Statement from James Sunderland MP
Over the past few days, I have been asked why I voted against the Mercer/Jarvis Amendment on visa fees for foreign and commonwealth soldiers. Some of the criticism I have received is ill-informed and the facts are somewhat different so I wish to set the record straight. It is also not true that I ‘rebelled’ against it - As a member of the Government, I voted with the Whip, along with the vast majority of my colleagues.
The Mercer/Jarvis Amendment was made in good faith and I have huge respect for both individuals, both as veterans and politicians. But the Nationality and Borders Bill was never intended to be the framework for changing policy on visa fees. Those who have been tracking this important issue will know that a formal consultation is already underway and the policy is yet to be agreed. This will be decided when the Home Office and MOD have jointly agreed the approach and when all the relevant facts have been taken into consideration, along with the views of the serving military community. Policy that is rushed, ill-conceived or contrived is rarely good policy and to be worthy of its pre-eminence, it is necessary for all its impacts and precedents to be fully understood, especially when it comes to those who take up arms and serve their country.
In addition, the MOD is right to expect a return of service from all of its soldiers and officers. It costs a fortune to train any member of HM Forces and abolishing visa fees at the 5 year point for foreign and commonwealth soldiers may bring unintended consequences. The costs of travel, accommodation, training, health care, salaries and all life costs for family members must therefore be taken into consideration and any change to current policy needs to be thought out. Simply abolishing visa fees at the 5 year point may also weaken retention at a time when we need to increase the capability of HM Forces. In short, the UK values its servicemen and women and we need them to do the job for which they were recruited for as long as they are willing and able to do it.
As the consultation moves forward, I remain confident that the Government will do the right thing by abolishing visa fees at the appropriate point of service. I do not know when this might be but the exorbitant costs for foreign and commonwealth soldiers and their families do need to be waved completely or significantly abated as a function of time served. It is also clear that any incentives must equally apply to non-UK spouses of UK soldiers. As a veteran, I am fully aligned with fellow politicians who wish to see this in policy and I pay tribute to those who have sacrificed so much through their service. I have also consistently campaigned for visa fees to be abolished and I am confident that they will be.