The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Thursday 1 February.
“I am grateful for the opportunity to update the House on developments relating to the Afghan relocations and assistance policy scheme, and to answer the specific Question raised by the honourable gentleman in relation to former members of Commando Force 333 and Afghan Territorial Force 444.
Many colleagues across the House are passionate advocates for applicants to the ARAP scheme—whether they served shoulder to shoulder with them in Afghanistan, or represent applicants and their family members who are residents in their constituencies. We owe a debt of gratitude to those brave individuals who served for, with, or alongside our Armed Forces in support of the UK mission in Afghanistan. Defence is determined to honour the commitments we made under the ARAP scheme, which is why we have robust checks in place and regularly review processes and procedures.
Although many former members of the Afghan specialist units have been found eligible under ARAP and safely relocated to the UK with their families, a recent review of processes around eligibility decisions demonstrated instances of inconsistent application of the ARAP criteria in certain cases. The issue relates to a tranche of applications from former members of Afghan specialist units, including members of CF 333 and ATF 444—known as the Triples. Having identified this issue through internal processes, we must now take necessary steps to ensure that the criteria are applied appropriately to all those individuals.
As such, I can confirm that the Ministry of Defence will undertake a reassessment of all eligibility decisions made for applications with credible claims of links to the Afghan specialist units. The reassessment will be done by a team independent of the one that made the initial eligibility decisions on the applications. The team will review each case thoroughly and individually. A Written Ministerial Statement to that effect was tabled this morning, and I commend it to colleagues. A further ‘Dear colleague’ letter will follow by close of business tomorrow.
It is the case, however, that ARAP applications from this cohort present a unique set of challenges for eligibility decision-making. Some served in their units more than two decades ago, and some while the Afghan state apparatus was still in its infancy or yet to come into existence all together. It is also the case that they reported directly into the Government of Afghanistan, meaning that we do not hold comprehensive employment or payment records in the same way as we do for other applicants.
I fully understand the depth of feeling that ARAP evokes across this place and beyond. I thank Members from across the House for their ongoing advocacy and support for ARAP. We have that same depth of feeling in the MoD and in the Government, and we will now work quickly to make sure that the decisions are reviewed, and changed if that is necessary”.
My Lords, while we welcome the Government’s eventual acknowledgement of the failure of the ARAP scheme to appropriately protect the Triples, I am appalled at how long it has taken to get to this point. The Government have launched a review. They are now promising an independent reassessment process that will be followed by a reconsideration of individual decisions which are not considered to be robust—all this while the Triples are either in hiding in Afghanistan or in Pakistan fearing imminent deportation.
James Heappey in the other place pledged that these reassessments would be done in 12 weeks. Can the Minister confirm that they will be concluded by the end of April and that the timescale will include the reopening of ARAP claims where appropriate? Given the number of people currently stranded in Pakistan, can the Minister update your Lordships’ House on current conversations with the Government of Pakistan to ensure that there are no further deportations to Afghanistan while this process is under way?
My Lords, your Lordships will remember from when we went through this issue the last time that it is not easy. I do not accept that we have made a nonsense of it. What we are trying to do is get it right. Some inconsistencies came up during the process that needed addressing, which is what we are trying to do. The information was held by the Afghan national Government. It was not held by us. Your Lordships will remember that we had 142,000 applications, of which 95,000 were original. We needed to get to the truth of it. As a result, we are looking again at all the refusals, which is the right thing to do.
My Lords, these Benches welcome the Government’s change of heart and their agreement to look again at the applications of the Triples. There has been a real problem with ARAP and ACRS. People have not been able to make appeals.
Can the Minister reassure the House that His Majesty’s Government understand the urgency of dealing with these appeals immediately? While 12 weeks is absolutely the longest that it should take, ideally it should be much sooner. Can he tell us what Minister Heappey in the other place meant by saying that a new safe route is by the ACRS? The SNP had asked how we could have new safe routes. The fact that you have been granted ARAP does not mean that you can get out of hiding in Afghanistan to the United Kingdom. What will the Government do to enable people to get here safely?
My Lords, I assure all noble Lords that we are in very close contact with the highest level of the Government in Pakistan. They are being extremely co-operative on the situation. Regarding the 12-week timeframe, we would like to get this sorted out as soon as possible. It has gone on for a very long period, but please keep in context the 142,000 applications. It has not been easy, and it is important that we get the safe routes correct so that people can get out of Afghanistan. Once they are in Pakistan and get the letter, we can get them out. We got another 2,900 people out fairly recently. It is a challenge, but we are getting there.
My Lords, what the Minister has said today is very welcome, even if he is denying that it is a change of policy, which of course it is. It would have been quite shameful to have continued on the basis on which we were proceeding before this change. Can he or his colleague in the FCDO say whether reconsideration is being given also to those who worked with and for the British Council over many years? I declare that I negotiated the opening of the British Council in Kabul some 60 years ago.
My Lords, I welcome the fact that the Government have undertaken to review all those applications that were deemed to be ineligible. Some of those very brave men are in hiding in Afghanistan, and some of them are in Pakistan, but some are here. In the chaos of leaving Afghanistan, they were all denied access to the evacuation flights. They all knew the Taliban knew where they lived. They were forced, in those circumstances, to get here by irregular and dangerous routes. Will the Ministry of Defence undertake not to make them ineligible for ARAP because of the way they got here?
My Lords, my understanding is that that is absolutely correct. Everything is being considered on a case-by-case basis, and the information now needs to be as pure as it possibly can be to enable us to decide whether those employees of the Afghan Government are eligible to relocate into this country.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl for his thoughtful answer to my noble friend, but how does his answer square with the Government’s current and proposed future policy on people who come here via irregular routes? When legislation that has already passed is brought into force, and when proposed legislation passes, the Secretary of State will have no discretion even to be kind to people such as the brave men and women we have been discussing but will be under a duty to send them to places such as Rwanda.
My Lords, I am not 100% clear on that point, but I know that, where inconsistencies and inaccuracies have come to light, we are going to reconsider—with a completely new team of people and a completely new assessment—to make absolutely certain that we get the people here who should be here.
My Lords, the Minister has said that each case will be considered individually, which of course is good, but he will be aware that it is often extremely difficult for applicants to produce incontrovertible evidence of their entitlement. Will he assure the House that, in cases where there is some fuzziness and a little bit of doubt, the Government will exercise their generosity rather than their bureaucracy?
My Lords, I recall a very similar question the last time we raised this, and I think I said at the time that there is flexibility and that it is important that we get it right. That is the indication that I will give.
My Lords, if nobody else wants to come in, perhaps I may press the noble Earl further to answer my original question and those of the noble Lord, Lord Browne, and the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti. If somebody is entitled to ARAP, and if they make it to the United Kingdom by some circuitous route that would otherwise be deemed illegal, does that mean that they will be eligible to remain even though, in every other circumstance, they would be deemed to have come through an illegal route and potentially be sent to Rwanda?