House of Commons
Wednesday 16 March 2022
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
All parts of Scotland have a growth deal in implementation or negotiation, with the UK Government committing more than £1.5 billion. These agreements are stimulating local economies to build back better after the pandemic, delivering thousands of jobs across Scotland and enriching communities.
I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that growth deals show what can be achieved when Scotland’s two Governments work together. That is what people want. They are just one part of the UK Government’s hugely ambitious levelling-up agenda, which last year saw the announcement of more than £191 million in investment projects in Scotland, supported by the levelling-up fund, the community renewal fund and the community ownership fund. In February, the levelling-up White Paper saw further good news for Scotland with the Glasgow innovation accelerator, which will create jobs and boost the regional economy. I very much hope that the Scottish Government will work with us on the levelling-up agenda, which covers a number of vital devolved areas and has the potential to transform the lives of people in Scotland.
The Borderlands growth deal has been very well received on both sides of the border. It demonstrates the benefits of a close working relationship between councils, MPs and Government. Given that success, would the Minister envisage a further opportunity for a Borderlands mark 2?
I strongly agree with my hon. Friend that the Borderlands growth deal is a great demonstration of what can be achieved when we work together. I recently visited Innerleithen in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) and saw some of the great work that is happening there. What is really important about these growth deals is that they develop strong local partnerships that can form the basis for longer-term economic plans. My hon. Friend was a fantastic champion of the Borderlands growth deal, and I know that he will be at the forefront of developing these future plans.
The Westminster Parliament can and does legislate for all of the UK, and we have always sought to do so with the consent of the relevant devolved Parliament when we legislate in areas of devolved competence. The Scottish Parliament has passed legislative consent motions for seven Bills in this Session where the legislative consent motion process has been engaged. However, as the hon. Gentleman knows, the SNP Scottish Government made it quite clear that they would not grant LCMs for Brexit-related Bills. We understand their position even if we do not agree with it, but following Brexit, it is this Government’s duty to legislate sensibly for the whole of the United Kingdom, which has involved legislating without consent on a small number of occasions and may well mean doing so again in the future.
That small number of occasions includes the Elections Bill, the Professional Qualifications Bill, the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 and the withdrawal agreement itself. All were rejected by Scotland’s Parliament but are taking effect anyway because this Tory Government never really believed in devolution in the first place. So is this actually the end of the Sewel convention, and is ignoring the Scottish Parliament the new normal?
This morning, as ever, we have heard a lot from the SNP about respecting the Scottish Parliament and ignoring the Scottish Parliament. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is the height of disrespect for the permanent secretary of the Scottish Government, who remains accountable to the UK Cabinet Secretary and draws a six-figure salary, to refuse to appear in front of a Committee of the Scottish Parliament without giving a reasonable excuse as to why?
I am sure that the Secretary of State would like to join me in welcoming Dr Riches, who is watching our proceedings today. She is from the Royal Society and she is shadowing me as part of a pairing scheme. She is very welcome.
Holyrood unanimously approved a legislative consent motion for the Economic Crime (Transparency and Enforcement) Bill, which included an amendment from my Labour colleague Michael Marra urging the UK Government to remove a provision that would require ownership of land only from 2014 to be registered in Scotland registered, when the requirement is from 2004 in England. So if someone has laundered Putin’s dirty money in Scotland before 2014, they are in the clear. For example, Perthshire’s Aberuchill castle was bought by the Russian steel magnate Vladimir Lisin for over £5 million in 2005. He has been on the Treasury’s watchlist since 2008, but he is not covered. Vladimir Romanov, who bought Heart of Midlothian football club along with swathes of central Edinburgh, is allegedly hiding in Moscow under the protection of Putin. He would not be covered either, but both of them would be covered in England. Does the Secretary of State think that is right? What is he doing to implement the LCM amendment to sort this smugglers’ cove in Scotland?
I join the hon. Gentleman in welcoming the Royal Society pairs who are in London. I also thank the Labour party for its support for the Economic Crime (Transparency and Enforcement) Bill—it is hugely appreciated.
On the registration of property, England and Wales changed the rules for transparency of ownership in 1999, but in Scotland they were changed in 2014. The problem we have is that, if we go back before 2014, there is a risk that third parties who did not know they were engaging with an overseas entity that was non-compliant could be hurt. That hurt would be for something they were engaged in unwillingly, and we must protect those third parties. That is the reason why we have not gone back before 2014, and the Joint Committee on the Draft Registration of Overseas Entities Bill, which reviewed the draft legislation, agreed with that, but I have every sympathy with the points the hon. Gentleman makes.
I am sure that anomaly could be sorted to ensure that we do not hurt unsuspecting third parties. One of the most important ways to clamp down on illicit Russian money and influence in the UK is through the reform of Companies House. Despite Labour’s attempts, the Economic Crime (Transparency and Enforcement) Act 2022 does not contain such reforms, but they are important, because Scottish limited partnerships, which were set up for Scottish farmers in the 19th century, remain an outdated and opaque vehicle of ownership that is used in the 21st century to obscure beneficial ownership. There is widespread support for that change, but the Government refused to act. Will the Secretary of State commit now to reforming Scottish limited partnerships and wider company law so that we can see who actually owns the companies and shut down those laundering loopholes?
The hon. Gentleman will also know that the UK Government clamped down on the abuse of Scottish limited partnerships in 2018, but we want to do more, and early in the next Session of Parliament there will be an updated economic crime Bill and further measures will be taken. He is absolutely right that those partnerships were being used by foreign individuals and companies to launder money. We know that. The reforms in 2018 increased transparency and put more stringent checks on the individuals forming those companies, but, hopefully with the support of the Labour party, we will tackle them in the next Session of Parliament.
The Scottish National party likes to present itself as the defender of devolution, but does my right hon. Friend agree that there is an inherent contradiction between that position and its desire to rip our United Kingdom completely apart? Does he also agree that it is the UK Government who are promoting devolution, including the transfer of powers regained from the European Union?
Is it not the truth that Scotland has never experienced such sustained attacks on our democracy and our democratic institutions? As we have heard, legislative consent is now almost dead and buried, a feature of history, with Westminster now legislating in devolved areas. What is next in the Secretary of State’s sights?
There are various Bills that come through that are Brexit related: the Professional Qualifications Bill, which is linked to trade Bills, a reserved matter, would be one of them, and the Subsidy Control Bill would be another where we will not get an LCM. We know that, but we need to bring in subsidy controls, because state aid has reverted to the United Kingdom from the EU and it is a UK matter.
The Secretary of State does not get an LCM because Scotland’s directly elected representatives do not agree with it and do not want it. That is why LCMs are withheld. Everybody can see what is going on, and everybody can see his attempts to undermine our democracy. Is it not the case that his muscular Unionism has been a disaster for Scottish democracy? In fact, it has even been a disaster for the Scottish Conservatives, who may or may not now have confidence in their Prime Minister. Is it not also the case that the Scottish people have no confidence in this Government to defend our parliamentary institutions?
Absolutely not. We do the right things for Scotland. On the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, we brought the Bill forward without an LCM to protect Scotland’s trade with the rest of the United Kingdom. The two principles that underpin it are mutual recognition and non-discrimination. That is because 60% of Scotland’s trade is with the rest of the UK and a lot of jobs rely on it.
Transition to Net Zero
The Government’s net zero strategy outlines a comprehensive set of measures to transition to a green and sustainable future. This will support hundreds of thousands of well-paid jobs and leverage up to £90 billion of private investment by 2030 across the entire United Kingdom, including Scotland. All previously licensed fields, such as Cambo, are accounted for in projected production and estimated emissions. We are confident that they can be developed, even as we seek to achieve our commitment to net zero by 2050.
Yesterday, I met my “Dean’s Green Team” in Watford to talk about initiatives around making sure that the economy is greener and having a better environment. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the net zero strategy is even more important for energy security and that we are stronger as a Union when we work together on that?
I agree with my hon. Friend. I know he is a great champion of net zero policies. As the Prime Minister set out earlier this week, now more than ever what the UK needs is a balanced approach to energy. Both the North sea and renewables can help guarantee a secure energy supply for households and businesses without relying on foreign imports, and it is greatly to be regretted that we cannot agree a UK-wide position on these issues, because by opposing the development of new oil and gas fields, the Scottish National party and the Greens risk driving jobs and investment elsewhere. However, I say to those working in the industry that fortunately for them, oil and gas is a matter reserved to the Westminster Government.
Our journey to net zero is critical not only to saving the planet, but to weaning us off any reliance on Russian gas. ScotWind, the largest offshore wind project in the world, has huge potential, but we must also live up to our values and ensure that Scotland’s wind is not being used to power Putin’s war. Will the Secretary of State ask Scottish Ministers to conduct an audit of ScotWind to guarantee that no ill-gotten Russian money is part of its financing and ensure that all successful contracts for difference are free of Russian involvement?
As the hon. Lady will know—she makes a fair point—ScotWind is a matter for the Scottish Government, but I am sure they will be doing all they can to ensure that no Russian money is financing any of the successful contracts. On contracts for difference, the UK Government are working to ensure that no Russian money is underpinning UK infrastructure.
You have to admire the brass neck of the Secretary of State, because it is his Government who have failed to deliver carbon capture and underground storage in Scotland, it is his Government who have failed to match fund the Scottish Government’s just transition fund, and it is his Government who oversee Scotland paying the highest electricity transmission charges in the entirety of Europe. When will he stop doffing his cap to Westminster and stand up for Scotland’s renewable future?
Strengthening the Union
I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues on improving Union connectivity and recently met Baroness Vere to discuss the final report of the Union connectivity review. I look forward to meeting the new Scottish Government Transport Minister, Jenny Gilruth, in the near future to discuss shared transport priorities.
As a Borderlands MP, I am strongly supportive of the extension of the Borders railway from Tweedbank through Longtown in my constituency and on to Carlisle. It would improve connectivity, benefit local communities and be a massive economic boost to our region, but the proposals have been under consideration for a long time now, and it is vital that we move forward with this project. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is essential that the UK and Scottish Governments work together and with local authorities to prioritise the delivery of this project, which would benefit local residents and businesses and strengthen our precious Union?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend that we need to work together on this project, which will be of benefit to his constituents and the whole country. I regret that the project has not had the priority we would like to see in the Scottish Government’s strategic transport projects review 2, but we will continue to work with the Scottish Government and see how we can best support it. We have committed to the next stage of the project, and I hope the Scottish Government do, too.
On strengthening Union connectivity, can the Minister advise the House on what happened to the impossible bridge across Beaufort’s Dyke? What kind of money was spent on something that never happened and did not connect the Union?
I can tell the hon. Gentleman that it is right that we look at all possible transport links. [Interruption.] He mocks, but if he looks at what the Scottish Government are proposing, they are looking at fixed tunnels linking parts of Scotland together. In the Union connectivity review, we are looking at strengthening—[Interruption.]
Levelling Up Communities
The benefits of the transformative levelling-up agenda have already been realised following round 1 of the levelling-up fund. Eight Scottish projects are receiving a share of £171 million, which will help to create jobs, boost training and grow productivity. Round 2 of the fund will open in spring in addition to another major funding mechanism, the UK shared prosperity fund.
All parts of Scotland will receive a share of the UK shared prosperity fund, which will provide £2.6 billion of new funding by March 2025 through an allocation rather than a competition. Additionally, the levelling-up White Paper includes the creation of a new islands forum, which will bring together local leaders from island communities across the UK to share challenges and experiences directly with the UK Government.
A former European regional development fund recipient described to me the distribution of levelling-up funding as akin to the random sprinkling of confetti, because it is random and wide open to the sort of pork-barrelling that we saw in the stronger towns fund. Why will the Government not work directly with devolved Governments so that the funding dovetails with all the knowledge, experience and workstreams that already exist to ensure outcomes that can be measured against some recognisable targets?
I am rather surprised that the hon. Lady seeks to criticise levelling up as pork barrel politics when her constituency is benefiting from a multimillion-pound investment in the regeneration of Granton. I would have thought that she would be pleased with that.
Scottish Island Communities
The UK Government have committed £50 million to the islands growth deal, which has resulted in islands communities benefiting from the highest per capita deal in Scotland. As I just mentioned, the levelling-up White Paper announced the development of an islands forum, and I have recently had discussions with local partners on how to progress that important work.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. On Monday, I had a useful conversation with the leader and chief executive of Orkney Islands Council. We are inviting local partners to discuss with us how best the forum can operate and deliver what we want to achieve in the islands.
The best support that any Government can give to an island community is access to a reliable and frequent ferry service. On that, the SNP has failed miserably and has managed to achieve the impossible double of sinking hundreds of thousands of pounds into ferries that will never float while the real service has had increased breakdowns and become worse and worse. Does my hon. Friend agree that the SNP has let down island communities across Scotland?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. It is of great concern to island communities that they cannot rely on ferry services, as has been the case for several years. I welcome the proposals in Transport Scotland’s strategic plan for the renewal and replacement of the Clyde and Hebrides ferry services and the northern isles ferry services, but its record thus far does not fill me with confidence that they will be delivered.
Farmers and crofters in all Scotland’s islands communities are facing the perfect storm of massive increases in the cost of fuel and fertilisers and increased competition on price from imports. Does the Minister agree that this would be a good time to revisit the work of the Groceries Code Adjudicator to ensure that farmers and crofters can get a fair price for their produce? Would he meet me and a delegation from the National Farmers Union of Scotland to discuss that?
I am delighted to say that I have made two very pleasurable visits to the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency, and I have heard these concerns first hand. Of course I would be delighted to meet him and a delegation from NFU Scotland to take forward their concerns.
I have regular discussions with my Cabinet colleagues on all relevant UK Government policies that support economic growth in Scotland. The landmark agreement between Scotland’s two Governments to establish two new UK freeports will support the regeneration of communities in Scotland.
Freeports are a real opportunity to bolster the UK’s economy. In the east midlands we have a freeport that is bringing 60,000 jobs and green investment. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that will be the case if two freeports go ahead in Scotland? Does that not demonstrate levelling up across the UK and our Union?
Everyone who cares about Scotland’s prosperity will welcome the additional UK Government investment of up to £52 million, on top of the massive tax and customs benefits to the Scottish economy, drawing in more private sector investment. I would have thought that all parties in Scotland would have welcomed the opportunities and jobs that will flow from the new freeports in Scotland. However, sadly the Scottish Greens, the SNP Government’s coalition partners, oppose them, which shows how irresponsible it was for Mrs Sturgeon to invite a party so opposed to economic growth to join her in government.
The UK Government remain committed to our domestic offshore oil and gas sector, which continues to keep us warm, fuel our vehicles and strengthen our security of supply. At present, 75% of the UK’s primary energy demand comes from oil and gas and it is therefore an essential part of our energy mix.
The oil and gas industry in Scotland, in Teesside and around the country provides thousands of people with good quality, well-paid jobs, while keeping the lights on and keeping Britain moving. Does the Secretary of State agree with me that it is vital that we encourage North sea oil and gas exploration to ensure we have energy security and independence in this time of uncertainty, and that these sectors will help us to decarbonise in the long run and achieve our net zero goals through projects such as Net Zero Teesside?
I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of our domestic oil and gas sector. The North sea transition deal is a global exemplar of how a Government can work with the offshore oil and gas industry to achieve a managed energy transition that leaves no one behind. This Government support oil and gas, and the 100,000 jobs linked to that industry in Scotland, but we also support the transition, rather than the extinction, of that industry.
Renewable Energy Generation
I regularly discuss issues of importance to Scotland with Ministers, including support for Scotland’s renewable energy sector. The Government recently announced that their flagship renewable electricity support scheme, contracts for difference, will run more frequently. Scotland has benefited significantly from this scheme with 34% of all projects awarded to date located in Scotland.
Promoting renewable energy generation in Scotland is critical to supporting jobs in Scotland, but without action from the Government, it is not inevitable that Scotland’s renewable potential will lead to job creation at home. In fact, we have seen ScotWind sold off to foreign owners. Can the Minister tell me what discussions he is having with Scottish Ministers about the creation of jobs in Scotland in renewable energy?
I am happy to tell the hon. Gentleman that we are negotiating with and discussing with the Scottish Government, and I can point to a number of schemes in the city and regional growth deals that are promoting renewable energy, such as the CoRE—community renewable energy—project in East Ayrshire, Orion in Shetland and European Marine Energy Centre research in Orkney.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Mr Speaker, I have been asked to reply on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. As the House will know, he is travelling in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia to discuss energy security, diplomatic action on Russia in Ukraine and regional issues, including Iran.
Mr Speaker, with your forbearance, may I also say that I understand that four Members of the Ukrainian Parliament are here with us in the Gallery today? I am sure I speak for the whole House in saying that we stand in total solidarity with them. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]
Camelot is one of the largest employers in Watford and for Watford, and its employees have worked tirelessly to run the national lottery successfully for decades, playing an important role in communities across the UK with many local projects and good causes, including in my constituency. I obviously declare an interest in the Gambling Commission’s decision yesterday not to appoint the licence to Camelot, but given the current situation in Ukraine, does my right hon. Friend consider it appropriate that the next licensee of the operator of the national lottery is known to have a joint venture with Gazprom?
Can I thank my hon. Friend, and just say what an incredible job the national lottery has done delivering £45 billion to good causes? He is right that the fourth licence will ensure operator profits are better aligned with returns to good causes. I would also say, on the specific points he makes, that I understand that Allwyn’s owner, Mr Komárek, who has long criticised the Putin regime, is in discussions with the Czech Republic Government regarding the joint venture with Gazprom and removing its involvement.
I also welcome the Ukrainian MPs to this House today.
Can I start by wholeheartedly welcoming the positive steps towards returning Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori to the UK? I am sure Members across the House want to show their support for their families and them. I know the Deputy Prime Minister would agree that this devastating situation must never be repeated, and other British nationals still trapped in Iran need to be brought home. So will he commit to a review of these cases to understand what more could have been done by the British Government to secure releases and whether the lazy comments of the Prime Minister worsened the situation?
I should first say that I cannot yet confirm the reports we have seen in the media, but of course it feels like positive signs. No one wants more than me—although I am sure all Members of the House want this—to see Nazanin and all the arbitrarily detained nationals reunited with their loved ones. I can tell the right hon. Lady, having worked for two years with the concerted diplomatic effort led by the Prime Minister, that we have done absolutely everything that we can. She should not give succour to the despotic regime that detained our nationals in Iran, or those around the world, by suggesting it is anyone else’s responsibility other than theirs.
It is exactly for that reason that I asked for the review. It is important to learn from our mistakes so that other innocent families do not face this ordeal again. I hope that the Deputy Prime Minister will consider my comments.
I would like to thank all the people who have been working tirelessly to bring British nationals home from Iran, our diplomatic staff and our world-leading British intelligence agencies. The role of British intelligence today is critical in the face of Putin’s aggression. The Deputy Prime Minister oversaw our foreign intelligence services as Foreign Secretary, so can he confirm if at any time he overruled or ignored direct advice from the British security services?
What the right hon. Lady suggests is nonsense. She is talking about the House of Lords Appointments Commission, and it has a vetting process. I have never overruled intelligence advice, and I would not comment on the details of it. I do agree with her on the strength and agility of the British diplomatic service, who time and time again are the unsung heroes in returning British nationals, often in less celebrated cases. Now is a great opportunity to recognise the heroic work that they do.
I agree with the Deputy Prime Minister’s comments on the diplomatic service’s heroic work. He was Foreign Secretary on 17 March 2020 when British intelligence reportedly warned against granting a peerage to the Prime Minister’s close friend who is now Lord Lebedev of Hampton and Siberia. Forty-eight hours later, the Prime Minister visited Lebedev at his home in London. Details of that meeting have never been released. In July 2020, Lebedev’s appointment as a peer was announced. Can the Deputy Prime Minister tell the House what changed between the security warning and the appointment?
As the right hon. Lady knows full well, all individuals are nominated for a peerage in recognition of their contribution to society. I should say that that includes those of Russian origin who contribute brilliantly to our nation—many of whom in this country are critics of the Putin regime. Life peerages are vetted by the House of Lords Appointments Commission for matters of probity. Frankly, she should know better.
What I do know better is that a central duty of any Government is to keep the British people safe. There are now widespread reports that the Prime Minister did not accept warnings from our own intelligence services about granting a Russian oligarch—the son and business partner of a KGB spy—a seat here in this Parliament. It should not matter if such a warning was about a close personal friend of the Prime Minister. It should not matter if he gave the Prime Minister thousands of pounds of gifts. It should not matter how much champagne and caviar he serves. There are no ifs or buts when it comes to the safety of the British people. So I ask the Deputy Prime Minister: can he guarantee that the Prime Minister never asked anyone to urge the security services to revise, reconsider or withdraw their assessment of Lord Lebedev of Hampton and Siberia?
The suggestion that the right hon. Lady is making is sheer nonsense. But if she wants to talk about national security, I remind her that not so long ago she and her shadow Cabinet colleagues wanted the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) to be Prime Minister—a man who wanted and talked about abolishing the Army and pulling out of Trident. She voted for that. Has there ever been a more ridiculous, reckless, naive moment to call for unilateral nuclear disarmament and to pull out of NATO? A Labour Government would put at risk our security. We are doing everything that we can to protect it.
Labour Governments increased support for our Army. Labour is committed to NATO. I remind the Deputy Prime Minister that it was his Prime Minister who said in 2015 that he was not sure if it was morally irresponsible to work with Putin. I do not think the Deputy Prime Minister is on safe ground there.
Last week, my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition said that Britain should never again be at the mercy of a foreign dictatorship for our energy and fuel security. This week, the Prime Minister has gone cap in hand from one dictator to another, on a begging mission for the Saudi prince to bail him out. The Government have had 12 years to end their reliance on foreign oil and to invest in home-grown energy to secure our supplies. Their failure has left us all vulnerable, reliant on another murderous dictator to keep the lights on and the pumps open. [Interruption.]
Thank you, Mr Speaker. The Government Benches have a choice. They could accept Labour’s plan to save working families hundreds of pounds on bills, funded with a one-off levy on the soaring profits of big energy companies. So I ask the Deputy Prime Minister, is their only plan to keep on begging?
Can I just gently say to the right hon. Lady that when she was campaigning, as the rest of them were, to make the right hon. Member for Islington North Prime Minister, this Prime Minister was the Foreign Secretary leading the response to the nerve agent attack.
Order. I hate to say it, but the Deputy Prime Minister cannot keep going back 12 years as a defensive mechanism. What we want to do—[Interruption.] I will decide, thank you. What I want you to do, Deputy Prime Minister, please, is to try to stick to the general rules without talking about history. I have a lot of people ahead of me who are desperate to get in. How far we want to go back, in passing, is one thing.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I wanted just to point out, and I hope it is not ancient history, that the Prime Minister was, as Foreign Secretary, galvanising the response to the nerve agent attack in Salisbury at the time when the right hon. Member for Islington North, the former leader of the Labour party, was siding with Putin against the UK. What did the right hon. Lady have to say on Sky News? That he was a very strong leader and she could not wait for him to become Prime Minister. [Hon. Members: “More!”]
There is a war in Europe. There is a fuel energy crisis in Britain. Democracy is at risk. We must support the courageous efforts of President Zelensky and the Ukrainian people. These uncertain times require leadership with integrity, a leader who works with the security services, can be trusted to say the right thing for British diplomacy, and provides security for the British people. Instead, we have this sorry excuse of a Government sat before us. They hike tax on 27 million working people, while the super-rich increase their wealth. They watch energy prices rise by over 50% while companies enjoy profits they did not even expect. They cavort with Russian oligarchs in luxury villas while neglecting the security of the British people. Remember, they partied while the country was in lockdown and unable to see their dying loved ones. Can the Deputy Prime Minister look the British people in the eye and really say that this Government are doing their best in their interests?
Mr Speaker, I will tell you what this Government and this Prime Minister have done: 1,000 Russian individuals sanctioned with a combined wealth of $45 billion; the impact of the sanctions and the diplomatic effort that this Foreign Secretary and this Prime Minister have led; the rouble plummeting; the Russian stock market record lows; and interest rates doubled. We have also shown the big-hearted spirit of this Government, and indeed this nation, with 5,500 visas granted to Ukrainians to come here, and the humanitarian route, which has now got 100,000 sponsors applying to take Ukrainian families into their homes. While the right hon. Lady is in her social media echo chamber, that is what this Government are doing.
My hon. Friend is bang on. The Assembly of States Parties is looking at the arrears. I was in The Hague on Monday speaking to the Prosecutor and the President of the Court. We will be coming forward with a voluntary package of financial and technical support because now, as it looks at the situation in Ukraine, we want—and I think the whole House would want—Putin and his commanders to know that if they continue with war crimes in Ukraine, they will end up not just in the dock of a court, but behind bars.
May I welcome our four colleagues from the Parliament of Ukraine who are with us today? We all stand with them.
I have spent much of the past week trying to help the Scottish charity Dnipro Kids, which was established by fans of Hibernian football club. It has evacuated 48 children from orphanages in Ukraine and is desperately attempting to provide them with temporary sanctuary in Scotland. There is a plane ready and waiting in Poland to bring these orphans to the UK on Friday, but that flight will leave empty without the necessary paperwork from the Home Office.
The Polish authorities, Edinburgh City Council, the Scottish Government and the orphans’ guardians are all working to bring these children to safety. I have worked with UK Government Ministers to try to make that happen—I commend Lord Harrington in particular for his efforts—but a week on, the Home Office is still proving to be the only obstacle in the way, and it risks leaving these children stranded. I am pleading with the Deputy Prime Minister to remove these obstructions before it is too late. Will he work with me and the Ukrainian authorities to guarantee that these 48 Ukrainian orphans will get on that plane this Friday?
May I thank the right hon. Gentleman for all he is doing? This is a heart-rending situation; we want to do everything we can. Of course, there are a range of issues in this case, including the wishes of the Ukrainian Government on where orphan children should go and should be living, and whether any necessary permissions have been sought from the Ukrainian and/or the Polish Government. This is not actually about bureaucracy—it is about genuine safeguarding issues—but I certainly want to work with the right hon. Gentleman in the best interests of those children.
I am asking the Government to do just exactly that, because we have been working with the Ukrainian and Polish authorities and we have their support. We need the Home Office to give us the paperwork that will make it happen.
This one case goes to the heart of the failure in the UK Government’s response to the biggest refugee crisis in Europe since world war two. It is deeply concerning that it has taken the intervention of several Ministers of State, letters to multiple European ambassadors and the fear of the case being exposed in the Chamber to try to force movement in this urgent case involving almost 50 vulnerable children. Even where there is the will, it seems that there is simply no way the Home Office can get involved. I should not have been sending letters to the authorities in Ukraine and Poland; the Home Office should have been doing it.
If all these powerful people cannot make it happen, what hope have all the other children fleeing this awful war of finding sanctuary in the UK? The United Nations now estimates that almost one child a second is becoming a refugee from the war in Ukraine. These 48 children will not be the last who need sanctuary and safety. Surely the Deputy Prime Minister agrees that it should not have taken this level of intervention and pressure for the Home Office to do the right thing by these children.
May I just say to the right hon. Gentleman that it is very important that the proper international practices on safeguarding are followed? I know he appreciates that. We are keen to find out whether family reunion options with Ukrainian family in the region have been considered. We also know—[Interruption.] Could he just listen for a second, because this is important? We also know that many children in state care in Ukraine have family members in the region for the safeguarding and wellbeing of the children. That must also be considered.
More broadly, the right hon. Gentleman raises the issue of refugees and children. On top of the measures that I have already mentioned, we are making plans for the arrival of 100,000 Ukrainian children in our schools, through the Secretary of State for Education, and I pay tribute to the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care for bringing Ukrainian children suffering from cancer over to this country to receive the vital treatment that they need.
My hon. Friend is right to pay tribute to the professionalism, dedication and sacrifices made by our servicemen and women every day to defend this country. As she will know, recognition for all military operations is kept under continuous review, and I know that the Defence Secretary will have heard her compelling suggestions.
May I first wish you, Mr Speaker, and the entire House an early happy St Patrick’s Day?
The Government set a 3.1% increase in universal credit and other benefits last September, but inflation is now pushing 7%. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the Trussell Trust and many other organisations have highlighted the real jeopardy that millions of people now face from a real-terms cut in the level of benefits, for which other measures from the Government simply do not compensate. Surely it is not tenable for the Government to stick so rigorously to a decision made six months ago, given that circumstances have changed so radically since then.
The hon. Gentleman is right about the cost of living challenges, not least given the war in Ukraine. The Government and the Chancellor have already provided a £20 billion package across this year, £9 billion to help with energy bills and the rest to deal with the wider cost of living issues. That includes raising the national living wage. As for universal credit, we are giving nearly 2 million families an extra £1,000 a year. We have introduced the kickstart scheme, and have increased the personal tax threshold by more than 50% since 2010. We are doing everything we can, and of course we will keep those cost of living issues under constant and regular review.
I join my hon. Friend in thanking all those businesses, but I also thank all the charities and individual families up and down the country who have shown the traditional big-heartedness that makes this country so great. My hon. Friend will, of course, be aware of the new sponsorship scheme, for which 100,000 people have applied. Working with businesses is particularly valuable, not just in allowing those who come here to gain access to work but in helping them to integrate into society as confident members of our community.
I was not quite sure where the hon. Gentleman was going at the beginning of his question, but I can tell him that the Prime Minister is not just a very social individual—[Laughter.] He also wants this country to be open and outward-looking to the world. We were the Government—he was the Prime Minister and I was the Foreign Secretary—who introduced the Sergei Magnitsky sanctions, which include human rights sanctions, asset-freezing and visa bans. Those have been applied not just to Russians when we have evidence of wrongdoing, but to the murderers of Khashoggi, the persecutors of the Myanmar minority, and many others. It was this Government who did that, not the Labour party.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We will keep the focus on Afghanistan and the many other conflicts around the world that need our support. That particular conference will provide specific support for girls to access education, which is a long-standing priority of the Prime Minister. We have doubled our humanitarian aid to Afghanistan for the financial year to £286 million.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He knows we have a £20 billion package this year to deal with the cost of living, and £9 billion of it is focused on energy prices. His comments on the issues for his constituents, and for constituents across the country, are very well made, and I know the Chancellor will have heard his suggestions.
I went to Riyadh twice when I was Foreign Secretary, and I know the Prime Minister will be raising these issues again. We talked about women’s rights defenders. The hon. Gentleman says we have been ineffective, but they have all been released. We talked about Raif Badawi, the author and critic, and he was recently released.
The hon. Gentleman mentions Jamal Khashoggi, and we were one of the first to apply asset freezes and visa bans to those responsible for his murder. We are an international country, and this is Britain’s role in the 21st century, but we will never allow our moral red lines to be blurred.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I pay tribute to not only his constituents, but the Polish community in particular for their big-hearted support for the people of Ukraine. As a leading donor—I believe the second largest donor to Ukraine—we have committed a further £174 million in aid, bringing our total to £400 million. But that will also support those countries in close proximity to Ukraine—its neighbours—and first and foremost will be Poland.
In addition to having concerns for Ukraine, my constituents are also concerned about planning policy. I wrote to the Prime Minister in October 2019 about the threat to the Goring gap. It is against Government policy and against the public interest for every green field that is a strategic gap to be built on. An inspector has made a decision that would wipe away the planning powers of every local council in the country. May I ask whether the Prime Minister will see me and whether the Government will revoke this inspector’s mistaken decision?
I thank my hon. Friend for that. As someone with a massive proportion of green belt in my constituency, I empathise with the frustrations that Members from across the House feel with some planning decisions that are made. However, once a planning decision is final, it cannot be challenged unless it is successfully challenged in the courts.
We have put a huge amount into both mental health and the wider NHS budget, not just on covid, but to respond to the wider issues. On the specific issue the hon. Lady raises, I will certainly make sure that an appropriate health Minister will see her.
Of course we listen carefully to Sir David Norgrove, but what I would say to the right hon. Gentleman is that he points to the data yesterday and it showed that unemployment has fallen below 4%, is back at pre-pandemic levels and is being termed a remarkable success by everyone, including the Resolution Foundation. He talks about the truth and there is one golden truth: whenever there has been a Labour Government in the past, unemployment has always been higher when they left office than when they started. That is the jobs guarantee you get with Labour.
We have now provided more than 3,000 anti-tank weapons, training and other military support to Ukraine, alongside crushing financial sanctions on Russia and more bilateral assistance, humanitarian assistance and aid than any other country. But can my right hon. Friend confirm that we will continue to deliver further military aid and support, and that we will supply the Starstreak anti-aircraft missiles necessary to destroy Russian jets?
My hon. Friend is right to say that we have delivered more than 3,600 anti-tank weapons. We will also be sending a consignment of the Javelin anti-tank missiles and we are indeed, as he says, exploring the donation of Starstreak anti-aircraft missiles.
The hon. Gentleman is right that we have a strong tradition, as we have shown: we have stepped up to the plate with the Hong Kong British national overseas citizens, and with Operation Pitting which brought 17,000 back from Afghanistan, and we will go further and beyond the normal rules when there is a crisis, as we have seen in Ukraine. He is absolutely right about the current scheme: those Ukrainians coming here can live, work and access benefits, and can stay for three years with leave to remain. I am proud, and the whole House should be proud, not just of the big-hearted approach of this Government, but the 100,000 British sponsors who have come forward and said they will open their homes to those refugees.
As the brilliant Ukrainian people fight and die on a daily basis for their rights of freedom and democracy, it is important that we make something very clear and I ask my right hon. Friend to do so. They have asked for membership of NATO for a significant period of time, and NATO has chosen not to give it to them. My concern now is, no matter what they decide, it remains their absolute right as a free nation and a free people to make such an application in the future, and, noticing that Finland is talking about becoming a member, we treat them in exactly the same way we would an application from Finland.
I thank my right hon. Friend and he will have heard what President Zelensky has said overnight in relation to this, but the Government have always been crystal clear that if there is a diplomatic off-ramp—although I have to say we have a heavy measure of scepticism about whether Putin could ever fulfil such a deal—it has to be done with the will and volition of the Ukrainian President and people.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Have you had any notification from the Home Secretary, the Minister for Crime and Policing or the safeguarding Minister, the hon. Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean), that they intend to respond to the independent safeguarding report published yesterday outlining the deeply disturbing circumstances in which a child was strip-searched in the most degrading way by police in her school with profound and distressing consequences for the child involved? The report is clear that this should not have been allowed to happen; it is extremely distressing that it did. The report raises very serious questions about safeguarding, policing, training, guidance, racism and protection for children, and it has recommendations for both the Home Office and the Department for Education. Given these very troubling circumstances, have you, Mr Speaker, had any notification that any Minister is planning to respond to this report?
I am grateful to the right hon. Member for giving me notice of the point of order. The issue she has raised is a very serious one, and I am sure she is correct that all Members will be concerned by it, as I am. I have not had notice of a statement; however, as the right hon. Member is aware, there are various ways in which the issue can be raised and I am sure that she and other Members will pursue the issue. I recognise that those on the Government Benches will have heard the point of order. It is quite right that we need an update to the House.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. The right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) is right. It seems that neither the parents nor the teachers were involved. I share her concern, as do others, to ensure that what has happened in this case does not happen in any other police forces across the United Kingdom. I again endorse what the right hon. Lady said. May I ask, through you, Mr Speaker, whether the parents and the teachers were notified? It seems that they were not.
Healthcare (Delayed Discharges)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision about expediting the transfer of patients who are medically fit for discharge from acute hospitals to homely settings in the community.
I declare my interest as a doctor.
Twenty years ago, I asked that leave be given
“to bring in a Bill to provide an upper limit on the time that a person who is ready in all respects for discharge must wait before leaving an acute hospital.”—[Official Report, 12 February 2002; Vol. 380, c. 76.]
The context in 2002, as now, was severe congestion in health and social care. Bed blocking is a provocative term that I use to draw attention to the harm caused to patients and the burden on our national health service. At that time, on any given day around 6,000 beds were occupied by people who should not have been in them. Indeed, Tony Blair told the House that
“bed blocking is probably the most urgent problem that we face in the national health service.”—[Official Report, 4 July 2001; Vol. 371, c. 259.]
In November, my mother-in-law died in Salisbury’s renowned spinal unit, but Selma did not have a spinal problem. She had the general frailty and multiple comorbidities of advanced old age. Her overall management was good, in parts, but modern district general hospitals are not configured for the long-term care of the elderly or for terminal care, so a good and gentle person spent her final days in acute medicine’s bewildering freneticism, noise and clamour. It was very far from ideal. She deserved much better. I have seen much better, notably in community hospitals and intermediate care—settings that have, foolishly in my view, been deprioritised under successive Governments.
An acute hospital is no place for an elderly person who is no longer receiving active medical management. I would go further and say that our frantically busy acute units, operating in the white heat of high-tech, cutting-edge medicine, can be unsafe for them. They are in constant danger of the serious iatrogenic consequences of unnecessarily prolonged stays, including hospital-acquired infections, thrombosis, skin breakdown, mental illness and psychological distress. The care pathway must lead frail elderly people to homely settings in the community that are appropriate to their needs, without delay. That long-held conviction, and my recent family experience, has driven me, 20 years after my original Bill, to have another go.
Bed blocking is everybody’s business, because our relatively efficient health system is always running hot, with bed occupancy rates far higher than those in most comparable healthcare economies. The cost to healthcare is enormous: the cost per day of an acute medical bed far outstrips the cost of homely settings in the community, supported living at home, community hospitals or nursing homes. The charity, Marie Curie, puts the annual cost at £1.5 billion. This zero-sum gain is stoked up by an institutional conspiracy of inaction, and that is because there is a baked-in perverse incentive for cash-strapped local authorities to drag their feet when getting people out of hospitals and onto their books. Hospitals save because beds, once freed up, fill up with people requiring treatment and procedures, the costs of which are, of course, front loaded.
In February 2020, an average of 5,370 people per day were bed blocking. We do not know what has happened since as data collection was suspended. Up till then, delays attributed to the NHS were hovering at about 60%. Delays attributable to social care—that is to say local authorities—were consistent at about 30%. The remaining 10% were attributed to failures by both NHS and social care. It would be good to compare and contrast trust performance, but the data are no longer available.
Back in 2002, the main roadblock in the care pathway was different. Speaking to my Bill then, I said that
“insufficient community care and support is the greatest single impediment to timely discharge. The Bill would facilitate a model based on the Swedish approach to delayed discharges. That hugely successful innovation provides for cash transfers and penalties between agencies to achieve bed blocking targets.”—[Official Report, 12 February 2002; Vol. 380, c. 77.]
Indeed, the Blair Government went on to bring in legislation based on the Swedish model a year later in what became the Community Care (Delayed Discharges etc.) Act 2003. The Act permitted NHS trusts to charge local authorities £100 a day from 48 hours after patients were judged fit to leave hospital. A compensating £100 million three-year cash transfer from NHS to social services created a virtuous money circle.
Bed blocking was actually falling before those measures were introduced. However, evidence of the policy’s success came in the wake of the Care Act 2014. The 2014 Act amended the 2003 Act from a local authority “must make a payment” to one in which an NHS body “may” require the authority to pay up, and bed blocking started to climb once again. The number of delayed discharge days in the NHS increased from an average of 114,000 a month in 2012 to more than 200,000 in October 2016.
Covid catalysed the discharge to assess—D2A—and home-first models, first trialled in 2016. The Coronavirus Act 2020 brought a relaxation of the duties around NHS continuing healthcare. This meant the assessment and organising of ongoing care taking place when people were back at home. The immediate utility of D2A became clear in spring 2020: 30,000 acute beds were freed up immediately. Although the longer-term benefit is more difficult to measure in the absence of publicly available data, anecdotally, Marie Curie and other organisations in the field report success.
There are grounds for optimism, too, in the anticipated shift to a more joined-up system of health and social care. Since I introduced my Bill 20 years ago, the main cause of delayed discharge appears to have shifted from local authorities to the NHS, but, wherever the block lies, the new ecosystem encourages collaboration through integrated care partnerships, with more accountability upwards where there has been very little in recent times.
Drawing all this together, my Bill, first, requires lead hospital clinicians to certify daily which of their patients are fit for discharge. Secondly, it defines delayed discharges as a delay of more than 48 hours beyond the date of the lead clinician’s certificate. Thirdly, it establishes delayed discharge as a patient safety issue and includes it under the definition of a qualified incident for investigation by the health service’s safety investigation body, established under health and care legislation. Fourthly, it requires local authorities to transfer to relevant NHS trusts the daily rate it pays for nursing home care for each delayed discharge day attributed by the health service’s safety investigation body to a failure of social care at the point of the move. Fifthly, it transfers the aggregated delayed discharge levies back to social care centrally in a virtuous money circle. Sixthly, it requires delayed discharge data to be published in a league table of NHS trusts and integrated care partnerships every three months. Seventhly, it requires the Care Quality Commission to investigate the worst-performing decile in the league tables within three months of publication to specify the deadline for itemised remedial action, to identify the body or bodies on which actions are placed, and to report to the Secretary of State. Eighthly, the Bill would require integrated care partnerships to include delayed discharges as a standing agenda item.
Finally, Selma’s Bill would have a special category of asterisked delayed discharge for those judged by lead clinicians to be entering their final days. People in this category, which will be reported on as a subset, will be subject to fast-tracking, so that we can speed the transfer of the most vulnerable from inappropriate acute settings to more appropriate, homey settings in the community.
Question put and agreed to.
That Dr Andrew Murrison, Tracey Crouch, Nick Gibb, Steve Brine, Dr Luke Evans and Dr Caroline Johnson present the Bill.
Dr Andrew Murrison accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 6 May, and to be printed (Bill 283).
[16th Allotted Day]
Refugees from Ukraine
I beg to move,
That this House once more condemns President Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine and the war crimes being perpetrated by the Russian state there; reiterates the House’s solidarity with Ukrainians in their resistance to Russia’s invasion of their sovereign state; recognises that Europe is now seeing the largest movement of refugees since the second world war, for whom the UK shares responsibility; warmly welcomes the significant and widespread offers of support for those fleeing the invasion from people and organisations across the UK; supports expansion of the family visa scheme and Homes for Ukraine scheme; and calls on the Government to go further and faster in its response, including waiving requirements for Ukrainians to apply for visas in advance of their arrival in the UK so as to facilitate speedy access to international protection here, working with international partners to ensure vulnerable people can be resettled here and providing full and sustained funding and safeguarding to support people to rebuild their lives.
It is a pleasure to move the motion, which is in my name and the name of my hon. Friends. President Putin’s atrocities in Ukraine continue to shock and appal: there have been maternity wards and nurseries bombed; apartment blocks and underground shelters destroyed; civilians targeted; journalists killed; and vacuum bombs deployed. On the other hand, the courage and bravery of the Ukrainians—from President Zelensky to the young volunteers putting their life on the line for their people—never ceases to amaze.
We Scottish National party Members have supported, and continue to support, the work that the Government have done to assist Ukraine with its self-defence. We have supported—with constructive criticism—work on sanctions, and we look forward very much to the day when Putin faces the consequences of his outrageous aggression at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. However, today’s debate focuses our attention on the victims of the invasion who have fled Putin’s atrocities and are seeking sanctuary elsewhere. We are witnessing the largest movement of refugees in Europe since the second world war, and we share responsibility for sheltering them with our European allies.
Across the nations of the UK, people have opened their heart and are volunteering to open their home to these refugees. Over 120,000 people have already signed up for the Homes for Ukraine scheme. That is extraordinary, but not a surprise; public opinion is massively behind our meeting our responsibilities and welcoming those who are fleeing Putin’s atrocities. Regrettably, we have been, and remain, disappointed and frustrated by the response from the Home Office, which we continue to regard as slow, piecemeal and too limited. While the public have opened their hearts and their homes, the Home Office has failed to open the door fast enough and wide enough to those fleeing Ukraine.
We hear talk of a humanitarian response, but in reality the Home Office is offering a managed migration response to the biggest refugee challenge this continent has faced for 80 years. The Home Office talks about unlimited numbers, but there are limits, not least because of the bureaucracy, which will make access impossible for many. It made something like nine changes to its family scheme in the scheme’s first 10 days. That does not seem like a Department that has been planning its response for months, in the light of intelligence that invasion was almost certain. Regret, frustration and anger has been evident right across the House, and in pretty much all corners of the media and beyond.
Of course, it is only right to acknowledge that there has been progress in recent days. We welcome the extensions to the family visa scheme; the announcement of the sponsorship scheme, though all sorts of questions around funding and safeguarding arise; and the work with the Welsh and Scottish Governments to enable them to act as super-sponsors. We hope that the move to online visa applications will help some.
This debate offers us a chance to probe further on the details of the schemes, and to suggest improvements. Most fundamentally, we urge the Government to think again about why they alone in Europe must ask those fleeing bombs and brutality to jump through the hoops and bureaucracy of gaining a visa before they can secure sanctuary here. None of our European neighbours requires Ukrainians to do that—neither those in the Schengen area nor our common travel area neighbours in Ireland. We Scottish National party Members support following their example, not only because we believe that that approach has huge public support, but because that is the right thing to do, and because we have been asked to do it by our Ukrainian friends.
I fully support the hon. Gentleman’s motion and the way in which he is speaking to it. Obviously, I totally condemn the Russian actions in Ukraine; huge numbers of people are now forced to flee. Does he recognise, though, that many people from other parts of the world—Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Eritrea and elsewhere—are also seeking asylum or a place of safety, and should absolutely be treated the same as anybody else seeking refuge in this country? There should not be a rule that applies only to Ukraine, and not to people coming from other war-torn countries—wars that, in some cases, we are associated with, through our supply of arms to Saudi Arabia.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his question. What we have seen in Ukraine, and the response to it, raises all kinds of questions about the Government’s approach to refugees more generally, and about the fact that this country can be, and wants to be, much more welcoming. It certainly poses questions about the Nationality and Borders Bill, which we will debate next week, and which I shall come to shortly.
As we have heard in numerous Question Times and debates, the requirement to seek a visa is causing distress, upset and fury among those caught up in these processes. I have no doubt that we will hear that again today, from Members from across the House.
My hon. Friend is making a very good and useful speech. One of the people facing frustrations is my constituent Valentyna, who has been a British citizen for 17 years. She wants to bring her family to safety in Glasgow, but she feels as though her family are going round in circles in Poland and not getting anywhere with regard to visas, and they have nowhere to stay. Does my hon. Friend agree that this delay is causing much distress to people in Poland, Ukraine and Scotland?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Every Member of this House will almost certainly have constituents who have faced similar battles. Newspapers report people speaking of “A humiliating process”; of being
“tied up by Home Office red tape”;
and of the
“trauma of UK visa processing”.
Moving the process online will hopefully make things easier for some, as I say, but “online” is not necessarily “straightforward” or “fast”. The Government are still telling the women and children who are fleeing bombs and brutality to use a smartphone to: complete a complicated online form in English; upload documents that prove that they were resident in Ukraine before the invasion, and that prove a family relationship; and wait for a decision. Meanwhile, the sparse and subcontracted visa application centres are not set up to cope with the many who still need their services. Hours are too limited and the centres are spread too far apart. There is talk of surging staff, and many staff are no doubt working hard, but they have been handed an impossible task.
That is a very good question, and one that we touched on in the Home Affairs Committee this morning, but it would be useful to hear again from the Minister, from the Dispatch Box, about the work being taken forward.
Staff in visa centres face an impossible task. Worse still, there are persistent reports of some subcontractors charging fees for appointments outside business hours, or for uploading documents. The Government knew that was a problem; the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration recently reported that subcontractors’
“sole focus is income generation. The human aspect is not at all valued”.
The pantomime about processes in France was also an absolute farce. At the rate we are going, it will be months until we play our part properly.
We are three weeks on from Putin’s first escalation of the conflict in Ukraine, and around a fortnight on from the launch of the family scheme, and as I understand it, 5,500 visas have been granted, but that is in the region of 0.18% of the number of people who have fled Ukraine—and the UK’s population is 15% of that of the EU.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving voice to our many constituents who want a compassionate and expansive humanitarian response. Certainly, in Northern Ireland, many people see that just a few miles south, the Republic of Ireland is offering a broad-based welcome. People in Northern Ireland are dismayed that they are unable to give practical support. They see efforts to achieve the society that we want being thwarted again by the UK Government’s policy. The hon. Gentleman mentions processing issues; does he agree that those issues highlight the culture of “no” that exists in the Home Office? That culture has prevented people around the world who are fleeing conflicts from making a new life here—from being able to work, and from receiving the sanctuary that most of our constituents want them to receive.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I think that a lot of this is tied up with Home Office culture. She is right to raise the Irish example, which I will come to in a moment.
At this rate of progress, it will be many months before we get even close to the 100,000 that the Prime Minister first spoke about, never mind the subsequent 200,000 that he has referred to. This is an acute crisis that is happening now, and we need to be meeting our responsibilities now, not a few months down the line. On the Irish example, Ireland has taken almost 7,000 already. I am not saying that because this is some sort of competition to see who can take in the most Ukrainians. I am pointing it out because it illustrates precisely the impact that visa restrictions are having. The United Kingdom is 13 times bigger than Ireland and has a Ukrainian diaspora that is larger by a similar magnitude, but three weeks in, we have granted refuge to and welcomed a smaller number. The difference is that we require visas and the Irish do not.
Just to be clear, is the hon. Gentleman saying that there should not be any checks at all? Does he not share the concern that some people in this country might on the face of it look very welcoming but would actually do harm to people coming over here? Would he just consider that he might be the first to object if that eventuality were to occur?
Nobody on these Benches is suggesting that no checks should be required. I will come to that later in my speech. The Irish carry out checks on people coming in, although I do not have the details of how they arrange the accommodation thereafter. Nobody is suggesting that this should be a check-free or security-free process.
Iryna Terlecky of the Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain told the Home Affairs Committee that
“it is quite an indictment of the system and how it is working that everybody needs an immigration lawyer, and this is just for family members coming over”.
That is why we believe that the requirement for a visa should be waived. We simply do not have the infrastructure to process them fast enough. The Ukrainian ambassador, whom we recently welcomed into this Chamber with a well-deserved standing ovation, said to the Home Affairs Committee on lifting visa requirements:
“We will be happy if all the barriers are dropped for some period of time when we can get the maximum of people. Then we will deal with that, and my embassy is here to help: to organise for those people”.
These calls are supported by the Governments of Scotland and Wales, as well as by numerous organisations here including the Refugee Council, the Scottish Refugee Council, the Immigration Law Practitioners Association, the Red Cross and many more. They also have public support, with one recent poll showing 60% in favour of, and just 15% opposed to scrapping the visa requirements.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin) pointed out during Monday night’s petition debate on a similar subject, not requiring an advance visa for someone travelling here is far from a novel idea. Many thousands of people arrive in the UK each and every day without having obtained a visa in advance. Around 90 countries operate this system, from Brazil to Botswana and Malaysia to Mexico, as well as the whole European Union. Many people will have biometric passports and many will not, but the border functions smoothly enough. That does not mean there are no security checks. We run checks on advance passenger information provided by the companies bringing people in on ferries, trains and planes, and there are checks at the border. Biometrics can still be taken, by using apps for those who can, by reusing biometrics for people who have been here before, or by doing the biometrics at the border on or after arrival. And as the ambassador said, we will have the assistance of the Ukrainian Government in doing the checks.
Salisbury has been invoked in this Chamber, but while that illustrates what Putin is capable of, it has nothing to do with visas. Neither in that outrageous attack nor in the murder of Alexander Litvinenko was there any requirement for the murderers to use anything other than a Russian passport with a false identity and to seek a visa for the UK directly. The security concerns that we have heard about are hard to pin down. In the reports of the Home Secretary’s embarrassing representations to Ireland, reference was made to briefings about gangs. Here, Minsters have spoken about “false documents”. Other briefings have blamed No. 10 for blocking Home Office proposals to simply waive visa requirements. If that is so, the Home Office was clearly not overly concerned about the security challenges that have repeatedly been referenced. None of these concerns can be ignored, but in the grand scheme of things the Home Office has done nothing to persuade me or my colleagues—or, I suspect, Members right across the House—that security justifies keeping those fleeing persecution at arm’s length, potentially for months on end.
As usual, my hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Is he aware of the views of Lord Peter Ricketts, the former national security adviser, who has said that because the majority of refugees coming to this country are women and children, we should take
“a much more humane and open approach…and should not be requiring visas”
and that we should do the security checks after they get here? Is my hon. Friend anxious, as I am, to hear from those on the Government Front Bench why they think Lord Peter Ricketts is wrong?
I agree with my hon. and learned Friend. I know that she made a similar point in Monday night’s debate, and that she is still waiting for a response to those concerns. We expect to hear that response today.
At the end of the day, we are not the ones asking the Government to do anything wild or outlandish. It is the Government who are asking us to go along with a policy that is totally out of kilter with that of our neighbours and with public opinion and that does not meet the urgent humanitarian challenge that we face today. I very much fear that we will regret it if we do not waive these visa requirements, and we should encourage the Government today to take action on that.
As the motion states, we welcome the further extension to the family scheme and the launch of the sponsorship scheme. I know that hon. Members will have a million questions to ask about them, some of which we were helpfully able to put directly to the Minister this morning. I will briefly touch on just a couple. As I argued this morning, I see no reason why many thousands of Ukrainians who are here on time-limited visas should be excluded from bringing relatives in on the family scheme, whether they are students, workers or visitors. There will be particular issues for seasonal agricultural workers in accessing even the sponsorship scheme, given the accommodation that they are generally provided with. I welcome the fact that Lord Harrington told the Committee this morning that he would give that matter his consideration, because we could be talking about 10% to 20% of the Ukrainian diaspora here being in that very situation and still struggling to be joined by any family at all. It is important that we resolve that.
We must also resolve the issues around people’s leave to remain here as early as possible, preferably matching it to the leave to remain that people coming in are being offered, rather than giving them just a few months until the end of the year. There are other questions about the nature of the leave to remain that people are being offered and about what happens at the end of the three years. There are questions about the safeguarding and protection of vulnerable people entering on the sponsored route. What happens if a sponsorship breaks down? What happens at the end of the six months? Colleagues will speak in much more detail about these points, but we offer our questions and criticisms constructively, because we all want to see these schemes work.
As I have said, our fundamental disagreements with the Government are over their stance that visas should still be required at all. Our other fundamental disagreement is about the Nationality and Borders Bill, which will come back to this House next week when we will debate the Lords amendments to it. That legislation is predicated on a totally misguided belief that refugees must always seek asylum in the first safe country, and that those who do not must be criminalised, offshored and stripped of their rights to family life and public funds. This last month illustrates as never before in the starkest terms the importance and relevance of the refugee convention, 70 years on, and also how the anti-refugee Bill is simply not fit for purpose. We will be constructive critics wherever we can, but on those two fundamental points we are absolutely clear: scrap visas for Ukrainians, and scrap the anti-refugee Bill.
I welcome this debate and the opportunity it provides for a constructive and pragmatic discussion in the House this afternoon. Russia’s attack on Ukraine is both monstrous and unjustified. We are united across this House in horror at the unfolding situation, and the entire country stands with the brave people of Ukraine. They are an inspiration to us all. This Government recognise that Europe is now seeing the largest movement of refugees since the second world war. We recognise the urgency of what is a rapidly evolving situation, and in response we have doubled down on our resolve to help those Ukrainians who want to come to the UK to escape the conflict in their homeland.
We are taking comprehensive action, including opening two new visa routes and adapting existing processes, making it easier and safer to bring Ukrainians swiftly and securely to the United Kingdom. We are creating safe and legal routes for Ukrainian nationals coming to the UK. Earlier this month, we announced our bespoke Ukraine family scheme, which significantly expanded the ability of British nationals and Ukrainian nationals settled in the UK to enable family members to join them in this country. The scheme went live on 4 March and, as of 4 pm on 15 March, has already seen 39,000 applications started and 20,000 being submitted, resulting in 5,500 visas being issued at this point.
As well as immediate family members, we have extended eligibility for this scheme to adult parents, grandparents, children over 18, siblings, aunts and uncles, nephews, nieces, cousins and in-laws, as well as all their immediate family members.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady. I would expect to see a real surge in the numbers of applications being granted. That is something we all very much want to see. I think that is likely to happen within the space of the next week or so. We are working tirelessly on this, and I place on record my thanks, gratitude and appreciation for Home Office staff and the case working teams who are working day and night to do this work with the urgency that it rightly warrants, and that we as Members of this House and our constituents across the country expect.
A couple of weeks ago I, again through the Home Office and others, helped a family to arrive in Northwich in my constituency—Hannah, her daughter Viktoria and her six-year-old daughter Annastasia. They would say to Ministers, as they certainly said to me, that the process for visas is far too cumbersome. They are 50-page forms. I know the Minister will have heard this from Members right across the House, but we certainly need to move forward on that.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for the work he has been doing as a constituency MP in aiding his constituents to come across to the United Kingdom. I hope I can give him a little bit of reassurance by saying that we are working tirelessly to simplify those processes. I know the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) asked specifically about translation; on the translation of those web forms, I can tell her that work is going on at pace to provide translation of the appropriate guidance to help people to complete those forms in both Russian and Ukrainian. I hope that answers her point.
Given that the United Nations is reporting that some 3 million people have fled Ukraine over the past number of weeks, half of them children, is 5,500 really something to crow about? Why can the Government not get a move on with this, allow people to get to safety, do the security checks when they are here and speed up the process so that more people are brought to a safe place out of the horrendous crisis they face?
The hon. Gentleman speaks with great passion about these matters. I have set out some detail about the work that is going on to speed up those processes, and I will come on to greater detail about that in my remarks. One point that it is important to place firmly on the record is that, in relation to children, particularly unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, there are sensitivities involved. It is obviously very important that all the right safeguarding checks and processes are in place.
I also recognise that there are issues here where we need the agreement of the Ukrainian Government, to ensure that we are working in lockstep with them to get this right. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will recognise why that is crucial.
I am grateful to the Minister for taking a further intervention on this point. He talks correctly about safeguarding. Nobody is suggesting there should not be safeguarding for children; it is absolutely critical that children are safe—but children must be safe. Cannot the children be safe first, and then we do the safeguarding? Can we not speed up the process so that the checks are done when children are in a safe place—as opposed to an unsafe place, which many are in at the moment?
To illustrate the point I was making for the hon. Gentleman’s benefit, I repeat that it is important that we have agreement with Ukraine on how those matters are approached. It would not be right, for example, for us to remove unaccompanied children from Poland without that agreement in place. Of course, as he would rightly expect, and because it is something that we as Ministers are very mindful of, we will continue to work constructively with the Ukrainian and Polish authorities to ensure that we get it right and that we do our bit on this.
On that point, surely if there is an unaccompanied child in Poland, say, we would want that child looked after safely in Poland so that it can reunite with its parents when they are free to escape Ukraine. What are the Government doing to support bordering countries with humanitarian aid for that purpose?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that particular perspective on this issue, and I will happily have a further discussion with him outside the Chamber about the constructive work we are doing with the Polish authorities in particular. It is important, where possible, that we help to provide appropriate humanitarian assistance in the region. Of course, as he rightly says, wherever possible we want to see families reunited as quickly as possible, and there is an argument that having those children cared for closer to home makes it easier to facilitate that, but we will keep that under constant review to ensure that we are doing everything we can as a country to support those unaccompanied children and see that they are properly cared for. That is something people in our country would rightly expect.
Returning to the Ukraine family scheme, we have ensured that the scheme is easily accessible and fee free, and that it will not include any salary or language requirements. People who successfully apply to the scheme will have three years’ leave to remain and can work and access public services during that time. We will ensure that there will be avenues for people to stay if they are unable to return. We will never seek to return those to whom we give shelter if the situation in Ukraine remains as dangerous as it is today.
One thing drawn to my attention by my constituent Gareth Roberts, who is presently travelling with his wife Nataliia and her daughter and granddaughter, Angelina and Albina, is whether the Government will consider onward travel funding for Ukrainian refugees arriving in the United Kingdom, as has been provided by other nations in the EU.
I will gladly take that point away and raise it with the noble Lord Harrington, who, as the right hon. Lady will recognise, has assumed his new role in the past few days. I am sure he will be looking at the package of support we are providing in the round and will want to make a judgment on whether that would be an appropriate form of support that we could offer. I am keen to do that and, if she would like to write with further details, I will gladly ensure that that letter reaches him.
On biometrics, we are ensuring that the process of applying to the scheme is as straightforward as possible. To further support the Ukrainian people, holders of valid Ukrainian passports who are outside the UK and making applications under the Ukraine family scheme will no longer be required to provide their biometric information at a visa application centre before they travel. Instead, they will be able to make the application entirely online.
The Ukraine family scheme applications will continue to be assessed as a priority. Once applications have been processed, individuals will receive a permission letter enabling them to travel to the UK and will not be required to collect a vignette in their passport. 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.
As the House is aware, the Home Secretary has also announced plans for a new sponsored route for Ukrainians with no ties to the UK to come here, and the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities will set out further details as soon as he is able. The scheme is the latest in a package of humanitarian support to help the Ukrainian people and has been brought forward following extensive discussion with the Ukrainian leaders and other countries in the region. This uncapped route allows individuals and organisations, including businesses, charities and NGOs, to welcome Ukrainians to the UK. As our Homes for Ukraine webpage sets out, if someone has a residential spare room or separate self-contained accommodation that is unoccupied, please come forward.
I am pleased to hear that we are going to make these efforts to ensure that any Ukrainian who wants to come here to live safely can get here. Will there also be a package of support for local authorities to provide the necessary back-up services? Clearly educational and mental health support will be needed, as well as all kinds of community support, and local authorities are best placed to deliver that.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for the spirit in which he comes at this issue. I can provide him with reassurance that there will be £10,500 of support for local authorities per individual refugee supported, to provide exactly the sorts of services that he has identified as being so important—school places and support for health provision and mental health provision—recognising the huge trauma that many of these individuals will have been through in recent days and weeks. We want to help ensure we do as much as we can in communities, properly supporting people to address those needs and challenges.
I apologise to the Minister, because this is specific. He mentioned individuals who have a spare room and the Homes for Ukraine scheme. In my constituency, a GP is looking to sponsor a lady and her 12-year-old child. In such a situation, does that require two rooms, or will one room suffice? I know that is specific, but if the Minister knows the answer, I would love to hear it and take it back to the GP.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point in some detail. It is probably best for me to take that point away as a pragmatic illustration of the sorts of challenges that we will have to address in the coming weeks in delivering this scheme. That is exactly the sort of issue we want to ensure is picked up as part of the announcements that I have alluded to and that I expect to be made in relatively short order. A proper answer to that will then hopefully help to unlock opportunities to provide support and sanctuary for someone in his community. I am very grateful to his constituents for their keen engagement in these matters.
The Minister is being very generous in giving way. We have many questions that are often best asked directly to him, so I thank him for that. In a circumstance where someone in Glasgow perhaps knows someone in Ukraine and wants to host them, how do they go about that process to make sure that they can say to the system that exists, “I have a room. I know a person”? How does that person then get to Glasgow to take up that room and that offer of generous support?
From Friday, individuals will be able to come forward and where they have that existing relationship or an individual they particularly want to support, they will be able to provide that information to aid with the matching process. There are huge advantages to using those existing relationships and synergies, and that system will go live on Friday. I hope that answers the question and provides the reassurance that the hon. Lady is looking for. I thank the constituent she has in mind for the work they are willing to do and the support they are keen to provide to those individuals, which I know will be of huge value and will be massively appreciated by all concerned.
The accommodation must be available for at least six months, be fit for people to live in and be suitable for the number of people to be accommodated. The response of the British public has been overwhelming. More than 100,000 people have expressed interest in sponsoring, and that number is going up all the time. We are engaging with local authorities on the development of the scheme to ensure that those expressing an interest in sponsoring an individual or family understand the process and our expectations.
We will ensure that those who want to sponsor an individual or family can volunteer and be matched quickly with Ukrainians in need, working closely with local authorities across the country. We know that charities, faith groups, universities and other organisations have already reached out to those leaving Ukraine. We will be working closely with them to ensure that people who want to help are matched to Ukrainians in need. We will also work closely with international partners to ensure that displaced Ukrainians forced to flee their homes are supported to apply.
Phase 1 of the scheme will open on Friday 18 March for visa applications from Ukrainians who have named people willing to sponsor them. People or organisations wanting to be sponsors who do not personally know anyone fleeing Ukraine can now record their interest. They will then be kept updated as the scheme develops. We believe that for those eligible, our offer is comparable in generosity to that proposed under the EU’s temporary protection directive.
There has been a little commentary around this matter, including at the Home Affairs Committee session this morning. It is fair to say that one important strand of work in getting this right is working intensively with NGOs to develop the system in the most appropriate and streamlined way. We have touched on the safeguarding issues in the course of this debate, and we will want to get those right as this is rolled out, but it is fair to say that further, imminent announcements will provide more detail on the specific point the hon. Gentleman raises. I think he will welcome the work going on with NGOs, which have real expertise and experience with these issues, to develop this scheme so that it is the very best it can be from the very start.
We hear the offers from the devolved Administrations. Our colleagues at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities will be working with them to ensure that individuals and organisations that want to sponsor an individual or family can volunteer to do so. Local authorities will play a crucial role in the delivery of the Homes for Ukraine scheme and in support for Ukrainian beneficiaries, including on integration, English language support, health, education, employment and housing.
Alongside the generous offer of accommodation that sponsors will be making, we are providing a substantial level of funding to local authorities to enable them to provide wider support to families to rebuild their lives and fully integrate into our communities. For those arriving via the Homes for Ukraine scheme, we will provide a substantial level of funding, at a rate of £10,500 a person, to local authorities, as I touched on earlier. There will be an additional top-up for child education to enable them to provide much wider support for families to rebuild their lives and fully integrate into our communities. Further details will be shared shortly.
As stated by the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary, we will not be issuing blanket visa waivers in response to this crisis. The visa process is vital, not only to keeping British citizens safe, but to ensuring that we are helping those in genuine need. We are already seeing people presenting false documents, claiming to be Ukrainians. Because of that, security and biometrics checks remain a fundamental part of our visa process, and that is consistent with our approach to the evacuation of Afghanistan.
What I do not understand is why this is any different for the many thousands of peoples who come into this country every single day without a visa. People will try to present false documents for those nationalities, too, but we have border guards for that very purpose. What is the specific risk? It seems incredibly difficult to pin down.
I know that the hon. Gentleman feels passionately about this particular point. In response, I cannot say too much on the Floor of the House, for obvious reasons, but people would rightly expect the Government to act in accordance with the security advice we receive at any given point in time and to do so responsibly. I also make the point, touching again on a point that we have been discussing this afternoon, that there is a safeguarding issue in relation to travel to this country. We will obviously want to know who vulnerable children and adults are travelling with and ensure that they are kept safe, because that is an absolute imperative. That is the position of this Government.
On the security issue, the Minister will have heard my intervention earlier, citing the views of Lord Peter Ricketts, a former National Security Adviser, that visa-free access could be safely afforded and that the biometric and security checks could be done largely once women and children Ukrainian refugees arrive here. Why is Lord Ricketts wrong? I tried to get an answer on that from the Minister’s colleague, the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), on Monday without success. I need one today, please.
I never like to disappoint the hon. and learned Lady in my answers, but clearly, we have to act in accordance with the latest up-to-date advice that we receive, which is precisely what we are doing. Of course we have been looking at, and will continue to look at, how those processes can be expedited as far as possible. We have been consistently clear about the position in relation to visa waivers and the checks. That is the position as it stands at this point.
Again, I make the point that we have to act in accordance with the advice that we receive. I am simply not in a position to pass meaningful comment on the advice that other Governments may or may not be receiving. Of course there are marked differences between the United Kingdom and many of our European friends, in the sense that we are not part of Schengen and they are. That is a considerable difference that is materially relevant when we discuss these matters.
Perhaps I can pass on some advice that I received from a constituent who is Ukrainian. She made it clear to me that if her former partner, who domestically abused her, ended up in this country because we did not do any checks, she would hold me personally accountable. Does the Minister not think that she also deserves respect? We absolutely have to look after people. We cannot just talk about domestic abuse in this place and then ignore it when there is a greater cause—that is wrong.
It is fair to say that Ministers in government have at the forefront of their minds, as my hon. Friend does, all our safeguarding responsibilities, of which the British people would rightly expect us to be conscious and mindful, and to act in accordance with them.
I apologise to the Minister, because in a sense I am making a point to the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) rather than to the Minister. We do checks on thousands of people who come in every day from countries that do not require a visa—from the whole European Union and all the countries that I listed earlier. We do criminal record checks on the advance passenger information that we get; we do not need a visa to do those checks. We are not saying, “Let in any old person from Ukraine.” We should do the check at the border with the advance passenger information; we do not need a visa process to do that.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. The fact is that I would like to think that we all recognise the lengths to which the Kremlin regime is willing to go, as we saw vividly in relation to Salisbury. We are incredibly mindful of that. We are simply not willing to take chances with the UK’s national security and we are acting in accordance with the advice.
I suspect that if that sort of issue were to be repeated in this country—it is unthinkable—the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues would understandably ask us why we had allowed that to happen needlessly. We simply cannot take that chance. I add that nothing that we are doing is inconsistent with the approach that Canada and the United States—our Five Eyes colleagues—are taking. They are adopting similar arrangements on biometrics and security checks.
We believe that we are offering a substantial package that will enable the British public and the Ukrainian diaspora to play their part in supporting displaced Ukrainians into the United Kingdom. We keep our support under constant review and our new routes will continue to respond, develop and keep pace with the rapidly shifting situation on the ground. I certainly welcome hearing further contributions from right hon. and hon. Members during the debate and I will of course reflect on the suggestions and ideas that are put forward.
I am hugely proud of the big-hearted and generous reaction that we have seen from the British people in response to the crisis. In response, as a Government, we have developed a comprehensive package to mobilise those offers in reality. This is a whole United Kingdom effort with Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and England coming together in solidarity to show our support for the Ukrainian people. We are not just talking about it; our actions will match our words. Together, I know that we will deliver.
There are turning points in history when the constant struggle between freedom and tyranny comes down to one fight in one place. In 1940, that fight took place in the skies above Britain. Today, 82 years later, it is taking place in the forests, fields and war-torn towns and cities of Ukraine. Today we pay tribute to President Zelensky, who has stood strong and resolute in these dark times in the face of Vladimir Putin’s senseless war of choice.
Volodymyr Zelensky is without doubt the leader of the free world, and the bravery, dignity and defiance of the Ukrainian people will never be forgotten. They have not yet won this war, but let us make no mistake: they will eventually triumph over the forces of darkness that have invaded their country. When they do, the United Kingdom and every other democracy across the world will be forever in debt to the heroes of the Ukrainian resistance.
The courage and fortitude of the Ukrainian people stands in stark contrast to the mean-spirited and inept way in which the Home Secretary has responded to the crisis. We should not be surprised by that, however, as the utter shambles of the last few weeks is simply part of a pattern of behaviour. 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 Government Department whose approach is defined by a toxic combination of incompetence and indifference.
We have had to endure the embarrassing spectacle of the Home Secretary contradicting her own Department’s announcement on the number of visas granted, and then compounding the confusion by claiming that an application centre for Ukrainians had been opened in Calais when that was patently not the case. While I commend the Immigration Minister for deleting the tweet in which he suggested that Ukrainians fleeing the horrors of war should apply for fruit picker visas, I nevertheless repeat my request that he apologise for that tweet, as it is clear that such an apology would go a long way to reassuring the public that the Government have grasped the horrific reality of the situation.
A Government who fail to plan are a Government who plan to fail. Vladimir Putin has been showing the world for years that he is a war-mongering gangster who will stop at nothing in his relentless campaign to crush democracy and the rule of law. From the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko to the invasion of Georgia, and from butchery in Syria to the illegal annexation of Crimea and the state-sponsored hit on the Skripals, Mr Putin’s track record of murder and mayhem since he came to power is not exactly a state secret.
Putin has been massing his troops on the Ukrainian border since October last year. That is five months that the Home Secretary could have used to put plans in place for every possible scenario, so that if an exodus were to be triggered by an invasion, we would have had a well-organised and effective response ready to roll out. Instead, we have seen the Government scrambling, making policy on the hoof and constantly being on the back foot.
As a consequence of that basic failure to plan and prepare, we have witnessed the Government having to perform U-turns on an almost-daily basis. First, the Home Secretary said that the family reunion scheme would be open only to dependants, thus preventing Ukrainians in this country from bringing in their elderly parents, grandparents or extended family. We on the Opposition Benches protested, and the Home Office grudgingly extended it to parents and adult children. We protested again, and the Government finally relented, so thankfully all extended family members are now included in the scope of the family reunion route.
Then the Home Secretary was insisting on Ukrainians with passports and family in the UK having to wait for days in visa application centres rather than applying online and doing the biometric checks here in the UK. Again we protested and again the Home Secretary was forced to U-turn. It took weeks of pressure to force the Government to set up a scheme for Ukrainians who do not have family connections in the UK.
While I am on the subject of the Homes for Ukraine scheme, the fact that the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities has been given responsibility for it speaks volumes, because it is a clear signal that the Prime Minister has completely lost confidence in the Home Secretary.
The vast majority of the issues that need to be resolved around bringing Ukrainians into this country are clearly to do with immigration. The fact that this brief has been shifted is a clear indication that the Prime Minister has lost confidence in the Home Secretary.
Does the hon. Gentleman share my confusion about that comment by the Minister, given that the Home Secretary was responsible for putting refugees in deeply unsuitable circumstances in Penally camp in Pembrokeshire, which has since had to be closed?
The right hon. Lady is absolutely right. Operation Warm Welcome, the scheme for Afghans, has completely stalled and thousands of Afghans are stuck in hotels. That was completely on the watch of this Home Secretary, so I will take no lectures on that from the Government Members.
I say to the shadow Minister that the SNP has moved the motion sensibly, criticising the Government in a constructive way. The shadow Minister’s remarks are in danger of turning into a more party political attack. May I suggest that that is not what the House wants at the moment?
I remind the hon. Gentleman that what is going on in Ukraine is a fight for democracy. In this House we act on the basis of democracy; it is the Opposition’s duty to hold the Government to account and to scrutinise them. If I were saying these things in Russia right now, I would be carted out and sent to the gulag, so I will take no lectures from him on the purpose of this debate and on our purpose, as Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition, in a democracy. This House has lost confidence in the Home Secretary and, frankly, the entire country has too.
I turn now to the day-to-day misery and chaos that Ukrainians seeking sanctuary in our country are experiencing. We are still hearing stories from Ukrainians who have made it to Poland, Hungary and other bordering countries that they are having to wait for days on end to be granted a UK visa. Given that we know that it takes only 10 minutes for a biometric test to be completed and only a matter of minutes to print a visa, why on earth are people having to wait for so long? As one Ukrainian refugee on the Polish border said, “It was hell”. Another called it “a humiliating process”.
This incompetence is leaving a stain on our international reputation. Have these poor people not dealt with enough stress already? We have also heard that the visa centre in northern France was originally supposed to be in Calais, then Lille, and that now it will be in Arras, another 30 miles from Lille. If the Home Office cannot even decide where the visa centre will be, how on earth will the people on the ground know where to go?
Let us not forget that the Home Secretary cited security concerns as the explanation for her refusal to set up a visa centre in Calais, while we have a Prime Minister who repeatedly overruled the advice of our security services in awarding a peerage to the son of a KGB agent. That tells us all we need to know about the priorities of this Government.
I turn to the Homes for Ukraine scheme that was announced on Monday. As I mentioned earlier in my remarks, Labour managed to shame the Government into introducing a sponsorship scheme to allow those without family to come to our country. It is a matter of profound regret that the Government have not heeded our calls for a simple emergency visa scheme that would have avoided the huge amount of bureaucracy, uncertainty and red tape that they have chosen to introduce. Nevertheless, this scheme is better than nothing.
However, on Monday the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities stood at the Dispatch Box and bellowed at the top of his voice about being fed up with people saying that the British people are not generous. His histrionics were yet another example of the deeply disingenuous behaviour of Conservative Ministers who come to this Chamber and deliberately misrepresent the Opposition’s criticisms of their dismal performance. Nobody is criticising the public for lack of generosity; our criticisms are levelled directly at this Government who have utterly failed the Ukrainians who are fleeing the horrors of war. If Ministers were to spend half as much time actually getting on with their jobs as they do desperately deploying smoke and mirrors to conceal their failings, then we might all be in a better place.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The bureaucracy of a 50-page form could so easily be cut through if the Government were to heed our calls for an emergency visa scheme. The bureaucracy being imposed on these poor people who are feeling the horrors of war should shame us all.
Arguably, the most serious design fault in the Homes for Ukraine scheme is that people who wish to support Ukrainians must track them down themselves. My hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities rightly described this as a “DIY asylum scheme” that risks leaving refugees without refuge. Are the Government seriously suggesting that Ukrainians fleeing the horrors of war should advertise themselves on social media or that Brits who are happy to offer their spare rooms should be searching on Instagram for Ukrainian families to sponsor? Will the Minister commit today to the Government’s implementing a pairing system to help sponsors find Ukrainian refugees who wish to come here?
We can only speculate on why the Home Secretary has chosen to burden those fleeing the horrors of war with the confusion and chaos that we have seen. Is she simply incompetent or is she being driven by the hostile-environment ideology that has propelled her to the upper echelons of the Conservative party? Only the Home Secretary can answer that question, but whatever her motivations the shambolic consequences are plain to see.
I began my speech by saying that there are moments in history when the great struggle between freedom and tyranny comes down to one fight, and I say today, without an iota of doubt, that freedom will win the day. Until that victory comes, we must do all we can to offer safe sanctuary to those Ukrainians who have made the perilous journey from their war-torn homeland.
As we have all seen, the Ukrainians are a passionately patriotic people and they will be utterly focused on returning home to rebuild their lives and their country as soon as the enemy has been defeated and expelled. In the meantime, they need to be treated with dignity and respect, but instead the Home Secretary’s response has been mean spirited, short sighted and shambolic.
I agree with much of what the shadow Minister has said, but can he be clear that Labour’s position is not to waive visa requirements altogether? How can he be so certain that the emergency visa he describes will resolve waiting times and bureaucracy? Why does he not join the SNP in calling for waiving visa requirements altogether?
The hon. Gentleman is right that we are not suggesting that security checks be waived. We are making it clear that those security checks should take place in the United Kingdom when people have got here. The emergency visa has a rapid application process. On that basis, people would come into the UK and the biometric checks would take place here.
The hon. Gentleman is saying that Labour would have the checks in the UK. What would happen if somebody failed the checks when they were already in the UK? Would they be deported? How would they be dealt with if they failed those checks?
That is a matter for Border Force. They would take the action that they take with any individual who enters this country and does not pass the security checks. It would be exactly the same as any other person who fails security checks; it is very simple and not rocket science.
Traumatised people, whose lives have been turned upside down, are being pushed from pillar to post and having the door to our country slammed in their faces by this Home Secretary. This is a profoundly unserious Government who are led by profoundly unserious people; what a contrast with the bravery of the Ukrainians and the warmth and generosity of the British people. The British people have stepped up and now it is time for the Government to catch up.
The Minister, hon. Members and right hon. Members from across this House are today calling on the Government to put people before paperwork. The British people are urging the Government to get a grip so that we can once again be confident in our proud record as a nation of sanctuary.
The point I wanted to make to the shadow Minister is that the reason the Government Benches are not as highly populated as many people, including in the media, might expect for a debate on refugees from Ukraine is that over 150 colleagues are currently in Committee Room 14 listening to and engaging with four female MPs from Ukraine. I have to say that all four of them have paid considerable tribute to the enormous support that this country and our Government have given their country, which is wonderful to hear, and I sometimes wonder whether we are living in a slightly different parallel world down here compared with up there.
I thank my hon. Friend for a very important intervention. I would not criticise the Opposition for not having Members on their Benches because, for various reasons, a number of things relating to Ukraine are going on today.
I have a great deal of respect for the shadow Minister, but I just think he got it wrong on this occasion, and I absolutely think that the deputy leader of the Labour party, the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner), got it wrong at Prime Minister’s questions. She lost the House, and she was making party political points. In contrast, the SNP parliamentary leader made a very constructive point, and the way SNP Members have introduced this debate is wholly constructive. They disagree with the Government on the level of support and the way refugees are handled, but they have done it constructively, and I could fully support most of the motion they have tabled. I have to say that I have said that before I hear what the Back-Bench SNP Members say, but I do think they have chosen this subject and put down a motion that is reasonable and constructive, even if I do not agree with absolutely all of it.
I want to congratulate the Prime Minister on his leadership across Europe on the Ukrainian crisis Europe. I think people recognise that he has put in a lot of energy and has galvanised support for sanctions. Our military support to Ukraine has been huge, and our humanitarian support to the countries bordering Ukraine is probably the most in Europe. I think that is important testimony to how well this Government have done.
I think there is a very important point about looking after refugees, mainly women and children, who are fleeing Ukraine and getting out of Ukraine to the bordering countries, and who will want to be looked after there until the Russians can be defeated in Ukraine and they can then go back to their loved ones in Ukraine. I think we should do everything we can to help those countries, and I congratulate all the countries bordering Ukraine on the support they have given people who have either come from a warzone, with all the trauma they are facing there, or are fleeing in advance of the war coming towards them. I think we should give great credit to our European neighbours for that, and the fact that we are giving massive humanitarian aid is very important.
I want to deal in particular with the issue of human trafficking. I chaired the all-party group on human trafficking for a number of years, and these evil gangs—“evil gangs” does not do justice to how awful these people are—have moved into the areas to which refugees are coming in those countries. What human traffickers, and by the way these are not the same as smugglers, do is take young women and children and offer them, they say, a safe route to this country or that country, perhaps even to the United Kingdom, but what they actually do is put them into modern-day slavery, prostitution or forced labour. This is happening at the moment in the countries surrounding Ukraine, as the former Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), brought up in the debate yesterday.
My particular concern is about Moldova, which is a small country bordering Ukraine, but not in the EU. That very small country has taken in 100,000 refugees, but Moldova was already known for human trafficking. It is an area rife with those telling people that they can get them jobs and prosperity elsewhere, because it is a poor country. There was always a problem with human trafficking gangs there, and they are now operating to a greater degree. It is not an area where we would naturally have a lot of Home Office or Foreign Office support, because it is not in the EU and it is not a country we would deal with at high level.