HC Deb 24 October 2001 vol 373 cc283-302 3.31 pm
The Secretary of State for International Development (Clare Short)

I should like to keep the House informed about the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan and my recent visit to Pakistan. As the House knows, the humanitarian situation remains fragile. Humanitarian agencies, particularly the World Food Programme, are performing impressively under very difficult circumstances. Deliveries of food and other essential relief supplies, which were halted after 11 September, have resumed, and the quantities crossing into Afghanistan are increasing. Deliveries inside Afghanistan are continuing but are very difficult. So far the refugee outflow has been smaller than expected; contingency plans are in place in case the exodus increases.

The situation is very worrying, but the House will be aware that a severe crisis existed long before the events of 11 September and is the result of 20 years of conflict, the policies of the Taliban, and the drought of the last three years. All those events have devastated the livelihoods of millions of people. Emergency humanitarian supplies have been provided inside Afghanistan and to refugees in Pakistan and Iran for many years. Immediately after 11 September all international staff were withdrawn from Afghanistan because of fears for their safety, which led to a cessation of all supplies into Afghanistan. I and others have been working since then to get supplies moving again.

Because of the harassment of humanitarian workers and Taliban restrictions on the use of telephones, it is difficult for aid agencies to communicate with colleagues inside Afghanistan. Precise information on deliveries is therefore sparse. The Taliban have looted the offices and stocks of some aid agencies. Afghan hauliers are also fearful of harassment and attack, but despite those difficulties programmes inside Afghanistan continue, thanks to the brave efforts of local staff of the United Nations, the Red Cross and non-governmental organisations who have continued to work in the face of extreme hardship and serious personal danger.

Our capacity to influence the humanitarian situation is limited. Access to many areas of the country is not possible, but the international community remains determined to do all in its power to continue to provide desperately needed assistance. We are looking at all options; for example, the World Food Programme is looking at air drops and the possibility of opening new land routes from neighbouring countries, such as Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Since deliveries recommenced on 11 October, the World Food Programme has continued to make progress; regional stockpiles are adequate and deliveries are entering the country in increasing amounts. The World Food Programme is moving towards achieving its target of delivering 1,700 tonnes of food a day. Over 5,000 tonnes were delivered in the past week, and when I was in Peshawar a few days ago rates had reached 1,300 tonnes a day. We need to do better, but we are making progress. We are also doing all that we can to maintain the onward distribution of those supplies from the major warehouses inside Afghanistan. Given the difficulties, the World Food Programme is now looking at delivering food direct to more destinations in the country.

We are also working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to identify and prepare sites for refugee camps in Pakistan. We continue to urge all neighbouring countries to adopt an open border policy and to allow those seeking refuge safe passage. Agencies are also attempting to provide assistance to those who remain on the Afghan side of the border.

As the House is aware, our aims are to bring to justice those responsible for the events of 11 September, to dismantle the al-Qaeda network and to maintain humanitarian supplies to the people of Afghanistan. It is essential that we pursue all three aims at the same time. The humanitarian effort remains difficult for all the reasons that I have outlined. It is not the case that a pause in the bombing would solve these problems. Indeed, a pause would simply encourage the Taliban to harass humanitarian supplies more than at present to prevent further military action. We all understand why that call is being made, but it would be a grave error and we must not do that.

All our objectives could be achieved much more rapidly if a new Government could be put in place in Afghanistan. Key to this process will be the central role of Ambassador Brahimi, Kofi Annan's newly appointed special representative for Afghanistan. We warmly welcome his appointment. Ambassador Brahimi is well respected and has considerable experience of the region. His is a difficult task and we stand ready to support him and his office in any way that we can and which he requests.

There is also a need for the current coalition military campaign to be fully informed about the humanitarian effort and situation. Co-ordination mechanisms have been put in place, although closer co-ordination is still required. My Department continues to liaise closely with the United Nations and our United States and United Kingdom military colleagues at both headquarters and field level to ensure that there is a shared understanding of each others' objectives and to create safe areas as rapidly as possible.

We also continue to urge other donors to turn pledges to the UN appeal quickly into actual payments. As against $600 million requested, more than $700 million has been pledged, but only $70 million has so far been received. Although immediate needs are covered, unless pledges are released soon, on-going operations will be hampered. We are working on that.

We cannot resolve the humanitarian and political crisis in Afghanistan without attention to the regional context. Afghanistan's neighbours, particularly Pakistan and Iran, have generously provided for millions of Afghan refugees for many years. Pakistan's role is of central importance. President Musharraf's Government have given strong support to the international effort in Afghanistan. We should not underestimate the burden that that places on a country that is already playing host to 2 million refugees while undergoing painful economic reform to overcome the legacy of previous misgovernment.

Last week, I had fruitful discussions with President Musharraf, Finance Minister Shaukat Aziz and other Ministers in Islamabad. The Government there remain strongly committed to the efforts of the coalition, and to economic reform and poverty reduction in Pakistan. They are also firmly committed to parliamentary elections by October 2002. There is a real prospect that that Government can achieve a much better future for Pakistan than it has experienced in recent years, but the country's economy has taken a knock as a consequence of the events of 11 September. Pakistan needs short-term help, debt relief and continuing support to maintain the long-term reform effort.

I reaffirmed to the Government our commitment to a new International Monetary Fund/World Bank programme of budgetary support and to writing off remaining Government debt. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer is looking urgently with his ministerial colleagues at how we might best collectively agree a debt alleviation package for Pakistan that underpins its reform programme.

Afghanistan is a country that has suffered terribly for many years and faces a very severe humanitarian crises. The reason why bin Laden has his headquarters in Afghanistan is linked to the cause of the crises. Afghanistan is a failed state because of 20 years of warfare and the excesses of the Taliban regime. We must retain our resolve to bring those responsible for the events of 11 September to justice, to dismantle the al-Qaeda network and to maintain our humanitarian assistance.

Through the efforts of Ambassador Brahimi, we must also support the establishment of a representative Government in Afghanistan who will work with the international community to resolve the immediate crisis and start the long haul of reconstructing Afghanistan and offering its people a better future. Our Government remain determined to do all that we can towards that end.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden)

I thank the right hon. Lady for coming to the House and addressing us on this very important issue. I received a copy of her statement while the House has been sitting. As we have just had International Development questions, I shall study it in more detail later.

We were surprised to learn that the Secretary of State withdrew from an audience with the Select Committee on International Development yesterday. I understand that the date had been in her diary for a long time. Although it was originally suggested that there would be a general discussion of DFID's programme, it seemed reasonable for the Committee to request that the discussion focus on Afghanistan, especially as it decided on 16 October to conduct an inquiry into the crisis. The right hon. Lady was informed of the proposal well in advance of the final decision on 16 October. To respond by trying to limit questions on Afghanistan and ultimately to withdraw from the audience sets an unacceptable precedent for a Minister unilaterally to state the terms of such an interview. The whole House is worse off for the missed opportunity.

A Select Committee can pursue a line of questioning on its specialist subject, whereas when a statement is made, hon. Members do not get the chance to ask supplementary questions. I understand that the Secretary of State returned on Friday from Pakistan, whence we have had a number of statements in the media during the week. Again, statements were made through the media at the weekend. Is there any good reason why the right hon. Lady's statement could not have been made at the first opportunity, on Monday? If it had been followed by a Select Committee appearance, Parliament would have been given a far better basis for informed debate.

The fact that today's Order Paper contained no questions on Afghanistan for International Development questions—today's were tabled in July—made the need for the statement all the more urgent. We have had four debates on the crisis, but only one has been responded to in terms of international development. That has limited our opportunity to question the Government's policy on the humanitarian aspects of the crisis. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. Hon. Members should let the hon. Lady put her case, and the Secretary of State will then answer. That is the best way.

Mrs. Spelman

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. On the last occasion we debated the crisis, a number of questions were asked about its humanitarian aspects to which the Minister who was present could not reply. I set out those questions in a letter to the right hon. Lady on 17 October. I hope that she will now answer some of them.

The right hon. Lady will know that I have called for an appeal launched by President Bush asking every American child to donate a dollar to an Afghan child to he matched in this country. The appeal is to be administered by the American Red Cross. The British Red Cross is willing to administer such an appeal and has visited officials in the right hon. Lady's Department. I hope that she will use this opportunity to support that valuable initiative.

There has been little unanimity about how much aid is required for the region. The key question is the amount of aid that is required and whether it can be delivered to where it is absolutely needed. The World Food Programme says that we need to get 50,000 tonnes of food into Afghanistan every month. However, a month from now, two regions of Afghanistan will be cut off by snow. Those two areas need 70,000 tonnes of food to be stockpiled within the next month. The right hon. Lady said that the regional stockpiles were adequate. I have quickly done my sums, however, and I find that those levels cannot be achieved at the rate of 1,300 tonnes a day. Christian Aid, which delivers the programme to some of the worst affected regions in central and north-eastern Afghanistan, estimates that 120,000 tonnes of food must get into those regions within the next four weeks. The sums simply do not add up. Even at the target rate of 1,700 tonnes, the amounts cannot be achieved. Does the right hon. Lady's acknowledge that that is not enough for the worst affected areas? Unless the World Food Programme and Christian Aid have got their figures wrong, the basic fact is that we are not getting sufficient food into those parts of the country.

It is also necessary to question whether the food is reaching the people of Afghanistan. Despite claims from the World Food Programme that food is getting in, Oxfam and Christian Aid, which deliver the food and administer the process, have repeatedly said that they are running out of food. Who is right?

A Christian Aid worker who has recently returned from Afghanistan has told me that a convoy left Quetta in Pakistan with 600 metric tonnes of food on board, but that by the time it reached Kabul there were only 200 metric tonnes left. In other words, two thirds of the entire convoy had been removed en route. It is no wonder that the aid agencies claim that not enough aid is getting through. Does the right hon. Lady acknowledge that a significant proportion of food aid—the statistical amount given—never reaches its destination?

We heard reports that 7,000 tonnes of food had been seized from a UN warehouse last week, and that Médecins sans Frontières had reported that the Taliban had seized medical supplies from its compound. I would be grateful if the Secretary of State informed the House, on the basis of her recently refreshed knowledge of the situation on the ground, of just how obstructive the Taliban are being towards the delivery of aid. What does the right hon. Lady mean by "harassment"?

Another question relating to delivery is whether the food is getting to the more remote regions of Afghanistan. A colossal number of people are on the move within the country. Does the Secretary of State accept that there is a real need to get food to people in their villages, so that they can remain where they have shelter and be in place to plant next year's crop?

What is the Secretary of State's latest assessment of the number of people on the move? Does she accept the assessment of many aid agencies that many people are likely to die a lonely death in the mountains, not necessarily from starvation, but from illnesses generated by malnutrition? The chief problem facing the refugees is the collapse of the food distribution network. Will the Secretary of State inform the House of what progress has been made in restoring aid networks right into the interior of Afghanistan? I would like to say at this point that we share her view that a pause in the bombing would not help in that respect.

Yesterday, the Select Committee interviewed representatives of the aid agencies, and concern was expressed about the lack of co-ordination on the ground. The Secretary of State has said that closer co-ordination is still required. Can Mr. Brahimi be urged to make that happen? Relations with the local Afghan NGOs have been vital to the aid distribution network—indeed, Christian Aid's programme has been successful because of its local partnerships. The right hon. Lady was right to describe those local NGOs as brave. They are brave indeed: they put their lives at risk to deliver food where it is really needed.

I should like to raise the question of refugee camps, particularly as the Secretary of State has just returned from Pakistan. Is she satisfied that standards in the refugee camps are adequate? We have urged that the camps should meet the Sphere project's minimum standards for refugees. Was it her experience, when visiting the camps, that those standards were being met; and if not, what steps has she asked to be taken to ensure that they will be?

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reports great difficulties in the refugee camps. Many are not sited in ideal locations. In some, boreholes have had to be drilled through 400 m of granite to obtain water. What pressure can the Secretary of State bring to bear to ensure that refugee camps are better sited, so that practical targets such as the provision of water can be more easily achieved?

A particular problem is that the border with Pakistan is intermittently open. Obviously the Secretary of State's visit to Pakistan failed to persuade the Government there to keep the border open, to put an end to the mixed signals being sent to people living in Afghanistan. Aid workers in yesterday's Select Committee meeting said that a potential disaster was looming on the border. I would be grateful if the Secretary of State commented on that.

Given that the right hon. Lady has just returned from Pakistan, where a generous aid package was agreed, will she give an undertaking that the Chancellor will come to the House to give details of that debt alleviation package, and that such an announcement will be made here in Parliament?

It was reported in yesterday's newspapers that the Taliban are going to run one of the refugee camps in Afghanistan. Will the Secretary of State confirm that that is true? She referred to agencies running the camps in Afghanistan, and I would like to know whether the Taliban are, in fact, running them.

Will the Secretary of State also give an assurance that women and children will be treated fairly in the refugee camps? The present policy of allowing village elders to make decisions does not give them adequate protection. War always takes its toll on women and children, but they represent the future of a war-torn country.

The Government share an enormous responsibility to get right the humanitarian aspect of the crisis; otherwise ordinary Afghan people will never believe us when we say that our war is not a war with them.

Clare Short

I regret that the hon. Lady has misled herself about the Select Committee. What happened is that it changed what it wanted to discuss at the meeting at short notice. It has been trying to visit Pakistan to go to the camps. The security advice is that its members could not be protected—we had a lot of trouble and during my visit I had endless phone calls about that. The Select Committee should do its job, but our first accountability is to Parliament, then the Select Committee probes. To try to get there instantly in a way that strains all our systems is not helpful or wise.

We had a meeting with the new Select Committee fixed, including a memorandum on all the Department's future commitments, but there was a last-minute switch. It was impossible for me to get a memorandum prepared for the Select Committee without taking my staff off the work of improving the humanitarian performance in Afghanistan, and I decided that to do that would be wrong. The Select Committee should review the way in which it is demanding the attention of my Department in a way that would deflect us from the objective, which is to get better provision on the ground.

I have seen the hon. Lady's letter. I do not know whether the House remembers, but in Kosovo I had difficulties, because the staff who do the work also have to serve the House of Commons. I have asked my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to try to ensure that this time we do better. Obviously the public want replies, but it is difficult to manage the Department's resources. The staff are the best in the world, but they are enormously overworked.

The hon. Lady has a number of misunderstandings. She does not seem to understand the nature of the crisis, the lack of information, how dangerous it all is, how nobody knows in detail what is going on inside Afghanistan or the nature of the Taliban regime. The regional stockpiles are outside Afghanistan. We also need stockpiles inside. If the hon. Lady reads the statement, she might understand that a little better.

The hon. Lady quotes frequently some of what the NGOs here have said, but she should remember that they are using that material partially to call for a pause in the bombing. She might like to prevent the misuse of details of what is going on for that cause, which she says she does not support. How destructive are the Taliban? Enormously, in every single conceivable way. I thought everybody knew that.

On the danger of a collapse of the network inside Afghanistan, the nightmare would be the same situation as existed after the Russians withdrew, when all the factions fought each other and there was chaos across the country. Should such a situation come about, we would have great difficulty bringing in humanitarian support, so everything needs to be done to avoid that. No one can absolutely guarantee success, but we can all unite in being determined to try to prevent such a situation from arising. That is our determination.

I do not agree that there is a lack of co-ordination on the ground. The UN agencies are co-ordinating well, but the situation is enormously difficult. The camps have been there for 20 years, including the time when the hon. Lady's party was in power. On what happened in Pakistan with the refugees, after the campaign against the Russian presence in Afghanistan ended, the international community turned its back. Since our Government took power, we have provided support for the camps in Iran and Pakistan, but one reason why their Governments will not open the borders is that they took millions and millions last time, and then the international community abandoned them. I am trying to establish a guarantee to them that they will have support this time in order to get the borders open. We all need to work together on that.

It would not be right to ask the Chancellor to come to Parliament to announce a package on debt, as Britain is one of Pakistan's smallest creditors. The largest are Japan, the United States of America, France, Germany and South Korea. The Government of Pakistan are making proposals for a highly concessionary debt rescheduling over perhaps 40 years, which would get their debt down. The United States is trying to be responsive. Of course, full details will be provided to the House. The United Kingdom will try to help, but it is not a leading creditor.

I am not aware of the Taliban running camps, but we do not have information about everything that is going on inside Afghanistan. There is no doubt that women and children are suffering desperately. There is no doubt that the best way in which to deal with backwardness and extremism is to respect and empower women and educate girls. That is what we are trying to do in Pakistan and we will try to do it in Afghanistan as soon as we can.

Tony Worthington (Clydebank and Milngavie)

There has been a great deal of talk about getting food into the areas that need it, but I am puzzled by the lack of any reference to water. One of Afghanistan's problems is that there has been a drought in the area for three years. I am told that in the border areas in Pakistan, particularly around the camp of Chaman where there has been trouble, it is necessary to drill 400 m through granite to obtain water, and that only the Pakistan agriculture service has strong enough drilling equipment. Given that in many places there could suddenly be thousands upon thousands of people, will the Secretary of State assure me that she is confident that services are in the area to ensure that water is available?

Clare Short

As my hon. Friend says, the drought that has affected Afghanistan has also affected neighbouring areas of Pakistan. Its worst effect has been on agricultural production—hence the lack of food—rather than directly on drinking water, but when we speak of food, that includes emergency supplies such as medicines and, often, water. In the strained communities in Pakistan and Iran that are hosting refugees, water is under strain, health care is under strain and education is under strain. We need to help the hosting communities as well as the refugees, so that they are willing to give more help themselves.

I can assure my hon. Friend that we will do all in our power to improve conditions in the camps, and to secure a better welcome for refugees as they come out. Up to now, the refugee movement has been much less than the United Nations expected: it predicted another 1.5 million. Our information is that people are moving within Afghanistan back to their villages, rather than out to the borders. Perhaps those with more transport have already gone. We must take the help to where the people are, and we must do it as well as we can. We cannot control everything, but the international community and the Government are determined to do all in their power to ensure that humanitarian relief continues to get through to the people of Afghanistan.

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park)

I welcome the statement, and thank the Secretary of State for releasing it a bit early so that I could see it. It helped to alleviate the boredom of Prime Minister's Question Time, I must say.

Does the Secretary of State agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy), the leader of my party, that it is essential to open up the borders of Pakistan and Iran? Does she further agree that not only must the multilateral debt of those countries be addressed—they must be helped with that debt—but they must be guaranteed the costs of looking after the refugees? I understand that the numbers are mounting, and that there are now some 3.5 million in Pakistan alone. Does the Secretary of State also agree that the stability of Pakistan will be crucial during the next few months?

The right hon. Lady highlighted the difficulties of food distribution, which I have to accept, but I was delighted when she said that the World Food Programme was considering air drops of food into Afghanistan. Can we expect the World Food Programme to start—I quote myself here—bombing Afghanistan with food and aid in the very near future?

The right hon. Lady mentioned the warnings that we have been receiving from aid agencies of impending famine in Afghanistan during the last six months—a long period—and we now know that there is a 50 per cent. shortfall. If we are to get enough food in before the winter snows, we must double our efforts, whatever the difficulties. Will the right hon. Lady reflect on the fact that aid agencies were criticised for not giving warning in time before the famine in southern Sudan in 1997? The Select Committee of which I was then a member conducted an investigation of the problem. Does the right hon. Lady think that her recent comments about the aid agencies went beyond the plain-speaking decency for which she is renowned?

Clare Short

I agree that it is highly desirable to open the borders. I have already explained how scarred Iran and Pakistan are by the lack of help from the international community for the millions of refugees whom they are already hosting. We are working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which has stockpiles in the region and emergency camps to deal with a big exodus of people. It is difficult because both Iran and Pakistan are saying, "Put the camps the other side of the border." We cannot do that safely. We have to keep working at it.

As the hon. Lady says, we must undertake to Iran, Pakistan and other countries that we will provide for the refugees and that we will be there for the duration. The trouble is that the international community let them down badly before. Debt relief for Pakistan is crucial, as I have already said. The stability of Pakistan is also crucial. If that were to become a problem, we would be in great difficulties, but the Musharraf Government are not worried. Some of the pictures that we see on television exaggerate the extent of demonstrations, as television tends to do.

Air drops are an expensive and difficult way of delivering food, as the hon. Lady knows from the experience of Sudan, so we must get as much in as we can. Not all the country is inaccessible when the snow comes; only some of it is. For the remote areas or the areas that become inaccessible, the World Food Programme is thinking about the possibility of air drops.

When people talk about the aid agencies, there is a muddle. The monitoring of the risk of famine and the distribution of massive quantities of food are all done on our behalf by dedicated United Nations agencies, with people from all over the world devoting their lives to serving their fellow human beings. Our NGOs and other international NGOs often help with distribution on the ground and do an honourable job.

I pick no fight with the aid agencies. The problem was that they issued their statement when I was in Pakistan, so wherever I went I was asked whether the humanitarian situation meant that we needed a pause in the bombing. It is not true that the bombing is the cause of our problem It is not true that, if we paused, we would help the people of Afghanistan. Indeed, I think that all humanitarian relief would then be harassed even more than it is now. It is a mistaken call. We all know why in their hearts good people hate bombing, but they are wrong to have made that call. I think that it is my duty to try to explain that as clearly as I can.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)

The Secretary of State just said that the media are exaggerating the extent of internal unrest in Pakistan in relation to the bombing, but just today we read in the newspapers of some firing from within Pakistan on US helicopters attempting to use a base in Pakistan. Recent polls have shown that 70 per cent. of Pakistani people are opposed to the bombing. Are we not taking a gamble that the military stage of the advance will be over sooner rather than later? If that gamble proves to be mistaken, not only will we see the instability in Pakistan across the region, but thousands of people will starve to death in the snows of Afghanistan.

Clare Short

All good people should regret war and bombing—I think that the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) made that point in our debate on 8 October—but we must use force where it is necessary to destroy a greater evil. What happened in the United States of America could be repeated in all countries across the world, and the forces that are destroying the lives of the people of Afghanistan are harbouring that evil. Therefore, we have to keep our nerve and pursue all our objectives.

Of course, we should minimise the bombing and move from the military phase to a political phase as soon as we can. We should all unite on that and not wobble. If we paused, there would be more mayhem and division in the world and more trouble for the people of Afghanistan. We must be clear-minded and carry through what we have to do.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East)

I have seen for myself, in a private visit, the absolute nightmare that has been caused by the Administration of Afghanistan, the horrendous numbers of refugees and the apparent disunity among the refugees. Is the Government's long-term intention to encourage the refugees to return to Afghanistan when things have improved? If it is not possible for them to return, will the Government and all the western powers agree to give continuing aid to Pakistan to cope with a genuine nightmare situation?

Clare Short

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. A serious reform effort is under way in Pakistan. It has not only had local elections throughout the country but even elected some women, which is unprecedented in the country's history. It has also just completed its first IMF programme; it has had plenty of IMF programmes, but never before has it completed one. We have to help Pakistan with debt relief so that it can put more money into improving the lives of its people and growing its economy. On top of all that, it has more than 2 million refugees straining all its systems.

The international community has not sufficiently supported Pakistan. I therefore agree with all the points made by the hon. Gentleman. Part of the purpose of my visit to Pakistan was to pledge the United Kingdom's continuing support. We are providing more support to Pakistan during the emergency, but our support will continue for its reform effort. This is a fantastically important opportunity for the people of Pakistan to have a better future and we must not allow the crisis to divert them.

We must guarantee support for the refugees. Educated Afghans have left their country and can be found everywhere in the world, even in Ladywood. We are also working on a rehabilitation programme that is sharing ideas throughout the international community, so that we can begin the process of rehabilitation in Afghanistan as soon as possible. We want to enable all Afghans to go home, but we want particularly to encourage educated Afghans to go home, to help to reconstruct their country.

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate)

I thank my right hon. Friend for her statement and for demonstrating yet again to the House and the country her quite remarkable grasp of the detail of an immensely complex situation, in marked contrast to the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman). Should ground forces be in Afghanistan when the proposed air drops of food are made, will those forces participate in that project? Delivery of the supplies will have to be accurately targeted, and it will be necessary to have friendly forces on the ground so that pilots know when they have reached the right areas. Additionally, as Afghan smugglers seem to have had inordinate success in getting people across borders, could they not be used to get food into Afghanistan?

Clare Short

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. It is not being suggested that ground forces be used in the provision of humanitarian aid. One important international principle is that the UN and humanitarians should not become mixed up with the military, although the two groups should co-operate, share information and not get in one another's way. We hope that the military will be able increasingly to provide safe areas, so that humanitarian workers are able to return and the humanitarian effort can be expanded. Those are our goals.

The US air drops have been more a matter of winning hearts and minds than of the provision of the massive amounts of food that are necessary. My hon. Friend asks whether Afghans themselves can take food into Afghanistan. The World Food Programme has started using Afghan truckers to take food into Afghanistan because they not only have their own trucks but know their country the best.

New contracts are being signed with more Afghan truckers so that they can cover more parts of Afghanistan. When one group of truckers returns from Afghanistan, another group goes there after receiving news on events in the country, such as whether they are being harassed and whether the warehouses are holding up. That is our best source of information on whether the distribution system is working. Afghans are keeping the system going, very bravely and in the face of terrible harassment.

Tony Baldry (Banbury)

Does the Secretary of State understand that the Select Committee is unanimous in wanting to have a positive working relationship with her Department? After all, it is difficult enough to get international development on the political agenda at all without those of us who are concerned about the issue having a spat.

I think that if the Secretary of State goes back to her private office she will find that she has been inadvertently misled. I wrote to her on behalf of the Select Committee saying that we did not expect a further memorandum, as we fully understood that her officials would be busy working. All we wanted was the Secretary of State, having returned from Pakistan, to come before the Select Committee to tell us what she had seen first-hand. I made that clear. I think that the whole House will have been disappointed and think it a pity that, although we heard the Secretary of State on the "Today" programme talking to the country as a whole, she did not feel able to explain all those matters directly to the Select Committee.

Yesterday, the Select Committee took evidence from some of the non-governmental organisations, and it was quite clear that, for understandable policy reasons, they do not want humanitarian agencies to be caught up in the coalition military effort. Therefore, it seems that the concept of humanitarian corridors will not work. What is clearly needed is someone to help broker the humanitarian issue.

Does the Secretary of State think that there is a role for Mr. Brahimi in that respect—not only in pursuing diplomatic issues but in helping the humanitarian effort by helping broker relations with the Taliban to allow food aid into Afghanistan? Unless there is work on the other side of the border, food aid, as well as refugees, will accumulate at the borders and little will get distributed.

Clare Short

I very much hope that I will have the same quality of relationship with the hon. Gentleman that I had with his predecessor as Chairman of the Select Committee. I enormously admire the contribution that his predecessor made to advancing thinking and agreement across the House on the significance of international development.

I have not been misled. It took me four or five minutes from my bedroom in the British residence in Islamabad to get to the "Today" programme. I do not agree that it is good practice to appear before a Select Committee without a memorandum, because all the figures—on supplies and so on—are crucial. My immediate accountability is to the House, and while I was in Pakistan I tried to get the House authorities to agree to a statement. As the hon. Gentleman knows, I tried to have an informal meeting with the Select Committee. I am going to Africa tonight. We cannot ignore Africa, because that would make it feel neglected. My Department, which is fairly small, is working flat out. We will account to the Select Committee in every way that we can. This is an enormously serious emergency, and we must use our resources as best we can.

I welcome the meeting with the Select Committee, but the last-minute switch to the suggestion that we should meet without a memorandum was wrong. My immediate accountability is to the House, and that can be probed by the Select Committee. I promise full co-operation. I made the decision because I thought that it was the right way to deploy the resources of my Department, and I still think so.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge and Chryston)

As most people would agree, my right hon. Friend has been proactive in handling her portfolio. Does she agree that the Prime Minister was positive and far-sighted this afternoon, when he criticised the past failures of the west to take opportunities to address the reconstruction of Afghanistan? Would she take as a model northern Iraq, where many hon. Members have witnessed the complete transformation, in a matter of years, of the absolute despair of the Kurds?

Does she agree that the United Nations agencies, NGOs and others made their contribution to that dream being realised, and that it is not impossible to repeat that in Afghanistan? Will she work with them and with the new ambassador, whom she welcomed this afternoon, to ensure that we play our part in seeking to repeat in Afghanistan what has been achieved in northern Iraq?

Clare Short

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I agree that the neglect of Afghanistan has allowed it to become a failed state with the problem of housing al-Qaeda. The whole world should learn from the lessons of Afghanistan and other countries.

The model should be smaller countries such as East Timor and Kosovo, which, before their reconstruction, had had no state institutions. That reconstruction was led by the UN. The job in Afghanistan will be much bigger, because it is a poorer and bigger country, but I am sure that it can be done. As I said earlier, plans are in place.

Great things have been achieved in northern Iraq, but that is part of a country under a no-fly zone, so it is a complex example on which to build. We must commit, in detail and in the long term, to the reconstruction of Afghanistan, and that is the commitment that the international community has made. Ambassador Brahimi will lead; we and others are determined to follow. The World Bank is preparing to do so. We must get the whole international system ready to move, and we will.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

Does the right hon. Lady recognise that there is widespread support for her view that military action is compatible with the delivery of humanitarian supplies? Does she further recognise that there is considerable support for the view that a temporary cessation of military action—bombing or otherwise—would be a grave error?

Clare Short

I do agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman. As I have said, a pause would lead only to more harassment of humanitarian staff. It would be a disaster, and an invitation to those who wanted to resist the coalition to resist the humanitarian supplies. However, many of our fellow citizens and people across the world are upset at the thought of hungry people being in a country where bombing is taking place, and I respect their compassion and concern. It is our duty to bring the conflict to an end as well as possible, to secure our objectives and to minimise civilian casualties. We must also get the political track moving as rapidly as possible and establish zones of peace in which the humanitarian effort can be improved. I agree that it is an en-or to call for a pause, but I respect the reasons that prompt people to make that call. We must respond as best we can.

Mr. Robert Marshall-Andrews (Medway)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that The Timescarried a report this morning stating that land mines were being dropped in Afghanistan. I also understand that it is accepted now that delayed-action cluster bombs have already been dropped there. Given that such ordnance now kills more than 300 children a year in Kosovo, will my right hon. Friend say what effect these armaments will have on the way in which a humanitarian programme can be carried out?

Clare Short

I am not aware of the report to which my hon. and learned Friend refers. I have not read a newspaper for a considerable period of time, as that is not a priority in situations such as this. I am certain that land mines are not being dropped, but Afghanistan is littered with land mines—because there have been 20 years of war, and because land mines are such cheap weapons. On top of all the other suffering of the people of Afghanistan, there is therefore massive disability in that poor benighted country resulting from wounds and injuries caused by land mines.

As I said to my hon. and learned Friend at another meeting earlier, I think that I have read reports—non-newspaper reports, if I can put it like that—of some use of cluster bombs. I do not think that they have been used much, and I promise to look into the matter and get back to my hon. and learned Friend. I shall report that response to the House. There is a land mine problem in Afghanistan, but they are not being dropped. They are there already, I regret to say.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

Will the Secretary of State tell the House how dropping cluster bombs and Gator land mines will assist humanitarian efforts in any way? That can never be right.

I have a high regard for the right hon. Lady, but will she tell the House whether it will be possible at some time to publish a report about what is happening with the humanitarian effort, and what is being undertaken? Many hon. Members would like to know the direction of the effort. That is not intended as a critical question, as I know that the Secretary of State is working hard on the matter. However, it is awful that humanitarian aid is being provided at the same time as there is indiscriminate use of land mines.

Clare Short

The hon. Gentleman was not listening. Land mines are not being used, but the country of Afghanistan is littered with land mines because of 20 years of civil war. In a civil war, land mines are cheap weapons and people use them endlessly. Afghanistan has an enormous land-mine problem from the past. No one is using land mines now—unless the Taliban are, which is possible. What I mean is that no one that belongs to the coalition is using land mines.

I cannot speak with authority about cluster bombs. I think that I read a report that stated that some use had been made of them, but I think that that use has been limited. I promise to find out and report properly. I do absolutely undertake to begin publishing regular reports on the humanitarian situation as soon as possible. We need that information in the House, and across the world. People want to know that we really mean it when it comes to aid, and that help is being got to people.

I was talking to Mark Malloch-Brown, the head of the United Nations Development Programme, who has co-ordinating responsibility in the UN in this matter. We get different figures from different parts of the system, because supply stops and starts or goes up or down. Averages based on figures for a month, a week or a day result in different figures, with the result that people start not to believe what we say. We need to tidy up the process and make it honest and clear. We need regular reports, and I promise to do my best to bring that about.

Mr. John Battle (Leeds, West)

I assure my right hon. Friend that there is a tremendous fund of good will, nationally and internationally, behind her efforts to tackle the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. She should not be expected to tackle single-handed a crisis that has been in the making for months and years, and ignored by the international community and the media.

I have a specific question for my right hon. Friend. May I urge her, quietly and gently, to get away from the language and strategy of random air drops, from a great height, of inappropriate aid? Even in these tremendously difficult circumstances, would not it be better to adopt a clearer strategy of targeted air lifts that are received on the ground and distributed according to need? Air lifts are what are needed, not air drops.

Clare Short

There is no doubt that this crisis was there already. I have said before that professionals in my Department who have worked in crises like these across the world thought before 11 September that Afghanistan might be heading towards a famine. It has received very little international attention and there has been very little willingness to pledge resources. We have been increasing our pledges, but United Kingdom citizens have been unable to work safely in Afghanistan for a long time, so it has also been difficult us to make efforts beyond the refugees. Not many people seem to appreciate that there was a crisis in the region before, and that shows how fickle attention is to such matters.

Air drops are always the least best option because they are so expensive. Some 90 per cent. of the costs of emergency relief to Sudan go on air drop costs rather than on what is provided for the people, so trucking is extremely important for laying down stocks, filling up warehouses and building more of them. Even if some food is diverted, we have to keep pumping it into the country because then at least the price will come down and there will not be a famine. We cannot afford to be fussy and not get the food into the country. The United States stuff is about hearts and minds—they are sending meals, with peanut butter, crackers and jam. That is fair enough, but it is not humanitarian relief.

The welfare programme is looking at very remote and difficult areas. If we can get some areas of the country in peaceful enclaves under a new Afghan Government, we can really start to supply humanitarian relief. We hope that we will be able to do that as soon as possible.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)

The Secretary of State has played a commendable part in the international aid effort in getting in aid from Pakistan, whose border is particularly difficult. She mentioned Uzbekistan; we know that the Americans have established a forward base in the north-west of the country, where presumably they have secure corridors into that base. Would it be possible to co-ordinate with the military authorities, using those secure corridors, and consider using the front-line states on the north-east and north-west to get aid to the dreadful situation in Afghanistan, as well as concentrating on Pakistan?

Clare Short

As I have said before, the military and humanitarian sides need to know what the other is doing and not get in each other's way. Indeed, the military can assist by creating safe areas, but it must not muddle the situation. Humanitarian aid must go to anyone, whatever the side, wherever they are; it must never be used as a weapon in military action.

As I said in my statement, the welfare programme is looking at Tajikistan and Uzbekistan with regard to trucking. It is not as simple as using the corridor. We have to get supplies into the country; UN staff have to go in to the country, and they have to be housed and organised. However, we are looking at the possibility. There should be co-operation with the military side, but it should not control humanitarian supplies. If the military can create safe zones, that is the beginning of the end of the problem. That is the job for the military.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

I should like to return to the central issue of the closed border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. In my right hon. Friend's discussions with General Musharraf, did he give her any indication that he would be prepared to open the border if the coalition or the wider international community were prepared to underwrite the costs?

Clare Short

That is a very important question, and my hon. Friend is right to come back to it. The formal position of the Government of Pakistan and, I understand, of Iran, is that the border is closed and there are millions of refugees. Our country complains, yet we are much better off and we have nothing like the same numbers of refugees. People are saying, "Why don't you provide camps just on the other side of the border?", but that offends humanitarian principles. In practice, 100 camps are being prepared in Pakistan in case of an exodus because of great hunger or the consequence of fighting. So although they are saying no, they are preparing camps, and that is a hopeful sign.

Quite large numbers of people are going across the mountains to Pakistan. While I was there, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees negotiated with Pakistan's Government that people going to live in families and in communities can be provided with food aid so that they can cope. However, there is a hold-up on the border going into Baluchistan. People are coming from the Kandahar area, which is the Taliban stronghold. There has been a lot of fighting so, unsurprisingly, there are large movements of people. We must get them over and settled. We must do more. I am trying my best and I will try harder.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

The Secretary of State is right to say that we should not be mixing military and humanitarian activities. Does she agree, however, that British and American forces have traditionally been first to help those suffering from starvation? May I press her on the open frontier? Surely it is not simply a question of Pakistan being frightened of a large influx of people from Afghanistan with which it cannot cope. As we have experienced with our open frontiers, is there not also the possibility that they could allow undesirables to flock in and add to the upheaval in Pakistan rather than helping to solve the Afghanistan situation?

Clare Short

The hon. Gentleman is right. Pakistan is worried about numbers. It has had 2 million refugees for the best part of 20 years, which is putting a strain on communities, but it is worried about armed groups causing destabilisation. We all know the example of Rwanda, where those responsible for the genocide led the exodus and controlled the camps. They were provided with humanitarian relief by the international system, so the leaders of the genocide were strengthened by the humanitarian effort. Such examples do not help us and that is a part of the concern in Pakistan. None the less, we cannot have people backing up at the border. We have to guarantee to help provide all the resources and then ask for the opening of the borders, as hon. Members have said, but we also have to check that there are not military incursions and attempts to destabilise Pakistan.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)

Does the Secretary of State agree that, given that Ramadan begins in three weeks and that the winter will come around the same time in Afghanistan and will be very harsh, calls for us to stop the air action are misguided and could play into the hands of the Taliban regime and Osama bin Laden and his network, who would use the three weeks available to regroup, reorganise and hide, making it impossible for us to liberate Afghanistan from the misogynist terrorists of the Taliban and allow the United Front, the Northern Alliance to make gains and a new government to be established in large parts of the country?

Clare Short

I agree with my hon. Friend but, as I told the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), many of our fellow citizens are calling for a pause in the bombing not for those reasons but because they want relief to be brought in. We do not have clear reports of what is going on in Afghanistan. Many people imagine far more bombing than is taking place in that vast country. I agree, but we have to get more information to people We have to get our citizens to think about my hon. Friend's point. I am sure that we can win the argument. It is important that everyone in the House takes a part in reassuring our population that we are doing what we can and that we are bringing in the humanitarian relief so that we keep our people united behind the action and well informed.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

While I too was sorry not to see the Secretary of State in the Select Committee on International Development yesterday, I welcome her obvious determination to help the humanitarian situation in Pakistan, Afghanistan and the surrounding region. The right hon. Lady mentioned the refugee camps in the Congo outside Rwanda, in particular those around Goma. The Select Committee visited a camp outside Islamabad in 1999, which was run essentially as a part of Afghanistan. The women were segregated, there was no education for them and it was difficult to get health care to women or children. Indeed, we hear that extremist madrasas are run in some of the camps and that they may prove to be a breeding ground for extremist terrorists. Will the Secretary of State speak with UNHCR, or whoever is running the camps, to ensure that they are open, that there is no possibility of breeding further terrorism and that all people there—be they male or female—get a decent opportunity to live?

Clare Short

The hon. Gentleman makes some important points. I met the UNHCR when I was in Islamabad. It is trying to upgrade the camps. There has been a period of neglect and decline. In the North-West Frontier province, where there has been much movement in both directions, fundamentalism and extremism have spread because of the situation in Afghanistan, the drought and the poverty. I met with Ministers there who were engaging in a programme of development. As the Education Minister of that province said, the way to combat extremism and backwardness is by educating girls. We are going to partner that province, which is right on the border and has a tribal area, to progress that sort of development. That is what we need in the new Afghanistan—real education. Again, as one of the Ministers in the new Pakistan Government said, we have lost 20 years. There should have been 20 years of education in Afghanistan, but instead there has been a move backwards. We must never let that happen again.

Mr. Mike O'Brien (North Warwickshire)

Will my right hon. Friend convey to her officials our thanks for the hard work that they are putting in to ensure that food aid gets through to the refugees? Does she agree that a bombing pause—however desirable some people think it would be—would not only allow the Taliban to regroup, perhaps prolonging the war and creating more refugees, as she has pointed out; it would also, by prolonging the war, create a situation in which it would be more difficult for the aid agencies to get into Afghanistan and tackle the long-term problems that so desperately need to be resolved there?

Clare Short

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his thanks to my officials. My Department has superb officials. The relevant unit goes to world crisis after world crisis, dropping everything when something happens and working all the hours that God sends. They are great people and I am sure that the whole House will congratulate them on their work. They are admired throughout the world as they are some of the best at this work. Britain is one of the fastest countries to move resources around the world. I am very proud of my officials and we should all be grateful to them.

I agree with my hon. Friend's point about the likely effect of a pause and the likely prolongation of the war. We must try to achieve our objectives so that military action is as short as possible. We must keep the humanitarian action going and get the political track moving. Highly informed people hold the view that many of the armed factions in Afghanistan would switch sides if there was the prospect of a better Government, then we could start bringing the thing to a rapid end. That is the most desirable thing for the people of Afghanistan and the world. That is what we must work at.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham)

What is the moral authority for the coalition members' demand that Pakistan and Iran should open their frontiers when they themselves maintain draconian controls on those fleeing conflict, including that in Afghanistan? In particular, will the Secretary of State condemn the hypocrisy of the Australian authorities, and will she ensure that any Afghan refugees reaching this country are welcomed and helped?

Clare Short

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. We lecture Pakistan which, as I said earlier, is massively poorer than our country and has many, many more refugees in proportion to its population, but is being asked to host perhaps a further 1.5 million. The communities—in the North-West Frontier province and so on—who are being asked to host those refugees are extremely poor and are affected by the drought.

There are Afghan refugees in the UK and, obviously, their case for being genuine refugees is overwhelmingly strong. The tragedy is that so many of them—like some in Ladywood—are educated Afghans. In situations such as this, when education in a country is limited, it is difficult for educated people to remain there; they tend to flee and are scattered throughout the world. We must welcome and care for them, but we have to help them to go back and rebuild their country because Afghanistan will need them.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Following the questions about land mines and cluster bombs put by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews) and the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), did we not hear the Secretary of State herself say that every ordnance and target had to be run before the Law Officers? Given the circumstances of her answer, which I quite understand, would it not be right that the House—perhaps tomorrow—should be given a statement from the Solicitor-General, representing the Law Officers, clearing up exactly what is happening in relation to land mines and their generic relation, cluster bombs? Should there not be a statement from the Solicitor-General to the House tomorrow morning?

Clare Short

I think I should share my problem with the House. In response to a question from my hon. Friend, the Prime Minister said that all the targets were looked at by our Law Officers. I repeated that on the famous "Today" programme interview that was referred to earlier and received a letter saying that I was not supposed to say that the Law Officers scrutinise the targets. I do not know why.

Statements are a matter for the Speaker. Of course, the House must remember that the UK is only a small part of the military operation. Because of the coverage in our media, people imagine that we are a massive part of that operation. Obviously, our Government and Law Officers are responsible for what our Government do but not for the actions of the US Government and others who will join the coalition. I leave the House with my dilemma—perhaps I shall get another letter.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

May I commend the Secretary of State for her visit to a zone of extreme instability and real crisis and for the realism of her report to the House? However, may I press her even more strongly on the need to ensure the stability of Pakistan, which she herself has emphasised? If there were a further wholesale migration of people into Pakistan, Pakistan's provincial, racial and ideological stability could be called into question. As the Musharraf Government have done well in exceptionally difficult circumstances, is it not time that Pakistan was readmitted to full membership of the Commonwealth and all its councils?

Clare Short

I agree very much with the hon. Gentleman's point. As yet, Pakistan is in good shape but it needs continuing support as it has taken an enormous economic hit on its exports. The cost of shipping, air freight and insurance have all gone up, so it needs short-term help to keep its reform effort going, as well as help with any refugees.

The Musharraf Government provided a route map to the last meeting of the Commonwealth committee that monitors progress and they firmly promised parliamentary elections by, I think, October next year as their own court required. They are absolutely committed to that.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that Pakistan needs to be protected and helped with the refugees that it is hosting, and a short, rather than a long, military campaign would help it too. We must do our best so that we obtain an outcome that is best for Afghanistan and Pakistan.