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8 May 2008 : Column 861

Helen Goodman: The hon. Gentleman raises a serious and important matter. I do not think the situation is quite as he describes it. As well as physical security, we already run counter-terrorists checks, which are more detailed than a criminal record check, for all airside workers engaged in security roles. We have also asked Stephen Boys Smith to review whether we should do more in this area. In addition, the Government are taking forward proposals on EU data sharing, which will help significantly on this front, and we are introducing biometric identity cards for foreign nationals and prioritising airside workers. Given that the issue is so important, I simply ask the hon. Gentleman why the Conservative party is not supporting those measures.

Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): Could the Deputy Leader of the House arrange for an early debate on offender management, and specifically on the chain of bail hostels being established around the country by a private company called ClearSprings Management Ltd on behalf of the Ministry of Justice? In Colwyn Bay in my constituency, at least one such hostel is proposed for a residential area without any consultation whatever with residents, the police or the local authority. I am sure that Members on both sides of the House would be concerned that, as a result of the Government’s failure on offender management, criminals are being introduced into their communities. Members would appreciate the opportunity to express such concerns.

Helen Goodman: I understand the concern of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents. My understanding is that the chain of housing for people on bail is discussed with the police and local authority before it is agreed to. However, because there is no change of use, from housing to hostels, proposals do not go through the planning system. Given the importance of the matter, I will of course take it back to my colleagues in the Ministry of Justice.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Today the Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph is launching an important campaign to persuade its readers to install home smoke alarms, because of the 463 homes that had fires in Northamptonshire last year, only 247 were fitted with smoke detectors, and people are twice as likely to die in a fire if they do not have a smoke alarm fitted. May we have a statement from the Minister
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responsible for the fire service, or a debate in Government time, on home fire safety?

Helen Goodman: I will pass the hon. Gentleman’s remarks on to the Minister responsible. He is right, in so far as the fire service saves many more lives when it does preventive work, and its work is currently being reoriented in that way.

Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater) (Con): The Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has brought out a report on flooding, which says that there are major structural problems with flood defences. May we have an early debate on that as soon as possible, because my constituency will have problems if the flood defences fail?

Helen Goodman: There have been debates in Westminster Hall recently about both flood defences and flooding. As the hon. Gentleman is, I am sure, aware, the Government are increasing spending on the flood prevention infrastructure to £800 million by 2010—and so far this year, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has made three written ministerial statements on the subject.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. In the absence of the Secretary of State for Defence—[Hon. Members: “International Development!”] In the absence of the Secretary of State for International Development, who I understand is on his way, and the Secretary of State for Defence, who has the business after that, I have no option but to suspend the sitting for five minutes.

Dr. Julian Lewis: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is extraordinary that the Secretary of State for International Development is not here. Could it be that he has been detained advising his sister on the mess that she has got the Government into, and he is now getting the Government—and, indeed, this House—into another mess?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: That has to be a matter of pure speculation. I suspend the sitting until 12.17 pm.

12.12 pm

Sitting suspended.

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Burma (Cyclone Nargis)

12.17 pm

The Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Douglas Alexander): I begin by apologising unreservedly to the House for my delayed arrival and for the delay in making the statement. However, I am grateful for the opportunity to inform it on the response being taken to cyclone Nargis.

The cyclone hit Burma on the night of 2 May. It has had a devastating impact on the people of Burma: at least 22,000 people have been killed. Unfortunately, we expect this number to rise very significantly in the coming days. Some estimates already range as high as 100,000 dead. At least 42,000 are still missing. The Government estimate that 90 to 95 per cent. of buildings have been destroyed in the low-lying delta region. One million are estimated to be homeless and 1.5 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance in the delta region and around Rangoon. Preliminary assessments indicate that the most urgent needs are for shelter, food and clean water.

The full scale of the disaster will become apparent only over the next few days, as relief teams are able to reach remote communities in cyclone-affected areas. Assessments by the UN and other international agencies have been delayed by difficulties with communications and access. The situation is becoming increasingly perilous, with relief capacity inside the country already severely stretched. There is, of course, an ongoing crisis for the Burmese people, and we are working hard with others in the international community to do all we can for the relief effort.

We should not underestimate the challenge of the relief effort in Burma. The cyclone struck five states and divisions of Burma: Rangoon, Irrawaddy, Bago, Mon and Kayin. Damaged infrastructure and communications are posing major logistical problems for relief operations. Access to some of the worst affected areas is extremely difficult and will hamper relief distribution. Much of the affected region is accessible only by boat, and many of the boats in that region were damaged or destroyed by the cyclone. It is therefore vital that aid workers get access to areas affected by the cyclone to help to co-ordinate the emergency response and deliver aid to those in need.

We are currently receiving mixed signals on the question of access to Burma for international staff. There were widespread media reports only this morning of UN flights being unable to land in Burma. The latest information available to my Department suggests that the first flight, with 7 tonnes of high-energy biscuits, landed around 0730 on 8 May, UK time, and the biscuits are being unloaded.

It is too soon to have a view on the unloading and Customs processes, but the World Food Programme is expected to report back to us early this afternoon. The second flight, with 18 tonnes of high-energy biscuits, has landing rights in Yangon and is currently in Dhaka. It is expected to depart today. Delays to these first two flights were due to delays in obtaining clearances. The third flight will leave Dubai today with a range of items; it too has clearance to land in Burma. The fourth flight, due to leave from Italy, is on hold while a view is taken on the capacity of the airport
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equipment and staff in Burma. The UN does not want to overwhelm this capacity. The first Red Cross and NGO flights will seek access shortly. We do not yet know whether the Burmese Government will allow free access for international agencies to the areas affected by the disaster.

We, as well as the UN and the NGOs, are continuing to urge the Burmese authorities to ensure rapid access for international humanitarian staff to Burma, and for access, in turn, to the worst affected areas within Burma in order to manage our assistance effectively. Representations are being made at both multilateral and bilateral levels. I have spoken personally to John Holmes, the UN’s emergency relief co-ordinator, who is also appealing to the Burmese authorities to allow UN agencies and international workers access. I have spoken to our ambassador in Rangoon, Mark Canning, who raised the issue of access with both the senior general and the Burmese Prime Minister. I have also spoken to the Burmese ambassador here in London to urge him to facilitate rapid access for international humanitarian staff.

Alongside working to secure access to the affected areas, the UK has made an immediate contribution of up to £5 million—the largest single contribution made by any one country—to help the UN, the Red Cross and the NGOs meet urgent humanitarian needs, including shelter and access to clean water, and food and other emergency items. We have readied stockpiles of emergency supplies such as tents, water containers, blankets, and plastic sheets, and sourced additional logistic equipment and relief supplies to be delivered by the same agencies. We are working closely with agencies on the ground to determine exact needs, and we expect to be able to allocate these funds in the coming days as needs and access become clearer. The UN flash appeal is expected by tomorrow. Yesterday, 7 May, I met UK-based NGOs to discuss potential DFID support. We are ready to deploy an emergency field team to help co-ordinate our assessment and response to the disaster as soon as visas can be obtained from the Burmese Government.

The UN humanitarian co-ordinator will meet the Burmese authorities later today to provide an overview of international commitments and to discuss the progress of the response. Already, more than $20 million has been pledged by donors to the relief effort. In addition, the UN has announced that a minimum of $10 million will be released from the central emergency relief fund, to which the UK is the largest contributor. The Red Cross and NGOs that have a presence in Burma, including World Vision, Save the Children and Médecins sans Frontières, are undertaking emergency assessments and have begun distributing basic emergency items such as food and water supplies. Co-ordination mechanisms are in place between the UN, NGOs and donors on the ground.

Domestically, the Government of Burma have pledged some $4.5 million for relief and have established an emergency committee headed by the Burmese Prime Minister. The Burmese Government have reiterated their readiness to accept international assistance, but they are only just starting to allow in UN aid. The challenges of the relief effort would daunt even the most developed country, and it is important that the Burmese Government accept all offers of international assistance offered to them.

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As the House will be aware, as well as our initial pledge of up to £5 million for the relief effort, the UK is one of the few countries providing long-term humanitarian assistance to the people of Burma. In October 2007, the UK announced that it would double its aid for the poorest people in Burma from £9 million per year to £18 million per year in 2010. Our support is delivered in accordance with the European common position—either through the UN or other reputable NGOs. None of it goes through the central Government.

This is a very grave crisis, on a scale not seen since the tsunami of 2004. I want to assure the House that the British Government will continue to work to bring assistance and relief to the suffering people of Burma.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con): I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for advance sight of it. Our thoughts and prayers are with the many thousands who have lost friends and relatives in this tragedy, and those who are struggling to survive the aftermath of this terrible disaster.

It is clear that the situation in Burma is a massive humanitarian catastrophe, the like of which, as the Secretary of State said, has not been seen since the Asian tsunami of December 2004. People to whom I have spoken on the ground in the past few days are clear that the death toll will rise much further, and that as of now, hundreds of thousands of people are beyond the reach of the relief effort. The danger now is that hunger, disease and the lack of access to clean water and shelter will add to the suffering.

I welcome the actions that the Secretary of State outlined in his statement. The staff at the Department for International Development are some of the finest development professionals in the world; their compassion, commitment and expertise have a vital role to play in this crisis. In particular, I salute the work of Rurik Marsden, who leads DFID’s efforts in Burma, whom I met in Rangoon during my visit to Burma last year, and of our ambassador, Mark Canning, whose knowledge and insight are second to none at this time.

It is already clear that British charities and NGOs are at the forefront of work on the ground. The outstanding British charity Save the Children, led in Rangoon by Andrew Kirkwood, has 35 offices and 500 staff on the ground in Burma. They have already been able to get help to 50,000 people. ActionAid, Merlin, Oxfam and World Vision are also extremely active.

It is deeply regrettable that the Burmese Government have consistently run down and undermined the UN mission in Burma, not least by forcing out Charles Petrie, the impressive former head of the UN mission there. His experience and dynamism are sorely missed at this time of crisis. The Burmese people and the international relief effort are both the losers from that misjudgment by the Burmese junta. It is a scandal that five full days following the disaster, only a trickle of aid is getting in from the outside world. Can the Secretary of State tell us whether the Burmese Government are still insisting on onerous visa restrictions for aid workers—and even if they get a visa, what guarantees have been received that they will be allowed to leave Rangoon without waiting up to two weeks for a travel permit? After the Bam earthquake of 2003, Iran waived visa
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restrictions on foreign relief workers for five days, letting in even people from America and Israel. This spirit should prevail again now.

The Burmese Government must give unfettered access for the international humanitarian relief effort. A key lesson from the tsunami is the need for the international response to dovetail with the local relief effort; trying to go against the grain does not work. We need to persuade the Burmese authorities to be as co-operative as possible. This House can assure the Government of Burma today that the aid workers are there for non-political humanitarian reasons, to save lives, rather than for political positioning. What steps has the Secretary of State taken to make this clear to the Burmese Government?

As the Secretary of State said, the key requirement now is for a comprehensive needs assessment by the UN, and a well-funded, professional and highly competent relief operation centred on food, clean water, shelter and medical relief. As we saw with the Asian tsunami, we need to know that the aid we give is exactly what is needed. Inappropriate aid can be worse than no aid at all.

There are reports that the Burmese Government have finally decided to accept some of the United States relief flights. Can the Secretary of State update the House on this point?

The regime’s suspicion of outsiders is well documented, but we must also seek the support of Burma’s cosy friends—China, India and Thailand, with whom the regime has worked closely. In the run-up to the Olympics, many eyes will be on China to examine the role that it plays in helping to ensure that the Burmese Government open up immediately to the international relief effort. What discussions has the Secretary of State had in recent days with the Chinese ambassador in London, Madam Fu Ying, and the representatives of India and Thailand, to underline this point?

There are reports that the Burmese Government intend to impose taxes and duties on planes that bring in aid supplies. Will the Secretary of State tell the House whether that is the case, and what representations the British Government have made to the Burmese Government to suspend these tariffs? In the aftermath of the tsunami, concern was expressed about the operation of gift aid tax relief on donations to the humanitarian appeal. At this early stage, what steps are the Government taking on this matter?

It is impossible to talk about good coming out of this terrible event, but we saw in the Indonesian province of Aceh, which was devastated by the 2004 tsunami, that the shock and turmoil of a natural disaster can, in some circumstances, lead to movement and progress on thorny political conflicts, for the greater common good. Can the Secretary of State confirm that Aung San Suu Kyi, whose compound in Rangoon is vulnerable, overgrown and snake-ridden, is safe and well?

Clearly all of us who have been vocal critics of this pariah regime will put politics to one side as we strive for an effective humanitarian response. Once again, I thank the Secretary of State for coming to the House and making his statement. In the same spirit, I hope that he will continue to keep the House informed through written and oral statements.

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Mr. Alexander: Of course I am happy to give the final undertaking sought by the hon. Gentleman to ensure that the House is updated as the situation develops on the ground.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his generous remarks about the staff of my Department. I match him in those remarks; if anything, I would say that they are quite literally the best in the world, not just among the best. I have spoken to Rurik Marsden, our head of office in Rangoon, in recent days. He is playing a key role in helping to co-ordinate our efforts on the ground along with his staff in that office.

I am also grateful to the Leader of the Opposition for his remarks yesterday at Prime Minister’s questions, when he made clear the consensus that reaches across the House in support of the British and international effort to bring an end to the humanitarian suffering of the people of Burma. It is always helpful in these circumstances where there is genuine cross-party consensus in support of a humanitarian effort.

I also join the hon. Gentleman in recognising the contribution made by British-based NGOs. There are already a number of teams on the ground in Burma who are taking forward important work.

Let me turn to the other specific points made by the hon. Gentleman. I raised the issue of visa restrictions directly with the Burmese Government ambassador here in London. I urged him to ensure the expeditious passage of visa applications that are presently with the embassy, including those from DFID assessment staff, and made it clear that, given the number of applications that will be received from the international community, there was a strong case for a visa waiver. He undertook to reflect that in his correspondence with his Government.

I also raised with the ambassador the concerns expressed to me at a meeting that I held with the British-based NGOs regarding access in-country. Effectively, an in-country domestic visa regime has been imposed in Burma for some time. Again I urged him to consider ensuring not simply that there is expeditious passage into Burma for humanitarian workers, but that there is free and ready access to those areas affected by the cyclone for workers within the country. Clearly, whether the Burmese Government deliver on the requests that I and others have made will be tested in the days to come, but that is a matter on which the House can be updated in due course.

We have raised the matter directly with the ambassador here, and with Mark Canning, our ambassador in Rangoon. Representations have been made both to the senior general and to the Burmese Prime Minister. We have also activated our Foreign Office posts across the Association of South East Asian Nations region to ensure that those regional partners, who often can exert influence within Burma, are made aware of the points that the British Government have raised on free access for the humanitarian effort.

I should inform the House that the best advice that we have in DFID is that a number of ASEAN nations have visa-free access to Burma. One of the conversations that we have had with British and international NGOs has been about encouraging them to consider whether they have staff based in the ASEAN countries who can readily access the country while visa applications are processed for others.

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