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Westminster Hall

Volume 691: debated on Thursday 25 March 2021

Westminster Hall

Thursday 25 March 2021

[Steve McCabe in the Chair]

Backbench Business

Immigration and Nationality Application Fees

Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 25 February).

[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered immigration and nationality application fees.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I have an important issue to highlight today about an injustice that has long been a concern of mine in my constituency. I am pleased to see so many Members in attendance. Many more offered support for the debate, which I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting.

This issue has a big impact on a relatively small number of people. There is a wider issue about the fees for immigration and citizenship, but I will focus on particular on young people who were not born in the UK but arrived as children and for whom this is their only home. I am aware of the interest in the debate and know that cross-party colleagues from around the House will have more specific issues to raise, so I will not take too much of their time.

We have seen a pattern in the increase in fees and the route to citizenship that is having a detrimental effect on many of my constituents. It affects adults and young people who arrive in the UK and seek to become citizens. Whatever our politics or our party, I think we all agree that we should be proud that people want to become citizens of the United Kingdom and seek to get a British passport, but for young people in particular the route to citizenship is having a big impact and depriving them of fulfilling their full role in British society.

Let me give a bit of history. I have been the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch for nearly 16 years, and when I was first elected somebody could apply for one leave to remain application that would last for five years, and after five years they could apply for citizenship, so they would pay two fees. It moved to applying for three years at a time, so two applications were needed to get to the five years. Now, people have to apply at least three times: that would get them to five years, but those on the 10-year route to citizenship must apply multiple times.

The fees have also gone up individually. For a registration of a child as a British citizen, in April 2011—six years after I was elected—it was £540 and this year it is expected to be £1,012. For indefinite leave to remain for main applicants and children, in 2011 it was £972 for the main applicant—typically the head of the household—and in 2021 it is £2,389 for the main applicant and for dependents, too. Dependents used to be about half the price of a main applicant. When we look at the combined impact of the fees, we see it is incredibly expensive. It adds up typically to more than £10,000 for somebody to apply.

It is important to touch on the implications for the Government vision for a global Britain as part of an international community where we attract talent. We know in the past we have had challenges attracting people to universities in this country. English-speaking countries such as Canada and Australia advertised in other countries’ newspapers for people to apply to them, saying that their fees are cheaper. So there is a direct impact on the Government’s own policies.

It is impossible to compare fees completely across countries, but I will give a couple of examples. In Ireland, the naturalisation fees for adults or children is €175, or roughly £150. Denmark has a standard naturalisation fee of 3,800 krone, or roughly £438—forgive me if my exchange rates are a few days out. In Canada, the fee for adult citizenship applications is roughly £306. We are looking at a very different scale, and that is alongside the hoops that people have to go through.

Let me just do a little bit of maths for the Minister and add up some of the costs. Let us not forget that we have to add the immigration surcharge, now £400 per person per year. For an application for two and a half years’ leave to remain, that adds £1,000 on top. That increased in October last year to £624 per person per year, or £470 for applicants under 18. That is £1,560 for an adult applying for two and a half years’ leave to remain. We have to remember that two and a half years’ leave to remain gets someone just two and a half years’ leave to remain. Before that ends, they have to be putting in the fees and the application for the next process. Barely has a household got over the cost of paying these fees than it has to start saving up for the next application.

Over a 10-year period of qualifying residence, if the fees do not change, the overall cost would be, for a single adult, £10,372 and for a family of four, £38,408. I highlight the family of four figure, because I am talking particularly of people in my constituency who are affected, who arrived here as children and for whom this is the country they know, the country in which they have been to school and the country that they love.

The Greater London Authority estimates that around 330,000 children and young people have precarious citizenship status. That does not mean that they are all on the route to citizenship. Relative to the Minister’s overall workload, only a small number of people are affected, if we look at just young people—because it will be a subset of that group—but it is a very significant group in terms of what they could deliver to the UK.

We have had some recent announcements on the Government’s proposals on entrepreneurial visas. I represent Shoreditch, so I know all about the tech visas and the entrepreneurial visas. For the global talent visa, for example, the application fee is £152 for the main applicant, though it can rise to £456 in certain circumstances. Even an extension of that is only £608. An innovator visa is just over £1,000 and a 10-year private family grounds visa is £1,033 per person for the main applicant or a dependant.

The difference is extraordinary; it is tenfold. That makes it very unfair, because the people I am talking about have grown up in the UK, they have been educated in the UK and they want to stay in the UK. They have no other country that is home. They may have parents who come from another country and they may have been born in another country, but that is not their home. They feel part of British society. We are making them a second-class part of British society by putting these fee barriers in their path.

For many families, if they have the choice between having the main breadwinner become a citizen, or the rest of the family, the choice will be straightforward. They make just one member of the family a citizen and the others do not qualify for it without paying the fees. For the young people I am talking about, they often do not realise until they are 18 and they would like to go to university—I pay tribute to We Belong, an organisation that is partly the brainchild of my constituent, Chrisann Jarrett. Suddenly, on top of those fees that they have not been able to pay, they are faced with international student fees. They want to be full, contributing members of British society; in fact, they want to be British citizens, but they are priced out. At the same time as we are encouraging entrepreneurs and innovators to come in on cheaper visas to contribute to the wealth of our country, we have a wealth of talent already here that is keen, willing and able to contribute. For these children and young people, the UK is home. They are not going to go anywhere else and they want to contribute.

As the Children’s Society recognises, about half of children with foreign-born parents live in poverty. These are not wealthy families necessarily; I will say clearly, though, that in my experience there is no poverty of ambition. These are working households, but the fees are out of reach of anyone on a low, average or even rather good wage, so I think it is time that the Home Office looked at this.

The Government have made great play of leaving the European Union. They have made announcements recently about Britain’s place in the world and global Britain. They need now to follow up with actions and support these young world citizens who want to become British citizens; they are living in our communities now and are keen to contribute. I hope that the Minister will give us a full answer on the justification for these citizenship fees, and a hint that the Government are considering a change of direction.

To accommodate everyone on the call list, I am imposing a four-and-a-half-minute limit on Back-Bench contributions.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I had no notice whatever of having to trim my speech down to four and a half minutes, but thank you all the same.

I thank the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) for initiating this debate on such an important and timely topic, and one that is close to my heart—I declare as an interest that my partner is from the Philippines and is intrinsically involved in the situation that we are debating today.

I am interested in looking at the situation from a very specific point of view. Typically in this country, we use the word “hero” far too casually. It is often lavished on our celebrities and sports stars, and although I am sure that they are very deserving, I think that this pandemic has shown us who the true heroes are in this country—the workers in our NHS. The entire NHS has played a vital role, but our thanks and gratitude go, in particular, to those NHS workers who have come from other countries—individuals who have travelled huge distances to be here and often separated themselves from their families, who have been putting their own lives at risk to help and save our lives, the lives of citizens from a different country to their own. But regardless of their or our citizenship, their duty and responsibility to care for and contribute to the wellbeing of others comes first for those people. That is absolutely amazing and should be highly commended.

I welcome the many steps that the Government have taken for foreign NHS workers, but we need to go further. As the hon. Lady has already been through the fees and costs, I will not expatiate on those at this time, but I would like to set out the real-life case of Carrie. I am using a different name for her, but it is a real-life case all the same.

In 2016, Carrie moved to the UK, leaving her husband and four-year-old child back at home in south Asia. It took another year for her to be able to bring her husband and daughter here, because of the cost involved in getting a dependant’s visa. They could be together as a family again only by taking out a loan, which she had to pay for over three years. Three years after she arrived and so with one more year of loan payments still to go, she had to get another loan and compound her obvious cash-flow problems, because she was due for her visa renewal and so had a load more fees on top of the ones that she had already paid.

This year, in 2021, Carrie is entitled to apply for indefinite leave to remain—five years in—with loans still ongoing from previous renewals, and the ILR more expensive again. So what does she do? What options are available to Carrie? Her only choice is to apply for another loan, even bigger than before, to have the right to occupy a space in the UK and call it home. She pays her taxes every month and has done for years. Oh and by the way, she works in an intensive care unit—she has spent the past five years saving lives, especially in the past 12 months. She should not be in debt; we are indebted to her.

It is our duty to create a new route to citizenship for NHS workers—one that will not leave workers in debt, poverty and constant worry about funding their next application a few years down the line—by reducing by at least half and, in time, abolishing completely the costs associated with applying for indefinite leave to remain and citizenship for our NHS workers. I am proud that our amazing NHS attracts such global talent and recruits from around the world. Frankly, we would not be able to run it without them. As of last year, more than 160,000 NHS staff stated that they were of a non-British nationality; they were from more than 200 different countries. That is nearly 15% of all staff for whom a nationality is known. But the current fees and processes are a huge barrier to both future NHS workers, who are putting off coming to the UK to fill our many vacancies, and to current NHS workers, who cannot afford the final step and have the permanent residency that they have earned through their service to our country.

Citizenship is not about cost. It should be about contribution and inclusion in our communities. NHS workers have perhaps given the biggest contribution of all: saving our lives and keeping us safe. Despite being valued members of the communities in which they live and work, without being citizens they cannot be fully part of them. Without indefinite leave to remain, there are barriers to home ownership, to the jobs market and in higher education.

Research shows that newly naturalised immigrants not only benefit our society, but it benefits them too, with citizens seeing rising wages and better employment opportunities as well as becoming more likely to engage in civil and political activities. Let us treat these people better so that they can finally feel like they belong and are welcomed with open arms.

In 2019, the High Court found that the Home Office’s fee of £1,012 for registering child citizenship is unlawful. I believe this fee is still in place and is being charged for children who are already entitled to citizenship. I agree with Amnesty International that this is an example of shameless profiteering by the Home Office.

This demonstrates the general unaffordability of immigration and nationality application fees charged by the Home Office. For example, the fee for a leave to remain visa stands at over £1,000. An application for indefinite leave to remain is £2,389. Add to that the cost of processing the applications, paperwork and biometrics, all outsourced to private companies, and the cost of an indefinite leave to remain visa is easily over £3,000. That is not considering the immigration health surcharge that applicants must also pay, even if they have been paying taxes and national insurance in the UK already.

Naturalisation costs are also extremely onerous, costing over £1,300. Nationality registration for an adult costs over £1,200. To make matters worse, these application fees are non-refundable, meaning that if an application is unsuccessful for whatever reason, that applicant stands to lose a significant amount of money. Readmission means making the same payment again.

It is clear to anyone that such an expensive and complex fee structure for visas is part of the Government’s continued operation of a hostile environment for immigrants. The fees make applications unaffordable for many people, essentially deterring them from making applications. In my view, they are not only an example of shameless profiteering by the Home Office, but also a crude attempt to suppress applications to reduce immigration to the UK.

It is about time that the Home Office takes the matter seriously and considers its fee structure for immigration and nationality fees. A good place to start would be to recognise the High Court’s ruling on the unlawfulness of registration fees for child nationality and immediately establish a refund policy for those fees. This should be the beginning of a root-and-branch reform of the visa and nationality application fee structure, with the aim of making visa applications more affordable for all migrants and citizens of this country.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. My hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Rob Roberts) made some very insightful comments in describing the impact that fees can have on individuals as they make their journey through the immigration system from newly arriving in our country to becoming full citizens. I am pleased to be able to highlight a couple of aspects of that, because it is important that, in the context of global Britain and a different approach to managing immigration, we consider the measures and steps that we need in both our border process and the way we manage citizenship in order to make it a better experience for all.

We should start by recognising that what is often referred to today as the “hostile environment” has developed under parties of all colours in Government, starting in the early 2000s, when people who were seeking asylum began to lose their entitlements to certain benefits. As the Home Office begins to move away from seeking to enforce caps on numbers, and towards a system that is designed to incentivise the right people who want to contribute to our economy to become citizens of the United Kingdom by taking up the offer of citizenship, we would expect to see a range of changes.

Charges for people to gain their citizenship are by no means unusual. In fact, if people wish to get into many other countries and receive a work permit—Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand and indeed many European countries—such countries apply a similar system whereby they expect people to pay a contribution towards the costs. Certainly in my time in local government, when I used to see people coming to the town hall for the citizenship ceremony and to swear their oath, it was very clear that they saw this as something incredibly precious that they felt it was worth saving towards and that marked a landmark moment in their lives.

However, there are those for whom the costs are a significant barrier, and I particularly highlight the impact on children and the risk in respect of children who are in the care system, where clearly there is a possibility that this simply becomes a cost that is shoved on to the budgets of local authorities. Certainly in my experience as a councillor in a local authority with very large numbers of refugee children, it would almost invariably be in the best interests of those children to seek to gain citizenship for them. That was often challenging for bureaucratic reasons, especially when there was no documentation available to demonstrate who those individuals were in order to regularise their position, but it was made even more challenging if a local authority was expected to pay significant citizenship charges to achieve that status for them, which was an expectation laid down as a result of the laws of the United Kingdom. I would like to hear from the Home Office that, as we review the way we support refugee children in this country, given that the numbers arriving into the UK have on average doubled since 2015—we are talking about significant numbers of young people in the care of a very large number of local authorities—we will ensure that we do not impose additional costs on local authorities that are simply seeking to do the right thing by those young people.

Both the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) and my hon. Friend the Member for Delyn spelt out very clearly what the impact can be on families when a significant number of individuals all need to pay the fee. Similarly, when we consider the impact on children in that situation—mum or dad feel that it is simply too expensive and too difficult to save the money for the fee—we should think about how that might deter people who would make fantastic British citizens from doing it. Again, it would be good to hear that, as part of the consideration of what the future will be for our borders policy, we may have a system that recognises the value that families add, that supports them on their journey through the system and that ensures that the fees, although they are rightly high for something that is incredibly precious and costs a good deal of money to administer, are not a barrier to making sure that the full range of people who want to come to contribute to our life in the United Kingdom are able to do so.

Thank you for calling me to speak, McCabe; it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) on securing this important debate.

Over the last decade, immigration fees have continued to increase to eye-watering amounts, preventing many people from pursuing permanent settlement or even their right to citizenship. Meanwhile, many of those who manage to pay the fees find that they have been pushed into unsustainable amounts of debt. That needs to change urgently. The Government appear to have never considered the socioeconomic or welfare impact of high fees on those who are forced to pay them, but that impact is often severe.

I would like to take this opportunity to share the dilemma faced by families in my constituency. My constituent Ajid has worked hard to support his two children but has been forced into unsustainable credit card debt after having to pay over £9,000 in UK visa renewal fees. He has a right to work and live in this country but the Government have pushed him to the brink of destitution simply because he attempted to exercise that right. My constituent Patricia is a single mother with three children and is in thousands of pounds-worth of debt, because of the cost of application fees and paying a solicitor to help her to navigate the complicated and demeaning fee waiver application process. Incidentally, her fee waiver application was ultimately unsuccessful.

I hope that the Minister will take my constituents’ experiences into consideration and will agree with me that immigration fees that push those who pay them into destitution are no longer sustainable, and that there is an urgent need to review them. I ask him not to say that the offer of a discretionary fee waiver is the answer, because my constituent was unsuccessful. The process is complicated and requires expensive legal assistance. I hope that the Minister will listen to everything that is said today and review the system. As it stands it is pushing many of our constituents into destitution.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak in this important debate, Mr McCabe. Bradford is a proud city of sanctuary that has for generations welcomed people of all backgrounds from all over the world with open arms, whatever their circumstances, and as the Member representing it I will continue to speak out on the issue until we have a system that treats people with fairness and compassion. However, under the present Government we sadly do not see a shred of fairness or compassion. It is sincerely lacking in almost every policy that comes from the Home Office.

As I set out last year in a debate on the Immigration Act 2020, the complex rules that force applicants to jump through countless hoops, the requirement for incomes above the national average, in some parts of the country, and the fees that mean that applicants must have thousands of pounds stored away, all show us exactly what the Government think about a caring, compassionate immigration system—and about migrants. They think that just because people are in the wrong circumstances, in low-paid roles or with few savings, they do not deserve to be with the ones they love. Their failure even to address those points in the last year and longer, which deeply pains me and many of my constituents, proves that.

As to fees in particular, a partner wishing to bring their spouse and children to the UK faces paying thousands of pounds in visa fees, immigration health surcharges and biometrics appointments. All the fees are beyond what it takes to administer those things. That means that someone somewhere makes a tidy profit from human misery and from reuniting families. Of more concern in relation to the Government’s human rights record, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Tahir Ali) said, the Home Office has failed to take action following a decision by the High Court in December 2019, well over a year ago, that declared that the £1,000-plus fee for children to be registered as British citizens is unlawful. The fee is still being charged and we still do not know when the Government will put an end to it and whether they will compensate the families who have been charged that unlawful fee in the past.

On top of that, we have the bizarre situation in which it costs a British national more to bring their foreign national spouse to the UK than it costs a foreign national in the UK to do the same. I ask the Minister: how does that make any sense? Yet not only does a family face excessive fees stretching to thousands of pounds—which are not a one-off payment but must be paid again and again on renewal—but the level of service to applicants does not match the amount they must pay. They struggle to get appointments for biometric cards. They, or their legal representatives, cannot get hold of decision makers or others in the Home Office, forcing them to rely on MPs’ offices, and there are significant delays between applications, processing and the delivery of visas. As a result, we are very, very far from seeing anything that even resembles value for money in the Home Office’s practices.

During the coronavirus crisis, people have recognised just how agonising the forced separation of families truly is. Although the crisis will come to an end for many of us as coronavirus rules and restrictions are relaxed, it will not end for the families that the Government’s rules and fees keep apart. Instead, their heartbreak continues. So, too, does the hostile environment that the Government have created for people who want to come to this country to make a better life for their family, and who, let us not forget, already live and work here.

Finally, I urge the Minister to listen to the thousands of families up and down the country who want nothing more than to be one whole family living together.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) for securing this hugely important debate today.

The current system of nationality application fees is deeply unjust. The 10-year route to leave to remain costs £12,771 per person and requires five separate applications over that time. The cost of leave to remain fees over the past six years has increased by 331%. It is a shame that our NHS staff pay rises are not set on that ratio by the Home Office.

As is clear from the Library’s briefing and We Belong’s report, the administrative cost to the Home Office of processing each application is a fraction of what it charges in fees. As much as 86% in profit is made by the Minister’s Department from every single application, from a process that, as many in this debate today have described, has a devastating impact on the wellbeing and livelihoods of those faced with the costs, and which also creates barriers to work, healthcare, renting a home, opening a bank account or going to university.

As Members have mentioned in their speeches, those affected include young people who have also been disproportionately hit in the pandemic. Youth unemployment has risen by more than 100% in my constituency of Liverpool, West Derby, so these fees are becoming even more devastating. Added to that is the Department’s complex waiver system, which rejects a high proportion of applications and leaves some individuals needing to pay for legal representation. With the shutting down of many law centres and advice centres in our communities, the ability to access justice in some areas is near impossible. As We Belong highlights, many young people will undoubtedly be driven into poverty or will lose their lawful status as a result of those high costs.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Bell Ribeiro-Addy) set out in her question to the Prime Minister last month, hundreds of thousands of children who were born or raised in the UK are priced out by the fees. A recent report from the Children’s Society found that almost half of the children with foreign-born parents live in poverty, with parents reporting that they are unable to meet even their children’s most basic needs.

The impact of the costs concurs with the evidence that I have heard from across the country as I have collected evidence for the Right to Food campaign that I am spearheading in Parliament. I, and many across our communities, see the system of fees as morally bankrupt. It plunges many into abject misery, as outlined today.

In response to a petition to Parliament on this subject, the Government acknowledged that they are overcharging. Their response stated:

“The principle of charging at above cost has been in place for over a decade”.

Will the Minister commit today to at the very least ending that shameful practice?

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) for securing this debate. I know that she shares my sincere admiration for the tireless dedication shown by our frontline doctors, nurses and carers over the last year. Our treasured NHS truly is the pride of our nation.

I was shaken to hear St Helier hospital staff on “Channel Four News” in January comparing their wards with war zones. A critical incident over Christmas had resulted in the hospital diverting patients to Kingston Hospital and St George’s Hospital, because they were using more oxygen than the vaporiser could deliver. The staff at St Helier hospital are doing a remarkable job, but they face the most testing of circumstances.

So earlier this month I joined nurses from the Royal College of Nursing on a call to hear about their experience. I met Kathryn and today I will tell her story. Kathryn is an NHS nurse from the Philippines. Staff from her NHS trust flew out to her country six years ago to recruit dozens of nurses, sponsoring their initial three-year working visas. For Kathryn, moving almost 7,000 miles away from her family meant the opportunity to support her family. We invited her here to do an essential job that puts her at risk of losing her life, but Minister, we then charge her excessively for that privilege.

Every three years, Kathryn faces a new £1,000 visa fee. She was one of the lucky ones whose employers covered her health surcharge, a cost that has soared to hundreds of pounds for her peers. Receiving just an entry-level salary, Kathryn sends as much money back home as she can afford, and supporting her family became even more important when her mum was hospitalised earlier this year.

After almost six years in the UK, Kathryn is now able to apply for indefinite leave to remain, but the clock is ticking and she needs to save the £2,500 required before her visa renewal is due this winter. If she cannot save enough money in time, she pays a fresh cost of £1,000 to renew her visa and she will have to start saving again from scratch. But how can she save when she earns so little? Every penny is vital and Kathryn resorted to withdrawing from the NHS pension scheme before the pandemic. Maybe the Minister can see why the 1% pay rise is a bit of a kick in the teeth.

Then along came covid. Kathryn was redeployed to the accident and emergency department, facing intolerable pressure, but so many of us owe our lives to A&E staff. One of her colleagues lost his life. He was just 33 and the breadwinner for his parents back home. He had worked to ensure that they could afford to send his siblings to school. In his memory and without using his own funds, his colleagues had to collect enough money to be able to send his ashes home. With no NHS pension scheme and consequently no death in service benefit, Kathryn came to work every day worrying how she would be buried if she were to die.

Asking people from poorer countries to help run our NHS is not new, but charging them large amounts of money for the privilege is. So I say to the Minister: Kathryn risks her life at our invitation and is charged exploitative costs to do so. Does he really think that is right or fair? Why should her sacrifice cost her so much?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe, and I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) on securing this important debate.

It is a feature of this Government’s hostile environment policy on immigration that it treats everyone in the immigration system with equal bad faith. We see that in the appalling state of initial accommodation for asylum seekers, which treats desperate people fleeing horrific violence, persecution and other horrors as if they were criminals; we see it in the lack of safe and legal routes for asylum seekers, and in the cancellation of the Dubs scheme for family reunification; and we see it in the appalling level of service that applicants receive from the Home Office, with mistakes and inaccurate decisions frequently being made, and in the absence of any service standard at all within the Home Office for determining applications brought under article 8 of the Human Rights Act. The system often keeps people waiting indefinitely, in extreme financial hardship, for the decision that they need to resolve their status and to be able to provide for their families. At every turn, this Government go out of their way to say to people who have come to the UK from overseas that they are not really welcome here.

The schedule of application fees is another example. High fees are a cost barrier that stop people claiming their rightful status as UK citizens. I have spoken to many constituents who cannot afford to make applications for their children. Some end up in debt to family and friends in order to fund applications, and others delay making applications on behalf of their children, storing up problems for them later in life when they come to apply for student finance or employment. Many victims of the Windrush scandal came to the UK as children and encountered problems because the adults who were responsible for them at that time had never regularised their status. The current policy of placing immigration fees out of the reach of parents risks sowing the seeds of a future Windrush scandal.

My constituent, A, arrived in the UK as a child and legally resided here for more than a decade. His parents and sibling gained indefinite leave to remain under the highly skilled migrants programme. However, the cost of the application meant that A’s parents were unable to secure ILR for him at the same time. Instead, he was granted 30 months’ leave to remain in 2014, which expired in 2016. At that time, there was an administrative delay and his family were poorly advised by their solicitor, resulting in a short interruption in A’s immigration status. A did very well at school and secured a place at university to study architecture, but because of the interruption in his status—no fault of his family’s—he has been refused student finance. I mention that example because it shows how this policy is causing further material consequences that have devastating impacts on young lives. Had the fees been more affordable, A would never have been in this situation. He would have been granted ILR at the same time as the rest of his family.

The policy also affects many of the key workers on whom we have relied throughout the pandemic. High immigration fees affect NHS workers, social care workers, transport and retail workers—people on whom we all rely and to whom we all owe a huge debt of gratitude, particularly over this past year. This policy is an insult to them and, in addition to the financial burden, has added further stress and anxiety at an impossibly difficult time.

Immigration benefits the UK economically, socially and culturally. This country is enriched by those who have chosen to come here from overseas. Yet the UK Government persist in this hostile environment, of which high application fees are a key component. I call on the Government to undertake a comprehensive review of fees within the immigration system to stop the many hidden injustices that the policy is causing.

I am glad to be able to raise some of my constituents’ concerns in this debate. The Home Office’s route to citizenship really does treat people as cash cows. It is blatant profiteering off the backs of people who have come to this country to help and to contribute, and it has a negative impact on families’ health and wellbeing, pushing them into debt. The 10-year path to application for ILR, as people have pointed out, means fees every 30 months, the immigration health surcharge, and the ILR application itself after all that. As the House of Commons Library points out, that totals £10,372 in fees and an additional £2,389 for ILR.

Of course, that amount assumes that everything is simple and straightforward, which we know often is not. For example, it does not include lawyers’ fees which, although perhaps necessary, can be absolutely eye-watering for families. I know from people in my constituency that the costs mount up, particularly for families with more than one child. As the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) rightly pointed out, this means that families prioritise those who are working and leave children to a later stage. Other families who cannot make those choices end up in a huge amount of debt, sometimes even putting these fees on credit cards, leading to significant financial problems for many.

They cannot live the life that the rest of us can enjoy. Many children cannot then participate in school trips, for example, because they do not have the right to travel due to not having citizenship or the relevant passport to do so. They lose out because their families are putting so much into the immigration system that they cannot afford the basics that many other families enjoy. The fee waiver, as others have pointed out and which the Minister may fall back on, is incredibly difficult to get. I have tried to support constituents to get a fee waiver, but it often proves almost impossible unless the family were absolutely destitute. That should not be something that a family has to prove just for the privilege of living in and being a citizen of this country.

As other Members have pointed out, the system itself is incredibly poor. Many cases are lengthy and the processes are inefficient. Many of my constituents have waited years and years to be processed due to issues that the Home Office deems “complex” while often being unwilling or unable to discuss with me as the MP. I could speak at length as well about the visitor visa process, which is absolutely appalling. It just takes money from people, only to refuse their application and then grant it later down the line despite nothing much having changed.

To move to the highly-skilled migrants, I was aghast and shocked to find the Chancellor bigging up the chances of bringing in highly-skilled migrants to this country in his Budget, because I have dealt with many of the highly-skilled migrants affected by the 322(5) case and who found themselves suddenly losing out. Many of them, who were at the end of the 10-year route to ILR and had paid their fees and taxes over the years, lost out because they had made legitimate changes that anyone could make to their tax returns. That meant that their route to citizenship was torn away from them completely unjustifiably by the Home Office, and many people are still in this situation waiting for justice.

Many of these people have been here contributing for a decade or more, but the Home Office then treats them like criminals in the country they have made their home. To use the phrase from 322(5) in the immigration rules, they were deemed

“a threat to national security”

and all for making a legitimate change to their tax return. It is absolutely shocking and unacceptable, and before a single further person is given a highly-skilled migrant visa, I ask the Chancellor and the Home Office to sort out this injustice once and for all. It cannot be that those who are already here and have already contributed are treated so abysmally while the Chancellor tries with the other hand to bring people into this country.

I could speak at length about the many cases I have seen over the past six years showing how incompetent, expensive, inefficient and cruel the Home Office is, but I ask the Minister to reflect on these issues that I have raised and make it fairer for families who just want to live their lives, get on with things and have their children grow up in this country. We should owe them a great debt of thanks, not put a great debt on their shoulders.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) on securing this debate. She gave a comprehensive exposition of the issues, as have others over the course of the debate, and I do not intend to repeat them.

I observe in passing, though, that I have noticed among my own constituency casework a significant increase in the number of people, previously here as EU citizens under the right to remain from the treaties, who are now looking to take on citizenship. They feel that it gives them greater certainty than would be the case if they were to go down the route of the other schemes that are available. I suspect that, in relation to citizenship and nationality, this situation is only going to become more acute.

The point that I want to put before the House and, in particular, the Minister is that the fees for immigration and nationality applications are not the only costs that are faced by people in my constituency. The Home Office has refused from day one to offer the biometric enrolment process in Lerwick or in Kirkwall, because it says that there are not enough people there to justify the provision of the service. I understand that the numbers are not high, but the consequences for my constituents are severe.

My constituents are required to go to Aberdeen or, on one occasion where the machine in Aberdeen was not working, to travel on to Dundee to enrol their biometric information. Over and above the cost of the fee for enrolling biometrics, if someone lives in Shetland, they would have to get the 5 o’clock overnight ferry to Aberdeen, which will get them in to Aberdeen at 7.30 am. They have their appointment and enrol their biometrics, and are back at the ferry terminal in Aberdeen at the end of the day to get the overnight ferry back. They leave at 5 pm on a Monday, and they are not back home until 7 am on the Wednesday. That is the actual commitment that is required. They could take a day trip on a plane. I have just checked the service on Loganair’s website, and they can get out at 8.30 am in the morning and come back at 10 past 3 in the afternoon, so it is just about doable, because enrolling biometrics is not a long process. The cost of that is £492. That is the extra charge that we pay over and above all the fees about which every other person in this debate has rightly complained.

To put it in terms that the Minister might understand, he asks of my constituents the same as he would be asking of his own if he were to say to them that they should go from Torbay to Stoke-on-Tent to enrol their biometrics. I suspect that his constituents would not be keen on that, never mind the possibility that the machine in Stoke-on-Trent might be broken so they might have to carry on and enrol their biometrics in Manchester. He would not accept that for his constituents, so why do he and his predecessors seem to think that I should accept it for mine? I will leave him the extra 45 seconds to give that answer in his reply.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. Thank you for calling me. I thank the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) for securing this important debate and for her opening speech, which set the scene brilliantly.

Members have eloquently and powerfully raised some strong examples of fees applied by the Home Office that are unreasonable, unfair and sometimes frankly utterly extortionate. We have heard about citizenship fees right across the board. Some have mentioned the immigration health surcharge, which my party opposes outright. Members also spoke powerfully about NHS and other frontline workers, to whom we owe so much.

We have heard a lot about fees for children, including those in the care system, and several hon. Members raised the fees that families face. Many family members are forced apart by them, and others have to make awful calls, such as which child they can afford to put forward for citizenship and which they have to leave behind—what an awful choice to have to make.

We have just heard about some of the other associated costs of applications, from legal fees to biometrics and the travel that is involved for some. Other hon. Members raised the quality of service provided in response to payment of those fees. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) rightly continues to champion the case of highly skilled migrants.

There are many other causes that we could have mentioned today. One is the fees faced by former members of the armed forces who want to settle in the United Kingdom. I support all those complaints, but in the time available I will focus on two issues that impact on children in particular, as others have done. I will close by suggesting that all these various complaints mean that it is time that we rethink the statutory scheme that guides the Home Office when it is setting fees.

As it stands, the Home Office is entitled to think about only the following factors when setting fees: processing costs, the benefits that will accrue to the applicant and others, the cost of other immigration and nationality functions, economic growth, international comparisons and international agreements. There are problems with that framework and how the Home Office is currently applying it.

I will start with the fees that are charged to children who are registering their right to British citizenship. These are kids who are born here but are not automatically British and are subsequently entitled to register as such, either because their parents become settled or become citizens or because they are here for the first 10 years of their lives. Those rights were set out by Parliament in 1981 when it repealed automatic citizenship by birth alone in the United Kingdom. Those rights are there to protect kids for whom the reality is that the UK is their home and, de facto, their country of nationality. Unlike those of us who are British at birth automatically and pay no fee for the privilege, those kids, as we have heard, are required to pay just over £1,000. The cost to the Home Office of processing the application is approximately one third of that.

In essence, what we have here is a horrendous, great big poll tax on the British citizenship of certain children—one that brooks no waivers or exceptions, and one that Home Office lawyers have acknowledged in court has

“a serious adverse impact on the ability of a significant number of children to apply successfully for registration”

as British citizens.

I know that the Minister knows the arguments well; he has met with the fantastic campaign group We Belong, previously known as Let Us Learn, and I appreciate that he did that.

That said, his predecessor met with the equally brilliant Project for the Registration of Children as British Citizens and, in the absence of any action or response, PRCBC successfully persuaded the Court of Appeal that these fees breach the statutory duties of the Home Office regarding the best interests of the child. The Supreme Court will, if required, go on to determine whether the fees are also illegal on the grounds that they render the statutory rights impossible for so many.

I appreciate that the litigation may mean the Minister cannot say too much today, but the fact that these fees need to be looked at again means it is all the more important that, as cross-party MPs, we re-emphasise the opposition to them—and there is cross-party opposition. This is a grave injustice. As Members on both sides have said, citizenship is not just a matter of the colour of one’s passport; it has profound implications on a sense of identity, belonging, community integration, and so on.

If litigation forces a different approach, that would be brilliant, but it would be so much better if the Home Office and Treasury just listen to the arguments and made the change themselves. These kids are entitled to British citizenship, and fees should not stop them from accessing it.

The other distinct issue that I want to raise is one that others have touched on: the long route to settlement. This is a 10-year process that people with strong ties of family or private life are put through by the Home Office. The whole design of this route, not just its fee, is cruel, but the expense is especially outrageous.

As we have heard, including the final indefinite leave to remain application, this route requires five applications, currently costing a total of over £12,500 in fees and health surcharges for each individual before they will ever have secure, permanent status. A family of four must pay around £10,000 in fees every two and a half years, and only a little over 10% of that covers the actual cost of the Home Office processing these applications.

In normal times, three quarters, or more, of fee waiver applications are refused by the Home Office, and that then means that applicants have only 10 days to stump up the cash before the whole application is rejected. That puts many back to square one. Indefinite leave applications do not attract a fee waiver at all, leaving many stranded on precarious short-term leave for a long, long, time, so slashing these fees is absolutely essential. Colleagues have spoken powerfully about the impact they are having on the lives of families and children in their constituencies. The immigration health surcharge should be removed from this route. These are people for whom the reality is that the UK is their home, and it will continue to be; the Government should acknowledge that.

In conclusion, Mr McCabe, I want to touch upon the issue of whether or not we need to rethink the overall framework, and I think that we do. I will make two quick points, although I could make many more.

One fundamental problem is that the framework treats all types of application as if they are of the same nature, and that the same considerations should apply. However, issues around citizenship have a profoundly different nature to visit visas, student visas or other types of work visa. Even within citizenship, the right to a nationality in one’s de facto home country is a completely different issue to naturalisation fees for adults who have made a proactive choice to come here and to take up that nationality.

Economic growth or subsidising other parts of the border system might be relevant to certain work visas, but it is absolutely not appropriate or fair to apply those considerations to applications by children for citizenship in their home country. That is why we need to rethink the framework.

Secondly, when considering the benefit that will accrue to the applicant, which is required by statute, it seems to me that the Home Office approach is always “the greater the benefit to the applicant, the more that we should charge them”, but it should not be. Citizenship confers the most profound benefit of any of the applications that the Home Office deals with. We should want the children who have that right to be able to access it. The consequences of them not being able to are really quite troubling, so, in fact, the benefit that will accrue to them is a reason for lowering the fee, rather than trying to squeeze every last penny from it.

There is so much more that could be said in this, but I hope that the Minister will listen, both to the complaints made about specific fees and to the suggestion that we need to look more broadly at the framework that surrounds the process for setting them. Once again, thanks to the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch for securing such a crucial debate, and to Members for engaging in it.

It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I join others in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) on securing this important debate and opening the contributions.

My hon. Friend did an excellent job in setting out the different fees, their cumulative effect and how they make us one of the least competitive countries in the world if we want to attract the brightest and the best, even through options like the global talent visa. She has enjoyed a great deal of cross-party support this afternoon.

I begin by reflecting on how immigration and nationality fees have increased over the past 10 years. Others have paid tribute to the wonderful organisation We Belong, which is led by young people who have made the UK their home. They are right to say that the cost of leave to remain for those who came to UK, which was a focus of my hon. Friend’s opening speech, has increased by 331% in the past six years alone. Just imagine if the same could be said about nurses’ pay, as my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) said.

The 10-year route to permanent settlement through leave to remain requires five applications totalling £12,771 per person. That statistic is made even more staggering when we consider that it costs the Government just £142 to process those applications. The fact that the Government seek to make a profit from people who grew up in this country and who simply want to establish a future here in the UK is unacceptable. It denies them the security and certainty that they deserve. My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain) is quite right when he says that the fees paid are not reflected in the experience that people have in their service from the Home Office.

As my hon. Friends the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Tahir Ali) and for Bradford East, and the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald), have already said, the Court of Appeal found that the requirement for children who are entitled to be registered as British citizens to pay a fee of £1,012 fails to take into consideration the children’s best interests. The Government have yet to respond to this decision, and therefore I call on the Minister urgently to reconsider this issue when they respond to those concerns. Once again, it is disappointing that it has fallen to the courts to pull up the Government with a judgment that said the fee would leave children feeling “alienated, excluded, isolated” and “second-best,” when instead some compassion and common sense would go a long way.

Others have raised the challenges facing this country as a consequence of the pandemic. Immigration fees are a significant barrier to many migrant and overseas healthcare workers, as has been highlighted during the last year. I found myself unexpectedly cheering the contribution from the hon. Member for Delyn (Rob Roberts) when he said that NHS workers should not be in debt to pay their fees and that we are the ones who should be indebted to them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) gave a heartbreaking speech about the contribution of her local migrant healthcare workers, which reflects the fact that 169,000 or 13.8% of NHS staff reported a non-British nationality in January last year. Migrant workers currently make up 16% of our social care workforce. Many of those workers face the psychological and financial burden of immigration application fees. I believe the pandemic has made us all recognise beyond any doubt that we absolutely need these people—there’s no two ways about it.

We welcome the decision to extend the visas of doctors, nurses and paramedics that were due to expire before October and then March, even though that second extension came late in the day. It has been a battle to ensure that those extensions recognise all those that they should. We were also delighted that the Government listened to our calls to offer an exemption from the immigration health surcharge to those working in healthcare, even though the delivery of that has been far from as simple as it could have been, with many still waiting for refunds. As the Minister will remember, we were keen to stress during the passing of the Bill that became the Immigration Act 2020 that it is not that we are doing those workers a favour by extending their visas; they are doing us a massive favour, by staying and working on our frontline.

How else can we recognise that contribution? In addition to the fees paid by individuals, the Minister will also remember that we called on the Government to rethink the immigration skills charge for NHS trusts, which is a fee paid by hospitals back to the Government; they often face no choice other than to recruit from overseas for specialist clinical skills, because we have failed to train staff domestically. My local hospital trust, which runs Calderdale Royal Hospital and Huddersfield Royal Infirmary, paid nearly £163,000 back to Government in the 2019-20 financial year alone. That money could have been better spent on services and improving health outcomes. We are aware of at least three trusts that have paid out over £1 million since 2017, with Portsmouth Hospitals NHS Trust paying £2.7 million since 2017. I urge the Minister to reflect on that, as it surely does not make any sense.

The Select Committee on Home Affairs has repeatedly pushed for the free visa extension to be applied to care workers and low-paid NHS staff in non-medical roles, which we fully support, and it has recommended British citizenship or permanent residency be granted to health and social care workers with short-term visas. We have an obligation to acknowledge the sacrifices that migrant workers have made during the pandemic, and removing the fees would be a great start. Research undertaken by the liberal conservative think-tank Bright Blue suggests that 60% of the public think it is important for immigrants living permanently in the UK to become citizens, and 75% think it would be cheaper for certain migrant groups to become citizens. We know there is a broad appetite among the general public to make citizenship more accessible, and fees are certainly one of the biggest barriers.

My constituents in Halifax know from personal experience that the measures introduced by the Government are falling drastically short. My office and I have been supporting a young woman who is a single parent and who works in social care, caring for adults with learning disabilities. She paid to extend her visa in September 2020 and had to pay over £1,000 for the immigration health surcharge. As a direct result of that payment, she is struggling financially, to the extent that we had to refer her to local food banks. We contacted the Home Office to seek clarification as to when she could expect a refund. However, I am afraid to say it has been utterly non-committal. We still have no information as to when she will receive that back. Given the pressures that my constituent has faced over the last year during this pandemic, it is deeply distressing to hear how our immigration fees threaten to leave her without even the most basic essentials. My hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) shared similarly powerful stories from her constituency, about how she feels that both the fees and the solicitor fees are pushing constituents into poverty and destitution.

The Doctors’ Association UK has pointed out:

“We entered this pandemic severely short-staffed, with over 10,000 vacancies for doctors, and 100,000 for nurses.”

An immigration policy that acknowledges that reality, and seeks to fix it with an accessible and affordable process that is fit for purpose, is now required from the Government.

Hon. Members will recognise from their casework that the examples I have mentioned are not uncommon, but I want to turn to the really worrying contrast reported in both The Guardian and the Financial Times recently, which relates to the investigation into the conduct of a Home Office official dating back to 2016. I have written to the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp), about this issue, but sources have claimed, and the Home Office has confirmed, that a senior caseworker who works on nationality applications at the Home Office was investigated by the Department’s anti-corruption unit for allegedly being paid to offer external advice to one of the UK’s largest law firms, Mishcon de Reya. Allegations also include the release of unauthorised information regarding citizenship applications. The official was taken to dinner, and gifts, including champagne, were sent to him and at least one other colleague.

I have asked for that investigation to be published, but the Minister for Crime and Policing said this week that that would not be possible. In his answer to my written question, the Minister present today also confirmed to me this week that:

“Per the Civil Service Code, Civil Servants must not accept gifts or hospitality or receive other benefits from anyone which might reasonably be seen to compromise their personal judgement or integrity.”

In its response to The Guardian newspaper, Mishcon de Reya said:

“There is nothing unusual or inappropriate about this common industry practice.”

Mishcon de Reya was aware that other law firms had similar professional relationships with the official in question. Given that we know gifts were sent to other Home Office officials, I would welcome some clear answers from the Minister. Do we know who else received gifts, and were these returned? How would he respond to the suggestion that such conduct is common industry practice? Those are questions that must be answered, and some transparency is absolutely essential.

Frankly, the news of this scandal comes as an insult to my constituents who cannot afford that level of access to officials via their lawyers, and who are struggling to make ends meet in paying the fees required. We need assurances from the Home Office that the UK immigration system is not one that works only for those who can afford to make it work for them. Over the last decade immigration and nationality application fees have risen beyond what is reasonable, often trapping people into paying fees that are beyond their means for years, just to have the security of staying where they are. My hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) made very clear the consequences for children, in particular, as they grow up in this country.

I know the Minister will recognise the deeply unfair contrast I have set out between those who can afford top lawyers and what would appear to be the enhanced access that comes with that, and those who cannot. We need a fairer system that recognises the contributions made by migrant workers, many of whom work in our local healthcare and who are a precious resource that we just cannot afford to be without.

I was just checking that that was an ending and not a break in the transmission. My apologies. I call the Minister, Kevin Foster.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I thank the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) for securing this debate on immigration and nationality application fees. I thank all Members for their contributions to the discussion today. I welcome any opportunity to hear the views of the House on this subject, even if we come from differing points of view.

It has been an interesting debate. I am in no doubt from the contributions made about the strength of feeling. While I will respond to the points raised today, before I do, it might be helpful to set out the current landscape for the fees we charge for visa, immigration and nationality services.

As was touched on by my SNP shadow, the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald), the Immigration Act 2014 was approved by Parliament under the coalition, during the time when the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) was in the Cabinet. It sets out the governing factors that must be given regard to and are the only matters that can be taken into account when setting fee levels. These are: the costs of administering the service; benefits that are likely to accrue to the applicant on a successful outcome; the cost of operating other parts of the immigration system; the promotion of economic growth; fees charged by or on behalf of Governments of other countries for comparable functions; and any international agreement.

In setting fees, it is important to emphasise the Home Office cannot set or amend fees without obtaining the approval of Parliament. That ensures there are checks and balances in place and that there is full parliamentary oversight of the fees regime, in addition to debates such as that we are having today. Immigration and nationality fees are set within the limits specified by the Immigration and Nationality (Fees) Order 2016, which includes the maximum fee levels that can be charged on each application type or service. That is laid in Parliament and is subject to affirmative resolution procedures.

Individual fee levels are calculated in line with managing public money principles and the powers provided by the Immigration Act 2014. Specific fees are set out in regulations, which are then presented to Parliament and are subject to the negative procedure. The powers agreed by Parliament in 2014 bring benefits to the broader immigration and citizenship system and to the UK in the form of effective and secure border and immigration functions, reduced funding from general taxation and promotion of economic growth.

I turn to the issue that the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch started with—the simplification and the linked parts of the settlement requirements. As she may be aware, I have recently written to the Home Affairs Committee following a meeting with We Belong, which was a useful opportunity to explore with them their experiences of the current system.

Following the Law Commission report on simplification of the immigration rules in 2020, the Home Office is in the process of looking to simplify the immigration rules. As part of that, we are looking at reviewing the rules on settlement and when people qualify for it. We are examining how we could improve the path to settlement for this particular group of young people. Having met them, I recognise the concerns and the wider impact of being placed on what is effectively an 11-year path to citizenship, allowing 10 years to get to permanent settlement—indefinite leave to remain—and then a year free of immigration restrictions to apply for British citizenship, having received indefinite leave to remain. From what we are hearing, and from looking at the process, we believe that too many are ending up on the 10-year route and that is something we want to look at as part of a process of simplifying the rules and requirements.

We are also clear that there are areas where we should simplify the rules to ensure that there are fewer instances where a lawyer needs to be paid for support in the process, which is a cost that we know people face. I know there are some strong views across the House on this issue, and that has been shown today. I look forward to discussing them further when we look to bring forward our proposals.

It is not just in the settlement group specifically that we are looking to simplify the impact people face. Those who have been following the changes to the rules over the last year may have seen things such as the following. On the student route, if those reapplying have been supporting themselves financially without recourse to public funds for 12 months or more, we do not now ask them to prove it as part of their next application. They can do that, having done it visibly. We have changed the English language qualifications, ending a position that was rather bizarre. Someone who went to a state school and had achieved, say, an A grade at GCSE English language or even an A in A-Level English literature was then asked to pass a secure English language test. We are starting to reform some of our rules to look at the wider impacts.

A particularly interesting one, which I am quite keen on, is looking towards the reuse of biometrics and how we capture biometrics. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland set out quite well exactly what a biometrics appointment can mean, and not just for those looking to make a reapplication for leave to remain here in the UK, but sometimes for those looking to get secure entry clearance. An example highlighted to me was of a couple of cultural performers who were Aboriginal Australians. Thankfully, they came within our generous visitor route provisions for the performance they were going to make. Had they been coming for slightly longer, the most expensive part of their visa application would have been the trip from the outback to their nearest visa application centre to give us their fingerprints and facial biometrics.

To reassure Members, we are looking to make a change. The first step is to look at increasing the amount of biometric reuse in our system. That means people can reapply using the fingerprints and facial images they gave in a previous application. The second part is looking at how we can remotely capture biometrics from those who are making applications for the first time. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland may wish to know that, for example, the vast majority of EEA nationals applying to our skilled worker route will be able to supply the biometrics using an app on their smartphone to check the chip on their passport without visiting a visa application centre.

As some may have picked up, last month we launched an enhancement to the settlement route for British nationals overseas and their households ordinarily resident in Hong Kong by allowing a fully digital application route. This is the first time we have done that for non-EEA nationals, and it allows many Hong Kong special administrative region and, we believe, virtually all British national overseas passport holders the ability to apply from home if they qualify for that route.

I am enormously encouraged to hear what the Minister says, and it does sound like common sense. But it does all sound distant. In the meantime, can we not just get machines for enrolment and biometrics in Kirkwall and Lerwick?

It is not that far distant. We are already allowing people to reuse biometrics, and we are looking to lay some regulations fairly soon. In fact, we had a briefing the other day. I would be very happy to arrange a briefing for the right hon. Member on where we are taking this work. I would say that it builds on the EU settlement scheme, to which, as he will be aware, the vast majority have applied from the comfort of their own home, using a smartphone for about 15 to 20 minutes. We are building on that. It is already with us today and it will be being expanded. We are hoping, for example, all EEA nationals applying into economic migration and study routes will soon be doing so, if they need to, from home. Again, this builds on what we have done with the EU settlement scheme. It is happening.

I appreciate that there is inconvenience for those having to still use the existing system, but it is one that we are looking to quite rapidly roll out over the coming years, ahead of making all status digital by the end of 2024. This is something that, hopefully, the right hon. Member’s constituents will start seeing the benefit of, particularly because biometric readers do not present some of the challenges that he will appreciate come with capturing biometrics for the first time in a global context.

Let me move onto the issue of child citizenship, which I am conscious that a number of Members raised today. I am aware of the great strength of feeling on this issue across the House. As some Members referenced, the Court of Appeal upheld the High Court’s judgment that the Home Office had not demonstrated compliance with its duties under section 55 of the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009 in setting the child registration fee—although, to be clear, the court did not strike down the regulations. We are currently carrying out a section 55 assessment to inform a review of the fee. While it would not be appropriate for me to speculate on or predict the outcome of that assessment, including whether the fee currently charged will change, we are taking prompt steps in the light of that judgment to complete the assessment.

It is important to emphasise that becoming a UK citizen is not a specific requirement to enable individuals to live, study and work in the UK and to benefit from many of the public services appropriate to a child or a young adult, most of which come with indefinite leave to remain.

The Home Office ensures that an application can be made for the fee to be waived for certain human rights-based claims for leave to remain, including where the fee is unaffordable or where an individual or family could be rendered destitute on paying the fee. That ensures that the appropriate status can be secured to access any public services required.

The Minister talked about prompt steps on the section 55 assessment, but what is his definition of “prompt” and when might we expect a result? Waivers are still very complex, as my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) highlighted, and the process needs a lot of legal support. Many people do not want to go through that regime for fear of failure and in case it jeopardises their wider applications. Is the Minister also looking at the whole approach to fee waivers?

I appreciate that, as a former Home Office Minister, the hon. Lady might think that “soon”, “nearly” and “shortly” can have different meanings—I can see you smiling as well, Mr McCabe. We are concerned about this, and the hon. Lady will appreciate that we need to make sure we do it correctly and properly, so we will not simply chuck out a timetable from the Dispatch Box today. However, as I say, we are progressing and looking to promptly respond to the court judgment.

It might be helpful if I come on to fees and exceptions, the process of which was raised by numerous hon. Members. To be clear, the Home Office has always provided for exceptions to the need to pay application fees for leave to remain in specific circumstances. The exceptions ensure that the Home Office’s immigration and nationality fees structure complies with our international obligations, such as in relation to refugees, and wider Government policy, such as the protection of spouses from domestic abuse and the protection of vulnerable children.

The hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch asked whether we have looked at fee waivers in recent times, and we have. We recently broadened the fee waiver policy to ensure that considerations of affordability and prospect of destitution are taken into account when assessing applications. The overseas fee waiver policy is also being revised to include an assessment of the criterion of affordability for specified applications under the article 8/human rights route. The revised policy is expected to be in place from August this year. In the meantime, we will consider urgent applications for an overseas fee waiver, although I am sure the hon. Lady will appreciate that with the strong limits on international travel at the moment, the number of people potentially travelling is much lower, for reasons beyond immigration.

In addition, we have also introduced a waiver that will allow for fees to be waived in exceptional circumstances, providing the Department with more flexibility in circumstances where a number of individuals have been significantly impacted by circumstances beyond their control, rather than having to assess each case individually for the fee waiver where there is a group that needs to be accommodated.

Various Members raised the immigration health surcharge. We were clear in our manifesto that it is right that all who may benefit from NHS healthcare have made a contribution to it in line with their immigration status. We recognise that although some who migrate to the UK will pay tax and national insurance contributions from arrival, they will not on average have made the same contribution to the NHS that most UK nationals and permanent residents have made or will make over their working lives. It is therefore fair to require them to make an up-front and proportionate contribution to the NHS, the cost of which compares quite favourably with the type of medical insurance or healthcare charges that those migrating to other countries may face.

The hon. Lady rightly said it is hard to make a direct comparison. For example, many countries, including in Europe, do not provide the comprehensive level of free-at-the-point-of-need healthcare that the national health service here in the UK provides, including to those who have what we deem as a temporary migration status.

We can make a quick comparison. For example, New Zealand requires international students to take out a form of health insurance. Ireland charges for visits to A&E where attendance is without a referral letter from a doctor—of course, there are no charges for urgent and emergency care here in the UK—or charges to see a family doctor and has some hospital charges. Non-EU international students in Ireland are not covered for free medical attention off campus and must have their own private health insurance. And that is to leave aside examples such as the United States of America, where, as all of us recognise, the cost of health insurance to obtain provision that is not even close to what the NHS provides is extreme.

Again, we believe that it is appropriate that this system is in place, although we of course have, with the introduction of the health and care visa and the refunds policy, looked to exempt those who work on the frontline of health and social care, in recognition that their contribution is made through working in such roles.

The Government remain committed to maintaining support for the vulnerable who come into contact with the immigration system and ensuring that they are treated fairly and humanely. By setting fees at the level at which we do and by putting the onus to pay on those who benefit from our services, we reduce the burden on the Exchequer and the wider taxpayers of this country. To be clear, the Home Office does not make a profit from application fees. Fees account for about 70% of the cost of operating the border, immigration and citizenship system, with funding still required from the taxpayer more widely to support the system. Decisions on how the system is funded are complex and require several factors to be carefully balanced to ensure that we can maintain an effective immigration system. In making those decisions, we must also, of course, be mindful of the lessons learned from the Windrush scandal.

Immigration fees have, in the main, remained static now for some time; the last increases were in April 2019. In addition, the Government have introduced comprehensive measures to support people and businesses, including wide-ranging financial support, throughout the global pandemic. Many were available to people working in the country, even with their migration status, given that they were not classed as public funds. For example, the furlough scheme could be used to support someone working on, for example, a skilled worker visa.

As we go forward, the Home Office is committed to playing its part as the world recovers from the devastation of the global coronavirus pandemic. As I touched on earlier, we have introduced the health and care visa. We have also introduced changes to the minimum income and adequate maintenance requirement for those applying to enter or remain in the UK on the basis of their family or private life, so they are not disadvantaged if their income has been affected by the impact of the coronavirus. For example, with those on furlough, we consider them, for immigration assessment purposes, as if they were on 100% of their salary, even if they are receiving only 80% under the furlough scheme. In addition, we have introduced a new points-based system, which we believe is firmer, fairer and works in the interests of the UK, alongside the benefits that simplification of the rules can bring, as I outlined earlier.

We recognise that immigration fees will always be a subject for debate, but they play a vital role in ensuring that we have an effective border and immigration system. We are committed to keeping fees for visa, immigration and nationality services under review, including by taking account of the issues raised in this and previous debates on this matter.

I thank you, Mr McCabe, for chairing the debate today and all hon. Members who have highlighted how key workers, NHS staff and young people in this country are caught in a trap not of their own making. I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor), who raised the issue of the fee waiver application cost and its complications, with people being pushed into debt; my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes); and the hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (David Simmonds), who highlighted issues in the context of Britain’s position in the world—global Britain—which is where the Government should be and where they say they are coming from.

The fees are too high and the process is overly complex, but I take some comfort from the tone of the Minister and the fact that he is engaging with those in We Belong, who are the best advocates, particularly for young people, about looking at simplification of the process, looking at how to deal with this, change the rules of settlement and try to do away with the need for the repeated involvement of lawyers, which we have not even discussed today, in terms of fees, because that adds a lot as well.

I will just say, though, that the Minister let the cat out of the bag, rather, when he talked about the rationale behind the fees being the benefits likely to accrue to the applicant. I would say we should also think about the benefit of the applicant to the UK, which has been ably highlighted by, among others, my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh). The Minister also talked about paying for the costs of other parts of the immigration system, so this does cross-subsidise, and I think we need to look very carefully at that principle.

However, I appreciate the Minister’s tone. He has a ginger group of MPs here who would welcome working with him to change policy and practice to ensure that we can welcome people who wish to contribute and to become full citizens and that it is affordable for them to do so and they are not saddled with the debt that the current system leaves upon them.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

Sitting suspended.

Government Support for NGOs and Churches in Developing Nations: Covid-19

[Clive Efford in the Chair]

I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to the normal practice in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. The timings of debates have been amended to allow technical arrangements to be made for the next debate. There will also be suspensions between each debate. I remind Members participating physically and virtually that they must arrive for the start of a debate in Westminster Hall. Members are expected to remain for the entire debate.

I must also remind Members participating virtually that they are visible at all times, both to each another and to us in the Boothroyd Room. If Members attending virtually have any technical problems, they should email the Westminster Hall Clerks’ email address. Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and as they leave the room. I remind Members that Mr Speaker has stated that masks should be worn in Westminster Hall.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Government support for non-governmental organisations and churches in developing nations during the covid-19 pandemic.

I sincerely thank you, Mr Efford, and the Chair and members of the Backbench Business Committee for allowing me the opportunity to raise this vital issue today. I have been asking for this debate for some time. It is one of the ones that I was very keen to bring through. Covid-19, of course, has exacerbated the issues for non-governmental organisations in particular. I will be giving a number of examples, and I know that others will too.

I have long been a supporter of the 0.7% of GDP international aid commitment, as I have witnessed the need in developing countries. Although I understand that our first priority is always the needs of our own communities—that is correct—I believe that we have a moral obligation that can be carried out in tandem. It should not be impossible to do both. The motivation for this debate is that I have been made aware of the dire circumstances that individuals find themselves in. Although we have been able to provide furlough for our workers at home, those in developing nations have no such help and lockdown has meant devastation. The figures that I will mention later show that up to 50% of those employed by NGOs, who are doing marvellous work, have either lost their jobs or may lose them.

Every church in my constituency of Strangford has been involved in missionary and charity work in countries across the world, whether it be through WaterAid or education or health projects—all paid for voluntarily. All Churches—Church of Ireland, Methodist, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Reformed Presbyterian, Congregational, small assemblies and my own Baptist Church—are involved in aid projects and missions across the world in many continents.

In particular, I remember one gentleman from my church, John Robinson, who is no longer in this world—he died a few years ago—who was actively engaged in some of those projects. He was not a builder—indeed, he was a salesman and did other things—but he went out to those projects in central Africa, along with others who were perhaps not experts, as they had not done their apprenticeships and so on, but were able to help manually. Those who were experts—builders, carpenters, plasterers, electricians and plumbers—were able to do the work when it came to building schools and hospitals, and project work. That was incredibly important.

To start with, I want to mention two projects in Eswatini and Malawi, which are supported through a local church in Newtownards—the Ards Elim church. It has done some incredible work with education and health, but it is not just about that; it is also about jobs and farming. It is about helping people to be self-sufficient and able to provide for themselves, with food and clothing. There are many things that those church projects are able to do. I have heard from them of entire families going for days at a time without a mouthful of food. Mr Chairman, it would make your heart ache to hear that; my heart aches for them.

In normal circumstances, churches will rally the troops—so to speak—and organise fêtes, cinema nights or meals to raise funds; I have personally attended such events. However, all of that activity is out of the question now due to the covid-19 pandemic.

I will mention one group that does incredible work, which is Samaritan’s Purse UK. I am not sure whether any other Members are aware of it—I hope that they are—but it makes a shoebox appeal every year. It did so before lockdown and it has done so during lockdown. During lockdown in particular, they have been able to provide computers and other IT equipment for vulnerable and poor families both at home and across the world. There are many such groups in my constituency and I know that there are many others in other hon. Members’ constituencies that have also done incredible work. We appreciate that work very much; they are really making things happen and we thank them for it.

As has become abundantly clear in our country during this pandemic, churches are bodies of people, not simply structures of stone, concrete, brick, wood and plaster, and as such, they have continued to persevere in the face of covid-19, continuing to serve the communities in which they are based, not only at home but overseas, through the NGOs and the work that they do.

To give one example among many, Challenge Ministries is responsible for feeding 400 orphans in Swaziland. I mentioned earlier the work that is done in education and health. However, it also feeds 400 orphaned children in Swaziland who nobody else has looked out for. Although its normal fundraising practices have stopped, it still has to provide for those children, who are reliant on Challenge Ministries, which also supports a women’s refuge centre. So Challenge Ministries has organised an online concert tomorrow—Friday 26 March—at 6.30 pm, and the links to it are on my Facebook page. It has had to raise funds in a different way, doing all it can to remind people that there is still great need and that every £5 or £10 will make a difference. It is thinking outside the box, staying within covid rules but using the wonders of technology to bring together local people, who are performing, and the people who we have pledged to support.

When I think of Challenge Ministries, in particular I think of all those orphans. As we know, Swaziland has been ravaged by HIV and AIDS. Many of the young people there, as well as many of the adults there, have AIDS and many people have died; indeed, that is why lots of those 400 children were orphaned. Every year—at least every year pre-covid—Challenge Ministries sent a choir to my constituency to raise funds, and to introduce its mission and the work that it does. I well recall the contributions of those children at different events that I attended; it really did my heart good to hear what Challenge Ministries was doing and what it was committed to. I believe that we must look at the programmes of help for adults and children, including those children who came to Northern Ireland as a children’s choir, so that we can then tell people about what happens to them afterwards.

When I see local people doing what they can to be safe but still helping other people who are dying of starvation, my concern is this: are we in this place—the House of Commons, including the Government and indeed the Minister who is here today—doing the same? I believe that we should all be doing the same. I am pleased to see the Minister in his place and I look forward to hearing what he has to say in response to the debate. I look upon him not just as a Minister but as an hon. Friend.

The fact is that NGOs with commitments are struggling and we in this place—especially the Government and the Minister—have the ability to step in and step up. I admire Oxfam, Trócaire, Compassion and so many other organisations for staying the course, but they simply cannot do enough; they cannot fill the gap that has developed with religious resources. That is why the charities and the NGOs are under pressure, and why the Churches back home, which are already giving heavily, find themselves under intense pressure as well.

In developing countries, local churches have provided a lifeline to families in need—both those who were already living in poverty and those newly thrust into poverty by sickness or unemployment, or because of any number of opportunities that have been lost to this pandemic.

To give just one example, I recently met representatives of Compassion, a Christian international development charity that is a wonderful body that does incredible work. Compassion’s operating model is to partner with churches based in poor communities in the global south. In practice, that is 7,912 churches across 25 developing countries. That is almost 8,000 churches with all the congregations and friends. During the pandemic, Compassion has supported churches in delivering 10,614,700 food parcels and 7,128,700 hygiene kits to those most in need. Wow—that is some figure.

That support has been directed and delivered by church staff and volunteers who know their communities because they are an active part of them. They know local people by name, understand local issues and can speak to highly specific needs. The NGOs cover some highly specific and important needs, such as education, health projects and the provision of jobs, food and clothing.

At a time when the world has been ravaged by a pandemic, vulnerable communities have continued to receive support from the storm-proof structure of the local and global Church. We are reminded of the call on Christians to be His body—I say this as a Christian who reads his Bible—to give, to serve, to sacrifice, to show love as Christ, as outlined in Matthew 25:35-40: “I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me water, naked and you clothed me, in as much as you have done to the least of one of these you have done to me.” It is in times like this that the call has never been so clear, to be His hands and feet. The Church, made up of everyday individuals who are struggling in their own way, in their own lives, in this pandemic, are juggling things around being faithful and giving, and that has to be acknowledged and commended. I thank all the churches everywhere, which give so much of their time and moneys. I know that Christians tithe their money across all the Church structures in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

As the Government prepare their proposals for international development policy moving forward, I very much look forward to seeing them. I hope they will give due consideration to supporting NGOs who work with churches. I have asked that on a number of occasions, and I ask again. If we see a group of churches and people and individuals working hard and doing good work, that is motivated by a wish to help others. They do so by partnering with existing church networks that stand alongside communities to deliver aid, empowering local people to determine the shape and direction of that support for themselves. How can the Government best help those churches who are supporting NGOs across many continents?

The UK has been committed to spending 0.7% of gross national income on overseas development assistance. Due to the economic impact of covid-19 on GNI, the UK’s 0.7% contribution to ODA was already reduced by £2.9 billion. It is now expected to drop to 0.5% of GNI. The double crisis of a drastic drop in income and severe Government cuts means that charities working internationally face significant challenges in funding their programmes and keeping their organisations afloat. It would be a tragedy for these NGOs to not be able to continue the excellent work that they do on a voluntary basis.

There is a real need for this support. Some 39% of those who receive Government grants said that their funding has been seriously or very seriously affected by the 2020 cuts. Similarly, 42% of those who received Government contracts had their funding seriously or very seriously impacted. NGOs are worried that the cuts will impact those most in need. It is clear to me what the impact will be on those groups—those thousands of people. Just as an example, Challenge Ministries in Newtownards in my constituency is involved with 400 orphans. If we do not or cannot help them, or reach out and run a project that will take them on board, we have a real issue.

Despite the cuts in funding for UK NGOs, organisations have seen increased need for their services—their programmes of healthcare, water, sanitation, food and humanitarian relief. A few years ago I obtained a Westminster Hall debate on WaterAid, because I recognised at that time that the Government were doing some fantastic work with it. Some of the churches, such as Challenge Ministries, do incredible work with WaterAid too, in providing water—which is something we take for granted in the Province where I come from, where it is there most days of the week. Many people across the world do not have that. Sixty-three per cent. of organisations expect demand for their services to increase in 2021-22. NGOs must do more with less, while worrying about their own sustainability and the staff they employ, and their ability to support the communities they work in. So NGO money is down, but the demand for their work has increased.

I have four requests, which I believe are well thought out, and I would appreciate the Minister’s response to them. The international charity Bond has made four calls that I fully support. They give us another option for somewhere to focus our attention, or the direction in which the FCDO could go. First, there should be focus on support for vulnerable populations, areas and countries that may have the least capacity to access support. New funds should be allocated on a “no regrets” basis, and the FCDO should ensure that new funding does not divert aid away from other necessary work, such as conflict prevention and peacebuilding.

My second request is to ensure the transparency of covid-19 funding. The UK Government need to be transparent in their covid-19 funding that goes through multilaterals and FCDO country offices, so that civil society organisations working with communities have quick and easy access to sufficient levels of funding.

Thirdly, we should set up an access fund for small NGOs. Smaller ones do incredible work. I believe that there is a possibility to do something in that way, and I look forward to the Minister’s response. Small NGOs provide niche development expertise but are struggling to find funding for their much-needed work. Voluntary work, after all, provides incredible opportunities for the future. Will the Minister seriously consider a fund for small NGOs, which do great work, so that they can continue to support their local partners and the communities that they operate in? That small investment can bring great dividends. Fourthly, funding that reaches the most marginalised should be prioritised.

I will offer one more thought about those four requests. I visited Pakistan in September 2018, with Lord Alton, the hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer), Amro Hussain, Javaid Rehman and Morris Johns. I saw at first hand some of the issues that people must deal with. From the imposition of lockdown on 21 March onwards, many private entities and NGOs started distributing rations and sanitation items among the needy. However, reports of religious discrimination by some organisations emerged on social media.

I have mentioned Bond, the group that put forward the four thoughts I outlined, and the UK charities working on the frontline delivering lifesaving care to people in the UK and the poorest parts of the world—but current programmes are being eroded because of income being reduced. It is worrying for the future, and the most worrying thing is that even worse cuts may happen in 2021 and 2022.

To refer back to Pakistan, a report by a local YouTube news channel in Karachi, JD News, went viral on social media when the representatives of Saylani Welfare, a well-reputed welfare organisation, were reported to be refusing to distribute rations among minorities. So we are very concerned about those things. To back that up, UN Secretary-General António Guterres has said that this is

“a human crisis that is fast becoming a human rights crisis.”

Covid-19 has aggravated the existing disparities. There is a need for radical reform and response.

Refugees and the disabled are especially affected. One video that I am aware of involved a Hindu who was refused food simply because they were a Hindu. In the second video, three Christian ladies were refused rations and food because they were Christians, but were told that if they converted to Islam they would get the food. How much does that hurt someone? As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief, I have spoken up on many occasions for all ethnic and religious groups across the whole world. To be told that they cannot get food unless they are a certain religion and that they have to convert to Islam is wrong. It is totally outrageous and not acceptable.

Covid-19 has exacerbated this for the lower levels of society. Christians, Hindus and other ethnic groups are already disadvantaged in health and education, but are now disadvantaged because of covid-19. I will use some strong terminology, but there is a religious-blind policy in some of UK Aid. Those are strong words to use, but that is patently obvious on the ground when we see what is happening. I am not aware of any steps that have been taken by UK Aid to safeguard religious minorities and I believe that that must change. I ask the Minister for his direct involvement to prevent the abomination of people not getting food simply because they are Christians or Hindus.

Further examples are street sweepers and those involved in sanitation work, who are usually Christians or Hindus, having to work without personal protective equipment, which is putting real pressure on persecuted Christians, Hindus and other ethnic groups. Again, I believe there must be action to introduce laws against institutional discrimination on the basis of religious belief, and the positive inclusion of religious minorities as beneficiaries and part of the reforming system.

The all-party parliamentary group for Pakistani minorities, of which I am chairman, took notice and wrote to Ministers and to the Charities Trust, as it is based in the UK, to protest. The Charities Trust replied to say that its policies would be reviewed. If the Minister has any knowledge or information about that I would be keen to hear his thoughts. It said it would ensure that it would not happen again, but proof of the pudding is in the eating. It is in the actions. We will see if it happens again. I look to the Minister for his support.

We need to engage to ensure that funding is allocated fairly, reasonably and equally. I ask that consideration is given to the introduction of measures to eliminate the chances of institutional discrimination on the basis of religion or belief within a system. We have to ensure positive inclusion of religious minorities among the beneficiaries, and make inclusion of religious minorities and other marginalised and vulnerable groups a central part of the delivery system. That is why this debate is so vital. Many people across the world are affected. The projects are in Africa, the middle east, Asia, India, Pakistan, and they are in South America—there are projects everywhere.

As I come to the end of my contribution, I want to refer to Iraq, where 1 million Christians have left their homeland since 2003. This is probably the highest proportion of one Christian group having to leave the country that they were born in and brought up in. The Nineveh plain is mentioned in our own Holy Bible and is next to Mosul, which I had the opportunity to visit with Aid to the Church in Need some years ago. That was before Mosul fell to and was then freed of terrorism and Daesh. I saw at first hand the persecution of Christians and the disparities in the way they were treated.

In this area, Christians have been blamed for covid-19. I mention this to bring the issue up to date. It is so untrue and so dishonest that they have been blamed, because they have been affected the very same as other religious groups. Covid-19 does not and did not start with them. We know that, but sometimes others take advantage of the circumstances. Iraq claims to be a pluralistic society, but it has failed miserably to protect and give equal treatment to other minorities already suffering from the Daesh abuses of the past. We also think of the Yazidis in Iraq, who have faced abysmal treatment—violence, murders and abuse. It has been absolutely horrendous.

Access to medical care is already inadequate. Their only source of covid-19 assistance has been through the NGOs and church groups. They have had no Government supplies, showing very obvious, direct discrimination, I wholly believe, against Christians and other ethnic and small minority groups. Many of the qualified medical staff were Christians. Many of them fled to Jordan, Egypt and surrounding countries because of what was happening in Iraq. So there is now a substantial loss and dearth of qualified doctors and nurses in Iraq. Many wish to return but feel that they cannot while danger still exists on the ground.

The role for the Government in Iraq and, I believe, for our Government has to be to work together to deliver security. The needs are great and we cannot meet them alone. But, Minister, look at the tremendous work of the NGOs and the churches and the thousands of their congregations that deliver across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Look at the gifts, the moneys that are set aside and the practical work and developments, be it in education, health, farming, food or clothing. All those things are done by the NGOs and churches, many of them on a voluntary basis. The value per pound is greater for those projects.

I ask the Minister, can we take their lead and do good to all men, to all women, and especially to all children? Can we get aid out now to those who are starving? This is not about education alone or long-term change. It is just about helping people, Minister. It is about making sure that we can reach out and help those who we see are in trouble— those who have problems, families that are under health pressures and even the pressure to put food in their stomachs. I believe that we can play a greater part and that our Government—my Government, my Minister—and the FCDO and, indeed, hon. Members across all political parties in the Chamber have the wish to help those who need help. I believe that society is marked and measured by its help for those who are less well off. Today I am asking for that commitment from the Minister and from my Government for all those people in all those continents—in Asia, in India, in Pakistan, in the middle east, in Africa and in South America. I believe that we have a moral duty to help them as much as we can.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Efford. I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for his contribution and for securing the debate, and wish him a very happy birthday. We have known for a long time that the interests of minority religious communities and those seeking to shine a light on human rights abuses around the world have no greater champion in the House than him. He proved that again today, and we thank him for it.

As the hon. Member said in his opening remarks, the covid-19 pandemic is a global economic and health crisis. The virus does not respect international borders, and while one country is at risk all countries are at risk. I add my thanks to all the UK charities, NGOs, faith groups and Churches that have been working on the frontline day in and day out, delivering life-saving care to people living in some of the poorest parts of the world.

The people who have been working throughout the pandemic, supplying aid and assistance to developing countries and countries ravaged by war, or in areas devastated by drought or flood, deserve our most sincere and heartfelt thanks. As so often during the pandemic, it is they who have become the trusted voice in those communities, raising awareness of public health preventative measures, tackling vaccine disinformation and encouraging people to take up the vaccine where it has been available.

As well as being able to deliver effective humanitarian aid and meaningful long-term assistance, they are so often the institutions that people turn to for social and spiritual support. For what they are doing in the most trying and difficult circumstances they deserve our deepest gratitude and support. They do not deserve to have the rug pulled from under them when they are trying to deliver that help to people living in crisis. Sadly, that is exactly what has happened.

In the middle of a global pandemic, at a time when many of the poorest people on the planet are more vulnerable to hunger and disease than ever before, the UK Government—the Government of one of the richest countries in the world—have decided arbitrarily to reduce the help that they give to those poor communities. Not only is the decision to cut foreign aid from 0.7% to 0.5% of GDP a betrayal of those people and of our NGOs and the charity sector, it must also be the final abandonment of what little was left of the UK’s reputation for moral leadership in the world.

What makes that betrayal utterly grotesque is the fact that, having announced that they were taking the money away from those poor communities, the same Government announced that they were preparing to spend billions of pounds to increase their stockpile of nuclear weapons. In my opinion, and that of the Scottish National party and, I believe, of most decent people, to do such a thing is utterly abhorrent and deeply immoral.

Earlier this week, the United Nations published figures showing that around 34 million people are struggling with what it calls “emergency levels” of acute hunger. That means they are just one step away from starvation. At the same time, the UK’s NGOs and charities reported that demands for their services have increased, particularly around healthcare, water and sanitation, food supplies and humanitarian relief. Against that backdrop, whereas every other G7 member responded to the covid pandemic by increasing international aid, the UK alone in that group chose to cut its aid budget for this year.

I look forward to the Minister’s response to the debate and to hearing him explain how the UK thought it appropriate, justifiable or morally acceptable to take money away from starving people and starving children, and from preventing the spread of coronavirus, and instead divert funds into the purchase of even more nuclear weapons. Let us be in no doubt that right now the UK charity sector and our NGOs are in severe financial crisis. Many are at risk of closure because public fundraising has been substantially reduced. The NGO and charity sectors are currently being squeezed from all sides. They are bearing the brunt of Government aid cuts and at the same time having their income from their traditional tried and tested sources of fundraising decimated. High street charity shops, town centre collections and fundraising fetes have all but disappeared because of the pandemic, yet, as the hon. Member for Strangford says, rarely have they been in greater demand.

Bond, the UK network for organisations working in development and humanitarian aid, found that nearly three quarters of the organisations they represent are experiencing financial difficulty. Their income stream has been badly hit, with 81% saying that their public fundraising has been seriously or very seriously affected. The double crisis of a drop in income and a severe cut from Government grant means that these charities face significant challenges in funding their programmes and keeping their organisations afloat. Against that background, the Government cut funding, and almost two thirds of NGOs expect the demand on their services to increase in the next 12 months.

As I have said, this is almost a perfect storm of cuts in aid amid a global pandemic. Those working on the ground are having to do much more, but with much less. I pay tribute, as the hon. Member for Strangford did, to the small church groups and charities that work so hard. He gave a couple of wonderful examples of churches in his constituency that work in Malawi and Swaziland to try to alleviate the worst effects.

My own Argyll and Bute constituency is home to the marvellous and wonderful Mary’s Meals, which uses schools to provide hot meals to 1.5 million of the world’s poorest children every day. It has had to find new ways to feed those children as the pandemic has closed schools and the home has now become the primary place of learning. Thankfully, by working with Governments, community leaders and on-the-ground partners, Mary’s Meals has developed new ways of distribution, and will continue to do so until it is safe, but it is more expensive and more time consuming and will require more money, not less.

Of course, Mary’s Meals is not alone. The financial effect of the pandemic can be felt throughout. In January, I was privileged to join the hon. Member for Strangford and my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) on a virtual tour to see the great work being done by Compassion UK in Togo. Compassion UK is a Christian charity dedicated to empowering every child that it can who has been left vulnerable through poverty. It works in 24 developing countries and is living proof of what can be done with just a little money to give life-changing support to mothers and babies in countries where infant mortality and death from pregnancy complications are, sadly, very high. The pandemic is having a major effect on its work and a significant impact on its clients, who are frightened to go to hospital, are worried about going to anti-natal clinics, and are not attending vaccination appointments for their babies.

Thankfully, Compassion UK has been able to use the years of trust that it has built up in local communities to find networks of support for these mothers and their babies, and provide vital masks and sanitation equipment so that they can protect themselves and their families. I spoke to Compassion UK this morning, and the charity has asked me to extend an invitation to the Minister to join it on a virtual tour to Togo, to see for himself the remarkable, life-changing work that it can do with the tiny amount of UK aid money allocated to it. I am sure that the hon. Member for Strangford will agree that the Minister will be hugely impressed with what he sees, should he choose to accept that invitation.

Mr Efford, those in the sector say that falling income has made it more difficult and more expensive to deliver aid. Yesterday, I spoke to the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund, which has been delivering humanitarian aid for decades in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the middle east. They have been assisting the Malawian Government in their national response to the covid pandemic, and are supporting 11,000 slum dwellers and migrants in India with food and sanitation kits.

Every charity has a different story to tell, but they are absolutely united in their unequivocal condemnation of this Government’s decision to reduce overseas aid. They are as one in saying that the Government must keep their commitment to the most marginalised communities and revert to the 0.7% target—a commitment that was made in their election manifesto.

Overseas aid has never been more vital, particularly as the impact of covid is in danger of setting back international development for a decade. I would therefore ask the Minister how the UK Government can cut aid to the most vulnerable people in the world at this time, in a year in which they will chair the G7 and take over the presidency of the COP. How can they claim to be a world leader but, at the time of greatest need, deliberately cut off the supply of aid to the poorest and most vulnerable?

I know that the Minister will say that the UK Government are still one of the biggest contributors to humanitarian aid, and he is right, but that is exactly how it should be. As one of the richest countries in the world—and, let us face it, one that became fabulously wealthy at the expense of countries in Africa, Asia and the middle east, who are now in desperate poverty—we have a moral responsibility to look after those people now, in the moment of their greatest need. The reversal of this 0.7% decision must be the first step in doing that.

This pandemic should have been an opportunity for the UK Government to show genuine leadership. Instead, they have used the pandemic to turn their back on the most vulnerable people in the world. In so doing, not only are this Government reneging on a legally binding spending commitment, but they are also breaking one of their manifesto commitments and their promises. Pulling the rug out from under outstanding NGOs, faith groups and Churches, who battle every day against impossible odds to deliver aid to those who need it most, is unforgivable.

I will finish by reminding the Minister of the words of UN Secretary-General António Guterres, that, when it comes to this pandemic, and the world in which we now live,

“none of us is safe until all of us are safe”.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mr Efford.

I will begin by paying tribute to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon); I wish him a very happy birthday too. He was one of the very first Members to welcome me to this House, and our common Christian faith and commitment to humanitarianism, human rights, and international development mean that we have often found ourselves in the same debates over the years, raising very similar concerns.

He knows that the House has a huge affection for him, and I am always delighted to hear him speak on these crucial issues. Indeed, I endorse many of the points he has made today, not least around the 0.7% commitment and our moral duties as a country. He is absolutely right to have illustrated the crucial role that NGOs, and particularly faith-based NGOs and Churches, play in both international development and humanitarianism, not least in response to this current pandemic.

I thank the SNP spokesperson and commend the critical work of agencies based in the devolved nations as well, such as the Wales for Africa programme, many of the Scottish organisations mentioned today, and those in Northern Ireland to which the hon. Member for Strangford referred. They all play a critical part in this country’s response to the challenges that the world faces and reflect very powerfully on our moral intent as a country —one that is sadly being undermined by the current Government, which I will return to in due course.

Having worked myself for a Christian NGO, World Vision, I have seen first-hand the work that World Vision and other faith-based organisations do in many crises. I often reflect on its work with the HIV/AIDS pandemic that I witnessed in places such as Malawi, which has close links with Scotland and Wales—I declare my interest as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on HIV/AIDS—and on its work responding to disasters and catastrophes, such as the Boxing day tsunami in 2004. I saw how World Vision worked not only with its own partner organisations and its staff around the world but with other faith-based organisations, including those of the Islamic faith in many of the countries affected, to respond to the devastation that left a quarter of a million people dead.

The very morals and values on which basis such generous and selfless acts are done by both these organisations and their donors are inspired by the same beliefs that drive many people in their faith and, indeed, many Christians. As it says in the ancient prophets—the hon. Member for Strangford quoted the Gospels, but I will quote Isaiah 1:17:

“Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.”

Or we could look at Micah 6:8:

“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

It is no surprise that Church and faith-based organisations have come to play a critical role in empowering the most marginalised and healing the wounds left by war, natural disasters or, indeed, this pandemic.

I think about the work of the Somaliland Muslim community in my own constituency helping to rebuild their country and to encourage its development since the conflicts of the early 1990s; I serve as the secretary of the all-party parliamentary group on Somaliland. I also think about the remarkable generosity of our Sikh, Hindu and Jewish communities, and of their related organisations. Faith, belief and moral duty are incredible motivators and they enable people to do incredible things in some of the most trying circumstances around the world.

Let us reflect on what challenges we face with the covid crisis. Scotland’s International Development Alliance pointed out:

“It has been said that this disease “does not discriminate”—but that’s not true. If you are already a marginalised or vulnerable group, this pandemic will affect you more.”

That is very true. Beyond the immediate death toll and the devastating impact it has had in this country and in so many others, the pandemic has highlighted how those who are often marginalised, other minorities, front-line workers and those on marginal incomes who are already struggling to make ends meet have been disproportionately affected by covid-19 and its indirect impacts.

The crisis has highlighted the gaps in gender equality and made them worse. It has worsened economic inequalities, affected education, and diverted resources from other healthcare and disease challenges. It has allowed repressive regimes to threaten human rights further. It has created the space for extremism to flourish from Mozambique to the Sahel. It has destabilised fragile states and Governments and in some cases, it has tragically taken the lives of both political and faith leaders as well. The impact on those marginal groups, as I said, has been horrendous.

Let us look at health. Even before covid-19, more than half of the world’s population still did not have access to all essential health services and unfortunately that has gotten worse. I have spoken to many people from Sierra Leone to Malawi and from many other contexts over recent months. Until the pandemic hit in 2019, we had actually witnessed a steady decline in maternal and child death rates around the world, including a huge boost in funding for childhood immunisation, which increased by 41% since 2010 according to the UN.

Those accomplishments now risk being in vain as the World Health Organisation has reported that 70% of surveyed countries have seen a decrease in the number of routine immunisations, and major shortfalls in emergency units and facilities. Again, listening to Scottish organisations the other week about the situation facing some of Malawi’s hospitals was absolutely shocking.

Aaron Oxley, executive director of RESULTS UK, has stated that at least 80 million children under the age of one are at risk of missing out on routine vaccines for diseases like measles, polio and diphtheria. He stated that the impacts of covid-19 on TB might add 1.4 million deaths, and that 50 million children in Pakistan and Afghanistan may now not receive a polio vaccine in an area where polio is a real threat. STOPAIDS, with which I work closely, has stated that 11.5 million people have had inconsistent access to the crucial antiretroviral drugs for HIV over the pandemic period, and 75% of the UN’s “Global Fund” HIV/AIDS programme has reported moderate to high levels of disruption to service delivery.

We have seen huge economic impacts: there has been an impact on global growth, and Oxfam has dubbed it a twin crisis of health and economy. Millions more will be pushed into extreme poverty and will lack access to public services. The UN estimates that in in 2020, 1 billion people in low to middle-income countries spent 10% of their entire household budget on healthcare.

Tragically, we can expect huge increases in unemploy-ment. The World Health Organisation has suggested that nearly 1.65 billion could lose their job or money-making activity, increasing the number of people on the most marginal incomes. The UN estimated that 71 million people would fall back into poverty in 2020. Those are extraordinary figures of which the Government are only too well aware.

Despite all those challenges, however, global foreign aid is set to decline for the first time in many years, and tragically, the UK is one of the countries leading those cuts. It is not morally right, makes little economic sense, and stores up future costs for us through the impact on global growth, tackling poverty and inequality, and of course, future instability. The UN estimated that 132 million more people could fall victim to chronic food insecurity in 2020. I was struck by the answer a Minister gave me the other day, pointing out that people are already in famine in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere, and that millions more are at risk. They know that, yet they are cutting aid and support for the programmes at the very time that people are in famine.

Look at the situation in Yemen. The International Rescue Committee has shown that the cost of a food basket has gone up by 35% in the last year in a country that we know has been devastated by war and humanitarian disaster. Human rights have been threatened in so many places around the world. Hunger has forced parents to send children to work or beg. Women and girls have had to resort to selling their bodies for sex simply to eat. World Vision says that 8 million children have been forced into child labour or begging. An estimated 31 million cases of gender-based violence were predicted in 2020 because of covid-19.

Those are shocking statistics for this House to hear as we make crucial decisions about our future aid spending and development policies. Lastly, UNICEF suggests that 9.7 million students could drop out of school because of the effects of covid-19, despite all the fantastic progress—for which there has been cross-party support in this House for many years—made through initiatives such as “Education for All”.

I will return to some of the positive examples of how faith-based organisations and Churches are helping, as exemplified by some of the many examples that the hon. Member for Strangford mentioned. There are far too many organisations to list, but I will name a few. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, it is estimated that 84% of the world’s population identifies with a religious group, so faith and religious institutions are crucial in shaping people’s behaviour, in identifying at-risk groups, and in supporting people with services in communities. Many communities rely on religious communities to access knowledge and advice—for example, on issues related to health—because they see those institutions as trustworthy. We have seen where that has gone wrong in the past, but we have also seen where those institutions have played an absolutely critical role in the pandemic by providing advice.

The Catholic Church and its charitable organisations, such as CAFOD and SCIAF, have done work on education, sustainability, disaster relief, peacebuilding, good governance building, fighting misinformation, and working with indigenous people, using the trusted voice of the Church, which people see as a source of advice and support in these critical times. They have been working in some of the most volatile and fragile countries, such as Syria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. CAFOD has helped to provide food parcels to 30,000 people in rural Guatemala who face food shortages because of the pandemic.

As cases of coronavirus increased in Ethiopia—a country that will later be debated in the main Chamber in the light of the terrible humanitarian situation in Tigray—Catholic hospitals and health centres used their reach to provide hygiene materials and raise awareness among rural populations of how to protect themselves against covid, and have made cash transfers to some of the most at-risk populations in Tigray, who have suffered gravely and now face potential famine. CAFOD Ethiopia was able to raise funds and repurpose existing programmes to reach 1.4 million people through early-stage interventions.

We must not forget that some of these organisations have decades of experience, links and community partnerships, which will be at risk if they are unable to access the funding and support that they need. They will not only cut their programmes in the short term, but we will lose that expertise, those connections and the impact that they can have—often in prevention, in advance of future crises.

The Society of Daughters of Mary Immaculate—an organisation linked to the Catholic Church—did work in South Sudan around covid-19, providing advice on the radio and delivering hygiene projects. I mentioned World Vision, which I used to work for. It works in 100 countries and is now the largest Christian non-governmental organisation in the world. It has put huge effort into fighting covid-19, and has pledged $350 million towards emergency response for 72 million people. Seventy countries have benefited from its support and work on food security and livelihoods, or its work with children and on strengthening health systems and preventive measures. In particular, it is renowned for its work with vulnerable children.

Christian Aid has been working in conflict-affected areas in the Sudan with those who face sexually-based gender violence. As I said, many of those challenges have increased during the pandemic, so that is crucial work. Will those projects be under threat because of the cuts that are coming?

The hon. Member for Strangford referred to the fact that 39% of international charities that receive funding from the Government said that cuts have already affected them seriously or very seriously, and 42% have received very serious or serious hits to their funding. It is quite extraordinary, given the growing threats in regions such as the Sahel, that we heard in the media the other week that the Government will reduce overseas development aid in the Sahel region by 90%. That is extraordinary, given that the region has been hit by covid-19, desertification, climate change, potential famine, and the multiple conflicts that affect people in that region. At the same time, we have British troops stationed in the Sahel, working alongside the French and the United Nations, trying to build stability. It is perverse to be cutting support for our development and humanitarian response while we are responding to the consequences of some of that. Our brave troops are putting themselves on the line to protect civilians, and are working alongside the United Nations and others. The Government seem to be doing two completely contradictory things—one with one hand and one with the other.

As I mentioned, the Government are proposing to cut aid to Yemen from £164 million last year to £87 million this year. They are also proposing to cut aid to Syria, Nigeria and other countries facing conflict and instability, which have been worsened by covid, including Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan and other places. It is an absolutely absurd decision to be making at this time.

The situation in Ethiopia could not be starker. Millions are facing famine, and huge areas are without humanitarian access. There were significant reports of horrendous sexual violence in the media over the weekend. This is exactly the wrong time for us to be cutting back and retreating from some of these crises, which have been exacerbated by covid.

I want to end with some questions to the Minister. He knows that the covid-19 pandemic has had a staggering impact well beyond health, so why cut at this time? Why are the Government going to do that? We have heard about the potential impact on Voluntary Service Overseas —one of our national treasures, which enjoys cross-party support. It ensures human-to-human contact and does work in communities around the world. It is under threat, like the other organisations that we have heard about.

There are deeply disturbing reports today from William Worley on the Devex website that the FCDO is allegedly gagging NGOs from speaking out, even as their budgets are slashed. There are some quite extraordinary reports. They are anonymous, because many of these organisations are frightened to speak out. One NGO executive said:

“FCDO said we should not engage with the press as it could affect fund allocations!...But obviously the more outrageous and sinister the more senior it was, and the more organised and deliberate.”

Another executive from one of the NGOs said that FCDO officials were not being communicative, and

“we haven’t been able to get much out of people because”

the FCDO

“are closing down all communications with everyone because of the cuts.”

Report after report after report is coming out about the way the Department is handling things. The very least it could do is be transparent and open and engage with some of these organisations, which are on the frontline and are responding to the covid pandemic and these threats with the moral purpose that I think is at the heart of being British, and for which we have had cross-party support for decades, particularly when tragedies such as covid and other diseases have hit.

Will the Minister commit to publishing urgently the scale of cuts to NGOs and, specifically, faith-based organisations? What role does he see for them in responding to the primary and secondary impact of the crisis? How can it be justified to make these cuts when his Department is also admitting that famine is occurring in some of these countries, not just that they are at risk?

The Minister is a good person and I know he will have to toe his FCDO line, but he knows that this measure is not supported on his own side. He knows the cross-party concern that there is. He knows the many members of his own party who have spoken out powerfully in recent weeks. Former Ministers and people from all different political persuasions within his party, some of whom I disagree with on many issues, have spoken passionately and powerfully on this one. It is breaking our promises to do our fair share. It breaches the cross-party consensus in the International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Act 2015.

The Government need to rethink. We are heading into that crucial G7 summit, where health is key on the agenda. We have the COP summit coming up, where climate change and its impact are so crucial. We are handing over the chair of the Commonwealth to a Commonwealth member we enjoy a close partnership with, Rwanda, later this year. This is an extraordinary backdrop to be heading into those crucial international moments, when the threats are so large, when the impact from covid-19 is so great, when other threats to people around the world are so intense and when we would be letting down those very Churches, faith-based organisations and NGOs that have been at the heart of a moral, humanitarian, human rights-based British response over so many decades. I urge the Government to think again.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship here this afternoon, Mr Efford. The Minister for Civil Society would love to have replied to this debate, but she is travelling on FCDO business, so I am afraid hon. Members will have to put up with me in her place. I will do my best to fill her considerable boots.

I am incredibly grateful to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing this debate. It is always a pleasure to listen to him speak and to hear his wisdom on these matters. He speaks with great authority. May I also add my birthday congratulations? It is a real shame that he is not here today, because I brought a card for him. I will pop it in the internal post for my hon. Friend—indeed, my friend.

I commend his ongoing work as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on freedom of religion or belief. It continues to raise the profile of this human right to parliamentarians and, importantly, to the public. I thank all hon. Members for their contributions. The hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), the Opposition spokesman, brings with him a depth of knowledge, having worked in the sector. We are incredibly grateful for the commitment to the causes and the ongoing work that he does.

The integrated review, which was published last week, sets out our renewed commitment to the UK as a force for good in the world. It is our goal to defend open societies, democracy and human rights. For open societies to develop and thrive, they need an inclusive civic space and a vibrant civil society, and for that reason, NGOs and faith-based groups are essential partners. These partnerships can open a dialogue with and provide support for the world’s most marginalised people. This is particularly true, as we have heard this afternoon from hon. Members, during the pandemic. As covid-19 continues to affect communities around the world, we continue to take a leading role in this response.

We have committed up to £1.3 billion of ODA to counter the seismic impact of the pandemic. Nearly £70 million is going directly to international and UK-based charities to support vulnerable communities to recover and to rebuild. There is a great deal of work going on, but, as we have heard in the informed speeches this afternoon, the challenges of the pandemic run deep.

As hon. Members have said, we have had to take an incredibly tough but temporary decision to reduce our spending on overseas development. In real terms, as hon. Members will know, we will still be spending more than £10 billion to fight poverty and climate change. That money is to help improve global health and achieve the UN sustainable development goals. I appreciate that the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth wants more detail about potential reductions in funding in this regard. At this time, I cannot confirm such details, but hopefully clarity will be given in the coming weeks. So we understand the challenges for the sector and the need for clarity—that is absolutely clear—and although this is a complex process, the Government commit to sharing details, as I have said, as soon as is practically possible.

Together with NGOs, faith-based groups and religious leaders, we are continuing to deliver for those most in need, in order to keep essential services going at this time. Through our partnership with Unilever—the Hygiene & Behaviour Change Coalition—the UK Government are providing up to £50 million to mount a rapid response to covid-19 in 37 low and middle-income countries. Through this programme, charities including World Vision, which the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth once worked for, WaterAid and ActionAid are delivering evidence-based hygiene messages to vulnerable communities. This type of support plays a vital role in stopping the spread of the disease in the developing world and will also potentially limit its further spread in the UK.

My hon. Friend the Member for Strangford asked about the humanitarian response to covid-19. Through our rapid response facility, we have allocated £80 million to support UK and international humanitarian charities, including Christian Aid, to meet the basic needs of some of the world’s most vulnerable people. That includes those suffering from multiple crises in Yemen, Afghanistan and Somalia.

Last summer, the British public generously donated more than £10 million to the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal for covid-19, and the UK Government have provided match funding to double that amount. The appeal is funding the work of the British Red Cross and CARE International UK, among others. These charities are tackling the impacts of the pandemic on displaced people, including those in the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh. They are providing frontline doctors with equipment and supplies to care for the sick, and giving families clean water and soap to stay healthy.

We are committed to delivering our aid according to internationally recognised humanitarian principles. Those principles ensure that aid gets to those who are most vulnerable and most urgently in need of help, irrespective of race, religion or ethnicity. This issue was raised by the hon. Member for Strangford, and this group includes minority religious communities, who are assessed by our partners when they are determining those most in need of protection and assistance. And as the hon. Member also mentioned in his excellent speech, churches and other faith groups are providing essential services around the world during the pandemic.

We know that faith-based networks can reach the most remote communities and involve the world’s poorest people in their social, economic and political life. They can reach people who are largely untouched by secular institutions, such as persecuted religious minorities, which is vital, because these groups may experience crises such as covid-19 outbreaks differently from others. Such crises may reinforce their marginalisation, multiply their experience of discrimination, violence and stigma, and further limit their access to essential support and services. We are currently funding more than 200 projects that are managed by 126 different faith-based groups, organisations and churches. Our support totals £130 million annually and spans 39 countries.

The hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth rightly mentioned many of the great projects around the globe, many of them in conflict areas. The majority of our partners are small in-country groups deeply rooted in local communities, such as the Christian Association of Nigeria and the Jamaica Baptist Union. In many countries, the indirect health, humanitarian and economic impacts of the pandemic are being felt very keenly, as they exacerbate pre-existing problems. They are reversing years of development gains in areas such as poverty reduction, gender equality, girls’ education and sexual and reproductive health and rights. With our support, faith-based groups are working to counter that trend.

The hon. Member for Strangford asked that funding be prioritised to reach the most marginalised, and he is correct. The UK is committed to delivering aid according to its internationally-recognised humanitarian principles. Those principles ensure that aid gets to those who are the most vulnerable and most urgently in need, irrespective of race, religion or ethnicity. They provide health and education, empower people to hold their Governments to account and strengthen resilience to disaster and conflict. Through our support to Christian Aid, we are enhancing nutrition for women of childbearing age and under-fives in South Sudan, our funding to CAFOD is building community resilience to climate shocks in Eritrea, Zambia and Zimbabwe and we have supported Tearfund to provide secure livelihoods for women in the Central African Republic.

The hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth referred to transparency. We have a world-renowned reputation on transparency. We are committed to aid transparency both legally and publicly, and we are committed to the publication of quality, accessible information on our aid programmes, which is available on the Development Tracker, along with the continued independent scrutiny of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact.

The pandemic has undoubtedly brought out the best in many communities around the world. Nevertheless, there has also been a concerning increase in hate speech and a rise in conspiracy theories, which the hon. Member for Strangford referred to, such as that certain faiths are to blame. I take this opportunity to reaffirm the Government’s steadfast commitment to championing freedom of religion or belief for all, and to promoting respect between different religious and non-religious communities. The UK’s recently appointed special envoy for freedom of religion or belief, my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), will continue to advance that important agenda.

My ministerial colleague, Lord Ahmad, also regularly meets civil society and faith-based development organisations to hear about the challenges minority faith communities face, particularly during the pandemic. The UK Government are deeply concerned by the severity and scale of violations and abuses of freedom of religion or belief in many parts of the world, and we will continue to refute those divisive and harmful claims.

We will also continue to put our money where our mouth is on hate speech. The FCDO is funding an Institute of Development Studies project that works with minority religious groups in Africa and Asia, doing vital work in challenging narratives and countering hate speech relating to minorities and the spread of covid-19. We are also working with the University of Oxford and parliamentarians in nine countries to reduce the use of language during elections that intimidates minority religious groups.

I think I heard the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara) extending an invitation to me to visit Togo to see the great work that is being done there. I would love to take that up but, unfortunately, I am the Minister for Asia, not the Minister responsible for this particular brief. I will ensure that my colleague hears about it, and I am sure she will be very keen to see the great work that is going on in that regard.

The effects of the pandemic have been far-reaching and will continue to have an impact on our lives for some time. The UK will remain at the forefront of the international response as we recover and rebuild in the wake of covid-19. We will be a force for good in those places most in need and for the most vulnerable communities. Our effectiveness will rely on the expertise of our partners, the NGOs whose brilliant work has been described so well this afternoon and the faith-based organisations. Only with trusted people embedded in those communities most in need can we provide relief, promote recovery and build back the open societies that shape security and prosperity for us all.

Thank you so much, Mr Efford. I thank all Members for their contributions, particularly the Minister, and for their birthday greetings. As I said beforehand to the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara) and others, I have got to the stage where I do not count birthdays any more, but I appreciate their thoughts.

The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute referred to hunger, disease, famine, droughts and floods. Pile that upon vulnerable people with covid-19, and we almost have, as he said, a perfect storm. What can we do? He clearly outlined that we need funding for all the NGOs and groups. We have some ideas about that, and I thank him for his contribution.

I thank the shadow spokesperson, the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), who used the words “What does the Lord require of you?” from Micah. I thought that that was lovely. It is good to remember that. He was also right that, if we do not have the resources for the polio vaccines, unfortunately we probably face the potential for lethal diseases in the future. He referred to HIV/AIDS, and he chairs the APPG so well, and we thank him for it. If people fall back into poverty, they become susceptible to all sorts of diseases. He referred to food being more costly, in some parts by 35%. UNICEF referred to the effect on students. All those things combined lead potentially to the perfect storm that was referred to.

I also thank the Minister for his response. He clearly acknowledged the good work of the NGOs and faith groups, and referred to them as essential partners. That is good to know. All three of us who spoke would probably seek a wee bit more detail on the funding. That will become clear over the next few months, but we need to see where that will be. I am also very interested in the Unilever project. Perhaps he could come back to me in writing, and confirm how some of the NGOs and Church groups can work with Unilever to help some of their projects. I think that something can be done for Church groups, faith groups and the NGOs, so I thank him for that.

The Minister also gave a commitment to continue to champion, which to be fair the Government have, freedom of religious belief for all beliefs and respect for all, while addressing hate crime and hate speech. Those are all good things. We need a wee bit more detail on future funding, but I recognise his comments that NGOs and faith groups can be a force for good in the world. They very clearly can.

I thank all hon. Members for their contributions, and I will finish with a biblical quotation: we have been called to be His hands and His feet—to clothe, to feed, to visit and to help. I say to our Government and our Minister that this House will do exactly that.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered Government support for non-governmental organisations and churches in developing nations during the covid-19 pandemic.

Sitting adjourned.