(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union if he will make a statement on what efforts the British Government have made to fulfil the instruction of this House, dated 27 February 2019, to seek agreement on EU and British citizens’ rights and in particular the protection of British citizens in the EU in the event of no deal.
I start by paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa). It is testament to his passionate defence of the rights of EU citizens and UK nationals that the amendment he brought before this House was passed unanimously—a rare feat. I congratulate him on his work.
I thank my hon. Friend for organising a recent meeting with representatives from British in Europe and the3million to discuss their proposal to seek a joint UK-EU commitment to adopt part 2 of the withdrawal agreement in any scenario. The Secretary of State was grateful for the opportunity to hear their views and the views of my hon. Friend on that matter. As my hon. Friend will be aware, we have written the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, to report those views, particularly to make it clear that in a no-deal scenario adopting the citizens’ rights agreement is far superior to 28 unilateral solutions. I have also had representations from the devolved nations of the UK indicating their support for that approach. For example, Mike Russell, the Scottish Government’s lead Minister on EU exit recently wrote to the Secretary of State to set out the Scottish Government’s support for adopting the citizens’ rights agreement.
The Government have been steadfast in their commitment to protect the rights of EU citizens. They are our friends, colleagues and neighbours, and we want them to stay. We are already implementing our no-deal offer to EU citizens in the UK, and the EU settlement scheme opened successfully on 30 March, with over 750,000 EU citizens having now applied. The Secretary of State wrote to the EU to seek its views on adopting the citizens’ rights part of the withdrawal agreement in any scenario, and Michel Barnier responded on 25 March. Last night, the Secretary of State issued a response to Michel Barnier, reporting recent conversations with my hon. Friend for South Leicestershire, the3million and British in Europe, and asked for officials to be able to continue to work together to explore how best we protect the citizens’ rights in all scenarios.
In the response, the Secretary of State reaffirmed that adopting the citizens’ rights part of the agreement as a UK-EU solution will offer the greatest protection for UK nationals in the EU and EU citizens in the UK. That is due to the importance of rights, such as the agreed social security co-ordination provisions, that cover areas such as reciprocal healthcare and the accumulation of pension contributions, which require a reciprocal agreement to provide the best level of operation. The Secretary of State wrote to my hon. Friend this morning with a copy of that letter, which was deposited in the Library and published on gov.uk.
Finally, I want to reaffirm that citizens’ rights have been a priority throughout the negotiations, and it is an area that both the Government and this House take extremely seriously. As such, the best way to guarantee those rights, both for UK nationals in the EU and EU citizens in the UK, is for this House to approve a deal.
I thank the Minister for his response. I also want to put on the record my gratitude to the Secretary of State for meeting with the3million and British in Europe a few weeks ago. It is inconceivable that a British Government—let alone a Conservative Government—could allow the rights of British nationals working, living or studying in the EU to vaporise overnight on 31 October. However, we find ourselves in a deeply unpalatable position in which our fellow citizens, and EU nationals resident in this country, have had their rights wrongly placed on the negotiating table.
I am not here to criticise the outgoing Prime Minister. I am here to invite whoever is going to take over, and the current Minister and his team, to ratchet things up a few notches to ensure that the will of this House, which was unanimously passed on 27 February, to carve out the citizens’ rights element of the withdrawal agreement, thereby protecting under international law the rights of British nationals in the EU and the rights of EU citizens here, is carried out. We have seen two letters thus far, and I am inviting the Government to do the right thing, which means ensuring that a task force is set up urgently. Members of the existing Government, senior civil servants and other stakeholders should meet urgently with Michel Barnier, Donald Tusk and other stakeholders in the EU to convey the unanimous will of this House. There is no disagreement across the House or, indeed, across the Brexit divide on the protection of citizens’ rights—no disagreement at all. This is low-hanging fruit, yet, for some reason or another, we simply have not achieved that agreement.
I welcome the Minister’s work, and I know he has done a lot of work in particular on the voting rights of EU nationals here. I compliment him on his work, but when this House is united and when the devolved nations of our country have backed the House of Commons on this issue, there is no excuse for the UK Government to do anything other than intensify their efforts to get an agreement on the rights of citizens.
I end how I started. Never in peacetime, never, have the rights of over 1 million British citizens been placed on the negotiating table like this. I say to the British Government once again that, as a responsible Conservative Government, the rights of our citizens, along with the rights of EU nationals, must be protected whatever the outcome of Brexit.
My hon. Friend rightly calls on us to ratchet up the pressure, and I assure him that we will. I also assure him that, whoever takes forward the leadership of our party and our country, will feel pressure not only from him but from Back Benchers on both sides of the House to continue pressing on this issue. Of course, we made a commitment to him and to British in Europe that we would respond to Mr Barnier before the next European Council on 20 June. I am glad that we have been able to deliver on that commitment today.
As hon. Members on both sides of the House will know, the European elections were held between 23 and 26 May and Government activity had to respect the purdah period imposed because of those elections, but it is right that we pressed forward swiftly after that to ratchet up the pressure on ring-fencing, as my hon. Friend said.
Meanwhile, I assure my hon. Friend that there is a large citizens’ rights team in my Department that is working closely with colleagues in other Departments, including the Home Office. The team has been working tirelessly to ensure that citizens are given the certainty they need to plan for life once the UK leaves the EU. Our no-deal policy paper confirms that EU citizens resident in the UK by exit day can apply to the settlement scheme to secure their status in a no-deal scenario. As I mentioned earlier, the settlement scheme, which launched on 30 March, has had over 750,000 applications. Almost 700,000 of those applications have been concluded, with none being refused.
The UK pushed hard in negotiations for reciprocal voting rights, but as my hon. Friend knows, they did not form part of the withdrawal agreement. We have set out that we will seek to agree bilateral deals with all member states to secure those rights for the future. We are pleased to have now made significant progress on bilateral agreements, having signed agreement with Spain, Portugal and, today, Luxembourg. The Secretary of State signed the latter just a few hours ago, and we hope it will set a strong precedent for reaching agreements with other EU neighbours and friends to protect the right of UK nationals to continue voting in local elections.
We are very aware of my hon. Friend’s key point. His amendment enjoyed the unanimous support of the House, of all parts of the United Kingdom and of all parties from all parts of the spectrum of opinion on Brexit. We remain committed to delivering on citizens’ rights, and we are focused on making sure that we reach an overall agreement to secure an orderly EU exit for the UK, but we remain committed to executing the will of this House and we eagerly anticipate Michel Barnier’s response to our letter on ring-fencing.
I start by paying tribute to the hon. Member for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa), who has won respect on both sides of the House and in the country for the way in which he has championed the cause of EU citizens in the UK and of British citizens in Europe. We were pleased to back his cross-party amendment on 27 February.
The hon. Gentleman is right to be worried that, as Conservative Members apparently prepare to crown a leader who seems willing to take the country to a no-deal Brexit, EU citizens face new uncertainty. Many of the disastrous consequences of a no-deal Brexit have been spelled out, not least by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who has talked of the deep damage it would do to our economy and our living standards. It would have helped if the Prime Minister had not spent so long talking up a no-deal Brexit as a viable option, but insufficient attention has been paid to the consequences for citizens’ rights. Lives have been thrown into uncertainty by our current situation.
It did not have to be like this. If instead of making bargaining chips of EU and British citizens, as the hon. Member for South Leicestershire pointed out, the Government had accepted our motion back in July 2016 to provide a unilateral guarantee to EU nationals in the UK, we could have quickly secured reciprocal agreements to protect the rights of Brits in the EU27. Those agreements would have stood ring-fenced, insulated from the calamity of the Government’s withdrawal agreement.
It was clear in December 2018, when the Government backed off from their vote on the deal, that this issue would have to be addressed, so why did it take the action of the hon. Gentleman and the vote of this House to secure that action from the Government? After Michel Barnier wrote to the Secretary of State on 25 March, why did it take three long months for him to reply?
It has taken this urgent question to bring the issue back to the Floor of the House. Why did the Government not report back to the House sooner? The deep uncertainty facing the 3 million EU citizens in the UK and the 1.2 million Brits in Europe, who are by far the biggest national group affected by Brexit, is of huge importance, so why are the Government not treating it with that urgency?
There is a great deal on these issues on which the hon. Gentleman and I agree. I suspect we take the same dim view of the attractiveness of any kind of no-deal exit, but where I disagree is on his narrative about the Government’s urgency. We have always put citizens at the forefront of negotiations, and we reached an agreement with the EU on the detail of a citizens’ rights agreement some time before the House voted on the amendment in February.
The EU has said repeatedly throughout this process that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. We have challenged that in taking up the call of my hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire for ring-fencing, and we will continue to press the case for ring-fencing, but it is a bit rich for the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) to suggest that the Labour party takes this more seriously than my party does when the Opposition Benches are a gaping empty space for this urgent question.
It is vital that we all work together, reflecting the cross-party nature of the amendment to secure these rights. In that respect, I hope the hon. Gentleman will welcome the progress that has been made today and the further progress that we intend to make in the months to come on the issue of voting rights.
A number of my constituents or their family members, even children, are caught up in this, and many of them have contacted me. Whatever one’s views—whatever my views and whatever their views—of our future relationship with the European Union, they frankly do not deserve the very real anxiety this is causing.
Given what the Minister has said today about where the block now lies, it is not now a lack of will on the part of Her Majesty’s Government, although they could have gone a lot further before the withdrawal agreement was set. Will he convey to Mr Barnier my sentiments and those of my constituents before he replies to the Secretary of State’s letter? This is not a game. This is the lives of people living in my constituency and in many other constituencies. The very real anxiety of which I spoke is there, and Mr Barnier can address it. He must understand that before he replies to the Secretary of State’s letter.
I fully appreciate my hon. Friend’s point. The Secretary of State’s letter to Mr Barnier has gone, and there is a copy in the Library, but this is something we should reiterate to our European counterparts at every opportunity. We have all said this, and the EU has said, I trust in good faith, that it wants to put citizens at the forefront of negotiations. We have an opportunity to do so, and we should continue to remind people that it is about individuals living in all our constituencies. We really value them, and we want to provide them with the greatest possible reassurance.
I commend the hon. Member for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa) not only for securing this urgent question but for his tireless efforts on behalf of EU nationals in the UK and of UK nationals overseas. I welcome the assurances in the Secretary of State’s letter, but two big questions still remain. First, why has it taken so long to get not very far? Three years since the referendum, the UK Government have still failed to give the assurances that the Scottish Government were prepared to give the day after the referendum if only they had the powers to do so. I welcome the assurances from the Government, but those assurances ring hollow when we remember the shameful complacency this Government showed two weeks ago when they completely washed their hands of the fact that thousands of these same citizens were denied the basic right to vote in European elections. Why do the Government still insist on a settled status scheme based on, “You apply and we might say no”? And they do say no; far too often, and for no valid reason, they turn down applications from my constituents and others. Why do the Government not go for the scheme the Scottish Government have suggested, which is simply an approach of, “This is your home, thank you for being here, please stay”? Why can we not have a system that recognises residency here as a matter of right, not as a privilege at the whim of the Home Office?
The Secretary of State’s letter said that devolved Administrations support his approach. The letter he referred to from Mike Russell finished with the words that EU citizens
“are our friends, our colleagues and our family and they deserve to stay in the place they have chosen to call home without the insecurity that Brexit has created.”
If the Government agree with that, why do they not get rid of the insecurity right now, and guarantee unconditionally and permanently the rights of all 3 million EU nationals who currently call these islands their home?
I recognise the hon. Gentleman’s passion to ensure that those rights are guaranteed. If he looks at what we have done in terms of the negotiated agreement and the no-deal paper on citizens’ rights as to what will be done, he will see that that is exactly the guarantee that we are providing. He asked an important question about the nature of the settled status scheme and why we feel it needs to constitutive rather than declaratory. With the best will in the world, a purely declaratory scheme risks causing confusion and difficulty for people further down the line. We saw that with Windrush. We want to ensure that people have a simple way of proving their rights under this agreement and we think a constitutive system is a better way to achieve that. We are continuing to work on this with EU citizens’ groups up and down the country, including in Scotland, to make sure that they have all the information they need to secure that. He says that applications have been refused. There are some applications where people are being asked for more evidence or more detail, but there are no applications that have been refused.
I welcome the urgent question from my hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa) on the EU/British citizens issue, as it concerns a large number of my constituents and I am very concerned. I commend the Minister for his statement, his response to this urgent question and the work he has done. The Government have made a commitment, but does he share my disappointment that the EU has not been more positive and proactive on such an important issue?
I do share my right hon. Friend’s disappointment that this has not got further at this stage. Interestingly, a number of MEPs have spoken out asking the EU to go further, as have some of the Parliaments of EU member states, including, recently, the Dutch Parliament, which has called for further progress on this issue. We will continue to press the EU to make progress on this matter because we all recognise the benefits of providing the maximum reassurance to our 4 million citizens.
The best way to ensure the rights of EU citizens in the UK is for us to stay in the EU. The very least the Government should do is guarantee that we will not leave the EU until those citizens and UK citizens in the EU are guaranteed the exact same rights and status as they have now. This affects more than one in five of my constituents, and their friends and family, so will the Minister commit to that—or are we at the mercy of the Dutch auction that is the Tory leadership shambles?
I respect the passion with which the hon. Gentleman makes his arguments, but he must understand that this country had a vote on whether to leave the EU and that vote was decided by the people. We should now make sure that we provide precisely the guarantees he is talking about for our citizens. As I said in my statement, the best way to achieve that is through a ring-fenced citizens’ rights agreement or a whole withdrawal agreement. That is better than anything we can do or 27 EU member states can do unilaterally.
Many of my constituents are affected by this issue, either because they are EU citizens in Chelmsford or they have relatives living in other EU countries. I am particularly concerned about women who may have taken career breaks to care for vulnerable relatives and who therefore find it more challenging to provide the paperwork to prove where they have been. Clearly, it is in our interests and those of EU member states to resolve this as quickly as possible. Does the Minister have any further indication from individual EU member states of the progress they want to make, now that the European elections are over and as soon as the European Parliament starts sitting?
My hon. Friend asks an excellent question. We have been meeting a range of EU member states and we always press them on these issues, both in terms of their own unilateral preparations and to make the case for a wider agreement on this front. There are of course a variety of responses. We have seen in the unilateral arrangements of EU member states that every single one has done something to reassure UK citizens, but the level of the response varies. We will continue to press them on this, so that they continue to reciprocate the strong offer that the UK is making.
I find it hard to contain my anger at the charlatans and snake oil salesmen who will again tonight, on television, be claiming that no deal presents no difficulties; it might present no difficulties for them. I wish to ask the Minister a specific question. In response to a letter that I sent to him, the Minister for Europe and the Americas said:
“If the UK leaves the EU without a deal, and there is no agreement with Germany to continue reciprocal healthcare arrangements, UK Nationals would no longer receive coverage through the S1 form.”
The advice he gives is for them
“to take out German health insurance.”
Can the Minister here today give an assurance to me, and to all UK citizens who might be in that position in any EU country, that the UK Government will pay for their health insurance, rather than them?
Order. Just before the Minister responds, let me say that I recognise and respect the very strong feelings on this matter, but I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman, a former Deputy Leader of the House, whom we all hold—or I certainly do—in the highest esteem, would not refer to any Member of this House as a charlatan. I am sure he would not do that. If he were doing so, dexterous as he is in the use of language and given the full vocabulary with which he is blessed, I know that he will withdraw that term and substitute it with another.
I would like to make it clear that I am certainly not referring to any Member of the House present in the Chamber today as a charlatan or buffoon.
I am afraid that I detect the sight and sound of a very large shovel, as the right hon. Gentleman is digging himself deeper. He has made his point with force and eloquence, but I appeal to him, a seemly Member in normal circumstances, to make it clear that he is attacking the views of Members but he would not impugn their integrity.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am happy to withdraw; I am not impugning their integrity, but I am certainly attacking their views, which I find outrageous.
We all want to secure the best possible arrangements on healthcare for our UK citizens overseas. The best way of doing that is through the withdrawal agreement—the citizens’ rights agreement—or, failing that, a ring-fenced citizens’ rights agreement. Separately to that, of course, the Department of Health and Social Care has written to every EU member state to look at negotiating individual unilateral agreements with those member states. The Commission initially told EU member states not to respond to that offer because it wanted to make sure that we could have an overall agreement and to focus on that first and foremost, but of course it is our intention to put in place the best arrangements to support UK citizens on their healthcare, wherever they are and we shall do that through whatever means are available to us.
Some 11,000 of my constituents are nationals of other EU countries—that is one of the highest proportions in this House. Not only are they welcome, but they are essential members of my local community. May I commend the Minister for the work he is doing on the rights of British subjects overseas, because I suspect I also represent one of the highest proportions of those? I thank him for the agreements he has made—he mentioned the one with Portugal and the one with Luxembourg just in the last couple of days. Could he point a constituency MP such as me to where all these agreements are held in a central place, so that when I receive inquiries I can immediately check what each of those EU27 countries are doing?
My right hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Perhaps I should declare an interest, because during the week I am one of his constituents, and EU citizens live either side of me in his constituency. I would be happy to write to him and to put a copy of that letter in the Library of the House so that all Members have that information. So far, we have reached agreements with Spain, Portugal and Luxembourg. We hope to come to many more agreements in the months to come.
The Minister says that EU27 citizens can apply for settlement, and I understand that, but my EU constituents have seen how the immigration service works when it is at its worst, rather than at its best. They have seen the egregious excesses of the treatment of the Windrush generation and they have seen how asylum seekers have been treated, and they are not confident that their cases will be treated fairly. I hope the Minister can reassure us—he is a trustworthy man, I am sure. What conversations has he had with his colleagues in the Home Office and in particular with the Minister for Immigration about making sure that the immigration system is watertight, so that EU27 citizens can have absolute guaranteed confidence in the system, which they currently do not have?
I absolutely recognise the concerns that the hon. Lady has raised. I have had my own challenges in dealing with constituency casework on some of these issues in the past. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration shares my determination to make sure that the settled status system is different culturally—it is about helping people to prove their right to stay and making sure that they get the documentation that they need for that—and she and I continue to work closely on that. More than that, we have also been working with the consulates and embassies of EU member states and with diaspora groups up and down the country to make sure that we take their concerns and needs into account. I absolutely assure the hon. Lady of our determination to get the system right so that it delivers for all of the 3 million. We hope that EU member states will make a similar effort for UK citizens—indeed, we will urge them to do so.
The hon. Member for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa) has been incredibly patient on this topic, as has, indeed, the whole House. In case the Minister has forgotten, the hon. Gentleman’s amendment was passed in February. I genuinely do not understand. We are the ones doing the divorcing. If this matter was a real priority for the Government, why did it take three months for them to reply to Michel Barnier’s letter? I have thousands of EU citizens in my South Cambridgeshire constituency, and I just do not see any urgency at all. Might the Minister offer to update the House at least monthly between now and 31 October, so that citizens can have some assurance that their futures are going to be secure?
We absolutely respect the urgency of this issue. We took the House’s vote up with the European Union very shortly after that vote. We then had meetings with British in Europe and the3million to make sure that in taking the matter forward we would accurately represent their views. In the meantime, as I have explained, we have had the purdah period for the European elections. It is right that the Secretary of State has been at the General Affairs Council today to press the issue, and that he has sent the letter. We will absolutely continue to update the House as and when progress is made on the matter. The hon. Lady has to recognise that currently the broader negotiations are not necessarily moving forward until we have clarity on the issue of the next Government.
What a rum business—I did not see the feller standing before. I call Nic Dakin.
When is this finally going to be sorted?
The simplest answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is that it would have been sorted already if we had all voted for a withdrawal agreement and secured it.
The Erasmus programme is probably the most successful student exchange scheme in the world. My local university, Bangor University in Wales, shares in that success, with around 100 agreements in 20 countries. The university sector is devolved, but I note that in his initial response the Minister did not mention any communication with the Welsh Government, although he did mention communication with the Scottish Government. What meetings and communication has he had with the Welsh Government to ensure that Welsh students and staff in the EU27 and the EU staff and students in Wales have equal rights in the event of a no-deal Brexit?
I reassure the hon. Gentleman that we have had meetings with the Welsh Government, and I have met universities in Wales to discuss this issue specifically. As he will know, the Government are supporting an association with the Erasmus scheme and have provided specific guarantees for funding the scheme, even in the event of no deal. We will continue to discuss the issue with all the devolved Administrations. Just to correct the hon. Gentleman slightly: I did mention the devolved Administrations—plural—in my initial statement.
I commend the hon. Member for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa) for his courage and integrity in securing this urgent question. I notice that the number of Members in attendance from Her Majesty’s official Opposition has been somewhat sparse, but we in Her Majesty’s unofficial Opposition, the great remain alliance, are happy to defend the rights of our EU citizens. To that end, will the Minister give the House an undertaking that at the conclusion of the exchanges on this urgent question he will go and speak to the Prime Minister’s aides and all those who advise her? She is looking for a legacy, and there could be no greater legacy in the next four weeks than for her to secure the rights of our 3 million EU citizens and the 1.4 million British people working in the EU and do the right thing by them. Frankly, after three years, and with only four months to go before we are due to crash out without a deal, this is simply not good enough. This matter must be resolved. Human beings must no longer be used as bargaining chips.
The right hon. Lady makes a serious point, but first let me congratulate her on having invented yet another name for her grouping in Parliament.
The Prime Minister is already agreed on this matter and we are already taking it up as a matter of Government policy, which is why the letter on ring-fencing has gone to Michel Barnier today.
A significant number of my constituents in Edinburgh South West are EU nationals, and many have been in touch with me to say that such confidence as they had in the British Government’s commitment to their rights post Brexit has been severely dented by what happened, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) mentioned, on 23 May, when many EU citizens throughout the United Kingdom were denied their right to vote. What specific steps is the Minister taking to rebuild the confidence of EU citizens in the UK in the Government’s commitment to their rights, given that many of them were denied the basic right to vote in the EU elections?
The hon. and learned Lady will have heard from Cabinet Office Ministers about the Electoral Commission’s work to review all elections and how they were handled. The commission will report back on the recent European elections and we look forward to seeing that report. On the concrete steps, it is important that we are pressing ahead to secure bilateral agreements on voting rights, and we have written to every single EU member state on that. It is important that the Government, reflecting the views that we have heard from across the House, sent the letter on ring-fencing last night.
I stay in close contact with members of the3million in my Bath constituency and understand their real anxieties, particularly in respect of vulnerable and elderly EU citizens who do not have access to computers and are not particularly computer-savvy. The Department has set up a little outlet in Bath to which people can come from across the south-west to get help with their application, but it is simply not good enough. People have to travel a long distance, and many elderly EU citizens do not even know that they have to apply for settled status. What are the Government doing to help elderly EU citizens who do not have access to computers? The Government should commit to ensuring that each local authority will have a centre such as that in Bath and that each local authority has the means to contact EU citizens who are older and do not have access to a computer. Will the Minister make that commitment?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for acknowledging that there is such a centre in her constituency. Progress has been made on widening the range of centres available. The Home Office has provided additional assistance to community groups, some of which may be best placed to reach out to EU citizens in the UK. Additional assistance to the tune of around £9 million has been allocated to a wide range of community groups, including groups that support people with disabilities and people who are elderly.
Contrary to what the Minister said earlier, the problem for the Windrush generation was not the fact that their status was declared in law; the problem was that they could not access documents to prove their status. Against that background, why do the Government continue to ignore calls from the3million to provide citizens with documentary proof of their status, rather than merely digital proof?
The hon. Gentleman will recognise that, across Government, there is a move to go digital—to put more online. It is absolutely right that there should be help for those people who may find that most difficult, and that comes to the substance of my answer to the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse). The view is also that documents, as a one-off thing, can be lost. It is better for people to have a secure and permanent digital status.
The Minister said that 750,000 EU citizens have applied through the settlement scheme, but that means that more than 2 million have not yet applied. Having spoken to many of those EU citizens, including many in the academic sector, in the NHS, and in education, I can tell the Minister today that they are not feeling the love. Does he not he realise that by continuing to use language such as “prove their rights” with regard to EU citizens, it sets the wrong tone when we are also trying not just to encourage them to stay, but to guarantee the rights of British citizens in the EU?
We want to keep reiterating the message that these people are valuable and valued members of their communities. They are making a big contribution, whether they are UK citizens living in the EU, or EU citizens living in our own constituencies, and we should continue to reiterate that, but I make no apology for saying that we want to help people prove their rights under this agreement. That is a good thing to do. We want to secure those rights permanently. The settled status scheme, which was designed to do that, is the best way of achieving that.
The worry for people is that this has been going on for far too long. In the highlands, this issue affects families and neighbours and the very sustainability of communities, businesses and services. It is an aberration to ask highlanders to register to apply to stay in their own homes. Does the Minister not realise that the best thing to do is to simply acknowledge and grant the right for people to stay and live in their own homes?
We want to acknowledge and grant that right, but we also want to ensure that, in the years and decades to come, these people have the ability to prove that they are individuals who are protected by the agreement that we reached with the EU. That is important and it is something with which we should continue to press ahead.
I am sure that the hon. Member for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa) shares my concern about the vacant Benches opposite and the fact that, on such a serious matter, the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) from the Opposition Whips Office had to scurry up the back to bob up and down to ask a question. On 21 January this year, the Prime Minister committed to a review of the ongoing concerns of Irish nationals under the Good Friday agreement to exercise their Irish and therefore their European rights in Northern Ireland and across the rest of the United Kingdom after Brexit. Will the Minister tell the House whether he has read the Good Friday agreement? Secondly, will he tell us when the Prime Minister will publish the review before scurrying back to the Back Benches?
I have read the Good Friday agreement. I read it as the Parliamentary Private Secretary at the Northern Ireland Office, and I have read it as a Minister in my Department. I think that it is absolutely right that we should protect all elements of that agreement. Of course the hon. Gentleman will know that the issue of EU citizens and UK citizens sits alongside the common travel area arrangements and the commitments that we made under the Good Friday agreement, which stand regardless. I am very glad that we have been able to work very effectively with the Irish Government to convince all the other EU member states that those issues should be respected whatever the outcome of the negotiations and whatever the arrangements we reach between the UK and the EU.
I would like to know how many of the affected citizens the Minister has actually spoken to. Does he understand the crippling doubt and uncertainty that is affecting so many hundreds of thousands of people, particularly with the spectre of no deal hanging over their heads? Is there somebody else that the Minister should be speaking to at this particularly crucial moment? I am talking about the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) whom he should go and speak to right away to find out what on earth he is planning to do, because nobody else seems to be hearing a word from him.
I have met EU citizens’ groups up and down the UK in a number of embassies and at a number of events that we have held across the country. I have met British citizens and their representatives in a number of EU member states that I have been visiting. I continue to listen to their concerns and to ensure that those are reflected at the highest levels of Government. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) can answer for himself, but I will certainly be making the case to whoever takes on the leadership of our party and our country that securing the rights of EU citizens and UK citizens needs to be a top priority.