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Homes for Ukraine Scheme

Volume 820: debated on Thursday 31 March 2022

Commons Urgent Question

I will do my best not to duplicate the previous Statement and to read as quickly as possible. I will not repeat that

“President Putin’s bloody invasion is a barbaric and unprovoked attack”—

I think everybody knows that:

“In this country there has been an outpouring of public support for the Ukrainian people. 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 conflict. Members of this House will know, since the Home Office opened and expanded the family scheme and DLUHC launched the Homes for Ukraine scheme with our colleagues, both schemes have received thousands of applications from people willing to open their hearts and their homes to a new guest.

We have balanced the need to move rapidly with the equal need to get the scheme right. On Friday 18 March the visa application process was opened, and we have already seen the first arrivals coming to the UK. We are minimising bureaucratic foot-dragging and cutting unnecessary red tape, while making sure that people are being set up in the best possible situation to start a new life in the UK, where they can access the right local services and support.

The scheme will be a success only if local and national government are working as one, and councils are being provided with £10,500 per guest to help with them all. We have been working with the Local Government Association and individual councils across the country to fine-tune the practicalities and logistics of the scheme. As the Levelling Up Secretary said, we will keep things under review to make sure that the Government have what they need and get what they need. We are working closely with the devolved Administrations. Four million Ukrainians have been displaced in this bloody and unjust war so far. We are responding to the gravity of this 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.”

My Lords, during the Statement in the other place, the Minister said that 200,000 people were interested in the Homes for Ukraine scheme, yet figures released confirm that just 2,700 visas have been granted so far under the scheme. It appears that Ukrainians are not sufficiently aware of its existence. So what are the Government doing both to raise awareness and to simplify the process as much as possible?

Secondly, the Local Government Association told the DLUHC committee yesterday that 144 Ukrainians refugees had presented as homeless. The Minister, Eddie Hughes, said the Government were going to investigate to ensure an understanding of what had led to this. But they urgently need housing, so can I ask the Minister what is actually being done to provide them with homes?

Finally, the Prime Minister has accepted that councils should have access to the database of sponsors so they can be responsible for matching up refugees with sponsors who want to house them. Can the Minister confirm that this is actually going to happen? What urgent guidance and support in this area are being given to councils so they can provide this much-needed support?

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, for her comments—again, very constructive and helpful. I will do my best to answer them as quickly as possible, owing to time. The first question was about how we are making Ukrainians aware of our schemes. The answer to that is that now, through our work with the Polish authorities, when people pass into Polish territory, they will download a QR code, and that will give them all the information about our scheme, which is translated into their languages. Secondly, we are providing leaflets in Ukrainian that are distributed widely through NGOs as well as by our own staff. We are very conscious of this, and the noble Baroness makes a valid point. We need to do more. But now we are basically sending a message to everybody through a phone messaging system.

The second question was on simplification of the process. I have spoken extensively about that. I will not repeat myself, but my whole being is to simplify this process as quickly as possible.

Thirdly, the noble Baroness asked about the implications for the 44 people who have been made homeless. This is not an excuse, but I should clarify that this is from the family programme, not the sponsor programme. It is the responsibility of local authorities to deal with them. It is not acceptable. Of course, they have the money to deal with homeless people, but they should not be homeless because they are on a family scheme.

The noble Baroness’s final point is to do with the guidance that local authorities receive. I am sure she is aware, but there is extensive guidance on the internet, and I have regularly met the main people at the LGA to try to brush up on this. I have had conversations with CEOs of councils and with the political leaders of all parties to try to hone this.

My Lords, yesterday the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, in response to the Statement on Ukraine, said that 2,700 visas had been granted to Ukrainian refugees. Can the Minister say whether that number refers to applications for the Homes for Ukraine scheme? My understanding is that people who do manage to navigate that application process are issued a reference number, not a visa, and then have to await an official letter of permission to travel to the UK, without which they cannot enter the UK. This is yet another example of putting paperwork before people. How many people have received that letter and, as a consequence, how many people have arrived in the UK?

I am happy to clarify the questions asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, which are, as usual, precise, to the point and perfectly valid. I should explain what happens with the Homes for Ukraine scheme. People apply when they get their security clearance—I do not want to give the impression that “security” is to do with spies; it is mainly to do with people trafficking, paedophilia and other things. At that stage they get an email back that grants their permission to come in. That is a PDF with permission to fly. That is for the 2,700.

My Lords, can the Minister say who is the official employed full-time to oversee the process? Will he arrange for him to attend the regular briefings organised by the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence, which no one from the Home Office or his own unit attends, in order to brief Members of both Houses? Can he also say whether he will look, as I did last week, at the way family units are being kept together in Lithuania when refugees arrive from Ukraine, and at whether we are doing the same here?

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for his question. I am certainly happy to do what he suggests with the family units; that is a very good point. On his first question, I apologise: I was thinking of the answer to his second question, but I will look it up and write to him. I do know the answer, but I was thinking of his second question.

My Lords, can I ask the Minister to check again his statement about all the families who are presenting as homeless coming on the family scheme? I should declare an interest as part of the LGA. My understanding is that about a third of those who have presented as homeless so far have come from that scheme. One of the obvious reasons for this is probably that the families they come to already live in houses in multiple occupation, and may not have enough room to accommodate more people.

My noble friend is right, and I will look at the number that he said. As I say, 44 was mentioned at the Home Affairs Select Committee. The family scheme does not stipulate, or attempt to stipulate, that the accommodation being offered is suitable. It is a family reunion scheme which, although it has greatly expanded, is based on one that tens of thousands of people from all over the world come in on every year. We have accelerated it for this and we have broadened the definition of “family” as much as we possibly can because of the desperate situation, but of course I will look into it.

My Lords, the Minister has said several times how helpful the Polish Government have been. That is really good, because the Polish Government have been infamous for bureaucracy in the past. I hope that they are not learning bureaucracy of biometrics from us, because they have more important things to do. Can the Minister explain how those few people who are getting here so far are being transported and who is paying for it, be it by rail, by road or by air? Are they getting free transport or are we making them pay?

I hope that I can answer the noble Lord’s question straightaway. On who pays for them, people are responsible for their own flights, but the operators, Wizz Air and others, are giving either free or very cheap flights. People whom I spoke to last week had paid £10 each. Once they get here, they receive free road, rail or other transport to get to their destination. That was announced last week by the Transport Secretary.

Will the Minister accept thanks for having finally clarified that the issue of security is not about catching spies but about dealing with people traffickers? Are we liaising in the most intense way possible with Europol, which I presume is also following this same process to try to stop any refugees falling into the hands of traffickers?

I can confirm what the noble Lord has asked about liaising with all the foreign agencies. I am glad to have picked up on our main security concerns. I think “security” is the wrong word. Obviously, national security is very important, but it as much security for the people who could be trafficked as it is security in a more general sense.

My Lords, further to the question from the noble Lord, Lord Alton, can my noble friend offer any advice to a family currently in Poland, a mother and two young daughters, where the daughters have been issued visas but the mother is still waiting? Without the mother having a visa, clearly they will not be able to travel to this country to take advantage of this scheme.

I thank my noble friend Lady Morgan for her question. If the mother in this case has a Ukrainian passport, it should be really easy for her to get a visa, by simply filling out the form and downloading it. If she does not have a passport, that could be why a visa has not been issued. For that, she would have to go to one of the VACs. I can assure her that the VACs would be very sympathetic and do everything they could to give permission. However, to give a more a detailed answer, I would have to know why she has not got her visa if she has uploaded a passport.