Amendment 26

Armed Forces Bill - Report – in the House of Lords at 7:30 pm on 23 November 2021.

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Lord Tunnicliffe:

Moved by Lord Tunnicliffe

26: After Clause 19, insert the following new Clause—“Indefinite leave to remain payments by Commonwealth, Hong Kong and Gurkha members of armed forces (1) The Immigration Act 2014 is amended as follows.(2) In section 68(10), after “regulations” insert “must make exceptions in respect of any person with citizenship of a Commonwealth country (other than the United Kingdom) who has served at least four years in the armed forces of the United Kingdom, or any person who has served at least four years in the Royal Navy Hong Kong Squadron, the Hong Kong Military Service Corps or the Brigade of Gurkhas, such exceptions to include capping the fee for any such person applying for indefinite leave to remain at no more than the actual administrative cost of processing that application, and”.”Member’s explanatory statementThis new Clause will ensure that Commonwealth, Hong Kong and Gurkha veterans applying for Indefinite Leave to Remain following four years of service will only pay the unit cost of an application.

Photo of Lord Tunnicliffe Lord Tunnicliffe Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow Minister (Transport)

My Lords, I rise to move Amendment 26, in the name of my noble friend Lord Coaker. We have retabled this amendment from Committee due to the strength of feeling on this issue across the House. Commonwealth service personnel and other non-UK personnel have contributed an enormous amount to our national defence, and we owe them a debt of gratitude.

Extortionate visa fees have left non-UK veterans facing financial ruin and feeling abandoned by the country they served with courage and distinction. I was shocked when the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, said in Committee that Hong Kong veterans feel that

“they are being treated as aliens, not veterans of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces.”

I remember how the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, said that the welcome approach to former Afghan staff means that government policy towards

“foreign and Commonwealth soldiers who have stood shoulder to shoulder with us and fought in many campaigns … is an anomaly and it is bizarre.”

I also remember how the noble Lord, Lord Lancaster, said that the MoD policy change that now allows Gurkhas to apply some 18 weeks before leaving service

“does not address the issue of cost”.

The Minister stated:

“We recognise that settlement fees place a financial burden on non-UK serving personnel wishing to remain in the UK after their discharge”.

So why is action on this issue so slow? I am grateful that the Minister told the House that 6,398 responses were received in the Government’s consultation, but we are still not further forward when the Minister says only that

“the Government will publish their response in due course.”—[GC 337-41.]">Official Report, 2/11/21; cols. GC 337-41.]

This answer is no longer acceptable. We need to know when and how the Government will act, and they should not hide behind the usual ministerial lines to kick the can down the road.

I remind the Minister of the large sums involved. Under current rules, Commonwealth personnel face a fee of £2,389 per person to continue to live in the UK, after having served for at least four years. This means that someone with a partner and two children could face a bill of £10,000 to stay in Britain. I will listen very closely to the Minister’s reply.

Photo of Lord Dannatt Lord Dannatt Crossbench

I will make two points, a broader one and a narrower one that is particularly germane to this amendment. My broader point picks up the discussion in your Lordships’ House about the wider duty of care standard, which we debated in the context of the overseas operations Bill, introduced at Second Reading of this Bill and discussed and debated in Committee. I am encouraged by the Minister’s various responses at the various stages of these two Bills. The Ministry of Defence appears to be going very much in the right direction, which is why an amendment requiring the Secretary of State to put in place a duty of care standard has not featured on Report of this Bill.

My narrower point still relates to duty of care and duty of care standards, with particular regard to former service men and women who served in Hong Kong, Gurkhas, and foreign and Commonwealth individuals. The latter make up a large proportion of the British Armed Forces today. I come back to the very narrow point I made in Committee: it is an anomaly that among those withdrawn from Afghanistan in Operation Pitting in August were former members of the Afghan national army, who have now been given right of residence in this country and are in a better position than foreign and Commonwealth soldiers, and Gurkha soldiers who have served shoulder to shoulder with us for at least four years, and in many cases for much longer.

This is bizarre and it is an anomaly. It really must be addressed favourably and in a short timeframe. As the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, said earlier, this issue, particularly in relation to Hong Kong, has been raised time and again, not year after year but decade after decade. The time to solve this one is now. I very much hope that the noble Baroness and the Government will move quickly on this issue. It is high time to do so.

Photo of Lord Craig of Radley Lord Craig of Radley Crossbench 7:45, 23 November 2021

My Lords, I support Amendment 26. I believe that, until the issue of citizenship is resolved in favour of the few remaining veterans of the Royal Navy Hong Kong Squadron and other military members of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces recruited there, they deserve de minimis to benefit from this financial concession on the grounds of their full status as veterans. I have already in Amendment 4 explained the full background to these claims. Let us see whether the Government are finally able to make up their mind in favour of these long-standing requests. What response will the Minister make now—and please will she not just respond that it will be actively considered?

Photo of Baroness Smith of Newnham Baroness Smith of Newnham Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Defence)

My Lords, I support this amendment. Many of the issues have been rehearsed at earlier stages of this legislation, as the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, pointed out. We have even heard some of the arguments rehearsed in the second group of amendments this afternoon. However, I feel I need to speak again at this stage to try to bring together a few issues, because the question of service personnel who have put their lives on the line for the United Kingdom, whether from Hong Kong, the Commonwealth or the Gurkhas, needs to be recognised. We need the Government to do more than give lip service to this.

As the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, pointed out just now, until citizenship is resolved for those from Hong Kong who have served with our forces, the very least we can do is look at ways to ensure that indefinite leave to remain does not cost people a king’s or a queen’s ransom. The cost of securing indefinite leave to remain is unconscionable. If somebody has a right to indefinite leave to remain, surely it is appropriate that the cost of securing it is the cost of administering it. If those of us who are British apply for a passport, we pay an amount of money that seems a lot to many individuals but is essentially an administrative cost. The cost of securing indefinite leave to remain is far more than that administrative cost.

I am aware that decisions on this are down not to the Secretary of State for Defence but to the Home Office. Therefore, rather than asking the Minister to commit at this stage to reducing the cost of applications for indefinite leave to remain, all we can ask her to do is to go back and raise this question again with the Home Office.

I also ask the Minister whether we cannot help her. Is there some way in which Parliament can say to the Home Office, “This is something you must do”? It goes beyond questions of how many individuals are coming to live in the United Kingdom or targets of tens of thousands of people. It is about the UK’s duty to those who have served with us. Is there some way in which Parliament can make that case to the Home Office? Can we, as Members of your Lordships’ House and the other place, help the Ministry of Defence do the right thing and put some pressure on the Home Office to reduce the costs?

It is not appropriate to ask for £2,000 or more from somebody who served with us, or from their family. If somebody who has a spouse and children wants and needs indefinite leave to remain, surely they do not want that on their own; they want to come with their families. The noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, pointed out at this stage and in Committee that people who have come from Afghanistan under ARAP have come with their dependants. If we think that there is a right for citizens from the Commonwealth and Hong Kong and the Gurkhas who have served with us—and for us—to come and live in this country, surely we should give them the opportunity to do so without making the cost prohibitive.

If the Minister cannot give us a guarantee on reducing the costs—I suspect she cannot—can she at least give us some guidance on how we might be able to help her to persuade the Home Office to do the right thing?

Photo of Viscount Brookeborough Viscount Brookeborough Crossbench

My Lords, this was brought home to me when I was presenting Iraq campaign medals to returning soldiers a number of years ago. Since then I have met many who have returned from Afghanistan at official events. It is extraordinary when you hand out the medals and you come to somebody who is quite obviously of Commonwealth origin, and you actually have discrimination standing there in front of you. You have wounded people, if not physically then mentally, who are on parade. You are standing there and giving them a medal, and under your breath you are saying, “This is horrifying. I am totally horrified that you do not have the same or similar rights as the man or lady next door.”

This—our regard and respect for those people—surely comes under the spirit of the covenant. We simply cannot let this lie. It is not a great number of people, compared with the number receiving money put out as a result of Covid or, dare I say it, the number crossing the Channel. This could be killed here and now, in one go, and all those people would be not only happy but that much prouder to be as British as we would like them to be for their service abroad. I support this amendment.

Photo of Lord Alton of Liverpool Lord Alton of Liverpool Crossbench

My Lords, we had a good debate earlier when my noble and gallant friend Lord Craig spoke to Amendment 4 tabled by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern. There was a degree of unanimity around the House that this issue needed to be addressed. The Minister was good enough to say that, although she would not reply on Amendment 4 to the issue of Hong Kong ex-servicemen, when we reached this part of our proceedings on Amendment 26 she would be able to give us some reply. I rather hoped that might mean she wanted some space to try to digest some of the points that he and I tried to make earlier.

I particularly reinforce what the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham, said about the relationship between the MoD and the Home Office on this. If nothing else comes of this evening, will the Minister agree to facilitate a meeting involving perhaps those who have participated in this debate but also her noble friend Lady Williams of Trafford, at which we might try to make some progress on these two questions—one about citizenship and the other about the specific position of the Hong Kong ex-servicemen?

If the Minister has the figures, I wonder if she could share with the House the number of people we are talking about who fall into the category—whether the figures I gave earlier are correct or not. Sometimes it is what you do in small things that matters most, and we are talking about very small numbers of people. It was a point alluded to my noble friend Lord Brookeborough a few moments ago, that when you compare this very small group with the number of people who try to arrive in the United Kingdom—some illegally—it is how we behave towards them that will matter.

This brought me back briefly to debates in another place in 1983, when I spoke on the nationality Act about citizenship and the effects it would have on people in Hong Kong. Sadly, many of the things predicted during that debate have come to pass. The trajectory we all hoped that Hong Kong might be on post 1997 —“one country, two systems”, and an honouring of the difference between Hong Kong and mainland China —has clearly not happened. That has left people in a precarious position, and none more so than those who served the Crown. I reinforce the point I made earlier: these people’s lives are clearly now in danger, and we have a duty to do something about that. It is a point that my noble friend Lord Dannatt made as well.

That is all I wanted to say. I know I had the chance to speak earlier on. I hope the Minister will think about how she can, in a practical way, take these two relatively small questions forward and see if we can get some justice for those involved.

Photo of Baroness Goldie Baroness Goldie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, for tabling this amendment and the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, for his remarks in support of it. I am also grateful to those who have contributed to the debate, not least the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, and the noble Lords, Lord Dannatt and Lord Alton.

I think your Lordships will understand that I am at the Dispatch Box as MoD Minister. I cannot speak on behalf of the FCDO or the Home Office, but let me try and address some of the more technical issues to at least give context to what the amendment seeks to achieve. The first thing I want to say is that the Government highly value the service of all members of our Armed Forces, including: our Commonwealth nationals, our Gurkhas in Nepal, who have a long and distinguished history of service to the UK both here and overseas; and former British Hong Kong service personnel.

Before I address the detail of the proposed new clauses, I would like to say a few words about the process for setting immigration fees. Application fees for immigration and nationality applications have been charged for a number of years. They are charged under powers set out under Section 68 of the Immigration Act 2014. They play a vital role in our country’s ability to run a sustainable borders and immigration system, reducing the burden that falls on taxpayers.

Sitting beneath the Immigration Act are a fees order and fees regulations, all of which are scrutinised by both Houses before they come into effect; there is a democratic prism to all this. This system ensures checks and balances, and it seeks to maintain the coherence of the immigration fees framework as set out in legislation. If we were to remove these fees during the passage of this Bill, as the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, suggests in his amendment, it would undermine the existing legal framework for fees, without proper consideration for either the sustainability of the system or fairness to the UK taxpayer. It would also reduce clarity in the fees structure by creating an alternative mechanism for controlling fees which sits outside the immigration fees regime.

When non-UK service personnel, including Commonwealth citizens and Gurkhas from Nepal, enlist in the regular Armed Forces, they are granted exemption from immigration control status for the duration of their service. That is 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, and that is unlike almost every other category of migrant coming to work in the UK. Those who have served at least four years or been medically discharged as a result of service can choose to settle in the UK after their service and pay the relevant fee.

As a number of your Lordships are aware, the time before discharge that such settlement applications can be submitted has been extended this year from 10 to 18 weeks. Those applying for themselves do not have to meet an income requirement, be sponsored by an employer, or meet any requirements regarding their skills, knowledge of the English language or knowledge of life in the UK, again putting them in a favourable position compared with others who seek to settle here. We recognise, however, that settlement fees may place a financial burden on non-UK serving personnel wishing to remain in the UK after their discharge, and we recognise the strength of feeling of parliamentarians, service charities and the public on this issue.

Your Lordships will be aware that the Ministry of Defence, together with the Home Office, ran a public consultation between 26 May and 7 July 2021 regarding a policy proposal to waive settlement fees for non-UK service personnel in HM Armed Forces. The results of the consultation have been used to advise Ministers and, once collective agreement has been secured for a final policy, the Government will publish their response, make any associated changes to fees through fees regulations, which are updated at least twice a year, and appropriately address tax implications through the relevant secondary legislation.

For those non-UK veterans of the Armed Forces who do not have settled status in the UK, we are also exploring what options there are to assist them. Under the British nationality selection scheme, a limited number of personnel who were settled in Hong Kong could apply to register as British citizens. All veterans would have been eligible to acquire British National (Overseas) status between 1986 and 1997, and therefore many should hold that status already. Those who hold that status may be eligible for the BN(O) visa that was launched in January of this year. This provides a route to settlement in the UK, meaning that many former British-Hong Kong service personnel, their spouses and dependants will already have, or be on the path to having, settlement and subsequently British citizenship. The fees they pay are therefore connected to their BN(O) status and not their former service.

I am aware that the Minister for Safe and Legal Migration, Kevin Foster MP, met with a delegation of Hong Kong Military Service Corps personnel in May this year and listened to their representations. The Home Office is continuing to consider the representations made on behalf of those personnel who were unable to obtain citizenship through the selection scheme, but there are currently no plans to reopen applications for BN(O) status or expand the eligibility for the BN(O) route. As the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, helpfully observed, this is a Home Office responsibility and not an MoD one.

Photo of Lord Alton of Liverpool Lord Alton of Liverpool Crossbench 8:00, 23 November 2021

Can we press the Minister further on this point about the link between the MoD and the Home Office? She is of course right, but she has just said that it is a continuing process of consultation. The Home Office has been saying that for year after year, as referred to by my noble and gallant friend in his remarks earlier. When does the Minister think that that will conclude, and will she respond to the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and me about the importance of facilitating a meeting between the Home Office, the MoD and noble Lords who are involved and interested in this issue?

Photo of Baroness Goldie Baroness Goldie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

I would say to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, that I understand the strength of feelings so ably articulated by him, the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough. I understand the strength of feeling expressed in the House in relation to individuals who have served this country. But, as I have explained, there is an existing legal framework in place for immigration fees which already enables proper consideration to be given by government and Parliament to the full range of issues in setting those fees.

The issues raised by this amendment are already subject to a consultation that is entering its final stages. I can tell the noble Lord, Lord Alton, that I have no magic wand that I can wave, and that this is another department’s responsibility. I can also confirm that the specific issues around Hong Kong are also under consideration.

Photo of Viscount Brookeborough Viscount Brookeborough Crossbench

The Minister talks about consultation. I ask her to let us know who has been consulted and how many of the cohort group have been. Clearly, it will be very wide of the mark if none of them has been spoken to. So how many people, who, when, and has it involved the cohort?

Photo of Baroness Goldie Baroness Goldie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

All I can do is undertake to write to the noble Viscount, because I do not have the specific detail in front of me. The consultation process ran and it was a joint process, but I will find out the specific information that he requested and write to him.

The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, helpfully indicated that this is a probing amendment, and I am very grateful to him for proposing not to press this to a Division. As I said earlier, I sense the strength of feeling, and Hansard will be testament to that strength of feeling. I give the noble Lord, Lord Alton, the assurance that through the conduit of the MoD I will indicate the desire of your Lordships for some clarity in seeing how these matters are to unfold. Therefore, while I cannot give the answers that noble Lords are no doubt impatient to receive—I sympathise with their impatience but think they will understand that I am in an impossible position in terms of providing the answers—I certainly undertake to use my offices as a Minister in MoD to see whether I can do anything to facilitate the provision of information. In these circumstances, I hope the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Lord Tunnicliffe Lord Tunnicliffe Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow Minister (Transport)

Well, as the number two member of this team, I am glad I managed to imitate my boss with such accuracy that it was unnoticed—but I will recover.

I note that all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate have spoken in favour of a change of heart by the Government. It is time the Government got a grip on this. The sense that this is simply a detail in a wider issue simply does not understand the concept. These people have demonstrated a loyalty that most of us have never had to. We are honoured to have a couple of people here who have demonstrated that loyalty: to be willing, on the whim of a politician, to go out and fight for us—not for their country but for Britain. You cannot ask for more loyalty than that; it is a test that I am not sure I would have passed. But these people came along and served. The history of Commonwealth soldiers, sailors and airmen fighting for this country is a long one, and they deserve to be considered quite separately from these wider issues.

I am not going to divide the House—frankly, there is not enough of the House around to be worth dividing—but I hope the Minister will take away the enormous strength of feeling on this issue. What really came out to me from this is that it is crucial that the Government, at the most senior level, understand that this is not an immigration issue; it is about people who have been willing to demonstrate ultimate loyalty to our Government and who would make the perfect citizens of this country. I hope the slightly warm sense that we got from some of the Minister’s words will bear fruit very soon. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 26 withdrawn.

Amendment 27 not moved.