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Afghanistan: British Council Staff

Volume 827: debated on Thursday 9 February 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what progress they have made in helping relocate former British Council staff, living in danger in Afghanistan since 2021, who qualify for the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme.

My Lords, progress continues to be made to support those eligible under the first year of pathway 3 of the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme, or ACRS. We have now allocated around 60% of the 1,500 available places to the British Council contractors, GardaWorld contractors and Chevening scholars, including their dependents. An increasing number of individuals are now also safely in a third country and being provided with UK-funded accommodation and other support, while awaiting further checks prior to travelling to and securing accommodation in the UK.

I thank the Minister for that reply, but is he aware—I am sure that he is—that these British Council teachers, numbering between 100 and 200 by the latest information, were recruited and directly employed by the British Council, teaching English and inclusion to combat violent extremism and to promote British values? The majority qualify for the ACRS, but they were abandoned in 2021; many are still in hiding and are now actively being targeted and hunted by the Taliban. Given that this British Council work was supported by the UK Government’s ODA budget, what further action is the FCDO taking to ensure that the British Council honours its obligations and responsibilities to those it employed in Afghanistan and does more to help those who have not got the means to buy visas to get out to safety in a third country?

My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness; both the British Council and His Majesty’s Government need to honour the commitments given to the incredible people who helped serve in Afghanistan and carried out such important duties, including through the British Council, in the area of education, among others. We work very closely and have regular meetings with the British Council, and I get regular updates on those who are making progress under pathway 3. There are challenges that are obviously still being worked through, including relating to those who have arrived in the UK through the other two ACRS pathways and are going into permanent accommodation. I assure the noble Baroness that I am focused on ensuring that we see greater progress and deliver on the 1,500 places that were agreed as part of His Majesty’s Government’s commitment. I pay tribute to the noble Baroness and others in your Lordships’ House who are also focused on ensuring that we get the desired outcome for all those who serve Britain, as part of the British Council or indeed other organisations.

Will my noble friend the Minister make clear what the criteria are for Afghans coming to the UK? I share with him the example of one of my former academic colleagues who wrote to me the other day saying that he had worked with Kabul University and Kabul Polytechnic University with the British Council. This person has been targeted and had been trying to come to Britain, but he was refused. Can the Minister be quite clear about the criteria for deciding which Afghans who worked for the British should be allowed here? Frankly, most of them should be.

My Lords, there are specific criteria for who qualifies under the scheme, which I will work through. To give the context in terms of numbers: when the ACRS pathway 3 was opened, over 11,400 applications were received for those 1,500 places. As I said, we allocated about 1,600 because it is not just the principals but also their dependents and of course additional family members as well. Each one requires scrutiny, checks and security validation—that is part and parcel of the process. The initial criteria that are applied are of course quite strict, including for those who were directly employed by the British Council and who also had direct input into serving British interests. I have worked on this brief since the Taliban takeover; it is probably one of the most complex areas of our work but, equally, we need to ensure that there are robust procedures so that applications are and dealt with as swiftly as possible when they are received. I fully accept that we need to see—and expedite—progress for those who do qualify.

My Lords, I recognise what the Minister has been doing personally, but we cannot be filled with too much confidence when we hear a Minister say one thing in the Chamber of the House of Commons and then the department say something completely different later. It is an absolute scandal that people who have risked their lives on behalf of the British Government have been left stranded. I agree with the noble Lord opposite that we need proper urgent action; there are 9,000 people who are still at risk in Afghanistan and we owe a duty to them. I understand what the Minister is saying, but I hope that he can assure us that the department will act swiftly with other Whitehall departments to ensure the safety of these people who have protected British interests.

My Lords, I assure the noble Lord that, to speak for my own department, we are working through those expressions of interest and are also working closely with GardaWorld and the British Council. Of course, the Chevening scholars, the third cohort highlighted for pathway 3, are an integrated part—they are part and parcel—of the FCDO. However, I understand the frustrations of the noble Lord and indeed everyone in your Lordships’ House who has worked on this. There are processes that need to be followed, including the checks and balances regarding security, which I know the noble Lord agrees must happen. We are also working with near neighbours; there are a number of people who are now waiting in third countries, being supported by the British Government, who need to travel to the UK. We are working across Government, including with colleagues in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and the Home Office, to ensure that those who qualify and are in third countries can, as quickly as possible, come to the UK and start to rebuild their lives.

My Lords, there is a difference between the ARAP scheme, which did not have a limit on numbers, and the ACRS. My understanding is that some former British Council contractors are deemed eligible to come but have additional family members, which has delayed their ability to come to the United Kingdom. What conversations is the Minister having with the Home Office about this matter? In particular, I asked the noble Lord, Lord Murray of Blidworth, last week whether a meeting with the Home Office would be possible. He said that he would decide whether it was necessary to meet me. I hope that the Minister at the FCDO might feel that a meeting could be useful.

My noble friend is not here to share his response but I always feel that Ministers across your Lordships’ House need to engage directly. I know that those are the sentiments of my noble friend the Leader of the House, as well, so I will certainly look into that. On the specific point that the noble Baroness raised, I am aware of some of the cases that have been raised of those who did not qualify under the ARAP scheme and have applied to the ACRS scheme. A number of those cases are being worked through but I am not going to give specific numbers. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, talked about getting into specifics but the numbers regarding those who qualify and under what category, and which part of the process they have reached, are literally moving on a daily basis. However, I assure the noble Baroness of my good offices and if she wishes to meet me, I should be happy to do so.

My Lords, I should declare an interest, I suppose, because when I was a junior member of the embassy in Kabul in 1962, I negotiated the first placement of British Council teachers at one of the four high schools in Kabul. The British Council’s time in Afghanistan has been one that we should recognise as a major contribution to that country and our own foreign policy. Is the Minister quite sure that the criteria for admitting people to this scheme are not too tightly and narrowly drawn?

My Lords, the noble Lord speaks with great insight and expertise on the importance of our diplomatic services. I must admit that I was not around in 1962, so I do not have his strength of experience. Nevertheless, on the more material point that he raises and the criteria established for working through the three cohorts of Afghans who have been asked to apply for this scheme—we work closely with the organisations in the application of those criteria—as I said in response to my noble friend Lord Kamall, the number wishing to come to the UK who have applied to the scheme far outweighs the number allocated. It is therefore right that we adopt a process that is fair to the individuals applying and ensures that the criteria can be applied as regards additional family members, a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith. It is right that we show compassion if someone approaches but does not fulfil the strict criteria for additional family members who happen to be an elderly mother or father, or a child over the threshold of 18. But that requires a certain degree of delay as an assessment is made on the security of that person’s viability for coming to the UK.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for all his efforts on this particularly difficult problem. He rightly has concentrated on Britain’s responsibility, but other European countries are involved in Afghanistan. What help are we getting from countries such as Sweden, which is very much involved, and are we working with them?

My Lords, we are working with other partners. At the time of Operation Pitting, the UK was a key country and helped 36 other countries with the departures from Afghanistan. We are working closely with our EU partners and the United States, looking directly at those who have moved to third countries and how best we can expedite their relocation to whichever country they have applied to. That is done in a co-ordinated fashion. That said, all noble Lords are aware that the situation within Afghanistan is going from bad to worse. The deterioration of civil and human rights continues. However, at the same time, we are seeking to engage, even through our chargé based out of Doha, and at least alleviate the plight of those left in Afghanistan, including through humanitarian support.