Victoria AtkinsMain Page: Victoria Atkins (Conservative - Louth and Horncastle)
Department Debates - View all Victoria Atkins's debates with the Home Office
I thank the Minister for her statement, and for advance sight of it. I also thank her for the briefing that was given to me by her and the Security Minister, and I welcome her to the Dispatch Box. However, given this vital work of leading on the Afghanistan resettlement scheme, I must ask: where is the Home Secretary? We hear that it is the Minister for the Cabinet Office who chairs the Cabinet Committee on this. As Kabul fell, the Prime Minister was on holiday, the Foreign Secretary was on holiday, and now, as we try to deal with the consequences, we have an absent Home Secretary. It is not good enough, and things have to improve.
Members throughout the House and their caseworkers have worked around the clock to try to get people out of Afghanistan, and the fact that, as we heard, email inboxes were ignored was a dereliction of duty by Ministers. On 6 September, the Prime Minister told Members:
“every single email from colleagues is being responded to by close of play today.”—[Official Report, 6 September 2021; Vol. 700, c. 34.]
Even that promise was not fulfilled.
Last week, I met people who had recently left Afghanistan and were starting to build their lives here. It was a solemn privilege to do so. I witnessed the pride that they took in their service alongside British troops, I heard their praise for what the local council was doing in supporting them, and I saw their gratitude for the fact that they were in a place of safety. However, I also saw their pain for those who had been left behind, fearing persecution and fearing for their lives. My question to the Minister is: what specific plan do the Government have in place for those still in Afghanistan and desperate to escape? She said in her statement that she was starting a process
“as soon as possible following consultation with the UNHCR”,
but what advice does she have for Members across the House on what they should say to those who are contacting them about leaving Afghanistan now? What assessment has been made of the number of British passport holders still in Afghanistan? How many who would have been eligible under the ARAP scheme remain behind? Can the Minister also update the House on the progress made by the Home Office, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the Ministry of Defence on assessing the viability of specific routes of safe passage to third countries for those fleeing Afghanistan? If people are able to escape, are this Government really going to impose a cap of 5,000 this year, and what is the justification for that figure?
I have spoken to Labour local authority leaders across the country who have come forward to help, and our local councils need support. The Prime Minister mentioned a figure of £200 million, and today the Minister has mentioned the core tariff of £20,520 per person, but that is over three years. Local councils are providing support now. When will that money start to be paid? When will the additional £20 million in flexible funding referred to by the Minister be available, and what will be the basis on which it is distributed so that it is fair to councils across the country?
We are also hearing about the Home Office placing large numbers of people in inappropriate hotel accommodation, sometimes for months at a time, without prior notice or indeed even engagement with local authorities in advance. Can the Minister confirm that there will be proper engagement with local authorities, and that such accommodation will never be used on a medium-term basis? For those already in the asylum system here in the United Kingdom, the Minister mentioned that new country guidance would be published shortly. When exactly will it be published, and why has there been such a delay in making it available?
I want to conclude with a message of thanks. Thank you to our troops, our civil servants and other frontline workers for their work on the evacuation of British and Afghan nationals. Thank you to those local authorities and charities that have come forward, and thank you to the British people for their generosity. The people of this country have stepped up when needed, but is it not time that this Government did the same?
Last Friday, I had the pleasure of welcoming the family of one of my constituents from Afghanistan. Sadly, two of his relatives have been executed by the Taliban. Another very close relative was a senior figure in the previous Government. Sadly, this is where the dilemma comes, and I would be grateful for the Minister’s help. That relative hopes to be able to make it across the border to Pakistan, but he expects to be in hiding in Pakistan because he is in fear of his life.
Will the Minister please make it possible for hon. Members who are aware of such situations to act as a point of liaison between those who are in hiding and the high commission in Pakistan, so that we can ensure they have a path to escape that leaves them safe and helps them to avoid the danger that exists to them on both sides of the border? I very much hope we can help that relative get to the United Kingdom, and I would be grateful for all the help we can get from Ministers to do so.
First, let me welcome the Minister to her new role and join her in paying tribute to all those involved in getting people to safety from Afghanistan. We know from the Syrian scheme that resettlement done well can save and transform lives, and that those who are resettled often go on to make brilliant contributions to our communities in return, so of course we want to work constructively to help deliver as many places for Afghans as possible. Equally, her Government must work constructively with partners here as well. It is welcome that local authorities now have more detail about the support they will receive, but when will the four-nations summit, agreed to by the Prime Minister, take place? That local authority support that was mentioned will be crucial. Does that tariff go at least as far as the support offered under the Syrian scheme? Were local authorities consulted about the fact that this would operate over three years, rather than five?
We will also be critical when that is required. Let us say unequivocally that we believe the number of resettlement places on offer is a long, long way below what events in Afghanistan require of us, in the context of more than 2 million Afghan refugees, with many more to come. Outside the 5,000 in the first year, the numbers put forward by the Home Office are vague aspirations, not detailed plans. Indeed, today the Minister referred to “up to 20,000”, so we could be talking about fewer. Can she at least confirm that 20,000 is the minimum number that will be resettled under the scheme? What are the prospects of frontloading the programme so that the initial 5,000 can also be increased? When will all this start?
On the Afghans already here, we need urgent clarity that they will be recognised as refugees. I am tempted to ask when the country guidance will be published, but do we really need the country guidance to tell us that people from Afghanistan should be recognised as refugees? Should that process not be expedited immediately? Will the Minister also revisit the tightly drawn refugee family reunion rules and ensure that those with family in the UK that might not otherwise qualify them for reunion—adult children, siblings, uncles, aunts and cousins—can apply to join them here? If that does not happen, they are the people who will attempt to make it to the UK on their own initiative and who will then, under the Nationality and Borders Bill, be criminalised and jailed simply for seeking asylum here. The Minister spoke about a compassionate approach, but imagine prosecuting and imprisoning people fleeing the Taliban and seeking safety here with their family. Surely this is the moment that the Government must think again about those outrageous proposals.
First, I pay enormous tribute not only to my hon. Friend the Minister but to the Home Secretary, whom I was texting barely half an hour before I came into the Chamber about an Afghan who is currently near a border, and she was personally sorting out the transit documents that I hope will enable him to come through. I also pay enormous tributes to the councils throughout the entire United Kingdom that have done enormous amounts to help us all to find accommodation for those in desperate need.
Does the Minister recognise that in many ways Afghanistan is many different communities, so people need to be looked at and addressed in different ways? What outreach has she done to the different community groups inside the United Kingdom? How is she looking to help those people who have links to various different elements in Afghan society to find their own home within that society here in the UK?
I welcome the Minister’s personal commitment and the intervention of the Home Secretary and other Ministers in trying to solve individual cases, but she will be aware that many MPs across the House have been struggling to get similar help for their constituents, or for families of constituents, and are not getting the same response. May I press her on the situation of those whose lives are still at risk in Afghanistan because they worked with or for the UK Government, but were not directly employed by the UK Government? They have had no response from the ARAP scheme, or have been told that they are not eligible because they were not direct employees. Can she tell me whether they are now eligible for the resettlement scheme, or do they have to apply again from scratch? Can their applications be automatically considered by the resettlement scheme urgently, or be looked at again by the ARAP scheme? I have been made aware of too many cases where someone is either in hospital or whose mother has been killed who are in that situation now as a result of Taliban persecution.
Does the Minister know that the Council for At-Risk Academics has been rescuing scholars under these dangerous circumstances since 1933? I appreciate the difficulties of those who are still trapped in hiding in Afghanistan, but out of the 16 who have research studentships or visiting fellowships waiting for them at British universities and who have been validated by the council, one has made it to the Netherlands and three, at considerable risk, have made it undocumented into Pakistan. Can she do everything possible to expedite the issuing of visas for those who have managed to cross the border and are now in Pakistan in particular?
The Minister has talked about the real difficulties facing those who wish to apply from Afghanistan, but having listened very carefully to what she has said today, there are two things that I am not clear about. First, the impression was previously given that if people could get to the border and leave Afghanistan, they should do so. I am not clear what she is saying today about that in terms of the latest Government advice.
Secondly, let me pick up the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), the Chair of the Select Committee, has raised. All of us have been referring to the Home Office many, many cases relating to people who are in Afghanistan at the moment. Will they have to make a fresh application under the scheme that she has announced today, or will those details be read across and considered under the scheme automatically? It would greatly assist many Members on both sides of the House to know what is it that we should be doing. Can we say that we have sent the Minister the details, she has them and will consider them under the new scheme, or do those people have to apply afresh?
I appreciate that the Minister is dealing with complicated and sensitive matters, and that she is anxious to give full answers to colleagues. She certainly is not avoiding questions, but is taking them head-on. Unfortunately, some of the questions are also rather long and complicated, so we have managed, in 40 minutes, to take questions from five Back Benchers. We will have to go a lot faster now, but in order that the Minister can give short answers, I need to have short and succinct questions. That way, we will cover everything eventually.
I welcome the statement. Many of those fleeing the Taliban will be highly skilled people who will want to integrate rapidly into the workforce so that they can become contributors, not just supplicants. Will the Minister unpack a little the £20,520 per person in core funding that she announced, and tell us what proportion of that she envisages being used for further education to enable people, where necessary, to upskill? What conversations has she had with her ministerial colleagues at the Department for Education to see what more colleges in localities can do to ensure that these people are able to do what they aspire to do, which is to enter the workforce and be contributors?
Obviously, quite rightly, a lot of the discussion is around ARAP, but what about UK citizens and UK residents who are trapped? My case is of a woman with three tiny daughters who is stranded having cared for a relative and got caught by covid, and now she does not know what to do. How do I get help for her?
I thank my hon. Friend for this announcement. How will local authorities be supported in accommodating Afghan citizens, and how will the education system be supported, to help to facilitate the smooth transition of Afghan people into local communities throughout the UK?
Hull is a city of sanctuary and has always stepped up to its responsibilities around asylum seekers and refugees, even though at times the Home Office has been rather high-handed in the way it has dealt with the local authorities. What exactly is the Minister going to do to ensure that all other local authorities step up to their responsibilities for asylum seekers and refugees under the UK resettlement scheme and, now, under the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme?
My local authorities, Wealden District Council and Rother District Council, are taking part in welcoming our Afghan friends. The Minister references the three-year funding settlement. What assessment has she made of whether that will fully cover the cost of resettlement? Will she urge all local authorities to think of the contribution that these brave individuals will make not just to their local communities but to the economy?
I thank the Minister for her statement. I thank Vale of White Horse District Council and South Oxfordshire District Council, who have opened their arms and absolutely said that they will take as many as they possibly can. I am helping to support about 400 individuals at the moment, some of whom are from the Hazara Afghan community. The Minister mentioned that there were other routes available other than the resettlement scheme—because, let us face it, that is not going to be enough. There is one willing to sponsor their brother, give them a job and support them. Will the Government give a special dispensation so that that space is given to someone else equally vulnerable who may need it?
I thank my hon. Friend for her statement. Will she join me in commending Darlington Borough Council, which she recently met, for its commitment to support Afghan families, just as it supported Syrian families only a few years ago? Will she ensure that sufficient funds will be available to Darlington to meet its responsibilities?
I have listened with care to the Minister’s statement. Is she aware of how many British residents and passport holders will be very shocked to learn that the Government can offer them no information on their relatives trapped in Afghanistan, let alone help them get their relatives to safety? Perhaps she should write to us and say she has no information. At least that would help us shed some light for our constituents. On the question of bridging hotels, many of them are entirely unsuitable, such as business hotels that have one single member of a family in every room. Can she assure the House about the maximum length of time individuals will be in this bridging accommodation?
I welcome the explicit recognition of the position of LGBT people in her statement, following the Prime Minister’s statement a week ago. The absence of LGBT people being an identified cohort during the course of Op Pitting means that I fear nobody made it out under the conditions of Op Pitting who would and should have succeeded as LGBT people to make their application. Through me and through our noble Friend, Lord Herbert of South Downs, the Prime Minister’s envoy, will she enable a specific point of contact within her Department who can advise us and the NGOs and others who are helping LGBT Afghans to make applications, so that applications can be successfully made and Border Force’s questions properly satisfied? I fully understand the restrictions my hon. Friend placed on the operational advice that she gave earlier to my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), but that help will be much appreciated at the application phase.
The Minister talked in her statement about a referral process for those inside Afghanistan where it is possible to arrange safe passage, thus acknowledging that that is not always possible. Last week, the Home Office released proposals to engage in push-backs of boats in the channel carrying refugees and asylum seekers. Will she confirm that that policy means a boat carrying Afghan asylum seekers fleeing the Taliban who, as she said, could find no safe passage, would be forcibly pushed back from UK waters?
Last month, my constituent Mr Kamal contacted me as he was concerned for the welfare of his wife and four daughters in Afghanistan. His wife is an Afghan national, while all four of their children—aged seven, six, three and just four months—are British citizens. He, like any father, is desperately worried about his family, yet, despite my representations to the Home Office, I have received no response at all. What advice can the Minister provide to Mr Kamal and his family? Will she assure me that I will get a substantive answer by the end of the week?
My constituents are children here under the vulnerable children’s resettlement scheme, and their families—Hazara families—in Kabul want to know what steps they need to take to make applications and whether they will fall under the Afghan citizens’ resettlement scheme, not least because the numbers under that scheme are so pitiful. The Minister talks about 5,000 people, which is one or two families per constituency. We really need to re-examine those numbers.
I thank the Minister for what she described as the difficult and unique circumstances faced by Afghan citizens. Can I ask her a narrow question about the concessionary approach to waive documents which she described? Will she please confirm that if an Afghan citizen is entitled to help, they will not be denied that help simply because they have been required to, say, burn a passport or other identity document—whether electronic or physical—to keep themselves alive?
To be honest, I just feel that this is a completely hope-less statement, in the sense that the UK Government are giving up on the vulnerable people in Afghanistan who stood by us. That is what it feels like, and what really angers me is that we seem to be going backwards every time a Minister comes to explain this. Last week, we were told by the Prime Minister that we were all going to get replies to our individual cases by last Monday, and then last Thursday a Government Minister came here and told us that we would all get individual answers to each of the individual cases by this Thursday. Now it sounds as though the Minister is saying, “Oh, no”, and all we are going to get is another blasted “Dear colleague” letter. That is not good enough. We need to be able to give answers to our constituents.
In particular—this was asked earlier, and it was answered in a different way last Thursday by a different Government Minister—if a person has applied through the ARAP scheme and has been told no, will they have to make another application to another Department and put in another form, or will the Government be doing what the Foreign Office told this House last Thursday, which is triaging these with no need for a further application?
I was pleased to hear the Minister mention in her statement that judges and women’s rights activists may be among those who would get priority, but the situation for female judges on the ground in Afghanistan is dire. There are about 220 of them, and they are trapped there in immediate fear of their lives. These people are desperate, and they have been on the phone to colleagues in the United Kingdom in tears every night. Basically, these women are waiting to be killed, so my question for the Minister is this. She says in her statement that one of the ways the Government are going to implement the scheme is to
“work with international partners and non-governmental organisations in the region to put in place a referral process for those inside Afghanistan, where it is possible to arrange safe passage”.
Can she tell me whether these discussions are taking place and are taking place with the appropriate urgency in relation to the female judges trapped in Afghanistan, and can she confirm that these women will be welcome in the United Kingdom?
One of the urgent cases I am dealing with is that of a former Chevening scholar trapped in Kabul, who is very worried that he is not on the appropriate Government list because, strangely, he did not receive a call forward to the airport in the early days of the evacuation. Can the Minister assure me that she is talking to the FCDO about Chevening scholars and that, from the Home Office perspective, all former and current Chevening scholars will be supported by the Government? In particular, will the right paperwork be issued to him, so that if he does make the decision to go with his family to the border, he will know that he will be safe once he gets there?
I have written to three different Government Departments seven times since 23 August on behalf of a constituent of mine whose family members are in Afghanistan. They could have been helped, and they were not. On Thursday, I spoke to my constituent who told me that, on Wednesday, her uncle was murdered by the Taliban, and another relative is continuing to receive the most chilling threats on a daily basis. I am not asking the Minister for an update on their situation in Afghanistan; I know that perfectly well from first-hand accounts from my constituent. I am asking what she is doing to give them permission to travel to the UK so that they can take the first step on their journey to safety before, as my constituent said on Thursday, she loses her whole family.
The Minister referred to the importance of learning the English language. In previous interviews she has referred to “western values”, and to the support that her Government will provide to Afghans. What support will her Government give to help Afghans preserve their language and culture when they come here? We know that refugees enrich society with their culture and language.
The Minister spoke about the ways the scheme will prioritise those who have assisted UK efforts, but what does “prioritisation” actually mean? Those who will be admitted on to the list of 5,000 in the first year need to know whether they are being prioritised, as that may affect their decision to travel to the border, or the way that people respond in Afghanistan, as well as those refugees outside it. The Minister will know that the criteria she set out would probably just about meet the 4,500 relatives of my constituents, every one of whom would qualify on that basis—
How widely and generously will the definition of an “assisted UK effort” be applied? I have cases of two interpreters who were told that they did not qualify for ARAP because they worked for G4S rather than for the Army, but if they had been properly assessed, they could already be here. Will they now qualify?
In trying to justify allowing only 5,000 refugees in through year one of resettlement scheme, the Minister said that that followed consultation with local authorities, based on capacity and assimilation. Will she publish the collated information that shows that, cumulatively, all local authorities in the UK responded that they could take only that figure of 5,000?
I have a constituent who landed just before the blockade. Her father-in-law has been shot. She has got to the border a number of times. I have communicated with the embassy and with the Pakistani authorities to try to let her come through, but to no avail because the Afghans will not let her through on a British passport. Can we get through the Foreign Office, or the Home Office, some sort of indication to help those people? If not, can we use other available embassies to guide and support those people who are there with British passports?
The ARAP scheme pledges to provide protection for Afghans who were employed by the British Government, but many of my constituents have relatives in Afghanistan who worked for the British indirectly, for instance as a driver for an Army interpreter. Those people are in hiding and are terrified. Will the Minister clarify whether such individuals will be prioritised for the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme?
This morning, a family with a very sick child, one of 300 people placed in a quarantine hotel in Shepherd’s Bush, were told to get on a coach to Stockport, despite having lodged an application for housing assistance in Hammersmith. On Saturday, 90 Afghan evacuees arrived at a bridging hotel in Fulham with no money, the clothes they stood up in, and no information about what was happening to them. A local charity, West London Welcome, and our council are trying to help. If we try to get through to the Home Office, it does not answer emails or phone calls. Is this what the Minister means by Operation Warm Welcome?
I thank the Minister for her statement, but my constituents and I grow increasingly worried the longer casework emails go unanswered. That is no criticism of all the hard-working civil servants who have worked around the clock. I have written to the Home Secretary again today to request updates on two cases where constituents have found their family members—one an 18-year-old woman—particularly vulnerable under the new regime. Can the Minister confirm what criteria the Home Office is using to assess vulnerability for applicants wishing to come to the UK and join their British family here?
What reassurance can the Minister give to the 3,000 Afghans who were in our asylum system prior to the fall of Kabul? What lessons will she take from what other European countries are doing around a fast-track system? Crucially, can she give the assurance that under no circumstances will anyone be deported back to Afghanistan?
First, let me place on the record the readiness and willingness, once again, of North Lanarkshire Council to stand forward for the Afghan refugees, just like we did for the Syrian refugees and, before that, for the Congolese when we welcomed them to North Lanarkshire. Will the Minister please heed the warnings by both the First Minister of Scotland and the leader of Glasgow City Council that the commitment to rehouse 20,000 in the long term and to resettle just 5,000 in the first year is clearly not sufficient? Clearly, in the context of the humanitarian crisis that is unfolding, a far more ambitious programme is required. It is always worth saying that in Scotland, refugees are welcome.