Families of Commonwealth Soldiers

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:43 pm on 5th March 2019.

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Photo of Drew Hendry Drew Hendry Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) 7:43 pm, 5th March 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I agree.

Veterans Aid responded to my note this morning by saying:

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

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

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

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

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

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