The complete opposite is the case: the change is having a detrimental effect. In the past, visiting priests would have come for two or three months perhaps, spending a couple of weeks in each parish. They would have built warm and supportive relationships and they would have come back on a regular basis. Now, those parishes have to strip back their worship schedules and many other support services that run alongside them. That is repeated across Scotland and the United Kingdom, as we hear.
The Bishops’ Conference of Scotland has said that in all the years it has sponsored priests through the tier 5 process, it has not been aware of any abuses of the system. Visiting priests are tied by religious vows to return to their home diocese at the request of their bishop, to say nothing of their own personal and family ties. Once again, the base assumption of the Home Office’s immigration rules is that the streets of mother Britannia are so paved with gold that the only reason anyone would want come here is to abscond while on their visa and sponge off the NHS and the welfare state. That is simply not the case, and it is insulting to those visitors to suggest otherwise.
What are the solutions? The simple solution would be simply to undo the change and revert to the previous system. At the very least, the Home Office, at ministerial level, must be prepare to continue to engage directly with all the stakeholders across the UK who are interested in this issue. As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East said, I believe a meeting is taking place with the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, but Ministers should be willing also to meet the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland and its representatives. I am sure that Ministers know the Catholic Church in Scotland has its own history and governance, which is distinct from that south of the border.
What is really needed is a deeper, more fundamental review of the overall immigration rules and the hostile environment. The Vote Office kindly produced an extract of the immigration rules for me, which are vast. The document comes with an erratum. With the greatest respect to the drafting officials, it is so complicated; no one could keep track of it. One correction, to the
“On page 8, for change 6A.13 where it reads, ‘…
paragraph 245ZP (f)(2) …’
it should instead read as, ‘…
paragraph 245ZP(f)(iii)(2) …’.”
I tracked that down on page 41 of a document that runs to hundreds of pages. This is what small Catholic parishes are being asked to get to grips with when trying to bring over their priests. That is why the whole system needs to be fundamentally reviewed. Other Members have touched on wider issues in the immigration and visa system. The all-party parliamentary group for Africa and the all-party parliamentary group on Malawi are to publish a report on that in a couple of weeks. I hope the Minister will confirm that his colleague the Minister for Immigration plans to attend that launch on
As I said at the start, the experience of anyone navigating this system is that it is designed with deliberate hostility, suspicion and to minimise the chances of a successful application. That is seriously beginning to harm the global reputation of a Government who at the same time are spending millions on a campaign to say that we are open for business and that Britain is great. For a middle eastern academic trying to come to a university conference, an author from Belarus trying to get to the Edinburgh book festival or a west African roots band wanting to play at Celtic Connections, it is not great and we are not open for business. Now, it is not great for a simple priest who wants to come and help communities pray for a few months over the summer. Those are all real, verifiable examples.
All Ministers will be wondering over the next few weeks what their legacies will be. Here is an opportunity for the Home Office to reverse this policy and launch a wider review of the overall visa system. Otherwise, the legacy will be one of shutting the door, in pursuit of an ideological and arbitrary net migration target, perpetuating a hostile environment that has done nothing but damage this country’s economy, culture, society and global reputation.