The Secretary of State regularly discusses the rights of EU citizens with the Home Secretary and other Cabinet colleagues. To protect the right to reside, EU citizens who are resident at the end of the implementation period must apply for settled status by June 2021. This is a free-of-charge process, and we have already received well over 2.6 million applications to the scheme.
I am grateful to the Minister for that reply, and obviously I am delighted by the progress that the settlement scheme is making in encouraging EU citizens who are here to remain. In common with many colleagues in the House, I spent a number of days in the last few weeks knocking on doors and talking to my constituents. One of the people I came across was an EU citizen—an Italian who was married to a British lady and had lived here for over 50 years, working all the time and paying his taxes. He wanted to become a British citizen, but is faced with an application fee of £1,700. Does my hon. Friend think that that is fair? Is there something that we can do to encourage people who have lived here for a long time to become British citizens?
I am more than happy to meet my right hon. Friend to talk about the specifics of that case and the EU settlement scheme. Yesterday the Minister for immigration talked about why that issue would not be covered by the withdrawal agreement Bill, but I am more than happy to chat to my right hon. Friend about that individual case.
Will the Minister further outline whether he intends to level the fees between European partners and Commonwealth partners such as Canada to ensure that there is a level playing field for immigration? Is he aware that that would reduce the fees paid by Commonwealth spouses?
I have regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues on citizens’ rights. The withdrawal agreement will protect the rights of EU citizens who arrive in the UK by the end of the implementation period. As of the end of November, we were already moving towards receiving 3 million applications to the EU settlement scheme.
I am glad that the hon. Lady asks that question, because it lets me say: first, we have a grace period until June 2021 to address that issue; and, secondly, the declaratory scheme that she advocates would increase the risk of exactly the issue to which she refers.
Does the Secretary of State agree that the fact that 3.5 million EU citizens see the best future for themselves and their families as to remain living and working in post-Brexit Britain is a huge endorsement of our post-Brexit prospects? I wish that that confidence was shared by hon. Members on both sides of the House.
I urge Members on both sides of the House to support Third Reading of the withdrawal agreement Bill because it safeguards the rights of the 3 million EU citizens here, as it does those of the 1 million or so UK citizens in Europe. The Bill guarantees the rights of those EU citizens because we value the contribution they make to our homes, communities and businesses.
Refusing to provide paper proof of status, rejecting Labour’s proposal to grant automatic status, granting only uncertainty inducing pre-settled status to people who have been here legally for years and the high cost of applying for citizenship—what part of all that does the Secretary of State believe makes our EU friends and neighbours living in the UK feel truly valued and welcome?
In which case the hon. Lady should well know that the specific issue of documentation versus digital was raised with the Minister for Security, who was clear that although there will be a letter to provide a document, it would have reference to the digital number. That issue was explored at length. She will also know that citizens do not lose any rights when they get pre-settled status, and that they then move on to settled status. Those issues were debated—that is what a Committee stage is for—and addressed by a Home Office Minister at that time.