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Families of Commonwealth Soldiers

Volume 655: debated on Tuesday 5 March 2019

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Amanda Milling.)

I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to raise this issue. Let me begin by paying tribute to all the men and women who serve in our armed forces. They put their lives on the line to protect ours and those of millions of people around the world.

My constituency is home to Fort George, the Black Watch, 3rd Battalion, and 500 soldiers. To them, and each and every one of the others, we owe a debt of gratitude for their service. That, of course, includes more than 6,000 men and women serving in the armed forces from foreign and Commonwealth countries, a number that is set to increase as the Army embarks on yet more recruitment campaigns across the Commonwealth.

In response to the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith), the Defence Secretary has said:

“We expect up to 1,350 Commonwealth citizens to join our armed forces next year.”—[Official Report, 26 November 2018; Vol. 650, c. 3.]

Like any other soldiers, sailors and aircrew, they will put their lives on the line in our service, and they will do so under the direction of this Government’s Ministry of Defence. Reflected in their service is the sacrifice also made by their families, who will find themselves affected. They are sometimes uprooted, and often left with the anxiety of knowing that their loved ones are doing a difficult and dangerous job.

I thank the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) for securing this debate; I have always wanted to say that right, and I have had the luck to do so. The hon. Gentleman has been very outspoken and diligent in taking this matter forward. Does he agree that we have a duty of care to those who fight for Queen and country in whatever form that takes, that that extends to the family of service personnel and that it is outrageous that it is not currently discharged as well as he and I would expect?

Absolutely; my hon. Friend makes a great point. As I was going on to say, the sacrifice is also made by the families. They have the anxiety of their loved ones doing a difficult and dangerous job, yet their sacrifices often go untold.

As the Army Families Federation has said,

“Commonwealth members of our Armed Forces make up a significant and vital part of the UK’s Defence capability and, as a nation, we ask them to make significant sacrifices to do so.”

Is it right that the sacrifices they make in undertaking the duty of service should mean being kept apart from their families? No, it is simply not right; yet it is continually happening. The current immigration rules are keeping Commonwealth soldiers apart from their families. The report from the AFF reads:

“The UK recruits soldiers from across the Commonwealth to serve in our Armed Forces. There are currently over 6,000 personnel serving in the UK Armed Forces from foreign and Commonwealth countries, with more being recruited each year to fill technical and specialist roles.

Since December 2013, those who leave their country of origin to serve our nation are subjected to the Government’s minimum income requirements if they wish to bring their immediate family with them.

This requirement means that due to military pay scales, a Commonwealth soldier with a spouse and two children can end up waiting up to six years before they earn over the £24,800 needed for their family to join them.

It cannot be right that those who have signed up to defend our nation by serving in the Armed Forces are doing so at the expense of their family life. The current situation can result in personnel making the heart-breaking decision of choosing which child they bring with them to the UK and which they leave behind until their income has increased. The MIT should be removed as a barrier from those who serve in the Armed Forces.”

Louise Simpson, chair of the Cobseo Foreign and Commonwealth cluster, has said:

“We struggle to engage with recruiters to make sure that soldiers and service personnel understand the financial commitment that they have when coming to the UK particularly around the cost of visas and the minimum income requirements. There was a lot of press…about soldiers not understanding that they may not be able to bring their children in for almost 4 years because they are not earning the right amount of money. As an organisation, we feel that is immoral”.

She is right; that is immoral. This Government must accept that fact.

The hon. Gentleman is doing the armed forces a great service. Does he agree that we must remember that these Commonwealth soldiers put their lives on the line just like British soldiers and therefore should be treated in the same way as British soldiers in terms of family, instead of having this limit of £24,000 and waiting for six years?

I absolutely and fundamentally agree. It is a disgrace that people are being asked to put themselves on the line and at risk without qualifying for the same conditions as others enjoy just because they were born in one of the nations of the UK.

In 2011 the Government announced plans to introduce a new policy on family migration. One of the major changes was to make the level of income threshold

“higher than that of the safety net of income support.”

Subsequently, the armed forces immigration rules introduced in the first quarter of 2013 closely aligned themselves to the rules for non-military and introduced the requirement for a soldier with one child to be earning at least £22,400 and a further £2,400 for each additional child. It could be many years before a recruit earns the salary needed to meet the threshold.

In 2011, the Government enshrined the armed forces covenant in statute. The Army Families Federation and the Cobseo Foreign and Commonwealth cluster group have urged the Government to consider the principles of the covenant with regard to the family needs of Commonwealth personnel. Commonwealth recruits find it very difficult to hold down a second job, due to their irregular hours. They also stand alone as a cohort within the armed forces, in that they are forcibly separated from their immediate dependants on recruitment, unlike their domestic peers.

In August 2014, the Prime Minister announced the introduction of a family test to be applied by Departments when devising policy. The guidance and documentation for the test state:

“Strong and stable families, in all their forms, play an important role in our society. Families have a major impact on the life chances of individuals and strong family relationships are recognised as an important component of individual, community and national wellbeing.”

While we think about those words, let us consider the case study of an Army private who enlisted in 2013, just prior to the new rules coming into effect. He had not even had the chance to bring his family to the UK, as he had not finished training. He has two children and a wife back home in Ghana, and he has been separated from them for six years. He is now earning enough to bring his wife and one of his children to the UK, but it will be another two to three years before he can bring his other child here. He is faced with the agonising decision of choosing which child should join him and his wife in the UK. How can that be right?

The family test sets out a number of questions that Departments should apply when devising policies that risk affecting families. Those questions include:

“What impacts will the policy have on all family members’ ability to play a full role in family life, including with respect to parenting and other caring responsibilities?”

The previous Chief of the Defence Staff commented in the Ministry of Defence’s 2016 strategy that our personnel could fully carry out their defence tasks only if they had the support of their families and the confidence that their loved ones would be able to access the right support when required.

In September 2017, a soldier who had been refused a visa for the UK as a result of the minimum income threshold appealed, with the assistance of the Army Families Federation, on the basis of exceptional circumstances. The judge said that the appeal was successful in the light of the compassionate circumstances of the case, particularly noting that the sponsor had a legitimate expectation that he would be able to bring his family to the UK when he signed up to the armed forces in 2017. He said:

“I find that it is not in the public interest to exclude the appellant”.

It is time to amend the existing immigration rules on the minimum income threshold to exempt the families of serving armed forces personnel.

However, the difficulties do not end there. My constituent, Denis Omondi, is a serving soldier in the British Army who, in 2011, found out that he was the father of a little girl in Kenya. He had previously been unaware of his daughter’s existence, but he then sprang into action, meeting and visiting his daughter as often as he could. There was an instant connection between them, and they are indeed a dad and daughter, so when his daughter’s birth mother said that she could no longer look after her, Denis became Ann’s sole custodian. He pays for her education and living costs in Kenya and is proudly responsible for her care and wellbeing. Understandably, he takes the role of being her dad very seriously. He also takes his job very seriously. He is a British citizen and a serving soldier in 3 Scots, Black Watch, stationed at Fort George, where he has loyally served, undertaking tours in Afghanistan, Iraq and Cyprus. Despite the demands of his work, he has used every opportunity to visit and spend time with Ann in Kenya.

With his wife battling cancer and as a dad missing his daughter, Denis set about applying for a visa to bring her to live with them in the highlands. To him, it was simply the most natural thing for them finally to be together as a family. Imagine his heartache when he opened the letter from the Home Office telling him that Ann’s visa application had been rejected. The reason given was that the Home Office considered that this soldier, committed to serving in the British Army, had not spent enough time with Ann to prove the relationship. That happened despite him providing evidence of visits, photos and calls with Ann, correspondence with teachers and care providers and much more. Denis and his wife were in disbelief at the news, and Ann was devastated to be kept apart from her family.

I could not believe it when I heard about their plight so, in this very Chamber, I pleaded with the Prime Minister to right the wrong. She promised that the Home Secretary would investigate personally, and he readily nodded his agreement. I thought that common sense and common decency would prevail, but that has not yet been the case. Since then, the anxiety, cost and pressure has built up on the Omondi family. A promise to look again eventually came, but only after relentless chasing. Confusion and chaos at the Home Office meant that I had to raise the case again, this time with the Secretary of State for Scotland.

Incidentally, I thank the Immigration Minister for the apology for saying that Dennis, Shelagh and myself had told lies about the situation with the mislaid paperwork and about the fact that no conversations with the Omondis had come from the Home Office. It has been said to me in writing that the Home Office apologises for that, and I am grateful, but I would rather that it got on with sorting the situation out for the Omondis. Here we are: a Prime Minister, two Secretaries of State, a heartbroken family and still no answer on whether this serving soldier will be reunited with his only daughter.

I found out today that so distrusting is the Home Office that it has arranged with a South African agency to call Ann and her birth mother to check out the detailed information supplied by the Omondis. I cannot believe that we would trust a member of the armed forces to go and put his life on the line for us, yet we cannot trust the information that he and his family are directly supplying here in the UK. What does that say?

“Your Army needs you” is a recruitment call-out, and the website details many benefits of joining, including promises of child and adult safeguarding and support for emotional wellbeing, all of which is sanctioned and promoted by the Ministry of Defence. Those promises will seem pretty hollow if the UK Government fail to do the right thing by someone whom they have called on to serve for them. Let us expedite this case so that this family can be reunited. The Tory Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, a former lieutenant colonel in the British Army, said:

“Commonwealth troops should be able to bring their kids to Britain. If they fight for us, they should be able to live with us.”

I agree.

Veterans Aid responded to my note this morning by saying:

“Since 2007 we have interacted with nearly 700 Foreign & Commonwealth veterans seeking help with status issues. These range from regularisation of their own status to complicated appeals to reunite, or keep together, families. Indeed during 2012-14 —well before the scale of the Windrush debacle was revealed—we highlighted two landmark cases that effected a change in the law.”

More recently, in a case remarkably similar to the one that I have described, Veterans Aid

“successfully helped to reunite a father from Sierra Leone with his daughter. It took nine months to resolve.”

That is not Veterans Aid’s core business, but on the basis of considerable experience with a similar case, it was happy to advise if required. The charity continued:

“Behind each ‘case’ there is a tale of human misery and while the details differ, the causes rarely do. Residency and status regulations are complex and inflexible. Advice to those about to leave the Armed Forces is either not given, or not given a priority. Costs relating to residency and citizenship applications are prohibitively high—and well beyond the budget of a typical former infantry soldier with a family.”

When families are in this country, the difficulties do not end, and they continue when soldiers do manage to be reunited with their families. One such case is that of another constituent of mine, a serving Commonwealth soldier who has done tours in Afghanistan, Kenya, Jordan, Cyprus, Germany, Ireland and France. His wife and stepdaughter applied for naturalisation in September 2017, but there is no decision yet.

Once again, the hon. Gentleman has advanced a very good, comprehensive case. The soldier in the field who is doing his duty in uniform is always conscious of his family back home. The distress that he obviously experiences because of what is happening is bound to have an effect on him in the field, as it does on his family back home. Is it not really important that the Minister now, in response to the hon. Gentleman, takes this case on personally and sorts it out as soon as possible?

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for his words. Absolutely—it is just the right thing to do. There is no dubiety here. He is absolutely right about the effect on people.

As I was saying, my constituent’s wife and daughter applied for naturalisation, with no decision yet. That means that despite his being a UK citizen, his wife and daughter do not have recourse to public funds and are not allowed to work, and the Home Office currently has all their identification documents. They have been waiting well over a year, and are yet another family of a Commonwealth soldier suffering at the hands of the Home Office, which insists that the case is “complex”. When I ask for a timeline for the decision, we are told that it cannot give us one, and so on.

Another case is that of Emmanuel, who is happy to be named. He wanted to bring his auntie over for a visit, but was unable to do so because she did not earn enough in Ghana, and the Home Office would not accept him paying for her visit here. He basically just wanted to see his family before he went off for a tour in Iraq in 2018. He wrote to my assistant, Callum:

“Dear Callum,

Good day and thank you very much for getting in touch.

Even though we felt abandoned in our own case, I will be more than glad for the MP to mention my case as an example and use my name if need be, so Parliament and the Home Office knows that these are real issues affecting real Commonwealth people.

I am sad to say that after two attempts, my auntie never was issued the visa. This is unacceptable, what is happening to Commonwealth citizens serving in the British army and it’s super bad for the recruitment drive!

It’s bad enough that these men and women, having signed blank cheques with their lives for this country, still pay the full cost for their naturalization to become British, and yet their loved ones cannot even visit them to keep them sane. My support for Mr Omondi in getting his daughter is massive, as it affects all of us Commonwealth people, especially when I and my partner have experienced this ill treatment. We are still devastated by what has happened to us, because I was going through postnatal depression then. Extend our thanks to Mr Drew for flying the Commonwealth flag for us in this matter.”

All these cases are simple. We have asked these people to come and do a duty for us—to put their life at risk, and to obviously involve their families, because that is a part of the job. I am asking the Minister now to take this seriously. In the case of Mr Omondi, I would like an answer. In the case of this entire situation for all Commonwealth armed services personnel, there is a big job to do to sort this out. Let us see the changes made that need to be made, and let us see those Commonwealth soldiers and armed forces personnel treated with the dignity that they deserve.

I thank the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) for bringing this subject to our attention during tonight’s debate. As he said, we are all rightly proud of our armed forces and the contribution made to the tri-services, whether it be the Army, the Royal Air Force or the Royal Navy, by our Commonwealth personnel. There is a long tradition of recruitment from the Commonwealth, which we are all proud to see continuing. Like the hon. Gentleman, I have a military base in my constituency—the School of Army Aviation at Middle Wallop.

In the Home Office, as in all other Departments, we are absolutely committed to upholding our obligations under the armed forces covenant, to ensure that no one who is serving or has served, or their family, is disadvantaged because of that service. The Home Office works closely with the Ministry of Defence and the individual services to make sure that those who choose to enlist in Her Majesty’s forces are well informed and fully aware of what the immigration requirements are for them and their families.

As the Immigration Minister, I am responsible for the borders, immigration and citizenship system, including how it applies to the armed forces. That includes our provisions for foreign and Commonwealth members of Her Majesty’s forces, foreign and Commonwealth family members of our service personnel and members of international armed forces and their families. I am also the Minister with responsibility for the armed forces covenant and veterans’ issues in the Home Office, which means I take a direct interest in the issues affecting our current and former service personnel and their families. I take extremely seriously my role of ensuring that the immigration system operates in supporting the families of our dedicated service personnel who join Her Majesty’s forces from Commonwealth countries. That involves keeping up to speed with the work conducted by the Ministry of Defence and other Departments in delivering our cross-Government commitment to our armed forces covenant obligations. It also includes keeping our policies relating to the armed forces under review, and acknowledging and championing where our policies are meeting our covenant obligations.

I am grateful for the Minister’s comments about the armed forces covenant. Will she take account of the request of the AFF and Cobseo foreign and Commonwealth cluster group urging the Government to consider the principles of the covenant with regard to the family needs of Commonwealth soldiers?

Well, of course. I think I have already indicated that we have to look at the needs of not only service personnel and former service personnel but their families when considering our obligations under the covenant.

As the subject of today’s debate is families of commonwealth soldiers, I trust that hon. Members will find it helpful if I set out some of the Government’s policy background. From December 2013, a dedicated part of the immigration rules known as “Appendix Armed Forces” was introduced. As the name suggests, it was developed especially for the family members of those who had chosen to enlist as members of Her Majesty’s forces. The purpose of the change was to align dedicated routes with the broader immigration framework. It was also designed, with joint input from the MOD, to ensure that the provisions therein fulfilled our obligations under the armed forces covenant. Although the military sponsor remains exempt from immigration controls for the duration of their service, family members who come to the UK to join them are considered under the dedicated rules for Her Majesty’s forces families in “Appendix Armed Forces”.

As members of Her Majesty’s forces are regularly posted abroad and their families are rightly encouraged to accompany them, the rules make special provisions to account for that. First, a standard grant of limited leave for Her Majesty’s forces family members is for five years, rather than the 30 months that is standard for other family applications. Importantly, that saves them the cost of a second application fee. Secondly, time spent overseas on an accompanied posting is treated as time spent in the UK for immigration purposes. That means that any time spent accompanying their partner or parent on an overseas posting does not prejudice their eligibility for settlement after spending five years with limited leave. We are proud of our continuing commitment to our armed forces and their family members, including Commonwealth nationals who bravely offer their service to Her Majesty the Queen and our country. As I have indicated, I am committed to ensuring we uphold our obligations and do right by all members of the forces and their families.

As the Minister with overall responsibility for immigration matters, I am acutely aware that some of the applications received by my Department fall into what can be called the “complex cases”. I thank the hon. Gentleman for taking the trouble to set out his constituents’ cases in such detail. He will of course know that I cannot comment on the detail of individual cases on the Floor of the House. I hope he will understand that I can speak only in general terms. Without going into specifics, I accept that applications involving families can involve a variety of reasons, as family dynamics themselves can become ever more complex. This is not isolated from marriage or relationship breakdowns, the setting up of new family units and myriad other causes.

Although I shall certainly not speak about specifics, it is important to explain some of the background. These applications can be, by their very nature, time-consuming for decision makers to consider, and I make no apology for that. Although we are striving to have more streamlined processes, we must never lose sight of the fact that one of our primary duties is the protection of the public. That is especially true when we are looking at applications made on behalf of children. In some cases, the application may not have been properly completed, or there might be gaps in the provision of the information that we require to make a sound, well-balanced decision. In some instances, it may well be that we ask for more information, or that we ask to speak to the sponsor. Such additional measures are taken only when it would assist the decision-making process and other options have been exhausted. Understandably, that might be frustrating for some sponsors or applicants, but we will do it only to safeguard the interests of the applicant. All Members will be aware that we have statutory obligations to minors and to others who may be vulnerable for other reasons. Again, I make no apology for officials being assiduous in making responsible decisions.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I are conscious of the hon. Gentleman’s point about the income threshold and how it might affect Army families. Although I stand firmly by the principle of the minimum income threshold, I reassure the hon. Gentleman that I have listened carefully to the points he has made this evening.

The Government have a proud tradition of supporting our armed forces and recognising the invaluable service that they give to the United Kingdom, and that includes Commonwealth nationals who come to the UK to serve in the forces. That is one reason why we explicitly provide for Commonwealth personnel to obtain settled status after they have discharged, enabling them to remain in the UK permanently and, if they wish, to become British citizens. We also recognise the valuable role that families play in supporting our armed forces, which is why we have immigration rules specifically for forces family members. We greatly value the contribution and sacrifices made by Commonwealth members of the forces, and their families, in ensuring the security of the UK and protecting our citizens. We want them to go on playing an important role in our armed forces, and we are committed to upholding our obligations to them.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.