“when we try to get the visa and immigration authorities to tell us what we have to do as a diocese and what the conditions are, we find that letters get lost. My colleague who deals with this is in despair. We write letters but nothing comes back. Time is ticking away and the training curacy of the chap I am talking about is coming to an end.” – Bishop of Chester
Lord Steel of Aikwood tabled a question for short debate: ‘to ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the operation and accountability of UK Visas and Immigration. The Bishop of Chester raised some examples of failures in the system.
The Lord Bishop of Chester:
My Lords, I associate myself very closely with all that has been said, although the second half of the contribution from the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, focused a bit too much on mammon for my level of expertise. However, I take him as an authority on that aspect. The introduction the noble Lord, Lord Steel, gave, was powerful and shocking in equal measure, and made the case on its own. I can say to the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Jones, that I am aware of the Hereford situation; indeed, clergy are among those who are able to come under the scheme she mentioned.
I have been looking at the painting up there; we often have it above us in this Room without realising that it portrays an innocent and rather vulnerable girl there who is being misused by the authorities of the day—a rank case of injustice. I have never sat here debating a subject more relevant to “The Judgement of Daniel”, the painting we have had above us all these years.
As the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, says, we could talk about a whole range of things, but I will talk about how this impacts upon the church in particular. The church is an international body, and intrinsically so: Christianity spread through missionaries travelling to other countries. A great deal of interchange has ensued over the years in both directions, which has caused no difficulties but has been a source of mutual enrichment in all sorts of ways. New rules, as well as the inefficiencies and delays in the system, are now making things very problematic.
I will take an example, not from the Church of England but from the Salvation Army. Last year a British Salvation Army minister, if I may call him that, married someone from outside the EU, but could not return with her from his honeymoon because while he was abroad the rules had changed, and the salary—or stipend—he had from the Salvation Army did not meet the £18,000 threshold. The fact that he was given a house and a car was not apparently taken into account, so he was allowed back in but his wife was not. It was an awkward choice; they simply ended up going somewhere else, abroad, to work with the Salvation Army where they were welcome.
Another area of growing difficulty is exactly that of obtaining visas for people who are of relatively poor means themselves to visit the UK under the various partnership arrangements that exist. Most of the 43 English dioceses have active partnership arrangements with churches abroad, often in Africa because of the links between the church in this country and Africa. Again, that provides huge mutual enrichment, and Africa needs that more than anything, not least at present.
In Africa, the level of documentation we take for granted just is not there. People do not always have birth or marriage certificates, or bank accounts so that they can demonstrate that they have the money we expect them to have. It is a different culture—a different world. A visit from someone who comes from one of those overseas churches will typically be paid for in advance, and underwritten and guaranteed by a perfectly reputable body—I hope that the Church of England can still count as a perfectly reputable body—which will pay its debts if necessary. I put the question to the Minister: why should there be any difficulty? What has happened to cause all those difficulties? There should not be a problem. Can the Home Office give us a single example of somebody who has come on one of these short-term visits and who has not gone back when they have been sponsored by one of the mainstream churches? That is the question, exactly in the spirit of the introduction the noble Lord, Lord Steel, made to this debate.
I will finish with an example in a slightly different form, from my own diocese, relating to someone from Zambia. He came to the UK—I think he may have been in the UK beforehand, perfectly legally, but was then sponsored for ordination and studied that here at one of our theological colleges. He and his wife wished him to be ordained and to serve a title of curacy in this country, and I was delighted to offer that to him. He has had a splendid two and a half years’ curacy in one of our parishes. In the mean time, his wife has been training as a nurse, paying overseas fees; the money has been got together and they are paying every penny they can out of his stipend towards his wife’s fees for the nursing course. I hope that, in due course, they go back to Zambia. In many ways, it would be a good thing if they took back the skills that they have learnt here. But, equally, if he wants to spend more time working in this country, that to me is a thoroughly good thing that should also be possible.
However, when we try to get the visa and immigration authorities to tell us what we have to do as a diocese and what the conditions are, we find that letters get lost. My colleague who deals with this is in despair. We write letters but nothing comes back. Time is ticking away and the training curacy of the chap I am talking about is coming to an end. I want to know the conditions under which I can offer him a post. I need some advice on that from the immigration authorities. Even if the advice is that the rules say he cannot stay here under any circumstances, at least that would be an improvement in that we would know where we were. I think that it should be possible for him to be offered the post, providing there are no other applicants, but getting to the starting gate with the authorities is extremely difficult. Part of the problem is that the church does not “tick the boxes”. Clergy are treated as if they are just factory workers or employees of any sort. We need a lot more flexibility, sensitivity and common sense in the system.