Visa fees should be waived for all UK armed forces personnel and their families
Excessive fees have prevented many brave veterans from taking up their right to settle in the UK with their families. They deserve better.
This Armed Forces Week, we should all be doing our bit to improve the lives of service personnel who have given so much for our country. That means not just words but taking meaningful action.
Fortunately, we have such an opportunity. This week, MPs will get to vote on the Armed Forces Bill, a significant and timely piece of legislation. A chance like this only comes around once every five years. We must not let it slip through our fingers.
That’s why this is an incredibly important opportunity to put right a longstanding injustice. Foreign and Commonwealth citizens have a proud legacy of serving our country in the Armed Forces. They fought in our ranks in the trenches of the Somme and on the beaches of Normandy. From the 50,000 Gurkhas who lost their lives in combat to Fijian SAS Sergeant Talaiasi Labalaba, killed in action heroically defending a British Army base in Oman, we owe them an enormous debt.
Today, there are several thousand non-UK nationals serving in our Armed Forces. Under the immigration rules, those who have served for four years or more are entitled to apply for indefinite leave to enter or remain in the UK upon discharge, and to sponsor applications for their partners and children.
The government has kick started a consultation to review visa fees for non-UK personnel but their proposals do not go far enough
But in recent years the fees for these applications have been increased, by successive governments, to exorbitant levels: they now stand at £2,389 per person, despite the unit cost to the Home Office of processing an application being just £243. This means that the cost of applying for a family of four is £9,556! It is an utter disgrace.
These excessive fees have prevented many brave veterans from taking up their right to settle in the UK with their families. Some have been forced to leave the country they have lived in and served for years; others have remained here without immigration status, unable to work in the country they sought to defend.
Many of those who have applied have been forced to spend a large amount of their resettlement packages or take out big loans in order to pay for the fees. This makes their transition into civilian life harder and is an unfair burden on those who have already contributed so much.
These women and men risk their lives in the service of our country, and they deserve better. As the Armed Forces Covenant states, “the whole nation has a moral obligation to the members of the Naval Service, the army and the Royal Air Force, together with their families. They deserve our respect and support, and fair treatment.”
This is why I’ve tabled an amendment to the Armed Forces Bill, calling for visa fees to be waived for any current or previously serving members of the UK armed forces and their families. Yes, the government has kick started a consultation to review visa fees for non-UK personnel but their proposals do not go far enough. The government’s bar is too low. They are proposing to drop fees for personnel who have served more than 12 years and do not include any provisions for families.
Diversity has always been key to the success of our armed forces. We have to be realistic about how much it costs to be recognised as a civilian of this country, even after you’ve fought to defend it.
All I can ask is for colleagues across the House to recognise this simple fact and support my amendment which would see the government enact meaningful, substantial change. In doing so, we will not only be repaying a debt of honour but also encouraging future personnel to join, contribute, and continue to improve our armed forces.
Jamie Stone is the Liberal Democrat MP for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross and is the Liberal Democrat spokesperson for Defence.
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