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Brexit: UK Nationals

Volume 794: debated on Wednesday 9 January 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what outreach work British embassies have undertaken in the 27 other European Union member states to keep United Kingdom nationals informed of their rights after Brexit.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare my interests as in the register.

My Lords, we are committed to ensuring that timely information is available for all United Kingdom nationals living, working and travelling in the European Union. Our network of European posts held over 200 outreach events between November 2017 and December 2018. We are encouraging UK nationals to visit the “UK nationals in the EU” page and the “living in” guides on GOV.UK and to follow their local embassy’s social media channels for the latest updates.

Given that outreach work, the Government must have got loud and clear the message of just how angry and disillusioned UK citizens in the EU member states are. Early on, just after the referendum, the Government could have chosen to offer a reciprocal arrangement for EU citizens here and UK citizens abroad, but they chose not to do that. Now, UK citizens have been left as bargaining chips. Can the Minister explain why the UK Government have done a deal with the EEA and EFTA countries to guarantee citizens’ rights but still nothing for Brits in the EU 27? Given that Italy, France, Germany and the Netherlands are offering certainty to UK citizens through guarantees on residency, employment and welfare rights, will the Government finally do the right thing, even at this late stage, and make a reciprocal offer guaranteeing citizens’ rights?

First, as my noble friend Lord Callanan said in answer to a previous question, the important thing is for Parliament to agree the withdrawal agreement. The agreement ensures that the very rights that the noble Baroness talks about will be guaranteed. I assure noble Lords that the United Kingdom has been clear that, in the case of a no-deal scenario, EU citizens legally resident in the UK by exit day will be able to stay—they will be able to continue with the same access to benefits and services. It is also important that, in that scenario, EU states stand up and ensure that those guarantees are made available to UK residents. I agree with the noble Baroness: our commitment has meant that we have reached agreement with the EFTA countries to ensure that those mutual and reciprocal rights can be guaranteed.

My Lords, I declare that I live in Portugal, and draw attention to the good works of HMA Sainty in Lisbon and commend the French and German Governments on allaying the concerns of the British communities in their countries. Will the Minister encourage all UK ambassadors to call on host Governments and so be able to brief in a more exacting way and allay the concerns of British communities in the 27?

I thank the noble Viscount for his remarks about Portugal and certainly I will relay them to the embassy and to the ambassador. But let me assure the noble Viscount and your Lordships’ House that not just our ambassadors but our Ministers are working on this. I know that when my noble friend Lord Callanan has been engaging on the European circuit, he has been at various outreach events across Europe on this very basis—to inform British citizens who are living in the EU about their rights and what they will be entitled to.

Equally, we are also working very closely with posts here—ambassadors from the EU in the UK. For example, the Foreign Office, the Home Office and DExEU have organised a series of events in cities around the UK to reach out to those people from the Polish diaspora who are residing in the UK to ensure they understand their rights.

My Lords, the problem most people have is that many citizens have been put through an unnecessary period of stress. We could have given these assurances much earlier on and alleviated the pressure on people. The Minister says that our citizens living in the EU will retain the rights they have now. This is not true—even under the deal. If their company or business moves within the EU they will not have the same rights as they have now to move within the European Union. They will apply only to the countries in which they currently reside. So it is not true to say that everything is the same— it is not. This Government have put a lot of stress on people totally unnecessarily. If we had given guarantees earlier on, we would be in a much better place to negotiate.

My Lords, the Government have sought to provide clarity at every stage. I accept the point that the noble Lord makes that we need to ensure that not just our citizens in the EU but those people who have made a life in the UK—who work, live and reside here—are given certainty. While things have happened in the past, it is important for the here and now to ensure that we give certainty to EU residents in the UK in what are challenging circumstances. Equally, we should not forget those million UK residents who are living across the EU and ensure that their rights are also understood. Our diplomatic network is doing an extremely good job in that respect.

My Lords, while, I am sure, British embassies around Europe are doing everything they should to pass on information to British citizens, does the Minister accept that the withdrawal of freedom of movement presented by the Government as a great achievement is seen as a disaster by many thousands of younger people who may have had life plans to move and to settle in the EU after the date we leave the European Union, and who are now left in complete uncertainty about the rights they will have?

My Lords, many people who voted in the EU referendum in 2016 took the view that one of the challenges that the United Kingdom has faced over time has been that of ensuring firm and fair immigration. The issue of free movement across Europe was a challenge. The Government had a mandate from the people after the referendum and the withdrawal agreement will deliver on the result. It was clear from the referendum that the majority of British citizens felt that free movement was an issue of deep concern, and we are acting on that instruction.

My Lords, what guarantees is the UK giving to our citizens living in the EU about their pension rights after 2020? That is of course just one area of uncertainty. Many UK citizens living in the EU are campaigning for a people’s vote. Is the Minister not personally tempted to agree with them that the only way to end this uncertainty would be not to leave the EU?

I do not agree with the noble Baroness. I am sure that she has read the withdrawal agreement. After reading it, she will have reached the conclusion that, by passing the withdrawal agreement, all aspects of the pension for those citizens living in the EU, including the uprated UK state pension, will be paid.

My Lords, what happens to the status of people who are protected on 29 March by Dublin III when that protection comes to an end on 30 March?

My Lords, I feel as a Foreign Office Minister that I am going quite wide across all government policy. The noble Lord raises an issue about the Dublin agreement. Bearing in mind the crossover to my colleagues in the Home Office, I will write to him in that respect.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there are 130,000 students from the European Union in the UK? If we leave the European Union, students from EU countries will be treated like any other foreign students. Does the Minister think that there will still be 130,000 European Union students here and what will the effect be on our universities?

I pay tribute to the noble Lord and indeed many Members of your Lordships’ House who have an important role in our universities. They are well placed to recognise the important role that our universities play, not just across Europe but globally. Because of the standard and the access that we provide, I remain confident that, through the withdrawal agreement and the new negotiation that we will have on our future relationship with the European Union, we will continue to attract both the best and brightest not just from Europe but from across the world.