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Ukraine: Refugees

Volume 819: debated on Tuesday 8 March 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to allow a greater number of Ukrainians who do not have family in the United Kingdom to come to this country; and what assessment they have made of the number of UK citizens willing to offer rent-free accommodation to refugees from Ukraine.

My Lords, the Government have announced that the UK will establish a humanitarian sponsorship pathway, which will open up a route to the UK for Ukrainians who may not have family ties with the UK but who are able to match with individuals, charities, businesses and community groups. There will be no numerical limit on this scheme; we will welcome as many Ukrainians as wish to come and have matched sponsors.

I thank the Minister for her Answer, which is very welcome indeed. Rabbi Jonathan Romain in Maidenhead advertised locally for people willing to offer rooms to Ukrainian refugees and, within days, he had 240 offers. I believe that that could be replicated all over the country, so I am very glad that the Government have given that Answer. Will people with a named host and named accommodation who wish to come here be able to undertake the process in this country rather than having to go through a long and very unsatisfactory visa process via Paris or Brussels? Poland and Germany have shown very open hearts; I believe that the British people will do the same.

I totally agree with the noble and right reverend Lord that the British people will be very generous. In fact, just before we started Questions, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham told me about a Church-based organisation that had already had 891 pledges. These are fantastic figures; the noble and right reverend Lord is absolutely right: we need to have them in the country first, and we need to expedite that process as quickly as possible. I am very keen to capture that enthusiasm and help, and offer support as soon as we can.

My Lords, in light of that answer, can the Minister say whether there will be an opportunity for people to apply for visas in this country rather than being kept at Calais? Secondly, the Secretary of State for Defence was unable to answer a question on the radio this morning on whether the ACRS scheme for Afghan refugees has actually opened, saying that this is a matter for the Home Office which is rather busy with Ukraine. Can the Home Office not manage to deal with Afghan and Ukrainian refugees simultaneously?

I think it is fair to say that the Home Office is dealing with both Afghan and Ukrainian refugees simultaneously. Up to 9 o’clock this morning, 4,278 appointments had been made at VACs; that is across the world, but it is a lot of VAC appointments. I checked for myself where the main bulk of those appointments were being made and the vast majority—that is, half of the appointments —were, of course, unsurprisingly, made in Poland. We have two VACs in Poland. For people fleeing Ukraine to be able to go straight to a VAC in Poland is clearly the best and easiest thing for them to do, to avoid problems along the way, shall we say.

My Lords, the Minister has just told us about the vast majority of appointments being made at VACs in Poland. I know of a family who have been waiting in Warsaw for some time and the website has not changed; they cannot make an appointment. The helpline, which the website says will be manned 24/7, is not manned over the weekend. Yesterday, I asked a question and was told that a team of four experts was going to Poland to help build capacity. Can the Minister reassure me that this is being increased and that people in Poland will be able to get VAC appointments so that they can come back home?

It is very difficult to know from a short exchange on my noble friend’s question when the family tried to make the appointment and all that sort of detail, but I know that 1,451 appointments have been made in Warsaw. I will keep her updated. We have extra capacity in our VACs and will have 100 extra people trained by the end of the week. I will certainly take back her point about Warsaw, and make sure that everything is running smoothly.

My Lords, is it true that the Government have issued more visas to Russian oligarchs than they currently plan to issue for Ukrainian refugees? Does the Minister’s announcement today mean categorically that there will be a vast increase in the number of Ukrainian refugees accepted?

As I said, the figures are uncapped: as many people who want to come here can come, whether or not they have family ties. It was estimated last week, I think, that under the family routes provisions we might see 200,000—there is no limit on the number of people who can come here through this humanitarian sponsorship pathway scheme.

My Lords, the Government have rightly praised the generosity of the people of the United Kingdom, but there seems to be a systemic problem in allowing that generosity to be exercised. Can the Minister say something about the systemic issues and address an associated matter: how can we guarantee that the information we are given is accurate, given what has happened in Calais, for example? We keep hearing from the Government that we are leading the way, but we are patently not.

I can say to the right reverend Prelate that this scheme is new—only a few days old. I think that I recognised, in my answer to a previous question, that we want people’s generosity—the British people are very generous—to be captured, and I hope that this scheme will be up and running as soon as possible.

My Lords, last Wednesday we were told that the sponsorship scheme would start and were given a telephone number. That number was only for Ukrainians. If you phone in today you are referred to an 0300 number that does not work. Yesterday I was told in the Portcullis House information hub that the department for levelling up, rather than the Home Office, is taking a lead on this. Can the Minister tell the House when there will be a streamlined system of information whereby people who are sponsoring somebody can register that sponsorship and advise the people who are trying to get out of Kyiv?

The sponsorship scheme, as I have said, should be up and running very shortly, and DLUHC will indeed be the lead department on it. In response to the noble Baroness, I undertake, when there is a number and the scheme is up and running, to come back to the House and give details.

My Lords, surely what is needed, as well as numbers, is speed. The UK has admitted only 300 Ukrainian refugees, while the Republic of Ireland has admitted 1,800. Why is the UK dragging its feet?

I wholeheartedly agree with the noble Lord that speed and numbers are vital. I understand that as of 9 o’clock this morning there were 526 grants under the family scheme. With regard to the sponsorship, however, the noble Lord is right: we need to do it quickly and efficiently.

My Lords, in addition to the help that the Government are giving to Ukrainians to come to this country, will they consider offering humanitarian visas to those brave Russians—members of the clergy, members of civil society, academics, journalists and ordinary citizens—who face long prison sentences for exercising their democratic right to oppose this war?

I am very glad that the noble Lord asked that question because, at this point, we all need to stop and remember all of those Russian people who are so against, or do not even know, what is happening in Ukraine. I do not have many details of that, but it is certainly heartbreaking when you see Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine who appear not to know what they are doing and why they are doing it.