HL Deb 09 April 1975 vol 359 cc98-104

3.37 p.m.


My Lords, I am about to make a Statement, but I could not start without congratulating very warmly the noble Earl, Lord Cairns, who has just spoken. With the leave of the House, I will now repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Minister for Overseas Development. The Statement is as follows:

"The House will be aware that I announced last Thursday that the Government would be making available an immediate sum of £¾ million, subject, of course, to Parliamentary approval, for humanitarian needs in Vietnam and Cambodia, particularly among the children. I now propose to increase this to £1 million.

"Of this sum, an initial £100,000 has gone to the International Red Cross, which is able to operate both in areas controlled from Saigon and those controlled by the Provisional Revolutionary Government. It has already begun to fly in condensed milk and other supplies from Singapore. It is now working out its detailed programme, and I propose to allocate a further £150,000 to the IRC for this work, bringing their total grant to £250,000.

"The British Disasters Emergency Committee, representing the major British voluntary societies, met yesterday to hear the latest reports from the field and to make detailed plans for making help available to those in need —particularly the children. I discussed the situation last night with their representatives and I am clear that through their various contacts they will be able to find ways of operating throughout South Vietnam. I therefore intend to make available to the Committee a contribution of £250,000 towards the immediate operations of the British voluntary societies for bringing relief to Indo China. The Committee and the societies are already working out the logistics with help from my Disaster Unit.

"UNICEF and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees have now issued a joint appeal for money for combined emergency relief programmes. These will be provided throughout South Vietnam and in Cambodia on both sides of the warlines. I propose to make immediately available to them £250,000 in response to this appeal. This is additional to a contribution of £500,000 which was made available last week to the UNICEF Indo China programme following my announcement last July of a total British contribution of £1 million. This programme is of course also assisting relief work in Cambodia.

" This leaves a further £250,000 available at present for allocation as the plans of the international and British aid agencies become clearer. As they do, if this proves to be not enough, I may wish to come back for approval for further funds.

"The main need at present is for medical supplies, food and shelter for the thousands of children who have permanently or temporarily lost their parents. It is my view, shared very widely, that it will be best for them eventually to be reunited with their families in the villages and towns wherever this is humanly possible. While my right honourable friend, the Home Secretary, was glad to make special arrangements for the orphan children being flown to Britain from Saigon, and while we all understand the compassion and individual concern so vividly expressed in the last few days, it is, I think, of the greatest importance that compassion is expressed above all in providing help to the several thousands of children who are at risk of disease and malnutrition, and whose lives are therefore at risk, in Vietnam itself. This will be our Government priority. What we seek to do is to translate the deep feeling in Britain for the people of Vietnam into the most practical and constructive assistance we can offer."


My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that we on these Benches will certainly wish to be associated with her expression of concern about the great human distress and suffering which is occurring in that part of the world? Would she agree that when one looks at the terrible pictures of refugees flowing down to the South, the words in the 1973 Peace Agreement, which was signed by North Vietnam, giving the people of South Vietnam the right to self-determination, must sound very bitter indeed at this present time? May I assure the noble Baroness that we on these Benches will certainly assist readily and rapidly in granting Parliamentary approval for the monies to which she has referred in the Statement. Also, may I personally say that I agree with the priority which the Government have expressed that, on the whole, it is preferable—if it is possible—to assist children to continue to develop and live their lives in their own country, rather than seek alternative and less easily achieved methods.

Irrespective of the ultimate political and military outcome in this part of the world, will Her Majesty's Government perhaps consider whether a tremendous aid and reconstruction programme is now needed for the whole of the Mekong Delta, and whether we can perhaps play an active part in deciding how this can best be handled. Although the noble Baroness said in her Statement that UNICEF is appealing for monies to assist on both sides of the war line, is it not a fact that traditionally the North Vietnamese have repeatedly made it clear that they do not wish to see a United Nations involvement in the handling of these matters? Perhaps the Government will look into this aspect.


My Lords, I should like, first, to thank the noble Lord very much for his welcome, not only for the aid we have given but also—and this is very important—for the priorities which the Government have decided upon. It is important that we should be united in this matter. To answer his question about the Mekong Delta and the substantial aid which will be needed—indeed, for the whole of Vietnam—I can assure him that Her Majesty's Government will indeed play a practical part, though of course at the moment it is impossible to give any sort of estimate or even to know when that could be started. However, Her Majesty's Government, as the noble Lord knows are very active and will continue to be so. As to the United Nations and North Vietnam, this is a difficult political point on which he will not expect me to expand, but of course UNICEF has been working in North Vietnam for more than a year.


My Lords, my noble friends and I are also grateful to the noble Baroness for repeating that Statement, the contents of which we entirely support and approve. This would not appear to be an appropriate moment to examine the political or military implications of what has happened. I would only express the hope that the Government will not hesitate, once it has been demonstrated that the aid which has been given is reaching those in need, to come back and ask for further provision if that can usefully be given, so that, if we err at all, we err on the side of generosity towards the victims of a human tragedy.


My Lords, I am sure that the whole House will welcome what the noble Lord has said.


My Lords, while expressing the utmost approval of the humanitarian gesture which Her Majesty's Government have made, may I ask my noble friend to say, if there is any likelihood—and I hope I may be wrong—of the area being completely over-run by the Viet Cong, thus creating even more devastation and suffering, whether there is any possibility of a diplomatic move which we could undertake? For example, was there not some provision in the Paris Agreement to the effect that in the event of a violation of that Agreement—and, apparently, there has been some violation of it—the Paris Conference would be recalled, thus offering an opportunity of preventing further suffering? Have Her Majesty's Government been in consultation with the Government of the United States in order to further the possibility of preventing further suffering?


My Lords, as I am sure my noble friend will appreciate better than most, the military and political situation is not only extremely fluid but is quite extraordinarily delicate. I do not think it would be right for me to expand on the possibility of the Paris Conference being recalled, but I can reassure the House that everything that can be done, both practically and diplomatically, is being done; and as to accusations of violations of the Agreement, these of course come from both sides.


My Lords, while I fully agree with the noble Baroness's sentiments as expressed in the Statement, may I ask her to say what would be the Government's attitude to the aircraft that are flying in medical and other relief aid to South Vietnam bringing out refugees who need medical treatment which they cannot get in that country, or whose future position might be in doubt because of their mixed parentage or past or present employment?


My Lords, it is a very important question that the noble Earl has asked, but it is a difficult one to answer. On the question of mixed blood children, I think that they may need priority in coming out of Saigon; otherwise, as the House knows, we prefer the children to be helped medically and given clothing and the rest, but to stay in their own country if that is possible. As to adult refugees, again it is a little premature— I agree that one should be considering it—for me to answer the noble Earl's question.


My Lords, while welcoming my noble friend's Statement, may I ask her to say whether the Government exercise any control over the various competing charitable organisations, some of which have been responsible for evacuating these children and all of which are inviting public subscription?


Yes, my Lords. Our Disaster Unit has proved extremely efficient. As the noble Baroness will know, it has not been going for very long. However, it has proved extremely efficient and I think it provides a control. I very much agree with the implication in her question, that when money is sent in large quantities it is important to see what happens to it when it arrives, and to ensure that it goes to the right people. We have the UN agencies, UNICEF and the UNHCR, which are of proven ability and efficiency, and the voluntary organisations which are on the Disaster Emergency Committee are, I believe, of the same calibre.


My Lords, I heard on the radio the other day that the British Red Cross, as distinct from the International Red Cross, was likely to make an appeal by which members of the public would be able to subscribe to a reputable organisation to help in this matter. Can the noble Baroness confirm whether or not that is so and, if so, where such contributions should be sent?


My Lords, I cannot confirm that positively, but I should think it most likely. I am unable, therefore, to give the address for which the noble and learned Lord asks, but I shall certainly find out.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the British Red Cross has made an appeal for £2 million and also whether the Disaster Emergency Committee is also going to make one? Perhaps she has more up-to-date information than I have on this subject. Is she also aware that the Red Cross generally—the International Red Cross and the British Red Cross— are extremely grateful for this help which Her Majesty's Government are giving, because the help from the Red Cross will be concentrated on those on the spot, the International Red Cross having been asked to help by both sides? Is she further aware that the Red Cross has been helping both sides for some time?


My Lords, far from having more up to date information than the noble Baroness, I very nearly asked the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone, to address his question to her. However, it is of course early days. This tragedy has so over-whelmed the feelings of the whole country that everybody is trying to do something. It is being co-ordinated and I think that a great deal of good has already been done.


My Lords, may I seek clarification from the noble Baroness? While welcoming very much her Statement that Her Majesty's Gov- ernment are assisting the children, orphans and refugees in Southern Vietnam, may I ask her whether Her Majesty's Government are not doing a little of what the French are doing under the impulse of the President of France, which is assisting Vietnam as a whole? In other words, there are orphans in the Southern area and that area is being over-run by the Viet Cong, so are we not trying to assist both sides?


Yes, my Lords. As I said in the original Statement, the assistance goes to both sides of the war lines and to Cambodia.


My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Baroness has considered the needs of other people in the Far East? According to what we have heard from reliable sources in Bangladesh, conditions there are as bad as those in South Vietnam and I am wondering whether we can bring help to those people in India.


My Lords, I know that the House will share my noble friend's concern about Bangladesh, but the only facts I have today are those connected with Indo-China.