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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid)

Meeting date: Thursday, September 8, 2022


Displaced People from Ukraine

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Annabelle Ewing)

The next item of business is a statement by Neil Gray on displaced people from Ukraine. The minister will take questions at the end of his statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.


The Minister for Culture, Europe and International Development and Minister with special responsibility for Refugees from Ukraine (Neil Gray)

Scotland continues to stand in solidarity with Ukraine and remains committed to supporting Ukrainians who have fled the war.

When we opened the supersponsor scheme, like others around the world, we hoped that the crisis would be quickly and peacefully resolved and that Ukrainians could return to safety. However, we are now more than six months into the conflict and we expect the numbers of people who will find a place of safety in Scotland to continue to increase.

We are now providing safety to more than 16,500 people—18.6 per cent of all United Kingdom arrivals and the highest rate per head of population in the four nations. More than 13,000 people have arrived through our supersponsor scheme, which demonstrates its success.

To date, just under 35,000 visas have been issued to Ukrainians with a Scottish sponsor, many of whom have yet to travel. That compares with more than 85,500 visas that have been issued to those with an English sponsor and 8,000 for Wales. That far exceeds our initial commitment to welcome 3,000 people under the supersponsor scheme, which we introduced so that people could travel to a place of safety without needing to find a named private host.

We want to ensure that we are able to support displaced people who are already living here, as well as the thousands who might arrive in the coming weeks and months. Therefore, in July, we took the very difficult decision to pause the scheme, in order that those who had already applied could be provided with our warm Scottish welcome.

The sharp rise in applications to the Scottish scheme at the start of the summer highlights, first, the scheme’s undoubted success and popularity and, secondly, the fact that routes into other parts of the UK were—and are still becoming—harder to come by. Our colleagues in Wales, understandably, took the difficult decision to pause their scheme in June, and private matches across the UK have become scarcer.

We have taken steps to ensure that we can house as many Ukrainians as possible in safe, suitable, welcoming accommodation. As part of that response, we have rapidly mobilised a passenger ship in Edinburgh, which is successfully providing temporary accommodation for up to 2,200 people, with wraparound support, including from Ukrainian-speaking crew. The Ukrainian consul general welcomed the ship, and we have since secured a second, with capacity for a further 1,750 people. It docked in Glasgow last week; the inspection that we requested by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency is complete; any issues that were raised are being resolved; and the MCA will return to confirm that ahead of the first guests being welcomed aboard in the next few days.

Countries including the Netherlands, France and Estonia are also using ships to provide a place to live for people who are fleeing war. I visited the Glasgow vessel yesterday, MSPs visited the Edinburgh vessel the other week, and the media have also been aboard and spoken to guests.

Any fair-minded person who visits the ships or sees the television coverage would conclude that both ships are comparable with hotel accommodation. They provide easy access to support in a centralised, safe space, as well as services from children’s play facilities to social security support.

To anyone who questions that safe and secure—but temporary—arrangement, I ask what credible alternative they would offer that would safely support the thousands of people whom we are able to accommodate, and who have arrived within a matter of months, while we work to support people into longer-term homes.

We want accommodation and support as part of our warm Scottish welcome to be as good as it can be. That is why we recently contracted with the Palladium Group—an organisation with specialist experience in humanitarian support interventions, planning and logistics—to provide broad support to enhance our delivery and the experience of displaced Ukrainians.

Our support has been rolled out at pace, with co-operation across national and local government, as well as the voluntary and third sectors, to which I offer thanks for their efforts.

We are grateful to everyone across Scotland who has offered rooms and properties to host Ukrainians. Scottish local authorities are working to conduct the necessary person and property checks for volunteer hosts. To hosts who have not yet had all those checks completed, we appreciate your patience while local authorities undertake them.

After potential accommodation is checked, the matching process that occurs is, by its nature, resource intensive, because multiple and often highly sensitive conversations are required with the displaced person and the potential host. Not all properties will be suitable for all households. A family with children might need more space, while some hosts are offering one spare room.

We know, too, that, for understandable personal or work reasons, some families have been reluctant to stay outside the central belt. Matching has progressed more slowly than I would wish, and I continue to urge local authorities to complete checks as quickly as possible, drawing on the £11.2 million of funding that we have made available.

The challenges that are inherent in such a large and tragic displacement of people, which I have seen for myself when visiting Poland and Germany, are being felt all over Europe, both in providing short-term accommodation and in helping people to move into sustainable longer-term accommodation. Scotland shares that experience and, along with our partners, we are taking action to improve and increase our support.

We have funded additional staff in local authorities to speed up the process of matching people to suitable accommodation. We are rolling out a new digital matching tool to support that, and we are planning a fresh exercise to recruit hosts, implementing what we have already learned to make it easier for people to offer homes that match Ukrainians’ needs. We are introducing a user-friendly application form, which will quickly advise on a property’s suitability, which will mean more certainty for people who are offering accommodation and will help local authorities to direct resources and efforts towards housing that is most likely to support a match.

We are also working with social landlords and partners to secure additional longer-term housing. That is in addition to the 300 homes that are being made available through the Wheatley Housing Group Ltd and the refurbishment of 200 properties in North Lanarkshire.

We are mindful that the people whom we are supporting are fleeing war, and we are listening to Ukrainians about their experiences in Scotland and hopes for the future. In engagement events with Ukrainians, we heard that, like all of us, they are keen to see their children enrolled in school, to register with a general practitioner and to find work. Accordingly, those are key parts of our response for new arrivals, both when they are in temporary accommodation and as they move into longer-term homes.

The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills and Councillor Tony Buchanan, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities spokesperson for children and young people, wrote jointly last week to all directors of education affirming Ukrainian children’s right to education and setting out available support, including specialist modules for teachers to support pupils who are dealing with trauma.

Ukrainians who are here through the homes for Ukraine, Ukraine family or Ukraine extension schemes and who want to study at a college or university in Scotland from this academic year will be eligible for free tuition and living cost support. For those who want access to English language classes, in addition to Scottish Government English for speakers of other languages funding through colleges, we are calling on the UK Government to make the £850 per adult ESOL tariff that is provided for Afghans and Syrians available to Ukrainians, too.

We have made sure that displaced Ukrainians are able to access the Scottish Government’s full range of employment support services, such as fair start Scotland and employability services that are offered with local authorities and local employability partnerships. Work coaches from the Department for Work and Pensions are also providing vital support.

The Scottish Government is working closely with business organisations, including the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, to ensure that Ukrainians are able to access business-led job-matching support as well. We are also providing health services, to ensure that Ukrainians understand how to access primary care, and providing advice on and access to Scottish social security benefits. All pregnant women and families with young babies are entitled to a baby box, with boxes being ready at major welcome hubs for new arrivals in need.

Beyond those formal activities, as part of evident solidarity with Ukraine, we have seen people across Scotland bring our warm Scottish welcome to life. From offering up their homes to fundraising and donating toys, people here have embraced people arriving from Ukraine. Equally, we have seen the community spirit of Ukrainians arriving in Scotland, although we know that they want it to be a temporary home.

We do more than provide support to those we welcome here: we are providing £4 million in humanitarian aid to provide humanitarian assistance in Europe, including health, water and sanitation, and shelter for those who are fleeing Ukraine. We are working with the Ukrainian Government to provide medical supplies worth around £2.9 million and £65 million in military support.

As announced in the programme for government, we will build on that by investing a further £300,000 in a project led by the HALO Trust to respond to the risk of explosive remnants of war in Ukraine, thereby enhancing security and reducing the risk of death and injury.

Scotland’s response to this Europe-wide challenge has been remarkable—our whole-hearted response displays the best of us. I thank all those who have played their part to respond as quickly and effectively as possible to this humanitarian crisis.

While we continue to welcome and prepare for those who are still to arrive, we reiterate our call for the end of Russia’s illegal invasion and the restoration of peace in Ukraine.

Finally, I have a direct message for our friends from Ukraine: Shotlandiya—vash dim, i vona bude nym doty, doky vam tse bude potribno. Scotland is your home and will be for as long as you need it to be.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

The minister will now take questions on the issues raised in his statement. I intend to allow around 20 minutes for questions, after which we will move on to the next item of business. If would be helpful if members who wished to ask a question were to press their request-to-speak buttons now.

Donald Cameron (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

I thank the minister for the advance sight of his statement. I associate members on the Conservative benches with his opening remarks.

The daily horror that we continue to witness in Ukraine as a result of Putin’s invasion remains deeply troubling and must continue to be condemned. The UK remains a firm friend and ally of Ukraine, and I am pleased that the new Prime Minister has reaffirmed our commitment to supporting Ukraine and its people in any way that we can.

People across Scotland have opened their doors to families who are fleeing Ukraine, and that generous spirit continues even in these trying times. The minister’s statement shows that 35,000 sponsored visas have been issued in Scotland, but only 13,000 people have arrived under the supersponsor scheme, which implies that more than 20,000 sponsored refugees have yet to arrive here. In other words, we might soon be seeing refugee numbers increase significantly.

Last month, the minister stated that more than half of Scots who had expressed an interest in hosting Ukrainians have withdrawn that interest, which is concerning. I appreciate that this is a fast-moving situation, but there are clearly significant issues the supersponsor scheme.

Given the need to provide certainty to refugees, hosts and local authorities, what information can the minister give on the amount of time that it will take from a refugee arriving in Scotland to their being physically placed with a sponsor?

Neil Gray

I thank Donald Cameron for the introduction to his question and the tone with which he has approached the situation.

On the point that I made about there being available less than half of those who had initially expressed an interest in being private hosts for a displaced Ukrainian, Mr Cameron suggests that all those people have withdrawn. There are various reasons why people have either withdrawn or their property has not been found to be suitable—either they or their properties might not have passed checks. There are number of different reasons why we are fishing in a pool that is smaller than had been initially anticipated.

On timescales, as I set out in my statement, we are looking for people to be in temporary accommodation for as short a period as possible. I am very grateful and thankful for those who have already provided sponsorship in private homes and those who are still willing to do so. As I said in my statement, I am keen for people to remain patient while the checks are completed and the process is sped up.

I think that Mr Cameron and I would agree that staying in somebody else’s home will be, by its nature, a temporary situation. That is why, as I set out in my statement, we are looking to get more longer-term accommodation available as quickly as possible, and the review that is taking place during the scheme’s pause is looking to achieve that. There are a number of steps that I hope we will be able to take in short order to help achieve that.

Sarah Boyack (Lothian) (Lab)

I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests.

I thank the minister for the advance sight of his statement and for his willingness to engage with MSPs on a cross-party basis since the invasion of Ukraine in February. I also put on record my thanks to the Ukrainian community in Edinburgh and across Scotland, to those who have volunteered to host Ukrainians in their homes and to the third sector organisations and charities. Last but not least, in my own area of Edinburgh, I thank the City of Edinburgh Council for the fantastic work that it has done not just through its staff in the arrival hub—which has been crucial—but in the schools, and I thank our businesses across the city that have opened their arms to help.

Where is the investment now to support our councils across the country? Why are we not seeing more forward planning, given that it is six months on from the invasion? The issue of support for people from Ukraine is centre stage for our councils, and they need support now to deliver the homes, to work with communities and to provide the schools, the help with transport costs, the access to English courses and the advice that will enable Ukrainians to recover. Being in a warm home, having access to the support that they need and, crucially, being able to use their skills and knowledge to work and support themselves and their families is what those people who have arrived in Scotland want and need now.

Yesterday, the Deputy First Minister said that the cost of supporting Ukrainians requires us to

“find around £200 million, which was not planned for at the time of the budget, just as the invasion began.”—[Official Report, 7 September 2022; c 25.]

Will the minister clarify how the investment will take place? He mentioned an investment in 500 more homes, but do we not need many more new homes than that? For example, in the case of City of Edinburgh Council, there are £1 million-worth of unfunded one-off costs across the piece and more than £5 million-worth of unfunded recurring costs. When will councils get the money that has been promised for supporting Ukrainians? Councils are providing support now and they desperately need the investment.

Neil Gray

I thank Sarah Boyack, and I reiterate her thanks to all those whom she addressed in her remarks, not least City of Edinburgh Council, with which I have had an incredibly good working relationship. The council has gone above and beyond, as have many other local authorities. Obviously, given the nature of where Ukrainian people are arriving, our involvement with Edinburgh council has been intensive, and I am greatly appreciative of its officers and teams for everything that they have done.

On direct council support, Sarah Boyack will be aware of the £11.2 million that we made available early on to allow local authorities to ensure that accommodation could be made available and to support them through the matching process. We have provided additional funding to local authorities of £1 million for welcome arrangements.

Sarah Boyack will also be aware of the £10,500 tariff that the UK Government is responsible for. I have taken the representation that has been made to me by local government on the adequacy of that sum, and I have sought to do what I can to appeal to UK ministers to invest more than £10,500. I have also appealed to them to provide parity of support, regardless of the scheme that Ukrainian people have arrived on—which might be the homes for Ukraine scheme or the family scheme—to ensure that our local authorities are adequately supported through the process.

As always, I am more than happy to engage further—as Sarah Boyack alluded—with her, her council colleagues in Edinburgh or councils elsewhere if there are challenges that require further Scottish or UK Government intervention.

Fulton MacGregor (Coatbridge and Chryston) (SNP)

Given that the vast majority of displaced Ukrainian people who have come here are women and children, and given that many of them are being housed together in high-rise flats such as those in Coatbridge, in my constituency, what steps are being taken by the Scottish Government to ensure that that vulnerable group of people are being afforded the best security and support as they settle in Scotland?

Neil Gray

I thank Fulton MacGregor for not only his question but his proactive engagement in the on-going work in North Lanarkshire. I also thank North Lanarkshire Council for its work. It was proactive in coming forward about the potential for those properties to be refurbished.

Ensuring the wellbeing and safety of displaced people arriving from Ukraine is our absolute priority, which we set right at the start of our scheme. Through our supersponsor scheme, we are ensuring that people are able to stay in appropriate temporary accommodation and receive the right support before moving on to safe and sustainable longer-term accommodation that meets their needs.

An initial triage of all guests’ needs takes place at the welcome hub. Local authorities are equipped to support the individual needs of displaced people and are best placed to direct people to local advice services for women and children. We have provided £1.3 million to the Scottish Refugee Council to support arriving Ukrainians, many of whom have experienced significant trauma.

I reiterate to Fulton MacGregor—and other members—that, if there is anything further that I can do through engagement that would be helpful to him and the community in his constituency, I will be happy to do that.

Sharon Dowey (South Scotland) (Con)

Home Office figures show that only 75 Ukrainians have arrived in South Ayrshire, but council officials tell me that the real figure is closer to 500, with the bulk of arrivals occurring through the supersponsor scheme and with people staying in temporary accommodation.

Councils want to help, but many are close to breaking point. They need more help and more information about the timing and quantity of arrivals. What efforts is the minister making to improve communication with local authorities so that they can best co-ordinate their response?

Neil Gray

We, too, are reliant on information that comes through the Home Office and Border Force about potential arrivals. We proactively try to contact people who have received a visa, in order to get more intelligence on when they might arrive and to find out, ahead of their arrival, what their requirements will be.

As I said in previous answers, we are working very closely with local authorities to ensure that we give them as much information as we can, so that they can prepare for those arrivals. If the member has particular concerns on behalf of her local authority that she wants to pass on, I will be more than happy to do what I can to assuage those concerns.

What provisions are being made to ensure that Ukrainians are supported when homes for Ukraine hosts are no longer in a position to host after the initial six-month period?

Neil Gray

The UK Government is contacting hosts who are approaching six months of hosting Ukrainians under the homes for Ukraine private sponsorship route to encourage them to consider extending their hosting. I encourage any Ukrainians who will not be staying with their current host to speak to their local authority about what support is available in their local area.

Although it is a three-year visa scheme, so far the UK Government has confirmed funding for only one year. We continue to urge the UK Government to provide clarity on the funding of future years of the scheme. I support the now former minister for refugees Richard Harrington’s recent call for the UK Government to double thank-you payments for hosts to £700. Evelyn Tweed can be assured that I will look to have an early meeting with the new minister who has responsibility for Ukrainian refugees, and with Treasury ministers, to ensure their continued support for the schemes.

Mark Griffin (Central Scotland) (Lab)

Is the minister able to say whether he is happy with the level of communication and co-ordination between national and local government? I have heard from council colleagues examples of situations in which the level of communication has not been up to scratch. For example, when busloads of displaced Ukrainian people went to Dumfries and Galloway late in the night, officials at Dumfries and Galloway Council got very late notice of that. Occasionally, Ukrainian parents and children have turned up at schools on the first day of term, with the relevant authorities having been given no prior notice that those children were to start term that day.

Has the minister had any information from local authorities about instances of homelessness as a result of hosts no longer being able to accommodate Ukrainian families?

Neil Gray

I thank Mark Griffin for his questions. As he will understand and expect, I have regular meetings, correspondence and engagement directly with individual local authorities and through COSLA, as do my officials. I put on record my thanks to the whole team of officials in the Scottish Government, who have bent over backwards, done everything possible and thrown all their energies at making sure that the scheme works well. I pay tribute to them, alongside local authority officials. The relationship between officials at the Scottish Government and local authorities is very strong.

With regard to the issue of last-minute arrivals that we have not been aware of, the nature of the scheme—because we do not have overall control of the visa system—is such that there will be points at which there will be communication difficulties. I again put on record my thanks to the hosting authorities for the work that they are doing. We are sharing all the information that it is possible for us to share with local authorities on family composition to ensure that authorities can plan as effectively as possible. The welcome hubs at arrival points are important for that, although not everybody comes through the welcome hubs.

If there are specific issues that Mark Griffin wants to raise with me about those areas or any areas in which he feels that we could do better, I will be more than happy to hear from him about that at any stage, and I will do what I can to ensure that the necessary improvements are made.

I point out that another six members hope to ask questions, so I make a plea for more succinct questions and answers.

John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

Questioners have already mentioned a variety of accommodation that might work for Ukrainian displaced people, such as private homes, the ships and council accommodation. Can the minister give any examples of what kinds of accommodation he is looking for? For example, would small bed and breakfasts and hotels be an option?

Neil Gray

John Mason is pithiness personified.

Work to procure a range of accommodation to meet the needs of people from Ukraine continues. This humanitarian crisis requires a whole-Scotland response. The Scottish Government has sourced suitable temporary accommodation for displaced people, including hotels, apartments, student accommodation and passenger ships.

What is key to decisions about the temporary accommodation that can be used is ensuring that appropriate support can be put in place by local authorities for those who are accommodated. Beyond immediate temporary accommodation for the thousands of people who have arrived in the past few months, we are working closely with councils and the housing sector to bring forward more long-term housing solutions in addition to the 300 homes that are being made available by the Wheatley Group and the refurbishment of properties in North Lanarkshire.

Alex Cole-Hamilton (Edinburgh Western) (LD)

On behalf of the Liberal Democrats, I state our grave concern about the health of Her Majesty the Queen. I also refer members to my entry in the register of interests about my association with the homes for Ukraine scheme.

The minister said that there are tens of thousands of Ukrainians already here and tens of thousands still on the way. I am not sure that we are ready for them. I am very concerned that so many are yet to be matched with accommodation. I went with the minister to visit the ship that he described and was very impressed, but it is not a permanent solution and is certainly not what Ukrainians will have had in mind as they made their way across Europe.

We need more homes, but we also need the means for Ukrainians to move between those homes and opportunities for work and training. Will the minister reiterate the call for homes for Ukrainians, because many people thought that that call had ended with the closure of the supersponsor scheme? Will he also enrol not only Ukrainian refugees but any refugees who are here through a particular scheme in the discretionary travel scheme, so that they can move between their new accommodation and job opportunities? The distance between home and work may be one of the main reasons why people do not wish to move outside the central belt.

Neil Gray

I am glad that Alex Cole-Hamilton was impressed by the accommodation that has been offered on board the MS Victoria, which is currently docked at Leith. To pick up on what Sarah Boyack said, I think that the work that has been done by City of Edinburgh Council, Scottish Government officials, third sector organisations and the shipping company to provide a superb wraparound support service is incredible, and I am greatly appreciative of all who have been involved in doing that.

I reiterate and share Alex Cole-Hamilton’s suggestion that that is a temporary solution. Of course it is. We are working to provide longer-term accommodation as best we can. I do not think that it is fair of him to characterise Scotland as being somehow uniquely underprepared in comparison with other European nations. This is a Europe-wide crisis: 7 million people have been displaced in the greatest movement of people since the second world war. Every nation in Europe is facing that challenge—not grudgingly, but willingly—and we are doing everything possible to provide safety, security and support for people arriving from Ukraine. I look forward to further constructive work with Alex Cole-Hamilton to ensure that we can continue to do so.

The minister has spoken of boosting the national matching service where he can to speed up the transition from temporary accommodation. Will he elaborate on how matching can sustainably be accelerated?

Neil Gray

We are bringing forward a new digital solution that we hope will speed up the matching, and we also look to learn lessons from the initial wave of people who expressed an interest in hosting, in order to provide more streamlined systems for those who want to offer their homes. I again express my gratitude for the generosity of people across Scotland.

It is important to recognise that matching people with hosts is a complex process and that time must be taken to ensure that the needs of both the host family and the Ukrainians are met and that both are suitably supported to make decisions that are right for them. We have made £11.2 million of additional funding available to local authorities to use to bolster their resettlement teams, enhance the pace of host checks and support the refurbishment of properties. We have also funded additional staff in local authorities to speed up the process, and, as I said, we are looking to introduce a new digital tool to support the matching process.

Maggie Chapman (North East Scotland) (Green)

I thank all those across Scotland who have opened their hearts and homes to Ukrainians who have been through a traumatic and life-changing few months. Will the minister provide more detail about the trauma support that is in place in schools and elsewhere, given that we know that trauma is not processed in the same way by everyone and that it often takes time to come to the surface?

Neil Gray

Maggie Chapman is absolutely right: everybody will be impacted differently by the trauma that has been experienced in this horrific war at Putin’s hand. People will also display the symptoms of their trauma in different ways and at different times. As I said in my statement, we are looking to provide further support for our school staff to ensure that they are able to recognise that and deal with it. We are also working with other organisations to ensure that, as best we can, we are able to provide further trauma support as and when it is required.

Can the minister outline further details of how the HALO Trust project will be delivered?

Neil Gray

We have provided £300,000 to the HALO Trust so that it can clear munitions of war that have been laid in Ukraine, in order to provide greater safety and security for those who are looking to rebuild their communities. Given Mr Golden’s interest in the area, I would be happy to write to him with further details of the support that we are providing there.

Jenni Minto (Argyll and Bute) (SNP)

The Scottish Government has been tireless in acquiring safe and comfortable temporary accommodation for Ukrainians who have newly arrived in Scotland, with the assistance of councils such as Argyll and Bute Council in my area. The minister touched on this in answering previous questions, but can he provide any additional information on the on-going dialogue with COSLA and local councils to ensure that all levels of government in Scotland are working closely on this immense and important challenge?

Neil Gray

Jenni Minto can be reassured that we are working very closely with both COSLA and individual local authorities, because they are playing a key part in the response to this humanitarian crisis. We value the important part that they are playing in our warm welcome and we are in close and on-going communication with them.

This is a humanitarian crisis that requires the whole of Scotland to respond collectively. We are working closely with local authorities and COSLA to speed up the matching process, including by enhancing teams to boost capacity and exploring creative solutions to bring forward longer-term accommodation.

The Scottish Government, COSLA and local authority officials have been working jointly over August on a rapid review of the supersponsor scheme to provide more input, to make the scheme even more successful and sustainable and to provide a welcome to the thousands of Ukrainians whom we expect to arrive in the coming weeks and months. I look forward to setting out the detail of the response of that review in the coming period.