Priti Patel has been accused by a senior Conservative MP of misleading the House of Commons to exaggerate government help offered to Ukrainian refugees as the government came under pressure from its own MPs to ease visa restrictions immediately.
The allegation, which the MP said would usually be a resigning matter, was made as Tory colleagues queued up in parliament to condemn the Home Office for “dragging its feet” over visa applications for those escaping the Russian armed forces.
The backlash from MPs, after it was revealed that the UK has so far issued 500 visas to Ukrainian nationals seeking sanctuary, came as Boris Johnson insisted the UK would be as generous as possible to Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion.
At a Commons session that Patel did not attend, Sir Roger Gale, the MP for North Thanet, said the home secretary had told MPs on Monday that a visa application centre had been set up for Ukrainians in Calais – where several hundred Ukrainians had gathered.
He said: “In response to my question yesterday, the home secretary said: ‘I have already made it clear in terms of the visa application centre that has now been set up en route to Calais that we have staff in Calais.’
“That was untrue and under any normal administration that in itself would be a resignation [matter].”
On Monday afternoon, there were still signs in Calais telling refugees to go to centres in Paris or Brussels.
The Home Office minister Kevin Foster replied indicating that Patel had on Monday also said that a new processing centre for visas would soon be set up.
“I understand the home secretary clarified her remarks yesterday. There is a reason why we believe it is right that key security checks are done before people arrive here in the UK,” he said.
Foster said a new processing centre at Lille was expected to be set up within the next 24 hours, and the Home Office is hoping to set up transport for the 75-mile journey from Calais.
A succession of Tory MPs criticised the Home Office’s response to the war. Alec Shelbrooke, the Conservative MP for Elmet and Rothwell, demanded the Home Office “get a grip” on processing visa applications for Ukrainian refugees.
“Does the Home Office recognise that this is a war of the likes that has not been seen for 80 years in Europe? We don’t want to stand in this house and listen to plans and processes, we want dates, we want action… This is a disgrace,” he said.
The Conservative MP Julian Sturdy said his York Outer constituents were ready and willing to offer help, adding: “The only barrier to their support seems to be Home Office bureaucracy.
“Now is not the time for box ticking and red tape.”
The former minister Steve Brine, the MP for Winchester, said his constituents believed the government’s response was “far too robotic”.
Labour’s Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, said that while other countries were supporting hundreds of thousands of people, 600 people seeking to reach the UK had been turned back at Calais.
“Most want to stay close to home but some want to come here to join family or friends, and we should be helping them; instead most people are still being held up by our Home Office bureaucracy or being turned away,” she said.
Johnson told the cabinet on Tuesday the UK would be “as generous as we could” in its support for Ukrainian refugees, a No 10 spokesperson said.
The defence secretary, Ben Wallace, earlier admitted the process for bringing Ukrainian refugees to the UK had “not been quick enough” and that it had been made more difficult by sending refugees to Paris from Calais.
Wallace expressed frustration when asked about the issues with visas, and said he was “not the home secretary” but that he had been assured that changes would be made.
Wallace said that the MoD would give operation support to processing visas but acknowledged the process had been flawed.
“It’s difficult for those people – why wouldn’t it be? – to go all the way back to Paris,” Wallace told BBC Breakfast. “We need to upscale it, I know that the home secretary has already doubled, or trebled in some cases, more people in different processing centres. We can do more, we will do more.”