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Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I do not agree with the noble and learned Lord. We have had this facility to charge on the statute book for approaching four years. We made it plain that that was our intent. I accept the noble and learned Lord's point that there should have perhaps been greater consultation but the negative resolution procedure did not necessarily facilitate that. We are very committed to ensuring that there is consultation in future, and that the fees represent a real charge in terms of the quality of the service. Students who apply for visas can now have a same-day application process, and can expect to have their postal application processed and turned round in a matter of weeks.

We believe that to be a significant improvement. Evidence, certainly that from MORI polling, suggests that students are impressed by the efficiency and effectiveness of the service, and that there is no disincentive so far as applying to universities here to come and study is concerned.

Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts: My Lords, first, will the Minister confirm on record that no consultation had taken place before the charge was increased, and that it was just introduced? Secondly, will he address the point raised by the noble Baroness on the Government Back Benches about those

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students who have only an annual visa and therefore have to pay the charge three or four times to complete a degree subject in this country?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I would like to write to the noble Lord and confirm the exact situation on the second point. I made it plain at the outset that consultation was limited, but the power was in legislation in 1999. It was understood, and I am sure that it was debated in another place and in this House. The facility was also in legislation that goes back to 1988.

Lord Cobbold: My Lords, the Minister has acknowledged the importance of the foreign students in this country, from both an education point of view and that of the financial contribution that they make. He referred to future consultation. Will he be more specific and give a more detailed undertaking that he will from now on consult the universities on the matter?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am entirely happy to give that confirmation. Now that the policy has been introduced and is working effectively, there will obviously be far greater opportunity for consultation with the British Council, UKCOSA, the universities and the higher and further education institutions. We are committed to that, and will ensure that there is much more information in the public domain. There is now much more information than there was, and the process of an application being rapidly seen to is plain for all to see.

Afghanistan: Reconstruction

3.2 p.m.

The Earl of Sandwich asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether their current policies to ensure adequate security in southern Afghanistan will allow its people to move safely towards reconstruction and democratic rule.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean): My Lords, the aim of United Kingdom policy is to achieve stability and security throughout Afghanistan as a whole. The United Kingdom is involved in all aspects of security-sector reform, which is central to enabling the Afghans to take responsibility for their own security. Establishing a centrally controlled, multi-ethnic national army and police force will underpin the authority of a nationally mandated central government and help to create an environment in which reconstruction can be carried out in safety.

The Earl of Sandwich: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that Answer. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has a particular interest in the security sector in Afghanistan. She will know that peacekeeping has had successes in the north, where the

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Northern Alliance is, but not yet in the south and east, where the Taliban is still very active alongside Al'Qaeda. My principal question is this: has NATO got, or is it developing, a strategy for southern Afghanistan? How can we encourage our European partners in NATO to make a stronger contribution to the peacekeeping force as a matter of urgency, because we are looking forward to the elections only next summer?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for his remarks about the Foreign Office. It is important to register what happened in UNSCR 1510, which enables ISAF to operate beyond Kabul and its environment, in the form of what are called provisional reconstruction teams and temporary deployments beyond the capital. Quite rightly, NATO is carefully considering the feasibility of taking on some additional tasks. It is important to remember that of the provisional reconstruction teams, four are in being at the moment, one of which is in the south. However, of the remaining four that it is hoped will be brought in next year, three will be in the south.

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, is not the real problem that, outside Kabul to the south and the east, the warlords and a revived Taliban are gaining increasing influence, and that they are doing so funded by a vast increase in opium revenues? Is not the position that the area under opium planting has increased by 75 per cent since the war, and that farmers earn 40 times as much as they would from wheat from growing more opium? Given that the UK Government have taken on special responsibility for co-ordinating the attempt to curb opium growth—they have spent £70 million doing so—is it not regrettable that the targets that we enunciated have been completely missed? It is becoming more and more essential to take a grip on a situation that is moving rapidly out of control.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, there is a serious problem, but I do not think that it is quite of the apocalyptic proportions that the noble Lord has described. Of course security is a very serious matter. He is right to point out that the drug problem is very far from being under control. The results of the 2003 survey by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime showed an 8 per cent increase in cultivation, and a 6 per cent increase in production.

I point out to the noble Lord—he may find it disappointing, given what he said about targets—that that was very much in line with the sort of expectations that we had. Experience in countries such as Thailand and Pakistan, where opium production has been reduced very significantly, suggests that there is always something of a peak between trying to bring in the elements that will undermine drug production and reaching such a conclusion.

I acknowledge the real problem. I cannot say whether the security problem is fuelled by drugs; I am bound to say that I think that a number of elements are

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involved in it. However, the noble Lord should not be so very gloomy about the outlook on the drugs question.

Baroness Northover: My Lords, is the Minister not being rather over-optimistic? Is she aware that, last Wednesday, the UN report to which she referred warned that Afghanistan risked becoming a state controlled by narco-terrorists? As said by the noble Lord, Lord Howell, production has increased, and poppies are now being cultivated in 28 of the 32 provinces in Afghanistan. That is double the number at the height of poppy production in the 1990s.

Given that 90 per cent of heroin on British streets comes from Afghanistan, how was it that the Government felt that they could claim, in a press release from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office last Wednesday, that the UN report showed that the UK was on track to meet its target of eliminating heroin from Afghanistan on UK streets over 10 years?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, the noble Baroness might well have prepared that question before I gave my answer to the noble Lord, Lord Howell. The fact is that there is never linear progression in the way the drugs issue is managed. There was not linear progression in Thailand or Pakistan. Development programmes take some time to deliver sustainable alternatives to the poppy farmers. In Afghanistan, where the institutional capacity and level of security is so low—that is what the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, pointed out in the Question—it takes time to build effective institutions and tackle law enforcement.

The figures that I gave noble Lords were taken from that report. They are the right figures. I am not being overly optimistic, but completely realistic about what has happened. However, I did not agree with the apocalyptic analysis of the noble Lord on the Opposition Front Bench.

Lord Elton: My Lords, there are just over seven months until the elections are due to take place. The noble Baroness referred to SCR 1510, which is permissive. However, I think that the House wants to know what will be the physical result of increasing security in the south-eastern sector of Afghanistan, where there is a powerful deployment of Taliban with more reinforcements waiting to come in from over the border in Pakistan. Who will be responsible for the security for those elections in such a short time?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, that is the point of introducing the provisional reconstruction teams, and of extending the remit of ISAF beyond Kabul in the way in which UNSCR 1510 seeks to do. The registration process for the elections should start on 1st December in urban areas and late February 2004 in rural areas. I understand that the process has been delayed, but that part of that delay is related not only to security but to lack of funds.

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The point of trying to bring in provincial reconstruction teams is to see more progress in giving different parts of the country real underlying security. As I pointed out to the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, it is hoped that in the south of the country three more teams will be introduced in the New Year. They will be looking at processes such as demobilisation, disarmament and the reintegration of former combatants and they will be supporting the security of the election process.

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