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House of Commons

Wednesday 21 November 2001

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—


1. Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): When she last met non-governmental organisations to discuss the delivery of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. [14146]

2. Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam): What assessment she has made of the requirements for aid in Afghanistan in readiness for the winter. [14147]

3. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): If she will make a statement on the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan. [14148]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Clare Short): The United Nations estimates that there are 6 million people in need of food aid in Afghanistan. The House will recall that prior to 11 September the World Food Programme was supplying food aid to 5 million Afghans. After 11 September all international workers were withdrawn from Afghanistan and deliveries stopped for 13 days. Thereafter, deliveries steadily improved and were interrupted only briefly when bombing started on 7 October. Targets were met up to 13 November and delivery systems inside the country also held up.

On 13 November, however, deliveries across the border from Pakistan, which is the major delivery route, were suspended because of uncertainty due to the military situation. Deliveries from other routes continued. On Monday, the WFP resumed operations between Peshawar and Kabul, and those continue. There are stocks sufficient for 10 days supply within the country. International workers are returning to parts of Afghanistan, but there are also reports of looting of many UN and NGO offices.

Mr. Llwyd: I thank the right hon. Lady for the nature of that reply and the help that she is giving the House. According to Oxfam, however, three quarters of all trucking routes into Afghanistan remain suspended. Despite her best efforts, targets are not being met. I was interested in what she said to the Select Committee on International Development yesterday about the Americans

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not taking the humanitarian issue as seriously as this Administration do. If that is true, what can be done urgently to address that problem?

Clare Short: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that question. I am afraid that Oxfam is simply wrong again if it is saying that three quarters of the routes are suspended. The report that I have just given the House is the accurate one.

I am also grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to correct the misreporting of what I told the Select Committee. I said, as I had previously said in the House, that we had less good civil/military liaison than we had in the case of Kosovo; that we could improve our performance on the humanitarian effort not if one group tried to do the other's work but if there was better liaison; and that urgent improvement was needed. The second thing that I said was about the general commitment of overseas development aid by the American Administration, which is the lowest in the world, as the hon. Gentleman knows.

Mr. Burstow: Does the Secretary of State accept that, this winter, refugee camps will have a key part to play in distributing food aid? The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was meant to have opened 15 camps by now, of which I understand only one has been opened. How many will be opened and how soon, how soon will they reach full capacity, and what is the Department doing to expedite the opening of the remaining camps?

Clare Short: The hon. Gentleman may recall that when the UN issued its appeal shortly after the crisis began, it predicted 1.5 million new refugees in addition to the nearly 4 million long-standing refugees that are in Iran and Pakistan. In fact the volume of movement has not been nearly so great. It is about 100,000, coming over in trickles, so there are some new camps, but the numbers are nothing like those that were predicted as needed. Obviously, the food and support need to follow the people. They have tended to stay inside Afghanistan but have often moved out of the cities. They are internally displaced, rather than crossing borders in big numbers. There are supplies for refugees; our biggest problem remains inside Afghanistan.

Miss McIntosh: The Secretary of State has said that 10 days supplies are all that remain; that clearly is not enough. Will she regret, with me, the delay in sending in the troops, which is indeed very regrettable? Does she agree that they should have a peacekeeping as well as humanitarian role, to ensure that food aid is delivered according to her timetable?

Clare Short: I agree that the figure of 10 days' supply is a bit worrying. Supplies from one of the major Pakistan routes have now resumed but we need to do better. If we continue to have difficulties in crossing that border, we really will get into serious problems. I agree with the hon. Lady that we need agreement on the new transitional Government for Afghanistan and then some international forces to stabilise the situation, so that Afghanistan may receive better humanitarian support and start the job of reconstruction.

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Tony Worthington (Clydebank and Milngavie): I am sure that the Secretary of State will welcome with me the appointment of Mark Malloch Brown, head of the United Nations Development Programme and the senior Briton in the UN family of organisations, to head the regeneration of Afghanistan, confirming that, in our view and that of the UN, this is not just about short-term aid but about the rebuilding of a failed state—probably over many years—in Afghanistan.

Clare Short: I do of course welcome the appointment of Mark Malloch Brown. The job of UNDP is co-ordination and he will be doing that. Perhaps even more importantly, yesterday there was a conference in the US, attended by my permanent secretary among others, where Colin Powell and Paul O'Neill strongly committed the US to the reconstruction of Afghanistan and to sticking with Afghanistan until it had the chance of a better future. That we must all do, and learn the lesson of the previous error, when, after the Russian withdrawal, everyone turned their backs on Afghanistan. That was how the tragedy of today came about.

Mr. John Battle (Leeds, West): Will the Secretary of State insist that international organisations work with Afghan aid and development workers? The International Development Committee heard evidence from representatives of the World Food Programme that there is food and medicine in its warehouses and that it has, magnificently, managed to keep the polio immunisation programme going, but as the routes into Afghanistan open up, it is important that international agencies do not swamp the country and neglect the good work done by the locals throughout these difficult times.

Clare Short: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In East Timor, international organisations brought in too many international workers and did not use enough East Timorese—the people who had to take over and run their own country. Afghans have performed superbly since 11 September, when all international workers were withdrawn, and they very bravely kept the delivery systems going in the face of great attacks. That work needs to be honoured, and as we get back into the country, the Afghans who have done so well need to be kept in senior positions both to continue the humanitarian effort and to start the reconstruction of their country.

John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland): My right hon. Friend will be aware of media reports of houses collapsing because humanitarian aid was dropped on them. There are also reports of aid packages being sold in marketplaces rather than being given out. What does she intend to do to prevent that happening?

Clare Short: The only aid dropped by air up to now has been the United States "hearts and minds" parcels, if I can call them that. They contained jam, crackers and peanut butter, and I do not think that they were heavy enough to cause houses to collapse. I am happy to say that the UN World Food Programme has done a splendid job, continuing to supply massive quantities of food—enough to feed 6 million people—to a mountainous

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country with poor roads. It has done so without using airdrops, although they may be necessary in areas that will become inaccessible because of the winter.

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park): The right hon. Lady is rightly concerned that the civil/military liaison in Afghanistan is not working well. We have continually been told that the bombing in Afghanistan will bring a quick end to this campaign and open up humanitarian corridors before the winter. [Interruption.] The Secretary of State has not admitted that, despite the apparent collapse of the Taliban in many parts of Afghanistan, the delivery of humanitarian aid remains extremely difficult in many areas. [Interruption.] Does she agree that we need a substantial deployment of troops, backed by an explicit UN resolution to secure aid to Afghanistan?

Mr. Speaker: Order. There is far too much noise in the Chamber, particularly from hon. Members at the back. The hon. Member for Cunninghame, South (Mr. Donohoe) is nodding, but he is one of the noisiest. It is extremely unfair to the hon. Member asking the question and the Minister answering for her Department.

Clare Short: Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

I do not accept the hon. Lady's suggestion that I should have admitted anything. I have done my best, as I have promised since the beginning of the crisis, to keep the House fully informed of the facts. I have not made admissions; I have made accurate reports, whereas some of the wild claims made by NGOs, which may be well intentioned, are not accurate.

I agree with the hon. Lady that, with the welcome collapse of the Taliban, our potential enemy now is disorder. We need Ambassador Brahimi to be successful as soon as possible in agreeing a transitional Afghan Government who are fully recognised by the UN, so that it can return to the country. We need troops on the ground to keep order so that the new Government can take over and assemble Afghanistan's own security forces. The humanitarian effort can then go towards opening clinics and health centres, getting schools working again and getting food-for-work programmes going.

Mr. Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland): May I say what an enormous pleasure it is for Labour Members that my right hon. Friend, a doughty fighter for humanitarian aid throughout her career, is in her post at this crucial point in history? She will recall campaigning with me to raise the proportion of GDP that we spend on aid to the 0.7 per cent. that was urged on us for many years. I have not seen a great shortage of money in the Chancellor's pockets of late. Indeed, one of the problems has been underspending of the money that we have agreed. She would have enormous support if she were to make a strong bid to up that percentage of GDP.

Clare Short: I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for his comments and I shall ensure that they are drawn to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. As he probably knows, we have just started the process of the next comprehensive spending review. I should like

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to tell my hon. Friends that, if any Department is having any trouble spending its budget, mine is certainly not having such trouble and I could help out.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden): Does the Secretary of State regret accusing America yesterday of turning its back on the world, when in fact it was the largest donor of aid to Afghanistan even before 11 September? Does she accept that, at this stage, nothing would give the Taliban greater comfort than to hear of a rift between the US and the UK?

Clare Short: I heard the hon. Lady on the radio this morning and I think it laughable to suggest that inaccurate reporting in our media of an accurate report that I gave the Select Committee will help the Taliban to avoid collapse in Afghanistan. That really is a bit silly. In response to the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), the Chairman of the Committee and a member of her party, who asked whether it is a worry that the US is the smallest contributor of aid among the OECD countries, I told the Select Committee that I thought that that was regrettable, that there was a chance that the whole world, post-11 September, would be more committed to development, and that there did seem to be a problem with the US, a country made up of diverse nationalities, in that it turned inwards and was rather insular. I stand by all those remarks.

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