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11 July 2007 : Column 433WH—continued

10.38 am

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your authority, Mr. Hancock. I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood). The matter that we are debating is an issue that he has taken up and driven forward with great effort and experience, and he is to be congratulated on what he has achieved.

I have a couple of general comments to make in addressing the issue, putting it into context and picking up points that several hon. Members have made. First, it is obvious from the language used by our ambassador, Sherard Cowper-Coles, and others, that if we are to succeed in Afghanistan, we are in for a long haul. People in Afghanistan and Pakistan are looking to see whether we, with the international community, are prepared to stay there for the long haul. If they think that we are not and suspect that what is happening in Iraq might happen there, they will not be prepared to do what we would like them to do and literally put their lives on the line.

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Secondly, all hon. Members have talked about the sheer scale of the problems with security and dealing with the poppy crop. Those of us who have a little interest and background in the history of this kind of political situation and counter-insurgency campaign know that we are again talking about spending years trying to establish security and the authority of a legitimate Government. The question is whether the British Government, the British public and our allies are collectively prepared to put in that long-term commitment and to take some of the casualties that might be required—not only military casualties, but representatives from the Foreign Office and DFID, who have to go out into the field to carry out the kind of operations that we want.

Thirdly, it is interesting that General James Jones, who has been quoted on several occasions—my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East knows him well—said, when he gave evidence to the US Senate armed services committee on 1 March:

Those comments prompt several questions, not least regarding the fact that the United States of America is the leading international partner in Afghanistan. One could also question whether its anti-drug policy helped to create a problem. Nevertheless, the Government must be only too well aware of the American attitude. I do not view that comment in a negative sense; instead, I take out the part about developing and implementing a cohesive strategy.

I hope that the Minister will specifically address drug policy and my hon. Friend’s constructive suggestions. It would be easy to list all the reasons why my hon. Friend’s proposals should not go ahead—we could all do that. Indeed, I have a long list of such points, with which I shall not bore colleagues, but, given that we are all floundering around trying to find a positive potential solution, the Government should seriously consider his suggestions.

Where I disagree with my hon. Friend—this is to do with the chicken-and-egg problem of establishing security while allowing local economic development—is that, with the best will in the world, it would be incredibly difficult to have licit production within Helmand province, because the security situation there is probably too poor. However, that does not mean that there could not be a licit scheme somewhere else in Afghanistan. Such a scheme might provide an example to the Afghan Government and to people who live in other parts of Afghanistan where the security situation is less good.

Several hon. Members have talked about taking an holistic approach to the situation in Afghanistan. We all know that no single issue or policy has tended to work in the classic examples of counter-insurgency, even in so-called successful campaigns such as that in Malaya. I say “so-called” because the main reason for the success there was that we gave Malaya independence. However, there was a degree of co-ordination, and things were done then that we could not possibly do now.

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There is a list of things that we could do in Afghanistan. The hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) will be cynical about this suggestion, but I have no doubt that there are about 20 or 30 leading, known drug traffickers in Afghanistan, some of whom might well be related to or members of the Afghan establishment. If President Karzai wants the international community to stay for the long haul, he will have to show real courage on this issue. If he does not, the international community will have to lock those people up and take them out of action to show others that if they continue down that route, they, too, will probably face the same situation.

Patrick Mercer: My hon. Friend’s comments about the Government are fascinating, but I recently visited Afghanistan with my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), and it was clear to me that the tendrils of corruption go to the highest levels inside the Afghan Government and penetrate to the centre of the Cabinet system. I applaud my hon. Friend’s sentiments, but the idea of removing the people he is talking about would necessitate a collapse of the current Government.

Mr. Simpson: Yes, well, politics and war, as Major-General Wolfe said, before he was killed, involve an option of difficulties. I am saying that President Karzai might well have that option of difficulties. If we accept my logic and we are to have some success, we must remember that we are talking about the British contribution being on a long scale, lasting years. If we do not consider the possibilities and persuade President Karzai that he has to address these issues, the problem might ultimately be that we do not have a strategy, and British and American public opinion might then take the view that it is not worth the effort.

Paul Flynn: Does the hon. Gentleman believe that the situation in Afghanistan has far more in common with what happened in Vietnam than what happened in Malaya, and is likely to become a British Vietnam?

Mr. Simpson: No, I do not. I think that Arthur Balfour was right when he said:

As a former military historian, I am loth to use analogies, because they are often wrong. There is a serious crisis in Afghanistan, and this debate is about trying to find ways to resolve the problems. I hope that the Government will seriously consider the suggestions of my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East and use their good offices to persuade the senior member of the international coalition, the United States of America, that those ideas might be worth trying. They will not have a major, monumental impact, but they are positive, British and worth considering.

10.48 am

The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): It is a pleasure to have you in the Chair, Mr. Hancock. I thank the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) for securing the debate. His contributions
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are always thoughtful, and I appreciate the original ideas that he has expressed and developed today.

President Karzai has said that, alongside terrorism, drugs are the biggest threat to Afghanistan’s long-term security and development. I do not agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) on many things, but I agree that corruption is fuelled by drugs and has an organic relationship with them, but is not entirely about them. We have heard that there are endemic forms of corruption in Afghanistan that reach right to the very top, and we have to live with that situation.

Paul Flynn: Will the Minister give way?

Dr. Howells: No, I have only a few minutes to reply to this important debate and the points made by the hon. Gentleman.

Counsels of despair might say that there is nothing we can do, we might as well get out now and try to be more insular about things, but I do not believe that we can go down that route.

I know from my five or six visits to Afghanistan—I remember going to Lashkar Gar before any of our troops were there—that it is impossible to tackle its problems today if we put off dealing with the drugs menace until tomorrow. The issue that we are debating is how we deal with it. Drug-related crime and corruption are rife, permeating all levels of society. As we have heard, the drugs trade and the Taliban insurgency are intrinsically connected in the south; there is a common interest in resisting Afghan Government authority and international forces. Afghanistan is facing another year of very high poppy cultivation, driven by the prospect of higher cultivation in Helmand.

Despite the almost unremitting gloom that we have heard in this debate, there are signs that things can improve and are improving in other parts of Afghanistan, especially the north and centre. In such areas, we must continue to help the Afghan Government to sharpen the delivery of their national drug control strategy.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) is no longer present, but I would say to him that there is a kind of facile wisdom—I am not sure whether that is the right way of expressing this—about alternative livelihoods. On my first visit to Afghanistan, I went to Feyzabad in Badakhshan province in the north-east of the country. It is a remote, beautiful area, where a farmer said to me, “Hang on a minute. You are rewarding the next farmer for growing poppy last year by giving him tools, fertiliser and seed. You are giving me nothing because I did not grow poppy last year.” The notion that there is an easy formula about providing alternative livelihoods is nonsense. I have seen alternative livelihoods being provided. The idea that our Government and the 36 other Governments who are involved in Afghanistan do not understand that there must be joined-up approaches to these things is nonsense.

Paul Flynn: Will the Minister give way?

Dr. Howells: No, I will not. My hon. Friend has talked for long enough.

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I have seen simple schemes that we have helped to pay for. We do not go around advertising the fact that the huge amount of Department for International Development money—£120 million—that is going into Afghanistan is being spent by Britain; we do not put British flags all over it. The money goes through the Afghan Government. I have seen small schemes, whereby mule tracks have been widened into roads that can take four-wheel drive vehicles. That allows fruit to get to market more quickly and more easily, without being bruised when it arrives, people to get a better price for it and so on.

Patrick Mercer: I take the Minister’s point about the bleakness of some of the views that have been expressed. When I was in Afghanistan two weeks ago, I was struck by the views of the ambassador, some of the UN staff and a lot of the military staff. I was broadly told, “Soldiers may be dying, civilians may be dying, the drug crop may be increasing, but we are making progress. Look in the north. Look in the west.”

Let us compare the situation with that of Northern Ireland. Remember how the cities of Belfast and Londonderry were improving, yet the border down in South Armagh was constantly turbulent. There is an analogy to be drawn. We are progressing, but it is costing lives and money.

Dr. Howells: I could not have expressed it better. We denigrate or ignore the progress that has been made at our peril. We could talk about many areas in this regard, not just Herat in the west, where I was shocked by the normalcy of life—trade was going on, there was prosperity and so on. In parts of Helmand, right in the middle of the turmoil, I have seen remarkable things happening. The sacrifices that have been made by our soldiers are not in vain by any means. A council of despair has told us that we are just another army dragged into another Afghan war, it will become our Vietnam and so on. That is an easy thing to say, but it does nothing to address the central problem.

We must be realistic in our expectations of progress. As the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East told us, tackling the production and cultivation of opium is a complex problem that requires a complex solution. As the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) said, ridding Afghanistan of this curse will take a generation, perhaps more. It took at least 30 years to reduce significantly the opium crop grown in the golden triangle. When I was in Assam a few weeks ago, locals told me that heroin is pouring down from there back into Bangladesh. This is a long-term problem. Should we do nothing about it? The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East says no, and that there are other ways of tackling it. We must examine those.

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There are no short cuts to ending the drugs trade. As the hon. Gentleman said, we must be wary of silver bullet solutions. I do not believe that they would work, because I do not believe that a silver bullet solution exists. His continued engagement on the issue of drugs in Afghanistan is most appreciated. He acknowledges the difficulties in proposals for licit production there in the present circumstances, and he has some interesting and thought-provoking ideas about how to address the problems. He has raised them with us today, and my officials are studying them. I want to put it on record that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will take them seriously. I am particularly struck by the idea that we could consider a pilot project, because that is one way of testing whether an idea could work.

The hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) said that we must be careful about the idea that large-scale licit production can take place in an area where there is no law and order and where one does not control security. Such a notion is spurious. We have heard about the huge markets for opiates and heroin that exist just across the border in Iran and in Pakistan. Large numbers of people are prepared to pay good prices. I have just come back from Quetta and the border town of Chaman, where I saw how incredibly porous the borders are and how badly equipped the Afghan frontier police are. There is a notion that this can be controlled as one might control licit production in Tasmania or Turkey. We have heard Turkey talked about as if it were Afghanistan. Turkey is not Afghanistan—Turkey is like a little New York compared with Afghanistan. Afghanistan is completely different—one has to go there to see it and believe.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) touched on an important issue when he discussed “Trainspotting”. There is still a glamour attached to drugs—to cocaine and heroin. Successive Governments have been trying to tackle that at home. Farmers and politicians in Afghanistan and Colombia tell me, “If there was no demand, we would not be supplying it.” That is an important point to take on board.

We must examine all ideas and treat them seriously. I have almost no speaking time left, but I should say that we must continue to take a joined-up approach to this, as hon. Members have said. We must have certainty in respect of the money that is spent on development and on our attempt to fight the Taliban. The hon. Member for New Forest, East made the important point that we did not go to Afghanistan to stop the production and flow of heroin; we went there to fight the Taliban and to return the country to a state where it could live alongside, and as part of, the community of nations and not be a home for terrorists. Unfortunately, heroin is starting to finance those terrorists, so we must take both problems on at the same time.

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Motor Insurance Database

11 am

Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for allowing this short debate on the motor insurance database.

There can be no doubt that the problem of uninsured driving is significant in the United Kingdom. It is estimated that one in 20 cars on the road is driven without proper insurance, and according to the Motor Insurers Bureau the consequence is to push up insurance premiums for honest motorists by £15 to £20 per person per annum.

Since 1946, the bureau, of which all motor insurers are members, has been obliged to pay compensation for injuries caused by uninsured drivers, so the greater the number of uninsured drivers on the road, the greater the cost to the rest of us. Clearly, everything possible should be done to deter uninsured driving, and to punish those who drive without insurance, so section 165A of the Road Traffic Act 1988 was welcome. The measure was introduced into the Act by section 152 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005. Under subsection (3)(c), a constable is empowered to seize a motor car if he

it is being driven without insurance.

Such a power is eminently desirable, and was generally welcomed by all parties. The motor insurance database, which is maintained by the Motor Insurers Bureau, is key to the implementation of the powers in section 165A. The database was established to enable the UK to achieve compliance with the 4th EU motor insurance directive. That was implemented in January 2003, and required the UK to create an information centre to facilitate easy identification of the valid insurer of any vehicle registered in this country.

It can be readily appreciated what a mammoth task it is for the bureau to maintain the database. It stores details on individual insured vehicles, fleets, motor trade and self-insured entities, and currently holds no fewer than 33 million records. Fundamental to the maintenance of the database is the active participation of the motor insurance industry. [Interruption.]

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): Order. I am sorry to interrupt you, Mr. Jones, but I suggest that someone must have a mobile phone that is not completely switched off because it is interfering with the microphone system. Could everyone ensure that their mobile phones are properly switched off?

Mr. Jones: All motor insurance companies are subject to an obligation to submit data to the database within 14 days of the

of all motor insurance policies, and penalties exist for failing to provide such details.

By virtue of regulations introduced in 2003, insurers are liable to a fine of £5,000 for failing to provide information, for making a statement that is known to be false in a material particular, or for recklessly making a statement which is false in a material
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particular. The target time for providing data to the database will be reduced to seven days from the beginning of 2008.

According to a parliamentary answer, already,

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