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Topical Questions

Volume 709: debated on Monday 28 February 2022

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

Putin’s war on Ukraine is monstrous and unjustified. I am in regular contact with the Ukrainian Minister of the Interior and the ambassador to London. The United Kingdom stands firmly with the people of Ukraine, and, as this House would expect, Britain is stepping up to play its part in responding to the terrible situation on the ground in Ukraine.

The Government have already announced the first phase of a bespoke humanitarian route for the people of Ukraine. The new route responds directly to the needs and asks of the Ukrainian Government. Every conflict and threat situation is unique and requires a tailored response. Our new route will continue to keep pace with the developing situation on the ground and has so far already supported hundreds of British nationals and their families resident in Ukraine to leave. UK Visas and Immigration staff continue to work around the clock to assist them. The route has also enabled dependents of British national residents in Ukraine who need a UK visa to apply through the temporary location in Lviv or through the visa application centres in Poland, Moldova, Romania and Hungary. Over recent weeks teams have been surged to these areas and applications have been completed within hours.

We are in direct contact with individuals and we have also lowered various requirements and salary thresholds so that people can be supported. Where family members of British nationals do not meet the usual eligibility criteria but pass security checks, UK Visas and Immigration will give them permission to enter the UK outside the rules for 12 months and is prioritising all applications to give British nationals and any person settled in the UK the ability to bring over their immediate Ukrainian family members. I can confirm that through this extension alone an additional 100,000 Ukrainians will be able to seek sanctuary in the UK, with access to work and public services. We are enabling Ukrainian nationals already in the UK to switch free of charge into a points-based immigration route or to the family visa route. We are extending visas for Ukraine temporary workers in some sectors, and they can now stay until at least December 2022, primarily because no one can return to Ukraine. Anyone in Ukraine intending to apply under the family migration route should call the dedicated 24-hour Home Office helpline for assistance before making an application.

Britain continues to lead and is doing its fair share in every aspect of this Ukraine conflict. I urge colleagues not to attempt casework themselves, but to directly refer people to the helpline number. Duplication of effort would waste precious time and cause confusion. This is the best and most efficient way to help people.

Over the weekend, I have seen Members of this House calling for full visa waivers for all Ukrainians. Security and biometric checks are a fundamental part of our visa approval process worldwide, and they will continue, as they did for the evacuation of people from Afghanistan. That is vital to keep British citizens safe and to ensure that we are helping those in genuine need, particularly as Russian troops are now infiltrating Ukraine and merging into Ukrainian forces. Intelligence reports also state the presence of extremist groups and organisations who threaten the region, but also our domestic homeland. We know all too well what Putin’s Russia is willing to do, even on our soil, as we saw through the Salisbury attack and the nerve agents used on the streets of the UK. The approach we are taking is based on the strongest security advice. The Prime Minister has set out myriad other ways we are supporting Ukraine.

There will be other statements in the House today, but there are two other points I would like to add. The Nationality and Borders Bill is at Report stage in the other place. It contains provisions to allow visa penalties to be applied to specific countries that do not co-operate with the return of their nationals. I am now seeking to extend those provisions so that a country can be specified if it has taken significant steps that threaten international peace and security, have led or are likely to lead to armed conflicts or are in breach of international humanitarian law. The extension would draw on the precedents from the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018. Those powers will be available as soon as the Bill receives Royal Assent. The sooner that happens, the sooner this House and all Members can collectively act.

We are ever mindful of the cyber-attacks and disinformation emanating from Russia.

I am sure the House would like to listen to the actual measures we are bringing in. The cyber-attacks and disinformation will be met with robust responses, and we have stepped up all international co-operation on that.

Finally, what is happening in Ukraine is utterly heartbreaking and profoundly wrong, but together with our international partners, we stand with the heroic Ukrainian people. Further work is taking place with diplomatic channels, and the Ukrainian Government have today requested that the Russian Government be suspended from their membership of Interpol, and we will be leading all international efforts to that effect.

We did try to arrange with the Home Secretary’s office that the statement should be up to 500 words. I think we will find that that was beyond 800 words; it took six minutes. I think the House would have benefited from an actual statement. If we cannot have one tomorrow morning, I suggest someone might like to put in for an urgent question, because I believe the House would benefit from that, as there was so much in what the Home Secretary said. I will be extending topicals.

T2. Will the Home Secretary listen to the 50 organisations, including Save the Children and Amnesty International, that wrote a joint letter in The Times last week calling for the Ukraine crisis to lead to a rethink on the Nationality and Borders Bill, which discriminates against refugees depending on how they reach our shores? (905753)

First, we will not be reconsidering the Nationality and Borders Bill. The hon. Gentleman has already heard about the amendments we will be tabling to deal with countries such as Russia and the actions of President Putin.

T3. Our failure to stop tens of thousands of illegal immigrants crossing the English channel in the last few years has resulted in them being accommodated in hotels, often in completely inappropriate locations, including a site in Blackpool, at a cost of millions of pounds per week to the UK taxpayer. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that the Home Office can process the claims of those crossing the channel as soon as possible and reduce the huge cost to the taxpayer? (905754)

I recognise my hon. Friend’s concerns about the use of the property in Blackpool, which he has strongly expressed to me on previous occasions. We are looking to double the number of asylum decision makers and to take forward a programme of simplification and modernisation of processing to increase the number of decisions we make, cut down the backlog and reintroduce a service standard for the time taken for an initial decision.

The Home Secretary said that she was announcing a bespoke humanitarian route, but it is extremely unclear from what she said what the details actually are or who it will apply to. The Ukrainian people are showing great bravery, but we know that people, particularly mothers and young children and elderly parents, have left to find sanctuary. The UK has always done its bit to help those fleeing war in Europe and it will come as a relief to many people who have been calling for action if the Government are prepared to do more.

I must ask the Home Secretary, however, why there is so much confusion about it. The Russian invasion began five days ago and other countries responded with clear sanctuary arrangements immediately. Troops have been gathering since mid-January and British intelligence has been warning of an invasion for weeks. We have had a weekend of complete confusion. We still do not know what the arrangements are. Why was nothing worked out already? How on earth is the Home Secretary so poorly prepared for something that she has been warned about for so many weeks?

Let me refute every single point that the right hon. Lady has made. All intelligence, rightly, has pointed to the invasion for a considerable time, and the Government have been working for that, as we know, in terms of the wider Government response. [Interruption.] If I can start to respond to some of those questions, all hon. Members would benefit from paying attention and listening.

When it comes to providing visas and support for Ukrainian nationals in the United Kingdom, our schemes have been put in place for weeks—there is no confusion whatsoever. They have been in place in countries switching routes. They have been well publicised and well documented. We have been working through our visa application centres. [Interruption.] Again, perhaps the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) would like to listen, rather than being responsible for some of the misinformation that has been characterised and put out over the weekend. Those routes have been open and available.

A helpline has been available for weeks. We have had people working in the region and in country in Ukraine for weeks and weeks. We obviously closed down our operations in Kyiv, because we removed staff from there—

Order. We have to make some progress. We are on topicals; they are meant to be short. You had six minutes before. I call Yvette Cooper, briefly.

The Home Secretary said that the routes have been in place, but she has been trying to get people to use existing visas, which do not work in a time of crisis. That is why her Immigration Minister was suggesting that people come and pick fruit.

At a time when many people want to stay close to the Ukraine, we know that there are family members or extended family members—people who have connections here in the UK—who want to come and join family and friends. They will still not know what the situation is as a result of the Home Secretary’s words today. Let me ask her something very specific about the elderly parents of people who are living here in the UK, who are not covered by her announcement yesterday. Will the elderly parent who tried to join her daughter in the UK, who was turned down and made to go away by UK Border Force at the Gare du Nord, be able to return to the Gare du Nord today and come safely to the UK?

T4. Scunthorpe and Ukraine have deep ties rooted in our steelworks and we are horrified by what is happening to our Ukrainian friends. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the support that she has just described will stay in place for however long it is needed? (905755)

My hon. Friend makes a very sensible point, because, of course, there is a conflict taking place. The work of the Government is absolutely right now to support the people of Ukraine, and in particular to support those who need to come over to our country.

After this weekend I have to say that, not for the first time, I am struggling to understand what the Home Office is announcing and why it is announcing whatever it is. May I ask, for example, about my constituent who is fleeing Ukraine? Is he able to be accompanied by his mother-in-law, sister-in-law and niece? Again, why not do the simple thing and the just thing, and lift visa restrictions altogether?

T5.   The Government should be rightly proud of the action taken to support our police officers, not least through the adoption of Harper’s law, which is due before this House later today. What more can my right hon. Friend do to ensure that police officers get all the mental health support they need, as advocated by the Green Ribbon Policing campaign? (905756)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right in the case he makes about mental health, and I know that he is doing some great work on this as well. We are doing a huge amount in Government, working with the Department of Health and Social Care in particular, focusing on mental health support, such as the TRiM—trauma risk management—programme and things of that nature. I know he has a particular interest in this, and it is something I would like to discuss with him further.

T7. I listened to the Home Secretary’s earlier statement with interest, but clarity is needed. I have constituents who have family members in Ukraine, some of them frail and elderly. Can she assure the House that those Ukrainians who wish to join their families in the UK can do so via a third country without being mired in delays and bureaucracy, and can she further guarantee that those refugees will not be ordered to leave the UK after the nominal 12 months have expired? (905758)

There are no delays and bureaucracy, as the hon. Member has already heard me say, and on her last point, yes.

T6. North Wales police in my constituency of Clwyd South does an exceptional job in keeping the public safe and tackling crime. Could my right hon. Friend comment on plans to recruit and retain the best and brightest to join our police force, and would he join me in praising our local policing initiatives? (905757)

I am more than happy to lavish praise on North Wales police, which does a fantastic job along the coast there, as do all our police officers up and down the country. I am pleased to say that we are making enormous progress on our recruitment programme. As I hope my hon. Friend knows, we are well over 11,000 now, and I expect to hit the 20,000 target shortly.

Jo, a constituent, came to Britain in 2001 and served for five years in the Army, including in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he developed post-traumatic stress disorder. He served time for drink-driving offences, but he sought help for PTSD, stopped drinking and rebuilt his life. He now has two children in Coventry and no connections in Zimbabwe, his birthplace, where he was tortured the last time he was there. However, on Wednesday Jo is set to be deported to Zimbabwe, and I have had no reply from the Minister to my urgent correspondence on this case. So will the Home Secretary step in and stop Jo being deported from the country he has served and where his family lives to a place where he will be at risk of torture?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. It is fair to say that casework inquiries on these matters are treated urgently, and it is one that will no doubt cross my desk within the coming hours. Of course, the flight in question later this week relates to individuals who have committed very serious criminality, but I will of course ensure that the individual case is looked at.

T8. In the light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, does my right hon. Friend agree with me that now is the ideal time to review and reform the 32-year-old Computer Misuse Act 1990, as recommended by the Intelligence and Security Committee’s Russia report, and will he meet me and colleagues to discuss how reforming that legislation could not only help to tackle online crime, but unlock our national cyber-defence? (905759)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the importance of the review of the Computer Misuse Act. Since my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary launched that review last year, a number of very good and important suggestions have come forward, which we are currently reviewing. Meanwhile, of course, we continue always to update our approach, including to the National Cyber Security Centre and, more immediately, to the online safety Bill.

In the evidence the Home Secretary gave to the Home Affairs Committee on 2 February, she said that a major obstacle for accepting more people under Operation Warm Welcome for Afghans fleeing the Taliban was the lack of suitable accommodation because of Home Office contracts. The Select Committee has been warning about this for some time. I think that the Home Secretary has announced a bespoke humanitarian policy for those Ukrainians fleeing—[Hon. Members: “No, she hasn’t.”] Oh, perhaps she has not; I am sorry there is not a statement to clarify that. What I want to know is: what is she going to do about the lack of accommodation that the Home Office provides for asylum seekers and refugees in this country?

We are certainly concerned about the lack of suitable accommodation across the United Kingdom in terms of dispersal areas, which is why we are keen to sign up new areas to become dispersal areas. I am pushing my own council and, as I have already said, there are 31 out of 32 areas in Scotland that could do with signing up as well.

T9. Dorset police is at the bottom of the funding league table for police forces, coming 40th out of 41 forces, and we continue to battle issues of rural crime, including county lines drug gangs. Will my right hon. Friend commit to ensuring that Dorset gets its fair share, so that we can get more police officers—I particularly want to see the rural crime police team doubled, and I know those aspirations are shared by our police and crime commissioner? (905760)

I have committed before, and I am happy to do so again, that before the end of the Parliament we will produce a new funding formula to ensure that my hon. Friend’s constituency gets exactly what he deserves, as indeed he should.

Does the Home Secretary accept that many Members of this House are dismayed that she did not make a statement in the normal way, so that she could have been questioned in the normal way? Does she further accept that that is not just disrespectful to the House of Commons, but it shows a lack of real concern for those desperate people escaping Ukraine?

I completely reject the right hon. Lady’s latter point, and naturally I will always be happy to return to the House and take questions.

Constituents in Tatton are increasingly concerned about the growing number and range of online fraud and scams, and the ability of Action Fraud to deal with them. Many of those crimes originate outside the UK, with some from hostile states such as Russia. What is the Minister doing to counter that?

My right hon. Friend is right, and we share her constituents’ concern. We are looking constantly to upgrade and improve Action Fraud, and I encourage her constituents to carry on reporting those instances of fraud. Together with the rest of our constituents, their forwarding of dodgy emails to has so far led to 73,000 scams being removed.

Will the Home Secretary publish her review into the tier 1 gold-plated visas? Will she suspend all tier 1 visas for people who have connections with the Putin regime, and will she look into the veracity of applications for British citizenship by Russian oligarchs who are connected with Putin?

I think the hon. Gentleman knows my view and position on that, and of course the answer is yes.

Another young life has been tragically lost to a knife in Milton Keynes. Does the Minister agree that as well as record numbers of police on the streets, the courts and the Crown Prosecution Service need to work with the police to ensure that there are real deterrents to carrying a knife on our streets?

My hon. Friend is right, and I am very sorry to hear of the crime that took place in his constituency. As he will know, the fight against knife crime is at the forefront of the Government’s priorities, and as he said, alongside deterrent sentencing and assertive and extensive policing, we need to work on long-term solutions to turn young people’s lives away from crime. I am pleased that I was able to visit the Thames Valley violence reduction unit last year to look at the extensive work it is doing to put in place exactly those kind of programmes.