Skip to main content

European Council and Afghanistan

Volume 746: debated on Tuesday 2 July 2013


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister in another place. The Statement is as follows:

“I would like to make a Statement on Afghanistan and to report back on last week’s European Council. I visited Afghanistan on Armed Forces Day to pay tribute to the extraordinary men and women who risk their lives every day to serve our country. We should remember in particular the 444 who have lost their lives in Afghanistan. I hope that the whole House will welcome the decision to use money from banking fines to build a permanent memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire so that our generation and every future generation can remember and honour the sacrifice they have made for us.

We are in Afghanistan for one reason: to protect our national security by stopping that country being used as a base from which to launch terrorist attacks against our people and against our allies around the world. That requires a security response, resisting Taliban insurgent attacks, driving out al-Qaeda and training Afghan forces to take on this task for themselves. It requires a political response, supporting the Afghans to build a more peaceful, democratic and prosperous future, including a peace process. And it requires a diplomatic response, working in particular with Pakistan, which has a vital role in fighting terrorism in the region.

Let me take the three in turn. On security, four years ago three-quarters of the most serious terrorist plots against the UK had links to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Today it is less than half. British and international forces have stopped Afghanistan acting as a safe haven for al-Qaeda, and Afghan forces are now taking the lead on security right across the country. At the weekend I went to Camp Bastion, Lashkar Gah and the forward operating base at Durai. The British forces I met are absolutely clear about the capability, confidence and leadership of the Afghan forces, which are already delivering 90% of their own training. All of the 1,000 police patrols in central Helmand each week are now conducted alone, without ISAF support.

It is this growing capability that enables us to draw down our troops. Our numbers in Afghanistan have already reduced from 9,500 to 7,900. By the end of this year it will be around 5,200. Until recently we were in 137 different bases. We are now in 13 and by the end of the year it will be four or five bases. By the end of next year, when Afghan forces take on full security responsibility, there will be no British troops in any kind of combat role at all. Beyond 2014, small numbers of British troops will remain to help the Afghans deliver their national army officer academy. This was a request of the Afghan president himself. We will also contribute £70 million a year as part of international financial support for Afghan security beyond 2014.

A strong security response must also be accompanied by a strong political response. In Helmand we have been working for many years to support the development of better governance, local justice, public services and the chance for Afghans to build sustainable livelihoods that do not involve drugs. There are now 130,000 children in school, including 30,000 girls—something that would have been impossible under the Taliban—and 80% of the population can now get healthcare within 10 kilometres of their home.

At the national level, the political process is moving forward too. At the weekend, President Karzai assured me of his commitment to the first peaceful democratic succession of power in living memory following next year’s elections at the end of his second and final term. Over 50,000 new voters have already registered, including over 10,000 women, and Britain is supporting this with £4.5 million of aid specifically targeted to increase women’s participation.

This progress in Afghanistan is a challenge to the Taliban. The combination of the successful build-up of the Afghan national security forces and progress on the ground demonstrates that the way to a role in Afghanistan’s future is not through terror and violence but only by engaging in a political process. So I welcome plans to begin direct talks with the Taliban. The peace process must be Afghan-led but we should do all we can to support it. It does not signal any weakening of our security response, but if we can persuade people that there is a legitimate political path for them to follow then we should do so.

We also know that the problems in Afghanistan will not be solved in Afghanistan alone. The support of neighbouring countries like Pakistan will be vital. On my visit to Pakistan I was greatly encouraged by the commitment of the new Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. His election was the first democratic transition in that country from one elected government to another. It represents, I believe, a precious sign of progress in Pakistan. We discussed our trade, economic and cultural ties. We also agreed to work together in countering extremism and radicalisation, investing in education, tackling poverty and dealing with all the issues that can fuel terrorism. Building on the trilateral process that I have been leading between the UK, Afghanistan and Pakistan, I welcomed the Prime Minister’s commitment to working with Afghanistan in defeating terrorism across the region.

Let me turn to last week’s European Council. This was rightly focused on sorting out Europe's economy by doing what we are doing in Britain: getting a grip of spending and supporting private enterprise to create jobs and growth. On spending, the Council finalised with the European Parliament the seven-year budget deal that we successfully negotiated in February. It agreed new flexibilities between different years and between different budget headings but, crucially, the deal delivers for the first time a real-terms cut on the credit card limit for EU spending for the next seven years. There was no change to the agreed deal, which set spending at €908.4 billion across the next seven years. That compares with €943 billion in the past seven years.

However, in this process, there was a further attempt to unpick the British rebate. In February, after repeated attempts to water down the rebate, we reached a clear deal that it would remain unchanged. That was reflected in the Council conclusions that I reported back to this House. So the discussion that took place was not necessary and it is frustrating and frankly unacceptable that we had to go through it all over again. The proposal was to remove our rebate on agricultural spending in new member states, and it would have cost the British taxpayer more than £1.5 billion. It has now been categorically rejected. We will continue to get the rebate in the years ahead on the same basis that we do now. It is fair. It is right and, unlike, the previous Government, this Government will not agree to weaken it or give any part of it away.

At the Council, there was a particular focus on tackling youth unemployment by supporting the private sector to create jobs and tackling the burdens that hold back our businesses from competing in the global race. We agreed that the European Investment Bank should increase its lending by 40%, with more finance for small and medium-sized businesses. We agreed to do more to help young people who are not working to acquire the skills that the private sector needs through proper educational training, very much along the lines of Britain’s £1 billion youth contract, and we agreed to scrap unnecessary EU regulation that ties up our businesses in red tape when they should be growing and creating new jobs. To give additional detail and urgency to the Commission’s work, we will establish in the UK a new business task force with six of our best business leaders to take a fresh and ambitious look at the impact of EU regulation on our companies.

It is vital that we expand our trade and increase overseas investment into the UK. That was one of the reasons why I was the first serving British Prime Minister to visit Kazakhstan on Sunday and Monday. Since the year 2000, that country has grown at an annual rate of between 8% and 9%, per capita income has doubled and it has the potential to be the sixth largest oil and gas producer in the world. My business delegation signed deals worth more than £700 million—all of which will help to create and sustain jobs right here in the UK.

Finally, the Council welcomed Croatia, which became the newest member of the EU at the weekend. We also agreed to start negotiations on accession with Serbia, and on a stability and association agreement with Kosovo. When we remember what happened in the Balkans within our political lifetimes, it is a remarkable achievement that these countries are now joining or preparing to join the EU with a sense of peace and stability. Britain is proud to support them.

Each of those steps at the Council was about doing what is right for Britain and right for Europe. It is in our national interest to get spending under control, to make Europe more competitive and to expand EU membership to the Balkan States. Openness, competitiveness and flexibility are vital elements of the fresh settlement that I believe is needed for the European Union. We want more of a say for national parliaments and powers to flow back to member states not just away from them. This is a new settlement that I intend to put to the country in a referendum within the first half of the next Parliament, a referendum that will give the British people the in/out choice they want and which my party will offer at the next general election. It is a referendum that my party will be voting for in this Chamber on Friday, and I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement given earlier today in the other place by the Prime Minister on the recent EU Council meeting. I welcome the Statement.

Let me start with Afghanistan. I pay tribute to our troops for the extraordinary job that they have done over the past decade. I join the Prime Minister and the Leader of the House in remembering all those who have lost their lives as well as their families and their loved ones. It is right that the Government have set a date for the withdrawal of our forces. However, it is also important that the international community, including the UK, continues to make a contribution to Afghanistan’s long-term security post-2014. The advances made in Afghanistan, outlined in the Statement, must be safeguarded.

I have some questions about post-2014 arrangements, political stability in Afghanistan and co-operation with Pakistan. Can the Leader provide more detail on the specific nature of the role of the UK Armed Forces after 2014 and what tasks they will have responsibility for, beyond officer training? What objectives will determine the length of stay of any residual UK force?

On political reconciliation in Afghanistan, I agree with the noble Lord about the importance of a proper political process. Will he tell your Lordships’ House what prospect there is of getting the political talks on track, including with the Taliban, and on what timetable?

Turning to relations with Pakistan, I join the Government in recognising the vital bilateral relationship between Pakistan and the United Kingdom. We join the Government in expressing the belief that the UK will also need to build strong working relations with the newly elected Pakistani Prime Minister, especially in regard to the future of Afghanistan. Across this House there is wide support not just for an inclusive political settlement within Afghanistan but also for a regional settlement involving Afghanistan’s neighbours. At the Chequers summit on Afghanistan and Pakistan five months ago, the communiqué committed to building,

“a peace settlement over the next six months”.

Will the noble Lord inform your Lordships’ House what progress there has been since then and what more can be done to achieve this goal?

I now turn to the European Council. I join the Leader in welcoming Croatia’s entry into the European Union and the start date for EU-Serbia accession negotiations and the association agreement with Kosovo. This is good for the peace and stability not just of the Balkans, but of our continent as a whole.

On the European Union budget, the other place was right to vote for a real-terms cut last October. We on these Benches support the recent agreement on the European Union budget and rebate, including the European Parliament’s agreement.

On the rebate, I quote the Prime Minister when he said:

“In this town you have to be ready for an ambush at any time and that means lock and load and have one up the spout”.

Is not the pattern of events slightly different from what he suggests? The Prime Minister said that he was “ambushed” and that there were attempts to unpick the rebate. Is it not the truth that it was he who put it on the agenda of the European Council and that Britain was in a position to veto a change at any stage? If that is the case, the Prime Minister was hardly “ambushed”.

I now turn to the discussions on youth unemployment. It was supposed to be the main subject of the summit but I notice that it was a very small part of the Statement. It is right that the European Union is now focusing proper attention on the plight of young unemployed people and the need to give them hope and work. I should point out that the catalyst for this initiative was not the centre-right Governments of the European Union but the left, led by President Hollande. There are 26 million young people looking for work in the European Union, and 6 million unemployed young people. Nearly 1 million of those young people are here in the UK. That is, shamefully, one in five young people looking for work. Targeting the extra resources to tackle youth unemployment is welcome. However, do the Government really believe that the response was equal to the scale of the challenge?

The Prime Minister said at the press conference after the summit—and again today in the Statement—that the Council agreed to take action,

“very much along the lines of Britain’s … youth contract”.

That is worrying indeed. Last year, the Prime Minister launched the youth contract, which he said,

“is going to do enormous amounts on youth unemployment”.—[Official Report, Commons, 9/5/12; col. 24]

Will the Leader of the House explain why, according to a survey of 200 employers last week, not a single one has used the youth contract to hire a young person? How many people have been helped into work through the youth contract.

Frankly, this summit did not mark the recognition, long overdue, that the current economic approach in the European Union is leaving millions of young people without employment or prospects and fearing for their future. Of course we should look at EU regulation as the Government propose, but does the Leader of the House really believe that this is the solution to youth unemployment, including in Britain? The European economy is struggling and the British economy has not grown as the Government have been promising it would since they came to office. There are nearly 1 million young people still looking for work here in Britain. Long-term youth unemployment is up by 158% since the Government took office and the Government’s youth contract is failing. It is clear that this Government can hardly argue effectively for action in Europe on youth unemployment when they are so transparently failing on the issue here at home.

My Lords, I obviously echo the noble Baroness’s tribute to our Armed Forces, which she quite rightly made at the start of her response. On her questions about Afghanistan and the continuing commitment of the UK beyond 2014, no decisions have been taken beyond helping to deliver the officer training academy, which was referred to in the Statement, and the accompanying force protection. The existing funding commitments have already been set out. That is the Government’s position on what will happen beyond 2014.

I agreed with what the noble Baroness said about the importance of support for a proper political process. In terms of that process and keeping the political talks on track, it was clearly the case that the initial opening of the Doha office was done in a way that caused a setback to those talks. Nevertheless, it is important that we should try to continue with that process and make progress as fast as we possibly can. We are very keen to see early meetings between the Taliban and the US, and between the Taliban and the Afghans, on terms that all sides can accept. I hope that will move forward. We know from our own experience that peace processes are often long, complex and very bumpy, and this will obviously be no exception, but we have been working with our international partners in support of an Afghan-led peace process for some time and we will continue to do that.

On the noble Baroness’s specific question about whether there has been any progress since the Chequers regional peace summit communiqué, and in particular the relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan, at Chequers there was an agreement between Afghanistan and Pakistan that they would work more closely across a broad range of areas. Since February, co-operation on border relations and on military issues has enabled some quicker resolution to some cross-border tensions. There has also been some positive co-operation to resolve issues to do with refugees, so there have been some tangible steps.

Back at Chequers, both the Presidents committed themselves to doing what they could to work towards peace in Afghanistan over the next six months. The news that the Taliban has released a statement distancing itself from international terrorism is a step—no doubt a small one, but it is a step—in that long, difficult road to peace. The Afghanistan-Pakistan relationship is difficult, which is why we are working with both sides to try to improve it, and I agree with the noble Baroness about the importance of our Government engaging with the new Government in Pakistan to try to help bring that about.

The noble Baroness rightly welcomed the accession of Croatia and referred to Serbia and Kosovo. So far as the rebate is concerned, I am delighted to hear her support for my right honourable friend the Prime Minister’s successful negotiation of the overall multi- financial framework and the rebate. I would gently remind her and the Benches opposite that they told him that he did not have a cat’s chance of pulling it off. I think that they rather hoped that he would not pull it off, but I am delighted that they now support that and the measures that he has taken to try to introduce a bit more financial control into the EU budget, as we are doing over here. On the specific point about unpicking the rebate, it is the case that that was a straightforward ambush of the Prime Minister. He had no interest whatever in the rebate being unpicked but along came some people in the early hours of the morning and tried to do so. Fortunately, he managed to resist that and the situation is now clear.

So far as youth unemployment is concerned, I obviously agree with the noble Baroness about the scale of the challenge across the EU, and indeed in our own country. Clearly, we think it is far too high, both in the EU and in the UK. Youth unemployment is down just over 40,000 this quarter and 60,000 last year, but we are not complacent about that. One hundred thousand young people have started a work placement under the youth contract and we know that youth unemployment fell faster last year in the UK than it did in the USA, Germany, Canada, France and Italy. There is a lot more to do, but there has been some progress and I agree with the noble Baroness’s point about the importance of looking at EU regulations. I would not argue that it will make all the difference, but as part of a range of measures—whether apprenticeships or encouraging traineeships to try to reduce all possible burdens on business so that the private sector can create the jobs that young people need—I think that this is a step worth taking.

My Lords, from these Benches we join in the tributes to the service men and women who have made the ultimate sacrifice in Afghanistan.

I thank the noble Lord the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement. The Prime Minister has mentioned the importance of the Afghanistan-Pakistan relationship in combating terrorism. The noble Lord knows that 53 people were killed while Mr Cameron was in Pakistan and 2,500 have been killed this year alone in Pakistan. Would it not be truly ironic if, through the Taliban peace talks, Afghanistan is stabilised, yet Pakistan’s home-grown Taliban continued to wreak havoc? Can he tell the House what discussions the Prime Minister might have had with regard to the security and stability of Pakistan when he met Mr Sharif?

On 24 October 2011, in a similar European Council Statement in the other place, the Prime Minister said that he could not see a need for an in/out referendum. In fact, he said that legislating now for a referendum, including on whether Britain should leave the EU, could cause great uncertainty and could actually damage our prospects for growth. Today he talks of openness, competitiveness and flexibility, which are vital elements of the fresh settlement that he thinks is needed for the European Union. Can the noble Lord tell us what his thinking is in calling for an in/out referendum this week? Can he tell the House what has changed to date in the eurozone crisis? What other substantial markers of belief have encouraged the Prime Minister to make such a volte face from his previous position?

My Lords, on the security situation in Pakistan, my noble friend is right to point out the problems that that country faces, and the relationship between the problems there and in Afghanistan. In the trilateral relationship between the UK, Afghanistan and Pakistan, it is right that we do what we can to minimise problems in both those countries. I take her points and she is right to remind us of those figures.

Only the Conservative Party is offering an in/out referendum, and my right honourable friend the Prime Minister feels that it is right to draw attention to that as the clear choice that people will have at the next election.

My Lords, can I ask the Minister a very direct question about the budget? We have been hearing about budgetary crises every time we get a report back from a summit. Is it not about time now that the British Government took a positive act in Brussels to bring the budget under control at the beginning of the budget process? That starts when the Council of Ministers has the first reading of the budget and starts applying a process of zero-based budgeting to a selection of budget lines so that we know exactly where we want cuts, and then have the resources for those areas such as Europol where we want to see increases. The idea of playing it as a game on a snakes and ladders board, where you have only ladders and no snakes, is what is leading to the present budgetary imbalances. I ask the Minister not to give a commitment other than that he will talk with his right honourable friend the Prime Minister and with Treasury Ministers about whether it is now time to start a process of zero-based budgeting so that we can establish budgetary priorities afresh.

On the broad question of budgeting, I am sure the noble Lord will accept that to have secured a real-terms reduction in the budget for the first time ever represents a significant achievement by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. As I am sure the noble Lord knows, the process of agreeing budgets—with the flexibility between years, the different lines and the political compromises that are inevitably essential—is a nightmarishly complicated process. The noble Lord did not ask me to give an undertaking, and I do not think that I or anyone else would be able to reform this labyrinthine process, but I certainly undertake to make sure that his comments, which I know are meant to be helpful in making sure that there is rigour in budgeting, are taken back so that people can consider them properly.

My Lords, during the past year, there have been increased incursions by Spanish naval vessels in British waters at Gibraltar. More recently, Spanish vessels fired on a British sailor in those waters. It is reported by the media that the Prime Minister raised this matter with the Spanish Prime Minister—of course, Spain is an EU partner. Was the matter raised with the Spanish Prime Minister, and if so, what was his response?

The Prime Minister raised this matter with the Spanish Prime Minister and protested about the incident to which the noble Lord refers. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister made it clear that he felt that that behaviour was completely unacceptable and he asked Spain to carry out an investigation into the incident.

My Lords, how confident are Her Majesty’s Government that women in Afghanistan will enjoy full political rights and that they will be able to take a full part in civil society in that country? The Statement says that 130,000 children are now in school, including 30,000 girls. That implies that 70% of school-aged girls are not in school. Will the Minister tell us in percentage terms the figures for girls in school and whether girls are now being allowed to go to university? This was the case a few years ago, but the situation seems to have deteriorated.

The noble Baroness will not be surprised to know that I do not have those percentages in my head, but I will see what I can find out about them and I will write to her about whatever I uncover. There has been progress in the way that she said in drawing attention to those figures. She is right to draw attention to the guarantees and commitments about the future and the right of women to vote and participate in elections. All I am able to say is that I know that we are giving as much encouragement and support as we can to make sure that that process goes forward before the elections. For those who, like her, want to make sure that that situation persists in the future, the most powerful lever is the £4 billion of aid that outside countries give to Afghanistan, but we would all be foolish if we were to pretend that there was a simple thing that we could do to guarantee it. Like her, the Government are very concerned, and I know that the Foreign Office and DfID are doing everything they can to argue in the way that I know the noble Baroness would expect them to argue.

My Lords, does not hope attempt to triumph yet again over experience in this Statement? The Prime Minister says:

“we agreed to scrap unnecessary EU regulation that ties up our businesses in red tape when they should be growing and creating jobs”.

He goes on to announce the setting up of yet another business task force,

“to take a fresh and ambitious look at the impact of EU regulation on our companies”,

and so on.

What does the noble Lord say about the need for unanimity among all 28 members before we can retrieve a comma from the treaties of Rome, let alone a regulation or a power already ceded? I have written a few of those on the back of an envelope. What does this do for immigration, rubbish collection, post offices, light bulbs, car premiums, working time, our fishing industry, and financial supervision for the ruin of the City of London? Is this not just more wishful thinking, which is completely meaningless while we stay in the European Union?

My Lords, if the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, is the voice of experience, I will have to be the voice of hope. I take his point that one has to keep grinding away at these things over a long period of time. History suggests that, as was the case with our rebate negotiations, one has to keep on battling away.

On the point about reducing regulations, this was agreed, I think, in the Council back in March. Some small progress has been made by the Commission. However, the Prime Minister was very clear that the process was not as fast or as extensive as he would like, which is why he made another charge at the Council last week. I think it is worth setting up our own task force—I probably share some of the noble Lord’s scepticism about all sorts of task forces everywhere—to try to come up with some ideas of our own to show the way, looking specifically at the effect of regulations, how they might be reduced and how that might lead to more jobs, particularly in the context of young unemployed people, as we discussed earlier.

My Lords, turning back to the very welcome progress report on Afghanistan, would my noble friend ask the Prime Minister to ensure that in any future discussions about developments for Afghanistan, regional leaders in other parts of Afghanistan are fully engaged in these discussions through the central authority?

That sounds an extremely sensible point to me. I am not an expert in the area or in those complex discussions and negotiations that need to go on, but I will certainly make sure that my friends at the Foreign Office are aware of the extremely sensible point that my noble friend has made.

My Lords, can the Minister clarify the numbers post-2014, because they are not at all clear? The MoD must have done this work already. How many personnel are we talking about for the defence academy? What is this protection force that we are talking about? It sounds a very open-ended thing to me. What sort of numbers are we talking about and where would they be? On what date will we give up Camp Bastion? Will we be abandoning it or handing it over to the Afghan authorities or to the Americans? Will we provide any air assets post the end of 2014? It is really rather important for us to get our minds round these numbers and issues.

I take that point. The noble Lord has illustrated one of the recurring problems in this House: that it is full of people who know what they are talking about. It makes my job extremely difficult. I will see what specific numbers I can find and I will be happy to circulate them. I know that the numbers envisaged are small. The numbers on the continuing support that would be made available to the national training academy are extremely low, but I take the noble Lord’s point about wanting specificity. If I am able to get better particulars, I will do so and will write to the noble Lord.

My Lords, the Leader of the House made several references to the post-2014 budget in Afghanistan. Does he accept that possibly the single most effective way to guarantee long-term post-war reconstruction in Afghanistan is to ensure that the rights of women are embedded in society in the new Afghanistan?

I agree with that point, which is a variant of the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Symons. In so far as we are able to do that, it is clearly Her Majesty’s Government’s intention to lend every effort to bring that about, as the noble Lord says. I cannot, for obvious reasons, guarantee that in a far-off country with a very different history and culture we can undertake to deliver that. However, I know that it is very much our intention.

What will Afghan children remember about our intervention in Afghanistan over the past 10 years? The Statement implies that we are going to leave an entirely military legacy post-2014. Can the Leader of the House assure us that there will be a reconstruction conference? Investment must come in when ISAF goes out. We will have to shore up this country for several years to come, building up employment and jobs in particular.

I would hope that they might remember the efforts of a country to spread education, as my right honourable friend the Prime Minister pointed out, the efforts of a country to spread and protect the rights and education of women, and the kind of efforts to which the noble Lord refers to help to get the economy working in a way that is not dependent on the awful trade in drugs. I can certainly reassure the noble Lord that, as I understand it, foreign Governments intend to carry on with a generous package of aid to try to help with precisely the kind of reconstruction, and getting Afghanistan on to a more secure footing, of the sort to which the noble Lord refers.

My Lords, I welcome both Statements. On Afghanistan and the peace talks, under United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 of 2000 and its amendments it was agreed that a number of women should be at the peace table. President Karzai does not really negotiate or deal with women, even those in his parliament. What are the Government going to do about that?

Secondly, there have been a number of honour killings, both in Pakistan and on the borders of Afghanistan, mainly of young girls and their mothers. Girls are now going out and about, and leaders and their families do not think that this is appropriate. We are seeing cases of this daily in the press. This is an issue which the Prime Minister has to take up as part of the peace process, and as part of our giving aid to Afghanistan.

On the general point of trying to use our political and financial influence through aid, to try to emphasise the noble Baroness’s points, we will certainly do that. On the specific point of her first question, I need to find out whether there are specific bits of information on that, and what has happened, so that I might help her with it.

How much will the new European budget settlement cost British taxpayers each year in both gross and net terms? On the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, I should point out to the Leader of the House that the hostility shown by the French at the summit gives some indication of the difficulties that the Prime Minister will have in altering the existing European Union treaties.

I am afraid that the only figures I have to hand are those about the overall size of the budget over seven years and the reduction in it. I will need to come back to the noble Lord with more detailed figures on the effect on Britain year by year, if I can get them.