Short snubs MPs on food crisis

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Clare Short, the Secretary of State for International Development, is refusing to give evidence to a Commons select committee because she does not want to be questioned on Afghanistan's humanitarian crisis.

A behind-the-scenes row erupted after the minister's recent clash with aid agencies, who called for bombing to be suspended so food aid could get through, while the minister was visiting Pakistan.

Ms Short was due to give evidence on Tuesday to the committee which shadows her department, but pulled out after the row. She made it clear to the committee, which includes two former Labour ministers, that she did not want the two-hour session to focus on her views about the bombing or the threatened humanitarian disaster in Afghanistan. She insisted on being questioned about her entire departmental programme.

It is highly unusual for a Cabinet minister to refuse to give evidence to a select committee and highlights the sensitivity in the Cabinet over the growing calls by Labour MPs and the aid agencies to suspend the military action to allow aid through before the Afghan winter sets in.

Ann Clwyd, a senior Labour member of the committee, said she was "baffled" by Ms Short's refusal to be questioned at length on the Afghan humanitarian crisis.

Tony Baldry, the Tory chairman of the committee, said: "It seemed an ideal opportunity for her to comment on her return from Pakistan.

"Her private office said she was willing to answer one or two questions but she wanted to concentrate on the entire department's programme. We said that was untenable."

Mr Blair disclosed to a private meeting with senior backbenchers at Westminster that negotiations are going on to create "safe corridors" inside Afghanistan for the food aid to get through. Oxfam last night dismissed the idea as "not practical".

Oxfam, which has taken the place of Ms Short at Tuesday's hearing, said: "Safe corridors sound like a good idea but if you got the aid from Pakistan to Kabul, it would not mean you could get the food to the people, especially in the highlands."

Government Whips ordered Labour MPs not to co-operate with an IoS poll of backbenchers about the bombing. The replies showed overwhelming support for the continued action. Labour campaigners against the war will this week form a Labour group against the bombing.