New Clause 14 - Immigration health surcharge: exemption for international volunteers

Nationality and Borders Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 4th November 2021.

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

(2) After section 38, insert—

“38A Immigration health surcharge: exemption for international volunteers

(1) A charge under section 38 may not be imposed on persons who have leave to enter, or to remain in, the United Kingdom through a visa to work voluntarily for a period of no more than 12 months, or for such period as may be prescribed by regulations, for a registered UK charity advancing the charity’s primary purpose.

(2) A statutory instrument containing regulations under this section must not be made unless a draft of the instrument has been laid before and approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament”.’ . —(Stuart C. McDonald.)

This new clause would ensure that international volunteers, including those working in health and social care, will be exempt from paying the immigration health surcharge.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I beg to move that the clause be read a Second time.

The new clause would introduce an immigration health surcharge exemption for international volunteers. On this occasion, I am particularly indebted to Camphill Scotland, which does fantastic work to support around 600 people with learning disabilities and other support needs, ranging from children to older people. It has built a formidable alliance of almost 50 organisations across the UK that support this new clause, including the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action, the Wales Council for Voluntary Action and many, many more which, unfortunately, I do not have time to mention. All members of the Committee will have received briefings and representations directly on this issue, and I urge them to consider it carefully.

My party objects to the immigration health surcharge altogether, but that debate is for another day. What we do welcome, as do the organisations behind this new clause, is the Government’s decision to exempt health and social care workers from other countries from paying it. The new clause seeks to ensure that those who want to come to work as volunteers in the charitable sector, including in health and social care, are also exempt. We believe that charging this surcharge to volunteers working in health and social care in charitable settings is unfair, inequitable and counterproductive. Volunteers from the EU and beyond make a significant contribution to the work of charities across the UK; Camphill Scotland currently has about 215 international volunteers, helping it to support people with learning disabilities and other support needs.

These young people have chosen to stay in the UK to provide social care to UK citizens during a national health emergency, displaying considerable dedication to and compassion for the people they support. It would be an injustice if the immigration health surcharge exemption was not extended to international volunteers working in the charitable sector. It is all the more essential that this change is made post Brexit, with volunteers from the EU and Switzerland now being caught by visa fees and other expenses. If we cannot continue to attract volunteers, the people who will suffer will be those who benefit from their care, including those with learning disabilities and support needs in the care of Camphill Scotland. The logic of the Government’s immigration health surcharge is that everyone should contribute but, just like the health and social care workforce, the volunteers are already doing just that, so surely the same logic applies. Given that such volunteers cannot have a salary here and will receive a subsistence allowance at most, there is even more reason to exempt them altogether. They are already facing considerable costs to take up these posts. It cannot be right that we also charge them a surcharge to support the very system that they are currently voluntarily supporting. I therefore ask the Minister to consider the representations made by the almost 50 organisations that have contacted him, to consider meeting them and to look carefully at these proposals.

Photo of Tom Pursglove Tom Pursglove Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Ministry of Justice and Home Office)

The Government recognise the important contribution that international volunteers make to our communities, and are committed to attracting people from overseas who wish to gain experience of our voluntary sector. The temporary work-charity worker visa is available to those who wish to undertake unpaid voluntary fieldwork for up to 12 months, where the work contributes directly to the achievement or advancement of the sponsor’s charitable purpose. The route offers volunteers the chance to experience life in the UK while making a valuable contribution to the aims of their chosen charity. At the same time, the involvement and contribution of these individuals has benefits for the UK charity sector and the wider community, and the UK Government welcome this involvement.

This is not an economic route and it should not be used to fill gaps in the labour market. Volunteers using the charity worker visa must not receive any payment beyond being reimbursed for expenses incurred during their duties. It is therefore not unreasonable to expect costs to be considered and planned for before they apply for a visa. As this is a temporary work category, the cost of a visa is already significantly less than any other work and study routes, at a rate of £244, and sponsors pay a lower licence fee, which reflects their own charity status. The immigration health charge, which applies to this route, ensures that temporary migrants who come to the UK for more than six months make a direct contribution to the comprehensive range of NHS services available to them during their stay. Income from the charge is shared between the health administrations in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, using the formula devised by Lord Barnett. The charge is an essential part of income for the NHS and has raised almost £2 billion in much-needed income since it was introduced in 2015.

Those who make an application to come to the UK for six months or less do not pay the charge, and we know that a sizeable number of volunteers come for less than the 12 months the route allows. If they opt to stay longer than six months, however, it is right that they pay the charge, as is consistent with others who base themselves in the UK for extended periods. I understand that there are concerns about the financial impact of the charge on volunteer workers, alongside visa fees and other payments that a person may make when they choose to come to the UK. However, the Government are clear that the charge is great value, considering the wide range of NHS services, free at the point of use, for charge payers. From the moment they arrive in the UK, charge payers can use the NHS in broadly the same manner as a permanent resident, without having made any prior tax or national insurance contributions. They may access health services as often as they need, including treatment for pre-existing health conditions, and do not need to worry about unexpected health charges or obtaining appropriate health insurance.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 2:15 pm, 4th November 2021

The Minister knows that I do not support the idea of an additional surcharge but, even if we accept his logic, the Government have exempted health and social care workers from the surcharge because they contribute to the healthcare system. Should that same logic not apply even more so to volunteers who are working in the health and social care system?

Photo of Tom Pursglove Tom Pursglove Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Ministry of Justice and Home Office)

In relation to the approach taken for health and social workers, the view widely felt across the House, which was subsequently reflected in policy, was that, given the enormous contribution made by those working directly in this sector during the pandemic, it was appropriate to try and put in place a form of recognition of that work, as well as other measures we have talked about, for example the pay rises that have quite rightly been afforded to NHS workers. It was seen as one means of recognising the enormous contribution that some of those who had come from overseas to work in our health and social care settings had made and rewarding them for that. There were particular circumstances that meant that it was felt that that was appropriate.

Charge payers pay only those charges a UK resident would pay, such as prescription charges in England. They may, however, be charged for assisted conception services in England, should they wish to use them. We welcome talented individuals to the UK and are immensely grateful to them for the important contributions they make, but if a person chooses to come to the UK as a worker, student, family member or volunteer, it is fair and reasonable to expect them to contribute to the high-quality NHS services available to them.

It is vital, particularly given the challenges posed by the pandemic, for the NHS to continue to be properly funded. The immigration health charge directly benefits the NHS and plays an important role in supporting its long-term sustainability. The Government are confident that the charity worker visa provides an attractive offer to voluntary workers. Individuals on some other routes can also volunteer their time to help others, and, depending on the route, they either pay the immigration health charge or may be charged by the NHS for their healthcare.

The youth mobility scheme, for example, is subject to the charge. Those on this route are free to take up work in any sector, paid or unpaid. The standard visitor visa allows people to volunteer for up to 30 days with a registered charity. The visit rules allow visitors to stay for a maximum of six months, which means that they are not subject to the immigration health charge but may instead be charged for NHS care, in line with the rules set by the relevant, devolved health administration.

The Government believe that it is right for the health charge to apply to the charity worker visa. Many nations expect newly arrived individuals to contribute, in some form, to the cost of healthcare. It is right we do the same. For the reasons I have set out, I ask the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East to withdraw the new clause, but I take on board the passion with which he made his case in relation to this issue and the various representations he referred to that have been made to me as Minister with responsibility for this Bill. I will certainly ensure that they are shared with the Minister with responsibility for this area of policy in the Department as part of their consideration of these matters.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I am grateful to the Minister for his response and those assurances. He is quite right about the reasons for the recognition that was given to health and social care staff. We are just calling for the same recognition for volunteers as well. I would be interested to know more. I get the impression that this would be a tiny hit for the Treasury, but it could have real benefit for charities. Before we think about that and make the case again before we reach Report stage, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.