HC Deb 09 January 2002 vol 377 cc254-60WH

1 pm

Mr. Jim Murphy (Eastwood)

I am delighted to have the opportunity to introduce a debate on the drugs trade in Afghanistan, a problem that has gained in international prominence as the world has focused on that region. The debate is being held at a crucial time, given that there is a new Government in that country who seem more determined than their predecessors to take such an issue seriously.

A new drug crop is now growing in Afghanistan and international attention is focusing more than ever on that country and the problems that it faces. At present, there is a debate in the press and elsewhere about the role of the British Government in foreign affairs. The drugs problem is an international issue as well as an important domestic one, and it is impossible to distinguish between the two. Those who suggest that we should pay less attention to such issues are wrong, and we should not ignore the problem in the international context or the domestic consequences of the trade.

It has been well recorded that 90 per cent. of all heroin used in the United Kingdom comes from Afghanistan. Tragically, in the past year, more than 1,000 people have lost their lives to drug overdoses. More than 100 people lost their lives because of drugs in my city of Glasgow, and more than 70 of them lost their lives to one drug— heroin. When 70 people in one city die from heroin overdoses and 90 per cent. of the heroin in that city comes from Afghanistan, no one can tell me or the families of those who died that this is not important.

There is a financial issue, but I want to advance it as being of secondary importance in the debate. The Home Office estimates that the cost of law and order in respect of the drug problem in this country is £1.2 billion per annum. The drug has caused enormous human and financial cost. It is an enormous pull on the criminal justice system, not to mention a drain on resources in our health service. That is why, in advance of today's debate, I produced a 10-point plan that will go some way towards alleviating the problems internationally.

I want to mention my support for Iran and other nations in their border security. I do not usually support Iran. The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), and I have discussed Iran in other contexts and I have been a staunch opponent of much of its regime not only domestically, but internationally. However, it deserves our support on the drugs issue. I understand that 80 per cent. of all heroin seized in the world is captured by Iranian border control and security forces. We cannot expect it to carry out such action without our support, given that large amounts of the drug are bound for our communities. If we expect our communities to be protected from drugs, we must defend our front line, and that is often achieved by border controls.

We must find ways to help Afghan addicts. There is dispute about the extent of drug addiction in Afghanistan, but some estimates put it as high as one in 10 people, with specific problems among refugee populations. There is only one treatment centre in the country and the Afghan Government and population face an enormous domestic problem.

We must invest and research to find naturally growing fungi that attack the opium poppy in the fields, which would deal with the problem at source. If we are to clamp down on the supply from Afghanistan, we must ensure that it is not simply displaced and sourced to another region or nation, such as Burma or countries in that area.

I have several specific suggestions, and I would welcome the Minister's comments on those or on other matters that relate to the Government's attitude to the issue. The United Nations estimates that the Taliban had a stockpile of 300 tonnes of heroin. The almost 300,000 heroin users in the United Kingdom consume about 30 tonnes of heroin annually. Therefore, 10 years of heroin supply for the UK is sitting in the stockpiles built up by the Taliban and, no doubt, the Northern Alliance when it was in opposition.

What is the Government's attitude to that and what action is being taken? I found that difficult to ascertain as the international conflict developed and the entirely justifiable military action got under way. I demanded of the Ministry of Defence and the Secretary of State for Defence that the stockpiles of heroin be considered a legitimate target to be bombed and destroyed. I ask for guidance—if it is not available today then at a later date—on the status of the stockpile that the Taliban were keen to offload on the international market. Do we know where it is and its status? What action is being taken to deal with it?

What is the international community's attitude to those who previously prospered and profited from the heroin trade? I advocate that those who were involved centrally should not be allowed to hold Government office. People who continue to try to profit from the heroin should not be allowed to hold promoted posts in the new Afghan armed forces.

I am not ignorant of the role of heroin in Afghanistan's economy and the power politics of Afghanistan. However, we must end that nation's addiction to it and the reliance on it of Afghanistan's Government and warlord power brokers. Will the Minister tell us the international coalition's attitude to those whose hands are dirty with the profits of the heroin trade?

I shall now deal with tying aspects of aid to an agreed programme of reducing drug trafficking and drug production. I have heard people say that it would be heartless to impose such conditions on the Afghan population. If the scheme were handled properly, that would not be the case. We already, rightly, attach humanitarian conditions to humanitarian aid. I take a keen interest in southern Africa, and I grew up in South Africa. I support efforts to ensure that aid is tied to poverty eradication, the promotion of numeracy and literacy, the provision of primary education and clean water, health provision, and to investment in the masses rather than the elites. All those conditions are welcome. The third world and international development campaign groups who opposed them were well intentioned but wrong.

We should seek to provide enormous aid in some way. We are already committed to some aid, but more is needed, some of which should be tied to an agreed drug reduction programme, even to certain regions of Afghanistan. The less that drugs are sent to the United Kingdom, the more aid will be sent to Afghanistan. Some aid should be unconditional and we should give generous support for redevelopment, the creation of an economy, and the building of schools that are so necessary, especially for young girls. However, I seek a way in which aid can be even more generous if drugs and the drugs trade are removed from that nation. I believe that the intention behind that initiative would be widely welcomed.

I am keen to press, and will continue to campaign, for an amnesty for opium farmers in Afghanistan, and for the international community to destroy the processed crop in Afghanistan before it can leave the country. I do not propose the methods—military activity or weapons—that I advocated during the international bombing, but suggest an agreed way with the new Afghan Government so that farmers are compensated for handing over their crops and are free from prosecution that year only. Prosecution has not been as commonplace in Afghanistan as it should have been, but I hope that under the new Government, Government agencies will take a dim view of those who grow the poppy seeds.

I hope that we use this historic opportunity and act on the proposal. It would be a one-off initiative that would not be repeated. Farmers would be compensated and free from prosecution. They would have an amnesty, but those who continued to grow and profit from the drugs trade would, hopefully, be prosecuted in future years. Some might say that that is a waste of money and that the Government have more pressing concerns and greater demands on their expenditure. However, when we consider the enormous loss of life caused by the drugs trade and the huge demand on law and order and health resources, the amnesty is a small price to pay.

There is some debate about the exact cost, which depends on how much we believe is growing in Afghanistan and how much is still stockpiled. The estimates range up to a maximum of £150 million, but a more reliable figure of £40 million is advanced. Regardless of the cost, the international coalition, with Britain at its core, should be playing a leading role in trying to ensure that farmers are compensated for the destruction of their crops.

Of course, we believe that those crops should not have been grown, and in an ideal world, those people would be prosecuted here and now. However, we live not in that world, but in one where the Taliban and the Northern Alliance have turned a blind eye and in some ways encouraged the growth of those crops. We are dealing with a world in which we can only prevent the crop from being processed and imported into our communities and into the lives of so many of our citizens by compensating the farmers and destroying the crops through an agreed programme with the Afghan Government, or under the auspices of the United Nations. It should be done in a way that would remove that enormous export market in heroin from Afghanistan. According to the Home Office, a heroin user will steal, on average, up to £20,000 a year to feed their habit, and considering that there are nearly 300,000 heroin users in this country, that would be a small price to pay. It could deal with the problem in an international context as long as the supply chain was not simply displaced to other nations.

Before 11 September, Afghanistan was regarded as an exporter of two major products: training in terror—as is all too tragically apparent—and heroin. We have rightly and properly begun to deal with the threat of terror, and it is now time that we turned with equal determination to the problem of heroin. I look forward in the coming weeks and months—but hopefully not years—to campaigning for the Government to lead the way in an amnesty and compensation scheme that will destroy a crop that has, through drug overdoses, destroyed all too many of my constituents and those of the Minister.

1.15 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Ben Bradshaw)

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood (Mr. Murphy) for proposing this debate on combating the drugs trade in Afghanistan. This serious subject is of huge significance to the United Kingdom. Around 90 per cent. of the 20 to 30 tonnes of heroin used on our streets annually originates as opium poppy in Afghanistan. My hon. Friend succinctly and successfully outlined the devastating social and economic costs of that on the streets of our towns and cities, including those of his own constituency. He also recognised that combating the drugs trade in Afghanistan will be no easy task.

Many of the countries that produce drugs have several things in common: poverty, conflict, poor or no governance, and weak law enforcement. Afghanistan is a prime example, allowing drug production not simply to go unchallenged but to be actively encouraged. Those issues cannot be addressed overnight.

Afghanistan is one of the world's poorest countries. It has been host to conflict for over 20 years, governance has been weak or non-existent and the rule of law is virtually unknown. The majority of opium poppy farmers in Afghanistan are not wealthy. They grow opium poppy as part of their livelihood strategy. It is a durable crop—opium can be stored for several years—which is a desirable quality in a country where the infrastructure is so poor that perishable produce is extremely difficult and prohibitively expensive to get to market. Opium has a relatively high cash value. Most farm plots are so small that insufficient food can be grown on them to feed a farmer's family, so growing opium poppy is often the only means of survival.

Because opium is one of the few commodities in Afghanistan that has a guaranteed market, loans can be secured against a future crop. That is often the only source of credit available to the rural poor. Those factors, combined with the lack of alternative off-farm income opportunities and the existence of a large number of underemployed labourers who are available for the time-consuming task of harvesting opium, have entrenched opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan's economy.

Under the Taliban regime, opium production in Afghanistan doubled. That is no coincidence. That regime was deeply involved in the drugs trade, deriving a significant proportion of its income from it. In July 2000, Mullah Omar issued an edict banning opium poppy cultivation as un-Islamic. However, we believe that there were other motives for the ban: an attempt to consolidate the market and increase opium prices, and international pressure. In any event it was highly effective, but surplus production in previous years led to the creation of large stockpiles of opium. We have no figures that are absolutely reliable. Perhaps as my hon. Friend has said, the stockpiles are enough to last for several years.

Those stockpiles continued to be traded, trafficked and controlled by the Taliban regime, despite the ban on cultivation. As a result, the price of opium increased tenfold, allowing the Taliban to reap the benefit. During the recent opium poppy planting season—September to December—it is probable that widespread cultivation resumed. That is the result of high opium prices, encouragement by traffickers and a lack of alternative means of income for farmers. While the Taliban regime has gone, many of the trafficking networks remain intact and the circumstances that allow the drugs trade to flourish still prevail.

The drugs trade in Afghanistan is a complex issue, and there is no simple or immediate solution. However, the installation of the new interim Administration presents us with a unique opportunity to combat the problem once and for all. The first step has already been taken. At the Bonn conference it was agreed that the interim Administration would co-operate with the international community in the fight against drugs. The issue of tackling illicit drugs features prominently in the UN-led political process for Afghanistan and is mentioned specifically in the proposed organisational structure of the future UN assistance mission in Afghanistan.

It will be essential therefore for central and regional authorities, based on the rule of law and operating under agreed good governance practices, to be fully engaged in any efforts to eradicate the drugs problem in Afghanistan. It will also be essential to continue efforts to attack traffickers. If they can be removed from the equation, or have their activities significantly disrupted in the short term, there will be less of a market for the crop currently in the ground, and less incentive for farmers to invest in the labour to harvest it.

Angus Robertson (Moray)

On behalf of the Scottish National party, I welcome the Minister to this important debate. May I suggest one partial solution? As he outlined, there is a strong demand not just for illegal, but for legal opium. One potential solution would be to secure legal pharmaceutical production from opium-producing sources in Afghanistan to unlink them from illegal heroin sales. Should that not also go hand in hand with efforts by the UK and other international coalition Governments to establish an effective, secure strategy of enforcement to ensure that there is movement away from the illegal trade to a legal, sustainable basis for the poor farming population in Afghanistan?

Mr. Bradshaw

I must slightly correct the hon. Gentleman. There is a legitimate demand for legal pharmaceutical opium production, but it is tiny in global terms. It is miniscule compared with the illegal trade. The legal production that takes place in other parts of the world, including India, already provides enough for legitimate medicinal needs. I am not sure that that suggestion is an answer to our problems.

In the medium and longer term, breaking the dependence of small farmers on poppy cultivation will be the key to successful drug control. Credit from traffickers secured against future poppy cultivation results in higher levels of poppy growing than would otherwise necessarily be attractive to farmers. So alternative sources of credit may be needed. It may also be necessary to tackle the accumulated poppy debt from previous years. Drug control should be integrated into long-term development programmes—diversifying rural livelihoods away from poppy cultivation.

On an official visit to Thailand just before Christmas I had the privilege to observe some of the very good work there. I flew over some of the northern area of Thailand on the border with Burma, which in the past has been a real problem for opium poppy cultivation. The cultivation there has been almost completely eradicated through an eradication programme, combined with a crop substitution programmes. I also visited a village that had previously been completely dependent on growing opium poppy and was now growing fruit and vegetables and sending them to Bangkok to be sold. Those involved were making five times more than they were making from the sale of opium poppy.

Successful crop substitution programmes are possible. As my hon. Friend knows, many parts of Afghanistan that currently grow opium poppy are highly fertile and were once successful exporters of fruit such as pomegranates. The best pomegranates in the world come from the Kandahar. There are alternatives to which we could move back.

My hon. Friend made a number of specific suggestions, and I thank him for his 10-point plan. I will certainly give his suggestions careful consideration. There are no plans to buy the current opium crop. There are some disagreements about the cost. Figures ranging from $50 million to $150 million have been mentioned, but regardless of the cost, there are disadvantages to that approach. It would deal only with this year's crop, and it could reinforce the perception that opium can be traded for financial assistance. It could prompt other Afghan farmers, who are not currently involved, to start cultivating the opium poppy. It also might encourage something that my hon. Friend said that he wanted to avoid—opium producers in other countries trying to increase production in the hope that their crop might be subject to a similar buy-out. However, we shall examine that proposal more carefully.

My hon. Friend also called for research into the development of an environmentally friendly biological agent, which would destroy the opium poppy. We support research that could provide such a breakthrough. He also rightly outlined the importance of the help that we are giving to the neighbouring states—Iran especially—in the central Asian republics. He may be interested to know that Iran is the biggest single recipient of UK money aid for tackling drug trafficking problems. Although he mentioned the devastating impact of opium production in Afghanistan in relation to drug addiction, he may also like to know that in the past 20 years, 3,500 Iranian border officials have been killed while carrying out their duties to try to stem the flow of heroin from Iran over the border. That has a devastating impact, and I am extremely pleased that he supports measures that Iran, supported by Britain and other countries, is taking, and has taken during recent years, to try to solve the problem. Since 1998, the UK has spent £3.9 million on Iran and we also give a great deal of help to Pakistan and the central Asian republics.

It is essential, not just for the region, which has suffered grievously from the failed state status of Afghanistan and consequent opium production, but because of the devastating social and economic impact, especially on constituencies such as that of my hon. Friend, that we help Afghanistan to break its dependence on the drugs trade and the influence exerted by traffickers. Together with the international community, we will provide every assistance to Afghanistan's new Administration to combat this evil trade and its underlying causes. Effective drug control cuts across many issues, encompassing poverty reduction, security and development. Progress must be maintained on all those fronts for a sustained period. With the help of the international community, Afghanistan and its people, and my hon. Friend's constituents, can look forward to a much brighter future.