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Afghan Resettlement Update

Volume 742: debated on Wednesday 13 December 2023

In September this year, I notified Members of the House that on 31 August the Government had successfully ended the use of bridging hotels for thousands of legally resettled Afghans, and through the hard work and determination of central Government officials and local authorities, the vast majority of them are now in settled accommodation. Hotels were never designed to be a permanent solution either for the Afghans who risked their lives working for UK forces in Afghanistan or, indeed, for the British taxpayer. Ending the provision of bridging accommodation was the right thing to do for our Afghan friends, who can now get on with rebuilding their lives.

The hotel exit plan required a considerable cross-Government effort and represented a significant national achievement, but our debt of gratitude to our Afghan partners is ongoing. We are now working to ensure that Afghans who are eligible for relocation via the Afghan relocations and assistance policy and the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme, and who remain overseas in Pakistan and other third countries, are moved over here at pace so they can start to rebuild their lives here in the United Kingdom.

On the current trajectory estimates, we expect to have welcomed around 3,500 arrivals by the end of 2023 across ACRS and ARAP, and wherever possible new arrivals will go straight into settled accommodation. For ARAP families, this will largely be into service family accommodation options, which have been made available by the Ministry of Defence across the country. The Ministry of Defence is also providing shorter-term transitional accommodation until movement into settled accommodation is possible. For ACRS arrivals, we are committed to bringing eligible persons over to the UK as fast as possible, and this week we will welcome 250 arrivals from Pakistan, with a further flight arriving next week. Some 70% of families manifested on these flights have been pre-matched into settled accommodation, but for a small number of this cohort transitional accommodation will be required.

The Government remain committed to ending the systemic use of hotels, and we do not plan to open new hotels to meet this increased demand. A small number of hotels with existing contracts will be extended for a limited time period to help accommodate ACRS arrivals who have yet to be matched to settled housing solutions in the United Kingdom. The Home Office has already undertaken initial engagement with local authorities in which those hotels are located, and it will continue to work closely with councils across the United Kingdom to ensure they are receiving the support they need to relocate Afghan families into settled accommodation as quickly as possible.

The Government recognise the challenges that local authorities face when it comes to resettling communities across the United Kingdom, and that is why we put in place a generous funding package of £285 million in March to help fund housing solutions and support councils to provide integration support to Afghan families. While the scale of the task is much smaller this time than it was in the summer, with the vast majority of arrivals this year already pre-matched to settled accommodation, the Government will be matching the commitment we previously made to local authorities by offering a similar funding package of financial support for the resettlement of these new arrivals.

That includes wraparound funding of £28 per person per day, which is available to councils that are supporting households in transitional accommodation. In addition, local authorities will be able to draw on the flexible housing fund, which provides over £7,000 per Afghan individual to enable them to support move-ons, and that will be capped at £35,000 per household. Furthermore, funding will be provided to mitigate any additional pressures of homelessness from transitional accommodation, and there will be up to six months of wraparound funding for those in temporary accommodation. Where local authorities are supporting Afghan arrivals into settled accommodation, they can claim the integration tariff funding of £20,520 per person over the first three years towards resettlement and integration costs.

The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities will continue to explore a range of accommodation options to ensure the use of transitional hotel accommodation is kept to an absolute minimum. This includes exploring a pilot sponsorship scheme that aims to support ACRS households and builds on the learnings from the Home Office community sponsorship scheme and the Homes for Ukraine scheme that proved so successful. As was the case before, the role of the voluntary sector is vital in providing support at a local level.

I want to reassure Afghan families who remain in Pakistan and other third countries, and who are eligible to come to the United Kingdom, that this Government will work night and day to bring them over as quickly and as safely as possible. I recognise the uncertainty that comes with living in temporary accommodation. That is why Departments across Government continue to work at pace, and in step with their local authority and third-sector partners, to provide suitable settled housing solutions as quickly as possible. The Prime Minister has asked me to oversee the successful delivery of that operation, and that is exactly what I intend to do.

No one knows more than me the debt we owe to our Afghan partners. We have a collective responsibility to ensure that we continue to support them, as they once supported us. I urge local authority leaders to engage as much as possible with central Government over the coming months, to replicate the collaborative spirit that proved so successful during the hotel exit scheme over the summer, and to ensure that all new arrivals to the United Kingdom under those pathways continue to be met with the warm welcome they deserve. I remain determined to deliver that for the Afghan people, and I commend this statement to the House.

As this is my first outing at the Dispatch Box in my new role as shadow Minister for Veterans, let me say that the Labour party is proud of our service personnel, our veterans and our armed forces communities. I also thank my excellent predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins), for all her hard work. I will attempt to build on her efforts to improve the lives of veterans and their families across the UK—I hope I can work with the Minister on that.

I pay tribute to all those involved in Operation Pitting, all those who served alongside our forces in Afghanistan, and all those who worked to assist them. I thank the Minister for, as he acknowledged, his first oral update on Afghan resettlement since September. Since then it has been confirmed that, unfortunately, Ministers have missed their target to clear the ARAP backlog. Thousands are still waiting in Pakistan. There is real concern that ARAP and ACRS applicants could be sent back to Afghanistan.

Families are still awaiting permanent accommodation in the UK, and military sites, as we have heard, are being used as temporary housing. Just today, I understand that the Government have been fined £350,000 by the Information Commissioner’s Office for a data breach concerning the ARAP scheme. It is hard to feel proud of our record in relation to those events. Britain’s moral duty to assist these Afghans is felt most fiercely by the UK forces they served alongside. We as a nation gave a commitment to those who served with our forces that we would do right by them when they arrived on our shores.

I note the Minister’s comments about the hotel exit plan. Will he confirm that zero Afghans have returned to bridging hotels since September, and that the contracts that he referred to as being “extended” are only for new arrivals? How many new arrivals have been placed in hotels since September? The Minister said in his previous statement that

“some families have moved into temporary accommodation under local authority homelessness provision. That is less than 5% of the 24,600 people we have relocated from Afghanistan.”—[Official Report, 19 September 2023; Vol. 737, c. 1254.]

That was still over 1,000 people registered as homeless. What is the figure now?

As the Minister mentioned, it has been reported that the Ministry of Defence has made available 700 service accommodation units for Afghans. Yesterday it was announced that the Government are now using Chickerell Camp near Weymouth to house Afghans who supported the UK. How many Afghans are currently in military accommodation, how many MOD sites are currently in use for that purpose, and for how long does the Minister expect Afghans to be accommodated in military housing?

The Minister for Armed Forces said on Monday:

“There are around 2,000 people in Afghanistan who we need to move out and around 1,800 left in Pakistan who we need to bring in. In all, I would expect another 4,000 to 4,500 arrivals.”—[Official Report, 11 December 2023; Vol. 742, c. 635.]

When does the Minister expect those people to arrive, and where will they be housed? Too much of this feels like a saga of failure. It cannot continue. Lives cannot remain in limbo, and Afghans cannot be put in danger from the Taliban. On behalf of our veterans and members of the armed forces, who feel so strongly about this, we must fulfil our duty to them and provide a new and secure life in the UK.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new post, and on another day I look forward to engaging with him across the Dispatch Box on veterans policy. As of 8 December, 215 families remain in temporary accommodation, and as of a few days ago, around 1,826 ARAP-entitled personnel are still in Pakistan. That is obviously blending with the ACRS pathway. Indeed, a flight of 246 people is arriving today on the ACRS pathway and will be met by Home Office officials. As I said, 70% of those have been pre-matched to houses, and we are looking to accommodate the remainder and get them into settled accommodation as soon as possible.

The red lines remain the same: nobody has slept rough as a result of this policy. We are clearly juggling multiple different dynamics when it comes to getting people into this country, into temporary transit accommodation so that we do not delay the flow out of Pakistan or Afghanistan, and then into settled accommodation, which is where we all want these people to be. The numbers are changing every day, and I am more than happy to share what they will be. I do not want anybody to be in a hotel for a day longer than they want to be, whether in Pakistan or the United Kingdom. I am not really interested in what has happened before; we are where we are today.

I am determined that we will see through our duty to this cohort—both ARAP and ACRS—and I will turn myself inside out until we get to the place where all entitled personnel are in settled accommodation in the United Kingdom, in line with our commitments.

It is a matter of honour and common human decency that we should give these people, who served us so well in Afghanistan, proper accommodation and a safe refuge here in the United Kingdom. I very much welcome the fact that the Minister is doing that for the remaining people in Pakistan and Afghanistan. I also welcome the fact that he has been clear that hotels are not the right place for these people to be housed, and I am proud that we in Wiltshire are making a significant amount of our empty military accommodation available to them, including 40 in my own constituency, but also a large number across the county. That is a good use for empty military accommodation and I hope it will work extremely well.

Will the Minister make representations to his colleagues in the Home Office that the strength of feeling against the use of hotels for these people stands in some contrast to the Wiltshire golf club hotel, not one mile away from Lyneham, where those people will be housed, which is crammed to the doors with 120 other asylum seekers and refugees of one kind or another? The Home Office must take steps to do what the Minister has done by removing those people from unsuitable hotel accommodation and into decent, permanent accommodation.

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. Wiltshire Council is one of many local authorities across the country—I had a call on Monday with officials, and yesterday with council leaders, 270 of them across the country—that are part of this real national effort, and I pay tribute to them for their work on this. The operating box that I am within is the Afghan cohort, both ACRS and ARAP-entitled personnel. Those in the Home Office are dealing with the wider migration issue, and I will let them write to my hon. Friend and answer those points in due course.

Afghanistan fell to the Taliban in August 2021, and it should be a source of shame and embarrassment to this Government that we are still talking about bringing people to safety over two years later. A marker of the failure of the ACRS and the ARAP schemes is that it is known that there are 17 Afghans in every small boat in the channel for every one who has come over on those schemes. When the Government talk about small boats, they know that it is a result of their own failure to deal with and to support Afghans, to whom he says—and I agree—we owe a significant debt of gratitude.

Can I ask the Minister about his conversations with his counterparts in Pakistan, because it seems very much as if the Government are watching as Pakistan sends people back into the hands of the Taliban? I would like to know what those conversations are. The message going out that he will bring people in Pakistan as quickly and safely as possible will ring hollow to the many constituents who are still in touch with me and desperately afraid for friends and family who are in hiding in Pakistan, waiting for a chap at the door.

I will return to the case of those people who are perhaps owed a debt of gratitude in the schemes and who have not been successful in applying. The case of the Triples has been called a “disgrace” by General Sir Richard Barrons, because:

“It reflects that either we’re duplicitous as a nation or incompetent.”

Which of those does the Minister think he is?

On access to services, the Minister talks about £28 a person a day. That will barely cover the cost of an interpreter, never mind anything else that people who have experienced such trauma may require. It is just not appropriate at all. On the accommodation side of things, I agree that hotel accommodation is never appropriate for the long term, but I have visited the former Napier barracks, which are also extremely poor quality and not suitable for long-term accommodation, particularly in the depths of winter. How long will people be held in that accommodation before they can move on to something more suitable? What support services will be put in place, because I have found them to be completely inadequate?

A constituent of mine has been working since the fall of Afghanistan to get a particular colleague and his family over. He has found it desperately difficult to negotiate the paperwork. As far as I am aware, they have still not been able to bring them over. Will the Minister look at that particular case if I write to him? Finally, can he tell us some numbers? How many expressions of interest are still outstanding? How many people have been lost contact with or have passed away waiting for this incompetent Government to deal with their case?

The hon. Member refers to what has happened in the past, and I have been asked to look at this from a clear date in time. Since then, I have been working day in, day out to get as many as we possibly can of those to whom we owe a duty back to this country and into settled accommodation.

When it comes to conversations with Pakistan, I am clear and have had assurances—as have the Home Secretary, the Foreign Secretary and the Chief of the Defence Staff—that these individuals will not be deported back to Pakistan.

The hon. Member shakes her head, but that serious threat is hanging over these families. It has not happened, and it is not right to overplay that when officials and others are working incredibly hard to make sure that we do not cross that red line for anyone who is entitled to be here in the United Kingdom. She well knows it is not £28 per day; that is on top of the £7,000 a person and the £20,520 for integration. I am focused on trying to solve an incredibly complicated and difficult scenario so that we see through our duty to those to whom we owe it. If there are contributions that will help me do that, I will always listen to them, but I am obviously not going to engage when contributions are just used as a stick to try to beat the Government.

I thank the Minister for this statement, and I know he takes these matters seriously, as do Members across the House.

On Monday, in response to an urgent question, the Minister for Armed Forces, the right hon. Member for Wells (James Heappey), said that

“certain members of the CF333 and ATF444 taskforces, will not be eligible for relocation under ARAP.”—[Official Report, 11 December 2023; Vol. 742, c. 629.]

The Minister for Veterans’ Affairs well knows, as do I, that the Triples were recruited by the UK, led by the UK and paid by the UK. By design, they served shoulder to shoulder alongside us. We owe them a debt of gratitude, and it is a matter of honour. Does the Minister share my concern that, based on what the Minister for Armed Forces said on Monday, the ARAP criteria do not guarantee qualification for the Triples? He will share my concern that many have already been rejected, and some undoubtedly already are dead. What more can be done to support the Triples?

I pay tribute to my friend, the hon. Member, who I know commanded one of these units at a similar time to when I was in Afghanistan, and he has a deep and intimate knowledge of how these taskforces were set up, paid for and funded. It is for the Ministry of Defence and the Minister for Armed Forces to speak about what that Minister said on Monday, but I am clear that we have a duty to these individuals. While technically the Minister for Armed Forces was right that they were led and had direct command chains into the Afghan Government, there will be no attempt whatever from this Government to close down avenues for those who served in 333 and 444, who the hon. Member personally trained and fought alongside. While I recognise the concern, he will know that I will not oversee a scheme that does not do its duty to those he and I served alongside in Afghanistan, particularly in the 333 and 444 taskforces,.

I welcome the Minister’s statement, but I have to use the opportunity to speak on behalf of my constituent. Since travelling to the UK as part of Operation Pitting in August 2021, my constituent, who was a military police officer, has been separated from his wife and four children who were unable to travel due to the chaos at Kabul airport. Two years on, he has been resettled under ACRS pathway 1, yet he is still waiting for further information on how his family will be resettled. His wife, unfortunately, is receiving death threats. He is concerned for their safety, and they are still in Afghanistan. Will the Minister meet me to help get clarity on how my constituent’s family can travel to the UK so that they can get on with their lives together?

If the hon. Member writes to me with that particular case today, I will have a look at it and have an answer for her today.

The data breaches affecting 265 people who worked with the UK Government in Afghanistan, for which the MOD was fined by the Information Commissioner’s Office yesterday, are incredibly serious and could have cost numerous lives. We know now that the Afghan resettlement scheme, which was set up to support such individuals, has had numerous issues from the start, with a number of people being incorrectly categorised as ineligible. I welcome the families who are settling into service accommodation in Leuchars in my constituency, but does the Minister accept that eligibility loopholes remain, as eloquently pointed out by the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis)? Will the Minister commit to correcting those in the new year, so that we can support all those who are rightly eligible?

I reiterate what I said earlier: it is a clear red line for me, as it is for this Government. For those who are eligible for those schemes and who are entitled to be in the United Kingdom in settled accommodation, it will happen. We will keep going until we achieve that objective. We stood here in the summer looking to get 8,500 Afghans out of hotels and into settled accommodation. That was a significant challenge, but we achieved that, and I fully intend to achieve this task, too.

I thank the Minister for his statement, but the system is still shambolic. I had a constituent who was a member of the special forces who arrived here, but trying to get his family here was complete chaos. We were being bounced between the Home Office, Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence. We finally succeeded, but the process was not easy. Who is actually in charge of this? The frustration in this case—it was clear that they were eligible for the scheme—was that without my intervention, it perhaps would not have been solved.

May I pick up on what the Minister just said to my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis)? Is the Minister actually saying, in contradiction to what the Minister for Armed Forces said on Monday, that this scheme does apply to the Triples? The Minister for Armed Forces clearly said that it did not.

The two things that the Minister for Armed Forces was saying on Monday are correct. Being in a taskforce does not automatically entitle someone to be in the United Kingdom, because while that might initially get them through the eligibility criteria, there may be well-founded reasons why that individual does not settle into accommodation in the UK, including many different national security reasons that have been outlined. He was correct to say that, and he is correct to say that the Afghan taskforce had an Afghan command reporting chain. I am clear about the criteria for ARAP entitlement, and the vast majority of triple-three and triple-four operators should fit within those criteria. If they meet the criteria and deserve to be in the United Kingdom, I will do everything I can to get them here. This is a Government effort; it is not led by a single Department. This is a cross-Government issue for the Home Office, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and the Ministry of Defence. I have been asked by the Prime Minister to oversee it, and that is what I am doing at the moment.

I thank the Minister for including the word “integration” in his statement. This weekend I met a man who is now settled through the ARAP scheme in a permanent home in my constituency after living for over a year in a hotel elsewhere with his family. Although he is hugely grateful to the Government, Hounslow London Borough Council and Refugees Welcome Hounslow for the support he has had to ensure that he and his family are safe and secure, it is not everything. He is working 16 hours a week in a minimum-wage catering job. He has had no support to find properly paid work that uses the skills and experience that the UK valued when he worked for our specialist services in Afghanistan. As well as providing adequate housing, will the Government please ensure that those settled through ARAP and ACRS get quality support to help them into a future career in this country, so that they can be fully integrated?

I do not accept that this individual will have had no support. There would have been a lot of money and support thrown at such individuals and communities as they came in. There is the £20,520 integration fund, which is specifically for that purpose. Clearly, we are balancing different competing pressures when it comes to individuals getting into jobs and using skills that they had in Afghanistan, and that work continues. That will be stood up again for the process that we stood up in the summer, to make sure that we get people out of hotels and into good, long-term accommodation. I fully accept that there is a job of integration to be done there, and that is what we are working to do, using the voluntary sector, the third sector, local authorities and everybody else who is willing to lean into this.

My constituent’s sister and 70-year-old mother, who were accepted on to the ACRS in January this year, have since been stuck in Pakistan alone and are now homeless, with the constant threat of being returned to Afghanistan. They cannot afford exit visas from Pakistan, and the UNHCR is not currently paying for exit payments. My office has contacted the Home Office on several occasions, receiving only template responses, so will the Minister take a look into this individual case and get back to me as soon as possible?

The hon. Gentleman must be telepathic, because just this morning I have commissioned work to look at what we can do about visa fees. I do not want an extraordinarily complex and expensive programme set back by having to pay a £500 visa exit fee in Pakistan. We are looking at how we overcome that, but I am more than happy to look at his individual case as well.

I was pleased to hear this week that unused MOD service family accommodation in my constituency is going to be utilised to house Afghan families, and that the Government now aim to bring people waiting in Pakistan to the UK. The Minister seems to have gone some way to unblocking the logjam—I am buttering him up because I want something.

I met the Prime Minister earlier this year to ask him to look at rescuing Afghan women judges and prosecutors, who have been left behind in severe danger, yet nothing has happened. We could look at doing this through community sponsorship, but in the meantime these women are at desperate risk. Will the Minister meet me in the new year to see if he can help break the logjam on this issue as well?

I will absolutely meet the hon. and learned Lady, because I hope we will soon have something to say on one of these schemes. She can have a look at it when we get to that moment, and then we can meet in January to discuss what else she thinks we might do.

I thank the Minister again for visiting Cardiff to meet Afghans living in a hotel in my own constituency. He will know about the constructive approach that was taken by Cardiff Council and Vale of Glamorgan Council in working with his Government’s officials to move people into long-term settlement. Can he assure me that underused MOD estate in Wales will be used to the fullest extent that it can be to support new arrivals? All our local authorities are obviously under substantial housing pressures at the moment. They have gone above and beyond in giving Afghans a very warm welcome. Can we make sure that we are using the MOD estate in Wales fully?

Yes, of course. I had local authority leaders on the phone yesterday, and I know it is frustrating for people if they feel that the MOD has empty properties in their area that it can be using. To be clear, the MOD is bending over backwards to try to accommodate as many people as we can. Just because a property is empty does not mean that it can be used; there will be plenty of rotational work going on, plenty of maintenance upkeep and so on. We are straining every sinew to make that happen, and it is happening in Wales as well, but I will continue to work closely with MOD colleagues and make sure that we meet this challenge.

I thank the Minister for his statement and his clear commitment to honour, in his words, the debt we owe to our Afghan veterans. Yesterday’s debate on immigration and those who have entered the country illegally underlined the fate of Afghan soldiers who served with the UK forces and who are soon to be forced back to Afghanistan, probably to face certain death. These men, who put their lives in danger, seek to find a legal home under the promise given to them. I say this very gently: does the Minister accept that rather than send a message that people travelling illegally in boats will have more success than those signed up to the present scheme, we must instead emphasise the need to revisit why so many applications are failing while immigration through illegal means seems the easier and more successful route?

I recognise the challenges with the eligibility process, and people’s concerns and frustration. That is an MOD issue, but as a Government we are working together to remedy it and to make sure that we arrive at the correct outcome. Anybody who has been to Afghanistan or worked with this cohort will know that it is incredibly difficult to identify these people. They have extremely complex families and histories. No one is sitting there and trying to put up barriers to their coming to the United Kingdom, but it is right that we are careful and clear when we process applications. I have given a commitment to this House, and to the Afghan community, that I will keep going until we have seen through our duty to every last one of them.