Thursday 30th March 2023

(1 year, 3 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Tuesday 28 March.
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 honourable 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.”
Lord Coaker Portrait Lord Coaker (Lab)
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My Lords, I thank the Government for their Statement, although serious questions remain around this Afghan resettlement scheme. Let us start by reminding ourselves that our nation promised those who put their lives at risk to serve alongside our Armed Forces in Afghanistan that we would relocate their families and give them help, as well as rebuild their lives.

Our operations depended on courageous Afghan interpreters and guides, and we made commitments which we have a moral duty to accept and honour. Can the Minister explain why, 18 months after the airlifting of Afghan families to the UK, 8,000 people are still in hotels and thousands await processing in a backlog? The Government have announced new money to tackle the 8,000 in temporary accommodation; is this available immediately and how long will it take to relocate those people?

In the other place, the Minister said in the Statement:

“We will honour our commitment to those who remain in Afghanistan.”

Can our Minister say what is our estimate of this number, how they will be brought here and whether the Illegal Migration Bill have any impact on any of this?

Can the Minister tell us why on earth the Ministry of Defence said that applicants to ARAP could come to the UK only if they had Taliban approval? Some 10 days after apologising for that error and committing to changes to its practice, what do we learn? An applicant under the other scheme, the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme, was told to retrieve documents from the Taliban or risk rejection. Can the Minister confirm that the need to seek Taliban approval under the ARAP or ACRS schemes has been immediately stopped? The Minister in the other place said:

“I will not stand here and defend the system”. —[Official Report, Commons, 28/3/23; col. 843.]

That is fine, but who then is responsible and who is sorting out the mess if the Minister has said he is not going to defend it?

To clarify figures mentioned in the other place in response to questions, how many Afghans brought over on these schemes have been permanently housed and how many remain in temporary accommodation? Johnny Mercer MP, the Minister in the other place, said that, under the ARAP scheme, 4,300 entitled personnel remain in Afghanistan. What is happening to them? On the ACRS, he said that we have promised 20,000 places and so far only 7,637 have arrived. What is happening to ensure that the Government achieve that figure given by the Minister?

These people cannot wait indefinitely in Afghanistan, neither can those who arrive wait indefinitely in hotels. The Minister’s Statement in the other place focused on Afghans who have reached here. Can the noble Baroness the Minister tell us what we are going to do about the 1,000 people accepted by the schemes—that figure is from the Minister’s Statement in the other place—who are waiting to get to the UK but are stuck in hotels in Pakistan?

This all needs to be sorted out, so what is the action plan to do it? If all is well, how on earth is it possible to read in today’s paper that, under existing legislation, an Afghan pilot could be sent to Rwanda? Yes, he arrived on a small boat, but this Afghan pilot flew 30 combat missions against the Taliban on our behalf. Is it correct that somebody like that will face deportation?

There are a number of questions that urgently need to be answered by the Government. We need these schemes to work more efficiently and more effectively. These are people who stood shoulder to shoulder with this country when they were needed. They fought, and in some cases died, alongside our Armed Forces. They supported us and now look to us to support them. Clearly, we must do better—above all, because it is the right thing to do and because our reputation and standing in the world demand that we do so.

Baroness Smith of Newnham Portrait Baroness Smith of Newnham (LD)
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My Lords, I support everything that the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, said. As so many times on issues to do with defence, and on the ignominious retreat from Afghanistan, we speak with one voice. It is right that we give asylum and a home to those from Afghanistan who fought with us and alongside us, served as interpreters, worked for the British Council and taught English in Afghanistan.

The commitments of His Majesty’s Government’s under the ARAP and the ACRS are laudable but, as the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, just made clear, even on their own admission they are failing. There were many thousands of people left behind in August 2021, and there are few obvious safe and legal routes for them to get from Afghanistan to the United Kingdom. In his Statement in the other place, Johnny Mercer kept stressing the government mantra about being open to those who come via safe and legal routes. If those people who are left behind in Afghanistan could get here via safe and legal routes, does anybody think they would still be in Afghanistan? Of course they would not be; the reason they are not here is because there are no safe and legal routes out of Afghanistan. For those who have been given the right to come through the ARAP or the ACRS, there are very few routes out of Afghanistan.

What are His Majesty’s Government proposing to do to assist those people who are still in Afghanistan, but who do not have the passports and paperwork, to leave the country? It is all well and good to say that we will find accommodation for those who get here via a safe and legal route, but how do they do that?

People have been left for nearly two years in a vulnerable situation; if they were vulnerable in the middle of August 2021, how much more vulnerable are they in March 2023? Many of these people thought they had found safe houses, but a safe house can suddenly become unsafe. They move from place to place, with ever-diminishing resources. Some of them have passports but many of their dependants do not. It costs maybe $10 to get a visa legally, but how does one get one? It is almost impossible, so brokers are used and they might cost $1,100, and it is $3,000 for a passport through a broker.

Could the Minister reassure the House, and anyone with colleagues and networks back in Afghanistan, that those people who have managed to find the resources to pay for passports and other documentation through brokers, and have got to Pakistan, would be deemed to have done so legally? Would they be deemed to have got to Pakistan legally? Will they be reassured, if they have got to Pakistan, that they have a safe and legal route from Pakistan to the UK? That is vital.

It is disappointing that His Majesty’s Government seem to feel a need to focus on the people who are already here by saying that if they are in a hotel, they must move out. Of course nobody wants people to be stuck in hotels and it is wholly right that we should want to rehouse those people who are here as refugees, but Johnny Mercer’s Statement almost seemed to suggest that people were staying in the Ritz—that somehow they are staying in such wonderful hotel accommodation that they decline suitable offers of accommodation. If His Majesty’s Government are giving suitable offers of accommodation to people who are already here and they decline it, could the Minister perhaps look for ways of explaining to people how the accommodation is suitable? Maybe there has been a misunderstanding—or is it perhaps that there is a lack of suitable accommodation? In which case, what are His Majesty’s Government doing to ensure that suitable accommodation is available? Just saying that another £250 million has been made available does not do the job.

We need to understand that the accommodation is available to rehouse people; we need to find a way to get the thousand people out of hotels in Pakistan and over here, and we need to ensure that the other 8,000 people left behind can find a way here. Even if they do not come out of Afghanistan through safe and legal routes, if they come here through other routes, we should still open our doors to them. We owe them that.

Baroness Neville-Rolfe Portrait The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Baroness Neville-Rolfe) (Con)
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My Lords, it might help if I reiterate one or two of the key points made by my right honourable friend the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs when he made his Statement. Perhaps I could start by saying that I agree with the noble Lord on the moral duty to look after these people who fought alongside our soldiers in Afghanistan. There is a closeness and a bond of friendship that we should never forget. That is one of the reasons why the Government are taking action, being corralled by my right honourable friend in the other place, the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs.

I am talking about measures we are taking to support these Afghan friends who have come via safe and legal routes into settled accommodation that will allow them to put down roots in communities and build the new lives that we want them to build in the UK. Since the start of Operation Pitting, the Government have welcomed over 24,500 vulnerable people to the UK from Afghanistan. Many of them, of course, put their lives at risk because they served alongside our Armed Forces. Due to the scale of the evacuation, while some of our friends were able to enter directly into settled accommodation, we warmly welcomed others into temporary hotels. This ensured that they had safe and secure accommodation when they arrived, but hotels were never designed to be a permanent solution; I think the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, acknowledged that. Dedicated teams across central and local government have—and this answers one question, I think—ensured that over 9,000 people have been supported into settled homes, and about 8,000 still remain in hotels. That has obviously prevented many of these Afghans properly integrating into communities and has cost £1 million to the taxpayer a day.

That is why we put together a new package of measures—it is a step change—to support those who have arrived, either under ARAP or under ACRS, and who remain in hotels. I remind the House that the package includes £35 million of new flexible funding to enable local authorities to address the key private rental sector affordability issues faced by the Afghan cohort. But they have the right to work, they have entitlement to benefits from day one, and—this is perhaps the most important of all—trained staff will be based in hotels and will provide support on the ground, including information on how to rent in the private sector and how to find jobs, and help with English language training.

We are also taking steps to increase the stock of housing. Across England, the local authority housing fund will be expanded by £250 million, with the majority of additional funding used to house Afghans currently in bridging accommodation and the rest used to ease existing pressures on the homeless. We continue to honour the commitments we have made to bring future arrivals to the UK via the ARAP and the ACRS. Our priority is ensuring that they can go directly into appropriate accommodation rather than costly temporary hotel accommodation.

A number of questions were asked about those still waiting in places such as Pakistan. On the figure that was given of 4,300 ARAP-eligible people still in Afghanistan, I understand from the Home Office that it is actually 650 still in Afghanistan, with the remainder of the 4,300 in third countries. We have made it absolutely clear that we will honour our commitments to bring people to the UK, but the use of hotels for lengthy periods of time is simply not sustainable or appropriate. Our priority is ensuring that they can enter suitable accommodation, which is the right thing for these families to do. Where people are waiting in those countries, there is help with accommodation and welfare support. We are working at pace to source suitable accommodation and help. In the meantime, our advice is that they should not come by illegal routes.

To pick up the point about the Afghan pilot, the Prime Minister has promised to review his plight, and on Monday he asked the Home Office to look into the situation. I reiterate that we will honour our commitments to bring people to the UK who are eligible through the ARAP route. Those who are eligible should wait in a safe third country until they are granted leave.

On the point about the Taliban and documentation, this message does not reflect departmental policy. We do not expect Afghans eligible for resettlement under the ACRS to provide every document requested. We ask only that they provide the documentation which they are able to provide.

Finally, where we can make an offer, we will. This is for those who are here in the UK. If the offer is rejected, another will not be forthcoming because we want to move from the bridging position in hotels to getting our Afghan friends into communities and into proper jobs, and their children into permanent education. The package we have put together, with the help of a whole load of different government departments, is designed to make a step change and to move things forward in a way which I think should be welcome to everybody.

Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Portrait Baroness McIntosh of Pickering (Con)
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Could I address, in particular, the aspect my noble friend touched on about alternative accommodation? Is the accommodation for Afghans going to be extended to other asylum seekers and refugees rather than the use of former military accommodation? The reason I ask is that the Government abandoned the scheme that was proposed at the former RAF base in Linton-on-Ouse for the simple reason that the population of only 700 people in the village was going to be dwarfed by double that amount—1,500 male refugees—being placed there. When will the Government be in a position to give more detail? I am familiar with the site proposed in Essex, as it used to be in my European constituency, but it is a similar arrangement there. It is a small village of only 1,200 residents. Is it appropriate to put families, or maybe in the worst-case scenario only male refugees, there? When will we have more details of the arrangements?

Baroness Neville-Rolfe Portrait Baroness Neville-Rolfe (Con)
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I am sure my noble friend will correct me if I am wrong, but I think she is asking a follow-up question to the Statement made in the other place yesterday by my right honourable friend the Minister for Immigration. This is a separate issue. There was a lively debate in the other place that was extensively reported in Hansard. I refer her to the answers given by my right honourable friend Mr Jenrick.

Baroness Berridge Portrait Baroness Berridge (Con)
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The Statement refers to “perfectly suitable accommodation” being available. From many Questions in your Lordships’ House, we know there is pressure on housing. Many people who are in work and trying to enter the private rented sector find that prices are enormous, while people who came to this country years ago as refugees and who have been naturalised as British citizens are still in the bidding process with local councils to get out of temporary accommodation and into proper social housing. The Minister has mentioned the private rented sector, but either there is not enough supply or landlords will not rent to people who are dependent on housing benefit, so where is this “perfectly suitable accommodation” going to be found? Could she please provide some more detail?

Baroness Neville-Rolfe Portrait Baroness Neville-Rolfe (Con)
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I shall make two points. First, I draw my noble friend’s attention to the UK-wide fund of £35 million that we are providing to local authorities and others to provide casework teams to support this move from hotels into settled accommodation. They are going to be working together with the Home Office, the DWP and local authorities. The £250 million housing fund is very flexible so it can be used, for example, if you need to knock two houses together to accommodate a family of 10, because some of the Afghan families who have come over are quite extensive.

Secondly, those caseworkers will be sitting in the hotels. As the process starts, individuals will be written to but they will also have caseworkers in the hotels to help them find accommodation. They will be liaising with local authorities and seeking out appropriate accommodation, and in many cases that will include the rented sector. The fund will also be able to help ease things, perhaps to find a deposit to help a family move into rented accommodation.

This is not easy, but we are in a difficult situation and we need to move it forward. That is why we have come forward with this very special package for this very special group under the corralling dynamism of the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs.

Lord Bishop of Derby Portrait The Lord Bishop of Derby
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My Lords, I share many of the concerns that have been expressed about the routes into this country and the nature, safety and appropriateness of the accommodation for those who make it here—those to whom, as we have already noted, we have a moral obligation to extend sanctuary and welcome in this very particular circumstance.

My question relates to those who do manage to get here and who are settled. Regarding the provision of care offered to those households, I am sure the Minister will agree that the integration into local communities of Afghans who make it here is key to their flourishing and to our benefiting from the extraordinary richness they can offer us. We particularly need to ensure that the women of those households can be locally integrated. Will the Minister therefore assure the House that specific and targeted funding is being made available to Afghan women in their households in order to ensure that they are able safely and appropriately to access the support and resources being made available, such as support for English as a second language, access to education and training and access to health and mental health care for them and their children?

Baroness Neville-Rolfe Portrait Baroness Neville-Rolfe (Con)
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I thank the right reverend Prelate for her comments, which I very much agree with on the whole. The work we are doing with the Afghans, and will be doing through these case workers, does indeed focus on exactly the sorts of things she was highlighting: on training, healthcare and helping them learn English, which is incredibly important for successful long-term settlement in this country, both for the individuals and their children as they grow up in English schools. She makes a good point about women, and I am sure they will be treated very much better here than, sadly, the women left in Afghanistan are being treated.

Baroness Taylor of Stevenage Portrait Baroness Taylor of Stevenage (Lab)
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My Lords, I hope the Minister will forgive me; I had not intended to speak. I want to raise an issue on behalf of my noble friend Lord Coaker on the Front Bench, and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith. The Statement yesterday says:

“All the numbers are publicly available. We reckon that about 4,300 entitled personnel remain in Afghanistan and want to get over here”.—[Official Report, Commons, 28/3/23; col. 844.]

Yet the Minister said that the number was around 600. It is very difficult for Opposition Members to respond to a Statement if we get given different figures on the day, so could the Minister clarify whether the figure in Hansard is correct?

Baroness Neville-Rolfe Portrait Baroness Neville-Rolfe (Con)
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I think the easiest thing is for me to take the point away. There is a lot of scope for confusion between the different schemes and the asylum numbers. We are certainly trying to give noble Lords the right numbers. I have a table which I can probably share; it is all quite complicated. I am very grateful to the noble Baroness for intervening and seeking clarification. I think what I said was right, but of course I will look into it. I apologise for trying to repeat the points that were made in the Statement. I do not find it entirely satisfactory that we do not repeat the Statement a couple of days later, because some of the points that were made are agreed on across the House. We all want to go off on our Easter break, but we are debating important points. I will clarify the figures, and I thank the noble Baroness for raising the question.

Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts Portrait Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts (Con)
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My Lords, I wonder if I could follow up on that, and indeed on the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, in his opening comments. When the dust settles and we have gone through and fulfilled our moral duty, what is the Home Office’s estimate of the number of people who will be here? I am not asking for a single figure, but the Home Office must have a range, probably in the Minister’s briefing documents, and if not there then certainly somewhere in the Home Office. When she comes to reply to the noble Baroness whose name—I am sorry—I have completely forgotten, could she also provide the range that the Home Office anticipates, after all these schemes and all our moral duty has played out?

Baroness Neville-Rolfe Portrait Baroness Neville-Rolfe (Con)
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My noble friend Lord Hodgson and I always agree on the need for numbers—and numbers of the right kind, relating to the right dates. I do have numbers for ARAP and ACRS, but I think he might be asking a broader question, so I suggest that I share the numbers I have, answer the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, and write to noble Lords. This evening we are talking about Afghanistan, and I am not clear whether the noble Lord is also interested in numbers from elsewhere.

Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts Portrait Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts (Con)
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I am interested in the overall number from Afghanistan. What is estimated? I understand that it is not going to be a point figure; it is going to be a range. Someone in the Home Office must have said, “We must anticipate from x to y”. What are the x and y figures? As part of clarifying the debate that has been going on, with all sorts of numbers being bandied around, it would be helpful for the House to have that number when my noble friend comes to write to all who participated in the debate today.

Baroness Watkins of Tavistock Portrait Baroness Watkins of Tavistock (CB)
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My Lords, I note from the Statement that half of the people who need to move out of hotels are children, and a proportion of them will be in school. If they are given three months’ notice at the end of April, I have worked out that that would take them to the end of term. Can priority be given to ensuring that children who are in school are rehoused before the beginning of the next term and are found suitable schools to go to? That is really imperative for the integration of the younger people who have come.

Baroness Neville-Rolfe Portrait Baroness Neville-Rolfe (Con)
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I am grateful to the noble Baroness for raising the point about education, because it is very important. It is one of the reasons that we have chosen April as the date, because that helps with coming to the end of the school year. My understanding is that the responsibility for providing school places rests with the receiving local authority, which has a legal obligation to allocate a school place to a child in its catchment area within 20 school days to minimise any potential disruption. The hotel closures will be staggered, region by region, so that we can help support families.

We need to get on with this step change. A hotel is not a home and we need to find homes for these people. We need to get their children into schools and we all need to welcome them into our communities, so that the Afghans who helped us in that terribly difficult time have a happy and well looked-after future in our country.

House adjourned at 6.06 pm.