Exclusive: Former defence secretary Dr Liam Fox tells Channel 4 News Home Office rules which are leaving foreign and commonwealth soldiers facing deportation are “a breach of the military covenant”.
During the summer Channel 4 News revealed that former foreign and commonwealth soldier, Fijian, Lance Corporal Isimeli “Bale” Baleiwai, had been refused British citizenship after voluntarily leaving the army.
Under current rules foreign and commonwealth troops can claim British citizenship after four years of military service. But a new law, which appears to be increasingly used against foreign soldiers who have been disciplined at commanding officer level, is leaving them without basic rights or status.
Those who’ve been serving the armed forces have been risking their own safety for the security of the United Kingdom, should be given extra points and should be at the top of the list. Liam Fox
Bale Baleiwai had been disciplined by his commanding officer for being involved in a fight with another soldier. His military offence equated to a criminal conviction in civilian life. This prevented him from securing British citizenship and because he was classed as an “illegal” he became subject to deportation.
Speaking to Channel 4 News, former defence secretary Dr Liam Fox said: “I think apply a test a fairness here. Do most people in Britain think it’s fair that somebody who has put life and limb at risk for Britain’s national security is denied the right to stay in the United Kingdom when many others would be allowed to do so, then I think yes, most people would say this is a breach.”
He called on the “whole of government” to look and change the current legislation and said the Home Office should take the lead.
He said: “There have been these cases for a long time. They primarily lie with the Home Office, but I think we have to accept we have a responsibility across the whole of government.
“Those who’ve been serving the armed forces have been risking their own safety for the security of the United Kingdom, should be given extra points and should be at the top of the list. I think that’s what most British people would think.”
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The shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy agrees with his former counterpart. He said: “I think these terrible cases that Channel 4 News has reported and reflected on should bring up a wider issue: how do we properly respect the service over all of those years of those who’ve come from the commonwealth and beyond, who served in her majesty’s armed forces?
“This may be an opportunity to reflect whether we’ve got the balance right.”
A Home Office spokesman told Channel 4 News: “We recognise the sacrifices made by our armed Forces. Foreign and commonwealth military personnel who have served for more than four years can apply for settlement up to two years after leaving the military.
“We are reviewing the criteria for granting settlement rights including how criminal convictions and sentences imposed under military law affect immigration and nationality decisions.”
The former armed forces minister, Liberal Democrat Nick Harvey said that any review of legislation needs to be done now.
He said: “I do think that any such review has to be pretty urgent and swiftly concluded if people are not going to lose out in the meantime, and regrettably with these rounds of redundancies, of which there are more to come, we may see a situation where there’s an increasing number of people involved here.”
Last month, the former head of the British Army General Lord Richard Dannatt told Channel 4 News he would be happy to help the Home Office deal with the legislative problem.
Previously another former head of the army, General Sir Mike Jackson, told Channel 4 News he thought the foreign and commonwealth soldiers were being dealt with “harshly” and said their service should be counted as “a big plus” when British citizenship is decided.
There are currently 8,505 foreign and commonwealth soldiers serving in the British forces, not including the 3,880 gurkhas who previously won the right to residency.
There could be as many as 100 such cases like Mr Baleiwai’s, according to the charity which has supported F&C troops, Veterans Aid. In one extreme case, a serving soldier told Channel 4 News he could face prison if he is deported back to his homeland.
Earlier this month, Channel 4 News obtained an internal Ministry of Defence briefing document on discipline policy which was distributed widely to army commanders following a report by the programme.
It revealed the army had been wrongly advising F&C soldiers over their disciplinaries and British commanders were unaware of the serious implications that follow summary hearing findings against F&C soldiers.
Furthermore, the UK Border Agency had been ignoring its own guidance on dealing with the troops’ immigration status. Bale Baleiwai has been given discretionary leave to remain for six months while he awaits a military appeal hearing in November with a full jury. He has recently started a new, but temporary job.