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House of Commons

Wednesday 17 April 2002

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


Mersey Tunnels Bill (By Order)

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Wednesday 24 April.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—


1. Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): If she will make a statement on the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan. [46040]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Clare Short): The humanitarian situation in Afghanistan remains fragile. That is the consequence of 23 years of conflict and three years of drought, and the fact that some areas of the country are still inaccessible. The latest estimate by the United Nations and the Afghanistan Interim Administration is that approximately 9 million Afghans, including more than 1 million internally displaced people, will be in need of humanitarian assistance this year.

Mr. Grieve: What extra resources have been made available for United Kingdom humanitarian aid following the earthquake in northern Afghanistan? Can the right hon. Lady tell the House anything about the role that British peacekeeping forces may have had or might have in distributing that?

Clare Short: The UK is providing £60 million this year in humanitarian aid and in starting to bolster the capacity of the Interim Administration. The question is not the availability of resources but reaching the people in greatest need. That is of course the nature of the crisis following an earthquake. The UK is famous for being able to move rapidly, and we deployed into the area in order to provide assistance and help. I am not aware of troops being involved, but I might not be right about that. Many people have lost their homes, and 800 people lost their lives. There is a big effort, in which we are involved,

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to provide help for those people who, on top of all the other suffering in Afghanistan, have now suffered the consequences of an earthquake.

Mr. Khalid Mahmood (Birmingham, Perry Barr): What efforts are being made to destroy the poppy fields in Afghanistan? What attempts have been made to compensate the farmers by providing alternative crops?

Clare Short: The implication of my hon. Friend's question is right: there has been a lot of planting of poppy by people who are very poor and have no other means of making a living. Obviously, that engenders criminality and instability in Afghanistan, as well as the exporting of drugs that will endanger neighbouring countries and the rest of the world, including our country. A big effort is being made. The Interim Administration have declared that no poppies should be planted, but the job is both to eradicate the crop and to provide alternative livelihoods for the people. We have learned across the world that, otherwise, people continue planting, because they have no other chance to make a living. We are working very hard to try to provide them with that chance.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden): The Secretary of State will be aware of numerous schemes to repatriate Afghan refugees. Although we welcome their eventual return, I am sure she would agree that reports of insecurity in Afghanistan, and the lack of housing and of basic provision, seem to indicate that such schemes might be premature. Will she assure the House that repatriation with British aid money will happen only when it is in the best interests of refugees and not because of the political pressure of donors?

Clare Short: We had this argument about Kosovo. It is not for the hon. Lady, me or anyone else to tell Afghan refugees when it is best to go home. We should facilitate their choices, and we see very wise choices—[Interruption.] The mass of Afghan refugees are in neighbouring countries—probably about 4 million of them. Families usually send a young male home to see how things are, and some families then go home.

About 180,000 Afghans have decided to return. They deserve help to do so when they make the decision, and facilities and equipment to rebuild their houses. Some Afghans have moved out of the country; it depends on the area, the problems of drought, the earthquake and so on. We will back people's choices and empower them to decide when it is right for them to return home.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford): There have been many promises made by Governments, including our own, about the involvement of women in humanitarian aid, but Oxfam notes in its latest paper that

Will my right hon. Friend do everything she can to ensure that women become involved in those programmes? Will she pay particular attention in the delivery of those programmes to the special needs of the many widows in Afghanistan?

Clare Short: Yes, indeed; I can give my hon. Friend that undertaking. The situation is not as bad as Oxfam

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implies—if that is what it is saying. Girls across the country are returning to school, women are able to teach again and the Women's Ministry, for which my hon. Friend fought so hard, is up and running—although obviously it needs to be strengthened. Only 11 per cent. of the Loya Jirga that is about to established and to decide the future of the country will be women, but that is an unprecedentedly large proportion for Afghanistan.

The World Food Programme, which is providing food for work across the country, targets women as organisers of schemes because they are so reliable and close to people. Of course, Afghanistan has a long way to go, but women there are moving forward and I promise my hon. Friend that we shall do everything we can to back them.

Mrs. Spelman: Is the Secretary of State aware of reports that pledges made by foreign donors of some £1.8 billion to help Afghanistan with reconstruction have, in some cases, failed to materialise? As this is Budget day and the Chamber is so well attended, can she say whether the British pledge made in Tokyo has now been delivered, and what action she is taking to get the unpaid pledges matched with hard cash?

Clare Short: The UK is famous for delivering on its pledges and for delivering fast. Many other countries grandstand promises in the media, but the money does not come through. The other problem is that it is easier to promise money than to get it spent effectively in a failed state. The UK committed £200 million from my budget over five years, so that money has not all been disbursed yet. We have disbursed £60 million this year, and we are well on the way to disbursing all of it. That is above what we have promised for future years. The UK, as ever, acts fast and has fulfilled its commitments, but others are slower. We will of course work to try to ensure that all the money is disbursed as rapidly as possible.

Primary Education

2. Helen Jones (Warrington, North): What recent discussions she has had on improving access to primary education in developing countries. [46041]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Clare Short): One in five children in the world are not in school and 800 million adults are illiterate. The UN millennium assembly committed the world to get all children into primary education by 2015. On current trends, that target will be met in most of Asia, but not in Africa. We are working, through our own programme, UNESCO and the World Bank, to gear up the whole international effort to ensure that the target is met.

Helen Jones: I am sure that the House will acknowledge my right hon. Friend's commitment to resolving that issue, but she will be aware that, on current trends, by 2015 some 75 million children will not be receiving basic education. Only 2 per cent. of the aid budget goes on education. Will my right hon. Friend therefore give a commitment that she will try to persuade the World Bank to address that financing gap in education? As it is clear that those countries that obtain debt relief then spend more on primary education, will

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she do all she can to encourage our international partners to give greater debt relief to those countries that have proper education plans in place?

Clare Short: I agree with the points that my hon. Friend makes. The point of the millennium targets is not to describe current trends but to increase the international effort. She is right to say that on current trends we will not meet the target, but it is achievable. The biggest problem is in Africa. Part of the problem concerns the commitment of the Governments of developing countries to primary education. In poor countries, elites are powerful and they tend to spend their budgets on education for the elite, not primary education for all. The international community cannot put that right except through international pressure.

My hon. Friend may be interested to learn that we spend 20 per cent. of our own budget on primary education. I shall attend the World Bank meeting this weekend at which this issue will be on the agenda. I assure her that we will make a greater effort.

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park): The right hon. Lady will know that I have just returned from a visit to Sudan with the all-party group. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. The House is far too noisy.

Dr. Tonge: The Secretary of State will also know that two generations of children in southern Sudan have missed out almost completely on education because of the civil war there. In view of the fact that 80 per cent. of southern Sudan is at peace some or all of the time, will not she reconsider her Department's policy and start investing in the future of southern Sudan by providing primary education projects?

Clare Short: No, the hon. Lady and all who advocate that policy are wrong. It is to pretend that development can take place around an ongoing war that is killing millions, displacing people and destroying an economy. We are trying to improve the humanitarian effort, and that should include education for displaced children, but pretending that development can be promoted around a moving war is to belie the truth.

Sudan is a desperately poor country that can have peace. There is a real call for peace in that country, which became independent in 1956 and has been at war for all but 10 years since. I assure the hon. Lady that we will try to improve the humanitarian effort and the education that goes with it, but the way to provide education for all the children in southern Sudan is to bring the country to peace.

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre): As another Member who had the privilege of taking part in the visit of the all-party group to Sudan, I welcome my right hon. Friend's commitment to the peace process, which is alive but needs greater emphasis and greater effort. Hope will bear fruit. Is there not a place for education in a society where basic education might just help people engage further in civil society and in the development of a democratic society for the future, rather than being drawn into armed factions on either side?

Clare Short: Of course there is a place for education for all children in the world, and especially children who

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suffer as a consequence of war. The reality in Sudan, and especially southern Sudan, is that people have been displaced. They have lost their land; they have lost everything; they have lost their family members; children are not in touch. It is not the truth to pretend that we can organise sustainable educational systems without resolving the war.

As I have said, we should do everything that we can to ensure that displaced and refugee children have access to education. Pretending that there is peace or that more development round the war is possible is misguided. There is a chance of peace in Sudan, and I know that my hon. Friend agrees. We must try to grab the chance of peace, as well as improving the humanitarian effort in the meantime.

Tony Baldry (Banbury): As the Secretary of State will know, the members of the Select Committee on International Development recently went to Ghana. I think that we were all extremely impressed by the commitment of the Government of Ghana, and of communities, families and teachers to ensuring that there is universal primary education in Ghana. Does the right hon. Lady agree that every penny that is spent on primary education in a country such as Ghana is money well spent? Sometimes we can all become rather depressed by the failures in the international community, but sometimes we should celebrate achievements.

Clare Short: The hon. Gentleman is right. All research shows that the most powerful development intervention that can be made in any poor country is ensuring that a generation of children are educated, especially girls. As such a generation grows up, it can transform the prospects of a society in terms of child survival, access to education, health care and incomes. With Ghana's previous Government, we worked hard to try to achieve a commitment to a universal primary education programme, and did not have much success. Under the new Government, these things are looking much more hopeful. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that that is important to celebrate.

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