HC Deb 08 February 1989 vol 146 cc981-4 3.30 pm
Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (by private notice)

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what steps are now being taken by Her Majesty's Government to send essential aid supplies to the people of Afghanistan.

The Minister for Overseas Development (Mr. Chris Patten)

We have provided £60 million of aid for the victims of war in Afghanistan since 1980, including £10 million in the current financial year. In addition, I have just agreed a further contribution of £500,000, particularly to meet the needs of mothers and children. Two hundred and fifty thousand pounds of this is being channelled through UNICEF and £250,000 is for the relief programmes of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Mr. Winnick

As someone who opposed the Russian occupation of Afghanistan from the beginning—[Interruption.] I did. I immediately tabled an early-day motion in January 1980—I am pleased that the Russians are finally leaving. I note what the Minister has just said about aid to Afghanistan. Would it not be unforgiveable if the leading powers simply looked on, because of the political situation in that country, while people are starving? Is it not absolutely essential for Britain to co-operate fully with the United Nations to ensure that aid continues to be given? Finally, will the Minister comment on the report in today's Evening Standard that various factions of the resistance movement are threatening to fire on planes bringing aid? If that is so, will they not bear the responsibility for all the distress which will be caused if supplies do not reach that country?

Mr. Patten

I am delighted to make it clear to the hon. Gentleman and the House, in case there is any doubt about the matter, that we have not used, do not use and will not ever use the denial of food or medicines in order to try to accomplish political objectives. We have made it absolutely clear that we distinguish between humanitarian assistance channelled through international relief agencies and assistance for development purposes to a particular Government or regime. I wish that everybody else took the same view. We were one of the first and most generous contributors of relief in Afghanistan in the camps along the Afghan border. We shall continue to provide assistance as and when we can. I am delighted to report that the executive director of UNICEF has telegraphed us today to thank us for our latest contribution.

Mr. David Atkinson (Bournemouth, East)

Does my hon. Friend agree that, apart from the provision of food and medical aid, one of the greatest threats to the existing Afghan population, as well as returning refugees, is the millions of unexploded mines and shells which threaten to maim children as well as adults? What help does Britain propose to give to train the returning refugees in mine awareness and clearance?

Mr. Patten

We have had a mission in Pakistan talking to the United Nations co-ordinator on that very point; we shall continue to give assistance in so far as we can so that the mines can be cleared. As my hon. Friend said, they represent a substantial danger to the returning population. We must all want to see as many Afghans as possible return in safety and honour to their country over the next few months.

Mr. David Steel (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Launderdale)

The present aid that the Minister has announced for UNICEF and Red Cross operations in Afghanistan is warmly welcomed. Will he reaffirm his support for Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan's determination that humanitarian aid should be given, regardless of political discrimination? Will he accept that it is unfortunate that any earlier statements from the Foreign Office gave the contrary impression?

Mr. Patten

Yes, I am certainly very happy to give the commitment that the right hon. Gentleman seeks. We will continue to provide assistance from time to time as we are requested to do so. I think I am right in saying that the £10 million to which I referred earlier was provided by us before Prince Sadruddin was given his present job. I am pleased that I have had the opportunity to clear up any misunderstanding that may have existed.

Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Mailing)

Will my hon. Friend accept that, in view of the serious suffering and malnutrition of children in Kabul—we have witnessed the scenes on our television screens—we welcome very much what he has said so far about the level of aid that has been provided? But, as the situation may well get worse, can he give the House an assurance that he will keep under review the figure that he has announced?

Mr. Patten

Yes, I am happy to give my right hon. Friend that assurance. I anticipate being able to tell the House, at intervals over the coming weeks and months, of further contributions that we have made to the relief operations in Kabul and elsewhere in Afghanistan.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Will the Minister confirm that at our meeting last week—I refer to the deputation about the question of overseas aid generally—he said he would be only too willing to search for projects in order to try to reach the figure of 0.7 per cent. of GDP for overseas aid generally? He has a long way to go and has plenty of money to play with, so we could find adequate resources for those in Afghanistan. Will he also confer with his colleagues concerning the fact that there is little point in sending food while at the same time Britain is using agencies to send in arms and weapons of war, which are probably going to Pakistan to keep the fight going? We need to feed the millions of people in Afghanistan, but there is no need for Britain, through its agencies, to continue this war.

Mr. Patten

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that one of the high spots of my year so far has been the meeting that 1 had with him the other day. I was particularly pleased to be able to explain to him—to his satisfaction, I thought—that the United Kingdom's aid programme was now increasing in real terms. One of the ways in which we will continue to use our aid is by providing humanitarian assistance in countries like Afghanistan, and our record in Afghanistan is pretty well as good as anyone's.

Mr. John Bowis (Battersea)

My hon. Friend's announcement of additional support for the people of Afghanistan is very welcome, but will he take note of today's reports that aeroplanes carrying aid into Afghanistan have had to turn back because the crews are nervous about going to that country? If necessary, will he talk to his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence and others to see whether we could provide the wherewithal to get the supplies in ourselves by way of air support?

Mr. Patten

I do not know exactly why the United Nations air lift has taken rather longer than it would have liked, literally, to get off the ground, but we must hope that it will manage to start soon. I do not believe that the conversation my hon. Friend has suggesed would be either sensible or fruitful.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

I do not think that the Minister fully understood the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) put to him earlier. Surely my hon. Friend's point was that the flow of arms into Afghanistan must be staunched. Otherwise the war is going to intensify, as will the problems for the civilian population of Afghanistan, and further food and medical aid will be necessary as a result. Will the Minister make whatever representations he can, and will he ask his right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State to make representations, to ensure that the peace accord that brought about the Soviet withdrawal is adhered to by all sides so that genuine peace can return to Afghanistan?

Mr. Patten

The major channel for the introduction of weapons into Afghanistan was, of course, the Soviet army.

Mr. Alastair Goodlad (Eddisbury)

Is my hon. Friend aware that his comments this afternoon are broadly welcomed in the House? Will he also confirm that the task of reconstruction in Afghanistan will require substantial amounts of external assistance and that he is in touch with his counterparts in other countries and with multilateral agencies to ensure that such assistance will be forthcoming?

Mr. Patten

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. I am sure that all hon. Members look forward to the clay when we can work with a broad-based Government in Afghanistan formed as a result of a genuine act of self-determination—in other words, when we can have a normal aid relationship with a broad-based Government in that country.

Miss Joan Lestor (Eccles)

I am very glad that the hon. Gentleman has cleared up the difficulties and confusion about the press reports. I am not sure whether they were false or whether there has been a change of heart. Bearing in mind the General Assembly resolution last November which stated that aid should go to all Afghans irrespective of political labels, some of us were very confused when we read in the press on Monday that Britain had ordered that its £10 million contribution must not be used for emergency food supplies. Will the Minister confirm that the press got it wrong? I was very glad to hear his correction.

I understand that at 11 o'clock this morning—and there has been no correction about this—the plane had not left the ground because the crew were afraid. If the provision of food and blankets for those people, including many children, who are in dire straits is urgent, is it not possible to consider military escort? If the fear is as great as it appears to be, are there any other ways to ensure that the relief reaches those people?

Mr. Patten

On the second point, the international relief agencies use other channels to ensure that they can maintain their medical and supplementary feeding programmes. However, it would not be particularly wise of me to set out for the House the exact nature of those channels. On the first point, our policy is consistent and it has not changed. I recognise that very often the best way to keep a secret is to make a statement in this House; however, I hope that people will take notice of what I have said today at the Dispatch Box.