HL Deb 05 June 1985 vol 464 cc756-60

3.41 p.m.

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

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer to a Private Notice Question being asked in another place concerning the food situation in the Sudan. The Statement is as follows:

"We have been closely monitoring the very serious food situation in the Sudan. There are substantial supplies in Port Sudan. The problem is internal distribution.

"We are providing £650,000 for the charter of a Hercules, to be placed at the disposal of the Save the Children Fund within the next few days, for a period of one month. This will airlift emergency food supplies to Western Sudan, where distribution problems have been particularly acute. We are also providing up to £130,000 for the purchase of a light aircraft for use by voluntary agencies for moving supplies and personnel.

"The European Development Council agreed on 23rd May to my right honourable friend the Minister of State for Overseas Development's proposal to use emergency procedures to approve a £6 million project to rehabilitate the railway to Western Sudan. I understand that the first phase, which provides special food trains, is already in operation.

"We are holding further urgent discussions with the British voluntary agencies operating in the Sudan to establish what additional immediate help we can give."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Baroness for repeating the Answer to the Private Notice Question in another place. Like everyone who has read about the appalling famine and its consequences in the Sudan so soon after the tragedy in Ethiopia, we are deeply anxious that everything should be done to assist. We welcome the immediate action taken by the Government and the knowledge that they are monitoring the situation carefully, as the noble Baroness has just indicated.

We are also glad that the problem of communication is being taken into account and that an aircraft is being provided. Is it the case that we are dealing with this matter in co-operation with our friends in the European Community? Is it a joint venture or are we doing this separately? Is it the case that other countries in the Common Market are taking similar action?

I must at the same time draw attention to the criticism that has been made by the Foreign Affairs Committee in another place; namely, that Her Majesty's Government have failed to provide fresh funds for the African famine relief operation. In view of its gravity, this matter must be clarified by the Government. It appears that the money provided by the Government has been taken from the existing budget of the Overseas Development Administration Fund. The Foreign Affairs Committee in another place expressed, its profound disquiet at the position whereby large stocks of grain, grown and held at considerable public expense, cannot be made readily available for emergency aid. We recommend that the British Government initiate urgent action to make this possible in any future emergency". I shall be grateful if the noble Baroness will comment on that point.

Can the Minister further say what the Government's attitude is to the International Fund for Agricultural Development? This is one of the most effective United Nations agencies, as the noble Baroness is well aware. Is it not the case that this fund has been in crisis for some time and that it has far too little money? Can the Minister say what the British contribution is to be? Are we to give the extra money that is needed if this fund is to carry out its work? Is it true that Britain's emergency aid to Africa for the current financial year is little more than half last year's spending? If so, how can the Government justify this, in the light of the fact that it is well known to everyone that the dreadful famine in Africa is, unhappily, a continuing tragedy? It is not something that will come to an end in Ethiopia with a shower of rain.

We shall have to take the situation there into account over a very long period—not this country alone but also other countries throughout the world, including our partners in the Common Market, the United States and Canada, and the Commonwealth countries as well. These are the matters I would draw to the attention of the noble Baroness. I hope that she will be able to give the House satisfactory replies.

Lord Walston

My Lords, I too should like to thank the noble Baroness for repeating the Answer given to my honourable Alliance friend in another place. I should also like to thank her for telling the House of the arrangements already made and in the course of being made by the Government to deal with the beginnings of the problems in the Sudan. It is clear from this that, at least in theory, the Government will not be caught short—as was the case with Ethiopia last year. Warnings are being heeded. I am particularly happy that the Government are consulting with the voluntary aid agencies, whose knowledge of these situations and of the countries in which they take place in unrivalled.

The noble Baroness has told us, if I understand her correctly, that £650,000 is being made available for the charter of a vessel. Perhaps she will confirm that this means the availability of a vessel with a capacity of possibly 7,500 tonnes. I think the noble Baroness will agree that that is not a very large capacity. It will make a worthwhile start, but does the Minister not agree that far more money than that is needed in the very near future?

Can the noble Baroness further tell the House what plans are being made to ensure not only that adequate supplies of food arrive from the stocks which the Community Already has—and which are causing it so much embarrassment—but also that they can be dealt with properly when they arrive at Port Sudan or elsewhere? Can the Minister also assure us that there will be adequate facilities not only for unloading that food but also for transporting it to the places where it is needed?

Can the Minister confirm that when the food arrives at its destination, both the Government and the European Commission—and I emphasise what I believe was in the mind of the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn: that this should be a Community as well as a national obligation—will ensure that it is equitably distributed; that it goes to where it is most needed; and that there is no risk of that food falling into the hands of those who are more interested in making a quick profit than in distributing the food to those who, in the minds of the donors, are the most needy recipients?

3.50 p.m.

Baroness Young

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lords, Lord Cledwyn and Lord Walston, for the way in which they have received the Statement. The Government recognise that we are dealing with a very serious situation. I hope that the information I have been able to give indicates both our immediate response and our action in the preceding weeks.

The noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, asked a series of questions. I am grateful for the welcome he gave to the Statement. He asked how much co-operation there has been with other countries in the Community. I can assure him that other European Community countries are co-operating with the airlifting of supplies but the Hercules itself and the light aircraft that we are supplying for use by voluntary organisations have been provided by the Government. Perhaps I may add that, so far as concerns Community aid to internal transport, on 23rd May the development council agreed to waive the normal procedures for the emergency project approved by the European Development Fund committee on 31st May which is already being implemented.

The project provides £6 million, of which the United Kingdom share is £1 million, to rehabilitate locomotives on the railway to Western Sudan. The first phase is already working with the help of an adviser seconded from British Rail and provides "block" trains to carry food supplies to the west.

The noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, went on to ask about our response to the criticisms that have been made by the Foreign Affairs Committee report. I can assure him that the Government are considering the report and will be responding to the committee's recommendations as soon as possible. The noble Lord asked about the money that the Government have already given to Africa. In the financial year 1984–85 the Government gave a total of £100 million in aid to the drought-related projects in sub-Saharan Africa. In the current year we plan to spend at least £60 million and we have already indicated that we will add more should that prove to be necessary.

The noble Lord, Lord Walston, for whose response to the Statement I am grateful, asked about the aeroplane. We are contributing £130,000 for the purchase of a light aircraft for use by voluntary organisations which should help in the distribution. He also asked about ensuring the equitable distribution of the food supplies when they actually reach the refugees and others in the Sudan. A great deal of course is being distributed through voluntary agencies. Indeed, as is indicated in the Statement, the Hercules aircraft is being placed at the disposal of the Save the Children Fund in order to get food supplies that are currently in Port Sudan to where the trouble is in Western Sudan.

3.54 p.m.

Lord Walston

My Lords, the noble Baroness understood me as asking about the light aircraft. My question was about chartering a vessel, which I understood the noble Baroness to say had taken place. According to my rapid calculations this would carry between 7,000 and 7,500 tonnes of grain. My question was: is that all that is being done, or is more similar chartering of vessels in mind?

Baroness Young

My Lords, I think that is a misunderstanding by the noble Lord, Lord Walston. I did not mention the chartering of a vessel. I said that we were providing for the charter of a Hercules aircraft and money for a light plane.

It might be helpful if I expand on what we are doing to improve the capacity of the railway which is so important for distribution. We have provided expert assistance for an emergency scheme to improve the distribution of supplies by rail to Western Sudan through what are called "block" trains devoted exclusively to food and relief supplies. We understand that the first "block" trains are now in operation. The Community is also providing funds for an associated programme of emergency locomotive rehabilitation.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, can my noble friend say whether any effort is being made to invite Airship Industries to partake in this relief? I was in the Sudan a few years ago and it was obvious that due to the lack of air strips, fuel, roads, and so on, that the airship was the implement for that area. Does the company have anything that would carry goods at this stage? It would be an opportunity to enhance the British airship industry and an opportunity for it to provide something which would be most useful. Is it not true that with the Ethiopian relief about half of the corn sent out was sold in order to meet the cost of transport? That rather backs the point made from the other side of the House that this should not be allowed to happen in the Sudan.

Baroness Young

My Lords, I take the second question of my noble friend Lord Gisborough first. We are conscious of the difficulties and I hope that I have said enough this afternoon to allay the natural anxieties of your Lordships about distribution; both by the contribution that we are making to the rehabilitation and improvement of the railway line and also by the help we are giving with aircraft. Clearly this is the most essential need at the present time.

On my noble friend's first question about airships, I have certainly noted what he said. It is a new suggestion and I am sure that my right honourable friend the Minister for Overseas Development will note it when he reads Hansard tomorrow.

Lord Oram

My Lords, was not our aid to Ethiopia kept within the confines of the contingency reserves of the Overseas Development Administration? Will not the famine in the Sudan, according to the experts, be considerably more serious even than that in Ethiopia? If so, will the Government this time make funds available beyond the normal budget of the ODA?

Baroness Young

My Lords, the noble Lord asked about prospects for this year, and this of course depends very much on the rain which, as I understand it, should start this month. Therefore, it is difficult to predict what might happen. I understand that the cause of this immediate tragedy in the west of the Sudan is a consequence of the failed harvest in the main grain producing areas last November and the small reserves that people held have now been exhausted. Transport from the port to the West has been the major problem and that is why we have been doing what we can to alleviate the position.

I have already discussed on previous occasions the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Oram, about whether or not the money has come from the contingency reserve. The Government's point, quite properly, is that the contingency reserve is there for precisely this kind of emergency, and it has of course been used for help in Ethiopia and could be used for help, should it be necessary, over and above what we are already putting aside.

Lord Oram

My Lords, are not the results of the drought in Africa far more serious than the normal tragedies for which the contingency reserves are budgeted? Is this not something that needs to be dealt with on a larger scale than normal budgeting?

Baroness Young

My Lords, I think that we all understand the immensity of the tragedy in sub-Saharan Africa and now in the Sudan. As I have already indicated, the Government have set aside considerable sums of money—£ 100 million last year and £60 million in this financial year—and have indicated that they will consider more should this prove to be necessary.