Drugs Trade

Oral Answers to Questions — Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs – in the House of Commons at 11:30 am on 15th June 2004.

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Photo of Mr Bill Tynan Mr Bill Tynan Labour, Hamilton South 11:30 am, 15th June 2004

What progress has been made in the fight against the international drugs trade.

Photo of Bill Rammell Bill Rammell Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office

We are making progress overseas in our fight against drugs. We seized record amounts of cocaine last year: 91 tonnes. More and more cocaine traffickers are being arrested, and we are investing record amounts in the fight against heroin, especially in Afghanistan.

Photo of Mr Bill Tynan Mr Bill Tynan Labour, Hamilton South

I thank my hon. Friend for that response and for his commitment to eliminating the international drugs trade. Although I have never been on an IPU trip, does he accept the situation described in an excellent article on Afghanistan published in the Sunday Herald this week? It pointed out that opium production had doubled between 2002 and 2003 and included an interview with an individual who earned £65 for 5 kg of opium. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is essential that the international community provide alternative sources of income for people in Afghanistan if they are to make real progress and stop the growth of poppy fields in Afghanistan in future?

Photo of Bill Rammell Bill Rammell Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office

My hon. Friend is right: we face a serious challenge in tackling opium cultivation in Afghanistan. I should point out that cultivation has not doubled; the latest United Nations survey shows a marginal increase in cultivation compared with last year. However, it seems from anecdotal reports that this year there will be an increase in cultivation in the current planting season. That pattern is not inconsistent with countries where there has been success in tackling the problem—initially there is an increase. However, the key is a comprehensive strategy, as my hon. Friend rightly pointed out, which includes provision for alternative livelihoods.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon

Since our Government took over the fight against the drug trade in Afghanistan in April 2002, how many hectares of poppies have been destroyed, how many trafficking networks have been dismantled and how much land has been turned over to alternative production? As we have heard, the UN report last year showed that the situation was getting worse. When another UN report is compiled this autumn, does the Minister expect it to show that things are improving under British leadership or still getting worse?

Photo of Bill Rammell Bill Rammell Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office

Let me give the hon. Gentleman some specifics on the progress that is being made. A team of Afghan counter-narcotics police officers is now in place, which has seized 125 kilos of heroin. Similarly, the Afghan special narcotics force—an Afghan initiative under the control of the Ministry of the Interior—has seized more than 32 tonnes of opiates and destroyed 32 laboratories. Nevertheless, I do not deny that we face a significant challenge—it is not solely our responsibility—on behalf of the Afghan people and the international community, because anecdotal evidence suggests that cultivation and production may increase again this year. Nevertheless, all the measures that are now in place suggest that in the current 15 months, particularly in the next planting season, we should begin to see, if our strategy is working—I believe that it is—the tide beginning to turn.

Photo of Michael Clapham Michael Clapham Labour, Barnsley West and Penistone

Is my hon. Friend aware that, last year, Europol reported to the Committee on the Civil Dimension of Security, which is part of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, that its worst nightmares had been realised: laboratories in southern Europe are now producing synthetic cocaine and synthetic heroin that is of a decent level? Its fear is that, once we start to tackle the situation in Afghanistan, that synthetic heroin and cocaine will come on to the market, as the price begins to change. What are we doing, together with other international partners, to tackle that and those laboratories?

Photo of Bill Rammell Bill Rammell Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office

I am aware of those concerns, and they underline the problem that, whatever we might say in the House, when we seek to tackle the international drugs trade, we are dealing with one of the most sophisticated, expensively funded organised crime rackets in the world. Everywhere we make an impact on the system—we hope that we will succeed in Afghanistan—we must be aware of the knock-on consequences for those places where the industry will try to go next. That is very much at the forefront of our thinking.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

Will the Minister also pay tribute to the Royal Navy for its contribution to tackling the international drugs trade? Recently, HMS Northumberland seized cocaine worth £135 million and HMS Iron Duke seized cocaine worth £250 million. If they had not done so, those drugs would have ended up on the streets of a country somewhere, bringing huge misery. Will he pay tribute to the Royal Navy for using the intelligence available and seizing the drugs? It is vital that they are given the necessary support to ensure that they have a presence on the high seas to tackle the drugs problem where it exists.

Photo of Bill Rammell Bill Rammell Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office

I pay tribute to the Royal Navy and the work that it undertakes to support our efforts, but the other point that the hon. Gentleman's question underlines is that, in dealing with the problem elsewhere in the world, we are working not just for the benefit for the people of those countries, but in our own vested interests. The cocaine that originates in Colombia comes to this country, and 95 per cent. of the heroin from Afghanistan fuels the drugs trade in this country. We have a massive vested interest in tackling the problem, which is why we are devoting so much work and investment to it.