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Volume 702: debated on Tuesday 26 October 2021

4. What steps her Department is taking to help protect the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan. (903832)

12. What recent steps the Government has taken to provide humanitarian support to the people of Afghanistan. (903841)

The security situation in Afghanistan remains fragile and volatile. Islamic State has launched deadly terror attacks, including at Kabul airport and a number of Shi’a mosques. The situation for women and girls has become even more difficult since the Taliban took power. Women are now largely absent from public life and barred from many roles in the workplace. We continue to press the Taliban to allow secondary education for girls to ensure full and equal access to education for all. Between April and 18 October, we disbursed nearly £35 million of life-saving humanitarian support to Afghanistan.

Before the Taliban took control, more than 3.5 million girls were in school, and many more were in university and vital roles across the Afghan economy. Taliban spokesmen say that girls can go to school, yet in many areas they are permitted only up to grade 6 or 7, and in some areas they are not permitted at all. There is a growing gap between the Taliban’s promises and the reality. To those girls and women, it must feel that the doors that opened over the last two decades are slamming shut in their faces, and those who have stood against that have been met by violence. What are our Government doing to give them hope?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question about this incredibly important issue. This year, we are doubling our humanitarian and development assistance to Afghanistan to £286 million, including for women and girls. We continue to press the Taliban to ensure that women play a full and equal role in life and that girls of all ages can go to school, holding the Taliban to the commitments that they have made. On 5 October, the Prime Minister’s high representative for the Afghan transition, Sir Simon Gass, travelled to Afghanistan and held talks directly with the Taliban in which they discussed the humanitarian crisis and we pushed for improved rights for women and girls.

I thank my right hon. Friend for grouping my question. Many colleagues on the Government Benches and across the House have made representations to the Department regarding specific individuals in Afghanistan whose lives, or whose families’ lives, are at risk and would benefit from UK support similar to that given in previous years to our country’s agencies and armed forces while in Afghanistan. If former UK special forces members can vouch for certain individuals, why has the Minister’s Department not acted quickly to patriate these individuals to the safety of the UK? Would it help if they played football?

The Afghan relocations and assistance policy is designed to allow Afghan nationals who served alongside Her Majesty’s armed forces and wider Government in Afghanistan, and those whom we judge to be at serious risk because of that service, to settle in the UK. We continue to assist those who were called forward under that scheme during Operation Pitting. Sadly, we were not able to evacuate all, but we continue to seek to evacuate those who can be evacuated.

My hon. Friend referred to football—I take it that he means the Afghan junior women’s football team. As we have just discussed, the situation for women in Afghanistan is particularly acute and we are prioritising those people who are at serious risk of reprisals.

Further to the question from the hon. Member for Lincoln (Karl MᶜCartney), the Minister will know that hundreds of people, including men who I served alongside, remain stranded in Afghanistan. Many are being hunted by the Taliban, and some have already been murdered, all because of their association with us. Will the Minister say a bit more about what the Government are doing to ensure that those who risk their lives for us are afforded safe passage out of Afghanistan?

I am grateful to the hon. and gallant Gentleman for the question. He is right that many people in the House—himself included—have served alongside incredibly brave members of the Afghan armed forces, translators and others who supported our work while we attempted to support the Afghans. The ARAP scheme is designed specifically to facilitate their evacuation from Afghanistan. He, perhaps more than most, will understand the practical difficulties in executing that on the ground.

My noble Friend Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon speaks regularly with the countries in the neighbourhood to facilitate the evacuation from Afghanistan. I assure the hon. and gallant Gentleman that the UK Government take incredibly seriously the debt of honour that we owe to those brave Afghans who are currently in danger because of their support for our work in the country.

I realise that the Government can do much more for at-risk Afghan women who have managed to cross the border and are outside the country. One thing they can do for at-risk Afghans who are still in Afghanistan is link the provision of extra aid with their not being persecuted. How explicit are we making that link? How strongly are we exploiting that leverage?

My right hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. I assure him that we hold the Taliban to their word. They will be judged on their actions, rather than just on what they have said. Clearly, they now find themselves the de facto Government of Afghanistan. We have made it clear that the support from us and the wider international community will be contingent on their behaving in a way that they have said that they intend to behave. We will always base our decisions on Afghanistan on the facts on the ground, not just on the words of Taliban spokespeople.

Like the shadow Foreign Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), I welcome the Foreign Secretary and her team to their places.

It has emerged that our ambassador in Kabul sent a series of diplomatic cables to the former Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab), in July and August, warning him that Kabul would fall at pace and with little resistance. The former Foreign Secretary’s response to those urgent telegrams was to go on holiday. Will the new Foreign Secretary assure the House that she is putting early-warning systems in place across her Department to ensure that such a catastrophic failure of decision making is never allowed to occur again? Will she commit to coming to the House within the shortest possible timescale to make a statement outlining our political, diplomatic, economic and security strategy for Afghanistan, as opposed to making policy on the hoof, as her predecessor did?

The hon. Gentleman takes the opportunity to talk about things that have been widely discussed in this House, rather than about the future. That is of course up to him. The former Foreign Secretary explained his actions and there is nothing much more that I can add. I assure the hon. Gentleman that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and the ministerial team that she leads remain entirely focused on ensuring that where we can exert influence to bring about peace and stability in Afghanistan, we will continue to do so.