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Citizens’ Rights

Volume 742: debated on Thursday 14 December 2023

With permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will make a statement on the 2021 and 2022 annual reports by the Independent Monitoring Authority for the Citizens’ Rights Agreements and by the European Commission, on the implementation and application of citizens’ rights.

The overall picture on citizens’ rights is very positive. Both the UK Government and the EU have worked to uphold our obligations under the withdrawal agreement. We maintain a constructive dialogue and remain committed to upholding the rights of withdrawal agreement beneficiaries and their eligible family members.

We acknowledge that a very small number of beneficiaries have encountered issues: from the roughly 5.7 million EU-citizen withdrawal agreement beneficiaries—EU citizens living in the UK—the IMA received 237 complaints in 2021, and 209 in 2022. From the estimated 1.4 million UK-national withdrawal agreement beneficiaries living in the EU, the Commission received 40 complaints in 2021, and 30 in 2022.

The UK Government continue to press the EU for concrete action to rectify those issues affecting UK nationals. In contrast to the extensive data that the UK publishes on the EU settlement scheme, we do not have consistent and detailed statistics on all member states’ residence schemes. As a result, we continue to encourage our friends across member states to publish similarly detailed data.

The IMA is a body established by the EU withdrawal agreement and a parallel agreement with non-EU European economic area states. It exists to monitor and promote the implementation and application of the citizens’ rights parts of those agreements in the UK, and it is required to produce annual reports on implementation and application for the specialised committee on citizens’ rights. It has published two reports so far: the first in June 2022 and the second in June 2023. The European Commission also has an obligation to publish an annual report on implementation and application, and it published its second report earlier this month.

The IMA reports set out the scope of the IMA’s powers, including the power to receive complaints, conduct inquiries and take legal action. They contain information on the measures taken by the UK to implement its citizens’ rights obligations. They also set out the IMA’s activities, including legislation, monitoring and litigation, early case resolutions, and decisions to take no further action where there is insufficient evidence of a breach. In 2021, where the IMA was notified of issues, they related primarily to access to healthcare and benefits, living in the UK and Gibraltar, entry to the UK, and housing. There were fewer issues in 2022, and they related primarily to the right to reside. In both years, the UK Government, the devolved Administrations and the Government of Gibraltar worked with the IMA to provide figures and information.

The UK has taken a generous and pragmatic approach to EEA citizens in the UK through the EU settlement scheme. As of 30 September 2023, there were nearly 7.6 million applications to the scheme, with an estimated 5.7 million people having obtained status. The Home Office continues to receive and process more than 1,000 applications every day, on average. There remains a wide range of support available for applicants, including the grant-funded network of organisations across the UK that have helped more than half a million vulnerable people apply to the scheme. Further support is available through the resolution centre, which provides telephone and email assistance to applicants, and We Are Digital, which provides support for applicants completing the online application process. The Government are committed to working with the IMA to resolve issues as they arise, and we will continue to update our guidance where necessary.

The European Commission’s reports set out the Commission’s duties and responsibilities in the application of part 2 of the withdrawal agreement, including measures to comply with the agreement at both EU and member-state level; the Commission’s approach to enforcement of the withdrawal agreement, including its exchanges with member states and complaints; and how the Commission responded to issues raised by UK nationals. Of the issues raised with the Commission in 2021, most related to residence rights or residence documents, and others concerned travel and border crossing, equal treatment, access to employment, and education and training. The 2022 report shows that most issues raised by UK nationals that year also related to residence rights, particularly refusals of applications to a member state’s residence scheme. A smaller number of complaints related to travel and border crossing. UK nationals can seek redress at national level and report breaches of their rights to the European Commission.

We are pleased that the Commission’s annual reports provide some statistics on UK nationals’ residence applications in most member states, but we continue to call for comprehensive data on residence from every member state. It is not acceptable that data is missing from certain states, particularly when contrasted with our own extensive data on the EU settlement scheme, which we publish quarterly. We also urge the Commission to provide further details on how complaints by UK nationals are handled, and how the complaints procedure is advertised to UK nationals in the EU. We continue to hold the Commission and member states to account for the correct implementation and application of part 2 of the withdrawal agreement.

Overall, we are satisfied that most UK nationals in the EU can access their rights under the withdrawal agreement, but there are some issues affecting a small number of individuals. We currently have two main concerns. The first relates to UK nationals’ ability to evidence their permanent residency rights in certain member states where challenges exist in securing residency cards. The second is to ensure that the rights of joining family members are protected. That means making sure that member states correctly apply the family reunification provisions of the withdrawal agreement—for example, that family members can access visas free of charge, and that sufficient guidance exists for joining family members to enable practical access to rights. We are working to ensure that UK-national withdrawal agreement beneficiaries have the same rights as EU nationals when buying property. We also continue to work with the EU Commission and member states to ensure that the withdrawal agreement rights of international workers are protected.

In conclusion, I want to underline the importance that the UK Government place on upholding citizens’ rights. We are committed to ensuring that both the UK and the EU fulfil their obligations under the withdrawal agreement, and we continue to work very closely with the Commission, the IMA and civil society groups to achieve that. I commend the statement to the House.

I thank the Minister for advance sight of his statement. We welcome engagement between the Government and the European Union on these issues. Maintaining an open, constructive and consistent dialogue is critical to the mutual welfare and rights of all those affected by the withdrawal agreement. We also welcome the work of the Independent Monitoring Authority, the specialised committee and bodies such as the EU-UK Parliamentary Partnership Assembly.

We will always stand up for the rights of the British in Europe, but we recognise that these issues must be addressed in a spirit of mutual and constructive co-operation. As the Minister outlined, the joint statements made in the light of the specialised committee on citizens’ rights appear to show important progress. Fewer issues relating to healthcare, benefits and housing were relayed to the IMA in 2022 than in 2021, but it is clear that some challenges persist. The Minister has outlined a number of those, and we need to work pragmatically and constructively to address them. One of the issues that he mentioned is whether data is fit for purpose. There is not consistency in the data provided by individual countries—it is incomplete and variable. I hope the Minister can say a little more about what he is doing with his European Union counterparts about the data missing from certain member states, in order to achieve baseline parity.

It has also been relayed to Labour that there are continuing problems with the process of issuing residence cards—an example often cited is Portugal. I understand that that process is now under way, but problems are being reported with family reunification, as people struggle to obtain appointments and QR codes. We have also heard about problems with payment systems and delays in printing and issuing cards, which can have an impact on other rights under the withdrawal agreement. What discussions has the Minister had about that?

Concerns have also been raised about the number of refusals in a number of member states and the varying approach to late applications across many countries. British in Europe, an important advocacy group on behalf of citizens, has stated that late applications and the prevalence of refusals are causing consternation and anxiety for many. There is also concern about the lack of communication and information on these issues. Concerns have been raised in the past in relation to Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Belgium, although again the situation has improved, for example with the Danish Government’s decision to extend the deadline for British citizens to apply for status to the end of 2023. Can the Minister update us on the concerns raised in that regard?

Particular concerns were raised about the situation in Sweden, where the refusal rate and the order to leave are statistically higher than in equivalent countries. I have heard some very concerning cases, including one relating to an elderly lady with dementia. Again, can the Minister say what discussions he has had specifically with the Swedish Government on those issues and what he is doing to improve communication with British citizens?

There are concerns about absences and the impact on ordinary and permanent residents. We need a clear statement from the European Commission on the position in the light of recent legal cases. There are concerns about fees. For example, I understand that citizens are being charged €200 to upgrade their status in countries such as Latvia. There are also concerns about cases—thankfully, a very small number of cases—where families have unfortunately been split up due to inconsistencies. Does the Minister have an assessment of how many cases there are in that regard?

Many citizens affected are raising questions about equal treatment and non-discrimination under articles 12 and 23 of the withdrawal agreement. Can the Minister say a little about how we are ensuring equality of treatment in all areas—tax, property, school and university access, health access and so on?

Finally, there is a more general issue about where UK citizens turn when they need advice on enforcing their withdrawal agreement rights—there is a lack of specialised lawyers in this area—and about funding for advice and advocacy services, although I recognise the importance of the work being done by schemes such as Your Europe Advice.

We also need clarity on how we are addressing the concerns of EU citizens here, many of whom have lived here for decades, have contributed and paid taxes, have marriages and children, and so on. The Minister outlined the number of people who have applied to the EU settlement scheme. Where are we on the progress on determining remaining cases and making determinations? We are aware that the scheme has faced serious issues, with hundreds of thousands of late applications, long delays on decisions, delays for those with pre-settled status, and a lack of clarity on their move to settled status. EU citizens over here also deserve clarity and certainty over their status and that of their loved ones. It is vital that the Home Office addresses those concerns, so I wonder if the Minister could update us on what conversations he has had with his colleagues in the Home Office.

One issue that is often raised with us is school trips. How can we address some of the problems that have emerged and may emerge around that important contact between our countries?

Finally, reconnecting Britain starts with Europe. They are our neighbours, partners and allies, and a Labour Government would prioritise building a new ambitious partnership with the EU and European member states. We will not rejoin the EU, the single market or the customs union, or return to freedom of movement, but it is in our mutual benefit to ensure tangible improvements in the experience of citizens on both sides under the withdrawal agreement, recognising the depth of our people-to-people connections.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his questions and for his warm endorsement of a statement that, I think, reflects the overwhelming success of the scheme on both sides. He made a welcome reference to the UK-EU Parliamentary Partnership Assembly, which I was pleased to address last week in Parliament. That shows the practical utility of the exchanges between parliamentarians, both from the EU and the UK, and how they can serve as an important platform for an exchange of views. The warm tone of that meeting reflected the health and positivity of the relationship.

There are, of course, some challenges. The hon. Gentleman asked a good question about data. We do need consistency across member states and we continue to work both with the Commission and bilaterally to encourage greater granularity in the data coming from member states. Bilateral work continues, for example on the issuing of residence rights. It is a particular issue in Portugal, but we have been very grateful to the Portuguese Government for their positive approach. We have raised it at the highest level and we continue to do so. The Foreign Secretary discussed these issues with Vice-President Šefčovič very recently. When I travel as a Minister, I am constantly engaged with these sorts of citizens’ rights as a routine part of my engagement across European capitals.

The hon. Gentleman asked a very good question about Sweden and Denmark. We continue to work bilaterally to resolve those specific issues. He asked a specific question about fees in Latvia. I will write to him on that and on his question about the number of family members involved in cases that are yet to have a satisfactory outcome.

The hon. Gentleman asked a very good question on where people should turn when they need help. In the first instance they should access help online, whether through the Independent Monitoring Authority in the UK or by approaching the EU Commission if an individual is resident in the EU. We have a very wide and comprehensive consular network in British missions right across Europe, with expertise that is deployable to help those concerned. I was very pleased to meet the group he mentioned, British in Europe. I had expansive discussions with that group, which does a terrific job of making British residents in Europe aware of the help available to them.

The hon. Gentleman asked a good question about the duration of a determination. Clearly, the Home Office is doing a terrific job in driving forward a high volume of applications. It is receiving and processing 1,000 cases per day. My understanding is that the average processing time is six months, but we should be very clear that no individual will ever miss out due to any kind of timeline. No one’s fundamental rights will be undermined. Settled status is guaranteed whether or not a certain timeline has been missed, and that was the basis of the recent extension.

In conclusion, the hon. Gentleman was right to point out that we are neighbours, partners and friends to the European Commission and to the member states. That warm tone and collaborative working dictates everything we do on citizens’ rights and beyond.

Having spent two and a half years negotiating the citizens’ rights agreement and updating the House on it, I am very pleased with the full statement my hon. Friend has just delivered and the conclusion that the overall picture is a very positive one, which is reflected in the numbers and in the dwindling number of issues being raised on both sides. Can he reassure me, however, that where issues are raised they go right to the top of Government—the Foreign Secretary’s bilateral conversations with members states—and that we are raising the issues with the consistency of data, because it is important to get the right arrangements for our citizens living in the EU?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. His moment has come! The House should be grateful for his tremendous work in the days of the Department for Exiting the European Union, in which he served very ably for an extremely long time. The fact that citizens’ rights are in good shape is in no small part down to his setting up of the scheme. He is right to ask whether issues go right to the top. We make representations at the highest level—the Foreign Secretary discussed citizens’ rights with Vice-President Šefčovič very recently—so it has the full attention of ministerial and official effort.

I thank the Minister for prior sight of his statement. I, too, am pleased that both sides appear to be working constructively to uphold the obligations laid out in the withdrawal agreement.

As we have heard, however, the situation remains far from ideal for many, including EU citizens living in the UK. I understand that during the meeting held earlier this month, the EU raised again the lack of clarity for EU citizens who hold new UK residence status, questioning whether their rights were guaranteed by the withdrawal agreement, or solely by domestic law. Perhaps the Minister could confirm whether it is the former or the latter.

The Minister spoke of his concern about UK nationals in the EU being unable to evidence their permanent residence rights in certain member states. I agree that that must be a huge concern for those involved, but it is also the case that 6 million EU citizens in the UK have digital-only immigration status. Given the long experience of the Home Office having a less than perfect track record of file maintenance, will the Government do something now about providing EU citizens with a physical back-up to confirm their immigration status?

There is also concern around those to who have been granted pre-settled status but who do not yet have, or who cannot evidence, five years of continuous residence. With 3,500 universal credit applications refused, the right to reside requirement appears to be almost a hidden form of no recourse to public funds. Would it not be far better to strengthen the bonds between the UK and the European Union by recognising EU citizens’ rights with access to social security?

Finally, can the Minister tell us what EU member states thought about the new salary threshold, which means that British citizens will be unable to live legally in the UK with spouses from EU member states? Did they see that as maintaining the constructive dialogue and remaining committed to upholding the rights of beneficiaries and their eligible family members, as the Minister suggested?

The hon. Gentleman asked about the route via which rights were applied. The withdrawal agreement guarantees the rights of those joining family members with settled status, and no one’s rights will be undermined by any other factor. He then asked about digital status. We live in a digital age, and this is overwhelmingly the convenient and efficient means of providing documents, but should individuals struggle with the digital means, a dedicated resolution centre is available, so there is recourse to assistance for the more analogue-minded individuals who might need it.

Of course access will continue. As we have seen—and I noted the numbers in the statement—the volume of applications reflects the fact that a large number of EU citizens are still coming to the UK to join family members under the arrangements set up by the withdrawal agreement. That, I think, is a positive reflection of the success of the scheme, and also of the fact that those people are attracted to live and work in the UK.

The hon. Gentleman invited me to go beyond the scope of the statement by commenting on the salary threshold. I will not accept that invitation, but I will say that I think there is a warm realisation between the UK and member states and the Commission that the withdrawal agreement is working well. Citizens’ rights are overwhelmingly in good shape, and there is that warm positivity between the UK, the Commission and member states to ensure that we get this right.

I thank the Minister for his statement. Can he assure me that, as he continues to monitor changes in the law with EU member states, he stands ready to inform British nationals of any changes that are to be made? Will he say how that would be done?

We do stand ready. That information will primarily be sent out via our extensive consular network for UK nationals living in the EU—my hon. Friend will know that there are more than 400,000 in Spain, for example. We will use our consular network and our deep connections with local communities to ensure that those residents are kept up to date.

Perhaps, Madam Deputy Speaker, in the spirit of the festive season, I might be allowed a slightly rambling question, having been inspired by the Minister’s mention of border crossings and travel.

In my student days, I went backpacking and interrailing around Europe. I discovered that a kilt would get you a free drink in some very surprising places. Indeed, I overdid it once in Munich, but we will not go into that. [Laughter.] I assume that before he joined the Foot Guards, the Minister will have done something similar—or perhaps that did not become a guardsman; I do not know.

I want to explore the Minister’s thinking. It strikes me that the ability of youngsters to travel around Europe and meet other Europeans, learning their languages and learning about their cultures, has been a tremendous exercise in peacemaking and understanding for the whole of Europe. Does the Minister see that as something important that we should try to continue and to accomplish in the future?

Of course the hon. Gentleman is right. We acknowledge that the ability of young people to travel and experience foreign cultures and education in different languages is hugely important, and we are doing all we can to ensure that the same volume of schoolchildren from the European continent are able to access that by spending time in the UK. We are open to discussions about a more sustained mechanism for ensuring that young people from Europe can always study in the UK, because that is very important.

The hon. Gentleman reflected pertinently on his personal experiences of travel in Europe. The House is grateful for that. It is, of course, a matter of grave regret to me that the Foot Guards do not wear kilts.