British households will be offered £ 350 a month to provide accommodation for “tens of thousands” of Ukrainian refugees expected to come to the UK under a new visa program unveiled by ministers on Sunday.
The Homes for Ukraine scheme has been devised after strong criticism by MPs and refugee groups that the government has not been generous enough with its help for those fleeing Ukraine after Russia’s invasion, particularly compared to the EU.
Under the new UK scheme, Britons can nominate and sponsor a named Ukrainian or family to stay with them rent free for at least six months.
The Ukrainians coming to the UK will require visas and undergo security checks, and Britons providing accommodation will be vetted.
The people qualifying for visas will be granted three years leave to remain in Britain, and will be able to work as well as secure welfare benefits.
UK households will be asked to provide rent free accommodation to the Ukrainians they sponsor for as long as possible, with the government providing a £ 350 per month “thank you” payment.
The government is calling on landlords, businesses and community groups to also offer accommodation to Ukrainians.
Michael Gove, the levelling up, housing and communities secretary, said he was hopeful that “tens of thousands” of refugees will take advantage of the Homes for Ukraine scheme, which will not have a cap on numbers.
“I would expect that in a week’s time we’ll see the first people coming here under the scheme,” he told the BBC.
Gove added he would personally take in a refugee if personal circumstances allowed and predicted “hundreds of thousands of people” in the UK would express interest in the scheme.
He also confirmed he was exploring the idea of seizing the UK mansions of sanctioned Russian oligarchs to house Ukrainians, but said there was a “high legal bar to cross”.
A website will be launched on Monday for Britons to register their interest in providing accommodation under the Homes for Ukraine scheme.
But the scheme was criticized by the Refugee Council, a charity. “We are concerned that people from Ukraine are still not being recognized as refugees and being asked to apply for visas when they just need to be guaranteed protection,” said chief executive Enver Solomon.
Sir Keir Starmer, Labor leader, accused the government of being “too slow, too narrow, too mean” with its approach to the Ukrainian refugee crisis. “What the government has put in place is an embarrassment to our country,” he told Sky News.
The The EU has responded to the Ukraine crisis by saying people fleeing the country can live in member states for three years without the requirement for visas.
But home secretary Priti Patel has insisted on Ukrainians obtaining visas because of concerns about national security.
An existing visa scheme under which Ukrainians living in the UK can bring over family members got bogged down by bureaucracy, although Patel last week sought to speed it up.
Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, called on the government to drop all visa requirements and described the current visa routes for Ukrainians as “slow and cumbersome”.
The devolved Scottish and Welsh governments have written to prime minister Boris Johnson to request the ability to become “super sponsors” under the Homes for Ukraine scheme that would allow refugees to quickly move to their nations.
Meanwhile, a group of businesses is preparing for talks with the government on Monday about providing jobs and accommodation for thousands of Ukrainian refugees.
The group, which includes retailer Marks and Spencer and recruitment firm Robert Walters, had expanded to 65 companies by Sunday, according to entrepreneur Emma Sinclair, who is acting as co-ordinator.
She said: “The thing that people most need is dignity and independence. So a job or language skills or helping people to resettle is so important versus just getting people over here and then sticking them in mass accommodation with nothing that they can do. ”
Sinclair is working with Refugees at Home, a charity which connects Britons with a spare room in their home to refugees.
Separately, supermarket chains J Sainsbury and Morrisons, online retailer Asos and pubs group Greene King said they were looking at providing jobs for Ukrainian refugees.