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Burma: Cyclone Nargis

Volume 701: debated on Thursday 8 May 2008

My Lords, I shall now repeat a Statement made in the other place.

“I am grateful for the opportunity to inform the House on the response being taken to Cyclone Nargis. The cyclone hit Burma on the night of 2 May. It has had a devastating impact on the people of Burma: at least 22,000 people have been killed. Unfortunately, we expect this number to rise very significantly in the coming days. Some estimates already range as high as 100,000 dead. At least 42,000 are still missing. The Government estimate that 90 to 95 per cent of buildings have been destroyed in the low-lying delta region. One million are estimated to be homeless; 1.5 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance in the delta region and around Rangoon. Preliminary assessments indicate that the most urgent needs are for shelter, food and clean water.

“The full scale of the disaster will only become apparent over the next few days, as relief teams are able to reach remote communities in cyclone-affected areas. Assessments by the UN and other international agencies have been delayed by difficulties with communications and access. The situation is becoming increasingly perilous, with relief capacity inside the country already severely stretched. This is an ongoing crisis for the Burmese people and we are working hard with others in the international community to do all that we can for the relief effort.

“We should not underestimate the challenge of the relief effort in Burma. The cyclone struck five states and divisions of Burma: Rangoon, Irrawaddy, Bago, Mon and Kayin. Damaged infrastructure and communications are posing major logistical problems for relief operations. Access to some of the worst affected areas is extremely difficult and will hamper relief distribution. Much of the affected region is only accessible by boat, and many of the boats in that region were damaged or destroyed by the cyclone. It is therefore vital that aid workers get access to areas affected by the cyclone to help co-ordinate the emergency response and deliver aid to those in need.

“We are currently receiving mixed signals on the question of access to Burma for international staff. There were widespread media reports this morning of UN flights being unable to land in Burma. The latest information available to my department suggests that the first flight, with seven tonnes of high energy biscuits, landed around 7.30 am, UK time, on 8 May, and the biscuits are being unloaded. It is too soon to have a view on the unloading and customs processes, but the World Food Programme is expected to report back to us early this afternoon.

“The second flight, with 18 tonnes of high energy biscuits, has landing rights in Yangon and is currently in Dhaka. It is expected to depart today. Delays with these first two flights were due to delays in obtaining clearances. The third flight will leave Dubai today with a range of items. It also has clearance to land in Burma. The fourth flight, due to leave from Italy, is currently on hold whilst a view is taken on the capacity of the airport equipment and staff in Burma. The UN does not want to overwhelm this capacity.

“The first Red Cross and NGO flights will seek access shortly. We do not yet know whether the Burmese Government will allow free access for international agencies to the areas affected by the disaster. We, as well as the UN and NGOs, are continuing to urge the Burmese authorities to ensure rapid access for international humanitarian staff to Burma, and then for access to the worst affected areas within Burma to manage our assistance effectively. Representations are being made at both multilateral and bilateral levels. I have spoken to Sir John Holmes, the UN’s Emergency Relief Co-ordinator, who is also appealing to the Burmese authorities to allow access to UN agencies and international workers. I have spoken with our ambassador in Rangoon, Mark Canning, who has raised the issues of access with both the senior generals and the Burmese Prime Minister. I have also spoken to the Burmese ambassador here in London to urge him to facilitate rapid access for international humanitarian staff.

“Alongside working to secure access to the affected areas, the UK has made an immediate contribution of up to £5 million—the largest single contribution made by any one country—to help the UN, the Red Cross and NGOs to meet urgent humanitarian needs, including shelter, access to clean water, food and other emergency items. We have readied stockpiles of emergency supplies, such as tents, water containers, blankets and plastic sheets, and sourced additional logistic equipment and relief supplies to be delivered by the same agencies. We are working closely with agencies on the ground to determine exact needs, and we expect to be able to allocate these funds in the coming days as needs and access become clearer. The UN flash appeal is expected by tomorrow. Yesterday, on 7 May, I met with UK-based NGOs to discuss potential DfID support. We are ready to deploy an emergency field team to help co-ordinate our assessment and response to the disaster as soon as visas can be obtained from the Burmese Government.

“The UN humanitarian co-ordinator will be meeting the Burmese authorities later today to provide an overview of international commitments and to discuss the progress of the response. Already, over $20 million has been pledged by donors to the relief effort. In addition, the UN has announced that a minimum of $10 million will be released from the Central Emergency Relief Fund, to which the UK is the largest contributor. The Red Cross and NGOs that have a presence in Burma, including World Vision, Save the Children and Médécins Sans Frontières, are undertaking needs assessments and have begun to distribute basic emergency items, such as food and water supplies. Co-ordination mechanisms are in place between the UN, NGOs and donors on the ground.

“Domestically, the Government of Burma have pledged around $4.5 million for relief and have established an emergency committee headed by the Burmese Prime Minister. The Burmese Government have reiterated their readiness to accept international assistance but are only just starting to allow in UN aid. The challenges of the relief effort would daunt even the most developed country and it is important that the Burmese Government accept all offers of international assistance.

“As the House will be aware, as well as our initial pledge of £5 million for the relief effort, the UK is one of the few countries providing long-term humanitarian assistance inside Burma. In October 2007, the UK announced that it would double its aid for the poorest people in Burma from £9 million per year to £18 million in 2010. Our support is delivered in accordance with the European common position—through either the UN or other reputable NGOs. None goes to the central Government.

“This is a very grave crisis on a scale not seen since the tsunami of 2004. I want to assure the House that the British Government will continue to work to bring assistance and relief to the suffering people of Burma”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made by the Secretary of State earlier today in another place. Our thoughts and prayers are with those who have lost friends and relatives in this tragedy and who are struggling to survive the aftermath of this terrible disaster.

It is clear that the situation in Burma is a massive humanitarian catastrophe of the like not seen since the Asian tsunami of December 2004. Reports coming through are that the death toll may well rise much further and that, as of now, hundreds of thousands of people are beyond the reach of the relief effort. The danger now is that hunger, disease and the lack of access to clean water and shelter will add to the suffering.

We on these Benches welcome the actions outlined in the Statement. The staff at DfID are some of the finest development professionals in the world. Their compassion, commitment and expertise have a vital role to play in this current crisis. In particular, we salute the work of Rurik Marsden, who leads DfID’s efforts in Burma, and our ambassador, Mark Canning, whose knowledge and insight are second to none.

It is already clear that British charities, including the Red Cross, and NGOs are at the forefront of work on the ground. Save the Children, led in Rangoon by Andrew Kirkwood, has 35 offices and 500 staff on the ground in Burma and has already been able to help 50,000 people. It is deeply regrettable that the Burmese Government have consistently run down and undermined the UN mission in Burma, not least by forcing out Charles Petrie, the impressive former head of the UN mission there. His experience and dynamism are sorely missed at this time of crisis. The Burmese people and the international relief effort are the losers from that misjudgment by the Burmese Government.

It would be very interesting to know exactly what relief work is being done by the Burmese Government themselves, apart from the pledge of $4.5 million that we heard about from the Minister. Can the Minister update the House on this important matter? It is a scandal that five full days after the disaster only a trickle of aid is getting in from the outside world. Can the noble Baroness tell us whether the Burmese Government are still insisting on onerous visa restrictions for aid workers? Visas have always been tricky for Burma—I remember that during the time of the communist regime. Even if aid workers get a visa, is there any guarantee that they will be allowed to leave Rangoon without waiting for up to two weeks for a travel permit? After the Bam earthquake of 2003, Iran waived visa restrictions on foreign relief workers for five days, even letting in people from America and Israel. That spirit could prevail again now. The Burmese Government should give unfettered access to the international humanitarian relief effort.

A key lesson from the tsunami is the need for the international response to dovetail with the local relief effort. Trying to go against the grain does not work. We need to persuade the Burmese authorities to be as co-operative as possible. Aid workers are there for non-political, humanitarian reasons—to save lives—rather than for political positioning. I trust that this has been made clear to the Burmese Government.

As the noble Baroness said, the key requirement now is for a professional and highly competent relief operation centred on money, food, clean water, shelter and medical relief. As is clear from the experience that we gained from the Asian tsunami, we need to make certain that the aid we give is exactly what is needed and that it goes to the right people. Inappropriate aid and aid that ends up in the wrong hands are as bad as no aid at all.

As the regime’s suspicion of the West is well documented, does the Minister have any reports of aid being given by Burma’s hugely wealthy economic friends of the regime, such as China and Malaysia, which have substantial investments in what was, and potentially is, a very wealthy country? In the run-up to the Olympics, many eyes will be on China to examine the role that it plays in helping to make certain that the Burmese Government open up to the international relief effort. What discussions has the Secretary of State had in recent days with the Chinese ambassador in London, Madame Fu Ying, to underline this point?

There are reports that the Burmese Government intend to impose taxes and duties on planes that take in aid supplies. Is that the case and what representations have the British Government made to the Burmese Government to suspend these tariffs?

In the aftermath of the tsunami, concern was expressed about the operation of gift aid tax relief on donations to the humanitarian appeal. At this early stage, what steps are the Government taking on this matter?

It is difficult to talk about good coming out of this terrible event. However, as in the case of the Indonesian province of Aceh, devastated by the 2004 tsunami, the shock and turmoil of a natural disaster can, in some circumstances, lead to movement and progress on thorny political conflicts for the greater common good. Clearly, all of us who have been vocal critics of this pariah regime, and of the former communist regime, will put politics to one side as we strive for an effective humanitarian response.

Once again, I thank the noble Baroness for repeating this Statement. In the same spirit, I hope that she will continue to keep the House informed through Oral and Written Statements.

My Lords, we, too, are grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement. We agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, that what we see at the moment is only the beginning of what may prove to be an even worse humanitarian disaster than is indicated by reports so far.

There are 42,000 people missing in addition to those killed; moreover, there are fears, as the noble Baroness said, that with the lack of clean water and sanitation, the failure to pick up the dead bodies and the lack of medical supplies reaching those needing them in the isolated regions, the ultimate toll will be very much higher than estimated so far.

However, after initial hesitation, at least the Burmese authorities are allowing supplies to come into the ports and airports and are beginning to relax the difficult restrictions they have imposed on aid workers. I am told that there are still delays, but that these have been reduced to two or three days, which may be ascribed as much to bureaucracy as actual obstruction by the Burmese regime. However, the position is improving and supplies are coming in from many sources.

However, I wonder whether the noble Baroness will confirm one disturbing report. She mentioned supplies from China. There was a Deutsche Presse report that supplies coming in from China, but also Thailand, had been purloined by the regime and incorporated into their military stocks. That would send an adverse signal to those bringing in supplies that the military regime was using them to exploit its own political purposes. The WFP had good reasons for refusing to hand over its stocks, held in Rangoon, to the military—as demanded by the junta. Does the Minister agree that we need protocols for the management and distribution of relief supplies to ensure that the regime does not appropriate them for its own ends? How are we going to get those in place?

We noted that a number of UK charities, including Save the Children, CARE, World Vision and the Red Cross, are already operating in Burma and we warmly congratulate them on their efforts so far. We also note that the Disasters Emergency Committee is making a consolidated appeal for contributions which I expect the public will generously support, as they have done in previous emergencies. I also welcome, as did the noble Baroness, DfID’s initial contribution of £5 million and would be grateful for information on how that money will be allocated, and particularly on whether—and, if so, what amounts—it will be given immediately to the UK-based agencies that, as I have mentioned, are already operating on the ground.

What will the logistical arrangements be for receiving and distributing large inflows of foreign aid? The constraint is probably more in relation to airport and port capacity to receive supplies rather than the permissions being granted.

The noble Baroness confirmed that several flights are on the way. I understand that UN agencies are looking to set up what has been called the cluster approach, which has been tried and tested in other emergencies. I hope that the Rangoon authorities will accept this as the best means possible of ensuring that the logistics work—there would be a special cluster on logistics in accordance with arrangements made in other emergencies. However, will these efforts be financed by the UN central emergency relief fund, to which, as the noble Baroness has said, the United Kingdom is the largest single country donor? What agency will be responsible for the management of the logistics?

Are there any immediate plans to repair the reportedly damaged facilities at Yangon airport? For instance, I have been told that the runway lights are not operating and that the landing of a Red Cross plane, which is in flight and on the way there, may be in question. Apart from that, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of destroyed roads and bridges. Many worst affected parts of the country may be inaccessible by land—such as the remote district of Labutta, where a military official puts the death toll in that region alone as high as 80,000 people. Therefore, will the UN be responsible for assessing the need for helicopters and, in the case of the delta, for flat-bottomed boats, to supplement the one that the British agency, Merlin, already has on site?

Finally, does the noble Baroness agree that, as the enormous scale of this disaster becomes apparent, this is yet another reason for abandoning the sham referendum that is planned for this weekend?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, and the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, for welcoming and supporting the Statement. I underline the praise for DfID staff, both here and on the ground in Burma. They are absolute stars.

We have had encouraging up-to-date information. We are beginning to get co-operation over access. There is an international Red Cross flight in the air, which we have been waiting for. The Burmese have also promised visas for our three-person DfID field team to be issued at 4 pm tomorrow. On the strength of that, we are getting our team ready to go out on a flight tomorrow morning. Of course, this will be a test of the promises that we are receiving from the Burmese Government. The team’s role will be to assess the situation on the ground, to network with other NGOs and UN agencies and to report back so that we can fill in and have a full response to our current DfID response. The noble Baroness asked me for an up-to-date situation; I hope that that is encouraging.

The noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, also asked exactly what the Burmese military regime is doing at present and she and the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, wanted me to go into more detail about the $4.5 million. Is the regime doing enough? We understand that it is providing a significant response under extremely difficult circumstances but that it clearly needs international assistance. The Burmese Government have pledged $4.5 million for relief and have sent military and police units as part of the rescue and clean-up operation. They have also established an emergency committee, headed by the Prime Minister, as I said in the Statement. They have stated their readiness to accept international assistance but they are not clear about the extent to which they will allow agencies sufficient access to manage the delivery of their aid. Discussions around access are continuing between the agencies and the Burmese authorities. Foreign ambassadors were called to a briefing by the Government of Burma on the afternoon of 5 May, when the Foreign Minister made a plea for assistance, including for building materials, medicines, blankets and mosquito nets. We agree with the noble Baroness that Burma should allow the UN full re-entry to the country. We hope that these recent assurances will allow that to happen.

The noble Baroness and the noble Lord asked about other donors, in particular those in the region. Britain has made the biggest pledge so far but others, including Burma’s neighbours, are contributing. The US has pledged $3 million, on condition that US experts be granted access to the country and the disaster-struck area. Canada has pledged just under $2 million. China has pledged $500,000 to the Government of Burma, with a further $500,000 pledged in kind in the form of tents, blankets and biscuits. Germany, Indonesia, India, Italy, Japan, the European organisation ECHO, the Netherlands, Singapore, Spain and Thailand are also donors in one way or another.

The noble Baroness asked about tariffs. We have been told that tariffs are being suspended but, again, that has yet to be tested. The noble Lord asked about access. As I said, we hope that the situation is improving and we are working day and night to ensure that. We do not know whether supplies from China and Thailand have been purloined by the regime, but it would be appalling if they had been. We understand that the UN deliveries are so far secure and remain under UN control.

The noble Lord asked about protocols for distribution. The main priority at the moment is to get our people in there, on the ground, to assess and then to start looking at the management and the distribution. I was asked how we are distributing the £5 million pledged by the UK. It will be distributed between UN agencies and NGOs. The noble Lord also asked about the World Food Programme consignment. As far as we understand, it is being delivered to a World Food Programme warehouse, not to a Burmese army warehouse. I cannot give a clear picture on the Yangon airport facilities, but I will come back to noble Lords on that as soon as I can. As noble Lords can imagine, on this whole area affected by this dreadful disaster, we are desperate for clarity.

I was asked about the need for helicopters and boats. DfID has already opened discussions with the MoD. We do not believe that at present DfID needs military equipment, but the situation is, of course, ongoing. After we have access, we will continue to talk not only to other government departments but to the UN about this. We now have ready access to a large civil, rather than military, boat for equipment.

I think that I have covered most of the questions asked by the noble Baroness and the noble Lord. I am sure that we can pick up others later.

My Lords, access is clearly crucial, as the noble Baroness said, and her supplementary answer was a little more hopeful on that. However, as she also said, signals are mixed. She will have seen the remarks attributed to the French Foreign Minister, Mr Kouchner, in which he talked about the possibility of invoking the relatively new UN right to protect to make sure that the aid gets through. He mentioned it in the context of French warships being in the vicinity. He also specifically mentioned British warships, although it is not clear what he had in mind. Can the noble Baroness tell us what Royal Navy ships are in the vicinity and what instructions they are operating under?

My Lords, I understand that the Royal Navy ship the “Westminster” is about three days’ sailing away. A French warship, the “Mistral”, is, as the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, said, in the Andaman Sea. Obviously, as the situation develops, both those facilities will be there and available. I understand that the UN responsibility to protect was conceived to address four defined situations in which Governments have failed to protect their people: war crimes, genocide, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. The current situation does not fit clearly into these categories. It is important to recognise the different views within the Security Council on this issue. As the noble Lord, with all his experience, will know, the absolute priority is humanitarian and we must be alive to the risk that threatening the regime will make that more difficult to address.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for the Statement and join her in expressing admiration for all those from every nation, including ours, who are striving to assist the wretched people of Burma. Does she agree that, although these are not conditions in which strident political sentiments should be expressed, it is impossible to avoid making the observation that it is a tragic absurdity that the huge state apparatus controlled by the junta in Burma, which so recently and ruthlessly could suppress popular protest, has not been used quickly or properly in trying to bring relief to the people of Burma and to prevent the even greater carnage that will come from the terrible disruption and the spread of disease?

Will my noble friend ensure that our Government express their thanks to countries in the region, which are already evidently active in trying to aid the people of Burma? In doing that, will the Government do two other things? First, will they urge countries such as China, India and Malaysia to increase their efforts? Secondly, will they establish whether those countries are willing to transmit aid from other parts of the world into Burma, as it is likely that they will get much better access much more quickly than will those agencies, including UN agencies, from elsewhere on the planet?

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Kinnock is absolutely right. We are continuing to talk intensely to our colleagues in China, India, Malaysia and Thailand to ensure that their position, both politically and geographically, is used to the maximum. We will ensure that the time for political discussions on how we feel about the situation in Burma is not lost. We in this House have a sterling record of ensuring that we discuss Burma continually and, politically, we will come back to that, but we will talk to our friends in the region continually to ensure that food gets through.

My Lords, I think that the noble Baroness is aware that I go to Burma, Myanmar, from time to time and am concerned with some four rather specialist charities that do good there. I worry a little about our embassy. Compared to the number, size and staffing of other embassies, we are very tiny; it is almost a one-man band. We have had and have now a most excellent and outstanding ambassador, but I have often wondered why we do not have a defence adviser. That seems rather odd. We are dealing with a military Government. We ought to try to get messages across to them; we ought to try to influence them in certain ways. Other agencies seem not to be on board. Including this immediate disaster, we could well be understaffed. I wonder whether we are not being a little stingy from the Foreign Office and DfID in manning and giving proper support and help to the embassy and its staff.

My Lords, I do not think that we are being stingy; we are giving everything that we possibly can at present. It is not a matter of amount or quality; I know that it is to do with access and not having a clear picture of the situation. However, we have great confidence in our ambassador in Rangoon, Mark Canning. He is doing a marvellous job; we are supporting him to the hilt and we will continue to.

My Lords, I salute the work of my noble friend and her department, DfID, in their effort in numerous crises. I had the great fortune of visiting Bangladesh post-Cyclone Sidr. I travelled to the Bay of Bengal and visited Sarankhola and Patuakhali. I must tell noble Lords that it was a devastating experience. Nothing compares to the devastation that you witness after such a natural calamity. I have little idea of what is going on in Burma but, in the light of that experience, I suggest to my noble friend that she consider speaking not only to all the other countries but Bangladesh, in particular, because it has recent experience.

I know that DfID, in its partnership with organisations such as Oxfam and Muslim Aid, has exactly the right experience. Given what my noble friend Lord Kinnock said about Burma perhaps being amenable to accepting immediate aid and assistance through other countries—not that that is what we should expect or be party to—I think that we should do everything we can to ensure that that expertise is used immediately. Will my noble friend assure me and the House that she will speak to the Government of Bangladesh and talk with organisations such as Muslim Aid, which has long-established experience of working post-tsunami and post-Cyclone Sidr in Bangladesh?

My Lords, before my noble friend answers, I remind noble Lords that this is a session for elucidation and questions, not a session for debate.

My Lords, first, I thank my noble friend Lady Uddin for sharing her direct experience of disaster relief. I hope that it will encourage her to hear that the DfID office in Bangladesh is already sharing its experience with DfID in Rangoon.

My Lords, perhaps the Minister will reply to a question from the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, which she did not reach, which concerned the implications for the constitutional referendum this weekend. It seems to me an act of extraordinary insensitivity to the suffering of the people of Burma to go ahead with that project. I do not want to characterise the nature of the project during questions and answers about humanitarian matters, but it seems rather insensitive.

Secondly, can we not get away from the concept of the responsibility to protect being a military concept? It is not a military concept; it is a normative concept of international humanitarian law. It applies just as much to the situation in Burma now as it does to the situation in Darfur, Zimbabwe or anywhere else. The military aspect comes only if everything else fails. Can we not somehow get references to the responsibility to protect out there in the open as a civilian concept—a concept in which both the international community and the authorities in Myanmar have responsibility to protect those people? That should lead to lifting of the restrictions, free access for all humanitarian agencies, and so on. We really must not mix that up with the idea that somehow or other we will force aid by military means. That is uniquely difficult.

I was in Burma only three months ago. It was a beautiful and tragic place when I was there; it is now a much more tragic one. I welcome what we are doing to help them.

My Lords, given the noble Lord’s direct experience of Burma, I say to him that, as we understand it, the constitutional referendum is to go ahead in those areas unaffected on the original date; it is to go ahead in affected areas by the end of the month. The noble Lord will know our position: we were very robust recently in an Answer to a Question he asked about the constitutional referendum. That is the position as we see it at present.

The noble Lord asked what the UK has been doing to persuade the Burmese Government toward democracy. The UN common position and sanctions against the Burmese regime were renewed last month, as he will know. The UN Security Council issued a presidential statement on 2 May ahead of the 10 May referendum underlining the need for an inclusive and credible political process in Burma. That recognises the obvious shortcomings in the regime’s road map for political reform, which is simply intended to reinforce long-term military control in Burma.

The noble Lord returned to the UN Security Council right to protect. There is no doubt that the Burmese Government have a responsibility—a civil responsibility, as he put it—to act, and to act now to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of souls in Burma suffering after the cyclone. We must convince the regime to co-operate and are using all available channels to urge them to facilitate the international effort. We hope that they will listen to their friends in the region, who have made that point strongly, and to the UN Secretary-General, who has urged maximum co-operation.

My Lords, we very much welcome the Statement by Her Majesty’s Government, and we enormously appreciate the lead that they have given, especially in the size of the donation. The noble Baroness read out an encouraging list of countries that have already pledged their support. Your Lordships’ House will recall that in the tsunami crisis a similar list of countries pledged support, but subsequently we heard stories in the media that these pledges were not honoured and the money did not come forward. Could such a protocol be constructed so that countries were held to the commitments that they make publicly, so that when this terrible disaster has passed out of the media’s interest but the humanitarian need remains, money, aid and development will still flow to those people who need it?

My Lords, it is our will that all the countries to which I have referred will not only make pledges but continue to honour those pledges. We will continue to honour the pledges that we have made. As well as the £5 million which DfID has pledged this week, we have increased our long-term aid to Burma and believe that that is an example to be followed by other countries.

My Lords, the noble Baroness mentioned helicopters briefly in response to a question from the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. The worst of this disaster has occurred in the Delta region, which is substantially under water as a consequence. The experience of the tsunami showed that substantial helicopter support was absolutely essential, and was provided on that occasion largely by the United States offering some of their aircraft carriers. Is there any indication that the regime is likely to allow the use of helicopters from outside, and is action being taken at this stage to press it on what is likely to prove to be an extremely important matter?

My Lords, the noble Lord makes a crucial point. In our discussions with the regime, we have continually wanted to ensure that the parameters of our action are as wide as possible. We have made that clear to the Burmese Government. We are taking incremental steps. At present, we need to get access. However, our discussions are not about narrow access but about whatever access is needed to help these hundreds of thousands of people. As I said, we have opened discussions with the MoD on the possible use of military equipment. That is where we are at present.

My Lords, has the area of damage extended into those areas of Burma where the present regime has been exerting its most repressive measures against the indigenous population, notably in the homelands of the Karen and Karenni people? If so, will the Government undertake to exert their greatest efforts to see that aid is available there? Secondly, is any move afoot to have a central point for charitable donations to be made in this country, as there was during the tsunami?

My Lords, on the noble Lord’s last point, I understand that there will be a flash appeal for relief tomorrow. On the ethnic areas and the people who have been persecuted so dreadfully by their government in the past, although the Karen state was affected by high winds and rain, it is not among the areas that have been worst hit by the disaster. Our emergency assistance for the cyclone will not cause any reduction in our support for Burmese refugees on the border area in Thailand. We are discussing this year’s contributions with Christian Aid and the Thailand Burma Border Consortium, taking full account of our recommendations of last year.

My Lords, a parallel has repeatedly been drawn with the tsunami crisis of a couple of years ago. I recall when I went to the Maldives for a holiday that my friends in Scotland said that I was under a moral obligation to stuff my pockets full of dollars and distribute them in the Maldives, because that was the only way in which they could be confident that the money would get to the people who really needed it. Apart from the great generosity which I acknowledge the noble Baroness has offered through DfID, does she see that there is an obligation on government to remove that sense of cynicism that is growing in this country? We are a naturally generous and compassionate people, and if that cynicism can be removed I am very confident that real generosity will be shown in the appeal tomorrow.

My Lords, I absolutely agree. We have to go beyond a sense of scepticism. Sometimes scepticism is very well founded, and it is right that Governments should be pressed on this point. DfID’s record, as the noble Lord has said, is very good in this respect. We are very accountable for what we pledge and what we spend. However, the Red Cross appeal and the UN appeal need people to come out in very generous numbers to help these people. They are in great and grave need.