Skip to main content

British Council Contractors: Afghanistan

Volume 724: debated on Monday 12 December 2022

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs if he will make a statement on British Council contractors in Afghanistan.

The Minister who is responsible for Afghanistan—the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty)—is travelling. I am a poor substitute, but I am most grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) for raising this very important matter.

During Operation Pitting, nearly all British Council staff and some contractors were evacuated and offered resettlement through the Afghan relocations and assistance policy. Some British Council contractors, plus dependants, remain in Afghanistan and are eligible for consideration for resettlement under the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme. The scheme will see up to 20,000 people from Afghanistan and the region resettled in to the United Kingdom. It provides a safe and legal route for some of those affected by events in Afghanistan to come to the United Kingdom and rebuild their lives.

The first year of ACRS pathway 3 is focused on eligible at-risk British Council and GardaWorld contractors, as well as Chevening alumni, honouring the commitments made by the Government to those three groups. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office opened an online process on 20 June this year to seek expressions of interest in resettlement from those groups. They have played a key role in supporting the UK mission in Afghanistan, and it is right that we are honouring the commitments made during the evacuation to support those at risk. Up to 1,500 people from Afghanistan and the region will be referred for resettlement in the UK in the first year of pathway 3, including eligible family members.

The FCDO received more than 11,400 expressions of interest, which are being assessed in terms of eligibility. People are being notified of the outcome, and we are sending names to the Home Office for security checks. Once the checks have been completed, we will provide advice on the next steps for those who are being referred for a place on the ACRS. It remains a priority to honour the commitment made to eligible at-risk British Council contractors, and to offer a route for resettlement in the UK under the scheme. I want to thank the council for its excellent co-operation with the FCDO to date, as we work together to resettle eligible contractors under pathway 3.

We are doing everything we can to bring the first British Council and other arrivals under pathway 3 to the United Kingdom as soon as possible, where we will help them to rebuild their lives. Anyone who is eligible and resettled through the ACRS will receive indefinite leave to remain in the UK, and, under existing rules, will be able to apply for British citizenship after five years in the UK. This is one of the most ambitious resettlement schemes in our country’s history, and we are proud to offer a safe and legal route to those affected by events in Afghanistan.

Thank you for granting the urgent question, Mr Speaker. Let me start by both welcoming the Foreign Secretary’s speech on foreign policy this morning, which called for a long-term, resilient approach that will build the long-term, trusting relationships that this country needs for the future, and underlining the fact that that is precisely the purpose of the British Council, which has been building connections for this country throughout the world, quietly, consistently and effectively, since the 1930s. I hope that the Minister sees, as I do, the key role that the British Council can play in helping to achieve those objectives.

I make no apologies for asking this urgent question, because people’s lives are at risk. I went through the regular channels a year ago, and was told that progress was being made, which is more or less what the Minister has just said. I raised it again in October/November, but there has been no response. The progress has not been made.

For more than 16 months since Operation Pitting and the fall of Kabul, about 200 British Council contractors and their families have been stuck in Afghanistan. As has recently been highlighted in the media, many of them are in hiding and in fear of their lives, unable to seek medical advice when it is necessary for themselves and their families, and family members have died as a consequence. As the Minister said, British Council contractors are eligible under ACRS pathway 3, but those 200 or so contractors remain stuck in Afghanistan because of a blockage of red tape here in the UK. Until that blockage is cleared they will remain in danger, possibly for a second Afghan winter. Since its launch in January, the scheme has not repatriated a single person from Afghanistan: I have received confirmation of that from the British Council. In July and August, an application window closed for the contractors to submit expressions of interest. British Council employees worked at pace with the FCDO to identify those who had actually worked with them, yet there has still been no progress whatsoever. Having used all the regular channels, I would now like to ask the Minister to do all he can before Christmas to clear these blockages and get these contractors back to the UK.

I thank my hon. Friend for what he has said. He eloquently extols the brilliance of the British Council. I had some responsibility for it 10 years ago, and I know very well that what he says about it is entirely correct. He is quite right about the eligibility, and we very much understand the urgency to which he refers. This particular pathway process started on 20 June and remained open for eight weeks. The Foreign Office has looked at every single one of the applicants, and the process is moving through. I would just say that, although it is taking a lot of time, it is right that officials should look carefully at each and every one of those cases. There is a balance to be struck, but I will ensure that my hon. Friend’s words and concerns are reflected across Government as a result of this urgent question.

I again thank the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) for securing this urgent question. He has been a great champion of the British Council in this place. We know that hundreds of British Council contractors are still stranded in Afghanistan following this Government’s botched evacuation from Kabul. Earlier this year, the Minister told the House that the Government were “supporting those in need” and that 50 British Council contractors had been evacuated. However, a recent report in The Guardian indicated that, as the hon. Gentleman said, the Government had not granted a single ACRS application since the programme was opened—not one. Furthermore, fewer than 10 staff are currently working on the scheme at the FCDO.

I am contacted frequently by British Council contractors who are suffering terribly, and I would be grateful if the Minister would allow me to raise these cases with him privately. Many of those that are still in Afghanistan are former security guards who protected British staff at the embassy, and they undertook an extremely difficult task during the evacuation in August last year. We owe so much to those courageous British Council contractors, and the fact that they are still in Afghanistan and facing daily violence and threats as a result of their co-operation with the UK is nothing short of a disgrace.

The last time I put these questions to the Government, answers were not forthcoming, so I am hopeful that this time I might be able to get some clarity. Can the Minister tell us how many former British Council contractors are still stuck in Afghanistan, what measures are being put in place to evacuate the rest of the British Council contractors still stranded in Afghanistan and what engagement he has had with regional partners to facilitate safe passage for British Council staff who attempt to leave? And message does it send to other British Council contractors who work in challenging environments around the world if the UK Government will leave these contractors stranded in this way?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments, and he is quite right to express deep concern about those who are caught in this way. He asks me whether he may raise cases privately with me, and of course the answer is yes. I will make arrangements for those meetings to take place straight after this urgent question is over. He asks a number of questions, and if I do not answer them fully, I will ensure that we write to him. He is right to say that we keep in very good contact with regional partners in countries to try to advance this issue. This particular stream only opened in June this year. The Foreign Office has processed and is informing something in the region of 200 of those who are eligible in principle, and if the dependants are added to that, it is something like 750. So those are proceeding, and it is of course up to the Home Office to procure the necessary security clearance prior to them securing entry clearance. So, the process is going on, but I fully accept his frustration—it is a frustration we all share in this matter—and as I say, perhaps we can proceed with a private meeting, as he has requested.

Is there not a fundamental problem with talking about safe and legal routes for people who, if they expose themselves to the Taliban, are at risk because of that very fact? Last Thursday evening, I was at the Last Supper gallery to attend a photographic exhibition organised by the Sulha Alliance on behalf of Afghan interpreters, several of whom were there, including one who had been shot and another whose brother had not got out and had been murdered. The photographer, Andy Barnham, felt it necessary to anonymise the photographs because of the risks of identification. Do the Government not have to come up with a better idea for how to extract people who are at risk as a result of helping us, without them having to declare themselves openly and thus put themselves in more peril?

My right hon. Friend, with great eloquence, makes a most important point. There are various ways in which we can deal with this, and which it would not be sensible to talk about on the Floor of the House. He makes one of the big difficulties very clear. If it would be helpful, I am happy to discuss this with him.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) on securing this important urgent question. It is morally indefensible that, more than a year after the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, there are still innocent Afghans who worked for the British Government and military who have received zero support from this Government and the Home Office. It is not acceptable to use terms such as “something like.” Exactly how many former British Council staff, including support staff, are still living in Afghanistan in fear of their lives and livelihoods? When the Government say they have brought 6,300 Afghans to “safety,” what exactly does that mean? How many of them are former British Council employees?

The Taliban’s so-called kill list is an active threat. Do the Government know how many of their former employees are on that list? Finally, it is appropriate that 540 staff are working on the Ukraine schemes but, if the Government are taking Afghanistan as seriously as they are supposed to be, why do the figures show a maximum of eight people working on the Afghan schemes?

The frustration expressed by the hon. Gentleman is shared by many of us. It is not possible to quantify the figures in precisely the way he requests, but I will ensure that we write to him with the closest possible approximation.

On 20 January 2022 there was an urgent question on British Council staff, at which I told the then Minister of State for Asia, the right hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling), that

“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.”

The Minister pointed out that the ACRS was open and

“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.”—[Official Report, 20 January 2022; Vol. 707, c. 505-6.]

We have seen that pathway 3 was open not from January but from June. Six months later, not one person has been settled in this country.

The hon. Gentleman conflates the ARAP scheme with the ACRS. The prioritisation is precisely as my right hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling) set out. The pipeline is proceeding, and pathway 3 started in June and was open for eight weeks. The process is moving from the Foreign Office to the Home Office, and officials are handling these matters as fast as they can. It is very frustrating for all of us, but that is what is happening and we will get there.

The Minister knows that this Government have legislated to make it illegal for anyone seeking asylum to enter this country by any means apart from safe and legal routes. Indeed, the entire moral basis—such as it is—for the claim that this Government are meeting our international asylum obligations rests on safe and legal routes. Given that, how can the Minister speak of pride in a safe route that is so manifestly and entirely failing? It is failing those who are at risk of persecution for promoting British values through the British Council. What does he suggest they do?

There may or may not be validity in the political debate on safe and legal routes that the hon. Lady raises, but in this particular respect there is a safe and legal route. That is one we are expediting.

I disagree with the Minister that he is a poor replacement for his colleague at the Dispatch Box—I think he would bring a compassionate, informed and patriotic approach to this portfolio, if it were his. Perhaps he can explain why, instead of sending millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money to Rwanda with nothing to show for it, the Government do not spend just a fraction of that money on expediting the safe evacuation of those who risked their lives to host and protect UK service personnel and civilians in Afghanistan.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks. He is a distinguished soldier and brings that knowledge to the House. He has rightly championed Britain’s responsibilities in this matter. The Government are trying both to advance through our strong partnership with Rwanda and to meet the other objectives he has set out. I commend to him the Government’s approach in both respects.

The Minister is well known for his compassion and understanding of these issues in this House. I say that in all honesty; he knows it and everyone else knows it. How many people have begun the ACRS scheme, have been given their reference number and are on stand-by, and yet have heard nothing over the last year that the scheme has been operating? How can he change the message sent to those we asked to help us, because we made promises and then appeared to abandon them when our aims were met? It is very sad.

The hon. Gentleman is quite right to point out Britain’s responsibility in this matter. We are, I think, meeting that responsibility. As I mentioned to him, if we look at those processed by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and their dependents, who are equally eligible to come under this pathway, we get up to something like 750 who have been initially processed. That now moves to the Home Office. He will understand that that is nearly half of those who would be expected to arrive under this pathway. We must do better and we are doing everything we can to make sure that we do.