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House of Commons

Tuesday 27 June 2006

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—


1. Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): How much was spent by the British Embassy in Kabul on assisting the Afghan Government in 2005-06; and what it was spent on. [80210]

The Minister for Europe (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): With permission, on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government I wish first to extend our condolences to the families and friends of the two members of Britain’s armed forces who, it was confirmed this morning, were killed in action in an incident in north Helmand province in Afghanistan. Our thoughts and sympathies are with those close to them at this very difficult time.

Combined Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Department for International Development, Ministry of Defence and Afghanistan drugs inter-departmental unit spending on Afghanistan for the financial year 2005-06 was more than £379 million. Those funds were used to support the British effort to assist the Government of Afghanistan across a number of areas including security, reconstruction, election support, counter-narcotics and institutional capacity building.

Mr. Ellwood: I join the tribute paid to our soldiers who were recently killed.

I want to focus on what is happening under the umbrella of security that our soldiers are working so hard to create. I have just returned from Afghanistan, and I was shocked to see how bad co-ordination is on the international development and reconstruction front. There is a conflict of interests between United Nations and European Union agencies, as well as the myriad of non-governmental organisations that answer to no one. A fundamental lack of leadership is leading to the pursuing of separate agendas and to the wasting of money as projects overlap. Does the Minister agree that the long-term success of Afghanistan hinges not only on the military capability that we are working so hard to achieve, but on what is happening under that security umbrella? We could be doing so much more with the money to which the Minister referred.

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Mr. Hoon: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on going to Afghanistan. It is not an easy journey, as I have found on many occasions. I am sorry that he found such a lack of co-ordination there.

As for Britain’s effort, in conjunction with our close allies, the establishment of the provincial reconstruction teams and their recent extension to the south were part of a deliberate policy—beginning in the north, then extending to the west and now to the south—linking military forces in a determined effort to establish security and combining them with officials from a number of Departments, including the Department for International Development and the Foreign Office, to achieve that security and also progress towards democracy and effective administration. That has been successful in the north and west, and it will be successful in the south.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend aware that the crop substitution programme that we are helping to fund in Helmand province is not going very well? Several hundred Afghan farmers who were persuaded to destroy their crops in 2004 are clutching cheques that have not been honoured. Understandably, they are rather angry about it, and we are bearing some of the brunt of their anger. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a danger that, if we are not careful, we will turn from liberators into oppressors? Has the time not come for a bit of blue skies thinking when it comes to dealing with the drug problem?

Mr. Hoon: My hon. Friend is right to raise some of the difficulties with the anti-narcotics programme in south Afghanistan in particular. I am sure that he will be the first to acknowledge that there was a 21 per cent. reduction in opium cultivation last year, although there have been some difficulties in the south.

I accept that there is a disturbing relationship between those who are using some pretty appalling means of attacking British soldiers and British forces and those who are responsible for the distribution of drugs out of Afghanistan. It is that connection that we are determined to disrupt. It involves risks as, sadly, we have seen, but at the same time it is part of our effort to secure the long-term reconstruction of the country.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle) (Con): Are Foreign Office Ministers being kept informed of the increasingly unsatisfactory performance of President Karzai’s Government? Is that not cause for concern, especially given that successive Defence Ministers have told me, and the House, that a prime justification for our military intervention in southern Afghanistan was support for President Karzai and his Government?

Mr. Hoon: I suspect that I was one of those Ministers, and that remains the position of the British Government.

Actually, there has been remarkable progress in Afghanistan since 2001. There have been presidential elections, parliamentary elections and the establishment of a Government who are now increasingly able to extend their authority throughout the country. That is a success to celebrate. It does not mean that difficulties do not occur from time to time, but it is something on which I think we should all congratulate President Karzai and his Government. They are increasingly in control of their own country, as should be the case.

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Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con): At a time when the Taliban has launched its most serious offensive in the south in the past four years, will the British Government resist strenuously Donald Rumsfeld’s stated intention to reduce the number of American troops in Afghanistan, and to justify that on the ground of NATO’s presence in the south? Will the Government accept that the timing could not be worse for any reduction in American troops at this moment?

Mr. Hoon: I am sure that the right hon. and learned Gentleman, with his comprehensive knowledge of international affairs, did not intend to suggest that the present attacks are somehow part of a comprehensive offensive by the Taliban. Certainly the Taliban is attacking the coalition forces and does so from time to time in conjunction with the range of criminals, gangs and terrorists that operate in that part of the world. But those organisations are not capable of defeating Britain’s forces in a conventional attack: they are simply part of an effort to destabilise the authority in that part of Afghanistan, mostly for criminal purposes. We must resist that by deploying the appropriate number of forces, which will be adjusted from time to time in both number and nationality. That is an inevitable part of that kind of multinational operation.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks) (Con): May I join the Minister in expressing great sorrow at the news of the deaths of two British soldiers? Is he satisfied with the current pace and co-ordination of reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan? They are obviously crucial if the insurgency is to be defeated and the narcotics trade reduced, yet my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) and others bring back reports of poor co-ordination and corruption, as well as deteriorating security. How would the Government react to the idea that some people have suggested of a UN-mandated special representative to oversee construction efforts and to work with the Afghan authorities to ensure that the work is not derailed by waste, corruption or duplication?

Mr. Hoon: I have conceded that the reports are disturbing and we will look at them carefully. We can be proud of the record of success of the PRTs in the north and west, which has assisted the Government in Kabul to extend their authority. We always knew that the extension of PRTs into the south, and an inherently more unstable situation, was likely to be difficult, not least because—as I have indicated—of the conjunction of the Taliban and some of the various criminal gangs that are heavily engaged in the smuggling of opium. It is that connection that we need to disrupt. The right hon. Gentleman has made a sensible suggestion about the need for more effective co-ordination and we will consider that carefully.


2. Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con): What recent discussions she has had with her US counterpart on the political situation in Iran. [80211]

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The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Margaret Beckett): I discuss Iran frequently with Dr. Rice. When we met in Vienna on 1 June, we agreed an imaginative set of proposals with our French, German, Russian and Chinese counterparts and Javier Solana. These offer Iran a way forward to resolve international concerns over its nuclear activities while enabling it, if it chooses, to develop a modern civil nuclear power programme. In making those proposals, we have again shown flexibility and commitment to a diplomatic solution.

Iran faces a clear choice. I hope that it will take the positive path being extended, and I look forward to an early response.

Mr. Binley: I notice that the Foreign Secretary did not touch on the question of external resistance to the Iranian regime. Some time ago, the Americans gave protected persons status to the Mujaheddin of Iran in Camp Ashraf. Later, the German courts reconfirmed the rights of political asylum for Iranian refugees, whose status had previously been suspended. Only 11 days ago, the French lifted all restrictions on the National Council of Resistance of Iran. Is it not now time to urge the Home Office to take positive steps to improve relations with the Iranian resistance movement, both for their sake and in our national interest?

Margaret Beckett: I am confident that the Home Office keeps those issues under review. I will, of course, draw the hon. Gentleman’s observations to its attention. Our chief concern at present is with the present Government of Iran and the considerable desire of the international community to introduce successful negotiations with them to restore confidence in their intentions.

Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): What assessment has the Foreign Secretary made of the level of support in Iran for nuclear power or nuclear weapons? What sympathy is given to public opinion in Iran, the articulation of which seems to provide the President with his mandate?

Margaret Beckett: It is a little hard to analyse that from outside Iran. There appears to be a good measure of popular support for the Iranian Government’s assertions about their rights, which are understood. Obviously, there is a desire in Iran for access to civil nuclear power, and those of us dealing with the issue internationally believe very strongly that that is a clear possibility if the country abides by the proposals that we have set out. We hope that that will convince the Iranian Government that entering negotiations is in their interest as well the wider international community’s.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): The rather uncomfortable implication of the Foreign Secretary’s words is that Iran faces a fundamental choice between peace and conflict. Will the right hon. Lady make it clear that the situation is not as stark as that, and that a policy of diplomatic engagement will continue to be followed by the UK and the powers referred to in her answer to the original question?

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Margaret Beckett: It would be understandable if the hon. Gentleman had not had an opportunity to study the exact words that we used in Vienna. The statement then was made on a united basis, by all participants. Our clear offer to Iran was that we were prepared to resume negotiations if it resumed the suspension of enrichment. However, if Iran does not feel able to do that, the action being considered in the Security Council is something that we would have to consider resuming.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): I was part of the recent Inter-Parliamentary Union delegation to Iran. Everybody whom we met made it very clear that the MEK, to which the hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) referred, is widely regarded as a terrorist group that was funded by Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war. They said that, if we wanted a productive dialogue with Iran about its nuclear policy, the last thing that we, the Americans or any other EU member state should do is suggest that the terrorists in the MEK should be rehabilitated.

Margaret Beckett: My hon. Friend makes a very interesting point, based on her recent experience in Iran. As I told the hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley), the international community’s overriding priority is with the present Government of Iran. We believe that our proposals are very fair and very much to the advantage of Iran’s Government and people. We hope that the proposals will be considered speedily and fully.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the UN announcement of 6 June was remarkable for its unanimity, especially given that it included China and Russia? Has she had any indication, either from her colleagues in the US Administration or from Tehran, that the proposals are receiving positive approval? They are comprehensive and complex, so should we not give Iran time to respond? If it makes a concrete response, would not that be a positive sign that we could move away from confrontation? That would benefit the whole world, but especially the people of Iran.

Margaret Beckett: The hon. Gentleman is right that the proposals are both comprehensive and complex, but that is why we are suggesting negotiation. Concern would arise if it appeared that we were entering into a period of negotiation about negotiations. I am sure that he will know that the indications made to us, publicly as well as privately, by the Iranian Government are that they see ambiguities in the proposals. We are keen to ensure that any ambiguities are resolved. We continue to press the Iranian Government for a further meeting between Javier Solana and colleagues, and Larijani. I hope that such a meeting will take place in the near future.


3. Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): If she will make a statement on the implementation of the Darfur peace agreement. [80212]

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The Minister for Trade (Mr. Ian McCartney): The Darfur peace agreement was signed on 5 May. Implementation has been slow. Although there has been less fighting between the two parties to the agreement, the Sudanese Government and the main rebel faction, overall levels of violence in Darfur remain high. We are providing practical support on implementation to the African Union and the parties. We are encouraging those who have not yet signed the agreement to support it.

Mr. Turner: I thank the Minister for his answer. Given the scale of killings, rape, lootings and starvation in Darfur, does he anticipate that there will be prosecutions for war crimes, whether of members of the Khartoum Government, their allies or indeed the rebels? What assistance is being given to the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court to gather evidence to bring such prosecutions?

Mr. McCartney: Grave abuses of human rights in Darfur are still occurring. There must be no impunity for those who have committed such crimes and those responsible must be brought to justice. We strongly support the International Criminal Court, which is conducting a formal investigation into the situation in Darfur and we will keep the House abreast of developments in that regard.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks) (Con): The Minister will acknowledge that the position in Darfur remains deeply disturbing. The violence continues; the implementation of the welcome peace agreement has faltered and there are appalling reports of brutality and ethnic cleansing spilling over the Sudan-Chad border. Is it not deeply regrettable that the Sudanese Government have so far set their face against a United Nations force in Darfur, and what steps will the Government take to establish a clear and strong mandate for a United Nations peacekeeping mission to help the parties implement the peace agreement and provide security for so many internally displaced people in Darfur?

Mr. McCartney: The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The African Union force in Darfur needs to be replaced by a United Nations peacekeeping force, but the Sudanese Government have not yet agreed to that. Kofi Annan has said that he hopes to see a UN force in Darfur. The Security Council has taken a strong line on that and the African Union wants such a force, as do many leading African countries. We will continue to press the Government of Sudan to accept one and will call on others to do the same. This week, my noble Friend Lord Triesman is attending the African Union summit where we shall raise the issue again.

Extra-judicial Killings

4. Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): What discussions she has had with her US counterpart regarding extra-judicial killings. [80213]

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The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Margaret Beckett): We have regular discussions with the United States Government about security and human rights issues. We deplore all violence and call for a halt to killings, whether by abuse of state power, or by criminals and terrorists who use such violence for their own ends.

Norman Baker: Following the terrible events of 11 September 2001, there were reports in the Washington Post and The Guardian, subsequently confirmed by the White House, that President Bush had overturned a 25-year ban on the CIA carrying out clandestine missions abroad expressly aimed at killing specified individuals. Can the Secretary of State tell the House how many such operations her Department is aware of, whether the UK has been complicit in any such operations and what UK policy is on so-called targeted killings?

Margaret Beckett: We remain opposed to such killings. I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman of any such operations of which we are aware; nor, indeed, could I accept the suggestion that British Government personnel would have been involved in any such operations.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): With regard to the recent reports of killings of innocent Iraqi civilians by American personnel, my understanding is that those cases may come before the fledgling Iraqi courts. That being so, will Her Majesty’s Government ensure that should the Iraqis need judicial assistance and/or investigative assistance, it will be available from the UK?

Margaret Beckett: I am not entirely sure whether the hon. Gentleman’s supposition is correct, but I can certainly tell him that we are providing the kind of help and support that he suggests, in terms of police and investigative training, support to the judicial authorities and so on, and we shall continue to do so, because we recognise the importance of having good and sound justice in Iraq.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): In the right hon. Lady’s discussions with her counterparts it would be helpful if she could impress on the American Government the importance of acting at all times within the rule of law. That applies in particular to cases of extraordinary rendition. What is wrong about extraordinary rendition is that people are being conveyed from one place to another and interrogated outside the ordinary protection afforded by the courts of the United States and other countries.

Margaret Beckett: I can only say that, of course, these issues have been given much publicity, but the right hon. and learned Gentleman will know of the statements made by the United States Secretary of State insisting that America remains within international and US law.

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