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British Citizens’ Rights

Volume 798: debated on Tuesday 18 June 2019


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat a Statement made in the other place earlier today by my honourable friend, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union.

“Mr Speaker, may I start by paying tribute to my honourable friend, the Member for South Leicestershire? It is testament to his passionate defence of the rights of EU citizens and UK nationals that the amendment he brought before this House passed unanimously—a rare feat, and I congratulate him on the work that he has done on this.

Additionally, I thank him for organising our recent meeting with representatives from British in Europe and the3million to discuss their proposal to seek a joint UK-EU commitment to adopt Part 2 of the withdrawal agreement in any scenario. The Secretary of State was very grateful for the opportunity to hear their views and the views of my honourable friend on this matter. As he will be aware, we have written to the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, to report their views, and in particular to make clear their views and those of the House, that in a no-deal scenario adopting the citizens’ rights agreement is far superior to 28 unilateral solutions. I have also had representations from the devolved nations of the UK indicating their support for this approach. Mike Russell, the Scottish Government’s lead Minister on EU exit, wrote to the Secretary of State recently to set out the Scottish Government’s support for adopting the citizens’ rights agreement.

This Government have been steadfast in our commitment to protect the rights of EU citizens—they are our friends, our colleagues and our neighbours, and we want them to stay. We are already implementing our no-deal offer to EU citizens in the UK, and the EU settlement scheme opened successfully on 30 March. Over 750,000 EU citizens have now applied. The Secretary of State wrote to the EU to seek its views on adopting the citizens’ rights part of the withdrawal agreement in any scenario and Michel Barnier responded on 25 March.

Last night, the Secretary of State issued a response to Michel Barnier, reporting recent conversations with my honourable friend for South Leicestershire, the3million and British in Europe and asked that officials continue to work together to explore how we best protect the rights of citizens in all scenarios.

In the response the Secretary of State reaffirmed that adopting the citizens’ rights part of the agreement as the UK-EU solution will offer the greatest protection for UK nationals in the EU and EU citizens in the UK. This is due to the importance of rights, such as the agreed social security co-ordination provisions, which cover areas such as reciprocal healthcare and the accumulation of pension contributions. These require a reciprocal arrangement in order to provide the best level of operation. The Secretary of State wrote to my honourable friend this morning enclosing a copy of this letter and it has been deposited in the House Library this morning and published on GOV.UK.

Finally, I would like to reaffirm that citizens’ rights have been a priority throughout the negotiations and it is an area that both the Government and this House take extremely seriously. As such, the best way to guarantee those rights, both for UK nationals in the EU and EU citizens in the UK, is for this House to approve a deal”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, we welcome the Minister repeating that Statement, but I find it extraordinary that it took until last night for the Government to reply to Michel Barnier’s letter of 25 March. It is a real shame that they failed to implement this House’s view that we should have moved first, not last, on citizens’ rights. Now the Government have taken us to the brink of the very worst outcome for citizens, a no-deal exit that would leave UK nationals in the EU with no automatic right to live, own property, work, educate their children, use their driving licence or be covered by health and social insurance. Will the Minister undertake to ensure that there is no chance that we will leave the EU until and unless 1 million British people—by far the biggest national group affected by Brexit—have their legal and economic status protected wherever they live in the EU 27?

My Lords, on timing, as Members of the House know, European elections were held between 23 and 26 May, and government activity needed to respect the purdah period imposed in respect of them. We are working hard to engage with other EU member states about how citizens’ rights will be protected in all scenarios. There were additional aspects that we wanted to include in the withdrawal agreement, which the EU would not allow, such as reciprocal voting rights, so we are pursuing that bilaterally with other EU member states. We have concluded three such agreements to date.

My Lords, I too thank the Minister for repeating the Answer. He said that in a no-deal scenario, adopting citizens’ rights is far superior to 28 unilateral solutions. In reality, a no-deal scenario is in itself unacceptable as it will bring chaos and uncertainty, and it is outrageous that most of the Tory leadership candidates are championing it in what Rory Stewart rightly calls a “competition of machismo”. The choice should be between a withdrawal agreement and what is actually superior, which is to remain. A lot of the stress and hardship for EU citizens here and British citizens in the 27 is due to the Tory party’s obsession with keeping no deal on the table.

It is not too late for the Government to do what they should have done three years ago, as many noble Lords opposite recognised, and issue an unconditional guarantee of the rights of EU citizens here. Will they now, even at this late stage, do that and stop making bargaining chips of people’s lives? Regarding British citizens in the 27, will they at least commit to paying for their healthcare until reciprocal healthcare arrangements are reached? To refuse to do so would be a shocking stab in the back for our fellow countrymen.

We are committed to respecting the rights of EU citizens. The noble Baroness will know that it was one of our priorities in the negotiations. It was the first issue to be concluded. If the EU matched our level of ambition in many areas, there would have been no more problems. We are continuing to pursue this issue. We have already issued, effectively, a unilateral guarantee. We will guarantee citizens’ rights in a no-deal scenario. The rights we have offered EU citizens are, in most cases, far superior to the rights that have been offered by other EU member states to UK citizens.

My Lords, it is three years since some of us urged the Government to take the moral high ground on this one. While I entirely approve of all that my noble friend has said in expressing his sentiments, Parliament is treading water at the moment. Nothing is happening. This House rose at something like 5.30 pm yesterday, and it is expected to rise at 6.30 pm today. We have ample time to get a Bill through both Houses that will guarantee these rights unilaterally and put our European friends and colleagues on their back legs, if you like, so they can respond. Let us do the right thing, and let us do it now. I put it to my noble friend that we will lose nothing, but we will gain very much.

I thank my noble friend for his support, but we have already started to implement, effectively, our no-deal guarantee. We have already opened the settled status scheme for applications and, as I mentioned in the Statement, something like 750,000 EU citizens have already applied through it and applications are continuing to be processed as we go. We have guaranteed rights to citizens of EU member states in the event of no deal. We are conducting a series of exercises to get out, in co-ordination with national embassies, to explain to EU citizens what those rights are and how we will protect them. I think we have a good record on this.

My Lords, will the Minister say what efforts have been made, if any, to communicate with UK citizens in Europe, or are they expected to track GOV.UK? He mentions how EU citizens in the UK are being communicated with regarding their applications. What is going on as far as UK citizens in Europe are concerned?

The noble and gallant Lord raises a good point. We have met with the representative groups; most Ministers, myself included, try to schedule meetings with citizens’ groups when we go to EU member states, and our national embassies are of course in constant contact with the representatives of those citizens.

My Lords, I am broadening the subject out somewhat: here we are with several months to go before we may leave the EU without a deal; it strikes me as quite extraordinary that this House is having to ask such basic questions about this topic. There is also a range of other issues about the preparedness of the Government and business for no deal to which we do not have clear and simple answers. Is it not high time the Government published a full and comprehensive analysis of this country’s preparedness for no deal, so that we can have this debate while in full possession of the facts?

I agree with my noble friend. We have published a whole series of technical notices—over 100—about how businesses can prepare for no deal. Government preparations are continuing and, as I have said many times at this Dispatch Box, although no deal is not something that we want or desire, we recognise that it is a possible outcome.

My Lords, will the Government explain carefully why the views of millions of British citizens in other EU countries have less weight and value than those of 140,000 mostly rather elderly members of the Conservative Party who are trying to keep us in the Brexit mould?

The noble Lord is confusing two issues: the leadership election in the Conservative Party is a different event from the rights guaranteed for citizens. We are communicating, as I said, with UK citizens abroad—over 1 million of them—and we are endeavouring to ensure that other EU member states provide them with the same guarantees that we have provided to the 3 million EU citizens in the UK.

My Lords, the Minister suggested that there has been a lot of preparation for no deal, yet in answer to questions a few weeks ago the noble Baroness, Lady Vere, suggested that no-deal arrangements for the ferries and other issues ahead of 29 March had been put in place for that date, and that those arrangements were no longer in place. How much of the work done for a no-deal scenario ahead of March is still in place, and how much will need to be replicated ahead of 31 October?

A lot of the preparation that was done is still in place. Some immediate urgent actions were put in place in preparation for a possible leaving date in March; these of course were no longer required so the individual communications hubs were stood down, but we remain in full readiness for the next potential leaving date which is 31 October.

My Lords, I think the Minister misunderstood the question from the noble Lord, Lord Bridges. He did not ask about the warnings and notices to go out to individual organisations but for a comprehensive account of all the preparations, in every area, undertaken by the Government in the event of no deal. What is to prevent the Government producing such a comprehensive account and us debating it?

I answered my noble friend in full. We have produced these technical notices to businesses and have engaged in extensive discussions, in this House and in the other place, including appearing before Select Committees—many of our officials have appeared in front of committees as well—to update Parliament as far as we are able on the preparations that we are undertaking.

My Lords, going back to the fate of the million or so British citizens living in the EU, are we not undermining our negotiating position by unilaterally giving guarantees to EU citizens living in this country? Do we not lose our leverage?

No, I do not agree with my noble friend on this. I thought it was right and proper that we provided the guarantees to EU citizens. As I said, I think we have taken the right approach. The rights that we have offered to over 3 million EU citizens in this country are considerably greater than those offered by EU member states to the UK citizens in their countries.