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Afghanistan: Interpreters

Volume 757: debated on Tuesday 2 December 2014

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how many Afghan interpreters have applied for relocation to the United Kingdom; and by when their applications will be decided and relocation completed.

My Lords, first, I express my condolences for the deaths of the Afghan interpreter and the British G4S employee who were killed in Kabul last Thursday. Around 600 locally employed staff, mostly interpreters, are eligible for relocation under the ex gratia redundancy scheme. Approximately 390 have chosen the relocation option. It is not possible to give a definite timescale for the relocation process due to the variable duration of medical checks, Afghan document verification, UK screening, visa processing and placement with a local authority. Nevertheless, in the past four months we have brought back 36 LESs and 19 immediate family to the UK.

My Lords, I pay tribute to all the Afghan interpreters who have provided our Armed Forces with a vital service at great personal risk. The numbers quoted by the Minister are encouraging but the pace of the paperwork seems alarmingly slow. Can the Government not find urgent extra resources so that all eligible LECs can relocate before the last of the troops withdraw? Secondly, will the Minister comment on the plight of the large number of interpreters who do not qualify for the ex gratia scheme but who have appealed for help under the intimidation policy? Can the terms of this policy be more generous, bearing in mind that some of the interpreters could continue working as much needed linguists in the UK?

My Lords, we recognise the huge debt that we owe to our Afghan employees, and we are working with the Home Office and the Afghan authorities to avoid any unreasonable delays in relocation. We take intimidation very seriously and trained police investigate claims. We provide security advice and relocation in-country—or, in extremis, back to the United Kingdom. We are aware of no staff killed or seriously injured on duty. We very much welcome the noble Baroness’s ideas on interpreter opportunities and we are working closely with the Home Office to try to take this forward.

My Lords, we, too, extend our condolences after the deaths of the Afghan interpreter and the British security guard in an incident that is a stark reminder of the dangers that those in Afghanistan still face. How do the Government now keep track of the continuing safety or otherwise of those Afghans who were interpreters with our Armed Forces? It is surely only with this information available that a realistic assessment can be made of whether an application to move to this country under the intimidation policy should be agreed. Who in Afghanistan is now responsible for what the Minister, in responding to an Oral Question from the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, last December, described as the,

“very thorough anti-intimidation policy which applies to all staff employed since 2001”?—[Official Report, 10/12/13; col. 713.]

My Lords, on continuing safety, we have an enduring commitment to ensure the safety of our Afghan staff. Anyone who feels in any danger will contact our staff. On who is responsible, it is the same team in Kabul which was previously responsible for delivering our intimidation policy.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. Does my noble friend the Minister realise that when it comes to honouring the debt that we owe to these brave men, there is widespread disquiet that the Government’s policy, particularly in relation to those on the intimidation scheme, is discreditable and even Kafkaesque? Is it not true that few if any of those on the intimidation scheme have received a visit to their home or community to assess risk because it is too risky to do so? If our current staff cannot even visit them in their own community because it is too dangerous, is it not too dangerous for them to live there?

My Lords, I am very happy to discuss this issue with my noble friend outside the House, but I can assure him that we take intimidation very seriously. There is an in-theatre panel of very senior military and civilian personnel who consider every case on its merits. We have returned one locally engaged member of staff to the United Kingdom under the intimidation policy. We have relocated seven in-country, and many others have been assisted with security advice; for instance, changing the route.

My Lords, I am afraid that the Government have been a complete shambles on this issue. They seem to have moved forward very slowly; they have been dragged into doing things. Now I believe that they are actually beginning to do things, but we are not telling the world that we are doing them. Does the Minister not agree that it is important that we make sure that our men and women around the world are supported by locally employed personnel? They will not do that unless they can see that they are going to be looked after.

My Lords, I think that we have got a good news story here. We have engaged with media outlets and briefed individuals on the progress of our two LES schemes. Our focus remains the swift implementation of the generous offers under the ex gratia scheme and the thorough investigation of claims of and effective support for locally engaged staff who believe that their safety is threatened.

My Lords, we take care to welcome staff and their families and ease their arrival and integration into this country. Before they leave, we give staff an information pack on living in the UK and offer a question-and-answer session. On arrival, local authorities provide them with support for the first four months. They help them settle into their new neighbourhood and access the benefits and services to which they are entitled, including schools and healthcare.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for what he has said today and for keeping informed those of us who take an interest in this by communicating from the MoD. Obviously I pay my condolences to our late Afghan colleague and the G4S employee. I suggest to the Minister that this process will not be speeded up if he leaves it to the Home Office. Has he thought of volunteering assistance from the Ministry of Defence to the hard-working people in the Home Office to expedite what everyone in this House knows is an essential prerequisite, not only as a debt of honour but, as my noble friend and colleague said, to assure British troops that they will get local support in the future?

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord that we have a debt of honour. I can assure him that we have formal fortnightly meetings with the Home Office and we are in daily telephone contact. In Afghanistan, LESs are helped with applications by a member of the MoD staff, Edmund, who was formerly my assistant private secretary. He reassures them about the progress on their cases and liaises with the relevant authorities in the UK and Afghanistan to ensure that there are no unreasonable delays.