HL Deb 14 January 1981 vol 416 cc155-67

10.57 p.m.

Lord McNair rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether, in the light of Council of Europe Recommendation 901 which drew attention to the threat of closure overhanging the schools run in Syria and Jordan by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, it will increase its regular contribution to UNRWA and/or make a special donation.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Unstarred Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. My first pleasant duty in asking it is to say how delighted I am that the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, is going to answer it. I had feared that his well-deserved promotion, on which I congratulate him, might have removed him from our ken. I am glad to see that it has not. Secondly, since the rules are so very precise that I do not get a chance to do so at the end, I must in advance thank those noble Lords who will take part in this debate. Before I describe how this crisis in UNRWA's finances has arisen and what its consequences may be, I should explain that it is a fast-moving crisis which has already grown a good deal worse since I put down my Unstarred Question.

Thus it is that the exact wording of my Unstarred Question is already out of date in two respects. First, it is no longer only the schools in Syria and Jordan which are threatened; it is now all the schools which UNRWA runs, that is to say, those also in the Lebanon, the West Bank and in Gaza. Secondly, since I put down my Unstarred Question, I have learned that Her Majesty's Government have in fact increased their regular contribution for next year. This I acknowledge and warmly welcome. I hope that I sufficiently indicated that I had been forced in this way to shift my ground a little in a letter I wrote to the Foreign Office and which I hope the noble Lord has seen.

I feel that I next owe your Lordships a short explanation of how I came to be involved in this matter. I am one of the fortunate five Members of this House who are delegates to the Council of Europe. As such, I was asked last year to write a report on The Palestinian Refugees and the Activities of UNRWA. This I did after a good deal of reading and after visiting the four countries in which UNRWA operates. This report was accepted by the Parliamentary Assembly last September by a unanimous vote, which is quite a rare event in Strasbourg, and was subsequently chosen by the Parliamentary and Public Relations Committee of the Council of Europe for what they call "urgent parliamentary follow-up action". This means that I am under an obligation to put this question to the Government if I take the Council of Europe seriously, as I do; but I hope that I would still be putting the Unstarred Question even if I did not have that fortuitous reinforcement for my conscience.

I have been wondering how much I need to say about what UNRWA is and what it does. I can assume, surely, that all the participants in this debate—and most people who may read this debate with serious interest—will already know most of the background facts. For the record, therefore, I shall reduce them to an absolute minimum. The United Nations' Relief and Works Agency for the Palestinian Refugees in the Near East, to give it its official title, was set up by the United Nations General Assembly in 1950 to alleviate the plight of the Palestinians who had left their homes as a result of the fighting which raged in Palestine in 1948 and 1949. The exact circumstances of their exodus are highly controversial to this day but, I suggest, completely irrelevant to my Unstarred Question.

Today, 30 years later, UNRWA has on its books some 1,800,000 refugees, about one-third of whom still live in camps. In addition to providing relief for the destitute and medical supplies and facilities for all, both on a minimal scale, UNRWA gives the refugees what they have come to regard as their most precious asset: education for their children, or, in many cases now, their grandchildren. This they see as their ticket of admission, as it were, into the future. In 635 schools, 339,000 children aged between 6 and 14 are receiving an education which compares very favourably with the education which their indigenous neighbours are getting. Since these schools and the threat of closure which faces them form the subject of my Unstarred Question, I hope I may be allowed to say a little more about them.

When you visit an UNRWA camp, the normal procedure first is to meet some of the mukhtars, the headmen, as it were, and, for all their courtesy and hospitality, it is a pretty depressing experience. There is an atmosphere of resigned, almost institutionalised nostalgia, backward-looking. "Hope deferred maketh the heart sick"—and the sickness is catching. But then you are asked to go and look at one of the schools, and the mood changes dramatically. You feel as though you have walked straight from the darkest hour before the dawn into bright sunshine. Here is a classroom, albeit probably a pretty shabby one, full of remarkably clean, astonishingly keen children.

If I may, I should like to read one short paragraph from what I wrote last year: We all admired without reserve the dedication of all the teachers we were able to watch at work in the UNRWA schools. Their conditions of work, by European standards, vary from the barely tolerable to the virtually impossible, and yet the results which they achieve bear witness to their astonishing devotion. It is true that they have the great advantage of teaching pupils whose application and thirst for knowledge would arouse the envy of most teachers in Western Europe. Evidence of this can be found in the standard punishment for the (rare) acts of misbehaviour at school. The punishment is not to be allowed to go to school the next day.

There are 635 of these schools, as I have said, with 399,000 pupils and they are going to shut down, close their doors for ever, in May unless by mid-March the world can find the globally paltry sum of 40 million dollars, or £17 million. In saying that, I have perhaps slightly anticipated the next part of my speech which is an explanation of how UNRWA is financed. Where does the money come from? It does not come from normal United Nations funds. UNRWA depends, and I think always has depended, on voluntary contributions from those member states which are willing to make them. These states meet annually in November to announce the size of their intended contributions for the following year. Meanwhile, of course, UNRWA has prepared a budget of its estimated expenditure. And it is the Commissioner-General's job, at the end of this pledging conference, as it is called, to compare the totals of pledged income and of proposed expenditure and to see how they match up. In recent years there has always been a deficit. The pledges have not added up to enough to enable UNRWA to do all the things which needed to be done, so that repeated cuts have had to be made in the services provided.

Before I deal in detail with this year's super-crisis, I think I should say a word or two about the relative performances of different countries. The United States has always been far and away the largest contributor. After them, I am both delighted and proud to say that the United Kingdom has been the second biggest. The only contribution which comes between the USA and the United Kingdom is the collective donation from the EEC, to which of course we also contribute. One should certainly make honourable mention of the generosity of the Scandinavian countries and, I think, of Japan.

Nothing has ever come from the Soviet bloc. Only disappointingly small sums have come from the oil-rich Arab states, in spite of the fact that they depend very much on UNRWA-trained manpower for their development. These Arab states have their own political reasons for holding back, reasons which I can understand though I think they are mistaken. However, it is worth noting that in recent years they have been more helpful than they used to be, and indeed it was partly with the help of special donations from Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and others that last year's less grave crisis was eventually resolved.

Now I come to the present position. At the end of the pledging conference in November, Mr. Rydbeck, the very distinguished Swedish Commissioner-General of UNRWA, found himself faced with a deficit of 70 million dollars on a budget of 231 million dollars. This was the worst ever. By ruthlessly combing through the intended expenditure and eliminating everything which could possibly be put off for another year, he was able to reduce the deficit from 70 million to 40 million dollars. He then formulated two alternative ways of meeting that deficit by the saving of 40 million. It had to come out of the education programme. Relief and health had already been cut in previous years to the point at which any further reduction would have opened the door to malnutrition or epidemics; so the saving had to come from the schools.

The first of his two options was to close the schools in Syria and Jordan at once—this month. The second was to keep them open until the end of the academic year in May and then to close all the UNRWA schools in all the five fields of its operation. Mr. Rydbeck presented these grim alternatives to his Advisory Commission, on which we are represented and which meets in New York. He was urged by our delegates and by the majority to go for option 2, the less drastic one, for the reason that it gives the world two months in which to find the extra money. He took that advice, and that is where the matter stands today. Notices of dismissal will go out to all the 9,700 teachers, all of whom are Palestinians. They will have to be sent out in mid-March. All the schools will close in May unless by the middle of March the world has decided to save UNRWA and has found those 40 million dollars or £17 million.

Finally, we come to the question: what can we do, and why us? I will take the second question first. Why should Great Britain—which has an honourable record in its support of UNRWA and which has already increased its pledge for next year from £4.5 million last year to £5 million—do any more? I suggest that there are two reasons. First, as the ex-mandatory power, we do have a unique responsibility from which we have not shrunk in the past. This fact puts us in a very strong position to appeal to others. Secondly, what is morally right happens in this case also to be politically expedient. You could call it prophylactic diplomacy, an exercise in crisis prevention.

We hear much of a European initiative in the Middle East. Our Foreign Secretary is out there at the moment, unless he has come back without my knowing it. If we were to lead an international operation to save UNRWA from collapse, it would be welcomed by all the actors in the tangled, smouldering drama of the Middle East.

Is there anything else we could do which would simultaneously improve our standing with the Palestinians, with Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and with the Israelis? Is that not what we are trying to do? I think it is, and I am sure it ought to be. What exactly can we do? Put simply, I am asking the Government to launch and lead an international rescue campaign to raise this ridiculous sum of £17 million before the middle of March. Exactly how this should be done, I am not equipped to say. But I am quite sure that the Foreign Office could work out the most appropriate modus operandi if it were given the right directions from the top. Perhaps the EEC is our most appropriate channel, or a direct approach to Washington. I do not know. And somehow, certainly, the Arab OPEC countries must be brought in. I only know that if the world fails to stop these schools from closing in May, the whole future of UNRWA will be very much in question and this will be interpreted as a betrayal, as a political act of desertion by the West. That may be unfair, but that is how minds work in that part of the world.

I thank your Lordships for listening to me so patiently and, with my last breath, I beg the Government to seize this opportunity. If they do, I am quite sure that they will not regret it. If they do not—I do not know how to finish that sentence. I am sure they will.

11.16 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Guildford

My Lords, I must first apologise, because I must leave the House immediately after making my speech, since the last train for me leaves Waterloo at 11.46. In speaking in support of the Question addressed to the Government so eloquently and so fairly by the noble Lord, Lord McNair, I wish to make two points only. The first is to impress upon your Lordships' House the intense and long-standing nature of the devotion felt by Palestinians towards the land of Palestine.

It was my privilege in the mid-'60s to spend two years in Amman, when I was for much of the time a student in the Jordan University. Since my subject of research was in Arabic history, most of my time I spent either with Arab students or with Arabs in the ordinary intercourse of life. One of the deepest impressions made upon me at that time was of the strength of feeling felt by Palestinians towards their homeland, whether they were refugees in the camps or whether they were, as they would say, temporarily established within Jordanian society.

I could give many eloquent examples of this deep attachment to that land. Perhaps the most eloquent of all were the mottoes painted in white paint in Arabic on the dashboards of taxis, which expressed, as it were, the identities of the men who drove those taxis and the thoughts that were uppermost in their minds: O land of Palestine, O land of my parents". This deep attachment was shared equally by Christians and Muslims, for while Christians love Palestine in part because of its association with our Lord, no less do Muslims because of the Qur'anic verse in which it is said of Abraham's immigration into Palestine: God delivered him unto the land that God had blessed for all beings", and Palestine is for Muslims the blessed land.

Your Lordships will also, I am sure, be aware that the link of many Palestinian families with their homeland is of great antiquity, stretching back not just for centuries but for thousands of years. The movement of the tribes from the desert to the soun, of which the old Israel is such an eloquent example, and from the soun back into the desert, has been going on since the dawn of human history. A fifth century church writer named Sozomen, whose ecclesiastical history I consulted in your Lordships' Library this afternoon, gives this interesting description of a feast held annually at Hebron, just south of Jerusalem. He wrote this: Here the inhabitants of the country and of the regions round Palestine, the Phoenicians and the Arabians, assemble annually during the summer season to keep a feast. Indeed, this feast is diligently frequented by all nations: by the Jews because they base their descent from the Patriach Abraham, by the Greeks because angels there appeared to men, and by Christians because He who, for the salvation of mankind, was born of a Virgin there manifested Himself to a godly man". Perhaps I might add that for Palestinians Palestine is not simply the area that we used to call the West Bank but the whole land from the River Jordan to the sea, and many a time have Palestinians described to me with great feeling their former homes on the shores of the Mediterranean. Of course they are a separate Arab people from the Arab peoples of the surrounding neighbourhood, the other countries.

Sozomen's statement that the feast in Hebron was frequented by all nations brings me to my second point, which is this. It is, I believe, of the utmost importance to sustain the UNRWA enterprise, as set out in the Council of Europe Resolution 901 and its accompanying report which is in the House of Lords Library and which was written by the noble Lord, Lord McNair. The UNRWA education programme is a pledge by the nations acting in concert together. The Palestinian claim to their heritage is not disregarded by them. It is in this very difficult situation a sign of hope that reconciliation will be achieved one day between Jew and Arab. It is a sign of hope that one day a lasting peace, not this temporary, excitable situation in which we find ourselves now but a lasting peace on the basis of justice for all, will be established in what is so vital and important an area of the world. That pledge, given by the United Nations, must not be taken away, lest hope turn to despair and despair breed violence and conflict.

I hope very much that the Government will pay very serious attention to the Question raised by the noble Lord, Lord McNair. I regret very much that I shall not be able to hear the answer of the Minister, or the speech by Lord Caradon.

11.23 p.m.

Lord Caradon

My Lords, I wish very strongly and sincerely to support what the noble Lord, Lord McNair, said to us. It is very opportune that he has brought this critical development to the notice of the House and the Government. I greatly admire the way in which he put the case. The catastrophe which is imminent is almost beyond imagination. That more than 300,000 children should be denied the opportunity of returning to school in May, that 9,000 or more devoted teachers, all of them Palestinians, who have done extremely well in serving their own people, should be summarily dismissed and the possibility that these developments will take place inevitably if action is not taken by March, throwing the countries concerned into confusion and, indeed, chaos and protest are things which are almost impossible to imagine.

It is not so much the humanitarian aspect of the problem which seems to me to be so overwhelmingly important. It is the political issue to which I should like to refer in particular. To the credit of our own Government, our own leaders, in recent months since the meeting in Venice in June there has been the most serious and hopeful endeavour to bring a lasting peace to the Middle East that has ever been attempted. We know that our Foreign Secretary from that time has made it his own particular purpose to urge the comprehensive and constructive settlement which was outlined in Venice, and is engaged on that task up to this moment.

The whole future of the Middle East and the possibility of peace depend on the success of that initiative and, if it were to be withdrawn or if it were to fail, then I myself cannot imagine that any settlement, any solution, can be found. I was myself in Amman last week and I found there with the ministers, with the king, the crown prince and others, the beginning of the realisation of what it would mean if in the occupied territories (so-called) and Gaza, as well as in the Lebanon and in Syria and in Jordan the whole educational effort of UNRWA were to come to a sudden stop. Certainly in the West Bank there is no alternative source of local finance. Nor could Jordan—which exists with great difficulty financially—hope to meet the need itself. It has to be done from outside in both those cases, and in Syria and in the Lebanon, too; I doubt whether there is any possibility at all in the Lebanon that the Lebanese Government could in these circumstances find anything like the enormous sum required—the enormous sum from the point of view of their own restricted finances.

So it seems to me that if there is to be any hope of peace being achieved as a result of the initiative with which our Government are fortunately and admirably associated, this catastrophe must be avoided. It was decided by the commission, on which we are represented, of course, that every endeavour should be made on an international basis to find the answer in time. That was the recommendation which we supported and that is the recommendation which seems now so desperately urgent. I would hope that it could be through the European Community, which has taken the initiative in the peace effort, that the effort would be made to back that initiative by the practical action of saving the situation by the joint action of the Economic Community leading the world, as it is indeed doing in political initiative at this time.

So I would greatly urge on the Government (if it is necessary to do so) that this country—I who have served for many years past in the area which we are now discussing, feel this—has an obligation. It is the view of the Arab world, certainly, that we have a particular obligation. On that basis and on others and in view of the necessity for urgent action, I would hope that this Government would be prepared to take the lead in an international effort and a European effort to save the situation before March.

11.29 p.m.

Lord Goronwy-Roberts

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord McNair, has indeed raised a question of the utmost gravity to the Palestinian refugees, who now number a million and three-quarters, and especially to the children; and the fact is that unless action is taken very soon—by April, or at the latest May of this year—to provide the necessary funds, 635 elementary and secondary schools will close and a third of a million children of school age and nearly 10,000 school teachers—all of them refugees, by the way—will be at large, adding to the peculiar stresses and bitternesses which already afflict the refugee communities in the five main areas between the Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. That is the human problem, as the noble Lord, Lord McNair, so graphically described it.

As my noble friend Lord Caradon has, with his great authority and experience, reminded us, the political implications for the Middle East are even more serious. This is an area in constant and increasing danger of explosion. It is the breeding ground of terrorism and war, and at the very heart of the problem lies the massive and heartrending problem of these refugees. Anything that exacerbates that particular aspect of the Middle East problem inevitably conduces to an early explosion in this highly combustible area. Conditions there threaten not only the stability of the area itself but also the legitimate vital interests of the western democracies. Western Europe depends on the Middle East for 60 per cent. of its oil, this country perhaps less than others. It is a curious comment on the various pledges and contributions made that the western democracy, least dependent by now on Middle East oil, is making the most substantial contribution to the saving of this programme.

All attempts to achieve a just and durable settlement in the Middle East have so far failed. It is not the fault of the United Nations. I had the great privilege of being, I hope, of a little assistance to our then ambassador to the United Nations, my noble friend Lord Caradon, when he principally among a number of diplomats at that time fashioned Resolution 242, followed by Resolution 338, which still hold the stage as a sensible and practicable basis for a just and durable solution. However, all attempts to achieve such a solution, which would in turn solve the refugee problem, have so far failed.

In the meantime, the United Nations have encouraged an agency, the UNRWA, to promote programmes to maintain minimal standards of health, sanitation, education for these refugees. Indeed 109 pledging countries very recently agreed that the mandate for this agency to continue its work should be extended to 1984. So there is very wide agreement among members of the United Nations as to the value of the work done by this agency. However, when it comes to practical contribution, especially in cash, performance varies among them.

Although this programme has helped to take some of the edge off the terrible bitterness that generations of Arab children have been growing up with, nevertheless contribution to putting something better in their minds has been deficient in the most unlikely countries, among countries where one would expect the greatest awareness of the importance of this programme. Now the programme is in danger of collapse, with physical and political consequences which, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Caradon, can hardly be exaggerated. This may be the last straw. This may be the final ignition of a major explosion in the area.

It needs about 40 million US dollars to keep the schools open during the present year. It is right that Parliament, that we in this House tonight, should consider what contribution the United Kingdom is making and has been making. I entirely agree with my noble friend Lord McNair that the British performance in regard to this programme, as indeed generally in regard to programmes of this kind—because the whole spectrum of the work of the United Nations is creditable—matched against our size and resources, is, indeed, an example to much stronger and richer countries.

I think that the time has come for us to speak very plainly about this. Constantly this country is pilloried for its deficiencies and shortcomings, as if everything in the world depended upon its contribution and its performance. As a matter of fact, relative to its size and resources, it is making, and has been making for very many years, very considerable contributions. Other countries like ours have increased their contributions over and above those of last year and they deserve mention: Australia, Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden—that is the familiar litany of the internationally responsible, and our country very proudly and deservedly takes its place within that list. However, those countries are greatly outnumbered by countries which are actually pledging less this year—this year of crisis—than they contributed last year when the financial crisis was so much smaller.

I have two suggestions to make in support of what the noble Lord has said. First, if ever there was an Arab case, this is it. But when we look at the performance of the Arab world in support of these unfortunate people, the biggest single group of refugees even in the world—which seems to be full of refugees—when we look at the performance of the oil-rich OPEC countries, what do we find: last year from Arab sources 18.5 million US dollars were forthcoming. This year the total pledge is down to 5.3 million dollars. The Minister will correct me if I am wrong.

Lord McNair

My Lords, I think that there is one explanation of this, and that is that last year included not only their regular contributions, but special donations that they made in response to appeals later in the year. So perhaps their regular contributions have not gone down as much as the noble Lord suggests.

Lord Goronwy-Roberts

My Lords, in that case if, in fact, towards a smaller financial crisis last year there were special contributions of 13.2 million dollars, I suggest that it might be well for the Arab world to consider making at least the same amount available immediately for 1981 in respect of a far greater and more imminent crisis affecting these groups.

We are friends of the Arab world and always have been. We have influence there. We are still highly regarded in the Middle East. I join my noble friend in urging the Government to speak candidly and strongly to our Arab friends about the possibility of their contributing from what, in many cases, are ample riches, this miniscule special donation this year, at least matching what was contributed by them last year, to rescue this programme.

I come to my second suggestion. The EEC contribution remains the same. Last year I think that it was about 23 million dollars. This year it is, to the cent, the same amount, which of course means that it will be smaller this year—a year of acute crisis—in real terms than the contribution was last year. Separately from that contribution, the British contribution at 10.4 million dollars last year has increased to 12 million dollars this year. We should speak to our friends and partners in the Community about their performance. Some of them have marginally increased their contributions this year, but those increases do not go anywhere near meeting the demands of inflation, which inexorably overtakes these expenditures like every other expenditure.

Indeed, some of our richest friends and partners in the Community are performing in a very disappointing way. The Federal Republic of Germany, for instance, contributed about half of the amount that we contributed last year—5.4 million dollars. This year it will contribute 5.4 million dollars again, which in effect is a lower contribution having regard to real costs. Our nearest neighbour, France, last year contributed one-fifth of the British contribution—about 2 million dollars as compared with 10.4 million dollars by Britain. This year, actually as well as in real terms, that 2 million dollars will go down to 1.8 million dollars.

This makes a nonsense of the attempt of Europe to create a real political community. The whole point of the EEC is to assert a European purpose in humanitarian internationalism above all else. Where is it? Therefore, my second suggestion is that we should speak in candid friendship to our Arab friends in the Middle East and very strongly indeed in Brussels where there seems to be money for all sorts of things, except for the most deserving of all causes; namely, help for the third world and particularly those most deprived, as I believe the Palestinian refugees are entitled to be described.

11.44 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Trade (Lord Trefgarne)

My Lords, I know that your Lordships will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McNair, for raising this matter tonight and, indeed, for the powerful contributions from other Members of your Lordships' House, for, as the noble Lord, Lord Goronwy-Roberts, has said, we believe that this agency is indeed vital to stability in the Middle East.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency, as it is called, was founded—as many noble Lords have said tonight—30 years ago. Its purpose then was to provide a solution to the humanitarian problems arising out of the Arab-Israel conflict of 1948. It was hoped then that the need for the agency would fall away over a period of two to three years, but the reality has been otherwise. The problem of the Palestinian refugees remains. The urgency of their needs has increased, not diminished.

But the problem is of course not simply one of refugees. UNRWA's continued existence and vital work reflect the continuing failure to solve the central political issue, the dispute between the Arabs and the Palestinians on the one hand, and Israel, which gave rise to the exodus in the first place. There is a refugee problem and we must not blind ourselves to its existence and to the continuing suffering it entails. But as this Government have made clear on several occasions, the Palestinian problem goes much wider than that. As the European Council declaration, the Venice declaration, of 13th June 1980 put it: A just solution must finally be found to the Palestinian problem, which is not simply one of refugees. The Palestinian people, which is conscious of existing as such, must be placed in a position, by an appropriate process defined within the framework of the comprehensive peace settlement, to exercise fully its right to self-determination. As that makes clear, the problem of the refugees will not be solved until a comprehensive peace settlement is achieved between the Arabs and Israel, a settlement which, besides assuring Israel's future, will make full provision for a secure and dignified future for the Palestinian people also. That will require goodwill and a spirit of compromise from both sides, commodities so conspicuously and regrettably lacking for so much of the time. Without such a settlement, a framework for the future of the Palestinians currently under the care of the agency will not be possible. That is why we, together with the rest of the European Community, are committed above all to making a positive contribution to the achievement of peace.

The members of the European Community, now 10, will continue to speak out on this issue and to pursue their efforts vigorously and independently. The Dutch President of the Ten will shortly be undertaking renewed and urgent contacts with all concerned, including the Palestinians, to pursue in detail the practical aspects of a settlement. We hope all concerned will be ready and willing to work together towards a settlement and to take the opportunities which 1981 offers. We shall of course wish to work closely with the United States, whose role is so important in Middle East peace initiatives. Our objective must therefore be to achieve a situation where UNRWA is no longer necessary, but in the meantime the work which the agency has done and continues to do is essential and impressive.

In 1950, UNRWA brought relief to 900,000 people. In 1980, the number had doubled to 1.8 million. This increase is a measure of the magnitude and gravity of the problem. UNRWA has risen valiantly to the task. Over the years, the nature and functions of the agency have evolved to meet changing circumstances. It retains its unique capacity to provide services in five areas administered by four Governments, but its operations continue to be staffed in large part by Palestinians themselves. UNRWA continues to provide essential medical care, dentistry, supervision and advice for mothers with young children, specialist treatment and preventive medical measures, all of which are especially vital in the crowded conditions in which many of the Palestinian refugees exist. UNRWA continues to provide shelter, rations of flour, cooking oil, sugar and rice, and to maintain refugee camps.

But important though these services are, the focus of UNRWA's efforts has shifted from relief and rehabilitation to vocational training and education. The percentage will increase during 1981. A total of 314,164 pupils were enrolled in the agency's 627 elementary and lower secondary schools in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. There are 4,700 students in vocational and teacher training centres. The agency also operates training centres for laboratory technicians, quantity surveyors and architectural draughtsmen. As a result, Palestinian literacy and the proportion of Palestinian graduates are the highest in the region.

These achievements are impressive and irreplaceable. But in spite of them, and because education is the largest single element in UNRWA's budget, it is inevitable that at a time when the very survival of the agency is again threatened, the education programme should be in jeopardy. When I speak of the threat to the agency it is, unhappily, not to suggest that the crisis will first arise in 1981.

Between 1975 and 1977 the agency faced and overcame the risk of total collapse. The education programme has been under threat because of lack of resources in 1978, in 1979, and in 1980, when the deficit between UNRWA's income and planned expenditure was covered largely by not purchasing foodstuffs and by denying to about 16,700 locally recruited staff the cost of living increases which had become due to them. That proves the dedication of those staff, to which the noble Lord, Lord McNair, referred.

But that was a strategem which cannot be repeated. The gap between planned expenditure and foreseen income in 1981 is 71 million dollars—about £29.5 million. That is the size of the savings which have to be made. And I would stress that planned expenditure represents only services at the same level as in 1980. For example, there is no provision for restoring basic rations to formerly established levels. Planned education expenditures would, as in all recent years, represent over 50 per cent. of the budget. It is clear that savings on such a scale cannot be achieved without affecting in a major way the education programme.

The alternatives facing the Commissioner General are difficult ones indeed. In stark terms, he must either close 314 schools in Jordan and Syria as from the end of February, thus enabling the remainder of the education programme to continue, or he can allow the education programme to continue until the end of the school year in May, thereby risking the collapse of the entire system then. As noble Lords have already said, the Commissioner General has in fact opted for the second, and more radical, alternative, on the advice of the Advisory Commission, of which Britain is a member, in order to minimise disruption to the school system during this school year, and in the hope that the funds so essential to the programme's survival will be found by March.

It is indeed deplorable that the first casualty of the failure of the international community to ensure the continuing exercise of UNRWA's vital role should be the education programme. The Commissioner General is now engaged in fund raising. We have expressed our strong support for his efforts.

But the implications of UNRWA's financial crisis go far beyond the purely humanitarian services that the organisation provides, because UNRWA's health and relief services programme contributes in a real and important way to the stability of the Middle East. The British Government's contributions to UNRWA over the years reflect that fact. For 1981, we have increased our 1980 contribution of £4.5 million to £5 million. This will be the seventh successive year that we will have increased our contribution. Our total contributions to UNRWA since its inception are second only to those of the United States. The United Kingdom has contributed a total of 182.8 million dollars to UNRWA in the years up to, and including, 1980. The total contributions of each of our major European Community partners are, as a percentage of the United Kingdom total in each case: the Federal Republic of Germany 29.6 per cent.; France 17.1 per cent.; Denmark 9.6 per cent.; Netherlands 8 per cent.; and Italy 2.2 per cent.

In addition, we also contribute to UNRWA through our share of about one-fifth of the European Community's contribution. In 1980 the Community contributed 26 million dollars—that is, £11.39 million sterling. Thus our total contribution for 1980 was of the order of £6.8 million. Our record therefore is a good one.

Her Majesty's Government are sympathetic to the aims of the Council of Europe Resolution 901, and as in 1980, when the schools were faced with imminent closure, we are hopeful that those Governments which have not yet made pledges according to their means will do so. We feel strongly that it is wrong that the United States and Western Europe should continue to contribute the lion's share of UNRWA's finances. The international community as a whole must face this problem, and shoulder its responsibilities. We regret the total failure of the Soviet bloc to contribute to UNRWA's financing since its inception, and urge them to review this short-sighted policy.

But the reality is that if substantially increased funds are to be found it is the Arabs themselves, in particular the oil-producing countries, who will have to find them. Arab contributions have increased considerably in recent years, and we acknowledge this generosity. But more is needed. I am aware of the sensitivity of this. I know the Arabs see the problem as a political one for the West to solve. Of course it is a political problem, and we are doing our best to find a solution. But it is also a humanitarian problem, and it is the humanitarian aspects which most immediately concern the refugees whose future is at stake. Politics should not prevent the international community, and the Arab countries in particular, from making an extra effort to relieve UNRWA's growing deficit. A political solution will be all the harder if this effort is not made.