The speech made by Lisa Nandy, the Labour MP for Wigan, in the House of Commons on 14 March 2022.
We were so relieved to hear that the Secretary of State was going to announce a scheme to allow Ukrainian refugees a route to safety after weeks of delay, but a press release is not a plan, and we are really deeply concerned about the lack of urgency. Yesterday, he went on TV to claim that Ukrainians could be here by Sunday, but he has just told us that they will still need a visa under the current application process. These are 50-page forms that have to be completed online, asking people who have fled with nothing to find an internet café to upload documents they do not have—water bills and mortgage documents—to prove who they are. The Home Office has been incredibly slow in issuing these visas. As of this morning, only 4,000 have been issued. We are lagging way behind the generosity of other countries. We could simplify this process today. We could keep essential checks but drop the excessive bureaucracy. He knows it; why has it not been done?
For weeks the British people have been coming forward in large numbers to offer help. It has been moving and heartwarming to see the decency and spirit on display in every corner of this country. But what exactly will the Government be doing, especially in relation to matching families to sponsors? On the Secretary of State’s tour of the TV studios, he suggested several times that people who are willing to sponsor a Ukrainian family need to come to the Government with the name of that family, and they will then rubber-stamp it. He cannot seriously be asking Ukrainian families who are fleeing Vladimir Putin, and who have left their homes with nothing, to get on to Instagram and advertise themselves in the hope that a British family might notice them. Is that genuinely the extent of this scheme? Surely there is a role for the Secretary of State in matching Ukrainian families to their sponsors, not just a DIY asylum scheme where all he does is take the credit. Will he please clarify what the Government’s role is going to be?
There has been a lack of urgency in getting people here and there is still a lack of urgency in ensuring that we support them when they do get here. Earlier today, my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) and I spoke to council leaders, who stand ready and willing to help. Why has not anyone from the Secretary of State’s Department picked up the phone to them? Last week, I spoke to charities that he will ask to act as sponsors. They are acutely aware that the people who are coming will be quite unlike previous refugees.
Two million people are on the march—children alone, mums with very young kids and older people. The brutal reality of what is happening in Ukraine is that working-age people have stayed behind to fight. Those leaving will have healthcare needs, and they will need school places, maternity care and social care. One council leader told me today that his city, which traditionally plays a major role in welcoming refugees, has only nine secondary school places available. Has it not occurred to the Secretary of State until this point to pick up the phone to leaders such as the one I spoke to before he went into the TV studios and promised the earth?
These charities and council leaders are the same people who stepped up during covid. They spin gold out of thread every single day, and what is keeping them awake at night right now is how we do right by people and keep them safe. It was only a few months ago that the Home Office placed a child into a hotel in Sheffield that it had been told was unsafe without even bothering to tell the council, and he fell out of a window and died. Will the Secretary of State ensure that every council is contacted by close of play today? Will he work with them to do the vetting checks that are needed? They are experts in safeguarding children. Will he not only trust them, but support them?
Will the Secretary of State put a safety net in place, in case a placement breaks down? His Department confirmed over the weekend that families left homeless in that situation will not be able to claim their housing costs under universal credit. Surely that cannot be true. Surely we are not going to ask people who have fled bombs and bullets to lie homeless on the streets of Britain.
I suspect that the Secretary of State has felt as ashamed as I have to watch how this Government have closed the door to people who need our help. He shakes his head, but people have been turned back at Calais. They have been left freezing by the roadside with their children. We have had planes leaving neighbouring NATO countries packed to the rafters, except those to London, because this Government have turned people away. The British people who have come forward have shown that we are a far better country than our Government, but unless he gets a plan together—a real plan, not just a press release—all he is effectively announcing is plans to fail the people of Ukraine twice over. He said today that they have our total admiration, and they do, but they need more than that; they need our total support.