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Free Movement of EU Nationals

Volume 664: debated on Wednesday 2 October 2019

I beg to move,

That this House has considered proposed changes to free movement of EU nationals.

I am delighted to raise the issue of freedom of movement in the EU, and I thank you, Sir David, for your chairmanship. “End freedom of movement” is a Brexiteer slogan that we have all become so accustomed to that it is easy to forget what it is really saying, and what it would really mean to this country, people living here and British citizens living abroad. We all know the basic numbers: freedom of movement allows 1.3 million British citizens to live, work, study, fall in love, marry, or retire across the European Union while more than 50,000 non-UK EU citizens work in our national health service, including support staff, nurses and doctors, all of whom play a vital role in our nation’s health.

More than 80,000 EU citizens work in social care, and even more in the UK construction industry. As the Government love to tell us, unemployment is at its lowest rate for 40 years, but where are the British workers who are queuing up and clamouring to take those jobs? If we end freedom of movement, who will care for our sick and elderly? Who will build the 300,000 homes a year that Britain needs? The Government’s own figures show that non-UK EU citizens bring far more to our economy and public services than they use. If free movement ends, services will suffer because we will not have the people to continue to provide them at the same level.

Those are the numbers, but what about the human cost and the sheer inhumanity of ending freedom of movement? Edinburgh West has constituents from France, Spain, Poland and many other EU countries who have made their lives in the city. Their children were born there, but now they are being told that they are not welcome. They feel they have no option but to leave.

I must take exception to the language used by the hon. Lady. We have given a very clear message that all EU citizens currently residing in this country are welcome to stay. At the end of August, 1.5 million people had been granted settled status or pre-settled status, and there had been only one rejection.

With respect, that contrasts completely with what non-UK EU citizens tell me every week on the doorstep.

Although there is a settled status scheme, that does not make anyone feel welcome, and that is the issue. People no longer feel that they are wanted. They have to go through paperwork to stay in a country that has often been their home for decades.

Members across the House should understand that simple messaging is often far more powerful to people than complex explanations and systems. If we vote to leave the European Union and declare the end of freedom of movement as a great triumph—to great cheers, “I will remove your liberty.” Amazing!—we should not be surprised if the response of people already in this country and elsewhere is to think, “The United Kingdom is not for me.” The simplest message received by many EU citizens through us voting to leave the European Union is that they are not wanted. That might be inaccurate, but it is the perception, and it is human and understandable.

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I have in my constituency a family who came here from France more than 20 years ago. They have worked here, and both their sons were born here and are in schools in Edinburgh. While one son is automatically entitled to a British passport under the new system, the other is not. They have been asked to provide proof of residence and employment. They have only ever worked here, they pay tax here and they have national insurance cards, but they are being asked to prove their entitlement to stay here under the settled status scheme. They have also been asked to prove how long and how often they have visited France. I do not know whether any other Members here keep plane and train tickets for 20 years, but I certainly do not. However, that is probably the only way to prove where and when we were in the European Union at any time in the past 20 or 30 years under freedom of movement.

What about the many thousands of students who have travelled to or from the EU as part of the Erasmus scheme? Last year at my daughter’s graduation ceremony at Edinburgh University, an honorary doctorate was given to the man who established that scheme. As I looked out on that hall, I saw students, graduates and academics from all across Europe who have come here to make a contribution.

I represent a university constituency and have students, academics and researchers coming to see me every week. Does the hon. Lady agree that the international standing of our universities—a global brand that has been so successful—is at risk from this isolationist, inward-looking policy of ending free movement?

I completely agree with the hon. Lady. There are many projects in this country that have been initiated by academics from elsewhere in Europe and that we would not have had without freedom of movement. Our reputation stands to be damaged by the ending of freedom of movement.

Amid all that concern, and despite what the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) has said, we still have no clear picture of what the Government intend. For example, the Home Office changed its position in August, saying that free movement would end on 31 October. In September, the Government rowed back, admitting that primary legislation is needed to end free movement and saying that free movement will continue until the end of 2020.

The Government now say they will just make some changes to free movement as of 31 October. Are we surprised that everyone, including hon. Members, is waiting for some clarity from the Government and perhaps thinks that the Government themselves do not know the implications of ending free movement or how to end it?

There is confusion and lack of clarity about what the Government will do on immigration and what will replace the current immigration system. Then there is the impact on different sectors. Only 2% of employers in this country sponsor visas from non-EU nationals, but thousands more have EU nationals working for them and will now need to grapple with an immigration system of which they have no knowledge. What will they do? Will they have to employ lawyers? What about landlords who will have to have visas for immigrants? What about schools, many of which are now informing parents about the settled status system on which, as we have heard, there is no clarity whatever?

There is one other issue that particularly bothers me: the Good Friday agreement, which protects, in its words,

“the birthright of all the people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British, or both, as they may so choose, and accordingly confirm that their right to hold both British and Irish citizenship is accepted by both Governments and would not be affected by any future change in the status of Northern Ireland.”

The Government simply have not got to grips with what that will mean when we lose free movement. What about the rights of the people in Northern Ireland? How will they be affected by the loss of free movement?

One other thing comes to mind. When I was a young woman starting out on a career, I heard a British Prime Minister talking about how wonderful the single market would be, and how it would allow businesses in this country to prosper by putting no limitation on them and allowing the workforce to move freely across Europe. About a week ago, I was talking to a young girl who is slightly older than I was when my parents took part in the original EU referendum, in which we decided to stay in what was then, I believe, the European Economic Community. I thought about all the opportunities that I have had and that my generation have all enjoyed, including my generation of students, academics, business people and entrepreneurs, or those who simply wanted to travel. I thought about the benefits that we have enjoyed for 40 years, and I thought about what the end of that single market and that collaboration with Europe, which that Prime Minister promised us, will mean to this generation.

I also thought about what that Prime Minister might think, and I wonder what this Conservative Government would tell her, about their bringing an end to what in many ways was her vision of Europe, which they are now betraying, and the generation that they are betraying, who will not have the opportunities that every person in this Chamber has had for 40 years. How will we explain that? How will we look members of this generation in the eye and tell them that, while it was good enough for us and we benefited from it, they cannot? I say that because, while people can dress this up however they want, with red buses with numbers on the side, and while the Prime Minister can say whatever he likes about leaving, deal or no deal, it boils down to the simple fact that without freedom of movement we will all be poorer.

My hon. Friend makes a massively important point about the great mass of us in this country; this issue is about our freedom of movement, and that of generations to come, as much as it is about anybody else’s.

I wonder whether my hon. Friend will say something about those people in the most marginal position. There is a real need to ensure that the provisions of the Dublin system for refugee family reunion are maintained post-Brexit. However, does she share my concern that unaccompanied minors in Europe who have family in the UK might find themselves in a much more marginalised position?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point, because unaccompanied minors will find themselves much more marginalised. They will find it much more difficult to come to this country, as everyone will, which is another illustration of why I think this Government have not thought through what leaving the European Union will actually mean, and what the end of freedom of movement will actually mean, to immigration, employment and the economy. We have seen that the Government have papers that tell them what it will mean, but are they paying attention?

On Radio 4 yesterday morning, the Prime Minister said that this Government are working to mitigate the impact of a no-deal Brexit, and of Brexit. Even the Prime Minister knows that there is an impact—a detrimental impact—to be mitigated.

I am really appreciative of the hon. Lady’s speech, which is excellent, particularly around the research community. Brexit has a massive impact on my constituency, not least because of the university in it. One of the issues that constituents have raised with me regularly is that they now cannot plan for their future, or that of their family unit. That is because they do not know what will happen if, say, their mum or dad becomes ill and that parent is French or Spanish, or lives elsewhere in the EU. They do not know whether they will still be able, as they are now, to bring family members into their home to care for them, because they do not know whether those family members will still be eligible, if they continue to live in the EU country they are in currently, to come here to be with them. This issue is really penetrating the family unit, too.

The hon. Lady again makes an excellent point about what we in this country will lose: the ability to be sure that family members who live elsewhere in the European Union can come here and be looked after in our homes, and the ability to go and look after them easily. I am sure that, like me, every MP has constituents who come to them regularly because they have issues with family members who have travelled to other parts of the world outwith the European Union, and they know how difficult it is to go at a moment’s notice if, perhaps, a family member is ill. We should cherish the fact that we have that ability in the European Union.

Returning to the Prime Minister, if he is saying publicly that he is trying to mitigate the effects of a no-deal Brexit, surely that is an acknowledgment that that is not going to be good for this country. A Prime Minister and a Government who acknowledge that they are doing something that has to be mitigated have serious questions to ask themselves.

Thank you for presiding over this morning’s debate, Sir David. I apologise for the fact that you have a Minister responding who is not directly responsible for this area of policy but, as you may know, things are going on in Manchester that mean we are ducking and diving slightly.

It would perhaps be easy to dismiss some of the issues that the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) raised, not least because much of the emotion and assertion is incorrect, but I recognise that she, like many people, is grieving—mourning the outcome of a referendum three years ago with which she profoundly disagreed. Much of her speech this morning was a rerun of the debates held during that referendum and since, accompanied by great emotion and controversy across the nation. I urge her and other hon. Members to try to be as measured as possible about the coming changes in the immigration system, not least because, as she says, they will affect a great number of people. This morning I aim to provide clarity on some of the points that she has perhaps not yet grasped, unlike the 1.7 million people who have applied for EU settled status.

The Government have been clear that on 31 October the UK will leave the European Union. Our intention is to leave with a deal and, as you will have seen in the newspapers, Sir David, work is ongoing to get that deal. But we must also prepare for a no-deal exit, not least because the EU may choose that outcome itself. At that point, free movement as it stands will end. On 4 September the Home Secretary set out the immigration arrangements for European economic area and Swiss citizens moving to the UK after a no-deal Brexit on 31 October. To be clear, those new immigration arrangements will not affect EEA citizens who are already living in the UK before we exit. The Government value the enormous contribution that they make to our economy, public services and national life. They are our friends, our families and our neighbours. That is why we have given an unequivocal guarantee to the more than 3 million EEA citizens resident in the UK that their rights will be protected, and we urge them to stay.

The Government have delivered that protection through the EU settlement scheme, which will give them a UK immigration status and rights in UK law. They will have at least until 31 December 2020 to make an application to the scheme. The EUSS makes it easy for EU citizens to get the status they need to remain here permanently after we leave the EU, with the same rights to work and to access benefits and services as they have now. Applicants need only complete three key steps: prove their identity, show that they live in the UK, and declare any criminal convictions. It is free to make an application. There is less hassle than when applying for a bank account or renting a flat.

I seek the Minister’s help. A couple of weeks ago I met a constituent whose wife has applied for settled status and has received a letter from the Home Office confirming that her application has been successful, but it also says that the letter is not proof that she has settled status. How does somebody prove that they have settled status?

My team will provide me with the answer shortly, and I will come back to the hon. Lady on that question.

Thus far, 1.7 million people have applied to the scheme and more than 1.5 million have already been granted settled status. In a no-deal scenario, law-abiding individuals will also be able to live, study, work and access benefits and services in the UK until the remainder of the free movement framework is repealed by Parliament at the end of 2020. If they wish to stay beyond that point, EEA and Swiss citizens and their close families will be able to apply for European temporary leave to remain through a new scheme that we will launch after exit to provide them with a bridge into the new immigration system.

The ETLR scheme will be opened by the Home Office after exit. Applications will be free and involve a simple online process and identity, security and criminality checks; successful applicants will receive permission to stay for three years. This will give individuals and their employers confidence and certainty that they can remain in the UK after the end of 2020. Anyone who wishes to stay in the UK after their temporary status expires will need to make a further application under the new points-based immigration system.

On that future immigration system, our vision is for a truly global country where we welcome the brightest and best, where we are more outward-facing, and where we decide who comes here based on what they have to offer and their circumstances, not where they come from. That is why the Home Secretary has commissioned the independent Migration Advisory Committee to review the benefits of a points-based system and what best practice can be learned from other international comparators, including the Australian immigration system. The MAC is also undertaking an existing commission on salary thresholds.

We will announce the details of the UK’s future immigration system early next year, after considering the MAC’s advice on these issues. That will provide time for businesses to adapt ahead of the implementation of the new system from January 2021.

Will the circumstances that the Minister describes include the scenario that I raised about family members being able to come to the UK—or vice versa, where EU citizens go to their home state?

If hon. Members do not mind, I will finish trying to give broad clarity and then, at the end, give answers to specific questions, which are being provided by my officials behind me.

Post exit, if we leave the EU without a deal, free movement as it currently stands under EU law will end on 31 October, as I said. The Government will make tangible changes at the border to reflect our status outside the European Union. We will introduce visual changes, such as removing the blue EU customs channels and introducing blue UK passports, later this year. We will also supply a tougher UK criminality threshold to conduct at the border and in the UK, to keep out and deport those who commit crime. The Government have also signalled our intention to phase out the use of EEA national identity cards to travel to the UK during 2020. Where we need to legislate to make those changes, we will do so with secondary legislation.

Immediately after exit, EEA and Swiss citizens can continue to enter the UK with a valid passport or identity card. They will be able to use e-gates if they have a biometric passport, and they will not require visas.

On the point that I was perhaps too emotional, may I make the counterpoint that what we are hearing at the moment is a list of facts—a list of procedures? When will the Government accept that this endless, meaningless list of facts has an impact on people, on the economy, on lives and on this country’s future? When will they acknowledge its impact on people’s lives?

The hon. Lady is quite right that there will be an impact. The intention of leaving the European Union is that it should be impactful. During the referendum campaign, in which I know she participated, no doubt she outlined what she felt that impact would be. The question is how the impact is felt by individuals. What we are trying to do in creating the EUSS, the EUTLR scheme and the future immigration arrangements in this country is ensure that that impact is as beneficial and smooth as possible, both for us as a country and for the people who participate in it.

I happen to be married to an immigrant myself. She is not from the EU; she is from Canada. I had to go through the existing immigration system to be able to marry her and for her to be able to stay in the country, so I have some experience of what it is like for people coming from outside the EU. We also travel regularly to and from Canada, a country that operates a perfectly humane and compassionate immigration system but is not part of a free movement bloc. Its universities flourish, its communities are as varied and lively as we would expect—in fact, it is a nation built on immigration, yet it operates a perfectly sane and reasonable immigration system. That is what we intend to do.

As for Members’ specific questions, these obviously relate to relatively complex situations, so if Members do not mind I will take the inquiries about repatriation, families being brought into the country and proof of settled status letters and provide some clarity in writing. However, my understanding is that EUSS is meant to be and should be a smooth and simple system—the over 1.5 million people who have applied for it thus far have seemingly found it so—that allows people to continue, if you like, unmolested in their status in this country. That is what we are trying to achieve.

Turning to a couple of other specific matters, the hon. Member for Edinburgh West referred to the impact on Northern Ireland. Of course, the island of Ireland has benefited from a common travel area for many decades—since well before our membership of the EU—and the UK Government, the EU and the Irish Government have committed to the preservation of the common travel area in perpetuity, so I would not have any concerns there.

Finally, the hon. Lady also raised an issue about academics and their ability to travel to and from the EU. It is the case—the Government have already announced this—that we will favour academics in the immigration system, making it easier for scientists and others to come and do academic research in this country, not least because we recognise the benefits to this country and, indeed, to international effort towards solving humanity’s problems with science and technology. However, please be aware that there are scientists outside the EU. There are many scientists in China, India, Pakistan and the United States who also want to come to this country to do their research. In fact, there are a lot more of them than there are in the European Union. For example, there are more top 10 science-based universities outside the EU than there are inside it, and I speak as a former chair of the all-party parliamentary group for life sciences. We want an immigration system that opens our academic endeavour in this country to the world, not just to the European Union.

The Minister says that he wants to open the system, but are we not just making it as difficult for everybody from the EU to come here as it currently is for academics from the rest of the world? Should we not be looking at making it as easy for everyone to come here as it currently is for academics from the EU?

As the hon. Lady will be aware, we will be developing our plans for our future immigration system over the next few months but, as I said in my speech, we want to operate on the basis of a person’s circumstances and what they can offer, not on where they come from. We should not discriminate in our immigration system based on geography, but we should discriminate based on circumstances and what someone can offer this country. That is what I think people felt was encapsulated when they voted to take back control of the immigration system, and that, I think, is what we are going to try and achieve over the next few months and years.

However, I recognise that the changes to immigration are providing some uncertainty for many people, and I hope that I have been able to provide an element of clarity and that the remaining 1.5 million—or whatever it is—EU citizens who are eligible for settled status and who can apply for it up until the end of next year will do so with speed and alacrity.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.