Homes for Ukraine: Child Refugees — [Philip Davies in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 22nd June 2022.

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Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley 9:30 am, 22nd June 2022

The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed that because of what I as a Yorkshireman consider to be the oppressive heat, I have removed the requirement to wear a jacket for this debate. I call Tulip Siddiq to move the motion.

Photo of Tulip Siddiq Tulip Siddiq Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the Homes for Ukraine scheme and child refugees.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies.

I want us to consider the merits of reforming the Homes for Ukraine scheme to provide better support to children fleeing the conflict in Ukraine. Many Members know that this issue is close to my heart. My mother came to the UK in the 1970s as a political asylum seeker. She came to this country because 19 members of her family had been killed in Bangladesh and it was too dangerous for her to go home. She did not want to leave her home, and every time I speak to her she talks about how she had no choice but to come to this country; the threat of violence meant that she could not stay in Bangladesh. I could not help but see the parallels when I heard the case raised by my inspirational constituent, Mark Falcon, about two sisters: 13-year-old Mariia and 18-year-old Nataliia, who fled their war-torn hometown in Ukraine with the hope of coming to the UK.

The UK has a long and proud history of providing safe refuge to children fleeing danger and conflict. Indeed, my mother was a similar age to Nataliia when the UK welcomed her to our shores. My mother settled in Kilburn, the area that I now represent in Westminster. My constituent, Mark, acting in the best traditions of our country—indeed, of our constituency—is representative of Hampstead and Kilburn because he offered to take Mariia and her sister Nataliia into his house through the Homes for Ukraine scheme.

Mariia’s and Nataliia’s parents had taken the brave decision to remain in Ukraine and serve their country in its struggle against Russia’s bloody and unjust invasion. One of the parents is in the military; the other is a doctor. The sisters applied for visas on the basis that my constituent, Mark, would be able to house them on arrival. The family’s hopes that both children would be able to safely enter the UK were brutally shattered when Nataliia was granted permission to travel, but Mariia, because she is under 18, was not. The Home Office told me that she could not come here without her parents, even though she had already left Ukraine and was travelling through Montenegro with her 18-year-old sister. So she was not allowed to come here because she did not have her parents with her, even though she had her 18-year-old sister accompanying her.

Photo of Bell Ribeiro-Addy Bell Ribeiro-Addy Labour, Streatham

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and for making such an important speech on what is happening at the moment. My office is dealing with similar cases and there is very little we can say to sponsors who are desperate to bring people over. I am glad to see that the guidance on unaccompanied minors has been updated, but does my hon. Friend agree with me that it might have already left some young people at the mercy of people traffickers? We have had various other situations as well. If it had happened once or twice, we might have thought it was an error, but when a family attempts to bring their entire family and the Home Office leaves off the visa for the youngest person in the family, that obviously means that the family will not travel. I started to believe that there was something sinister at play here. Does my hon. Friend agree that the situation is absolutely disgraceful and the Home Office needs to take care when it issues visas for families? It needs something in place to attempt to find the many young people who might have already moved into Europe and might be at the mercy of people traffickers.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

Order. Interventions need to be briefer.

Photo of Tulip Siddiq Tulip Siddiq Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I have heard such stories many times from lots of my colleagues, so there is a fundamental flaw in the Home Office process. I have not seen the policy officially announced yet, although I might have missed it during my rather traumatic journey to Parliament today, but I am sure the Minister will update me. I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. I will come on to that topic later in my speech when I talk about one person in the family being left behind whereas the rest of the family can come, which is not acceptable.

Photo of Aaron Bell Aaron Bell Conservative, Newcastle-under-Lyme

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. Does she agree with me about the case of Alika Zubets, a four-year-old girl from Kharkiv who has been stuck in Poland with her grandmother? She has a sponsor, Dr Maggie Babb, in my constituency in Newcastle-under-Lyme, and extended family in Staffordshire, yet we have been waiting for the policy decision for weeks. I hope to hear something very shortly from the Minister. The little girl has to return to Kharkiv because her right to stay in Poland runs out on the 25th. Does the hon. Lady agree that such cases demonstrate the need for an urgent resolution of the issue?

Photo of Tulip Siddiq Tulip Siddiq Shadow Minister (Treasury)

This is not often said in this place, but I absolutely agree with my colleague from the other side of the House. I have a daughter who is not far off the age of the little girl the hon. Gentleman describes, so it is heartbreaking to think of her being separated from her family and not being given safe accommodation when something changing in the Home Office could rectify the problem. However, I know that the Minister cares and I hope to hear him announce the updated policy.

As many people will know, and before we hear the updated policy, the rules of the Homes for Ukraine scheme dictate that unaccompanied children are allowed to apply only if they are travelling with their parents or legal guardians to the UK. I understand that the Government have to take into account safeguarding risks such as people trafficking, and that the Government of Ukraine have stated a preference for keeping unaccompanied children in regions close to Ukraine, but this blanket, blunt policy and the failure to take a more sophisticated case-by-case approach has completely ignored situations such as Mariia’s.

The Home Office should be consulting the sector more and making the system work for such children. Excellent organisations such as the Refugee Council and the Children’s Society, to name just two, do this work day in, day out. They could help to come up with solutions that would provide children with necessary protections and safeguards. That is all we in the House want; we want to protect the children and make them safe; we do not want them to go through unnecessary trauma and be unable to come to our country. Perhaps then, Mariia—a 13-year-old girl—would not be forced to choose between returning to a war zone and staying alone, putting herself at risk in temporary hotel accommodation in Montenegro. That situation is especially ridiculous to me because she has a warm, safe home waiting for her in my constituency, but she cannot get here because of Government bureaucracy.

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Labour, Sheffield Central

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and commend her powerful speech. She is right to put safeguarding at the centre of all our policies in this area. Does she agree that the Home Office changing its policy in April was inexplicable, as is why it has been unable to come up with a robust framework to provide for the safeguarding of unaccompanied children? By not doing so, the Home Office has put those children at more risk.

Photo of Tulip Siddiq Tulip Siddiq Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, and he is absolutely right. It is a pity that so many children have been affected by the inability to rectify the policy. We knew the war was coming. I know we had to develop the policy at short notice, but I wish the Home Office had taken the issue more seriously and come up with solutions, as my hon. Friend has described. I will speak more about that later in my speech.

The interventions from colleagues across the House have shown that Mariia’s story is not an isolated case. I have dealt with countless similar cases of unaccompanied children denied access to the homes for Ukraine scheme due to the rigid and bureaucratic approach of the Home Office. For example, David and his wife in my constituency sponsored sisters aged 20 and 13 to live with them in London, but because of the Government’s policy the sisters never made it to the UK. Diahann, also my constituent, sponsored two 17-year-olds, who ended up sleeping on a kitchen floor in a small flat in Poland rather than in Diahann’s home.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February has resulted in more than 7 million refugees fleeing that country, but by 14 June, only 82,000 UK visas had been issued under Homes for Ukraine, and only about 50,000 of those people had arrived in the UK. That is less than two thirds of those who had been issued with a visa, but the Home Office has failed to explain why so many with visas have yet to arrive in the UK. That was referred to by my hon. Friend Bell Ribeiro-Addy.

The Refugee Council has warned that the gap between those figures might be explained in part by cases in which only some in a family unit have been issued with a visa. It is heartbreaking to think that all the older brothers and sisters have chosen to stay in Ukraine with their younger siblings rather than make the journey without them. That is not something that any of us would want for our family, and I hope everyone will agree that it is not something that people in Ukraine should have to suffer through.

Photo of Aaron Bell Aaron Bell Conservative, Newcastle-under-Lyme

May I take this opportunity to praise Lord Harrington for his engagement on this issue? There has clearly been, first, diplomatic wrangling with the Ukrainians and, secondly, policy decisions being made in both Whitehall and the devolved Administrations. I realise that the delay has been far too long, but may I take the opportunity to praise the Minister for Refugees for his engagement on the issue, because he has spoken to me personally about the case that I raised with the hon. Lady earlier?

Photo of Tulip Siddiq Tulip Siddiq Shadow Minister (Treasury)

Again, I find myself agreeing with the hon. Gentleman. The Minister for Refugees, to his credit, also met me about the case that I raised at Prime Minister’s questions and was fully briefed on the case, which impressed me, so I thank him. But again, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the delay was unacceptable, and I hope that it will very soon be rectified officially.

I am cautiously optimistic after hearing reports this week that the Home Office is considering changing the visa rules to allow unaccompanied Ukrainian children and teenagers to come to the UK. That would end an unjust policy that has seen siblings separated and children abandoned in the most dangerous of situations. I would like the Minister here today to confirm whether those reports are true and tell us officially if the policy has changed, and explain why it took so long, despite so much suffering, for the Government to acknowledge that it is unacceptable to bar unaccompanied children from refuge in our country.

The Times has reported that the Home Office estimates that at least 500 children have been stuck in limbo in Ukraine for two months or more because of the unaccompanied child policy. I hope that this Minister, who I know cares, will be able to tell us today how many children his Department estimates have been prevented from accessing the Homes for Ukraine scheme because of this particular policy, and how those children’s applications for asylum would be considered under any new rules that the Government are considering.

Photo of Kate Green Kate Green Labour, Stretford and Urmston

My hon. Friend is making a very important speech. Does she agree that if, as we hope, provisions are to be put in place to welcome unaccompanied children to this country, it would be useful to hear from the Minister what special support will be put in place for those incredibly traumatised children and the families acting as their hosts?

Photo of Tulip Siddiq Tulip Siddiq Shadow Minister (Treasury)

That is something that I will talk about. It is all very well to welcome people to this country, but we need to think about the lives that they go on to lead. I will refer to that shortly and I thank my hon. Friend for the intervention.

Putting aside for one moment the unaccompanied child policy, I think it is important also to highlight the broader failings in the Homes for Ukraine scheme for child refugees. I believe that, even under the existing rules on unaccompanied children, my constituent, Mark, and his wife should have been able to welcome Mariia into their home. After the Home Office had refused to approve her application, Mariia’s parents provided a notarised statement, in Ukrainian and English, giving their consent for Mariia’s 18-year-old sister, Nataliia, to act on behalf of her younger sibling, but that note was deemed insufficient by the Home Office. Mariia’s parents still did not give up, because they were so desperate to send their two daughters to safety in the UK. Eventually they were able to obtain from the local authority a legal guardianship document that confirmed that Nataliia could act as the legal guardian for Mariia, but that still did not bring Mariia to the UK. As a result, and despite repeated representations to the Home Office by my office and my caseworker, Julia, and my constituent, the two sisters were stuck in a dangerous temporary hostel in Montenegro for weeks.

Only after I raised this topic at Prime Minister’s questions a couple of weeks ago was the Home Office finally forced to review the case, but not every MP will be as lucky as me and get in at Prime Minister’s questions at a very timely moment to raise a case. That is something that the House needs to consider. I got a call from the Home Office and the Minister because I raised the case with the Prime Minister, but there are so many cases with Members across the House that need special attention. I am of course grateful to the Home Secretary for her assistance, but there are potentially more Mariias out there, trapped in war-torn Ukraine or countries where they have no family or network of support. I ask this Minister to look into that. I am concerned that even under the existing rules, these cases are not being dealt with properly or urgently, so I want reassurance from the Minister. What are the Government doing to take the necessary steps to address these failings in the refugee system generally?

Sadly, even now, Mariia has not been able to enter the UK, but I hope that that will not be the case for too much longer. It is important to recognise that when Mariia and other children like her do come to the UK, they will need more than just a safe home when they enter these shores. These children, as my hon. Friend Kate Green mentioned, have experienced serious trauma. They require specialist support to ensure that they successfully integrate into their new community. People arriving under Homes for Ukraine receive a visa for three years, but currently the integration funding is available only for the first year. I hope that the Minister can confirm today whether further funding will be provided to local authorities so that they can support people for the full three years.

Photo of Kate Green Kate Green Labour, Stretford and Urmston

May I ask my hon. Friend to note the position of pregnant women and new mums and their babies, and the support for them, not just through local authorities but through the health service? Does she agree that that will need to be sustained, particularly for women who will be without a partner at that time, increasing their sense of isolation and trauma?

Photo of Tulip Siddiq Tulip Siddiq Shadow Minister (Treasury)

My hon. Friend is right to raise the plight of vulnerable women and children. The Refugee Council has warned of a growing number of people arriving under the Ukraine schemes ending up homeless, potentially including young children and pregnant women. Government data show that 480 Ukrainian families and 180 single adults have had to apply to a local authority for support with homelessness. I am particularly concerned that 145 placements under Homes for Ukraine have already ended in homelessness: 90 because the relationship broke down and 55 that never started, because the accommodation was deemed unsuitable before the refugees moved in.

I understand the Government have now established a mechanism through which those who have to leave a placement can be rematched with another Homes for Ukraine host. So far, that has proved unsuccessful: only 20 placements have been rematched. Will the Minister explain the steps his Department is taking to ensure that people arriving under the Ukraine Family scheme are able to access accommodation provided under the Homes for Ukraine scheme, should they find themselves homeless after arrival in the UK?

I will finish by saying that I am proud of my constituents. Hampstead and Kilburn is a constituency with a long history of welcoming people from all over the world, including migrants from Ireland and Jewish people fleeing Nazi Germany. The Government should work with my constituents, not against them, in their efforts to help child refugees from Ukraine. That is why I hope the Minister will give my constituent, Mark, and others like him across the UK the respect they deserve, by setting out how the Government will address the serious failings in the Homes for Ukraine scheme and wider child refugee system.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

Just to let colleagues know, I want to get to the Front Benchers by 10.30 am at the latest. There seem to be five people catching my eye, so you can do your own mathematics. I remind colleagues not to eat into other people’s time. I call Crispin Blunt.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Conservative, Reigate 9:48 am, 22nd June 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate Tulip Siddiq on securing the debate. Our caseworkers will be immensely grateful to her for bringing attention to the issue, because they have spent an enormous amount of time pursuing cases on our behalf.

Obviously, it is a huge pleasure to have the Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, my hon. Friend Eddie Hughes present to represent the Government. I am slightly confused, however, as to why it is not a Home Office Minister who will be responding to the debate. It does not send out the right message to have the Minister for rough sleeping addressing the issue of Ukrainian children coming to the United Kingdom. This is a policy issue and there should be a policy Minister here to make a statement about the change that the Government are making, which is hugely welcome.

I want to raise one of two cases that my staff have spent an inordinate amount of time addressing, to illustrate the issue that I suspect many colleagues will speak to. I will call this 15-year-old girl Oksana, because her identity needs a certain amount of protection. She is trying to get to the United Kingdom, accompanied by her grandparents and cousin, but she does not have permission to do so under the rules. She is sitting in Germany, about to be evicted from the property there.

The family have been trying to assemble the paperwork required by the Home Office to bring Oksana here. The problem is that her father is fighting for the Ukrainian armed forces and is engaged in combat, and her mother has found herself in Russian-occupied Ukraine, where it is extremely difficult to get to her. Even so, the family have managed to get notarised documents from the mother in Russian-occupied Ukraine in order to produce the documentation to say that her cousin could be her temporary legal guardian. The family have gone to the trouble of getting that documentation out of occupied Ukraine—and the Home Office has now had the data for a month—but they are still in housing in Germany and are about to be evicted.

This whole chain of events and all those requirements are simply unacceptable, not least when one considers that the whole Border Force system appears to be prioritising Ukrainian matters, which has had an enormous knock-on effect on all the other immigration cases with which teams are having to assist. Even people who have paid for premium-priced visas in order to come to the United Kingdom are not getting the attention that they have paid for at a substantial rate.

That is why I particularly regret that there is not a Home Office Minister here to respond to the debate—because, to be frank, most of these issues are not the responsibility of the Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North, who has been put forward by the Government. I understand the pressures that result in the Government sometimes sending Ministers to respond to Westminster Hall debates on subjects for which they do not have particular policy responsibility. However, given that the Government appear to be about to make a policy statement on this issue, I really think that a Minister from the right Department should be responding to this debate.

In Oksana’s case, with her mother now in Russian-occupied Ukraine and her father fighting on the frontline with the Ukrainian armed forces, the requirements that the Government have insisted on to date are utterly extraordinary. If those requirements are about to be reviewed, I am glad. But it does not give one much confidence that, even when people have gone through the enormous steps of finding the means to satisfy the Government’s requirements, they have been left waiting for a month for the decision whether to allow them to come to the United Kingdom. That is not good enough.

Photo of Florence Eshalomi Florence Eshalomi Labour/Co-operative, Vauxhall 9:52 am, 22nd June 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Davies. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Tulip Siddiq for securing this timely debate on this important issue.

None of us in this House could have failed to be horrified by the destruction caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The ruins in Mariupol and Kharkiv that we see on our television screens, on Twitter and on social media were not just buildings. They were schools, hospitals, supermarkets and churches, like the places we all visit and can still visit. They were homes that people grew up in. They were vibrant communities of friends and families.

We must treat those who have been forced out of their homes with the respect they deserve. That means making it as easy as possible for refugees to build a new community in this country, and giving people the long-term security and certainty they need to live comfortably. While it is right that we do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good when dealing with such a fast-paced crisis, the Government must and can do more to ensure that refugees get the support they deserve.

One of my constituents, who offered her three-bedroom home to two women from Ukraine, had to wait 12 weeks to be told this Monday that she did not meet the requirements to be a sponsor, despite my local council checking her property and my constituent having an enhanced Disclosure and Barring Service check via her work in the NHS. It is unacceptable that hosts and refugees are having to wait 12 weeks for a decision.

This is not an isolated case in my inbox, and nor will it be an isolated case raised in the debate today or in debates in the main Chamber. Asylum decisions have halved in the past five years and the Passport Office is in disarray, so it is disappointing to have the Minister from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Eddie Hughes, here to respond, even though I have the utmost respect for him and know that he cares passionately about the issue. However, it is the Home Office that needs to get a grip on this issue.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn mentioned, more than 500 Ukrainian children are currently waiting to find out from the Home Office if they can travel safely to the UK. The charity Safe Passage has highlighted the case of a 17 year old girl, Valya, who has been helped by the hon. Lord Dubs. She has been travelling alone across different war zones for the past two months, unable to get to the UK and also unable to go back home, because her family are now in hiding, fearful for their lives. That should not be happening. The Minister needs to inform us today of what measures he is going to recommend to his colleagues in the Home Office to speed up the decision-making process for people who are so desperate for certainty.

The Homes for Ukraine scheme is not a permanent solution for refugees in this country. Ukrainian families need a home of their own, and we must plan for what happens following that six-month period. Those six months are going to come to a sharp end for many people, and I pay tribute to my constituents in Vauxhall and constituents right across the country who have opened up their homes and are ready and willing to help, but they have been failed.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that at least 17 unaccompanied children go missing in Europe every day, falling into the hands of victimisers who traffic them, exploit them—including sexual exploitation—and use those young children. That cannot continue to happen. We need the Government to step up and match the generosity of people across the UK who are willing to help. The Government need to sort out this mess and create a safe route for young children to come to this country.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 9:56 am, 22nd June 2022

As always, Mr Davies, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I apologise, but I have to leave early to chair another meeting; I have already spoken to the Minister, the shadow Minister—Sarah Owen—and the sponsor of the debate, Tulip Siddiq.

This is a very important debate on an issue that has proven to be very close to everyone’s heart. Those who have already spoken have expressed as much, and they have also spoken of their support for those from Ukraine who are in need. Those who will speak after me will reiterate that, too.

Russia’s attacks on Ukraine have been condemned by all of the free world, and by many who feel greatly anguished at the stories they witness—the destruction of property, the changing of lives, and the bestial and indiscriminate attacks carried out on families, including women and children. It is those people trying to flee who we wish to help. The Minister has a compassionate heart and he understands these issues. We spoke beforehand and I am sure that we will be encouraged by his response. Having also been in contact with him previously, I am pleased by what I have heard, including on what will happen afterwards.

I commend the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn on securing this debate. She has a really big heart—she might be small in stature, but she is big in heart—and she brings forward things that we all support. I commend her on her stance and for giving us all the opportunity to participate in this debate, and wish her well in all she does. I was very disheartened to hear of her constituent, Mark Falcon, who, for the reasons she has outlined, has been denied the opportunity to take in two Ukrainian refugees through the Homes for Ukraine scheme. We must do more to ensure that protections are in place for child refugees; they should simply not be turned away. There was some good news in the papers this morning, which I read before I came to the Chamber: a 17-year-old has been able to get her access and come across, even though she has waited for some time in limbo—in that grey area—for that to happen.

My constituency of Strangford has taken in a number of Ukrainian refugees, and I thank Donald and Jacqueline Fleming from the Faith in Action group, who have enabled other refugees, including young people, to find homes in Northern Ireland. Five or six weeks ago, I had the opportunity to go to Poland, along with other MPs, to see that country’s contribution to the refugee crisis. It was a very poignant moment, because I had the opportunity to see, at the coalface, the refugees coming through to Poland. At one of the centres we visited, there were 2,800 refugees, including lots of young families. The desperation—the look on their faces—told us that these were groups of people under great pressure.

I put on record that our Government have helped. There has been a bit of a hold-up in the process and some things to address, but I am encouraged by the news this morning regarding 1,000 unaccompanied minors who had previously been left in limbo because the Homes for Ukraine scheme required young people to travel. I understand that the Government are changing that. I am sure that the Minister will confirm that; I think that the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn herself referred to it earlier. If that change is coming, which I think it is, then this debate has enabled it to happen and again we thank the hon. Lady for that.

Photo of Margaret Ferrier Margaret Ferrier Independent, Rutherglen and Hamilton West

My team and I spent months advocating on behalf of a 15-year-old girl who was travelling with her aunt before I managed to get the Minister for Refugees to make an intervention to grant her a visa by exception. I will welcome whatever announcement comes from the Government today, but does the hon. Member agree that it could have been made a bit earlier, to reduce the distress for other children who are stuck in Ukraine and other countries and are trying to get to safety here?

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

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. She is absolutely right and confirms the very issue that we are discussing. There has been much distress for those families who are in the pipeline of coming through, and the quicker the announcement is made and the quicker the legislative change comes, the quicker that we can do away with all those issues.

I am a strong advocate for offering support—both financial and humanitarian—in times of need. It is one of my jobs here and it is also one of my portfolios. I take sincere pride in my constituency of Strangford. We have a history of taking in those who need refuge. Ballyrolly House on the Woburn Road in Millisle in Strangford operated as a refugee resettlement farm from 1938 to 1948 for the Kindertransport children. Lord Dubs has already been referred to. We have a really physical part of history in that house, and some of those people who came from 1938 to 1948 stayed there. Indeed, some of their descendants still live locally.

The story of the farm in Millisle remains a little-known tale outside of its locality. In the 1930s, Jewish children escaping persecution in Europe came to live on the remote farm in the Ards peninsula. Children on the farm would play football with the locals or go swimming at Millisle beach. Occasionally, they would even hire a rowing boat and spend the evenings fishing for herrings, which were in plentiful supply along the edge of the Irish sea and in Strangford lough as well.

Those are some of the things that my ancestors and others did to help the Kindertransport children, to help the Jewish children, back in the period from 1938 to 1948. Today, our country—the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—is doing its best to do the same thing again for other children.

I believe that we all have a responsibility to ensure that all refugees are protected. There must be more of an onus on us to help children, as they are much more vulnerable than adults. Again, our hearts go out to the small children. Whatever the reason—perhaps it is because we are adults or because we have a compassionate nature and a big heart—we do reach out to the children. Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom have given refuge before in times of need.

It is disheartening to see young children being sent back to Ukraine for reasons that should have been checked by the Home Office prior to their arrival. If we are correcting that issue, it is good news, but it does not do away with the distress that Margaret Ferrier referred to. That distress is still very real, but let us lessen it.

We must ensure that there is due diligence in searching and assessing the homes used in the Homes for Ukraine scheme, so that people are guaranteed a safe environment for the six months that they are there. I know the reasons why the safety checks are done. We all agree on that, because it is the right thing to do.

We also must ensure that those who have applied to take in refugees are vetted and undergo police checks so as to ensure refugee safety. If homes are assessed and people vetted, I see no reason why Mark Falcon, who was referred to earlier, could not have taken in the two refugees, despite one being under 18. I understand that there may have been concerns in regard to her age, but she was with her elder sister, which should probably have given a wee bit more protection. Perhaps the Home Office should have seen that right away. I for one agree that, without a doubt, she would have been better off here, despite those concerns.

We must treat those in war in the same way as we would expect to be treated back. I am a great believer, as is everyone in this House, in treating others as we would wish them to treat us. That is not a bad way of looking on life and doing things in the right way.

To conclude, the Homes for Ukraine scheme is a fantastic way to provide solace and refuge, of which 28,000 people have already availed. The work to provide safe environments must be done before refugees arrive. It is simply not fair to provide hope but to then send children away due to their age. Let us give them the protection they need, and let us make sure that the changes that have been mooted today come about. As long as we have followed the regulations and safety checks to as high a standard as possible, we should—indeed, we must—rethink the process that is preventing the most vulnerable children from receiving the protection they need in this country. We welcome them here, and we look forward to them being here and to giving them the hope for the future that they very much need.

Photo of Sarah Green Sarah Green Liberal Democrat, Chesham and Amersham 10:04 am, 22nd June 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate and thank Tulip Siddiq for securing the debate.

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to be invited to a coffee morning for Ukrainian refugees at St Mary’s church in Chesham. The coffee mornings are held weekly and are organised by local volunteers who have dedicated their time to helping new arrivals settle in. Watching the Ukrainian children play with local children and hearing how they felt about starting school here in the UK was particularly moving. For many of them, getting here was not straightforward, and many more like them are stuck in Ukraine or neighbouring countries, with or without their parents, unable to make it to the homes waiting for them here due to overcomplicated and unnecessary bureaucracy.

To add to some of the examples, two siblings—a 22-year-old woman and her 17-year-old brother—were stuck in Warsaw for over seven weeks waiting for their visa applications to be approved. The 17-year-old boy’s application was put on hold as he was marked as being an unaccompanied minor. We were instructed to obtain an official parental letter of consent and passport scans. We were told the case was being escalated, and it seemed like progress was being made. Yet after weeks of back and forth with Home Office staff and multiple visits to the Portcullis House hub, we were told the documents were not legally binding and that the case should not be progressed any further until the policy decision was made by the Home Secretary. That was on 13 May. It has been reported that a policy decision has now been taken on unaccompanied minors, and I am sure that I am not the only Member keen to hear the detail of that decision, hopefully, today.

For the officials and Ministers responsible for the scheme, it must feel like driving at full speed while still trying to build the car, and I am sure that I am not the only person grateful for the many hours being put into trying to make the scheme work as best as possible. If I may give one additional piece of feedback, the problems are not just with unaccompanied minors. In the cases my team and I have been dealing with, there is a real pattern of errors and delays whenever children are involved. Where children have applied with their parents, there are often issues with linking the applications, and that is what I want to highlight this morning. In one case, the Home Office failed to link a mother’s application with that of her two children for six weeks. While her application progressed, theirs were halted and marked as unaccompanied minors. When they were finally linked, additional sponsor checks had to be done given that the sponsors were now hosting two children, rather than a single adult female as they had thought. It took eight weeks for the family to arrive in the UK.

In another case, a mother travelled from Lviv to Warsaw with her two young children to collect their visas only to be told the children’s visas were not yet ready. The failure to link families’ cases is causing additional and unnecessary stress for people who are already terrified, traumatised and exhausted. There must be a better way of ensuring children are dealt with alongside their parents, so that they are not incorrectly marked as unaccompanied minors and unfairly delayed.

Photo of Olivia Blake Olivia Blake Shadow Minister (Climate Change and Net Zero) 10:08 am, 22nd June 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend Tulip Siddiq on securing this important debate. It has been amazingly heartening to see so many people, including many of my constituents, open their hearts and homes to those fleeing this war. It has been equally amazing to see the passion of Members of Parliament, such as my hon. Friend, in fighting to get families reunited and brought here through the Homes for Ukraine scheme.

Like my hon. Friend, I am concerned about what the future will hold for Ukrainian refugees, especially children, who have come here through the Homes for Ukraine scheme. We rightly celebrate kinship care for our own children, so it feels incredibly wrong that this is being denied to children whose parents have no choice but to leave them with other family members to come to the UK. Ministers must take responsibility for the limitations of the scheme.

The issues I want to raise relate mainly to our duty of care for refugees once they arrive. First, some will be unable to complete their six-month placement with their host. In fact, reports suggest that as many as 660 Ukrainian households have had to declare themselves homeless to their council because of breakdowns in relationships with hosts. Some have been asked to leave with just a day’s notice, making it incredibly difficult for them to seek alternative arrangements. For child refugees, it goes without saying that that is hugely destabilising. They are more vulnerable and they are being turned out of homes: 480 households with dependent children had no choice but to seek help because they had discovered the accommodation that they were supposed to be living in was not fit for purpose or meeting their needs. I have also been made aware of situations where the host’s Disclosure and Barring Service check came back with concerns—and this was after children had been placed with them—meaning that families could no longer stay and their place of sanctuary suddenly became a place of fear.

Secondly, I have been wondering why the checks and balances and, importantly, the support offered to hosts are not the same as those for foster carers, especially therapeutic interventions. They should also be provided to the host family. Local authorities need the resources to adequately prioritise and ensure safeguarding and welfare. Access to education probably deserves a debate in its own right, as it is a huge issue for children. A catch-up for schools in the summer is a great idea that has been raised with me by the Ukrainian society in Sheffield.

The warmth and generosity from members of the public has been inspiring, but things can go wrong. Ministers cannot and should not forget refugees once they have entered the country. That leads me to the third problem: what will happen to people once their six-month placement is over? At the moment, Ukrainians are facing a cliff edge. Some organisations have highlighted that they might struggle to access housing. We know that some landlords will not accept those who receive benefits, until the law hopefully changes. Others will struggle to provide the years of financial evidence required for renting. Deposits and up-front rent will also be a challenge. The availability of social housing has clearly been a challenge for many years. In Sheffield, over 20,000 people are already on waiting lists.

For those people who have lost everything in war, housing will be critical when the six-month cut-out comes. Since people have already been here for up to three or four months, it is becoming critical. They have no one to act as guarantors, which is another issue for private renting. The Government must face up to the reality and urgently investigate how those who came here under the Homes for Ukraine scheme can be housed securely. They must put in place a plan for what happens after the initial housing period comes to an end.

If we do not get this right, Ministers will be stripping vulnerable people of the hope that they had been given for a better future in the UK by the Homes for Ukraine scheme. I ask them to urgently consider what resettlement options will be available to people at the end of the six months.

Photo of Steven Bonnar Steven Bonnar Shadow SNP Spokesperson (DEFRA Team Member) 10:12 am, 22nd June 2022

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Davies. I thank Tulip Siddiq for securing and leading the debate, and all Members for their valuable and heartfelt contributions.

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, more than 5 million people have fled the horrors of war, with a further 8 million internally displaced in their homeland. The majority of those seeking refuge are women and children. So far, the UK Government’s response has fallen short of what is required. By the end of May, the UK had taken in 65,700 refugees from Ukraine. Germany, by contrast, had taken in 780,000 Ukrainians.

Across Europe, our neighbours have stepped up to meet the challenge, waiving requirements and placing refuge and sanctuary first and bureaucracy second. Our friends and closest neighbours in Ireland waived all those requirements immediately when it became clear that a humanitarian crisis was unfolding. Here, the Government kicked their heels. Shortly after the crisis began, the First Minister of Scotland called on the UK Government to match the approach of the Irish Government, saying:

“Let people in and do the paperwork afterwards,” and that “common humanity demands it”. She was right then and she is right now.

The UK Government should long have followed the EU’s example by waiving visa requirements for any Ukrainian national seeking refuge in the United Kingdom, as well as mirroring the European Union’s temporary protection directive. While we in the SNP fully appreciate the need to remain vigilant to all security threats, that should not prevent the Government from putting in place measures that balance those concerns with the desperate needs of the people of Ukraine, as our friends in Ireland and across the EU have done.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank all those across my constituency of Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill for their heroic efforts in supporting families who have come to Scotland in the manner that they have—those who have opened their homes and hearts to the lovely kids and families through the Homes for Ukraine scheme—but the incredible response across Scotland and the rest of the UK must never be seen by the Government as a means of outsourcing the response and the responsibility. Ministers must engage with local authorities across the UK to ensure that full and sustained support, and funding, is made available.

I am sure everyone in the room is deeply troubled by reports that children are being forced to return to Ukraine after the Home Office refused to accept family members as their legal guardians. Whatever the issues with red tape and self-made bureaucracy—that is what it is—the answer can never be to send children back to a warzone, but that is what has been happening.

A four-year-old girl was considered to be an unaccompanied minor under Home Office regulations as she was travelling with her grandmother rather than with her parents. The hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn spoke of Mariia, a 13-year-old girl who was forced to return to Ukraine after having her application refused, despite travelling with her 18-year-old sister. The Home Office is of course right to prioritise the safeguarding of children—nobody would disagree with that—but the answer must be to work with local authorities to find a solution that keeps people safe, rather than separating families and sending children back to Ukraine. Offering no alternative is placing children at greater risk across Europe, and many people may consider riskier alternatives to get themselves to safety.

Before mid-April, Home Office policy allowed unaccompanied children to apply for the Homes for Ukraine scheme, but that was changed without explanation, and the policy now excludes unaccompanied children. We are waiting on a policy update, but we have not seen any of the detail. With no provision for those who had already applied, the Home Office put applications on hold and left hundreds of children in limbo, as we have already heard. Many are stranded in extremely dangerous situations. More than 500 Ukrainian children are stuck waiting for a decision on their visas.

Since the policy change, a Government spokesman has said:

“Where we are made aware of an individual being provided with incorrect advice, we will of course take action.”

Up until now, no action has been taken by the Home Office. We look forward to hearing what the policy update will be.

Dan Paskins, director of UK impact at Save the Children, said:

“The government’s ‘one size fits all’ approach in these instances can put children at risk of taking dangerous routes to seek safety.”

I have to agree. He also called for more caseworkers

“on the ground, who have the skills, background and knowledge to be able to make a really informed and rapid assessment of each individual case – particularly for children coming to live with adults with whom they have a longstanding relationship.”

Again, I am sure we all agree. Overall, there needs to be a more flexible approach that takes into consideration the fact that parents will not always be able to leave the country with children, particularly with men aged 18 to 60 currently prevented from leaving Ukraine.

How we nurture these children when they arrive in our communities is just as important. Experiencing a humanitarian emergency can significantly impact the mental health, psychological wellbeing and development of a child. Children have been uprooted from their homes, separated from their caregivers and directly exposed to the violence and horrors of war. It is therefore incumbent on all of us to ensure that service providers can facilitate the integration of the needs of displaced children when they arrive here in the UK. That must include ensuring that mental health services are provided in a culturally sensitive manner, and in a language spoken by the children and their families, to foster trust in service providers. Will the Minister outline what steps are being taken to ensure that those services are in place, and to provide psychological first aid training and capacity building for those beyond the specialist mental health workforce who are in contact with children?

I was pleased to learn recently from my own 13-year-old daughter about her new schoolfriend, Maya from Dnipro, who has settled in very well to school life in the heart of my constituency. There are success stories; we all know of them, and we praise the Government for that work, but there are so many problems that still have to be addressed. I look forward to the Government outlining how they intend to do that.

Recent data shows that nearly 10,000 school places have been offered to Ukrainian children. However, it appears that a sizeable number of children have not yet applied or are yet to take up their place. What steps are being taken to encourage and support uptake of school places? That brings us back to funding. In Scotland, we are proud that all 32 of our local authorities participated in the Syrian resettlement programme, with over 3,000 refugees welcomed into our communities. All 32 local authorities in Scotland also committed to participate in the Afghanistan resettlement schemes.

Scotland stands ready to offer refuge and sanctuary to all those who may be displaced. The Scottish Government will work with the Home Office, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and other partners to provide people with the safety and security they need to rebuild their lives and hopefully one day return to their homeland. The Home Office must work with us—with local authorities and the devolved Administrations—rather than going over our heads, and it must provide full and sustained funding for integration programmes.

Ministers must engage with local authorities across the United Kingdom to ensure that full and sustained support and funding is made available for Ukrainian children, and for any other child refugee who comes to these shores in the future. As always, it is worth remembering that in Scotland refugees are welcome.

Photo of Sarah Owen Sarah Owen Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government) 10:21 am, 22nd June 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. Unlike other Members, I welcome the Minister; it is his Department, DLUHC, that is responsible for Homes for Ukraine, and therefore responsible for its faults as well as its successes. Things have gone wrong, as they did in the heartbreaking case of Mariia and Nataliia, which was powerfully described by my hon. Friend Tulip Siddiq. Like others, I thank her for securing this important debate.

We have heard from my hon. Friend and other Members about a case of utter mismanagement, with logic and compassion thrown out of the windows of Departments that are not working together. In the early stages of the war, we saw cases where people from the UK were desperately trying to get loved ones to safety, but UK embassies were shut—held up by senseless bureaucracy. We saw Ministers telling people fleeing Putin’s brutal invasion to apply for visas to pick fruit. It was far from co-ordinated; it was a shambles. I welcome the announcement yesterday of changes to the rules on letting unaccompanied Ukrainian children into the UK—those changes are needed—but we await further details.

What we saw at the beginning of the war sadly had all the hallmarks of the shambolic and chaotic Government response to the crisis in Afghanistan less than a year before the invasion of Ukraine, with MPs’ emails going unanswered, specific cases not being responded to, and vulnerable people—children—left to fend for themselves. Unless there is urgent action now, Homes for Ukraine risks being another empty slogan from this Government. Like last summer’s Operation Warm Welcome for Afghans, it has been left to run cold. There are still over 10,000 Afghan refugees, including children, left in hotels and B&Bs or, worse still, abandoned to the mercies of the Taliban in Afghanistan. I mention that because that the Government had the chance to learn from the mistakes of last summer’s refugee programme, but sadly, they did not.

The outpouring of support and good will from the British public for the Ukrainian and Afghan refugees was not matched by this Government. Children are still unable to get the visas they desperately need. We have heard about the situation with Mariia and Nataliia. Crispin Blunt spoke powerfully about Oksana and the bureaucracy that is holding up her safety. My hon. Friend Florence Eshalomi highlighted further the bureaucracy that is stopping people offering the safety of their homes to people in desperate need. Jim Shannon made a typically heartfelt and moral case for why this is important. My hon. Friend Olivia Blake talked about trauma, and the importance of providing a place of sanctuary for children fleeing war.

The experience of war, fleeing the country that they knew as home, losing or leaving loved ones, and travelling to a foreign country would be traumatic enough for an adult; I cannot imagine what effect it would have on a child’s mental health. We know that the wait for child and adolescent mental health services for children born and raised in the UK is far too long, so it is important for extra, targeted support to be offered to traumatised child refugees. To that end, I would be grateful if the Minister could tell us what steps are being taken to see that mental health service providers are offering support in culturally sensitive ways, and in a language spoken by these children and their families.

As we have heard, recent data shows that 9,900 school places have been offered to Ukrainian children. Schools and schoolchildren have opened their hearts to the refugees, and that is welcome, but that figure is out of 11,400 applications, leaving a sizable number of children who have not applied for or taken up their places in schools. What steps is the Minister’s Department taking to encourage and support uptake of school places?

Some 155,600 applications have been received under the Ukraine visa scheme and there have been more than 120,000 generous offers to home refugees, but there still appears to be no definitive data on the number who have been matched and successfully housed. The last we saw was around 33,000 placements in May, so I would be grateful for an update from the Minister. Exactly how many people have been successfully matched and housed under the Homes for Ukraine scheme? How many hosts have been given the support needed to home traumatised children?

When the Homes for Ukraine scheme was first rolled out, I and many others, in the hope of building a robust, safe scheme, asked constructively about the importance of vetting. I know that many councils have not yet received additional support to assess and run checks on those people who have generously offered their homes, to ensure that they can offer stable, safe and appropriate accommodation to home some of the most vulnerable people leaving Ukraine—women and children.

Misha Lagodinsky, who runs a matching scheme called UK Welcomes Ukraine, which has 100 Ukrainian and Russian-speaking volunteers connecting people, said:

“Some people are finding that they are homeless straight away because they have a visa granted and then their host fails DBS checks.”

Unfortunately, as we have heard, we have seen breakdowns occur even when successful, safe matches have been made, again rendering refugees homeless. We saw a horrific report about a Ukrainian refugee who was rehomed under a Government scheme but left homeless, along with her teenage son, after they were manipulated for money by their hosts. Having arrived in April, she was asked for money and told to leave after three weeks. That same month, the Local Government Association published a survey of local authorities across the country that reported 144 Ukrainian refugees as homeless following breakdowns with host accommodation.

The Department responsible—the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities—now wants to bring back draconian laws from 1824 to again criminalise rough sleeping. We could well be in the ludicrous position of Ukrainians who have fled their war-torn country falling out with their hosts in this country and then being slapped with a criminal record by the same Department that was supposed to help them in the first place. Vulnerable refugees need to be protected from homelessness, not to flee a warzone only to be criminalised, through no fault of their own, by this Government. When will the Government release the latest figures on the number of Ukrainian refugees who have been made homeless?

If the Home Office gets its way, we will be in danger of seeing Ukrainian refugees on a flight to Rwanda for processing. “Processing” is such a horrible, cruel word when we are talking about victims of war, people trafficking, torture and famine. Where is the compassion? Will the Minister give a cast-iron guarantee that we will see no deportations of refugees who fall through the gaps of the Homes for Ukraine scheme, and that none will be forced on to a plane to Rwanda?

We have heard some genuinely harrowing and heartbreaking examples of people who have fallen through the safety net that the British public desperately want to provide for Ukrainian refugees. On occasions, that compassion and ambition has not been matched by the processes put in place by the Government. I know that no Member who has raised individual cases—especially my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn—will stop until their constituents get the help that they need, so my final question to the Minister is this: will the Government meet each Member who has raised a case to see what we all want, which is some peace for the people fleeing this dreadful war?

Photo of Eddie Hughes Eddie Hughes Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities) 10:30 am, 22nd June 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss these issues today, and I congratulate Tulip Siddiq on securing the debate—I think we are old friends, given our previous time together on the Women and Equalities Committee. I am a tremendous admirer of the work that she has done supporting her constituent Nazanin.

I thank other Members for their thoughtful contributions, although I am slightly confused by my hon. Friend Crispin Blunt, who has been a Member of the House for quite some time and who appears to have completely forgotten the protocol that says it is incredibly rude to contribute to a debate and then leave—not least without mentioning it to any of the other contributors or the Chair. Perhaps we will see him again some time. Who knows?

I believe the informed and impassioned contributions to the debate speak to the fact that we have not allowed there to be any creeping normalisation of the plight of the people of Ukraine. Let me put it on the record that the Government truly recognise and value the unanimity of voice with which we speak on the vast majority of issues around our collective support for Ukraine, although I fully accept that Steven Bonnar has to take issue with just about everything the Government are doing.

This is one of the rare times in public life when Members from all shades of the political spectrum come together to stand shoulder to shoulder in our defence of the values that we share. From the moment the first tanks crossed the border into Ukraine, the stoicism, courage and determination shown by President Zelensky and the Ukrainian people has been a source of great inspiration to us all. Officials, charities, Ministers and our Prime Minister are working intensively with our allies and international partners to support our friends in Ukraine.

I will come to the focus of the debate, but I want to emphasise that we are proud of the support that the UK Government are providing to Ukrainian nationals and their families. Most of all, we are proud that the scheme is being powered by the enormous generosity of the British public. They have come forward in their thousands to open their hearts and their homes to people who have had their lives torn apart by a conflict they did not ask for. Since the scheme—the first of its kind in the UK—was launched on 18 March, we have welcomed 46,500 people into the UK, and I commend Home Office staff for the work that they have done.

As Sarah Green said, the scheme is like trying to drive a car at speed and build it at the same time. Although I completely understand that it is not perfect and that there have been challenges, we have been acting at pace with incredible volumes. Combined with the Ukraine family scheme, we have now helped over 70,000 people to find a safe, secure home, with 150,000 visas issued so far. Some of those people are now living in the constituencies of Members who have contributed to the debate, including the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn. Hampstead has had 573 applications, with 537 visas granted, and 382 people have already arrived. The constituency of Sarah Owen is slightly further down the league table, Luton having had 72 applications and 32 people arrive, but there is still time to come.

Photo of Sarah Owen Sarah Owen Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

On the helpful statistics that the Minister has just mentioned, does he have an accurate figure for the number of people who have been successfully homed with hosts through the Homes for Ukraine scheme?

Photo of Eddie Hughes Eddie Hughes Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I believe the figures are available online, but if they are not, I will make sure that we find out the answer to that question. My apologies for not knowing now.

As Members present are aware, in the early stages of the Homes for Ukraine scheme we had no plans to bring over unaccompanied minors who were not travelling with a parent or legal guardian or joining a parent or legal guardian when they got to the UK. Although unaccompanied minors were not eligible to join the scheme, we have had applications from many children looking for sanctuary in the UK. At the outset we vowed to keep the routes for Ukrainian refugees under constant review, and in the light of clear demand and the clear urgency of the situation, we have decided to extend the Homes for Ukraine scheme to allow children who are not travelling with a parent or legal guardian, or who are travelling to join a parent or legal guardian, to come to the UK.

As I mentioned, we already have a number of outstanding applications from children who applied but were not eligible under the Homes for Ukraine scheme. Those applications have been on hold while the Government carefully worked through all the challenges that come with allowing children to travel without a parent.

Photo of Tulip Siddiq Tulip Siddiq Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I thank the Minister for all the new information. Is it official Government policy now that children who are under 18 can come over if they do not have their parents with them? Will they still need a guardian, or will they need a legal guardian note? That has been a source of problems in a lot of cases. Can the Minister give us more information about it? Can he clarify whether this is official Government policy? We hear about it through tweets and the radio, not from a Minister.

Photo of Eddie Hughes Eddie Hughes Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I can confirm that while we have been discussing these matters, a written ministerial statement has been laid, and Members will be able to access the details of it immediately. Further details of the scheme will be worked out in the coming days to ensure that everything is done correctly, but it will be based on a notarised note from the parent or guardian, and the child travelling to a known person. I am happy to discuss the details with the hon. Lady.

Further to that point, and on the point raised by the hon. Member for Luton North, Members do not need to have asked a question of the Prime Minister to get to discuss their case with Lord Harrington, although it was fortunate that the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn had that opportunity. Lord Harrington organises a meeting every week—I understand the next one is tomorrow—and colleagues from across the House may dial in and pose their questions to him. We are encouraging the Labour Whips in particular to get their Members engaged and on that call. The opportunity is weekly, and we are determined to try to help each and every Member.

Photo of Margaret Ferrier Margaret Ferrier Independent, Rutherglen and Hamilton West

I welcome the Government’s announcement today, and I am glad that Nataliia, the 15-year-old girl being hosted by my constituent, is now in Hamilton in Scotland and settling into her new home. Can the Minister say how long it will take for final decisions on visas to be communicated to other unaccompanied minors, and will their cases be prioritised now?

Photo of Eddie Hughes Eddie Hughes Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I do not think it would be possible for me to set a timeframe, but I can say that we are going to contact the 1,000 people who have already applied, working through those as quickly as we can. The policy will initially apply to applications in the system that were put on hold, but they will, as the hon. Lady has suggested, be prioritised for processing through the expanded scheme once it opens in July, although we need to ensure that sponsorship arrangements are appropriate, which is complex, and that all safeguarding checks have taken place prior to travel. That might take a few weeks.

All that will be welcome news for many of the children and many of the potential sponsors who are well placed to offer a child safety, sanctuary and security in their home, but I want to be completely clear about the fact that it will be possible only in some carefully defined circumstances, including when children are travelling with or are joining an adult relative, or children travelling alone are travelling to stay with a known sponsor, such as a close family friend. The safety of the child must be paramount.

It is important that we take this opportunity to expand the scheme—

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

I am slightly concerned because trusted adults often can be perpetrators of abuse. I want to ensure that there will be continued monitoring of and checks on children who are placed with people outside their family, and that the correct safeguarding and infrastructure are around those children.

Photo of Eddie Hughes Eddie Hughes Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I completely accept and understand the point that the hon. Lady has made, and it is important that the parents determine who such a person should be. To that end, we would trust that the children were to be placed in a safe environment.

It is important to take this opportunity to expand the scheme. We are particularly grateful for the support of colleagues in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and for the support of other expert practitioners, including local authorities, in helping us to develop the expanded format and ensure that the scheme is focused on delivering what is in the best interests of any child. In line with our commitment, the expanded scheme will include an additional requirement for local authorities to assess the suitability of sponsorship arrangements and ensure that robust safeguarding processes are put in place.

There will also be clear requirements for parental consent to any sponsorship arrangement and an expectation that the sponsor should be someone who is personally known to the parents.

Photo of Tulip Siddiq Tulip Siddiq Shadow Minister (Treasury)

The Minister is being very generous in allowing us to intervene. I just want to clarify: if a child is coming over and the person who is housing the child is not related to their parents, can they still come over? The sponsor in my constituency is not related to the parents of the two girls who are coming over. He and his wife have opened up their home, but the girls’ parents do not know the sponsors personally. How could they? They are in Ukraine and the sponsors are in London. Would the girls still be allowed to come?

Photo of Eddie Hughes Eddie Hughes Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I am not sure I can answer that question now. The details will be worked out, but our strong preference is that they are personally known. The point about parents determining where they place their children might be a pivotal point to consider. As I say, Lord Harrington will be available tomorrow. I am sure the details have been worked out at pace while the car is being driven at speed.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

. Can I interrupt the Minister and say to my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate, who has been in this House for a considerable amount of time—25 years, I think—that people who speak in debates are expected to stay for the entirety of the debate? They are not expected to walk out on a whim and wander back in at whim. I hope my hon. Friend, if he wants to speak in Westminster Hall debates, will remain for the entire debate, as every other Member who has spoken in the debate is expected to do, too.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Conservative, Reigate

Mr Davies, I stand reprimanded. I tried to indicate to you that I would be back for the Minister’s response, but I have been caught out by the fact that he is on his feet earlier than I expected.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

The system in Westminster Hall is not the same as in the Chamber. People do not come back for the wind-ups or for the Minister’s response. People are expected to stay for the entire debate. Despite being here for 25 years, my hon. Friend might have learnt something today. I hope that he will not make that mistake again, and that that has been a useful lesson for everybody else who happens to be in the Chamber. Minister, I apologise for interrupting.

Photo of Eddie Hughes Eddie Hughes Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

Mr Davies, I am grateful for that point. Had my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate been here, he might have heard the hon. Member for Luton North point out the fact that I am indeed the Minister with responsibility for the Homes for Ukraine scheme, so it is appropriate for me to answer the case, and it would be inappropriate for a Home Office Minister to take up individual cases during the debate.

Given that the scheme already extends leave to remain to three years, sponsors will be asked to commit to hosting the child for up to three years, or until they are 18. In the coming days we will be setting out the technical details necessary to accompany that kind of change. It almost goes without saying that unaccompanied minors are the most vulnerable of the vulnerable. By expanding the visa route for that group, we will be supporting some of those vulnerable children to flee what must be a terrifying situation in their hometowns, cities or villages.

At every stage of the process we have developed our humanitarian schemes in close consultation with Ukrainian leaders and the diaspora community in the UK to make sure that what we offer responds directly to their needs and asks. I do not need to tell anyone in this debate that the war is a constantly evolving situation, but I should stress that that will always mean that our schemes will be kept under constant review, and we will always be willing to work with Ukrainian leaders to make changes whenever necessary.

I want to briefly touch on one or two comments that were made. The hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn asked why the process has taken so long. The process is complex, but first and foremost we are driven by two things: safeguarding and the safety of the children; and, equally important, we are led by how Ukrainian leaders themselves expect to see the scheme developed, so we have proceeded diligently. As I mentioned, that weekly call with Lord Harrington is incredibly important.

In response to Olivia Blake, on the presentation of some Ukrainians as homeless, as the Homelessness Minister I consider that a very sensitive issue. We are tracking it carefully and the most recent figures will be published imminently. We will work closely with councils to monitor and identify any further pressures they might be under. The Government have committed more than £300 million this year to support homelessness and rough sleeping, through the rough sleeping initiative and so on. We will keep a close eye on that to see how the pressures develop.

With regard to provisions for deposits for those whose sponsorship might have broken down, measures such as discretionary housing payments are available to councils. Ideally, we do not end up in that situation. I appreciate that the rematching service has so far helped a relatively small number of people, but it is still relatively new in development. We will work on that with councils, because ideally people will be rematched. I want to finish by thanking Members for their passion and commitment. I hope that today’s decision will be widely welcomed across the House.

Photo of Tulip Siddiq Tulip Siddiq Shadow Minister (Treasury) 10:46 am, 22nd June 2022

I thank everyone for their contributions to a very good debate. I especially want to mention Lord Dubs, who was referred to by my hon. Friend Florence Eshalomi and Jim Shannon. He helped me prepare for the debate and has tirelessly worked on this issue. He came to this country on the Kindertransport, and has never given up fighting for refugees and unaccompanied children.

Despite being told off, Crispin Blunt made a good point about a focus on families involved in the armed forces. A couple of people in the cases we have dealt with have parents in the armed forces fighting on the frontline. We should support them and bring them over. I want to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall, who powerfully described the delays in housing refugees, which I recognise. Deeming sponsors unsuitable without a proper reason means that children are abandoned as a result. I hope the Minister will look into that.

Sarah Green highlighted the failure to link family cases. That causes unnecessary delays and is something that I have experienced time and time again. I know we are giving the Minister a lot to look into, but I hope he includes that. My hon. Friend Olivia Blake spoke about the duty of care that we have for children once they are in the UK. It is not just about bringing them over, but looking after them when they are here, because they are traumatised.

We should look at access to education; the catch-up school in summer is a good idea. I do not know whether the Minister will take up that idea but I hope, in general, that he takes on board everything he has heard today. I welcome the policy announced today, and would like to see the final details, to ensure that it works for everyone. I recognise that the Government must weigh up safeguarding and child protection risks in the design of any scheme, but the current system is simply not working. I hope the Minister recognises that. It is too bureaucratic, is rigid and has a cruel approach to child refugees, which is putting children’s safety and lives at risk.

I hope that the new policy works, and that the Minister will publish all the details. I also hope that he will look especially at the consideration that although families in Ukraine might not know their sponsors personally, the sponsors will still be providing safe homes for children in the UK, and local authorities can vouch for them. I thank everyone for putting aside political differences, and for ensuring that Mariia’s experience is not matched by that of other children across the UK, and that it never happens again.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered the Homes for Ukraine scheme and child refugees.

Sitting suspended.