Tensions rise after minister calls Home Office's Ukraine scheme rollout 'slow and bureaucratic'

Refugees minister Richard Harrington's admission "things are not good" has gone down badly in Downing Street
Photo: Tayfun Salci/ZUMA Press Wire

Refugees minister Richard Harrington's scathing assessment of his own government's efforts to take in Ukrainian refugees was the sign of growing frustration in Whitehall over the slow progress of the rollout.

Lord Harrington, the former Conservative MP who Boris Johnson brought in to help implement refugee schemes late last month, stunned senior government figures on Tuesday night when in an LBC phone-in session, he said he was embarrassed by the roll out up to now. 

Ministers have launched two schemes to allow refugees to obtain UK visas following Putin's invasion of Ukraine. One route is open to people with immediate family already living in the UK, while the second route, called Homes for Ukraine, offers British people the opportunity to "sponsor" refugees to come and live with them for a minimum period of six months.

In a series of frank remarks, Harrington said "we know things are not good", and described the schemes as initially being "slow and bureaucratic". While he insisted the process had been improved, he also did not disagree with a caller who characterised the schemes as a "disgrace".

It is understood that the remarks went down badly in Downing Street. One senior government figure said "everyone was confused" by Harrington's strongly-worded criticism.

The Home Office and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities lead on the schemes. The former handles visa applications and border policy, while the latter is responsible for matching British sponsors with Ukrainian refugees through the Homes for Ukraine programme.

In his LBC appearance, Harrington suggested he had not been receiving all the information he needed from the Home Office since taking up his job on 8th March. When host Iain Dale said it looked like he hadn't been informed of applications submitted through the Homes for Ukraine programme, which was launched on 18th March, Harrington said: "That's a very valid criticism".

In a sign of growing tension within government, a senior Whitehall source said if Harrington felt like he wasn't receiving all the information he needed, he should raise it with his team of officials.

As of Friday, 1st April, which is when the government last updated its figures, the UK had received 65,000 visa applications from Ukrainians fleeing Russia's attack, and issued 29,200 of them. 

The number of visas issued under the Homes for Ukraine scheme, which offers Ukrainians without relatives in the UK a route to refuge, is much lower than the family scheme, however. Of 32,200 visa applications received through the sponsorship programme, just 4,700 had been issued. 

Ministers have been under intense pressure, including from numerous Tory MPs, to accelerate the rollout of the schemes as Vladimir Putin's assault on Ukraine becomes more barbaric. Home secretary Priti Patel in particular has faced criticism for her role in the process.

On Tuesday night, Harrington spoke to a Ukrainian woman who had been in Paris for 10 days waiting for a UK visa. An NHS nurse called Lauren, who did not wish to give her last name, said she was considering flying to Poland to comfort a Ukrainian family which she first applied to sponsor three weeks ago on 18th March.

Lauren said she had been left "traumitised" by the Homes for Ukraine scheme and that she was wondering whether to submit a fresh application after not hearing back from the Home Office.

UK sponsors have this week told CSW sister title PoliticsHome they are increasingly "dependent" on MPs to provide updates on their cases as they claimed communication with the Home Office was becoming "nearly impossible".

Tom, a sponsor from Yorkshire, said he had resorted to ringing his MP every day after becoming "despondent" trying to contact the Home Office.

"I'm trying to provide this family with information but we are being blocked at every turn," he said.

"I can't really explain how frustrating it is for me, the family, and I am sure for my MP who must be spending hours every day trying to get basic information for us."

Another sponsor, who didn't want to be named, said they had heard nothing for over ten days. 

"They all have passports, we filled all the details in fully, and we haven't received a single update. How hard can it be to answer a phone and provide a basic update?" they said. 

"We are now dependent on an MP's assistant to get any information about the case, but I get the impression even they are struggling to get any answers. It's utterly disgraceful."

Another sponsor, Vera Kempe, said that after contacting the Home Office earlier this week they had been transferred to an outsourced company involved with the visa process who had "no access to individual cases and no information – they told me to wait".

She added that she had also written a letter directly to Harrington about the situation but had not received a response.

Kempe said she had eventually managed to secure an update on their application after a case worker for her local MP Andrew Bowie used a Home Office hotline available to them, but said the staff member had been forced to wait nearly two hours to speak with someone from the immigration team.

Asked about the case, Bowie told PoliticsHome: "Well frankly I agree with Richard Harrington who himself has said the situation is not acceptable.

"The Home Office must improve the process, and quickly."

Adam Payne is political editor and John Johnston is a reporter for CSW sister title PoliticsHome, where this story first appeared

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