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5. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had with the US State Department on relations with Cuba. [49003]

The Minister for Europe (Mr. Douglas Alexander): Ministers have not had recent meetings with the US State Department about Cuba. However, official-level meetings, in which there are candid exchanges of views, have covered Cuba. We share US concerns about the deteriorating human rights situation in Cuba. But, while
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the US favours sanctions and isolation, our—and European Union—policy is for constructive engagement with the Cuban authorities and civil society, including on human rights.

Jeremy Corbyn: Can my hon. Friend confirm that in November last year officials from his Department entertained Mr. Caleb McCarry, who is the head of the State Department unit that is designed to undermine the independent Government of Cuba? Can he confirm that it is the British Government's policy not to undermine Cuba, but to work with and respect Cuban sovereignty and independence? Many Back Benchers are concerned about the policy, so will he—and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary—agree to meet a delegation so that our views can be aired in detail?

Mr. Alexander: Our long-standing policy, and that of the European Union, is one of constructive engagement in pursuit of a peaceful transition to a pluralist democracy on the island of Cuba. I can confirm that a meeting took place with Mr. Caleb McCarry, as the US-Cuba transition co-ordinator. That meeting took place on 7 November 2005, when the individual was on his way to a conference in Brussels where he met many European partners. It is entirely normal for Foreign Office officials to meet equivalent officials in the US State Department to discuss matters of mutual interest. On my hon. Friend's final point, I will pass on his representations to the Minister with direct responsibility for Cuba and ask that such a meeting be facilitated.

Michael Gove (Surrey Heath) (Con): The Minister will be aware that the European Parliament recently awarded its Sakharov prize to the Women in White, a Cuban human rights organisation that has campaigned for the freedom of political prisoners still held captive in that Marxist holdout in the Caribbean—[Hon. Members: "Hear, hear!"] Given the strength of feeling on these Benches, will the Minister meet a delegation of those of us who believe in democracy, pluralism and freedom in Latin America? Will he agree that the best thing that the Government could do is to emulate what the Thatcher Government did to Andrei Sakharov and make heroes and examples of those who have struggled for freedom in Cuba, and ensure that pressure is applied to guarantee political prisoners the freedom that they—[Interruption.]

Mr. Alexander: I did not manage to hear the entire question, but I got the point. The authentic voice of the Henry Jackson Society has been heard in the Chamber this afternoon. I fear that Lord Triesman will have a busy diary after my appearance at the Dispatch Box today. I am certainly happy to pass on the hon. Gentleman's representations.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): Will the Minister cause his officials to say to the US Administration that they would be better placed to lecture Cuba on human rights if they were to ensure that the detainees in the Guantanamo Bay base had the same rights that they would have if they were held in the US?

Mr. Alexander: I assure the House that the US Government have been informed at all levels of our differences of opinion about the detainees at Guantanamo.
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6. Mr. Nick Hurd (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): If he will make a statement on opium production in Afghanistan. [49004]

The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): Last year saw a 21 per cent. reduction in the area of opium cultivation in Afghanistan. But, as President Karzai said at the London conference last week, narcotics along with terrorism are the gravest threats facing Afghanistan. That is why we support Afghanistan's national drug control strategy and why we must work with the Afghan Government to combat the narcotics trade at every level. The strategy recognises the scale and complexity of the challenge, and sets out a clear long-term plan for tackling it.

Mr. Hurd: An Afghan farmer earns 150 times more for 1 kg of opium than he does for 7 kg of wheat. Is it not time to wake up to the economics? Instead of continuing to fail by tinkering at the margins of the supply side, would not £50 million of British taxpayers' money be better spent tackling demand for heroin in the UK?

Dr. Howells: I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman that we must do much more to tackle demand for heroin, just as we have to try to help the Government in Colombia by tackling the demand for cocaine in this country. However, the approach must be multifaceted. We should not just be trying to address the demand; we must also take down the drugs mafia in Afghanistan, which supplies not only the UK but millions of heroin addicts in Pakistan and Iran. The industry is very market-responsive and we have to recognise that fact and try to help the Afghans to overcome it in whatever way we can.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): A 20 per cent. decrease in the area cultivated but only a 2 per cent. decrease in the amount of heroin produced: are we not on mission impossible, sending troops into the Helmand province, and will that not result, perversely, in an increase of violence that drives local farmers into the hands of the Taliban? Are not our present policies leading to the Colombianisation of large parts of central Asia?

Dr. Howells: No, but with respect to my hon. Friend, his policies would lead that way. It is not enough to assume that if people eat the right kind of muesli, go to first nights of Harold Pinter revivals—[Hon. Members: "More, more."]—and read The Independent occasionally, the drug barons of Afghanistan will go away. They will not. The poison that is being pumped into the veins of children in the UK is coming from Afghanistan and we must play our part to stop that happening.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): It is wonderful to have such a politically incorrect Minister at the Dispatch Box, but does the hon. Gentleman remember his written answers to my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper), published only yesterday? The Minister conceded that the vast majority of Afghan warlords had been against the
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Taliban regime, but that he does not know what proportion of Afghan warlords who are against the regime are involved in the drugs trade. Does he not realise that there is a danger of a mixed mission, with the serious possibility that what the hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) said will come true? Troops intervening to stop the drugs trade may actually consolidate warlords behind the Taliban. That is a serious risk.

Dr. Howells: I realise what the hon. Gentleman is saying and I heard what my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) said, but I do not agree with either of them. There is a risk of that happening—there is no question about that—but we have no choice but to try to take it on. The alternative is not to take any risks whatever in the terrible business of opium growing and heroin exporting. The hon. Gentleman may feel that the subject should be left to divine intervention. I do not agree, and I do not agree with my hon. Friend either. It is absolutely vital that we take appropriate action. We have thought long and hard, and we believe that our action is appropriate.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): Is my hon. Friend aware that yesterday I entertained four Afghan farmers in the House of Commons? Two of them came from villages that had been aerially sprayed and they told me that the spraying was indiscriminate; it had destroyed their wheat, vegetables and fruit, and in some cases children had died because they had eaten sprayed fruit. I urge my hon. Friend to pay careful attention to the methods used to carry out the crop eradication process and perhaps to have a slightly more open mind to the alternatives.

Dr. Howells: I am not sure which alternatives my hon. Friend is suggesting, as he did not talk about them, but I absolutely agree about aerial spraying. I have seen from the air and on the ground how farmers in Afghanistan grow crops interspersed with opium. Aerial spraying could cause famine, among other things, so we must be careful about it. On the other hand, I am very much in favour of crop eradication where it can be carried out on the ground in properly controlled circumstances.

Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): Criminal gangs across the United Kingdom and paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland are making millions of pounds from the illegal importation of drugs. The disruption of a considerable amount of drugs last week is most welcome, but what assurance can the Minister give to people across the UK that we are taking further steps in conjunction with our EU partners totally to disrupt, in so far as is possible, that illegal and nefarious trade?

Dr. Howells: My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary referred earlier to the difficulties that have been experienced, for example, with traffickers on the Iranian-Afghan border and the Pakistani-Afghan border. We think that the Iranians may have lost thousands of men over the past 10 years in trying to disrupt the drug convoys out of Afghanistan. Those convoys are heavily armed—they have anti-aircraft
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missiles—and they are very difficult to stop; but stop them we must, some way or other, and we look for co-operation right along the drugs routes, some of which go through central Asia and Russia, as well as through Turkey and the Balkans. We must build, with diplomacy, an absolute determination right the way along the line to do what we can to disrupt and stop that drugs trafficking, wherever we can.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): The Minister will be aware that much of the heroin sold on the streets of Hackney and across the inner cities originates in Afghanistan, with all the terrible social consequences. He will also be aware that, horrific though the Taliban regime was, opium production was almost eliminated under the Taliban. [Interruption.] Well, they had gone some way towards that. Does he accept that our policies in Afghanistan will not be deemed a success unless we are successful in interrupting and suppressing the production of opium?

Dr. Howells: I certainly agree with the last part of my hon. Friend's question. On my visits to Afghanistan I have looked very hard at the story of how the Taliban stopped heroin production. What I discovered when I was out there is that they were very astute business men. They realised that the price of raw opium was pretty low. They held stocks back for a couple of years; the price shot up, and they released them. I would not look to the Taliban for any kind of moral guidance on what we ought to do about this.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): We are receiving breaking news that there has been a serious riot in the town of Maymana in Afghanistan, where 300 demonstrators are rioting and one demonstrator has been shot. Of course, British troops have been called in to support Norwegian and Finnish troops. Into that very difficult situation, we are about to deploy 5,000 more British troops to deal with the opium problem, whereby local people and local farmers are exploited by warlords and others, aided by insurgents coming across an increasingly porous and difficult border from Pakistan and Iran. Precisely how do the British Government think that our troops will deal with the opium problem and how long does the Minister think that they are likely to be deployed?

Dr. Howells: The deployment is, of course, phase 3 of the international security assistance force deployment in Afghanistan. As the hon. Gentleman will know, UK troops will be deployed to Helmand in support of the UN-authorised, NATO-led mission—the ISAF—and as part of the international coalition. They will help to create an environment in which economic development and institutional reform, both essential to the elimination of the opium industry, can take place. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that this is a question not simply of trying to disrupt those who are producing and moving drugs around, but of building capacity in Afghanistan, so that the reach of the democratically elected Government into a province such as Helmand becomes a reality. We must approach this subject in many ways—including economic development, of course—and that is what our troops will do. They will help to underpin all those efforts, which are many and various.
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