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Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy

Volume 737: debated on Monday 11 September 2023

7. What steps he is taking to help support Afghan nationals eligible for resettlement under the Afghan relocations and assistance policy scheme. (906299)

12. What steps he is taking to help support Afghan nationals eligible for resettlement under the Afghan relocations and assistance policy scheme. (906305)

18. What steps he is taking to help support Afghan nationals eligible for resettlement under the Afghan relocations and assistance policy scheme. (906311)

19. What steps he is taking to help support Afghan nationals eligible for resettlement under the Afghan relocations and assistance policy scheme. (906312)

22. What steps he is taking to help support Afghan nationals eligible for resettlement under the Afghan relocations and assistance policy scheme. (906315)

The Ministry of Defence’s priority remains the relocation of ARAP-eligible Afghans to the safety of third countries at best pace. His Majesty’s Government continue to accommodate and support ARAP-eligible people in third countries while they await relocation to the United Kingdom.

I am proud to have an Afghan interpreter for the British armed forces as a constituent, but I was ashamed to learn from him that his brother, who worked for six years directly for the Special Air Service in Helmand province, had applied under the ARAP scheme and been rejected without a proper explanation. He is now in hiding in Afghanistan. Will the Minister take up that case as a matter of urgency, and will he explain to the House why his Government are still failing to support those Afghans who risked so much to support our armed forces?

The hon. Lady mentions a specific role about which it would be inappropriate to speculate on the Floor of the House. I will, of course, look at the particular case that she mentions. However, it is worth reminding right hon. and hon. colleagues that the ARAP scheme was intended for those who had been in direct support of the UK military—interpreters, most often—and, beyond that, there is a very narrow opportunity for those with special circumstances who have come through under category 4. When colleagues write to the Ministry of Defence to raise a case, they often do so on behalf of somebody who might have served in the Afghan national security forces, not necessarily in the direct employ of the UK military. That is not to cast any judgment on the case that she raises—I will look at that specifically and write to her.

There is a deep sense of injustice among former serving officers and other military personnel that we have forgotten the moral obligation to Afghan military personnel and others who served alongside us. Will the Minister confirm just how many Afghan former military personnel are currently presenting as homeless in the UK, and how many are currently in hotels in Pakistan?

It seems that my initial reply might have been quite useful, but the hon. Gentleman may not have heard or understood it. ARAP is not explicitly for those who served in the Afghan armed forces alongside the British military; it is for those who served in the employ of the British military in all but a very narrow number of cases. I will write to him on his precise question about Afghan service personnel who are now homeless in the UK—I suspect that they are remarkably few—but Afghan service personnel are not the main target of ARAP. As someone who served in Afghanistan, I share the sense of many of my former colleagues who would have liked to have done more, but that is simply never what ARAP was designed to do. Neither is it credible that the hundreds of thousands of people who served in the Afghan national forces could all be relocated to the UK.

In 2021, I held a public meeting shortly after the evacuation from Afghanistan. It was widely attended by worried and distressed residents, who all wanted help for their relatives’ desperate situations in Afghanistan. Over two years have passed, and there are huge problems with ARAP. Can the Minister say why the Government are allowing people and their relatives to suffer for so long?

There is a known number of people who worked in the employ of the British military during our campaign in Afghanistan. Our priority has been to work through and match the lists of people we know have worked for us with those who are applicants. It is my understanding that only about 2,000 applications are outstanding, and that 58,000 decisions have been taken in the past two months alone. Overwhelmingly, those decisions are, I am afraid, to say no to people, but we are making good progress and are nearing the end of tracking down all those we know have worked for us.

I return to the question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western): how many applicants are still being kicked out of hotels in the UK, and how many are applying from Pakistan and in hiding?

The Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) asked a very particular question about Afghan service personnel, as the record will show. I answered it, but I will need to go away and confirm, because that is not something that ARAP is intended to meet and we will need to see if we can find those statistics. The hon. Lady asks how many applicants have been removed from hotels. The plan is to remove all ARAP applicants from hotels, because they are not here illegally; they have not arrived on boats across the channel. They are entitled to be here, they have access to full universal credit and housing benefit, and much more importantly, they have the right to work immediately on arrival. Our priority, unapologetically—I hope she agrees that this is the right approach—is to get people out of hotels and into houses where they can get on with the life that they so deserve here in the UK as legal citizens.

It is hardly in the spirit of Operation Warm Welcome that, as the second anniversary of the evacuation of Kabul passed, Afghans who supported our armed forces were still left crowded into hotels at the taxpayer’s expense, or expected to move hundreds of miles from where they have managed to find employment and their children have settled into schools. When does the Minister now expect all Afghans in the schemes to be moved out of hotels and given suitable offers of accommodation?

I actually agree with the hon. Lady—her question stands in contrast with the previous one, because it was about the need to get people out of hotels, not suggesting that they should somehow be staying in them. The Minister for Veterans’ Affairs has been leading on this task around Government. Few in this House have more emotional energy to drive that mission than he does. He sees it as of huge importance that people are moved out of hotels and allowed to get on with their lives as quickly as possible. I will ask his office to write to the hon. Lady with the exact detail of when he hopes to see the job done.

I commend to the Defence team and, indeed, the House the new book by Larisa Brown, “The Gardener of Lashkar Gah”, which outlines in great detail the sort of debt we owe to the people who tried to help our forces. My specific question is not about people serving with the Afghan forces; it is about whether we have a proper database of all those who served with the British forces and are eligible under the scheme, and whether the Minister can guarantee that the scheme will not be closed while some of those people—probably a large number of them—are still in hiding in Afghanistan and thus unable to apply for it.

It will not surprise my right hon. Friend to know that the people who worked for the British armed forces over our extended period in Afghanistan appeared on many different lists, and part of the job of work over the past 18 months or so has been to consolidate those into an authoritative list of those whom we know to have worked for us. However, we do have very good records, as one would expect the military to have kept. That allows us to focus our search on people whom we know to be eligible within the pile of applications, and of late, to make rapid progress in informing those who are ineligible. We will, of course, keep the scheme open for as long as it takes to find all of those whom we know worked for us.

I thank the Minister for his considered remarks. Will he join me in thanking both Colchester City Council and Essex County Council for their work in supporting many Afghan nationals locally who have been in hotels since last autumn? The councils have aided those people to get into housing; however, we still have six families and 40 individuals who need to be supported in temporary accommodation. As such, can the Minister give assurances to the House about the cross-Government work that is taking place to ensure that those families come out of hotels and become settled, and in particular the work that his Department is leading on, helping to get Afghans into employment so that they can settle in the United Kingdom?

I can absolutely give my right hon. Friend the assurance she asks for. Given her previous role in Government, she knows better than anybody that those men and women who have come here have every legal right to start work and to settle in the UK. They deserve their journey here on the back of what they did in support of our armed forces, so we will support them while they are in hotels, and better still, once we have got them settled in more permanent accommodation, we will support them into employment. I will make sure that the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs briefs my right hon. Friend on his work on that matter.