Local councils ‘left in the dark’ as Ukraine sponsorship scheme opens

Local authorities say they have been “left in the dark” over what their role is under the Ukraine sponsorship scheme and how they will be resourced to fulfil this as the programme launches.

Councillors and social workers have said they “desperately need more clarity” on the Homes for Refugees programme, which opens today, warning that they have been left to plan without adequate resources or guidance from central government.

The scheme, announced by Levelling Up minister Michael Gove on Monday, will allow Ukrainians with no family links to come to the UK and live in homes offered by members of the public or charities and organisations.

Individuals offering their homes offered a monthly payment of £350 and local councils will receive £10,500 per refugee in the first year. More than 100,000 people have so far come forward to register their interest.

But local authorities say there is confusion around how vital services will be provided to refugees, how safeguarding checks will be carried out on hosts before Ukrainians move in with them and how councils will be consulted about who is arriving in their area, among other concerns.

Cllr Kevin Bonavia, of Blackheath in Lewisham Council, said it had been “still left in the dark” as to how the scheme would work in practice, adding that it “desperately needed more clarity from the government”.

“Local authorities are expected to carry out checks on sponsors’ accommodation, but there’s no clear guidance about the standards they will need to meet or how this additional work will be resourced,” he said.

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“There’s a real concern there about welfare and safeguarding that the government needs to address. We haven’t even been told how many Lewisham residents have registered interest in the Homes for Ukraine scheme – how are we supposed to plan without that sort of information?

“This ad hoc, DIY approach to refugee resettlement only reinforces what many councils like Lewisham have been calling for over several years now: the UK needs a comprehensive refugee resettlement programme, that is designed in partnership with local government.”

Cllr John Cotton, of Birmingham City Council, echoed these concerns, saying: "Councils are picking up the pieces because the government failed to get its act together in the face of a humanitarian crisis.

“We urgently need clarity about how this scheme will work in practice and an assurance that we will get all the resources we need to properly support and welcome refugees from Ukraine.”

A briefing distributed to councils this week by London Councils, which represents the 32 boroughs in the capital, states that there remain “a number of areas” where it requires “clarity and further progress” from central government.

The briefing, seen by The Independent, states that these include how adequate funding will be put in place quickly for services not captured by the £10,500 per person package, such as health provision and schooling, councils’ role in the matching process and how safeguarding checks will be carried out on hosts and councils’ role in this.

It adds that “detailed and regular information” must be shared with councils about who is arriving in their area, including information about family size, gender, dates of birth, details about health and wider support needs, ideally in advance of families arriving in the UK.

Denise, a social worker in Greater Manchester and a member of the British Association of Social Workers, said central government should be doing more to clarify what is expected from social services and what support they will receive.

“It doesn’t seem like a very proactive approach. We’re three weeks into this war and what we’ve got is a website where you can register your interest. Local authorities don’t know what they can expect,” she said.

“The government needs to put some impetus behind this and put resource into the system itself, and that means enabling local authorities to undertake what’s being asked of them. There needs to be more direction and more resource.”

Denise, who did not want her first name to be used, said there was confusion about councils’ role in assessing the quality of housing and the suitability of individuals to be hosts.

When minister for refugees Richard Harrington was asked about this during an evidence session with the Home Affairs Select Committee last week, he said it “may not be possible” to carry out these checks before refugees arrive.

“I’m talking next week, we’re expecting thousands of people to come, but it will be [local councils’] responsibility, and particularly where there are vulnerabilities or children, that will take priority,” Mr Harrington added.

Denise said: “If they are being asked to assess this, that’s a huge task. It can be done, but it has to be made clear very quickly what’s required and it has to be resourced.

“We want to be able to support refugees, but we already know there are pressures on the system, so they need to be clear what the expectation is. Otherwise every local authority will be grappling with the same issues with no framework sitting around it.”

Calling on the government to “step up”, she said: “They could do an awful lot more if they genuinely wanted to. There’s still time, but it needs to be done now. It should have been done weeks ago.”

The Local Government Association (LGA) warned earlier this week that, with new arrivals possibly arriving as early as Sunday, councils were facing a “very tight timeframe to make appropriate safety checks on accommodation being offered”.

Cllr James Jamieson, LGA chairman, said: “There is a limit to what can be achieved by councils in such a short space of time but having up to the minute data from government at the point of sponsor match will be crucial.

“Despite good intentions, there is a risk that some accommodation offered may not meet safety expectations when inspected by councils or sponsorships may break down.”

Announcing the scheme in the House of Commons on Monday, Mr Gove said the government was “building on arrangements” it had with the LGA, and that he had been in touch with individual council leaders to outline the level of support.

“Obviously, we will keep things under review to ensure that local government has what it needs,” he added.

The Independent has a proud history of campaigning for the rights of the most vulnerable, and we first ran our Refugees Welcome campaign during the war in Syria in 2015. Now, as we renew our campaign and launch this petition in the wake of the unfolding Ukrainian crisis, we are calling on the government to go further and faster to ensure help is delivered. To find out more about our Refugees Welcome campaign, click here. To sign the petition click here. If you would like to donate then please click here for our GoFundMe page.