Thursday 6 December 2007
[Mr. Roger Gale in the Chair]
[Relevant documents: Tenth Report from the International Development Committee, Session 2006-07, on DFID Assistance to Burmese Internally Displaced People and Refugees on the Thai-Burma Border, HC 645-I and -II; and the Government’s Response to the Tenth Report from the International Development Committee, Eleventh Special Report, Session 2006-07, HC 1070.]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Liz Blackman.]
I can say on behalf of members of the International Development Committee that we are extremely pleased to have the opportunity to debate our report. Naturally, we think that all our reports are important and relevant, but this one is particularly timely. It is important for the House to understand that the Committee undertook an inquiry into the situation in Burma before the recent events took place. After all, the plight of the people of Burma has been serious and deteriorating for 60 years, but, clearly, what has happened since our visit has put into sharp focus just how desperate it is and how important it is that the world does everything that it possibly can to alleviate the suffering there.
Members of the Committee visited the Thai-Burma border in May. We met groups that work cross-border to try to support internally displaced people close to the Thai border but on the Burmese side. We also met exiled groups that were operating out of Thailand to support the Burmese people, and in both Chiang Mai and Bangkok, we met a variety of charities and non-governmental organisations that are involved.
As I said at the outset, Burma has suffered from 60 years of civil war—my lifetime—and 45 years of a military rule that is callous, inhumane and entirely destructive. We had the opportunity to visit one of the largest camps on the border, Ban Mai Nai Soi, and to speak to the refugees. Many told us of how they were subjected to forced labour and harried out of their villages and into the jungle.
The Committee spends a great deal of time discussing poverty, but the kind of poverty that was described to us in Burma is beyond comprehension. Poverty is often described as earning less than a dollar a day, but for the internally displaced people in Burma, it is earning and having nothing. They have no access to food, medical care, education, shelter or anything. They had to flee into the jungle and were constantly harried.
The right hon. Gentleman refers to poverty in Burma. The poorest state in Burma is probably Chin, which is on the Indian border. Does he think that there is considerable scope, as Christian Solidarity Worldwide urges, for cross-border initiatives to relieve the poverty in that state, as well as to promote democracy and human rights, in the way that CSW and other organisations have done for such a long period?
I am grateful for that intervention. Naturally, the Committee was not able to visit all the border sites, but the report does refer to the fact that there are refugees fleeing across the borders with India, Bangladesh and China. Obviously, there are displaced people in those countries as well. The answer is simple: we should support efforts to provide relief to people along any of the borders. There is evidence that more could be done on all fronts, but, clearly, the biggest pressure is from eastern Burma into Thailand, which is why the Committee went to that area. However, the hon. Gentleman’s point is correct.
I am listening carefully to the right hon. Gentleman’s speech. He led my colleagues on the Committee and me in producing an excellent and timely report. Could I suggest to him that the poverty that we saw is not just about an inability to get resources to live on? The fact that people are displaced across a border means that they are in no place with no hope for the future. We saw absolute desperation driven by violence. I think that we sometimes underestimate poverty, which can also involve oppression, violence and statelessness.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Of course poverty is all those things. We saw poverty, but what we heard about was even more serious. We spoke to the people who had actually made it across the border and were receiving some kind of support in camps. Their situation was pretty bad, but the stories that they told of how they got to the camp and the suffering that they saw before they managed to get there were, as I said earlier, beyond comprehension—and, for many people, beyond endurance.
We were told by the support agencies about the completely brutal actions of the military forces. For example, we were told that the head people of villages were forced to kill their own families in front of the village or be killed themselves. They were then harried out of the village, which was destroyed. Women were subjected to continuous and violent rape and, after enduring all of that, fled for their lives, taking nothing with them. They survived on what they could gather in the jungle or what cross-border agencies could get to them until they managed to arrive at the camps, where we encountered them. It is important to acknowledge that providing aid across the border is itself a difficult and dangerous operation, but it provides an essential lifeline for the people in that area who have literally nothing.
We were told that villagers were forced into labour by the soldiers who destroyed their village. They were then forced to plant crops and work their own fields but were driven away into the jungle while the crops grew and matured. They were then rounded up and forced to harvest the crops for the benefit of the soldiers—none of the food went to the villagers. In such a situation, even the basics of subsistence are not provided, let alone things such as health care and education, which we regard as fundamental to even a rudimentary civilisation. In many cases, none of those things was provided.
The situation on the border represents a huge dilemma for the Royal Thai Government, who clearly have a problem. They are concerned that, if they provide too much support, they will attract even more refugees and increase the burden. Nevertheless, they are not lacking in compassion. It is estimated that there may be 1 million or even 2 million Burmese refugees living illegally in Thailand.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman and Chairman of the Select Committee for his introduction to this important debate. Would he agree that the international community must do more and offer resettlement for refugees? Frankly, it is unlikely that many refugees will be able to return in the short to medium term, and the Thai authorities have been left with a truly dreadful dilemma, as they try to cope not only with the people in the refugee camps but the 2 million who live in Thailand outside the camps. Should not the international community do more and offer permanent resettlement in their own countries?
I certainly agree with the hon. Lady, but, in that context, we could also do more to help Thailand. We should all share its economic burden. Of course, many of the illegal refugees are gainfully employed, but there is the danger that they may be deported at any time. Clearly, that is not a satisfactory situation.
I entirely agree that other countries should be willing to help, although I believe that the hon. Lady would acknowledge that that in itself would create a dilemma if it resulted in taking leadership away from the camps—they have more to offer—and leaving the poorest and least-skilled people behind. There is a dilemma even in trying to ensure that a social structure is maintained.
I am following with care what the right hon. Gentleman says, and I agree with everything so far. On the situation with the refugees—he may be coming on to say something about this—it is clear that we need to sort out our own co-ordination. As far as the UK is concerned, the Foreign Office is responsible for refugees and the Department for International Development is responsible for several things relating to internally displaced people. Equally, on an international level, the respective roles of the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees need to be brought together in a much more consistent way if we are to do the right thing by the refugees.
I completely agree with that. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the co-ordination of all kinds of agencies is an issue that comes up in almost every situation that the Select Committee investigates. It is certainly true in this context that more effective co-ordination would be of benefit to the refugees and displaced people.
The hon. Gentleman anticipated the point that I was going to make about the operation of DFID and the Foreign Office and the location of offices. We were a little surprised to arrive in Bangkok and find that the DFID office was in the process of closing. The decision, which had been taken some years ago, was perfectly understandable, in that Thailand is a middle-income country and DFID’s commitment is to poor countries. In that context, the Committee would not expect Thailand to have a DFID office, but the reality in Burma is that DFID has a serious daily responsibility to be in touch with the plight of people operating in Thailand to support people in Burma. We have asked the Government to reconsider their decision to operate entirely from Rangoon with no DFID staff in Bangkok. I do not expect the Minister to give a commitment to act on that, but I should be grateful if he at least undertook to look closely at the practice. I told the Secretary of State informally that my guess is that, if the groups that operate out of Bangkok were asked whether they are frustrated at the absence of the daily contact that they previously had, they would say yes and that they would appreciate a more regular contact.
As a member of the Committee on the visit, I reinforce the need for co-ordination in Bangkok. Many organisations can freely co-ordinate their activities in Burma through direct aid and across the border only when they leave Burma. They must meet outside, because there is no way that they can meet and speak freely about what they are doing within the regime.
That is exactly the point. People were prepared to say things to us during meetings in Bangkok and Chiang Mai that they would not have been prepared to say in Burma. In that context, the Government say in their response to our report:
“We will arrange meetings at least every 3 months with those groups who provide cross-border support, and with those who lobby for political change from outside Burma. This will ensure a regular flow of information and ideas.”
I suggest that a meeting every three months does not compare with daily contact, which is what happened before relocation to Rangoon. The Government continued:
“Second, we will continue to engage with all donor co-ordination initiatives both in Bangkok and Rangoon. The flight from Rangoon to Bangkok only takes one hour.”
The problem is that one does not know when to fly if one does not know what the issue is, and that comment demonstrates remoteness from the need to engage with groups in Thailand.
I shall return to this point if I am fortunate enough to catch your eye, Mr. Gale, but it may be helpful to say now that, as the Committee Chairman knows, the Conservative party strongly supports his point. We hope that the Government will look again at the excellent section of the report that argues that point, and we want to encourage the Minister, even now during our debate when he has his officials behind him, to consider whether he can change policy on that important matter.
I am grateful for that intervention and support. The Government should consider carefully whether they can continue to maintain the close links, co-operation and working relationship with groups operating in Thailand if they do not have a permanent member of staff or two based in Bangkok.
We were, however, impressed with the work of the Foreign Office and the embassy in Bangkok, and we do not wish in any way to criticise that work, particularly in support of refugees. We believe that a DFID engagement is necessary in addition to, not instead of, the Foreign Office engagement. I hope that the Minister and the Department will think carefully about the decision that has been enacted and consider whether, in practice, they need to revisit it. I hope that they will do so, because we are not convinced that the close relationships that were maintained before the office closed can be continued under these arrangements.
The Government have acknowledged that support for refugees and cross-border organisations, and in-country support for the Three Diseases Fund and the civic society group, are not mutually exclusive, and we had a considerable debate about that. We had the impression at one point that the Government were arguing that cross-border support was something that other people provided, and that DFID and the Government had an advantage in providing in-country support. I should like to make it clear, as I am sure would the Committee, that we commend DFID’s work in Rangoon and want it to do more of it, but looking at the problem of Burma in its entirety, we do not believe that we can do that without providing support for cross-border agencies and exile groups at the same time. It is not an either/or matter; the approach should be dual-pronged.
In the light of developments since our visit, will the Minister tell us by how much, for example, the funding of the Three Diseases Fund can and will be increased and whether it is still possible to work with civic society and faith groups in-country in the wake of the recent clampdown? How closely supervised are DFID staff, and how restrictive is the supervision by the junta Government and their officials? Were any of DFID’s key partners inside Burma directly affected by recent events? Those constraints and problems are being confronted on the ground.
I welcomed the Secretary of State’s announcement on 29 October that aid to Burma will be doubled from £9 million to £18 million by 2010. I also welcome the fact that that will be reviewed and could lead to the quadrupling of aid, which our Committee called for, on the same time scale. Although, not surprisingly, there has been some concern that the Government should go further and faster, it is fair to say that they have responded positively. The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) looks rueful, and no doubt he will explain himself, but we asked for a quadrupling of aid. The Government have not ruled that out and have immediately doubled it, so it would be churlish to deny that that is a positive response.
A small matter of Committee sensitivity is that it received the Government’s response to our report on 15 October, and in response to our call to quadruple aid they said:
“we will be considering an increase in funding for our programme in Burma following the Comprehensive Spending Review settlement in October.”
A week later, they announced their decision to double it and that they might further increase it subsequently. It would have been good for parliamentary relations if they had acknowledged the report and the response to it, rather than implying that they had made a spontaneous decision unrelated to anything that was going on. We shall claim the credit anyway.
I hope that the Minister was listening and that, when he finally accepts the full recommendations and quadruples aid, he will commend the Committee on its work.
I am grateful for that intervention. There is a serious point, because the Committee worked extremely hard and made serious recommendations. It is gratifying when the Government accept all or part of those recommendations, but Ministers seem to be reluctant to acknowledge that they are responding to parliamentary pressure. It would be a virtue if Ministers welcomed that and publicly acknowledged it, but perhaps that is for the future.
I would like the right hon. Gentleman to emphasise one point. Aside from the increase in funds, the business of the Three Diseases Fund is crucial, because 70 per cent. of the population are at risk from malaria, and Burma now has the third highest HIV prevalence in the whole of south-east Asia. Moving on from our report, I suggest that DFID and other international donors should start to look at alternative mechanisms for tackling the three diseases. We saw from the maps that were presented to us that there is no way that their present strategy will cover people’s needs.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I certainly hope that the Department will provide more detail on how it is using the extra money to scale up delivery of those services. I agree with him that a stronger and deeper infrastructure is necessary for that to happen. The point is that the Burmese Government—if one can call them a Government—spend almost nothing on health care and provision and, as the Committee has discovered from looking at aspects of health care in other parts of the world, if there is no health service infrastructure it is extraordinarily difficult to provide even the most basic treatment. Nevertheless, the evidence is that the Three Diseases Fund has been successful in reaching at least some people, and it would be worth the Government explaining in more detail how they propose to extend it to reach more people more quickly.
In the present situation, development in Burma is virtually inconceivable; all we are offering is absolutely basic aid. When I say that development is inconceivable, I mean that it is inconceivable as long as the country is under the thumb of a brutal military dictatorship that holds normal human values in contempt and cares nothing for the people of Burma, still less for the ethnic minorities in the country. Some of those who participated in the recent protests—since the Committee visited the area—have said that they are now so poor and so repressed that it is worth dying to change things, because life offers so little. A question hangs in the air: is change likely as long as the junta is in power? Is there any prospect of change from within? I say to the Minister that—obviously, in co-operation with the Foreign Office—every effort must be intensified to bring that brutal regime to an end.
The tragedy for Burma is that it is rich in natural resources and has a potential for development that other countries would give their eye teeth for. However, the country’s resources are being exploited by the dictatorship simply to sustain itself in power, rather than to provide anything for the people in terms of economic, health or education benefits, or any of the normal perquisites of civilisation. The country is being developed with no regard whatever for the people.
We must also consider Burma’s neighbours. Clearly, the military regime is sustained by the fact that Burma can find customers for its resources abroad. It is therefore worth asking what China, India and Russia especially are doing. Will the Minister say what protests have been lodged against Russia’s plans to build a nuclear power station for the regime? The Government are worried about Iran, but I hear no protests about the fact that Russia wants to build a nuclear power station in Burma. How can India hold its head up as a democracy—the largest democracy in the world—and as a member of the Commonwealth while continuing to provide arms for the regime? What protests have the Government lodged and what engagement have they had with the Indian Government on the matter?
Finally, and perhaps most important, what discussions are the Government holding with China? Of the three countries I have mentioned, China is the one with which some degree of co-operation and understanding might be the most productive. Clearly, the Chinese want assets—oil, gas, electricity and water—for eastern China, and nobody can blame them for wishing to secure them from a close source. However, China also needs security of supply, so it must consider whether a military regime whose people are suffering and who are beginning to protest provides a secure basis for future supply, or whether it ought to apply pressure to ensure that the regime delivers some democracy, freedom and services for the people, to create a stability that will in turn provide future security for China’s investment in Burma. What talks are being held with China to that effect?
The Committee believes that there is scope for a significant increase in DFID’s in-country aid to Burma. We welcome the Government response, but we want them to go further. They must ensure that money goes to all the appropriate resources, whether in-country or out of country, where they can be reached and be effective. There must be no continuation of a debate that says we can do one thing and not another. As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) said, we need to co-ordinate with other agencies to ensure that whatever we do is done most effectively and reaches the maximum number of people, and we should pile pressure on the junta to accept its responsibilities to the people whom it subjugates and represses.
In conclusion, recent events suggest that if we cannot prise the generals’ fingers off the levers of power in Burma, the 60 years of suffering might end in a bloody and awful denouement. In the meantime, we must do everything in our power to relieve the suffering of the Burmese people and to bring an end to a brutal and repressive regime.
I welcome the debate, as it gives us an opportunity to discuss the report specifically and to highlight the desperate situation faced by the people of Burma that the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) so eloquently described. It also allows us to remind the world that Burma is not forgotten here in the Houses of Parliament, or by many of our constituents, who express concern about events in that country.
I shall talk about a link between my constituency and Burma that I believe deserves wider publicity and from which some wider lessons could be drawn. Forthview primary school in my constituency has set up a partnership link with Hle Bee school in Mae Sot province in Thailand, whose pupils are drawn from Burmese refugees living in Thailand near the border with Burma. The partnership link is supported by DFID’s global schools partnership programme. It is a good example of how that programme provides a successful educational experience for pupils and students in the UK, who gain a wider awareness of other countries—in this case, the desperate situation faced by Burmese refugees in Thailand.
Because it involves a school in my constituency, I have taken a close interest in the link. If the Minister wants to see a good example of one of his partnership links in operation, I would welcome him to my constituency to have a look at the programme. Earlier this year, the head teacher of Forthview, Sheila Laing, who provides inspirational leadership for the project, visited Hle Bee on the Thai-Burma border. In October, Dr. Thein Lwin, a leading educationalist involved with refugees in Chiang Mai province, visited Forthview and spent a productive week in the school working with pupils, taking part in classes and other activities, and working in the wider community beyond the specific remit of the global schools partnership programme. That successfully highlighted the plight of the Burmese people to the pupils of Forthview and the wider community. The pupils have, on their own initiative, been selling orange ribbons to raise funds for their partner school in Thailand for the Burmese refugees, and they have raised considerable amounts in that way.
I wanted to put that example on the record and to bring it to the attention of a wider audience. It is an excellent link, thanks to the work of the pupils, students and staff, and it highlights what can be done under the global schools partnership programme. Certainly, I hope that the Department will be able to continue to support the link in future years.
The link with the school on the Thai-Burma border has been made possible also by the support provided and work done by the Burma Educational Scholarship Trust. The trust is an Edinburgh-based charity that seeks to improve access to quality tertiary education for students and learners from Burma, both those living in exile in the UK and other countries and those living on the Thai-Burma border. The charity has educational policy practice links through the teacher training for Burmese teachers programme and the migrant workers learning centre programmes in Chiang Mai, and it has supported the schools link in my constituency. The trust wants to extend its work with schools and with the secondary and tertiary sectors in the UK, and it has just successfully developed a partnership with Newbattle Abbey college near Edinburgh, where two refugee students so far have benefited from a residential access course.
That is an example of the many ways in which we can support the people of Burma on the Thai-Burma border and here in the UK. It is the kind of work that I hope a flexible approach to DFID funding will continue to support, both in the UK and on the Thai-Burma border.
My hon. Friend and others may recall that in the 1970s, when there was a military dictatorship in Chile, the Labour Government of the day made arrangements that when people came to Britain as refugees, they were made welcome and allowed to stay. I am sure that he must have experienced, as I and others have, that when Burmese refugees arrive in Britain, they often do not have paperwork that specifies their origins, their date of birth and so on. Would it not be better if we had support not only from DFID but from the Foreign Office to ensure that refugees from Burma are made welcome in Britain so that we can work with them?
My right hon. Friend makes a very important point. That is precisely the sort of comment that was made to me by the people involved in the Burma Educational Scholarship Trust in Edinburgh, who talked about the difficulties often faced by Burmese refugees here in the UK.
I have highlighted the work done by the organisations and links in my own constituency. It is the sort of work that should be encouraged and replicated elsewhere in the UK. Obviously, the Minister cannot give any off-the-cuff commitments to support particular projects today, but I hope that he will look favourably on the work being done by those organisations. If he cares to visit my constituency to see some of this work in practice, I will be very happy to make the necessary arrangements.
It is a pleasure and privilege to follow the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz). I welcome the debate and support the conclusions of the report undertaken by the Committee, of which I am proud to be a member.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) on his presentation of our findings. Moreover, I thank all those who made our visit a seamless success. A terrific Committee operation was undertaken before, during and after our visit, and that contributed to the success of the work.
Let me start by laying out the context for this debate. The egregious abuse of human rights of the long-suffering people of Burma has become ever more widely known, not least since the truly despicable catalogue of events in September. In contrast, the incidence and depth of the poverty of the people of Burma are relatively less familiar to people in this country and around the world. Yet there is, of course, a crucial link between the abuse and the prolongation and exacerbation of poverty. It is that set of phenomena—extreme disregard for human rights on the one hand and truly breathtaking poverty and destitution on the other—that offers the backdrop to the decision to launch the inquiry in the first place, and to the work undertaken on and the findings produced by our report.
Let me focus on those two phenomena. Rape as a weapon of war, extra-judicial killings, compulsory relocation, forced labour, the use of child soldiers on a scale proportionately greater than in any other country of the world, the use of human minesweepers, religious persecution, the incarceration in conditions of quite unspeakable bestiality of thousands of political prisoners, excruciating water torture and the wanton destruction of more than 3,000 villages across eastern Burma over the past decade and more are all part of the institutionalised savagery that has caused the military junta of Burma to stink in the nostrils of decent people across the globe. Yet how many people appreciate the extent of the poverty, which is endemic and pervasive in Burma, from which millions of people suffer? I suggest that there is still a considerable ignorance of its extent.
Let us remind ourselves and inform others for the first time of the scale of the problem with which we, as policy makers or attempted influencers of policy, have to contend. A third of the people of Burma exist—I will not use the inappropriate word “live”—on less than a third of a dollar a day. Half of all children in Burma do not manage to get through, and therefore benefit from, five years in school. One in 10 of the children of Burma dies before they reach the age of five. Since 1990, 80,000 women and children have been trafficked from Burma to Thailand, as documented and testified to by the International Labour Organisation and the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour.
On top of that, 340,000 people in Burma are living with AIDS. That is the scale of the crisis that faces us. I put it to hon. Members that it is no disgrace, but it is something of a regret on my part, that because of the very proper focus on and preoccupation with sub-Saharan Africa, of which this Committee, the Government and the House can be proud, there is a tendency sometimes to disregard, to underplay or simply to remain ignorant of the fact of the simultaneous co-existence of peoples in other countries outside sub-Saharan Africa who endure poverty on a comparable scale.
It is a matter of historical fact that Burma has suffered from a disproportionately low aid budget over decades under British Governments of both colours—I am not for one moment making a partisan political observation. When both Conservative and Labour Governments have been in power, the problem has been grotesquely under-recognised. For example, Burma receives an aid budget that is approximately a quarter of that afforded to Zimbabwe. That budget does not remotely compare with that of its neighbours, which provide suitable comparisons, such as Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. An aid budget, until amended and uplifted, of $2.40 per person per year is frankly an insult to the suffering of the people of that beautiful but beleaguered country.
On the aid budget, I want to say at the outset that I am in a positive spirit. It is proper to appreciate progress, and I pay tribute to the Government for announcing the doubling of the aid budget. Unquestioningly and without hesitation, I say that that announcement on 29 October was an extremely welcome move, and the Secretary of State for International Development is certainly entitled to claim credit for it, but I cavil somewhat at the choreography of events in recent times. The right hon. Member for Gordon made an extremely pertinent point: it is not immediately apparent to me why it was necessary to issue a relatively downbeat governmental response that gave the impression of cocking a snook at the Committee and having a less than full respect for our work or findings, and then, only a matter of days later, to make this announcement for all the world as though it were something that the double-first brains of the Department for International Development had, entirely of their own initiative, devised. However, I do not want to dwell on the point any longer. Suffice it to say that the Committee approves of what the Government have done. If the Government accept the logic of the doubling and that leads to a quadrupling, at which possibility the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mr. Malik) himself hinted during the course of DFID questions yesterday, we would have good reason to offer not two but three cheers.
The Committee is grateful to the hon. Gentleman for championing Burma and ensuring that we compiled a report. We thank him for that and for the pressure that he applied. However, I am sure that he agrees with me that there is always a dilemma. It is easy to say “give aid”, and for the Government to give aid. However, when a country moves to dictatorship, we then meet campaigns saying “withdraw the aid”. The real difficulty is ensuring that that aid reaches the people who need it. It is not always possible to go through Governments or even to get NGOs in, so we might have to look internationally, collectively and much more imaginatively at how we support the poor in Burma, rather than simply saying that Government programmes will do that, because they cannot.
The right hon. Gentleman has made a perfectly valid point. If we are to double the current budget by 2010 and to hold out the reasonable prospect of quadrupling it by 2013, which is what the Select Committee recommended and what Her Majesty’s Conservative Opposition are committed to delivering, it is right that there be much more transparency, concern about accountability and satisfaction in our own minds that mechanisms exist to ensure the effective, efficient and cost-efficient delivery of aid that is, after all, available only courtesy of the British taxpayer. I therefore accept what the right hon. Gentleman has said on that front.
I want now to focus on three points of particular interest in a report that deserves commendation. First, one hot issue of debate in the Committee and between different witnesses was whether there should be an increased focus on delivering cross-border aid. I make no secret of the fact that I have long been a partisan of the view that there is great scope for increasing cross-border aid and that it would be quite wrong for Britain unilaterally to depart the scene on the frankly unsatisfactory ground that other countries were delivering cross-border aid and that it was therefore not necessary for us to do so. Given our strength in the area, the importance that we attach to the issue and the pronouncements that have been made about Burma in recent months by the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary, not to mention by the Secretary of State for International Development, it would be absurd if we simply abdicated responsibility and said, “Well, others can do something.”
We should increase resources to the Thailand Burma Border Consortium, but we should also recognise that other organisations are involved in delivering cross-border assistance. When we listened to the witnesses, there was a strong current of opinion to the effect that much more could be done, if more resources were provided. That is particularly true of the delivery of health services and immediate medical relief, but it would also assist education and the provision of materials and, in some cases, teachers.
Cross-border assistance should therefore be a priority in the period ahead, and I was disappointed that the Government response suggested no real sense of urgency on the part of Ministers and did not even contain a clear declaration of intent to increase cross-border aid. Instead, the Government took refuge in the argument that a UN OCHA assessment was being done, pending the completion of which it would not be appropriate to commit further.
I thank the hon. Gentleman. It is vital that one central body co-ordinates aid in Burma and cross-border work. It is also vital that the UN is the primary body involved in organising and carrying out the mapping exercise, given that some donors, such as the United States of America, which is a major donor, do not operate in Burma and that only a few donors, including the UK, operate within the country’s borders. I fully accept that the UN needs to get its act together quickly and that all sides in the international community should be putting the maximum pressure on the UN to ensure that the mapping exercise is carried out without delay, so that we can all make proper, efficient decisions about what to do with our donor money.
I may be mistaken, and time will tell, but I have a feeling that the hon. Lady will not have to wait long. My expectation is that the results of the mapping exercise will be forthcoming very soon. A little bird tells me that the work has been undertaken, although, even then, I confess to a tinge of disappointment. My expectation was that the mapping exercise would be country-wide and that those undertaking it would take an overall, holistic view of the delivery of cross-border aid, including the requirement for it, the capacity to deliver it and the efficacy with which it could be delivered, perhaps by using a comparison of the other mechanisms that might be available. My impression so far is that it has been not a full piece of work, but a relatively partial one, and I am not certain whether it will consider the issue for all the borders, which would be a great pity. The Committee’s report was, of course, on DFID assistance to Burmese internally displaced people and refugees on the Thai-Burma border, but the lessons that we drew from what we learned are potentially of wider application to people living on, or in close proximity to, other borders with Burma and not just the Thailand-Burma border.
I am therefore a bit worried about the issue of cross-border aid. The Government have been hesitant and neurotic about it, and there has been a ready supply of excuses for inaction and inertia. The Government have tended to say that they have a comparative advantage, deploying what one might almost consider an economist’s justification for their policy priority, which is not validated by a study of the facts on the ground. Moreover, there has been an inclination in Government circles—this might be in the ether or reflect a characteristic of some officials, rather than a conscious decision by Ministers—to play down the number of people who could potentially benefit from the delivery of cross-border aid. There has been a move to say, “Well, of course, there are only about 100,000 people—that’s only about nought point whatever per cent. of the population of Burma.” That has given the impression that some people want to rubbish the notion of cross-border aid, which would be a thoroughly misguided position to take. The truth of the matter is that some people are in extreme poverty and their security is at grave risk, and they can be reached only by the mechanism of cross-border aid—in-country assistance will avail them nothing. That is the first point. If the priority is to help most of those who have least, which should presumably be a defining characteristic of DFID’s responsibility, we should focus on such people irrespective of their numbers.
There is a tendency to think that we are talking simply about internally displaced people, but a substantial number of people in Burma are not internally displaced; they live in their original, perhaps long-term homes, but they are on the edge—they have absolutely nothing, which, as the right hon. Member for Gordon said earlier, is characteristic of many people in Burma. Such people cannot eat, cannot drink, cannot access health care and cannot get to school—by whatever yardstick we choose to measure poverty, we would have to say that they are genuinely destitute. I therefore hope that we will help them and that there will be an announcement soon.
If the UN OCHA report does not cover the whole of Burma, I hope that the Government will not for one moment consider arguing that further studies at multilateral or other levels, conducted over several months or even years, are required before a policy decision can be made to extend the principle behind the delivery of cross-border aid over the Thai-Burmese border to other borders. There is a pressing need for cross-border assistance over the India border into Chin state, and the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), who is no longer in his seat, rightly referred to the privations of the people in that state, and he was right to highlight that phenomenon.
I went to the India-Burma border with Christian Solidarity Worldwide in the company, notably, of Baroness Cox of Queensbury and the Asia advocacy officer for CSW, Ben Rogers, from 14 to 21 September. Hon. Members should be in no doubt about the extent of the difficulties faced by people in, or fleeing from, Chin state. Some estimates are that 70 per cent. of the population live below the poverty line. Thousands of people have fled Chin state and are now living in Mizoram in north-eastern India and a good many have gone elsewhere. Those who continue to reside—not in anything approximating to safety—in Chin state, definitely need assistance. Given that, just as there is capacity to deliver aid across the border from Thailand, there is capacity across the border in India, I hope that we can do that work. There are backpack health worker teams, which are to be congratulated on their work.
I remind the Under-Secretary that a relatively modest expenditure gives a terrifically effective bang for your buck. Expenditure of, I think, $1,254, provides for an estimated 2,000 people living as internally displaced persons or in similar circumstances in Chin state for six months. It is possible to spend a little and to gain a lot, and the consequences are immediate: the relief of poverty, the saving of lives, providing access to food, ensuring proper health care and facilitating the provision of education to children in Chin state who would not otherwise receive it. I hope that the Under-Secretary takes that message.
It would, I should add, complete the symmetry if the Government were to commit on the India-Burma border. The Secretary of State for International Development wrote to me in October and referred to an intention to provide, over a period of four years, £1.35 million for cross-border health programmes on the China-Burma border. I was previously unaware of that, and if the Government are determined to go ahead with it, that is extremely welcome. However, if they can do it over the China-Burma border, they can certainly do it over the India-Burma border. I had no doubts, in matters of efficiency and transparency, about the organisations and individuals who would be charged with that responsibility there.
There is the related issue of support for exiled democracy groups. The Government, in their reply to the Select Committee report, said that they were prepared to entertain applications for funding, subject to the caveat that organisations seeking funds for undertaking pro-democracy work, delivering advocacy services and seeking to cultivate strength in civil society must bear it in mind that they must meet the criterion of poverty reduction. Apart from anything else, that is a legal requirement under the International Development Act 2002. I understand that, but it is up to the Government to take a broad view. DFID funds civil society programmes in a plethora of developing countries, including least-developed countries, around the world. It is not always easy to prove an absolutely axiomatic, precise or mechanistic link between the provision of funds to an organisation that campaigns for human rights, on the one hand, and the immediate, visible relief of poverty, on the other. It is one of those contexts in which we must deploy a degree of common sense.
Organisations that document, publicise and campaign against the pervasiveness of rape in Burma, battling, as they are, under huge pressure and on a shoestring for greater assistance from individual Governments and at multilateral level, are contributing to poverty reduction. Of course, individual applications must be considered on their merits, and organisations must be prepared to fill in forms properly, to demonstrate transparency, to prove accountability and to behave efficiently. Their integrity must be beyond suspicion. However, there are many candidates that could benefit. I refer, of course, to the Shan Women’s Action Network, and the truly magnificent and redoubtable Charm Tong, who is an inspiration to anyone who meets her.
The Shan Women’s Action Network has previously been greeted with indifference and, I am sorry to say, even froideur, by officials—I emphasise that that was the response of some officials at DFID, and it must change in future. I am extremely heartened by the attitude of the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary. I ask that if the organisation submits an application, that application should be considered, because it is a brilliant organisation that is trying to help suffering women. It has a superb track record, but its members have felt so utterly discombobulated by DFID officials—or rather, they thought that the officials were so discombobulated in relation to them—that they thought it not worth the effort, as a hard-pressed group, to put in an application, having been told privately, “Frankly, you haven’t got a chance.” That situation is not satisfactory, and it is time for reform.
As well as that organisation, there is the Karen Women’s Organisation, and the Women’s League of Chinland, whose members I was privileged to meet on my visit to the India-Burma border in September. Another is the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, which does fantastic work. Would we know so much about the nature of the abuse of prisoners in Burma, if not for that organisation? It is people linked to that group who informed me about what I regard as probably one of the most horrific individual stories that I have heard about a prisoner in Burma. This person was in Insein prison and was so desperately malnourished, so ravaged and inadequate as a consequence of his treatment, and so painfully thin, that the investigator who went to look at conditions in the prison was reported subsequently as saying publicly that he could see the man’s intestines moving like worms. Such information does not get into the public domain unless conscientious individuals are prepared, sometimes at some risk to themselves, and from time to time under cover, to do the work and to report their findings. Such organisations deserve public finance.
Finally, I welcome the fact that the Prime Minister wrote on 16 October to the Secretary-General of the United Nations and held out the possibility of an international or multilateral economic package that could potentially be made available to Burma, if, and only if, there was demonstrable evidence of a commitment to immediate change. Quite how one would develop such a package is a matter for debate. I should have thought that it could indeed include provision for debt relief, trade facilitation and re-entry to the international economic system. It might possibly include funds to contribute to preparation for elections, and to the development as necessary of the activities of political parties and civil society organisations. All those matters can be discussed in due course.
The money should not be given prematurely, which would be disastrous, but equally it should not wait too long. There is a fine judgment to be made as to how to put together a suitable and flexible package, properly calibrated, which would have the desired effect of pushing a country teetering on the brink of a genuine commitment decisively to change in that direction. The fact that the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for International Development are talking in those terms is very welcome.
Our report is good; the Government response was a bit disappointing. Government utterances since have been very encouraging. I want to say in the politest possible way to the Under-Secretary, who has signed robust motions on Burma in the past, not least at my request when he was a Back Bencher, that I wish him well in the execution of his responsibilities. I do not want to sound menacing, but merely to be a candid friend, when I say to the Under-Secretary, who is a rising star in the Brownite firmament, that the International Development Committee will continue to be on his case.
It is a great honour to follow the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow)—even though I fear that I may suffer by comparison. I am very grateful for the opportunity to debate the International Development Committee’s thorough report, which is entitled “DFID Assistance to Burmese Internally Displaced People and Refugees on the Thai-Burma Border”. I congratulate the Committee on the report and on producing such an illuminating analysis of the plight of the hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the continued turmoil in Burma. Importantly, the report affords us this opportunity to scrutinise the British Government’s efforts in dealing with this sadly ongoing humanitarian crisis.
The clearest message that I took from the report was about funding. As with many development issues, before we can start talking about how aid is to be used, the fundamental question is how much have we got. It is clear that Burma and its refugees have previously not received their fair share of aid. Although the cause of the historical underfunding is clear—a hostile and brutal regime, coupled with a complete lack of infrastructure—it must be acknowledged that British aid to Burma has not kept in line with that to comparable impoverished nations.
Surely, a guiding principle for the criteria for deciding where aid should go is where it is most needed. I therefore welcome very much the Secretary of State for International Development’s October announcement that UK aid to Burma will double to £18 million by 2010. I hope that that heralds a new era of increases, as part of the Government’s approach to helping Burma and the displaced people, but I cannot help wondering how much quicker the IDC’s recommended funding level might have been reached if the Government had honoured their 2004 spending review commitment to spend £1.5 billion more in terms of gross national income in this financial year.
The increase represents an exponential curve of growth from the low level of recent history, but it throws up some challenges in its wake, because DFID’s response to the IDC report states that
“senior civil service oversight of the Burma programme has been moved to London, closer to Ministers and parliamentarians”.
Although I am flattered by DFID’s faith in hon. Members, I am acutely aware that DFID budgets are experiencing huge and welcome increases, but with limited increases in staff capacity locally and static staff numbers in the UK to manage such increases. Civil servants are the front line in delivering the will of Her Majesty’s Government, and ultimately taxpayers’ interests are supervised by them. In this case, that must mean ensuring that Burmese refugee programmes are implemented to maximum effect, with every penny used to bring the utmost reward for the people of Burma.
I am therefore eager to hear from the Under-Secretary about the capacity of DFID and the civil service to oversee the delivery of the promised increase. I support my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) and the Committee in expressing dismay in the report at the decision to close the Bangkok office, which is clearly of significance in the region. I ask the Government to reconsider that decision in the light of the report and the obvious support for it on both sides of the Chamber.
Debt relief obviously has a huge role to play in changing the trajectory of a country’s development, but I totally agree with the IDC’s support for the British Government’s reluctance to let any aid fall into the hands of the Burmese military junta. It is reasonable to suppose that most of the debt is held by the Burmese Government, so I would be grateful for assurances that debt relief will in no way serve the regime.
The meat of the report and, indeed, this debate is how we can best help the internally displaced people of Burma. I shall highlight several key themes. As the report emphasises, a key to the success of Burmese programmes, if we are to move beyond an emergency and reactive response, is to target greater resources at community-based organisations. That is an effective mechanism to bypass the regime, but more than that, it is surely our greatest hope of laying the building blocks for a different Burma. I wholeheartedly back the Committee’s recommendations for capacity building and training for community-based organisations. I am pleased that, in its response to the report, DFID said that it would make new efforts in that direction; that is to be welcomed.
None the less, when it comes to the thorny issue of cross-border assistance, DFID seems stuck between a rock and a hard place. The people who can be reached through cross-border assistance are clearly those most in need. Therefore, it is understandable how the imperative of need led to the DFID policy change in March this year. However, I was bemused by the comparative advantage discussion that arose from the report. I am no economist, but my basic understanding of the principle of comparative advantage leads me to believe that it is always a seminal issue in evaluating the provision of aid. One DFID employee on a UK wage is equivalent to a significant number of locally employed workers. The heart of the matter is the overall outcome and whether that is greater than its component parts. Surely, that is how comparative advantage should be evaluated. The bottom line must be strongly outcome-focused. I hope that DFID will endeavour to keep that very much in its focus.
As ever, I am strongly of the belief that development issues cannot be considered in a silo. When we consider the plight of the hundreds of thousands of people displaced by more than a quarter of a century of turmoil in Burma, we must consider what the British Government as a whole are doing to end or to address the situation. Obviously, an embargo is in place, which sends an absolutely clear message from the international community. The embargo also offers a practical solution in preventing the regime from obtaining the means of carrying out its reign of terror.
I have no doubt about the British Government’s sincerity in their support of the embargo, but I was horrified to learn earlier this year—I raised this issue in International Development questions yesterday—that Amnesty International and Saferworld’s report suggested that, in spite of the European Union arms embargo on Burma, helicopters with British-manufactured components were being re-exported to Burma from a third country. The Under-Secretary indicated yesterday that India might be in the frame as a third country. I wish for assurances about what British companies are doing in that regard, because it is a bizarre if not grotesque situation in which taxes from UK arms manufacturers are being spent by DFID in helping people to flee from a regime armed by those same manufacturers. May I suggest that we end that hellish circle and make it absolutely impossible for British manufacturers to sell any arms through a third country to Burma? I hope that the Under-Secretary will commit to that today.
Is the hon. Lady suggesting that the British Government are selling arms to Burma, or is she objecting to the fact that parts, including engineering parts such as wheels and brackets, are sold to companies abroad and that those parts are then used in military equipment sold by other countries to Burma? Will she clarify whether she is asking for the sale of all parts to any company anywhere in the world to be banned? I am not clear about what she is suggesting. She was implying that the British Government were selling arms, and I did not think that that was quite true.
No, that was not the intention behind what I said; the intention was to talk about the components of arms.
To conclude, we cannot take our eye off the ultimate goal—the end of the brutal regime in Burma. Aid is a means to an end, not an end in itself. The greatest achievement that we could hope for, which I urge the Government to pursue relentlessly, is a democratically elected Government in Burma with whom we could constructively engage one day. Only then can we really hope that the hundreds of thousands of families who have been displaced may be able to return to their homes and start to rebuild their lives in safety and security.
I start by conveying to hon. Members the apologies of the shadow International Development Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster), who is spending a week with President Donald Kaberuka in the African Development Bank in Tunis. He is having a look at the workings of the bank and the significant steps forward that it has taken under Donald Kaberuka’s leadership.
I pay tribute to the Select Committee on International Development under the leadership of the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce). We are discussing the Committee’s 10th report of the 2006-07 Session. It is an extremely good read, as all hon. Members have said. It is very well written and cogently argued and it explains in part why the International Development Committee, under the right hon. Gentleman’s leadership, is one of the most respected Select Committees of this House and is widely respected outside this place as well.
The right hon. Gentleman chided the Government a little for not crediting the Committee’s report in subsequent announcements—a point reiterated and embellished by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow). I agree with that point, but this has been a consensual and constructive debate. All of us try in our own way to help that beautiful but benighted country, about which much more is known now than six months ago.
I shall not prolong this debate, as many of the important points have already been made, but I shall reiterate what my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham described as the relevant context of this debate and say a few words about some specific aspects of the Committee’s report, which I support.
The context is, of course, the extraordinary scenes of bravery on the streets of Rangoon earlier this year. I emphasise that those scenes were born of the extremes of poverty that exist today in Burma and have been described by other Members. Those extremes are of an order seen almost nowhere else. In the scenes that we saw on television, I noted two things. The first was that the sort of people demonstrating on the streets were not the students that we have seen before; many of them were middle-aged women who were fighting to feed their families and maintain their homes and who are desperate as a result of the state of affairs in Burma. The other was that much had changed since 1988, because of advances in information technology and some of the beneficial effects of globalisation. In 1988, it took months before we knew that thousands had perished in a massacre perpetrated by the junta. This year, we could see in real time on our television screens exactly what was happening, and the world could form an accurate judgment. Indeed, we saw a Japanese photographer executed by the regime before our eyes.
I pay tribute to Mark Canning, the outstanding British ambassador in Rangoon, to the Department for International Development staff who are doing an excellent job there, and to Charles Petrie, the UN co-ordinator in Burma, who had to leave earlier this week. He has done a very good job, and he so irritated the regime that he was declared persona non grata.
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman mentioned that. Does he share my concern that it indicates the difficulties that may be encountered in delivering aid effectively if people who make any kind of association between the regime and the suffering of the people are immediately expelled? I hope that the Under-Secretary will tell us how the British Government intend to ensure that the aid promised is delivered effectively in spite of that situation.
The right hon. Gentleman makes an extremely good point, and I am sure that the Under-Secretary will want to comment on it. I had the opportunity to speak to Charles Petrie this morning. Now that he has gone, it is clear that the UN policy under which he was working—I shall say more about the UN in a moment—is absolutely the right policy and will continue regardless of what the regime does to UN representatives based in Burma.
It is interesting that on Monday, the regime called together a group of ambassadors and agencies working in Burma. It was assumed that they would be talking about the constitution and any developments in that respect, or about the alleviation of poverty, but not a bit of it. The regime continued to try to explain that all the difficulties of the summer were caused by outsiders agitating about what was going on in Burma, rather than those inside. That is completely wrong, but it suggests that the regime might be split, that there is a difference of opinion within the junta, and that it was talking at least as much to its own people as to anyone else. Perhaps it shows that although the position appears to be hardening and moving away from what we had hoped for during the summer, it is nevertheless complex and there are signs that it may be changing for the better.
The regime is incomparably lucky to have Aung San Suu Kyi. In the situation preoccupying many of us in Darfur, it is difficult to find someone with whom to negotiate who encapsulates the opposition to and dissent against the Government. In Burma, it is encapsulated in one person who has colossal international and national credibility and who, if only she gets the chance, will deliver the right solution for Burma, which is to move the military and politicians, over time, to their correct positions in society. I hope that the ASEAN, UN and EU nations’ single focus on releasing Aung San Suu Kyi and the other political prisoners in Burma will continue.
The position of China and India has been mentioned. I have talked to the Chinese ambassador in London about Burma. China has been a force for good in at least some aspects of the situation. We must strongly encourage the Chinese to exercise their influence over the regime—behind closed doors perhaps, although preferably not—to support the UN initiatives in every way that they can. I echo the Committee’s comments about India, the largest democracy in the world. India could do more, and the Committee is absolutely right to emphasise the importance of maintaining pressure on India through its many friends around the world, in the Commonwealth and elsewhere, to do a little more to help.
Is my hon. Friend as horrified as I am by the Government of India’s regular self-defence, when challenged on the matter, that it is a cardinal principle of their foreign policy not to interfere in the internal affairs of other states? Does he agree that it is about time that the Government of India became aware of and showed some respect for the UN proclamation on the responsibility to protect?
My hon. Friend expresses himself in his inimitable way, and many people will share his sentiments. It is extremely important that India’s many friends, speaking to India in a spirit of friendship, make those points. I underline that India is the largest democracy in the world. It is a beacon to so many states; it should be a beacon to the oppressed in Burma as well.
The point has been made today and in other forums in Britain about the centrality of the United Nations. We must work through the UN. Professor Gambari has made four visits to Burma. That sort of effort is the construct that we should follow. The Opposition have called for the Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, to go to Burma himself to increase the intensity of that focus, and I hope that he will do so soon.
A statement issued by ASEAN earlier this autumn said that ASEAN Foreign Ministers were
“appalled to receive reports of automatic weapons being used and demanded that the Myanmar government immediately desist from the use of violence against demonstrators. They expressed their revulsion to Myanmar Foreign Minister Nyan Wir over reports that the demonstrations in Myanmar are being suppressed by violent force and that there has been a number of fatalities. They strongly urged Myanmar to exercise utmost restraint and seek a political solution. They called upon Myanmar to resume its efforts at national reconciliation with all parties concerned, and work towards a peaceful transition to democracy. The Ministers called for the release of all political detainees including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.”
We need to see more of that sort of statement lined up behind the UN. However, I was disappointed that the ASEAN chairman’s statement on Myanmar later somewhat resiled from direct involvement. It is enormously important that everyone should line up behind the UN, to ensure that what little progress as has been made continues and is intensified.
Earlier this year, I visited Rangoon and travelled across the Thai-Burmese border to a camp for internally displaced people in the Karen state. I saw for myself some of the excellent work that is funded by the British taxpayer in Rangoon. I also saw the desperate position of the internally displaced people, which has been referred to today, and the potential opportunities to provide assistance to such people. They are living in dire conditions, which the Committee has identified, and I particularly welcome those parts of the report that address that problem.
I welcome the announcement by the Secretary of State on 29 October that the Department will double its budget for aid to Burma by 2010 from £9 million to £18 million. Although that does not go as far as the Committee recommended, it is a good start. As the Under-Secretary knows, I am hoping that he will announce as swiftly as possible that he intends to quadruple that figure by 2013, as the Conservative party and the Committee have urged him to do.
It is worth comparing funding for Burma with that for other countries in the region, and countries with similarly dire human rights problems and humanitarian crises, to support the call for a further increase in British aid to Burma. I shall add to what has already been said today.
Vietnam, a country that is making enormous strides out of poverty, receives £52 million from Britain. As I mentioned to the Minister in the House yesterday, China had a trade surplus in September of $24 billion, yet it will receive £35 million this year. Zimbabwe, a country mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham, has a human rights and humanitarian situation comparable to that of Burma, but it receives four times as much aid. The Committee noted:
“It is our strong belief that overall aid levels to Burma need to be significantly boosted. Burma is one of the world’s least aided countries, receiving just US$2.40 of aid per head in 2004. This is by far the lowest per capita aid level amongst the UN’s list of Least Developed Countries. Neighbouring countries close to Burma on the UN’s Human Development Index receive 15-20 times as much in aid per head: Cambodia receives US$35 per head and Laos US$46.50. If Burmese people were to get as much aid per head as people in Africa, DFID’s Burma budget would have to increase from the current level of £8.8 million in 2007-08 to £80 million.”
The Committee is absolutely right. The case for quadrupling British aid to Burma by 2013 is extremely strong, and I hope that the Government’s decision to double the budget is but a foretaste—if I may put it in such consensual terms—of good news to come.
Mention has been made of support for the 3D fund. When in Rangoon, I went to see for myself the work being done to combat AIDS. British taxpayers’ money is being incredibly well spent in that respect. AIDS is teetering at just below epidemic levels. It is at epidemic levels among the sex worker and gay communities, but if action is taken now through such support, it may be possible to stop it reaching epidemic proportions.
The right hon. Member for Leeds, West (John Battle) and my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham both spoke about satisfying ourselves on the importance of delivery mechanisms. Surely they are right, but we have to ensure that vulnerable people caught in those difficult countries do not lose out twice over—first from bad leaders, and secondly because the international community has turned its back on them.
The 3D issue highlights the dilemmas spelled out by our Committee Chairman. The hon. Gentleman will know that much of that work is done in co-operation with the Government, to reach those parts of the country where we are not allowed to go. It is a difficult dilemma. I put it to the hon. Gentleman—and perhaps through the hon. Gentleman to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary—that the rest of the international community might like to join us in applying real pressure, because if that epidemic breaks across into the camps and the borders, India and China will be at risk. They ought to wake up to that fact.
The right hon. Gentleman is right about the threat of an epidemic and the effect that it could have across borders. I shall say more about that in a moment. However, I agree that we must ensure that the message is delivered effectively. The projects that I saw did not depend upon the Government, except for their passive acquiescence in the work continuing; they were being carried out extremely effectively by the voluntary sector and international NGOs.
I turn to two other specific recommendations of the Committee with which the Secretary of State has yet to express his agreement in unambiguous terms. The first is a matter on which the Conservative Opposition have been pressing since May 2006—funding for cross-border initiatives to deliver the urgently needed humanitarian aid that has already been mentioned. Although we welcome the decision by DFID to lift the restriction on the use of funds, enabling DFID money to be used for cross-border aid by recipients, it is largely a symbolic gesture. No new funding has yet been allocated for cross-border aid. I hope that the Under-Secretary will offer the House some good news on that score.
According to the Thailand Burma Border Consortium, in 2007 at least 503,000 people were living in eastern Burma as displaced persons, but some sources put the figure as high as 1 million. More than 3,200 villages have been destroyed or forcibly relocated since 1996. In the past year alone, more than 76,000 people have been forced to flee their villages, and over 82,000 were displaced during the previous year.
I visited some of those displaced people when I went to the Thai-Burmese border earlier this year. I travelled down the Salween river to Ei Tu Hta camp inside Karen state, where 3,000 people have fled since April 2006. Those people have suffered unimaginable horrors. I met one woman who told me how her son was beheaded. Another described how her husband was tortured, tied to a tree, his eyes gouged out and then drowned. A third recalled how her husband was killed—his eyes torn out, his ears and lips cut off.
The right hon. Member for Leeds, West has described his experiences in that respect. I can only say that, although camps like that were meant at least in some respects to be a haven from persecution and a refuge, they seem to me to be among the most benighted places anywhere in the world. There is insufficient knowledge and understanding of what is happening in them, and the people there rightly feel that they have been forgotten.
Those people can be reached through cross-border initiatives. I met some of the NGOs involved in that life-saving work. It is not an either/or matter—either in-country assistance delivered through Rangoon, or cross-border aid. There is a need for both, we have the capacity for both, and with the increase in DFID’s budget there are now the resources to do both. Several other Governments have funded cross-border aid, so there is a precedent. Cross-border aid is the only way to reach some of the most vulnerable people in Burma, as they are in areas to which the UN and other aid agencies are denied access by the regime. Will the Minister allocate a specific amount from the increased budget for cross-border aid?
The Committee’s second recommendation that I wish to highlight is the need for DFID to fund indigenous Burmese civil society organisations working along the Burma border. I welcome DFID’s willingness in principle to do so, although I understand the difficulties, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham alluded. Last year I had the privilege of meeting Charm Tong, a young woman to whom my hon. Friend referred, whose organisation is an example of precisely that sort of initiative. Charm Tong, who is a representative of the Shan Women’s Action Network, came to London and met the then Foreign Secretary, the leader of the Opposition, the shadow Foreign Secretary, myself and other colleagues. She also testified at the Conservative party’s human rights commission hearing on Burma. Charm Tong has established a unique school to empower young Shan people and she is deeply involved in the work of the Shan Women’s Action Network documenting the regime’s use of sexual violence as a weapon of war. My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham prayed in aid her work as a good use of resources from outside. I strongly endorse what he said and commend such organisations to the Under-Secretary.
Earlier this year, I met representatives of the Chin Human Rights Organization and the Women’s League of Chinland when they visited London. Those organisations, too, provide examples of the outstanding work being done by Burmese people to build a future for their country and they are worthy of our strong support. I understand that this is not an easy area, but we can make significant progress.
We have spoken much about the situation on the Thai-Burmese border, and rightly so, for it requires our urgent attention. May I ask the Under-Secretary what efforts DFID is making to investigate the opportunities for providing assistance on the other borders that have been mentioned, particularly the India border with the territory of the Chin people? Chin state is acknowledged to be the poorest part of Burma. Will the Secretary of State and his Minister consider actively exploring ways of supporting initiatives for the Chin?
The Committee highlighted its concern about the decision to close DFID’s Bangkok office and conduct all Burma work from Rangoon and London. I share that concern. However, if the decision is not to be reversed, what assurances can the Under-Secretary give the House that DFID staff based in Rangoon will travel rather more regularly than has been suggested to Bangkok, Chiang Mai and the border to consult closely groups based in Thailand?
In conclusion, in recent months DFID has taken some positive steps. I welcome the proposal for an international economic development package for Burma, including aid, debt relief and investment, which could be implemented in response to genuine reform in Burma. As my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham made clear, that package will be welcome—but at the right time, which clearly is not now. It is important that while we pile the pressure on the regime to change, imposing targeted sanctions that will hit the generals in the junta in their pockets—and rightly so—we should also offer the regime the incentive to reform.
I hope that the Under-Secretary will respond to some of the points that other hon. Members and I have made, and that he will particularly bear in mind the future issues on which DFID has yet to make decisions. As my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham said in his inimitable way, we will all be watching carefully for the results of those discussions.
I thank the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) for introducing this debate and the many right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken. I also thank the International Development Committee for its useful report on Burma, which offers some helpful recommendations for our expanding aid programme.
May I say to the right hon. Member for Gordon, perhaps because I am new, that I am more than happy to acknowledge the significant contribution of the IDC—specifically its report on Burma—to our thinking? If there is a perception that that is not so, I am more than happy to apologise for it. It would not be true to say that the Committee’s report was not influential, is not important and has not helped our thinking on some of the relevant issues—it certainly has.
The Committee recognised the continuing need to provide humanitarian aid to the 50 million people right across Burma who are suffering extreme poverty under the current regime. As the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) articulated powerfully, a third of Burma’s population—some 17 million people—live on less than 16p a day and, as other hon. Members have mentioned, some of those live on even less than that. Public investment in health and education is among the lowest in the world, and more than half of Burmese children fail to complete primary school education.
On education, my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) made a powerful point in talking about his constituency about how, through schools, a much bigger impact—a global one—can be achieved beyond the United Kingdom. He mentioned DFID’s global partnership initiative. I want to give him this commitment: I am completely sold on the links between UK schools and schools in the developing world. My intention, with the Department’s new comprehensive spending review settlement, is considerably to expand some of that work. Development awareness work is crucial to give us the consent to continue the work that we are doing on international development in this country. I have witnesses to the power of such an initiative in my constituency.
Most right hon. and hon. Members have spoken about the relative underfunding in Burma. I wholeheartedly agree that not enough money is going into Burma. That is why, on 29 October, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development announced a doubling of our spending in Burma to £18 million a year by 2010, which, broadly, as I mentioned in the main Chamber yesterday, puts us on a trajectory to meet the Committee’s recommendation in respect of 2013. I just reaffirm for the hon. Member for Buckingham that that does not preclude some serious increases post-2010, which is what he was alluding to. In a volatile situation such as the one in Burma, we are constantly reviewing matters, so anything is possible.
I take it that the Under-Secretary thinks that to some extent we are dancing on the head of pin in arguing about whether 2010 is on the trajectory for quadrupling the spending by 2013. However, people need to make plans in respect of what they will do. Therefore it would genuinely be helpful if the Under-Secretary made it clear—not today, but on another occasion—that he accepts what the International Development Committee has said and that he expects aid to Burma to more than quadruple in that period, because in most circumstances that we can envisage I believe that that will be so.
I have spoken clearly, and I think that most hon. Members welcome what has been said.
I am bound to remind the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) that by 2010-11 the Government will be committing £18 million a year to Burma. In 1992, when the hon. Gentleman’s party was in power, some £53,000 a year was committed to Burma. I only have a comprehensive school education and my maths may not be great, but I think that that represents a 36,000 per cent. increase on 1992. Better a sinner repenteth. It is clear that we will be reviewing the situation over the next three years and we stand ready to do whatever is required to support the people of Burma in the desperate plight that they face.
I take on board the comment made by the hon. Member for Buckingham, which is that there is a perception that the Government focus disproportionately on Africa. Perhaps we need to consider that, because for every person living on less than $1 a day in Africa there are two in Asia. It is quite clear that we have to work on some of these perceptions and perhaps on the reality as well.
The hon. Member for Wood Green—[Interruption.] Sorry, I meant to address the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone); my apologies to the hon. Lady. I should know better, because I was chief executive of Haringey regeneration agency for a number of years. All the improvements on Turnpike lane and Wood green are down to me! The hon. Lady rightly talked about the necessity of ensuring that the Burmese regime does not benefit from aid given by this country.
We believe that doubling aid will enable us to step up our efforts to address many of the problems that others and I have highlighted. In doing so, we will continue to ensure that none of our aid is spent through Burmese central Government. All of it is delivered through the United Nations or NGOs, which will continue to be the case until we can forge a partnership with a Burmese Government who respect human rights and who are genuinely committed to development, accountability and the reduction of poverty.
Our assistance is making a difference to the lives of vulnerable people. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (John Battle) powerfully articulated the challenge posed by malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS. Our aim is to save 1 million lives a year. This week, I spoke to Rurik Marsden, who is the head of DFID in Rangoon. I asked him what he thought was the one big breakthrough in the past few years. He was unequivocal in saying that our work on HIV/AIDS has been phenomenal, because in the past intravenous drug use and sex working were taboo. However, now we are making a real impact in those very areas. Those three diseases could begin to spread, not only throughout Burma, but neighbouring countries that already face similar challenges. It is in their interests, therefore, to work with us on that matter.
By enabling UNICEF to provide school materials and textbooks to 500,000 children, we are ensuring that children get the support that they need. However, I accept that that is a small contribution to dealing with a very large problem. Some 10 million children in Burma do not complete their primary school education, which does not bode well for the future of Burma. We invest in Save the Children in order to help local communities organise pre-schools. Furthermore, by funding the UN rural development programme, which reaches some 1.5 million people and more than 3,000 villages, we are making a real impact. By supporting the sale of water pumps to farmers, we are enabling them to increase their incomes by $190 a year and to buy much-needed food, health care, clothing and education provision for them and their families.
The right hon. Member for Gordon raised the issue of the effectiveness of agencies since the recent suppression. The indications are that broadly speaking, agencies can still operate. However, it was incredibly disappointing that the UN co-ordinator, Charles Petrie, was expelled from Burma, because that will undoubtedly have an impact on the UN’s vital work in that country. I hope to meet him next week in London.
The final figures are not at hand, but I can provide a commitment in principle to increasing our funding to the Three Diseases Fund, which should give a strong steer. We will also increase our funding on education, livelihoods, refugees, internally displaced persons and, of course, cross-border groups—a matter echoed by all hon. and right hon. Members today. The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield asked for explicit confirmation that we will increase support in those areas, and I say categorically that we will.
As far as we can in Burma’s restrictive political environment, we support people’s will to manage their own affairs at a local level. To help build the foundations for democracy, we are providing £500,000 over three years in order to help civil society organisations to organise themselves better. Furthermore, we are setting up a £3 million fund to support organisations that help people to have more of a say in local decision making—for example, on forest management, agriculture, education and health.
The recent spotlight has been on the urgent need for change at the centre of Burmese politics, for serious movement towards democracy, for national reconciliation and for an end to the repression that, sadly, we have witnessed in recent months. However, we must not take our eyes off the continuing conflict in eastern Burma and its terrible impact on those living there. The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield gave a powerful and graphic description of some of the profound cruelty experienced by those living in and around Burma.
As many as 500,000 people in Burma are displaced. Some 100,000 of them are sheltering in areas torn and ravaged by conflict, and some 160,000 are living as refugees in Thailand. However, many more are living there without formal refugee status—I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North (Ann McKechin) and the right hon. Member for Gordon suggested that as many as 2 million people might have no formal status, because no one is aware of them.
The Committee argued that humanitarian assistance to people across Burma’s borders was necessary alongside aid provided from inside the country, and we firmly agree. Earlier this year, DFID allowed its funding to the Thailand Burma Border Consortium to be spent on emergency relief delivered from Thailand to displaced people inside Burma. We aim to continue that policy while maintaining a close overview of the effectiveness of the consortium’s operations across the border. That was a really important point alluded to by the hon. Member for Buckingham. As I announced yesterday, this year we will provide an additional £100,000 to help meet an immediate shortfall in the consortium’s funding. However, we do not consider the consortium to be the only fruit, as it were. There are other NGOs, and we are committed to engaging with as many as possible so that we can find the most effective ones.
In allocating our increased spending on Burma, we will consider carefully the best balance to strike between assistance provided from inside Burma, assistance provided from neighbouring countries and assistance for Burmese refugees living in those countries. We will take close account of the Committee’s recommendations as well as of the assessment of the needs of displaced peoples in eastern Burma, which is being completed by the Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs. That was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden).
The hon. Member for Buckingham spoke about the Shan Women’s Action Network. It is unfortunate that some NGOs have the impression that funding for them is out of the question. In recent weeks, we have had positive discussions with SWAN, in London and Thailand, about the sort of projects that we could fund, and we are having similar discussions with other groups. There is no objection to funding such groups, as long as it is for work that contributes to poverty reduction or humanitarian relief and as long as we can ensure the accountability that we would expect from other projects.
Allow me to summarise in lay people’s terms another important point that has been mentioned in relation to OCHA—whether it is really necessary to wait for lots of different reports before getting on with things. The question sounded much more articulate when the hon. Member for Buckingham asked it, but in essence that was what he asked. I do not believe that the two processes cannot proceed simultaneously. We do not have to wait for assessment reports before work is undertaken, but it is important that the reports be produced.
I might be repeating the comments of the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield, but I have taken encouragement from the fact that things are not the same as 10 years ago. We knew about what happened recently because of mobile phone cameras, the internet and satellites. For repressed people, images will not be suppressed for long, and that gives a signal that there might be rather more change in the next few years. Rather than arguing about the head of a pin, I am looking forward to 2012 negotiations with a democratic Burmese Government on a proper partnership and budget support arrangement for development in Burma, with the Government led perhaps by Aung San Suu Kyi. In the meantime, I put it to the Under-Secretary that it is imperative not to allow any slackening of the rope after the summer’s events. The maximum pressure should be applied both nationally and internationally, including by campaigns through the Foreign Office with allies, so as to put pressure on the regime and to make the necessary breakthroughs. If we let things slacken so that there is no more than just a bit of an increase in the AIDS budget, we shall not do justice to the people of Burma.
I often agree with my right hon. Friend: long may that last, and I certainly drink to his vision of 2012 for Burma! Let us hope and pray that that happens by 2012, if not before.
I referred earlier to the contribution of the hon. Member for Buckingham. In doing so, it was remiss of me not to pay tribute to his leadership on Burma. There are few hon. Members who have given as much time, energy and commitment as he has to Burmese issues. We do not always see eye to eye, but he is a convincing character, and his input on the debate on Burma has been pivotal. I pay tribute to him for that work and commitment.
The Committee made a number of recommendations about the treatment of development issues, including gender disparities, in the refugee camps in Thailand. DFID officials are following up on those in discussions with the Thailand Burma Border Consortium about our future support for its operations. We are also participating in a donor assessment and evaluation of assistance to the refugee camps, led by the European Commission.
As well as our support to TBBC, DFID is this year providing some £400,000 through faith-based organisations inside Burma to help provide basic health, education and livelihood assistance for displaced communities in eastern Burma. As the hon. Member for Buckingham stated, we will spend some £1.3 million on cross-border health programmes from China, and we will consider the case for expanding those programmes over the next three years. We do not discount working from any border, wherever we believe that we can make a positive impact on the lives of some of the most impoverished people in the world. Let there be no question but that we stand ready to look at all options and all borders.
As the right hon. Member for Gordon said, the Committee made important recommendations on the need for improved communication between providers of assistance working from inside Burma and those working across the borders. DFID is promoting contacts between those groups and we are stepping up our own efforts, in concert with the UN, to ensure that in-country and cross-border aid is as closely co-ordinated as possible. However, that will remain an ongoing challenge and we shall constantly consider how we can improve co-ordination and communication.
I am pleased to confirm that, in line with the Committee’s recommendations, DFID will consider applications for funding by non-governmental organisations that work to promote sustainable development and democracy in Burma. Those organisations may be based inside or outside the country. DFID officials have already begun discussions with NGOs about the sorts of project proposal that are most likely to fulfil DFID’s normal funding requirements.
As some hon. and right hon. Members will know, we have decided to increase DFID’s staffing in Burma. The number of people in our Rangoon office will grow from three to 10, and we have also strengthened the London team that works on Burma. We carefully considered the Committee’s recommendation that we should retain DFID staff in Thailand to monitor the border areas. For now, our assessment is that that work can be carried out most effectively from Rangoon and London. Senior staff from DFID’s office in Burma will visit the Thai side of the border, and there will be more frequent visits than in the past.
I spoke to Rurik Marsden this week, and he said that he had already visited five of the nine camps and will be able to promote better co-ordination between providers of assistance inside Burma and those who work across the border. Senior staff in London visit Burma and Thailand regularly to meet groups that provide cross-border support and those that lobby for change from outside Burma. The embassy in Bangkok will continue to work on refugee issues and on relations with the Thai Government, co-ordinating closely with DFID. I appreciate that people are becoming animated and are showing a genuine concern about the Bangkok office. I have listened carefully to hon. Members’ comments, and I commit constantly to reviewing the effectiveness of the new arrangements.
The recent protests by Buddhist monks reflected a deep frustration with the lack of democracy and economic opportunity in Burma. Change in Burma will require courageous political leadership, allowing a wide range of opinions and interests to come together to create a common view of the future, far removed from the narrow vision evident in the regime’s current road map.
Hon. Members have rightly talked about the role of Russia, China, India, and ASEAN partners. It is important to recognise that Burma is not a job just for the UN or the UK. Each country and organisation that can influence the situation needs to co-operate with others to make the impact that we all want. I was therefore heartened, as I am sure were all hon. Members present, by the UN Security Council presidential statement of 5 October on action on Burma, which is the first such statement that has been agreed. The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield, I think, expressed some disappointment at the ASEAN summit that took place on 20 November, at which the participants were not as vociferous and robust as we would have liked. The Foreign Secretary has met his Chinese and Indian counterparts and discussed their role in Burma. India is the world’s largest democracy, and we rightly expect more from it. We have reminded India of the need to ensure the integrity of EU arms embargos, and it has denied not doing so in the case of the helicopters.
Will the Under-Secretary also stress in his conversations with the Indian Government the need to assist the refugees who are based around the Indian border, particularly as the incidence of malaria is at its worst in that part of Burma? India needs to recognise the danger to its own residents as well as to the refugees who are streaming there.
I can certainly give that assurance, and we will raise that important matter with the Indian Government. When we get a response, I shall share it with my hon. Friend.
Russia, too, has caused some concern, and rightly so. We are informed that it is using civilian technology and building not a power station but a small research reactor. Naturally, we have made people aware of their international obligations, not least in the context of the non-proliferation treaty.
The international community has made it clear that the Burmese regime must take meaningful steps towards real reform and reconciliation. In recent weeks, there has been an unprecedented statement from the UN Security Council, a strengthening of EU sanctions and visits to Burma by the UN Secretary-General’s special envoy Professor Ibrahim Gambari and the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro. A little progress is being made, such as the opening of discussions between the regime and Aung San Suu Kyi, but there is still a long way to go.
I wish to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the hard work being done by Foreign and Commonwealth Office Ministers and officials in keeping up the diplomatic pressure on the Burmese regime, which is critical. On 15 October, EU Foreign Ministers toughened sanctions, targeting timber, precious metals and gems. As I did in the House yesterday, I shall share a conversation that I had with our excellent ambassador in Rangoon, Mark Canning. He told me that the sanctions were biting and that the No. 1 crony in the regime is feeling the pain, because Air Bagan, which that person owns, was forced to shut its Singapore accounts and might well close in the coming weeks.
The hon. Member for Buckingham mentioned the Prime Minister’s initiative, which is about not minimal change but profound, lasting, seismic change. He also helpfully mentioned that I had signed some of his early-day motions in the past, and if my ministerial role did not prevent me from doing so, I would sign many more of them. For the record, I have never found anything that he has said to me menacing in any shape or form.
If real progress is made on political reform, the international community should be ready to support it. That is why, in October, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister initiated discussions among global partners and leaders on the possible shape of international support, should concrete and verifiable steps be taken along the path to national reconciliation and political reform. The international community stands ready to help the economic reconstruction of Burma, using aid, trade and debt relief.
Doubling our humanitarian assistance will enable us to provide further vital support to the Burmese people as they endure the repression and economic mismanagement of the military regime. Their real potential and the full support of the international community can be realised only through the political and economic reforms that Burma so desperately needs.
I thank the International Development Committee for its extremely helpful report. I, for one, look forward to working with it in the coming weeks, months and years. I am not adversarial by nature, and I hope that we can continue to work in the consensual manner to which we have become accustomed.
I thank the Under-Secretary for the tone and detail of his reply. Many of us feel encouraged that the Government are not only making pledges but working actively to fulfil them practically on the ground. He has given us a number of indications of that, which fill us with considerable confidence and optimism that it will make a difference.
I listened carefully to what the Under-Secretary said on the office in Bangkok, which showed clearly that the matter has been considered. All I ask is that he keep it under review and that, if it becomes clear that the organisations that operate from Thailand feel that they are not getting the contact that they need, the Government will be prepared to transfer a member of staff to Bangkok to ensure that they do. I took it from the tone of his comments that the Government would be prepared to do that, if it were to prove necessary, but I ask him at least to keep it under review.
The Committee is very appreciative of the Government’s response, and we look forward to seeing the changes in action. Many of the groups that the hon. Member for Buckingham mentioned, which are active on the ground, must be encouraged that they will have a partnership with DFID in the future that they have perhaps not had before. The consequence of that will be that many more of the people of Burma who are in need of our help will actually receive it. That is the fundamental objective, and we all hope that international pressure will make the people who run the appalling regime understand that their days are numbered—they cannot be tolerated much longer. The people of Burma are entitled to a proper, civilised society, and we shall do everything that we can to achieve that.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at twenty-three minutes to Five o’clock.