HL Deb 18 December 1984 vol 458 cc551-4

3.49 p.m.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Young)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat an Answer to a Private Notice Question which has just been given by my right honourable friend the Minister for Overseas Development in another place concerning aid to the refugees from the Tigre province of Ethiopia who are now in camps in the Sudan.

"Eleven thousand, seven hundred and fifty tonnes of cereals aid from Britain for the United Nations' High Commissioner for Refugees were landed at Port Sudan in late November. We have just received a further appeal from the High Commissioner and I have today decided to give £1 million to help him deal with this extremely serious problem".

That completes the reply which has been given by my right honourable friend.

Lord Oram

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Baroness for repeating the Answer given to the Private Notice Question in another place, and for the information she has given about the aid that the Government are now providing. But no doubt she has seen the graphic description in The Times of yesterday of the desperate plight of thousands of people seeking refuge in the Sudan from the famine in Ethiopia. I am sure she will appreciate that the words there by Mr. Robert Fisk are as revealing of the great suffering as were the television cameras a few weeks ago in Ethiopia.

In particular I notice in the report that Mr. Fisk says that, apart from a few sacks of grain, there is very little sign of EEC help. While we appreciate what the noble Baroness has said and while we recall that the recent EEC summit made a welcome increase in the aid available, may I ask her this. Can she assure us that all is being done not only to increase the amount of aid but to increase the speed at which it is provided? Obviously, from what we learn the need is desperate and urgent.

Baroness Young

My Lords, I certainly share the view of the noble Lord, Lord Oram, that this is a very serious and distressing situation. As I have already indicated in the Answer that I originally gave to him, my right honourable friend the Minister for Overseas Development has let it be known today that he is giving another £1 million in aid as a recognition of the seriousness with which we take this situation. We have given it to the High Commissioner for Refugees because we believe that this is the quickest and most cost effective way so that food supplies can be bought locally in order to ensure the quickest possible relief to those who are suffering.

Lord Walston

My Lords, I too am very grateful to the noble Baroness for repeating the Answer to the Private Notice Question which was asked in another place by my right honourable friend the leader of the SDP. I am also grateful for the indication of the Government's further aid. It is certainly encouraging that the Government have reacted quickly to this. But would the noble Baroness not agree that it would be far better if we in this country, other governments and the EEC, could be informed in good time of these things happening rather than having to rely, as we so often do, on information provided by journalists—valuable though that is in stirring up public opinion in favour of aid?

Can she give us any indication of action being taken by the Government to ensure that in future we get warning in good time so that the flood of refugees—in this case Ethiopian refugees—from Ethiopia to the Sudan can he taken care of before the famine reaches crisis proportions? I bear in mind particularly in this case that the Ethiopian government cannot be expected to provide food for people who have now crossed out of the territory that they claim, that the Eritrean liberation movement has its hands full already of people in its own territory in Eritrea itself, and that the Sudanese themselves are confronted with serious problems of their own and cannot be expected to deal with the hundreds of thousands of people who are coming to add to their problems.

Baroness Young

My Lords, I recognise the important point that the noble Lord, Lord Walston, is raising. But as he indicated himself, one of the major problems in this areas is that we are dealing with an independent country, Ethiopia, in which there is a civil war. It is therefore not easy either to get the aid where it is required or indeed necessarily to know exactly where the next area of difficulty will break out, very tragic though the whole situation is.

It is very difficult to estimate the numbers who are now moving out of Ethiopia; but we understand that Mr. Jansen, who is the United Nations co-ordinator in Addis Ababa, has estimated that up to 300,000 people have crossed the border into the Sudan or are on their way to do so. He confirmed yesterday that 110,000 had arrived by 15th December and it was thought that a further 150,000 to 160,000 other people would cross the border before March. It is for this reason that we have increased the amount of money that we are making available for this tragic situation and I should like to confirm, as I should have done in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Oram, that the Community does of course regularly give food aid to the United Nations High Commissioner, the Red Cross League and other voluntary agencies. At the Dublin Council on 4th December the Community agreed to provide an extra 1.2 million tonnes of food aid. It should of course always be remembered that approximately 20 per cent. of the cost of EEC aid is contributed by Great Britain.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, I wonder whether in supporting what has been said by my noble friend I could just ask one question of the noble Baroness. Is she aware that there is concern in some other parts of the world that some of the aid which is being given to Africa, needed as it certainly is may be at the expense of other less favoured areas, particularly Bangladesh? There in the past 12 months they have suffered very serious flooding and their imports of food grain are having to cover not the usual deficit of just over 1½ million tonnes but something more like 2.8 million tonnes. There was some feeling after the Dublin Summit in a report in the Guardian at the beginning of this month that aid was being diverted from places such as Bangladesh and Egypt to Africa. Can we have an assurance that, both in terms and food aid and in terms of the cash which the Government are making available for this latest tragedy, this will not be at the expense of other badly hit parts of the world?

Baroness Young

My Lords, I am glad to confirm to the noble Lord that the £5 million which was given to Ethiopia and other drought-stricken countries in Africa, as well as the extra money that had been given in this particular situation, have come out of the contingency fund which of course is there specifically for disasters and unforeseen expenditure.

Lord Somers

My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Baroness could say if it would be possible to provide somebody to accompany these despatches of grain personally so as to avoid the stories, which she has no doubt heard, of the grain being taken down to some other parts and sold at enormous prices instead of reaching the people to whom it was originally sent?

Baroness Young

My Lords, the problem of distribution is a very difficult one as I have already indicated, but the aid is frequently given and distributed through voluntary organisations. In this particular case we have made the money available to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Lord Walston

My Lords, may I ask the noble Baroness one question? Can she give us any indication of how long it will be before the £1 million which has now been made available by Her Majesty's Government will actually be translated into grain arriving in the refugee camps in the Sudan?

Baroness Young

My Lords, obviously, it will be as soon as possible. But as I have already indicated, the reason for giving the money direct to the High Commissioner is that we believe that the most effective way of getting the food to the people who require it is to buy it locally so that the distribution time and length of journey is much reduced.