Skip to main content

Ukrainian Refugees: Homelessness

Volume 729: debated on Tuesday 14 March 2023

[Relevant documents: Oral evidence taken before the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee on 29 June 2022 and 16 January 2023, on Ukraine Refugee Schemes, HC 464; Oral evidence taken before the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee on 30 March 2022, on Ukraine Refugee Schemes, Session 2021-22, HC 1223; Correspondence from the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee to the Ministers for Housing and Homelessness, and Faith and Communities, on Ukraine Refugee Schemes, reported to the House on 23 January 2023; Written evidence to the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, on LUHC Committee; Engagement Event: Homes for Ukraine and Ukraine Family Scheme, reported to the House on 16 January 2023.]

I beg to move,

That this House calls upon His Majesty’s Government to support Ukrainian refugees living in the United Kingdom, to prevent homelessness amongst this group where possible and ensure it is brief, rare and non-recurrent where it cannot be avoided; and urges His Majesty’s Government to work with partner organisations and local authorities to ensure refugees facing and experiencing homelessness are supported during their time living in the UK.

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate on such an important and timely issue. As Members will no doubt be well aware, last month marked a year since the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine began. This has displaced millions of innocent people, completely turning their lives upside down. More than 8 million refugees have been recorded to date, making it the largest humanitarian crisis Europe has seen since the second world war.

Great Britain has a proud legacy of compassion and of supporting refugees fleeing war zones. I join Members on both sides of the House in warmly welcoming the Government’s ongoing response to the conflict in Ukraine. Since March 2022, we have welcomed 161,400 Ukrainian refugees to the UK. Further, the latest Home Office data shows that more than 23,500 Ukrainian visa extensions have been granted.

Last year, the Government acted with great urgency to introduce three revolutionary visa schemes, which aimed to provide support for individuals escaping the grave situation in Ukraine: the Ukraine family scheme; the Ukraine extension scheme; and Homes for Ukraine. Homes for Ukraine allowed our constituents to sponsor a Ukrainian national or family to come and live with them, provided they had suitable and appropriate accommodation to offer. Like others, I have been truly moved but unsurprised by the vast empathy and support shown by the general public across the United Kingdom in helping to welcome and house Ukrainians since Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine just over a year ago.

Together, these schemes have proved a lifeline for many Ukrainian refugees, helping them successfully to find safety and sanctuary after fleeing conflict. The scenes in Ukraine are extremely harrowing, with completely merciless attacks on residential areas and even hospitals. This is no place for a child or family to have to live, constantly fearful of their lives and those of loved ones. The welcome respite they receive when reaching the UK no doubt provides a glimmer of hope in their otherwise tragically upturned lives.

I absolutely agree that this was the right, empathetic and correct thing to do in response to the appalling number of refugees fleeing the conflict in Ukraine. I draw the hon. Gentlemen’s attention to something I said when Homes for Ukraine was introduced by the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, just a few months after the evacuation of Afghanistan. I said that we should also be looking for homes for Afghans. I hope we might reflect on that in this debate.

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I am slightly constrained by the subject of the debate, as she knows. However, I take the issue of Afghan refugees very seriously indeed; some 11,000 are still in hotels in this country and without a proper place to live. I take the point, but Mr Deputy Speaker is looking at me as if to say, “Concentrate on Ukraine, not other refugees.”

I declare my interest as co-chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for ending homelessness. My co-chair, the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi), is in her place. We have held meetings with Ukrainian refugees, and it has become profusely clear to us that, far too often, the breakdown of the Government schemes is causing a new level of hardship for refugees. The Select Committee on Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, on which I have the honour of sitting, has also done work on this issue.

I commend the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate. He brings many debates to this Chamber and Westminster Hall, and I always support them—or by and large support them; there are one or two things on which we disagree.

Is the hon. Gentleman, like me and my Strangford constituents, amazed and sometimes overcome by people’s generosity? I think of two people, Donald and Jacqueline Fleming, who have worked in Ukraine for more than 30 years and who provided homes for Ukrainian people in Northern Ireland. Not only that, but the church groups in my constituency have also reached out with a generosity that never fails to amaze me. Whenever we see such generosity, goodness and kindness coming through, does the hon. Gentleman, like me, feel that this great nation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has many great people who offer so much to people when they need it most?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. He shares many of the views I have on homelessness and how to assist people. As I have said, I think we are all greatly pleased that the people of the UK offer assistance to people fleeing violence, and we will always do so, as a caring nation. In particular, I applaud those who provide additional help that is way above and beyond the call of duty.

There are a number of grave concerns about the increasing reports of Ukrainian refugees experiencing a breakdown of living arrangements, facing gaps in support, and falling into homelessness or destitution during this cost of living crisis, which we all know is affecting so many of our constituents.

I thank my co-chair of the all-party group on ending homelessness for securing this important and timely debate. He mentioned the evidence session we held just last month. Homelessness is a particular issue in London because of the higher living cost here. He may be aware that the latest data show that 1,210 Ukrainian households have presented as homeless in London alone, and that that is such a big issue. I declare an interest, in that I am co-chair of the all-party group on London—I chair it with another hon. Member. Does he agree that the Government support on this issue needs to be more targeted, especially in areas where there are high living costs and more need?

I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention, and I am coming on to some of the statistics, which affect not only London, but the whole UK. They emphasise how important this issue is and how important it is that the Government get a grip on the problem quickly.

A recent survey carried out with Ukrainian refugees found that they face a growing threat of homelessness or poverty: one in 10 of participants had been threatened with eviction at some point during their stay in the UK; and a further two thirds had little confidence in their ability to find private rented accommodation—we all know that that is difficult—whether that was due to high rents, the deposits required or other barriers, such as the need for rental guarantors.

As the hon. Lady said, the all-party group on ending homelessness held a meeting last month, where we looked at the evidence from those people directly affected. We had the privilege of hearing directly from three brave Ukrainian women who have all faced challenges in finding a safe home within the United Kingdom since the conflict began. The room was overflowing with Members, organisations and charities keen to listen to the heartfelt testimonies that the women bravely provided and to the offers of support that came from those organisations.

I want to provide a range of quotes from that evidence session. One woman courageously told us:

“I was forced to come to the UK with my 15-year-old son when the war in Ukraine began. We have been lucky with our amazing host family, and I have found a job that allows us to survive.

However, this is not a sustainable arrangement in the long term. We would now like to move out and rent a place of our own. But we cannot afford to because the cost of renting is so high...After I had paid the rent, me and my son would have nothing to eat.

It is still very difficult to find a place to rent because landlords insist on a guarantor, but my host family is not allowed to do this. The landlords asked me to pay six months’ rent up front which is impossible in my situation.”

That clearly demonstrates the problems faced by Ukrainian refugees navigating our housing market and the situation has certainly not been helped by the ongoing cost of living crisis we are all experiencing. A survey conducted among Ukrainian refugees showed that 60% of respondents had no savings at all. Among the 40% who did, nearly all reported not having more than 12 weeks’ worth of savings. How on earth, then, can we expect Ukrainian refugees fleeing war to provide a guarantor or pay six months’ rent up front? It is impossible to do.

The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities recently published official statistics emphasising the scale of the problem. The figures showed that, between February 2022 and February 2023, a total of 4,630 Ukrainian households—not individuals, but households—received urgent homelessness assistance from their local authority in England. In my constituency, Harrow East, residents have welcomed 251 refugees via the Homes for Ukraine scheme, of whom 16 are currently homeless for various reasons. The figures get worse when we look at the whole of London, where, as the hon. Member for Vauxhall mentioned, 1,216 refugees have presented themselves as homeless so far.

I remind hon. Members that that is only a partial picture of the true scale of homelessness faced by this refugee community, as the statistics released by the Department are made up only from data that was voluntarily supplied by just under 69% of all English local authorities; 97 local authorities did not submit data for collection. We predict, therefore, that the total number of refugees seeking assistance is much higher. When she replies to the debate, will the Minister explain why the collection of this important data is not mandatory across English local authorities?

What the data does provide is some detailed analysis of those seeking assistance. I was saddened to learn that 69% of households receiving homelessness assistance have dependent children, who also face becoming homeless. Additionally, homelessness in this community seems to be growing, with an 8% increase in the number of households receiving assistance between January and February this year alone, and the figures only likely to worsen.

At the APPG meeting, it was abundantly clear that attendees felt that further action was necessary to ensure that refugees can access a safe and secure home, and above all avoid sleeping rough. There was general consensus on a number of recommendations of ways in which the design of funding and financial support could be improved to help to prevent homelessness among this vulnerable group.

The first is that, as the war continues to rage, financial support provided to hosts must be made more flexible, to ensure that no one falls through the gaps in assistance. For example, cases where sponsorships have been successful and developed into lodging arrangements are no longer in scope for funding. These successful living arrangements must be supported in the long term, and facilitated where possible, to prevent homelessness or destitution wherever we can. Nurturing these relationships prevents stress on local authorities, landlords and the refugees themselves.

Secondly, it is crucial that Ministers consider harmonising financial support across the schemes. Funding should be extended to those under the Ukraine family scheme, who do not currently receive any financial support and so must rely on their own very limited financial resources to get by. Further, the size of the family sponsored should be taken into account and reflected in the amount of financial support. As it stands, hosts sponsoring a family of two or a family of five receive the same financial support. Unsurprisingly, studies show more than twice as many Ukrainians under the family scheme at imminent risk of eviction than those under the Homes for Ukraine scheme.

At the APPG meeting, we heard from a refugee from Ukraine who is a British citizen. She told us:

“I have been struggling to support my mum through the Ukraine Family Scheme since she was forced to flee in March last year. Despite her age and dangerous heart condition, my 66-year-old mother has been sleeping in the kitchen of my flat for nearly a year because there are no affordable private rented properties in our area and the council have failed to house her.

I looked for accommodation for my mother to rent but I couldn’t find anything we can afford. A tiny room to rent in our area is a minimum of £450 a month but the Housing Benefit my mother qualifies for is around £260. How can a Ukrainian refugee like my mum ever afford this?”

That is a perfectly reasonable question.

Another common trend among Ukrainian refugees under each of the three schemes was the significant lack of practical support available to them, particularly with the wide range of difficulties they experience when trying to navigate the various support systems presented to them. Our system is complex, and people coming from a war-torn country find it hard to understand and navigate it.

For example, a Ukrainian refugee who spoke to the APPG told us that, after being forced to leave her home and career as a medical doctor, she came to the UK all by herself. On arrival in London, she was abruptly told by a sponsor that the landlord did not want any refugees in his property. After several months of unrest and instability, she has finally found stable housing, but said:

“Since I arrived in the UK, lots of information has been thrown at me and there has been very little support to help me find a home or a job. This has significantly affected my mental health, which has been hugely challenging to access support for. I think the Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme should be improved by requiring Housing Officers to meet refugees to help solve issues with sponsors from early on. Councils should provide people with personal plans to prevent their homelessness ahead of time rather than when someone submits a homelessness application..”

I could not agree more. That sensible recommendation, coming from a Ukrainian refugee, speaks volumes, because she and others in similar circumstances should have been helped. Under my Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, local authorities have a duty of care to support people at risk of homelessness within 56 days—not solely when it is too late and they are already sleeping rough. The final improvement called for was that the Government should bring forward a new strategy for refugee integration and resettlement. While the Government’s swift action to introduce the visa scheme was warmly welcomed by all, there are concerns about the long-term viability of such schemes.

Many of us will remember that, in the initial break-out of the war, speculation suggested it would be over in a maximum of six months. The initial design of the sponsorship scheme was therefore short term, focused on six-month placements. The Government have since encouraged hosts to continue to sponsor the guests beyond six months, and the payment for hosts can now be extended beyond that period. However, many sponsorships are still breaking down, leaving Ukrainians with limited alternative choices for somewhere safe to stay.

In her reply to this debate, will the Minister commit to ensuring that the Government support Ukrainian refugees through these welcome schemes for as long as the war continues in Ukraine? The Government must also appoint a successor to my good friend Lord Harrington as Minister of State for refugees, to acknowledge the UK’s long-standing commitment to compassion and its history of supporting refugees. I know my hon. Friend the Minister has a very full set of responsibilities, but I take the view that we should appoint a dedicated Minister for refugees. Can she update the House on progress in securing a successor to Lord Harrington?

Following the impactful meeting of the APPG for ending homelessness, the hon. Member for Vauxhall and I wrote to the Minister to share our concerns and outline the aforementioned potential solutions. I am pleased to say that the letter was signed by 74 further parliamentarians from across the House and all political parties, demonstrating excellent cross-party support and a strong will to resolve the plight of Ukrainian refugees. I urge the Minister to recognise the breadth of support from Members across the House for the policy recommendations I have outlined. I look forward to receiving her response to that letter at her earliest convenience.

Before I conclude, I acknowledge that many of the challenges facing Ukrainian refugees are a symptom of the acute lack of affordable housing in this country. I am a proud member of the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, and that issue has become increasingly prominent in both recent and long-term inquiries. Over the last year, private rent has increased by 11.8% on average outside London and 15.8% in London itself. Support for private renters has not kept up with the real cost of renting, leaving far too many struggling to cover their rent while the rising costs of energy, childcare and food put more pressure on family budgets.

For Ukrainians, that lack of affordable housing severely restricts their ability to move on from sponsorship or family arrangements and into their own settled housing. Plainly, for many, moving into privately rented accommodation is simply out of the question any time in the near future, which, as I am sure the whole House will agree, is a sad reality.

I thank the three very brave Ukrainian women who came to Parliament and spoke courageously at the January meeting of the all-party parliamentary group for ending homelessness. I will share the words of one of those women, who powerfully set out the reality facing her and too many others:

“Because homes are currently unaffordable in the UK, some of my friends have been forced to leave and return to dangerous places in Ukraine with their kids. But I’m from Kherson and our city is being bombed every day. I’m homeless in Ukraine and I’m soon to be homeless here.”

I thank the Minister and the Government for their support for the Ukrainian community thus far. I hope that she will she continue working constructively with the all-party group for ending homelessness so that we can ensure that homelessness among Ukrainian refugees living in Britain is prevented wherever possible and resolved quickly if it does tragically occur. I look forward to hearing no doubt short and insightful contributions from Front Benchers, and considerate comments from colleagues throughout the remainder of the debate.

I commend the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for securing the debate. I agree with a lot of the points that he made.

From the moment Vladimir Putin launched his assault on Ukraine on that terrible morning of 24 February, we knew that our obligation to the Ukrainian people would need to extend far beyond the battlefield—our resolve that Ukrainian forces should get the supplies and equipment that they needed to resist, in time to drive back the Russian onslaught, would have to be matched by a determination that no Ukrainian fleeing the fighting would be left out in the cold. Although we can take great pride in the considerable support that we have lent to Ukrainian forces in the field—the UK is now clearly established as the second largest donor of military aid to Ukraine—when it comes to supporting those who have fled the conflict, our record has been far more mixed.

Hon. Members have painted a grave picture of the situation now facing many of the families who arrived in the UK through the Ukraine sponsorship scheme. More than 2,500 are now owed homelessness prevention or relief duty, and many thousands more are living in situations that are, or are rapidly becoming, untenable. Indeed, my hon. Friends and I warned in September last year—as the initial six-month sponsorships were due to expire—that community sponsorship was only ever intended as a short-term response to an immediate crisis, and that the Government needed to take urgent action to prevent thousands of refugees from falling into homelessness. It is frankly shameful that the Government failed to heed those warnings earlier.

Crucially, I argued at that time that Ministers needed to do much more to help Ukrainians to secure homes of their own, including by allowing local authorities to act as guarantors for Ukrainians entering the private rented sector. More than 45% of respondents to a recent survey reported that they encountered significant difficulties in accessing rented accommodation, so I again urge the Minister to look at what more can be done to help Ukrainians to navigate an increasingly dysfunctional housing market. The motion in the name of the hon. Member for Harrow East rightly draws attention to the importance of close collaboration between central Government and local government, which has also been touched on by a number of Members.

On the anniversary of the establishment of the Homes for Ukraine scheme, it is worth reflecting on just how much responsibility local authorities have been left to shoulder, from finding school places for Ukrainian children to ensuring that elderly refugees’ healthcare needs are addressed. Now, they are increasingly acting as the backstop for those who have found themselves homeless. It is imperative that the Government commit to doing more to support local authorities that are helping refugees, beginning with providing greater clarity about how the £150 million homelessness reduction funding announced in December can be spent.

Finally, there is the issue of funding. Last month, the Local Government Association warned that the halving of funding for arrivals under the Homes for Ukraine scheme in 2023, and the ending of education funding this month, would present serious challenges to councils that are already exposed to high inflation and grappling with overstretched resources. Ensuring that funding for local authorities is under constant review and commensurate with the needs of their Ukrainian guests is essential if we are to honour the commitments that we have made to those who have come to the UK in search of safety. We must ensure, too, that hosts get the financial support they need at a time of record high food and energy prices, so that no one is forced to make homeless the guests they once warmly welcomed into their homes.

I agree with what the hon. Member for Harrow East said about Lord Harrington. The Minister should revisit this, and we should be having more Zooms and more information with regard to the Ukrainian people who are residents in this country.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) on leading the debate and the important and pertinent points he made. I want to talk first about the situation in Scotland and then the cost of living crisis and some of the other issues that he highlighted.

One year on from Putin’s illegal invasion, the message of the SNP to Ukrainian arrivals remains crystal clear: Scotland is their home for as long as they need it to be. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine last February, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has recorded over 8 million refugees from Ukraine across Europe. That is around 20% of the Ukrainian population. From the outset of the crisis, Scotland has been ready to help. As the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said at the time,

“Let us let people in and do the paperwork afterwards.”—[Scottish Parliament Official Report, 8 March 2022; c. 11.]

The hon. Gentleman is right that we had the super sponsor scheme in Scotland, which everybody thought was a great initiative, but did it not fall foul of the point that the hon. Member for Harrow East made—namely, that we thought the problem was over when we got people to Scotland? We did not see it as a long-term exercise, and as a consequence, we have had almost 2,500 people living on cruise ships, which the British Red Cross rightly says is completely inappropriate for their needs. We are going to be dealing with these situations many times in the future. We must learn from the mistakes we have made this time and understand that, when the refugees arrive here, that is the beginning of the story, not the end.

I have great sympathy with that. One cruise ship is currently based in my constituency, at least until the end of the month, and I am going to touch on some of those issues. A lot of people thought that the situation would end quickly, and it has not. Governments across the board and all of us as elected Members should learn from things as they develop, so I thank the right hon. Gentleman for making that point.

The super sponsor scheme has been overwhelmingly popular, with local authorities, the third sector and local communities all working in partnership. As a result, the last 12 months have seen nearly 23,000 people from Ukraine arriving to safety in Scotland, with over 18,900 of those arriving through the super sponsor scheme. That represents around 20.4% of all UK arrivals. The Scottish Government are supporting the scheme with over £70 million allocated for the Ukrainian resettlement programme for 2023-24, to ensure that communities continue to receive help to rebuild lives.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the cruise ships—I have visited one to help people who became constituents. As I said in the Westminster Hall debate last week, and I would be interested to hear from the hon. Member for Harrow East on this, one big concern is that those people are waiting months—far too long, in my view—for their biometric residence permits. I hope the Minister will once again take that issue up with the Home Office, because I am still dealing with it weekly with Ukrainian refugees who cannot go on to employment. The hon. Member for Harrow East and other Members across the Chamber are indicating that that remains a problem, so I hope the Minister will take it up on behalf of us all.

Support is being provided, with the Department for Work and Pensions, the education department, the council and the health and social care partnership all helping people based on the cruise ship in Govan as best they can, but the focus needs to be on matching them with suitable long-term accommodation. In September, the Scottish Government introduced the Ukraine longer-term resettlement fund, with up to £50 million available to bring council and empty properties into use and increase housing supply. We need to have a discussion on housing policy across the board, but with a lot of homelessness among Ukrainian refugees and empty properties, something should be done.

The hon. Member is making a powerful speech on this issue. One issue highlighted in the evidence session where we heard from a number of women, as the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) mentioned, was housing, and especially the cost of housing in London. Can the Government learn anything from what the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) has outlined that the Scottish Government are doing in bringing empty properties back into use? My frustration is that we know there are many empty properties that a number of councils could bring back into use, but their funding has been cut drastically for the past 13 years.

I will come on to the UK Government’s support in that regard, but we should be encouraging local authorities and the Government to look at empty properties. Going past an estate agency in London, I thought I was looking at a premiership transfer fee, not a property price. That is a big problem in London. For those of us who are not London MPs and have to try to find accommodation here, it can be very difficult. The case that there is a specific issue in London has been well made in the debate.

I want to develop the point—made by the hon. Member for Harrow East—that the hostile environment has made it difficult for Ukrainian refugees to move into longer-term rented accommodation. The Immigration Act 2014 introduced a right to rent scheme that obliged landlords to carry out immigration checks on their prospective tenants, but that legislation was found to have a discriminatory impact, making landlords less likely to rent their properties to people from minority groups. As the hon. Member said, there are landlords who are refusing to take Ukrainian refugees. That is another issue that must be looked at.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to point out the issues with the right to rent scheme. There are some additional barriers for Ukrainians—we like to call them temporarily displaced people, because we are hoping they will go back after the war, but the issues of guarantors and deposits are really big ones to overcome. There is a whole range of issues that the Home Office and DLUHC need to look at in order to ensure those people can get into housing.

The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point, and again, I hope the Minister will answer those questions. The structure of the UK rental market places power in the hands of landlords, and it undermines any rights that tenants may be afforded under the law.

I turn to the cost of living crisis, which was another point well made by the hon. Member for Harrow East. The last year has placed unprecedented financial pressure on households, with the cost of living crisis playing havoc with people’s finances. Many hosts who opened their doors to Ukrainian arrivals last March could not have fully appreciated how bad the crisis would become, with inflation at 10.5% in December last year. From January, the UK Government support available to local councils was cut from £10,500 to £5,900 for each arrival. That seems to be a short-sighted decision. To develop further the point from the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, that decision was taken without any consultation with the devolved Administrations, and I hope the Minister will be able to respond on that.

Councils should receive proper funding to provide employment and language support for Ukrainians, which research has shown is crucial. As the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley) said, the Local Government Association continues to warn of the growing number of Ukrainians presenting as homeless to councils, particularly the significant rise in those who have arrived under the Homes for Ukraine scheme. Data released in February shows that 4,295 Ukrainian households have presented themselves to councils as homeless, which is a 40% increase since November 2022.

The Government cannot simply pass the buck to local authorities. They must ensure sustained funding so that no one who has volunteered to take part in the scheme has to stop. Finally, the uplift in the thank-you payment from £350 to £500 was welcome. However, I hope that the Government will listen to the concerns of the British Red Cross, which says that the increase could come too late and will not always be enough. I look forward to hearing from other Members in this debate.

I begin by paying tribute to the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for doing so much to secure this debate. He speaks with authority and conviction on these matters, and I know through my interactions with him that he cares deeply about the plight of those in need. His work on homelessness issues is testament to that, be it the regulation of temporary accommodation or his work with the all-party parliamentary group on ending homelessness.

There have been several notable contributions towards today’s debate. First, my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams), who is sadly no longer in her place, raised the plight of the Afghans who were escaping Taliban violence. I agree entirely that too many are being failed, including those who bravely served alongside our armed forces, as the hon. Member for Harrow East also said in his remarks. Too many are still in asylum hotels. This situation is completely unacceptable and must be addressed.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who is a doughty champion for his constituents in this place—sadly he is not in his place at the minute—spoke about the generosity of local communities and faith groups. My hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi), who also does incredible work on the APPG on ending homelessness, spoke about the need for more targeted living costs. My hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley) spoke knowledgeably about the grave picture Ukrainian families now face in the UK, as well as the need for innovative solutions and the perilous positions of local authority funding. The hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) raised many significant points in his contribution, including biometric delays and landlords refusing to rent to refugees. My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) also raised the important issue of the need for a proper guarantor scheme.

This debate has been well-timed, and following on from the Westminster Hall debate secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake) at the start of this month, it marks the one-year anniversary of the Homes for Ukraine scheme. Indeed, as the shadow Minister for homelessness and rough sleeping, it is a huge privilege to be responding on behalf of His Majesty’s Opposition on a subject of such significance.

It is heartening to bear witness to the consensus across the Chamber about our moral obligation to the Ukrainian people and, in particular, the more than 165,000 households that have sought refuge in Britain. As I said in Westminster Hall a fortnight ago, the House is united in support for Ukraine and her people. The Opposition’s support for the Ukrainian war effort against Putin’s brutal aggression is unshakeable. We all have a duty to ensure that Ukraine emerges victorious.

On the word “obligations”, for me they are clear. We know our obligations in eastern Europe, and we know we have obligations at home, too, in support of the Ukrainian people. They are two sides of the same coin, and I firmly believe that neglecting our domestic obligations risks undermining us on the international stage. I do not doubt the sincerity of the Government’s intentions in respect of Ukrainian refugees—after all, the Homes for Ukraine scheme is the largest refugee scheme ever administered by this country and is testament to the British people’s generosity, with many thousands opening up their homes to welcome the most vulnerable, often women and children.

The Government are failing to deliver security and certainty for all Ukrainian households in Britain, however, and it should haunt them—especially the Department—that as of last month, more than 4,000 households were owed a homelessness prevention or relief duty. It should be a mark of shame that 2,985 of those 4,295 households have dependent children within them, and that 735 households are now in temporary accommodation. Most worryingly for the Minister, a majority of the total number of homeless Ukrainian households—2,595 to be precise—are or were previously on the Homes for Ukraine scheme that her Department administers. We must do better.

The Minister cannot rise to the Dispatch Box and claim in good faith that the Government were not forewarned by Opposition Members. At the onset of the war in early 2022, the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), asked the Secretary of State if he would put a safety net in place in case of future placement breakdowns. On 14 March 2022, precisely a year ago, she said in this Chamber:

“Surely we are not going to ask people who have fled bombs and bullets to lie homeless on the streets of Britain.”—[Official Report, 14 March 2022; Vol. 710, c. 622.]

No proper answer was forthcoming at the time from the Secretary of State, other than political posturing in response to some eminently sensible questioning.

Here we are today, a year on, and the Government are exposed. Most frustratingly, they are again defined by being inherently reactive. They fail time and again to get ahead of the curve before issues develop, even when they are repeatedly warned that problems could arise or are arising. In this instance, it is yet again local councils the length and breadth of the country that are picking up the mess of Tory short-termism.

In response to a question on placement breakdown a year ago today, the Secretary of State said that

“there may be occasions where relationships break down, and in those circumstances we will be mobilising the support not only of central Government and local government, but of civil society, to ensure that individuals who are here can move on.”—[Official Report, 14 March 2022; Vol. 710, c. 626.]

Naturally, therefore, my question for the Minister is: where is that mobilisation? I would be grateful if she advised the House of what the Department is doing to address the barriers Ukrainian families face in accessing private rented accommodation, and what is being done to assist local authority housing teams who are completely overwhelmed with not just refugees, but other local cohorts.

We must get this right and correct the wrongs with a sense of urgency. Surely the Government are not blind to this growing problem and are therefore not prepared to sit on their hands. For the sake of those who have fled the bombs and bullets of the Russian Federation, I ask the Minister to come back to this place with a credible plan to address homelessness among Ukrainian households—a plan that must involve greater resources for local authorities. If she does so, the Opposition will work with her in good faith, alongside stakeholders beyond this place, such as our key charities and the local councils that are doing their utmost on the frontline in support of our communities.

I thank the Backbench Business Committee and my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for calling this very important debate on the anniversary—the actual anniversary—of the Homes for Ukraine scheme.

I want to start by saying that the Homes for Ukraine scheme is truly remarkable, and I think we should feel incredibly proud of it as a country. It is thanks to the generosity of the British people that we have been able to welcome over 117,000 Ukrainians under the scheme. When we include the other two schemes, the Ukraine family scheme and Ukraine extension scheme, the total number of Ukrainians who have arrived safely in the UK is over 166,000. I also want to say that we continue to see arrivals under the Homes for Ukraine scheme at a rate of approximately 900 to 1,100 a week, using the last published data from the fourth quarter.

The plight of the people of Ukraine—those who have left the country and those who have remained to fight for Ukrainian sovereignty—has touched people across the UK since the war began just over a year ago. That is why so many people in all parts of Britain offered, at the drop of a hat, to open their homes as well as their hearts to a Ukrainian guest or family fleeing the barbaric war that Vladimir Putin has been inflicting on their homeland. Since they made it on to UK soil, the wellbeing, safety and treatment of those Ukrainians are things we have all been rightly invested in. The motion put forward today, exactly one year from when the Homes for Ukraine scheme was put in place, reflects just how strong the imperative is to support Ukraine and our Ukrainian guests in their new life on UK soil.

I feel very strongly about this personally, because not only am I the Minister for the Homes for Ukraine scheme, but my constituency is one of the centres of the Ukrainian community. Kensington houses the Ukrainian embassy, the Ukrainian social club, the wonderful St Mary’s Ukrainian School and the Ukrainian cultural institute. I have stood side by side with my Ukrainian community from before the invasion, and I will be spending Saturday with them and many other Ukrainians. If we look at the numbers in my constituency, we have 423 registered sponsors and 617 recently arrived Ukrainians, including 152 children.

I thank the Minister for the points she has highlighted, which demonstrate the generosity of people across our many constituencies who have opened their homes to welcome Ukrainian refugees. One of the things we heard at the evidence session is that, while the women and their children who have come over here are really happy to have been welcomed, a number of them are very much looking forward to going back home and settling back in, and the difficulties they are facing in the interim are making that much more difficult. Does the Minister agree that the Government must redouble their efforts to address the concerns that they and their host families are raising?

I will go on to explain exactly what the Government are doing, but clearly the scheme is evolving. We have already changed it to increase the thank-you payments and to open it up to unaccompanied minors. We are always happy to take on board feedback and to refine it, but I will come on to explain exactly what the Government are doing.

We are doing so much in Ukraine, but we are also doing much here in the UK. This scheme, which is powered entirely by the generosity of the British public, has seen more than 117,000 people arrive in the UK since its launch a year ago. If we include the Ukraine family scheme, we have now helped to find more than 166,000 people a safe and secure home. Those numbers are enormous, and we should never desensitise ourselves to just how many people we have given a new home, helped to start a new life, and offered optimism for life after the conflict. Each of those 166,000 people is somebody removed from the immediate danger of that terrible conflict.

A number of Members have mentioned Government money, so let me explain exactly what the Government are doing. As a Government, we have been determined to reciprocate the generosity of the hosts who have come forward with offers of help. To that end, we have committed to provide £1.1 billion to councils through tariff funding and thank-you payments for arrivals in their area, to support guests and sponsors alike. I thank local authorities for the excellent job they have been doing. By way of recognising the hugely generous support of sponsors in the Homes for Ukraine scheme, we have upped the thank-you payments—the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) alluded to that. Those thank-you payments are now £500 a month, once guests have been in the country for over a year. The scheme has also been extended from 12 months to two years. Our No. 1 priority throughout has been to offer stable homes to Ukrainians seeking sanctuary on UK soil. I feel a tremendous sense of pride that we have offered Ukrainians a temporary home, and huge pride in the thousands of people in this country who have taken in a guest.

The British Red Cross had some criticisms about the qualifications for the thank-you payments. Will the Minister remind the House of the eligibility requirements to qualify for those thank-you payments, and say whether the Government are considering changing them?

To be eligible for the thank-you payments, someone needs to be a sponsor under the Homes for Ukraine scheme. For the uptick in the thank-you payment, they need to be hosting a Ukrainian who has been in the country for more than 12 months, although they need not have been with that person for more than 12 months.

This debate is about homelessness, so I want to focus in on the numbers. There are cases where relationships between hosts and guests have broken down, but that is not unique to the United Kingdom; such issues exist in many countries across Europe. The Government have tried, wherever possible, to make sure that those who experience that kind of unavoidable scenario have been protected by a safety net. As Members will know, when a sponsorship can no longer continue, councils will support Ukrainians to find new accommodation. Our data shows that by 24 February this year, 2,910 Ukrainian households under the Homes for Ukraine scheme had been owed a homelessness duty by their local authority in England. That number is 4,630 for all Ukrainian arrivals. To put that in context, we have seen more than 166,000 Ukrainian arrivals, so that is a very small percentage. I would also like to clarify that a homelessness duty means a local authority has a duty to prevent or relieve homelessness, so in many cases local authorities will be preventing homelessness before it occurs. Indeed, 2,085 of the approximately 4,600 are recorded as having been prevented or relieved.

I want to come back to temporary accommodation. The latest number is 660 Ukrainian households in temporary accommodation. Again, we do not want Ukrainian households to be in temporary accommodation, but they are in accommodation and it is a small percentage of the overall number of arrivals.

I will make one final point before giving way. Clearly, we want the numbers to be as low as possible. That is why we are also putting in place for 2023-24 a £150 million fund for which councils across the UK, including the devolved Administrations, will be eligible. That will be principally to relieve homelessness among the Ukrainian community. As local communities are best placed to understand the support they need, they will be able to use the £150 million fund to help all those at risk of homelessness.

I thank the Minister for giving way; she is being very generous with her time. She spoke about local authorities having an obligation to find Ukrainians homes where there has been a breakdown. Does she agree that local authorities are under enormous pressure not only with the Homes for Ukraine scheme and with arrangements that break down, but from people from local communities who find themselves homeless? Can she tell us a little about what extra resources are being given to very cash-strapped councils that have seen cuts over the last decade or so?

Yes, absolutely. We are making available the £1.1 billion in tariff payments that I alluded to, the £150 million fund specifically for homelessness, and—I am about to come to this—an additional £500 million local authority housing fund, which will provide capital funding directly to English councils in areas facing the most significant housing pressures due in part to recent Ukrainian arrivals. That fund alone is expected to provide up to 4,000 homes by 2024, the vast majority initially for Ukrainians, but approximately 400 to 500 for Afghan families too. Over time, those homes will be for the benefit of local communities, because they will become part of the local authority housing stock.

I thank the Minister for giving way. She is being very generous with her time this afternoon. Like many Members, I welcome the new £500 million local authority housing fund for new homes. I referred to my constituency and my local authority. In Lambeth, we have more than 30,000 people on the housing waiting list. The situation is the same not just in London but up and down the country, so 4,000 homes is a small drop in the ocean. Is there anything more the Minister can get the Government and the Department to do to accelerate house building, so we can get the affordable homes that many local authorities desperately need?

The Government are also making available £654 million over the course of the next two years under the homelessness prevention grant. That follows an additional £50 million we made available this year, to run up to £366 million this year. Again, these are large sums of money. We recognise the pressure on housing, in particular in London but across the country. House building is a huge focus of ours. We are making resources available and giving local authorities two years of funding so that they can plan on that basis. Let me draw the hon. Member’s attention to the fact that over this three-year spending review we are making £2 billion available for the relief of rough sleeping and homelessness. Again, these are very large numbers. Although we saw an uptick in rough sleeping at the last count, rough-sleeping numbers are still 28% lower than pre-pandemic.

Let me draw the House’s attention to our comparative performance on rough sleeping. Every single person sleeping rough is one too many, but in England the rate is five per 100,000 people. That is lower only in two countries—Japan and South Korea. In the US, the rate is 70 per 100,000. There is no question but that one person sleeping rough is too many, but the UK record is comparatively a stronger one. I asked a data provider on homelessness whether there was a country that we should look at for best practice, and I was told that the only two countries with lower numbers are Japan and South Korea.

I am conscious that we have a second debate to move on to, and I want to reply to other Members, so I will talk briefly about Afghans. Resettling Afghans is an incredible focus of Government. I heard a Member mention that there were 11,000 Afghans in bridging accommodation. I want to put on record that the number is 8,350 at the moment, but the Government are incredibly focused on ensuring that we get Afghans into permanent accommodation; that is clearly right for the Afghan families. It has been slightly slower than one would have wanted, partly because many Afghan families are quite large and we just do not have many three, four or five-bedroom properties available. It is a huge focus of Government to locate those properties.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East asked why the data that he referred to was voluntary, not mandatory. I want to make it clear that the quarterly data on the statutory homelessness duty is mandatory. It is the monthly management information that is voluntary, but mandatory data is available on a quarterly basis. He also asked about support for jobs; as soon as a Ukrainian arrives in the country, no matter under which scheme, they are eligible for work, education and benefits. I have visited the jobcentre in my constituency, where they are very focused on offering the Ukrainian cohort work coach support and a dedicated enhanced support offer. That is important.

The SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Glasgow South West, talked about the Scottish fund of £50 million to renovate existing properties. Our £500 million fund for England allows local authorities to renovate, purchase and build new modular, so there is a lot of flexibility in there.

The hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley) asked whether we could have more regular calls to answer questions that arise about the schemes. I am very happy to talk to him individually or as part of a larger group.

Several hon. Members mentioned the private rented sector, in which we are conscious that for some Ukrainians there have been barriers to access such as issues with credit history and the need for deposits or guarantees. According to the latest Office for National Statistics survey, 17% of Ukrainians are in the private rented sector. Our local authorities receive a tariff of £10,500—it was reduced to £5,900 for arrivals after 1 January—that can be used to help Ukrainians into the private rented sector by way of deposits. I am alive to the issues and alive to the fact that a lot of Ukrainians would like to have their own home, so I am working with local authorities and with the National Residential Landlords Association to focus on how we can overcome the barriers.

I am conscious that quite a few hon. Members wish to move on to the next debate, so I will wrap this one up even though it started only at four minutes past 4. May I finish by thanking every one of the sponsors across the country? They have stepped up in Ukraine’s hour of need with their offers of help, and their generosity has offered a lifeline to thousands of people fleeing the ordeal of war. The UK’s offer to the people of Ukraine is not static: it will continue to evolve, along with our wraparound support for those who have already relocated to the UK. On the anniversary of the Homes for Ukraine scheme, we should be rightly proud of it, proud of the sponsors and proud of our new Ukrainian guests. I say to them: thank you.

With the leave of the House, may I thank everyone who has contributed to this debate? I echo the Minister’s words of thanks for all those who have acted as hosts to Ukrainian refugees. Just imagine what it must be like for people to leave the country that is their home and their birth right, as bombs and shells land among them, and be forced to flee to a foreign country—it is truly horrific. I congratulate those who have done so.

My hon. Friend the Minister should be cognisant of this: the Government, the Opposition and all of us should be very proud of the schemes that have been set up, but the figures are going in the wrong direction. The threat of homelessness among Ukrainian refugees is growing. It is time we nipped it in the bud, because if we do not take proper action now it will become a major problem. I commend the motion to the House and look forward to further action from the Government accordingly.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House calls upon His Majesty’s Government to support Ukrainian refugees living in the United Kingdom, to prevent homelessness amongst this group where possible and ensure it is brief, rare and non-recurrent where it cannot be avoided; and urges His Majesty’s Government to work with partner organisations and local authorities to ensure refugees facing and experiencing homelessness are supported during their time living in the UK.