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The Secretary of State for International Development (Clare Short): I congratulate the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) on taking up her post. I hope that it will not embarrass her if I say that the Bishop of Birmingham, of whom I am enormously fondhe recently announced his retirement and has done much good service in our cityrang me to say what a fine woman she is. I look forward to working with her. As she says, not only is the task of seeking to make life better for the poor of the world one of the most honourable that one can have in politics, but we shall not have a safe world order in the future unless we make a bigger effort to deal with the poverty, suffering and injustice that exist in our modern world. I look forward very much to working with the hon. Lady to that end.
We have had an unusually thoughtful and high-quality debate. It is normal in times of crisis for the House to pull together, but almost all the contributions have been deeper than that; there has been a shared analysis and a deep consensus. Hon. Members agreed that military action was necessary to deal with the evil perpetrated in the United States and to take apart the terrorist network that is capable of inflicting the same kind of evil again in another part of the world. There was an absolute consensus across all the parties that we must give as big a commitment to humanitarian action, both in an emergency and to rebuild the countries that are suffering. There is a real commitment to global social justice and to dealing with some of the injustices, particularly in that region of the world, which do not excuse the terrorists' actions but feed the bitterness that misleads some young people to engage in that action.
I have been a Member of the House for 18 years and I have never seen such a deep consensus, built on an analysis rather than a coming together at a time of crisis. We all want to pay a warm tribute to our armed forces. We send them and their families our support, concern and thoughts at this difficult time.
It is important to remember that the Afghan people were facing a crisis before 11 September. They have suffered 20 years of war and three years of terrible drought, which have contributed to a huge loss of life and tremendous human suffering. Afghanistan is one of the world's poorest countries, with some of the world's highest child and maternal mortality rates. Disability is commona consequence of the large number of landmines that litter the country after so many years of war.
Health and education services have virtually disappeared and women and girls have suffered grievously from the limitations of movement, health care, education and employment imposed by the Taliban. Clearly, that situation was deeply serious before 11 September. As has been said, there were large numbers of refugees in neighbouring countries even before the current crisis. Both Iran and Pakistan have been hosting large numbers of refugees, with insufficient international support, for a long time.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: As I said in my speech, as Pakistan is one of the most heavily indebted countries in the world, will the Secretary of State say something about any possible relief of that debt, which would help Pakistan's poor considerably?
Clare Short: Indeed; I planned to come on to that. With its GDP per head and its level of debt, Pakistan is suffering as much as many of the highly indebted poor countries, but it does not qualify, for technical reasons that I shall not take the time of the House to explain. We need to persuade the international community to provide debt relief to Pakistan. Ironically, the economic reform package of Pakistan's military Government is better than that of any of the preceding so-called "democratic" Governments. We must help Pakistan now, but we must help the Pakistani Government sustain their reform so that they can build a better country for their people in the future, and debt relief must be part of that package.
Even before 11 September, the Taliban regime were making the humanitarian effort very difficult. They were harassing non-governmental organisations and making it difficult for United Nations agencies to operate. Before that date, we had made additional resources available because the drought was worsening and the level of need was so great. The difficulty was not in finding resources from the UK but in deploying them inside Afghanistan, because it was difficult to find agencies that could take help through to the people in need.
All that made the provision of humanitarian aid very difficult, even before 11 September. After 11 September when all international workers were withdrawn from Afghanistan and the World Food Programme convoys ceased, matters became very serious indeed. I must confess to the House that I and some of the professionals in my Department who have worked in this field for many years were fearful that in addition to everything else there would be famine in Afghanistan.
I am now heartened as I think that we can do much better. In the last week the World Food Programme restarted aid convoys into Afghanistan. As there are no UN workers in the country, commercial Afghan lorry drivers were usedthe hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) may have referred to thisso although it was impossible to give assurances of accountability, a judgment was made that it was better to get food to hungry people, even if some of it was diverted, than to send nothing at all.
The operation involved sending food to warehouses that were known to have existed previously, hoping that the distribution mechanisms were still in place as the Taliban had issued an edict that Afghan workers working for international agencies could not use telephones to communicate with those agencieson pain of death. Although we could have no certainty that the food would be distributed, convoys went in rather than letting people go hungry.
The reports that came back after a week of that activitybefore military action beganwere most heartening. We reached the point at which 500 tonnes a day was reaching the warehouses and being distributed. Some of it might have been diverted but most of the food was getting to hungry people. We need to double that quantity for a six-week period, not just to feed people now, but to lay down stockpiles to carry them through the winter. That activity has been disrupted by military action, but I am hopeful that convoys will start again as soon as possible and that it will be practical to get the food that is needed into Afghanistan to ensure that the people there can get through the winter.
As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said, the UN issued an appeal for $600 million for six months to look after the refugees coming out of Afghanistan and to feed people remaining in that country. We now have that $600 million, but as the hon. Member for Meriden said, some countries make financial commitments that are not quickly deployed on the ground. The UK has a reputation for deploying its money quickly. In fact, almost the whole of our commitment has already been deployed. The resources are there, getting people into the camps. I agree that the existing camps are not adequate and we need to raise the standards as well as prepare for more people to come out of Afghanistan.
When the UN issued the appeal, it estimated that in addition to the refugees who are already in Iran, Pakistan and other neighbouring countries, 1.5 million people would need to be provided for. So far the numbers leaving Afghanistan have been very small and we do not know why. We do not know whether people were being prevented from moving, whether only those with transport and the ability to carry food with them have been able to leave and the most vulnerable and the most needy have been moving out of the cities and returning to their own villages rather than making for the borders.
We have to be prepared for both eventualities, which involve the same number of people. We have either to provide for them to arrive at the borders as refugees or get food to them in Afghanistan. We need sufficient flexibility to do whatever is required.
The priority now is to get the convoys moving again as rapidly as possible. I have been liaising with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence and my Department will be communicating with the Ministry of Defence to make sure that we bring that about.
Hugh Bayley: Many hon. Members have made the point that co-ordinating the aid effort is a huge logistical task. I was pleased to hear my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announce last week that the UN Secretary- General has appointed Lakhdar Brahimi as a co-ordinator. What precisely will his role be and how will the British operation dovetail into a wider plan to make sure that aid is provided as effectively as possible?
Clare Short: The United Kingdom has been working for a long time to strengthen UN systems. At moments like this we have to rely on UN systems. We had to do so in Kosovo, and this is a bigger country and a more difficult situation. We put many of our resources through UN systems and do a lot of work to strengthen its management and effectiveness.
The hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor) asked when the House would be given details of the emergency legislation that has been promised. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will be making a statement to the House as soon as it returns. The details are being worked on now and full details will be provided to the House.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Sarwar) spoke about the views of the British Muslim community and its natural concern about the crisis. He also spoke about its anger that Islam has been so misrepresented by Bin Laden. I found that in my constituency too. Good Muslims were angry that he should claim that their religion would justify such action and was not a religion of peace and justice. Like many hon. Members, my hon. Friend called on us to learn from the mistakes of the past. He said that we must stand by Pakistan and Afghanistan in the long term and not leave them with a crisis after the emergency is over. There is a strong commitment in all parts of the House and in what the Prime Minister said earlier, to stand by Pakistan and Afghanistan, not just through this crisis but in the future so that they can be rehabilitated and reconstructed and provide a better life for their people.
Many hon. Members talked about the centrality and importance of the role of the United Nations. Let me make it clear that we have had unprecedented consensus at the UN. There was a strong and unanimous resolution from the Security Council deploring the crisis and a similar resolution from the General Assembly, and we had them quickly. Since then, there has been a second resolution from the Security Council making it compulsory for all members to strengthen their laws to deal with terrorism. There has been more unanimity and strength in the UN's response to this crisis than to any other I can remember.