THE Home Office’s hostile environment on immigration has been extended to the Roman Catholic Church and could end a tradition in which African priests come to Scotland temporarily to allow Scottish priests to have their holidays.

The archdiocese of Glasgow along with many other dioceses in Scotland, England and Wales have protested the Home Office’s decision to make it more difficult for African priests to come to the UK, and two early day motions about the issue have already been submitted in the Commons.

Priests in every parish in Glasgow have this week told their congregations of a “a significant problem with regard to summer supply clergy”.

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They read a letter from the Catholic bishops which stated: “In a statement made by the Immigration Minister, Caroline Noakes, a change in the law was announced, which took effect in January and which explicitly prevents ‘Ministers of Religion’ from entering the country using a Tier 5 visa.

“We were not advised of this by UK Border Agency, despite the fact that they send frequent updates to us as a sponsoring body about much less drastic changes.

“It only came to light, buried on page 135 of a lengthy document, when processes began to invite clergy for the summer months.

“A Tier 5 Visa is the route by which our archdiocese, along with the other dioceses in Scotland (and also in England and Wales) has brought clergy into our archdiocese for summer supply.

“The effects of this change are therefore very serious.

“The new legislation does permit clergy from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) to come into the country using a Tier 2 visa. However, these are allocated annually to each sponsoring body (the archdiocese) according to need. Since we rarely use this visa, we only have two for this year.

“In any event, the criteria for these visas is much more stringent, as is the cost (c.£1000 more expensive than Tier 5).

“Applicants for Tier 2 visas also have to undertake language exams, which we have found in the past has been a stumbling block to the granting of a Tier 2 visa.

“All things considered, Tier 2 visas do not offer a viable solution.

“It should also be noted that, although a priest from outside the EEA could visit for a holiday using a tourist visa, it would be against the law for him to exercise ministry during the period of his stay.”

The letter added that Immigration Minister Noakes “has expressed an unwillingness to meet with church representatives or to discuss the new policy”.

The National: Immigration Minister Caroline NoakesImmigration Minister Caroline Noakes

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The letter ended: “Given that the church’s efforts have so far been rebuffed, we are advised that we need to escalate our efforts. This is a significant problem for the coming summer months for many of us who have relied for many years on migrant clergy making it possible for us to get a holiday.”

Catholic church sources told The National: “This is surely not what the UK Government intended with this rule change. There is a shortage of priests in Scotland and migrant clergy really are necessary, but charging £1000 more for visas will make it very difficult for many parishes to get a priest in.”

A spokesperson for the Catholic Church said: “This unexpected development is being viewed with great concern as it will have serious and immediate effects in parishes across Scotland. Many parish priests and parishioners have already been in touch with their MPs who have in turn sent numerous letters to the Minister for Immigration.”

The SNP’s spokesman on immigration in the Commons, Stuart McDonald MP, has cross-party support for his Early Day Motion which calls on the Home Office to suspend the changes and reads: “That this House is concerned that changes to the immigration rules regarding religious workers, announced in December 2018, are having a negative impact on the ability of churches and other religious organisations to carry out their work and worship; notes in particular that these changes introduce additional costs, a lengthy cooling-off period and language tests even for religious workers who have extensive experience of working in the UK.”

A Home Office spokesperson 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.

They added: “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.”