Sudan (Famine Relief)

– in the House of Commons at 3:31 pm on 5th June 1985.

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Photo of Mr Michael Meadowcroft Mr Michael Meadowcroft , Leeds West 3:31 pm, 5th June 1985

(by private notice) asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on his action in the light of today's urgent warning of potential famine disaster in the Sudan.

Photo of Mr Timothy Raison Mr Timothy Raison , Aylesbury

We have been closely monitoring the serious food situation in Sudan. There are substantial supplies in Port Sudan. The problem is internal distribution. We are now 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. That will airlift emergency food supplies to western Sudan where distribution problems have been 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 23 May to my 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 Sudan to establish what immediate help we can give.

Photo of Mr Michael Meadowcroft Mr Michael Meadowcroft , Leeds West

I am grateful to the Minister for his response. Does he accept that the House, and people in general, I suspect, will feel that it sounds very much like placing sticking plaster over a gaping human need? Surely much more needs to be done to enable the transportation of food from the east to the affected Darfur region in the west. One aeroplane and a light aircraft available to the voluntary agencies are not nearly enough. Will the Minister assure the House that the resources available are not limited by the existing budget, as with Ethiopia, but will be made available according to need? Otherwise a disaster far greater than that which occurred in Ethiopia will take place in Sudan?

Photo of Mr Timothy Raison Mr Timothy Raison , Aylesbury

The proposals that I have just announced amount to much more than sticking plaster. The problem is not the overall supply of food—there is a great deal of food available—but distribution. I believe that our aircraft, which will carry high priority supplementary foods, will be of great value. In addition, as I made clear in my reply, we have also galvanised the European Community to get on with the crucial job of ensuring that the railway line to western Sudan is fully operational. As I told the House, that process is already under way.

Photo of Mr Bowen Wells Mr Bowen Wells , Hertford and Stortford

Is the railway capable of carrying enough food to western Darfur where the starvation is occurring? How much has the railway delivered to the western parts? Now that the rains are imminent, is it possible to distribute food in lorries from the railhead to the villages where it is needed?

Photo of Mr Timothy Raison Mr Timothy Raison , Aylesbury

I cannot yet say that I am satisfied that the railway is in a condition to provide all the food that is needed; it is a big job. However, I am confident that the steps that we have taken represent a substantial improvement. There is still more to be done on distribution from the railhead. It is a difficult problem, but we are determined to do all that we can to make sure that food reaches the people who are so desperately in need.

Photo of Tom Clarke Tom Clarke , Monklands West

Is the aircraft additional to the resources of the Overseas Development Administration, or is it coming from Ethiopia? Is the Minister bearing in mind the views of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, and will the additional resources be coming from the ODA budget or from the Government's contingency budget?

Photo of Mr Timothy Raison Mr Timothy Raison , Aylesbury

We shall be paying for the cost of the Hercules out of our own contingency resources. I stress that we do not intend to deprive our aid project in Ethiopia of anything to mount the aircraft operation in Sudan. It will be a new operation.

Photo of Mr Mark Robinson Mr Mark Robinson , Newport West

I am sure that all hon. Members will welcome the additional assistance that my right hon. Friend has been able to give to Sudan in recent months. Has my right hon. Friend any up-to-date information on the situation in the region mentioned in The Times?

Photo of Mr Timothy Raison Mr Timothy Raison , Aylesbury

We get regular reports of what is happening. I am not sure whether my hon. Friend is referring to the western part of Sudan or to the whole area. We get updated reports, and they show clearly that there is, overall, a substantial quantity of food, but serious limitations in the internal distribution of food. We are concentrating on that.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , Linlithgow

How about the provision of British-made trucks?

Photo of Mr Timothy Raison Mr Timothy Raison , Aylesbury

I know that the hon. Gentleman is keen on this matter, but large numbers of trucks are already available in Sudan, which has a strong private enterprise trucking industry. It is crucial that necessary spares are made available and, in the west of the country, the railway is the lifeline.

Photo of Mr Robert Banks Mr Robert Banks , Harrogate

I welcome my right hon. Friend's reply and recognise the grave seriousness of the situation in the Sudan, but does he agree that one of the problems of distribution stems from a shortage of fuel? Will he consider providing fuel so that distribution can be made rapidly?

Photo of Mr Timothy Raison Mr Timothy Raison , Aylesbury

The provision of fuel has been a constant worry, although I do not think that it has ever broken down in the way that was feared. We have contributed $272,000 for fuel for the distribution of our most recent consignment of food aid which arrived successfully in May before the rainy season began.

Photo of Mr Stuart Holland Mr Stuart Holland , Vauxhall

The Minister must realise that this response is quite inadequate. It is far too little and far too late. Warnings were given by us in the House earlier this year that the fuel problem was critical and that Sudan needed at least 250,000 tonnes of fuel. We urged the Minister then to act directly rather than through the EEC and we called on the Government to release more vehicles, if necessary from Ministry of Defence stock. The Minister has not done that.

The right hon. Gentleman's comments about the resources now being given for renewal of the railway stock also are quite inadequate. Tenders were being offered by British firms in January, in the expectation that the renewal of the rolling stock would be done by June, so that, when the rains came, the food aid could go through. As far as we can see, the project has only just been approved and the railway is inadequate to meet the food distribution needs, because only about one fifth of what is needed is getting through.

Photo of Mr Timothy Raison Mr Timothy Raison , Aylesbury

I have a feeling that whatever I announced from the Dispatch Box, the hon. Gentleman's automatic reaction would be that it was too little and too late. The railway, rather than fuel, is the crucial matter. The British Government have made the running throughout. We provided the consultant who prepared the plans earlier this year. I have repeatedly pushed as hard as I can in the European Community to get the project accelerated, because the understanding was always that the Community would implement it. I saw the Commissioner and told him the position a few weeks ago, and, at the Development Council on 23 May, I got it established that emergency procedures would be used. They are being used and the situation is improving, but I accept that there is still more to be done.

Photo of Mr Stuart Holland Mr Stuart Holland , Vauxhall

Six months too late.