There are turning points in history when the constant struggle between freedom and tyranny comes down to one fight in one place. In 1940, that fight took place in the skies above Britain. Today, 82 years later, it is taking place in the forests, fields and war-torn towns and cities of Ukraine. Today we pay tribute to President Zelensky, who has stood strong and resolute in these dark times in the face of Vladimir Putin’s senseless war of choice.
Volodymyr Zelensky is without doubt the leader of the free world, and the bravery, dignity and defiance of the Ukrainian people will never be forgotten. They have not yet won this war, but let us make no mistake: they will eventually triumph over the forces of darkness that have invaded their country. When they do, the United Kingdom and every other democracy across the world will be forever in debt to the heroes of the Ukrainian resistance.
The courage and fortitude of the Ukrainian people stands in stark contrast to the mean-spirited and inept way in which the Home Secretary has responded to the crisis. We should not be surprised by that, however, as the utter shambles of the last few weeks is simply part of a pattern of behaviour. From the Windrush scandal to the small boats crisis, and from the Nationality and Borders Bill to the response to Putin’s barbaric assault on Ukraine, we are witnessing a Government Department whose approach is defined by a toxic combination of incompetence and indifference.
We have had to endure the embarrassing spectacle of the Home Secretary contradicting her own Department’s announcement on the number of visas granted, and then compounding the confusion by claiming that an application centre for Ukrainians had been opened in Calais when that was patently not the case. While I commend the Immigration Minister for deleting the tweet in which he suggested that Ukrainians fleeing the horrors of war should apply for fruit picker visas, I nevertheless repeat my request that he apologise for that
tweet, as it is clear that such an apology would go a long way to reassuring the public that the Government have grasped the horrific reality of the situation.
A Government who fail to plan are a Government who plan to fail. Vladimir Putin has been showing the world for years that he is a war-mongering gangster who will stop at nothing in his relentless campaign to crush democracy and the rule of law. From the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko to the invasion of Georgia, and from butchery in Syria to the illegal annexation of Crimea and the state-sponsored hit on the Skripals, Mr Putin’s track record of murder and mayhem since he came to power is not exactly a state secret.
Putin has been massing his troops on the Ukrainian border since October last year. That is five months that the Home Secretary could have used to put plans in place for every possible scenario, so that if an exodus were to be triggered by an invasion, we would have had a well-organised and effective response ready to roll out. Instead, we have seen the Government scrambling, making policy on the hoof and constantly being on the back foot.
As a consequence of that basic failure to plan and prepare, we have witnessed the Government having to perform U-turns on an almost-daily basis. First, the Home Secretary said that the family reunion scheme would be open only to dependants, thus preventing Ukrainians in this country from bringing in their elderly parents, grandparents or extended family. We on the Opposition Benches protested, and the Home Office grudgingly extended it to parents and adult children. We protested again, and the Government finally relented, so thankfully all extended family members are now included in the scope of the family reunion route.
Then the Home Secretary was insisting on Ukrainians with passports and family in the UK having to wait for days in visa application centres rather than applying online and doing the biometric checks here in the UK. Again we protested and again the Home Secretary was forced to U-turn. It took weeks of pressure to force the Government to set up a scheme for Ukrainians who do not have family connections in the UK.
While I am on the subject of the Homes for Ukraine scheme, the fact that the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities has been given responsibility for it speaks volumes, because it is a clear signal that the Prime Minister has completely lost confidence in the Home Secretary.
Would the hon. Gentleman not find it odd if the Department responsible for housing were not responsible for trying to provide housing for vulnerable people?
The vast majority of the issues that need to be resolved around bringing Ukrainians into this country are clearly to do with immigration. The fact that this brief has been shifted is a clear indication that the Prime Minister has lost confidence in the Home Secretary.
Does the hon. Gentleman share my confusion about that comment by the Minister, given that the Home Secretary was responsible for putting refugees in deeply unsuitable circumstances in Penally camp in Pembrokeshire, which has since had to be closed?
The right hon. Lady is absolutely right. Operation Warm Welcome, the scheme for Afghans, has completely stalled and thousands of Afghans are stuck in hotels. That was completely on the watch of this Home Secretary, so I will take no lectures on that from the Government Members.
I say to the shadow Minister that the SNP has moved the motion sensibly, criticising the Government in a constructive way. The shadow Minister’s remarks are in danger of turning into a more party political attack. May I suggest that that is not what the House wants at the moment?
I remind the hon. Gentleman that what is going on in Ukraine is a fight for democracy. In this House we act on the basis of democracy; it is the Opposition’s duty to hold the Government to account and to scrutinise them. If I were saying these things in Russia right now, I would be carted out and sent to the gulag, so I will take no lectures from him on the purpose of this debate and on our purpose, as Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition, in a democracy. This House has lost confidence in the Home Secretary and, frankly, the entire country has too.
I turn now to the day-to-day misery and chaos that Ukrainians seeking sanctuary in our country are experiencing. We are still hearing stories from Ukrainians who have made it to Poland, Hungary and other bordering countries that they are having to wait for days on end to be granted a UK visa. Given that we know that it takes only 10 minutes for a biometric test to be completed and only a matter of minutes to print a visa, why on earth are people having to wait for so long? As one Ukrainian refugee on the Polish border said, “It was hell”. Another called it “a humiliating process”.
This incompetence is leaving a stain on our international reputation. Have these poor people not dealt with enough stress already? We have also heard that the visa centre in northern France was originally supposed to be in Calais, then Lille, and that now it will be in Arras, another 30 miles from Lille. If the Home Office cannot even decide where the visa centre will be, how on earth will the people on the ground know where to go?
Let us not forget that the Home Secretary cited security concerns as the explanation for her refusal to set up a visa centre in Calais, while we have a Prime Minister who repeatedly overruled the advice of our security services in awarding a peerage to the son of a KGB agent. That tells us all we need to know about the priorities of this Government.
I turn to the Homes for Ukraine scheme that was announced on Monday. As I mentioned earlier in my remarks, Labour managed to shame the Government into introducing a sponsorship scheme to allow those without family to come to our country. It is a matter of profound regret that the Government have not heeded our calls for a simple emergency visa scheme that would have avoided the huge amount of bureaucracy, uncertainty and red tape that they have chosen to introduce. Nevertheless, this scheme is better than nothing.
However, on Monday the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities stood at the Dispatch Box and bellowed at the top of his voice about being fed up with people saying that the British people are not generous. His histrionics were yet another example of the deeply disingenuous behaviour of Conservative Ministers who come to this Chamber and deliberately misrepresent the Opposition’s criticisms of their dismal performance. Nobody is criticising the public for lack of generosity; our criticisms are levelled directly at this Government who have utterly failed the Ukrainians who are fleeing the horrors of war. If Ministers were to spend half as much time actually getting on with their jobs as they do desperately deploying smoke and mirrors to conceal their failings, then we might all be in a better place.
Is the visa application not still a fundamental flaw in the Homes for Ukraine scheme? The considerable bureaucracy of a 50-page form will still be required. That really needs to be dealt with, and soon.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The bureaucracy of a 50-page form could so easily be cut through if the Government were to heed our calls for an emergency visa scheme. The bureaucracy being imposed on these poor people who are feeling the horrors of war should shame us all.
Arguably, the most serious design fault in the Homes for Ukraine scheme is that people who wish to support Ukrainians must track them down themselves. My hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities rightly described this as a “DIY asylum scheme” that risks leaving refugees without refuge. Are the Government seriously suggesting that Ukrainians fleeing the horrors of war should advertise themselves on social media or that Brits who are happy to offer their spare rooms should be searching on Instagram for Ukrainian families to sponsor? Will the Minister commit today to the Government’s implementing a pairing system to help sponsors find Ukrainian refugees who wish to come here?
We can only speculate on why the Home Secretary has chosen to burden those fleeing the horrors of war with the confusion and chaos that we have seen. Is she simply incompetent or is she being driven by the hostile-environment ideology that has propelled her to the upper echelons of the Conservative party? Only the Home Secretary can answer that question, but whatever her motivations the shambolic consequences are plain to see.
I began my speech by saying that there are moments in history when the great struggle between freedom and tyranny comes down to one fight, and I say today, without an iota of doubt, that freedom will win the day. Until that victory comes, we must do all we can to offer safe sanctuary to those Ukrainians who have made the perilous journey from their war-torn homeland.
As we have all seen, the Ukrainians are a passionately patriotic people and they will be utterly focused on returning home to rebuild their lives and their country as soon as the enemy has been defeated and expelled. In the meantime, they need to be treated with dignity and respect, but instead the Home Secretary’s response has been mean spirited, short sighted and shambolic.
I agree with much of what the shadow Minister has said, but can he be clear that Labour’s position is not to waive visa requirements altogether? How can he be so certain that the emergency visa he describes will resolve waiting times and bureaucracy? Why does he not join the SNP in calling for waiving visa requirements altogether?
The hon. Gentleman is right that we are not suggesting that security checks be waived. We are making it clear that those security checks should take place in the United Kingdom when people have got here. The emergency visa has a rapid application process. On that basis, people would come into the UK and the biometric checks would take place here.
The hon. Gentleman is saying that Labour would have the checks in the UK. What would happen if somebody failed the checks when they were already in the UK? Would they be deported? How would they be dealt with if they failed those checks?
That is a matter for Border Force. They would take the action that they take with any individual who enters this country and does not pass the security checks. It would be exactly the same as any other person who fails security checks; it is very simple and not rocket science.
Traumatised people, whose lives have been turned upside down, are being pushed from pillar to post and having the door to our country slammed in their faces by this Home Secretary. This is a profoundly unserious Government who are led by profoundly unserious people; what a contrast with the bravery of the Ukrainians and the warmth and generosity of the British people. The British people have stepped up and now it is time for the Government to catch up.
The Minister, hon. Members and right hon. Members from across this House are today calling on the Government to put people before paperwork. The British people are urging the Government to get a grip so that we can once again be confident in our proud record as a nation of sanctuary.