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Wednesday 18th August 2021

(2 years, 9 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Portrait Baroness Evans of Bowes Park
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That this House takes note of the situation in Afghanistan.

Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Portrait The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Evans of Bowes Park) (Con)
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My Lords, I thank everyone participating today and all the parliamentary staff who have enabled us to meet at such short notice. Before I turn to today’s debate, I want to echo the words of the Lord Speaker in sending our condolences to the families and friends of those killed in Plymouth last week. Investigations are ongoing, but we will learn every possible lesson from the tragedy.

It is clear to us all that the situation in Afghanistan is extremely grave and exceptionally concerning. The number of your Lordships taking part in this debate demonstrates how seriously this House takes the situation, and my noble friend Lord Ahmad and I look forward to hearing today’s contributions. We are fortunate to have across the House a wealth of expertise in diplomacy, defence, human rights—particularly in relation to women and girls—international aid and development, and some Members of the House have very personal experience of Afghanistan. I pay tribute to all who have served there during the past 20 years, including of course our staff and noble Lords. We remember in particular the 457 British troops who tragically lost their lives and all those who sustained injuries, some of which were life-changing.

At this difficult time, it is important to remember why we went into Afghanistan in the first place. Our primary objective, when NATO invoked Article 5 of its treaty for the first time in its history and the United Kingdom and others joined America in deploying, was to ensure that Afghanistan was not used as a base for international terrorism and to do whatever we could to stabilise the country. We succeeded in that core mission: there has not been a successful international terrorist attack on the West mounted from Afghanistan since, terrorist training camps in the mountains were destroyed and al-Qaeda plots against this country were foiled. As the Lord Speaker rightly said, we should be immensely proud of the role that our Armed Forces, diplomats and development specialists have played in supporting Afghanistan over the past 20 years.

As noble Lords will know, the main combat phase of our mission ended in 2014, when we brought the great majority of our troops home and handed over responsibility for security to the Afghans themselves. Since then, conflict unfortunately continued and significant parts of the country remained contested or under Taliban control. After two decades, the Americans have now taken their long-predicted step of a final extraction of their forces. We looked at many options, including the potential for staying longer ourselves, finding new partners or even increasing our presence, but, like all our NATO allies, we believed that it was not feasible from the position we were in. Since 2009, America has deployed 98% of all weapons released from NATO aircraft in Afghanistan and, at the peak of the operation, 90,000 of the 132,000 troops on the ground were American. The West could not continue this mission without American logistics and US air power.

Countries around the world are now grappling with the enormity of this situation and we must adapt quickly. We have worked at speed to develop five strands to our approach. Our first and immediate focus must be on helping those to whom we have direct obligations, including UK nationals together with those Afghans who have assisted our efforts over the past 20 years. We do not know what the next few days or weeks will hold, but we are working intensively within government and with our international partners to do everything in our power to get them out of Afghanistan safely. We are deploying an additional 800 British troops on the ground to support the evacuation operation and I can assure the House that this will continue for as long as conditions at the airport allow—at the moment they are stable in comparison to some of the terrible scenes that we saw over the weekend and earlier this week. It is an extremely difficult task in the current circumstances and I know that the whole House will join me in paying tribute to the bravery and commitment of our ambassador, Sir Laurie Bristow, our commander on the ground, Brigadier Dan Blanchford, and the entire British team in Kabul, who have been working round the clock saving hundreds of lives every day.

So far, we have secured the safe return of 306 UK nationals, while 2,052 Afghan nationals have been resettled as part of our programme and a further 2,000 applications have been completed, with many more being processed. We are actively seeking those who we believe are eligible but are as yet unregistered. We are also doing everything possible to accelerate the visas of the Chevening scholars, so that these brilliant Afghan students can come and study here.

At the same time, we are intensifying our efforts to evacuate those whom we can. We continue to urge the Taliban to ensure the protection of civilians and uphold human rights, especially those of women. We are committed to supporting the brave Afghan women who have risked their lives to help rebuild their country. We are closely monitoring the situation on the ground and exploring how we can best support at-risk women, human rights defenders, peacebuilders and women leaders to ensure that they do not suffer reprisals.

Secondly, we will intensify our efforts, with others, to protect Britain, our citizens and our interests from the threats of a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. These concerns are shared by our international partners in NATO and the Security Council. As noble Lords will be aware, the Prime Minister will chair a virtual meeting of the G7 in the coming days to discuss how we can work together internationally.

Thirdly, the UK has provided £3.3 billion of aid funding since 2002, which has helped to improve the lives and rights of all Afghans, including women and minority groups. Life expectancy increased from 56 years in 2002 to 64 years in 2018. Some 9.6 million more children are now in school than in 2001 and 39% of children enrolled in schools are girls. Maternal mortality has almost halved and infant mortality has decreased faster than in any other low-income country since 2001.

We will now focus our efforts on increasing the resilience of the region and have called on the United Nations to lead a new humanitarian effort, bringing together the international community. To support this, we will double the amount of overseas aid that we had previously committed to Afghanistan this year, with new funding, taking this up to £286 million with immediate effect. We call on others to match this funding and to work together on a shared United Nations programme, which needs to begin in haste.

Fourthly, we need to ensure that there are safe and legal routes for those most in need. The Prime Minister has confirmed today that, in addition to those Afghans who have worked with us directly, we are committing to relocate another 5,000 this year through a new, bespoke resettlement scheme focusing on the most vulnerable, particularly women and children. We will keep this under review over future years, with the potential of accommodating up to 20,000 over the long term.

Finally, we must face the reality of the change in regime. In the past three days, the Prime Minister has spoken with the NATO and UN Secretaries-General and with President Biden, Chancellor Merkel, President Macron and Prime Minister Khan. We have been clear that it would be a mistake for any country to recognise the new Government in Kabul prematurely or bilaterally. Instead, those countries that care about Afghanistan’s future should set common conditions about the conduct of the new regime before deciding together whether to recognise it and on what terms. We will judge this regime based on the choices that it makes—on its attitude to terrorism, crime and narcotics, as well as humanitarian access, the rights of women and in particular the rights of girls to receive an education. Defending human rights will remain of the highest priority.

NATO and our allies will remain vigilant to the return of the terrorist threat from Afghanistan. Everyone has an interest in making sure that it does not again become a safe haven for terrorists. The Taliban must understand that they will be accountable for that and for any abuses that take place in the territory that they now control.

Alongside our core mission to prevent the continuation of the terrorist threat, we had higher goals for the people of Afghanistan. The heroism and tireless work of our Armed Forces contributed to national elections as well as to the promotion and protection of human rights and equalities in a way that many in Afghanistan had never previously known. Over the past 20 years, despite where we are today, we have made crucial progress and gains.

As I said at the outset, we will always owe a huge debt of gratitude to the 150,000 people who served in Afghanistan, in particular those 457 British troops who tragically lost their lives. For 20 years, they denied terrorists a safe haven to launch attacks against the United Kingdom, working with allies and Afghan security forces. They enabled development that has improved millions of lives and transformed Afghan society. We must now face the harsh reality that the Taliban control Afghanistan, but the world is watching what they do. We will use every diplomatic lever at our disposal, alongside our international partners, to protect these hard-fought rights. The Afghan people have suffered enough; the Taliban must not inflict even greater tragedy on them.

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Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale Portrait Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale (Lab) [V]
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My Lords, I salute the bravery of those who served in our Armed Forces and those of our coalition partners, as well as those who worked for local and international charities in Afghanistan, the diplomats and others who served our country so well over these past 20 years —particularly the past two weeks—and the Afghan women who, in the past few days, have said publicly that they will not give up the fight and will stand and fight to continue their work in education and government. I salute their bravery absolutely. I also note my declaration in the register.

I have felt sick, in the course of the last few days, at the situation as it developed, but I felt particularly sick last Friday. A friend in Kabul, who I had been corresponding with over recent weeks, was sending messages telling me of family members who had disappeared in Kandahar and other areas, presumed dead, and of family members who had fled when they discovered that their girls were on the lists of those whom Taliban fighters were looking for to marry off to Taliban fighters. I was sick to hear of her and her family’s fear for what might unfold in the days to come. The last message I got from her, on Friday, said that she was trying to organise a way out but that if Kabul fell to the Taliban, her family would have to take her underground, but she would continue to provide me with updates. I have not heard from her since.

This terrifying, horrific situation we have seen unfold over recent days has been 18 months in the preparation. But only the Taliban has prepared for it. Our Government have serious questions to answer. The Americans may have made the big mistake, but our Government and the other coalition partners have been party to discussions in the G7, the United Nations and NATO over recent months that surely must have included this on the agenda. To have sat back over these 18 months and not prepared for this at least likely outcome is a great failure on the part of Ministers—perhaps also on the part of those who advise them.

There are huge questions that need to be answered if we are to learn lessons from this immediately—not after a long inquiry, but immediately—and ensure that our government and its administration are fit for purpose in the months and years ahead. Were the Government advised just a few weeks ago that this was at least a possibility in the days and weeks following the rapid withdrawal? If they were advised of this, did they ignore that advice? If they were not advised of this, why do those advising them not have the knowledge and expertise to give better advice? If government Ministers ignored that advice, what on earth were they doing over these last few weeks as this situation unfolded in front of us? These questions need to be answered right now.

It cannot be that the Foreign Secretary, the Prime Minister or anyone else in government hides behind announcements or generalisations. We and the people of Afghanistan deserve to know—

Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Portrait Baroness Evans of Bowes Park (Con)
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I am afraid the noble Lord has gone well over his time. Can we hear from the noble Baroness, Lady Mobarik?

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Lord Davies of Stamford Portrait Lord Davies of Stamford (Lab) [V]
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My Lords, I do not think I shall ever forget the extraordinary pictures we saw the other day of human desperation at Kabul airport. That is one of those dramatic pictures you never forget. The most extraordinary thing about the whole incident was that I got the impression the British Government were extremely surprised by events and had not prepared for them at all. I would have thought that anyone responsible for Afghanistan would have considered the possibility of a Taliban offensive and decided to plan to meet it. However, as far as I could see, no contingency plans were in operation at all, which is most extraordinary. I would have hoped there was a plan years ago focused on that contingency and that it would have been exercised from time to time to keep people alert.

I fear that the British Government became extraordinarily complacent and, as people do when they become complacent, began to believe their own propaganda—that Afghanistan was doing well and was well on the way to becoming a stable democracy, as we all hoped it would. There was no evidence for that at all. On the contrary, it was quite clear that the real curses of Afghanistan—corruption, war and the exploitation of women—are as constant there as they have been in previous generations, and are very difficult to eradicate.

Nevertheless, in the circumstances we must ask ourselves what we will do. In this excellent debate, I think there has been consensus that our primary, absolute obligation is to try to save the lives of those who worked with or for us in Afghanistan, whether as interpreters, aid workers or whatever. They must be extracted from Afghanistan as soon as possible and generously treated when we have got them back. Nothing is as important as that.

At the same time, as has already been suggested, we need to have a thorough look at the way in which we make our foreign policy—whom we consult, which countries we are prepared to co-operate with and which we are not—and to develop a new doctrine approach to foreign policy co-ordination. For many years we did not really need foreign policy co-ordination, because we had a special relationship with the United States; we spoke to them and that was good enough. Then we joined the European Union and again we were within a structure in so far as the European Union was concerned, developing co-ordinated foreign policies, which was a good idea in principle.

With both those things now gone, I am afraid that relations with the Americans will take a lot of repairing, so we need to think again about how we handle these things, who we rely on as allies and who we want to speak to about various problems and share the issues of the day with. This should be done systematically, and hopefully quite quickly, because we do not have very much time.

This has been an extremely valuable debate. A lot of people have asked pertinent and sensible questions, and they deserve a considered response. It would not be reasonable to expect the Government to give such a response in a brief wind-up speech, but I hope they will be generous in writing letters to Members who have taken part and will set out the Government’s position on the various points that have been made. That would greatly add to the utility of the whole exercise of Parliament—

Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Portrait Baroness Evans of Bowes Park (Con)
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I am afraid I have to interrupt the noble Lord. We thank him for his contribution and perhaps we can move to the next speaker, the noble Lord, Lord Gadhia.

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Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait The Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon) (Con)
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My Lords, I stand before noble Lords at this hour after an extensive and expert debate in your Lordships’ House. Having been the recipient of questions and challenges in this House over a number of years, I can say that the quality of the debate has not disappointed anyone. Indeed, the insights that we have gained from various parts of the House, from military experts to diplomats and other experts, have been very welcome. I have always taken the approach that the insights provided by your Lordships’ House, both within the Chamber and outside it, provide insight to me in the formulation of policy.

From the outset, I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Coaker—this is the first time that I have been across the Dispatch Box from him—and I associate myself totally with his remarks about our military. In doing so, as I look around this Chamber, to my left and my right—and as I am handed one final note—I look to the doorkeepers. As a Member of your Lordships’ House over the last 10 years, I say that they have done a sterling job not only in keeping us safe but in their past service as part of our military, which has kept us safe for so many years. I thank them for all that they have done and continue to do.

I have listened very carefully to various debates, and, recalling what the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, said, I shall seek to answer all questions. Of course, in this ever-evolving situation, I will seek to respond accordingly to questions that I am not able to cover in the time that I have.

The other thing that I will put on record, as I have on other issues, is that I shall certainly seek to update your Lordships’ House frequently on this particular issue and, if required, update noble Lords directly through a note prior to the House returning. Of course, as we return from the Summer Recess, I shall convene a meeting of interested Peers to update them and all noble Lords on the situation in Afghanistan. My noble friend Lady Warsi asked about information. A note is being circulated about key emails and contact numbers that went out to colleagues in the other place—I am ensuring that it is also circulated to Members of your Lordships’ House.

We all know why the Prime Minister called us here today: it is because of the deep concern that we all share for the people of Afghanistan. I have a particular insight in this because I am responsible for the policy for Afghanistan and south Asia and have been Minister for Human Rights over the last couple of years. I put on record that, while I have had this responsibility, I have worked quite directly with many of the people that noble Lords have talked about. The noble Baroness, Lady Royall, talked about those fantastic young ladies and girls of the orchestra, and my noble friend Lord Vaizey talked about the cultural instincts. I remember welcoming these young girls to the UK for the first time—perhaps about 18 months ago—in hosting a reception at Lancaster House and watching them play beautiful music.

My assessment, under a Taliban regime, is a dire one. I make an assessment, and I have always quoted that. Indeed, when the International Relations and Defence Committee—the foreign affairs committee of your Lordships’ House—questioned me, I pinpointed that the ideological base of the organisation that is the Taliban is the thing that we should challenge. I speak as a Muslim. We have had debates and discussions on Islam and its role, and I say to the Taliban directly from the outset: the chapters of the Holy Koran, with the exception of one, start with the words:

“In the name of God, the Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful”.

Are you going to be merciful and beneficent towards your citizens? That is how we should hold the Taliban to account.

I assure noble Lords that, in all my engagements and all the discussions that we will have with international partners, that will be at the heart and soul of the engagement that we need to have with this organisation that seeks to represent a faith that I follow—although its interpretation is so far from the nobility of any faith or sense of humanity. We should be unified in our response to this particular group.

But let us not forget that it is also disparate. Just because we now have polished spokesmen articulating that rights for women matter, that does not mean that local commanders will follow suit. We need to follow a very fluid situation very carefully. I take on board the points that were made by the noble Lords, Lord Green and Lord Berkeley, and my noble friends Lord Dobbs and Lord Lamont. My noble friends Lord Dobbs and Lord Lilley talked about the importance of learning lessons. I assure noble Lords that, whether it is in a formal way or as we evolve our policy, we do exactly that.

As the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, and the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, reminded us, we must, in our interventions, understand the culture and the nature of the engagement. Yes, it is important that we extol democratic values. Often, when I talk about human rights, I do so not with a pointed finger but by saying that our own journey on democracy and human rights was a difficult and challenging one—yes, and on rights for women as well. We need to apply that learning in a way that is understood by others, while also respecting cultures and communities across the world.

The nature of the US decision to withdraw has been a focus. Of course, the US has a right to take its own decisions on how troops are deployed. Let me assure the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, my noble friend Lord Naseby, the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and my noble friend Lord Godson, who also reflected on attitudes within the US, that of course we discussed the US decision to withdraw with our NATO allies. Yes, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has been engaging extensively with NATO allies, including the Secretary-General of NATO; he spoke to him most recently, on the 15th. But meetings have been taking place. What was understood, as my right honourable friend the Defence Secretary articulated, was the reasoning that with the extensive nature of the US engagement there was no viable military option without the US. We need to be realistic about that.

I share the point that the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, and my noble friend Lord Hunt made about the cost to the people of Afghanistan. We have on record only the numbers that are articulated, but there are many more. We should not put down a whole population over the failings of the groups that seek to represent a faith or, indeed, to represent the country today.

I assure the noble Lords, Lord Cromwell and Lord Birt, that we have been engaging quite directly with allies. We have been talking to the US and to European partners. Only a month or so ago I was in Tashkent at a conference on Afghanistan, where I met counterparts from India and Pakistan, including Prime Minister Imran Khan, those from Uzbekistan and a number of other partners. At that point, President Ghani and Foreign Minister Atmar were very much in place, and those discussions were but four weeks ago.

However, I agree that this debate, as the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, said right at the opening, comes at a critical and uncertain time. I express my absolute and sincere thanks for all the contributions that have been made and which reflect noble Lords’ exceptional expertise and heartfelt concern. I note my thanks to all noble Lords, but I listened particularly carefully, as I am sure other noble Lords did, to the contributions of the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, and the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, and the expertise that they provided, as well as to the insights from the diplomatic expertise of the noble Lords, Lord Ricketts, Lord Jay and Lord Kerr, among others.

I will seek to address some specific issues that have arisen, but let me say from the outset that I share all noble Lords’ concerns that the Taliban’s military offensive is unacceptable, as is the takeover of Kabul. The Taliban pledged in the Doha agreement to engage in talks in good faith, yet the actions we have witnessed on the ground reflect a total and utter betrayal of that promise. It is also important to recognise that this takeover of power has followed a coercive and violent military campaign. It has not been a peaceful transition, a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Newby. We also maintain our stance that it is not yet too late for the Taliban to pursue their aims through a political process. A point was raised about engaging with the Taliban directly. We do not do so on a bilateral basis, but we have of course been engaged through the political process taking place in Doha and working with the likes of Qatar in this respect. However, the Taliban must cease all hostilities and military action, ensure the protection of civilians and facilitate the safe and orderly departure of foreign nationals and those Afghans who wish to leave Afghanistan.

In this context, I join in the tributes being paid to our ambassador on the ground, who I am in touch with. He is playing a sterling role, along with our military, in ensuring that the security of our staff is fully respected and prioritised, and that we do all we can to deliver on our obligations to get British nationals, as well as those who have helped us, out as fast as we can.

The noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, talked about having a small-scale public inquiry into our purpose in deploying support for this exercise. We are learning the lessons from Afghanistan, and it has been a continuous process. That is why, after the conclusion of Operation Herrick in 2014, the Army conducted a thorough internal review. Lessons were also incorporated into the integrated review published by the Government earlier this year.

I say to my noble friend Lord Gadhia and the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, that the integrated review is an important document. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, mentioned the Indo-Pacific tilt, which is an important part of the integrated review. Events in Afghanistan have underlined the enduring importance of those objectives and the profound challenges that we face in pursuing them.

As the security situation deteriorates, our ambassador, Sir Laurie Bristow, and a small team remain in Kabul. I cannot give any specific date on when those operations may cease, but their security is of paramount importance. Of course, we are cognisant of the announcement that the US has made of its operations ceasing at the end of this month. I would add that, irrespective of what noble Lords have said on the US decision, the US remains an important ally and we should recognise that the current process of evacuation from Kabul could not take place without the assistance of the brave men of the US military as well as our own.

I assure the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, that we do have a security Minister. My right honourable friend Damian Hinds was appointed earlier this month. We are working across government to ensure that we have a co-ordinated presence on the ground including through the Home Office, the Ministry of Defence and the FCDO. Our officials remain in Kabul to continue our important work supporting the drawdown of British nationals and those we have a moral obligation to help. It is important we do not lose sight of our moral compass in that respect. We will be working through the Afghan relocation and assistance programme. These changes in no way reduce our commitment to active diplomacy in the region.

My right honourable friend the Defence Secretary has provided additional troops to Afghanistan and we have deployed additional diplomats who arrived yesterday, once security could be confirmed, to help the processing capacity. I understand there are concerning reports coming out of Afghanistan of British nationals in distress. I have also been in touch with Members of your Lordships’ House as well as Members in the other place about specific Afghan nationals. I assure noble Lords of my good offices in ensuring that we do all we can to resolve some of these very acute and challenging cases. I am not going to name names for obvious reasons, and I know your Lordships will respect the fact that we need to keep the confidence of and protect the individuals concerned.

Turning to ARAP, many noble Lords including the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, raised the issue of interpreters. We recognise that we owe a debt of gratitude to them and other locally employed staff who risked their lives to work alongside our forces. While we have resettled hundreds of former Afghan staff and their families, I can assure noble Lords that this is an enduring commitment. This programme has now been expanded and accelerated to ensure that Afghans who are not directly employed but none the less provided vital support to the UK’s mission in Afghanistan can be considered as special cases.

I am fully aware of the cases raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hussein-Ece, and others. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham, that we are expediting processes in terms of visa applications on the ground as I speak. We are also looking at many cases of Afghans who have worked with the British Council and we remain focused on relocating those most at risk, but there is no time limit.

The noble Baroness, Lady Royall, talked of girls and women. Many other noble Lords mentioned this, and I assure noble Lords that they are being prioritised within the ARAP scheme. The noble Lord, Lord Kerr, among others, talked about expanding the scheme. I have noted the suggestions that have been made on different categories, including the issue raised by the noble and learned Lords, Lord Judge and Lord Goldsmith, of judges. I will take note specifically of this, but again, in the interests of security and safety of individuals, I shall not go into the issue of categories directly.

The noble Lords, Lord Adonis, Lord Taylor and Lord Dholakia, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Brinton and Lady Smith, and others, referred to NGOs. I have noted what we are doing in this area. We are looking at resettlement first for women, girls, children and those most in need. The scheme will be kept under review.

The noble Lords, Lord Adonis, Lord Kerr and Lord Taylor, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Brinton and Lady Bakewell, asked about the numbers. The number we have announced in terms of the new scheme is in addition to the 5,000 we expect to relocate to the UK under the Afghan relocation programme. The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, among others, asked why the figure of 20,000 was chosen. It was based on the delivery of the Syrian resettlement scheme and the experience the Home Office has of running this sort of programme. The figure of 5,000 for this year has also been chosen based on the delivery of the Syrian resettlement scheme, but we will keep all the numbers under review.

We promised to do everything we could. The issue of the Chevening scholars was raised. Noble Lords will have seen me dashing in and out. We were progressing this during the day. Therefore, in a very challenging debate, I am delighted to confirm that today our ambassador is in touch directly with the scholars and we are in the process of arranging their travel to the United Kingdom. I am pleased to be able to share that with your Lordships’ House. My noble friend Lady Evans raised that issue right at the start of the debate, and noble Lords can see how fluid the situation is; we have been progressing this during the debate.

Turning to human rights, I am also the Human Rights Minister. Issues around women and minorities are close to my heart. The most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury mentioned minorities and my community, the Ahmadis, in Afghanistan. Christians, Hindus and Sikhs were raised by my noble friend Lady Verma, among others. All of them are among our primary concerns in our dealings. I pay tribute to the work of noble Lords in your Lordships’ House, including the noble Baronesses, Lady Smith, Lady Royall and Lady D’Souza, and my noble friends Lady Hodgson and Lady Anelay, who have done sterling work on women’s rights. I will continue to work very closely with them on this important issue in Afghanistan. The Government maintain in the strongest terms their stance that the Taliban must protect and uphold human rights, including those of women, girls and minorities—and, as I said earlier, I noted the comments made about other groups.

The noble Lord, Lord Sikka, asked about our assessment of the Taliban. It is simple: if the Taliban continue to abuse human rights, they cannot in any circumstances expect to enjoy legitimacy in the eyes of the Afghan people or the support of the international community. If the Taliban wish to play an international political role, which they must for the security and stability of Afghanistan, they must respect fundamental human rights. They must bring justice to those within their own ranks. Clearly, that is not happening, as we have witnessed on the streets across Afghanistan. The Taliban must prove that they respect the rights of the Afghan people by actions, not empty words. There is a Hadith—a saying of the Holy Prophet Muhammad—which I put to the Taliban. “Your actions are judged by your intentions.” So what are their intentions? They must demonstrate them by their actions.

Turning to humanitarian aid, several noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Boateng, Lord Jay, Lord Purvis and Lord McConnell, and the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, among others, raised prioritisation and support for people within Afghanistan. I assure them that that they have been high up my priority list, which is why the Government have prioritised aid. The noble Baronesses, Lady Northover and Lady Smith, raised this issue, as did the noble Lord, Lord Bruce. We are doubling the amount of overseas aid we had previously committed to Afghanistan. This will with immediate effect take funding for this year to £286 million. On its disbursement, my own view is very clear. I assure noble Lords that none of it will be going to the Government or the Administration, if I can call it that—I should not refer to it as a Government—of the Taliban. We will be looking at international NGOs and the UN system to play their part. Organisations such as UNICEF are retaining their networks on the ground and have been given an assurance by the Taliban that they will be protected. However, the Taliban must recognise their duty to prevent the crisis getting worse.

I am very conscious of time and I have not been able to cover many points. My noble friend Lord Sheikh and the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, talked about Afghanistan, Islam and the rights and obligations of the Taliban, and I totally share their perspectives. It is true that the international community needs to ensure that we hold the Taliban to their promise.

Many other noble Lords, including the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, raised the issue of security, as did my noble friend Lady Altmann. Work is being done with international partners. In recent days my right honourable friends the Foreign Secretary, the Prime Minister and the Defence Secretary have spoken to the UN Secretary-General, the NATO Secretary-General, the United States, Canada, Germany, France, Pakistan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and USAID. We also recognise the important role of regional partners, including those highlighted by the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, and my noble friend Lady Verma. I have already mentioned India, and I am directly engaging with Pakistan and other near neighbours.

In closing my remarks, I assure noble Lords that, on the points that I have not been able to cover, we will work through different parts of our strategy in the coming hours and days. I assure my noble friend Lord Cormack that we are working on the UN Security Council resolution, and I take on board the suggestion made by the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, who speaks with great insight on the UN system about the specific focus on women and girls. I take that on board as the UN Minister.

My right honourable friend the Prime Minister has announced that he will convene a special meeting of the G7 leaders to discuss the situation and we are seeking also to establish a contact group of international partners on Afghanistan. We are also planning an event with the high-level meeting of the UN General Assembly next month, to focus minds to raise further funds for particular issues. I will also participate directly at the Human Rights Council special session on Afghanistan next week; whether it is virtual or in person is still being determined but I will deliver the UK statement and contribution.

I apologise to noble Lords whose specific questions I have not been able to cover, but I assure them that I will write to them. As my noble friend Lady Evans said earlier—I noted very specifically the contributions and statements on this made by my noble friend Lord Howard, among others—the primary purpose of us being in Afghanistan was to ensure that it was not used as a base for international terrorism. Indeed, there have been no successful international terrorist attacks on the West mounted from Afghanistan since that time, but we cannot be complacent. It has not happened because there was a military presence, and we need to be real to the threat. That is why it is important we work with key international partners through the UN.

Afghanistan may now be in the control of the Taliban but, while the Taliban may not have changed, what has changed in those 20 years—as my noble friend Lady Pidding pointed out—is that Afghanistan itself has an incredible and phenomenal body of people within civil society: there are phenomenal women activists in all parts of society, working for NGOs; there is a free press, which has been targeted; there are women journalists, who have been targeted; and there is an education system where there are more girls. The Taliban say it will continue with those commitments; let us see how it delivers on them. I assure noble Lords that we will continue to work tirelessly with international partners to protect the gains that we have made.

My noble friends Lord Sheikh and Lord Marlesford, the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, and the noble Lords, Lord Bhatia and Lord Singh of Wimbledon, talked about the ideological base that I started with. In my concluding remarks, I make some specific points just to share with noble Lords my intent. If the Taliban says that it believes in the role of women, it must stand up for that: it must stand up for the rights of women that are provided under Islam—the rights of inheritance and the right to work. I often say to those who challenge me on Islam that, even going back to the time of the Prophet, who is followed by billions of Muslims around the world, it was he who was employed by his wife and it was she who proposed to him. So let us go back to that and give women rights.

I say to the Taliban: “If you believe in that philosophy and ideology you articulate, reflect that. Let us go back to the time of the Medina charter that protected the rights of minorities of every faith and those of no faith. If you are true to your word, we will make an assessment of what you are, whether you have changed and whether you are delivering on your promises.” My own assessment? It is not just that the jury is out on them; it is important to recognise that they in their philosophy and approach may be more polished, but their ideology is very much the same.

Many will say, “Engage directly now” and, as I have said, we are engaging from an international perspective with the political group and working with American colleagues—I met Ambassador Khalilzad when I was in Uzbekistan. It is very clear to me that in the situation in Afghanistan, our short-term priority must be to ensure that we get the people out who need to come out but, equally, we will be building and strengthening international alliances and partnerships. In doing so, I shall be informed by your Lordships’ House in how we direct and inform our policy and how we continue to stand with the courageous people of Afghanistan.

Motion agreed.