It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes.
Since we have just heard from John Howell about women priests, I take this opportunity to place on record my congratulations to the Reverend Rose Hudson-Wilkin on her appointment as Bishop of Dover—our loss but most definitely the Church of England’s gain down in Dover.
I congratulate my hon. Friend David Linden on securing this debate. I was happy to support his bid at the Backbench Business Committee. I also thank the various different campaign groups and constituents who have been raising awareness of the issue for several months now, especially those from the Catholic community who are in effect being penalised by the Government’s policy decision to change the criteria for visas for religious workers and ministers of religion.
My simple first question to the Minister is this: what is the Government’s message to the parishioners of the Immaculate Conception church on Maryhill Road in my constituency? Throughout the month of August, they will not be able to worship at their church at the usual Sunday evening mass, because the usual arrangements for cover and supply priests are no longer possible, thanks to the change of policy. Why are the UK Government, led by a professed Christian who forever speaks about the importance of faith to our culture and society, going out of their way to deny our Christian communities the right to worship? That is the direct effect of the policy change.
I will look briefly at the background, the deeper roots, specific examples—some of which we have already heard—and some possible solutions. Ministers have heard several times in recent weeks, not least from SNP Members, that despite all the rhetoric to the contrary, the evidence is clear that the hostile environment is still alive and well in the Home Office and UK Visas and Immigration. Whatever consultation the Government claim to have carried out and whatever notice they claim to have given to faith communities, it clearly was not enough, as the extent of the difficulties caused by the change has only become clear in recent months as parishes made plans for the summer.
The rationale for the changes introduced in December last year, whereby ministers of religion may no longer apply for temporary religious worker visas under tier 5 of the immigration rules, seems to be largely based on proficiency in the English language, which leads to my second question to the Minister. This was not really about Christian or Catholic ministers, was it? Looking at the detail of the policy in the explanatory notes, written statement HCWS1159 dated
“religious workers to perform roles, that include preaching and leading a congregation, without first being required to demonstrate that they speak English to an acceptable standard.”
It is pretty clear that the change is targeted at religions—one in particular, I suspect—that do not usually conduct their forms of worship in English. It stands to reason that faith communities that conduct services primarily in English would not have much to gain by bringing in preachers who are not fluent in that language.
The second aspect of the change is the 12-month cooling-off period, which clearly smacks of security concerns far more than the risk of visitors simply overstaying their permit for a few weeks or months. If the Government chose to introduce that change for security reasons, they should have the guts to make that clear. Whether or not the consequences are unintended, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East said, they are real.
We heard some specific examples; I mentioned one in my constituency and I am aware of many more across the archdiocese of Glasgow. The decision puts massive pressure on our own priests and ministers, who may miss out on the opportunity for rest, retreat or physical recuperation if they are unwell. They have to choose between their own long-term wellbeing and the provision of often vital services in their parishes, many of which reach out beyond the immediate faith or worshipping community that they serve.
I have a personal connection with three very good Malawian priest friends who are studying in Rome, Fathers Dan, Isaac and Kondwani. They first had to complete their seminary training in Malawi in English; they are probably proficient in at least than one vernacular language; they will probably have proficiency in Latin and, because they live in Rome, they will be proficient in Italian, too. They have been unable to acquire tier 5 visas this year that, in previous years, would have been routine at a cost of around £200. One of the sponsoring parishes is in the constituency of my hon. Friend Gavin Newlands—St Conval’s in Linwood. It reckons that to bring those priests over under the new process would have cost well over £1,000, between the visas and the various test and proofs required. That is totally prohibitive and leaves parishes across that diocese struggling to cope.