My Lords, the Government highly value the service of all members of the Armed Forces, including Commonwealth nationals and Gurkhas from Nepal. We recognise that settlement fees place a financial burden on service personnel and their families wishing to settle in the UK after service. We are working with the Home Office to consider how we can offer greater flexibility for these individuals and their families in future.
The Royal British Legion says the Government should stop charging fees to Commonwealth veterans who want to remain in the country they have served. The Veterans Minister, Johnny Mercer, said the Government should pay the fees, while Cabinet Minister Michael Gove said that the current government policy was “ridiculous” and those who paid should get a refund. He told Royal Navy sailors:
“You’ve convinced Johnny and you’ve certainly convinced me that we need to change.”
If these key Ministers are on side, what is the hold-up?
The noble Lord will recognise that the issue is complex. I can reassure him that discussions have been ongoing and that my right honourable friend the Defence Secretary and Johnny Mercer, the Minister for Defence People and Veterans, have discussed the issue with the Home Secretary and the Minister for Future Borders and Immigration to consider how we can offer greater flexibility for these individuals and their families in future.
My Lords, my question follows on from the supplementary question. Would my noble friend agree that every poppy counts because every veteran counts, including those recruited from the Commonwealth? Will the Government use this year’s Remembrance Day as a moment to endorse and accept the campaign, which has just been referred to, to ensure that Commonwealth veterans are adequately advised about their right to remain in the UK post-service and do not face crippling visa fees?
I thank my noble friend for bringing the House’s attention to Remembrance Day, which is taking place in an unusual set of circumstances, but in no way does that diminish the significance of who we remember and why we remember them. In relation to her latter point about the campaign, the people affected within the Armed Forces are principally our Commonwealth veterans and our Gurkha veterans, and that is why there is currently an ongoing investigation into how we might better support them. I can reassure my noble friend that extensive help and support is already given to anyone joining the Armed Forces who may wish to consider their future at the time of discharge, and that includes information about what is involved in resettling or applying for naturalisation.
My Lords, Sikhs contributed out of all proportion to the Commonwealth war effort, with some families settling with family in Afghanistan following the partition of Punjab. Sadly, the Sikh community there has been literally decimated for standing up for the liberal values of gender equality and freedom of belief. Would the Minister agree that we should support the handful of families of Commonwealth service veterans desperately seeking to leave that country?
I join the noble Lord in paying tribute to the contribution from the Sikh community within the Armed Forces. They have been an inspiration, and our debt to them is immense. As for the particular circumstances confronting Sikh personnel within Afghanistan, the noble Lord will be aware that the UK Government maintain a presence in Afghanistan. Principally, our support there is provided to those who were former Afghan interpreters, but he makes an important point.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that all the messages of good will and good intent are wearing a little thin? The fact is that, at the moment, those who want to remain must still pay £10,000 or more for a visa. Furthermore, there have been some pretty disturbing cases of, for example, a veteran being asked to pay a £50,000 bill to the health service for the removal of a brain tumour. These people served our country; we need to act fast and convincingly to demonstrate that that will never be forgotten.
Let me reassure the noble Lord that the contribution made by service personnel from the Commonwealth and from Nepal is certainly never forgotten or overlooked. As I said earlier to the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, the issue is technically complex. I cannot comment on the specific case that the noble Lord mentions of Mr Ratucaucau. That is a sad and unfortunate case, but it is currently the subject of legal proceedings and it would be inappropriate for me to comment further. However, I reassure the noble Lord that it is recognised that there is an issue, the department is cognisant of that and the matter is being actively investigated.
My Lords, the Minister has used the word “flexibility”, but that almost implies that visa fees could be paid on the never-never. Does she not agree that the best form of flexibility, and that the best way to support the Commonwealth veterans who wish to remain here, is to waive the visa fees entirely?
I was not aware that I had used the word “flexibility”, but I defer to the noble Baroness. What I did indicate was that there is a range of measures available at the time of recruitment to inform and educate those who seek a career in the Armed Forces as to what lies ahead if they then wish to be discharged and to reside in this country. As I have indicated, it is recognised that there are sensitivities and the department is actively investigating the position.
My Lords, but this is a monumental muddle that is causing great distress. Why does the Minister, who is well respected in the House for her diplomatic skills, not just say to the House that after Question Time she will go back to the Ministry of Defence, contact the other departments involved and get this resolved as quickly as possible?
I thank the noble Lord for his kind remarks—he perhaps attributes to me greater powers than I actually possess. He is right to emphasise the significance of the issue, and I reassure him that I do not have to reiterate that to the department. There is active work under way, and I hope that something positive will emerge from that.
My Lords, does my noble friend not agree that, as an interim measure, Commonwealth service personnel should be granted exemption from visa fees and immigration controls for a grace period of, perhaps, two years after leaving the service, so that they may seek employment, claim benefits and register with a GP?
My Lords, Armed Forces personnel from many Commonwealth countries have supported our country over many, many years, including in the First and Second World Wars. Their bravery and commitment are to be applauded. Can the Minister tell us how they are supported once they leave the military with things such as NHS facilities? Are they expected to pay for this service upon leaving? If so, should we be looking at whether this is just and fair?
The MoD, the Home Office and the Government in general provide financial advice to veterans who are facing financial difficulty. Following discharge, Veterans UK’s Veterans Welfare Service and Defence Transition Services provide support to Commonwealth and Gurkha veterans, as they do to any other veteran.
My Lords, this “lefty lawyer”—which I regard as an accolade rather than an insult—cannot understand why, if these men put themselves at risk in being willing to fight on behalf of our country, we should not remove every obstacle in their way, including this quite extraordinary charge that they are liable to pay. If the problem is in the Home Office, perhaps we should be doing something about reforming the Home Office.
I do not for one moment doubt the noble Lord’s sincerity, although he will be aware that the policy obtained during the time of the coalition Government, of which his party was part. It is complex, and I am not diminishing that. We are talking not just of Commonwealth citizens, which I think is the focus of the Royal British Legion campaign; we are also talking about the Gurkhas. We are very conscious of the immense contribution that they all make, and we are actively investigating whether there is anything that we can do to support them better.