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Ukrainian children will be able to come to the UK without a parent or guardian under the Homes for Ukraine visa scheme, the Government has said.
Unaccompanied minors under the age of 18 will be able to apply for a visa to come to the UK under the sponsorship scheme if they have parental consent.
The new policy will initially apply to more than a thousand unaccompanied minors who have already applied under the scheme.
The PA news agency understands this cohort will be written to this week by the Home Office, but additional security checks may mean it is a few weeks before visas are issued.
The scheme will be open to children who have not yet applied later in the summer, it is understood.
So far, children under 18 have been unable to get to the UK under the Homes for Ukraine scheme unless they are with, or joining, a parent or guardian.
But, for some weeks after the scheme opened in March, there was no mention of under-18s needing to do this in Government guidance, leading to confusion.
The change in position was set out in a written statement by Communities Secretary Michael Gove on Wednesday.
Parental consent must be certified by an authority approved by the Ukrainian government, which includes Ukrainian consulates abroad.
Mr Gove said the sponsor should be someone who is “personally known” to the parents, except in “exceptional circumstances”. They will receive £350 a month as a ‘thank you payment’.
Extensive checks will be carried out by local authorities on the sponsor before a visa is granted, he added, with councils able to veto matches.
They must also commit to host children for up to three years – or until they are 18 and the arrangement has lasted at least six months – in recognition of the need to give children “greater security”.
The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities did not elaborate on what it means by “personally known”.
Refugees minister Lord Harrington said: “We have seen many applications where families want their children to travel to safety in the UK but where parents cannot travel with them.
“We understand families are having to make difficult decisions to separate from their children where it is in their best interest, which is why we have extended the Homes for Ukraine scheme to allow this.
“It is important we took the time to get this right – we have worked across Government and with the Ukrainian Government to find a solution to ensure we can continue offering safety to as many Ukrainians as possible while also welcoming more children into the UK.”
Kitty Hamilton, from the group Vigil for Visas, which is seeking a judicial review of the Government’s policies in processing visas under the scheme, said
the change must be swiftly implemented.
She said: “Most of the children do have notarised authority and were cleared to leave by the Ukrainian government months ago and should not be made to go through the process again.
“These cases now need to be fast tracked as they remain most at risk in the period before they reach their thoroughly vetted sponsor.”
The Local Government Association (LGA) said, while it supports plans to make it easier for children to seek sanctuary in the UK, its priority is keeping children safe.
LGA chairman, Councillor James Jamieson, said: “We do have real concerns about the potential for children to come to stay with adults they don’t know or don’t know well, and we want to ensure there are effective checks in place given there will always be people who abuse these systems and who pose a significant threat to children travelling on their own.
“Any system must include appropriate vetting of the people they will be staying with in advance of travel, the right support for everyone involved, and ongoing checks of children’s safety and wellbeing.”
The Association of Directors of Childrens Services (ADCS) said it is “disappointed” that guidance for councils was not published as the change was announced.
ADCS president Steve Crocker said: “To keep children safe and to ensure their immediate and future needs can be met, it is vital that all the necessary checks are completed prior to visas being issued and that funding is forthcoming before checks are undertaken.
“Should the situation arise where a child’s placement breaks down, the legal status of those children and the role of the local authority needs to be clearly set out in guidance.”