Amendment 77

Nationality and Borders Bill - Report (3rd Day) – in the House of Lords at 10:30 pm on 8 March 2022.

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Lord Coaker:

Moved by Lord Coaker

77: 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 and their dependents applying for indefinite leave to remain at no more than the actual administrative cost of processing that application, and”.”

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

My Lords, I will leave Amendment 78, in the names of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, and others, to them. I will speak to Amendment 77 in my name and that of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith.

We have been trying for some time to rectify the issue where those who have served our country are charged extortionate fees to settle here, among the communities that they have served. Since we debated this in Committee, the Government have moved a small way and announced that veterans who have served six years will no longer be required to pay visa fees for leave to remain. That is welcome but, frankly, not enough, and it is not what has been called for by the Armed Forces community and Members of both Houses, including some from the Government Benches.

The Royal British Legion said:

“Whilst we welcome the news that these fees will be waived for some Commonwealth Service personnel, this proposal still leaves many Armed Forces families facing severe hardship. We strongly urge the Government to go further and scrap these unfair charges for everyone who has served for at least four years and their immediate family members.”

Currently, a veteran who wishes to settle here with their partner and two children will be charged around £10,000, the vast majority of which is profit for the Home Office. The Government’s policy change amounts to a 25% discount, when a veteran has served over six years. Even in these cases, it will cost more than £7,000 for a family of four to settle in the country for which a veteran has risked their lives in service, and we ask the Government to look yet again at this—because I do not believe that they have got this right, and nor do many others.

It is not right for the Home Office to make a profit from veterans who are exercising their right to settle here with their children. This is not a party-political issue, and it is not an immigration issue; it is an issue of how we treat those who have served this country and how we fulfil our pledges in the Armed Forces covenant. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Craig of Radley Lord Craig of Radley Crossbench

I support Amendment 77, and I speak to Amendment 78 in my name and that of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham, and the noble Lords, Lord Alton of Liverpool and Lord Coaker. I am very grateful for their support.

When I returned in Committee to this issue of fixing a date, the noble Lord, Lord Sharpe of Epsom, spelt out a bit more fully than had the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Trafford, at Second Reading the Government’s position on this long-standing issue. He said:

“I can confirm that the Government will update Parliament … with the aim of implementing any changes by the end of this calendar year.”—[Official Report, 10/2/2022; col. 1965.]

He went on to say that this was not an “in due course” response, which as noble Lords will recognise is the way favoured by Governments avoiding a firm commitment. But is “with the aim of” any more convincing than “with a view to”, as expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, at Second Reading? Neither formulation is definitive; both are woolly.

I recognise that the Government seem at last to be willing to do more than give this issue active consideration, which has been their stated position and what they have been doing for the past six years. Noble Lords will recall that the issue has been raised by Members of both Houses, including by me in meetings with successive Home Secretaries and other Ministers, through Oral Questions and Questions for Written Answer, as well as by some of the veterans themselves over the past six years or more. Against that background, it seemed reasonable to require the statutory time for this finally to be settled and for the loyal veterans who have waited for so long to know by when they will receive the answer to their request.

I had hoped that this Government would not resist this straightforward and simple amendment. However, following helpful discussions with the noble Lord, Lord Sharpe of Epsom, I sense that the Government are really on the side of these loyal veterans, some of whom are watching on the Parliamentlive channel as I speak. If the Minister responds to indicate a firm commitment to them and gives a Dispatch Box assurance that the House will be kept informed of that progress, I think that the House will feel that at last there is a positive light starting to glimmer at the end of this long tunnel. If such an assurance comes from the Minister, I shall not divide on Amendment 78 this evening.

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

My Lords, I rise to support both amendments, and again pay tribute to the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, for bringing the issue of veterans who have served in her Majesty’s Armed Forces Hong Kong. There are some issues that come back to the Chamber again and again, and they come in different pieces of legislation and are responded to by different Ministers at different times. This is a case in point.

If the Minister is able to give reassurance to the noble and gallant Lord, then so much the better. I hope that even the noble Lord, Lord Green of Deddington, does not think that granting citizenship or indefinite leave to remain to those who have served with Her Majesty’s Armed Forces in Hong Kong will be a dangerous route to go down, and that the Government really will give a sufficient response to Amendment 78.

On Amendment 77, again, we have talked about this issue on so many occasions. We have heard from the Government Front Benches some words of comfort in the past, but not really enough. Surely it is not acceptable to say that veterans who have worked with the British Armed Forces and been willing to put their lives on the line for us should have to pay. The change regarding people who have served for six years is welcome but, as the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, said, it does not really go far enough. If it could be reduced to four, so much the better.

However, surely it ought to include service families as well because it is not only the service man or woman who is putting their life on the line and serving this country. Their families are also giving up a lot. Surely, the appropriate amount for anybody to pay when they seek to live here after their service personnel relative—mother, father or whatever family member—is only the cost of processing the application, just as we do with passports. A cost of thousands of pounds is not appropriate. Surely, the Home Office can find out how much it actually costs to process, and that should be the fee.

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

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to add my voice, albeit briefly, in support of both these amendments, particularly Amendment 78 in the name of my noble and gallant friend Lord Craig of Radley. Although his amendment is prescriptive in asking the Government to respond

“Within three months of the passing of this Act”,

I think he told the Minister that if an assurance can be given that, within a reasonable time of the Bill’s enactment, the Government will move on this issue, he would be happy not to divide the House. I agree with him about that and if that assurance can be given, it will surely meet the terms of his amendment.

We are not talking about large numbers—it not 5 million people—but people who have served the Crown. If anybody is vulnerable today as a result of the passing of the national security law in Hong Kong, it is surely people who have served the Crown. There is no question in my mind about the justice of what my noble and gallant friend is arguing for, but this is not the first time of asking; he has urged us to do something about this year in, year out—in good times and bad. I hope that the Government will take this opportunity to deliver in the Bill what my noble and gallant friend has asked for.

Photo of Lord Green of Deddington Lord Green of Deddington Crossbench

My Lords, as a retired second lieutenant who served in Borneo alongside Gurkha regiments, I am very happy to support these proposals.

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

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have participated in this relatively brief debate. I will start by addressing Amendment 77, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, regarding settlement fees for non-UK members of our Armed Forces.

The Government highly value the service of all members of the Armed Forces, including Commonwealth nationals and Gurkhas from Nepal, who have a long and distinguished history of service to the UK here and overseas. That is why there are special immigration rules in place for our Armed Forces personnel that put them in a favourable position compared to other migrants, as I detailed last month during Committee. However, we recognise that the fees attached to settlement applications place a financial burden on our non-UK personnel, should they choose to remain in the UK after leaving the Armed Forces. That is why, last year, the Government consulted on waiving these fees altogether in some circumstances.

Following this, the Home Secretary and Defence Secretary announced on 23 February this year that the Government have decided to waive settlement fees, including administrative costs, for non-UK personnel in our Armed Forces who have served for six years or more, or are discharged due to an illness or injury attributable to their service, regardless of length of service. We are also extending the settlement fee waiver to undocumented veterans currently living in the UK who meet these criteria.

The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, asked me why it is six years, not four. I hope he will forgive the lengthy digression. Careful consideration was given to the number of years that should be used for the eligibility criteria. The initial policy proposal was for those who had served at least 12 years at the point of discharge, as the noble Lord acknowledged, but following the public consultation Ministers agreed that the eligibility criteria should be reduced to six years.

When considering the number of years’ service for the fee waiver, a balance rightly has to be made between value for money for the taxpayer and acknowledgement of the service of the individual. For example, it costs approximately £92,000 to train a soldier. Those costs cannot be discounted. Therefore, it was considered appropriate to set the eligibility criteria to those non-UK service personnel who have served for at least six years and wish to settle in the UK following service, given the significant outlay already invested by the taxpayer.

Four years is the minimum term of service that personnel must serve before applying for a discharge. It is important to note that there is no intention to change the option available to non-UK service personnel to make a paid application for settlement in the UK on discharge, as long as they have served a minimum of four years.

We recognise the strength of feeling from parliamentarians, service charities and the public about this issue, which is why it was decided to reduce the required length of service to be eligible, as I just said. It is estimated that the fee waiver may affect around 80% of non-UK service personnel. The Home Office is rightly focused on implementing this new policy at the earliest opportunity, the aim being for it to come into effect on 6 April this year.

I will digress again, because noble Lords also raised the issue of dependants. The Government believe that it is right and fair that fees and policies for non-UK family members of Armed Forces personnel are not more generous than those for dependants of British citizens and are applied consistently. Any decision to relax the fees or policies for non-UK family members of Armed Forces personnel could undermine current fees and the rules would be discriminatory.

Non-UK family members of Armed Forces personnel can apply for settlement once they have spent an initial five-year period in the UK with limited leave. The fees and policies that apply to the dependants of non-UK members of the UK Armed Forces are closely aligned with those that apply to dependants of British citizens and other settled persons under the standard family rules. Furthermore, reducing the fees for dependants of both non-UK and British Armed Forces personnel would be similarly discriminatory and unfair to those in other professions, many of whom face similar concerns and are contributing to the UK in other ways.

There is additional support for families in planning for the cost of visa fees. That is provided by things such as the Joining Forces credit union service for the Armed Forces. That was launched under the Armed Forces covenant in 2015, and it offers savings and loans schemes at fair rates through the payroll scheme. The issue raised by this amendment has largely been addressed by the recently announced government policy, which is due to be implemented in the near future.

I turn next to Amendment 78, tabled by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, regarding citizenship and settlement rights for British-Hong Kong veterans. I know he will listen to me extremely carefully, as indeed will those Hong Kong veterans watching live.

The Government remain extremely grateful for the contribution made by former British-Hong Kong service personnel. That is why the Minister for Safe and Legal Migration announced to the House of Commons 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 the handover.

I appreciate that the noble and gallant Lord 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 by the end of June and implement any changes by the end of this calendar year. The Government remain committed to implementing a solution to the issue of British Hong-Kong veterans before the end of this calendar year, but I respectfully ask the House to give us the necessary space to do so.

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

My Lords, I will let the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, talk about Amendment 78 when we come to it, but, as one of the signatories, it would be churlish not to recognise the way the Government have moved on that issue.

With respect to Amendment 77, I appreciate that the Government again have made some movement on this but I do not think it is enough. It should be four years; that is what the demand is. I do not understand or accept the point the Minister made about the exclusion of dependants. Dependants should be included in any scheme we take forward. As such, I wish to test the opinion of the House.

Ayes 80, Noes 88.

Division number 8 Nationality and Borders Bill - Report (3rd Day) — Amendment 77

Aye: 80 Members of the House of Lords

No: 88 Members of the House of Lords

Aye: A-Z by last name

No: A-Z by last name

Amendment 77 disagreed.

Amendment 78 not moved.