Amendment 178

Nationality and Borders Bill - Committee (5th Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 8:30 pm on 10 February 2022.

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Lord Coaker:

Moved by Lord Coaker

178: After Clause 78, 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 Coaker Lord Coaker Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Opposition Whip (Lords)

My Lords, I am sorry, but it is me again. I am the second signatory to this amendment. I spoke to the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, earlier, and he sends his apologies to the Committee; he has had to leave but has asked me to move Amendment 178. I also support Amendment 185 in this group, in the name of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, but I will leave him to speak to that.

Amendment 178 deals with an issue that has huge cross-party support and that has been raised for years. Most recently, we tried to fix this in the Armed Forces Act, and now we are trying again to fix it here. The amendment seeks to prevent Commonwealth veterans being charged frankly extortionate fees to remain in the country that they fought for.

I have some questions. Does the Minister agree that this is not a general immigration issue but is about the treatment of people who have served our Government and our country? Parliament has repeatedly been asked to wait for the Government’s response to the consultation, but the consultation closed in July 2021, so where is it? The Government’s consultation is based on a possible reduction of fees after 12 years of service, but the former Defence Minister, Johnny Mercer MP, said that that number was

“plucked out of the air”.—[Official Report, Commons, 7/12/21; col. 300.]

Can the Minister explain why the figure of 12 years has been consulted on, rather than the four or five years in Amendment 178, for which there is widespread support?

It is difficult to understand why the Government are so reluctant to act on this. How much would it cost to implement, if done on the terms of this amendment? Can the Minister confirm that, since 2010, the fees have increased from £840 per person to £2,389 per person? What percentage of the current fees being charged to service men and women—more than £10,000 for a family of four—is profit?

This support for our Commonwealth veterans is long past being debated. There is huge support for this change and it is about time the Government got over just giving us warm words and actually acted. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Craig of Radley Lord Craig of Radley Crossbench

My Lords, I have put my name to both these amendments. I shall speak to Amendment 185, in my name and those of the noble Lords, Lord Alton of Liverpool and Lord Coaker, and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham. It follows on from the welcome remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, when she summed up at the end of Second Reading. She said, in relation to the requests about citizenship and right of abode that I had raised about these veterans of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces who were recruited and served in Hong Kong and elsewhere, that

“the Government have identified a potential solution to this issue”.

That is of course potentially welcome news.

For the past six years or more, the Home Office, including the Home Secretary at the time and other Home Office Ministers, has been approached on numerous occasions by many Members of both Houses, including myself, on behalf of these loyal veterans, and indeed has been lobbied by some of the veterans themselves. All these veterans have taken the oath of allegiance and paid UK taxes on their pay. They were encouraged to make representations by features of the Armed Forces covenant, enacted in law a decade ago—features that seek to ensure that veterans and their families are treated fairly.

For the past six years or more, invariably the reply from the Home Office Minister at the time was that they were indeed valuable veterans of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces and their case was being “actively considered”—a verbatim quote from the many replies received from Home Office Ministers. So this is not a new issue for the Home Office. Indeed, on behalf of 64 former members of the Hong Kong Military Service Corps veterans I submitted their applications to the Home Secretary with a personal letter from me two years ago, in March 2020. Regrettably, not even a single acknowledgement was offered by the Home Office.

At last, it seems that a potential solution has been identified. However, in her reply at Second Reading the Minister said it would require

“considerable work … with a view to a solution being provided before the end of this calendar year.”—[Official Report, 5/1/22; col. 668.]

That is, “with a view to” the end of 2022—hardly very convincing, given the Home Office’s track record that I have explained. Surely after having actively studied this issue for six years or more, it should not take the Government a vague 12 months to reach a decision. I feel it is reasonable to ask that a definite decision be reached a little sooner, as proposed by the amendment.

I hope that the Minister responding will not resist the amendment. That would only signal that the Home Office was yet again seeking to play this issue along and did not value the true worth of these veterans. Surely it is long past time for these valued veterans to know the outcome and have a more precise date by which they will be informed. I hope the Minister will agree. The noble Baroness, Lady Williams, will recall that, when this issue was debated in the Armed Forces Bill last year, these veterans rightly received considerable support from all sides of your Lordships’ House; indeed, it was the MoD’s approach to the Home Office then which has sparked this movement towards a promising resolution. I commend the amendment to the Committee.

Photo of Lord Alton of Liverpool Lord Alton of Liverpool Crossbench 8:45, 10 February 2022

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to support my noble and gallant friend. I feel as though I am part of the infantry. I have been supporting him on this issue for some years, and during the course of the Armed Forces Bill I set out at some length, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham, the reasons why, which are similar to those that were expressed in the debate earlier: the responsibility and duty that we have to honour the commitments that were made by men serving the Crown in extraordinarily difficult circumstances from time to time in Hong Kong. The noble Lord, Lord Patten of Barnes, will know more about the history of our Armed Forces there than anyone else in this Chamber.

Given what has happened since 1997 and the danger that some of these men would now be in—we are talking about a very small number of people—I know it is hugely important that we should act, as I know the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, wants to do because she has said so in the House. I know the noble Lord, Lord Sharpe of Epsom, who has a long history of experience in Hong Kong and knows the situation there incredibly well, wants to see this happen too.

In asking that:

“Within three months of the passing of this Act, the Secretary of State must report on whether veterans who were recruited and served in” our forces

“should be granted citizenship or indefinite leave to remain in the United Kingdom”, my noble and gallant friend is really asking for very little indeed.

Before I sit down, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, for listening carefully during our debates on the then Armed Forces Bill. She promised to take it up with the Home Office and clearly did, and she ought to take a lot of credit for this. The honourable Member for Romford, Andrew Rosindell, who has campaigned tirelessly on this too, ought to be mentioned in dispatches.

Photo of Viscount Brookeborough Viscount Brookeborough Crossbench

My Lords, I support both these amendments but will speak more particularly to Amendment 178 than to the one on Hong Kong, of which I have no experience.

This was all brought home to me when I was asked to present medals for one of the operational tours in Iraq. In presenting the medals to a regiment that had Commonwealth soldiers in it, I was giving a medal to somebody and saying, “Congratulations on what you have done for that country and on serving in the Army; you are one of our soldiers”. Then I suddenly thought, “But you’re actually not one of our soldiers”. We have two different types of soldier: people we consider British and people we consider other Commonwealth country soldiers. Where is the equality in that? We have soldiers, whether they are Commonwealth or British, who have suffered serious PTSD and serious health issues thereafter. While they are serving we treat them equally, but when they leave they are no longer equal. When one is severely injured—sadly, there were plenty of them—what happens to their family, who are not British? Maybe it is difficult for him to even apply for citizenship or whatever.

As part of my job as a lord-lieutenant, I was doing a citizenship ceremony. I am sorry to repeat this, but we raised this on the then Armed Forces Bill and did not get anywhere except for getting it shuffled to the Home Office. I hope that it will not fall down a gap and that we will not pass the buck again. I was giving out citizenship, where they have to swear allegiance—which, incidentally, they have already done in the military. This gentleman came up and I asked him, “What do you do?” We have everybody from Chinese people to Indonesians and Filipinos doing nursing and other valuable jobs. He said quietly, “Oh, you know, I have been here for a while”. In Northern Ireland people do not shout about it if they are currently in the Army or anything else, so I asked, “Are you in the Army?”. He said, “Yes, I am”. I asked, “But you’re getting citizenship?” He said, “Yes, because I want it and I’ve paid the money to get it”. I asked, “How many tours have you done?” He said, “I’ve done two of Afghanistan and one of Iraq”.

This is a two-tier, unequal thing. What we are doing is really unbelievable. I wonder what happens when somebody is killed. Are they a British person who is killed or just British Army? What statistics do they come under? We treat them like mercenaries. Personally, I believe it would take very little for the Government, instead of finding reasons why it is difficult—I do not know who they are consulting in the MoD, because I do not know a single serviceperson who would not think that they should automatically be citizens of our country—simply to make the presumption that they will be citizens, unless there is some impediment or reason why they cannot be.

We are engaged in almost racism or racial discrimination. We are engaged in inequality. What do all our Governments, of whichever colour, try to do? We raise everybody to make them equal and yet we ask these people to lay down their lives. We are saying, at the end of the day and the end of their service, “Sorry—you are not equal”. The numbers concerned are beyond the belief of most people in this country, certainly of everybody in this Committee and in another place. Quite simply, there should be a pen put through it so they all become citizens, with exactly the same rights as those who laid down their lives with them.

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

My Lords, there is something quite unusual about defence and Armed Forces matters. In some ways, they are so uncontroversial that, when the Armed Forces Bill was in Committee, it was relegated to Grand Committee in the Moses Room. The Moses Room is a very nice place to do business. It has a friendly atmosphere, and we could all agree with each other. As the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, have pointed out, we effectively talked about these two amendments during the Armed Forces Bill—now the Armed Forces Act 2021—at the end of the last calendar year. But we did it almost unwatched. Unlike the Chamber, there were relatively few people in the Moses Room, but we were being watched and, in part, by veterans of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces Hong Kong. Sadly, I received a letter after the debate, as I am sure did other noble Lords.

The issues that have been raised in this group of amendments have been rehearsed many times. As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said, we are sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, will have relayed some of these issues to the Home Office, but we need to raise them again. As the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, said, we let our Commonwealth and Hong Kong colleagues sign up and fight alongside Her Majesty’s Forces who have British passports. We would allow them to die serving with and for us, or to get PTSD or be injured in another way. Yet, when they stop serving, what do we do? If they say they want indefinite leave to remain, we charge them hefty fees. Can that be right? Surely the very least we can do is to charge only the cost. We should not be making a profit on somebody seeking indefinite leave to remain. That is the moral thing to do.

As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said, Her Majesty’s Armed Forces Hong Kong is a small number of people but, at present, it really matters to them that they be considered for citizenship or indefinite leave to remain. Please can the Secretary of State look at this as a matter of urgency?

Photo of Lord Patten of Barnes Lord Patten of Barnes Conservative

I had not meant to intervene in this debate but, from listening to the remarks of the noble and gallant Lord, I felt obliged to, but briefly. I guess I attended many events in Hong Kong when members of our armed services were marching into an uncertain future or disbanding. At those events, they would normally march off the parade ground with a pipe band playing “Auld Lang Syne”. I used to worry at the time, and have worried ever since, that they meant it. I am not sure we did. That we are still wrestling with this 25 years after we left Hong Kong is dishonourable. We should sort it out, because I cannot think of a decent political, bureaucratic or honourable reason for not doing so.

Photo of Lord Sharpe of Epsom Lord Sharpe of Epsom Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 9:00, 10 February 2022

I very much thank all noble Lords for participating in this debate. In particular, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, and the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, for their amendments.

Before I start, the noble Lord, Lord Alton, alluded to the fact that I have some experience in Hong Kong. I must declare an interest: I have marched to that pipe band. In fact, my noble friend Lord Patten was briefly my boss, which he probably did not know and probably horrifies him. I have worked closely with the Hong Kong Military Service Corps, as both the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, and the noble Lord, Lord Alton, know. I hold those men—they were all men—in extremely high regard. I come at this speech with that in mind and wish to put it on the record.

The Government highly value the service of all members of the Armed Forces, including Commonwealth nationals and Gurkhas from Nepal. They have a long and distinguished history of service to the UK both here and overseas. We also remain extremely grateful for the contribution made by former British Hong Kong service personnel, which is why the Government announced on 7 December last year that the Home Secretary has identified an option that will enable our Government to treat this group of personnel in a similar way to other non-UK service personnel who were based in Hong Kong before handover. It was announced by Kevin Foster, the Minister for Safe and Legal Migration in the House of Commons.

I appreciate that, in tabling Amendment 185, the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, wants reassurance that the Government are taking concrete steps to further support British Hong Kong veterans where possible. I can confirm that the Government will update Parliament as soon as we have more details that can be shared, with the aim of implementing any changes by the end of this calendar year. I am probably going too far here but that is not an “in due course”, in response to a comment made in an earlier debate; it is a concrete commitment to making the relevant announcement soon. However, once again, I agree with the noble and gallant Lord that they are loyal veterans; I also commend him on his long work on this particular subject. That is all I can say for now.

Before I address the detail of Amendment 178, I want to say a few words about the process for setting administration fees. For a number of years, application fees for immigration and nationality applications have been 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 migration and borders system, reducing the burden on taxpayers. Sitting beneath the Immigration Act is an affirmative procedure fees order, which is scrutinised by both Houses before coming into effect, and beneath that are negative resolution fees regulations, which are laid before both Houses prior to coming into force. In addition, all fees are set with the consent of HM Treasury. This system ensures that there are checks and balances within the system, and maintains the coherence of the immigration fees framework as it is set out in legislation. I will come back to this subject in a moment.

When non-UK service personnel, including Commonwealth citizens and Gurkhas from Nepal, enlist in the regular Armed Forces, they are granted “exempt from immigration control” status for the duration of their service to allow them to come and go without restriction. They are therefore free from any requirements to make visa applications or pay fees while they serve, 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 their service can choose to settle in the UK after their service and pay the relevant fee. The time before discharge that such settlement applications may be submitted was extended this year from 10 to 18 weeks, providing ample time to plan and make the application. Those applying for themselves do not have to meet an income requirement, be sponsored by an employer or meet any requirements regarding skills, knowledge of the English language or knowledge of life in the UK, again putting them in a favourable position compared to other migrants wishing to settle here. I stress that this a personal choice. We should bear in mind that not all countries allow dual citizenship. Indeed, not all Commonwealth citizens who are members of our Armed Forces choose to take up this option.

Of course, we recognise that settlement fees may place a financial burden on non-UK serving personnel wishing to remain in the UK after their discharge and the strength of feeling from parliamentarians, service charities and the public about this issue is very strong. That is why the Ministry of Defence, together with the Home Office, ran a public consultation between 26 May and 7 July 2021 on a policy proposal to waive settlement fees for non-UK service personnel in HM Armed Forces. The results of the consultation have been analysed and, once collective agreement has been secured for a final policy, the Government will publish their response and make any associated changes to fees through fees regulations at the earliest opportunity. I know those are warm words, but I am also aware of the strength of feeling in this House and the other place, so noble Lords should draw the appropriate conclusion as to what “earliest opportunity” means in practice. We are also exploring what options there are to assist non-UK veterans of HM Armed Forces who do not have settled status in the UK.

In conclusion, I understand the strength of feeling expressed in the House in relation to this issue and I emphasise again my gratitude to all individuals who have served this country. However, 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 issue raised by this amendment is already subject to a review, which is entering its final stages.

To answer the question from the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, about how much it would cost, the best we can do is about £210,000 a year. There are other issues to be considered as well, which centre on things such as recruitment and retention. Those are part of the reason why the consultation has not yet been completely closed off. To give some more detail about the consultation, 6,398 responses were received and the results have been used to advise Ministers. I think I have covered everything, so I hope that, following those assurances, which are as warm as they can be, noble Lords will agree to withdraw or not move their amendments.

Photo of Viscount Brookeborough Viscount Brookeborough Crossbench

As I understand it, people are allowed to apply before they leave the services. While people are serving, the Government have huge charges for every soldier, airman and seaman every day of the week. For those who choose to apply for citizenship prior to leaving, why could this not be a normal cost of administration suffered by the MoD as part of its commitment to them?

Photo of Lord Sharpe of Epsom Lord Sharpe of Epsom Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

The noble Viscount raises an extremely important point, but that is a matter for the consultation. I stress that it will be published soon—I promise.

Photo of Lord Coaker Lord Coaker Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Opposition Whip (Lords)

I thank the Minister for his response to a very moving debate. I particularly welcome the contribution from the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, with his background in the Armed Forces and the work he has done on this issue over many years. I found it very moving. I have never had the opportunity of meeting the noble Lord, Lord Patten of Barnes, but I think all of us respect, remember and honour the work he did with respect to Hong Kong. The fact he has come here tonight to listen and contribute to this short debate will be noted by everyone in this House, even those who are not here. He is to be commended for that, if I might say so. I also welcome the contributions from the noble Lord, Lord Alton, the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough. Again, their points were made very well.

Maybe I am an optimist or maybe it is the time of night, but I detect some movement from the Government on these issues; it would be churlish not to welcome that. On Amendment 185 in respect of Hong Kong veterans, the Minister said—he will correct me if I get this wrong—that there is an expectation that there will be an announcement on this by the end of this calendar year. One hopes that that does not mean December 2022. I am not being sarcastic; one hopes that this will happen as soon as possible, but we note that he referred to the end of this calendar year. The Hong Kong veterans and the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, will have heard that, but all of us would ask that this happens as soon as possible and does not slip to December. I am not being sarcastic or churlish in saying that; everyone will want to know that that will be the case.

We also heard about the issue of unit costs for Commonwealth veterans applying for indefinite leave to remain, and that the Government are looking to come forward with something in respect of that at the earliest opportunity, whatever that means—in the not too distant future, I hope. I think that the Minister said that what it means in practice is that we might come back to this issue on Report. Maybe by then the Government will be able to say something about it.

In this short debate, the Government have shown that they have listened to what has happened. To be frank, it has taken longer than it should, but we are seeing some movement. Ministers here are to be congratulated on any part that they have played in that, as are other Members of this House. We all now want to see this move forward and happen quickly, because it is doing the right thing by those who have done the right thing by us.

Amendment 178 withdrawn.