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Volume 448: debated on Wednesday 12 July 2006

Under the 10-year development partnership arrangement, the Department for International Development will provide £330 million in assistance to Afghanistan over three years as part of the overall UK pledge of £500 million, which will help to reduce poverty, to improve security and governance and to tackle the opium problem by helping with alternative livelihoods. In Helmand, DFID is working as part of the wider UK effort to promote economic and social development and to increase the capacity of Afghan institutions to assist their people.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Given that his Department’s assessment is that only 10 per cent. of poppy farmers will have the opportunity to switch to a legal crop within a three-year period, illicit opium production will be a problem for a decade or more. Does the Secretary of State agree that if our forces are to be heavily involved in eradicating opium in the short to medium term, we may unite the Taliban, the warlords in the south and the poppy farmers in a lethal combination against our soldiers and officials?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the situation in Helmand is especially difficult. The evidence from around the world on opium eradication shows that it is a long-term task. It would not be sensible for opium to be eradicated when farmers have no other means of earning a living. That is why the Afghans, who are taking the lead, recognise the importance of, first, going after the drug barons, who enslave a lot of farmers in poverty through the debts that the farmers owe them; secondly, making it clear that the law will be enforced; and thirdly, recognising that it is sensible to pursue eradication in places only where alternative livelihoods are available. The truth is that farmers who face a choice between earning no income and being unable to feed their families, and finding some means of feeding their families, will choose the latter.

I assure my right hon. Friend that we all agree with him about ensuring that there are alternatives to poppy growing. However, does he recognise that not all farmers will give up growing poppies? Opium can be used by the medical industry for pain relief, so I wonder what help his Department can provide to ensure that the poppy growers have a market, which would benefit health services not just in this country, but throughout the world.

I am aware of the proposal, which has been made by the Senlis Council in particular, that opium growing in Afghanistan should be legalised for the pharmaceutical market. The elected Government of Afghanistan have examined that proposal and have expressed the firm view that that is not the right course of action, principally because of the lack of security and the problems with enforcing the law as it stands. The right thing for us to do in the circumstances is to support the judgment of the elected Government of Afghanistan, who are acutely conscious of the need to make progress in reducing poppy cultivation, but who recognise that it is a long-term task.

I wonder whether I can look at the question in a different way. Will the Secretary of State tell us the latest estimate of the farm-gate price of poppies as opposed to the total value of refined heroin? That relates to the cost to the Home Office and other Departments in Britain, Europe and the United States of drug-related crime. Perhaps the European Union should use its vast experience of buying unwanted crops from farmers to remove poppies from the market in Afghanistan, which would provide short-term relief to Afghan farmers and eradicate the drugs problem in Europe and North America.

I do not have the figures that the hon. Gentleman has requested on the farm-gate price, but I will endeavour to find out and will let him know, and I will also draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to his other point. On his suggestion that there should be a common agricultural policy for opium production, I fear that the only consequence would be that lots more people would plant lots more poppies and try to do so as productively as possible, because, as the hon. Gentleman is only too well aware, the CAP led to lots of over-production, whereas our objective in Afghanistan is to reduce production rather than to encourage it.

Giving ordinary Afghans the prospect of a better life is at the heart of what the Secretary of State is seeking to do. May I press him on the point made by the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle)? Will he tell the House whether he and his Department are exploring other means of decreasing Afghanistan’s illicit economy by converting some of the vast opium cultivation into the legal production of medical opiates, which would provide a sustainable livelihood for some poor Afghans as well as generating income for the Afghan state?

As I said in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle), that suggestion that has been made, but the Government of Afghanistan are firmly of the view that it does not want to pursue that course of action, for the reasons that I cited. My view is that we should respect the judgment that the Afghan Government have made. That is why we are concentrating our efforts on trying to help them to establish greater security in the country, to take action against the warlords, and to raid those who are turning the poppy into opium that is sold on our streets. It is a very important task because the country is desperately poor as a result of having suffered so much from conflict. We should take heart from the fact that last year the legal economy grew by 14 per cent. and that many refugees have gone back to Afghanistan. However, it will be a long, hard slog, and we should stay with the Afghan people while we support them.

Several questions have been asked in the House about the narco-economy that has become the foundation of the economy in Afghanistan. Will the Secretary of State outline what projects are being carried out for reconstruction and to provide alternatives? I say that in the context of a budget that last year was twice the size for poppy eradication as it was for rural development.

We are considerably increasing the funding that we are putting into alternative livelihoods. When I visited Afghanistan a month and a half ago, I said that we would invest £30 million in Helmand province to support alternative livelihoods. When I met Governor Daud with members of the provincial council in Lashkargah, their concerns were pretty obvious. They wanted health care, education, the clearing of irrigation canals and a greater supply of clean water. That is why the work that our forces are doing to try to ensure security in Helmand is so important. The Taliban, in particular, are hostile not only to British forces, as we have seen with their attacks on them, but to the Government of Afghanistan, to Governor Daud and to any of the non-governmental organisations that have been working on rural development, just as they are hostile to head teachers and teachers who insist on teaching girls. Some of those have been murdered, as the hon. Lady will know. We are ready to invest significant amounts of money in supporting the process of providing more alternative livelihoods—as we have done in the north in Badakhshan, for example—but security is the essential first precondition. That is why we should support the British forces in the work that they are undertaking.