My Lords, I will now give the Answer on my answer paper. We continue to make the application process quicker and easier. In October 2016, the facility for single EEA applicants to apply for documents certifying permanent residence status online was launched. We are currently working to expand this service further. In addition, the date on which applicants are deemed to have acquired permanent residence status is clearly notified to them so they are clear on when they can pursue an application for British citizenship.
My Lords, recuperating myself, I am most grateful for that Answer. I am gratified if there have indeed been improvements, because given the Prime Minister’s claim about making the country fairer, I wonder how it is fair to make EU nationals—who have an automatic right to permanent residence after five years, as the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, confirmed in a debate last week—go through what many have said is a horrendous process to get a document from the Home Office attesting to that right. I have been told by the BMA that people cannot even fill out the 85-page document online. Can the Minister assure me that accounts of people being asked for reams of documentation, or receiving letters wrongly telling them that they have to leave immediately, are at an end?
As I say to the noble Baroness, the system has been vastly improved. Having acquired permanent residence under the Immigration (European Economic Area) Regulations 2006, an individual must have 12 months free from immigration restrictions before pursuing an application for British citizenship. The inclusion of the date on which an applicant is deemed to have acquired permanent residence helps to inform applicants about the point at which they are eligible to apply for British citizenship. That removes the uncertainty surrounding the process and the cost to the applicant of submitting an application that might be refused on the basis that they have not been free of immigration restrictions for the required time.
My Lords, the Question is actually about residency rather than nationality. In order to get residency status, people have to show that they have comprehensive sickness insurance. EU nationals were never told about that when they came here. In fact, most of them are eligible to use the NHS. Therefore, many of them will not qualify under the present rules. When the residency issue is finally agreed, will the Government agree to look at waiving the requirement for comprehensive sickness insurance so that people will be able to stay here under permanent residency?
The noble Baroness raises a valid point about comprehensive sickness insurance, because not everyone is required to have it. People who are not economically active, obviously, and students have to show that they are self-sufficient in that sense. But I am very happy to clarify that in a letter, which I will make sure is in the Library, because it can be confusing.
My Lords, what preparations do the Government understand that Brussels is making to confirm permanent residence for the 1.2 million British citizens living in the EU? As there may be some 3.5 million EU citizens living here, which makes mutual recognition more in their interest than ours, why do the Government think that Mrs Merkel and Mr Tusk turned down our offer for exactly such an arrangement?
I cannot read the mind of either Mrs Merkel or Mr Tusk, but I think the Prime Minister was very wise to say that she would protect the status of EU nationals who are already living in the UK, as long as the status of British nationals in other member states was protected as well. She was absolutely wise to say that, because we would have been left high and dry otherwise.
My Lords, yesterday I was in Berlin, talking about Brexit among other things, and one of my German colleagues from the Bundestag told me that in a recent citizenship ceremony in his constituency, in Minden, for the first time Brits were the largest group getting a German passport, therefore becoming dual nationals. Is the Minister surprised by this fact and does she agree that it is a sensible course of action and likely to become the norm for our fellow citizens who are suffering such uncertainty?
My Lords, in my own city of Bristol, there are a very large number of EU nationals, who were told recently that on the present rate of performance it would take the Home Office something like 128 years to process demands for British citizenship. Could she comment also on the fact that the bureaucratic process is making very many of the elderly people who have lived in this country for 30 or 40 years anxious and upset, and leaving them in a state of total confusion, because they are not aware of what papers they need or how to get them, and because they have not necessarily kept evidence over all the years that they have been in the UK? These citizens have contributed hugely to our economic performance. What is the Minister going to do to reassure them about their future?
As I have said a couple of times now, we are ensuring that the online process is a lot more efficient now. People can bring their passport into post offices or other recognised places for verification purposes and get it back quickly, so they are not without a passport while their applications are being processed. I do not know where the person from Bristol got the figure of 128 years to process applications, so I cannot really comment on that.
My Lords, can the Minister advise us how many of the almost 70,000 European Union citizens working in the National Health Service have permanent residence? If they have permanent residence, does that mean that after Brexit, they will be able to remain and work in our health service?
Anybody who has been living here for five years and meets the treaty obligation has permanent residence rights. Will they have them after we leave the European Union? I am not part of the negotiations and I really cannot provide a running commentary on the discussions that are taking place, but it is the Prime Minister’s first stated objective that she wishes to protect the rights of EU nationals living here.