HL Deb 22 October 1984 vol 456 cc23-7

4 p.m.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, with your Lordships' permission, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement an Answer to a Private Notice Question now being given in another place by my honourable friend the Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office about the situation in Ethiopia. The Answer is as follows:

"The Government are extremely concerned at the reports from Ethiopia of the desperate situation there. Although our bilateral dealings with Ethiopia have been modest in recent years, we have, on humanitarian grounds, been providing food aid amounting to nearly 40,000 tonnes in the last two years. My right honourable friend the Minister of State for Overseas Development announced the shipment of 3,000 tonnes of emergency grain supplies earlier this month. The Government have also been exploring with our European Community partners ways in which we can jointly help to alleviate the problems.

"One of the greatest difficulties is in the distribution of food once it has arrived in Ethiopia. Britain is currently providing both lorries and spare parts, and we have asked our ambassador in Addis Ababa to make urgent recommendations about further help of this kind which we might provide".

My Lords, that is the Statement.

Lord Oram

My Lords, I should like to thank the Minister for repeating that Answer to the Private Notice Question in another place. While I welcome the steps that Her Majesty's Government are taking to help relieve the situation in Ethiopia which the noble Lord has reported, may I ask him whether it is not the case that the drought in Africa, and in particular in Ethiopia, has now reached dimensions well beyond the scope of the usual relief measures, whereas I believe that what the Minister has announced can be characterised as being in the normal way of relief? Is it not a major tragedy that Europe is embarrassed by food mountains and bumper harvests while many thousands are dying in Africa, especially in Ethiopia?

Has the Minister seen the estimate by Mr. James Ingram, the Director of the World Food Programme, that nearly 1 million Ethiopians will die unless there is an all-out international effort? Are we not facing a situation where there is not the political will in the international fora to cope with this drastic problem? Do not international efforts, for which Mr. Ingram is calling, have to start with a national objective? Therefore, will the Government take some much bigger initiative than the Minister has announced today—an initiative which will in some measure be commensurate with the size of this problem facing us?

Lord Banks

My Lords, I should like to join in thanking the noble Lord for repeating the Statement, and to say that we on these Benches share the general concern about the very serious situation in Ethiopia, which has been described as the most serious situation for 20 years by the United Nations World Food Programme. If the European Community, which has a surplus, could help, and if the Government can promote such help, then we would certainly welcome that. I should like to ask the noble Lord whether he is satisfied that the all-out international effort, to which the noble Lord, Lord Oram, referred, is likely to emerge; and also whether he agrees that, while there is a problem with regard to distribution, there is also a very serious problem with regard to supply, which at the moment has more or less run out.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I am obliged to both noble Lords, whose observations have underlined the seriousness of this situation, which the Government wholly endorse. I think the question of distribution is an important one. That is why we have taken the steps we have and why, too, we tend to deal with the voluntary agencies already in place in Ethiopia, which, of course, already have some facilities at their disposal for the distribution purposes to which I have referred.

So far as the use of the food surpluses within Europe is concerned, this is a matter which is often raised, and, indeed, most of the food aid that has been sent hitherto comes from those surpluses. But it ought to be remembered that that is not the whole solution to the problem, because, for example, large quantities of milk powder are really of no value to the people of Ethiopia or anywhere else if they do not have clean water to mix with the milk powder and, indeed, some elementary instructions on how to do that, both of which, I am sorry to say, are very often lacking. Indeed, milk powder wrongly administered to babies can be very dangerous indeed, and therefore there is a limit to the amount of products of that sort that we can send. Indeed, there are limits to some of the other products as well.

But in addition to the items I have mentioned the European Community has been providing some emergency aid worth about £10 million since the beginning of last year, and I understand that some further quantities were agreed in Brussels last week, which will include some of the other less obvious products like vegetable oil and butter oil. The Government are certainly seized of the urgency of the situation but, sadly, the solutions are not quite so easy to see.

Lord Hawke

My Lords, has the Minister thought of providing transport facilities in the shape of trucks under lease-lend to Ethiopia, in order to relieve the severe depression which is going on in the truck-building industry in this country?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, we have already provided some trucks to Ethiopia for this purpose, but, of course, if we were to go so far as my noble friend suggests that would cost enormous sums of money, and I am not certain that that would be the best use of the resources available.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, as my noble friend and the noble Lord have said, this is a tragedy on a vast scale where at least half a million people are facing starvation. Would the noble Lord not agree that one of the difficulties is that the emergency reserves under the World Food Programme are down to virtually nil? What steps are Her Majesty's Government taking to assist in increasing them, with, for example, our partners in Western Europe? Is he aware, so far as our own surpluses in Western Europe are concerned, that whereas what he said about powdered milk is probably very true, in most parts of the third world they could use flour? It would resolve the situation if the western world could use their surpluses of flour to send to these countries which are now in such dire need, and that is something which Her Majesty's Government should consider as a matter of urgency.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, we certainly have not despaired of doing more in the way of direct food aid, to which the noble Lord has referred. As I said, we are considering with our European Community partners what more can be done. I understand that there are still some resources available within the Community's aid budget for emergency aid, and we shall be doing our best to persuade our partners that they should go where they are most needed.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, the noble Lord did not deal with the question of the World Food Programme.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I am aware of a number of steps that are being taken within some of the United Nations agencies in this particular matter; for example, the United Nations development programme, which includes UNICEF. I do not have information about the particular programme to which the noble Lord referred. If there is any more information that I can find, I shall write to the noble Lord.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, can the noble Lord tell us how far short we are of the 0.7 per cent. target of the United Nations for overseas aid? If we were to reach that target, would it not go some way to assist the problem of lease-lending transport, helping our own industries in this country and relieving the pressure in Ethiopia?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, if I may say so with respect, that question goes a little wide of the Statement that I have repeated to your Lordships. The fact remains that we are dealing with a particularly special situation in this case, and I do not think we want to be thinking in some high-flying economic terms. What we have to do is to get the food and the distribution arrangements into place in this country just as soon as we can.