Ukrainian refugees' struggles to get visas are one sign of the UK's broken government – Christine Jardine MP

Like many of my colleagues on the green benches in parliament, I feared the biggest obstacle to providing sanctuary for the millions of innocents fleeing war in Ukraine would be a political one.

We couldn’t help but suspect that this UK Government’s knee-jerk reaction to any immigration debate might cause them to pull up the drawbridge and simply refuse to hear those clamouring for help on the other side.

The debacle of the withdrawal from Afghanistan provided plenty of evidence to support that assumption.

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We are, however, gradually coming to realise that in some ways, we were wrong. It was not the biggest obstacle.

Certainly the government did have to be dragged metaphorically kicking and screaming to the same place as the public who had a near-universal desire to welcome Ukrainian refugees.

But it has turned out to be the delivery of the promise that is proving the bigger, and in many cases, the more frustrating challenge.

We have discovered the visa policy to be very much high rhetoric, and low substance.

As with so many things, the confident, almost adamant statements by ministers at the despatch box mask the challenge faced by those responsible for delivering on those words, and completely fails to recognise the need to resource and support the initiative if it is to succeed.

Refugees fleeing Ukraine may struggle to find sanctuary in the UK because of Home Office red tape and delays (Picture: Angelos Tzortzinis/AFP via Getty Images)

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Every day, MPs’ teams up and down the country are coming up against a brick wall of inability in government departments to get the job done, as our inboxes fill with panic, pleas and plain frustration.

Hour after hour is spent hanging on telephones waiting to be put through to the specialists – UK Visas and Immigration – dealing with arranging for Ukrainians with family or friends in this country to join them. Or even just someone who can explain what paperwork and documentation is needed. So often when they do finally get through, the call provides none of the answers.

The log-jam is made worse by the fact that this is the same line which deals with everyday passport enquiries and visas. And this week just to throw further fuel in the fire, the opening hours and availability are being reduced.

Oh I know, it’s a huge crisis, overwhelming numbers, the number of Covid cases is still causing problems, and all that would be completely understandable and acceptable if this were a one-off.

But it is not.

It is very far from a one-off and gradually approaching the norm. In the almost five years since I was elected, we have had to face long delays in benefit claims, driving licences and all DVLA issues, passports and visas, you name it, even down to overwhelmed council departments whose staff are dealing with huge burdens.

In Westminster, every specialist unit set up to deal with enquiries has seemed to grind to a standstill. The Passport Office. The DVLA. Department for Work and Pensions.

Often, but not exclusively, that has meant that some of our most vulnerable constituents, most in need in of our help, have faced the longest delays.

During Covid, we had to deal with distraught business owners, self-employed people, ordinary families cut off from their loved ones and pushed to the brink by a government inability to respond timeously to their problems.

Oh again the rhetoric was good. The substance again, not so much.

After two years of so much pain, so many memories missed, we assumed we were heading into spring with an actual spring in our step. Restrictions would be lifted and some semblance of normality would return.

Instead it feels for many as if they have simply swapped one cause of pain for another.

Many of the problems are the same. Families kept from long-planned celebrations. Holidays cancelled. Thousands of pounds lost because of delays.

If you wanted a passport before the pandemic, your wait was around three weeks. Now the advice is ten.

Then if you are one of the lucky ones who has their passport issued, courier problems mean you might get it in time, you might not.

It is undeniable that two years of a pandemic has been a huge contributor to backlogs. But where is the foresight? Lost like so many people’s passports, visa applications and driving licences.

We may not be directly at war in Ukraine but the impact is being felt here just as strongly as the pandemic.

Data revealed earlier this month as a result of a Whitehall audit showed in some government departments only 25 per cent of desks were filled. As a result Cabinet Office Minister Jacob Rees-Mogg has called for a rapid return of staff to working in offices.

It is hard to see why there wouldn’t be a correlation between this and what we are seeing.

Now more than ever we need leadership that can actually deliver improvements to people’s lives. At home and abroad.

In order to do that, the nuts and bolts of the day-to-day workings of government must function. We are at the centre of the battle to save lives and help innocents escape from an invading tyrant.

Our civil servants are on the front line and they need the tools to do the job just as our soldiers would do, and our NHS and care staff did for two years.

This is a problem that has a solution should they choose to fix it. We have to hope that they do.

Christine Jardine is the Scottish Liberal Democrat MP for Edinburgh West

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