My Lords, the Home Office is currently prioritising Ukraine visa scheme applications in response to the humanitarian crisis caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Staff from other government departments, including the DWP and HMRC, are being surged into the department to help with Ukraine work and to enable normal visa routes to return to normal service levels in due course.
My Lords, it is very commendable that the Government are pouring additional resources into processing Ukrainian visas, but can I ask that they do not lose sight of the over 18,000 families, split apart and waiting for spousal visas, who have no certainty that the recently increased 24-week timeframe will even be the maximum time that they will have to wait? What measurable steps are the Government taking to reduce this backlog, and when does the Minister expect the fast-track system to be reinstated?
I concur with the noble Baroness that we will not lose sight of that, but what we will also not lose sight of is that in many instances it is life or death for the Ukrainian people. I totally appreciate that other people are having to wait, and we are going to return to normal processing as soon as we can in due course.
My Lords, we agree with the prioritisation with respect to Ukraine, but the fact of the matter is that, whether it is passports, asylum applications or, now, spousal visas, the story at the Home Office is backlog after backlog after backlog. The Government’s response is to say that over the next few months they will come forward with plans for reductions of 10% in staff. What does the Home Office say to those people waiting for spousal visas, separated from their partners for six months at a time? What does it say to those people waiting for spousal visas who have given up their jobs on the basis that they expect to get them? It is not good enough. Prioritise Ukraine, but not at the expense of everything else.
The noble Lord has neatly gone on to passports. Across March, April and May, HMPO processed approximately 3 million passport applications, with 98.5% of those processed within the published processing time of up to 10 weeks, and 91% processed within six weeks. It was not a backlog; it was the sheer volume of processing that needed to be done. In terms of workforce reductions, I have made the point before that every organisation should look at becoming leaner and more efficient. That certainly will not be to the detriment of any of the HMPO or processing surges that we see at the moment, where we expect to have the appropriate number of staff for processing.
My Lords, are the Government aware that the Russian Government are using the delays as a form of propaganda by saying that it is the fault of the Ukrainians that other countries cannot get their visas, and that this propaganda is being specifically targeted at South Africa, India and other countries? That information came to me at a meeting I had with five Ukrainian MPs recently.
My Lords, my noble friend has answered a question on the length of time for inquiries to be made and for decisions to be taken. This appears to be the case throughout administration in relation to passports, as well as in relation to these matters. If we are now going to totally rely on the number of weeks in which we have to deal with matters, surely we are at risk of cutting corners. Is it not really rather important that we be more concerned with the thoroughness and fairness of the examination that takes place before a decision is taken?
My noble friend is absolutely right. Of course, those thorough processes were some of the things that noble Lords were asking us to cut corners on right at the beginning of this process. We have not, and we are proud of the thoroughness of our processes.
My Lords, the Minister of State for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and the Home Office told the House on 7 June that there were 19,000 outstanding applications under the Ukrainian visa scheme. Can the Minister update the House on that number? Can she tell the House what the knock-on effect has been in terms of the number of outstanding applications for other visas?
My Lords, before the Minister returns to the Home Office this afternoon, will she encourage colleagues to go and see the exhibition that opened yesterday, sponsored by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and Rehman Chishti MP, in the Upper Waiting Room between both Houses of Parliament? It highlights those who have been caught up in violence in Afghanistan, and the Rohingya, Yazidis, Nigerians and many others, so that we understand the plight that many women especially face when they become refugees, contrary to the caricature that is often made of those seeking asylum.
The noble Lord points to the vulnerability of women. We have seen that very much during the flight from Ukraine; they are our most vulnerable. Again, that is why we have prioritised the visas and why we do not want women to take journeys across Europe to perhaps be at the behest of people who would not wish them any good.
My Lords, notwithstanding everything that has already been said today, is the Minister aware that a drift back to Ukraine from countries such as Poland is starting, and that a direct train service from Warsaw to Kyiv—with a change of undercarriage at the border—has started to be reinstated, and that even the economic development agency based in Kyiv, on behalf of the Ukrainians, is now starting to get back into business to work out how it is going to advance the economic development of that country?
My Lords, if a private company could produce its product only with a six-month wait, competition would move in to take over its market. Has my noble friend any plans to ensure that this happens with the delivery of these important services?
In answer to my noble friend Lord Paddick, the Minister answered the first part of his question. The second part was: as a result of Ukraine, what is the detriment in the number of outstanding applications from other people waiting for visas? Could the Minister please answer that part of the question?
The noble Lord and the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, are absolutely right that it is to the detriment of other visa schemes— student and spousal visas, for example—and, as I said, we hope to get them back on to a more normal footing in due course.