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House of Lords Hansard
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19 November 2014
Volume 757

Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they have made any proposal to other European Union member states, either severally or collectively, which would limit (1) the right of United Kingdom citizens to live and work in other European Union member states, or (2) the parallel right of citizens of other European Union member states to live and work in the United Kingdom.

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My Lords, the Government have regularly engaged with other member states on the issue of free movement, the Home Secretary has consistently pressed for action on abuse and the European Council has recognised that this issue needs to be tackled. The Government have also started a debate on reforming the transitional controls for new member states and will engage constructively with other member states in discussion on how best to achieve change in this area.

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I thank the Minister for his reply, which means no. The reason it is no is that it has obviously dawned on the Government, belatedly, that this would require reciprocation by all the rest of the 28 member states.

I have two supplementaries. First, does the Minister agree that there is a broad balance at the moment, not by design but by the facts on the ground, between the number of Brits living over there, in the EU, and the number of Europeans coming here? Roughly 2.2 million gain a living there and there are a few more here. Secondly, is the Minister aware that it is not exceptional to have this arrangement in Britain? Does he agree that, for example, there are far more people from the rest of the EU living in Germany—not least from Greece and Romania—than are living here in Britain?

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First, my initial Answer was yes not no. It was that we have been engaging with Europe. The European Commission has endorsed this approach. The noble Lord referred to Germany. The German Government are passing legislation through the Bundestag to restrict the benefits of those who come to Germany when they are not genuinely seeking work. It was tested in the European Court of Justice. These are exactly the types of reforms and reviews which we have been pushing, from our side, and which are getting greater support across the other member states of the European Union.

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Does my noble friend agree that tone is very important in these issues? We should show quite clearly how much we benefit from the large number of people from the rest of the European Union working here, and how much the rest of the European Union benefits from people from the United Kingdom going there. If we talked a bit more cheerfully about this—the greatest peacetime achievement that has happened in Europe—perhaps people would be more willing to listen to our comments.

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I totally agree with my noble friend about tone. The British people have a reputation for hospitality and tolerance and have welcomed people who are making a positive contribution to our society. However, that of course has its limits and we need to be mindful that there is great concern about unrestricted, uncontrolled immigration into this country and the impact it has upon social cohesion and our public services.

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My Lords, the Minister mentioned the reputation that this country has for hospitality. Is he aware of an associated issue: the difficulty that members of the Commonwealth face in obtaining a visa even to visit, let alone to work and live in this country, which seriously hampers a lot of very important overseas links with dioceses, including my own—so much so that my friends in Tanzania were unable to be present at my wife’s funeral earlier this year? Is that sort of impediment government policy and, if not, can he assure us that it will be addressed?

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We very much encourage people to come to this country, whether to study or to work. We want to encourage the best and the brightest to come to this country, as well as tourists; there are many people we want to encourage—but there is a difference between that and people who significantly abuse the system in coming here because of benefits.

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My Lords, following the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Deben, the very useful statistics on the numbers of EU citizens here as opposed to British citizens living in the EU brought forward by my noble friend Lord Lea—it is about exactly the same—and given the statement the other day by the director-general of the CBI, who does not know of a company in this country that is not in some degree dependent on immigration, will the Government agree that free movement of labour, apart from being a most valuable human right, is actually a factor of considerable economic importance in this country?

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We totally agree with that. I have to say that the figures that I have are that there are 2.3 million EU nationals living in the UK and 1.4 million British citizens living in the EU. Those are very important for the success of the single market, which has already been referred to. Of course we welcome people who genuinely want to come here to work, study or visit.

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My Lords, the United Kingdom has a proud record of campaigning for the enlargement of the EU and bringing our eastern colleagues in Europe into the fold of the European Union. We have had great credit for that in the past. Is it not a great shame that through our rhetoric we are turning those countries that came into the European Union in 2004 from friends into people who resent our attitudes towards them?

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I do not accept the premise that we are alienating people. People recognise that there are legitimate concerns here; if proper transitional arrangements are put in place, that can aid relations between both countries, such as the ones that we have used in the case of Croatia, which will remain in place until 2019.

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My Lords, is it not the fact that the number of children coming into school with English as their second language has risen from 6% last year to 16% this year?

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My noble friend is absolutely right, and that is one reason why we have said that it is a condition of immigration that the English language must be an important part of that.

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My Lords, the Minister will have heard the disappointment and concern on his side of the House that the Government do not seem to be building workable relations with other countries in the European Union. That makes any change much more difficult. Could the Minister tell me specifically which member states have backed the Prime Minister’s proposals to restrict free movement within Europe?

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We are not talking about restricting the free movement of labour—we are talking about restricting the free movement of benefits. I have already listed a number of countries, and Germany is a prime one, which have particular concerns on this that are shared. That includes some of the Nordic countries as well. Some of those countries also had transitional arrangements put in place when we enlarged with the A10 countries in 2004, which the previous Government did not put in place. That led to the major problem that we are now living under.

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My Lords, in the context of this Question, and the previous one, how do we reform the European court?

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I was going to say that that is a question for another day. That will of course be part of any wider negotiation, but let us recognise that in the case brought by the German Government before the European court about benefit tourism—the Dano case—the court actually upheld the decision, which is something that we and the German Government welcome.