(Urgent Question): To ask the Home Secretary if she will make a statement about refugees from Ukraine.
I am grateful for this opportunity to update the House on the Government’s humanitarian response to Putin’s depraved war on Ukraine. As the House knows, the UK’s humanitarian support for Ukraine has been developed following close consultation with its Government and Governments in the region. On 4 March, I launched the Ukraine family scheme, which applies to immediate and extended Ukrainian family members, and everyone eligible is granted three years’ leave to enter or remain. Today, I want to set out further changes that I am making to the process to make it quicker and simpler.
I have two overarching obligations: first, to keep the British people safe; secondly, to do all we can to help Ukrainians. No Home Secretary can take these decisions lightly, and I am in daily contact with the intelligence and security agencies, which are providing me with regular threat assessments. What happened in Salisbury showed what Putin is willing to do on our soil. It also demonstrated that a small number of people with evil intentions can wreak havoc on our streets.
This morning, I received assurances that enable me to announce changes to the Ukraine family scheme. Based on the new advice that I have received, I am now in the position to announce that vital security checks will continue on all cases. From Tuesday, Ukrainians with passports will no longer need to go to a visa application centre to give their biometrics before they come to the UK. Instead, once their application has been considered and the appropriate checks completed, they will receive direct notification that they are eligible for the scheme and can come to the UK.
In short, Ukrainians with passports will be able to get permission to come here fully online from wherever they are and will be able to give their biometrics once they are in Britain. That will mean that visa application centres across Europe can focus their efforts on helping Ukrainians without passports. We have increased the capacity at those centres to over 13,000 appointments a week. That streamlined approach will be operational as of Tuesday 15 March in order to make the relevant technology and IT changes.
I will of course update the House if the security picture changes and if it becomes necessary to make further changes to protect our domestic homeland security. Threat assessments are always changing and we will always keep our approach under review. In the meantime, I once again salute the heroism of the Ukrainian people.
I have to ask the Home Secretary, why does it always take being hauled into the House of Commons to make basic changes to help vulnerable people who are fleeing from Ukraine?
A maternity hospital was bombed yesterday in an attack on newborn babies and women giving birth. People are fleeing for their lives and, up to now, the response from the Home Office has been a total disgrace, bringing shame upon our country. A 90-year-old holocaust survivor was left in makeshift accommodation in Poland even though her granddaughter was struggling to get here. Mums with small kids have been told that they cannot get an appointment for weeks and have had to queue for days to get biometrics in freezing weather in Rzeszów, only to be told that they then have to travel 200 miles to Warsaw to pick up their visas.
It is welcome that the Home Secretary is now introducing the online approach. We know that different ways of doing this were tried for Hong Kong visas, but why has it taken so long when she has had intelligence for weeks, if not months, that she needed to prepare for a Russian invasion of Ukraine? If we still have to wait until Tuesday for this new system to come in, what is to happen for everybody else in the meantime? Why is she not bringing in the armed forces? They have offered to help. We have had 1,000 troops on stand-by to provide humanitarian help for two weeks, so why not use them now to set up the emergency centres and to get people passported through as rapidly as possible and get them into the country?
What about the Ukrainian nurse here on a healthcare visa? Is she finally to be allowed to bring her elderly parents to the country, which we have asked for for so long? Is this still just being restricted to those with family? Are they still going to have to fill in multiple online forms, or will the Home Secretary say that all those who want to come to the UK having fled the fighting in Ukraine can now come here without having to fill in loads of online forms or jump through a whole load of hoops?
This has just been shameful. We are pushing vulnerable people from pillar to post in their hour of need. Week after week we have seen this happen. It is deeply wrong to leave people in this terrible state. Our country is better than this. If she cannot get this sorted out, frankly she should hand the job over to somebody else who can.
As ever, I am delighted to be in the Chamber. In fact, Mr Speaker, as you know, we were intending to give a statement this morning, so far from the comments from the Opposition Members, the right hon. Lady should have some perspective on all this.
If I may, I will just respond to some of the points that the Opposition party has made—of course, it is the job of the Opposition to attack the Government rather than find collective solutions and support the approach that the Government are taking. First and foremost, I have always maintained that we will take a pragmatic and agile approach to our response. We are making important changes. The right hon. Lady has asked why we are not making these changes immediately. They are subject to digital verification. There is no comparison to British national overseas schemes because 90% of Ukrainians do not have chip passports, so they would be excluded from any such scheme and approach.
Visa applications are important in this process. It is important that we are flexible in our response, and we have been. We are seeing that many Ukrainians do not have documentation. This country and all Governments, including probably a Government that the right hon. Lady once served in, will recognise that there was something known as the Windrush scandal and it is important that everyone who arrives in the UK has physical and digital records of their status here in the UK to ensure that they can access schemes—[Interruption.] Opposition Members may holler, but the process is vital in terms of verification, notification and permission to travel. It is important to give people status when they come to the United Kingdom, so that they have the right to work, the right to access benefits and digital verification of their status. That is absolutely right.
It is really important to remember again that although we have known that this attack has been coming, we have to work with the intelligence and security agencies. No disrespect to the right hon. Lady, but these checks and data—biographical and the warnings index—are important security checks that can be done through the digital process. They have been verified by the intelligence and security services, and we have to work with them in particular.
At a time of war and conflict, it is really important that we work together. I reflect on many of the comments and observations that I have heard directly from members of the Ukrainian community in this country, who I have spent time a great deal of time with this week, not just on their applications and how applications are processed but on how applications can be made both in the UK and outside the United Kingdom. There are not swathes and swathes of forms; there is a clear application process for families who undertake it.
We have been working within the Government, I emphasise to those in the House who want to listen to me rather than talk over me, and it is through that engagement, importantly, that many families have said that they want to see the country come together in the support. Rather than have misinformation about VAC appointments, which originated from the Opposition party, we should stick with the factual information about the scheme. Everybody should work together not just in promoting the scheme but in making sure that those who need our help are united in our collective approach to not only how we serve them but how we support them in getting their family members over to the United Kingdom.
Of course my right hon. Friend is absolutely right that many of the people who are fleeing from this appalling murder and mayhem, from war crimes and from breaches of the international rules of war want to remain as close as possible to the areas from which they have been driven, so that when this appalling catastrophe is over, they can return. Will she keep in touch with our European partners on both their practices and procedures so that we help these desperate people whom our constituents are rightly intent on us assisting, and so we are part of a co-ordinated and effective European response to this horrendous humanitarian crisis?
My right hon. Friend is right to refer to the need for a co-ordinated approach, and also to the response within the region. It is very clear that families want to stay there. I receive calls every day from my counterparts in the region—Ministers of the Interior—who are asking for aid to support those families who want to stay in the region because they want to go back home; and the ambassadors in the region are saying the same.
My right hon. Friend asked about the EU in particular. I am in constant contact with Commissioner Johansson to discuss how we can support the region and, specifically, countries and Ukrainian nationals in the region. The need for that co-ordinated response is so important, and the British Government, through a whole-Government effort, are supplying not only financial aid and support but practical aid and equipment to many countries in the region on the Ukrainian border that are asking us for direct help and support.
We broadly welcome the Government’s U-turn—it is a big step forward—but, as we have heard, it did not have to be this way. This war was foreseen, and the humanitarian crisis that has resulted from it was widely predicted. As I said yesterday, the Government have lagged behind the public, and I suspect that public pressure in many Conservative MPs’ inboxes has brought about this change, welcome as it is.
Yesterday, at the Home Affairs Committee, the Ukrainian ambassador was shocked to learn from my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) that the Ukrainians who are currently here without permanent residency, namely students and workers, had absolutely no rights that would allow them to bring relatives to the UK under the bespoke system. The ambassador said that he would raise the issue with the Home Secretary. Did he do so, and is that loophole covered by the measures that she has announced? May I also ask what discussions she has had, and will have, with the devolved Administrations about how to ensure that these measures are successful?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for the approach and the tone that he has taken. It is important for us to work together, and the Immigration Minister is in touch with the devolved Administrations. As we have made clear from day one, these are important discussions about the need to work collegiately and collectively on our response. This cannot be done purely through central Government; we have to work across the country to provide the support that is needed. Yesterday I was in Manchester and Derby, meeting members of the Ukrainian diaspora community to hear about their needs and to discuss how we can work not only centrally but with local authorities to give wider support.
The hon. Gentleman asked some important questions about, for example, students. There are many others who have leave to stay in this country and can have their leave extended to 36 months, and we are making that clear across the board. I have also been clear about the agility of our response, and about our approach to enabling family members to come here as well. That work is under way in the Department, and is taking place right now. As I have said, I will come back to update the House. I am also in touch with the Ukrainian ambassador nearly every day, primarily because a range of cases inevitably arise and casework is complicated. Many Members of Parliament have been using caseworking facilities that have been provided for them in Portcullis House. As we identify challenges—not everyone has documentation, not everyone has a passport—we need to find ways in which we can work together to bring people here, which is why everything is under review and why we have that agile response.
I welcome the Home Secretary’s announcement. May I make a further suggestion—a practical one, I hope—that could alleviate the situation? According to the House of Commons Library, there are 35,000 Ukrainian citizens in the UK, and I know that they are sick with worry—worried to death—about their elderly mothers, their babies, their grandchildren and so on. Would it not be possible for us to have a hub for them here in the UK, so that everything could be done from here and they could be given provisional visas to come into the country, and we could then check the biometrics here?
I thank my hon. Friend for her suggestion and comments. We are actually doing this across the country now. Yesterday I was in Manchester, where we are working with the Ukrainian community group, and also in Derby. There is a whole network in the Ukrainian diaspora, and they have asked us not for a hub in London—we have one in the Ukrainian social club in London, and we stepped that up at the beginning of the week—but for hubs within community centres. We are establishing that and working with the community to do that.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. While I welcome the changes for Ukrainian passport holders, many Ukrainians do not have passports, as the Home Secretary has just said. I want to ask her about TLScontact, which has been subcontracted by the Home Office to carry out biometric checks. The chief inspector of borders and immigration told the Home Secretary that TLScontact was so hellbent on making profit that its use posed a risk of “reputational damage” to the UK. With Ukrainians fleeing for their lives and the chaos at the visa application centres with long waits and few appointments, can the Secretary of State tell me why that company is allowed to profit from the suffering and misery of Ukrainians by telling them that if they make additional payments, their cases will be expedited and they will get appointments more quickly? Is that right?
Let me just share the information I know about the contracted service with TLScontact. First and foremost, we have surged capacity at visa application centres, as I have said several times in the House. That is a contractual process that we have, alongside working with Home Office staff in country, and further staff have been sent out. The right hon. Lady asked specifically about the contractual arrangements with TLScontact. Our priority has been to surge its staff in country to create more appointments, and we have surged appointments. There have been 6,000 appointments available this week, and as of Tuesday 15 March, there will be 13,000 appointments for people who do not have documentation and passports. We can prioritise those without documentation and passports. Those with passports can use the digital service that will be set up and go live from Tuesday. I will come back to the Chair of the Select Committee on the contractual details, primarily because these details are organised through the Departments and there is a procurement process that goes on. I will write to her on the specifics. With regard to Ukrainian nationals coming to the United Kingdom to be reunited with their families, this is a free service. There are no charges in place whatsoever.
I welcome the measures announced today. They will be coming in next Tuesday, but could not the Home Secretary today suspend the carrier liability duty for Ukrainian passport holders presenting at Krakow or Warsaw airports to come to the UK so that they can have the checks done in a secure setting here and be granted at least a visitor’s visa? Or could she not remove Ukraine from the list of excluded countries so that they could come here in the same way as an American tourist and be granted a visitor’s visa, subject to checks being carried out in a secure setting? Am I wrong?
As ever, my hon. Friend is making practical suggestions, but I am afraid that those checks cannot be suspended. There has already been work across Government to look at the carrier liability aspect. It is the electronic authorisation to travel that we are speeding up through this digital system, so that once the individual receives the authorisation, they can go straight to a port, show they have authorisation to travel and then board a train or plane to get the United Kingdom. We cannot make any other travel changes on that basis because of the wider implications that that has for other carriers.
I think the whole House just wants the Government and the UK to be as generous and unbureaucratic as possible, and if that is where we are getting to, we are pleased, but there is something that still nags away at me. As I understand it, from what we were told in the Foreign Affairs Committee, the Government have known since October or November last year that Putin either wanted or intended to do this. So, on so many levels we have been really running to catch up, and a lot of us are asking why we did not know that we needed to put all this in place two months ago. Also, I want Putin to be in a court of law, but the International Criminal Court cannot judge a leader just on the basis of initiating a war of aggression, so will the Home Secretary work to change that law?
The hon. Gentleman is right that we knew this attack was planned. Our schemes have obviously been developed with the Governments in the region, which I must emphasise. Right now, the countries in the region have different requirements of the Home Office in how we undertake our checks and process individuals. We are trying to simplify this to make it easier across the board.
Last week, the Polish Government asked us not to process people in close proximity to the border but to use our visa application centres. The Hungarian Government have asked us for a totally different approach, and they have asked for liaison officers on the ground. The Romanian Government are asking us to come to the border. We have deliberately chosen to use the facilities of the visa application centres to give certainty and consistency of approach. Clearly, our objective throughout has been to try to streamline the process.
The digital piece is challenging; it is not straightforward. We have to change our codes, our systems and our structures, while recognising that many Ukrainians do not have electronic passports. Passports and travel documentation are not consistent around the world, hence my comment about the chip checker on the BNO scheme, under which 97,000 visas have been granted.
The hon. Gentleman asked about President Putin and war crimes, and I assure the House that significant work is taking place in this area across Government and with the police and the Crown Prosecution Service.
I am grateful for what my right hon. Friend said about the number of appointments there will be, and I am grateful to the visa application centre staff for working so hard, but I understand that the Warsaw centre closes at 5 pm and at weekends. Could she do something to extend the opening hours?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The opening hours are because of labour laws in Poland. There have been extensive discussions with the Government, the Foreign Office and the Home Office on extensions. We would love the centres to work much longer hours, including at weekends. Believe me, we have been pursuing this. As I said, every country in the region has a different response and different laws that we have to respect and work with. We are doing everything we possibly can to get those extensions.
I do not think I have ever seen my Edinburgh South West constituents more angry than they are this week about what the Government have done, or not done, so far.
The fictional Prime Minister Jim Hacker once said:
“It doesn’t do the Government any good to look heartless and feeble simultaneously”.
Well, I am afraid this Government have for the past week. I welcome this U-turn, but will the Home Secretary take the opportunity to apologise to the Ukrainian refugees whose suffering has been needlessly exacerbated by the Home Office’s ineptitude? And will she apologise to my many constituents who have Ukrainian relatives whose suffering has been exacerbated by her Department’s ineptitude?
To correct the hon. and learned Lady, since I became Home Secretary we have welcomed 20,000 Afghan refugees and 97,000 Hong Kongers to the United Kingdom over the last two years. These numbers are unprecedented, and I will take no lectures from her about heartlessness, particularly in light of the lack of take-up of the dispersal scheme for people coming to the United Kingdom who need housing. On those fleeing persecution, she and her Government need to look at themselves.
The hon. and learned Lady has heard me tell the House a few times about the work we are doing directly with the Ukrainian community and diaspora to help their family members come over. It would be good to recognise that we achieve the right outcomes not just by working together but by supporting them through the application process.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s announcement today, and she knows that I and others have been pushing for tech and biometrics to be used more constructively. On the repurposing of officials and their movement to the front- line, not just from within the Home Office, but from across Government, will she work with the excellent new refugees Minister to ensure that we can get that sense of co-ordination and urgency here? As Russia leaves the Council of Europe and denounces the European convention on human rights, the slide into tyranny continues. This is a crisis that will not wait.
My right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right; we are blessed with the appointment of our noble Friend in the other place as refugees Minister, because this is about co-ordination. This is about national co-ordination, not about one Department or another Department; this is “whole of Government effort”, a phrase I have used several times in this House. The refugees Minister will be overseeing much of the community sponsorship scheme, which will come in due course, and there will be further announcements about that scheme, too.
Yes, the hon. Lady is absolutely right on that. We are seeing many dual nationals come forward, which is why we are absolutely trying to streamline the system to make it easier for them to apply. The other point to make about applications is that these applications can be made in-country— in Ukraine. Again, that will speed up the ability of these people to come to the UK.
No. This will be passports only, because of all the security checks that can be made through passport data. This shows part of the problem of the wider challenge we have had on documentation. These types of cases will need to go to the visa application centres, but, as I have said, we have just increased the capacity to more than 13,000 appointments. Of course, if any other issues arise, we can also pick up casework directly.
It is disappointing that the right hon. Lady needs to be dragged here to make the process simpler and quicker. A lot of the people in this country will not understand why it is so complicated. She has already responded to the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) on why we cannot just let people come here and have the checks done here, as we do for millions of visitors from non-visa countries. So will she at least commit to looking into whether that is possible, because Ukrainians who flee war have gone through days and weeks of trauma and exhaustion, and they deserve to be treated better?
I have always made it abundantly clear in the House that our approach is always under review —it is under review for a range of issues, for example, as the situation changes or the security threat level changes. The hon. Lady has just asked why we cannot just let people through. There is a range of advice that I have to consider. Having considered all the advice and looked at the approach we can take, my priority has been to streamline the approach. Clearly, it is not appropriate to keep sending people who do not necessarily need to go to visa application centres to those centres. We can now prioritise those who are more vulnerable and do not have documentation, and we want to focus on those individuals. The final point to make is that not only are we as a country generous in our approach to people fleeing persecution, but this is how the Government’s approach has always been, in terms of safe routes, legal routes, Afghan refugees and British nationals overseas who have come to the UK. That has been at the heart of the Government’s work. For every crisis that takes place in the world there is no single solution. We have to develop bespoke solutions, which is what we have done.
As one of the top six customers of the Home Office on immigration issues, I have seen how this situation underlines the chaos in the Home Office’s immigration system. It is really struggling to keep up with the basics and when dealing with this surge it has understandably crumbled under the pressure. I am concerned that we have been waiting for all these days. We know that security checks need to take place, but what security risk is there from 90-year-old women, from people in their 60s, from mothers and small children? Has the right hon. Lady not given some thought to progressing them through faster and doing more checks on them here in the UK?
I welcome what the Home Secretary said about combining security with a generous approach, both of which are essential and must be delivered. In my experience of the Home Office, officials there who are focused on the protection of our country respond well to clear and decisive leadership, so may I check something so that it is clear? Does the Home Secretary retain overall responsibility for the whole of our refugee policy, including the humanitarian sponsorship scheme? People should know where the buck stops. When does she expect to come to the House to set out further details on that scheme?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is fair to say that he will be too familiar with the various processes around immigration checks, digitalisation and security, and the wider considerations that constantly have to be made. In terms of wider refugee policy, this is a whole-of-Government effort, so parts of it, particularly the community sponsorship route that I announced to the House last week, will be led by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, which will lead on that primarily because of the local authority engagement and safeguarding that is required. There will be further announcements on that. The work of the Minister for Refugees will be split between both Departments to assist with the co-ordination effort that is required. I know my right hon. Friend will be familiar with how the Syrian vulnerable refugee scheme was created. In effect, we are trying to build on some of the previous models that have worked successfully in government.
I commend my right hon. Friend for the calm and collected manner in which she presented the statement and for the manner in which she has dealt with the really serious and complicated problems that this situation represents. Furthermore, I commend Members from both sides of the House who have shown conspicuous interest in trying to get together on this subject rather than just producing carping criticisms.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments and his acknowledgement of the difficult work. As a country, our priority is of course absolutely to bring people over from Ukraine at their time of desperate need and give them the protection that they need. As I said, every crisis requires a bespoke response and that is what this Government have been working on.
The Home Secretary is doing a difficult job at this stressful time because of the horrible war that Putin has unleashed against these innocent people, but may I give her one tiny bit of advice? We really want to keep this cross-party support for the people in Ukraine, but will she remember that sometimes her tone is a bit aggressive? She did lose some of us on the Opposition Benches when she seemed to suggest that we could not be trusted with security information. We were also a bit disappointed when she got her facts wrong about what was happening in Calais.
I acknowledge the hon. Gentlemen’s comments. It is important that, as a country and in this House in particular, we unite against Putin and what he is doing. We must never lose sight of what President Putin is doing to Ukraine and the people of Ukraine. That is something that this entire House, particularly this week, should absolutely get behind.
I am grateful to the Home Secretary for her approach. Please forgive me, but I did not hear correctly whether it was 13,000 appointments per day or per week. She mentioned many of the countries where we have visa application centres, but a disproportionate number of people have gone to the small country of Moldova, which is not in the EU. Have we beefed up the visa application centre there?
Yes. First, on the visa applications at VACs in the region, once we launch the digital approach, those 13,000 appointments next week will primarily be for those individuals who are vulnerable, without documentation, who will need our help to get their status, and we will need to do much more work with them.
Secondly, on Moldova, I spoke to EU Commissioner Johansson on Monday. She called me specifically about assistance for Moldova, which is having a very challenging time not just in respect of the number of refugees but at its borders. Moldova is finding that a number of third-country nationals are now presenting, trying to present themselves as Ukrainians when in fact they are not, and they have border-security problems as well. We have been specifically asked to provide assistance with security equipment and help to prevent weapons from coming into the country. I have also spoken to the Minister for Internal Affairs there this week. A lot of work is taking place directly to support the Government there as they support people fleeing Ukraine.
My constituent, Gareth Roberts of Trawsfynydd, is presently travelling to the Slovakia border with his wife, Natasha, to meet her daughter and granddaughter. Gareth is a fluent Russian and Ukrainian speaker and is well able to help the family make the digital applications, but he tells me that the applications can be made only in English and that this will directly affect many vulnerable Ukrainian applicants. Will the Secretary of State confirm that it will be possible, in future, to make these applications in Ukrainian? Better still, will she waive all these restrictive visa requirements?
The applications are in English, because the checks have to be done in the UK by British people. Work is taking place to see what else we can do. In particular, we are bringing in Ukrainian and Russian speakers to help us not just with translations, but to see what more we can do to deal with getting forms in the right language and to have more staff in our centres, working directly with the Ukrainian community. That also applies in the UK in the hubs that we are creating.
I warmly welcome today’s announcement, which I and other colleagues have been calling for. As my right hon. Friend knows after her visit at the weekend, which I thank her for, the Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain is headquartered in my constituency. Given the amount of correspondence and issues that it receives, I wonder whether she would consider a direct link for it into the Home Office?
I give my thanks to the centre for everything that it has been doing. It was very humbling to spend so much time with the people there on Sunday. I was able to understand from them the issues, barriers and challenges that they face. I have said from day 1 that we should work with the community. We have to ensure that everything that we do works for the people there. We are providing direct help. We are setting up a hub specifically in the centre for the community. I have been quite struck by some of the complexities that we have seen, particularly with elderly family members and how they can come to the United Kingdom. The hub in my hon. Friend’s constituency will be replicated in some of the other locations that I referred to earlier on.
My constituent’s Ukrainian wife, Liudmyla Florence, was turned away from the UK visa office in Warsaw and told that she had to book an appointment and make an application online. The UK immigration website repeatedly stated, “Sorry, there is currently a problem with the service. Please try again later.” She eventually was given an appointment, but not until 17 March. What is Liudmyla supposed to do while the Home Secretary is getting her act together?
If the hon. Lady had listened to my statement earlier on, she would have heard what the process is. In fact, the application can be done digitally from Tuesday. If she would like to present me with the case, I would be very happy to look at it straight after —[Interruption.] Well, we do have the hub in Portcullis House, which has been working through cases. I do not know whether the hon. Lady has been using that service. If she has difficulty with that, she is very welcome to give me the case straight after the urgent question and I will make the calls myself directly.
I was shocked to hear the shadow Home Secretary imply that Labour would throw away or downplay essential security checks in its mad dash to be seen to be doing something. I know that our Home Secretary will stand firm on our borders. Will she also use this opportunity to thank the many thousands of families around this country who have stepped forward to say that they wish to give support to Ukrainian families and will she tell them—[Interruption.]
I am grateful, Mr Speaker, and if I got that wrong, I apologise to the shadow Home Secretary. My point was about the balance that the Home Secretary has to take. Will she use this opportunity to thank the many thousands of British families who have stepped forward to say that they wish to help Ukrainian families, and tell them that she will work night and day to enable them to fulfil their generosity?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right in everything he has said—there is no question whatsoever about that. The Ukrainian community across the United Kingdom has been extraordinary in its resolve and fortitude at a very difficult time to provide much-needed support and resource and, importantly, to support people coming over to the United Kingdom. I do not want to pre-empt any further statements on community support, primarily because there is a scheme under development in Government, but many members of the community have been shaping that scheme and how that help can be given.
I spoke this week in this place about a constituent of mine. Yesterday he made it to Warsaw with his Ukrainian wife and their daughters, to be told that he might get an appointment on 18 March but that they were not sure because the systems were down and they would have to wait until they came back up to check that that was possible. I do not think anything the Home Secretary has said today will help my constituent forward, because he has been told to apply yet again. The systems are not working. The only things working are the women—they are mainly women—that I have seen down in Portcullis House. They are working their butts off to try to help, but the systems do not work and online applications will make things even worse.
Sorry, but our systems have been working and they are working. I cannot comment on the hon. Lady’s particular case or the generalities she has spoken about, but, as I have said, I will happily take the matter away and look at it directly. I cannot respond to general statements about systems not working when there are thousands of applications being made on a daily basis.
I welcome the extra flexibility that my right hon. Friend has introduced into the system, particularly the capacity to take biometrics in this country, which she will know many of us have called for. Are these new arrangements simply for those coming on the family route or do they apply more generally? If the former, can she give some indication of when we will hear more about the humanitarian sponsorship route?
The simplifications are to the family scheme. It is the same scheme, but we are simplifying and digitalising the process. I cannot pre-empt the humanitarian scheme, which is being led by DLUHC, but there will be statements. I cannot say when, because the Department is working on the details of the scheme.
May I raise the case of Artur Nadiiev, a Ukrainian PhD student at the University of Nottingham? Artur has encountered confusion and difficulties in applying for a UK student visa. He is currently in Munich. On 5 March, UKVI advised that he needs to take a tuberculosis test to obtain a visa, even though Home Office updated rules for Ukrainian citizens travelling to the UK state that TB tests have been waived. Can the Home Secretary clarify whether Artur can now obtain his visa and come to the UK without needing to travel to a third country in order to obtain a TB test?
This country has a proud history of providing sanctuary to those fleeing for their lives, and I welcome the various routes we have made available to those displaced from Ukraine. There will always be those who seek to exploit this country’s generosity for more malicious aims, so will my right hon. Friend confirm that the integrity of the appropriate security checks will not be compromised in speeding up the visa process?
With one of the largest Ukrainian populations in the country in Westminster, I welcome this late change of heart by the Government. I hope it will work, and work considerably more effectively than the Afghan scheme did. May I seek clarification on the issue of work visas? Does this scheme mean that those here on work visas will be able to bring, for example, dependent relatives?
I welcome today’s announcement and thank the Home Secretary for listening to the House. My constituent Larry Sullivan owns a technology business in Russia and has some very able young software engineers desperate to get here. They would make a big contribution to the UK economy. They are fanatically against Putin’s war of aggression. Is there a route for them to come here before Putin slams the door shut?
Last week, I asked the Home Secretary about the arrangements for refugees when they come here. Many of them will need places for their children in schools and mental health support, and, under both schemes, many will want accommodation. She said that the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities is responsible for these arrangements through the community sponsorship scheme, but is the Home Office then responsible for people under the family scheme? In the Select Committee on Monday, we asked the DLUHC permanent secretary, who confirmed that currently there are no arrangements in place, none have been agreed, and he could not give a timetable for when they would be agreed. Will the Home Secretary update the House on what the arrangements are under both schemes, or will the DLUHC Secretary come to this House in the near future to update us?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: the sponsorship route is led by DLUHC. As we discussed in the House last week, accommodation will be a vital part of sponsorship, as will the engagement with local authorities. I cannot pre-empt the work of DLUHC. Further statements will be made on this. He also spoke about the family scheme. The community and family members are absolutely working together on that. There is no doubt—we should be very clear about this—that access to public funds and public services is absolutely guaranteed within the family route. That is why we are working on this collectively across Government. It is a Government effort; it is not about one Department versus another, although some will lead on various details. We are working with DLUHC but also with the devolved Administrations, in particular, to give them the support they need when more members of the Ukrainian community come over to be reunited with their families.
I welcome today’s announcement, which I am sure will also be welcomed by the many Gedling residents who also want a generous approach. My right hon. Friend has spoken about the processing centres in Poland, but will she update us on the processing of visas for those Ukrainian refugees currently in northern France?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. We have surged our visa application centre capacity across the region. There are sites in France, with work in Calais and in Lille, and we are looking to expand our capacity in France based on working with the French Government, who are effectively identifying, right now, the various routes that people are using to travel through France to the United Kingdom.
My constituents have been in touch with me about this issue on many occasions, and I think that they will think it perverse that those who are considered vulnerable will still have to make these journeys to the centres. Has the Secretary of State done an assessment of how many of the people they are seeing fit into the vulnerable category, how many people this change will actually help, and what more can be done to help the vulnerable?
The hon. Lady makes an important point. It is important to restate that about 90% of Ukrainian nationals do not have chip passports, for example, whereby the digital scheme would automatically apply to them to make it easier. The reason we are clearing the VAC system now is to help those in the vulnerable people abroad category, including the elderly and those who have not travelled previously. A frequent theme that comes back from members of the diaspora community here is that many are still reluctant to leave Ukraine—they are still in Lviv and thinking about coming. We are encouraging them to engage with their family members here so that we can give them support. We do not yet have a full assessment. That is why we are working with the Ukrainian community in this country for them to share as much information with us as they possibly can.
President Putin has not only unleashed death and destruction on the people of Ukraine but is also involved in ethnic cleansing, and we should face up to that. Many of those fleeing in fear of their lives will want to go back after Putin’s forces have gone from the country. Others will want to resettle. Will my right hon. Friend make the system as flexible as possible so that those who want to resettle in the UK can do so, but those who want to come on a temporary basis will be able to return to their native country?
This is the theme that we hear constantly throughout the community—a recognition that, of course, people will want to go home. It is their country; it is the place of their birth; it is where they have lived their lives. There is no question about that. That is why we are taking a consistent approach across all schemes to the leave period that people can come here for, even those on temporary leave.
The point about ethnic cleansing is so valid. There are still people of Ukrainian origin in Russia who are subject to appalling persecution. Those people are also in our thoughts, and we want to consider how we can help them, too.
Yesterday, I spoke to a senior member of the Ukrainian community in my constituency. He wanted to know what sorts of resettlement schemes are being looked at to support orphans and unaccompanied children arriving here, and whether the Home Secretary would consider waiving all visa requirements for them.
This is a very important point. I have had similar discussions with the Ukrainian community across the country. As I may have mentioned previously in the House, there are a number of issues around safeguarding children, particularly those travelling through Europe, and even at the border, a number of safeguarding and trafficking cases are now materialising. In terms of unaccompanied children and orphans coming to the United Kingdom, we have to work across Government with the relevant Departments. Local authority work is being stood up to look at safeguarding and protection and how children can be brought over to the UK in a safe way, to ensure they come to our country and are given all the help and support they need.
I thank the Home Secretary for her statement. She will know that Simon Tagg, the leader of Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council, together with all the other local authority leaders across Staffordshire, wrote yesterday to the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary saying that the people of Staffordshire and the authorities in Staffordshire stand ready and able to welcome Ukrainian refugees. Will the Home Secretary work with the Communities Secretary to make sure we in Staffordshire can play our part?
My constituents, who I am not naming publicly at their request, found out in December that they were expecting a baby through surrogacy in Ukraine. I visited the hub yesterday, and they have been told that the surrogate mother does not qualify under the family visa scheme. I have been told by the Home Secretary’s officials that nothing can be done about it. After yesterday’s scenes of the bombing of the maternity hospital in Ukraine, the Home Secretary can only imagine how my constituents are feeling about their baby, who is expected in a few months’ time and who is a British citizen upon birth. Will she look again at this policy personally, with a view to making a small tweak to it for the small number of families who fall into this category?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise the issue of surrogacy cases—a number of those cases have been raised with me. We are absolutely looking to make changes to this: there are various requirements we need to make in the UK with those particular families who will be expecting a child through a surrogate, and we are looking at how that can all be brought together and families united. I am aware of these cases.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s announcement this morning, and thank her for the number of times she has made herself available to engage with all Members on these important issues, in the face of rapidly changing circumstances. Given the changes she has announced this morning, can she give me an assurance that we have now reached the optimum point in the balance between her first duty, which is to protect the national security of our country, and stripping away every unnecessary piece of bureaucracy that prevents or delays us from helping, supporting and welcoming people fleeing the war at Putin’s hand?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As I said in my statement, our No. 1 priority is to keep our country safe, while streamlining processes where we can. We will continue to do so; we will not stop here. My final point is that situations can change, and with that, threat assessments can change as well. Obviously, I will keep colleagues updated on that.
The Home Secretary has been on the wrong side of history and the wrong side of humanity. We are talking about women, children and older people. My constituent’s friend has just crossed the border into Poland, and when she went to get her visa she was told to go back to a city called Kyiv, in the middle of a war zone. There is still chaos at the borders—the Home Secretary shakes her head, but she was told that. There is chaos at the borders, so why can people not come visa free to the UK border to collect their documentation and then get the warm welcome that the Home Secretary talks about?
I thank my right hon. Friend for her statement, which will be richly welcomed by the Ukrainian families in Southend West I have been meeting. In particular, I welcome the digitalisation of the family scheme. My question is around that. The devil is not in the detail with digitalisation, but the scale. We currently have tens of thousands of applications being made. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that the scheme will cope with the scale we may have on it?
These are big digital challenges that we all face, there is no question about that, but we are working through assurance to ensure that systems can cope and withstand some of the wider technological and digital challenges that come from a hostile country that we are effectively trying to operate against.
I and my constituents in North Ayrshire and Arran welcome any improvements that can be made to the current scheme for those Ukrainians who are fleeing violence, but there still seems to be a lack of urgency and flexibility from the UK, so what more will the Home Secretary do as the humanitarian situation deteriorates, as we all sadly fear it will? Does she have any concerns about how history will judge the UK’s response relative to the EU’s response on this matter?
I refer to my comments earlier, but let me make it abundantly clear for the hon. Lady that in terms of the EU response, we are working in co-operation and collaboration with the EU. There is no doubt about that whatever. The EU has a different approach, but even at this stage it has not agreed the number of people who will go country by country. We are working with them at a very difficult time not only on the humanitarian approach, but on ensuring that we support each country that has been heavily affected not just in terms of border issues, but in receiving Ukrainian refugees. That is a collective response not just from the British Government, but in conjunction with the EU.
I welcome the simplification of the scheme that my right hon. Friend has announced today, and I recognise how hard the job for the Home Office team is. As we make every effort to help those fleeing this crisis, can she provide a bit more information to the House about the surge capacity that she has put in for Home Office staff to process visa applications in countries where the majority of the Ukrainian refugees are fleeing?
Yes, I can. I have already spoken about the increased capacity at visa application centres. I can also tell the House that work is taking place with the MOD in country and in region. For example, we know that one of the main surges is taking place in Poland. That is because Poland is on the frontline and bringing in people from Ukraine in huge numbers. We are supporting the Polish Government in many ways. With that, we will be working with the MOD teams already in Poland not only to surge staffing, but to look at what more we can do to provide wider humanitarian support for Ukrainian refugees in country.
Can the Home Secretary provide an update on the discussions with the Scottish Government on the intake of refugees from Ukraine and how many Scotland can home?
I was first on Tuesday and last on Thursday—it seems perfectly fair. I welcome what my right hon. Friend has done today with the new flexibilities, listening to what people have said up and down the country. Will she look at every practicality to speed up this system? Ukraine was a reliable country in producing its documentation, so can we have maximum flexibility in the documentation that people are able to provide? If they provide biometric and electronic data in another form—an identity card or something like that—we should accept that. A lot of elderly people will have never needed to renew their passports, and we should accept Ukrainian passports whether electronic or not. A simple thing: can we have enough translators if the forms have to be in English and enough people in post to answer queries, rather than asking people to go to the back of the queue when they get it wrong?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right on that. The documentation matter is constantly under review. Within the security context that I have spoken about, there are certain checks that can be done out of country and there are certain checks that will be done in the United Kingdom, as I outlined in my statement.
The point about translators is absolutely valid. Across the whole civil service across the United Kingdom, there has been a call for Ukrainian and Russian speakers to come forward for that very purpose—that took place some time ago. With that, of course, it is all about the simplification of process. We are non-stop in finding ways, many of them through digital and technology processes, so that people do not have to go to VACs. We are constantly looking at how else we can streamline the system. It is almost a blockchain approach here. We are going through that day in, day out, so I can give my hon. Friend that assurance.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller) suggested that the Opposition Front Bench had said that we should throw away security checks, which has never been the case. On that basis, I will accept the apology that he put forward, if he confirms that apology.