Many of you know L’Arche is an international organisation and aims to spread the word about how valued people with learning disabilities are, and how important it is to work with people from all over the world. L’Arche has a core tradition of hospitality and welcome and we believe that having assistants from abroad that live within the community brings an important irreplaceable asset to our Community and to the lives of people with a learning disability.
For over 40 years, L’Arche Kent has welcomed people from within and outside Europe as assistants on a temporary basis, adding to the richness and diversity of our Community. Whilst nationally the proportion of international assistants every year is small, there are seven from outside the EU in L’Arche Kent this year, and they remain a vital element of our Community. L’Arche is both a well-regarded service provider and peace-building network. By enabling relationships between such a diverse body of people, we evidence the central importance of relationship in the building of understanding, trust and friendship between different human beings.
We are now facing a time when this tradition is being challenged and the future of these “live in assistants” is being threatened and we think you need to know about what is happening.
The benefits these people from abroad bring to us all are now under threat by a recent tightening of the regulations and a more strict interpretation of UKVI guidance which applies to the type of visa which international live-in applicants require to join L’Arche (a Tier 5 Temporary Charity Worker visa). These community assistants are provided with board and lodging and subsistence; they provide friendship and sustain the life of the Community, whilst also providing care and support to members with learning disabilities. We have operated this way for over 40 years.
Our assistants who are affected would have to leave prematurely and suddenly in September were our visa sponsorship licence to be revoked. This would cause distress to them and to our Community and disrupt the support we provide.
These live in assistants, these community members from abroad that are willing to give us a year of their lives to help us, are not a strain on the resources of the UK or the UK taxpayer. International live-in assistants have no recourse to public funds. They are not eligible for welfare benefits, and they pay their own way via the Healthcare NHS surcharge, and other costs such as short breaks away during their year. Any change in their status or whereabouts during the year is reported to UKVI by L’Arche. Live-in assistants are not paid a salary; they receive free board and lodging and subsistence. L’Arche was awarded an exemption from the National Minimum Wage Act in 1999, in recognition of the Intentional Community nature of shared living, and in pursuit of a religious and spiritual objective (Section 44A of the Minimum Wage legislation). Live-in assistants receive the same training as live-out assistants, plus additional input tailored to their specific community-building role. They contribute to the support which Social Workers assess for each person with a learning disability – and add enormous value through the daily life they share living alongside people with learning disabilities.
Why is the UK Government changing our lives?
Prior to the introduction of the Points Based System for visa awards in 2008, the Home Office guidance contained a concession for charities wishing to invite voluntary workers from outside Europe (chapter 17 section 9 of the Immigration directorate’s instructions in force at the time). L’Arche was specifically named in Annex B to that section of the guidance, and our live-in assistant roles were described as falling within the concession.
With the introduction of the Points Based System, the guidance was rewritten, and the Annex containing the list of legitimate charities was deleted. At the time, we understood we had clear agreement from UKVI that our continued Mission would fit with the criteria applied by the new Tier 5 visa rules. This proved to be the case for several years, and our view was affirmed by two inspections in 2012 and 2015.
However our commitment to International live-in assistants is now jeopardised by the recent UKVI decision on 8/6/18 to suspend L’Arche’s licence to sponsor Tier 5 visas. Although we have not changed the way we welcome international live-in assistants, these roles are now judged to fall outside the guidance. This decision partly rests on a tightening of the wording of the regulations in late 2015; it had previously been accepted that International live-in assistants were not taking up permanent roles, because they were dependent on a one-year visa. The new wording said that permanent roles could not be filled on a temporary basis, and our arrangements have been judged to fail this test. More generally, UKVI staff are implementing a stricter interpretation of the guidance than had been in place; arguing for example that our subsistence payments are too high, although we are confident that we are operating within our concession under the National Minimum Wage Act.
We have responded challenging these points, but if UKVI are not convinced by our arguments, they will revoke our licence and all of our International assistants will have to leave the country within 60 days. We fear that even should we mount a successful challenge this time, the questions will arise again. We are therefore asking for your help in lobbying the Minister to not revoke our licence, but instead to reinstate the explicit concession for L’Arche (and similar charities) within the guidance, so that our Communities can continue with the life-affirming mission in which we have been engaged for over 40 years.
We hope that you will share our concerns and contact your MP or visit them to help create awareness amongst our politicians as to how this change will affect the L’Arche Communities and the L’Arche Kent Community.