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Afghan Interpreters: Security Clearance

Volume 798: debated on Monday 17 June 2019

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will modify and expedite the necessary security clearance for Afghan interpreters formerly employed by UK Armed Forces in Afghanistan and relocated to the UK who have been prevented from securing professional work with NATO forces.

My Lords, we are reviewing our national security vetting policies alongside wider work on the Government’s vetting reform programme. The MoD’s review will include an assessment of the criteria applied to interpreters, specifically those deployed in operational theatres.

My Lords, surely the loyalty and trustworthiness of these Afghan interpreters has already been tested beyond doubt. The benefit of relocation to the UK under what I agree is a very good redundancy scheme is seriously undermined by reports in Saturday’s Times that some interpreters have been reduced to taking low-paid work in fast-food outlets instead of the specialist linguistic work for which they are uniquely qualified. Can the Minister confirm that the security clearance criteria of 10 years’ residence and five years’ British nationality are discretionary? If so, does he agree that there is an overwhelming case for speed, flexibility and generosity so that these interpreters can do the jobs that we must need them to do as much as they want to do them?

My Lords, the Cabinet Office policy contains guidelines for appropriate nationality and UK residency periods for prospective applicants, but they are not absolute requirements and should be considered on a case-by-case basis for each individual. It is important to understand that the process of security clearance is a matter of assessing not simply an individual’s trustworthiness but the degree of risk to that individual in the circumstances of the employment that they seek, and the security measures that would be needed to protect that individual and potentially their family as well.

My Lords, the way in which the Government have treated Afghani interpreters is an absolute travesty. During the UK’s 13-year mission, they risked their lives in support of our Armed Forces, but have since been forced to work in low-paid jobs as well as struggling to secure security clearance and family visas. It has been reported that vacancies remain for interpreters with NATO forces in Afghanistan, so does the Minister accept that the Government’s decision not to speed up the security clearance process has hampered NATO’s continuing mission in that country?

My Lords, I hardly accept anything that the noble Lord has just said. I do not believe that the Government’s scheme for previously employed interpreters is a travesty. I was glad to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, endorse the quality of the scheme because uniquely in the world it is there to provide for our former staff and their families, who have played such a generous role in supporting UK and NATO staff in Afghanistan. In total, through our ex gratia redundancy scheme, around 500 former staff and their families have relocated to the UK, which represents around 1,295 individuals in total. In June last year the then Defence Secretary announced that the criteria had been even more generously expanded. We are the only nation with a dedicated investigation unit in-country to investigate and provide solutions to intimidation.

My Lords, I regret that I have to speak from these Benches rather than my friend the late Lord Paddy Ashdown, who would naturally have spoken on this Question and knew so much more than I do. Can the Minister confirm that so far we have accepted, I think he said, some 500 out of a total of 3,500 interpreters that the British had in Afghanistan, while the United States has offered asylum to 9,000 Afghanis? It does not seem that the British position is quite so unique. Can he also comment on the fact that the leading candidate for his party leadership is deeply and publicly committed to British forces spending more time in more conflicts east of Suez? If he becomes Prime Minister, it is likely that in future conflicts we will need local interpreters for the languages spoken, so our reputation as regards how we care for interpreters afterwards matters for the future as well as for the past.

I agree, which is why we have been careful to create not only one but at least two very generous schemes for former interpreters. Those schemes do not necessarily involve relocation to the UK. They may involve relocation in-country, they may involve financial compensation, or indeed they may involve retraining for another career altogether, and we provide the means for them to do that. In the majority of cases, I would be very surprised if complaints were raised against the UK, although I take note of the report in the Times last week, to which we are paying close attention.

My Lords, as one who has been privileged to give support to the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, in this very worthwhile campaign, can I put it to my noble friend that we are dealing with some of the bravest of the brave? In the most difficult circumstances they put their own lives at risk, and very often the lives of their families as well. Does he therefore agree that we really must try to deal as expeditiously as security allows with all those whose cases have not yet been adequately dealt with?

Yes, I agree very firmly. The Government remain grateful to all locally employed staff who played pivotal roles in Afghanistan. Many served bravely alongside our military forces on patrol in dangerous situations and we regret deeply that some had to pay the ultimate price for freedom. We use our best endeavours to expedite these assessments as quickly as possible, but my noble friend will understand that sometimes it is important to get to the facts of the case, which does take some time.

My Lords, with respect to the Minister—whom we all respect—this has been dragging on for a very long time. Can he confirm when it was first raised?

The issue raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, was brought to our attention only in the Times report. Of course, the wider issue of the packages available to former Afghan interpreters has been long-standing, but I believe the Ministry of Defence has a very good case to present.

My noble friend must surely realise that it is not as good as it should have been. Can the House expect a Statement within a reasonable time—a couple of months, say—on exactly what the situation is, otherwise, as was said earlier, our efforts elsewhere in the world will be hampered?

I sympathise with my noble friend’s question, but it is important to understand the point I made earlier: it is not easy to make a general statement here, because each case has to be treated individually. As I mentioned, it is often not the person’s trustworthiness or nationality that is at issue, but what their degree of vulnerability would be were they to work in the operational theatre they are seeking to be employed in. That is not a question that admits of a standard reply.

My Lords, I accept everything the noble Earl has said, but is there not a pragmatic dimension to this? It is one thing to have a scheme, but if the scheme takes a long time to be implemented is that not likely to discourage others from offering their services?

Yes, it may, and the noble Lord is right that that is certainly a risk if it is perceived that the UK is treating anyone unfairly. We are very conscious of that. At the same time, it is not fair on the individual who applies to work—in these cases, for NATO in Afghanistan—to overlook their personal security, that of their families and the measures that would be needed to protect both the individual and their families in those circumstances.

My Lords, the noble Earl has said on three occasions now that security clearance is a matter of assessing not just the individual’s loyalty but their personal safety and that of their family. Can he explain how the individual’s personal safety is at greater risk now than when they were in Afghanistan?

My Lords, the threshold for MoD security clearance is as it is because of the intensity of operations and previous security incidents that have occurred in theatre. The protection of our personnel is the highest priority. We are talking not always just about immediate protection from armed force but protection from the risk of coercion and exploitation.

My Lords, does the noble Earl recognise that the interpreters are in a Catch-22 situation? It took them an awfully long time to come to this country because they and their families had to be checked out and were in intense danger. They are in this country now, wanting to move on, to serve this country and NATO and to have a proper job, but they cannot move on with their lives because they and their families are having to be checked out. They are in an invidious situation.

My Lords, obviously I cannot comment on individual cases, but when an Afghan interpreter, for example, is relocated to this country, their nationality should not be any bar to employment in most fields. They would need to be cleared for those jobs but, as I say, their nationality is not normally an issue in those circumstances.