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House of Commons

Wednesday 12 October 2005

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—


1. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): If he will make a statement on the humanitarian situation in Darfur, Sudan. [16762]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn): Some 1.8 million people have been forced to flee their homes in Darfur and just under 3.5 million are now dependent on humanitarian assistance. Although the latest United Nations mortality survey shows that the number of deaths has decreased significantly since last year, banditry and the recent increase in violence are a cause of considerable concern. In southern Sudan, malnutrition levels are, in places, as bad as in Darfur. The situation should improve after the anticipated good harvest, but there will still be areas where food is insufficient. People are now returning home to the south, but the humanitarian and development needs there are enormous.

Tom Brake: I thank the Secretary of State for his response. He will be aware that African Union troops will be key to ensuring that humanitarian aid arrives. He will also know that two soldiers were recently killed and 36 were kidnapped, most of whom have recently been released. On 22 October, 7,700 AU troops should be there on the ground. Does the Secretary of State believe that they will be, does he consider that a sufficient number, and what does he think the UK can do to help?

Hilary Benn: I share the hon. Gentleman's concern about the incidents that occurred over the weekend. There are currently 6,300 AU troops in the region, and the AU is still working to get 7,700 there by the end-of-October deadline. What happens depends very much on whether the recent upsurge in violence continues. We have to be very clear in identifying the perpetrators, and then passing their names to the sanctions committee and the International Criminal Court. We are pressing for the arms embargo to be extended to the whole of Sudan, and there is also the very practical issue of armoured personnel carriers. When I visited Sudan in June, the AU said that it wanted APCs to enable it
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to protect its troops. The Government of Sudan are currently putting obstacles in the way of those APCs getting in—an issue that my noble Friend Lord Triesman raised when he was there last week. They must now remove those obstacles, so that the AU troops have the equipment and the support that they need to carry on the good job that they have been doing in protecting people in Darfur since they arrived about a year ago.

Mr. Bill Olner (Nuneaton) (Lab): Food is being used as a weapon against ordinary people in Darfur. Are we going to be a little more robust in ensuring that it gets to the people who really need it?

Hilary Benn: There is indeed a huge humanitarian challenge. The humanitarian situation has improved for those in the camps, and my principal concern is the situation in southern Sudan. Between 250,000 and 500,000 people have already come home, and now that the dry season is arriving we expect a further 500,000 to move south. My visit to Rumbek in June made it clear that there is very little there to receive them. That is why we have given funding to the UN specifically for the south, and we are also running water, health and nutrition projects through non-governmental organisations. Moreover, we have put £10 million into a fund to enable the new Government of southern Sudan to start providing for the people, who are going home now that there is peace between the north and the south.

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): The Secretary of State has spoken about the military commitment in Darfur, and in discussing Africa after the G8 summit, Sudan clearly comes very high on the list of priorities. Our current military commitment consists of only 17 personnel, 15 of whom are in a NATO camp helping the NGOs, and two of whom are in a rival European Union camp. Will the Secretary of State work more closely with the Defence Secretary to co-ordinate our efforts? There is no point in the NGOs and our relief workers going out there if they do not have protection, or—worse still—if our military operations are actually working against each other.

Hilary Benn: While the hon. Gentleman is right about the number of personnel in the region, the UK has so far committed, as he will doubtless be the first to recognise, £32 million in support of the AU operation. That shows just how serious we are about ensuring that it has the resources and technical assistance that it needs, and I pay tribute to the British service personnel there. The practical concerns that the AU faces are ensuring that it has the right equipment, the right number of troops and the means to protect them. I will of course continue to talk to my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary about this issue, but the AU troops have undoubtedly been making a real difference on the ground, as was pointed out to me when I was in the region in June. However, we are very worried about what has happened in the past month.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): Is it my right hon. Friend's impression that the situation in Darfur is getting better, or deteriorating? Does he believe that the AU force is as effective as it should be,
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should we be thinking of making the mandate tougher, and is he satisfied that the Sudanese Liberation Army and the other groups in rebellion against the Khartoum regime are pulling their weight in trying to achieve peace in Darfur?

Hilary Benn: On my hon. Friend's last point, no, I do not think that they are pulling their weight. Indeed, until relatively recently, those principally responsible for the deterioration in the security situation have been the SLA and JEM—the Sudanese Liberation Army and the Justice and Equality Movement—which, it is thought, were behind the kidnap of the African Union troops that have now been released. I think that there is a certain amount of jockeying for position going on while the Abuja peace talks are restarting.

As far as the mandate is concerned, it is currently somewhere between a chapter 6 and a chapter 7 mandate, and it is for the AU itself to determine what the mandate will be. When I spoke to the AU commanders there in June, it was clear that they were prepared to be flexible about how they worked, but they wanted to ensure that they had adequate protection.

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): The right hon. Gentleman's Department is contributing £100 million to the Darfur region, but when he compares that with the £5 billion—£1.5 billion a year—that the Government are committing to the military operation in Iraq, and the $10.5 billion spent on reconstruction there, does he believe that sufficient priority is being given to the needs of the displaced, murdered people of Darfur?

Hilary Benn: The UK has been the second largest contributor, after the United States of America, to humanitarian assistance in Darfur, so the US and the UK are leading the rest of the world in that respect. Secondly, one also has to recognise the political effort that has been made. As the House knows, the truth is that the crisis in Darfur will be brought to an end only when the people who are currently fighting each other are prepared to use the Abuja peace talks to reach a peace agreement. If they can do that, peace can be brought to Darfur in the same way as the comprehensive peace agreement brought peace to the north and south of Sudan, where more than 2 million people were killed in a civil war that lasted a generation.


2. Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): If he will make a statement on his Department's progress on poppy eradication in Afghanistan. [16763]

6. Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): What recent discussions he has had with his European Union counterparts on diversifying agriculture in Afghanistan. [16768]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn): DFID is supporting the overall UK effort to combat poppy cultivation through providing alternative livelihoods. Working with others, we are putting in £50 million this year to support agriculture. Recent provisional UN figures suggest that there has been a 21 per cent. decline in poppy cultivation acreage
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in 2005. The challenge will be to sustain that reduction next year. Long-term development and the creation of a stable and secure state governed by the rule of law will be the key factors in achieving that.

Tony Baldry: I am grateful for that answer, but fatwas against farmers in Afghanistan do not seem to be making much progress, largely because of the lack of alternative livelihoods. Is it not time to consider the possibility of licensing some opium production in Afghanistan? There is a shortage of morphine and codeine, particularly in the developing world, and the benefits to Afghan farmers and the Afghan treasury of some licensed, tightly regulated opium production could be considerable.

Hilary Benn: I have seen the recently published report, which made precisely that suggestion. As I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware, the Ministry of Counter Narcotics—this is the Afghan Government's response—said that while it welcomed the study, because of poor security and the risk of diversion, now is not the right time for licit poppy cultivation. I have to say that I share that view, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we are funding an applied research programme to look at ways of earning an alternative living, which is what farmers require if they are not to plant poppy any more.

Linda Gilroy: I welcome the fall in opium production to which my right hon. Friend referred, but in order to sustain it, has he looked at the potential role that higher-added-value crops might play, particularly crops that might have a role in reducing environmental emissions or result in the production of ethanol?

Hilary Benn: We have not looked specifically at ethanol, but the research programme to which I referred in answering the previous question will examine all the available options. So far, we have provided 30,000 farmers with seeds, fertilisers and samplings and there are alternatives such as apricot drying, keeping poultry, fruit trees and vegetable production, which farmers could enter into. The House needs to recognise that the opium economy in Afghanistan is estimated to be worth $2.8 billion a year—60 per cent. of the legal gross domestic product.

Experience from elsewhere tells us that it will take time, effective interdiction, enforcement of the law, the establishment of economic development and success in giving people alternative ways of earning a living to really crack this problem. That is a long-term challenge.

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): When the Secretary of State and his colleagues are faced with long-term humanitarian crises such as have arisen in Afghanistan and Darfur, as well as short-term crises such as the one following the earthquake in south Asia, who in the Government co-ordinates and prioritises the efforts made by different Departments? I get the impression that the Ministry of Defence is taking on quite a lot of the work that used to be done by the Foreign Office.
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Hilary Benn: There is very close co-ordination between those ministerial colleagues, especially in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my Department and the Ministry of Defence, who have responsibility for the work that we are doing in Afghanistan. We see the product of that in the effort that we are making across the piece in Afghanistan, Darfur and Pakistan. We are doing a great deal to help in Pakistan, and will do more.

Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op): My right hon. Friend is right about the scale of the problem posed to this country by Afghanistan. What measures is he taking to bring about an enormous step change in our efforts, and is there a role for co-operatives in Afghanistan? Those organisations could bring together many farmers to work in a collective rather than an individual way to achieve diversification.

Hilary Benn: My hon. Friend's suggestion about co-operatives is extremely good. One practical example of the significant increase in the effort being made by this Government is our support for the alternative livelihoods that we have just been discussing. Two years ago, we gave £6 million a year to support that diversification, but this year we are giving £50 million. That very significant increase recognises the importance of alternative livelihoods in improving the lot of farmers.

Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness) (Con): Since the Government became responsible for reducing opium production, the levels of cultivation in Afghanistan have escalated dramatically. Finding solutions to arrest that country's decline into a narco state is essential, as 90 per cent. of the heroin in the UK originates there. As the Secretary of State rightly pointed out, the solution is multifaceted, but little progress has been made on the matter of informal credit. Farmers are burdened by loans with extortionate interest, and daughters are often used to pay creditors when debts become unserviceable. What strategies is the Department implementing to assist with credit repayment, debt relief and access to microfinance schemes?

Hilary Benn: The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point. So far, we have supported making microfinance available to 20,000 clients. We have taken the lead in the establishment of a counter-narcotics trust fund, to which we are contributing £20 million. The hon. Gentleman draws attention to a very significant problem faced by farmers, which is that, when they get into debt, they are bound to the drug traders. I have given some examples of what we are doing already, but we have to find ways to ensure that they can get out of that bind and begin planting alternative crops. However, that must be combined with effective enforcement of the law, and the 21 per cent. reduction in the acreage planted is principally the result of the efforts made by the Afghans themselves. President Karzai and the governors have told farmers that they should not plant heroin, and I hope that we can sustain that initiative.
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Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): What practical assistance are our armed forces in Afghanistan offering in eradicating the evil drug trade there, which affects all our communities?

Hilary Benn: The most practical contribution is to improve security. With improved security and an increased capacity on the part of the Afghanistan Government to deliver for their poor will come a better chance to deal with the problems of what is, indeed, a narco state. Everyone recognises that. When I visited Mazar-e-Sharif in Afghanistan earlier this year, I had the chance to see the work of the provincial teams. That work is undoubtedly making a difference, but the effort has to be a joint one. In the end, the Government of Afghanistan must lead that effort, and we will continue to help them.

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