All those at risk of persecution in Afghanistan, including religious and ethnic minorities, are eligible to apply to the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme, which will welcome up to a total of 20,000 vulnerable Afghans to the UK over a five-year period. The impact of the crisis in Afghanistan on women and girls and on other vulnerable groups, including religious and ethnic minorities and LGBT+ people, is of deep concern and has been discussed frequently by the Cabinet. The Taliban must respect the rights of all minority groups, both now and in the future, and we will hold them to account for their actions.
I agree with the Minister on that. It has been a depressing week in Afghanistan, with primary school students returning to gender-segregated classes, older girls excluded altogether, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs closed down and female employees told not to return to work. How, specifically, can we use our leverage, particularly our financial and economic leverage, to hold the Taliban to account for their promises?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for highlighting the issues around women and girls—particularly education, an area in which we have done a lot of work over a number of years. It is important that we do all we can to maintain the progress that has been made.
When it comes to what more we can do, the Prime Minister has been very clear that we will judge the regime by its choices and actions rather than by its words, and that any relationship with a future Taliban Government would need to be calibrated according to their respect for fundamental rights for women and girls. Lord Ahmad addressed the United Nations Human Rights Council on 24 August to underscore our commitment to protecting the human rights of all Afghan people.
Since 2001, life chances for women and girls in Afghanistan have been dramatically improved, but with the Taliban’s return, that is obviously under severe threat. What discussions is the Minister having with Cabinet colleagues to ensure that long-term funding is channelled into initiatives that promote and support women and girls in Afghanistan?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that point. Life expectancy increased from 56 years in 2002 to 64 in 2018, and over the past six years the UK has helped more than 250,000 girls to attend school through the girls’ education challenge fund. As for the question of engagement, the Afghanistan response is obviously taking place across Whitehall, involving many Departments. We have also hosted roundtables with non-governmental organisations in London in order to understand better how we can support the work that they do, and meetings have taken place in both August and September to discuss continued humanitarian access.
As we heard from the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith), some worrying signs are emerging from Afghanistan of intolerance towards women and girls, and towards other minority groups as well. None the less, the words are warm. Does my hon. Friend not agree that, right now, we must take the Taliban at their word, we must hold their feet to the fire, and we must make sure that they do what they say they are going to do? If they do not, of course we must then take steps against them, but for now, let us work with the diplomatic channels to try and force them to join the rest of the civilised world.
The then Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab), made a statement to the House on 6 September restating our commitment—particularly in respect of human rights—to
“hold the Taliban and other factions to account for their conduct”.—[Official Report, 6 September 2021; Vol. 700, c. 44.]
On 15 September, the Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (James Cleverly), said in a debate on the Joint Committee that we would take forward our priorities, including human rights,
“at the UN General Assembly…with our international partners.”—[Official Report, 15 September 2021; Vol. 700, c. 1057.]
As I have said, it is very clear to me that any relationship with a future Taliban Government would need to be calibrated according to their respect for the fundamental rights of women and girls.
The Taliban, who banned women from playing all sport during their rule in the 1990s, have indicated that women and girls will face restrictions in playing sport, which has caused the country’s women’s football team to flee to Pakistan. What collaborative discussions has the Minister had with her Home Office colleagues about setting up special visa categories for at-risk Afghan sportswomen and artists to enable them to settle permanently in the UK?
If the hon. Lady wishes to highlight specific cases, it is probably best for her to raise them with my colleagues in the Home Office, but the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Tom Pursglove), is sitting on the Front Bench and will have heard what she said. More broadly, it is important that we continue to hold the Taliban to account if they do not respect the rights of all minority groups, now and in the future.