REPORT OF MEETING with JON FARMER of DERBYSHIRE COUNTY COUNCIL HOMES FOR UKRAINE SCHEME
19 MAY 2023
On February 24th 2022 Vladimir Putin launched a “Special Military Operation” by invading Ukraine for a second time, following the 2014 annexation of Crimea and the east of the country. Whatever your views, it’s had consequences for the rest of the world, not least the outflow of at least 8 million people, mostly women and children, who have headed mainly to European countries including the UK.
The British government at first reacted slowly, but within three weeks had come up with two new visa classes: one for applicants with family in Britain (about 48,000 issued by February this year), and the Homes for Ukraine scheme for independent hosts (116,000). To date over 230,000 visas have been issued though not all have been used. These visas grant “guests” a three-year stay with full access to benefits, healthcare, education and the right to work on arrival, unlike most migrants. Hosts are vetted: they need DBS certificates if children are coming, with checks on gas safety, CO monitors – quite an ask. Nonetheless over 130,000 British hosts did volunteer at the time, and the result is the largest influx of refugees into the UK since WWII.
For its population, Derbyshire has received a substantial number of Ukrainians, with over 1,400 by earlier this year; they are still coming, possibly peaking over 1,600. Two-thirds of the new arrivals have settled in Derbyshire Dales and High Peak council areas, giving us a remarkably high concentration compared with the rest of Britain. And many of the adults have joined the job market, where you will hear their accents in a wide range of employment.
Our speaker Jon Farmer started his working life in the car trade, but soon sought something more fulfilling and trained as a social worker. Before the invasion only 150 refugees, mainly from Syria and Afghanistan. were in the county’s resettlement scheme, so his team was tiny; they were expecting maybe 200 newcomers at most. Then the new arrivals flooded in, often with only one bag, their menfolk not allowed to leave Ukraine, to be collected from airports and stations by complete strangers. A third are children, but they ranged up to a woman of 98; some have disabilities which needed immediate attention. And most of them are still here, and still with their hosts. Two thirds of the adults are now working, adding over 400 to the local workforce. A year on, some are moving into independent accommodation; a few have gone home. But so far, Jon said, only three people in his area have had to declare themselves officially homeless, a remarkable achievement.
He gave us some figures (accurate at May 19): 470 people are in Derbyshire Dales, 250 in High Peak, and probably another 150 – 200 in the family scheme. “There are more Ukrainians in Bakewell than in the City of Leicester,” he said. That’s a surprise, but host households are mostly in rural, prosperous areas where people have spare rooms – plenty of empty nesters round here (“Foster parents are often empty nesters too,” he said). That poses its own problems, particularly transport to work, school, college, social activities, English lessons, or driving lessons (to begin with Ukrainian driving licenses were accepted for only 12 months, but a recent government announcement has extended that to three years). It can also be hard on the Ukrainians, whose demographic is different in the UK to the four million or so who fled to Poland, who are more likely to be “blue-collar” workers. We seem to have attracted the better-educated who were relatively sophisticated city dwellers at home. Being stuck up a hill with a lot of sheep, rain and intermittent wifi is not quite what they were expecting, either.
The pace for Jon’s team has slowed from processing about 4 people a day to about 30 a month – people are still applying to come, perhaps because their friends and family members already in Derbyshire have reported a positive experience. “We had to deal with a torrent of activity,” he said, with issues such as modern slavery (“cash only” employment, or living in a caravan in return for work). The team regularly visit and survey hosts and guests, and are finding that expectations are changing. He explained that, like Syrians who have accepted that they are not going home, Russian speakers from Crimea or eastern Ukraine see that their areas have been devastated and depopulated and won’t return to normal anytime soon; they’re planning to stay in the UK. Those from the west such as Lviv, more lightly touched by the war, are more likely to expect to go home. In some cases they return for visits – “especially for dentistry and health care!” – and to take money. But many see themselves as permanent residents. Some such as single mothers find the social atmosphere here “more charitable” than in Ukraine, which was news to us. His estimate is that about 40% will remain in Britain, and as their English improves, they will move from entry level jobs into something better.
“We’ve got to read the runes,” was Jon’s comment about planning for the future. Sometimes Derbyshire can act with remarkable perspicacity and speed: for example, all hosts got £350 per month tax-free from the government, rising to £500 for the second year but during last winter Derbyshire increased that to £700 on their own initiative, thus helping pay most hosts’ winter fuel bills and reducing the chances of families being chucked out as too expensive to house. Moving on is turning into a real headache however, given the shortage of private rented accommodation and its cost, and the refugees’ lack of a credit rating. He knows of 9 who have been given social housing and about 150 who have obtained a private rental, sometimes sharing with others (my experience is that some renters will particularly favour helping the refugees, whose reputations are easy to check out). However, “Good hosts are similar to supported lodgings, that works really well,” Jon said, so they’d like to retain that as the main option; Jon would like to see the host payment increased to £600 per month for every host, as that would approximate to the post-tax income from a rental, and avoid the hassle of moving.
So what are the problems? English is one, especially as it’s only been taught since independence in 1991, so older folk have none at all, while younger people may be OK with written work but struggle with the spoken language or our local accents! Derbyshire have increased their ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) provision by 500% but are competing with every other county in Britain for staff. In my opinion the current ESOL courses are useless for employment, and I have suggested approaching the Premier League Football Clubs who clearly know how to get foreign players and staff fluent and confident in months. There’s a thorny issue of qualifications transfer: easier for an engineer or scientist where pan-European schemes exist, but at the moment still impossible, say, for a dentist, despite the crying need for them in the NHS.
One questioner asked, what’s this all costing the council? The government pays £10,500 per refugee to the local authority, which for Derbyshire amounts to a hefty £30m; so far they’ve got through about £5million. But it does not cover housing costs, so DCC has allocated money to Borough Councils to help. They would like more hosts to come forward as old contracts come to an end – originally 3,500 hosts volunteered in the county but now they’re down to only 30 available. He pointed out that if a family of 4 become homeless they can cost us up to £10,000 in a week, including the time they need from his staff.
He says he is “haunted” by what can go wrong, and cited the Afghan child who two years ago fell out of an unsecured hotel window. But overall the picture he painted was upbeat; while he’d like more hosts, more public rented housing, he realises “we have to start thinking very creatively.”
It remains to be seen if we can maintain the pattern of mutual benefit that we’ve seen since February 2022. I couldn’t help thinking that we have created a successful template for future international disasters. We can but hope.
If you are interested in applying to be a host, or would like more information, please contact Jon’s team Jonathan Farmer (Corporate Services and Transformation) <Jonathan.Farmer@derbyshire.gov.uk>. And here: https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/homes-for-ukraine-sponsor-guides
Speaking for myself I have found it a fascinating and very positive experience, and am heartily glad I’ve done it, and am still doing it.
Update from Jon Farmer 27/07/2023: “Further to our meeting there is a real move now towards employment-focused ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages), including specific driving test courses and dedicated cultural awareness work, to aid integration. My colleague Tom is also in touch with agencies including football clubs to look at how they absorb non-English speakers within the workplace. I’m also very pleased that we have approval for a number of new schemes, from emergency cash grants, to community banking to funding charitable and community groups which, we hope will give guests more props to help them towards living independently.”