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14 Jan 2010 : Column 892
2.23 pm

Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): I was not expecting to say anything today, but I would like to put on record my thanks to some of the organisations that I visited during my time in Afghanistan at the end of November. In particular, the work of the Department for International Development is extremely good. It is doing a great job in the midst of an active, hot war. Its work is excellent. One observation that I might make, however, is that in trying to encourage farmers-DFID is doing a lot of work on agriculture and agribusiness-it can be counter-productive to bring in seed from outside the area, for instance, when we should be trying to buy it from local farmers to encourage them to develop that aspect of agriculture.

The Aga Khan foundation is doing some fantastic work, helping in excess of 2.5 million people in Afghanistan right across the board. The health care work being done by Merlin in the north-in particular, its work to give women who have severe problems giving birth the medical support that they need to prevent more deaths-is also excellent.

The final group doing excellent work that I should like to mention is Turquoise Mountain. Anybody who has an opportunity to visit Kabul should go to see the excellent work that Turquoise Mountain is doing in one area of the old city, identifying craftsmen and people with tremendous skills from around the country and bringing them in to help rebuild that area, which has been completely devastated. I should also like to thank all the organisations out there that give money to organisations such as Merlin and Turquoise Mountain.

Mr. MacShane: Turquoise Mountain is connected to Rory Stewart, who hopes to enter this House as an hon. Member. However, as I understand it from reading his interesting books and articles, he is rather against the military presence and involvement in Afghanistan. Does the hon. Gentleman think that there will be a rethinking of policy on Afghanistan if Rory Stewart becomes a leading Conservative Member?

Mr. Newmark: Should he get in, Rory Stewart will bring a wealth of experience on Afghanistan. He, perhaps more than anybody, will be listened to. I have read his book and I hope that our Front-Bench team will want to engage with him to hear what he has to say. With his experience, he certainly brings an interesting perspective, and we should listen to what he has to say.

The work of Turquoise Mountain, in its £25 million project, is helping to rebuild part of the old city that has been destroyed by using local craftsmen. In addition, the project is bringing health care to that part of the city, as well as primary education, which is much needed by many in Kabul.

2.27 pm

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Bill Rammell): I know that it is always customary to sum up by saying that we have had a good debate, but this time that has genuinely been the case. What has struck me most forcefully is the enormous degree of consensus across the House. That unity is insufficiently recognised in the wider public domain, particularly in the media. It could be that we are all wrong and misguided. However, I
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happen to think that MPs across the House, having looked at the issues in enormous detail, recognise the centrality of what is happening in Afghanistan to our safety and security. In the short time available, I want to respond to some of the points that have been made.

I agreed with a lot of what the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) said, particularly the tribute that he paid to the Estonians and the Danes, who are making an enormous contribution alongside us in Helmand. The fact that we are in an international coalition, with 44 nations currently taking part, is often under-recognised in the public debate. I also agreed with him about the impact on Pakistan and the importance of that country. I have no doubt whatever that were we precipitously to withdraw from Afghanistan before it was safe to do so, there would be a return of the Taliban and the al-Qaeda capability in Afghanistan, and a massive flow of refugees across the border into Pakistan, making that country-a country that, as the hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out, possesses nuclear weapons-more unstable. That underlines the risk that we face.

However, I would take issue with the hon. Gentleman's comments about British troops handing over Basra to the United States. We handed over responsibility to the Iraqi forces, which was the right thing to do in the circumstances. It was done through agreements and our troops made an enormous contribution.

Like me, the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), who leads for the Liberal Democrats, underlined at the beginning of his contribution the increasing consensus on the issue across all parties in the House. That is welcome. He asked a number of specific questions about the London conference and the possible participation of China, Iran, India, Russia and Saudi Arabia. All have been invited, but not all have yet replied. It is certainly our hope that all those countries will take part.

The hon. Gentleman made a point about the lack of knowledge and understanding of the Taliban. Given the nature of the Taliban, and the fact that it is, in many senses, a secret organisation, that point has plausibility on one level. However, we are doing our level best to get a genuine understanding of the Taliban. We certainly need to understand more, particularly if we are to follow the process of political reconciliation being led by the Afghan Government, in which those elements of the Taliban who are prepared to renounce violence can become part of the solution, rather than being part of the problem.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): As our understanding of the attitudes of the Taliban is so important to this process, will the Minister share with the House any assessment the Government have made of the relationship between the Taliban and al-Qaeda, given that al-Qaeda brought about the downfall of the Taliban in the first place? Is there still an alliance between the two, or is there now a rift between them?

Bill Rammell: There certainly was an alliance between the Taliban and al-Qaeda; that was one of the principal reasons that we and our partners went into Afghanistan in 2001. My understanding is that such a relationship still exists. Were we precipitously to withdraw, the risk of that relationship re-establishing itself would be one of the biggest causes for concern.

14 Jan 2010 : Column 894

The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton also asked me about elections. The district elections have been postponed, and there is still a decision to be made on the parliamentary elections.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) made an important contribution to the debate. He talked about the need for more Members of the House to have direct experience of the situation by visiting Afghanistan so that they may better understand and better articulate what is happening on the ground. That is a powerful point that we need to take on board, but there is one important caveat, which is that we must take account of the operational environment and the security considerations, and the impact that such visits could have on our troops. Nevertheless, he makes an important point, and I will certainly take his suggestion back to the Department and see what more we can do, in conjunction with the Foreign Office, to facilitate such visits.

My right hon. Friend asked which Government Department ran Afghanistan. I can tell him that there is intense, detailed co-operation across the three principal Departments concerned. People sometimes argue that there should be one lead Department, but, based on my seven and a half years' experience as a Minister, I believe that if we were to remove a direct lead responsibility from one Department, priority would no longer be given to its issues. That might be right or wrong, but it is the reality. That is why I believe that we are right to continue with separate Departments having specific responsibilities and focusing their efforts accordingly, while working co-operatively. There are regular meetings of the Ministerial Committee on National Security, International Relations and Development-NSID-to pull that work together, led by the Prime Minister.

The hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) made an important contribution to the debate. He started by referring to his holiday experience in Afghanistan. I have to say that, at that point, I turned to my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby) and said that I had never had the hon. Gentleman down as a hippy. Later, he confirmed that he was most certainly not one, and that he clearly has a long understanding of these issues. He referred to the regular briefings that the Ministry of Defence is conducting, led by the military, and to the one that took place yesterday. Those briefings are driven by our desire to give as much information as possible about what is happening operationally on the ground, so that parliamentarians may be better able to explain the mission as it is taking place.

The hon. Gentleman questioned the governmental structure in Afghanistan, which I think needs to be put into perspective. It is driven by the Afghans, and we need to recognise that Afghanistan is an independent country. I think the structure is working, but we must remember that Afghanistan is the fifth poorest country in the world and its development is light years behind anything that we have experience of. That factor needs to be taken into account. Nevertheless, progress is being made. The Foreign Secretary referred to the most recent BBC opinion poll, which showed that 70 per cent. of Afghans believed that their country was moving in the right direction.

President Karzai and his Administration certainly need to face up to the issue of corruption, but a really important political point for me-it is insufficiently
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understood in some of our public debates-is that Karzai represents the will of the Afghan people. Anyone who looks at the matter in detail reaches that conclusion. So yes, we need to use the levers at our disposal to influence with our partners the shape of what is happening, but we also need to recognise that Karzai is leading a Government who represent the will of the Afghan people.

The hon. Member for Blaby mentioned corruption and was concerned that we were defending a corrupt Government in Afghanistan. Let me be clear that the Afghan Government need to do more to face up to corruption, but our troops are there and are putting their lives at risk, not to defend a corrupt Government but to defend our national security and our national interest. That is one of the issues on which we need the strongest unity.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of public support. Undoubtedly, the last six to nine months have been extraordinarily demanding and we have tragically lost too many of our troops. Nevertheless, the last comprehensive opinion poll commissioned by the Ministry of Defence showed something like-I am quoting from memory-47 per cent. in favour of the mission and 42 per cent. against it. I think that demonstrates, given all that has happened, that there is a deep underlying understanding of the importance of what is happening in Afghanistan and of the fact that it serves our national interest.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the media. If one looks at the coverage of Afghanistan in the media over the last four, six or eight weeks compared to what it was previously, one finds that some progress is being made-but more is needed.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the appalling loss of life that has taken place. That is hugely challenging: every loss of life is something that we should enormously regret, but I also think we need to understand and articulate the fact that no military action has ever been undertaken without risk. If we, the media and the public create an impression or understanding that military conflict is possible without casualties, we risk undermining the necessary basis for the military actions that need to be taken in our national interest.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the PR10 statement-on procurement-before Christmas, which he described as defence cuts. What we were doing, rightly in my view, was demonstrating that Afghanistan was our main effort and that we needed to take some decisions within an overall budget that was not decreasing to ensure that that was case. Following the visits of the shadow Chancellor and the shadow Foreign Secretary to Afghanistan, I was interested to read in the Sunday press that they were not a million miles from that position, saying that they would protect efforts in Afghanistan while other areas in the MOD would be cut back-and cut back significantly. If the hon. Member for Blaby has any concerns about that, he should take them up with his Front-Bench team.

Mr. Robathan: I am grateful to the Minister who, if I may say so, is making a very good speech. I agree with most of what he said- [Interruption.]Exactly, until just then. I may well be told off if I have got this wrong, but
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I think our policy is that we have a strategic defence review to determine what is needed to defend this country.

Bill Rammell: That is exactly the same as the Labour party's position, and we are committed to it; a Green Paper will shortly be forthcoming to inform our strategic defence review. However, the hon. Gentleman needs to refer to the press briefing issued following the visit by the shadow Chancellor and the shadow Foreign Secretary, which made it clear that the Conservative party's intention, were it to be elected to government, was to protect efforts in Afghanistan but to cut back elsewhere in defence. If I have got that wrong or if the briefing was wrong, I am sure that the shadow Defence Secretary or one of his colleagues will intervene.

In conclusion-

Dr. Julian Lewis: The Minister is moving on.

Bill Rammell: No, I am happy to pause and await the hon. Gentleman's intervention.

Dr. Lewis: My understanding is that there was no briefing of any sort whatever. If the Minister had a copy of it, I am sure he would have shared it with the House.

Bill Rammell: That is the oldest and weakest defence in the book. I think the hon. Gentleman knows where those briefings came from. This has nevertheless been a good debate and the consensus I referred to centred around the recognition across political parties that our efforts in Afghanistan are about pursuing our national interest and our national security.

We are there as part of an international coalition. I think that none of us has any doubt whatever that were we to withdraw precipitately, before the Afghans have the capability to defend themselves, the safety and security of our country would be significantly less. That is not the same as saying we want our troops to be in Afghanistan for ever. That is why our efforts are focused on building the capacity, capability and numbers of the Afghan forces through training, mentoring and partnering, so we can get to the stage at which it is safe for our troops to withdraw. That is why before Christmas we took the decision to uplift our troop numbers by 500, along with our international partners. It is also why we have urged the Karzai Government to do more to tackle corruption. We believe that although the military component of what is happening is enormously important, a military solution alone will not succeed. There also needs to be a political solution involving reconciliation with those elements of the Taliban that are prepared to reject violence.

Fundamentally, we need to see this through until it is safe for us to withdraw-that point has been made in many contributions this afternoon. If we withdraw before then, not only will the Taliban and al-Qaeda return to Afghanistan, making us much less safe, but we will provide the most enormous boost for terrorists and jihadists across the planet. That is why we are in Afghanistan, and that is why this is so important to our national interest. As has been demonstrated this afternoon, that view is widely shared in the House.

Question put and agreed to.


14 Jan 2010 : Column 897

Canterbury City Council Bill

Third Reading

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill be now read the Third time.- (The Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means.)

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Before I call the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), let me inform Members that, in line with the approach I have consistently taken when these particular Bills have been before the House, I propose that the two Bills on the Order Paper-the Canterbury City Council Bill and the Nottingham City Council Bill-be considered together on Third Reading, as they are still almost identical.

2.42 pm

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): This Bill was first deposited in November 2007, and we have had three separate Second Readings, and the House has spent many hours deliberating on it, so I will say almost nothing about the original arguments, beyond stating that my community, and in particular Canterbury city, is one of the foremost tourist attractions in the country, and while that brings many benefits, it also brings the very considerable problem of congestion in our high street.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): Will my hon. Friend confirm that, since 2007, a lot of water has passed under Westminster bridge, and that, in terms of pedlars, the Government have issued consultation and research, and have now come forward with draft legislative proposals contained in the latest consultation, which does not have to be concluded until the beginning of next month? Does he accept that the situation is now completely different from when the Bill was introduced, and that in the light of what the Government may be going to do, his Bill is premature?

Mr. Brazier: In a word, no. The promoters of the Bill do not believe that we are close to Government legislation in this area. [Interruption.] It appears to me that the Government Whip, the hon. Member for Nottingham, East (Mr. Heppell), is nodding. Also, although I know that the Opposition Front-Bench team are sympathetic on this issue, I do not believe that it would be a high priority for an incoming Conservative Government. This is a specific problem for a few localities. As it is not a general problem around the country, it is inevitable that no central Government will give it a particularly high priority.

The sad fact is that in a congested and popular city centre such as Canterbury's, which has narrow cobbled streets, the activities of people using peddling licences are playing a significant role in contributing to congestion. More importantly, their activities are undermining the position of the 13 traders who pay a great deal of money each year for their legitimate street licences and that of the many shops on our high street that are close to the economic edge in this recession.

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