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1 Feb 2010 : Column 21

Greg Mulholland (Leeds, North-West) (LD): It is striking that Shelter and landlord associations both agree that the eight-week limit for the local housing allowance trigger to kick in, and for that to be looked at when someone has gone into arrears, is causing a problem. It is causing people to get into debt and landlords not to get their money and to be put off taking on social tenants. Are the Government reviewing that?

Helen Goodman: The hon. Gentleman is obviously unaware of the fact that 200,000 more people than in 2008 are currently in the private rented sector. Of course we believe that housing benefit can be improved; that is why we have just published a consultation document setting out our proposals.

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Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam) (LD): Given that the Office for National Statistics has just revealed that 2 million pensioners in this country are still living below the breadline, will the Government look again at their policy and their commitment to means testing, by revisiting Margaret Thatcher's decision to breach the link with earnings, and reintroducing that valuable earnings link?

Angela Eagle: The House has legislated to ensure that pensions will be linked to earnings within the lifetime of the next Parliament, and I also hope the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that the ONS pointed out that we had broken the link between old age and poverty for the first time in our history. We inherited soaring pensioner poverty from the Conservative party. We have reversed that trend, but we know that there is still more to do.

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Afghanistan and Yemen

3.33 pm

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (David Miliband): Mr Speaker, with your permission I will make a statement on the Afghanistan conference that took place on 28 January and the Yemen meeting the previous day.

It is a grim but important feature of all discussion on Afghanistan that we remember the loss of life-coalition and Afghan-in the last eight years. As I saw for myself again two weeks ago in Kandahar, Lashkar Gah and Kabul, British troops are showing fortitude beyond measure, and their families support beyond compare, both of which deserve the recognition of the whole nation. The stakes are high not only for those serving in Afghanistan but for all the Afghan people, for the south Asian region, for the credibility of the NATO alliance, and, ultimately, for our national security.

As I explained when I spoke in this House on 14 January, 2010 will be a decisive year for Afghanistan. With a new Government, a refreshed counter-insurgency strategy, and a commitment to increase international troop numbers by some 60,000, the Afghans and their allies now have the chance to reverse the momentum of the insurgency, if the military and civilian effort is directed towards a durable political settlement in Afghanistan.

That was the impetus behind my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister's decision to convene the London conference.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): Where is he?

David Miliband: He is in Northern Ireland, actually.

Our aim was to mobilise international resources-military and civilian-behind a clear political strategy to help to deliver the ambitious agenda that President Karzai set out at his inauguration last November. Our goals are threefold: first, to win over the active support of more of the Afghan population; secondly, to split the insurgency; and, thirdly, to encourage Afghanistan's neighbours to become part of the solution. Following my consultations in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Washington, Istanbul and Brussels, representatives from more than 70 countries and international organisations travelled to London to attend the conference. The communiqué, which was agreed among all conference participants, provides the detail of what was agreed.

First, in respect of security, the focus was on the Afghan national security forces. The growth and development of the indigenous security forces are intended to give the Afghan population the confidence to resist Taliban intimidation and bribery. Afghanistan now has almost 200,000 soldiers and police, and they are already assuming greater responsibility for military operations, but the London conference agreed new, more ambitious targets to increase the Afghan national security forces by more than 50 per cent. by October 2011 by training 70,000 additional members of the Afghan national army and 38,000 more police.

The conference also marked the beginning of the transition process, by agreeing the necessary conditions under which we can begin, district by district and province by province, the process of transferring responsibility for security from international forces to Afghan forces.
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The intention is for some provinces to transition by late 2010 or early 2011, on the road to meeting President Karzai's target that within three years Afghans should have taken the lead and be conducting the majority of operations in insecure areas. The additional troops-Afghan and international-will mean that the insurgency will come under increasing military pressure. President Karzai is launching a peace and reintegration programme for those who can be persuaded to switch sides; the rest will face growing military danger. It is essential that all the ethnic groups of Afghanistan are given a route back into Afghan society, as long as they respect the Afghan constitution and break links with al-Qaeda-we support all effort towards this goal. The Peace and Reintegration Trust Fund announced last Thursday is the vehicle through which the international community will provide financial assistance, and some $140 million has already been pledged for the first year.

Governance and development was the second priority for the London conference. Local and provincial government in Afghanistan is chronically weak; less than a quarter of Afghanistan's 364 governors have electricity in their offices and some receive only $6 a month in expenses. That is why the conference agreed to provide additional support to train, over the next two years, 12,000 sub-national civil servants in core administrative functions vital to the exercise of local and provincial power. However, if the Afghan Government are to win the support of more of the population, they need to govern in the population's interests, so the commitments that the Government made at the conference to take steps to end the culture of impunity are important. They have promised to do the following: first, to strengthen the independent High Office of Oversight in order to investigate and sanction corrupt officials; secondly, to bring their laws in line with the UN convention against corruption; and thirdly, to invite a group of Afghan and international experts to develop benchmarks for progress and report regularly against those benchmarks-their first visit will take place within the next three months.

Those promises must be translated into rapid action. The international community again pledged its support on Thursday, and for the first time it said that, once key conditions are met, it will increase the proportion of development assistance channelled through the Afghan Government, and will support the Government to meet those conditions.

Development assistance is important in its own right in Afghanistan, which is the fourth poorest country in the world, but it will also help to draw people away from the insurgency and the drugs trade. That is the significance of Thursday's announcement that Afghanistan will receive up to $1.6 billion extra in debt relief from major creditors and that there will be a new International Monetary Fund programme from June 2010. The legal economy-notably agriculture-needs substantial support, and progress in reducing drug production is important in that respect, as well as in its own right.

The third element is relations between the countries of the region. The situation in Afghanistan threatens to destabilise the whole of south Asia: crime, drugs, terrorism and migration spill across borders. There is a growing awareness within the region that the status quo in Afghanistan benefits nobody. Afghanistan's neighbours also increasingly accept that no country within the region, let alone the international community, will allow Afghanistan to become a client state.

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In these twin changes-a recognition that a client state is out of reach for all and that an unstable state is damaging for all-is the seed of a shared interest. That shared interest should be the basis of greater regional co-operation. Each neighbour needs to know that their restraint and co-operation will be reciprocated, so they need reassurances about each other's behaviour and intentions. That is why last Tuesday I attended the regional summit in Istanbul to discuss how Afghanistan's neighbours can support stability in Afghanistan and enhance regional co-operation. At the London conference the Afghan Government requested that the relevant regional bodies develop a co-ordinated plan for Afghanistan's regional engagement as soon as possible. The prize of regional co-operation is immense: Afghanistan's neighbours will cut off the lines of funding, support and shelter that stretch across Afghanistan's borders.

This political strategy and the agreements reached on Thursday need to be pursued with drive, determination and without delay. The Afghan Government will host a further conference in Kabul later this spring. By then, President Karzai will need to have made real progress on security, governance and development.

The international community also has an important role to play in ensuring effective implementation. That is why three new international appointments are being made: at the UN, where there is an upgraded Senior Representative; in NATO, where the NATO Secretary-General has created a new NATO Senior Civilian Representative to strengthen the co-ordination of development and governance work with the military effort-our ambassador in Kabul, Mark Sedwill, took up this role on Thursday-and in the EU to create greater unity of civilian command.

Afghanistan and Yemen are 2,000 miles apart. They have diverse histories, different cultures and are fighting different enemies, but there are common themes. In both cases the lack of development, weak governance and absence of security provide a vacuum for extremists who threaten our shores. In both cases, these underlying long-term causes must be addressed.

The purpose of the London meeting on Yemen on 27 January, as agreed with President Saleh of Yemen, was threefold: first, to forge international consensus about the challenges the country faces; secondly, to build impetus behind the economic and political reform agenda; and thirdly, to improve international co-ordination of support for the Yemeni people and Government.

The Government of Yemen were represented by Prime Minister Mujawar. The Foreign Ministers from the Gulf Co-operation Council countries and the key regional and international partner nations all participated alongside representatives of the EU, the UN, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and other international institutions. Prime Minister Mujawar gave an honest appraisal of the challenges his country faces-"brutally honest", in the words of the US Secretary of State. The threat from al-Qaeda has put Yemen in the headlines but it has long been the poorest country in the Arab world, with a rapidly growing population, fast dwindling oil and water reserves, an armed conflict in the north and increasing civil instability in the south.

All present were clear that responsibility for tackling those challenges lay first and foremost with the Yemeni Government, but decisions were taken to upgrade international support in five important respects. First,
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all present committed to support the Government of Yemen in the fight against al-Qaeda. The meeting welcomed the recent UN sanctions committee decisions on designation and called on all states to enforce the terms of the designation under UN Security Council resolution 1267.

Secondly, the meeting agreed to engage in further helping Yemen to address its broader security challenges, including through increased international support for the Yemen coastguard. Thirdly, Prime Minister Mujawar confirmed that his Government would continue to pursue their reform agenda, notably on economic reform, and start discussion of an IMF programme. The director of the IMF made a compelling case for the way in which economic reform could be supported by the IMF. Fourthly, participants agreed concrete actions to improve the disbursement of aid, an issue that was raised when we discussed this matter in the House two weeks ago. The GCC Secretary-General called a meeting of Gulf and other international donors to share analysis of the barriers to effective aid disbursement and establish a joint dialogue with the Government of Yemen on their reform priorities. The meeting will take place in Riyadh on 27 and 28 February.

Finally, the 25 countries and organisations represented also agreed to establish a Friends of Yemen group to help the Government implement their national reform agenda. Two working groups on economy and governance and justice and law enforcement will report at the first Friends of Yemen meeting.

Conferences and meetings can seem-and are-a long way from the daily danger of improvised explosive devices in Lashkar Gah or the 40 per cent. unemployment rate in Yemen, but neither problem will be resolved without coherent plans confidently advanced by sovereign Governments with huge support from the international community. As a result of last week's efforts, there is a new confidence and clarity. The test is to turn these words into deeds. That is what we are now committed to doing.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks) (Con): I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement. Before turning to Afghanistan, may I ask a couple of questions about the meeting on Yemen? We welcome both that meeting and the creation of a Friends of Yemen group, but is he confident that the Government of Yemen will take the urgent and concrete action on political and economic reform that they pledged to take when they were at the meeting? Did he detect a willingness on the part of our European and other international allies to devote resources to the sort of specific initiatives that Britain and the United States have started in Yemen to buttress those efforts?

I join the Foreign Secretary in paying tribute to the men and women who are serving in Afghanistan, whose work I have also seen for myself in recent weeks. I also pay tribute to their families here in Britain and to the 251 service personnel who have given their lives. I agree with his description of 2010 as a "decisive year" for Afghanistan. We welcome the hosting of the conference in London, and we support its conclusions. Like the Government, we are committed to ensuring that there is sufficient stability in Afghanistan for Afghans to look after their own security without presenting a danger to the rest of the world. To that end, the strategy that has been adopted in recent months must be given time and
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support to succeed, and must be accompanied by a viable political process alongside our military efforts.

I want to ask about three main areas: the military strategy, the political strategy and the transition to Afghan control. On the military strategy, we welcome the decisions taken by other countries to commit additional manpower. Can the Foreign Secretary say how many of the 9,000 additional non-US forces that have been announced will be stationed in the south, where the heaviest fighting is? Will every effort be made to ensure that the use of those forces will not be hampered by restrictive rules of engagement? One new benchmark is the achievement of a total of 300,000 Afghan security forces by October next year. Can he tell us the projected cost of that expansion? Is he satisfied that the Afghan state will be able to meet the cost that that will entail over the long term? Can he assure the House that NATO trainers and mentors will be in place in sufficient numbers to achieve that target? The conference communiqué urges countries to provide more support for the reform of the Afghan national police. Can he say when the detail of that support will be fleshed out? Can he confirm that there is still no agreed national strategy for the reform of the police? When does he expect that finally to be in place? On the civilian aspects of the strategy, we welcome the appointment of a new NATO Civilian Representative and a new UN special representative. As it is also intended that there will be a new EU special representative with strengthened powers, what mechanism is being put in place to co-ordinate the work of those three officials to avoid the duplication that has happened in the past?

On the political strategy, does the Foreign Secretary agree that the fairness and credibility of the elections that are now scheduled for September are of huge importance, given what happened in the presidential elections? Does he think it is the true intention of the Afghan authorities to run a seriously improved electoral process? How will confidence be given to opposition parties that they will be given a fair chance to compete in those elections? Corruption is one of the key problems that needs to be addressed by the Karzai Government. The communiqué talks about

Can he shed some light on the composition and powers that are intended for that office?

As the Foreign Secretary has said, at the conference there was a major focus on the new Peace and Reintegration Trust Fund. Can he provide more detail about how the expenditure of that huge amount of money will be overseen? Who will be responsible for the distribution of the funds at a regional level, and how will oversight be ensured? Is he confident that the scheme will be designed to avoid creating perverse incentives for non-combatants to join the insurgency in order to benefit from the fund later?

In his evidence to the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week, the Foreign Secretary proposed "relocation and deradicalisation programmes" for former Taliban members. Can he say whether such programmes have now been agreed and, if so, where they will take place and whether any lead nation will take responsibility for them? It is well known that Taliban elements operate in Pakistan's border area, posing a threat to both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Does
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he therefore envisage any of those funds being channelled to the Pakistani Government for the same purposes, or will we encourage that Government to make their own arrangements?

On the final issue-the handover-the conference said that a number of provinces, but an unspecified number, would be transferred to Afghan control by the end of this year or by the start of 2011. Can the Foreign Secretary say whether that timetable has slipped, given the Prime Minister's specific commitment in November that five Afghan provinces needed to transferred by the end of 2010? The communiqué says that the goal is that Afghan forces take responsibility for physical security within five years, but President Karzai says that the training and equipping of Afghan security forces may take up to 10 years and that they will need outside assistance for up to 15 years. Does the Foreign Secretary share those assessments?

The goals set at the London conference are important and worth while in our view, but we must remember that many of the commitments made at the last London conference on Afghanistan in 2006 have never been met. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that this time around, as the British public wait to see whether progress can really be made and whether our military effort can succeed, delivery on the commitments that have been made is absolutely indispensable?

David Miliband: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his broad welcome for the strategies that have been developed in respect of Yemen and Afghanistan.

On confidence about the implementation of the plans agreed by the Government of Yemen, such confidence should be born of deeds rather than the words that have been used. It is obviously better for words to be used than not to be used, but in the end, one learns to look for actions, rather than words, to give real confidence. However, the depth of the problems that Yemen faces and the remarkable document that the Government of Yemen produced about those problems suggest that no one can accuse them of being in denial.

On the devotion of resources, notably by European countries, the right hon. Gentleman allowed, unusually for him, a degree of scepticism to emerge about what he thought other European countries might be doing. That would come rather amiss to the German and Dutch contributors to the development effort in Yemen. After all, their contributions are on a par with ours, and that commitment is welcome. So I am sorry to disappoint him, but there is no division in Europe on this issue or on its importance.

On Afghanistan, the right hon. Gentleman rightly raised the need for additional manpower and for caveats to be lifted. I therefore think that it is worth putting on record the fact that the German Government announced last week not only an extra 500 troops-rising, I think, to 900 for the elections-but the removal of their caveats. That is the sort of decision that we welcome and want to be taken much more widely.

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