Skip to main content

Vietnam (Relief Aid)

Volume 889: debated on Wednesday 9 April 1975

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on relief aid to Vietnam.

The House will be aware that I announced last Thursday that the Government would be making available an immediate sum of £750,000, subject, of course, to parliamentary approval, for humanitarian needs in Vietnam and Cambodia, particularly among the children. I now propose to increase this to £1 million.

Of this sum, an initial £100,000 has gone to the International Red Cross, which is able to operate both in areas controlled from Saigon and in those controlled by the Provisional Revolutionary Government. It has already begun to fly in condensed milk and other supplies from Singapore. It is now working out its detailed programme, and I propose to allocate a further £150,000 to the IRC for this work, bringing its total grant to £250,000.

The British Disasters Emergency Committee, representing the major British voluntary societies, met yesterday to hear the latest reports from the field and to make detailed plans for making help available to those in need—particularly the children. I discussed the situation last night with their representatives, and I am clear that through their various contacts they will be able to find ways of operating throughout South Vietnam. I therefore intend to make available to the committee a contribution of £250,000 towards the immediate operations of the British voluntary societies for bringing relief to Indo-China. The committee and the societies are already working out the logistics with help from my disaster unit.

UNICEF and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees have now issued a joint appeal for money for combined relief programmes. They will be provided throughout South Vietnam and Cambodia, on both sides of the war lines. I propose to make immediately available to them £250,000 in response to this appeal. This is additional to a contribution of £500,000 which was made available last week to the UNICEF Indo-China programme following my announcement last July of a total British contribution of £1 million. This programme is, of course, also assisting relief work in Cambodia.

This leaves a further £250,000 available at present for allocation as the plans of the international and British aid agencies become clearer. As they do, if this proves to be not enough, I may wish to come back for approval for further funds.

The main need at present is for medical supplies, food and shelter for the thousands of children who have permanently or temporarily lost their parents. It is my view, shared very widely, that it will be best for them eventually to be reunited with their families in the villages and towns wherever this is humanly possible. While my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary was glad to make special arrangements for the orphan children being flown to Britain from Saigon, and while we all understand the compassion and individual concern so vividly expressed in the last few days, it is, I think, of the greatest importance that compassion is expressed above all in providing help to the several thousands of children who are at risk of disease and malnutrition, and whose lives are, therefore, at risk, in Vietnam itself. This will be our Government's priority. What we seek to do is to translate the deep feeling in Britain for the people of Vietnam into the most practical and constructive assistance we can offer.

We welcome the right hon. Lady's statement, and we are particularly glad that she has put such a practical slant on the need to give aid. If there is any question of her coming back for approval for further funds, I am sure that she will meet a generous response from the House as a whole.

I think that there is some concern about the orphans who have been brought here through a most generous effort by many people, the fear being that these small children might have a terrible problem in settling down in the wholly different environment of this country. Will the right hon. Lady take it that anything which the Government can do to help in this problem will he much appreciated?

Second—perhaps this is not entirely a matter for the right hon. Lady, but, as the Foreign Secretary was not able to deal with it, we should like her observations—some of us are concerned about the position of British subjects in South Vietnam. Has the right hon. Lady any information to give about their situation?

On the first matter, whatever individual views may be about the flight of the orphans to Britain, I am sure that one recognises that this represented an effort arising out of a genuine feeling of compassion immediately expressed in the way that some people felt suitable, and I am sure that all the agencies of our social services will be used to ensure that the best possible future is arranged for these children.

There is information now about the British civilians who remain in Vietnam. Arrangements are ready to take the remaining British civilians out, but a number of them are staying quite deliberately because they feel that they have a rôle to play.

The House welcomes what the Minister has said and her announcement about the increased aid which, rightly in my opinion, she is giving in the right place. Money supplied for aid especially to children all over Vietnam is better spent than are resources devoted to the sort of gimmicky publicity stunts which we have seen in the past few days and are still seeing.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that. in spite of propaganda to the contrary, the PRG have a stated policy of looking after children from wherever in Vietnam they come and of placing them as far as possible with relatives and with families, and especially in relation to the children of American Service men, who have been subject to a lot of propaganda to the effect that they would be left out if they were left in Vietnam? Is not that kind of propaganda misleading, since the Minister of Health of the PRG has said that these children will be given special care—

It is quite clear that the PRG recognise the need for external assistance. In fact, one of our practical problems is to provide money immediately to those agencies which can get into the areas controlled by the PRG. That is why I am giving an increased amount at present to the International Red Cross in particular, since it and UNICEF also have ways of getting into the areas controlled by the PRG, to help with their own programme of looking after the children. This is one of the practical problems one faces at the moment.

Will the right hon. Lady bear in mind that some of the reports which have come out suggest that there is good reason to fear for children of mixed parentage who are orphans? Will she look most carefully at those reports, and, if it seems that the best way to help them is to assist in moving them, will she consider doing that?

Indeed I shall. Representatives of a number of agencies and organisations have seen me or are to see me in the next day or two to give their up-to-date reports from the area. One of the problems is that the Saigon administration has now introduced its restrictions on children coming out. The problem of children coming out is extremely difficult. I am sure that the hon. Lady will agree that it is best to rest on the advice of the agencies with experience here, their general advice at the moment being that the need is to get help into Vietnam rather than bring children out.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her prompt reaction in the giving of aid. Is she able to say whether further assistance is needed to help the Saigon Children's Hospital, whose work I have seen at first hand? Is she in a position to strengthen the number of doctors and nurses working at that hospital?

May I answer my hon. Friend in this way? My general impression from the members of the British agencies whom I saw yesterday—one of whom had only just returned from Saigon—is that the number of relief workers in Saigon is at present entirely adequate. There are plenty of relief workers in Saigon. There is also adequate availability of medical supplies and food in the Saigon area, although distribution can be a problem. Therefore, my inclination is to say that there is not an immediate need in the Saigon area itself, and that the major need arises outside Saigon, further north, north of the war lines, in the whole area.

I associate myself with the welcome which has been accorded to the Minister's statement. Will the right hon. Lady reject the description "gimmicky publicity stunts" applied by her hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Miss Richardson) to the flights bringing children out? Is it not wrong so to describe efforts to assist humanity? Second, what will the right hon. Lady's reaction be if the Saigon administration changes its attitude regarding the flying out of orphans? In the event of the situation deteriorating further, as is likely, and the Saigon administration wishing orphans or other children to be evacuated, what will the Minister's attitude be?

On the first matter which the hon. Gentleman raises, I think that each person must make his own judgment. I should not wish to condemn any effort which arises from genuine compassion and concern. I should not, therefore, wish to condemn in any way the flight of orphans out of Saigon. At the same time, I think it correct to make a distinction between what private people do and what the Government feel it right to do, and I can only repeat that the Government's attitude is that money can best be used to take help in for the thousands of children who, one hopes, can be reunited with their parents.

Is the right hon. Lady satisfied with our communications with the Hanoi Government? If she is, has she been able to make representations about the British subjects remaining at their posts, as she expressed it, in circumstances which, in certain events, might put them in great difficulty in the immediate future?

I think that matter is for my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. One is anxious to see what contacts one can make with the Hanoi Government and, through them, with the PRG in terms of helping the British agencies to operate in the PRG-controlled areas. But that is a different matter. The first point raised by the hon. Gentleman is for my right hon. Friend.

I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend on the speed with which she has brought to bear on the desecrated country of Vietnam the important relief work that she has announced. Does she agree that the best relief that can be given to South Vietnam is the ending of the Thieu régime, which has been propped up for too long by America, and that the refugee problem has been part of American strategy over the years? Is she in a position to assist with any peace initiatives?

The House will appreciate that I am making a statement today on the immediate Government aid that we can give to help deal with the human problem that is arising from the situation there. Hon. Members will have their views on what would be the best and most helpful way of ending the present human distress there, but that is rather a matter for my right hon. Friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary than for me.