The Government have been clear since the start of negotiations with the EU that protecting the rights of EU citizens in the UK, together with the rights of UK nationals living in EU countries, was their first priority.
Since the opposition day debate on 29 November 2017 secured by the hon. Member for North East Fife (Stephen Gethins) on the vital issue of safeguarding citizens’ rights, we have delivered on that commitment and reached an agreement with our EU partners on citizens’ rights. The agreement was set out as part of a joint report issued on 8 December 2017, and provides more than three million EU citizens living in the UK with certainty about their future rights and, most importantly, allows them and their families to stay in the UK.
The agreement will protect EU citizens who have been exercising free movement rights in the UK at the time of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. Family members, including those from outside the EU, living lawfully in the UK with a qualifying EU citizen at this point are also protected.
As part of our citizens’ rights agreement, we have agreed with the EU that we will introduce a new settled status scheme under UK law for EU citizens and their family members who are covered by the agreement. Those who have already had five years of continuous residence in the UK will be eligible to apply for settled status. Others will be able to remain in the UK to build up their five years’ residence.
We have agreed with the EU that the eligibility criteria for UK settled status will be the same as, or more favourable than, those set out in the EU Directive 2004/38/EC for acquiring permanent residence. In line with this, we have already committed to setting the evidence requirements to suit the demands of this unique situation and have taken a unilateral decision to introduce more favourable provisions to ensure that everyone lawfully in the UK on exit day will be able to stay. For example, we will not require evidence that economically inactive EU citizens have previously held comprehensive sickness insurance or apply a “genuine and effective” work test. We are engaging closely with representative bodies for EU citizens in the UK to understand all the different circumstances under which they have built their lives in the UK so as to tailor evidential requirements appropriately.
Those who obtain settled status under the agreement on citizens’ rights will be granted indefinite leave to remain in UK law. This status will provide the holder with the same access to benefits, education and healthcare as those who have obtained permanent residence under EU law.
In addition, those granted indefinite leave to remain in line with this agreement will also benefit from certain more favourable entitlements than those with permanent residence under EU law. For example, their status will not lapse unless they have been continuously absent from the UK for over five years, as opposed to two years.
Importantly, our agreement on citizens’ rights has also opened the door for us to finalise work on the development and delivery of the new system for settled status applications.
The scheme, which will open for applications by the end of 2018, will be streamlined, user-friendly and will draw on existing Government data to minimise the burden on applicants to provide evidence.
The Home Office will work with applicants to ensure that their application is not refused on minor technicalities, and caseworkers considering applications will exercise discretion in favour of the applicant where appropriate. As a result, we expect the vast majority of cases to be granted.
To ensure all EU citizens and their families have enough time to apply for UK status, the scheme will remain open for applications for at least two years after the UK leaves the EU. During this period, they will enjoy the rights conferred by the agreement. The application fee will not exceed the cost charged to British citizens for a UK passport, and for those who already have a valid permanent residence document there will be a simple process to exchange this for a new settled status document which will be free of charge.
The agreement reached in December will now be converted into the legal text of the Withdrawal agreement. The withdrawal agreement and implementation Bill will incorporate the contents of the withdrawal agreement, including the agreement on citizens’ rights, into UK law by primary legislation. This will mean that the agreement on citizens’ rights will have direct effect in UK law and EU citizens can rely directly on it.
We are pleased with the progress we have made on citizens’ rights. Reaching an agreement with the EU on this and other separation issues is an important step on our journey towards a new relationship with our European partners.
The Government hugely value the contributions that EU citizens and their families make to the economic, social and cultural fabric of this country, and we have been clear from the start that we want them to stay. The agreement we have reached with the EU will allow EU citizens to do this and continue living their lives as they do now.