It is good to see you in the chair, Mr Gapes. I thank my hon. Friend David Linden and the hon. Members for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton), and for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Ged Killen) for securing the debate—it is truly a cross-party campaign as well as an interfaith campaign. I pay tribute to all hon. Members who have taken part today. John Howell made a particularly brave speech, but I say gently to him that I think he slightly missed the point. His argument was that the changes that the Government have introduced have not been too bad. The whole point, that all hon. Members have focused on, is that there has been absolutely nothing at all to justify the changes being made in the first place.
As hon. Members across the House have already explained, the tier 5 religious visas were operating perfectly smoothly for the many churches and religious organisations that relied upon them, until these unexpected changes were made in December last year. As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East said, what we are talking about is churches bringing in overseas ministers and priests a couple of times a year—perhaps in the summer, or at Easter or Christmas—to allow local religious leaders to take congregations on a trip, to go on retreat, to recover from ill health or even just to have a holiday.
We are talking about not only Christian churches, but other religions too. I have heard directly about a Buddhist temple and a Sikh gurdwara that have been negatively impacted. The hon. Members for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) and for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) made important interventions about how important these routes are for gurdwaras in their constituencies.
“will have a vast impact on me and our parishioners here, as we rely on Father Alex Mpaggi coming to allow me a holiday in July and to accompany 50 parishioners to Lourdes in France, also in July.”
Those are the nuts and bolts of what these changes have almost destroyed.
This is about the support that visiting priests and celebrants can provide. It is important to say, as hon. Members have done today, that visiting clergy in themselves enrich the life of the churches that they work at with their new ideas and approaches, and by sharing knowledge of different cultures. That point was made by the Rt Rev. Susan Brown from the Church of Scotland, as quoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East in his speech.
As my hon. Friend Carol Monaghan said, over the course of time close relationships are built up between parishes and priests. For example, Father Mpaggi has been coming to St. Lucy’s in Cumbernauld since 2013. When he comes he leads worship, carries out the celebrations of holy mass, including marriage, and conducts funerals and supports the bereaved. All of that is now put in jeopardy.
As other Members have explained, churches and other places of worship are not only about worship, although that is obviously their central function; they also form important parts of their communities, and indeed are communities in themselves. It is about the youth clubs, the coffee mornings, the pensioner clubs, the mother and toddler groups, the food banks and the soup kitchens. The same visiting clergy also help to carry out those important functions.
These arrangements were working well, but now they are not, because the changes that the Immigration Minister introduced are already having a negative impact. The Home Office has more than doubled the cost to parishes. As Father Campbell has told me, that means “making supply-cover effectively unaffordable”. He expressed concern about the impact that the changes will have on the health of local priests if they cannot afford to bring in the support that they need and have relied on in recent years. Those costs arise not only from the visa fees, but from unnecessary English tests. As Father Campbell points out:
“Even priests who have undertaken seminary formation in English may be required to sit an English language test before coming on supply-placements. This will have both practical and financial implications”.
My first big question for the Minister is: why? Where is the evidence, as Ged Killen put it? Why did the rules have to change? What is the justification? Is the problem so significant that it merits creating all these other problems for our churches?
The Immigration Minister’s written statement, letters and answers firstly point to some sort of problem with ministers of religion coming over and taking on roles such as preaching and leading congregations while not being able to speak a good standard of English. Her various responses have also referred to the need for integration. So far, I find those explanations flimsy and utterly unconvincing.
As one of the 100 or so constituents who contacted me said:
“I have attended services in Synagogue where the language used was Hebrew and in other faiths where the language used was Hindi, Guajarati or whatever. That may not suit the British Government but it is a reality”.
In short, is it really any business of the Government if religious celebrants spend short periods here and preach in different languages? The shadow Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Walsall South, made that point very strongly, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West.
Similarly, integration of the religious workers, which the Immigration Minister referred to in her various letter, is not really relevant here. As the shadow Leader of the House also pointed out, nobody is proposing that these people will live here permanently or become settled here. In fact, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West powerfully pointed out, the integration argument is completely the other way round, because community integration and social solidarity are undermined if these religious workers can no longer come to do all the work they have previously.
As a spokesperson for the Bishop’s Conference of Scotland said today:
“Catholic parishes, without the support of visiting priests, would be unable to provide the level of service to the local community that it does at present, such as Masses, weddings, funerals, comforting the bereaved, tending to the sick and needy, and many other works of charity including food banks and soup kitchens.”.
I have seen no good reason for these changes, and certainly none that justifies creating all these other consequences.
Now, let us be incredibly kind and imagine for a minute that the Minister manages to explain today why exactly these changes have been made in this particular way. That is being very optimistic, but in any event it would still not be an end to the matter. Even if, having listened to the Minister, we took the view that reform was necessary, surely there must be another way to accommodate the needs of all the churches we have heard from without undermining whatever strange purpose the Home Office is pursuing? Surely it cannot be beyond the wit of the Home Office to come up with something that is a better fit, and a more reasonably priced fit, for those ministers and priests who come just for very short stays to support the work of our churches from time to time?
Tier 2 is not designed with these scenarios in mind, and neither is the new tier 5. Nor, I believe, is the business visitor route, which is not even something that the Home Office has until this point prayed in aid. Why not offer a low-cost two or three-year visa, for example, which does not have the same stringent requirements regarding English qualifications, which allows applicants to work as ministers or to lead worship, but which sets a maximum stay of a certain number of weeks or months in any calendar year to prevent any circumvention of the tier 2 requirements? Surely the Government could work up something along those lines?
As the shadow Leader of the House said, it is important that that is done as a matter of urgency, even on an interim basis, because this is harming parishes and other religious organisations right now, this very summer. I join the calls on the Home Office to engage in discussion about how the impact of these changes can be reversed, or at the very least ameliorated. I also join the calls for Ministers to meet representatives of churches, including churches in Scotland, to discuss the impact that these rules are having.
Finally, I turn to the point made by my hon. Friend Patrick Grady, powerfully flagging up the poor consultation and policy-making process. That takes me back to one of my hobby-horses, which is how we go about making immigration policy. Is this not the perfect example of why leaving it to the Home Office does not work? I dare say officials believed that they had thought through all the implications, but they had not. Meanwhile, MPs were barely aware that changes had been made, and if they were aware, they were, as my hon. Friend pointed out, completely unable to decipher what they meant or what the implications would be.
That is why, when the Immigration Bill was in Committee, I proposed an exciting, shiny immigration equivalent of the Social Security Advisory Committee, so that experts could scrutinise Home Office proposals, flag up concerns, allow others to give input and give MPs advice on what needed further scrutiny. I was sad that my proposals did not have the Committee as excited as I was. Seriously, though, we do need to think how we go about consulting and scrutinising immigration rule changes.
In conclusion, I again commend hon. Friends and colleagues for bringing this debate on an important issue. I hope that the Home Office will listen and provide a better route for visiting priests and ministers to keep coming and carrying out the vital temporary work that they do. But, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North said, if we had a better system of scrutiny, we could hopefully have avoided these mess-ups happening in the first place.