Sarah Owen (Luton North) (Lab)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. Unlike other Members, I welcome the Minister; it is his Department, DLUHC, that is responsible for Homes for Ukraine, and therefore responsible for its faults as well as its successes. Things have gone wrong, as they did in the heartbreaking case of Mariia and Nataliia, which was powerfully described by my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq). Like others, I thank her for securing this important debate.
We have heard from my hon. Friend and other Members about a case of utter mismanagement, with logic and compassion thrown out of the windows of Departments that are not working together. In the early stages of the war, we saw cases where people from the UK were desperately trying to get loved ones to safety, but UK embassies were shut—held up by senseless bureaucracy. We saw Ministers telling people fleeing Putin’s brutal invasion to apply for visas to pick fruit. It was far from co-ordinated; it was a shambles. I welcome the announcement yesterday of changes to the rules on letting unaccompanied Ukrainian children into the UK—those changes are needed—but we await further details.
What we saw at the beginning of the war sadly had all the hallmarks of the shambolic and chaotic Government response to the crisis in Afghanistan less than a year before the invasion of Ukraine, with MPs’ emails going unanswered, specific cases not being responded to, and vulnerable people—children—left to fend for themselves. Unless there is urgent action now, Homes for Ukraine risks being another empty slogan from this Government. Like last summer’s Operation Warm Welcome for Afghans, it has been left to run cold. There are still over 10,000 Afghan refugees, including children, left in hotels and B&Bs or, worse still, abandoned to the mercies of the Taliban in Afghanistan. I mention that because that the Government had the chance to learn from the mistakes of last summer’s refugee programme, but sadly, they did not.
The outpouring of support and good will from the British public for the Ukrainian and Afghan refugees was not matched by this Government. Children are still unable to get the visas they desperately need. We have heard about the situation with Mariia and Nataliia. The hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) spoke powerfully about Oksana and the bureaucracy that is holding up her safety. My hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) highlighted further the bureaucracy that is stopping people offering the safety of their homes to people in desperate need. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made a typically heartfelt and moral case for why this is important. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake) talked about trauma, and the importance of providing a place of sanctuary for children fleeing war.
The experience of war, fleeing the country that they knew as home, losing or leaving loved ones, and travelling to a foreign country would be traumatic enough for an adult; I cannot imagine what effect it would have on a child’s mental health. We know that the wait for child and adolescent mental health services for children born and raised in the UK is far too long, so it is important for extra, targeted support to be offered to traumatised child refugees. To that end, I would be grateful if the Minister could tell us what steps are being taken to see that mental health service providers are offering support in culturally sensitive ways, and in a language spoken by these children and their families.
As we have heard, recent data shows that 9,900 school places have been offered to Ukrainian children. Schools and schoolchildren have opened their hearts to the refugees, and that is welcome, but that figure is out of 11,400 applications, leaving a sizable number of children who have not applied for or taken up their places in schools. What steps is the Minister’s Department taking to encourage and support uptake of school places?
Some 155,600 applications have been received under the Ukraine visa scheme and there have been more than 120,000 generous offers to home refugees, but there still appears to be no definitive data on the number who have been matched and successfully housed. The last we saw was around 33,000 placements in May, so I would be grateful for an update from the Minister. Exactly how many people have been successfully matched and housed under the Homes for Ukraine scheme? How many hosts have been given the support needed to home traumatised children?
When the Homes for Ukraine scheme was first rolled out, I and many others, in the hope of building a robust, safe scheme, asked constructively about the importance of vetting. I know that many councils have not yet received additional support to assess and run checks on those people who have generously offered their homes, to ensure that they can offer stable, safe and appropriate accommodation to home some of the most vulnerable people leaving Ukraine—women and children.
Misha Lagodinsky, who runs a matching scheme called UK Welcomes Ukraine, which has 100 Ukrainian and Russian-speaking volunteers connecting people, said:
“Some people are finding that they are homeless straight away because they have a visa granted and then their host fails DBS checks.”
Unfortunately, as we have heard, we have seen breakdowns occur even when successful, safe matches have been made, again rendering refugees homeless. We saw a horrific report about a Ukrainian refugee who was rehomed under a Government scheme but left homeless, along with her teenage son, after they were manipulated for money by their hosts. Having arrived in April, she was asked for money and told to leave after three weeks. That same month, the Local Government Association published a survey of local authorities across the country that reported 144 Ukrainian refugees as homeless following breakdowns with host accommodation.
The Department responsible—the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities—now wants to bring back draconian laws from 1824 to again criminalise rough sleeping. We could well be in the ludicrous position of Ukrainians who have fled their war-torn country falling out with their hosts in this country and then being slapped with a criminal record by the same Department that was supposed to help them in the first place. Vulnerable refugees need to be protected from homelessness, not to flee a warzone only to be criminalised, through no fault of their own, by this Government. When will the Government release the latest figures on the number of Ukrainian refugees who have been made homeless?
If the Home Office gets its way, we will be in danger of seeing Ukrainian refugees on a flight to Rwanda for processing. “Processing” is such a horrible, cruel word when we are talking about victims of war, people trafficking, torture and famine. Where is the compassion? Will the Minister give a cast-iron guarantee that we will see no deportations of refugees who fall through the gaps of the Homes for Ukraine scheme, and that none will be forced on to a plane to Rwanda?
We have heard some genuinely harrowing and heartbreaking examples of people who have fallen through the safety net that the British public desperately want to provide for Ukrainian refugees. On occasions, that compassion and ambition has not been matched by the processes put in place by the Government. I know that no Member who has raised individual cases—especially my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn—will stop until their constituents get the help that they need, so my final question to the Minister is this: will the Government meet each Member who has raised a case to see what we all want, which is some peace for the people fleeing this dreadful war?