It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I congratulate my hon. Friend David Linden on securing this important debate. The removal of tier 5 visas for visiting clergy was first brought to my attention by my friend Monsignor Peter Smith of St Paul’s Parish in Whiteinch. Monsignor Smith was part of the original team that met the Government as the tiers were introduced. At that time, the Government suggested that there was no need for tier 5 visas. However, Monsignor Smith argued strongly for having access to tier 5 as well as tier 2. He pointed out that not all our visitors wish to be on the path of leave to remain, as tier 2 allows.
Priests who come here are all incardinated in their own home diocese. We do not want to change or disturb that. The tier 5 route allows us to have priests here for short terms. As the number of clergy decreases, for whatever reason, more is expected of the few we have. Priests often have responsibility for several parishes, so they are battling to provide spiritual leadership and to administer God’s work. Monsignor Smith himself is seriously ill—in any other profession, he probably would not work. But we are not talking about regular work. These people are living out their vocation and dedicating their lives to their faith communities.
In the Catholic Church we have many lay people who are stepping up to take on some of the responsibility and provide some sort of service when priests are extremely stretched, but they cannot provide the sacraments, celebrate mass or perform baptisms. We need priests, but when they are stretched to the limit we have to look at other ways. Even the priests who are serving in such a way must have time to refresh, reflect and renew themselves spiritually. Breaks from the parish are therefore essential to enable their continued service. The tier 5 visa allows archdioceses to get priests to the UK to allow our own priests time to recharge.
Many visiting priests are already in the EU as postgraduate students at universities in Rome or Louvain, so it is less expensive to bring them here to help. These priests are keen to experience more of Europe while they are away from home, and it suits parishes to be able to have their services during the summer vacation. They regularly go to the same parish, year after year, and build up a relationship with the parishioners. It is a win-win situation.
I understand the desire for good English for tier 2, but visiting priests are here for only a short time and congregations are so thankful to have them that any potential language difficulties are simply not an issue. Bear in mind that mass used to be said in Latin and most people had no understanding of that.
The tier 5 priest is a visitor to the parish. They bring a vision of the church beyond our borders and the parishioners love having them. They cope with less than perfect English—although, in many cases these priests probably have better English than myself and some of my colleagues—because it is only for a few weeks and not a permanent arrangement. Everything that the parishioners gain from having that priest outweighs any potential difficulties. Tier 5 visas need English of a lesser standard than that required for tier 2 visas.
I had a letter from a constituent recently who accused the SNP of being anti-faith— specifically anti-Catholic—as a result of these visa changes. I politely pointed out that much as we would love powers over immigration to be devolved to the Scottish Government, these ill thought out visa changes are the work of this Tory Government. I direct my constituent’s comments to the Minister and ask: are these changes simply incompetence, or are the Government now deliberately targeting Christian faith communities with their hostile environment? That is how it appears.
“These changes align our visa arrangements with the Government’s wider commitment to building strong integrated communities.”
Can the Minister explain how depriving Christians of their faith leaders could possibly lead to strong, integrated communities?
The Minister for Immigration has repeatedly said that tier 2 visas are a possibility, but we have heard why that is not suitable. The English language requirement, along with the increased cost, makes this utterly unsustainable for most parishes that are already financially stretched. Without the presence of tier 5 priests over the summer, many of our priests will be deprived of their time to recharge and many parishioners will be deprived of services. It will come to a point that we will simply have to close the parish while the priest is on holiday.
Parishes are more than just a faith community; for many people, particularly the elderly and the vulnerable, they are a vital lifeline. I think of my own elderly parents, because their church is such an important part of their life; it is what gets them out of the house in the morning and gives them great purpose. Without it, serious problems with loneliness and isolation for many elderly people would be caused.
Ultimately, we need both types of visa: one for temporary summer placements that are usually repeated for a short period of time over a number of years, with no path to leave to remain; and one for more lengthy placements, where tier 2 would be more appropriate. The UK says that it champions freedom of religious practice, but the removal of tier 5 visas for visiting priests calls that into question. How can Catholics fully practise their faith when mass cannot be celebrated because of these policies? We have seen many groups targeted in this hostile environment. Surely this Government are not now targeting God.