HC Deb 09 June 2004 vol 422 cc120-8WH 3.29 pm
David Cairns (Greenock and Inverclyde) (Lab)

I am pleased to have the opportunity to return once again to an issue that I have been raising in the House for more than two years, which is the need to eradicate the deadly international trade in opium that originates from the poppy fields of Afghanistan.

The trade is a chain of misery and degradation. It begins with the exploitation of desperately poor farmers in some of the most inhospitable corners of the planet and progresses via grotesque profiteering by international drug traffickers and their vile associates, resulting in the abject misery and suffering of wretched addicts and blighting the quality of life for those innocents who mus, live beside the seedy reality of petty drug dealing on estates and streets in my constituency and elsewhere. The evil business does not end there, but returns whence it came in the form of narco-terrorist funding. No one who heard the powerful speech by President Karzai at last year's Labour party conference can be in any doubt that international terrorists are directly and financially funding their murderous activity with drugs money. I cannot conceive of a more vicious vicious circle.

Before I address what must be done to tackle the trade at source, let me say that I am well aware that the basic laws of human commerce apply in this area as they do elsewhere. I know that where there is a demand there will be a supply, and that cutting off the supply of heroin that comes from Afghanistan will not end the problems of addiction, but I make no apologies for focusing today on the supply-side regime. I believe in the market, but all markets must operate within social, human and international frame works. The trade in heroin is as immoral, corrupt, violent and destructive as it gets. Furthermore, the demand side of the problem in my constituency, in terms of demand reduction and policing, has devolved to the Scottish Parliament. It is my duty as a Westminster MP to concentrate on those aspects of the trade that are reserved to this place, and that is the reason for this debate.

I would like to say one thing about domestic policy: there is little point in my campaigning to stop the flow of drugs into Scotland if Argyll and Clyde health board pulls the rug from under my feet. In its most recent consultation document, it mentions the problem of drugs only once, anti drug treatment is not mentioned at all in the part about closing Ravenscraig hospital in Greenock. That is simply staggering. I know the blight that drug addiction casts on individuals, families and communities, and the criminal activity that goes with it. I would lock up the dealers and throw away the key, but when an addict admits that they have a problem and tries to get off drugs, it is vital that they get the help that they need. Services provided at Ravenscraig are an essential part of that help, and it is unbelievable that the health board's strategy is silent in that respect. Thankfully, the days of Inverclyde being—wrongly—called the heroin capital of Scotland are behind us, but only a fool would claim that we do not still have a problem. That is just one of the major flaws in the health board's strategy and is another reason to oppose the reduction in services that it is planning.

Supply feeds demand. The more heroin there is, the cheaper it becomes and the cheaper it gets, the more people use; the more people use, the more addicts are created; and more addicts mean more crime, more sickness, more heartbreak for families and more tragic early deaths. Ninety per cent. of the heroin on Britain's streets begins life as poppies in Afghanistan. That did not occur overnight: the trade was built up over many years, accelerating during the second half of the 1990s. It is a lucrative trade: in 2003, the combined income of Afghan opium farmers and traffickers was about $2.3 billion, roughly equivalent to half the legitimate gross domestic product of that country.

We are entitled to ask how that came to pass. Was not one of the reasons for toppling the Taliban that they had, in part, been funded by the opium trade? That was certainly the view expressed by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in his statement of 7 October 2001. As the conflict in Afghanistan precipitated by the attacks of the previous month in New York began, he said: We act also because the Al-Qaeda net work and the Taliban regime are funded in large part on the drugs trade…stopping that trade is, again, directly in our interests. The following day, speaking in the House of Commons, he said: We in Britain have the most direct interest in defeating such terror…We know that the Taliban regime are largely funded by the drugs trade and that 90 per cent. of the heroin on British streets originates in Afghanistan."—[Official Report, 8 October 2001; Vol. 372, c. 814.] After the conflict was over, the Prime Minister returned to that topic in an interview with the BBC World Service in which he praised President Karzai's recent initiative to issue instructions to destroy the poppy crop in Afghanistan for this year"— that is, in 2001. He continued: We are giving every support to this. This is very, very important indeed. I agree wholeheartedly, which is one of the reasons why I strongly supported the removal of the Taliban regime. The problem is that, since the Prime Minister made those comments, the situation has gotten worse. In 2002—the year in which the Prime Minister was speaking—about 74,000 hectares were given over to poppy cultivation. Last year, that had grown to 80,000 hectares—an 8 per cent. increase, which in turn has led to a 6 per cent. increase in the amount of opium produced. The practice is spreading: 28 out of 32 Afghan provinces now report poppy cultivation. The number of people involved is also increasing: it is reckoned that there are some 264,000 opium-growing families and roughly 1.7 million people whose livelihoods depend on that crop. Although the average opium income per capita for the farmers is the modest, to our eyes, sum of $594, that is three times larger than it was just the previous year. The growth continues, and just two weeks ago, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime issued a press release stating that there was: growing concern that the 2004 opium crop in Afghanistan may reach a record level. How is that two and a half years after military action to end the trade, and more than two ears after the Prime Minister spoke of destroying the harvest, things are moving in the wrong direction?

I lay no blame whatever at the feet of Ministers, who have worked tirelessly on this issue. I particularly commend the UK Government's initiative to convene the first international counter-narcotics conference in Afghanistan, which was held in February this year. I will deal with some of its conclusions in a moment. However, we must begin from a point of honesty—we must not kid ourselves. The situation on the ground is deteriorating. President Karzai has warned of the risk that Afghanistan will again turn into a failed state—this time, in the hands of the drug cartels and the narco-terrorists. As recently as February he warned that poppy cultivation not only affects the economy of Afghanistan, but the money which is earned from the trafficking, production and business of heroin fuels terrorism. Terrorism and narcotic drugs are involved and cooperate in the destruction of Afghanistan. the region and the world. What can be done? All too often, the debate polarises and falls into two camps. The first camp—in which I admit I occasionally pitch my tent—contains those who say that we should actively seek and destroy the poppies, and deal with the consequences afterwards. The second camp contains those who wish to persuade opium growers that they should develop an alternative crop, and to provide them with the wherewithal to do so. The way forward is likely to be somewhere in between. Enforcement must he accompanied by assistance: the stick of military with the carrot of greater resources. Antonio Maria Costa, the executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, has noted in relation to enforcement that in the drug business of Afghanistan the risk/reward balance is skewed: enormous sums of money are being made with impunity. This must be redressed, by increasing the risk of illegality. Energetic measures are needed to repress the traffickers, dismantle the heroin labs, and destroy the terrorists' and warlords' stake in the opium economy". However, he went on to comment: law enforcement alone cannot suffice. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime calls on the international community for adequate resources to help rebuild the economy of Afghanistan where far too many people still have no food security, no electricity, no running water, no roads, no schools and no health services. It was, I assume, in an attempt to get right the balance between those who adopt a literally scorched-earth approach and those who favour gradualism that the UK convened the international conference earlier in the year. I look forward to my hon. Friend's comments on that event, although I believe that he could not reach it to attend, because of unseasonably heavy snow in Kabul. On top of all its other problems, Afghanistan seems to have the wrong kind of snow as well. The conference produced several action plans, and I would like the Minister to take the opportunity now to recommit the Government to implementing them in full. There are action plans on, first, law enforcement, including calls for action against corrupt Government officials who are hampering the counter-narcotics effort in return for a lucrative share of the profits; secondly, alternative livelihoods—there is praise in this context for the appointment of a UK-funded alternative livelihoods consultant; thirdly, drug demand reduction, to deal with the growing problem of domestic drug addiction; and, fourthly, public awareness, with the acknowledgement that opium production has become the cultural norm in many parts of Afghanistan, despite being clearly against the tenets of mainstream Islamic teaching. Those are excellent initiatives and of course I wish them well.

However, there is a flaw—one piece of the strategy is missing. There is a terrible missing element that, if not inserted, will doom the rest to failure. There is no commitment to a process of poppy destruction—no plan systematically and to an agreed timetable to seek out and destroy the deadly opium crop. I know that destruction is not enough in itself—I know that we need the carrot. But where is the stick? There must be a clear, unequivocal statement that unless the farmers engage with the authorities in the process of law enforcement and switching to alternative livelihoods, their farms will be destroyed. I welcome Antonio Costa's comment last autumn that the preconditions for change are slowly being put into place, but the process cannot be allowed to drift for years. We have already gone backwards in the two and a half years since the conflict, and we are continuing to move in the wrong direction.

Antonio Costa also said: The experience of several countries in Asia and Latin America demonstrates that the dismantling of a drug economy can be a long and complex process, lasting a generation…A generation is a long time. This prompts the question—can Afghanistan, with its democratisation threatened by old terrorists and new drug barons; neighbouring countries affected by drug addiction, an HIV/AIDS pandemic, corruption and violence; and the international community, with its 10 million people addicted to Afghan opiates—afford to wait that long? He does not answer that question. I will. The answer is no. I am not prepared to wait a generation for a decrease in the flow of cheap heroin on to the streets of Inverclyde. I am not prepared to tell the decent people of Greenock that they will have to put up for another 30 years with the scumbag heroin dealers who blight their communities. I am not prepared to wag a finger at corrupt Afghan officials and to coax reluctant farmers into seeing the error of their ways without the threat of terrible reprisals if they do not. I am not prepared to return to this issue in another 12 months to report further setbacks. I want real progress.

I close with the words of President Karzai, who said: We hadn't seen addicts in Afghanistan before, and we didn't even know what addiction was. But now we see the young addicted to heroin in our community. Addiction by heroin and death are the same. Death inflicted by pistol, rocket and bomb is fast—but death through addiction to heroin causes the slow death of people and the destruction of families. Too many people have died and too many families have been destroyed. The time to end this evil trade has come. The task has fallen to us.

3.45 pm
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) (Lab)

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (David Cairns) for his thoughtful and constructive speech. I would like to put two questions to him. To what extent was poppy production reduced at the height of the Taliban regime, or was it not reduced? Secondly, as one who has been in Kosovo, I would like to know whether there is an Albanian route through Kosovo by which Albanians bring drugs to this country from Afghanistan.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Bill Rammell)

I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (David Cairns) not only on his speech this afternoon, but on being the Member of this House who has most assiduously pressed us on the issue of the trafficking of opium and heroin from Afghanistan.

I am pleased to be able to respond to my hon. Friend's remarks today in the context of the visit that I made to Afghanistan a few weeks ago, when I met President Karzai, Afghan Ministers and senior advisers, as well as key representatives of the international community. I saw the work that was under way to give effect to the Afghan transitional authority's counter-narcotics strategy, which aims to eliminate opium poppy cultivation by 2013. I listened carefully to what my hon. Friend said at the end of his speech about not wanting to wait for a generation; I certainly do not want to wait for a generation to see the problem tackled.

We should have a sense of realism, however, about the time scales that will be necessary if the problem is successfully to be tackled. Elsewhere in the world, experience of successfully tackling the problem suggests that it will take up to a decade to achieve that in Afghanistan. That does not mean that the Government are complacent or that we are not trying to make progress, but it dos s mean that we are in this for the long haul.

The UK Government remain committed to supporting implementation of the Afghan counter-narcotics strategy and to the lead role that we have been given in the international community. We have taken on that role not only because we have a sense of responsibility and concern for ordinary Afghan people, but because we have a significant vested interest in relation to the interests of people in this country. My hon. Friend referred to the fact that 95 per cent. of the heroin in UK streets originates in Afghanistan, so the problem for Afghans is every bit as much our problem. That is why we have committed at least £70 million over the coming three years and why we have a significant number of our civilian personnel on the ground. That is part of the UK's ongoing commitment to the Afghan people, and part of the increase in our overall assistance to at least £500 million over five years, which was announced at the Berlin conference on Afghanistan in April this year.

Elimination of opium production is a key challenge for the Afghan Government and the international community. It is a key challenge because it threatens the stability, reconstruction and legitimate economy of Afghanistan. The recent Berlin conference recognised the significance of tackling the drugs problem if we are to ensure a more secure and sustainable future for Afghanistan. It remains an enormous challenge, which we do not underestimate, but as I said, we are in this for the long haul and we are determined to succeed.

My hon. Friend referred to the current cultivation trends, and he is correct to say that the latest United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime survey reported cultivation figures of 80,000 hectares and production figures of 3,600 tonnes. That demonstrated a small increase in cultivation and production. The survey results for 2004 are still being collated and assessed by the UN office, and they are not due until the autumn. However, it seems clear that cultivation will have increased again this year.

That is obviously unwelcome, and it is legitimate in such circumstances to ask, as my hon. Friend did, why we are in that situation. One has to look at what has previously happened elsewhere in the world. Experience tells us that elimination strategies relating to opium poppy cultivation and production take time in other countries where the problem has been successfully tackled, albeit from lower original levels of cultivation, such as Pakistan and Thailand. Not only do they take time, but in the early years of the strategy, there is an increase in cultivation. Why does that happen? It can happen, for example, because infrastructure and access to water improves, and, as we are seeing in Afghanistan, because when one makes a squeeze on the traditional poppy growing areas, the activity begins to move into non-traditional areas. That does not mean that we are unaware of that problem. Indeed, we are trying to tackle it, but it is one of the reasons for initially seeing an increase in cultivation and production.

My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) also asked about experience under the Taliban—a point is often quoted. For one year, 2001, the Taliban enforced a complete ban on cultivation. If one uses the methods that the Taliban had at their disposal—torture, bribery, corruption and killing—it is possible to bring about a ban in one year, but the Taliban did not stop benefiting from the trading, cultivation and trafficking of heroin. Indeed, they continued to stockpile, traffic and make money from that process. If one goes back further, one sees that levels are not yet what they were during the early years of the Taliban. Our discussions must take place in context.

We need and we are trying to achieve—my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde referred to this—a significant change in the risk-reward balance affecting those who make decisions on whether they will engage in the drugs trade in Afghanistan. Historically, the risks have not been as great as they should be and the rewards have been significant. That is what we are seeking to change, which is why, in concert with the Afghan authorities and other international partners, a comprehensive, long-teem and sustainable approach is being built. We certainly have such an approach in the Afghan Government's counter-narcotics strategy, whose implementation is fundamental. The strategy is coordinated by the counter-narcotics steering group in Kabul, chaired by the Afghan national security adviser We are part of that steering group, as are other international partners.

The basic structures are now in place: drugs control legislation, a counter-narcotics directorate, the Ministry of the Interior's Afghan special narcotics force, counter-narcotics police and, crucially, the central eradication capability. That is one of the key points that my hon. Friend made towards the end of his contribution. We need an holistic approach, and that certainly includes an eradication capability. That capability also needs to be co-ordinated and targeted, which is why we have supported, financially and materially, the central eradication planning cell, because eradication must happen in the right places where it is most likely to succeed.

We are working with the Afghan Government in all key areas of the strategy with immediate action to interdict the trade in drugs and eradicate opium poppy cultivation in areas where there is access to alternative livelihoods; assistance with the development of a counter-narcotics strand to the criminal justice system; assistance with the reduction of domestic demand for opiates; and support for development initiatives that, crucially, will provide alternative livelihoods for poppy farmers. A number of those pieces of the strategy have recently been put in place, and the next 15 months, particularly towards the end of that period and the next cultivation season, will be the critical test of whether what we are doing is working. I believe that it is, but it is right to make the judgment at that stage.

It may be helpful to give some specific examples of where measurable progress has been made according to that action plan. There has been progress with interdiction, which is a key element. The Afghan special narcotics force is an Afghan initiative to create a special drugs interdiction force under the control of the Ministry of the Interior. Since the force became operational, it has seized more than 32 tonnes of opiates and destroyed 32 laboratories, storage sites and significant quantities of precursor chemicals. The local impact, in particular, has been disproportionately high.

We have also seen the development of the counter-narcotics police, which was created as a specialist unit last year with a UK-mentored anti-smuggling team that has seized 125 kg of heroin, 30 kg of opium and a significant amount of precursor chemicals. That work is developing further. Furthermore, when I was in Kabul recently, I had the opportunity to witness the Kabul city gates project, which we have supported and funded through Customs and Excise, and which seeks to intervene and to catch and stop the trafficking of drugs as they leave and enter Kabul.

My hon. Friend referred to eradication. The Afghan Government has established a central eradication planning cell in the Ministry of Interior, which is critical to analysing and targeting efforts on eradication in a way that is consistent with our policy of eradicating the poppy crop only where farmers have access to alternative livelihoods. An alternative livelihood is a key factor. Anyone who considers the issue will conclude that if we are to persuade poppy farmers to stop undertaking that activity, they must be given an alternative income. That is why DFID is so engaged, why it has trebled its budget and why this is a particularly important strand of its activities.

The security situation is critical. If we are to make genuine progress on tackling poppy cultivation, it must be done in a context where security is improved and, beyond Kabul, is better than it has historically been. That is why the deployment of additional provincial reconstruction teams throughout Afghanistan is critical to expanding the international security assistance force beyond Kabul. ISAF has a key role to play alongside Afghan law and order forces and the US-led coalition in providing the necessary security for the elections. The international community must also ensure that ISAF can be expanded quickly. We are seeking to do that. The tasking of ISAF and the coalition forces to ensure that they can participate in counter-narcotics work is an important element of the strategy that we have been addressing. The coalition mandate has been changed to enable that to happen.

I shall say a few words about the conference in Kabul, to which my hon. Friend referred. I valiantly tried to get to it, but owing to the worst snows in Kabul for 15 years, I was unable to get a plane to land there. It was the first time that all the key international partners and key elements in the Afghan administration from President Karzai down were all together and signing up to the strategy to tackle those problems. Significant action plans were agreed to. The increased interdiction activity will increase the numbers and effectiveness of the counter-narcotics police of Afghanistan and the mobile detection teams. We are contributing by increasing the number of mobile detection teams from one to four this year and by looking for international partners to take on additional teams.

We are also tackling corruption and the involvement of officials and commanders in the drugs trade. Anyone who considers the issue or visits Afghanistan knows that there are key officials who have a vested financial interest in the drugs industry. The problem has to be tackled in the long term, and in part that will be achieved through symbolic high-level arrests, sending out a clear message that to involve oneself in the industry is not an easy and risk-free way to make money.

Another key element of the conference was the need to increase resources for programmes with maximum alternative livelihoods impact and support the design and implementation programmes to fill existing gaps in pro-poor agricultural livelihoods, rural finances, off-farm activities and micro and small enterprise development. We are working with the United Nations office and other international partners to make real progress with that programme. All the key building blocks of the strategy are in place. What we are doing can and will work, but the next 15 months will be absolutely critical and a real test.

If one considers the overall economic prospects and levels of growth that are providing real opportunities beyond poppy cultivation in Afghanistan, one sees that there are real, demonstrable opportunities. This issue is a problem for the Afghan people and for us, where, given the removal of the Taliban, we have a moral and historic responsibility to act and work on their behalf. Some 95 per cent. of the heroin that enters this country and causes such mayhem and damage to so many of our communities comes from Afghanistan. It is every bit as much our responsibility and in our interest to tackle the problem as it is for the Afghan Government and people. We are absolutely determined to work with them to take the issue forward.