Immigration health charge

Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:15 pm on 16th June 2020.

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‘No immigration health charge introduced under section 38 of the Immigration Act 2014 may be imposed on an individual who is an EEA or Swiss national.’—

This new clause would prevent EEA or Swiss nationals paying the immigration health charge.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton

With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 42—Immigration Health Charge: Exemption for EEA and Swiss citizens who are healthcare and social workers—

‘(1) The Immigration Act 2014 is amended as follows.

(2) After section 38 (Immigration health charge) insert—

“38A Health care workers and social workers from the EEA or Switzerland

(1) Any person who but for the provisions of the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Act 2020 would have the right of free movement is exempt from the Immigration health charge if that person is—

(a) a healthcare worker; or

(b) a social care worker.

(2) The exemption will also apply to a person who is a family member or dependant of an EEA or Swiss national who meets the conditions in section (1)(a) and (b).

(3) For this section—

“healthcare worker” means a worker who works in a healthcare setting within and outside the NHS who may come into contact with patients, including clinical administration staff, and care home staff;

“social care worker” means a worker as defined by section 55(2) of the Care Standards Act 2000.’

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration, Asylum and Border Control), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Attorney General)

This brings us to the hot topic of the immigration health surcharge. It is worth remembering that the health surcharge is a fairly new concept, as it was introduced in 2014. It is set at £400 per year for most applicants, with a discounted rate for students and tier 5 youth mobility workers. The Government have decided to increase the fee to £624 per person per year in October.

Those are hugely significant sums of money, as the charge has to be paid per person per year for the full duration of the visa being applied for, before that visa application has even been considered. Somebody who comes in under a typical five-year tier 2 visa will have to pay more than £3,000 up front in health charges. If they have a husband or wife and a couple of kids, that is three extra NHS surcharges, so more than £12,000 up front without even thinking about the visa fee. On a discounted rate, a student coming for three years will need to pay more than £1,400 up front. Again, that is completely separate from the visa fee. Of course, the Bill extends the scope of the immigration health surcharge to many more applicants.

A particular injustice is done to people applying for leave to remain based on long residence. They are individuals and families who are forced on to a dreadful treadmill of applications and expense. Repeatedly, they have to apply for 30 months’ leave to remain. A single parent with two kids applying under those rules would need to pay almost £4,700 in health charges, and more than £3,000 in immigration fees, for just 30 months. They have to make that same application over and over again until they get to 10 years. When they get to 10 years and are met with a settlement fee of £2,400 per person, they will already have paid £10,300 per person. For a family, £10,000 per person is impossible. Shamefully, those people are often prohibited from having access to public funds.

Those people are applying because of long residence in the UK so, realistically, in many cases, there is no other country that they can go to. The children have spent most, if not all, of their lives here. It can put families in intolerable situations where they have to choose which family member they can afford to pay the fee for. A child may end up missing out because the most immediate and pressing priority is to pay the fee for a breadwinner.

In a way, the charge represents the worst of Home Office policy making, although the Treasury is as much to blame for stripping the Home Office right down to the core and instructing it to use migrants as cash cows to fund its activities. It also illustrates the Home Office at its worst, because the policy is more about grabbing the headlines than anything else. It is illogical, unjust and counterproductive.

The excuse given is that the policy ensures that migrants contribute towards the cost of the NHS system that they may use—but in that case, why is there an NHS charge but not an education charge, especially for families with kids? Why is there not a public transport or roads charge, or a local services charge? It is essentially a fig leaf for the fact that it is simply a general tax.

It is also unjust in that it is a form of double taxation and it is a poll tax. Migrants, of course, contribute to public services through general taxation like everybody else, through income tax, council tax and indirect taxes. The NHS surcharge is totally regressive. It falls unfairly on different migrants, as a wealthy bank worker with no dependants will pay about a quarter of the sum that an NHS careworker will pay if he or she comes in with kids. Most importantly, it falls unfairly on migrants as opposed to those who are citizens or settled. Migrants pay a general tax that the rest of us do not, while at the same time paying all the other taxes that we do.

Finally, from a different perspective, this is a policy that makes the UK an eye-wateringly expensive place for people to come to work. That will now expand to EU and Swiss nationals, and to the small and medium-sized businesses that employ them. Just as businesses are struggling to keep their noses above water, the Government intend to whack them with a plethora of fees, vis-à-vis skills charges and the NHS surcharge.

As we heard last week, it is the big multinationals that are well practised in this system over time, and that have the know-how and resources. Small and medium-sized businesses will end up not only having to navigate the complex tier 2 system, but often meeting the cost of the immigration health surcharge. If a job pays around £26,000 or £27,000, nobody in their right mind is going to come if they have to pay almost half a year’s salary up front. The small hotel and the fish-processing factory will have to pay it on their behalf and, quite simply, they may well not be able to afford to do that. It will not just be one job that remains unfilled. The danger becomes that that hotel or factory simply cannot continue to function and it moves elsewhere. Workers will go where they are not being totally ripped off.

Can the Minister give me examples of other countries that operate such a system in relation to a health surcharge? If so, what is the comparable rate? All the comparisons that I have looked at show that the UK is charging people to come here at a rate that is several times that of most of our competitor countries. In short, this is unjust, it is counter-productive, it is a double poll tax and it should be axed altogether. We support the Labour amendment and new clause as far as they go, but our view is that the solution is total abolition, rather than trimming around the edges.

Photo of Holly Lynch Holly Lynch Shadow Minister (Home Office)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr Stringer. I rise to speak to new clause 42. I agree with a great deal of what my friend the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East said about the immigration health surcharge.

The Labour party is undertaking a significant piece of work with colleagues in the health team about the subject, so we will not make any further comments at this stage about new clause 12. We tabled new clause 42 and we welcome the Government’s commitment to scrap the NHS surcharge for migrant health and care workers, which we feel is long overdue.

The pandemic has shown the enormous contribution of overseas workers to our health and care system. They have put their lives on the line every day to keep us safe. It has been an insult and injustice to then ask them to pay extra for the very services they help provide. The Government acknowledged it was wrong, and said they would be scrapping the fee, which was described as “appalling, immoral and monstrous” by Lord Patten, the former Conservative party chairman, on 21 May, but details have yet to be published about exactly how and when it will happen.

I am mindful that the commitment made by the Prime Minister, following the exchanges between our party leaders at the Dispatch Box, was broader than the new clause before us due to the scope of the Bill. The U-turn was made when a No. 10 Downing Street spokesman announced:

“The PM has asked the Home Office and the Department for Health and Social Care to remove NHS and care workers from the NHS surcharge as soon as possible. Work by officials is now underway on how to implement the change and full details will be announced in the coming days.”

We share the opinion of Donna Kinnair, general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, who said it was

“a shame it took this pandemic for the government to see sense”.

We also share the opinion of the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Nursing, the Royal College of Physicians and Unison, which have written to the Prime Minister to demand clarity about his commitment. I hope that the Minister can update the Committee and, indeed, the general public on what progress the Government have made. Can he confirm that all health and care workers will be exempt from the charge on a permanent basis, including those employed in the NHS, independent settings and the social care sector; that the spouses and dependants of health and care workers will also be exempt from the charge; and that health and care staff, who have paid the charge in advance, which will be all those currently working in the NHS and social care, bearing the brunt of the pandemic, will be appropriately reimbursed?

New clause 42 intends to hold the Government to the commitments made following PMQs on 20 May. As you can imagine, Mr Stringer, international doctors and nurses, who have just had to endure the most difficult, traumatising period of their careers, were hugely relieved when the Government made the overdue decision to scrap this unfair charge for health and care workers, finally recognising the vital contribution that overseas staff make to the NHS. However, we are nearly a month on since the announcement was made and we are still awaiting the details that we were promised.

Will the Minister clarify whether the Government are still taking the NHS health surcharge from health and social care workers in the time since the commitment was made, but before they have published their plans to deliver the policy change? The information that we have suggests that doctors renewing visas are continuing to be charged, so we need to put this to bed now. On top of dealing with the pandemic, this further uncertainty is one more thing on the minds of our hard-working NHS and social care staff. We should be able to address this issue for them without delay.

We will continue to hold the Government to a system that is fair, and which leaves no international doctor, nurse or care worker worse off for contributing their valuable skills and expertise to the NHS and its patients. If we are to show how much we truly value our overseas staff, it is crucial that the Government commit to excluding all health and care workers from the charge, as well as their families. New clause 42 would be a really good start. There is no point scrapping the charge for individuals if they are still forced to pay thousands for their families to join them.

Historically, the NHS workforce has relied on the support of professionals from across the world coming to the UK. In recent decades, that has included a supply of EU nationals. Nearly 10% of doctors, 8% of social care staff and 6% of nurses working in the UK are from the EEA.

The Prime Minister and Conservative party have joined the country in its outpouring of gratitude for health and care workers throughout the pandemic, with “Clap for our Carers” every Thursday, which I think we can all agree has been an absolute phenomenon—when we talk about this pandemic to our children and grandchildren, we will reflect on “Clap for our Carers” as bringing out the very best in society.

The immigration skills charge—the employer-paid fee—is the other part of this. Addressing both together would be a big step in the right direction. Warm words now need to make way for firm proposals, and I look to the Minister to provide just that. It would not be right to clap for people and then charge them.

I call on the Minister to support the new clause, honour its commitments and let us show our gratitude for the hard work that health workers and care workers continue to do for us in the fight against the coronavirus.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Conservative, Scarborough and Whitby 2:30 pm, 16th June 2020

I thank the hon. Member for Halifax for making the point about the contribution that overseas workers make to our health service and the way the Government have responded to that by suspending the immigration health charge. However, I have some concerns about new clause 12 and its discriminatory nature.

For example, it would extend an exemption to Poland, which has a 0.1% black and minority ethnic population, but not to other countries, particularly Commonwealth countries, which have very close links to the UK. If one looks at the European Union as a whole, its record on inclusivity is not good. For example, all 28 commissioners are white. Following the departure of the UK from the European Union, the number of Members of the European Parliament dropped by 20% as our MEPs left Strasbourg and Brussels, and only 24 of the 705 MEPs are from black and minority ethnic groups.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration, Asylum and Border Control), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Attorney General)

The simple problem that I face here—again—is the scope of the Bill. I would love to abolish the immigration health surcharge altogether. If that is the only problem that the right hon. Gentleman has, I urge him to get in behind the new clause and we can work to scrap it for everybody else as well.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton

Before the right hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby resumes, I refer him to what the new clause says. He is beginning to stray a little.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Conservative, Scarborough and Whitby

Thank you, Mr Stringer. The point that I was working up to was that by having an exemption only for EU citizens, we are discriminating against a large number of people who would wish to come and work in the UK from around the world. The ethnic mix of those particular groups would indicate that allowing the new clause would give a land bloc where the majority of people are white an unfair advantage over the rest of the world. I understand the aspiration to abolish the charge completely globally, but if we were to agree the new clause, we would end up in a situation where black and minority ethnic people from around the world would be at a great disadvantage to predominantly white people coming in from the European Union, EEA countries and Switzerland.

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I thank the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East for tabling new clause 12 and the hon. Member for Halifax for tabling new clause 42, both of which relate to the immigration health charge, and for the opportunity they provide to debate this issue.

The background, for members of the Committee, is that the immigration health charge ensures that temporary migrants who come to the UK for more than six months make a fair contribution to the NHS services available to them during their stay. Income from the charge contributes to the long-term sustainability of our fantastic health service across our Union, although certain groups are exempt from the requirement to pay the charge and others benefit from a discounted rate.

The health charge is designed to help support the NHS services that we rely on throughout our lives. It raised approximately £900 million in much-needed income for the NHS from its introduction in 2015 to the end of the 2018-19 financial year—income that, I will be clear, has been shared between the four devolved health administrations in line with the Barnett formula, helping to fund the NHS across our United Kingdom.

Turning to the future, all migrants will be treated the same under our new points-based immigration system. The expectation is therefore that all nationals applying, including EEA citizens, will pay the charge if staying for temporary periods of longer than six months, unless an exemption applies. Of course, EEA citizens who are resident in the UK before the end of the transition period on 31 December 2020 are not subject to the immigration health charge. That was agreed as part of negotiations on the withdrawal agreement with the EU, which also protects the rights of UK nationals in the EU.

To touch on the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby, now we have left the European Union, it would be rather hard to defend having an exemption for EEA nationals alone, given that we no longer have freedom of movement in place and will no longer members of the EU, and then applying this to the rest of the world. I respect the SNP’s point—they have made it regularly and I am sure they will make it again at regular intervals—and their principled view on this issue overall, but it would not make sense to have an exemption for one group applying under the points-based system rather than another, based on nationality alone. I appreciate the point and it will be interesting to hear what conclusions the hon. Member for Halifax comes to as part of her review.

The Government believe that new clause 42 is unnecessary. As has already been said, hon. Members will be aware that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has asked the Home Office and the Department of Health and Social Care to exempt NHS and social care staff from the charge. The exemption will apply to the relevant applications regardless of nationality—as I say, we are moving to a global points-based system—once that system is in place.

Officials are currently working through the detail of the exemptions; sadly, I will have to disappoint the hon. Member for Halifax and say that I cannot go into the full details today of where it will be, but hon. Members will appreciate that that is because we want to get this right and are working with our colleagues in the DHSC to do that.

There was a point made about renewals for doctors currently in the NHS. It is worth pointing out that those who are currently working in the NHS as doctors, nurses or in a number of health professions, are subject to automatic extension for a year. If they get an automatic extension for a year, that also waives the immigration health charge. It is not just the visa fee that goes, but the immigration health charge. Someone currently working for the NHS whose visa is due for renewal is getting a free year, and certainly by this time next year we will have the detailed guidance out there for them. I hope that provides some reassurance about the position as we stand here today.

I recognise the concerns about the financial impact of the health charge on people migrating here, including those who contribute to the NHS through tax and national insurance payments. The health charge provides comprehensive access to NHS services regardless of the amount of care needed during a person’s time in the UK, and includes treatment for pre-existing conditions.

The IHS not only represents excellent value when compared with the alternatives, but ensures that individuals do not need to worry about insurance or how they will pay for unexpected treatment while they are here. It compares favourably with the type of health insurance or other health care costs that those migrating to other countries might well face in order to get the same level of services that our NHS provides to all at point of need, free of charge, here.

As I said earlier, the Government is exempting NHS and care workers from the charge in recognition of the enormous contribution they make to the NHS directly. It is, however, only fair to expect people arriving in the UK to work in non-health-related roles to contribute to the range of NHS services available to them, given that they will not have the history of making contributions towards it that most long-term UK residents will have. It is also worth remembering that those who receive indefinite leave to remain—that is, settlement—are exempted from the IHS, in recognition of the long-term commitment to our United Kingdom this represents.

Finally, the Government are in the process of negotiating reciprocal healthcare arrangements with the EU, and it is important that we do not undermine the integrity of those negotiations through this Bill. I therefore invite the Members from the Scottish National party to withdraw the motion.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration, Asylum and Border Control), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Attorney General)

I am grateful to the Minister for his response. We are essentially debating a fundamental point of principle here: we have different views about the appropriateness of this charge.

To respond to the right hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby’s intervention, I am of course constricted in what I can table as an amendment or new clause. I would scrap the charge for everybody, not just EEA nationals, but the scope of the Bill prohibits me from tabling a broader amendment. I think that if an assessment of the NHS surcharge’s impact on black and minority ethnic people were carried out, it would make for interesting reading, but that is a debate for another day. I stand by my party’s position that this is a double tax that is completely unjustifiable, and will therefore push new clause 12 to a Division.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.

Division number 12 Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill — Immigration health charge

Aye: 2 MPs

No: 8 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

The Committee divided: Ayes 2, Noes 8.

Question accordingly negatived.