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House of Lords

Wednesday, 5th November 1997.

The House met at a quarter past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Lichfield.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

Philip Alexander Hunt, Esquire, OBE, having been created Baron Hunt of Kings Heath, of Birmingham in the County of West Midlands, for life--Was, in his robes, introduced between the Baroness Fisher of Rednal and the Baroness Jay of Paddington, and made the solemn Affirmation.

Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws

Ms. Helena Ann Kennedy, QC, having been created Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws, of Cathcart in the City of Glasgow, for life--Was, in her robes, introduced between the Baroness Blackstone and the Lord Falconer of Thoroton.

Lord Puttnam

Sir David Terence Puttnam, Knight, CBE, having been created Baron Puttnam, of Queensgate in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, for life--Was, in his robes, introduced between the Baroness Jay of Paddington and the Baroness Smith of Gilmorehill.

Baroness Dacre--Took the Oath.

Afghanistan: Peace Efforts

2.48 p.m.

Viscount Waverley asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether past Taliban advances in northern Afghanistan give cause for concern for central Asian security; and, if so, what action they are considering in response.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, the latest news is of Taliban setbacks in northern Afghanistan. We are very concerned about the situation. We are following it closely and we are doing what we can to support the UN peace process. We use our contacts with the factions to promote a negotiated settlement. We are urging all interested parties, including the central Asian states and Pakistan, to support the UN's efforts in the peace process.

Viscount Waverley: My Lords, the Afghan dispute has been mercifully comparatively localised to date and I do recognise the Taliban's varying military fortunes. But can the Minister imagine that the civil war in

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Tajikistan, exacerbated by a steady flow of ethnic refugees combining religious fervour from Afghanistan, the huge quantities of hard drugs awash in the region and the large oil and gas deposits in central Asia waiting to be exploited all add to a further destabilisation of the wider region? What are the Government doing to protect Britain's ever-increasing political and economic interests? What are the latest United Nations peace initiatives? And, not least, are drug distribution channels being nipped at source?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, the noble Viscount poses a number of very difficult and problematical questions. There is a nightmare scenario, which I recognise, in his assessment of the various problems at work in the region. They make it particularly difficult for all neighbouring states, let alone the international community, to intervene. Clearly, in Tajikistan, the signing of a general peace agreement demonstrates that there is the possibility, if everyone pulls together, of making some improvements, although even that is yet to be delivered.

We have stepped up our dialogue with all the countries in the region. When the Foreign Secretary was in Pakistan he raised this situation with the Pakistan Government, and we continue to urge all neighbouring states to put their full weight behind the UN's effort. We expect the report of the special envoy, Mr. Lakhdar Brahimi, some time in December. He visited the region in August and is now holding consultations in New York with representatives of the neighbouring states.

The drug traffic is one of the most evil aspects of the situation. We have tried to underline to the Taliban, who control most of the poppy growing areas, that the drugs trade should be hostile to their Islamic principles. We are also supporting the UN in efforts to substitute poppy growing with other crops in Afghanistan and the rest of the region. Probably 95 per cent. of all the heroin reaching western Europe comes from this area and most of it is from Afghanistan. It is indeed a very difficult situation.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, will the Minister confirm that in the military exchanges to which he referred, very little territory was taken over by the opposition forces? Can he say how much of the territory is now controlled by the Taliban and which of the state institutions they do not control? Can the Minister say at what point there has to be a decision in favour of recognising the Taliban as the legitimate administration of the country?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, the latest military developments have returned the situation to stalemate. The Taliban were pushed back from their major advances in northern Afghanistan a couple of months ago. The estimation that we make of the situation is that there is no really authoritative government in Afghanistan and although the Taliban control the capital and most of the means of communication they are not in possession of the full attributes of the state. Therefore, I would not wish to be drawn on the question of the recognition of an alternative government.

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Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, as the Government have placed human rights at the heart of their foreign policy, how will they ensure that blatant abuses of such rights in Afghanistan, especially towards women, are fully addressed?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, again it is very difficult to exercise influence. But we take every opportunity in contacts with the Taliban to urge relaxation of restrictions as regards human rights abuses in general and limitations on women's education and work. Theoretically, the Taliban have acknowledged that women should be educated, but in reality they have been unable to give any guarantees that this will occur. There are isolated examples of women being able to work in Taliban areas, but in general that is not happening. We recognise an appalling situation for the women of Afghanistan. We are using all means of influence that we can to try and alter it.

Viscount Waverley: My Lords, are we offering any technical assistance to regional states' ministries of the interior and, if so, to what degree?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, by "regional states" I assume that the noble Viscount means the neighbouring states. We are in contact with a number of them, but there are no specific programmes of the kind that the noble Viscount has in mind. We are continuing to supply substantial humanitarian aid to the NGOs and the UN effort within Afghanistan itself.

The Earl of Sandwich: My Lords, since the major humanitarian assistance has gone to the refugee programme and given that the military situation may have reached stalemate can the noble Lord confirm that there is a net inflow of returned refugees whom we are helping?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I cannot confirm the precise figures. I shall write to the noble Earl if I can obtain them.

European Parliament Committee on Budgets

2.55 p.m.

Lord Bruce of Donington asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What steps they propose to take to ensure that the meetings of the European Parliament Committee on Budgets take place in public.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the European Parliament's policy of openness is not a matter for the UK Government. As I understand it, the European Parliament Committee on Budgets generally meets in public except when deciding its negotiating strategy. To me, that seems entirely reasonable.

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Lord Bruce of Donington: My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord for his reply. As he is aware, since I notified him in advance, I hold in my possession a calender of meetings for the European Parliament, reference 25/B of 1997 and 21/B of 1997. In those documents there are set out, under the authority of the Secretary General, who is a distinguished Briton--incidentally, he was a member of the permanent staff of the budget committee and knows exactly what happens--three categories relating to attendance. They are public, public hearing and blank--

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone: What?

Lord Bruce of Donington: Blank! That implies that the hearings are not public or for public hearing. Therefore, as regards the Budget Committee of the European Parliament--and I have in my possession the agenda of the budget committee, which does not comprise confidential matters--its meetings were not held in public for the whole of October. There was an additional meeting in the case of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament which came into the "blank" category. Is it not clear that it is high time that somebody, preferably the United Kingdom if necessary, is able to discover what actually happens at these meetings and relays it to the British Parliament?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for giving me some notice of that question. It is very difficult for us to get hold of the kinds of lists which he has access to. We have always recognised that he is better informed than other noble Lords, and also most officials. My understanding is that the meetings of the budget committee between 7th and 9th October were held in public, although it may have entered a closed session to discuss particular points relating to the handling of other institutions. As regards my noble friend's second question about pressure from the British Government, we do give openness in the European Union high priority. We welcome the decision of the Intergovernmental Conference--that we pressed for--to improve access to documents and to publish Council votes.

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