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Afghan Resettlement

Volume 832: debated on Tuesday 19 September 2023


With the permission of the House, I will repeat a Statement made today by the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs:

“Mr Speaker, since June 2021, around 24,600 people from Afghanistan have been safely relocated to the United Kingdom. We owe them a debt of gratitude— and, in return, our offer has been generous. The UK Government have granted all Afghans relocated through safe and legal routes indefinite leave to remain, including the immediate right to work, alongside access to the benefits system and vital health, education, and employment support. Given the unprecedented speed and scale of the 2021 evacuation, we warmly welcomed our Afghan friends into temporary hotel accommodation until settled accommodation could be found. However, bridging hotels are not—and were never designed to be—a permanent solution.

Indeed, in a Statement to this House in March, I made it clear that it was unjustifiable for around a third of those relocated from Afghanistan to still be living in costly bridging accommodation up to 18 months after arriving to safety in the United Kingdom. Long-term residency in hotels prevented some families from properly putting down roots and was costing UK taxpayers £1 million a day. This was not sustainable. That is why, at the end of April, we began issuing notices to quit to the 8,000 individuals who remained in bridging accommodation, making clear that access to costly hotels would end following a minimum three-month notice period, and encouraging moves into settled accommodation.

I am pleased to confirm that, as of 31 August, the Government have successfully ended the use of bridging hotels for legally resettled Afghans. We estimate that over 85 per cent of those who were in bridging accommodation at the end of March 2023 have been helped into homes or pre-matched into settled accommodation. Ending the provision of bridging accommodation was the right thing to do for our Afghan friends, who can now get on with rebuilding their lives, and represents a fairer deal for the British taxpayer. Indeed, it was not right to continue to ask taxpayers to foot the bill for costly bridging hotels when—as we have demonstrated—settled accommodation could be found for the overwhelming majority of guests. This required a considerable national effort and represents a significant national achievement. I therefore want to extend my thanks to colleagues across central government, as well as to local authorities and third sector partners, who have all played a part. Without dedicated caseworking teams and councils, in addition to the £285 million funding package I announced in March, this mammoth task would not have been possible.

Not only are we on track to deliver 1,200 homes for Afghans through the local authority housing fund, which will help to build a sustainable stock of affordable accommodation for the future, but we have mobilised the generosity of the Great British public by creating an innovative new Afghan housing portal, which enabled conscientious landlords to offer their rental properties directly to families. Furthermore, each local authority that receives an Afghan family can access £20,500 per person over three years to provide wraparound integration support, as well as additional funding for English language classes. I urge local authorities to continue taking advantage of this generous funding offer that the Government have put in place.

As I told the House in July, the Government have made time-limited interim accommodation available to a minority of families. This is available only to those for whom a move would disrupt ongoing medical treatment at a specific hospital, and those who have been pre-matched to a property that will be available before the end of December. As of 31 August, over 80% of those in time-limited interim accommodation were already matched to a property. We have already seen over 200 people move out of interim accommodation and into settled accommodation since, with more leaving every week.

As I have set out, the overwhelming majority of Afghans have now moved into settled accommodation or been pre-matched to a property. This is a testament to the significant central government support that has been put in place. Despite this support, however, some families have moved into temporary accommodation under local authority homelessness provision. This is less than 5% of the 24,600 people who have relocated from Afghanistan, and of those families in temporary accommodation around a quarter have a property to move into over the coming weeks.

Others in temporary accommodation have, regrettably, turned down suitable offers of accommodation, and I have been clear and honest from the outset that, where this happens, another government offer will not be forthcoming. At a time when there are many pressures on the taxpayer and on the housing market, it is not right that people can reject perfectly suitable offers of accommodation and expect to remain in taxpayer-funded hotels. However, in recognition of the pressures that councils may face as a result of housing Afghans in temporary accommodation, an additional £9,150 per household has been made available to councils by central government. This is in addition to the wider £2 billion available over three years to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping.

Let me be clear: we have not left Afghan families without a roof over their heads. I continue to work closely with central and local government partners to help the small minority of families in local authority-provided temporary accommodation to find settled accommodation across the UK. But we must all continue to play our part in delivering a helping hand to our Afghan friends, to whom we owe so much. I encourage those who can to offer private rented accommodation, or to speak to their local council, or list their property on the Government’s Afghan housing portal, which remains operational.

We also take seriously our commitment to resettling Afghans yet to arrive in the UK, including those eligible for our schemes who are still in Afghanistan. But our efforts to move people out of hotels has shown how vital it is that they are moved directly into long-term, settled accommodation, where they can put down roots in the community. That is why we are taking forward plans to source suitable accommodation ahead of facilitating new arrivals.

Welcoming people who come to the UK through safe and legal routes has always been, and will always be, a vital way in which our country helps those in need. In this spirit, I look forward to welcoming more of those who loyally served alongside the UK’s Armed Forces in Afghanistan, as well as those who stood up for British values, often at great personal risk, in the months ahead. I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for reading the Statement delivered in the Commons earlier. I encourage noble Lords to go back and read, or perhaps even watch, the full debate. I found it quite moving in places, particularly when Members from across the House talked about some of the cases they had been dealing with. I will refer just to one, where a man who had come here from Afghanistan was trying to allow for his daughters to come. It was so urgent to him: he showed a photograph of one of his daughters who had taken her own life, such was her fear over what would happen to her at the hands of the Taliban. He was trying to get his other four daughters to be able to join him in the UK. The point that was being made was about the slow progress and lack of response from the Home Office and the inability, it would seem, to be able to assist in making this happen. I very much encourage noble Lords to look back at that debate and to understand, perhaps better than we sometimes can do, the very real impact this is having on people’s lives.

Our nation promised those who put their lives at risk to serve alongside our Armed Forces in Afghanistan that we would relocate and settle them, give their families safety and help them to rebuild their lives. Now it seems the Government want a pat on the back for what they have done, at a time when we still have thousands of people stuck in limbo in Pakistan, some of whose documents will expire in the coming months, who will then risk being returned to Afghanistan or making treacherous and illegal journeys to safety.

Here in the UK, there are families with children who have been stuck in hotels for 18 months. This is not helping them rebuild their lives; this is neglect. Can the Minister tell us whether any more new arrivals will continue to be placed in this bridging accommodation? If so, how long will that be allowed to happen for?

Ministers have acknowledged that serving notices to quit in the way that they have has put Afghans at risk of homelessness, so can the Minister tell us how many Afghans in the UK are now accessing homelessness services from local authorities as a result of the Government’s approach? How many of them are children?

I pay tribute to all those involved in Operation Pitting. Can the Minister tell us why, after two years, there are still 600 people who are eligible for ARAP in Afghanistan, waiting for their applications to be processed? What are the Government doing to make sure these people get to safety and out of reach of the Taliban?

It is all too easy to forget the horror of what happened in Afghanistan and what is still happening to those who risked their lives to serve alongside us. The consequences of UK government delays are severe, so will the Minister urge her colleagues at the Cabinet Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Home Office to do all they can to resolve the status of all those to whom we owe a debt of gratitude, as she says, and make good on our united national promise to support them? We are all united with the Government in our ambition, but ambition alone will not save lives or protect anyone from torture. It is the detailed, careful execution of a plan that matters now, with humanity and urgency at its heart.

My Lords, from these Benches, I agree wholeheartedly with many of the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, about the debt we owe to the Afghans who served with us, which is noted in the Statement that the Minister just repeated. We need to reiterate that, because the Statement in many ways is almost like a Home Office document: “Right, we’ve got this issue, we’ve relocated people. Maybe this is the end”.

In the other place, the Statement was given by the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, Johnny Mercer, so there was a very clear link to veterans. That is important, because the people we are talking about and their families are people who served alongside the British Army. We still owe them a debt. Operation Pitting was fantastic, but we left so many people behind.

I pay tribute to the Government for relocating 24,600 people, but that has to be the start. While it is clearly right that we are not using bridging accommodation for anything other than very temporary care, what accommodation will be available for those many people who are in Pakistan awaiting moves to the United Kingdom—a safe and legal route, in the Government’s language? What is being done to support those people who are still in Afghanistan?

The noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, mentioned a case that was talked about in the other place this afternoon. There are still many Afghans living in fear of their lives. They have not become more secure since 2021; they have become less secure. They have been in so-called safe houses and moved from one safe house to another. In the final paragraph of this welcome Statement—well, parts of it are welcome—there is a commitment still to welcome those eligible to come under ARAP. What are His Majesty’s Government doing to help people get out of Afghanistan? Some of those people who are eligible for ARAP—or would have been eligible had the terms not changed—are now being told they can be considered under the ACRS. Here I am talking very much about the British Council teachers and contractors. What is being done to help them?

If they get out—if they find people who will smuggle them out of Afghanistan—will His Majesty’s Government actually give them indefinite leave to remain and all the benefits that entails if they make it to the United Kingdom, or are they going to be told, “Sorry, you would have been eligible if only you had risked your life a little bit longer in Afghanistan, but now you’ve come here illegally and unsafely you’re no longer eligible”? That is what very many people fear.

In terms of accommodation, clearly it is right to move families into permanent accommodation. But there are cases of young people who have been out of school. Part of the pledge to our Afghan friends is that there will be education. Can the Minister tell us how many Afghans under the age of 19 are out of school and how far the relocation from temporary accommodation to permanent accommodation in other parts of the country is impacting on the education of young people, particularly young women?

I would also like to know whether those Afghans who have allegedly rejected “suitable” accommodation have really understood that the accommodation is suitable. Is it affordable? Does the Government’s offer really enable them to take up those offers? It goes back to one of the questions that my noble friend Lady Falkner asked in the Statement on the Post Office: does everybody understand the bureaucracy? Are people giving up suitable accommodation because they have not really understood what is available?

It is good that we have rehoused 24,600 people. It would be better if we had a clear road map for others who would be ARAP-eligible. My final question is: can the Minister tell us how many Afghans are homeless in the United Kingdom and how many of those are vulnerable and on the streets today?

My Lords, I thank the noble Baronesses opposite for their comments. We are united in our vision here and a lot of the things we are discussing today have very wide support. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, I watched some of the debate in the other place and I was struck not only by the individual cases but also the support given for the work by local authorities, by the Government for the funding that has been put in and, of course, by the total commitment of the brave Afghans who worked alongside us so well.

I turn to the specific points that have been raised. Perhaps I can first tackle new arrivals, including those in third countries. We have been clear, as I said in the Statement, that we need to solve the problem here, so that those from overseas can go straight into settled accommodation, with all its advantages. We will be making further announcements in due course about this, but I emphasise that our policy is to house Afghans in settled accommodation so they can work—they have the right to work—so they can integrate into communities, so they can send their children to local schools and embed them, and so they can become rooted in their new homes and communities.

In relation to homelessness, our promise was to ensure that no Afghans were sleeping rough, and as a result of our efforts the vast majority are now settled in permanent accommodation, with fewer than 5% of families receiving homelessness support. The noble Baroness asked for a specific figure. It is 188 households; I do not have a breakdown by adults and children. The homelessness system also acts as a safety net and no family will be left without a roof over their heads. There is funding of £9,150 per family available to support councils with homelessness costs, as well as £28 per person per day for up to six months if they are placed in temporary accommodation. Of course, that is on top of the £2 billion towards dealing with homelessness and rough sleeping, which is not the subject of this Statement but is a very important priority as well.

The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, made a number of points which I very much agreed with, and she mentioned the education issue, which is incredibly important—and what a horror the contrast is between the attitude to the education of women in Afghanistan and our approach here.

Although I do not have the numbers of underage Afghan children out of school, I can tell the noble Baroness that the system we have initiated had a special focus at a time when children could move into new schools in the new autumn term, which I thought was very good. There is also an educational rule that local area school places have to be found within 20 days. So we are aware of the needs of education. I should also say that in every hotel there has been help from the DWP, the Home Office and so on because we understand the importance of these issues.

Funding is also important. The Statement made clear that we have tried to be generous and to help local authorities. In addition to the £250 million expansion of the local authority housing fund, which I think is a game-changer, we have also found £32.5 million—that is £7,100 per person—for the flexible housing fund. That is both capital and revenue, which is important because it means that there may be money available for families to have a deposit on a rented house or for capital to be used to flex a house—for example, when there is a large family. The work that has been done by DLUHC and others has been innovative. There has been money for voluntary and community sector caseworkers, which I have already mentioned. That is in addition to the resettlement allowances that come from the Home Office: there is £20,520 per person integration tariff funding for resettlement, and other money is available for things like English language training, which—to go back to the point of about education—is incredibly important. We know that these brave people will be able to integrate well if their children are in school and they can move forward.

The point about bureaucracy was close to my heart. I want to make the point that pamphlets have been made in English, Pashto and Dari, so there has been a real effort to explain people’s needs. The availability of officials in hotels has also been good for that. That is something of a model, although there is of course more to do and we need to go further.

I am so grateful for the support from third countries. It has been mentioned that some people under the ARAP and ACRS schemes are still principally in Pakistan, but we are grateful to the third countries concerned for that. By moving through the existing families and getting them into permanent accommodation, it is going to be a great deal easier to get those schemes up and running properly again.

House adjourned at 8.09 pm.