Afghanistan - Question for Short Debate

– in the House of Lords at 3:22 pm on 2nd December 2021.

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Photo of Lord Roberts of Llandudno Lord Roberts of Llandudno Liberal Democrat 3:22 pm, 2nd December 2021

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of (1) poverty, and (2) hunger in Afghanistan; and what progress they have made with the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme.

Photo of Lord Roberts of Llandudno Lord Roberts of Llandudno Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I appreciate the opportunity to bring up the Afghanistan question, largely because, earlier this autumn, I had the privilege of speaking to three Afghan ladies who were trying to raise awareness of the dire situation developing there. When I met them, they were sitting outside the Palace of Westminster, taking part in a hunger strike to demonstrate their disdain for the new Taliban regime. Since our initial meeting, I have begun to understand more deeply the feelings held by those in Afghanistan, and our conversations have raised many questions, including how much global support is still needed to prevent a crisis and how vulnerable people can be protected from this repressive regime.

The ladies told me that Afghan people are scared and, contrary to some of the headlines that we have seen recently, they do not support the backward and fundamentalist Taliban Government. Inside their homes, people are continuing to educate their daughters, read books that are now banned, and give and receive special medical care. These risks are taken to prevent the backsliding on progress. My Afghan guests told me that when the Taliban took over, 20 years of progress were washed away overnight.

The United Nations is reporting that 22.8 million people are currently food insecure in Afghanistan, with 3 million children suffering from acute malnutrition. Dozens of news reports describe the crisis developing, as the country enters winter. Fuel prices are up 75%, hundreds of thousands of people are without homes and vulnerable minorities are being targeted by the Taliban.

We need this Government to take further action to prevent a historic humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. More aid is desperately needed, but the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme, which was announced in August, has still not been opened. Today is not too soon; this scheme needs to open now, and I call upon this Government to fulfil this promise and help to protect some of the most vulnerable people in a country on the brink of disaster.

Photo of Baroness Hodgson of Abinger Baroness Hodgson of Abinger Conservative 3:25 pm, 2nd December 2021

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, for introducing this urgent issue today. I declare my interest: I founded and run the Afghan Women’s Support Forum.

The situation in Afghanistan is an unnecessary tragedy. It is a takeover by the brutal Taliban, causing a breakdown in the banking systems and institutions. Although the Taliban say that they have formed a Government, they actually have no experience of governing. The scenes in the autumn were harrowing, with people desperate to be evacuated. I think we all remember that awful sight of a boy clinging to an aeroplane and falling. Now, there are terrible reports of the Taliban hunting people down and of summary executions and reprisals—a return to cutting off limbs for stealing, while the Taliban go into people’s compounds and take their cars, valuables and whatever else they want.

In spite of journalists now being pushed back and restricted, recent news has been chilling, as the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, has told us. Children are dying of hunger and families are selling their daughters to get money to feed the rest of the family. There are reports of crop failures and, with winter approaching, many remote areas will soon become unreachable. People there are starving, and the Taliban do not appear to be helping at all. Therefore, surely, we in the West cannot stand by and just let this happen. We must send help— and send it quickly.

We must ensure that aid really reaches down into the grass roots. Can we work through organisations that the Taliban have allowed to continue, such as the Red Cross, the Halo Trust, the Aga Khan Development Network and others that are already connected with the communities? Of course, there is UN World Food Programme—but can my noble friend reassure me that this does not take a large percentage, like some of the other UN agencies?

How do we reach the most vulnerable: those fearful and in hiding, and widows, now that they can no longer go out on their own? Others are also frightened to go out: young men are fearful of being seized to be recruited into the Taliban, and young girls are fearful of being snatched to become brides for the fighters.

We in the UK now have the 16 days of activism to stop violence against women and girls, but in Afghanistan, after 20 years of helping to build up the voices and role of women in Afghan society, women’s rights are once again being rolled back and their voices suppressed. Can my noble friend the Minister please tell us what the UK Government are doing to help them?

While I congratulate the Government, our military and officials who worked tirelessly to evacuate people in the autumn, we must not forget those people who are still threatened and desperate to leave Afghanistan—or those who managed to get out but are stuck in third countries that will not allow them to stay and may send them back. After 20 years, surely we have a responsibility to the Afghan people, and we must continue to help.

Photo of Lord Moynihan Lord Moynihan Conservative

My Lords, I intend to focus on the role that Qatar is playing. I apologise—

Photo of Baroness Smith of Newnham Baroness Smith of Newnham Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence) 3:28 pm, 2nd December 2021

I thank the noble Lord. I am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Roberts for bringing this most important debate, which is not only timely but absolutely vital. The only concern is that we have only an hour. We could talk for so many hours, but perhaps it is right that we have only three minutes each because, actually, the time for the Government to act is now.

The Minister who will be replying on behalf of the Government has development as part of his portfolio. What message can he send to the mothers who are in anguish in hospitals in Afghanistan? According to the BBC, one mother, on the point of giving birth, asked the obstetrician to kill her—not because she was ill in terms of a cancer or a fatal illness, but because she herself was starving and said, “I don’t know how I can live myself. How can I give life to another human being?” The very real point is that many mothers in Afghanistan might give birth, but they cannot give life to those children because, if you are starving, you do not produce the milk to feed the children.

What assessment have the Government made about starvation in Afghanistan, about what aid we are giving or not giving, and about what work can be done to ensure that, while we are not giving money to the Taliban, we are ensuring that mothers are not looking at their dying children? We owe it to Afghanistan; we were there for 20 years; we brought about change in that country, but when the US insisted on leaving earlier this year, we left chaos, carnage and starvation behind.

We also left behind people who were eligible to come here under the ARAP scheme, so what assessment have the Government made of how many people who are eligible for ARAP under category 2, and who were told they could come, are still in the country? What provisions are there for those British Council staff who should be eligible under category 4? Will the Minister say whether the British Council paperwork is sufficient for ARAP 4 and, if not, what additional paperwork is required? When will the Home Office deign to give us the information about the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme, because, frankly, we have all waited for far too long?

Photo of Lord Dannatt Lord Dannatt Crossbench 3:31 pm, 2nd December 2021

My Lords, I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, on securing this important debate this afternoon although, as the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, has said, it is a shame that we have only an hour to touch on these subjects.

Of course, the real shame is that we are having this debate at all. We cannot roll the clock back, but the unilateral decision of the United States, started by former President Trump and continued by President Biden, which led to the precipitate withdrawal of international forces in the summer, has led directly—and there is no getting away from it—to the poverty and hunger that 23 million people in Afghanistan are suffering at the moment.

If we just pause for a moment to think about what we were doing in Afghanistan over the last 20 years, we were actually there to give those people the chance of a better life. At a stroke, that better life was taken away; so what should the response now be from the West? We do not like the Taliban regime, but is that actually a good enough reason to stand on those issues and not give the humanitarian support that the Afghan people really need? I do not believe that it is. There is a saying that my enemy’s enemy is my friend, and in these limited circumstances for a period of time, although we do not like the Taliban and what it is doing, a higher cause is to appeal to our own sensitivity and look after the 23 million people who are suffering in Afghanistan at the moment. Why should we leave it to the NGOs and the charitable sector to pick up these things? That is not right.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, referred quite rightly to a number of charities that are working there. I draw attention to Street Child—I declare my interest as a patron of that charity, started by my son in 2008 —which had plans at the start of this year to educate 65,000 children, in southern Afghanistan in the main. It is continuing with those plans and providing food for that community in southern Afghanistan. We should not leave it to the charitable sector to be picking up these things. Governments should actually make a decision that the time has come to bury our difference with the Taliban for the time being, support the people whom we tried to help for the last 20 years and sort out the other issues in slow time.

Frankly, wringing our hands and saying, “It’s awful” is not good enough. The time for action is now. Winter is coming; people are hungry; people are dying; babies cannot be fed. It is not good enough: we have to do more and we have to do it soon.

Photo of Lord Moynihan Lord Moynihan Conservative 3:34 pm, 2nd December 2021

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, for introducing this debate and apologise profusely to the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, who made a powerful speech. I am sorry that I had the wrong speaking order in front of me. I think I also had the wrong time: I thought we were down to two minutes, so I offer my apologies for that as well.

I intend to focus briefly on the role that Qatar is playing in assisting this country, and indeed the world, settling many Afghan refugees who have come out of Afghanistan and routed through Doha. In so doing, I declare my interest as a vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Qatar, until recently so ably led by the late Sir David Amess.

Two months ago, with Sir David, I saw at first hand the outstanding work being undertaken by the Government of Qatar and the international agencies and charities that are seeking to deliver the best outcomes for many desperate families who had to leave Afghanistan suddenly. On my return, I asked what steps our Government planned to take in response to the unaccompanied minors with family links to the UK who had been evacuated from Afghanistan and were in temporary accommodation in Doha. The Home Office was, I am told, working closely with Qatar and UNICEF.

I fully appreciate that our priority is to ensure that these vulnerable children will be safe and well cared-for here in the UK, enjoying a better life than was first given to them through the generosity and friendship shown by the Government of Qatar and the charities that are providing a welcoming, close-knit supporting community. Will the Minister update the House on progress made in helping the unaccompanied children who are heading to the UK: how many are still in Doha, and what action is being taken by our Government and local authorities?

We should follow the world-leading example of the Government of Qatar. To them, engagement on refugees and the famine in Afghanistan does not require recognition. Qatar is undergoing change at a far faster rate than many countries in the Gulf. It is the only country which has invited the International Labour Organization to open an office and work alongside its Government. It deserves the strong support of this country’s Government. It is, after all, doing more than any other Government to provide a gateway for flights and to enable the operation of Kabul airport, where desolate and desperate Afghan refugees can be cared for and passed on. For that we should all be grateful.

Photo of Baroness D'Souza Baroness D'Souza Crossbench 3:36 pm, 2nd December 2021

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, for securing this debate. I declare an interest as co-founder of the school in Kabul.

Afghanistan has been a heavily aid-dependent country for many decades. The withholding of multilateral aid and assistance funds affects not only the vulnerable groups in Afghanistan but a sizeable percentage of the entire population. The urgent need is for bulk food aid and efficient distribution mechanisms. Neither of these can be guaranteed, but given that there are still small independent NGOs working, often at village level, can the Government spell out what plans they have to recruit organisations such as Afghanaid to assist in the delivery of food to rural areas? The major food tonnage will, I guess, come from the World Food Programme, but has the UK any official presence in Afghanistan to ensure that the remaining longstanding and reliable NGOs are part of the delivery teams, given that they have a good knowledge of where the urgent need is?

Meanwhile, it has to be acknowledged that the massive inputs of aid and humanitarian assistance since 2001, and earlier, have not had a significant impact on poverty reduction. There is growing awareness that humanitarian assistance alone will not support the Afghan people immediately or in the near future. Now might, therefore, be an opportune time to see what lessons can truly be learned and what kind of coherent strategy might be devised to make development assistance work. Thankfully, a new initiative, the UK Humanitarian Innovation Hub, has been set up to adapt and innovate in aid delivery. Its focus will be on working with Afghan people and other experts to provide evidence-based insights and ideas on appropriate aid provision for Afghans.

Given that G20 leaders from around the world have agreed to limited co-operation with the Taliban on aid delivery, it is in the interest of the UK and the international community to strive to get it right this time. I ask the Minister to support these kinds of initiatives by allocating funds, facilitating access and, above all, adopting the results of this collaborative approach.

Photo of Baroness Northover Baroness Northover Liberal Democrat 3:40 pm, 2nd December 2021

My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend for tabling this vital debate. There was UN agreement to go into Afghanistan, and we did so. There are, of course, questions about how strategic and integrated that engagement was, but there is no doubt that for a younger generation of Afghans, particularly women and girls, that intervention enhanced their life opportunities, as we have heard. We either mattered little to the Americans when they unilaterally decided to pull out, or we failed to pick up their warnings. That withdrawal has been disastrous, as we have heard. We owe so much to those who worked with us and inched the country forward. They trusted us.

Given the time available, my focus will be on those who wish to leave. I appreciated the Minister’s efforts in those desperate days as the Taliban took control of the country and the allies beat a very hasty retreat. He sought to help the individuals who were in extreme danger. There was much media coverage at the time, and in the heat of that, the Government created the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme. As the media shifts its focus, the Home Office has failed to open that scheme, even though it was designed and promoted as one to assist those at extreme immediate risk. It is beyond astonishing that this scheme is not yet open.

The FCDO and the Minister’s office used to be at the forefront in trying to assist those in danger. Now, I am afraid that they block the door, even in cases I have been dealing with of the most obviously deserving candidates: parliamentarians at extreme risk. In an Answer to a Written Question that I tabled, I was told by the Home Office:

“The Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme is not yet open and remains under development.”

It also makes it clear that it is pulling up the drawbridge. Those who are already here will be counted into this scheme, even though it was promoted for those still stranded in the country. I want the Minister to tell me honestly: does he expect this scheme ever to be opened? If it is, will it simply count those who are already here, so that those who have not made it here, but, as he knows, most certainly qualify, will never stand a chance of being included? I look forward to his full response.

Photo of Lord Bruce of Bennachie Lord Bruce of Bennachie Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Scotland) 3:42 pm, 2nd December 2021

My Lords, I shall briefly anticipate the next debate and urge the Minister to secure the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, because the Government need to prove that global Britain means something.

I thank my noble friend Lord Roberts for this debate, timely as it is. As the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, said, the crisis in Afghanistan is substantially of our—NATO and the West’s—making. What the US call the “never-ending war” actually ended several years ago in terms of NATO engagement. Thanks to NATO mentoring and air cover, the resistance to insurgency was carried on by the Afghan forces, who took heavy casualties. The announced and dated referenced withdrawal of NATO support left the Afghan forces demoralised and no longer able to resist the Taliban.

The Taliban took over the country facing minimal resistance, yet it does not have the capacity to govern a country radically different from the one it left 20 years ago. However corrupt and dysfunctional the country was under Karzai and Ghani, basic services existed and the economy functioned enough to feed and support most people, even if poorly. With no money, no administrative experience and the departure or going into hiding of many of the people who kept the country functioning, the Taliban is presiding over disintegration into chaos, hunger and deprivation, with unpredictable but potentially disastrous consequences.

As a matter of urgency, the UK should take a lead in convening the international community—including Afghan’s neighbouring countries, which are especially vulnerable—at a crisis humanitarian meeting. So, having failed to persuade the US to stop the abandonment of Afghanistan to the mercies of the Taliban, will the UK Government seek engagement with NATO allies to secure the means of getting humanitarian relief to the beleaguered people of Afghanistan whom we so shamefully abandoned?

There is no need to recognise the Taliban Government, but there is a need to engage to ensure that essentials get through; the Taliban know this, and failure will lead to its displacement by a variety of uglier and even more destabilising alternatives. Otherwise, the country will become ungovernable and an agent for all the hostile and radical forces that threaten the stability of the region and the wider world. The irony is that the cost of retrieving the situation caused by the irresponsible disengagement is likely to be many times greater in money, lives and security than if we had maintained our presence. The reality is that neighbouring countries feel threatened, the region is in chaos and we are responsible, so we must act. Will the UK Government step up and take a lead?

Photo of Lord Loomba Lord Loomba Crossbench 3:45 pm, 2nd December 2021

My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, for securing this important debate today. In humanitarian emergencies, fast and pragmatic action is required if the response is to be effective. There is a real concern that when it comes to our obligations in Afghanistan, speed and pragmatism are in short supply.

When we speak about working at pace to open a resettlement scheme that was promised three months ago, or about our leading role in international aid and our generosity to genuine refugees, for whose benefit is that? It sometimes seems that our aim is to reassure the domestic audience that, on the one hand, we are doing the right thing, while on the other hand we will not allow overgenerous aid commitments to detract from domestic priorities and we will do all we can to keep out illegal migrants. The international audience may be harder to convince that we are doing the right thing to address the plight of Afghans. The real worry from a humanitarian standpoint is that it is not realistic to reconcile these competing goals in the way the Government seem determined to do. Putting domestic considerations first will continue to mean too little, too late.

It was clear back in August that food production and supply chains in Afghanistan would face catastrophic disruption, with predictably calamitous consequences for Afghan families, including women and girls, who were left behind. Our obligations to Afghans who associated with us were equally clear, yet the resettlement scheme announced three months ago, in full knowledge of the obstacles, remains but a promise. The matter is urgent, even more so now with winter approaching and the uncertain window of opportunity for Afghans to leave at risk of closing soon. Will the Minister provide not only reassurance but clarity on what outcomes can be expected and when?

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green 3:48 pm, 2nd December 2021

My Lords, like many noble Lords taking part in this debate, I have been receiving a continual flow of desperate emails from people in Afghanistan begging for help. I have been forwarding them to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, to the address we have been supplied, and I thank the Minister for responding to one of those emails at 2.19 pm this afternoon. It concerned the case of a female journalist, who I will not name for obvious reasons. The response says, basically, “Here is the government website” and it lists the schemes, which I suspect is what others who are nodding at me have also received. My question for the Minister is, will a female journalist—someone in that category; I am not asking about the specific case—receive help from the British Government under any of those schemes? This journalist is in contact; the department has her email address and her details; will she receive help?

I turn to the broader issue of the many millions of people who will of course continue to be in Afghanistan. I recently spoke at a meeting held by the South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group, known as SYMAAG. Two Afghan women living in the UK also spoke at that event, and I want to bring their perspectives to your Lordships’ House. They illustrate what I acknowledge is an enormously difficult situation for the Government in trying to weigh up the problem.

This was expressed by Sahraa Karimi, an Afghan film director, who said that the Taliban is terrorising and murdering—the “only thing they know”. She pleaded that we do not do anything that would support the Taliban regime, for reasons we understand. We also heard from Dr Weeda Mehran, a senior lecturer at Exeter University, who said, as have noble Lords, that there is the most desperate humanitarian situation in Afghanistan and that we cannot allow people to be left to freeze or starve.

This is an enormously difficult situation. All I can really hope to hear from the Minister is a real grasp of its delicacy and balance, in thinking about our foreign policy. Like others here, I have just come from an event with the APPG on Drones and Modern Conflict, which talked about the damage that our actions have done around the world. We have to operate on a “first do no harm” principle. That is where our foreign policy should start, but we should also acknowledge that there is a situation in which we have to act. I hope to hear from the Minister something that reflects an understanding of that situation.

Photo of Lord Purvis of Tweed Lord Purvis of Tweed Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Trade), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Development), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 3:51 pm, 2nd December 2021

My Lords, I also very warmly commend my noble friend Lord Roberts for securing this very important debate. I commend his essential humanity in what he brings to this Chamber and how he does so.

I have been struck over recent months by the stark contrast between the urgency of the withdrawal and the lack of urgency in the humanitarian response. That has been the thread running through the contributions in this debate. I commend my noble friends Lady Smith, Lady Northover and Lord Bruce for their very powerful contributions.

My noble friend Lady Northover asked very specific and deliberate questions on the settlement scheme; I hope the Minister has a very clear answer that those who are currently in the UK will not be counted towards that. When I chaired a round table last week with charities and NGOs that have staff in Afghanistan, they aired their frustration about the Home Office’s work at the moment. My noble friend Lady Northover is absolutely right. The lack of a senior official co-ordinating the cross-departmental work is obvious.

The noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, indicated that the humanitarian challenges already existed and that we knew that, with Covid and drought, there would be humanitarian challenges in Afghanistan before the withdrawal. But what has happened since has been heart-rending.

My noble friend Lady Smith and the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, indicated the particular impact on women. There are 700,000 pregnant women in Afghanistan at the moment. Almost all of them will now have to give birth in dangerous conditions and all of them are likely to bring up children who will have acute malnutrition. Of the 23 million people who now face insecurity, those in rural areas are particularly affected. All 34 provinces now have food insecurity alerts.

Charities and NGOs have a particular, urgent challenge at the moment. There is no agreement among the P5 or the UN on the release of finance and banking support to allow our charities to do their work. The Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation has provided guidance and advice, but there is still no clarity as to how British charities and international organisations can work with the de facto regime. That challenge was shown in stark reality when one charity told me that it is currently spending more on lawyers to work through how it can be on the right side of the sanctions regime than it is on releasing finance to those Afghans who need it.

My noble friend Lord Bruce indicated that, if global Britain means anything, it is convening power. Will the Minister please ensure that there is clarity at the United Nations on the sanctions situation so that we can release support and allow our charities and NGOs to do the good work that is so desperately needed?

Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 3:55 pm, 2nd December 2021

My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, for initiating this debate. I also thank the Minister for all his help with Members of both Houses to get their constituents, families and other people out of Afghanistan. He worked tirelessly and we owe him a tribute for that. We also owe a tremendous debt of gratitude for the work, not just of the past few months but of the past 20 years, of our servicepeople, who gave Afghan women and girls a level of freedom and empowerment that they would never have previously imagined.

As we have heard in the debate, from all noble Lords, the humanitarian situation is dire. I welcome the £286 million pledge for 2021 and acknowledge the £30 million for Afghanistan’s neighbours to ensure regional stability and support for refugees. As the noble Lord has rightly said before, aid will be delivered through international organisations such as the UN, rather than directly through Taliban authorities. That is absolutely right. However, as noble Lords raised in this debate, we need to know the steps the Government are taking to ensure that these agencies can get to the parts of the country that are in most need.

I met the Governor of Punjab at the beginning of the week. He also made it clear that conditions must be placed on the Taliban, including protection for women and girls. How do we hold the Taliban to its promises? Recent evidence from human rights organisations suggests that it is not holding to them.

A real focus of this debate has been the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme and why it is not open for applications. I think everyone in this Chamber heard the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, say last Thursday that the Government were “still working” on the scheme

“at pace to try to get it up and running.”—[Official Report, 25/11/21; col. 1013.]

But, as the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, said, people’s lives are at stake. It is a matter of urgency. We cannot wait months and months and we need action as soon as possible. What is the cause of the delay? Victoria Atkins said that

“we are very much in the hands of our international partners” on

“safe and legal routes through Afghanistan”.—[Official Report, Commons, 22/11/21; col. 12.]

I hope the Minister can explain just what discussions we are having with our partners and allies in progressing this most important humanitarian support.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) 3:58 pm, 2nd December 2021

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their insightful and valuable contributions. I particularly thank the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, for tabling this important and timely debate. We are, of course, focusing on a very sensitive but equally very important and key issue for the global community, in particular the humanitarian situation currently prevailing in Afghanistan, as well as the Afghan citizens settlement scheme.

I join the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt—who indeed has direct experience of this—in recognising and valuing, as we all do, the incredible sacrifice, bravery and service of all those from the military and the voluntary sector who have worked tirelessly over many years in Afghanistan. Those like me who had an opportunity to visit during those 20 years before the Taliban takeover will have seen what has been delivered, particularly by our servicemen and, of course, to the women of Afghanistan. Several noble Lords mentioned the women.

I assure noble Lords that in our planning, policy and programming, I certainly, for one, have not relented in my focus on the importance of Afghanistan. The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, rightly drew attention to the perilous plight of people within Afghanistan—a mother to a child. I have not just seen those images; I have heard direct testimonies. Irrespective of what responsibility one holds, I assure all noble Lords that I waste no time. I seek to make no excuses. We need to help and we need to help now. The situation is acute.

It is a matter of deep regret; here I join the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt. The noble Baroness, Lady Northover, knows from our experience of working together, as does the noble Lord, Lord Collins, about those desperate times when, basically, NATO left. If up to £9 billion is being pumped into a country which is reliant on development support and assistance and that tap is suddenly switched off, of course there is going to be an impact.

I hope that with some of my words—but, more importantly, with the actions I demonstrate—I will be able to address some of the concerns, particularly the key concerns that my noble friend Lady Hodgson raised. I pay tribute to her work, particularly with Afghan women. My noble friend works directly with incredible women such as Fawzia Koofi, Hasina Saifi and Fatima Gailani. I have met them directly to continue to ensure that we retain a direct focus on the women and girls of Afghanistan.

The Government fully share the concerns expressed by noble Lords but, more than that, we fully recognise the suffering of the Afghan people. The latest figures from the World Food Programme—I recently spoke directly to David Beasley of the WFP—and the Food and Agriculture Organization suggest that over 18 million Afghans, or 42% of the population, are today suffering “crisis” or “emergency” levels of acute malnutrition. The noble Lord, Lord Loomba, also drew attention to this very issue. As the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, reminded us in his opening remarks, and as the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, said, as winter sets in, projections point towards 23 million Afghans being in similar peril by the first quarter of next year. As the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, reminded us, the situation for children is especially alarming. Half of all children under five—around 3.2 million—are expected to suffer from acute malnutrition by the end of this year.

In short, I do not hide behind any words or pull any punches: Afghanistan is in a crisis, and we need to act. There are many drivers of this crisis; one can cite conflict, chronic poverty, Covid and drought. Most recently, there are two other key factors at play. First, there has been a sharp contraction in the Afghan economy after the Taliban takeover, with less work available, which leads to rising food prices and a lack of essential items. Secondly, there has been a reduction in the provision of very basic services, including basic sanitation and healthcare.

First, in diplomatic terms, the UK has been at the forefront of efforts to address this. We are using our presidency of the G7 to mobilise and co-ordinate donors, as several noble Lords noted. The next step in our continued diplomacy is a special session on Afghanistan, led by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary, when foreign and development Ministers meet in Liverpool on 10 and 12 December. This is a specific item on the agenda.

During the last few months, I have engaged extensively with key UN partners and continue to do so—including, last week, with Deborah Lyons, among others. Over the last few weeks and months, I have been in regular contact with Amina Mohammed, the Deputy Secretary-General of the UN; Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees; Henrietta Fore at UNICEF; David Beasley at the World Food Programme; Peter Maurer at the ICRC; and Achim Steiner, director of the UNDP. This is to ensure that we are directly informed about what the barriers and issues are and how we can ensure that humanitarian support reaches Afghanistan.

The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, rightly pointed to the importance of cash flow. I am talking to the near neighbours of Afghanistan—particularly Uzbekistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan—and each and every one highlights the issue of cash flow. As the noble Lord may be aware, we were instrumental in persuading the World Bank’s board to agree on 30 November to release $280 million from the Afghanistan reconstruction fund to support basic health services and the humanitarian response.

But we cannot just sit on that. I am currently engaging—and I hope to engage directly tomorrow with our UN ambassador, Dame Barbara Woodward, to get an update—on what further efforts can be made to unlock some of the issues, particularly the point the noble Lord raised about sanctions and the UN. There are workarounds, as we have seen in previous crises and humanitarian responses. We are encouraging the World Bank and its shareholders to repurpose the remaining $1.2 billion in the fund as soon as possible.

Nationally, the Prime Minister has committed to double our assistance for Afghanistan to £286 million for this financial year. On 31 October, he allocated £50 million for immediate humanitarian needs, and I can tell noble Lords that this has been disbursed. I have worked through this—not just on the specifics of announcements of a million here or a million there, but on where this is going, where it has got to, whether it has left our accounts, and whether it has reached the people we need to reach.

I assure the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, that, through the engagement I am having, we are working on identifying the local agencies that are still operational and continue to provide support unhindered so that we can support their activities. Indeed, my noble friend Lady Hodgson mentioned the Aga Khan Development Network; it is one such agency that we are engaging with directly. This is in addition to the £30 million mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, for our work with neighbouring countries as an immediate response to the challenge that they face on their borders.

I assure the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, that we are dealing with this with the urgency required in terms of both engagement and the parameters and challenges that exist, as the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, suggested. Most recently, in terms of additional support, we have disbursed £70 million of aid to Afghanistan in total, with £10 million for Afghans in the region. Specifically, we included £18 million for the Afghanistan Humanitarian Fund and £20 million for the World Food Programme. I am pleased to be able to say that the UN is now able to get larger sums of cash, notwithstanding the restrictions, into the country despite the lack of liquidity in the banking system. I assure noble Lords that funds are reaching Afghans in need and we are working intrinsically and closely with key partners on the ground. I am sure that all noble Lords will join me in paying tribute to the humanitarian aid workers who are committed to saving lives in Afghanistan in such difficult circumstances.

In addition to our aid, the Government are encouraging the region to step up its vital role in influencing the Taliban—a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt. I assure him that we are doing just that. Sir Simon Gass is engaging directly; I met him today and hope to talk to him in detail again tomorrow. We are also talking to the likes of India, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which my noble friend Lord Moynihan mentioned specifically. In that regard, I have met the excellent Minister responsible for the resettlement, and we continue to work closely with regional partners including Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

We have been addressing the humanitarian situation closely. This has been a key part of our engagement at an operational level with the Taliban, including through the key provisions of the Security Council resolution on unhindered access, respecting human rights and, of course, providing for those Afghans who wish to leave. The Taliban has assured us but the proof will be in the pudding and the action that we demonstrably see; of course, at times, we get alarming reports of a regression in human rights. As I have said before, in my view, the Taliban has not changed. It is a regressive organisation that does not believe in human rights as any of us, or any person of faith, sees them. However, we are working with the situation that we currently face.

On the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme, to be clear, there are two schemes. The ACRS is in addition to our ARAP scheme—or, to give it its full title, the Afghan relocations and assistance policy. The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, talked specifically about the British Council; as she knows, I am live to those issues. I assure noble Lords, on the cases that come across my desk, that when a specific and general answer is given, it does register it. I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, that I will directly follow up. Yes, there are female journalists who have already arrived in the UK, but we continue to work with them and there is more to be done in that sphere.

I will not go through what the Home Office has already said in terms of what has been published—noble Lords are fully aware of that—but I know that the Home Office is working closely with the UNHCR to finalise the scheme. As my noble friend Lady Williams, the Minister of State at the Home Office, said only last week, we are looking to announce the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme. The noble Lord, Lord Purvis—and, indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, in her customary manner—asked me to be honest. I always am. Do I think that the scheme will be announced? Yes, I do.

The noble Lord and the noble Baroness asked about the numbers. Of the 15,000 Afghans we have evacuated, 500 were particularly vulnerable, including Chevening scholars, journalists, human rights defenders and campaigners for women. Some of those people will form part of the first 5,000 who we will settle under the Afghan citizens’ resettlement scheme but I look forward to working directly with noble Lords alongside my colleagues in the Home Office to ensure that all routes are fully explained and that we continue to work to relieve the pressure on vulnerable Afghans within Afghanistan, as well as support those who have already arrived. I can assure noble Lords that we are working across government to ensure that those priorities are fully realised and actioned.

This is an ongoing chapter. We cannot be in any way immune from what we saw in August. Yes, headlines move on but if our commitment over the past 20 years is to mean anything to Afghanistan, it means that we will remain vigilant and focused. I assure noble Lords that, as the Minister responsible for the Afghanistan brief, I continue to engage directly to ensure that, first, the humanitarian support urgently reaches the people it needs to and, secondly, that more support will continue to be released. I will share with noble Lords the details, as I have done today, in further briefings that I will be giving on specific support that we are giving within country. I, like other noble Lords, fully hope that the ACRS scheme is up and running so that we can continue to provide the support needed, both through the ARAP scheme and the ACRS to the vulnerable Afghans who wish to leave.

Finally, I should say, as is often said—I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, for his kind words in my direction—that my thanks go to all noble Lords because their continued vigilance, action, lobbying and bringing these cases forward makes sure that the Government also remain accountable to the commitments that they have given.