Previous Section Index Home Page

6 Dec 2007 : Column 333WH—continued

6 Dec 2007 : Column 334WH

I remind the Under-Secretary that a relatively modest expenditure gives a terrifically effective bang for your buck. Expenditure of, I think, $1,254, provides for an estimated 2,000 people living as internally displaced persons or in similar circumstances in Chin state for six months. It is possible to spend a little and to gain a lot, and the consequences are immediate: the relief of poverty, the saving of lives, providing access to food, ensuring proper health care and facilitating the provision of education to children in Chin state who would not otherwise receive it. I hope that the Under-Secretary takes that message.

It would, I should add, complete the symmetry if the Government were to commit on the India-Burma border. The Secretary of State for International Development wrote to me in October and referred to an intention to provide, over a period of four years, £1.35 million for cross-border health programmes on the China-Burma border. I was previously unaware of that, and if the Government are determined to go ahead with it, that is extremely welcome. However, if they can do it over the China-Burma border, they can certainly do it over the India-Burma border. I had no doubts, in matters of efficiency and transparency, about the organisations and individuals who would be charged with that responsibility there.

There is the related issue of support for exiled democracy groups. The Government, in their reply to the Select Committee report, said that they were prepared to entertain applications for funding, subject to the caveat that organisations seeking funds for undertaking pro-democracy work, delivering advocacy services and seeking to cultivate strength in civil society must bear it in mind that they must meet the criterion of poverty reduction. Apart from anything else, that is a legal requirement under the International Development Act 2002. I understand that, but it is up to the Government to take a broad view. DFID funds civil society programmes in a plethora of developing countries, including least-developed countries, around the world. It is not always easy to prove an absolutely axiomatic, precise or mechanistic link between the provision of funds to an organisation that campaigns for human rights, on the one hand, and the immediate, visible relief of poverty, on the other. It is one of those contexts in which we must deploy a degree of common sense.

Organisations that document, publicise and campaign against the pervasiveness of rape in Burma, battling, as they are, under huge pressure and on a shoestring for greater assistance from individual Governments and at multilateral level, are contributing to poverty reduction. Of course, individual applications must be considered on their merits, and organisations must be prepared to fill in forms properly, to demonstrate transparency, to prove accountability and to behave efficiently. Their integrity must be beyond suspicion. However, there are many candidates that could benefit. I refer, of course, to the Shan Women’s Action Network, and the truly magnificent and redoubtable Charm Tong, who is an inspiration to anyone who meets her.

The Shan Women’s Action Network has previously been greeted with indifference and, I am sorry to say, even froideur, by officials—I emphasise that that was the response of some officials at DFID, and it must change in future. I am extremely heartened by the
6 Dec 2007 : Column 335WH
attitude of the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary. I ask that if the organisation submits an application, that application should be considered, because it is a brilliant organisation that is trying to help suffering women. It has a superb track record, but its members have felt so utterly discombobulated by DFID officials—or rather, they thought that the officials were so discombobulated in relation to them—that they thought it not worth the effort, as a hard-pressed group, to put in an application, having been told privately, “Frankly, you haven’t got a chance.” That situation is not satisfactory, and it is time for reform.

As well as that organisation, there is the Karen Women’s Organisation, and the Women’s League of Chinland, whose members I was privileged to meet on my visit to the India-Burma border in September. Another is the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, which does fantastic work. Would we know so much about the nature of the abuse of prisoners in Burma, if not for that organisation? It is people linked to that group who informed me about what I regard as probably one of the most horrific individual stories that I have heard about a prisoner in Burma. This person was in Insein prison and was so desperately malnourished, so ravaged and inadequate as a consequence of his treatment, and so painfully thin, that the investigator who went to look at conditions in the prison was reported subsequently as saying publicly that he could see the man’s intestines moving like worms. Such information does not get into the public domain unless conscientious individuals are prepared, sometimes at some risk to themselves, and from time to time under cover, to do the work and to report their findings. Such organisations deserve public finance.

Finally, I welcome the fact that the Prime Minister wrote on 16 October to the Secretary-General of the United Nations and held out the possibility of an international or multilateral economic package that could potentially be made available to Burma, if, and only if, there was demonstrable evidence of a commitment to immediate change. Quite how one would develop such a package is a matter for debate. I should have thought that it could indeed include provision for debt relief, trade facilitation and re-entry to the international economic system. It might possibly include funds to contribute to preparation for elections, and to the development as necessary of the activities of political parties and civil society organisations. All those matters can be discussed in due course.

The money should not be given prematurely, which would be disastrous, but equally it should not wait too long. There is a fine judgment to be made as to how to put together a suitable and flexible package, properly calibrated, which would have the desired effect of pushing a country teetering on the brink of a genuine commitment decisively to change in that direction. The fact that the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for International Development are talking in those terms is very welcome.

Our report is good; the Government response was a bit disappointing. Government utterances since have been very encouraging. I want to say in the politest possible way to the Under-Secretary, who has signed robust motions on Burma in the past, not least at my
6 Dec 2007 : Column 336WH
request when he was a Back Bencher, that I wish him well in the execution of his responsibilities. I do not want to sound menacing, but merely to be a candid friend, when I say to the Under-Secretary, who is a rising star in the Brownite firmament, that the International Development Committee will continue to be on his case.

3.29 pm

Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD): It is a great honour to follow the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow)—even though I fear that I may suffer by comparison. I am very grateful for the opportunity to debate the International Development Committee’s thorough report, which is entitled “DFID Assistance to Burmese Internally Displaced People and Refugees on the Thai-Burma Border”. I congratulate the Committee on the report and on producing such an illuminating analysis of the plight of the hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the continued turmoil in Burma. Importantly, the report affords us this opportunity to scrutinise the British Government’s efforts in dealing with this sadly ongoing humanitarian crisis.

The clearest message that I took from the report was about funding. As with many development issues, before we can start talking about how aid is to be used, the fundamental question is how much have we got. It is clear that Burma and its refugees have previously not received their fair share of aid. Although the cause of the historical underfunding is clear—a hostile and brutal regime, coupled with a complete lack of infrastructure—it must be acknowledged that British aid to Burma has not kept in line with that to comparable impoverished nations.

Surely, a guiding principle for the criteria for deciding where aid should go is where it is most needed. I therefore welcome very much the Secretary of State for International Development’s October announcement that UK aid to Burma will double to £18 million by 2010. I hope that that heralds a new era of increases, as part of the Government’s approach to helping Burma and the displaced people, but I cannot help wondering how much quicker the IDC’s recommended funding level might have been reached if the Government had honoured their 2004 spending review commitment to spend £1.5 billion more in terms of gross national income in this financial year.

The increase represents an exponential curve of growth from the low level of recent history, but it throws up some challenges in its wake, because DFID’s response to the IDC report states that

Although I am flattered by DFID’s faith in hon. Members, I am acutely aware that DFID budgets are experiencing huge and welcome increases, but with limited increases in staff capacity locally and static staff numbers in the UK to manage such increases. Civil servants are the front line in delivering the will of Her Majesty’s Government, and ultimately taxpayers’ interests are supervised by them. In this case, that must mean ensuring that Burmese refugee programmes are implemented to maximum effect, with every penny used to bring the utmost reward for the people of Burma.

6 Dec 2007 : Column 337WH

I am therefore eager to hear from the Under-Secretary about the capacity of DFID and the civil service to oversee the delivery of the promised increase. I support my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) and the Committee in expressing dismay in the report at the decision to close the Bangkok office, which is clearly of significance in the region. I ask the Government to reconsider that decision in the light of the report and the obvious support for it on both sides of the Chamber.

Debt relief obviously has a huge role to play in changing the trajectory of a country’s development, but I totally agree with the IDC’s support for the British Government’s reluctance to let any aid fall into the hands of the Burmese military junta. It is reasonable to suppose that most of the debt is held by the Burmese Government, so I would be grateful for assurances that debt relief will in no way serve the regime.

The meat of the report and, indeed, this debate is how we can best help the internally displaced people of Burma. I shall highlight several key themes. As the report emphasises, a key to the success of Burmese programmes, if we are to move beyond an emergency and reactive response, is to target greater resources at community-based organisations. That is an effective mechanism to bypass the regime, but more than that, it is surely our greatest hope of laying the building blocks for a different Burma. I wholeheartedly back the Committee’s recommendations for capacity building and training for community-based organisations. I am pleased that, in its response to the report, DFID said that it would make new efforts in that direction; that is to be welcomed.

None the less, when it comes to the thorny issue of cross-border assistance, DFID seems stuck between a rock and a hard place. The people who can be reached through cross-border assistance are clearly those most in need. Therefore, it is understandable how the imperative of need led to the DFID policy change in March this year. However, I was bemused by the comparative advantage discussion that arose from the report. I am no economist, but my basic understanding of the principle of comparative advantage leads me to believe that it is always a seminal issue in evaluating the provision of aid. One DFID employee on a UK wage is equivalent to a significant number of locally employed workers. The heart of the matter is the overall outcome and whether that is greater than its component parts. Surely, that is how comparative advantage should be evaluated. The bottom line must be strongly outcome-focused. I hope that DFID will endeavour to keep that very much in its focus.

As ever, I am strongly of the belief that development issues cannot be considered in a silo. When we consider the plight of the hundreds of thousands of people displaced by more than a quarter of a century of turmoil in Burma, we must consider what the British Government as a whole are doing to end or to address the situation. Obviously, an embargo is in place, which sends an absolutely clear message from the international community. The embargo also offers a practical solution in preventing the regime from obtaining the means of carrying out its reign of terror.

I have no doubt about the British Government’s sincerity in their support of the embargo, but I was horrified to learn earlier this year—I raised this issue in International Development questions yesterday—that Amnesty International and Saferworld’s report suggested
6 Dec 2007 : Column 338WH
that, in spite of the European Union arms embargo on Burma, helicopters with British-manufactured components were being re-exported to Burma from a third country. The Under-Secretary indicated yesterday that India might be in the frame as a third country. I wish for assurances about what British companies are doing in that regard, because it is a bizarre if not grotesque situation in which taxes from UK arms manufacturers are being spent by DFID in helping people to flee from a regime armed by those same manufacturers. May I suggest that we end that hellish circle and make it absolutely impossible for British manufacturers to sell any arms through a third country to Burma? I hope that the Under-Secretary will commit to that today.

John Battle: Is the hon. Lady suggesting that the British Government are selling arms to Burma, or is she objecting to the fact that parts, including engineering parts such as wheels and brackets, are sold to companies abroad and that those parts are then used in military equipment sold by other countries to Burma? Will she clarify whether she is asking for the sale of all parts to any company anywhere in the world to be banned? I am not clear about what she is suggesting. She was implying that the British Government were selling arms, and I did not think that that was quite true.

Lynne Featherstone: No, that was not the intention behind what I said; the intention was to talk about the components of arms.

To conclude, we cannot take our eye off the ultimate goal—the end of the brutal regime in Burma. Aid is a means to an end, not an end in itself. The greatest achievement that we could hope for, which I urge the Government to pursue relentlessly, is a democratically elected Government in Burma with whom we could constructively engage one day. Only then can we really hope that the hundreds of thousands of families who have been displaced may be able to return to their homes and start to rebuild their lives in safety and security.

3.38 pm

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con): I start by conveying to hon. Members the apologies of the shadow International Development Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster), who is spending a week with President Donald Kaberuka in the African Development Bank in Tunis. He is having a look at the workings of the bank and the significant steps forward that it has taken under Donald Kaberuka’s leadership.

I pay tribute to the Select Committee on International Development under the leadership of the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce). We are discussing the Committee’s 10th report of the 2006-07 Session. It is an extremely good read, as all hon. Members have said. It is very well written and cogently argued and it explains in part why the International Development Committee, under the right hon. Gentleman’s leadership, is one of the most respected Select Committees of this House and is widely respected outside this place as well.

The right hon. Gentleman chided the Government a little for not crediting the Committee’s report in subsequent announcements—a point reiterated and embellished by
6 Dec 2007 : Column 339WH
my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow). I agree with that point, but this has been a consensual and constructive debate. All of us try in our own way to help that beautiful but benighted country, about which much more is known now than six months ago.

I shall not prolong this debate, as many of the important points have already been made, but I shall reiterate what my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham described as the relevant context of this debate and say a few words about some specific aspects of the Committee’s report, which I support.

The context is, of course, the extraordinary scenes of bravery on the streets of Rangoon earlier this year. I emphasise that those scenes were born of the extremes of poverty that exist today in Burma and have been described by other Members. Those extremes are of an order seen almost nowhere else. In the scenes that we saw on television, I noted two things. The first was that the sort of people demonstrating on the streets were not the students that we have seen before; many of them were middle-aged women who were fighting to feed their families and maintain their homes and who are desperate as a result of the state of affairs in Burma. The other was that much had changed since 1988, because of advances in information technology and some of the beneficial effects of globalisation. In 1988, it took months before we knew that thousands had perished in a massacre perpetrated by the junta. This year, we could see in real time on our television screens exactly what was happening, and the world could form an accurate judgment. Indeed, we saw a Japanese photographer executed by the regime before our eyes.

I pay tribute to Mark Canning, the outstanding British ambassador in Rangoon, to the Department for International Development staff who are doing an excellent job there, and to Charles Petrie, the UN co-ordinator in Burma, who had to leave earlier this week. He has done a very good job, and he so irritated the regime that he was declared persona non grata.

Malcolm Bruce: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman mentioned that. Does he share my concern that it indicates the difficulties that may be encountered in delivering aid effectively if people who make any kind of association between the regime and the suffering of the people are immediately expelled? I hope that the Under-Secretary will tell us how the British Government intend to ensure that the aid promised is delivered effectively in spite of that situation.

Mr. Mitchell: The right hon. Gentleman makes an extremely good point, and I am sure that the Under-Secretary will want to comment on it. I had the opportunity to speak to Charles Petrie this morning. Now that he has gone, it is clear that the UN policy under which he was working—I shall say more about the UN in a moment—is absolutely the right policy and will continue regardless of what the regime does to UN representatives based in Burma.

It is interesting that on Monday, the regime called together a group of ambassadors and agencies working in Burma. It was assumed that they would be talking about the constitution and any developments in that
6 Dec 2007 : Column 340WH
respect, or about the alleviation of poverty, but not a bit of it. The regime continued to try to explain that all the difficulties of the summer were caused by outsiders agitating about what was going on in Burma, rather than those inside. That is completely wrong, but it suggests that the regime might be split, that there is a difference of opinion within the junta, and that it was talking at least as much to its own people as to anyone else. Perhaps it shows that although the position appears to be hardening and moving away from what we had hoped for during the summer, it is nevertheless complex and there are signs that it may be changing for the better.

The regime is incomparably lucky to have Aung San Suu Kyi. In the situation preoccupying many of us in Darfur, it is difficult to find someone with whom to negotiate who encapsulates the opposition to and dissent against the Government. In Burma, it is encapsulated in one person who has colossal international and national credibility and who, if only she gets the chance, will deliver the right solution for Burma, which is to move the military and politicians, over time, to their correct positions in society. I hope that the ASEAN, UN and EU nations’ single focus on releasing Aung San Suu Kyi and the other political prisoners in Burma will continue.

The position of China and India has been mentioned. I have talked to the Chinese ambassador in London about Burma. China has been a force for good in at least some aspects of the situation. We must strongly encourage the Chinese to exercise their influence over the regime—behind closed doors perhaps, although preferably not—to support the UN initiatives in every way that they can. I echo the Committee’s comments about India, the largest democracy in the world. India could do more, and the Committee is absolutely right to emphasise the importance of maintaining pressure on India through its many friends around the world, in the Commonwealth and elsewhere, to do a little more to help.

John Bercow: Is my hon. Friend as horrified as I am by the Government of India’s regular self-defence, when challenged on the matter, that it is a cardinal principle of their foreign policy not to interfere in the internal affairs of other states? Does he agree that it is about time that the Government of India became aware of and showed some respect for the UN proclamation on the responsibility to protect?

Mr. Mitchell: My hon. Friend expresses himself in his inimitable way, and many people will share his sentiments. It is extremely important that India’s many friends, speaking to India in a spirit of friendship, make those points. I underline that India is the largest democracy in the world. It is a beacon to so many states; it should be a beacon to the oppressed in Burma as well.

The point has been made today and in other forums in Britain about the centrality of the United Nations. We must work through the UN. Professor Gambari has made four visits to Burma. That sort of effort is the construct that we should follow. The Opposition have called for the Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, to go to Burma himself to increase the intensity of that focus, and I hope that he will do so soon.

Next Section Index Home Page