Scotland’s pulpits are in danger of being left empty as churches struggle with new immigration rules which have more than doubled the cost of visas for clergy visiting the UK.
Home Office changes to the visa system have already impacted on the ability of Scotland’s agriculture and tourist industries to recruit staff, but now religious organisations are also being affected.
The category “Minister of Religion” has been removed from the £244 Tier 5 entry visa to the UK, and switched to Tier 2, which costs £610 per visa. As a result, many churches have been unable to find cover for clergy when they need to go on sabbatical or holiday, or they have had to reduce worship schedules.
The Catholic Church in Scotland said that without the support of visiting priests “much of the positive work in and around Catholic parishes, which engenders a great sense of community” was being compromised.
A spokesperson for the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland said: “Changes to the immigration system by the UK government are causing significant difficulty for the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland and for the communities that the Church serves.
“Catholic parishes, without the support of visiting priests, would be unable to provide the level of service to the local community that it does at present, such as Masses, weddings, funerals, comforting the bereaved, tending to the sick and needy, and many other works of charity including food banks and soup kitchens.”
The Church of Scotland also urged the government to reverse the decision. The Very Rev Dr Susan Brown, convener of the Church’s World Mission Council said she had been “shocked” by the “retrograde step”.
She added: “The benefit of the time spent in the UK is not just to the individual or to our churches but whole communities. Having the opportunity to have a minister from one of our partner Churches overseas brings a wealth of learning to people about faith and about global issues.
“Scotland is a welcoming country and we believe that the Church of Scotland can play a great part in this, but if the UK government continues to thwart efforts to invite people to spend time in Scotland for legitimate reasons by making the process more difficult and more expensive then we will be the ones to lose out. We strongly urge the UK government to reverse this change in the visa system.”
A Westminster debate today will see the issue raised by Glasgow SNP MP David Linden, who is demanding the Home Office reverse the “damaging changes” to the religious work visa scheme.
He said: “The original Tier 5 work visa allowed faith communities to keep ticking over smoothly, with no reduction in services, while the parish priest or religious leader took a short break or sabbatical.
“It is nonsensical to expect faith communities, many with little spare money to begin with, to pay more than double the cost of a temporary work visa for a long-term one they do not need.”
The Home Office said there were dedicated immigration routes for religious workers, for short and long postings in the UK and each application was considered on its merits.