Humanitarian Crisis (Afghanistan)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:30 pm on 28th February 2002.

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Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath 3:30 pm, 28th February 2002

You will be relieved to hear, Mr. Chidgey, that I have already dealt with some points that I wanted to raise in my interventions on Ann Clwyd, so I shall not pursue them further.

I should like to thank you, Mr. Chidgey, and the Minister for understanding that, because of a commitment in my constituency—the hon. Member for Cynon Valley has to attend a Welsh affairs debate—I shall have to leave the Opposition Front Bench in the capable hands of my hon. Friend Dr. Lewis. Although I cannot be here until the end of the debate, I shall certainly read it carefully in Hansard and discuss any issues that arise.

I also apologise on behalf of my hon. Friend Mrs. Spelman, who also speaks on international development. She would have liked to take part in the debate, particularly given her recent visit to Pakistan, but she has a commitment this afternoon in the constituency where her mother-in-law lives. I understand that her mother-in-law will be part of the audience and I am sure that Mr. Chidgey and the Minister will understand that it is a commitment that my hon. Friend would be unwise to miss.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Tony Baldry, not only for his powerful speech today, but for his chairmanship of the Select Committee. Once again, I am sure that all hon. Members throughout the House—not just those present in the Chamber for this afternoon's debate—would want to tell my hon. Friend that we hugely respect the work that he and other members of his Committee do. My hon. Friend had a difficult act to follow. He would agree that his predecessor as Chairman of the International Development Committee, Bowen Wells, our former hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford, was also a tremendously effective parliamentarian and successful Select Committee Chairman. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury is carrying on the work of our former colleague with his usual energy. The report is a tribute not only to my hon. Friend, but to all members of the Committee.

Debates on this subject often attract considerable interest, and hon. Members from all sides of the Chamber have already intervened. As both the Minister and I had cause to observe when winding up for our respective parties in the recent debate on the International Development Bill, the House is often at its best when debating serious subjects such as international development.

The UK has a proud record of support for countries in need around the world. The Minister recognises that MPs of all parties care deeply about the preservation and continuation of the UK's reputation. Other hon. Members as well as myself have already referred to the visit by United States Congressmen to the NATO committee during our recent short recess. Several Congressmen told me afterwards how much they appreciated the Minister giving up his time to welcome them in the Lord Chancellor's private chambers in the Palace of Westminster. He not only entertained the Congressmen with his American family links and his support for the Cincinnati Reds, but he made some powerful comments about the views of the current Secretary of State for International Development on the continuing process from Doha. The Congressmen listened carefully to those views, and greatly appreciated them. The Minister may find it difficult to believe, but no less a person than Lord Lamont paid public tribute to him in a later meeting with the Congressmen, which Mr. Colman will confirm. I do not know if the Minister will be embarrassed that someone whose political views are so different from his and those of his distinguished father should have publicly paid tribute to him. That may be the first time that that has happened to the Minister, but it shows how carefully everyone listened to everything that he said about Doha and international development issues.

My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury has already discussed some of the most important issues with regard to Afghanistan and the Select Committee's report. However, I want to speak about two or three matters that concern me, my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden and Opposition Front Benchers. I also want to consider issues that arise from the Government's helpful and thorough response to the Committee's excellent recommendations.

I strongly agree with the Select Committee's recommendation (b):

"The UK is one of a small number of donors with a good record of turning promises quickly into cash."

The Minister and I have said before that so often what recipient countries and NGOs in those countries most need is quick cash, not promises. Throughout her adult life, my mother has been involved with several charities such as the Children's Society and, as a former member of a diocesan synod, with Church of England charities and their work overseas. She has constantly stressed in all her work the need for any aid to be given quickly and in cash. Promises and words are cheap, but cash is often important in failed states and needy countries. Recommendation (b) also states:

"We encourage DFID to work with those donor countries which also responded rapidly to encourage other donors to ensure that their pledges are converted into real commitments and actual money."

My hon. Friend the Member for Meriden recently worked with the charity Islamic Relief on raising money for ambulances for Afghanistan where they are badly needed. I am sure that all hon. Members welcome and support that work. A couple of weeks ago, my hon. Friend and I watched the launch of the appeal in New Palace Yard with other colleagues. It was heartwarming to see that Islamic Relief could secure an instant donation so that the first ambulance could go immediately to Afghanistan. That is real action, and the sort of thing that reputable charities and people in the UK can deliver, and deliver quickly.

My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury rightly stressed recommendation (k), which concluded:

"We remain to be convinced that the food delivered into Afghanistan can be distributed to all those in need, primarily because of poor security".

My hon. Friend Mr. Robathan has detailed knowledge of the security issues. Security is crucial after an armed conflict. There is also the problem of weather conditions, although happily on this occasion one feels that a higher power may have had something to do with it. When the humanitarian crisis was first reported in the news media, it was feared that food aid would not get through once the snows came, but, fortunately for the people, winter came late to Afghanistan this year.

My hon. Friend the Member for Meriden has been to the Afghan border with Pakistan and the contacts she made there have recently been in touch with her. My hon. Friend commented:

"So what is the situation like in Afghanistan now? Is the much-vaunted reconstruction programme taking place? The International Development Select Committee was briefed by NGOs involved in the area. Let us start with the good news, the Taliban was defeated relatively quickly. Winter came very late this year so food aid reached many of the places where it was so urgently needed. Aid agencies are hoping to restart many of their long-term programmes in the new few months and international troops are trying to maintain stability, especially in the cities. The prospects for women are now much brighter...refugee Afghan women are returning from Iran fired up by the greater freedom they experienced in that country."

She continued:

"The new Interim Authority and its leader Hamid Kharzai, is struggling to retain power over these warring ethnic groups."

On the downside, my hon. Friend said that, sadly, ethnic tensions have flared up again. The new Afghan Minister for tourism has been murdered, a matter to which the hon. Member for Cynon Valley referred. My hon. Friend went on:

"Hamid Kharzai is canvassing the world for support to enable the much-needed reconstruction and reforms to go through . . . There are also worrying reports of new poppy crops being planted. Local farmers say that they need financial incentives to stop growing them. Poppies grow on poor land, don't need much water and have a financial yield per hectare of 10 times that of other crops.".

That is unfortunate for the international community and for our constituents who may suffer from the scourge of drugs.

Speaking with my other hat on as shadow Minister for drugs and security, I am confident of the Minister's support when I say that all parliamentarians must address the difficult issue of financial incentives for people in countries such as Afghanistan to turn from the cultivation of drugs and destructive, rather than constructive, crops.

The United States has promised $300 million in aid. Hon. Members who are quick to criticise that country must recognise that it is far and away the biggest donor of aid in the world. There is a delicate balance between what is practical and what one would love to have in an ideal world. Now that the snow has come to Afghanistan, some remote areas in the central highlands are so cut off that the NGOs report that people are trying to live on boiled grass in order to survive. Three million people still have to live in camps outside Afghanistan and, according to Human Rights Watch, many people are too frightened to return home because of the fear of violence.

Even though the direct conflict may have finished, more people may leave Afghanistan because of a lack of food and water, never mind the fear of ethnic violence. There is bound to be more tension in the surrounding countries, which cannot cope with the numbers of refugees there already. As the hon. Member for Putney will confirm, the US Congressmen—there were 10 Republicans and five Democrats, all of whom had a special interest in NATO—who had an international outlook, were at pains to stress that one of the countries that will need the most support from the developed west in the next few years is Pakistan, because of the stress and strains imposed on it by the conflict in Afghanistan. There is a great danger of extremist parties threatening the stability of Pakistan. After the successful resolution of the destruction of the Taliban and the dismantling of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, which we hope will be maintained, the last thing we want is to see a Muslim extremist party come to power in Pakistan. That should concern us all.

The UN mine action programme in Afghanistan seeks to get rid of 25,000 land mines. My hon. Friends the Members for Banbury and for Blaby referred to that. When one turns on one's television, as I did early this morning, it is heartwarming to see that one of the first things that is being reported is the valiant work of the Army and the RAF in mine clearance in Afghanistan. I am sure that many hon. Members saw those film reports this morning.

I have a particular constituency interest. The Royal Logistic Corps has its headquarters in my constituency and many of the people who work for it are based at the mine clearance headquarters in Minley just outside my constituency in the constituency of my hon. Friend Mr. Howarth. Those people are at the sharp end. They are involved in mine clearance, as are the RAF's mine clearance officers and the men we saw on television this morning. The British forces can make a substantial contribution because of our experience of mine clearance.

Happily for the future of Afghanistan, there is speculation that recent rains might mean an end to the previous three years of drought. As my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden stressed, we hope that those rains will symbolise a new beginning. In one of the twists of irony that so often occur through history, the atrocity of 11 September may turn out to be a chance for change for countries like Afghanistan, and for progress in that area of the world. The developed west must not let that opportunity pass by.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby pointed out, security needs to extend to the secondary distribution food network as well as to the supply route into Afghanistan. That was recommendation (s) in the Select Committee report. Delivering food into the country is not enough. It must be distributed too. The Select Committee has put many thoughts to the Department for International Development and I shall read carefully what the Minister has to say to supplement his Department's thorough response to the report. We recognise that we cannot ask for the moon. It is incredibly difficult for even a combination of developed western countries to provide complete security after a war. Nevertheless, we hope that with good will there will be an opportunity for greater security for the delivery of food and other aid.