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Home Office Visas for Ukrainians

Volume 819: debated on Thursday 10 March 2022

Commons Urgent Question

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary to an Urgent Question in another place on refugees from Ukraine. The Statement is as follows:

“Mr Speaker, 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. On 4 March, I launched the Ukraine family scheme. It 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 make the process quicker and simpler.

I have two overarching obligations: to meet my first responsibility of keeping the British people safe and to meet their overwhelming demand that we 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 services, which provide 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 I have received, I am now in a position to announce that vital security checks will continue on all cases. However, I can announce that 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 to the UK fully online from wherever they are and will be able to give their biometrics once in the UK. 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 13,000 appointments a week. That streamlined approach will be operational as of Tuesday, 15 March, in order to make the relevant IT changes.

I will, of course, update the House if the security picture changes and if it becomes necessary or feasible 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.”

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that, but the Home Office’s response so far to Ukrainians fleeing Russian bombardment has been shambolic. The Home Secretary seems to be making it up as she goes along. Desperate people—families with young children—have travelled hundreds of miles because the Home Office cannot get a grip on where its own visa centre is. Why are the changes announced today not being made for another five days? What do people do today, tomorrow or the next day? There are Army troops on standby to help: why have they not been brought in to staff emergency centres?

The Minister mentioned people with passports: what happens to those without passports or who fled bombs without grabbing their documents because they were being bombed? What about, for example, the Ukrainian nurse working in our hospitals? Can the Minister guarantee that her family would be welcome here? There are so many gaps and so many holes in it, notwithstanding the announcements that have been made today to deal with the human suffering that we see in Ukraine. The Government have to get a grip and get a grip now.

My Lords, as to why the changes will not come in until Tuesday, it will be necessary to get the IT systems up and running, and it will take until Tuesday to get that done. What that will do, however, is free up the system generally for those without passports to be helped at VACs, and the whole system will be speeded up that much more quickly. It might assist the noble Lord—and I have given updated figures every day that I have taken Questions this week—to know that, as I understand it, as of this morning, we have now granted 1,305 visas.

My Lords, those seeking sanctuary in the UK crossing the channel in small boats, many of whom do not have passports, undergo biometrics and security checks in the UK. Why can Ukrainians, without family in the UK or passports, and nationals of other countries fleeing Putin’s war, not do the same? In particular, women, children and the elderly are unlikely to present security threats to the UK, so what is stopping the Government lifting visa requirements, as EU states have done?

As I said to the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, yesterday, one thing that we will not do is dispense with security checks. But there will be a lot more capacity at VACs for those without passports, because those with passports can now come here and have their biometrics taken here.

Will the Minister please clarify whether the new opening-up of the scheme for those with visas applies to those who do not have family here, but are coming under a sponsorship scheme? Will she say how sponsors are being collated; whether it is correct that it is the Department for Levelling Up that is responsible for all of this, and how it is working with the Home Office; and whether the Government have recruited recently retired Border Force staff, who are expert at spotting problems, to come in and help man, so that we can bring in the thousands of people who otherwise risk dying of cold, apart from anything else?

As I said to the House yesterday, the humanitarian sponsorship pathway is going to be a DLUHC operation. Obviously, I will be working in close contact with DLUHC. In fact, I was speaking to Richard Harrington this morning, and we will be working closely together to ensure that this sponsorship pathway operates smoothly. On whether the biometrics will be dispensed with for those on that scheme, I cannot answer the noble Baroness, because I am not sure that that has even been decided yet, but I will certainly update her on that.

My Lords, the changes are welcome, but they are far too late. We were arguing the case for people to be able to come in without visas last week. As the Minister has already mentioned Salisbury, I am not sure, but I seem to think that I saw pictures of the people who were allegedly guilty of those offences, and they did have passports and visas. The visas were, therefore, not the security system that we would have hoped they would be, so I do not see why we are still faffing about around the edges. It is too serious to have every move that we are making being dragged out too slowly. We need to get our finger out and get on with it.

I understand my noble friend’s points, but we will continue to carry out security checks on anyone who comes in. The point is that Ukrainians with passports will be able to come straight here and have their biometrics taken. That will free up the system much more quickly.

My Lords, perhaps the Minister could help us a little. Ukrainians are arriving, some of them with leave to remain, but they have no recourse to public funds. For example, yesterday my chaplain at the airport in Luton was phoning me saying, “We have 12 people. They have been put up for a week in a hotel by Border Force, but that is going to come to an end on Monday.” We are currently trying to raise money and funds, and to identify places for these 12 people. This is a really serious problem facing us immediately. We want to help, but there is a very real danger that, if we cannot get the legalities sorted out, there are going to be people—particularly single people—sleeping rough by next Monday. Will clear guidance be given to local authorities, and can we try to find a way through some of these problems, which need to be addressed now?

I am assuming that the right reverend Prelate is not referring to people coming in under the family scheme, because clearly they would have recourse to public funds. I am assuming that he is talking about Ukrainians seeking asylum here. Ukrainians coming here under the family scheme, by its very nature, will have family members here. I will take this offline and discuss it with the right reverend Prelate, because certain things in what he is saying do not seem to fit the scheme that we are talking about.

My Lords, when history books are written, the United Kingdom will be judged as much by its humanitarian response as by its supply of weapons to Ukraine. Can my noble friend the Minister assure the House that instructions on how to apply for visas are written in clear English, in Ukrainian and in Russian, and that the new online service will not crash as soon as it opens on Tuesday?

My Lords, it is not as if we have not had weeks of notice that this was going to happen. What has been going on? Has the Minister looked at today’s papers—not necessarily the Guardian but the Conservative-supporting papers? They are all appalled. British public opinion is appalled at what has been going on. If Ukrainians who do not have family connections wish to seek safety here, what is the pathway for them to do it? Will there be limits? Will they be able to come easily or will it be more difficult? This morning, I had a desperate email from somebody asking if we could take 80 orphans. What is the policy?

The noble Lord might recall me talking this week about the humanitarian sponsorship pathway, which is for Ukrainians without family in the UK who want to come here. There is no cap on the number of people who can come. All they need is a sponsor. As was mentioned previously, we have been inundated with offers. One thing that I discussed this morning with Richard Harrington was how we capture that generosity and ensure that the people who want to help can help.

My Lords, we capture that generosity by being efficient. Will my noble friend tell me what is the status of Lille? On Monday, refugees were told to go to Calais and on Tuesday they were told to go to Lille. Where do these poor people go?

There will be a temporary facility at Lille, but I want to put in context for my noble friend and others in the House the number of people who went to Paris compared with those who went to VACs in Poland. The number in Rzeszów and Warsaw was 10 times the number going to Paris, for obvious reasons. People are far safer to go to the nearest VAC as they exit Ukraine.

My Lords, the noble Baroness is very bold in giving assurances about the robustness of the IT, which I was going to ask about. As well as information being available in the correct language, will she explain more broadly how information will be disseminated and made available to all those at the border who must be very uncertain and have great difficulty in finding that information?

The noble Baroness raises a crucial question because those who are not well informed at the border could potentially find themselves at the mercy of traffickers. There is a lot of activity and assistance at the border to ensure that people are signposted to the right place. Dispensing with the need for people with Ukrainian passports to go to a VAC will speed up their passage here.

Sitting suspended.