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6. Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): If he will make a statement on his Department's activities in Afghanistan. [61830]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Gareth Thomas): At the London conference, the Prime Minister signed with President Karzai a 10-year development partnership agreement to provide some £330 million of development assistance over the next three years. That is part of the overall UK pledge of £500 million—[Interruption.]
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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. Before I call the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) to put his question, may I please appeal to the House to keep the level of noise down? Not only is it disrespectful to Members who still have questions and the Ministers who will answer them, but it gives a terrible impression outside this place.

Mr. Stuart: Spending on counter-narcotics in Afghanistan doubled last year to £50 million. What return is the British taxpayer receiving on that investment?

Mr. Thomas: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be encouraged to know that there was a 21 per cent. reduction in cultivation last year. However, we cannot afford to be complacent about last year's positive progress, which is why the deployment of further UK troops to Helmand is important. Further spending by the Department on alternative livelihoods will also be important to continue the process of tackling the narcotics trade, which is well-embedded in Afghanistan.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab): My hon. Friend will know that the national action plan for women was one of the benchmarks of the compact that was launched at the successful international London conference. Will he congratulate the United Nations Development Fund for Women and the 26 Ministries that took part in preparing the plan? Will he examine carefully whether resources from his Department can be offered to the Ministry of Women's Affairs to implement the plan?

Mr. Thomas: I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the work of the 26 Afghan Ministries, as supported by UNIFEM, in drawing up the plan. She will know of the substantial assistance that we are giving to the Afghan budget, and the Afghans can decide how they want to spend their guaranteed resources. I have no doubt that they are serious about their action plan for women and that is powerfully demonstrated by the number of women elected to the Afghan Parliament—there are proportionally more than in the UK Parliament. We will continue to work with all Ministries in Afghanistan to promote the empowerment of women further.

Central Asia

7. Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): If he will make a statement on his Department's support for the countries of central Asia in the last five years. [61831]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Gareth Thomas): In the five financial years up to March 2005, we committed a total of £28.3 million to bilateral programmes in the five central Asian countries. We are now focusing on the two poorest countries, Tajikistan and the Kyrgyz Republic.

Mr. Hands: It is now almost a year since the Andijan massacre in Uzbekistan on 12 May 2005. What assistance has the Minister's Department provided to promote good governance in Uzbekistan in the past year?
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Mr. Thomas: First, I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his appointment as chair of the all-party group on central Asia. I look forward to the opportunity of talking to him about our efforts to tackle poverty across the central Asian states. In the light of what happened last year, we took the decision to end our bilateral programme in Uzbekistan, precisely because of the policies of the Uzbek Government. We continue to work with several multilateral agencies if we think that their substantial funding might exert leverage on the Uzbek Government to encourage a return to better policies and greater respect for human rights in the country.


8. Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): What key milestones he has set for his Department's work in Africa in 2006. [61832]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn): The Government's Gleneagles implementation plan sets out milestones for the implementation of the G8's 2005 commitments on Africa. Progress is being made, and targets for the rest of 2006 include the implementation of 100 per cent. debt cancellation by the World Bank and the African Development Bank; agreement on a plan to achieve universal access to AIDS treatment by 2010; an African stand-by force able to deploy 20,000 personnel; and the conclusion of the WTO trade round with real benefits to developing countries.

Jim Sheridan: I thank my right hon. Friend for that response. The report of the Commission for Africa was published just a year ago for Africa and for Gleneagles and for beyond that. How will the commitments made by the world community be monitored and what mechanisms will be put in place thereafter?

Hilary Benn: The commitment will be monitored first by the Africa Partnership Forum, representing donors and the countries of Africa. Above all, it will be monitored by the people who marched, campaigned, lobbied and wrote letters to ensure that in 2005 it was possible to achieve the real progress that we saw. In the end, it will be the public and those who are passionate about fighting poverty who will determine whether we are making progress.


The Prime Minister was asked—


Q1. [61810] David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 29 March.

The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. John Prescott): I have been asked to reply. As the House will know, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is on an official visit meeting the Heads of Government in Australia,
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New Zealand and Indonesia. While away, my right hon. Friend has supported all our athletes competing at the Commonwealth games. I am sure that the House will wish to congratulate all of them on their success. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] My right hon. Friend has addressed the Australian Parliament and today has participated in a climate change conference in New Zealand. In Indonesia, he will meet the President and Islamic leaders.

David Taylor: The Prime Minister's antipodean away-days are surely unconnected with my appearance for Question 1 [Laughter.] In my right hon. Friend's absence, the row about links between private philanthropy and political preference rumbles on. It has been a major problem for all parties since Lloyd George through to Asil Nadir and up to the present day. Will the Deputy Prime Minister tell me when we plan to deliver on our manifesto—page 110—with a major reform of the House of Lords and the clean up of party finance, which as his predecessor, Lord Hattersley, said in Monday's edition of The Guardian, appears to be a choice between state funding and millionaires' handouts?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I am delighted that my hon. Friend is giving me full support for our manifesto—that is not necessarily always guaranteed. My hon. Friend has raised an issue that many feel strongly about. I should make it clear that our manifesto pledge related to the absurdity in the 21st century that hereditary peers still have a major role in making the laws of our country. Let me be clear to the House about what our manifesto said. It said that we wanted to get rid of the remaining 100 hereditary peers and that we wanted to change the rules that affect the Orders of the House of Lords, which prevent the will of this House being carried out on identity cards, for example. That is what we intend to change. That is the manifesto commitment, and we will carry it out.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks) (Con): What representations did the Deputy Prime Minister make to the Chancellor of the Exchequer to continue the £200 payment to help pensioners with council tax?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I am delighted to see the right hon. Gentleman back on the Opposition Front Bench in a leadership role. It seems that the Tories have been going through leaders so fast that they have started at the beginning again. They are now so green that they are even recycling their leaders. [Hon. Members: "More, more".] Us Rotherham lads must stick together, must we not?

As for the £200 payment, yes, we had discussions with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Yes, we discussed the winter fuel payment of £200. [Interruption.] No, it was a commitment to pay that council tax rebate in one year, as we did. We have given a considerable amount to pensioners. If the right hon. Gentleman considers the record of what we have done for pensioners against what he did in Government, I will be proud to stand against our record. [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. This shouting must stop.
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Mr. Hague: The Deputy Prime Minister should be more sympathetic to elderly council tax payers—he is over 65 and he did not pay council tax for years. This week, figures show that council tax has risen by 84 per cent. since the Government came to office, and that a typical pensioner couple will have to pay £254 more in council tax next year than this year. What was so special about election year, that pensioners needed £200 help with the council tax just for that one year?

The Deputy Prime Minister: It is the Government's overall policy to consider payments to pensioners and other things that we give them in the round. That is what we have done, and that is what we continue to do. As for the argument about the payment of council tax, let me remind the right hon. Gentleman of the comparison between our Government and his Government. We gave in the response a 39 per cent. increase in real terms in council tax, compared with the last five years of his Government, when he had some influence and there was a 7 per cent. reduction in real terms of the contribution to councils for council tax.

Mr. Hague: I think that there was so little English in that answer that President Chirac would have been happy with it. The fact is, Age Concern said that the Chancellor's decision "beggars belief", and Help the Aged described the payment as a "pre-election bribe" that exposed

As the Government think that pensioners need £200 to help with council tax only when an election is due, does the Deputy Prime Minister understand why people are so cynical about politics?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I think that cynicism about politics has more to do with 18 years of Tory Government. Can I say to the right hon. Gentleman that it is true that I may get the grammar wrong? I have to take the blame for that, as that was my education, and I am responsible for it, but I would sooner get the words wrong than get my judgment wrong. After all, he was the leader who slammed Bank of England independence, who claimed that the minimum wage was the height of irresponsibility and would cause unemployment, and who said that Lord Archer was a man of integrity. If there is a choice between getting my words wrong and getting my judgment wrong, I would sooner have my problem than his. As he mentioned President Chirac, does he still believe those who describe the French as "cheese-eating surrender monkeys"? If he does, it makes me look like a master of diplomacy.

Natascha Engel (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab): The tourism season is about to begin with the arrival of spring, and the days are getting longer as the clocks went back this weekend. With that topical thought in mind, will the Deputy Prime Minister join me in welcoming the building of the world's largest clock—the Solar pyramid, which is an enormous, beautiful sundial in North-East Derbyshire? Will he accept my invitation to visit the newest and best tourist attraction in Derbyshire once it is built?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I would always be delighted to visit Derbyshire. This has a great deal to do with the very successful coalfield community policy that
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we introduced, providing £500 million to try to restore communities that were destroyed by the Thatcher Government when they closed down the mining industry. I am delighted to hear about the structure to which my hon. Friend referred, and I am well aware that it is connected to Skinner's junction. I think that it will be a memorable place to visit, and I look forward to accepting her invitation.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): Let us get back to the council tax, because I do not think that we quite received an answer. Since the Deputy Prime Minister took office in 1997 council tax bills have nearly doubled. Whose fault is that?

The Deputy Prime Minister: First, let me welcome the hon. Gentleman to his role as acting deputy leader. We all know that the election will take place after today, and I wish him well. The matter is riveting the nation's attention—in fact, on my visit to Hull last weekend they talked of nothing else in the pubs.

Let me be absolutely clear. The hon. Gentleman well knows that we have given more to councils than any other Government—a 39 per cent. increase, and increases in services. When one compares local authorities and the payment of council tax, again Labour is providing better service at a lower council tax than either Liberal or Tory councils.

Mr. Heath: I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's good wishes, though I am not sure that they will help me much. Let us get this right. He is saying that thousands of councillors throughout the country and on all councils, whether they are Conservative, Liberal Democrat or Labour, have taken collective leave of their senses year after year to push up the council tax, and that is nothing to do with the Government. He is also saying that this year council tax has gone up by twice the rate that the pension has gone up, and he is taking away the £200 rebate. Is not the answer to council tax not to cap it, but to scrap it?

The Deputy Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman is well aware that the debate is going on in the Chamber about what the alternative should be to a council tax or what changes we should make. That is why we have appointed the Lyons inquiry to look into it. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is a candidate in the election and whether he is still advocating a change to a local tax. It is clear that with a local tax, many people would pay an awful lot more than the present council tax. Policy is changed fast by the Conservatives, and even faster by the Liberals. I will wait to see what happens in the election and what the Liberals propose as the alternative to the council tax. We will bring forward our proposals and see what their alternatives are.

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