With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on our Government’s response to help those fleeing the conflict in Ukraine.
This Government and this House—indeed, everyone in the UK—continue to be in awe of the bravery of the people of Ukraine. They are victims of savage, indiscriminate, unprovoked aggression. Their courage under fire and determination to resist inspires our total admiration.
The United Kingdom stands with the Ukrainian people. My right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary has been in the vanguard of those providing military assistance. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has been co-ordinating diplomatic support and, with my right hon. Friends the Chancellor and Business Secretary, implementing a new and tougher than ever sanctions regime. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the Home Office have also been providing humanitarian support on the ground to Ukraine’s neighbours, helping them to cope with the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people—but more can, and must, be done.
To that end, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has already expanded the family route. She has also confirmed that from tomorrow Ukrainians with passports will be able to apply for UK visas entirely online without having to visit visa application centres. As a result, the number of Ukrainians now arriving in this country is rapidly increasing and numbers will grow even faster from tomorrow.
We also know, however, that the unfailingly compassionate British public want to help further. That is why today we are answering that call with the announcement of a new sponsorship scheme, Homes for Ukraine. I thank my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and officials in the Home Office, in my own Department and across Government for their work over the course of the past days and weeks to ensure that we can stand up this scheme as quickly as possible. In particular, I thank my noble Friend Richard Harrington, now Lord Harrington of Watford, whose experience in ensuring that the Syrian refugee resettlement programme was a success will prove invaluable in ensuring that we do right by the people of Ukraine.
The scheme that Lord Harrington has helped us to design draws on the enormous good will and generosity of the British public, and our proud history of supporting the vulnerable in their hour of greatest need. The scheme will allow Ukrainians with no family ties to the UK to be sponsored by individuals or organisations who can offer them a home. There will be no limit to the number of Ukrainians who can benefit from it.
The scheme will be open to all Ukrainian nationals and residents, and they will be able to live and work in the United Kingdom for up to three years.[This section has been corrected on
Sponsors will have to provide accommodation for a minimum of six months. In recognition of their generosity, the Government will provide a monthly payment of £350 to sponsors for each family whom they look after. These payments will be tax-free. They will not affect benefit entitlement or council tax status. Ukrainians arriving in the United Kingdom will have access to the full range of public services—doctors, schools, and full local authority support. Of course we want to minimise bureaucracy and make the process as straightforward as possible while doing everything we can to ensure the safety of all involved. Sponsors will therefore be required to undergo necessary vetting checks, and we are also streamlining processes to security-assess the status of Ukrainians who will be arriving in the United Kingdom.
From today, anyone who wishes to record their interest in sponsorship can do so on gov.uk; the webpage has gone live as I speak. We will then send any individual who registers further information setting out the next steps in this process. We will outline what is required of a sponsor and set out how sponsors can identify a named Ukrainian individual or family who can then take up each sponsorship offer. Because we want the scheme to be up and running as soon as possible, Homes for Ukraine will initially facilitate sponsorship between people with known connections, but we will rapidly expand the scheme in a phased way, with charities, churches and community groups, to ensure that many more prospective sponsors can be matched with Ukrainians who need help. We are of course also working closely with the devolved Administrations to make sure that their kind offers of help are mobilised. I know that all concerned want to play their part in supporting Ukrainians, who have been through so much, to ensure that they feel at home in the United Kingdom, and I am committed to working with everyone of good will to achieve this.
Our country has a long and proud history of supporting the most vulnerable during their darkest hour. We took in refugees fleeing Hitler’s Germany, those fleeing repression in Idi Amin’s Uganda, and those who fled the atrocities of the Balkan wars. More recently, we have offered support to those fleeing persecution in Syria, Afghanistan and Hong Kong. We are doing so again with Homes for Ukraine. We are a proud democracy. All of us in this House wish to see us defend and uphold our values, stand shoulder to shoulder with our allies, and offer a safe haven to people who have been forced to flee war and persecution. The British people have already opened their hearts in so many ways. I am hopeful that many will also be ready to open their homes and help those fleeing persecution to find peace, healing and the prospect of a brighter future. That is why I commend this statement to the House.
We were so relieved to hear that the Secretary of State was going to announce a scheme to allow Ukrainian refugees a route to safety after weeks of delay, but a press release is not a plan, and we are really deeply concerned about the lack of urgency. Yesterday, he went on TV to claim that Ukrainians could be here by Sunday, but he has just told us that they will still need a visa under the current application process. These are 50-page forms that have to be completed online, asking people who have fled with nothing to find an internet café to upload documents they do not have—water bills and mortgage documents—to prove who they are. The Home Office has been incredibly slow in issuing these visas. As of this morning, only 4,000 have been issued. We are lagging way behind the generosity of other countries. We could simplify this process today. We could keep essential checks but drop the excessive bureaucracy. He knows it; why has it not been done?
For weeks the British people have been coming forward in large numbers to offer help. It has been moving and heartwarming to see the decency and spirit on display in every corner of this country. But what exactly will the Government be doing, especially in relation to matching families to sponsors? On the Secretary of State’s tour of the TV studios, he suggested several times that people who are willing to sponsor a Ukrainian family need to come to the Government with the name of that family, and they will then rubber-stamp it. He cannot seriously be asking Ukrainian families who are fleeing Vladimir Putin, and who have left their homes with nothing, to get on to Instagram and advertise themselves in the hope that a British family might notice them. Is that genuinely the extent of this scheme? Surely there is a role for the Secretary of State in matching Ukrainian families to their sponsors, not just a DIY asylum scheme where all he does is take the credit. Will he please clarify what the Government’s role is going to be?
There has been a lack of urgency in getting people here and there is still a lack of urgency in ensuring that we support them when they do get here. Earlier today, my right hon. Friend Yvette Cooper and I spoke to council leaders, who stand ready and willing to help. Why has not anyone from the Secretary of State’s Department picked up the phone to them? Last week, I spoke to charities that he will ask to act as sponsors. They are acutely aware that the people who are coming will be quite unlike previous refugees.
Two million people are on the march—children alone, mums with very young kids and older people. The brutal reality of what is happening in Ukraine is that working-age people have stayed behind to fight. Those leaving will have healthcare needs, and they will need school places, maternity care and social care. One council leader told me today that his city, which traditionally plays a major role in welcoming refugees, has only nine secondary school places available. Has it not occurred to the Secretary of State until this point to pick up the phone to leaders such as the one I spoke to before he went into the TV studios and promised the earth?
These charities and council leaders are the same people who stepped up during covid. They spin gold out of thread every single day, and what is keeping them awake at night right now is how we do right by people and keep them safe. It was only a few months ago that the Home Office placed a child into a hotel in Sheffield that it had been told was unsafe without even bothering to tell the council, and he fell out of a window and died. Will the Secretary of State ensure that every council is contacted by close of play today? Will he work with them to do the vetting checks that are needed? They are experts in safeguarding children. Will he not only trust them, but support them?
Will the Secretary of State put a safety net in place, in case a placement breaks down? His Department confirmed over the weekend that families left homeless in that situation will not be able to claim their housing costs under universal credit. Surely that cannot be true. Surely we are not going to ask people who have fled bombs and bullets to lie homeless on the streets of Britain.
I suspect that the Secretary of State has felt as ashamed as I have to watch how this Government have closed the door to people who need our help. He shakes his head, but people have been turned back at Calais. They have been left freezing by the roadside with their children. We have had planes leaving neighbouring NATO countries packed to the rafters, except those to London, because this Government have turned people away. The British people who have come forward have shown that we are a far better country than our Government, but unless he gets a plan together—a real plan, not just a press release—all he is effectively announcing is plans to fail the people of Ukraine twice over. He said today that they have our total admiration, and they do, but they need more than that; they need our total support.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her questions and what I think was her support for our scheme. She asked about the visa application process and the length and bureaucracy associated with it. As was announced last week in the House of Commons by the Home Secretary, and as I repeat today, Ukrainians who have a valid passport can have their application turned around within 24 hours, but not in the way to which the hon. Lady referred, which was announced last week. It is time that, instead of manufacturing synthetic outrage, she kept up with what the Government and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary are delivering. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady has already had a go.
The hon. Lady asked about matching families and sponsors. We are moving as quickly as possible to ensure, working with NGOs and local government, that individuals in need can be found the families and sponsors they need in order to get people into this country as quickly as possible. I am grateful to her for speaking to people in local government this morning; we were speaking and I was speaking to people in local government 10 days ago to ensure that this scheme was capable of being delivered.
The hon. Lady asked why we are requiring matching in the way that we are. That is because our scheme has been developed in partnership with non-governmental organisations, which have welcomed our approach. We have been doing the practical work of ensuring that refugee organisations on the ground can help to shape our response in order to help those most in need.
I know that the hon. Lady wants to help. I believe that everyone in this House wants to ensure that this scheme is successful. She makes a number of valid points about the need for school places. That is why additional funding is available to every local authority that will take refugees in order to ensure that school places are provided.
The hon. Lady asked about wraparound care. We are providing additional funding to local government to ensure that the expertise required to provide those who have been traumatised with the support they need will also be there.
The hon. Lady asked not only about the rapidity of vetting checks, but about how the comprehensive nature of those vetting checks can be guaranteed. We have been working with the Home Office to streamline that process so that it is as quick as possible, but also to ensure, as she rightly pointed out, that we do not place vulnerable children in accommodation where they might be at risk.
In all those cases, every single point that the hon. Lady made has been addressed by officials, NGOs and those in local government to ensure that our scheme works. As her questions have been answered, it now falls to her to get behind the scheme and support those open-hearted British people who want to ensure that we can do everything possible to help those in need. It is time to rise above partisan politics and recognise that this is a united effort in which our colleagues in the devolved Administrations and those in NGOs are working with the Government to put humanity first.
My right hon. Friend has generated a great deal of progress in the last few days, but he will understand that we still have a long way to go. I do not want to bore the House or you, Mr Speaker, with my experiences in France last weekend, but I learned a lot from them. We need a meet and greet system, and there are other things that we need to put in place quickly if the scheme is going to work, so I would be grateful if he or Lord Harrington of Watford could meet me today or tomorrow to ensure that we avoid some of the elephant traps that face us if we do not get it right.
I, too, start by thanking people across the UK who have come forward with incredibly generous offers of accommodation and support for Ukrainians. Of course, we will do what we can to support the initiative. We regret, however, that this is only phase one; things are still not going fast enough. We will continue to argue that the best response available to the Government is to stop asking Ukrainians to apply for visas altogether. On that point, why will people accepted on to the scheme have to apply for a visa as well? Of course, some of them may be able to apply online, but an online process is not necessarily fast.
On sponsorship, we welcome the fact that people with limited leave to remain are now able to be sponsors, but when does the Secretary of State anticipate that charities, churches and community groups will be able to play their part? He explained a bit about the vetting process, but how will sponsors be supported to undertake their role? It is not just a question of cash. What happens if a sponsorship does not work out? What move-on support will be available?
On financial support, will the £350 a month be available to sponsors such as community groups as well as to individuals? Does access to public funds mean full access, including to the housing element of universal credit? Will there be £10,000 of local authority support per person as reported in the press?
What about the most vulnerable people, such as orphans, the elderly and others who will never know about the scheme’s existence, never mind how to apply to it? Can the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, for example, refer someone to the scheme or for resettlement? What support would be provided in those circumstances? What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Scottish and Welsh Governments about their request to operate as super-sponsors? Will he endeavour to make that work?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support for the scheme. He made the point about ensuring that we speed up all the security and visa checks as quickly as possible. As I mentioned, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has already acted in that regard.
From tomorrow, anyone with a Ukrainian passport will be able to apply online. Thanks to a surge in the number of caseworkers in the Home Office, they should be able to have permission turned around and granted very quickly. A PDF will be sent straight to them and they can then fly into this country to a warm welcome. As a result, the surge of staff in our visa application centres will be able to deal with individuals who, for whatever reason, do not have a passport or the capacity to secure one quickly, which means that we will be able to more quickly process the number of Ukrainians who wish to come here. As was pointed out earlier, 4,000 visas have been granted and the numbers are due to surge this week.
The hon. Gentleman made the point that charities, churches and community groups have all stepped up. We want to ensure that we are working with all of them this week to facilitate their role, not just in matching individual sponsors and Ukrainians who might benefit but in extending the reach of the support we give so that it is not just a roof over someone’s head but the valuable interpersonal support of which so many are capable.
When I was chatting to faith groups earlier today, I had the opportunity to talk to representatives of not just the Ukrainian Churches, but the Church of England, the Church of Scotland and the Roman Catholic Church, including the Roman Catholic bishops in Scotland, all of whom are anxious to ensure that we do everything that we can to help. For individuals who, for whatever reason, find that a sponsorship solution does not work for them, we will ensure that the local government partners and charity partners with whom we are working receive the resource that they require. The £350 is there for individuals, but charities and community groups will have a vital role to play in helping to marshal individual offers.
The hon. Gentleman made a point about unaccompanied minors, orphans and others who need our support. We are working with those on the ground to ensure that we can have the right solution for them.
Finally, the hon. Gentleman asked about working with the devolved Administrations. I was grateful to the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales for their generous offer to act as super-sponsors, and we are doing everything we can to facilitate that. My officials are working with those in the Scottish and Welsh Governments to ensure that we can do that in a way that enables everyone to live up to their responsibilities.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. He has answered many of the questions that arose over the weekend, but may I press him specifically on when he expects phase 2 to start and what work is already going on with non-governmental organisations? Those organisations make the point that they have many people who have already been checked by the Disclosure and Barring Service, but the volunteers coming forward in my constituency tend not to have been. We know that there are already backlogs in DBS checking, so can he assure me that that will be sped up?
I have a practical question about people who are planning to move home over the course of the next six months. Will they still be able to take part even if their address changes?
My right hon. Friend makes three good points. We are working this week with civil society and NGOs. Indeed, Lord Harrington and I met them in order to ensure that we can expedite phase 2 as quickly as possible, and we will update the House in real time over the next few days. On the second point, about safeguarding, we are working with the Home Office. We do not believe that we need to have full DBS checks in order to ensure that someone is an appropriate sponsor. Very light-touch criminal checks will often be sufficient, and then local authorities can be supported in order to ensure that people are safe, in line with the points made by the Opposition—points that my right hon. Friend made much more sharply, of course. If people are moving house, which is something I have had to do recently, we will do everything possible to facilitate their support.
I call the Chair of the Select Committee on Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.
I think that it is accepted in principle there will be general support for a scheme that allows individuals to welcome refugees into their homes. In terms of detail, the Secretary of State accepted that there would be a cost to local authorities, which will be key to making this work, as I am sure he accepts. Has he agreed with the Local Government Association—I declare my interest as a vice-president of the LGA—the costs that local authorities will get to cover education and other wraparound support services? Will those costs apply to people who come over on the community sponsorship scheme and to those on the family scheme? What about individuals who come here as family members but then cannot be accommodated in their family’s home because of the number of refugees involved? What are we going to do to accommodate those people? How is that accommodation going to be provided? What is the plan for that?
I am grateful to the Chair of the Select Committee for his questions. The amount of money we are giving to local government is based on the Afghan resettlement scheme, so the amount that will be given to local authorities for early years, primary and secondary education matches exactly. Indeed, the overall local authority tariff—I hate to use the word “tariff” when we are talking about human beings—will be exactly the same. We are building on arrangements that we have with the LGA, and I have been in touch with James Jamieson, the leader of the LGA, as well as individual council leaders, to outline the level of support. Obviously, we will keep things under review to ensure that local government has what it needs.
On the second point, about people who come under the family scheme, there has always been a balance between speed and the comprehensiveness of an offer. The family scheme was introduced because we knew that it could be the speediest possible scheme, but the hon. Gentleman’s question points to a particular challenge that we have. We still have around 14,000 Afghan refugees in hotel accommodation, and we still have significant pressure on local authority accommodation and on housing overall. As we look to meet humanitarian needs, we need to be as flexible as possible, and we will be saying more about how we can mobilise other resources at the disposal of the state, local government or the private sector in order to provide additional accommodation of the kind that he mentions.
With a three-year visa but only six months of guaranteed accommodation, will people have any tenant rights? What is the back-up provision if the sponsor wants to terminate well before the end of the visa?
It is our expectation that those who commit to have someone in their home for six months are undertaking quite a significant commitment, but it is already the case that the expressions of interest suggest that there are many people who want to do exactly that. The experience of previous sponsorship schemes has been that those who have undertaken such a commitment have found it a wonderful thing to have done, and the number of those who have dropped out or opted out has been small. However, it is the case—my right hon. Friend is absolutely right—that there may be occasions where relationships break down, and in those circumstances we will be mobilising the support of not only of central Government and local government, but of civil society, to ensure that individuals who are here can move on. The final thing I would want to say is that many of those on the frontline coming here will of course be women and children, but many of those coming here will want to work, to contribute and to be fully part of society. It is the case already that we have had offers from those in the private sector willing to provide training and jobs to people so that they can fully integrate into society for as long as they are here.
I want to go back to the Secretary of State’s point when he highlighted that over 14,000 Afghan refugees are still in hotels, including hotels in my constituency of Vauxhall—accommodation that, frankly, is unsuitable for people suffering long-term trauma and people fleeing war. I was not quite sure what the Secretary of State’s response was, but how is he dealing with that type of long-term, unjustifiable and unsuitable accommodation?
I have enormous sympathy for the hon. Lady. One of the reasons why Lord Harrington has joined my Department and is working with the Home Office is to ensure that we can get people whom we have accepted out of hotel accommodation, which is unsuitable for the long term, and into the community, but that requires us to ensure that those local authorities receiving individuals are supported in the way they are. I would be more than happy to return to the House to outline the steps we are taking to deal with this situation, but it comes back to the essential point that the Chairman of the Select Committee, Mr Betts, brought out. As we show a warm welcome to people who are fleeing persecution, we need to ensure that that welcome can be truly stable and secure. That means additional accommodation, which means moving beyond hotels and local authorities, and that is why the Homes for Ukraine scheme harnesses the kindness of civil society, but there is more that we must do, and we will update the House in due course.
I strongly welcome the scheme that my right hon. Friend has set out. It was Sir Nicholas Winton who said:
“If something is not impossible, then there must be a way to do it”.
May I ask my right hon. Friend if he would extend the scheme, or the imagination he has set out today, to make sure that Britain offers a refuge to and harbours Ukrainian orphans who are able to come here, and will he work with Ukraine to bring them over and make sure that these children are looked after?
My right hon. Friend makes a characteristically compassionate and acute point. One of the areas of greatest difficulty is helping orphans and unaccompanied children, and that is something we need to do more on, and we will.
This is significant and welcome progress, even if I suspect it still leaves us somewhere short of our obligations under the 1951 convention. Can the Secretary of State explain how this sponsorship scheme will interact with the rights of those who are already here, perhaps under a work visa? If their circumstances change, how will they then be able to obtain the same level of protection that will be given to refugees coming here under his scheme?
I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. Of course, the scheme we are introducing today is not perfect, but we hope to work with him and others to make sure that it is improved as it develops. One of the things we want to do is to stress that anyone who has six months’ residency in the UK can act as a sponsor, but he quite rightly draws attention to the fact that there are Ukrainians in this country—some are students, for example, and others are in a position where they do not have indefinite leave to remain—and we will seek to regularise their status. The Home Secretary and Lord Harrington are, I know, already on it.
I very much welcome the conduit for the immense generosity of the British public that my right hon. Friend has set out. However, as he has recognised, what a Ukrainian refugee needs is not just a home, but the services that go with a home and, as others have said, local authorities will be providing those. Can I ask him about the very substantial co-ordination challenges not just between his Department and the Home Office, though that is important, but between the services that are being provided to refugees who are already here from other places and the services for those who will arrive from Ukraine? The fact is that, under the scheme he has described, people will go where there is a home for them, not necessarily where there is service provision for them, and he will need to ensure, will he not, that that service provision is indeed provided?
My right hon. Friend makes a good point, and this is a cross-Government, and beyond Government effort. As he reminds us, we have welcomed people who have come here from Syria or Afghanistan in a compassionate fashion, but there are delivery challenges for everyone in Government that we need to work out, to ensure the right services are there. We expect, but do not predict, that many of those who will benefit in the first stages of this scheme will be people moving to areas where there are already a significant number of people of Ukrainian ancestry. Some of the social networks will help, but we must ensure that as the scheme expands, the support is there.
I welcome today’s announcement, and I have been inundated by offers from my constituents who have rooms or homes that they would like to make available. May I ask a prosaic question? One or two of my constituents have asked about set-up costs and things like cots and children’s beds. What steps will my right hon. Friend take, either through his Department or working with local authorities, to match up individuals with charities, so that that initial equipment and clothing—all the things families will need—can be arranged at the start?
I know my hon. Friend has already been working with her constituents in west Berkshire to do everything possible to support those who may benefit from this scheme. The charities, church groups and others with whom I and Lord Harrington have been in conversation over the past few days are already making the sorts of connections that she has been responsible for making, to ensure that detailed practical help can be there for those who are acting so generously.
Like many, I was confused by the Secretary of State’s suggestion that sponsors could match with refugees using Twitter and Instagram. That has raised a number of safeguarding concerns, given the trauma that many of these people will have been exposed to. Will refugees have access to the specialist support they need, and how will they be protected from exploitation in the UK?
They absolutely will have access to that support. Anyone who acts as a sponsor will face light-touch vetting checks initially, and subsequently will be visited by those from local government who, to be fair, and as the hon. Lady rightly pointed out, are experts in safeguarding.
I very much welcome this announcement, and I am grateful to the Secretary of State and the Government for listening to voices from across the House who have been urging this kind of action. Let me return to local authorities, and particularly lower-tier local authorities. My council in Ashford has been active and generous in helping refugees from Syria and Afghanistan. What should such local authorities that want to help be doing today to plug themselves into the system?
My right hon. Friend and the One Nation group of Conservative MPs helped in the development of our policy with some of the ideas that they shared with the Department. I am grateful to him and his colleagues, and to individuals across the House who played a collaborative part in that. The money that we are giving to local authorities will go to lower-tier local authorities, and I will ask my Department to ensure that in Ashford, and elsewhere, and through the good offices of the Local Government Association, local authorities know how to access the resources they need.
The Government’s response to the refugee crisis so far has shamed our country and damaged our reputation abroad. Today’s announcement is a step forward, but we need to go faster than the statement suggests to make up for lost time. Will the Secretary of State confirm to the many groups that have contacted me in Sheffield over the weekend a date by which the community sponsorship route will be open?
My right hon. Friend is quite right to have a light-touch approach to vetting for those seeking security. Clearly, large numbers of the people arriving will be vulnerable—they will be women and children—and ideally they will be placed with families with connections. However, inevitably, some will be placed with others. Will he go further and explain who will do the vetting—will it be local authorities or be done nationally—to ensure that these vulnerable people are not placed with anyone who may exploit them?
Absolutely. It will be a national vetting process initially, with local authorities following up. As ever—this point has been made across the House—we have to balance two things: the speed with which people can be placed and the security of the setting in which they are placed. Our light-touch approach can ensure that we are not placing vulnerable individuals with anyone with any record of criminality. Subsequent to that, of course, there will be additional checks to ensure that the quality of accommodation and the basis on which people are housed is decent and fair.
My local authority, Cyngor Gwynedd, has been inundated with warm-hearted offers of accommodation and support. It is concerned, however, that it is still being left in the dark. For instance, despite the announcement of a hotline for the public, Gwynedd Council has not yet been given a regional contact from the Government. What will the Secretary of State do to fix his scheme’s weaknesses in communications and ensure that there are no brakes from here in Westminster on Wales’s ambition to be a super-sponsor as a nation of sanctuary for Ukrainian refugees?
In the conversations that I have had with the Welsh Government, they have been anxious about co-ordinating with local government in Wales and indeed civil society so that they can provide support. On the right hon. Lady’s point about the Welsh Government being a super-sponsor, I discussed exactly what can be done with Minister Jane Hutt alongside the First Minister of Scotland. If Gwynedd Council and its councillors require more information, my Department will endeavour to provide that. If she faces any challenges, I hope that she will contact me direct to ensure that her constituents are aware of how to help.
May I first welcome the appointment of Lord Harrington of Watford to his post? Yesterday, I spent time in the peace garden in Cassiobury park with the Watford Interfaith Association, who took prayers from many faiths across the area. I know how important faith is, especially at this difficult time, so will my right hon. Friend please set out the steps that his Department is taking to work with the Ukrainian people and the religious organisations here in the UK so that we can support them spiritually as well as physically?
People of all faiths and none have stepped up to demonstrate their support for those fleeing persecution. In particular, I thank representatives of Ukrainian Churches here in the United Kingdom and, in particular, Bishop Kenneth Nowakowski, who has been talking to the Minister for Levelling Up Communities, my hon. Friend Kemi Badenoch, in her role as Minister for faith. Thanks to his and her direct intervention, a number of Ukrainian-speaking priests were able to come into the country at an accelerated rate to ensure that we provide the pastoral care that the Ukrainian community was so keen to see.
As with previous refugee crises, the Government’s response to the Ukraine crisis has been pathetic, revealing the true extent of the callousness within their hostile environment policy. By the way, the only reason we have had such a statement, which in itself was wholly inadequate, was that the Government have been dragged here, kicking and screaming, by the Opposition, the media and the good British people, who have said, “This debacle simply doesn’t represent us. We are much better than this.”
I want to press the Secretary of State on my Slough constituent’s case. A 15-year-old Ukrainian girl is currently in Poland. She has had to leave behind the death and destruction as well as her parents and brother in Ukraine. Her only family outside Ukraine is in the UK. They have tried their level best to bring her here, but the Government have shamefully said that she is ineligible for the Ukraine family scheme because she is not considered to be a close enough relation. Instead, they prefer to leave a vulnerable child to fend for herself. What can my constituents do to bring that young girl to safety?
Order. Just before the Secretary of State answers that, the hon. Gentleman knows that his question was far too long. All we need here is questions. Everybody knows the background, and every Member who stands up does not need to explain it. Just ask the question, because we have got an awful lot to get through today, and this is very important.
On the hon. Gentleman’s individual case, Home Office officials are working incredibly hard every day in Portcullis House to deal with individual surgery cases of the kind that he mentions. I urge him to visit the caseworkers there. If for any reason that is inadequate, just email me direct and we will do everything we can.
Secondly, the hon. Gentleman says that there is more that the scheme needs to do in order to be better. It is always the case that more needs to be done at every point when we are dealing with a humanitarian tragedy. We all recognise that, but I would respectfully say to him two things. First, this country has taken in people from Syria and Afghanistan, we are taking in people from Ukraine, and it is an uncapped scheme. Secondly, while we are going to disagree politically, I have had it up to here with people trying to suggest that this country is not generous. And as for all this stuff about the hostile environment, that was invented under a Labour Home Secretary, so can we just chuck the partisan nonsense and get on with delivery?
I applaud the generosity of the scheme. It is a shame that the Opposition have been on a scavenger hunt for the negatives in a very churlish way. May I ask two practical questions? First, some people do not have accommodation free for the whole year, for example where students have gone off to university, so will there be a scheme whereby there can be shared responsibility to take on family members? Secondly, on sponsoring work placements, how will the many hospitality businesses in Worthing that want to bring in chefs go about that? It needs to be done locally, because it is no good offering a job to somebody in a restaurant in Worthing if they have been placed in a home in Sunderland.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making those points. To provide people with the jobs and support they need, we will work with him and others who are making business offers. I am very grateful to him for the work he has already done and continues to do to help the most vulnerable who are fleeing persecution.
I have been humbled by the response of the people of Argyll and Bute who have contacted me already to offer accommodation to fleeing Ukrainian refugees. Similarly, having met the chief executive of the council on Friday, I know that it, too, stands ready to play its part, as it did magnificently when Syrian refugees found shelter in Argyll and Bute after having also fled Putin’s bombs. Under the terms of the scheme, will local authorities be allowed to be sponsors for refugees?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: the welcome that local authorities and people across Scotland showed to Syrians fleeing persecution, and the willingness they are showing to help Ukrainians fleeing persecution, is great. He is absolutely right that people in Argyll and island communities have already done that. We hope to allow the Scottish Government to be a super sponsor and allow them to work with local authorities in Scotland. That is what Scottish Government Ministers have proposed to us as the best way forward, and it seems sensible to me. We just need to try to make it work.
I strongly welcome the scheme that my right hon. Friend set out, but may I urge him to ensure that safeguarding and checking measures remain proportionate? As Conservatives, we generally believe that people can make decisions for themselves. I agree that with unaccompanied children safeguarding is critical, but the state should not get in the way of the generous response of the British people. Let us ensure that the checks are proportionate to the risk. Let the British people respond in the way that they already have.
I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for his common-sense perspective, which I completely share.
My constituency has a proud record of welcoming refugees. Of the families who require settlement here, there will be some with an adult or a child with a disability who will have specific needs and require specific support. Will the Secretary of State confirm whether specialist support will be available—his statement did not allude to that—and whether there will be additional funding for it?
The hon. Lady makes a very important point. I know what a passionate and effective spokesperson she is for those living with disabilities. Absolutely, we will work with local government to ensure support is there for women, children and others fleeing persecution, many of whom will be living with disabilities and will need additional support.
I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. I know that Buckinghamshire Council stands ready to do all it can to support and give a warm welcome, with good services, to Ukrainian families coming to Buckinghamshire under the scheme. To assist it with its planning, will he confirm whether funds made available to local authorities will just be for local authority services or will councils have to have a dual function of commissioning services from the NHS, academy trusts in schools and so on?
The funding we will make available will cover general local authority costs. There will be an additional supplement for education, for the early years, for primary school and for secondary schools, but we are working with Martin Tett, a great local council leader, and others to ensure that any specific additional support that may be required is tailored appropriately.
I seek some clarifications from the Secretary of State. Charities such as Refugees at Home arrange hosting of refugees following a visit from a referrer or home visitor to assess the potential placement and liaise with potential hosts. Is that the role in the scheme that he envisages for such charities? He mentioned churches, charities and community organisations. The third sector is ready to help and has always stepped up, but it is not easy when it has already given such a lot during the pandemic. Will such charities be properly supported financially to help them expand the work they do quickly?
On the first point, Refugees at Home has done an amazing job in helping to support the existing sponsorship route, which, as colleagues from across the House have pointed out, although admirable is not appropriate, in its own limited way, for what we are doing now. We have been talking to charities over the past 10 days to make sure that we learn from them about what level of support may be required. If more capacity building is needed within the third sector, we stand ready to do that. But we have been working with Reset Communities and Refugees, Citizens UK, the Sanctuary Foundation, the Red Cross and others to make sure that we can support them.
May I ask for an official point of contact for a very valuable resource, the Council for At-Risk Academics, which has not only been rescuing scholars from dictatorial regimes since 1933 but co-ordinates sponsorship from a network of universities? The main danger is a disconnect between the work it can do and the new sponsorship organisation and admission organisation. May we have an official point of contact for CARA?
I was able to talk to a leading academic at the University of Manchester earlier today who is working in a very similar field. I will make sure that my right hon. Friend is put in touch with an appropriate official contact in my Department, and either I or Lord Harrington will be back in touch with my right hon. Friend in the next 24 hours.
The media contribution yesterday and the statement this afternoon have spurred on optimistic aspiration for those in my constituency and across the UK who wish to help. Will the Secretary of State dedicate a hotline for parliamentarians like us who want to iron out the cracks for individuals to assist them? We have heard about Wales and Scotland, but we know that the political situation is not as fertile as we would like it to be in Northern Ireland. Is he confident that schools, hospitals and housing will be made available, knowing, as he does, that they do not rest within local government?
Absolutely. I have two points to make. First, we know the political situation in Northern Ireland, but we did have an opportunity to talk to Jayne Brady of the Northern Ireland civil service in order to make sure that Northern Ireland was fully looped into this approach. Both the Secretary of State and the Minister of State in the Northern Ireland Office are committed to doing everything to help. Lord Harrington will be holding regular surgeries for Members of Parliament, from all parties, who wish to help and mobilise local resource.
The people of Stroud are extremely big-hearted and they want to help in as many ways as possible, so we really welcome this innovative scheme, which I understand is the first of its kind anywhere. This offer is, however, complex, with many moving parts. As my right hon. Friend said, many refugees coming here will be mothers and women with children, so will he confirm that he is working with the Department for Work and Pensions to make sure that it is ready to assist with benefits and childcare options, because we know that many of these people will want to work and the jobs are actually there?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has been working incredibly energetically with her team to provide the basis for such support.
How assured is the Secretary of State about the visa requirement that is still in place for Ukrainians coming to this country? As the Home Secretary said, 90% of Ukrainians do not have a passport and will therefore have to go to the visa application centres, which have been beset with problems—not opening as often as we want them to, online systems going down, and many other problems. They have struggled to deal with the family visa system for Ukrainian people. How assured is the Secretary of State that this will work, and will be up and running soon?
I am grateful to the Chair of the Select Committee. Lord Harrington and I have been seeking to assure ourselves, with our Home Office colleagues, that the system that will go live from tomorrow and will enable passport holders—although, as the right hon. Lady pointed out, that is not every Ukrainian—to secure rapidly, online, the PDF form to which I referred earlier, will allow them ease of access. It is true that, as the right hon. Lady rightly observed, there have been challenges—I will not go into all the reasons now; she knows them very well—with the operation of our visa application centres, but, as well as setting up the new centre in Arras in northern France to which my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary referred last week, we have expanded opening hours in many other centres. In particular, Warsaw and Rzeszów in Poland, which were previously not open at the weekend because of complicated Polish labour laws, are now fully open. We will update the House continually on the speed and the effectiveness with which the centres are processing applications.
I welcome this important announcement. My constituents in the Scottish Borders are desperate to help. There is a slightly different system in Scotland, with the Scottish Government taking on a super sponsor position. Can the Secretary of State reassure me that his officials and the Department will work with Scottish Borders Council and the Scottish Government to ensure that the system is seamless, that those people wanting to help are able to do so, and that families coming to this country are supported in every way possible?
Absolutely. We are of course working with the Scottish Government, and the scheme that will go live this week will allow individuals anywhere in the United Kingdom to offer to act as sponsors. We have explained to the Scottish Government that we just want to crack on.
The big society is back, and it is welcome, as are the expansion of the family scheme and the new sponsorship scheme which, as my right hon. Friend will know, I was very impatient to see last week. Certainly the 1,700 of us who stood together in Winchester cathedral on Saturday with our prayers for Ukraine are very appreciative.
The phased response is sensible. We cannot allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good; we have to get this up and running. Is my right hon. Friend working to a trigger or a timeline for when the charities and the church groups can become involved?
That will happen as quickly as possible, not least because of the impassioned advocacy of my hon. Friend.
Many of my constituents have expressed to me their concern that the UK is simply not doing enough to help Ukrainian refugees. This Tory Government, of course, have form. Whether we are talking about refugees from Syria, Afghanistan or Ukraine, they have a tendency to introduce red tape and shy away from their moral duty.
In his answers today, the Secretary of State has repeatedly referred to a “warm welcome”—which was, of course, the name given to the scheme designed to help Afghans. We know that that scheme is not running as smoothly as it should be, and it is not necessarily a “warm welcome”. What reassurances can the Secretary of State give us that these are not empty words, and that those who are fleeing conflict will be genuinely welcomed?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his hard work to operationalise this system. It will provide a stable place of refuge rather than leaving people in hotels for too long, and I know that the people of Rutland and Melton will join me in opening their hearts and their homes. My ask is that we do all that we can to ensure that the most vulnerable people come here, because they will not always have contacts in the UK and they are the most likely to be trapped in the east. Can he reassure me that we will focus our efforts on those most in need?
My hon. Friend makes some good points. My hon. Friend Steve Brine said that we must not make the perfect the enemy of the good, and this scheme is not perfect, but we are trying to ensure that we can move as rapidly as possible. That is why named sponsors are being deployed; it means that we can get people into homes. Again, we know that there is pressure on other accommodation. We will be seeing and doing more in every day that comes.
I also welcome this scheme, and my constituents have been contacting me about what they can do to provide such accommodation, but can I gently remind the Secretary of State that there are still thousands of women, activists, prosecutors, judges and others in Afghanistan who are still waiting to hear from the Afghan resettlement scheme? Will this type of scheme include those people in a further roll-out?
I appreciate that there is pressure on the Afghan resettlement scheme. When it was set up, it was going to involve 20,000 people this year and then be extended. We are working with our partners, and part of Lord Harrington’s new responsibilities will include ensuring not only that we get those who are currently in hotel accommodation into more settled accommodation but that we live up to our obligation to others.
Can I ask my right hon. Friend whether any consideration has been given to establishing an advance office on the Ukraine-Polish border? People could go to such an office to get advice and some help to get to the UK, possibly in combination with those extremely good non-governmental organisations, particularly the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Putting them all together right on the border would really help people coming through who do not know what to do.
My right hon. Friend has a distinguished record when it comes to helping people in conflict areas. I will work with the Home Secretary to ensure that our resources on the ground are positioned appropriately.
I have spoken to senior councillors in Dundee over the last week, and the city council remains open and willing to take and accommodate Ukrainian refugees. I also heard what the Minister said about working closely with the devolved Administrations who wish to become super-sponsors. Given that the Governments of Scotland and Wales know far more than I or the Minister do about their capacity and the capacity of their local governments, why does he not simply allocate substantial numbers of Ukrainian refugees to Scotland and Wales and let them get on with the job of providing sanctuary?
I thank my right hon. Friend for today’s announcement. Can he confirm that, if households are taking on a family or individual registered with a community support charity—such as the Pickwell Foundation in North Devon, which has a proven track record of providing a warm, safe and sustainable welcome to refugees—they will still receive the £350 a month?
Both my local boroughs, Lambeth and Southwark, stand ready and willing to welcome refugees from Ukraine, as they have welcomed refugees from many other parts of the world in the past, but it is really hard for them to do so if they are not formally a part of the Government’s scheme. They will inevitably be playing catch-up on who is arriving in their area and what their support needs are. Local authorities know their communities best, and by cutting them out of a formal role in the scheme, the Government will create avoidable problems and inefficiencies. Will Secretary of State think again about the vital role that local authorities have to play in making sure that refugees have the fullest possible welcome in all our communities across the UK?
I do not believe that we have cut local government out of the scheme, but of course I am committed to working with Lambeth, Southwark and other local authorities to ensure that individuals who are placed with sponsors are provided with all the support that local government is capable of providing and that local government gets the resource needed from central Government.
Many older people, particularly the widowed, who live alone in larger homes with plenty of spare rooms will be keen to offer refuge to Ukrainian refugees. However, quite reasonably, they will need to be assured that it is entirely safe to do so. My right hon. Friend says the Government are streamlining the processes to security assess the status of Ukrainians arriving here. Could he give more details on those processes, please?
As I mentioned earlier, in the context of the Home Secretary’s announcement last week, we want to make sure that anyone who applies, either using a Ukrainian passport or through a visa application centre, goes through basic security checks. As we know, it is a hard and difficult fact that there are malign actors in that part of eastern Europe who may wish to abuse the scheme, so we have to balance security against other considerations. The speed with which we can now turn around applications is a sign that we are prioritising compassion.
The Secretary of State says he hopes that many people will be ready to open their home, but it seems that, due to Home Office guidance, none of the 3,000-plus spare rooms offered to Afghan refugees by hosts across the UK has been used. That does not inspire confidence in the Ukrainian scheme, so what steps will he take to ensure that the Ukraine sponsorship scheme is more successful than the Afghan scheme and that Home Office guidance facilitates rather than blocks Ukrainian refugees from settling here in the UK?
The Home Secretary and I will do everything possible to improve the operation of the scheme, in line with the hon. Lady’s points.
I commend my right hon. Friend for the urgency he has brought to this issue, but may I press him to go faster still? Hay, Brecon and Talgarth Sanctuary for Refugees in my constituency has already done a phenomenal amount of work, and it stands ready to offer homes to people in Ukraine who do not know anyone in this country, as do my many tourism and hospitality businesses. Will he direct his officials to go even faster on phase 2 of the scheme so that we get this rolled out as quickly as possible?
We absolutely will, and I recognise that individuals are already making offers. I had conversations with NGOs and others today, and they will be doing their very best for anyone who is willing to allow a match to be made. It is striking how charities and civil society organisations can be much faster and nimbler than even the best Government Department in bringing people together.
Following a really successful rally yesterday in which the people of Newport West and surrounding areas demonstrated their wish to help to house Ukrainian refugees, will the Secretary of State confirm that data on arrivals via this new route will be shared with councils? After all, having access to this data would help to ensure that children’s health and education needs are met quickly.
The hon. Lady makes a very important point. It is critical that we ensure data is shared in a timely fashion.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. We all recognise that, in time, people will be able to register for NHS services. However, some people will need urgent medical treatment. Will he kindly liaise with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care to ensure that those who need urgent healthcare get it, even though they might not have an NHS number?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care moved with amazing speed to provide support to some of the most vulnerable, and he spoke to the Ukrainian ambassador earlier today about what more the NHS might be able to do. We will absolutely act in that spirit.
Have the United Kingdom Government set a cap, either actual or notional, on how many refugees we will take from Ukraine? If so, how was it, or will it be, decided?
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s announcement. On the safeguarding of vulnerable refugees, I listened very carefully to what he said about historical and ongoing safety checks. Who will do the ongoing checks on refugee safety?
“as they are not necessary in the European Union”.
Along with his Scottish counterpart, he has called on the UK Government to waive visa requirements. This morning, the chief executive of the Welsh Refugee Council said that the scheme is not a humanitarian response, particularly in comparison with other European countries that have accepted hundreds of thousands of people. She described the scheme as
“quite disheartening…quite shocking, frankly.”
Will the Secretary of State look again at the heartless visa requirement scheme, which is so out of touch with the people of Britain and indeed the devolved nations? Will he please put people first instead?
I am sorry that the hon. Lady feels as she does. I should say that, when I was talking to representatives of the Refugee Council, one of them said as we unveiled the scheme that they took their hat off to the Government because they were so pleased with what we have done. They want us to go further and, as I acknowledged earlier, the scheme is not perfect, but we have to balance speed with breadth, comprehensiveness, safety, security and other considerations.
I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s question, because I can update the House that, since the website went live less than an hour ago, 1,500 people have already registered through the scheme in order to provide support.
My hon. Friend is right. First, we need a light-touch approach that means that, when individuals come forward, we can be certain that they do not have any record of criminality. Subsequently, local government, including the excellent council in East Devon, can visit to ensure that accommodation is right. The checks that we are placing on people coming into the country, as we touched on earlier, are there to ensure that the tiny minority of bad actors, some of whom can be particularly exploitative and malignant, are kept out so that the scheme works for those who genuinely need it.
First, there is no cap overall on the number of people who can benefit. Secondly, as I mentioned, the Scottish Government have suggested that they could act as a super-sponsor for 3,000, and we are working with them.
On the hon. Lady’s particular point, if one of her constituents registers today, that means that they can be updated. Come this Friday, they and a named Ukrainian could complete the form. As soon as the form is completed, there will be a turnaround to ensure that the security checks on both sides are safely done. That should mean, God willing, that there can be Ukrainians coming to Glasgow in just over a week’s time.
Luton welcomes refugees. We stepped up to welcome any Afghan refugees, and our community is now stepping up to support our Ukrainian residents and refugees. However, far too many families of Afghan refugees are still in hotels in Luton, and there is a great deal of pressure on our housing system. What plans and measures are in place to support families moving into longer-term housing? Will the £350-a-month scheme be considered for other refugees, which might be more culturally appropriate?
There are at least two very important points there. First, of course we need to move faster to move people from hotel accommodation into more suitable long-term accommodation, but there are constraints. I am not criticising anyone; it is just that there are constraints in Luton and elsewhere. That is why we need to think about how we can find, and indeed secure, more suitable accommodation. We have done amazing work—the Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, my hon. Friend Eddie Hughes, has done amazing work—in making sure that homeless people, some of whom were originally from eastern Europe, are off the streets and in secure and safe accommodation, but more must be done.
The £350 payment has been designed to support people who are offering up their own homes, but let us see how it goes and see what more we can do in future.
Bryce Cunningham of Mossgiel farm in my constituency has already done a fantastic job of organising getting aid out to a Polish charity. He is interested in being a sponsor and providing employment for Ukrainian refugees, but he does not have the physical accommodation in which to put them up. Would he be able to use the £350 a month housing allowance to, say, come to a rental agreement with the local authority? Would the Secretary of State reconsider allowing local authorities and community bodies to access that £350 a month so that we can provide as much help as possible for as many refugees as possible?
Although I do not know all the details of the hon. Gentleman’s constituent, it seems to me that what he wants to do is wholly admirable and something that we should facilitate. I will ask my team to be in touch with the hon. Gentleman and East Ayrshire Council to make sure that they can deliver in the way required.
May I press the Secretary of State further on the situation in respect of Northern Ireland? Will he clarify whether the registration works at the UK level or the local level? Will the matching and the vetting be done at the UK level? How will Northern Ireland Departments access resources—will there be a Barnett consequential or will they apply for a grant from the UK Government?
On the first point, I believe that, unless told otherwise and unless there is any barrier—by which I mean a technical barrier, not a legal barrier—any UK citizen anywhere in the United Kingdom can act as a sponsor. On the second point, we are discussing with the devolved Administrations how we can provide additional support, because if we were to restrict it simply to a Barnett consequential and then found that, as it happened, there were many more sponsors in Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales than in other parts of the United Kingdom, that would not be fair on those individuals. We want to take a flexible approach.
I thank the Secretary of State for thoroughly answering a large number of important questions.