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On such occasions, we are used to turning to regional bodies and wondering what they are doing. I do not think that I am alone in being frustrated at the slowness of the response from the Association of South East Asian Nations countries, of which Burma is one. It is deeply alarming that it has taken them so long to gather. It was good to hear that they will have a mercy mission and that they will hopefully ratify that on the 19th, but surely this disaster needs not
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bureaucratic responses but political pressure, applied quickly and now, to make the Burmese change their minds.

I am pleased that the Secretary of State talked about bringing our European partners together and the fact that the commissioner is to visit the region. Perhaps the Minister who replies to the debate might also brief the House on the extent to which European funds and other forms of support have been offered by our partners. It is important to demonstrate that Europe can come together on these issues and be more effective than we are bilaterally. In particular, the UN reckoned a few days ago that $187 million of support might be needed—although the figure might have changed—but we have not heard thus far how much of that has been delivered. It would be helpful to know what will happen.

Ministers, officials and others are to be congratulated on the efforts that they have made so far and on their steadfastness. We know that they were working over the weekend to brief colleagues in the House as well as attending to the details of what was going on. We cannot criticise them on that level. We want to know if they believe that as a result of their actions, in Europe and elsewhere, the funding and logistical support will be in place for that moment when, we must hope, the Burmese change their attitude and allow things to move on.

In particular, may we have an assurance that the money that has been pledged is additional to that that was already in the budget for the region or for Burma—that it is not replacement or accelerated funding, which would otherwise have been given later in the year? It is important that we have that assurance, and a statement this afternoon would be helpful.

Mr. Douglas Alexander: I give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that he was looking for. The funds that we are providing for immediate humanitarian assistance to Burma are additional to the programme funding that we would otherwise have provided. That will continue to be the approach as we reflect on the flash appeal and the need for further assistance in the days and weeks to come.

Mr. Moore: I am sure that that is welcome on both sides of the House; right hon. and hon. Members will be pleased to have heard that.

We cannot imagine what it is like in Burma or China at present. It is incumbent on us all, however, to ensure that our support, our suggestions, the questions that we ask and the things that we do are dedicated to one objective: minimising further humanitarian suffering and death in that region. I am pleased to have had the opportunity to speak this afternoon and to support the motion.

2.34 pm

John Battle (Leeds, West) (Lab): I welcome this debate and the topic that has been chosen by the Opposition. It is a credit to us all that at a time when we have talked for weeks about the world economic crisis, the credit crunch and pressure on budgets in Britain, we respond generously as a country when we see a humanitarian crisis and people losing their
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livelihoods and lives. We ought not to forget that in the arguments we have in this House.

I believe that the Government need to be congratulated on the fact that they responded quickly and have given an international lead in their response to the appeal and the crisis. That is good news. The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) was generous enough to acknowledge the work done by the former Secretary of State for International Development, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Hilary Benn), in trying to sharpen up the UN humanitarian response. It had been a bit of a shambles, frankly, but some order was put into the system. We are trying to give a lead, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield for his remarks.

In parenthesis, the debate is haunted by the fact that we have much to do to transform, reform and shape the UN and to turn it into a body that defends the universal common good, whether during humanitarian disasters or when countries inflict violence on their own populations. We have much to do to turn the UN into an international body that serves the general common good of our world. It is difficult when there is a need for consensus and we cannot reach one, and that is perhaps why we end up in the difficulties that we do.

It would be desperate if, in spite of the Government’s good efforts and the financial commitments that people have given in appeals, as well as the Government’s budgeting to ensure that there is money for aid in such crises, our response and the need to focus on the provision of humanitarian aid and the needs of the people of Burma were to degenerate into a debilitating political stand-off between the west and Burma, or a deadlock in the UN Security Council while thousands needlessly die. There is a danger that the response to the crisis might end up like that.

I know from my experience on the Select Committee on International Development over some years, and from my experience over the years of the management of disasters and crises elsewhere, that we ought to try to keep together meeting the need for materials—food, water tablets and sanitation equipment—and the deployment of professional, experienced people on the ground to ensure that aid reaches people in an orderly fashion and that there is some sense of process. What has happened in Burma is the worst disaster since the tsunami in 2004. We have all worked on the reports from this House on implementing the lessons from that disaster, so we must look back at what happened then and ask what we learned—we did learn from that disaster—as well as what we can do better. We should try to the best of our abilities to cajole the international community to get Burma on side to deal with the crisis properly.

Richard Horsey, from the UN humanitarian operations, has pinpointed four immediate needs: clean drinking water; emergency shelter; medical supplies and support, which are not easy to drop from the air in any circumstances; and food. Estimates have varied and I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for the figures that he gave. The latest reports from the ground estimate that the number of people dead and missing is now more than 200,000. At least 1.5 million people are in need of immediate assistance and more than
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300,000 are in desperate need. This is not a small-scale emergency but a major emergency for the Burmese people.

The estimate that 300,000 people are in dire need means that a minimum of 150 metric tonnes of food a day must be sent into that country now. That is the equivalent of 10 standard relief flights a day for food alone. We heard today that since the cyclone hit, there have been about 35 flights. The scale on which food has been provided is completely out of kilter with what is needed. That is why this is an urgent debate about how to deal with the crisis, rather than just an attempt to nudge the UN in the right direction and to ensure that it gets its terms of reference right. Such urgency needs to be injected into that debate in the UK and internationally.

Today the UN is calling for an air bridge or a sea corridor. There were even hints that a floating warehouse in the Irrawaddy delta region could be used to channel in aid on the scale needed. I would like to know whether those practical proposals are being discussed internationally, both at the UN and with the Burmese authorities. Let us literally give the authorities a bridge—a way forward—through the difficulties. If the aid, and the personnel to manage the aid, do not get through, in not many days there will be starvation and disease on a scale that we have not seen before, as the second wave of the disaster hits the Burmese people.

I would like more clarification from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas), on the following point. The regime still insists that it does not really need aid on the scale that is envisaged, and it seems to be insisting that it does not need practical assistance in delivering that aid, yet I get the impression that it does not even have the equipment to unload planes properly. Loads are passed from hand to hand; the people do not have the necessary equipment. I was under the impression that army checkpoints have been used in the delta region to prevent personnel from foreign non-governmental organisations from entering. I think that it is still difficult to get a permit to move out of Rangoon. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State may have said that there has been an ease-up in the situation, which would be most welcome.

Mr. Douglas Alexander: In my discussions with the British NGOs this morning, it was confirmed that although some are finding it difficult to secure access to areas outside Rangoon, others are not. My right hon. Friend is right to recognise that there are difficulties with lift capability and unloading planes at Rangoon airport. That is one of the reasons why part of the money that we are providing will be spent on cargo lifting material to allow quicker offloading of the planes arriving at Rangoon airport. As for the level of access being secured by aid workers, the picture in the country continues to be generally confused. Some of those aid workers are positive, but some still find it extremely difficult to move around.

John Battle: I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend. When I was privileged enough to be in the Foreign Office, I learned that British officials are
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incredibly pragmatic, in the best sense of the word. They resolve problems in detail, and that is what we need now: hard-headed ways forward on issues. I welcome that approach. That is what came through in the International Development Committee’s seventh report of the 2006 Session, which was on humanitarian responses to natural disasters. The Government responded to the report and we debated it in the House. The point that came through most strongly was that we cannot go ahead anywhere with haphazard, random, inefficient air drops in areas where there is still bad weather—and there is still bad weather in Burma; it is still raining. It is difficult terrain, and it is a flooded area. The drops will be lost and will not reach the people.

It is not just a question of getting the food there. The real issue is the need for people with humanitarian expertise. Skilled personnel from the NGOs and the UN are needed on the ground. We are not starting from scratch, having had no one there. World Vision, Merlin, Save the Children, Care International and the International Red Cross have had staff in Burma for a long time. The Burmese authorities have memorandums of understanding with all those NGOs to allow them to provide humanitarian aid; that has been the situation for a while. As I think the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield said, Save the Children has had 500 members of staff in Burma since 1995. We are not starting from nothing.

Can we build on what we know is working? Can we extend those memorandums of understanding? I suggest that as a way forward, because we need professionals on the ground. We need to give reassurance, even to people in this country. If we make a flash appeal and want people to give, their first question will be, “How can we be sure that the money will reach the people who need it?”; otherwise, a lack of assurance may undermine the aid appeals and deter people from giving. That is why the central issue is access, and not good will, the amount of money concerned, or the commitments that the Government have given. We must negotiate access, so that we can properly assess the needs on the ground. That is what the experts are brilliant at doing. They can work out the need and manage the aid coming into the country to make sure that it reaches people in a proper, orderly, managed fashion.

Mr. Douglas Alexander rose—

Mr. Andrew Mitchell rose—

John Battle: I am more than happy to give way, first to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and then to the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield.

Mr. Douglas Alexander: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way, and for his clear sense of priority in who he chooses to give way to. Will he accept the following assurance? I had a conversation with the director of Save the Children only this morning, and she was able to assure me that Save the Children continues to operate, fully supports the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal, and asks that
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I continue to communicate to the people of the United Kingdom, as I sought to do in interviews over the weekend, that the money that they are donating through the DEC is already making a difference on the ground in Burma.

John Battle: I am grateful for that, and that should be pointed out, because we want people to be generous in their help, as the needs are massive.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell: My aim in intervening was precisely the same as that of the Secretary of State. When I was in Rangoon last year, I saw the work done on the ground by Save the Children, and the excellent work being done in Burma by Andrew Kirkwood. Everyone who gives money to the DEC appeal can be absolutely confident that they have a really first-class NGO in Save the Children. Other NGOs mentioned in this debate are also doing very valuable work on the ground.

John Battle: I am grateful for that. On the DEC and the NGOs that gather around it, from my personal experience over the years I can say that I have absolute confidence that all our NGOs ensure that what the British people give them reaches the people. That is why the real issue is to encourage, exhort and convince the Burmese authorities to allow in world-class independent expertise, and the well-respected independent organisations that can help to manage and monitor the impact of humanitarian aid in Burma. I am not asking for us to go there; I do not ask our Prime Minister, or even the Secretary of State to go there. I am asking for independent people with experience of managing such situations to be allowed to do that work on the ground. I do not ask them to negotiate the politics or the future of Burma; I want them to get resources to the people.

May I make two further points? We need to address the immediate needs of the people. People are surviving by putting little plastic cups out to catch rainwater, because they have no water. Fifteen days post-disaster, the mortality rate for the under-fives goes up massively, and 30 days later there is crisis on an unimaginable scale, because the mortality rate rises then apply to the whole population. Disease spreads exponentially 30 days in. We are now at a crucial time.

However, even though this is an important moment, I ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to think ahead to the medium and longer term. There are 2 million homeless people in Burma, and 3,000 schools have been destroyed. As was the case with the tsunami, the big money is not needed at the front end. In the case of the tsunami, the money came in well, through generous donations from people and Governments, but money was needed for the medium and longer term, when the media went away. We now need to get a focus on the reconstruction. I want to flag that up, even at this early stage.

Finally, I should like to follow up a remark—it was almost an aside, although an important one—made by the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore), who speaks for the Liberal Democrats, concerning rice. Rice prices have risen by 30 per cent. in the past two months. As everybody knows, rice is the staple of the people of Burma,
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particularly poor people. Tragically, the flooding and the cyclone have hit the Irrawaddy delta, which is the rice bowl of the whole of Burma. The World Food Programme estimates that Burma has less than half the rice that it needs to feed all its people, so there is a desperate need for food, both now and in the long term. That is because it is harvest time, but the harvest has been washed away, as have the stored grains.

Worse still, we are right in the middle of planting for the next harvest. How can people plant in fields of salt water? That is the problem. The tide has come in, and rice cannot be grown in salt water. There will be a food crisis in Burma for months to come. There is already a problem, but we need to address the issue of the failure of the next crop, otherwise within months we will be back discussing the issue in the House. In the best sense, I hope that we do debate the issue again in the House, but tragically we could be discussing mass hunger in Burma, and not just how to tackle the present humanitarian crisis.

2.49 pm

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): It is always a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Leeds, West (John Battle), with whom I enjoyed working for a number of years on the International Development Committee. As ever, he spoke a considerable amount of sense.

Those of us who have witnessed humanitarian disasters know that the scale of the Burma disaster requires an enormous amount of professional logistic assistance and support to ensure that food, water and medical supplies get to the right people. That requires a great deal of expertise, which the international community has. The task cannot be accomplished by army personnel unloading cartons at airports. Getting sizeable amounts of water and food to large numbers of displaced people is a difficult logistical exercise.

There are, as we understand it, hundreds and hundreds of children who, tragically, have been orphaned. Looking after those children and ensuring that they do not become dehydrated or die of malnutrition is incredibly important. Someone has to take responsibility for that. The concern of many of us is that, to date, the Burmese authorities do not look as though they want to take responsibility. They did not have warning systems in place. For many days after the cyclone struck, there seemed to be very little, if any, response from the Burmese authorities, and their resistance to allowing the international community to come into Burma—their refusal to grant visas and so forth—is a matter for considerable concern.

It is heartening to hear from the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State that NGOs are slowly beginning to be able to get into Burma, but one has to recognise that the scale of the disaster is enormous. It will require large numbers of people and expertise in the very near future if a major humanitarian disaster is to be averted.

The right hon. Member for Leeds, West made another point that I wish to amplify. In the case of a drought, such as that in Ethiopia, it is hoped that the rains will fall the next year and people will be able to return to their homes and villages, plant crops again and restart. The entire topography of the Irrawaddy delta looks as though it has been changed for ever. Relocating and rehousing thousands of families and
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children would be a massive humanitarian and political challenge to any Government, let alone a Government who are inherently secretive.

To amplify a further point made by the right hon. Gentleman, we are seeing throughout the world from Burma to Somalia to Zimbabwe the impact of rising food prices. That gives enormous power to whoever controls the food. Allowing the army in Burma to control humanitarian food supplies substantially enhances the position of the Burmese authorities and army. The same happens anywhere. We had Foreign Office questions yesterday. From reading in the regional press about what is happening in Somalia, it is clear that the militias are seeking to control the food supplies. In terms of the broader conflict in Somalia, that puts the militias in an incredibly strong position. We should bear that in mind.

We must also bear it in mind that the architecture of international institutions such as the World Food Programme will probably have to change dramatically. For a long time the World Food Programme took surplus grain from countries such as Australia and the United States, kept it in reserve and made it available, when necessary, to countries such as Malawi. Serious structural deficits in world food supplies will require the World Food Programme to become a kind of hunger agency and to be much more proactive in trying to ensure that countries become more self-sufficient in agricultural production.

It is, for example, crazy that Sierra Leone, which used to be able to export rice and had some of the best rice production in west Africa, is still importing rice. There is no reason why Sierra Leone should not be growing rice again. It is not a difficult crop to start to grow, it takes only one year to get it going, and the conflict in Sierra Leone has been over for some time.

The Burmese cyclone demonstrates, tragically, yet again that when natural disasters hit, they invariably hit the poorest and the weakest worst. Whether it be the tsunami in Sri Lanka, the earthquake in Kashmir or the cyclone in Burma, because people are unbelievably poor they are less able to resist natural shocks. We must not forget that at the best of times Burma is a very poor country. Before the cyclone hit, about a third of Burma’s population lived below the poverty line and infant mortality was extremely high. Before the cyclone hit, the World Food Programme estimated that about a third of the children under five were malnourished. The country was extremely fragile even before the recent disaster.

I am not necessarily suggesting that a cyclone is caused by climate change, but the point that I want to make to the House is that all those climate-related disasters hit the poorest and the weakest hardest, which is why, when it comes to the Climate Change Bill and the work that we are doing on climate change, there is a moral imperative to support some of the weakest people on the planet by ensuring that the Bill goes through and that we have effective legislation on climate change.

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