HL Deb 15 December 2003 vol 655 cc947-9

3 p.m.

Lord Astor of Hever

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are concerned about the increased growing of heroin poppies in Afghanistan and what steps they are taking to prevent the import of heroin from Afghanistan to the United Kingdom

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, the report of the United Nations' 2003 Afghanistan opium survey shows an unwelcome but not unexpected increase of 8 per cent in opium poppy cultivation and 6 per cent in production. This mirrors the experience of counter-narcotics policies in other countries, such as Pakistan and Thailand. The United Kingdom has taken on lead nation status in supporting the implementation of the Afghanistan national drug control strategy, adopted in May 2003, and aims to eliminate poppy production within the next 10 years. We are committing £70 million over the next three years to fund a wide range of counter-narcotics activity.

Lord Astor of Hever

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Afghanistan supplies 75 per cent of the world's heroin and 90 per cent of that comes to this country. Does the noble Baroness agree that the Government are failing in their pledge to cut heroin production as this year's harvest is the second highest ever recorded?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, this country has a huge stake in ensuring the success of the Afghanistan national drug control strategy. Ninety-five per cent of the heroin on our streets in the United Kingdom originates from Afghanistan—a horrifying figure. The noble Lord said that we are failing in our strategy. This strategy has been running for seven months only of a 10-year programme. Sadly, experience in other countries—particularly in Pakistan and Thailand—tells us that inevitably the figures will rise as interdiction goes into different areas and drug production moves to the margins, to areas where the police find it more difficult to get to the drug producers. That is what is happening in Afghanistan. We are in this for the long term and I ask the noble Lord not to be too pessimistic at this stage.

Baroness Northover

My Lords, is the Minister worried about a link between the expansion in poppy production and recent reports that Afghan warlords are paying huge sums of money to buy votes to the Loya Jirgah, the body which will determine Afghanistan's new constitution?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the activities of the warlords in different respects are very worrying and it is important to look at the ways in which interdiction works. The point I made to the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, is also important in this respect. As drug production is chased out of the areas where we are firming up on security, so it moves into other areas. This makes it more difficult for us to police not only drug production but the activities of those who manipulate local communities. I know that the noble Baroness will join me in hoping that the Loya Jirgah is a great success—as I am sure do all noble Lords. It began yesterday and it has got off to a reasonably good start. We need to give it maximum backing but to be very aware of the kind of problems raised by the noble Baroness.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, are alternative crops proposed for those who are growing this drug? This has been done in South America where, for instance, flower production, together with no import duties on flowers grown in most South American countries, has been successful up to a point. Would this apply to Afghanistan?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the noble Baroness is right. This is not a question of stopping the poppy growing but of providing sustainable alternatives for the people on the ground. Over the next three years the Department for International Development will spend £170 million on exactly that kind of development project in Afghanistan. Of that amount, £20 million will be earmarked to provide a sustainable alternative livelihood. For example, such a project is being established in Badakhshan. We are funding it jointly with the United States of America and we are looking at a variety of different crops for farmers to grow as alternatives.

Baroness Sharpies

My Lords, can the Minister say through which countries the heroin passes before it reaches this country?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the routes are various. Most are overland. I hope the noble Baroness will excuse me but it would be unwise to go into great detail about what we know of drug routes because it could compromise our ability to police those routes properly and to use effective interdiction when we get the chance. A good deal of our intelligence effort at the moment is expended on looking at the ways in which drugs travel overland from Afghanistan and eventually reach this country.

Lord Desai

My Lords, would it not be a better policy to buy up all poppy production and destroy it at source, rather than to follow this futile policy of discouraging production when it is in everyone's self-interest to make money by growing poppies?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, although that sounds very attractive, for how many years would we be forced to buy up production? It might sound like an attractive alternative in the first year, but if it continued year after year we would find that more and more people would think that poppy production was a jolly good line to go in for if it was underwritten by that kind of buy-up. So, attractive as it may sound in the first instance, in the longer term we might live to regret it.

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