Commonwealth Personnel in the Armed Forces — [Mr Virendra Sharma in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 11:29 am on 8th May 2019.

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[Mr Virendra Sharma in the Chair]

Photo of Paul Sweeney Paul Sweeney Shadow Minister (Scotland) 2:30 pm, 8th May 2019

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered fair treatment for Commonwealth personnel in the armed forces.

I am pleased to have been granted this debate today, Mr Sharma, and to speak under your chairmanship. I thank right hon. and hon. Members who have joined us for today’s debate.

We often speak in this place about the need to support veterans and their families after they have served our country. However, there is now clear evidence that the Commonwealth personnel serving in the armed forces are being left behind. It is a duty of this and any Government to support all those who serve in the armed forces, including those from Commonwealth nations who serve with distinction alongside their comrades from the UK and Ireland. Commonwealth citizens have long made significant contributions to the defence of the United Kingdom, including during the first and second world wars. They continue to play an important role in the UK armed forces, serving in operations worldwide.

The tradition of soldiers recruited from across the Commonwealth and other former colonies serving in the British armed forces is the legacy of a time when Britain had an extensive military role in garrisoning and policing the largest empire in the world. Indeed, the Brigade of Gurkhas has celebrated over two centuries of continuous loyal service to Britain, initially under the command of the East India Company from 1814, then within the British Indian Army from 1895, and continuing within the British Army after the 1947 decolonisation of India until the present day.

Commonwealth soldiers, like all members of the armed forces, are prepared to sacrifice their lives for the defence of our country. I believe that all armed forces personnel, regardless of their background or country of origin, should be treated equally and with gratitude. Much like ordinary civilians, Commonwealth soldiers are being unfairly treated by the Home Office, which is not doing enough to end the hostile environment it has created at immense cost to society. Given the ongoing recruitment crisis and the Government’s recent decision to recruit more Commonwealth personnel, it is all the more urgent that the Government review any recruitment barriers. The Labour party recognises the immense debt that we owe to all personnel, veterans and their families, and the need to ensure that they have the very best support. Today, I call upon the Government to do the same.

According to the Royal British Legion, over 6,000 personnel from foreign and Commonwealth countries are currently serving in the UK armed forces, with more recruited each year to fill technical and specialist roles. In 2018 the Army employed approximately 4.5% of its personnel—or 5,290—from foreign and Commonwealth nations. Although the Army has been the main recipient of Commonwealth recruits, the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force also recruit from Commonwealth countries. The majority of those recruits come from countries in Africa, the Caribbean, Nepal and Fiji in the Pacific; they are also generally concentrated in non-commissioned ranks and within infantry units. That is despite the Conservative Government cutting the size of the regular Army from a peak of 114,000 in 2010 to a target size of 82,000 by 2020, and privatising recruitment to a company called Capita in 2012. However, in July 2018 the Army was 5,600, or about 7%, short of the number of regulars needed, and it is highly unlikely to meet its target headcount for 2020.

The Army and Capita have not recruited the number of regulars and reserves needed to sustain the required headcount in any year since the contract began, even though that headcount has been heavily reduced. The total annual shortfall has ranged from 21% to 45% of the Army’s annual requirements. To illustrate the contrast, in the two years before the contract with Capita began, the annual shortfall was just 4%. In late 2018 the Ministry of Defence announced its intention to increase further its reliance on Commonwealth personnel, as home recruitment continues to chronically underperform. It aims to recruit 1,350 personnel per annum, including expanding the Brigade of Gurkhas by more than 800 posts and extending the right for women to join, too.

However, the immigration status of the Gurkhas and other Commonwealth personnel has been a significant matter of contention over the past two decades, led most notably by the Gurkha Justice Campaign. Until 2004, Gurkhas were not allowed to settle in the United Kingdom. The Labour Government under Tony Blair changed the rules to allow Gurkhas who retired after 1997 to settle in the UK, because 1997 was the year in which the Gurkhas’ brigade headquarters transferred from Hong Kong to Britain. In May 2009, following a campaign by Gurkha veterans, Gordon Brown’s Labour Government announced that all Gurkha veterans who had served four years or more in the British Army before 1997 would also be allowed to settle in Britain.

It seems to me extraordinary that our country placed such barriers to citizenship in the way of those who served this nation so gallantly in the first place. In my opinion, this situation reveals a latent neo-colonial mentality in the Ministry of Defence and the Home Office when it comes to championing the equal right of those who have served us in uniform to become British citizens.

Commonwealth personnel are exempt from UK immigration controls throughout their service, but that exemption is removed immediately upon discharge. Former personnel who wish to stay in the United Kingdom indefinitely, whether with their family or alone, are required to apply for indefinite leave to remain. In alignment with civilian applicants for indefinite leave to remain, veterans are subject to several requirements, including four years’ qualifying residency in the United Kingdom—which, of course, is obtainable via four years’ service in the armed forces. However, veterans are also subject to a non-refundable fee of £2,389 per person. Fees for indefinite leave to remain have risen by 127% in the past five years, to £2,389 per person—since they were introduced in 2003, those fees have risen by 1,441%. The Royal British Legion has said that it provided £36,000 in grants over the past year alone to help pay for those visa fees, which is money that could have been spent on any number of better and more direct veteran support services. What an appalling diversion of time, effort and resource.

Photo of Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi Labour, Slough

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. As he rightly highlights, Commonwealth soldiers have long made significant contributions to the defence of our country, including during the first and second world wars, and they continue to do so to this day. However, they are now being charged exorbitant fees by the Government when making Home Office applications, which is frankly appalling given their immense sacrifices. Does he agree that it is high time the Government ended the hostile environment that they have created?

Photo of Paul Sweeney Paul Sweeney Shadow Minister (Scotland)

I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution, and for reiterating the frustration that many feel about the Government’s wrong-headed position.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

I am slightly conscious of the manner in which the debate is already going. I simply interject about the use of the words “hostile environment”, because I hope that there will be cross-party consensus on where we want to take this issue. I invite Mr Sweeney to urge caution on such language. The fees for those from the Commonwealth who serve in our armed forces are the same fees that everybody must pay, no matter where they are from. Those people are not being targeted, and nor are those fees part of any form of hostile environment. I simply invite the hon. Gentleman to keep the debate as elevated as possible, rather than getting down into some political rut.

Photo of Paul Sweeney Paul Sweeney Shadow Minister (Scotland)

I thank the Minister for his sentiments. The term “hostile environment” is born of persistent and comprehensive observation of the behaviour of the Home Office across a number of different fronts. It does not pertain particularly to service personnel; that is merely another permutation of how it harms quality of life, including that of our armed forces personnel. I am encouraged by the Minister’s aspiration to reach consensus on this issue, which I share, but I also acknowledge that there is a significant problem within our immigration system. I believe that our armed forces personnel should be treated as exceptional cases. That is the thrust of my argument today, which I will elaborate on further as we go forward.

I share the concerns of my hon. Friend Mr Dhesi about the costs associated with service leavers applying for indefinite leave to remain. A service leaver who wants their partner to join them with indefinite leave to remain faces a bill of £4,778 to continue to live in the UK, even before children and further dependants are taken into account. Furthermore, immigration rules state that a foreign worker must earn an income threshold of £18,600 to apply to bring their spouse to the UK. In addition to that £18,600 threshold, the minimum income requirement to bring over one child is £22,400, with an additional £2,400 for each child thereafter. To put that into context, a soldier’s basic pay after training is just £18,600 a year; as a single person, they are right on the threshold.

It is difficult to understand just how vital the support of friends and family is to serving personnel who, during tours of duty in conflict zones, work antisocial hours in conditions that are often appalling. Impeding the opportunity for those who serve to have their families living with them, providing that close emotional support, seems to me particularly callous. Considering the general concentration of Commonwealth troops in the lower ranks, and the fact that they require permission from their superiors and commanding officers to take up weekend work in order to earn sufficient money to achieve those income thresholds, doing so can be exceptionally difficult and put those troops under significant emotional hardship.

The Army Families Federation, which has also been investigating the issue, believes that up to 500 troops are affected. The AFF told The Times that it has been contacted by around a dozen soldiers separated from their children, and that Army chaplains and welfare officers have reported tearful troops in despair over their situation. There are also concerns that Commonwealth soldiers are not always aware of the issues prior to joining the UK armed forces, and it comes as a very unwelcome and distressing shock when they realise the limitations they face.

A recent Defence Committee report recognised that the vast majority of veterans leave the services with no ill effects. It is important to acknowledge that reality, but the report maintained that although the Government have made improvements in the care available to personnel leaving the armed forces, it was none the less the case that

“some serving personnel, veterans and their families who need mental health care are still being completely failed by the system.”

That is not good enough. It might not be typical, but it is certainly not good enough.

For some Commonwealth veterans who struggle with mental health, there is also a serious threat of deportation in addition to any other concerns they might have. I have spoken several times of the struggles that many veterans experience with their mental health. It has often been discussed in debates—some familiar faces are here. I have personal experience of people who have suffered and been affected by those problems. As I have mentioned before, the Royal Regiment of Scotland lost four soldiers and ex-soldiers last year through a spate of suicides. That caused great concern and worry about what that meant for the wider generation of soldiers who have served on operations in recent years. Reflecting further, more than 70 veterans have taken their own lives in the past year, which is very troubling. The death toll has exceeded the number of battlefield fatalities in 11 of the 13 years that British forces were operational in Herrick in Afghanistan. That is a pretty devastating statistic.

Four in 10 service families who have requested access to and been referred for mental health care have had difficulty accessing that treatment. That is not good enough and we need to do more. Many of our veterans experience great frustration when it comes to mental health support. Having approached people to get that level of support, they do not get the level of rigour that they deserve, leading to the despair we have seen, culminating in spates of veteran suicides. No veteran deserves that—not those originating from the UK, and not those from the Commonwealth. It is heartbreaking that some individuals could have their mental health affected by the lingering threat of deportation and immigration concerns after retiring from the armed forces.

I was pleased to see that a cross-party group of more than 130 MPs, co-ordinated by my hon. Friend Mrs Moon and Richard Graham, have written to the Home Secretary calling for the fees to be scrapped. I would like to add my late support to that today. I did not have the opportunity to sign the letter itself, but I thoroughly endorse its sentiments. The letter is indicative of the scale of the problem and the groundswell of support from Members from all parties who want to see this issue gripped and properly addressed with the greatest sense of urgency.

I will therefore finish with some direct questions to the Minister. First, will he speak to the Home Secretary and the Home Office to secure a reply to the cross-party letter on the issue of visa fees, because Members are yet to receive a reply? Will the Government do the right thing and immediately scrap visa fees for armed forces veterans applying for indefinite leave to remain and, furthermore, grant them the unique right to apply for immediate British citizenship without limit of time? Finally, will the Government, in recognition of the huge debt we owe to our veterans, issue an apology to the veterans from the Commonwealth and their families who have been forced to pay these extortionate fees, despite their service to our country, and set up a mechanism to compensate those who have suffered financial detriment?

The Windrush scandal and ongoing examples of the Home Office’s policies in this regard demonstrate that our asylum and immigration system is badly failing and appallingly lacking in compassion and efficiency. Anyone who represents constituencies with a large population of immigrants or people seeking asylum will be all too aware of how the Home Office treats them. The situation with service personnel is just the latest manifestation, harming the very people who are prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice by laying down their lives in defence of our country. The very least we can do in recognition of their service is to grant them and their families the right to full British citizenship at the end of their service and to bring true equality to all those who serve in our armed forces, regardless of their country of origin.

Photo of Richard Graham Richard Graham Conservative, Gloucester 2:44 pm, 8th May 2019

I should declare an interest at the beginning of my speech, because, possibly like you, Mr Sharma, I am, to some extent, a child of the Commonwealth, having spent my early years in Kenya. I congratulate Mr Sweeney on securing this debate for all of us in a crowded Commons diary. This is an important issue for those who most respect the role of the Commonwealth and of the UK in the Commonwealth, and the contribution the two make together to the world. In particular, through the peacekeeping efforts of our armed forces, our Commonwealth servicemen and women make a contribution to global peace. It is also worth referring to the fact that the hon. Gentleman is, I think, one of only three Labour party reservists on the Benches of the House of Commons. He has served in the Signals and the Royal Regiment of Scotland, so he knows of what he talks, and I think we would all recognise his contribution.

I want to focus on one aspect of the role of Commonwealth servicemen and women in our armed forces, which is the one that the hon. Gentleman referred to. It refers back to the cross-party letter that I organised with Mrs Moon, who has a distinguished role in the NATO Parliament. I am delighted that the hon. Member for Glasgow North East has decided to add his signature to that letter today, which takes the number of Members of Parliament who have signed to 134, remembering always that those on the Front Benches on both sides are unable to sign such letters. It is fair to say that the letter is representative of a large body of feeling in the House of Commons.

The key points on the visa fees for Commonwealth armed forces personnel have been alluded to by the hon. Gentleman, but I would like to add two or three things. First, I did not start on this issue—nor did the hon. Member for Bridgend—from a position that Commonwealth servicemen were being unfairly treated, and least of all that they were in a “hostile environment”. That was not really our starting point, if I might distinguish the tone of the letter we wrote from the opening speech in this debate.

In fact, our issue is more about the fact that they are treated exactly like everyone else, including Commonwealth policemen and women or others in different occupations in this nation. Our point was that, since those who join our armed forces do so in the knowledge that they may be required to risk life and limb for our country, they therefore hold a special place in the respect of the nation and of all of us who serve in the House of Commons representing our constituents. In a sense, they occupy a special place.

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk Conservative, Cheltenham

My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. We owe a debt of gratitude to those who would give their lives in defence of this nation. Does he agree that the position in this country sits uneasily with that in other countries, such as the United States, where service in the military, either during peacetime or on active service, entitles that individual, ordinarily speaking, to be naturalised as a US citizen for the payment of no money at all? That is a proper expression of the debt of gratitude that a nation owes to those who serve in its armed forces.

Photo of Richard Graham Richard Graham Conservative, Gloucester

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, as so often, in highlighting the issue. It boils down to a perception, at the least, of meanness on the part of our state. That does not reflect the respect that we hold for our Commonwealth servicemen and women, as the hon. Member for Glasgow North East highlighted, and as my hon. Friend rightly reiterates. That is an issue for us, particularly at a time when we are in the chair of the Commonwealth. We are responsible for having created the Commonwealth, and play such an important role in it. It is important that we recognise the value of the contribution that Commonwealth personnel make, and the risks that they run, as highlighted by the recent armed forces presence in Afghanistan, for example.

It can, of course, be argued that we should not use longer term access to indefinite leave to remain in this country as, effectively, a recruiting incentive. That should not be the primary reason why Commonwealth servicemen and women join our armed forces, and I am very conscious of that. I do not believe that that is the case, but it is something the Home Secretary will have to balance. I know that the Minister is sympathetic to the cause of ensuring that fees are, at the very least, kept to minimum, if not, as I and the hon. Member for Bridgend hope, effectively abolished completely. He will no doubt wish to comment on that.

Let me touch on one or two relevant issues, which the Home Secretary will have to consider. First, there is the issue of equality. If a special case is made for those serving in our armed forces—there is a perfectly good case for that on precisely the grounds already mentioned—the Department will have to be sure that that would not trigger a series of legal claims from those serving in other Departments where there are different risks, such as the police.

The campaign that we have triggered through the letter is also, importantly, a campaign of the Royal British Legion, which has a large membership and following in this country, and has been extremely helpful in providing me and others with relevant information, partly through freedom of information requests. One of the difficulties for the Royal British Legion, and for us, in bringing this issue alive through the media and social media is the shortage of case studies, because most of the people involved are serving servicemen and women who do not necessarily want the publicity that would go with that. That makes this a harder campaign than others with which I, and others Members present, have been involved.

Although the responses from Ministers in the Ministry of Defence are incredibly helpful, and I hope the Minister will be able to share his support and enthusiasm for this cause, it will ultimately be the Home Office’s responsibility to make a decision. I suspect that the Home Secretary will have to consider other issues, including the point made by the hon. Member for Glasgow North East on the income levels of those coming to live in this country. That will open all sorts of other issues more widely than just in the armed forces.

I do not think for a moment that the Home Secretary is delaying his response to the campaign that the hon. Member for Bridgend and I started. I spoke to him earlier today. He will respond formally, and will meet the hon. Member for Bridgend and I, and the Royal British Legion, shortly on this issue. He will do his best to find the best way through the various challenges, and I do not doubt his instinctive sympathy and support. However, as we know, it can sometimes be hard to find a precise way through what appears to be a relatively simple issue, owing to the legal issues involved.

I hope all Members present will continue to engage with local branches of the Royal British Legion to show support for its campaign. I have encouraged the Royal British Legion to do various things that will bring the campaign alive, such as sharing through social media photographs of as many Commonwealth servicemen and women as possible, in different units of our armed forces, so that our constituents have a wider understanding of how many people from the Commonwealth are serving our country to the best of their ability. Anyone who has not yet signed the letter to the Home Secretary is welcome to do so, even though it has already gone, to show their support for this campaign with the Royal British Legion, and to support the debate that the hon. Member for Glasgow North East has rightly brought to the House today.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 2:54 pm, 8th May 2019

It is a pleasure to follow Richard Graham, who has clearly put over his support for the campaign. I, too, thank Mr Sweeney for presenting the case very well for all Members who will speak in the debate. I am very pleased to see the Minister in his place. I echo the thoughts that he expressed earlier: we can reach consensus today, and move forward in a constructive and helpful way. I also declare an interest as a former part-time member of the Ulster Defence Regiment and the Territorial Army.

I am honoured to stand side by side with my brethren—I use that word very clearly—in every arm of the armed forces, from the Parachute Regiment, which is facing persecution, to the Gurkhas, who fought for years for recognition. One of those campaigns is concluded; the other is still to be concluded. It is my belief that every person who wears a uniform and honourably serves deserves the gratitude and support of a nation that sleeps safely in bed due to their sacrifice. It is very simple for me; I think it is very simple for us all.

I have had the chance to participate in the armed forces parliamentary scheme, along with other Members present. Through that scheme, we meet many serving Commonwealth members who qualify for the British Army because of their Commonwealth attachments and their years of service. I am encouraged by those I have met, and by their clear commitment. Part of what we are trying to do today is to support their families—we cannot ignore them.

Photo of David Simpson David Simpson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

Mental health and suicide were mentioned earlier. Does my hon. Friend agree that the welfare of our soldiers is vital, as well as that of their partners, children and families, who may go through the trauma of losing a loved one, or of a loved one sustaining life-changing injuries? I am sure that he agrees that it is important that families are looked after as well.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I wholeheartedly agree with that, as I think all Members in the Chamber would.

The background to this issue is clear. In November 2018, the five-year residency requirement for Commonwealth personnel wishing to enlist in the UK armed forces was removed in the hopes of increasing the number of Commonwealth recruits to 1,350 per year. Having met some of those recruits and serving members, I realise just how important it is to have Commonwealth soldiers in our British Army.

That seems simple enough, but for Commonwealth soldiers who wish to bring family to the UK a number of requirements must be met for those family members to enter and remain. That is the crux of this debate. The Library produced a helpful briefing, which summed up the requirement admirably, stating:

“In addition to a valid passport and visa, individuals must also meet the English language requirement and suitability criteria relating to certain criminal convictions, including previous breaches of the UK’s immigration laws. Primarily, however, there is a Minimum Income Requirement which a Commonwealth soldier must meet before they can bring family to the UK”.

We know the minimum requirement, because we deal with constituents in our offices every day, but in the particular case of soldiers, gross annual income must be at least £18,600, with an additional £3,800 for the first child and an additional £2,400 for each additional child thereafter. For a partner with no children, it is £18,600. For one child in addition to the partner, it is £22,400. For two children in addition to the partner, it is £24,800. For three children in addition to the partner, it is £27,200. There are no exemptions from the requirement, and the guidance states:

“If you cannot meet the requirement, then you are advised not to apply to bring your family over”.

If we have asked that person to come and serve in the British Army, is it not right that they should be able to bring their families? I think it is. This debate is clearly trying to arrive at that.

As a result of the requirement, many Commonwealth soldiers leave their families at home, and some are taking second jobs to meet the affordability criteria. I will mention one such soldier later.

I was pleased to hear that there has been a move to improve awareness of immigration issues in the chain of command, and I thank the Minister for that, but I stand on the armed forces covenant, which I have spoken about in the House many times, and the current scenario that separates families in service is, in my opinion, a clear breach of that covenant. It is unfair to separate people who serve in the British Army and their families, wherever they may be. To pay our Commonwealth soldiers a wage that does not allow them to qualify for immigration, or to expect to be able to bring their families with them, is unacceptable.

I want to tell hon. Members about one of my constituents. A little child from a Commonwealth nation, whose daddy serves the Queen and this country—and does so exceptionally well—cries because she has not seen her daddy in two years. Her daddy also works in a Chinese restaurant to get extra money to get his savings up to the level to allow him to qualify. On top of that, it costs £10,000 in fees to apply to get his family to join him, which is difficult enough to raise to start with, but the fact that he has to do that through a second job illustrates where we are. That is a wee girl crying for her daddy for two years. He cannot get his family here until he earns the money and saves £10,000 for fees.

There is something drastically wrong with a system that—rightly—allows asylum seekers an opportunity to safely reside here, but takes out of the hands of people who have put their lives on the line the ability to have their families with them here, in this nation. It is wrong. For the benefit of everyone, I emphasise again: it is wrong, and it cannot be accepted.

I do not want to hear that the Ministry of Defence is aware that it is wrong and is thinking about it; I need to hear that the MOD is working with the Home Office to change it. I think that the Minister will tell us that, and I am looking forward to his response.

I stand with the cross-party delegation and demand that the fee for applications is reduced or scrapped for Commonwealth entrants. I am very conscious of how it works. Fees for indefinite leave to remain have risen by 127% in five years, to £2,389 per person. Since they were introduced in 2003, the fees have risen by 1,441%. While it is beyond admirable that the Royal British Legion, of which I am a member, and other charities have stepped up to the mark, providing £36,000 in grants to help to pay for visa fees last year alone, it is not the role of the soldiers’ charities to do that, although we are very pleased that we do. It is the House’s role to lay out in legislation that the armed forces covenant applies if someone was born in Birmingham, Belfast or Barbuda, and they have a right to live here with their families.

At a time when we are watching our armed forces being tried before juries for following orders in operations—I find that abhorrent to watch—the message must be clear to those who consider signing up for Queen and country that we will not leave them high and dry. We will support them and their families better than we are supporting Soldier F and others for different reasons. We will do the right thing by them and will put that into legislation to ensure that successive Governments will also do the right thing.

If ever our armed forces needed clarity about the feelings of this House towards them, it is now. This debate gives us the opportunity to say that very clearly. Let us stop talking and begin acting, and do the right thing by our soldiers, whether they are born here or born elsewhere.

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Armed Forces) 3:03 pm, 8th May 2019

In the time-honoured words of this place, Mr Sharma, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I listened to the highly informed and thought-provoking speech of Mr Sweeney with the greatest of interest, as I have to the other contributions. This is therefore a classic example of someone having to change his speech because others have said what he wanted to say before he got there.

I, too, am, if not a child, then a grandchild, of empire. I had a cousin who commanded the 10th Baluch Regiment in the second world war. In one of the Arakan offensives, he got cut off with his soldiers behind Japanese lines. Japanese propaganda reported that he had committed suicide—cut his throat, as they put it in the English language propaganda they dropped from aeroplanes. He did not; he fought his way out of the jungle and got his troops out. I knew him as an old man, and he told me of the incredible bravery of the Baluchis and about what fantastic soldiers they were. To his grave, he said that there was nothing better.

Although my own father came from the north of Scotland, he also found himself, through a series of events, in India, in 1941. He also spoke of the extraordinary professionalism and valour of Baluchi, Punjabi and Sikh—of all manner of parts of what was then the British Indian Army in the sub-continent. He was proud to have been a member of the 14th Army—the Forgotten Army—commanded by Slim in its latter days. He was in the second wave going through Imphal, and he told me about Imphal and Kohima and what it meant. Kohima is rightly described as the Stalingrad of Britain. We beat the Japanese, but it was done with the fantastic soldiers from the Indian sub-continent and other parts of the world. Although today is the anniversary of VE-day, and Commonwealth troops contributed to the downfall of Hitler and his brutal regime, it is when celebrating the anniversary of VJ-day in a few weeks’ time that we should remember just what their contribution was, because it was absolutely massive.

On a lighter note, one of the abiding things that has stayed with me through my life is that, early on in India, my father decided that the European food in the mess was absolutely disgusting and that he was going to learn how to cook curry properly. He went through to the kitchens—it was highly disapproved of for a British officer to do that, but he did, because he was a bit eccentric and different—and he learnt to cook curry. Through all of my life, I have eaten an enormous amount of curry cooked by my father. We used to joke in my family that he could probably have curried an old boot and made it quite edible.

I too have been, in my small way, a member of the reserve forces, so I know a little bit about them. It was quite a long time ago, but I was a private soldier in the 2nd Battalion of the 51st Highland Volunteers. When I was a member of another place—I do not mean next door; I mean somewhere in Edinburgh—I was very much involved in the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. I served for a number of years on the executive committee. I saw first hand just what an important institution the Commonwealth is, as other Members have said. It is a civilising, peace-making, teaching influence throughout the world, and one of the greatest things that we and all Commonwealth countries contribute to the good of the world.

Much has been said today—better than I can say it—about the role of Commonwealth soldiers. Like Jim Shannon, I saw that with my own eyes when I went with the armed forces parliamentary scheme to Estonia to spend some days with other hon. and right hon. Members and the 1st Battalion of the Yorkshire Regiment. I met soldiers from Commonwealth countries—from west Africa and from across the Atlantic. I remember talking to one young man who was the gunner on a Warrior—the Minister and other Members will know what I am talking about. I said, “That’s a pretty cool job, isn't it?” He said, “Yes, it is. This is a cool job to have.” I then made a fatal mistake. I said, “I expect when you are in your No. 2 uniform, you are very smart.” This is not very politically correct, but I said, “That may well help you when it comes to talking to the opposite sex.” He reprimanded me and said, “I don’t need my uniform to pull the girls!” I am sorry if that story has shocked people.

The point is that the Commonwealth troops that I and others saw in Estonia were really good soldiers. Yet, if we look at the stats, as the hon. Member for Glasgow North East said, it is clear that we are not getting those soldiers beyond non-commissioned rank. Only 2.46% of officers are from a minority ethnic background or Commonwealth countries. We are missing a trick here.

I close with one suggestion. We need to sort this out. We need to get the career progress for those soldiers, sailors and airmen right from the bottom to the top of the service. I have made this point again and again in the House: as and when we have a successful serving person, they should be encouraged when they get leave to go back to their school or their country, wherever that is in the Commonwealth, to say to pupils, “This is the career I am pursuing, and it is a good career. Why don’t you think about doing it as well?” We do not do that very much in the UK, and we are missing a trick.

The Government’s policy of going out to recruit Commonwealth servicemen and women is absolutely a good idea. It has a long history, as I and other Members have mentioned. We have a rich seam that we can mine, but if we are to do it properly, we have to get over the message that it is worth while—as other Members have said, “You will be remunerated properly and honoured in this country and in your own land. It is a great service.”

Photo of Carol Monaghan Carol Monaghan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Armed Forces and Veterans), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Education) 3:10 pm, 8th May 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I congratulate Mr Sweeney on securing this extremely important debate. I also congratulate Richard Graham on his campaign and on raising the issue with many of us in this place. It is an extremely important campaign, which we support.

Commonwealth citizens who risk their lives in our service are valued members of our society. The Army Families Federation observes:

“Commonwealth members of our Armed Forces make up a significant and vital part of the UK’s Defence capability and, as a nation, we ask them to make significant sacrifices to do so.”

Their families pay a high price, too, and many find themselves living across the world from their partner or loved one. Those of us who have experience of military life know that the family is a support for serving members of the armed forces. It is a no-brainer that we should do everything in our power to ensure that the families are able to be there as the support that serving personnel need. We should be celebrating the contribution of our Commonwealth service personnel who have come to this country to serve in our armed forces. Instead, we find the Government separating members of our armed forces from their families and, on top of that, hitting them with exorbitant visa fees.

We know there are serious issues in recruitment, as has been mentioned by the hon. Member for Glasgow North East. The Defence Committee noted that the Government’s 10-year partnership with Capita

“has been abysmal since it started” and that Capita has

“failed to meet the Army's recruitment targets every single year of the contract”.

The Army has embarked on further recruitment campaigns across the Commonwealth to meet the minimum troop numbers required to defend our nations. Commonwealth citizens who have stepped forward to fill the gaps and to serve in the country’s armed forces deserve to be rewarded, but it seems as though we punish them instead.

The Government must reconsider the income requirements for Commonwealth serving personnel. The minimum income requirement has been mentioned by Jim Shannon, who talked about the requirement for an income of £18,600 for a spouse and the additional costs of £3,800 for the first child and £2,400 for additional children. If we look at the military pay scales and assume that Commonwealth members enter at the lowest rate, it could take up to six years before they earn the £24,800 required for a typical family to join them. The Government’s current advice to Commonwealth personnel earning below the thresholds is simply: “If you cannot meet the requirement, you are advised not to bring your family over.” We can surely do better than that.

The application fee for veterans to settle with their families has more than doubled in the past four years to £2,389 per person, so we are talking about nearly £10,000 for a typical family of four. Those figures are simply not attainable for people earning £24,800 per annum.

In addition to the Commonwealth personnel here, the families living in the Commonwealth are greatly affected. My hon. Friend Drew Hendry recently campaigned for his constituent, Denis Omondi, a British citizen and a serving solider in the British Army, who was denied a visa for his daughter in Kenya, for whom he had uncontested custody, to come and live with him. Thankfully, after my hon. Friend’s campaign, the Home Office made a U-turn on its decision to keep them apart, but such cases are not unique. We need to deal with such issues and look at them in a more serious manner.

Photo of Richard Graham Richard Graham Conservative, Gloucester

One of the things that has surprised me most about the letter campaign—the hon. Lady kindly signed the letter—is the number of Fijian servicemen who have logged on to my Facebook page and expressed strong support for the campaign. Pockets of servicemen and women from different countries are much more focused on this issue than many of us in the House realise, so I support what she says.

Photo of Carol Monaghan Carol Monaghan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Armed Forces and Veterans), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Education)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. We could also mention the Hong Kong service personnel caught up in this. They are not able to apply even for British citizenship, despite the service they have given to our nations’ armed forces. There are many examples.

Jamie Stone talked about his personal experience of Commonwealth personnel. I want to add to his story and say that the person who taught me to cook curry properly was a Commonwealth submariner from India, who spent an afternoon showing me how to mix and crush and all sorts. Unfortunately, I do not have much time these days to make a proper curry, but I remember it well.

The Minister for Immigration said last month:

“it would be unfair if certain applicants or routes benefited from free applications or reduced fees” at the expense of others. Such inflexibility does not reflect well on the Government. Veterans from the Commonwealth should not be prevented from settling in the UK, or forced into debt by ridiculous fees, which the Government should commit to abolishing. It is not up to them to get veterans into debt and not up to veterans’ charities to help veterans pay the fees, which simply should not exist.

We know that the Home Office is in need of drastic reform. The Minister has mentioned that he does not like talk of the hostile environment, so I will not refer to it directly, but I will say that we have had immigration scandals that have highlighted the deficiencies in our system. Scrapping the income requirements for Commonwealth armed forces personnel is an essential place to start. As I said at the start, it is a no-brainer.

We have a debt of gratitude to the people who have chosen to serve. That, coupled with the positive contribution that Commonwealth veterans will make in our society, means we should ensure that indefinite leave to remain is granted without charge, for both personnel and their families. All of us here this afternoon are keen to hear how the Minister is collaborating with the Home Office to ensure that that takes place. I look forward to hearing his contribution and what positive steps are being taken to sort out this—I will not call it an injustice—serious issue for our Commonwealth personnel.

Photo of Gerald Jones Gerald Jones Shadow Minister (Defence) 3:18 pm, 8th May 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon. Mr Sharma. I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Sweeney on securing the debate and on his detailed and compassionate opening contribution. I pay tribute to all Members who have spoken for their thoughtful and constructive contributions, and in some cases for sharing very personal stories about the issue. Those include the hon. Members for Gloucester (Richard Graham), for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone), and my hon. Friend Mr Dhesi.

It is fully acknowledged that throughout the 20th century and through to the present, British armed forces have recruited from Commonwealth nations to support British intervention in major global conflicts, from world war one to the present day. Those personnel continue to provide important and significant support to our armed forces. As we have heard, statistics from the Royal British Legion show that more than 6,000 personnel from foreign and Commonwealth countries currently serve in the UK armed forces. That number is increasing year on year to fill a range of technical and specialist roles. In 2018 the British Army employed approximately 4.5%—5,290—of its personnel from foreign and Commonwealth nations. There are many Commonwealth recruits in the Army, as well as in the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force. Labour Members believe that all armed forces personnel, regardless of their background, should be treated equally, and it is therefore extremely disappointing that Commonwealth soldiers are being treated unfairly by that Government. I shall return to that point.

The Government have done nowhere near enough to tackle the ongoing recruitment crisis, and given their recent decision to recruit more Commonwealth personnel, they must urgently review the barriers to recruitment and retention. Commonwealth personnel are exempt from UK immigration controls throughout their service, but once they are discharged that exemption is removed. Former personnel who wish to stay in the UK indefinitely, whether with their family or alone, must apply for indefinite leave to remain. As the Minister rightly pointed out, in alignment with civilian applicants for indefinite leave to remain, veterans are subject to a number of requirements, including four years’ qualifying residency in the UK, which is obtainable via four years’ service in the armed forces and a non-refundable fee of £2,389.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East and others have outlined, there are difficulties with the immigration rules because a foreign worker must earn £18,600 to apply to bring their spouse to the UK. The minimum income requirement to bring over one child is £22,400, with additional costs for each child thereafter. A soldier’s basic pay after training starts at £18,600 a year, but in many circumstances that income is unachievable, as the majority of Commonwealth troops in our armed forces are in the lower ranks. As my hon. Friend outlined, the Army Families Federation believes that around 500 troops have been affected by those circumstances, and that Commonwealth soldiers are not routinely aware of such issues when they join the UK armed forces. The Government need to consider that issue sympathetically, to show our country’s gratitude to those Commonwealth personnel who have served.

A recent Defence Committee report recognised that the vast majority of veterans leave the services with no ill effects. It also noted, however, that although the Government have made improvements to the care available to personnel leaving the armed forces,

“some serving personnel veterans and their families who need mental health care are still being completely failed by the system”.

One important welfare issue that particularly affects foreign and Commonwealth personnel is that of non-freezing cold injuries. Ministry of Defence guidance warns that

“African-Caribbeans may be at greater risk than Caucasians” of non-freezing cold injuries, and states that commanders should have a heightened awareness of the higher risk. Despite that guidance, many Commonwealth soldiers continue to feel let down. The Government are fully aware that African-Caribbean soldiers are more susceptible to such injuries, but they do not always provide them with a better kit or remove those susceptible from exercise when they complain of cold symptoms, and neither do they nor undertake hand and foot inspections at the time or when weather conditions are bad. Injured soldiers are often discharged, and in many cases they struggle to retrain for jobs that they can manage with permanent cold sensitisation.

In 2015-16 the Government paid out £1.49 million to servicemen suffering from that condition under the armed forces compensation scheme, which was a 20% rise on the previous year. Since 2006, 1,235 armed forces personnel have received compensation from the Government for such injuries. Last year saw a 16.7% rise in the total number of service personnel awarded compensation by the Government, and over the past 10 years claims have risen by a staggering 1,650%—evidence of the scale of the problem and the need for something to be done.

Labours Members are also concerned about the disparity in war gratuity payments given to black soldiers of the East Africa Force, which was formed in 1940, and their white counterparts. There are reports that white soldiers were paid up to three times more than their black counterparts. The shadow Secretaries of State for Defence, for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, and for International Development have written to the Government calling for an investigation into the issue, an apology for those affected and—most importantly—for the veterans to be paid what they are entitled to before it is too late. The issue has also been raised a number of times by my hon. Friend Fabian Hamilton. He received a reply from the Ministry of Defence that simply passed the buck to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which had previously passed it to the MOD. Disappointingly, no response has been received by those shadow Secretaries of State.

This issue rightly causes anger and concern, and there is also a sense of urgency, given the age and relatively small number of surviving veterans affected. All these years later, it is a disgrace to discover that the reward for that brave service was so callously calibrated according to the colour of those soldiers’ skin. I hope that the Minister will provide clarity on the issue. It is important to work together on a cross-party basis and to do everything possible as a country to repair that shameful episode.

All Members will recognise the immense debt that we owe to all personnel, veterans and their families, and the need to ensure that they have the best possible support. The Government must do more to protect all soldiers, but they should pay particular attention to Commonwealth soldiers who suffer from the issues I have raised this afternoon. A number of important and legitimate concerns and questions have been raised today, and I hope that the Minister will provide clarity and assurances on those, and show that the Government are not passing the buck for historical grievances that affect Commonwealth soldiers. The small number of surviving veterans who were affected by racially-based disparities in the payments given to them in the second world war deserve an apology at the very least, as well as a thorough investigation into and acknowledgement of their unfair treatment.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence 3:27 pm, 8th May 2019

It is a pleasure and honour to respond to this important debate, and I congratulate Mr Sweeney on securing it. I also thank him for his service. In this country we do not pay tribute often enough to those who put on the uniform and serve their country—perhaps we are shy compared with the Americans—so I am grateful for that. The hon. Gentleman brings a level of expertise and understanding to this debate, which is very welcome.

As the Prime Minister did today during Prime Minister’s questions, I wish to pay tribute to Guardsman Mathew Talbot, who was sadly killed on duty in the Liwonde national park in Malawi, where he had an important role in the counter-poaching efforts in which we are involved. His work was a reflection of the symbiotic relationship that we have with so many Commonwealth countries with which we work, not just on security aspects but on the other detailed challenges that we face, including poaching. This is a very sad moment, and our thoughts and prayers are very much with Mathew’s friends and family. It is a reflection of the bond that we have with nations of the Commonwealth when dealing with modern-day problems.

The hon. Member for Glasgow North East spoke of the history of the Commonwealth countries, and of the bonds that go back to before the East India Company and have matured into something very important that goes beyond trade; it is the strength of trust that we have. It is a relationship that we value very much, to the point that we invite them to work with us—to be in the trenches, on the factory floors and in the diplomatic corridors—and serve together for the greater good, and to stand up to ill across the world.

I look back on my own service. The first sergeant who I came across in the Royal Green Jackets, Sergeant Morrell, was a big, burly character from Fiji. He could do things with a Northern Ireland glove that kept discipline in line in our platoon. It would probably not be allowed nowadays, but it was nevertheless a fantastic introduction to the contribution that the Commonwealth made. Another person in my platoon was from St. Lucia. He was a wonderful character of the same size as Dwayne Johnson, also known as The Rock, who is a big, burly actor in all the movies at the moment. My colleague was his own deterrent: whenever he stood behind me when I had a disagreement, things were somehow resolved very quickly.

It is important that we begin this debate by paying tribute and giving thanks to our Commonwealth friends for what they bring to this country, which is all the more reason why we need to get this particular issue absolutely right. I will answer some of the general questions that were asked and then dive into the detailed matter, if I may.

The hon. Member for Glasgow North East touched on the mental aspect, which is something that is quite important to me. I hope he acknowledges the advancement that we have made on stoicism and the difficulties we have in the armed forces environment of talking about mental health. Our new strategy is about recognising that it is all right to put one’s hand up and say there might be something wrong with one’s mind, as one does if there is something wrong physically; greater prevention in the resilience that we build up in preparing people for the battlefields and theatres of operations in which they might be involved; and better detection, so that we can treat people and get them back to the frontline without their fearing that putting their hand up might affect their career prospects. Although the hon. Gentleman raises this matter, I hope that we have made progress. More work needs to be done, and we look forward to sharing some of the work we have done with the arrival of Mental Health Awareness Week next week.

The hon. Gentleman also spoke of friends and family, which perhaps goes to the heart of this matter. Individuals from the Commonwealth come here with the anticipation that perhaps one day they might wish to bring their families. Questions then arise, because financial challenges are suddenly imposed. I know that one of the reasons people choose to depart the armed forces is the eventual pressures on the family unit, including children at school and spouses. We are working to ensure that the welfare support we provide to people in uniform extends to the wider family support unit, which is so critical.

Hon. Members touched on matters that are not the purview of the Ministry of Defence, which I think is recognised—for example, the Home Office has responded to Windrush. I hope he recognises that I cannot respond to such questions. I will do my best to answer some of them in the time we have. If I cannot, I commit to writing to hon. Members with the details, should that be helpful.

I do not understand why my hon. Friend Richard Graham is still on the Back Benches, because the knowledge that he brings to debates is phenomenal, which I hope is recognised. He spoke about his background in Kenya, and I know he also spent a bit of time in the far east—he is a real internationalist. Every time he adds value to these debates, people listen. He made the most important point: this is not just about our armed forces, but applies to anybody who wants to come and work in our NHS or for the police. The very same challenges exist in those arenas. We have to recognise that other Departments will be queuing up to say, “I’ll have some of that too, please, if you don’t mind.” That is the wider context of this debate, so I was very pleased that he raised that point.

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk Conservative, Cheltenham

The Minister is giving a powerful response, as I would expect. He is right to say that there is a risk of a floodgates argument. Does he agree that people who put their lives on the line in the service of this country are in a special category, which ought to be reflected in the way their visa applications are dealt with?

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

I do not want to kill my own argument, so of course I am going to say that my hon. Friend makes a powerful point. We need to recognise that people joining our police forces or fire services would claim something similar. We need to find a solution that is amenable to all, but which also recognises—this issue was raised earlier—the challenges for recruitment and retention. I will not deny those. At the moment, we are doing better at recruitment, but not so well at retention, which is partly to do with improving the actual contract that we have with people to ensure that we retain them for as long as possible.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester also mentioned the campaign that the Royal British Legion has done, and it was a pleasure to meet Charles Byrne yesterday to discuss these and other issues. I am very grateful for the work the RBL is doing to highlight this issue.

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Armed Forces)

Can I press the Minister on that point? In my own contribution—I did not put it quite as eloquently as I should have done—I said that if somebody at the bottom could see a career path that would take them up, it might improve the chances of retention.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and I will come on to address such issues. He allows me to jump ahead and thank him for his contribution and the valuable point that he makes. People who arrive here tend to be singles—individuals on their own. They have signed up, but their circumstances might change. What happens then? It is a communication issue as well. We need to make sure that those who are embarking on this journey and signing up to join our armed forces are fully aware of what is happening. We have found out, particularly from the families’ federations, that they arrive here unaware of the financial consequences, which is the first step we are trying to resolve.

My good friend, Jim Shannon, mentioned the role of the Gurkhas. They are not part of the Commonwealth, but we have a unique relationship that has developed over time. Through various campaigns, they have gained parity with our armed forces, which is very important indeed. He also mentioned that everybody who serves in Her Majesty’s armed forces deserves the gratitude of the nation, and I could not agree more.

Carol Monaghan spoke of the importance of the families’ federations. I meet with them on a regular basis and will be seeing them tomorrow. I think we are meeting some in the near future to talk about aspects of the charities’ work. The three families’ federations give some of the most important input I receive—a reality check on what life is like in our armed forces. It is critical that we keep that communication going.

Photo of Richard Graham Richard Graham Conservative, Gloucester

In terms of the nation at large understanding the scale of the Commonwealth contribution to our armed forces, would the Ministry of Defence consider creating a digital map of the some 4,700 Commonwealth servicemen and women, and the different armed forces or units they are in, to give an example of the scale of what I think is roughly 5% of the Army alone?

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

That would certainly be an interesting reflection of the importance of the contribution they make. I think the current number stands at about 4,500. There are also 3,000 Gurkhas—as I indicated earlier, they are an incredibly formidable and extremely professional force, and I had the privilege to serve with many of them.

The hon. Member for Glasgow North West spoke of the Capita contract. We have debated this many times, and it is a concern of ours as well. I am genuinely concerned, because I fear that there is a gulf between our capability and the threats we face, which needs to be recognised if it is to be filled. We need to ensure that we retain and recruit, and that we procure the necessary equipment, in order to close the gap. Given that we have a spending review coming up, that is exactly what the new Defence Secretary is focusing on. I hope hon. Members will be supportive of an increased defence budget.

I spoke of our historic relationship from a military service perspective. At Sandhurst, Lympstone, Dartmouth or the staff college at Shrivenham, one can see myriad representatives from the full spectrum of Commonwealth countries. Those people are not just in our armed forces, but also train officers, for example, and work alongside their British comrades, which is exactly as it should be. British personnel also go to staff colleges in other countries around the world. At any one time, a number of British officers are at the staff college in India, for example. That is an important advancement of our relationship.

Another reflection of our gratitude is the number of Victoria Crosses awarded over the years. Some 280 Victoria Crosses have been awarded to people from 13 different Commonwealth countries, including William Hall from Canada in 1857, for his contribution in India, and more recently, Johnson Beharry, who was in Al-Amarah in Iraq in 2004. That shows that once they are in uniform and working alongside us, they meet the same standards, values, professionalism and bravery that we expect from our own troops.

The terms and conditions for Commonwealth soldiers, sailors and air personnel are exactly the same as for their British counterparts, as are their pay, accommodation and service eligibility criteria. They fulfil a wide range of roles, whether technical or from an infantry perspective, which is why it is so important, in this day and age, to recognise that and give thanks to our Commonwealth citizens.

Commonwealth citizens with five years of residency are eligible to join the armed forces—between 2013 and 2015, 650 joined. Last November, the Government announced plans to significantly expand the number of Commonwealth personnel to 1,350, which reflects the challenge of recruiting in the UK. That required the removal of the five-year UK residency criterion for Commonwealth participants.

Photo of Richard Graham Richard Graham Conservative, Gloucester

The Minister makes a good point about those numbers. I understand that every year, roughly 400 Commonwealth servicemen and women apply for indefinite leave to remain. If the cost for a family of four is roughly £10,000, the total cost would be around half a million pounds. Although that is a lot of money for any individual, it is a relatively small figure in the overall scheme of Government spending, so I hope that the Minister agrees that whatever judgment the Home Office reaches, it will not be because of financial pressure.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point, with which I was going to conclude. We are not talking about huge sums of money to rectify the problem—it will not completely break the bank, but it will require answers. At the moment, the ball is in the court of the Home Office, which is looking at the issue, but he suggests exactly how we would like it to go.

The immigration status has been mentioned by a number of hon. Members. Non-UK personnel are granted an exemption from immigration control by the Home Office once they have joined, and can come and go from the UK without restriction for the purposes of their duty. The exemption is valid for the entirety of their regular service. Commonwealth personnel can apply to naturalise, using their time in the UK and while serving overseas towards the five-year UK residency criterion. That is not offered to other groups living and working in the UK, so it distinguishes us from police and NHS recruitment. Non-naturalised personnel can apply for indefinite leave to remain if they have completed a minimum of four years’ service upon discharge. Applications can be made up to 10 weeks before discharge, so indefinite leave to remain can normally be granted quickly following the last day of service.

The minimum income requirement was also raised by a number of hon. Members. The Home Office introduced new family migration rules, including a minimum income threshold—now known as the minimum income requirement—that individuals need to meet to sponsor visas for non-EU dependants to enter the UK. The minimum income requirement is £18,600 for a spouse or civil partner. That rises to £22,400 for a spouse or civil partner plus a child, and further £2,400 is required for each individual child beyond that. The minimum income requirement is designed to ensure that sponsors can support their dependants financially, so that they do not become a burden on the UK taxpayer. The requirement has been tested and upheld by the Supreme Court.

The starting salary after training for regular soldiers is £18,850, which is above the minimum income requirement. Any individual soldier who comes here and passes their basic training is not affected by the minimum income requirement, because they earn the right amount of money. The problem is if they want to bring their other half or any children—that is the dilemma that we face. For lower-ranked soldiers, sailors and air personnel, it can take up to four years for an individual salary to meet the minimum income requirement to bring a child to the UK. I agree with hon. Members that that is too long and needs to be addressed.

The immigration issues that impact on our personnel and their families have been raised as a key priority under the armed forces covenant, which we should recognise. Progress is being monitored through meetings, such as those of the Covenant Reference Group and the Ministerial Covenant and Veterans Board. We have raised the matter at every necessary level and are in discussions with the Home Office to explore whether armed forces personnel can be exempted from minimum income requirements to allow non-UK and non-EU citizens to bring family members to the UK, and whether the costs of visas during service and applying for settlement after service can be waived.

I cannot make it clearer than that. That is what I want to achieve and what we need to do if we are to meet our moral obligation and sense of gratitude to those who serve alongside us in peace and in war, to keep our country and their countries safe, and to keep our adversaries at bay. I will do my best to review what hon. Members have said and will write to them. I hope I have been clear about where the MOD and I sit on this issue. We will work with the Home Office to conclude the matter in a positive manner.

Photo of Paul Sweeney Paul Sweeney Shadow Minister (Scotland) 3:48 pm, 8th May 2019

I congratulate all right hon. and hon. Members on the excellent, insightful and, in some cases, very moving contributions they have made about their own experiences. The key is recognition of the service of Commonwealth soldiers, Gurkhas and others, who serve this country with great gallantry and bravery. The notion that their service or welfare could be undermined by the restrictions and impositions of the Home Office must be addressed with the greatest urgency. It is important that this House has recognised those concerns, and I welcome the spirit of the Minister’s approach to the debate as well as his sentiments.

Richard Graham noted the potential knock-on effects on other Government Departments—it relates to the police and the national health service in particular—and how special exemptions for the armed forces might bleed over into challenges. I strongly echo his sentiment: the armed forces are a special case and, frankly, we as a nation should have the common sense to recognise the unique nature of their contribution and the gallant nature of their service, which is quite unique, compared even with the police. We ought to introduce special exemptions as a matter of urgency.

The Minister said that he is in discussions with the Home Office about the income thresholds. That is a welcome measure—to everyone—but a wider concern is the continuing cost of visas. It seems unacceptable to me that a veteran bringing, say, three dependants into the UK can be subject to a cost of £10,000. That seems thoroughly unreasonable. We would welcome the Minister considering the recommendation to amend the immigration and nationality fees regulations as a short-term measure to exclude recent members of the armed forces and their dependants from such costs. We are talking about some 500 people a year, which would not be a massive or onerous cost.

The Royal British Legion has stated that it spends thousands and thousands of pounds, from its own money, supporting veterans with those costs, and I am sure that many of those who donate to the RBL will be frustrated to learn that the money they donate goes back to the Home Office in fees—not a particularly useful way to spend their funds. To dispense with those fees altogether would be better and more efficient. I hope that is another aspect of the Minister’s discussions with the Home Office of a more sensible approach.

I welcome the sentiments expressed today, and there has been great consensus in the Chamber about how we need to proceed. I look forward to following developments closely.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered fair treatment for Commonwealth personnel in the armed forces.