(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs if she will make a statement on British Council staff in Afghanistan.
During August 2021, through a shared effort right across Government and our armed forces, we delivered the largest, most complex evacuation in living memory. Between 15 and 19 August, the UK evacuated over 15,000 people from Afghanistan. That included over 8,000 British nationals, and close to 5,000 Afghans who loyally served the UK—including British Council employees—along with their dependants. The UK also evacuated around 500 special cases of particularly vulnerable Afghans, including some British Council contractors, journalists, human rights defenders, campaigners for women’s rights, judges and many others. All former British Council employees have arrived in the UK with their family members. In August, the Government agreed to resettle more than 50 of the most vulnerable British Council contractors, many of whom have already arrived in the UK with their families.
Travel in and out of Afghanistan remains difficult. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office is providing assistance and supporting families who are eligible for resettlement in the UK. The Government have also agreed to consider British Council contractors for resettlement based on risk. On 6 January, the Minister for Afghan Resettlement announced the opening of the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme. In its first year, the Government will honour our commitment to offer ACRS places to the most at-risk British Council contractors, as well as GardaWorld contractors and Chevening alumni. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office will be in touch with those eligible to support them through the next steps of the process.
The British Council performed an important role in Afghanistan; it worked to support the UK mission in Afghanistan and to promote our values. The Government will do the right thing by British Council employees and contractors, including by resettling those contractors who are most at risk.
Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker. The fact is that months after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, there are still many British Council staff and contractors stranded in that country and facing threats of violence every single day from the regime. Reports suggest that the vast majority of those staff are teachers who worked with the British Council teaching vital skills, such as English language skills, to many Afghans, including many women and girls, who are now largely barred from attending school owing to the Taliban’s warped ideology.
We owe those brave people so much for supporting the UK’s work in Afghanistan over the last two decades. Many of them are still trapped in the country, fearing for their life; the UK Government have badly let them down. Yesterday at Prime Minister’s Question Time, the Prime Minister said that
“the British Council…is a wonderful institution that we all love.”—[Official Report, 19 January 2022; Vol. 707, c. 321.]
If he valued it so much, would he not have ensured that every single one of these brave British Council teachers, staff and contractors was urgently evacuated to safety?
I ask the Minister: how many current and ex-British Council staff are stranded in Afghanistan? Are the Government considering using the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme to get them out? Does she accept that the Government’s catastrophic cuts to British Council funding have made this difficult situation far worse? What message does this inaction send to other British Council employees working in challenging environments all around the world? Is it that people whose association with the UK may put them in danger have seemingly been abandoned by the British Government?
The British Council is vital to the UK’s influence around the world. The Prime Minister’s now hollow pledge to “move heaven and earth” to get those who supported the UK out of Afghanistan has resulted in the abandoning of British Council staff to the whims of the Taliban. Not only is that morally wrong, but it will severely damage both that institution and the United Kingdom’s reputation on the international stage.
As I set out in my opening remarks, the British Council has performed an important role in Afghanistan working to support the UK mission and promote our values. It is therefore right that we are supporting those in need. In August the Government agreed to resettle more than 50 British Council contractors, and many of them have already arrived in the UK with their families.
As I also set out, it is difficult to travel both within and out of Afghanistan at the moment, but we are committed to working in step with the international community to do all we can to enable those who are eligible to relocate to the UK. It is worth noting that resettlement is just one element of the UK Government’s response to the situation in Afghanistan. In addition to our diplomacy and international aid in the region, we are working alongside like-minded states as part of the international community. The Government will resettle those British Council contractors who are most at risk.
My right hon. Friend clearly sets out the wonderful work done by our defence forces to relieve people who wanted to leave Afghanistan. All those who worked for the British Council in Afghanistan did tremendous work. Will they be evacuated and assisted by her Department to make sure they are free and can live their lives in liberty?
I share my hon. Friend’s view on what the armed forces did in incredibly difficult circumstances. It was tremendous.
All British Council employees have arrived in the UK with their families, and the Government agreed that we would resettle more than 50 of the most vulnerable British Council contractors. Many of those contractors have already arrived in the UK. It is important to note that we are trying to support those most in need and most at risk.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) on securing this vital urgent question.
Around 100 ex-British Council staff are still in Afghanistan, having so far been denied the right to come to the UK. These teachers taught English, and they were the face of the UK in Afghanistan. Now they feel stranded and abandoned by the country for which they worked. It goes back to what I previously said in this Chamber: this is no longer a global Britain but an insular Britain that is running away from its responsibilities.
British Council staff had thought they were eligible under the Afghan relocations and assistance policy, but that scheme’s eligibility criteria were narrowed on 14 December. These British Council teachers had been waiting months and months for a reply. Staff had been told that those most at risk could apply for the new Afghan citizens resettlement scheme, which was promised last summer but opened only days ago. On top of the fear of reprisals that British Council staff already face, these teachers have unnecessarily had to deal with a dysfunctional Conservative Government, the backwards and forwards, the to-ing and fro-ing and the narrowing of eligibility criteria. The irony is not lost on me that this is officially named Operation Warm Welcome.
After a long wait, the UK Government recently said that British Council staff most at risk can apply to the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme. Can the Minister provide a cast-iron guarantee today that applications from British Council staff will be considered as a matter of priority? Early reporting gave the impression that the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme will accommodate 25,000 people, but recent announcements no longer mention five years. Can she clarify whether that is because she has changed policy to make it narrower? Do these numbers cover only principal applicants, or do they cover their families?
As I set out in previous answers, the Government agreed in August to resettle more than 50 British Council contractors, many of whom have already arrived in the United Kingdom. We are looking to resettle those British Council contractors who are most at risk, and earlier in the month my ministerial colleague, the Minister for Afghan Resettlement, set out what the scheme will be doing. We are committed to supporting those at most risk.
I thank my right hon. Friend for her response to the urgent question. Can she confirm that since Operation Pitting we have continued to welcome at-risk Afghans, including women, girls and other minorities such as members of the LGBTQ community, some of whom have been generously offered homes in Darlington by Darlington Borough Council?
We are committed to supporting those who are most at risk, including women and girls and members of the LGBT community. Some tremendous work is already being done to resettle Afghans in the United Kingdom, and I am pleased to hear that my hon. Friend’s constituency and its borough council are welcoming those most at risk.
We all know that Afghans who work for the British Council are in fear of their lives. I have been told that in one case the Taliban went to a house and hit a seven-year-old girl to try to get her to reveal where her father was. She did not give him away, and he is currently in his ninth hiding place. It is no wonder that these staff are in fear of their lives.
What action are the Government taking to support those people today? What money is being provided to enable them to buy food as they hide, and what is the plan—the practical plan—to help them to get out of the country?
We as a Government are committed to working with the international community to do all that we can to help those who are eligible to be resettled in the United Kingdom. Resettlement itself is of course one part of that, but it is in addition to our diplomatic efforts and the provision of international aid in the region as we work alongside like-minded states as part of the international community. We are co-ordinating closely with international partners, and have doubled our aid to Afghanistan for this financial year to £286 million, which will be used to provide the vital humanitarian assistance that will save lives this winter.
Through Operation Pitting we delivered the largest and most complex evacuation in living memory. That was a truly amazing effort. Will my right hon. Friend join me in praising the heroic efforts of our brilliant armed forces, and can she confirm that we will continue to do everything we can to resettle the British Council workers who are most at risk?
My hon. Friend is right to praise the heroic efforts of our armed forces in Operation Pitting, and to draw attention to the scale of the challenges that we faced during that period. As he has said, this was the most complex evacuation in living memory. All the British Council employees who served the UK so loyally have been evacuated and have arrived here with their families, and the British Council contractors who are most at risk will be able to apply for resettlement.
In her answer to the urgent question, the Minister mentioned the £286 million of aid that we are giving to Afghanistan. The amount has been doubled after being halved the previous year, which is fine, but in her response to another urgent question last week, the Minister confirmed that only half that money—£145 million—had actually been disbursed.
We are reaching the end of the financial year. This aid will be life-saving. What is happening is the biggest humanitarian crisis in the world: there are children, pregnant mothers and other people who are about to die if the aid does not reach them. How can we get it to them in time, and if it is not spent, will it be ring-fenced by the Treasury so that it is not propping up next year’s budget?
International aid is really important in supporting those most at risk, and we are working closely with our international partners to ensure that we are getting that aid to those most in need. As I set out earlier, we have doubled our aid for Afghanistan for this financial year to £286 million, which will be essential to providing humanitarian assistance for those most in need.
A recent report by Human Rights Watch detailed how Taliban rule has had a devastating impact on Afghan women and girls, and the catastrophic cuts to funding for the British Council have made this difficult situation worse. What steps are the Government taking to deliver protection and services for the women and girls facing gender-based violence in Afghanistan?
The ACRS will prioritise those who have stood up for our values, such as a democracy and women’s rights in Afghanistan, as well as the most vulnerable groups, including ethnic and religious minorities. We are providing that support for women and girls. The Government have already evacuated thousands of women and girls—for instance, female judges, women’s rights activists and a girls’ football team. Women and girls have been immediately prioritised for resettlement through the resettlement scheme.
I declare an interest, in that I worked for the British Council for 12 years. It is a brilliant organisation that does a huge amount to promote the United Kingdom around the world, and it is deeply disappointing that the UK Government are taking such short-sighted action in cutting the funding to the British Council, leading to the closure of dozens of overseas offices. On the point of the urgent question today, given the huge sacrifices that British Council staff and contractors have made, what discussions has the Minister had with her colleagues in the Ministry of Defence and the Home Office around expanding the eligibility criteria for the ARAP scheme to include British Council staff and contractors?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to praise the work of the British Council. It has been instrumental in the work in Afghanistan to support the UK mission there. Ministers across Departments such as Defence and the Home Office are in constant contact, but as I have set out, employees have already been able to resettle to the United Kingdom. The contractors will be eligible based on their risk.
I, too, declare an interest in that I have also previously worked for the British Council. More than 20 million people are facing the prospect of starvation in Afghanistan and the situation could not be more urgent. In relation to the Minister’s earlier responses, could she tell the House how much of the £286 million of aid promised in this financial year has been disbursed so far?
As I have said, international aid to the region is absolutely essential and we are working with our international partners to ensure that we get that assistance to those on the ground. We are co-ordinating with our partners. We have doubled the aid for this financial year to £286 million, which will be used to ensure that we get that humanitarian assistance to those on the ground.
In addition to British Council staff, many of us have thousands of constituents—in my case, up to 150—who have relatives and friends who have worked for the British in Afghanistan and who are in terrible need of resettlement to this country. The ARAP scheme and the ACRS have done very little to bring many, if any, of my constituents’ relatives and friends away from the horror going on in Afghanistan. When will the Government really gear up these schemes to ensure that people can be rescued from the horror that is Afghanistan at the moment?
The ACRS announced earlier this month will provide those most at risk from recent events in Afghanistan with a route to safety. The scheme will prioritise those who have assisted the UK efforts in Afghanistan and those who have stood up for values such as democracy, women’s rights, freedom of speech and the rule of law, as well as vulnerable people, including women and girls who are at risk and members of minority groups who are at risk.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) was absolutely right that it is critical to support those British Council staff and contractors who are in hiding. What steps are the British Government taking to enable some form of cash flow in Afghanistan so that international banks can bypass the Taliban, support those in fear of their lives and assist the delivery of aid to starving Afghan people without the fear that such financial institutions could face sanctions from our partner Governments?
We have doubled our aid for this financial year and we are working with our international partners to ensure that we reach those who are most at risk but, as I have said, the conditions in Afghanistan are currently very difficult, in respect of both travelling within and leaving Afghanistan.
Former guards for the UK embassy in Kabul are still awaiting evacuation, despite the Government’s promise months ago to evacuate them. All French embassy guards have been evacuated and Canada has even evacuated cleaners, while Germany and Australia still have evacuations under way. Will the Minister provide an urgent update on FCDO plans in this respect?
As I have said in previous answers, those British Council employees who sought resettlement have arrived in the UK, together with their dependants, and the resettlement of British Council contractors will be based on risk.
I thank the Minister for her response to the question. The impacts of the ongoing political situation in Afghanistan are truly devastating. This week, the 100 Afghans who were employed to spread British values and teach English in Helmand province—the same province where many of our brave UK and British troops were murdered and killed—are in hiding because they are terrified of the reprisals they may face. Will the Minister ensure that, through the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme, those people will be given priority to return to the UK, because many are not sure that they will be able to survive the current situation? As the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton), said—and I agree with him—we must move heaven and earth to get them here.
We are committed to working in step with the international community to continue to do all we can to enable those who are eligible to relocate to the UK to do so. The scheme offers current and former locally employed staff who are under threat priority to relocate to the United Kingdom.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I am grateful to you for taking a point of order at this stage. The hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg), to whom I gave notice of my intention to raise this point of order, has spoken today in the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee about the intimidation of and threatened removal of funding from projects in the constituencies of Members who have come out against the Prime Minister and called for him to resign. This is behaviour of a sort I have never heard. We all understand the need for Whips to maintain discipline, but this owes more to the tactics of the mafia than anything found in “Erskine May”.
What can you do, Mr Speaker, to protect Members who wish to express their opinions and have differences sincerely and strongly held without seeing their constituents disadvantaged in such ways and without their being intimidated into remaining silent when they really want to speak up?
Members may wish to write to me in private. I understand what the right hon. Gentleman said. There are allegations about the conduct of Whips and special advisers working for Ministers. Serious allegations have been made and, at this stage, without having had chance to study what has been said in detail, I can only offer general guidance; I have been in the Chair since this revelation came out, as I understand it, at 10 o’clock. Members and those who work for them are not above the criminal law. The investigation of alleged criminal conduct is a matter for the police and decisions about prosecution are for the Crown Prosecution Service. It would be wrong of me to interfere with such matters.
While the whipping system is long established, it is of course a contempt to obstruct Members in the discharge of their duty, or to attempt to intimidate a Member in their parliamentary conduct by threats. There is a clear process for raising privileged matters and referring them for investigation to determine whether the conduct in question is a contempt. In the first instance, Members raising such concerns should write to me. I hope these general observations will assist the House in going forward.