[Mr. Roger Gale in the Chair] — Burma

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:29 pm on 6th December 2007.

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Photo of Lynne Featherstone Lynne Featherstone Shadow Secretary of State for International Development, Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (International Development), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government) 3:29 pm, 6th December 2007

It is a great honour to follow John Bercow—even though I fear that I may suffer by comparison. I am very grateful for the opportunity to debate the International Development Committee's thorough report, which is entitled "DFID Assistance to Burmese Internally Displaced People and Refugees on the Thai-Burma Border". I congratulate the Committee on the report and on producing such an illuminating analysis of the plight of the hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the continued turmoil in Burma. Importantly, the report affords us this opportunity to scrutinise the British Government's efforts in dealing with this sadly ongoing humanitarian crisis.

The clearest message that I took from the report was about funding. As with many development issues, before we can start talking about how aid is to be used, the fundamental question is how much have we got. It is clear that Burma and its refugees have previously not received their fair share of aid. Although the cause of the historical underfunding is clear—a hostile and brutal regime, coupled with a complete lack of infrastructure—it must be acknowledged that British aid to Burma has not kept in line with that to comparable impoverished nations.

Surely, a guiding principle for the criteria for deciding where aid should go is where it is most needed. I therefore welcome very much the Secretary of State for International Development's October announcement that UK aid to Burma will double to £18 million by 2010. I hope that that heralds a new era of increases, as part of the Government's approach to helping Burma and the displaced people, but I cannot help wondering how much quicker the IDC's recommended funding level might have been reached if the Government had honoured their 2004 spending review commitment to spend £1.5 billion more in terms of gross national income in this financial year.

The increase represents an exponential curve of growth from the low level of recent history, but it throws up some challenges in its wake, because DFID's response to the IDC report states that

"senior civil service oversight of the Burma programme has been moved to London, closer to Ministers and parliamentarians".

Although I am flattered by DFID's faith in hon. Members, I am acutely aware that DFID budgets are experiencing huge and welcome increases, but with limited increases in staff capacity locally and static staff numbers in the UK to manage such increases. Civil servants are the front line in delivering the will of Her Majesty's Government, and ultimately taxpayers' interests are supervised by them. In this case, that must mean ensuring that Burmese refugee programmes are implemented to maximum effect, with every penny used to bring the utmost reward for the people of Burma.

I am therefore eager to hear from the Under-Secretary about the capacity of DFID and the civil service to oversee the delivery of the promised increase. I support my right hon. Friend Malcolm Bruce and the Committee in expressing dismay in the report at the decision to close the Bangkok office, which is clearly of significance in the region. I ask the Government to reconsider that decision in the light of the report and the obvious support for it on both sides of the Chamber.

Debt relief obviously has a huge role to play in changing the trajectory of a country's development, but I totally agree with the IDC's support for the British Government's reluctance to let any aid fall into the hands of the Burmese military junta. It is reasonable to suppose that most of the debt is held by the Burmese Government, so I would be grateful for assurances that debt relief will in no way serve the regime.

The meat of the report and, indeed, this debate is how we can best help the internally displaced people of Burma. I shall highlight several key themes. As the report emphasises, a key to the success of Burmese programmes, if we are to move beyond an emergency and reactive response, is to target greater resources at community-based organisations. That is an effective mechanism to bypass the regime, but more than that, it is surely our greatest hope of laying the building blocks for a different Burma. I wholeheartedly back the Committee's recommendations for capacity building and training for community-based organisations. I am pleased that, in its response to the report, DFID said that it would make new efforts in that direction; that is to be welcomed.

None the less, when it comes to the thorny issue of cross-border assistance, DFID seems stuck between a rock and a hard place. The people who can be reached through cross-border assistance are clearly those most in need. Therefore, it is understandable how the imperative of need led to the DFID policy change in March this year. However, I was bemused by the comparative advantage discussion that arose from the report. I am no economist, but my basic understanding of the principle of comparative advantage leads me to believe that it is always a seminal issue in evaluating the provision of aid. One DFID employee on a UK wage is equivalent to a significant number of locally employed workers. The heart of the matter is the overall outcome and whether that is greater than its component parts. Surely, that is how comparative advantage should be evaluated. The bottom line must be strongly outcome-focused. I hope that DFID will endeavour to keep that very much in its focus.

As ever, I am strongly of the belief that development issues cannot be considered in a silo. When we consider the plight of the hundreds of thousands of people displaced by more than a quarter of a century of turmoil in Burma, we must consider what the British Government as a whole are doing to end or to address the situation. Obviously, an embargo is in place, which sends an absolutely clear message from the international community. The embargo also offers a practical solution in preventing the regime from obtaining the means of carrying out its reign of terror.

I have no doubt about the British Government's sincerity in their support of the embargo, but I was horrified to learn earlier this year—I raised this issue in International Development questions yesterday—that Amnesty International and Saferworld's report suggested that, in spite of the European Union arms embargo on Burma, helicopters with British-manufactured components were being re-exported to Burma from a third country. The Under-Secretary indicated yesterday that India might be in the frame as a third country. I wish for assurances about what British companies are doing in that regard, because it is a bizarre if not grotesque situation in which taxes from UK arms manufacturers are being spent by DFID in helping people to flee from a regime armed by those same manufacturers. May I suggest that we end that hellish circle and make it absolutely impossible for British manufacturers to sell any arms through a third country to Burma? I hope that the Under-Secretary will commit to that today.