[Mike Gapes in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered changes to Tier 5 Religious Worker Visas.
It is, as always, an immense pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Gapes. I thank colleagues on the Backbench Business Committee for allocating time for this debate; it is greatly appreciated. I also pay tribute to my co-sponsors, my friends the hon. Members for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton) and for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Ged Killen). I have always believed that our politics is better when we work cross-party to tackle injustices, so I am particularly grateful to them for joining together on this occasion.
More than 70 right hon. and hon. Members expressed support for this Backbench Business debate, and I know from conversations with colleagues across parties that the changes introduced by the British Government have caused great consternation in constituencies and parishes all across these islands. For example, my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes), who cannot be here today, has been inundated with correspondence from more than 120 constituents in three Catholic parishes because they are particularly concerned about the changes. Likewise, the right hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) wanted to put his opposition on the record, but for diary reasons he cannot make it to the debate.
This is an opportunity to air those concerns with the Minister, who I know will listen attentively before responding. Before I go any further, I express my sincere thanks to Anthony Horan from the Catholic Parliamentary Office in Edinburgh and to the Bishops’ Conference for an excellent briefing in advance of the debate. We have only 90 minutes and I want to ensure that all colleagues get a good opportunity to air their views, so I will confine my speech to around 10 minutes, but I will of course be happy for colleagues to intervene.
Concerns about changes to religious worker visas were first raised with me by my good friend Father Liam McMahon, the parish priest at St Michael’s in Parkhead. Essentially, at the tail end of last year the British Government introduced a change in regulations that meant that visiting clergy could no longer enter the UK via the tier 5 visa route and would instead have to apply via tier 2. The changes, which came into force on 10 January, are causing something of a headache for a whole host of religious organisations, but particularly the Catholic Church, which requires visiting clergy to cover for periods of illness, holidays, religious retreats and even for priests who are away on pilgrimage with their parishioners.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his speech—I am sorry that I cannot stay for the whole debate. He is right that the changes affect all faiths and denominations, including the local gurdwara in my constituency. In the Sikh community, there is a pattern of bringing priests over for short periods each year, which enriches their faith, and enables them to share ideas and philosophies and to train each other. That is inhibited by the rule changes.
The hon. Lady is right to put on the record the concerns of her local gurdwara, and I am glad that she has been able to represent it.
I mentioned some of the reasons why those in the clergy might be required to be away from the parish. It is not unusual and is perhaps best demonstrated in the situation of my own church, Parkhead Nazarene, where our senior pastor, Ian Wills, is currently away on a three-month sabbatical. We are blessed to have a wider pastoral staff team—Shelley, Dave and John are keeping things ticking over—but sadly that luxury is unavailable to other congregations or denominations.
Catholic parishes and dioceses regularly used the tier 5 religious worker visa route for priests to come to the UK on supply placements. That is important because a supply placement priest would typically lead the celebration of holy mass, including the celebration of the sacrament of marriage. He would also lead funerals, including the support of bereaved family members, and would routinely visit sick and elderly members of the local community. It is important that the Minister realises that those tasks do not simply stop when the existing parish priest falls ill or goes for a well-earned holiday or religious retreat.
Surely we would all agree that, in an age when social isolation and loneliness are increasing, the church is so often the place where people can gather as a community, to support each other and engage in friendship. The church is not only a place of worship, but a hub for the local community, providing both spiritual and practical support to the sick, the elderly and the vulnerable. Parishes may host tea and coffee mornings, cafés, youth clubs, pensioner clubs, soup kitchens, food banks and toddler groups. They provide a safe space for counselling and addiction meetings—Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, for example—as well as financial support for struggling individuals and families, especially through voluntary groups such as the Society of St Vincent de Paul.
Clearly, without the support of visiting priests, Catholic parishes will simply be unable to provide the present level of service to the local community, and that would be a crying shame. The Bishops’ Conference is crystal clear that much of the positive work in and around Catholic parishes, which engender a great sense of community, is seriously compromised by the changes to the immigration rules. My colleagues will elaborate on that point. The new arrangements more than double the cost incurred by parishes, making supply cover effectively unaffordable. Basically, the cost of applications will go from £244 to £610, which nets an extra £366 per application for the Home Office.
The tier 2 minister of religion visa route also imposes strict language requirements. I saw in the press this morning that the Home Office is putting a lot of emphasis on the argument about the English language. Even priests who undertook seminary formation in English may still be required to sit an English language test before coming on supply placements. That strikes me as bizarre.
The British Government’s changes will quite simply have both practical and financial implications for parishes. The Home Office needs to understand that visiting clergy not only allow the local parish community to continue to function, but benefit and enrich the whole community, which gains from a cultural exchange and the sharing of knowledge and experience by priests or clergy from other parts of the world. When I visit parishes, more often than not I hear about communities being educated about life in other countries. That opens up avenues for local parishes to support communities in need.
I am somewhat intrigued about why this draconian change for visiting clergy was made. As far as I understand, there have been no problems or abuses of the system by churches bringing supply placement clergy to the UK. It is not just the Catholic Church that has expressed concerns about the change; the Church of Scotland is also urging the British Government to reverse the decision. The Rt Rev. Dr Susan Brown, who convenes the Church’s World Mission Council, said that she had been “shocked” by this “retrograde step”, and is on record as saying:
“The benefit of the time spent in the UK is not just to the individual or to our churches but whole communities. Having the opportunity to have a minister from one of our partner Churches overseas brings a wealth of learning to people about faith and about global issues. Scotland is a welcoming country and we believe that the Church of Scotland can play a great part in this, but if the UK government continues to thwart efforts to invite people to spend time in Scotland for legitimate reasons by making the process more difficult and more expensive then we will be the ones to lose out. We strongly urge the UK government to reverse this change in the visa system.”
This is probably not the Minister’s natural brief, but he is standing in today, so can he explain why those changes have been introduced? Would he at least concede that they have led to an unintended consequence for local parishes, and does he acknowledge the difficulty that many dioceses now find themselves in? I gather that the Minister for Immigration has agreed to meet faith leaders early next week. That is genuinely very welcome news, and I hope that the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland and others are welcome to send a delegate to that meeting.
The Minister knows from the amount of casework that I raise with the Home Office that I have profound differences with the Government on how I would wish to see our immigration system run. I freely acknowledge and accept that, and tempted though I am, I am not going to enter into a wider ideological debate about the hostile environment, “Go home” vans, or any of that stuff. However, surely we can all agree that the changes to the religious worker visas have led to unintended consequences, which are in turn leaving parishes and dioceses in an incredibly, and unnecessarily, difficult position. It is within the Home Office’s power to reverse this retrograde decision, and—as I am sure the Minister is about to hear—I, along with other colleagues, call upon him to do so.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Gapes. I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) for securing the debate and the Backbench Business Committee for granting time for it. The issue is of great concern to parishes in my constituency, as it is in others, not least because many Catholic parishes rely on tier 5 religious worker visas to bring priests to the UK on supply placements, which allows cover for illness, retreats, outings and, of course, much needed holidays. The hon. Gentleman has covered many of the salient points and concerns in his remarks, so I intend to be brief.
I am disappointed not to see the Minister for Immigration, the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), here, but I am sure that the Minister who is here will convey to her our concerns. I simply ask the Minister this: where is the evidence that the changes were necessary? Where is the evidence that large numbers of people were coming to the UK on tier 5 religious worker visas for another purpose? Where is the evidence that ministers of religion are coming in large numbers to the UK to preach, despite not having the English language skills necessary to do so? Is it not a matter for the parish to determine whether a priest or a minister has the appropriate level of English to preach to their congregation? The alternative in many cases is that services will simply not go ahead at all, and we all know the impact that can have when people, many of them elderly or at risk of social isolation and loneliness, lose out on the opportunity to come together as a community to worship, to support one another, and to seek spiritual and practical help.
My constituents, particularly those at the Sikh gurdwara, rely on tier 5 for religious workers to come in. They do not want the tier 2 so that their religious workers can be here a long time, and neither do they want to stay indefinitely. It really is a short-term issue and religious workers are being absolutely excluded. In my constituency they have already spent more than £1,000, having been refused a visa while the change of policy went through. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need something in the interim, a bit like the old tier 5, so that short-term religious workers can come in and read from the holy book, which is what they need to do? They are not lecturers or cultural exchange people; they are religious workers who do not want to stay here for a long time.
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention, and I absolutely agree. Another senseless decision seems to be based once again on the ideology of the Conservative party, rather than on any evidence. The Catholic Church in Scotland is in no doubt whatever that the changes will mean fewer priests will be able to come to Scotland to support local parishes. Perhaps the Minister can tell us, if he is aware, what assessment has been made of the likely impact of the changes. How many people have been refused under the new system who would have been granted a visa under the old one? Is the Home Office aware of how many other people are likely to be refused entry at a later date?
We all have casework that demonstrates how often the Home Office gets decisions wrong. My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) raised in a debate in this place just a few weeks ago concerns revealed in the Financial Times that the Home Office is using algorithms to process visa applications. Many of my constituents have had applications inexplicably refused, usually because of Home Office errors, which were later overturned following an intervention from my office. As the hon. Member for Glasgow East said earlier, we do not want to get into the wider debate, but I will mention the recent example of my constituent Sabir Zazai, the chief executive of the Scottish Refugee Council. He was being honoured by Glasgow University for 20 years of remarkable contribution to civil society, but his father almost missed out on going to the graduation ceremony, where he was to receive his honorary doctorate, because he was refused a visit visa. That is exactly the type of case that speaks to the heart of the issue that we are talking about today, although we are talking about a different tier of visas.
I apologise, Mr Gapes, but it does speak to the wider issue where mistakes are made all the time. We already have an under-resourced Home Office, which is why we get so many mistakes, making decisions that are not based on any logic, evidence or fairness, but on ideology, and often getting the decisions wrong and causing enormous hurt to individuals and families. In this case we are talking about what was a relatively straightforward process for ministers of religion to come to this country and we are making it needlessly more complicated, which will inevitably lead to more incorrect decisions and will have a huge impact on local parishes up and down the country.
We are left with the question of why we are doing this. What problem are the Government attempting to fix? We know the problems they will create: parishes in constituencies such as Rutherglen and Hamilton West will be unable to maintain the high level of service that they offer in communities that often badly need it. Coffee mornings, youth clubs, bingo nights, food banks and counselling services are all compromised by the changes. I ask the Minister to convey to the Immigration Minister the concerns raised today, and I ask them to seriously reconsider the decision.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. It was also a pleasure to hear the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) introduce the debate. I wish to discuss some points that this debate generates.
The hon. Gentleman set out the background issues very clearly. As he pointed out and as the letter from the Catholic Church clearly points out, the debate is held in the context of the supply of priests, particularly in the summer, and allowing the laity to continue to attend mass. So there are two issues at stake: the laity attending mass and the priests being allowed a holiday. I am all for priests being allowed a holiday, just as I am all for MPs being allowed a holiday. As an aside, when I first came into this House, a very senior Member said to me, “The person you should acquaint yourself with to get the right sort of status is the suffragan bishop.” Members can interpret that as they wish. Whether the popularity of MPs and suffragan bishops has taken the same turn is something I will leave for others to decide.
We have heard about a change whereby visiting priests are required to apply under tier 2 rather than under tier 5, and that is producing problems, as the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Ged Killen) illustrated, as well as costs for various communities. There are also English language burdens they have to suffer and a little more red tape than under the current scheme. However, I do not think the problem is widely shared among all religious communities. The hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) nods. I will illustrate how it is not the case in some communities.
I accept that it is a case for the Catholic Church and for many others, but we live in a world where it is very difficult for anyone to recruit priests. Although this is perhaps the subject of an additional debate on another occasion, I point out that Anglicans are in a much better position because they have admitted women as priests. They therefore have an enormous supply of priests who are available and ministering. Whether the Catholic Church wants to take up my suggestion is a matter for it to decide and I will not interfere.
I am sitting here as a Catholic utterly stunned by what the hon. Gentleman suggests. He is here in Westminster Hall suggesting that the Catholic Church should change its policies because of what he perceives to be an issue and because of the actions of the Government. Honestly?
Thank you, Mr Gapes. To respond briefly, I was not suggesting that; I was leaving it to the Catholic Church to decide. As I said, we can debate that issue on a separate occasion, but I think my point is a valid one.
I made inquiries in the Anglican Church about whether it has this problem. The answer was no, it does not have this problem, for a number of reasons. First, there is a supply of Anglican women priests, so the supply issue is taken care of. Secondly, Anglican ministries are organised increasingly in teams, so someone is always around; because all the members of the team do not take their holiday at the same time, someone in the team is always available to cover for others in the ministry. It is important to bear that in mind.
The Catholic Church organises in teams as well, but the smaller groups within the archdiocese have priests who are already stretched to the absolute limit. When one takes a well-earned break, the others are simply asked to do even more. For them just to pick up the slack, as suggested, is unsustainable.
The hon. Gentleman will realise that in my speech I quoted the Very Reverend Dr Susan Brown, who is both a woman and a member of the Church of Scotland, which permits female clergy. If the Church of Scotland, which is not the Catholic Church, acknowledges that this is a problem and one not specifically related to gender, does that not drive a coach and horses through his argument?
I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s argument. Does he accept that the issue that we should be debating is whether the changes are right in principle? They might not affect every single religious grouping to the same degree, but the question that we parliamentarians should talk about is whether the changes are right in principle.
The hon. Gentleman is being generous with his time in allowing us to intervene. I am a Roman Catholic, but I speak on behalf not just of that Church but of the religion directly affected by the changes, which is the Sikh religion. He is right when he talks about the Church of England, but that is exactly it: it is the Church of England; many of the others are international religions and therefore need religious workers to come here. More to the point, does he not agree with having an interchange of people of different faiths coming to this country, whether of the Catholic Church or of any other religion? Does it not mean that we are able to look beyond our shores, therefore helping international relations, and not only understanding each of our own religions here but understanding them internationally?
I am happy to refer to the Church of England as part of the Anglican Communion, which is a worldwide organisation that exists in so many countries that one might have thought that if there were a problem, it too would experience exactly the same problem, because there are exchanges of people between different countries, dioceses and parishes.
I will take my glasses off to read what Christian Concern said, because it is in quite small print. It states that
“it is possible to enter the UK as a ‘business visitor’ to undertake some preaching…provided the person’s base is abroad”.
That is the basis on which the exchange of Anglican personnel takes place; it is not that the Anglicans do not invite colleagues from the Anglican Communion to come over to preach in their churches. I have been to many services at which the preacher has come from a country overseas. We need to ensure that we do not get two things confused: the restrictions on the priesthood, which I know exist, for whatever reason; and the changes to the immigration system.
Last, I mention my close contacts with the Jewish community. I appreciate, from conversations beforehand with the hon. Member for Glasgow East, that his view is that the Jewish community in Scotland has similar problems. However, I asked my Jewish colleagues exactly where the problem was likely to occur in the Jewish community, and most if not all of those I questioned did not see this as a problem for them. Again, we have to go back to this being a much more complex question than simply one of visas.
I offer those reasons up as a view on the issue and to widen the debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes.
Since we have just heard from the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) about women priests, I take this opportunity to place on record my congratulations to the Reverend Rose Hudson-Wilkin on her appointment as Bishop of Dover—our loss but most definitely the Church of England’s gain down in Dover.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) on securing this debate. I was happy to support his bid at the Backbench Business Committee. I also thank the various different campaign groups and constituents who have been raising awareness of the issue for several months now, especially those from the Catholic community who are in effect being penalised by the Government’s policy decision to change the criteria for visas for religious workers and ministers of religion.
My simple first question to the Minister is this: what is the Government’s message to the parishioners of the Immaculate Conception church on Maryhill Road in my constituency? Throughout the month of August, they will not be able to worship at their church at the usual Sunday evening mass, because the usual arrangements for cover and supply priests are no longer possible, thanks to the change of policy. Why are the UK Government, led by a professed Christian who forever speaks about the importance of faith to our culture and society, going out of their way to deny our Christian communities the right to worship? That is the direct effect of the policy change.
I will look briefly at the background, the deeper roots, specific examples—some of which we have already heard—and some possible solutions. Ministers have heard several times in recent weeks, not least from SNP Members, that despite all the rhetoric to the contrary, the evidence is clear that the hostile environment is still alive and well in the Home Office and UK Visas and Immigration. Whatever consultation the Government claim to have carried out and whatever notice they claim to have given to faith communities, it clearly was not enough, as the extent of the difficulties caused by the change has only become clear in recent months as parishes made plans for the summer.
The rationale for the changes introduced in December last year, whereby ministers of religion may no longer apply for temporary religious worker visas under tier 5 of the immigration rules, seems to be largely based on proficiency in the English language, which leads to my second question to the Minister. This was not really about Christian or Catholic ministers, was it? Looking at the detail of the policy in the explanatory notes, written statement HCWS1159 dated 6 December 2018 states that the rules are to prevent
“religious workers to perform roles, that include preaching and leading a congregation, without first being required to demonstrate that they speak English to an acceptable standard.”
It is pretty clear that the change is targeted at religions—one in particular, I suspect—that do not usually conduct their forms of worship in English. It stands to reason that faith communities that conduct services primarily in English would not have much to gain by bringing in preachers who are not fluent in that language.
The second aspect of the change is the 12-month cooling-off period, which clearly smacks of security concerns far more than the risk of visitors simply overstaying their permit for a few weeks or months. If the Government chose to introduce that change for security reasons, they should have the guts to make that clear. Whether or not the consequences are unintended, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East said, they are real.
We heard some specific examples; I mentioned one in my constituency and I am aware of many more across the archdiocese of Glasgow. The decision puts massive pressure on our own priests and ministers, who may miss out on the opportunity for rest, retreat or physical recuperation if they are unwell. They have to choose between their own long-term wellbeing and the provision of often vital services in their parishes, many of which reach out beyond the immediate faith or worshipping community that they serve.
I have a personal connection with three very good Malawian priest friends who are studying in Rome, Fathers Dan, Isaac and Kondwani. They first had to complete their seminary training in Malawi in English; they are probably proficient in at least than one vernacular language; they will probably have proficiency in Latin and, because they live in Rome, they will be proficient in Italian, too. They have been unable to acquire tier 5 visas this year that, in previous years, would have been routine at a cost of around £200. One of the sponsoring parishes is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands)—St Conval’s in Linwood. It reckons that to bring those priests over under the new process would have cost well over £1,000, between the visas and the various test and proofs required. That is totally prohibitive and leaves parishes across that diocese struggling to cope.
I am grateful that my hon. Friend raises that point; it is not the first time that he has assisted with issues relating to Linwood, particularly in connection with Malawi. Not only did Father Michael McMahon of St Conval’s get in touch with me but the Bishop of Paisley, Bishop John Keenan. Father Michael has just come back from a trip to Malawi with St Benedict’s High School; he said that not only can the parish not afford those elevated costs; the wider diocese cannot absorb them at all. Simply put, there are no winners from the policy change at all.
The complete opposite is the case: the change is having a detrimental effect. In the past, visiting priests would have come for two or three months perhaps, spending a couple of weeks in each parish. They would have built warm and supportive relationships and they would have come back on a regular basis. Now, those parishes have to strip back their worship schedules and many other support services that run alongside them. That is repeated across Scotland and the United Kingdom, as we hear.
The Bishops’ Conference of Scotland has said that in all the years it has sponsored priests through the tier 5 process, it has not been aware of any abuses of the system. Visiting priests are tied by religious vows to return to their home diocese at the request of their bishop, to say nothing of their own personal and family ties. Once again, the base assumption of the Home Office’s immigration rules is that the streets of mother Britannia are so paved with gold that the only reason anyone would want come here is to abscond while on their visa and sponge off the NHS and the welfare state. That is simply not the case, and it is insulting to those visitors to suggest otherwise.
What are the solutions? The simple solution would be simply to undo the change and revert to the previous system. At the very least, the Home Office, at ministerial level, must be prepare to continue to engage directly with all the stakeholders across the UK who are interested in this issue. As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East said, I believe a meeting is taking place with the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, but Ministers should be willing also to meet the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland and its representatives. I am sure that Ministers know the Catholic Church in Scotland has its own history and governance, which is distinct from that south of the border.
What is really needed is a deeper, more fundamental review of the overall immigration rules and the hostile environment. The Vote Office kindly produced an extract of the immigration rules for me, which are vast. The document comes with an erratum. With the greatest respect to the drafting officials, it is so complicated; no one could keep track of it. One correction, to the
“Statement of Changes in Immigration Rules, presented to Parliament pursuant to section 3(2) of the Immigration Act 1971, Ordered by the House of Commons to be printed on 11 December 2018, HC1779”,
“On page 8, for change 6A.13 where it reads, ‘… paragraph 245ZP (f)(2) …’ it should instead read as, ‘… paragraph 245ZP(f)(iii)(2) …’.”
I tracked that down on page 41 of a document that runs to hundreds of pages. This is what small Catholic parishes are being asked to get to grips with when trying to bring over their priests. That is why the whole system needs to be fundamentally reviewed. Other Members have touched on wider issues in the immigration and visa system. The all-party parliamentary group for Africa and the all-party parliamentary group on Malawi are to publish a report on that in a couple of weeks. I hope the Minister will confirm that his colleague the Minister for Immigration plans to attend that launch on 16 July.
As I said at the start, the experience of anyone navigating this system is that it is designed with deliberate hostility, suspicion and to minimise the chances of a successful application. That is seriously beginning to harm the global reputation of a Government who at the same time are spending millions on a campaign to say that we are open for business and that Britain is great. For a middle eastern academic trying to come to a university conference, an author from Belarus trying to get to the Edinburgh book festival or a west African roots band wanting to play at Celtic Connections, it is not great and we are not open for business. Now, it is not great for a simple priest who wants to come and help communities pray for a few months over the summer. Those are all real, verifiable examples.
All Ministers will be wondering over the next few weeks what their legacies will be. Here is an opportunity for the Home Office to reverse this policy and launch a wider review of the overall visa system. Otherwise, the legacy will be one of shutting the door, in pursuit of an ideological and arbitrary net migration target, perpetuating a hostile environment that has done nothing but damage this country’s economy, culture, society and global reputation.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) on securing this important debate. The removal of tier 5 visas for visiting clergy was first brought to my attention by my friend Monsignor Peter Smith of St Paul’s Parish in Whiteinch. Monsignor Smith was part of the original team that met the Government as the tiers were introduced. At that time, the Government suggested that there was no need for tier 5 visas. However, Monsignor Smith argued strongly for having access to tier 5 as well as tier 2. He pointed out that not all our visitors wish to be on the path of leave to remain, as tier 2 allows.
Priests who come here are all incardinated in their own home diocese. We do not want to change or disturb that. The tier 5 route allows us to have priests here for short terms. As the number of clergy decreases, for whatever reason, more is expected of the few we have. Priests often have responsibility for several parishes, so they are battling to provide spiritual leadership and to administer God’s work. Monsignor Smith himself is seriously ill—in any other profession, he probably would not work. But we are not talking about regular work. These people are living out their vocation and dedicating their lives to their faith communities.
In the Catholic Church we have many lay people who are stepping up to take on some of the responsibility and provide some sort of service when priests are extremely stretched, but they cannot provide the sacraments, celebrate mass or perform baptisms. We need priests, but when they are stretched to the limit we have to look at other ways. Even the priests who are serving in such a way must have time to refresh, reflect and renew themselves spiritually. Breaks from the parish are therefore essential to enable their continued service. The tier 5 visa allows archdioceses to get priests to the UK to allow our own priests time to recharge.
Many visiting priests are already in the EU as postgraduate students at universities in Rome or Louvain, so it is less expensive to bring them here to help. These priests are keen to experience more of Europe while they are away from home, and it suits parishes to be able to have their services during the summer vacation. They regularly go to the same parish, year after year, and build up a relationship with the parishioners. It is a win-win situation.
I understand the desire for good English for tier 2, but visiting priests are here for only a short time and congregations are so thankful to have them that any potential language difficulties are simply not an issue. Bear in mind that mass used to be said in Latin and most people had no understanding of that.
The tier 5 priest is a visitor to the parish. They bring a vision of the church beyond our borders and the parishioners love having them. They cope with less than perfect English—although, in many cases these priests probably have better English than myself and some of my colleagues—because it is only for a few weeks and not a permanent arrangement. Everything that the parishioners gain from having that priest outweighs any potential difficulties. Tier 5 visas need English of a lesser standard than that required for tier 2 visas.
I had a letter from a constituent recently who accused the SNP of being anti-faith— specifically anti-Catholic—as a result of these visa changes. I politely pointed out that much as we would love powers over immigration to be devolved to the Scottish Government, these ill thought out visa changes are the work of this Tory Government. I direct my constituent’s comments to the Minister and ask: are these changes simply incompetence, or are the Government now deliberately targeting Christian faith communities with their hostile environment? That is how it appears.
I wrote to the Home Secretary about the issue back in April and finally got a response from the Minister for Immigration two weeks ago. She said:
“These changes align our visa arrangements with the Government’s wider commitment to building strong integrated communities.”
Can the Minister explain how depriving Christians of their faith leaders could possibly lead to strong, integrated communities?
The Minister for Immigration has repeatedly said that tier 2 visas are a possibility, but we have heard why that is not suitable. The English language requirement, along with the increased cost, makes this utterly unsustainable for most parishes that are already financially stretched. Without the presence of tier 5 priests over the summer, many of our priests will be deprived of their time to recharge and many parishioners will be deprived of services. It will come to a point that we will simply have to close the parish while the priest is on holiday.
Parishes are more than just a faith community; for many people, particularly the elderly and the vulnerable, they are a vital lifeline. I think of my own elderly parents, because their church is such an important part of their life; it is what gets them out of the house in the morning and gives them great purpose. Without it, serious problems with loneliness and isolation for many elderly people would be caused.
Ultimately, we need both types of visa: one for temporary summer placements that are usually repeated for a short period of time over a number of years, with no path to leave to remain; and one for more lengthy placements, where tier 2 would be more appropriate. The UK says that it champions freedom of religious practice, but the removal of tier 5 visas for visiting priests calls that into question. How can Catholics fully practise their faith when mass cannot be celebrated because of these policies? We have seen many groups targeted in this hostile environment. Surely this Government are not now targeting God.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I had not intended to speak, so thank you for giving me the time to do so. I will be very brief and ask the Minister just a few questions.
As I mentioned earlier, I have a gurdwara in my constituency that has found it difficult to bring priests in. The point about the tier 5 visa is that such priests read from the holy book, which is not in English, so they are required to speak the Sikh language—the Punjabi language. The priests want to be here for only a short time. Having heard everything that hon. Members have said, would the Minister consider interim measures? Otherwise, can he say how I can bring in the priests? They have been refused twice, and there is a new system in place. How is it possible for them to come here? I have been told by those at the gurdwara that they are desperate to get them in. No other member of the congregation can perform the function that the priests can undertake.
Could the Minister also say what is happening to the licence system? Is it currently suspended? Many gurdwaras and other religious places apply under a licence, under which there are checks and balances to ensure that they can bring in their religious workers. What is happening to that system? Finally, could the Minister arrange for the Minister for Immigration to meet hon. Members as soon as possible to discuss our individual cases?
It is good to see you in the chair, Mr Gapes. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) and the hon. Members for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton), and for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Ged Killen) for securing the debate—it is truly a cross-party campaign as well as an interfaith campaign. I pay tribute to all hon. Members who have taken part today. The hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) made a particularly brave speech, but I say gently to him that I think he slightly missed the point. His argument was that the changes that the Government have introduced have not been too bad. The whole point, that all hon. Members have focused on, is that there has been absolutely nothing at all to justify the changes being made in the first place.
As hon. Members across the House have already explained, the tier 5 religious visas were operating perfectly smoothly for the many churches and religious organisations that relied upon them, until these unexpected changes were made in December last year. As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East said, what we are talking about is churches bringing in overseas ministers and priests a couple of times a year—perhaps in the summer, or at Easter or Christmas—to allow local religious leaders to take congregations on a trip, to go on retreat, to recover from ill health or even just to have a holiday.
We are talking about not only Christian churches, but other religions too. I have heard directly about a Buddhist temple and a Sikh gurdwara that have been negatively impacted. The hon. Members for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) and for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) made important interventions about how important these routes are for gurdwaras in their constituencies.
In my constituency, parishioners from St Lucy’s in Cumbernauld were among the first to contact me about the issue. Father Campbell wrote to me at the end of April, saying that the changes
“will have a vast impact on me and our parishioners here, as we rely on Father Alex Mpaggi coming to allow me a holiday in July and to accompany 50 parishioners to Lourdes in France, also in July.”
Those are the nuts and bolts of what these changes have almost destroyed.
This is about the support that visiting priests and celebrants can provide. It is important to say, as hon. Members have done today, that visiting clergy in themselves enrich the life of the churches that they work at with their new ideas and approaches, and by sharing knowledge of different cultures. That point was made by the Rt Rev. Susan Brown from the Church of Scotland, as quoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East in his speech.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) said, over the course of time close relationships are built up between parishes and priests. For example, Father Mpaggi has been coming to St. Lucy’s in Cumbernauld since 2013. When he comes he leads worship, carries out the celebrations of holy mass, including marriage, and conducts funerals and supports the bereaved. All of that is now put in jeopardy.
As other Members have explained, churches and other places of worship are not only about worship, although that is obviously their central function; they also form important parts of their communities, and indeed are communities in themselves. It is about the youth clubs, the coffee mornings, the pensioner clubs, the mother and toddler groups, the food banks and the soup kitchens. The same visiting clergy also help to carry out those important functions.
These arrangements were working well, but now they are not, because the changes that the Immigration Minister introduced are already having a negative impact. The Home Office has more than doubled the cost to parishes. As Father Campbell has told me, that means “making supply-cover effectively unaffordable”. He expressed concern about the impact that the changes will have on the health of local priests if they cannot afford to bring in the support that they need and have relied on in recent years. Those costs arise not only from the visa fees, but from unnecessary English tests. As Father Campbell points out:
“Even priests who have undertaken seminary formation in English may be required to sit an English language test before coming on supply-placements. This will have both practical and financial implications”.
My first big question for the Minister is: why? Where is the evidence, as the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Ged Killen) put it? Why did the rules have to change? What is the justification? Is the problem so significant that it merits creating all these other problems for our churches?
The Immigration Minister’s written statement, letters and answers firstly point to some sort of problem with ministers of religion coming over and taking on roles such as preaching and leading congregations while not being able to speak a good standard of English. Her various responses have also referred to the need for integration. So far, I find those explanations flimsy and utterly unconvincing.
As one of the 100 or so constituents who contacted me said:
“I have attended services in Synagogue where the language used was Hebrew and in other faiths where the language used was Hindi, Guajarati or whatever. That may not suit the British Government but it is a reality”.
In short, is it really any business of the Government if religious celebrants spend short periods here and preach in different languages? The shadow Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Walsall South, made that point very strongly, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West.
Similarly, integration of the religious workers, which the Immigration Minister referred to in her various letters, is not really relevant here. As the shadow Leader of the House also pointed out, nobody is proposing that these people will live here permanently or become settled here. In fact, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West powerfully pointed out, the integration argument is completely the other way round, because community integration and social solidarity are undermined if these religious workers can no longer come to do all the work they have previously.
As a spokesperson for the Bishop’s Conference of Scotland said today:
“Catholic parishes, without the support of visiting priests, would be unable to provide the level of service to the local community that it does at present, such as Masses, weddings, funerals, comforting the bereaved, tending to the sick and needy, and many other works of charity including food banks and soup kitchens.”.
I have seen no good reason for these changes, and certainly none that justifies creating all these other consequences.
Now, let us be incredibly kind and imagine for a minute that the Minister manages to explain today why exactly these changes have been made in this particular way. That is being very optimistic, but in any event it would still not be an end to the matter. Even if, having listened to the Minister, we took the view that reform was necessary, surely there must be another way to accommodate the needs of all the churches we have heard from without undermining whatever strange purpose the Home Office is pursuing? Surely it cannot be beyond the wit of the Home Office to come up with something that is a better fit, and a more reasonably priced fit, for those ministers and priests who come just for very short stays to support the work of our churches from time to time?
Tier 2 is not designed with these scenarios in mind, and neither is the new tier 5. Nor, I believe, is the business visitor route, which is not even something that the Home Office has until this point prayed in aid. Why not offer a low-cost two or three-year visa, for example, which does not have the same stringent requirements regarding English qualifications, which allows applicants to work as ministers or to lead worship, but which sets a maximum stay of a certain number of weeks or months in any calendar year to prevent any circumvention of the tier 2 requirements? Surely the Government could work up something along those lines?
As the shadow Leader of the House said, it is important that that is done as a matter of urgency, even on an interim basis, because this is harming parishes and other religious organisations right now, this very summer. I join the calls on the Home Office to engage in discussion about how the impact of these changes can be reversed, or at the very least ameliorated. I also join the calls for Ministers to meet representatives of churches, including churches in Scotland, to discuss the impact that these rules are having.
Finally, I turn to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), powerfully flagging up the poor consultation and policy-making process. That takes me back to one of my hobby-horses, which is how we go about making immigration policy. Is this not the perfect example of why leaving it to the Home Office does not work? I dare say officials believed that they had thought through all the implications, but they had not. Meanwhile, MPs were barely aware that changes had been made, and if they were aware, they were, as my hon. Friend pointed out, completely unable to decipher what they meant or what the implications would be.
That is why, when the Immigration Bill was in Committee, I proposed an exciting, shiny immigration equivalent of the Social Security Advisory Committee, so that experts could scrutinise Home Office proposals, flag up concerns, allow others to give input and give MPs advice on what needed further scrutiny. I was sad that my proposals did not have the Committee as excited as I was. Seriously, though, we do need to think how we go about consulting and scrutinising immigration rule changes.
In conclusion, I again commend hon. Friends and colleagues for bringing this debate on an important issue. I hope that the Home Office will listen and provide a better route for visiting priests and ministers to keep coming and carrying out the vital temporary work that they do. But, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North said, if we had a better system of scrutiny, we could hopefully avoid these mess-ups happening in the first place.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) on securing this important debate about religious workers’ visas.
For some time, the House has heard about the hostile environment, which would appear to be a hostile environment for religious ministers. The Government have cast the change as a matter of regulatory tidiness and of ensuring that religious ministers can speak English, but as the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) points out, why would a congregation that routinely conducts its services in English try to bring across a priest who did not speak English?
Religious ministers have been removed from tier 5 visas and are now obliged to apply for tier 2 visas, for which an English language proficiency test can be included in a successful application. Ministers must know, however—and have received representations to this effect—that the change is unwieldy, costly, bureaucratic and discriminatory. Ministers must have been made aware by representatives of a range of faith communities that the measures are a blockage to faith communities, to the religious ministers they need to lead them, whether temporarily or for a little longer, and to good community relations. Yet here we are with a Minister defending a policy that many in the community question.
In fact, Ministers announced this change to long-standing policy towards the end of the parliamentary Session last year. Can the Minister tell us what consultation was conducted prior to that change? What were the results of that consultation, and what risk assessments were done for Ministers by Home Office officials before the decision was taken and the policy announced? Do Ministers understand that Catholic priests, rabbis, imams and many others need holidays and cannot be on call 365 days a year, or that they have to visit loved ones or go abroad for further study? They might even get ill, and they need people to stand in for them as occasion arises.
As we have heard, the shift to tier 2 is costly, time-consuming, bureaucratic and unnecessary. We have heard about the issues with English language at tier 2, and about the fact that tier 2 visas are much more expensive than tier 5 visas and put a considerable financial burden on faith communities. As a whole, tier 2 visas are also subject to a numerical cap, which is surely folly. It means that people who we need for our economy and public services may be refused a visa solely on the grounds that the number has already been met, and religious ministers have to compete in that total.
In explaining the change of policy, Ministers have stated that:
“This change will prevent migrants from using the tier 5 Religious Worker route to fill positions as Ministers of Religion, and instead direct them towards the appropriate”—
the Opposition would query that appropriateness—
“category of tier 2…The ‘cooling off’ period will ensure tier 5 Religious workers and Charity Workers spend a minimum of 12 months outside the UK before returning…This will prevent migrants from applying for consecutive visas”.
So, there you have it: this whole discriminatory rigmarole is an effort to prevent people, of whatever religious faith, from using what Ministers seem to think is a loophole to come into this country on a permanent basis. I hope that, having listened to Members from across the House, the Minister recognises that no one is talking about a loophole but about the very real needs of faith communities. Maybe he will tell us how many people he thinks sneak their way into the country under a religious cloth. A handful? Dozens? What evidence can Ministers provide for that outlandish proposition?
We pride ourselves—or used to—on being a religiously tolerant society, but these measures do not seem religiously tolerant to those of us here today or to the wider community. This discriminatory policy is causing distress in faith communities of all types across the country. It should be a matter of concern for those of all faiths and none. In 30 years in the House, this is not the first time that I have seen immigration measures brought in willy-nilly to target a specific community—for example, the Muslim faith—but catching all sorts of faiths. If the Home Office has a particular ill in mind, it needs better drafted legislation and better conducted administration.
We should not dictate to anyone who their faith leaders should be. We should recognise and honour the contribution that faith communities make to our society. The Government should take note of the debate, meet hon. Members from across the House and—I sincerely hope—change policy as a result.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. You may wonder what the Minister for Policing and the Fire Service is doing responding to a debate on immigration. You are not alone. The hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Ged Killen) expressed regret that the Immigration Minister is not here to respond to the debate. He is not alone in that view. I think I heard that 70 Members supported the debate through the Backbench Business Committee. Clearly, any Minister must listen to that; that is a serious weight of Members expressing concern. I genuinely congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) and his partners on securing the debate. I will do my very best to answer the central questions directed at the Government about why the changes were made.
I state right from the start that I know from conversations with the Immigration Minister, who genuinely cannot be here today, that she is well aware of the growing sensitivities and distress around this issue—weighted in, but not exclusive to, Scotland. She is alive to that, and as the hon. Member for Glasgow East is aware, she is next week meeting representatives of most faith leaders to discuss this issue at a roundtable, and I understand that bishops from Scotland are invited. I am absolutely persuaded that she is disposed to engaging and listening to concerns on this and other subjects, and I am sure that she will listen to requests for meetings as well—I reference the specific request of the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz).
We appreciate that this Minister is not the one who we would have liked to see here, but although the Immigration Minister has now agreed to meet faith representatives and Church leaders, that took six months of asking. There has been a genuine unwillingness on the part of the Immigration Minister to meet those Church leaders.
I am not sure how fair that is, because I do not know the background to those conversations. However, I know the Immigration Minister well. She is the listening type, and I think she is entirely sincere in saying that she recognises the sensitivities that have emerged from this policy change.
Before I go into why there were changes, it is always helpful to assert the common ground. Many Members—the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) was particularly powerful on this—spoke about the importance and the value of faith communities in all our constituencies. I think she spoke for many of us in expressing the importance of those communities, not least in giving many people a sense of strength and purpose. I absolutely recognise that from my constituency and the extraordinary work of churches such as Emmanuel Church in Northwood, the Northwood and Pinner Liberal Synagogue and St Martin’s Church in Ruislip, to mention three.
We all know the fundamental truth of that, and I think we all agree with the point about the added value of contributions made by members of religious institutions from overseas, which is at the heart of the debate. That is why the immigration system maintains dedicated arrangements for religious workers, with two dedicated visa categories providing for those seeking to come to the UK to fill long-term vacancies and shorter-term postings. As hon. Members know, the requirements necessarily differ between the two, to ensure that the system is used in an appropriate manner.
The adjective “generous” is not often attached to the Home Office, but we think that this is a generous offer. However, it must be balanced against ensuring that those wishing to lead congregations, regularly performing the primary rites and rituals of their faith, are subject to stronger requirements than those coming to the UK to fill supporting roles for shorter periods. We believe that those tasked with leading roles within our churches, synagogues, mosques and temples must be able to demonstrate a strong command of the English language, which is fundamental to the change to tier 2. The changes that the Government have introduced ensure that all those seeking to undertake such important roles can explain their teachings in English to all in the community, not just to their congregation.
This is fundamental: are churches, mosques and synagogues not better placed to assess the level of English required for priests and other religious leaders to lead worship in their communities, and whether applicants coming in under tier 5 have the skill required?
I completely understand that point, which was raised earlier. The Government’s position is that it is important that the same rules apply to all, in the interests of fairness, hence the test centre requirements. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that exemptions exist where applicants have been awarded a recognised degree.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the root of the changes introduced in January 2019 was the June 2018 Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government consultation on the integrated communities strategy. The Green Paper set out the Government’s intention to strengthen English language skills by supporting UK residents and strengthening requirements for those who wish to come here. The rationale behind that approach is that ministers of religion play a visible role in our religious institutions and must therefore be able to integrate with the wider communities in which they live and serve, rather than only being able to speak to their congregations.
The Minister is doing an excellent job—he is an excellent Minister; I say that with sincerity—and he has been very helpful so far, but he is confusing social cohesion and religion. I made the point that the Sikh holy book is not in English. The priests who are required to come over have to read it in their language.
I absolutely understand that point. On the hon. Lady’s direct question on the specific problem of her constituent, while I obviously do not know the individual case, one of the three visa entry routes may well be relevant for the role that she described, not least the visitor visa route. With respect, she should engage on that directly with officials, which I can help to facilitate.
The Minister is indeed doing a sterling job in difficult circumstances. On integration, the other fundamental point that the shadow Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), made earlier was that nobody is saying that these people want to come and live here, so integration is not really relevant. They have a job to do over a very short period and then they head back to their home countries. Integration really is not at the heart of this issue, or should not be.
My understanding of the situation is that, in large part because the Government recognise the importance and value of the contributions to our religious institutions made by people from overseas, we have three separate visa routes in to try to facilitate that process. The changes made in January 2019 require individuals seeking to enter the UK as a minister of religion to use tier 2, demonstrating their command of the English language. To be clear, tier 2 is for religious leaders such as priests, imams, rabbis, missionaries and members of religious orders taking employment or a role within a faith-based community. Those applicants can come for up to three years, with an option to extend for up to six years, and possible indefinite leave to remain after five years’ continuous—[Interruption.]
I am incredibly grateful to the Minister for giving way. I sense that, although he is the Fire Minister and is trying to fight fire here, he understands that he has been asked to flog a dead horse today. The fact is that people do not come to be here indefinitely. They come here to cover a month to enable priests or other faith leaders to go on holiday, so the idea that we are talking about people coming here indefinitely and integrating is surely for the birds.
Some may want to. That is why we have the different tiers of visas for people in different circumstances. I completely understand that the heart of the concern, particularly among Scottish Members of Parliament, is not about individuals who want to stay here longer, but about people coming in to fill gaps over the summer. I completely accept that point. I am just trying to set out, because I was asked to, what the policy background is and trying to answer the fundamental question posed: why have the Government made the changes?
The Minister is being very generous with his time. I think that we have just come to the nub of the issue. He is describing different visas, but I think what we have discovered in the course of this debate is that none of them fits the circumstances of what we have been describing this afternoon—people who come temporarily but nevertheless want to carry out the roles of leaders of congregations and ministers of religion. Short-term visas do not allow people to lead a congregation, but the longer-term visas are completely inappropriate, because people are coming only for short-term visits, so we need to invent a new visa. I think that is the ultimate point.
I am not sure that the Government agree with that position, but it is clearly one held by the hon. Gentleman and other Members of Parliament, so it is clearly something that needs to be discussed and tabled at the roundtable next week with the Minister for Immigration and in subsequent follow-up. That is the nature of this place: we change rules; we make laws. We do that, believe it or not, with good intentions, although conspiracy theories have been articulated this afternoon. We do impact assessments. Then—as in this case—after a few months, issues begin to arise and concerns need to be dealt with. In the democracy that we live in, it is incumbent on the Government and the Minister at the time to listen very carefully, engage with those who have a problem and, in a democratic process, work through that. And I am absolutely sure that the Minister for Immigration will do that.
The Minister is being generous with the time available, and I appreciate that this is not his specific brief, but he is talking about the reasons for the Government’s decisions and he has mentioned conspiracy theories. I think that, when I said that I think there are security reasons behind this change, I saw the Minister shaking his head, so is he prepared to say that it has not been introduced because of security concerns and because of particular religions where the visiting ministers of religion would not necessarily have proficiency in English?
I certainly do not think that is the case. If I understand the hon. Gentleman’s line of thinking—it has not been made explicit—he needs to recognise that the original instinct came from the previous Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, in terms of the integrated communities strategy. That might possibly undermine the hon. Gentleman’s point.
With your permission, Mr Gapes, I shall try to answer directly the fundamental question of the what and the why for the policy. I have set out that the new requirement is for individuals seeking to enter the UK as a minister of religion to use tier 2, demonstrating their command of the English language. We are also introducing, as has been noted, cooling-off periods for the tier 5 religious worker and charity worker routes. Applicants who have held a visa in one of those categories will not be permitted to hold another visa in the same category for 12 months after expiry of their leave. The immigration rules had previously permitted tier 5 religious workers to fill roles that may include preaching, pastoral work and non-pastoral work. That allowed an applicant to come to the UK and fill a role as a minister of religion without demonstrating an ability to speak English. That is no longer possible and, as we have discussed, applicants must use tier 2 to accommodate that.
The cooling-off period for the tier 5 religious and charity worker categories was introduced because we had become aware of a small but increasing number of religious and charity workers who were living in the UK on a near permanent basis, returning overseas for only a brief period to renew their visa. On the point that was made, I do not detect in the change and I am certainly not aware that underlying that are concerns about security. It is more concerns, as I said, about people using the system to live in the UK on a near permanent basis, which was not the original intention.
The shadow Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), and others asked about the process of consultation. There is a sense that people have been bounced into this and that the ground was not prepared, so let me restate that the changes were included in the “Integrated Communities Strategy Green Paper”, which was published on 14 March 2018. Stakeholders were invited to respond. The Minister for Immigration chose to write directly to faith leaders in December 2018, before the rules took effect. That letter set out the detail and explained the rationale behind the changes. As I have said, the Minister for Immigration is extremely clear about her wish to hear directly from religious leaders themselves, and that is the context of the meeting that she is chairing next week. She wants to listen to concerns and discuss the future system.
The Government therefore feel that there was consultation and communication. To what degree the messages have been absorbed and people have focused on them is obviously open to debate. It is quite possible that people have started to focus on them only as we have got closer to the time when applications are made and positions need to be filled. We understand that, but the Government’s view is that we did engage, communicate and consult, and if people have problems, we need to see the evidence; the process needs to be evidence-led. My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) stirred the debate up, but he also made the important point that in the Anglican community, there does not seem to be an issue. The Government must listen to evidence, but those with problems and concerns must present evidence in those discussions.
I am glad that the Minister is talking about evidence, because he was also asked in the course of the debate what evidence the changes were built on. It seems to me that the Home Office was trying to fix a problem that did not exist and has ended up creating a whole range of new problems. Is there an evidence base? I appreciate that the Minister is up against it today, but does he have in front of him an evidence base that was used to inform the decision?
I am grateful for the empathy shown by the hon. Gentleman in saying that I am up against it. He should come to more police debates.
The changes that seem to be causing the most difficulty for hon. Members are the changes to the visa arrangement from tier 5 to tier 2. I have tried to explain that these changes are rooted in the strategy incubated in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, which focuses on the importance of reinforcing the need for English language skills and is rooted in a policy directed at greater social cohesion. In relation to the cooling-off period for tier 5, I think I was clear that that was driven by evidence of a small but growing misuse of that system, with people effectively here on a permanent basis. [Interruption.] I have been asked a straight question, and that is a straight answer.
If these visa changes were introduced on the back of a consultation from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, which is a devolved issue, then that consultation would have nothing to do with Scotland at all. That may be one reason why the particular circumstances that we have been speaking about have not made their way into the Home Office’s thinking about these visas. That might be something the Home Office wants to reflect on for the future.
The Minister has not touched on the issue of licences, which I raised. He mentioned that there was a small but growing problem about misuse. The whole point about the licensing system is that there were checks and balances, and that places of religion were allowed to bring their workers in under these licences, which are constantly monitored by the Home Office. What is happening to that system? Is it completely gone? Is the Minister not aware that the licensing system prevented the abuse?
Either the Immigration Minister or I will have to write to the hon. Lady on that point. I am simply stating that one of the drivers for the cooling-off period was a sense that people were effectively here on a permanent basis, which was not the intention of the original visa policy.
We have heard a lot about those who come to the UK on a temporary basis, perhaps to cover for a minister of religion while he or she is on holiday. To be clear, the Government absolutely recognise that that is a legitimate activity. We certainly have no wish to leave any communities bereft of a spiritual leader while the normal incumbent has a holiday or is otherwise absent.
Remarks were made, which I thought were wildly off target, suggesting that we are targeting God or penalising the Catholic community, as if we were targeting Christian communities. These changes do not mean that we are targeting any particular group. All faiths are treated equally. Of course, we do not want communities to be bereft of spiritual leaders while the incumbent has a holiday or is otherwise absent.
That is precisely why the immigration rules for visitors specifically refer to those coming for religious purposes. Among the permitted activities for those coming on a visit visa, or for a visit without a visa if they are a relevant national, the rules state:
“Religious workers may visit the UK to preach or do pastoral work”.
This provides an opportunity for ministers of religion to officiate at a wedding or funeral, for example, and even to conduct a weekly service on an adhoc basis.
The visit rules rightly do not permit a Minister of religion to undertake paid work. If the intention is to provide cover for a holiday incumbent on a prolonged basis, which involves remuneration, we believe that the visiting Minister should have a work visa. That position is no different for a locum doctor providing cover for a GP or a supply teacher in a school, or anyone else coming to the UK on a temporary basis to provide cover for a full-time worker.
Anyone in that situation does require a tier 2 visa, as we have elaborated. It is right that those rules apply in the normal way to ministers of religion, not least because tier 2 contains an English language requirement. This ensures that visiting ministers of religion have the required level of English reflecting the important role that faith leaders play in ensuring community cohesion.
I understand that point. I am just trying to set out the differences between the three different visa routes that exist, to try to help people come into the country to support religious communities.
I hope that I have set out—I do not feel I have agreement on it; clearly there is a vigorous debate and discussion to be had on this—why the Government have done what they have, and why we believe that we did consult on this matter in an appropriate way with impact assessments. If there is hard evidence of genuine problems, of course it is incumbent on the Government and Minister to listen. It is worth reflecting that since the changes that we have discussed were made in January 2019, like for like grants are actually up by 6%, so it is clear that the Government are not seeking to restrict the practice of faith in the UK, as has been suggested—wildly, in my view.
I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow East for securing this debate and for his continued interest in this vital element of life in the UK. The Government are entirely sincere in their commitment to continuing engagement on these sensitive matters.
My overwhelming feeling is that the Minister has been sent here to defend a policy that, in his heart of hearts, he probably realises is a bit of a mess. I thank hon. Members who have come today on a cross-party and interfaith basis and made a compelling argument.
I am sure that the fact that the Minister for Immigration has agreed to a meeting with faith leaders next week is not a coincidence with the timing of this debate. I and many colleagues have been writing to the Home Office about the matter since as far back as April, but miraculously we all started receiving letters only at the end of the week to tell us that that meeting would take place. That may be a coincidence; I do not know. I leave it to the Minister to decide.
It is important that people should not think that this debate affects only Scotland. It does not; our application to the Backbench Business Committee was signed by Members from right across the UK, including some very senior members of the governing party. Given the sheer number of hon. Members who have been contacted about the issue, I would like a commitment from the Minister—a simple nod of the head will be fine—that after the Minister for Immigration’s meeting with faith leaders next week, an update will be circulated to Members of Parliament.
I see the Minister nodding. I am grateful.
We must not let go of the issue, because it is very serious and is causing great consternation in parishes right across the country. It is incumbent on all of us to stand up for those parishes and make sure that we fix this injustice.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered changes to Tier 5 Religious Worker Visas.