Afghan Interpreters - Question

– in the House of Lords at 11:28 am on 5th May 2016.

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Photo of Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon Liberal Democrat 11:28 am, 5th May 2016

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the treatment of Afghan interpreters seeking to come to the United Kingdom, in the light of the death of Nangyalai Dawoodzai.

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, it is because we recognise a debt of gratitude to our Afghan staff that our redundancy scheme is relocating some 500 eligible staff and their families to the UK. Additionally, our intimidation investigation team in Kabul supports all former staff whose lives may be at risk due to their UK employment. We have supported 400 local staff with security advice and relocated 30 to safe areas in Afghanistan. If an individual cannot be made safe in Afghanistan, a case will made for relocation to the UK. We keep our approach under review as the security situation in Afghanistan changes.

Photo of Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer. It seems uncharacteristic of him to have missed out an expression of regret about the death of Mr Dawoodzai, but I am sure that he can put that right in a moment. Is it not plain that the Government are hiding behind the Dublin convention in terms of their responsibilities to these Afghan interpreters? Is it not right that there are two Afghan interpreters now waiting for a decision in the UK and a further 10, I understand, languishing in despair in Calais, one of whom was seriously injured in an IED explosion in Helmand? Do the Government agree that there is absolutely nothing that stops them being more generous than the convention requires in order to provide a refuge for these men who have risked their lives to stand beside our troops in the service of the Crown? If they will not do that, does he understand how many in this House and beyond it will see the Government’s policy as inexplicable, inhumane and a matter of shame for all of us?

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, the case mentioned by the noble Lord is clearly very tragic, and no words of mine can ameliorate that. However, as the noble Lord will understand, I am prevented from discussing the details of individual cases. The Government are doing all they reasonably can to help our former interpreters, in addition to our legal obligations under the refugee convention. It is completely wrong to say that treatment has been unfair; we fully accept that we have a responsibility to those who have worked for British forces in conflict zones. We owe them our gratitude and support, and that is why we have offered a redundancy relocation option that does not require local staff to prove that they are at risk, unlike the schemes in other countries. We have an intimidation policy that allows for relocation to the UK, and that scheme is open to anyone who has worked for us.

Photo of Lord Fowler Lord Fowler Conservative

Taking into account what my noble friend has said, did we not face exactly the same issues a few years ago concerning foreign interpreters in Iraq, which I raised at the time in this House? Is not the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, right in what he says? Surely, the time has come for us to recognise once and for all that we owe a debt of honour to those who have helped this country, often at great danger to themselves?

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

I agree with my noble friend that we owe a debt of honour to those people, but I hope that he will recognise that the circumstances in Iraq were radically different from those in Afghanistan. There was no place in Iraq where former staff could safely remain; intimidation claims could not be investigated. Furthermore, the Afghan Government have made it abundantly clear to us that they do not want us to precipitate a brain drain. We have therefore provided finance and training options to help former staff to resettle in Afghanistan, and there is in addition a relocation option for those who have served on the front line.

Photo of The Bishop of St Albans The Bishop of St Albans Bishop

My Lords, does the Minister not recognise that, with this story that is going on, not only do we owe them a debt of honour but what it is going to mean is that, when future conflict is going on, other people will think, “I dare not take the risk”? As well as being the right thing to do, this is actually in our own interests, because we need these people when we go into conflict to help us and co-operate with us. This is a long-term strategy. Could the Minister comment on that, please?

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, as I have already said, we have recognised a debt and granted the right to apply for UK relocation to around 500 people, plus their families. Those people are those who operated in the most dangerous zones, who were serving with us when we announced draw-down. Some 270 have already relocated to this country. I do not think that that is a shameful record in the very least, and people looking at our scheme and comparing it to those in other countries will find a favourable comparison.

Photo of Baroness Coussins Baroness Coussins Crossbench

My Lords, will the noble Earl acknowledge that, although we have a good redundancy scheme, the trouble is that many hundreds of Afghan interpreters do not qualify for it? If some of them feel so threatened by the Taliban that they are willing to pay traffickers to get them here illegally, why cannot Her Majesty’s Government simply either extend the qualifying dates of the redundancy scheme or apply the intimidation policy much more generously?

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, anyone who has worked for British forces in Afghanistan and claims to have been intimidated will have their case thoroughly looked into; we have a well-established process for doing that. There is the option at the end of the day to relocate to the UK, but in the majority of cases it is quite safe to relocate such people to other places in Afghanistan, where we know that they will not be at risk.

Photo of Lord West of Spithead Lord West of Spithead Labour

My Lords, a number of us, particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, have been pushing the Government on this issue for more than two years. Kicking and screaming, they have got to the position they are in now. The Minister was involved in a lot of those discussions. Why can we not have a default position for this very small number of people that they can come here—for all the reasons that have been given, in terms of future operations and a debt of honour—and we then look at them in detail and if necessary say, “Actually, you don’t really qualify”, rather than making them go through all this in Afghanistan with the results that we have seen?

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

As I indicated earlier, the Afghan Government have made it clear to us that they do not want to see a brain drain, so we have to look at it in the light of the Afghan Government’s wishes. The intimidation scheme is not something we have just set up and let run; there is an independent assurance process for the scheme. We have a Danish legal adviser and a barrister review of 20% of the cases. There has been a cross-government assurance committee to provide further independent oversight, which will include in its membership a former Afghan staff member.