Afghanistan - Statement

– in the House of Lords at 8:05 pm on 7th September 2021.

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The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Monday 6 September.

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I will update the House on the situation in Afghanistan and our enduring effort to provide sanctuary for those to whom we owe so much.

Since the House last met, our Armed Forces, diplomats and civil servants have completed the biggest and fastest emergency evacuation in recent history, overcoming every possible challenge in the most harrowing conditions, bringing 15,000 people to safety in the UK and helping 36 other countries to airlift their own nationals. They faced the pressure of a remorseless deadline and witnessed a contemptible terrorist attack at the very gates of the airport, with two British nationals and 13 of our American allies among the dead. But they kept going, and in the space of a fortnight they evacuated our own nationals alongside Afghan friends of this country who guided, translated and served with our soldiers and officials, proving their courage and loyalty beyond doubt, sometimes in the heat of battle.

The whole House will join me in commending the courage and ingenuity of everyone involved in the Kabul airlift, one of the most spectacular operations in our country’s post-war military history. This feat exemplified the spirit of all 150,000 British service men and women who deployed in Afghanistan over the last two decades, of whom 457 laid down their lives and many others suffered trauma and injury. Thanks to their efforts, no terrorist attack against this country or any of our western allies has been launched from Afghanistan for 20 years. They fulfilled the first duty of the British Armed Forces: to keep our people safe. They and their families should take pride in everything they did.

Just as they kept us safe, so we shall do right by our veterans. In addition to the extra £3 million that we have invested in mental health support through NHS Op Courage, we are providing another £5 million to assist the military charities that do such magnificent work, with the aim of ensuring that no veteran’s request for help will go unanswered. The evacuation, Op Pitting, will now give way to Operation Warm Welcome, with an equal effort to help our Afghan friends to begin their new lives here in the United Kingdom, and recognising the strength of feeling across the House about the plight of individual Afghans.

Years before this episode, we began to fulfil our obligation to those Afghans who had helped us, bringing 1,400 to the UK. Then, in April this year, we expanded our efforts by opening the Afghan relocations and assistance policy. Even before the onset of Operation Pitting, we had brought around 2,000 to the UK between June and August—and our obligation lives on. Let me say to anyone to whom we have made commitments and who is currently in Afghanistan: we are working urgently with our friends in the region to secure safe passage and, as soon as routes are available, we will do everything possible to help you to reach safety.

Over and above this effort, the UK is formally launching a separate resettlement programme, providing a safe and legal route for up to 20,000 Afghans in the region over the coming years, with 5,000 in the first year. We are upholding Britain’s finest tradition of welcoming those in need. I emphasise that under this scheme we will of course work with the United Nations and aid agencies to identify those whom we should help, as we have done in respect of those who fled the war in Syria, but we will also include Afghans who have contributed to civil society or who face a particular risk from the Taliban, for example because of their role in standing up for democracy and human rights or because of their gender, sexuality or religion. All who come to our country through this safe and legal route will receive not a five-year visa, but indefinite leave to remain.

Our support will include free English courses for adults, and 300 university scholarships. We will shortly be writing to local authorities and the devolved Administrations with details of funding for extra school places and long-term accommodation across the UK. I am grateful for everything that they are doing, and, of course, for the work of the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my honourable friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle, Victoria Atkins, who is the Minister for Afghan resettlement. I am delighted—but not surprised—that across our country, people have been fundraising for our Afghan friends, and we have received numerous offers of help from charities and ordinary families alike. Anyone who wishes to join that effort can do so through GOV.UK.

Our first duty is the security of the United Kingdom, and if the new regime in Kabul wants international recognition and access to the billions of dollars currently frozen in overseas accounts, we and our friends will hold them to their agreement to prevent Afghanistan from ever again becoming an incubator for terrorism. We will insist on safe passage for anyone who wishes to leave, and respect for the rights of women and girls. Our aim is to rally the strongest international consensus behind those principles, so that as far as possible the world speaks to the Taliban with one voice. To that end, I called an emergency meeting of the G7 leaders which made these aims the basis of our common approach, and the UK helped to secure a UN Resolution, passed by the Security Council last week, making the same demands. Later this month, at the UN General Assembly in New York, I will work with UN Secretary-General Guterres and other leaders to widen that consensus still further. We will judge the Taliban by their actions, not their words, and will use every economic, political and diplomatic lever to protect our own countries from harm and to help the Afghan people. We have already doubled the UK’s humanitarian and development assistance to £286 million this year, including funds to help people in the region.

On Saturday, we shall mark the 20th anniversary of the reason why we went into Afghanistan in the first place: the terrorist attacks on the United States which claimed 2,977 lives, including those of 67 Britons. If anyone is still tempted to say that we have achieved nothing in that country in 20 years, tell them that our Armed Forces and those of our allies enabled 3.6 million girls to go to school; tell them that this country and the western world were protected from al-Qaeda in Afghanistan throughout that period; and tell them that we have just mounted the biggest humanitarian airlift in recent history. Eight times, the Royal Air Force rescued more than 400 people on board a single plane—the most who have ever travelled on an RAF aircraft in its 103-year history—helping thousands of people in fear for their lives, helping thousands to whom this country owes so much, and thereby revealing the fundamental values of the United Kingdom.

There are very few countries that have the military capability to do what we have just done, and fewer still which would have felt the moral imperative to act in the same way. We can be proud of our Armed Forces for everything they have achieved, and for the legacy they leave behind. What they did was in the best traditions of this country. I commend this Statement to the House.”

Photo of Baroness Smith of Basildon Baroness Smith of Basildon Shadow Leader of the House of Lords, Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office, Constitutional and Devolved issues) 8:25 pm, 7th September 2021

My Lords, just so there is no confusion, the Lord Privy Seal has not repeated the Statement; we have to rely on having heard the Prime Minister say it. I am a little disappointed that the Statement is being considered at the end of business today, given the importance of this issue. The Government made two Statements in the House of Commons; I had expected them to be repeated between the two Second Readings and was somewhat surprised this morning to find that they were so late, as it may affect the number of Members who are able to take part.

Having watched the very distressing evacuation scenes, I think we all have nothing but praise for the heroic work of the British troops, our diplomats and our civil servants, who were operating in incredibly difficult circumstances. They were having to manage a chaotic situation, following a series of failures and miscalculations by the Government. It was interesting that the Prime Minister’s Statement referred to them facing “every possible challenge”; it must be said, one of those challenges was a failure of political leadership, being utterly unprepared for what was to come. That withdrawal had been more than 18 months in the making, but the Government were unprepared, had been unwilling to plan and seemed unable to take a lead. Even in those final weeks before the fall of Kabul, Mr Raab failed to speed up evacuation efforts, failed to issue warnings to British nationals and failed to prepare the department’s crisis response. Even when he gave evidence to the Select Committee, he was rather hazy on the numbers of those, both Afghans and UK citizens, who have been left behind.

The Government have previously said that it was not realistic to stay beyond the US deadline. I think we all accept that, but I have put this question to the noble Baroness—I see she is taking note of what I am saying— I think twice before on previous Statements: what representations did the Government and Ministers make, mainly to the Americans but also others, on the management and timescale of the withdrawal? I am not clear about this and am trying really hard to get to the bottom of it: did the Government ever go back and say to the Americans and NATO, “This will be terrible under this timescale. It will be a disaster. We understand that you are moving US troops out, but can we reconsider how it is done?”

In the final days, as the Taliban entered the city, both Mr Raab and Mr Johnson—the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary—were away on holiday. I am not against Ministers taking holidays—we all need holidays—but there is an issue here of timing and priorities. We know that this is a Government clearly out of their depth, but those chaotic final days of the UK’s role in Afghanistan should not be allowed to undermine in any way the achievements of the past 20 years. The sacrifice of British veterans was not in vain. Their incredible efforts with allied forces facilitated stability and progress throughout Afghanistan, and we should all be proud of their service.

Unfortunately, recent events have opened up old wounds for veterans across the UK. The Government must recognise this and allocate the essential resources and establish the right support structures for them. I say to the noble Baroness, I welcome the additional funding announcement, albeit overdue, but that must sit alongside a strategy to confront the structural barriers that veterans are facing in the employment market, in healthcare and in their daily lives. It would be helpful if she could now confirm whether the Office for Veterans’ Affairs will still face a 40% cut in its budget this year. There must also be recognition for the more than 1,000 UK personnel who took part in Operation Pitting, which airlifted 15,000 people as the country fell to the Taliban. Unfortunately, as she may be aware, troops are not eligible to receive medals as this mission did not meet the 30-day service rule. I think most of us feel that, in these specific and special circumstances, surely that convention should be waived and we should reward the heroic efforts of troops who took part in Operation Pitting.

With the airlift now over, the focus must shift to the lifelong support that we can offer to those Afghans who worked side by side with our troops. I am disappointed that the Government still have not outlined the full details of the Afghans citizens resettlement scheme. We look forward to receiving them. Many of those evacuated are still uncertain and in the dark about their immediate future, let alone their medium- and long-term future. Can the Leader of the House outline when the resettlement scheme will begin and how many people are expected to join it? Can she also say something about how many evacuated Afghans are currently being housed in hotels and other temporary accommodation and how many have been moved into permanent or semi-permanent accommodation? Given that councils—I cite Greenwich Council—have already written to the Government asking for help in supporting refugees and are trying to do their best, what support has been made available to local authorities?

As we look to Afghanistan’s future, we cannot abandon those who have been unable to escape. The Government have to explore all opportunities to support the establishment of viable and safe routes for those who are now in danger. The PM said in his Statement:

“We will insist on safe passage for anyone who wishes to leave”.—[Official Report, Commons, 6/9/21; col. 22.]

I want to probe what “insist” means. Yesterday, the Foreign Secretary said that the Taliban had offered assurances in this area, but he could not expand on that. It would be helpful if the Leader could say tonight what assurances have been received and what degree of confidence the Government have in those assurances.

We also have to confront the reality of the impending humanitarian crisis, where 40% of the crops have been lost through drought. While funding is important, efforts need to be made—perhaps the Leader could say more about this as well—to ensure that food and life-saving medicines are allowed into the country.

On security, human rights and many other issues, the UK needs to work with other countries and NATO to craft a clear diplomatic road map that seeks to protect the gains of the past 20 years. I am thinking specifically, but not exclusively, about the progress on the rights of women and girls. I am sure that, like me, the Leader has seen distressing accounts over the past few days of how women peacefully protesting the basic rights that those of us in this House take for granted have been met with aggression and violence. The efforts of the UK at the UN to secure a Security Council resolution are welcome, but they have to be followed up with prime ministerial intervention. What is the UK’s plan for ensuring that the Taliban are held to their word? What did the Prime Minister agree during his meeting with Secretary-General Guterres? Does he have any plans to continue to engage with the P5 on the implementation of the resolution that was passed at the meeting?

We cannot allow Afghanistan to be a safe haven for terrorism again and neither can we sit by as the Taliban tear down the basic rights that the Afghan people have enjoyed. The Government’s incompetence has let down the Afghan people who have so bravely worked alongside our personnel for two decades. That incompetence also puts us in danger. The security implications of recent weeks are grave and long-lasting and we cannot afford to ignore the risks that we now face. The humanitarian crisis, the displacement of people and the proliferation of extremism can now grow in Afghanistan. While our response should be driven by the need to help the Afghan people, we must also understand that a failure to do that for them will endanger us all.

Photo of Lord Newby Lord Newby Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords

My Lords, I echo the Prime Minister’s commendation of the courage and ingenuity of everybody involved in the Kabul airlift. It was indeed the most impressive achievement.

This is a remarkably thin Statement. It does not contain any new facts or commitments to the people of Afghanistan, either in the UK or in Afghanistan. In terms of Afghans who want to come to the UK, in the Statement the Prime Minister repeated two promises: first, that for those to whom we have already made commitments, we will do our best to honour them; and, secondly, that beyond that we will work with the UN and other aid agencies to identify those we should help, as well as

“Afghans who have contributed to civil society or who face particular risk” because they have stood up

“for democracy and human rights or because of their gender, sexuality or religion”.—[Official Report, Commons, 6/9/21; col. 22.]

I support those commitments, but fear that the first is unachievable in the foreseeable future and that the second offers false hope to many thousands of people. The first is unachievable because we have no means to get people who have a right to come to the UK out of the country. They cannot fly out, and many of the border crossings are, in effect, closed to them. To echo the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, how much confidence do the Government have that the Taliban will give those people safe passage? Do they even know how many of them there are? How are they planning, in the absence of any diplomatic presence in the country, to facilitate their departure?

On the second commitment, the number of people in the categories which the Government wish to help runs into the tens, if not hundreds, of thousands. How does the Government’s commitment to welcoming them into the UK square with their absolute limit of 5,000 refugees over the coming year? How will they decide who to prioritise when confronted with such large numbers of people who they say are technically eligible for visas and who are desperate, for their own safety, to leave the country now, not at some point over the next five years? The Government’s response to requests to take more than the 5,000 is that it is beyond the country’s capacity to do so. This claim does not withstand scrutiny. Even the Prime Minister accepts that the Government are inundated with offers of help from charities and ordinary citizens, and the Government appear to be doing nothing to require the large number of local authorities which are not offering to take a single refugee to play their part. Will they do so now? The fact is that the 5,000 one-year cap and the longer-term 20,000 cap have nothing to do with need. They are, frankly, the minimum that the Government think they can get away with, and they should do better.

The Prime Minister says that the UK will use

“every economic, political and diplomatic lever to protect our own countries from harm and to help the Afghan people.”—[Official Report, Commons, 6/9/21; col. 22.]

Again, that is a positive statement, but what does it amount to? On economic support through development aid, how do the Government intend to ensure that funds can be channelled in an effective way? How closely are they working with the UNDP, which seems to be developing pragmatic working relations with the Taliban? Will they make the disbursement of aid funds contingent on the Taliban keeping its promises; for example, in respect of safe passage or human rights?

On political and diplomatic levers, it is good to see the Foreign Secretary engaging—at last—with the Qatari and Pakistani Governments. In his Statement, the Foreign Secretary sets out some of the issues he discussed in those meetings, but not the outcomes. Can the Leader give the House any specific examples of action that will flow from that series of meetings?

In relation to dealing with the Taliban Administration, the Government say that they will now engage with them, which I am sure is the right approach, and they have appointed a non-resident chargé d’affaires in Doha. While that is welcome, it must surely be desirable to work towards re-establishing a physical diplomatic presence in Kabul. There are clearly challenges in doing so, but to what extent are the Government working with other western Governments, who also need to re-establish their position in Afghanistan, to facilitate that? Have they, for example, spoken to the EU, which is looking to set up a single diplomatic presence in Kabul? There will surely be administrative and security benefits in co-locating with such an office. Are the Government considering that possibility?

More generally, the Afghan debacle has shown the need for the UK to recalibrate its whole foreign policy stance and, in particular, to rebuild relations with the US, through NATO, and with the EU. The Statement is silent on these larger issues, but, frankly, until we address them, much of the micromanagement of the next phase of our involvement with Afghanistan is bound to be more difficult to deliver, making it more difficult for us to deliver on the promises that the Government have already made to the people of Afghanistan.

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

I thank the noble Baroness and noble Lord for their comments. Like them, I pay tribute to all those involved in Operation Pitting. We of course owe a huge debt of gratitude to the 150,000 people who served in Afghanistan and to the 457 who tragically lost their lives.

The noble Baroness asked about withdrawal. As she will recall from the speech that I gave when we came back to discuss this important issue a few weeks ago, we looked at a number of options when the US announced the plan for withdrawal, including the potential for staying longer or increasing our presence. But like our NATO allies, we had to be realistic about what was achievable without US support, and, like our other allies, we did not feel that we could continue the mission without the United States. The noble Baroness will know obviously that the Prime Minister convened a G7 meeting, at which he and other leaders asked President Biden to reconsider the timescale with which the withdrawal was taking place. Unfortunately, as the situation has shown, he was not successful, but efforts were made.

The noble Baroness rightly talked about the importance of the mental health of our veterans. We take this extremely seriously, encouraging anyone who is struggling to access support available, including a 24-hour mental health line. I was grateful for her recognition of the increased funding that we have put into this. Earlier this year, we launched the veterans’ mental health and well-being service, Op Courage, which provides a clear single route for accessing specialist care through the NHS. In the last financial year, NHS England provided £16.5 million for veteran-specific mental health services, which will be increased to £17.8 million in 2021-22, with an additional £10 million to the Armed Forces Covenant Fund Trust to distribute to charitable projects supporting veterans’ mental health needs. Of course, funding for the Office for Veterans’ Affairs is a matter for discussion between it and the Chancellor.

On the various questions that were asked around resettlement and relocation, I once again reiterate to the noble Lord and noble Baroness that we are clear that the Taliban must ensure safe passage for people out of Afghanistan—with the ongoing engagement that is happening, we are emphasising this first and foremost. The Afghan relocations and assistance policy for those who worked in Afghanistan remains open, and we will facilitate relocation from third countries, if possible, for those who are eligible. I am sure that my noble friend, who has been involved in conversations, will be able to shed some further light on the discussions that have been going on with Pakistan and Uzbekistan, for instance. I reassure the noble Baroness that the Home Office is working at pace to establish the details of the new Afghan citizens resettlement scheme, which will provide protection for Afghan citizens identified as being most at risk. We have announced that this new scheme will relocate 5,000 vulnerable Afghans in the first year, with this potentially rising to 20,000 over a five-year period.

The noble Lord, Lord Newby, asked about an embassy in Kabul and what we are doing now. At this point, our diplomatic efforts have shifted to supporting the people of Afghanistan from outside the country, but we intend to re-establish an embassy in Kabul as soon as the security and political situation allows, and we are co-ordinating this effort with allies. The FCDO is sending rapid deployment teams to Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to reinforce our embassy staff to process arrivals from Afghanistan, and we have also sent a rapid deployment team of seven to help people to transit through Dubai.

The noble Baroness asked about support for local authorities and the work that they are doing. The support that we provide will be similar to the commitments that we have made under the Syrian resettlement programme, and we have already allocated £5 million of support to local councils to provide housing. Some 100 councils are already working across the UK to meet the demand for housing, and over 2,000 places have already been confirmed. The Communities Secretary is convening a round table with council leaders from across the country in the coming days to talk about how we can further work together to ensure that we can provide safety and security for the Afghans who have made it over here and to make sure that they can settle into local communities.

Both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness asked about the situation on the ground. I can reassure them that we are working closely with the UN and NGO partners to continue to ensure that vital humanitarian aid reaches those who most need it. All UK aid is subject to strict monitoring and verification to ensure that it is used only to help the vulnerable people it is intended for, and any support will be provided outside of all state apparatus. We will continue to provide support through trusted UN and NGO agencies that have a track record in delivering in challenging circumstances. As the noble Lord rightly said, the UN is working on the ground and is currently seeking commitments from the Taliban to enable humanitarian work to continue. These commitments include respect for humanitarian principles accessed in international law, as well as guarantees for female aid workers across UN agencies and NGOs. We continue to support it in that very important work on the ground.

Both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord rightly alluded to the fact that we have said we will continue to use every humanitarian diplomacy lever to safeguard human rights and the gains made over the past two decades. We are working, for instance, on options for convening a meeting in the margins of the UN General Assembly in September. The focus and format are still under discussion, but the objective will be to bring the widest possible group of countries together to discuss Afghanistan and how we can work with our international partners in this very difficult and challenging situation.

Photo of Lord Browne of Ladyton Lord Browne of Ladyton Labour 8:46 pm, 7th September 2021

My Lords, the Prime Minister, Dominic Raab, other Ministers and the Chief of the Defence Staff are all very fond of the phrase, “Even the Taliban were surprised at the speed of the Afghan collapse.” They do not use this because we are interested; they use it because it is supposed to support an inference that we therefore should not be surprised that they were caught out by it, and to assert that everyone was surprised by the speed of the collapse. This is not true.

We now know that multiple US intelligence reports in spring and summer warned of the fragility of the Afghan army and the Afghan Government. If that were not sufficient—and it should have been—here in the United Kingdom the visiting professor of war studies at King’s College, a man called Tim Willasey-Wilsey, who spent 27 years in the Foreign Office on these issues, was freely writing blogs on the Cipher Brief, an open-source DC-based website, explaining all the factors in the inept deployment of the Afghan army and the behaviour of the Afghan Government that supported this fragility. The question for the Government is this: why did that information, which was in the public domain and being discussed, not ring alarm bells in the intelligence community and in the UK MoD? If that cannot be answered, why should anyone trust that the Government are being honest about the situation in Afghanistan?

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

I have to say to the noble Lord that we were working on preparations. The preparations for Operation Pitting, for instance, involved intensive work by many government departments over recent months. It was the huge effort, bravery and commitment of our Armed Forces personnel, diplomats and civil servants in Kabul that enabled us to evacuate more people than any other country, other than the United States. The specific evacuation plan for Afghanistan was revised in January 2021 and kept under review until it was enacted. So we were making preparations as the situation unfolded.

Photo of Lord Campbell of Pittenweem Lord Campbell of Pittenweem Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Defence)

I must begin, once again, by declaring my interest as an ambassador for HALO, a charity that is continuing its mine clearance activities—and related activities, of course—in Afghanistan.

It is easy for all of us to commend the remarkable courage and ingenuity of everyone involved in the Kabul airlift. It was, if this does not overstrain the description, something of a miracle that it went so well. However, I very much regret that I cannot compliment the Government in the same way. Out of these terrible, damaging events, are there not three questions that now must be answered? First, is it not time to stop blaming everyone else? Secondly, is it not time to abandon the mirage of global Britain? Thirdly, is it not time to concentrate on the necessary reinvigoration of NATO and the transatlantic alliance?

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

I certainly agree with the noble Lord in his last comment. However, I dispute the idea that we have not been working with our international partners. Through the UN Security Council, the G7 and NATO, we have played a leading role in pushing for international consensus to agree a unified approach to the challenge we collectively face; that includes working with those organisations’ partners and our international friends to ensure that we can continue to get people who want safe passage out of Afghanistan out.

I agree with the noble Lord that all this needs to invigorate international action together but we have been playing a lead role. I have already mentioned the G7 meeting convened by the Prime Minister and the work we are doing to convene a potential meeting in the margins of the UN General Assembly. Of course, the noble Lord will be aware that, along with the US and France, we led on the UN Security Council resolution passed in August, which set out our expectations for safe passage for all those who wish to leave, urgent humanitarian access, respect for human rights and the prevention of terrorism. We are playing, and will continue to play, a leading role in these efforts.

Photo of Baroness Stuart of Edgbaston Baroness Stuart of Edgbaston Non-affiliated

My Lords, I fully commend the Government on the action that they took to support those who served with our forces and supported our people in Afghanistan. However, I have a question, although I do not expect the Lord Privy Seal to have an answer to it now. I want to put on her radar the fact that a question now arises in relation to Commonwealth servicemen, who served with the British forces and are still waiting for indefinite leave to remain. Will the Government address this issue with a sense of urgency because there is a feeling that we are not acting fairly?

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

I thank the noble Baroness for her comments. I will certainly make sure that I raise her points with the relevant Ministers and departments; I will ask somebody to get back to her with further details.

Photo of Lord Dodds of Duncairn Lord Dodds of Duncairn DUP

My Lords, I join others who have already commended the fantastic work of our troops, diplomatic staff and civil servants in getting so many people out of Afghanistan under very difficult circumstances. However, it is almost 20 years to the day since the events that gave rise to the invasion of Afghanistan in the first place. How confident are the Government that they, along with allies, will be able to prevent Afghanistan once again becoming a training base for terrorists? What action do the Government envisage in the coming months and years to address that serious issue?

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

We assess that al-Qaeda is now less active in Afghanistan than it was before 2001 but, of course, we acknowledge completely that the group has not ceased to exist and remains a threat. Obviously, there are the terms of the US-Taliban agreement where the Taliban made commitments on preventing international terrorism within its territory, including its relationship with al-Qaeda. We will continue to hold them to those commitments and to the terms of that agreement. Of course, we will also continue to work with our international partners to ensure that we keep ourselves and our allies safe, and that Afghanistan does not once again become a breeding ground for terrorism, which threatens us all.

Photo of The Bishop of Durham The Bishop of Durham Bishop

My Lords, sometimes very unexpected conversations occur. On my journey down from the north-east this morning, I found myself spending two hours talking with someone who had done seven tours of service in Afghanistan and nearly 10 years’ service in security. It is painful to talk to someone who is showing you on their phone the photos of them in the cargo plane coming out and hear his story.

My first question comes from that conversation and is around the safe routes out. He was clear that he had to leave behind several hundred Afghans who have all the paperwork but could not come out. His words were that to suggest to them that there are any safe routes out at the moment is simply untrue because every kilometre between Kabul and the border has stops where they and their paperwork are checked, so they will not travel that way. His comment was that there must be priority for getting air routes back in as quickly as possible as the only genuine future safe route. My question, formally, is: what are the Government doing to work with international partners to see safe commercial air routes reopen?

I was going to ask something for myself, because I am working with local authorities, with MHCLG and the Home Office on refugee resettlement, both in ARAP and the new scheme, for which we still await the details. Housing is the biggest issue in all those conversations. What are the Government doing to persuade local authorities that private landlords must be used, as well as social landlords? What is being done to ensure that adequate money is paid to local authorities so that they can support those refugees? Civil society is absolutely desperate to help and support, but the local authorities need to know that they will get the backing from the centre too.

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

I thank the right reverend Prelate. We are certainly working on his first point about air routes. We have been working particularly with, for instance, the Qataris and the US to think about ways we might facilitate that. I can certainly reassure him that we are talking to our international partners about that and, on borders, with Pakistan, Uzbekistan and others to try to see what we can do to create the safe passage we all want. As I have also said, the dialogues going on with the various organisations with the Taliban are reinforcing time and again that this is, first and foremost, something the international community wants to see.

On housing, I mentioned that we are already working with more than 100 councils to meet demand for housing and more than 2,000 places have already been confirmed. We have also made available £5 million of support to local councils to provide housing and are having further discussions.

On, I suppose, not lower-level but other engagement, on 27 August we launched a portal to allow members of the public to submit offers of support for people arriving from Afghanistan. Offers of housing support can currently be submitted through that and work is ongoing to expand it to offers such as job opportunities, professional skills, training and donations of specific items. We are working with our local authority partners and friends, but also with the great generosity of the British public, which we are all aware of. We are providing ways in which they can offer help and support as well, which I know will be extremely welcome.

Photo of Baroness Smith of Newnham Baroness Smith of Newnham Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence)

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Browne, talked about open-source material looking at the situation in Afghanistan in the first half of this year. Closer to home, your Lordships’ International Relations and Defence Committee produced a report in January on the UK and Afghanistan in which we outlined considerable concerns. We impressed on the Government the need to talk to the incoming Biden Administration. What effort did the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office put into talking to the American Administration behind the scenes? The fact that the Government were preparing for Operation Pitting from January does not really send the right signals. Surely, we should have been trying to create a situation where we did not need an emergency evacuation. We should have left in a way that left stability, not chaos.

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

As I said, intelligence and information were obviously being assessed by the FCDO and the MoD throughout this and plans were being taken. It is a fact that the speed at which the Taliban moved took people by surprise; people, including the Taliban, have admitted that. We did this evacuation thanks to the bravery of our forces. We managed to evacuate more Afghans than any other country, apart from the US. Lessons will of course be learned and we will look at those, but we must also recognise that our forces and diplomats did a fantastic job in extremely difficult circumstances. We must be grateful to them.

Photo of Viscount Bridgeman Viscount Bridgeman Conservative

Does my noble friend not agree that the Prime Minister has at his hand two possible levers: one is the requirement of the Taliban for diplomatic recognition and the other their requirement for international aid? Can we have her assurance that the Prime Minister, within the international community, will make as much use of these two levers as he can?

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

Yes, I can assure my noble friend that that is exactly what we will be doing. We will also want to be pragmatic and through organisations and some form of dialogue see whether we can talk to the Taliban and encourage them to do the things that we are talking about, such as providing safe passage. We have a number of levers at our disposal and will use all of them to try to make sure that we can achieve safe passage for those who want to leave Afghanistan and to make sure that many of the gains in civil society and within the country for women and girls and for minorities are not lost in the coming months.

Photo of Lord Browne of Ladyton Lord Browne of Ladyton Labour

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for engaging with the question that I asked earlier, but she did so without dealing with the germane point of the evidence: did the Government have the ability in any form to come to the conclusions reached by other people who were not in the intelligence community? Why did the fact that they were doing that not ring alarm bells with Ministers who had responsibility, with their officials and with the intelligence community?

The noble Baroness tells us anyway that the Government were planning. Dominic Raab told the Foreign Affairs Select Committee that, back in July, the Government were planning for the possibility of an evacuation of British citizens and those who were quite rightly entitled to think that we had a moral obligation to secure their lives. Will the Government share this planning? Did it include the explicit possibility that, unlike with any other evacuation I know of, those conducting it would remove the military before they had removed the civilians? If so, did we discuss this with the United States of America and with our NATO partners and say, “We have to face the possibility that history will look back on us as having removed the source of these people’s security before we could take them out of the place of danger”? Did we do that?

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

I am afraid that all I can do is once again reiterate the point that the specific evacuation plan for Afghanistan was revised in January 2021 and kept under review until it was enacted. Plans within it included options to support and evacuate our diplomatic team, British nationals and their families, the continuation of the evacuation of those eligible under the ARAP scheme and the withdrawing of remaining military personnel.