Question for Short Debate
My Lords, last week’s special service in St Paul’s Cathedral marked the end of the conflict in Afghanistan and rightly paid tribute to the troops who had given service, and in many cases their lives, for this country. I was not there myself and I may be wrong—indeed, I would be delighted if I were—but I doubt whether there was any mention of the service and sacrifice of the Afghan interpreters who worked with our Armed Forces so diligently and at great personal risk. Reports suggest that dozens have been killed, injured, kidnapped or threatened.
I take this opportunity to ask the Minister for an update on the current situation with the Afghan interpreters who have applied for relocation to the UK under the ex gratia scheme and on the intimidation policy, which is a safety net for those whose employment falls outside the terms of the ex gratia scheme but who believe that they are in danger from the Taliban because of their past employment by UK forces. I am aware of only one Afghan interpreter who has so far succeeded in coming to the UK by this route.
The Minister knows that I have pursued my interest in this matter for some time, and I declare an interest as vice-president of the Chartered Institute of Linguists. I in turn acknowledge and appreciate his regular, helpful correspondence and meetings with me and others to give us as much information as he could. Many other noble Lords from all sides of the House have contacted me to say that they regretted not being able to participate in this debate, given the short notice that we had for it, but I am sure the Minister knows that this issue deeply concerns a great many Members of your Lordships’ House.
A report in the Times on 3 March is a case in point. It was reported that an Afghan interpreter who had worked with British special forces had been shot and injured while out walking with his two year-old son. His child was also injured. He believed his assailants to be members of the Taliban. He spent two months in hospital. He reported the attack to the British investigations unit in Kabul and sought relocation under the intimidation policy. But the report says that he felt he got short shrift and is pessimistic about his chances. I wrote to the MoD about this case but have not heard back yet, so I hope the Minister may be able to tell the House whether the report was accurate and, if so, what will be done. If it is accurate, it seems to be a cast-iron case of intimidation, and I seek reassurance that this interpreter and his family will be relocated.
I acknowledge that our scheme, on paper at least, is more comprehensive and generous than those of almost all our NATO allies, but it has always been a concern of mine that it still did not match up to the targeted assistance scheme that we offered to the Iraqi interpreters after the conflict there. I know that the Government have been legally challenged on behalf of the Afghan interpreters on grounds of nationality discrimination and that there will be a judicial review. I wonder whether the Minister is in a position to say when he expects progress to be made on this and what the Government’s position now is.
The role of interpreters and translators in conflict zones is absolutely vital but is poorly understood and rarely acknowledged. They are unsung heroes. They are often the victims of distrust, discrimination and threats from all sides. Indeed, there is a syndrome known as the translator-traitor mentality: in other words, the assumption that the local civilian translator or interpreter cannot possibly be doing a neutral, professional job but must be working for the other side, whoever that happens to be. Yet their linguistic skills and the cultural knowledge that goes with them are often the very things that enable the uniformed troops to do their job.
I will now focus on what more needs to be done, including by Her Majesty’s Government, to recognise and respect the professionalism and the precariousness of the translators’ position during their service, not just after it. I would like to draw attention to the work of some of the organisations that represent or advocate on behalf of interpreters and translators, particularly those in conflict zones and other high-risk settings. Red T, for example, is an international NGO based in New York which gives a voice to linguists at risk and monitors incidents involving the translator-traitor mentality. In 2012, Red T, together with the International Federation of Translators and the International Association of Conference Interpreters, produced the first ever conflict zone field guide for translators and interpreters and the users of their services, with sections on the rights and responsibilities of both sides.
Clear guidance for the user includes the need: to respect the translator or interpreter; to protect them and their families during and after the assignment; to provide them with protective clothing but not arms; never to release their names, addresses or images without permission; and not to ask them to undertake tasks unrelated to interpreting. Maya Hess, the head of Red T, said:
“You’d be surprised to learn the range of unreasonable and dangerous requests linguists working in conflict zones receive”.
Some of the guidance is about very small detail, but that can make all the difference to how an interpreter may be wrongly perceived. For example, users are asked to be aware of how they position themselves physically, making sure that eye contact is between the two parties and not with the interpreter, which could give rise to suspicions about impartiality. Of course, the user is told not to delegate any responsibility to the interpreters. They should only translate what the user says and never be asked to make a statement or ask a question on the user’s behalf. This guide is distributed routinely to linguists working in conflict zones. Are the UK Government and the Armed Forces also aware of it, and do they distribute it to all those operating in conflict zones? If not, will the Minister undertake to look at this helpful document and promote awareness of it?
In addition to the guide, Red T has also called for a United Nations resolution to confer special legal status on translators and interpreters in conflict zones, similar to Resolution 1738, which protects journalists. Will Her Majesty’s Government support the case for this, too? On a similar note, the international federation, at its conference last August, called on national Governments and the international community to do more, including creating a UN convention or similar international safety document for the protection of translators and interpreters in conflict zones during and after their service. Again, will the Minister say whether the Government will support this call? Will he undertake to raise both these UN-related issues with his opposite number in the FCO with responsibility for the UN, and actively seek progress?
The public may have heard about the Afghan interpreters recently but far less, if anything, about their counterparts in other parts of the world. In Iraq, interpreters had to work with masked faces in fear of retaliation by insurgents. In China and in Turkey, interpreters have been imprisoned on the assumption that they agreed with the content of their words rather than being their impartial conveyers. Post 9/11, there are several cases of interpreters and translators being labelled spies or terrorist agents. Only the other day, I read on the Red T website about an Australian interpreter who worked for British troops in Bosnia from 1995 to 1999 and who is still in dispute with our Government, apparently, over the non-payment of disability benefits. Like some of the Afghans in more recent cases, he feels ignored and abandoned.
I welcome and appreciate all that the Government currently do to recognise their obligations to the brave individuals who work as linguists for our Armed Forces in conflict zones, but I believe that much more can be done and I hope that some of the issues, requests and suggestions that I have made today might trigger a serious review of our policies and practices in this area.
My Lords, we owe a duty of care to those who work for the United Kingdom Government and our armed services around the globe. We should exercise that duty of care with the maximum freedom that we can manage. Sometimes, it is not just a duty of care but a debt of honour that we have to repay to those who help us. It is an old fashioned word, “honour”, but that is what I feel.
I follow everything that the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, has said with great care. She knows a great deal about the subject; far more than me. I agree with what she said and the guidance that she has given the Chamber this evening. I thank her for that.
One of the ways of exercising that duty of care, or maybe repaying that debt of honour, is to allow those at risk in a third country—not just in Afghanistan—to come to this country. I believe that we need a firm, well managed immigration policy in this country, but one exercised with discretion for those in need. Very often, people talk about moral duties. I am no moral philosopher, but sometimes we hear that phrase so often that I think some departments and Ministers might benefit from having a moral philosopher or two about the place to advise them. It would be very useful and would broaden the minds of Ministers and civil servants—sometimes. Neither do I want to appeal purely to some concept of human rights or natural rights that must be adhered to. I am talking much more pragmatically about my feelings of sympathy to those who have put their life on the line in various parts of the globe, particularly Afghanistan, on which the noble Baroness has just spoken so interestingly.
I want to sharpen up what I mean in a brief and pointed intervention with a couple of hypothetical examples of people who come from Afghanistan and want to get into this country. One might be an “economic migrant”, that phrase if not coined at least made popular by my noble friend Lord Hurd of Westwell as Home Secretary when the great transoceanic movements were beginning back in the 1980s. On the other hand, someone may be left in Afghanistan, Iraq or one of the other territories to which the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, referred who is in fear of his life—more generally, it is “his” life and more rarely “her” life. They may be in Helmand, perhaps living in a secure zone and being shot at and threatened by the Taliban. These are two very different cases, but they are the sort of cases that Ministers, such as my noble friend or the Home Secretary, Mrs May, or the civil servants who advise them may have on their desks. They are very hard decisions. The economic migrant might come from Afghanistan, travel overland through Turkey, around Syria and perhaps up through the Mediterranean, Lampedusa and Europe. He will get to Calais perhaps in the back of a lorry and eventually reach the United Kingdom to try to better himself—even though it might have been better for him to have stayed where he was and try to help grow that country. That is one sort of case that lands on the desks of Ministers all the time.
Equally, there is the handful of marginal cases, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, referred so clearly, who are still in Afghanistan, are still under threat and are still trying to get out. Very few of them have thus far been let in even under the various schemes that have been produced because maybe they have not served for 12 months or more, or were not in place in 2012. They finished their service in 2011, but are still at risk because of what went on before 2011. Yet those people are still there—we are talking about a handful; I do not know how large their number is; perhaps the Minister knows all this so much better than me and will be able to adduce the likely numbers. That is another sort of case that goes on Ministers’ desks. If I was a Minister or civil servant, I would hate to have to make the decision if there was a bearing-down on the numbers that could be got in and a distinction had to be made between the economic migrant—who in his way, however misguided, has been so brave getting to the United Kingdom through all those problems—and the translator or interpreter who is under threat in Afghanistan.
As one who believes in managed immigration and if faced with such a difficult choice, I have to say that I would come down, albeit after making sure due process was followed in repatriating the Afghan economic migrant, on the side of letting into the country the person who had served with the worry of IEDs blowing up and people shooting at him as he travelled about Afghanistan or elsewhere. I believe that we have a debt of honour as UK citizens to those people—not a moral duty but a debt of honour—because they have helped us and put themselves in harm’s way. I know how difficult and challenging this is as we exercise a managed immigration policy. I have great sympathy for my noble friend the Minister, but I hope that he will come down on the side of those handfuls of people who are threatened in such a way.
My Lords, I agree with every single word and syllable of my noble friend Lord Patten. Perhaps I may congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, on getting this debate and say what fellow feeling I have for her as a member of the Chartered Institute of Linguists myself. I returned from Hong Kong in 1970 as a qualified Chinese interpreter, joined the institute of linguists and was able for a short period to put even those three glorious letters behind name until I let my membership lapse—so I suppose that I should say that I am an ex-member. Nevertheless, I have been on both sides of this experience.
By way of light relief from what is a pretty gloomy and dark subject, one of those who studied Chinese with me was American and ended up as the interpreter to Kissinger when he went to see Chairman Mao in the famous ping-pong diplomacy. He tried to pretend just to be the Secretary of State. Interpreters also get an inside view of things that history does not record. He recalls the following conversation between Kissinger and Chairman Mao. Kissinger, trying to put the exchange on a non-official basis, decided to approach this conversation on the basis not of a Secretary of State and the Chairman of the People’s Republic but of two historians. His opening gambit was, “Mr Chairman, we are both historians and I am fascinated by the what-would-have-happened-ifs of history. What do you think would have happened, Mr Chairman, if the person who was assassinated in 1963 was not John F Kennedy but Nikita S Khrushchev?”. Mao thought for a moment or two, then said, “Do you know, I do not think that that nice, rich Greek ship-owner would have married Mrs Khrushchev”.
Anyway, that is the inside and nicer part of this job. There is a nastier part, too, and I know it from both sides. I was an interpreter—not an active service interpreter—and a member of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces, indeed of Special Forces, where I relied day in, day out on interpreters. I could not have done my job had it not been for them. As my noble friend rightly said, they are at the front line—at the front of the front line. There is no point being an interpreter a mile back; you are there at the front with the person who is taking the bullets. By the way, unlike our troops, who did a magnificent job in Afghanistan, interpreters do not go home after six months. They were at that job 24 hours a day, seven days a week for the whole four years we were there. Nor do they just place themselves at risk, as our soldiers do; their families live in the community, too, and are at risk. This is a job of immense importance and danger, and one without which our troops simply could not have done their own jobs.
My noble friend the Minister is a very decent man. I know he is doing his very best in these circumstances. It is not him I criticise but the Government. I will say nothing that he has not heard from my lips in our private conversations. This is a discreditable policy to a group of people to whom we owe an unquestionable duty of care and an unquestionable national duty of honour. I do not at this moment want to talk about those within the main scheme that the Government have created. You can have your criticisms of that but it seems perfectly adequately administered. I speak about those who fall just outside it because they were a day short or left a day early. These exceptions to the case were supposed to be covered by what is called the Government’s intimidation policy. To answer my noble friend’s question, there are around 200 or so of them in total—that is all. I cannot believe that the Government are taking this ridiculous position that shames our nation on the basis of 200 of them. I think of the Government’s sensitivity on immigration, but do not believe that the most red in tooth and claw, frothing at the mouth member of UKIP would mind letting in those 200 people who served our nation so magnificently. How many have been let in? The answer is one—just one. The Government claim that this policy is enacted on the basis of a benefit of the doubt to the claimant yet just one has been allowed in. That does not speak to the benefit of the doubt on the part of the claimants here.
By the way, on what the Government say, I pick out a sentence from the Minister’s own letter to me recently. He said that every case is thoroughly investigated. Examine this matter and you discover that it is not, the reason being that the investigation unit for the intimidation policy in Kabul cannot even go to the places where these people live because it is too dangerous to do so. What a Catch-22, ludicrous situation. We say that these people do not live under danger, yet they live in areas so dangerous that we cannot go and investigate for ourselves and therefore that investigation must be carried out by the Afghan army or the Afghan police. I do not have to tell noble Lords to what extent both these organisations are thoroughly infiltrated—the police more so than the army—by the Taliban. Do we take their judgment in these matters, or the judgment of other investigators? The writ of the Taliban now extends further and further across Afghanistan so that is simply unacceptable. If it is too dangerous for our investigators to go to those places, surely it is too dangerous for those who have given such magnificent service—and their families—to live in those places. That is not giving the benefit of the doubt. Sadly, I have to say to my noble friend, as I have said to his face, that this is a shameful policy which, if you look into it, collapses in front of you.
We can see that clearly from a number of cases that have been raised. I wrote to my noble friend about the case of Nizamuddin Aftab. He was living separately from his family in a hotel, because he knew what would happen and, in due course, it did. The Taliban turned up at his house and took his family—his wife, his mother, his brothers and his father—searched the house and asked the father where he was. The father refused to say where he was, so they beat him up in front of the family. Then they beat up his brothers. He then tried to get to Kabul to report that. He rang the intimidation unit, but there was no answer, so he made the journey by car, only to be told by the intimidation unit that no appointment had been made and that he should come back later. He was subsequently rung to fix an interview, but no date was given. The investigation started, but no visit was made.
In his most recent letter of 5 February, the Minister said that that matter was under investigation and that he would let me know about it in the very near future. I am sad to have to report that, despite prompts, my point has not been replied to. I do not know what has happened here. I am told that he may have been rejected. By the way, I was also told that he was relocated, so I looked into how far away he had been relocated. Was he relocated out of the country? No, although there was a clear case of intimidation against his family—goodness knows. Can your Lordships imagine how we would feel if that was our family in those circumstances? He was simply put back into the hotel in which he was sheltering when the Taliban attacked his family.
Then there is the case referred to by my noble friend—by the way, his name is Chris and I do know his Afghan name, but I am not prepared to give it for obvious reasons. He was an interpreter for our Special Forces. At some stage, he had to leave the camp to go back to his family and he was provided with a pistol to protect himself. He returned that pistol afterwards. There is some doubt, because of some bureaucratic hiccup—God knows, this is an active service front—about how the pistol was returned, but in consequence he is on the watch-list.
The watch-list, by the way, is constructed by anybody who on a roadblock or in a house search feels in some sense, however heavily or quietly, a worry about a particular person. They put that person on the watch-list; they could be a bureaucrat. That watch-list is a condemnation. Chris’s pistol becomes a pistol that not only saved his life but now endangers it. Because there is a question, he is put on the watch-list. That watch-list is not subject to scrutiny or challenge. No one is allowed to see the information on there, no one is permitted to question it, no one is permitted to check the facts on it. It now seems very likely that Chris will be rejected on the basis that he is on the watch-list, and he can never challenge that. It seems very likely that he is now condemned to stay in Afghanistan. By the way, he was the person who was shot—shot in the leg. When he turned up at the investigation unit to be checked, the man who checked him in said, “I do not believe your story about the bullet; I want to see it”, so he had to unbandage his leg to show the shot in his leg.
I do not know whether that young man who has served us so well has been rejected or not—perhaps the Minister will tell us—but I cannot imagine a more clear-cut case for the intimidation policy, if it is to mean anything, to be applied.
I would also like the Minister to answer this question for me, because I think it is relevant. Have there been any interpreters who finally, on giving up, have made it to Britain and applied for asylum here? If there are, would they be or have they been deported as non-asylum cases? The Minister should provide a very clear answer on that.
I am sorry to speak so roughly but, as your Lordships may imagine, I feel very strongly indeed about this. I say to the Minister that it is only a matter of time—it could happen during the election—before the inevitable will happen and one of those people will finally be killed. When they are and the public demand to know what has gone on, we will strip away this Potemkin front to reveal a policy which is shameful not only in its principle but in its application. Then the Minister will have to account for a policy that may give the Government some comfort in this matter but ought to give us none, because we will see exposed before us the raw bones of a policy that means precisely nothing except danger for those who gave us such wonderful service and dishonour for our country.
My Lords, my noble friend has been indefatigable in defending the human rights of interpreters and translators over many months. She has been aided at times by former Ministers, noble and gallant Lords and others who have seen active service. But she also has a particular knowledge of the importance of language in business, diplomacy and many other fields.
At first sight this is a purely humanitarian issue that concerns the plight of Afghans and other civilians in danger and requires addressing urgently. My noble friend has given examples and it seems obvious that we owe proper and greater protection to anyone who, when directly assisting our Armed Forces, puts themselves in danger and runs a serious risk of being targeted for years after they have served. In this group there will be people who have been on or close to the front line, advising and negotiating on a day-to-day basis. Even if few of us here have been in hand-to-hand combat, we have all read enough to know that one person’s life often depends on another’s, whatever their ethnic origin, rank or educational standard. We owe it to those who help our Armed Forces anywhere in the world to do our utmost to protect them thereafter. This principle is something we can all agree on. Whether it should apply to situations beyond our military services—to those engaged in close protection of diplomats, for example, or to NGOs or others engaged on business and sports overseas—I have my doubts, although there will be special cases even in those categories.
Generally I have been strongly in favour of welcoming refugees from danger and persecution, especially in developing countries where the UK has had a long involvement. I have spoken frequently on immigration Bills to that effect. This is a special case today, as anyone who heard the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, just now must recognise. On the other hand, I can see a number of serious difficulties in offering asylum as a more general policy, which persuades me that these decisions must be made, as they are, on a strictly case-by-case basis.
The noble Lord, Lord Patten, mentioned the use of discretion and the debt of honour that we owe. Today we are concerned only with those helping our Armed Forces. We have to admit that our immigration scene is fairly chaotic and difficult to manage. The noble Lord, Lord West, was not the first or only person to refer to it as a shambles, and he has done so on more than one occasion. Targets are not being met and asylum seekers are still going underground. There may be, as the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, said, Afghan interpreters who arrive completely unexpectedly and unwelcome. I appreciate that this dictates that we have to be very careful in approving any new asylum applications.
Long gone are the days when Winston Churchill was able to hand gold watches to those who had given loyal service. Maybe gone, too, are the days when the UK could offer homes on the scale of the Jewish migrations, the West Indies migrations or the Ugandan Asian crisis. It is an unfortunate fact that the world is now rocked by so many traumatic events that we are just not able to respond on a sufficient scale to all demands. We already rank among the highest in the list of humanitarian assistance providers.
There is also the question of what happens to refugees when they arrive and find that things become more difficult. A friend who travels frequently between Kabul and the UK says that he has seen many Afghans who worked with the US Government in various capacities and who had now been given a visa to reside in the US. He said there were at least 10 of these on one plane that he took from Kabul to Dubai. One of them was now working both in the US and in Afghanistan. He told him that most of these Afghans were jobless in the US and some of them deeply regretted their situation and wished they had not sought asylum.
There is also the constant risk that opening doors to refugees would contribute to the brain drain from post-conflict countries, which are desperately in need of skills and experience. We must not overlook that fact. I remember, when I last visited Kabul, speaking to highly educated Afghans on the plane who were hedging their bets between home and abroad, never quite certain that the situation at home was stable enough for them to return.
Having made all those points, I still contend that the Government must make more effort to bring the Afghan programme up to the level of the Iraqi programme. Will the Minister say how MoD policy compares with that of the United States, in both Iraq and Afghanistan? The High Court challenge last June must be making the MoD rethink both the extent and the quality of relocation. The Minister must agree that the process of the ex gratia redundancy scheme for Afghans is very slow, considering that our Armed Forces have now largely withdrawn. He said in December that only 36 locally employed staff plus 19 family members had arrived during the four previous months, while altogether about 600, mostly interpreters, were eligible. Approximately 390 of these had chosen the relocation option, and we can expect the Minister to update these figures today. Are applications coming in at the same rate or declining?
The Minister has already given an Answer on the Gateway programme managed by UNHCR, an excellent programme by which the UK allows a resettlement quota every year for refugees with specific needs. Perhaps he will confirm that this particular programme is working well, but I understand that it cannot be used for Afghans working in a quasi-military capacity. Will he explain once again why that is so? The Gateway programme applies to vulnerable groups, and it is arguable that some Afghan locally employed staff come into that category. I agree with my noble friend’s suggestion of a special UN status for translators and interpreters.
Finally, I congratulate the Minister on his work on the Front Bench during this Parliament, sometimes under great duress and in difficult times. His work has been rightly admired throughout the House.
I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, for securing this debate and for introducing it so helpfully. It seems to me that interpreters are like priests; they are mediators and help connect cultures and communities. In this case, they helped campaigns unfold properly and as planned. It is a key role. As we have heard, especially from the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, it is a very risky role, on the front line in every sense, and we must be thankful for the courage and commitment of those who sign up for it.
Clearly, every war zone is complex, and therefore it is difficult to have a notion of one-size-fits-all in how we treat these people and their contribution. In this case, as in Iraq, but more powerfully now with the Taliban, the whole way of conducting war is through acts of terrorism picking out publicly identifiable people at particular moments, with violence that other people experience so that it gets into their DNA. These people on the front line are, tragically, tools for terrorist violence to fulfil the Taliban’s aim. Therefore, we have to think about them carefully because they are the Taliban’s prime armoury to make its impact in the war it is trying to fight.
I want to help us recall a number of key principles that are at stake, and then I shall offer a couple of observations. The first key principle was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Patten, and it is moral obligation. We cannot suddenly stop caring for people who have played a key role in the war effort and been part of the enterprise, or stop our relationship when it suits us. We have created the relationship, we have worked together, and we have a moral obligation—an honour, as the noble Lord, Lord Patten, said—to fulfil.
The second principle is about contractual arrangements. I do not know anything about salary or terms and conditions, but it seems to me that we are trying to deal with the matter after the conflict is over, in a sense, whereas we need to have a clearer sense of what people are signing up for, what the deal is, what the provision is and what the partnership is about. The Minister might like to comment on whether we have learnt anything from the process in Iraq, and now in Afghanistan, about how we set up these roles, the promises we make and the commitments we undertake—what I call the contractual arrangements.
The third principle that we need to remember, which the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, mentioned—and I have seen it in some of the literature that I have read—is the concern of the Afghan Government about a brain drain of people who are English-speaking and obviously able, with experience of relating to the West, being drawn out of the country. That is part of the equation; it is a difficult one. When one listens to the stories of the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, it is pretty clear that some people need safety, but we must listen to the principle of the indigenous Government trying to preserve their resources of people.
The next principle is that part of the political and military calculation is that, if you remove all the people who have been interpreters, the Taliban would start finding other people to be their targets, to hold up and brutalise in the public ways in which they conduct their warfare. So it is quite a complex calculation about each person, what they stand for, and who else might be drawn into the firing line.
Then there is another principle about the practice of other nations. From my reading around this subject, Australia and the US seem to be offering quite a good deal compared to the one that we seem to have on the table. We need some compatibility for the people who have undertaken this role for the various elements in the allied forces. That needs to be taken into account. Finally, as the noble Lord, Lord Patten, said, we have to be realistic. There is an immigration context that we have to wrestle with.
Having named all those principles, I shall make three final brief comments. First, I support the suggestion of a UN convention about the protection of interpreters, and I hope our Government will take a lead in helping to establish a clearer framework. Secondly, I urge the Government to err on the side of being generous. When people risk their lives, the least that we can do is to be generous with the benefit of the doubt when it is a tricky or difficult case. Finally, I suggest a review not just of cases but of the kind of contracts and deals that we offer people when we invite them to step into these roles so that they know at the beginning what the possibilities and safeguards are, and we do not have this unseemly row at the end when, in a sense, we should be honouring and supporting them.
My Lords, I begin by paying tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, for her doughty campaigning on this issue over a considerable time and for having secured the debate this afternoon. I pay tribute too to other noble Lords who have spoken in the debate, notably to my noble friend Lord Ashdown, who has also been a powerful campaigner and who made a very powerful speech this evening with some graphic examples of the challenges that we face as a country in dealing with these very brave people. It is a very important subject. As the noble Baroness said, I hope that nobody will think that the relatively small number of speakers today understates the passionate concern that so many of us feel about this. We are talking about very brave people who put their lives and their families’ lives at risk.
I want to make four general points. Everybody has talked, and I think that there is a shared belief, about the moral obligation that we have to these people. The moral obligation contained in the Armed Forces covenant should be the guiding principles that help us to handle and deal with the challenges, threats and dangers of these people. In undertaking these obligations, it would be helpful to have a protocol or more consistent way in which we can express how we want to handle these issues. Then there is a second, practical reason, in that there will always be conflicts in which British forces will rely heavily on recruiting translators and interpreters. These people work very closely with our Armed Forces and we need to give them the practical reassurance that they will be protected when they and their families are at risk, so there is a moral factor and a practical factor involved here.
Thirdly, it is not enough simply to admit these people to this country. They may speak English well but they will be in an alien environment which will pose difficulties for them. We have to ensure that they are looked after and are provided with suitable places to live where they can get the jobs they need or somewhere they can study.
My final point has a rather more general application than just interpreters and translators. We know that people who leave conflict zones are often better educated and have more means than others. As the noble Earl said, there is a brain drain. Therefore, we need to think how we can encourage them to return to their own country to rebuild institutions and war-torn areas where it is appropriate to do so and where there is no danger in so doing. We have to make every effort to encourage people to return to their own country to make such a contribution where they can and where it is safe to do so.
I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, on her tenacity and determination in pursuing this issue.
The noble Baroness has not confined the subject today to the position of those who were interpreters and translators in Afghanistan but has extended the debate to the protection of interpreters and translators working around the world in conflict zones, and the steps that we can take to help in this regard. However, it is the protection of those locally employed staff who served us in Afghanistan that has raised the profile of this issue more than any other factor.
After the Iraq war, we gave Iraqi interpreters either one-off financial assistance or exceptional indefinite leave to remain in the UK with help to relocate, or the opportunity to resettle through the UK’s Gateway programme run in partnership with the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees.
In June 2013, the Government announced a support package for interpreters who were serving our Armed Forces in Afghanistan in 2012, but said that no support or resettlement options would be given to interpreters who completed their duties between 2006 and 2011. In the June 2013 Statement, the then Secretary of State said that to be eligible for resettlement in the UK, local staff must have routinely worked in dangerous and challenging roles in Helmand outside protected bases, have been in post working directly for us when we announced the draw-down of UK forces on 19 December 2012 and have served more than 12 months when made redundant. Those whose employment ended before the 2012 date and those whose employment was ended voluntarily or for disciplinary reasons were not eligible. The Government estimated at that time that around 1,200 local staff would qualify for a redundancy package, and that of these up to 600 would be eligible for resettlement if they chose to take it rather than stay in Afghanistan.
The Government went on to say in the June 2013 Statement that there was also the issue of other local staff who faced real threats to their safety or that of their immediate family as a result of their service to our Armed Forces. For people in this category the Government said that the existing intimidation policy would remain in place for all local staff, regardless of their date and duration of employment. The intimidation policy offers relocation within Afghanistan and, to use the Government’s words,
“in the most extreme cases, the possibility of resettlement in the UK”.—[Official Report, 4/6/13; col. WS 90.]
The Government also said that they were currently reviewing the intimidation policy to ensure that it continued to provide a fair and robust system of assessing threats to, and ensuring the protection of, local staff.
We have had debates on this issue on a number of occasions, as well as Oral Questions. It is an issue that is unresolved, and recently the Government’s different approach to Afghan interpreters compared to the package offered to interpreters who had worked for us in Iraq was the subject of legal proceedings by two Afghan interpreters. The noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, asked what the current position was on this particular point, and I hope that the Minister will be able to give an update on the matter of these legal proceedings. Our view has been that the Government should offer a resettlement scheme for Afghan interpreters who helped British troops and who feel they face threats to their security and safety as a result, particularly now that our troops have left the country.
In response to an Oral Question from the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, at the beginning of December last year, the Government said that of the 600 locally employed staff, mostly interpreters, who were eligible for relocation under the ex gratia redundancy scheme, approximately 390 had chosen the relocation option. The Government went on to say that it was,
“not possible to give a definite timescale for the relocation process”,
but that in the previous four months, 36 locally employed staff and 19 immediate family had been brought back to the UK. No doubt, the Minister will be giving us the latest figures when he replies to the debate.
The noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, also asked the Government last December to,
“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”.
She went on to ask whether,
“the terms of this policy could be made more generous, bearing in mind that some of the interpreters could continue working as much needed linguists in the UK”.
The Minister replied that the Government were aware of no staff killed or seriously injured off duty, and said that they welcomed the noble Baroness’s ideas on interpreter opportunities and were,
“working closely with the Home Office to try to take this forward”.—[Official Report, 2/12/14; col. 1225.]
It would be helpful if the noble Lord could say what progress has been made on this latter point with the Home Office since the beginning of last December.
As far as the Government’s statement last December that they were not aware of any staff killed or seriously injured off duty, perhaps the Minister can say whether that is still the Government’s position. Can he also say whether the Government are aware of any locally employed staff who worked for us being the subject of any threats to their personal safety or security or that of their families, and if so how many? Can he say how many staff have approached us for help under the intimidation policy? Of those, how many have been returned to the UK under that policy, and how many staff are there in total who are potentially eligible to claim help under the intimidation policy if they feel that their safety and that of their families is at risk? Can he also say how many people there are in the team in Kabul that is responsible for delivering our intimidation policy, and whether it is engaged full time in that capacity?
I have asked previously, as has the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon, how we can be satisfied that we are aware of any threats made to locally employed staff who worked for our Armed Forces in Afghanistan, and particularly as interpreters. The fact that such a very low number have been returned to the UK under the intimidation policy is surely hardly an encouragement for them to potentially put their heads above the parapet and approach us for help when they may know that the form of help they would most like to receive is almost certainly not going to be offered.
Of the 600 staff who are eligible under the current schemes for relocation to the UK, it appears that some two-thirds have chosen this option. Is it the Government’s contention that in reality none of these staff are living under any significant threat in Afghanistan; they just want to take advantage of the offer to relocate to the UK? Unless that is the Government’s view—and if so, what is the evidence to support it?—how do the Government explain the fact that in respect of those whose service with our Armed Forces in Afghanistan as interpreters had been completed between 2006 and 2011, there has apparently been only one instance in which the Government have agreed under the intimidation policy that relocation to the UK was justified on grounds of threats to personal safety and security?
This is one of the key issues that have emerged during every debate on this subject over the last couple of years. The Government maintain that locally employed staff who worked for our Armed Forces and whose service ended between 2006 and 2011 are in no real danger to justify relocation to the UK, and that there is no need to make the same or similar arrangements in respect of relocation for them that applied to interpreters who served our Armed Forces in Iraq. Many others are not so convinced and do not believe that we should be taking serious potential risks with the safety and security of locally employed staff who served us so well in Afghanistan. The additional concern, if we are not seen to fully protect those who have served our Armed Forces in this way, is that we run a real risk of not being able to find sufficient local staff prepared to carry out roles such as interpreters for our Armed Forces when we need them.
That brings us back to the question raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins: that we ought to be looking at steps that we can take and pursue to protect interpreters and translators working in conflict zones around the world, and the safety and security of their families. If we cannot, or will not, provide effective protection, we could be leaving our Armed Forces, if and when involved in action abroad, facing a significant handicap. The noble Baroness has made helpful and constructive suggestions involving international guidance or guidelines, United Nations resolutions and conventions for addressing the issue of protection of interpreters and translators in conflict zones worldwide, and the translator/traitor mentality with which they have to contend. I hope that the Minister will be able to give the noble Baroness the considered response that the points she has raised deserve, as well as responding now or subsequently to the specific points and questions I and other noble Lords have raised.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, on securing this short but very important debate. This is a subject in which she has a particular interest, which is reflected in her taking on the chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages. We share with her a concern to ensure that the lives and safety of our locally employed civilians, in Afghanistan and more widely, are not put at risk as a result of the service that they have given to this country. I agree with my noble friend Lord Patten that we have a duty of care to them. We have put much effort and resources into trying to meet that responsibility.
I personally take a close interest in this subject, particularly as my former assistant private secretary is now in Kabul supporting LECs with their visa applications.
I recognise that the Minister has limited time, but will he allow me one brief intervention? He lumps interpreters with locally employed staff. Does he not agree that interpreters face significant greater risk and danger than locally employed staff?
I assure my noble friend that I will come on to that point.
I was talking about my former assistant private secretary, who keeps my office well informed on the LECs and their concerns. We share the noble Baroness’s view that the service and sacrifice given by our interpreters deserves proper public recognition and we have sought to ensure this. It was on this basis that we had the pleasure of inviting two of our former interpreters to the commemoration ceremony at St Paul’s on Friday, where they were looked after at all times by Ministry of Defence staff. The two gentlemen have recently relocated from Afghanistan to the UK and were there to represent the local staff contribution to the campaign. They were able to share their experiences with a number of guests at the reception afterwards, including Prince Edward and the noble Lord, Lord West, who I know takes a great personal interest in this subject.
This is only one small aspect of the Government’s programme to meet their responsibility towards former and current locally engaged staff in Afghanistan. This local workforce comprises not only interpreters but a wide range of staff including cooks, guards, storemen and vehicle mechanics. Their lives are all at risk, but I agree with my noble friend that interpreters and translators are at special risk. We have established two schemes to meet this responsibility: a generous ex gratia redundancy scheme and a separate intimidation policy. The two schemes have been carefully designed through a cross-Whitehall process driven by Ministers, led by the Cabinet Office and endorsed by the National Security Council. The schemes take account of a variety of factors, including consideration of the security situation in Afghanistan.
Our concern for the welfare of local staff starts the moment they commence their work for us. Our recruitment and security processes are designed to prevent staff becoming victims of intimidation by those hostile to the coalition forces. We have generally recruited people from areas away from their place of work so as to maintain anonymity, and we advise staff throughout their employment on how they can keep themselves safe.
The ex gratia redundancy scheme recognises the service of those local staff who were employed by us on 19 December 2012—the day we announced our drawdown from Afghanistan—and who have served for a minimum of 12 months. The scheme has been designed bearing in mind the publicly expressed desire of the Afghan Government not to remove the most capable talent from Afghanistan following our departure but, as my noble friend Lord Patten said, to help grow that country. The benefits awarded are in addition to the standard redundancy package to which local staff are entitled.
Some 842 staff are eligible under this scheme, which comprises a generous package of offers: an in-country package of training and financial support lasting up to five years; or a financial payment worth 18 months’ salary; or, for those who fulfil additional eligibility criteria, the opportunity to apply for relocation to the UK. Approximately 60% of all those eligible for the ex gratia scheme are also eligible to relocate to the UK. Of these, some 95% are interpreters.
We have made good progress in implementing the ex gratia scheme. A total of almost 230 visas have been issued to local staff and their families. Of these, 77 local staff members, along with 67 family members, have now been relocated to the UK. A further 29 are due to arrive later this month. They will include an individual who was injured in the course of his service with us. Since January, we have been hitting the target of relocating 30 to 40 Afghans to the UK every month.
We take every care to welcome our local staff and their families, and to ease their arrival and integration into the UK. Prior to departure, we provide staff with an information pack on living in the UK and offer a question and answer session. On arrival, working through local authorities, we provide staff and their families with support for the first four months to help them settle into their new neighbourhood and access the benefits and services to which they are entitled, including schools and healthcare. It is worth noting that not all those offered relocation to the UK have chosen to take it; some local staff have decided to stay in Afghanistan to build a brighter future and have benefited from one of our generous in-country offers.
Let us consider briefly the 96 local staff who have chosen the training offer to date. I am particularly proud of this offer, which contributes directly to development efforts in Afghanistan and is unique among ISAF nations. Of these 96, some 36% have chosen to undertake higher education, with courses ranging from law to medicine to computer studies. Some 40% have chosen to study English. Thirteen staff members have gifted their training offer to a family member, and I am pleased to report that we now have six daughters of local staff members in education, which the families would not otherwise have been able to afford. For all students, the course fees and a living stipend are funded entirely by us. In no case has the safety of these individuals so far been a significant concern. The same is true of those more widely who have eligibility for options under this scheme.
Separate from the ex gratia scheme, we have designed an intimidation policy, which is open to all current or previous local staff, regardless of period or length of employment. The policy addresses the concerns of local staff who are being intimidated as a result of their employment with us, and it fulfils our moral duty to keep them safe. It is an enduring commitment. I cannot comment on the specific claim of intimidation reported in the Times, as the investigation into this incident is ongoing. However, I can assure the noble Baroness that this, like all claims of intimidation, is being investigated thoroughly by experienced, professionally qualified investigators in Afghanistan.
Cases are subject to early initial triage to identify and respond quickly to those where there is an immediate threat. In some cases it is necessary to do this by phone rather than face to face, but face-to-face interviews will follow quickly on those cases judged to be urgent. In cases of immediate, serious threat, we will take steps to make the individual and immediate family safe in the mean time.
Findings are considered on a case-by-case basis by a panel in Afghanistan, which includes both civilian and military personnel. This ensures a fair outcome for each staff member. We are keen to ensure the integrity of our work here, and last year we initiated an independent review of cases to ensure that they had been properly handled. I will ask for further information on the Bosnian case, mentioned by the noble Baroness, which I understand is a dispute about pension entitlement, and will respond to her in writing.
The judicial review hearing for Afghan interpreters challenging our scheme commences on 6 May. The Government’s position has not changed and we are confident that our LEC policies are fair and lawful. The situations in Iraq and Afghanistan are very different. There was clear evidence of severe intimidation and risk to those local staff we employed in Iraq and many were killed off duty because of their work for us. The offer of relocation made to them was partly to mitigate this risk. In Afghanistan, there is much less evidence of significant threats to our former local staff, negating the requirement for a large-scale relocation of former staff on the grounds of safety. In addition, unlike in Iraq, we are in a position to investigate the claims of former local staff and provide a range of mitigation measures to reduce any risk and allow the interpreters to remain in their home country. We tailor each scheme to meet the requirements of the location in which the local staff were employed and any risk faced by them.
I will try to answer all the questions but if I do not have time to do so, I undertake to write to noble Lords. My noble friend Lord Ashdown asked about LECs being at risk in areas too dangerous for our investigators to go to. Most LECs are recruited from areas remote from the areas where they serve to protect their identity. Most Afghans can return safely to their homes but when they cannot we will relocate them to a place of safety. My noble friend Lord Ashdown said that we did not reply to his letter. He raised two cases, and the facts he has quoted covered both. We have responded to one; and I understand that the other is taking a great deal of research but we will respond to it very shortly. My noble friend also asked whether any had applied for asylum and been deported. We are not aware of any former UK-employed Afghans who have been deported but we are aware of a small number who have sought and been granted asylum.
The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, asked whether applications are coming in at the same rate or declining. They are declining as those eligible complete their moves to the UK. The gateway scheme is working well and has allowed a number of Iraqi LECs to come to the UK. We consider that the bespoke arrangement put in place for Afghan LECs better meets their needs.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby asked whether we have learnt anything from our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. The arrangements put in place for Afghanistan reflect lessons we learnt from Iraq. We will carry forward to future operations the lessons learnt about LECs and their safety. He also asked how we are avoiding a brain drain of the best and brightest Afghans. Our offer of in-country training and financial support is designed to encourage former LECs to stay in Afghanistan, and many have. It also builds skills for the country’s future. The right reverend Prelate asked whether the US and Australian schemes are more generous than ours, and the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, also asked about comparisons with the US programme. The US scheme, like ours, requires former local staff to complete 12 months’ service. The Australian scheme provides resettlement only to those who are able to provide a credible and substantive risk of harm. We consider the UK scheme to be generous in comparison to other nations’.
The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, asked about progress with the offer of the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, to help former LECs into interpreter jobs in the UK. Thanks to the noble Baroness’s facilitation, the Home Office has liaised with the Chartered Institute of Linguists. The institute is keen to provide assistance to Afghan interpreters arriving in the UK and is currently considering options as to what support will be most helpful to them. My Lords, I am sorry—I have run out of time.
House adjourned at 6.59 pm.