Mrs. Spelman: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. On the last occasion we debated the crisis, a number of questions were asked about its humanitarian aspects to which the Minister who was present could not reply. I set out those questions in a letter to the right hon. Lady on 17 October. I hope that she will now answer some of them.
The right hon. Lady will know that I have called for an appeal launched by President Bush asking every American child to donate a dollar to an Afghan child to be matched in this country. The appeal is to be administered by the American Red Cross. The British Red Cross is willing to administer such an appeal and has visited officials in the right hon. Lady's Department. I hope that she will use this opportunity to support that valuable initiative.
There has been little unanimity about how much aid is required for the region. The key question is the amount of aid that is required and whether it can be delivered to where it is absolutely needed. The World Food Programme says that we need to get 50,000 tonnes of food into Afghanistan every month. However, a month from now, two regions of Afghanistan will be cut off by snow. Those two areas need 70,000 tonnes of food to be stockpiled within the next month. The right hon. Lady said that the regional stockpiles were adequate. I have quickly done my sums, however, and I find that those levels cannot be achieved at the rate of 1,300 tonnes a day. Christian Aid, which delivers the programme to some of the worst affected regions in central and north-eastern Afghanistan, estimates that 120,000 tonnes of food must get into those regions within the next four weeks. The sums simply do not add up. Even at the target rate of 1,700 tonnes, the amounts cannot be achieved. Does the right hon. Lady's acknowledge that that is not enough for the worst affected areas? Unless the World Food Programme and Christian Aid have got their figures wrong, the basic fact is that we are not getting sufficient food into those parts of the country.
It is also necessary to question whether the food is reaching the people of Afghanistan. Despite claims from the World Food Programme that food is getting in, Oxfam and Christian Aid, which deliver the food and administer the process, have repeatedly said that they are running out of food. Who is right?
A Christian Aid worker who has recently returned from Afghanistan has told me that a convoy left Quetta in Pakistan with 600 metric tonnes of food on board, but that by the time it reached Kabul there were only 200 metric tonnes left. In other words, two thirds of the entire convoy had been removed en route. It is no wonder that the aid agencies claim that not enough aid is getting through. Does the right hon. Lady acknowledge that a significant proportion of food aidthe statistical amount givennever reaches its destination?
Another question relating to delivery is whether the food is getting to the more remote regions of Afghanistan. A colossal number of people are on the move within the country. Does the Secretary of State accept that there is a real need to get food to people in their villages, so that they can remain where they have shelter and be in place to plant next year's crop?
What is the Secretary of State's latest assessment of the number of people on the move? Does she accept the assessment of many aid agencies that many people are likely to die a lonely death in the mountains, not necessarily from starvation, but from illnesses generated by malnutrition? The chief problem facing the refugees is the collapse of the food distribution network. Will the Secretary of State inform the House of what progress has been made in restoring aid networks right into the interior of Afghanistan? I would like to say at this point that we share her view that a pause in the bombing would not help in that respect.
Yesterday, the Select Committee interviewed representatives of the aid agencies, and concern was expressed about the lack of co-ordination on the ground. The Secretary of State has said that closer co-ordination is still required. Can Mr. Brahimi be urged to make that happen? Relations with the local Afghan NGOs have been vital to the aid distribution networkindeed, Christian Aid's programme has been successful because of its local partnerships. The right hon. Lady was right to describe those local NGOs as brave. They are brave indeed: they put their lives at risk to deliver food where it is really needed.
I should like to raise the question of refugee camps, particularly as the Secretary of State has just returned from Pakistan. Is she satisfied that standards in the refugee camps are adequate? We have urged that the camps should meet the Sphere project's minimum standards for refugees. Was it her experience, when visiting the camps, that those standards were being met; and if not, what steps has she asked to be taken to ensure that they will be?
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reports great difficulties in the refugee camps. Many are not sited in ideal locations. In some, boreholes have had to be drilled through 400 m of granite to obtain water. What pressure can the Secretary of State bring to bear to ensure that refugee camps are better sited, so that practical targets such as the provision of water can be more easily achieved?
A particular problem is that the border with Pakistan is intermittently open. Obviously the Secretary of State's visit to Pakistan failed to persuade the Government there to keep the border open, to put an end to the mixed signals being sent to people living in Afghanistan. Aid workers in yesterday's Select Committee meeting said that a potential disaster was looming on the border. I would be grateful if the Secretary of State commented on that.
It was reported in yesterday's newspapers that the Taliban are going to run one of the refugee camps in Afghanistan. Will the Secretary of State confirm that that is true? She referred to agencies running the camps in Afghanistan, and I would like to know whether the Taliban are, in fact, running them.
Will the Secretary of State also give an assurance that women and children will be treated fairly in the refugee camps? The present policy of allowing village elders to make decisions does not give them adequate protection. War always takes its toll on women and children, but they represent the future of a war-torn country.
The Government share an enormous responsibility to get right the humanitarian aspect of the crisis; otherwise ordinary Afghan people will never believe us when we say that our war is not a war with them.
Clare Short: I regret that the hon. Lady has misled herself about the Select Committee. What happened is that it changed what it wanted to discuss at the meeting at short notice. It has been trying to visit Pakistan to go to the camps. The security advice is that its members could not be protectedwe had a lot of trouble and during my visit I had endless phone calls about that. The Select Committee should do its job, but our first accountability is to Parliament, then the Select Committee probes. To try to get there instantly in a way that strains all our systems is not helpful or wise.
We had a meeting with the new Select Committee fixed, including a memorandum on all the Department's future commitments, but there was a last-minute switch. It was impossible for me to get a memorandum prepared for the Select Committee without taking my staff off the work of improving the humanitarian performance in Afghanistan, and I decided that to do that would be wrong. The Select Committee should review the way in which it is demanding the attention of my Department in a way that would deflect us from the objective, which is to get better provision on the ground.
I have seen the hon. Lady's letter. I do not know whether the House remembers, but in Kosovo I had difficulties, because the staff who do the work also have to serve the House of Commons. I have asked my hon. Friend the UnderSecretary to try to ensure that this time we do better. Obviously the public want replies, but it is difficult to manage the Department's resources. The staff are the best in the world, but they are enormously overworked.
The hon. Lady has a number of misunderstandings. She does not seem to understand the nature of the crisis, the lack of information, how dangerous it all is, how nobody knows in detail what is going on inside Afghanistan or the nature of the Taliban regime. The regional stockpiles are outside Afghanistan. We also need stockpiles inside. If the hon. Lady reads the statement, she might understand that a little better.
The hon. Lady quotes frequently some of what the NGOs here have said, but she should remember that they are using that material partially to call for a pause in the bombing. She might like to prevent the misuse of details
On the danger of a collapse of the network inside Afghanistan, the nightmare would be the same situation as existed after the Russians withdrew, when all the factions fought each other and there was chaos across the country. Should such a situation come about, we would have great difficulty bringing in humanitarian support, so everything needs to be done to avoid that. No one can absolutely guarantee success, but we can all unite in being determined to try to prevent such a situation from arising. That is our determination.
I do not agree that there is a lack of co-ordination on the ground. The UN agencies are co-ordinating well, but the situation is enormously difficult. The camps have been there for 20 years, including the time when the hon. Lady's party was in power. On what happened in Pakistan with the refugees, after the campaign against the Russian presence in Afghanistan ended, the international community turned its back. Since our Government took power, we have provided support for the camps in Iran and Pakistan, but one reason why their Governments will not open the borders is that they took millions and millions last time, and then the international community abandoned them. I am trying to establish a guarantee to them that they will have support this time in order to get the borders open. We all need to work together on that.
It would not be right to ask the Chancellor to come to Parliament to announce a package on debt, as Britain is one of Pakistan's smallest creditors. The largest are Japan, the United States of America, France, Germany and South Korea. The Government of Pakistan are making proposals for a highly concessionary debt rescheduling over perhaps 40 years, which would get their debt down. The United States is trying to be responsive. Of course, full details will be provided to the House. The United Kingdom will try to help, but it is not a leading creditor.
I am not aware of the Taliban running camps, but we do not have information about everything that is going on inside Afghanistan. There is no doubt that women and children are suffering desperately. There is no doubt that the best way in which to deal with backwardness and extremism is to respect and empower women and educate girls. That is what we are trying to do in Pakistan and we will try to do it in Afghanistan as soon as we can.