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David Winnick: I mentioned this issue in an intervention on the speech by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, but I repeat my query as to whether it would be possible for the British Government to urge restraint on the Israeli troops in the occupied territories. I recognise the difficulties of suicide bombers and other threats, but I mentioned earlier the case of the 13-year-old female who was killed. The issue is not taken seriously enough by the Israeli authorities.

Mr. Alexander: I assure my hon. Friend that we have already made representations in relation to the Israeli defence force and its operations in the occupied territories, but I have noted the point that has been made and will pass it on to ministerial colleagues.

In relation to one of the points made by the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife, we have always made it clear that we recognise Israel's security concerns and Israel's right to defend itself against terrorists. However, we agree that Israel must act in accordance with international law. We believe that the construction of the barrier in the west bank, referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde with the destruction of property and hardship that it has entailed, is unlawful. We look, too, to the Palestinians to do all that they can to clamp down on those responsible for the recent terrorist attacks, which we condemn utterly.

We will continue our work to assist Palestinian security reform, which has resulted in the prevention of some suicide bombings. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will discuss with Palestinian leaders he meets tomorrow what more the UK, the EU and others can do to help build up the Palestinians' security capability. We have already helped to set up a central operations room in Ramallah to co-ordinate security work in the west bank. We are also supporting the setting up of a central operations room in Gaza and we are providing advice and training to the Palestinian civil police.

We will continue to encourage Israel to exercise maximum restraint and do more to facilitate the conditions under which Palestinian security work can have the greatest impact possible. The UK remains committed to giving maximum support to help to ensure progress on all sides towards a genuine, just and lasting peace in the middle east and we will urge our international partners to do likewise.
 
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As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence said in his opening speech, the 30 January elections for the transitional national assembly in Iraq mark a key step forward in the political process. Evidence suggests that the vast majority of Iraqis want elections. Voter registration is already well under way, and 156 political parties have registered to take part, including the Iraqi Islamist party, a Sunni group that had earlier threatened to boycott the elections. We are providing extensive financial and technical support for the electoral process, including $10 million for the security of the independent Iraqi electoral commission, and logistical support and expert advisers to work with the electoral commission and the UN.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence said, security for the elections will be vital. That is why UK armed forces and other members of the multinational force are giving the Iraqi Government and the Iraqi security forces every possible support. I pay tribute, too, to staff in our embassy in Baghdad, under the leadership of our ambassador, Edward Chaplin, and in our offices in Basra and Kirkuk, and to the former staff of the coalition provisional authority for their tireless work to help the people of Iraq at this time.

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary attended the international ministerial meeting of the neighbouring countries of Iraq, the G8 and China in Sharm el-Sheikh on Tuesday. Iraq's neighbours, all the major Arab states and other key Islamic countries joined the G8 members and China to express their commitment to support the political process and the reconstruction effort in Iraq. I welcome, therefore, the agreement emerging from Sharm el-Sheikh among Iraq's neighbours to intensify their co-operation and to call a meeting of their Interior Ministers to take that work forward. The Ministers welcomed, too, the Paris Club agreement last week to write off 80 per cent. of Iraq's external debt, and they urged Iraq's creditors to reduce substantially the country's sovereign debt to help underpin economic recovery.

The UK has made a financial commitment of £544 million towards Iraq's reconstruction. Our priorities are to promote rapid, sustainable and equitable economic growth, to encourage effective and accountable governance and to promote social and political cohesion and stability. We are helping the Iraqi    Government to build economic development programmes. We are providing advisers and training to help build Iraq's public administration, and funds to develop civil society and political participation across the country. We are training judges, lawyers and prosecutors.

In southern Iraq, we have helped to restore power, fuel and water supplies. We are funding an extensive programme to generate employment opportunities. UK experts are providing strategic planning, financial and management advice to the southern governorates and regional economic planners. Our armed forces, diplomats and civilian advisers from the Department for International Development will continue to support the Iraqis in their efforts to secure lasting peace and prosperity.
 
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I associate myself with the remarks made in the House today welcoming the release of the hostages in Afghanistan, including Annette Flanigan. It is a blessed relief that their ordeal is over and that they can return home to their families.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence said earlier, the recent presidential elections were but the latest sign of the progress that has been made over recent months in Afghanistan. The country continues to make remarkable progress in providing education and health services to its people. Five and a half million children returned to school at the start of the academic year in March; 37 per cent. of them were girls. A third of all Afghan teachers are women. Since 2002, 16 million vaccinations have been given to children to protect them against measles and there have been 12 million immunisations against polio. A major tetanus vaccination programme is under way for women in Afghanistan.

Despite those improvements to the lives of the Afghan people, security of course remains a real concern. We fully support the vital role that NATO and the UN are playing to help the Afghan authorities improve security across the country. We continue to play a leading role in Afghanistan's rehabilitation, including spearheading international efforts to tackle the hugely complex issue of opium cultivation, which was raised by several Members.

As was highlighted by a number of earlier contributions, especially that of my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde, the recent UN survey on opium poppy cultivation makes clear the scale of the task that we face. The Afghan Government are working in very difficult circumstances, but President Karzai is determined to stamp out drugs, and we are determined to support him in those efforts. The UN poppy survey was published on 18 November.

Mr. Brady : It cannot have escaped the attention of hon. Members that the Minister has still not mentioned the Government's only proposed Bill on these matters—on the EU constitution. Is he too ashamed to mention it, or will he respond to the specific questions I put to him about when it will come to the House and what the franchise will be in the referendum?

Mr. Alexander: I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are not ashamed; we are simply trying to outline the range of our policies. Of course, that Bill will be introduced when parliamentary time allows. That is absolutely standard procedure following the announcements in the Gracious Speech. He would hardly expect me to say anything else. If there has been division and confusion in the House today in relation to the European constitution, it was evidenced by the contribution made by the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe, rather than by anything that Labour Members have said.

I wish to return to the important subject of Afghanistan. We are gravely concerned about the scale of the problem identified in relation to poppy opium production, and our increasing efforts—

It being Seven o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed tomorrow.
 
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WELSH GRAND COMMITTEE

Ordered,


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