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House of Lords

Thursday, 25th February 1999.

The House met at three of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Ripon.

Royal Assent

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Irvine of Lairg): My Lords, I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that the Queen has signified her Royal Assent to the following Act:

Social Security Contributions (Transfer of Functions, etc.) Act.

Afghanistan: Funding of NGOs

The Earl of Sandwich asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Why they have restricted the funding of non-governmental organisations in Afghanistan.

Baroness Amos: My Lords, the Government are maintaining their support for humanitarian assistance programmes of non-governmental organisations in Afghanistan where these can be delivered in an effective and principled manner by local staff. We believe that there are serious threats to the security of expatriate staff, and obviously we must organise our funding for NGO activity accordingly.

The Earl of Sandwich: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. However, does she recognise that the aid agencies already take Foreign Office advice on security seriously, and that this new policy is unfair and makes an unprecedented link between security and funding? Does she agree that the policy is causing unnecessary delays when there is a continuing humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan?

Baroness Amos: My Lords, I cannot agree in this instance with the noble Earl. Noble Lords will be aware of the serious situation in Afghanistan. During 1998 there were a number of developments which have had a direct and indirect impact on aid operations, including fatal attacks on UN personnel and other security incidents and a deteriorating human rights situation. All expatriates, but in particular British and US expatriates, have been specifically targeted. This is not a matter of the general kind of risk which NGOs and other members of international organisations take when they go into a conflict situation. This is a matter of a specific and targeted risk. The Department for International Development and the Government feel strongly that we cannot continue to support the funding of NGO organisations in Afghanistan where the lives of

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individuals may be put at risk. However, we continue to support humanitarian programmes where they can be delivered by local staff.

Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, does the noble Baroness accept from me that during the period of the Soviet conflict in Afghanistan between 1980 and 1990 NGOs were funded by the British government under circumstances at least as dangerous as those which obtain today under the Taliban regime, and that those circumstances did not prevent courageous NGO workers, both British and Afghan, from performing extraordinarily useful tasks under conditions that were often difficult and dangerous? Does the noble Baroness agree that the conditions in those days were rather more dangerous even than those which obtain today?

Baroness Amos: My Lords, I think I said in my answer to the supplementary question from the noble Earl that many members of NGOs and international organisations continue to work in difficult and dangerous situations. However, in this particular situation there has been a specific threat to expatriates. We have adopted a carefully considered position given the knowledge and information available to us. It is not the first time that we have reached this conclusion. We came to the same conclusion at one time in Sierra Leone. However, the NGOs at that time agreed with our stance and pulled out. Some years ago in Cambodia the same thing happened. It has also happened in Chechnya. I cannot agree with the noble Viscount.

Viscount Craigavon: My Lords, have other countries with NGOs like ours taken a similar decision? Has there been consultation with the European Union on these matters, as sometimes happens?

Baroness Amos: My Lords, there has been consultation with the European Union. In fact the European Union reached a common position on this matter while the UK held the presidency. We have agreed a number of clear objectives, including trying to promote stability and development for the whole region; looking at issues concerning respect for human rights; and the need to provide effective humanitarian aid. There is also a strategic framework within which UN organisations are working. However, not all organisations have adopted the same position as the UK, although it is important to stress to the House that the UN has withdrawn its personnel--those personnel have not returned--and there are other countries which have adopted the same position.

Viscount Waverley: My Lords, on the broader front, can the Minister say whether the US sanctions are still in place; whether sufficient leverage is being exerted; and what are the current dividing lines between the individual members of the six plus two initiative?

Baroness Amos: My Lords, I am not entirely sure what the noble Viscount means when he talks about dividing lines. The UN special envoy visited the region last October, when he met the Taliban leader. It was an

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extremely successful meeting which diffused the tension between the Taliban and Iran. The focus then shifted to a proposed meeting between the six plus two group of neighbouring states, plus the UN, Russia and Afghan factions. However, what the focus of the meeting should be, which factions should attend and the agenda for the meeting have still to be agreed. As to US sanctions, I will come back to the noble Viscount on that matter.

Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, given the remarkable and vital work done on the ground by the dedicated NGOs in Afghanistan--work that cannot be done from afar--why, since November, have Her Majesty's Government stopped the aid on condition that expats do not go in? What are the government policy guidelines for suspending or restricting aid to a particular country?

Baroness Amos: My Lords, as to the last point of the noble Baroness, she may wish to look at the announcement made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for International Development on 8th December, which set out very clearly the Government's position on this matter. Since then we have issued criteria to NGOs about the kinds of programmes and projects we are prepared to fund. We are in the process of allocating that funding, on a six-month basis, which will be reviewed at that time.

Our funding has not stopped. In 1998 our commitment in Afghanistan totalled £8.5 million, which was channelled through the UN, the International Committee of the Red Cross and some NGOs.

Genetically Modified Food

3.14 p.m.

Lord Taverne asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What steps they are taking to improve public understanding of gene technology applied to food.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Lord Donoughue): My Lords, the Government are committed to providing consumers with the information they need to be able to make an informed choice about genetically modified food. This is being achieved by various means, including publishing information on the MAFF website; up-dating and producing new explanatory booklets and brochures on biotechnology and the safety assessment of GM foods; and co-funding a mobile exhibition on food biotechnology organised by the Science Museum.

Lord Taverne: My Lords, does the Minister realise that, despite the valiant efforts of Mr. Jeff Rooker and the Prime Minister, the Government seem to be losing the battle against the scaremongering which has been whipped up about genetically modified food by some sections of the press? Will the Government perhaps encourage the Royal Society, and all those who care about science, to face head on the often unscrupulous propaganda of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, whose increasingly anti-science bias and blanket

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condemnation of biotechnology, rather than judging each case on its merits, is likely to do more harm than good to the causes of health and the environment?

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for what he has said about my colleague in another place. I do not believe that we are losing the battle. It is not an easy battle. To modify an old aphorism, in the newspaper circulation war the first casualty is truth. We shall continue to put the arguments in favour of genetic science; we shall also bear in mind the genuine public concerns. We have in place a regulatory mechanism which will support that, but we are currently looking to see whether it is necessary to strengthen it further.

The Earl of Clanwilliam: My Lords, does the Minister agree that we need to differentiate between the gene transfer within the species, which is the natural process of evolution, and the gene transfer across the species, which negates the presently accepted Darwinian theory of evolution and must therefore be of extreme danger to the natural world?

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, I have taken a decision not to be drawn down any scientific paths such as that. Unlike the noble Earl, I do not feel myself to be a master of them. I am aware of the distinction and we obviously share his concern.

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