HL Deb 30 October 1984 vol 456 cc454-61

3.50 p.m.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, with your Lordships' permission, I should now like to repeat a Statement being made in the other place by my right honourable friend the Minister for Overseas Development about famine relief for Ethiopia. The Statement is as follows:

"The House knows of the very deep concern felt throughout the country at the effects of famine in Ethiopia—and indeed in other countries. Last Wednesday my right honourable and learned friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs announced three important further measures designed to help tackle the problem. These follow the substantial steps that we and the European Community were already taking—almost £10 million from the British aid programme in the last 18 months, including our share of over £22 million from the European Community.

"The new measures were: first, the despatch by the United Kingdom of a further 6,000 tonnes of food aid; second, the allocation of a further £5 million for spending on famine relief in Ethiopia and other African countries; and, third, a pledge to press the European Community for additional action.

"The House will wish me to report on the action we have put in hand.

"On Saturday night, my noble friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence, Lord Trefgarne, and I met in London Commissioner Dawit, head of the Ethiopian Relief and Rehabilitation Commission.

"I informed him of the additional 6,000 tonnes of grain, which will be shipped within the next few days. We discussed ways of speeding up the transport and distribution of supplies through the port. I agreed that we should draw on our £5 million offer to provide dump trucks to help with unloading at the port of Assab and Land Rovers and spare parts for them to help with distribution. I also agreed to supply water drilling rigs and medical requirements. In addition, we told him of our offer of a Royal Air Force detachment of two Hercules aircraft and the appropriate support to undertake internal relief operations within the famine areas. There was some discussion about this offer, but I can tell the House that it has been agreed that we will make the detachment available for three months. The initial deployment will involve several additional flights to Ethiopia to ensure that our detachment is self-sufficient and fully equipped for the task. So far as we are concerned, the first two aircraft are ready to leave tomorrow. Two RAF officers have now arrived in Addis Ababa to discuss urgently the practical arrangements.

"I am sure that these aircraft will make a very valuable contribution to distributing food where it is most needed.

"I have also agreed to make available two further civil aircraft—one of them a Hercules—to support the voluntary agencies, who are doing such a fine job in Ethiopia. Both will take out relief supplies and the Hercules will stay in Ethiopia for some weeks for use by the International Committee of the Red Cross. We are also paying for some of the supplies needed. I had this morning a constructive discussion of priorities and implementation with the Disasters Emergency Committee led by Lord Hunt.

"All this represents a very significant British contribution. In addition, the European Community is taking valuable action.

"So far this year the European Community has already made direct allocations of 53,000 tonnes of cereals and 3,000 tonnes of other products to Ethiopia. But the needs of Ethiopia are so great that we have pressed the Community to do more. Following my right honourable friend the Prime Minister's message to Dr. FitzGerald, President of the European Council, the Council's Budget Committeee has approved and the European Parliament is to consider today a special programme of food and transport assistance worth £20 million, of which the British share would be about £4.5 million.

"The needs of Ethiopia and other parts of drought-stricken Africa will be further discussed by Community Foreign Ministers in Ireland at the end of the week and by the Development Council—which I shall attend—in Brussels next Tuesday.

"We have been active in other international organisations. The Committee on Food Aid Policies and Programmes (the CFA), the supervisory body of the World Food Programme, is currently meeting in Rome. On a British initiative the meeting is giving priority to the needs of Ethiopia.

"At the same time, other Western donors have offered increased assistance.

"The grave problem of drought in Ethiopia and other parts of Africa cannot be solved overnight or by one massive airlift. But the measures we have announced are valuable in themselves and have given an important lead."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Lord Oram

My Lord, I should first like to thank the noble Lord for repeating the Statement made in another place. On behalf of my noble friends I wish to express satisfaction that arrangements have now been made for providing air transport to help with this rescue operation in Ethiopia.

Should I take it from the Statement that the difficulties that were first encountered with the Ethiopian representative, in respect of the air transport, have now been overcome?

We appreciate the fact that the Government have now made an increased offer of aid in response to the very great public concern that has arisen about this tragic situation. However, are there not two important lessons to be derived from the experience of the last few days? The first is that the existence of voluntary agencies, such as the Save the Children Fund, Oxfam and War on Want, is a tremendous asset in these situations, and that they are therefore worthy of the fullest backing by both the public and the Government. Indeed, not infrequently they lead where governments follow.

Secondly, should we not realise that this is not a crisis which has suddenly come upon us? Warnings have been given by the voluntary agencies over many months. I recall that in a debate which I initiated in your Lordships' House some 18 months ago my noble friend the Leader of the Opposition gave a specific and urgent warning of the developing crisis and urged that appropriate action should then be taken.

I welcome what the Statement says about initiatives being taken within the European Community and in other international bodies. However, should not those bodies not only be concerned with measures to meet the present emergency situation, but also be planning for the long term, so as to avoid repetitions of this tragedy time after time in the months and years ahead? It should not be a matter of a month's effort; it should be a long-term and continuing effort.

Lord Walston

My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord for repeating the statement and to the Government for their response to the public's demand for more help to famine-stricken Ethiopia. It certainly is welcome that they have now worked generously and fast in giving this aid. I hope I shall not appear to be carping if I express regret that the Government have taken so long to respond to the requests which have been put to them over many months, as I understand it.

I am glad that the noble Lord paid tribute to the voluntary agencies. In that connection I should like to ask him when it was that the Government first received warnings from any of the voluntary agencies, such as Oxfam, Christian Aid, and War on Want, as to the state of affairs which had already arisen many months earlier in Ethiopia and which inevitably was going to escalate at a terrifying rate, as we have now seen.

Secondly, would not the Minister agree that valuable though this help is—in particular not only the supply of grain, but also the transport to move the grain to where it is needed—the amount that is given will very soon be exhausted and in the months ahead there will be a need for yet more aid, especially in the supply of grain?

Would the Minister not also agree with this? Both this country and the Community as a whole have now enjoyed the heaviest cereal harvest that they have ever reaped, so that they now have a surplus running into many millions of tonnes. Are the Government thinking in terms of making some of this available to meet the continuing needs of both Ethiopia and other countries, either directly from this country or preferably through the Community?

Finally, may I remind the noble Lord—if, indeed, he needs reminding—that this is not just one urgent short-term need? No matter what happens to the weather, no matter what happens to the civil war and no matter what happens to the internal government in Ethiopia, the need will inevitably exist for at least another 12 and probably 18 months, and thereafter there will be need for a different form of aid through different forms of voluntary agency, such as, for example, Voluntary Service Overseas and the Commonwealth Development Corporation, which the noble Lord, through his handling of these matters, knows well. Will the Government consider increasing the funds available for those two organisations so as, in the long term, to prevent a recurrence of the types of famine we are now hearing about?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I am obliged to both noble Lords. I can confirm to the noble Lord, Lord Oram, that some initial problems in connection with the aircraft have been overcome and that our offer has been gratefully accepted. As for the voluntary agencies, I wholly agree with the noble Lord, Lord Oram, that they play an invaluable role in situations of this sort. Of course, they often have access to these places and to information to a much greater extent than governments. That is why we support them as much as we can whenever we can.

The noble Lord, Lord Oram, said that this was not a sudden crisis but that it had been with us for some considerable time. That was also much in the mind of the noble Lord, Lord Walston. It is indeed the case that we have for some time been very anxious about the situation in Ethiopia. But, contrary to misleading reports, we have been helping that country for a number of years. While it is true that we have only a very limited development programme there, British aid from 1973 to 1981 averaged over £2 million a year, rising in 1982 to £5.6 million, of which £5.2 million was given as food aid in response to the effects of the drought, then in its early stages.

Over the past two years British aid to Ethiopia has been worth more than £13 million, including our share of European Community support. We are not making a belated response to the drought: we have done much already. Indeed, as recently as this last July we cancelled Ethiopia's aid debts to Britain, which at that time were worth more than £2.5 million. I think it is right to say that this is, indeed, a long-term problem which will need long-term solutions. But, on the other hand, there is clearly an immediate short-term problem as well, and that is why we have moved as we have.

Lord Chelwood

My Lords, a great deal of attention has been focused on the large-scale tragedy in Ethiopia during the last week or 10 days. Indeed, my noble friend's Statement has been almost entirely about the starvation and near starvation on a large scale in Ethiopia. However, as he said three times in his Statement, similar tragedies are being experienced in other countries in Africa, without looking beyond that continent. Can my noble friend assure the House that, so far as this is possible to arrange, there is a fair division of aid given from voluntary and governmental sources among all those countries in Africa where there is starvation or near starvation on a large scale?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, we shall certainly do our best to assist in situations like those to which my noble friend refers. That is why my right honourable friend said in his earlier statement last week that the £5 million for spending on famine relief would be available in Ethiopia and, indeed, in other African countries, although I must say that in present circumstances I anticipate that the lion's share will go to Ethiopia.

Baroness Hylton-Foster

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the British Red Cross is very grateful to the Government for supplying them with a Hercules aircraft which will enable them to take to the disaster area vehicles, shelters, tents and blankets? Will the noble Lord also agree how fortunate we are to be working with a very efficient and splendid Ethiopian Red Cross Society, which is working with the International Committee of the Red Cross, with the League of Red Cross Societies and with our own society; which is itself supplying nurses and doctors to look after the sick; and which is also very busy helping to feed at the feeding centres the pregnant women and nursing mothers, who represent over 50 per cent. of the population? Is the noble Lord aware that, because of the overcrowding, there is still a very terrible problem there?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Baroness is right. The Government were very pleased to be able to assist the International Committee of the Red Cross in the way that we did. We have provided for them, or paid for, a civil Hercules aircraft. That is not, of course, one of the RAF ones.

Lord Somers

My Lords, will the noble Lord observe that while the difficulties which have been set up by the Ethiopian Marxist Government have now been largely overcome, many of us who wished to give a contribution to some of the voluntary organisations have been told that it was no use because it simply was not getting there? I do not know whether that is no longer the case.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, there are really two separate aspects to the present problem. The first is to ensure that there are sufficient supplies of food in particular available in or near Ethiopia. The second is to distribute those supplies within that country. Frankly, the quantities of grain either available or shortly to arrive in Ethiopia are quite considerable. The principal problem, now, I think, is to ensure effective distribution throughout that country.

Lord Maude of Stratford-upon-Avon

My Lords, while no one would doubt the need for considerable quantities of food aid to Ethiopia and other countries in Africa and elsewhere, is my noble friend aware that this is a problem that will be with us year after year after year, and possibly over an increasing area of Africa, unless something is done effectively about short-sighted methods of agriculture and inadequate policies of aforestation and irrigation? Will he say what the international agencies are doing to grapple seriously with this problem in the long term?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I think that my noble friend has probably put his finger on the essence of this problem. The long-term solution is certainly, I think, in the direction that my noble friend points. We are therefore working vigorously with the agencies concerned to try to see that that can happen.

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, further to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Maude, about there being a short-term problem within a long-term one, is the Minister aware that the noble Lord, Lord Walston, mentioned a period of 12 to 18 months, while I would put the long-term problem at 12 to 18 years? The period to which the noble Lord, Lord Maude, referred, I would put nearer to 50 years. When you consider that it took us from 1935 to the present day to achieve a 150 per cent. increase in our food production, it would take just about as long, if not longer, bearing in mind the conditions in these areas. So we have really three problems: the short-term, the 18-month one of feeding these hungry people: the long-term one of meeting the needs of 400 million people in the world who are below the level of proper nutrition; and then the very long-term one. I recall that when I first came into this House there was a debate on this subject when the noble Lord, Lord Renton, made this very point. It has taken us a long time to take real cognisance of the point.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, the noble Lord is, I think, quite right to point to the long-term nature of the problem. The problems arise from the difficult terrain in that country, poverty, a civil war, a growing population which, in recent years, has increased very dramatically and, I have to say, a collectivised system of agriculture, introduced some years ago, which has not contributed to the solution of the food shortage.

The Earl of Halsbury

My Lords, may I reinforce the questions put by the last two speakers? When I was chairman of the Meteorological Office I was aware that, for many years past, there had been climatic changes going on in the Horn of Africa and that we must expect them for the time being to continue more or less indefinitely. What sort of temporal perspective is the noble Lord applying to the situation created by these long-term climatic changes?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, perhaps I would need to reflect a little on the particular climatic implications of the noble Earl's question. But the fact of the matter, as the noble Earl rightly says, is that there has been a drought situation emerging in Ethiopia for 20 years at least, which I imagine goes back at least as far as the time when the noble Earl was concerned with these things.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, I warmly welcome the rapid action taken by the Government over the last few days and the action taken by the voluntary organisations. May I warmly support the proposals put by the noble Lord. Lord Maude, and my noble friend Lord John-Mackie, and press the Government to take some initiative in regard to longer-term action? Would the Minister not agree that the agencies do exist, through the United Nations and in other forms? The problem, for political and other reasons, is to get the Governments of Africa, of the countries which are affected by this constant annual drought, lasting over a very long period, to co-operate.

Does the Minister not believe that the time has come for Her Majesty's Government to take a very positive and constructive initiative through the agencies concerned? They have taken a short-term initiative now with the Committee on Food Aid Policies and Programmes. I do not ask the Minister necessarily to give an answer now, but I should like him to give an undertaking that he will discuss this matter with his right honourable friend and in due course give us some indication what initiatives he thinks might be profitable.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I am grateful for the noble Lord's response to the rapid arrangements that we have been able to make in this matter. Perhaps it is worth saying that I think we are the first Western Government to announce precisely what we are doing in this tragic situation, although other governments, I believe, are close behind us. As to the long-term solution—if I may say so, so much in the minds of your Lordships at this moment—I certainly agree that we need to be looking to create an effective programme, probably through the international agencies, for the solution of this problem in the long-term; and my right honourable friend will be thinking very hard about that.