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Homes for Ukraine Scheme

Volume 820: debated on Monday 28 March 2022

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how many applications for visas under the Homes for Ukraine scheme have been received and provided to Ukrainian refugees, and how many refugees have entered the UK since the scheme opened.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask a Question of which I have given private notice, and declare an interest as I applied with my husband on the day the scheme opened to welcome and support a family into our home.

I thank the noble Baroness for the Question. I can confirm that more than 20,000 applications have been received for the Homes for Ukraine scheme and we will be providing further information in due course.

My Lords, the lack of information is extremely worrying. We have an ethical obligation of non-abandonment, having given a commitment to stand with Ukraine and offer sanctuary. Do the Government recognise that the visa process is causing great distress to already-traumatised Ukrainians who have experienced cumulative losses, pervasive existential terror and mass bereavements and are now increasingly at risk? The process is also increasingly frustrating for the tens of thousands of Britons who want to welcome them into their homes and will provide a long-term commitment. Will the Government heed the call from major charities in the Times today to introduce a simplified emergency humanitarian process immediately?

I agree with much of the sentiment of what the noble Baroness said. As far as the visa process is concerned, the only purpose is to provide security checks for this country. As I have said on the record before, when I was given the job to do by the Prime Minister, that was the only constraint. It is my job to make sure that the visa process is speeded up, and in the last two weeks we have gone on to a system where those with Ukrainian passports can fill out the form and download the visa without having to go to a visa centre, which they did only two weeks ago.

My Lords, the Minister said there were 20,000 applications for visas. Can he say how many Ukrainians have actually arrived in this country under this scheme? It is heartening to see how full-hearted the response from the British public has been to it, but what is the position with very young children, newly born babies and those soon to be born? Will their parents need similar visa arrangements for them to come to this country?

The answer to the question on the babies is that children under five do not have passports or visas. The reason why there still have to be visits to visa application centres is our fear that very young children will be used to be trafficked over here, and we need evidence that typically the mother—but sometimes the father—in question is in fact the rightful parent. We really do that as quickly and easily as we can. We cannot ignore the fact that there are people traffickers operating, and we have to do some due diligence.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that today, following meetings with British universities, eight rectors of medical universities in Ukraine—and I have the letter in my hand—have written to the Secretary of State asking that where a British university has invited an academic or a student over, entry into this country be expedited?

I thank my noble friend for that question. I was not aware of the letter and I look forward to receiving it from him personally, because it might be quicker than via the system, and I will answer it very quickly.

My Lords, I pay tribute to the Minister for the enormous amount that he has done in a very short space of time. At the same time, however, I acknowledge the frustration that is felt and expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, on the part of so many people. We have tried locally to convene people in the community, and enormous support is forthcoming, but there seems to be a problem with the process. One acknowledges the need for security checks, but I have heard a lot of times, anecdotally, about the complexity of the visa process and how difficult it is. Local government is waiting for guidance from the Government here.

It should not be my job always to agree with the questions that are asked but, in this case, I totally believe in the sentiment that the right reverend Prelate expressed. I am looking at every aspect of the visa process to speed it up. The Home Secretary and I have personally spent hours with officials, including at weekends, looking at ways that we can speed this up because, if the security checks are put in place—which they are—it seems to me that there is no reason why people applying on the internet, or indeed at a visa centre in the countries adjacent to Ukraine, should not be able to get a response really quickly to allow them to come here. I cannot stand here for a long time using the excuse that I am new to the job, but I promise the right reverend Prelate and noble Lords that this is an absolute top priority.

My Lords, whatever their advice, the security services advise Ministers, but it is Ministers who decide. Why is almost every other European country—Ireland, for example—content to allow Ukrainian refugees to enter visa-free while the UK is demanding a visa before entry? Do our security services not liaise with our allies? Instead of security, is it because such an approach would contradict the proposed inhumane treatment of refugees in the Nationality and Borders Bill?

I cannot comment to the noble Lord about the security services, except to say that I have not seen the advice that they have given to the Prime Minister. However, my instructions are to speed up this process as quickly as possible to move an uncapped number of people here in a humanitarian and decent way. It is my intention to deliver that promise.

My Lords, could the Minister be kind enough to tell us whether we or the Government have had any contact with all the other European countries that are admitting people without security checks, to discuss whether the security problems being caused by our policy are disproportionate, or whether the contrary is perhaps true?

I promise the noble Lord that I will engage in that process—in the two weeks that I have been in the job, I have not done so. It is something that we must do.

I also welcome the noble Lord to his role. I have heard only good things about him, and I wish him well in what he is doing—it is so important. First, I will ask something that was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay: how many Ukrainians have arrived in this country under the system that has been created? We have not heard the answer to that question. Secondly, why cannot women with young children be allowed in—and, if there is any concern, a centre for DNA testing be created immediately? That can be done so simply nowadays; honestly, it is not complex any more. That is a route for dealing with this problem. My other point is that people are applying using their mobile phones, but it is very difficult to do so with young children when you do not have access to a computer. Like others, I say that the simplification of this system is absolutely imperative.

I thank the noble Baroness for her good wishes, although I may not receive them after I answer this question because, for the moment, I cannot give her the answer that she wants, which is the number of visas that have been successfully submitted. The scheme is new—

If noble Lords will bear with me, we will be able to give those numbers in the next few days. I reiterate that it is my intention and that of the Home Secretary to make the visa process as rapid as possible, and literally all my time at the moment is spent trying to deliver that.

I draw to the Minister’s attention the experience of a Ukrainian refugee known to me who, on Monday of last week, went to a UK embassy in a central European state to make a visa application. They were told they did not deal with them on Mondays, only on Wednesdays and to come back then. Is that a reflection of the urgency the UK Government are giving to this matter?

I ask the noble Lord to give me the details of that person—that is unacceptable and there is no visa centre to my knowledge that would say, “We don’t do it on Mondays, we do it on Wednesdays”. We have broken such things as the European working time directive with permissions of Governments to get embassies, such as in Warsaw, open seven days a week. It is certainly not our intention to stop people with excuses like that. I would be grateful for that example.

Are the Bank of England and the Treasury working with the ECB to help Ukrainian refugees convert their currency into either euros or pounds? In asking this question, I draw your Lordships’ attention to my entry in the register.

I shall write to my noble friend with the answer to that question because I am not party to that information.

Will the Minister meet me, because I am really struggling to get a family that I am trying to sponsor to fill in the paperwork. They are all women and children—three generations. They are struggling to fill in the application forms and upload the documents: they have to use Google Translate, their internet keeps failing and each time they have to start from the beginning as the page is not saved. That process has to be done for each and every person. Why is there no one on the ground in the Home Office to help them? Honestly, it looks as though the Home Office has designed a system that is programmed to fail. That just does not reflect the generosity of the British people.

I do not accept the statement of the noble Baroness that the system is built to fail—it is not. But there are problems with it. I would be delighted to sit down with her and discuss it. She did make one error in what she said—and perhaps she does not realise it—in that though the forms are in English, there is a drop-down section for each one translating into Ukrainian. But I would be very pleased to meet her.

My Lords, it is a simple question: how many Ukrainians have been admitted to the United Kingdom under this scheme? It is quite simple—or is the Minister telling us he does not know?

My Lords, I understand that a private provider is involved in the visa application process. I wonder whether the Minister could tell the House who that is?

I have another question, which is about health workers who come to this country from Ukraine. Will they be allowed to continue working immediately? They need to. It would mean their qualifications being recognised and, for those still in training, it would mean them being accepted into the medical, nursing and other training institutes as soon as possible so that they can contribute not only to the NHS but to the health of their own nationals who are settling here.

The noble Baroness asked two questions—the first one about an outside provider. As far as I know, the Home Office uses some agency staff to boost up staff; for example, with the night shifts we are doing. I do not know whether there is one general provider. There is not to my knowledge, but if there is, I will drop her a line and say so.

In answer to the question about health workers, we have a section in the welcome pack for Ukrainian refugees about recognising overseas qualifications and we have people who are doing that. Quite as to the specific healthcare qualifications that she mentions, I do not know—I think it depends on the nature of the qualification. But if we are not doing it, we should be, and I will do my best to make sure that happens.

My Lords, I have every sympathy with the Minister in trying to defend the indefensible, but I would be very grateful if he would go back to the department and ask three questions. First, is there any overriding reason why we have to have a visa requirement and none of our European neighbours do? Secondly, if there is a requirement for a visa, could we not initiate—as suggested in debates on the borders Bill—a temporary provisional humanitarian visa for issue on demand? Thirdly, would the Minister please consider whether the security case is still as strong as was put to him? Would he please have a look at this personally? I find it very hard to see these desperate, destitute Ukrainian mothers and children as a plausible security risk compared to, say, Russian oligarchs with strong KGB or FSB connections.

I could not really dispute the rationale of what the noble Lord said last; I do not think we can compare oligarchs who are not allowed here to refugees who are. We want to expedite them coming here as quickly as possible. I will look at the security advice. To reiterate, at the moment, our policy is that we need the security advice. A visa is needed, but it is done as quickly as possible. As the days and weeks go on, I intend to make sure that that happens faster and faster.