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Volume 577: debated on Thursday 13 March 2014

Following the point of order from the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner), I am pleased to see the Minister of State, Department for International Development, the right hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr Duncan) sitting on the Front Bench.

I welcome the opportunity to make a statement on the International Development Committee’s report on democracy and development in Burma, which is also known as Myanmar. There is a little item in the report about the issue of its name. I had the privilege of visiting Burma last July as part of a delegation led by Mr Speaker and including my fellow Committee member the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), as well as the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz). The Committee also visited the country last November. We spent time in and around Yangon, and in the capital, Naypyidaw. From Naypyidaw we drove down to Mandalay, stopping en route, and then made visits in and around Mandalay.

We concluded that Burma presents unique challenges in comparison with any of the United Kingdom’s other bilateral aid partners. As most people know, the country has endured 60 years of conflict and decades of military dictatorship, during which development and progress have regressed. Per capita GDP is $800, while the per capita income of its neighbour Thailand is $4,800. Although the UK has remained engaged and has provided support, the circumstances have been difficult, as the Committee observed in its last report in 2007. At that time, we could only visit refugee camps on the Thai border; we could not visit the country itself.

Since cyclone Nargis devastated the country, it has become apparent internally that if the country is to develop, it needs to change. The military Government have transferred some powers to the Parliament, and after by-elections last year, Aung San Suu Kyi was elected to Parliament along with 42 of her National League for Democracy colleagues. Full elections are promised for next year.

While a host of problems remain, a key opportunity exists for UK development programmes to help deliver transformational change. We must seize the moment. The Committee’s main conclusions are: that the Department for International Development should be more engaged with the political nature of Burma’s development—this is not just about development; it is about politics, too—and that the UK should continue to press for constitutional reform for the development of a federal structure inside Burma, which is being talked about widely there, and for the removal of the block on Aung Sa Suu Kyi standing for president. That is not because she has to be the president, but because it would be somewhat strange if a clearly popular elected opposition party candidate were not at least eligible to be a presidential candidate. As part of this, the UK Government should work to help the armed ethnic groups and the Burmese military to make the transition to delivering civilian Government. That is a huge challenge.

DFID has given a substantial chunk of its budget to health programmes and we saw, and heard, how radical and transformational they were, but the Department should place even more emphasis on addressing drug-resistant malaria in Burma as it is a problem that threatens to spread to the rest of the world with potentially devastating consequences.

One specific issue, which an exchange with the Minister shows he understands, is that DFID’s education budget in Burma is currently too small to be effective. We are not saying it is of no value, but we do think it should increase, with a major focus on teacher training. We have, effectively, a lost generation in Burma that desperately needs education.

We also think that DFID’s work to assist the peace process, to improve public financial management, to encourage the inclusion of women and to reform the Burmese military should continue, with additional funding made available as opportunities to expand these programmes arise. These are all major challenges.

We welcome the UK support for the Burmese Parliament. It should be a long-term partnership and the UK will need to reform its approach to parliamentary strengthening to ensure that DFID and the Foreign Office can rely less on non-UK organisations—such as United Nations Development Programme and the National Democratic Institute—and draw more on UK organisations. The Westminster brand is valued, and we think it is strange that we are buying expertise from other models when people would like to hear more from ours.

The UK is doing a very good job in helping to co-ordinate the role of the development partners as chair of the working group, and we believe that that should continue. Smaller donors should be encouraged to be part of that process, rather than to try to operate independently.

We recognised when visiting the peace centre that there is a ceasefire across most of the country, but as yet there is no peace process. The situation in Rakhine is critical and could threaten the whole reform process if it is not addressed. DFID can help by doing more to promote inter-faith dialogue and inter-community understanding.

We accept that in the current situation progress will be unpredictable and uneven, but supporting the reform process by working to deliver public services and develop livelihoods offers unprecedented potential.

To achieve these transformational objectives we recommend that the bilateral budget for Burma be increased from its current level of over £60 million to around £100 million. We think that there is more than enough work in education, in parliamentary strengthening and in building Government institutions to justify the steady build-up of expenditure and we believe that DFID could, and should, find that resource.

I hope the House will accept that the UK has a crucial role to play in Burma. We have partners we can work with. We have an opportunity that may not come again and we should not miss it.

I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Like the right hon. Gentleman, I had the opportunity to visit Burma last summer, looking specifically at issues around maternal health. What struck the group that went out with Marie Stopes was that the budget for health in Burma is extraordinarily small. The right hon. Gentleman has mentioned the importance of developing the political process. Did the Committee look at the balance between UK funds helping to directly provide health services, for example, as opposed to working with the Government and Parliament and has it looked at the overall funding compared with international comparators?

We recognise that Burma needs capacity right across the whole system. Frankly, its spending on health and education has been minimal and its capacity to do that at the moment is pretty limited. We have to work with the partners we can find, sometimes directly. Of course we want to build up capacity within the Government, provided that the partners within the Government will respond in the right way, but we did see very good co-operation and real evidence that we are making specific changes. So our view is that we can expand the development support and help build those institutions, but we also need to strengthen the political capacity. One particular step is to enable Parliament to raise the funds that will ultimately enable these developments to be taken forwards as the economy develops. That is crucial and it is something DFID does very well in many other countries.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. I am the chair of the all-party group on malaria and neglected tropical diseases. I and my colleagues on that committee are extremely concerned about the growth of resistance to artemisinin-based drugs, which are our main hope for tackling malaria in Burma and the surrounding area. Does my right hon. Friend think the international community is giving enough weight to this issue?

I commend my hon. Friend for his assiduous work on the all-party committee, which is extremely important. The answer to his question is that it has not been possible to do enough because of the problems of conflict and lack of access. Indeed, that is the very reason why it has become an endemic threat to the whole world. We hope that, with a ceasefire in place and hopefully the beginnings of a peace process, the opportunity to engage will increase. That is why we have made a specific recommendation that greater priority within the health budget should be given to tackling that problem, and I am certain that my hon. Friend will ensure we focus on that.

The report refers to DFID’s main contribution to peace-building having been in funding Jonathan Powell’s non-governmental organisation Inter Mediate, with strong experience being drawn from what happened in the Northern Ireland peace process. Has the Committee made any assessment of the work of Inter Mediate and the way in which the experience in Northern Ireland has helped to develop peace-building in Burma?

We did not make a specific engagement within that process, but we learned from DFID that the Northern Ireland experience was seen to be of some value and relevance. We obviously have to be careful not to assume that what happened in Northern Ireland is automatically transferable, but some kind of understanding of how we get beyond entrenched conflict to a situation where communities can start to work together is clearly useful, and the justification for supporting Jonathan Powell’s organisation was that he had some experience of doing that. The right hon. Gentleman may have a subjective view on how valid that is, but it seemed to us that this was well-received by the Burmese who felt it helped them to think about how to stop hating people and start working with those who were enemies, and that seems to be of some value.

I thank my right hon. Friend for the report. Bearing in mind the situation in Egypt where the military have had real problems in giving up power, will he give us his candid assessment of the chances of the Burmese military ceding power to a democratic Government in the near future?

That is a very good and fair question and we took a lot of evidence, ranging from people who felt the military would never let go to others who felt the pressures on Burma to open up were so intense that the reforms that have been started could not be reversed, although their progress will, I think, be uneven and bumpy. All I can say is that the authorities representing the military who we met looked to the Indonesian model as the way forward—in other words, a gradual move away from military control through the building of civilian capacity. But I guess that the day when the military is subservient to Parliament is a long way off.

The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) and I visited Burma in 2012. One of the Government Ministers there had been given the task of mediating between the various ethnic minority groups. I have a suspicion, however, that the disputes between some of the groups have got worse since then. Will my right hon. Friend tell us what he found in that respect?

The Committee did not have the opportunity to visit some of the more disputed territories, either for security reasons or because access was not granted or there was insufficient time. We understood, however, that there was at least a ceasefire in place across the whole country, except in the north. That is good news. The bad news is that the process of turning that ceasefire into a proper process of moving towards civilian government and letting go from the centre has not begun. Indeed, there is plenty of evidence that the army has consolidated its position in exactly those provinces. That does not bode well, unless it starts to accommodate the other armed ethnic groups as part of the process of change. That is something that we think the UK Government could contribute to, so long as we have partners to work with.

We welcome this thoughtful and comprehensive report, which reflects upon the progress being made in this troubled Commonwealth nation. The Chair of the Committee referred to the role of DFID in helping to build democratic capacity and strengthen Parliament in Burma. Of course, DFID is not just the charitable arm of the UK Government; it is a major force for soft power. What work is the Committee planning to do to examine DFID’s wider work on building democracy, particularly in the light of recent examples such as Bangladesh, where those processes have had mixed results?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments; I completely agree with him. Incidentally, we thought that the co-operation between DFID and the Foreign Office in Burma was particularly successful. Indeed, our visit would not have been the success that it was without the full co-operation that we had from the Foreign Office and from the ambassador and his team, although that is not in any way to suggest that the DFID team was not also extraordinarily important. That is the kind of working that matters, because this is a political process as well as a development process.

We actually had a much fuller section on parliamentary strengthening in the draft report, and we concluded that that was an issue to which we should return separately. The Committee has not yet agreed on that, but I think that we have unofficially agreed that we should produce a short report on how DFID could expand its role of parliamentary strengthening in all the partner countries. If we are concentrating on post-conflict countries and fragile states, building democratic institutions and making them work are surely central to that task. We have a unique capacity to do this work, and our view is that we need to put a lot more investment into it to ensure that our engagements are sustained and continuous, and that the contacts are maintained. These processes need to develop full, long-term relationships, rather than ending up with the odd seminar here and there or the odd secondment. I hope that we will be able to come up with a report that will develop that theme.

I rise briefly to thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Sir Malcolm Bruce) and all his Committee for this report, and for the thoroughness of their inquiries. It is refreshing to be broadly commended in a Select Committee report, and to be asked to spend more. The request to raise our budget from £66 million to £100 million a year is an ambitious one, particularly as our funding increases have plateaued over the past few years, and there are further demands on our resources for the likes of humanitarian efforts in Syria. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman and the House, however, that we will study all 39 recommendations and take them all into consideration when deploying our resources and focusing our efforts in the future.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention, which we very much appreciate. We would not have expected him to accede to our requests immediately, but we think that he is up to the challenge. This is not just a question of our saying, “Let’s spend more money.” We have identified specific sectors in which we think that would be useful. We took out of the report a section dealing with where we thought the money should come from, because it is the job of Ministers to prioritise such matters, but if they want to talk to us informally about that, we have some ideas.

royal assent

I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that Her Majesty has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts:

Supply and Appropriation (Anticipation and Adjustments) Act 2014

Children and Families Act 2104

National Insurance Contributions Act 2014

Citizenship (Armed Forces) Act 2014

International Development (Gender Equality) Act 2014

Leasehold Reform (Amendment) Act 2014

Offender Rehabilitation Act 2014

Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014

Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2014