With permission, Mr Speaker—thank you for accommodating this statement today—I would like to make a statement on the Government’s response to the situation in Afghanistan and specifically the effort we are mounting to support Afghans resettling in the United Kingdom.
As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister set out to the House last week, Operation Pitting was the biggest UK military evacuation for over 70 years and enabled around 15,000 people to leave Afghanistan and get to safety in the UK. This is in addition to the families we have already welcomed under the Afghan relocations and assistance policy for those who served alongside our British forces and worked with the British Government. We owe them an enormous debt of gratitude.
The Home Office has been at the heart of the UK’s response to the fast-moving events in Afghanistan, and I pay tribute to the dedicated officials who have worked day and night to support this unprecedented mission. From Border Force officers on the ground in Kabul supporting our military and diplomats in extremely challenging circumstances to the UK Visas and Immigration staff in Liverpool, they worked alongside colleagues from across Government, the military, the police and our intelligence agencies. They conducted vital security checks, processed visa and passport applications and welcomed and supported evacuees.
We are determined to ensure that those evacuated here have the best possible start to life in the UK. That includes providing clarity about their immigration status, which is the subject of a policy statement that the Government are publishing today. We recognise the difficult, exceptional and unique circumstances in which many arrived in the UK, so we will be offering immediate indefinite leave to remain to Afghan nationals and their family members who were evacuated or who were called forward during Operation Pitting but will come to the UK after evacuation. This will provide certainty about their status, entitlement to benefits and right to work.
Our commitment to the people of Afghanistan is enduring. The UK’s humanitarian response is one of the most ambitious in the world to date and builds on our proud record of resettling more people than any other European country since 2015. The statement published today sets out details of the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme, which will see up to 20,000 men, women and children resettled in the UK. The scheme will prioritise those who have assisted the UK efforts in Afghanistan and have stood up for values such as democracy, women’s rights and freedom of speech, and the rule of law, which could include judges, women’s rights activists and journalists, along with many others. The scheme will also prioritise vulnerable people, including women and girls at risk and members of minority groups at risk, such as ethnic and religious minorities and LGBT+ people.
Eligible people will be prioritised and referred for resettlement to the UK in one of three ways. First, some of those who arrived in the UK under the evacuation programme, which included individuals who were considered to be at particular risk, will be resettled under the scheme. Secondly, we will work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to identify and resettle refugees who have fled Afghanistan. This replicates the approach that the UK has taken in response to the conflict in Syria and complements the UK resettlement scheme, which resettles refugees from across the world. We will start the process as soon as possible following consultation with the UNHCR. Thirdly, we will work with international partners and non-governmental organisations in the region to put in place a referral process for those inside Afghanistan, where it is possible to arrange safe passage, and for those who have recently fled to other countries in the region.
The Afghan citizens resettlement scheme complements the existing Afghan relocations and assistance policy, which remains open; applications can be made from anywhere in the world. Approximately 7,000 Afghan locally employed staff who served alongside our armed forces in Afghanistan, and their families, have been relocated to the UK under ARAP. Those brought to the UK under ARAP or the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme will have certainty of status through indefinite leave to remain. They will be able to apply for British citizenship after five years under existing rules.
We could not have welcomed so many people to the United Kingdom under Operation Pitting without the support of local authorities. I have written today to all councils across the United Kingdom to set out our funding commitment to them. We will provide a complete package covering health, education and integration support costs for those on the ACRS and ARAP. Local authorities will receive a core tariff of more than £20,000 per person, which will be provided over three years to support resettled Afghans to integrate into British society and become self-sufficient more quickly. Funding will also be provided to support education, English language and health provision in the first year, and there will be a further £20 million of flexible funding in the current financial year to support local authorities with higher cost bases with any additional costs in the provision of services. I urge more local authorities to come forward to support our Afghan friends, and I ask colleagues across the House to relay the message to their councils, too; I am already very appreciative of efforts across the House to do so.
All those brought to the UK under ARAP and ACRS will have the right to work and be able to apply for public funds. The Government are amending legislation to ensure that new arrivals under the two routes can access benefits from day one, including social housing. The Department for Work and Pensions will also offer new arrivals tailored support to help them to become self-sufficient more quickly, and surgeries will be set up across the country to answer benefits and employment questions. However, the challenge of integrating a large number of people at a fast pace and helping them to rebuild their lives cannot be met by central and local government alone. We will be working with the private, voluntary and community sectors to harness our efforts across the whole of society.
The people who have come forward with offers of support have again shown their kindness and compassion. I know that many colleagues have seen such examples in their constituencies. That spirit of generosity is one of the things that make our country so special. We are creating a portal where people, organisations and businesses can register offers of support, and we are extending the community sponsorship scheme so that friends and neighbours, charities and faith groups can come together to support a family through the resettlement scheme.
Afghan nationals will also be able to make applications to come to the UK via one of our existing immigration routes. Family members of British citizens or those with indefinite leave to remain, or family members of refugees who do not qualify for the ACRS, can apply to come to the UK via the family routes or the family reunion rules respectively.
A number of Afghan nationals are already in the UK on an economic, work or study route, and we recognise that they may face difficulties in making a further application if they cannot obtain the correct documentation that they need to extend their stay. We will therefore take a concessionary approach for Afghan nationals similar to that which we took for Syrian nationals in 2015, which will allow us to waive certain document requirements in some circumstances. We will also remove the “no switching” rule on some routes for Afghan nationals, which means that there is no requirement to travel outside the UK to make an application at one of our global visa application centres. There is no change in the UK’s position that people can only claim asylum from within the UK. There are a number of claims already in the asylum system, and they will be considered in line with new country guidance, which will be published shortly. We also urge any Afghan nationals in the UK without lawful status to get in touch with the Home Office as soon as possible.
The shocking events in Afghanistan demand a comprehensive, compassionate and sensible approach. That is what the Afghan people who are starting their lives here deserve, it is what the British public expect, and it is what this Government will deliver. I commend my statement to the House.
I thank the Minister for her statement, and for advance sight of it. I also thank her for the briefing that was given to me by her and the Security Minister, and I welcome her to the Dispatch Box. However, given this vital work of leading on the Afghanistan resettlement scheme, I must ask: where is the Home Secretary? We hear that it is the Minister for the Cabinet Office who chairs the Cabinet Committee on this. As Kabul fell, the Prime Minister was on holiday, the Foreign Secretary was on holiday, and now, as we try to deal with the consequences, we have an absent Home Secretary. It is not good enough, and things have to improve.
Members throughout the House and their caseworkers have worked around the clock to try to get people out of Afghanistan, and the fact that, as we heard, email inboxes were ignored was a dereliction of duty by Ministers. On
“every single email from colleagues is being responded to by close of play today.”—[Official Report,
Even that promise was not fulfilled.
Last week, I met people who had recently left Afghanistan and were starting to build their lives here. It was a solemn privilege to do so. I witnessed the pride that they took in their service alongside British troops, I heard their praise for what the local council was doing in supporting them, and I saw their gratitude for the fact that they were in a place of safety. However, I also saw their pain for those who had been left behind, fearing persecution and fearing for their lives. My question to the Minister is: what specific plan do the Government have in place for those still in Afghanistan and desperate to escape? She said in her statement that she was starting a process
“as soon as possible following consultation with the UNHCR”, but what advice does she have for Members across the House on what they should say to those who are contacting them about leaving Afghanistan now? What assessment has been made of the number of British passport holders still in Afghanistan? How many who would have been eligible under the ARAP scheme remain behind? Can the Minister also update the House on the progress made by the Home Office, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the Ministry of Defence on assessing the viability of specific routes of safe passage to third countries for those fleeing Afghanistan? If people are able to escape, are this Government really going to impose a cap of 5,000 this year, and what is the justification for that figure?
I have spoken to Labour local authority leaders across the country who have come forward to help, and our local councils need support. The Prime Minister mentioned a figure of £200 million, and today the Minister has mentioned the core tariff of £20,520 per person, but that is over three years. Local councils are providing support now. When will that money start to be paid? When will the additional £20 million in flexible funding referred to by the Minister be available, and what will be the basis on which it is distributed so that it is fair to councils across the country?
We are also hearing about the Home Office placing large numbers of people in inappropriate hotel accommodation, sometimes for months at a time, without prior notice or indeed even engagement with local authorities in advance. Can the Minister confirm that there will be proper engagement with local authorities, and that such accommodation will never be used on a medium-term basis? For those already in the asylum system here in the United Kingdom, the Minister mentioned that new country guidance would be published shortly. When exactly will it be published, and why has there been such a delay in making it available?
I want to conclude with a message of thanks. Thank you to our troops, our civil servants and other frontline workers for their work on the evacuation of British and Afghan nationals. Thank you to those local authorities and charities that have come forward, and thank you to the British people for their generosity. The people of this country have stepped up when needed, but is it not time that this Government did the same?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comments. He made some very constructive points and others that I will perhaps leave for Hansard to consider. He is absolutely right to raise the point about email inboxes. I can assure colleagues that a “Dear Colleague” letter is on its way into inboxes—as I speak, I hope, but perhaps a little later today. I know that the question of correspondence has been a matter of great concern, and I completely understand that Members of Parliament expect their emails and inquiries to be dealt with in a timely manner.
I pray in aid the size of the task during those two weeks of emergency. We remember, of course, the scenes on our television sets. We set up a specific helpline in the Home Office during Operation Pitting to try to ensure that emergency cases were flagged to us. To put that in context, in the first 10 days, that helpline received more than 5.3 million attempted calls. We have also had many thousands of emails, not just to the Home Office but to the MOD and the FCDO. What I can tell colleagues on those emails on which they have not received specific updates thus far, is that we are in the process of logging those. This is one of the difficult messages that I have to deliver to the House, but I must issue a bit of a reality check. We cannot process cases in the usual way if people are in Afghanistan, because we have no Army or consular support there. We are in a very difficult situation. I know that it is difficult for constituents who have family still in Afghanistan about whom they are distressed and terrified, but I cannot provide Members of Parliament with information if I do not have it. We are hopeful that international efforts over the coming days, weeks and months will change that. There have been one or two flights out of Kabul, and we hope that will be built on over the coming days and weeks, but I am afraid that we as parliamentarians have to be frank with our constituents that, at this precise point in time, we cannot give specific updates on people within Afghanistan because of the precariousness of the security in that country.
The Prime Minister has said that 311 ARAP people are still in Afghanistan. Of course, as and when options and diplomatic levers work, plans can be put in place to deal with them. Having had the emergency of Operation Pitting, we have to deal with the deteriorating security circumstances in Afghanistan.
The right hon. Gentleman asked why there are 5,000 people in the Afghan citizens’ resettlement scheme. We have proposed that figure very deliberately because we know, through our experience of the Syrian resettlement scheme, that local areas and local communities can absorb, manage, integrate and welcome that number. Again, hon. Members will understand that, having had the mass evacuation through Operation Pitting, we are quickly trying to find homes for thousands of people. That is why we welcome voluntary suggestions from local authorities. We need the help of all our local councils to be able to offer these people permanent homes. We are trying to do that in a managed way so people are welcomed into this country in the usual measured and constructive way that we had under the Syrian scheme.
The 20,000 figure is over three years. That is a shorter period than the Syrian resettlement scheme, which was over five years, because we want to frontload the work that local authorities and others do to integrate people into our communities as quickly as possible.
I have met some of the people. I asked a woman what her hopes are for the future, and she said that she wants to study for her master’s degree so that she can start teaching maths in our schools as quickly as possible. We have already welcomed some wonderful people, and we want to get them into the jobs market and using the skills and qualifications that they already have to all our benefit.
Finally, every hon. Member who has a bridging hotel in their constituency will have had contact from my Home Office team to explain the process. There are some 68 hotels across the country, and I will not reveal locations and numbers. I hope the House understands why, because we want people to move quickly and we do not want to add complications. The bridging hotels are a temporary housing scenario, and we must encourage our local councils to offer permanent housing. The more offers we receive, the sooner people are out of that bridging accommodation. I am always open and willing to answer any questions that colleagues on both sides of the House may have on this.
Again, I welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s support for the principle of what we are trying to achieve. I welcome his scrutiny, but I very much hope that the House, together, will be able to give the people who have already been flown into our country, and equally the people who come here in the future, the warm welcome we want them all to have.
Last Friday, I had the pleasure of welcoming the family of one of my constituents from Afghanistan. Sadly, two of his relatives have been executed by the Taliban. Another very close relative was a senior figure in the previous Government. Sadly, this is where the dilemma comes, and I would be grateful for the Minister’s help. That relative hopes to be able to make it across the border to Pakistan, but he expects to be in hiding in Pakistan because he is in fear of his life.
Will the Minister please make it possible for hon. Members who are aware of such situations to act as a point of liaison between those who are in hiding and the high commission in Pakistan, so that we can ensure they have a path to escape that leaves them safe and helps them to avoid the danger that exists to them on both sides of the border? I very much hope we can help that relative get to the United Kingdom, and I would be grateful for all the help we can get from Ministers to do so.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that; I suspect he has identified one of the most common questions I am going to face this afternoon. That is completely understandable, because he and every other Member of Parliament wants to help in the sorts of cases he has described.
One of the difficult messages I have to relay this afternoon is that because of the security situation in Afghanistan we have to be very careful about offering either encouragement or support for people who may be in a perilous situation in Afghanistan on making that journey to borders. We cannot, here today in the Chamber, understand the risks to those individuals themselves, particularly given the high profile, which my right hon. Friend has described, of some of the people we are talking about, and we do not know the situation this afternoon and this evening on the ground around borders. We have processes in the region, run by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the Ministry of Defence, and the Defence Secretary has made it clear that his defence attachés in the region will be working very hard on such cases. But I am afraid we have to deal with the reality of the situation; much as we, as constituency MPs, would like to be, we are not in circumstances where we can persuade people to move or not move, because of the dangerousness they face. I ask everybody to refer their constituents who may have concerns to the gov.uk website, which will be updated as soon as we are able to do this. In addition, this afternoon colleagues will, through a “Dear colleague” letter, be receiving the online form that people who believe that they are eligible for ARAP should use for contact, so that the processes we are able to control are then put in place. We must, please, be very, very careful about the safety of these people.
First, let me welcome the Minister to her new role and join her in paying tribute to all those involved in getting people to safety from Afghanistan. We know from the Syrian scheme that resettlement done well can save and transform lives, and that those who are resettled often go on to make brilliant contributions to our communities in return, so of course we want to work constructively to help deliver as many places for Afghans as possible. Equally, her Government must work constructively with partners here as well. It is welcome that local authorities now have more detail about the support they will receive, but when will the four-nations summit, agreed to by the Prime Minister, take place? That local authority support that was mentioned will be crucial. Does that tariff go at least as far as the support offered under the Syrian scheme? Were local authorities consulted about the fact that this would operate over three years, rather than five?
We will also be critical when that is required. Let us say unequivocally that we believe the number of resettlement places on offer is a long, long way below what events in Afghanistan require of us, in the context of more than 2 million Afghan refugees, with many more to come. Outside the 5,000 in the first year, the numbers put forward by the Home Office are vague aspirations, not detailed plans. Indeed, today the Minister referred to “up to 20,000”, so we could be talking about fewer. Can she at least confirm that 20,000 is the minimum number that will be resettled under the scheme? What are the prospects of frontloading the programme so that the initial 5,000 can also be increased? When will all this start?
On the Afghans already here, we need urgent clarity that they will be recognised as refugees. I am tempted to ask when the country guidance will be published, but do we really need the country guidance to tell us that people from Afghanistan should be recognised as refugees? Should that process not be expedited immediately? Will the Minister also revisit the tightly drawn refugee family reunion rules and ensure that those with family in the UK that might not otherwise qualify them for reunion—adult children, siblings, uncles, aunts and cousins—can apply to join them here? If that does not happen, they are the people who will attempt to make it to the UK on their own initiative and who will then, under the Nationality and Borders Bill, be criminalised and jailed simply for seeking asylum here. The Minister spoke about a compassionate approach, but imagine prosecuting and imprisoning people fleeing the Taliban and seeking safety here with their family. Surely this is the moment that the Government must think again about those outrageous proposals.
First, I thank the Scottish Government and, indeed, all the devolved Administrations for their constructive work with us so far. It genuinely is a great example of the United Kingdom really pulling together.
I very much hear some of the hon. Gentleman’s criticisms in respect of numbers. I suspect that he and I will not be able to find accommodation on that. We have been careful to ensure that those people whom we can welcome, we can welcome and integrate well, which is why, working with local authorities, we have settled on the 5,000 figure. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the ACRS, which is for members of civil society, vulnerable people and so on, is in addition to those who are welcomed under ARAP. Unless things have suddenly changed over the past 24 hours or so, it is truly one of the most ambitious schemes in the world, so we should be really proud of it.
On looking after people who have been evacuated here, the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear that the tariff applies throughout the devolved nations as well. There are additional funds for education and so on.
On the Nationality and Borders Bill, I would argue that the very generosity of our country, though the resettlement scheme, shows our commitment as a Government to ensuring that there are safe and legal rights, which act as a balance against those people traffickers who exploit people at great personal risk—we saw only this weekend terrible news from the channel—for their own criminal ends. We want to encourage people to use safe and legal routes and we want to go after those people traffickers.
First, I pay enormous tribute not only to my hon. Friend the Minister but to the Home Secretary, whom I was texting barely half an hour before I came into the Chamber about an Afghan who is currently near a border, and she was personally sorting out the transit documents that I hope will enable him to come through. I also pay enormous tributes to the councils throughout the entire United Kingdom that have done enormous amounts to help us all to find accommodation for those in desperate need.
Does the Minister recognise that in many ways Afghanistan is many different communities, so people need to be looked at and addressed in different ways? What outreach has she done to the different community groups inside the United Kingdom? How is she looking to help those people who have links to various different elements in Afghan society to find their own home within that society here in the UK?
I thank my hon. Friend for his absolute commitment to this issue. He has knowledge and expertise in respect of the region that I think it is fair to say few in the House possess: we are genuinely better informed when my hon. Friend stands to speak on Afghanistan and the implications in the region.
On my hon. Friend’s thanks to the Home Secretary, I join him in making that point about both the Home Secretary and, if I may say so, the Immigration Minister, my hon. Friend Kevin Foster, who has done extraordinary amounts of work behind the scenes. He never asks for credit or kudos but I am determined to give him credit in Hansard for everything he has done.
This weekend, I had the pleasure of trying to help some Opposition colleagues with their queries. This is a genuine team effort and we desperately want to help the people we can help. As part of that, we of course must include—and I am determined to do so—Afghan civil society in this country. I have already met many groups that have had helpful and constructive ideas about how we can all reach out and help people to integrate, and I am extremely grateful to them. This is an ongoing process and I very much look forward to working with such groups to ensure that we offer the warm welcome that the Prime Minister has promised.
I welcome the Minister’s personal commitment and the intervention of the Home Secretary and other Ministers in trying to solve individual cases, but she will be aware that many MPs across the House have been struggling to get similar help for their constituents, or for families of constituents, and are not getting the same response. May I press her on the situation of those whose lives are still at risk in Afghanistan because they worked with or for the UK Government, but were not directly employed by the UK Government? They have had no response from the ARAP scheme, or have been told that they are not eligible because they were not direct employees. Can she tell me whether they are now eligible for the resettlement scheme, or do they have to apply again from scratch? Can their applications be automatically considered by the resettlement scheme urgently, or be looked at again by the ARAP scheme? I have been made aware of too many cases where someone is either in hospital or whose mother has been killed who are in that situation now as a result of Taliban persecution.
Again, I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Lady for her question. The nub of the problem with people who are still in-country is that we are in the situation that we are in. We have to deal with the reality as it is at the moment. We understand that there are 311 people left in-country in Afghanistan, but the Ministry of Defence, the FCDO and the Home Office have received emails, which we are logging in terms of the wider scheme. Not all the cases referred to us would be eligible under ARAP, but they are being logged and we are considering how best to use them in the future, mindful, of course, that organisations such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees have their own internationally mandated processes. We very much want to reach the right people—the vulnerable people who have stood up for western or British values—and to help them as we can within this scheme. I hope that she will appreciate that, as things becomes clear overseas, we will be able to provide more detail. I know that this is a snapshot in time, but I am trying to keep the House as updated as I can. I very much hope that “Dear Colleague” letters will be published this afternoon. That will help our staff, who have done incredible amounts of work over the past few weeks and whom we really must thank for all the pressures that they been under as well.
Does the Minister know that the Council for At-Risk Academics has been rescuing scholars under these dangerous circumstances since 1933? I appreciate the difficulties of those who are still trapped in hiding in Afghanistan, but out of the 16 who have research studentships or visiting fellowships waiting for them at British universities and who have been validated by the council, one has made it to the Netherlands and three, at considerable risk, have made it undocumented into Pakistan. Can she do everything possible to expedite the issuing of visas for those who have managed to cross the border and are now in Pakistan in particular?
I seem to recall that my right hon. Friend asked the Prime Minister a question along those lines last week. May I ask him to liaise with the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay, in relation to those wider immigration questions? Again, that invitation is open to Members across the House. We want to help them with the cases, but, please, there must be understanding that we will not be able to help everyone and we will not be able to give specific updates on individual cases if they are in Afghanistan.
The Minister has talked about the real difficulties facing those who wish to apply from Afghanistan, but having listened very carefully to what she has said today, there are two things that I am not clear about. First, the impression was previously given that if people could get to the border and leave Afghanistan, they should do so. I am not clear what she is saying today about that in terms of the latest Government advice.
Secondly, let me pick up the point that my right hon. Friend Yvette Cooper, the Chair of the Select Committee, has raised. All of us have been referring to the Home Office many, many cases relating to people who are in Afghanistan at the moment. Will they have to make a fresh application under the scheme that she has announced today, or will those details be read across and considered under the scheme automatically? It would greatly assist many Members on both sides of the House to know what is it that we should be doing. Can we say that we have sent the Minister the details, she has them and will consider them under the new scheme, or do those people have to apply afresh?
In relation to the right hon. Gentleman’s first question about what people should be doing, I am trying to reflect the rapidly changing security situation in Afghanistan, so I would ask any Member of Parliament to consider very carefully whether they feel able to, or comfortable, giving people advice about moving to borders, because, with the best will in the world, we cannot hope to have the sort of information that, for example, those on the ground, those working with the armed forces and so on will have. The advice at the moment is to look at the gov.uk website. That is our primary source of information. We need to bear in mind, of course, that with anything we talk about, there is the potential that others are watching—bad actors and so on. Indeed, Members of Parliament should bear that in mind when it comes to their own correspondence; we heard the experiences of a colleague last week in relation to a fraudulent attempt.
Let me turn to the right hon. Gentleman’s second question, which was about the process. ARAP is organised by the Ministry of Defence, which has its lists of people and so on. With the citizens scheme, we are trying a blended approach. We want to use the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees as we have done under the Syrian scheme, but we recognise that that only deals with people who are out of country in refugee camps, by and large. We also want to look at civil society. We are not proposing to open this up as an applications process, because there are 40 million people living in Afghanistan, and I suspect that the overwhelming majority of them feel pretty vulnerable for various reasons at the moment.
We will be working with international organisations, including non-governmental organisations, to invite people forward to the other two parts of the scheme. Bear in mind, of course, that some of the 500—[Interruption.] I suspect that Chris Bryant will get his moment. Some of the 500 or so people who have been evacuated under Operation Pitting may be eligible under this scheme. As I said, we are having to take this step by step, but we wanted to keep the House as updated as we could today, so that it is aware of the direction of travel.
I appreciate that the Minister is dealing with complicated and sensitive matters, and that she is anxious to give full answers to colleagues. She certainly is not avoiding questions, but is taking them head-on. Unfortunately, some of the questions are also rather long and complicated, so we have managed, in 40 minutes, to take questions from five Back Benchers. We will have to go a lot faster now, but in order that the Minister can give short answers, I need to have short and succinct questions. That way, we will cover everything eventually.
I welcome the statement. Many of those fleeing the Taliban will be highly skilled people who will want to integrate rapidly into the workforce so that they can become contributors, not just supplicants. Will the Minister unpack a little the £20,520 per person in core funding that she announced, and tell us what proportion of that she envisages being used for further education to enable people, where necessary, to upskill? What conversations has she had with her ministerial colleagues at the Department for Education to see what more colleges in localities can do to ensure that these people are able to do what they aspire to do, which is to enter the workforce and be contributors?
My right hon. Friend will be pleased to know that once we have dealt with the immediate emergency of moving 15,000 or so people from quarantine hotels into bridging accommodation—I hope and plan that that will be concluded this week—we can then start really to set in stone some of our plans for integration. There are all sorts of ideas, including equivalence qualifications involving the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that we get people into the jobs market as quickly as possible. Of course, we will also be measuring English language fluency to help those who are a little bit further from the jobs market towards the jobs market so that they can be truly independent and have their own futures here in the UK.
Obviously, quite rightly, a lot of the discussion is around ARAP, but what about UK citizens and UK residents who are trapped? My case is of a woman with three tiny daughters who is stranded having cared for a relative and got caught by covid, and now she does not know what to do. How do I get help for her?
Will the hon. Lady give me the privilege of perhaps speaking to me afterwards, because I have misunderstood her question? I do apologise.
I thank my hon. Friend for this announcement. How will local authorities be supported in accommodating Afghan citizens, and how will the education system be supported, to help to facilitate the smooth transition of Afghan people into local communities throughout the UK?
We have today announced £20,520 per person over the next three years. This is because we want to enable local councils to front-load their integration support. We have, in addition, up to £4,000 per child for education and associated tariffs for medical care. We want to ensure that people are moving into their permanent accommodation as quickly as possible. This is where the call for volunteers from our local authorities must be made strongly. We need permanent housing in order to settle people as quickly as possible.
Hull is a city of sanctuary and has always stepped up to its responsibilities around asylum seekers and refugees, even though at times the Home Office has been rather high-handed in the way it has dealt with the local authorities. What exactly is the Minister going to do to ensure that all other local authorities step up to their responsibilities for asylum seekers and refugees under the UK resettlement scheme and, now, under the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme?
I am not going to tread on the ministerial territory of the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend Kevin Foster, as that is not my role. However, in terms of Afghan resettlement, the letters have gone out today, my officials will be hitting the phones this week, and we will be very much trying to encourage as many local authorities as possible to sign up if they can. It need not be huge numbers per local authority, and, as others have said, these people can make a huge contribution to our local communities once they are settled in.
My local authorities, Wealden District Council and Rother District Council, are taking part in welcoming our Afghan friends. The Minister references the three-year funding settlement. What assessment has she made of whether that will fully cover the cost of resettlement? Will she urge all local authorities to think of the contribution that these brave individuals will make not just to their local communities but to the economy?
I thank my hon. Friend’s local authorities. They have worked very closely with my Department in recent weeks, and I am grateful for that. He is absolutely right on the last point. These are very skilled, highly qualified people who can be our doctors and our teachers, while some of them can—dare I say it?— help through standing for local councils. They can make a huge contribution. We have settled on the funding settlement very carefully because we want to try to encourage take-up as quickly as possible. We also have the additional fund of £20 million to help those authorities that are telling us some of the issues they have with housing. We want to try to make this as easy as possible for local authorities.
I thank the Minister for her statement. I thank Vale of White Horse District Council and South Oxfordshire District Council, who have opened their arms and absolutely said that they will take as many as they possibly can. I am helping to support about 400 individuals at the moment, some of whom are from the Hazara Afghan community. The Minister mentioned that there were other routes available other than the resettlement scheme—because, let us face it, that is not going to be enough. There is one willing to sponsor their brother, give them a job and support them. Will the Government give a special dispensation so that that space is given to someone else equally vulnerable who may need it?
I hope the hon. Lady will appreciate that I should not be making very significant decisions about immigration policy at the Dispatch Box, but I will take away her idea. We have tried, as I say, to construct this resettlement scheme alongside our existing system, going above and beyond what many countries around the world are doing. We are proud to do so and we want to encourage others to follow our lead. But of course the immigration system, as is, remains there for those who have perhaps sought asylum under the family reunion rules.
I thank my hon. Friend for her statement. Will she join me in commending Darlington Borough Council, which she recently met, for its commitment to support Afghan families, just as it supported Syrian families only a few years ago? Will she ensure that sufficient funds will be available to Darlington to meet its responsibilities?
May I thank my hon. Friend, who is an absolute stalwart in speaking up not only for his constituency, but his local council? He is very much putting his constituency on the map. I am delighted to support the great offers of Darlington Borough Council and other councils across the country. I encourage them to do whatever they can to help. We should not forget that we can all play our part, because we have the portal open on gov.uk, where we can register offers of donations, volunteering, English language lessons—whatever we can manage. Also, for those who are able, there is the specific accommodation portal, where people can offer accommodation.
I have listened with care to the Minister’s statement. Is she aware of how many British residents and passport holders will be very shocked to learn that the Government can offer them no information on their relatives trapped in Afghanistan, let alone help them get their relatives to safety? Perhaps she should write to us and say she has no information. At least that would help us shed some light for our constituents. On the question of bridging hotels, many of them are entirely unsuitable, such as business hotels that have one single member of a family in every room. Can she assure the House about the maximum length of time individuals will be in this bridging accommodation?
Again, I regret that the right hon. Lady did not hear what I said earlier, which is that for those people in Afghanistan at the moment, it is a very fast-moving situation. At this point in time, I am not able to signpost constituents and parliamentarians in the way that I would normally be able to do, and that is one of the tough messages I have had to deliver today from the Dispatch Box. That does not mean that that will remain the case forever, and that is why the work of the FCDO, the Ministry of Defence and others in trying to secure safe passage out of Afghanistan is so critical.
In terms of bridging hotels, we have yet to complete the transfer of everybody from quarantine to bridging hotels, but the more offers of permanent accommodation we have, the sooner we will be moving people out of bridging accommodation. This is why we have to do things methodically, and this is why we are being very careful about the numbers of people we can welcome in the future.
I welcome the explicit recognition of the position of LGBT people in her statement, following the Prime Minister’s statement a week ago. The absence of LGBT people being an identified cohort during the course of Op Pitting means that I fear nobody made it out under the conditions of Op Pitting who would and should have succeeded as LGBT people to make their application. Through me and through our noble Friend, Lord Herbert of South Downs, the Prime Minister’s envoy, will she enable a specific point of contact within her Department who can advise us and the NGOs and others who are helping LGBT Afghans to make applications, so that applications can be successfully made and Border Force’s questions properly satisfied? I fully understand the restrictions my hon. Friend placed on the operational advice that she gave earlier to my right hon. Friend Chris Grayling, but that help will be much appreciated at the application phase.
I am happy to give my hon. Friend that assurance. We recognise the risk. We want to work with specialist organisations to ensure that we help the most vulnerable, which of course include minorities who are LGBT+.
The Minister talked in her statement about a referral process for those inside Afghanistan where it is possible to arrange safe passage, thus acknowledging that that is not always possible. Last week, the Home Office released proposals to engage in push-backs of boats in the channel carrying refugees and asylum seekers. Will she confirm that that policy means a boat carrying Afghan asylum seekers fleeing the Taliban who, as she said, could find no safe passage, would be forcibly pushed back from UK waters?
We are setting out safe and legal routes for Afghans who need to be resettled. As the hon. Member will know, other countries across Europe through which people are making their journeys are safe countries, and we would strongly encourage people making their way into safe countries in Europe and elsewhere to apply for asylum in those countries. The resettlement schemes are about helping people in region, and we very much hope to help the numbers that we have talked about.
Last month, my constituent Mr Kamal contacted me as he was concerned for the welfare of his wife and four daughters in Afghanistan. His wife is an Afghan national, while all four of their children—aged seven, six, three and just four months—are British citizens. He, like any father, is desperately worried about his family, yet, despite my representations to the Home Office, I have received no response at all. What advice can the Minister provide to Mr Kamal and his family? Will she assure me that I will get a substantive answer by the end of the week?
The hon. Gentleman describes an incredibly difficult case. If Mr Kamal’s family are in Afghanistan, I cannot give him a specific update on their safety and whereabouts, but I am happy to discuss the case with him after the statement because I want to see if we can do anything more.
My constituents are children here under the vulnerable children’s resettlement scheme, and their families—Hazara families—in Kabul want to know what steps they need to take to make applications and whether they will fall under the Afghan citizens’ resettlement scheme, not least because the numbers under that scheme are so pitiful. The Minister talks about 5,000 people, which is one or two families per constituency. We really need to re-examine those numbers.
I very much hope that the hon. Member is encouraging her local authority to volunteer permanent properties to help resettle families as she has described. On her specific case, if I have understood her correctly, she is talking about children, and she will know that children cannot sponsor adults to come to the United Kingdom under our wider asylum policy because of real concerns that children would be used by people with ill intent. However, if there are asylum matters in particular, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend Kevin Foster, stands ready to help in that application, if he can.
I thank the Minister for what she described as the difficult and unique circumstances faced by Afghan citizens. Can I ask her a narrow question about the concessionary approach to waive documents which she described? Will she please confirm that if an Afghan citizen is entitled to help, they will not be denied that help simply because they have been required to, say, burn a passport or other identity document—whether electronic or physical—to keep themselves alive?
The right hon. Gentleman gives some powerful examples. The nature of the concession is that we are realistic about what some may have had to do to survive. I must, however, preface that with two caveats. First, security checks must be conducted—that goes without saying—and, secondly, the concession will have to be on a case-by-case basis, because we want to ensure that we are helping the vulnerable people whom we are aiming to help.
To be honest, I just feel that this is a completely hope-less statement, in the sense that the UK Government are giving up on the vulnerable people in Afghanistan who stood by us. That is what it feels like, and what really angers me is that we seem to be going backwards every time a Minister comes to explain this. Last week, we were told by the Prime Minister that we were all going to get replies to our individual cases by last Monday, and then last Thursday a Government Minister came here and told us that we would all get individual answers to each of the individual cases by this Thursday. Now it sounds as though the Minister is saying, “Oh, no”, and all we are going to get is another blasted “Dear colleague” letter. That is not good enough. We need to be able to give answers to our constituents.
In particular—this was asked earlier, and it was answered in a different way last Thursday by a different Government Minister—if a person has applied through the ARAP scheme and has been told no, will they have to make another application to another Department and put in another form, or will the Government be doing what the Foreign Office told this House last Thursday, which is triaging these with no need for a further application?
I simply disagree with the hon. Gentleman about his assessment of the Government’s position. I have tried to update the House today on our schemes. I have announced the funding now available for councils, which will be a significant step forward.
The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but the reality for many councils is that we are in negotiations with them and they wanted, understandably, to know the funding. We have now been able to provide them with an answer, and we will be able to unlock more offers of help. On the wider issue of correspondence, as I have said, we will log emails as they have come in, but I cannot give updates that I do not have because of the security situation in Afghanistan. I hope the hon. Gentleman will deploy the energy he has shown in this Chamber to persuading his local council to offer more permanent housing.
I was pleased to hear the Minister mention in her statement that judges and women’s rights activists may be among those who would get priority, but the situation for female judges on the ground in Afghanistan is dire. There are about 220 of them, and they are trapped there in immediate fear of their lives. These people are desperate, and they have been on the phone to colleagues in the United Kingdom in tears every night. Basically, these women are waiting to be killed, so my question for the Minister is this. She says in her statement that one of the ways the Government are going to implement the scheme is to
“work with international partners and non-governmental organisations in the region to put in place a referral process for those inside Afghanistan, where it is possible to arrange safe passage”.
Can she tell me whether these discussions are taking place and are taking place with the appropriate urgency in relation to the female judges trapped in Afghanistan, and can she confirm that these women will be welcome in the United Kingdom?
One of the urgent cases I am dealing with is that of a former Chevening scholar trapped in Kabul, who is very worried that he is not on the appropriate Government list because, strangely, he did not receive a call forward to the airport in the early days of the evacuation. Can the Minister assure me that she is talking to the FCDO about Chevening scholars and that, from the Home Office perspective, all former and current Chevening scholars will be supported by the Government? In particular, will the right paperwork be issued to him, so that if he does make the decision to go with his family to the border, he will know that he will be safe once he gets there?
Yes, the Home Secretary has already, I think, addressed the House about Chevening scholarships. They will be honoured, and we are trying to make that happen, albeit with the practicalities the hon. Member has outlined if people are in Afghanistan.
I have written to three different Government Departments seven times since
As the hon. Lady has outlined, the circumstances in Afghanistan are incredibly dangerous, and that is why we made such huge efforts to evacuate as many people as we possibly could in Operation Pitting. I cannot discuss individual cases with her—certainly not in the Chamber—but I hope that, having listened to the statement about the opening up of the scheme, she will see that if the situation changes in Afghanistan and we are able to get safe passage out, the cases that she and others have raised will be able to be evaluated. However, I cannot make case decisions on the hoof at the Dispatch Box, as she would understand.
The Minister referred to the importance of learning the English language. In previous interviews she has referred to “western values”, and to the support that her Government will provide to Afghans. What support will her Government give to help Afghans preserve their language and culture when they come here? We know that refugees enrich society with their culture and language.
That is precisely why I am working with Afghan civil society to ensure that we integrate people in a way that reflects the values we cherish so carefully as a country, while of course acknowledging the contribution they will make.
The Minister spoke about the ways the scheme will prioritise those who have assisted UK efforts, but what does “prioritisation” actually mean? Those who will be admitted on to the list of 5,000 in the first year need to know whether they are being prioritised, as that may affect their decision to travel to the border, or the way that people respond in Afghanistan, as well as those refugees outside it. The Minister will know that the criteria she set out would probably just about meet the 4,500 relatives of my constituents, every one of whom would qualify on that basis—
Order. I know the hon. Gentleman has been waiting a long time, but we cannot have this. Members are meant to ask a question, and the Minister gives an answer. Not everyone has to ask all the questions that can be asked on this subject, just a question.
As I said, some of those evacuated during Op Pitting and who would be considered under the criteria of the scheme will form part of that scheme, but there are two other avenues through which people can be invited to take part, and I have referred to those in previous answers.
How widely and generously will the definition of an “assisted UK effort” be applied? I have cases of two interpreters who were told that they did not qualify for ARAP because they worked for G4S rather than for the Army, but if they had been properly assessed, they could already be here. Will they now qualify?
In trying to justify allowing only 5,000 refugees in through year one of resettlement scheme, the Minister said that that followed consultation with local authorities, based on capacity and assimilation. Will she publish the collated information that shows that, cumulatively, all local authorities in the UK responded that they could take only that figure of 5,000?
The hon. Gentleman may not have heard when I referred to the fact that we were looking at the Syrian resettlement scheme, which is widely regarded as being a success. That scheme was resettling 5,000 people a year.
I apologise to Mr Mahmood for not having called him earlier. In all honesty, I could not see him because of this screen. Let us hope they do not have to stay here very much longer.
I have a constituent who landed just before the blockade. Her father-in-law has been shot. She has got to the border a number of times. I have communicated with the embassy and with the Pakistani authorities to try to let her come through, but to no avail because the Afghans will not let her through on a British passport. Can we get through the Foreign Office, or the Home Office, some sort of indication to help those people? If not, can we use other available embassies to guide and support those people who are there with British passports?
I am loth to give travel advice at the Dispatch Box, for the reasons I have given. Perhaps I should take that up with the hon. Gentleman after the statement to see whether we can find ways through.
The ARAP scheme pledges to provide protection for Afghans who were employed by the British Government, but many of my constituents have relatives in Afghanistan who worked for the British indirectly, for instance as a driver for an Army interpreter. Those people are in hiding and are terrified. Will the Minister clarify whether such individuals will be prioritised for the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme?
Again, I really cannot be expected to make decisions such as the hon. Member describes at the Dispatch Box. The ARAP scheme has been defined by the MOD. We are setting out the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme. If there are queries about eligibility, then I encourage her to look at the gov.uk website for greater guidance.
This morning, a family with a very sick child, one of 300 people placed in a quarantine hotel in Shepherd’s Bush, were told to get on a coach to Stockport, despite having lodged an application for housing assistance in Hammersmith. On Saturday, 90 Afghan evacuees arrived at a bridging hotel in Fulham with no money, the clothes they stood up in, and no information about what was happening to them. A local charity, West London Welcome, and our council are trying to help. If we try to get through to the Home Office, it does not answer emails or phone calls. Is this what the Minister means by Operation Warm Welcome?
On bridging accommodation, the hon. Gentleman will know, I hope, that we have had many thousands of people to rehouse out of quarantine very quickly. There are some 68 hotels being used around the country, and we have had to deal with those places as they are available. On provisions and other requirements, we have a scheme in place whereby the managers of the hotels have contacts with the Home Office to provide exactly the sorts of provisions that people need. In addition, local groups, charities and people have donated things that are available to hotels. If there is a particular problem in a hotel, the hon. Gentleman must please let me know, because we will nip it in the bud.
I thank the Minister for her statement, but my constituents and I grow increasingly worried the longer casework emails go unanswered. That is no criticism of all the hard-working civil servants who have worked around the clock. I have written to the Home Secretary again today to request updates on two cases where constituents have found their family members—one an 18-year-old woman—particularly vulnerable under the new regime. Can the Minister confirm what criteria the Home Office is using to assess vulnerability for applicants wishing to come to the UK and join their British family here?
I do not want to have to repeat the answers I have given in relation to correspondence, because I know the pressures of time. As I say, there will be a “Dear colleague” in due course, and I hope that that will help to deal with some of the hon. Member’s correspondence.
What reassurance can the Minister give to the 3,000 Afghans who were in our asylum system prior to the fall of Kabul? What lessons will she take from what other European countries are doing around a fast-track system? Crucially, can she give the assurance that under no circumstances will anyone be deported back to Afghanistan?
We have said that there will be no more returns to Afghanistan. If someone is in the asylum system, they are supported, and their claim will remain within the asylum system as usual.
First, let me place on the record the readiness and willingness, once again, of North Lanarkshire Council to stand forward for the Afghan refugees, just like we did for the Syrian refugees and, before that, for the Congolese when we welcomed them to North Lanarkshire. Will the Minister please heed the warnings by both the First Minister of Scotland and the leader of Glasgow City Council that the commitment to rehouse 20,000 in the long term and to resettle just 5,000 in the first year is clearly not sufficient? Clearly, in the context of the humanitarian crisis that is unfolding, a far more ambitious programme is required. It is always worth saying that in Scotland, refugees are welcome.
I am very happy to thank councils across the United Kingdom that have played their part. As I say, I am very much looking forward to others joining our voluntary scheme. In terms of numbers, I will not repeat what I have already said. We just want to make sure that we are welcoming people in a structured and measured way, as we have in the past with the Syrian scheme. We very much look forward to working with partners across the United Kingdom to achieve that.