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6.23 pm

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden): We are very glad to have this opportunity to debate international terrorism again. It has been very apparent this evening that, as the process evolves, we have fresh questions to ask, and it is important that we have the opportunity to do so. I particularly thank the Secretary of State for International Development for coming here yet again to debate the humanitarian aspects, especially as we understand that her Department is extremely busy now.

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I have gained the impression this evening that two debates have been going on simultaneously—one on the rights and wrongs of the military action and the other on the effectiveness of humanitarian action—but the truth is that the two are inextricably linked. Our aim is to support the Government, and I am very glad that the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), for one, was certainly clear about that in his speech. Of course, I sympathise with those who are asking for a pause in the bombing. That opinion was put with great passion—even epitomised—by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Kelvin (Mr. Galloway).

No one likes war. No one unless there is something wrong with them, likes bombing people. No one likes to think that innocent people are being killed. To ask our service men to put their lives on the line, we must be clear about our aims.

Several hon. Members spoke of the nature of the threat that we face, the terror that has destroyed lives and compromised our normal way of life. Tonight on the wire comes news that anthrax has been found at an American embassy in Europe for the first time. The threat is present and on-going. The terror affects our ordinary daily lives. The President of the United States has had to go into hiding. We know the threat to have been very high in recent days. One of the fundamental questions is: do we want to go on living like this?

Several hon. Members—my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam), the hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath (Mr. Godsiff) and the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock)—correctly defined the perpetrators as "evil", as an "extreme sect" and as having hijacked Islam. That is important, because it will differentiate the terrorists from their false claims. It is not a holy war; we must not let bin Laden take us into one.

The Taliban's behaviour towards its own country both before and after 11 September is one of the fundamental problems that we seek to address. Before 11 September, it was the Taliban who were forcing aid workers to leave the country. The Taliban have abandoned their people, not us. Any aid worker who stayed in Afghanistan risked punishment. As my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Mr. Rosindell) said, 7.5 million people are at risk of starvation this winter and that is due in no small part to the way in which the Taliban have ruled their country. It is true that it is due in part to the famine and drought that they face, but it helps to emphasise the fact that fighting the Taliban is vital. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) said in his article in The Daily Telegraph yesterday:

Given all that, does the Secretary of State agree that the most significant humanitarian policy that the Government could adopt would be to rid Afghanistan of that brutal and oppressive regime, which has been the scourge of a country and a people for far too long?

Any war in any country will raise humanitarian questions. This war is certainly no exception. May I ask the Secretary of State about the news that 300,000 of the most vulnerable refugees have been allowed to enter Pakistan? We welcome that news, but has any similar progress been made in relation to opening the borders with Iran? What representations has her Department made

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to the Government of Iran regarding the refugees now gathering on the Iranian border? What extra help can her Department offer to deal with the real risk of political instability that that brings?

We welcome the news that some refugees will be allowed to cross the border into Pakistan, but unless care is taken that could exacerbate the problem. As I have said before, intermittent opening of the border causes people to mass at the Afghan border. What action is the international community taking to help those who have arrived on the border but cannot cross? Aid agencies report enormous difficulties helping refugees on the border owing to the presence of the Taliban themselves. How does the Secretary of State think we can best get aid to those people?

Geraint Davies: Does the hon. Lady agree that the United Nations should consider setting up a refugee zone inside Afghanistan, a safe haven that is protected from bombs, armaments and the Taliban and is provided with humanitarian aid? The people who wanted to get away from the difficulties could find a haven there.

Mrs. Spelman: I thank the hon. Gentleman. Of course, without the co-operation of the Taliban, it is particularly difficult to bring about anything within the Afghan borders.

Geraint Davies: By force.

Mrs. Spelman: The hon. Gentleman says "by force", but surely that is the point. I hope that he will concur with the Prime Minister that the removal of the Taliban is essential to the strategy.

Who will decide who is vulnerable enough to be allowed to cross the border? It has been reported that the Pakistani soldiers patrolling the border let through those who can pay, but not the widows and children who have no means of bribing them. Will the UN be able to monitor who can enter Pakistan?

The camp near Chaman is run by the Taliban. It was described by Ruud Lubbers as "like a prison". Are aid agencies allowed access to the camp? He also said that there were real fears that the camps would become training grounds for the Taliban. Are there any checks on refugee camps as potential recruiting grounds for the Taliban? Last winter, people throughout Afghanistan died of exposure in camps. I repeat the request of my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) that everything possible be done to raise conditions in the camps to internationally acceptable standards.

I appreciate that it is very difficult to know exactly what is going on inside Afghanistan, but can the Secretary of State tell us whether there have been any measures to improve relief and shelter for the 2 million internally displaced people this winter? So far, there has been no national appeal jointly organised by the aid agencies. Given the possible longer duration of the war in Afghanistan, will she endorse such a national appeal by the Disasters Emergency Committee to ensure that there is enough support to sustain the humanitarian effort in the longer term?

Last week, the Secretary of State said that only 10 per cent. of the aid pledged had actually come in. What is her assessment today of the likelihood and time scale of the

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pledges being fulfilled? In the International Development Committee this week, the aid agencies were asked how long a ceasefire would need to be to get enough aid in, but the answer is that it is already too late to get the past two months' supplies in, as well as enough stocks for the winter.

Great emphasis was laid on finding alternative means of bringing in aid. We welcome the news in today's press that DFID, with its Russian counterpart, has agreed a joint effort to deliver 9,000 metric tonnes of food in the north-east region. We understand that the programme is to be launched in the next two weeks, coinciding with the first snows. Can the Secretary of State assure us that the drivers will prioritise the areas most likely to be cut off by snow and not unload in more accessible areas?

In the International Development Committee on Tuesday, the point was made that there are gaps in the World Food Programme's aid, because staples are provided but not the complementary foods needed for babies, children, the sick and the elderly. Will the Secretary of State recognise those gaps and see what can be done to provide more appropriate food?

I hope that the Secretary of State will take these comments in the constructive spirit in which they are intended. The humanitarian situation unfolding before us could affect the whole course of the war. We face a terrorist threat that could cause great instability both here and in Afghanistan. These terrorists have no respect for our human rights and freedoms or those of the people of Afghanistan. We are not willing to allow them to compromise our way of life, and we should be equally determined to ensure that they no longer compromise the right to life in Afghanistan.

If we are to win the war—and I firmly believe that we owe it to the people of Afghanistan to win it for them—we must convince Afghans that the war is not against them. The people of Afghanistan could yet become our greatest allies in our bid to rid the country of the terrorists who have ruined it for too long. Let us do all that we can to build their trust.

6.34 pm

The Secretary of State for International Development (Clare Short): This has been a good debate and most of the speeches have been extremely thoughtful and have addressed the real complexity of the situation facing us. It will be impossible for me to do justice to all the points that have been made, especially those relating to the humanitarian situation, and I shall be sure to write to the hon. Members to whom I am unable to respond tonight.

As I informed the House last week, the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan is dire. We cannot be sure that it will not get worse. We are succeeding in increasing supplies into Afghanistan, but the situation remains very worrying and very fragile.

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