With permission, Mr Speaker, I will present a quarterly review of our progress in Afghanistan, following the Prime Minister’s statement after the G8 and NATO summits in May. This statement represents the combined assessment of the Department for International Development, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence.
I begin by paying tribute to the brave men and women of our armed forces. As of today, 427 British troops have lost their lives since the conflict began in 2001, including 33 since the beginning of this year. They have made sacrifices that the House and the British people acknowledge with the utmost gratitude and admiration. We all recognise the considerable challenges that they continue to face in protecting Britain’s national security and that of the Afghan people.
I also join the Foreign Secretary in condemning the brutal and senseless attack on the US consulate in Benghazi yesterday. It only serves to highlight the risks that personnel face as they work for peace and stability in countries in transition. In Afghanistan, we have strict security regimes in place to keep UK officials safe, and of course our arrangements are kept under constant review.
We are in Afghanistan to protect our own national security by helping the Afghans take control of theirs. Our objectives in Afghanistan, which are shared by our international partners, the Afghan Government and the Afghan people, remain the same—an Afghan state that is able to maintain its own security and prevent the country from being used as a safe haven by international terrorists. In pursuit of that aim, we are helping the Afghans develop their national security forces, make progress towards a sustainable political settlement and build a viable Afghan state that can provide for its people.
Security transition remains on track, and in May the Afghan Government announced the third of five tranches of areas that will start the process. Once fully implemented, it will mean that all 34 provinces will have areas that have begun transition. Significantly, in tranche 3, Afghans will be taking lead security responsibility for 75% of the population, including in all three districts that make up Task Force Helmand, the UK’s area of operations.
Our training efforts are delivering tangible results. The Afghan national security forces are increasingly moving to the fore in delivering security, and their capability and confidence continues to improve. By mid-2013 we expect the Afghans to be in the security lead across the country. They are deploying in formed units, carrying out their own operations and planning complex security arrangements. After 2014 any residual insurgent threat will be tackled by capable Afghan forces trained and equipped to manage their own security effectively. Although the international security assistance force coalition continues to play a key role, it is right that it is increasingly a supporting one.
The increase in so-called insider threat attacks is of course concerning. We routinely assess and refine our force protection to meet mission requirements and to best ensure the personal safety of our forces. We are also working closely with ISAF and the Afghan Government to take concrete action to reduce as far as possible the potential for such incidents in the future. Developing the Afghan national security forces is a key part of our strategy. They have an essential role in providing long-term security and governance in Afghanistan. Partnering is not without risk, but it is essential to success. The incidents in question are not representative of the overwhelming majority of Afghan security forces, and in fact every day tens of thousands of coalition forces work successfully alongside their Afghan partners in a trusting relationship, without incident.
We continue to support an Afghan-led political process as the means to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan. We recognise that the way forward will be challenging, but we remain committed to supporting the Afghan Government’s efforts. We also recognise that security and stability in Afghanistan are in the mutual interest of all its neighbours, who have, in different ways, suffered as a result of Afghanistan’s instability during the past 20 years.
In November 2011, Afghanistan and its neighbours agreed to take forward regional dialogue and co-operation through the Istanbul process. As part of that process, the Foreign Secretary attended the Heart of Asia ministerial conference in Kabul on 14 June together with Foreign Ministers from the region and supporting countries. The final declaration reaffirmed participants’ support for sovereignty and regional co-operation. Participants also agreed to implement key confidence-building measures and the UK has offered to provide assistance to develop chambers of commerce, tackle the narcotics trade and support counter-terrorism and disaster management activities. We will continue to engage with that process and the lead regional countries.
Further highlighting the UK’s commitment to Afghanistan, the Prime Minister visited Kabul and Camp Bastion in mid-July. In Kabul, the Prime Minister participated in a trilateral meeting with President Karzai and Pakistani Prime Minister Ashraf on the common goal of security and stability in the region. Nevertheless, we know that transition to a stable, peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan will require significant economic growth and development as well as progress on security and an Afghan-led political settlement supported by its neighbours.
With that in mind, we continue to promote growth and to help to build up the private sector to provide opportunities for the Afghan people. For example, since the beginning of this year our assistance has provided more than 7,000 men and women in Helmand province with technical and vocational education and training, tailored to the needs of the local private sector, enabling them to get the jobs they need and to start their own businesses. More than 80% of those graduates are now employed, providing a better life for their families.
At the same time we continue to help the Afghan Government to increase tax revenues. In May, domestic revenue tax collection had increased to more than $2 billion, a 23% year-on-year increase and more than eight times the level of revenue collected in 2004-05 when UK support began. As the Select Committee on International Development’s recent report on tax in developing countries has rightly highlighted, increasing revenue generation is absolutely vital for countries such as Afghanistan to help to reduce their dependence on international assistance over time.
UK aid is helping Afghan civil society organisations and local communities to hold their Government to account. For example, through the Tawanmandi civil society programme, Afghan women’s organisations are raising awareness of the elimination of violence against women law, holding Government bodies to account for its implementation and supporting female victims. In addition, thanks to UK support, by the end of the year about 470 communities will be able to monitor Afghan Government public works programmes to ensure they deliver what they have promised.
As we progress towards full security transition at the end of 2014 it is vital that international assistance, including from the UK, continues to deliver such results so that ordinary Afghans can have faith in their Government to provide an alternative to the insurgency and a better life for their families. In previous statements, Members of this House have pointed out that Afghanistan faces an uncertain financial future that could put future peace and stability at risk. With that in mind, my predecessor led the UK delegation at the Tokyo conference in July. Partners committed $16 billion, or $4 billion per annum, through to 2015 to meet Afghanistan’s essential development needs. At that conference, the UK announced that we will provide development assistance to Afghanistan at the current levels of £178 million per annum up to 2017 and will continue to support Afghanistan right through the “transformation decade” from 2015 to 2024. Many other partners followed our lead and thanks to the efforts of the UK Government, the conference declaration commits the international community to meeting Afghanistan’s budget shortfall until at least 2017.
Our continued support, however, will require the Government of Afghanistan to implement the reform commitments set out in the Tokyo mutual accountability framework. The framework acknowledges the importance of better governance, economic growth and regional co-operation and calls on the Government of Afghanistan to deliver progress on elections, corruption, economic management and human rights. It includes a strong and specific focus on the rights of women as a prerequisite for peace and prosperity. At the request of the Afghan Government, the UK agreed to co-chair the first ministerial review of progress against the Tokyo commitments in 2014. We therefore intend to play a major role in holding the Afghan Government and partners to account for their commitments to each other.
Since Tokyo, the Afghan Government have taken steps to demonstrate their intent. On 26 July, President Karzai issued a far-reaching decree on tackling corruption. The decree sets out 164 specific and time-bound instructions for almost all Government ministries. We welcome the vision outlined in the decree and President Karzai’s personal commitment to the agenda. We now need to see the Government deliver and we will continue to support them as they take forward those reforms.
Taken as a package, the commitments made at Tokyo and NATO’s security-focused summit at Chicago in May send a powerful message to the Afghan people and the region that we are there for the long haul. They also send a clear message to the Taliban that they cannot wait us out and that now is the time to participate in a peaceful political process.
Afghanistan has enormous potential. The country’s vast mineral wealth could transform its long-term economic prospects and the UK Government are helping the Afghans to capitalise on that, accountably and transparently, for the benefit of their people. Local government institutions are beginning to have a transformative effect on the lives of urban and rural communities by delivering better public services and strengthening infrastructure, again supported by UK aid. With the right amount of international support in place and the commitment of the Afghan Government to take forward essential reforms, the Afghan people aspire to a peaceful and prosperous future, which will support the UK’s national security interests, too. I look forward to taking forward that work alongside my right hon. Friends from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence in the months and years ahead.
I thank the Secretary of State for sending me a copy of her statement in advance. Let me take this opportunity to welcome her to one of the best jobs in government. I hope that she has had time to reflect on how privileged she is to lead a Government development agency that is a global leader in reducing poverty and earns widespread respect for our country around the world.
I also welcome the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) to this excellent Department and place on the record my appreciation and respect for the contribution the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr O'Brien) made to the Department for International Development—his is one of the sackings that will raise many questions among Members on the Government Benches.
Whatever political differences I have had with the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), nobody disputes his commitment to international development or the respect he earned across the sector during his period as Secretary of State. He is sitting next to the former Secretary of State for Health—the Government Front Bench today could be called “detox and retox”, as while the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield was detoxifying the Conservative brand, the right hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr Lansley) was retoxifying it—[Interruption.] I shall have plenty of time to mention the right hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr Duncan). I am sure that the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green has been sent to the Department in part to keep an eye on him.
I join the Secretary of State in condemning the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi yesterday and welcome her assurances about ensuring the necessary protection for UK personnel serving in Libya. This House overwhelmingly supports ISAF’s mission in Afghanistan and we are tremendously proud of the dedication and courage of our armed forces, aid workers and diplomats. We must always remember and pay tribute to those who have fallen and provide all necessary support to their loved ones left to grieve.
It is important to recognise on such occasions the significant progress being made in Afghanistan, where more children are attending school, access to health care is improving and the economy is growing, yet tremendous challenges remain. Afghanistan is one of the poorest and most fragile countries in the world, and progress on the millennium development goals is slow. There is serious concern at the escalation of “green-on-blue” attacks, which have led to too many fatalities, raise serious questions about the safety of our troops, and hamper the essential work that is being done to strengthen the capacity and professionalism of the Afghan national security forces.
As the Government have rightly said, the draw-down of troops must be gradual so that we do not have a cliff-edge withdrawal in 2014, and we must ensure that there is no erosion of the international community’s commitment to stability in Afghanistan when our forces depart. We have a long-term responsibility to ensure that the Afghan people shape the destiny of their country with the greater stability that is essential for much needed economic growth and the fight against poverty.
I have a number of questions for the Secretary of State. Political and institutional development in any country is a slow, long-term project, and a steady—rather than sharp—decline in funding is needed to avoid triggering a worse economic crisis than that already likely. The Tokyo conference in July this year was essential, and we welcome the $16 billion post-2014 funding agreement.
In that context, will the Secretary of State confirm that it remains Government policy that by next year 0.7% of gross national income will be spent on official development assistance, and that the Government will support the private Member’s Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Preston (Mark Hendrick), which would enshrine that commitment in law?
Will the Secretary of State expand on the specific mechanism used to ensure that the contribution of the international community is not lost through corruption but spent on the priorities outlined in Tokyo and at the NATO Chicago summit? Will she comment on the political process? The Afghan peace and reintegration programme was bolstered in June when the Helmand provincial peace council and representatives of the Afghan national security forces held a shura—the first of its kind in Helmand. As the Secretary of State will agree, a political settlement that brings together local populations with new authority structures is essential to guarantee lasting and local stability across Afghanistan. Will she provide an update on how and where the Government expect the Afghan peace and reintegration programme to develop?
The House will be aware that presidential elections will be held in Afghanistan in 2014, the conduct of which will be a significant measure of how far the country has come. What work is the Department doing with the Afghan authorities and the international community to ensure that the elections are safe, free and fair?
Although it was stated at the Bonn conference that the peace process would be “inclusive...regardless of gender”, there have been no specific commitments to involve women. What is being done to bring more women into the political process, and ensure that the voice of Afghan women and civil society is heard when shaping the country’s future? Members on both sides of the House will agree that there will be no peace and security in Afghanistan without a leading role for women.
Finally, in 34 “green-on-blue” attacks this year, 45 soldiers have been killed and 69 wounded. In the most recent incident on 29 August, an Afghan soldier shot dead three Australian soldiers at a base in the south-central province of Uruzgan. What protections have the Government put in place to protect our forces from such attacks, and what analysis has been done of their cause and potential solutions?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words about my new role. He was right to pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr O’Brien) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell). In their many years at the Department, they made a huge difference to the importance of UK policy, and that was recognised by the many people with whom I have already spoken about our agenda, including Dr Jim Yong Kim of the World Bank, whom I met yesterday for the first time.
The hon. Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis) mentioned funding and corruption,. If the international community is to match reform in Afghanistan with funding, as part of the Tokyo mutual accountability framework, we must ensure that every pound goes where it is intended. That effort, however, must be led by the Afghan Government, and President Karzai was right to announce wide-ranging steps to ensure that members of the Government, judiciary and Executive are transparent about their interests, and to ensure accountability for the delivery of public services at a local level. The Department supports such measures, and we are funding 35 advisers to work in 17 different departments to ensure effective delivery and so that the skills needed for successful delivery are developed over time.
I understand the rationale behind the hon. Gentleman’s question about the Afghan peace and reintegration process. It is an important issue, and if we are to achieve a sustainable political solution in Afghanistan all elements of Afghan society must join the dialogue on that. Early signs are encouraging, but there is a long way to go. The peace and reintegration process is a key part of that but, as the hon. Gentleman said, a start has been made. I will write to him with further details about anticipated further steps.
On the 2014 election, we are supporting the work of the Independent Election Commission, which has a vital role. The hon. Gentleman spoke about the challenges faced during the 2010 election, but that was the first democratic election in Afghanistan for 30 years, so of course there were challenges. From that base, however, I believe that real improvements have been made, and it is right for the Independent Election Commission to oversee the process of electoral reform. In 2014 I expect that elections will be better run, and I hope that a higher proportion of women will participate than in the first set of elections.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the role of women in Afghanistan, and in spite of the progress that has been made, women in Afghanistan still face huge challenges every day. It was heartening to see women’s rights explicitly mentioned as part of the Tokyo agreement, and they are now enshrined in the Afghan constitution, which we wanted to see. The challenge, however, is in implementation and ensuring that those rights for women exist in reality. It was correct for the Tokyo agreement to refer specifically to women’s rights, and we must look to the medium and long term. For example, nearly half of children entering education are now female, and such key building blocks will enable women to take a more prominent role. Just under 30% of Members of the Afghan Parliament are women, and we must ensure that in the future, women have the education and training that will enable them to participate more fully in Afghan society than in the past.
I will conclude my comments—[Interruption.] How could I forget? I will not sit down without referring to our important 0.7% commitment. Britain has played a leading role in meeting that goal. The coalition agreement is explicit about that and about our intention to legislate, and we will stick to it.
Order. A large number of Members wish to comment on the statement, which means that questions have to be brief. I will cut hon. Members off if they are not brief, and I will not be able to call anybody who arrived late to the statement.
Eighty-seven per cent. of Afghan women experience at least one form of domestic abuse. In evidence to the Select Committee on International Development, we have heard calls for funding for counselling, hostels and legal services. Will the Secretary of State commit to funding those services directly so that UK aid can improve the lives of Afghan women?
I have two things to say in reply to the hon. Lady. First, much of our support is delivered through the Afghan reconstruction trust fund, which supports women in the ways to which she referred. Secondly, women are playing more of a role in supporting women—for example, the number of women defence lawyers has risen from about three to 400. Those are the key ingredients we need if women’s rights are to be not just enshrined in the Afghanistan constitution but delivered on the ground. I recognise, as she does, that a huge amount of progress is still to be made. Afghanistan has come a long way, but it started from a low base, and we should be under no illusion—it has a long way to go. The role of our country, working with our international partners, and, critically, the Afghanistan Government, is key in ensuring that progress continues.
There is widespread agreement that a political surge is needed, with regional talks involving the Taliban and regional countries such as Pakistan, India and Russia, but, sadly, progress is very slow. With that in mind, has the Secretary of State had a chance to form a view on the Royal United Services Institute report that members of the Taliban are prepared to engage in talks?
I shall certainly look closely at that report. On the Taliban, I refer my hon. Friend to my earlier comments that a sustainable political solution will involve the participation of all members of Afghan society. President Karzai has been very clear that he wants to engage with the Taliban, but he has three conditions: first, they must renounce violence; secondly, they must break their links with al-Qaeda; and, thirdly, they must recognise democracy and the fact that they should be part of the Afghanistan constitution.
The broader regional talks to which my hon. Friend refers are absolutely right. A safe and secure Afghanistan is absolutely in the interests of Pakistan. He mentioned Russia, but Iran was also at the Istanbul conference. That shows that regional countries understand that working towards a secure and stable Afghanistan is in everybody’s interests, including the UK’s.
I welcome the Secretary of State to her new role and wish her the best of luck in it.
Hon. Members have spoken a lot about women in Afghanistan in the past few years, but we need more detail on what talks are going on to protect the considerable gains that have been achieved for them. I meet Afghan women MPs twice a year in Inter-Parliamentary Union delegations. I find it amazing that they feel too constrained to be able to speak freely with us because of the person leading the delegation, who is, of course, usually a man. We therefore need to know the detail of what is happening to ensure that the gains made for women are and will be protected. That is extremely important.
I ask the right hon. Lady to take a careful look at the Tokyo mutual accountability framework, which includes discussions specifically on protecting women’s rights and, critically, delivering them on the ground—I will take a close personal interest in the matter.
The right hon. Lady asks for specifics. The mutual accountability framework includes ensuring the proper implementation of the elimination of violence against women law, which has been passed, and the national action plan for the women of Afghanistan. I understand that many people will listen to me and think, “Those are fine words, but what will actually happen on the ground?” The key point is that this is a process. The Tokyo conference was important because, for the very first time, it solidified in writing many of the reforms that we want the Afghan Government to take forward in return for the financing settlement, which sits alongside the reforms, and which will be delivered by the international community.
Monitoring and reviews will take place, and the UK will play a key role in them. We were asked by the Afghan Government to co-chair the first ministerial review in 2014, but, as I am sure the right hon. Lady knows, an officials’ review will take place next year. We will pay very close attention to the whole agenda.
The Secretary of State’s appreciation of Her Majesty’s armed forces will be welcomed in the garrison town of Colchester, home of 16 Air Assault Brigade. Will she give a progress report on the huge logistic achievement of the summer of 2008, when soldiers from Colchester were involved in the transportation of turbines to the Kajaki dam? What has happened since?
The hon. Gentleman asks a very specific question and it might be better if I reply to him in writing after the statement. Suffice it to say that he is right to point out that our troops have played a critical role not just in combat but in supporting the Afghanistan Government to rebuild some of the infrastructure that the country will need. He mentioned a project in Helmand province. Alongside that, our troops have played key roles in helping with schools, health care and roads—if we are to have a thriving agriculture sector, farmers need to get their produce to market. All that work provided by our troops will be immensely powerful not just in protecting Afghanistan and in working with Afghanistan forces today, but in building the country we hope can be successful tomorrow.
I welcome the Secretary of State to her post. I also welcome her commitment to working with women in Afghanistan and her reflection on the importance of the role of women in peace-building and stability. Will she expand on what specific role the UK Government can play in supporting rural women in Afghanistan to ensure that they have access to education and financial independence, and to ensure that they are not only aware of their rights but able to exercise them?
The hon. Lady will no doubt understand that a huge range of different activities are happening, and not just at national level—provincial and district plans are also in place. The district plans are very much locally driven, but we are providing assistance. As I have said, we are providing assistance at national level in Ministries to ensure that they are better placed in terms of their skills and capability to deliver at local level, but we need to see further progress. The Tokyo mutual accountability framework is the right one to enable us not only to agree what needs to be done, but to track it to ensure that it happens.
I, too, welcome my right hon. Friend to her new position. I am sure she welcomes the fact that the representation of women in the Afghan National Assembly is 27%—it is 22% in the UK House of Commons—but there is only one female governor in Afghanistan. In addition, through the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, I have met several Afghani women National Assembly Members who are concerned about their future, and who feel that they will go backwards when our support and troops come out. What will she do to ensure that they retain their position and that level of representation?
My hon. Friend is right to flag up those understandable concerns. The NATO-led combat mission will come to an end by the end of 2014. One key outcome of the Chicago conference was that NATO now needs to consider post-2014 support. We need to ensure that the constitution, which enshrines women’s rights, works on the ground as well as on paper. That is incredibly important, and as I have said, I take a close personal interest in it.
I notice that a motion contains the names of 425 of our brave soldiers killed in Afghanistan. Although it was put down last week, it is already out of date—it does not contain the names of the two fatalities since then or the names of the 2,000 of our soldiers who have returned broken in mind or body, and it cannot contain the names of the almost certain future deaths, such as those that followed the Falklands and Vietnam wars, when more soldiers took their lives after the war than died in combat. One Welsh soldier took his life this January. He is not recorded. How can we respect the self-deluding fiction in the report? It is another case of our brave soldiers—
I think that many people across the country and the House believe that our troops are performing a vital role. It is the right thing to do not only for Afghanistan but for our country. The number of terrorist threats to the UK coming out of Afghanistan has already reduced substantially in recent years.
I take issue with the hon. Gentleman on another point. He referred to servicemen and women coming back battered and broken; I cannot remember the exact phrase.
Broken in mind and spirit. The hon. Gentleman only had to watch some of the competitors at the Paralympics in recent weeks to see that they were amazing people who had done amazing things in the past and would continue to do amazing things in the future. We owe them our wholehearted support.
For those of us who opposed our involvement in Afghanistan, it was obvious from the start that the Taliban would not be beaten, given the available resources, and that we were fighting the wrong enemy in the wrong country, given the differences between al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Yet the key stumbling block to a diplomatic solution remains the American refusal to conduct non-conditional talks with the Taliban. They will talk only if the Taliban lay down their arms and accept the constitution. This will not happen. Should the UK Government not be doing more to get the Americans to change their position? After all, we showed in Northern Ireland that it is possible to talk and fight at the same time.
As we have made clear, we believe that the political process towards a sustainable peace should ultimately be led by the Afghan Government. I take my hon. Friend’s point about the Taliban, but it is worth reflecting that increasingly their attacks have been pushed to the fringes of Afghanistan society. In fact, 80% now take place in parts of Afghanistan where just 20% of the population live. So I believe that we are making progress, and I hope that over time growing numbers of Taliban fighters will choose to join the peaceful discussion on how to reach a political settlement and lay down their arms. Steps are being taken in Afghanistan to encourage that process to continue.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on her new role and welcome the commitment to women’s rights that she has articulated in her statement and answers. When the international troops withdraw from Afghanistan, the role of the Afghan national army and police force will take on increasing importance. What are she and her ministerial colleagues doing to ensure that the police and army are alive to issues of women’s rights and can enforce the law to which she referred many times, so that it becomes a reality on the ground, not just in the constitution?
A lot of our work concerns not only combat but training, assistance and advice for the Afghan security forces and local police. That is one of the key routes to maintaining women’s rights. Although we often talk about the departure of British troops in the coming months, I should emphasise that we will retain a presence so that we can support and train the Afghan national security force to maintain security. As the hon. Lady will know, an academy will be set up next year to continue training the best and brightest Afghan soldiers to play that leadership role. That is one of the key things happening next year. Those building blocks will help maintain women’s rights. There is not one thing alone we can do to make the ultimate difference. It will involve a series of actions at all levels in Afghan society delivered by many different stakeholders. Over time, that will start to bring a change for the better. I believe that that change has already begun, however, as can be seen, for example, by the number of women elected to the Afghan Parliament in its first elections.
As a trustee of a UK-based non-governmental organisation, Afghan Action, I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement. Would she be minded at a time convenient to her to meet representatives of UK-based NGOs, such as Afghan Action, Afghanaid and Turquoise Mountain, to discuss how, with our partners in Afghanistan, we can maximise our contribution to continued development there?
I am pleased that my hon. Friend raises that point. In such a statement, it is often easy to fail to mention the huge amount of very important work done by NGOs, including some of those to which he referred. I have had the privilege of meeting some of the key NGOs involved in international aid, and I would be delighted to meet some of the organisations he has talked about. I will ensure that my office gets in touch with him to make that happen.
I welcome the Secretary of State to her new role and express my disappointment that she has left the position of Secretary of State for Transport, where she did such a sterling job. The AFP news agency reported this week that President Karzai had criticised the war on terror. He said that the war
“was not conducted and pursued as it should have been”
“Afghan villages and homes were once again turned into a battlefield of a ruthless war inflicting irrecoverable losses in both human and material”
terms. Does she agree?
We have made it clear why we believe it important to work with the Afghanistan Government to create a stable and secure Afghanistan. Obviously, people will have opinions on how action there is progressing, but the important thing is that we now look forward.
Finally, I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s opening comments. I was proud of what I achieved with my previous Department. And one of the most important bits of that, of course, was the electrification of the Welsh railways.
The Secretary of State was right to emphasise the concern in this country about the so-called insider threats, or “green-on-blue” attacks. As ISAF troops withdraw from combat action, what can be done to ensure the safety of our development workers and those of other nations?
It is about ensuring that Afghanistan as a whole has a secure and orderly society, whether that involves helping to develop local Afghan police forces, supporting the Afghan national security forces nationally so that they have the capacity and capability to deliver security, or DFID working with departments, for example, to deliver a system of justice and rule of law on which people can rely. All those things will create an environment in which positive work can be best achieved. It is an overall support package that will make a difference. The work done by the organisations mentioned has been critical in supporting Afghan people on the ground as we go through the complex and huge process of helping to build a state that benefits everyone.
I welcome the Secretary of State to her position and thank her for the work she did on the reduction of the Humber bridge tolls in her previous role.
In her statement, the Secretary of State talked about promoting growth and building up the private sector. What is being done to help women get into the workplace and perhaps start their own businesses?
We are seeing an improvement, with more women going into employment, although there are still clear differences between men and women in Afghanistan in terms of pay and wages earned. A lot of support is being given, not just to get investment into Afghanistan at both the private sector and national levels, but to ensure help and advice in developing small and medium-sized enterprises, particularly in rural areas. Those are the sorts of routes that will ensure that more opportunities are opened up for women to participate.
In answer to the hon. Lady’s point about the Humber bridge, let me tell her that the very first picture I put up in my office was of the Greening toll buster beer that was brewed in my name after we reduced the tolls. I hope that I can deliver in this role as well as I hope I did in my last.
I, too, welcome the Secretary of State to her new position and thank her for her warm support for women’s rights. Afghan women are not just victims; they, too, are brave campaigners for women’s rights, but that position comes at a cost. Many, such as Hanifa Safi, who was assassinated this summer, pay the ultimate price. Can my right hon. Friend say what steps she is taking to develop a plan to support women human rights defenders and assist the Afghan Government in protecting their female representatives, who face increasing threats?
Clearly this is a real issue, and it has been raised by many parliamentarians across the House today. For the first time, women’s rights are now enshrined in the Afghan constitution. We are supporting many of the departments in Afghanistan that will play a key role in ensuring that those rights are respected and implemented on the ground. Having listened to the many questions asked today, I think this is an issue that I will want to pursue with perhaps a number of colleagues across the House, in order to tap into their clear knowledge and experience in this area over recent months and years. Indeed, I shall ensure that I get such a meeting organised.
I met a delegation of Afghan MPs this summer, and I think the Secretary of State is absolutely right to focus on women’s rights and the protection of women. Can she say what targets have been set, and what progress has been made towards meeting them, for reducing deaths in childbirth and infant mortality?
I do not have those precise statistics with me, but clearly improving health care is critical. For example, we have moved from a position where very few children under the age of one had any kind of vaccine to one where a quarter are now vaccinated. There is now also much more support for women to ensure fewer deaths in childbirth. I shall write to the hon. Gentleman, and I thank him for the kind note he sent me on taking up this role. This is an area that I hope we can all focus on together.
We can make sure that we review progress against the Tokyo mutual accountability framework. The progress review will happen regularly. There are already a number of countries that, alongside Britain, have made clear financial commitments to continue to support Afghanistan, while a number of others are yet to confirm exactly what their contributions will be. We secured an overall agreement that £16 billion would be made available to support the Afghanistan Government as they go through their period of reform, and that is just between now and 2016. That is a substantial investment. There was also clear support for the sense that the next decade needs to be one in which Afghanistan will be truly transformed. I am sure that there will be further discussions about the funding needed beyond 2016 to support that.
May I also congratulate the Secretary of State on her new role and thank her for the tribute she paid to our armed forces? That includes not just those who have lost their lives, but the many who have been injured. Does she agree that their sacrifice not only has enabled capacity building in law and order, democracy and governance to take place, but for the first time has enabled millions of children to access an education? That should give us great pride, as well as optimism for Afghanistan’s long-term future.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One of the things that struck me in my first few days in this role is just how common some of the challenges we all face are. Education is the route for all of us to make the most of ourselves. That is why it is so important that children in Afghanistan should also have the chance to develop into the people they can be. Some 5.9 million children—nearly 6 million—are now attending school in Afghanistan, which is a huge, dramatic increase. Nearly 40% or so are now girls. Let us remember that under the Taliban none of them were girls and there were also far fewer children in school. If we are to see long-term progress, we have to enable people in Afghanistan, particularly children, to get the knowledge and skills to develop their country themselves. That is one of the most important things we are doing.
Obviously we are playing a leading role in this area. The most important thing we are doing is supporting Afghan departments to be effective. We have funded advisers helping them not just to work on policy, but to do very straightforward tasks such as planning budgets, executing budgets and monitoring financial spend. All those things are relatively straightforward, but they are the key ingredients that need to be in place for public services to be delivered well. When public services are delivered well in Afghanistan, that will lead to increasing buy-in among the Afghan people, as they see their country moving in the right direction. If we can do that, it will create, I hope, a more virtuous circle, so that we see more and more development continuing in future.
Post-2014 there are likely to be diplomats, military personnel and British contractors left in Afghanistan to help the country. When the planning is done, will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State ensure that the post-2014 medical arrangements are good, particularly for casualty evacuation? It does not end when the military leave.
I hope that I will be able to provide my hon. Friend with that assurance. I will pass on his concerns to my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary, and perhaps he will then receive a fuller reply about the work that the Ministry of Defence is doing in that regard. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we have to ensure that the safety of troops is paramount. That has been a focus for this Government, and that will continue going forward.
Does the Secretary of State agree that the excellent work done to win over hearts and minds is undermined by the use of drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan? Does she agree that that needs to change if we are to continue winning over the hearts and minds of the people of Afghanistan and the border region of Pakistan?
My hon. Friend asks a complex question in many respects. Ultimately, the focus for this Government has principally been to provide support for security on the ground, in terms of both combat operations and helping the Afghan national security force build up capacity and capability. We are one of a number of international partners operating in Afghanistan, and we will continue those operations. NATO is looking at what the nature of those operations should be post combat, after 2014. I have no doubt that my hon. Friend’s question is an important one and that it will be reflected on by many people.