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Ukraine Refugee Visas

Volume 820: debated on Thursday 31 March 2022

Commons Urgent Question

My Lords, with the leave of the House I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer to an Urgent Question given in the other place by my honourable friend the Minister for Safe and Legal Migration. The Statement is as follows:

“The conflict in Ukraine continues to shock the world. Putin’s invasion is deplorable and he must fail. We stand shoulder to shoulder with Ukraine and the Ukrainian people. We are steadfast in our determination to help Ukrainians find safety in the face of Russia’s aggression, which is why the Government have mounted a comprehensive humanitarian response. In a short space of time, we have set up two new visa schemes from scratch, made changes to support Ukrainians already in the UK and surged our operations to meet demand.

The family scheme for Ukrainians has already seen more than 23,500 visas issued to family members of Ukrainians already here in the UK. After setting up the scheme, we further extended it to cover wider family members. Alongside this, we set up the Homes for Ukraine scheme to provide a safe and legal route for Ukrainians without existing family ties in the UK. That is led by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and my honourable friend the Member for Walsall North will update on this shortly. It has been heart-warming to see so many members of the public coming forward as sponsors. Both schemes are free and allow people on them to work and access public funds.

We have made it as easy as possible for people to apply. We have simplified the application form to make it quick and easy to use. We have increased capacity in visa application centres across Europe. Following advice from security and intelligence agencies that it was safe to do so, we have removed the need for those with valid passports to provide their biometrics before arriving in the UK, allowing the majority of applicants to apply entirely online. We regularly monitor the scheme’s operational performance, bringing in additional caseworkers to ensure that Ukrainian applications are prioritised. Our humanitarian response has involved the whole of government, local authorities and the devolved Administrations, and we will keep working together to support Ukrainians who want to come to the UK. We will do what is right.”

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. I understand that it is remarkably similar to the second Statement that is going to be repeated—but nevertheless.

The British people have shown immense generosity in the support they want to provide to the Ukrainian people. The purpose of this is to look at Home Office bureaucracy and challenge the Government about whether the bureaucracy that has been put in place is inhibiting people in a desperate situation from coming to this country. The Minister repeated the statistic that 23,500 visas had been issued for family members, but the figure that has been repeatedly asked for, and which has not been given, so far as I am aware, is for how many have arrived. I do not know whether the Minister is able to answer that question now. When I asked him about it a couple of days ago, he did not have the figure.

The Statement made a point about the relaxation of the rules regarding biometric tests for those with valid passports. Another question which I also asked a couple of days ago was about the position of very young children who do not have a passport, and newborn babies and those soon to be born. How will their families be affected? Will the parents and wider family still be required to travel long distances to have the biometric tests done?

Another question is how many extra caseworkers has the Home Secretary appointed to help families fleeing war? Are there more to be recruited?

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, for his very valid questions. On his first question on the number of arrivals, I cannot give him that number, but I said that I would write to the House of Commons DLUHC Select Committee, so will of course write to him. I said Friday or Monday; I would like to keep to that and certainly will.

The noble Lord’s second question was to do with children. If I may paraphrase, he said, “Yes, everyone knows security is important, but what security risk can children pose? Do children with their mother have to have biometric tests, et cetera?” The answer is yes, but I should explain the reason, because I asked that question a lot myself, as the noble Lord may imagine. Unfortunately, people traffickers are alive and well and are prospering. We have been warned of this by the Ukrainian and Polish Governments, so we have to be sure that the children are in fact the children of the person claiming to be their mother and I am afraid that involves a visit to the visa centre. All I would say in mitigation is that 90% of applicants are now able to apply online without using the biometric tests. The visa centres are a much quicker way of doing it. The officials are briefed to do it as quickly as possible. If there is evidence that we can look at that those children are children of the mother that they say they are, we are flexible as we can be, but I make no excuse for doing that, because we do not know another way around it.

Finally, conscious that we have 10 minutes, as mentioned by my noble friend, I come to the bureaucracy and the extra caseworkers. This has been geared up a lot. In fact, I am going to Sheffield tomorrow to see the process right the way through the system. There are hundreds of extra caseworkers. We are doing evening shifts and weekend shifts to make sure that the current backlog is expedited as quickly as possible.

My Lords, on Monday, the Minister told me from the Dispatch Box that I was wrong when I raised concerns about application forms for Ukrainian refugees being available only in English, yet just last night, the Home Office confirmed that this is indeed the case. It said that Ukrainians seeking refuge could ask their sponsor to fill the form out for them instead. This is a ludicrous suggestion and further elongates an already arduous process. Does it not show that the Government are once again putting paperwork before people? Does the Minister accept that his remarks on Monday were wrong and will he please correct them?

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, for her question. If I misled her or this House, it was the last thing I intended to do. My memory is that I said that the forms are in English, but there are drop-down bits on the website that translate matters into Ukrainian. If that is not the case, I apologise to the noble Baroness. That is certainly in train and she is absolutely right to ask that question. I am very happy to contact her separately with a progress report on that. I apologise to her and the House if I misled her, but assure her that it was not done on purpose.

Could the Minister please tell us how many whole-time equivalent staff have been taken on in addition to manage the process? How many Ukrainian translators have been drafted in to assist with the process? Who is the official employed full time to oversee the Homes for Ukraine scheme and how are they being held to account? Why is there no processing of DNA on arrival in place if there are concerns about the children? Where is the information on an appeals process if somebody is rejected?

The noble Baroness has asked a lot of questions in one go; I will do my best. On the number of extra staff taken on, I am now satisfied with staffing levels. There are 300 staff in Sheffield alone, and the total number of staff on this, in the different areas, comes to nearly 1,000.

The noble Baroness asked whether there is an appeals process. I do not believe there is. I shall check that, but for the moment the question has not come up. Most people who have applied have been accepted. We really are doing the best we can to make sure that everyone suitable is accepted. She asked me a further question on DNA, which she had asked me before and I found extremely interesting. I am trying to find out the answer.

The problem at the moment is not rejecting people but speeding up the system. I was taken on by the Prime Minister to do this, and I bear full responsibility for it. It is not an excuse, but the system is far faster than it was last week and the week before, and I am expecting significant incremental increases next week and the week after. At the DLUHC Select Committee I was asked what I felt would be the run rate imminently —next week or the week after—and I mentioned 15,000 per week.

My Lords, I have one question. I handed to my noble friend a letter signed by eight rectors and vice-rectors of medical universities in Ukraine and asked for the expediting of visas for those who have been invited by British universities. What progress has been made on that?

I thank my noble friend Lord Cormack for his question. He and I have discussed this most days since he gave me the letter last week. The way government works, the responsibility for this is with the Department for Education. I have taken it up—I believe he has too—with the Universities Minister, and I hope to have an answer for him soon. He gave me until early next week, and I intend to keep to that.

My Lords, the Minister has certainly got into the real hot seat of the Government, and I wish him well. I do not like to be churlish, because he has not been in the job a long time, but a number of things are quite puzzling. I have written to him about a family, a mother and a child, who have made five separate applications to get here, yet nothing seems to be happening. The bureaucracy is still there, and it is delaying people. We are a laughing stock. One has only to switch on the news; every day there are families complaining that they cannot get here. It is embarrassing for us all.

One other thing: the Minister says he does not know the number of arrivals. That seems to contrast with the almost daily tally of people who have arrived illegally on boats. We seem to know exactly how many have arrived day by day, yet we do not know how many there are when they come under an official scheme. We need to be given confidence that something is working.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and I hope he knows that I have the utmost respect for him. I worked with him on the Syrian refugee programme. He disagreed with me a lot then, but we had a very proper and positive dialogue. I think he also knows that it is always my hope and attempt to do what he asks me to do, because that is the kind of person he is—and, I hope, the kind of person I am. What he said about the five applications is totally unacceptable. I apologise if he has not had an answer. I personally have not seen his letter, but before I go home today I will make sure that I have and will report to him on that.

I take a little—I want to be tactful and not say “offence”; I do not say that at all—disagreement with what he said about us being a laughing stock. With our family scheme and our Homes for Ukraine scheme, more than 20,000 people have gone through the system. I assure him and noble Lords that this is not complacency. The figure is more than 3,000; the scheme started days ago. I will be held to account at this Dispatch Box, but I think it is too early to do so.

My Lords, before we move on to the second UQ, I urge noble Lords to keep their questions very succinct and short—ideally just one question, possibly two—then hopefully my noble friend will be able to keep his answers short as well. The more Peers who can get in on this important subject, the better.

My Lords, the Minister answering read the whole Statement, which is quite proper, but it took up half the time. Surely that should not eat into our time.

Could I possibly put the noble Lord right? The Clock started from nought after the Statement was read, so there was a full 10 minutes after the Statement was read.

I assure the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, that I would much rather have the Statement taken as read. I was told that, because it was delivered today, that is not possible. I will try to read quickly before the 10 minutes starts.