Priti Patel is planning to hike visa fees for NHS and other workers from EU countries, triggering criticism of “a stealth tax on frontline heroes”.
The row has blown up because Ms Patel is exploring removing a £55 discount on application fees for citizens from 26 countries, most of which are EU members.
The move would hit workers in the NHS and care sectors, as well as seasonal workers such as fruit pickers – all areas where there are fears of staff shortages after Brexit.
It would also mean employers would lose their exemption from paying a £199 fee as part of their sponsorship of foreign workers.
The discounts are for signatories to the Council of Europe’s Social Charter of 1961, also including Turkey and North Macedonia as well as most of the 27 EU members.
Nick Thomas-Symonds, the shadow home secretary, attacked the plan, saying: “What does the home secretary have against NHS and care workers?
“Conservative plans to slap a stealth tax on frontline heroes, who have risked their own health to keep us safe through this pandemic, is shameful.
“The prime minister made a personal promise to remove the immigration health surcharge for overseas workers. Now, what he gave with one hand, he seeks to take away with the other.”
The Home Office acknowledged Ms Patel is considering withdrawing from the Social Charter of the Council of Europe, which was created after the Second World War and is distinct from the EU.
Under the terms of the treaty, the UK and 26 other countries are obliged to make it easier for citizens of other signatories to move among them for work.
Article 18.2 requires them to “simplify existing formalities and to reduce or abolish chancery dues and other charges payable by foreign workers or their employers”.
During the UK’s membership of the EU – because of free movement of worker rules within the bloc – the charter was irrelevant for the vast majority of the countries involved.
Five EU members are not part of the scheme and so already pay higher fees. They are Bulgaria, Estonia, Lithuania, Romania and Slovenia.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “All visa fees are kept under review.
“Now free movement has ended our ambition is to ensure consistency and fairness across the immigration system, including across EU member states.
“Health and care workers are offered significantly lower fees under the new health and care visa.”
The government was forced to grant the exemption from the surcharge – for health and care workers – after The Independent revealed Ms Patel had decided the fees must stay without carrying out a promised “review”.
The £624 charge is also paid by spouses and children, meaning the total cost can reach £8,000 for a family of four on a five-year work permit.
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