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House of Commons

Wednesday 5 December 2007

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

International Development

The Secretary of State was asked—


1. Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): If he will make a statement on the humanitarian situation in Burma. [171074]

3. Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): If he will make a statement on the humanitarian situation in Burma. [171076]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Shahid Malik): Severe economic mismanagement has led to one third of Burma’s population living on less than 16p a day, and the recent brutal suppression has created even greater hardship. In response, the Department for International Development is providing £1 million to meet urgent humanitarian needs, as well as the £8 million already planned for this year. This week, DFID agreed to increase by £100,000 this year’s funding to the Thailand Burma Border Consortium for its work with internally displaced people and refugees along the border.

Mr. Evennett: I thank the Minister for that very encouraging response setting out what the Government are doing, but what steps is his Department taking to ensure that economic sanctions against that dreadful regime in Rangoon are carefully targeted on the junta and its cronies, and do not damage the livelihoods of the already impoverished people of Burma?

Mr. Malik: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that on 15 October, European Union Foreign Ministers agreed to tougher sanctions. These are sanctions targeted on the cronies and the regime, and they focus on timber, precious metals and gems. I had the opportunity this week to speak to Mark Canning, Her Majesty’s ambassador in Rangoon, who is doing an excellent job. He told me that the sanctions are biting, and gave the example of a person he described as the No. 1 crony of the regime, who owns Air Bagan. It has been forced to shut accounts in Singapore, and it might well be the case that it closes altogether within the next two weeks.

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Mr. Vara: With more than 25 per cent. of the people in Burma living on less than $1 a day, why did the Government not endorse the recommendation of the International Development Committee to quadruple aid by 2013?

Mr. Malik: We fully recognise the need to increase funding and support for Burma. It is for that exact reason that on 29 October this year, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced a doubling of aid to £18 million from the current £9 million, which is broadly on a trajectory to meet the target of quadrupling aid by 2013 recommended by the IDC report. We will, of course, review the situation in 2010-11, but Members who have a longer memory of this place than I do will recall that in 1997 aid to Burma was £250,000.

John Battle (Leeds, West) (Lab): I thank the Minister for increasing aid to Burma, not least in the light of the report of our International Development Committee, which stressed that for too long the poor and displaced of Burma had been neglected. Will he spell out a bit more where the money will go? It is really important that it reaches the poor and is not filtered out.

Mr. Malik: My right hon. Friend has a long track record in international development matters. He is absolutely right to request that that information be spelled out. I shall speak about the £1 million that was announced. It will go to monastic schools and orphanages, and will also be spent on feeding malnourished children in primary schools, on water and sanitation projects, and on supporting Médecins sans Frontières in its work to provide basic health care.

The doubling of spend will focus on areas where we have already had a really big impact such as primary school education, HIV, tuberculosis, malaria, refugees and internally displaced persons—the IDC made it clear that such work needed to be upscaled—and work on civil society organisations. Of course, we continue to work with the rural poor, which is a massive challenge in Burma.

Ann McKechin (Glasgow, North) (Lab): My hon. Friend will be aware of the horrific incidence of rape and sexual violence against women by militia groups in Burma. Will he explain how his Department hopes to assist civic society groups that support women in Burma in their campaign to bring that issue to the world’s attention?

Mr. Malik: My hon. Friend is right to talk about the outrage that exists in Burma. We have provided a new £3 million to strengthen civil society organisations and build the foundations of democracy. We are also discussing our programme over the next three years with various non-governmental organisations, and I have no doubt that the area of concern she raises will receive the attention it deserves.

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): Can the Minister say how much more difficult it is to get aid through to civil societies from Rangoon following the recent demonstrations and crackdown? Given the need to get aid to people wherever they are, will Ministers review the closure of the office in Bangkok in view of the fact that so many out-of-country organisations are based there and need regular support?

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Mr. Malik: I shall attempt to give some comfort to the right hon. Gentleman by saying that staff in the Rangoon office will increase from three to 10. We are increasing our capacity in London, stepping up co-ordination between in-country and cross-border assistance and working with the United Nations. DFID staff will make more frequent visits to the borders and the camps. This week, I had an opportunity to speak to Rurik Marsden, who heads the DFID office there, and he said that he had already visited five of the nine camps. Of course, we have the embassy in Bangkok, which will liaise with the Thai Government to monitor the position on the border. The right hon. Gentleman is right to raise the matter. I hope that the reply will give him some reassurance that we are serious about tackling it.

Gordon Banks (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Lab): Can my hon. Friend advise the House whether he believes that DFID provides adequate support to combat the significant HIV/AIDS problem in Burma?

Mr. Malik: My hon. Friend is right to focus on HIV/AIDS, which was a taboo subject only a few years ago. We have made incredible inroads in the fight against HIV/AIDS in Burma. For example, 48 million condoms were distributed in 2005—a fourfold increase on 2000. There has been a 70 per cent. increase in the number of people visiting sexually transmitted infection clinics since 2000. Some 1.1 million needles and syringes were provided in 2005—that represents a doubling of the 2004 numbers. For the record, every second 15 DFID condoms are used somewhere in the world.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Further to the question asked by the hon. Member for Glasgow, North (Ann McKechin), and in welcoming the proposed doubling of aid to Burma, may I appeal to the Minister to acknowledge the imperative requirement to fund exiled groups, such as pro-democracy organisations, on the border, notably the Shan Women’s Action Network and the Karen Women’s Organisation, not to mention the Federation of Trade Unions-Burma? They have a critical role to play and they need our support.

Mr. Malik: To correct the perception that I may have created, I have nothing to do with the usage of the condoms.

The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. We are considering the role of exiled groups with the new money that we have. DFID staff are already discussing with exiled groups the projects that may be compatible with the International Development Act 2002 and the normal financial management requirements. We are considering that with exiled groups, civil society organisations, community-based organisations and other NGOs. It is one of the IDC’s recommendations and I know that it is dear to the hon. Gentleman’s heart. We are seriously considering the matter and we will be scaling up on it.

Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD): No doubt the Minister will be aware of the recent Amnesty International and Saferworld report, which details the practice of arms with components
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that have been manufactured in the United Kingdom being re-exported to Burma through third countries, thus circumventing the EU arms embargo. Does he share my concern that that undermines DFID’s work in Burma? Will he give a genuine commitment to lobbying the relevant Ministers to outlaw that practice?

Mr. Malik: If what the hon. Lady describes takes place, it is unacceptable. We are not aware of any major company that invests in Burma. We know that India is considering whether to continue its arms relationship with Burma. It might end it, and that would be welcomed by the House and have an impact on the matters that the hon. Lady raises.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con): As I saw earlier this year, British taxpayers’ money that is spent in Burma is extremely well spent, not least in the forgotten border camps, which desperately need more help and support. Why will the Minister not accept in full the proposal of the Select Committee and the Opposition to keep the Bangkok office open and sharply increase our support for the Burmese people?

Mr. Malik: I think I have made it clear that we are sharply increasing our support for the Burmese people. We will continue to do that. The impact of our programmes is there for all to see. Four thousand primary schools and up to 500,000 children benefited from basic supplies and text books last year, and 100,000 farmers now use low-cost water pumps, increasing their income by $190 a year—money that they can spend on food, clothing and medicines. I have already explained our position on the Bangkok office. We believe that our measures will be effective in tackling our mutual concerns about the suffering people in Burma, including the refugees in China, Thailand and elsewhere.

Mr. Mitchell: The Minister and the Government need to do better on this. He knows well that we are spending more than £100 million of taxpayers’ money in several African countries and more than £35 million in China this year, which last month alone had a trade surplus of £12 billion. What skewed sense of priorities does it show that we are spending less than £9 million this year in Burma, at such a critical point in that country’s development?

Mr. Malik: I think that, to the people who have been listening, that would have been a less than convincing position to take. I did not want to go this far back, but in 1992 just £50,000 was given to Burma. It is a disgrace that Opposition Members should lecture us about aid to Burma.


2. Mr. David Amess (Southend, West) (Con): If he will make a statement on the humanitarian situation in Zimbabwe. [171075]

5. Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): If he will make a statement on the humanitarian situation in Zimbabwe. [171078]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Douglas Alexander): The humanitarian situation in Zimbabwe continues to deteriorate. We are playing a
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major role with others in the international community in helping to try to protect the Zimbabwean people from some of the worst effects of President Mugabe’s reckless mismanagement.

Mr. Amess: In spite of what the Secretary of State has just told the House, he is aware that the terrible humanitarian situation in Zimbabwe has forced thousands of people to flee to neighbouring countries. Will he tell us precisely what his Department is doing to help protect and support those people?

Mr. Alexander: The hon. Gentleman is right to acknowledge that there is now a regional dimension to the national crisis that Mugabe has inflicted on his own country. Not only do we see refugee camps being established and people being absorbed into neighbouring countries such as South Africa, but we have seen a draining of much of the best talent in Zimbabwean society, whether teachers, doctors or health workers, who could assist the development needs of that community. This is a matter that we continue to discuss not just with the partner organisations which we are providing with humanitarian assistance—£40 million this year—but with neighbouring countries, not least South Africa, including at the Commonwealth Heads of Government conference, where our Prime Minister had discussions with President Mbeki.

Mr. Mackay: The Secretary of State is surely right to say that the humanitarian situation in Zimbabwe is deteriorating, owing to the outrageous behaviour of the Mugabe regime, so will he condemn with me the fact that Zimbabwe will not be on the agenda of the EU-Africa summit in Lisbon this month? Does the Secretary of State agree that we will resolve the problems in Zimbabwe, particularly the humanitarian situation, only with the help of Zimbabwe’s neighbours?

Mr. Alexander: I think that there is common accord between us in recognising the need for political reform; otherwise the need for humanitarian assistance will continue. The Government’s position in relation to the African Union-EU summit in Lisbon has been made clear. Our Prime Minister has recognised that Mugabe’s attendance will be a distraction from the vital work that the summit needs to take forward. One of the conditions of the travel visa that Mugabe has secured to attend the summit is that the issue of human rights will be discussed, which I hope is at least some consolation to the right hon. Gentleman.

The right hon. Gentleman is also right to recognise that there is a regional dimension. We continue to look to the Southern African Development Community process, to President Mbeki and to other members of SADC—I myself spoke with President Kikwete of Tanzania about the issue last week—to recognise that the regional players, alongside Zimbabwe, have a key role to play in ensuring the kind of political changes that I am sure all of us in the House wish to see.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): The Secretary of State is aware that all the aid that we give—it is very welcome indeed—will tackle only the symptoms of what is happening in Zimbabwe. Does he share my frustration that the European Union has gone ahead with this weekend’s conference, where Mugabe will be strutting
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the stage despite being responsible for all the suffering in Zimbabwe? Will my right hon. Friend also look at how we can get South Africa to adopt a much stronger position? Should we also not be looking at stopping aid to—

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Mr. Alexander: I agree with my hon. Friend to the extent that we all wish to see a summit taking place without the distraction of Mugabe’s attendance. We have made that position clear. Technically, the invitation to Robert Mugabe was extended by the African Union, which is in charge of who attends the summit. In relation to South Africa, President Mbeki held cordial and constructive discussions with our Prime Minister in Kampala at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. Our bilateral relations continue to be strong: I spoke last week to Trevor Manuel, the Finance Minister. I assure my hon. Friend that South Africa is very clear about the position being adopted by the British Government.

All that being said, I am keen to avoid offering from this Dispatch Box any comfort or opportunity for Mugabe to distort what I wish to see—a genuinely united international effort against the actions of his regime—and to caricature and characterise it as simply the concerns of the United Kingdom. It is vital that we continue to work with others to find a way forward.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford) (Lab): The Prime Minister is to be congratulated on declining to take part in any meeting with President Mugabe. As the Secretary of State acknowledges, South Africa is the key to this. What further arguments can be deployed to try to persuade the South African Government to take a more robust line on Zimbabwe?

Mr. Alexander: My hon. Friend is right to acknowledge the key role that South Africa has to play, although of course the whole of SADC has a responsibility. When I met President Kikwete in Tanzania last week, I took the opportunity to emphasise to him the importance of SADC setting out the democratic norms and standards expected of the election prior to its taking place. It would be a tragedy were the SADC process seen in retrospect as somehow having legitimised an election that was not deemed free and fair. We are therefore strongly urging South Africa, Tanzania and other members of the SADC process to be very clear in advance about the standards and norms expected of a free and fair election.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): The Secretary of State will know that starvation and brutal oppression get worse day by day in Mr. Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. Commonwealth Heads of Government meetings take place—they come and go—as do those with our European partners. When will the Government and the world take action to deal with the brutality and horrors in Zimbabwe, for which we are in part responsible?

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