Tuesday 28th March 2023

(1 year, 1 month ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Hansard Text Watch Debate Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
13:09
Johnny Mercer Portrait The Minister for Veterans' Affairs (Johnny Mercer)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

It has now been over 18 months since the conclusion of Operation Pitting in Afghanistan, the biggest UK military evacuation in more than 70 years. That unprecedented mission enabled around 15,000 people to leave Afghanistan and reach safety here in the UK. Since then, we have continued to welcome thousands more of those who loyally served alongside the UK armed forces, as well as those who stood up for British values such as democracy, women’s rights and freedom of speech and vulnerable groups at risk in the region. To date, nearly 24,500 vulnerable people have been safely relocated to the UK from Afghanistan.

Members of this House will know that this is a matter very close to my heart. This Government are determined to fulfil our strategic commitments to Afghanistan. We owe a debt of gratitude to those people and in return our offer to them has been generous. We have ensured that all those relocated as a result of Op Pitting have fee-free indefinite leave to remain, giving them certainty about their status, entitlement to benefits and the right to work. Operation Warm Welcome has ensured all those relocated to the UK through safe and legal routes have been able to access the vital health, education and employment support they need to integrate into our society, including English language training for those who need it, the right to work and access to the benefits system.

Given the unprecedented speed and scale of the evacuation, we warmly welcomed our Afghan friends and eligible British nationals into hotel accommodation as a temporary solution until settled accommodation could be found. That ensured that all Afghans have been housed in safe and secure accommodation from the moment they arrived; it gave our Afghan friends peace of mind and allowed us to move quickly during an emergency.

However, bridging hotels are not, and were never designed to be, a permanent solution. While dedicated teams across central and local government, as well as partners in the voluntary and community sector, have ensured that more than 9,000 Afghans have been supported into settled homes, around 8,000 remain in hotel accommodation. Around half of that cohort are children and around half have been living in a hotel for more than one year.

My colleagues have indicated that that is an unacceptable and unsustainable situation. The Government share that view—I personally share that view—and the situation needs to change. Long-term residency in hotels has prevented some Afghans from properly putting down roots, committing to employment and integrating into communities, which creates uncertainty as they look to rebuild their lives in the United Kingdom long term.

Beyond the human cost, the financial cost to the UK taxpayer of hotel accommodation for the Afghan cohort now stands at £1 million per day. As I have said, that needs to change. To help people to rebuild their lives here, we have a duty to end the practice of Afghan families living in hotels in the UK. That is in the best interest of families and individuals and will enable them to benefit from the security of housing and long-term consistency of public services, including schooling and the freedoms of independent living that only suitable non-hotel accommodation can provide.

That is why, with the support of my right hon. Friends the Members for Newark (Robert Jenrick) and for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), I am today announcing the Government’s intention to step up our support, to help resettled and relocated Afghans to access independent, settled accommodation and to end the use of hotel bridging accommodation for that cohort.

We will begin writing to individuals and families accommodated in Afghan bridging hotels at the end of April. They will be provided with at least three months’ notice of when their access to bridging accommodation will end. That will crystallise a reasonable timeframe in the minds of our Afghan friends, with significant support from central and local government at every step as required, together with their existing access to welfare and the right to work, to find good, settled places to live in the longer term.

We remain unbowed in our commitment to those who supported us at great personal risk in Afghanistan. The debt we owe them is one borne by our nation as a whole. We also need to support those people we have brought to the UK as genuine refugees fleeing persecution. The UK has and always will provide a safe refuge for those who arrive through safe and legal routes. There are veterans across this country enjoying normal lives today because of the service and sacrifice of that cohort who kept them safe in Afghanistan. It is a national duty that we have in communities up and down this country.

That is why the Government are taking significant steps to honour and protect that group by providing increased support and funding to facilitate their transition into long-term settled accommodation. Trained staff, including Home Office liaison officers, Department for Work and Pensions work coaches, council staff and charities, will be based in hotels regularly to provide advice to Afghans, including information on how to rent in the private sector, help to find jobs and English language training. In addition, we will publish guidance for families on what support is available and how to access it.

We are announcing £35 million in new funding to enable local authorities to provide increased support for Afghan households to move from hotels into settled accommodation across England. The local authority housing fund will also be expanded by £250 million, with the majority of the additional funding used to house Afghans currently in bridging accommodation and the rest used to ease existing homelessness pressures.

The measures represent a generous offer, and in return we expect families to help themselves. While the Government realise our responsibilities to the cohort, there is a responsibility on them to take the opportunities offered under those schemes and integrate into UK society. Where an offer of accommodation can be made and is turned down, another will now not be forthcoming. At a time when there are many pressures on the taxpayer and the housing market, it is not right that people can choose to stay in hotels when other perfectly suitable accommodation is available. We are balancing difficult competing responsibilities, including to the UK taxpayer.

As well as ensuring that Afghans already in the UK can move into long-term accommodation, we will continue to honour the commitments we have made to bring people into the UK into sustainable non-hotel accommodation. That includes British Council and GardaWorld contractors, Chevening alumni offered places through pathway 3 of the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme, and refugees referred to us by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees through pathway 2.

Welcoming people who come to the UK through safe and legal routes has always been, and will always be, a vital way in which the UK helps those in need. We are legislating to ensure our commitment to safe and legal routes in the Illegal Migration Bill, but the use of hotels to accommodate families for lengthy periods of time in the UK is not sustainable, or indeed appropriate, for anybody. The flow of people to whom we have responsibility is not working as we would like at the moment.

We will honour our commitment to those who remain in Afghanistan. Our priority is to ensure that they can enter suitable accommodation, which is the right thing for those families. Future UK arrivals will go directly into appropriate accommodation rather than costly temporary hotel accommodation. That is the right thing to do to ensure that those to whom we have made commitments are supported and are able to successfully integrate into life in the UK.

We will provide more detail in due course on plans for supporting people yet to arrive into suitable and appropriate accommodation, but what we are setting out today is the fair and right thing to do, both for Afghan communities to rebuild their lives here, and for the British public, who continue to show enormous generosity towards those who come here safely and legally. This Government will realise our commitments to the people of Afghanistan, and I commend this statement to the House.

13:17
John Healey Portrait John Healey (Wentworth and Dearne) (Lab)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the Minister for advance sight of the statement. He himself means well, but this statement should be from the Defence Secretary, explaining why, 18 months after Afghan families were airlifted to the UK, 8,000 are still in temporary hotels and the backlog in processing cases has risen to 66,000. It should be from the Home Secretary, explaining why it took nine months to open the alternative ACRS scheme and why, by the end of last year, just four people had been brought to safety in the UK since the fall of Kabul. It should be from the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Secretary, explaining why he has not required all council areas to play a part in discharging the national obligation we owe to these Afghans and their families. We could have built the homes they need since our armed forces, in that amazing Operation Pitting, airlifted them from Kabul to safety in the UK in August 2021.

As the Minister said, this nation promised those who put their lives at risk to serve alongside our armed forces in Afghanistan that we would relocate and settle them, give their families safety, and help them to rebuild their lives. That obligation is felt most fiercely by those who served in our forces in Afghanistan, whose operations depended on the courageous Afghan interpreters and guides. Never mind Operation Warm Welcome, and never mind the warm words from the Minister today; he has confirmed that the Government are giving them the cold shoulder. He is serving eviction notices on 8,000 Afghans, half of whom are children, with no guarantee that they will be offered a suitable, settled place to live.

Let us nail a myth at the heart of this statement. The Minister said:

“It is not right that people can choose to stay in hotels when other perfectly suitable accommodation is available.”

The Government’s website confirms that, at the end of last month, the number of Afghan households who had refused accommodation offers was just 258. They want homes, not hotels; they want to rebuild their lives; they want to contribute to this country—their new country—which has offered them refuge.

The Government failed to plan for an orderly withdrawal from Afghanistan in the 18 months following the Doha agreement in February 2020. Ministers set up the Afghan relocations and assistance policy only in April 2021, and they relocated only 200 Afghans before the fall of Kabul in August 2021. The Government have failed the brave Afghans who supported our troops before the fall of Afghanistan, and they have failed them since.

Can we now fill in the many gaps in the Minister’s statement? To date, how many ARAP and ACRS applicants have been rehoused in permanent homes? What is the current backlog in processing ARAP and ACRS cases? How many ARAP-eligible applicants remain in Afghanistan? Why, since November, have there been no flights carrying ARAP-eligible Afghans and their families from Pakistan? Have there been any more ARAP data breaches since the one in February 2022? How many hotels are still in use as temporary bridging accommodation for Afghan families? What consultation has there been with local authorities to identify the thousands of permanent homes that are still needed? Will Afghans who are still in hotels be given notice to quit only when a permanent home has been identified for them? How will decisions on eviction deadlines for individual hotels be determined? Who will make those decisions? Will the Minister guarantee today that none of those Afghans will be made homeless as a result of being moved on from the hotels in which they currently live?

The ARAP and ACRS have been beset by failures: those in fear of their lives left in Afghanistan; housing promises broken; processing staff cut; ballooning backlogs; breaches of personal data; and even the Ministry of Defence telling applicants that they should get the Taliban to verify their ARAP application documents. Far from being—as the Minister said—fair and right, this record and this statement shame us all.

Johnny Mercer Portrait Johnny Mercer
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will address some of those points in turn. I will not stand here and defend the system—I have said what I have said about it previously—and that is not what I have sought to do today. I have been clear that what I am trying to do is identify a path forward in what is an unprecedented and very difficult situation, and that is what I will focus on in my remarks.

When it comes to giving Afghans in this country a cold shoulder, I would say that it is a pretty expensive cold shoulder, with the £285 million of new funding announced today. In terms of the number of people who have turned down homes, there is a significant proportion. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the figure of 258, but it is higher than that now. A significant proportion of Afghans have turned down homes. It would not be right to ignore that problem and allow Afghans to remain in hotels—with families’ food and accommodation paid for—ad infinitum for the next 20 years. That would not be right, and I will not be cowed into accepting that it is.

All the numbers are publicly available. We reckon that about 4,300 entitled personnel remain in Afghanistan and want to get over here, and 12,100 have arrived to date on the ARAP scheme. On the ACRS, we have promised 20,000. We have had 7,637 arrive through that scheme. There are three different pathways for that scheme, and I am happy to speak to colleagues here or elsewhere about those pathways. Clearly, I accept that some of those pathways have not been running as we would like, but that is precisely why I am here. If we cannot move those people out of hotels—which are unsuitable for them, for UK communities and for UK taxpayers—we cannot extract people who are entitled to be in this country because of the sacrifices they made during Op Herrick in Afghanistan.

Although this is a difficult policy area, we will not yield in doing the right thing by tackling difficult problems and striking the balance between ensuring that we make it as easy and seamless as possible for Afghans to get out of hotels and to integrate into the United Kingdom, and ensuring that the Afghan cohort understands that the offer was never to remain in hotels ad infinitum and all the problems that brings with it.

I accept that this is a difficult policy area; I accept that the track record on this policy area has been difficult. To be fair to everybody who has done this before, we are facing an incredibly difficult, unprecedented and dynamic situation, with the collapse of international will to remain in Afghanistan. We are now doing our best to see through our strategic promises to the people of Afghanistan, and we will absolutely do that. We will strain every sinew to get people out of hotels and into the UK community, and unleash the wealth of veteran and voluntary support, which I know wants to welcome those people with open arms and make them feel part of the UK. I look forward to that challenge.

John Baron Portrait Mr John Baron (Basildon and Billericay) (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I again commend the Prime Minister for his recent direct intervention to break the ACRS logjam by allowing British Council contractors and others to continue applications in the safety of a third country, thereby allowing them to leave Afghanistan, where they were in fear of their lives. However, a significant number of approved contractors remain in Afghanistan and are unable to obtain and/or afford the necessary visa and paperwork to exit Afghanistan and enter the safety of a third country. How is the Minister working with colleagues across Government to remove those obstacles?

Johnny Mercer Portrait Johnny Mercer
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank my hon. Friend for his many contributions on this piece of work. The ACRS pathway to which he refers can now be applied to from a third country. As I said in my statement, we have made commitments to that cohort of people. One of the driving motivations behind this difficult piece of work is that there are people stuck in Afghanistan and we have a duty to get them over here. We simply cannot do that if we just continue loading hotels and building pressure in our local communities, at huge cost to the taxpayer. That is one of the primary motivations, and the moral case, for what we are doing. We still have a duty to people who served. We have made those commitments to the people of Afghanistan, and I and the Prime Minister are absolutely determined to fulfil those commitments. Today is the start of that process.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

We come now to the SNP spokesperson.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the Minister for his statement. We on the SNP Benches are absolutely clear that hotel accommodation is not appropriate, particularly for families but also because of the tragic Park Inn incident in Glasgow. We know the consequences of people being kept in situations in which they are under severe stress. I have a number of questions for the Minister. It is not clear whether any specific funding is coming to Scotland as part of this. England is specified, but Scotland is not. What communication has the Minister had with the Scottish Government and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities on the issue in Scotland? It would be useful to know the exact numbers in Scotland at the moment. STV made a freedom of information request last year and found that there were 300 people in bridging hotels across Scotland. I am not clear from what he has said today what the current numbers are, where those people are living at present and who will be picking up the pieces.

I was concerned by what the Minister said about offers being turned down and another offer not being forthcoming. Scottish housing legislation refers to a “reasonable” offer of accommodation, and that is important, because the accommodation being offered might not be appropriate for a family. There might be overcrowding; we know that there is a shortage of larger family homes. The accommodation might be far away from schools where children are currently being educated and from the community support that Afghan groups value so much. It might be far away from mosques and from shops that sell halal meat, for example. It should be a reasonable offer, rather than saying, “That’s all you’re getting” when an offer is rejected, and I am quite worried if that is the road the Government are going down. It will be local authorities and charities that pick up the pieces if people are put out on the street. Families in particular will be at risk, but other people will also be put at risk if they are made homeless.

To describe UNHCR pathway 2 as being deficient would be the understatement of the year, since only 22 people have been brought in under it so far. I have dealt with many cases as a result of this deficiency of the Government. I have had people at my surgery who have made expressions of interest but have heard nothing back. They cannot wait indefinitely in Afghanistan, where they are unsafe. People are moving about to avoid persecution and to avoid the Taliban finding them, and it is incredibly dangerous for the people who are left there. When Afghanistan fell, I had around 80 cases of folk who had family in Afghanistan, and I only know of two who managed to get to safety in Scotland. People cannot wait in danger indefinitely, so can the Minister tell me when those who have made expressions of interest under this pathway will have their cases processed and will arrive home in Scotland?

Johnny Mercer Portrait Johnny Mercer
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will take those questions in two broad handfuls and talk about funding first. Funding for round 2 of the local authority housing fund is coming from existing Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities underspend, and that funding is devolved and has already gone through the Barnett formula. The £35 million being put into casework teams across the country is UK-wide, and we will be deploying casework teams into hotels in Scotland to work with local authorities to ensure that we support Afghans out of those hotels and into the community.

On the issue of balance and a fair and reasonable offer, nobody in this Government wants to make any of these individuals homeless. The truth is that we will have to balance very difficult competing priorities when individuals have been in hotels for a long period and may be in school or may have specific health needs, and a suitable offer is made elsewhere in the country but they do not want to leave that location. We will do everything we can to make sure that they can stay where they have local roots and so on, but that has to be balanced off. If there is a choice between them staying in a hotel in that area and going into suitable accommodation, I am afraid the priority will be to get them into suitable accommodation.

I recognise how this is going to be slated and tailored and all of the rest of it, but the truth is that we will do everything we can to take into account all those specific circumstances. The ambition is that nobody is homeless throughout this process, but we are going to implement our commitments to the people of Afghanistan. I do not make any bones about it and say that that is an easy thing to do, but we are going to throw everything we have at it, integrate these people into UK society, turn back on the flights and make sure we see through our duties to the people of Afghanistan.

None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
- Hansard -

Nigel Evans Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Sarah Atherton, were you standing?

Sarah Atherton Portrait Sarah Atherton (Wrexham) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My question about the devolved Administrations has already been answered.

Nigel Evans Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Thank you. I call James Sunderland.

James Sunderland Portrait James Sunderland (Bracknell) (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the Minister for his statement. Does he agree that it is entirely right that we do all we can to support those who served alongside British forces in Afghanistan, and that it is right to distinguish in law between those who come here illegally and those who come here by invitation legally, so that we can do more for those on the ARAP scheme?

Johnny Mercer Portrait Johnny Mercer
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My hon. Friend is right; there is a fundamental difference. As he will know, there are veterans, service personnel and people working in the civil service who are sat around lunchtime tables this afternoon and would not be here were it not for the actions of this cohort, and we have a very specific duty to them. We have to balance that against competing demands, but we have made our commitments to this cohort of people. I have outlined today our clear and significant commitment to see through our duty to them, get them out of hotels and make sure we honour our commitments.

Maria Eagle Portrait Maria Eagle (Garston and Halewood) (Lab)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

The bridging hotel in my constituency is still full, and about half of the 375 or so people there have been there since the evacuation. One reason why they have not been able to find alternative accommodation or it has not been found for them is that there are some big families, and there is not suitable accommodation for them. What particular provision will the Minister make for those families? I have heard a rumour that that hotel is to close to the Afghans in August, but I have had no letter and no communication from the Government or any Department. Can he confirm, perhaps outside the Chamber, when the hotel in my constituency is due to be closed?

Johnny Mercer Portrait Johnny Mercer
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am more than happy to meet the right hon. Lady and go over the situation with that hotel. No hotel has been given closing orders. I am more than happy to challenge these rumours, and that is certainly the case in that area.

We are increasing flexibility in how this money can be used. The £250 million going into the local authority housing fund can be used, for example, to knock through into the house next door to create bigger accommodation. I was talking to the Mayor of London about this this morning. We have the specific challenge of massive families in this cohort, and finding a house for a family of 10 is extremely difficult in the UK, so we have introduced flexibility to make sure this money can be used for improvements, so that we can see through our commitments to these people.

Nickie Aiken Portrait Nickie Aiken (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I have been very proud of the welcome that the Cities of London and Westminster have given to Afghan refugees, as they have to refugees from across the world for many centuries. When I visited two of the hotels in the City of London that were home to Afghan refugees last year, I was taken aback by the warmth of the hotel staff and by the City of London Corporation working with charities to provide English lessons in the Guildhall. Having seen how people were living in these hotel rooms, often with five, six or seven family members in one room, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is important they are helped to move on to permanent accommodation?

Johnny Mercer Portrait Johnny Mercer
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My hon. Friend is right. It is the easiest thing in the world to hurl accusations at this policy. The reality is that if we go and look at these hotels, we see lots of people living in the same rooms and children and families in accommodation that is unsuitable for a prolonged period. I make no apology at all for the moral case of helping these people move into permanent accommodation. I pay huge tribute to all those up and down the country in not only local authorities but voluntary groups and the veterans sector who have bent over backwards to welcome these people into their communities. All I am seeking to do with this piece of work that the Prime Minister has asked me to pull together is harness all that energy and all those offers, whether they are around employment or community groups, and make it work for the Afghan people, so that we can take the action to move these people out of hotels. It is the right thing to do for the Afghan people, it is the right thing to do for the British people, and I am determined that we will see it through.

Jessica Morden Portrait Jessica Morden (Newport East) (Lab)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

On Friday, I met an Afghan interpreter who had collected a list of 45 colleagues who put their lives on the line for our forces but are still waiting for the Government schemes to deliver, many in UK-sourced accommodation in Pakistan waiting for entry clearance visas from the Home Office for 18 months. He also told of those who found it quicker to resort to the treacherous and dangerous small boats journeys than to wait for this Government to deliver. How can Ministers stand here and defend this record?

Johnny Mercer Portrait Johnny Mercer
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

This has been an incredibly dynamic and difficult situation over 18 months. We now have this plan. Anybody can apply to the ACRS or the ARAP programme from third countries, and that is what I expect people to do.

Vicky Ford Portrait Vicky Ford (Chelmsford) (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

A hotel is not a home, and it is important to find permanent accommodation for these families, so I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement today. We also must not forget the terrible plight of the people in Afghanistan, especially women and girls: it is now 553 days since girls were banned from going to school, and women are banned from leaving their homes. In the meantime, senior Taliban members are sending their own daughters to school in other countries, so will my right hon. Friend work with Ministers in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to tighten the knot of international sanctions and travel bans on the Taliban?

Johnny Mercer Portrait Johnny Mercer
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I have a very clear remit in this space, which is to deal with Afghans who are in hotels and get this pathway opened up. Clearly, we want to see through our responsibilities. Whatever has happened in Afghanistan is for the FCDO to comment on; everybody knows my views, which remain unchanged. We need to deal with the challenge as we find it now, which is far too many people in hotels and the blocking-up of that pathway. We are determined to make sure there is a professional, clear pipeline that people can use to get out of Afghanistan and into the UK, where we owe them a duty.

Dan Jarvis Portrait Dan Jarvis (Barnsley Central) (Lab)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

The Minister well understands the deep bond of friendship that exists between those who served and the Afghans we fought alongside, but he will also recognise that there have been very long-standing concerns from Members on both sides of the House about the processes that underpin both ARAP and ACRS. I have recently received reports of families approved under ARAP who are stuck in Islamabad, and are now being told that they are going to have to source their own accommodation in order to be able to get here.

The focus of the statement from the Minister so far has been on Afghans who are already here in the country, so can I ask him to say a bit more about the process for future arrivals? In particular, can he give an assurance that no one who is currently in Afghanistan or Pakistan who is either accepted by, or is eligible for, ARAP will be disadvantaged as a consequence of the policy announcement being made today?

Johnny Mercer Portrait Johnny Mercer
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

Nobody who is in Afghanistan who is accepted by, or is eligible for, ARAP or ACRS will be disadvantaged as a result of what we are doing today. The situation in Pakistan, where we have over 1,000 people in hotels waiting to get to the UK, is clearly and demonstrably unacceptable. The challenge is that we cannot do anything about that if we have people in hotels in this country who have been offered accommodation and should have taken that accommodation, but are still residing in hotels, not allowing us to unblock that pipeline.

The hon. Gentleman knows my commitment on this issue, and I want to work with everybody on all sides of the House. I know that this Government have made commitments on this issue, but it is not an inter-party political issue: it is the nation’s duty to this cohort of Afghans who kept a lot of our constituents alive during the fight in Afghanistan. I urge all colleagues to work together to make sure that we can build that pipeline and honour our commitments to the people of that country.

Holly Mumby-Croft Portrait Holly Mumby-Croft (Scunthorpe) (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

We certainly do owe a huge debt of gratitude to those brave Afghans who helped our armed forces and stood up for the values that we believe in, and I will not be alone in the House in remembering cases of individuals and families my office helped. My right hon. Friend is passionate about this, and he is an expert; frankly, his word is good enough for me on this. Is he absolutely reassured that this is the right thing to do?

Johnny Mercer Portrait Johnny Mercer
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I have no doubts that it is the right thing to do, otherwise I would not be stood here today. It is an incredibly difficult policy area, so nothing is black and white: there is no zero-sum calculation here where everything we do is going to sort this out, and there is no zero-risk option here. However, that is not a good enough reason to not try to see through our commitments to a very difficult population. I keep hearing “18 months” thrown at me from the other side of the Chamber, but this has been an unprecedented situation. Nobody wanted these people to stay in hotels for over a year. We have clearly opened up these pathways; we want to make sure that these people integrate into UK society properly, and I am absolutely convinced that this is the right thing to do.

None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
- Hansard -

Nigel Evans Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Order. I have 16 people standing or thereabouts, so can we have shorter questions and shorter answers, Minister?

Munira Wilson Portrait Munira Wilson (Twickenham) (LD)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

The Minister said at least three times in his statement that we will honour our commitment to those who remain in danger in Afghanistan. While that may be true for him personally, I am afraid that as far as this Government go, that promise is utterly hollow. I challenge him to come to my surgery—to look in the eye those Afghans whose families have been left behind—and say that.

In particular, for three weeks in a row now, I have raised in this Chamber the case of five British children under the age of 18 who have been abandoned in hiding in Kabul. Their mother is an Afghan national; there is no safe and legal route for her to apply for. Their British father was blown up by the Taliban. When will the next round of the ACRS open up, or will the Minister admit that the Government have just given up on them?

Johnny Mercer Portrait Johnny Mercer
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My presence here today indicates that we have clearly not given up on these people. It is incredibly difficult to get people out of Afghanistan: nobody is happy with what has happened in that country. We have opened up ACRS and ARAP applications to third countries, and I encourage people to apply to that and to get themselves on the scheme. We will do everything we can to see through our duty to them.

Crispin Blunt Portrait Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

Mr Deputy Speaker, given your recommendation for short questions, I have a number of questions that I will table as written parliamentary questions. Can I just say how much I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement, and the candour with which he has approached it and with which he is answering the questions?

I want to ask about one element. I have been involved in supporting someone who trained with me at Sandhurst a very long time ago, and in assisting that family. No doubt, there will be endless examples of others who are in the same position. I was slightly concerned about a scheme I offered to the Defence Minister, my right hon. Friend’s successor as Veterans Minister, to mobilise wider support for this particular community, not least engagement in creating the social housing referred to by the Opposition spokesman, the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey). I wonder why it was that people who could support that scheme were told that they could not do so in Army time.

Johnny Mercer Portrait Johnny Mercer
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

If my hon. Friend wants to write to me, I am more than happy to address what has happened there, but I have to be honest with him: I am not overly interested in how we got to where we are. There are a number of reasons—it has been an incredibly difficult situation. The collapse of Afghanistan has been unprecedented in our generation, and seeing through our duties to these people has been incredibly difficult. I am not going to consistently go over and reheat that argument. Now, we have a clear set of commitments: we have a significant financial commitment to these people, and a duty to get them out of hotels and open up that pipeline, allowing people to come into this country. That is what we are going to do.

Stephen Doughty Portrait Stephen Doughty (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I pay tribute to the Minister for his service in Afghanistan, along with other Members of this House, but I really wish he had come with me a few weeks ago to meet Afghans living in a hotel in my constituency, because I genuinely feel that he would have felt a deep sense of shame and embarrassment about how this country has not done our duty to those people who served alongside us. Quite frankly, it is shocking and disgusting.

I want to leave the Minister with two thoughts: first, many of those people in that hotel had not had offers of accommodation at all. They told me how the offers had dried up, and many of them had been languishing there for 18 months. Secondly, many of them had qualifications and skills that were not being recognised in this country, so they could not get work. That Department for Work and Pensions programme is clearly not working, despite the intentions behind it, and I hope the Minister can clarify just how much additional support Wales will get to support those people into long-term accommodation.

Johnny Mercer Portrait Johnny Mercer
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I respectfully say to the hon. Gentleman that he has no idea of the depth of feeling of people like me for what has happened in Afghanistan. Some people have turned down offers of accommodation—that is a fact. No, it is not the majority, but it is a fact that some have. I spend a lot of my time with the Afghan community now, and I entirely recognise their feelings. I have one of them who I got out of Kabul, and who now works with me in Plymouth and lives there, so I fully recognise that. We have to deal with the situation as we now find it.

This Prime Minister has come into office. He very clearly recognises the duty we have to these people, so whatever has happened before, we are going to create these pathways and give them every opportunity to relocate and reintegrate into UK society. I look forward to the whole House helping us as we complete that endeavour.

Kevin Foster Portrait Kevin Foster (Torbay) (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I welcome the fact that my right hon. Friend is now dealing with this issue from the Cabinet Office. Having seen at quite close hand the co-ordinated cross-Government effort that delivered Operation Pitting, it is now necessary to do exactly the same to resolve the issue of bridging hotels.

My right hon. Friend will know from my conversations with him that I do think there was a chunk of naivety about how much housing would come forward in the latter part of September 2021. It is clearly now necessary to bring to an end the use of hotels: no family should have a hotel as their home for the long term. However, can he reassure me about what plans he has with local government? Some communities, including his own in Plymouth and communities such as Glasgow, have been extremely welcoming in stepping forward, but others have not. What challenge is he putting to those who have not? How does he see this working as part of a co-ordinated programme, and how will he ensure that this does not result in people turning up at the local housing office to try to get accommodation under the public funds they have access to?

Johnny Mercer Portrait Johnny Mercer
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

That is a fair set of questions from my hon. Friend, and I pay tribute to him for his work in this area previously. Part of this is trying to create the environment where local authorities want to come forward. There will be a part that talks about increased funding. It was £21,000 per family settled over three years prior to today. That increases by £7,000 today. We are going to do everything we can to incentivise families. We recognise that this is a national commitment, but in London we can only do so much. We need to tap into the national feelings that we felt about Afghanistan when the collapse happened, to welcome these people into our communities and to make them a strong part of the United Kingdom.

Liz Saville Roberts Portrait Liz Saville Roberts (Dwyfor Meirionnydd) (PC)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

The Minister mentioned that half of this cohort are children. Members of the all-party parliamentary group for Afghan women and girls heard this morning from their headteacher about year 11 schoolgirls being moved tomorrow, six weeks before their GCSEs. They will not be found meaningful education arrangements for another 20 weeks. He must surely agree that integration must offer meaningful opportunities for Afghan women and girls, particularly in relation to education. That may be one of the reasons that families turn down accommodation. Will he also agree that the support provided by Wales’s youth organisation, Urdd, was pioneering in integrating Afghan families into Wales? Will he agree to work with the APPG, Urdd and Afghan women’s representatives in Wales to develop a toolkit to empower Afghan women and girls as they integrate here?

Johnny Mercer Portrait Johnny Mercer
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

Clearly I will work with any group as we try to recognise these responsibilities. A big part of it will be setting up casework teams in every hotel. I will be visiting all the hotels, and I invite Members to come with me as we try to meet this challenge. The hon. Member talked about moving on Afghan families with children who are at a particular time in the school year. One reason we are looking to have this completed at the end of the summer is that we know people will be starting in a new academic year. There is plenty of competition in priorities as to when we should or should not do this. There are lots of issues around Ramadan, Eid, medical treatment and schools, but we have to try to plough a furrow that balances all those competing priorities, while realising the strategic aim of getting these people out of hotels and into communities across the country.

Clive Efford Portrait Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My constituent’s wife is trapped in Afghanistan. She applied for a visa to come as a spouse. It took eight months to get a decision, but the application was turned down because there was a discrepancy of 33p a month in his salary with what he had put in the original application. The way the Government are treating people from Afghanistan is a disgrace. We need to ensure that people are treated fairly and that their applications are looked at. When there is a genuine application, as there is in this case, the Government should make the right decision.

Johnny Mercer Portrait Johnny Mercer
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

If the hon. Member writes to me about that specific case, I am more than happy to get back to him and help him.

Chi Onwurah Portrait Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

Perfectly suitable accommodation is not easily available in Newcastle. I know that from the thousands of constituents who write to me desperately seeking it—it is the No. 1 issue. I also know it from talking to Afghan refugees, and Ukrainian refugees for that matter. What will the Minister do after 18 months to magic up this perfectly suitable accommodation, or will he seriously be making homeless those who risked their lives at our sides?

Johnny Mercer Portrait Johnny Mercer
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I have covered these points before. I have said that I do not want to make anybody homeless. Clearly the local authority housing fund, which comes into play, will help that process. Am I saying to the House that we will build 6,000 homes by the end of the summer? No, but if we just look at this like we are never going to get there, we will never change anything at all and never meet this challenge. The hon. Lady will know that there is an acute demand for housing across society in such places as Newcastle and Plymouth, and we will do everything we can, including increasing the private rented offer, to make sure that we get these people out of hotels and into communities like hers.

Nigel Evans Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I just remind Members that we have six hours of protected time after this statement, plus several votes. I just remind Members to focus their questions.

Joanna Cherry Portrait Joanna Cherry (Edinburgh South West) (SNP)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I have a particular case that I know the Minister will want to help me with, and I know he is genuine in his concerns here. It relates to a gentleman who worked for the British Geographical Survey, part of which is based at Heriot-Watt University in my constituency. He spent a lot of time working to keep British people safe and to help them navigate round Afghanistan while the British Government were helping Afghanistan to explore mining opportunities to bring income to the country. Despite all his hard work, his ARAP application has been turned down and he is having to appeal it. Will the Minister speak to me about this case to see whether we can get it speeded up?

Johnny Mercer Portrait Johnny Mercer
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

If the hon. and learned Member writes to me about that case, I am more than happy to come back to her.

Wendy Chamberlain Portrait Wendy Chamberlain (North East Fife) (LD)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

As the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) said, the APPG for Afghan women and girls met this morning to specifically discuss UK resettlement. I have to tell the Minister that the feedback was not great. Nobody wants to be staying in hotel accommodation. I reiterate her offer: will he please engage with the APPG and will he please provide reassurance that in terms of that appropriate accommodation, situations such as schooling and job opportunities—those things that help integration—are being considered?

Johnny Mercer Portrait Johnny Mercer
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am more than happy to come and address the APPG. I am addressing the APPG for Afghanistan later on. As I have said, those things will of course be taken into consideration. We have to put things into perspective: 9,000 people have come to this country and resettled into our communities. They are happy and getting on with their lives in the UK, but broadly speaking, we need to see through our responsibilities. That is precisely why I am standing here today and it is precisely why this Government are determined to realise our commitments, and we will see it through.

Andy Slaughter Portrait Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

On 20 February, after 18 months in a bridging hotel in west London, the Nadiri family and many other Afghan refugees were relocated to Leeds and housed in another bridging hotel. Yalda Nadiri was about to take her GCSEs at William Morris Sixth Form in my constituency. Five weeks on, she still has no school place. Will the Minister see that Yalda can return to her school and take her exams? If he cannot do that, one wonders what he can do.

Johnny Mercer Portrait Johnny Mercer
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am more than happy for the hon. Member to write to me about that case. We do not want to move people from bridging accommodation to bridging accommodation.

Debbie Abrahams Portrait Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am absolutely convinced that the Minister is committed in this regard—his track record shows that. Will he put some pressure on the Home Secretary and also, disappointingly, the International Development Minister, the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), who wrote to me after a Westminster Hall debate on this very issue and said that he would not be able to help Afghan women judges whose lives are under threat from the Taliban? They are clearly eligible for phase 3 of the ACRS.

Johnny Mercer Portrait Johnny Mercer
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I make no bones about it, the ACRS pathway through has been difficult to open up. It is quite a technical pathway. We have had our first person through on that. We have made commitments of more than 1,000 through that pathway. Some 1,000 places have been offered and we have 351 in third countries at the moment. We have made commitments in this space, and we are going to see them through. If the hon. Lady feels that that is not the case, she is more than welcome to come and see me.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful to the Government for their work to resettle those of our allies who are in danger. Nobody doubts that the Minister accepts that there are people who still need to be processed. Is there any way to enlarge the team so as to be able to deal with these cases more efficiently? There are families living in fear of their lives every second of every day. More needs to be done urgently to help those whose lives are on the line, due to their loyalty to democracy and those with whom they worked.

Johnny Mercer Portrait Johnny Mercer
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

As I have said a number of times, and as my hon. Friend will know, one of the primary moral reasons to act is that we have not been able to continue that pipeline out of Afghanistan. There are operators who are sat there in Afghanistan today who are entitled to be in the UK. They are not here because that pipeline is not working. We have too many people in hotels, and we want to reintegrate them into UK society. It is as simple as that. We clearly have a moral case. All of us have a responsibility to try to see through our commitments to these people and get these pathways open. I want to see a good, professional, seamless way out of Afghanistan—on those three pathways through ACRS and ARAP as much as he does. I hope we can work together in the months ahead.

Neil Coyle Portrait Neil Coyle (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (Ind)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

In the 18 months since the UK Government capitulated to the Taliban, my constituent Hadi Sharifi has been helping Afghans who worked for or with us to escape. One is the former commander of Kabul, whose injuries at the time prevented him from leaving with UK forces. He is now across the border, but why does he still have no legal means to enter the UK? Why is this Government’s reward for his service to our forces to throw him to people smugglers, criminalise his entry to this country and then threaten to ship him to Rwanda?

Johnny Mercer Portrait Johnny Mercer
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

The conditions of ARAP and ACRS compatibility are very clear. If the hon. Gentleman’s constituent has served in those roles and is entitled to the ARAP programme or the ACRS, he can now apply to those from third countries. If he does so and there are such individual cases where that is not working, then let me know. The criteria for the ACRS and ARAP are very clear, and if he meets those criteria he is entitled to come here.

John McDonnell Portrait John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am the secretary of the National Union of Journalists parliamentary group, and we are aware from working with international bodies that at least 200 Afghan journalists have fled to Pakistan and Iran. Their visas are expiring, and some of them have been harassed by Taliban supporters. The NUJ wrote to the Home Secretary earlier this month, and we would welcome a meeting with the Minister to ensure that the scheme is now adapted to cover those vulnerable journalists more effectively.

Johnny Mercer Portrait Johnny Mercer
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

That would be a pathway through the ACRS, which is precisely what it is designed to do. That is exactly why we are taking this course of action: there are people who we want to get through these pathways who are not now coming through these pathways because we have gummed up the system in the UK with too many people in hotels. I hope that, with all colleagues, we can make a real effort to get these people out of hotels and into communities, where they deserve to be for supporting western values and UK forces in Afghanistan. I look forward to working with the right hon. Member to get that done.

Stephen Farry Portrait Stephen Farry (North Down) (Alliance)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

There were several thousand Afghans in the asylum system even before Operation Pitting. Indeed, many of those are still awaiting decisions, including a young Hazara mother whom my office is working with, alongside her two daughters. Since then, many Afghans have come to the UK by small boats due to the failings of the ACRS. Given the situation in Afghanistan, does the Minister agree that it is surely inconceivable that the UK would deport anyone back to Afghanistan?

Johnny Mercer Portrait Johnny Mercer
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

We are currently not returning anybody to Afghanistan, so if these people are eligible for the criteria on the ACRS or the ARAP programme, I encourage them to apply for that, and they can do so from a third country. We are determined to get the individuals in the UK out of hotels so we can make that pipeline work, and then it will work for those whom the hon. Member mentioned.

Nigel Evans Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the Minister for his statement and for responding to questions for eight minutes short of an hour.

Bill Presented

Humber2100+ Project Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Emma Hardy, supported by Dame Diana Johnson, presented a Bill to give the Environment Agency certain powers and duties in respect of the Humber2100+ project; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 24 November, and to be printed (Bill 283).