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8 May 2008 : Column 868

On the hon. Gentleman’s point about relief flights, I have updated the House as to the best information that we have. It is encouraging, for example, that the recent World Food Programme flight that arrived saw its supplies unloaded today to the WFP warehouse, given that there were concerns that the army would commandeer the relief as it came in. On his specific point about contact with the Chinese Government, we have already initiated, through the UK mission to the UN, a discussion with the Chinese delegation to the UN, making them aware of the points that we have discussed here.

The issue of duties being levied on incoming humanitarian supplies has been raised and my understanding is that the Government of Burma have made it clear that duty will not be levied on humanitarian aid and assistance. Again, that will be tested in the days to come and we shall see whether that undertaking is delivered on.

On the hon. Gentleman’s final two points, we have no indications of difficulty affecting Aung San Suu Kyi in terms of her residence. On gift aid, we will assess the requirement for any future changes to the Government’s position in light of the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal that has been launched.

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): We are all shocked by the horrific scenes of destruction in Burma caused by cyclone Nargis—the massive loss of life, the homes swept away and the tide of chaos left in its wake. I very much welcome the Secretary of State coming to the House to give his statement and I thank him for prior sight of it.

The Secretary of State outlined the problems of getting aid into the country, and these are causing us huge concern. There seems to be a small piece of positive news with regard to flights getting in and landing, but obviously that is not enough to deal with the scale of the problem and, indeed, it is much too late. Is the delay linked in any way to the constitutional referendum that was due to be held this weekend and the worry of the military junta that it would lead to foreign criticism if foreign nationals were allowed in? Is that the case? Is the referendum still planned to go ahead? Does the Secretary of State agree that it is absolutely unacceptable for the internal political concerns of the Burmese junta to stand in the way of getting aid to the thousands of people who are suffering?

There are many political problems in Burma and we have great fears about the humanitarian situation; those are often raised in the House. Does the Secretary of State agree that the sole priority at the moment is to get the aid and the emergency response to the disaster? Indeed, it is important that we get the message out if that helps the military regime to allow the aid workers to get in.

I very much welcome the £5 million of aid pledged by DFID. Is that additional to the current aid programme? Will that figure be under review, so that if the situation develops as we expect it will and the scale of the problem becomes greater, it could rise? It is also important that the aid be co-ordinated well. What discussions has the right hon. Gentleman had with our EU partners on encouraging them similarly to donate, and also on working together on that aid?

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I was interested to hear the point about visa-free access for nationals in the ASEAN countries. Is the Secretary of State having discussions with our teams there to encourage those countries to provide aid workers and to give aid? Clearly getting the regional powers involved is very important.

There was no mention in the Secretary of State’s statement of the number of UK nationals affected; I believe that the FCO says there are currently 17 Britons unaccounted for. What support is being made available for their families? Is there a helpline for those in the UK who are concerned about family or friends in Burma? Is there a central point to which they can go for information?

The Secretary of State mentioned the tsunami. The British people were amazingly generous in donating to that appeal in 2004. Many of our constituents will be appalled by what they see on the television and by the pictures they see and will want to help. Is there a central appeal to which they are able to donate?

Mr. Alexander: Let me seek to address each of those points in turn. First, my understanding is that there are now indications that the constitutional referendum will be suspended in the areas affected by the cyclone, but if I am circumspect in my remarks today, it is merely to echo the sentiment that the hon. Lady expressed, which is that our sole priority today needs to be to get humanitarian aid to those directly affected by the cyclone. It was Condoleezza Rice, the United States Secretary of State, who said that this is not about politics but about getting humanitarian aid to those who require it. As the hon. Lady indicated, that needs to be the overriding sentiment behind our remarks today.

There are and have been plenty of other opportunities for the House to discuss political developments within Burma. It is of course a matter to which we will all return, but if I am circumspect today, it reflects our determination to ensure that the message that we send to the Burmese regime is clear: the first priority today needs to be to ensure access to the international relief effort that is so urgently required on the ground.

I can assure the hon. Lady that the £5 million is additional to the programme for Burma. Is it under review in the light of the developing situation on the ground? I can give her that assurance; yes, it is under review. On the extent to which we are co-ordinating our efforts, there are established mechanisms. We have been in touch with ECHO, the co-ordination mechanism for humanitarian assistance at a European level, and with John Holmes, the UN emergency co-ordinator.

In relation to work being taken forward with ASEAN countries, we have been in touch with each of our Foreign Office posts in the ASEAN countries and they are in dialogue with the respective Governments.

On UK nationals, I, too, have seen some of the media reports indicating the number of people who have not yet been contacted. I would not wish to heighten the anxiety of anybody who may have relatives whom they know are in Burma. Mark Canning was clear that we had not yet received any indications that individual British citizens were in difficulty, of which we were aware very quickly following the tsunami. He emphasised
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that the British population in Burma—people travelling in Burma as well as those resident there—is relatively small but widely dispersed across a country that has limited communications. It will therefore inevitably take time to account for even the limited British population there, but I can give the House an assurance that that work is under way from our post in Rangoon.

On how best to provide information to anyone who is concerned about relatives, I would make a plea for them to contact the Foreign Office. Their first port of call should be the Foreign Office website. Historically, people have come to trust its advice to travellers, and I undertake to raise this matter with my ministerial colleagues in the Foreign Office following this statement.

On the question of how our constituents can reflect the generosity of spirit that was so evident at the time of the tsunami in relation to this particular disaster, the Disasters Emergency Committee has launched an appeal today. I understand that there are adverts for the appeal in British newspapers today, and it is anticipated that there will be broadcast advertisements this evening. So there will be publicity on how members of the public can register their support for the efforts being made by the British Government and British NGOs.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): Is it not clear that tens, possibly scores, of thousands of Burmese have died in the past two days because of the failure of the Burmese dictatorship to allow aid workers in and to allow the navies of the world to go to help? This issue must be raised at the highest level. When such things happen in Darfur or Rwanda, we call it genocide, and that is what I accuse the Burmese junta of organising this week. Will my right hon. Friend ask the Foreign Secretary to support the French Government at the United Nations in invoking the right-to-protect article of the UN charter, which states that when a country ceases to protect its citizens, the international community has a right and a duty to intervene? Will he also make that clear to China, Thailand and India?

Mr. Alexander: I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware, as a distinguished former Minister in the Foreign Office, that the responsibility to protect was conceived to address four defined situations in which Governments have failed to protect their people: war crimes, genocide, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. I am not going to echo his sentiments in relation to the Government of Burma. A great deal of work is being done to assess exactly what access is being made available, and I can assure him that representations are being made to the Government of Burma through multilateral and bilateral channels. I urge hon. Members on both sides of the House to recognise the overriding importance of securing access, rather than securing headlines. It is important that we gain access to Burma to provide the humanitarian assistance that is urgently needed. There will be plenty of opportunities in the future to assess the performance of the Government of Burma and of the wider international community. As we stand here today, the priority is to ensure access for the humanitarian supplies, and I can assure the House that that is my overriding priority.

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his statement, and I very much appreciate the work of DFID staff in providing the
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support that he has described. Will he acknowledge, however, that many people will die—and have died—because they have already been weakened by the lack of support from their own Government? Surely we must stress to that Government that people are dying daily because of their inaction. This is the moment when that regime must finally recognise that it is dependent on the international community. If it cares for its people at all, this is the time for it to demonstrate that by giving full and free access. If it fails to do so, it will stand indicted of precisely the accusation that the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) levelled against it.

Mr. Alexander: I find myself in complete agreement with the measured remarks of the distinguished Chair of the International Development Committee. As I said in my statement, there is a continuing crisis afflicting Burma. The tragedy that has unfolded over the past five days shows that that continuing crisis has now been compounded by a natural disaster. The right hon. Gentleman is right to recognise that many of the people in the Irrawaddy delta are desperately poor as a consequence of the range of factors affecting their lives, not least the conduct of their Government over recent decades. While there is an opportunity to say more at this stage, I believe that the priority must be to ensure the access to which he has referred.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): I am sure that the Secretary of State is absolutely right to say that when people are starving, have no access to clean water and have lost their homes, the most important thing is to get support to them so that they can achieve a decent life. However, there is a political reality involved. Surely it would be wrong if a single penny of British international development money went into the pockets of the army or into supporting a corrupt and despicable regime that has killed many people. Should we not adhere to the vital principle that the money should go directly to ensuring that people have the opportunity to live, rather than ensuring that a general has the opportunity to stay in his chauffeur-driven car?

Mr. Alexander: I share the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friend. This is why, historically, we have worked not only with the United Nations but with credible and accredited international partners. That is the approach that we will adopt in relation to the expenditure of the up to £5 million that we announced immediately after the disaster. Of course it is vital to ensure that people have confidence that the money that they are contributing individually, or that their Government are contributing, to the humanitarian effort reaches the people who require assistance. That has been our approach to Burma, it is our approach to Burma, and it will continue to be our approach to Burma.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): The Secretary of State is clearly right to say that the highest priority is to gain access for humanitarian aid. As it is obvious that the Chinese Government have considerable influence over the dictatorship that is preventing the aid from coming in, should not more be done to persuade the Chinese? Should we not also take bilateral action, with the Secretary of State speaking to the Chinese ambassador in London and with the Prime Minister making direct
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contact with his opposite number in Beijing? The Chinese must be the key to getting aid in as a matter of great urgency in the next 24 hours.

Mr. Alexander: There is no single silver-bullet solution to ensure the kind of access that Members on both sides of the House want to see, but I will certainly consider the points that the right hon. Gentleman has made, and discuss the matter with the Foreign Office.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate my right hon. Friend and DFID in general, and in particular Mark Canning, whom we had the opportunity to meet in the House about a month ago. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the minority peoples in Burma, particularly the Karen and the Karenni, are able to access aid? More particularly, will he ensure that the despicable regime does not use this disaster as an opportunity further to attack those people, using the pretence that they could be responsible for instability?

Mr. Alexander: We have worked for many years to secure relief efforts and humanitarian support for a range of groups in Burma, including those that my hon. Friend describes. It will continue to be our guiding principle that we should get the aid to those who require it, regardless of their ethnic origin or of the view that the Burmese regime holds of any particular group in that country.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): I am genuinely grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his measured statement today. However, the inescapable reality is that the crisis caused by the cyclone has been greatly exacerbated by the additional reality that the people of Burma continue to languish under one of the most tyrannical and callous regimes to be found anywhere on the face of the earth. On my understanding, six days on, there are but four representatives of the Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs on the ground in Burma, while, despicably, no fewer than 100 disaster relief teams are waiting at the borders but have not yet been given visas.

Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that there is now a compelling case for Britain publicly to get behind the French position at the United Nations Security Council, to invoke the responsibility to protect and to say to the Government of Burma, “If you want us to help, it will be on the basis that we are protecting people on humanitarian terms.” They should let us in, or we will go in and do what is necessary to prevent the genocide, as the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) so rightly described it.

Mr. Alexander: Let me deal with both those points in turn. In relation to the OCHA assessment teams gaining access to the country, it is for exactly that reason that I raised the issue with the Burmese ambassador. I have also spoken directly to John Holmes of OCHA. When I spoke to him yesterday, he was keen to ensure that, while representations were being made, a careful and measured assessment should be made of what is actually happening on the ground. In that sense, of course we will continue to stay in touch with OCHA and of course we want OCHA assessment teams to have access. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I will continue to liaise with OCHA to ensure that that access is forthcoming.

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On the hon. Gentleman’s second point, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has had discussions with Bernard Kouchner. I understand that an article that appeared in a French newspaper this morning about the urgency of getting humanitarian relief to Burma was co-authored by my right hon. Friend and the French Foreign Minister. However, I repeat that the first priority has to be to get humanitarian access: in the days, weeks and months to come, there will be plenty of opportunity to assess both the steps that need to be taken and Burma’s position in the international community. The priority now is international access.

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): I want to pick up on what my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) said about the possibilities for the future. What understanding does the Minister believe that the Burma regime has that access is not a short-term exercise? Our experience of other disasters such as the tsunami suggests that the need for free access will continue for a long time. Is the regime aware of that? Is that access being negotiated now, in the immediacy of the present situation?

Mr. Alexander: I sincerely wish that I could give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that he seeks, but I am not in a position to do so. We have made it clear that the requirement for immediate and free access means that we need visas to get into the country and then be able to travel freely to the affected areas. We will be able to judge in the days to come whether that access is forthcoming, but the hon. Gentleman is right that the scale of the devastation inflicted by the cyclone on the southern part of Burma means that it is inevitable that there will be very significant reconstruction requirements. Those requirements would test an environment that was far more prosperous and stable than Burma is today, but the immediate priority is to get the assessment teams on the ground. We will be in a better position to have the dialogue to which the hon. Gentleman refers—whether through interlocutors or directly with the Burmese Government—once we have the response of the assessment teams presently endeavouring to get into the country.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): In humanitarian emergencies, access to clean water is often one of the most pressing problems. Water is heavy, bulky and difficult to carry by air. Sometimes, inadequate road networks mean that it is even difficult to carry by lorry. What priory is DFID giving to ensuring that clean
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water is provided as soon as possible to those in difficulties? Are teams of water engineers on stand-by to go to Burma, if necessary?

Mr. Alexander: That effort would require more than my Department’s support. We have an assessment team ready to travel to Burma, and we have staff at the Burmese embassy in London at the moment trying to secure travel visas. As soon as the visas are secured, the assessment team will travel. The team’s principal responsibility will be to join other international assessment teams already on the ground in Burma, and they are largely made up of people from various countries who were in-country when the cyclone hit the coastline. We will use the assessment that we receive to judge the most immediate humanitarian requirements.

The hon. Gentleman is of course right to recognise that water—along with food, shelter and medicines—is likely to be one of the immediate requirements. However, we need to get the assessment teams in to make the sort of judgments that he suggests.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): I want to reinforce the message that hon. Members of all parties have put across: that the Burmese regime has greatly weakened the country, but that this major natural disaster has left it in an even more perilous state than before. Clearly, urgent and immediate action is needed. On a practical level, the Secretary of State will know that the International Development Committee was concerned about the reduction in the size of the Bangkok office. What role has the British presence there played in co-ordinating the response in the region before we get access to the country?

Mr. Alexander: The hon. Gentleman raises a very valid point, but this is a work in progress. A senior member of the DFID staff is on the point of travelling to Bangkok in the days to come but, until we know where the international effort will be co-ordinated from, it is unclear what our staffing requirements will be. It is likely—although this will be resolved in the days to come—that many international agencies will be based in Bangkok. If so, the size of our staff complement in Bangkok, as distinct from Rangoon, will be based on the judgments that we make. I have already discussed with senior departmental officials the possibility that we may need to supplement our teams in the region, whether in Rangoon or Bangkok. However, the international community will decide in the days to come where the co-ordination will take place.

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