HL Deb 22 July 1985 vol 466 cc998-1004

3.41 p.m.

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

My Lords, with the leave of the House I shall now repeat a Statement which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Minister of State for Overseas Development. The Statement reads as follows:

"With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a Statement on the relief of the Ethiopian famine.

"I visited Ethiopia from 16th to 19th July to assess the current famine situation and the need for further relief there. I revisited the feeding centres at Korem, which I saw last November, spent half a day at Assab port, went on an airdrop operation in an RAF Hercules, and had discussions with Ethiopian Ministers, the United Nations co-ordinator, Mr. Kurt Jansson, the Ethiopian Relief and Rehabilitation Commissioner, and representatives of international and voluntary agencies.

"The international relief effort, in which both the British Government and people have played an important part, has alleviated much of the worst suffering which we saw on our television screens in the latter part of 1984. Rain is now falling in many parts of Ethiopia, some crops have been planted and livestock is beginning to recover.

"However, there are still large areas, notably Wollo and parts of Tigre and Eritrea, where the rains have been only intermittent or have yet to come at all. It will be several weeks before any reliable assessment of the probable 1985 harvest can be made. It will be several months before that harvest can be gathered. All to whom I spoke in Ethiopia agreed that even with the most favourable rains this year's harvest will be well below that of a normal year. It is essential, therefore, that the relief efforts are maintained into 1986.

"What are the immediate priorities? The United Nations co-ordinator estimates that with current stocks in Ethiopia and firm pledges of further deliveries, the overall food supply should be adequate for the rest of this year. At Assab I saw the considerable flow of European Community food aid into Ethiopia—three ships were unloading food grain from the Community. Effective use is being made of the dumper trucks, grain conveyors and tarpaulins we have provided—we shall be sending in the next few days a further supply of tarpaulins for use at Massawa and on relief trucks.

"The overriding priority now is to improve food distribution. There are still not enough trucks available. The situation should soon improve significantly with the arrival of trucks pledged earlier. The United Nations co-ordinator's assessment is that perhaps another 400 long-haul and short-haul trucks will still be required. It is of course essential that the Ethiopian Government make available all the trucks that they can.

"As the House is aware, our major contribution to food distribution in Ethiopia has been the provision since 3rd November last year of two RAF Hercules aircraft and their accompanying detachment, including a team from the Royal Corps of Transport. This operation has now airlifted well over 12,600 tonnes of grain and dropped a further 7,000 tonnes to places inaccessible by any other means of transport. It is an operation which, as I have seen for myself, calls for the highest professional skills and cool courage. It is admired by everyone in Ethiopia.

"As I told the House last Monday, one of the purposes of my visit to Ethiopia was to judge whether we should maintain the decision I announced on 10th June to withdraw our aircraft by 30th September. We had expected then that by 30th September the ending of the rains and the buildup of trucks would enable food to be distributed more widely and efficiently by road. My visit has confirmed that this remains the most cost-effective way of moving large quantities of grain, but the buildup of road transport has gone more slowly than expected. Areas inaccessible by road will continue to depend on food brought from outside until their own harvest is in, as we all hope it will be, at the end of the year. The Hercules also provide a much valued flexibility.

"We have now been able to weigh up carefully the future of the Hercules operation, and to discuss it fully with the Ethiopian Government—who asked us to extend it—with the UN co-ordinator and with other relief agencies. We have concluded that the aircraft will continue to be needed until the end of the year. We are therefore conveying to the Ethiopian Government our offer to keep the two aircraft and accompanying detachment on relief operations until the latter part of December.

"Mr. Speaker, this new commitment, together with the further 10,000 tonnes of food aid which we shall send when the ports are ready to handle it, demonstrates the Government's continuing concern for the victims of the Ethiopian drought. Our contribution has been prompt—we helped the Save the Children Fund with its feeding centre in Korem early in 1983; generous—£70 million of emergency aid since 1982; and sustained. We shall continue to do all we can."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Lord Oram

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement which was made in another place. We on these Benches very much welcome the decision to continue the Hercules service in Ethiopia. If I may say so, we had been very disturbed by the earlier decision to end the service in September. We are glad that the Government have decided to respond to the pressure of public opinion on this issue. In more general terms, I should like to express the hope that the Government will also respond to the public opinion which was roused by the Band Aid concert a few days ago and increase the aid programme so that we can more adequately respond to needs such as those illustrated particularly in Ethiopia at this time.

However, is it not the case that the RAF operation in Ethiopia, highly commendable though it is—and indeed vital in some remote areas because it is the only means of getting food to those areas—accounts for only a small part of the food distribution? Are not the voluntary agencies, which are doing such noble work in Ethiopia, wrestling praticularly not only with the problem of the shortage of lorries, to which the Statement refers (and we welcome what is being done in that respect), but also with the continuing problems of shortage of petrol, spare parts and maintenance mechanics? I wonder whether the noble Baroness heard my right honourable friend Mr. Neil Kinnock on the radio this morning speaking from Addis Ababa? He had just been speaking to a mechanic who was helping to repair lorries out there and he was pointing to the dearth of that type of skill. Is the noble Baroness able to give us any hope that that kind of skill will be mobilised and that young people will perhaps be sent out in an emergency operation in order to overcome that type of problem with which the voluntary agencies are so gallantly wrestling?

The Viscount of Falkland

My Lords, we too on these Benches should like to thank the noble Baroness for repeating this most important Statement which has been made in another place. Nobody would dispute that the Government, and indeed the country, have responded most generously and most efficiently to this emergency. We stress the word "emergency"; we always act in this way to an emergency. I am very glad to hear that the Government are considering extending their use of these aircraft for the very important aspect of the transport of grain in Ethiopia.

However, it would be useful if the noble Baroness could elucidate one or two matters. First, what kind of influence are we able to bring to bear upon the Ethiopian Government so that they match the type of effort which we and others are making in this country by supplying trucks for the movement of food and not for the movement of military personnel and armaments?

Secondly, it would be useful if the Government could also guide us on how they see the enormous funds which have been raised recently by voluntary efforts—and of course I mean particularly the Band Aid effort—dovetailing with the voluntary agencies. How do they see a useful and productive use of this enormous amount of money? Can they assure us that it will not be wasted by duplicating effort in certain areas, and that it can be used in the most sensible and productive manner possible?

Lastly, we on these Benches would like to have some view from the Government as to what lessons have been learnt so far from the Ethiopian disaster and our involvement in it. Have we been able to learn from our activities there, and from the activities of the voluntary agencies, something which will enable us to lay the ground plans for a long-term approach to famine in Africa?

Have we any further information, any further expertise, which will help us take the long-term view—which is not the emergency aid; which is not the food shipped out in a hurry—on the kind of influence we can bring to bear in Ethiopia (and indeed other countries where perhaps it is easier for us), so that these countries themselves can take steps to contribute to avoiding these kinds of disasters in the future?

Baroness Young

My Lords, I should like to thank both the noble Lord, Lord Oram, and the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, for the welcome they have given to this Statement. I am sure that we are all glad that we have been able to extend the use of the Hercules aircraft and the detachment to look after them, because their value has already been shown in all the relief efforts.

The noble Lord and the noble Viscount asked me about the Government's response to the magnificent sum of money that has been raised by Band Aid. We recognise that this is a remarkable achievement and that every effort must be made to see that the money that has been raised will be well used. We believe that the Ethiopian authorities will co-operate fully over this matter.

The noble Lord, Lord Oram, asked me whether the voluntary organisations are still wrestling with these complicated problems of distribution of supplies. The two planes to which I have referred operate only in Ethiopia. We are paying for a separate airlift by charter plane in the Sudan. I can tell the noble Lord, on the question of providing more trucks, that we are considering providing more trucks for any British vehicles. However, most transport is in fact of non-British make and the UN co-ordinator has made a plea not to add to the multiplicity of vehicles, so we have agreed to provide some trailers. We have also provided an engineer to advise on the rehabilitation of the relief and rehabilitation commissioner's Land Rover fleet, for which we have provided spares. We have also provided 23 new Land Rovers and 28 trucks.

I was asked also what influence we could bring to bear on the Ethiopian Government. We have expressed our concern to the Ethiopian Government over the continued fighting in Eritrea and Tigre, and we have pointed out the benefits which an end to hostilities would bring to the people of those areas, and indeed to the economy as a whole. We have supported the efforts by the UN co-ordinator, Mr. Jansson, to arrange the safe passage for relief convoys.

Finally, the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, asked what lessons have been learnt from all this. He has made some valuable points and raised some serious questions which are being addressed in the course of this disaster. The Statement addresses itself once again to an immediate situation. My right honourable friend the Minister for Overseas Development has just returned from Ethiopia and from getting once again a first-hand view of the situation, but I think that the noble Viscount is quite right in the points he raises: that we need to learn from this lessons for the future. If he will forgive me, I shall not go into that this afternoon, because I think it is more properly a subject of debate. However, I note very much the point he has made, and I shall draw it to the attention of my right honourable friend.

Lord Reay

My Lords, can my noble friend the Minister say what contributions have been made by Eastern-bloc countries toward the relief of famine in Ethiopia? Would she like to compare this with the contribution made by the United States of America?

Baroness Young

My Lords, my noble friend asks an important question. I have not the figures for the contribution made by the Eastern-bloc countries, but I can tell him that the major contributions have been made by the United States, the European Community, and the countries of the West, and relatively little has been provided by the Eastern-bloc countries.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords, may I pay tribute to the noble Baroness's personal involvement in the tragic situation in Ethiopia? Perhaps I may ask her two questions arising out of her Statement. First, is it not the case that the aid provided by this country, by the Government, to relieve famine in Africa is only aid within the already agreed aid budget, and therefore has been taken from aid which was destined for other hungry countries?

Secondly, the noble Baroness mentions the use of the Hercules aircraft in Ethiopia. Is it not the case that only half the cost of those aircraft is borne by the Ministry of Defence, and the rest has to come out of the Overseas Development Administration's budget?

Baroness Young

My Lords, in answer to the second question of the noble Lord, Lord Hatch, yes, it is true that half the costs of the aircraft are being borne by the Ministry of Defence—the costs amount to about £750,000 a month—and half is being borne by the Overseas Development Administration. The answer to his first question is that the money for the emergency aid has come from the contingency fund of the Overseas Development Administration. We regard this as a proper use of that money because clearly this is an emergency, and that is what this money is set aside for.

I can confirm that our total expenditure for drought relief in Africa in the financial year 1984–85 was £95 million. This is in addition to the £125 million of longer-term aid Britain plans to spend directly on the 20 African countries most seriously affected by drought.

Lord Walston

My Lords, the Statement that the noble Baroness has made mentions that there are not enough trucks. Does she agree that in addition to trucks there is a need for spare parts for trucks; that spare parts are of no use unless there are qualified and experienced mechanics to fit the spare parts; that in order to have such mechanics it is necessary that people should have some training and above all that they should be literate; and that for the trucks it is necessary that there should be roads along which they can run and places along the roads where they can get fuel? In other words, a whole complex of infrastructure, not only of transport but of education, is needed both for famine relief and for enabling these countries to develop their own agriculture and grow sufficient food so that these crises do not arise in the future.

Will she assure the House that, as a result of this crisis, Her Majesty's Government are aware that there is a need for a greater expenditure on a long-term basis on infrastructure, not only in Ethiopia but in many other countries affected and threatened by famine, and that steps will be taken to avoid the recurrence in the long term of this sort of thing by expenditure on infrastructure?

4 p.m.

Baroness Young

My Lords, I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Walston, has said about the complications of distribution and the importance of having both trucks and spare parts, and people who are capable of repairing the trucks and keeping them in order. Indeed, the latest information available to us suggests that sufficient food is being shipped to Ethiopian ports and stocks are building up in the warehouses, but distribution problems persist. We and other donors are keen to ensure that the Ethiopian authorities continue to make more vehicles available for distribution purposes. As I indicated in an earlier answer, we are providing spare parts for trucks and have provided an engineer. But the point the noble Lord makes is important, and I recognise it.

The second point raised by the noble Lord is similar to one raised by his noble friend Lord Falkland. We are aware of the problems that this crisis has thrown up. There are long-term problems in Africa, and these are points which I shall draw to the attention of my right honourable friend. I recognise that in all parts of the House we are concerned about the future problems of drought and its causes and also about the other problems of Africa.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the people in this country are proud and excited about the aid that we have sent both in money and in other ways to help deal with the famine? But is she also aware that the one doubt as shown from all kinds of media is the lack of enthusiasm from the Ethiopian Government to make the best of the aid which is going there? Can my noble friend say whether that doubt, which is there and has been expressed, is well founded or ill founded? The only words my noble friend has used in answer to the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, were that we were hopeful that the Ethiopian Government would be 100 per cent. helpful, but there was rather a muted response to something which may injure the whole purpose of the exercise in which everyone else is trying to help.

Baroness Young

My Lords, everyone has been immensely impressed by the work of the Band Aid group and the unbelievable amounts of money that have been given so generously by so many people. Before the work of the Band Aid group it was a measure of the very real concern shown by the overwhelming majority of people in Britain that so much money had been raised voluntarily for the work of the voluntary organisations in this country to help towards famine relief in Ethiopia and other parts of Africa. We all acknowledge this and what my noble friend has said.

On my noble friend's second point, we have to remember that all this is taking place in another country. We can only use our influence with the Government of that country to see that the food goes to the right people and is being properly distributed. What I can say is that there have been reports that too much food goes to the militia in Eritrea, but I confirm that a team comprising representatives of the United Nations Co-ordinator, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Relief and Rehabilitation Commission is to investigate this. I can confirm to my noble friend what I said earlier: that we have expressed our concern about the continued fighting in Eritrea and Tigre, none of which helps the distribution of food or the indigenous population.