The hon. Lady is right to put on the record the concerns of her local gurdwara, and I am glad that she has been able to represent it.
I mentioned some of the reasons why those in the clergy might be required to be away from the parish. It is not unusual and is perhaps best demonstrated in the situation of my own church, Parkhead Nazarene, where our senior pastor, Ian Wills, is currently away on a three-month sabbatical. We are blessed to have a wider pastoral staff team—Shelley, Dave and John are keeping things ticking over—but sadly that luxury is unavailable to other congregations or denominations.
Catholic parishes and dioceses regularly used the tier 5 religious worker visa route for priests to come to the UK on supply placements. That is important because a supply placement priest would typically lead the celebration of holy mass, including the celebration of the sacrament of marriage. He would also lead funerals, including the support of bereaved family members, and would routinely visit sick and elderly members of the local community. It is important that the Minister realises that those tasks do not simply stop when the existing parish priest falls ill or goes for a well-earned holiday or religious retreat.
Surely we would all agree that, in an age when social isolation and loneliness are increasing, the church is so often the place where people can gather as a community, to support each other and engage in friendship. The church is not only a place of worship, but a hub for the local community, providing both spiritual and practical support to the sick, the elderly and the vulnerable. Parishes may host tea and coffee mornings, cafés, youth clubs, pensioner clubs, soup kitchens, food banks and toddler groups. They provide a safe space for counselling and addiction meetings—Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, for example—as well as financial support for struggling individuals and families, especially through voluntary groups such as the Society of St Vincent de Paul.
Clearly, without the support of visiting priests, Catholic parishes will simply be unable to provide the present level of service to the local community, and that would be a crying shame. The Bishops’ Conference is crystal clear that much of the positive work in and around Catholic parishes, which engender a great sense of community, is seriously compromised by the changes to the immigration rules. My colleagues will elaborate on that point. The new arrangements more than double the cost incurred by parishes, making supply cover effectively unaffordable. Basically, the cost of applications will go from £244 to £610, which nets an extra £366 per application for the Home Office.
The tier 2 minister of religion visa route also imposes strict language requirements. I saw in the press this morning that the Home Office is putting a lot of emphasis on the argument about the English language. Even priests who undertook seminary formation in English may still be required to sit an English language test before coming on supply placements. That strikes me as bizarre.
The British Government’s changes will quite simply have both practical and financial implications for parishes. The Home Office needs to understand that visiting clergy not only allow the local parish community to continue to function, but benefit and enrich the whole community, which gains from a cultural exchange and the sharing of knowledge and experience by priests or clergy from other parts of the world. When I visit parishes, more often than not I hear about communities being educated about life in other countries. That open up avenues for local parishes to support communities in need.
I am somewhat intrigued about why this draconian change for visiting clergy was made. As far as I understand, there have been no problems or abuses of the system by churches bringing supply placement clergy to the UK. It is not just the Catholic Church that has expressed concerns about the change; the Church of Scotland is also urging the British Government to reverse the decision. The Rt Rev. Dr Susan Brown, who convenes the Church’s World Mission Council, said that she had been “shocked” by this “retrograde step”, and is on record as saying:
“The benefit of the time spent in the UK is not just to the individual or to our churches but whole communities. Having the opportunity to have a minister from one of our partner Churches overseas brings a wealth of learning to people about faith and about global issues. Scotland is a welcoming country and we believe that the Church of Scotland can play a great part in this, but if the UK government continues to thwart efforts to invite people to spend time in Scotland for legitimate reasons by making the process more difficult and more expensive then we will be the ones to lose out. We strongly urge the UK government to reverse this change in the visa system.”
This is probably not the Minister’s natural brief, but he is standing in today, so can he explain why those changes have been introduced? Would he at least concede that they have led to an unintended consequence for local parishes, and does he acknowledge the difficulty that many dioceses now find themselves in? I gather that the Minister for Immigration has agreed to meet faith leaders early next week. That is genuinely very welcome news, and I hope that the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland and others are welcome to send a delegate to that meeting.
The Minister knows from the amount of casework that I raise with the Home Office that I have profound differences with the Government on how I would wish to see our immigration system run. I freely acknowledge and accept that, and tempted though I am, I am not going to enter into a wider ideological debate about the hostile environment, “Go home” vans, or any of that stuff. However, surely we can all agree that the changes to the religious worker visas have led to unintended consequences, which are in turn leaving parishes and dioceses in an incredibly, and unnecessarily, difficult position. It is within the Home Office’s power to reverse this retrograde decision, and—as I am sure the Minister is about to hear—I, along with other colleagues, call upon him to do so.