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Fao Emergency Meeting In Rome

Volume 413: debated on Tuesday 21 October 1980

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3.6 p.m.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what policy they followed at the emergency meeting of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation held in Rome on 19th September.

My Lords, the meeting was held to discuss emergency food supply problems in certain African countries. Britain attended with the aim of supporting efforts to mobilise help within the existing machinery, and obtaining up-to-date assessments of need from the international agencies. Like the Community, through which most of our food aid is channelled, we are now considering what more we can do to help bilaterally to follow up the 50,000 tonnes of cereals we supplied to needy African countries in the harvest year which has recently ended.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm or deny that at this conference, which was called because 150 million Africans are facing starvation, nine countries, including not just developed countries but Algeria, promised immediately extra food aid, and that Britain did not? Will he confirm that the British Government spokesmen said that they would watch the position? What is this position they are going to watch? Is it the 150 million people starving? Is it not a disgrace that the British Government were the one that stood out, refusing to increase their food aid in face of this great disaster, and is this not the kind of policy which is giving us a reputation for meanness in the world, particularly in the Third World?

My Lords, I think "meanness" is hardly the word. In the current financial year we will have shipped about 43,000 tonnes of food from the United Kingdom. We will have paid for 80,000 tonnes of the Community programme and we will have pledged some 50,000 further tonnes to the world food programme, much of which will go to Africa. As for what the noble Lord said earlier about the conference, it is true that some of the other donors were able to pledge a certain amount of additional assistance although it is not entirely clear which of that additional assistance came from existing programmes or was new supplies. We greatly welcome what they were able to do. We, on the other hand, as the noble Lord rightly said, are going to consider the matter very carefully to see whether there is anything further that we can do.

My Lords, have we not read recently that food has been destroyed in this country in implementation of the regulations under the Common Agricultural Policy? Is it beyond the wit of man, and beyond the wit of this Government, to devise some means of avoiding the situation whereby food is destroyed in one part of the world and thousands of people die in another?

My Lords, the fact is that we in this country are net importers of grain, for example, and any grain that we agree to send overseas has to be replaced by further imports into this country.

My Lords, does the noble Lord not agree that in the last year, because of the military operations of the Ethiopian regime against the subject peoples of Eritrea, Western Somalia and Tigre, starvation in those areas has become widespread and that the United Nations' High Commissioner, as well as the authorities in the Sudan and Somalia, has made desperate appeals to the world for help? What contribution have Her Majesty's Government made towards this need, and what extra pledges were made at the meeting to which this Question refers to help those particular refugees and starving millions in the Horn of Africa?

My Lords, in the current "harvest year" as it is called, we shall be supplying 5,000 tonnes of wheat, or its equivalent in flour, to Somalia.

My Lords, the noble Lord repudiated the word "meanness" which my noble friend uttered. But, surely, is he not aware that this Government, this country, has been criticised not merely by leaders in the Commonwealth, but by Herr Willy Brandt and by South American Governments? Is he also aware that all of our forebodings, when we found that overseas aid was to be put under the Foreign Office, have been confirmed, regularly? The fact that the proportion of cuts as regards aid is so much out of proportion with the other cuts in this country really is a disgrace, and is he aware that we are bearing criticism from all over the world for doing it?

My Lords, the cuts in the aid programme are a result, if I may say so, of the totally illusory programme which our predecessors had established before we came to office. The vast programme which they had imagined they could fulfil was quite unrealistic.

My Lords, our reputation in the world has suffered enormously as a result, but it was not because we made the mistake.

My Lords, that may well be so, but if the noble Baroness and her friends had remained in office, then that programme too, would not have been sustained.

My Lords, is it not the case that the director-general of the FAO at the Rome meeting said that 550,000 tonnes of food were needed immediately to save the lives of 150 million people? Did not the British representative say that he would watch the situation? Are the Government just considering the situation when hundreds of people are dying every day from this want of food?

My Lords, we are doing our "bit" in this matter. We are, of course, not the only nation in the world which ought, and does indeed, contribute to what I accept is an appalling problem. I have already recited to your Lordships the very substantial quantities of food aid that we are providing, and it is worth adding that it will cost us some £40 million this year.

My Lords, have we any explanation as to why Africa cannot feed herself? In colonial days she produced and exported quite a considerable surplus of food. She has since received aid on a pretty generous scale and has had the advantage of a "green" revolution which has doubled agricultural production almost everywhere else. But at the end of it she is producing, in actual terms, a good deal less than she was at the time when colonialism ended. Surely there should be some examination of what Africa can do for herself?

My Lords, it is true that production in Africa generally is less than it should be and that is why our aid programme—a programme of technical support and the like—is very much aimed at improving agricultural production in Africa.

My Lords, when the noble Lord the Minister is giving a number of figures, perhaps he would compare them with those of other countries. For instance, will he answer my original Question as to why Britain stood and watched the position when a country like Algeria made an immediate pledge of additional aid along with nine other countries? Is it not the case that there has been, and there is, growing in this country what is known as a "barley mountain"? Is that not of any use to the starving 150 million people who will be facing death during the next few months?

My Lords, it is not clear that Algeria and the other countries actually promised new food aid. Some of what was promised was, indeed, reallocation of existing pledges. But we have done our bit as well.