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Homes for Ukraine Scheme Anniversary

Volume 728: debated on Wednesday 1 March 2023

[Peter Dowd in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the anniversary of the Homes for Ukraine scheme.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship today, Mr Dowd. I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests for the excellent research support I receive from the Refugee, Asylum and Migration Policy Project and as the co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on migration. I want to make special mention of and thank the Sheffield branch of the Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain, with which I have been working to highlight the challenges facing Ukrainian refugees as they come to this country. The contributions of such groups have been extremely helpful and have better equipped us to learn lessons from the past year.

Since the war started in February 2022, more than 8 million people have fled Ukraine and some 6 million have been displaced internally. According to the British Red Cross, more than 160,000 of those who have fled have come to the UK. I think I speak for all Members present when I extend my huge thanks to all those who have opened their homes to refugees. While the war has shown the very worst of humanity, the resilience of ordinary Ukrainians enduring extraordinary violence, alongside the response they have received from our communities, has shown the very best.

A year into the war, it is time to take stock of our own response and the support we have extended to those fleeing the conflict. Now is a timely moment to highlight two problems facing the refugees who have come here: the shameful prospect of homelessness for some Ukrainian families, and the restrictions they face as they transition into private sector rented housing.

A new British Red Cross report, “Fleeing, fearing, facing the future”, has found that homelessness is a key risk for Ukrainians in the UK. Government figures reveal that well over 4,000 Ukrainian households in England have been homeless or at risk of homelessness in the past year—a 97% increase on October 2020. According to data from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, in my own local authority area, a total of 30 Ukrainian households, half of which included children, have been homeless, offered homelessness prevention or relief duty services by Sheffield City Council. Of those households, 17 are here under the Homes for Ukraine scheme and 13 are here under the family scheme.

I am loth to interrupt the hon. Lady so early in her deliberations, but I wondered if she would like to take this opportunity to congratulate or comment on SNP-run Perth and Kinross Council, which has the third highest number, and the highest number per capita, of Ukrainian guests in the whole of Scotland, as well as the smallest number in temporary accommodation. That is because of building a positive relationship with the private letting sector and creating our own agency. Does the hon. Lady agree that P and K’s approach of actively bringing together guests and hosts works, and that being prepared to build on existing structures with existing relationships is the way to give good options to our guests from Ukraine?

I completely agree. Where things have worked well, we should be learning lessons and rolling those lessons out across the country—across all the countries of Great Britain. We need to take stock at this point to see where things have progressed and been valuable to the community, and where they have not worked so well.

We should be concerned about the figures I was just highlighting, which show that we urgently need to support people to either continue to stay with their hosts or move into their own longer term accommodation, especially as the conflict seems to be lasting a lot longer than any of us would have hoped.

The reasons behind the homelessness that many Ukrainian refugees face are multifaceted, ranging from the impact of the rising cost of living for hosts, the changing circumstances of hosts and guests, the inappropriateness of accommodation and difficulties being rematched with other hosts if the relationship breaks down. Sponsors were initially asked to host for only six months, but sadly there is no sign of the military conflict in Ukraine abating, which makes the precarious nature of the future for many refugees all the more worrying.

As the cost of living crisis continues to bite, many sponsors simply cannot afford to continue hosting, and I ask the Minister to consider that in her response. In November 2022, 18% of Homes for Ukraine hosts said that the rising cost of living was “very much” impacting their ability to provide support, which is double the proportion in July 2022, when the figure was 9%. Clearly, the impact on host families is getting worse, which is having a direct impact on Ukrainian refugees. The Government have announced that hosts on the Homes for Ukraine scheme will receive more financial support, which is increasing from £350 to £500 a month, but that is only after the people they are hosting have been in the UK for 12 months. The cost of living crisis is happening now, and that should mean action now to support refugee households.

At the same time, despite accounting for around a third of arrivals, and unlike under the Homes for Ukraine scheme, people hosting family members through the family scheme do not receive any monthly “thank you” payment, and are not protected from the increased council tax bills that come from having additional household members. Similarly, although local councils ensure that those on the Homes for Ukraine scheme receive a £200 per person interim payment on arrival, to help with the cost of food and essentials, Ukrainians on the family visa scheme do not receive the same support unless they are in Northern Ireland.

The Government need to take Ukrainian families’ risk of homelessness seriously and act quickly. The British Red Cross suggests that the Department should extend the interim £200 payment to everyone arriving on the Ukrainian family scheme to support people waiting for their first universal credit payment. Ministers should also consider increasing the monthly payment immediately for all hosts, no matter what scheme they are on, instead of waiting for people to have been here in the UK for 12 months. At the moment, the costs are falling on hosts. Those hosting people who arrived in the UK through the Ukrainian family scheme should receive the same financial support as those hosting under the Homes for Ukraine scheme to support their continued hosting. Are discussions along those lines between the Home Office and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities already under way, and if not, why not? In addition, the Department should ensure that the council tax regulations are further amended so that hosts on the Ukrainian family scheme are also protected from increasing council tax bills, especially as they are not currently receiving any extra financial support in that way. Will the Minister set out the Government’s position on those simple steps, which could make a difference?

The second set of issues I want to raise relates to what happens after refugees leave their hosts. Our unfair and exploitative private rented sector is a huge barrier to many people’s living their lives as they want. For Ukrainians, the situation is no different. Even once they are ready to move on from their accommodation and strike out on their own, there are significant challenges. Without a UK-based guarantor, rental references or a deposit, it can be difficult for people to find privately rented accommodation. Although people on both schemes have the right to work and access public funds, including universal credit, the British Red Cross reports that across the UK many refugees struggle to afford the rent for longer term accommodation. Frozen local housing allowances also restrict access to private rented accommodation for those who work part time or are single parents, often with multiple children. The demographics of the Ukrainian refugees who are coming over here—many are mothers with children, which is a complexity of the war—should be borne in mind when we develop policy, so that these conditions, issues and individual circumstances are understood.

All that is supported by data. In my own city, of 322 families who arrived in Sheffield under the Homes for Ukraine scheme, only 44 have been moved into private rented accommodation to date. A survey by the Office for National Statistics published in December 2022 found that 69% of Homes for Ukraine hosts had guests looking to move into private accommodation, but 81% of them reported barriers when helping their guests to look for private rented accommodation: 67% could not afford to rent privately, 64% could not provide a guarantor, 57% could not afford a deposit or other up-front payments, and 43% had no suitable properties in the area that they had arrived in.

DLUHC has announced £150 million additional funding for local authorities across the UK to support refugees to move into their own homes. It was also announced that local authorities in England will get a new £500 million fund to acquire housing stock for refugees, and tackle homelessness in refugee communities. The announcement rightly said that not only those who arrived from Ukraine and Afghanistan but all those fleeing conflict would be included. I welcome those measures, but I know local authorities are unclear about how to use the funding. Will the Minister clarify the details? How will the £150 million one-off funding be allocated and spent, so that local authorities have more certainty when addressing growing housing needs? It should be noted that, in addition to that funding, there is support for local authorities to implement rent deposit schemes where they do not already exist, and to ensure that eligibility criteria do not exclude people displaced from Ukraine. Last week, the Secretary of State told the House that his Department would investigate Government-backed rent guarantee schemes specifically to support displaced Ukrainians. What action are the Government taking in that respect?

The local association has raised with me the fact that a crucial part of making the transition to an independent life is access to skills and training. Many of the people who have come here are already highly qualified, but either their qualifications are not recognised, or they are struggling to find work that matches their qualifications. How are the Government working across Departments to ensure that refugees settling here can fulfil their full potential and find gainful skilled employment?

The toll of the war on those who have left Ukraine as refugees, fleeing the bombs raining down on their homes and neighbourhoods, has been immense. They have gathered their lives into suitcases or even less, unsure of what they will return to, whether they will return to anything, or whether they will return at all. Across the UK, and certainly in Sheffield, which is a proud city of sanctuary, the greeting they have received is a light in the darkness. It has represented the hope of refuge far from the violence and destruction. Now, a year later, it is time to transform hope into certainty, and turn the promise of safety into the opportunity of building new, secure and stable lives in the UK, free from the worry of homelessness and destitution. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response and those of other hon. Members, knowing they will care deeply about the issues I have raised, on how we can help refugees to build that life in the UK while they are here.

Thank you, Mr Dowd, for allowing me the time to debate this issue. It is important to keep it highlighted, learn the lessons from this scheme in our broader approach to refugees, and show solidarity to Ukrainians.

I remind Members that if they wish to allow as many as possible to speak in the debate, they should be brief.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake) on securing such an important debate. I could not agree more that we need to keep this subject at the forefront of our mind. It has been over a year, but we must never forget what it was like at the beginning. I certainly do not forget waking up a year ago to those dreadful scenes on the news—Putin’s maniacal aggression destroying homes, schools and hospitals, and turning communities into war zones. Understandably, millions were desperate to flee Putin’s war machine.

The UK has a proud history of welcoming refugees fleeing war and persecution. It was right that we provided a safe and legal route for those fleeing the conflict. In the early days of the conflict, the focus was on getting Ukrainians into the UK. That was no small undertaking. I am sure many hon. Members here will remember the frustrations we had with the Home Office, which often took a “computer says no” attitude to visa applications. We were dealing with incredibly complex, highly emotive cases of families separated and loved ones left behind in Ukraine.

I thank the teams in my constituency and Westminster offices who helped 114 Ukrainians travel to Oxfordshire. They spent hours and hours waiting to speak to UK Visas and Immigration and queuing outside the hub in Parliament to help those fleeing the conflict. I remember one case of a mother who was eight months pregnant and had a five-year-old child. She was in Italy and needed a visa within days or she would not be allowed to fly because her doctor would not give her the fly note. She was terrified about having to give birth with doctors she could not understand because she did not speak Italian. Luckily, we were able to sort out her visa.

Helping people get here to the UK was only the first piece in the puzzle. In the last year, 2,113 Ukrainians have arrived in Oxfordshire and settled. That is the fourth highest number out of any local authority in England. Yulia Horetska moved in with me and my family. Supporting her in her time of need has been an honour and a privilege. I know that that feeling is shared by many of the hosts. Many people wanted to host, but were not able to—maybe they did not have a spare room. We have gained a lot, so let us not frame this debate as though we were giving, because we also got.

Such help would not have been possible without the vital work that our councils have done alongside community groups and voluntary organisations. This has been a whole community effort. South Oxfordshire and Vale of White Horse District Councils provided fantastic wraparound support to settle guests in the districts, and Oxfordshire County Council helped. The councils co-ordinated and distributed grants and provided housing and homeless advice; they supported access to schooling, language lessons, medical services, benefits and employment advice. I give a special thanks to Adrianna Partridge at the Vale, who went above and beyond in leading the co-ordination of that effort. I am delighted to say that in February the councils decided to fund vital support for a further two years. We did not think we would get to a week, let alone a year, but we now need the certainty of the medium and long term.

I also thank the community groups and volunteers who have provided huge support and help for guests and hosts. St Michael and All Angels in Summertown run a Ukraine friendship centre every Wednesday, which I was lucky enough to visit. It provides English classes and children’s activities. Hubs have been set up with citizens advice and the council to provide a one-stop shop and a co-ordinated place with translators, so that a Ukrainian family in need of help knows where to go and has one place to go get it.

As we mark the anniversary of the scheme, there are, as has been ably set out, a new set of challenges that I want to focus on. With Putin continuing to wage war, what began as a temporary stay, a short-lived safe harbour, now looks for many families to be more permanent. One sponsor said,

“As the children begin to form friendships through schooling and other local activities many refugees are seriously contemplating setting their roots down here in the UK.”

Many hosts, with the best will in the world, are simply unable to continue their sponsorship arrangements for more than a year, so local councils are working hard to provide rematching.

Councils are also trying to help guests into affordable independent living arrangements and to alleviate the pressure on homelessness services, but there is a problem of housing capacity in Oxfordshire. Ukrainians are struggling to access the private rented sector because referencing procedures can penalise people on universal credit and those with no credit history. There is a case for the Government stepping in pretty strongly on that point. One Ukrainian mother of two wrote to tell me about the problems that she faced. The host asked the family to move out and they searched for rented accommodation, but they were refused by numerous landlords because they do not have suitable proof of income or credit status. She said,

“We want to settle here, give our children some stability and keep them in the schools they have started, and we want to find more secure employment. We have degrees and are young, healthy and hard working. We thought the UK government would support us in settling here but we are completely reliant on the help of friends and neighbours.”

Eventually the family found accommodation, but it was over three hours away in West Sussex. They have been forced to move house, move schools, and change jobs. We have a desperate need of workers in Oxfordshire, so I was desperately sad to read that. Also, it is a huge upheaval for that family

Another issue that councils have identified is the temporary legal status of those in the UK under the scheme. At the beginning, we thought the situation would last for weeks or months, not years. Two years sounded generous, but we are now a year in and people are looking to move out and find new, permanent employment. However, when employers see that people have only a year left on their visas, that is a black mark against them when it comes to interviews. I hope the Government will ensure that an automatic extension is applied, which will give families and employers certainty if the situation continues. It is common sense to step in at that point and help people get on the job ladder; they will then pay taxes and contribute back, which is surely in everyone’s interest.

Above all, the councils that have done so much are in desperate need of longer term funding solutions. They are doing their best, but with budgets already squeezed, there is a limit to the support they can provide. The Homes for Ukraine scheme has shown the UK at its best, with communities coming together and providing support for those in need. The Government has listened and there have been tweaks, but we now need them to put their shoulder to the wheel and work out how we are going to keep funding and supporting the scheme in the medium and longer term. The Ukrainians who have come to the UK have contributed so much to our families and our society. I hope the Minister agrees that we owe it to them, and to ourselves, to do that little bit more.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Dowd. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake) on securing the debate and on the points and questions she put to Ministers. On behalf of the SNP group, one year on from Putin’s illegal invasion, our party’s message to Ukrainian arrivals is very clear: Scotland is your home for as long as you need it to be.

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine last February, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has recorded over 8 million refugees from Ukraine across Europe, which is around 20% of the Ukrainian population. From the outset of the crisis, Scotland has stood ready to help. As the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said at the time:

“Let people in and do the paperwork afterwards.”

When the Homes for Ukraine scheme was launched in March 2022, thousands of people across Scotland signed up to host Ukrainian refugees and the Scottish Government became a super-sponsor, enabling people fleeing the war to secure visas without having to arrange a private sponsor first. The super-sponsor scheme has been overwhelmingly popular, with local authorities, the third sector and local communities all working in partnership.

We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) about the work that Perth and Kinross Council is doing in that regard. We have had an excellent briefing from the British Red Cross that underlines what is happening in my hon. Friend’s constituency. As of 17 January 2023, 314 people displaced by the conflict in Ukraine have arrived in Perth and Kinross through the Homes for Ukraine and Scottish super-sponsor schemes. That is the third highest for local authorities in Scotland by number and the highest number per capita.

The council has actively engaged with the private rental sector for over 10 years and has an in-house letting agency, which runs a charitable service. As a result, the agency is well connected to council services such as welfare rights, environmental services and council tax. The council chose to run the service separately from social housing, as it found that that did not work well in practice. The council was able to expand that service to accommodate those coming from Ukraine and did not need to build new relationships with local landlords. Relying on that existing system contributed to Perth and Kinross having the lowest number of households in temporary accommodation.

My hon. Friend is being customarily and particularly kind to my local authority, and I think it is worthy of congratulations for what it has achieved. By setting up an in-house agency, the council is able to properly connect with other council services, such as the welfare rights department, which has been on hand to serve the Ukrainian guests. It serves as a great example of what can be done when the right type of focus is applied by local authorities. We have done spectacular things in Perth and Kinross in the face of the crisis. Will my hon. Friend encourage other local authorities to look at Perth and Kinross Council as an example and perhaps replicate what it has done?

My hon. Friend knows that I come from a local government background—I was not a councillor but a local government employee—so I am passionate about its role in society, which enables it to address a number of issues. He is correct that Perth and Kinross Council has shown what local authorities, including SNP-controlled local authorities, can do, so I thank him for that.

In the past 12 months, nearly 23,000 people from Ukraine have secured safety in Scotland, and just shy of 19,000 of them arrived through the super-sponsor scheme. That represents 20.4% of all UK arrivals—the most per head of any of the four UK nations. None of that would have been possible without the generosity and warm-heartedness of people across Scotland, who opened their hearts and their homes to Ukrainian arrivals.

The Scottish Government are supporting the scheme and have allocated over £70 million for the Ukrainian resettlement programme for 2023-24 to ensure that communities continue to receive help to rebuild their lives. That will build on the £200 million that the Scottish Government provided to support resettlement this financial year. The funding will help to ensure that those displaced by the war continue to receive a warm welcome in Scotland and are supported to rebuild their lives in our communities for as long as they need to call Scotland their home. All that, of course, depends on funding. I hope the UK Government will step up to the plate and ensure full and sustained funding is in place to allow those programmes to continue for the coming year and beyond. I will touch on that later.

The Scottish Government are taking action to allow arrivals from Ukraine to take the next steps in their lives in Scotland. As part of the safe and welcoming accommodation, the Scottish Government chartered two passenger ships, one of which is based in the Glasgow South West constituency. I have regularly visited the ship, which provides a very high-standard facility for guests, and the on-board accommodation is well received. Glasgow City Council is on hand, the Department for Education ensures that children have access to schools in the area and helps with their travel, and Department for Work and Pensions staff have been on the ship to ensure that Ukrainian refugees can find employment.

I support the principle that refugees who come to this country should be allowed to work. We need to look at giving the right to work to other people seeking sanctuary, because that is a problem in other parts of the immigration system. The focus should now be on matching people with suitable longer-term accommodation. The ship in Govan will no longer be there at the end of March, so work is being done to put in place a longer-term resettlement fund to ensure that people find accommodation. People are on the passenger ship temporarily, and they are very quickly able to find accommodation to rent. I have seen from my constituency case load that one of the problems is unnecessary delays for the Ukrainian refugees on the ship in receiving biometric residency permits. I hope the Minister will take that back to the Home Office to make sure the BRPs are provided quickly.

I agree with the points that my hon. Friend is making. Concerns have been expressed to me that there may be a need to further promote the Homes for Ukraine scheme. Does he agree? The people on the boat do not always have the option to move on somewhere else. There are still people trying to flee Ukraine because the conflict is ongoing, so the additional support and additional promotion of that scheme would be very welcome.

I agree. It is important that we continue to promote the schemes that are available. We must be a welcoming nation and say to those in Ukraine that there is a place here at the moment with quality education and access to employment to help them get on with their lives. Of course, some people want to go back, and that is perfectly understandable. There are people from Ukraine who view this country as a refuge home, and they are hoping for the opportunity to return to their country.

The cost of living crisis has disrupted the finances of many hosts and local councils. I hope the Minister can talk about what funding will be made available to ensure that anyone who wants to continue with the Homes for Ukraine scheme is not priced out of doing so. It is important that we get those guarantees so we can take them back. The last year has placed unprecedented financial pressure on households, with the cost of living crisis playing havoc with people’s finances. Many hosts who opened their doors to Ukrainian arrivals last March could not have fully appreciated how bad the cost of living crisis would become, with inflation spiking at 10.5% by December last year.

From January, the UK Government support available to local councils appears to have been cut from £10,500 to £5,900 for each arrival. That short-sighted decision seems to have been taken without any consultation of the devolved Administrations, and certainly without consultation of local authorities across the board. As a result, some hosts now feel that they simply cannot afford to continue participating in the scheme, which is a pity. The Local Government Association has warned of the growing number of Ukrainians presenting as homeless to councils, particularly the significant rise in those who arrived on the Homes for Ukraine scheme. That backs up the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss).

Data released last month showed that 4,295 Ukrainian households have presented themselves to councils as homeless. That is a 40% increase since November 2022. I hope the Minister can assure us that we are not simply passing the buck to local councils, and that there will be sustained funding. The uplift in the “thank you” payment to hosts from £350 to £500 is welcome, but that should be available to all volunteer hosts to meet the increasing cost of living since March. I hope the Minister can assure us that there is continuing dialogue with organisations such as the British Red Cross, which is saying that the increase could come too late and will not always be enough. I thank all those who have participated in the debate, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Dowd. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake) for leading this hugely significant debate during this hugely significant period. Only last week we marked the one-year anniversary of the Russian Federation’s wholly unjust invasion of Ukraine.

My hon. Friend is an extremely doughty campaigner in this area. She eloquently made the case in her excellent speech. She was absolutely right when she spoke about the resilience of Ukrainians and the generosity of those opening their homes to them, showing the best of the United Kingdom. She was also right, and very clear, when she spoke about the unfair and exploitative private rental sector being a huge challenge for Ukrainian families leaving host families.

Skills and training for refugees are clearly important to enable them to fulfil their potential. The hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) spoke movingly about her personal experience of bringing a Ukrainian family into her home, and the benefits that it gave her. It is very much a two-way street, which is often forgotten. I thank her for sharing that, because it is hugely important. The hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) also spoke movingly. His passion for local authorities and the incredible work they do is clear to see—not just in this area, but each and every day in our local communities. It was particularly interesting to hear about the in-house agency system used in Scotland.

Clearly, there has been little disagreement during the debate, and that is really heartening. I join hon. Members in paying tribute to the amazing work done by local charities in this area. Indeed, the House is united in its support for Ukraine and her people. The Opposition’s support for the Ukrainian war efforts against Putin’s brutal aggression is unshakeable. As a member of NATO and an ally to Ukraine, we have a very real obligation to ensure that justice is done and Ukraine emerges as the victor in the conflict.

However, we cannot forget, as hon. Members have stated, that we have very real obligations here at home. We have deep obligations that extend to more than 200,000 Ukrainian individuals and the many families who have sought refuge and safety in these isles. I, for one, do not doubt the sincerity of the Government’s intentions with respect to Ukrainian refugees; after all, the Homes for Ukraine scheme is the largest refugee scheme ever administered by this country. It is reflective of the generosity of the British people, with many thousands opening up their homes to welcome in the most vulnerable—often women and children.

Despite all that, the problems emerging on the ground are clear. In some instances, relationships are breaking down; host family circumstances have changed; and, to boot, conditions in the private rented sector are unforgiving and the welfare system is entirely inadequate. All in all, the data shows that more than 4,000 Ukrainian households are now turning to local councils for somewhere to live after their placement on the scheme has ended. More than 4,000 households are potentially facing homelessness or being referred to homelessness services.

As we have come to understand over the last decade, we have a Government who are inherently reactive to the big questions, rather than a Government focused on getting ahead of the curve. Back in November, I and many other voices from the Opposition were warning that unless the Government got a grip, we were going to face real issues, with our cash-strapped local councils once again being left to clear up the mess on the back of Whitehall short-termism.

At the onset of the war, the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), asked the Secretary of State if he would put a safety net in place in case of placement breakdowns in the future. The Opposition probed the Department further, confirming that families left homeless in that situation would not be able to claim their housing costs under universal credit. Can the Minister advise whether that is being reconsidered? Sadly, no real answers were forthcoming at the time, so hopefully that can be clarified today. The refusal of the Government to give certainty to local authorities, host families and refugees is not only profoundly wrong, but damaging to us on the international stage, and we are better than that.

In her response, I hope the Minister will talk about the ongoing discussions that her Department is having with the Home Office; be clear with us about local government funding and the assurances she can give on that; update us on lessons learned to date; and explain what funding will be available. As the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon said, rather than leaving it until the last minute, can we have something in place that will prevent any further distress to the Ukrainian families? I am particularly interested in the fact that all Members have spoken about the importance of education and skills, not only in the contribution to society but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam eloquently said, to enable these brave Ukrainian refugees to transform uncertainty into hope.

I will finish by urging the Government to truly heed the words of the Opposition, charities, the LGA, the APPG for ending homelessness and the Government’s own MPs and peers, including the former Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel), and act quickly to save their blushes and, most importantly, to fulfil our obligations to the Ukrainian people who chose this country for sanctuary.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I thank everyone for the constructive tone of the debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake) on her very comprehensive and interesting speech.

I thank the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) for her personal contribution to the Homes for Ukraine scheme, which is one of the most remarkable schemes this country has ever seen. It is because of the generosity and compassion of British people that we have been able to welcome so many Ukrainians to this country. The informed and impassioned contributions to the debate speak to the fact that, one year into this war, none of us has allowed there to be any creeping normalisation of the horrors we have witnessed in Ukraine. Our commitment to the people of Ukraine has not wavered, and it will not waver in the years ahead.

The debate is very important to me, not only because I am the Minister responsible for the Homes for Ukraine scheme, but also because my constituency of Kensington is the home of the Ukrainian community in London and, to an extent, throughout the UK. In my constituency, we have the Ukrainian embassy, the phenomenal St Mary’s Ukrainian School, where the numbers have gone up astronomically, the Ukrainian community centre and the Ukrainian Institute London, so the subject is very important to me. I first visited the Ukrainian community before the invasion, when tensions were rising, and I have been with them on a constituency basis all the way. I am delighted to say that in my small borough of Kensington and Chelsea we have 423 registered sponsors under the Homes for Ukraine scheme, and 617 Ukrainians have arrived in the borough, 152 of whom are children.

From the moment the first tanks crossed the border into Ukraine, the stoicism, courage and determination shown by President Zelensky and the Ukrainian people have been a constant source of inspiration to us all. We have been clear from the get-go that if we want to live in a world where peaceful sovereign nations are free to choose their own destiny, Ukraine must win.

I will address the many points that Members have made, but I would like to start by emphasising that the Government and I are enormously proud of the support the UK is providing to Ukrainian nationals and their families. Most of all, we are proud that these schemes are being powered by the British people.

The Minister has referred to the housing issues, but one of the other uncertainties for families is the lack of clarity about family reunification rights under the different schemes and whether those will change over time. Will the Minister address that?

I will address the different schemes and how they fit together in a few moments.

Before the Homes for Ukraine scheme even opened, thousands registered their interest in helping. As soon as it did open, thousands more opened their hearts and their homes to people whose lives had been torn apart by a conflict that they did not ask for. The scheme was the first of its kind in the UK and, since we launched it on 18 March 2022, we have welcomed a remarkable 115,800 people. When combined with the Ukraine families scheme, we have now helped to find over 163,500 people a safe and secure home.

At the outset, we vowed to keep the routes for Ukrainian refugees under constant review, and that is what we have done. The scheme did not stay static; it evolved as the weeks and months went on, including an extension to bring over unaccompanied children who were not travelling with a parent or legal guardian, with robust additional safeguarding checks. We have also adapted the scheme in terms of rematching. We have offered further money. The scheme is a living organism; it will potentially adapt further with time.

As a Government, we have been determined to reciprocate the generosity of the hosts who have come forward with offers of help. To that end, we have provided £1.1 billion to councils through a tariff for each arrival in their area to support guests and sponsors alike. In recognition of their generous support, all Homes for Ukraine sponsors will receive an increased “thank you” payment of £500 a month once guests have been in the country for over a year. We have extended the duration that sponsors can get “thank you” payments from one year to two years. Our absolute focus is providing stable homes for Ukrainians fleeing war and starting a new life on UK soil.

Let me take this opportunity before my concluding remarks to follow up on a few specific points. I will start with homelessness, because a number of Members raised it, and will go through our latest homelessness numbers. For the Homes for Ukraine scheme, it is 2,495. For Ukrainians as a whole, including the families scheme, it is 4,295. Homelessness is defined as a local authority having a duty to prevent and relieve, so, just focusing on the prevention part, a lot of these numbers will cover local authorities that are going in there to help people and put roofs over their heads. I want to be very clear on that definition. Local authorities are doing their job in many of these cases and preventing. If one looks at the 2,495 number in the context of 115,000 arrivals under the Homes for Ukraine scheme, it is a small percentage. We do not want any Ukrainian to be homeless but, if one looks at the prevention and relief duties, it is a small percentage. As I said, it is a good thing that local authorities are doing their jobs and doing them incredibly well.

There are 735 households in temporary accommodation. What are the Government doing to support local authorities? I want to put it on the record that I think local authorities are doing a tremendous job. First, as I have already mentioned, the Government are providing £1.2 billion in tariffs. Those tariffs can be used for homelessness prevention—for example, to help guarantee private rental sector rents. We have also put a £150 million fund in place to relieve homelessness. I believe it was the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam who asked how that fund would be allocated. It will be allocated to the devolved authorities, and in England. We are in discussions with the devolved authorities—I have regular update calls with them—and are finessing the split of that fund. As soon as that has been done and we have agreed the split among the DAs, we will communicate the allocations to local authorities, but that is very much a work in progress.

I thank the Minister for thanking local authorities, because they have done an extraordinary, incredible job—South and Vale have taken a wraparound approach and been very successful in driving down homelessness, not just in the scheme but across the entire district. I encourage the Minister to look not just at the raw homelessness numbers, but at local authorities that are efficient and have done that, often by taking resource from elsewhere and putting it into this team, which has stopped many people from being homeless or even getting anywhere close to that point. When the Government look at the allocation, will they not just assume that, because the numbers are not huge, there is not a problem elsewhere in the council? Indeed, the fact that there are very few has caused problems elsewhere in the council.

That is a well-made point. As I say, we are looking at how we will allocate that money, but I hear what the hon. Member says.

The Minister is being typically generous in giving way. Might one of the reasons for homelessness or some of the other difficulties be related to the point I raised about biometric residence permits? What discussions is she having with the Home Office to make sure BRPs are issued quickly?

When we are talking about homelessness under the Homes for Ukraine scheme, these are all people who are here with their visas, so I do not think it relates to the BRP scheme. However, I am happy to relay the hon. Member’s comments to the Home Office, as he has asked. To the extent that he has details about particular issues, if he could feed those in to me, I can pass them on.

We have also set up a £500 million fund for local authorities to purchase, build or redevelop homes, with an initial focus on Ukrainians and Afghans, although the aim over time is for those homes to be for the benefit of the local community. We are very focused as a Government on homelessness prevention; indeed, we want to prevent homelessness from ever happening. In the last fiscal year, 2022-23, we spent £316 million, but we got an extra top-up from the Treasury of £50 million to alleviate winter homelessness, which makes £366 million. These are big sums of money, and in December we announced £654 million over two years for homelessness prevention.

Let me turn to the private rented sector. I had a look at the last Office for National Statistics survey, in which 17% of those surveyed were in the PRS; however, I am conscious—and clearly I have heard—that there have been issues with some Ukrainians accessing that sector. Sometimes it has been because of a lack of credit history in the UK; sometimes they have been unable to put down deposits. We have encouraged local authorities to think innovatively about how to use the tariff to help people access the private rental sector—an awful lot of local authorities have said that people are using the £10,500 that was received last year to put down deposits. We would encourage them to look at those solutions. Local authorities know best what the funding situation is in their local area.

We are also working very closely with the LGA and the National Residential Landlords Association to get to the bottom of any problems and see how we can incentivise landlords to get round these issues, because it is quite clear that a lot of Ukrainians would like to be independent. While many sponsors are prepared to go longer than six months—in fact, I had another look at the ONS data, and 90% of sponsors said that they were prepared to go longer than six months, while 60% already have—clearly, access to the private rental sector is an important option for Ukrainians. It is something that my Department is working on with a lot of focus. As I say, we are encouraging best practice. We are also funding the strategic migration partnerships to share that best practice among local authorities.

A lot of Members talked about the importance of English for speakers of other languages—ESOL—and skilled employment, and I could not agree more. I chaired a cross-Government meeting last week, attended by a Minister from every Department, where we talked about how we can ramp up that provision of English language classes and ensure that professional qualifications are recognised. Clearly, professional qualifications are recognised by independent bodies, so we cannot tell the Nursing and Midwifery Council what it should approve, but we encourage it to focus on this. There are issues that these bodies need to take into account. It is a focus of Government; I am working very closely with the Minister responsible, the Under-Secretary of State for Business and Trade, my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), on that matter.

I would like to pick up on a few other issues that were raised, such as that about council tax. I want to make it very clear that people who arrive in the UK under the Homes for Ukraine scheme and are living with people will be disregarded for the purposes of council tax. Let us say you are a single person and you get the single person discount. If you bring in two Ukrainians under the Homes for Ukraine scheme, you are still one single person for the purposes of council tax, so you will still get the 25% discount.

Not to disagree—that is correct, and it is fantastic. But again, this is a problem in the Ukraine family scheme. People are not getting that extra payment, but they are getting the extra cost of turning from a single-person household to a multi-person household. That is the question for me, really: what can you do to ensure that these schemes are equitable to allow stability? As you rightly pointed out, people are leaving both the Homes for Ukraine scheme and the family scheme because of difficulties with the cost of living.

Order. At the risk of being pedantic, there are a lot of “you”s going on here. Can we address points through the Chair, if Members do not mind?

This may be a good opportunity for me to talk about how the schemes came about, and our thinking. First, I stress that both schemes give those who have arrived a three-year visa and, very importantly, the right to work, be educated and receive benefits here. The Ukrainian arriving here has the same rights under both schemes.

The family scheme came about because we wanted to extend the most compassion that we could very quickly. It was a temporary and more generous alternative to the family route, and it extended the number and type of family members who could come in. Homes for Ukraine is a very different scheme. It is unique. It is for those fleeing conflict who cannot rely on family support. As I say, individuals have the same rights under both schemes. The difference comes about because in one scheme there are no thank-you payments. We think that is appropriate, because in the family scheme people come over as family members, whereas in the Homes for Ukraine scheme, they have no connection to their host, so we think it appropriate to offer the host a thank-you payment.

The other difference is that the tariff payment to local authorities is paid under the Homes for Ukraine scheme. That is important because of the obligations on local authorities to, for instance, carry out safeguarding checks and ensure integration into the community. Those obligations are specific to the Homes for Ukraine scheme. I want to give hon. Members our logic as to why we see the schemes as separate, but the important point is that the individual has the same rights under both.

I appreciate what the Minister says about why she makes those distinctions between the Homes for Ukraine scheme and the family scheme. However, a case that I dealt with in my constituency involved a person whose parents had come under the family scheme. The parents could not stay with their daughter, because she had only a one-bedroom flat, so there was no room for them. Those parents ended up being put up by my constituent—she wanted to help and had the space to do so—but my constituent was not entitled to any support payments for that. That made things quite fractious for the host, because she was not hosting them on the same basis as other hosts. Does the Minister agree that, for the people who fall in between those two stools, those circumstances seem quite unfair?

There have been one or two examples, such as that of the hon. Lady’s constituent, where hosts thought that they were potentially hosting under the Homes for Ukraine scheme but were not. On homelessness under the family scheme, local authorities have an obligation to deal with homelessness regardless of which scheme a person comes under. I want to make that clear, because the £150 million fund is to relieve homelessness. It is not ringfenced, and it is for local authorities to decide how it is spent.

Let me pick up the point about housing benefit. We have amended the eligibility criteria to ensure that arrivals from Ukraine under one of the Government schemes are eligible for housing assistance from day one of their arrival. I believe there was also a question about family reunification. That does not fall within my remit; it is a Home Office matter.

Let me conclude. At every stage of this process, we have developed our humanitarian schemes in close consultation with Ukrainian leaders and, very importantly, the diaspora community in the UK to ensure that what we offer responds to their needs. The needs of Ukrainians will continue to be at the heart of our approach. I am hugely proud of what we have all achieved, cross-party, by putting politics to one side and instead focusing our collective efforts on supporting Ukraine and its people through the war. Today’s debate, with the strength, passion and commitment that has been on display, has left me more convinced than ever that Ukraine can and will win the war.

I will finish by thanking most of all the sponsors in the UK. Without their generosity and compassion, the scheme would simply not have been possible. On behalf of this House, thank you.

Apologies for my earlier use of “you”, Mr Dowd. I want to say a massive thank you to everyone who has taken part in today’s debate. We heard about personal experiences from the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran), and about the innovative schemes in Perth and Glasgow. It is important that we look across UK borders—or should I say devolution lines?—to make sure that we learn as much as we can about how the schemes are working.

I was privileged to work closely with host families in my area. I hosted joint surgeries, so that we could share experiences, and hear from people going through the process, which was iterative. That approach at Government level is important, so I thank the Minister for addressing the concerns raised. We might have to agree to disagree on the issues around the difference between the two schemes, as things are a bit more complicated in reality than they were outlined as being.

I forgot to mention the question of how we monitor the number of people returning to Ukraine. In Sheffield, 34 families have returned to Ukraine. According to the Sheffield branch of the Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain, that was primarily because of an inability to get private rented sector housing. Information of that kind is key to our understanding, and gives us the opportunity to improve the scheme.

I thank everyone for taking part in this debate. I am grateful that time was allowed for us to consider the issues. Although the scheme has been a success, we can always learn lessons, so that we can make sure that, in the medium to long term, we give our full support to the people of Ukraine.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the anniversary of the Homes for Ukraine scheme.

Sitting suspended.