Overseas Aid

Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 7:39 pm on 14th May 1991.

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Photo of Mrs Lynda Chalker Mrs Lynda Chalker , Wallasey 7:39 pm, 14th May 1991

There is still much to be done, but I know that the House will be encouraged by the fact that refugees are now coming down from the mountains and moving into the safe areas in substantial numbers. That same process is also beginning to happen from parts of Iran. The UN's role is now developing in Iraq. To help that operation get under way, I announced Britain's contribution of $10 million to UN humanitarian relief for the region early last week.

In Bangladesh, Britain has led the relief effort. Our initial response of £6·5 million was one of the first and, then, the largest. More has since been added by countries such as Saudi Arabia, but that country has pledged its money not for immediate relief, but for reconstruction. One needs to look at the detail of what has happened.

In Bangladesh we financed the urgently needed supplies of tents, blankets, food and medicine, as well as tackling the appalling disruption of communications by paying for a Royal Fleet Auxiliary, with four helicopters with substantial disaster relief stores, nine boats and a detachment of Royal Marines. ODA vehicles are in use in the flooded districts and boats, including some from the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, are distributing food when the weather permits.

Britain has financed two United Nations disaster relief experts in Chittagong from the beginning of the crisis. As always, we are working with British and local NGOs, who are doing a magnificent job to deliver relief to those in need. Our NGO co-ordinator from Dhaka set up an office in Chittagong a week ago to provide on-the-spot assessments and ease co-ordination among aid organisations locally.

However, it is in Africa that 29 million people face the worst disaster. The continuation of drought, long-running civil wars and economic mismanagement have worsened the crisis of starvation and illness. Britain's response has again been swift and substantial. The £90 million pledged by ODA since last September includes 158,000 tonnes of bilateral food aid, much of which is for the horn. That makes Britain the second largest contributor of food to the region. Britain will continue to play her part, but we need other donors to contribute too. That is why, for more than six months, I have strenuously pressed for more urgent action for Africa by other donor countries and the European Community. More than 800,000 tonnes of food will now be financed from the Community budget, with more to follow from other member states. But the crisis in Africa is a long way from being over. Our job over the next few months will be to continue to save lives and give people the means by which they will be able to feed themselves in future.

I now come to the financing of aid. We have heard more than enough carping about money from the hon. Member for Cynon Valley in recent weeks. We have also heard a lot about targets. The Government remain committed to the principle of the United Nations aid target, but I shall not attempt to compete with the hon. Lady to see who can promise to spend the most. Spending money for the sake of it is easy. Making that money really effective where people need relief is another matter.

We started this financial year with an aid budget of £1,721 million. It is a substantial programme—the sixth largest in the world. Its value has grown in recent years and it is planned to continue to grow in real terms. Our aid is well targeted and effective. Its quality and professionalism are praised by the OECD's development assistance committee and by the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs.

We provide humanitarian relief without diverting resources from our planned development programmes, because humanitarian relief comes from funds set aside for that specific purpose, calling as necessary upon the Overseas Development Administration's in-year contingency reserve. In exceptional circumstances, we also have recourse to the Treasury reserve.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made it clear in a letter to the Leader of the Opposition, in the context of our efforts to help Iraqi refugees, that the Government were prepared to look sympathetically at the case for making additional resources available to the ODA for humanitarian purposes if it looked as though its contingency reserve was likely to be exhausted early in the year.

As the House knows, on 29 April the Prime Minister announced an extra £30 million for the aid programme for continuing assistance to Iraqi refugees. I had no hesitation then about going to the Treasury for that additional money, and I do not hesitate to do what needs to be done. I can assure the House that the Government will continue to look sympathetically at the resources available to the ODA so that Britain can continue to play its full part in the international relief effort to help alleviate the terrible suffering in Africa, and to assist the people of Bangladesh to reconstruct their lives. This afternoon in Brussels EC Foreign Ministers agreed a further 60 million ecu package of co-ordinated assistance to Bangladesh in addition to the initial relief contributions already announced. We are glad to contribute to that.

It is clear that the armed forces constitute a key element in our disaster relief capability. Let me make it clear to the hon. Member for Cynon Valley that the aid programme pays only the extra costs—of fuel and spare parts, for instance—arising specifically from the humanitarian relief operations carried out on our behalf by the armed forces. Our armed forces are doing a magnificent job in Iraq and in Bangladesh, and we applaud them for all that they do. But it is not for Britain alone to provide all the relief, money and solutions. The problems are international and they need international solutions. It is clear that every nation and group of nations must play its full part in a co-ordinated way.

Britain galvanised the EC's decision to provide additional substantial disaster relief—105 million ecu in the case of Iraqi refugees and 115 million ecu for famine relief in Africa in recent weeks. However, it is the UN which should play the unique role of co-ordinating the international response to disasters. I agree with the hon. Lady that the UN disaster relief organisation is good, but it is very small.