FAMILIES fleeing the war in Ukraine will be urged to consider settling in rural Scotland amid concerns over a lack of suitable homes across the Central Belt leaving hundreds staying on a cruise ship.

The SNP minister responsible for resettling Ukrainian refugees in Scotland has insisted those fleeing the war will not be sheltered on cruise ships permanently as he suggested families will be encouraged to take up places outwith the country’s larger cities.

But Neil Gray was forced to concede that "much less than half" of those who initially put themselves forward to sponsor a Ukrainian family are still willing to help.

He said: “The initial response was around 20,000 people who said they were willing to put forward their homes.

"But circumstances change, the suitability of their accommodation changes and we’re in a situation where it is now much less than that that we’re working with.”

Mr Gray has also stressed that a contract worth up to £100m to use two cruise ships and hotel rooms as temporary accommodation will have undergone the usual value-for-money checks.

But opposition politicians have warned that without attention from the Scottish Government, the MS Victoria, docked at Leith, could become a “floating refugee camp” by the end of the year.

The vessel has been docked on the Forth for several weeks to provide temporary accommodation for more than 700 families, up to 1,700 people, fleeing the conflict in Ukraine.

There are currently more than 400 children on board.

The move came after the Scottish Government was forced to “pause” its super-sponsor settlement scheme due to a lack of accommodation to meet demand.

Under the policy, the UK Government allowed the Scottish Government to essentially sponsor the refugees themselves to allow families to enter Scotland before homes were found.

But the scheme has been put on pause until at least October due to difficulties in finding refugees permanent homes.

Mr Gray has insisted that the cruise ship will not become a permanent home for those fleeing war.

In Edinburgh, homeless families in temporary accommodation face up to a year waiting for permanent shelter due to a lack of available homes in the capital. The majority of refugees are entering Scotland via Edinburgh Airport.

Referring to the cruise ship, Mr Gray told The Herald that he does not “want this to be in any way permanent”.

He said: “We understand the pressures that there are on housing in some local authority areas others the more of an opportunity.

“That’s why part of my job and part of the job of colleagues in government and local authorities and other partners is to narrate that opportunity that there is elsewhere in Scotland for people to be able to rebuild their lives to take up employment opportunities, access schools, good schools.”

Asked by The Herald if Ukrainian families would have to consider moving to rural parts of Scotland to have better chance of more settled accommodation, Mr Gray said: “We going to look to put forward the opportunities that are there.”

He added: “People are going to have choices to make around where they want to be and base themselves.

“But you know, I’m originally from Orkney and I had all the opportunities that there are elsewhere in Scotland.

“We’ve got, I think we’ve got a job to explain that and to have people understand that isn’t just the Central Belt in Scotland – we’ve got much more beyond that.”

As well as the MS Victoria in Leith, a second vessel, the MS Ambition, will be docked on the Clyde to provide accommodation for up to 1,750 people from next month in 714 cabins.

Both vessels and hotel accommodation being used across Scotland are part of a deal worth up to £100m with the firm Corporate Travel Management.

Asked if he was confident the contract is value for money for taxpayers, Mr Gray stressed that the deal was about “ensuring that we’ve got access to different accommodation”, adding that “all these things have obviously got to go through the normal value for money checks across government”.

Scottish LibDem leader, Alex Cole-Hamilton, who has taken in a refugee himself, has warned an aid worker in Lviv earlier this month “described the Scottish Government as being humiliatingly underprepared” for taking in families.

He added: “As a result of those delays, you’re seeing the goodwill that existed at the start of the war fall away. As the people signed up, they didn’t hear anything, so they took their house off the market.

“I want to see the Scottish Government reiterate the call to homes, to promote it, but also to speed up the checking and bureaucratic process. Otherwise, this may be comfortable now, but by Christmas could be a floating refugee camp.

“And that’s not what I imagined that people who’ve tramped their way across Europe, in hope of safety and new life in Scotland, had in mind.”