Britain’s Homes for Ukraine scheme will be ‘completely unworkable’ unless the government cuts excessive bureaucracy and takes urgent action to coordinate the matching process, the shadow communities secretary has warned.
In an interview with the Observer Lisa Nandy also said charities and local government should have been duly consulted before announcing the sponsorship scheme – through which members of the public or organizations can bring a named refugee fleeing Ukraine to Britain.
The first phase of the initiative opened on Friday for visa applications from Ukrainians wishing to travel to the UK and who have a named sponsor. So far, 150,000 people have expressed an interest in helping people fleeing Ukraine without family ties to the UK.
But Nandy said: ‘There is no formal central system to match people on the register with those who need it, which is quite extraordinary.
“When you add the excessive layers of bureaucracy – the long forms and documents you need to prove your identity and residence – the barriers make this system completely unworkable. Unless urgent action is taken to address this issue, we will see a very small number of people take up this offer and much of the public generosity will be wasted.
At first, Nandy said, it seemed the government wanted desperate people to advertise on social media so the British public could find them. “Since it was criticized they seem to have moved towards involving charities,” she said. But the sector is concerned about the lack of clarity and consultation.
Last week, a charity, Reset Communities and Refugees, launched a matching system on its website.
But another UK-based charity told the Observer“The government asked us to be a twinning organization without telling us what that entails. We would like to help, but we don’t want to blindly engage in a process we know nothing about. We could expedite the passage of guests and make placements, but we don’t have the expertise to make visas. These people are fleeing war and they shouldn’t have to go through the complexity of the visa process.
Daniel Sohege, international refugee law expert and director of the charity Stand for All, said: “The informal dating portals that appear on social media platforms do not appear to be regulated, which means they risk to be exploited.
Writing on Twitter, he said: “If you base your refugee protection system on Tinder, you’re definitely in trouble… Denies access to many and puts those who get it at risk of exploitation and trafficking. “
He told the Observer“We need a government-run matching portal with built-in protection controls. The government has liaised with some groups, but has not engaged refugee sectors or of child protection.
Earlier this week, Communities Secretary Michael Gove said hosts would only have to undergo “very light” criminal record checks. But in fact, the measures will be more difficult, it was later confirmed, with all hosts needing Disclosure and Deny Service (DBS) checks.
“We support thorough checks because of the large number of children involved whose safety we will need to ensure,” Nandy said. Local authorities will take on the role of controlling sponsors and inspecting accommodation.
However, the Labor MP said: ‘I met with a group of advisers just before Michael Gove came to make a statement on the plan in the Commons on Monday and not a single one was contacted.
“Councils are desperate to help, but their concern is how to make this program work in practice. A head of council from a major city authority said there were only nine secondary school places in the whole city.
“This cohort of refugees is different from other groups we have supported in the past – there will be lots of children and elderly people, so we need to make sure there is adequate education and social protection.”
On Wednesday, representatives from the Department of Leveling, Housing and Communities and the Interior Ministry met in a Zoom call with about 200 council leaders to discuss the Homes for Ukraine program.
A source said: “The chat box has been inundated with questions: When will we know the numbers? How will they get to us? When will we get direction on what to do about schools?
“Everyone wants to do the right thing, but the worst part is not having the proper structures in place.”
They added: ‘A key question that kept coming up was why local government had not been consulted before the announcement. This initiative was concocted in Whitehall instead of inviting chief executives from across the country to the board and asking them what would work.
Nandy said: “It really boggles the mind that no one in the department has phoned the councils who will be providing these services, especially at a time when they are really struggling to meet their basic legal requirements.”
Local councils have been informed of estimates of the number of refugees they may need to accommodate. A local authority in London told the Observer they expected about 1,200 families. Councils will receive £10,500 per refugee to help with education, social care and English language support.
Speaking in the House of Commons last week, Gove said his office was working with the Local Government Association and had been in contact with individual council leaders to work out the level of support. He added: “Obviously we will keep things under review to make sure local government has what it needs.”
Refugees will receive a welcome pack upon arrival and will be contacted by local authorities in case a placement fails.
The government says it is working to pace the implementation of phase two of the program so that charities, faith groups and community organizations can increase their numbers by directly sponsoring refugees.
The Scottish government has said it will initially accept 3,000 Ukrainian refugees with no family ties to the UK and has introduced a route that removes the need for applicants to be matched with a named person before they are authorized by the visa system.
Speaking earlier this week, Gove said: ‘We want to minimize bureaucracy and make the process as easy as possible while doing everything we can to ensure the safety of everyone involved. Sponsors will therefore be required to undergo the necessary checks and we are also streamlining the process for assessing the security status of Ukrainians arriving in the UK.
The sponsorship route comes in addition to visas for Ukrainians with relatives already in the UK, with 8,600 visas granted under the family scheme to date.