‘(5) This Part of the Act shall not come into effect until a Minister of the Crown has laid a report before each House of Parliament setting out the impact of this Act on faith communities in the UK.
(6) A report under subsection (5) must consider in particular the ability of members and representatives of faith communities from the EEA and Switzerland to enter the UK for purposes related to their faith.
(7) A Minister of the Crown must, not later than six months after the report has been laid before Parliament, make a motion in the House of Commons in relation to the report.
(8) In this section,
“faith communities” means a group of individuals united by a clear structure and system of religious or spiritual beliefs.”
This amendment requires the government to report to Parliament on the implications of this Bill for faith communities, including the ability of members of faith communities to come to the UK for reasons connected with their faith.
Some 18 months or so ago, the then Minister of State for Immigration issued a written statement announcing changes to immigration rules. Apparently, those changes were to ensure that ministers of religion could no longer apply for a tier 5 religious worker visa; instead, they would have to apply for a tier 2 minister of religion visa. As I understand it, that was done because of a fear at the Home Office that people were coming in under the tier 5 visa route and leading worship while not having the level of English that the Home Office decided would be necessary to perform such a function. The explanatory memorandum said:
“The Immigration Rules currently permit Tier 5 Religious Workers to fill roles which ‘may include preaching, pastoral work and non-pastoral work’. This allows a migrant to come to the UK and fill a role as a Minister of Religion without demonstrating an ability to speak English.”
For some reason, the Home Office also decided to introduce a cooling-off period. The explanatory memorandum said:
“The ‘cooling off’ period will ensure Tier 5 Religious workers and Charity Workers spend a minimum of 12 months outside the UK before returning in either category. This will prevent migrants from applying for consecutive visas, thereby using the routes to live in the UK for extended periods, so as to reflect the temporary purpose of the routes better.”
I have been in discussions with representatives of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference about migration to both Scotland and England. They tell me that most Catholic dioceses previously used tier 5 religious worker visas for priests to come here on supply placements while parish priests were away for short periods because of sickness, training or annual leave. Those supply placements were essential, as they allow Catholics to continue attending mass while keeping parish activities running smoothly. That allows the parish to continue to function while the parish priest is off through illness, going on a retreat or accompanying parish groups on outings, or even just taking a holiday.
A supply placement priest will lead the celebration of holy mass, including the celebration of the sacrament of marriage. He will lead funerals, including supporting bereaved family members, and visit the sick and elderly of the local community. In an age when social isolation and loneliness are increasing, the parish is a place where people can gather as a community to support one another and engage in friendship. It is not just about worship, but about the community hub that the church provides by offering spiritual and practical help and supporting the sick, the elderly, the needy and the vulnerable.
In my own constituency there is a Coptic Christian community; it is a closed order, so they do not preach. The system already works very well for non-EEA residents. Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that, if we do not extend the scheme to the EEA, there will be barriers for people coming to the UK in the way that he describes?
I will come to that point in a minute. In short, the point made to me by the Catholic Church and other faith groups—we had a debate on this issue in Westminster Hall around the time of the changes—is that, actually, the system for non-EEA nationals used to work but does not work now, precisely because of the changes that the Home Office made 18 months or so ago.
The system is much more expensive now, and it is beyond most parishes’ ability to pay the fees for ministers to come in and lead worship. If they come in under tier 5, which is the much cheaper option, they are no longer allowed to lead worship or whatever else. They can perform a range of functions, but not the ones that are really needed, including leading worship.
The issue is already a problem now and it will be made infinitely worse, because at the moment parishes can still rely on priests or other leaders coming from the EEA. They do not have to pay for the expensive tier 2 visa; they can just come in under the free movement of people. When free movement comes to an end, the same regime will apply and parishes will have to pay all sorts of fees, even to have priests come in from France, Italy, Poland or wherever else. They are not looking forward to that prospect at all.
As I was saying, visiting clergy not only allow the local community to continue to function, but benefit and enrich the whole community, as the community gains from cultural exchange and from sharing the knowledge and experience of priests from other parts of the world. They educate new communities about life in their country, and they open up avenues for local parishes to support communities in need. What was most surprising about the changes was that, as far as the SNP was aware, there had been no problems with visas for the Catholic Church or any of the other faith organisations that made use of the tier 5 route. The new requirement introduced in 2019 for anyone preaching to use tier 2 minister of religion visas has instead more than doubled the costs incurred by parishes arranging supply cover. For some parishes that is unsustainable, compromising people’s opportunity to practise their faith.
Furthermore, they point out that seminaries conducting formation in English are not necessarily recognised by the Home Office as meeting the English requirement under the tier 2 route, meaning that many priests educated to postgraduate level in English are nevertheless required to take a language test, with the extra logistical and cost implications. The new arrangements more than double the costs, making supply cover essentially unaffordable. I have heard directly from religious leaders in my constituency that that is the impact of those arrangements. Unless reforms are made, the situation will be worsened by the end of free movement, as I said in response to the intervention from Robert Goodwill. I simply ask the Government to engage with faith communities about the challenges that this is causing them to face, and to see if we might be able to come to a solution that makes these sorts of arrangements continue to function in the years ahead.
As my hon. Friend said, the tier 5 religious visas were operating perfectly smoothly for the many Churches and religious organisations that relied on them until these unexpected changes were made. Catholic parishes throughout the UK—including my own in the Archdiocese of Glasgow—regularly used these visas as routes for priests to come to the UK on supply placements.
The changes that came into force in January are already causing something of a headache for a whole host of religious organisations that require clergy to visit to cover for periods of illness, holiday, religious retreat, or when priests or other clergy are away on pilgrimage. This is a time of a crisis in vocation, clergy are becoming increasingly elderly, and more and more parishes and dioceses are turning to priests from outside the UK to cover such absences, sicknesses and holidays, so it beggars belief that the measure would have been introduced in this way.
It is important that the Minister realises that the tasks of a parish do not stop when the existing or resident priest falls ill, or goes on a well-earned holiday or retreat. As pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, the church is more than just a place of worship, it is also a community hub providing both spiritual and practical support to the sick, elderly and vulnerable, as demonstrated by the great work of a number of organisations including the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul. The Bishops’ Conference of Scotland has been clear in saying that much of the positive work done in and around Catholic parishes which engenders that sense of community is being seriously undermined and compromised by these changes. The Home Office has to understand and recognise the benefits of allowing priests from other parts of the world to come in on a tier 5 visa. They enrich the whole community. It is a cultural exchange, it is a share of knowledge, a share of experience by priests and clergy from other parts of the world.
It is not just the Catholic church. Indeed, the Church of Scotland is on record as saying that it opposes the measure. Many of us are confused as to why these changes were deemed necessary. What grave issue has arisen that needed to be addressed in such a draconian fashion? The Scottish bishops said that for years they had sponsored priests through the tier 5 process, and they are completely unaware of any abuse of the system whatever. For years, priests came here, they worked and preached in Scotland and across the UK, and then returned home. Indeed, 25 years ago this summer at St Helen’s church in Shawlands in Glasgow, Father Stephens from Malawi was the celebrant who married me and my wife, rather successfully I am happy to report. But the question remains: why did this have to happen? What was the motivation behind it? Can the Government not see the harm they are doing to our religious communities, and can they not act to stop it?
Finally, exactly a year ago in a debate on that in Westminster Hall, my hon. Friend Patrick Grady invited UK Ministers to meet the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland. Did Ministers take up that invitation? Did that meeting ever take place and, if it did, what was discussed and what outcomes were agreed? If it never took place, why not?
I support the sentiments expressed by the hon. Members for Argyle and Bute and for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East. There have been considerable benefits to our faith communities from their ability to take advantage of freedom of movement and welcome EEA nationals into their communities. Faith communities, especially Churches of all denominations, have congregations with many EEA nationals among their membership and they are also often individuals who act as pastors, counsellors, youth workers and musicians.
As we have heard, many faith organisations have needed EEA nationals to cover short-term or sometimes longer-term appointments into leadership positions. That is especially true in areas where it has been hard to recruit. Free movement has also allowed faith communities some flexibility in terms of shared mission work, with UK nationals working overseas, undertaking mission trips, musicians performing in Europe at faith-based events or running camps and youth conferences. Faith communities have been able to bring EEA speakers and volunteers to help communities and to run events without the associated costs and rules around visitor visas and the tier system.
There will be a number of consequences for those communities as a result of the loss of free movement. First, while many faith groups have been effective in pointing their members to the EU settlement scheme where that is relevant, uncertainty remains about the scheme, what it means for families, for continuity of residence and for faith communities who are trying to keep people in their communities.
Faith communities looking to employ or to bring in volunteers from the EEA will now have to navigate the tier system, as they would for non-EEA nationals. As we heard, that brings complexity. With the greatest of respect to the right hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby, I do not think it is the case that all faith communities have found that an easy system to navigate or to get the relevant approvals. There are also significant additional costs for sponsorship licences and visas. Indeed, it will not be cheap, especially when we include the additional NHS surcharge. A religious worker will be able to stay for up to two years. The cost for a one-year visa before administration costs is around £244, plus the NHS surcharge of £624, added to that the sponsorship licence fee and associated costs. On top of that, the community will have to fund any dependant costs and may also be providing the cost of flights, accommodation and training for the religious workers, and sometimes a small stipend. For smaller faith communities, that starts to become a very significant expense.
Many faith communities that rely on overseas workers tend to be found in the poorer parts of the UK. Poorer communities and poorer congregations are part of a poorer overall landscape and so the faith organisation itself will be less well resourced. It cannot draw on a wealthy congregation. That has a particular impact on smaller denominations and diaspora Churches, which will find that the loss of free movement will mean that poorer communities, who could benefit most from additional pastoral support, will feel the impact the harshest.
Proof of savings is difficult for some orders, which have vows of poverty, making it difficult for individuals to prove they can sustain themselves even if the order will cover all their living arrangements. If a person is needed quickly to cover a gap—the hon. Members for Argyle and Bute and for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East talked about the potential absence of a priest for a range of personal reasons—the procedure will now mean that there will be delay in bringing in that cover. I am not talking here about roles that fall short of being a full minister of religion, but there are roles that will still involve some level of religious duty. For example, there continues to be uncertainty about those coming in to work with children, and about pastoral work and preaching, and an understanding of the definitions of what those roles encompass, which is a particular issue with some particular faiths of particular traditions.
There is also a concern, as I have said, among faith communities that bring in musicians who may be self-employed and who may work in multiple settings. As the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East pointed out, seminaries that conduct formation in English are not necessarily regarded as meeting the English language requirement.
I hope the whole Committee will agree about the benefits of facilitating religious workers to come in to support our faith communities. In that spirit, I will ask the Minister a number of questions. What assessment have the Government made of the level of upscaling needed in the Home Office to process additional sponsorship licences for the purposes of ministers of religion or religious workers, or charity workers and faith communities, due to the removal of free movement?
Echoing the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute, what conversations are the Home Office having with faith groups regarding preparation for the immigration system that will affect them post-December? What help will be provided with regard to navigating sponsorship licences and understanding the costs that faith communities will have to meet?
At times, non-EEA nationals who have wanted to come to the UK for a short-term conference or to speak at an event have been denied visas; I have seen that in my own constituency. What assurance can the Minister give to faith communities that EEA nationals entering the UK for a conference or event for short-term study will not be restricted from doing so, and that appropriate decision-making will take place?
Will the Minister commit to reviewing the definitions of “minister of religion” and “religious worker”, and actively consult a wide variety of denominations and faith communities? What will the Home Office do to improve faith literacy among decision makers? I have to say that the asylum system has not given me much confidence that religious literacy in decision-making is where it needs to be.
What assessment have the Government made of the impact on creatives, such as musicians used by faith communities? Will they still be able to come to the UK? Will those in a different visa route be able to transfer if they take on a role in a faith community? For example, could someone who has arrived in the UK as a student transfer routes if they become a religious worker? Will it be possible for individuals to come to the UK as volunteers in faith communities and, if so, what restrictions will be applied to their activities? What discussions have the Government had with faith communities about their responsibility to carry out right-to-work checks?
This is an important issue for an important element of all our communities. I do not think the Government intend the impact of the removal of free movement to harm the operation of our faith communities, but the changes will cause real difficulties across a range of faiths, and particularly in those communities that most need the support that visiting religious workers can provide. I hope the Minister will be able to reassure the Committee.
I genuinely thank the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East for tabling this amendment. He always speaks with real passion, even when we disagree, as we did in the last debate, and his comments on this amendment have been no exception. We can perhaps be slightly more consensual now, even if the Government do not agree with the amendment.
I will deal briefly with a couple of points that have just been raised. First, in relation to decisions that would be taken on visitor visas for EEA nationals visiting faith groups, we have already made it very clear that EEA nationals will be non-visa nationals. Therefore, those looking to make visits to the United Kingdom would not be required to apply for a visa. They would be able to come through the e-gates and their visiting experience would be very similar, for example, to that of a New Zealander, a Canadian or a Japanese citizen at the moment, who can come through the e-gates and be granted visit leave. In a moment, I will come on to speak in a little more detail about the range of activities that a visitor can perform.
As a constituency MP, I have similarly sometimes been involved in decisions about faith communities, particularly a couple of years ago, when there needed to be some representations about how the income of Paignton parish church was considered, and whether a medieval church was an established organisation. I was only too happy to vouch that a church built in the 13th century is an established organisation, and that it was not set up for an immigration purpose, for pretty obvious reasons. I am genuinely always happy to hear representations from particular communities about that, as I did in that instance as a constituency MP.
We published the impact assessment for the Bill. I am clear that a lot of the Churches’ right-to-work checks will be the same as now anyway, because they have to do that for EEA citizens and UK nationals. When there is a right-to-work check, every one of us should be asked to present evidence that shows our right to work, as with right-to-rent checks; I recently had to show my passport to comply with those requirements, and rightly so. We are clear that there should be no discrimination there; those checks should be applied irrespective.
On the other points made, similarly, many faith communities, and certainly the larger faith communities present in the United Kingdom, are already sponsors. Much of that will transfer into the new system, so in many ways the experience of non-EEA nationals—non-visa nationals, to be absolutely clear—will be transferred over with the various concessions and opportunities, such as pay, performance, engagement and other items.
On the specific point made by the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute, I do not have officials’ or my predecessors’ diaries to hand, in terms of meetings, but as I met other faith communities at the invitation of Members of Parliament, I am certainly more than happy to meet the Scottish Catholic bishops representatives and to engage and have a conversation with them. They are a key partner. I certainly recognise the valuable social role that many Catholic churches play in communities across the United Kingdom. I am always happy to have a conversation about some of the definitions, particularly around visitor, tier 5 and tier 2. Some things, as I will come on to in a minute, will actually be covered by our visitor provisions, as well as under tier 5. Again, I am happy to have a conversation with them on those points.
I am genuinely grateful to the SNP for initiating this debate, because it gives me the opportunity to put on the record how the Government value the role faith communities play in this country, and more importantly, the contribution that many people who have migrated here have made and are making to the functioning and wellbeing of our faith communities. Faith communities enhance our national life, and they are stronger because people from around the world come and contribute to every aspect of their work, not least in bringing their skills to leadership in communities across the UK, hence why, in our future points-based immigration system, there will continue to be routes for those connected with faith and religion to come to the UK. Within the current immigration system, there are two routes specially designed for them, and this will continue in the future, to assist with consistency.
As referred to already, the tier 2 route for ministers of religion—effectively a skilled worker route—is for religious leaders such as priests, imams and rabbis, as well as missionaries and members of religious orders, taking employment or a role in a faith-based community. They can come for up to three years initially, which they can extend to six years, and they may qualify for settlement—indefinite leave to remain—after five years. Again, those who receive indefinite leave to remain are then exempted from the immigration health surcharge and will also have a permanent unlimited status within the United Kingdom.
Additionally, we have the tier 5 religious workers’ route. It should be clear to the Committee that this was designed with a very different purpose in mind. It permits stays of up to two years and caters for those wishing to undertake supportive, largely non-pastoral roles. In common with all tier 5 categories, as it is temporary at core, there is no English language requirement.
That last point is crucial. As I indicated, we welcome faith leaders from around the world, and in many communities regular conversations and events bring faith communities together in opposition to those who wish to sow the seeds of division between them. It is therefore right that those who want to lead a faith community, which involves both preaching and helping the faith community to interact with the wider community in their leadership role, should have a proper command of English to enable this—especially the valuable inter-faith work that goes on in so many communities.
I think of what happens locally in Torbay, and of the type of exchanges facilitated in the midlands, particularly by Coventry cathedral, given its background in different faiths. Those exchanges really cannot be facilitated if there is not a good command of a working language within the local community.
Last year, we changed the rules to provide that those who come as ministers of religion should be required to use the tier 2 route. I accept that the fees are higher for tier 2 than for tier 5; that is because tier 2 migrants can stay for longer, with the potential eventually to settle here, as many inspiring faith leaders have done and as I hope they will continue to do. I am sure we can all think of examples in our own constituencies.
I am only too happy to do so and to put the Government’s thanks to him on the record. He provided an inspiration and a ministry that will be remembered for a very long time, and he broke the mould of what people expect from someone in such a senior position in the Anglican communion. Such contributions are very welcome and we want them to continue. We want to see that sort of person, particularly from the worldwide Anglican communion, as well as from the See of Rome—we have seen some amazing people come and be part of that community here in the United Kingdom. It is well worth paying tribute to such an example of someone who has achieved amazing things and revealed what he saw as God’s purpose for him as Archbishop of York. I am sure that we all wish him a very long retirement—not from holy orders, of course, which are a calling for life, but from his duties as archbishop.
I have heard the concerns expressed today about those who come to the UK for a very short term to provide cover while the incumbent minister is on holiday. It is worth pointing out our visitor rules, which will extend to EEA nationals as they currently extend to non-visa nationals, as I indicated earlier. In the immigration rules, the list of permitted activities specifically states that visitors may
“preach or do pastoral work.”
That allows many faith communities to hear inspiring preachers or hear about their faith’s work in other countries, especially in support of overseas aid and development work. Visitors are permitted to lead services on an ad hoc basis, which may provide a solution for communities that wish to invite visiting clergy to cover short-term absences, although they may not be paid for it—in many religious communities, that would not necessarily be a bar to providing a period of short-term cover.
It is worth my reminding the Committee that we have confirmed that EU citizens, who are the focus of the Bill, and EEA citizens more widely can continue to come to the UK as visitors without a visa, without prior approval, and use e-gates, where available, on arrival in the United Kingdom.
I hope that the SNP will consider its position on amendment 11. I say gently that we all need to reflect on whether it is appropriate to have faith communities led by those without a command of English adequate for the task—not least at a time when we need to come together more, not be separated by barriers of language. I therefore believe that the review that the amendment would put in place is not necessary. I invite the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East to withdraw the amendment, but I am always more than happy to discuss further how we can ensure that our faith communities are supported and that there is clarity on the three routes that I have outlined for ministers and those involved in faith communities to come to the United Kingdom and play the role that many have done in an inspiring way over many years.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute and the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston for their detailed contributions to the debate, and to the Minister for his response. We are back in much more convivial and consensual territory, and I much prefer it; I feel much more comfortable there. I am particularly grateful for the Minister’s offer to meet the Bishops’ Conference, which I am sure will be very welcome. This debate has helped us clarify how close we are to making sure the system works for all interested parties.
I scribbled down the fact that the Minister highlighted two routes, but of course there are three. Tier 2 is much more about the longer term, and affects ministers who want to come and settle, and the tier 5 route is not for people who will lead worship. Then there is the visitor category, but, as the Minister said, it does not allow for payment to be made, and the organisations that I have spoken to say that if somebody is here for a couple of months, there are challenges if they cannot offer to pay.
We are close, but those three routes do not quite resolve the difficulties that we have highlighted. If the Minister is able to engage with the bishops’ conferences and other religious organisations, we may be able to tweak one of the three existing routes or come up with another one. It is probably better to fix the three than to come up with a fourth. I hope we will find a resolution, and I am glad that the Minister is engaging positively. For that reason, I see no reason to press for a vote, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
I have to be entirely neutral, of course, but it would be nice if the Government allowed us to have our religious services again, as has happened in the rest of Europe.