As I said to Mr Speaker the other day, I have been having that since I was 13 years old. You are not the first, Mr Gray, and I am sure you will not be the last. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, and I thank the Petitions Committee and my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for securing this important debate. I also thank the thousands and thousands of petitioners, who I hope have all made their voices heard through us.
I begin my remarks by paying tribute to the Ukrainian people, whose bravery, fortitude and eventual victory will never be forgotten. President Zelensky is the leader of the free world, and he and his compatriots are fighting not only for Ukraine’s freedom and democracy, but for the values that we all hold dear. They are showing tremendous courage, dignity and defiance in the face of Russia’s barbaric assault. What a contrast, I am afraid to say, with the failure of the Home Office to rise to the challenge. 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 Department whose approach is defined by a toxic combination of incompetence and indifference.
Let us turn for a moment to the broader context of this refugee crisis. We know that the vast majority of the Ukrainians who are leaving their country want to stay as close as possible to it. They are passionately patriotic and as such they will want to get back to their homes once the invaders have been defeated and Ukraine is once again able to rebuild as a vibrant, prosperous and democratic country.
However, it is also the case that some people will want to come to the UK and it is crystal clear that we should welcome them with open arms. Britain has a proud history of acting as a safe sanctuary for those fleeing war and persecution. For example, during world war two the Kindertransport saved the lives of almost 10,000 children.
Since the invasion of Ukraine started on 24 February, over 2 million people have fled the country, and neighbouring countries such as Poland, Romania and Hungary have each taken in hundreds of thousands of refugees. For the reasons that I have already outlined, that is to be expected. However, it is not only countries on the borders of Ukraine that have shown great humanitarian spirit. Just look at Ireland; it has a population of only 4 million, yet it has already accepted 5,500 Ukrainians.
Now let us turn to the dismal performance of the UK Government. This country has 66 million people, but we have given visas to only 4,000 Ukrainians, set against 17,100 applications received. The Home Office is currently offering two schemes, as we have heard today. The first is the family reunion route. For those Ukrainians already resident in Britain, it allows entry to some—not all—of their relatives. The Opposition finally shamed the Government into widening the family reunion route to include extended family, but it still fell far short of where it needed to be. For example, a nurse on a healthcare visa was not allowed to bring his or her family into the UK because he or she did not have indefinite leave to remain. That was beyond unacceptable.
We welcome the U-turn that was secured today, but I ask the Minister why it took so long. Why do we appear to be having U-turns on an almost daily basis? It sends a signal that the Government have to be dragged kicking and screaming to do the right thing; it does not reflect well on the Government; and I am afraid to say that it leaves a stain on our international reputation.
The second programme is the community sponsorship scheme. It supposedly allows charities and individuals to sponsor Ukrainians even if there are no family ties. A pressing concern is that the community sponsorship scheme will become mired in bureaucracy and red tape. The Minister will no doubt be aware of a recent report by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration that states that the application to arrival timescale of current similar schemes ranges from 73 to 398 days. I am sure that the Minister does not think that it could take up to 73 days for these desperate Ukrainians to be given access to our country and I hope that he will reassure us today that that will not be the case.
The processes are burdened with excessive red tape and bureaucracy, but there is also an issue around the institutional performance. The location of the visa centre that is supposedly being set up in northern France to assist refugees will not be made public and the centre will not offer appointments or walk-in access. The Home Secretary claims that a visa office in Calais will pose too much of a security threat and yet the Prime Minister overruled our security services to insist that Evgeny Lebedev be given a peerage. I think that tells us all we need to know about the priorities of this Government.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), the shadow Home Secretary, said last week, we are “making vulnerable people push from pillar to post in their hour of need”. It is immoral to create this sense of confusion when all people need is a place to feel safe and secure. It does not have to be this way; it could be so much simpler.
Labour believes in putting people before paperwork, which is why we are calling for an emergency protection visa. It would be so much simpler than the community sponsorship scheme that was announced today. Our emergency visa would be based on the necessary biometric and security checks, but it would dispense with all the bureaucracy and red tape that the Government propose, and it would end the bottlenecks and queues by efficiently facilitating quick and easy access to our country in these dark times for the Ukrainian people.
In light of the chaotic and heartbreaking situation that so many hon. Friends and hon. Members have described so eloquently in their contributions today, I have the following questions for the Minister. First, last week in Prime Minister’s questions the Prime Minister claimed that his Government have “done more to resettle vulnerable people than any other European country”.
Since 2015, the UK has accepted 92,000 refugees, while Germany, for example, has accepted more than 1 million. The Prime Minister has again played fast and loose with the facts, so will the Minister encourage his right hon. Friend to correct the record?
On the issue of the community sponsorship route, can the Minister provide an indication of the application-to-arrival timescale that the Government expect? It would clearly be completely and utterly unacceptable if Ukrainian applicants were expected to wait 73 days, and potentially up to 300 days, for their applications under this scheme to be approved. Finally, why will the Government not take our advice and implement Labour’s emergency protection visa so that any Ukrainian can come to our country to seek refuge?
I have to be honest and say that the Home Office failures on this do not surprise me in the slightest. This Government have consistently and systematically failed refugees since 2010. We have only to look at their response to Afghans fleeing the horrors of the Taliban, with thousands of Afghans still stuck in hotels in our country; at the bureaucratic quagmire that was created for those who wanted to house those seeking refuge from the horrors of the Syrian war; or at the response to those seeking to cross the English channel, looking for sanctuary. To add insult to injury, the Government are using the Nationality and Borders Bill as a tool to criminalise those who seek sanctuary in our country.
If the Government wish to improve that record, they have to start showing some empathy and some efficiency, and that has to start right now with the way in which they are treating those who are fleeing Putin’s bombs and bullets. They can do it by ending the bureaucratic and hostile environment that they have created. We therefore urge the Minister to remove the bottlenecks and to simplify the process. Our message to him, to the Home Secretary and to the Prime Minister is clear: please get a grip and please start putting people before paperwork.