Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme

– in the House of Commons at 12:51 pm on 6th January 2022.

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Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister for Afghan resettlement 12:51 pm, 6th January 2022

I wish you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and the House a happy new year, and I welcome Yvette Cooper to her place. With permission, I will update the House on the Government’s continuing support for Afghans.

The United Kingdom has always been generous to those fleeing persecution. Last August, as the situation in Afghanistan deteriorated rapidly and dangerously, we worked at great speed to evacuate about 15,000 people to the United Kingdom and offer them immediate sanctuary and support. That number was the second largest number evacuated by any country, behind only the United States of America.

Our priorities during Operation Pitting were clear: to save as many lives as possible, while keeping the British public safe. The people evacuated included courageous Afghans who had worked closely with the British armed forces, as well as other vulnerable people at risk and British nationals and their families living in Afghanistan. Since that evacuation, we have helped a further 1,500 people enter the UK, including female judges, human rights defenders and LGBT Afghans.

Today, I am pleased to inform the House that the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme opens formally. We will resettle up to 20,000 people under the scheme. I emphasise that it is in addition to the Afghan relocation and assistance policy, which provides a route to safety for any current or former locally employed staff working with the UK Government. About 7,000 people have already been helped through that scheme alone. The United Kingdom therefore has one of the world’s most generous humanitarian offers to vulnerable Afghans. This is the Government’s new plan for immigration in action, through which we help those in greatest need via that safe and legal route.

In September, we announced our aim to settle 5,000 people in the first year of the ACRS. In light of the emerging situation and the success of our evacuation efforts, we will exceed that aim. The first to be resettled under the new ACRS will be those already evacuated and in the UK, who include women’s rights activists, journalists and prosecutors, as well as the Afghan families of British nationals. We are supporting those British nationals who have been assisted by Her Majesty’s Government to the UK, as well as their families who require such help, because we recognise that they experienced the same trauma and have the same needs as their Afghan neighbours fleeing Kabul alongside them.

While this policy work has been developed, we have got on with the job and now granted the first people indefinite leave to remain under the ACRS, and we will open two further referral pathways under the ACRS this year to bring more people here safely. From the spring, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees will refer refugees in need of resettlement who have fled Afghanistan. The UNHCR has the global mandate to provide international protection and humanitarian assistance to refugees. We will continue to receive such referrals to the scheme in coming years.

The third referral pathway will resettle those at risk who supported the UK and international community effort in Afghanistan, as well as those who are particularly vulnerable, such as women and girls at risk and members of minority groups. In the first year of this third referral pathway, the Government will honour our commitments and offer ACRS places to the most at risk: British Council and GardaWorld contractors and Chevening alumni. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office will be in touch with those eligible to support them through the next steps of this process. Beyond the first year of the ACRS, we will work with international partners and non-governmental organisations to design and deliver this unprecedented third pathway further. This will allow us to welcome wider groups of Afghans at risk beyond year 1.

As I have said before, the capacity of the UK to resettle people is not unlimited. We have had to take some very difficult decisions about who will be prioritised for settlement, and it is, frankly, for other countries to step up and follow the United Kingdom’s ambitious lead. This scheme reflects the realities of the scale of the challenge, our previous pledges and our endeavours to resettle people well in the UK. We continue our international efforts in Afghanistan and the region. In addition to continuing to bring at-risk people to the UK, we have been co-ordinating closely with international partners, including through our presidency of the G7. We have doubled our aid for Afghanistan to £286 million, including vital humanitarian assistance to save lives this winter.

In conclusion, in the four months since Operation Warm Welcome was launched, we have worked across 10 Government Departments, and with all devolved Administrations and around 350 councils and local agencies, as well as with charities and volunteers, to offer a new start to our new citizens and the freedom to succeed in the United Kingdom. We have provided immediate sanctuary for more than 1,200 people, including with accommodation, food, healthcare, education and support. More than 4,000 people have moved, or are being moved, into their new homes since the first ARAP flights in June. This is an unprecedented pace of resettlement. I am pleased to confirm to the House that, contrary to some reporting over Christmas, all children who were evacuated under Operation Pitting are now in school, and those children who have joined us since Operation Pitting closed are of course being placed in schools as quickly as possible.

Ninety-seven per cent. of evacuees are registered with GPs and everyone has been offered covid vaccinations. We have launched a brand-new housing portal on gov.uk for members of the public to offer accommodation. We are working with the regulators and professions to assess and recognise Afghans’ qualifications, especially in sectors that need recruits, such as teaching and healthcare. We have made it easier for local community groups to support Afghans through the community sponsorship scheme, which will begin welcoming Afghan families later this month. We have developed a new integration programme tailored to the needs of this traumatised group of people, which has been piloted and which we will be rolling out shortly. We are also creating, from scratch, a new approach to employment, housing and integration to help Afghans to become self-sufficient as quickly and as well as they can. This is the new plan for immigration in action.

I have always acknowledged that resettling such large numbers of people well will take time and demands care. I therefore urge colleagues across the House to work with their councils and communities to help us to build bright futures for our new Afghan citizens. I commend the statement to the House.

Photo of Yvette Cooper Yvette Cooper Shadow Secretary of State for the Home Department 12:59 pm, 6th January 2022

I thank the Minister for her statement today and advance sight of it.

It is now five months since the devastating scenes at Kabul airport and the shambolic withdrawal of UK, US and other troops, leaving the Taliban in charge and putting those who had worked for our armed forces and on our Government projects, and who had stood up to the Taliban, in danger and at risk of retribution and persecution. I welcome Operation Pitting and pay tribute to the armed forces who ran it to get so many people out at the last minute, but all of us in this Parliament know that the operation between Government Departments was chaotic, lacked proper senior support and should have been planned many months previously, and all of us know many more lives have been put at risk because of those Government failings.

The Prime Minister and the Home Secretary rightly promised that we would both help those to whom we owed direct obligations—British citizens, their families, those who worked for us and on our projects—and do our bit alongside other countries to resettle others whose lives were at risk through the Afghan resettlement scheme, and they reassured us many times that the resettlement scheme would cover 20,000 people in addition to those to whom we owed direct obligations. They also rightly promised:

“The UK Government will always stand by those in the world in their hour of need when fleeing persecution or oppression.”

Five months and thousands of hours passed until the resettlement scheme has now opened. Since then we have seen a truly dire humanitarian crisis escalate in Afghanistan, with those we promised to help still in peril. British nationals, British Council staff and others are still in hiding, family members have been executed, and non-governmental organisations with staff who worked on UK contracts say that 95% of those staff not only did not get out but still have not even had replies from the British Government to their ARAP applications. That is shameful. So does the Minister accept that the delays in setting up the resettlement scheme and the complete failure to respond to so many of those ARAP relocation applications from people who worked on UK projects have broken some of those important promises and put lives at risk?

On the resettlement scheme, at the heart of the Minister’s statement appears to be the announcement that the first to be helped will be people who are already here, and she appeared to suggest that that would include the Afghan families of British nationals and British nationals themselves. Will she clarify: clearly British nationals and their families should get support, but why are they being counted in the resettlement scheme? Can she reassure us that those Afghan family members and British citizens are not being counted in the number of resettlement places the Government have promised?

Can the Minister also tell us how many of the places now counted as part of the resettlement scheme are going to people who were previously counted in the relocation scheme? She will know that there is huge concern about rumours that Government Departments have been trading people and trying to shunt people around in order to reduce the numbers who would be supported, and she will understand how deeply shameful that would be if true. Can she please clarify that?

Can the Minister also give us a clear fact: how many people will additionally be arriving in the UK as part of the resettlement scheme between now and September? She must have a figure for that further number to be helped this year.

Can the Minister also tell us about the detail of the scheme? Why are the UNHCR referrals not starting until the spring, and how many will there be? The third pathway, which refers to the British Council and Chevening scholars, is very welcome, but what about the other NGOs and contractors that had staff working on UK contracts: is she saying they will not get any reply or help until next year? What are people currently in hiding supposed to do until then?

The Minister has also not included an additional family route within the resettlement scheme; she will know I have been pressing her on that—for those who have family here in the UK to be able to apply to be included in the resettlement scheme if their lives are at risk because they have family in the UK, and who could indeed care for them. I say to her that I am really worried that those at risk now from the Taliban who have connections to the UK are at risk of exploitation by people traffickers and smugglers as they get desperate.

We have already heard of increasing numbers of Afghans arriving in Calais. We have had a report of an Afghan soldier who arrived here with his family in a flimsy boat, having been exploited by traffickers and criminal gangs. Those who helped our armed forces should not end up in a flimsy boat, in peril from the cold sea of the English channel. Does the Minister accept that the Government need to urgently sort out the resettlement places, the relocation of those we have no obligation to, and support and routes for family members? Otherwise, more people will be exploited by the criminal gangs and more people will be at risk. Finally, what are the Government doing to show international leadership, in partnership, to ease the terrible humanitarian crisis that is escalating in Afghanistan? Without such action, we will see not just the humanitarian crisis but the refugee crisis get worse.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister for Afghan resettlement

I thank the right hon. Lady for her questions. I take issue with her description of the evacuation of 15,000 human beings from Afghanistan in the incredibly dangerous circumstances that we all saw on our television screens in August as “shambolic”. That is not a word that I would have used to the brave soldiers and armed forces personnel who arrived in this House only a month ago, and whom we all thanked for their very significant and brave efforts.

Flights started in June and the ARAP scheme started in April last year. To give an idea of the scale of it, we have received more than 99,000 applications to the scheme since April. We are working at pace to assess them on a case-by-case basis. As this House has heard before, we have to be very careful about the security situation. There are sadly some who claim to be eligible for the schemes who are not. I remember particularly an intervention from my hon. Friend Mr Bone, in a previous statement, setting out the circumstances of an individual who was claiming to be someone they were not. We therefore need to ensure that security checks are conducted and that the right people, accurately identified as having been eligible under ARAP, are brought over and helped. We have a dedicated team working seven days a week to process and bring eligible Afghans to the UK. We completely reject the accusation that the ARAP programme has been ineffective. The work of the Ministry of Defence and others continues to identify those who are eligible under ARAP.

I am very happy to clarify the situation for British nationals and their families. British nationals are still being supported. Ordinarily, British nationals arriving in the United Kingdom would not receive the level of support that they receive at the moment, but we have been realistic. We have understood that their needs are such that, if they have been assisted by the Government to come to the United Kingdom before the launch of the scheme, they should be treated in parity with those who flew next to them in planes across from Kabul and so on. Non-British families—Afghan families—are being included in the ACRS, because the scheme is about helping those who are at risk. People have been evacuated because they are at risk, and we want to give them that support. Helping their families, as well as British nationals, is a very generous offer to residents. That is why we were able to exceed our initial, very ambitious, intention to rehome 5,000 people in the first year.

There were comments about trading people. I do not think that that is appropriate phrasing for officials who are working very hard across Government to try to bring to this country human beings whose safety we understand is at very grave risk. As I have said throughout, this is very difficult. We will have to make some very difficult decisions. There is a population of approximately 40 million people in Afghanistan, and very many of them are very scared. We must apply the principles, and do so knowing that there will be some people whom we cannot help, very sadly.

In terms of the UNHCR, we are hoping that we can begin to bring people forward from the spring. We have been working with the UNHCR and other international organisations throughout the process to stand the scheme up.

We agree with the right hon. Lady’s very understandable concerns about illegal migration—the flimsy boats across the channel, people in desperate need of help, the plight of those who are in the hands of people traffickers. That is why we introduced the Nationality and Borders Bill and would love the Labour party to accept it.

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland Conservative, South Swindon

I commend not only my hon. Friend’s statement, but the deep commitment that she shows to the task; I am grateful, as we should all be, that she is here at this time. May I press her on the plight of Afghan judges? There is continuing concern about the safety of many judges who are frankly now a target for the new regime because of the decisions that they made under the previous regime. Will my hon. Friend update the House on the safe progress of judges to the United Kingdom and on the work of the UK Government in helping to signpost judges to third countries as part of an international effort to safeguard their interests?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister for Afghan resettlement

May I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on his further elevation? I am delighted that his skills and experience have been recognised.

The care of Afghan judges, particularly female judges, is a matter that I know interests many colleagues across the House. We have already offered a home to more than 20 senior Afghan judges and prosecutors and their dependants; sadly, we cannot offer a home to all Afghan judges, but we look to others in the international community to play their part in supporting those who have upheld the rule of law. We really must work together across the international community to support such people. I would be delighted to meet my right hon. and learned Friend and others to further discuss how we can signpost judges to third countries, as well as our own, to ensure that they are safe.

Photo of Anne McLaughlin Anne McLaughlin Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration, Asylum and Border Control)

I thank the Minister for advance sight of her statement. I welcome the shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper, to her place.

I welcome the fact that the scheme is finally starting, but it has taken far too long. The Minister talked about the “emerging situation” in Afghanistan, but it is not emerging. As she said herself, ARAP started in April and there was an emergency in August.

I welcome some of the specifics in the statement, such as working to recognise Afghan qualifications to enable people to work here in their profession. However, it feels as if there has been a bit of sleight of hand, and I want to know more about the figures. The Government cannot keep patting themselves on the back and talking about up to 20,000 people, because any number below 20,000 is “up to 20,000”. We have to be clear about that. I also share the concerns about restricting the ARAP criteria, which are leading to understandable suspicion about the reasons. I found the exposé in The Times deeply worrying.

I have a number of questions for the Minister. Will those who are here on ARAP but are being transferred to the ACRS retain the right to family reunion? I hope that she will answer that question today, and I very much hope that she will be able to allay our fears.

I was a bit confused on reading through the statement. Do people have to be identified or can they apply for the scheme? My reading of the statement was that it could be 2023 before any new Afghans arrive in this country. Surely that cannot be right.

The Minister rightly said that British nationals in Afghanistan

“experienced the same trauma and have the same needs as their Afghan neighbours”,

but what about those who did it—those who got out and have arrived or will arrive here by boat? Are their traumas and their needs not the same? The Nationality and Borders Bill says not; it says that they are illegal and could face up to four years in jail or be offshored, never to be reunited with their families.

The Minister talked about welcoming women and girls after year one. Nargis is 19. She and her husband fled to Pakistan, not realising that she would be in danger there, too. She is pleading with me, for the sake of her unborn baby, to help her escape. I told her that I would have news in January. Can the Minister please tell me what I should tell Nargis now?

Some of my constituents have family in hiding in Afghanistan. I have not heard anything today about how they can apply or whether anyone can apply—a crucial question, because the more vulnerable someone is, the less able they are to flee to a neighbouring country. How does someone in danger in Afghanistan apply?

Finally, I spoke this morning to the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. It has been calling for details for some time, so it welcomes this confirmation, but it has a number of questions. The biggest question is whether everyone with indefinite leave to remain will get refugee status, which gives different rights. The families that COSLA is working with need to know so that they can make informed decisions. All 32 Scottish councils stand ready to support the Afghan schemes; I hope that the Minister can give them a bit more detail in her response.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister for Afghan resettlement

I thank the hon. Lady for her questions. Just to help her understand, the ARAP scheme stands alongside the ACRS, so there is no question of people being transferred between the schemes. If people have met the eligibility under ARAP, they remain under ARAP. The ACRS is, as it were, the civilian scheme, whereas ARAP particularly looks after locally employed staff who worked with the Government and with the armed forces.

ARAP principals have been evacuated—some 7,000, including dependants. Throughout this, we have extracted not just principals, but their spouse, partner, children or dependants under the age of 18. One of the reasons why we have the issue of housing so many people at once is the size of some of the families we are having to rehouse.

We do have people arriving. Again, I hope the House understands that the security situation in the region is such that we cannot give definite numbers of who will arrive when each week because, by definition, there are many factors out of our control. However, some 1,500 people have already arrived since Operation Pitting was closed, both under ARAP and those who will fall to be eligible under the ACRS.

The hon. Lady speaks about the very troubling case she has raised. Again, I hope she will understand—I have made this clear in previous statements—that I cannot give advice off the cuff at the Dispatch Box for people who are in great danger. However, we are working closely with countries in the region to find safe routes for eligible Afghans to be evacuated from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. These efforts are ongoing and will continue as the situation changes and develops.

We are very keen to emphasise that the safety and security of eligible Afghans and their families is paramount. Indeed, the Minister for the Armed Forces visited the region recently to identify what more we can do to work with both third-country and in-country applicants. We are exploring a range of options. I cannot go into details, but we are very much working with a wide range of allies and partners to see what more can be done.

Finally, I welcome—genuinely welcome—the support of Scottish councils in playing their part in our United Kingdom-wide effort to give homes to our new Afghan citizens. In relation to refugee status, those who come under the UNHCR scheme will be given refugee status by virtue of being referred by the UNHCR. We do not plan to do the same for others, simply because everyone who comes under ARAP and the ACRS will have indefinite leave to remain and will be as free to work, to enjoy their lives, to build their homes and to build their futures as any other person with indefinite leave to remain in the United Kingdom.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. Before we go any further, I do need to stress that a lot of people want to contribute on this statement and we have an important and well-subscribed Backbench Business debate afterwards. I would ask that colleagues put one question to the Minister to allow the Minister to give brief replies. This is very important, but we do need to move a little more quickly than we are at the moment if I am to have any hope of getting everybody in.

Photo of Bob Neill Bob Neill Chair, Justice Committee, Chair, Justice Committee

May I return briefly to the point raised by my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Robert Buckland about judges and prosecutors? The Minister will know that much work has been done by judges and lawyers in this country. People such as the noble Lord Goldsmith, Baroness Kennedy and Dame Maura McGowan, whom she and I both know, have done much to try to assist on this. There is concern about how the practical outworking of this will develop as the scheme goes forward. The scheme itself is welcome, but is she prepared to meet me and other interested parties to discuss the practical ways in which we can help these judges and prosecutors, particularly women? After all, many of them put their lives on the line to assist and protect British troops when prosecuting and judging those who had committed atrocities against our own people.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister for Afghan resettlement

I very much thank my hon. Friend, and I would be delighted to meet him and others involved in this effort. We are very conscious of the debt we owe to such judges. That is why I am very pleased that we have been able to welcome some already, but I do very much want to listen to the concerns in relation to others.

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Chair, Home Affairs Committee, Chair, Home Affairs Committee

I thank the Minister for her statement this morning. I know that the Home Affairs Committee will want to look in detail at the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme in the coming months and take evidence from the Minister. May I press her on one issue that we raised in a recent Select Committee meeting? It is the problem of those local authorities that do not put themselves forward for schemes such as these, resulting in the burden not being evenly shared across the country. Will councils be compelled to participate? When councils are involved in these schemes, can she guarantee that the Home Office will be constructive in consulting with those councils and providing the resources that they need?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister for Afghan resettlement

I welcome the right hon. Lady to her new place. I very much look forward, I think, to being scrutinised by her formidable Committee. I am very happy to thank those local authorities, some of which have gone way beyond what we could have hoped for in offering actual properties for people to move into. This is why we have already been able to achieve 4,000 people being moved into or about to move into their homes. This is an unprecedented scale compared with the Syrian resettlement scheme, in which 5,000 people were resettled in a year. We have now managed to resettle around 4,000 in just six months, but there is so much more to do. We are very much working with councils to encourage and persuade them, and to clarify the funding arrangements, because I know that some have had concerns about that. We really must have every council play its part, so that we can welcome people across the country and so that they can contribute to our local communities across the United Kingdom.

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker Conservative, Wycombe

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on everything that she is achieving. I listened carefully to the answers she gave to the Scottish National party on safe routes. I want to put before her the plight of people in Wycombe who have family in Afghanistan. They believe that those family members were eligible for visas before the evacuation, but those family members are now often in hiding and afraid, and they have no means of getting a visa and coming to join their family in the UK. What should we be telling those people? Will we honour the visas, and how?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister for Afghan resettlement

I know that this is an issue that is concerning many of our constituents. We have the safe and legal routes under the new plan for immigration, of which the ACRS and ARAP are a part. The family reunion rules will continue to apply, but I appreciate the difficulty that some are having in relation to still being in Afghanistan. That is why the work being done by the Minister for the Armed Forces, my hon. Friend James Heappey, is so important. It is through working with countries and regions that we will, I hope, be able to find other routes out, but we must emphasise to those individuals in Afghanistan that they will have a far better evaluation of their own safety and what they need to do to keep safe than I, sadly, can offer from the Dispatch Box today.

Photo of Tim Farron Tim Farron Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Back in the summer, when the Government announced the scheme, we were told:

“Priority will be given to women and girls, and religious and other minorities, who are most at risk of human rights abuses and dehumanising treatment by the Taliban.”

However, the Minister has just told us in her statement that women and children, LGBT people and people from religious minorities will not be able to apply until year two of the scheme. Back in the summer, they were a priority. Now, they will feel betrayed and abandoned to persecution or worse. Will she reconsider her decision?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister for Afghan resettlement

I am very happy to correct the hon. Gentleman. He will know that we have already flown over people who fulfil those criteria. For example, three cohorts of LGBT Afghans have now been helped by the Government and civil society partners to leave Afghanistan. The Government are working with Stonewall, Micro Rainbow and other LGBT charities to support those cohorts and help them to set up their new lives in the UK. The point about recognising the vulnerabilities of those who have already been flown to the UK is significant because the groups that he understandably highlights in his question are among those who have already been evacuated and who, as I have made clear throughout my appearances at the Dispatch Box and, importantly, in our statement of 13 September, would fall to be eligible under the ACRS.

Photo of Duncan Baker Duncan Baker Conservative, North Norfolk

The Afghan citizens resettlement scheme is clearly one of the most generous in the world, as my hon. Friend has rightly set out. Does she agree that 20,000 people is a very significant number that continues to reflect the fact that the United Kingdom has been one of the most hospitable countries in helping people in need, provided they come here by safe and legal means?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister for Afghan resettlement

Very much so. Of course my hon. Friend knows that, in addition to the ACRS, we also have the ARAP scheme on which MOD officials and armed forces personnel continue to work very tightly. Although we have set the limit at up to 20,000 under the ACRS, the ARAP scheme sits alongside it and has no such limit. International comparisons are difficult, but the equivalent figure for the United States, for example, would be over 100,000 and we do not believe that any other country, thus far, will exceed 10,000. We believe we can be proud of what we have achieved, but we very much recognise that there is a lot of hard work ahead of us to ensure that people who are evacuated to the United Kingdom are given the warm welcome we have rightly promised.

Photo of Afzal Khan Afzal Khan Shadow Minister (Justice)

The humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan is worsening by the day. Huge numbers of people do not know where their next meal will come from as they endure harsh winter conditions, and Islamic Relief is one of the few organisations working on the ground to provide emergency relief. Despite this, eligibility for ARAP was narrowed by the Home Office in December. The Government have a moral responsibility and duty to protect all vulnerable Afghans. Will the Minister now reverse that decision?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister for Afghan resettlement

May I take this opportunity to thank not just the hon. Gentleman but his local councils in Manchester, which have done a great job of looking after people in bridging accommodation? I know the councils also want to take people permanently.

On ARAP, I believe the Minister for the Armed Forces, my hon. Friend James Heappey, used the phrase “necessary housekeeping.” We had to clarify the rules and eligibility criteria to remove uncertainty on who qualifies. By making it clearer for those who think they might be eligible, there will be more consistent decision making. Spouses and partners, along with children under the age of 18, will qualify as ARAP dependants under the immigration rules and will be eligible for relocation if the lead applicant is successful.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament

The Minister mentioned former Chevening scholars being eligible under one strand of the new scheme. May I once again draw the House’s attention to the scholars who are already fully validated and fully funded by the Council for At-Risk Academics, which has been rescuing scholars at risk of oppression since 1933? Most of the limited number of people CARA has validated and funded are applying for ordinary student visas, but it is taking a very long time. Will she look into that and speed it up?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister for Afghan resettlement

I am very happy to do so. I thank my right hon. Friend for his consistent effort to help these academics. We may be able to find a route through the expanded community sponsorship scheme, but I will meet him after taking it away and seeing what can happen.

Photo of Stephen Doughty Stephen Doughty Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development)

The Minister will know about the warm welcome in my Cardiff South and Penarth constituency from local authorities, the Welsh Government and community organisations, which is why it is particularly frustrating that I have not been able to resolve a number of the complex cases that I have raised with her and other Ministers. One case involves a British Council contractor who should have been eligible under ARAP. They are now out of Afghanistan in Qatar, but they are separated from their family in the UK. Are they supposed to continue under ARAP, or should they take this third route? Will she meet me to discuss that and the cases involving children under the age of 18 who are still separated from their families in the UK, which we raised in October?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister for Afghan resettlement

I am grateful to all local authorities that are helping, including those in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. I hope he will understand that I cannot give an answer at the Dispatch Box, but I will happily meet him imminently to discuss the case he raises.

Photo of Siobhan Baillie Siobhan Baillie Conservative, Stroud

I thank my hon. Friend for her work on this hugely complex and important task. Stroud constituents have put me in touch with more than 100 Afghanistan people, largely in family groups, whose life and work in the Government in pre-Taliban Afghanistan mean that they are now in daily danger. Sadly, over the past few months I have made very little progress on these cases, particularly since we were told that cases were sent to the Ministry of Defence. For the sake of completeness, will my hon. Friend clarify what happens to those cases being held by the MOD now that the new resettlement scheme is live? What message would she give to those people and to my constituents whom we are trying to help?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister for Afghan resettlement

I thank my hon. Friend for all the hard work and diligence she has shown in representing her constituents, who understandably have real concerns about their family members. I will happily meet her to discuss the matter. Because the launching of the scheme is such a significant event and many, many constituents throughout the country have contacted their Members of Parliament, it will take us a little bit of time to sort through individual cases, but I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to clarify the situation and to see whether we can make progress. As I say, people who are already here in the United Kingdom will be on the pathway to settlement because we have worked so quickly after Operation Pitting.

Photo of Joanna Cherry Joanna Cherry Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice and Home Affairs)

May I raise with the Minister again the particular vulnerability of women who were formerly judges and prosecutors in Afghanistan? She knows that I have been working with Marzia Babakarkhail, a former judge who is in the United Kingdom and is in touch with many of these women. The Minister said that some will have already come to the United Kingdom, but my understanding is that they are mainly very senior judges who were based in Kabul, at the heart of things; Marzia is particularly concerned about female judges and prosecutors in the provinces of Afghanistan. Will the Minister take some time to meet me and Marzia to discuss how the United Kingdom can help these women, whether by bringing them here or by helping them to get to a third country? Will she afford some time for such a meeting?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister for Afghan resettlement

I would be happy to do so. The hon. and learned Lady makes an important point. She has got the point, if I may say so, that sadly we will not be able to help every Afghan judge, but if we can signpost them to other countries that may be able to help, we will of course be pleased and keen to do so.

Photo of Robert Jenrick Robert Jenrick Conservative, Newark

I, too, thank my hon. Friend for her excellent work on the scheme thus far. As was implied by the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, Dame Diana Johnson, the long-term success of the scheme will depend on the Minister and the Government persuading local authorities to participate and on giving them the tools to succeed. That is more difficult than it was with the Syrian scheme because local authorities currently have literally tens of thousands of people, mostly asylum seekers, in hotel accommodation. There are currently 60,000 to 80,000 individuals—almost a constituency-worth of people—in hotels. What is my hon. Friend going to do to persuade local authorities throughout the United Kingdom to participate and to ensure that they have the funding and support that they need to do so?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister for Afghan resettlement

I thank my right hon. Friend for his role at the beginning of Operation Warm Welcome. He did an enormous amount to energise and persuade councils of the benefits they could derive from having new citizens in their local areas. We are looking at a wealth of options to try to address the housing needs that my right hon. Friend has articulated so well. Those options range from the generous funding package that we have set out for some months now under the resettlement scheme to approaches such as a jobs-first approach—namely, trying to match jobs with those Afghans who feel able to work, and with accommodation. We are seeing whether we can get help from employers to offer accommodation as part of their employment offer and we are using the likes of Rightmove and others to tap into the private rental market so that we get these people into permanent homes as quickly as possible.

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn Labour, Leeds Central

The change in the eligibility rules for ARAP has caused great concern to former British Council staff in Afghanistan, including those who are in hiding, in fear of their lives, because the Taliban are looking for them. What can the Minister say to them and their families about the help that the UK is able to offer, particularly given the fact that there is currently no means of issuing visas in Afghanistan to enable people to leave the country? Might the Government consider that in the not-too-distant future?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister for Afghan resettlement

As I said in my statement, the FCDO will be in touch with the three groups I described to advise them on the next steps of the process. We do, of course, have the security of the United Kingdom at the very heart of our approaches. I am told that the FCDO will be in a position to make contact with those people.

Photo of Felicity Buchan Felicity Buchan Conservative, Kensington

My council, Kensington and Chelsea, has welcomed and continues to host many, many hundreds of Afghan evacuees in bridging accommodation. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need councils across the country to step up with permanent accommodation? It is clearly in the interests of our Afghan evacuees that they move into permanent accommodation as quickly as possible, so they can put down permanent roots in those communities.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister for Afghan resettlement

I thank the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea for the great work it has done in supporting many, many Afghans and their families. Indeed, it has been leading our efforts to work up integration packages, so that people understand the values and laws of our country, as well as the day-to-day practical measures they need. I completely agree with my hon. Friend that the more councils that offer houses, the quicker people are moved out.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Chair, Work and Pensions Committee, Chair, Work and Pensions Committee

When will the Minister be able to tell us more about the arrangements for family reunion that she referred to earlier for people at risk in Afghanistan who have family here ready to support them? Will every effort be made to place people arriving from Afghanistan who have close family here wanting to help them in temporary accommodation close to their relatives?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister for Afghan resettlement

In relation to the first question, as I say, I am in the hands of my ministerial colleagues in the Ministry of Defence and the FCDO as to what can be done internationally, but the family reunion rules are as set out in the immigration rules. On trying to accommodate people in bridging accommodation close to their families—I think that was the right hon. Gentleman’s question—we are doing our level best, but I hope he and others will understand that, because of the scale of the evacuation and all the factors we have heard about, there are many factors we have to take into account, including the size of families, which we cannot always accommodate as quickly as we would like.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means, Chair, Standing Orders (Private Bills) Committee (Commons), Chair, Standing Orders (Private Bills) Committee (Commons)

Order. Statements are meant to take an hour or less. I will not let this statement run past an hour, so we need much shorter questions please.

Photo of Thomas Tugendhat Thomas Tugendhat Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee, Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee

May I first pay huge tribute to my hon. Friend, who has done such an extraordinary job? The amount of joy it has given me to welcome friends into this country has been frankly overwhelming, but there are many who are still stuck in third countries. Please can she address with the Foreign Office the support of those who are waiting for exit visas or support? Secondly, those who have written to me for support, and to many other Members across the House and the country, have often applied for schemes that have now been replaced. Will those applications be rolled into this scheme, or will they require resubmission?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister for Afghan resettlement

I thank my hon. Friend and I pay tribute to the very moving speech he gave in this Chamber over the summer. On the schemes being superseded by the ACRS and ARAP, if I may, I will discuss that with him outside the Chamber, because I just want to be clear about what schemes he is responding to. Our aim throughout is to get eligible people to the United Kingdom as quickly and as safely as possible, and then to settle them well within our country.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Shadow Solicitor General

Around 200 Afghan constituents have contacted me since August. In the main, they have either dependents stuck in Afghanistan or relatives who are at serious risk because they worked in support of coalition forces but do not qualify under the restrictions of the ARAP scheme. Can the Minister explain how those groups will be helped by her scheme? To me, and I suspect to them, it looks like a brick wall.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister for Afghan resettlement

Again, I hope the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I cannot analyse 200 cases off the cuff at the Dispatch Box. The ACRS has now been launched and the ARAP scheme was launched some time ago, and assessments are being conducted to refer eligible people to those schemes. The family reunion rules are set out in the immigration rules, and we are working with third countries and other international partners where we can to try to secure routes outside of Afghanistan to the United Kingdom.

Photo of Jack Brereton Jack Brereton Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent South

Stoke-on-Trent has already contributed far more than our fair share to refugee resettlement, and we are now supporting Afghans with rehousing. Given that many other parts of the country have done little to support refugee resettlement up to now, does my hon. Friend agree that we should ensure that councils who have done little up to now pay and play their fair share with the Afghan resettlement scheme?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister for Afghan resettlement

May I pay particular tribute to the good people of Stoke? They have been incredibly welcoming not just to Afghans but to many other immigrants to the country and looked after them. I very much acknowledge my hon. Friend’s point that it is for us all to play our part and to ask our councils to offer homes where they can and to identify properties. The quicker that we can get properties on our books, as it were, the sooner people can move out of bridging accommodation and build real, permanent futures for themselves and their families.

Photo of Lilian Greenwood Lilian Greenwood Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons)

I am clearly not alone in dealing with large number of constituents with family members trapped in Afghanistan. They are increasingly desperate, because until today they did not have any further detail about the resettlement scheme’s operation. Will the Minister now publish advice and guidance that we can provide to constituents with family members in Afghanistan whose lives are at risk? Having listened to the statement and knowing about the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Afghanistan and the dangers of travelling to a third country, I fear that those constituents will be losing all hope.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister for Afghan resettlement

Again, we have been clear from the start—it was clear in the 13 September statement—that this is not a process open for applications. It is a referral process precisely because of the numbers involved. We know that an enormous number of the population of some 40 million will feel unsafe, and we do not have an unlimited capacity to help all 40 million citizens. I encourage the hon. Lady to help her constituents who are looking at the family reunion rules and the schemes to see if there is a route for them.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

The Government have rightly included minority groups, including those at risk due to their religious beliefs, in the eligibility criteria for the ACRS. Will the Minister reassure me that the ACRS is now open to those vulnerable religious minorities and that that could be combined with community sponsorship?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister for Afghan resettlement

Very much so. I am told that some people who fall into the criteria described by my hon. Friend have already been evacuated to the United Kingdom. I know that she has been a real advocate for the community sponsorship policy. Indeed, I am proud to say that one of my local churches is making efforts to participate in that. I look forward to seeing that in my constituency.

Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Chair, Public Accounts Committee, Chair, Public Accounts Committee

The Minister has repeatedly talked about the family reunion rules and pointed to the existing rules. However, there are families who cannot pass the English language test to try to get into the UK—how on earth will they learn the English language under the current Taliban regime? Are the Government looking at loosening some of the rules of family reunion for Afghan families coming to join their family member in the UK? The family members have got housing and the ability to support their families and help them to learn English here, but that rule is one of the many barriers to them coming here in the first place.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister for Afghan resettlement

I understand the House’s focus on family reunion rules, because, as the hon. Lady said, so many already have family here. We have had to apply the rules as fairly and proportionately as we can, recognising the realities of the security situation in Afghanistan. We have no consular presence in Afghanistan, and the British Army withdrew at the end of August, so we are working with third countries and consulates in third countries to try to help people. I cannot pretend that this is an easy process. I have tried to be clear throughout with the House about just how difficult it is to get out people who are already in Afghanistan.

Photo of Bob Stewart Bob Stewart Conservative, Beckenham

Some 29 years ago, my battalion—my officers particularly—involved itself in getting our interpreters back to the United Kingdom from Bosnia. My battalion did it on its own; we often had to put people up. Eventually, we got accommodation, but we did not get support to help the people we brought in to get an education, medical care and jobs. I ask my hon. Friend to assure me that the system will follow all the way through to ensure that the people we are helping are helped all the way through the integration process.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister for Afghan resettlement

Again, I stand in awe of some of my right hon. Friend’s military achievements. He is right that we are trying to be ambitious in our integration schemes. We have put forward generous funding packages for housing, education and healthcare and, importantly, to focus on helping people to understand our values, customs and laws so that they can get going and build lives for themselves as quickly as possible. For example, it is great news that all children who were evacuated during Operation Pitting are now in school, and that is very much the tone and the progress that we want to make with everyone we welcome through Operation Warm Welcome.

Photo of Abena Oppong-Asare Abena Oppong-Asare Shadow Exchequer Secretary (Treasury)

May I ask the Minister about individuals who already have the right to live in the UK but cannot reach the UK safely? I have cases of people who already have leave to remain in the UK but are trapped in Afghanistan and have not been able to access consular support as they are not UK nationals.

One constituent has children in Afghanistan who applied for UK citizenship but have not been able to travel to the consulate in Pakistan to complete their application. Can the Minister explain what support will be given to those individuals? I also remind her that she agreed to meet me in September and I have sent a follow-up request but I still have not received a response.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister for Afghan resettlement

On that point, I apologise and that meeting will happen in the next seven days. On the hon. Lady’s point about people who are still in-country, as I said, we are working closely with countries in the region to find safe routes for eligible Afghans to be evacuated from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Those efforts are ongoing and will continue as the situation changes and develops. I am sorry that I cannot give her more information, but that, I am afraid, is the reality of the situation.

Photo of David Simmonds David Simmonds Conservative, Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner

I very much welcome today’s announcement, and in particular, the statement at the Dispatch Box in respect of resettling well. A key part of that for local authorities is ensuring access to education. What assessment has been undertaken to ensure the adequacy of the funding provided to local authorities so that every refugee child receives a good-quality education?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister for Afghan resettlement

We have published our support package for whole families, which of course includes children. It focuses on the needs of not just school-age children but, importantly, adults who may need support in learning English. We have a fund of £850 per eligible adult to help them to enrol on English for speakers of other languages courses.

The Department for Education has also announced that young people who wish to go on to higher education will fall into the system of having indefinite leave to remain, so they will not have to pay the sorts of fees that others from overseas have to pay. We are very keen that children be integrated as quickly as possible, because they are the future for ensuring that their families play an important part in our local communities.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means, Chair, Standing Orders (Private Bills) Committee (Commons), Chair, Standing Orders (Private Bills) Committee (Commons)

I appreciate that the Minister is giving very thorough answers, but from now on, people will have to be satisfied with quick answers. If they do not ask quick questions, not everyone will get in.

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury)

On 30 September, I received a letter from Lord Ahmad in response to the many cases of my constituents’ families stuck in Afghanistan. It listed all those cases and said whether they were with the Ministry of Defence or the Home Office. Can the Minister give me an update on the status of those people and what I can tell my constituents?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister for Afghan resettlement

I think that is an answer that should be provided outside the Chamber, Madam Deputy Speaker, given your recent encouragement.

Photo of Gareth Davies Gareth Davies Conservative, Grantham and Stamford

I thank the Minister for all her work to help those most at risk in Afghanistan. While it is of course right that we offer this support, it does come with a cost for our local authorities. Can she confirm that local authorities in our home county of Lincolnshire will be provided with additional funding for any resettlements that are made?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister for Afghan resettlement

Yes, very much so. I am delighted that local councils are responding as well as they are, but I very much encourage all councils to play their part in resettlements across the United Kingdom.

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar Labour, Warley

Can we get a bit more clarity, because many of us have large numbers of outstanding cases that are with various Government Departments? One problem has been all the various different schemes, and these are being pulled together. Will we get replies telling us where our constituents are in the system so that we can advise them, because many of those who provided services to the British forces, or indeed to the Afghan security services and the Afghan judiciary, even if they were not judges, seem to be being left out in the cold?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister for Afghan resettlement

The right hon. Gentleman will no doubt recall my “Dear colleague” letter of around 13 September in which I set out that I cannot provide detailed casework answers for people who are still in Afghanistan. There are now two schemes—ARAP and the ACRS. We have set out the eligibility criteria, as I explained in my statement. I encourage him to look at that statement as well as the statement that will come after this debate to see the details that we will be setting out.

Photo of Nickie Aiken Nickie Aiken Conservative, Cities of London and Westminster

I thank my hon. Friend for her statement and for the opening of the ACRS today. Local authorities in my constituency are playing their part. The Corporation of London is supporting 500 Afghan nationals with covid and flu vaccines. It is also, in the Guildhall, teaching them the English language, and now we need to be looking at the employment side. Addison Lee, the transport business in my constituency, has asked me to make it known that it is desperately keen to support the Government in skills and jobs for Afghan refugees. Will the Minister therefore explain what the employment strategy is for Afghan refugees?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister for Afghan resettlement

I thank my hon. Friend, and Westminster City Council and the City of London, who have done an amazing job in looking after so many people so well. I will refer her very good suggestion to the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend Mims Davies, who is responsible for employment. The DWP is working up plans and we are very keen to get people who are able to into jobs as quickly as possible.

Photo of Ruth Cadbury Ruth Cadbury Shadow Minister (International Trade)

Having had long experience of the delays and injustice meted out by the Home Office to my constituents seeking leave to remain or naturalisation, what is the Minister doing, in her cross-departmental role, to ensure that similar delays and injustice are not repeated for Afghan citizens applying for these schemes?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister for Afghan resettlement

The first families have already been granted indefinite leave to remain. The caseworking exercise continues and many thousands of people are being worked through at pace. But we are clear that anyone who is in this country under the ARAP or ACRS schemes will be eligible for indefinite leave to remain.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means, Chair, Standing Orders (Private Bills) Committee (Commons), Chair, Standing Orders (Private Bills) Committee (Commons)

I said that we would stop at one hour, but I cannot possibly leave out the last two people, who will be really, really brief.

Photo of Mark Fletcher Mark Fletcher Conservative, Bolsover

The UK has a very proud history of accepting people who are in great need. I think of the Ugandan Asian community, who I know very well. This scheme shows that we do have legal and safe routes to come and live in this country. Does that not reinforce the need to crack down on illegal routes, particularly the small boats? Does the Minister agree that the legislation that is currently in the House of Lords is vital in that fight?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister for Afghan resettlement

I am pleased to say that I do agree most wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend, who has articulated very well the issues facing this House and the country as a whole. What a shame it is that the Opposition only oppose and never come up with proper answers to these very difficult issues.

Photo of Fleur Anderson Fleur Anderson Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

The delay of this scheme has been very traumatic for many of my constituents who have family members at risk of being murdered or kidnapped as child brides for Taliban soldiers, which has happened to them. I will be meeting them next week. Can I tell them how they will know if they are in the system; how, if they cannot apply, they will know whether they are going to be contacted; and when is the earliest that they will be brought here if they are eligible for the third route that the Minister mentioned?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister for Afghan resettlement

I assume that the hon. Lady is talking about constituents here in the United Kingdom, because she is meeting them. If they are in bridging accommodation, they will be considered as part of either ARAP or ACRS, unless they are British nationals. In relation to people who are in Afghanistan, I refer the hon. Lady to my previous answers.