Afghanistan: Humanitarian Crisis

– in the House of Commons at 1:38 pm on 12th January 2022.

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Photo of Clive Lewis Clive Lewis Labour, Norwich South 1:38 pm, 12th January 2022

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs if she will make a statement on the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan.

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

Afghanistan is facing a serious and worsening humanitarian crisis. It is affecting well over half the population, with 23 million people facing acute food insecurity. This is now the world’s most severe food security crisis. The UN has this week requested nearly $4.5 billion for 2022—the largest humanitarian appeal on record, reflecting the magnitude of the humanitarian challenge ahead.

The UK has been at the forefront of efforts to address the situation, working with the UN Security Council, the G20, the G7 and countries in the region. The Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and other Ministers have all been working extensively with world leaders. In August, the Prime Minister announced that the UK would double its assistance for Afghanistan to £286 million this financial year, and we have now disbursed over £145 million. That will support over 3.4 million people in Afghanistan and the region, providing emergency food, healthcare, shelter, water and protection. We are working at pace to allocate the remaining funding in response to the developing crisis and the new UN appeal. Further details were in the ministerial statement on 15 December. I thank the British people for donating £28 million to the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal in December, of which £10 million was doubled by UK aid match funding. That has helped to provide lifesaving support.

We were particularly concerned about the impact of the situation on women, girls and other marginalised groups. Last month I, alongside the Minister of State with responsibility for south Asia, Lord Ahmad, met organisations representing women, LGBT+ and religious minorities to discuss support for their needs. In allocating UK aid, we want to ensure that women, girls and other marginalised groups have equal, safe and dignified access to assistance and services. We have pressed the Taliban to respect humanitarian principles.

Our partners report that aid is getting through. We continue to monitor the situation very carefully, especially in the winter months. Aid workers face challenges getting money into Afghanistan due to the banking system. We are working closely with multilateral organisations, banks and non-governmental organisations to address those challenges. We welcome the decision by the World Bank board in November to transfer £280 million to support the humanitarian response, but it is vital—it is vital—that the World Bank produces options to allocate the $1.2 billion remaining in the fund. It is important that donors across the world step up to the challenge, including by responding to the UN’s call for additional funding.

Photo of Clive Lewis Clive Lewis Labour, Norwich South

Afghanistan, as has been heard, is facing an escalating and multi-faceted humanitarian crisis. In response, the United Nations launched its largest ever single country appeal, in part because the crisis in Afghanistan embodies a new breed of 21st century international crisis, where the hazards of war collide with the hazards of climate change and a global viral outbreak. This has created a nightmarish feedback loop that punishes some of the world’s most vulnerable and destroys their country’s ability to cope. So far, the UK’s response has been woeful. It took five months for the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme to be put into place, while our aid commitment to Afghanistan in 2021 was lower than what was delivered in 2019.

A heavy dose of realpolitik is now needed to address the immediate crisis before us. Let me ask the Minister for more detail on how the Government will square the circle of dealing with the Taliban and playing their part in supporting Afghanistan and humanitarian aid. Let me also ask the Minister what plans her Department has to deal with the multi-faceted nature of this crisis. The $4.4 billion the UN has appealed for is only a stop-gap. It will not stop escalation. But if we do not meet the appeal, it will be £10 billion next year and a lot more suffering.

After two decades of military intervention costing at least £27.7 billion, the UK must now step up to the plate to meet the $4.4 billion requested. The UN cannot deliver at the scale and speed needed by working alone, so will global Britain now show global leadership? Will the Secretary of State agree to help those in urgent need, including 1 million children who face starvation, by convening a conference, as former Prime Minister Gordon Brown is calling for, with the United States, the EU and other willing partners to agree new financing to fully cover our obligation to this appeal?

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

As I said in my opening remarks, the situation is enormously serious. Indeed, it is now the world’s most severe food security crisis.

On the issues relating to supporting Afghan resettlement, of course everybody in this Chamber has had huge praise for all those who worked during Operation Pitting. It was incredibly challenging, but those on the ground, including the ambassador and his team from the Foreign Office, did amazing work. Since the evacuation, as the Minister for Afghan Resettlement, my hon. Friend Victoria Atkins made clear last week, we have helped a further 1,500 to enter the UK, including female judges, human rights defenders and LGBT Afghans. At that stage, of course, she announced the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme.

On getting more aid into the country, as I said in my opening remarks it is incredibly important that the world steps up to this challenge, especially towards meeting the UN appeal.The Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and other Ministers, including the Minister for the region, are working closely with world leaders, including in the US, the EU and the UN. Indeed, my colleague the responsible Minister is in regular co-ordination with all key international agency leads at the UN, including those for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNICEF, the World Food Programme and the International Rescue Committee. We will make more announcements in response to the UN appeal in the coming weeks, but I restate what I said in my statement about the importance of the World Bank giving options to unlock the $1.2 billion that remains in the fund.

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

I very much welcome my hon. Friend’s comments about co-operation with international organisations, particularly the Nobel prize-winning World Food Programme, which has done so much important work not just in the region, but around the world. What work is she doing with others in the region, including countries such as Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and even Iran, to get support together for those who are in the most vulnerable position that we have seen in generations?

This is not just about the misery that we are seeing in Afghanistan, where some people are even forced to sell their children. It is about a humanitarian response from the most generous country—from the United Kingdom—to people who are in desperate need and whom I hope will be supported not only to stay in their own homes and have a future, but to turn to opportunities that will build an economy and build the future that has been so cruelly torn away from them in recent months.

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I thank the Chair of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs for his close interest in the subject and for mentioning the plight of children. We are deeply concerned by the forced marriage practised in Afghanistan, particularly for children, and we are very aware of the risk that more women and young girls could be sold into marriage as the humanitarian situation worsens.

My hon. Friend asks what we are doing about international engagement. Since August, our international engagement has been focused on securing a co-ordinated humanitarian response, agreeing a co-ordinated approach to the Taliban-led regime and, as far as possible, preventing economic collapse. We have played an active role in seeking to build a shared new international approach since the Taliban takeover, working with the UN Security Council, the G20 and the G7 and engaging with other countries in the region. For example, the Foreign Secretary recently travelled to India, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, where she discussed Afghanistan and the importance of international co-ordination.

In October, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon—the Minister of State for south and central Asia, the United Nations and the Commonwealth—attended the annual open debate on women, peace and security at the UN Security Council, where he made it clear that the rights of Afghan women need to be front and centre. The Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and many other Ministers discussed Afghanistan with world leaders in the margins of COP26. We all urge the need to address the acute humanitarian situation. We are continuing to work very closely with countries across the world and across the region.

Photo of David Lammy David Lammy Shadow Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs

I thank my hon. Friend Clive Lewis for securing this hugely important urgent question.

As we stand here today, the situation in Afghanistan is more perilous than ever. Since the withdrawal of British and NATO forces in August, the country has entered a catastrophic free fall. It is by no means an exaggeration to say that the country is hurtling towards a humanitarian cliff edge that places millions of Afghans, including millions of children, at risk of starvation.

The facts are truly horrendous. More than 90% of the country’s health clinics and hospitals are without the funds that they need to stay open. Basic public services have been decimated, with teachers, doctors and nurses going unpaid. When you listen to those facts, Madam Deputy Speaker, you could be mistaken in believing that the situation in Afghanistan can get no worse and become no more perilous. Tragically, that would be misguided. With 97% of the Afghan population soon to be living below the poverty line, almost 23 million people are teetering on the edge of starvation. A further deterioration will have dire consequences for the people of Afghanistan and impact not the just the region but the UK, with more desperate people seeking sanctuary outside the country. We must ensure that our sanctions regime and our understandable desire to place pressure on the Taliban regime does not become an impediment to supporting the very people we seek to help. Whether we like it or not, some form of engagement is necessary if we are to support the people of Afghanistan.

After the chaos of withdrawal, after Brits and Afghans were left behind, after slashing aid to Afghanistan just last year only to U-turn and restore it, and after the damning whistleblower revelations, the Minister will understand why there is a chronic lack of confidence in the House about the ministerial leadership of her Department. Will the UK convene an urgent pledging conference, as suggested by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, to try to pressure the international community to meet the enormous need? What dialogue have the UK and other allies had with the Taliban—perhaps via the UN—over humanitarian access? Has the Minister met non-governmental organisations and civil society to discuss how the Government can better support their efforts?

The need could not be more urgent; nor could the situation be more grave. As a proud outward-looking country, we cannot turn our backs on ordinary Afghanis now. It is our moral imperative to act—and act swiftly—to help Afghanistan in its time of greatest need.

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

We are very concerned about the rapid economic contraction and the impact that that is having on the people of Afghanistan, especially as the cost of essential products is rising and people are struggling to withdraw funds. The World Bank predicts a 30% fall in GDP. It is a serious issue, and preventing humanitarian catastrophe in Afghanistan is in everyone’s interests. That is why we have already disbursed more than £145 million of humanitarian support. The details on where all that support has gone were in the December written ministerial statement. Further money has been pledged from the UK, and Ministers will make further announcements in response to the UN appeal in the coming weeks.

I believe that working with the UN through that appeal—the largest appeal that it has ever launched—is critical. Our funding is going through the Afghanistan humanitarian fund, the World Food Programme, the International Committee of the Red Cross, Red Crescent, and other UN organisations, all of which are trusted partners. As regards sanctions, the UK led the way on the sanctions carve-out to ensure that delivery of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan could continue. At present, we are hearing on the ground that aid is getting through. However, it is of course a particularly difficult time, because we know that winter is coming.

Photo of Nusrat Ghani Nusrat Ghani Conservative, Wealden

I would like first to raise the point that when children and young babies are sold into sexual and domestic slavery, we must not refer to that as marriage. I ask the Minister not to do so going forward.

What a shameful legacy we leave behind in Afghanistan, with millions on the brink of starvation. What conversations has the Minister had with Pakistan, which I think is already taking the most Afghan refugees? Will she ensure that we are working with people to create an understanding of what it is to live in a liberal democracy and not fuelling radicalisation in any way?

The Minister knows about the amount of work that I have done with many colleagues across the House to try to rescue Afghan women and girls, and Afghan female MPs in particular, but the Afghan resettlement programme is not working for the people whom I am trying to help. What assurances can she give that we will enable more women who could be killed by the Taliban to survive so that one day they can go back home and even help with the aid programme?

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My hon. Friend makes a very good point about children. She asks what we are doing with other countries in the region, including Pakistan. My colleague the Minister for south and central Asia, Lord Ahmad, is in regular contact with other neighbouring countries, and £30 million was allocated to help other countries in the region respond to the impact of the crisis on themselves.

We are committed to ensuring that at least half the aid reaches women and girls. Just before Christmas I met NGOs and organisations representing both women’s and girls’ organisation and LGBT organisations, and their feedback from the ground was incredibly helpful. The Minister for Afghan Resettlement made a statement on the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme last week, and she mentioned that three cohorts of LGBT people have already come to the UK under the scheme. We will continue to prioritise those women who are most at risk, but we need to recognise that, although we are doing a huge amount to help resettle people in this country, we need to support people on the ground, which is why we are working with world-leading organisations to focus always on the most vulnerable, including women and girls.

Photo of Chris Law Chris Law Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Development)

Even before our chaotic withdrawal, it was known that the people of Afghanistan faced a humanitarian crisis this winter. In September the UN estimated that only 5% of Afghans had enough food to eat each day, so the UK Government cannot say that this famine has caught them by surprise. With 1 million children at risk of severe malnourishment and 23 million people threatened with starvation, less than 25% of UK aid money pledged to Afghanistan in 2021 had been disbursed by the beginning of December, which is shocking.

With the UN launching an appeal for nearly £5 billion in aid for Afghanistan, will the UK Government ensure that all the funds pledged urgently reach those in need? Can the Minister confirm what new money the UK will donate, above and beyond the previous announcements? Will the UK Government finally recognise that their ideological cuts to aid have cost countless lives not only in Afghanistan but across the world, and will they reverse that decision?

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

To correct the record, because it is important that we make accurate statements, between April and December 2021 we disbursed over £145 million-worth of aid, £135 million of which went into lifesaving humanitarian support inside Afghanistan, including for food, health, nutrition, shelter, water, sanitation and landmine action. Another £10 million went into neighbouring countries to support new and existing refugees.

We are working quickly to develop plans to allocate the remainder of the £286 million to ensure that it reaches the people who need it most. We will be making further announcements in due course. We made a written ministerial statement just before Christmas, and we are working with NGO partners, including the Afghanistan Humanitarian Fund, the World Food Programme, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and other UN organisations. Those partners on the ground are distributing the aid that is needed. The important thing is that the world needs to step up to this challenge. This is the biggest challenge, which is why the UN has launched this appeal today.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

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

I want to try to get everybody in. It is therefore important that questions are short and to the point. We do not want a list of several questions; we want one question so that the Minister is able to reply accordingly.

Photo of Mark Logan Mark Logan Conservative, Bolton North East

In my new role as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Afghanistan, I look forward to co-hosting a meeting with the Minister for Afghan Resettlement at 2.30 pm alongside the all-party parliamentary group on women, peace and security.

Further to the question asked by Clive Lewis on the UN appeal for $4.4 billion, since the end of Operation Pitting in August 2021 what commitments and, indeed, how much aid have this Government already provided to Afghanistan?

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

Between April and December 2021 we disbursed over £145 million, including £135 million of lifesaving humanitarian support inside the country and £10 million to neighbouring countries.

Photo of Sarah Champion Sarah Champion Chair, International Development Committee, Chair, International Development Committee

The Taliban takeover caused an economic meltdown in Afghanistan. Banks ran short, millions lost work or went unpaid and the currency nosedived. Perversely, markets still have food, but the problem is there is no access to cash. People are starving, babies are malnourished, women are not allowed to work to feed their families and there is no money to heat homes. My Committee is clear: the Government must urgently fund emergency organisations such as the World Food Programme. Of the £286 million pledged, so far only £81 million has been disbursed. Can the Minister also update us on what steps are being taken to unfreeze assets and ensure that financial transactions linked to humanitarian aid are excluded from international sanctions, specifically including paying local aid workers? Then, can the Minister please monitor what the Taliban does with that?

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

There were a number of different questions. Just to be clear, £135 million of our aid has gone, to the end of December. No funds are going directly to the Taliban; they are going through the other organisations and trusted partners that I mentioned. The hon. Lady is absolutely right to mention the issues to do with getting money into Afghanistan and the banking system. We are working really closely with multilateral organisations, banks and NGOs to address these challenges. On the funding available to meet this crisis, it is really important that it is all unlocked, which is why I refer again to the importance of unlocking that $1.2 billion within the World Bank. Obviously we are a major shareholder in the World Bank. I spoke to our team at the World Bank just before Christmas. It is really important that we unlock that. Perhaps the hon. Lady would like to work with her colleagues in other Parliaments across the world who share her passion to encourage other members of the World Bank to focus on looking at the options for unlocking that vital cash.

Photo of Harriett Baldwin Harriett Baldwin Conservative, West Worcestershire

I congratulate Clive Lewis on securing this incredibly important urgent question. We have heard rightly from the Minister about the urgency of the humanitarian crisis, but there is also a learning crisis in Afghanistan, and all the progress made in getting children into education has gone back to the beginning. What can the Minister tell us about the Government’s efforts to ensure that teachers are getting paid, to sustain education for the generations to come in Afghanistan?

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

As ever, my hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise the issue of girls’ education. We are absolutely committed to girls’ education across the world and we absolutely believe that all girls in Afghanistan have the right to education at all stages—both secondary and primary. We continue to provide emergency education funding through the UN system, and multilateral funding, including for Education Cannot Wait and the Global Partnership for Education. It is currently holiday time in Afghanistan. The schools are due to reopen in March. One of the key partners that we work with on providing education in Afghanistan is Save the Children, and I have a long-scheduled meeting with the head of Save the Children immediately after these exchanges this afternoon. I am more than happy to speak to my hon. Friend immediately after that meeting.

Photo of Dan Jarvis Dan Jarvis Labour, Barnsley Central

The Taliban are a wicked regime responsible for murdering some of my friends. None of us wanted them in power, but Afghans have no choice. While humanitarian aid is desperately needed, it will never be enough. Millions are starving, the state has collapsed and the economy is in freefall. Further to the question just a moment ago from my hon. Friend Sarah Champion, how does the Minister plan to unfreeze state assets, lift sanctions and get the Afghan economy turning again?

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I completely agree with the hon. Member’s sentiment. None of us wanted to be in this situation; it is absolutely dire. The impact on the people of Afghanistan and especially those in vulnerable groups, women and children is heartbreaking. We will continue to focus on getting the aid and getting the international response. It is very important that the UN has launched that appeal today and we will continue to work with it on all sides.

We were very clear in our leadership in making sure that sanctions should not end up blocking that humanitarian aid, and I know that the Minister responsible will continue to ensure he is doing all he can with partners across the world and British leadership to ensure that that aid gets through. That is the immediate issue this winter, as well as continuing to press the Taliban to ensure that they keep their promises that girls can go back to school and that marginal groups will be respected.

Photo of Flick Drummond Flick Drummond Conservative, Meon Valley

I am looking forward to co-chairing the meeting on Afghanistan in about 15 minutes alongside the chair of the Afghanistan all-party parliamentary group, my hon. Friend Mark Logan. The tragedy is that Afghanistan produces much of its food, and the markets are well stocked; however, the collapse of the Afghan economy means that people are unable to afford food, particularly during the winter months, before they can go to their farms in the countryside. My question is very similar to the previous two. What can we further do to help the Afghan economy to recover?

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

There are multiple causes of the crisis; my hon. Friend is absolutely right on that. I know that she has travelled to the country in happier times. We are working really closely with the World Bank and the UN to find solutions that will enable international non-governmental organisations to access currency in Afghanistan, which is absolutely crucial. We will make further announcements in response to the UN appeal in the coming weeks.

Photo of Layla Moran Layla Moran Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (International Development), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

The situation is absolutely desperate and every penny counts, but how those pennies are spent matters. Yesterday, I spoke to an NGO working out there on the ground that said that, although of course it welcomes any money that it gets, the UK Government’s rigid, bureaucratic approach means that the money has been delayed. The timelines to spend it have shrunk, so it is not spent as effectively as possible. The NGO has noticed that those inefficiencies have got much worse since the merger between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development, just as the Liberal Democrats and others warned at the time. What we need now in responding to this dreadful crisis is not just more money but flexibility and timeliness in how it gets to our partners on the ground. Will the Minister commit to speaking to NGOs having those problems, and will the money be paid on time?

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My colleague, the Minister for the region, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, is in regular connect with NGOs. We have already disbursed over £145 million, which is going into life-saving humanitarian support. It is going to key partners, not directly to the Taliban, which is important. It is also really important that we help to unlock the funding that is currently sitting in the World Bank. That is a key pot of money that needs flexibility to get to people on the ground. The hon. Member is right to raise the need to unlock bureaucracy; I would point to that as a particular concern in that area. We are working very quickly on plans to reallocate the remainder of the £286 million, but we want to ensure that it reaches the people who need it the most. We are also ensuring that no funds are going directly to the Taliban.

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

At the start of the withdrawal, I had 656 constituents with families trapped in Afghanistan. Very sadly, the vast majority are still trapped in Afghanistan and want to leave. Therefore, the Afghan resettlement scheme has come as a big disappointment to all those families. What action will my hon. Friend take to enable those families who want to leave Afghanistan, and who assisted the UK and the USA when we were there, to leave and fulfil what they want to do, which is to live a proper and decent life?

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

The Afghan citizens resettlement scheme was announced by the Minister responsible, my hon. Friend Victoria Atkins, just last week. She pointed out that it is coming into place this year. We have announced an aim to settle 5,000 people in the first year of the ACRS. She also announced that, in the light of the emerging situation and the success of evacuation efforts, we will exceed that aim. The first to be resettled included women’s rights activists, journalists and prosecutors, as well as Afghan families of British nationals.

I would encourage my hon. Friend to work with the Minister for Afghan Resettlement on any individual cases that he has, but I would also say, as this question points out, that we need to support those in the country; it is not going to be possible to resettle every single case.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee of Privileges, Chair, Committee of Privileges

I am sorry—this is terrible. Every single element of this was not only predictable but predicted repeatedly for 18 months and longer. Operation Pitting was a disaster. We did not actually prioritise the right people, or we have no confidence that we prioritised the right people. We have abandoned lots of people, as Bob Blackman said. All of us have constituency connections with people who are stuck in Afghanistan, and the Minister has no means of enabling them to get to safety. We have abandoned them to a future where there is not enough food, there is not enough money to pay the bills, there is no electricity and most of the hospitals are not working properly. We have a complete disaster, and part of the blame for that lies at the Government’s door.

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

During Operation Pitting, we worked at great speed. Our armed forces on the ground worked at great speed and in great danger to evacuate around 15,000 people to the UK. That was the second largest number evacuated by any country, behind only the United States. We are supporting people in Afghanistan.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

With a large Afghan community as well, I am hearing every day stories of relatives who are murdered, who are disappeared, who are hungry and who are suffering from medical emergencies. That includes the husband and two children of a constituent of mine who are trapped in Afghanistan. It is simply not the case that the relatives of British nationals in this country are getting the assistance that they were promised and need. Please will the Minister take the desperate pleas of ourselves and our Afghan communities back and make sure they are heard in Government so that we can assist those people who may have a claim to come here?

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I agree that this is a really serious and difficult situation, especially for the people in Afghanistan. That is why we have been focusing on working with others on getting humanitarian aid in. Since the end of Operation Pitting, the UK has supported nearly 1,300 people to leave Afghanistan, including 700 British nationals and eligible dependants. We will continue to work to ensure that those still in Afghanistan are able to depart the country safely if they are eligible. I would encourage the hon. Lady to continue to work with the Minister for Afghan Resettlement on individual cases.

Photo of Alison McGovern Alison McGovern Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I thank my hon. Friend Clive Lewis for bringing forward this urgent question. Children facing starvation in a manner that was, as my hon. Friend Chris Bryant said, entirely predictable and predicted deserve the attention of the most powerful people in the world. So can I ask the Minister a direct question that has already been asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich South and my right hon. Friend Mr Lammy but that has not been answered? Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown has asked our Foreign Secretary to bring together an Afghan rescue conference so that those powerful people can do something about this issue. Is the answer yes or is the answer no?

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

Our Foreign Secretary, our Prime Minister, the Minister responsible and all members of the UK Government have been working with our international partners and showing international leadership on this issue. It is right that we work with the UN on it. The UN has today announced its appeal—the biggest appeal ever—and we will be making further announcements on that appeal and how we continue to work with the UN, which is the right organisation to be working with, in the coming weeks.

Photo of Seema Malhotra Seema Malhotra Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

Frankly, what we are hearing today just is not good enough. We know that the situation is utterly dire in Afghanistan. Could I request that the Minister takes away what she has heard from both sides of the Chamber today and comes back to the House as soon as possible in the next few days with a statement about how the UK is stepping up its leadership on the humanitarian crisis and about what it will do to expedite the evacuation and resettlement of at-risk Afghans who are relatives of our constituents—I have 400 cases outstanding—to make sure there is a strong, clear message about how they could be evacuated for their safety? They are still at risk and they are now falling prey to the worsening humanitarian situation.

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

This is the most serious food crisis in the world. This is not the time for party politics. The UK has been leading the international efforts on this issue. The UN has just launched the world’s biggest-ever appeal. We have been working, with UK leadership from the beginning, on this incredibly difficult situation with our partners at the UN and at the World Bank. We are leading the pressure to unlock the money from the World Bank, which is key to this issue.

I encourage the hon. Lady to please get behind the UN and behind the UK Government’s efforts to bring the world together to help the people of Afghanistan, because that is vital for the people of Afghanistan right now.

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

There is no one working harder to get on with the job and to support people around the world than this Government. I find Members accusing us of not getting on with the job from a sedentary position really offensive to the people of Afghanistan.

A written ministerial statement updated the House just before Christmas. I have said from this Dispatch Box that the UK Government will come back with further statements in response to the UN appeal in the coming weeks. That is the right thing to do and it is right that we are working with the UN, other international partners and key NGOs. In terms of doing my job, as soon as I leave the Chamber I am going to meet Save the Children, one of our key partners on this issue, because it is really important that we continue to work with our key partners.

Photo of Claire Hanna Claire Hanna Social Democratic and Labour Party, Belfast South

The unfolding crisis in Afghanistan is nightmarish in its scale and complexity and the Social Democratic and Labour party entirely supports the pathway set out today for an international conference to intensify and galvanise global support.

We have heard about the efforts on the ground and know that only a tiny proportion of those affected will be able and seeking to leave Afghanistan, but the scheme is clearly inadequate. I am aware, from responses I have received, that the Northern Ireland Executive are ready and willing to accept a large number of refugees; will the Minister advise the House as to what discussions have been had with them? In the light of the comments from several Members, can she ensure that there will be a pathway to referral to the scheme from MPs’ offices?

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I will certainly get back to the hon. Lady about a pathway to referral to the scheme from MPs’ offices. The Home Office leads on that, rather than me.

I say again that this is a really serious and worsening crisis. It is the largest humanitarian appeal ever made on record with the UN. We need to work with our partners at the UN and the World Bank to unlock funding for the humanitarian crisis and that is what the Government are doing. We will be getting on with that job.

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Labour, Sheffield Central

I have to say that the Minister’s response to the question from my hon. Friend Seema Malhotra was unfortunate, because there is real cross-party concern on this issue. The Minister was right in her opening remarks to highlight the generosity of the British people, because they recognise our special responsibility to the Afghan people in the face of the unfolding catastrophe following our chaotic withdrawal. She has set out what the Government are doing, but clearly it is not working. What further plans do the Government have to address the appalling situation in Afghanistan?

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I think I have been very clear: we are working with the UN and other international partners and we want to unlock the World Bank funding that will make a considerable difference. We need to continue to work with trusted partners to make sure that the funding that we and others have pledged gets to those on the ground who need it most. We are also working with NGOs and other banks and, if it is possible, to tackle some of the issues in the payments system that are causing such complexity. We are working with our education partners and other NGOs and will make further announcements in response to the UN appeal in the coming weeks.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

When something is not working, we have to look at it again, and that is why an international conference is necessary, to bring greater leverage to the situation and to achieve the outcomes we all want. One group of people that the Minister has not referred to is the democratically elected Members of the Afghanistan Parliament, who are now spread around the world. They know their communities in the same way that we know our communities. Will the Minister open up a dialogue with the very people who know whole communities across Afghanistan, to ensure that they have a say on the future?

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

The hon. Lady makes a very good point about speaking to many of those who have represented Afghanistan and who are now situated across the world—[Interruption.]

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

The situation is enormously difficult, and being heckled by Rachael Maskell from a sedentary position is very hard. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Asia has a great deal of contact with experts on this issue—[Interruption.]

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

About 15,000 people were brought to the UK. Many of them are still in hotels, but many more have moved into homes. We have the second largest resettlement scheme in the world, and it is really important that we continue to work with my hon. Friend the Minister for Afghan Resettlement on any individual issues that constituents may face.

Photo of Kate Green Kate Green Labour, Stretford and Urmston

My hon. Friend Paul Blomfield was right to praise the Minister for acknowledging the generosity of the British public, but I warn her that the anger and disappointment felt by people in this country at the failures of the British Government threaten to undermine everything that she has said to the House this afternoon.

Faith and community groups in my constituency are anxious to continue supporting the humanitarian effort towards Afghanistan. What work are the Government doing with faith and community leaders in this country to support their efforts and those of their members and communities?

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I thank the hon. Member for again raising the issue of the generosity of the British people. They have been enormously generous, especially in response to the appeal just before Christmas, which was, of course, match funded with up to £10 million of additional funding from the UK Government. It is truly life-saving aid.

The hon. Member makes a very good point about outreach to faith and community leaders in the UK. I will certainly raise with my colleague Lord Ahmad what more we can do, especially in explaining to the people of the UK, who have such generous hearts, what we are doing in the country in this very difficult situation.

Photo of Emma Hardy Emma Hardy Labour, Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle

A constituent has been to see me a number of times, desperately worried, in tears, heartbroken and concerned about her sister, who worked in the special forces with the UK and NATO and is at risk. For obvious reasons, I will not name my constituent or her sister. I have raised the issue with the Ministry of Defence, which wrote back to me on 18 November and said that it was confirming her eligibility. My office has raised the issue with the Home Office as well. Will the Minister please look into this particular case? I am very happy to send her all of the details straight after this statement, because I am desperately worried that the situation is getting worse.

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

This is heart-wrenching. We all have cases involving families who have been separated and of constituents who have come here from Afghanistan and are very concerned about the impact this is having and the risk to their families in Afghanistan. I point again to the fact that the Minister for Afghan Resettlement announced a new scheme just last week. The hon. Lady should raise her case with the Minister responsible. If she would like to send it to me, I will forward it to her. It has to go through that scheme, which is one of the most generous in the world, with 5,000 people this year, but it cannot be every single person.

Photo of Anna McMorrin Anna McMorrin Shadow Minister (Justice)

The World Health Organisation predicts that 1 million Afghan children under five will die of starvation this winter alone; another 2.2 million will suffer acute malnutrition. The progress achieved by the people there over 20 years has been irreversibly wiped out as a result of this humanitarian disaster. Fears of misuse of donor funds and of validating the Taliban remain valid, but given the urgency of tackling the crisis, does the Minister agree that the UK Government must do more? If this is truly not a time for party politics, will she, as my colleagues requested, say yes to the international conference of 68 nations that Gordon Brown has suggested?

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

The hon. Lady is right to raise what the WHO has been saying. This is the most severe food crisis in the world. That is why the UN has launched its appeal, and it is right that when we are working and engaging with other countries, we engage with that appeal. I cannot make further announcements today, but I have said that Ministers are expected to make other announcements in response to the UN appeal in coming weeks.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I thank the Minister for her answers. The United Nations revealed yesterday that it needs £5 billion in aid for Afghanistan to avert a humanitarian catastrophe. There have been 40 years of constant suffering. Viewing this morning, as everyone has, the pictures and stories on TV and other media showing young children and women in pain and starving to death was terribly upsetting—it is hard not to be upset by those pictures. How can the Minister ensure that the humanitarian aid gets to those who need it the most and need it right now?

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and his constant interest. As I said, we want to make absolutely sure that the aid gets to those who need it. That is why our funding is being channelled through the Afghanistan Humanitarian Fund, the World Food Programme and other UN organisations, and the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent. They are the right organisations to work with to ensure that aid gets through. Aid is currently getting through, although obviously the winter is a concern.