Government must soon make visa and funding decisions for Ukrainians in UK – NAO

Ukrainian flag Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Ukrainians who fled to the UK from war must be given certainty over their futures including around visa extensions and in the face of rising costs and the risk of homelessness, a report has said.

The National Audit Office (NAO) said the generosity of the public in opening their homes to Ukrainian refugees had allowed the Government to work quickly to help tens of thousands come to safety since March 2022.

But decisions will need to be taken by ministers about future funding and visas and consideration given to the “threat of homelessness as sponsorships end”, according to the head of the body which scrutinises public spending for Parliament.

Gareth Davies, comptroller and auditor general of the NAO, said: “The Government worked quickly to help Ukrainians fleeing conflict, enabled by the generosity of the British people who opened their homes.

“The Government will soon need to take important decisions about the future of the scheme, including whether to extend visas beyond three years, and whether to extend funding for local authorities and sponsors, which currently finishes before visas expire.

“It will also need to carefully monitor key risks, such as safeguarding, and the threat of homelessness as sponsorships end.”

The NAO report, published on Tuesday, said the Government had “successfully supported 131,000 Ukrainians to come to the UK” under the Homes for Ukraine scheme between March 18 2022 and August 28 2023, “meeting Government’s overall objective of bringing Ukrainians to safety”.

It added: “The generosity of the British public in hosting people from Ukraine meant that the Government’s taskforce was able to establish the scheme quickly, and Government put in place arrangements to manage important risks at the start.”

The latest Government figures show that, as of October 9, arrivals via the scheme, which is also known as the Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme, numbered 134,700.

But the NAO said the scheme’s future is “not yet clear”.

The report said: “Because of the uncertainty for Ukrainians in the UK, Government will soon need to make several decisions, including whether to provide thank you payments for the third year of visas, and what additional funding, if any, to provide to local authorities to continue to support the scheme.

“In making its decision, Government will need to also consider the desire of the Ukrainian government for people to return once it is safe for them to do so. Some Ukrainians now have less than 18 months remaining on their visa, introducing new challenges for individuals and local authorities.

“Government will also need to carefully monitor the scheme’s key risks, such as safeguarding, and particularly the threat of rising homelessness as more sponsorships end.”

By the end of August, the report said local authorities had reported to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities that 4,890 households in England on Homes for Ukraine visas had been homeless or were at risk of being homeless.

This was 8% of the 65,117 households in England using the visas, the NAO said.

Since the start of this year, at any one time, roughly 600 to 800 Ukrainian households have been living in temporary accommodation in England, the report said, although the department does not know how many of these households are on the Homes for Ukraine scheme.

“As more sponsorship arrangements come to an end the risk of homelessness is likely to increase,” the report said.

Meg Hillier, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said: “The British public’s support allowed the Government to temporarily support 131,000 Ukrainians seeking refuge from war since March 2022.

“However, today’s NAO investigation shows that more needs to be done to ensure Ukrainians are getting the support they need and prevent rising numbers becoming homeless. Government should also decide quickly on visa extensions to give Ukrainians the certainty they deserve over their futures.”

The Local Government Association, which represents councils, said it has a “huge concern“ around funding and “serious concerns around the growing number of Ukrainians presenting as homeless”.

Its senior vice-chairman, Kevin Bentley, said: “We want to work with Government to review and confirm funding to ensure all families are helped to find permanent homes, jobs and schools and how best to support new and existing sponsors to open up their homes.

“This is alongside the need for urgent and joint solutions to pressing housing needs, given the growing demand from across all the schemes that welcome new arrivals to the UK, as well as broader increases in homelessness and housing pressures locally.”

Earlier this month a survey by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggested more than two-thirds of current hosts under the Homes for Ukraine scheme said the rising cost of living is affecting their ability to provide support for those they have taken in.

Ukrainians who fled the war to seek refuge in the UK are also facing difficulties affording costs, as they try to move into private rented accommodation, the findings suggested.

So-called thank you payments to hosts were £350 a month during the first 12 months but were increased to £500 once the guest has been in the UK for 12 months, in a move by the Government aimed at helping sponsors who can host for longer periods.

A Government spokesperson welcomed the NAO’s “recognition” of efforts to support Ukrainians and said ministers are “grateful to the extraordinary generosity of sponsors across the UK, as well as the hard work of local councils, volunteers and charities”.

They added: “We will provide an update on the future of the scheme well before the first visas expire.”