Food Insecurity in Developing Countries due to Blockade of Ukrainian Ports - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:11 pm on 21st July 2022.

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Photo of Baroness Smith of Basildon Baroness Smith of Basildon Shadow Leader of the House of Lords, Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office, Constitutional and Devolved issues) 3:11 pm, 21st July 2022

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Purvis. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for initiating today’s debate. Listening to the speeches here today, I think the expertise and care that has been shown on this issue does this House enormous credit. It has been a sobering debate.

I noted that a number of noble Lords paid tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, in his role, and expressed their hope that he remains in this role the next time that we discuss such issues at the Dispatch Box. I hope that he does, but if not, I hope that he is in a more senior post to which he can bring the care and compassion he has shown in this role, because we want to see that across government, not just in isolated pockets.

The noble Lord, Lord Alton, said that he wanted to shine a light on the impact that the war in Ukraine is having on other areas as well. We have heard that today, and I will comment on other speeches. The capacity we have here to have a more detailed debate has shown that it this is not just about the military response; the Government and international agencies must have a much wider response to address the consequences.

It is in that regard that I turn to the maiden speech from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham. The House will benefit from his expertise and wisdom on the issues that he spoke about. His speech today was passionate and powerful, but also very grounded; that is an attribute that will be of enormous benefit to your Lordships’ House. I welcome him joining us and look forward to further contributions from him.

As we have heard today, the destabilisation resulting from Putin’s invasion of Ukraine continues, bringing with it humanitarian crises that go way beyond the region in which we see military action. Many millions of people in developing countries, including in the Horn of Africa and east Africa, are already suffering from hunger and malnutrition, and it is predicted to get worse. The scale of this crisis is not one that immediately comes to mind in the press reports that we have seen or in comments that are made, which tend to focus on the destruction in Ukraine without focusing on the much wider implications around the world. We know that the invasion is a clear act of aggression and an illegal act, but the blockade of ports is barbaric and has an international impact. By seeking to prevent the export of grain, and destroying crops and farming infrastructure, Putin’s objective is that the suffering created by the invasion goes much wider than the immediate region.

As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said, this is using hunger and starvation as a weapon of war. It is almost trying to blackmail other countries into not supporting Ukraine and backing off from attacking Russia’s actions. We have to be clear that we stand unshakably with our NATO allies in providing military support and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine. However, if we fail to recognise the global insecurity in food and the threat of hunger and starvation across the world then we are failing in our wider duty.

I hope the Minister can say something about the efforts of Turkey and UN officials to broker an agreement to open the Black Sea. Clearly that is essential, so we would be grateful if he could tell us about progress on what is happening there.

I share the concerns of the other noble Baroness, Lady Smith—that gets very confusing—who raised this issue: in so many of the press reports, we do not read about these kinds of issues and we do not hear these debates. The only thing that I saw about the talks were the comments that she referred to about the face that Putin was pulling when he had to wait for just under a minute for the talks to start. We need greater awareness of the impact that this is having beyond Ukraine. If those talks can be successful, and if there is anything we can do to facilitate them, they will have an enormous impact.

Last month the Foreign Secretary met her Turkish counterpart to discuss the option of using UK support to escort grain. I appreciate that she is rather distracted at the moment but there is nothing more important than this matter, and I hope the Minister here can press this. I would certainly like to hear more about the discussions and about the Foreign Secretary’s ongoing role in them, because we do not know that. As much as we love the Minister, it needs the authority of the Foreign Secretary to be engaged at the highest level. What form would that UK support take? How would we manage it? Has anything been agreed? If the Minister has anything to report back on this during the Recess, I ask that he write to noble Lords who have taken part in today’s debate rather than waiting until we return in September.

Any agreement with Putin’s regime has to be treated with some caution, not just because there may be instability in the regime as we progress but because there is the possibility that Russia may not hold to its agreements. Noble Lords will know that one issue we feel very strongly about is that nations should hold to agreements that have been made, which is why there were some murmurs earlier today when the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill had its First Reading. Abiding by agreements is essential but we have to treat with caution any agreement with President Putin. We need an absolute commitment to pursue the end of this conflict because that is the only way to resolve so many of these problems. They will not just be solved by negotiation and finding alternative routes.

On that, I would be interested to know just how closely aligned the two government departments are. I am grateful for the brief that I had this morning from the Ministry of Defence on its ongoing actions, but I am not clear how the issue of food supplies and wider humanitarian issues are fed into the Ministry of Defence, because the two departments have aligned themselves policy-wise.

While the negotiations are ongoing, we have to commit ourselves to taking steps to mitigate the blockade. We have heard a number of facts and figures today but 96% of Ukraine’s grain has historically been exported via the Black Sea. When that route is closed off, the impact is hugely significant. There is the potential for limited quantities to leave by rail and road, but if that were easy then it would have been done before; it would have been the route used previously.

Ukraine’s Deputy Foreign Minister has raised the prospect of new trade routes through Poland and Romania. I am sure the Minister is aware of the challenges that this poses, not least because of different gauges of railways and having to deal with attacks from the Russian military. Are we currently giving any support to the Ukrainian Government to try to support those routes? They might have a limited impact but that would still be significantly more than we are seeing at present. Can he say anything about any financial contribution being made by the FCDO to repair the rail infrastructure that has been destroyed by the Russian military? Are there any ongoing discussions about other borders that could be used as well?

Those on the brink of starvation—those countries on the brink of famine—cannot just wait for the war to end to see some relief to their suffering. Despite what I have said to the Minister about giving us an update on what mitigation measures are being taken, that in itself will never be enough. There is an urgent need in the developing world for support now.

The noble Lord, Lord Polak, referred to Somalia and, from the examples he gave, one thing struck me: what happens there affects stability in this country. In assisting other countries there is a self-interest—a self-awareness of the impact it has here as well. The right reverend Prelate referred to the cuts in international aid that are affecting these countries. It does the Government no credit whatsoever that these cuts have been made at a time when that support is needed the most. I hope that the Minister will be able to say something about that. Somalia was importing 92% of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine, so it is especially vulnerable; I think the noble Lord referred to that. Long-term forecasts in Ethiopia suggest that rainfall later this year will be significantly less than the amount necessary to support a strong harvest, so it has problems importing and the climate emergency is affecting such countries as well.

In a sense, the Government’s role is twofold or threefold. It is important and we want them to take a lead in this. We must work with multilateral institutions to deliver the aid that is needed, but I would like to press the Minister more on the resilience measures that the Government want to build in, and the resilience-building measures that we can help countries take so people are not forced to leave their homes to search for food, water or medical care and support. Is he able to say anything about the action that has been taken as part of UNICEF, the World Food Programme and other multilateral agencies not just to deliver aid but to build resilience and provide expertise?

In conclusion, the only point I need to make is that this has shown us how interdependent countries are. Is it not part of chaos theory that, when a butterfly flaps its wings, the impact is felt around the world and it gathers pace as it moves? Many years ago, as the Cold War came to an end, I think we relaxed a bit too much. People took a step back and thought, “This is resolved”. What we have seen is an escalation of problems that are now damaging the entire world. If we have learned anything as a country, we need to heed the lesson that we are not completely independent. We are not just self-reliant—a point the noble Lord, Lord Hannan, was trying to make earlier on. We are co-dependent with others and we have responsibilities to that co-dependency. If we just stand back and think this is a problem for other countries, we harm not just those countries but ourselves. We do so in practical terms, but we harm our humanity as well. There is an opportunity here to step up and show both our resilience for our nation and our humanity to other nations, as it is the right thing to do. In what I hope is not his last outing in his post at the Dispatch Box—unless he is going on to greater things—I hope that the Minister today can show that there is humanity still in the Government and that we will be addressing these issues in the way that we should.