HL Deb 05 March 1981 vol 417 cc1499-502
Baroness Vickers

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

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government, in view of the fact at least 2 million people in four African countries are facing starvation owing to drought, continuing civil wars and political unrest, what action is being taken to impress on the United Nations relief organisations the need for an operation to co-ordinate the many relief organisations.

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

My Lords, the United Nations and the voluntary organisations concerned are co-operating closely in the organisation of relief for those suffering in the Horn of Africa. Recent publicity over the supply of food for Karamoja has obscured the remarkable achievement of all concerned in saving three-quarters of a million people from starvation. Ministers have discussed co-ordination of current relief work with the Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme. Co-ordination of humanitarian assistance in general will be considered by the Economic and Social Council in July.

Baroness Vickers

My Lords, while I thank the Minister for that reply, is it not a pity that in the past there has not been better co-ordination? Can the noble Lord let me know how many voluntary organisations are working in this field and also the average number of deaths per year?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I am afraid I have not got that last figure in front of me but, on the noble Baroness's other point, I can say that the Government have now contributed over £800,000 to the British voluntary agencies for relief work in Uganda. Of that, £500,000 was given to the Disasters Emergency Committee to be used principally for food, medicines and transport. We have also made a grant of £160,000 to assist the Save the Children Fund food transport operations in Karamoja. In addition—this is not quite what my noble friend asked me, but perhaps it will be helpful—the United Kingdom's share of European Community emergency aid amounts to a further £290,000.

Lord Brockway

My Lords, may I, though I appreciate the wonderful work which has been done by the voluntary agencies and the co-operation between them, ask the Minister whether Her Majesty's Government will support still further co-ordination when the subject is discussed in July? May I further ask whether the Government would support an international relief organisation with all equipment, so that it could act for the whole world under the United Nations, not only in Africa but in emergency cases like the earthquake in Italy?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, on the first point put to me by the noble Lord, we shall of course support any proposal to improve the arrangements for the response to these situations. On the second point, such an organisation already exists, I would suggest, in the United Nations Disaster Relief Organisation, whose primary concern is to co-ordinate the response to sudden natural disasters and other emergencies.

Lord Goronwy-Roberts

My Lords, will the Minister take note that, as the last supplementary question from the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, indicated, there is very strong support on this side for the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Vickers, and particularly as regards her inquiry about the extent of the suffering—indeed, the terminal suffering, as I understand her to say—arising from famine and related diseases in very many districts in each of these four countries? There is evidence that the situation is getting worse. May I therefore put this question: July is some time away and may result only in discussion and possible resolutions. Will the noble Lord therefore in the meantime press upon the Administrator, who is in turn supported by the Secretary General's special committee for this purpose, the need to co-ordinate and act even more effectively than has been done so far in anticipation of any decisions which may be arrived at by the July meeting?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, in answer to the first of the noble Lord's points, there were about 2 million people at least in the Horn of Africa who were thought to be at risk, and very nearly half those have certainly been relieved of the worst excesses of their plight. On the noble Lord's second point, we are considering urgently whether there is anything further we can do in the very short term, and an announcement is expected to be made shortly.

Lord Paget of Northampton

My Lords, have we not reached the rather tragic situation in which the United Nations has so committed itself to various ideological and political positions that the most useful service it could do would be to dissolve itself and get out of the way in order not to prevent help being given by other people who could then be organised to deal with these real and terrible grievances?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I cannot believe that that is a serious supplementary but, if it is, I would want to say that the record of success of the United Nations in the matter we are discussing this afternoon is a very fine one.

Baroness Hornsby-Smith

My Lords, would my noble friend not agree that in the long term it would really be for the betterment of these people if the United Nations and all the aid organisations interested would get together on a long-term plan for providing water? If that were done we should not get these perpetual droughts in the various countries and it would be the greatest service that we could give to the nations concerned.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, the availability of a clean water supply is a vital feature of the development programmes of many of these areas and it is certainly uppermost in the minds of those involved with the British aid programme.

Lord Ritchie-Calder

My Lords, would the Minister not agree that one of the most important contributions we could make would be to reinforce the United Nations disaster agency? We have had the complaints. Why do we not see whether we can repair these complaints?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, the United Nations Disaster Relief Organisation is primarily concerned, as I said earlier, to co-ordinate the response to sudden natural disasters, but it does become involved in longer-term emergency needs, such as this one, when it is specifically requested to do so by the UN Secretary-General. We think it is doing a good job so far.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, would the Minister agree that the United Nations voluntary fund, to which this country is the second biggest contributor, has done extremely valuable work in encouraging small projects which will prevent the starvation conditions? Does he also agree that we should continue to press other nations, as well as taking an interest in this project ourselves?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, following on from the answer I gave to the noble Lord, Lord Paget, it is certainly the case that we support the United Nations in projects of this kind, and things would be very much easier if other countries would give as much money as we do.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, can the noble Lord say to what extent he believes that these recurrent disasters are the result of bad weather, and to what extent they relate to local political inability? Can he also say whether helping to improve local political ability would be a great contribution, as well as giving relief?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I think that my noble friend Lady Hornsby-Smith put her finger on the problem when she referred to the water supply in this part of the world. Certainly, the lack of water is what seems to be the cause of so many droughts.

Lord Goronwy-Roberts

My Lords, with the indulgence of the House, may I intervene once more? We should be careful to press upon the Economic and Social Council the need to go forward with the essential long-term policies mentioned by the noble Baroness, while, at the same time, seeing to it that in the interim the essentially emergency nature of the disaster in these four countries is attended to with even greater enthusiasm than has been shown in the past.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I would certainly agree with both of those points. We certainly look forward to playing our part in the consultations in July, to which I referred. We are also considering, as I said earlier, what we can do urgently in the short-term.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Earl Ferrers)

My Lords, I think we should move on. We have been on this Question for nine minutes. But the noble Lord, Lord Caradon, has tried on several occasions to get up and it might be appropriate for him to put his question.

Lord Caradon

My Lords, arising from the discussion which is taking place this evening, would it be agreed by the Government that now, having partially met the immediate and urgent need, we should turn our attention to the long-term needs of this area which have been so badly neglected in the past, and should take an initiative in advance of July, through the United Nations development programme, for a long term project in that area?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, the problems of Karamoja, apart from the climatic problems to which I referred earlier, stem from the long years of the Amin régime in that country. I cannot think that the problems will be solved overnight, but we shall certainly be ready to play our part.

Baroness Gaitskell

My Lords, may I ask the Minister—

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, with respect to the noble Baroness, I think it is the feeling of the House that we should move on to the next Question.

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