HL Deb 19 May 1999 vol 601 cc296-8

2.53 p.m.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are satisfied with the arrangements for the distribution of food aid by the European Union to the Russian Federation and that the aid is reaching those for whom it is intended.

Lord Carter

My Lords, the Government are satisfied that the European Commission has set up workable arrangements to ensure that EU food aid is implemented effectively and reaches those for whom it is intended.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. However, does he recognise the widespread fear that much of the food aid that goes to Russia can be found on the way to the black market, in the hands of the Mafia, who then invest the money in western countries, and in some cases the EU itself? Will my noble friend outline the systems that are in operation to ensure that that does not happen? Is food aid really the best way to bring Russian agriculture into a recovery phase, or does it help to undermine the efforts of farmers in Russia, particularly small peasant farmers?

Lord Carter

My Lords, the issue of fraud was discussed by the Agriculture Council as recently as Monday. The Commission is not aware of any diversion of food or of other fraud, but will investigate substantiated reports.

On the question of oversight, the Commission has appointed an agency comprising two commercial companies to control the movement of goods from the European Union to the Russian border. The agency will work with the member states' intervention agencies. The Russian authorities will take charge of the goods once they reach the Russian border. In addition, the EU has appointed an independent monitor, comprising three companies, to report on distribution.

Regarding food production, UK development assistance to Russia is operated through the Know-how Fund. That tackles the constraints on food production rather than the production itself. Areas where the UK provides assistance include: land ownership; development of marketing strategies; third party arbitration mechanisms to resolve disputes relating to land ownership; and technical advice on processing.

Lord Swinfen

My Lords, is the noble Lord satisfied that there is a proper transport system for distributing the food aid, bearing in mind that many of Russia's problems are caused by its lack of a proper transport system?

Lord Carter

My Lords, I repeat that the European Commission has set up an independent monitor. About 50 per cent of the food aid has started to flow; the rest should be delivered by September. It is up to the independent agency to report to the Commission if there are problems.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, has the EU been in touch with the prison service in Russia over the question of food for prisoners, since poor quality prison diets have in recent years been a significant contributory cause of tuberculosis?

Lord Carter

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving advance notice of this important question. The Memorandum of Understanding between the European Union and the Russian Government specifies that in exceptional cases, by decision of the Russian Government, the products may be distributed free of charge to the most vulnerable sectors of the population. It is not absolutely clear whether that extends to prisons. As a result of the noble Lord's question, urgent inquiries are being made by officials. I shall write to the noble Lord and place a copy of the letter in the Library.

Lord Islwyn

My Lords, how much bilateral aid is Britain sending to Russia this year? Secondly, what proportion of European aid is supplied by Britain?

Lord Carter

My Lords, at the meeting of the Agriculture Council in December, the council unanimously agreed a food aid programme for the Russian Federation. Supplies consist of: 1 million tonnes of wheat; half a million tonnes of rye; 50,000 tonnes of rice; 150,000 tonnes of beef; 100,000 tonnes of pork; and 50,000 tonnes of skimmed milk powder. Supplies are being drawn from intervention stocks, except for the pigmeat, which is being sourced on the open market—without any obvious effect on the UK pig price at present. The food is being supplied in five tranches. Half has been mobilised and is on its way; the intention is that the rest will be delivered by September. As to the UK proportion, we have offered 30,000 tonnes of skimmed milk powder; so far, 6,000 tonnes have been supplied.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, when will the independent unit to which the noble Lord referred begin its work? What is its brief in regard to monitoring the food getting through to people in that country? Perhaps the noble Lord will confirm my understanding that the delay is not at the EU end but at the Russian end, and that therefore the new independent unit is of vital importance.

Lord Carter

My Lords, on the question of delay, the food programme was suspended on 4th February this year because of questions raised by both Russia and the EU about quality, health, transport and origin. There were also technical difficulties within the EU in relation to receipt of the initial tender bids for delivery of the food aid to Russian ports. We have learnt a great deal following the problems in 1991 and 1992. It is significant that there is now an independent agency comprising two companies reporting on the movement of goods from the European Union to the Russian border, and an independent monitor comprising three companies—one British, one Dutch and one Danish—all of whom have the job of reporting to the Commission. On the question of the date, I do not know. I will write to the noble Baroness.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the Americans have over 300 officials on the ground in Russia to make sure that their aid gets through to the people for whom it is intended, whereas the European Union appears to have only a handful? In view of the huge tonnages and figures that the noble Lord has given for this aid, how can he convince the House that it would not be better to send all our aid on a bilateral basis rather than most of it through the well known incompetence and fraud of the European Commission?

Lord Carter

My Lords, I am aware of the noble Lord's interest. I think that he has delivered himself into my hands. The US is providing 3 million tonnes of food compared with the figures that I have given. The US has 300 people there and 300 people are involved in the programme on the EU side, including Commission staff but mainly the commercial agencies appointed to control the flow of food from the EU to the Russian border and the independent monitor appointed to report on distribution in Russia. We are providing the same number of staff for the aid that I described as the Americans.