Britain’s Homes for Ukraine scheme will be “completely unworkable” unless the government cuts excessive bureaucracy and takes urgent steps 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 properly consulted before announcing the sponsorship scheme – through which members of the public or organisations can bring a named refugee fleeing Ukraine to Britain.
Phase one 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 there have been 150,000 expressions of interest in assisting those fleeing Ukraine with no family links to the UK.
But Nandy said: “There is no formal central system of matching the people on the register to those in need, which is pretty extraordinary.
“When you add in the excessive layers of bureaucracy – the lengthy forms and the documents you need to prove your identity and residency – the barriers make this scheme completely unworkable. Unless urgent steps are taken to address this, we will see very small numbers of people taking up this offer and a lot of the public’s generosity squandered.”
At first, said Nandy, it appeared the government wanted desperate people to advertise themselves on social media so the British public could find them. “Since this was met with criticism, they seem to have shifted to getting charities involved,” she said. But there is concern from the sector about lack of clarity and consultation.
Last week one charity, Reset Communities and Refugees, launched a matching system on its website.
But another UK-based refugee charity told the Observer: “The government has asked us to be a matching organisation without telling us what that involves. We would love to assist but do not want to commit ourselves blind to a process we know nothing about. We could ramp up getting hosts through and making placements but we do not have the expertise to do visas. These people are fleeing war and they shouldn’t have to be going through the complexity of the visa process.”
Daniel Sohege, a specialist in international refugee law and director of the charity Stand for All, said: “The informal match portals popping up on social media platforms don’t appear to be regulated, meaning they risk exploitation.”
Writing on Twitter he said: “If you are basing your refugee protection system on Tinder then you have definitely got issues … Denies access to many, and puts those who do get it at risk of exploitation and trafficking.”
He told the Observer: “We need a government-run matching portal with inbuilt safeguarding checks. The government has been liaising with certain groups but it hasn’t brought in the refugee or child protection sectors on a large scale.”
Earlier this week communities secretary Michael Gove said hosts would only have to undergo “very light touch” criminal records checks. But in fact the measurements will be tougher, it was later confirmed, with all hosts needing Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks.
“We support thorough checks because of the sheer volume of children involved who we will need to keep safe,” said Nandy. Local authorities will take on the role of vetting sponsors and inspecting accommodation.
However, the Labour MP said: “I met with a group of councils just before Michael Gove came to make a statement about the scheme to the Commons on Monday and not a single one had been contacted.
“Councils are desperate to help, but their concern is how to make this scheme work in practice. One council leader from a major city authority said they only have nine secondary-school places across the whole of the city.
“This cohort of refugees is different to 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 care provision.”
On Wednesday representatives from the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and the Home Office met on a Zoom call with around 200 council leaders to discuss the Homes for Ukraine scheme.
One source said: “The chat box was flooded with questions: when will we find out the numbers? How will they get to us? When will we get direction over what to do about schools?
“Everyone wants to do the right thing but the worst thing is not to have any proper structures in place.”
They added: “One key question that kept cropping up was why local government was not consulted before the announcement. This initiative was cooked up in Whitehall instead of inviting in council chief executives from across the country and asking them what would work.”
Nandy said: “It really does beggar belief that nobody from the department picked up the phone to the councils that will be providing those services, especially at a time when they are really struggling to fulfil their basic statutory requirements.”
Local councils have been briefed on estimates of how many refugees they may need to accommodate. One London local authority told the Observer they were expecting around 1,200 families. Councils will get £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 touch with individual council leaders to outline the level of support. He added: “Obviously we will keep things under review to ensure that local government has what it needs.”
Refugees will receive a welcome pack on arrival and will have a contact at local authority level in the event a placement breaks down.
The government says it is working at pace to implement phase two of the scheme so charities, faith groups and community organisations can boost numbers by directly sponsoring refugees.
The Scottish government said it will initially accept 3,000 Ukrainian refugees with no family links to the UK and has set up a route that removes the need for applicants to be matched with a named individual before they are cleared through the visa system.
Speaking earlier this week Gove said: “We want to minimise bureaucracy and make the process as straightforward as possible while doing everything we can to ensure the safety of all involved. Sponsors will therefore be required to undergo necessary vetting checks and we are also streamlining the process to security-assess the status of Ukrainians who will be arriving in the UK.”
The sponsorship route comes on top of visas for Ukrainians with relatives already in the UK, with 8,600 visas granted under the family scheme so far.