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British Armed Forces: Iraqi Interpreters

Volume 809: debated on Monday 1 February 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of reports that Iraqi interpreters are being targeted by militia groups because of their work with foreign militaries; and what steps they are taking to protect such interpreters who have worked for the British Armed Forces.

My Lords, although the Ministry of Defence does not employ interpreters directly in Iraq, its contractors are held to the highest standards. The MoD takes any breach of personal security extremely seriously, and we are currently investigating the allegations.

My Lords, last year’s breach of security data revealed interpreters’ IDs and car number plates, increasing their exposure to death threats, including at Covid-19 checkpoints. Can the Minister confirm that the private contractors who should be responsible for the interpreters’ safety are included within the scope of the investigation? Also, will she persuade her Home Office colleagues to upgrade their assessment of the risk to interpreters, currently rated as low, so that those who want a UK visa stand a chance of getting one?

I can confirm to the noble Baroness that the investigation will involve speaking to the contractor. Steps have already been taken to interview personnel concerned with Operation Shader who were in the camp between January and March 2020. The position is a little complicated in that the contractor changed, and therefore it is necessary to speak to the former contractor as well. We hope to be able to give an update by the end of February, and I undertake to report to the noble Baroness at that time. We constantly assess the risk that our interpreters are exposed to, and we have protections in place with our contractor to ensure that the best possible safeguards are afforded to them.

My Lords, life for Iraqi British Army interpreters has always been terrifyingly hazardous. At least 40 have been brutally murdered by militia groups. They are targets only because they work side by side with British soldiers. We know that and we should have the evidence to prove it. The resettlement scheme that they might have used closed in 2010, and now they have no accessible visa or asylum route to safety. They deserve real and prompt action, not just words. I invite the Minister to contrast the treatment of Iraqi interpreters with that of those who have British national overseas status in Hong Kong. Why can they not be offered equal treatment?

I confirm to the noble Lord that when the MoD uses a third-party contractor to source interpreting services, strict conditions of contract apply, and these are incorporated into the contract. These are standards set down by the MoD for contracting requirements and deployed operations. Very particularly, they require that the operational circumstances within which the contractor capabilities are delivered to the MoD must be as safe, secure and reasonable as possible for the workforce. They set out obligations both for the MoD and the contractor to ensure that that happens, and we take those obligations very seriously.

My Lords, these brave people have already put themselves in harm’s way. Can the noble Baroness say how many Iraqi interpreters and their families are at risk of retribution in Iraq? Can she confirm to your Lordships’ House that the British Government owe a duty of care to those who have provided such a valuable service to British forces in times of conflict?

I cannot give the historic number of interpreters employed in Iraq, but I understand that at the time of this incident, which is currently being investigated, there were eight UK national interpreters in Iraq and eight locally recruited interpreters.

My Lords, may I first welcome the Minister to answering this Question? Given that she had a jab only a few hours ago, she looks remarkably well.

Perhaps I may follow the previous question in relation to the families of the interpreters. Surely the Government have an obligation not only to the interpreters, many of whom have been killed, as has been identified, but to their families, to provide some form of assistance to them as well.

[Inaudible.]—and I recommend that everyone should get it done the moment they get the invitation.

We take these obligations very seriously. In Iraq, as has been referred to, a scheme to cover the tranche of interpreters who were employed directly by the Government closed in 2016. Schemes in Afghanistan, where we also relied heavily on interpreters, have continued with the Afghanistan ex gratia scheme, which has enabled relocation of, so far, more than 1,300 Afghans to the UK with their dependants. We are currently about to launch the Afghan relocation assistance policy in April, which will have regard to the wider interests of the interpreters and their families.

My Lords, in raising this issue, I am very conscious of the dedication that our late noble friend Lord Ashdown showed over many years to ensure that the UK did right by Iraqi interpreters. This is a reminder of how long this issue has gone on for. Will the Minister tell us what contact has there been with the 16 people whom she referenced, who have been providing interpretation to our forces? Have the Government assessed their security protection, and will they look at granting them immediate visas to the UK?

I cannot pre-empt or prejudge the outcome of the inquiry that is currently taking place. I have already offered to update the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, and I can update the Chamber as well, by the end of February, I hope, on the progress of the investigation.

My Lords, I start by recognising what great champions the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, and the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, have been for the rights of interpreters for many years, as I experienced myself during my time as a Defence Minister. While I understand why the Government have delegated the responsibility of contracting interpreters to private companies, such as thebigword, will my noble friend reassure me that the Government have not also delegated their duty of care?

Yes, I will I certainly offer that reassurance to my noble friend. Part of the reason that we are currently carrying out this investigation is that we want to know what happened and, if unacceptable breaches took place, why they happened and how they came about. We share a duty to our interpreters who are employed by a contractor, and the measures in place ensure that if contractors assess that the measures are not sufficient, they are entitled to highlight these immediately to the MoD. Ultimately, if these concerns are not addressed, they can withdraw their workforce without penalty. However, we hope that that situation would never arise. We take our responsibilities very seriously.

My Lords, the Minister has said that the Government hold the contractors to the highest standards. What mechanisms and processes are in place to ensure that this is sustained over the long term? Threats to interpreters can arise some years after their employment; meanwhile, the contracting company may well have changed. Who then is responsible for their safety and support? I have some difficulty in seeing how this will work in practice.

Mindful of the vital job that interpreters do when they assist our Armed Forces on overseas operations, we would be very vigilant in trying to ensure that they were not placed at a disadvantage. The noble and gallant Lord focuses on an important point, which is part of what we consider to be our wider responsibilities. We would expect interpreters to express their concerns to us, even if they were no longer working for the contractor within the country. We still have a diplomatic presence and we would expect interpreters who were concerned to communicate either with the MoD or with the diplomatic presence.

I am grateful to the Minister for confirming that the Government accept that they owe a duty of care to the Iraqi interpreters we are talking about. But does she believe that the US air strikes against a top Iranian military commander and Iraqi militia leader last year have made it more dangerous not only for Iraqi interpreters but for UK personnel in Iraq?

[Inaudible.]—give rise to concern. But, as the noble Lord will know, we are part of a concerted endeavour against Daesh and we are there at the invitation of the Government of Iraq, who wish the coalition presence to continue.

As a previous Member has highlighted, 40 Iraqi interpreters who worked with the British Army have been killed since the fall of Saddam Hussein. What support, if any, has been provided for their families in Iraq? If private contractors that are now employing interpreters have been found to breach the data in any way, no matter how unwillingly, how will Her Majesty’s Government hold them accountable?

We will certainly await the outcome of the investigation. If unacceptable conduct is exposed, we shall then determine how best to deal with that. We would take any such breaches extremely seriously.

My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has now elapsed. We now come to the second Oral Question. I call the noble Lord, Lord Crisp.