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I would also like to pick up briefly on cross-Whitehall co-ordination, which was mentioned by other hon. Members. There is no doubt that there have been friction and tensions between the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign Office and DFID. The inability to agree on how the post-conflict reconstruction period should be handled has led to delay in setting up the post-conflict reconstruction unit. It would be helpful if the Secretary of State would say which Minister is accountable or responsible for the unit—that is not clear—and if he could detail exactly what the unit has achieved in Afghanistan so far. All that comes out of the International Development Act 2002.

As well as ensuring the necessary co-ordination in Whitehall, efforts must be made to ensure co-ordination on the ground between various multilateral and bilateral donor parties, the Afghan Government, Bretton Woods institutions, NGOs and civil society. From his direct experience, my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes made some interesting suggestions and analyses in respect of how things must change, and I hope that the Secretary of State will take some of them on board.

I do not want to repeat points that have already been made about opium production except to say what others have said about opium cultivation rising by 59 per cent. The Secretary of State is fond of saying that production fell in the previous year, but he knows that it fell only in terms of acres, or hectares, cultivated, and not in yields. In fact, decreases have been due to bad weather, not to the fact that people have stopped trying to grow the crop.

The production of opium as a potential source of heroin is not the only problem. It is the currency in some parts of Afghanistan, and it meets a demand in the country itself—it is not all exported. People are robbed of their livelihood, and in some parts of the country those who grow the crops are in serious debt to drug barons and exporters. If they do not produce opium, they often have to pay those debts with their children. There are serious societal issues that must be tackled, and I believe that all hon. Members agree that some fresh thinking is needed in this area.

Aid is the final issue that I would like quickly to explore. It is estimated that DFID now channels 70 per cent. of its aid directly to the Afghan Government; only 30 per cent. goes through NGOs and civil society. Putting aside for a moment the point that was made by the hon. Member for Newport, West about corruption in the Afghan Government, they do not have the capacity to spend the money on agreed infrastructure and other projects. It is estimated that only 10 per cent. of the available aid money has been spent.

The Secretary of State must focus his Department on ensuring faster yet still effective allocation of money. It must ensure that money is spent by the central Government and, perhaps, through other routes in the more rural places that the central Government have not reached. There seems to be a contradiction in the British Government’s strategy, in that they acknowledge that President Karzai’s authority and reach are limited to the immediate area around Kabul, yet they seem to be putting more and more money directly into central Government. We know that the Afghan Government do not have the capacity to spend money in the more rural areas to alleviate poverty, which is needed.

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Many NGOs complain that funding from DFID and other donors is being withdrawn. As they are perfectly capable of delivering the services that are required on the ground, I suggest that the Secretary of State needs to revisit the issue.

We hope that very quickly following the establishment of security DFID and other international donors will be ready and prepared to act as speedily as they can. That was one of the main problems in 2001, when the Taliban were taken out in the first element of the military conflict. We must ensure that that does not happen again. It would also be helpful if the Secretary of State would give us his view as to whether and when Afghanistan will be able to survive without such a level and type of donor support.

Conservative Members support the Government; we wish Afghanistan to be stable, but that will happen only with adequate necessary resources from both the military and the international donor community. First, security must be provided and then, immediately post-conflict, there must be the reconstruction and redevelopment that will demonstrate to the Afghan people that they are better off remaining under a fledgling democratic state than returning to a damaging and poisonous theocracy.

David Taylor (in the Chair): I thank all hon. Members for co-operating in respect of the length of their contributions to the debate. I now call on the Secretary of State to reply for the Government.

10.46 am

The Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn): I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) on securing the debate and on the authority, knowledge and, above all, insight with which he spoke. His speech deserves to be widely read, and I shall return to some of his points in the course of my remarks. I am sure that we are all grateful to him and to all our troops for their service in Afghanistan and for their courage and professionalism in extremely challenging circumstances. That point was made by several hon. Members.

I welcomed the speeches of all those who contributed: my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn), the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood), my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), the hon. Members for Banbury (Tony Baldry) and for Newark (Patrick Mercer), and the Opposition spokespeople, the hon. Members for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer) and for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds).

I last visited Afghanistan in June and spent some time in Kabul and in Lashkar Gah. I was able to see the progress that has been made as well as how far there is yet to go and the obstacles faced by the people of Afghanistan. The hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes referred, as did others, to the tragic history of the Afghan people, who have been terrorised by 30 years of conflict, widespread poverty, a complete lack of essential services and—the thing that most forcefully strikes me and other hon. Members—an absence of capacity.

As has been said, Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world. The most chilling statistic is that
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one in four Afghan children do not live to see their fifth birthday. One third of those children do not celebrate even their first birthday—they die before they are one year old. Afghanistan, along with Sierra Leone, has the highest infant mortality rate in the world. Only 47 per cent. of men and 15 per cent. of women can read. The challenge is immense, and the first thing that we must do is be absolutely straight about the scale of it. What has characterised this debate has been the honesty and candour with which all hon. Members have spoken.

The hon. Gentleman also knows the history of British involvement, and that we are part of a wider endeavour with the United Nations and NATO and one of 36 countries contributing to the international security assistance force.

I agree completely with the hon. Gentleman and others who spoke that this is a long-term commitment. The challenge that the Afghan people face in changing their country and therefore their lives will involve a long, hard slog, to use a technical term. That is what we are talking about, and it will not be easy for the Afghan people quickly to undo the effects of the conflict. That is why we must demonstrate a long-term commitment.

I was asked to sum up what we are trying to do. We are trying to help the Afghan Government and people to create a stable and secure country. That is in their interests above all, but it is also in our interests, not least because of the circumstances that led us and others into Afghanistan after September 2001. That is why I say in all honesty to my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West that I do not recognise parallels with Vietnam. I believe that the circumstances are different, not least because we are supporting an elected Government. However, that is not to say that there are not challenges, and I shall return to them.

We must acknowledge that there has been some progress, and the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness just outlined some of it. A good indicator of whether things are moving in the right direction in a country where there has been a conflict is whether people who fled the country when fighting was going on have come back. The fact that more than 4.5 million refugees have returned to Afghanistan since 2001 is an indication that things are better than they were when those people fled the country.

The presidential and parliamentary elections have taken place and 25 million people participated. One answer to the point raised by the hon. Member for Richmond Park is that, as she will know, 25 per cent. of Afghan parliamentarians are women. They are doing better than we are in that respect. Some 6 million children have returned to school and a third of them are girls—I shall come back to the important point about intimidation. Immunisation has saved the lives of 35,000 children and—this links to the point about jobs that was raised by the hon. Member for Banbury—in 2005 the legal economy was estimated to have grown by 14 per cent. Private investment has soared from $22 million in 2003 to more than $400 million.

Road rehabilitation, which is now taking place, will help to connect the major urban centres. One of the most striking things about Afghanistan is how it is decentralised by its geography. It is quite hard to get around. The improvement of communications and road communications will help people to travel, to meet
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each other and, crucially, to do business so that the economy will have the chance to grow.

The UK is the second largest bilateral donor after the United States of America. We have spent about £390 million since 2001, and that is the fifth largest DFID programme. At the London conference, which was mentioned by a number of hon. Members, the Prime Minister committed us to a 10-year development partnership with Afghanistan, which is another sign of long-term commitment from the Government. That is intended to try to help the Government of Afghanistan to plan for the long term and to invest in schools, hospitals and infrastructure. We are also providing support through the European Commission, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank.

The hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes clearly set out—the point was also made by the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East—the choice and tension between doing things quickly and building capacity for them to be done in the long term by the Afghans. The hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes used exactly the right word; there is a balance to be struck, and that is what we are trying to get right. The way in which we give our support has led to Britain being described by Finance Minister Ahady as a model donor.

We give 70 per cent. of our assistance directly to the Government of Afghanistan and that is one of the ways in which we can avoid lots of donors doing their own thing, which was the point made by the hon. Gentleman. It is also the best thing that we can do to show that there is an Afghan face to redevelopment and reconstruction. It is about giving the Afghans the tools to do the job. We are the largest donor to the recurrent budget, which covers the central costs such as salaries for teachers and health workers. It is for that reason that the Afghan Government want donors to provide more support in that way. They have acknowledged Britain’s contribution, and the point that came across most forcefully at the London conference was a request to other donors to do more of that. The Afghans recognise that that is the most effective way in which, over time, they can increase their capacity to build effective state institutions that will last. Directing funds through the Government of Afghanistan also enhances their accountability and authority. That directly responds to the point made by the hon. Member for Newark. We know that such an approach is the most effective way of ensuring sustainability in the long term. That is why it is a question of balance.

The hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes twice talked about progress being painfully slow and, in some ways, he is absolutely right. We all share the frustration, but we have to accept that if the goal towards which the people of Afghanistan and the Government are working is to be realised—an Afghan Government, elected by their citizens, delivering health care to people who are sick, education to children, and security in every province of the country—it will take time.

The hon. Member for Richmond Park asked about the Afghanistan compact. It covers benchmarks that have been jointly agreed between the international
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community and the Government of Afghanistan. The UN has a job in monitoring it. She raised good questions about the rate of progress and the honest answer is that we will not know whether those benchmarks will be achieved until we reach those dates, but they express a set of targets towards which we are working. The rate at which the Afghans will be able to make progress on meeting the benchmarks will depend in part on security. There are some significant hurdles to overcome; we must be straight about those, too.

When I was in Lashkar Gah, I went down to the banks of the bright turquoise-blue Helmand river to look at some work that DFID has been supporting. The thing that I remember, apart from the young boys who were having a swim having taken their examinations in school earlier in the day, was that the interpreter who turned up so that I could have a conversation with them and others was wearing a black facemask that covered his face. He had a baseball cap pulled down over his head. Why? It is a risk, in Lashkar Gah, to be seen to be working with the British—the foreigners.

On the same day, Governor Daud of Helmand and his director of education, who we met in the hotel there, explained that 60 of the 224 schools in Helmand province—those figures are imprinted on my brain—are currently shut because of intimidation. Some head teachers have been murdered, as have some students and school officials, because they continue to try to teach girls. When will they reopen? It depends on when they feel that it is safe and secure enough to do so. That is why bringing security is, in my view, the precondition to development.

Mr. Mullin: In the few minutes that are left, will my right hon. Friend address the question of poppy eradication—whether he thinks it is working and, if it is not, whether he would contemplate alternatives?

Hilary Benn: I shall come to that point in a moment.

There are 18 DFID staff in Afghanistan overall—15 in Kabul, one in Kandahar and two in Helmand. The development adviser, subject to the final security review, will return. We have a quick-impact problem manager in the country. There is no turf war between Government Departments; I want to make that clear.

I pay tribute to the bravery not only of our troops, to whom I have already referred, but of our staff, who we ask to work there. Let us not forget that two weeks ago a group of them were in two vehicles queuing outside Governor Daud’s premises when someone set off a suicide bomb. They are not people who do not dare to leave the premises to go out and see what is going on. No one has said it today, although others have in some newspaper reports, but that is a monstrous calumny against the bravery of our people who are out there doing their work.

We are trying to balance the quick-impact project money that we have made available, in response to the more difficult security situation, to help the engineers who are out there to deliver things quickly with initiatives such as the rural development programme, which we hope will bring clean water and new roads to 120,000 people in Helmand in 2007—not because DFID has started to dig wells but because it is finding partners with whom to do such work. We are considering the drought appeal and I undertake to look
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further into the point that the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes raised about the camp not far from the provincial reconstruction team.

I turn finally to the question of poppies. I accept entirely that the challenge in overcoming the curse of the poppy is a long term one. The hon. Gentleman was right that if a farmer has a choice between growing something and feeding their family and not growing it and their family starving, they will grow that crop. Those responsible should be arrested and the law enforced, but eradication must take place alongside the alternatives.

I want to finish on the point about the Senlis Council’s report. I shall simply quote the Afghan Minister’s comments on legalisation:

The conversation needs to be had not with me or the Foreign Secretary but with the Government of Afghanistan—it is their country—and they have a clear view about the Senlis Council’s proposal.

This has been an extremely good debate, because people have spoken frankly, from their own experience, about the scale of the challenge. I am clear in my mind that what we are doing to support the people and Government of Afghanistan is the right thing for the long term. The scale of the challenge is enormous and we must stay with the Afghan people as they rise to it.

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11 am

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): I am pleased to have the opportunity to debate the subject of housing homeless people. For me, as for most hon. Members, it is not a debate about dry policy but a reality with which I come face to face each week through the lives of my constituents. The old and the young, families and the disabled—most of them are women—all come to my advice surgeries with the problems of homelessness.

First, I pay tribute to the Government for their record in tackling the problem. We used to have a huge problem with people sleeping rough, particularly in this city. As I recall it, when the Conservative party was in government, it complained about the problem only when Ministers tripped over people sleeping rough on the pavements during ministerial visits to the opera. Chronic homelessness and overcrowding in the inner cities led to the resurgence of TB. We also saw the refusal to recognise the problems of the young homeless—of 16 and 17-year-olds—and of the single homeless, and the growth of an army of homeless women and children living in bed-and-breakfast hostels across the country.

During the nine years of Labour government we have seen the virtual elimination of rough sleeping, a reduction of 70 per cent. in the number of homeless families and an improvement in the rights of homeless people, especially for the many women who are forced into homelessness as a result of domestic violence. We have also seen a reduction in homeless acceptances by local authorities. The crude measure of homelessness has dropped to its lowest level since the early 1980s. In the Green Paper “Every Child Matters” and in the “Breaking the Cycle” report on social exclusion, the Government recognised for the first time the disastrous social impact of homelessness.

Although I shall listen with great interest to what Conservative Members have to say, for all who have had to deal with the Conservative party either in central Government or local government, the tag “compassionate conservatism” rings very hollow when it comes to housing the homeless. However, despite the many achievements of the Government in tackling homelessness, I still see too much of it.

Michael Gove (Surrey Heath) (Con): Will the hon. Lady remind the House of the figure for the completion of new social housing units when the Conservatives were in power, and what it has been since 1997?

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