Monday 14 March 2022
[Peter Dowd in the Chair]
[Relevant documents: E-petition 609382, Offer fast track asylum to any Ukrainians displaced due to the invasion, and Oral Evidence taken before the Home Affairs Committee on 9 March on Home Office policy on Ukrainian refugees, HC 1168.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 609530, relating to arrangements for Ukrainian refugees to enter the UK.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. This e-petition calls on the Government to waive visa requirements for Ukrainian refugees. I thank Phillip Jolliffe, who I believe is here today, for bringing the petition to the House, and the more than 240,000 petitioners who have signed it and related petitions since it was tabled just over a week ago.
On 24 February, the day on which Russia invaded Ukraine, the Prime Minister said:
“I say to the Ukrainians in this moment of agony, we are with you. We are praying for you and your families, and we are on your side.”
Many of us believe that being on Ukraine’s side must mean, at the very least, allowing Ukrainians fleeing Russia’s bombs and tanks to come to the UK for sanctuary, but the shameful reality is that we have put up barriers at every step of the way and we have turned away desperate, frightened people in their hour of greatest need.
We should have been prepared for this: we had known for months that Russian troops were massing at the Ukrainian border; and with his record of atrocities in Chechnya, Georgia, Syria and Ukraine itself, we had no illusions as to what President Putin was capable of. Indeed, on 20 February, the Prime Minister told the BBC:
“The plan that we are seeing is for something that could be really the biggest war in Europe since 1945”.
The next day, the US ambassador to the United Nations said that
“we will see a devastating loss of life. Unimaginable suffering. Millions of displaced people will create a refugee crisis across Europe.”
Just three days later, the Russian invasion began and so did the long-predicted refugee crisis. According to the UN, about 2.8 million refugees have already fled Ukraine. As President Putin’s hopes of a quick victory have evaporated in the face of fierce Ukrainian resistance, the fighting has only intensified, and however bad the conflict looks from the comfort of watching it on our television and computer screens, humanitarian workers and journalists have been very clear that it is 10 times worse on the ground. Families are struggling to seek safety. Hundreds of thousands have been left without food, water and electricity and with no access to medical care. Elderly people have been left trapped, unable to move. Last week, we will all have seen the horrible images of the maternity and children’s ward in the city of Mariupol destroyed in a Russian airstrike and the reports of children buried under rubble. Authorities were digging a mass grave because the morgues were overflowing. Ukrainians have prepared to escape through humanitarian corridors but have had to turn back, because Russian forces have continued their assault. Which one of us would not want to flee such a nightmare?
We know that Poland has already welcomed about 1.2 million people fleeing that hell across the border. Moldova has accepted 83,000 Ukrainians, which equates to 3% of its own population. Although most refugees will no doubt want to remain in countries close to Ukraine, some are travelling further afield to western Europe. Faced with the continent’s worst humanitarian crisis in living memory, the EU swiftly announced and introduced an emergency plan, the temporary protection directive, to allow Ukrainians to live and work in the bloc for three years. As of Tuesday, about 10,000 Ukrainians had arrived in France and 30,000 in Italy; Germany, which is closer to Ukraine, has more than 120,000. The European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, said:
“All those fleeing Putin’s bombs are welcome in Europe.”
It was a warm, open-hearted message that so many Ukrainians desperately needed to hear. Of course, the UK is no longer part of the EU and has its own approach, based on two significantly less generous schemes.
I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend, who is making a passionate and well-informed speech. I wanted to briefly mention a constituent of mine, who has a friend from Ukraine who fled to Calais with her seven-year-old son. They were turned away and told they needed appointments at a UK visa centre. She finally managed to get herself an appointment in Brussels on 24 March; however, she was told that her son would not be allowed into the visa centre without an appointment of his own, even though he is seven years old, and there was no availability until the following week. Does my hon. Friend agree it is unacceptable to stop parents bringing their children into visa centres? Will she urge the Minister to take action to ensure dependants can share appointments and provide clarity to refugees about the necessity of these appointments, now that the UK Government have finally said that those with Ukrainian passports can apply fully online?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I would go further than it being unacceptable: it is completely heartbreaking to hear these stories and see the way in which many families and people in the most desperate of situations have been treated. We have seen heartbreaking images, so I am more than happy to put that question to the Minister, and expect to hear an answer when he responds.
Going back to the processes that are available, the first is the Ukraine family scheme visa, which allows Ukrainians with select family members in the UK to remain for three years, assuming they can get here.
I have just come off the phone to my caseworker. Today, we have been contacted by a constituent whose father has managed to flee Ukraine over the Polish border. He went to a UK visa centre, and has successfully passed all his checks and been granted a visa, but he has now been told that he has to travel 300 km to Warsaw to pick it up. He is in his 70s and has two bags of belongings; he is not in a position to do that. Does the hon. Lady agree that this is beyond ridiculous, and that people need to be issued with their visas on site if we are not going to waive the visa requirement?
I absolutely agree; the hon. Lady’s point is very well made. I have no doubt that every Member contributing today will have heard such stories from our constituents about their family members who they are desperately trying to help. They have come to their MP for help, but so many people do not have that support available, and that my heart breaks for people who are encountering these challenges and do not know where to turn for help.
Speaking to the Home Affairs Committee last week, the Ukrainian ambassador himself seemed genuinely surprised to hear that the current scheme only applies if a relative has settled status, and that this had not been extended to all Ukrainians living here legally. The Home Secretary said on Thursday that she is looking at broadening that eligibility to include Ukrainians on time-limited work or study visas, so I hope the Minister can give some reassurances and further detail on that point today, to put minds at rest that that hurdle, at least, has been addressed by the Government.
Might I be helpful? I appreciate that the hon. Lady would not have heard this statement before coming into Westminster Hall, but it has just been announced in the main Chamber that those with limited immigration leave will also be able to act as sponsors provided that they have six months’ leave to be here in the UK, given the six-month minimum for providing housing.
Okay. The second route, the “homes for Ukraine” programme, has been announced in the Chamber today. As I understand it—I am happy to be corrected, because we have only just received the details—this route allows charities and individuals to sponsor Ukrainians to come here even when they have no family ties, and to stay with members of the public for at least six months and remain in the UK for three years. My understanding is that people will be paid £350 a month during the period of sponsorship, and local authorities will receive around £10,000 for refugees using this route. In practice, this scheme is likely to be extended mainly to Ukrainians already known to people in the UK.
As Members are aware, a statement on this matter is currently ongoing in the main Chamber. We will need to look at the details more fully, but what we do know is that these initiatives are still quite limited: they cover only selected people, those lucky enough to have family members here or to be chosen for sponsorship. They do not offer all Ukrainians fleeing violence the opportunity to come to our country as refugees. It should come as no surprise that in stark contrast to many of our European allies, the UK had issued just 4,000 visas as of Sunday afternoon, according to the Home Office.
The Home Secretary repeatedly raises security as a justification for the Government’s approach. Security is by no means a trivial issue, but it is difficult to see what security has to do with the Government’s decision to mostly restrict access to selected family members of people settled in the UK. People arrive in the UK with all kinds of challenges, and we deal with them. Are the hugely restrictive schemes not just a policy choice that the Government have made for whatever reason, rather than a response to a specific security threat? If security concerns underpin the Government’s approach, how does that fit with the suggestion made by the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and Minister for Intergovernmental Relations, the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) that the public could find people to sponsor on social media? Is that really the safest way to go about that, if security is the main concern? It is telling that Germany, France and Spain, which no doubt share concerns about security within their borders, have not used that same rationale. I am afraid to say that it looks like the Government are searching for reasons for the highly limited and restrictive approach they have taken throughout the crisis. The Minister may give a response that explains and clarifies that for Members, but the public are struggling to understand.
Even the distinctly ungenerous design of those two schemes have been surpassed by the chaos and the confusion over how desperate Ukrainians are supposed to even access them, which has seen Ministers at times openly contradicting one another. The list of requirements that Ukrainians have faced is dizzying. First, they must create an online account on the Home Office website, and fill in a detailed application form in English. They must then upload proof that their family member has residence in the UK; they must prove that they were living in the UK prior to 1 January 2022. Evidence must then be provided of the link to the family member in the UK, and if they do not have that, they must provide an explanation why. If that documentation then needs to be translated from Ukrainian or Russian into English, the applicant is responsible for ensuring that happens. Before tomorrow’s changes, even those with full documentation had to book and attend appointments to give biometrics, including fingerprints, in person at UK visa application centres. Those without passports will still have to. As Ukraine’s ambassador told the Home Affairs Committee last week, most people do not have their passports with them—their homes were burned.
Many people who braved the journey to Calais found only a handful of Home Office officials, handing out crisps and chocolate bars before telling them that no visas would be issued there. Ukrainians were advised to call a UK number, visit a website or travel elsewhere—not the easiest thing to do when they have just arrived from a war zone. Disturbing news reports show children bursting into tears after hours of queuing outside UK visa application centres in sub-zero temperatures.
Many constituents who have contacted me have come to their own view on this: that the bureaucratic complexity and apparent indifference to the suffering of Ukrainian refugees is entirely consistent with the Government’s overarching migration and asylum policy, under which anyone hoping to enter the UK is met with a system that is grudging, inefficient and designed to keep them out no matter what the costs on the other side of the ledger. One constituent contacted me seeking support to bring his family to the UK. After many anxious hours and days, his family managed to progress the case. He sent me a message saying,
“I am ashamed at the way this current government is treating Ukrainian refugees”,
and that while they eventually managed to obtain support,
“there will be many who don’t have the ability to receive that help”.
Another constituent added,
“I weep when I see elderly people queuing in sub-zero temperatures outside well-heated offices that they have had to travel extra distance to after their exhausting flight from bombs and war.”
A further constituent stated,
“I am hugely disappointed by our Government’s slowness to provide a safe haven for Ukrainian people.”
Others have described the response as “woeful”, “inhumane” and “overly bureaucratic”.
Too many times over the last few years, such as with Syria and Afghanistan, our Government have been too slow and too bureaucratic to respond in times of crisis. Ukrainians are just the latest victims. The Home Office must urgently co-ordinate the systems and staff necessary to run a humane and efficient admissions process—one that recognises that people fleeing a war zone are not necessarily going to have all their papers in order.
Before I conclude, I want to ask the Minister some specific questions. First, there is no doubt that the scale of the crisis is immense, with over 2.8 million already fleeing Ukraine and millions more to come. It is a disaster on a scale our continent has not seen since the mid-20th century. It is a huge challenge for the UK and its allies to deal with. It was also predictable. The Government have had intelligence that a Russian invasion of Ukraine was likely for some time. Presumably, Ministers also received advice on the unimaginable scale of the refugee crisis and the options available to help manage it, yet, clearly a decision was taken to help only a very small number of Ukrainians reach the UK. When the Minister responds, can he explain how and why the Government arrived at this decision and why, when we have known that this may happen for some time, the humanitarian sponsorship route has only been revealed today?
Secondly, the economic fallout of this war will not be confined to Russia and Ukraine. In the UK, we already know that the sanctions imposed on Russian oil exports will heighten pre-existing pressures on household finances. Humanitarian agencies have warned that the devastating effects will be felt especially by the world’s poorest. In Lebanon, for example, a reliance on imports from Ukraine and Russia has led to acute shortages in wheat, grain and cooking oil and skyrocketing food and fuel prices. Can the Minister confirm that, from now on, the Government will respond with the long-term vision that is required and that we will provide the support, while ensuring that it does not take away from the budgets we have already committed to help the humanitarian consequences of this crisis elsewhere?
There are Ukrainians already in the UK, including students sponsored by universities who are coming to the end of their course and whose leave to remain will come to an end soon. Understandably, many of them will not be able to return to Ukraine. Instead of granting concessions, as it has done with HGV drivers, pork butchers and seasonal workers, the Home Office appears to have the policy of making every single individual contact the Home Office separately. There is a risk that the Home Office will force them to make human rights or asylum applications, which will add a further administrative burden to the system.
My constituency office is still working to support people who arrived from conflict zones four or five years ago. Some were unaccompanied children, and they are still waiting for decisions on their cases. It makes no sense to force Ukrainians legally present in the UK to compete with Syrians and Afghans for the attention of over-stretched Home Office officials. Will the Government look at a way to automate this process for Ukrainians already in the UK?
As I understand it, same-sex marriage is not recognised in Ukraine. LGBT people might find it harder to prove their relationships to sponsors and their families. What are the Government doing to ensure that LGBT relatives and partners can get out of Ukraine safely without facing discriminatory barriers? On the sponsorship route, how many refugees do the Government anticipate will come via this route, given that it is likely to be restricted to people who are already known to people in the UK? Can the Minister confirm which families will have access to universal credit once the sponsorship ends? How will we deal with the obvious safeguarding concerns around the placing of vulnerable people—mostly women and children?
The Home Affairs Committee heard evidence that some staff working at TLScontact are taking what would be seen as an opportunistic approach to people attending visa application centres, recommending to vulnerable groups that they pay extra money to get an early appointment. Are the Government aware of this commercial, predatory approach that is being taken to a humanitarian disaster, and are they taking steps to deal with it? In November, the Home Secretary was warned by the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration that customers at visa application centres often felt “forced to pay” due to a lack of free appointments and difficulties uploading documents. What action has been taken in response to that warning? Can the Minister also confirm that the Home Office is not offering its own paid services to expedite applications?
The Prime Minister has said that,
“The UK is way out in front in our willingness to help.”
Willingness is one thing—I would hate to think what unwillingness might look like, when our Home Secretary has gone so far as to imply that the Irish Government’s welcoming policy has put UK security at risk.
The petition calls on the Government to join the EU in waiving visa requirements for Ukrainian passport holders arriving in the UK. Everything we have seen so far suggests that the Government intend to respond by merely tweaking existing managed migration routes. However, the crisis will not go away any time soon. It will only get worse as President Putin targets more Ukrainian cities in his destructive war on civilians. Future waves of refugees are likely to be even more vulnerable, as those with fewer resources and connections will be the last to escape.
The petition’s creator, Phillip Jolliffe, contacted me in advance of this debate and said,
“I have been lucky to work with several Ukrainian engineers over the years. I have been in contact with some, and I fear the safety of others. I have heard back from one friend, he has already volunteered and deployed with his unit. It is hard for me to fathom the idea of men I worked with having to pick up arms and wave goodbye to their children. Last I heard, his wife and child remained in Kyiv. I feel great shame and frustration that they cannot come to the UK and receive shelter and aid—it is here waiting for them.”
Across Europe, the response to the Ukrainian invasion—even in some countries that have generally been quite hostile to refugees—has served only to highlight the UK’s shameful policy. It is time for the Government to change course. If 27 European countries can do their bit, so should we.
The public response to this crisis—including this petition, which surpassed the 100,000-signature threshold for debate in such a short space of time—has shown that the British public have big hearts and open arms. They clearly do not want us to offer half-hearted, begrudging support, with painfully difficult conditions attached, to fleeing Ukrainians. The Government do not have to allow unlimited numbers of people to stay in the UK indefinitely, but they must treat this situation as what it is: a humanitarian crisis.
This country has offered sanctuary to those fleeing war on the European continent in generations past. Ukrainians who came here after the second world war have become an integral part of many local communities up and down the country, and many are doing what they can to help their fellow Ukrainians in this moment of unprecedented crisis. As we look to be entering a new era in world politics, exemplified by President Zelensky’s historic address to this House, it is time for us to genuinely and open-heartedly offer that sanctuary again.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I extend my thanks to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for opening the debate on this petition.
The response of the British people has been overwhelming. They have shown extraordinary generosity, which stands in stark contrast to the response of this Government. I can genuinely say that this is a time that I feel incredibly proud of our country, but I feel ashamed of this Government, whose response has been shambolic and shameful. I wish to outline some examples of my constituents and their families to highlight how the absurd and crushing misery of Home Office bureaucracy has impacted people fleeing Ukraine.
One of my constituents has a 74-year-old mother who is frail and in poor health. She has escaped Russian invasion for the second time. She applied for a UK visa on 5 March, when she was in Kraków; she was told to travel to Rzeszów to get her biometrics. On 7 March, this 74-year-old woman queued for seven hours in the freezing cold just to get to her appointment. She was then told that she would receive confirmation within 72 hours, but she was also told that she had to travel back to Warsaw, where she would get her passport stamped so that she could make her way, with her daughter, to the UK. It is now one week on and her daughter—my constituent—is stuck in a hotel while they wait for the email.
I raised this matter with the urgent inquiries line at the Home Office but I have had no reply. This morning, my caseworker went to talk to people at the caseworker desk in Portcullis House and they said, “Oh yes, it’s been approved—it was approved last Thursday—but we haven’t told her yet.” We then rang my constituent and her mother. They had gone to the embassy anyway, on the off-chance. They had just been told, within the same 10 minutes, that the application had been approved, but the embassy was not sure if it could print the sticker today—and if it could not, they would have to come back tomorrow. This woman is traumatised, she is exhausted, and her daughter is spending money on food, hotels and flights that they simply cannot afford.
To summarise, a 70-year-old woman applying to come to the UK has been asked to travel 855 miles over nine days, and she is waiting for a sticker to be printed. Will the Minister apologise to her and to everybody else like her who has been put through such an awful ordeal?
Another constituent of mine and his family have been lucky, because they have now gone through the process and are in a position where they can book their flights to come here. But they wrote to me last night and asked if I could share with the Minister details of the stark contrast between the support they had received in Poland and the bureaucratic nightmare of being processed by the UK authorities. They told me that in Poland, checks at the border take “a matter of minutes”, and that they were
“made to feel welcomed and…safe”.
They said that the UK’s process had been a nightmare.
The family fled Kyiv for Poland on 5 March. On 9 March, they finally managed to get their biometrics done in Warsaw, after completing forms that took hours to fill in on a mobile phone. Two days later, on 11 March, they received an email saying that the decisions were ready, but the Home Office would not tell them what the decisions actually were, so, the next day, they had to go back to the visa application centre to have their passports stamped. However, while the mother-in-law’s visa was stamped, her partner’s was not. They were told, “There just isn’t enough time today to get it printed. Come back tomorrow.”
Finally, all the paperwork is in place and the family have managed to book flights to come back tomorrow, but it has taken them 10 days. My constituent’s sister wrote to me:
“They were already exhausted and traumatised when they arrived in Warsaw. British bureaucracy added to their misery. Their very modest savings have been seriously depleted by the eight-day hotel stay. At least my family had my brother, a British citizen, to help them navigate the red tape. It must be doubly difficult for those who don’t have that advantage and who don’t speak good English. The Government must do much, much more, and quickly turn this convoluted system into something that is user-friendly for Ukrainians.”
On top of those cases, I have other constituents who are affected, and many of them have said that they are confused. They are confused about whether they now need to attend appointments that they have secured in the coming weeks, given the rule changes that apparently are coming into place tomorrow, such that biometrics can be completed in the UK. They have asked the visa application centres whether they still have to attend those appointments, but they have not had an answer. I have asked the Home Office’s MP hotline and I have not had an answer. And my caseworker went to the casework hub at 3.40 pm—just over an hour ago—and it still did not have an answer. Can the Minister give us an answer to that question today?
It is abundantly clear from these examples that it is time to waive the visa requirement before people come here. It is cruel to impose these layers of bureaucracy on traumatised refugees who are trying to escape war and join their families. Like so many other Members, I have dozens of constituents who are willing to offer spare rooms—and, in lucky cases, spare homes—to Ukrainian families. I have one constituent who is the owner of a hotel chain. He says that he can offer work and accommodation to Ukrainian refugees immediately, but he cannot get hold of any information on how to do it. Refugee Action has indicated that there are refugee and asylum charities with a wealth of experience that say they have not been consulted by the Home Secretary. Why not?
Mr Dowd, thank you for giving us the opportunity to speak this afternoon. From the examples of my constituents and those of many other Members, it is abundantly clear that Home Office bureaucracy is causing untold misery, on top of the existing misery of those who are fleeing war. Please, can the Home Office just sort this out?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I want to use this opportunity to put on the record the experiences of my constituents in Lewisham East, and to press the Government to act and to listen.
There are 530 Ukrainians living in Lewisham, and many have family and friends in Ukraine. They have told me what they are going through and how the Ukraine family scheme is full of bureaucratic obstacles. There are no visa application centres currently operating in Ukraine, and those operating in other European countries are overwhelmed with the workload, as we have heard. My constituent’s mother-in-law is in the middle of a two-week wait for the next available appointment at the nearest visa application centre in Poland. The situation at other visa application centres throughout Europe is no better, with reports of waiting times of up to two to three weeks. It is ridiculous, very painful and very traumatising for Ukrainian people.
Another constituent told me that their friend’s daughter, who began her application 10 days ago, is still trapped in Poland due to the Home Office’s bureaucratic red tape and delays to processing her visa. That is simply not good enough. Recent Government announcements on biometric data collection are welcome, but the Home Office should have done that weeks ago. Furthermore, the changes still will not tackle all the long delays that families are facing, and they will not include many of the people fleeing the invasion.
The Government often quote Scripture, so I will too. Matthew 25:35-40 says:
“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in”.
Those words strike me, because that is what the Home Office needs to be doing for Ukrainian refugees. Instead, it is making it too hard for refugees to come to our country. The Home Office is making it difficult for refugees to receive food, drink and warmth. I hope this is the result of incompetence rather than a desire to create a hostile environment for refugees, although I fear it may be both. I will end by asking the Home Office to commit to introducing emergency protection visas for those fleeing Ukraine who want to reach the UK.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd, and to address the petition—although it is really quite disgraceful that, several weeks on from the start of the war, we should find ourselves still in a position whereby the United Kingdom Government, for reasons that escape me, are unable to emulate the generosity of our European Union neighbours.
Hundreds of my constituents in Edinburgh South West have signed the petition, and rarely have I received as many emails on a topic as I have on the issue of what the UK Government should be doing to help Ukrainians refugees. Like other hon. Members, many of my constituents have made practical suggestions. The sponsorship scheme update was announced in the main Chamber this afternoon—I managed to be there for the statement—but it seems to me that it does nothing to address the urgency of the situation.
What my constituents know but the UK Government do not seem to realise is that we have a moral obligation to help these people. We also have legal obligations under the refugee convention, but the Government are in the midst of passing a Bill that breaches those obligations. Surely, this huge crisis on our doorstep in Europe—the biggest crisis in Europe since the second world war—should be a signal that the UK Government need to revisit their policy on refugees and asylum seekers.
Last week, when I spoke in the main Chamber in the International Women’s Day debate, I emphasised the plight of women in Ukraine and their children. Of course, women are particularly vulnerable in wartime because of the risk of sex-based violence. Sadly, we know that at least some of the Russian forces on the ground are committing war crimes in Ukraine as we speak. The imperative to send a signal that there is a safe route for these women and their children to come to the United Kingdom is very strong. We know from the United Nations that the majority of the now millions of refugees fleeing the country are women and children. Put bluntly, what these people need to know now is that they can have visa-free access to the United Kingdom with their children. We must match the European Union on that—no ifs, no buts. We really just need to get on with it.
The very helpful House of Commons Library briefing for this debate tells us that it would be perfectly possible, if Ukrainians had the same visa-free access as they have elsewhere in Europe, for security and biometric checks to be undertaken after they had got here. As I have said already, our European allies can afford visa-free refuge safely and securely, so why can the Home Office not?
On TV, we have seen queues of upset and exhausted people—including old people and small children, as hon. Members have said—waiting in freezing conditions outside British visa application centres. I have heard from Scots trying to assist people that desperate families have been thrown out of visa centres after waiting for hours, so that staff could close for lunch. If it was not so tragic, it would be almost comic. It is ludicrous. The Home Office needs to get its act together. This is not rocket science; other countries—considerably less wealthy countries than the United Kingdom’s Union of nations—are managing to do a better job than us. The Government really need to up their game.
As other hon. Members have said, the other European countries have been able to offer visa-free access by adopting a decision to implement the European Union’s temporary protection directive with immediate effect. That directive establishes minimum EU-wide standards of protection for people displaced by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, including rights of access to suitable accommodation, medical care, social welfare payments, and employment. The temporary protection can be granted for one year, up to a maximum of three years. As we know, the directive allows member states to provide more generous protection if they want to. If we had remained in the European Union, as my country voted to do, we would have been part of that scheme. However, there is no reason why we cannot emulate it.
The Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association has said that lifting the visa requirement would be
“the single most effective step that the government can and should take to ensure the efficient evacuation and resettlement of refugees fleeing the invasion of Ukraine.”
ILPA has also emphasised that removing the visa requirement would not prevent security checks from being made. It stated:
“Biometric enrolment can occur at the border as it happens for non-visa nationals arriving as visitors. Border checks can identify persons of legitimate concern without forcing ordinary civilians to take risks under gunfire to lodge visa applications.”
I know that the current Government might find it hard to admit that the European Union has got things right and they have got them wrong, but it might help them to listen to the advice of Lord Peter Ricketts, our former National Security Adviser. Last week, in a debate in the other place, he said that
“the wholly inadequate arrangements that have been made”
by the UK Government “in and around Calais” for receiving Ukrainian refugees are actually threatening our safety in the United Kingdom, rather than assisting it, because they are undermining the
“close co-operation we need with our”
“neighbours to keep our own citizens safe”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 11 March 2022; Vol. 819, c. 1663.]
Lord Ricketts elaborated on those thoughts in an interview with Mark D’Arcy for the Friday night broadcast of BBC Radio 4’s “Today in Parliament”. Drawing on his expertise, he said:
“Security is always a matter of risk management—there is never zero risk”.
However, because the refugees are largely women and children, they do not, in his opinion, pose a security risk. That is the opinion of a highly respected former national security adviser, who has widely reported on these matters in the past. He went on to say that the United Kingdom Government need to take a
“a much more humane and open approach…and should not be requiring visas”
and security checks until people are here.
I ask the Minister why, if Lord Peter Ricketts thinks that we can do that safely, the European Union can do it safely and our near neighbours the Republic of Ireland can do it safely, the United Kingdom cannot get its act together and do away with visas to get these refugees into the country safely and quickly? I suggest that it is a matter of political will, and of a degree of hubris on the Government’s part, because they would have to abandon the political dogma of the Nationality and Borders Bill on refugees and asylum seekers. It is not just this crisis that has shown the deep-seated flaws in the Nationality and Borders Bill. Following the fiasco in Afghanistan last summer, many of the people who were supposedly warmly welcomed to our country are still in substandard hotels. Crises across the world show that the British Government’s approach on these matters is completely wrong.
I am not a big fan of the other place, and that is not because I do not think it is good to have a revising Chamber—it is important, and I very much hope that, when Scotland becomes an independent country, we will have a revising Chamber as part of the checks and balances on Executive power—but the problem with the one here is that it is not elected. Having said that, it has some pretty sharp operators and people who know their stuff, including Lord Peter Ricketts, and they have realised that big changes are needed to the Nationality and Borders Bill. Over the last fortnight, in a string of defeats for the Government, the Lords removed some of the most egregious parts of the Bill, including the criminalisation of asylum seekers and the plans for offshore processing. It is particularly shocking that if the UK Government got their way, any Ukrainians who, having made it to our border with France and across the channel, tried to claim asylum here would be criminalised. How can that be right?
It is disappointing that no Tory Back Benchers are here to speak in this petitions debate. I am sure that they, like us, have constituents who are upset and concerned about the situation. This is not a party political matter but a concern shared across the nations of these islands and across political parties. Part of the reason for that is that in the past a moral panic has been created about the number of asylum seekers crossing the channel to come to the United Kingdom. I suggest to Tory Back Benchers that they, as well as their Government, have a responsibility to quell that moral panic by basing their policy making on evidence rather than scaremongering.
The Joint Committee on Human Rights, of which I am deputy Chair, heard evidence about people crossing the channel last year. Greece, Italy and Spain have all received many more arrivals in recent years than the United Kingdom. The United Nations reports, for example, that in 2020 Italy received around 34,000 sea arrivals, Spain around 40,000 and Greece 10,000, compared with the United Kingdom’s 8,500. Putting the law to one side, whether we are Christian—as I am—Muslim, Jewish, Sikh or another faith, this is a moral problem.
We are one of the richest countries in western Europe, and the Government keep telling us how fast our economy is growing, although there is a bit of a question mark over the figures they pray in aid of that. If we are one of the richest countries in western Europe and have a fast-growing economy, why can we not afford to help more of these people?
This the biggest humanitarian crisis in Europe since the second world war. It should challenge all of our thinking about our policy towards our fellow men and women, particularly people right on our doorsteps in continental Europe. There has never been a better time for the Government to revisit their policy toward refugees and asylum seekers. Let us start with visa-free access for Ukrainian refugees. Then let us follow up with some humble pie by accepting the Lords amendments to the Nationality and Borders Bill. That is what my constituents and millions of people across the nations of the United Kingdom want.
The European Union can do it. One of our most senior former security advisers says we can do it without compromising national security. Indeed, he says that to continue to operate in such a shambolic fashion will actually compromise our national security, because it will undermine the chances of good co-operation with our European neighbours. Minister, let us hear this afternoon why we cannot do it when the EU can, why we cannot do it when the Republic of Ireland can, and what is wrong with Lord Ricketts’s analysis.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair this afternoon, Mr Dowd. I thank every single petitioner for using their power to act on this matter, and I thank people across our nation who have stood with refugees over these last few days, as millions of people have crossed borders and millions more have been internally displaced—no doubt soon to cross themselves into an unknown future.
Until 17 days after this most brutal of conflicts commenced, the UK showed no recognition of this reality nor of its responsibility, legal or moral, to give proper sanctuary. The powerful testimony of families welcoming complete strangers from across Europe to form new families has shamed this Government. These families asked for no checks, and they asked no questions. They have just shown compassion.
The hostile dogma of the Home Office says that women, children and old people fleeing war and terror must first collect a visa, as if going on holiday, or should opt to pick vegetables from our fields to enter the UK. What a disgrace. They face more risk themselves than they pose any risk to anyone else. While the U-turn was welcome on Thursday, the impact will be minimal, as family members will stick together until all have the required the documentation that the UK, unlike other countries, demands.
As with all passengers, and as goes for any of us, border security checks will screen for immediate safety. Once people arrive in the UK, with their whole lives packed into a single bag, families should then receive any emergency protection visa or documentation and the warmest of welcomes at our ports, airports or Eurostar. There is no need to process visas in centres across Europe. That can happen on arrival here and with no added so-called risk. A friend of a constituent sought to get a visa. They went and made inquiries and were told they should go to a place called Kyiv. For the Minister’s information, Kyiv is in the middle of a war zone. That shows the shambolic mess operating in the Home Office.
At the same time, support should be given to people for all of their travel. They should get free travel through Europe and across the UK as they arrive and are placed with families. The Home Secretary seems to have confused and conflated security with sanctuary, and she has displayed her prejudice. Other nations have put our Government to shame. I was glad to see some movement over the weekend. To home a refugee and their family would be a privilege. While safeguarding is important, bureaucratic hoops must be removed, because it is what people across my constituency want and it is what I want.
We heard today about the Homes for Ukraine scheme, but it raises more questions than it answers. What happens after six months? What happens if a placement breaks down? Who will then safeguard the interests of that family? What about school places? What about access to our NHS? What about access to mental health services? They are already under immense pressure and yet specialist trauma services will be required. How are families matched? It seems that refugees somehow have to advertise that they are in need of a home and somehow families offering their homes have to find that match. Processes need to be in place and systems need to be adopted. I believe that today’s statement only asked questions, but we desperately need answers, and we need those answers now.
The same should be true for the thousands of Afghan refugees who have been imprisoned in bridging hotels for the last seven months. They must not be forgotten, as they too have fled terror, and as they are locked away, their mental health is deteriorating and they are feeling abandoned by this Government. We need Homes for Afghans, too, and homes for all who flee. We must be generous as a country, as our constituents are demanding. This Government have too often been on the wrong side of history and the wrong side of humanity. Let not perfection be the enemy of good. If homes are checked and safeguarding is agreed, let people come to our constituencies and the homes of our constituents, and to where there is spare capacity in other buildings. I keep raising the issue of the 7,230 empty homes leased by Annington Homes to the Ministry of Defence; let them be occupied. In York, let the empty care homes be converted and empty hospitals be transition points. All must play their part. No more excuses. I trust that from this point, all our actions will restore our nation’s reputation as a place of sanctuary for all.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I thank the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for opening the debate, and the almost 200,000 members of the public who have signed e-petition 609530.
I have seen an incredible response to the crisis in Ukraine from my constituents. The compassion and generosity being shown are commendable, but not surprising. The UK has a proud history of providing sanctuary to those fleeing conflict or persecution. The disappointment arising from the Government’s reluctance to open their arms wide to those fleeing Ukraine is being vocalised across the UK. I hope that the Government will now begin moving at pace to reflect in policy making the generosity of their citizens.
The Government’s initial response to the refugee crisis was underwhelming. Although they may have expanded that initial commitment somewhat, it is not enough, and the details, including the numbers of refugees who will be eligible for the various routes, remain unclear. This is not the first refugee crisis that this Government have needed to grapple with, and unfortunately it will not be the last. The lessons are not being learned and are not informing policy making, because Ministers have been unwilling to pull back from decisions unpopular with the British public. The Government need to be able to react swiftly and proportionately. Our international allies have shown their ability to do just that, so there is no excuse for us not doing the same.
Reacting rather than proactively planning for these events is not sustainable. Creating bespoke visa processes weeks after a refugee crisis is already under way is inadequate. The Government must immediately provide surge resources to ensure that their officials can deal with this crisis effectively and without undue stress or strain on staff. The visa centre in Brussels is struggling to cope with the levels of demand. The Government will be allowing Ukrainians to make their applications online, to address the problem. Applications will still need to be processed and decisions made—just behind the scenes.
Although the Housing Secretary’s statement today is welcome, it falls just short of being as helpful as it could be. People are desperate to help in any way they can, but for that to be meaningful, they need help to organise and mobilise. The Minister knows that I have a constituent who has offered one of his properties to house a family fleeing Ukraine. Today’s statement gives him a little more information, but he is expected to identify refugees himself, if my understanding is correct. If Ukrainians must still go through the visa process, why can the Government not provide that support to match applicants with sponsors? They should be directing resource to the places where it is needed to facilitate that support. Leaving it to the public means only that it will take longer for Ukrainians to access support that already exists out there.
Throughout the crisis—from the early threat of Russian invasion right up until this very moment—the love that the Ukrainian people have for their country has been apparent. They do not want to leave their homes, their friends and their families. We need only look at how many civilians have decided to join the conflict and fight for their homes and for the future of their country, Ukraine. The vast majority are looking for a temporary sanctuary until it is safe to go home. We should do all we can to provide it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for introducing the debate, as well as all those who signed the petition.
The situation in Ukraine is heartbreaking. Scenes of devastation and loss have been beamed on to our screens every hour of every day since the launch of President Putin’s illegal and illogical invasion. Many of us suffer just watching it, let alone understanding what must really be happening to the people who face attacks day in, day out.
I was pleased to join a number of my constituents outside Hornsey Church tower for a simple vigil with the Songworks choir and the Crouch End Festival Chorus, and to hear some children read their poems and share their thoughts about the importance of peace, of pushing for a peaceful resolution, and of President Putin waking up and stopping what he is doing. At the end of the event, I was delighted to meet Marta, the mother of a constituent, who came to the UK on Saturday. I am sure that the Minister is relieved to hear that there is at least one happy story in this difficult debate. I will briefly relay what that family went through.
Marta was one of the lucky ones. She managed to flee to Romania after the Russian invasion, but when she tried to reach the UK to be reunited with her daughter and grandchildren, she entered a Home Office bureaucratic nightmare that went on for 10 days. There was no information on how to apply on the Government’s website, and a different website crashed continuously. At one point, the demand for appointments was so high that people were told there were no appointments until May.
Ten days of sleepless nights and incredible stress followed for the family, all to bring over the wonderful Marta, who, when I met her last night, was in floods of tears, having seen the solidarity of local people who met her and heard what she had been through. It is ludicrous that families are going through that experience at such a difficult time. Marta’s daughter told me:
“Currently, the attitude from the Home Office appears to be that this is an immigration process. It is not. These people are refugees fleeing war. That even the Ukrainians with family here are being denied a swift passage to come shames our country.”
I want to put on record the first-rate work of my parliamentary staff, who rushed down to Portcullis House to meet the Home Office staff who were there last week—that casework ended up in a result. I wonder what the Minister thinks about all the other people who are as desperate as Marta but who, for one reason or another, do not have a contact here or the help of a hard-working constituency team in an MP’s office, and who have no way of telling us what a terrible situation they are in.
In response to the brutal military campaign, Ukrainians have fled their homes and their country for safety elsewhere, in a movement of people not seen in Europe since the dark days of 1945. So many women and children have fled—as always, they are the worst affected by war. In response to the grave humanitarian challenge, many Europeans have opened their borders to provide much-needed safe refuge to those in need. Poland is hosting the bulk of those who are fleeing the devastation, but countries as far afield as Ireland are opening their doors in Ukraine’s time of need. Ireland is a country of a little over 5 million people, but it has offered to take 100,000 refugees. We have a greater population and a larger economy. If we had a more efficient Government, we would have more money to manage the needs of all and to encourage people to share. I welcome what was announced in the Chamber in the last hour. We can all get behind that offer and encourage our constituents who have a spare room and who can step up to meet the extraordinary challenge to show that generosity of spirit.
Labour colleagues and I have applauded many decisions, such as the one announced today, but the failings of the Home Office need to be reviewed. I encourage the Minister, once the immediate crisis is over, to learn from the situation and from what happened with Afghanistan, which was an embarrassment, and not just for the Foreign Office. I know that the shadow Minister for Immigration, my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock), is well placed to help with any review in the future because he led on the Afghanistan work from a Foreign Office point of view and so can comment on both schemes and how they are getting on. I welcome the appointment of a refugee champion, Lord Harrington. It would be useful to have a joint meeting shortly to thrash out the issues we deeply care about as MPs and to help the Home Office and Foreign Office to deal with such crises in a much more effective way.
Russia’s military were massing on Ukraine’s borders many months before the invasion. The Ministry of Defence and intelligence from the US were giving cast-iron warnings of an imminent invasion for much of the first part of 2022. The idea that this just happened 10 days ago is ridiculous. The Minister has first-hand briefings from the security services and will know that these events have been going on since well before Christmas. We needed to think through our actions. We know that the President of Russia lies and does so frequently, so we should have recognised that as a pattern from before, designed some risk assessments and put staff in place to deal with it.
This weekend, there has been what is called a surge of Home Office staff and I feel that once again we are lurching from crisis to crisis, which is typical of a Government who have no strategy. When a crisis comes, they fall down again, whereas if they had a strategy and could learn from their mistakes, we would not be here yet again. We all know that any invasion or military action inherently causes refugee flow, but yet again we are behind the curve and woefully out of step with both our European allies and the rest of Whitehall. That is a pattern of behaviour that we must tackle so that the next time there is such an event we can learn from the mistakes.
Every day I receive dozens, if not hundreds, of emails from my constituents in Hornsey and Wood Green who are keen to open their homes to those in need, willing to offer employment to Ukrainians and taken aback by the poor approach to date. We cannot continue to fail those in need and I urge the Minister to listen to the many calls today and to get a grip. The Ukrainian people have been added to the many Afghans seeking support. We owe it to those people in desperate need to live up to our moral responsibilities. Minister, fix the mess. This will not be the final refugee crisis and we simply cannot accept this shambolic reaction as the norm each and every time.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd, and I thank everyone who has spoken so movingly.
I want to reiterate a point I have made in the Chamber: I have a UK national constituent with a Ukrainian wife with two daughters. They started applying to come here on 12 February in Dnipro. Since then, my constituent’s wife and her daughters have had to cross Ukraine and now they are all in Warsaw. I will not go into any more detail than that.
I want to quote the latest email I have. I thank the staff in the hub in Portcullis House and I thank the Minister, too, because I have been pushing, shouting and screaming—doing everything I can—to get this man’s wife and daughters back to Wishaw. The email from the Home Office hub says:
“I have just checked and the families visas were issued yesterday and manifested to Warsaw today. We will be in touch shortly regarding collection, please advise Mr Yardley not to travel to the VAC until we contact him.
As Mr Yardley’s family have already made applications and given biometrics they will have to wait for a decision before travel. I appreciate this is frustrating however, as the family have provided biometrics they have been granted 3 years leave outside the rules.”
It is frustrating, but I am pleased that we can almost see the end of the road.
Should it have taken that long? No, of course not, and my constituent is a UK national. I want to weep when I think of Ukrainians without passports and who do not have a UK national to help them. What are we doing as a country? I do not understand why this is happening. I will rephrase that—I know why it is happening, but it should not be.
As of last week, the Home Office advice for Ukrainian refugees had been updated nine times and the Home Secretary’s jumbled comments in recent days have only added to the confusion. It is also really concerning to hear of private firms who are cashing in. Can we please get that stopped, Minister? That is obscene and I think that the Minister himself would agree.
It is really heartbreaking that, as my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) said, this country is a signatory to the UN convention on refugees, and the UK has international obligations to recognise refugees who are in the UK and to offer them the protection they need. Get on with it—this is ridiculous.
I could not be in the main Chamber today, but I have seen the update on the Ukrainian sponsorship scheme statement from the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and Minister for Intergovernmental Relations. It is six pages with what looks like triple-spacing and very large print—I used to teach word processing—but I cannot find anything in here that I can give to my constituents that is of any use. This is happening continually.
I could not agree more. I also agree that we are dealing with refugees here and not immigrants. This Government need to get a grip.
One of the new schemes states that Ukrainian refugees will be able to apply online—hooray. Someone is in a war zone and is fleeing for their life. Do they have internet access? Perhaps, but even if they do, my constituent’s application was lost three times in the TLScontact system. They had to reapply three times and they had to fly from Wishaw to Warsaw and then to somewhere else in the south of Poland to try to help get things done. Three times they had to fill out the forms and they could not even make appointments, because the system had gone down as well.
This is not going to work for people. We need, as the First Minister has said, to
“let people in and do the paperwork afterwards.”—[Scottish Parliament Official Report, 8 March 2022; c. 11.]
Common humanity demands that. Other countries have done it, so why can we not? I thought that this was supposed to be global Britain and that we were all on the front foot, trying to help. Minister, please take this on board. Waive the visas. That is what has to happen to get these poor refugees—I repeat that they are refugees—into the UK.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I thank all my constituents who have lent their names to this important petition and the countless others who have contacted me, either to urge me to speak up for Ukrainians fleeing from this devastating conflict or with offers to open their homes to families in need of sanctuary.
The British people have responded to this crisis with characteristic generosity, empathy and hospitality; not so their elected Government. As countries across Europe have thrown open their doors to the millions of Ukrainians forced from their homes, the UK alone has refused to lift visa requirements. Last week, we learned that while Poland has welcomed more than 1 million Ukrainians since the conflict began, the Home Office has approved visas for just 300. Ireland, a country with a population that is a fraction of the size of ours, has already accepted more than 5,000 Ukrainians. The Government are now promising major improvements in the numbers of people being admitted to the UK and the speed with which applications are being processed. Given the recent and unforgivable betrayal of Afghan nationals who risked their lives to support British forces in Afghanistan, that is a promise in which we can place very little confidence, and it is simply not good enough.
Let us be clear: desperate Ukrainians are no more migrants than the thousands of Yemenis, Afghans and Iraqis who this Government have left stranded in Calais. They are refugees and none of them has the luxury of time. As such, I wholeheartedly endorse the petition’s objectives. The time has come to waive all visa requirements for people fleeing the conflict in Ukraine and establish safe and legal routes into Britain. History will not judge kindly a Government that fail the Ukrainian people in their time of greatest need, but sadly, I have little confidence in the Home Office to do the right thing. There is surely no politician in recent memory whose career has been defined by such cruelty, indifference to suffering and gross incompetence as this Home Secretary, and I am afraid that the rot runs deep.
When the Minister was challenged on the gross inadequacy of the support available to people fleeing Putin’s war on Ukraine, he had the audacity to say that refugees could apply for seasonal worker visas so that they could come to the UK to pick fruit. In any other Government, such an appalling statement would undoubtedly result in a letter of resignation being handed to the Prime Minister, but this Minister could not even bring himself to apologise—shame, shame, shame. I hope that instead of parroting the same tired lines we have heard too often from the Dispatch Box, the Minister takes this opportunity to reflect on what has been said today, recognises how badly his Department has misjudged the mood of the public and mistreated innocent victims, and returns to his colleagues in Government with a loud, unequivocal message that refugees are welcome here.
I hope that the response to this crisis begins with a step change in how we treat all those displaced by war, persecution and climate breakdown. For far too long, the Conservatives have thrown up walls to those in desperate need of a safe place and whipped up hatred in the media for their own political advantage. Even now, when confronted by images of human suffering that none of us ever thought to see again in Europe, the Home Secretary persists in her efforts to turn Great Britain into fortress Britain, including her shameful attempts to deploy the Royal Navy to stop crossings in the English channel. However, it is not too late for Ministers to recognise the error of their ways. It is not too late for the Government to finally begin to honour their moral obligations and lead the way in humanitarianism, instead of callousness and cruelty, and it is not too late to tear up the Nationality and Borders Bill before it becomes law, which will inflict such immense suffering on those who are in greatest need.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Dowd, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for opening the debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee in such a strong way. I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, because I have received help from the Refugee, Asylum and Migration Policy project for my work in this area.
I will start by saying a couple of things about the Homes for Ukraine scheme that is being announced in the Chamber at the moment. I have a number of concerns about this scheme. I welcome it and I am glad that the Government have taken the opportunity to recognise the generosity of the people of this country, but I share the concerns of the Refugee Council. Enver Solomon is quoted in The Guardian as saying, effectively, that this is a managed migration route that is not a suitable response to a humanitarian crisis. Another comment was that this sounds a bit like fostering without a social worker, so I want to hear from the Minister that adequate support for every family who comes through the scheme will be given to the local authorities and partner organisations that will have to support those people through a critical, traumatic time. It is also right that we should state very clearly that every family with a child should have a safeguarding assessment before they are placed. [Interruption.] The Minister nods his head, but that is not commonplace for other Home Office schemes, and it is really important that we recognise that. We need to go back to the fact that this scheme is not as broad as it could be. It will not provide the opportunity for a right to work and access to benefits, and it does not grant an emergency protection visa.
As a city of sanctuary, Sheffield has a proud history of supporting refugees and asylum seekers, and we are keen to do whatever we can. Hundreds of my constituents have signed the petition and many more will be involved in the solidarity efforts in other ways, whether that is through donating money to emergency services, organising collections such as that of Crookes social club or writing to me to express their concerns about the Government’s approach. There has been a huge outpouring of support for Ukrainians in my city.
The other great thing about my city is our universities, which are offering support to their students and staff alike, but more needs to be done to allow family reunion for those individuals. It is not right that a nurse in the UK cannot bring over their family if they are on the wrong type of visa, and more needs to be done on that. There is also more that universities could do to help to change the lives of thousands of young people in Ukraine who have had their university teaching cut short, so I hope the Minister is talking to the Minister for Higher and Further Education about potential avenues of support for students in Ukraine.
Last week, the Home Secretary announced her plans to allow Ukrainians with passports to apply for visas online. Of course, I welcome any steps to make it easier for people to come here, but the UK response remains inadequate compared with that of our European partners. I have several concerns about the family scheme, many of which have been raised by hon. Members. I particularly want to highlight the fact that the new online application will be accessible only to those with the right type of passport, yet some of the most vulnerable people are least likely to own one. How can we expect people who have never travelled outside Ukraine to complete such applications, especially as they are in English? My heart goes out to those families. There have been 4,000 births in bomb shelters. Caesareans have been done in the dark, for fear of bombing. These are very vulnerable people and we should be making it as easy as possible for people who are going through the worst ordeal to get here.
Ministers have also acknowledged that most Ukrainians do not have a passport, making most potential applicants ineligible to apply online. That is why it is hard to square this with the Government’s claim that the scheme will free up appointments in visa centres for the most vulnerable people and the most complex cases. I asked last week what assessment has been done to understand who will benefit from the online move. As the hon. Member for St Albans (Daisy Cooper) mentioned, we do not even know whether people should keep their appointments or free up those appointments, and it is unclear from those who are providing information what people should do.
Much more must be done to remove barriers that prevent people from getting here safely, and we should think about the long term, too. We cannot forget the cruel Nationality and Borders Bill, which will see the UK abandon its obligations not only to Ukrainians, but to all refugees. The latest polling by British Future shows that three in four people agree with the principle that those fleeing war and persecution should be able to take refuge in other countries, including the UK. That clearly shows that the Government are misjudging the public’s desire to help and the public mood. It is time that Ministers caught up with the public mood and stretched every sinew to help those fleeing the violence in Ukraine and provide the support that they and all refugees urgently need.
I thank the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for introducing the debate. She always does these things with the detail and information that helps to set the scene so well. It is probably fairly easy to set the scene, because our minds are full of it each day as we watch TV in the morning and at night. Each and every one of us is eternally frustrated by where we are.
The hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) made a straightforward request and I absolutely agree with her. When I see the suffering, pain, chaos and need, I say to myself, “Get them here.” Let us get them here and process them. I say that with great respect to the Minister. I am not being critical—I know that he wants to help—but I feel so frustrated with a system that seems to be bogged down.
There are 185,000 people who signed the petition; there are other petitions as well. The large volume of emails urging our Government to take action is reflected in the number of letters in my mailbag, and everyone else’s mailbag here. The hon. Member for St Albans (Daisy Cooper) gave examples—nothing illustrates this better than examples. We were not in the main Chamber to hear about the homes for Ukrainians scheme because we were here, but the Minister has informed us of what happened. I am thankful that the Home Office has decided to heed the calls for an easier form of visa, and to allow Ukrainians to provide biometrics details when they get here. I think that is what the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw wants—and it is certainly what I want. We should widen that scheme; if we can do it for those people, we can do it for more.
The homes for Ukrainians scheme is exactly what we need. It allows individuals, charities, community groups and businesses across this United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to offer a room or a home, rent-free, to Ukrainians escaping the war, regardless of whether they have ties to the country. That enables a link to be established with many people who would like to offer a home but do not know how to go about doing it. One lady, who I know very well, rang my office this morning; her generosity is reflected in her daily life. She has a four-bed house in Newtownards on the North Road that is available. She wants to offer that house to a family. That is replicated elsewhere; each and every one of us will have lots of examples. A company has offered two properties in the Westlands in Newtownards; other people have offered rooms to sponsor families. I see lots of good happening right now. I have said to the Minister that if all those people are offering all those things, we should be doing our darnedest to make sure that we get the refugees here and housed as soon as possible.
One of my constituents is married to a Ukrainian. He came to see me on Saturday morning. His stepdaughter has a two-year visitor visa, which means that she can come here because the paperwork is there for her. She told Gary that when she went to Warsaw to get a plane home with the paperwork she had, which was okay, there were dozens of Ukrainians at Warsaw airport; they wanted to get here, but they did not have the paperwork. I see those people as being in a dire situation; they are a priority case and they need to move right away.
The scheme that has been announced will give £350 per week to families who can help, house and assist Ukrainian families. I understand that £10,000 will be offered for each citizen, to ensure that they can get healthcare, jobs and education. The system on the UK mainland is very different from what we have in Northern Ireland, where councils do not have a direct responsibility for education or health. How can councils in Northern Ireland access that money? It is simply and directly accessed on the mainland, but for us in Northern Ireland, the process will be slightly different. I want to make sure that we are all over the process and how to make that happen.
There is a Christian charity in Newtownards called Faith in Action that has been doing great work in Ukraine for 21 years. They have Ukrainians who are ready to come here. I hope that the scheme that the Government have announced—and that the Minister will be all over— will enable those people to come right now to the accommodation that Faith in Action has for them. There are some 100 family groups who can bring in individuals and families. Last Friday, I visited Willowbrook Foods in Newtownards, which is offering 100 jobs to people—there are 100 vacancies in the company, by the way.
We can get people into Newtownards; we can get them into accommodation, and get them the jobs that they want. All these things are waiting for this scheme to be put in place. I want to make sure that that happens. The local charity shop, Elim Relief Association, has offered to furnish and supply clothing. People’s generosity is incredible. Another of my constituents, John McNaught, is going to run a charity event that he holds every year. He goes around Northern Ireland collecting donations for charity, whether it be physical goods or money. He will be setting off at 10 o’clock next Monday.
Local churches have indicated their willingness to provide lunches and dinners in their halls until refugees are settled or the meals are no longer needed. A multitude of people in Strangford want to help—I have the most wonderful people in my constituency, as do others who have spoken about their constituencies. People are waiting anxiously to help.
I know that this generosity will be replicated throughout Northern Ireland. Indeed, employers who are having difficulty hiring staff—other companies have contacted me, as well—are saying that they can give employment to those able to work, so that they can provide. All the parts of the puzzle are there. We need to connect the dots and put in place the support system that is needed to get these people to safety, until it is safe to return to their homeland and start rebuilding, as they very much hope to be able to.
I am so thankful to the Home Office for allowing us to show our British hospitality and mentality of mucking in. I look forward to understanding the full and finer details of the Ukrainian scheme that the Government have announced, so that people in my community can do what they have been asking to do every day since the invasion: be of help to these poor people.
A charity called Hope for Youth has been on our news back home—I suspect it may be on the main news, as well—for organising 25 container loads of all sorts of necessary goods, such as medicines, clothing and food. Montgomery Transport is paying for lorries to Poland, where lorries from Ukraine will meet them, and take the goods across the border. Groups of individuals are making a magnificent effort. However, we need our Government to simplify the position and the scheme, so that we can move forward.
I am thankful to those who have donated goods and hygiene packs, those who have travelled in containers to provide goods and food to refugees on the border, and those brave souls who take food in their cars to Ukraine, to the thousands of people trapped in towns and cities with no food or medicine. We need to do more to secure routes to get essential food and medicine into all areas of Ukraine. Faith in Action works in south-east Ukraine, in the Donetsk region. It is under incredible attack from Russia at the moment.
Again, I urge the Minister to make the process streamlined and easy, so that those with homes can connect with the families who need them. I am a simple person; I like things to be nice and simple, so that I can tell people just how simple they are. I ask the Minister to issue step-by-step guidance to each Member of this House; I am sure many other Members are in the same position, and have constituents who want to help but do not know what the process really is. I say that with great respect. We just want to understand better so that we can help.
To conclude, we need to make the path clear and straightforward and, above all, get these women and children to safety. The priority is to get them here, where people are willing to help. The need is now. I prayed for Ukraine in the days leading up to the inevitable invasion by Russia, as did many others present. The hon. Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) referred to the Bible; as the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) said, it is so important that we Christians come together. However, lots of other religious groups want to help just as much.
A combination of religious groups and family members are coming together in this great nation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Along with prayers, we need to give practical help. I urge the Minister to make the way simpler at a time when only one thing really matters: the safety of those little lives and the vulnerable people who need our help right now.
I apologise for not being here from the start of the debate, Mr Gray. I thank colleagues for their forbearance.
My small London borough is one of the top 20 in the country for the number of Ukrainian-born residents. It is an extremely diverse borough. I will not pretend that we yet have as many Ukrainian refugees as we did Afghan refugees last year; we had several hundred of those. However, it is a significant number and it is growing; one of the reasons why it is growing is that the Home Office is not dealing with the problem. The circumstances are very different, but the one thing those groups have in common is that they are victims of Home Office bureaucracy.
I have families in Ukraine, Poland and France. I have families who have had to split up because some could get further than others. Some have even got to the UK in this grotesque game of snakes and ladders, where the aim is to get to the next stage without going backwards. Some UK nationals have spouses or other relatives who are Ukrainian and are finding that visa centres are closed. I have constituents in the UK whose visas are expiring or have expired. Some have even been so delayed in applying for them that they are worried about being sent back or being sent out of the country. I hope the Minister will reassure us that there is at least no intention to exclude anybody in that way.
I asked my caseworker for an update today on all the cases, and almost every one ends with the line: “We have had no responses from the Home Office to any of our inquiries,” or “We have made urgent inquiries to the Home Office but have had no response yet.” We are seeing a repetition of what happened with Afghanistan last year, I am afraid. The system simply is not working. Every case turns on its own facts, but I will, with your indulgence, Mr Gray, read an e-mail I have received that highlights a lot of the problems. It is from a constituent two or three days ago. The circumstances may have changed, but I do not think they have.
“My wife’s daughter-in-law along with her 12-year-old son fled Ukraine and are now in Warsaw Poland. In the last four days they have both been ill, probably due to cold, exhaustion and stress. They are now safely in a flat of friends of friends but she does not speak Polish or English. Because of this we have been trying to get them an appointment at the Visa Application Centre in Warsaw. This has involved us getting texts and images from Poland and Ukraine together with copies of documents we have in the UK. I have filled out their application forms, amassed all the evidence I can, and emailed it to the friends for them to print. ahead of an appointment. I am erudite but even I have struggled with some of the English on the websites. So it would be almost impossible to do this in Poland, with no knowledge of English and with no access to a computer.”
He goes on to say,
“Firstly the application form, which is 8 pages long, has to be completed in English. Once the application is submitted on line the GOV.UK website directs you to a commercial partner’s website called TLS. There you can download a 7 page checklist which has to be completed in English. But then the website is not allowing you to download your completed checklist and accompanying documents. On the website you can also book at appointment—only you can’t because the website is not allowing you to do that either. Even when we can secure an appointment some of the evidence is in Ukrainian and so probably will not be accepted by the VAC”—
The visa application centre.
“Also because they fled in a hurry they do not have all the documentary evidence required. Once they have attended an appointment there is no indication of how long they may have to wait to hear if their applications are successful.”
He ends by saying this:
“They are our family, we own our own home in Shepherd’s Bush, have room to accommodate them and money to cover all their expenses. But the red tape is not allowing them to come here. I hope you are your colleagues can put pressure on the Home Office to relax the rules immediately.”
I am not going to mention the name of the family, even though I do not think they would mind if I did. The Home Office has all those details. It has had them for some days. We have not had a response, and that is true for almost every case. Yes, every case will have different facts, but I hope the Minister can see that there is a common thread here.
I do not know whether this is wilful or negligent, or whether it is a matter of happenstance and the Government are trying to correct things, but the net effect is that the Government’s actions are the opposite of what they are saying. They are saying “We want to help,” “We will help,” and “We will help significantly—hundreds of thousands of people,” yet every case I see says that that is not true. Every case is stalled at some hurdle, geographical or bureaucratic, because of the way that the Home Office behaves. I ask the Minister: first, can he please reply to my emails? I do not think that that is too much to ask, given the urgency. Secondly, can he please look at this in the round, and at our duty, as a compassionate country that wants to take in refugees? I believe that the Government genuinely want to help, but let us see some proof, shall we?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Gray. Today’s debate was opened by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell). Her speech demonstrated that she not only is knowledgeable about what is happening in this crisis, but cares deeply. In fact, I not only heard, but felt, that everyone who has spoken today cares. I would not say that it is not often that we feel that here, but I have never felt it to the extent that I have today. Everybody cares, and we must get something done as soon as possible.
The fault for what is happening to the people in Ukraine lies solely with Vladimir Putin and the Russian regime—not with the Russian people, any of us, any of the Governments that make up the UK or Europe, and certainly not with the people of Ukraine—the blame lies, fairly and squarely, with Vladimir Putin and his regime. It is important to acknowledge that. However, the fact that we did not cause the situation is irrelevant when it comes to offering our support.
Along with my friend and colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald), I have been heavily involved in scrutinising the Nationality and Borders Bill, so when Russia so cruelly invaded and started bombing Ukraine, and Government Ministers started to remind us of Britain’s benevolent history, I worried a lot. I worried because I know that when the refugee sector named it the anti-refugee Bill, it was no exaggeration but an accurate description. I worried because a Government does not bring forward a Bill like that if they have any desire to protect people fleeing war, violence and terror. The Nationality and Borders Bill is clearly trying to send a signal that benevolent Britain is no more: “Don’t come here, because you will not be welcome.”
Of course, I know that the Bill has not yet been enacted; today, it reaches Report stage in the Lords. While I knew that those Ukrainians fleeing now, before that legislation is enacted, would be subject to the existing laws and rules, I was also very aware of how dreadful the current system is, and acutely aware of the attitude from this Government towards people in desperate need. That is why I was worried.
However, I hoped that the suddenness, the intensity, the urgency and, yes, sadly, the fact that they were European—which apparently makes a difference, although it should not—would kick-start the Government into action. I hoped that they would treat it as an emergency—a humanitarian catastrophe, where we simply had to help first and sort out the details later. That is what other countries have done, including Poland, Germany, France, and Italy. As per usual, they have taken far more people, proportionately, than we have or ever will—of that I am sure.
The Government keep telling whoever will listen that the UK takes in more people than other EU country, but that is not true. Last week at Prime Minister’s Questions, the Prime Minister said that the UK had done more to resettle vulnerable people than any other European country since 2015. However, it is not true.
When looking at the numbers per head of population, which is the only fair way to do it, for every 100,000 people, Sweden takes in 1,619; Germany takes in 1,274; Austria takes in 1,134; and Switzerland takes in 955. Does the Minister want me to tell him—I do not know if he knows this—how many we take in? For every 100,000 people, we take in 121. That makes the UK 17th—sometimes 18th—in the rankings in Europe. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East said, that is shocking. No European country can top the global list, because it is the developing countries—those most in need themselves—that take in the most people. Yes, that is right: those with the least are giving the most. More than 80% of the world’s displaced people are living in developing countries.
As we have heard, the Government have had to be dragged kicking and screaming into providing the level of support now being offered to Ukrainians, which still does not match other comparable countries or poorer countries. One day, the Government will offer refuge only to those who have a family connection, and that can only be a very narrow definition of “family”. The next day, they change it so that other family members can come over, but they still need a visa and a passport; then some of them do not need a visa, but others do; and those who do not have a passport still have to apply from Ukraine or wherever they have fled to, but there are no appointments.
It is always very easy to ask, “Have you got a passport?” but when the bombs are falling and the bullets are flying, there are buildings falling and people are in fear for their lives, the last thing they go for is their passport or their identification: they get out and they move. Many people do not have that passport or identification, not because they do not have it, but because they do not have it with them: it is lying in their wrecked house, back where they came from.
I absolutely agree. Many people have never had a passport because they have never had the money to go anywhere where they would require one, or they cannot afford one. As the hon. Member said, lots of people do not know where their passports are; I do not know where mine is, because I am not planning to go anywhere soon. I am not planning to be in the middle of a warzone and to need to know where my passport is.
When appointments are available, the appointment might be in a fortnight’s time. As we heard from the hon. Member for St Albans (Daisy Cooper), a person might get through everything, jump through all the hoops and pass the test, and then be told to travel 350 miles to pick up their paperwork—it is ridiculous. As the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) told us, they might get to their appointment only to be told to discard their seven-year-old child who is not allowed to come in. I accept that that cannot be Home Office policy, and I saw the Minister frantically messaging to find out what had happened there, but what kind of person would do that? Is that the kind of person we would want in that job? I am absolutely certain that nobody thinks that person is suitable to be in that job. It is chaos: the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) likened it to a game of snakes and ladders, and he is not wrong. If it is confusing for hon. Members and their teams trying to keep up with the advice we can give people, how much more confusing is it for someone in a state of heightened anxiety who does not necessarily speak English? It is almost as if this Government do not want Ukrainians to come here.
Other Members have made important points today. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) said it was a disgrace that, several weeks on, this scheme has still not been properly set up. I share that feeling, but I imagine that neither of us is surprised, because we both have ongoing contact with Afghans who are stuck in Afghanistan, begging us to help all these months on, and we still have no advice for them. As the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) said, there are people ready to help Ukrainians. We are getting emails daily from people who want to help, but do not know how. Obviously, I have not seen the statement in the Chamber, but I have not heard that much clarity is coming forward.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) and others have pointed out, if a person is in a warzone, how are they supposed to apply online? Sometimes the internet is bad enough in Parliament, where we are not in a warzone; how is someone in a warzone supposed to be able to get internet? I could hear the exhaustion in my hon. Friend’s voice as she spoke so movingly about her constituent and his struggle to get his family into fortress Britain. He would still be battling if she had not fought tooth and nail for him, but what about all those who do not have that support?
Why are the experts in the field not being consulted—Refugee Action, or the Refugee Councils of England, Wales or Scotland? Positive Action in Housing is an organisation in Glasgow that has a long-running project through which people can host refugees. I would want to know that anyone generous enough to offer to do so is being properly checked, because the dangers are obvious. Perhaps the Government could speak to groups such as Positive Action in Housing. I would also want to know that every single person taken into someone’s home has the knowledge, the confidence and the means to reach out for help, should it be necessary.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
I know that the Minister is going to say that these things all take time. They do, but is he really saying that we cannot not keep up with other comparable European countries? If we are so much more bountiful in our approach to refugees, surely we therefore have more experience and should at least be able to equal the speed of other European countries.
The Minister will also no doubt repeat the trope that we cannot dispense with visas for security reasons, but the Government really need to stop pretending that what we are asking for is anything unusual. Thousands of people enter the UK every day without visas. Anyone coming from South Korea, Australia, Mexico, the US, Costa Rica and many other countries is not required to have a visa. If we are to believe that allowing Ukrainians to do that poses a threat to our safety, the Government must surely believe that the thousands arriving from those countries today, yesterday and tomorrow pose an equal threat to our safety—or are they seriously arguing that Ukrainians are uniquely likely to be infiltrated and pose a threat? As we have heard, a security expert whom the Government previously trusted does not share their apparent fears. I will repeat the question posed to the Minister by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West: what was wrong about what Lord Ricketts had to say? Remember that the two Russians who caused such turmoil in Salisbury did not sneak in by pretending to be another nationality. They came in on visas, so a visa alone is not a safeguard.
I congratulate the petitioner, Phillip Jolliffe, on the efforts he went to in order to get so many people to sign the petition—some 184,949 people have signed it. I will end by saying what I think is the most alarming part of the way we are treating Ukrainian refugees: as confusing, chaotic and cold as their treatment has been so far, we are treating Ukrainian refugees better than we treat refugees fleeing other countries, and we are treating them a million times better than we will treat anyone, including other Ukrainians, who dares to ask for our protection once the Nationality and Borders Bill is enacted. If people are ashamed right now—I suspect that those who signed the petition are—they should prepare themselves to feel a whole new level of shame once that comes in.
As I said to Mr Speaker the other day, I have been having that since I was 13 years old. You are not the first, Mr Gray, and I am sure you will not be the last. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, and I thank the Petitions Committee and my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for securing this important debate. I also thank the thousands and thousands of petitioners, who I hope have all made their voices heard through us.
I begin my remarks by paying tribute to the Ukrainian people, whose bravery, fortitude and eventual victory will never be forgotten. President Zelensky is the leader of the free world, and he and his compatriots are fighting not only for Ukraine’s freedom and democracy, but for the values that we all hold dear. They are showing tremendous courage, dignity and defiance in the face of Russia’s barbaric assault. What a contrast, I am afraid to say, with the failure of the Home Office to rise to the challenge. From the Windrush scandal to the small boats crisis, and from the Nationality and Borders Bill to the response to Putin’s barbaric assault on Ukraine, we are witnessing a Department whose approach is defined by a toxic combination of incompetence and indifference.
Let us turn for a moment to the broader context of this refugee crisis. We know that the vast majority of the Ukrainians who are leaving their country want to stay as close as possible to it. They are passionately patriotic and as such they will want to get back to their homes once the invaders have been defeated and Ukraine is once again able to rebuild as a vibrant, prosperous and democratic country.
However, it is also the case that some people will want to come to the UK and it is crystal clear that we should welcome them with open arms. Britain has a proud history of acting as a safe sanctuary for those fleeing war and persecution. For example, during world war two the Kindertransport saved the lives of almost 10,000 children.
Since the invasion of Ukraine started on 24 February, over 2 million people have fled the country, and neighbouring countries such as Poland, Romania and Hungary have each taken in hundreds of thousands of refugees. For the reasons that I have already outlined, that is to be expected. However, it is not only countries on the borders of Ukraine that have shown great humanitarian spirit. Just look at Ireland; it has a population of only 4 million, yet it has already accepted 5,500 Ukrainians.
Now let us turn to the dismal performance of the UK Government. This country has 66 million people, but we have given visas to only 4,000 Ukrainians, set against 17,100 applications received. The Home Office is currently offering two schemes, as we have heard today. The first is the family reunion route. For those Ukrainians already resident in Britain, it allows entry to some—not all—of their relatives. The Opposition finally shamed the Government into widening the family reunion route to include extended family, but it still fell far short of where it needed to be. For example, a nurse on a healthcare visa was not allowed to bring his or her family into the UK because he or she did not have indefinite leave to remain. That was beyond unacceptable.
We welcome the U-turn that was secured today, but I ask the Minister why it took so long. Why do we appear to be having U-turns on an almost daily basis? It sends a signal that the Government have to be dragged kicking and screaming to do the right thing; it does not reflect well on the Government; and I am afraid to say that it leaves a stain on our international reputation.
The second programme is the community sponsorship scheme. It supposedly allows charities and individuals to sponsor Ukrainians even if there are no family ties. A pressing concern is that the community sponsorship scheme will become mired in bureaucracy and red tape. The Minister will no doubt be aware of a recent report by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration that states that the application to arrival timescale of current similar schemes ranges from 73 to 398 days. I am sure that the Minister does not think that it could take up to 73 days for these desperate Ukrainians to be given access to our country and I hope that he will reassure us today that that will not be the case.
The processes are burdened with excessive red tape and bureaucracy, but there is also an issue around the institutional performance. The location of the visa centre that is supposedly being set up in northern France to assist refugees will not be made public and the centre will not offer appointments or walk-in access. The Home Secretary claims that a visa office in Calais will pose too much of a security threat and yet the Prime Minister overruled our security services to insist that Evgeny Lebedev be given a peerage. I think that tells us all we need to know about the priorities of this Government.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), the shadow Home Secretary, said last week, we are
“making vulnerable people push from pillar to post in their hour of need”.
It is immoral to create this sense of confusion when all people need is a place to feel safe and secure. It does not have to be this way; it could be so much simpler.
Labour believes in putting people before paperwork, which is why we are calling for an emergency protection visa. It would be so much simpler than the community sponsorship scheme that was announced today. Our emergency visa would be based on the necessary biometric and security checks, but it would dispense with all the bureaucracy and red tape that the Government propose, and it would end the bottlenecks and queues by efficiently facilitating quick and easy access to our country in these dark times for the Ukrainian people.
In light of the chaotic and heartbreaking situation that so many hon. Friends and hon. Members have described so eloquently in their contributions today, I have the following questions for the Minister. First, last week in Prime Minister’s questions the Prime Minister claimed that his Government have
“done more to resettle vulnerable people than any other European country”.—[Official Report, 9 March 2022; Vol. 710, c. 318.]
Since 2015, the UK has accepted 92,000 refugees, while Germany, for example, has accepted more than 1 million. The Prime Minister has again played fast and loose with the facts, so will the Minister encourage his right hon. Friend to correct the record?
On the issue of the community sponsorship route, can the Minister provide an indication of the application-to-arrival timescale that the Government expect? It would clearly be completely and utterly unacceptable if Ukrainian applicants were expected to wait 73 days, and potentially up to 300 days, for their applications under this scheme to be approved. Finally, why will the Government not take our advice and implement Labour’s emergency protection visa so that any Ukrainian can come to our country to seek refuge?
I have to be honest and say that the Home Office failures on this do not surprise me in the slightest. This Government have consistently and systematically failed refugees since 2010. We have only to look at their response to Afghans fleeing the horrors of the Taliban, with thousands of Afghans still stuck in hotels in our country; at the bureaucratic quagmire that was created for those who wanted to house those seeking refuge from the horrors of the Syrian war; or at the response to those seeking to cross the English channel, looking for sanctuary. To add insult to injury, the Government are using the Nationality and Borders Bill as a tool to criminalise those who seek sanctuary in our country.
If the Government wish to improve that record, they have to start showing some empathy and some efficiency, and that has to start right now with the way in which they are treating those who are fleeing Putin’s bombs and bullets. They can do it by ending the bureaucratic and hostile environment that they have created. We therefore urge the Minister to remove the bottlenecks and to simplify the process. Our message to him, to the Home Secretary and to the Prime Minister is clear: please get a grip and please start putting people before paperwork.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I thank the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for opening the debate, and colleagues for their insightful contributions on a vital issue, although, given some of the comments in the debate about attendance, I do note that the clash with the statement in the main Chamber meant that people who may well have wished to participate in this debate decided to attend that instead. Some of the points being raised here were obviously literally being answered in the Chamber as we were sitting here, deliberating on this petition.
Putin’s war on Ukraine is monstrous and unjustified, and this country stands shoulder to shoulder with the brave Ukrainian people against his unprovoked aggression. We have stepped up with our response, which includes giving Ukraine the means not only to defend itself but, ultimately, to drive the invader from its lands.
A number of points were raised during the debate, and I will briefly cover and go through them. A number of colleagues asked about passports, and one reason why we moved to the idea of the route without biometrics and based on passports was what we saw in looking at the analysis of those who had presented themselves, wanting to apply. In something like the first 2,000 people who presented themselves, fewer than 100 did not have a valid Ukrainian passport. Let me be clear that we are talking about a valid Ukrainian passport; we are not detailing the type of Ukrainian passport—those familiar with Ukraine’s passport will know that it started issuing a new type of passport seven years ago—provided that it is valid. The vast majority have brought their passport with them.
On the question of whether we are offering paid priority services, I think we would all agree that it would be, frankly, immoral to offer a paid priority service in the family scheme, and I can certainly say to colleagues today that we are looking to suspend, across UK Visas and Immigration, our super priority and priority visa services. We will still prioritise people in the wider system who have compelling and compassionate circumstances—for example, someone seeking to travel to the UK for a funeral or perhaps someone who needs urgently to take up a role in the NHS. But we will look to suspend the general priority service—again, to free up UKVI resource. I think we all realise that it is actually right that at this time as many of our decision makers as possible are prioritised to this particular route rather than our normal type of priority visa services. Certainly, people should not be being charged at a VAC when they are looking to make applications to this route, and that is something that we are clear on. Also, suspending the wider priority visa services clears up any confusion if people inquire about the wider migration system while at that particular visa application centre.
I hope that colleagues will appreciate why it would not be particularly sensible to go into exact details on what safeguarding checks will be done on those who offer to sponsor people coming to the UK, but yes, safeguarding checks will be performed, as in the devolved Administrations. I think hon. Members will understand why it would not be sensible for me to start reading out the list of exactly what we will do and what we will check. Safeguarding checks on people who offer to be sponsors will be in place, because we are conscious that many of those being sponsored will be vulnerable, whether they are adults or children.
As well as asking for that, I asked about the people who are then placed with a family or with somebody who has a spare room. How will we ensure that they have the knowledge, the means and the confidence to reach out for help? Somebody who is taken in will be extremely grateful because they no longer have bombs raining down on them, but they may feel uncomfortable, or something may go wrong, and they may not want to report it. How can we ensure that people in that situation—primarily women and children—are able to do so?
That is a good point. Some funding is being offered to local communities. I take on board the point made by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) about the slightly different structure in Northern Ireland, as we saw with the national transfer scheme for unaccompanied children, reflecting the devolved structure there. We are providing a funding package to local councils; I appreciate that hon. Members taking part in the debate will not have heard the statement in the main Chamber, but that is something we are working on.
I think it is safe to say that I and the Scottish Government have not always got on particularly well, but on a serious note, I welcome their genuinely constructive offers. I have had brief conversations with Neil Gray—he is co-ordinating for the Scottish Government, as Lord Harrington is for the UK Government—about what work they can do on those points. As colleagues have said, speed and getting people in are becoming essential. How can we do that?
My own community does not have the experience of Glasgow, for example, in welcoming communities of asylum seekers. That should not become a delaying factor across large parts of the UK, and balances need to be struck. There are funding packages to try to create that support. I also recognise that there are wider debates around how we can ensure that support is provided. That is what colleagues in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities will be working on closely.
If families do manage to reach the UK and do not have immediate offers of accommodation, which is happening—I gave the example of a family who could accommodate people, but others, perhaps in overcrowded social housing, will get relatives who they will not be able to accommodate—where should they go? Is the Minister saying that they should go to the local authority, which will say, “Yes, we have funding from the Government,” or is there some other solution?
There is a slightly different position for those who are already in the UK. The hon. Gentleman made a point earlier about people who are fearful of being asked to leave, and I reassure him that there is no prospect of removals to Ukraine. I will not, and clearly cannot, put a timeframe on that, but at this moment, any removals action has been suspended. That includes our voluntary returns; again, that would clearly be quite a bizarre thing to encourage at the moment. There is no prospect of someone from Ukraine who is ordinarily resident in Ukraine—there is a slight difference from Ukrainian nationals—being asked to return. We have already automatically extended a number of visas for those who are already here with temporary status as a skilled worker or student. There is no need, at this stage, for them to apply for anything. Of course, if someone’s status is due to expire, they can certainly get in contact.
There is no intention that people will need to leave this country, and even if that were the case, there is in reality no practical returns route anyway. To be very clear, Ukrainian nationals who are here lawfully do not need to leave, and we will make further announcements and confirmations over the next few weeks about the position looking forward. I think most of us would accept that the priority at this stage needs to be those who are in Ukraine and looking to make preparations in case they need to leave. We are particularly aware that there are large numbers of people in western Ukraine who, depending on what happens in the coming weeks with the military campaign, may move into Poland, Slovakia or Hungary if Russian forces come closer. Of course, we hope that that does not happen; we see the defence of Kyiv being mounted, and I think we can be confident that Ukraine is halting what was a Russian advance in that direction.
As I say, people here in the UK do not need to apply for different statuses, and later this year we will confirm the position on future entitlement to settlement and in other areas. However, I think we would all accept that at the moment there are very few Ukrainians arriving who are particularly focused on a potential indefinite leave to remain application in 2027.
I thank the Minister for his constructive and positive response. I asked about the £350 per month and the £10,000—the different systems—and he has referred to that in his response. I am happy if he wants to write to me to let me know how the system will work. I gave the example that, in my constituency, we have 100 families who are willing to give accommodation, and we have 100 job vacancies available in one company, right now. Time is of the essence. How can we make that happen?
I thank the hon. Member for his constructive comments. A lot of that will be around the sponsorship route. My understanding is that the £350 will be given to the sponsor—the person providing accommodation. I take on board his point about the payment that will go to local authorities; it is a very different context in Northern Ireland, given the slightly different responsibilities around things such as children’s services, as we recognised in the NTS. It is probably better that I set out in writing the detail of how that will break down.
Another query was about those who have already applied for a visa who get a grant letter but do not have the vignette put in their documents or their passport, which is normally when there is a request to go back to the VAC. As of tomorrow, if someone has the grant letter, that will be enough to travel to the UK with a carrier, in the same way as the permission to travel letter system that we will establish and open from tomorrow. Again, we are looking to minimise the number of people who have to make appointments at VACs and go and collect particular forms of documentation.
Will the Minister confirm whether people who have an appointment booked but do not yet have a form will be able, from tomorrow, to travel to the UK without that form? And what about people who have had their appointment, and who have applied and filled everything in, but are still waiting for the form to come back? There are two different types of people there.
Those who have not yet submitted their biometrics will have two options from tomorrow. The first is to make a separate application for permission to travel under the new system. They will get a PDF form emailed to them. Some people have asked whether the letter is posted—no, it will be emailed. By the way, that form can be shown on a phone, or it can be printed out by a friend or colleague. There do not need to be individual smartphones; if a family has one phone, they can show multiple forms on that phone. Again, we want to reassure people that we will not expect everyone to have a phone with the form on it.
If someone has already submitted their biometrics and they get a letter that says they have got their visa—the decision letter—under a normal visa process they would go back to collect the vignette in their passport that allows them to travel. My firm understanding is that, as of tomorrow, they will be able to show that letter saying that they have a decision with their passport and travel to the UK, rather than going back to the VAC to collect the vignette. If they have not yet done their biometrics, they can instead apply through the permission to travel scheme—the new scheme that we are launching tomorrow—and, if they get permission, proceed to the UK and sort out their biometrics up to six months after arrival. We will not be taking biometrics at the border, because we are looking to facilitate travel into the UK. Once people have a decision letter with their passport, they will be able to travel.
Obviously, if someone does not have a valid Ukrainian passport, it is still the process that they need to be documented. In many cases, people do not have any documents. They need to get a document that allows them to board an aircraft regardless of their destination, particularly if they are looking to travel by air from eastern Europe rather than ending up on a relatively gruelling land journey. That probably covers some of the points raised.
People have made comparisons to the Afghan system. Lessons are being learned. A lot of people are still in hotels. We had a great effort to get people out of Kabul, but it is safe to say that, put simply, offers for rehousing have not come forward from communities across the UK. There is certainly a challenge there. I was struck by the comment by the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) that all must take part. We see communities, such as Glasgow, that always step up. That is our biggest dispersal area and steps up in every refugee resettlement situation. It stepped up for Afghans and for Syrians, and I am sure the community will step up again in this context.
In a moment. I then look at other areas, and it is perhaps a tale of two cities. Edinburgh, which is not that far away, does not take part in the dispersal area system for asylum seekers. I am regularly struck by the arguments that all must take part. That is certainly another item that we will be looking at closely.
I thank the Minister for giving way. On the point about who is stepping up, I am sure he will be aware that, based on the current figures, councils that are led by Labour are taking between six and seven times more refugees than councils that are led by the Conservative party.
I am keen to encourage all to take part. I think there are only five councils that have not offered in principle to take part in the Afghan resettlement scheme. The hon. Gentleman will note what we recently did with the national transfer scheme, where every council in the UK—I acknowledge that it is done slightly differently in Northern Ireland—is now mandated to take part in the process around unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. He will also note the references I have just made to dispersal accommodation in relation to asylum seekers.
I am struck that there are communities that step up every single time, including in places such as Stoke-on-Trent with Conservative-led councils. In other areas I hear demands that people do things for asylum seekers, yet when we approach them about becoming a dispersal area, they seem strangely quiet.
COSLA, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, has told the Minister and his colleagues—as have I—that every one of the 32 Scottish local authorities, in addition to taking in refugees under the Syrian resettlement scheme, would be happy, if it were appropriate in terms of wraparound services and if there were any support, to take part in the asylum dispersal scheme. The problem is that the Government expect the councils to carry all the costs associated with that. There is no excuse; if the Minister is going to start supporting the councils, they will start chipping in with the scheme as well as with the refugees.
What I find interesting is that I regularly hear how it is about moral duties and that people should be taking part, but I have to contrast that with the situation that the hon. Lady has alluded to in Scotland, where 31 out of 32 local authorities are not dispersal areas, including the city of Edinburgh. The only place in Scotland that is a dispersal area is the city of Glasgow.
I will take an intervention in a moment. The only dispersal area in Scotland is Glasgow—I am certainly happy to confirm that to the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry). However, we have taken on board representations from local government, and we are engaging with local councils about how we alter the funding system. Still, it is a fair point that there are plenty of communities across the country that have made huge efforts to support the current dispersal system and there are others that have refused. With that, I give way to the Member for Edinburgh.
I am not the Member for Edinburgh; I am the Member for Edinburgh South West. It is quite a big city with several MPs. The Home Office’s own figures on section 95 asylum support show that, thanks to the efforts of Glasgow City Council, the percentage located in Scotland under that scheme is more than Scotland’s population share and higher than any council in the United Kingdom. We are taking more per capita in Scotland than our population share.
In relation to Edinburgh, would the Minister care to apologise to Edinburgh City Council, which has made one of the most successful and generous contributions towards the resettlement of refugees? I have worked very closely with the council on that. He has made his point about asylum; would he like to acknowledge Edinburgh’s world-renowned contribution to the resettlement of refugees?
Again, the hon. and learned Lady has highlighted how well Glasgow is doing. Earlier in my speech, I cited how Glasgow steps up every time, but the fact is still absolutely the same: Edinburgh is not a dispersal area. Thirty-one of Scotland’s 32 local authority areas are not dispersal areas—that is a straight fact.
I did not ask the Minister about asylum; I asked him about resettlement of refugees. I am sure he must understand that there is a difference. He has had his wee go at Edinburgh about asylum. Now I am asking him, in fairness, to recognise Edinburgh City Council’s sterling contribution towards the resettlement of refugees. As he knows, Scotland has taken more Syrian refugees per capita than anywhere else in the United Kingdom, and that is largely due to Edinburgh. Will he have the generosity to acknowledge that?
I am happy to acknowledge all the generosity that there has been across Scotland in terms of the resettlement schemes, but the point still stands. It is rather odd to say, “There’s a lot being done on dispersal accommodation in Scotland because of one council down the road, yet the place I represent doesn’t need to take part in that.” As I say, we will be looking to reform the scheme, but it is perfectly fair to point out that plenty of communities across the United Kingdom step up for refugees and are part of our dispersal accommodation system, no matter how people try to argue it.
I will try to help the Minister with a different point. He has mentioned the Syrian scheme and the two Afghanistan schemes, and now there are at least two schemes for the Ukrainian conflict. Broadly, off the top of his head, where are we with the Afghanistan scheme? Obviously, we do not know how many more applicants to the Ukraine scheme there will be, because Ukraine is currently 18 days into the most dreadful war. Broadly speaking, we think we know what happened with the Syrian scheme, but could he tell us about the Afghanistan scheme?
I will come to colleagues, but I will deal with the hon. Lady’s intervention first. We are still helping people get out of Afghanistan. I hope she appreciates why it would not be sensible for me to go into some of the routes and methods that they use to exit Afghanistan at this time, but we have certainly made strong progress. There is a challenge now, and my colleague Minister Harrington will be looking at how we can move people on from hotels. As I say, one of the points that we have learned from the scheme is about trying to pair up the accommodation and give more people an opportunity to take part. However, our cohort from Afghanistan is slightly more difficult, given that we brought out mostly larger families. In the case of Ukraine, it is mostly single women with children, given that men between 18 and 60 are required by Ukrainian law to stay and fight.
I will give way to the hon. Member for Strangford and then I will make some progress.
I thank the Minister for the Afghan scheme. We in Northern Ireland have been very active in responding to that. In my neighbouring constituency of North Down, which has become the central point for bringing people from Afghanistan, people have been in the Marine Court hotel for seven months. We are very keen and anxious to get them into the jobs and accommodation that we have spoken about in the past. Can the Minister give us an update on when he hopes to see those people filtering out into the constituency?
In terms of Ukraine, we hope to set things forward very quickly. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the statement made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities in the House earlier.
I am conscious of the time and that votes are due again. Given the petition’s call, I want to be clear that, as stated by the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary, we do not believe that a blanket visa waiver is the right way forward—a position that appears to have been endorsed by the Opposition, given their call for visas rather than waivers, with biometric checks included. Normally, security and biometric checks are a fundamental part of our visa process, in order to keep people in this country safe and ensure that we can identify those entering our country. That is consistent with our approach to the evacuation of Afghanistan.
Although it is easy to dismiss, it is vital to keep British citizens safe and to ensure that we are helping those in genuine need. Sadly, we are already seeing people presenting false documents, claiming to be Ukrainian and seeking to enter the UK, including some whom Border Force has subsequently identified as being of other nationalities and having no links to Ukraine. This should not detract from our work creating safe and legal routes for Ukrainian nationals to come to the UK.
I congratulate the Minister on dancing on the head of a pin so well. Could I also point out to him that my own area, North Lanarkshire, has taken refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Syria and is taking refugees from Afghanistan? We have a long history of taking refugees without UK Government intervention, going right back to 1919.
We look forward to that area signing up to be a dispersal area as well then. I will be very pleased to take that forward.
Using a visa process means that processing can be controlled and vital security checks carried out, including ensuring that the people coming are actually Ukrainian, meet our eligibility criteria and do not present a risk.
I have given way quite a lot; I need to make some progress.
We have announced our bespoke Ukraine family scheme. That scheme significantly expands the ability of British nationals, people settled in the UK and others to bring family members to the UK, extending eligibility to adult parents, grandparents, children over 18, siblings, aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces, cousins and in-laws, and all of their immediate family members. We have ensured that the scheme is easily accessible, fee-free and does not include any salary or language requirements.
We recognise though—again, as has been said today—that we need to speed things up. Therefore, as announced by the Home Secretary last week, in order to further support the Ukrainian people, from tomorrow, holders of Ukrainian passports who are outside the UK will no longer be required to provide their biometric information when making applications under the Ukraine family scheme. Once applications have been processed, individuals will receive a permission letter sent electronically enabling them to travel to the UK, and will not be required to collect a vignette in their passport. They can either print that letter or show it on any smart device, including a family member’s smartphone or device if they do not have one of their own. Those granted status under this scheme will be able to come to the UK for three years, with the right to work and access benefits. Applicants who hold identity cards and do not have a valid passport will still need to attend a visa application centre in person and provide their biometric information, but this new system will mean that our VAC capacity can focus on those who need it.
The Prime Minister has also announced plans for a scheme to introduce a new sponsor group to enable Ukrainians with no ties to the UK to come here, with more details having been announced in the main Chamber this afternoon. That scheme is completely uncapped, and to help colleagues, a “frequently asked questions” section has just gone live on gov.uk.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
Thank you, Mr Gray. I have not forgotten the intervention, and I have had an unusually long time to think about it. In terms of the timescale, from today individuals and organisations can register their interest in becoming sponsors. Applications will be open for individual sponsors and named beneficiaries from Friday. We aim to expedite decisions quickly. Again, some of that will slightly depend on how many we have come forward. But we are certainly keen that, very quickly after Friday, the first people will be able to arrive under the sponsorship scheme. As we say, there will be safeguarding checks—there will be checks on the individuals—but the approach will be around ensuring that we can expedite decision making as much as possible. I would reassure Members that we will be working with the devolved Administrations and others where appropriate on the type of checks—again, where possible, with a view to the speed. I would also make the point that there is no limit on the sponsorship scheme; there is no set amount—we could think of other schemes where we have set a particular ceiling or quota, but there is no limit, except in terms of the offers that come forward.
Making the scheme a success will require the whole of society to come forward and show our heartfelt concern and solidarity, as we did as a society 80 years ago, when many communities across this nation welcomed evacuees from the industrial cities and the potential landing grounds for an armed invasion of this country. Many formed lifelong friendships afterwards. This country has a history of being generous, and the scheme will facilitate that.
We do want the wider diaspora in the UK. I also take on board the point that people have made: ultimately, the goal is not to evacuate Ukrainians from Ukraine, to serve Vladimir Putin’s purpose but, in the long run, to ensure that people who have had sanctuary here and in other European countries can return to a free and democratic Ukraine, with the invaders driven from their country. That is our ultimate goal, but we will ensure that people are able to come and take advantage of the generous offers that people are making.
We are in unique times. We have brought forward two major schemes at rapid speed. We recognise that colleagues want us to go faster, and we will. As I am speaking, more visas are being granted and, from tomorrow, permissions to travel via the new simplified procedure will be introduced.
We believe that this is a country that wants to stand beside the people of Ukraine and to demonstrate solidarity by making offers to provide housing into which we can welcome them. We can all contrast this generosity, this solidarity, with the vicious campaign that Russia has unleashed on innocent civilians, bombing maternity hospital and shelling residential areas—a type of barbarity that we hoped we had seen the end of in Europe 80 years ago, and which our grandparents fought to end at that time, making such sacrifices.
We think of the sacrifice that the Soviet people made to defeat Adolf Hitler. Over 20 million Soviet citizens lost their lives in that conflict. To see what is being done in the name of the Russian people by their own Government is absolutely tragic, but the hope that we can take from 80 years ago is that despots and dictators who thought that they could conquer Europe soon found themselves in the annals of history, having been defeated by free and democratic peoples who united to defeat them. That is what we are doing against Putin’s Russia, and soon that will be the victory that is secured by the Ukrainian people.
I thank the Minister for his response, because it feels as if we are finally getting on the same page, both across the House, and in terms of where the British public are when it comes to the response that we want to see from us a country, which we rely on the Government to deliver—[Interruption.]
Order. There is a Division in the main Chamber. Rather than come back after voting, may I put the Question? Would that be agreeable? I am very sorry; I hope the hon. Lady does not mind.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 609530, relating to arrangements for Ukrainian refugees to enter the UK.