Armed Forces Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:45 am on 31st March 2021.
“(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 is serving, or has recently served, in the UK armed forces, 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’.”—
This new clause will ensure that Commonwealth veterans applying for UK citizenship following their service will only pay the unit cost of an application for Indefinite Leave to Remain.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
The new clause is designed to address the frankly extortionate visa fees that Commonwealth veterans face to remain in the country that they fought for following their service. This is a long-standing and shameful practice, and I am pleased that Labour is bringing forward a solution. The clause proposes to ensure that Commonwealth veterans pay only the unit cost of an indefinite leave to remain application, currently set at £243.
It is a source of immense pride that those from across the world have served in our armed forces—from the 1.3 million Indians who volunteered to join the British Army in the first world war, to those who took part in operational tours of Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, more than 6,000 personnel serve in the forces from overseas, many from the Commonwealth. Alongside servicemen and women from this country, they continue to make extraordinary sacrifices and display incredible bravery, risking their lives overseas and more recently bolstering our frontline response to the coronavirus crisis, but the Government are shamefully letting them down.
Following four years of service, Commonwealth service personnel earn the right to live in Britain, but in recent years the Government have increased the fees for service personnel to apply. A service leaver with a partner and two children will be presented with a bill of almost £10,000 to continue to live in the UK after they have served. That is an increase from just £155 in 2003. To add further insult, they are given just 48 days following the discharge in which to pay it. That is dishonourable, unfair and certainly no way to repay the bravery and sacrifice of Commonwealth service personnel.
This is not just a moral argument about appropriately recognising their service; it is an issue of basic humanity. Those eye-watering fees represent a huge part of applicants’ wages, and many are not expecting them. The Royal British Legion, which has campaigned strongly on this issue for several years, suggests that around 300 Commonwealth personnel leave service and are faced with those fees. The fees leave Commonwealth veterans facing huge uncertainty and financial hardship, and feeling abandoned by the country that they have served.
Citizenship for Soldiers is doing fantastic work, as we heard in an evidence session, to advocate for those affected by this injustice. One of the claimants it represents, a 12-year veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns, was given a bill in the region of £30,000 following an emergency operation, after he was deemed ineligible for free NHS care. As the Royal British Legion has pointed out, without leave to remain, Commonwealth veterans are cut off from being able to access employment or state support. That often leads veterans reliant on their families or charitable funds, or facing repatriation to their country of origin.
That is a breach of not only the armed forces covenant but the moral obligation that this country has to them. Successive armed forces covenant annual reports have pointed that out. The Royal British Legion and other service charities have explicitly called for this injustice to end. It should bring shame to us all. I know that many on the Committee sympathise with the new cause—including you, Mr Sunderland—and I hope that we will find the courage to support the amendment when it comes to a vote. Even the Minister has repeatedly said that this is an injustice, yet the Bill misses a crucial opportunity to end it.
Commonwealth veterans have already paid for their citizenship once, through their service to our country. I hope that colleagues from across the political spectrum will support Labour’s new clause to ensure that no one has to pay twice.
Let us be absolutely clear: Labour has done absolutely nothing on this issue since visa fees came in, and it offers nothing for our armed forces, so we should drop the doe-eyed “Labour care about humanity” stuff. Only one Government have come in and promised to do something on visa fees, and that is this Government, not one before. I am proud of that. We will provide a pathway to residency and we are looking to start a public consultation on that in the next month.
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 both here and overseas. Commonwealth citizens and Gurkhas who have served at least four years or have 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 can be submitted has recently been extended from 10 to 18 weeks. We recognise, however, that settlement fees place a financial burden on service personnel wishing to remain in the UK after their discharge, and we recognise the strength of feeling from service charities and the public about this issue. The Defence Secretary has met the Home Secretary to consider how we could offer greater flexibility in future. We will launch a public consultation in the next month. I urge all those with an interest in the issue to respond to that consultation so that we may correct this injustice.
It is right and proper that we seek views on any change to the immigration fees policy through public consultation. In the meantime, the MOD makes clear to Commonwealth and Gurkha recruits the process by which they and their families can attain settlement in the UK, and the costs involved. The MOD is also working with the Joining Forces credit union to provide financial education, savings packages and loan packages to help non-UK personnel pay for visa costs, should they wish to remain and settle in the UK after their service. I hope that, with those assurances, the hon. Member will agree not to press the new clause.
We do not believe that is a satisfactory response from the Minister. Ministers from successive Conservative Governments have promised a solution on this forever and a day. Commonwealth veterans should not have to wait until some time never for a consultation to kick off.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Minister did not tell the Committee that since 2010 the fees charged have increased from £840 to £2,389, which has made a real difference in the burden? Those decisions were taken by the coalition and Conservative Governments.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention. He is absolutely right. I alluded to some of the figures in my speech. Regrettably, the Minister did not cover that in his response. That is why—
I am happy to respond.
I will carry on, because I am near to the end of my speech. I will not press the new clause for now, but I put Ministers on notice that we will return to this issue on Report. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
I would like to move new clause 14 formally, Mr Sunderland. I listened intently to what the Minister said. With regard to both new clause 14 and new clause 15, I know that he says it would be an undue burden to ask this question and record this information, but I really think it is very important and useful, and I cannot see how collecting it would be anything other than a help, rather than a burden. I would therefore like to test the will of the Committee on this new clause.