Ukraine Refugee Visas

– in the House of Commons at 11:11 am on 31 March 2022.

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Photo of Yvette Cooper Yvette Cooper Shadow Secretary of State for the Home Department 11:11, 31 March 2022

(Urgent Question): To ask the Home Secretary to make a statement on visas for Ukrainian refugees.

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

The conflict in Ukraine continues to shock the world. Putin’s invasion is deplorable and he must fail. We stand shoulder to shoulder with Ukraine and the Ukrainian people at this time. We are determined to help Ukrainians to find safety in the face of Russia’s aggression, and that is why the Government have mounted a comprehensive humanitarian response. In a short time, we have set up two new visa schemes from scratch, made changes to support Ukrainians already in the UK and surged our operations to meet demand.

Under the Ukraine family scheme, more than 23,500 visas have been issued to family members of Ukrainians already here in the UK. After setting up the scheme, we extended it to cover wider family members. Alongside that, we have set up the Homes for Ukraine scheme, to provide a safe and legal route for Ukrainians who do not have existing family ties in the UK. That is led by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, and my hon. Friend Eddie Hughes is the Minister who will be updating the House on it shortly. It has been heartwarming to see so many members of the public coming forward as sponsors, and my hon. Friend will be able to outline wider work that is being done to take advantage of those offers. Both those schemes are free and allow people on them to work and access public funds.

We have made it as easy as possible for people to apply. We have simplified the application form to make it quick and easy to use. We have increased capacity in visa application centres across Europe. Following advice from security and intelligence agencies that it was safe to do so, we have removed the need for biometrics to be taken from those with valid Ukrainian passports before arrival in the UK, allowing the vast majority of applicants to apply entirely online. We regularly monitor the scheme’s operational performance, bringing in additional caseworkers to ensure Ukrainian applications are prioritised. Our humanitarian response has involved the whole of Government, local authorities and the devolved Administrations, and we will keep working together to support Ukrainians who want to come to the UK.

Photo of Yvette Cooper Yvette Cooper Shadow Secretary of State for the Home Department

Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker. This visa system is simply not working. It is leaving thousands of families in limbo because of Home Office bureaucracy. A businesswoman who is trying to get her sister and daughter to come here on the family visa scheme is still waiting, 10 days after she applied to the Home Office. A constituent of mine in Pontefract who applied under the Homes for Ukraine scheme has been waiting nearly two weeks to hear anything back from the Home Office. Another British host who applied for a visa for a woman undergoing a high-risk pregnancy has waited 12 days for a reply. Despite the Home Office helpline saying that she would be treated as a priority, that woman has had to travel extensively to complete biometrics in Warsaw and has still received no reply.

A mother and two young sons who had been granted a family visa and were due to travel this week had their visa revoked at the last minute. They had been advised by the visa centre to apply for the Homes for Ukraine scheme as well, so that they could link up with a host family. Now the Home Office has revoked their first visa and said that they cannot travel, and it has told them nothing more about what is going on. This is Kafkaesque. What on earth is going on? Why is the Home Secretary so totally incapable of getting any grip on this, despite repeated questions we have asked?

Can the Minister tell us how many people have actually arrived on the Homes for Ukraine scheme? Why on earth is it too early to tell us? The Government should be able to give us the basic facts. On the family visas, 23,000 have been issued so far, but 25,000 people had already applied and submitted their applications more than two weeks ago, so it is clearly taking at least two weeks to clear cases. Even at the current rate, only 700 family visas have been issued since yesterday. At that rate, it is going to take well over a week just to clear the existing backlog of cases that he accepts have been submitted.

The Home Office has suddenly stopped publishing all the figures and deleted from its figures the thousands of people who are still waiting for a visa centre appointment. That is not good enough. It is not the kind of transparency we need to make sure that desperate people are getting the support they need. Why on earth is it taking so long? Why are we still demanding reams of bureaucracy and reams of information when the Government have been told by the refugees Minister and by Home Office officials that the security checks can be done really quickly? Why, then, is this taking so long? Why are they expecting people still to make these emergency journeys?

Tens of thousands of people are still stuck in the system. Families are desperate. People from across Britain have said that they want to help, yet the Home Office is letting the whole system down. Is that deliberate, or is it just total incompetence? Why on earth can the Home Secretary not get a grip on this and sort it out, to help desperate families?

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

First, it is too early to say how many people have arrived under the Homes for Ukraine scheme, but we are now publishing details of visa grants. By 9am today 3,705 visas had been granted, and the trajectory for visa grants is increasing every day. I remind hon. Members that at one point last week we issued nearly 6,000 family scheme visas in two days. Again, that shows the type of capacity available once we get decisions ready to be made, and we would expect to see a similar increase in trajectory on the Homes for Ukraine scheme.

On the accusation that applications are being deleted, what has actually happened is, first, a removal of duplicates, for example where someone applied initially with biometrics and then did so without biometrics. Where someone did not qualify for the family scheme but they have someone in the UK who would be prepared to sponsor them—such as godparents, for the sake of argument—we transfer this over to the Homes for Ukraine scheme. Members will realise why that is a sensible and proportionate approach to take.

On the accusation about “reams of info”, we have cut back on what people are asked to supply. We do not need authorised translations and people can submit in Ukrainian, with the most basic of documentation: any evidence that shows residence in Ukraine. Again, we are not asking people to give us travel history or previous addresses; we are asking purely for something that shows they were resident in Ukraine in December and that there is a basic family link, if relevant, for the family scheme. We are cutting down the information purely to that which is necessary for vital safeguarding checks.

This is the latest in a number of humanitarian interventions and routes we have created over the past year. We saw the determination to help people in Afghanistan, from which we saw the biggest evacuation since Dunkirk; we saw the British national overseas route delivered, with more than 100,000 applications over the past year; and now we see these two routes for Ukrainians set up in record time, with tens of thousands of people already having visas under them. I just compare that with how the shadow Home Secretary got on with her own pledge to rehome one Syrian refugee.

Photo of Robert Jenrick Robert Jenrick Conservative, Newark

This is going to be a wonderful scheme and we are all looking forward to welcoming tens of thousands of Ukrainians to this country, but something is going wrong with the scheme right now. Tomorrow, the vast majority of sponsors will have waited two weeks and will not have heard anything at all. We are testing the patience of people in this country who have put themselves forward as sponsors and, much more importantly, we are letting down vulnerable individuals and families in Ukraine. We need to process only about 8,000 households, and we are talking about 20,000 or 30,000 applications in total. That is not a huge or insurmountable task, but it does require the Home Office to make sure that the resources and the leadership are in place to get this sorted. I hope that we have heard today from the Minister that that will now happen in the next few days.

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

My right hon. Friend is right to say that people want to get on and help. Tens of thousands of people throughout the country have made a very generous offer and they want to be able to extend that and for it to be taken up. We are rightly doing vital safeguarding checks. Sadly, we have had some pings on the police national computer in respect of some of the sponsors who have come forward, and we will need to consider them, but the vast and overwhelming majority of people want to do the right thing.

I appreciate my right hon. Friend’s wish that we go faster. As I have touched on, the rate at which visas are being granted is increasing. As we have seen with the Ukraine family scheme, once people have passed through a number of checks, we can quickly start to issue a large number of visas, which is what we plan to do.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Four million people are seeking sanctuary, but just 0.6% of them have been offered sanctuary in the UK. That is the inevitable consequence of using a clunky, bureaucratic and, frankly, traumatising visa system to deal with an urgent humanitarian crisis.

Around 140 countries do not require Ukrainians to have a visa before they travel there; we say it should be the same for the United Kingdom. I appreciate that the Government do not want to go as far as that, but why not allow even some Ukrainians—for example, those with biometric passports and children—to travel visa-free? That would free up significant capacity to speed things along. If that is not possible, will the Minister publish the reasons why he thinks it is not? If it is really all about security, why are there any other visa requirements at all? Why not grant a visa to any Ukrainian refugee who applies for one?

Finally, I welcome the Ukraine extension scheme that was announced this week, but it still excludes the possibility of people bringing their family here under the family scheme. A seasonal agricultural worker who switches to that route will still not be able to sponsor their family under the family route. Why not allow that to happen? Why not also allow Ukrainians whose visas expired before January to apply under the extension scheme? Until that changes, the Government are still excluding the possibility of huge swathes of the Ukrainian community here being joined by their families. Allowing that is the least we should be doing.

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s questions and the way he put them. I also appreciate the fact that there is a fundamental difference in respect of our belief, based on the advice we have received, that there needs to be a visa process with safeguarding checks and certain key security checks. We would not usually publish such advice, particularly when it is from intelligence and security agencies, for reasons with which the hon. Gentleman will be familiar.

On the hon. Gentleman’s specific points about the Ukraine extension scheme, provided that the people on that scheme have at least six months’ leave to remain—which they will have—they will be able to sponsor people under the Homes for Ukraine scheme. He gave the particular example of seasonal workers; the bigger challenge there will be to ensure that there is appropriate accommodation. I do not think any of us would advocate that it would be sensible to bring people into the UK without at least having an idea of where they would spend their first night in bed.

We have worked with the Scottish Government on their super-sponsor scheme, which allows someone who does not have a sponsor to come here, with the Scottish Government in effect becoming their sponsor here in the UK. Applications for that scheme have been received and we have been pleased to work on it with the Scottish Government and, in particular, with Neil Gray, to whom I pay tribute from the Dispatch Box for his constructive work.

Strong progress is being made. We have seen what we have already done with the family scheme; we would now expect to see the same trajectory for the Homes for Ukraine scheme. The question asked in the previous session on this issue may perhaps be asked in this one, and we still believe it is right that we do safeguarding checks, particularly given that children will potentially come to live with adults they have not previously met.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

The experience that I have had in Christchurch, where we have already welcomed some Ukrainians who have arrived, has been much more positive. I thank the Minister and his team for being so accommodating towards MPs who raise particular issues. Will he encourage individuals and families who want to take advantage of the schemes and are finding bureaucratic problems to contact their MPs? Everyone who has contacted me has had a satisfactory result.

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I am pleased to hear of the results that my hon. Friend has been able to achieve for his constituents, as he always does. It is good to see people arrive and to see communities such as Christchurch stepping up and doing their bit. It is encouraging that we have seen offers coming in from throughout the UK, rather than just from areas that have had, let us say, more of a tradition of taking part in the local government-based resettlement schemes. It is very good to hear of my hon. Friend’s experience. I have had constituent contact, as I am sure other colleagues have. MPs from all parties are doing their bit to advance cases when they are contacted.

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Chair, Home Affairs Committee, Chair, Home Affairs Committee

I really do not understand why the Minister says that it is too early to know how many have arrived on the Homes for Ukraine scheme, because he has also just said that it is very important that the Home Office knows where people spend their first night in the UK. Perhaps he will be able to enlighten us on when he will be able to tell us the numbers.

As an example of the ongoing problems with bureaucracy, may I just tell the Minister about the case of Anna Kalyata? She has just given birth in temporary accommodation in Poland, having fled Ukraine. She does not speak English and, even though she has been matched under the sponsorship scheme, she has been told that she needs to have a birth certificate for the baby to allow the baby to get a visa. She is in a foreign country, traumatised by war and is now thinking of going back to Ukraine to register the birth. Surely the Home Office can have a more compassionate response to women, children and babies.

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I thank the Chair of the Select Committee for her question. It would not be appropriate for me to go into an individual case on the Floor of the House. Certainly, we are able to process children. We are conscious that some children, including some who have arrived from Ukraine, will not have any documentation. I am happy to look at the particular example that she has cited, but she should appreciate that there are particular issues, as touched on in the previous urgent question, about children being removed particularly from Poland and the border countries, which is why we have to go through certain checks.

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Conservative, New Forest West

It is quicker than getting a driving licence—I will give the Minister that. The service provided in Portcullis House is excellent. I took a case down there this morning. The person called up the record. It was received on 19 March. All the information is there and correct. It is simply awaiting a decision. Now that is disappointing, is it not?

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

Yes, I share my right hon. Friend’s disappointment, but as I have touched on, we are seeing the pace of decision making increase, as happened with the Ukraine family scheme. At one point last week, we saw 6,000 visas issued under that scheme in just two days. The trajectory is increasing; it is on a similar trajectory to the Ukraine family scheme, and we look forward to being able to make decisions very shortly on the vast majority of cases.

Photo of Matthew Pennycook Matthew Pennycook Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I echo the comments of my right hon. Friend Yvette Cooper that neither visa system is working currently at the pace required. May I ask the Minister how applications are being prioritised, and specifically whether he can assure me that those with serious medical conditions, or who are at risk because of their location, are at the top of the list when it comes to processing their applications?

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

Certainly, where there are specific issues, we will look to prioritise a case. We make the point that people do not need to wait in Ukraine for a decision: they are welcome to move or to apply from safe third countries. As was touched on in the previous urgent question, the actual challenge for many people will be getting from where they are in Ukraine to a safe neighbouring country, not least given some of the war crimes that are being committed by Russian forces against civilians, to which those travelling are vulnerable. We will prioritise where appropriate, and, certainly, if there are particular instances of where that needs to be done, I am happy to hear them.

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Conservative, Wimbledon

May I say to my hon. Friend that from my experience, I support the comments of my right hon. Friends the Members for Newark (Robert Jenrick) and for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne)? I welcome the progress that the Government are making, but may I say to him that I had a constituent in Poland at the weekend trying to help, and that, on the frontline, access to visas and applications is still far too difficult? What more can the Government do to simplify the process so that we can help these migrants from Putin’s violence?

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

We have certainly provided support, and we have a support hub out in Poland. We have also simplified the form quite significantly since the launch of the Ukraine family scheme, removing a number of parts that did not require basic security and safeguarding checks. Working with our colleagues in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, we are keen to look at what further support we can provide not only to those who are applying to our two visa schemes, but, for example, to the relatively small number of surrogate babies that will be born British in Ukraine. We will look at what support we can have available once people have crossed the border into Poland.

Photo of Wendy Chamberlain Wendy Chamberlain Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Wales), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

I echo the comments of Sir Desmond Swayne about what has been available in PCH. I have certainly made some real progress with cases, but I am concerned that those staff will not be available during recess. Even a skeleton staff would be helpful there. Following on from the comments of the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, I have a three-year-old stuck in Poland, with a birth certificate but not a passport. UK Visas and Immigration has said she needs biometric security clearance as a result. Are we really going to make the family wait weeks or even months to join relatives in the UK because UKVI thinks their toddler needs a security check?

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

We would paint cases involving children as having safeguarding checks rather than security checks, which were touched on in another context earlier today. In terms of our visa application centre capacity, given that the vast majority are now applying without needing to make a biometric appointment, there is capability. Certainly in urgent or compassionate cases, we would look to find availability quickly and, as touched on in answer to a previous question, we would look to turn around the visa decision quickly as well.

Photo of Harriett Baldwin Harriett Baldwin Conservative, West Worcestershire

Last week, at the Inter-Parliamentary Union Assembly, the UK delegation was able to meet our Polish parliamentary counterparts to thank them for everything their country has been doing to welcome such an enormous influx of refugees from Ukraine, and to ask them what more the UK could do to make the process work better for those who want to come here. They made two constructive suggestions, which I will feed in. The first is that they are using the twinning network between communities across Europe; I urge the Home Office and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to look at that network and establish links such as those with Malvern, where 200 families want to welcome refugees but do not necessarily know where they can locate them. Secondly, they wanted to see the application form written in Ukrainian. I wonder whether that is something that could easily be done.

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I thank my hon. Friend for her positive suggestions. The Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, my hon. Friend Eddie Hughes, is here on the Front Bench and can look at using the twinning network—particularly, ideally, where there may be some language ability in either Polish or Ukrainian. That would be useful in helping people to settle, certainly in their first few days. In terms of engagement with Poland, I was with the Polish ambassador this week, talking to them directly and hearing what their priorities are. Their key focus is that we need to support the vast majority of people who will look to remain in the region, rather than just seeing resettlement as the priority, but it was useful to hear their thoughts on what more we could do to support them.

On moving the application form into Ukrainian, we are looking to provide guidance on how to fill it in in Ukrainian and Russian, since some Ukrainians speak Russian as their first language. To translate the whole form would require a significant amount of technical work; moreover, the vast majority of our decision makers operate in English and it would be difficult to find large numbers of Ukrainian speakers who we could deploy into UKVI’s operation. Certainly, our goal is to make it relatively simple, so that people can fill in the basic information that they need to for the safeguarding check. Any documents they submit do not need to be translated. Birth certificates and any other proofs or documents we might ask for can be submitted in Ukrainian, given that the decision makers are familiar with the documents themselves. Certainly, we are looking at how we can advance the digital capability and the guidance so that people know what they are doing step by step as they go through the form.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Shadow Solicitor General

Many emails I have received have a common theme. I will just quote a couple:

“I have had to write…no fewer than five different applications in order to be able to comply with the requirements of the scheme.”

Another said:

“The forms, aimed at Ukrainians, were hard for me to fill out and I speak English and am used to forms, but I managed to help them complete the application. The applications were submitted on Saturday 19th March. Since then we have heard nothing.”

The first email went on:

“While our friend is in danger, the Home Office is mired in bureaucracy, prioritising form over human life. It looks to me as if the whole process is going to take weeks and weeks.”

Will the Minister admit that there are blockages in the systems, and will he do something to clear them?

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

As we have already touched on, we are now seeing the rate of grants increasing significantly on the Homes for Ukraine scheme, as we saw with the Ukraine family scheme. I have touched on the number of visas that we issued in just two days last week under that scheme. We expect to see the same with this scheme, and we will soon see a very large number of the applications that have been made granted.

Photo of Kim Leadbeater Kim Leadbeater Labour, Batley and Spen

I have been overwhelmed by the generosity of the British people, including those in my constituency of Batley and Spen, who have offered to open their homes to Ukrainian families. They desperately want to help and are ready and waiting. Can the Minister tell these good people why the Government are making it so difficult for families who are fleeing the devastating attack on their country by asking them to fill in, as we have heard, these lengthy, multiple-page online forms, often in English, and upload so many documents? What is being done to ditch this extra bureaucracy, which takes caseworkers days to review, and what is being done to speed up the whole process?

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I certainly would not say that it would take caseworkers days to review an individual form. In many cases, the online forms are literally click-through pages to say, “No, I don’t have a criminal record”. We have touched on how the process is accelerating. We will see many more applications granted and many of the people making such generous offers getting to be able to play their part.

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury)

My constituents Nick and Aileen Walker registered as hosts on 14 March and have been in touch with a family from Ukraine that they wish to host—a grandmother, mother and 11-month-old baby daughter, who registered their applications on 18 March. Can the Minister confirm how long people will be expected to wait for this visa paperwork to be processed, because it is increasingly difficult for families such as these to wait in insecure accommodation in a range of different countries in Europe, when they should be in a place of safety and sanctuary in Glasgow?

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

As touched on, we are now seeing the rate of visa grants accelerating and we should continue to see that over the next week. We would expect to see the majority of current cases being decided fairly shortly. We are very conscious that people do want to get settled. It is great to see the community in Glasgow standing up on this scheme in the way that it has on every other refugee resettlement scheme and supporting those claiming asylum here in the UK.

Photo of Olivia Blake Olivia Blake Shadow Minister (Climate Change and Net Zero)

I want to question the Minister on the capacity in the system at the moment. If 200,000-odd people have come forward through the Homes for Ukraine scheme and only roughly a quarter of applications have been processed so far, what is he going to do to make sure that there is enough capacity in the system to allow everyone who wants to come here to do so? What conversations has he been having with the Treasury to ensure that we have the resources to do this?

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

The scheme is uncapped from a visa point of view. I suspect that the issue of conversations with the Treasury may be more for the next UQ about the funding that will be provided to local communities where people are sponsoring. We are clear: it is an uncapped scheme with no restrictions. If very large numbers of people want to sponsor individuals, we welcome that. One of the reasons we have gone down the path of appealing directly to the public is that it has proved, first, to deliver far more spaces much more quickly; and secondly, to be much better value for money than more traditional schemes, as, sadly, we have seen with Afghanistan. When a large number of people arrived, offers via local councils from communities did not come forward to the necessary level and therefore we ended up having to pay for people to stay in hotels.

Photo of Layla Moran Layla Moran Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (International Development), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

I have an urgent case that I need to raise on this last day before we rise for recess. The mother has a five-year-old. She is in Italy. She is eight months pregnant. If she does not get a visa literally in the next few days, she will not be allowed to fly by her doctor. She speaks no word of Italian and is really worried about having to give birth with doctors that she cannot communicate with. Meanwhile we have a host ready and waiting for her in Oxfordshire. Will the Minister urgently take up this case and help us to get her over?

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I am very happy to do so if the hon. Lady gives me the details after this session.

Photo of Jeff Smith Jeff Smith Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

The cases of the constituents in Manchester who contact me generally follow the same pattern, which is that they do the hard work of locating and liaising with the family in Ukraine, they submit the complicated application form, they get a receipt and then they hear nothing. That is the frustration. People are being left in limbo either in Poland or under shelling in Ukraine. One of my constituents phrased it very well. He said: “All I want to do is to make sure there is nothing we haven’t done which may be holding up the application process.” If the Government will not sort out a simple emergency visa scheme, can they at least sort out the communication so that people know what is going on?

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

That is a fair point about updating people. Certainly people would be contacted if there was something that was needed from them, rather than us conducting the checks he would expect us to conduct from a safeguarding and security perspective. But a fair point has been made by colleagues across the House about the communication that needs to be sent out to those who have made applications, and we are certainly happy to take that forward.

Photo of Anna McMorrin Anna McMorrin Shadow Minister (Justice)

I am not sure the Minister is actually hearing the issues being raised in the House about the shambles of this system, which is proving impossible. One of my constituents has offered their home to a family they are in touch with, and it is heartening to see how many families have come forward, but this family cannot flee Ukraine until their visa is approved because their son is disabled. Living in a refugee camp would prove too difficult. They are living with the daily trauma of sirens. Sheltering is proving to be too difficult with their son, yet they are still waiting for a visa from the Home Office. What can the Government do to step in urgently, issue a visa and look at this and many of the other issues like it to resolve this crisis immediately?

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

As we have touched on, in total we have already issued more than 27,000 visas across the two schemes. We have touched on how the Homes for Ukraine scheme is accelerating the number of visa grants, and that means that for those who urgently need it, it will be there. We have already touched on the ability for Members to put forward cases, where there is the need to prioritise them.

Photo of Kirsten Oswald Kirsten Oswald SNP Deputy Leader, Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Women), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Equalities)

Constituents of mine have been in touch from Poland, where they have been helping a Ukrainian mother and daughter to make their way to the UK. I understand that one of the many barriers that they faced was a visa centre without any working printers due to the failure of an outsourced service. As the UK Government are insisting on this visa process, what undertaking can the Minister give us today on the steps being taken immediately to prevent the visa process breaking down, because issues such as this are leaving vulnerable people in limbo and high and dry?

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

Absolutely. The move to divert the vast majority of people applying to both these schemes away from visa application and the need to have a formally printed vignette, which is what the hon. Lady is referring to, has made a dramatic difference in terms of capability. Certainly our contractors assure us that printing facilities are available, but if there is a specific example, I am happy to look at it, because we need to ensure that where people need a vignette, it is issued. We have been engaging with carriers to ensure that they then accept the form that it is fixed to when people present themselves at airports. We have had that issue flagged to us, too.

Photo of Andrew Gwynne Andrew Gwynne Shadow Minister (Health and Social Care)

Can I say to the Minister that I still think an emergency visa scheme would be far less bureaucratic than the system we have now? I remind him that some of the most vulnerable people have fled their homes without technology and the paperwork necessary for them to be able to complete the forms. What is the Minister doing to ensure that these people are not forgotten? What changes is he making to the system so that people who do not have the technology or the paperwork do not get left behind?

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

First, I am not sure what taking time out to set up another visa scheme would deliver in this context, compared with the refinements to the process that we already have in place. I can appreciate the argument about not having a visa. We do not agree with it and I think it is a bit odd to go down that path, but our decision makers have extensive flexibility. We appreciate that the type of documents we might normally ask for, such as translated copies of birth certificates, will not reasonably be able to be got hold of in a warzone. Our decision makers, subject to certain national security and safeguarding red lines, which the House would expect us to have for the protection of all involved, have a large amount of flexibility about the situations they can accept. Likewise, they can also consider families as a group. If one person has particular items, the decision maker can then apply that as proving the position of the rest of the family. It is safe to say there is significant flexibility for our decision makers, recognising the situation people are facing.

Photo of Brendan O'Hara Brendan O'Hara Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

The Minister should recognise that the visa requirement is the root of the problem. Like most Members, I have been contacted by constituents who are desperate to help. They have signed up to the Homes for Ukraine scheme and identified families who they can assist, but they have run into red tape and bureaucracy. How can the Minister assure the Gibbs-Hall family from Dunoon, Jim and Margaret Love from Helensburgh, Sam Gallagher from Clynder, the Douglas family from Oban, Eddie McCreath from Lochgilphead and Hamish McKinnon from the Arrochar hotel, who all stand ready and willing to help with offers of accommodation and employment, that their incredible kind offers of help will not go to waste?

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

It is great to hear that so many people are stepping forward. As the local MP, I am sure the hon. Gentleman is proud to see how his community is stepping forward to offer a hand of friendship and practical support. It is worth noting that this is the biggest offer of housing in people’s own homes since the wartime evacuation, which shows the scale.

The pace and trajectory of visas being granted is increasing each day. We saw that with the Ukraine family scheme, and we now look to see it with the Homes for Ukraine scheme so that people’s generous and heartfelt offers will soon be taken up.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I thank the Minister for our meeting yesterday. He was able to help with two cases, one involving some 33 Ukrainians who are coming to my constituency. He helped to make that happen, for which I thank him and his staff. These things work only because staff make Ministers look good, and I say that with all honesty. The same is true of my office, by the way, and I am not saying it is not the same for anyone else.

Checks must be made for the many Ukrainians who do not have a passport. My office has been greatly aided by a young man in an office hub in Poland, who went so far as to give his mobile phone number to the church group that is bringing people to my constituency. The Home Office is carrying out biometric checks, and so on, but does it have enough translators? The church group left its fluent English speaker in Poland to help this dedicated man with other applications, but he cannot be there every day. Is there any way of giving him some assistance?

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind comments about the staff who have been working on this scheme. Following other comments and feedback, we are considering the provision in our hub over the recess in addition to the phoneline for Members of Parliament.

Many of the staff in our visa application centres are locally employed, so many will be native Polish speakers rather than being UK staff sent out to Poland. Many will be familiar with and fluent in the local language, and they should be able to support people in making applications. We also have military and other support from the Home Office on the ground to work with people capable of speaking a basic level of English to support people in making applications.

As I said to the hon. Gentleman yesterday, it is great to see the community in Strangford stepping forward to help 35 people. People can be supported to make their application, and they do not have to use the terminal themselves. People are welcome to make an application for others if that is easier in the circumstances.