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EU Nationals: Legal Status

Volume 773: debated on Monday 4 July 2016


My Lords, I beg leave to repeat an Answer to an Urgent Question given in the other place by my right honourable friend.

“EU nationals make an invaluable contribution to our economy, our society and our daily lives. They should be assured that, as the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary have repeatedly said, there will be no immediate change in their status in the UK. The Prime Minister has been clear that decisions on issues relating to the UK’s exit will be for a new Prime Minister. I am therefore not in a position to make new policy announcements in this area.

The discussions that we have with the EU to agree the arrangements of the UK’s exit will undoubtedly reflect the immense contribution made by EU citizens to our economy, to our NHS, to our schools and in so many other ways. But they must also secure the interests of the 1.2 million British citizens living and working elsewhere in the EU. The Home Secretary was clear yesterday when she said we seek to guarantee that the rights of both groups are protected, and that this is best done through reciprocal discussions with the European Union as part of the negotiations to leave the EU.

It has been suggested that the Government could now fully guarantee EU nationals living in the UK the right to stay. This would be unwise without a parallel assurance from European Governments regarding British nationals living in their countries. Such a step might also have the unintended consequence of prompting EU immigration to the UK. It is in the best interests of all that the Government conduct detailed work on this issue, and that the new Prime Minister decides the best way forward as quickly as possible.

In the meantime, I would like to stress that EU nationals continue to be welcome here. We have seen some truly abhorrent hate crimes perpetrated against EU nationals in the past week or so. We will not stand for these kinds of attacks. They must be, and will be, tackled in the strongest possible terms.

EU nationals can have our full and unreserved reassurance that that their right to enter, work in, study in and live in the UK remains unchanged. But to pre-empt future discussions at this point risks undermining our ability to protect the interests of EU and British citizens alike and to get the best possible outcome for both”.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for repeating the Statement. I declare an interest in that my husband is Spanish and I have just returned from a brief weekend to visit our family in Spain.

In the debate on your Lordships’ EU Committee report, I asked the Minister what plan B was if the UK voted to leave. The committee highlighted the acquired rights of the 2 million or so UK citizens living in other members states and, equally, those of EU citizens living in the UK. Bearing in mind the importance to our economy, as the noble Lord said, and to our health service, I am shocked that no contingency plans appear to have been made.

The Minister, and of course the Minister in the other place, say that the Government’s position must be seen in the round and that their interest is to protect all citizens. Well, I fear that by putting in doubt the rights of EU citizens here, it will have the complete opposite effect from protecting UK citizens in the EU. As I say, I have just come back from Spain; Rajoy’s recent statement and those of the Spanish Foreign Minister are not giving people much comfort either; they repeat the same sort of statement the Government are making. Rajoy says, “Don’t worry, nothing will happen, at least for the next two years”. Two years is an incredibly short period when people have made their lives, bought homes, got jobs, and contributed to the economy. Earlier the Minister explained—as did the Minister in the other place—that there are existing rights, such as the right to remain after five years. But how are people made aware of this? They have never needed to exercise it. So how will the Minister explain that that right exists and people need not worry as they have that protection? How are people going to follow through? Would it not be better, both in terms of protecting our own citizens abroad and our economy, if we removed the uncertainty now?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his remarks. The Government, of course, are listening carefully. As I have done on a couple of occasions from this Dispatch Box, let me reassure noble Lords that it is the Government’s intent to provide reassurance to all our citizens. It is right that we protect the rights of EU citizens in the United Kingdom and provide them with the security of knowing that they can continue to practise, work, live and study in the UK. The issue now arising is one of great uncertainty. As I said earlier this afternoon, we are going through unprecedented circumstances. As we reflect on the situation in which the country has now voted—in the referendum the country voted by a majority to proceed to leave the European Union—it is important that in the discussions we are taking forward with our European partners we protect the interests of British citizens who are working and living, and have done so for many years, in the European Union, and at the same time, put at the forefront the very valid discussion and concern that the noble Lord has just raised again about EU citizens who have made their lives in the UK and who contribute to the UK and its progress.

I can give the reassurance that exactly those sentiments, thoughts and principles are very much in our minds. It is not for me to speak about the future Prime Minister specifically, but I am sure that all those candidates putting themselves forward for Prime Minister, and indeed the new Government, will reflect very strongly about this, because it is central to our future relationship. We may choose to leave the European Union—the people have elected to leave it—but we have not left Europe. Our relationship with Europe will continue.

My Lords, it would appear that the people of the United Kingdom have rejected the Kantian ideal of perpetual peace and the European Union. Are Her Majesty’s Government determined also to walk away from the categorical imperative that people be treated as ends in themselves, not as means? The idea that EU nationals resident in this country should be used as pawns in the negotiation seems to be wholly wrong. Can the Government not commit to assuring those EU nationals who were here at least at the time of the referendum that they can have their rights assured? Surely it is right to respect the dignity of EU nationals resident here and the benefits that they have brought to this country.

I share the sentiments expressed by the noble Baroness. Let me assure her that the Government are looking at this situation. It would not be appropriate to put down a particular marker as to which point, but there are legal considerations to take on board. Of course, the noble Baroness makes a very valid point. We will continue to put the concerns about the security of EU citizens here and UK citizens in the European Union at the centre of discussions as we move forward.

My Lords, for the second time in a week I say to my noble friend that while his credentials are beyond question, it is possible for us to come to some basic agreements before we invoke Article 50, and this should be one. I urge him to talk to the Home Secretary after this Statement and say, “Can we not agree a reciprocal arrangement with our European friends and neighbours that will not threaten the security of those who are living here and those of our citizens who are living there?”.

I will certainly take that back. My noble friend has spoken about this before. I assure him and indeed all noble Lords on this point, which has been raised before: before invoking that particular article, it is important that the terms of negotiation are determined and we know exactly what position we are negotiating from. One important thing to retain in all this is that it is clear that the citizens of the United Kingdom as one nation voted to leave the European Union. That is a fact. We need to ensure that we secure the best possible arrangements across the board. I am sure that the protection of the rights of those who live in the UK as EU nationals and those British nationals who live in the EU will be at the heart of those discussions, both from our perspective and from those of our European partners.

My Lords, when the Minister was speaking a moment ago, he said we must get the agreement of member Governments. I am slightly worried as to whether the negotiation—because that is what it is going to be—about EU citizens living here and our citizens living in the EU can take place at a European level, or whether we are not going to have to negotiate with each member state of the EU separately about their arrangements for continuing to receive our citizens and for our citizens to continue to live there. In other words, will we not have to have separate negotiations with Spain, France and each other country individually, and are we not likely to get different receptions depending on which country we are negotiating with? If so, how on earth are the Government going to do it?

My understanding, and I think I am clear on this, is that the negotiations we will have across the range of different areas regarding the single market, trading arrangements and so on will be with the EU. We continue to be part of the EU and will continue to have those discussions once we have established our negotiating criteria with the EU.

My Lords, I suspect we are going around in circles, but is not a perfectly reasonable solution to this whole problem, for those who are properly registered in individual countries of the EU and may well be taxpayers, to have the uncertainty removed and, possibly prior to a certain date, have permission just to remain where they are and get on with it?

The noble Viscount talked about those who are properly registered and who pay tax. Those phrases underline some of the important discussions that we need to have, without putting down some markers just for the sake of clarifying one point or the other. The central point that must be at the heart of all the negotiations, which I clarify again will be between the UK and the EU, will be ensuring and protecting the rights of all EU nationals here and UK nationals in the EU.

My Lords, my noble friend on the Front Bench talked about someone who was very close to him. Is the Minister aware that there are staff in this House who are now questioning all the time what is going to happen to them? There are Italians and Portuguese, for example, who look after us so well. There is uncertainty surrounding their children who have been born here, while they themselves came here from European countries. This is totally unacceptable. These people are really worried while trying very hard to make our lives as easy as they can.

My Lords, I reiterate that I respect the sentiments and facts that have been presented today in your Lordships’ House, and I shall of course share them with colleagues across government.

I shall end on this point because I am conscious that we have reached our time: this country has always been compassionate in dealing with people irrespective of whether they are from the EU or outside it. Those are guiding principles that define us as a nation and I believe they will be what define us as a country. I am reminded of what Archbishop Desmond Tutu said:

“My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together”.