Paul Sweeney MP: The second-class Commonwealth soldiers in the British Army are the last bastion of colonialism – it is time for equal citizenship rights
We must bring true equality to those who serve in our armed forces by granting them and their families the right to full British citizenship, says Paul Sweeney MP.
The tradition of soldiers recruited from across the Commonwealth and other former colonies to serve in the British Armed Forces is a legacy of a time when Britain had an extensive military role in garrisoning and policing the largest empire in the world. Indeed, the Brigade of Gurkhas has celebrated over two centuries of continuous loyal service to Britain, initially under the command of the East India Company from 1814, then the British Indian Army from 1895, and continuing after the decolonisation of India in 1947 to the present day.
According to the Royal British Legion, there are currently over 6,000 personnel serving in the UK Armed Forces from foreign and Commonwealth countries, with more being recruited each year to fill technical and specialist roles as the Army.
This comes despite the Conservative Government cutting the size of the regular Army from 114,000 in 2010 to a target size of 82,000 by 2020 and privatising recruitment to a company called Capita in 2012. However, in July 2018 it was 5,600 (7%) short of the number of regulars needed and it is highly unlikely to meet its target headcount next year. The Army and Capita have not recruited the number of regulars and reserves needed to sustain the required headcount any year since the contract began, with the total annual shortfall ranging from 21% to 45% of the Army’s requirement. In the two years before the contract with Capita began, the annual shortfall was just 4%.
This collapse in home recruitment has meant that, in 2018, the Army employed approximately 4.5% or 5,290 of its personnel from foreign and Commonwealth nations. Of these, the majority come from countries in Africa, the Caribbean, Nepal and also from Fiji in the Pacific. They are also generally concentrated in non-commissioned ranks and within infantry units.
In late 2018, the Ministry of Defence announced its intention to increase its reliance on Commonwealth personnel further as home recruitment continues to chronically underperform, with an aim to recruit 1,350 personnel per annum, including the expansion of the Brigade of Gurkhas by more than 800 posts and extending the right for women to join too. However, the immigration status of the Gurkhas and other Commonwealth personnel has been a significant matter of contention over the last two decades, led most notably by the Gurkha Justice Campaign.
Until 2004 Gurkhas were not allowed to settle in the United Kingdom. However, the Labour government under Tony Blair changed the rules to allow Gurkhas who retired after 1997 to settle in the UK; 1997 being the date when the Gurkha Brigade headquarters moved from Hong Kong to Britain. In May 2009, following a campaign by Gurkha veterans, Gordon Brown’s government announced that all Gurkha veterans who had served four years or more in the British Army before 1997 would also be allowed to settle in Britain.
It seems extraordinary that our country would place such barriers to citizenship in the way of those who have served this nation so gallantly in the first place, and in my opinion this situation reveals a latent neo-colonial mentality in the Ministry of Defence and the Home Office when it comes to championing the rights of those who have served us in uniform to then have the equal right to become British citizens.
Commonwealth personnel are exempt from UK immigration controls throughout their service, though this exemption is removed immediately on discharge. Former personnel who wish to stay in the UK indefinitely, whether with their family or alone, are required to apply for Indefinite Leave to Remain. In alignment with civilian applicants for Indefinite Leave to Remain, veterans are subject to a number of requirements, including four years qualifying residency in the UK, obtainable via four years of service in the Armed Forces, and a non-refundable fee of £2,389 per person.
This means that a Service leaver and their partner are presented with a bill of £4,778 to continue to live in the UK, before even taking children and further dependents into account.
Furthermore, as reported in The Times, immigration rules say that a foreign worker must earn £18,600 to apply to bring their spouse to the UK. The minimum income requirement to bring over one child is £22,400 with an additional £2,400 for each child thereafter. A soldier’s basic pay after training is just £18,600 a year.
Considering the general concentration of Commonwealth troops in the lower ranks and the fact that often they require permission from their commanding officer to take up weekend work in order to meet the arbitrary income threshold, bringing over their families can be extremely difficult.
It is difficult to understand just how vital the support of friends and family are to serving personnel, who already will work anti-social hours and in conditions that are often appalling on tours of duty in conflict zones, so to impede the opportunity for those who serve to have their families living with their unit and to provide that close emotional support and morale seems particularly callous to me.
The Army Families Federation (AFF), which has also been investigating the issue, believes that up to 500 troops are affected. The AFF told the Times that it had been contacted by about a dozen soldiers separated from their children and that army chaplains and welfare officers had also reported tearful troops in despair over their situation.
In the last year alone, the Royal British Legion has spent over £36,000 in grants to beneficiaries in relation to immigration issues, which they insist should not be the case, because it is directly as a result of an unjust Home Office policy.
In Parliament this week, I will therefore be calling on ministers to commit to the necessary legislative changes to rectify this issue in the short term by amending the Immigration and Nationality (Fees) Regulations which are set annually, to exclude recent members of the Armed Forces and their dependents, in accordance with powers set out in Section 6 of the Immigration Act 2014. However, I also believe that amending the Armed Forces immigration requirements, as set out in the 1971 Immigration Act would provide a permanent solution to this issue.
The Windrush scandal and ongoing examples of the Home Office’s hostile environment demonstrate that our asylum and immigration system is badly failing and appallingly lacking in both compassion and efficiency. This is just the latest manifestation of it; harming the very people who have laid down their lives in the service of our country, who are prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice for our defence. The very least we can do in recognition of their service is to grant them and their families the right to full British citizenship and bring true equality to all those who serve in our armed forces, regardless of their country of origin.
Paul Sweeney is Labour and Co-operative MP for Glasgow North East.