26 May 2022
James Cleverly responds to an Urgent Question on evacuations from Afghanistan

James Cleverly, Minister for Europe and North America, responds to an Urgent Question on evacuations from Afghanistan.

The Minister for Europe and North America (James Cleverly)

The Government are grateful to the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs for its inquiry and its detailed report. We will consider the report carefully and provide a written response within the timeline that the Committee has requested.

The scale of the crisis in Afghanistan last year is unprecedented in recent times. The report recognises that the Taliban took over the country at a pace that surprised the Taliban themselves, the international community and the former Government of Afghanistan. Many months of planning for an evacuation, and the enormous efforts of staff to deliver it, enabled us to evacuate more than 15,000 people within a fortnight, under exceptionally difficult circumstances. The Government could not have delivered an evacuation at that scale without planning, grip and leadership.

The evacuation involved the processing of details of thousands of individuals by Ministry of Defence, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and Home Office staff in the UK and teams on the ground in Kabul. In anticipation of the situation, the FCDO had reserved the Baron hotel, so the UK was the only country apart from the United States to have a dedicated emergency handling centre for receiving and processing people in Kabul International airport. RAF flights airlifted people to a dedicated terminal in Dubai, reserved in advance by the FCDO, where evacuees were assessed by other cross-Government teams; they were then flown on FCDO-chartered flights to the UK, where they were received by staff of the Home Office and other Departments, who ensured that they were catered for and quarantined. The evacuation was carefully planned and tightly co-ordinated throughout its delivery.

As it does following all crises, the FCDO has conducted a thorough lessons learned exercise. We have written to the FAC with the main findings of that exercise. Changes have already been implemented by the FCDO, for example in response to the situation in Ukraine.

We all regret that we were not able to help more people who worked with us or for us to get out of Afghanistan during the military evacuation. Since the end of the formal evacuation last summer, we have helped a further 4,600 people to leave Afghanistan. We will continue to work to deliver on our commitment to those eligible for resettlement in the UK through the Afghan relocations and assistance policy and the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme.

Mr Baron 

Last summer, Operation Pitting brought over 15,000 people to the UK from Afghanistan. We all commend those who were directly involved on the ground in that operation. However, the recent report by the Foreign Affairs Committee—whose Chair, my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), is sitting behind me—sets out that there was no comprehensive plan detailing who should come, how many should come and in what order. Many people who should be in this country in safety are still in Afghanistan in fear for their lives.

A key example is British Council contractors. They did not work directly for the Government, or indeed for the British Council, but they still did their bit promoting the English language, British culture and British values; the Taliban do not see or recognise the difference. We have about 170 British Council contractors and their families in Afghanistan, of whom about half are deemed to be at very high risk, according to our own definition, and a further 93 or so are deemed to be at high risk. Many of them live in constant fear for their lives, moving from house to house as they are actively hunted by the Taliban.

I had a positive meeting with the Minister for Refugees last week, but we are coming up against constant FCDO red tape and bureaucracy, which is preventing the FCDO from immediately helping those who are in the greatest danger through the ACRS. It is bureaucracy at our end; we have identified the individuals who are in danger in Afghanistan.

As somebody who opposed the morphing of the mission into nation building in Afghanistan—I think I was the only Conservative to vote against it when we had the opportunity—I feel that the Government owe these people a debt of honour. There is an obligation to help them. I appreciated the Prime Minister’s answer to my question yesterday, in which he said he would do something about the issue, but I have been raising it since November and they have been in danger since the fall of Kabul. What undertakings can the Government give that they will finally break the bureaucratic deadlock? Time is running out.

James Cleverly 

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He has communicated to me directly his passion about this issue. I can assure him that the Government take extremely seriously their responsibility to those who worked directly, but also indirectly, with us and for us.

As I said, the ACRS was formally launched in January this year. The scheme resettled up to 20,000 Afghans, including those whom we know to be at particularly high risk of persecution by the Taliban, such as the British Council staff whom my hon. Friend mentioned, as well as female Afghan politicians, female judges and others who, during our presence in Afghanistan, attempted to promote the values about which we feel strongly. I can assure my hon. Friend that we are working, across Government, with Lord Harrington, the Minister who specialises in the resettlement process, to ensure that we can move as quickly as possible, while also ensuring at all times that we create a system that is legally robust, is right, and prioritises the people who are at risk and to whom we owe a debt of honour.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing)

I call the shadow Minister.

Catherine West (Hornsey and Wood Green) (Lab)

The report of the Foreign Affairs Committee on the UK’s botched evacuation from Afghanistan is one of the most damning reports that I have ever read. At a time when the UK can be proud of our support for the Ukrainian mission, this report drags us back to a dark period when we turned our back on our allies. It details a disastrous tragedy of errors that fundamentally undermines the 20 years of progress that Britain and its allies helped to bring to the Afghan people.

When Kabul fell, political and senior leaders were all on holiday, despite repeated warnings from US intelligence agencies that the Taliban were in the ascendant. People who supported the allied mission or were especially vulnerable to the Taliban were left behind. Sensitive documents were abandoned in the embassy because the evacuation was rushed and under-rehearsed. There was no plan. Consular staff were withdrawn before replacements were ready to be deployed, which led to a crucial delay in processing cases. Visa schemes were led by three separate Government Departments, which utterly failed to co-ordinate, and—a year on—these problems endure, including the problem of the British Council staff. National security decisions were taken with potentially life-and-death consequences, with no clarity and with no record of which Ministers authorised what. As my hon. Friends the Members for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) and for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) made clear at the time, the Government were asleep at the wheel at this moment of acute crisis, putting British lives at risk to clean up their mess.

The effects on the UK’s international standing are immensely damaging. Shaky senior leadership in Government not only had disastrous consequences in the short term, but has damaged the trust that others have in us in the long term. The lack of leadership and the repeated mistakes make a mockery of the notion of “global Britain”, betraying the good work of our armed services and diplomats and signalling a strategic incoherence at the heart of the Government’s foreign policy.

I will be blunt in asking two questions of the Minister. First, who has been held accountable for the clear failures in our handling of a situation in which incompetence was promoted and negligence rewarded? Secondly, will the Government get a grip and commit themselves to working with the international community to ensure that there is a coherent strategy to engage with Afghanistan in the medium to long term? In the light of impending famine in the country, we cannot afford to turn our back on the Afghan people forever. The Government must make amends for this sorry episode, and improve.

James Cleverly 

In my opening comments, I made the point that the Government had reserved the Baron hotel. Apart from the United States, we were the only country in the world to have that physical presence at the airport. We had made arrangements at Dubai to have an airhead there to facilitate the evacuation and onward passage. The report from the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), is an important document and we will pay it the attention it deserves and respond to it in the timescale requested of us by his Committee.

Madam Deputy Speaker 

I call the Chairman of the Select Committee.

Tom Tugendhat (Tonbridge and Malling) (Con)

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) for securing this urgent question. 

The points he makes about the British Council are absolutely valid, and the Minister, whose integrity is beyond question, has made the defence that his Department would expect of him. May I, however, raise just a few points?

First, the reason we reserved the hotel and others did not was that the French and Germans had pulled their people out months earlier, and they had done so because the Americans had signalled the withdrawal 18 months earlier—or, if you thought that Vice-President Biden would become President Biden, 14 years earlier. This was not a surprise. The lack of a plan was a surprise. The failure to be present was a surprise.

The failure of integrity when discussing matters with the Select Committee was a huge surprise. For us, as representatives of the British people, the real surprise—the real tragedy—is not just the hundreds of lives left behind in Afghanistan and the people abandoned in neighbouring countries but the undermining of the security of this country and the defence of our people, which has come about through an erosion of trust. Our enemies do not fear us and allies do not trust us. That has been tested in Ukraine, and we are all paying for it in every gas bill and every food shop. That is the price of the erosion of trust, and that is why we need a fundamental rethink not just of our foreign policy but of how our country engages with the world. Those who, like our most senior diplomat, are the voice of our country in the world, need to be voices that we can trust, but I am afraid that the Committee that I am privileged to chair does not.

James Cleverly 

My hon. Friend knows that when he speaks, he speaks with great authority and we listen carefully to what he says. If there are times when we disagree with him, we do so with genuine respect for his experience and knowledge. The report that his Committee has produced is important and will be considered fully and properly and responded to. He has my absolute guarantee on that, and he knows that that view is shared across the Department. Specifically with regard to the permanent under-secretary, the ministerial team has complete confidence in him. The lessons that we all need to learn will be learned. I give him that assurance from the Front Bench.

Dave Doogan (Angus) (SNP)

There is much talk about the implications for the reputation of the United Kingdom internationally after this failure. I am not much moved by the reputation of the United Kingdom, but I grieve for the poor souls left behind in mortal danger in Afghanistan. They have been left to their fate after putting their trust in this United Kingdom Government. The Government said that intensive planning went into the withdrawal, but that could well be because, unlike other nations, the UK was flat-footed in its preparedness, no doubt leading to that intensity. No amount of intensive planning is any substitute for strategic or timely planning.

Just last night I was in this place commending the Ministry of Defence and its Ministers for their strategic, timely and full response to war in Ukraine, so this is not political in any analysis, much less a comparative analysis. This operation was extremely challenged for want of timely leadership and grip. We on the SNP Benches are not confused: we know a deeply flawed operation when we see it, and likewise an incorrigible lack of leadership and grip from the Prime Minister and the then Foreign Secretary. We need to be clear to the people outside that, while there were clearly severe and profound problems with Op Pitting in political and strategic terms, the operational performance and bravery of the servicemen and women working in exceptionally challenging circumstances to evacuate 15,000 terrified civilians was astonishing and a credit to their service and training. The work of the uniformed personnel is beyond reproach.

As I have said before in this place, there was clearly a failure to analyse or to act effectively on intelligence on the Taliban’s force strength, and a failure to act decisively or timeously on the explicit US decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, which was known in February 2020 at the very latest. Is the Minister aware that one in four people crossing the channel in the first quarter of 2022 was an Afghan refugee? If that does not cause the UK to dial down its vilification of these people, I do not know what will. Will he speak directly to that point, please?

James Cleverly 

The UK Government’s vilification is reserved exclusively for the evil people who prey on the vulnerable and traffic them through huge danger, putting lives at risk not just in the crossing between France and the UK but more widely. That is where our vilification rightly sits. The Foreign Affairs Committee’s important report will be considered carefully. Lessons have already been learned and implemented in relation to our response on Ukraine, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned. We know we have to take this report seriously, and we will.

Bob Seely (Isle of Wight) (Con)

I pay tribute to my former colleagues who worked on Operation Pitting, including Colonel Dave Middleton and my former boss Brigadier James Martin.

Looking at the report, does the Minister accept there are problems with how cross-Government integration works? Does he also accept that there are significant question marks about how our national security structures work, and whether they and the current National Security Adviser are fit for purpose?

James Cleverly 

The situation in Afghanistan moved incredibly quickly, and it forced a pressure on all international capitals that had a presence in Afghanistan, the likes of which we had not seen before. I hear what my hon. Friend says about the specifics, and I will not be rushed into making conclusions about our response to the report. It deserves proper consideration, and that consideration will be given.

Hilary Benn (Leeds Central) (Lab)

May I return to the position of the British Council contractors—a point that was raised by the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron)? Having to move from place to place costs money, and we all know that these people are in fear of their life. What are the Government doing to support them with those costs? I know of individuals who are sending money, but are the Government doing so?

Secondly, it is all very well to say that people can be considered for the resettlement scheme if they make it out of Afghanistan, but we really owe a debt of honour to these individuals, so surely we can tell them that they will get a place on the scheme if they manage to get out.

James Cleverly 

Our desire is to protect as many people as we can from persecution by the Taliban. It is not possible for us to give blanket assurances because, of course, each application has to be taken on its merits.

Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con)

My right hon. Friend rightly draws the House’s attention to the Afghan resettlement scheme, under which we have agreed to take 20,000 citizens from Afghanistan. We have rightly moved on to assisting Ukrainian refugees, but my understanding is that we still have 12,000 Afghan refugees living in hotels, without permanent or even temporary accommodation. Will he update the House on what we are doing to make sure that people for whom we have accepted responsibility have a permanent place to call home?

James Cleverly 

My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. Although the eyes of the world have rightly moved to the appalling situation in Ukraine following Russia’s unprovoked invasion of that wonderful country, I assure him that the Government remain committed to ensuring that we properly discharge our duty to those Afghans who worked with us, alongside us and for us in Afghanistan, including when they come to the UK.

Joanna Cherry (Edinburgh South West) (SNP)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) on securing this important urgent question. It is not just British Council contractors whom we encouraged to be part of the nation building project; many female prosecutors and judges have been left behind. Along with Marzia Babakarkhail, a former Afghan judge living in the UK, I have been trying for some time to get the Government to take action to help these women, who are moving from house to house and relying on money that is being sent to them by friends here and elsewhere. Baroness Kennedy and the International Bar Association managed to get a significant number of female judges out of Afghanistan earlier this year, but many highly vulnerable women who worked as prosecutors and judges are still trapped in the country. Can the Minister give me a firm commitment that the British Government, who encouraged these women to take up roles in Afghanistan, will do something concrete to help them without further delay?

James Cleverly 

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon has put a particular focus on supporting women in the judiciary, and women judges and politicians, as we recognise that they are particularly at risk, both because they are women and because they sought to promote equality, human rights and the rule of law in that country. I assure the hon. and learned Lady that we will remain focused on protecting them.

Lucy Allan (Telford) (Con)

My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) makes exactly the point I want to make: we gave many people the opportunity of a new life in this country last summer, but they are languishing in bridging hotels across the country. It is impossible to get an update on how many have been resettled. They have not been resettled; they are in hotels, and they are not part of a community and are not being integrated. I urge the Minister to do everything he can to provide regular updates to MPs who have bridging hotels in their constituencies, and to ensure that we properly integrate and resettle these Afghans whom we welcomed here.

James Cleverly 

My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point, and I assure her that we will raise this issue with the Departments that are focused on the very point she has made.

Stephen Timms (East Ham) (Lab)

British citizens’ relatives who are trapped in Afghanistan cannot apply for visas to come to the UK because no biometric service is available, and they have to have biometrics in order to apply for visas. For this reason, the requirement for biometrics has been suspended in the case of Ukraine, so will the Minister suspend it in the case of Afghanistan?

James Cleverly 

I will raise this issue at the next opportunity in cross-government meetings on this.

John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con)

Will the Minister confirm that we left Afghanistan in such haste because our American allies decided unilaterally to leave at great speed, without sharing the timetable and plans with us, and that obviously meant we had to leave, because they had greatly superior forces? All those who did such a good job on the ground, under such time pressure, are therefore to be praised and thanked for what they managed to do.

James Cleverly 

Our presence in Afghanistan was a coalition one; this was done in close co-ordination with our international allies. When the decision was made by the US to withdraw, it was inevitable that we would also have to withdraw. The pace of advance of the Taliban took everybody by surprise, and it forced the pace of evacuation, which we had not anticipated; we had made some preparations, but we had not anticipated it fully.

Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab)

My constituent queued for 20 hours to get into the Baron hotel; she was trying to protect her baby daughter from the Taliban, who were firing shots and using tear gas. She was evacuated, but her nightmare did not end there; her daughter’s emergency passport has expired, and her brother languishes in a Greek camp, seriously ill. He was a supreme court judge and he faces certain death if he goes back to Afghanistan. When I raise these issues with the Home Office, I get no response whatsoever. Can we not do better?

James Cleverly 

The hon. Lady highlights her constituent’s situation; it is reflective of the difficult situation that many Afghans face. We were presented with a uniquely difficult set of circumstances, and we are working to ensure that we are able to provide support and homes for as many people as possible. We continue to work across Departments to facilitate that.

Jerome Mayhew (Broadland) (Con)

While I am pleased that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office has undertaken a review of the lessons learned in Afghanistan, I am particularly grateful to my right hon. Friend the Minister for the tone and contents of his response to the concerns raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat). 

Will my right hon. Friend set out how our diplomatic and operational response in Ukraine has already changed in response to the lessons learned in Afghanistan?

James Cleverly 

My hon. Friend makes the point that although the Select Committee’s report is important, and it will be read and assessed with seriousness, we did not want to wait before we made improvements, so we took lessons from our internal process. Some of those lessons have already been applied in Ukraine, and I strongly believe that has improved the response to the situation there. We will continue to learn lessons and to strive to improve our performance, not just in Ukraine and Afghanistan but in all circumstances in which an emergency response is needed.

Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South) (Lab)

We had 18 months to prepare for the US withdrawal but, as the Select Committee’s report exposes, the end to our mission was utterly chaotic, and many people to whom we owed a duty were left behind, abandoned, with their lives at immediate risk. Does the Minister not accept that this episode represents an appalling failure of planning by the Department’s political leadership? When will someone in this Government do the right thing and take responsibility?

James Cleverly 

The precise timing of the US departure from Afghanistan was not a date that was widely shared, and the pace of the Taliban’s advance was not information that was widely known. We responded as promptly as we were able to. The professionalism of our public servants—both those in uniform and those out of uniform—was exemplary. We will of course learn lessons from that situation and, as I have said, some of them have already been applied. We will continue to ensure that we amend our processes and practices, so that if such a circumstance presented itself again, we would be able to respond better and faster.

Sarah Owen (Luton North) (Lab)

There are still 80 cases of people in Luton North trying to get loved ones in Afghanistan to safety. I have previously raised in the Chamber the case of a woman doctor who led public campaigns on women’s reproductive health and vaccination programmes, and whose estranged husband is now a member of the Taliban. In fact, Ministers and special advisers knew of her case when she was shamefully turned away from the Baron hotel. The Select Committee’s report shows what we all knew: it was chaos, and there was no plan. When will the thousands of people who have been left behind, such as the doctor I mentioned and her children, be given some hope? When will individual cases be given a meaningful response?

James Cleverly 

As I said, we envisage up to 20,000 Afghans being resettled under the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme. We will work through that. I am sure the hon. Lady will understand that I cannot comment on individual cases, but we will ensure that we discharge our duty to those Afghans who supported us when we were in that country.

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

My constituents and I continue to be in utter despair at the devastating lack of leadership last summer, which has been laid bare by the Select Committee’s report. We are also concerned about the ongoing lack of response to our emails and calls while the Taliban are advancing a reign of terror. This week, one of my constituents has told me about the Taliban visiting the family home and beating her mum and cousin because her mum worked in a women’s charity that was supported by the UK Government. That is one of the cases that we sent to the special cases team last summer. Yes, we need to learn the lessons for Ukraine, but we also need to learn them for the people in Afghanistan who have been left behind. The Minister will have the support of the House in doing that.

Will the Minister make two swift changes? First, will he look to assess cases with the information that the Government already have? They can make a decision based on the information that is already there. Secondly, will he make life easier for those seeking to apply for visas for which they are eligible? The English language test that is needed cannot be done in Afghanistan; will he suspend that requirement for visa applications?

James Cleverly 

The ACRS process is designed to be robust but effective. We have listened to the hon. Lady’s suggestions, and I will ensure that my right hon. and hon. Friends who are involved have also taken note of the points she raised.

Wera Hobhouse (Bath) (LD)

My constituent was in the Afghan special forces. She was a woman soldier supporting the west. She was evacuated in August 2021. Her 14-year-old sister is now with her in Bath. Her husband and her father were killed, and her mother, who lost a leg in a missile strike, did not make it to the airport. My constituent applied to the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy scheme for her mother to join her in Bath, but her application was rejected on the basis that her mother was not a dependant. The mother is highly vulnerable and alone. My constituent is deeply traumatised, and her mother’s situation distresses her even more. Will the Minister please facilitate a meeting with me and a relevant Minister in the Ministry of Defence to discuss my constituent’s case as a matter of urgency?

James Cleverly 

Many Members are trying to help their constituents. We have a system in place, and I strongly urge the hon. Lady to use it, because that is the most effective way of getting this done.

Kim Johnson (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab)

Our presence ended in August 2021, but our commitment should not. We have seen the impact on women and girls, particularly in terms of access to education. Can the Minister outline what steps he has taken to ensure commitment in the medium and long term, and what action is being taken to review our foreign policy?

James Cleverly 

As I said in my opening remarks, we will take the recommendations of the Foreign Affairs Committee very seriously. We have launched the Afghan Citizens’ Resettlement Scheme, and we envisage that it will help up to 20,000 Afghans. The hon. Lady is right: our presence in Afghanistan is no longer physical, but we are absolutely committed to discharging our duty of honour to those Afghans who supported us, including women.

Rachael Maskell (York Central) (Lab/Co-op)

The report of the Foreign Affairs Committee justifies our worst fears. It said that events could have been better predicted, things could have been better planned for and people could have been protected. Many people in Afghanistan today were given the false hope that they would find safety here in the UK, particularly people from minoritised groups, such as the LGBT community and the Hazara Muslim community, who move from house to house in fear of attacks from the Taliban. What steps will this Government take to fulfil the commitment to those people and ensure that they can find a place of safety in the UK, and do not have to wait for the Government to make up their mind?

James Cleverly 

The Government have made a commitment to prioritising those people particularly at risk from persecution by the Taliban. That includes women and girls, human rights defenders, people who promoted the rule of law, and those from minority communities, such as the Hazaras, whom the hon. Lady highlighted. As I said, the ACRS scheme envisages helping up to 20,000 Afghans, and prioritisation will be for those most at risk.

Fleur Anderson (Putney) (Lab)

The report outlines a summer of chaos and it is absolutely shocking to read, but disappointingly, the chaos continues. I echo the concerns of other Members, as I, too, have so many constituents in danger in Afghanistan and in hotels here with no plan that they know of to move them. What is the plan?

I also wish to raise the issue of those who are in camps outside Afghanistan. A constituent in Roehampton wrote to me to say that his family had been evacuated by NATO from Afghanistan to a camp in Kosovo. He said that his sister-in-law had given birth to her baby there, and that he was really concerned about the family’s situation. What meetings is the Minister holding with UNICEF to co-ordinate work to bring relatives from those camps to the UK?

James Cleverly 

Our response to the situation in Afghanistan has always, by its nature, been international. We continue to work with our friends in other Governments and with non-governmental organisations around the world to support Afghans who have been displaced by this conflict.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)

I thank the Minister for his answers. The report makes for sober reading. One hundred and seventy families are still in Afghanistan. The hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron), who asked this urgent question, said that these people had worked with us. He said that their lives were at risk and that they were still waiting to be processed. Willowbrook Foods and Mash Direct in my constituency are able, willing and keen to offer employment and, in some cases, accommodation and help with accommodation. How does the Minister plan to get these people to safety, make right the fact that they still do not have the refuge that they were promised months ago, and enable companies in my constituency to help him and the Afghan people to get the new lives that they want?

James Cleverly 

The generosity of the people of the United Kingdom is huge, and I think the example that the hon. Gentleman gives will be replicated in many constituencies around the country. We envisage the ACRS process helping Afghans to come to the UK, but as has been brought up by a number of right hon. and hon. Members, we also have a duty to help them to become integrated, educated and, ultimately, employed. That is the full duty we have and the full duty we seek to discharge.