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Mr. Hoon: I have made clear the Governments position on the companies by which we are contacted. We clearly do not have the same obligations relating to non-UK companies as we have to UK-based companies. I assure the hon. Gentleman that when companies contact the British Government for advice and information, we give them a stern indication of our attitude towards trade and investment in Burma.
John Bercow: The Minister has been extremely generous in giving way, which I appreciate. I was informed this morning that two companies in my own constituency are engaged in trade or business activity with Burma.
John Bercow: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for saying that the same phenomenon applies in his constituency. May I make the Minister an offer? If I write to those companies in my constituency to advise them to cease that trade, will he replicate my effort and use all the authority and grandeur of his office to bolster it by also writing?
I emphasise that the figures that have been bandied around are largely those published by the Burmese Government. They appear to us to be seriously misleading, because they do not represent current investment. They seem to include all investment over a period of more than 10 years, and investment by UK companies is included even if they pulled out of operations in Burma long ago. Hon. Members referred to British American Tobacco, whose investment appears still to be included in the figures being supplied by the Burmese regime. The real figures are much lower. In 2003 the Department of Trade and Industry recorded the UK foreign investment flow into Burma as less than £500,000. As far as we are aware, the figures relate to only three companies.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: I do not have any hard evidence, but there is circumstantial evidence that a lot of trade is being done through British companies registered in foreign tax regimes. That might therefore not count as direct British investment.
Mr. Hoon: I was about to deal with that point, as it has been raised on a number of occasions. We see no evidence that large-scale investments are reaching Burma via British overseas territories-registered companies. That has been specifically examined, as hon. Members have raised the matter, but I shall ask for it to be examined again. I certainly recognise the point.
The Governments argument is that because successive regimes in Burma have isolated themselves and their country from the outside world, there should be concerted international action to persuade the Burmese military to relinquish power and improve the human rights situation on the ground. We are therefore
determined to promote an international response, and there are three main channels through which we can encourage changethe UN and its various organs and agencies, the EU and the Asian region.
The United Nations rightly plays a vital role in Burma and we welcome the efforts of the Secretary-General Kofi Annan to promote political progress and secure the release of Aung San Suu Kyi. We look to the current and future UN Secretaries-General to keep up the pressure for change in Burma. There are indications that the Burmese regime still recognises the authority of the United Nations, and we therefore encourage the UN to deliver clear messages on the need to cease attacks on ethnic groups, release prisoners and implement a genuine process of national reconciliation. We agree that the UN Security Council has a key role to play in keeping up the pressure for change and, with UK support, the US succeeded in having Burma added to the Security Council agenda on 15 September. The first formal debate took place on 29 September, and the US has indicated that it wishes to table a resolution on Burma. It can certainly count on our continued full support. The forthcoming visit to Rangoon of UN Under-Secretary Gambari will be important in shaping the views of Council members. Burma is slated to be one of the first countries considered by the newly established Human Rights Council. We and other EU partners fully support early action on Burma by the council.
The special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, has worked hard since his appointment in 2000 to catalogue the regimes dire record. Despite not having been permitted to enter the country since November 2003, he has provided the international community with a comprehensive and objective report on the situation inside Burma. His last report to the Human Rights Council on 27 September makes sobering reading. We encourage him and any successor to continue that important work and we hope that the newly formed Human Rights Council will take early action in response. The Government support strongly the special rapporteurs reports and recommendations, and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Trade, who has responsibility for human rights, called in his letter of 5 July to the Burmese Foreign Minister for processes to be made genuinely inclusive and democratic. A copy of that letter is in the House of Commons Library.
Within the European Union we have taken the lead in promoting a strong line. All member states acknowledge Burmas dire human rights record, but I recognise that there is a range of views on whether increased pressure or engagement is the right policy to pursue. Nevertheless, we have supported the adoption and gradual strengthening of the common position, which now includes a range of targeted sanctions aimed at those who implement or benefit from the regimes policies, while avoiding increasing the suffering of the Burmese people. The common position and the sanctions that it contains may not go as far as some want, but it is an effective compromise that unites the 25 member states around a policy that is broadly right, rather than allowing each member state to pursue its own approach. A divided EU without a common position would be good news for the regime and bad news for our objectives.
Other agencies have a similarly significant role to play. The Burmese regime continues to use forced labour in a number of areas and we therefore welcome the decision of the International Labour conference in June to demand
tangible and verifiable action from Myanmar
to address that problem. Faced with the threat of tougher sanctions, the Government of Burma have made small but perhaps significant concessions, and we hope that the International Labour Organisation will keep the spotlight on Burma until forced labour is eradicated.
While the military regime may appear impervious to foreign criticism, we acknowledge that it has taken some care to maintain its relationship with ASEAN and with its neighbours, China and India. Yet even within ASEAN there are signs of frustration at the slow pace of reform in Burma and an increasing focus on the standards of government expected of its members. We will continue to develop a dialogue with our ASEAN friends so that they, too, encourage Burma down the road to democratic reform and a proper respect for human rights.
As has been mentioned, two of Burmas most important neighbours and trading partners are China and India. In the medium term, their policy of engaging with the regime is driven by strategic and economic interest, but we hope that we can persuade them that their long-term interests will be better served by fostering peaceful change than by perpetuating the present unsustainable position. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Trade has raised the matter of Burmas human rights failings with representatives of the Chinese, Indian, South Korean and Japanese Governments. It will be difficult to convince all our partners in the region to modify their approach, but until the regime in Burma adheres to its human rights obligations, we shall continue to work patiently with those who have influence over it. Japans recent change of stance is evidence that attitudes are slowly shifting.
There are sadly no quick fixes to the appalling situation in Burma, much as we might like there to be. The Government are committed, by using all our international human rights instruments, to working closely with the UN and other partners in conveying clear messages to the regime, to continuing to work for improvement in the human rights situation in Burma and to help the Burmese people. I congratulate all hon. Members who have contributed to the debate on assisting in our work on doing that.
Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire) (Lab): I make no apologies for returning to flood defences and environment-related issues in South Derbyshire, which is a subject on which I have had two previous Adjournment debates. That reflects the character of my constituency. Its geography is that it is a low-lying area around the path of three riversthe Trent, the Dove and the Derwentwith numerous smaller water courses that also cause risk of flooding at certain times.
Faced with the significant flooding of 2000, which was initially thought to be close to a one-in-100-year event, many communities received a sharp wake-up call. Flooding occurred in a number of villages, as a response to which fluvial studies were commissioned on each of the three rivers both to establish the level of risk that might be experienced by communities that lie adjacent to them and to define what remedial measures could be taken to protect those communities in the future. Every congratulation needs to be given to the work of the Environment Agency in that respect.
The studies have varied somewhat in character over time. The Trent study was the first to be carried out and was completed with a full range of options of flood defence, including some that were alarming, involving the sacrifice of at least one village in my constituency to protect others. Fortunately those options were not proceeded with, but the study nevertheless comprehensively assessed both the risks that the affected villages faced and some of the options that could be taken to address them.
The Dove study has been delayed to some extent by spending cuts. I also understand that the full options analysis to test the various defence measures that could be taken will not be carried out to the same level of depth as those considered in the Trent study. However, a large portion of the work relating to the part that lies within my constituency has been completed, and I shall return to some of the issues that that has raised. The Derwent study is still to be completed, and affects a small part of my constituency.
The work, particularly on the Dove, has involved highly complex and advanced predictive modelling, married with local data collection, involving the assembling of photographic material and memories from villages that have been affected. The contractors Halcrow and the Environment Agency deserve every congratulation on the thoroughness with which they have addressed the problem and on the importance of the study that they have produced.
The places affected on the Derwent include the small community of Ambaston, which has some flood defences already, and the environs and smaller communities around the village of Shardlow. The Trent affects Shardlow too, which lies close to the point at which the Trent and the Derwent join, as well as Swarkestone, Barrow upon Trent and Willington, while the Dove affects Hatton, which is a large village, the smaller communities of Scropton and Egginton, and the edge of the large village of Hilton.
As a result of the experience of 2000, in which all those villages either were cut off from the outside world for a period or experienced large-scale flooding, which
was particularly true in Hatton, there is a high level of interest in the subject in those villages, and understandably so. The memories are still clear and the consequences of failing to take appropriate measures to defend against floods are obvious to people in those communities. Many of them have established active flood defence committees.
The district council has taken a strong leadership role, bringing together affected villages to discuss flood defence issues collectively with the various agencies involved, for which it deserves congratulations. The council has also demonstrated a strong commitment to capital expenditure in the area and has been an active partner of a major project in Hatton.
The Trent study demonstrated significant risks to all the four villages that I listed and indicated that projects at Swarkestone and Shardlow, where the defences needed to be revised, were potentially viable. A cost-benefit analysis for the defences that were suggested was applied to all the communities. Swarkestone and Shardlow passed that process and went into a list of projects that the Environment Agency was prepared to consider funding.
Since then one small defence has been erected around a part of Willington, although only after persistent lobbying by me and some villagers. Further study has, controversially, reduced the area of risk supposed to affect the community. That raises the issue of the interaction between the Environment Agency and those seeking large-scale planning consents in my constituency. I have raised those concerns with the agency, as it is worrying that a large-scale development, backed up with the resources that can be brought to bear, has managed to change the Environment Agencys mind about the level of risk that a community faces. I shall return to that briefly.
The Derwent study is still anxiously awaited in Ambaston, which narrowly missed being flooded in 2000. There is a flood bank around the community, but those who live there are pretty sure that it is inadequate. I should like the Minister to say whether the spending cuts that have been made in the Environment Agency this year have slowed down the progress of the Derwent study.
On the Dove study, since 2000 Hatton has received around £1.5 million of defence expenditure for a range of projects. A major flood bank has been erected in one part of the village and substantial work has been done on the brook that runs round the edge of the village. Severn Trent Water has also been persuaded to spend quite a lot of money improving the sewage system in the village, because people in the community there faced the double horror not only of having their houses flooded, but of a large amount of sewage flowing back into their homes. More minor works have been carried out in Scropton, which were thrown up as a result of detailed study of how the flood had behaved in 2000.
The 2000 event was seen as perhaps close to a one-in-100-year event at the time. However, since then studies have demonstrated that it was not nearly as infrequent an event as that. There is a complex system of brooks and rivers in my constituency, which means that the answer is not quite the same everywhere. However, it seems likely that, generally speaking, the frequency would be around one in 45 or 50 yearsin other words, a frequency that insurers would find
unacceptable, given their concerns that villages should be protected to a level of one in 75 years, and preferably one in 100 years.
Even after the new defences at Hatton, a significant proportion of the village would be vulnerable to a one-in-100-year flood event, while Scropton would be extensively flooded. Outlying properties in Hilton would flood, as they did in 2000, and the entirety of the small village of Egginton would flood, with its current old defences being wholly inadequate.
I want to raise some generic issues with the Minister, which he discussed with me once before. To what extent do the admirable studies that the Environment Agency commissions feed into bids for capital expenditure in the future? The point applies particularly vividly in my constituency, but the studies do not apply uniquely to South Derbyshire; I expect that they have demonstrated everywhere else substantially greater need than had been anticipated. That should put down markers for the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs bid for the Environment Agencys resources for capital works projects into the future. I should like to know about the methodology: are people feeding the data from the studies into future capital expenditure predictions?
The Dove study shows continuing extremely high risk. It is fortunate that my constituency is not a major urban one, in which some of the likely solutions could not apply. In some cases, such solutions would involve improving existing defences and increasing the ability of water upstream to displace into surrounding fields. The area that I am discussing is primarily rural, and it should be possible to examine how to displace water in that way and improve the drainage systems in communities further upstream. The water flows down to my constituents from such communities and it should be possible to find ways of improving the performance of drainage systems to reduce that flow.
Significant revenue expenditure will be required to assess the risk around the Dove and work out which communities should be protected. In my view, all the ones that I have listed should be. Significant expenditure will also be required for the design of appropriate solutions, but such requirements come against a background of Environment Agency cuts and a bidding process for the next public spending round. My anxiety is that such projects, in revenue termsDEFRA has rightly protected the Environment Agencys capital budgetmay be threatened or slowed down by the cuts that have already taken place. I understand from the Environment Agency that budget cuts already appear to have had some small delaying effect on the Dove study. Clearly, that will produce anxiety in the communities affected.
Let me summarise what I want addressed. Have the spending cuts that have been made had any impact on the progress of the Derwent study? I notice that my constituency neighbour, the right hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin), is in the Chamber; he may have some interest in aspects of my speech. What impact have the cuts had on the Derwent study and its analysis of flood risk and defence needs, particularly in respect of the section of the Derwent that lies in my constituency? What progress has been made on projectsespecially those related to the
communities of Swarkestone and Shardlowalready favoured by the Environment Agency in the Trent study?
What methodology does the agency use in dealing with planning applicants who have a clear interest in suggesting that flood risk is rather lower than has been predicted heretofore? There has been considerable anxiety in Willington that a major developer interested in developing the former power station has persuaded the agency that its development will have a lesser impact than the agency itself predicted. The developer appears to have succeeded, and that has produced a certain cynicism about how the agency operates in respect of those seeking planning consent.
Given the Environment Agencys financial position, how will the assessment and project design of schemes in the Dove study be proceeded with? Finally, how will an Environment Agency that is clearly under pressure of budget reductions into the future bring all the tasks together? Given how they have been imposed, the cuts are likely to produce a short-term focus on expenditure, particularly this year, and potentially into future years.
The Minister for Climate Change and the Environment (Ian Pearson): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) on securing this debate. He takes a close interest in flood risk management issues, about which we have spoken on previous occasions. I know that what we are debating is important for his constituency and many places elsewhere. I thank my hon. Friend for his positive comments about the Environment Agencys work to ensure the effective management of flood risk in South Derbyshire and the surrounding areas. I shall respond to all his points.
Flooding is a traumatic experience. It is costly in material terms, in its disruption to peoples lives, andbecause of the stress and worry that it causespsychologically. In recent years, we have made a great deal of progress in improving our management of flood risk and in understanding and taking account of the possible future impacts of climate change. We estimate that between 4 million and 5 million people live in areas at risk of flooding, and that they have assets totalling some £250 billion. The probability of flooding is likely to increase as a result of climate change and the rise in sea levels, and the cost of the damage that it will cause will increase along with national wealth and further development in the areas at risk. That represents a huge challenge for the Government, operating authorities such as the Environment Agency and those at risk.
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