[Mr. Roger Gale in the Chair] — Burma

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:01 pm on 6th December 2007.

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Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham 3:01 pm, 6th December 2007

I may be mistaken, and time will tell, but I have a feeling that the hon. Lady will not have to wait long. My expectation is that the results of the mapping exercise will be forthcoming very soon. A little bird tells me that the work has been undertaken, although, even then, I confess to a tinge of disappointment. My expectation was that the mapping exercise would be country-wide and that those undertaking it would take an overall, holistic view of the delivery of cross-border aid, including the requirement for it, the capacity to deliver it and the efficacy with which it could be delivered, perhaps by using a comparison of the other mechanisms that might be available. My impression so far is that it has been not a full piece of work, but a relatively partial one, and I am not certain whether it will consider the issue for all the borders, which would be a great pity. The Committee's report was, of course, on DFID assistance to Burmese internally displaced people and refugees on the Thai-Burma border, but the lessons that we drew from what we learned are potentially of wider application to people living on, or in close proximity to, other borders with Burma and not just the Thailand-Burma border.

I am therefore a bit worried about the issue of cross-border aid. The Government have been hesitant and neurotic about it, and there has been a ready supply of excuses for inaction and inertia. The Government have tended to say that they have a comparative advantage, deploying what one might almost consider an economist's justification for their policy priority, which is not validated by a study of the facts on the ground. Moreover, there has been an inclination in Government circles—this might be in the ether or reflect a characteristic of some officials, rather than a conscious decision by Ministers—to play down the number of people who could potentially benefit from the delivery of cross-border aid. There has been a move to say, "Well, of course, there are only about 100,000 people—that's only about nought point whatever per cent. of the population of Burma." That has given the impression that some people want to rubbish the notion of cross-border aid, which would be a thoroughly misguided position to take. The truth of the matter is that some people are in extreme poverty and their security is at grave risk, and they can be reached only by the mechanism of cross-border aid—in-country assistance will avail them nothing. That is the first point. If the priority is to help most of those who have least, which should presumably be a defining characteristic of DFID's responsibility, we should focus on such people irrespective of their numbers.

There is a tendency to think that we are talking simply about internally displaced people, but a substantial number of people in Burma are not internally displaced; they live in their original, perhaps long-term homes, but they are on the edge—they have absolutely nothing, which, as the right hon. Member for Gordon said earlier, is characteristic of many people in Burma. Such people cannot eat, cannot drink, cannot access health care and cannot get to school—by whatever yardstick we choose to measure poverty, we would have to say that they are genuinely destitute. I therefore hope that we will help them and that there will be an announcement soon.

If the UN OCHA report does not cover the whole of Burma, I hope that the Government will not for one moment consider arguing that further studies at multilateral or other levels, conducted over several months or even years, are required before a policy decision can be made to extend the principle behind the delivery of cross-border aid over the Thai-Burmese border to other borders. There is a pressing need for cross-border assistance over the India border into Chin state, and David Taylor, who is no longer in his seat, rightly referred to the privations of the people in that state, and he was right to highlight that phenomenon.

I went to the India-Burma border with Christian Solidarity Worldwide in the company, notably, of Baroness Cox of Queensbury and the Asia advocacy officer for CSW, Ben Rogers, from 14 to 21 September. Hon. Members should be in no doubt about the extent of the difficulties faced by people in, or fleeing from, Chin state. Some estimates are that 70 per cent. of the population live below the poverty line. Thousands of people have fled Chin state and are now living in Mizoram in north-eastern India and a good many have gone elsewhere. Those who continue to reside—not in anything approximating to safety—in Chin state, definitely need assistance. Given that, just as there is capacity to deliver aid across the border from Thailand, there is capacity across the border in India, I hope that we can do that work. There are backpack health worker teams, which are to be congratulated on their work.

I remind the Under-Secretary that a relatively modest expenditure gives a terrifically effective bang for your buck. Expenditure of, I think, $1,254, provides for an estimated 2,000 people living as internally displaced persons or in similar circumstances in Chin state for six months. It is possible to spend a little and to gain a lot, and the consequences are immediate: the relief of poverty, the saving of lives, providing access to food, ensuring proper health care and facilitating the provision of education to children in Chin state who would not otherwise receive it. I hope that the Under-Secretary takes that message.

It would, I should add, complete the symmetry if the Government were to commit on the India-Burma border. The Secretary of State for International Development wrote to me in October and referred to an intention to provide, over a period of four years, £1.35 million for cross-border health programmes on the China-Burma border. I was previously unaware of that, and if the Government are determined to go ahead with it, that is extremely welcome. However, if they can do it over the China-Burma border, they can certainly do it over the India-Burma border. I had no doubts, in matters of efficiency and transparency, about the organisations and individuals who would be charged with that responsibility there.

There is the related issue of support for exiled democracy groups. The Government, in their reply to the Select Committee report, said that they were prepared to entertain applications for funding, subject to the caveat that organisations seeking funds for undertaking pro-democracy work, delivering advocacy services and seeking to cultivate strength in civil society must bear it in mind that they must meet the criterion of poverty reduction. Apart from anything else, that is a legal requirement under the International Development Act 2002. I understand that, but it is up to the Government to take a broad view. DFID funds civil society programmes in a plethora of developing countries, including least-developed countries, around the world. It is not always easy to prove an absolutely axiomatic, precise or mechanistic link between the provision of funds to an organisation that campaigns for human rights, on the one hand, and the immediate, visible relief of poverty, on the other. It is one of those contexts in which we must deploy a degree of common sense.

Organisations that document, publicise and campaign against the pervasiveness of rape in Burma, battling, as they are, under huge pressure and on a shoestring for greater assistance from individual Governments and at multilateral level, are contributing to poverty reduction. Of course, individual applications must be considered on their merits, and organisations must be prepared to fill in forms properly, to demonstrate transparency, to prove accountability and to behave efficiently. Their integrity must be beyond suspicion. However, there are many candidates that could benefit. I refer, of course, to the Shan Women's Action Network, and the truly magnificent and redoubtable Charm Tong, who is an inspiration to anyone who meets her.

The Shan Women's Action Network has previously been greeted with indifference and, I am sorry to say, even froideur, by officials—I emphasise that that was the response of some officials at DFID, and it must change in future. I am extremely heartened by the attitude of the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary. I ask that if the organisation submits an application, that application should be considered, because it is a brilliant organisation that is trying to help suffering women. It has a superb track record, but its members have felt so utterly discombobulated by DFID officials—or rather, they thought that the officials were so discombobulated in relation to them—that they thought it not worth the effort, as a hard-pressed group, to put in an application, having been told privately, "Frankly, you haven't got a chance." That situation is not satisfactory, and it is time for reform.

As well as that organisation, there is the Karen Women's Organisation, and the Women's League of Chinland, whose members I was privileged to meet on my visit to the India-Burma border in September. Another is the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, which does fantastic work. Would we know so much about the nature of the abuse of prisoners in Burma, if not for that organisation? It is people linked to that group who informed me about what I regard as probably one of the most horrific individual stories that I have heard about a prisoner in Burma. This person was in Insein prison and was so desperately malnourished, so ravaged and inadequate as a consequence of his treatment, and so painfully thin, that the investigator who went to look at conditions in the prison was reported subsequently as saying publicly that he could see the man's intestines moving like worms. Such information does not get into the public domain unless conscientious individuals are prepared, sometimes at some risk to themselves, and from time to time under cover, to do the work and to report their findings. Such organisations deserve public finance.

Finally, I welcome the fact that the Prime Minister wrote on 16 October to the Secretary-General of the United Nations and held out the possibility of an international or multilateral economic package that could potentially be made available to Burma, if, and only if, there was demonstrable evidence of a commitment to immediate change. Quite how one would develop such a package is a matter for debate. I should have thought that it could indeed include provision for debt relief, trade facilitation and re-entry to the international economic system. It might possibly include funds to contribute to preparation for elections, and to the development as necessary of the activities of political parties and civil society organisations. All those matters can be discussed in due course.

The money should not be given prematurely, which would be disastrous, but equally it should not wait too long. There is a fine judgment to be made as to how to put together a suitable and flexible package, properly calibrated, which would have the desired effect of pushing a country teetering on the brink of a genuine commitment decisively to change in that direction. The fact that the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for International Development are talking in those terms is very welcome.

Our report is good; the Government response was a bit disappointing. Government utterances since have been very encouraging. I want to say in the politest possible way to the Under-Secretary, who has signed robust motions on Burma in the past, not least at my request when he was a Back Bencher, that I wish him well in the execution of his responsibilities. I do not want to sound menacing, but merely to be a candid friend, when I say to the Under-Secretary, who is a rising star in the Brownite firmament, that the International Development Committee will continue to be on his case.