My Lords, the Prime Minister has said that Article 50 will be triggered before the end of March 2017. We are still forming our negotiating position and are not going to offer a running commentary. It would be wrong to set out timelines before entering a negotiation. We want to get the right deal for Britain, not just the quickest one.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that response, and I declare a non-financial interest as chairman of Migration Watch. I entirely understand the Government’s reluctance to set foot on what is likely to be a fairly slippery slope, but does the noble Baroness agree that it is going to be really difficult for the Government to stick out for three or four months with nothing more to say than, regrettably, she was able to say today? Will she therefore study the 10 key objectives that we published today to see whether they provide a suitable framework for this absolutely key aspect of the forthcoming negotiations?
I thank the noble Lord for that. I have read the report and the recommendations, and I welcome the report. The Government have been clear that as we conduct our negotiations it must be a priority to regain more control of the numbers of people who come here from Europe. It would not be right, therefore, for us to give a running commentary on negotiations.
My Lords, in the context of immigration, may I remind my noble friend of the needs of the agricultural and horticultural industries in constituencies such as my former one? They are dependent on labour from abroad, most notably from eastern Europe, and if they are denied that resource they will face very considerable problems.
My Lords, of course we do not expect a running commentary, but as the Government are assiduously forming their views on this matter, could the Minister perhaps give us a hint as to whether they allow any difference, in their crystallising thoughts, between the free movement of persons, as enshrined in Article 3 of the Treaty of Rome and confirmed at Lisbon and Maastricht, and the free movement of labour? It is, perhaps, an important distinction.
My Lords, further to the debate in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, and the Minister’s letter in response to that debate, can the noble Baroness give any indication of whether Her Majesty’s Government are thinking about the situation for European Union students in the event of our leaving the European Union? At present they have the same rights as home students; in future they would fall within the immigration flows and therefore be capped within the tens of thousands unless there is a mutually beneficial deal for the EU and the United Kingdom. I refer the House to my interests listed in the register.
As I think I have said to the House before, we remain absolutely committed to attracting the brightest and best students to the UK. There is currently no cap on the number of international students who come to this country because they help make our education system one of the best in the world. We have a competitive post-study work offer for graduates seeking to undertake skilled work after their studies.
Does my noble friend agree that the biggest concern among the business community about our leaving the European Union is that Europeans who have come to this country should be able to remain and continue to work here? Would not the right response to Chancellor Merkel and Mr Tusk be that we do not negotiate with people’s lives in this country? Why can we not make it absolutely clear and end the uncertainty that those people will be allowed to remain here?
The Prime Minister has been very clear that she wants to protect the status of EU nationals already living here and that the only circumstance in which that would not be possible is if British citizens’ rights in EU member states were not protected in turn. She said today that it was right to give reassurances to both sets of citizens:
“I think the reaction that we have seen shows why it was absolutely right for us not to do what the Labour party wanted us to do, which was simply to give away the guarantee for rights of EU citizens here in the UK. As we have seen, that would have left UK citizens in Europe high and dry”.
My Lords, will the Minister now reply to the very pertinent question asked by my noble friend Lord Reid, which she did not answer? He invited her to draw a clear distinction of understanding between freedom of movement of persons and freedom of movement of labour. On which of the two principles is the government policy currently based?
Do the Minister and the Government accept that there is cross-party support for the Government to give a unilateral guarantee to EU nationals? We just heard the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, and the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham, saying publicly on her Benches that that would give that stability and is the morally right thing to do. By setting an example, it would give us the good will and make it impossible for the 27 countries not to reciprocate for British nationals in their countries. It would cut the Gordian knot and it is the right thing to do.
My Lords, recent reports have criticised the efficacy of the methods used to estimate the emigration from and immigration to the United Kingdom, casting doubt on the accuracy and usefulness of the figures themselves. Can the Minister reassure the House that when we are discussing these issues, we will have data on which we can rely?