Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green): I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend's contribution, and

28 Jan 2002 : Column 35

her statement today. In the context of the prospects for peace and reconstruction work, how concerned is she about the weekend news reports that intelligence agents and military officials from Iran are operating, especially in the Herat area, with a view to undermining Chairman Karzai and the prospects for central Government authority?

Clare Short: I met the Iranian Foreign Minister in Tokyo. The situation in Afghanistan has caused enormous destabilisation in Iran, with very large numbers of refugees and a drugs problem that has spread to Iranian young people, because of all that traffic. The Iranian Government are therefore very supportive of the Bonn agreement, and anxious that the process should be successful. They have made a big pledge of financial commitment to the reconstruction effort, and are highly engaged.

There are strong relationships between Herat and Iran. The people are related ethnically, by language and by the tradition within Islam, so that is natural. There have been suggestions that there may have been some unhelpful activity, but that is denied. I believe that the Iranian Government want to make a success of the process, and we need to work with them to ensure that it is a success.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): May I join in the almost universal and, in my case, heartfelt and genuine welcome for the Secretary of State's commitment to the reconstruction of Afghanistan? What mention was made of democracy in Tokyo? We hear about the Loya Jirgah and the commission. Does she believe that there is an appetite among the people who will make up the Loya Jirgah for proper, democratic and legitimate representation? Of course it is difficult, but there is no reason why the ordinary person in the street, however ill educated, male or female, should not be allowed to express their views on how they are governed.

Clare Short: I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. That is the underpinning objective of the Bonn process, but it is a question of getting from here to there. We do not have the time or the organisation to have instant elections that would be representative across the country. The Interim Authority is slightly representative, although not perfect, but it is what Ambassador Brahimi

28 Jan 2002 : Column 36

could do to get agreement out of Bonn. The commission will be more representative of all the various groups in Afghanistan, and then the Loya Jirgah will have discussions with the elders and leaders of the whole country. A full Interim Administration will follow, and then elections.

We need a process of widening legitimacy and inclusivity, while taking enough time to have proper, legitimate elections, which require a census and electoral registration. What I have described is the intention of the Bonn agreement. Provided that we reinforce the Interim Authority and the people of Afghanistan see the process delivering for them, we will end up with a legitimate, functioning, democratic, representative Afghan Government.

Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent): I add my welcome to the Secretary of State's statement. The right hon. Lady mentioned internal security concerns in Afghanistan. Is she in favour of broadening the remit of the troops already there to safeguard the delivery of humanitarian aid and, critically, to ensure that the aid that is there gets to the people who need it as soon as possible?

Clare Short: The remit of the forces in Afghanistan is determined by Security Council resolutions. There has to be consensus across the international community to move these matters forward. I would not like to elaborate on any modification of the Security Council remit in specific terms. The big question is whether the international force will deploy to other cities in Afghanistan and whether the will and resources are available for it to do so.

My view on the military engaging in humanitarian efforts is that the military should do what the military can do and humanitarians should do what humanitarians can do. We should not muddle the two, but they can often be complementary. The most important thing is to bring order and then humanitarians can operate. Part of bringing order is to get the trust of the local community, and UK troops tend to be very good at that, partly because of the lessons learned, painfully, in Northern Ireland.

My Department provides funding for small projects that the troops tend to carry out with local communities, such as fixing up schools and arranging games of football with the children. That increases the troops' authority and legitimacy and provides a sense of well-being. That is the best way to organise these matters, and UK troops are the best in the world at that kind of peacekeeping and working with local communities.

28 Jan 2002 : Column 35

28 Jan 2002 : Column 37

Orders of the Day

Civil Defence (Grant) Bill

As amended in the Standing Committee, considered.

New Clause 1

Report on civil defence review

'Before 1st April 2002, the Secretary of State shall lay before both Houses of Parliament a report specifying the implications of the Government's civil defence review for the operation of this Act.'.—[Mr. Beith.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

4.23 pm

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 1, in clause 2, page 2, line 24, leave out "2003" and insert "2004".

Mr. Beith: The significance of the date proposed in the new clause is that that is the beginning of the first financial year to which the Bill applies—namely, the coming financial year. Amendment No. 1 returns to an issue of great concern in Committee—that is, whether the Bill could be delayed for a year while we absorb the lessons and conclusions of the Government's civil defence review.

People outside this place, as well as local authorities, will be surprised to learn that the Bill is not a product of 11 September or of the Real IRA threat, but of the court challenge mounted by the Merseyside fire and civil defence authority that demonstrated the complete legal confusion about the basis on which civil defence moneys are allocated. The authority challenged the whole funding basis.

However, the matter is hardly urgent—unlike some of the issues raised by 11 September. The Bill has been around since last June. Despite all that has happened since then, and despite the fact that the Government have set up—rightly—a major review and consultation process on civil defence and emergency planning, they have plodded on with the measure.

The new clause is sensible and would ensure that the civil defence funding system was designed to fit whatever emerges from the review. It would fit the future pattern of civil emergency planning, which will soon be decided. As long ago as 28 November, the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office said of the review that

That was some months ago, but the speed of the Bill's progress does not offer an entirely reliable guide as to how soon we might receive a statement from the Government on their proposals.

The consensus was supposed to be emerging on the issues raised in the consultation document that the Government published last August. Since then, several things have happened that might influence the review and the necessary funding arrangements. There were the dreadful events of 11 September, which caused everyone

28 Jan 2002 : Column 38

in Britain suddenly to start thinking about civil defence. It is at least partly true—although it may be unkind—to concede that civil defence has a low priority for many people. They see it as something of a joke—as some sort of "Dad's Army"—despite the fact that individuals in local authorities are working hard to maintain a proper emergency planning system and sometimes have difficulty in convincing even their local government colleagues of the importance of that work. No one can ever really know which contingency will require the operation of emergency planning.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that civil defence emergency planning has not been at the forefront of people's minds. It has been difficult for those of us who represent high-risk constituencies to raise the profile of such planning in this place. Why is he arguing for delay in respect of these powers, which clearly stem from a court decision? Would not delay mean a vacuum?

Mr. Beith: The hon. Gentleman must wait a little so that I can develop my argument. I know his constituency area well and I entirely sympathise with him; there is considerable danger of attack on installations in that area and that is why he takes a close interest in the matter. Indeed, I shall refer later to a question that he put recently on the subject.

The measure seems to be putting the cart before the horse, however. If substantial new arrangements for emergency planning are to be devised, we need a funding system that will fit them. Civil defence has not been abandoned since the Merseyside court decision, when an out-of-court settlement brought the matter to an end. The Government have not stopped signing cheques for civil defence, although they have become rather worried at the size of the amount on some of the cheques. That is partly because local authorities realised that recent events required them to initiate more extensive emergency planning work and rightly expected a reasonable contribution from the Government. We are not talking about front-line funding for the fire brigade or the police force, but funding for people back in the council offices. They are not thought about much, but they have to work out contingency arrangements so that the fire brigade and the police force can be deployed with the necessary support from other services. Those things do not happen by accident or by magic; they require planning.

If the Merseyside settlement had brought all that to an end, we should have been dealing with emergency legislation by the next week. The Government have found a way to proceed, and they should continue on that course for a little longer in order to get the arrangements right. That is the basis of my argument.

Next Section

IndexHome Page