With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the hon. Members concerned, and to help Thursday's debate, I should now like to answer Questions Nos. 32, 33, 34, 36 and 37 together.
As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Overseas Development told the House on 6th March, the Government at that time had pledged £3 million for relief in Bangladesh and had signed agreements providing for non-project aid totalling £4·8 million. Of the sum offered for relief, £1 million has been paid in cash to the United Nations and £200,000 to the International Committee of the Red Cross. The balance has been spent on Bailey bridging, ferry boats and equipment, marine engines and spare parts, trucks and Decca navigational aids, which the Bangladesh Government told us were their priority requirements. The bulk of these supplies have been dispatched; in addition, a small team of Royal Engineers is in Bangladesh advising the authorities on the erection of the Bailey bridges.
Our principal anxiety had been that there would be a shortage of food in Bangladesh leading to famine. Fortunately, according to the Bangladesh Government the necessary supplies of food grains for the next three months have been assured. They are not, therefore, asking for immediate further assistance in the form of food supplies. The paramount needs now are to improve the distribution of the available supplies and to provide seed and fertilisers for the next crop. These considerations have dictated the make-up of the aid supplied under our £3 million pledge.
In view, however, of the continuing need, exemplified in the United Nations Secretary-General's appeal to the countries of the world for assistance, the British Government have decided to set aside a further £6 million for relief and rehabilitation in Bangladesh, to be spent on purposes to be agreed with the Bangladesh Government and the United Nations Relief Operation, Dacca. We have in mind in particular a further cash payment to the United Nations, the repair of the Hardinge and King George VI bridges, the purchase of rice to supplement food supplies later this year and the supply of 12 sea trucks particularly asked for to meet an urgent request by the United Nations Secretary-General
We all welcome the extra £6 million. May I ask the Foreign Secretary about exactly the terms of future aid to the United Nations? In relation to the Biharis, will he say precisely what are the terms of the proposition that we have put to the International Red Cross; because in answer to a Question earlier this afternoon he gave the impression that it was earmarked as aid to the Biharis?
We have already made one payment of £200,000. We are from time to time assisting the Red Cross in its action concerning the Biharis. If the Red Cross comes back to us, we shall consider giving further assistance.
I am sure that the £6 million will be deeply appreciated. Did the Foreign Secretary see the statement by Sheik Mujib last month that Bangladesh still needs buses, trucks, boats, fuel and technicians to distribute the food? Could we not help in that regard, first for the sake of Bangladesh and, secondly, and perhaps selfishly, because it would help employment in Britain as well?
Some of the methods of assistance mentioned by the hon. Gentleman can no doubt be financed out of the £6 million. The immediate and most pressing need, so the Secretary-General of the United Nations told me when he was here the other day, was the "sea trucks". We are getting them out to Pakistan immediately.
I am sure that the whole House will wish to congratulate my right hon. Friend on what he has already done for Bangladesh and on making the extra £6 million available. Is there any chance of improving the financing of current payments, particularly in relation to ECGD cover, because there is still a hold-up there? Help in this direction would affect employment in Britain and assist relief in Bangladesh. There is some difficulty about ECGD cover at the moment, and this could be sorted out with my right hon. Friend's assistance.
I hope that a Bangladesh consortium will shortly be formed. I will consider what my right hon. Friend has said on the question of ECGD cover and whether there are any defects which can be removed.
In view of the large number of smaller bridges which were damaged in Bangladesh, apart from the large bridges like Hardinge and King George VI, is it possible for a large part of the £6 million to be earmarked almost immediately for the comparatively small repairs, if indeed that is what the Bangladesh Government want, on the smaller bridges, as the first priority is to such a great extent improving land communications so that food and materials can be moved about within the country?
I rather hope that a large number of other countries, and also more countries than last time, will help with subscriptions towards Bangladesh's various needs. It is for the Bangladesh Government to estimate their priorities. We will do our best to help them.
What proportion of the total aid announced to Bangladesh does Her Majesty's Government's contribution constitute? How much is Russian aid? How muck is Eastern European aid? In that connection, have the Bangladesh Government requested Her Majesty's Government to give assistance with the clearing of ports, or do they intend to rely entirely on Russian Navy personnel?
There have been reports that Chittagong and Chalna are not operating, but we are now told that they are operating at about 85 per cent. efficiency. The Soviet Navy has undertaken to clear the rest of the obstruction.
We very much welcome the Secretary of State's announcement of the increased finance to be made available. It is excellent that Her Majesty's Government are responding in this way. I hope that, as the right hon. Gentleman says, this will encourage other countries to make increased contributions.
Having said that, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman two questions? First, what reports has he had from Sir Robert Jackson, who has recently been put in charge of the United Nations operations, about how far help is needed with sea trucks and water transport in general, and how far does he envisage that the British Government will be able to help with this most pressing need for the distribution of food?
Second, what reports has the right hon. Gentleman had about possible difficulties of supplies of local currency? Very often in these situations there is enough food but those who need it do not have the currency to buy it. This was a great difficulty in the Nigerian situation. What does the right hon. Gentleman know about this?
I have not had a direct report from Sir Robert Jackson, but I discussed with the Secretary-General what were the priority needs after he had talked with Sir Robert Jackson, and what we were asked to supply at once was sea trucks. We have done so and are continuing to do so. For the rest, we shall concentrate on different aspects of communications.
I should like to look into the currency question. I have not been brought up against this problem in Bangladesh, but it was a factor in Nigeria. I should like to look into it and write to the right hon. Lady.