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Homes for Ukraine Scheme

Volume 711: debated on Thursday 31 March 2022

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities if he will make a statement on the Homes for Ukraine scheme.

President Putin’s bloody invasion is a barbaric and unprovoked attack on the people of Ukraine, who are fighting a daily battle for freedom. The UK has stood shoulder to shoulder with Ukraine at every stage of the conflict, including sending extensive military supplies months before the Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine. We are steeled to stand with Ukraine for the long haul.

In this country there has been an outpouring of public support for the Ukrainian people, and we have matched the generosity of the British public with an ambitious humanitarian offer to Ukrainians who wish to come to the UK to escape the conflict. As hon. Members will know, since the Home Office opened and expanded the Ukrainian family scheme and my Department launched the Homes for Ukraine scheme with our Home Office colleagues, both schemes have received thousands upon thousands of applications from people willing to open their heart and their home to a new guest.

We have balanced the need to move rapidly with the equal need to get the Homes for Ukraine scheme right. The visa application process opened on Friday 18 March, since when we have seen the first arrivals come to the UK. Members on both sides of the House are as invested as we are in making the scheme as efficient and effective as possible. We are minimising bureaucratic foot-dragging and cutting unnecessary red tape, while making sure people are set up in the best possible situation to start a life in the UK and to access the right local services and support.

The scheme will be a success only if local and national Government work as one, so we are providing councils with £10,500 per guest to help with all the support they will need. We have been working with the Local Government Association and individual councils across the country to fine-tune the scheme’s practicalities and logistics. As the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said, we will keep things under review to ensure that local government has and gets what it needs. We are also working closely with the devolved Administrations to ensure that we have a consistent offer across the country. Some 4 million Ukrainians have been displaced by this bloody and unjust war so far. The UK will continue to respond to the gravity of the conflict and we will continue to work with Members of the House to open up our communities to Ukrainians in the weeks and months ahead.

Nearly 150,000 people have signed up to sponsor Ukrainian refugees in a testament to the generous spirit of our nation and regions, yet that generosity risks being wasted because the figures released confirm that just 2,700 visas have been granted by the Government under the scheme so far. Of course, visas being granted are not the same as refugees arriving here after fleeing for their lives from the bullets, missiles and bombs. Can the Minister tell the House how many refugees have arrived in the UK through the scheme and what has gone wrong so far in getting them here?

After the issue with visas, things are even less clear. There remain real concerns among councils that have not been addressed. How will they know when refugees have arrived in their authority and require services? Proactive data sharing is simply not good enough and safeguarding is falling down. Do the checks on sponsor families need to have been fully completed before a family can begin travelling to the UK? Does the £10,500 for councils, which the Minister mentioned, cover refugees only in this scheme or in the family visa scheme too?

There are real fears of a homelessness crisis if sponsorships break down. As reported yesterday by the Local Government Association, nearly 150 Ukrainians have already presented themselves to councils as homeless having fled the conflict to stay with family members in the UK who have no room. Can the Minister tell me and the House what urgent guidance and support his Department is giving to councils on those cases?

The Government must now take an active role in matching sponsors to refugees, otherwise the generosity of people who want to help will be wasted. The British people have stepped up in Ukraine’s hour of need; it is clear that the Government urgently need to do the same.

I think that the Government are acting urgently. It is testament to the efforts of people in an incredible civil service who are prepared to work very long hours, seven days a week and to pivot from their previous day jobs to move in an agile fashion to deal with the trauma that that country is facing and ensure that the maximum number of people have visas granted and can have a secure and safe home in this country. It is disappointing, therefore, that the hon. Gentleman, whom I respect tremendously, thinks that the Government and the civil service are not responding urgently.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned a figure of 150,000; I believe that the number of people who have expressed an interest and are prepared to open up their homes is closer to 200,000. [Interruption.] It is slightly frustrating to answer one question and have Opposition Members race ahead to the three or four others that have been asked. Patience would be a virtue for everybody involved in this process—at least for the sake of this urgent question. Mr Speaker, do you not think it would be nice for them to wait for the answer before they get too carried away?

How will councils know? We have a matching process and once the sponsor has been matched with the guest online with the form, councils will be alerted so that they know that a match has been made for a sponsor in their area. They can then begin the process of preparation immediately.

Will checks need to be completed fully before people travel? Inasmuch as once the visa is granted, checks will already have started, we will already have started to investigate whether there has been criminality on the part of either party. We need to make absolutely sure that we are reassured of the safety on both sides of the equation—of the person travelling here and of the people opening up their homes. Those checks will be carried out initially and then further checks will be carried out by the receiving authority once it has been notified of the match.

Once the authority has been notified, it will be expected to go out and inspect the property to make sure it is appropriate for such people’s needs, and begin the process of further checks, as required. For example, if there are children or vulnerable adults in the households that are coming, a further enhanced Disclosure and Barring Service check will be required.

With regards to the money, the £10,500 is for the Homes for Ukraine scheme. Obviously, for the rest of the elements of this scheme, we are making a very generous offer in that people who arrive in the UK will be allowed to work and claim benefits immediately, so that they can begin to integrate fully here.

Finally, on the 150 homeless people the hon. Gentleman mentioned, he will know that I, as the Minister for homelessness, have a very keen interest in this. We will be investigating to ensure that we completely understand what has led to such a situation. As a Government, with the charities and all involved—and MPs have a role in this—we need to make sure people understand that the most appropriate, safe and reliable route is that prescribed by the Government.

Almost 200,000 volunteers is of course absolutely brilliant, but the fact that only 2,000 or 3,000 people have yet benefited from it is obviously far from that. Can I encourage the Government to keep working to simplify the process, but also to raise awareness of this scheme? We have had complaints that there is a lack of awareness of it among those fleeing Ukraine.

We have heard about the possible dangers of people trying to abuse the system for trafficking or exploitation purposes. Is that not also an argument for considering empowering local authorities to act as super-sponsors? That would allow a greater opportunity for safeguarding and for appropriate matching to be done.

May I ask about the co-ordination of the three different schemes that now exist? For example, could people who arrive under the family scheme who cannot be accommodated by their relatives instead be matched to one of the volunteers under the sponsorship scheme? That would seem a very simple and obvious way to avoid the homelessness we have heard about. It would also address the concerns expressed by the immigration Minister—the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster)—when I raised the prospect of seasonal agricultural workers being able to bring in their families. Even if the families cannot be accommodated with them, why not use a community sponsorship scheme to solve that problem?

Local authority funding under this sponsorship scheme is excellent, but why is there no funding for areas where significant numbers of Ukrainians are arriving under the family scheme, for example? Should that not be looked at again? May I ask what thinking there has been about what will happen later this year if significant numbers of Ukrainians are no longer able to remain with their hosts?

Finally, we still have several thousand Afghans in hotels. Can volunteers be asked if they would be willing to take an Afghan as well?

The hon. Gentleman mentions that 2,000 or 3,000 visas have been granted, but 27,000 visas have been granted across the two schemes, and I think we need to be mindful of that. On the super-sponsor route and the idea that councils might be allowed to do that, I think we need to tread cautiously. We have one scheme running, and we need to make sure this one is running as effectively and efficiently as possible.

I am absolutely delighted by the offer that has been made by the devolved Assemblies in Wales and Scotland. It is absolutely tremendous to see the work that is being done in Scotland, and it is a great demonstration of Governments working together across the United Kingdom to make this process work.

On moves between schemes, for the moment we are trying to ensure that people stick to one route wherever possible. We will keep this under constant review, because we need to make sure that we respond to a developing situation.

Finally, on Afghans, we learn from one scheme as we develop another, so as this one progresses we will understand what merits it has and what challenges it provides, and we will use that learning to determine what we can apply to other schemes in operation in this country.

I think the Minister is going to get asked these questions over and over again until we get some adequate answers from him.

First, it cannot be justified that councils are, quite rightly, getting £10,500 per year per refugee when refugees come over on the sponsor scheme—councils have to provide wraparound services; it is all there, it is all understood—but when refugees come under the family scheme, for the most part, apart from the housing checks, the council has to do everything to support them. Why is there no money under that scheme and yet £10,500 under the other scheme? Will the Minister explain the difference in terms of the offers that councils have to make to those refugees?

Secondly, the Local Government Association told the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee yesterday that 144 Ukrainian refugees have presented as homeless so far. They have come under a variety of schemes, with some under the sponsorship scheme, some through Ireland and other routes and some through the family scheme—that is because family members do not have to provide accommodation. The whole reason for the sponsorship scheme is that councils do not have enough affordable, readily available homes to house people. The choice is therefore to put these refugees into temporary accommodation—hotels—or to match them up with the generous offers that sponsors want to make in those communities. Yesterday, the Prime Minister accepted that councils should have access to the database of sponsors so that they can be responsible for matching up refugees or homeless people with sponsors who want to house them. Can the Government just get on with it?

We are getting on with it. When the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) took the earlier urgent question, he explained how we are ramping up the process and ensuring that it is working as efficiently as possible. On the difference between the two schemes, people are completely at liberty to apply through the Homes for Ukraine scheme instead. I think we understand that people in the UK who are having a family member coming to live with them will provide services such as help with learning English, so some support that might otherwise be provided by a council will be given by a family. I think that is the natural way. However, as I said, it is not an either/or option; people can choose to apply through the Homes for Ukraine scheme. I fully accept that there is a challenge with regard to housing, and that is why it is tremendous that 200,000 people have decided to open up their homes.

The Minister highlighted that 200,000 people expressed an interest in the scheme, including many residents of my constituency. Stockwell Says Hello, which is helping to sponsor a Ukrainian family, contacted me recently because it could not find any clear guidance on the Government website. These questions have been asked time and again and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) said, the uncertainty may put off many people who want to show their generosity. On 8 March, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), said that 50 extra caseworkers had been trained to process applications. Does the Minister know how many of those caseworkers are in post and dealing with these applications?

We can see this as an evolving process, with the Government continuing to ramp up and increase the resource committed. It would perhaps be unhelpful to provide a running commentary on the number of people working on the process, not least because there will be some ebb and flow given the number of people prepared to work over the weekend versus during the week. We are ensuring that the resource attributed to the effort is equal to the need and we are improving the fluency with which applications are being processed daily so that the maximum number of people who have submitted an expression of interest can house somebody from Ukraine.

Like others, I commend everybody who has come forward to support the Homes for Ukraine scheme. However, it is important to remember that those sponsors are the conduit between the Home Office, the scheme run by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and the refugees with whom they have been matched up. They are awaiting home checks, and in Scotland we are still waiting for local authority guidance, which places enormous pressure on sponsors as they try to navigate the system. Indeed, my caseworkers are taking calls from distressed sponsors who want to ensure that they have done everything they can to get those whom they have sponsored safely to the UK as fast as possible. What conversations have been had about putting in place emotional support to help sponsors who are opening their homes?

One thing we have seen is a tremendous effort by charities and non-governmental organisations who are incredibly well placed to offer the guidance and support that the hon. Lady refers to. On advice for councils, I understand that in Scotland it will be the responsibility of the devolved Assembly to provide that. From the tremendous efforts that I have seen in its work so far, I think that, if that has not already been provided, it will be coming very soon.

What action has the Department taken following the letter to the Secretary of State last week from 16 refugee and anti-trafficking charities setting out their concerns about the Homes for Ukraine scheme potentially being a Tinder for sex traffickers? We have seen men advertising for Ukrainian wives, and children posting on Facebook. Does the National Crime Agency have a view about the scheme and is it looking at sites such as Vivastreet, which advertises trafficked women—I am particularly worried about Ukrainian trafficked women—for sex? Will the Minister say what exactly the Department is doing?

The Government are alive to all the concerns that the right hon. Lady mentions. We are collectively putting in effort to ensure that we close off areas where there are problems. Fundamentally, we are making sure that safety checks are completed at the point that the application is submitted and subsequently that the enhanced Disclosure and Barring Service checks are carried out. Finally, a representative from the council will see the sponsor and the guest to determine whether there are any safeguarding concerns. There are multiple gates through which people will pass in order to maximise the application of safety at all stages.

Deborah Gourlay contacted me this morning to say that she has a flat in my constituency, wants to host somebody and has identified them—a mother and her young boy stuck in Warsaw. Deborah has put her application in, as has the other person, and they have heard nothing since. The email that they received basically said, “Don’t call us; we’ll call you.” How long will she have to wait before they can be matched up and this family can come to Glasgow?

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), might have considered some of those matters during the previous urgent question. The amount of resource that is being committed to this is increasing by the day. The fluency of the process is improving by the day and, hopefully, the answer to the hon. Lady’s question will be: very soon.

I am really proud of how my constituents, council and local refugee groups, such as West London Welcome and Refugee Action, are working together to welcome Ukrainian refugees. We had had 80 into the borough by Tuesday and that will more than double by the weekend. That includes welcome packs, cash and mental health support, as well as homes. However, will the Minister address the issue of temporary accommodation and people declaring themselves homeless? As a result of his Government’s policies, particularly in London, we do not have temporary accommodation available. What will he do? People cannot go into hotels, because hotels still have Afghan refugees from last summer. Please sort this problem out.

The Government have committed £2 billion over the next three years to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping, so we are making considerable efforts in this area. We would obviously prefer people to be matched with a sponsor and for that sponsorship arrangement to be maintained. Subsequently, councils may have the opportunity to rematch with another sponsor available in the area as well, given the huge number of people who have come forward to offer their homes.

Hundreds of private groups have sprung up since the scheme was launched and their generosity is hugely welcome, but this complex and difficult task can no longer be left to private initiatives. When will the Government recognise that they need to step up and bring Government officials to the Ukrainian border, as at least 20 other European countries have, to make sure that those fleeing war and war crimes do not end up homeless on our streets?

I am slightly confused—perhaps I do not completely understand the question—but I think that for the Government to do the matches would be inappropriate. It seems to me that the matches made so far by non-governmental organisations or charities are proving incredibly effective. That approach is ensuring that the matches are more likely to last. With the greatest respect, for the Government to be involved in putting people together would only take away our focus from the administrative element that we need to deal with. There are excellent charities and NGOs that are very capable and are engaging very passionately with the Government to offer their services; I think that that is proving the best route.

The Secretary of State has said that if it were left to the individual sponsor and the refugees, the process would be a whole lot quicker. However, Kateryna and 11-year-old Vadym are living in temporary accommodation in Poland; a home and a school place are waiting for them in my constituency, but clearly the Home Office system of matching is not working. They are absolutely frustrated. They have a home waiting for them, so will the Minister step up, work with the Home Office and get them over to this country?

The pace at which we are getting through applications is ramping up: we will very soon be working our way through more than 10,000 a week. I completely understand the frustration that the hon. Gentleman expresses, because we would all like to see the process working far more quickly than it is already, but we are committed to ensuring that it works more quickly by the day.

We are all so proud of our constituents who have stepped up to be hosts. We should equally be proud of the council officers who are scrambling yet again and will absolutely deliver. They need two things to make their lives easier. The first is the housing checklist that was promised on Tuesday but is still not in place; the worry is that people will be put in homes that are not suitable. The second is DBS checks. The Minister will be aware that, during the pandemic, powers were delegated to second-tier authorities to help to make the checks work. That legislation has expired, which means that it can be done only at county level; in Oxfordshire, only three people are allowed to do it. Will the Minister have a look at those two issues and come back to us as quickly as possible? If we need new legislation, we should be ready to make it.

Yesterday, I met the leader of the District Councils’ Network, who explained that the checking process with properties seemed to be going very smoothly, that councils were completely familiar with what they were expected to do, and that they were making the appropriate checks. What I think we need to understand is that sometimes we do not need to be totally prescriptive. Councils have great experience in the area and can use common sense and be proportionate in the checks that they make. I think that those checks are being carried out and that appropriate property is being identified.

I agree with the hon. Lady about the fantastic effort. This feels like a period of genuine national endeavour. I commend all colleagues across the House and their staff who have engaged with the process and are working tirelessly on behalf of constituents to ensure that problems are overcome and matches are made. Long may that continue.

I very much welcome the scheme and thank the Minister for his answers. Northern Ireland, with a population of 1.8 million, has had more than 6,000 expressions of interest for the Homes for Ukraine scheme. As usual, the set-up in Northern Ireland, with council operations divided, is leading to delays in carrying out checks. Will the Minister confirm the answer to a technical question? If a family have in place the police checks that they need to work with children—the enhanced disclosure—can those checks be used or will new DBS or enhanced disclosure forms still be needed?

That does feel like a very technical question, particularly for me. If the hon. Gentleman emails me, I will ensure that the appropriate Minister and civil servant respond accordingly.