HL Deb 08 December 1981 vol 425 cc1312-31

6.33 p.m.

Lord Harris of Greenwich rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what further action they propose to take in view of the deteriorating position within Poland, and the grievous hardships now being imposed on the young, the sick and the elderly; what further aid can be given in conjunction with our partners in the European Community; and whether they will give additional help to voluntary and Church organisations in Britain which are seeking to increase their level of assistance.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I want to discuss this evening the exceptionally serious situation that is developing in Poland, and to ask what action the Government are prepared to take in conjunction with our partners in the European Community to avoid it deteriorating still further. May I first say on behalf of the whole House with what pleasure we have seen that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford is going to make his maiden speech on this occasion. May I say on behalf of us all how pleased we are that he has chosen this occasion in order to do so.

I do not think that anyone can discuss the fate of Poland without some degree of emotion. Forty-one years ago people of my own generation heard Mr. Chamberlain announce that Britain was going to war because of the Nazi invasion of Poland. In the years that followed a deep bond of friendship was established between our two peoples. It was cemented by the Polish airmen and soldiers who fought by our side. But inevitably nothing brought us closer than the Warsaw rising, when a city rose against its oppressors and men, women and children took to the streets in a gallant but doomed endeavour to free themselves from Nazi tyrrany.

To many in this country therefore Poland is not a far-away country about which we know little, but a nation for whom many in Britain have a deep and abiding admiration and affection. There can therefore be no question of shrugging off the alarming situation that is now developing in Poland and pretending that it is of no concern to us; nothing would be more wrong or indeed more foolish. Certainly the communist régime since the war has made a hopeless mess of the Polish economy, and the Soviet Union have their own heavy measure of responsibility. But on grounds of both humanity and self-interest I believe that the West has a crucial interest in the outcome of the Polish crisis.

The grounds for action from a humanitarian point of view are obvious. It would be a grave error to minimise the vital Western interests that exist on Poland. If Poland indeed relapses into chaos, a most dangerous and unstable situation would arise in central Europe, with implications on relations between the West and the Soviet Union of the gravest character. Let us therefore dismiss the idea that this is in some way the Russians' problem and that we can walk away in some way from the situation with scarcely a glance over our shoulders.

I should like to turn to the situation which has now arisen in Poland. First of all—and by far the most important—is the question of Poland's indebtedness. Poland has an unmanageable convertible currency debt and current account deficit. Poland owes some 27,000 million dollars to its creditors in the West—a significant proportion in debt that is not secured by Western Governments.

As the noble Lord the Parliamentary Under-Secretary will be aware, the agreement reached only a few months ago to re-schedule the part of Poland's commercial bank debt falling due this year is now at risk. It looks as though the Poles will be unable to pay back the 500 million dollars which are involved. The western banks which are involved, banks in the United States, Germany, France and certainly in this country, have of course legitimate interests to protect. Polish default would force them to make massive write-offs. No fewer than 16,000 million dollars are involved. In addition, quite apart from this debt, the Poles have formidable official debt repayments due that they are in no position to settle.

I come now to the first question that I should like to address to the noble Lord the Parliamentary Under-Secretary. We read with close attention the agreement of the European Council on the need to re-schedule the Polish debt. I shall be grateful if he could be rather more specific tonight. What is the time scale that is involved by the European Council? Of course, it would be perfectly right in my view to do our best to obtain guarantees from the Polish Government about their future management of the Polish economy. But unless very prompt action is taken to deal with the immediate crisis, the Polish economy will spiral downwards wholly out of control.

That brings me to the second point that I should like to raise; namely, the consequences of the collapse of international confidence in the Polish economy. Even standard 180-day financing for food and vital raw material imports is now being denied them. The result is a slowing down of the entire Polish economy and ever-lengthening queues outside the shops.

Let me give some examples. There is a critical shortage of brake fluid. That is doing serious damage to the public transport system. There is a scarcity of filters in the sugar refining industry, with very serious consequences so far as production is concerned. There is—and in some respects this is the gravest issue of all—a shortage of key equipment in the coal industry. The coal industry is one of the most vital elements in the entire Polish economy. It has been dangerously under-capitalised for a substantial period of time. It has accounted for a substantial proportion of Polish exports, and unless coal production is restored to a high level the Polish balance-of-payments deficit will deteriorate even more alarmingly. The machinery has been in constant use, leading to innumerable breakdowns in production and many accidents. Safety standards are now appallingly low, and this in turn has been one of the principal reasons for the rash of industrial action which has taken place in the coal mines.

The position in agriculture, which is again a most important feature of the Polish economy, is hardly any better. A great deal of the existing agricultural machinery is out of use because of a shortage of spare parts. Because of the shortages in the shops farmers are unenthusiastic about accepting paper money for their produce; so pigs, for example, are bartered locally, with the consequence that food shortages have become even more severe in the towns. There is now a menacing lack of food in all Polish cities. The queues are lengthening and the mood of despair is growing. I am told that for the first time there have been disturbances in some food queues in a number of Polish communities. So I should like to ask the Minister what further action can be taken by the European Community as a whole to give additional and immediate assistance to the Poles.

Last December the European Community made £357 million available in food aid and the European Council decided to allow the Poles to buy agricultural produce at 15 per cent. below world prices. Over 1 million tonnes of cereals have been made available, with 110,000 tonnes of meat and 50,000 tonnes of butter. But important though this aid has been, the situation is now becoming even worse. Because of the shortage of foreign exchange, Poland is now even less able than it was a year ago to pay for food imports from the West. As a result, I am told that there is accumulating evidence if dietary deficiencies, particularly among the elderly and the poor. So that is clearly an issue of the highest importance, and I would be grateful if the Minister would address himself to that particular issue when he replies.

I now turn to the third element contained in my unstarred Question this evening: that is the work of the voluntary and Church organisations in this country. I have had the opportunity of meeting representatives of both during the past week. I believe that their work has been beyond praise. From the organisation of the noble Baroness, Lady Ryder, whom we are delighted to see this evening and whose name will always be linked with the Polish resistance in the war, to many other organisations—some operated by members of the Polish community in London, others associated with the Roman Catholic Church and still others, such as the Ockenden Venture, which has a substantial experience of relief operations—all are working with energy and devotion in an endeavour to minimise the accumulating distress which is affecting the old, the young and the sick.

The problems they are experiencing are immense. I propose to discuss in particular detail only one element of this problem: that is, what is happening in the hospitals in Poland. One women consultant working in London described the situation in the hospitals in Poland as "desperate". The Poles need not only drugs but the materials used to manufacture them. There is a shortage of even the most elementary medical supplies. There is a shortage of nappies in the hospitals and as a result may children are suffering from serious sores—and there are not even creams or powders to treat them.

A number of hospital wards have had to be closed for several days because of a lack of washing powders to wash the linen. There is an acute shortage of detergents. The soap ration in Poland is one bar of soap per person every other month and there is desperately little available in the hospitals. Even the simplest analgaesics are in grievously short supply, and many pharmacies are virtually empty. Disposable needles, supposed to be used once and then thrown away, are being used up to 15 times. Intravenous cannulae, used for intravenous drips and again supposed to be used only once, are being used from 12 to 15 times in one Warsaw children's hospital. A catheter—a plastic tube used to drain the bladder—is again supposed to be used just once, but in the same children's hospital the catheter has just disintegrated after being boiled over and over again.

As I have indicated, there is an alarming shortage of drugs. Let me mention just one case: that of a three-year-old child in hospital in Western Poland. The child suffers from what is known as an inborn error of metabolism. A telegram was received in London by the Medical Aid for Poland Committee from Solidarity in Warsaw: Could they get hold of a drug called Lofenelack, which is manufactured in this country?—otherwise the child would die. The committee raised the money and obtained the drug, having found just over £100 to do so. They despatched it to Warsaw, so keeping this child alive for a further period of some 16 days. But that small sum was about to be used to buy other desperately needed medical supplies for the Polish hospitals. So this one small child will live but others, because of the critical shortage of other drugs and the scarcity of resources to buy them in the West, will undoubtedly die.

I think it is right, in such appalling circumstances, to ask the Government to do everything that they can to assist the voluntary organisations in Britain which are performing such commendable services to people in Poland. I should like, if I may, to make two specific requests. First, despite all the admirable work that has been done, there is urgent need for help in coordinating the relief operations. There are many devoted men and women who are working selflessly, but inevitably they have little time to spare to find out what other organisations are doing. The consequence is, to take just one example, that there is no coordination in the efforts to secure spare free space on ships, aircraft and lorries so that urgently needed supplies can be transported with speed to Poland.

Yesterday I understand that a meeting took place, presided over by my noble friend Lord Hunt, in his capacity as chairman of the Disasters Emergency Committee. Most, if not all, of the organisations involved in the work I have just described, attended. I am told that the secretariat of the Disasters Emergency Committee have agreed to act as a postbox in an endeavour to co-ordinate information within the United Kingdom; but the secretariat does not have the resources to take executive action on behalf of the many organisations now involved in trying to get relief supplies to Poland.

All those I have spoken to agree that a small group of people—perhaps retired public servants with substantial administrative experience, or people of similar character—would be of immense help in the present situation. The Voluntary Service Unit in the Home Office could, I suggest, be asked to play some role in this matter. They have, after all, an enormous fund of knowledge about the voluntary movement in this country. What is now needed are some retired administrators and some office accommodation. The cost to public funds would, I suggest, be negligible. The benefits to the suffering people in Poland would be immense. It is just this type of imaginative help which would, I believe, be of the greatest benefit at the moment.

Secondly, there is the most alarming problem of the shortage of medical supplies and drugs. I hope that the British drug industry will agree to contribute to the present flow of aid; and I know that some companies have, indeed, already done so. But the Government could themselves play a useful role in this matter. Many medical supplies are labelled with an expiry date. Often they are perfectly safe to use after that date. I understand that a few hospitals in this country are already making such supplies available to the people of Poland and, in particular, to the hospitals in Poland. I hope that the Secretary of State for Social Services—and I gave the Minister notice that I was going to raise this question—will take steps to see whether these supplies can be made available to the Poles. I know that problems can arise so far as drugs are concerned, but, even here, there is possibly something that can be done. The fact is that recently time-expired medical supplies are infinitely better than no supplies at all and that, at the moment, is precisely the choice that they have in Poland.

There are no easy solutions to the situation in Poland. Certainly, a number of steps can be taken—and taken at once—to help the flow of urgently needed relief supplies. I hope that the Minister will be able to indicate tonight that he is prepared to contemplate at least some action on the lines I have suggested, or, indeed, such other action as appears appropriate to the Government. But, on the central question of the Polish economy and its immense burden of debt, the problem is, indeed, formidable.

In September, the London Times made a dramatic appeal for a major western economic rescue operation in Poland. I believe that they were entirely right. I am certain that it would be foolhardy to take action which was, by its nature, so insensitive that its effect upon the Soviet Union was counter-productive. I think that all of us would recognise that. But there is another danger. The other danger is that the West, preoccupied by its own harsh economic problems, will fail to give the Polish situation the urgent priority that it requires. That would be dangerously short-sighted. It would, as I have indicated, be damaging to our own interests and would, I believe, represent a betrayal of the gallant men and women now struggling against immense odds to create a more decent society in Poland. I hope that tonight we will get a message of hope from the Minister. I believe that there is dangerously little time left.

6.54 p.m.

Viscount Simon

My Lords, I think that all of us in your Lordships' House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, for asking this Question of the Government, and so bringing to our notice the desperate position into which the people of Poland seem likely to drift in the coming months—the cold months of winter—unless something is done. I have to confess that, until the Question appeared on the Order Paper, I was not very well informed about these troubles. We read in the papers more about the political struggle in Poland than we do about the economic struggle, which, as the noble Lord has explained to us, is so critical and lies at the base of all the other troubles.

I recognise, as we all do, that the Government cannot be asked, and will not be asked, to take any action that would even seem to interfere in Poland's internal affairs. The noble Lord, Lord Carrington, made that very clear at the outset of the Solidarity movement and he was absolutely right to do so. But that is not what the noble Lord, Lord Harris, is asking us. He is asking us to do something quite different; that is, to offer all the help we can both to the Polish Government in their economic problems, and to the Polish people in the tragedy that seems to be facing them. I agree with the noble Lord that one way in which we could really do a lot to help would be if some small team, not acting for the Government but supported by the Government, could help with the co-ordination of the relief work, because there is no doubt that unless it is properly co-ordinated a great deal of the effort will be wasted.

It might be suggested in this debate, although I hope it will not be, that help from the West to the people of Poland at this time is only letting the Government of Poland and the Government of the Soviet Union off the hook. There is no doubt, as the noble Lord said, that many of the troubles afflicting the unfortunate people of Poland are, to a very large extent, due to failures on the part of the Communist Governments in Warsaw and in Moscow. But the sufferers—the people of Poland and especially the aged, the sick and the children, who are particularly referred to in the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich—are not responsible for that.

And, as he said, have we not a very special responsibility to the people of Poland—our gallant allies in the fight against Nazi Germany? Their plight not only arouses our sympathy, but it reminds us of an unpaid debt of gratitude. I am sure that, like myself, many of your Lordships remember with affection and admiration Polish friends who escaped from Europe when their country was overrun, and continued their fight against Germany from this island. If we are able to make just a small payment towards our debt to the Poles by helping them in their troubles, may we not be contributing also towards ultimate victory for the West in the struggle, in which we are engaged, between the two rival ideologies? My belief and hope is that this struggle will, in the end, be won by the West; not by force of arms, with all the miseries which wars would inevitably bring about, but by the demonstration that ours is a better way of life, a more compassionate way of life.

I do not want to stand any longer between your Lordships and the right reverend Prelate, who is to make his maiden speech, and the two noble Baronesses who have, in their different ways, very special ties with Poland. At the end of the debate, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne—and he has apologised to me for the fact that he has had to leave the Chamber on important official business—will be able to give us some comfort.

6.59 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Hereford

My Lords, during the early days of the last war, a Polish community was established in Hereford. Although it is now greatly reduced in numbers, this community has made a significant contribution to the life of the city of Hereford, and also to the rural area in which it lives. The community still retains its links with Poland and, because it is in my diocese, I am glad to support the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich.

The Churches are often criticised for the support and aid that they give in countries where there is a struggle between régimes that are politically extreme, corrupt or ineffective. There are those who believe that in such situations the peoples of those countries would be better left to work out their own salvation with no support nor aid from outside. But in any country where there is conflict between rival factions seeking either to replace the present Government or, as in Poland, to be agents for change and to give the people an alternative voice and an effective political arm, there is bound to be suffering, deprivation and hardship. There will always be a great number who are not involved but who are the most vulnerable sections of the society in which they live. The noble Lord has already pointed out that they are the children, the elderly and the handicapped.

The Churches cannot stand aside inactive. They must respond to human need and suffering. However, their motivation is not political but Christian and humanitarian. Many of our fellow Christians may be involved in the political struggle but the aid that is given is not limited to those who profess the Christian faith. The Churches' response to starvation, deprivation and need cannot be limited by considerations of colour, creed nor political affiliation. Neither the level of poverty nor suffering in Poland has yet reached the level to which the Churches are accustomed to respond in other parts of the world, such as Guatemala or East Africa. The crisis in Poland is not, however, dissimilar in some respects from the situation in East Africa which I have seen for myself and of which I have limited knowledge. There is food, but it is kept in the countryside. There is no adequate transport to bring the produce to the towns and the cities. There is a total lack of investment in modern methods of farming, whether it be machinery or fertilisers. Above all, there is the fierce independence of the small farmer who is deeply suspicious of all attempts to introduce any form of collective or co-operative farming.

The solutions to these particular problems are internal, although some investment from outside is essential. One can only hope and pray for improvement in the long term. But the present crisis in Poland will remain with us for a long time and the more vulnerable sections of the community are finding, as we have already heard, the effects devastating. Long queues for anything up to 36 hours for meat are normal, and for every 100 in the queue only 70 are likely to have their needs served. Protein deficiency is already reflected in the illnesses that are putting children, the elderly and the infirm at risk.

The response of the Churches to the need in Poland has not been inconsiderable. We all know of the great generosity of the Roman Catholic Church in this country and elsewhere. Christian Aid here has given £40,000 in the past year and has pledged to give a further £40,000 in 1982 as part of the World Council of Churches' programme of support. This programme has contributed 1 million dollars in goods during the past year and it is intended that a further £1 million worth of goods shall be contributed during the next six months of 1982. This perhaps gives some indication of where the real thrust of the work of the World Council of Churches lies. Sometimes I know that there is criticism that such help is not reaching those for whom it has been given but I can assure your Lordships that this help is reaching its destination and that we all know that the help given is being received in the right quarter.

In the light of the needs of the world elsewhere the Churches are not asking Her Majesty's Government to help to increase their level of assistance. We would, however, support the noble Lord in his request that it might be right for Her Majesty's Government to set up some independent co-ordinating body. In a crisis such as there is in Poland the situation changes rapidly. The shortage of meat, which can be there for a time, is quickly replaced by a complete absence of drugs and medical supplies, and such information is not always readily available to the agencies that are trying to help. It would he of great assistance to the agencies themselves not only if there were some co-ordination of their work but if facts like these were available to them.

But there is another area where the Government could, I believe, give the greatest support and encouragement to the people of Poland. As in all countries where there is conflict or a struggle for greater freedom, there are many who live continually under the shadow of fear. The consequence of living with fear is an acute sense of isolation, of being cut off from one's own fellow men and women. In Northern Ireland which I have visited, time and time again I have been told: "Encourage people to come and visit us, to talk to ordinary men and women and to see for themselves what the situation is and how we wish for their friendship and support". Encouraging messages and speeches can never replace the support and strength that is derived from those who are willing to visit and see the situation for themselves and to talk to ordinary men and women. The press and the media have a great responsibility in this area, as inaccurate, unfair and slanted reporting can discourage individuals from making such visits. I believe there may be some way in which Her Majesty's Government could encourage such visits and prevent such frustration and a sense of isolation which might eventually lead to some action being taken which would greatly threaten the peace and welfare of Poland. I hope very much that your Lordships will support the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, in the Question that he has asked this afternoon.

7.8 p.m.

Baroness Airey of Abingdon

My Lords, the great honour and pleasure or congratulating the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford upon a most inspiring and instructive speech falls to me this evening. I think we should all be very grateful to him for telling us of the great responsibility placed upon the Churches, because it is an ecumenical matter in which charity and the care of the sick and the old are involved. I am so glad that the right reverend Prelate has been able to tell us this evening about what is being done, in his experience, for the Poles and for the peoples of other countries who are suffering at this time. We all look forward very much to further speeches from him in this House.

The welfare of Poland is dear to many members of my generation who were comrades in arms during the war. It is especially dear to me because many humble people—the poor, living in not much more than little mud huts, with very little to eat—gave shelter and food to my husband in 1941 when he was escaping through Poland. But that was not all. They risked their lives to do this, for which I am eternally grateful. As noble Lords may perhaps have heard, my husband was caught by the Gestapo and put in prison. Just outside his prison the firing squads went on day after day. He fully expected that he would be the next to be executed. In fact, it was the Poles who were being executed. He had extraordinary luck because he was able to prove that he was a British officer and he was sent back to his prison camp for punishment there: punishment which was severe but which was of a very much less severe nature. So my own personal feeling is very great. Those of us who have seen the dash and bravery of the Poles during the war are very much impressed by the cool determination in this extraordinary operation, which they have carried out with such great skill and for which we must surely admire them enormously, of those who are involved in this present hazardous situation.

We ask ourselves, how can we best help? I believe that interference would be fatal. Encouragement is essential. All possible material help will, I hope, be given. We should help Poland to help herself. We should all be very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, for giving us this opportunity to speak about such a great problem this evening. We have heard already from him and from others that Poland is burdened by huge debts. I hope that the best terms of repayment will be considered by our Government. I hope that the noble Lord the Minister will carry that message and will perhaps be able to give us an encouraging answer. I believe it was October when Poland applied for membership of the IMF. I hope very much that this request may be granted.

Then there is the question of charity. I should like to speak for a moment about this because there has been a certain amount of comment in newspapers—and I believe this aspect was referred to earlier in one of the speeches—about where the money actually goes. I should like to take the example of one very reputable charity. There are many reputable charities and this is only an example of one which is like so many others. It is in fact the Save the Children Fund. I have had quite a lot to do with people who are occupied with this matter and I have spoken today with a senior information officer of the Save the Children Fund. He told me the story right from the beginning, almost from the moment when you or I see fit to donate something to this charity. This charity is already committed to giving £20,000 of relief to Poland in the form of supplies of everything which is needed for children and their mothers. It is very interesting to hear how this aid gets to Poland and how it is distributed.

What goes from the Save the Children Fund is entirely for children: such things as powdered milk, breast milk substitute, blankets, baby clothing and suchlike items which are so urgently needed. They are containerised. I hope noble Lords will forgive that somewhat modern expression; perhaps I should say that the items are put into containers and sent at the expense of the charity to the ports. The charity pays for the packing to the port of departure and then the items are carried entirely free of charge. They go on Polish ships and many of the seamen are members of Solidarity. There is absolutely no question of striking where this errand of mercy is concerned. They are taken to one of three ports, Gdansk, Gdynia and Spechin. Distribution after that is very good. There is tremendous co-operation between the local health authorities, the local committees, Solidarity itself and the Roman Catholic Church. There is tremendous teamwork and the work of these diverse people is as one in the distribution of this food for the children of their country.

I pray that our Government will see their way, even in the hard times we have today, towards financial leniency. I know from first-hand stories that Poles living in this country are contributing most generously to their fellow countrymen. I have heard stories about Poles who wish to send parcels to their country who have had to queue for up to three hours in order to get their parcels despatched. We have heard from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford that there are some Poles living in Hereford, in London and in the North. They are doing their best to help those of their fellow countrymen who are in such difficulty.

It is in the interests of this brave country that it should come to recovery. It has already been mentioned this evening that it is towards world peace that this should be accomplished. I believe we should all admire the way in which the Poles themselves are handling their internal affairs. Anything that we can do to help them we owe to them and to this country.

7.18 p.m.

Baroness Ryder of Warsaw

My Lords, may I also be allowed to congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford on his excellent and sincere maiden speech. I hope that I may be able to convince your Lordships of the situation developing in Poland. I speak from experience, for I had the honour of serving with the Poles, in the Special Operations Executive, during the war and have been with them ever since, mainly in Poland. May I very briefly review the background to the present situation.

Since 1945 an appallingly wounded Poland has scaled obstacles of national reconstruction which would appear almost unbelievable to many in the West, indeed in the whole world. The ravages of war, the loss of 6 million people in circumstances too grim to describe here, continuous occupation followed by the Stalin era—and so it went on. Through it all the Poles have clung to their heritage, their traditions, and strong sense of nationality, and not least to strongly-felt Christian ethics. They have surely borne themselves with outstanding courage and they are an example to us all.

Recently their indomitable national spirit finally found expression among the entire population, and this has led to a period of inevitable turbulence as the desire for the simple liberties we, alas, automatically take for granted rises in their hearts. Also, all this occurs unfortunately at a time of deepening world trade recession, when the Poles' own heavy programme of industrial development which started in the 1970s with such high hopes has coincided with a decline in demand for their goods abroad. The conjunction could not be more ill-timed. This, then, is where they are today, crippled with an almost unserviceable foreign debt.

Poland is now on the downward spiral of shortages of raw materials, resulting in declining production, resulting in deepening shortages of essentials, all of which puts terrible pressure on the people. It is this pressure that demands our attention now. It is this pressure also that concerns me, and if I may I should like to use this occasion to interpret the effect of this pressure on the great mass of ordinary people in Poland; and I do mean mass, because, as your Lordships know, there are 36 million of them.

As we sit here tonight there are quite literally hundreds of thousands of Poles queueing right now—it is approximately 9.20 in Poland—in the freezing cold, and if we think it is seven degrees minus here, it will certainly be 15 or even 20 minus in the eastern parts of Poland. And they are queueing for the most basic of all human physical needs, food and soap. They have worked hard all day from six o'clock onwards this morning, often in unheated rooms, offices, factories, and now they are trying to buy bread, milk, sausage, if they are lucky, medicines for the sick, soap to wash with—the list is endless—fighting because they have no reserves.

The burden falls, as it always does, most heavily upon those least able to bear it, the children, the sick and the housebound. They are reduced, quite literally, to living from hand to mouth. The shortages are growing, the temperature falls, and if the trend continues tension will rise further—it is a marvel to me that it has not already risen much higher—in turn leading to utter despair, frustration, and inevitably violence. If this pattern continues, history shows it will lead inevitably to a national disaster as grave as anything they have faced before. I am talking literally about famine, death and the collapse of their national economy.

I need not dwell further on the possible consequences. A polarised, desperate Poland, at odds with both its neighbours, fighting for survival, is not in Britain's interests. The implications of such a catastrophe and its implications for us in Britain are stark. My Lords, this now concerns us all in the West whether we want to become involved or not, because as ordinary human beings the Poles need our support; they need food, medicine, soap, spare parts to restore their factories. But just as important they need time, time to halt the downward spiral in which they appear to be trapped. The Church, the Government and Solidarity all recognise the predicament and dilemma—which they face.

The need is to give them that time, and I believe we can, to arrest their seemingly hopeless movement to catastrophe. We in the West should get organised to provide the shortfall, the gap in basic supplies that will remove the current suffering. The charities and voluntary agencies and numerous friends and admirers of Poland are ready and willing to help. I know myself the depth of admiration that is latent in this country for the brave Poles, and they, the Poles, still look to Britain and the British as very close friends. So many British remember their superb courage and comradeship in years gone by. We only need the will to co-ordinate and channel the potential British generosity.

We need the following: a national co-ordination centre for Polish relief, especially for the long haul—and may I repeat, the long, hard haul, five years in my humble opinion; secondly, a national publicity campaign using all the means of communication to reach a vast number of friends of Poles in Britain and beyond, and those who are not aware; and, thirdly, we need funds. Please may I be allowed to ask for this help.

The distribution is done as fairly as possible, but there is never enough to go round. Your Lordships may imagine our dilemmas and the disappointment of those we have to cross off our lists. We try to console them and say we will try to bring them something soon. Due to acute shortage of petrol—and there are queues all day and all night—we walk miles and miles and deliver the parcels by hand. As I stand here. I can see their faces as we hand over the parcels and talk with them. We talk with the receivers and those we have had to disappoint. Poles are proud people. Usually they are the givers, not the receivers. And they often weep. Sometimes we have soap in the parcel. This may seem very ordinary here, but in Poland it is very often impossible to wash our grubby hands, and there is the anxiety for mums of how to clean their babies and their nappies.

I return to work in Poland again next week and to remain there long after Christmas, to distribute the food and gifts which are beginning to flow into the foundation I represent, and to try and share with the Poles their problems and suffering. Also I intend to attempt to qualify the extent and detail of their needs in the long term. I would pray and would hope that this House could use its influence to give this nation, Britain, a lead to help co-ordinate the sustained action that will bring relief upon which the Poles are counting. We can do it; it is not beyond us. But we need the will, and the compassion, and your prayers. Let me remind your Lordships of the words scribbled on the wall of an unknown underground cell in the infamous Gestapo interrogation headquarters in Warsaw: It's easy to talk about Poland; it's harder to work for her; still harder to die, and the hardest to suffer".

7.30 p.m.

Lord Gore-Booth

My Lords, in a debate such as this as great an honour as one can consider oneself to receive is that of speaking immediately after the noble Baroness, Lady Ryder of Warsaw. It seems rather dry to say that she is an expert: she is far more than that. She is an expert of both heart and head, and everything that she says is straight to the point and goes to our hearts as well as to our heads.

I speak in this debate only because some years ago when there were earlier attacks on Poland I became, to some extent, involved—and this was a long time ago—in helping Poles who were escaping from the Nazis to make their way through Japan all the way back to our country, and then finally to their own. So one has met people from a nation who, partly because of their place on the map, do have these terrible crises and disasters which are now striking Poland. I felt, at the time when the pressure came on the Poles latterly, again from outside, that perhaps the people of this country had forgotten a little too much about Poland. I say that simply because when doing that work I had what could be described as a unique opportunity—perhaps it was not unique altogether but certainly a very unusual opportunity—of getting to know what Polish people are like. And all the things that are said in praise of the Poles I would ask your Lordships to take for granted as coming also from this speaker.

I also felt as soon as the present troubles began that there was probably something more to be done to help the Poles. What we have to do, obviously, is first, what many noble Baronesses have done so eloquently—namely, to think how we can get relief and that type of help to Poland. Then we have to try and consider whether there are also political ways in which the Poles can be helped in their present emergency. In other words, whose fault is all this? I do not want to go very deeply into this matter, but perhaps it is only right to ask, as we are mostly talking about relief and other such matters, whose fault it is.

I do not think that one can place the blame on just one country. But I do think that one country, which will be familiar to everybody, is to some extent responsible for what has happened because, as a neighbour country, it does not give to its Polish neighbours the kind of unconditional support and help that a neighbour country owes to any other neighbour country in a disaster like this. Therefore, I would ask the noble Lord who is to answer the debate, whether the Government have had some time to think about whether political as well as economic and sympathetic measures can be taken which can have some effect on this situation. The country which I am referring to is, naturally, the Soviet Union which, even if it is not overflowing with milk and honey at present, is certainly in a position—in which it has shown no sign at present of taking action—to help in what is certainly, to a great degree, though not in a total degree, economic as well as political in its origin.

I should like the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, when he tells us what the Government are contemplating, to say whether there is anything that can be done in the way of a political or a diplomatic approach to the countries most immediately concerned which can help to alleviate, at least in some degree, the burden on any country taking part in this, after all, humanitarian as well as political work. I feel that the background must be in some degree connected with political ideologies, ambitions and all the other things which go together to make up a foreign policy. Therefore, I think that the political angle is something which we can discuss with people on all sides of this grave emergency. If we do that we can perhaps get some pressure applied, as one might say, by everybody to everybody in the sense of all the most eloquent and sympathetic speeches that have been made.

7.37 p.m.

Lord Dormer

My Lords, at the outset I should like to congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford on his maiden speech. He spoke with great knowledge of his subject and great feeling. I feel sure that the House will look forward to hearing his voice again.

I should like briefly to support what has been said this evening on behalf of Poland. I believe that there is a growing realisation throughout this country of the agony now being endured by the Poles through shortage of food and also money. The first is being catered for by both the Anglican and the Catholic Churches in this country with, I am informed, considerable success in that the supplies are actually being delivered to those areas most in need. I hope very much that, as was most eloquently suggested by the noble Baroness, Lady Airey of Abingdon, the International Monetary Fund may effectively supply the much needed funds to support the country in its hour of need.

I speak as a relation of the last ambassador to the free Poles during the 1945 war and I learnt at first hand from him the qualities of this great and valiant nation during that period, now displaying similar qualities today. I believe that everything that can be done for this nation today is worthy of respect throughout this country and will command the respect and support of the entire Western world, and may well contribute to world peace.

7.39 p.m.

Lord Home of the Hirsel

My Lords, I apologise for not putting my name on the list of speakers but I had missed that this short debate was taking place. The noble Viscount, Lord Simon, reminded us at the start of the debt of honour that we owe to the Poles. I am particularly conscious of that. We had at home during the war the Polish Division quartered upon us and never once did I hear one of those gallant men complain of the fate which was theirs. Their sole concern was to fight the Germans. I remember, too, the feeling of helplessness when I took part in the Yalta debate in the House of Commons after the war.

But all that is behind us. Now the descendants of those Poles arc in real trouble and we have a chance to help. I should prefer to leave politics out of this debate and, indeed, out of any immediate action that we may take. There is nothing political in trying, in a humane way, to help the old and the young in Poland who are hungry and ill. That is simply a humanitarian desire.

The right reverend Prelate in his excellent maiden speech, and the noble Baroness, Lady Ryder of Warsaw, have given us a great deal to think about in the accounts that they have given of the voluntary agencies which are engaged in trying to help these Poles. The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, I think put his finger on the difficulty at once in his speech. It is that there is a great deal of voluntary help and a great deal of aid, but it is being collected and given by separate bodies; and the Poles cannot get the best value out of that aid unless the effort is co-ordinated. The noble Lord made the suggestion to my noble friend who will answer from the Front Bench that the Government might give sympathetic attention to this aspect of the matter. I think that that is the most practical thing we can do.

7.42 p.m.

Lord Stewart of Fulham

My Lords, I am sure that I should begin, what I trust will be a short speech, by congratulating the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford on his contribution to what has been, I think I may rightly say, a distinguished debate, to which he made a distinguished contribution. We hope that we shall hear from him again frequently.

I shall not take long because many contributions have been made and we are all waiting, quite impatiently, to hear what the Government have to say. The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, gave us the most telling, detailed and graphic account of the situation in Poland, and to that was added an even more moving dimension in the speech from the noble Baroness, Lady Ryder of Warsaw. Our thoughts are very much with her in the work that she is doing in Poland.

I do not think it appropriate in this debate to try to examine the causes that have brought these misfortunes on the Polish people. The remedies—which, as the noble Baroness, Lady Ryder, suggested, will take some time to apply—have, in the end, to be applied by the Polish people themselves. Indeed, they are already showing that they are trying to do this with the courage, spirit and enterprise that we would have expected. Above all, we are most anxious not to do or say anything that would create any difficulties between Poland and her neighbours.

In view of those inevitable restrictions on what we can do, all the more should we apply ourselves to the things that can be done at the present time. That means, for the Government, that they must try—with their fellow Governments in Europe—to secure as generous an approach to the problem of Poland's debt as can be managed and to help, in whatever ways are appropriate, the immediate provision of aid because we certainly do not want to lend anything more to Poland. Poland has been troubled enough already by debt. The requirement at the moment is for immediate and generous gifts of all the necessities of life, nearly all of which seem to be in such desperately short supply in Poland at the present time.

I very much welcome the suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Harris—I trust that the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, will take this up—that one way in which the Government can most effectively help is by the provision of organisation—I think that the phrase is "administrative superstructure"—to the efforts that are being made. I think that it would be a great help to those members of the public, who have generosity but not yet very much knowledge about this problem, to read the assurances that we have had from the noble Baroness, Lady Airey of Abingdon, from the right reverend Prelate and from others that any aid that is given will go to the right quarters. It is a great thing that we are able to say that with confidence.

I also think that the Government might consider what sort of help they could give in publicising the need in Poland. I do not think that, as yet, the public at large fully realise how terrifying a crisis this is and how easily and quickly it might become very much worse. I am afraid that we are inclined to think that disasters of this kind occur far away in Asia and Africa. The right reverend Prelate pointed out to us that, bad as it is in Poland, it is not as bad as one can sometimes find in those continents. But it is rapidly approaching those dimensions. It is that which we want to get home to the people in this country.

I do not propose to say more, except to make this one point. These things that the Government can do—organisation and publicity—are immensely worth doing and could not be described by any stretch of the imagination as an attempt to meddle improperly in the affairs of Eastern Europe or in the relations between Poland and her neighbours. That, of course, is something that we must avoid. However, I am convinced—and it was one of the things that was borne in on me when I was at the Foreign Office—of this truth. Straightforward, simple acts of common humanity—of the giving of help by those who can to those who are in desperate need—cannot unravel all the complexities of diplomacy, nor remove completely all the things that bedevil human relations at the present time. But in the end acts of that kind make a real contribution to the longer tasks of diplomacy. They leave the impression that there is, somewhere, some decency in mankind—a proposition which at times one is almost led to doubt.

Perhaps I could mention one personal experience. One of the first problems brought to my notice when, against all my expectations, I became Foreign Secretary, was that of drought in Indonesia, and I was asked whether we could make a straightforward gift of food to help those people. At that time we were actually engaged, though at rather long range, in hostilities with Indonesia, but I decided that the advice offered to me was right and that we should give that help, though I was criticised at the time. In the end, it proved a wise as well as a humane thing to do. Here we are asked, not to help a near enemy, but to help a friend, an old ally, a country and a people to whom we have the greatest obligations. I believe that in every sense of the word it will prove to be worth doing.

7.48 p.m.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I want to begin with an apology to your Lordships in that very important business in connection with our presidency of the European Council made it necessary for me to be absent from the Chamber for a short while during the course of this debate. Thus I missed, although I have had it reported to me, the speech of the noble Viscount, Lord Simon, and also, I am ashamed to say, the maiden speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford. I was, in fact, in the Chamber for the right reverend Prelate's closing remarks, but, in accordance with practice, I did not take my seat on the Bench here as that would have been regarded, quite properly, as impertinent. However, I did hear the right reverend Prelate's closing remarks and I want to congratulate him on them at least, and to express the hope that he will intervene again soon and often in your Lordships' House. I shall certainly study what he has said with the greatest care when I see Hansard tomorrow.

Aside from that period when I was absent, I have listened to this debate with interest and, indeed, with concern. Interest, because developments in Poland over recent months have caught the attention and imagination of Western Governments and public opinion alike. Concern, because, as almost every noble Lord and Baroness who has spoken has indicated, the present economic and political difficulties in Poland are naturally of special concern to all Poland's friends.

The Government, of course, attach considerable importance to our relations with Poland, so I am particularly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Harris, for initiating this debate this evening. I can assure your Lordships that the Government are fully aware of the grave problems that are facing Poland and are following developments in that country with close attention. As your Lordships may be aware, the Polish Foreign Minister, Mr. Czyrek, was recently in London and gave my noble friend Lord Carrington, an account of the present situation in his country. More recently still I myself have just returned from a visit to Poland where I was able to see the situation at first hand and discuss in detail with the Polish leadership the problems facing the country. I also had the opportunity during my visit to exchange views with leading members of the Polish Church and Solidarity and to meet distinguished academics and parliamentarians, who are involved in the process of political and economic reform.

As my noble friend the Foreign Secretary and I have assured the Polish leadership, the British Government will continue to support the efforts of the Polish Government to overcome the political and economic problems with which Poland is faced. Together with our partners, we believe it is important that the political and economic stability of Poland should be maintained not only for European peace and prosperity but for the benefit of international relations as a whole.

This has not just been a question of political support. The Government have also been prepared, in view of the exceptional circumstances, to respond promptly and generously to the request of the Polish Government for economic assistance. As your Lordships will be aware, within the framework of the Paris Agreement of 27th April on the rescheduling of Polish debts, a bilateral agreement between Her Majesty's Government and the Polish Government was signed in Warsaw on 2nd July. This provides for a restructuring of the principal and interest of 90 per cent. of the debts guaranteed by ECGD and falling due for payment between 1st May and 31st December 1981. After adjustment to take account of interim assistance given earlier in the year, the sum to be restructured will be about £75 million. These debts will now be repaid over four years commencing on 1st January 1986.

The Paris Agreement provided for a possible extension of these arrangements by stages through 1982–1983 by agreement between Poland and its creditors depending on the progress of the Polish Government stabilisation plan. A joint commission consisting of the Poles and the 16 western creditors met in Paris from 19th to 20th November to consider these questions. I am glad to say that sufficient progress was made at that meeting to contemplate holding a further multilateral meeting in the forthcoming weeks.

In addition to debt rescheduling, we have also instructed ECGD to maintain for the time being a modest level of general short-term export credit facilities and to provide guarantees for specific credits totalling £65 million. Much of this credit is being used to purchase food supplies under the European Community scheme. But some has also been used to purchase industrial products and materials essential for Poland's industrial recovery and approximately half a million pounds has been used to purchase medical supplies.

The European Heads of Government and State at their meeting in London on 26th and 27th November reaffirmed their willingness, within the limits of the means of the Community and its member states and in collaboration with others, to respond to the requests of the Polish Government for continued support for the efforts of the Polish people to promote the recovery of their national economy. They put on record their belief that the rescheduling of Polish debt and the provision of new credit would make an important contribution to that end.

The British Government stand by this view and are prepared to give effect to their words. Accordingly, I can confirm that, subject to the agreement of our partners and the forthcoming multilateral discussions, the Government are willing to reschedule Poland's debt repayments in 1982 on a similar basis to 1981. We are in addition providing credit of up to £30 million in 1982 for the continued financing of the construction of the Ursus tractor factory, a significant joint industrial project which is of importance to Poland's efforts to achieve agricultural self-sufficiency.

May I say, in parenthesis, that during my recent visit to Poland I visited the Ursus factory plant which is partly already in being but partly under new constriction and was much impressed by what I saw and indeed with the Polish people and others whom I met there.

We believe these measures will be a useful contribution to Poland's economic recovery and are consistent with the risks implicit in the condition of the Polish economy at the present time. Similarly British firms with long-standing links with Poland are maintaining their presence in the market. Both these firms and the Government appreciate the importance of continuing commercial relations and look forward to the time when Poland is once again a strong trading partner.

The United Kingdom has also, together with our partners in the European Community, played a substantial role in supplying food and agricultural products to Poland at specially reduced prices. The Community budget has borne the cost of the special discount while individual member states have made available the necessary credit to cover the products they have supplied. Under decisions taken in 1980 and in April and May this year, the Community has responded to specific Polish requests by making available large amounts of food from Community stocks at special prices. These offers have so far included 452,500 tonnes of barley (all from the United Kingdom), 272,500 tonnes of wheat, 100,000 tonnes of meat (including 3,000 tonnes of beef from the United Kingdom) and 100,000 tonnes of sugar.

On 7th October the Community approved a further offer of food and agricultural products to be made available to Poland in the last quarter of 1981 on the same special terms as the earlier offers. The United Kingdom will supply a further 25,000 tonnes of barley included in that offer. At the same time the Community agreed to consider proposals by the European Commission for further deliveries to Poland in the first quarter of 1982. These proposals are now under active consideration.

Meanwhile, on 24th November, the Budget Council agreed in response to a proposal made by the European Parliament, that a small additional sum of 10 million ecus (approximately £5.8 million) should be made available to the Commission to assist the supply of food from the Community to Poland. I understand that this will now be used to supply some 8,000 tonnes of beef as a gift. And in August a resolution was adopted by the Council making it possible for member states to supply to Poland free of charge fruit and vegetables withdrawn from the Community market in accordance with the provisions of the common agricultural policy.

My Lords, it is abundantly clear from what I have just said that the Community's contribution continues to be substantial and equally clear that the United Kingdom has played a full part in that contribution. As I have already stated, the European Council consider it important that the Community should continue, within the limits of its means, to contribute to Poland's economic recovery. I have no doubt that the Community will do its best to view any further request from Poland for assistance with food supplies in that light.

The Government also believe, however, that Poland's other creditors must play their part. I understand agreement in principle has been reached with 460 Western banks for arrangements which will provide Poland with a substantial measure of relief in 1981. The Soviet Union and its allies should also continue to play their part in helping Poland with its financial difficulties. That, I think, relates to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Gore-Booth. The Soviet Union is, of course, well aware of the views of Her Majesty's Government about the necessity of the burden of helping Poland being shared by both Eastern and Western trading partners.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris, and my noble friend Lady Airey, have mentioned the work of the voluntary and Church agencies in Britain and have commended their efforts. The Government are of course aware of the substantial contribution being made by many voluntary and Church organisations in Britain to alleviate acute shortages of food and medicine in Poland and to help the sick and the needy. We consider that this is a worthy effort and one that is symbolic of the warm friendship and humanitarian feelings that have traditionally existed between the British and Polish peoples.

I noted the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Harris, that the Government should assist in co-ordinating the work of the voluntary and Church agencies and indeed in providing medicines and medical supplies to Poland. I shall certainly look to see what can be done in that direction but, as I mentioned earlier, the Government have already provided credits of approximately £½ million which the Polish Government have used to purchase medical supplies. We are in contact with a number of the agencies involved and we took part in the very discussions, to which the noble Lord referred, on 7th December to consider how these activities could best be co-ordinated, both between the agencies themselves and with the Polish authorities, so they can see how to provide the relief that is most effective and of the greatest use. We greatly welcome these discussions and shall continue to keep in close touch with the agencies and do all we can to help. I would emphasise, however, that all our offers of assistance have been in response to requests from the Polish Government. We continue to believe that it is for the Polish Government to decide their priorities for assistance and to determine what best meets Poland's needs at the present time.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, I think we all accept that the British Government have made a significant contribution, as have our partners in the European Community. Is the noble Lord aware that many of us would feel reassured were there to be some indication given in the fairly near future on the specific question as to whether a small group of administrators could be used to assist the voluntary organisations. I welcome the fact that Government representatives were present at the meeting yesterday, but the need is urgent and, as I am sure the Minister recognises, many of us would be reassured if this matter could be put at the top of the agenda so far as the Government are concerned.

Lord Trefgarne

I can assure the noble Lord that the Government are very much aware of the urgency that attaches to these considerations, my Lords, and I shall see that there is no undue delay in the consideration of them.

It must be recognised that there is no easy solution to Poland's economic problems, and there are limits to what any of Poland's western creditors can do, particularly in face of their own fiscal difficulties. In any event, no amount of external aid will by itself solve the Polish problems. The only people who can achieve a lasting solution are the Poles themselves, by agreeing on appropriate measures and putting them into effect as soon as possible and without outside interference of any kind. My recent visit to Poland has reinforced my belief in the desire of all parties there to find workable solutions as quickly as possible. I am certain that all noble Lords will join me in wishing the Polish people well in their endeavours.