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Ukrainian Nationals: Visitor Visas

Volume 820: debated on Tuesday 22 March 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what arrangements they have made for Ukrainian nationals who lawfully arrived in the United Kingdom on visitor visas before the war broke out and now cannot safely return to Ukraine.

Ukrainians on visitor visas can now have them extended automatically—since the war broke out, obviously, they cannot safely return to Ukraine. They will be extended for six months. Alongside this, we have made it easier for Ukrainians on work, study or seasonal work visas to remain in the UK by extending leave or allowing individuals to switch routes fee-free. I assure my noble friend that people will be treated kindly and sympathetically by Border Force officers.

My Lords, can my noble friend give an assurance that the Government will consider extending the right to stay to three years, to put these people on the same footing as Ukrainian nationals arriving in the United Kingdom as refugees?

I can confirm to my noble friend that we are looking into this at the moment, and it would seem sensible to extend the scheme to 36 months and allow those people the same benefits of living in this country that are extended to people on the other schemes.

My Lords, if families are taken in by British people and they are paid £350 per month, can the Government assure me that that £350 is not taxable?

My Lords, underlining the point about the dire situation that the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, described, will the Minister respond to reports that, according to the United Nations, the number of people who have now fled their homes in Ukraine totals 10 million—a quarter of the population—that mass deportations and abductions from Mariupol into locations deep inside Russia have been instigated and that an art school sheltering some 400 people has reportedly been destroyed? Did the Minister have the chance to read the letter in Times on Saturday which highlighted the plight of the 100,000 orphans, half of whom are disabled, housed in 700 children’s homes? Is the noble Lord, as our Refugees Minister—where he is doing a terrific job—able to instigate and co-ordinate international efforts to ensure the safe evacuation of those, clearly very vulnerable, children?

I thank the noble Lord for his question. We have done quite a lot of work on orphans in the countries around Ukraine. The problem is that the policy of the Ukrainian Government, which we have to respect, is that orphans are to be kept in countries adjacent to Ukraine. In the vast majority of cases, they do not want them brought to the UK or other countries. It is therefore our role, predominantly, to support the Ukraine Government by providing aid, hospitality and all the facilities that we can in those countries.

My Lords, my noble friend has been very helpful. What happens to those to whom permission for three years is given when the six months for which the Government are paying elapses? Are the Government prepared to continue paying those families or are they expecting those refugees to move elsewhere?

My Lords, I will just clarify the situation. The six months to which my noble friend refers is the six months of the sponsorship scheme. That is the minimum period for which individual sponsors may be asked to provide accommodation. That, of course, is extendable. All the benefits, rights to education and all the other facilities extend for the full three years. Depending on what the sponsor wants, however, those people might have to move to another sponsored accommodation or elsewhere after six months.

My Lords, I have not yet had the chance to congratulate the Minister on his new post. Many of us have quite high hopes for what he is going to achieve; I hope that does not damage his political future. Will the Minister have a look at the difficulty Ukrainians are having in getting visas to come here? There is still a very slow rate of progress, so could he do something to speed it up, please?

I thank the noble Lord for his kind words but I think my political prospects diminished several years ago. I am doing this job, as the noble Lord knows, because I was involved with the Syrian refugees. I thank him for his help then and for his candid, but always polite, criticism of what we did. The visa process has been greatly expedited: now, refugees with Ukrainian passports can download the form on their phone with the passport, and will get a response very quickly, without having to go to the visa centres, which have caused such delays. I regard that as a major improvement.

My Lords, following up on that question, the noble Lord last week, in answering questions on the Statement, said that the intention was to greatly shorten the visa application forms and, I think, to make them available in Ukrainian. How long is the visa form now, compared to the 50 pages that it was originally? Is it available in Ukrainian?

I thank the noble Lord. I can assure him that it is a lot shorter. I am afraid I cannot give him the exact number of pages, but the Home Secretary and I have been through it line by line. It is shorter and, I hope, will get even shorter. As for the language, while the form itself is in English, at each section a drop-down column comes out with the Ukrainian translation. It is not quite what the noble Lord wants, because we also have to think of all the officers who have to work on it who are not trained in Ukrainian, but every single word is translated in those drop-down boxes.

My Lords, I am co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery. Our group is very concerned about the plight of vulnerable children on the borders of Ukraine, where they are at huge risk of human trafficking. What are the Government doing about that?

I share the noble Baroness’s concern about this. We are in regular touch with the authorities and the aid agencies on the ground. Predominantly, the Government’s policy is to fund the relevant agencies on the ground to help facilitate the kind of safety required. I must make clear again, however, that it is the clear policy of the Ukrainian Government, as reiterated to me by the ambassador here, not to move children very long distances but to move them to safety in countries such as Poland, adjacent to Ukraine.

My Lords, I warmly welcome the noble Lord, Lord Harrington of Watford, to the government Dispatch Box and express the hope that he has rather more success than the football team mentioned in his title is currently having.

I sincerely hope he does have more success. Can the Government confirm that, under the terms of the Nationality and Borders Bill, as it came to this House from the Commons, refugees fleeing the carnage and threat to their lives in Ukraine would be dealt with as having entered the UK unlawfully, thus creating a criminal offence, if they arrive here—perhaps by small boat across the channel—requiring leave to enter or remain and not having such leave?

The noble Lord has made me speechless about the prospects for Watford football club, but I reluctantly accept that he is quite correct.

On the substance of his question about Ukrainians arriving in small boats, all I can say is that it is our policy to treat any Ukrainian who arrives—and others, I hope—with as much sympathy and compassion as we can. I would like to meet with him or drop him a line about a more specific answer to his question.

My Lords, referring to the Minister’s previous response, what measures will be taken to ensure that Ukrainian refugees are safeguarded from being subjected to modern slavery? Will welfare checks and safeguarding assurances be undertaken regularly and before any payments are made under the “Homes for Ukraine” £350-a-month “thank you” payment scheme?

I can confirm that checks are being carried out as we speak on sponsors before refugees arrive in their homes, and that local authorities will be carrying out further checks in the weeks to come.

My Lords, I too welcome my noble friend Lord Harrington to the Front Bench. On the previous question about languages, given that not all Ukrainians’ first language is Ukrainian, can the Minister assure us that there will also be a Russian translation?

I cannot give my noble friend that undertaking because I am not sure, but I will know within minutes of sitting down what the answer is. We have certainly ensured that there are welcome signs and packs available at the airports for those who need Russian. However, we have been told that many Ukrainians are quite offended by the use of the Russian language, so we have to be careful.

My Lords, we have huge admiration for the fighting ability and bravery of the Ukrainians fighting against the Russians, and it is important that they should continue that fighting for as long as possible, because that will mean a better outcome at the end when things change. You fight far better when you know that your family and loved ones are being looked after and are safe and being taken care of—not just while you are fighting but should you be killed. Does the Minister not believe that we should bend over backwards in every single way to look after Ukrainian refugees, to ensure that it is in our benefit and that it is the right and proper thing to do?

I agree totally with what the noble Lord said. Everyone in the two departments I am involved with is certainly instructed to ensure that refugees are treated in a humane, compassionate way, understanding that many have had very traumatic experiences before they get here.