James Heappey – 2024 Statement on Afghan Relocation and Assistance Policy Eligibility for Afghan special force

The statement made by James Heappey, the Minister for Armed Forces, in the House of Commons on 1 February 2024.

I am grateful for the opportunity to update the House on developments relating to the Afghan relocations and assistance policy scheme, and to answer the specific question raised by the hon. Gentleman in relation to former members of commando force 333 and Afghan territorial force 444.

Many colleagues across the House are passionate advocates for applicants to the ARAP scheme—whether they served shoulder to shoulder with them in Afghanistan, or represent applicants and their family members who are residents in their constituencies. We owe a debt of gratitude to those brave individuals who served for, with, or alongside our armed forces in support of the UK mission in Afghanistan. Defence is determined to honour the commitments we made under the ARAP scheme, which is why we have robust checks in place and regularly review processes and procedures.

Although many former members of the Afghan specialist units have been found eligible under ARAP and safely relocated to the UK with their families, a recent review of processes around eligibility decisions demonstrated instances of inconsistent application of the ARAP criteria in certain cases. The issue relates to a tranche of applications from former members of Afghan specialist units, including members of CF 333 and ATF 444—known as the Triples. Having identified this issue through internal processes, we must now take necessary steps to ensure that the criteria are applied appropriately to all those individuals.

As such, I can confirm that the Ministry of Defence will undertake a reassessment of all eligibility decisions made for applications with credible claims of links to the Afghan specialist units. The reassessment will be done by a team independent of the one that made the initial eligibility decisions on the applications. The team will review each case thoroughly and individually. A written ministerial statement to that effect was tabled this morning, and I commend it to colleagues. A further “Dear colleague” letter will follow by close of business tomorrow.

It is the case, however, that ARAP applications from this cohort present a unique set of challenges for eligibility decision making. Some served in their units more than two decades ago, and some while the Afghan state apparatus was still in its infancy or yet to come into existence all together. It is also the case that they reported directly into the Government of Afghanistan, meaning that we do not hold comprehensive employment or payment records in the same way as we do for other applicants.

I fully understand the depth of feeling that ARAP evokes across this place and beyond. I thank Members from across the House for their ongoing advocacy and support for ARAP. We have that same depth of feeling in the MOD and in Government, and we will now work quickly to make sure that the decisions are reviewed, and changed if that is necessary.

Luke Pollard

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question.

The Triples Afghan special forces, trained and funded by the UK, are some of the top targets for Taliban reprisals. Around 200 Triples face imminent deportation from Pakistan to Afghanistan, and at least six members of the Triples are reported to have been murdered by the Taliban since the withdrawal from Kabul. Ministers have allowed media speculation to build for almost a week before setting out to Parliament today the Government’s plan to U-turn and look again at the applications.

The Minister highlighted inconsistencies in processing the applications—failures, flaws. How was that allowed to happen on his watch? How long will the reviews take, and what new information will be factored in? Tragically, today’s decision could be too late for many. Does the Minister know how many of the Triples who were wrongly denied support have already been deported to Afghanistan, tortured or killed? What conversations has he had with Pakistan to halt deportations of those who could now be granted sanctuary? There is no time to waste.

The least the Triples deserve is clarity over ARAP policy, but for months a public spat has played out between the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and the Minister for Armed Forces. We should all remember that the people who matter here are those Afghans who have been left in limbo, fearing for their lives and their futures. That is why clarity matters. Britain’s moral duty to assist Afghans is felt most fiercely by those in the UK forces who served alongside them, many of whom sit on both sides of the House. British personnel who have offered references to former Triples say that they were never even contacted by the Ministry of Defence. Many of their ARAP applications were denied. Will such basic errors happen again, or will that be reviewed properly?

The British public do not understand why Afghan special forces personnel who served and fought alongside our troops and who are eligible for safety have not yet received sanctuary here. Will the Minister now sort this out?

James Heappey

I know that the hon. Gentleman, who has been advocating for some cases and is as passionate about the matter as anybody, will feel aggrieved, as will many colleagues around the House. The responsibility of any Minister is to own any failure of process that happens in their Department, and I accept that responsibility.

The reality is that these are very difficult decisions to make. The hon. Gentleman said that the Triples were funded by the UK Government. That is not entirely accurate; they were funded as a donor alongside many other donors, into the Government of Afghanistan, who funded the units. As he will well know from colleagues on his own Benches who commanded units that worked closely with the Triples, top-up payments were made in order to generate loyalty and, frankly, to avoid the Triples being poached by other coalition partners, which had similar forces of their own.

The records of those top-up payments were very ad hoc. I take my responsibilities for accuracy to the House seriously, and I can tell the hon. Gentleman in all seriousness that we have looked for employment records and none of those ad hoc records of additional payments is available to us. We have spoken to colleagues who have experience of these matters in the House and beyond, to ask for any records that they have, but even then a lot of the records produced are those that are put together by charities advocating for the Triples, rather than contemporary records of those top-up payments.

The reality is that whatever the challenges have been, some decisions were made in an inconsistent way. That is why they must be reviewed. We will aim to get the review done as quickly as possible—we anticipate that it will take around 12 weeks. Before that, we need to put in place the people who will do the review, who will be independent of everything that has gone before. In the first instance, it will be a review of the robustness of the decisions themselves, and where it finds that decisions were not robust, we will, of course, seek new information both from the applicant and from colleagues in the House who have advocated for them.

The shadow Minister makes some good points about what this means for people who are in Pakistan. It is impossible to say who, of those who were not already in the pipeline as approved applicants, has been deported. We do not track that, so I cannot answer his specific question but, of course, we will alert the Government of Pakistan to those who are included within the review, so that they can enjoy the same protection from deportation as those who have already been approved and are awaiting their onward move to the UK.

The shadow Minister necessarily points to the politics and the alleged disagreement among Conservative Members —that is the nature of his role—but I am simply not motivated by such things. The reality is that we are trying our best to bring as many people to the UK from Afghanistan as possible. Some decisions are relatively straightforward, because we hold the employment records, but others are far more complicated. Although there have undoubtedly been some decisions that are not robust and need to be reviewed, I put on record that the people involved in making those decisions, across the MOD, have been working their hardest and doing their best. I stand up for their service and for what they have done, and I take responsibility for their shortcomings.