The Lord Harrington Interview: 'I wouldn’t have taken the job on if I thought I was being built up as the patsy'
Lord Harrington earned his stripes before becoming minister for refugees. So why is his Homes for Ukraine scheme beset by criticism?
Having stood down as a Member of Parliament at the 2019 election, Richard (now Lord) Harrington was relaxing in Corfu when he got an unexpected call from Communities Secretary Michael Gove. The government needed urgent help with emergency evacuations from Afghanistan.
Harrington, who had overseen the Syrian resettlement scheme as a Home Office minister in 2015, spent the rest of his holiday on Zoom calls. Seven months later, Russia attacked Ukraine, and Harrington found himself on the phone to Gove again, this time being offered the job of minister for refugees and a seat in the Lords.
“I was not expecting a political career; apart from anything else Boris [Johnson] had taken the whip off me before over spats on Brexit … Although he did have the grace to give it back,” he jokes from his new ministerial office in Marsham Street, SW1.
He’s only been in the role since March, but says it feels as if he has been doing it “half my life, and I’m not exaggerating”. This may be in part due the high-profile nature of his tenure thus far. He has already been rebuked by government for not staying on-message, and his Homes for Ukraine scheme has been beset by delays and safety concerns.
I was not consulted about it. I was informed at the same time everyone else was
Early in the job, he decided to put “his head in the lion’s mouth” and agreed to take part in a radio phone-in, during which he declared there was “no possibility” of sending asylum seekers to Rwanda. A week later Priti Patel unveiled the policy.
“I was not consulted about it. I was informed at the same time everyone else was.”
“Which I have no complaints about,” he adds hastily.
Harrington is now more restrained but, noticeably, will not defend the government’s Rwanda policy, saying only that it’s “not within my remit” before insisting he is happy “dealing with a big project” helping refugees from Ukraine and Afghanistan.
The Homes for Ukraine scheme, which aims to place refugees with appropriate sponsor hosts, has proved a full-time job. When it launched in March, it was greeted with enthusiasm, with around 100,000 would-be sponsors signing up within the first few hours. Gradually, however, that enthusiasm has turned to frustration for hosts and refugees alike.
Harrington, who attributes the delays to the Home Office erring on the side of caution over safety checks, admits the team “did not have the capacity to deal with the demand”. He characterises ministers’ apparent willingness to launch an uncapped refugee scheme before the infrastructure was in place as a benign act, because “they are good-hearted and decent people”.
“I wouldn’t have taken the job on if I thought it was a cynical ploy and I was being built up as the patsy for it not working,” he insists.
He stresses the team is “endeavouring to simplify” the system and that it is “improving by the day”, almost reaching a 48-hour processing target.
Harrington is aware of rumours regarding data losses at the start of the scheme, with people speculating this is one of the reasons some of those who signed up in the first wave didn’t hear back.
“As far as we know there is no lost data … but it was very difficult at the beginning. They had more than they could cope with.”
If the data was lost, would he be aware of it? “I wouldn’t,” he admits.
He says he has no evidence either of claims that predatory single men are using the scheme to target vulnerable women, although there is no bar on lone males applying to be hosts.
Harrington is fully invested in his current role. So much so he has now signed himself up to the scheme. He is curious to “see how the system works” and has used his wife’s maiden name to avoid any special treatment.
What will happen if his application is delayed? “I’m just hoping it won’t,” he says, laughing.
Words by Laura Hutchinson.
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