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Volume 479: debated on Wednesday 16 July 2008

2. What recent assessment he has made of the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan; and if he will make a statement. (218945)

Joint analysis by the Government of Afghanistan and the World Food Programme indicates that 4.5 million people face greater food insecurity. The UK Government have already committed £6 million in response to the World Food Programme appeal in Afghanistan. In addition, the Government of Afghanistan have taken a series of short, medium and long-term measures to address the issue. In support of that, the UK Government will provide a further £3.5 million for seeds and fertilisers to increase food production.

Our servicemen and women in Afghanistan do an extraordinary job, not only in fighting terrorism but in providing humanitarian aid to civilians. I am sure that the Secretary of State will join me in praising them for their work. However, will he give his frank assessment of whether our European counterparts are pulling their weight?

I will, of course, join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the brave servicemen and women of our country, who are currently serving in Afghanistan. I had the great privilege of meeting them only the week before last, and I am sure that I speak for the House when I say that they are simply the best of British. Of course, they continue to work alongside the community in Helmand, but I also took the opportunity on my visit to meet Kai Eide, the UN special representative, and urge him to ensure that not simply other European countries but other international partners—we are one of a 38-strong international coalition in Afghanistan—work together more effectively in co-ordinating the international development effort. We have not only to prevail militarily in Helmand on the basis of the bravery of our servicemen and women, but to ensure that the Government of Afghanistan have an effective development strategy.

What effect on the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan has the recent terrible accident, in which an American aircraft, in three separate strikes, killed 47 Afghan civilians, mostly women and children, at a wedding party, had? Cannot we make representations to our NATO allies to say that, in these days when wonderful surveillance is available, such terrible accidents should never take place?

Of course the loss of any civilian life is to be regretted. That said, I heard from the servicemen and women of the United Kingdom whom I met the extent to which we rely on effective co-operation with our allies in the United States. Let me place on record my gratitude for the continuing efforts of all 38 countries, who are clear that they stand together in solidarity and in support of the democratically elected Government of Afghanistan. The people who have the greatest number of questions to answer are those insurgents who seek to frustrate the democratic will of the people of Afghanistan and who still seek to burn schools, behead teachers and drive women back into a previous era, when they were not allowed to enjoy the opportunities that are available to them in Afghanistan today.

What progress is being made in Helmand province, where our brave servicemen and women are doing so much to try to restore stability, on restoring something like normality for the indigenous population there? What investment and resources are going into Helmand?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that significant resources are going into Helmand. It was to examine that that I took the opportunity to visit Helmand, not simply seeing Camp Bastion, the main United Kingdom base, but moving out to forward operating base Delhi and seeing for myself the work being done there. When one goes to communities such as Garmsir and sees smallholders who are now able to open shops, or visits a clinic where midwives are being trained or a school that there are plans to develop in the months ahead, one sees the practical difference that is being made. However, that is contingent on the security environment. That is why the service and the sacrifice of our men and women are so important.

During a recent visit to Afghanistan, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) and I met the head of the counter-narcotics police in Helmand, who told us that, as a result of a UK Government decision to stop directly funding his unit and instead rely on the dysfunctional Ministry of Justice there, no funding had been received since March. Does the Secretary of State agree that although building capacity is important in Afghanistan, it is equally important that we have greater flexibility in delivering aid and support to provincial ministries, rather than to national ministries?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important question. When we look at the progress that Governor Mangal has made in Helmand just in the past few months, it is reasonable that we should look at what support can be offered to the governor’s office and to those provincial authorities working in Helmand. That said, although the challenge of counter-narcotics is complex, at its heart is a simple equation. Where one has the rule of law and security, it is easier to enforce an opium-free environment than where that security is lacking. That is why, regrettably, there was a rise in opium production in Helmand previously, given the insurgency and the security situation. However, on the basis of the visit that I paid the week before last, I can say that there is a quiet optimism that we will see progress not simply on the number of poppy-free provinces but, potentially, in Helmand. We will have to wait for the official figures, and there is a long way to go—it took neighbouring countries years to rid themselves of opium production—but I assure the hon. Gentleman that work is under way to ensure that we make progress there, too.

May I associate myself and my hon. Friends with the tribute paid to our armed forces in Afghanistan and to the many brave officials in the right hon. Gentleman’s Department, in other Government bodies and in British non-governmental organisations who put themselves at great risk for long periods? Recent reports from the World Bank and the agency co-ordinating body for Afghan relief have been highly critical both of the failure to deliver on previous pledges of assistance and of the nature of the assistance provided. Following the recent donor conference, what new mechanisms are now in place to ensure that the money gets there and, when it gets there, that it is used effectively?

The foundation on which the discussion took place in Paris was the Afghan national development strategy, which provides a framework within which aid can be disbursed. That is why the conversations that I held with Kai Eide were so important. They were an opportunity to impress on him the urgency and importance that the Government attach to more effective international co-ordination. I have of course seen the reports to which the hon. Gentleman refers. It is therefore worth reminding the House that 80 per cent. of our development support to Afghanistan is provided through the Government of Afghanistan. One of the principal criticisms was that a significant proportion of aid from other countries was being spent outside the country and outside Government of Afghanistan mechanisms. Approximately 90 per cent. of UK Government aid is being spent in-country, so we start from a strong place in both conversations with our other international partners—for example, the conversations that I have been having with Henrietta Fore, the head of the United States Agency for International Development—and conversations with Kai Eide, whose job, on behalf of the Secretary-General, is to try to achieve better co-ordination.