Immigration and Social Security Bill: Bishop of Durham supports amendments on right to work, cost of citizenship, impact on religious people

On 9th September 2020 the House of Lords considered amendments to the Government’s Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill, during its second day in Committee.

The Bishop of Durham, Rt Revd Paul Butler, proposed and supported amendments to the Bill, on:

  • the right to work after six months for asylum claimants
  • ‘displaced talent visas’ for for skilled forcibly displaced people
  • reducing the cost of citizenship administration fees
  • assessing the impact of the Bill on religious people

As is usual in Committee, the amendments were not pressed to a vote after debate, though some issues may be returned to again at a later stage. A transcript of the Bishop’s speeches is below, with extracts from the speeches of others in support and the Minister responding:

Amendment 29

Page 3, line 8, at end insert—
“( ) Regulations under subsection (1) must provide that EEA and Swiss nationals, and adult dependants of EEA and Swiss nationals, who apply for asylum in the United Kingdom are granted permission to take up employment if a decision at first instance has not been taken on the applicant’s asylum application within six months of the date on which it was recorded.”

Amendment 31

Page 3, line 8, at end insert—
“(5A) Regulations under subsection (1) must make provisions for a displaced talent visa.
(5B) A person is eligible to apply for the displaced talent visa where they meet the conditions in subsection (5C).
(5C) The conditions are that the person—
(a) has been offered a job by a sponsor employer in the United Kingdom; and
(b) is an EEA or Swiss national who has been recognised as a refugee or forcibly displaced person.”

Member’s explanatory statement: “This amendment creates a new visa to facilitate the entry of skilled forcibly displaced people where they have a job offer from a sponsor employer, to overcome structural barriers which prevent such people making applications currently.”

The Lord Bishop of Durham: My Lords, I declare my interests as laid out in the register, in receiving support from the RAMP project on immigration policy, and as a trustee of Reset.

I shall speak to Amendment 29 and Amendment 31. They are different in substance: Amendment 29 and others in this group relate to asylum seekers, while Amendment 31 relates to refugees currently living elsewhere. However, they both address the question of work.

In the Hebrew Bible, there is a story about a widow named Ruth, who travels with her mother-in-law to a foreign land, the family having been displaced by famine. On arrival, she gets to work, picking grain with the landowners’ permission, and she enjoys his ​protection and generosity. She receives not a handout but the freedom to work in the fields—her dignity is upheld.

The freedom to work, for those able to do so, is an important part of our humanity. It is how we support ourselves and our families, how we contribute to the common good and how we share, through taxation, the financial burdens of our common life. Yet for those who have come to this country fleeing persecution or conflict and are stuck too long in the administrative purgatory of the Home Office’s processes, the Government deny this freedom.

Many people seeking asylum want to work. They have skills that the UK needs, and are highly motivated to provide for themselves and their families. Instead of allowing them to do so, currently the Government force their reliance on minimal taxpayer-funded benefits.

Employment helps with smooth integration into the UK, allowing people to improve their English, acquire new skills and build relationships in the community. Work restores dignity while reducing reliance on public funds. I endorse all that the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, has just said in speaking to Amendment 29.

Amendment 29 does not argue for an immediate right to work, as Canada, for example, allows. Lifting the ban on working after six months—the point at which the Home Office should have determined their case, but too often has not—is a reasonable compromise. I might prefer three months, as proposed in Amendment 22, but I see six months as a reasonable compromise. I am not alone in thinking this: British Future found that 71% of the public support the right to work after six months.

I note that both Amendment 29 and Amendment 31 focus on the rights of EEA and Swiss nationals, because those rights are before us in the Bill. While the Spanish protocol might appear to obviate the need for Amendment 29, we have learned this year that the future is hardly secure and predictable. Moreover, in both cases, the underlying principle demands that we take these steps for the benefit of some now, and to move towards restoring the dignity of all those seeking the UK’s protection by allowing them to contribute through work.

I thank my noble friends Lady Lister and Lord Alton for supporting me on Amendment 31. The UN estimates that there are 79.5 million forcibly displaced people globally, who are desperate to rebuild their lives. Refugee resettlement schemes are vital, and ours must restart urgently. However, we must think creatively about ways to help the many forcibly displaced people, in need of international protection, to rebuild their lives somewhere safe.

In places like Lebanon, people fleeing the Syrian conflict are not permitted to work legally. They are dependent on handouts; their lives are on hold. Many of these people have God-given talents which are going to waste. Meanwhile, employers in the UK face critical skills shortages. Ending free movement for EEA and Swiss nationals will only make it more challenging for them to recruit people with the skills they require. Is it beyond our imagination to connect the two, for the benefit of all?​

The Home Secretary introduced this Bill to the other place, saying that she wanted a system

“allowing us to attract the very best talent from right around the globe.”—[Official Report, Commons, 18/5/20; col. 398.]

Displaced people, including refugees, have skills, talents and motivations, and dream of building a new life in a new land. What if we saw such people as a gift as well as a responsibility? To do that, I urge the Government to look at what this amendment seeks to achieve for skilled forcibly displaced people. I acknowledge and thank the Minister for her help so far, pursuing conversations with her colleagues to that end.

Amendment 31, conforming to the Bill’s scope, addresses the potential situation of displaced people who are EEA or Swiss nationals. Yet, even in doing so, it addresses the need for a displaced talent visa in the new Immigration Rules, to level up access globally to labour market mobility for all those who should be able to apply for skilled jobs at UK companies. It would remove barriers, such as the need for specific documentation or proof of their English language ability which cannot be accessed because of their situation in being displaced from home.

To be clear, this is not a new humanitarian route; instead, it is about enabling fair access to work visas for skilled forcibly displaced people. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said, this is not an alternative to the asylum amendments. This is a completely different point. This approach has been successfully piloted in Australia and Canada, and would complement, not compete with, the vital routes of humanitarian resettlement and community sponsorship.

In his letter to them, St Paul reminded the church in Thessaloniki of a common saying: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” Far from undercutting support for providing for the vulnerable and unemployed —as has occasionally been suggested—St Paul was urging that those in the community free and able to work should do so, for the good of all.

I find myself reflecting on this saying as I think about how we might help those fleeing persecution and conflict to access employment, that they might use their God-given talents and skills to support their families and rebuild their lives with dignity for the benefit of all, and that they might be seen as a gift to us.

Baroness Ludford (LD): I speak in support of the amendment in the name of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham about a work visa for displaced people. Refugees, displaced people and people who for humanitarian reasons are unable to stay in their home country have many skills that are going unused. Banning people seeking asylum from working is a moral question as well as an economic and social one. Again, I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher: the idea that this would operate as a pole of attraction for people is unsubstantiated, and in any case that is hugely outweighed by the benefits of allowing asylum seekers to keep going and keep up their physical and mental health. If they do not succeed in their asylum claim then they have to leave, but in the meantime they will have been able to support themselves, keep up their skills and maybe, wherever they have to go or return to, have a better view of this country than they might otherwise have.​..

Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB): I will speak in favour of Amendment 29 on work rights, tabled by my noble friend Lady Meacher, the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham. I support also Amendment 31 on the displaced talent visa, tabled by the right reverend Prelate and the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, and to which I am a signatory. It addresses the widely held view that, whatever our differences about the nature of migration and the humanitarian duty, as some of us see it—and I do—to respond to people forcibly displaced from their homes and countries, this country will ​always have a need of skilled labour, and that where sponsorship is available from an employer, this win-win situation should at least be provided for by the creation of a new visa. The Government have said that they intend that this legislation and the new immigration system to be set out in subsequent Immigration Rules will attract the “brightest and the best” from overseas to work here…

Lord Loomba (CB) [V]: My Lords, I shall focus on Amendment 31, spoken to by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham and the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool. This is an important amendment that brings a sensible and balanced approach to immigration in the commercial sector, to build up our economy—not just hospitals and care homes, but businesses, which also need to employ skilled and semi-skilled people. The amendment will help those fleeing conflict and persecution in their own country to build their lives in the UK.,,

Lord Rosser (Lab):…The Government have normally argued that work is a route out of poverty. Apparently, though, that principle does not apply to those awaiting the outcome of their asylum claim, nearly all of whom, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham said, want to work and support themselves and their families and offer their often much-needed skills to this country. ​Why do we leave them, then, in a potential or actual state of poverty, feeling a sense of hopelessness and despair for often lengthy periods of time?..

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Minister, Con): ..I turn now to Amendment 31, tabled by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham. In doing so, I acknowledge his considerable authority in these matters and thank him for his continued support for the Government’s work on refugee resettlement. His amendment seeks to put in place new visa arrangements ​to facilitate the entry of skilled, recognised-refugee, or forcibly displaced, EEA or Swiss citizens where they have a job offer from a sponsor employer. Once again, it is important to note that people granted refugee status or humanitarian protection in the UK have immediate and unrestricted access to our labour market and our benefits system. The UK has become one of the world’s leading refugee resettlement states and we are playing an important role in the global response to a number of humanitarian crises. Of course, we must continue to support refugees in the UK to find work and to regain the dignity of being self-sufficient.

The Government operate a number of refugee resettlement schemes and I had the privilege of working on some of them in their earlier years, when I was an adviser at the Home Office. Since I left in September 2015, over 25,000 people in need of protection have been resettled through these routes. The Government recognise that refugees often face additional barriers to participating in the labour market, some of which have been raised in our debate today, and we continue to work in partnership with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and other global organisations to support refugee employees.

Our Integrated Communities Action Plan committed the Government to continuing to work with the Refugee Employment Network and the jobcentre network, as well as with employers, to understand the needs of refugees and to help them into work. It is right that we must overcome the structural barriers that prevent skilled people who have been forcibly displaced making applications to work in the UK. I reinforce the fact that our existing and future work routes are already open to refugees—a point that has not escaped the right reverend Prelate. It is an area in which he is rightly very interested, and I was struck by what he said about the need to see these people as a gift, as well as a responsibility. We already offer protection through several legal routes and will continue to provide support for those who often need it most desperately. These efforts should be something of which we can all be proud.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, asked about consultation. Ahead of outlining our proposals for the new points-based immigration system, the Government engaged extensively with our vulnerability advisory group, and we continue to do so. Anyone who has the necessary skills and experience, regardless of their nationality or their impetus for leaving the country they are leaving, will be able to qualify under our new system.

In future, all applicants who can demonstrate that they have a job offer from an approved sponsor, that the job is at the required skill level and meets the relevant salary threshold, and that they can speak English, will be able to benefit from the skilled worker route. In line with the recommendations of the Migration Advisory Committee, the general salary threshold will be reduced from £30,000 to £25,600, and the skills threshold will be expanded to include regulated qualifications framework level 3 and equivalent occupations. Bypassing these requirements would dilute the Government’s commitment to creating a high-wage, high-skill, high-productivity economy. Importantly, these ​requirements help to prevent unintentional pull factors that could lead to exploitation by criminal traffickers and unscrupulous employers. We therefore do not believe that we need to create additional routes, such as those proposed by this amendment.

Moreover, while I know that many noble Lords have spoken about the principle, rather than the narrow fact of the amendment tabled, this amendment would result in a two-tier system because of the EEA scope of the Bill, whereas I know that many of the people most in noble Lords’ minds today come from the world much more widely.

However, the Government support the intention behind the amendment. I want to put on record that we look forward to working with the right reverend Prelate to explore possible ways to connect highly skilled displaced people with employment opportunities in the UK. It is an important thing to do. In the meantime, for the reasons I have set out, I encourage him not to press his amendment and the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.

The Lord Bishop of Durham: I thank the Minister for the warmth of his response, particularly at the end. Given the support from all sides of the House we have heard in the debate, and from business—business is saying there are still questions and is not convinced it does not need a new visa—I wonder if the Minister would meet me, perhaps some other Lords who supported the amendment and Talent Beyond Boundaries, to explore this—preferably before Report stage—to check whether I want to bring it back on Report.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con): We have had some useful discussions with the right reverend Prelate already and we would be very happy to continue those, particularly with my noble friend the Minister and our noble friend the immigration Minister in the other place, who would be well placed to engage in detail on the topics he raised.

Amendment 30

Page 3, line 8, at end insert—
“( ) Regulations under subsection (1) must ensure that no fee is charged that may deter or prevent registration of an EEA or Swiss national as a British citizen.”

Member’s explanatory statement: The amendment is to probe the impact upon rights to British citizenship of measures relating to fees (currently £1012 for a child and £1206 for an adult to register a statutory right to British citizenship) that have been introduced or are to be introduced in connection with the ending of free movement.

Amendment 68

Insert the following new Clause—
“Registration as a British citizen by EEA and Swiss nationals
(1) No person, who has at any time exercised any of the rights which Schedule 1 makes provision to end, may be charged a fee to register as a British citizen that is higher than the cost to the Secretary of State of exercising the function of
(2) No child of a person who has at any time exercised any of the rights which Schedule 1 makes provision to end may be charged a fee to register as a British citizen if that child is being looked after by a local authority

(3) No child of a person who has at any time exercised any of the rights which Schedule 1 makes provision to end may be charged a fee to register as a British citizen that the child or the child’s parent, guardian or carer is unable to afford.
(4) The Secretary of State must take steps to raise awareness of people to whom subsection (1) applies of their rights under the British Nationality Act 1981 to register as British citizens.”

Member’s explanatory statement: This amendment is to probe how to secure rights to British citizenship where rights to free movement are being ended by prohibiting any charge above administrative cost and the application of such a charge to children looked after by a local authority.

The Lord Bishop of Durham: My Lords, I support Amendments 30 and 68. I declare my interest as recorded in the register as receiving research support from the Refugee, Asylum and Migration Policy project. That project, RAMP, involves a diverse network of parliamentarians working together. There are four principals: myself and three from the other place, one each from the Liberal Democrats, the Labour Party and the Conservative Party. We work together to support constructive and practical changes to ensure that the UK has a migration system fit for a successful and integrated Britain. As noble Lords can imagine, with such a diverse group of parliamentarians we do not agree on everything, but we have consistently agreed that the charging of excessive fees for citizenship is simply unacceptable.

It is a straightforward principle that those to whom Parliament has granted a right to citizenship should not be barred from registering that right by its cost. Citizenship is not a product to be sold; it is a right. As they aspire to be outward-looking and global, this Government should be seeking to make it more straightforward for people to exercise their rights to register their status as citizens.

I wish to speak specifically about the issue of children who, although they fairly regard themselves as British, may not even realise that they are not in fact properly registered as British citizens. When they realise it, prohibitive and regressive fees of more than £1,000 can prevent them from then exercising their right to ​registration. We have already been reminded that last November the High Court found what it called a “mass of evidence” that a significant number of children in particular cannot afford the citizenship registration fee.

Amendment 68 would specifically require that no fee for someone to register as a British citizen is set above the administrative cost to the Home Office. We have heard the figures already so I will not repeat them. It is a surplus that is indefensible for those who have a clear right to British citizenship, and to use that as a cross-subsidy of the rest of the Home Office’s work leaves many of us deeply uncomfortable.

Some may regard the price as a good deal for British citizenship. I am afraid that for many affected, such a price is simply unaffordable. It is the poorest who will be most affected. Moreover, it is iniquitous to charge a high fee simply to register a status that is a person’s right. The role of the Home Office is simply to recognise the rights granted to these people by Parliament and get them registered as citizens.

I specifically draw attention to the situation of children in local authority care, and I pay tribute to the ongoing work of the Children’s Society on this issue. These are among some of the most vulnerable children among us and are already marginalised. There should simply be no fee for such a child to register their citizenship. Where children cannot afford even the administrative cost of registration, they should not be excluded from their citizenship rights.

We have already heard powerfully from others the parallels with the Windrush scandal, the shame of which still hangs over the Home Office. We really must avoid any repeat.

I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to these amendments. I hope she will agree with me that the Home Office has no business erecting barriers, financial or otherwise, that prevent people registering as British citizens, particularly children, when those people have been granted that right by this Parliament.

Amendment 97

Insert the following new Clause—
“Report on impact on faith communities
(1) Parts 1 and 2 may not come into force under section 8(1) and (3) until a Minister of the Crown has laid a report before each House of Parliament setting out the impact of this Act on faith communities in the United Kingdom.
(2) A report under subsection (1) must consider the ability of members and representatives of faith communities from the EEA and Switzerland to enter the United Kingdom for purposes related to their faith.
(3) A Minister of the Crown must, within the period of six months beginning with the day on which the report has been laid before Parliament, table a motion in the House of Commons in relation to the report.
(4) In this section, “faith communities” means a group of individuals united by a clear structure and system of religious or spiritual beliefs.”

Member’s explanatory statement:  This new Clause requires the Government to report to Parliament on the implications of this Bill for faith communities, including the ability of members of faith communities to come to the UK for reasons connected with their faith.

The Lord Bishop of Durham: My Lords, I rise to speak to Amendment 97 in the name, specifically, of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bristol, on whose behalf I speak today. However, before I do so, I express my sympathies with the other amendments in this grouping with deep concern particularly around the creative arts and the music industry. I thank the ​noble Baronesses, Lady Hollins and Lady Hooper, who have kindly added their names to Amendment 97, for their support on this issue.

I state a simple fact when I say that faith cannot be contained by borders and that faith groups do not fit neatly within national boundaries. They are both local and global communities made up of individuals united in common belief and sharing in common structures of organised life. Our shared convictions and organisational structures reach across nations and continents. The migration of people is an inevitable result.

This issue that this amendment addresses—namely, that the Government should be aware of implications that the Bill has for faith communities—was raised by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark at Second Reading. I am grateful to the Minister for her comments on that day, when she stated that the Government greatly valued the contribution that migrants made to faith communities in this country.

In principle, this amendment is as simple as ensuring that individuals can come to the UK for reasons connected to their faith where needed. As the Minister said at Second Reading, changes were made to the visa system in 2019 for religious workers and ministers of religion. The new requirement prohibited tier 5 religious workers from filling roles as ministers of religion and, instead, individuals had to apply directly through the tier 2 sub-category for ministers of religion.

Previously, most Roman Catholic dioceses had used the tier 5 religious worker visas for priests to come here on supply placements while parish priests were away for short periods of time because of sickness, training or annual leave. These supply placements are essential to ensuring that worship continues, while keeping parish activities running smoothly.

Furthermore, other faiths, particularly Hindus and Sikhs, have used this visa because there is a lack of religious ministers within the UK, so they needed support from abroad. Unfortunately, the requirement introduced in 2019 has more than doubled the costs incurred. For small faith groups and those without significant funding, this is compromising their opportunity to practise their faith and will disproportionately affect the poorest areas and communities.

In July 2020, Roman Catholic bishops met with the Minister for Future Borders and Immigration to outline some of these challenges. On behalf of my Roman Catholic colleagues, I thank the Government for their engagement but urge them to establish a clear timeline for this issue to be resolved. The Government need to continue to work with faith groups to better define the difference between “minister of religion” and “religious workers”. Currently, these categories are imperfectly defined and fail to capture the lived experience of faith groups. I hope that the Minister will commit to reviewing the definitions of “religious workers” and “minister of religion” while actively consulting many denominations and faith communities in order that faith groups can continue to take part in not only their local but their global community.

Baroness Hooper (Con):  My Lords, I too have considerable sympathy with all the amendments in this grouping. However, I am happy to follow the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, as a co-mover of Amendment 97, and will confine my remarks to that new clause. This is, as the right reverend Prelate had said, a probing amendment. We hope that the Government can use this debate to clarify the next steps and perhaps give us some idea of a timetable.

I appreciate that the definition of faith communities may give us some difficulties but, as a Roman Catholic, I wish to present some of the challenges facing the Catholic Church in relation to the changes being introduced in this Bill. The Catholic Church is, after all, a very international body. Movement between different countries within religious orders, and for educational and other purposes, is an integral part of that internationalism…

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con):..The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, on behalf of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bristol, spoke with great ecumenism on people of all faiths. He raised the point about the particular impact of these policies on smaller faith groups. Of course, any changes to policy have to take into account the obligations under the Equality Act, which, of course, has been done following consultation with a wide variety of groups from people of all faiths, as the right reverend Prelate has acknowledged. It is certainly right that those playing a leading role in faith groups—whether that is in our churches, synagogues, mosques, gurdwaras or temples—should be required to have a strong command of the English language. That is so that they can best enjoy their time here in the UK and so that the wider community can benefit from that time here.

We recognise that faith is a calling and that the terms of appointment differ from traditional employment models, and that is why our dedicated routes do not require specific qualifications or a salary threshold and why we want to make absolutely clear that people of all faiths will certainly be welcome here to do their important work through our new system.

My noble friend Lady Hooper mentioned the discrepancy between the fees paid in tier 1 and tier 5. It is true that not all of those who are now using the tier 2 visa want or, indeed, need those additional benefits that tier 2 provides, but the Government, as I hope she will understand, must balance a number of factors, including the administrative costs of processing an application, the benefits likely to be accrued by a successful applicant and the wider costs of the immigration system. However, the options we provide for religious workers allow individual organisations to make the appropriate choice for their particular circumstances.​

The noble Baroness also raised the issue of the English language test for Roman Catholic priests who have completed their seminary training in English. Exemptions currently exist where applicants have been awarded a recognised degree. If not, I hope she will understand that it is important that a priest’s ability to speak English to a sufficient standard can be verified; their standards in Latin can be left to their diocese….

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