Andrew Yong is a public lawyer who writes on citizenship issues and is the director of Global Britons, a campaigning body for the rights of residual British nationals.
Last week, the Home Secretary announced that her department would be waiving immigration fees for those “brave servicemen and women” from outside the UK who have completed at least six years’ service in the Armed Forces, in recognition of their “extraordinary work” in our country’s service.
However, the Home Office appears to have rejected pleas by MPs, the Royal British Legion, and other service charities for the fee waiver to extend not just to individual veterans, but also to their spouses and children.
Commonwealth and Gurkha service personnel are exempt from immigration control whilst serving in the Home Forces. After five years’ service in the UK, Commonwealth personnel and those Gurkhas who have transferred to the wider British Army can apply directly for British citizenship, so long as they submit their applications whilst still serving.
However, those serving in the Brigade of Gurkhas, as well as any other personnel who have not qualified or applied for citizenship prior being discharged, must upon discharge first apply for indefinite leave to remain (ILR) before they can apply for citizenship.
The rules governing the family members of service personnel are more demanding. Spouses also cannot apply for citizenship directly, but must first apply for and be granted ILR before they can apply for citizenship. The rules governing children are yet more complex; their options depending on whether or not they were born in the UK, the status of their parents and whether or not the latter were on overseas assignments at the time of the child’s birth.
As they stand, the rules inflict needless suffering on people who have given this country honourable service. Take the case of Taitusi Ratucaucau, recruited into the British Army from Fiji in 2000.
He served in the Royal Logistics Corps for eleven years, which included three operational tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2011, Ratucaucau was given a month’s notice that his service would be terminated, and says that he was not properly advised or assisted to apply for citizenship or indefinite leave to remain (“ILR”) in the UK. Upon his discharge, Ratucaucau lived for a time in a car park in Abingdon, and worked in the railways before his lack of immigration status prevented further employment.
Having spent his savings to bring his wife and three daughters to the UK, Ratucaucau says that he could not afford the immigration fees required to apply for ILR for his family.
In 2020, he collapsed from a brain tumour, and was hospitalised and successfully treated by the NHS. However, as an overseas patient with no right to live in the UK, he was presented with a bill for £27,000 on completion of his treatment. He has since had to crowdfund this sum from the public through the charitable fundraising website, JustGiving.
Although Home Office red tape is a basic fact of life for anyone coming from overseas to live in the UK, it is the punishing level of immigration and nationality fees that has caused the greatest hardship to Commonwealth and Gurkha veterans and their families in recent years. Applications for ILR were free of charge until 2003, when a £155 application fee was introduced.
Between 2004 and 2014, however, legislation was brought in to allow the Home Office to extract fees far in excess of the actual cost of processing each application. The application fee for ILR has consequently ballooned from £155 in 2004 to £2,389 at the present time per individual application, even though the actual cost of processing each application stands at only £243.
The impact of this bureaucratic fee explosion has been calamitous for the families of veterans such as Ratucaucau. Had he been discharged in 2010, a year earlier, he might have applied for ILR together with any dependants on the payment of a single fee (then £840), in recognition of the relative simplicity of dealing with family applications that are made and considered together. Today, however, the £2,389 fee must be multiplied by the number of people in the serviceman’s family.
Ratucaucau’s family of five would therefore need to pay a total of £11,945 to apply for ILR, as well as a further £6,096 in subsequent citizenship and other fees. This amounts to a grand total of £18,000 in fees to the Home Office – more than half the annual pre-tax salary of a corporal in the Army – even before considering the cost of any professional legal advice and assistance that might be necessary.
This week’s announcement means that families like Ratucaucau’s will, after six years’ service, have the benefit of a welcome but somewhat meagre reduction in fees of £2,389, or 20 per cent of the family’s cost of applying for ILR.
The Home Office and the Ministry of Defence will not be unaware of the plight of Commonwealth and Gurkha service families as fees for ILR have ballooned fifteen-fold in as many years. The issue has been fully raised by the Royal British Legion and other service charities, as well as MPs such as Johnny Mercer, both before and during the public consultations on this matter that were launched in May 2021.
And yet we still find ourselves in a situation where the Home Office see fit to continue to profiteer from immigration fees from veterans’ families that are nearly ten times the administrative cost of processing each application.
It is an indictment of the stonehearted institutional culture of the Home Office that even when it has been persuaded to publicly recognise the extraordinary work of British Commonwealth and Gurkha veterans, it has undermined this gesture with the niggardly scope of its concessions. This miserliness shames this great nation. Our veterans and their families deserve far better.