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British Council Contractors: Afghanistan

Volume 716: debated on Thursday 23 June 2022

To ask the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs to make a statement on British Council contractors in Afghanistan.

Last August, when the situation in Afghanistan was deteriorating so rapidly, the UK Government worked at great speed to evacuate more than 15,000 people from the country within a fortnight. This was the biggest mission of its kind in generations, and the second largest evacuation carried out by any country. We are right to be proud of what our British forces and others achieved at that time. Those evacuated included British nationals and their families and about 500 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 who wished to resettle have arrived in the UK, with their family members.

The British Council played an important role in Afghanistan in working to support the UK mission there and to promote our values. It is right that the Government do the right thing for British Council employees and contractors, and that includes resettling eligible contractors if they are at risk. Therefore, in January this year the then Minister for Afghan Resettlement, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), announced the launch of a new Afghan citizens resettlement scheme, which will resettle up to 20,000 eligible people over the coming years. There is no application process for the scheme, but people can express an interest in resettlement.

Eligible individuals will be referred for resettlement via three referral “pathways”. Under pathway 3, we are committed to considering eligible at-risk British Council and GardaWorld contractors as well as Chevening alumni. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office will refer up to 1,500 people from Afghanistan and the region to the Home Office for resettlement, including eligible family members. On 20 June the FCDO opened an online system, whereby eligible individuals can express their interest in resettlement.

Thank you for granting the urgent question, Mr Speaker, and I thank the Minister for her response.

Members on both sides of the House have expressed our pride in and gratitude for Operation Pitting. However, I must say to the Minister that about 180 British Council contractors remain in Afghanistan, 85 of whom have been classified by us as being at “very high risk”, while a further 90 or so are deemed to be at “high risk”. They live in constant fear for their lives, moving from safe house to safe house as they are hunted by the Taliban. After questions in the House and a positive meeting with Lord Harrington, we finally secured a written ministerial statement last week announcing the opening of the ACRS on Monday, and that was welcome.

As the Minister mentioned, there is now a window for British Council contractors, GardaWorld employees and Chevening scholars to submit expressions of interest in coming to the UK, but this application window is open for two months, which may mean that submissions will not be processed by the Government, or decisions confirmed on individual submissions, until the middle of August. That would further delay the contractors’ journey to safety. However, responses to my written parliamentary questions earlier this week suggest that there might be some flexibility to allow applications to be processed before the window closes.

I suggest to the Minister that there is too much ambiguity, given the urgency of the case. It is clearly unacceptable that, 10 months after the fall of Kabul, we remain in this situation in which contractors—not just British Council contractors, but personnel who have promoted British interests, values and culture in Afghanistan—are still trying to sort out an application process that has taken too long as a result of bureaucracy. I therefore seek clarification on two important issues, and I would appreciate that clarification, because I do not want to keep coming back to the Chamber to pressurise the Government. I want answers, to help these people.

First, will submissions from those who are deemed to be at “very high risk” and “high risk” be processed before the closing of the application window in two months’ time—and here we are talking about the third week in August? Secondly, will their relocation to the UK or, in the interim, a third country, also be expedited so that they are able to leave Afghanistan as soon as they have been approved under the ACRS?

My hon. Friend has played an important role in championing the British Council, which does amazing work across the world—I have seen a lot of that work at first hand. It is absolutely right that we try to support the contractors, which is why we have made this online scheme available. We need to give people reasonable time to submit their expression of interest. I will look at the issue of very high-risk individuals, but we have not stopped taking people from Afghanistan since the end of Operation Pitting last August. In fact, another 4,600 people have since come to the UK, many through the Afghan relocations and assistance policy, including Ministry of Defence contractors and a wide range of other people such as members of the LGBT community, journalists, prosecutors, women’s rights activists and some country-based staff. Those 4,600 people have come here, and others have been referred through the UN pathways.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) for securing this important urgent question.

On behalf of the Labour Opposition, I extend my thoughts to all those currently suffering in Afghanistan following the dreadful earthquake earlier this week.

In February it was revealed that hundreds of British Council staff were left stranded in Afghanistan following this Government’s botched evacuation from Kabul. The Minister told the House at the time that the Government were supporting those in need and that 50 British Council contractors had been evacuated. Four months on, we are faced with the same problem: hundreds of former British Council contractors are stranded, with reports that they are being attacked and beaten by the Taliban due to their previous work on behalf of the United Kingdom.

Many of those still in Afghanistan are security guards who protected British staff at the embassy as they undertook an extremely difficult task during the evacuation last August. We owe so much to these courageous British Council contractors, and the fact that they are still in Afghanistan and facing daily violence due to their co-operation with the UK is, frankly, nothing short of a disgrace.

I would therefore be grateful if the Minister could tell us how many British Council staff are still stuck in Afghanistan today. What urgent measures are being put in place to evacuate the rest of the staff who are still stranded in Afghanistan? What engagement has she had with regional partners to facilitate safe passage for the former staff who attempt to leave? Once again, what message does it send to other British Council contractors who work in challenging environments around the world if the UK leaves Afghan contractors stranded in this way?

It is high time the Government got their act together and stood up for those who worked with the United Kingdom to promote security, tolerance and democracy in Afghanistan.

I also send my thoughts to those affected by the terrible earthquake two days ago. The UK is one of the largest donors of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan, and we are already working with teams on the ground, including the UN, non-governmental organisations and the Red Cross, to get assistance to those who need it.

The hon. Gentleman asks how many British Council staff are still affected. I make it clear, as I did in my opening remarks, that all former British Council employees —in other words, British Council staff—who wished to resettle have arrived in the UK with their family members. British Council employees were prioritised both in Operation Pitting and in the immediate response to help those who were invited to take part in Operation Pitting but did not make it out, and they are among the 4,600 people who have since come out of Afghanistan.

The issue here is contractors. We have prioritised British Council contractors, GardaWorld contractors and Chevening alumni in the 1,500 places we have this year. They will be able to put in their expression of interest between now and 15 August. I must say—maybe this will also help my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron)—that if there are exceptional and compelling circumstances, for example a threat to life, they can set that out in their expression of interest and they will be considered for expediated action.

The bigger picture is that we chose to abandon Afghanistan and hand it back to the very insurgents we went in to defeat. We make grand promises to help the people of Afghanistan, the 40 million people left behind who are struggling to survive. Is it not now time to unfreeze the $9 billion-worth of Afghan assets? They belong to the Afghan people. We are not going to change the Taliban’s behaviour. The people who are now suffering because of that are the Afghans themselves, not the Taliban.

Let me be very clear: it was the Taliban who chose what to do in Afghanistan, rather than the UK. Our British forces did amazing work in that two-week window to bring British people out. The sanctions are important, but we also played a key role in establishing a humanitarian exemption under the United Nations Afghan sanctions regime. Thus we have a Security Council resolution adopted in December that gives an exemption from the asset freeze in order to provide humanitarian assistance. It is humanitarian assistance that people need. That is why in January we also laid our own sanctions regulations, which mean that we can also ensure that money for humanitarian needs and supporting basic needs can still flow.

I place on record my thoughts and those of all my SNP colleagues for all those impacted by the devastating earthquake in Afghanistan. If my calculations are correct, it is now 299 days since the end of Operation Pitting. While the efforts of our military personnel cannot be commended highly enough, what cannot be commended is the pitiful response of this Government, both in the weeks leading up to the fall of Afghanistan and in the many months since. Lest we forget, when Kabul was on the brink of collapse senior Government Ministers and senior civil servants were on holiday. Lest we forget, when people were literally falling from the outside of aircraft trying to flee the Taliban, the doors to this Parliament remained firmly shut. Lest we forget, it is nearly 300 days since Afghanistan fell and so many British Council contractors and others were left at the mercy of the Taliban. I ask the Minister this: why on earth is this taking so long, and when does she expect every single British contractor boot to be on UK soil?

Far from doing nothing over the past few months since Operation Pitting finished, the UK has been one of the leaders in the world in a) getting the exemption from the sanctions regime to help money to flow and b) ensuring that humanitarian aid is raised. In March we co-hosted the pledging conference and we are one of the largest donors of humanitarian aid ourselves. We have been working extremely closely to unlock the World Bank money, for example, and get that out. Since Operation Pitting finished, another 4,600 Afghan refugees or individuals from Afghanistan have arrived in the UK, including many from very vulnerable groups. It is a continuous process; we have committed to taking another 20,000 people through the ARAP system over the next few years, and that window is being prioritised for those contractors and our Chevening scholars.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) mentioned, there are just under 200 British Council contractors who are still trapped in Afghanistan. All of them are in fear for their lives. We must know the names of those individuals, but we probably do not know their exact location. Will my hon. Friend ensure that applications for those people to come out of Afghanistan to the UK can be lodged by other people on their behalf? Otherwise, people will have to spend time online and getting to places that will be unsafe for them to travel to.

I will certainly take up the point that my hon. Friend raises, but that is precisely why there needs to be a window of time for people to register their interest. I also point out that those taken under the pathway will be not only the individuals, but their family members; that is why 1,500 people will be able to come and we have a window of time to assess their needs and bring them through the pathway. I will certainly take on board my hon. Friend’s point about whether third parties can put in an application.

The hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) is absolutely right. The hardest part of the process for the people affected is getting out of Afghanistan safely without it being detected that they are fleeing. Why on earth is there a two-month window only, rather than an open, rolling programme? Why is there a limit every year? As the hon. Members for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) and for Harrow East have said, we already know who these people are.

I remind the hon. Gentleman that 4,600 people have already come to the UK since Operation Pitting. We are working to get some of the most vulnerable people out. This is an important prioritisation that we are doing for those who have been contractors—security contractors or British Council contractors. They need the window to express interest, but if there are exceptional circumstances such as threat to life, they will be considered for expedited action.

How many people have been resettled in the UK under the ACRS, since it opened in January, who had not been evacuated under Operation Pitting?

The 4,600 people who have been supported to leave Afghanistan and are either coming to the UK or, sometimes, moving to third countries—sorry, Mr Speaker; I should have been clearer on that point—includes people under both ACRS and ARAP.

What assessment has the Minister made of whether all those who might be eligible can safely and securely apply online for permission to come to this country? If they cannot do that, there has to be a fall-back position, has there not?

The hon. Gentleman is right that in certain parts of Afghanistan it is particularly challenging. That is part of the reason why we are giving a window.

I am listening to the Minister with a bit of incredulity. She said:

“It is right that the Government do the right thing…and that includes resettling eligible contractors if they are at risk.”

Minister, they are at risk! That is a totally mealy-mouthed and profoundly unhelpful statement. We have known about this for months and months. The UK Government have given those of us asking questions the runaround time after time. We know who these people are, we know that they are vulnerable and we know that their lives are at risk. Will the UK Government stop giving us all the runaround and tell us how and when these vulnerable people will be given the opportunity to come to safety?

I am actually extremely proud of the work that the UK does to support vulnerable people coming to the UK from so many different areas. Many of my constituents are working to bring in Ukrainian families and support the Afghans who have come to my constituency. Many tens of thousands of Hong Kong nationals have come here. As I said, 4,600 people have come under either ARAP or ACRS since then. This is an important prioritisation that we are doing to support these contractors. They will be given time to apply because, as the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) points out, sometimes it can be challenging to get online in these places. That is why we have to give them a window. We have brought 4,600 people, including some of the most vulnerable, during this period. These are difficult circumstances and the UK is doing much, much more than many others. I continue to be proud of what we are doing.

These British Council contractors live in fear for their lives on a daily basis. Each day they wake up could be the day of their death sentence. We know who they are. The logistics of getting them out of Afghanistan are going to be incredibly difficult. I would like to know what preparations the Minister has in place, not only to expedite their applications when they come in, but to physically get them to safety and out of the grip of the Taliban.

The hon. Gentleman will probably understand that I should not comment on that at this stage, particularly for those who are at risk. We have said that we will expedite matters, for example if there is a serious risk to life. We need to give this window for people to apply, but I am not going to comment on the specifics that the hon. Gentleman raises at this time.

Given the recent devastating logjams at the Home Office and Her Majesty’s Passport Office, can the Minister confirm how many extra staff have been appointed to process the expression of interest requests from those stranded in Afghanistan?

Afghan contractors worked to protect British Government officials and to keep them safe. We have left those contractors behind and done too little to repay the favour. What work has been under way for the past 10 months across the various Departments involved to try to ensure the safety of all contractors?

As I think I have said a number of times, we have brought in some of the most vulnerable people during this period, from various different groups. We have also been leading some of the international work to try to get aid into the country to help all of the citizens of Afghanistan with the extremely challenging economic situation. That is why we have led the pledging conference and put funding in for others to try to stabilise the situation. We are prioritising the contractors, which is why we have opened this window for them to express their interest and let us know their exact circumstances, and so we can bring out those who are most at risk.

First, I put on record my thanks to the Minister and the Government for all they have done in the Afghan resettlement scheme. I know that my constituency has been eager and keen to assist and help. On the issue of the British Council contractors, does the Minister agree that our withdrawal from Afghanistan leaves much to be desired? When it comes to the contractors we are all concerned about, our support must be blameless, and I suspect that unfortunately on this occasion it may not be. How will the Government improve the current support system in Afghanistan?