A letter, forwarded by my MP to draw the attention of the Foreign Office to this little matter
, has elicited a reply from Kim Howells, whose quintessentially New Labour brand of plain speaking and ethical rigour has exercised your correspondent on one or two previous occasions
Howells replies as follows:As the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have noted, we are grateful for the service of our locally employed staff in Iraq, and recognise that without their vital contributions, our work would be even more difficult and challenging. They have made an invaluable contribution, in uniquely difficult circumstances, to the UK's efforts to support security, stability and development in the new Iraq.
Gratitude, of course, is a wonderful thing to have when the bullets are flying overhead, and the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary should be given due credit in this regard. Where open-handedness is not an option, open-wordedness is often a useful substitute. An almost unprecedented note of honesty is also struck with the absence of democracy from the list of things the UK supports in the new Iraq.
Howells continues:Mr Challinor raises the fact that Iraqi staff need to have served for 12 months or more in order to be eligible for the scheme. Since 2003, the British Government - mainly in the form of our armed forces - has employed thousands of Iraqis, often for short periods of time. When we considered this issue, Ministers from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and other interested Departments agreed that we need to focus on staff who have given us dedicated service over a period of time.
Well, obviously, if the numbers run into thousands,
focus is definitely needed. The question I actually raised was whether the Government might do better to help people on the basis of the risks to which they are exposed, rather than on the basis of an arbitrary time stipulation. Howells makes it clear that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and other interested Departments believe the time stipulation has greater priority, but he does not trouble to justify their belief. Being a Government minister, perhaps he considers it self-evident. Anyway: A 12 month requirement is not unique to the UK - it is also a feature of the US Special Immigrant Visa programme for their Iraqi staff.
And if it's good enough for the Bush administration, it's good enough for New Labour. Furthermore: staff who have not yet worked for us for 12 months but reach that mark in future will become eligible at that time.
Like the gratitude, doubtless a great comfort to somebody. Drawing a line under the issue and moving on:Mr Challinor also raises the issue of Iraqi staff who worked for the UK before January 2005. In 2003-2004, the environment in which our more transient civilian work-force was operating was not the same. This policy is about recognising those who have had a sustained association with us in particularly difficult times. We believe that staff who have worked for us since the cut-off date have had to face uniquely difficult circumstances
In 2003-2004, while the officially recognised war was going on and, among other things, the good people of Falluja were getting the white phosphorous treatment, times were not particularly difficult in Iraq. On the other hand, since 2005 circumstances have been uniquely
difficult, but only those Iraqis who have sustained their association with us for twelve months or more deserve much help from those who helped to bring their difficulties about. Nevertheless:We aim to process all applications as efficiently as possible.
This is certainly reassuring.Inevitably, it will be necessary to carry out a number of checks on those seeking leave to enter the UK.
And there are
thousands of the buggers, remember. I noted in my email that, as Dan Hardie observes, Iraqi refugees in Syria are being screened by the Syrian police and delayed by British bureaucracy so that they are at risk of outstaying their visas and being deported. Howells replies that:We are working to ensure that any former staff who need to travel to third countries as part of this process are able to do so. More generally, the Borders and Immigration Agency and UNHCR are working closely to put in place systems to ensure that those locally engaged staff who have expressed an interest in the Gateway resettlement scheme have their cases processed in a timely fashion. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is facing immense challenges in respect of the large numbers of displaced Iraqis within the region but we have been working closely with them and are confident that the interpreters and their dependents who are eligible will be considered within the timeframes that we have previously issued. ... Mr Challinor is also concerned that potential applicants who need to travel outside Iraq in order to be eligible for the Gateway resettlement scheme face difficulties in achieving this. I can ensure (sic) Mr Challinor that we will make sure that all eligible applicants are able to gain entry. Overall, we believe that the new policy offers the prospect of genuine assistance to those Iraqi staff who have had particularly close and sustained associations with us in difficult circumstances, and we will continue to work to ensure that it is implemented fairly and efficiently.
In short, the Government is working its scheme to ensure that the Government's scheme works as the Government decided the scheme will work. I am sure we are all duly ensured.Mr Challinor raises the concern that eligible parties cannot apply for assistance via Basra International Airbase due to militia checkpoints. Whilst there is no initial requirement for Iraqi civilians who are interested in our staff assistance scheme to travel to the Airbase, based on our current knowledge of the situation in Basra and our recent experience with locally engaged staff, candidates who do need to travel to the Airbase should not encounter any problems.
Howells' superior knowledge of the situation in Basra will certainly be reassuring to those
who have the misfortune to be stuck there.