Unanimous call for Commonwealth veterans' rights in South Tyneside

A call to improve the treatment of Armed Forces veterans from Commonwealth countries has been backed by South Tyneside Council.

Monday, 18th January 2021, 1:48 pm
South Tyneside councillors unanimously backed calls for improved rights for Commonwealth armed forces veterans

Commonwealth veterans can qualify for ‘indefinite leave’ to remain in the UK after serving a minimum term in the forces.

However, this is not automatic and depends on them making an application within a set period after completing their service.

A motion on the issue was discussed at a full meeting of South Tyneside Council on January 14.

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Councillors heard that the visa fees involved can push veterans into poverty with some forced to leave the UK due to financial hardship.

The motion called on the leader of the council to write to the Government calling for all Commonwealth veterans who have served a minimum of four years to be granted “the automatic, free of charge right to remain in the UK.”

This aims to ensure that those who are “currently experiencing problems, whether financial or immigration difficulties, are not disadvantaged whilst their applications are ongoing.”

The motion, which was launched by Labour councillor Mark Walsh, also called for “any veteran who completes 12 years of service to be automatically given British Citizenship.”

Cllr Walsh paid tribute to the thousands of Commonwealth citizens who had volunteered to serve the UK over the decades – from the First World War to more recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He went on to say: “Today there are more than 6,000 Commonwealth citizens serving in the UK Armed Services with the Government aiming to recruit a further 1,400 for specialist and technical roles.

“So how does the UK Government reward these dedicated Commonwealth citizens who serve the country but don’t have UK citizenship when they’re discharged from active service?

“They have to pay more than £2,000 for an individual visa to remain in the UK, they have no automatic right to settle in the UK, even though they have risked their lives for this nation.

“They cannot access NHS services, with one Fijian ex-serviceman having to raise £30,000 for a lifesaving brain tumour operation and treatment on the NHS because he was not able to access NHS services for free.

“As well as this motion today, which is being supported by many other local authorities across the country, there’s also an online petition to Parliament to support Commonwealth veterans which I would urge members to support.”

Labour councillor Adam Ellison, seconding the motion, said many Commonwealth veterans were “often lost in a system of bureaucracy” while being left without access to free healthcare and unable to take up alternative employment.

Cllr Ellison said the immigration fees were “often significantly prohibitive” for those of junior ranks and noted that a Commonwealth service leaver with a partner and two children, could expect to pay in the region of £10,000 to continue living in the UK.

He added: “We can do better than this, Commonwealth veterans have earned this and are entitled to this but the Government policy pushes veterans to drain their savings just to get permission to stay.”

Labour councillor Angela Hamilton urged residents to share the Royal British Legion’s #StopTheServiceCharge campaign on social media.

“These men and women should not be forced away from this country and those children who are born here and are entitled to stay, should not be denied the right to live with and see their parents because they can’t afford to pay for the money to give them the right to stay,” she said.

Independent Conservative councillor Jeff Milburn also backed the motion, describing the current situation as “unfair.”

“Lets not draw political lines here, people who have helped and supported the UK in all sorts of wars and all sorts of campaigns, should be allowed citizenship in this country,” he added.

Following debate, the motion won unanimous backing from councillors.

It also requested that the leader of the council write to South Tyneside’s MPs asking them to “continue to press the Government for a change in the legislation that affects those that have served diligently and honourably for this country”.

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