19 April 2022

My Kafka-esque ‘Homes for Ukraine’ struggle exposes the Government’s deeper malaise

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Like its bedfellow ‘Orwellian’, the description of something as ‘Kafka-esque’ has been rendered trite to the point of meaningless by its overuse as a political pejorative. Yet how else can one explain the experience of trying to sponsor a refugee via the Government’s Homes for Ukraine scheme?

Like Josef K. in Kafka’s The Trial, I’ve a few skirmishes with something that vaguely resembles an administrative process. Newham Council have been round to measure my rooms and check my smoke alarms. Following that – and not a moment before, naturally – a vetting company has approached us to begin the process of security, or ‘DBS’, checks. But as was helpfully pointed out to me online by Alicia Kearns, a Conservative member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, as far as the main objective is concerned – getting the family I am sponsoring from Poland to Britain quickly – none of this actually matters. According to the Government, getting the visa approved is in fact an entirely separate process. The Ukrainian family can board a flight as soon as the visa is granted and that is apparently not contingent on either the DBS or the council-run home checks.

The Czech writer himself could hardly have invented such a bureaucratic labyrinth. The Government’s position is that the process is necessarily slower due to the need to run important checks on domestic security and the safety of sponsees. And given the reports from one Glaswegian housing charity that some British men have been trying to offer their homes in exchange for sex, that does not strike me as an entirely unreasonable position. However, should you try to register complaints about the speed or urgency of these checks, you are told that they are not strictly necessary as far as the visa is concerned. In fact, today, in what can only be described as the Kafka-esque coup de grâce, the Home Office refused to take personal delivery of a letter from some mild-mannered but frustrated putative sponsors, complaining about the lack of urgency.

To recap for those less embroiled in this saga, the Homes for Ukraine scheme is the Government’s flagship policy for the resettlement of refugees fleeing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, launched to much fanfare on March 18. The war has displaced up to 10 million people, with over 4 million fleeing Ukraine, the vast majority of whom now reside in the European Union countries to Ukraine’s west. Poland, for example, has taken in over 2.5 million people.

Yet whereas refugees are free to settle anywhere in the EU for the next three years, to access a similar offer in Britain – the scheme grants an incoming refugee indefinite leave to remain for three years – involves running an administrative gauntlet of checks and documents. Some of this has recently been streamlined, in a belated acknowledgement of the fact collating a detailed proof of address history is perhaps not uppermost on your mind when fleeing Russian cruise missile attacks on your city. Still, the UK process remains a world leader in pettifogging pedantry. As a result, latest figures show that just 55,600 Ukrainians have applied to the scheme in the UK. Of those, less than half have received approval, with only 3,200 having arrived in the country to take up the offer. The rest, like us, find themselves staring blankly into the Home Office void.

As for why the UK has failed so dismally on this, it is hard to know where to begin. Diplomatic scruples can be easily dismissed – the UK has looked comparatively decisive in all other theatres of the conflict. For the Guardian journalist Rafael Behr – a fellow potential sponsor – the situation contains all the flaws of the Johnson administration in a microcosm. A news-driven crisis emerges, the Government responds with a sloganeered plan, which typically collapses as ‘rhetoric must somehow be lifted off the page’ and the ‘news caravan’ moves on. Meanwhile, others prefer to point the finger at a department – the Home Office – that is singularly unfit for purpose. Even this moment of gargantuan geopolitical significance cannot encourage it to shake off its bureaucratic shackles or design policies around the real life experience of incoming refugees.

However, in one sense these two analyses may yet collapse into one another. For an important by-product of the Behr argument is that the Government, blown about by media events as it is, seems incapable of providing a proactive reform agenda. Thus, in the gap where economic or public service reform could lie, the Government could easily become defined by the success or otherwise of its operational departments – chief amongst them the Home Office. Indeed, whatever else anyone thinks about the Rwandan deportation policy, it is easily the most definitional domestic policy announcement the Government has made for months.

Make no mistake: this is a bad place for the Government to find itself. Whether it is queues of exasperated holiday makers at airports, lorryloads of rotting goods stuck outside UK ports, asylum seekers travelling across the Channel or the fiasco of Homes for Ukraine, the fingerprints of the Home Office’s bureaucratic incompetence are visible everywhere. There is no pithier way of putting it. The Government needs to get a grip.

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Alan Lockey is a former adviser to a Labour MP.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.