15 September 2021
James Cleverly responds to debate on the withdrawal from Afghanistan

James Cleverly, Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, responds to an Opposition Day debate calling for a Joint Committee to investigate the withdrawal from Afghanistan. He outlines the focus of UK priorities: preventing Afghanistan from again becoming a haven for global terrorism; preventing humanitarian disaster and supporting refugees; preserving wider regional stability; and holding the Taliban to account for their conduct, including their record on human rights.

The Minister for the Middle East and North Africa (James Cleverly)

I thank the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) for calling today’s debate on an incredibly important issue.

In response to the crisis in Afghanistan, we have delivered the largest and most complex evacuation in living memory. In the space of just two weeks, we evacuated around 8,000 British nationals, around 5,000 Afghans under the ARAP scheme, and around 500 Afghan special cases, including judges, Chevening scholars, journalists and women’s rights activists. That is in addition to the 1,978 Afghans evacuated through the ARAP scheme between April, when we started the scheme, and the end of August.

Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab)

In her statement on Monday, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), said:

“Family members of British citizens or”

Afghans settled in the UK

“who do not qualify for the ACRS”—

the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme—

“can apply to come to the UK”—[Official Report, 13 September 2021; Vol. 700, c. 685.]

under existing “family routes”. The majority of our cases, I suspect, are those family reunion cases. What priority will be given to those? She also said that

“we will not be able, therefore, to respond to colleagues with specific updates on individuals.”

Does that mean that the 160 letters that I am waiting for a reply to will not get any reply at all?

James Cleverly 

I will come on to how we intend to inform Members about cases that they have raised with us. If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I will address that.

We also repatriated an estimated 500 British nationals who left Afghanistan in accordance with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office travel advice when that was changed. In total, from April this year to August, we helped over 17,000 people get to safety. I pay tribute to the troops and civilian staff who helped to make that possible, and I pay tribute once again to all those who served in Afghanistan over the last 20 years, whether in the armed forces or in other roles.

In this next phase, we are working to secure safe passage for those British nationals and eligible Afghans who remain in the country. My right hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab), the then Foreign Secretary, visited Qatar two weeks ago to discuss efforts to re-establish flights from Kabul airport and the wider international approach to the Taliban. International flights have now started. We secured places for 13 British nationals on the first Qatari flight from Kabul on 9 September, and 21 British nationals were on the second flight the following day. We will continue this work to help evacuate British nationals via that route.

Chris Bryant 

I have two quick questions. First, how many British nationals does the Minister think are still in Afghanistan? Secondly, if other people—Afghan nationals—are going to be helped out, some of them will still need consular support because they will need visas or permits to travel. How do we intend that that support be given? Are we doing that through another nation state? Are we going to be able to do that from out of country? What is the plan?

James Cleverly 

The hon. Gentleman asks about the number of people in Afghanistan. He will understand that the British Government do not demand British nationals overseas register with us. We do not demand that when they cross borders, so it is incredibly difficult—this is one of the challenges we are facing—to put a precise figure on the number of British nationals in Afghanistan, particularly, as I say, because there is no requirement necessarily for people to register with us when they cross borders.

Several hon. Members rose—

James Cleverly 

I am conscious that there is huge interest in this debate and I really do want to make some progress.

We are working closely with Afghanistan’s neighbours to ensure safe passage through those countries. My right hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton, the then Foreign Secretary, visited Pakistan after Qatar and saw for himself the situation at Torkham on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. He also had discussions with the Foreign Ministers of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Iran.

Our diplomacy is paying off. Over the weekend, we helped to secure safe passage for Afghan nationals, including the staff of the Nowzad animal welfare charity, which I know is of huge interest both to hon. Members and the British people more widely, after they made their way to the border. We also dispatched a rapid deployment team comprising 23 staff to the region last week to support our embassies in processing those cases, which goes to the point raised by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) about where they would be processed. Those cases will be processed wherever is most appropriate, although the main ambassadorial team which served in Afghanistan is currently based in Doha. We are sending further rapid deployment teams to bolster those efforts, with additional staff being sent to Pakistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con)

Members on both sides of the House are fighting the corner for deserving Afghans whom we want to save. The Minister has just said that the Nowzad animal charity staff, who were not ARAP people and not British citizens, have been given safe passage, having got to the border. Does that mean that the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme is now up and running, because we have all got good cases that qualify just as much as those worthy people do for immediate help and rescue?

James Cleverly 

I will address that point shortly.

In addition to that deployment of staff, we are providing £30 million to Afghanistan’s neighbours to provide lifesaving support for refugees. Meanwhile—this touches on the point my right hon. Friend mentions—the Home Office is currently in the process of fully launching the resettlement programme, providing a safe and legal route to the UK for up to 20,000 Afghans in the region.

Several hon. Members rose—

James Cleverly 

I really do have to make some progress. There are a lot of points that I wish to cover. I am sure Members will be able to bring that up in the forthcoming debate.

The FCDO team in London and internationally continue to work around the clock to support processing and responding to the correspondence that has been sent by Members of this House. During the evacuation operation alone, the FCDO received, as I have said previously at the Dispatch Box, over 200,000 emails. Approximately 30,000 of these emails were from MPs. That volume reflects the concern and passion of the House, and we completely understand that. However, working through that volume of emails has been a Herculean task.

Liam Byrne (Birmingham, Hodge Hill) (Lab)

On that point, will the Minister give way?

James Cleverly 

I am going to make progress.

Hundreds of civil servants are being assigned to work through that case load each day, working in multiple shifts through the day, seven days a week. The FCDO aimed to complete the triage of cases to the Ministry of Defence or the Home Office, and notify hon. Members by tomorrow. It has become increasingly clear, as we work through cases, that both the volume and their complexity mean that we will have to take longer than we had originally hoped.

What we have learnt is that some individual pieces of correspondence contain very large numbers of highly complex cases, which means that it is not always obvious which Government Department is the most appropriate recipient for the email and makes predicting how long this work will take very difficult. However, I can tell the House that, by tomorrow, the FCDO will have contacted more than half the hon. Members who have written to us to, letting them know which Department their cases have been sent to. We will endeavour to complete that process for all but the small minority of MPs with the most complex cases by the timelines previously communicated to Members.

Seema Malhotra (Feltham and Heston) (Lab/Co-op)

I thank the Minister for giving way and particularly for his update on his discussions with other countries, including Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, which are a very important part of the puzzle. I want to make two specific points. First, there is a new form on the Foreign Office website for British nationals in Afghanistan to register, but when I asked the Foreign Secretary about whether that form needed to be completed again by British nationals who have already notified the Foreign Office that they are still there, he said he did not know and suggested I ask the Minister. So I would be grateful if the Minister could update the House on whether British nationals still in Afghanistan—this is a very important point—have to fill out another form to be on the Foreign Office’s register.

Secondly, I want to ask about Afghan nationals who are at risk. A particular example is someone who worked as a BBC journalist who is in hiding at the moment with her children. What advice should I be giving her right now? She is a relative of a constituent and at serious risk at this moment.

James Cleverly 

I completely understand the hon. Lady’s desire to get information to at-risk Afghans. It is not possible for me to give credible advice based just on the information that she has sent through. She makes the point about the website. While it is not necessarily the duty of Members of the House to understand the machinery of government, it is worth while them understanding that, when the Foreign Office has received emails, sometimes with the details of hundreds of individual cases, it is very difficult at times even to double-check to see whether those details have already been passed to us. Even in the case of British nationals, we have received cases that have been a mix of British nationals, potential ARAP scheme Afghans and other Afghans who are likely to come through in the Home Office scheme that has been announced. Working through them—triaging and distributing them—is an incredibly time-consuming and complex process, which we have to do with care.

Dr Andrew Murrison (South West Wiltshire) (Con)

It is obviously right that we crack through this casework as soon as possible, particularly in relation to UK nationals and those who come under the scope of the ARAP scheme. That is a UK responsibility and we will be faced with a refugee crisis—of that there is no question. We will therefore need a much bigger programme to take as many people as is reasonable, with our partners. The expert in this matter is the United Nations, which has of course provided triage, relatively recently and contemporaneously, in the Syrian resettlement programme, so what discussion has the Minister had with the UN about how to manage this situation, particularly in relation to those who have now fled Afghanistan?

James Cleverly 

I thank my right hon. Friend and I will come on to that point shortly.

As we work through this process, those MPs who have particularly complex cases will ultimately be contacted directly by the ministerial team—they will be phoned by a member of the ministerial team—to update them on the progress of those cases and, where necessary, to establish further information to allow us to process them.

A crisis of this magnitude demands a wider strategic response from the international community, as my right hon. Friend said. The UK is very much leading in that response. We are galvanising actions around four key priorities: first, preventing Afghanistan from ever again becoming a haven for global terrorism; secondly, preventing humanitarian disaster and supporting refugees; thirdly, preserving wider regional stability; and fourthly, holding the Taliban to account for their conduct, including their record on human rights. We will be at the UN General Assembly next week to take forward those priorities with our international partners. Working with the international community, we must set credible tests to hold the Taliban to the undertakings that they have made.

Turning to the motion before the House, I note that there is already a comprehensive range of scrutiny of the Government on the issue. The Select Committees on Foreign Affairs and on Defence have already launched inquiries on Afghanistan; further scrutiny will no doubt come from the House of Lords Select Committee on International Relations and Defence, and possibly from other Committees of this House or the other place. It is not clear what additional value a Joint Committee of both Houses would add.

The motion states that the proposed Joint Committee would

“consider…Government policy on Afghanistan from…February 2020 to…August 2021”.

In fact, the Government’s policy on Afghanistan during that period has been clear and there have been many opportunities to question Ministers and the Government on their approach.

Stewart Malcolm McDonald (Glasgow South) (SNP)

Will the Minister give way?

James Cleverly 

No, I will conclude, because otherwise I would steal time from hon. Members who wished to contribute to the debate.

The motion proposes that the new Committee

“consider…intelligence assessments made of the…situation in Afghanistan”.

The Intelligence and Security Committee already has statutory responsibility for oversight in that area; it is the proper vehicle for such scrutiny.

The motion then stipulates that the Joint Committee would scrutinise eligibility for the ARAP scheme, but the eligibility criteria have been known to every Member of this House for months and there is no need for a Joint Committee to debate them now or in future. Of course, the overriding challenge that we have faced has not been eligibility per se, but the difficulty of implementing a scheme in the rapidly changing and deteriorating security situation that we have observed in Afghanistan.

Thanks to our brave servicemen and women, no terrorist attack has been successfully launched from Afghanistan against this country in the past 20 years; I am grateful that the hon. Member for Wigan recognised that point. It is painful to watch what has gone on in Afghanistan, but we should remember that 10 million more children have been educated and 8 million landmines have been cleared because of our intervention. In the new reality that we face in Afghanistan today, it will be challenging to preserve those gains—of course it will—but we must do all we can with a concerted new international approach.

The Labour party supported the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. As yet, we have not seen the Opposition putting forward a credible alternative set of policies or strategic approach to this incredibly challenging issue.

As I said, the relevant Select Committees are already looking into the recent events in Afghanistan and providing scrutiny, as they should. The motion would therefore create an unnecessary process and would inevitably duplicate the work of those Committees and divert the Government’s resources from what should be our priority: addressing the needs of those people currently in Afghanistan whom we need to help. I therefore urge hon. Members on both sides of the House to reject the motion.