The Bill does not cover the great problems that we had with one particular Secretary of State who achieved absolution through resignation. There was a very worrying situation involving a lobbyist who was working for that Secretary of State. He was not employed by that Secretary of State, or by the Government; apparently, he was employed by certain right-wing think-tanks in America, but he was certainly present at private meetings, and

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was privy to all kinds of information. When the matter came out, it should have been referred to the adviser on ministerial interests, but it was not. The adviser resigned, and another was appointed. When our Committee held a hearing to consider whether the proposed replacement was the right man, we decided unanimously that he was not. We voted against it, but he got in. We said, “What we need is a Rottweiler, but what we have is a poodle.” We must deal with the lobbying that takes place at the highest level in respect of decisions to go to war and decisions to buy armaments.

Let me give an example of something that could happen here; indeed, something similar is happening here. In America, a couple called the Kagans were at Petraeus’s right hand. They were present at every private meeting that took place, and constantly advised Petraeus to beef up the aggression and play down the war movement. They were not employed by Petraeus, they were not employed by the military and they were not employed by the American Government. They were employed by the American arms industry. That gives us some clue as to why we have continual pressure for perpetual war to keep the orders going. Is that taken care of in the Bill?

We have a scandal in this country, which was revealed by The Sunday Times. Apparently, in the past 15 years the astronomical figure of 3,500 former civil servants have been working for the arms industry. Many members of the civil service now retire at a very early age and embark on a second career, using their civil service expertise and contacts files. In one instance, a General Kiszely offered his services. He said that when he went to the Cenotaph and was waiting for the Queen to turn up, there was not much else to do: one would not be thinking about the fallen. He said that it was a good marketing opportunity, and that he could talk to people there and settle contracts.

New clause 7, in particular, is designed to deal with the fact that the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments provides very weak rules to limit the way in which former Ministers, civil servants, generals and admirals can prostitute the knowledge that they gain when they are in high office in order to make as much money as they can afterwards. The problem is not the damage they do afterwards, because their knowledge is a wasting asset and soon becomes out of date. The great problem is this. When people are Ministers, top civil servants or heads of Department, what are they doing? When they have to settle contracts involving billions of pounds, do they say they will do so in the public interest and in the pursuit of best value for money, or in the back of their mind are they thinking that if they give the contract to firm A, B or C, one of them might do a deal with them and they may get their hacienda in Spain in retirement as a result of that decision? It is a deeply corrupting part of our system. ACBA never succeeds in limiting it; it has no powers. It can take any decision and give any advice, but it cannot impose those decisions.

In a fascinating television programme, the ACBA chair—

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I am listening with great interest to the hon. Gentleman, who is making a powerful speech, as usual, but I am slightly worried that if he carries on for much longer we will not be able to grill the Leader of the House.

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Paul Flynn: I would not want to deny the hon. Gentleman—a possible future Deputy Speaker of the House—that privilege. I believe that he is one of the candidates. It is fascinating to get these invitations. One from an hon. Lady said, “Vote for me and you won’t have to put up with me on the Benches. I will be silenced.” Therefore, we are voting for the one we most want to silence as a Deputy Speaker and we think is most loathsome. It is a hard task, because we have a rich choice.

We were waiting for the Bill. We were promised it on 10 March 2010. This was going to be the great crusading Parliament against lobbying. This was going to be the new scandal. Nothing happened: comatose for nearly three years. Suddenly there was a scandal on the way and the Government decided to act. The Bill was conceived in haste. It was written in fear and in malice. The legislative process has been conducted with incompetence. These modest amendments will make some improvements but it will be one of the many Bills that will go through the House. We are very poor at legislating.

We should look at the history. During the 13 years of the Labour Government, 75 Bills went through all their stages and were never put into practice. A permanent secretary has that figure. We have this disease. If we see a problem, what do we do? Dogs bark, children cry, politicians legislate. This is a piece of utterly futile legislation. It does not deal with the problem. It misses 97% of the problem but it takes a spiteful side-swipe at bodies that are blameless such as charities and trade unions. The Government are trying to save corporate lobbyists, who are doing the greatest damage, from the bureaucracy, and they have hit out at people who are doing no damage whatever. They are reducing bureaucracy for one and increasing needlessly bureaucracy for the other. This is an awful Bill.

Mr Lansley: As has been demonstrated, the effect of new clause 7 and the other amendments proposed by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) would be to bring into the register of lobbyists not just consultant lobbyists but all those who are in-house lobbyists. She knows that the approach we have taken is not to seek to create a register of everyone who engages in lobbying, which would be a very long list, but to ensure that the details of the meetings of the key decision makers—Ministers and permanent secretaries—are published and by extension we understand who is lobbying whom as far as the key decision makers are concerned. She rather shot her own fox by talking about the big six energy firms. The reason that earlier this week The Independent was able to run the story about the number of times that Ministers have met representatives of the big six energy firms is that we as a Government for the first time have published details of Ministers’ diaries. Putting the names of the big six energy firms in a register of lobbyists adds no information: we know who they are; we know on whose behalf they are lobbying; and we now know—as a result of this Government, not the previous Government—when they are meeting the key decision makers. That is clear. In this Bill we are extending transparency and addressing the key failing, and we are doing so not through having a large list of the kind the Opposition amendments would create.

New clause 7 proposes exceptions to the definition of those who are treated as consultant lobbyists. It may be of comfort to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon

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Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) and the Opposition that there are some sensible exclusions from their concept of lobbying, but all those sensible exclusions are already provided for in the Bill. Some of the proposed exclusions are less sensible, however. In their explanation for amendment 70, the Opposition say that they seek to remove the reasonable requirement that consultant lobbyists must be VAT-registered, which is aimed at protecting small businesses engaged in consultant lobbying, and to insert in its place a requirement that the lobbyist be a

“sole trader or company, or employee of such a person”.

The amendment therefore excludes charities, partnerships and any other type of body a lobbyist might be. The Opposition would therefore reduce the effectiveness of the register in relation to consultant lobbyists.

The Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee said that we took a long time in responding to its report. That was because it was arguing for this large-scale regulatory structure for lobbying. We looked carefully over a substantial period of time at whether satisfactory definitions could be achieved, and they cannot. We would end up with very large-scale registers that tell us very little that is new.

Opposition amendments 73 to 76 and 83 would alter the definition in clause 2 with the intention of extending the scope of the register to those who lobby each of the many categories of people, including special advisers, senior civil servants, Members of either House of Parliament, parliamentary staff and non-departmental public bodies.

Amendment 97, tabled by members of the Select Committee, offered a more limited expansion of the scope, aimed at including special advisers, the senior civil service and, in the case of amendment 98, parliamentarians. Amendment 116, in the name of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes), would extend the scope to special advisers.

The register is designed to complement the existing Government transparency regime whereby Ministers and permanent secretaries proactively publish details of their meetings with external organisations. It is intended to focus on communications with the key decisions makers in Government, not on the large-scale surrounds of people who are intermediaries. There is a question as to the value of increasing the scope of the ministerial transparency regime. Is there really value in collecting and publishing data on every meeting of every one of almost 5,000 senior civil servants?

Amendment 71 would add the term “electronic” to the concept of written communications. I can assure the House that such communications—including a fax, an e-mail, a text message, and even a personal tweet or BlackBerry Messenger conversation—are already currently captured by the definition of communications.

Turning to European legislation, amendment 72 would not be effective in the terms in which it is drafted. We do not make European legislation, but lobbying in relation to it or lobbying the policy of the Government in relation to it would be captured.

There is one Government amendment in this group: amendment 30. It provides that a person does not fall within the scope of the definition of consultant lobbyist if they carry out a mainly non-lobbying business and any consultant lobbying communication they make is

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incidental to those activities. Paragraph 3(2) of schedule 1 defines non-lobbying activities as any activities other than the making of communications about policy, legislation or contracts and tenders and so forth to any Executive, including the UK Government, the devolved Administrations, UK local government, any national Government, and any institution of the EU. This amendment will clarify that the reference to the lobbying of the Northern Ireland Executive in paragraph 3 includes the lobbying both of Ministers and their Departments. When the time comes, I shall wish to move that amendment on behalf of the Government, but I now give the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central a moment to respond.

Chi Onwurah: Given this Government’s clear lack of understanding of lobbying activity, the new clause will not improve the Bill substantially and so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the clause

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

10 pm

Proceedings interrupted (Programme Order, this day).

The Speaker put forthwith the Question necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (Standing Order No. 83E).

Schedule 1

Carrying on the business of consultant lobbying

Amendments made: 28, page 51, line 6, leave out paragraph 1.

Amendment 29, page 51, line 11, leave out paragraph 2.

Amendment 30, page 51, line 35, at beginning insert

‘the First Minister, the deputy First Minister, the Northern Ireland Ministers and’.—

(Mr. Lansley.)

Schedule 2

The Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists

Amendment made: 31, page 55, leave out lines 1 and 2 and insert—

‘( ) The payments that may be made under arrangements under sub-paragraph (1)(a) include payments to the staff in addition to, or instead of, payments to the person with whom the arrangements are made.’.—(Mr Lansley.)

Clause 4

The register

Amendments made: 17, page 3, leave out lines 17 and 18 and insert—

‘() for each quarter in which the registered person has been entered in the register, the person’s client information (see section5(3)) or the statement under section5(5), and’.

Amendment 18, page 3, line 19, leave out ‘relevant pre-registration period’ and insert ‘pre-registration quarter’.

Amendment 19, page 3, line 22, leave out ‘relevant pre-registration period’ and insert ‘pre-registration quarter’.

Amendment 20, page 3, line 22, leave out ‘preceding’ and insert ‘ending on’.—(Mr Lansley.)

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Clause 5

Notification of client information and changes

Amendments made: 21, page 3, line 44, leave out ‘any person’ and insert ‘the person or persons’.

Amendment 22, page 3, line 46, leave out ‘any person’ and insert ‘the person or persons’.—(Mr Lansley.)

Clause 6

Duty to update register

Amendment made: 23, page 4, line 15, leave out subsection (4) and insert—

‘( ) The Registrar must update the register to include any information or change which is notified in an information return.’.—(Mr Lansley.)

Clause 7

Duty to publish register

Amendment made: 24, page 4, line 34, leave out ‘and’ and insert—

‘( ) The Registrar’.—(Mr Lansley.)

Clause 12


Amendments made: 25, page 6, line 27, after ‘a’ insert ‘registered’.

Amendment 26, page 7, line 10, leave out ‘in any other case’ and insert ‘on summary conviction in England and Wales, or on conviction on indictment,’.— (Mr Lansley.)

Clause 25


Amendment made: 27, page 12, line 8, leave out from ‘means’ to end of line 10 and insert ‘—

(a) the First-tier Tribunal, or(b) in any case where it is determined by or under Tribunal Procedure Rules that the appeal is to be heard by the Upper Tribunal, that Tribunal.’. —

(Mr Lansley.)

Bill to be further considered tomorrow.

Business without Debate

Delegated Legislation

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),

Public Bodies

That the draft Public Bodies (Abolition of Victims’ Advisory Panel) Order 2013, which was laid before this House on 25 April 2013, in the last Session of Parliament, be approved.— (Anne Milton.)

Question agreed to.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),

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Representation of the People

That the draft European Parliamentary Elections (Amendment) Regulations 2013, which were laid before this House on 9 July, be approved.—(Anne Milton.)

Question agreed to.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),

Social Security

That the draft Jobseeker’s Allowance (Domestic Violence) (Amendment) Regulations 2013, which were laid before this House on 8 July, be approved.—(Anne Milton.)

Question agreed to.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Anne Milton.)

10.1 pm

Valerie Vaz (Walsall South) (Lab): Mr Speaker, may I start by thanking you, on behalf of my colleagues the right hon. Member for Gordon (Sir Malcolm Bruce) and the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), for granting us this debate, which seeks to place on the record details of our recent Speaker’s delegation visit to Burma? I want to set out the background to the visit, what we saw on the visit and points of action to influence Government policy on Burma. I am sure that we can, between us, cover the events of what was a remarkable experience.

Mr Speaker, you have been most gracious in inviting me to accompany you. Of course, I also have to thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Dame Joan Ruddock), because her not being available to make the visit enabled me to take her place. Following your invitation to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to speak to both Houses, you made it clear that, on behalf of Parliament, you wanted to leave a lasting legacy of help and support to Burma, particularly as you have had a long-standing interest in Burma. You said that you did not just want to have a visit and leave, but you wanted to fulfil your promise to Daw Suu to help in a practical way. At this stage, I want to thank the embassy in Burma and all its staff, your office and others in the House service who were involved in setting up the visit, organising and accompanying us to the meetings.

Mr Speaker, you said on many occasions at our meetings that we were not in Burma to tell the Burmese how to run their country, but that we were there to show them how we do our work here and how they can perhaps learn from us and adapt it for their use. So what did we see? May I pay tribute to you, again, Mr Speaker, for holding together and being the focus of the 24 meetings we had over eight days, and acknowledge your courageous speech at Yangon university, which may be a topic for a Speaker’s lecture?

We all appeared on our trip with the book by Benedict Rogers “Burma: a Nation at the Crossroads”, which was launched at the Speaker’s House. We note from the book that progress has been made. Despite the elections in 1990, the results of which have not been recognized, Daw Suu now sits in the Burmese Parliament, along with many other MPs and also the generals. At the Parliament in Nay Pyi Taw, we met both Speakers of the upper and lower Houses, the President, Minsters from the presidential office and committee chairs. The delegation managed to raise the issue of the release of political prisoners and I know that you, Mr Speaker, have already sent a list to the President’s office. The President had already agreed that the United Nations could set up an office for the human rights commissioner, but he was no clearer about when that would take place. I am pleased that the embassy now has a human rights post.

It seems to me that we can have influence on two levels: the political level and service level. Daw Suu said that she wants active parliamentarians and to give all MPs the tools to be effective MPs. We can help and are helping to set up a library. I explained that our Library

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provides research facilities for all Members on an independent and confidential basis. The right hon. Member for Gordon led the session on how Select Committees work, and as all the delegation had served on Select Committees we could show MPs that we can work together for the good of the country.

The non-governmental organisations we met told us that arbitrary arrests and detention had worsened over the past few months, which was something we also heard from members of the “88 Generation” who are still being arrested, having to pay fines and having their cases regularly adjourned. Getting permits to allow humanitarian aid is difficult, particularly in Kachin state. We also heard that the rice federation regulates itself and is headed by someone close to the Government. A major census was under way that would provide useful information in 2014, such as how many girls were getting equal education, or an education at all. An MP from Kachin state told me that displaced people could not return to their villages as there were landmines; we have the technology to help them move out of those camps.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I thank the hon. Lady for giving the House a chance to recognise the contribution that has been made. At the release of the Nobel prize laureate, there was a perception that democracy had returned. The House, Mr Speaker, the hon. Lady and her colleagues and many other Members have contributed to trying to help that move forward. Unfortunately, in Kachin province we have seen the persecution of the Christian minority and other groups. Human rights deprivations are rampant. Burma is now in the top 10 countries in records of human rights abuse. Does the hon. Lady agree that the Minister and our Government need to play a more effective role in stopping that happening and giving freedom to the people of Kachin province?

Valerie Vaz: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and absolutely agree with him. That is a still a big issue, which forms part of my 10-point plan. It is also a key point, as I was about to move on to the ethnic and religious differences.

Such differences are enshrined in everyday use: ethnic regions are states and Burmese areas are divisions. I am sure you will agree, Mr Speaker, that one of the many highlights were our meetings with Rakhine and Rohingya representatives and representatives of the different faiths.

What of aid? When we give aid we give the gift of life, and Britain should be proud of its aid-giving programme. We saw the malaria clinic from which within 15 minutes they can find and treat a person who might have malaria. That is important for migrant workers because they tap rubber between 10 pm and 2 am when the mosquito is active. There was the HIV clinic, and the school we visited where we saw lively children singing and learning. There was a legal advice centre staffed with mainly women lawyers. We need to provide them with some of our legislation and books on administrative law.

What are my points of action? Many other countries are offering help. We know that the Foreign Minister from Poland has already hosted people from Burma to work on the United States Institute of Peace’s strategic economic needs and security exercise—SENSE—programme, which simulates government; and so has the Indian Parliament.

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Here are my 10 suggestions. First, one person should co-ordinate or keep track of what work Britain is doing, based in either the Foreign and Commonwealth Office or the Department for International Development. Secondly, the work on setting up the library and research facilities for MPs should have a time limit.

Thirdly, there should perhaps be an induction course like the one we had for new Members in 2010. We already have the blueprint, so that could be done now. We could also offer work with the Select Committee structure. I do not know whether you recall, Mr Speaker, but one person asked, “How do we clone these officials?”

Fourthly, will the FCO or DFID work with the Burmese Government to ensure that humanitarian aid workers do not have to keep applying for a permit for different areas? The international organisations should be able to negotiate that. We also heard that Médecins sans Frontières doctors cannot work alongside Burmese doctors—why not?

Fifthly, there needs to be constitutional reform before the elections in 2015, not least to lower the age of MPs. Although age is quite rightly revered, many young people we met were ready to serve and want to be MPs. Importantly, Daw Suu should not be excluded from taking part in the presidential elections, but she currently is.

Sixthly, there should be regular discussions on the release of political prisoners. Can the Minister say what has become of those on Mr Speaker’s list? But might we also look to others who, you will recall, Mr Speaker, we heard may have committed serious crimes? Perhaps an international lawyer could review those cases.

Seventhly, progress must be made on setting up the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Eighthly, on the ethnic issue, there should be a new Panglong conference—along the lines of the Northern Ireland Good Friday agreement.

Mr David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): I commend the hon. Lady for the visit. It was a shame that I could not make it myself. Particularly on the “to do” list, what about responding to the Prime Minister, who in a letter to me on 4 September, said:


the Government—

“will monitor progress on Burma taking a zero tolerance approach to those who fuel ethnic hatred”?

Given that last week, on 29 September, there were significant outbreaks of violence, again against the Muslims in Thandwe, Rakhine state, and although there was control and order, the following day, as I understand, over 60 homes were destroyed and at least five people, including a 94-year-old Muslim woman, were believed to be killed, how can we in this country help to bring about that zero-tolerance approach to those issues of ethnic hatred?

Valerie Vaz: I thank the hon. Gentleman, who was sorely missed on the visit. I know he had another engagement, but perhaps he will visit another time. I agree with him. Part of my 10-point action plan should, I hope, address that issue. We need to keep monitoring because things are not changing as fast as we would like.

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Let me return to my point No. 8—the ethnic issue and the Panglong conference. Mr Speaker, you will recall the number of times we said we had sorted things out in Northern Ireland. We know that people who were involved in Northern Ireland, who can help, are active in Burma. We need to get people into a room and draw up a schedule and heads of agreement. Perhaps someone like Mary Robinson could play the role of a George Mitchell character. She could chair such a conference.

The Rohingya said they want their right to live there to be recognised. They say they have the papers and a judgment from their Supreme Court. Representatives of the different faith groups, some of the great religions of the world, sat with us together in a room. They need to be encouraged to continue their joint work. There are many international inter-faith foundations that can take on this work, to keep putting out joint statements that they will not be divided on religious grounds.

Ninthly, civil society groups, which came together so notably during Cyclone Nargis, should be supported. Currently, they have to register as organisations; otherwise, they are deemed to be illegal. Could the FCO or DFID look at ways of supporting these organisations without going through the Government?

Tenthly, and probably most importantly, the rule of law needs to be firmly established, with an end to arbitrary arrests. People need to know the case against them and to have a fair hearing before an impartial court.

Those would, I hope, be our way of ensuring that the Government look at—

Mr David Ward (Bradford East) (LD): I am aware that the hon. Lady is painting a broad-brush picture, covering all the different ethnic groups, but there is a large Rohingya community in my constituency. Can the hon. Lady offer them any hope in terms of the persecution that they are facing?

Valerie Vaz: I thank the hon. Gentleman. The only comfort I can give him and them is that there are people, in this country and in the international community, who are aware and are watching what is happening. We have to monitor any movement that the Government in Burma make; they cannot talk about trade without also looking at human rights. Hopefully, that issue will also be part of the Panglong conference.

In conclusion, Burma knows that it is at a unique place in its history. Having met the Burmese people, I can see why Daw Suu could not leave them to suffer, and although there is progress, people are still being displaced and there are conflicts. However, there needs to be an irreversible move to democracy and the rule of law, so that the Burmese diaspora feel they can return to their country, and those who live there, eager to serve their country, can do so and live together in peace.

10.13 pm

Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) on securing the debate, and on the excellent 10 points that she has put forward, with which I wholly agree. I echo her

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thanks to you, Mr Speaker, for inviting us to be part of your delegation to Burma. It was a great privilege for us.

Our visit highlighted to us that while a great deal of progress has been made in Burma—or Myanmar, as we were told we should now consider calling it—over the past two years, there is still a long way to go before there will be full democratic involvement of Myanmar’s ethnic and religious minorities. Fundamentally, that requires nationwide and meaningful dialogue with them.

I was tremendously encouraged by the meetings that we had with members of civil society, young people and minority ethnic and religious groups, and their determination to be a part of building a wholly peaceful Burma and to ensure that their country progresses from a fledgling to a more mature democratic state. The young people we met included 20 or so youth peace activists, some from a committee for working peace progress formed only six weeks earlier. Others were representatives from the Mon youth progressive organisation, journalists, a teacher, students, the Mon human rights organisation and the Mon youth education group.

I was most impressed by these young people’s perceptive and articulate response when asked what they wanted for their country. They had quite a list—ethnic equality, a genuine democracy, clarity of the rule of law to promote peace, a clear framework and timetable for a working plan towards peace across the nation, respect for human rights, self-determination, equality across the genders, strong federal Governments, meaningful engagement with civil society, that MPs should be more available to meet and be accountable to their constituents, and a Government who truly represent all the people, including all ethnic and religious groups. All this was from young people who have lived virtually all their lives under military rule. It gave me enormous encouragement that with such actively engaged minds and hearts, there is real hope for democratic progress in Myanmar.

I was also tremendously impressed by the meeting we had with young former prisoners of conscience, the “88 Generation”. What struck me was their lack of bitterness and their dedication to a country where so many of them have suffered so much, some imprisoned for years simply for speaking out politically under the former regime, yet they are still determined to use all their energy and limited resources to help bring about a freer society.

Mr Burrowes: Can my hon. Friend give me encouragement that the entrenched attitudes in relation to ethnic division have not been passed on to the younger generation? For example, even in some non-governmental organisations, sadly, there is an entrenched view of Rohingya people. The double discrimination of not being Muslim and not being Rohingya has, sadly, had an effect on some children, making them afraid even to attend school. Has there been a reaction to that among young people who represent hope in the future?

Fiona Bruce: I can indeed encourage my hon. Friend. The young people whom we met wanted to engage. They wanted to have a dialogue with other ethnic and religious groups and they were looking to the Government to take forward such a dialogue.

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The former prisoners of conscience requested, among other things, that the Government address human rights violations in prisons, which are still continuing. I was pleased that during our meeting, when we raised concerns about recent mistreatment of prisoners at Myitkyina prison, the Minister in the President’s office, U Soe Thane, agreed to look into that. I hope it is now being urgently addressed.

Further requests from the former prisoners were for the urgent review of cases of those who are still in prison and whose only offence appears to have been to criticise the previous regime. If Burma is to demonstrate to the rest of the world that it is genuinely moving forward in its respect for freedom of speech, conscience and belief, this is essential. The former prisoners expressed concerns that the media are not wholly independent or free. A recent press law, they told us, limits rather than extends press freedom and was not preceded by promised dialogue between press industry representatives before being implemented.

Another former prisoner spoke of unfair legal procedures, often involving those accused having to go to court many times, and the overall impression that I had was that although there is change, a fundamental review of the legal sector, its practices and procedures is needed. We were told, too, of the need for the constitution to be amended so that it clearly bans the use of torture. Other issues raised with us included the fact that although new laws are passed, there is a lack of capacity to monitor their implementation, so that in some areas old laws are still being used. Individuals whom we met had been sentenced or told us about friends who had been sentenced within the past year for organising protests or allegedly inspiring people to riot, such as one young student who distributed CDs near a mosque.

Having said that, I was enormously encouraged by the visit to the free legal advice centre, which has been referred to, in the fourth largest city in Burma in Mon state. The 10 or so young trainee lawyers had three impressive objectives: to establish a steering group for a legal aid system; to provide legal advice and assistance to the poorest, including court representation; and to raise awareness that every citizen in the country should have legal rights under the law. Those aspiring young professionals were smart, visionary and personable, and at the same time they were realistic about the journey that they and their fellow countrymen have to make towards a new Burma. Meeting them and the other young people I have quoted gave me real hope that they could achieve that.

In closing, I have a few questions for the Minister. With regard to the need for a meaningful peace and a process of political dialogue that includes all relevant parties, what steps can our Government take to press for that, and what plans has DFID to increase humanitarian assistance for those who have been internally displaced or subjected to human rights violations? I ask him to consider the necessity of DFID ensuring that international efforts are co-ordinated. Finally, what is his assessment of the number of political prisoners still in jail? What can be done to ensure that they are released by the end of the year and that there are no more prisoners of conscience, political prisoners or unjustly imprisoned people in Burma?

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10.21 pm

Sir Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): Thank you, Mr Speaker, for inviting me to take part in the delegation and for leading it so ably. I congratulate the hon. Members for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) and for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on bringing these matters to the House’s attention. The International Development Committee, which I have the honour of chairing, will be producing a report on Burma, and I hope that we will have an opportunity to elaborate on some of these findings and debate them more fully in the House. At this stage, I think that it is important that we hear from the Minister.

10.22 pm

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr Hugo Swire): I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Gordon (Sir Malcolm Bruce) for allowing me time to try to answer some of the questions. I thank the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) for securing the debate following what to all intents and purposes was clearly a very successful trip to Burma—we still call it Burma—along with you, Mr Speaker, and other Members of the House. The situation in Burma is rightly of great interest to many Members, so this is another opportunity for the Government to set out our approach.

We have a strong record of support for the Burmese people. Our bilateral relationship with the Burmese Government is more recent, but we are deepening and strengthening it as a platform for influencing and shaping the reform process. President Thein Sein came here in July, the first official visit to the UK by a Burmese President. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, and separately my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I, used the visit to set out our aspirations for the relationship. We will be an open, constructive and critical partner of Burma, realistic about the scale of the transformation and the challenges that that entails and honest where we have concerns.

At the latest meeting of Friends of Burma—it was called Friends of Myanmar, to be fair—chaired by the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, at the UN General Assembly in New York just two weeks ago, I made a number of points. I reiterated the United Kingdom’s calls for the Burmese Government to honour their commitment to establish an Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. I also stressed the need for the Government to act to address the lack of citizenship for the Rohingya community and the incitement of inter-communal violence affecting Muslim communities in Rakhine, which I have visited, and other parts of Burma. It should be noted that it was the first such meeting attended by a Burmese Minister, which in itself is an encouraging step.

There are signs that the ambitions of the Burmese people for greater democracy are slowly being met. In June the Foreign Office hosted members of the “88 Generation” movement, and they were delighted to meet fellow Members of this House, some of whom are among us this evening, to discuss their thoughts for the future. In August I welcomed the fact that the people of Burma were able to commemorate freely the bravery and sacrifices of those who campaigned and marched for democracy during the student uprisings of 1988.

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Earlier today President Thein Sein took another small step towards fulfilling the commitment he gave during his visit to London to free all political prisoners by the end of the year. We welcomed the announcement that over 50 political prisoners are to be released. We will continue to press for the release of all political prisoners. As I said in New York, releasing political prisoners is one thing, but we do not expect the jails to be filled up with new political prisoners. Releases of longer-standing political prisoners are welcome, but ongoing detentions of political activists remain a cause of concern. We will continue to lobby on specific cases, and to press for the repeal of repressive legislation.

There are indications that the ethnic conflict that has blighted Burma since independence could end. Recent fighting in Shan and Kachin emphasises the need for continued concern, and the Kachin Independence Organisation remains in constructive dialogue with the Burmese Government. We are providing £13.5 million of humanitarian aid to Kachin this year, the largest bilateral contribution of any donor. We welcome the clear commitment the Government have made towards political dialogue. As the hon. Member for Walsall South said, UK experts have shared lessons from our experiences in Northern Ireland, and we will continue to offer our support to all sides.

Our aid continues to form a vital part of our engagement. By 2015, the Department for International Development will have delivered over £180 million, providing health care, tackling extreme poverty and assisting those affected by conflict. I heard clearly what the hon. Member for Walsall South said about better co-ordinating the efforts of some of these agencies.

We are helping the Government and others improve transparency and create a responsible business environment, we are strengthening the work of Parliament and civil society and we are helping Burma's efforts with ethnic reconciliation and the peace process.

As the right hon. and hon. Members who accompanied you, Mr Speaker, on a visit to Burma in July will have seen, the Government and this Parliament are delivering significant and valued support to Burma's Parliament. This support has been requested by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Lower House Speaker Shwe Mann, reflecting the world renowned reputation and expertise of this Parliament. Through an exchange of visits, which we plan to continue, we are helping Burmese parliamentarians to develop a culture of holding the Executive to account; sharing the extensive knowledge of the Libraries so that the Burmese parliamentary staff can produce high quality research and draft better legislation; and allowing the Burmese Public Accounts Committee to examine the best practices of its British counterpart in monitoring public expenditure.

Burma's Parliament has also formed a committee to review the constitution. The work of this committee is fundamental to achieving Burma's eventual democratisation.

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During the President's visit to the UK, the Prime Minister welcomed the prospect of free and fair elections in 2015, and emphasised the importance of completing necessary changes to the constitution. I send this message again clearly and loudly now.

Recent events demonstrate only too clearly that the situation in Rakhine remains volatile. We called immediately for action to restore security and the rule of law in response to the violence last week, and we welcome both the President's visit to the scene and the arrests of suspected perpetrators. We have pledged £4.4 million to further the humanitarian effort. During my visit last year, I called for more co-ordinated action by the UN and the Burmese Government to ensure that assistance reaches those among the displaced who need it most. We continue to monitor the situation carefully. Continued action and strong political leadership are needed to resolve the citizenship status of the Rohingya community, and underlying sources of tension.

The Government share the concerns echoed by many Members regarding sexual violence against women in Burma. This is an important issue to address, as the President acknowledged during his visit here. I pressed the Burmese Foreign Minister to endorse the Foreign Secretary's preventing sexual violence initiative—signed by 119 other countries—and protocol at the UN General Assembly. We will continue lobbying to strengthen accountability systems and eliminate impunity for rape in Burma.

The British Government are committed to a stable, prosperous, more democratic Burma, where the human rights of all its peoples—of any religion and any ethnicity—are upheld, and where diversity is valued as a strength. We should not forget how far Burma was from this goal only two years ago. Continued progress will require determination, commitment and energy from the Burmese President and his Government. We will seek to deepen our engagement, offering support where it is requested and continuing to press where changes still need to be made.

It is not only the Burmese President and his Government who need to show determination, commitment and energy; it is parliamentarians in this House—in both Houses—who have expressed solidarity with the people of Burma and who want to see a better future for them. I congratulate you, Mr Speaker, on taking your group to Burma. I hope we will have many more exchanges and visits on both sides in order that we can export some of our best practice to the Burmese and show them that a fair and proper democratic society where people of all races, ethnicities and religions are respected is the way forward for a country in the 21st century.

Question put and agreed to.

10.30 pm

House adjourned.