Okay. The second route, the “homes for Ukraine” programme, has been announced in the Chamber today. As I understand it—I am happy to be corrected, because we have only just received the details—this route allows charities and individuals to sponsor Ukrainians to come here even when they have no family ties, and to stay with members of the public for at least six months and remain in the UK for three years. My understanding is that people will be paid £350 a month during the period of sponsorship, and local authorities will receive around £10,000 for refugees using this route. In practice, this scheme is likely to be extended mainly to Ukrainians already known to people in the UK.
As Members are aware, a statement on this matter is currently ongoing in the main Chamber. We will need to look at the details more fully, but what we do know is that these initiatives are still quite limited: they cover only selected people, those lucky enough to have family members here or to be chosen for sponsorship. They do not offer all Ukrainians fleeing violence the opportunity to come to our country as refugees. It should come as no surprise that in stark contrast to many of our European allies, the UK had issued just 4,000 visas as of Sunday afternoon, according to the Home Office.
The Home Secretary repeatedly raises security as a justification for the Government’s approach. Security is by no means a trivial issue, but it is difficult to see what security has to do with the Government’s decision to mostly restrict access to selected family members of people settled in the UK. People arrive in the UK with all kinds of challenges, and we deal with them. Are the hugely restrictive schemes not just a policy choice that the Government have made for whatever reason, rather than a response to a specific security threat? If security concerns underpin the Government’s approach, how does that fit with the suggestion made by the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and Minister for Intergovernmental Relations, the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) that the public could find people to sponsor on social media? Is that really the safest way to go about that, if security is the main concern? It is telling that Germany, France and Spain, which no doubt share concerns about security within their borders, have not used that same rationale. I am afraid to say that it looks like the Government are searching for reasons for the highly limited and restrictive approach they have taken throughout the crisis. The Minister may give a response that explains and clarifies that for Members, but the public are struggling to understand.
Even the distinctly ungenerous design of those two schemes have been surpassed by the chaos and the confusion over how desperate Ukrainians are supposed to even access them, which has seen Ministers at times openly contradicting one another. The list of requirements that Ukrainians have faced is dizzying. First, they must create an online account on the Home Office website, and fill in a detailed application form in English. They must then upload proof that their family member has residence in the UK; they must prove that they were living in the UK prior to 1 January 2022. Evidence must then be provided of the link to the family member in the UK, and if they do not have that, they must provide an explanation why. If that documentation then needs to be translated from Ukrainian or Russian into English, the applicant is responsible for ensuring that happens. Before tomorrow’s changes, even those with full documentation had to book and attend appointments to give biometrics, including fingerprints, in person at UK visa application centres. Those without passports will still have to. As Ukraine’s ambassador told the Home Affairs Committee last week, most people do not have their passports with them—their homes were burned.
Many people who braved the journey to Calais found only a handful of Home Office officials, handing out crisps and chocolate bars before telling them that no visas would be issued there. Ukrainians were advised to call a UK number, visit a website or travel elsewhere—not the easiest thing to do when they have just arrived from a war zone. Disturbing news reports show children bursting into tears after hours of queuing outside UK visa application centres in sub-zero temperatures.
Many constituents who have contacted me have come to their own view on this: that the bureaucratic complexity and apparent indifference to the suffering of Ukrainian refugees is entirely consistent with the Government’s overarching migration and asylum policy, under which anyone hoping to enter the UK is met with a system that is grudging, inefficient and designed to keep them out no matter what the costs on the other side of the ledger. One constituent contacted me seeking support to bring his family to the UK. After many anxious hours and days, his family managed to progress the case. He sent me a message saying,
“I am ashamed at the way this current government is treating Ukrainian refugees”,
and that while they eventually managed to obtain support,
“there will be many who don’t have the ability to receive that help”.
Another constituent added,
“I weep when I see elderly people queuing in sub-zero temperatures outside well-heated offices that they have had to travel extra distance to after their exhausting flight from bombs and war.”
A further constituent stated,
“I am hugely disappointed by our Government’s slowness to provide a safe haven for Ukrainian people.”
Others have described the response as “woeful”, “inhumane” and “overly bureaucratic”.
Too many times over the last few years, such as with Syria and Afghanistan, our Government have been too slow and too bureaucratic to respond in times of crisis. Ukrainians are just the latest victims. The Home Office must urgently co-ordinate the systems and staff necessary to run a humane and efficient admissions process—one that recognises that people fleeing a war zone are not necessarily going to have all their papers in order.
Before I conclude, I want to ask the Minister some specific questions. First, there is no doubt that the scale of the crisis is immense, with over 2.8 million already fleeing Ukraine and millions more to come. It is a disaster on a scale our continent has not seen since the mid-20th century. It is a huge challenge for the UK and its allies to deal with. It was also predictable. The Government have had intelligence that a Russian invasion of Ukraine was likely for some time. Presumably, Ministers also received advice on the unimaginable scale of the refugee crisis and the options available to help manage it, yet, clearly a decision was taken to help only a very small number of Ukrainians reach the UK. When the Minister responds, can he explain how and why the Government arrived at this decision and why, when we have known that this may happen for some time, the humanitarian sponsorship route has only been revealed today?
Secondly, the economic fallout of this war will not be confined to Russia and Ukraine. In the UK, we already know that the sanctions imposed on Russian oil exports will heighten pre-existing pressures on household finances. Humanitarian agencies have warned that the devastating effects will be felt especially by the world’s poorest. In Lebanon, for example, a reliance on imports from Ukraine and Russia has led to acute shortages in wheat, grain and cooking oil and skyrocketing food and fuel prices. Can the Minister confirm that, from now on, the Government will respond with the long-term vision that is required and that we will provide the support, while ensuring that it does not take away from the budgets we have already committed to help the humanitarian consequences of this crisis elsewhere?
There are Ukrainians already in the UK, including students sponsored by universities who are coming to the end of their course and whose leave to remain will come to an end soon. Understandably, many of them will not be able to return to Ukraine. Instead of granting concessions, as it has done with HGV drivers, pork butchers and seasonal workers, the Home Office appears to have the policy of making every single individual contact the Home Office separately. There is a risk that the Home Office will force them to make human rights or asylum applications, which will add a further administrative burden to the system.
My constituency office is still working to support people who arrived from conflict zones four or five years ago. Some were unaccompanied children, and they are still waiting for decisions on their cases. It makes no sense to force Ukrainians legally present in the UK to compete with Syrians and Afghans for the attention of over-stretched Home Office officials. Will the Government look at a way to automate this process for Ukrainians already in the UK?
As I understand it, same-sex marriage is not recognised in Ukraine. LGBT people might find it harder to prove their relationships to sponsors and their families. What are the Government doing to ensure that LGBT relatives and partners can get out of Ukraine safely without facing discriminatory barriers? On the sponsorship route, how many refugees do the Government anticipate will come via this route, given that it is likely to be restricted to people who are already known to people in the UK? Can the Minister confirm which families will have access to universal credit once the sponsorship ends? How will we deal with the obvious safeguarding concerns around the placing of vulnerable people—mostly women and children?
The Home Affairs Committee heard evidence that some staff working at TLScontact are taking what would be seen as an opportunistic approach to people attending visa application centres, recommending to vulnerable groups that they pay extra money to get an early appointment. Are the Government aware of this commercial, predatory approach that is being taken to a humanitarian disaster, and are they taking steps to deal with it? In November, the Home Secretary was warned by the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration that customers at visa application centres often felt “forced to pay” due to a lack of free appointments and difficulties uploading documents. What action has been taken in response to that warning? Can the Minister also confirm that the Home Office is not offering its own paid services to expedite applications?
The Prime Minister has said that,
“The UK is way out in front in our willingness to help.”
Willingness is one thing—I would hate to think what unwillingness might look like, when our Home Secretary has gone so far as to imply that the Irish Government’s welcoming policy has put UK security at risk.
The petition calls on the Government to join the EU in waiving visa requirements for Ukrainian passport holders arriving in the UK. Everything we have seen so far suggests that the Government intend to respond by merely tweaking existing managed migration routes. However, the crisis will not go away any time soon. It will only get worse as President Putin targets more Ukrainian cities in his destructive war on civilians. Future waves of refugees are likely to be even more vulnerable, as those with fewer resources and connections will be the last to escape.
The petition’s creator, Phillip Jolliffe, contacted me in advance of this debate and said,
“I have been lucky to work with several Ukrainian engineers over the years. I have been in contact with some, and I fear the safety of others. I have heard back from one friend, he has already volunteered and deployed with his unit. It is hard for me to fathom the idea of men I worked with having to pick up arms and wave goodbye to their children. Last I heard, his wife and child remained in Kyiv. I feel great shame and frustration that they cannot come to the UK and receive shelter and aid—it is here waiting for them.”
Across Europe, the response to the Ukrainian invasion—even in some countries that have generally been quite hostile to refugees—has served only to highlight the UK’s shameful policy. It is time for the Government to change course. If 27 European countries can do their bit, so should we.
The public response to this crisis—including this petition, which surpassed the 100,000-signature threshold for debate in such a short space of time—has shown that the British public have big hearts and open arms. They clearly do not want us to offer half-hearted, begrudging support, with painfully difficult conditions attached, to fleeing Ukrainians. The Government do not have to allow unlimited numbers of people to stay in the UK indefinitely, but they must treat this situation as what it is: a humanitarian crisis.
This country has offered sanctuary to those fleeing war on the European continent in generations past. Ukrainians who came here after the second world war have become an integral part of many local communities up and down the country, and many are doing what they can to help their fellow Ukrainians in this moment of unprecedented crisis. As we look to be entering a new era in world politics, exemplified by President Zelensky’s historic address to this House, it is time for us to genuinely and open-heartedly offer that sanctuary again.