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Afghanistan: Interpreters

Volume 750: debated on Tuesday 10 December 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the Written Answer by Lord Astor of Hever on 4 November (WA 1), how they will implement the “intimidation policy route” in respect of locally employed interpreters and translators who have worked with British armed forces in Afghanistan but are not eligible for the ex-gratia redundancy scheme; and what is the per capita cost of the intimidation policy compared to the redundancy scheme.

My Lords, we take reports of threats and intimidation towards our staff very seriously. There is a robust process in place for the thorough investigation and assessment of intimidation claims. Depending on the threat severity, different mitigating actions can be taken, including relocation within Afghanistan or, in exceptional cases, to the United Kingdom. It is not possible to compare the cost of the schemes at this time, as a redundancy scheme is still being implemented.

My Lords, over 2,000 Afghan interpreters are ineligible for the redundancy scheme. It is insulting to trust them to risk their lives for us but not trust them enough to rely on their own assessment of the dangers they face. Will the Government set aside the redundancy scheme and the intimidation policy and instead offer all the interpreters the same targeted assistance package that was available to the Iraqi interpreters? Will the Minister also agree to arrange a meeting with all relevant departments and a cross-party group of Peers to discuss progress? If ever there were a special case for acting outside the Immigration Rules, surely this is it.

My Lords, we absolutely recognise our clear commitment to take all reasonable steps to ensure the safety and the security of our locally engaged staff during and beyond the term of their employment with Her Majesty’s Government. The threat environment is different from Iraq. We have a very thorough anti-intimidation policy which applies to all staff employed since 2001 and, in extremis, that includes relocation to the United Kingdom. The noble Baroness asked if I could organise a meeting with a cross-party group of Peers. I am happy to do that. It would be across government, with members from the Foreign Office, the Home Office and DfID.

My Lords, the Times reported an MoD report showing that UK translators had died and evidence that one US translator had been killed. Given this, will the Minister assess the threats? Is he aware of any death threats to UK translators who have served British forces?

My Lords, since June 2013, 116 cases of intimidation have been reported to the intimidation investigation unit. The IIU investigates claims of intimidation, and an in-theatre decision panel assesses the claim and appropriate response level, depending on the risk to the LEC. The MoD’s labour support unit can confirm that, so far as it is aware, in Afghanistan there have been no deaths of serving LE staff that can be directly linked to intimidation.

My Lords, why have the Government been so on the back foot over this issue? The numbers of people involved are minuscule compared with the immigration figures that we have to look at. Other countries are treating people who act as interpreters far better than we do, so I cannot understand why we are so on the back foot. Where is our generosity of spirit? This will affect us in future operations around the world. It is difficult to understand who in government is stopping this happening.

My Lords, we are not on the back foot. The intimidation policy has been reviewed, and will be kept under review as appropriate, to ensure that it provides a robust and responsive means for addressing concerns appropriately. This will take account of the current security threat and the lessons learnt from handling cases and consultations with local staff. I have a list of what other countries—our allies—do, and it is very much along the same lines as what we do. I am very happy to write to the noble Lord with information on that.

My Lords, the media today are reporting the case of an Afghan interpreter who worked for the UK being given asylum by Germany, having been refused it by the United Kingdom. Is this really the sort of comparison that we wish to draw to ourselves in the international community, and how does that square with the Minister’s assertion that our policies are broadly the same as those of our partner nations?

My Lords, I have seen the article in the Times today. As I said to the noble Lord earlier, we go about this in a very similar way to other countries. So far only a very small number have been offered relocation in Germany.

My Lords, many fair-minded people in this House and outside are completely perplexed by the Government’s response in this respect. We do not seem to be treating our interpreters fairly, and many of us feel that the Government have taken a strange decision. Can the Minister explain in words of one syllable why we are not treating our interpreters in Afghanistan in the way that our colleague countries are doing, and as we did in Iraq?

My Lords, staff who have trod the ground with us, such as patrol interpreters and their FCO and DfID equivalents, have endured a level of danger over a sustained period, shoulder to shoulder with us in Helmand province. Their contribution to what we have been able to achieve there was made in a uniquely difficult and dangerous environment. We will not abandon them.

My Lords, will my noble friend place in the Library a detailed analysis of the comparative treatment by various countries? He says that it is broadly similar; many of us would like to see the details and the facts.

My Lords, I am very happy to write to the noble Lord, Lord West, and put a copy of my letter in the Library.

My Lords, we review the situation every six months. Obviously the level of intimidation, which is relatively low at the moment, is an important factor that would be considered.

My Lords, in considering whether to grant asylum to an Afghan interpreter, does the fact that he has a family or is not married come into the equation?

My Lords, I can assure the noble and gallant Lord that it does not. Eligible staff will be allowed to bring their immediate family: that is their spouse—one only—or partner, their minor dependent children under 18 years-old and that spouse. There is no limit on the size of a single family provided that the criteria are met.