Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the needs of mothers and dependent children arriving from Ukraine as refugees, particularly regarding their (1) welfare, (2) subsistence, (3) safety, (3) health, (4) schooling, and (5) path towards self-reliance.
My Lords, I declare my interests as chairman of the Loomba Foundation and vice-president of Barnardo’s.
I have dedicated much of the last 20 years to raising the plight of widows internationally through the work of the Loomba Foundation. In the course of this work, we have built up considerable expertise on the issues faced by women who suddenly, through no fault of their own, find themselves alone in the world, responsible for the welfare and upbringing of their children. We know that the problems facing these women are not only about money and material welfare but about trauma and isolation, not knowing where to turn, vulnerability and risk. We know how war and conflict magnify these problems by putting more people in that position, suddenly and in large numbers. This has happened again with Russia’s violent and unwarranted invasion of its neighbour.
Not all the refugees who have settled here from Ukraine are widows, although around half are mothers who have managed to flee alone with their children and their dependants—these families make up the majority. We hope that many of them will one day be reunited with the husbands and fathers who have stayed behind to defend their country, but today these women are experiencing the same issues as conflict widows the world over.
I commend the Government on the progress made in the last three months and I welcome the arrangements that have been put in place, such as the national helpline and welcome pack. Now that some 87,000 refugees have arrived from Ukraine, it is right to ask the Government what assessment they have made of the needs of mothers and dependent children in a number of areas.
As regards the welfare of refugee families, Barnardo’s reports that requests for food vouchers are increasing; it has given out 370 food vouchers in the last three months. It also reports poor access to technology such as phones and tablets, leading to digital exclusion. As far as subsistence is concerned, the recent ONS survey suggests that only one in four refugees has enough money to support themselves and their dependants for three months.
On the question of safety, Barnardo’s is reporting about two safeguarding issues every week, mostly related to homelessness or being threatened or bullied by hosts. There are also issues arising from the Government’s welcome decision to allow eligible children and minors under 18 to come to the UK without a parent or guardian. We know that local government leaders have expressed concerns about the potential for children to come and stay with adults they may not know well. This calls for appropriate vetting and the right range of support services, including ongoing checks of children’s safety and well-being. What have the Government done to address this?
With regard to health, we know many families are affected by complex trauma requiring professional support. Families in hotels say the food they are offered is not meeting their diet and health needs, and health professionals have reported that children have lost weight.
On schooling, Barnardo’s has seen instances of children’s applications to school being rejected because of fear of disruption. Will the Minister look seriously at the call from Barnardo’s for funding to support rolling out the ICAM programme to support children affected by migration?
Finally, with regard to the path to self-reliance, many Ukrainians are educated to degree or professional level but are struggling to find work because their qualifications are not recognised. Will the Government look at this as a matter of urgency?
Last month, on 23 June, which is celebrated every year as International Widows Day by the United Nations, the Loomba Foundation and Barnardo’s announced a scheme to help 1,000 Ukrainian families in the UK with their immediate practical needs, by giving them vouchers that can be redeemed in Barnardo’s shops to purchase such essentials as toys, nappies and clothes. So we are playing our part as best we can, but it is only the Government who can connect the dots and ensure that the inevitable gaps are plugged.
It is on this basis that I ask the Government to help identify where things could be better and to redouble their efforts with all concerned to make improvements. The central concern I raise is whether we are doing enough to look at problems that lie ahead. As the Government have frequently reminded us, this conflict may continue for years and we are in it for the long haul. Some of our host families are now one-third of the way into the hosting period to which they have committed, and an unknown number may not be able to continue beyond that. Cases of relationship breakdown between host and refugee families are likely to increase when the original commitment period comes to an end. The Liaison Committee in the other place heard yesterday that 660 Ukrainian households in this country are now homeless. Some host families are asked to make longer commitments of up to three years for refugee families with children, but the responsibility ceases when a child reaches the age of 18, and it is not clear what support is available for them at that point.
If families are moved on, whether at the end of the six-month commitment period or later, it is essential that continuity of childcare and schooling, employment and language support services is fully considered before they are relocated. We rely on local authorities to provide the safety net when things go wrong, but are the resources made available sufficient to address sudden rehousing needs when we already have Syrian and Afghan families accommodated in hotels?
In summary, the Government and local authorities are to be commended on the great efforts made to support Ukrainian refugee families, but we must be alert to the gaps and prepared for what comes next. I hope therefore that the Government will address our concerns in the areas I have outlined.
My Lords, I think we are all extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, not just for introducing this debate in the way he has—with a sense of gentle urgency and uncritically but searchingly, if I can put it that way—but for much more than that. He has created a foundation and given practical help to many people over many years, and we are all, at least vicariously, in debt to him for what he has done. We wish him every possible success in his continued efforts.
It is now five months since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, and there has scarcely been a day when our newspapers and television screens have not been defaced by terrible pictures of horrible suffering and appalling destruction. Like the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, I fear that we are in for a very long haul. What on earth will all this cost to rebuild? Although we have rightly emphasised people in our publicity, we have to remember that many of their iconic buildings have been destroyed; the civilisation of which they are an important part in Europe, particularly their Christian heritage, has been damaged, in some cases beyond repair; and the cost of this, in which we must all share—both with our personal generosity, in so far as we can, and nationally —will be a prodigious sum. We must not just delude ourselves by saying, “We will make the Russians pay”, because that is very easy to say but to translate it into action is another thing entirely.
I have been troubled by a number of items on “Look North”, the evening news that follows the 6 pm news in my part of the world. I do not want to overemphasise them, because there have been many accounts of people showing real bravery, genuine concern, true hospitality and generosity, but there have been stories of families who have gone into woefully inadequate houses—filthy and not welcoming. There was one particular graphic story some months ago of a young woman, with her two children, who was weeping on the television and had been able to take some film of the habitation. I greatly welcome, as he knows, the appointment of my noble friend as Minister for Refugees, but I would be grateful if he could say something about how untypical this is. I stress that it is untypical, and we must not get it out of perspective or proportion. Nevertheless, if one mother with her children, fleeing for safety, is confronted with squalor, it is one too many. I would like to know how the figures are stacking up at the moment.
The noble Lord, Lord Loomba, talked about people finding it difficult to make ends meet. We all know that we are going through a real cost of living crisis and that Ukraine is a contributory factor. Several times a week, there are references in the Chamber to the great quantities of grain that cannot be transported across the Black Sea and taken to people in some of the poorest countries in the world. However, if those who are coming to our country are not being adequately supplied with what they need, I hope my noble friend the Minister, who I know is a man of great sensitivity and understanding, will tell us what is being done to try to bridge those gaps—because gaps there clearly are.
The noble Lord, Lord Loomba, referred to some of the problems of safeguarding and of people who exploit the young and frail, particularly children. We all know—we have read the stories—about single, middle-aged men being anxious to take in young Ukrainian women. I do not ask for a precise figure, but I ask my noble friend how many examples there are of that and how typical it is. I hope it is very untypical.
We have had some very good stories about schools. I know that in my own county, Lincolnshire, and others, young Ukrainian children without a smattering of English are being absorbed into school communities and made very welcome and looked after, in a moving and proper way. How typical is this? Have there been many problems reported?
Although it strays slightly beyond the debate and the scope of the Question from the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, I declare a particular interest, in that my son is much involved in a project for twinning universities. The Government have been extremely helpful on this. The noble Lord, Lord Loomba, referred to young people with qualifications being able to use them, so I want to know how my noble friend the Minister and the Government see this prospect. I know that it was referred to at the G7 and that there is much hope for it. It is so important that, at a time of destruction and desolation, those in the very fine Ukrainian universities feel more than adequately helped by our country and our universities. There are some remarkable examples of thoughtful generosity in that regard. This is so important if we are, as the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, mentioned—and he is right—in for a very long haul.
We have to be realistic about how this will end, and I am just a little concerned here. It is right that we should be supplying armaments and other things, but there have been disturbing reports of our own stock of arms being significantly reduced in consequence. It is important that we are realistic when we talk about aims. The borders that existed on 24 February must be maintained because, without them, in a sense we are all defeated. However, we have to be very cautious in talking about regaining the Crimea and so on. That is important, especially if this drags on for two, three or four years—I hope it does not, but it could.
I wind up by saying again that I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, not just for introducing the debate in the calm and measured way he did but for what he and his foundation have done. It is an exemplary attitude on his part and one from which we can all derive proper inspiration. I hope that when my noble friend the Minister winds up, he will be able to give us some encouraging numbers and facts.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. I frequently find myself in agreement with him and that is no less true today. I add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, for bringing this debate to Grand Committee. I also pay tribute to the fantastic work that the Loomba Foundation carries out on behalf of widows. I know the noble Lord has a very personal affinity with women who have been widowed. It is wonderful to see that care and practical knowledge of the hardships that widows and children in particular face addressed in such a practical way.
I am going to talk about Ukrainian family refugees from a very personal point of view. I have the privilege—I can honestly say that—of hosting two families, one of which arrived in April and the other just a few weeks ago. Their gratitude has been very touching. In a practical way, they are very grateful for the help they have received and they do not ask for anything, but it is clear to me that they have needs that the Homes for Ukraine scheme, generous as it is, does not meet. Maybe we could do things differently and improve on them a bit.
I will start by talking about the application process, which the Minister and I have exchanged views on before—very amicably. I wonder whether the application process is now a little easier. We know that the application forms for people who are still in Ukraine or those who have left and are in Poland and other countries are quite a challenge to fill in, not least because they are in English. I think there was some misunderstanding about this. The guidance notes have a drop-down option for Ukrainian and Russian. However, when you click on the pages for the application forms, they remain solely in English—and it is quite technical English. Having to navigate those pages with Google Translate, with two small children and a dog to look after, and an intermittent or failing internet connection in a hotel room, is really unacceptable, especially as, if you are in the middle of a page and the internet fails, you lose the page and have to start all over again.
The application has to be carried out for each individual; you cannot do a group or family application. I know that we have had some questions about that because the Minister and I have exchanged some views on it. One of my families had application forms and they were split; the child was granted an application and the mother was not. There is no way that a mother is going to be able to take advantage of a visa for her children unless she can accompany them. The girl in question is aged two at the moment—three next week.
In response to a question on 31 March, the Minister apologised and said that when he had claimed that the forms were in Ukrainian, in fact that was not the case. It may be easiest if I quote from Hansard. He said:
“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.”
What was in train was making sure the application forms could be accessed in Ukrainian or Russian. He finished by saying:
“I am very happy to contact her separately with a progress report on that.”—[Official Report, 31/3/22; col. 1775.]
So far, there has not been a progress report. It is really important that we get this right. The noble Lords, Lord Cormack and Lord Loomba, both talked about us being in this now for the long term. The people needing help, refuge and sanctuary will become only a greater imperative, so I hope that we can make this part of the process a little easier and less stressful.
The option saying that the English sponsor can take on this role, and that you can fill out the forms in English on the part of your guest, is just not acceptable. I did not know my family beforehand; the hosts and the family often do not know each other. You are asking for an exchange of personal details with strangers. It is one thing once they arrive and you meet them face to face. Immediately, a social worker is in contact and that is a very different situation. But to expect such an exchange of intimate details at such an early stage is just not acceptable. Anyway, for a lot of the English sponsors the form is quite difficult to fill in. To upload the documents, et cetera, is really quite a process; I hope we can do something about that.
I am going to move on quickly and talk about the money at the start. While £200 per individual is really welcome, it is just not enough. As I understand it, it is for “immediate costs”, which implies for the first week or two, or maybe even the first month. The fact is that even three months down the line, claims for universal credit still have not happened and that is the next source of their own income. The last thing they want to do when they are so full of gratitude is to admit that they need help with immediate costs such as food.
I took the family straight to a supermarket—I said, “Lidl or Tesco?”. They are professional people. She is a qualified accountant in Ukraine and I think they really felt they could stand on their own feet. But on the first visit to Tesco, when they looked at the prices in the shop they were horrified. They left without buying anything; it broke my heart. They actually bought just one essential carton of lactose-free milk for the son. They knew that they had to make their money last and stretch, and they needed to find out what other options were available before they could do that.
Regarding the £200, can we look at whether we can get that universal credit and access to jobs in place sooner? It would be really helpful. They want to work, in spite of all the stresses involved in not having any back-up support for childcare without the family and friends network that they are used to in Ukraine. They are really willing to work, but that would really help.
Before you can apply to the jobcentre you need a national insurance number, and before you can have that you need a bank account. Before you can have a bank account, you need a UK telephone number. These are significant steps, each requiring quite a lot of process and application, with waiting periods in between. The way the system is set up, they cannot stand on their own two feet as soon as they would like to.
Food banks have been a lifeline for them. They do not like to ask me for things. They had a full fridge and some basic items when they arrived, but they have found food banks a lifeline and I have to say that food banks have really stepped up to the mark. I hope the Government are providing help and support there, particularly for food banks that are getting waste food from supermarkets delivered to them so that there is fresh food and not just tins of beans and bottles of ketchup. They can get real food from food banks and those food banks need support.
On jobs, I have already mentioned the care duties. Signing on at the jobcentre is becoming quite a big thing among the Ukrainian refugee families, because their experience has been that jobcentres want too much, too quickly. They want them available for work all the time, yet they have children to look after and grandma to look after. They have children in school, which is great, but they are under stress, things are going wrong all the time—hospital visits, doctors’ visits, et cetera. She cannot hold down a job, much as she would like to, yet they also have financial pressures. My family, with the best will in the world, has not yet been able to access universal credit.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, for his absolutely outstanding work and, as part of that, for communicating and engaging with us today by securing this debate. It is hugely appreciated and I am glad that noble Lords from both sides have paid tribute to the work he has done. It is also humbling to speak in this debate when one has just heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, about her experiences. I hope she will forgive me if I echo some of the comments she made and the reflections she has given us to consider today, because they are important and I hope the Minister responds to them.
In speaking in this debate, I should declare my interest. I am chair of the board of governors of the Haberdashers’ Monmouth Schools, and we welcomed a boy recently to Monmouth School for Boys and are caring for him as the male members of his family continue fighting in Ukraine. Similarly, we look forward to welcoming a young Ukrainian student at Monmouth School for Girls this September. Both have appropriate bursaries. But it is a case study.
I turn to a case study of a family I know well: the head of the family is a colleague who is an outstanding energy expert. In conversation with her, she has come forward with a number of reflections that I think are worthy of consideration by the Government, some of which have been made already, more eloquently than I will, by the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan.
To set the scene, the host family offered to sponsor a family of four: a grandmother aged 60, a mother aged 37, a son aged seven and a son aged 15. They left Sumy via one of the humanitarian corridors two weeks after the conflict started and were picked up from Warsaw station by a Polish family who gave them accommodation in their home around the middle of March. Russian troops continue to terrorise the Sumy region, and the family’s concern about family and friends there continues to this day. My colleague found the family through a Polish contact at PA Consulting, where she is a partner.
For background, the Ukrainian family attended the British visa office in Warsaw on 27 March, with the host family’s sponsorship forms completed—not without difficulty, as was noted by the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan. A month later, on 25 April, the host family contacted their MP via email to ask for assistance. I have to tell the Minister that the Home Office contact number given for assistance is more or less useless, as those answering are unable to advise on specific cases.
The family received an acknowledgement and update from their MP on the same day, advising that the grandmother’s application was approved on 25 April and the mother’s on 13 April, but that the children’s application would take longer as they were travelling independently of their parents. That comes to the critical point of recognising the importance of a family as a unit in this process.
The host family clarified the situation with the mother—understandably, this caused her a great deal of distress—and responded to their MP on 26 April, confirming that the children were her biological children. Once again, the Home Office helpline was unable to take any information and/or discuss any particulars, so the Ukrainian family had to attend the visa office in Warsaw and resubmit their information. The Home Office took some 14 days to respond to the MP’s subsequent inquiry on their behalf.
Another month passed. On or around 25 May, the Ukrainian family was called to the embassy to get their visas. The host family booked their flights and they arrived at Luton on 31 May, more than 60 days after their application process was started. The initial entry visa is for six months, and a subsequent visit to the Home Office is required to gain a British residency permit. They had used their savings to live in Poland and arrived in the UK with no financial means. Since arrival, they have attended the Croydon Home Office department to gain their British residency permit. One for the grandmother has been received so far, allowing her to remain until 31 December 2024. Again, they have not been treated as a family.
Let us look at the support on arrival in the UK. The host family is resident in East Sussex, which has thus far provided a free laptop and found places for both children relatively quickly at local schools, on which it should be congratulated; it is an essential step, and the family is very grateful. But it has not yet received the £200 initial payment, or the host family its £350.
As the noble Baroness just said, to apply for universal credit the family needs bank accounts; this is the guidance provided by East Sussex County Council. The host family applied to NatWest on 7 June to open two accounts, one in the name of the mother and one in the name of the grandmother. All relevant forms were completed in the NatWest branch in Tunbridge Wells, which advised that the bank account would be opened in five to 10 working days.
On 21 June the host family contacted the NatWest customer service centre to ask NatWest to contact them, because they had not yet received confirmation that the bank accounts were opened. The manager returned their call on the following day, advising that she had not been in the branch and would make inquiries and come back. No response was received. After several chasing emails, the host family spoke to their own premier banking lead, who chased his colleague, who then rang to say that the account approval had not gone through as they had pages missing from the application or had not provided passport information. In such circumstances, it is perfectly possible that the passports were not internationally recognised, but they were sufficient to enter the UK. In this case the banking system was not capable of addressing or dealing with that, so the host family provided the passport information again on 30 June.
There is no way of making contact with the bank directly other than via email, and to this day the host family has not had a response save to hear that staff are too busy dealing with branch matters. These customers should surely be a priority, and the host family is at a loss as to who to speak to next. This reflects very badly on NatWest. Surely, along with so many other organisations and businesses, it should recognise the priority that needs to be attached to Ukrainian refugees.
The family arrived on 31 May but has not had one penny of financial support to date. Under current rules, universal credit will not be backdated. There is an important point about UK sponsoring families needing to use substantial personal means to support Ukrainian refugees for at least three months after arrival if the experience of the host family is typical. I ask the Minister to look at this. It is very important to reflect on how the Government can provide the substantial means to support those Ukrainian families and to consider doing so for, say, three months.
Finally, I want to mention the experience of some other local families who have taken in Ukrainian refugees. Families who have successfully received universal credit are required to attend jobcentres in the local area, at least once a month, to be available for work. East Sussex is a rural and geographically spread area. Single mothers have been asked to attend jobcentres in Bexhill and/or Haywards Heath, some 30 or so miles from where they live, noting that the nearest available jobcentres are, in fact, in Kent. With no financial means, beginning to learn some English only gradually and with only a rural bus service, this is nearly impossible for them to do independently. This is causing much stress and anxiety, and in some cases has deterred families from seeking universal credit. I ask the Minister whether consideration could be given to staying the requirement for up to three months to allow them to gain some independence and financial collateral.
I always try to finish on a positive, and they have received free bus passes from Brighton and Hove for one month, but they have to get to Brighton in person to receive them. They also have free use of Freedom leisure centres for three months, which is a very good thing from my perspective on life.
I hope my noble friend the Minister takes this speech as constructive. Perhaps he will allow me to add names to this case study, in writing to him. I ask him to respond positively and swiftly on some of the key policy issues that I have touched on and are behind this. In doing so, I thank my noble friends and colleagues from both sides of this Committee for listening. It has been a privilege and pleasure to hear the three speakers so far. I am sad that I have not been able to match their knowledge and experience or the outstanding work they have all done in this sector.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, and I join the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, and others in paying tribute to the work of his foundation’s global campaign to eradicate discrimination against widows, following the way his mother was treated after the tragic death of his father.
I also pay tribute to my noble friend Lady Sheehan for hosting Ukrainian families. The fact is that the majority of those arriving in the UK from Ukraine have been women, as men have stayed behind in Ukraine to fight. Many of these women are mothers with dependent children.
My primary concern is with these refugees being made homeless, which will affect their welfare, safety, schooling and path towards self-reliance. Although the majority of these refugees came to the UK hoping that their stay would be only temporary, the war shows no sign of ending and the conditions that would enable them to safely return to Ukraine show no sign of coming about in the foreseeable future, as other noble Lords have said.
Concerns about homelessness are twofold. The first is where the relationship with the sponsoring household, which initially agreed to provide shelter to Ukrainian refugees, has broken down, whether they are family members or those with no previous relationship with the refugees. I have seen stories in the media of relatives who have agreed to host Ukrainian refugees, but even that relationship has broken down.
The second is what will happen when the six-month commitment for sponsoring households under the Homes for Ukraine scheme comes to an end. No doubt the Minister will say that many refugees, if not the majority, are happily integrated with their sponsor families, as we heard from my noble friend Lady Sheehan, and that these sponsoring families have been vetted and can claim universal credit. But, as we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, there is a problem with universal credit: it has to be paid into a bank account. To get a bank account, you need a national insurance number and to prove that you are in the UK lawfully. You can see how difficult it must be for people to get to the point where they are paid universal credit. Yes, they have access to the NHS and to local schools. The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, paid tribute to his local authority for placing refugee children in local schools.
In going to claim universal credit, they are being given help into work, but we have again heard about the difficulties around that, including difficulty getting to the jobcentre. Many of these refugees have degrees or postgraduate qualifications, yet some of their experience is that the jobcentres just want to put them into whatever job is available, including perhaps jobs on extremely low pay that nobody else wants to do, which is very difficult for them.
In addition to the concerns that other noble Lords have expressed, on 27 June CNN reported that 660 Ukrainian households had sought homelessness assistance from local authorities between 24 February and 3 June, although a quarter of local authorities have yet to provide any data. A translator working for a local authority called one single woman and said, “You have nowhere to live; they are evicting you tonight”. She turned down a place at a homeless hostel because of fears for her safety. After fleeing war, arriving in a foreign country as a woman on your own and then being offered a place in a homeless hostel is not ideal.
Although councils have access to a rematching system allowing people in situations where the relationship has broken down to be matched with another sponsoring family, charities claim that the facility came late and remains inconsistent and difficult to access. Half of those who sought homelessness assistance are now in temporary accommodation. These refugees are already traumatised and fearful. Another refugee who suffered days of bombardment and a terrifying close encounter with a group of armed Russian soldiers in her home said that her experience in the UK was worse. She is reported as saying:
“It upset me so much that I felt I was going through more stress right now, when I understood I had to pack my bags, than I did in my basement in [Ukraine].”
Can the Minister explain what support local authorities have been provided with to help those suffering such trauma? Why is no coherent rematching scheme in operation?
UK hosts were asked to commit to hosting Ukrainian refugees for only six months. What arrangements do the Government have in place for September when that initial commitment ends? Byline Times on 5 July reported concerns that there is little understanding of the trauma that families have been through or the worries about relatives left behind. What arrangements are the Government putting in place for when the £350-per-month payments to hosting families end after 12 months?
What plans do they have to take account of the increase to the cost of living, predicted to be in excess of 10%, on host families and refugees, particularly those unable to access universal credit? My understanding is that the £200 that my noble friend Lady Sheehan referred to is an initial payment that each refugee receives on arrival to tide them over and enable them to get essential items before universal credit kicks in. Are there any plans to increase that in line with inflation? Can the Minister also confirm that benefit recipients will benefit from the increase in line with inflation that is rumoured to happen later this year?
Many refugees are apparently concerned that the Government will not take responsibility if increasing numbers of Ukrainians become homeless either because a rift develops between them and their host family or because the host can no longer afford to keep them. What can the Minister say to reassure Ukrainian refugees, particularly mothers with dependent children?
My Lords, first, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, for asking this question and for his work with the Loomba Foundation supporting widows. We have heard some very powerful contributions this afternoon. The invasion of Ukraine is an unprovoked and unjustifiable attack, which is having tragic consequences around the world, none more so than for the people of Ukraine. As a result, mothers and their children have resorted to fleeing their homes and, inside and outside Ukraine, there are now millions who need urgent help to reach a place of safety. In addition to safe passage, mothers and their children need support, in the immediate sense and in the long term, to resettle.
Families across Britain have been offering space in their homes to many of those fleeing Ukraine, reflecting the UK’s tradition of giving sanctuary to those fleeing war in Europe, but many are being held back by an inefficient Government who have failed to get a grip of this crisis and speed up the process. This is why the Government must urgently address the bureaucracy and provide greater guidance for councils and charities, so that Ukrainian mothers and their children can find sanctuary.
Unfortunately, we are now beginning to see the effects of the Government’s mismanagement, with reports emerging that Ukrainians are presenting as homeless due to their sponsorship arrangement breaking down or because they arrived through other routes. We are all frustrated but not surprised to see placements start to break down. Expecting vulnerable, traumatised refugees to rely on the good will of strangers they have met on Facebook, TikTok or Twitter was always a risk. The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, commented on their experience of unwelcoming attitudes and inadequate housing. Hundreds of Ukrainian families have been left homeless in England after arriving on visas designed to secure them a place to live, official figures reveal. The noble Lord, Lord Loomba, commented, as did the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, on the 660 Ukrainian families with children who have applied to councils for help with homelessness.
Despite the Government insisting that the Homes for Ukraine scheme and family visa scheme would ensure that refugees had housing, both are leaving people struggling when arrangements break down. Many local authorities are treating Ukrainian families as homeless rather than attempting to rematch them with new hosts, leaving them in hostels and hotels, just as happened with Afghan refugees. Of the 145 failed Homes for Ukraine placements, only 20 were rematched with a new host. One refugee recently commented:
“We lost our home in Ukraine and when we came here we thought that we were safe, but actually we weren’t and we lost our home for a second time.”
The British people have shown amazing generosity in stepping up in their thousands to provide the care and sanctuary that these people, many of them families with young children, needed and deserved in such awful circumstances but the Government have failed miserably to play their part. Ministers were warned about the risk of refugees becoming homeless on the day they launched their sponsorship scheme, but they were more interested in grandstanding in television studios than in doing their jobs to protect vulnerable people. The Government must urgently set out a plan to support councils to find safe homes for these families. Currently, councils receive no data on, or funding for, people who are coming under the family visa scheme. Some of those families present as homeless once they have arrived, but we are asking that they should be all rematched with a sponsor under the Homes for Ukraine scheme. Urgent work is needed on how councils can work with government and the community, faith and voluntary sectors so that those offering their homes can be quickly matched with a family in need.
We have had some really powerful interventions, as I mentioned, none more so than the experience of the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, in hosting two families. We also heard from the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, about the process issues in relation to getting universal credit.
I have a few questions of my own in relation to data collection and communication when it comes to liaising with councils and how they are adopting and approaching this issue. I want to ask the Minister about the current state of affairs, about a functioning Government and the new Secretary of State for Levelling Up. What are the plans in relation to the transition to support these vulnerable people who are facing daily issues right now—not in a few weeks, a few months, or in October? In relation to councils’ funding and training, how are they supported? It is an unprecedented situation to see them dealing with this, with people arriving in panic and in emergency situations.
The noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, talked about the challenges of the application process. What feedback are we getting from users of the application process about how they are experiencing it? How are the Government attempting to make that process better and more efficient?
My final question is on PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder. As we are seeing families witnessing some horrific scenes because of the conflict, how are we supporting the well-being and mental health of the refugees? I look forward to hearing from the Minister.
My Lords, I thank everybody for their contributions, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Loomba. To put this in perspective for me—this is a personal statement, in a way—I started this job at the beginning of March. I agreed to do it for a limited period of time, the definition of “limited” being when the job is done. The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, has a smile on his face because I think he knows, as I do, that things tend to go on. I want to leave this job when it is generally felt that I have done what I can do.
I have spent four months with colleagues putting together a delivery team to do precisely that: to turn the Prime Minister’s promise of an uncapped refugee scheme into a delivery mechanism. I formally record my thanks to Michael Gove, now no longer the Secretary of State, for having the faith in me to do this job and for starting the whole sponsorship idea, which was loosely based on my experiences of dealing with Syrian refugees. It was done in a very limited way for Syrian refugees.
I state formally on the record that for personal reasons I have had the temptation to resign many times over the last few weeks, owing to well-documented activities culminating in what has happened over the last few days. I did not, however, because I believe the refugee job, with its responsibility for tens of thousands of people’s lives, is above all that.
What have we achieved? Please do not misunderstand me and think I mean all the comments in a positive way. I get concerned about everything I hear, but I go to bed at night thinking, “At least 90,000 people from Ukraine are safe in the UK, with a steady flow adding to that”. I do not say that in arrogance or to make out that any of the points made were wrong.
I met the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, for the first time only just before this debate; I am sorry that has not happened before. I offered to meet him next week, irrespective of what happened in the debate, but following his contribution I suggest that maybe we could have a meeting with Barnardo’s as well to discuss the points he specifically brought up. The organisation has not contacted me with those points, and I would be delighted to meet it formally. I am happy to meet the noble Lord informally, of course, as we arranged. The Pugin Room is fine for certain meetings, but we should sit down properly with Barnardo’s with our officials present.
I will go through some of the points the noble Lord brought up; they duplicate some of the other points, so I ask noble Lords to be patient with me. I am working closely with the DfE on qualifications. It has been brought to my attention, and I know there are ways. We are having to persuade professional bodies about qualifications in Ukraine, often in areas where we really need people—for example, nurses and professional people, as the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, said—so I am not oblivious to that, but I am afraid that efforts with professional bodies are rather slower than I would like them to be.
The noble Lord made quite a few points, and generally asked me to be alert to the different gaps in the system. It would perhaps help in my response to him and to some of the other comments made if I could go through the gaps that I perceive, remembering that we are all learning as we go.
The visa issue was mentioned by a few noble Lords, and the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, was very critical of the situation in his first interventions with me. I say that not critically; it is a question of fact. It was very difficult, as was said by various noble Lords, including my noble friends Lord Moynihan and Lord Cormack, that visas were taking far too long. I have made various undertakings to bring that down; I said I hoped to bring it down to 48 hours and within 14 days. I set that myself. We are not supposed to talk about targets because they are easy to shoot down if they are not achieved, but in my mind, and publicly, it was a target.
The visa system has changed. I do not know if any of your Lordships have seen it or tried it, but we now have an app-based system for visas, called AUK2; it is an automated system that eradicates the need to go to visa centres. For example, the biometric tests can now be done on phones. As to why it did not happen before, I am not a technical person but I can say that the system was not meant for this volume of people—it just was not. In the majority of cases now, people do not have to visit visa centres. I have tested this myself—I should say I have used people to test it—and, for non-complex cases, it takes sometimes two days, but certainly two to four days. That is far more acceptable than it was. Nevertheless, we can improve that.
I include my failure, despite my best intention, to comply with my undertakings to the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, on interpretation. It is very difficult, but we have improved the guidance on Russia and Ukraine. I accept her points, but I can only do what I can do. If the noble Baroness feels that I have let her down, I fully accept that criticism.
I would like to go on to positive things, but will address some of the negative things mentioned by noble Lords. Again, noble Lords should not misunderstand me; I take them in a positive way, and this is how we improve. Checks were mentioned by my noble friend Lord Cormack and others. What kinds of checks do we do? Why are families put into inadequate housing? He asked me for some numbers, and the number of unsuitable housing cases that have been reported to us is 55, on the question of sponsorship, and 280 in the case of family reunion. Our checks to find that out form part of what the local authority is paid for, at £10,500 per refugee. I am sorry; I keep looking at the clock—I will be as quick as I can, but I could go on about this kind of thing for hours. We have checks and balances within that system, but it sometimes fails. However, the scale of this is quite minor.
Homelessness is a big point that was brought up by many noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Khan and Lord Paddick. I am very conscious of it. The actual number of cases is now comparatively small, but significant in my working: there are approximately 600, split 400 and 200 between the sponsorship and family schemes. The whole emphasis is to keep these people away from the homelessness register. Every week, I meet with local authorities. Councillor Georgia Gould, of the same party as the noble Lord, Lord Khan, and I have a very good relationship. She is one of a group I meet to discuss precisely the problem of how we stop people getting on the homelessness list.
One way is to improve the rematching process that was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, and others. It is quite new. At the moment, the local authorities are doing it themselves, with our guidance, but I hope to expand that as the six months come to an end. The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, and every Member who contributed to this debate asked what happens after six months. That is very important, and a big part of it is rematching. We are at three months now but soon, at the four-month stage, we will be writing to people to say, “Thank you very much for agreeing to do this for six months. Would you like to continue?” Otherwise, we will have to do rematching, and we will make it as quick as we can.
There are other ways of dealing with the problems that particularly the noble Lord, Lord Khan, mentioned. On what we are actually doing to help local authorities, they all have problems with homelessness and everything like that. It is true to say that we cannot create properties that do not exist. I think even the noble Lord, Lord Khan, would accept that the Government’s many powers do not include those in the short term. The plan that we are working on is getting more people into the private rental sector. How do we do that? Quickly, we are looking at schemes to help them with the deposit so that they can do it and, moving on from that, with an advance of the rent, et cetera, to get them working. I am going as speedily as I can through all these different points.
Points were made about banking and were brought up again in quite a few of the contributions. I am pleased to say that a number of banks will accept Ukrainians without all the stuff they cannot do—the credit records, proof of address and all those things. Those are in the guidance provided to refugees. It is on the internet and they are given a physical, paper welcome pack. I am afraid I cannot remember what banks they are but a number of them will do this for Ukrainians.
On the question about universal credit and £200 not being enough, that is a problem and we are really trying to speed up on it. The lights are flashing but—
Thank you very much. Right, I have no excuse at all now. I am really not trying to get out of this at all; it is just that I have been going through things quickly to try to get it done in that time.
On jobs, if I could go back to the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, and her well-discussed point about process in the system, we are working on a system with DWP to get more trained people to help them. It is interesting that the first ONS survey of this cohort showed that more than 60% of those over 18 were already in work. I am meeting a lot of people who are in work—and so pleased to be, as we are so pleased to have them in work. There are problems with transport, however. The Brighton example was mentioned by my noble friend Lord Moynihan, but generally people have to get to the jobcentre for that.
I meet every week—well, I met Ministers every week to discuss this but I am afraid I cannot possibly tell your Lordships quite who it will be next week. Particularly, the department for employment has been very helpful on this.
Quickly going through the other matters, now that I have a bit of extra time, I am seeing what I have missed out in my canter through the whole thing. I probably skipped over the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, too much. It was, basically: what support are we giving to local authorities? He knows this very well but, to put it on the record again, it was a well-negotiated consensus view that £10,500 per refugee—not per family—would cover most of it. I meet so many local authorities now and some of the people cost hardly anything and some, of course, cost far more than £10,500. Basically, they are doing a pool system.
I have not had reports that it is not enough money. I have heard worries about our unaccompanied minors scheme and that it is not enough for them. Of course, we made provision for where children need extra care, be that through intense social services or, unfortunately, to be taken into care. A lot of extra money is available for that. I think we support the local authorities well. They are very articulate and vociferous in their weekly calls to me on that. Again, I hope everybody realises that there are no political points in this at all. Everyone is really trying to help collectively, particularly the local authorities.
Perhaps they were a bit tongue in cheek, but I will just respond to the final comments from the noble Lord, Lord Khan, about what difference the new Secretary of State for Levelling Up will make. He got the job only three or four hours ago, but I was very pleased that he did, for a number of reasons. Apart from the personal friendship between us, he was the Secretary of State when I did the Syrian programme and was excellent with it. The whole purpose for appointing me in the first place was so that I am ring-fenced to deal with this work, but I am very optimistic that what Greg Clark, the new Secretary of State, does will do nothing to impair or impinge on it. In fact, I hope he will improve on it.
The noble Lord asked how the councils are supported. I have dealt with various points to do with that. I ask noble Lords for any feedback they have from any councils—I also ask all the MPs this in my weekly call—as we really do try to learn on the ground.
On that point, would my noble friend the Minister be happy for me to populate my case study with the names and write to him accordingly, so that he could follow that up? Also, since the Minister mentioned his engagement with the banks and their commitments, if NatWest is on that list, could he make sure that it is aware that it is not being as effective as it committed to publicly? If it is not on the list, why not?
I wish I had that much influence with NatWest. I do not recall it being on the list, but TSB and Halifax are, for example. They are all quite well-known banks, but it is not just the big clearing ones. I would be delighted to hear any case studies, or indeed to meet personally with the refugees my noble friend knows, if he would like me to. Every week, I meet refugees and I find out a lot from it. I have found meeting MPs very helpful as well, because of course they meet constituents. I would be very happy to meet personally with my noble friend Lord Moynihan —I have not seen him since we were undergraduates together, but he will not remember that—or any of the refugees he mentioned. I would be very happy to bring them here to meet them and hear about their experiences.
I just want to confirm that NatWest is definitely in the scheme. It is the bank that my families are using; it is definitely in the scheme, and we were told that it takes 28 days to process those forms. The Vodafone scheme that is supposed to be helping Ukrainian refugees leaves much to be desired. There is lots of noise about its generosity but in fact those SIM cards, which are essential to setting up bank accounts and everything that follows from them, are not readily forthcoming.
I had heard of the Vodafone Foundation in the context the noble Baroness mentioned, with a lot of noise, et cetera. I am very happy to meet it. In fact, I had a meeting yesterday with someone who does a programme with Vodafone in other countries, but I will now ask to meet the Vodafone people directly, because its involvement is trumpeted—that is the correct word for Hansard.
I have missed the comments from the noble Lord, Lord Khan, on PTSD. At the moment, it has not become a problem. This could be because it is not being reported. It could be because people are keeping things inside, because they just got away from a traumatic situation. I suspect it is beneath the surface. At the refugee groups I talk to, you meet people who are beautifully spoken—perhaps a mother with young children. You could easily think on the surface that you were attending a kids’ playgroup like those you go to up and down the country, but when you get talking, you can see what is just under the surface. I thank the noble Lord for flagging this. At the moment, it is not a problem, but we are on alert, via the local authorities.
I must conclude; I have probably gone well over my time.
I have nothing but encouragement, as my noble friend knows, but they have not proceeded to the extent that I want. I had extensive conversations with the DfE about it, as he knows—who will be there next week, I could not tell him—but he is always on at me about it in a very positive and proper way. I am not oblivious to it.
In summary, if I may, I know that things are not perfect, I really do. Some people say that people criticise me all the time. Well, I am pursued around the House of Lords, particularly—and to a lesser extent by the House of Commons—by people with experiences, and I want to learn about them. Sponsorship is very difficult because, by nature, it is full of well-meaning people. Who would put their name down if they were not well-meaning, except, as has been brought up, when there may be a few really bad eggs? But most of those that have not worked out were not because of bad eggs, but because people did not really consider quite what it involved.
However, this is evolving. My real hope is that when it is done, instead of wrapping it up and burying it in the annals of civil service and governmental history, as happened with the Syrian scheme—it was completed and then moved off—that this becomes the way that we can deal with flows of refugees from all over the world, from whatever terrible disaster, which unfortunately happens all the time in our history. That is my hope and it all keeps me going, but I thank noble Lords for their contributions to this debate, all of which are gratefully received.
Committee adjourned at 3.46 pm.