Baroness Coussins debates involving the Home Office during the 2019 Parliament

EU Borders: Hand and Face Scanning

Baroness Coussins Excerpts
Wednesday 17th April 2024

(1 month, 3 weeks ago)

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Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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I think I agreed with the noble Lord, Lord West, only last week, that that is a good point. I have taken it back to the department and have no answer for him.

Baroness Coussins Portrait Baroness Coussins (CB)
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My Lords, will the hand and face scanning procedure apply also to coachloads of schoolchildren going on educational visits to European Union countries? They already face long and stressful delays at the borders because they are no longer on group travel passports, and the individual passport of every child has to be separately checked. Can the Minister say whether the group passport system could be reintroduced, or whether, at the very least, those groups will be excused from hand and face scanning?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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As I have said, I am afraid that this is a system being applied by the EU. It is not for us to say how it is applied; it is for it. However, coaches have already been dealt with as far as the new arrangements at Dover are concerned, and, as far as I am aware, this will not be particularly onerous.

Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill

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Lord Browne of Ladyton Portrait Lord Browne of Ladyton (Lab)
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My Lords, I will speak to Motion H1 and Amendment 10B in lieu. Having done so previously, I do not intend to rehearse the moral imperatives that underpin this amendment. In responding to the Minister, I will focus on the chasm that yawns between what the Minister in the other place said about what the Government might do post the current reviews of ARAP decisions of ineligibility and their unwillingness to accept this amendment that accomplishes their stated goal: to meet the debt of honour we owe to those who risked their lives in assisting the UK forces.

We are, once again, in a position where we are asked to deny the fruits of our reason and accept that black is white. First, we are asked to accept that, simply by legislative assertion, the Government can turn Rwanda into a safe country for all time, regardless of the facts. Secondly, having followed the somewhat convoluted logic-chopping of the Minister in the other place, we are told that men who braved death, courted injury and are forced into exile as a result of assisting our Armed Forces in fighting the Taliban are to be punished for arriving here by irregular routes—even where, owing to wrongful refusals on our part or possible malfeasance on the part of the Special Forces, they have been compelled to take these routes in the first place.

I will point out the inconsistencies in the reasoning of the Minister for Countering Illegal Migration, when he addressed the predecessor of my Amendment 10B on Monday. In outlining why he wished to refuse it, he said:

“Anyone who arrives here illegally should not be able to make the United Kingdom their home and eventually settle here. A person who chooses to come here illegally, particularly if they have a safe and legal route available to them, should be liable for removal to a safe country”.


What do the words “chooses” and “particularly” mean in that statement, when you are fleeing for your life, having endangered it because of service to this country, and then having been wrongly refused a relocation visa? What sort of choices are available? “Particularly” tacitly concedes the existence of such scenarios in which safe and legal routes are not available and have been wrongly closed off, but the statement determines that we will punish the victims of our own incompetence regardless.

There are two classes of person to whom this amendment applies. First, there are those in Afghanistan and Pakistan whom we are told are awaiting review of their previously determined applications. They should be determined as eligible and granted a visa, and will have no reason to take an irregular route. Secondly, and more importantly, a much smaller number whom this amendment seeks to protect are already here. These people, far from being deterred by this Government’s action, were compelled by it to seek irregular routes or face certain death or torture.

For the last year, the Independent, Lighthouse Reports and Sky have been exposing cases where, owing to the Home Office’s bureaucratic sclerosis and errors—in fact, I think that it is mostly the MoD’s sclerosis and errors—and alleged interference on the part of the Special Forces, Afghans who served either in the Triples or otherwise alongside our Armed Forces were wrongfully denied the ability to relocate and were forced to arrive here by other means. In Monday’s debate in the other place, the Minister for Countering Illegal Migration suggested—not promised—that regulations may be made under Section 4 of the Illegal Migration Act to ensure that these

“people receive the attention that they deserve”.—[Official Report, Commons, 18/3/24; cols. 667-68.]

If that is the intention, what has stopped the promulgation of these regulations before now? The Government have known for at least a year that these people existed and have been on notice for a year that the promulgation of these regulations would be necessary to accompany the Bill, if they had intended to use them to solve this problem.

Effectively, these people are being asked to trust the Ministry of Defence, the Home Office and, more broadly, the British Government—the same bodies that wrongfully refused their relocation visas in the first place, failed to protect them and have, in many cases, repeatedly threatened them with deportation to Rwanda. The idea that they would now repose their faith in the Home Office is absurd. In this context, trust is a currency whose value is now completely debased. Rather than wait for these regulations, why not, as the former Lord Chancellor, Sir Robert Buckland, suggested in Monday’s proceedings, simply accept this amendment, which precludes the need for their development?

Which offence do we believe to be more egregious? That of fleeing to a country that asked you to serve alongside its troops via an illegal route, having already been let down by that country’s administrative incompetence? Or having the power and means to pay a debt of honour to those we have exhorted to serve alongside us in our interests but refusing so to do? I believe the latter is shaming, and it is why I will be seeking, in moving my revised amendment, to test the opinion of this House and have the other place examine it, and the consciences of its Members, again.

Baroness Coussins Portrait Baroness Coussins (CB)
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My Lords, I support all the amendments in this group, but I would like to underline how important it is to support Amendment H1 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton. I remind noble Lords of the critical difference it would make, by applying an exemption to those who have been employed indirectly in support of the UK Government in Afghanistan, as well as those employed directly.

To illustrate, very briefly, how this makes a difference, I can tell noble Lords that, for the past few weeks, I have been in correspondence with a former Afghan interpreter who was employed by an international agency that had a contract to provide interpreting and translation services to DfID, other government departments and the Armed Forces. His application under ARAP for relocation to the UK was rejected, as was his appeal. My understanding is that this was because he was employed not directly by HMG but through a third party—the agency. In his words:

“I endangered my life and future working for the UK Government in Afghanistan. Everyone in Afghanistan knew I worked for the UK Government. Being rejected by ARAP is an insult to my faithful services to the UK Government”.


This individual has already faced so many threats in Afghanistan that he has fled to a third country, where sadly he still lives in hiding and in fear. Having had his ARAP appeal rejected, he has told me that his situation is now so urgent and unsafe that he feels he has no alternative but

“to take the dangerous route to the UK by land, and if I get killed on my way to the UK it will be better than the problems I am faced with right now”.

If he manages to get here in one piece, despite having no alternative but to come via an unofficial route, he really does not deserve to have his loyalty to the UK rewarded by being sent to Rwanda. This amendment would protect him and, potentially, others like him. I implore noble Lords on all sides of the House to support this amendment, which would acknowledge his faithful service and his willingness to risk his life for us in Afghanistan, by doing what morally is just the right thing to do.

Lord German Portrait Lord German (LD)
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My Lords, the amendments in this group highlight the cruel reality of this policy for some of the most vulnerable people in the world. What we need is an asylum process that identifies risks and vulnerabilities and then makes a decision on them when people are here.

We know very well that there are people in this country, including Afghans, who are on a waiting list to have their cases heard. People whose age has yet to be determined should not be sent to Rwanda while they are yet to be confirmed as a child. The Government have agreed that it is wrong to send unaccompanied children to Rwanda. So, if that is the case, they need to be extremely careful that they do not do that inadvertently. Children are not cargo that can be shipped from one country to another if the Government later decide they have made a mistake and someone is in fact a child after all.

Data collected by the Helen Bamber Foundation in 2022 found that, of 1,386 children who were initially assessed as adults by the Home Office, 867—that is, 63%—ended up being assessed as children by local authorities. That is the size of the error range that we have to be careful about. The key here is not adults being wrongly assessed as children, but children being wrongly treated as adults and therefore not being safe- guarded appropriately.

Lord Kerr of Kinlochard Portrait Lord Kerr of Kinlochard (CB)
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My Lords, there is an irrefutable case, in my view. It is very odd when you think about it. We had three days in Committee and a long Second Reading, and the Government have heard nothing from us which is of any interest to them. There are no government amendments on the Marshalled List today, not a single one, and the Government have shown no signs of picking up, improving, adjusting, or taking advantage of any of the amendments tabled by anyone all around the House. I am tempted to say it is rather contemptuous. We have taken their Bill seriously. I am not sure that they have taken seriously what we have said about the Bill, but now we come to the test because this group contains nothing which would in any way detract from what the Government are trying to do.

Having heard the explanation by noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, of the modern slavery amendment, that it cannot be right to treat the victims of modern slavery as perpetrators and it cannot be right to penalise victims; having heard the arguments advanced by noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, who has drawn attention to what clearly is a lacuna—not a large lacuna, but a real lacuna—in the Bill; and having heard the noble Lord, Lord Browne, explain what seems to me to be a debt of honour, it would not cost the Government very much to say, “Okay, we have heard you. Maybe we want to adjust your wording, but we are prepared to incorporate your thoughts because you hit on three real points, not seriously damaging to our Bill, where changing our view would be the honourable course to take”.

I very strongly support the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Browne. The service that I was privileged to lead is a small service, which, in my time, employed more than 10 locally engaged staff for every single member of the Diplomatic Service in our high commissions and embassies around the world. The vice-consuls, the clerks, the drivers, the security guards, the messengers: many of them worked for us for a lifetime. In certain countries, at certain times, having worked for us puts such people in grave danger. One thinks nowadays of Russia, Belarus, Iraq, Iran and, of course, Afghanistan.

I strongly support the case for doing the right thing for those who have assisted our military, but those who have assisted the King’s servants on the ground in diplomatic missions, without diplomatic immunity, and who are now, as a consequence, at risk deserve the same degree of support. It is a matter of honour; not to pick up the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Browne, would be dishonourable.

Baroness Coussins Portrait Baroness Coussins (CB)
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My Lords, I strongly support Amendment 44 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton, to which I would have been more than happy to add my name had there not been a limit of four sponsors for each amendment.

As we have already heard, one of the groups of Afghans to whom this exemption would apply would be the interpreters who worked with the UK Armed Forces in Afghanistan, whose predicament at the hands at the Taliban I have been highlighting in your Lordships’ House for over 10 years now. I am happy to say that many thousands of Afghan interpreters have succeeded in being relocated to the UK with their family members, but there are others whose claims under the various schemes have been unfairly or inexplicably rejected and who still live in fear, as do their family members. Only two weeks ago, I was contacted by one such individual, who had worked as an interpreter and translator. He said it was common knowledge in his community that he had been working for the British, so he felt forced to flee to a third country where he is now living in hiding, in fear of his life, with his mother and younger brother.

The importance of this proposed new clause to this individual and others like him is that his application under ARAP was refused on the grounds that he was not directly employed by HMG. His employment as an interpreter and translator was with a global agency under a contract that that organisation had with DfID to provide translation and interpreting services to the Armed Forces and to UK government projects in Afghanistan. So he would clearly fall under the terms of proposed subsection (1)(b) of this new clause in relation to indirect employment, and his family would fall under Clause 1(c).

To me he appears to be typical of the brave linguists who worked with pride for the UK but who, in the end, may feel forced to seek access to the UK by what would be treated as illegal means. In no way should he then have to face the indignity of being further removed to Rwanda. His loyalty is to the UK.

I am equally concerned about those who worked for the British Council as well as the so-called Triples, whom the noble Lord, Lord Browne, mentioned. Some of these Afghans are also in hiding, in fear of kidnap, violence and death threats at the hands at the Taliban. If forced to seek asylum here other than through an official route, they also deserve our gratitude, respect and protection. I appeal to the Minister to accept the amendment and to undertake to review all ARAP rejections, not just those of the Triples.

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Baroness Butler-Sloss Portrait Baroness Butler-Sloss (CB)
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As far as I know, there is no legislation to that effect in Rwanda.

Baroness Coussins Portrait Baroness Coussins (CB)
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My Lords, will the review of ARAP decisions apply to the Afghan interpreters and translators and not just to military personnel?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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When I was explaining the ARAP situation, I pointed out the difficulty of assessing and accessing some of the records, but I will certainly make sure that is taken back to the Foreign Office, which, as I understand it, administers a large part of the ACRS, which is the agreement under which the Afghan interpreters come to this country. I will find out the answer.

Pakistan: Afghans Eligible for Resettlement in UK

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Monday 18th December 2023

(5 months, 4 weeks ago)

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Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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The noble Lord asserts that all are eligible, but that is not necessarily the case. The eligibility criteria are published on GOV.UK; they are reasonably precise and, in the case of ARAP, are administered by the MoD. I can go into more detail if noble Lords wish. There is not a lack of accommodation; it is about matching families and individuals to appropriate accommodation. I believe that 700 service family accommodation units have been made available and are being filled.

Baroness Coussins Portrait Baroness Coussins (CB)
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My Lords, how many visas have been issued to eligible Afghans in Pakistan since the Government’s recent withdrawal of their policy to identify suitable housing here before they were allowed to travel? I understood that its withdrawal was meant to remove one of the obstacles to swifter relocation.

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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The noble Baroness is right that that policy has been suspended for the time being. I do not have the number of visas issued but, as of the end of September 2023, the total number of arrivals from Afghanistan or a third country was around 24,600. A lot have arrived in the last few weeks, so I do not know the final numbers, which are still provisional.

Pakistan: Evacuation of Afghans

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Thursday 9th November 2023

(7 months, 1 week ago)

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

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

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

Afghan Interpreters

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Wednesday 18th October 2023

(7 months, 4 weeks ago)

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Asked by
Baroness Coussins Portrait Baroness Coussins
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To ask His Majesty’s Government how many former interpreters who worked with the armed forces in Afghanistan, and former British Council employees, are in Pakistan awaiting relocation to the United Kingdom under the Afghan Relocation and Assistance Policy or other schemes; and how much longer they expect this process to take.

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Sharpe of Epsom) (Con)
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My Lords, the ARAP scheme offers relocation to Afghans who worked with us in Afghanistan. The ACRS is designed to support those who have assisted with UK efforts in Afghanistan, including with the British Council, as well as vulnerable people. As of August 2023, we have relocated approximately 12,300 ARAP and 9,700 ACRS-eligible individuals. We will ensure that all eligible British Council contractors who remain in the region are brought to the UK, as the Minister for Immigration set out in the other place yesterday.

Baroness Coussins Portrait Baroness Coussins (CB)
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My Lords, I am of course glad that more than 20,000 have been relocated already, but my Question was about the thousands more who are still waiting and trapped. Does it not add insult to injury that thousands of Afghans who worked with and for the UK, and who were encouraged by the UK to flee to Pakistan to expedite the visa process, should now themselves be experiencing at the hands of increasingly hostile Pakistani authorities the kind of daily fear, harassment and deprivation they thought they were leaving behind when they fled the Taliban? They were told they would have their visas in a few weeks, but some have been waiting for almost two years and now face the threat of repatriation to Afghanistan. Why is this visa process taking so long? Why have these people been so badly misled, and what are the Government doing to organise housing for them to come to if, as reported, this really is the main reason for delay?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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It really is the main reason for the delay. We obviously sympathise with the situation many Afghans find themselves in, including those who are suffering due to their work standing up for human rights and the rule of law, and those facing wider persecution by the Taliban. As the Minister for Immigration said yesterday, we remain dedicated to honouring our commitments to those people. We continue to develop plans across government to support new arrivals into suitable accommodation in the UK. Finding suitable accommodation is the biggest problem we have, but work is being done at speed.

School Trips to the United Kingdom

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Monday 19th June 2023

(12 months ago)

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Lord Murray of Blidworth Portrait Lord Murray of Blidworth (Con)
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We recognise the importance of cultural and educational exchanges between the UK and other nations. It is worth noting that our offer to visitors is among the most generous in the world. Since the UK left the EU, EU students and pupils have been treated like students from the rest of the world; they may come either under the visitor route or as students. We provided almost a year’s notice for the present change to allow groups to plan ahead and to obtain passports before travelling. As I said, it may well be that agreements are made with countries other than France, but it is very significant that our closest continental neighbour has entered into such an agreement.

Baroness Coussins Portrait Baroness Coussins (CB)
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My Lords, according to the British Youth Council, almost none of the projects previously funded by Erasmus+ involving school-age children’s trips or exchanges is now being funded through the Turing scheme. Will His Majesty’s Government review and revise the remit of Turing so that incoming trips as part of a school partnership are included?

Eurostar St Pancras: Border Control

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Tuesday 28th February 2023

(1 year, 3 months ago)

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Lord Murray of Blidworth Portrait Lord Murray of Blidworth (Con)
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I of course differ from the noble Lord on the quality of the research carried out by my officials: I am satisfied that I have correctly answered the questions.

Baroness Coussins Portrait Baroness Coussins (CB)
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My Lords, on speeding things up, is there any truth in the rumour that the Government want to deal with the asylum backlog by requiring applications in writing in English, using online translation tools? If so, is the Minister aware that where complex details and evidence on trafficking, for example, are machine translated, the frequency and severity of errors in this unregulated field is notoriously high, and should not be used without human oversight, such as the provision of professionally qualified public service interpreters?

Lord Murray of Blidworth Portrait Lord Murray of Blidworth (Con)
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I am afraid that that question is a very long way from the Question about steps to increase the flow of passengers through the border control at Eurostar, and the Companion is quite clear on this topic. If the noble Baroness wishes to ask questions about this, she must do so in the correct way.

Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme

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Wednesday 1st February 2023

(1 year, 4 months ago)

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Lord Murray of Blidworth Portrait Lord Murray of Blidworth (Con)
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I agree with much of what my noble friend says. By way of context, the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme was divided into three pathways, to which she alluded, the first of which concerned those evacuated during Operation Pitting and those on the removals list. Pathway 2 is the principal method; it concerns referrals from the UNHCR. Pathway 3 is administered by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. That is the pathway envisaged for Chevening scholars, GardaWorld employees and those who work for the British Council. I understand that the Foreign Office has received some 11,500 expressions of interest that are being worked through at the moment. In relation to her question on vulnerable women and children, I say that the principal focus of the ACRS has been to protect the vulnerable. Since the events in Afghanistan last August, thousands of women and girls have been brought to safety in the UK, including female judges, women’s rights activists and a girls’ football team. Of course, in pathway 2 the UNHCR makes referrals based on an assessment of protection needs, including vulnerabilities.

Baroness Coussins Portrait Baroness Coussins (CB)
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My Lords, at the end of December there were an estimated 150 Afghan interpreters still in Afghanistan, eligible but unprocessed under either the ACRS or ARAP. Given that many of them would already have been eligible under the previous ex-gratia scheme or the intimidation policy designed primarily for interpreters, can the Minister commit to fast-tracking these cases for a group of individuals to whom the UK owes an incalculable debt of gratitude, and who remain extremely vulnerable to Taliban threats and violence?

Lord Murray of Blidworth Portrait Lord Murray of Blidworth (Con)
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I entirely understand the point the noble Baroness makes. Obviously, those who were employed by the British Government are entitled to be relocated under the Afghan relocations and assistance policy. The Ministry of Defence is working with the Home Office in relation to the assistance provided for those people. I am happy to look further into the 150 people whom she indicates. I hope that I might be able to obtain some further details and then look into that for her.

Nationality and Borders Bill

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Baroness D'Souza Portrait Baroness D'Souza (CB)
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My Lords, I return to the Afghan relocations and assistance policy. This stand-alone amendment seeks to protect and indeed make welcome those Afghan citizens who worked with UK bodies to promote democratic policies and, as a result, are in danger of retaliation from the current Administration in Afghanistan. Most of us will have heard terrifying stories of young women and, by extension, their families hiding in appalling circumstances simply because they are known to have worked with British organisations, including the British Council, the BBC and other non-governmental organisations.

Recent reports by reputable bodies not only indicate public support for Afghan resettlement but cite many distressing case studies of the rejection by ARAP of those who played a central role of advancing the UK’s military and security objectives. This amendment seeks to revise the Immigration Rules in three main ways: by broadening and clarifying the eligible criteria; by narrowing the exclusion criteria; and by inserting into the Immigration Rules a route for the relocation on additional family members. This amendment also brings the Immigration Rules into conformity with the obligations due as a signatory to the 1951 UN refugee convention.

Despite many brave words, the current schemes for rescuing Afghan citizens are limited, in many cases exclusionary and somewhat duplicitous, in that the resettlement offer has been gradually reduced, leaving many hundreds if not thousands at risk, purely because of their association with the UK. We have a moral duty; we chose to go into Afghanistan with many different aims and goals, and often these goals were implemented by Afghans who served us well and courageously. We need to honour our commitment to protect them, as well as our international reputation as a fair and decent country. I might add that, if this amendment is accepted, it will also benefit Ukrainian refugees, who will no doubt continue to seek refuge in the UK for some time to come. I beg to move.

Baroness Coussins Portrait Baroness Coussins (CB)
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My Lords, in supporting Amendment 84B, I declare my interest as a member of the MoD’s former assurance committee on locally employed civilians, set up to monitor the intimidation policy for Afghan interpreters. My concern is that, without this amendment, the relocation possibilities available to former Afghan interpreters will be significantly and unfairly reduced. I acknowledge, of course, that before ARAP our ex gratia redundancy scheme, though not without its problems, nevertheless managed to relocate well in excess of 5,000 interpreters and their families, and I think that number is probably now significantly higher. But ARAP was meant to improve eligibility even further. It now appears that the Government are determined to row back again with new restrictions, even though, at the point of the Taliban’s takeover, there were interpreters who had already obtained security clearance under either the ex gratia scheme or ARAP.

We need—and these people deserve—clarity. This amendment would ensure that they were eligible under category 1 of ARAP. They also deserve transparency of decision-making, but last July the Home Office rejected 21 interpreters on national security grounds for relocation under ARAP, despite the fact that the MoD had already confirmed that they were eligible. Their rejection letters from the Home Office gave no information on why this change of heart was made. Why is there not better alignment between the MoD and the Home Office on this? Nine of them have already had their rejections overturned, following judicial review, and this amendment would ensure that the others could also come to safety in the UK, as well as their family members, as was always the original intention and scope of the pre-ARAP scheme.