I remind hon. Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when they are not speaking in the debate, in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. Members are asked by the House to have a covid lateral flow test twice a week if coming on to the parliamentary estate. This can be done either at the testing centre in the House or at home. Please give each other and members of staff space when seated and when entering and leaving the Chamber.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered immigration requirements for non-UK armed forces personnel.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I know there is a lot going on today, so I am grateful to see Members here and the shadow Minister and Minister in their places. I also thank the Petitions Committee for its help and the many thousands of people who have added their name to petitions in support of this campaign.
Pay up or pack up. That is the message given by the Government to those who make the journey—often from halfway around the world—to protect our national security. The aim of this long-running and, I am pleased to say, hugely popular campaign is simple: to relieve foreign and Commonwealth-born service personnel and their families of the exorbitant costs they face to make a home in the country for which they risked their lives.
This injustice has gained significant attention in recent times, following the unsuccessful efforts of eight Fijian British Army veterans to bring legal action against the Government. All of them were left fearing destitution and deportation despite the huge sacrifices they made on our behalf. One of the claimants, Taitusi Ratucaucau, a veteran of the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, was handed a £30,000 bill following emergency brain surgery after he was deemed ineligible for free NHS care—a story I did not believe the first time I read it. The veterans lost the legal argument, but make no mistake: it is the Government who lost the moral one.
This issue is by no means a new phenomenon. In 2013, Filimone Lacanivalu, a veteran of the campaigns in Northern Ireland, Bosnia and Afghanistan was given an 11th hour reprieve after spending weeks in a detention centre awaiting removal. That amnesty was only granted following a personal appeal to the Prime Minister and subsequent media pressure. It should not need to be said that landing veterans with massive debts and threatening them with deportation is not the appropriate way to recognise their service.
I am aware that these are exceptional episodes. The Minister will no doubt say, as is rightly the case, that the vast majority of service personnel comply with Home Office requirements. That is not enough.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. I have one of the most mixed constituencies in the country, with a lot of Commonwealth- born constituents, many of whom have served. I have had cases of constituents who have been unable to access benefits because their immigration status is not sorted out, and that is after serving for years in the armed forces. At the very least, it seems deeply ungrateful to people who have travelled halfway across the world, as my hon. Friend says, to serve in the armed forces that they then face destitution because their immigration status is not resolved.
My hon. Friend is exactly right. These people have come here in good faith. They have risked all in the service of our country. They have exposed themselves to extraordinary risks. This is not the way to repay the extraordinary service they have offered our country. I hope that the Government in the near future will take the opportunity to close what is essentially a loophole. It would be relatively inexpensive to do so. Morally, it is the right thing to do.
I think it is only fair to say that I am aware of some of the efforts that are being made to update guidance and to increase the length of time that an application can be made in advance of discharge, as well as the ongoing work with the Joining Forces credit union, but we must ensure that the experiences of Taitusi, Filimone and countless others are not repeated.
It is also simply wrong for the Government to profit off the backs of the service of those men and women. Indefinite leave to remain costs each person who applies £2,389. However, the latest available Government data shows that the estimated cost of each application is only £243. That means that a soldier with a partner and two children will be asked to cough up nearly £10,000, £8,500 of which goes straight into the Treasury coffers.
In Afghanistan, foreign and Commonwealth-born soldiers, just like their UK-born comrades, spent months in check points in the blistering heat, surviving on minimal sleep. They were responsible for clearing safe routes with metal detectors. They were shot at while patrolling with back-breaking loads. All the while, families at home were hoping never to receive a knock at the door, though tragically some of them did. They have paid their dues 100 times over. Aged just 19, Pa Njie, a Gambian-born member of the Cheshires, was struck by an improvised explosive device and suffered terrible, life-changing injuries. Pa lost two limbs in the service of our country. Seemingly, that is not enough for the Home Office, which still wants its two grand.
It is worth remembering that this bill lands on the doorstep right at the moment that the person is transitioning to civilian life. It is much needed cash at a crucial time that could have gone on a deposit for a home or an education course.
Whenever this campaign is raised of late, Ministers are quick to highlight the consultation that was launched back in May, which is worth examining further. The response to it, I might add, is already more than three months overdue.
I congratulate the hon Member on securing the debate, in which I hope to be called to speak. The consultation has been leaned on very heavily by the Government. Unfortunately for them, I was in the Department when the consultation started, so I know how it came about and what it is about, which is essentially people serving around 12 years before they get a right to remain. Does he agree that that is extraordinarily stingy to our foreign and Commonwealth personnel and totally out of sync with requirements around indefinite leave to remain, and that a serious, hard look needs to be taken at it if we are to tackle this problem?
I am grateful to the hon. and gallant Member for that intervention. He is exactly right: it is, at best, very stingy. I recall that in the debate before Christmas he said that the 12-year threshold
“was plucked out of the air.”—[Official Report, 7 December 2021; Vol. 705, c. 300.]
Whether it was, or whether it was designed to affect the minimum number of people possible, it cannot be the right way forward. We should also reflect on the fact that in addition to the 12-year proposal there was nothing for families or for the unknown number of veterans currently living in limbo, who have effectively been thrown under a bus. This was the Government’s chance to right a historical wrong; instead they chose to introduce something that is, as he just outlined, virtually pointless. Only meaningful reform will deliver the justice that our veterans and their families deserve.
Whatever metric is used, I think—at least, I hope—that the Minister is fully aware that the bar has been set so high that practically no one will benefit as a consequence. Surely a fairer option would be to look at the benchmarks at which service personnel qualify for settlement and citizenship: four and five years respectively. When Government Whips were convincing their MPs to vote down new clause 52, which the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer) and I tabled to the Nationality and Borders Bill last month, one of the arguments provided was around a lack of fairness.
That brings me neatly to the serious matter of consideration of families, because if we want to debate a lack of fairness, we should look no further than the minimum income requirement that our service personnel must meet before they can bring their loved ones to the UK. That is a cruel policy that has resulted in members of the armed forces either leaving their families thousands of miles away or taking second jobs to reach the affordability criteria. In return for their protecting our national security, the Government rip their families apart. That practice is immoral, indefensible and inexcusable.
The Government have committed to making the UK the best country in the world to be a veteran; that is a noble ambition, on which we can all unite. However, there is no better place to begin than with the treatment of our service people who are foreign or Commonwealth-born. Our campaign has huge support right across the board from the Royal British Legion, Help for Heroes, all Opposition MPs, many Conservative MPs, England rugby stars, and many more people and organisations besides. We do not need primary legislation; Ministers can fix this problem with the stroke of a pen by updating regulations. They just have to show some of their stated ambition.
We are not asking for the world; all we are asking for is a fair deal for service personnel, for families to be treated with dignity, and justice for those veterans who are living in limbo. That is because no matter where someone comes from or whatever their background is, once they choose to put on a uniform and protect our country, they have made a life-changing commitment. It should shame all of us that our people are being treated with such little respect.
The debate lasts until 2.30 pm. I am obliged to call the Front Benchers no later than 2.07 pm and the guideline limits will be five minutes for the Scottish National party, five minutes for Her Majesty’s Opposition and 10 minutes for the Minister. Then Dan Jarvis will have three minutes at the end to wind up the debate.
Until 2.07 pm, there are three very distinguished Back Benchers seeking to contribute to the debate. If they could limit their remarks to no more than eight minutes each, all three of them will get in. We start off with Johnny Mercer.
It is a delight, Mr Hollobone, to serve under your chairmanship today.
I will certainly not take up eight minutes; I look forward to hearing what the Minister will say on this issue and I think that almost everything that can be said on this subject has been said. Nevertheless, I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) for his work on this issue over many years. It is one of the intricacies of this place that if one is not in government, such work can be pretty hard going at times, but he has striven over many years and through many debates on this issue, and I pay tribute to his relentless focus on it, not for himself but for the foreign and Commonwealth service personnel he served with, whom he has identified as suffering a serious injustice.
I will address just a couple of points before giving the floor to other people. The first is about the Government’s current position on this matter. For the life of me, I cannot understand why the Government do not do what we are asking them to do. It would not cost a lot of money, as the hon. Gentleman has identified. In the Committee considering the Armed Forces Act 2021, we worked with the Home Office to establish what the cost would be—the cost, not the profit—of taking this action for everyone who left the military in 2020. The cost was £30,000. When we consider what the Government and individual Ministers will spend on their own policies or whatever it may be, I cannot for the life of me understand why they do not do this.
Some of the reasons that Conservative colleagues gave in writing after that campaign to justify their vote against it—because this action was supported by everybody in this country, less the Conservative party, which breaks my heart a bit, considering how the Conservative party dresses itself up as the party of the armed forces—were just insane. They treated the hon. Gentleman and I as if we had just sailed up the Thames in a mess tin and had no idea what we were talking about. Clearly, if this action was in train and was about to happen, we would not waste our time conducting a campaign on it, including in Parliament, or finding out what can and cannot be done. But clearly it is not happening.
There was a consultation. Everybody in government knows that people have 12 weeks to respond to a consultation, but that has been missed as the consultation period finished 24 weeks ago and nothing has come out. So please do not tell me that there is a consultation and this will all be all right. The consultation itself was an absolute dog’s dinner.
I know how the figure of 12 years before people can settle came about; it was because one of the Secretaries of State went on a visit and met a Fijian chef, who said, “Yes, 12 years. Don’t let them come in under 12 years.” No work went into it at all. The figure should be around the same as the indefinite leave to remain requirements of four or five years, depending on status, which is in keeping with our peer nations.
The idea of splitting up families is atrocious. The idea is that at the end of a person’s service, they send their family back, like a sailor from Trinidad I met last year who was sending his wife and two kids back, so that he could work here and earn the money. We do not do that; we do not split families up. That is not the way we treat people in this country.
I urge Ministers and colleagues to get over the personalities involved here. I know that when some of us get campaigning on an issue it can be quite brutal and people do not want to be seen to go with it. I totally get that, but I urge hon. Members to be as professional as they can be, to park all that stuff and to think about individuals such as Pa, who was mentioned by the hon. Member for Barnsley Central, who lost two legs in Afghanistan. He is still in court fighting visa fees to stay in this country. That is appalling and shames each and every one of us in this place, not just those of us with military connections.
I cannot understand how veterans in this House, who broke bread with foreign and Commonwealth service personnel on operations, can come here and vote for the Government making an 80% profit out of service personnel who want a visa to stay in the UK. I cannot reconcile how they could possibly do that. There will be another chance to get this right, because the hon. Member for Barnsley Central and I will work with all the groups again to introduce a similar amendment. We have to right this wrong.
There is no point waiting further for consultations or excuses. The time is now, it does not cost a lot of money and it is a moral purpose that is not about politics. It is about the morality of how we treat people who serve in this nation’s military. We say that we want this to be the best country in the world to be a veteran, which is a noble ambition that I admire and that nobody would want more than me—I would love it because I could stop banging on about this stuff—but we are a million miles away from that.
If we were to ask individuals who have these problems, such as Pa, “Does this feel like the best country in the world in which to be a veteran?”, what would they say? That is how we will judge this, not by what we do here—announcing wonderful policies, having a consultation and saying further action is unnecessary because we have it all in hand. Go and ask Pa, or the foreign and Commonwealth soldier mentioned earlier who was given a £30,000 bill after using the NHS, “Does this feel like the best country in the world to be a veteran?”, and hon. Members might wake up and realise how much we have to do.
I look forward to the response from my hon. Friend the Minister, and he is a friend. I will not be indiscrete, but I know people’s views on this matter. Others have come up to me after debates—not this Minister—and said, “Johnny, I’m with you. This is the right thing do, but I want something for my town or city.” What does that do for the individual service personnel we have mentioned? Nothing. It is a coward’s way to do politics. We know the right thing to do. We need to get on and do it, and move on to other issues.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Hollobone. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) on securing this important debate. I know he cares deeply about this issue and has a long-standing and distinguished track record of serving in the armed forces, alongside people from all walks of life and backgrounds, including non-UK personnel. He is therefore better placed than most to recognise the enormous contribution that they make while serving their country. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer) has done a lot of good work on this issue, for which I thank him.
I pay tribute to all serving armed forces personnel and veterans, many of whom are based in my Stockport constituency and elsewhere across Greater Manchester. We all owe them a debt of gratitude. As well as keeping our citizens safe, the armed forces help bring our communities together. For example, I have seen at first hand the inspiring work that volunteers do to support our veterans at the veterans’ breakfast club in my constituency.
While there are many positives, I am fully aware of the shameful treatment of serving and former military personnel by successive Governments, and I raised this in debates about the Armed Forces Act 2021. One such group is the Gurkhas, who comprise a sizeable number of the 9,000 foreign nationals who served in our armed forces, alongside citizens from Nepal and the wider Commonwealth. Before I continue, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) for his tireless work on this issue in his capacity as the chair of the Nepal all-party parliamentary group.
The Gurkhas’ contribution to defending our nation is exemplary, with more than 200,000 Gurkhas having fought in the two world wars. In the past 50 years alone, they have served in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Borneo, Cyprus, the Falklands, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite this, it was only recently that the Government consulted on waiving immigration fees for those who wish to come to the UK following discharge from service after they have served 12 years, and the proposal has yet to be implemented by the Home Office. I am staggered to learn that the 12-year figure was picked randomly by the Government.
The situation is further compounded by the prolonged racism and discrimination that Gurkhas have been subjected to over many decades. Colleagues may recall that in 2002, a High Court judge branded the Ministry of Defence racist and irrational for excluding from compensation payments Gurkhas who were subjected to brutal treatment in Japanese prisoner of war camps. Perhaps the most high-profile example is the pensions discrimination; Gurkhas who retired before 1997 were awarded only a fraction of the amount that the rest of the British Army receive, as the Gurkha pension scheme was based on the Indian army rates for those with at least 15 years’ service. This is nothing short of shameful, and it casts a long shadow over the reputation of our armed forces.
In response, three members of Gurkha Satyagraha, a group representing Gurkha veterans, went on hunger strike outside Downing Street last August to highlight pensions injustice. I visited the strikers, who were just yards from where we are today, and I pay tribute to the three Gurkhas who led the fight for justice that day: Dhan Gurung, Gyanraj Rai and the widow Pushpa Rana Ghale, who had travelled all the way from Nepal. All three made it clear that they were prepared to die because they felt so strongly about the injustice to which Gurkhas have been subjected for so long. Indeed, during the strike, 60-year-old Mr Gurung was committed to hospital after refusing food for 12 days. He then returned to Downing Street to continue his role in the struggle for equality. Those who retired before 1997, such as Mr Gurung, receive a fraction of the pension given to the rest of the British Army, and that wrong must now be righted. I was proud to support them in their fight for pension equality, and I will continue to do so until they receive what is owed to them for the sacrifice they have made, and until the racism and discrimination to which they are all too often subjected is ended.
We have seen throughout this pandemic that the Government can find the money when they want to, but they choose not to do so in this case, in which veterans have been denied the vital funds to which they are entitled and that they so richly deserve. If the Government got their house in order, perhaps they could use some of the billions of pounds wasted on their watch. A Labour party report published today reveals that a staggering £13 billion of taxpayers’ money has been thrown away in officially confirmed cases of Ministry of Defence waste since 2010. That is utterly indefensible, and it is a further kick in the teeth to those Gurkha veterans who are still waiting for justice.
As well as heeding Gurkhas’ calls, the Government must recognise the strong public support for the Gurkhas’ campaign, with more than 100,000 people having signed a petition last year that called for pensions equality. Although the Government responded to the petition, many people are understandably concerned by the apparent unwillingness of the MOD to resolve the demands. Its notably inflexible position is in stark contrast to the Minister’s words in the immediate aftermath of the hunger strike. I urge the Minister to hear the honourable pleas for justice, and to abolish the costs and other bureaucratic and often prohibitive hurdles for non-UK armed forces personnel, including the Gurkhas. Although I am grateful to the Government for finally recognising the need to engage with the Gurkhas on this issue, and for agreeing to further talks and the establishment of a bilateral committee, they must move more quickly after decades of injustice and discrimination.
I congratulate the hon. and gallant Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) on setting the scene. He often does so on these issues, and few in the House could disagree with his point of view. I also commend the hon. and gallant Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer), who clearly has a heart and a passion for this matter, for his contribution. It is hard to ignore the contributions of both Members, given their service, and their knowledge of the subject matter and how it can be taken forward. I also thank the hon. Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) for his contribution—he mirrors the opinion of us all.
I have always been an avid supporter of the Gurkhas and the need for fair and right treatment. However, it is worth pointing out that this issue is not simply about the Gurkhas. It is about every man and woman who puts on a uniform in any branch of the armed services. It is also about the families who they leave behind while on service—families who undergo years of sleepless nights, missed birthdays and missed events, all because their loved one stands for democracy and freedom under the Union flag, and is in the service of Her Majesty the Queen. We see that as a key issue.
I am a simple man and like the simple things in life. Perhaps I view this matter too simplistically. If someone serves this nation, the nation owes them a debt that we can and must repay. That debt is equally owed to the families. That seems simple to me and every one of us here.
The Government seem to understand the principle, but scale is a problem. There is a proposition that these provisions be waived for the individual after 12 years’ service, but that is only for indefinite leave to remain, and only for service personnel. I have the utmost respect for the Minister and regard him as a friend, as he knows. We converse on many matters all the time. I look to him for a response that encapsulates what we are saying. I am pleased to see the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock), in her place, and look forward to her contribution, which I know will sum up all the things that we are saying.
My view is straightforward: our position on the repayment of the debt owed is skewed. While the Government have tinkered around the edges of immigration, there is an acknowledgment that we have not got it right; the provision quite clearly does not go far enough. For example, the exemption from UK immigration control ceases when the person is discharged from the armed forces. They have 28 days following their discharge to apply to remain in the UK, if they have not already done so. The Government confirmed in March 2021 that “Her Majesty’s forces” means a serving member of the regular forces of the Royal Navy, British Army—including the Brigade of Gurkhas—or the Royal Air Force, and the length of time for an application to be made would be increased to 18 weeks in advance of discharge, rather than the 10 weeks previously allowed.
I welcome that, but I feel it is not enough. The holder of a family visa will need to accrue five years’ residence in the UK to be eligible for indefinite leave to remain. Time spent overseas on an accompanied posting is counted as time spent in the United Kingdom. Under the armed forces rules, it may be possible for a family visa holder to be eligible for indefinite leave to remain after four years. That is because a service leaver is eligible after four years’ service, and the family members can apply concurrently. I am really concerned to ensure that we do not forget that this is not just about those who served in unform, but about their families as well. I know others here share that opinion.
How can we make the need to meet the standard requirements for indefinite leave to remain under the family visa route easier? How can we make that a responsibility for us in the House and Government? I believe there is consensus of opinion in Westminster Hall today, including on the need to continue to meet the minimum income requirement, which is very difficult for someone who has just left the service. That issue has to be addressed. The hon. Member for Barnsley Central referred to that at the beginning of his contribution. We need clarification and help on that matter, because we must get that right. To be fair to the Minister, without putting words in his mouth, he has acknowledged the issue, and I hope we can get some response on it. Those who have served Queen and country need these matters reviewed urgently.
The work carried out by the Royal British Legion in response to the Government consultation makes it clear that Government proposals do not go far enough to make the difference needed to make things right. The Royal British Legion is highly respected and renowned, and has a lot of knowledge of these matters, because it has dealings every day with soldiers and their families. As one in 10 members of the Army are non-UK, this is an issue that we must get right. We must also consider that not all of those people wish to move here permanently—that is a fact—and not all of them have family to bring over. When looking at the 10% affected, we have to address that issue.
With respect, we are not attempting to circumnavigate immigration procedures, which are necessary. I understand that we must have rules in place, but we are talking about allowing a small number of people, who have given so much, the opportunity to rebuild their civilian life in this country. My plea on their behalf—I honestly do not believe that this is too much to ask, which is why I add my voice to the voice of colleagues who have spoken and who will speak—is that the Government take on board the views of the Royal British Legion and other charities, and the personal stories to which hon. Members have referred, and implement meaningful changes to our immigration policy for those who dedicated their lives to secure ours. They did their best for freedom and democracy, and we support them. Let us support them now, because it is now that they need our help.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank the hon. and gallant Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) for securing this important debate—would that we did not have to debate the issue, however.
Commonwealth personnel have for decades fulfilled a vital role in the UK armed forces and have ensured that skills are maintained across the board. It is therefore disappointing to be once again debating immigration issues relating to these personnel that should have been dealt with years ago, and most certainly could have been dealt with during the passage of the Armed Forces Act 2021 or the Nationality and Borders Bill. Hon. Members from across the House repeatedly raise this issue, on account of its status as a national disgrace, and this Government repeatedly fail to act. On the one hand, Ministers talk up the importance of our personnel, but on the other, they create a hierarchy within our veteran community.
It is, frankly, scandalous to ask people to put their life on the line to serve the United Kingdom, and then to charge them thousands of pounds for the right to live in the state that they defended. Their families pay a high price, too, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) pointed out, and many find themselves living apart from their loved ones and partners. We should do everything that we can to ensure that families are held together and supported; instead, we find the Government separating members of the armed forces from their families and then hitting them with exorbitant visa fees.
Commonwealth personnel are vital in all three services, and are increasingly important because of the serious issues with recruitment in the United Kingdom. The Defence Committee noted that the Government’s 10-year partnership with Capita has been “abysmal since it started”, and that Capita has
“failed to meet the Army’s recruitment targets every single year of the contract”.
The Army has embarked on further recruitment campaigns across the Commonwealth to ensure we have the minimum troop numbers required to properly defend the state. Commonwealth citizens who have stepped forward to fill the gaps deserve to be rewarded, not penalised, but it seems as though the UK Government would prefer to do the latter.
The Government must seriously reconsider the income requirements for Commonwealth serving personnel who wish to have their family join them in the United Kingdom. The minimum income requirement is currently £18,600 for a spouse, and an additional £3,800 for a first child and £2,400 for children thereafter. That is not reasonable or realistic today, and the role of the Gurkhas and other Commonwealth serving personnel over the decades, and during the first and second world wars, shows that this is a historical scandal as well.
If families meet the minimum income requirement, they are then hit with visa application fees, which have more than doubled in the last five years to £2,389 per person. We are talking about nearly £10,000 for a family of four. As the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (John Cryer) said, this is a curious type of gratitude for the UK to dish out. The UK Government are also on the wrong side of the Royal British Legion and Poppyscotland on this matter, which is really not a good look.
In addition, the families left behind by Commonwealth personnel serving in the UK can be severely affected. My hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) recently mounted a campaign for his constituent Denis Omondi, a British citizen serving in the Army. His daughter, living in Kenya, was denied a visa, despite him having uncontested custody, to come and live with him in the United Kingdom. Thankfully, because of my hon. Friend’s campaign, the Home Office made a U-turn on that decision, but these cases are not unique.
Exemption from UK immigration control ends when the person is discharged from the armed forces. They have only 28 days from then to apply to remain in the UK, if they have not already done so. That relies on the person overseeing the discharge process having knowledge of the immigration rules and communicating it clearly and effectively. Unfortunately, as we know, that does not always happen.
The woeful example of the Fijian military, which other Members have mentioned, highlights that very clearly.
After independence, Scotland will, like many countries, engage in attracting talent from abroad to help populate our armed forces and other key public services. However, unlike the UK, Scotland’s esteem for service personnel from abroad will not end with their signing, only to be replaced with a hostile environment and a £10,000 bill to continue living in Scotland at the end of their service.
The SNP has been clear that after three years of full-time service, non-UK citizens who have served in the armed forces should be recognised with an automatic right to citizenship. As set out in our 2019 manifesto, the UK Government must remove the visa fees for Commonwealth armed forces personnel and their immediate families when applying for indefinite leave to remain.
In closing, will the Minister afford the Ministry of Defence sufficient latitude to fix these problems, right these wrongs and restore some justice to this process, or will we be back here, debating this again, in 12 months’ time?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) on securing this important debate and on his ongoing commitment and campaigning around this issue.
Every individual from the Commonwealth who serves in the UK armed forces contributes an enormous amount to our national defence. They are owed a debt of gratitude but instead, on discharge, they are met with a debt to pay themselves. Thousands of pounds and a complex administrative system sit between our Commonwealth veterans and the life that they deserve in the UK. We must put an end to that insulting state of affairs and allow every UK armed forces veteran who has served for five years, and their families, to remain in the country, and we should remove the extortionate visa fees.
As has been outlined in this debate, foreign-born members of our armed forces are exempt from immigration controls during their service. However, as soon as they are discharged, those exemptions end, and veterans have just 28 days to apply for a visa to remain in the UK. Each application costs an eye-watering £2,389, and every family member adds a further charge, meaning that applications for a family of four could cost nearly £10,000, as the hon. Member for Angus (Dave Doogan) highlighted.
For those who do not regularise their immigration status in time, all legal rights are suddenly lost. Almost overnight, those veterans are unable to take on work, access pensions, receive medical help, or make any sort of transition into civilian life. The threat of deportation also looms, causing many vulnerable veterans to live in a state of all-consuming fear. According to the veterans’ organisation Citizenship4Soldiers, one of our Commonwealth personnel from Fiji, who had served for eight years, was detained by UK immigration officials after being found homeless. That is not an exception.
My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central shared a number of terrible examples, from the story of Taitusi Ratucaucau, the veteran who was faced with a £30,000 bill following an emergency operation to remove a brain tumour, to the story of Filimone, who served in the UK armed forces for nine years, including in Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Northern Ireland, and was nearly deported. No one had explained to him that he would need to apply for leave to remain when he was discharged. Before he knew it, he had spent five weeks in a detention centre. After a personal appeal to the Prime Minister, he was granted settlement. That should have been a wake-up call for the Government.
There is also the group of veterans who took legal action against the Home Office and the MOD. Faced with a complex immigration system and unaffordable visa fees, they were left classified as illegal immigrants. After serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, these former British soldiers were suddenly faced with deportation and no access to social security. One veteran said,
“This has been an undignified existence that is so contrary to the immense pride with which I once served Queen and country.”
Still, the Government did not address this. Those veterans, who served our country with distinction, should not have had to rely on legal battles, direct appeals to the Government, or sums of money to stay in the UK, as my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (John Cryer) highlighted.
The Government have had chance after chance to put this right, but have consistently chosen not to do so, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) said. Shortly before Christmas, a Labour-backed amendment to the Nationality and Borders Bill proposed that visa fees be waived for all service personnel completing five years in the UK armed forces, and their dependents. The Government voted against it, again failing to right this wrong. Their only defence was a public consultation, which is yet to receive a Government response, on proposals that do not go nearly far enough, as was illustrated by the hon. and gallant Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer)—I will take this opportunity to acknowledge his hard work on this issue.
The consultation suggests that personnel should serve 12 years before becoming eligible for waived visa fees. That threshold is unnecessarily high. Not only is it out of sync with civilian immigration standards, under which someone is able to apply for citizenship after five years’ residency with one year of indefinite leave to remain, but it is way beyond the average length of service, especially for those who serve on the frontline with such bravery. Based on recent figures, just one in 10 of our Commonwealth personnel would be covered by the proposal. It is for all of us who care about those who serve our country to make sure that such a disingenuous threshold is lowered.
The consultation also offers nothing for the dependants of our veterans. Waiving the £2,389 fee for the service person themselves is a start, but it will mean little practically if there remains a hefty £7,000 bill for their family members, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned. If we can benefit from the defence that our service personnel have provided, their children deserve to as well. Overall, the Government’s watered-down proposals will still see them in the business of trying to turn a profit on our Commonwealth veterans. In the Government’s own covenant annual report, every single external stakeholder, including the Confederation of Service Charities, the Royal British Legion and the independent veterans adviser, comments on how the proposals in the consultation fall short.
Transitioning from military to civilian life can be challenging enough for people without their being forced to find thousands of pounds to stay in the country they have fought for. This issue has huge support across the country and across this House. It is our moral duty as a country to provide a home in the UK for anyone who has spent their life defending it. The Government should stop delaying and do the right thing.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I note your instruction to make sure there is at least three minutes left at the end for the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis). I thank him for securing the debate, and I thank all Members for their contributions. Although there may not have been a large quantity of contributions, there was certainly quality in the speeches that were made. It is good for us again to have an opportunity to discuss this issue.
The Government strongly value every member of our outstanding armed forces, and we are grateful and humbled when non-UK nationals choose to serve our country. It is right that they are rewarded for their bravery and commitment, which is why there are already several measures in place to support them both during and after their service, which I will outline in a few moments. I will briefly touch on some of the cases that have been mentioned. I hope Members will appreciate why I will not go into individual immigration records in a public forum, but in relation to the eight Fijian veterans, I can confirm that we have engaged directly with their legal representatives and they have all now regularised their immigration status here in the United Kingdom.
I will also say—this is a message that I give out regularly in relation to the settlement scheme for European economic area nationals who may have missed the deadline of 30 June last year—that if an armed forces veteran who is currently in the UK does not have regular immigration status, we genuinely encourage them to get in touch with the Home Office today. If they do not want to get in touch with us directly—if they have concerns about doing that—then I am sure that I speak for everyone present when I say that they can get in touch with their local Member of Parliament and ask them to get in touch with us.
Unless someone has committed serious or persistent criminal offences, our focus will be on supporting them to acquire status; we will not default to enforcement action. I hope people will have seen that in the way we dealt with vulnerable EEA nationals who missed the deadline last year. That is the approach that we will look to adopt with an armed forces veteran, unless, as I say, serious or persistent criminal offences have been committed. I am sure colleagues will appreciate why I add that caveat.
It should be noted that special immigration rules already apply to non-UK armed forces personnel, under which, as Members have referenced, they are granted full exemption from immigration control status for the duration of their service to allow them to come and go without restriction. They are free from any requirements to make visa applications or pay any fees while they serve, unlike almost every other category of person coming to work in the UK. On discharge, those who have completed at least four years’ service or have been medically discharged as a result of their service can choose to apply immediately for indefinite leave to remain in the UK. Non-UK armed forces personnel applying for themselves do not have to meet an income requirement, be sponsored by an employer, or meet any of the other requirements regarding skills, knowledge of the English language or knowledge of life in the UK that others applying for certain statuses may be familiar with.
It is worth highlighting not just the issue around immigration status, but the provisions that apply with respect to British citizenship. On completion of five years’ service, Commonwealth citizens can choose to naturalise as British citizens while they are still serving. For clarity, as touched on by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), they can use their time both in the UK and on overseas assignments towards the five-year UK residency criterion—a concession that is not offered to any other employment group. For reasons that will hopefully be obvious to Members present, applying to become a British citizen while serving removes any need to make an application for settlement.
Those provisions sit alongside the specific citizenship provisions for children born to serving armed forces personnel. Again, for clarity, there is a specific carve-out in relation to the rules. Members will be familiar with the concept that if a child is born in the UK and one of their parents is a British citizen or is permanently settled in the UK, they will become a British citizen automatically at birth. That goes further for members of the armed forces: a child born in the UK or qualifying territories acquires British citizenship automatically if, at the time of their birth, their mother or father is a member of the armed forces. It does not need to be both parents; it can be either.
Additionally, any individual born in the UK or qualifying territories on or after 13 January 2010 whose mother or father becomes a member of the armed forces while they are a minor is entitled to register as a British citizen. Finally, a person born outside the UK whose mother or father is a member of the armed forces at the time of their birth can also register as a British citizen. I hope that brings some clarity about the position of children born while someone is serving in the forces.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, because I know he cares deeply about this issue. I have listened carefully to all the things he has said, but would he not agree that they are extraordinarily small beer for foreign and Commonwealth service personnel? One of the points that was raised was that if they come and serve in the military and they go on deployment to Afghanistan, we will not stop the clock. That is extraordinary. Of course we would never stop the clock—they are serving in the British Army. Would the Minister accept that, while there are small carve-outs for individuals, if we look at the greater picture, they are incredibly small beer? That is why we need to deal with the visa fees issue.
I would not class the automatic granting of UK nationality as small beer. The provisions I have just read out apply regardless of the nationality of the parent. Both parents can be non-UK nationals, and only one needs to be a serving member of the armed forces for their child born in the UK to automatically become a British citizen. I am struggling to think of any other such provision. The child becomes a citizen at birth, so all they need to do is apply for a passport. They are a British citizen. There is no settlement fee and, obviously, there is no visa fee for someone who is a UK national at birth. That is a large, real impact for children born to members of the armed forces, and it is unlike virtually any other walk of life, where, unless a parent already has indefinite leave to remain or one of the parents is a UK national, their children do not automatically become British. Of course, they may be naturalised later, when the parents naturalise themselves. I would not describe that provision as particularly small beer. It is quite long standing, and it is deliberately generous to children born to service personnel.
Family members of armed forces personnel enter the UK on a five-year limited leave to enter visa, whereas their civilian counterparts, such as those coming in under the family routes, are usually granted a 30-month visa, which they must then renew to complete the qualifying period. The family members of armed forces personnel can apply for settlement straightaway at the end of the five years, saving them the cost of making multiple applications. Again, unlike their civilian counterparts, they can count time overseas on accompanied assignments towards the five-year UK residency criterion.
We have several measures in place to support non-UK armed forces personnel, such as the particularly unique provision regarding their children and British citizenship that I have already touched on. We recognise their contribution and sacrifice and are determined to do more, hence the Home Office and Ministry of Defence ran a joint public consultation last year regarding a policy proposal to waive settlement fees for certain non-UK service personnel in Her Majesty’s armed forces. I was pleased to work on that with my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer). The results of the consultation have now been analysed. The Government will publish our response shortly and make any associated fee changes through fees regulations at the earliest opportunity afterwards. While I am not in a position to confirm the final policy offer, I hope that provides some reassurance that the Government recognise the issue, have sought views from those affected on how best to address it, and will shortly announce our plans to do so.
There has been some focus in the debate on the proposal in the consultation to offer fee waivers to those who have served for a minimum of 12 years. That is in line with a service person’s initial engagement period and takes account of the investment in their skills and training.
In a moment. I acknowledge the strong representations made in the debate—I suspect I am about to get some more—as well as during the passage of the Nationality and Borders Bill and in response to the consultation, recommending that that threshold should be reduced. As I say, we will publish our response to the consultation shortly, and that will set out the final policy.
I have to correct one of those pieces of information on the 12-year engagement point. I know it is not the Minister’s fault, as it comes from the MOD. This is a very recent policy and does not actually apply to anyone who has served for a long time. The idea that someone serves for 12 years is rubbish; they can leave after four or five years. I am afraid that the 12-year engagement point is a huge red herring. We have to be honest in this debate. I know it is definitely not the Home Office’s fault, but the idea that our foreign comrades sign up for 12 years and do not leave is garbage. I repeat that this is not the Minister’s fault at all.
My hon. Friend makes his point strongly on the record. I will move on to the treatment of family members of non-UK service personnel and particularly whether any fee waivers should apply to them as well as to the principal applicant. As I said, I am not in a position to announce the revised policy, but the consultation did not include proposals to waive fees for family members. Offering fee waivers to family members of non-UK service personnel would put them in a more favourable position than UK nationals serving in the armed forces. While we could debate what the provisions for family members should be, we do not believe it is sensible to have a difference in this area, or for it to be an advantage to serve in the armed forces as a non-UK national rather than as a UK national.
Colleagues will be aware that the minimum income requirement is standard across immigration routes for settled persons wishing to sponsor family members and is mostly set at levels at which people would not generally be eligible for income-related benefits. Most armed forces personnel, regardless of their nationality, are single when they enlist. The salary in all three services once basic training is completed would enable them to sponsor a partner to come to, or remain in, the UK. Where personnel have children who are subject to immigration control, noting the provisions I outlined earlier, we recognise that it may take longer for junior-ranked personnel to meet the higher thresholds that apply. That is why the Home Secretary agrees with the recommendations of the review by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), “Living in our shoes”, published in June 2020, and has committed to a medium-term review of the impact of the minimum income requirement on armed forces personnel and their families.
In previous debates, the issue of Hong Kong Military Service Corps veterans has been raised. It is probably worth putting on the record again what I confirmed during the passage of the Nationality and Borders Bill. We have identified a potential solution to this issue and are currently investigating proposals that could see that cohort treated similarly to other non-UK service personnel with potential links to the former colony. That would be in addition to other pathways that they may already be eligible for, such as the British national overseas visa, which provides a path to settlement. There is considerable work to be done to fully scope the ramifications and impacts of this policy. However, I aim to provide further details to the House later this year.
Let me again offer my thanks to the hon. Member for Barnsley Central for securing this debate. As we have seen today and in the debate last month on the proposed amendment to the Nationality and Borders Bill, this issue rightly arouses strong feelings among individual Members and across the House—understandably so, given that it covers those who have served our nation. The hon. Members present are committed and passionate advocates for this topic, and I commend them and others for raising this hugely important issue. The discussion that we have had today has exposed the significant and understandable strength of feeling that there is about it.
I am sorry; I am only making up for the fact that there are not many people here. If we applied the consultation proposal retrospectively to 2020, how many foreign and Commonwealth service personnel would benefit from it, as a percentage? Does my hon. Friend know? I am trying desperately not to catch him out, because I think that we did this work together.
They certainly would not be worthless if they benefited someone. However, in terms of our final response, we hear the strength of opinions on the length of service proposed and the comments that have been made today. I suspect that I will hear even more on this issue in the not-too-distant future, given that later today I am due to meet the hon. Member for Barnsley Central, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View and representatives of the Royal British Legion, of which I am a member myself, to discuss their concerns further. I look forward to hearing their views, not just on the issue of visa fees but more widely, including on the points that I have just made about any veteran who is here in the UK without regular status. We would urge such veterans to get in touch with the Home Office or, if they do not feel confident about getting in touch with us directly, with their local Member of Parliament.
I am mindful of the time, so I again pay tribute to our armed forces personnel for their tireless work and sacrifice. We know that there is more to be done to support them in this area and I look forward to being able to confirm shortly our next steps to recognise their service. As I say, we know that there is more to be done to support them in this area, and I look forward to being able to give the House more details about how we will do that.
This has been a very useful debate and I am grateful for all the contributions from Members and for the Minister’s response.
What this issue comes down to, when we strip everything back, is whether it is right to charge someone who has come here and served our country £2,389—£10,000 for their family—to stay in the country that they have risked their life to protect. I do not think that we can square the commitment that we as a country make to those who serve and to our veterans with the way that we treat our foreign and Commonwealth-born service personnel. Morally, I just cannot fathom how we can justify using people who have risked their lives for our country as cash cows to generate revenue for the Treasury coffers. It is just wrong, and for me it undermines the very fabric of our military covenant.
However, this issue can be fixed very easily; there is an open goal here for the Government. I very much hope that they will take the opportunity in the near future to kick the ball into the net, and I very much hope to see a response to the consultation in the near future. The Minister has said on a number of occasions that the Government will publish their response “shortly”. I hope that when they do so, it will show that they have listened to the representations that have been made by hon. Members in this place and to the voices of the service charities.
The Minister has been good enough to agree to meet me, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer), and the director general of the Royal British Legion later today for a further conversation about this matter. However, when the Government publish their response to the consultation, I hope that they will reflect on the limitations of the initial proposals and consider lowering the threshold and including veterans and their families.
I hope that the Minister and the Government will act to right this wrong. If they do so, that will be warmly welcomed, but if they do not, they should know that the hon. Gentleman and I, and many others besides, will keep going until we get this matter sorted.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered immigration requirements for non-UK armed forces personnel.