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Clare Short: I agree with my hon. Friend but, as I told the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), many of our fellow citizens are calling for a pause in the bombing not for those reasons but because they want relief to be brought in. We do not have clear reports of what is going on in Afghanistan. Many people imagine far more bombing than is taking place in that vast country. I agree, but we have to get more information to people. We have to get our citizens to think about my hon. Friend's point. I am sure that we can win the argument. It is important that everyone in the House takes a part in reassuring our population that we are doing what we can and that we are bringing in the humanitarian relief so that we keep our people united behind the action and well informed.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): While I too was sorry not to see the Secretary of State in the Select Committee on International Development yesterday, I welcome her obvious determination to help the humanitarian situation in Pakistan, Afghanistan and the surrounding region. The right hon. Lady mentioned the refugee camps in the Congo outside Rwanda, in particular those around Goma. The Select Committee visited a camp outside Islamabad in 1999, which was run essentially as a part of Afghanistan. The women were segregated, there was no education for them and it was difficult to get health care to women or children. Indeed, we hear that extremist madrasas are run in some of the camps and that they may prove to be a breeding ground for extremist terrorists. Will the Secretary of State speak with UNHCR, or whoever is running the camps, to ensure that they are open, that there is no possibility of breeding further terrorism and that all people there—be they male or female—get a decent opportunity to live?

Clare Short: The hon. Gentleman makes some important points. I met the UNHCR when I was in Islamabad. It is trying to upgrade the camps. There has been a period of neglect and decline. In the North-West Frontier province, where there has been much movement in both directions, fundamentalism and extremism have spread because of the situation in Afghanistan, the drought and the poverty. I met with Ministers there who were engaging in a programme of development. As the Education Minister of that province said, the way to combat extremism and backwardness is by educating girls. We are going to partner that province, which is right on the border and has a tribal area, to progress that sort of development. That is what we need in the new Afghanistan—real education. Again, as one of the Ministers in the new Pakistan Government said, we have lost 20 years. There should have been 20 years of education in Afghanistan, but instead there has been a move backwards. We must never let that happen again.

Mr. Mike O'Brien (North Warwickshire): Will my right hon. Friend convey to her officials our thanks for the hard work that they are putting in to ensure that food

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aid gets through to the refugees? Does she agree that a bombing pause—however desirable some people think it would be—would not only allow the Taliban to regroup, perhaps prolonging the war and creating more refugees, as she has pointed out; it would also, by prolonging the war, create a situation in which it would be more difficult for the aid agencies to get into Afghanistan and tackle the long-term problems that so desperately need to be resolved there?

Clare Short: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his thanks to my officials. My Department has superb officials. The relevant unit goes to world crisis after world crisis, dropping everything when something happens and working all the hours that God sends. They are great people and I am sure that the whole House will congratulate them on their work. They are admired throughout the world as they are some of the best at this work. Britain is one of the fastest countries to move resources around the world. I am very proud of my officials and we should all be grateful to them.

I agree with my hon. Friend's point about the likely effect of a pause and the likely prolongation of the war. We must try to achieve our objectives so that military action is as short as possible. We must keep the humanitarian action going and get the political track moving. Highly informed people hold the view that many of the armed factions in Afghanistan would switch sides if there was the prospect of a better Government, then we could start bringing the thing to a rapid end. That is the most desirable thing for the people of Afghanistan and the world. That is what we must work at.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham): What is the moral authority for the coalition members' demand that Pakistan and Iran should open their frontiers when they themselves maintain draconian controls on those fleeing conflict, including that in Afghanistan? In particular, will the Secretary of State condemn the hypocrisy of the Australian authorities, and will she ensure that any Afghan refugees reaching this country are welcomed and helped?

Clare Short: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. We lecture Pakistan which, as I said earlier, is massively poorer than our country and has many, many more refugees in proportion to its population, but is being asked to host perhaps a further 1.5 million. The communities—in the North-West Frontier province and so on—who are being asked to host those refugees are extremely poor and are affected by the drought.

There are Afghan refugees in the UK and, obviously, their case for being genuine refugees is overwhelmingly strong. The tragedy is that so many of them—like some in Ladywood—are educated Afghans. In situations such as this, when education in a country is limited, it is difficult for educated people to remain there; they tend to flee and are scattered throughout the world. We must welcome and care for them, but we have to help them to go back and rebuild their country because Afghanistan will need them.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): Following the questions about land mines and cluster bombs put by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews) and the hon. Member for

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Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), did we not hear the Secretary of State herself say that every ordnance and target had to be run before the Law Officers? Given the circumstances of her answer, which I quite understand, would it not be right that the House—perhaps tomorrow—should be given a statement from the Solicitor-General, representing the Law Officers, clearing up exactly what is happening in relation to land mines and their generic relation, cluster bombs? Should there not be a statement from the Solicitor-General to the House tomorrow morning?

Clare Short: I think I should share my problem with the House. In response to a question from my hon. Friend, the Prime Minister said that all the targets were looked at by our Law Officers. I repeated that on the famous "Today" programme interview that was referred to earlier and received a letter saying that I was not supposed to say that the Law Officers scrutinise the targets. I do not know why.

Statements are a matter for the Speaker. Of course, the House must remember that the UK is only a small part of the military operation. Because of the coverage in our media, people imagine that we are a massive part of that operation. Obviously, our Government and Law Officers are responsible for what our Government do but not for the actions of the US Government and others who will join the coalition. I leave the House with my dilemma—perhaps I shall get another letter.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): May I commend the Secretary of State for her visit to a zone of extreme instability and real crisis and for the realism of her report to the House? However, may I press her even more strongly on the need to ensure the stability of Pakistan, which she herself has emphasised? If there were a further wholesale migration of people into Pakistan, Pakistan's provincial, racial and ideological stability could be called into question. As the Musharraf Government have done well in exceptionally difficult circumstances, is it not time that Pakistan was readmitted to full membership of the Commonwealth and all its councils?

Clare Short: I agree very much with the hon. Gentleman's point. As yet, Pakistan is in good shape but it needs continuing support as it has taken an enormous economic hit on its exports. The cost of shipping, air freight and insurance have all gone up, so it needs short-term help to keep its reform effort going, as well as help with any refugees.

The Musharraf Government provided a route map to the last meeting of the Commonwealth committee that monitors progress and they firmly promised parliamentary elections by, I think, October next year as their own court required. They are absolutely committed to that.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that Pakistan needs to be protected and helped with the refugees that it is hosting, and a short, rather than a long, military campaign would help it too. We must do our best so that we obtain an outcome that is best for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

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Northern Ireland

4.37 pm

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Dr. John Reid): Mr. Speaker, with permission, I will make a statement about developments in Northern Ireland. It is the statement I have often been told I would never be able to make to the House.

Yesterday, the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning reported that it had witnessed an event—which it regarded as significant—in which the IRA had put a quantity of arms beyond use. The materiel in question had included arms, ammunitions and explosives. The commission was satisfied that the arms in question had been dealt with in accordance with the scheme and regulations. In other words, the IRA's act constituted an act of decommissioning under the commission's statutory remit.

The word "historic" tends to be over-used about the Northern Ireland political process. There have been so many twists and turns, so many moments of optimism and so many setbacks along the way. But yesterday's move by the IRA is, in my view, unprecedented and genuinely historic. I believe that it takes the peace process on to a new political level.

That has been recognised in Northern Ireland itself. Rarely has the whole community been so united. As the Belfast Newsletter said this morning,

From another perspective, the Irish Times said that

Let us recall why we got here. We got here through a widespread recognition—after 30 years of death and pain and misery—of the futility of violence. That was the spur and its memory should remain the spur to all of us.

Let us remember also just how far we have come in the past four years. There have been major constitutional changes, including the establishment of the principle of consent and the ending of Ireland's territorial claim to Northern Ireland. The new institutional architecture, which has been shown to work, can and must be revived by yesterday's historic move. The Human Rights and Equality Commissions have been set up and are already hard at work. After much debate, an unprecedented new beginning to policing, with cross-community support, has been made. None of those has reached full fruition, but we were told that all of them were impossible to accomplish. Yesterday, another seemingly impossible vision became a reality.

This is the culmination of efforts by many people over many years, including my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, the Taoiseach in the Irish Government, John Major, successive United States Administrations, the republican leadership, which has shown itself to have the vision and confidence to bring an armed movement to the point of ceasefire, the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume) and the party that he leads, and the smaller pro- agreement parties.

I also pay tribute—I hope it is not embarrassing—to the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) and his colleagues. Were it not for his persistence, willingness

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to take risks and sheer courage under attack, it is no exaggeration to say that yesterday's events are unlikely to have happened. It is a vivid illustration of the power of engagement and the powerlessness of detachment. It is those who have taken risks for peace who have achieved this progress, not those who have doubted from the sidelines. Of course, the whole House will want to join me in thanking General John de Chastelain and his colleagues. They have shown endless patience and dignity. The best thanks that we can give them is to let them get on with the task that they have been asked to discharge.

Yesterday's events opened up opportunities, which we need to seize, and also challenges, which we need to face in three areas. First, the political institutions that are the democratic core of the Belfast agreement—the Assembly, the Executive, the North-South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council—should now be restored to full operation as quickly as possible, and should operate in a stable and uninterrupted way. The decision of the leader of the Ulster Unionist party earlier today to put Ministers back into government is a helpful step in creating a new dynamic.

Secondly, we need to press on with the implementation of the Good Friday agreement in all its aspects. I have placed in the Library of the House the Government's fuller response to the Decommissioning Commission's report. I should mention in particular that we will complete the implementation of the Patten report, including the review of the new arrangements to which we are already committed and the introduction of legislation to amend the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000 to reflect more fully the Patten recommendations.

We intend shortly to publish an implementation plan for the criminal justice review and to draft legislation to be introduced during the current Session. We will undertake a progressive rolling programme of security normalisation, reducing levels of troops and installations in Northern Ireland as the security situation improves. Our aim is to secure as early a return as possible to normal security arrangements. That is the task that now confronts us in the period ahead.

I can today announce a step in that direction. The IRA's action in putting weapons beyond use has wide political significance. It also, in itself, makes a contribution to the improvement that we all want to see in the security situation.

In the immediate aftermath of yesterday's event, I have discussed the situation with my security advisers, including the Chief Constable and the General Officer Commanding, Northern Ireland. There is, of course, a significant continuing threat from republican and loyalist dissidents. Notwithstanding that, the Chief Constable confirms that yesterday's developments represent a real improvement.

We therefore intend, as an immediate response to yesterday's development, to demolish the observation tower on Sturgan mountain in South Armagh; work on this has already started today. We will demolish one of the observation towers on Camlough mountain in South Armagh; work on this is starting today. In addition, we will demolish the supersangar at Newtownhamilton police station adjacent to the helicopter landing site; work on that will begin tomorrow. We will also demolish the Magherafelt army base; work on that will begin

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tomorrow. All of this done on the advice of a Chief Constable whose integrity and knowledge of these matters is unsurpassed in the House.

There is a third priority: all paramilitary groups should now play their part in building on yesterday's progress. That is not just about decommissioning. When small children cannot go to school without being terrorised, or innocent civilians cannot sleep in their bed without fear of being bombed, the scale of the challenge still confronting us is evident. Some of the loyalist organisations have played a crucial part in the peace process. I ask them to ask themselves what they can do now to move the process forward. Whatever else happens, there must be an end to the mindless sectarian violence of recent weeks.

There are other difficult legacies of the past. The early release scheme was, I know, one of the most painful and contentious aspects of the agreement. All qualifying prisoners have now been released. We and the Irish Government have now accepted that it would be a natural development of that scheme for outstanding prosecutions and extradition proceedings for offences committed before 10 April 1998 not to be pursued against supporters of organisations now on ceasefire and contributing to the peace process. Both Governments have agreed to take such steps as are necessary to resolve the issue as soon as possible, and in any event by March 2002.

Piece by piece the Belfast agreement is taking shape. As the Prime Minister said last night, we are a long way from completing our journey. There will, no doubt, be obstacles ahead, but at a time when the world is grappling with the effects of the most evil terrorism and we see in the middle east the awful consequences when political dialogue breaks down and opportunities are missed, I can tell the House that the political process in Northern Ireland is alive and moving forward. To sustain that, we will require hard work, steady nerves and the continued ability on all sides to reach out and make difficult compromises. The Government are ready and eager to play their part in doing that.

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