(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if she will make a statement on how her Department can speed up the urgent refugee applications coming from those leaving Ukraine.
President Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is a barbaric and unprovoked attack and we stand shoulder to shoulder with the Ukrainian people. He must fail in Ukraine.
This Government have brought forward a generous humanitarian offer to those Ukrainians who want to come to the UK to escape the conflict. Last week, the Home Secretary announced a new Ukraine family scheme for those with family ties to the UK, and we are extending the scheme further to include aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces, cousins and in-laws. The scheme went live last Friday and has already seen over 10,000 applications submitted, for which over 500 visas have been issued, with more being issued as we speak. We have also announced that we are setting up a new humanitarian sponsorship visa, and we are working at pace with our colleagues in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to set that up. We will also work with the devolved Administrations.
We have made significant progress in a short space of time, on top of the first phase of the package that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary set out to the House last week. I also remind the House that a crucial part of the application process is providing biometrics so that we can be sure that applicants are who they say they are. Sadly, we are already seeing people presenting at Calais with false documents claiming to be Ukrainian. With incidents like Salisbury still in our minds, the Government will not take chances with the security of this country and our people. Our friends in the United States, Canada and Australia are rightly taking the same approach as we are.
I would like to update the House on the measures that we are taking to speed up and process the applications and to ensure that we can help applicants as quickly as possible. We have surged staff to key visa application centres across Europe, particularly in Poland, and moved more biometric kit to support them. We have ensured that casework teams are standing by in the UK to process applications to ensure that there are no delays.
We will also establish a larger presence in northern France to help Ukrainians in the region. It is essential that we do not create a choke point at places like Calais, where dangerous people smugglers are present, and ensure the smooth flow of people through the system from across Europe. Alongside that, we are working with our embassies around the world to ensure that we use our diplomatic channels to support our efforts and to provide the latest information.
We have taken decisive action. We are now providing regular public updates on our casework numbers and we will continue to keep the House updated on this progress.
I thank my hon. Friend for that comprehensive answer. It is very impressive that the Prime Minister and this Government have taken such a world-leading role, uniting the west in imposing one of the toughest sanctions regimes and providing military support for Ukraine.
However, the UK has always been generous in admitting refugees, especially in times of crisis in Europe, dating back to the Huguenots. Concerned constituents have contacted me, so will my hon. Friend tell the House how we can speed up the necessary processing of refugees leaving the truly awful situation in Ukraine? Will he also update the House on what is happening in Calais, so that they can be processed either there or close by with transport provided?
I understand that we require a process to securely check applications that are made not only for security reasons, but so that we can provide support in this country. However, we surely could speed the process up by, for example, rewashing biometric and other data that we already have. We need not only efficiency, but humanity when processing applications of refugees from Ukraine and we should warmly welcome those refugees to this country.
I thank my hon. Friend for the way in which he put his questions. He is right that we as a country have stood forward to support Ukraine, not least in supplying it with the weaponry that is being used to defend people’s homes and to push back this barbaric and unprovoked attack on their nation.
I appreciate that there are concerns. We are training new caseworkers, who, as of tomorrow, will take more decisions. We are looking to review what we can and to use some of the technology that we have—for example, around what we deployed for the British nationals overseas route and how that could be brought into effect. We are also reviewing some of the requirements on biometrics for under-18s to free up visa appointments in visa application centres.
On my hon. Friend’s specific points on northern France, we are looking to establish a presence in Lille and potentially looking at transport options from Calais to Lille. There are issues with providing particular application points at the port, but we are looking at how we can do it, and we expect that to be set up within the next 24 hours.
I call the shadow Home Secretary.
It is deeply disappointing that the Home Secretary is not here to respond, given the gravity of the issue—especially after she gave wrong information to the House several times yesterday.
Two million refugees have left Ukraine. Other countries are supporting hundreds of thousands of people; the Home Office is currently issuing about 250 family scheme visas a day. Most people want to stay close to home, but some want to come here to join family or friends, and we should be helping them. Instead, most people are still being held up by Home Office bureaucracy or are being turned away.
Yesterday, the Home Secretary told the House twice that a visa centre en route to Calais had been set up, but it still does not exist. The Foreign Secretary has just said that it might be in Lille, nearly 75 miles from Calais. The Home Office said this morning that no decision had been taken. Which is it? Has it? Where is it? Can people get there yet?
The Home Secretary said yesterday:
“It is wrong to say that we are just turning people back”.—[Official Report, 7 March 2022; Vol. 710, c. 27.]
But there are 600 people in Calais right now who have been turned back and are being told to go to Brussels, where the visa centre is open only three days a week, or to Paris, where people are still being told that the next appointment is on 15 March, a week away. In Warsaw, people are also still being told that the next appointment is on 15 March, a week away. In Rzeszów, the booking system seems to have completely broken down: this morning, they are sending people away.
The Home Office was warned by the chief inspector in November that the geographical spread of visa application centres was a real problem for vulnerable applicants, leading to difficult journeys, yet it did nothing about it, even when it was given weeks of warning by British intelligence that an invasion was coming.
Yesterday, the Home Secretary told me that elderly aunts were covered by the scheme. Two hours later, the Home Office helpline said that they were not. I welcome the inclusion of extended relatives, but the Government should not be continuing to change the system in a chaotic way, rather than opening it properly. Will the Government urgently set up emergency visa centres at all major travel points, do the security checks on the spot and then issue emergency visas for Ukrainians—for all family, but not just family—so that they can come here and the UK can do our historic bit to help refugees fleeing war in Europe, as we have done before?
The answer to the right hon. Lady’s points about setting up a facility in northern France was in the comments that I have just made about Lille and about setting it up in the next 24 hours.
On the numbers that the right hon. Lady cites, we are training more decision makers as we speak. We are pulling people in from across UK Visas and Immigration to ensure that there is an almost frictionless approach to caseworking, and we will see the number of visas issued ramping up each day.
But this is a complex scenario. As I touched on in my statement, we have seen people presenting themselves at Calais port pretending to be Ukrainian. [Interruption.] I appreciate that some Opposition Members may think that that is not an issue, but we need only look at some of the statements coming out of the Kremlin to see which countries are very much in the crosshairs of Mr Putin’s Russia and his regime. We only have to look back a short period to see the impact in this country of attacks by those pretending that they had come here to look at a cathedral spire.
We will move out to extend this. We recognise the desperate plight that there is; that is why we are working with countries on the ground, providing humanitarian aid and ensuring that we are helping to provide support as people cross borders. We are looking to ensure that we have a wide system that allows people to come here, and abandoning many of our normal requirements for countries. We recognise that it is not a time for the usual immigration process, hence the system that we are setting up. As we have said, we have the confidence that it will expand. We know that the British people will be generous. We know that when we move to open up the sponsorship visa, many people, including many of our constituents, will want to step forward.
I will just say that if we look at the surveys being done in Ukraine about which countries people feel are most on their side, it is notable which one regularly comes top.
I am sorry that the Home Secretary is not here today to answer our questions. In response to my question yesterday, she said:
“I have already made it clear, in terms of the visa application centre that has now been set up en route to Calais, that we have staff in Calais”.—[Official Report, 7 March 2022; Vol. 710, c. 28.]
That was untrue, and under any normal Administration that in itself would be a resignation issue. There is no visa centre at Lille yet, although earlier this morning the Foreign Secretary said that there was.
A week ago, the Home Secretary announced the introduction of a humanitarian sponsorship visa. There is as yet no humanitarian sponsorship visa. It is time that the Home Office granted a visa waiver, and allowed children and all adults with Ukrainian passports to come into the country now.
I understand that the Home Secretary clarified her remarks yesterday, and I have been clear about the position regarding the centre that we are establishing.
I do hear the appeal that has been made, but there is a reason why we believe it is right that key security checks are carried out before people arrive in the United Kingdom. We are, however, reviewing the specific position on the provision of biometrics by those aged under 18. We will act on the basis of risk and advice that we receive, including advice from our security services. We are a country that is in Mr Putin’s crosshairs, we are a country that has stood resolutely behind the Ukrainian Government and continues to do so, and we are a country that will welcome literally thousands of people in what is probably one of the biggest moves to provide shelter and refuge for a generation.
I call the Scottish National party spokesperson, Stuart C. McDonald.
I agree with the right hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale): it is time to stop messing about with the broken bureaucracy and to scrap it altogether, with no more visas required. That is how we can quickly fulfil our obligations to the people of Ukraine. Our European allies can do it safely and securely, so why cannot the Home Secretary? There are other ways to address our security concerns after the arrival of refugees, such as what we do with non-visa nationals and what we did with evacuated Afghans. The Minister should not quote Salisbury at us, because that has nothing whatever to do with this situation.
How does the Minister justify all the other massive restrictions on who can come here? Why can a cousin not join a cousin? Why do no non-family ties count at all? Crucially, why is it that many thousands of Ukrainians in this country—whether skilled workers, agricultural workers or students—cannot be joined by anyone under the family rules, just because they do not have permanent residence yet? People cannot wait months for possible community sponsorship.
Finally, let me ask this question again: does not the last fortnight illustrate just how ill-conceived the disgraceful Nationality and Borders Bill is? Under the Bill, a Ukrainian fleeing here to join a cousin or friend could be criminalised, offshored, imprisoned—all because there is no visa for them. That is utterly indefensible, is it not?
Having been closely involved in the evacuation from Kabul, along with colleagues in the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, I would remind the hon. Gentleman that we did carry out security checks on people who were leaving what was a very different and very dynamic environment, especially given the obvious threat, so the suggestion that we did not carry out any checks before that evacuation is not correct.
As for the launch of the sponsorship scheme, we do not see that taking months, as the hon. Gentleman suggested. We are already seeing people coming forward with generous offers of homes, jobs and wider support. A hotel in my constituency with a Ukrainian speaker is starting to look at the possibility of offering jobs and accommodation. As the hon. Gentleman knows, last week I had a helpful and productive conversation with the relevant Scottish Government Minister, and, to be fair, I know that the Scottish Government will also step up and do what they can.
The hon. Gentleman said that it was not appropriate to use the Salisbury example, but we do need to remember why we have these checks in place. It is because, as we have already seen at Calais, there are people presenting with false documents, and there are people making claims that are not true. However, I recognise that the House wants to see us getting on with processing, putting more people on to this work, and ensuring that we can, as quickly as possible, provide for a very large number of people to move into the UK. As I have said, this one of our biggest moves to provide sanctuary for a generation.
Order. Let me say to Members, so that they can help each other, that these exchanges will run until about 1.40 pm, so the shorter the questions and answers, the better it will be.
Snails also move “at pace”. No date has yet been set for a humanitarian sponsorship visa scheme, and as a result people who are coming forward with generous offers are advising their Ukrainian friends to apply for visitors’ visas. But what of those who do not have passports? What of children who are completely undocumented? When my hon. Friend the Minister says that he is moving at pace, he should bear in mind that the pace needs to be a great deal faster.
It is possible for children and others to travel to the UK without a passport if permission has been granted. As a former Immigration Minister, my right hon. Friend will be familiar with that process. As for where we are at present, we are making sure that the process is being stepped up. We have extended the provisions, and of course the sponsorship route will provide a whole new opportunity for people to extend a generous offer and the hand of friendship to those who need sanctuary in the UK.
I call the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, Dame Diana Johnson.
I am grateful for the granting of the urgent question, but I think that a statement from the Home Office would have been a much better way of dealing with the confusion of recent days.
I believe we are united in the House in wanting to do the right thing for the Ukrainian people who are fleeing in fear of their lives, and to offer protection and sanctuary. The Home Affairs Committee has twice invited the Minister to come and explain how the Home Office is dealing with this. He has agreed to come next week and we are grateful for that, but we should not have to ask twice.
I want to ask the Minister why, on Sunday, the Home Secretary went on record to tell journalists:
“I am…investigating the legal options to create a humanitarian route.
This means anyone without ties to the UK fleeing the conflict in Ukraine will have a right to come to this nation.”
On Monday, Ministers seemed to have no idea about that. Can the Minister update us? Is this matter under consideration in the Home Office, given that there is clearly a great deal of support for the granting of a humanitarian visa?
As the right hon. Lady will know from my original letter to her, we felt that pulling officials away to do a session before the Home Affairs Committee tomorrow would have meant pulling them—and me—away from the preparations for bringing people to the UK. However, we also specifically said that we would seek to agree on a later date, and that could, perhaps, have been reflected in the statement issued on Friday.
Let me deal with the right hon. Lady’s more substantive points. We have the existing process for those who have relatives here, and we are extending it well beyond the normal relatives and dependants. Moreover, the wider sponsorship route will provide many other opportunities for people to come to the UK.
Does the Minister agree that most of the help with processing visas should be provided close to the Ukrainian border? What are the Government doing to increase processing there—in particular, in the small country of Moldova, which has taken more than 80,000 Ukrainians? Have we a presence there, and how open is that visa centre?
We do have visa application centres in the countries bordering Ukraine, and we have stepped up capacity there, particularly in countries that are in the European economic area. Normally a very small number of EEA nationals need to go to a visa application centre, so we have been bringing in resources from other areas to bolster those centres. There is, in fact, a centre in Moldova. I understand that it has moved to seven-day working, although obviously demand will be very high, and people can apply from any visa application centre where they can get an appointment; they do not need to be in a country immediately bordering Ukraine. As I have said, we continue to expand capacity, and we are considering the position relating to those under 18 and whether they need to provide biometrics.
I think the House would be more impressed by the Minister’s security concerns had his initial response not been to tweet, “Let them pick fruit.” He speaks about complex scenarios. Is he not even a little embarrassed that the United Kingdom, uniquely in Europe, seems to be finding it too difficult to tackle those complex scenarios?
Again, I would make the point that we have stepped up a system that will grant three years of leave, giving people more permanent status here in the UK and the security to move forward. As we have always said, there is a range of routes available. It should come as no surprise that those countries that are least popular with the Putin regime—ourselves, the US, Canada and Australia—are taking similar approaches.
The breadth of support that the UK Government are offering to Ukraine is fantastic, as is recognised by Ukrainians. It is shocking to hear the Opposition jeering at the prospect of the Government trying to protect the UK people from further such attacks as took place in Salisbury. Nevertheless, I agree with colleagues who are concerned about the speed of processing of these visas. In particular, in my own constituency I have someone whose sister-in-law is stuck in Ukraine and someone else whose aunt is stuck there. Can my hon. Friend give us an update on what exactly we are doing to facilitate family reunification?
I thank my right hon. Friend for her question. I would make the point that people do not need to wait in Ukraine if they are thinking of applying for the humanitarian family visa and if they are able to travel safely across Ukraine. We all recognise the reality of the barbaric approach that some Russian forces are taking to civilians. It is clear that there are regular breaches of international law and that war crimes are being committed, so there is a real issue about whether people can genuinely travel safely across Ukraine, but if they wish to, they can travel to a safe and democratic country across the border and make their application from there. As I have said, we have extended the definition, and we are rapidly expanding the caseworking teams to ensure that we can get through the applications and get people here so that they can be with their relatives in the UK.
Does the Minister understand how poorly it reflects on this country that our system for processing Ukrainian refugees is so slow and shambolic? Even accepting the need for biometric tests and so on, why can they not be done on the spot? Why can this not be expedited so that these desperate people can come and join their families here in the UK?
Across the world, people are reflecting on the immense support that the United Kingdom and this Government have provided to the people of Ukraine. That is reflected quite regularly in comments by those who are in Ukraine. We are looking to speed up the process but it is important to carry out essential security checks for the reasons we have outlined.
I hate to harp on about the phrase “at pace”, but can the Minister give some indication whether it will be weeks or months before the humanitarian sponsorship route is open? Separately, I take his point about security and the need for biometric checks, but I do not understand why those checks cannot be done in this country once we have got the people here safe and sound.
Those who are applying are actually in safe countries as we speak. As I have said, there is no requirement for people to stay in Ukraine to make an application if they can safely make their way across the border to one of the safe and democratic countries next door that we are supporting to provide support for those crossing the border. My right hon. Friend will know from his own experience that, for a range of reasons, if we bring people into the country we perform checks, but we certainly do not want to go down the route of using immigration detention powers while these checks are being undertaken. We do not believe that that would be appropriate at all.
One visa centre in Poland has closed its doors and is no longer allowing walk-in appointments. It is 3° outside, and there is an 81-year-old woman outside, along with other women and children. There is plenty of room inside but the centre will not open its doors. This is complete chaos, and it is unacceptable. What is the Minister going to do about it?
I am happy to look at the particular example that the hon. Gentleman has cited, but we are surging staff and resource and we are conscious of the position there and of how we can increase capacity to ensure that we can get as many people in as possible. In particular, I have already touched on looking at whether children need to give biometrics. We will be guided on that by the security advice that we receive. That will mean that there will be large numbers of extra appointments, plus a cohort that will not need to submit biometrics.
One way we can rapidly scale up capacity is to use technology. What is my hon. Friend’s view of the ability of Ukrainians with biometric passports to use the UK Immigration: ID Check app, which does apply and has been used by many applications from Hong Kong? May I commend that course of action to him?
We are looking at adapting the AUK2 app for Hong Kong special administrative region—HKSAR—passports as well as for British national overseas passports. Adapting it for BNO passports was relatively easy; HKSAR passports were slightly more complex. This is something we have been looking at, although it does bring certain challenges to ensure that passports can be read and that the process goes through appropriately, but it is something that we are actively considering because it would allow us to issue e-visas.
From offers by individual constituents and the Welsh Government’s action in talking to Cardiff airport about welcoming refugees there, we can see support from the British people who are very keen to welcome Ukrainian refugees. However, I am immensely embarrassed that, while other countries across Europe have been welcoming them with open arms for three years without any questions about being part of particular family, the Minister is so determined that we should not have a broader and more welcoming system for all Ukrainians to come here.
I would point to the sponsorship system that will be set up, which will be open pretty much to many and all Ukrainians, although I remind the House that the vast majority of people understandably want to remain in the region. They will want to go home after the invader has been defeated and expelled from their country. The idea that all Ukrainians are looking to move elsewhere is not correct, but the sponsorship scheme will allow a wide and generous offer and we very much look forward to seeing offers to sponsor people coming forward from across Wales.
The Minister has talked about training new decision-makers. How many are being trained today? What discussions have taken place with retired decision-makers and caseworkers, and what discussions have happened across Government with other people who are used to making decisions on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government, to assess how they could assist with this issue?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his thoughtful question. We have 50 in training today, and we are bringing the whole of UK Visas and Immigration’s quite significant resource to bear on this. In the first instance, we will take decision-makers off other immigration routes, because they will be familiar with immigration decisions and will therefore be more likely to take immigration decisions more quickly in this area. We are also talking to other Government Departments about apprentices and others who can potentially backfill other parts of the immigration system. UKVI employs thousands of decision-makers and we are looking across the piece at those with experience that we can deploy in this area and then potentially backfill other parts with those from other Departments.
I have a list here of everything my constituent has done to get his Ukrainian wife into this country. He started with an application on 12 February. They lost his family in the system. I have spoken to the Minister and I have been to the hub. Today my constituent emailed me four times to say that he was in Rzeszów, that the transport layer security—TLS—system was broken, that his appointment had not been registered and that there was no guarantee he would be seen. The final email said that he had been advised to leave the visa application centre, which had managed to process only seven people and was down from two clerks to one. He has been advised to go to the embassy in Warsaw. He needs biometrics, because nobody will look at him until he has them, but he is a UK national and all he wants is to get his wife and daughters back to Wishaw. Help!
The hon. Lady will realise that it would not be appropriate for me to go into the detail of individual cases on the Floor of the House, but I am very happy to speak to her afterwards to see what we can do to resolve the situation.
As a former Immigration Minister, I am very sympathetic to the need to do appropriate security checks. I have publicly defended the Government on this issue, but we need to grip the pace of this, which will require Ministers to take decisions to move things along quickly.
The Home Secretary announced the humanitarian sponsorship route a week ago. I heard what my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) said about weeks or months, but I was thinking about days. I expect a Minister to be at the Dispatch Box by Thursday to set it out. We have to start working at the pace these events require, so will the Minister commit to an update on the humanitarian sponsorship scheme on Thursday?
The Government will be happy to update Members on Thursday on what is happening, whether through a “Dear colleague” letter or another appropriate forum. We intend that it will be weeks, not months, before we start welcoming people into the UK. This will be an unlimited offer that reflects people’s generosity, but I appreciate that we now need to get on and get it launched.
I have been in the Chamber since the start of business, and it is not often that I feel ashamed. I have listened to a range of Ministers make half-baked excuses for no action. The President of Ukraine will be speaking to us later, and this is when our hearts, minds and prayers are with the people of Ukraine. For God’s sake, will the ministerial team and the Government please get their act together and open the doors to these poor people?
We look forward to hearing the President later, and we reflect on how he has inspired his people in resisting the invasion, including with the arms we have supplied. We are, as we have outlined, surging decision makers, upping the capacity of VAC and considering whether under-18s should continue submitting biometrics, which would not only speed up their applications but free up appointments for others. We are moving caseworking resource from across UKVI to get through the applications, and we will continue to take further action to speed up the process. I hear what the House is saying.
I thank the officials in the Portcullis House hub who are providing helpful advice to constituents.
We have been advised to get people to Rzeszów in Poland for biometric testing to support their application, but the word on the ground is that there are no biometric appointments in Rzeszów until the end of next month. When constituents’ families are sent to these posts for biometric testing, can the Minister confirm that the testing will actually be available?
I am concerned about that example. We will continue to look to increase biometric capacity. As I said, we are actively considering removing the need for biometric testing for under-18s and whether we can adapt the technology we used for Hong Kong BNOs who do not need to go to a VAC as part of their application, which would innately create further capacity for people to come through the system. We will continue to look at how we can surge and increase the capacity of our application centres across the region, not just the one that has been cited.
My constituents in Vauxhall want to see the UK make it clear that refugees are welcome. We need a clear and simple process in place for people seeking asylum, but vulnerable people need support before they get to the border. There are urgent humanitarian problems, including access to food, transportation, sanitation and hygiene facilities, mental health services, bereavement support and emergency healthcare, including for people living with HIV. Will the Minister please ensure that the UK’s asylum system begins with immediate aid for people who need to flee?
The hon. Lady makes some strong points. One of the reasons we are working closely with the countries bordering Ukraine is that, given the end of direct travel, it is extremely unlikely that people will make it to the UK in a day. Those who have just crossed the border from Ukraine will need a range of support, including medical support, and colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care are talking with the Polish health authorities because Poland’s hospitals are clearly beginning to become fairly full. We will need to look across western Europe for others to support them, including by potentially taking patients from those hospitals into the UK. I make it clear that people who enter our asylum system will arrive with status and will be able to get on with their life. They will not have to make a further application here.
Salisbury borders my constituency, so I fully accept the need for security checks, particularly on adult males. But the fact remains that the Republic of Ireland, with which we share a common travel area, has a population of 5 million and has committed to take 100,000 refugees from Ukraine, having already admitted more than 2,000. This country, with a population of 67 million, has come nowhere close to that. Why not?
First, looking at what we are doing, we estimate that about 100,000 people are potentially eligible for the family route, and we have an unlimited position on the sponsorship route, which could well see us exceed quite significantly the numbers offered by the Republic of Ireland.
Visas are now going out. As I said, nearly 500 had been granted as of 9.30 this morning, and more are being granted as we speak. We are surging decision-making capability and upping the biometrics process, which will quickly increase the numbers arriving in the United Kingdom, on top of the numbers we have already welcomed as we moved UK nationals and their families earlier this year.
My constituent Michael Jevdokymenko has been contacted by his family, who have fled from Ukraine. They have no documents, no papers—nothing. They are at the border with a little three-year-old child. What assistance can we provide to give that family hope, to get them to Northern Ireland and to let them re-establish some semblance of normality? Where is the Christian compassion for which this nation was known?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that example. We are conscious that people are leaving without the normal proof they might have of family relationships. It would clearly be inappropriate to insist that people try to get a marriage certificate or something like that if they have fled from their home. We have provisions that allow travel without passports and other documents, obviously once certain checks and nominations are done. Again, that is part of the process that is being established.
We are conscious that, even where people have access to documents, they might not have the full documents. We are also conscious that people will potentially have left in a hurry, so they may not have had time to bring particular documents. Not having a passport will not be a bar, but we will need to use other processes to identify them, which is not unusual in situations where we are moving people at pace.
So much about this does not feel right, and my constituents know what they see. All of this is far too robotic. As the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) said, very little Christian compassion is being shown at the moment. Surely we are past the UK saying that we are going to have a generous scheme; it is time to deliver a generous scheme.
The family scheme is too slow and the humanitarian sponsorship scheme, as I raised with the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities yesterday, is still being designed at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. I do not want to hear the Minister say that that is another Department, as he is the Minister at the Dispatch Box. At the very least, can we have a simple online gateway up and running tomorrow so that constituents who want to help can at least register their interest? There is so much compassion and desire to help, but people are not able to do so.
I recognise my hon. Friend’s concern. The vast majority of councils in this country, including my own, took part in the Afghan resettlement scheme, and many are already offering to take details and offers of help in preparation for the launch of the humanitarian sponsorship route. I encourage my constituents to do it, and I know he will be encouraging his constituents to think of what offers they can make. The compassion of this country is shown by the fact this will be an unlimited scheme, on top of the family scheme, and could potentially be one of the biggest movements into communities in the UK since the evacuations of the 1930s.
I thank the Minister for his personal help, but my constituents share the absolute frustration at the speed at which the Government are moving on this issue. Can he get a grip on the situation in Warsaw? I heard today of people who are seeking to join their family in the UK but who are being told that there are no appointments available until at least 15 March, even though they have been in Poland for some time having escaped Kyiv. Will he publish how many staff have actually been posted to Warsaw, Bucharest, Budapest, Bratislava and Chisinau? Have we actually sent staff? Are all of them operating at seven-day capacity? How long do people have to wait for appointments in those locations?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his points. We are surging staff into our visa applications centres; I am conscious of the fact that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office also has a separate system of posts and diplomatic presence there. We are looking at how we can expand the capacities, and I have touched on some other things we are looking at in order to remove the need for a biometric appointment entirely.
Yet again, we see the Home Office refusing to grasp the urgency of this crisis. Just like the Afghan resettlement scheme, these schemes are too limited and progress is too slow. My constituents are desperate to help and are offering their homes, but no sponsorship information is available. The Welsh Government are offering to help, as are Welsh local authorities. What discussions has the Minister had with them to facilitate this scheme? What estimate does he have of the number of sponsorships available in Wales?
On engagement with the Welsh Government, I understand that colleagues in the Department that lead on this have spoken to the Welsh and Scottish Governments about the provisions. Of course this will depend on how many sponsors come forward and how many people want to be part of welcoming people into their own homes and own community across Wales—I suspect we will see a generous amount. On urgency, we took 16,000 people out of Kabul in two weeks, we worked at pace and we are still evacuating people out of Afghanistan as we speak. We will soon be welcoming many thousands from Ukraine into the UK, alongside having the most generous sponsorship scheme that exists, given that it is completely uncapped.
Many of the Ukrainian refugees who eventually get here will be vulnerable women and children, not all of whom will have relatives here who can offer a roof over their heads. Have the Government given any thought to setting up some sort of portal or clearing house where offers of accommodation can be made and basic safety checks can also be made before vulnerable people take up those offers?
My right hon. Friend makes a very good point. We are talking about potentially vulnerable individuals arriving in a cohort, and we will need to make sure that basic safeguarding checks are in place, particularly where people are offering to welcome people into their homes. I know that my colleagues are closely looking at how that can be done, but without it becoming a barrier to enabling the swift movement of this scheme.
A refugee is a refugee, regardless of the colour of their skin or their background. So I am deeply concerned about reports of refugees from a BAME background being stopped at the Ukrainian border and turned away. Does the Minister agree that such reports are despicable? What are the Government doing to ensure the safe passage of all refugees fleeing from this horrific conflict?
The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the fact that Ukraine provided a safe haven for people leaving Afghanistan. It is not just one community living in Ukraine; like our own country, it is a set of ideals as a nation and it is not based on a particular ethnicity. It would be concerning to hear that people are being turned away at the Ukrainian border. Obviously, we do not control that border, as he will appreciate. There is also Ukrainian law to consider in relation to men aged 18 to 60, who are required to stay in Ukraine for military service, including dual nationals. Again, that is a decision taken by Ukraine. However, we would certainly be clear that race and ethnicity should not play any part in the decisions taken at that border on allowing people to leave Ukraine and enter safe and democratic countries next door, and then potentially move on to the UK via our schemes.
I appreciate that Ministers and officials are grappling with a horrendously complex situation, but it is worrying that some contradictory advice has been offered to Members. I have a constituent who has pre-settled status and I was told by the Members’ help desk on Thursday that she would be able to bring her two young children across. Yesterday, she emailed to say that, no, the published advice was against that. I went back to the help desk, where they said they were going to escalate the query. I am escalating it even further, to the Minister: does this lady with pre-settled status have the ability to bring her two young children into the UK?
This is probably one I may wish to take away and look at, in respect of the rules around the EU settlement scheme, particularly if this lady was here with pre-settled status during the time of free movement, because some particular rules apply to those people—again, they are free-of-charge application routes. I would certainly be happy to take that one away and get confirmation.
The Minister may be interested to know—I am very surprised he has not already mentioned this—that Citizens UK has set up a registration link for communities and individuals who want to register their interest in community sponsorship. Community sponsorship is a route by which people can come to the UK only if a scheme exists to which communities can apply. The delay in setting up the Afghan scheme was a disgrace, so will the Minister say when we will have a scheme? Community sponsorship is a lengthy process and it can take up to a year before a community group can be matched with a family to come here, so will he say what will be different about this scheme that will make it fit for purpose to meet the urgency of this crisis?
I recognise that a number of groups are encouraging people to register to help, and I welcome that—again, once the official scheme moves forward, that will be a welcome source of information. On community sponsorship, the hon. Lady rightly highlights some of the issue. On a wider point, we have announced that we are going to look at that, as we do think community sponsorship takes too long and too many barriers can be thrown in the way of it. On this scheme, our intention is for a minimised process that does not involve things such as local authority consent and some of the things we see in community sponsorship. This is much simplified and is about matching up those who are prepared to make a particular offer of accommodation and support, and those who are able to take that up, subject, as the hon. Lady would expect, to some of the safeguarding issues that I have touched on already.
It is wholly appropriate to recognise the breadth and scale of support that the Government have given, as well as the significant steps that the Minister and his colleagues have taken. But we also need to recognise and understand the desperate plight of people fleeing such persecution and the risks they face. My constituent Yuri Nobles has returned to Ukraine to bring family members back but is struggling to get an appointment, like so many others here. In recognising the challenge the Minister faces and the challenge from the constituent, may I ask what consideration the Minister has given to extending expired biometric assessments, which can easily be extended to be made appropriate now?
As I touched on partly in my reference to the system that was used for British nationals overseas, we are looking at what role could be played by previously submitted biometrics and at those who have previously had visas to the UK in the recent past who possess a biometric passport. As this stage, we are conscious that where we can reduce the numbers who need to go to a visa application centre, it will free up capacity. As I say, however, our first thoughts have been looking at the requirements for those under 18 and we are looking at the final security advice on doing that.
Using the risk from Kremlin operatives—who have rather easier ways of reaching this country than by posing as refugees—as an excuse for this mean-spirited and shambolic approach simply will not do. Until the Minister follows the advice of the right hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale), are he and his fellow Ministers not going to have to keep coming back to this House to explain this shambles? Just do what the right hon. Gentleman suggested, and what the whole of the rest of Europe is doing, and offer visa-free entry for a limited period to Ukrainian refugees.
As I have outlined, there are clear reasons why we are doing this and we do believe it is right. Basic security checks are made for people arriving in the UK and this is not just happening in the UK; the USA, Canada and Australia are doing exactly the same.
A professional couple from Malmesbury in my constituency tell me that they are in Poland trying to help their relations from Ukraine, who are very well-educated and English-speaking, of course. They tell me that they are sitting up late into the night tussling with the complexities of the forms involved, including one for a child who is one year old, to whom the form does not apply—it asks for his employment and so on. They tell me that the information they are getting on the website is quite different from the information they are getting on the ground; that, like so many others, they have been told they cannot have an appointment for at least another week; and that the hotels in Poland are full and therefore they have nowhere to stay. They just need the thing simplified. I would not go as far as asking for a visa waiver, and the Minister would not want to do that, but surely to goodness he could make the system simpler, simplify the form and cut the time taken.
It is a fair point and I am certainly happy to hear my hon. Friend’s feedback and what his constituents have encountered in more depth after the urgent question. As I say, more than 10,000 applications have been submitted to a scheme that went live on Friday, which indicates that quite a large number of people are getting through the process, but we certainly continue to consider how we can make it simpler and quicker and, as I have touched on, we are reviewing things such as the need for those aged under 18 to submit biometrics.
I am sure that, on International Women’s Day, I do not have to remind the Minister of the particular vulnerability of women in war zones. My Edinburgh South West constituent Oleg Dmitriev has two nieces in Ukraine. He tells me that they are reluctant to flee because what they are hearing on the news makes them think it will be very difficult for them to join their uncle in Scotland. They are asking him why they should risk their lives to get to a third country when the likelihood of their getting a visa to join their uncle in the United Kingdom is vanishingly small. What should Oleg say to his nieces?
I would say to Oleg that, first, we have extended the scheme to include nieces, and if they are his nieces and he wishes them to come to the United Kingdom, they will be able to get a visa to do so. As the hon. and learned Lady touched on, in respect of travel from and within Ukraine, people are in a perilous situation due to the barbaric actions of Russian forces. As we have said, a niece would certainly stand a good chance of getting a visa and they should certainly make an application.
I am proud of my constituents who are coming forward to offer as much help as possible and I am proud of the Prime Minister in the way he is leading the world, but the Home Office is cutting off their legs and it is simply not good enough. Does the Home Office recognise that this is a war the likes of which have not been seen for 80 years in Europe? We do not want to stand in this House and listen to plans and processes; we want dates and we want action. The Home Office must react far more quickly than it is doing and get to the point of hubs of people, get them processed and get them in. This is a disgrace. I ask the Minister, when he leaves the Dispatch Box, to go back to the Home Office and tell it to get a grip!
As I have already outlined, we are making quite a number of changes. We met officials this morning to push further ones through and we have extended the entitlements and who can apply. As I say, this will become one of the biggest relocations of people since the wartime evacuation. Let us just get this into perspective and scale: it is beyond what we have done for BNOs, what we have done over a number of years for Syrians and what we propose to do for Afghan nationals. This will show a generous side of the United Kingdom, alongside the support we have been providing for Ukraine more generally, which has created a very strong impression of the United Kingdom.
Yesterday, I was speaking to a constituent, Stephanie, who was fighting back the tears as she told me how terrified she is about the security of her family, with whom she has lost contact. I am disgusted by the lack of urgency and compassion from the Government. Will the Minister say why the visa application centre in Brussels is closed? Why is it open only three days a week?
As we say, we have been surging staff into the region. We do not want to see people having to travel all the way to western Europe to make applications, having left their country and having made what is now an increasingly dangerous journey across Ukraine, particularly if people come into contact with Russian forces, who are showing minimal respect for international law, or perhaps none at all. As we say, we are surging staff and increasing processing capacity, and Members will start to see the impact of that very shortly.
I am glad that the Home Secretary visited the Ukrainian social club in my constituency, with the Ukrainian ambassador, to hear directly from my residents. I have many Ukrainians in my constituency and a number have relatives who are still in Ukraine, where there are existing biometric records. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to look further at the ideas proposed by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns), to see whether we can find electronic solutions?
The Home Secretary had a positive visit and our relationship with the ambassadors and the community has been strong, given the broad range of support we are providing to Ukraine. We are providing support not just in the form of lethal aid into Ukraine itself but to countries, including those with borders with Ukraine, that are now dealing with large numbers of people because, as I keep saying, the vast majority of people want to remain close to their homes because they want to go home once the invader has been defeated and driven from their country.
We are looking further at how we can use some of the work we have done in respect of things such as the Hong Kong BNO route and the reuse of biometrics and, as I have touched on a couple of times, at whether under-18s need to submit biometrics at all.
This Government have some pretty strange priorities: apparently, they think nothing of overturning national security advice when it comes to granting a life peerage to the son of an ex-KGB agent, but they are apparently putting obstacle after obstacle in front of refugees who are fleeing unspeakable violence in Ukraine. Will the Minister listen to the voices from all parties urging him to allow refugees to come here first and then do the biometrics and other security checks here? Does he understand that simply to say they are already in safe countries is deeply insulting? They are traumatised, their families are split up and they might not have finance; we need to be doing much more, now.
I certainly would not dismiss the support that is being provided by the Polish, Hungarian, Romanian and Moldovan authorities. They are doing an amazing job of welcoming those who are coming straight over the border. We have on a number of occasions touched on why we believe it is right that we do basic security checks before people travel to the United Kingdom, but many of our other normal requirements are being waived. I do not think that some of the solutions potentially put forward around doing security checks here in the UK would necessarily reflect a warm-hearted approach.
As it is International Women’s Day, we are looking at the experiences of women around the world. I have been asked whether it is difficult being a pregnant MP; the answer is no. I will tell the House what is difficult: being a pregnant woman in Ukraine and children being in a basement where they are being attacked. Stroud people want to understand what the chuff is going on. I know that the Minister cares and that the Home Office cares, but the picture is still confused and causing anxiety. Will my hon. Friend confirm that he will look at all biometric options to speed up the process? In particular, will he ensure that when websites and things say that people will get information back after 24 hours, the Home Office provides that information or changes the expectation and deals with it properly?
As I say, we are certainly keen to look at the position in respect of biometrics for under-18s. That would make a significant difference, particularly for family applications. Some final security advice on that is being considered but we are keen to move forward shortly. We are looking at some of the electronic means—as I say, for those who are not familiar with the BNO visa, if someone has a HKSAR passport that is biometrically enabled, they can apply from home without a visit to a visa application centre. We are looking at a range of options that could speed things up and remove the need to go to a VAC.
Germans are waiting in Berlin Central station to offer Ukrainian refugees their homes and their hearts. The people of Newcastle Central are no less generous, yet their Government greets war-traumatised families who have already crossed a continent with a demand that they go to Brussels or Paris for an unspecified amount of time, apparently because the Minister thinks they could be KGB agents. Will he say how long he expects Ukrainian refugees to wait in Brussels or Paris? What support is he offering, financially and in terms of transport, so that they can meet his ridiculous demands?
Ensuring the safety and security of our country is never a ridiculous demand. As we have already touched on, we will be opening up a centre in Lille, and we have certainly already touched on what we are considering in respect of children. We have an uncapped, unlimited system. Again, our position is very similar to what some of our core allies are doing.
My inbox, like that of many others, has been overwhelmed by generous offers of support for Ukrainian families. My constituents are ready and willing to offer help to those in desperate need. The only barrier to their support seems to be Home Office bureaucracy. Now is not the time, Minister, for box-ticking and red tape; now is the time to do everything we can. No more excuses: we have to move the process forward and we have to speed it up. I am sorry, Minister, but weeks—weeks—simply is not good enough. These are women and children. We have to speed it up. Will he assure me that those kind offers of help from my constituents and the constituents of Members throughout the Chamber are not going to be wasted?
Those kind offers will certainly not be wasted. We are moving at pace to set up our system and to increase the numbers while doing the basic security checks to keep our people safe.
This may be down to Home Office incompetence, or this may be being done for political reasons, and, if it is, may I tell the Minister that he has misread the country? Like other people in this place, I have been overwhelmed by constituents offering their homes and the spaces that they have to refugees from Ukraine. The local charity, New Beginnings, which has been operating in Ukraine for many years, is desperate to sponsor people with no family links coming to the UK from Ukraine. When will that New Beginnings charity be able to sponsor Ukrainians to come here? It needs to know that this week.
I do not want to get into political point-scoring on this particular issue. It is neither seemly nor appropriate to do so. In terms of the routes, as we say, we place our first priority on families and relatives, because we appreciate that the vast majority of relatives will be able to stay with family. We are working at pace to set up the humanitarian sponsorship visa, but, obviously, our colleagues in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities will be leading on operationalising the actual sponsorship element of that to ensure that we can give the warm-hearted welcome that many want to see.
I am so proud to represent a vibrant Ukrainian community in my Colne Valley constituency. I am equally proud to have so many people in my community opening their hearts and ready to open their homes for these Ukrainian refugees. We have done so much on sanctions, on humanitarian aid, and on military aid, so why are we dragging our feet with all this bureaucracy? Will the Minister not only commit to put extra staff into these visa centres, but ensure that they are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week? All the helplines need to be manned 24 hours a day. Can he assure me that, by the weekend, thousands and thousands more desperate Ukrainian refugees will be safe here in the UK with their family and friends?
I hear my hon. Friend’s point. As he said, we are bringing in more decision makers—people from UK Visas and Immigration who are experienced in decision making—to ensure that, as soon as a decision is ready to go, we can get straight on and do it. We are certainly looking to expand, where we can, the visa application capacity. Again, we need to make sure that we have enough staff. We are looking at whether we can backfill that with staff from the United Kingdom. Again, this is more about staff availability than the actual physical structure. Sometimes local labour laws impact on operations, but we do not think that that will be an issue in this particular instance given the urgency of the case. Crucially, as I have touched on a couple of times, we should look at whether we can remove entirely from some cases the need for an appointment—for example for under-18s—and at whether we can use the tech that we use for the British national overseas visas. Many BNO applicants never go near a VAC; they just use our ID with their passports. Again, that deals with the point about capacity without the need for any extra appointments.
Last week, I raised the case of my constituent and his wife who were advised by the Government helpline to come back from Poland to Lviv to collect her spousal visa. After my intervention, they were told to go to the VAC in Warsaw. An hour ago, they emailed me to say:
“We are just out of the VAC centre in Warsaw and again we have been told that they don’t print visas and they can’t help us. This time, according to the worker, their visa vignettes are printed in the UK and sent to the VACs. Unsurprisingly, the VAC didn’t know how to help us. They didn’t even have access to the Ukrainian database. I find it shocking that the Home Office couldn’t arrange that access over two weeks.”
Can the Minister advise me when my constituent and his wife can come home safely to Glasgow?
Certainly, no one should be being advised now to go into Ukraine to get visas or for any other purpose. I am very happy to pick up the case to see what has happened in this particular instance. Certainly, a person should be able to collect a visa from any VAC, but I hear what is being said, I do not doubt it, and I am happy to pick up on it.
I met with four of my Ukrainian constituents last week. They have been bowled over by the generosity shown by the people of Ipswich, particularly by the Polish community. There is actually a lorry approaching the Ukrainian border today, carrying £8,000-worth of gifts from the Polish community. I have two questions. I met with Olena whose family are currently stuck in Kharkiv. Can I have a quite update on the possibility of a humanitarian corridor for her family to get out of Kharkiv, not to Belarus and Russia, but to a safe European country? Secondly, Viktoria said that if some of the people who are eligible for the family scheme do not want to take up that option can it be transferred to somebody else very close to them who might not strictly qualify for the family route?
Certainly, in terms of the situation on the ground in Kharkiv, we have to be very careful about how we take President Putin’s offers of humanitarian corridors, not least because they are rarely respected and often may well be used as a cover for breaches of international law that then follow. We need to be quite careful about the whole concept of humanitarian corridors. I have already said that travel across Ukraine is extremely dangerous, and that people should not wait until they have any form of visa. If they can, they should get into a neighbouring country and then seek to come to the United Kingdom. Certainly, with the family route, people can either sponsor the family, or, see whether there is space available. The wider sponsorship group will come in if there is someone they know and love in Ukraine, whom they would like to sponsor, or if there is someone who has managed to get to a safe bordering country, whom they would like to sponsor to come here.
I just want to give an example of a constituent who is trying to help his niece who has fled from Ukraine, because it backs up all the things that the Minister is hearing from his own side about how just completely unsustainable this system is. Last Friday, they spent the whole day waiting for a form from the United Kingdom for a visa. Of course with the biometrics, they had to give a lot of complex information. After they had given all that, they were then asked for bank details and documentation that the niece who had fled from Ukraine just did not have with her. It is now three days since that, and there is no sign of a decision, which had been promised within 48 hours. My constituent said:
“I simply cannot put into words how angry and desperate we are becoming because of this shameful situation.”
What is the Minister actually doing to fix that chaos? That is a live situation and that is actually what is happening.
I can fully appreciate why asking for bank details and the things that we might normally ask for in the immigration system might be an entirely unreasonable request to somebody who has escaped their home in Ukraine with whatever they could carry. I am very happy to look at that case to see whether our decision makers are acting appropriately in terms of what they are asking for. I do not think that it is appropriate, for example, to be asking for bank details from Ukraine at this time.
Order. We have to leave that there. We have done eight minutes more than was allocated for the urgent question. Clearly, with this crisis ongoing, there will be other opportunities for urgent questions and statements. More than 20 people were still rising to speak at the end of the urgent question. We will look to ensure that they get prioritised in future.