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British Council Contractors in Afghanistan

Volume 725: debated on Wednesday 11 January 2023

I will call Mr John Baron to move the motion and then call the Minister. There will not be an opportunity for John Baron to wind up, because it is just for the Minister to respond.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered British Council contractors in Afghanistan.

Thank you, Ms McVey. I thank Mr Speaker for granting the debate and you, Ms McVey, for chairing it. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I declare a slight interest, in that I am chair of the British Council all-party parliamentary group.

Since the fall of Kabul in August 2021, Members and peers of all parties have been united in our efforts to do right by those who worked on behalf of the UK in Afghanistan. I opposed the morphing of the mission into nation building once we had rid the country of al-Qaeda in 2001, but whatever one’s views, those people were the visible face of Britain in their country, promoting our language, culture and values. We owe them a debt of thanks and gratitude as well as having an obligation to look out for them.

I wish to raise the specific issue of the 200 or so British Council contractors who remain stranded in Afghanistan. Although all eligible British Council employees were evacuated as part of Operation Pitting, to this day around 200 contractors and their families remain in Afghanistan, often in fear of their lives, moving from one safe house to another as they are hunted by the Taliban. Those 200 have been deemed by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the British Council as in the very high-risk or high-risk categories.

I commend the hon. Gentleman for his perseverance. Whenever he has raised the matter in the Chamber or Westminster Hall as a question, statement or query, I have been here to support him, as have others. Following on from what he said, last month it was reported that the Government had not granted a single Afghan citizens resettlement scheme application since the programme was opened. Fewer than 10 staff in the FCDO are working on the matter. Does he agree that 18 months on from the fall of Kabul is too long to wait for asylum for individuals whose lives are threatened by Taliban reprisals? As he said, we have a duty of care to those people.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and kind words. He is absolutely right. The scheme has existed for a year now—it was introduced in January 2022—and not one single contractor has been relocated under that scheme. I shall refer to that later.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. That British Council contractors and their dependants remain in Afghanistan, despite eligibility for the ACRS, shows that the Government’s policy on Afghan refugees is lacking. Does the hon. Member agree that the Home Office needs urgently to review the effectiveness of refugee policy for the region, and make swift adjustments?

I agree that, sadly, the Government are failing these people. I am trying to use the normal channels to add some urgency. I do not think it is just the Home Office; a few Departments, including the FCDO, are involved. I hope to hear some positive news from the Minister and I will certainly prompt him in that direction when I resume my address.

Although I can understand why the Government are worried about eligibility, does my hon. Friend agree that our reputation globally is at risk? Although we make promises about their welfare and support for their rights, we do not honour them. The people who worked for us in Afghanistan worked for the good of their own country. If we want to help Afghanistan in future, we will depend on their goodwill.

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. We asked these people to step up to the plate and are looking away when it is our turn to do so. That cannot be right and does not create a good impression of our country’s approach to such matters on the international stage.

Last summer, after activity from the British Council all-party group in particular—I thank the APPG and its members for being so hardy in this cause—the Government opened an application window for the contractors to apply for a place on the ACRS. The British Council worked at pace with the FCDO, as the Minister will know, to winnow out genuine applicants. By September, around half had heard that they had a place on the scheme, pending security checks, but they have heard nothing since. Certainly, that was the case up to Christmas. The other half of applicants—around 100—had simply heard nothing at all. Their papers were stuck in a bureaucratic mishmash in Whitehall. Following pressure from the British Council all-party group in particular and from others, I understand that over the Christmas recess around half of the contractors had their ACRS applications acknowledged and granted, and I look forward to hearing whether the Minister can confirm that.

Barriers remain. People will apparently require the necessary ID and travel documents to leave Afghanistan. They left their homes at short notice and are in fear of their lives, moving from one safehouse to another, and I am sure the Minister will be sympathetic to the case that they might not have all their paperwork. The idea of applying to the Taliban for passports is, as I am sure the Minister will realise, just not feasible. Meanwhile, new-born children may have arrived, bringing further complication for paperwork.

In the interest of brevity, knowing that others might want to contribute to this very brief debate and wanting to allow the Minister plenty of time to respond and take interventions if necessary, I have four questions for the Minister. I hope he will take note of them and answer them in turn. First, am I right to understand that around half the contractors have been given the go-ahead? It is a simple yes or no.

Secondly, have they been told they can make for the border? If so, I ask the Minister what he and the wider ministerial team at the FCDO are doing to encourage Governments in third countries to offer a greater degree of flexibility on paperwork for those seeking to cross the border out of Afghanistan. Such arrangements were previously agreed with the Government of Pakistan, which allowed individuals under the predecessor Afghan relocations and assistance policy scheme to cross the border without ID if their names were on a list approved by the British Government. Is it going to be as simple as that?

Thirdly, I understand that around half of contractors are yet to hear anything. By when can they expect to be contacted? It is totally unacceptable, as Members have already heard and will continue to hear. It is totally unacceptable—a view widely held in the House—that those people have had to hold on and wait for so long. It is just inhumane.

Finally, may I make a plea to the Minister? In my various deliberations, I have heard some unedifying, if not distasteful, talk of quotas. Will he ensure that quotas do not prevent those who worked for Britain and their families seeking safety in the UK? After all, there was no talk of quotas when we asked for volunteers. There is no talk of quotas when it comes to the extent of these people’s bravery in stepping up to the plate when we needed them. We should therefore not be talking about quotas when it is our turn to stand by them.

In conclusion, although I do not doubt Government or the Minister’s good intentions—it is often an issue of cock-up rather than conspiracy—the sad fact is that after the scheme was introduced, for the whole year of 2022, not one person was relocated. I will not accept any of the talk I have heard previously of many hundreds or thousands being helped. That is disinformation. People who got out under Operation Pitting have been retrospectively shoehorned into various schemes. I hope the Minister will not recite those figures to me. The sad fact is that during 2022 nobody has been relocated under the scheme.

As we reach the first anniversary of the ACRS, I urge the Government finally to get all those contractors and their families to safety. Recent talk in certain circles of the number of Taliban being killed has not helped them at all. After all, the ACRS was a flagship scheme announced with great fanfare, but nobody has yet been relocated. The litmus test of the success of the scheme is how many people have been relocated over the course of the past year, and that figure is a big fat zero. Now is the time to put that right.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way so near to the end of his speech. I just wanted to remind Members that this is very similar to what happened with Afghan interpreters, where there was a redundancy scheme—this was before the fall of Kabul—and an intimidation scheme. While considerable numbers were brought out under the redundancy scheme, none was brought out under the intimidation scheme, at least until the fifth report of the Defence Committee of 2017 to 2019, which was published in May 2018 and recommended a more generous approach. As the Minister was a member of the Defence Committee that drew up that report, I am sure he will be sympathetic to a request for a meeting to discuss all these matters—as has already been offered by his ministerial colleague, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell).

I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention. I completely agree: there are many similarities, and one would have thought that we would have learned the lessons by now.

Having finished my address, I look forward to the Minister answering those four specific questions.

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms McVey. I thank the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron), not just for allowing me to speak today but for all the work he has done to champion the British Council. He is absolutely right to do so: it is an institution that gives us pride around the world. It teaches English to so many and opens up potential for thousands, if not millions, yearly. We are right to fight for it.

The Select Committee on International Development, which I chair, did an inquiry into the ARAP and ACRS schemes and found that they are far too restrictive and slow, especially when it comes to non-governmental organisations such as the British Council. Those schemes are failing the very Afghan citizens who implemented UK development and stabilisation programmes, to whom we have a moral duty to get them out safely. They were out there on the ground, acting on our behalf, and the situation is rapidly getting much worse. Members will have heard that over Christmas the Taliban brought in very restrictive bans on women workers in non-governmental organisations, so many of the main NGOs have now had to withdraw, leaving their Afghan staff behind. I urge the Minister to explain how exactly the FCDO and Home Office will ensure that more Afghan NGO workers are entitled to come to the UK under the resettlement scheme, because at the moment, it is just not working.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship today, Ms McVey. I very much welcome the debate that my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) has secured, which is terribly important. His words are powerful and moving, as have been his writings on the subject, and I commend him on that.

I will not waste Members’ time by reiterating the comments about the support we should be offering those still in Afghanistan, but will focus on the wider damage the situation is causing. My broader point is about the damage we are doing to the very principle of asylum. The public are rightly incensed that we have not done enough to put evil people traffickers—those traders in human misery—out of business. Personally, as I have said many times in many different spaces, I think we need boots on the ground in France; we have people on the ground, but we need to negotiate with our French neighbours and get those boots on the ground in France.

Notwithstanding that, the Afghan contractors were our allies, and in my view, failing to support them at a time when our asylum system is being abused through illegal crossings brings the whole system into disrepute. People rightly expect us to honour our commitment to people such as those highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay. If we do not do that, our asylum system will be more and more attacked, and I can only see the tide of isolationism rising once again here in the UK during the next election.

Finally—I am indeed being very brief—I would say that the whole mess should never have taken place. The west should not have abandoned Afghanistan in the abrupt manner it did. It is very likely that if we had not, we would not have seen Mr Putin abuse perceived western weakness and wage war in Ukraine. This is what upended the international energy market and, of course, is hitting the cost of living. After all, everybody is now looking at their energy meter with some nervousness and we can trace that anxiety back to the international community over-relying on American defence expenditure, abandoning our obligations in Afghanistan and allowing a rogue regime to return to government and threaten these contractors. I am keen to hear from the Minister exactly what we will do to support people in that country, including women—from whom rights are being daily removed—religious minorities and our allies on the ground, who I believe the west shamefully abandoned.

I am very grateful to be able to respond to this important debate. I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) for his continued advocacy of these people and this issue. He has a long-standing track record of interest in global affairs but also our Afghan policy. I am very grateful for his raising these issues today and I will try to answer his questions very directly.

First, on the proportion of British Council contractors who have been notified and processed, I can confirm—that is a yes—a considerable number of principals have been processed and informed and granted forward processing. Their dependants number almost 300, so, in the round, it is quite a considerable figure.[Official Report, 16 January 2023, Vol. 726, c. 2MC.] As to my hon. Friend’s third question, about when the other half will hear, I can confirm that some 47 have recently been contacted to start that process. We are making progress; they have been contacted. Notwithstanding the difficulty of the situation in which they find themselves, we are trying, in terms of communication and administrative support, to ensure that they can also start that journey of resettlement. I hope that I have answered that question very directly.

In his second question, my hon. Friend asked what support we are providing through our work with third countries, because of course he has rightly identified our work with Pakistan and the support that it afforded to our efforts to extract these benighted people. During the worst of the chaos of August last year and the heroic efforts of those involved in Operation Pitting, the role of Pakistan was much appreciated. It is a very sensitive issue, as regards placing strain on our diplomatic relations with Pakistan, because it has very considerable security and diplomatic equities involved. It is not always easy, but Pakistan has been very, very helpful, and we look forward to that help—that mutual help—continuing. We put a huge amount of diplomatic effort into it. Of course, we have also worked with other countries, such as Uzbekistan. Considerable diplomatic effort has gone into that, so we hope that those relationships will continue, despite the considerable strain that is sometimes brought to bear.

My hon. Friend asked a very reasonable and direct question about the utility of quotas. I of course share his concern. None of us in this room, a room in which a long-standing interest in Afghanistan is represented, would not. We all share a sense of needing to nourish those who helped us in our hour of need in Afghanistan, especially in terms of the work done by the British Council in teaching English and giving educational opportunities to Afghans. We would all want to see the best possible outcome for those who stood up and took risks for the sake of not British but Afghan interests, affording educational opportunities to young Afghans. We all want the best outcomes for those people. None of us want to see any limits placed on safe refuge for those who stood up and took risks for their benefit.

We can see some of the numbers that the Home Office uses to process the cohorts as more of a measuring tool. We have referred to 1,500 initial places for pathway 3, which runs into June of this year. That is helpful as a measuring tool, but I would not see it as an upper limit because another cohort will be established from June of this year. Let us see it not as a limit, but as a measuring tool. I hope my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay knows that strong representations are being made from the Foreign Office to our colleagues and friends in the Home Office to ensure that maximum flexibility is given to afford spaces to our friends and colleagues who are British Council contractors.

For absolute clarity, will the Minister correct me if I am wrong in any of this? Taking his first two answers, about half of the 200 contractors have been given the green light to head to the border. No ifs or buts—they have been given the green light. Up until very recently, none of the other half had heard anything at all, but now around 47 have been contacted and that ball is rolling. Am I right in saying that?

In that case, I seek clarification on my second and fourth questions. On the second question, is the Minister saying that getting across the border will be as it was previously? There was simply a list and no expectation that those fleeing Afghanistan, who had been approved by us but told to go to the border, would need travel documents in hand, whatever they may be. Will their entry into a third country be unimpaired? Will it be unhindered because, as I raised with the Minister, there will be a list of those names? The priority is to get them out of the country and sort out the paperwork once they have arrived in that third country. Is that what he is saying?

I do not think it is useful for me to be drawn in on the details. I do not want to undermine any possible facilitation of any process that may or may not have been put in place. I will not comment on the details, but I will say that it is our firm intention to facilitate the onward movement of those people, notwithstanding the extreme political, diplomatic and security constraints faced by everyone right across Afghanistan on a daily basis.

That is question four. I do not wish to make life difficult for the Minister because I know him to be a decent man, but at the same time, we have waited for so long and this is an opportunity for clarity. He can correct me if I am wrong, but he has made it clear that on the paperwork, travel documents will not hinder access to third countries when the contractors reach the border.

May I come back to the issue of quotas? In my travails on this issue, I have heard quotas mentioned a few times. Will the Minister give us an assurance at the Dispatch Box that quotas will not limit the number of contractors and their families who are deemed very high risk or high risk as per the FCDO British Council categorisation? Will there be no limit on those people being able to get out, provided we are happy they have met the deemed criteria?

It is clear to me that the constraint—the limiting factor—will be the deplorable security situation. Regrettably, there are crippling and pernicious constraints on the ability of any Afghan to move and travel, and those are outwith our control and ability to influence. The situation is getting worse, not better. Of course, that is the constraint on the numbers able to travel, rather than any procedural, bureaucratic or quota constraint from the British Government.[Official Report, 16 January 2023, Vol. 726, c. 3MC.]

The Minister is being generous in giving way again and I appreciate his generosity. When he talks about security, I understand what he is saying; all of us in this Chamber fully appreciate the fact that these people have to be security-checked. However, they have already been identified as legitimate, and at very high risk or high risk. I take on board his point that there has to be a security check, but once these people have gone through that, what I am sure he is saying to the Chamber is that there will be no impediment from a quota point of view to getting them out of the country. Am I right?

That is my firm expectation. I reiterate the fact that the constraint will be the highly unpredictable, regrettable and deplorable lack of security, and the actions of a regime entirely at odds with everything these people represent. That will be the constraint. I hope that is clear.[Official Report, 16 January 2023, Vol. 726, c. 4MC.]

I do not know how many minutes I have left, Ms McVey.

In that case, I reiterate my gratitude to my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay and my thanks to the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), the Chair of the International Development Committee.

Suffice it to say that the lever we have is our considerable humanitarian spend. Clearly, the recent deplorable announcements by the regime about the role of women are deeply regrettable and will even more aggressively disadvantage the ability of women to access and provide humanitarian assistance. We will continue to make representations as best we can and we will seek to utilise our humanitarian spend to impact positively the lives of those adversely affected by the regime.

I am very grateful to other Members, particularly my hon. Friends the Members for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond) and for Clacton (Giles Watling)—

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).