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Homes for Ukraine: Visa Application Centres

Volume 821: debated on Thursday 28 April 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 in the other place from my honourable friend Kevin Foster, the Minister for Safe and Legal Migration. The Statement is as follows:

“The whole country is united in horror at Putin’s grotesque war, and we stand with the Ukrainian people.

We are delighted that so many British people have already put forward generous offers of help to displaced Ukrainians. Nearly 90,000 visas have been issued so that people can rebuild their lives in the UK through the Ukraine family scheme and Homes for Ukraine. Our visa application centre footprint in Europe has traditionally been small, in line with demand. This is because EU nationals had freedom of movement and, post Brexit, EU nationals do not need visas to visit the UK, with applications from EEA nationals for skilled worker and student visas able to be done from home via our fully digital application route.

As the Ukrainian crisis escalated, we increased our appointment capacity across Europe. We have gone from offering some 2,000 appointments a week in Europe to 13,500 appointments. Within days, we established a new VAC in Lviv, and we kept our VAC running in Kyiv right up until the Russian attack was launched. We also established a new application point near the Polish border with Ukraine. We were able to offer walk-ins and on-the-day appointments to all customers wishing to apply for the initial family concession route and fulfil all appointments when they were required.

I am pleased to advise the House that VAC appointments are readily available in all locations across Europe and, in the majority of locations, are available on the same day for customers looking to book a slot. As we have said throughout, we will continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with the people of Ukraine.”

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that, but why, despite the Minister’s best efforts, is a bureaucratic nightmare the reality for many Ukrainians fleeing war? The most alarming thing is that the people bearing the brunt of the Home Secretary’s failures are young children. Babies, young children and their families fleeing war are forced to travel hundreds of miles across Europe to get biometrics done. The problem has been reported for weeks, and we have already raised it in the Chamber, so what is being done about it? Apparently, even once a visa approved, the Home Office is failing to tell people that they are finally welcome in the UK. Why is it that 71,000 visas have been approved but that, so far, only 21,600 people have arrived here safely? I know that the Minister knows this and is working hard on it, but it needs fixing urgently.

I thank the noble Lord for his response. His first question was why young children need to have their biometrics done, and he said that it could mean they have to travel a long way to do it. The reason why they have to have their biometrics done, and the reason why all this procedure takes place, is simply to make sure that they are indeed the children of the parent they are with. I have visited a VAC, having taken notice of what the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, said—as I always do and as indeed I did when he was in the other place—because it is very serious. It is about as light-touch as is imaginable. For example, I saw a young child whose only form of identification to show that she was indeed the child of that mother was a letter from the doctor who delivered the child in Ukraine. That was acceptable, as are birth certificates. There is not a very high level of proof, but we just have to make sure because of our information about traffickers of young children. I know that the noble Lord would sympathise with that.

The noble Lord’s second question was, why do we not tell people when they have got the visa? There have been delays, and I am now assured that that is not the case. I am sure that the noble Lord will have me here at this very Dispatch Box if he has reports to the contrary, but he knows he could tell me that personally beforehand.

Finally, the noble Lord asked why there are so few arrivals compared to the total amount of visas. This has been perplexing me. The main reason for my recent visit to Poland was to try to find out why it has happened. There are a number of reasons, and I have commissioned some professional research on it given the number of people who have got visas compared to the number coming, so I can give the noble Lord only my opinion based on what I saw. I think that there are two reasons. One of them is that it has taken too long for people to get the visas from the time of their application—I accept that and have done my best to make sure that it is not the case, and we are now at “friction”, which means that the target of 48 hours should in the vast majority of cases be met.

The second reason—again, this is not research or a systematic poll or anything like that; it is from speaking to people involved—is that many of the refugees take our visas out in case the worst happens beyond now, but, for the moment, a lot of them believe that they can go back and live in their country, and they wish to stay as close as possible. I have had quite a few moving experiences in Syria and other places, but seeing young women speaking on mobile phones to their husbands and fathers who are fighting in live time—which I know can obviously be done with technology—I can imagine why they want to stay as near as possible. I am working on this, and I intend to make sure that the system is simplified and that we have people helping people through the procedure. If necessary, we will move on to helping them with flights and with everything in the process.

My Lords, a brief answer from the Minister would be appreciated. Initially, the Home Office said that Ukrainian refugees had to have a visa because of concerns that Russian agents would pretend to be refugees. The Home Office then changed its mind and said that Ukrainian refugees had to have a visa because of concerns, as the Minister has said, about trafficking. Yet, all other European nations have accepted Ukrainian refugees visa free because the Ukrainians put systems in place to protect vulnerable people, and so did the countries receiving them. A Home Office whistleblower told the Guardian on Saturday that the system was “designed to fail”. Is that not nearer the truth?

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, for his comments and will try to be as brief as he wants me to be. On the reasons for the visas, I do not recognise the one about the infiltration of secret agents. I do, however, recognise the point about safeguarding, trafficking and so on. I hope that the noble Lord knows that I have done my best to ensure that this procedure is carried out as quickly as possible, but I make no excuses for our trying to identify that people who come here are who they say they are before they arrive. This is very important.

I do not accept what the whistleblower has said in the Guardian. I would like them to come and speak to me, and I would be very happy to go through it with them—that is how I run my whole ministry. I do not recognise that point.

My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. I endorse the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Paddick: as many people as possible want to get in on this, and I will be very brief indeed. Will the Minister please ensure that local authorities respect Section 149 of the Equality Act and enforce their obligations under the public sector equality duty in order to ensure that Ukrainians are not discriminated against as they resettle here?

I can assure the noble Baroness that I will ensure that there is no discrimination at all in the way Ukrainians settle here. I will write to her on the specific point regarding of the Act of Parliament she mentioned.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for the online briefing he has been giving to parliamentarians, and would like an assurance that this will continue because it helps to answer our questions. The visa process has been slow, if robust, and I am interested to hear the total numbers we are planning for.

I thank my noble friend for that question. Yes, I am continuing the online briefings. I have tried to have some online and some face to face; I do a weekly one for MPs. Today, I am circulating a programme right through to the Summer Recess, hopefully, for when these facilities are available. On the second point, I can do nothing but agree with my noble friend.

Can the Minister confirm that there are no problems regarding children who are due to come here but who have been delayed because of a lack of visas? Sometimes, families are being split up; some family members are getting visas and others are not. There is a distressing story of a 17 year-old girl who is stuck and vulnerable; her mother wants her to come here but she cannot come with her. Her family is waiting for her, but nothing is happening.

I can confirm to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, that I have looked at every single individual case and hope that the cases to which he referred will be cleared up very quickly—in the next one or two days.

My Lords, from my own visit to Vilnius and the centre where 1,000 people are arriving every single day, I can confirm what the Minister has said about the desire of many to stay within the region in the hope that they will be able to return as quickly as possible to Ukraine. I raised with the Minister the specific example of a small British charity working in the Ukrainian-speaking area in Romania which does not qualify for the Disasters Emergency Committee funding because it is a small charity and not part of DEC. Surely, we should be doing more to assist charities like the one I have raised with the Minister to enable people to stay for as long as possible where they are, if that is their desire, and recognise that their visas may well indeed just be an insurance policy in case things do not work out.

I agree entirely with the noble Lord. I have pressed the FCDO, which is responsible for our on-ground response there, to make sure that this work is done. I am also commissioning a particular piece of work to help unaccompanied children, because I feel it is very important.

My Lords, it is several weeks since I raised with my noble friend the letter sent by a group of rectors and vice-rectors of universities. Can he tell me how many academics have now been issued with visas under this scheme, which is sponsored at this end by Universities UK?

I am afraid I cannot give my noble friend the answer I wanted to because, ironically, I was due to have a meeting with the Minister at the DfE at 11 am today to discuss that when this Urgent Question came about. However, I will make sure that he has a Written Answer to that question.