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29 Oct 2007 : Column 599

Mention has been made of the pressure that could be put on China and the ASEAN countries. I believe that pressure is already building on them. The instability in that part of the world benefits neither the ASEAN countries nor China. When there was a strong, apparently immovable regime, perhaps they were happy to support it. Now that the prospect of long-term stability has lessened, it might push China and the ASEAN countries to apply more pressure on Burma.

Hon. Members have said that the Chinese Government want the Olympics to go smoothly. We should use that as a lever to get the Chinese Government to pay more attention to the position in Burma and put more pressure on the Burmese regime, which they have the ability to influence.

John Bercow: The hon. Gentleman is making a fantastic speech. Given that delaying tactics, the making of only low-level representations by the international community and the removal of the spotlight of publicity from Burma are sources of delight to the regime, does he agree that, in addition to all else that he has said, it is imperative now that the Secretary-General of the United Nations should raise the stakes by making a visit? He wanted the job—is not it a good idea for him to show that he is worth it?

Sammy Wilson: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and I want to finish with a plea to the Government to ensure that the stakes are raised and that pressure is applied to Burma.

From my experience, I know that, whether one is dealing with local terrorism such as we experienced in Northern Ireland or the state-sponsored terrorism on a grander scale that we see in Burma, terrorists always hope that people will cry and shout about the last atrocity and then forget it. The one message that the debate must convey at the end of the parliamentary Session is that, in the next Session and for as long as it takes, the spotlight will be placed on the iniquitous regime and that pressure, including sanctions on individual members of the junta, and the threat that, some day, internationally, justice will catch up with them, will be applied. That is important because if members of the regime believe that they can ride the pressure, they will continue to do as they have been doing. We will get reaction and movement from them only if they know that the democracies of the world are determined to ensure that they behave properly towards their citizens.

7.53 pm

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): I will not take up the full allocated time because I understand that others want to speak. However, I am pleased to have the opportunity to take part in the debate because, some years ago, I visited the border areas, especially one of the refugee camps, where I saw people who had to flee their country and had been in exile ever since. That made a profound impression for three reasons.

First, I was struck by the length of time that some refugees had been in the camp. I think that the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) probably visited the same camps and had the same experiences. Some refugees are part of the second and even the third
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generation of people who have been born and brought up in the camps and still live in acute poverty.

Secondly, I was struck by the extreme isolation that the refugees experienced. Having been forced to flee their country, they were contained in the camp and had little opportunity to travel elsewhere. They therefore did not have much chance of speaking to and meeting people and talking about what had happened to them.

My third strong impression, which is reflected in the Select Committee’s excellent report, was the fact that the refugees felt that they and their cause had been forgotten. We have all obviously been struck by recent events in Burma and the horrendous sights on the television. However, interest in and attention on Burma has waxed and waned and the refugees in the camp did not feel that the world had constantly monitored their plight or was consistently supporting their cause.

I hope that the debate and the action that is taking place will help to redress the balance. I greatly welcome the announcement of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development about the increase in spending and the fact that the UK is now a substantial donor. That is a genuine improvement and goes some way towards dealing with the horrendous poverty that exists in Burma and in the refugee camps. I especially recall visiting the maternity ward at the refugee camp and seeing people place Coca-Cola bottles containing hot water and stoppers around premature babies to try to keep them warm and alive. The increase of aid to try to tackle such poverty and disadvantage is enormously welcome.

However—there has to be a “however”—although increased aid will help alleviate suffering and hardship, and prolong and improve the quality of life, it will not solve the problem because it is political. Political pressure and a political solution are needed. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State spelled out some of the steps that the UK Government and the international community have taken and the progress that has been achieved, all of which is welcome.

The fact that the United Nations has adopted its first statement on Burma by consensus, including China, marks a substantial shift in global politics and sends a clear message to the regime that it, not the refugees, is isolated in world opinion. It also conveys a warning that Burma cannot hope to maintain the status quo and must therefore change its ways.

However, I do not agree with some hon. Members who spoke earlier because I do not believe that adopting slightly different procedures and expecting the world to accept them will work. Given that Burma has a clearly elected and supported democratic leader, regime change, not some slight improvements to a fundamentally unacceptable regime, are needed.

It is also important to note that the United Nations Human Rights Council has condemned human rights abuses in Burma, and to ensure that that is known around the world. It is also important that the EU has targeted sanctions on the regime’s economic interests that tackle some of the key sectors of the economy, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State pointed out. However, as all hon. Members have said, more must be done to increase the pressure to produce a change in the regime. As many right hon. and hon. Members have already suggested tonight, one of the
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factors that would contribute to that pressure would be a visit from the United Nations Secretary-General.

Also, we should increase the pressure on China and India to change their ways and to understand the extent of the revulsion that the rest of the international community feels about Burma. I understand that China feels the protests in Burma are an internal affair, although it did go along with the Security Council resolution. Despite doing that, however, China has continued to operate its trading regime, with some £2 billion of its imports coming from Burma.

John Bercow: I am interested in what the hon. Lady is saying about the behaviour of the Government of India. I put it to her that that behaviour is not only immoral but profoundly short-sighted. Would she accept that, if the Government of India continue to pursue their “look east” policy to accentuate their contact and extend their commercial relationships with Burma in a bid to make more money, one consequence will be an increase in the number of refugees coming over the border from Chin state in Burma? A richer Burmese Government will cause more people to flee because they are terrified. If the Indian Government cannot see that, they really need to look more closely at the matter.

Ms Keeble: The hon. Gentleman is completely right. I must point out that I have not actually mentioned India yet, although I was about to do so. I understand that, at the height of the protests, India’s oil Minister travelled to Burma to sign a deal to explore for offshore gas. There are two aspects to trading with an unacceptable regime—first, the country concerned incurs the wrath of the world and, secondly, it is short-sighted in its own terms, as we have seen from China’s adventures in Zimbabwe, which will not ultimately be in China’s interest any more than they will be in the interests of the long-term future of the people of Zimbabwe. It is therefore particularly important that the UK Government use the very good relations that they have with China and India to exert maximum pressure on those Governments to introduce sanctions against the Burmese regime.

I believe that the Department for International Development still provides assistance to China and to some of the states in India. It is important that any discussions on those development programmes also point out the contradictions involved in those countries supporting the brutal regime in Burma. We also need to consider carefully the kind of boycott that was adopted here to deal with the regime in South Africa. Comparisons with South Africa and Zimbabwe are probably more pertinent in this context than to those with eastern Europe. There is a growing tourism industry in Burma, and there is a question in this country about whether we should have a popular campaign to isolate the regime in Burma similar to the one that was adopted for South Africa.

Because this is a political issue, it is also important to understand that the UK Government will support the exiles and the refugees from the Burmese Government. If the DFID staff are to be moved from Thailand, it must be made absolutely clear that our embassy there
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will continue to provide its very important support to the refugees who live along the border between Burma and Thailand. It must be understood that those people will be fully supported and not forgotten.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Buckingham. We in the House have a great responsibility to ensure that the cause of the people of Burma is not allowed to slip off our list of political priorities. We can do them a great service by ensuring that the cause of a free Burma is well represented and argued for here.

8.5 pm

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): I do not wish to repeat anything that has already been so excellently said by others in the debate, including by my hon. Friends the Members for Buckingham (John Bercow), for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) and for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell), as well as by many on the Labour Benches.

I want to make two points. The first relates to China. I am the vice-chairman of the all-party group on China, and I do not believe that we as a country, or we as a House, have yet got to grips with how we are going to deal and interact with that country. It has emerged from the debate that China is key to what will happen to most of Asia in the 21st century, and certainly key to what will happen in Burma. It is a complex country. In Shanghai, we see rampant capitalism and more department stores than in any European capital, yet in other parts of the country there is a huge amount of poverty. China is managing to lift many people out of poverty, however, and to a certain extent meeting some of the millennium development goals will largely be a consequence of China having achieved that. So China has that contrast between capitalism and state control. It is also quite difficult to work out who its decision makers are.

How do we, as a Parliament, interact with China? As I have mentioned, there is an all-party parliamentary group on China but—like every other all-party group except the British American all-party group—it has to busk its relationships. We go out and get sponsorship from business groups and others who might have a constructive interest in China and, under the leadership of the hon. Member for Wirral, South (Ben Chapman), we have now managed to set up a fairly rudimentary programme in which a delegation from the House goes to visit the National People’s Congress one year, and the next year—including next year, we hope—a delegation from the congress comes here to have meetings with us. It is a pretty basic kind of dialogue, however, and if we are to have any real influence with legislatures in countries such as China and India as we emerge into the 21st century, Parliament will have to give much more thought to how, to use a Foreign Office expression, we thicken and deepen our relations with them. We can stand up in this House and make fine and noble speeches, but can we be confident that those who should be listening to them are doing so?

The same applies to colleagues in India. We probably have more contact with them, simply because we have more cause to see Members of the Indian lower House, who come to London more frequently, but it is still pretty hit and miss. Parliament in the 21st century must
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work out how we can have a much more meaningful relationship with legislatures and decision takers in countries such as India and China, given their increasing importance in the region and in the Security Council.

The second point that I want to make, while the Secretary of State for International Development is present, is that although I welcome the increased development assistance to Burma, I am now genuinely a bit confused about DFID’s priorities. The Department started off by wanting to meet the millennium development goals. I think that we then moved to providing budget support for countries that we thought were reformist, doing well, ticking the boxes and engaging in partnerships such as the New Partnership for Africa’s Development. Then countries such as Ethiopia and—perhaps—Uganda did not quite meet the criteria, so we went back to project support rather than money.

If DFID is to give support to countries and regimes such as Burma, we need to provide some very clear signalling that it is different from offering support and financial assistance to reforming countries. In other words, we need to make it clear that we are giving assistance because Burma is a failed or failing nation and we do not want it to fail any more. It must be made clear that we are supporting only individuals or groups within such countries, making the development assistance of a different character and nature from that given to Governments of whom we approve.

Everyone participating in a debate such as this is by instinct a humanitarian. Our instinct as a House is to provide support to areas such as Darfur, to refugees in Zimbabwe and to people in difficulties elsewhere. Sometimes we have to ask ourselves what proportion of the DFID budget should be given to such areas and whether we are confident that, in providing support and assistance, we are not making the position worse in the longer run. We may mitigate the worst that is happening in some countries and regimes, but reduce the pressure to reform further.

Mr. Douglas Alexander: I would like to make an observation by way of putting a question to the hon. Gentleman. Does he accept my description of the money announced today, which made it clear that both presently and in the future we do not anticipate providing budgetary support or money directly to the Burmese regime? While it is a constant for DFID to be concerned about poverty eradication, the manner in which we provide either immediate humanitarian assistance or development assistance alters and varies according to particular circumstances. Does he agree that it is reasonable, in the circumstances of Burma of all countries, to say that we must conduct ourselves prudently when increasing DFID’s budget to make it absolutely certain that none of the money finds it way into the hands of the regime? It is appropriate to increase significantly during the coming spending review period without prejudice to the capacity of the NGOs to which we are giving money to absorb potentially even larger sums in the subsequent spending review period. That was the aim that I was seeking to articulate.

Tony Baldry: I do not demur from the Secretary of State’s take on this. I understand his line, but I am trying to make a slightly different point. Clearly, I am
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not making it very well, so I will try again. This will be read outside this place as the UK Government giving development assistance to Burma. What I am trying to say is that there should be a way of signalling in DFID’s annual report by traffic lights or colouring precisely which countries or areas of the world are receiving development assistance because we believe they are performing well, are reformist and worthy of encouragement, and which areas are receiving assistance because they are failed or failing states. Indeed, we may not give any money to some states, but to the NGOs helping particular groups within those states. The DFID annual report should make it patently clear what proportion of moneys is going in those different ways—budget support, project support and so forth. Otherwise, people will start to get confused as to what proportion of DFID money is intended to be long-term development assistance and what proportion is directed towards immediate humanitarian needs and concerns. That is my point to the Secretary of State.

John Bercow: Increasing cross-border humanitarian aid in a way that DFID officials on the ground have consistently resisted would enable us more effectively to reach some of the most vulnerable people who would otherwise get left out. I put it to my hon. Friend that it would also be helpful if there were an explicit unmistakeable commitment to give funds to pro-democracy organisations. With the greatest respect to the Secretary of State, thus far the Department for International Development has committed to neither of those specific requests.

Tony Baldry: My hon. Friend raises a fine point, on which I would like to expand in response to the Secretary of State. When DFID decided to move increasingly to budget support, the skills mix of officials in the Department changed. If the Department is giving large sums of money to other countries by way of budget support, it means that not so many people in it are involved in projects and other work on the ground, as in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Mr. Alexander: I will confirm the figures in writing, but my recollection is that there are eight countries to which DFID provides budget support. That contrasts markedly with a very much larger number of countries to which we continue to offer programme assistance. I did not want to allow the moment to pass in the suggestion that the overwhelming preponderance of our development assistance was now offered through budget support. I am keen to take the opportunity that the hon. Gentleman has provided me to reiterate that we do not regard the additional resources offered today to the people of Burma as any reward whatever to the Government of Burma. They will not see this money, which will address the immediate humanitarian needs of people who have been desperately impoverished by the misgovernment of the regime. I think that we have an obligation not to punish the people of Burma twice—once for poverty and again for bad governance.

Tony Baldry: The Secretary of State has misunderstood my point. I am sure that he will write to me; and I will write to him and dig out the quotations of the former Secretary of State for International Development, who
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regularly came before the Select Committee to say, “Hey, lads, what we are going to do now is provide more and more budget support. This is the way that DFID is going to move to meet the millennium development goals.”— [Interruption.] Yes, my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham also sat there for four years, going through this process. He saw the direction of travel, too. It stopped being the direction of travel only when various countries to which budget support had been given did not deliver. Ethiopia is one example. It led to the understanding that budget support might be withdrawn if countries did not perform. My point is that if DFID is to fulfil the ambitions for cross-border work with NGOs and others, the skills mix in the Department will have to change. It will need to draw on the abilities of people who are capable of managing projects. That happened under the previous Secretary of State.

Let me point out to the Secretary of State that it would be helpful to have a separate debate on DFID’s present direction of travel, so that we can all understand what is happening. It is not good enough to hear him declare that only a small number of countries are getting budget support, as if that were a justification for what is happening, when we were told only a couple of years ago by his predecessor that the intention was for far more of DFID’s funds to be distributed through budget support. We need a clearer understanding of where we are actually going.

As I said at the outset, I have two main points. The first is that we need to work out much better how to establish our complicated relations with China; we need to work much harder in that respect. Secondly, I do not wish to test the Secretary of State’s patience, but I believe that we need to gain a much better understanding of DFID’s direction of travel. It would be helpful to have a separate debate on that matter on another occasion.

8.18 pm

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con): I start by conveying the shadow Foreign Secretary’s apologies. He had an unbreakable commitment at 8 o’clock tonight from which he had hoped to return for the winding-up speeches, but he will not now be able to do so.

We have had a fascinating debate, in which deep concern has been expressed on both sides of the House about the situation in Burma. The competition is stiff, as has been said, but Burma remains without doubt one of the most unpleasant and despised regimes in the world. It is a subject that has secured the House’s attention on numerous occasions, but it is some time since we had a debate in this Chamber. I am very pleased that we are debating the subject here tonight.

I first spoke on the subject of Burma in this Chamber at 3 o’clock in the morning on 24 June 1991, nearly 17 years ago. It is deeply depressing how little has changed since that time—

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Meg Munn): Your constituency has changed.

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