HL Deb 17 May 1976 vol 370 cc1164-7

2.47 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether at the forthcoming meeting of Foreign Ministers of NATO countries authority will be given for NATO forces to be used in cases of disaster relief such as was urgently needed after the Italian earthquakes.


My Lords, although the subject of disaster relief is not on the formal agenda for next week's Ministerial meeting of the North Atlantic Council, it is possible that the subject may be discussed in the context of the assistance already being provided to Italy by the forces of NATO member countries, including the United Kingdom. Forces assigned to NATO in peacetime remain under national control, and it is for individual member countries to authorise use of their own forces for disaster relief.


My Lords, will the noble Lord draw the Conference's attention to this subject and perhaps suggest that it is worthy of discussion? Would the noble Lord not agree that the channels for asking for NATO assistance should be both well known and quick acting?—because this would help to unite NATO, when we need every possible means of uniting the NATO countries, in what would be a very compassionate task. It was, I understand, very effective in the Italian disaster.


My Lords, I warmly welcome the noble Lord's supplementary. I will see what I can do to draw attention to these exchanges today. I agree with him that they are particularly apposite at the present moment in relation to our old friend and ally, Italy. I was glad to hear the noble Lord confirm that the disaster relief to Italy is being co-ordinated through NATO civil emergency machinery with the use of the NATO-wide communications system. I understand this is proving very effective, as the noble Lord has just informed the House.


My Lords, while welcoming what NATO has done, may I ask the noble Lord the Minister whether it is not necessary to have some wider method of assistance through the United Nations with stocks of medical aid, food, blankets, prefabricated huts, and contacts with pilots of different countries who can act immediately on a worldwide scale when such disasters occur?


My Lords, it is the view of the British Government that emphasis should continue to be laid on the importance of developing countries building up their own relief plans, but at international level we support the United Nations disaster relief coordinator and believe that we should concentrate our efforts on strengthening his organisation. My noble friend will recall that this country's delegation has for some time taken something of a lead in developing a United Nations' initiative in this matter.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware that two or three years ago the North Altantic Assembly passed a resolution asking the Council of Ministers to do exactly what has been suggested in this Question? Can my noble friend say whether the NATO Council has set up the kind of organisation which was requested by the North Atlantic Assembly?


My Lords, not quite an organisation responding to the proposal which was made in, I think, 1972 or 1973, but an emergency system which, as I said in reply to the noble Lord, has proved of great efficacy in the Italian earthquake connection. The reason why there has not been a more formalised approach to this question by NATO is that not every member of NATO, for reasons proper to itself, welcomed it at the time and it was not then found feasible to proceed on those lines. But the United Kingdom's attitude was, and remains, co-operative for the utmost development of an emergency relief organisation within NATO and under the aegis of the United Nations.


My Lords, will the noble Lord accept that we on this side are united in our support for the motives behind my noble friend's Question? Will he also accept that a comparatively small and simple permanent command structure to act on contingency plans would, at almost no cost at all to the Alliance be able to deploy existing logistic and communications resources, which are of a hundred times more use one day after a disaster than they are even two days after a disaster? We strongly urge the Government to take an initiative in this field.


My Lords, I think I agree. Without being able to go into detail, I think that the noble Lord is absolutely right. Logistic capacity and expertise exist in NATO for this kind of purpose. Indeed, this country made a substantial contribution in regard to the Italian earthquake at the request of the Italian Government, when it made certain RAF facilities available for very urgent surveying operations.


My Lords, following the remarks by the noble Lord, Lord Wynne-Jones, from the Government Benches, will the noble Lord perhaps consider general approval for such action? I do not think this House is asking for anything too formal. The ad hoc arrangements have been reasonably effective, but we would not wish to see any delay in such terrible disasters, and general approval by NATO would be helpful. Perhaps the noble Lord could take this opportunity of telling us what the United Kingdom forces contributed in the case of the Italian disaster.


Yes, my Lords, I take note of what the noble Lord has said, as I always do. I think he has this general approval from NATO and he has it from this country. We are not alone in NATO. There are 16 other countries and they also have their views. The extent to which we can be even more effective in concerting action in crises of this kind depends, of course, upon effective agreement among all members of NATO, but we shall continue to work for a more effective organisation. I mentioned the contribution made by the Royal Air Force, of which we are all very proud and for which the Italian Government have expressed very considerable gratitude and appreciation. We have also made available £132,000 in the form of grants and the provision of bedding and other necessary materials, which is a substantial single member contribution to what, I am glad to say, is a very general effort by NATO as a whole.