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Afghanistan: Locally Employed Civilians

Volume 805: debated on Tuesday 22 September 2020

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the announcement on 19 September that eligibility for the Afghanistan Locally Employed Civilians Ex-Gratia Scheme is to be extended, whether locally employed civilians who have left Afghanistan and now reside in a third country will be eligible.

The Question was considered in a hybrid proceeding.

My Lords, Home Office Immigration Rules stipulate that applications for relocation under the cross-government Afghan ex-gratia scheme for former locally employed civilians must be made in Afghanistan. This is due to the challenges involved with the capability of the Afghan authorities to verify the documents of applicants who are outside Afghanistan as well as difficulties in completing the vetting process for them. Therefore, former locally employed civilians no longer residing in Afghanistan are not eligible.

My Lords, I warmly welcome the decision to expand the scheme, especially for interpreters, without whom our Armed Forces could not have done their job. I know from the time I served on the LEC Assurance Committee that there is a genuine desire to get all this right. Will the Minister reconsider finding a way to include in the ex-gratia scheme those interpreters who felt so unsafe and threatened by the Taliban that they fled to a third country? They too deserve our gratitude and the offer of relocation. May I also ask the Minister whether the Government will guarantee that all children of those who qualify for relocation, but who have turned 18 during the lengthy process of application and additional delays because of Covid, will still be entitled to come here with their parents?

I thank the noble Baroness and I join her in paying tribute to the tremendous support offered by locally employed civilians as our interpreters, working hand in hand with us in Afghanistan; they have been absolutely invaluable. On her first question, as I indicated, there are genuine administrative difficulties in relation to applications from third-country residents. Whether some are able to produce documentation or evidence of their valid entitlement to claim is a matter that would certainly be looked at, but determining the outcome would be a Home Office decision.

On her second point, spouses and children are included in the expanded scheme. I do not have specific information on the technical issue of whether children who have now attained the age 18 would still be allowed to come. However, she has raised an important point and I undertake to write to her.

My Lords, yesterday Mr Mercer, the Minister for Veterans, said that his task was to genuinely change

“what it feels to be a veteran in the United Kingdom.”

Does he mean to include the Afghan interpreters who put their lives at risk fulfilling vital roles in support of our boys and who, with their families, have made homes in Britain, or was yesterday’s statement just another government Minister high on rhetoric while failing to deliver for those who have served our country?

The noble Lord will be aware that the Government are offering a great deal of support to our veterans. We want to do that because it is the right thing to do, and that would be the context in which my honourable friend made his observation. Our interpreters, as I indicated to the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, were an invaluable support. They were courageous and it would have been virtually impossible for us to do our job without their contribution. We have recognised that in a number of ways, which I think is very clear from the conditions that operated when they were employed by us. It is also clear from the ex gratia scheme that we have now made available. Of course, for those who are fearful or apprehensive of intimidation, the noble Lord will be aware that we have provided support through the intimidation scheme in Afghanistan. We are the only country to offer in-house support, which is based in Kabul.

My Lords, like the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, I welcome the extension of the ex gratia scheme. The Minister referred at least twice to the Home Office. There is a concern that the extension might not have much effect if those interpreters who have already felt the need to leave Afghanistan cannot make use of the scheme here. Can the Minister take back to the Home Office the need to look again at the administrative hurdles which seem to have been put in the way of the effective expansion of the scheme?

I wish to reassure the noble Baroness that the expansion of the scheme is clear and the criteria surrounding it equally so. It is anticipated that there are interpreters in Afghanistan who will want to avail themselves of these expanded provisions. That is to be welcomed and it is a positive development. I explained in an earlier response the practical difficulties that surround validating entitlement and claims from those now resident in a third country. The reason that this is not an MoD responsibility is that it lies fairly and squarely within the responsibilities of the Home Office. I have undertaken to seek clarification, but at the end of the day, it is for the Home Office to deal with people making applications from outwith Afghanistan.

My Lords, this welcome extension seems to apply only to interpreters with at least 18 months’ service, whereas the previous support was available after 12 months. What is the basis for the change and what support is available for those who served alongside our Armed Forces for shorter periods but nevertheless provided significant assistance and undertook severe risks?

The history of how we engage with a local population when we need the supply and support of interpretation services indicates that they are highly regarded and very well treated. They are employed and well remunerated for the services they provide. On the distinction between redundancy and resignation, it is fair to say that people who are made redundant have no control over the situation, and it was therefore felt appropriate that their qualifying period should be 12 months. On the other hand, people who decided to resign from the service obviously had their own reasons for doing so; they made their own decisions. That is why, although we think it right to expand the scheme, it seemed appropriate to make their qualifying criteria 18 months.

Does the Minister agree that the Government have a moral responsibility for locally employed civilians and their families who are endangered by their support for British operations, and that this responsibility still exists and must still be met, even when those civilians are employed by an intermediary contractor such as thebigword?

The noble and gallant Lord raises an important point. As he will be aware, the MoD currently does not employ interpreters. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office has employees and is responsible for the terms and conditions of the employment. It is important that the UK sends out a positive message about how we value those we draw on to provide their skills and support in times of operational activity. That is what we drew on in Afghanistan, which is why we want to recognise the incredible contribution made by these locally employed civilians. I hope the expansion of this scheme reflects that ambition.

My Lords, in spite of recent improvements, is the unpalatable fact not that the history of this matter really is shameful? Why have the Government dragged their feet when they have a clear moral obligation?

I have the greatest respect for the noble Lord, as he is well aware, but I do not entirely agree with that analysis. He will be aware that the scheme first got off the ground back in 2012, but eligibility was restricted only to those serving on 19 December 2012. Quite rightly, that was recognised as inadequate, and that is why the scheme was extended in 2018 so that those who served from May 2006 and, as has previously been indicated, served for over a year but were made redundant became entitled to inclusion. Then, in 2019, we saw that cohort expanded by the addition of their families, which was a sensible and humane decision to make. We now see the expansion of the scheme, so I disagree with the interpretation that this is too little, too late. We have put in place not only the ex gratia scheme to help the interpreters but intimidation scheme support for those who have decided to remain in Afghanistan.

My Lords, the ex gratia scheme for Afghan interpreters rightly recognises our debt of gratitude to those who risked their lives helping us, but the limiting criteria for assistance, such as the need to have served a year for eligibility to settle in the UK, led many—desperately fleeing the country, leaving their families—to seek refuge abroad. Does the Minister agree that we have what is called a Christian duty to help them?

We have a duty to those who served and supported in Afghanistan—I think there were 2,900 interpreters in total—but, as I indicated to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Pittenweem, the Government are cognisant of their responsibilities. That is why they put in place what I think is now regarded as an effective and very supportive scheme with the ex gratia support.

As to the wider implications, at the end of the day we want to support where we can. The noble Lord will be aware that the scheme is in two parts. It offers relocation to the United Kingdom, but it also offers in-country training. That means people can receive five years of training and get a monthly stipend or can opt for an 18-month salary payment. That strikes a very good balance. We do not want to draw talent away from Afghanistan, which desperately needs that talent. Indeed, there is a most positive picture of that training having created doctors, dentists, teachers and engineers. I suggest to the noble Lord that we have balanced our responsibilities appropriately, recognised the contribution made and responded positively and effectively to the obligations on us as a country to make meaningful our respect for and appreciation of that contribution from the locally employed civilians.

Sitting suspended.