Labour accuses Government ministers of being 'missing in action' during Afghanistan crisis

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, speaking during a walkabout in the centre of Wolverhampton. Picture date: Monday August 16, 2021.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, speaking during a walkabout in the centre of Wolverhampton. Picture date: Monday August 16, 2021.

“Serious times call for serious leadership and this Government simply isn’t up to the job,” said Keir Starmer.

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Labour has accused Government ministers of being “missing in action” during the Afghanistan crisis as the blame game over the handling of the withdrawal after a 20-year campaign in the country began.

The Sunday Times reported that fingers were being pointed at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) over a lack of escape routes from the country, with claims that up to 9,000 people who may have been eligible to escape – such as women, journalists, and aid workers – were left behind.

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace previously said he believed there were between 800 and 1,100 Afghans eligible under the Afghan Relocation and Assistance Policy (Arap) scheme who would be left behind, while around 100 and 150 UK nationals will remain in Afghanistan, although Mr Wallace said some of those were staying willingly.

But MPs have said that judging by their correspondence, they thought the true numbers were far higher.

Meanwhile, The Observer claimed thousands of emails from MPs and charities highlighting potentially eligible cases went unread by the department.

The FCDO told The Sunday Times: “This has been the biggest and most challenging evacuation in living memory – a team effort that would not have been possible without the Foreign Office.”

But the newspaper reported that Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab’s decision to remain on holiday at the start of the crisis had meant up to 1,000 people had not been evacuated who could have been.

While a whistleblower with access to the Foreign Office email accounts reportedly showed The Observer that an inbox used to receive potential Afghan evacuation cases from MPs and others regularly had a 5,000 unread email backlog, with emails from Government ministers, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, and MPs going unopened.

The FCDO told The Observer: “We have been working tirelessly to evacuate over 15,000 people from Afghanistan in the last two weeks. We deployed a 24/7 cross-Whitehall team based in our crisis hub to triage incoming emails and calls from British nationals, Arap applicants, and other vulnerable Afghans.”

A spokesman added: “We always cautioned that the nature of the security situation in Afghanistan meant that we would not be able to evacuate everyone we wanted to.”

But Labour’s Sir Keir said: “The complacency and incompetence of this Government has been exposed yet again and with tragic consequences. We’ve known for 18 months that this moment was coming. It is unconscionable that there was no strategy in place to get all the British nationals and Afghans we owed a debt to out.

“I pay tribute to all the FCDO staff and military personnel who have, as ever, stepped up when their leaders have failed them.

“The fact that so many emails have simply gone unopened is not the fault of civil servants but of government ministers who have been missing in action during this whole crisis. MPs and their staff have been hearing harrowing stories from so many people we should have taken care of but who have been abandoned to the Taliban.”

Labour MPs tweeted about the efforts their staff had gone to collate the information to send to officials.

Sir Keir added: “Can the Government tell us how many of the people in those emails got out, or more importantly haven’t who were eligible to?

“We need urgent answers from the Prime Minister on what will be done to ensure the safety of those left behind, on proper support for MPs to be able to do their job and on new leadership at the Foreign Office.

“Serious times call for serious leadership and this Government simply isn’t up to the job.”