they are disagreeing; they are working together extremely well. The United Nations disaster relief organisation simply is not large enough to handle the enormous amount being handled both by British and local NGOs in Bangladesh. We have every reason to be thoroughly proud of what British NGOs and people on the ground are doing.

Ms. Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)

The Minister will be aware that hundreds of thousands of British citizens have relatives who may have died, been injured or made homeless in this terrible disaster. Could she share with the House what is being done to get information to that community? Is there a helpline that they can ring? Is her Department in touch with their organisations? As she can imagine, today there must be thousands of people, especially in the east end of London, wondering, and wanting information, about their loved ones.

Mrs. Chalker

I am very well aware of that problem. Although I do not have the same size community with roots in Bangladesh in my constituency as the hon. Lady has in hers, I have many connections and friends in the same worried state as I understand her constituents must be in. As I have already outlined, our difficulty is with the telephone lines and the failure to communicate, or even to have registers of where people are. Sadly, the identification of many people who have died is not an easy process. As soon as the Government of Bangladesh can give us information, I know that they will do so, but at the moment it is very difficult. I could not envisage setting up a hot line, because the information that could come in simply might not be accurate in the confusion that still exists in Bangladesh.

Dr. John Blackburn (Dudley, West)

Would my right hon. Friend pay a warm and generous tribute to the large Bangladeshi community in this country for the aid that they are going to give, and would she support them in their efforts? Secondly——

Mr. Speaker

Single questions, please.

Dr. Blackburn

Well, finally, would my right hon. Friend give special attention in the long term to the importance of restoring Chittagong, which is Bangladesh's only sea port, to bring in aid and support?

Mrs. Chalker

The answer to both my hon. Friend's questions is yes.

Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West)

What is the Minister doing in the longer term to deal with the problem of poverty which exists in that country—poverty which is accentuated when natural disasters hit Bangladesh? For instance, when this is all over, the clearing up will start. Farmers who have lost all their crops will have to buy in seed again. What efforts is the Minister making, with the Bangladeshi Government, to ensure that those same farmers do not put themselves further into debt by having to purchase the seed that will be required?

Mrs. Chalker

Quite apart from this current disaster we have a £50 million-a-year aid programme with the Bangladeshi people, much of which is delivered through local non-governmental organisations, which are active with the farmers and have helped to set up credit unions and so on. All that will continue. Our immediate efforts must be directed towards the relief of those poor people, on tiny scraps of land, who have very little to eat and have no cover. However, I fully agree with the hon. Gentleman that, in the long term, the supply of seed for planting is important and we shall continue to support the Bangladeshi people in the way that we have done, which helps to alleviate poverty.

Mr. Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her prompt, careful and caring reaction to this disaster in Bangladesh. Would she convey to those people in the ODA, the emergency relief organisations and the NGOs the thanks of this House and of all those who are suffering for their hard work over many long hours in response to this disaster? Could she make representations to the Bangladeshi Government that, in the rehabilitation process, people are moved away from the low-lying islands and offshore areas to higher ground?

Mrs. Chalker

I thank my hon. Friend for his tribute to the British NGOs, and especially to the ODA disaster relief unit, which comprises nine, not six, officials and which also has the help of many support staff, senior officials in the Department, the Ministry of Defence and the diplomatic wing officials in the work that we are now doing.

I am well aware that the rehabilitation needs will be very great. However, I do not like programmes of forcible movement unless adequate conditions can be provided. People have to be persuaded to go. I am certain that we shall discuss the relocation of people with the Government of Bangladesh, but it is much too early to say exactly how it could be achieved.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

The right hon. Lady has rightly placed emphasis on the need for international co-operation and co-ordination in this matter. In that context, what overtures have been made to, and what response received from, the American authorities about the possibility of using the substantial American presence in Diego Garcia, which could be a centre from which aid could come? Will she also tell us when she anticipates that the Fort Grange will reach Bangladesh?

Mrs. Chalker

I hope that the Fort Grange will be in Bangladesh next week, preparing the helicopters as it sails into those waters.

The question of international co-operation—including co-operation with the United States of America and any other country that has bases and likely equipment in the area—is under discussion and being pursued. Therefore, I cannot give the hon. Lady an answer.

Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)

Does my right hon. Friend see any risk of an epidemic of cholera in the coming weeks? If so, what is the position with the provision of supplies of cholera vaccine?

Mrs. Chalker

Indeed, cholera vaccine is one of the specific recommendations from the British medical aid adviser in Dhaka. A large quantity of septrin will be sent to Bangladesh, because that drug is not readily available there. We shall also send the other urgently required medical supplies forthwith.

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

Has the Minister had cause to reflect on the energy and efficiency with which the British Government mobilised for war in the Gulf, and compared it with their response to the disaster in Bangladesh, which has been so dilatory and gravely disappointing? Why has more money not been made available more quickly? Why have not helicopters, amphibious craft and other equipment been redeployed from the Gulf to Bangladesh? Does the Minister understand that, so far, the Government's performance leaves many in this country and in Bangladesh thinking that they are suffering not so much from aid fatigue as from aid paralysis?

Mrs. Chalker

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman was listening to the careful answer that I tried to give his right hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore) about the weather conditions. In recent days, they have made the use of craft already in Bangladesh impossible. The vehicles to get the goods to the people are available in Bangladesh, but the weather conditions have made the task difficult.

The hon. Gentleman brings totally non-comparable factors into his argument. We are not in a war, as we have recently been, but we are dealing with one of the most severe of natural disasters, to which all countries of the world need to respond. That is why all the partners in the flood action plans, and all the partners in the UN agencies, should be seeking to contribute as much as Britain. If they had all done their bit, the people of Bangladesh would already be in a far better state.

Sir Anthony Grant (Cambridgeshire, South-West)

Is it not rather sad that such a great tragedy should be the subject of party political claptrap? Is my right hon. Friend aware that she was extremely sensible not to waste resources by swanning off on a personal public relations exercise? She should be congratulated on that.

My right hon. Friend told us that Britain's contribution was the largest. What efforts are being made in the EC to persuade some of our partners to step up their contributions, given that they are so good at sermonising on the subject?

Mrs. Chalker

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his realism. Our German partners have contributed DM 15 million of assistance. Our Danish partners——

Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby)

That is more than us.

Mrs. Chalker

No, it is not more than us. The hon. Gentleman cannot calculate. At today's rate of exchange, that is £5.068 million. Other countries have contributed various sums, but none as large as Britain's contribution. The French contribution in which my hon. Friend is interested amounts in pounds to £1.18 million only.

Ms. Mildred Gordon (Bow and Poplar)

Perhaps the Minister would explain to her hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire, South-West (Sir A. Grant) that the reason why there might be some political divide on the matter is that Opposition Members represent large numbers of constituents with relatives who are suffering. While Conservative Members are busy congratulating the Government, our constituents are extremely worried that comparatively little help has been sent, while there is so much hardware in the Gulf that could be used even in bad weather conditions. What international arrangements are being considered for earlier warnings of possible floods? It happens repeatedly and is obviously an international issue as warnings must come from higher up the Ganges. Other countries must be involved, so that steps can be taken to protect people and to evacuate them in good time.

Mrs. Chalker

The hon. Lady is quite unfair in what she says about my hon. Friends and their relations with Bangladeshi friends and constituents. I made it quite clear in answer to a previous question that I have already been in touch with Bangladeshi friends. I am just as concerned as she is, but the reason why I will not throw the British taxpayers' money into an aircraft which cannot get to its destination is prudence—not stupidity or unwillingness but prudence. The money has been put up and we know that we can use it to help the Bangladeshi people, and that is exactly right.

Sir John Stokes (Halesowen and Stourbridge)

While we are all most sympathetic to the appalling tragedy in Bangladesh and are grateful for the lead that the Government have given, and for the support of other Governments and private individuals to alleviate the suffering there, we must ask ourselves whether we should be discussing the matter as we have no control over it and no responsibilty for it. Furthermore, should we not fix our own agenda in our discussions here, rather than using that fixed by the television companies?

Mrs. Chalker

I can assure my hon. Friend that we do fix our own agenda. However, when so many people are in need, I believe it absolutely right, first, that the world should be told by the media what is going on, and, secondly, that the British Government, in partnership with other donors, should do their best to play their part in relieving the tragedy affecting those people. I and the Government will continue to make sure that that happens. There are tragedies all over the world and whether they are natural disasters or the man-made effects of conflict in places such as Ethiopia and Sudan, we have a moral duty to help the people involved.

Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury)

The Minister should be aware that many of my constituents, all British taxpayers, are deeply concerned, because of their family ties, about the scale of the tragedy in Bangladesh. They feel, as I do, that the British Government's response so far has not shown the necessary urgency or generosity. Will she reconsider the point that has been raised on several occasions about the need for helicopters? Will she give us a guarantee that, if the Bangladesh Government or responsible non-governmental organisations request the assistance of British helicopters, those helicopters will be sent?

Mrs. Chalker

I have already said that the important thing is to get the aid that the Bangladeshi Government can use to its destination as quickly as possible. That was why, yesterday, I made an approach to the Thai Government, knowing that the Bangladeshi Government—[AN HON. MEMBER: "Why only yesterday?"] I was only told yesterday. The Bangladeshi Government had requested nearby helicopters. The point of doing that work in a logical and sensible way is that we do not waste resources and that we get them to the people who need them. There is no lack of urgency in my Department or in the Government. It is a question of what is practical in some of the worst weather conditions ever in the bay of Bengal.

Mrs. Edwina Currie (Derbyshire, South)

May I remind my right hon. Friend that many Conservative Members also have Bangladeshi constituents? We commend her for her vigorous and effective efforts to help their relatives. Does she agree that her comparisons with the Gulf war are very useful? It took six months to build up the troops for the Gulf war and more than 30 countries were more than actively involved. Should there not be an international reaction to such disasters, instead of the British Government being well out ahead but leading a somewhat straggling pack?

Mrs. Chalker

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I thank her for what she said at the beginning of her question. It was notable that we had time—not that we wanted it—to build up our forces and stocks and make the necessary assessments and other preparations to free Kuwait from the invasion of Saddam Hussein and his troops. My hon. Friend is also right to say that more than double the number of countries were involved in the Gulf conflict as have made any attempt to help in the present crisis. We need a better international response but, until we have one, we are pleased to continue to do our best and to take the lead where we can.

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)

The Minister says that she has the support of the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the Chief Secretary. Is the £6.5 million to which she referred—that is only 40p a head for each person affected—new money to her Department or does it come from her existing budget? If it is from her existing budget, is not money being snatched from one area of need to help people in another?

Mrs. Chalker

I assure the right hon. Gentleman that no current aid activity is being displaced or delayed by the £6.5 million expenditure and that £1.2 million of the 10 million ecu aid package announced by the EC and the balance of £5.3 million are from our disaster relief funds. As yet, those funds are uncommitted and are specially kept in the budget. We are well aware of the pressure of having three simultaneous disasters on our hands. I am not afraid to ask for new money when it is necessary but, until I have used my budget, I cannot make as good a case as I can when I have used it. Given the response that I received for £20 million for another disaster last week, I have no doubt that I shall receive an equally generous response from my right hon. Friend.

Mr. William Cash (Stafford)

Did my right hon. Friend hear that there is a great deal of comment about taxpayers' money and Government expenditure on aid? Does she agree that the British Government have done extremely well to be at the forefront of providing that money? However, does she also agree that, although money could be made available through voluntary contributions, it would not be a bad idea for those who can afford it—there may be more such people than realise it—to give as much as 5 or 10 per cent. of their net salary for this month to help the people in Bangladesh and also those in Africa and Iraq?

Mrs. Chalker

I believe that no public are as generous as the British when it comes to giving money for people in need. That is why the British Government have taken measures every year in our budgets to make it easier for people to donate funds, and more beneficial for voluntary agencies to carry out such splendid work. I hope that the British public will respond to the current appeals. The Government will back the people in responding to the needs of those who have been so badly affected overseas.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Monklands, West)

Does the Minister accept that she is protesting too much to the House and not enough to the Treasury? If she is addressing the three areas of crisis that she mentioned, why do we read in this morning's newspapers that undernourished children in Ethiopia are having their supplementary food rations halved because donors have not provided the necessary food? Why could she not answer the simple question that was asked on television last night, about whether Britain has donated the 0.7 per cent. of GNP that virtually every other European country has given? Is she not ashamed that Britain has donated only 0.31 per cent. in the light of the crisis that she has outlined?

Mrs. Chalker

I hope, Mr. Speaker, that you will allow me to respond to the point that the hon. Gentleman raised on the Ogaden, although it lies outside the scope of this statement. I, too, saw with horror this morning's newspaper report about the specific problem in the Ogaden. I gather that it is partly a delivery problem, but we are looking into the matter with the non-governmental agencies, and I shall ensure that the food that we have already put in the pipeline is destined for such districts. That is exactly what the World Food Programme in Addis Ababa is seeking to do at present.

On the hon. Gentleman's other point, which is regularly raised, we have to gain the support of the British people, which now exists, for a higher percentage, and seek to make the aid programme grow in real terms. That is exactly what my predecessors and I have sought to do, and I hope that we will achieve that aim.

Mr. Michael Lord (Suffolk, Central)

Is it not the sad truth, which we are all loth to accept, that sometimes the forces of nature are so overpowering that there is nothing that man can do in the short term to combat them? While the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd), I am sure, cares as much about that as we all do, there is little point in suggesting that we provide shovels to plant seed on ground that is still many feet under water.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her statement to the House, which shows real purpose on the part of the Government. Will she assure us once again that we shall do all we can in the short term and stand ready to give the right help in the right place when it is needed?

Mrs. Chalker

My hon. Friend is right to say that the forces of nature are quite terrifying and cannot necessarily be coped with in the short term. That is why we have been supporting work towards the convention on climate change, under which we hope that all countries will take steps to limit their emissions of greenhouse gases, which cause global warming and make the difficulties experienced by such low-lying districts all the worse. We pledged £40 million in 1990 to help the global environmental facility work, which will help countries such as Bangladesh.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

May I reiterate the points made by my hon. Friends about the urgency of the position in Bangladesh, where hundreds of thousands of lives are at risk? While the weather is obviously very bad at present and makes it difficult for helicopters to get through to the offshore islands, that is no excuse for not getting helicopters to Bangladesh so that they can then be used when the weather gets better. Clearly, the Ministry of Defence has at its disposal all the helicopters necessary, but they have to be placed in position. Will the Minister make arrangements to get the helicopters there immediately so that the relief aid can be provided?

Mrs. Chalker

I remain firmly convinced that we must work with the Government of Bangladesh on the plans that they are making for the provision of food, medicine and shelter. We shall be guided by the information that we receive from them, and from our aid co-ordinators on the ground. We shall put in all the aid we can, in conjunction with other countries—the problem cannot be left to Britain alone.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)

Does my right hon. Frend accept, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells) said, that the staff of the non-governmental organisations and the Overseas Development Administration deserve congratulations for coping with this and the other two great disasters, which are prompting urgent and effective action from private individuals, the national Government and multilateral agencies? Is my right hon. Friend aware that, if she needs to come back to the House for approval for extra money to be added to her budget during the year, she will receive a great welcome from both sides of the House? Other people would like her to be successful in achieving movement towards the 0.7 per cent. of GDP target, preferably in a planned, co-ordinated and urgent approach.

Mrs. Chalker

I am certainly aware of the excellent work of the NGO and ODA staff. I thank my hon. Friend for what he said in the second part of his question, and I am glad that I shall have his support.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

My hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross) made a plea on behalf of Bangladeshi farmers. I should like to make a similar plea on behalf of the fishermen—[Laughter]—the Bangladeshi fishermen—and it is no laughing matter. Many of these people lost their lives along with their boats and fishing gear. With regard to their colleagues who lost boats and gear, will the Minister discuss with her European Community colleagues the urgent need for replacements? Surely, in the maritime communities of the EC, there must be up to 1,000 boats suitable for use by these fishermen, who should not be saddled with heavy loans for the purchase of vessels. The EC and its fishing communities ought to be able to help.

Mrs. Chalker

I certainly note what the hon. Gentleman has said, and we shall consider it. The most important thing is that the Bangladeshi fishermen should be able, when the weather improves, to regain their livelihood. I fully appreciate the importance of the hon. Gentleman's remarks.

Mr. Anthony Beaumont-Dark (Birmingham, Selly Oak)


Mr. Speaker

Was the hon. Member present for the statement?

Mr. Beaumont-Dark


Mr. Speaker

Very well.

Mr. Beaumont-Dark

I understand your resting between questions, Mr. Speaker. Certainly I do so at times.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, while nature can never be entirely stopped, we can spend money on super-computers and satellites? The better we can forecast tragedies, the better our chance of saving lives. If we could stop nature, we should be better than any god or any David Icke. If money were spent on forecasting, it would help to save human life, which is what we are all most concerned about.

Mrs. Chalker

I fully agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of satellite warning systems. I understand that the people of the area were given two to three days' warning of the cyclone but that, sadly, some of them were unwilling to move.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)

Some could not.

Mrs. Chalker

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: some were unable to move. However much satellite warning is given, the machinery has to be in place locally if people are to be able to move; and they have to be willing to move. One cannot make people move, and that can result in great tragedy.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

I shall try to call hon. Members who are standing—not those who have been meditating. I hope that questions and answers will be brief, as there is a very heavy day ahead of us. Mr. Nellist.

Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East)

There is a business motion.

Mr. Speaker

Do not argue, please.

Mr. Nellist

All I said was that there is a business motion.

Did not the Minister see last night's television news, which reported that, according to aid agencies, more than 500,000 people in Bangladesh had lost their lives, and more than 10 million had been made homeless? It has been announced that two additional Sea King helicopters are to be provided, but a total of 11 helicopters is completely pathetic. In the case of the Gulf, a huge task force was mobilised for the sake of oil. In the case of Bangladesh, where there is no oil, all that the Minister can say is that contact with those who have helicopters is under discussion.

Will not the Minister recognise that, if the cycle of drought, flood, famine and cyclones—decade after decade—is to be broken, she and her Department will have to consider not only the removal of poverty from that country but also the solution of the debt problem? The amount of money coming back to the west in this way each year is greater than the amount that goes out to tackle disasters.

Mrs. Chalker

I am glad to be able to say that international concern can be expressed at the long-term consultative group in Paris at the end of this month. The major donor agencies will be able to discuss what might need to be done for the future. I hope that those who estimate that more than 500,000 people have died are exaggerating. The Government of Bangladesh said today that they believed the number to be in the region of 200,000, but it will be quite some time before we know.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

Whatever the figures, the Minister will accept that the disaster for Bangladesh is worse in terms of deaths, disease and homelessness than the events in Kuwait and Iraq over the last year. Given that, may I put it to her that the House and, I believe, Bangladeshis, wherever they are in the world, expect Britain, because of our historic ties with that country, to lead the mobilisation of the western world to go to the rescue of Bangladesh now? We have the capacity to do so. The west has the ships, the aircraft, the helicopters, the personnel and the skill to do so. Next week will not be soon enough.

Mrs. Chalker

If anyone has lost a loved one in a disaster, or has someone crippled by disease, for that family and that person that is the deepest tragedy. Whatever the total numbers, if we add them up across the whole world, it is a sad world in which we live. I hope that the efforts that we are already making to mobilise the western world will succeed, but I repeat that Britain is playing its part and will go on doing so. What I want is support from our partners and others who can also contribute and not leave it all to Britain.

Mr. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East)

The Minister has acknowledged the contribution made by members of the Bangladeshi community in Britain. She will know of initiatives in various cities by the Bangladeshi community. One problem is co-ordinating such initiatives. Can she offer any assistance to the various groups, such as Indian restaurants run by Bangladeshis in Manchester, who do not know where to send their contributions? Should it be done through the high commission for Bangladesh or through her Department?

Mrs. Chalker

I think that the best thing is to make the contributions to the aid agencies which are already working in Bangladesh. Concern, Save the Children Fund, CARE Britain, the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development. Y-Care, and, I believe, Christian Aid and Action Aid have already set up operations. In addition, the British Red Cross has put money into the Bangladeshi Red Crescent. All those organisations are worthy of support. Those who wish to donate should donate cash to those organisations, because many of the goods which are needed by the people are available locally in the region. Putting cash into the region is helpful to it, as the hon. Gentleman understands. That is better than sending goods which may or may not be suitable in Muslim communities.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South)

I accept that the Minister and her Department are doing the best they can in the face of the great series of tragedies, within the constraints of Government policy. Does she find it as distasteful as I do, when turning on the television at night, to see desperate, starving people and, often in the same bulletin, to see her parliamentary colleagues calling for tax cuts, tax cuts, tax cuts? Will she accept that many people in my constituency, and no doubt many who support her party, would willingly pay higher taxes if they could be sure that the money would be used to help the people in the desperate situation that we see on television every night?

Mrs. Chalker

One reason that this Government have made sure that it is easier for people to give has been their willingness to forgo tax so that people may donate to worthwhile causes. I can think of no more worthwhile causes than the people who are suffering from the Bangladeshi floods, the people suffering in Africa and the people suffering from the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and from the penalisation of Kurdish people in Iraq. They are all worthy causes. Of course, there are many more besides.

Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)

The ODA is trying to deal with three major disasters. I understand that it deals normally with about 90 disasters a year. It does not have the resources to handle all that. There are six officials in the disaster unit; I believe that the staff have been increased because of the Kurdish problem. The ODA needs more resources from the Treasury. Only in that way can we begin to handle the problems as they should be handled.

Mrs. Chalker

To correct the hon. Gentleman, there are nine officials and their support staff. [An HON. MEMBER: "For how long?"] There have been nine officials for some weeks. We have been drawing on our professional advisory resources, on senior officials, on the Ministry of Defence and on the diplomatic wing, as I made clear in answer to an earlier question. We are coping very well, but the pressure is great. I am deeply grateful to my staff, many of whom have been working enormous hours, all weekends and all hours of the night. They deserve the House's congratulations, not some of the more mean-minded comments that I have heard over the past two weeks.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

Should not the ludicrous procedure whereby the Ministry of Defence invoices the Overseas Development Administration for the use of military equipment be terminated immediately? What possible justification can there be for taking money out of the ODA's stretched budget and putting it into the Ministry of Defence's budget? How can the Minister possibly justify that? Will she terminate it immediately?

Mrs. Chalker

I would that I could change all the things that the hon. Gentleman thinks desirable and, even better, those which I think desirable, as quickly as he makes the case for doing so. It is right that we should calculate the proper cost, but I am looking for ways to assist our relief efforts. We find it most convenient on some occasions to use the Ministry of Defence and, on others, to use private chartered aircraft to carry our goods where they are needed.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

In the longer term, will the Government organise trips by contractors to Bangladesh—as they have done to Kuwait—to ensure that, in the future, there are adequate flood defence measures—or at least an attempt to provide them—so that such a tragedy is unlikely to be repeated? Will the Government provide real money for such facilities?

They could perhaps think of using the ability, technology and techniques of workers in this country to preserve and develop lives in Bangladesh instead of pouring away £10,000 million on Trident nuclear weapons. Most people recognise that the priority of preserving life is better than the preparation for destruction.

Mrs. Chalker

I have been very pleased to acknowledge the work of British engineering firms, consultants and others in the Bangladesh flood action plan work, which has now been going on for some time. We have always supported British companies in doing that work, and we shall continue to do so. I hope that the action will provide work for people in this country, but I cannot deny that I believe that it is absolutely right that, where British companies can do good work abroad, they should be helped to do so and should be given the contracts in order for them to gain work so that people in this country may have employment.

Mr. Eddie Loyden (Liverpool, Garston)

It appears from the view expressed by some Conservative Members that they doubt the Government's responsibility. Does the hon. Lady agree that some countries, especially this one, exploited Bangladesh to create their wealth over the years? Therefore, does she agree that there should be no consideration of limited aid to Bangladesh at this time?

Mrs. Chalker

I get the firm impression that the hon. Gentleman is living in the past. Bangladesh is a very poor country, and it has always been poor. Year after year, this country has sought to help Bangladesh. Our annual aid programme is £50 million, and this year our aid to Bangladesh is already much higher, because we shall continue to help that country once the flood waters have subsided.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

In an earlier reply, when comparing the Government's response in Kuwait to their response in Bangladesh, the Minister said that we were not at war. Many of us think that we should be at war—at war against poverty and against disasters in areas such as Bangladesh. As such disasters are, tragically, likely to continue to occur around the world, could we not benefit from the peace dividend by converting a significant proportion of our armed forces into a disaster response force? The forces have the material and the skills which could be put to such great use in a disaster area such as Bangladesh or elsewhere.

Mrs. Chalker

I thought that the hon. Gentleman was already aware that we had increased our poverty alleviation measures throughout the world and intend to continue to do so. No one could be more grateful than I to the British officers and men who work in various places in the world to alleviate the awful problems that countries face. They do not work only in the well publicised and sudden disasters: British troops go anywhere and everywhere to help when they are needed.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is the Minister aware that nothing characterises the Government more than their attitude to war, their patriotism and jingoism and their attitude to the starving thousands and millions throughout the world? Would not she be better displaced today and on other occasions when there is a need for Government money if the budget had been increased to 0.7 per cent. of GNP? Is it not a fact that we live in a society based on the entrepreneurialism of the Tories, in which Gazza can be sold for £8.5 million while we have a paltry £6.5 million for the Bangladeshis?

Mrs. Chalker

I am glad to say that I have no responsibility for Gazza. I do not intend, in the hon. Gentleman's word, to be displaced. Some of the best entrepreneurs among many of my friends and acquaintances have come from southern Asian countries such as Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. They are among the best entrepreneurs we have.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

May I ask the Minister a question of which I gave her office notice this morning, about the long term, and especially about the flood action plan to which she referred in her statement? What consideration is being given to the effects of global warming on the snows? Will she call into her office Dr. Houghton and Dr. Keith Browning of the Meteorological Office for a considered opinion about the effects of the Kuwait oil fires which are apparently affecting the snows of the Himalayas? We read this morning that the effect has now reached as far as west China. She should ask about the effect on the Bangladeshis of what happens in the upper areas of the great rivers.

Mrs. Chalker

I know that the hon. Gentleman agrees with me that Saddam Hussein's action in setting fire to the oil wells of Kuwait was environmental vandalism of the worst order. I cannot predict with any certainty the environmental consequences for the Indian sub-continent or wherever else there may be difficulties. However, I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are studying the emerging scientific work with great care. The immediate priority for my Department is to bring urgent relief to those affected by the awful cyclone and the continuing bad weather, but I shall ensure that our chief natural resources adviser is made fully aware of the hon. Gentleman's question and that we use all the information available to us from scientific sources to pursue the matter.

Mr. Harry Ewing (Falkirk, East)

Last but not least, Mr. Speaker. I am grateful to you for leaving me until last. I usually walk up and down the stairs to my office three times a day for exercise but the exercise that I have had in the past hour and 10 minutes will save me the trouble today.

Will the Minister allow me the pleasure of simplifying her statement for her? One hour and seven minutes into answering questions on her statement, all that she has announced is a miserable, inadequate £2 million additional money for the NGOs and an extra two helicopters some time next week. Everything else is under discussion. That reflects the level of the Government's concern about the plight of the Bangladeshis. Will she answer the question put to her by the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir D. Steel) on behalf of the Liberal Democrats? Has the Ministry of Defence sent to her office an account for the use of the vessel that is to go to Bangladesh? If it has, does she support the transfer of overseas aid to the defence budget?

Mrs. Chalker

I will use overseas development resources to help the people of Bangladesh. I shall use not only what has already been announced and what was announced last week and today, but any other resources that are necessary.

The hon. Gentleman does not understand—I do not blame him for that—the way in which Government financing and accounting works. If the hon. Gentleman believes that the resources of one Department are just handed over to another, he is much mistaken, and he would have been mistaken in his own Government, in which he served for a while. The resources that are necessary for the Bangladeshi people will be provided, but they must not be provided just by the British people; they must be provided by the whole international community.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)

Is the Minister aware that we are disappointed that many of the questions asked last Thursday have still not been answered today, nearly a week later? I refer to questions about the deployment of the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines with sophisticated communications, helicopters and boats, as requested by the Government of Bangladesh, as a Tory Government did in 1970 in response to a similar disaster. It is no use hiding under the excuse of the weather, because, in another area last week, the Minister blamed the European Community and she had to confess her error on that as well.

Will the right hon. Lady admit, as many of my right hon. and hon. Friends have said today, that the charge that the Ministry of Defence makes would devastate an already inadequate ODA budget? Will she now stand up with some courage at the Dispatch Box and say that she will get the Chancellor—at least she will ask the Chancellor—to agree the additional funds to the ODA to cover the cost of all necessary military personnel and equipment to deal with this emergency?

As you know particularly, Mr. Speaker, we have a special responsibility to Bangladesh as a Commonwealth country to lead the aid effort. We have not just a. moral responsibility to act both speedily and generously, but, following the elections in February, which I had the privilege of attending, a responsibility to underpin the democracy that now exists in Bangladesh.

Mrs. Chalker

Nobody is more glad than I that Bangladesh now has a democracy. We obviously must help the Government of that country, who are very new and very inexperienced, to carry through the work that they are seeking to do. That Government obviously have no experience of disaster co-ordination, but their army has, and that is why it has now been called in to play a central role in alleviation.

I am, and hope I always will be, a realist about what can be done. I believe that more resources are necessary in these exceptional circumstances, but, however helpful he might think his comments are, the hon. Gentleman must leave to me the approaches that I have made, and continue to make, for the resources that I need to carry out my job efficiently.