It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I congratulate David Linden on securing this important debate about religious workers’ visas.
For some time, the House has heard about the hostile environment, which would appear to be a hostile environment for religious ministers. The Government have cast the change as a matter of regulatory tidiness and of ensuring that religious ministers can speak English, but as Patrick Grady points out, why would a congregation that routinely conducts its services in English try to bring across a priest who did not speak English?
Religious ministers have been removed from tier 5 visas and are now obliged to apply for tier 2 visas, for which an English language proficiency test can be included in a successful application. Ministers must know, however—and have received representations to this effect—that the change is unwieldy, costly, bureaucratic and discriminatory. Ministers must have been made aware by representatives of a range of faith communities that the measures are a blockage to faith communities, to the religious ministers they need to lead them, whether temporarily or for a little longer, and to good community relations. Yet here we are with a Minister defending a policy that many in the community question.
In fact, Ministers announced this change to long-standing policy towards the end of the parliamentary Session last year. Can the Minister tell us what consultation was conducted prior to that change? What were the results of that consultation, and what risk assessments were done for Ministers by Home Office officials before the decision was taken and the policy announced? Do Ministers understand that Catholic priests, rabbis, imams and many others need holidays and cannot be on call 365 days a year, or that they have to visit loved ones or go abroad for further study? They might even get ill, and they need people to stand in for them as occasion arises.
As we have heard, the shift to tier 2 is costly, time-consuming, bureaucratic and unnecessary. We have heard about the issues with English language at tier 2, and about the fact that tier 2 visas are much more expensive than tier 5 visas and put a considerable financial burden on faith communities. As a whole, tier 2 visas are also subject to a numerical cap, which is surely folly. It means that people who we need for our economy and public services may be refused a visa solely on the grounds that the number has already been met, and religious ministers have to compete in that total.
In explaining the change of policy, Ministers have stated that:
“This change will prevent migrants from using the tier 5 Religious Worker route to fill positions as Ministers of Religion, and instead direct them towards the appropriate”— the Opposition would query that appropriateness—
“category of tier 2…The ‘cooling off’
period will ensure tier 5 Religious workers and Charity Workers spend a minimum of 12 months outside the UK before returning…This will prevent migrants from applying for consecutive visas”.
So, there you have it: this whole discriminatory rigmarole is an effort to prevent people, of whatever religious faith, from using what Ministers seem to think is a loophole to come into this country on a permanent basis. I hope that, having listened to Members from across the House, the Minister recognises that no one is talking about a loophole but about the very real needs of faith communities. Maybe he will tell us how many people he thinks sneak their way into the country under a religious cloth. A handful? Dozens? What evidence can Ministers provide for that outlandish proposition?
We pride ourselves—or used to—on being a religiously tolerant society, but these measures do not seem religiously tolerant to those of us here today or to the wider community. This discriminatory policy is causing distress in faith communities of all types across the country. It should be a matter of concern for those of all faiths and none. In 30 years in the House, this is not the first time that I have seen immigration measures brought in willy-nilly to target a specific community—for example, the Muslim faith—but catching all sorts of faiths. If the Home Office has a particular ill in mind, it needs better drafted legislation and better conducted administration.
We should not dictate to anyone who their faith leaders should be. We should recognise and honour the contribution that faith communities make to our society. The Government should take note of the debate, meet hon. Members from across the House and—I sincerely hope—change policy as a result.