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David Taylor accordingly presented a Bill to regulate the prescription of anti-psychotic drugs for people with dementia in care homes; to require the introduction of protocols for the prescribing, monitoring and review of such medication; to make dementia training, including the use of anti-psychotics, mandatory for care home staff; to require care homes to obtain support from specified external services; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 17 October, and to be printed [Bill 109].

14 May 2008 : Column 1406

Opposition Day

[12th Allotted Day]


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): I must advise the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment standing in the name of the Prime Minister.

1.32 pm

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con): I beg to move,

As the House debates the situation in Burma today, we are equally aware of the terrible earthquake and awful loss of life in China, particularly among children. However, it is hard not to draw comparisons between the responses of the Governments of China and Burma to the terrible disasters that have hit their countries. The Chinese Prime Minister led the humanitarian relief effort to the earthquake in his country. The full power of the state has been used to rescue and protect the citizens of China, but the position in Burma could not be more different. The regime has not only proved unable to handle the challenges it faces, but actively turned its back on helping its own citizens. Indeed, it has willingly and systematically blocked an unprecedented global humanitarian coalition—a coalition motivated not by politics, but by a desire to help those who are suffering.

Britain’s citizens, through the Disasters Emergency Committee, have raised some £6 million to help save lives. I welcome the funds released in the name of the British people by the Department for International Development. I hope that the Secretary of State will update the House on how much of the £5 million he pledged last week has been released to organisations on the ground and on how it is being spent.

Members of the Burmese diaspora throughout the world are responding by sending money to members of their extended families in Burma. Earlier this week, the
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American Department of Treasury eased financial sanctions against Burma to let individuals send money to friends and family there. Will the Secretary of State assure the House that everything possible is being done to assist members of the Burmese community in Europe who want to send money home? Could the European Union do more on that? Will he update the House on the aims of the forthcoming visit of the European Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid, Louis Michel, who is due in Burma for talks tomorrow?

Night is now falling in Burma. The situation in the Irrawaddy delta is almost unimaginable. Hundreds of thousands of people will spend another night without shelter. We hear reports of massive makeshift camps for survivors, where tens of thousands of people gather on high ground, waiting in the hope of assistance. Today, 11 days after Cyclone Nargis hit, hundreds of thousands of people lack the basic necessities for human survival—food, clean drinking water, shelter and any form of basic medicine—and another cyclone is feared in the area.

What we are seeing in Burma is a double tragedy. The cyclone was obviously a natural disaster for which no one can be held responsible. However, we are now seeing a second tragedy unfold, as relief is barely trickling through to those who desperately need it. I know that the skilled staff of the Department for International Development are doing all that they can. Their disaster assessment team arrived in Rangoon earlier this week. We look forward to hearing from the Secretary of State on what it found. The team is led by Rurik Marsden, the head of DFID in Burma, and Britain’s outstanding and experienced ambassador, Mark Canning.

British NGOs and their local partners are doing extraordinary work. Save the Children, whose efforts I saw for myself during my visit to Burma last year, has some 500 staff and 35 offices throughout the country. It is led by Andrew Kirkwood and has managed to reach 100,000 people. The British charity Merlin and others are doing all that they can.

There has been some late, limited improvement in access to aid. An American plane was given permission to land earlier this week and two United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees truck convoys have managed to cross the border from Thailand. I am advised that by 11 o’clock today seven or eight planes carrying aid had landed in Rangoon, among which I understand is one British plane. The World Food Programme reported some easing of access to incoming supplies. I am informed that there has been some progress with the granting of visas. However, that limited progress is nowhere near enough. The Burmese Government continue to cut their people off from the lifelines being offered them. The World Food Programme estimates that it has been able to set up only 10 per cent. of the logistics required for the response and has provided only 20 per cent. of the required food. There is no expectation of a visa waiver.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): Although this was not made entirely clear when the subject came up at Prime Minister’s Question Time, my understanding
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is that before the tragedy in China, China and Russia were the two countries at the United Nations standing in the way of UN action to force the Burmese Government to give better access. In the light of the second tragedy—the one that has hit China—is there any prospect of a renewed effort to mobilise the United Nations being more successful?

Mr. Mitchell: My hon. Friend’s understanding is the same as mine. I have no doubt that the Secretary of State will want to update the House on the continuing discussions that are being held under the United Kingdom’s chairmanship of the Security Council in New York.

John Battle (Leeds, West) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman did not extend or develop his point about the parallels between the tragedy in China and the one in Burma. The Chinese have demonstrated that they understand the need for experts in humanitarian aid to be on the ground immediately, in the place where they are needed. The key issue is not aid, but aid plus people. In the light of their experience, perhaps the Chinese could be encouraged to tell the Burmese to allow the experts in.

Mr. Mitchell: The hon. Gentleman, who knows what he is talking about in this matter, makes an extremely good point. I hope that it will be heard clearly by those making Britain’s contribution to the discussions in New York.

I was talking about the situation on the ground, and my understanding is that the authorities still insist that NGO workers should not operate outside Rangoon. Indeed, we have heard today that those restrictions are reported to have been tightened, and foreign NGO workers in the delta will now be required to remove themselves within 48 hours. I hope that the Secretary of State will be able to comment on that. If he, understandably, does not have full details of the issue, I hope that he will urgently seek to find out what is happening.

Over the past year, the Burmese Government have sought further to weaken and downgrade United Nations structures in Burma, not least by kicking out Charles Petrie, the able UN head in the country, and by denying visas to key UN personnel. Meanwhile, the price of rice, which was already high due to world conditions, has rocketed, and the price of fuel has increased by 500 per cent., further hindering the relief effort.

The view of the House on the nature of the Burmese Government is well known, but that is unquestionably a matter for another day. Now is not the time to pursue that point. Our position bears repeating. Our motives for wanting to get aid through to those who most need it are not political. The sole aim of the international humanitarian workers on the ground is to save lives. The international relief effort is motivated by simple, common humanity. Our clear preference is for aid to be delivered with the co-operation and active support—or at least the passive acquiescence—of the Burmese Government. It is right that, to date, most of the world’s efforts have been focused on securing that outcome.

The international community has learned from bitter experience what has to be done in these circumstances. The UN has conducted a comprehensive needs
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assessment to identify what materials and skills are most needed, and the world is responding generously. On this point, the Secretary of State’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Hilary Benn), should be given credit for instigating the central emergency response fund at the UN. The British taxpayer should also be credited for being the largest contributor to it. Will the Secretary of State tell the House how much money has been drawn down from it so far to assist in this emergency?

Unfettered access to the people who need help is now required. The UN Secretary-General has expressed his frustration at the slow pace of the aid effort. As we made clear last week in the statement to the House, we believe that the Secretary-General should travel to Rangoon today to see the situation for himself and to remonstrate with the military junta and demand action on behalf of the international community. I was pleased to hear, during Prime Minister’s questions today, that the Government have adopted that idea.

Everyone knows that time is running out for the Burmese people, so we now need to consider every available option to get help to those who most need it. That is why my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) said earlier this week that only a defined and limited amount of time should be allowed to pass before the international community takes direct action to reach the people whom humanity demands we assist. If it becomes clear that the Burmese Government remain unco-operative despite continued, concerted pressure from the international community, while people are dying from disease and exposure, the moral imperative to save lives will be overwhelming. The test of our policy must simply be: what will help the people of Burma the most?

The Conservatives are well aware of the complexities and difficulties inherent in attempts to provide aid from the air. Reaching the most vulnerable, ensuring that the aid gets to the people who need it the most and is not seized by the strongest or by the military, and simply finding a suitable place to drop the aid are all very real challenges. However, if we face a choice between getting aid through, even in this imperfect way, and aid not getting through at all to the people who desperately need it and who will die without it, we will have a clear moral imperative to act.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that he is making a very serious point. I have not met any representative of an NGO who takes the view that he is expressing. The NGOs realise that the best way to deliver humanitarian aid is by land and by water. Has he really thought through the implications for the personnel who would be expected to deliver the aid if, at this comparatively early stage—despite the seriousness of the problem—we were to involve ourselves in air drops?

Mr. Mitchell: The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the difficulties that would accompany such action, but he must bear it in mind that we are not at an early stage. Without any aid or support at all, hundreds of thousands of people in Burma could die. Although the aid agencies and NGOs are sceptical about the case
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that I am putting, it must nevertheless be considered. If we cannot get aid through by any other means, we should get it through directly.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): Following on from the previous intervention, will the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that certain things cannot be dropped from the air? Safe water systems and other equipment would be badly damaged if they were dropped in on a pallet. The real solution would still require people on the ground who were able to get the resources in by other means.

Mr. Mitchell: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, to some extent. We are not suggesting dropping water from the air; no one has suggested that. Water purification tablets and equipment could be dropped in that way, however. There are many people stranded on the ground who are starving and who are going to die, and we need to reach them. The right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke) referred to access by sea, and we should also consider that method. The UN has called for a sea corridor to be established to assist the aid effort. Will the Secretary of State update us on what progress has been made in that regard?

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): Are we not in danger of getting into a false argument on this matter? I was in Ethiopia during the famine in 1985. Because of the desperate situation, it was necessary to deliver a lot of the aid by air. RAF Hercules planes, working with Russian cargo freighters, did fantastic work getting food and other supplies into difficult parts of Ethiopia. That was an example of an airlift being used to the best advantage. This is not a false dichotomy. Given the scale of the disaster in Burma, we are almost certainly going to need air support at some stage. My hon. Friend has rightly pointed out that there comes a time at which the international community has to say, “We have a responsibility to intervene if the Burmese Government are not willing to look after their own people.”

Mr. Mitchell: My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. I seek to carry the House with me when I say that no one believes that delivering aid directly, whether by sea or by air, is easy. However, the House must consider what we should do if we cannot get aid through in any other way.

The Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Douglas Alexander): I am keen for the hon. Gentleman to clarify the position of his Front Bench on this issue. My understanding is that the Leader of the Opposition set yesterday as the deadline when contemplating air drops during an interview on “The World at One”, but that position now seems to be shifting, if the hon. Gentleman is saying that they should be contemplated for the future. Who is correct: the Front-Bench spokesman or the leader of his party?

Mr. Mitchell: I strongly urge the right hon. Gentleman not to abuse his position by trying to make party political points on this matter. I heard the interview that my right hon. Friend gave yesterday, and the point that he made is precisely the point that I am making. If, after
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a period of time—which my right hon. Friend rightly argued should be defined—the aid is still not getting through, the international community must address the issue of getting it through directly.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): Does it not illustrate just how callous the Burmese regime are when the small trickle of aid that has finally got through is halted by the Burmese junta and repackaged to make it look as though it has come from the junta itself? Surely the important thing is that we get the food and aid through to the people who need it most as quickly as possible.

Mr. Mitchell: My hon. Friend is entirely right.

I was referring to the issue of access by sea and to the UN sea corridor, which has been called for to assist the aid effort. I invited the Secretary of State to update us on any progress that has been made in that regard. The House would also like to hear what steps are being taken in consultation with Bernard Kouchner, the French Foreign Minister, for Britain to join up with the French vessels that are currently approaching Burma. What plans do the Government have to use HMS Westminster in the relief effort? Will the Secretary of State set out exactly what supplies the ship is carrying and what plans have been made to use them?

In 2006, amidst much self-congratulation, the leaders of the international community in New York embraced a responsibility to protect people whose Governments failed to do so. The UN Security Council referred to the “intentional denial” of humanitarian assistance. The responsibility to protect focuses on genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.

Lawyers might say that the situation in Burma does not currently fit the technical definition that triggers the responsibility to protect. Conservative Members say that it should and we say further that the international community, through the UN, must revisit this failure to protect as part of the reform of the international architecture so that regimes cannot obstruct and frustrate with impunity the common humanitarian responsibility of the international community. For now, there is one thing and only one thing that matters—the saving of lives, which will surely be lost in their thousands unless international aid reaches those in such peril in Burma tonight.

1.51 pm

The Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Douglas Alexander): I beg to move, To leave out from “House” to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

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