Homes for Ukraine: Visa Application Centres

– in the House of Commons at 10:31 am on 28th April 2022.

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

The whole country is united in horror at Putin’s grotesque war, and we stand with the Ukrainian people. Many in this Chamber wear it as a badge of honour that they were sanctioned by the Kremlin yesterday due to that support.

We are delighted that so many British people have already put forward generous offers of help to displaced Ukrainians. Nearly 90,000 visas have been issued so that people can rebuild their life in the UK through the Ukraine family scheme and Homes for Ukraine. Our visa application centre footprint in Europe has traditionally been small, in line with the fairly limited demand. This is because EU nationals had freedom of movement and, post-Brexit, EU nationals do not need visas to visit the UK, with applications from European economic area nationals for key routes such as skilled worker and student visas able to be done from home via our fully digital application route.

As the Ukrainian crisis escalated, we increased appointment capacity across Europe, going from offering about 2,000 appointments a week to offering 13,500 appointments a week. In the run-up to the recent Russian invasion, we established a new visa application centre in Lviv, and we kept our visa application centre in Kyiv running right up until the Russian attack was launched. We also established a new application point in Rzeszów near the Polish border with Ukraine. We were able to offer walk-in and on-the-day appointments to customers wishing to apply for the initial family member concession route and were able to fulfil all appointments wherever they were required.

I am pleased to advise the House that visa application centre appointments are readily available in all locations across Europe, and in the majority of locations are available on the same day for customers looking to book a slot. As we have throughout, we will continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with the people of Ukraine.

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

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question.

We all know that the conflict in Ukraine has been devastating, and the resulting humanitarian crisis is outwith the control of any Government. Members of this House are now familiar with UK Visas and Immigration and the Homes for Ukraine scheme, but refugees—not “customers”—without passports are required to go through additional checks at in-country visa application centres, following which their permission to travel is provided in person. The majority of those who are required to go through this are very young children who do not yet have their own passport.

The problem is that the VACs are not providing anywhere near the service required and the Home Office seems unable to do anything about it. VACs have been outsourced to TLScontact for the past nine years, with the contract renewed twice. However, before the current crisis, an inspection found that TLScontact was missing targets, there was a lack of support for vulnerable applicants and there was no transparency from the Home Office in relation to the service level.

My own constituents’ case exemplifies these problems. Sofia and Kirill are four and seven. They have experienced significant trauma from the devastation they saw before leaving Ukraine. Their application was initially submitted in mid-March. I am pleased to say that, finally, it was granted last night, but this was weeks after the adults in their group were able to travel. In that time, the family made three visits to the VAC, each time waiting for hours and then being sent away. Each child was issued documentation that was factually incorrect and had to be reprocessed, and throughout this the family were moving between temporary accommodations in Poland, with no certainty and no funds. My office has been extensively involved in trying to conclude this case, with representations made to senior Home Office officials and via the Minister for Refugees. Even they could not get answers. It was admitted by one official that this was not the service we should expect at a basic level, never mind for families fleeing war.

What are the current oversight arrangements for TLScontact and for its day-to-day operation of VACs? What steps are being taken to improve such oversight and to prevent the current black hole, whereby no one has overall responsibility for their proper functioning? What was the outcome of the Minister for Refugees’ visit to see the areas surrounding Ukraine? Did he visit any of the VACs? What issues did he identify and what steps are being taken to resolve them? What steps are being taken to ensure immediately that FAVs—forms for affixing the visa—are issued to families promptly and without error? What steps are being taken to ensure proper communication with families? I am not asking for an update on a particular case. I am asking a fundamental question about operations.

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

It is worth outlining where we see the future of our immigration system. As I touched on in my statement, EEA nationals already make fully online applications, for things such as student and skilled worker visas. When we rolled out the British nationals overseas route last year, we included a fully digital application system, which the vast majority of applicants have used. Our future work is to move away from people having to go to a VAC every time they want to apply for particular types of visas, including visit, student and skilled worker visas, and for a range of products that people apply for. For example, we will be moving to more of a system where we re-use biometrics or are able to extract biometrics via passports. Our future vision for the UK immigration system looks towards a time when a lot fewer people will be going to a VAC than are doing so today, and that technology will be used. We have seen that move in the Ukraine schemes. For example, about 90% of those who have now been granted visas under the Homes for Ukraine scheme have done this via the biometric bypass: they have not had to attend a VAC. We are also looking to roll out next month the system that will allow those who have come to this country with six months on a permission to travel letter to then be able to apply for the full visa from home, as would those looking to travel after that. So we are looking to reduce significantly the number of people who need to use a VAC.

That said, for those who do not have valid international passports the VACs perform a role of carrying out safeguarding checks, particularly in relation to children. For those of a younger age, we are not looking at the same security checks as we would do for an adult. For children, we are ensuring that key safeguarding checks are done. As we have said, our feedback at the moment is that there is wide availability of appointments, and that a large number of visas have been issued and people have arrived in the UK, having been through that process, in relatively significant numbers. We continue to work with our provider to improve the service on offer, but, as I say, our long-term vision is moving strongly away from VACs and things such as the issuing of vignettes, and instead looking towards e-visa permissions, which will mean that people do not need to go to collect something physical in their passport to allow them to travel to the UK. That is where the vision is going, but the changes we have made to the two systems, allowing the biometric bypass, means that the vast majority of people now making applications need to go nowhere near a VAC.

Photo of David Johnston David Johnston Conservative, Wantage

A member of my staff spends a significant proportion of each day working on visas for Ukrainians, and I thank her and the hub team here, who have been supporting us all with this. Does my hon. Friend realise that one common problem is that the visa is approved but the person in question does not get the email giving them permission to travel for quite some time afterwards? Is he aware of that? Is he working on it? Will he set out what is being done about it?

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

We have been aware of an issue with the system in terms of the current process of the decision being made and then the visa dispatched. We have a particular team working on ensuring dispatch. The changes we will make in respect of the fully online system next month will mean that a lot of it becomes automated, which will resolve that particular issue. We have been aware of some instances and have a specific team that makes sure that decisions are dispatched.

I very much appreciate my hon. Friend’s comments about the hub, which has been assisting Members and ensuring that people’s visas get dispatched. As I say, we have now seen nearly 90,000 visas issued and significant numbers of people arriving here in the UK having used the biometric bypass route or been to a visa application centre. That indicates to us that the system is now working effectively.

Photo of Stephen Kinnock Stephen Kinnock Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Immigration)

Ukraine is on the frontline of the fight for the values that we in Britain hold dear: democracy, liberty and self-determination. It has therefore been truly inspiring to see 200,000 British households willing to open their doors to Ukrainians—largely women and children—who are fleeing Putin’s barbaric war. Somehow, though, the Home Secretary has managed to turn this inspirational story of British generosity into a bureaucratic nightmare.

The Opposition of course welcome the two visa routes that the Government have opened, but we have grave concerns that the Home Secretary’s poor leadership has meant that the ambitions and generosity of the British people are not being matched by a Government who seem to be more interested in chasing headlines than fulfilling practical tasks and duties.

The latest figures show that of the 74,000 visa applications under the Homes for Ukraine scheme, just 11,100 have arrived—and this is several weeks after the scheme went live. In these matters, I usually try to assume that such things are down to cock-up rather than conspiracy—especially when it comes to the Home Office under this Home Secretary—but will the Minister expand on claims by a whistleblower who was contracted by the Home Office that the Government are deliberately withholding visas for a single child in a wider family to prevent the whole family from arriving? I have been alerted to the case of a family who were told that their visas were ready, but when they went to collect them, the one for their three-year-old child was not there. There are many other deeply troubling cases of this nature. How on earth can this be happening? I sincerely hope it is not deliberate.

Members from all parties have been deeply frustrated by the speed at which the Home Office has responded on casework. For too many, the so-called hotline has gone stone cold. Yesterday, the queue for the MP queries desk in Portcullis House was more than three hours long. What is the Home Secretary doing to sort this mess out? Why is it that, even though she has taken caseworkers off the Afghan scheme—which has run to a standstill, with 12,000 Afghans stuck in hotels, at huge expense to the British taxpayer—she still cannot manage to organise a system that works for Ukraine? It is simply not good enough. I hope the Home Secretary and the Minister can provide answers. Our constituents deserve them, and so do those Ukrainians whose relatives are sacrificing their lives in the fight for freedom.

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

I am aware of the claims—false claims, I have to say—that there is a deliberate move to withhold individual visas. Those claims are absolute nonsense. [Interruption.] I hear chuntering, but it is certainly not the case. When some people apply through the fully digital system and some via a VAC, some of them may get a decision shortly after others in their party, but that is not a deliberate design or policy.

The hon. Gentleman referred to some of the numbers. Nearly 90,000 visas have now been issued and we expect to see many more people arriving in our country shortly. That shows the breadth of people’s generosity. This is one of the biggest resettlement schemes into communities throughout our country in many years. That shows people’s generosity when faced with the situation in Ukraine.

We are aware of some issues. As we have already heard, most people have been quite grateful for the hub, which will continue to operate during recess, given the support it provides to Members of Parliament. We are aware of the queues this week and action has been taken to resolve the issue.

Overall, we can see how the scheme is running and the generosity of the British people coming forward. That is what should be reflected when we talk about the scheme.

Photo of Martin Vickers Martin Vickers Conservative, Cleethorpes

I have a constituent who is seeking to take in a Ukrainian family. They made their way to a visa application centre six weeks ago, but they have still not received the okay to make their way to the UK. They are being told that that is because there is a pause for those with Russian passports. Can the Minister confirm whether that is the case?

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

Third-country nationals who are part of an overall Ukrainian family or household can be covered. My hon. Friend will appreciate that there are some different considerations in relation to Russian or Belarusian passport holders. We are conscious that in Ukraine there will be a number of people who, I think it safe to say, are no fans of Vladimir Putin, given what he is doing to them, their families and their neighbours. Certainly, they qualify, but there are some slightly different considerations if we are dealing with someone who holds a Russian passport.

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

We are seeing the biggest movement of refugees across Europe since the second world war, and the Home Secretary’s response is to erect a massive wall of bureaucracy and red tape. That bureaucracy is causing totally avoidable misery for the Ukrainians fleeing war, and anger and frustration for generous hosts right across the UK. We on the SNP Benches have said it before and I will say it again: let us just scrap these visa requirements now.

The Minister will cite security again, but I will push back on that. Does he accept that around 140 countries—not just those in the EU—allow Ukrainians to arrive without visas? Will he confirm that scrapping the visas does not mean no checks? How many nationalities does his Department already allow to arrive into the United Kingdom without visas? He is not saying that there are no security checks for them, so why do we not apply the same principles to Ukrainians?

The UK shares an open land border with a country that does not require visas from Ukrainians. Does that not undermine somewhat the security arguments that the Minister keeps putting to us? There is still time to fix this, but not much. Let us just scrap the visa requirements now.

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

The hon. Gentleman will not be surprised to hear that the Government take a different view. It is for each country to decide its policy based on the intelligence and the assessments it receives, and that is partly driven by its geographical situation and, in Europe, whether it is part of the Schengen border-free zone.

Our position is based on the advice we have received. We have changed some of the systems of application based on that advice, and all our policies, particularly around visa national or non-visa national status for particular nationalities, are driven by a comprehensive assessment that includes security and other matters. I hope colleagues will appreciate why I will not outline the exact details on the Floor of the House, in a public forum.

As I have touched on, nearly 90,000 visas have already been issued. We are certainly seeing more progress every day, and we look forward to welcoming a large number of people to the UK.

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

Families in my constituency have very generously offered to house Ukrainian refugees. I was going to raise the plight of the Lykholit family from Ukraine, who applied on 18 March, but they have received their visas today after an extended wait—that is good news. However, there is the plight of those who are still in hotels waiting for their visas, particularly the relatives of people who assisted Holocaust survivors in escaping the Nazis. Will my hon. Friend prioritise those people? We owe them a big debt of gratitude for the risks that they undertook.

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

I am very happy to look at individual cases or instances that my hon. Friend wishes to supply. I am sure that, like me, he found that one of the most tragic moments of the current war was when a Holocaust survivor was killed by Russian shelling. Having survived so much horror in the earlier parts of his life, he lost it in the latest horror to be inflicted by a tyrant looking to dominate his neighbours.

Certainly, there has been a big step up in the number of visas being issued each day. As I say, nearly 90,000 have now been issued, and we are very much looking forward to welcoming those we are granting visas to. I am pleased to hear that the case that my hon. Friend had planned to raise has now been resolved.

Photo of Afzal Khan Afzal Khan Shadow Minister (Justice)

People who should be eligible under the family scheme criteria are being told that their applications are taking longer because their family link is not close enough. Can the Minister tell us whether applications are being prioritised based on how immediate a family link is, and if so, why?

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

The simple answer is no. They will usually be done in date order, unless there are particular compelling and compassionate circumstances. Given the nature of the situation that people have left in Ukraine and eastern Poland, in many ways virtually all applications have compelling and compassionate circumstances. We do not order applications based on how close a relative they are. As the hon. Gentleman will know, the list of relatives we will accept is quite extensive. In addition, if someone was for example a godparent, that would not qualify under the family scheme, but we would look to see whether it could be transferred into the Homes for Ukraine scheme and whether the person concerned could act as a sponsor for the individual instead.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

After what happened in Salisbury, I urge my hon. Friend not to take the rather reckless advice of the SNP. Due to the fog of war, there undoubtedly—[Interruption.] Stuart C. McDonald is trying to intervene on me, but he is reckless in his suggestion, and after Salisbury—[Interruption.].

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Undoubtedly, due to the fog of war, there were long delays, and still are in some instances. However, I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to thank the people in the Home Office who have been working very hard of late. The Lichfield constituents are very generous and want to house Ukrainians. I and my staff have been dealing with numerous cases, most of which are now resolved. I thank the people of Lichfield and I thank particularly Home Office officials, who have been working almost a 24-hour day to resolve this.

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

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments; I know the team who have been working on these schemes will very much appreciate what he has just said. As we have touched on several times, nearly 90,000 visas have now been issued and we are seeing significant numbers of people arriving in the UK. That is a tribute not only to the generosity of spirit of people such as those in Lichfield who are looking to host families and provide what support they can, but to those teams that have worked to stand up the scheme. It is worth noting that the British national overseas passports scheme was over about one year and dealt with 100,000 people. This has been 90,000 within a matter of weeks.

Photo of Andy McDonald Andy McDonald Labour, Middlesbrough

I am trying to help a family who fled the Donbas region, where their house was obliterated by the Russians. They have made it to Cherkasy. I submitted an application for mum, but could not submit one for the child because he did not have his passport. They applied for a passport in Ukraine and it was turned around within days. His application for a visa was granted yesterday, on 27 April. I understand that the mother’s visa application was granted on 20 April, but that has not been communicated to her because additional checks now have to be carried out. Can the Minister understand the frustration that I feel on behalf of that family, whose visas have been approved but who do not have the letters to travel? Why is it that the Republic of Ireland does not ask people to submit themselves to checks that cause such delays?

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

Certainly, if a visa has been approved, it would be interesting to know what further checks there are. There are local authority checks relating to sponsors and accommodation, but that does not affect the ability to travel. I am happy to look at the example if the hon. Gentleman will supply it to me. The Republic of Ireland has taken a view based on its own position and in the light of its own situation. The commentary coming out of Moscow about the United Kingdom is very different from that about a number of other countries. The Republic of Ireland has made its choice and we have engaged with it closely on what it has decided to do, but we have made an assessment based on our own advice and needs. I understand, of course, that the Labour party has already said it supports having a visa and has not, unlike the SNP, called for the visas to be abandoned.

Photo of Helen Morgan Helen Morgan Liberal Democrat, North Shropshire

A lady sponsored by one of my constituents waited so long for her visa that organised criminals offered her a counterfeit visa in return for favours. We have a 10-year-old who is the only member of her family not to have been given permission to travel yet. Thankfully, my vulnerable lady is now sorted out, but the other family member is still waiting to hear about further progress. Does the Minister agree that this process must be improved, and improved urgently, because these are vulnerable people and we have a duty to keep them safe?

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

It is concerning to hear of any attempt to take advantage of a vulnerable person. If the evidence has not already been supplied to us and to the Polish authorities, we would certainly be grateful for it so that we can track down those involved in offering counterfeit documents. I would make it very clear that counterfeit documents do not work for travel.

On the 10-year-old concerned, again, if there is a particular case still outstanding, I am happy to look at it. We are rapidly getting through the remaining outstanding cases. I said when I appeared at the Dispatch Box a few weeks back that we would see a rapid increase in the rate of visa grants. As colleagues will have seen from the published statistics, we have seen a very significant increase in the rate of grants over the last couple of weeks, and that is continuing. We are looking to move to a frictionless level of claims going through the process without any delay in the very near future, and the teams are certainly working very hard to achieve that.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

As we have heard from around the Chamber, there are many cases of families waiting for documents for their children, particularly for the form for affixing the visa, despite mothers already having had a visa granted. I understand that these FAVs actually need to be printed in the UK and then couriered over to whichever country, which is sometimes taking many days. I think this situation is really quite shameful. In the one case I want to cite, the person applied back on 24 March and their biometrics were submitted on 31 March, but they have no accommodation and they have run out of money. I am sure that many Members across the House have lots of other cases like that. Can we not just waive the visa demand for these children?

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

I have already outlined why we have the visa requirement, although in the case of children, that is more focused on safeguarding the children. There is a real issue, particularly if unaccompanied minors leave Poland and the other border countries. Again in relation to unaccompanied minors, as I have stated at the Dispatch Box on previous occasions, the Ukrainian Government have a strong policy position on unaccompanied children who are travelling being placed into the care of foreigners without their consent. The visa process is about that, but even then, for actual travel to the United Kingdom people do need documents to be able to board planes. In some cases, if they do not have a passport or any other document, it is the FAV with the vignette on it that actually gives them the ability to board a plane.

Photo of Carol Monaghan Carol Monaghan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Armed Forces and Veterans), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Education)

Those seeking visas are turning to social media to try to identify sponsors, and this is leaving many refugees, mainly women and children, vulnerable to potential sexual exploitation. The Scottish Government are carrying out protecting vulnerable group checks. Can the Minister detail the initial safeguarding and ongoing follow-ups that will be done with host families and, indeed, the refugees who are staying with them?

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

I thank the hon. Member for her question. Certainly, we would point people towards some of the more recognised charities that are offering matching services, rather than just going on to social media. It was particularly concerning—this has now been rectified following, I believe, an intervention—that at one point a popular search engine put a dating site near the top when people were searching for matching with a refugee. That was clearly an utterly inappropriate site to have as one of the things being suggested.

On the ongoing safeguarding checks, I hope the hon. Member appreciates why I will not go into the exact details of the databases and information we look at for the visa application. However, once people have arrived, councils in England are doing Disclosure and Barring Service checks, with enhanced checks if a child will be staying with the sponsor—I understand that councils in Scotland are doing similar checks—and then there is a requirement for ongoing checks. The £10,500 funding per person is partly there to help support the required ongoing safeguarding work, particularly where there are children or vulnerable women. One of the benefits of our system is that we know where people are, we know who they are staying with and—we have already done this under our system and it would not happen if we did not have a visa process—we have been able to block people from being placed with those who have committed quite serious offences.

Photo of Clive Lewis Clive Lewis Labour, Norwich South

In Norwich, I have 20 constituents in touch with me who are trying to get the Ukrainian families they have offered homes to into the country. Many of the people applying for visas have had emails about other visa seekers coming back to them in the confusion. We have an urgent visa processing and help system for MPs that is nothing but urgent: it takes days of prompting to get anything back. Having listened to my hon. Friend Stephen Kinnock talk about the whistleblowers, I guess the question is: is it cock-up or is it conspiracy, or have the Government cocked up their conspiracy to cock up?

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

As I said, we have already issued nearly 90,000 visas. We are working hard each day to increase that number, and that will remain our focus.

Photo of Jessica Morden Jessica Morden Chair, Statutory Instruments (Joint Committee), Chair, Statutory Instruments (Select Committee), Chair, Statutory Instruments (Joint Committee), Chair, Statutory Instruments (Select Committee), Shadow Vice Chamberlain of HM Household (Whip), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

Following on from the point made by my hon. Friend Stephen Kinnock, we too in Newport East have cases where only one family member has had a visa—in one case, a six-year-old, more than a month since the entire family application went in. The kind people of Newport East have been very generous in opening their homes and their hearts, but what does the Minister suggest that we say to these families, who, as we have heard, are fast running out of money?

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

We can say to those families that we are fast getting through the applications. As I say, nearly 90,000 visas have been granted and we are seeing thousands more granted every day.

Photo of Stewart McDonald Stewart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence)

Although Michael Fabricant has beetled out of the Chamber, let me remind the House that the Salisbury attack was carried out by Russian FSB agents, not Ukrainian refugees; to conflate the two was wildly inappropriate.

I want to ask about support for the Government of Poland. I visited there recently with the Foreign Affairs Committee, and it is clear that the Poles are carrying an enormous burden in comparison even with other bordering countries. They need logistical help with the burden that they are shouldering, which is understandable given their geographical location. Will the Minister update the House on some of the Government-to-Government work between London and Warsaw to ensure that they are getting all the support they need?

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

As the hon. Gentleman rightly says, the Polish Government and Polish people are doing amazing work in supporting those who have crossed the border from Ukraine. We have provided £30 million to Poland to help with providing temporary shelter, education and other basic services. We have also provided things like blankets and hydro kits to Moldova, which, as he will know, is similarly seeing significant pressures in terms of those who have crossed the border. As part of a wider package, we have had on the ground UK teams from the Home Office who have been supporting people at our visa application centres. A range of support is being given. I recently met the Visegrád Group ambassadors to talk about what they were seeing in terms of giving support and what lessons had been learned about how we can provide more. That support will need to continue. Of course we all hope that in the near future Putin’s forces will be defeated and that the next thing we can do is to support people to return home.

Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

In 2019 the all-party parliamentary group on Africa, which I chair, published a detailed and damning report on the visa application centres. Many of the points we made on outsourcing, TLScontact, digitalisation, scanning, data reconciliation, training and resourcing have clearly not been addressed, and now Ukrainians fleeing war and my constituents who want to help them—I have many such constituents—are paying the price. Exactly how will the Minister ensure that visa processing is immediately speeded up? Given that he will not reduce the requirements of the process, as Labour has been calling for, can he confirm that that means that visa applicants from other places in the world will see further delays?

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

In terms of the future of visa application centres and the report published three years ago, the hon. Member is welcome to read some of the documentation we have put out about the changes as part of the future border and immigration system to significantly reduce the number of people who have to use a visa application centre, with many more either using biometrics or being able to make their applications fully online rather than having to go to a centre. We have already significantly speeded up the granting of visas under the two schemes relating to Ukraine, with just under 90,000 having been issued and more being issued every day. In the long term, our vision is to move away from visa application centres being the main place where people make their application, as already shown by what has happened with the biometric bypass route—the vast majority of applications are now being made via that rather than at an application centre.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Labour, Cardiff West

On Monday, I asked the Home Secretary about Lord Harrington’s remarks that it was “in train” that there would be a Ukrainian language drop-down arrow available on the application form. When I asked the Home Secretary whether it was the Government’s policy not to have the form translated into Ukrainian, she said,

“I am very happy to pick the matter up directly with the hon. Gentleman.”—[Official Report, 25 April 2022; Vol. 712, c. 457.]

Can I make it clear that I do not want Ministers to pick up directly with me? I want them to answer straightforward factual questions here on the Floor of the House on the record, as required by the ministerial code. Can the Minister tell me whether it is the Government’s policy not to provide Ukrainian translation of the form?

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

We have already done step-by-step guidance for the form in both Ukrainian and Russian, which makes it much simpler to follow. One of the issues with translating the form into other languages is that it means we would need to have decision makers who can speak the particular language. We are clear that sponsors and others can assist with filling in the form to make for a better experience for those needing to apply. As already shown, we have now granted nearly 90,000 visas, which speaks for itself and the performance that is being achieved.

Photo of Deidre Brock Deidre Brock Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I understand the pressure that officials are working under, but visa application centres are giving conflicting advice to applicants and to my constituents who are part of the Homes for Ukraine scheme. In one instance, we were told that a child’s visa was granted and that travel documents should be with them within a couple of days, and then that the child’s mother had been phoned by mistake, as it was in fact someone else’s visa that had been granted and it would take around another two weeks for the right visa to come through. These folk are in effect homeless, and time is of the essence. In another case, a constituent’s fiancé and daughter were told that a decision had been made on 13 April, but two weeks later, they still have not been told to go and collect the documents. A mother and two daughters are still trapped in Ukraine, 22 days since applications were submitted. As my constituent who would like to host those three when they finally arrive says, each day the message that they are welcome in the UK fades a little more. Those are just a few of the cases that my team and I are dealing with at the moment. The Minister offered to look at a colleague’s case. Will he be prepared to take a look at these cases when I send them through to him?

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

Yes, I am very happy to look at them. If incorrect or confusing advice is being given by a visa application centre, we certainly want the details of that so that we can intervene and engage to ensure the centre is fully conversant with what it should be doing and how the process should work. For example, we have made clear with carriers that if people have a form for affixing the vignette, they do not also need permission to travel letters. That was one issue we encountered. We made clear that the form is their permission to travel once they have it. I am very happy to look at individual cases if forwarded to me.

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Future of Work), Shadow Minister (Business and Industrial Strategy)

I applaud the generosity of my constituents who have offered their homes to Ukrainian refugees, but many are growing frustrated, anxious and despondent because of the continual delays they are experiencing, which I am sure the Minister has heard about many times already. One example is a sponsored woman sheltering in a school in Lviv. After a month, she finally had her visa approved this week, but that is yet to be communicated to her, and neither has the permission to travel been issued. As my hon. Friend Andy McDonald indicated earlier, this pattern is being repeated up and down the country. Can we have some assurances that that individual will not have to wait another month for those things to happen as well?

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

Absolutely. It should not take that long. We are also clear that people are welcome to travel into a third country, if they can. They do not need to wait in Ukraine for the decision or the paperwork to be granted. Of course, there has been no direct travel between the UK and Ukraine since the Russian attack. Those documents should be issued fairly promptly after the process. As has been touched on, the process that will shortly come on to the fully online system automates much of that and makes it even quicker than the current process.

Photo of Wera Hobhouse Wera Hobhouse Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Justice), Liberal Democrat Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Women and Equalities)

A female constituent is sponsoring a young woman who is just 18 and on her own. It took over five weeks for the visa to come through and there is still paperwork that needs to be finalised. That vulnerable young woman is still without protection. Is the Minister not worried that the long delays will increase the risk of trafficking? Is it not an irony that the checks are being done for security reasons, but the Government are facilitating criminality?

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

The checks are being done for safeguarding reasons as well, as I have already touched on during this urgent question. We have already blocked some instances where a potential sponsor had serious criminal convictions, which would mean that it would be wholly unsuitable for a vulnerable person to stay with them. We are conscious that we want to take advantage of the great generosity that many people have shown, which is why we have now granted nearly 90,000 visas. We are granting thousands more every day, and we look forward to seeing more people being able to come and take up the offers of sanctuary that people are making.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

I, too, want to raise the issue of the bureaucracy that is putting women and children at risk. Why is the UK such an outlier when it comes to that? Ensuring that people have safe and expedient travel, and that they are not online trying to find a route to the UK, is important. Will the Minister speed up his processes and consider people being able to collect their visas in the UK rather than having to wait in other countries?

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

Of course, people who come under the permission to travel system print out the email and show it alongside their passport. In terms of travelling to the UK, for the cohort that does still need to go to a visa application centre and get a vignette, that is the document and ID that will enable them to get on a plane. Far from being an outlier, I point to other similar nations with similar systems, such as Canada, the USA and Australia, which have gone down a similar path in terms of looking to have a visa system—a humanitarian visa system—as we have.

Photo of Dave Doogan Dave Doogan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Agriculture and Rural Affairs), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Manufacturing)

The Minister highlighted what an outstanding job the Government of Poland in Warsaw are doing. I wonder if he is at all concerned that they are almost certainly not saying the same about the Government of the United Kingdom in Westminster when it comes to supporting Ukrainian refugees, given that refugees on their way here are labouring under a pedestrian, grudging bureaucracy that is almost certainly predicated on allowing the minimum amount of refugees over the maximum period of time.

My constituent Moira Ross is trying to get to safety in Angus a woman who left Ukraine pregnant and has now had a child in Italy, but the woman has to wait for a form for affixing a visa for her baby and her husband, which will take another five weeks, and the visa application centre is five hours’ travel from where they are living. Does the Minister believe that five weeks or 10 hours in a car are acceptable?

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

I am certainly happy to look at the individual case if the hon. Gentleman supplies the details. In terms of the message from Poland, I and others have had great engagement with the Polish Government. The Polish people are pleased with the way that the UK is standing with them. They are a NATO ally, and we are clear about the support that we will provide in relation to any threats being made towards them. Certainly, across the world and in Ukraine, the hon. Gentleman may wish to take a gander at the views that people have of the support given by the UK Government. Certainly, there is a positive view of the UK at this time.