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House of Commons

Wednesday 12 July 2006

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

international development

The Secretary of State was asked—


1. Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): If he will make a statement on his Department’s activities in Afghanistan. [84327]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn): Under the 10-year development partnership arrangement, the Department for International Development will provide £330 million in assistance to Afghanistan over three years as part of the overall UK pledge of £500 million, which will help to reduce poverty, to improve security and governance and to tackle the opium problem by helping with alternative livelihoods. In Helmand, DFID is working as part of the wider UK effort to promote economic and social development and to increase the capacity of Afghan institutions to assist their people.

Mr. Harper: I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Given that his Department’s assessment is that only 10 per cent. of poppy farmers will have the opportunity to switch to a legal crop within a three-year period, illicit opium production will be a problem for a decade or more. Does the Secretary of State agree that if our forces are to be heavily involved in eradicating opium in the short to medium term, we may unite the Taliban, the warlords in the south and the poppy farmers in a lethal combination against our soldiers and officials?

Hilary Benn: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the situation in Helmand is especially difficult. The evidence from around the world on opium eradication shows that it is a long-term task. It would not be sensible for opium to be eradicated when farmers have no other means of earning a living. That is why the Afghans, who are taking the lead, recognise the importance of, first, going after the drug barons, who enslave a lot of farmers in poverty through the debts that the farmers owe them; secondly, making it clear that the law will be enforced; and thirdly, recognising that it is sensible to pursue eradication in places only
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where alternative livelihoods are available. The truth is that farmers who face a choice between earning no income and being unable to feed their families, and finding some means of feeding their families, will choose the latter.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): I assure my right hon. Friend that we all agree with him about ensuring that there are alternatives to poppy growing. However, does he recognise that not all farmers will give up growing poppies? Opium can be used by the medical industry for pain relief, so I wonder what help his Department can provide to ensure that the poppy growers have a market, which would benefit health services not just in this country, but throughout the world.

Hilary Benn: I am aware of the proposal, which has been made by the Senlis Council in particular, that opium growing in Afghanistan should be legalised for the pharmaceutical market. The elected Government of Afghanistan have examined that proposal and have expressed the firm view that that is not the right course of action, principally because of the lack of security and the problems with enforcing the law as it stands. The right thing for us to do in the circumstances is to support the judgment of the elected Government of Afghanistan, who are acutely conscious of the need to make progress in reducing poppy cultivation, but who recognise that it is a long-term task.

Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset) (Con): I wonder whether I can look at the question in a different way. Will the Secretary of State tell us the latest estimate of the farm-gate price of poppies as opposed to the total value of refined heroin? That relates to the cost to the Home Office and other Departments in Britain, Europe and the United States of drug-related crime. Perhaps the European Union should use its vast experience of buying unwanted crops from farmers to remove poppies from the market in Afghanistan, which would provide short-term relief to Afghan farmers and eradicate the drugs problem in Europe and North America.

Hilary Benn: I do not have the figures that the hon. Gentleman has requested on the farm-gate price, but I will endeavour to find out and will let him know, and I will also draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to his other point. On his suggestion that there should be a common agricultural policy for opium production, I fear that the only consequence would be that lots more people would plant lots more poppies and try to do so as productively as possible, because, as the hon. Gentleman is only too well aware, the CAP led to lots of over-production, whereas our objective in Afghanistan is to reduce production rather than to encourage it.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con): Giving ordinary Afghans the prospect of a better life is at the heart of what the Secretary of State is seeking to do. May I press him on the point made by the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle)? Will he tell the House whether he and his Department are exploring other means of decreasing Afghanistan’s illicit
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economy by converting some of the vast opium cultivation into the legal production of medical opiates, which would provide a sustainable livelihood for some poor Afghans as well as generating income for the Afghan state?

Hilary Benn: As I said in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle), that suggestion that has been made, but the Government of Afghanistan are firmly of the view that it does not want to pursue that course of action, for the reasons that I cited. My view is that we should respect the judgment that the Afghan Government have made. That is why we are concentrating our efforts on trying to help them to establish greater security in the country, to take action against the warlords, and to raid those who are turning the poppy into opium that is sold on our streets. It is a very important task because the country is desperately poor as a result of having suffered so much from conflict. We should take heart from the fact that last year the legal economy grew by 14 per cent. and that many refugees have gone back to Afghanistan. However, it will be a long, hard slog, and we should stay with the Afghan people while we support them.

Susan Kramer (Richmond Park) (LD): Several questions have been asked in the House about the narco-economy that has become the foundation of the economy in Afghanistan. Will the Secretary of State outline what projects are being carried out for reconstruction and to provide alternatives? I say that in the context of a budget that last year was twice the size for poppy eradication as it was for rural development.

Hilary Benn: We are considerably increasing the funding that we are putting into alternative livelihoods. When I visited Afghanistan a month and a half ago, I said that we would invest £30 million in Helmand province to support alternative livelihoods. When I met Governor Daud with members of the provincial council in Lashkargah, their concerns were pretty obvious. They wanted health care, education, the clearing of irrigation canals and a greater supply of clean water. That is why the work that our forces are doing to try to ensure security in Helmand is so important. The Taliban, in particular, are hostile not only to British forces, as we have seen with their attacks on them, but to the Government of Afghanistan, to Governor Daud and to any of the non-governmental organisations that have been working on rural development, just as they are hostile to head teachers and teachers who insist on teaching girls. Some of those have been murdered, as the hon. Lady will know. We are ready to invest significant amounts of money in supporting the process of providing more alternative livelihoods—as we have done in the north in Badakhshan, for example—but security is the essential first precondition. That is why we should support the British forces in the work that they are undertaking.

Democratic Republic of the Congo

2. Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): What steps he is taking to protect children accused of witchcraft in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. [84328]

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The Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn): The UK raised awareness of the problem of children being accused of witchcraft in the DRC as part of our EU presidency, and we are working with civil society, established Churches and the Congolese Government to push for action to bring those who abuse children to justice. We have supported training on child protection, and we are also making significant contributions to the 2006 UN action plan and the International Committee of the Red Cross appeal, both of which include programmes to protect vulnerable children.

Mary Creagh: I thank my right hon. Friend for his support for the DRC. He will be aware that the all-party group on the Great Lakes region and genocide prevention visited that country in April. We visited a centre for children accused of witchcraft, where we heard stories of appalling abuse conducted against children, including beating to death, blinding and amputation of parts of the body. Will my right hon. Friend work with his Department and with Home Office and Foreign Office officials to ensure that whatever Government are elected on 30 July, we do not allow visas to preachers from evangelical and revivalist churches who preach such witchcraft stuff to come to this country for treatment? May I further ask him to increase the supplies for NGOs—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I call the Minister.

Hilary Benn: I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and her colleagues for raising this matter, in which she takes a close interest and which we have discussed previously. We are working with NGOs in the DRC to compile information on pastors who are responsible for identifying children as witches, leading to their being subject to the abuse that my hon. Friend has drawn to the attention of the House. We are working on that with the FCO and the Home Office. It would be helpful if other European countries would do the same, because pastors come not only to the UK, but to France and Belgium because of the historic links between the DRC and the Francophone world. Sadly, this is not part of the tradition in the DRC, but something that has arisen in recent years, partly because of poverty. Charlatans set up these charismatic churches, and when their prayers do not work they finger poor innocent children and blame them for it. It is a scandal, and we will continue to raise it with the Government of the DRC.

Mr. Jeremy Hunt (South-West Surrey) (Con): I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his interest in this issue. Does he agree that the Vatican has an important role to play in strongly condemning the way in which some pastors are not taking as strong a line as they should on child witchcraft? Given that the all-party group has a meeting with the Papal Nuncio on 20 July, will he lend the Government’s support to our efforts to get the Vatican to take a firmer and more public line against this practice?

Hilary Benn: I wish the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues a successful meeting with the Papal Nuncio. Indeed, I would urge all those who can bring influence
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to bear on these churches to do so. This terrible practice has nothing to do with any faith that I understand, and it is important that those in positions of responsibility speak out openly and honestly to encourage pressure to be brought to bear to bring it to an end.

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend think that the forthcoming elections in the DRC, to which the House is sending five observers, will assist us in dealing with issues such as that raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh)? How will his Department and the Government work with the DRC during and after the elections to resolve such difficult problems?

Hilary Benn: I agree that the elections, the first phase of which will take place on 30 July, are fundamental to the future of the DRC. Indeed, the people of the DRC have invested an enormous amount of hope in the democratic process as a way of improving their lives. We have provided help with the electoral registration process, and to the observers who will be going, and I wish good luck to the Members of the House who will be taking part in the elections. The two most important factors are, first, that the international community should support the newly elected Government and help them to do their job of improving public services; and secondly, and most importantly, that those who take part in the electoral process—including those who do not win—stay with that process. It would be unforgivable if, after three years of transitional government, those who have come into it then went back to conflict just because they were not successful. The fact is that democracy is the only hope that the DRC has of moving forward.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Given that the right hon. Gentleman has already had substantial discussions with Congolese officials, will he tell the House whether any church that conducts these abusive child deliverance ceremonies has been either suspended or outlawed? Can he offer the House a follow-up to Project Violet, the landmark event that was organised last year?

Hilary Benn: If the hon. Gentleman is talking about any of those churches being suspended by the Congolese authorities, I am not aware that that has happened. However, I shall make inquiries about that and come back to him. I know that our ambassador, Andy Sparks, has raised the issue directly with President Kabila, and I pay tribute to the work that he, DFID colleagues and others have done in pursuing the matter. The hon. Gentleman can rest assured that we will continue to raise the issue, and I would be very happy to consider any suggestions that hon. Members on both sides of the House would like to make about further ways in which we can help.

European Bank of Reconstruction and Development

3. Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): If he will make a statement on the contribution to development made by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. [84329]

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Gareth Thomas): The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development was established in 1991 to assist the development of the private sector in the former communist countries of central and eastern Europe. Since then, it has developed a strong record in that area, helping to lever in considerable private sector investment, create jobs and generally help to promote economic growth. Since 2004, the focus of the bank’s operations has begun to shift further towards the poorest countries in the region.

Dr. Blackman-Woods: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Is he aware that substantial criticism has been directed at Shell by environmental non-governmental organisations over the Sakhalin II oil and gas project? What is being done to address those concerns?

Mr. Thomas: Let me reassure my hon. Friend that the Government are fully aware of the social, environmental and energy security issues that are associated with the Sakhalin project. A number of Ministers, myself included, have met the non-governmental organisations in the UK that are particularly concerned about the project. As a result, we have also met President Lemierre and representatives of Shell a number of times to discuss those concerns. At the invitation of Shell, I asked some of our officials to go to the Sakhalin project, the better to see for themselves how those concerns were being addressed. We have not yet been asked to support a loan by the EBRD or the Export Credits Guarantee Department to the Sakhalin project. If we are, we will obviously take full account of the concerns that have been raised with us.

Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): Has the Minister assessed the effectiveness of development funding spent by the EBRD compared with that spent by the European Union—or, indeed, by his own Department—in particular to ensure good governance and transparency?

Mr. Thomas: I have not conducted such a comparative assessment, but I do have a strong regard for the work of the EBRD. For example, it has played critical roles in helping to modernise a variety of electricity plants across Russia and Poland, in helping to upgrade regional road networks, and in railway projects. It is also playing a crucial role in the decommissioning of nuclear plants in Lithuania and in Russia. It is making an important contribution, and I welcome the fact that it is shifting its focus to the poorest countries in the region. We will continue to work with it very closely.

Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op): As my hon. Friend knows, I recently visited Kyrgyzstan, which is one of the countries most affected by the reconstruction after the fall of the Soviet Union. Is he aware that Kyrgyzstan’s economy is rapidly heading backwards, and that per capita income is in many cases lower than in some parts of sub-Saharan Africa? Is he confident that the EBRD has a role to play in central
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Asia, and that it can have a significant impact on the lives of those most affected by the changes of the past decade?

Mr. Thomas: My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the particular challenges associated with economic growth and poverty reduction in Kyrgyzstan. The international community needs to focus more on the specific challenges of addressing poverty in central Asia. We need to continue to work to promote good governance not only in Kyrgyzstan but in Tajikistan, in order to help those countries to tackle corruption and to get more international aid into both countries. DFID has been scaling up our work in Tajikistan and the Kyrgyz Republic, and we continue to work with the EBRD and other international financial institutions in the way that I have described.

Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness) (Con): The bank’s mandate clearly states that it must work only in countries committed to democratic principles, yet it has recently provided significant funding to Belarus, Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan. That is yet another example of an inherent contradiction within European institutions. Others include the EU water initiative, which has failed to provide access to water for a single individual. Moreover, a recent Save the Children report states that the EU is consistently the worst performer in disbursing aid and is mired in bureaucracy. What is the Minister’s strategy to improve the EU’s aid effectiveness, and what pressure is he putting on the bank to ensure that there is progress in both political and economic transition in these ex-Soviet republics?

Mr. Thomas: I do not accept Save the Children’s critique of European Commission aid. There has been substantial improvement in the quality of EC aid over the past five years, although more reform is necessary. On engagement with regimes such as Belarus and Uzbekistan, we must recognise that we should not penalise the very poorest people in such countries, but that we also need to continue to champion democracy, good governance and reforms to improve poor people’s participation in the running of their country. We will continue to do just that through the EBRD, EC aid, other parts of the European architecture, other European member states and, indeed, our own programmes.

2006 G8 Summit

4. Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): What priorities he has set for the 2006 G8 summit in Russia. [84330]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Gareth Thomas): Our priority for the summit at the end of this week is to make sure that the G8 leaders continue to focus on delivering the commitments they made at Gleneagles last year on support to Africa. We have also worked hard to make sure that development priorities are included in the three Russian focus areas of energy, infectious diseases and education.

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