People who open their homes to Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion will get £350 a month under a “cash for accommodation” scheme, as ministers try to make amends for the UK’s chaotic response to the crisis.
In a humiliation for Priti Patel, the home secretary, who has been heavily criticised for failing to remove bureaucratic visa requirements for refugees that have been waived by other European countries, fellow cabinet minister Michael Gove announced the plan last night, calling for a “national effort” on behalf of people in desperate need.
Gove, secretary for levelling up, housing and communities said: “The crisis in Ukraine has sent shock waves across the world as hundreds of thousands of innocent people have been forced to flee their homes, leaving everything they know and love.”
Under the scheme Ukrainians who are matched and housed with a UK “sponsor” will be granted leave to remain for three years. They will be able to work, claim benefits and access public services in that time.
The UK-based sponsors, who will be able to register to take in refugees on a website to be launched on Monday, will be asked to provide homes or a spare room rent-free for as a long as they can, with a minimum requirement of six months. Those applying will be vetted and Ukrainian applicants will undergo security checks.
Last night there was some scepticism from refugee experts about whether such a system could work.
Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said the success of the scheme would depend on the fine detail, such as whether households would be given support to look after inevitably traumatised and vulnerable refugees, the vast majority of whom will be women and children.
“These people are going to be highly traumatised and disoriented and you can’t just put them in people’s homes without any expert casework support,” he said.
“It’s a bit like asking people to become foster carers without having a social worker in place. There needs to be good quality specialist support otherwise it risks relationships breaking down. In the long term they will need their own stable accommodation as they may not be able to return to their homeland for a few years.”
While Boris Johnson, the prime minister, has claimed repeatedly that the UK has been leading the international response to the crisis, his government has been widely criticised for its slow response. While Ukrainians faced numerous hurdles when applying to come the UK, they were quickly granted permission to enter EU countries for three years with no visa.
It is understood that Johnson has become increasingly frustrated with Patel on the refugee issue.
After opting to become the only country in Europe to introduce a visa regime for the refugees it emerged last Sunday that just 50 visas had been granted in the 10 days since Russia invaded Ukraine. At the same time the EU had given sanctuary to 1.4 million refugees.
Patel is also under pressure to explain a series of misleading statements made by her and her officials in the past week. In a Sun column Patel wrote she was considering a new route for refugees, but there was no new route. Patel then revealed a visa application centre had been established in Calais, but this was also not the case. On Wednesday, the Home Office said the centre was actually in Lille but would not disclose the location and eventually it emerged there was also no centre there either.
Seventeen days into the invasion, it is understood the Home Office has granted about 1,000 visas – fewer than 60 a day as an average of about 150,000 Ukrainians leave their country daily. Latest data from the UN refugee agency reveals that more than 2.5 million refugees have fled. When the Home Office was asked to provide an update on figures it did not respond.
A previous community sponsorship scheme, largely aimed at welcoming Syrians, has proved relatively slow and bureaucratic with only about 700 individuals receiving such support since 2015. Early indications are that the new scheme will, though, receive far more offers.
An Opinium poll for the Observer suggested that almost one in three Britons may be willing to invite a Ukrainian refugee to live with them. Nine per cent said they would definitely do so, while 20% said maybe.
Yegor Lanovenko of the Opora network, which is helping Ukrainians to reach the UK, said they had started recording interest in the scheme.
“We have started registering interest from sponsors and those looking for sponsorship in anticipation of the government announcing the details and have had over 60 expressions of interest in the last 40 hours despite not even actively advertising this.”
Government sources said the £350 a month payment will not increase if the sponsor takes more than one person or a family. Ministers say they are also working to allow communities, the voluntary sector and organisations such as charities and religious groups to sponsor groups of Ukrainians.
The UK’s chaotic approach to the crisis has prompted numerous calls for Patel to resign. On Saturday the Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey became the latest, describing Patel’s response as “utterly shameful”.
In an apparent admission that the government’s response to the refugees has been inadequate, it was announced last week that Richard Harrington would become minister for refugees to work across the Home Office and Gove’s Department for Levelling Up.
The Observer has been told by sources present at a meeting on Friday – one of Harrington’s first in his new role – that the new minister described its sponsorship approach as a move towards the “privatisation” of the UK’s resettlement programme. The term “didn’t go down well” among many of those present, said the source.