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Afghan Interpreters: Security Clearance

Volume 802: debated on Tuesday 25 February 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the Written Answer by Baroness Goldie on 22 October 2019 (HL19), whether the review of security clearance policies for Afghan interpreters who have been relocated to the United Kingdom has been completed; and if so, what was the outcome.

My Lords, I am pleased to confirm that the Ministry of Defence has revised its national security vetting policy for all interpreters who deploy overseas in support of military operations. Afghan interpreters who have relocated to the United Kingdom will now no longer be disadvantaged for not meeting the previous residency and nationality requirements. The Government will also now take account of previous loyal service alongside UK Armed Forces overseas.

My Lords, I am relieved by and pleased to hear that Answer, although I find it odd that if residency and nationality for five years are no longer a barrier to security clearance, a minimum of five years’ residency is still required as proof of honesty and integrity—as set out in the Minister’s letter to me earlier this month. What is the difference and why can the two not be aligned? Also, I ask about the interpreters who remain in Afghanistan and do not qualify for the provision to relocate to the UK under the excellent ex-gratia scheme, but who might still be vulnerable to intimidation and death threats from the Taliban. Since responsibility for interpreters was contracted out to the private company thebigword, protection and the general duty of care for them has not matched the previous government-run scheme. When will this contract be reviewed and what due diligence will be undertaken to ensure that the previous intimidation policy will at the very least be restored, if not improved?

As I indicated to the noble Baroness, in determining security vetting the Government will take account of previous loyal service alongside UK Armed Forces overseas. A variety of criteria are applied for UK clearance. It is for other groupings such as NATO to determine what satisfies them. On the point about thebigword and monitoring, I reassure her that the Ministry of Defence holds regular governance and assurance meetings with the contractor and has performance metrics in place to ensure that standards are met. On the intimidation angle, she will be aware that the UK Government have been at the forefront of providing support—and to considerable effect. In addition to the checks that the Government expect the contractor to carry out, there is an intimidation unit in Afghanistan, manned 24/7, to deal with any situations of concern. She asked for some specific figures; I will check Hansard and undertake to write to her.

My Lords, these people effectively fought the Queen’s enemies alongside us. Does the Minister not agree that the foot-dragging, delays and confusion over this is a terrible message to give, because our forces will again, without a doubt, fight elsewhere and people will not be willing to help them if they see that we do not look after them?

I respect the noble Lord’s experience on such matters, but I disagree. The United Kingdom Government have effectively demonstrated that they stand by the people they ask to work alongside them in situations of hostility and conflict. Help has been forthcoming, particularly for those who feared intimidation: 570 locally employed staff have received support throughout the scheme, ranging from bespoke security advice to 40 locally employed staff being supported to relocate within Afghanistan. The two systems, intimidation and redundancy, indicate that a great deal of help has been available from the United Kingdom Government, which is something of which we should be very proud.

Can my noble friend tell us, in addition to the good news she has already given, how many of these brave interpreters are still in the pipeline or are being processed, and when they can expect to hear when they and their families will be relocated?

My understanding is that, under the redundancy scheme, there are only two former locally employed staff and their families waiting to relocate, neither of whom is an interpreter. So far, 445 former locally employed staff and their families—1,317 people in total—have been relocated to the UK, the vast majority of whom were interpreters. The noble Baroness referred to families in the pipeline; I understand that the Ministry of Defence is processing 66 spousal applications and 58 child applications for relocation from former locally employed staff who relocated without their families.

My Lords, I do not know if in preparing for this Question the Minister had regard to the Hansard of 17 June last year. At that time it was made abundantly clear that there was considerable sympathy on all sides of the House for the position of those who were willing to risk life and limb by being interpreters for the British Army. Some of that good will has in fact been dissipated by the length of time that it has taken to reach the conclusion that she announced in her initial response to the Question. However, I go back to those who have not yet been afforded the opportunity of settling in the UK. There is of course at the moment the suggestion of some kind of peace treaty between the Americans and the rebels in Afghanistan, but it is highly unlikely that the position of these interpreters will in any way be protected by that. Should we not be much more generous towards those who were willing to assist us, not least for the pragmatic point made by the noble Lord, Lord West: why will other people be willing to do the same thing if they do not believe they will be properly treated?

I have endeavoured to reassure the House by giving the information that I have been able to disclose. A great deal has been done for the very reasons that the noble Lord rightly states. We value what these people have done in supporting our Armed Forces in an area of conflict; we value the contribution that they have made. It is clear that with the two schemes we have done everything we can to ensure that these people are not compromised, placed at risk or put at a disadvantage. In fact, the noble Lord will be aware that in particular the training and finance packages available for those who seek to stay in Afghanistan are very generous. They are having very positive outcomes as we speak, which is to be applauded and commended. We do not want a situation where people would be reluctant to work with the United Kingdom, and I am not aware of any evidence to that effect.