Thursday 9th November 2023

(7 months, 2 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Portrait Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede (Lab)
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My Lords, in response to the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban, the UK rightfully offered resettlement to those who had shown support and loyalty to British aims. For many who have made it here—some have come in small boats—this means being put into hotels and potentially facing homelessness. Reportedly, others who have been granted resettlement in Britain are stuck in Pakistan, facing deportation back into the hands of the Taliban. I have a number of questions for the Minister. Why have there been such delays in settling people under the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme? Has he confirmed whether any of those about to be expelled from Pakistan to Afghanistan are eligible for the ACRS? What assurances has he received from the Pakistani Government that those eligible for the ACRS will be allowed to remain in Pakistan until chartered flights can be completed? Finally, what measures is he taking to ensure that our asylum backlog is cleared and that suitable accommodation is secured for those applicants?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Sharpe of Epsom) (Con)
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The noble Lord is right: the Government have reacted decisively and swiftly to relocate people to safety in the United Kingdom following the collapse of Afghanistan the year before last. The Government remain committed to relocating eligible Afghans and their families under the ARAP scheme and the ACRS—we continue to honour this promise. The Government’s policy was to ensure that eligible Afghan families had secured accommodation in the UK before travel was facilitated for their relocation but, as a result of changing conditions on the ground, we are changing that policy. The Ministry of Defence has worked hard to stand up a total of over 700 service family accommodations for mixed purposes, or transitory and settled accommodation. I pay tribute to my friend in the other place, the Minister for Armed Forces, for his work on this. Our new plans will see approximately 2,800 ARAP-entitled personnel move from Pakistan to the UK by the end of December 2023.

The answer to the question on deportations is: not as far as we are aware. On conversations with the authorities in Pakistan, the British high commission is obviously monitoring the situation closely and is in frequent contact with the Pakistani authorities to ensure that no eligible ARAP or ACRS individuals are negatively affected while they await relocation to the UK—we are seeking assurances to that effect. On 27 October, the Foreign Secretary received assurances from Foreign Minister Jilani that they would be safe.

The noble Lord asked about the backlog. We referred to this in the humble Address debate yesterday to some extent. I will not go over old ground but, as he knows, we have increased the recruitment of decision-makers and committed to dealing with the backlog by the end of the year.

Baroness Smith of Newnham Portrait Baroness Smith of Newnham (LD)
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My Lords, this is a UQ, so I will be brief. The Minister in the Commons said yesterday that he was working “night and day” to make sure that the Pakistani Government stuck with the commitment not to deport those who are ACRS-eligible. Could the Minister here say how promptly we can get the ACRS people out? Will the 2,300 include everyone, or should there be more flights as soon as possible?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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My Lords, I am not qualified to comment on the operational dimensions of this policy, but I reaffirm the commitment to make sure that everyone who is eligible, without exception, is relocated by the end of this year.

Baroness Coussins Portrait Baroness Coussins (CB)
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My Lords, when I asked a Question on this topic on 18 October, the Minister said that there were then 3,000 Afghans in Pakistan who were eligible under ARAP and the other schemes and were awaiting relocation to the UK. Although I appreciate that some flights have begun to get some of them out, can the Minister please guarantee that every one of those 3,000 eligible Afghans and their immediate families will be relocated before the Pakistani authorities deliver them back to the Taliban in Afghanistan? One thing we can be sure of is that they are already suffering adverse conditions while they are waiting in Pakistan, and these are almost as bad as, if not worse than, those they were suffering under the Taliban: some live in hiding and are threatened.

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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I have already made that commitment that the Government will move all those people to the United Kingdom by the end of this year. After the noble Baroness asked the last Question, the policy changed: we are no longer shipping people only when they have accommodation already approved. The object of the exercise is to get them out as quickly as we can.

Lord Browne of Ladyton Portrait Lord Browne of Ladyton (Lab)
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My Lords, on 18 October, during the Question of the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, on the ARAP scheme, I and the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, raised the need for an urgent review of the rejected or rescinded approvals of settlement applications of members of the Afghanistan Commando Force 333. I understand that some of these applicants sought refuge in Pakistan, and their forced return to Afghanistan may, quite simply, mean a death sentence for them. I commend the Minister on his continued engagement with me after that Question. If he is now in a better position to answer our respective questions, can he confirm that all rejected applications or rescinded approvals are now being actively reviewed, considering the true context of CF 333’s relationship with UK forces and policies?

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Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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I confirm to the noble Lord that I remember the question. At the time, I committed to write to the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup. That letter is being prepared and I will share it with him in due course if he will allow me a little more time.

Baroness D'Souza Portrait Baroness D'Souza (CB)
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My Lords, there is evidence that the Taliban are pursuing ethnocentric policies by ensuring that Hazara and Indo-Tajik people repatriated from Pakistan are settled among Pashtun communities, which has long-term consequences. Are His Majesty’s Government in touch with Pakistan about what it is effecting, because there will be future consequences of this policy in Afghanistan?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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I am afraid that I am not really qualified to answer on that matter, which I would imagine falls very much within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but I will take the question back and ask whether it can shed some light on it.

Viscount Stansgate Portrait Viscount Stansgate (Lab)
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My Lords, I know of an individual case of an Afghan interpreter who is safely here but his family, to my knowledge, is not. His wife and young son got almost as close as they could to the airport hotel in Kabul a year ago and I do not know whether they have got out. Is the noble Lord the appropriate Minister to write to about an individual case, or would he direct me to somebody else to make inquiries about that person, who gave great service to the military, and his family?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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The honest answer is that I do not know whether I am the right person. It would depend on whether it is an immigration and visa situation or a defence-related situation, so I suggest that the noble Viscount write to me, and I will make sure that it ends up in the right place.