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9. Mr. Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab): If he will make a statement about the United Kingdom's bilateral relationship with France. [144044]

The Minister for Europe (Mr. Denis MacShane): Bilateral relations with France are good. Last month's

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UK-French summit showed how we work closely with France on a range of important issues. Next year, we plan to celebrate the centenary of the entente cordiale.

Mr. David : I thank the Minister for that positive answer. The entente cordiale celebrations will be important, but will he ensure that young people are fully involved in them, as well as Members of this House?

Mr. MacShane: I am discussing with my opposite number in Paris a joint meeting of the House of Commons and the Assemblée Nationale. Providing that the proposal gets parliamentary approval, I hope that all hon. Members who want to participate will do so. I am also in discussions with a number of organisations and companies, including Eurostar and Eurotunnel, about bringing together schoolchildren to learn something of our common history. That history goes back a thousand years to when the French invaded and colonised us, but it is necessary that we learn from each other and drop the rather unappealing Francophobic remarks that we hear too often in some of our press and occasionally from the Opposition Benches.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Strong bilateral relations between the United Kingdom and France require, among other things, mutual candour and understanding, so perhaps the Minister will answer today the question that the Prime Minister ducked yesterday. What is the difference in meaning between the phrase "ever closer union", which the Foreign Secretary boasted had been dropped from the draft constitution, and the phrase "united ever more closely"?

Mr. MacShane: The hon. Gentleman demanded candour, but he will remember what Lord Canning said:

However, I will be candid with him: his question had absolutely nothing to do with France. If he reads the statement made yesterday, he will see that the Prime Minister explained the point.


10. Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab): If he will make a statement on the situation in Afghanistan. [144045]

The Minister for Trade and Investment (Mr. Mike O'Brien): Afghanistan has made progress towards the goals of the Bonn agreement, but much remains to be done. The constitutional Loya Jirga this month is an important opportunity for the people of Afghanistan to create a new constitution. I was in Afghanistan in October and discussed the political process with the Transitional Administration, including President Karzai. That included ensuring a role for women. I also raised a series of other issues, including security.

Joan Ruddock : I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. Will he join me in congratulating Afghan women, who comprise 20 per cent. of the delegates and one vice-chairperson at the Loya Jirga that is currently considering the draft constitution? Is he aware that the

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committee on women's rights at the Loya Jirga has drawn up a list of amendments that would ensure constitutional equality for women? Does he accept that the international advisers at the Loya Jirga have a duty to ensure that any new constitution complies with CEDAW, the convention on the elimination of discrimination against women, and that Afghan women are at last freed from legalised oppression?

Mr. O'Brien: I certainly agree that the new constitution should comply with CEDAW. It is of course for the Afghans to decide what is in their constitution—all we can do is advise them. My hon. Friend is entirely right that the constitutional Loya Jirga has at least 95 women among its 450 delegates, a fifth of whom are therefore women. As I look at the array of men—with the exception of the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh)—on the Conservative Benches, I am reminded that we have fewer women Members than the Loya Jirga—only 18 per cent. of the House of Commons is female. Before we get holier than thou about these matters, we should bear it in mind that Afghanistan is doing slightly better than us.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South) (UUP): I welcome the advances in Afghanistan, but does the Minister share my concern about press reports suggesting that Government planning people have been demolishing people's houses to build palaces and Government buildings without rehousing them beforehand?

Mr. O'Brien: We need to ensure that the Afghans have the ability to run their Government properly, as well as their schools and other institutions, and of course they must do so in a way that respects people's human rights, including the right to have their homes respected.

David Cairns (Greenock and Inverclyde) (Lab): My hon. Friend is aware that the United Kingdom is the lead member of the coalition in terms of the counter-narcotics effort in Afghanistan. To that end, will he comment on recent press reports saying that the United States wants to take a much more vigorous approach towards destroying the opium poppy harvest next February? If those reports are true, they will be warmly welcomed in my constituency, where people are getting fed up with the devastating impact of ever cheaper heroin on our communities.

Mr. O'Brien: We are taking the lead in dealing with the issue of drugs, but the United States is providing enormous assistance in those efforts, and we hope that the US authorities, who have troops in areas of Afghanistan where we do not, will be able to assist the Afghans in eradicating crops wherever possible. It is important that we get this right, and that requires that the British, the Americans and, most particularly, the Afghan authorities should ensure that the drugs policy is effective and delivers.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): Conservative Members very much support the Loya Jirga process that is in train, and hope for a positive outcome.

Returning to the important matter of heroin production, which was raised by the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (David Cairns), will the

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Minister spell out precisely the resources that his Government are putting behind what the US Administration described to me last week in Washington as the weed-whacking programme—the systematic strimming of poppy fields? Is he aware of that programme; when will it start; how many acres does he expect to be eradicated in the first 12 months; and what security will be offered to the teams carrying out that vital work?

Mr. O'Brien: The detail of how the process of eradication will be carried out is still being discussed on the ground by the Americans, the Afghans and ourselves. It is an enormously important process. The Afghan Government are committed to working with us and the Americans in eliminating opium poppy cultivation over 10 years, but they cannot do it alone. The programme requires sustained commitment by the international community, and that is being provided.

European Constitution

11. Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): What the Government's policy is on asylum provisions in the draft European constitution. [144046]

The Minister for Europe (Mr. Denis MacShane): The draft treaty provides a basis for common rules on asylum to be adopted by qualified majority voting. We will of course retain the right to decide whether to opt in to asylum measures. If the proposal was not in the UK's interests, we would not have signed up to it. The EU-wide database system—Eurodac—and the revised Dublin treaty have helped us to identify and return asylum shoppers to the EU countries where they first arrived or claimed asylum.

Andrew Selous: I wonder whether the Minister could clear up a little confusion by telling the House what was the purpose of the Leader of the House trying to delete seven sub-paragraphs from article III.167? Those sub-paragraphs dealt with asylum and would have enabled policy on the matter to be decided by a majority of other states. The amendment failed, so I do not understand how the Prime Minister could claim yesterday that

Was that not a vanishing red line that the Government did not even try to win?

Mr. MacShane: The draft constitutional treaty was not agreed, so the question does not arise, except theoretically.

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con): Will the Minister now give a reply to my hon. Friend? If all seven of those asylum powers were to be removed from the constitution by the amendment tabled by the then Minister for Europe, why, according to the White Paper, is the issue no longer a red line or even being demanded at the intergovernmental conference? Why have the Government dropped their objections and removed our powers to set our own definitions and details on asylum in any future constitution?

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Mr. MacShane: Under article 63 of the existing treaty, there is a common asylum problem, and we have the right to opt in. We need to work with our partners. The closure of Sangatte would not have been brought about by the Conservatives' anti-European policy; nor would the setting up of our Europe-wide database. This is a theoretical discussion, as I have said, but QMV could have been very helpful to us in terms of advancing common European policy on asylum. If we want other countries to help us with asylum issues relating to returning or transit, it is vital that we should be there to discuss those issues with them. I accept the sincerity of the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) in raising this question. Perhaps when he tabled it, he did not know where things would stand today. This point remains to be debated, because we will not achieve a sensible asylum deal, which is of vital interest to all our constituents, by turning our back on co-operation and partnership with Europe.

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