The speech made by Lisa Nandy, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, in the House of Commons on 6 September 2021.
These have been a painful and sobering few weeks. Had it not been for the heroic efforts of the armed forces as well as the brave diplomats and civil servants involved in Operation Pitting, many more lives would have been lost and many more people left behind. They reminded us what courage looks like. I want to put on record my thanks to them and to all those who have served in Afghanistan over the last two decades, and also to add my condolences to the families of all those killed in the horrific bombing at Kabul airport.
If more lives are not to be lost, we need some urgent clarity today. What, specifically, is the advice to people trying to leave? Should they stay put and be hunted by the Taliban, or should they make their way to a border and risk being turned back?
Could the Foreign Secretary take care of some basic issues? The Home Office phone number provided for Afghans asks people to hold on for hours, and it is still chargeable. That is pretty easy to fix. Could he have a word with the Home Secretary and get it dealt with? He was not able to tell us how many British nationals are still there, but I imagine he must know by now, so can he tell us? We know that only one security guard from the embassy got out, so what is his plan for the rest? I did a quick check before I left my office today; there are still hundreds of unanswered emails from MPs, and many of them raised that question with the Prime Minister this afternoon. How many staff are now working on this in the Foreign Office, and why has it not been dealt with? If those Members are to get an answer by this evening, can the Foreign Secretary assure us that it will be a real answer and not just a holding response?
Can we have some clarity about who is actually eligible, especially under the ARAP scheme—it is welcome that the Secretary of State for Defence has stayed for the statement—because without clarity about who is eligible, people cannot risk heading to the border? It would be useful to have a much tighter idea of who the eligible people are, particularly the special cases. What is the assurance about safe passage that the Foreign Secretary believes that he has from the Taliban? Does it apply to all those with documentation, or just to the British nationals?
I understand that the technical problems at the airport have now been overcome, and that is welcome, but can the Foreign Secretary tell us a bit more about the diplomatic progress that has been made? How, for example, does he intend to square the circle to comply with the Taliban’s refusal to allow a foreign military presence, while also ensuring that those technicians from Turkey or Qatar, or whichever other country is chosen to oversee that operation, can be safeguarded? I very much support his view that it would be wrong to recognise the Taliban as a legitimate Government, but that presents a practical challenge to the countries that are considering stepping in to oversee the airport in respect of how guarantees can be upheld.
May I just say to the Foreign Secretary that the co-ordination between the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence, despite some very hard-working civil servants on the ground who are working round the clock, is still appalling? My office is in touch with a small number of Afghan workers, for example, who have been attached to intelligence and to MI6 in recent years. They are being treated as special cases under ARAP, and many of them have been waiting for months. I want to place on record my thanks to the Secretary of State of Defence, and also to the Minister for Afghan Resettlement, the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), who have made themselves available to many of us at all hours and at short notice to assist with some of these cases. Their personal intervention has made a difference, although that is no substitute for a system.
Could the Foreign Secretary also clarify some comments that he made to the Select Committee? He suggested that those who had been cleared to travel as part of Operation Pitting would now have to undergo security checks before being accepted on to ARAP. Were those checks not initially done, or is he now reneging on his promise? I have to say that both those scenarios concern us greatly. These are practical issues that are within the Foreign Secretary’s gift, and the fact that they have still not been dealt with sends a strong message that he has been more focused in recent days on keeping his job than on actually doing it. I want him to prove us wrong, because a lot rides on this, including the lives of many Afghans who assisted us.
Will the Foreign Secretary say a bit more about how the UK is going to get aid into Afghanistan to those who need it? I have been in touch with aid workers on the ground, many of whom are female and who have been banned from working by the Taliban. Those aid agencies are understandably saying that they will not operate with those conditions in place, but that means that they are not operating at all. On the refugee crisis, I say to him gently that countries in the region are not hugely impressed by the Home Secretary’s decision to cap the number of refugees that the UK will accept at 5,000 when they are dealing with a far greater refugee crisis. A bit of generosity from the UK would go a long way to helping to resolve the issues at the borders.
These are immediate concerns, but we are also concerned that for a generation of young Afghans, the future that they had expected is unravelling in front of their eyes. Can the Foreign Secretary say something about how the rights of the LGBT+ community will be upheld, as well as those of religious minorities? Can he outline the measures that he intends to take to set conditions for the Taliban regime, particularly that the situation of women and girls will be the cornerstone of any future engagement?
Our intelligence has been downgraded, our diplomats and troops are no longer on the ground and the Prime Minister appeared to say in his statement just now that the risk posed to the UK was unknown. The Foreign Secretary has suggested in a media interview that we would rely on open-source intelligence. Could he say some more about that, and about the possibility that we might be in a position where we are sharing intelligence with countries such as China and Russia? Given the significant national security implications of that, the House has a right to understand the Government’s strategy on it, if there is one. This has been nothing short of a disaster, so I ask him now to turn with humility to the world and to start to repair some of those broken relationships, trashed alliances and broken promises that have reduced us to a position where we are reliant on the Taliban for permission to safeguard our own citizens and negotiating with China and Russia in our own interests? In the cold, hard light of what has unfolded over this summer, surely it is time for him to rethink his approach to the way that Britain engages with the rest of the world.