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Iraq (Locally-Employed Staff)

Volume 490: debated on Monday 23 March 2009

In my statements of 9 and 30 October 2007, (Official Report, 9 October columns 27-28WS and 30 October columns 30-33 WS), I gave details of the ex gratia assistance to be provided to Iraqi staff working for our armed forces and civilian missions in Iraq. I also said that we may review the eligibility criteria in the light of experience.

Together with my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Home Affairs, Defence and International Development, I have taken stock of the operation of the scheme to date.

The scheme distinguishes between Iraqi staff employed on or after 8 August 2007 (“serving staff”) and staff whose employment terminated on or before 7 August 2007 (“former staff”). Both serving and former staff are entitled to apply for a financial package, or to express an interest in resettlement to the UK.

Eligible serving staff as defined under the scheme are entitled to apply for a financial package or for exceptional leave to enter the UK directly, outside the immigration rules. In total, we have received applications from over 500 serving staff of whom some 400 have been assessed as eligible. Of these some 250 have chosen the financial package and the remainder have chosen resettlement to the UK. To date, 15 principal applicants and 32 dependants have been resettled; a further 71 principal applicants and 126 dependants have been cleared to travel; and applications are being considered from 39 principal applicants and 65 dependants.

Eligible former staff as defined under the scheme are entitled to apply for a financial package or for resettlement to the UK under the Gateway Protection programme, within which up to 600 places have been allocated for staff and their dependants. To date, over 150 former staff and their dependants have been resettled under Gateway; a further 110 former staff and their dependants have been accepted and will travel shortly. The number of new applications is diminishing and we remain on target to meet our commitment to resettle up to 600 eligible former staff and dependants, by the end of March 2010.

Since the introduction of the scheme, we have actively monitored and improved arrangements for processing Gateway cases. Our embassy in the designated third country, which has been reinforced for this purpose with a dedicated staff member, has worked closely with the local authorities and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to develop and refine procedures for facilitating the timely and orderly movement of former staff and dependants from Iraq, and to offer assistance and advice on arrival. In 2008, we changed the system for providing financial support available to those undergoing Gateway screening in order to ensure that they do not suffer financial hardship while in the third country. Rather than a lump sum subsistence payment, each principal applicant receives a subsistence payment, plus 10 per cent. of that sum for each dependant to a limit of five dependants, for each month spent in that country.

We have concluded that the categories of staff able to apply for the assistance under the scheme, and the eligibility criteria set out in my statements of October 2007 remain valid and should therefore be maintained without change. Any set of objective criteria will always lead to instances where individual applicants fall outside their scope. But we continue to believe that the rationale for these criteria remains valid: allowing us to focus assistance on those staff who have had the closest and most sustained association with us, in circumstances which we judge to be uniquely difficult. We have also taken the view in the light of our experience of implementing the scheme that these objective criteria represent the fairest and most practical way of doing this.

Staff who left our employment on or before 7 August 2007 have now had around 16 months to decide whether to apply for the scheme. As a result of this and in view of the declining rate of applications, we consider that the time is right to close the scheme to new applications from former staff. We need to allocate resources effectively in support of the operation of the scheme, particularly as we draw closer to the draw down of UK forces from Iraq, as set out by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in his statement of 18 December 2008, Official Report, columns 1233-5. New applications from former staff for both financial and resettlement benefits under the scheme will cease to be accepted from 1200 Arabian standard time on 19 May 2009. Appeals against decisions will continue to be considered until 30 June 2009. We shall work with our missions in Iraq to ensure that full publicity is given to the closure of this scheme in the local media.

Employing Departments and the Home Office are continuing to review the future of the elements of the scheme that apply to serving staff, and I shall make a further statement on this at a future date.

During my recent visit to Iraq I was greatly impressed by the continued dedication and commitment demonstrated across the board by our Iraqi staff. We could not have made our contribution to the rebuilding of Iraq without their service and, in some cases, sacrifice. I would like to take this opportunity in the House to thank our Iraqi staff for the continued dedicated service they provide to our armed services and civilian missions in Iraq. The scheme for assistance is designed to reflect our enduring debt to them. I am pleased it has proved popular and effective.