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A statement issued by ASEAN earlier this autumn said that ASEAN Foreign Ministers were

We need to see more of that sort of statement lined up behind the UN. However, I was disappointed that the ASEAN chairman’s statement on Myanmar later somewhat resiled from direct involvement. It is enormously important that everyone should line up behind the UN, to ensure that what little progress as has been made continues and is intensified.

Earlier this year, I visited Rangoon and travelled across the Thai-Burmese border to a camp for internally displaced people in the Karen state. I saw for myself some of the excellent work that is funded by the British taxpayer in Rangoon. I also saw the desperate position of the internally displaced people, which has been referred to today, and the potential opportunities to provide assistance to such people. They are living in dire conditions, which the Committee has identified, and I particularly welcome those parts of the report that address that problem.

I welcome the announcement by the Secretary of State on 29 October that the Department will double its budget for aid to Burma by 2010 from £9 million to £18 million. Although that does not go as far as the Committee recommended, it is a good start. As the Under-Secretary knows, I am hoping that he will announce as swiftly as possible that he intends to quadruple that figure by 2013, as the Conservative party and the Committee have urged him to do.

It is worth comparing funding for Burma with that for other countries in the region, and countries with similarly dire human rights problems and humanitarian crises, to support the call for a further increase in British aid to Burma. I shall add to what has already been said today.

Vietnam, a country that is making enormous strides out of poverty, receives £52 million from Britain. As I mentioned to the Minister in the House yesterday, China had a trade surplus in September of $24 billion, yet it will receive £35 million this year. Zimbabwe, a country mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham, has a human rights and humanitarian situation comparable to that of Burma, but it receives four times as much aid. The Committee noted:

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The Committee is absolutely right. The case for quadrupling British aid to Burma by 2013 is extremely strong, and I hope that the Government’s decision to double the budget is but a foretaste—if I may put it in such consensual terms—of good news to come.

Mention has been made of support for the 3D fund. When in Rangoon, I went to see for myself the work being done to combat AIDS. British taxpayers’ money is being incredibly well spent in that respect. AIDS is teetering at just below epidemic levels. It is at epidemic levels among the sex worker and gay communities, but if action is taken now through such support, it may be possible to stop it reaching epidemic proportions.

The right hon. Member for Leeds, West (John Battle) and my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham both spoke about satisfying ourselves on the importance of delivery mechanisms. Surely they are right, but we have to ensure that vulnerable people caught in those difficult countries do not lose out twice over—first from bad leaders, and secondly because the international community has turned its back on them.

John Battle: The 3D issue highlights the dilemmas spelled out by our Committee Chairman. The hon. Gentleman will know that much of that work is done in co-operation with the Government, to reach those parts of the country where we are not allowed to go. It is a difficult dilemma. I put it to the hon. Gentleman—and perhaps through the hon. Gentleman to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary—that the rest of the international community might like to join us in applying real pressure, because if that epidemic breaks across into the camps and the borders, India and China will be at risk. They ought to wake up to that fact.

Mr. Mitchell: The right hon. Gentleman is right about the threat of an epidemic and the effect that it could have across borders. I shall say more about that in a moment. However, I agree that we must ensure that the message is delivered effectively. The projects that I saw did not depend upon the Government, except for their passive acquiescence in the work continuing; they were being carried out extremely effectively by the voluntary sector and international NGOs.

I turn to two other specific recommendations of the Committee with which the Secretary of State has yet to express his agreement in unambiguous terms. The first is a matter on which the Conservative Opposition have been pressing since May 2006—funding for cross-border initiatives to deliver the urgently needed humanitarian aid that has already been mentioned. Although we welcome the decision by DFID to lift the restriction on the use of funds, enabling DFID money to be used for cross-border aid by recipients, it is largely a symbolic gesture. No new funding has yet been allocated for cross-border aid. I hope that the Under-Secretary will offer the House some good news on that score.

According to the Thailand Burma Border Consortium, in 2007 at least 503,000 people were living in eastern Burma as displaced persons, but some sources put the figure as high as 1 million. More than 3,200 villages have been destroyed or forcibly relocated since 1996. In the past year alone, more than 76,000 people have been forced to flee their villages, and over 82,000 were displaced during the previous year.

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I visited some of those displaced people when I went to the Thai-Burmese border earlier this year. I travelled down the Salween river to Ei Tu Hta camp inside Karen state, where 3,000 people have fled since April 2006. Those people have suffered unimaginable horrors. I met one woman who told me how her son was beheaded. Another described how her husband was tortured, tied to a tree, his eyes gouged out and then drowned. A third recalled how her husband was killed—his eyes torn out, his ears and lips cut off.

The right hon. Member for Leeds, West has described his experiences in that respect. I can only say that, although camps like that were meant at least in some respects to be a haven from persecution and a refuge, they seem to me to be among the most benighted places anywhere in the world. There is insufficient knowledge and understanding of what is happening in them, and the people there rightly feel that they have been forgotten.

Those people can be reached through cross-border initiatives. I met some of the NGOs involved in that life-saving work. It is not an either/or matter—either in-country assistance delivered through Rangoon, or cross-border aid. There is a need for both, we have the capacity for both, and with the increase in DFID’s budget there are now the resources to do both. Several other Governments have funded cross-border aid, so there is a precedent. Cross-border aid is the only way to reach some of the most vulnerable people in Burma, as they are in areas to which the UN and other aid agencies are denied access by the regime. Will the Minister allocate a specific amount from the increased budget for cross-border aid?

The Committee’s second recommendation that I wish to highlight is the need for DFID to fund indigenous Burmese civil society organisations working along the Burma border. I welcome DFID’s willingness in principle to do so, although I understand the difficulties, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham alluded. Last year I had the privilege of meeting Charm Tong, a young woman to whom my hon. Friend referred, whose organisation is an example of precisely that sort of initiative. Charm Tong, who is a representative of the Shan Women’s Action Network, came to London and met the then Foreign Secretary, the leader of the Opposition, the shadow Foreign Secretary, myself and other colleagues. She also testified at the Conservative party’s human rights commission hearing on Burma. Charm Tong has established a unique school to empower young Shan people and she is deeply involved in the work of the Shan Women’s Action Network documenting the regime’s use of sexual violence as a weapon of war. My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham prayed in aid her work as a good use of resources from outside. I strongly endorse what he said and commend such organisations to the Under-Secretary.

Earlier this year, I met representatives of the Chin Human Rights Organization and the Women’s League of Chinland when they visited London. Those organisations, too, provide examples of the outstanding work being done by Burmese people to build a future for their country and they are worthy of our strong support. I understand that this is not an easy area, but we can make significant progress.

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We have spoken much about the situation on the Thai-Burmese border, and rightly so, for it requires our urgent attention. May I ask the Under-Secretary what efforts DFID is making to investigate the opportunities for providing assistance on the other borders that have been mentioned, particularly the India border with the territory of the Chin people? Chin state is acknowledged to be the poorest part of Burma. Will the Secretary of State and his Minister consider actively exploring ways of supporting initiatives for the Chin?

The Committee highlighted its concern about the decision to close DFID’s Bangkok office and conduct all Burma work from Rangoon and London. I share that concern. However, if the decision is not to be reversed, what assurances can the Under-Secretary give the House that DFID staff based in Rangoon will travel rather more regularly than has been suggested to Bangkok, Chiang Mai and the border to consult closely groups based in Thailand?

In conclusion, in recent months DFID has taken some positive steps. I welcome the proposal for an international economic development package for Burma, including aid, debt relief and investment, which could be implemented in response to genuine reform in Burma. As my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham made clear, that package will be welcome—but at the right time, which clearly is not now. It is important that while we pile the pressure on the regime to change, imposing targeted sanctions that will hit the generals in the junta in their pockets—and rightly so—we should also offer the regime the incentive to reform.

I hope that the Under-Secretary will respond to some of the points that other hon. Members and I have made, and that he will particularly bear in mind the future issues on which DFID has yet to make decisions. As my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham said in his inimitable way, we will all be watching carefully for the results of those discussions.

4.3 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Shahid Malik): I thank the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) for introducing this debate and the many right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken. I also thank the International Development Committee for its useful report on Burma, which offers some helpful recommendations for our expanding aid programme.

May I say to the right hon. Member for Gordon, perhaps because I am new, that I am more than happy to acknowledge the significant contribution of the IDC—specifically its report on Burma—to our thinking? If there is a perception that that is not so, I am more than happy to apologise for it. It would not be true to say that the Committee’s report was not influential, is not important and has not helped our thinking on some of the relevant issues—it certainly has.

The Committee recognised the continuing need to provide humanitarian aid to the 50 million people right across Burma who are suffering extreme poverty under the current regime. As the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) articulated powerfully, a third of Burma’s population—some 17 million people—live on less than 16p a day and, as other hon. Members have mentioned, some of those live on even less than that. Public investment
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in health and education is among the lowest in the world, and more than half of Burmese children fail to complete primary school education.

On education, my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) made a powerful point in talking about his constituency about how, through schools, a much bigger impact—a global one—can be achieved beyond the United Kingdom. He mentioned DFID’s global partnership initiative. I want to give him this commitment: I am completely sold on the links between UK schools and schools in the developing world. My intention, with the Department’s new comprehensive spending review settlement, is considerably to expand some of that work. Development awareness work is crucial to give us the consent to continue the work that we are doing on international development in this country. I have witnesses to the power of such an initiative in my constituency.

Most right hon. and hon. Members have spoken about the relative underfunding in Burma. I wholeheartedly agree that not enough money is going into Burma. That is why, on 29 October, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development announced a doubling of our spending in Burma to £18 million a year by 2010, which, broadly, as I mentioned in the main Chamber yesterday, puts us on a trajectory to meet the Committee’s recommendation in respect of 2013. I just reaffirm for the hon. Member for Buckingham that that does not preclude some serious increases post-2010, which is what he was alluding to. In a volatile situation such as the one in Burma, we are constantly reviewing matters, so anything is possible.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell: I take it that the Under-Secretary thinks that to some extent we are dancing on the head of pin in arguing about whether 2010 is on the trajectory for quadrupling the spending by 2013. However, people need to make plans in respect of what they will do. Therefore it would genuinely be helpful if the Under-Secretary made it clear—not today, but on another occasion—that he accepts what the International Development Committee has said and that he expects aid to Burma to more than quadruple in that period, because in most circumstances that we can envisage I believe that that will be so.

Mr. Malik: I have spoken clearly, and I think that most hon. Members welcome what has been said.

I am bound to remind the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) that by 2010-11 the Government will be committing £18 million a year to Burma. In 1992, when the hon. Gentleman’s party was in power, some £53,000 a year was committed to Burma. I only have a comprehensive school education and my maths may not be great, but I think that that represents a 36,000 per cent. increase on 1992. Better a sinner repenteth. It is clear that we will be reviewing the situation over the next three years and we stand ready to do whatever is required to support the people of Burma in the desperate plight that they face.

I take on board the comment made by the hon. Member for Buckingham, which is that there is a perception that the Government focus disproportionately on Africa. Perhaps we need to consider that, because for every person living on less than $1 a day in Africa there are
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two in Asia. It is quite clear that we have to work on some of these perceptions and perhaps on the reality as well.

The hon. Member for Wood Green—[Interruption.] Sorry, I meant to address the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone); my apologies to the hon. Lady. I should know better, because I was chief executive of Haringey regeneration agency for a number of years. All the improvements on Turnpike lane and Wood green are down to me! The hon. Lady rightly talked about the necessity of ensuring that the Burmese regime does not benefit from aid given by this country.

We believe that doubling aid will enable us to step up our efforts to address many of the problems that others and I have highlighted. In doing so, we will continue to ensure that none of our aid is spent through Burmese central Government. All of it is delivered through the United Nations or NGOs, which will continue to be the case until we can forge a partnership with a Burmese Government who respect human rights and who are genuinely committed to development, accountability and the reduction of poverty.

Our assistance is making a difference to the lives of vulnerable people. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (John Battle) powerfully articulated the challenge posed by malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS. Our aim is to save 1 million lives a year. This week, I spoke to Rurik Marsden, who is the head of DFID in Rangoon. I asked him what he thought was the one big breakthrough in the past few years. He was unequivocal in saying that our work on HIV/AIDS has been phenomenal, because in the past intravenous drug use and sex working were taboo. However, now we are making a real impact in those very areas. Those three diseases could begin to spread, not only throughout Burma, but neighbouring countries that already face similar challenges. It is in their interests, therefore, to work with us on that matter.

By enabling UNICEF to provide school materials and textbooks to 500,000 children, we are ensuring that children get the support that they need. However, I accept that that is a small contribution to dealing with a very large problem. Some 10 million children in Burma do not complete their primary school education, which does not bode well for the future of Burma. We invest in Save the Children in order to help local communities organise pre-schools. Furthermore, by funding the UN rural development programme, which reaches some 1.5 million people and more than 3,000 villages, we are making a real impact. By supporting the sale of water pumps to farmers, we are enabling them to increase their incomes by $190 a year and to buy much-needed food, health care, clothing and education provision for them and their families.

The right hon. Member for Gordon raised the issue of the effectiveness of agencies since the recent suppression. The indications are that broadly speaking, agencies can still operate. However, it was incredibly disappointing that the UN co-ordinator, Charles Petrie, was expelled from Burma, because that will undoubtedly have an impact on the UN’s vital work in that country. I hope to meet him next week in London.

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