HC Deb 30 January 2002 vol 379 cc274-7
3. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

What recent discussions she has had with her European counterparts on the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan. [29126]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Clare Short)

Last week I attended the Tokyo conference on the reconstruction of Afghanistan, where I met my counterparts from a number of European countries, the European Commission and representatives of other Governments and international institutions.

We discussed the need for continuing humanitarian assistance and strengthening of the Afghan interim administration's capacity to deliver to its people. We also agreed that there was an urgent need to improve security and begin the process of demobilisation of armed factions and the building of an Afghan army and police force.

Miss McIntosh

Does the Secretary of State share my sadness at the death of the lion in captivity in Kabul, which became a symbol of the struggle in Afghanistan? Will she tell the House what discussions she has held with her European counterparts about the particular problem that arises from the fact that most of the assistance to Afghanistan is announced only one year in advance? Will she push for longer-term commitments to Afghanistan?

Clare Short

We are all sorry to see a lion die—although I think it was an old lion. I hope that he had led a happier life than many of the people of Afghanistan. I read that in some countries the appeal for funds for the zoo in Afghanistan secured more funding than appeals for the people of Afghanistan. Something is out of proportion if that was the case, although we should care for animals and people.

I agree with the hon. Lady's underlying point. We must stay committed to Afghanistan for the long term. The country cannot be rehabilitated in a year. That is why we made a five-year commitment. We are working strongly with Commissioner Patten for a long-term commitment from the EC, and although he could not do that formally, he was trying to achieve a commitment to mobilise 1 billion euro rather than merely making a one-year commitment. Some countries took a long-term view; others did not. We must do all that we can to keep a sustained engagement so as to give Afghanistan a chance.

Mr. Clive Soley (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush)

The Secretary of State may be aware that there are many Afghan refugees in my constituency. A significant number of them, many of whom have extremely good skills, would like to return to Afghanistan to help in the reconstruction. However, it is not always easy, especially if they have been out of contact for a long time, to find a point of reference there—someone to whom they can notify their skills and whom they can ask that they be used appropriately. Has there been any thought about that and are any contacts emerging in the new Afghan Government to whom I could refer a growing number of people?

Clare Short

I, too, have 100 or so Afghan asylum seekers in my constituency, many of whom are highly skilled and educated. I am sure that that is true all over the world. Many skilled and educated Afghans left the country and we must do all that we can to try to assist them so that they can help in the rebuilding of their country. The International Organisation for Migration—a UN body—has set up a register and is asking all Afghans in the diaspora who are interested in helping to register their skills. The organisation is keeping a tally of the skills needed in Afghanistan. We will thus be able to match people up and help them to go home permanently or temporarily to help in the reconstruction.

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park)

May I ask the Secretary of State again whether she is concerned that the UK contribution to humanitarian aid and the reconstruction of Afghanistan is being met entirely by the Department for International Development? That is despite the fact that £100 million has been made available to the Ministry of Defence from Treasury reserves for operations there. The right hon. Lady will remember that during the Kosovo crisis the Treasury reserves contributed £68 million to the efforts of DFID. Will she assure the House that the cupboard will not be bare in the event of another natural disaster? [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. There is far too much noise in the Chamber.

Clare Short

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

I welcome increases in my budget from anywhere in the Government system. If the hon. Lady can persuade the Treasury to contribute more to my budget, I shall welcome it. On the other hand, we have to deploy our resources flexibly—especially resources for disasters, because we never know where disasters will occur. As I explained, we have a contingency reserve within my budget and when that is exhausted we go to the Treasury. I cannot remember whether we received £10 million or £20 million from the Treasury towards Afghanistan, but the rest of the commitment comes from my budget. That means that if there was a series of disasters across the world I should be in difficulty, although, of course, we are approaching the end of a financial year. We cope and we deploy our budget well, but we spend every farthing. More would be welcome and if the hon. Lady could help me with the Treasury I should be enormously grateful.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge and Chryston)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that in Afghanistan, as elsewhere, Britain's contribution is both bilateral and multilateral; that her Department has given an excellent lead; and that if, following the events of 11 September, which themselves followed devastation in Afghanistan, we can give the Afghans the same recognition that we gave to the Kurds, that would be a noble objective?

Clare Short

My right hon. Friend is right. The contributions that the UK is making to the reconstruction of Afghanistan and to development across the world include not only our direct British programme but the contributions that my budget makes to the World Bank and the Asian development bank. Moreover, 20 per cent. of the EC contribution will draw down on my budget. However, it is right that we should have a strong multilateral system that can work everywhere, including countries where we have a particular partnership. We are deploying all those resources and I am really hopeful that if the international community sustains its engagement, we can guarantee the people of Afghanistan a better future and bring good out of bad. We must all work for that.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden)

On Monday, in her statement about the rebuilding of Afghanistan, the Secretary of State said that Britain would assist the new interim administration with what she called a scoping study on security. What does that mean and how long will it take? What is the likely commitment of British resources to that study?

Clare Short

The scoping study is the initial study that assesses the size of the country, makes the best possible estimate of the number of forces under arms and starts to think through the process of demobilisation and work out where to train the armed forces. Obviously, the armed forces need to serve the whole country, so they should be representative ethnically, but then exclusive ethnic groups in parts of the country—there are minorities—would not be properly protected. In other words, it is the initial study, getting the numbers, beginning to think of the process that would take things forward, then sharing the information with the international community, to reach agreement with the interim administration on a process of putting it into action. We have conducted similar studies, in Sierra Leone before we started that work, and in other countries such as Indonesia, where the security sector needs reform. We hope to get that study moving fast, share the information internationally and then, hopefully, start the process of demobilisation and the building of new security forces.