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Church calls for immigration reform as visa chaos causes summer supply priest shortage

The president of the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland has called for an ‘overhaul’ of the UK’s ‘cumbersome and unduly expensive’ immigration system amid summer chaos due to a shortage of foreign supply priests — By Peter Diamond and Ryan McDougall

Bishop Hugh Gilbert of Aberdeen Diocese joined a chorus of voices calling for a change to the UK immigration system as diocese across Scotland revealed struggles to obtain visas for supply priests from outside Europe.



The SCO can reveal that:

— Poor communication from the Home Office has left dioceses confused and parishes short of priests.

— Priests who have booked holidays have been left ‘scrambling for cover.’

— One priest whose mother died was unable to get time off to grieve.

— Masses have been reduced across two dioceses as a result of the visa changes.



On Thursday July 4, after the SCO went to press, a debate at Westminster was due to take place on the issue, with 70 MPs expressing cross-party support for reform.

In January the UK Government introduced a change in regulations, which meant that visiting clergy could no long enter the UK via the Tier 5 visa route and would instead have to apply via the more expensive and cumbersome Tier 2.

Tier 5 visas are issued for temporary work, no longer than 12 months, and were previously open to ‘ministers of religion.’



Tier 2 is for long-term work visas and for ministers of religion. They cost £610 per visa if applying outside of the UK, compared to £244 for the Tier 5 religious worker visa.

Bishop Gilbert said he hoped the Westminster debate would challenge the recent changes.

“Catholics and others are grateful to those MPs who have listened to their constituents on this point and raised the issue,” he said.

“This deprives not only our home congregations of short-term supplies from overseas, but also foreign clergy from benefitting from a British experience of pastoral life.

“More widely, the experience of several dioceses in Scotland and south of the border has been of an immigration system that is cumbersome, lacking in discernment and unduly expensive. It is time for an overhaul.”



Colette Sweeney, social communications officer for Paisley Diocese, revealed the diocese had to cancel ‘at the last minute’ visiting priests from Africa who were due to provide summer cover.

“I had initiated a Tier 2 visa for a priest without knowing that it had been changed—we were only told on April 3,” she said.

“I know priests who have booked holidays and are now scrambling to find cover last minute.

“This year eight priests have been impacted within the diocese and we’ve only got around 30. The impact has been significant.”


Government warnings

The UK Government this week claimed they ‘took steps to alert religious communities’ of the changes and that the Minister for Immigration wrote directly to ‘faith leaders’ in December 2018 detailing the plans.

Ms Sweeney added: “I’d like to know why they decided to change it. We’ve not been made aware as to why. The new policy needs a radical overhaul. I’d like to see all of Scotland’s dioceses unite against it.

“A friend of mine buried his mother a few weeks ago and had to get on with it through celebrating Mass and giving out the Sacraments and has had no time to grieve.

“If they’re not able to get cover with family situations priests become fatigued and tired.”


Reduced Masses

Like Paisley Diocese, Mass times across churches in Motherwell Diocese have had to be reduced during the summer months.

Fr James Grant, general secretary for Bishops’ Conference of Scotland, said: “The situation is very difficult. Now the visa process is more expensive as a result of the changes and anyone applying automatically has to sit an English exam.

“There also has to be a 12 month gap before you can reapply for a visa, meaning a priest that served in Scotland would need to wait one full year before they could reapply, which obviously impacts on supply during the summer.

“In Motherwell Diocese I know Bishop Joseph Toal asked priests to come together and reduce the number of masses across parishes during the summer months in order to assist each other with holidays.”


Parish concern

In Glasgow Archdiocese, according to a briefing for Thursday’s Westminster debate, over 120 West Dunbartonshire constituents from three Catholic parishes ‘who are particularly concerned about the visa changes’ have contacted their local MP.

Anthony Horan, director of the Catholic Parliamentary Office, said the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland was concerned about the ‘significantly more costly and cumbersome’ Tier 2 changes that ‘will mean that fewer priests will be able to come to Scotland to support local parishes.’

“Catholic parishes, without the support of visiting priests, would be unable to provide the level of service to the local community than it does at present,” he said.

“Much of the positive work in and around Catholic parishes, which engenders a great sense of community, is compromised by these changes to the immigration rules.

“We very much welcome the Westminster Hall debate on this urgent issue and are grateful to those MPs who have continued to highlight our concerns to government.

“We hope that the debate will flesh out the very real concerns of local communities across the country and the negative impact the new immigration rules will have on them.”


Home Office

A Home Office spokesman said: “We greatly value the important role of faith in public life in the UK and recognise that Ministers of Religion play a central role as leaders in our religious institutions.

“We must however ensure that Ministers of Religion who come to the UK are able to integrate with the wider communities in which they live and serve, including demonstrating a strong command of the English language.

“We continue to welcome Ministers of Religion of all faiths, who can continue to come to the UK though our Tier 2 Ministers of Religion visa category.”


Political concern

Ged Killen, Rutherglen and Hamilton West MP, said the Home Office’s changes are ‘hugely concerning.’

“I know some of the parishes within my constituency have already been forced to reduce the number of services held throughout the summer as a result—this is completely unacceptable and unnecessary,” he said.


‘Draconian change’

David Linden, Glasgow East MP, said: “My good friend, Fr Liam McMahon, who is parish priest at St Michael’s Church in Parkhead, first raised concerns regarding changes to religious worker visas with me.

“The changes are causing something of a headache for a whole host of religious organisations—but particularly the Catholic Church—who require visiting clergy to come in and cover periods of illness, holidays, religious retreats or even just those priests who are away on pilgrimage with their parishioners.

“The Bishops’ Conference is crystal clear that much of the positive work in and around Catholic parishes, which engenders a great sense of community, is seriously compromised by these changes to the immigration rules.”

“Even priests who have undertaken seminary formation in English may be required to sit an English language test before coming on supply placements. This is madness.

“I am somewhat intrigued as to why this draconian change was made in respect of visiting clergy.

“As far as I can understand, there have been no problems or abuses of the system by, for example, the Catholic Church bringing supply placement priests to the UK.”



In a letter to the Home Secretary, Stephen Kerr MP for Stirling raised concerns over the cost of visas for priests and the ‘unfair’ language tests for religious workers who have already served in the UK and ‘already have a strong understanding of the English language.’

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