The Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon) (Con)
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their insightful and valuable contributions. I particularly thank the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, for tabling this important and timely debate. We are, of course, focusing on a very sensitive but equally very important and key issue for the global community, in particular the humanitarian situation currently prevailing in Afghanistan, as well as the Afghan citizens settlement scheme.
I join the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt—who indeed has direct experience of this—in recognising and valuing, as we all do, the incredible sacrifice, bravery and service of all those from the military and the voluntary sector who have worked tirelessly over many years in Afghanistan. Those like me who had an opportunity to visit during those 20 years before the Taliban takeover will have seen what has been delivered, particularly by our servicemen and, of course, to the women of Afghanistan. Several noble Lords mentioned the women.
I assure noble Lords that in our planning, policy and programming, I certainly, for one, have not relented in my focus on the importance of Afghanistan. The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, rightly drew attention to the perilous plight of people within Afghanistan—a mother to a child. I have not just seen those images; I have heard direct testimonies. Irrespective of what responsibility one holds, I assure all noble Lords that I waste no time. I seek to make no excuses. We need to help and we need to help now. The situation is acute.
It is a matter of deep regret; here I join the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt. The noble Baroness, Lady Northover, knows from our experience of working together, as does the noble Lord, Lord Collins, about those desperate times when, basically, NATO left. If up to £9 billion is being pumped into a country which is reliant on development support and assistance and that tap is suddenly switched off, of course there is going to be an impact.
I hope that with some of my words—but, more importantly, with the actions I demonstrate—I will be able to address some of the concerns, particularly the key concerns that my noble friend Lady Hodgson raised. I pay tribute to her work, particularly with Afghan women. My noble friend works directly with incredible women such as Fawzia Koofi, Hasina Saifi and Fatima Gailani. I have met them directly to continue to ensure that we retain a direct focus on the women and girls of Afghanistan.
The Government fully share the concerns expressed by noble Lords but, more than that, we fully recognise the suffering of the Afghan people. The latest figures from the World Food Programme—I recently spoke directly to David Beasley of the WFP—and the Food and Agriculture Organization suggest that over 18 million Afghans, or 42% of the population, are today suffering “crisis” or “emergency” levels of acute malnutrition. The noble Lord, Lord Loomba, also drew attention to this very issue. As the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, reminded us in his opening remarks, and as the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, said, as winter sets in, projections point towards 23 million Afghans being in similar peril by the first quarter of next year. As the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, reminded us, the situation for children is especially alarming. Half of all children under five—around 3.2 million—are expected to suffer from acute malnutrition by the end of this year.
In short, I do not hide behind any words or pull any punches: Afghanistan is in a crisis, and we need to act. There are many drivers of this crisis; one can cite conflict, chronic poverty, Covid and drought. Most recently, there are two other key factors at play. First, there has been a sharp contraction in the Afghan economy after the Taliban takeover, with less work available, which leads to rising food prices and a lack of essential items. Secondly, there has been a reduction in the provision of very basic services, including basic sanitation and healthcare.
First, in diplomatic terms, the UK has been at the forefront of efforts to address this. We are using our presidency of the G7 to mobilise and co-ordinate donors, as several noble Lords noted. The next step in our continued diplomacy is a special session on Afghanistan, led by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary, when foreign and development Ministers meet in Liverpool on 10 and 12 December. This is a specific item on the agenda.
During the last few months, I have engaged extensively with key UN partners and continue to do so—including, last week, with Deborah Lyons, among others. Over the last few weeks and months, I have been in regular contact with Amina Mohammed, the Deputy Secretary-General of the UN; Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees; Henrietta Fore at UNICEF; David Beasley at the World Food Programme; Peter Maurer at the ICRC; and Achim Steiner, director of the UNDP. This is to ensure that we are directly informed about what the barriers and issues are and how we can ensure that humanitarian support reaches Afghanistan.
The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, rightly pointed to the importance of cash flow. I am talking to the near neighbours of Afghanistan—particularly Uzbekistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan—and each and every one highlights the issue of cash flow. As the noble Lord may be aware, we were instrumental in persuading the World Bank’s board to agree on 30 November to release $280 million from the Afghanistan reconstruction fund to support basic health services and the humanitarian response.
But we cannot just sit on that. I am currently engaging—and I hope to engage directly tomorrow with our UN ambassador, Dame Barbara Woodward, to get an update—on what further efforts can be made to unlock some of the issues, particularly the point the noble Lord raised about sanctions and the UN. There are workarounds, as we have seen in previous crises and humanitarian responses. We are encouraging the World Bank and its shareholders to repurpose the remaining $1.2 billion in the fund as soon as possible.
Nationally, the Prime Minister has committed to double our assistance for Afghanistan to £286 million for this financial year. On 31 October, he allocated £50 million for immediate humanitarian needs, and I can tell noble Lords that this has been disbursed. I have worked through this—not just on the specifics of announcements of a million here or a million there, but on where this is going, where it has got to, whether it has left our accounts, and whether it has reached the people we need to reach.
I assure the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, that, through the engagement I am having, we are working on identifying the local agencies that are still operational and continue to provide support unhindered so that we can support their activities. Indeed, my noble friend Lady Hodgson mentioned the Aga Khan Development Network; it is one such agency that we are engaging with directly. This is in addition to the £30 million mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, for our work with neighbouring countries as an immediate response to the challenge that they face on their borders.
I assure the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, that we are dealing with this with the urgency required in terms of both engagement and the parameters and challenges that exist, as the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, suggested. Most recently, in terms of additional support, we have disbursed £70 million of aid to Afghanistan in total, with £10 million for Afghans in the region. Specifically, we included £18 million for the Afghanistan Humanitarian Fund and £20 million for the World Food Programme. I am pleased to be able to say that the UN is now able to get larger sums of cash, notwithstanding the restrictions, into the country despite the lack of liquidity in the banking system. I assure noble Lords that funds are reaching Afghans in need and we are working intrinsically and closely with key partners on the ground. I am sure that all noble Lords will join me in paying tribute to the humanitarian aid workers who are committed to saving lives in Afghanistan in such difficult circumstances.
In addition to our aid, the Government are encouraging the region to step up its vital role in influencing the Taliban—a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt. I assure him that we are doing just that. Sir Simon Gass is engaging directly; I met him today and hope to talk to him in detail again tomorrow. We are also talking to the likes of India, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which my noble friend Lord Moynihan mentioned specifically. In that regard, I have met the excellent Minister responsible for the resettlement, and we continue to work closely with regional partners including Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
We have been addressing the humanitarian situation closely. This has been a key part of our engagement at an operational level with the Taliban, including through the key provisions of the Security Council resolution on unhindered access, respecting human rights and, of course, providing for those Afghans who wish to leave. The Taliban has assured us but the proof will be in the pudding and the action that we demonstrably see; of course, at times, we get alarming reports of a regression in human rights. As I have said before, in my view, the Taliban has not changed. It is a regressive organisation that does not believe in human rights as any of us, or any person of faith, sees them. However, we are working with the situation that we currently face.
On the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme, to be clear, there are two schemes. The ACRS is in addition to our ARAP scheme—or, to give it its full title, the Afghan relocations and assistance policy. The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, talked specifically about the British Council; as she knows, I am live to those issues. I assure noble Lords, on the cases that come across my desk, that when a specific and general answer is given, it does register it. I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, that I will directly follow up. Yes, there are female journalists who have already arrived in the UK, but we continue to work with them and there is more to be done in that sphere.
I will not go through what the Home Office has already said in terms of what has been published—noble Lords are fully aware of that—but I know that the Home Office is working closely with the UNHCR to finalise the scheme. As my noble friend Lady Williams, the Minister of State at the Home Office, said only last week, we are looking to announce the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme. The noble Lord, Lord Purvis—and, indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, in her customary manner—asked me to be honest. I always am. Do I think that the scheme will be announced? Yes, I do.
The noble Lord and the noble Baroness asked about the numbers. Of the 15,000 Afghans we have evacuated, 500 were particularly vulnerable, including Chevening scholars, journalists, human rights defenders and campaigners for women. Some of those people will form part of the first 5,000 who we will settle under the Afghan citizens’ resettlement scheme but I look forward to working directly with noble Lords alongside my colleagues in the Home Office to ensure that all routes are fully explained and that we continue to work to relieve the pressure on vulnerable Afghans within Afghanistan, as well as support those who have already arrived. I can assure noble Lords that we are working across government to ensure that those priorities are fully realised and actioned.
This is an ongoing chapter. We cannot be in any way immune from what we saw in August. Yes, headlines move on but if our commitment over the past 20 years is to mean anything to Afghanistan, it means that we will remain vigilant and focused. I assure noble Lords that, as the Minister responsible for the Afghanistan brief, I continue to engage directly to ensure that, first, the humanitarian support urgently reaches the people it needs to and, secondly, that more support will continue to be released. I will share with noble Lords the details, as I have done today, in further briefings that I will be giving on specific support that we are giving within country. I, like other noble Lords, fully hope that the ACRS scheme is up and running so that we can continue to provide the support needed, both through the ARAP scheme and the ACRS to the vulnerable Afghans who wish to leave.
Finally, I should say, as is often said—I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, for his kind words in my direction—that my thanks go to all noble Lords because their continued vigilance, action, lobbying and bringing these cases forward makes sure that the Government also remain accountable to the commitments that they have given.