I remind hon. and right hon. Members that I will only call those who are here at the beginning of the debate. It is important to keep bobbing to show that those who have put in for the debate still wish to speak. All Members must be present at the end of the debate, too, so Members should bear that in mind when considering whether they definitely want to speak.
I beg to move,
(1) That it is expedient:
(a) that a Joint Committee of Lords and Commons be appointed for the remainder of the current session to consider:
(i) Government policy on Afghanistan from the Doha Agreement in February 2020 to the conclusion of Operation Pitting on 27 August 2021;
(ii) The intelligence assessments made of the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan during this period, the extent to which those assessments were accurate, and the decisions taken by Ministers in response to that intelligence;
(iii) The ARAP scheme, including eligibility for the scheme, and policy towards civilian resettlement;
(iv) The planning of the Government, including any contingency planning, the crisis management process of the Government, and planning for the availability of Ministers if the situation deteriorated;
(b) that the Chair of the Committee shall be a backbench Member of a party represented in Her Majesty’s Government and shall be elected by the House of Commons under arrangements approved by Mr Speaker.
(2) That a Select Committee of eight Members be appointed to join with any committee to be appointed by the Lords for this purpose.
(3) That the Committee should publish its first report no later than 31 March 2022.
(4) That the Committee shall have power:
(a) to send for persons, papers and records;
(b) to sit notwithstanding any adjournment of the House;
(c) to report from time to time;
(d) to appoint specialist advisers; and
(e) to adjourn from place to place within the United Kingdom.
(5) That the quorum of the Committee shall be three.
(6) That, in addition to the Chair elected under paragraph (1)(b) above, the Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, the Chair of the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy and the Chairs of the Defence Committee, the Foreign Affairs Committee, the Home Affairs Committee, the International Development Committee and the International Trade Committee shall be members of the Committee.
This has been a painful few weeks. The chaotic end to 20 years in Afghanistan left hundreds of British citizens and thousands of Afghans behind. Two decades of work, the transformation of the economy through landmine clearance, the improvements to healthcare, media freedom and the education of millions of girls are now at risk as the Taliban regime returns. A generation of young Afghans are watching the future they were promised disappear before their eyes. We owe it to them, to the 150,000 brave military personnel, to the families of 457 British soldiers who never made it home and to our diplomats and aid workers who fought for a better future, to tell the truth about what went wrong over the past 18 months and what is still going wrong at the heart of Government, and to do everything in our power to support the people of Afghanistan and secure the safety of British people.
I fully agree with the hon. Member that we need to get to the bottom of what has happened in the past 18 months, and I agree with the motion. Does she also agree that we need to look at the past 20 years and how we even got to where we were 18 months ago? That means looking at why we went in, how the objectives changed over the years, who supported the Taliban and who kept them strong in Afghanistan and enabled their resurgence. Does she agree we need a full public inquiry to get to the bottom of that?
I thank the hon. Member for his intervention and say to him that I absolutely accept that lessons have to be learned from the experience in Afghanistan over the past 20 years. There are a range of views in this House about the decisions taken over two decades by successive Governments on different sides of the Atlantic. All of us in this House should approach that inquiry with a level of humility and introspection. That does not mean we cannot learn the lessons right now from what has happened over the past 18 months, and learn them quickly.
In 20 years, not a single attack has been launched against us from Afghanistan. Those gains must be protected. We need to learn lessons and chart a course for the future. We deserve to know why for years successive Conservative Governments have dragged their heels over the resettlement of Afghan interpreters. One of my hon. Friends still has an interpreter who is in hiding and is being hunted door-to-door by the Taliban. We deserve to know why, when the Government had 18 months to plan, they were so completely unprepared that troops had to be sent into danger to pull people through crowds and on to planes.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Many of us on the Opposition Benches and across the House will have constituents who have family members in Afghanistan—for example, I have a mother whose husband and two of her children are in Kabul, left behind in the chaos. While I pay tribute to the bravery of people who were working on the frontline, does my hon. Friend share my concern that we have heard so little from the Government over these weeks? Those desperate families are simply not getting the information or advice that we all need.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for her work on behalf of her constituents and their family members in Afghanistan. Members across the House have been working tirelessly to raise cases with the Government only to be told suddenly—despite the Prime Minister’s promise that we would all receive answers by last Monday—that we should not send emails and that not a single one would receive a response. It is disgraceful.
We deserve to know why, when the Foreign Office’s own assessment warned on 22 July that the Taliban were advancing rapidly, no action was taken, and why the Foreign Secretary appeared not to be aware of the report when it was raised with him by the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat). We deserve to know why the Foreign Office crisis centre was set up after Kabul had fallen, why crucial papers identifying local employees were left abandoned on an embassy floor and why thousands of emails from Members of this House addressing urgent cases are sitting unopened and unread in inboxes.
Ministers still come to the Dispatch Box unable to answer basic questions such as how many British nationals have been left behind, Departments are still unable to pick up the phone to each other to resolve basic issues, and the Prime Minister pledges that all cases will receive a response within hours but, weeks later, it has not been done. It is disgraceful. Lives are at risk.
My hon. Friend mentions the plight of British nationals still stuck in Afghanistan. I have 11 such constituents, including an 18-month-old baby, yet the Government refuse to respond when we email them. Does she agree that that is completely unacceptable and that they must put a plan together urgently to get these British nationals home?
I completely agree. I am aware of that case and how hard my hon. Friend has been fighting on behalf of her constituents. How on earth are we supposed to trust that the Government are dealing with the serious security threats we face or the evacuation of thousands whose lives are urgently at risk if they cannot even keep a promise to reply to emails? Quite simply, it is Parliament’s job to get answers to those questions, and the Opposition believe that we need proper tools to do it.
Is there not another issue? Lots of the people about whom many hon. Members have been writing to three Departments—let us hope that, as I think the Minister for the Middle East and North Africa said last week, we will get the reply from the Foreign Office, which will apparently be by the end of tomorrow—will now need consular support from somewhere, either in country or out of country. However, as I understand it, the Government have done nothing to make that provision available to them. Unlike what the Americans are doing, it feels like we have given in and surrendered.
I thank my hon. Friend for saving me a bit of time in my speech. I hope the Minister heard that and will provide us with answers today.
These are all important questions, but, notwithstanding the bravery of 70,000 Afghans who gave their lives over recent years and against the background of the howl of the loss of rights, opportunities and futures for women and everyone, is not the burning question about the failure of strategic policy and how, in the recent conflict, the Taliban walked into Kabul without having to fight for it? We must answer the question of why that happened.
The right hon. Gentleman and I have many disagreements, but I think we can agree that, over 20 years, our troops played an incredibly important role in supporting the work of the Afghan forces and that we should all honour and respect that. We should also learn the lessons from why the withdrawal ended up in such chaos, why our troops had to be sent into danger, why so many people were left behind, why the Taliban were able to advance so rapidly and why the morale of the Afghan security forces collapsed so quickly. What were the intelligence assessment failures that meant we did not see that coming? We need to answer all those questions relatively quickly. That is why Labour proposes this motion.
The motion would create a Committee of Members from across the House, with a Chair chosen by the whole House, drawing on the knowledge and experience of the other place. Its remit would be to examine the full story of the last 18 months from the Doha agreement to the conclusion of Operation Pitting and provide for the inquiry to be done in a timely manner so that this Parliament ensures that responsibility is taken and lessons are learned.
I will take one more intervention and then try to get on with my speech.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way. It strikes me, having been in this place for some time, that it is the role of Select Committees to undertake such inquiries. Is it not up to Select Committee Chairs to make that judgment?
A number of Select Committees—I pay tribute to their Chairs and members—have announced their own inquiries, but the failings we have seen most pressingly in recent months have been the failures of co-ordination between different Government Departments, and it would be a serious mistake to replicate the siloed approach that has failed so badly in the work this House does to ensure that lessons are learned and mistakes are put right.
If the Government do not learn from these mistakes, they will repeat them. The problem is that the failures over Afghanistan are indicative of a wider pattern—a foreign policy that is reactive rather than strategic, and improvised, not planned. Setting up a crisis centre after Kabul had fallen, ignoring phone calls in the build-up to the crisis and then rushing on a hastily organised regional tour, and cutting aid to Afghanistan only to have to restore it—this is a foreign policy of negligence that is careless about the consequences for people’s lives. It is disjointed and incoherent when we need principled and consistent leadership. We need a Government who can build consensus with international partners and who are trusted and credible on the world stage.
We must look forward as well as back to understand not just where Government policy has gone wrong, but to confront the reality of Taliban rule. This requires action on several fronts, starting with those left behind. We are so grateful to the soldiers, diplomats and civil servants who flew into danger to evacuate thousands as part of Operation Pitting—they remind us what courage looks like—but they are heartbroken at how many people were left behind. MPs and staff from across this House have been working around the clock to escalate the cases of British nationals and Afghans who were left behind. Many of them are still being hunted from door to door because of their connection to Britain and their support for our efforts. How on earth could it be that, when I asked the Foreign Secretary how many British nationals are in contact with his Department seeking help with evacuation, he did not know? Can the Minister tell us how many people that is today?
It is not just about the numbers; it is about the complexity of the cases. We are in touch with British nationals who are wheelchair-bound, while babies and one-year-olds have been left by themselves. One man is on dialysis, and he cannot follow the Defence Secretary’s advice to try to get to a border. Every Government have a duty above all to protect their own citizens. That there is still no advice for them is a first-order failure of Government, and it must be resolved.
We were infuriated and dispirited to learn that thousands of our emails had not even been opened by the Department. The Minister told MPs they would get a reply by tomorrow about British nationals stranded in Afghanistan. Will he respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and make sure that those replies are forthcoming? I did a ring around before I left the office, and I could not find a single MP who has had a substantive reply to those emails from the Foreign Office yet.
Is the Minister going to do that, or is he going to follow the appalling example of the Home Office? In a letter to MPs this week, it told us that we must
“deal with the circumstances as they are, not how we wish them to be”.
The letter confirmed that it is just
“logging the cases we have and considering how this data will be used in the future”,
and it asked MPs not to “pursue cases” any more. This is utterly shameful. For the Prime Minister to stand at the Dispatch Box and say that he is moving heaven and earth to sort this out, promising responses by close of play over a week ago, and then leave it to a junior Minister to tell us that the Afghans who supported and helped us—they went into the crowds and pulled people into the airport in the face of gunfire—are on their own is an absolute disgrace, and the Minister has to set it right today.
I know the Minister has made some limited progress with keeping the borders open, but there are immediate practical steps he must take now. Countries in the region tell me they need far more support with covid testing facilities for new arrivals and a greater UK presence at the borders. Because many of those travelling are considered special cases under the Afghan relocations and assistance policy, there is no guarantee of onward travel to the UK, so they are not being admitted.
There are 100 people with a connection to my seat in Reading who are still stuck in Afghanistan. My hon. Friend has spoken eloquently about the plight of these people, who urgently need our help. Does she agree that the Government should have taken much earlier action to secure access at land borders to get these people out?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, and I want to pay tribute to Lord Ahmad for having, belatedly, rolled into action to try to overcome some of those difficulties, but I say to those on the Treasury Bench that far more can be done. I have a list of Afghan women MPs who need paperwork to cross the border to neighbouring states and onward travel to the UK. I know Lord Ahmad, the Minister for South Asia, has this list too; can the Minister replying to this debate assure me he will work with me so this can be resolved in the next 24 hours?
Does my hon. Friend agree that we only have to look around these Benches to see the powerful and important role women play in the political arena, and that we must therefore do all we can to support and protect the brave women who served in the Afghan Government?
I could not agree more and am sure we can find cross-party consensus on this, but those women need practical help now. There is a way to get them to the border if we can issue them with the paperwork, so will the Minister commit to working with the Ministry of Defence, which is represented here today, to make sure that paperwork is issued within the next 24 hours?
Beyond the help for those left behind, we need urgent action on the humanitarian crisis. There are 37 million Afghans now living under a Taliban regime. The pledging conference was a start, but there are practical challenges. I was very concerned to speak to aid workers in Afghanistan recently who have been told that women aid workers cannot return to work. They are understandably unwilling to operate under those conditions; what discussions has the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office had with our allies and with the Taliban to ensure that that work can begin again without conditions?
We need a global agreement to deal with the refugee crisis, as the Minister knows, but we also need to make sure the UK plays its part. Pakistan is, for instance, home to 3 million Afghan refugees already and is being asked to take more when the UK has capped its contribution at 5,000 over the next year. Can the Minister see the problem? If we want to keep the borders open he will have to pick up the phone to the Home Office to see what more can be done, and while he is doing that perhaps he will mention to the Home Secretary that this warm welcome looks pretty chilly indeed when families are being dumped into overcrowded hostels and hotels without local authorities even being notified that they are there.
No one in Government has yet been able to outline a political strategy. We need clarity on how the Government intend to try to influence the new Taliban regime, a clear assessment of the financial and economic leverage available, and clarity on the Government’s approach to conditionality. We are now in the unpalatable position of being dependent on the Taliban’s promises that they have changed; I am sure I am not the only Member who is deeply sceptical about their assurances. Whatever the PR operation in Qatar is telling us, on the ground there are daily reports coming into my office of journalists being beaten, women being hunted and minority groups being tortured and killed, so how does the Minister intend to use our leverage, particularly financial and economic, to ensure the Taliban keep that promise?
Finally, on national security we must have assurances that effective security checks are applied to those coming to the UK, and that there is clarity on the threat assessment and a plan to strengthen our intelligence coverage of Afghanistan now that the UK is no longer present on the ground. As well as the reality of those left behind in Afghanistan, what keeps me awake at night is the unknown security risks we now face. There are ways to address this, but one consequence might be that we become more reliant on countries that are not our natural partners. When we went to the UN, we were reliant on China and Russia in order to establish a joint international approach. What does this mean for Britain as we enter the next few weeks or the great strategic challenges that will become apparent in just a month’s time at COP26?
It did not have to be like this; we could have used the last 18 months to plan our exit and to recommit to the aspirations of the Afghan people for a peaceful democratic country. Although we are withdrawing troops, we should not walk away from the people of Afghanistan. The alternative to chaotic exit is not endless war, as the former Foreign Secretary the right hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab) suggested, but the endless, tireless pursuit of peace that shows leadership on refugees instead of simply lecturing other countries, and that invests in friendships and alliances so that when we most need them we find willing partners who stand with us and readily answer our call. That was the spirit shown by our troops, our diplomats, our civil servants and the Afghan people over two decades. We owe it to them to learn the lessons, we owe it to them to do better. I commend this motion to the House.
Before I call the Minister, I have further news in relation to the points of order that were raised earlier. Initially, the Government committed to making a statement in response to any such votes as took place earlier within 12 weeks. However, in 2019, the Government reduced that deadline to eight weeks. I thought it would be helpful for the House to know that so that it is clear about the position. If there are any further concerns, I am sure that Members will consider raising them with the Leader of the House at business questions tomorrow.
There is pressure on time in this debate, so there will be an immediate time limit on Back-Bench speeches. It may be five minutes, but it might be four, depending on the length of the Front-Bench contributions. Just to reiterate, if anyone stands who was not here at the beginning of the debate, they will not be called.
I thank the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) for calling today’s debate on an incredibly important issue.
In response to the crisis in Afghanistan, we have delivered the largest and most complex evacuation in living memory. In the space of just two weeks, we evacuated around 8,000 British nationals, around 5,000 Afghans under the ARAP scheme, and around 500 Afghan special cases, including judges, Chevening scholars, journalists and women’s rights activists. That is in addition to the 1,978 Afghans evacuated through the ARAP scheme between April, when we started the scheme, and the end of August.
In her statement on Monday, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), said:
“Family members of British citizens or”
Afghans settled in the UK
“who do not qualify for the ACRS”—
the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme—
“can apply to come to the UK”—[Official Report, 13 September 2021; Vol. 700, c. 685.]
under existing “family routes”. The majority of our cases, I suspect, are those family reunion cases. What priority will be given to those? She also said that
“we will not be able, therefore, to respond to colleagues with specific updates on individuals.”
Does that mean that the 160 letters that I am waiting for a reply to will not get any reply at all?
I will come on to how we intend to inform Members about cases that they have raised with us. If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I will address that.
We also repatriated an estimated 500 British nationals who left Afghanistan in accordance with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office travel advice when that was changed. In total, from April this year to August, we helped over 17,000 people get to safety. I pay tribute to the troops and civilian staff who helped to make that possible, and I pay tribute once again to all those who served in Afghanistan over the last 20 years, whether in the armed forces or in other roles.
In this next phase, we are working to secure safe passage for those British nationals and eligible Afghans who remain in the country. My right hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab), the then Foreign Secretary, visited Qatar two weeks ago to discuss efforts to re-establish flights from Kabul airport and the wider international approach to the Taliban. International flights have now started. We secured places for 13 British nationals on the first Qatari flight from Kabul on 9 September, and 21 British nationals were on the second flight the following day. We will continue this work to help evacuate British nationals via that route.
I have two quick questions. First, how many British nationals does the Minister think are still in Afghanistan? Secondly, if other people—Afghan nationals—are going to be helped out, some of them will still need consular support because they will need visas or permits to travel. How do we intend that that support be given? Are we doing that through another nation state? Are we going to be able to do that from out of country? What is the plan?
The hon. Gentleman asks about the number of people in Afghanistan. He will understand that the British Government do not demand British nationals overseas register with us. We do not demand that when they cross borders, so it is incredibly difficult—this is one of the challenges we are facing—to put a precise figure on the number of British nationals in Afghanistan, particularly, as I say, because there is no requirement necessarily for people to register with us when they cross borders.
I am conscious that there is huge interest in this debate and I really do want to make some progress.
We are working closely with Afghanistan’s neighbours to ensure safe passage through those countries. My right hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton, the then Foreign Secretary, visited Pakistan after Qatar and saw for himself the situation at Torkham on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. He also had discussions with the Foreign Ministers of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Iran.
Our diplomacy is paying off. Over the weekend, we helped to secure safe passage for Afghan nationals, including the staff of the Nowzad animal welfare charity, which I know is of huge interest both to hon. Members and the British people more widely, after they made their way to the border. We also dispatched a rapid deployment team comprising 23 staff to the region last week to support our embassies in processing those cases, which goes to the point raised by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) about where they would be processed. Those cases will be processed wherever is most appropriate, although the main ambassadorial team which served in Afghanistan is currently based in Doha. We are sending further rapid deployment teams to bolster those efforts, with additional staff being sent to Pakistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
Members on both sides of the House are fighting the corner for deserving Afghans whom we want to save. The Minister has just said that the Nowzad animal charity staff, who were not ARAP people and not British citizens, have been given safe passage, having got to the border. Does that mean that the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme is now up and running, because we have all got good cases that qualify just as much as those worthy people do for immediate help and rescue?
I will address that point shortly.
In addition to that deployment of staff, we are providing £30 million to Afghanistan’s neighbours to provide lifesaving support for refugees. Meanwhile—this touches on the point my right hon. Friend mentions—the Home Office is currently in the process of fully launching the resettlement programme, providing a safe and legal route to the UK for up to 20,000 Afghans in the region.
I really do have to make some progress. There are a lot of points that I wish to cover. I am sure Members will be able to bring that up in the forthcoming debate.
The FCDO team in London and internationally continue to work around the clock to support processing and responding to the correspondence that has been sent by Members of this House. During the evacuation operation alone, the FCDO received, as I have said previously at the Dispatch Box, over 200,000 emails. Approximately 30,000 of these emails were from MPs. That volume reflects the concern and passion of the House, and we completely understand that. However, working through that volume of emails has been a Herculean task.
On that point, will the Minister give way?
I am going to make progress.
Hundreds of civil servants are being assigned to work through that case load each day, working in multiple shifts through the day, seven days a week. The FCDO aimed to complete the triage of cases to the Ministry of Defence or the Home Office, and notify hon. Members by tomorrow. It has become increasingly clear, as we work through cases, that both the volume and their complexity mean that we will have to take longer than we had originally hoped.
What we have learnt is that some individual pieces of correspondence contain very large numbers of highly complex cases, which means that it is not always obvious which Government Department is the most appropriate recipient for the email and makes predicting how long this work will take very difficult. However, I can tell the House that, by tomorrow, the FCDO will have contacted more than half the hon. Members who have written to us to, letting them know which Department their cases have been sent to. We will endeavour to complete that process for all but the small minority of MPs with the most complex cases by the timelines previously communicated to Members.
I thank the Minister for giving way and particularly for his update on his discussions with other countries, including Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, which are a very important part of the puzzle. I want to make two specific points. First, there is a new form on the Foreign Office website for British nationals in Afghanistan to register, but when I asked the Foreign Secretary about whether that form needed to be completed again by British nationals who have already notified the Foreign Office that they are still there, he said he did not know and suggested I ask the Minister. So I would be grateful if the Minister could update the House on whether British nationals still in Afghanistan—this is a very important point—have to fill out another form to be on the Foreign Office’s register.
Secondly, I want to ask about Afghan nationals who are at risk. A particular example is someone who worked as a BBC journalist who is in hiding at the moment with her children. What advice should I be giving her right now? She is a relative of a constituent and at serious risk at this moment.
I completely understand the hon. Lady’s desire to get information to at-risk Afghans. It is not possible for me to give credible advice based just on the information that she has sent through. She makes the point about the website. While it is not necessarily the duty of Members of the House to understand the machinery of government, it is worth while them understanding that, when the Foreign Office has received emails, sometimes with the details of hundreds of individual cases, it is very difficult at times even to double-check to see whether those details have already been passed to us. Even in the case of British nationals, we have received cases that have been a mix of British nationals, potential ARAP scheme Afghans and other Afghans who are likely to come through in the Home Office scheme that has been announced. Working through them—triaging and distributing them—is an incredibly time-consuming and complex process, which we have to do with care.
It is obviously right that we crack through this casework as soon as possible, particularly in relation to UK nationals and those who come under the scope of the ARAP scheme. That is a UK responsibility and we will be faced with a refugee crisis—of that there is no question. We will therefore need a much bigger programme to take as many people as is reasonable, with our partners. The expert in this matter is the United Nations, which has of course provided triage, relatively recently and contemporaneously, in the Syrian resettlement programme, so what discussion has the Minister had with the UN about how to manage this situation, particularly in relation to those who have now fled Afghanistan?
I thank my right hon. Friend and I will come on to that point shortly.
As we work through this process, those MPs who have particularly complex cases will ultimately be contacted directly by the ministerial team—they will be phoned by a member of the ministerial team—to update them on the progress of those cases and, where necessary, to establish further information to allow us to process them.
A crisis of this magnitude demands a wider strategic response from the international community, as my right hon. Friend said. The UK is very much leading in that response. We are galvanising actions around four key priorities: first, preventing Afghanistan from ever again becoming a haven for global terrorism; secondly, preventing humanitarian disaster and supporting refugees; thirdly, preserving wider regional stability; and fourthly, holding the Taliban to account for their conduct, including their record on human rights. We will be at the UN General Assembly next week to take forward those priorities with our international partners. Working with the international community, we must set credible tests to hold the Taliban to the undertakings that they have made.
Turning to the motion before the House, I note that there is already a comprehensive range of scrutiny of the Government on the issue. The Select Committees on Foreign Affairs and on Defence have already launched inquiries on Afghanistan; further scrutiny will no doubt come from the House of Lords Select Committee on International Relations and Defence, and possibly from other Committees of this House or the other place. It is not clear what additional value a Joint Committee of both Houses would add.
The motion states that the proposed Joint Committee would
“consider…Government policy on Afghanistan from…February 2020 to…August 2021”.
In fact, the Government’s policy on Afghanistan during that period has been clear and there have been many opportunities to question Ministers and the Government on their approach.
Will the Minister give way?
No, I will conclude, because otherwise I would steal time from hon. Members who wished to contribute to the debate.
The motion proposes that the new Committee
“consider…intelligence assessments made of the…situation in Afghanistan”.
The Intelligence and Security Committee already has statutory responsibility for oversight in that area; it is the proper vehicle for such scrutiny.
The motion then stipulates that the Joint Committee would scrutinise eligibility for the ARAP scheme, but the eligibility criteria have been known to every Member of this House for months and there is no need for a Joint Committee to debate them now or in future. Of course, the overriding challenge that we have faced has not been eligibility per se, but the difficulty of implementing a scheme in the rapidly changing and deteriorating security situation that we have observed in Afghanistan.
Thanks to our brave servicemen and women, no terrorist attack has been successfully launched from Afghanistan against this country in the past 20 years; I am grateful that the hon. Member for Wigan recognised that point. It is painful to watch what has gone on in Afghanistan, but we should remember that 10 million more children have been educated and 8 million landmines have been cleared because of our intervention. In the new reality that we face in Afghanistan today, it will be challenging to preserve those gains—of course it will—but we must do all we can with a concerted new international approach.
The Labour party supported the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. As yet, we have not seen the Opposition putting forward a credible alternative set of policies or strategic approach to this incredibly challenging issue.
As I said, the relevant Select Committees are already looking into the recent events in Afghanistan and providing scrutiny, as they should. The motion would therefore create an unnecessary process and would inevitably duplicate the work of those Committees and divert the Government’s resources from what should be our priority: addressing the needs of those people currently in Afghanistan whom we need to help. I therefore urge hon. Members on both sides of the House to reject the motion.
The Scottish National party supports the motion. I am very glad that the Opposition tabled it, because there is a great deal to learn from the debacle, the failure, the ignominious defeat that we have seen in Afghanistan. We have expressed a preference for an independent judge-led inquiry and we are still very open to that option, but let us consider the motion that stands before us.
I would quibble slightly with the scope of paragraph (1)(a)(i), which would start the timetable from the Doha agreement; we think that previous events need to be properly considered in the round. I would also quibble with paragraph (1)(a)(ii), because I think that there would be quite a lot of overlap with the Intelligence and Security Committee, a point that has been dealt with already. Nevertheless, we support the motion. While taking due cognisance of the Committee inquiries already under way, we think, as Labour does, that the matter is of such significance and magnitude that it must be properly ventilated.
There is a lot to learn from the past few months. One thing that has struck me personally is that, in all our discussions and urgent questions on Afghanistan during and since the emergency recall, not a single person—on either side of the House, actually—has said sorry. Four hundred and fifty-six service personnel lost their lives. We have not said sorry to the veterans and their families. We have not said sorry to the Afghans who believed our promises and whom we collectively—all of us—failed. We have not said sorry either to our taxpayers, who funded this to the tune of many billions of pounds. There is a real need for more collective humility on all of this. I myself am sorry, because I think we have all let the people of Afghanistan down, and I think we need to learn the lessons from that.
I have to say, even to the Minister, that while I pay tribute to the intelligence personnel, the defence personnel and everyone else involved in Operation Pitting—and to everyone who has spent time in Afghanistan keeping the people of the country safe—to present Operation Pitting and recent events as some sort of herculean triumph is out of tune with the reality of the situation. I pay tribute to all those who have achieved so much over recent months, but we must learn the lessons of this collective huge failure. I would counsel a little more humility from the Government Benches and a little less hubris when we are discussing this issue.
There are also lessons for the conduct of the House’s business, because the responses that Members received from the Government were not as they should have been. We are reasonable people. We understand that things were stretched, we understand that things were unprecedented, and we understand that things were moving very fast. We would have taken all that in the round, but it was particularly galling to have a breezy assurance from the Prime Minister and former Foreign Secretary that everything would be dealt with, and that everyone would receive a response “by close of play”.
There is a world of difference between a response and an answer, and the inquiries of many Members, on all sides of the House, were not properly dealt with and still have not been. That is something of which the House should take due cognisance. I think that the distinction between those words was cynically abused by the Prime Minister himself—not by this Minister, who is far more credible on the issue. I think that there has been a collective failure of government. It was suggested earlier that the duty of the House is not necessarily to understand the administration of government. I thought that that was precisely the function of the House. We fear that there has been a failure of collective responsibility in this regard.
When the Minister was on his feet, I hoped to ask him this question. I myself have tried to obtain a copy of the call logs for each Minister for each day during the month of August, so that we can map what Ministers were doing as the Taliban were advancing across Afghanistan. The Department refuses to publish that information, which it holds. Does my hon. Friend agree that, if the Department will not even do that, it explains why we in the House believe that greater transparency, not less, in government and ministerial actions is what is needed?
My hon. Friend has made a very sensible point. I would add gently to the Government that perhaps there would not be a call for a specific inquiry if we felt that the inquiries had been dealt with properly thus far.
What we need to do, as a priority—all of us—while learning lessons is get people out and make people safe. I pay tribute to the work that has been done on that, but we need more. The House needs to scrutinise the ARAP scheme itself, but we also urgently need the details of the new scheme so that our constituents can be informed. We in the SNP already think that it needs to be expanded. We do not think that 20,000 is remotely sufficient for the scale of the trouble ahead.
We would also like clarity on the actual timescale. If, as we have heard, “in the coming years” means more people coming in, does that mean that, if 20,000 people apply in the first few months of next year, the scheme will close—in which case it is wholly insufficient—or does it mean that there is a quota for how many people can actually get in? These are basic questions that are as yet unanswered, so we need more details urgently.
We have another issue, and that is family reunion. The family reunion visa will not be suitable for the situation that we face. There is currently a 12-year-old girl in my constituency who was separated from her parents in the chaos at Kabul airport, and we cannot get the parents out. Surely we need to look very carefully at how we are going to operate family reunion in cases such as that.
I strongly agree; in fact, that was going to be the next line of my remarks. Indeed, a number of Members across the House have been pressing for details on family reunion. There is also the question of funding for local authorities to keep people safe. I have met three families from Afghanistan who have already been settled in Stirling in the last couple of weeks, and they were particularly concerned about friends and family who were still in the country and still very much in harm’s way. I pay tribute to Stirling Council and to Forth Valley Welcome, who have done so much to make these refugees feel safe and secure in the Forth Valley. I say, in a genuine and constructive offer to the Government, that we can do more: the Forth Valley can do more and Scotland can do more. We need the details of the scheme and particularly of the funding, because we are not going to make promises that we cannot keep, but we are willing to play our part constructively.
There are wider and longer-term implications to the Afghanistan situation. It is not just about Afghanistan. Where is your global Britain now? After Afghanistan, it is clear that the UK cannot operate significant independent engagement and that it has precious little influence on US engagement. This was a collective failure of the US, the UK and others; many countries have failed in this. The world is less secure than it was, and the bad guys are now feeling more confident than they should be. That is something we should all be deeply concerned about.
Domestically, the integrated review is out of date within six months of its publication. We also see that the UK’s Indo-Pacific tilt looks even less credible than it did—and frankly that was not much, from our perspective. Global Britain is not the SNP’s project. That stands to reason, as we have a different world view. We believe that Scotland’s best future is as an independent state within the European Union, but we do not wish global Britain harm. The UK is always going to be our closest neighbour and our closest friend. The SNP submitted constructive suggestions to the integrated defence and foreign affairs review, and they are even more relevant now than they were. We will continue to work constructively, from our perspective, to help our nearest friend and neighbour to learn the lessons of the last few months, but that needs to be done on the basis of humility and reality. Learning lessons would go a long way to support the motion put forward by Labour today, which we are very pleased to support.
Order. We are going to try to get everybody in, but I am afraid that the time limit forthwith is four minutes.
It is a great pleasure to follow several hon. and right hon. Friends. I find myself in the unusual position of disagreeing with the Opposition and agreeing with those on the Government Benches, which, as many Members will know, has a touch of novelty for me. I think I have been doing my best to hold this Government to account on matters of foreign affairs, but Members might feel that I have not been quite as rigorous on this matter as I should have been today. Could I ask you, Mr Deputy Speaker, to check whether the phone signal is working properly in the Chamber? My phone seems remarkably unable to ring.
I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman would share his contact list with me, because he seems to be able to contact the Home Secretary directly while many of us cannot. We have similar cases to his, and I congratulate him on having success with his case, but it might be helpful if he could do that.
I would be absolutely delighted to. As many Members of the House will know, I share any Member’s phone number with other Members once I have got their permission to do so, and if the hon. Lady would like to ask me, I would be very happy to do exactly that.
I share much of the criticism that I have heard from various Members about how the relief and evacuation operations have been handled. I have been pretty critical of the ways in which questions have been answered and co-ordination has been conducted. I think I have also been pretty robust in expressing how that should be improved.
On the matter of responses, I wrote to the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues in the Government about a friend of mine and a group who were trapped in Afghanistan. The friend of mine, who I worked with 10 years ago at the US Department of State, was an adviser to the Afghan Government. Not only had he fled Afghanistan with his family and gone to Turkey because he saw the writing on the wall, unlike our security services, but he had key expertise to offer. Yet I was not even able to get a response from the Government to acknowledge the name of my friend and the group of human rights defenders. I got a standard response. Luckily my friend has been given passage to the US, but is it not a disgrace that the hon. Gentleman’s Government will not even acknowledge the individual cases and lives that we are raising with them?
The hon. Lady will know that, in all manner of ways, I support this Government, but on this single issue of foreign affairs it is my job to criticise and attack the Government where I feel they are lacking, and I have done so. I will not add to her comments. She has made her point extremely powerfully.
I was pretty clear with the last Foreign Secretary that this is a problem that needs addressing, and needs addressing now. The Foreign Affairs Committee has been pretty robust. The hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) does not know this yet, but I have just written to the new Foreign Secretary asking for a list of all phone calls. I am sure that the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge), will be giving us the information for which we ask. We have asked for the contacts between the Government and other people, and for any number of documents, in order to conduct the inquiry. The hon. Member for Glasgow South will be sitting on the Committee and scrutinising those documents.
The Foreign Affairs Committee appreciates the urgency of which the hon. Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) speaks. We appreciate the troubles that many people around the world are facing by not having contact with family and not being able to get family out of Afghanistan. We appreciate the real challenges due to the abject failure and defeat we have seen in Afghanistan. That is why, bizarrely, I find myself on the other side of this argument. The Foreign Affairs Committee is literally doing the job that the Opposition are asking us to do. We started even before Parliament returned with a hearing with the then Foreign Secretary, who I do not think felt that it was a particularly easy ride. I certainly do not think the hon. Member for Glasgow South gave him a particularly easy ride. The Committee has been working as one to interrogate the Department very robustly, which is exactly what Select Committees need to do.
The truth is that the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) has a point. Not unusually, she has got the core of the matter right, which is that we need a much more strategic approach to foreign policy. We need an all-encompassing approach to how we scrutinise it, and we need a much more integrated approach to how Britain approaches the world.
I would like to see the new Foreign Secretary taking on the mantle of overseeing Britain’s foreign strategy in a global sense. I would like to see her speaking about not just foreign policy but also trade policy, defence policy, education policy and justice policy as they affect Britain abroad. Unless there is a Department bringing together Britain’s foreign policy, and unless there is a strategic approach to the kind of integration and interaction we are going to have with other countries, we will find ourselves constantly salami-sliced.
I would like to see that, and obviously I would like to see a supercharged Foreign Affairs Committee scrutinising it, but what I would really like right now is for us not to mess around with the structures of the House but to get on with allowing the Committees that have already started the work to deliver as quickly as possible. Then, if we cannot get the answers, we need to look at a judge-led inquiry, not just another super Committee.
Never has the old saying been more true: a failure to plan is a plan to fail. This Government failed to plan and these Ministers are now failing. They are failing people in Afghanistan and their loved ones here in this country.
I put on record my heartfelt thanks to those who went in to serve, to help and to aid those in need, and I put on record my thanks to all our caseworkers and staff, my own included. My staff are now supporting 1,400 people in Afghanistan, the loved ones and family members of people in Birmingham, Hodge Hill constituency. The stories they have heard have been heartbreaking, yet the Government cannot and will not even give us the courtesy of updates on that trauma. Worst have been the cases where family members here in Birmingham have had to listen to their loved ones screaming in terror down the phone and having nothing to do, nothing to say, no update, no comfort to give. One constituent said:
“I literally am on the phone...hearing them scream and cry and beg for help. I have no other choice but to listen and cry dreading if they will be found by the Taliban…they have already executed his brother. I’ve tried calling various immigration numbers, but still of no help.”
Another constituent talked of the cold fear that comes as the Taliban go door to door, hunting those who worked with the fallen regime. One told us how their father was a high-ranking colonel and former Afghan national army instructor, and their sisters were helping women to become literate and learn their rights. We were told:
“This threat is directly facing all my family”.
Another let us know that they had already received a warning letter from the Taliban and they were now in fear of going out to find food. A constituent said to me, “How is that family going to feed their children when they dare not venture into the street to get food?” She said to us that their siblings
“can’t even go outside to provide food for their kids because…Taliban is after my whole family”.
All of us in Birmingham are extremely proud of the way in which our city has stepped up—we are a city of sanctuary and we are very proud of it. Some 1,600 refugees are currently being supported in our city, and I want to put on record my thanks to Councillor John Cotton and his team for their extraordinary work. I have to say that that is in contrast to the council in the constituency of the Minister with responsibility for Afghan resettlement, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), who was in her place a moment ago. I am told that that local authority has supported just one asylum seeker since 2016. Can that really be true?
We have no details of the new scheme. We have no updates on the 1,400 cases we have filed for. We have no clarity on the resources that our city needs to provide help. We have no leadership to pull together councils in this country to provide proper support. We have no notice of the so-called “contingency hotels” that are popping up at very short notice. We have no answers to the challenges we put to Serco. We have no strategy, no updates, no clarity, no leadership and nothing to say to our constituents, citizens of this country about to lose the people they love most. These Ministers are not only risking the lives of those abroad; they are breaking the hearts of their family members here at home. The good people of Afghanistan stood with us and it is about time we stood with them.
That harrowing account by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne) puts me in mind of what happened to my family in Nazi-occupied Poland for 20 months during the second world war, when they could come out from a bunker under a barn only at night, to be fed by the Polish family who risked their lives to save them. This debate ought to be about what the Scottish National party spokesman, the hon. Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith), rightly summarised when he said, “Get people out and keep people safe.” That is why I am a little disappointed that I do not feel that I can concentrate on cases such as the ones I have raised before, those of the 16 academics being supported by the Council for At-Risk Academics. These people have places—visiting fellowships and research studentships—in British universities. A dozen of them are still in Afghanistan, three of them have made it to Pakistan and one has even made it to the Netherlands, preparatory to coming here. I do not feel that I can concentrate on that because, unfortunately, the Opposition motion is framed in terms of setting up a:
“Joint Committee to Investigate Withdrawal from Afghanistan”
I am reading from the Annunciator there.
With the greatest respect to the Opposition, may I say that that was a mistake? Late last month, it was announced on the website of the Intelligence and Security Committee—that is the hat I now have to wear—that we had
“requested from the Government any intelligence assessments which covered the outlook for the regime with regards to the final withdrawal of US and coalition forces from Afghanistan”.
When such assessments are received, we shall consider them carefully and then determine any future action to take. Until that has happened, the ISC will not be commenting on what such intelligence may contain, as it is not our role to prejudge the situation on the basis of media speculation and in the absence of primary factual material.
In recent months, the official Opposition have been very supportive of the right of the ISC to fulfil its role, set out in statute and in an associated memorandum of understanding, as the only Committee of parliamentarians cleared and equipped properly to deal with highly-classified intelligence material. If other Committees seek to do this, they will, for a start, require secure premises and specially vetted staff comparable to our own. There are very good reasons for safeguarding the role of the ISC against such interference, and they were spelled out in detail and strongly supported by the Opposition parties during the lively debates in both Houses on the National Security and Investment Bill. Colleagues will be relieved to know that I do not propose to reiterate those arguments today, but the argument for letting the ISC get on with its work steadily and objectively, without being undercut by other bodies not equipped to do it, is as irrefutable now as it was when it was deployed in the context of that Bill earlier this year.
It is entirely up to Select Committee Chairmen to decide whether they want to mount a joint inquiry or join a Joint Committee, but what cannot be part of any such joint inquiry is the adoption by another Committee of the ISC’s raison d’être: namely, scrutiny of the activities of the intelligence community and the classified material on which those activities were based.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his contribution and for the advice he has given me about cases. On intelligence and security, one of my constituent’s relatives is in Afghanistan. He worked for the intelligence services and has information on intelligence and the armed forces here, but he has not been supported to leave Afghanistan and is now being sought by the Taliban because of what and who he knows. What is the right hon. Gentleman’s view on how we should handle that situation from the point of view of our own security?
I would have thought that it should come within the compass of the existing Government schemes to classify someone, providing the Government can satisfy themselves that what that person says he has to offer is genuine, and to activate a plan to take advantage of any real intelligence material that someone in that position might be able to offer. Unfortunately, of course, as a result of the chaotic departure that has been forced on America’s allies by successive American Presidents, the wherewithal to secure the safety of anybody inside Afghanistan, and particularly someone whom the Taliban are actively hunting, will be very difficult through any overt scheme. It would have to be done by some form of covert means, on which I hope the Government are working but on which I would not expect them to comment publicly.
To conclude, the position is perfectly clear, according to law, and we shall continue, gently but firmly, to hold the Government and the intelligence agencies properly to account.
The relatives of my constituents who are trapped in Afghanistan are precisely those people who for the past 20 years have organised their lives around the future that we promised them: a future of a democratic, rights-based Afghanistan where education and equality were to be entrenched. It is for that reason that they became teachers, lawyers, police officers, judges and doctors. They believed that it was possible to build a new Afghanistan where women, religious minorities like the Shi’as, ethnic minorities like Hazaras, and LGBTQ people were all treated with equal dignity. They did not abandon that promise; we did. Now it is my constituents’ relatives who have been left vulnerable to reprisal. They are in hiding. They are being hunted. They are being executed, and women are being captured and given out as a prize of war.
When Kabul fell a month ago, Members of Parliament and their staff worked round the clock to assist British citizens and their Afghan partners and children, and tried to get them safe passage back to the UK, but everything had started too late and the American deadline governed everything. We need to assess the utter failure of intelligence that had insisted that the Afghan Government would hold Kabul for a further three months. We need an inquiry into why, after 20 years of occupation, our military had not prepared a plan B for an emergency evacuation.
My case against the Government today is that, for many weeks, they engaged Members of Parliament on a fool’s errand. They gave us telephone numbers and email addresses where we should send all the details of our constituents’ loved ones. We were asked to point out how they might be particularly vulnerable because of the work they had done or the religion they professed. This, we were told, was necessary so that they could be “prioritised” and provided a “route to safety”. And we did just that. We took the Government at their word and our staff gave their all, day and night and through weekends, to provide just that information. Now we are told that all that documentation of thousands of desperate lives has gone into a black hole.
The Minister responsible for Afghan resettlement, the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), wrote to us to say:
“We cannot provide to MPs assessments or updates on those individuals who remain in Afghanistan and whose cases they have raised.”
In what must count as the ministerial understatement of the year, she said:
“We appreciate this is difficult news to deliver to constituents who are desperately worried about family members and friends.”
“With great regret, we will not be able, therefore, to respond to colleagues with specific updates on individuals.”
This is an extraordinary abrogation of responsibility for those to whom our country owed a debt of honour.
I apologise for interrupting and for giving the hon. Gentleman an extra minute. If he feels so strongly about this, why is the Opposition motion to have an inquiry? Why is the Opposition motion not to ask for more resources to be put forward to help in this situation?
I do not think that anybody can be under any illusion about the fact that all of us who have been dealing with this would want more resources put into the situation.
We were engaged with these people for 20 years in a common endeavour—one that we said reflected our values. Well, where is the value of loyalty? Where is the value of commitment and trust? What we have projected to the world is that we do not care about the lives that are left in ruins or the vicious reprisals that will now be taken against our former friends.
One of my constituents has two brothers. They were in hiding, but were found by the Taliban. One of them was taken out and executed on the spot, the other beaten to a pulp and left for dead, but the Government will not be able to respond to me
“with specific updates about his situation”.
The fact is that, despite what the Minister says, the Government are not “prioritising” these people on the at-risk scheme. They cannot give them priority when they do not know where they are, when there is not even an application form that can be filled out to secure them a place on the resettlement scheme, and when they do not tell these people the most vital information: namely, that they have been prioritised.
The Minister’s letter is full of language that is designed to conceal the fact that nothing is being done for these people. All of this is objectionable, but nothing more so than the unspeakable arrogance of the Minister’s request that MPs should cease to present their constituents’ cases to her Department. It is so very far beyond extraordinary that a Minister of the Crown should actually request that MPs do not stand up for their constituents that I feel I must quote the letter:
“Please signpost individuals to gov.uk to check for the latest information...rather than seek to pursue cases on their behalf.”
The Minister should be absolutely certain that I will not obey any such instruction to stop advocating for my constituents. The Government may choose not to respond, but I will continue to do my duty as a constituency MP.
This is an interesting motion to have to speak against, because I work with a number of Opposition Members on a range of foreign affairs and development issues. To find myself on the polar opposite side from them on an issue that I care deeply about is somewhat frustrating. As has already been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, and by my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), the Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee, if there is the ability for Select Committees to take the decision unilaterally to carry out an investigation or an inquiry into Afghanistan, then that opportunity is already there. I meant no disrespect to the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) by intervening and suggesting that point, nor am I giving advice to the Labour party, but the suggestion in the motion seems at odds with what we really want to do. Members across the House have raised their legitimate concerns and spoken about what they want to do to help constituents and their families who may be in Afghanistan. I want to concentrate on that.
As the Minister said in his opening remarks, we have to focus on the diplomatic levers at our disposal in the form of the G7, NATO or the UN. Failing that, we should look to see how we can co-operate with others in the region or others who may have a vested interest in helping out in these circumstances—a D10+, perhaps. That is what we should be looking at and focusing on, because inquiries will not help the people of Afghanistan now, when we most desperately need to do so.
I was surprised that the shadow Foreign Secretary, who makes incredibly powerful speeches, did not pay more attention to the support that we can give to NGOs, the only western organisations that are still on the ground—[Interruption.] If the hon. Lady wants to intervene, she is more than welcome to.
I have written to the Foreign Secretary three times on that very point and not received a response. Perhaps the Minister, who has heard this exchange, will respond to that point today.
I very much hope so. I was making that point about the hon. Lady’s speech this afternoon, not about private letters that I would not have seen. I have had conversations with the Minister, including last night, about what extra support we can give to the NGOs. The House needs to think very carefully about how we integrate and operate with, and support, the NGOs, because it is in the Taliban’s interest that those organisations stay there.
My second point is one that I have made before in this Chamber, regarding the reopening of our embassy. A set of parameters will clearly have to be met to allow us to reopen the British embassy, but doing so will allow us to have a diplomatic network and a presence in Afghanistan again. I hasten to add that we have the most extensive diplomatic network in the world, which most of our allies rely on, including in places such as North Korea. These are the things that we need to think about so that we can help the people of Afghanistan—not through inquiries, but through delegated action and the achievement of helping to bring people back to and over to the UK.
My last point is about preventing sexual violence in conflict, as I chair the all-party parliamentary group on the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative. The hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Kim Leadbeater) raised the point about women in Afghanistan, and rightly so. We have to think about how an initiative such as that can be emboldened to help those who are most likely to be at risk under one of the most despotic regimes in the world.
Concentrating on those suggestions would do far more than calling for inquiries, which will give no hope or peace of mind to the people of Afghanistan.
I wish to speak in support of this motion to establish a Joint Committee to investigate the withdrawal from Afghanistan. It is essential that we learn as much as we can. As the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) said in her opening remarks, if we do not learn from our mistakes, we will repeat our mistakes. I do, however, wish to make some comments on the proposed narrow remit of the committee and on its ability to get to the truth.
First, let me turn to the proposed Committee’s remit. It is obvious—from the questions asked during the debate when Parliament was recalled, the questions to the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary last week, and the questions to the Minister responsible for Afghan Resettlement this week—that Members are concerned not simply about a backward-looking review, but about what is happening in the here and now, and how we move forward. However, I recognise that an open-ended inquiry would be difficult, and I am content that working on a timeline up to the completion of the evacuation makes sense at this time. I am also sure that if this Committee is established, many of the practical issues that Members are concerned about can be addressed under an examination of the policy towards civilian resettlement.
I have concerns, though, as does my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith), that if the Committee is established to explore UK Government policy on Afghanistan only from the time of the Doha agreement in February 2020, the timeline may be too restrictive. In particular, it is difficult to see how a Committee could fully analyse whether UK Government policy was consistent with the reality unfolding on the ground—based on political and military events in Afghanistan, intelligence assessment, or the actions and comments of our allies leading up to the Doha talks—or, indeed, whether Government planning, including contingency and crisis management planning, was really informed by the actuality of the situation in the country, particularly in relation to the weakness of the Afghan Government and the strength of the Taliban.
Let me explain why I think that is important. The resurgence of the Taliban did not start on the conclusion of the Doha agreement. As early as 2009, President Obama had to send 17,000 more troops to counter that resurgence. The frailty of the Afghan Government did not only become apparent on the conclusion of the Doha agreement; they were described by the US Justice Department in 2018 as
“largely lawless, weak, and dysfunctional”.
Notwithstanding the bravery of many Afghan soldiers and police, the failures of leadership were apparent and documented for years prior to the conclusion of the Doha talks. I am therefore not sure it would be possible, if the starting point is as late as February 2020, to fully judge the effectiveness of UK Government planning when many of the problems that plans must have sought to overcome had their genesis long before that.
It is also the case, as the Chair of the ISC said, that much of the information that the proposed Committee members would find most useful is intelligence assessment. Notwithstanding the proposal that he may be on the new Joint Committee, it simply would not be possible for that committee to receive secret intelligence or assessments. However, there is a great deal of good open-source material and other expert opinion regarding the situation on the ground over the period. The fact that the proposed Committee would have the power to compel Ministers to attend means, on balance, that it would be possible to have detailed consideration of UK Government policy on Afghanistan by the proposed deadline of March 2022.
I pay tribute to the members of our armed forces and diplomatic staff who have worked tirelessly over the past months in Afghanistan. The shambles lies with Ministers, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) said. We have to scrutinise this and ensure that lessons are learned. We have some very difficult and unpalatable choices to face in Afghanistan, and some people to speak to whom we do not want to speak to, but those choices will have to be made if we are going to avoid any humanitarian crisis and rescue the people who have been left behind.
The lessons do need to be learned and Ministers need to be scrutinised, but I have a problem with this motion. As outlined by the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), the Intelligence and Security Committee is the only Committee of this House that can have access to the highest grade of top secret information. The motion covers intelligence, but it would be very difficult for the Committee to have access to that. Its members would have to get the highest level of security clearance, and staff would also have to meet those requirements. There would have to be new accommodation to ensure that that information could be discussed. The ISC has its own dedicated accommodation. Computer systems would have to be put in place that could deal with that intelligence. That would simply not be possible, and that is a good reason why the Committee should not be set up in this way.
The Intelligence and Security Committee was set up under the Intelligence Services Act 1994 and its powers extended under the Justice and Security Act 2013. We have already asked to see the intelligence that informed Government decision making. Once we have seen that intelligence, we will then wait to see the next steps. It would be wrong to prejudge that. Not only would it be impractical to set up this Committee and take forward some of the things in the motion, but it would undermine the work of the Intelligence and Security Committee. We are already having a battle with the Government on trying to get access to information in areas that intelligence has now seeped into—for example, the National Security Strategic Investment Fund.
The right hon. Gentleman is talking about the very difficult practicalities around setting up an inquiry and the intelligence that has to go with it. There is also a limitation on how much intelligence we are able to get out of Afghanistan because there is no network there. Does he agree that there has to be a period of time before any substantial inquiry could ever be looked at?
No, I do not agree, because the intelligence will be there—the Joint Intelligence Committee report and others—and we will be able to see that. We have not publicly announced that we are going to hold an inquiry, because that would be wrong before we have seen the intelligence. The Minister has assured us today that the Committee will get that information, which will be important before we make those decisions. I understand the good intentions with the proposed Committee, but the motion has been fatally drafted by the inclusion of the intelligence element.
As a long supporter of the Select Committee system in this House, I share some of the concerns of the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat). I sit on the Defence Committee, which has already instigated an inquiry looking at the military’s involvement in that short period.
This is a mess, and it is right that the Government are held to account. I share the anger that many Members from all parts of the House feel at having been ignored in trying to do their job representing their constituents and trying to get people out of very desperate situations. The Minister’s blasé approach does not help. We are elected to represent our constituents here. This situation has created a huge amount of pressure on many Members of Parliament who have large numbers of individuals involved, as well as on our staff. The Foreign Office has to learn lessons. One of the biggest mistakes was dividing the issue between three Departments. Those lessons need to be learned, and Members of Parliament have to be listened to. Our emails and letters cannot just be ignored and treated as other representations to the Foreign Office.
If those things are done, that will improve the situation, but the lessons have to be learned, and the actions and the scrutiny have to be done. In terms of intelligence, the only Committee that can do that is the ISC. We will wait to see what the intelligence assessment says, and then we will take those decisions. That is why I feel I cannot support this motion tonight.
It is a pleasure to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones). I start by paying tribute to all those who served in Operation Pitting: the armed forces personnel who served so bravely and the civilians who were also present in country doing such an excellent job in very trying circumstances. I also pay tribute to all those who gave their lives during the whole Afghanistan campaign. My thoughts are with the families of those people and with those who returned with life-changing injuries.
I would like to speak in favour of this motion. I think we can all agree that the past few weeks have been dreadful, with the chaos around the fall of Kabul, the lack of planning, the effects on people who have served this country, the effects that we have seen with people applying for help through our offices and the chaos of the Government response. I mentioned earlier that we have more than 100 people with links to Reading East in need of help. Just one of those individuals has been evacuated from Afghanistan. That is clearly not good enough. I fully appreciate the difficult circumstances, but I hope that Ministers can reflect so that we can learn urgently the lessons of this dreadful period.
A wide range of evidence is already emerging, and it clearly makes the case for a proper and immediate inquiry, carried out in the way that my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) set out. First, however effective it was on the ground, the lack of planning and support from senior leaders in the Departments involved was apparent in the response. There is the fact that Ministers were sadly away on holiday, and the permanent secretary was away at the same time, and did not return urgently to respond.
There was a range of other factors. There was the lack of anticipation of the need to get people across the land borders at an earlier stage, when other countries had started to make preparations for that. As far as I understand it, both Germany and the United States took much more urgent action at an earlier stage in the crisis to secure safe passage at land borders for people leaving Afghanistan. There is the fact that internal assessments also indicated, from what we understand from the Chair of the Select Committee, that there were serious problems at a much earlier stage than Ministers admitted. All those things point to the need for an urgent and serious inquiry.
The effects domestically in the UK may also be subject matter for that inquiry. As Ministers may know themselves, many of the facilities that those arriving to the UK from Afghanistan are put in appear to be substandard or poor quality. That is a serious issue. We need to provide better support for Afghans arriving in the UK who have so nobly served the UK.
Moving forward, we must also consider a range of other points urgently, such as the effect of the refugee crisis on neighbouring countries—my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan made sensible points about the effects on Pakistan and other countries in the region—and the need for covid support and testing as well as logistical support. As several hon. Members said, we must also think about the wider effects on UK foreign policy, our relationship with the Indo-Pacific region and our relationship with our closest allies. All those are highly pertinent and important areas for discussion and investigation by the type of process that my hon. Friend proposes.
In conclusion, I pay tribute once again to the forces and civilians who helped with Operation Pitting and the wider Afghan campaign. However, it is quite clear to those of us who have followed the issue in detail that Ministers have shown a lack of leadership and that, crucially, there was a lack of planning. There is an urgent need for a serious and thorough investigation.
At a juncture such as this, we are forced to think about what could have been done better and whether such a large-scale intervention could ever have resulted in the establishment of a functioning polyarchy in the rocky soil of Afghanistan. If we want to get into such a question, we have to follow the money.
We have all seen news reports of the massive sums that the United States, the UK and other western allies invested in Afghanistan—eye-watering amounts that no doubt could have been put to better use in many ways. Many Members will have seen various images of Taliban fighters entering the gaudy palaces of former Afghan Government officials, generals or businessmen—some appeared to be all three at once—in which they are playing on gym equipment, marvelling at the décor or sitting in vast empty banqueting halls. Such venal officials make an easy target for scorn, but while they must share their part of the blame for the plunder of Afghanistan, we, too, must ask how they were able to get away with it for so long.
While it is easy to put the worst excesses of coalition control in Afghanistan down to an inherently corrupt culture—an accusation that we know to be orientalist, discriminatory, racist and ultimately wrong, regardless of how many times it is levelled inside or outside this House—we need to consider the fact that corrupt officials needed ways to get their money out of Afghanistan and into bank accounts or assets abroad. So too did the Taliban: they needed need a way to finance their campaign, converting the money they made from opium production or donations into liquid cash that could evade the clutches of security officials in third countries. In the case of both the Taliban and Afghan Government officials, Dubai seems to have been where the alchemy took place. Money came in, money went out; our armed forces were killed, and schools and hospitals went unbuilt.
The questions we need to be asking in this place, however, are about how many financial institutions with links to, or even head offices in, the City of London played a part in the merry-go-round of corruption. Quite frankly, I do not care whether that is looked at by a Joint Committee of the House, the individual Select Committees or—more importantly—a judge-led committee. Whether we like it or not, while much of it took place elsewhere, it could well have been in London—[Interruption.] With due respect, the Minister might listen to what I am saying than have a discussion with my colleagues.
London remains the centre of networks that facilitate corruption and graft on a large scale. London property prices remain inflated by investments—large and small—by global elites looking for a safe haven for all their ill-gotten gains, something most memorably demonstrated by the anti-corruption expert Oliver Bullough in his book “Moneyland”. No matter how many times my SNP colleagues or I raise the issue of corruption, we must understand that we need to tackle it, no matter what. I say as a member of the Defence Committee and as someone whose brother served twice in Afghanistan—the Minister for Defence People and Veterans, the hon. Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty), was his commanding officer—that our armed forces’ will never be applied adequately as long as we allow corruption to flourish at home and abroad.
I will be brief because I have no choice in the matter.
This has been the
“greatest foreign policy disaster since Suez”
in 1956. They are the words of the Chair of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), who has left the Chamber, hopefully to change his mind, but he was accurate when he said it. It sounds slightly clichéd, but in this case it is accurate. This is the biggest disaster since 1956.
The motion directly calls for a Joint Committee investigation because we need to know who said what to whom, who made the decisions and what conversations have taken place over the past few weeks. For example, we do not even know if any representations—any representations—were made by British Ministers or civil servants to their American counterparts on the speed and timetable of the withdrawal. That question has not yet been answered.
I personally, like many of us, have dealt with in excess of 200 cases, or 200 individuals rather—not so many cases, but over 200 individuals, many of them British nationals. We have been able to get some of them out of Kabul, where they were concentrated, but many are still stuck there. I have had many reports of rapes, abductions, murders and attacks on Hazaras; many of the cases I have happen to be Hazaras. There are stories of young men and boys threatened with “Either you join the Taliban or we’ll shoot you”, and of girls and young women—we have heard these stories before—forced into sexual slavery or forced into marriage against their will. Journalists and academics, with absolutely no connection with the American and British forces—no connection—are still being threatened into silence and threatened with death and torture.
I am sometimes slightly hesitant about calling for inquiries, because we gets calls in this place and outside for inquiries almost weekly, on a variety of issues, but of all the problems, catastrophes and crises that have occurred since 1956, this case requires a full, public, judge-led inquiry more than any other. Just as importantly, we ought to make it clear, as my hon. Friends have made it clear, that whatever the strictures of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, Members of this House have a duty to represent their constituents and make their cases. We have that duty, regardless of what we are told, particularly when we are told to be quiet by a Government Department, which is effectively what the FCDO has done.
Sometimes one name, one person can focus the mind tremendously. Linda Norgrove was born in Altnaharra in Sutherland, and she was an aid worker in Afghanistan, helping women and young girls. In 2010, she was kidnapped by the Taliban and killed. Her parents, John and Lorna Norgrove, very bravely set up an aid charity in Linda’s name. The Linda Norgrove Foundation was set up to fund education, health and childcare for women and children affected by the war in Afghanistan. It was desperate to get these people out of Afghanistan and that is why I became personally involved, but I am sad to say, like so many others, that the Government failed to facilitate these people being brought out. They are females and they are Hazara. Working for a foreign NGO, they are at a risk that is almost unbelievably high. I made a number of representations, but they did not come to fruition. So I think about the foundation in Linda Norgrove’s name and find that the fact that the Home Office does not seem to be able to help points to some kind of malaise. I am not one, as I think Members know in this place, to go about blithely and glibly calling for Ministers to be fired or to resign, but—and he has gone now—for the Foreign Secretary to continue in office was utterly unacceptable to me. So there has to be a lesson learned here. I hope it will be and I like to believe in the best of things.
I am going to keep my contribution short, but I will just return to Linda Norgrove. None of us can bring her back, but in a personal way and as a tribute to the braveness of her parents, she is now on the record, she is going to have her name in Hansard and it will be there for a very long time. But she is only one person; there are so many other people. That really is why, because I know the family, I have no hesitation whatsoever in supporting the motion. I do not glibly call for inquiries either—I think you know me well enough, Mr Deputy Speaker—but that is why I support the Labour motion today.
We have a large and thriving Afghan community in west London and I have been proud to get to know many of them in the past few decades as constituents and friends. Many came here because of persecution—because they are from the Hazara community—or because, frankly, they shared our values in terms of democracy and human rights, rather than the Taliban’s. I am afraid that the Government have let them down badly, from the intelligence failures that led to the rapid abandonment of Kabul, to the chaos—it was chaos—that ensued.
On the experience of MPs who have many Afghans in their constituencies, my young casework staff were working 24/7. They were traumatised because they were dealing with death—hearing about people being blown up and killed—or the real fear of death. All the time, all the work they were doing was going nowhere; it was going into a void, as we have heard. I can only say with any certainty that there were two families who got out of Kabul who would not have done so without our intervention, despite those hundreds of hours of effort. In one of those cases, four of us—I and three of my staff—were talking to different people at the same time to get the family on a plane. I was trying to get the FCDO to give them documentation. Somebody else was talking by WhatsApp. I absolutely praise what our armed forces did there, because they went out after the bomb to rescue people and bring them to the airport, only to find somebody from Border Force there telling them they could not get on the plane. It was completely surreal. That family got out. A member of that family and his brother have British citizenship because of the service they gave to us and the threat to their lives in Afghanistan. One of them got their family out and the other did not; they are still there. It was chaos, it was completely arbitrary and it was a disgrace, frankly.
Of the 162 cases I have had, I have had replies on four, one asking for more information and three saying “not eligible”. I have not even had answers to my earlier questions, one on the issue of family reunion—many of these are family reunion cases—and the other on whether we are going to get individual responses to those remaining inquiries, generic answers or nothing at all. I really want to know the answer to that.
Where we are now in this country? I found out—because no information was given to me—that 300 Afghans had been unceremoniously left at a quarantine hotel in Shepherd’s Bush and confined there after their quarantine period ended. Although some of them had legitimately put in homelessness applications, they were told by security staff, “Get on a coach and travel 300 miles to somewhere you’ve never heard of.” At the same time, another 100 Afghans were being put into a bridging hotel with no money and no assistance whatsoever. Were it not for the help of local charities such as West London Welcome and my council giving them emergency money, they would have no help whatsoever.
Something needs to be done, and done quickly, to sort this situation out. I am sick of listening to these statements from Ministers that tell us nothing and give us no further information, and no help or hope to the Afghans in our constituencies.
Since 14 August, I have looked with dismay and apprehension at the collapse of Afghanistan into the hands of the Taliban, and I am worried sick about the fate of so many people there.
Let us remember that, on 8 July, President Biden said that
“the likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.”
At the time, this Government did not seem to disagree with that analysis. It did not have to be like this if the UK and US Governments had considered worst-case rather than best-case scenarios. Our Government are in part responsible for the speed of the collapse of the Afghan Government. There is now a duty on our Government and the international community to offer support to the people of Afghanistan—those who have arrived here, those in third countries and those still trapped in Afghanistan who want to leave.
There will be time in this Chamber to further analyse the more than 40 years of strategic and tactical failures that led to this position, including the 2001 invasion. I opposed the 2001 offensive. Although the horrific destruction of the World Trade Centre was a gross act of terrorism, I did not feel that the war met the Aquinian principles of casus belli; we needed to use security and intelligence rather than a ground war to tackle al-Qaeda. But that was 20 years ago, and it must not hold up the efforts now for the Afghan people. We need to prioritise a human security approach. All NATO countries, including the UK, have a responsibility towards Afghan citizens.
I want to concentrate on two issues: the duty of care we have to Afghans who have arrived in the UK, and support for those still trying to reach us. Like everyone else’s, my office has been inundated by constituents concerned for the lives and wellbeing of their relatives trying to reach the UK. Around 250 are still trapped in Afghanistan. My office has lodged email after email with the Government and received just five auto-responses—that is it. Our most urgent cases were sent to the Secretary of State for Defence after he advised us to do so on a briefing call, but I have had no response of any kind to those emails.
Those cases include those of two Afghan MPs who are the brothers of a constituent, and people who worked for NGOs. We received one response in August stating that a British national stranded in Afghanistan would be contacted by the FCDO. He was not. One constituent, who is a British national, is in a hotel in London. He has serious mental health issues and no support. His wife is in Afghanistan, and he is desperate to go and get her via any route. I am concerned that he may vanish at any moment and try to go and get her. He has had no official advice or support.
With regard to Afghans who have arrived in the UK, I will keep my remarks to hotels, particularly those used for dispersal. Last week, I was put in touch with two Afghan MPs who were dispersed to a hotel in Yorkshire. I was informed of their presence there by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, with which the MPs had been in contact. I have been liaising with them and their family ever since, and what they have told me has been shocking. They were brought to the hotel by the Home Office, which did not tell the relevant local authorities. Basic necessities, such as nappies and sanitary towels, were not provided until we organised delivery, alongside the local authority. They still have not been assessed or registered for their health needs, and there are significant health needs at that hotel. Many have no access to finance, as the Taliban have cut off access to their bank accounts and the Home Office has not yet provided payment cards. They have no idea when they will be housed adequately, or where.
I was told the traumatic story of that family. They had been stopped at a roadblock by the Taliban, who took control of their car and drove them to the middle of nowhere, where they thought their lives would end. They only escaped as the Taliban drove away in their cars and they fled. They then had to wait for two days in a storm drain outside the airport in horrendous conditions, surrounded by human excrement and rotting detritus. They may be safe here, but I cannot in good conscience say that the Government have looked after them. That is why we need to hear their voices in an inquiry.
Mr Deputy Speaker,
“It’s like the entire country is being held hostage.”
That is how my constituent Abdul Bostani, the chief executive of Glasgow Afghan United, described the situation in Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover. One of those trapped was his own brother, a UK citizen who had travelled back to visit his wife and children because the Tory Government’s arbitrary earning thresholds for visas meant that he had not been able to bring them to the UK for a family reunion. Thankfully, they were among the lucky ones who got out in the airlift, but they should have been here years ago.
Likewise, Abdul has friends who served as interpreters for the UK armed forces who are still in Afghanistan because they were employed by a security company and not directly by the British Army. There were told that they were therefore not eligible for schemes to resettle in the UK. The Minister for the Armed Forces offered to look into that earlier this week, but again, they should have been here years ago.
There is also a great deal of confusion over the treatment of British Council staff. It is still unclear why they were excluded from ARAP; they should certainly be here. It is unclear what will happen to those staff in the future, how many were special cases, and how many still remain in Afghanistan. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is another issue that really needs to be clarified?
My hon. Friend is right and the Minister should respond to that.
I fully support the Labour motion for a Committee of inquiry. The Government have pretty thin reasoning for opposing that. Technically, the establishment of a new Committee is a House matter, so there should be a free vote for their Back Benchers tonight.
Hundreds of my constituents have been in contact with me since the US withdrawal began, distressed at the scenes in Kabul and across Afghanistan, and demanding action from Governments in the UK and wanting to express their solidarity. I have spoken to constituents who are particularly concerned about the treatment of women, girls and minority groups, as we all are. Expat constituents from Afghanistan have emphasised that Afghanistan is not a lost cause. Resistance to the Taliban remains real and the UK Government need to be aware of that.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern that many constituents who have been here for years have not yet had any certainty about their status, including my constituent Ahmed who fled the Taliban as a child? He has been here for 13 years and still does not have any certainty about his status.
Absolutely. Again, I hope the Minister will respond to that.
Refugees are welcome in Glasgow. The city has shown time and again that we are ready and willing to welcome anyone from Afghanistan who needs support. No one who arrives from Afghanistan without documentation, or indeed from anywhere in the world fleeing persecution, should be criminalised under the new Nationality and Borders Bill. That legislation should be stopped in its tracks, or at the very least amended beyond recognition, so it provides a safe and welcoming environment rather than doubling down on the hostility that this Government have all too often shown.
That hostility and callousness is also evident in the decision to slash the UK aid budget. The consequences for countries like Afghanistan are now becoming abundantly clear. The Government must find a way to support those who remain in the country and try to preserve some of the progress that has been made, particularly with regard to support for women and girls. When the Government claim they are announcing additional aid, they must be clear whether that is genuinely additional to all the aid flows already committed, or whether they are still operating within their envelope of 0.5% of GNI, in which case whatever money is being diverted to Afghanistan is coming from other places that also badly need it.
This year was supposed to be about global leadership, with the UK chairing the G7 and COP26 coming to Glasgow. Instead, all we are seeing, once again, is that global Britain is so much hot air. With their actions in Afghanistan taking their lead, as always, from the United States, we see a little Britain diminishing in influence and setting examples nobody wants to follow. Constituents in Glasgow want to live in a Scotland that is better than that: where global citizenship is not just a slogan but a mindset, and where our nationalism is defined by our internationalism and our commitment to live up to global goals and aspire to the highest of values. The UK Government have to start doing the same.
Order. We will go now to three minutes and we will hopefully get everybody in.
Last month, when the House was recalled, I said that we needed to act. I am very grateful to the people who did act. I want to put on record my thanks to the noble Lord Ahmad in the other place and the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee. I also want to thank our staff, in particular my caseworker, Marzia, who is a former Afghan judge. Yesterday, when she was in the House visiting the Justice Committee, she received, in the space of just two hours, 1,000 messages from judges in Afghanistan. There are 250 judges still left and they are under immense threat.
We have not seen action. I am sorry, Minister, but it is still absolutely shambolic. We do not know how many British citizens are still there. We do not know how many Afghan nationals there are to whom we have an obligation. If there was a plan 18 months ago, as we were told there was, why did it fail so miserably? Personally, in addition to the motion, I would like weekly statements on how many people are left for whom we still have to find a route out. I would also like to know what our approach will be if and when there is another international conflict. How will we ensure the confidence of the nations we will need support from?
In my few remaining moments, I would like to focus on women Afghan judges. One female judge who messaged me is the sole breadwinner for her family, with responsibility for over 10 dependants. That means we need to help, with our partners, not just the judge, but 10 additional people. The Taliban came looking for her at her house last week. Fortunately, she was not there, but what did they do? They dragged her brother out and beat him to a pulp. She says:
“Just imagine if one person from my family would be left behind. Words can’t even describe what would happen to them because of me. If one person from my family is killed because of me I will never be able to forgive myself.”
We cannot overestimate the absolute despair that people are feeling, including feeling suicidal.
I would be grateful if the Minister can say, in his closing remarks, what he will do to fulfil the requirement for better co-ordination of information. When anything goes into any of the Ministries, it is as though it has gone into a black hole. As I said, a weekly statement would be very helpful.
Given that I have raised the Afghanistan security situation with the Government for months, I fully support this motion for a Joint Committee investigation into our chaotic and unplanned withdrawal, which has been an avoidable catastrophe—a self-inflicted humiliation, starting with the people of Afghanistan and ending with our national security interests. Unfortunately, there simply is not enough time to go into all the answers that I have received from Ministers, but even as late as 26 July, the Government were informing me in response to my written parliamentary questions:
“There is no military route for the Taliban to achieve their goals”.
How wrong they were. Only 20 days before the fall of Kabul, Ministers were telling me:
“Afghanistan now has a burgeoning civil society, with a free press and an education system”—
“today women hold over a quarter of the seats in Afghanistan’s parliament.”
Where is that burgeoning civil society now, the education system and the free press? Afghanistan’s female MPs were fleeing for their lives while the now sacked Foreign Secretary was topping up his tan and what can be described only as conducting Dunkirk via WhatsApp. The situation has left Afghans who were counting on us to help build a better society feeling betrayed. We are already seeing an erosion of hard-fought rights for women, education and the freedom of faith.
I share the hon. Gentleman’s real concerns about female politicians. Like many of them, as a Muslim woman, I am keen to see democracy preserved but I simply do not trust the Taliban when it comes to protecting the rights of women. Does he share my concerns about the safety of female Afghan politicians?
I fully agree. Women’s rights are important and we need to preserve them.
Many may not know that Afghanistan used to be home to around 500,000 Sikhs in the 1970s, but today, that figure will be closer to 700. A community whose historical ties and presence there date back to the 15th century was persecuted first by the mujaheddin. During the last Taliban rule, in something reminiscent of fascist regimes, Hindus and Sikhs were forced to wear yellow armbands for identification and hang yellow flags over their homes. I have been asked to help many Sikhs and Hindus who remain and are at risk under this Taliban regime—as are Christians, Hazara Muslims and other religious minorities, who have already been victims of deadly targeted attacks—and I have written to Ministers. How will the Government help them?
Some of my constituents have been coming to me in tears. Their family members, many of whom are British citizens, have been abandoned by the Government and are at risk. We are talking not about six or seven but 600 or 700, and we need to get them to safety. These include numerous police officers, prosecutors, Government officials, families of UK-based journalists and judges, female professors, people who have played a leading role in women’s rights organisations, British children—some only a few months old—and many others. In fact, my hard-working team has been asked to help around 110 UK nationals or Afghans in a priority group.
MPs received a letter on Monday from a Minister saying that the Government will not be pursuing Afghan cases in the usual ways and will only be logging cases for data purposes, and asking MPs to stop raising cases on behalf of constituents—what an absolute farce! “Abandoned” seems to be the right word. The Government must instead pull out all the stops to avert a humanitarian crisis, get my constituents and their families to safety, and work with the international community to ensure that there is refuge for those in danger, especially religious minorities, and those who bravely assisted our troops in the rebuilding process. To help to create this situation is bad enough, but for the Government not to do all they can to support those impacted is unconscionable and unforgivable.
Order. The wind-ups will begin at 6.48 pm.
I rise to speak in favour of the motion and to speak for those vulnerable people who have endured and are suffering the situation that we, as a major occupying force, have left behind. During the past few weeks, we have all been inundated with cases from constituents desperately seeking whatever help they can find for family members in Afghanistan. My office has been no exception.
Like other hon. Members, I would like to take the opportunity to thank my staff, and staff across the House, who have gone above and beyond the call of duty. Anyone who knows anything about this House knows that we are nothing without our staff; the past few weeks have been a testament to that. From British nationals trapped in Kabul to young children seeking to be reunited with their parents, siblings or grandparents, to former UK-contracted personnel stuck in hiding in fear for their lives, our offices have been presented with some of the most harrowing cases. Listening to them and reading them have profoundly affected people.
While those who are carrying out Operation Pitting on the ground are to be commended, it is worth noting that the Government received intelligence about the worsening situation in Afghanistan in July. We knew for a year that the withdrawal was happening. Glaring mistakes with neglected case inboxes and sensitive documents are a reminder that this could all have been prevented and that all blame is to be laid right at the Government’s door. We may never know the true effect of all the mismanagement, but the suggestion that 9,000 eligible Afghans entitled to settle in the UK have been left behind does nothing to ease the worried minds of my constituents.
I was appalled to read the Home Office letter. My hon. Friend the Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) has quoted from it, but it is worth quoting again: it says that
“we cannot provide to MPs assessments or updates on those individuals who remain in Afghanistan and whose cases they have raised.”
What exactly are we supposed to do with that? For weeks, our offices have done exactly as instructed when raising cases. We have endured the different email addresses, the briefings with few answers, the helpline numbers published wrong or with a digit missing, and all the failures in between. We did absolutely everything that we were asked to do by the Government—and now, nothing. To say that that is not good enough is a complete understatement. That is no way to run a Government, no way to treat colleagues, no way to treat our hard-working staff and certainly no way to treat vulnerable people who have been left in Afghanistan.
To add further insult to injury, the Government with their damaging legislative agenda seem hellbent on punishing people seeking refuge from war, violence and persecution. The hostile environment has meant that in the past decade the UK has deported more than 15,000 Afghan asylum seekers on the basis that Afghanistan was a safe place, yet we are meant to clap our hands for the Government saying they will repatriate 20,000 here over the next few years. There will inevitably be a rise in Afghan refugees, and the Nationality and Borders Bill, that disgraceful piece of legislation, will do nothing to alleviate it. I do not understand why the Government have not—
Last week, I held a special meeting in my constituency for my Afghan community. Dozens and dozens of worried and distressed residents came to meet me, all wanting help for their relatives in desperate situations; I wanted to share a few of their stories in this Chamber, especially as the Government were not responding to any emails and were not listening to our requests. To protect their identity, I will use their initials only. Because of time, I will read just a couple of the situations that were brought to my attention.
SE’s brother was a driver for a British translator and was therefore one step removed from direct employment with the British. I have not received any clarification of whether he is eligible for ARAP; I have received no answer from the FCDO.
BS’s mother is a single woman whose husband was murdered by the Taliban for working as an interpreter for British troops. Again, I have received no answers to any inquiries.
My constituents who came to meet me cannot sleep. Many have anxiety problems. One person was highly suicidal. People are crying as they speak to me—the situation is devastating for them and their families. The Government need to get a grip on what families here are going through.
What about the families in Afghanistan? The Government have had 18 months to evacuate people from Afghanistan, but they keep on getting it wrong. Why? They got it wrong when they said that the Taliban would not take over, they got it wrong when they said that lives would not be at risk, and they got it wrong in not being able to manage a safe emergency evacuation. Delays have been putting lives at risk, and their ability not to say what the resettlement scheme really means is causing further frustration, anxiety and annoyance to people in this House, but more so to our communities and to people who are left in Afghanistan.
We need more from the Government, and we expect more from the Government. I ask the Minister, for the sake of my constituents, to help those who need protection from being raped, from being kidnapped, from experiencing barbaric treatments, from hunger, and, ultimately, from death. I support the motion.
I call Sarah Owen, to resume her seat no later than 6.48 pm, with no time limit.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.
There have been so many sobering scenes over the last few weeks: families separated, Taliban soldiers ripping through villages, people so desperate to flee that they clung to planes and died falling from the sky. Any situation in which we see a mother hand a baby over barbed wire to a soldier in the vain hope of escape is one that demands the attention of our country, as a responsible member of the international community.
At the last count, 69 people in Luton North had been in touch with me about relations in Afghanistan trying to escape war. We have had a handful back, but no response from the majority. People have called me in tears telling me about Taliban fighters going from door to door and killing their relatives’ neighbours. These cases will stay with me forever—particularly one involving the family in Luton North of an Afghan doctor who had been on the frontline of the former regime’s vaccination programme and women’s rights campaigns, and who is now stranded and terrified for her life. Ministers knew the details of her case, but she was turned away at Baron Hotel. I should be grateful for an update on her case.
Like all other Members, I have received vague stock responses. This simply is not good enough when people’s lives are in danger. The best advice that the Government could give our staff was to manage the expectations of people escaping a war zone, but it should not be left to our caseworkers to manage a response to a crisis of this scale. They needed leadership from the Government, and it never came. Leadership is about taking responsibility, and ultimately the buck stops with the Prime Minister. If he does not want to lead our country during a crisis, he can stand aside for someone who does.
The response from this Government shamefully abandoned British nationals. It abandoned our armed forces and civil servants, and abandoned the most vulnerable people in Afghanistan. Our standing in the world under this Government has already been defined by the decision to cut aid to the most vulnerable people in the world, and by the UK’s continued inaction over human rights atrocities in Russia, Xinjiang, Tigre, Kashmir, Palestine and now Afghanistan. We need a Government who stand proud on the world stage, and do not stand back from our responsibilities as a country.
Let me start by echoing the heartfelt sympathy expressed throughout the House for the thousands of Afghans who have been forced to flee tyranny and oppression.
As shadow Armed Forces Minister, I was pleased to hear well-deserved recognition of our armed forces, diplomats, civil servants and civil society organisations from a number of Members this evening. I also want to recognise the efforts of colleagues on both sides of the House, particularly my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne), my hon. Friends the Members for Brent North (Barry Gardiner), for Leyton and Wanstead (John Cryer), for Reading East (Matt Rodda), for Streatham (Bell Ribeiro-Addy), for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) and for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams), and many, many others who have been working hard to assist those on the ground where they could.
The Government have woefully mismanaged the unfolding crisis in Afghanistan. Ministers had 18 months to prepare for the withdrawal from the country, but their complacency, mismanagement and diplomatic ineptitude intensified a crisis in just six short weeks. The world watched in horror as the gains of 20 years’ hard work and sacrifice from our armed forces and officials were rolled back, with tragic consequences for the people of Afghanistan—particularly those who do not conform to the Taliban’s barbaric, medieval world view.
The Government’s handling of this crisis has damaged our international reputation, weakened our national security, and jeopardised two decades of hard work and humanitarian progress. The Labour motion would establish a cross-party Joint Committee to investigate the withdrawal from Afghanistan, from the Doha agreement to the conclusion of Operation Pitting. The Government have systematically failed to anticipate and mitigate the biggest foreign crisis we have seen since Suez. It is vital that we understand what went wrong and why, so that we can not only learn lessons and be better prepared and protected in the future but keep the promises that we make to others, be they our service personnel, veterans and their families or the people of Afghanistan.
As the crisis began, Labour called for the Government to step up diplomatic efforts to stabilise the situation and for more resources for the ARAP scheme, to get as many people out as possible. Meanwhile, the now former Foreign Secretary was on his holidays. The Prime Minister said on 8 July that there was
“no military path to victory for the Taliban.”—[Official Report, 8 July 2021; Vol. 698, c. 1107.]
However, just 36 days later, the right hon. Gentleman and the Defence Secretary were forced into an emergency military deployment to secure the safety of British nationals and those who supported our operations. The country had fallen in less than two weeks. At best, the lack of preparation represents a systemic failure at the top of Government. At worst, it was ministerial indifference. That is why we need an open and transparent inquiry to understand what Ministers knew and when, what actions they took as a result and why the speed and scale of the country’s collapse took the Government by surprise.
Whatever we think about the political handling of this crisis, no one can doubt the extraordinary efforts of our service personnel during Operation Pitting. Our armed forces evacuated 15,000 people in just 14 days in the largest airlift since the second world war, and many right hon. and hon. Members were right to recognise that in the debate today. I look forward to the Minister’s response to Labour’s calls for their efforts to be recognised with a medal. But they were lions led by donkeys, sent to do damage control for a Government who were asleep at the wheel. Despite the heroics of our forces, it is painfully clear that the Government have left many behind. Meanwhile, hundreds of British nationals and ARAP-eligible Afghans remain on the ground.
The fundamental question for Ministers now is: what is the plan? Hundreds are now facing an impossible choice between living under oppression and attempting a dangerous border crossing. The flight from Kabul on 9 September carrying 13 UK citizens was obviously welcome, but it is not a substitute for a clear diplomatic plan with regional partners to keep land routes open and protect the gains of the last 20 years. And there is still precious little practical guidance for those ARAP-eligible Afghans. We made a promise to these people as British citizens and as brave Afghans who supported our forces, so why was the scheme so poorly resourced prior to Operation Pitting?
The Defence Secretary said that he knew that “the game is up” in July, but according to the Government’s own figures just 188 people were evacuated through ARAP that month. Between April and June, just 25 people got out through the scheme. Why were some who had been accepted to ARAP not called forward for flights, and why did some never receive any response at all? These questions need answers, and that is why we have tabled this motion today.
Finally, I want to turn briefly to those who were lucky enough to make it out. Members from across the House, including my hon. Friends the Members for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) and for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), the hon. Members for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) and for Stirling (Alyn Smith), the right hon. Member for Dundee East (Stewart Hosie) and my hon. Friends the Members for Slough (Mr Dhesi) and for Luton North (Sarah Owen) have made it clear that those people must be welcomed and supported. I could not agree more.
Five British nationals from my constituency were evacuated from Kabul along with their families. They have reported degrading treatment in quarantine hotels, with limited access to even basic supplies. Upon release, they faced homelessness and destitution because the Home Office and the local authorities could not decide who was going to house them. If it had not been for the food bank and the Lewisham donation hub, they would not even have nappies and other vital things such as baby milk. Does the shadow Minister agree that this is very far from Operation Warm Welcome?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. That is why this motion is so important. Labour has brought together councils that stand ready to assist, yet we have already seen the first failure of the Government’s Operation Warm Welcome. The Times and The Guardian have both carried worrying reports that those who have arrived and cleared quarantine have not been allowed to leave their hotels for fresh air. The Government must set out a clear and consistent pathway of support if they are to keep their promises to the Afghan people.
It is clear that a cross-party joint investigation of the withdrawal from Afghanistan is now essential, but there are wider questions for the Government to answer about what this means for the people of Afghanistan and Britain’s place in the world. The Prime Minister’s poorly articulated concept of global Britain looks utterly hollow, and claims in the Government’s integrated review that the UK can turn the dial on international issues look embarrassing.
Members on both sides of the House have the opportunity to place on record their concerns by supporting Labour’s motion this evening. We owe it to our armed forces and veterans who bravely served in the bloodiest conflict of the past 50 years, and we owe it to the diplomats and officials who have worked so hard to secure the gains of the past 20 years. I urge hon. Members to vote for the motion this evening.
I am pleased to wind up this important debate. I thank the shadow Minister for his constructive remarks.
I start by putting on record our gratitude to all those who served in Afghanistan over the last 20 years. Our veteran community should know that it was worth it. It was worth it to go to Afghanistan in 2001 to get rid of al-Qaeda, it was worth it to spend the long years of hard sacrifice and service in Helmand province to expand education and security alongside our courageous interpreters, and it was worth it when the rising tide of geopolitics meant that we had to leave Afghanistan. It was worth it when Operation Pitting extracted, under huge pressure, 15,000 civilians in the largest humanitarian airlift in living memory. My message to veterans tonight is, “Be proud of what you did in Afghanistan and hold your heads high.”
Operation Pitting has given way to Operation Warm Welcome, and we will energetically welcome the Afghan families who have come to this country. I am delighted that this cross-Government effort is led by the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), who is sitting on the Front Bench this evening. We will bring a spirit of compassion, comradeship and community to the welcome we extend to those who helped us when we were in their country, and we will help them now they have arrived here.
I was pleased to meet some of those families on their arrival in Birmingham, and I saw the relief on their faces. That joy is tempered by the fact that not everyone got out. Some 300 people who qualified for ARAP were left behind, which brings great sorrow, especially to those hon. Members who, through personal experience, have an understanding of the value that interpreters brought to our military operations.
It is clear to everyone that the case for the Opposition motion has not been made, but I will touch briefly on some of the comments that have been made. We are grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) for pointing out that his role as Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee basically makes the motion pointless, and we very much welcome his scrutiny, which I hope will continue with his characteristic vigour.
The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne) spoke movingly about the barbarism of the Taliban, and we share that concern. One of my constituents was among the fatalities on the Thursday of the last stage of Operation Pitting, so we have all been touched by that tragedy.
My right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) spoke about the limitations of the motion with regard to the handling of intelligence, which was supported, in welcome fashion, by the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones). My right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East brings great knowledge to his position, and he touched on the central importance of Select Committees, which essentially make the Opposition motion entirely pointless. I am grateful to him for pointing that out.
I was pleased to hear the comments made by the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes). We do not agree on any policy at all, but he has a sustained interest in this field and he shares his brother’s good sense of humour.
Finally, the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) raised the case of the Linda Norgrove Foundation, and he must keep trying. We would be pleased if he wanted to raise the case with Ministers personally after this debate, and that stands for all Members in the Chamber tonight.
I will conclude by saying—I am watching the clock and it is not a problem, Mr Deputy Speaker—that we must reject this motion tonight. We must express confidence in our ability to project power around the world, to fulfil our national security—
claimed to move the closure (Standing Order No. 36).
Question put forthwith, That the Question be now put.
Question agreed to.
Main Question accordingly put.