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The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Jack Straw): Relations between the United Kingdom and India are already very strong and I believe that they will strengthen further, following the election of the United Progressive Alliance Government. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was among the first foreign leaders to congratulate Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh on their election victory. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister will travel to India soon. Tomorrow, I shall welcome the new Indian Foreign Minister, Natwar Singh, to London, and there are plans for a further three Indian Ministers to visit the UK within the next 10 days.
Mr. Luff: I draw the attention of the House to my registrable interest in this subject. I welcome the Foreign Secretary's answer, especially as he referred to Mr. Natwar Singh, the new External Affairs Minister, who is a former member of my old college, Corpus Christi college, Cambridge. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the newly formed Government in India are very encouraging? They are broadly based in faith terms, with Muslim, Sikh, Christian and Hindu members, as reflected in early-day motion 1300. They are also broadly based in economic and political terms. Will he ensure that every contact we have with the Indian Government reminds them of the importance of maintaining their commitment to open markets and liberalisation?
Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that Manmohan Singh was one of the pioneers of the liberalising economic programme that began in the 1990s and which has laid the foundation for India's remarkable economic progress since then. They are a broadly based Government, with a Sikh Prime Minister, a Muslim President, a Hindu External Affairs Minister and a Christian leader of the largest party. That emphasises the triumph of Indian democracy and its secular society.
John Cryer (Hornchurch) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to condemn the money men who hounded Sonia Gandhi from office through the manipulation of the markets a few weeks ago? Will he also welcome the attempt to return India to the broadly based and secular futureand a united future, as the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) mentionedthat Congress has always sought and that was undermined and sabotaged by the neo-fascists of the BJP?
May I make it clear that we had very good relationsclose personal and close institutional Government relationswith the previous Government of India and high-level respect for their leaders? My hon. Friend will forgive me, but I am afraid that I shall not get involved in the internal affairs of the Indian Government or Indian political parties. The important
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thing is that there was a free and democratic election; the people of India made their decision and we should respect it.
Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): Given the likely enormous economic potential and political importance of India over the coming decades, and given the United Kingdom's special links with India in all sorts of ways, will the Foreign Secretary make it a priority of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to ensure that the highest attention is given to promoting Indo-British relations?
Mr. Straw: I entirely endorse the hon. Gentleman's point; the relationship has the highest level of commitment and attention. I have been to India five or six times during the past four years. I was last there at the beginning of February and intend to visit again as quickly as I can, and so will the Prime Minister.
Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): I add my congratulations to India on its vibrant democracy and its continuing commitment to a secular society. What efforts is my right hon. Friend making to maintain the dialogue that the previous Government set up with Pakistan to ensure a peaceful future for that region of the world?
Mr. Straw: In January, I met Sonia Gandhi and Natwar Singh when they were in opposition, and they made clear to me their commitment to, and support for, the then Government's effortsthe Vajpayee-Musharraf effortsto secure a composite dialogue, including on the issue of Kashmir. From my telephone contact with Natwar Singh earlier, I am in no doubt at allnor shall I be, I am sure, after my meetings with him tomorrowthat the Congress-led Government will have the same commitment to pursue that dialogue, which has already produced great benefits for both sides and offers the prospect of a peaceful resolution to the 60-year-old dispute over the area of Kashmir.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Bill Rammell): We are making progress overseas in our fight against drugs. We seized record amounts of cocaine last year: 91 tonnes. More and more cocaine traffickers are being arrested, and we are investing record amounts in the fight against heroin, especially in Afghanistan.
I thank my hon. Friend for that response and for his commitment to eliminating the international drugs trade. Although I have never been on an IPU trip, does he accept the situation described in an excellent article on Afghanistan published in the Sunday Herald this week? It pointed out that opium production had doubled between 2002 and 2003 and included an interview with an individual who earned £65 for 5 kg of opium. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is essential that the international community provide alternative
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sources of income for people in Afghanistan if they are to make real progress and stop the growth of poppy fields in Afghanistan in future?
Mr. Rammell: My hon. Friend is right: we face a serious challenge in tackling opium cultivation in Afghanistan. I should point out that cultivation has not doubled; the latest United Nations survey shows a marginal increase in cultivation compared with last year. However, it seems from anecdotal reports that this year there will be an increase in cultivation in the current planting season. That pattern is not inconsistent with countries where there has been success in tackling the probleminitially there is an increase. However, the key is a comprehensive strategy, as my hon. Friend rightly pointed out, which includes provision for alternative livelihoods.
Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): Since our Government took over the fight against the drug trade in Afghanistan in April 2002, how many hectares of poppies have been destroyed, how many trafficking networks have been dismantled and how much land has been turned over to alternative production? As we have heard, the UN report last year showed that the situation was getting worse. When another UN report is compiled this autumn, does the Minister expect it to show that things are improving under British leadership or still getting worse?
Mr. Rammell: Let me give the hon. Gentleman some specifics on the progress that is being made. A team of Afghan counter-narcotics police officers is now in place, which has seized 125 kilos of heroin. Similarly, the Afghan special narcotics forcean Afghan initiative under the control of the Ministry of the Interiorhas seized more than 32 tonnes of opiates and destroyed 32 laboratories. Nevertheless, I do not deny that we face a significant challengeit is not solely our responsibilityon behalf of the Afghan people and the international community, because anecdotal evidence suggests that cultivation and production may increase again this year. Nevertheless, all the measures that are now in place suggest that in the current 15 months, particularly in the next planting season, we should begin to see, if our strategy is workingI believe that it isthe tide beginning to turn.
Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone) (Lab): Is my hon. Friend aware that, last year, Europol reported to the Committee on the Civil Dimension of Security, which is part of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, that its worst nightmares had been realised: laboratories in southern Europe are now producing synthetic cocaine and synthetic heroin that is of a decent level? Its fear is that, once we start to tackle the situation in Afghanistan, that synthetic heroin and cocaine will come on to the market, as the price begins to change. What are we doing, together with other international partners, to tackle that and those laboratories?
I am aware of those concerns, and they underline the problem that, whatever we might say in the House, when we seek to tackle the international drugs trade, we are dealing with one of the most sophisticated, expensively funded organised crime
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rackets in the world. Everywhere we make an impact on the systemwe hope that we will succeed in Afghanistanwe must be aware of the knock-on consequences for those places where the industry will try to go next. That is very much at the forefront of our thinking.
Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): Will the Minister also pay tribute to the Royal Navy for its contribution to tackling the international drugs trade? Recently, HMS Northumberland seized cocaine worth £135 million and HMS Iron Duke seized cocaine worth £250 million. If they had not done so, those drugs would have ended up on the streets of a country somewhere, bringing huge misery. Will he pay tribute to the Royal Navy for using the intelligence available and seizing the drugs? It is vital that they are given the necessary support to ensure that they have a presence on the high seas to tackle the drugs problem where it exists.
Mr. Rammell: I pay tribute to the Royal Navy and the work that it undertakes to support our efforts, but the other point that the hon. Gentleman's question underlines is that, in dealing with the problem elsewhere in the world, we are working not just for the benefit for the people of those countries, but in our own vested interests. The cocaine that originates in Colombia comes to this country, and 95 per cent. of the heroin from Afghanistan fuels the drugs trade in this country. We have a massive vested interest in tackling the problem, which is why we are devoting so much work and investment to it.
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