James Cleverly, Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, responds to an Urgent Question on FCDO responses to queries from MPs regarding UK nationals and vulnerable Afghans stuck in Afghanistan.
Through the shared effort across Government and our armed forces, we have delivered one of the largest and most complex evacuation operations in living memory. Between 15 and 29 August, we evacuated over 15,000 people from Afghanistan. This includes more than 8,000 British nationals, close to 5,000 Afghans who loyally served the United Kingdom, along with their dependants, and about 500 special cases of particularly vulnerable Afghans, including Chevening scholars, journalists, human rights defenders, campaigners for women’s rights, judges and so on.
Now that the primary evacuation period has ended, we have moved to a new phase. We stand by our commitments to support those who have worked for us and to take all remaining eligible cases. Securing the safe passage out of the country of those who remain is an immediate priority, and we are working through diplomatic channels to that end, which is why Ministers have made calls and the Foreign Secretary has visited the region. It is our determination to continue to work rapidly with both the Home Office and the Ministry of Defence to assess all cases that have been sent through to us.
Responding to MPs’ cases and correspondence remains a priority for the Government. My noble Friend the Minister for South Asia and the Commonwealth wrote on 5 September to all those MPs who sent cases to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, outlining the actions we are taking to progress the cases that have been sent to us, as well as the relevant contact routes that are now available as the initial evacuation phase is over.
The Minister for South Asia and the Commonwealth also sent a letter to all parliamentarians on 6 September outlining the work we are doing to provide safe passage for all those still in Afghanistan.
We received over 200,000 emails during Operation Pitting alone, which is significantly more than we received during the entire repatriation operation for British nationals at the onset of the covid pandemic last year. During the evacuation, our priority was rightly on getting UK nationals and those Afghans who worked for us on to the flights leaving Afghanistan. In addition, we brought out hundreds of individuals who were identified as special cases owing to the particular risk they faced because of their ties with the United Kingdom.
Since the completion of the evacuation phase, we have been urgently working through the correspondence, including the hundreds of letters that we received during the operation from MPs and peers, many of which contained multiple cases. More than 100 additional staff have been assigned to work through the caseload. Where the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office has received cases that are dealt with by the Ministry of Defence under the Afghan relocations and assistance policy or by the Home Office under the Afghan citizens’ resettlement scheme, we will pass them to the relevant Department. This will be completed within a week—that is, by 16 September—and those MPs concerned will be informed as to the Government Department that will be assessing the cases. Only after this assessment will the relevant Department be able to provide a more substantive update to those Members who have sent in cases.
The FCDO will continue to handle British national cases and we will be in contact with MPs about the specific cases they have raised within seven days, providing as much detail as we are able. We are deeply grateful for and pay tribute to the work of parliamentarians during this mammoth operation. I also pay tribute to the staff of many MPs who have worked around the clock responding to the concerns of constituents and those stuck in Afghanistan. Thanks to parliamentary colleagues and Members, our consular team has already been able to reach many who are in need. We are committed to addressing the concerns of parliamentarians as we move forward and will intensify our work as we end this operation.
Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker.
In my 20 years as an MP, I do not think I have heard as many upsetting stories as I have heard in the past few weeks, and I think that that feeling is reflected among many Members of the House. We owe a debt of gratitude to our staff because many of them are fielding these calls, not just once but every single day, with requests for information. Let me cite just one:
“I have eligibility offer. I have submitted all documents, including passports, birth certificates, marriage certificates. I was FCDO interpreter in Helmand. I am still in Afghanistan. The British Government did not evacuate me. I might be killed by the Taliban.”
Torture, rape, threats and constant reprisals are the reality for many people who stood by us in our hour of need. If anyone believed or hoped that the Taliban had changed, just listen to this:
“The Taliban are arresting people in my street. They go door to door. They knocked my house door again and were looking for me.”
I will not read out any more from that email because it would reveal who it is, but this is from a UK contractor whose father had all his fingernails removed one by one the last time the Taliban were in charge before being murdered. I note also that the Taliban has now announced that women will not even be allowed to take part in sport, so what chance is there for any participation in society or a full education?
Repeating a promise made by the Foreign Secretary, the Prime Minister told the House on Monday that every single email from colleagues was being responded to by “close of play today”—that was Monday, not next Thursday or in a month’s time. It was this Monday that has already gone. So far, all we have had is a circular—a Dear Colleague letter, not even handwritten—from one of the Ministers, as referred to by the Minister just now. There has been no answer to the 143 individual cases—sorry, it is 142 cases because one was murdered the other day.
I have to say that the way that the Government have dealt with Members has been a complete and utter shambles. I know that they may want to do good, but they have let us all down in this. This is no way to treat Members or our constituents. Why on earth have three separate channels through three separate Departments? It means that we have added to the confusion by sending everything in in triplicate, because we do not know which is the right set of criteria. We want a single point of contact and not, incidentally, the Minister for resettlement in the UK. We want a Minister for rescuing people in danger in Afghanistan—a single point of contact. The Minister has just repeated that we must go through all three Departments all over again.
Let me ask some specific questions. If someone has been rejected for the Afghan relocations and assistance policy, will they be considered automatically under the other schemes? That is not at all clear for the two who have been rejected that I know of. When will the full resettlement scheme criteria be in place and publicly available? As I understand it, it has still not been agreed by Government. I am reluctant to raise this, but why did the Government provide virtual briefing meetings for Tory MPs only fully a week, if not two weeks, before Labour MPs were engaged? I know that this is the case, because at least five Conservative MPs have raised it with me. How many MPs have written to Ministers with details of UK nationals?
Finally, will the Minister respond to the charge that was made in relation to British embassy officials telling people on the day of the explosion at the Abbey Gate that they should still be going there? That was clearly a miscommunication. The Foreign Secretary said that he was going to update us and give us the full details, but we still have not heard them.
I completely understand the passion with which the hon. Gentleman speaks. I suspect that every single Member of Parliament has received similarly harrowing accounts. Indeed, I have had a number of communications from previous military colleagues who are themselves in touch with Afghans they had worked with. We all recognise the fear and horror that many Afghans are going through.
I also thank the many MPs from across the House who have privately thanked me and asked me to pass on their thanks to the ministerial team and, probably more importantly, to the officials in the Foreign Office, the Home Office and the Ministry of Defence for the numbers of people who have been evacuated from Afghanistan. As I said, this was an unprecedented operation, and being in receipt of over 200,000 emails has put a strain on all of the Government that is unlike anything any of us have had to deal with before.
The hon. Gentleman says that we should only have one set of assessment criteria. That cannot be the case.
I didn’t say that.
Well, the hon. Gentleman said that there should one scheme. There cannot be one system for British nationals, Afghan nationals who have worked with us and Afghan nationals who have not worked with us. He says that Members are being told to send things in three different directions. That has not been the case. If he listens back to the speech that I just made, he will hear me saying that the FCDO has triaged and will triage correspondence from Members and make sure that it is sent to the appropriate Government Department so that British nationals are dealt with by the Foreign Office, where they should be dealt with; ARAP cases are dealt with by the Ministry of Defence, where they should be dealt with; and special cases are dealt with by the Home Office, where they should be dealt with.
We will ensure that correspondence that we have received before the end of this month is assessed and that Members will be told where their correspondence has been triaged to. If that correspondence has been sent to the FCDO, they will receive a status within seven days.
As everybody knows, the last few months have been an especially harrowing time for many of our staff, and the teams in constituency offices all over our islands have been frankly outstanding and impressive. It is also true that many of those working in the Foreign Office crisis centre have been quite exceptional. I pay huge tribute as well to our right hon. Friends the Defence Secretary and the Home Secretary, whose efforts have been second to none.
The point about unity of command is one that I know my right hon. Friend the Minister understands exceptionally well; it avoids confusion, risk and danger. That is particularly important in this situation because, as the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) was saying, the risk to these people is growing by the day. The biometric data that was left behind by the United States is increasingly being used against these people, to track them and find them. People are taking risks in going to the border, from which they then have to turn back when they find out that borders are closed or their papers are no good. Giving information early is therefore not just a kindness or a courtesy; it is lifesaving. Will the Minister commit to trying to bring these things more closely together, to achieving a comprehensive approach between the three Departments, and to giving answers quickly to those who stood by us in our hour of need?
My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point about the speed with which these decisions are made, but we should remember that in all cases, and particularly in immigration cases dealt with by the Home Office, there is a degree of complexity that does not make speed easy. We should also remember that in many cases, because Afghans have had to flee their homes, cities and villages, they have incomplete, or in some cases are completely devoid of, documentation, which adds a degree of complexity.
We made an expansive and generous offer to support those Afghans who were at particularly high risk of reprisals from the Taliban. That created a significant increase in the number of cases brought to our attention. We absolutely will work through them at pace, but we have to be realistic about the complexity of some of these cases. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that speed is of the essence; we recognise that. We also recognise that Members who have contacted us in genuine fear for the people they have either worked with or speak on behalf of also want some reassurance, which is why we are absolutely dedicated to making sure that we pass on in a timely manner the information we are able to pass on.
A week ago last Sunday, The Observer newspaper quoted a whistleblower who had access to Foreign Office email accounts. He said that MPs were not getting replies to the emails they had sent, and:
“It’s not just that MPs weren’t getting replies—their emails weren’t being read”.
The source also said that there was a backlog of 5,000 emails.
On Monday this week, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary stood before the House and made commitments to Members on all Benches. Referring to a question from the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford), the Prime Minister said:
“I can tell him that by close of play today every single one of the emails from colleagues around this House will be answered”.—[Official Report, 6 September 2021; Vol. 700, c. 26.]
Later that day, the Foreign Secretary said,
“we will have replied to all MPs’ emails received by 30 August asking for an update by today.”—[Official Report, 6 September 2021; Vol. 700, c. 47.]
Both those commitments have been broken. That clearly runs against the basic principle of this House and treats Members from all parties with utter contempt. Given that MPs continue to wait for detailed emails on hundreds of cases, it raises the prosect that the Government knew at the time that they were making a promise to Members that they could not or would not keep.
The seriousness of these cases demands a serious response. Many of the people involved are vulnerable—women, children, families, LGBT+ people, people who have worked alongside the UK in Afghanistan and people living in fear of the new Taliban regime. Members’ staff have worked incredibly hard, as have Members from all parties themselves, so will the Minister now tell us, clearly and definitively: when will these emails be fully and comprehensively answered?
Two hundred thousand emails were received. Although it is absolutely the case that the people in Afghanistan—whether they be British nationals, Afghans who worked for us or at-risk Afghans—are a priority, it is just not possible to open, analyse and respond to 200,000 emails in the same timescale that we would normally be able to.
The commitment made by my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister was discharged: every single MP received a response so that they knew that their email had been received and opened and would be worked on. The detail on where those emails have been triaged to and, in respect of cases that are being dealt with by the FCDO, the initial status of cases will be, as I said, provided to right hon. and hon. Member from all parties by 16 September. The commitment that was made was discharged. We will continue to work on behalf of British nationals and at-risk Afghans and we will ensure that any correspondence received directly by the FCDO is triaged and sent to the most appropriate Government Department for processing.
I would like to thank all the officials who have been dealing with this matter, and the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who has raised a really important subject. I will come straight to the point. How confident is the Minister that the UK will be able to reach and get out of Afghanistan those Afghan folks who worked with us, not so much in Kabul but in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, where they served alongside the UK military and took the greatest risks to their own safety and that of their families? What is the chance of getting hold of those people who are now trapped hundreds of miles from Kabul?
The ministerial team at the FCDO, including the Foreign Secretary, have been liaising extensively with both neighbouring countries and countries in the region to facilitate the evacuation of Afghans who have worked with us. It is not possible—it is not possible—to make cast iron guarantees. There is no functioning Government in Afghanistan, but we are liaising intensively with neighbouring countries to give the Afghans the very best chance of escaping the Taliban regime.
I warmly commend the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) for bringing this matter forward, because it allows us the opportunity to express the real frustration and anger that exists. In that spirit, I commend the Minister for his statement today, because there was rather more humility and realism in it than we heard from the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary earlier this week. I think it is that mismatch between what has been said and what has been delivered that has led to the upset.
I have an auto-response for anybody who emails me. They get an automatic response generated by my inbox saying, “What is your postcode? Are you a real person? Do you live in Stirling?” So I could say, hand on heart, that anybody who gets in touch with me gets a response within seconds, but for me to suggest that that is a substantive response that actually answers the question would surely be misleading Parliament, which is why I have never made that point. I have to say to the Minister that I have canvassed opinion across the SNP group. As at 5 o’clock last night, we have 153 outstanding cases of individuals within Afghanistan needing help. We have not had a proper response. I will send all of those to him this afternoon and I would be grateful for an urgent response from his services to that.
We are trying to be constructive here. We need to learn the lessons. Can the Minister commit to a review for the future? When will the new details of the new scheme be published, so we can all learn the lessons for the future?
Members need to be realistic about the level of detail and granularity that any organisation is able to provide in this timescale. We are talking about one of the most complicated and challenging environments anywhere in the world at the moment. There is no functioning Government in Afghanistan. These cases are incredibly complex. We made a commitment to ensure that Members knew their emails had been received, triaged and allocated to the appropriate Department. The commitment I have made today is that they will receive that information within seven days. They should know the emails have been received by the Department because they will have already, as per the commitment made by my right hon. Friends, received the confirmation that we are working on those cases. I cannot promise to be able to resolve complex cases within a matter of days. No organisation is able to do that, but we will work tirelessly to ensure these cases are operationalised.
Female Afghan MPs are particularly at risk. Many have decided, very sadly, to leave their own country. As a public service announcement, I want to say that the Inter-Parliamentary Union is working with other Parliaments to put together the complete list of those individuals. I thank the Minister’s noble Friend for offering me a meeting. I know that many colleagues will have heard from female Afghan MPs. If they could ensure that they reach out to me, as chair of the British group, to make sure we have sight of all the names, we will work with other Parliaments to ensure that when they are able to get out of the country there will be a range of different countries that will give them refuge.
We have worked extensively with countries in the region. I pay particular thanks to the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, which have worked very hard on some specific cases that I have raised with them. I am very grateful for the point that my hon. Friend has made. We do very much prioritise women, who, as we have always known but are now reminded, are in particular danger under the new regime in Afghanistan.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. Can we speed up the questions and answers to try to get as many in as possible?
This Government are making a habit of breaking promises. However, breaking their commitment to help desperate people trying to flee Afghanistan is a new low. I have hundreds of people asking for my help to save their loved ones. Fazel Rabi Rustamkhel contacted me about his brother, a BBC journalist in Afghanistan, whose life he understandably believes to be in grave danger, yet I have not even received so much as an acknowledgment of the case from the Foreign Office. Can the Minister now tell me when I will have a reply that I can share with Fazel, and when we will receive substantive responses to all outstanding casework?
I have already made the commitment that any cases received before 30 August will have had a confirmation response, that the emails will be, or have been, triaged to the relevant Government Departments, and that Members will get confirmation of that triage destination within seven days. For cases presented to us after 30 August, the normal turnaround time for response has been three weeks, which we have committed to reduce to two weeks. However, we are conscious that there is still a very intensive pipeline of cases being presented to us, and we will work on those as well.
Can I gently point out to hon. Gentlemen opposite that the only meetings I attended were all-party or were invited as such? I thank all at the FCDO, the Ministry of Defence and the Home Office for all the work that they have done to extricate many of the Afghans who are at risk because they have been helping the UK Government. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that we are now repaying that help with opportunities here to contribute to our society with appropriate jobs and other support?
Operation Warm Welcome is an incredibly important part of this, because while it is of course the absolute priority to remove Afghans, where possible, from danger in Afghanistan, we want to ensure that those who come to the UK are able to integrate and to fulfil their lives. Having a plan not just for housing but ultimately for future employment and so on is a really important part of that, and that is what underpins Operation Warm Welcome.
I note the Minister’s comments about co-ordinating with the Home Office, but could I urge him to similarly co-ordinate with the devolved Administrations across the UK, who will play a huge role in looking after our refugees? If the commitment to refugees is not backed up by suitable funding to councils in the UK, the scheme will fail—it is as simple as that. So can I urge the Government to put appropriate funding into UK councils to see that this actually works?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point about the ongoing support. He will have noted that the Government have already made a financial commitment to support local government as part of Operation Warm Welcome. He makes an incredibly important point and it is noted.
There is no doubt about the incredible effort that the Foreign Office and other Government Departments have put into responding to this incredibly difficult and tragic situation, and I thank the Minister for his honest and constructive responses to this UQ. This country is leading the way in offering safe haven to up to 20,000 Afghans over the next four years, but for many Afghans fleeing the country, their first port of call will be neighbouring countries such as Pakistan or Uzbekistan. Can he confirm that some of the £286 million in aid that we are allocating will be used to support refugees in these neighbouring countries?
My hon. Friend is right that the majority of refugees from Afghanistan would be expected to find refuge, at least in the first instance, in neighbouring countries. We work extensively with those countries. We enjoy strong bilateral relations with most, particularly Pakistan, which has a long border with Afghanistan. I can assure him that we will continue to work closely with them to ensure that refugees that enter their countries are looked after.
I join the Minister in thanking members of the armed forces and consular staff, who have worked incredibly hard. This mess is not of their making; it is that of Ministers. He claims there have been 200,000 emails, but they are not all from Members of Parliament. If that were the case, we would have each sent more than 300 emails. Is he saying to the House that our emails have no more weight than any others? Can I just raise with him the marked contrast with how other countries have dealt with this issue? I had a constituent in Afghanistan who is a British citizen. There was no answer from the Foreign Office. My office laterally thought, as her husband is a US citizen, to contact the State Department. It not only replied straight away, but got her out within 48 hours and phoned to say it had been done. There is a different way of doing it, and it is about how parliamentarians are treated.
The Defence Secretary suggested that people should now move to the borders if they want to leave. I have a family in my constituency who have the ability to get to Pakistan, but want to know what happens next. The Germans last week put in place a transit route through Uzbekistan. Where are we at with this?
As I have said, the Foreign Secretary visited the region and spoke extensively with regional partners, including Pakistan. We will continue to explore with those neighbouring countries what means can be put in place for Afghans to come to the UK, where that is their most appropriate destination. I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman pays tribute to the officials in the Government Departments, most notably the FCDO, the Ministry of Defence and the Home Office. Many other Departments provided volunteers to reinforce our work, and I also pay tribute to them.
I thank the Government for responding positively to the representations I have made on behalf of Afghans at risk. May I ask my right hon. Friend about what will happen? Given that the Taliban will increase their grip and become less and less helpful, the only way for people to get out of the country will be to run to the border. That brings them into the scope of neighbouring jurisdictions and the United Nations. What discussion has he had with the UN about trying to assist people to leave to appropriate countries, such as the UK, and specifically triage them, as has happened with the Syria resettlement programme?
I thank my right hon. Friend for congratulating the officials who have been working so hard on this. I note that it is surprisingly common to be thanked by Opposition Members in private, and less so in public, but I will take the thanks wherever it comes. With regards to engagement, I can assure him that we are engaging multilaterally and with countries in the region. We will explore all routes for helping Afghans evacuate, whether that be land crossings or the re-establishment of air corridors.
Like many Members, I have an awful lot of cases. I have 150 cases that I am dealing with. I will not rehearse all the details, but they include prominent women’s rights activists who have death warrants already issued on their heads by the Taliban. I have veterans of the Afghan national army, and I even have the wife of a British national who has a two-month-old baby and is stuck in Kabul. I have another chap whose family have already been butchered by the theocratic fascists of the Taliban, and he is now in hiding, awaiting instructions from me or the Government on how we will get him out. I genuinely want to know what conversations the Minister is having, and whether they are being accelerated, with people such as our friends in the Pakistani Government to ensure that they have the money and support to be able to get as many people as possible safely over the border. It is clear we will not be extracting anyone directly out of Afghanistan any time soon, but we have friends there. If we can support them, we can get people out of Afghanistan and process them there to get to safe haven in our country.
I think Members from all parts of the House will completely understand the fear that the people who have contacted the hon. Gentleman will have. We will all have had similar cases. We are liaising closely with the countries on the border. It is understandable that no country would want to accept many hundreds of thousands and perhaps millions of undocumented people, so it is not as easy as saying, “Countries should open their borders to Afghan refugees.” We are working closely with them to ensure that there is a process by which we can help to evacuate as many eligible Afghans as possible.
I worked in the Foreign Office crisis centre and I cannot imagine what our diplomats have been through. I am so grateful that many hundreds of those whose cases I took up personally were evacuated over the last few weeks, including those who went to the Baron hotel on the day of the terror attack—yes, it was terrifying, but it got them out. This will upset colleagues, but no, I did not hear back on those who were evacuated—but the Afghans did, and that is all that matters. Sometimes, I did not know that they were out until they were in a hotel in the UK, but they got out. I still have some to get out, and I am heartbroken about that; I speak to them every single day. My ask is: reply to them. I do not need a reply; they need a reply. Let us get them out. Let us also recognise our Foreign Office staff. I am very grateful for what they did alongside our military.
I thank my hon. Friend for her point about the Afghans whom we were able to help. During the process, we have always prioritised our ability to get people at risk out of Afghanistan—including Sir Laurie at the Baron hotel, shortly before the explosion, to help facilitate the processing of Afghans leaving. We endeavoured both to get them out and to keep Members informed, but we will prioritise getting people out.
The French Republic began its evacuation by 10 May and it was completed four weeks before the fall of the city of Kabul; meanwhile, a fortnight before, the British Government—the Minister’s Government—were still sending asylum seekers back from the UK. Would it not be right that if the Minister had talked to his colleagues in the French Republic, Members on both sides would not be in this ridiculous position? The reality is, it is an utter failure of political leadership at the heart of the Government that has allowed this to happen.
The ARAP scheme to help repatriate Afghans who had worked directly with us was put in place in April this year. The FCDO travel advice was updated in April and, prior to mid-August, many thousands had already left Afghanistan. I absolutely reject the hon. Member’s point. We should remember that this is the largest and most complex evacuation scheme that the Government have ever had to deal with—certainly in anyone’s living memory.
In the call that took place on 24 August, Members were told by the Foreign Secretary that cases of Afghan nationals who did not meet the ARAP criteria but on whom we had information that they had supported UK objectives and were at risk could be submitted to the FCDO via the special cases route. I submitted a handful, as I am sure many of my hon. Friends did. All I would like to know is: are those special cases still being considered on a discretionary basis outside the ARAP and Afghan citizens resettlement scheme? If so, when will decisions be made and Members told?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, which helps to explain why different applicants have to go through different routes. The Ministry of Defence has, understandably, taken the lead with regard to the ARAP scheme, because those were Afghans who worked directly for the Ministry of Defence, but when we made the expansive, generous offer to protect more Afghans whom we knew were going to be at risk, that increased the complexity enormously. I am completely happy for the FCDO to remain the point at which we triage applications, but ultimately the time it takes to assess applications will depend entirely on their complexity. In some instances where people have had to flee and leave all their documents behind, a very complex set of assessments needs to be made.