Business of the House

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 11:15 pm on 8th October 2001.

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Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman Shadow Minister (Women), Shadow Secretary of State for International Development 11:15 pm, 8th October 2001

I begin by thanking the Secretary of State for International Development for being present tonight. We were hoping to have the opportunity for a debate with her last week. Tonight's debate has shown how important it is for her to be in the Chamber, as her area of responsibility is a key aspect of the current crisis.

I am keen to leave the right hon. Lady the lion's share of the remaining time, as she has indicated her willingness to answer questions on the subject of the humanitarian crisis and more generally, and it seems that this will be the last parliamentary occasion that we shall have for a week to put questions through her to the Government. Now that military action has started, it is a tense and difficult time and it is good that we have the opportunity to raise such questions.

I am only sorry that the debate is taking place so late at night and that the gentlemen and ladies of the press have gone. I often feel that when we have debates in which there is a strong consensual tone—when, together, we are feeling our way towards the right response—that is the time when Parliament is at its best, yet I fear that we are talking among ourselves this evening.

For the past four weeks we have tried as an Opposition to be unstinting in our bipartisanship, and have supported the allied effort to track the perpetrators of the attacks in America. My contribution tonight will be in the same constructive spirit, infused with a natural sense of compassion for the victims of starvation and war in Afghanistan, the victims of the bombs in America, and the families of the service men and women who are putting their lives on the line for us.

I place on the record a tribute to our American allies who, through their restraint, have given the world time to think and to consider the best way to tackle terrorism while limiting the damage to innocent people. We have had time to realise that there are no quick fixes and that we must be in for the long haul. We have seen other creative ways of hitting terrorists where it hurts—through their financial supply.

During this thinking time, we keep asking why—why would intelligent, educated men who have lived among us for several years want to fly aeroplanes into buildings at the cost of their own lives and the lives of many others? That bears all the hallmarks of cult behaviour. Bin Laden as a cult figure can be seen in his true context. My hon. Friend Richard Ottaway described that cult as a narrow, aggressive sect that does not represent Islam. Bin Laden would like a holy war, but we have no war with Islam or the Afghan people, only with terrorists like him who claim innocent lives.

Within hours of the twin towers being felled, people understood that one of the underlying causes was that terrorists had been allowed to exploit others' abject poverty and turn it into hatred against the west. International development has now risen up the agenda because of the scope that it offers to prevent that from happening again, and we must keep it there until poorer nations can see for themselves that we are trying to help. That is not to say that someone who is poor is more likely to become a terrorist; of course that is not true. However, if someone is poor, he is vulnerable. That is why we must help.

The tragic events in America have made strange bedfellows of the rest of the world, with former adversaries now joined in alliance against the scourge of terrorism. The lion has, indeed, lain down with the lamb—America with Russia and China, and now Pakistan and India. They are new allies with a common purpose.

Britain is in a unique position to help; our history confers such a responsibility on us. We enjoy a special relationship with America, a partnership with Europe and strong ties with the Commonwealth. We must use that influence, above all, with a sense of humanity and responsibility.

The refugee crisis is here and now. Our war effort will not be helped unless we get the care and treatment for the refugees right. We welcome the fact that the Government will spend an additional £25 million on the crisis, but announcing the money is not the same as putting clean food and water in the hands of a starving refugee. Aid agencies have recommended that the internationally agreed standards of the Sphere project should be used to ensure that refugee camps have enough food, water, shelter and sanitation, so I should like to ask the Secretary of State for International Development whether she can reassure the House that those international standards will be enforced.

I am sure that the right hon. Lady is aware of the reports on the conditions in the refugee camps in Pakistan—"makeshift" was the word used earlier. We should not blame Pakistan for that, for without adequate international support it cannot be expected to bear the burden of 2 million refugees—a figure that rises by thousands every day.

Our view is that no country should have to bear a disproportionate burden; it is a shared responsibility. We have the resources and capability to ensure that the camps, and the new camps, are brought up to acceptable international standards. The sight of men, women and children struggling in the squalor of refugee camps is as bad as that of the innocent victims of military action.

Pakistan will not feel encouraged to open its borders unless the international community can ensure that it will not be swamped by refugees. The United Nations estimated that 30,000 refugees were massing on the border with Pakistan, but it did so on 27 September and I wonder whether the Secretary of State has more up-to-date figures. We need to know the likely scale of the problem.

We should not overlook the fact that Iran has more refugees than Pakistan. Fewer of them are in refugee camps; most have been diffused into the population, but the possibility of unrest in Iran could be as great as that in Pakistan. Given that Iran is suspicious of any military action, what are the Government doing to ensure that the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan does not become an intolerable burden on the Government of Iran?

Now that military action has begun, we must urgently consider how humanitarian and military action can take place simultaneously. That must happen because only a four- week window is left before the onset of the Afghan winter.

Given the Taliban's legacy of disrupting essential humanitarian aid and stealing the World Food Programme's food stocks and their manifest lack of care for their own people, delivering aid into Afghanistan will now be very difficult. What assurances can the Secretary of State give to the House that the aid will not fall into the wrong hands and fuel the Taliban war effort?

It has been announced that 37,000 food rations were dropped yesterday, and the Prime Minister said in his statement that 5,000 tonnes of wheat had been delivered, but does the right hon. Lady accept that that amount would have to be substantially increased to avert a disaster? The UN estimates that 7.5 million Afghans depend on food aid and that 1.6 million face starvation. The crisis is, therefore, several times the size of that which we abhorred in Kosovo.

The awful truth is that, before 11 September, Afghanistan already had the worst refugee crisis in the world, with 4 million refugees in the region and more than 1 million internally displaced. However, I got the impression from the statements this afternoon that we are in danger of giving up on the difficulty of getting aid into the interior. We must not give up on the refugees there. A United Nations spokesman said tellingly:

"Their grip on survival is definitely slipping."

We need to get the numbers into perspective: 20 million people are still left in Afghanistan.

I talked to the Christian Aid workers recently returned from Afghanistan and I was shocked to learn that following three years of drought, the water table is 57 m below ground. I had to check that figure—I thought that they meant 57 ft. It means that women and children are unable to haul up water and they lack the equipment to pump it up.

The aid agencies make a very important point, and it is important to share it with the House. They strongly desire to keep people in their villages where they have shelter and where they can be in place to plant next year's crop. Their all fleeing to refugees camps will only exacerbate the problem that we have at present.

What will the Secretary of State do to ensure that people are enabled to stay in their villages? Does she accept that the air drops may miss the refugees as they flee from their established communities and that road convoys stand a better chance of intercepting the refugees before they leave home?

Nobody is ever a willing refugee. Refugees have fled famine and oppression and most would like to return home. We have a duty to ensure that they are able to return. As Mr. Shaw said, we have to create that hope.

As an Opposition, we have said several times that we must be prepared to rebuild Afghanistan. That is the best way we have of demonstrating that the west has no war with ordinary Afghan people. We have all seen the pictures of Kabul even before the bombing started. It had been reduced virtually to rubble by 20 years of war, and the present military action is bound to cause more damage, so reconstructing the infrastructure of the country will be vital to putting it back on its feet.

We must keep these long-term results of the action firmly in our sights. Weak, unstable countries are the tinderbox of conflict and have proved a seedbed for terrorism. What will the Secretary of State do to ensure that the people of Afghanistan and the millions of refugees in Pakistan, Iran and the other neighbouring countries can look forward to a safe return? A country with a future presents less of a threat to world security.

This needs to be a shared responsibility. We have chosen to stand shoulder to shoulder with America to provide global leadership in the fight against international terrorism. Britain is at the heart of building an international coalition that bridges ideological divides. It can be used to set the example that restoring a homeland should be an integral part of solving a refugee crisis.

To win the war on terrorism we must not only re-establish the rule of international law but tackle the humanitarian consequences and do that well. By providing aid, decent camps and long-term reconstruction, we will help to maintain long-term peace. The new humanitarian coalition is our best chance of bringing that about and, then, from this awful tragedy, we can wrest some good. 11.29 pm