Bishop William Nolan (right) and Father Frank Wilson celebrating Mass in St Patrick’s Church, Dumbarton.
By Bill Heaney
The Immigration Bill currently before the Westminster parliament will drastically alter people’s opportunities to build their lives here and contribute to our society, according to Scotland’s Catholic bishops.
It will also impose obstacles for priests coming from abroad to cover for Scottish priests during holiday periods and reduce the opportunities for Catholics to hear Mass, even on Sundays.
They have told parliamentary Opposition leaders that the UK’s Catholic population is made up of people from across the world including a significant number of European citizens, and that around 60% of Europeans living in the UK are Catholics.
“We therefore recognise the profound impact that ending free movement will have on so many families and communities,” they said today.
Bishop William Nolan said: “While we do not agree with the principle of making European citizens apply for their existing rights in the UK, the Church is working to raise awareness of the Settlement Scheme and help those who are at risk of losing their status.
“However, no scheme will reach all European citizens in the UK. Even if a small proportion do not make an application by the June 2021 deadline, this could leave thousands of people without legal status.
“We encourage amendments to the bill that will create a meaningful safety-net including options to extend the deadline.”
He added: “At the same time this bill and the development of new rules present a chance to make several positive changes to our immigration system, which include:
“Introducing a time limit on immigration detention The UK remains the only European country without a time limit on detention.
“This has devastating consequences for the well-being of vulnerable individuals who find themselves detained including some victims of torture, survivors of trafficking and people fleeing religious persecution in their home countries.
“It also has a significant impact on families who are separated with no indication of when they might be reunited.”
Bishop Nolan said the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted serious health risks in crowded detention centres – “While we are grateful for the emergency steps that were taken to reduce infection and save lives, only a significant permanent reduction in the use of detention will allow us to properly protect people’s health and human dignity in the long-term.
“Removing financial barriers that keep families apart means the minimum income threshold for family visas unjustly separates tens of thousands of couples, parents and children. Without reforms, the end of free movement will result in even more families being kept apart by this policy.
“Some key workers who have played a vital role during the Covid-19 pandemic are among those who cannot be reunited with their families because they do not meet the minimum income threshold.
“This separation not only has serious implications on family life, but also has a direct impact on the development and well-being of children who are isolated from their parents in another country.
“Repealing the offence of illegal working means those perpetrating the horrors of modern slavery will seek every chance to take advantage of new immigration policies.
“The government has a responsibility to ensure that proper safeguards are in place. We know that fear of prosecution currently deters people from escaping abusive employment practices or presenting themselves to the police.
“One particularly important step towards protecting people from exploitation would therefore be to repeal the offence of illegal working, so that no victim is at risk of being punished.”
The bishops, including their colleagues in England and Wales, also drew attention to the situation in regard to reforming clergy visas.
Bishop Nolan said: “Most Catholic dioceses previously used 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 as they allow Catholics to continue attending Mass, while also keeping parish activities running smoothly.
“The new requirement introduced in 2019 for anyone preaching to use the Tier 2 Minister of Religion visas instead, has more than doubled the costs incurred by parishes arranging supply cover. For some parishes this is unsustainable, compromising people’s opportunity to practise their faith.
“Furthermore, seminaries that conduct formation in English are not necessarily recognised by the Home Office as meeting the English language requirement under the Tier 2 route, meaning that many priests who have been educated to post-graduate level in English are nevertheless required to take a language test with extra logistical and cost implications.
“Unless reforms are made, this situation will be worsened by the end of free movement, as priests coming from EU countries to provide supply cover will now be subject to the same regime.
“We strongly support amendments addressing these important issues and hope that MPs from all parties will take this opportunity to help create a more just and humane immigration system.”
Bishop Nolan is the lead Bishop for migrants and refugees – Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Scotland, and Bishop Paul McAleenan is lead Bishop for migrants and refugees for Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales.