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Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West) (Con): With several member states working towards reviving the EU constitution at next month’s summit, it appears increasingly likely that the British Government, owing to their failure to show leadership, may, for a second time, be pushed into accepting a constitution that they do not want. Does the Minister agree that it would save everyone a great deal of confusion and wasted effort if he said emphatically today that Britain will not accept the EU constitution or any of the increased powers in it? If the Government are again swept along by those who want an integrated Europe, will he guarantee that this country has a referendum before any further transfer of powers to the EU?

Mr. Hoon: I have made the position on the European treaty absolutely clear. I repeat that the Government have said that the constitutional treaty will be ratified in the United Kingdom only after a referendum.

On leadership and isolation, the hon. Gentleman may like to know that, in the course of my various conversations in the past 10 days, I have met a range of leaders from the Christian Democrats—hitherto allies of the Conservative party—and, if any political party is isolated in Europe today, it is the Conservative party. I have received several complaints from Christian Democrats who clearly believe that I have some influence with the Conservative party—I had to tell them that I did not. The Conservative party is leaderless on Europe and has drifted well to the right.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): May I tell the Secretary of State— [Interruption.] I mean the Minister for Europe, recycled. May I tell him that I am so pro-European that if he cut me in half, he would find yellow stars running through me, as in a stick of rock? However, those of us who are pro-European do not have a stomach for the constitution. We much prefer the gradualist approach, which has been the EU’s strength in its development. It would be much more prudent if the UK pursued that policy rather than a grand constitution, which confused people and caused unnecessary alarm. We should stick to the gradualist approach, which has been a success for the past 30 years.

Mr. Hoon: My hon. Friend has added to the debate on this question, and I will endeavour to do my best to represent his views when we have further conversations with our European partners. The whole House will recognise that there is a range of opinions on this matter in the European Union—and in the House—and it is necessary for the United Kingdom Government to engage in those conversations. The problem with those on the Conservative Front Bench is that they simply stand on one side, saying that everyone is isolated except the Conservative party, and not participating in any way to defend Britain’s best interests.

Palestinian Authority

4. Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): If she will make a statement on financial assistance to the Palestinian Authority. [72680]

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The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Margaret Beckett): We remain committed to supporting the Palestinian people. On 25 April, we gave £15 million to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. We strongly support the Quartet and the General Affairs and External Relations Council’s proposal to establish a mechanism to provide assistance to the Palestinian people. However, until the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority commits to the three Quartet principles, which it has so far failed to do, direct budgetary assistance to the PA will remain suspended.

Mr. Hollobone: Is it not the case that corrupt officialdom in the Palestinian Authority, together with Hamas’s refusal to recognise the right of Israel to exist, are impoverishing the Palestinian people and stoking the flames of Palestinian civil war?

Margaret Beckett: I very much hope that the hon. Gentleman is wrong in his final remark. I certainly agree, however, that the factors that he mentioned do nothing to improve either the security situation or the prospects for the Palestinian people. Our prime concern is that we should be able to mitigate the sufferings and difficulties of those people as much as we can, and that will continue to be our goal. We will also continue to urge Hamas to recognise how much better it would be for the people it has been elected to lead if it recognised the needs of the international community.

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): In welcoming my right hon. Friend to her very well merited appointment, and commending the fine work of her predecessor, may I ask her to bear in mind that the withholding of aid and revenues from the Palestinians by the international community, the withholding of revenues that rightly belong to the Palestinians by the Israeli Government, the illegal expansion of illegal settlements announced during the past few days by the Israeli Government, the continued expansion of the illegal wall—

Hon. Members: Too long!

Mr. Speaker: Order. The right hon. Gentleman has certainly made his point. I call the Foreign Secretary.

Margaret Beckett: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his remarks and his support. I accept the basic point that he is making about the real risks involved in the deteriorating situation with regard to the flow of revenues. However, people are working now on establishing a temporary mechanism, and we very much hope that, by that means, we shall be able to alleviate some of the difficulties that the Palestinian people in particular will face. We will continue to work on that, as well as urging all parties to return to the road map and to a negotiated path to peace.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks) (Con): The Quartet has rightly suspended budgetary aid and endorsed a temporary international mechanism to deliver assistance to the Palestinian people. Will the Foreign Secretary tell us what proposals the United Kingdom has put forward for that mechanism, and
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when it will be launched? Does she accept, on the basis of what I saw for myself last week in the occupied territories, that the Palestinian economy is now contracting very sharply indeed? Provided that such a mechanism cannot be abused, it needs to be established with all possible speed if serious humanitarian problems are to be avoided.

Margaret Beckett: I entirely take the point that the right hon. Gentleman makes. As much speed as can be achieved is of the essence. I cannot say much more to him about the detail, because there is still a lot of discussion to take place, but it appears likely that the first priority will be assistance with health care. There is a clear recognition, however, of the potential and actual damage being done both to the economy of Palestine and the ability of the Palestinian people to support themselves. I assure him that the urgency that he urges on us is very much present in our minds.

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): I congratulate the Foreign Secretary on being the first woman to hold that post in this country. How does she believe that the provision of basic health and education services to the Palestinian people can be maintained if the salaries of those working in those services cannot be paid, as they are ultimately employed by the Palestinian Authority?

Margaret Beckett: I thank my hon. Friend for her kind remarks. Everyone is conscious both of the need for health and education services to be maintained and of the difficulties caused if funding is not available to pay salaries. Consideration is being given to the best ways in which we can offer practical help, as the course that she urges on us raises some genuine practical difficulties. I assure her, however, that we are considering what we can best achieve in the fastest way possible.


5. Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): What recent action the Government have taken to influence world opinion on the situation in Zimbabwe. [72681]

The Minister for Europe (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): During the past six months, the Government have worked with our EU partners to maintain travel, financial and military sanctions on the Mugabe regime; ensured that the International Monetary Fund keeps Zimbabwe suspended; kept Zimbabwe under scrutiny by the Security Council; worked with the UN Secretary-General to address Zimbabwe’s governance problems; and, with the US and leading allies, maintained international pressure for change. We will sustain that pressure.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: Does the Minister agree with the United Nations, which reflects world opinion, that Zimbabwe is in meltdown? With 700,000 people losing their jobs and homes as a result of Mr. Mugabe’s clearance policies, inflation at more than 500 per cent., unemployment at 80 per cent., and 70 per cent. of the population having only one meal or less per day, do the Government have a new agenda to use world opinion to remove from brutality and deprivation the good people of Zimbabwe?

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Mr. Hoon: I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the appalling state of affairs in Zimbabwe. That is entirely the responsibility of the Mugabe regime. I set out to the House the range of measures over which the Government have influence in informing world opinion, both through the EU and the UN, to keep the pressure on that regime. Change can come only from inside Zimbabwe, and we want to see that change in the interests of the people of that country.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): Have Her Majesty’s Government made any protest to the European Commission about the fact that the Humanitarian Aid and Development Commissioner met the Zimbabwean Finance Minister in Brussels recently? He was given a visa—perhaps, technically, he was allowed to have one—but surely his meeting with the commissioner goes against the whole spirit of the European Union sanctions. It sends out the message that if the European Union will meet Zimbabwe, why should the African Union not do so?

Mr. Hoon: I know that my hon. Friend has taken a long and sustained interest in the situation in Zimbabwe, and I know from her observations in the House of her personal commitment to trying to resolve the appalling situation faced by the people of Zimbabwe. That is really the issue. Clearly, we want to see sustained pressure on the regime and further international action to isolate Mugabe’s leadership. At the same time, we have no quarrel whatever with the people of Zimbabwe, and we need to continue to find effective ways to allow food aid in particular to reach them. Above all, the tragedy of Zimbabwe is that it was the country that fed many other countries of southern Africa over a long period, and it is now incapable of feeding itself. We need to ensure that we do not take action that further damages the interests of the people of that country.

Mrs. Nadine Dorries (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con): On relinquishing her previous post, the Foreign Secretary left behind a trail of failure, disaster and unpaid farmers in my constituency. What—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Lady is out of order.


6. Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): What recent assessment she has made of progress with reconstruction in Afghanistan. [72682]

The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): Afghanistan has made rapid progress over the past four years. It has established a new constitution and a democratically elected president and parliament. The Afghan Government are committed to economic and social reconstruction. Economic growth is good and is forecast to be 14 per cent for 2005-06. There are now 60 per cent. more functioning health clinics, nearly 2,000 schools have been built or rehabilitated, and 60,000 former combatants have been disarmed since 2001.

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Dr. Blackman-Woods: I hope that my hon. Friend agrees that efforts to improve security in Afghanistan are an essential part of the reconstruction process. What is being done to ensure that the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development work together, so that the progress of which he speaks not only continues but thrives?

Dr. Howells: I can reassure my hon. Friend that the United Kingdom is committed to supporting the United Nations-authorised and NATO-led international security assistance force mission in Afghanistan. Stage 3 of ISAF expansion involves helping it to achieve its goal and enabling the Afghan Government to extend their authority across the entire country.

I have seen for myself many DFID projects throughout Afghanistan that are achieving great things for the people there. Most important, 37 per cent. of children being educated in Afghanistan are girls. That would not have been allowed under the despotic Taliban regime, and it will make the greatest change to Afghanistan. I am very proud to welcome that development.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): The Minister will know that one of our key tasks in Afghanistan is to provide alternative livelihoods for poppy farmers. DFID has said that the success of alternative livelihood programmes will depend on the security situation. The former Secretary of State for Defence said that the success of our security operations would depend on the success of the alternative livelihood programmes. Which of those comes first?

Dr. Howells: It is not a chicken-and-egg situation, although it may sound like one. The fact is that we cannot afford to pay every farmer to produce crops other than the opium poppy. It is impossible: the costs would be astronomical. What we must do, therefore, is help to build a new infrastructure in Afghanistan, and provide people with skills enabling them to do the jobs that are required for the economy to be made viable.

We are trying to do that, although there are people in Afghanistan—the Taliban, the drugs mafia and others—who do not want it to happen. They thrive on anarchy. They thrive in a country where there is no law and order, and where people can be killed very cheaply and easily. We and our military must work on that, and the 35 other countries in Afghanistan, along with the United Nations, must help to bring law and order to the country. That is precisely what we are doing now.

The short answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is that we must do both those things at the same time. It is not easy, but I am confident that we can do it.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab): Is my hon. Friend aware that a newly elected woman Member of Parliament, Malalai Joya, was recently attacked in the Parliament and is so threatened that she has to move to a safe house every night; that Salima Sharif and Raazia Balloch, who are councillors in Helmand, have both received death threats; and that Fauzia Ulomi, the head of the women’s affairs department in that province, narrowly escaped assassination? Bearing in mind the Government’s commitment to United
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Nations Security Council resolution 1325 on women, peace and security, will my hon. Friend undertake to discuss with the Afghan Government how they can further advance women’s equality, and how they can do more to protect the status and security of their elected women representatives?

Dr. Howells: My hon. Friend has reinforced what I said a moment ago. We must ensure that we give whatever help we can to improve the general security position in Afghanistan—and certainly we must protect those brave women who, after many years of authoritarian, cruel Taliban rule, have put their heads above the parapet, stood for election and been elected. Indeed, President Karzai told me that he is very pleased with the number of women MPs who have been elected in Afghanistan, and that the proportion is higher than that in the British Parliament. That is something to be proud of.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): I am very pleased that the Minister has been able to give us some good news about capacity building in Afghanistan. However, he told me in written answers on 9 February 2006, at columns 1444-45W of the Official Report, that, according to the figures for 2004-05—the last year for which figures are available—some 4,100 tonnes of opium were produced in Afghanistan, of which a paltry 160 tonnes were seized. When does he expect the British Government’s approach to assisting the national drugs control strategy in Afghanistan to have a better effect?

Dr. Howells: The hon. Gentleman is right that that year’s opium poppy harvest was huge and this year’s will, I think, be at least as big. Between now and September, when the next planting season begins, we have got to try to convince people not to grow poppies, especially in Helmand, where, according to figures that I saw the other day, some 23 per cent. of Afghanistan’s opium poppies are grown. The hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) asked how we can do that, and the answer is that we have to convince people that something else can be grown, and that there are other jobs that will allow them to earn money. An enormous amount of aid is going in to provide help in that regard. Some of those jobs will be paid jobs, such as road-building, providing coolers for agricultural produce and providing the means of getting such produce out of the area. It was not so very long ago that Afghanistan was one of the biggest exporters to the EU of dessert grapes. Of course, the Taliban, in their wisdom, decided that there was a link between grapes and alcohol and they grubbed the vineyards. What did the farmers do? They started to grow opium. That has not been attacked, of course, by the Taliban or by anybody else. They now find it convenient to work with the opium barons to ensure that anarchy persists in that country, but we will do all that we can to ensure that they do not succeed.

Muslim Democracies

7. Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): What assessment she has made of the likelihood of more democracies emerging in the next decade in countries that have wholly or predominantly Muslim populations. [72683]

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The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): Change is happening in many of those countries. Some will progress faster than others, but there is a demonstrable demand for greater democracy from the people of those countries, which should sustain the momentum for change. I welcome the conclusions of last December’s summit of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, which recognised the need for Governments to respond to that demand. Surveys such as those in the Arab human development report show a real desire for democracy, as Muslim countries from Mauritania to Indonesia feel the pressure to cope with huge demographic changes and significant increases in youth unemployment, combined with a revolution in worldwide communications that affects us all.

Mr. Prentice: The Library tells me that, according to an independent survey carried out this year of 46 countries with Muslim majority populations, 23 were not free, 20 were partly free and only three were free—up from one a decade ago. There is no inherent contradiction between, or conflict between, Islam and democracy, but why has progress been so painfully slow?

Dr. Howells: There are probably many reasons. Certainly, there is no lack of examples of Muslim countries that have become successful democracies. One thinks of Malaysia, Indonesia and Turkey, and we are seeing big moves toward democracy in Lebanon. We have witnessed, moreover, the first free presidential and parliamentary elections in Egypt, so things are moving. If my hon. Friend is saying that there is some inherent contradiction between a country’s being Muslim and its ability to become a democracy, I would have to disagree with him.

Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): Five of the 46 countries in question are in central Asia. What pressure is the Minister bringing to bear on EU partners to ensure that the visa ban and arms embargo on Uzbekistan, which will be essential in trying to foster democracy in that country, will be extended beyond October?

Dr. Howells: The hon. Gentleman can be sure that we will look carefully into anything that will further human rights in countries such as Uzbekistan and advance the cause of democracy and capacity building so that democracies can emerge. We are not in the business of trying to help dictators of whatever colour to thrive in their own country and certainly not to spread their influence beyond their own frontiers.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): As one of the international observers to the Palestinian parliamentary elections in January, I know that, whatever else one might say about Hamas, nobody can say that the election was not democratic or that it was not democratically elected. If the international community is saying to that democratic Government that international acceptance is dependent on them abiding by their international obligations, particularly in respect of recognising their neighbours, is the international community prepared to say the same thing to the new democratically elected Government of Israel? We know that Israel’s new Prime Minister is suggesting that he will establish borders for the country—in defiance of international law—along the route of the wall and illegal settlements.

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