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Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): We are meeting here while an enormous demonstration is taking place in Parliament square. I have been out there with colleagues many times and spoken to people, and I pay enormous
14 May 2009 : Column 1055
tribute to them for being there, for what they are saying, and for what they are trying to achieve. Sadly, many of the people I have met out there I first met in 1984 and 1985 when they came to this country as asylum seekers and I supported their application for asylum at that time. What has recently been happening to the Tamil people is not new.

What is happening to the Tamil people is the endgame of the madness of the Sri Lankan Government’s idea that there is a military solution to this problem. They are going to bomb, they are going to maim, they are going to kill, and they are going to call it a victory. That victory is not possible, because the anger of the Tamil people will go on. There will therefore be an uprising of guerrilla actions in the future. There will therefore, I suspect, be forced population moves by the Sri Lankan Government against the Tamil people. The Government there are creating all the problems of tomorrow, and of all the tomorrows after that.

There has to be an absolute demand for a ceasefire. There has to be isolation of Sri Lanka because of its refusal to undertake the ceasefire. There has to be a diplomatic and political way forward that brings about that ceasefire and a process of safety. I support what my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) said. Why cannot we have a Commonwealth mission going to Sri Lanka now that says, “We’re going to the war zone as human rights observers, and we will monitor what is going on and report back to the rest of the world”? If we do not do that, are we just going to allow satellite images of this killing to go on and no further action to be taken?

There is a cry for help in the square. There is a cry for help in Sri Lanka. There is a cry for help all over the world. If the UN cannot act, shame on the UN; and if the Commonwealth cannot act, shame on the Commonwealth. If we cannot act to impose economic sanctions now on Sri Lanka, shame on us.

1.49 pm

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): Like the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), I have sought to support the Tamil community for a quarter of a century, and wished and hoped and prayed that it would never come to this. Like other colleagues, I share the anger, frustration, despair and desperation of the Tamils in the country. I join Members in all parts of the House in paying tribute to the people who, with courtesy but out of desperation, have sought to come to Parliament and to the Government and say, “You are the people we rely on; you must do more to help our families and friends.”

I also give thanks to those who have received us when we have gone with members of the Tamil community to see the Government, the American Government—at the State Department and the White House—the UN, the EU at Strasbourg, and the Commonwealth. The community has put its case more effectively than we ever could and those people have listened, but the action that it needs and that we call for has not been taken. As the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) said, the situation has become worse in its implications every day. I repeat my request to the Minister for the public release of the aerial and satellite photography, which would give us—now—the independent evidence,
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which I know exists, because I have seen some of it, and would make clear what is going on. I repeat the call for both sides to stop fighting now—we must keep repeating that.

I also wish to put on the record what specifically has to happen—this follows on from comments made by hon. Members from across the House. There ought to be an attempt by our Government to secure an agreement within the next few hours, or within the next day, for a coalition of countries to say to the Sri Lankan Government, “Within one or two days we are going in with the relief, the aid, the food, the water and the medical aid. We are going to land and we challenge you to stop us.” The international community cannot say that sovereignty takes precedence over international responsibility. We have passed that point, as the UN has accepted; the right to protect has been accepted. We have to say that we are going to implement that; we cannot wait for more diplomatic negotiations to take place.

My call to Ministers is to respond to that. Of course we can seek a resolution in the UN Security Council and we can ask the United Nations Committee on Human Rights to take action. My Liberal colleagues say that the international communities—the Commonwealth, the EU and the UN—are good because we are stronger together, but it is no good if being stronger together does not deliver any action. I ask that that now be taken. I ask that the Commonwealth take some action, because so far it has not done so and for those of us who believe in the Commonwealth, that is unsatisfactory.

John Bercow: The responsibility to protect is legally established and morally incontestable, so the Sri Lankan Government need to be clear about that. May I say to the hon. Gentleman in case this was not clear, although the point was made very powerfully by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), that allegations of war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide must be investigated whenever? There can be no question of any amnesty for the Sri Lankan Government, at any time, from consideration of allegations of that kind.

Simon Hughes: I absolutely support that, and I ask the Minister to indicate in his winding-up speech that the Government have begun the work on investigating war crimes and are working with other partners—I know that the US is active on this—to ensure that the Sri Lankan Government know that that is happening so that those who are responsible are held to account.

I wish to make only two further points, because we want everybody to contribute to this debate. The first follows some of the other requests that have been made. Another way of effectively making the point to the Sri Lankan Government is for the Governments of the other Commonwealth countries, other countries in the EU and the United States simultaneously to call in the high commission ambassadors and warn them that if there is not a stop to the Sri Lankan Government’s military action, there will be a peaceful but immediate intervention. That concerted sign has to be given, because all the pleas have so far fallen on deaf ears.

Lastly, I am very conscious of the fact that this House has become very united and very determined on this issue. I am grateful that the Foreign Affairs Committee looks as though it will respond to the petitions presented on behalf of our Tamil communities here by considering
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the human rights issues in its human rights report. But this situation is a challenge to the effectiveness of our democracies and our democratic Governments, and so far, in the moment of the greatest need of any people from this country since I was elected 25 years or so ago, our democratic system has been found wanting. We have to do more if the effectiveness of our own democracy is not to be undermined and if we are not to let down people whose relatives are threatened with the prospect of not being alive tomorrow.

1.54 pm

Mr. Virendra Sharma (Ealing, Southall) (Lab): Since the previous debate in the House, things have got significantly worse in the conflict area in north-east Sri Lanka. There are about 120,000 people in a narrow strip of coastal land of only 3 sq km, and the shortage of food, water and medicine has got significantly worse, although thanks to the efforts of the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister’s special envoy, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne), some improvements were temporarily made. I thank them for their ongoing efforts to bring about a ceasefire and to get humanitarian aid to the Tamil civilians caught in this terrible conflict.

It is also without doubt now clear, despite their denials, that the Sri Lankan Government forces are using heavy weapons to shell this small area. The reports of the past few days of hundreds of deaths and casualties in the makeshift hospitals in the conflict area are testament to the callous indifference of the Government of Sri Lanka to innocent civilian casualties. It is clear that the Sri Lankan Government armed forces do not have the capability to avoid civilian casualties or the moral will to stop killing innocent civilians. There must be an immediate and permanent ceasefire to stop this slaughter of innocent Tamil people. The Government of Sri Lanka must also be held to account for these war crimes, and there must be proper UN investigations into any alleged war crimes.

The International Red Cross is continuing to try to get food and medical supplies into the war zone by sea, but the continuing fighting has made that very difficult. Civilians are now starving and dying from untreated injuries, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) has said. Any member of the Tamil community will give thousands of examples of relatives, brothers, sisters and friends dying because of the shortage of medical aid and food, so an immediate ceasefire to allow humanitarian aid into the conflict zone is vital.

Reports from “Channel 4 News” about conditions for the 180,000 Tamil civilians in Sri Lankan Government internment camps are also very worrying. There have been reports of dead bodies left for days; sexual abuse; food, water and medical shortages; and families being split up. The Government of Sri Lanka must allow UN and international aid agencies into these camps. The Sri Lankan Government are now isolated, given their unwillingness to call a ceasefire and to allow international media into the conflict zone and the camps. I urge our Government to take the steps that other hon. Members have mentioned, because that is how we will win the confidence of the communities here and have the trust and the faith of the international communities.

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1.58 pm

Barry Gardiner (Brent, North) (Lab): I wish to make just three points. On Monday, having spent many hours, and after seven separate phone numbers had been given to me, I was able finally to make representations to try, with the UK Border Agency, to block the deportation of a young woman, whom I shall simply call Laksna, aged 21. She had been sexually assaulted by the Sri Lankan security forces and had come to this country seeking asylum, but she was facing deportation. I want to put on the record my gratitude to the Foreign Secretary and the Minister for Borders and Immigration for the way in which, after I had eventually discovered that despite those representations to block the deportation that woman had been taken to Heathrow and was about to be put on the plane—that was in stark contrast to the assurances that I had been given by the UKBA—they ensured that that young woman was sent back into detention in Yarl’s Wood and was not deported. Can this Minister assure me that the country assessment that the UK has now made of Sri Lanka has been communicated to the Home Office and that no further deportations of Tamil asylum seekers will be allowed?

The second point that I wish to make is that it is time that relatives of the members of the Sri Lankan regime were no longer deemed welcome in this country, whether they are here studying as students—as immediate family of the President have been—or in other ways. Diplomatic sanctions must now be imposed, and those people, including more distant relatives, should be told that they are not welcome in this country.

Finally, unless this House looks at the strategic relationship between Sri Lanka and China—a point made by the Liberal Democrat spokesman—including the investment made in the port at Hambantota, we will not see a full resolution of this conflict.

2.1 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Michael Foster): In the very few seconds left to me, I undertake to write to colleagues to address the issues that have been raised—

2.1 pm

One and a half hours having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings, the motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 24A).

Jeremy Corbyn: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I understand the problem with time, but it does no credit to this House that a debate as important as this has to be curtailed after such a short time. Is there any way in which it can be extended, even for only half an hour, to allow the few remaining hon. Members who wish to contribute to do so, and the Minister to respond? I understand that not very many Members wish to take part in the next debate.

Madam Deputy Speaker: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point of order and I understand that many hon. Members would have liked to contribute to the last debate for longer and to have heard the Minister reply. I did my best to ensure that as many Back Benchers contributed as possible, but I regret to say that the Standing Orders do not allow for an exception to be made.

14 May 2009 : Column 1059

Swine Flu

2.2 pm

The Secretary of State for Health (Alan Johnson): I beg to move,

I have written to Mr. Speaker and to Opposition Front Benchers to give my apologies because I will not be able to be here for the close of this debate. I am grateful for their understanding.

The likelihood of the current outbreak of swine flu developing into a full-blown pandemic remains high. According to the latest figures, there are now 6,497 confirmed cases across the world, including 2,446 in Mexico, 3,352 in the US and 389 in Canada. Every continent has confirmed cases and there have been 60 deaths in Mexico, three in the US, one in Canada and one in Costa Rica. There are currently 78 confirmed cases in the UK—one in Northern Ireland, five in Scotland, 72 in England and none in Wales. There are cases in every region of England except Yorkshire and the Humber.

While there are still many uncertainties about this virus, scientists are learning more every day, and their findings are informing the preparations of the World Health Organisation and Governments across the world. The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, chaired jointly by the chief scientific adviser, Professor John Beddington, and leading independent scientist Sir Gordon Duff, are gathering and assessing all the latest information available. This includes the work of researchers at Imperial college who have studied the evolution of the epidemic and whose findings were published earlier this week, and of course the Health Protection Agency, which has been to Mexico to study the virus in its place of origin.

Early studies indicate that this virus has pandemic potential. However, it is still a novel virus and it is difficult to say anything concrete about its severity, not least because there are many local factors that have an influence—availability of antivirals, the robustness of local health systems, standard of living and the prevalence of underlying health conditions. Currently, the virus appears to be milder than the most severe previous pandemics—notably the pandemic of 1918. But flu viruses are prone to mutation—it could become more virulent or it could lose strength over time.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): Obviously, all of us hope that this outbreak will not be as serious as the worst-case scenarios and projections. I thank the Minister for being in touch with me about one of the earliest cases in this country which affected a constituent of mine. I was grateful to be tipped off about that so early.

On 1 May the Evening Standard claimed that the response plan for London envisaged 94,000 deaths, with a hit list for every borough. Does the Secretary of State regard that as irresponsible, and was his Department involved in putting that press release out to that newspaper, whose Armageddon-type projections panicked people in London and beyond?

Alan Johnson: That was irresponsible, but as I have said before, the media’s response has generally been responsible. That was an exception and, to its credit, the Evening Standard has apologised in advertisements throughout London.

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We do not know enough about the virus yet. It is important to note that countries in the southern hemisphere are entering their flu season, which may mean that the disease gains a firmer global foothold during our summer period. Past flu pandemics in the UK have been light in the summer with an increase in cases in the winter. It is possible, therefore, that there will be a second wave of the virus in the autumn.

We have yet to see sustained transmission within communities in the UK—that is to say, a significant number of cases between people who have no obvious connection to each other. We have one so-called de novo case, where someone has developed the disease apparently without being exposed to any close contacts who have the virus. The containment strategy that we have adopted—supplying antivirals as a preventive measure both to those who develop the disease and to their close contacts, and in certain circumstances closing schools, where disease can spread particularly rapidly—is effective in that it is delaying the spread of the disease, and buying valuable time.

It is unlikely that we can prevent a more widespread outbreak indefinitely. But while the number of people developing this disease will certainly rise over the coming weeks, we do not expect to have to move from containment to mitigation for several weeks. None the less, everyone needs to be prepared for the next stage, in which the outbreak can no longer be contained and has spread more widely.

There are three aspects that I want to touch on today. First, as I explained to the House in my statement a week ago, when the number of cases increases beyond a certain level, we will have to keep under review to what extent we supply antivirals prophylactically—in the first instance supplying them only to immediate family and household members and, on a post-exposure basis, to health and social care workers, rather than to all contacts.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): Has the Secretary of State considered the special case of cabin crew of airlines travelling to and from the highly affected regions? They operate in a very unhealthy environment, and the airlines, especially BA, will not at present participate in prophylactic schemes. Can he give us some guidance on that?

Alan Johnson: My understanding is that airlines are prepared to give their staff antivirals. They are part of the employer groups to which we talk all the time through the business advisory group on the pandemic. They tell us that they are seeking to do so post-exposure and if any of their cabin staff are symptomatic. There are good occupational health systems in place. If the hon. Gentleman believes that that is not the case with some airlines I would be grateful if he could let me know, so that we can talk to the people concerned.

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