Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, this instrument was laid before the House on 20 October. It disapplies retained EU equal-treatment provisions relating to nationality and freedom of movement so that they cease to be recognised and available in domestic law in relation to access to social security, statutory payments, social assistance, housing assistance, education, training, apprenticeships and childcare-related matters.
These retained EU provisions have been redundant since the end of the transition period. The withdrawal agreement provides the necessary protections for those EU citizens who were resident in the UK before the end of the transition period and their family members. By disapplying the redundant provisions, this instrument furthers the Government’s aim of ensuring that all UK law is right for the UK. Correcting this deficiency in retained EU law will bring greater clarity to the UK statute book. I am satisfied that these regulations are compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.
Prior to the UK’s exit from the EU, these equal-treatment provisions granted EEA and Swiss citizens rights to access benefits, services and educational entitlements on the same basis as UK nationals, if their presence in the UK was based in the exercise of specific freedom of movement rights. The UK voted to leave the EU and, as a result, freedom of movement between the UK and EEA countries came to an end on 31 December 2020. Equal-treatment provisions based in freedom of movement arrangements therefore became redundant.
Disapplying these redundant equal-treatment provisions clarifies the situation that is already in effect for EEA and Swiss nationals coming into the UK. In line with the Government’s manifesto commitment, EEA nationals are now treated on an equal basis with other non-UK nationals arriving in the UK after the end of the transition period, with the exception of those EEA or Swiss nationals granted status under the EU settlement scheme.
While the instrument does not effect a policy change for any group of EEA or Swiss nationals in the UK, I particularly emphasise that it in no way alters the rights of EEA or Swiss nationals that are protected under the EU-UK withdrawal agreement, the EEA European Free Trade Association separation agreement and the Swiss citizens’ rights agreement. They will continue to be able to access benefits and services on broadly the same basis as they did before the end of the transition period, and their rights to do so are protected by the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020. Additionally, we already have domestic law that protects individuals from discrimination. Retained EU provisions based on freedom of movement are therefore not only redundant but unnecessary.
In summary, this instrument is a technical correction of the statute book that will address a deficiency arising from retained EU law. I therefore commend the regulations to the Committee.
No other takers—I am shocked, given that it is such an exciting instrument. I thank the Minister for her introduction to these regulations, in which I am interested. I was going to say, “and all noble Lords who have spoken”, but it is just me. I am also grateful for the briefing on the regulations from the Minister’s officials. I confess that, despite reading everything I could, I am struggling to work out what these regulations actually change, if anything.
I read a summary of this instrument done by the House of Commons Library for a colleague at the other end. It noted that Parliament has already legislated to end the underlying right of free movement for EU citizens moving to the UK. The Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Act 2020 repealed the main provisions of retained EU law relating to free movement and disapplied the equal treatment obligations supporting free movement, in so far as they were inconsistent with the UK’s immigration laws. However, the note went on to say that
“these equal treatment rights ‘would continue to apply in non-immigration contexts unless disapplied’. The draft measure now disapplies those equal treatment rights in the specific areas set out in the schedule, including social security payments and housing.”
The Minister said that these rights “became redundant” as a result of the 2020 Act having ended the underlying right to free movement. I am still not clear as to exactly what rights may still exist that this instrument is disapplying. Can the Minister clarify that? I can see that the aim is to make it clear that EEA nationals who are not subject to the settlement arrangements should have the same rights as anyone else subject to the points-based immigration system going forward. I am just not clear what, if any, rights they have now that they will not have once this instrument becomes law. If the answer is none, I ask the Minister to say that categorically for the record. It may be about legal clarity; I would just like to be really clear.
I want to make two other points. Regulation 4 makes changes to Regulation (EU) No. 492/2011. I looked this up; it turns out that it amends Article 7—it prohibits different treatment of EU nationals in respect of employment, social and tax advantages—to say that this will not apply in relation to the matters in the Schedule to this draft instrument, namely: social security, social assistance, housing, education and training, and childcare. Do Article 7 rights continue to apply to any other areas?
Finally, the instrument also removes Articles 9 and 10, which provide for the rights of EU nationals in relation to social housing and to state education for their children. Are there any other rights that EU or EEA nationals still enjoy that have not been repealed? If the answer is that any such rights that exist will be swept away by the sunset provisions of the advancing retained EU law Bill, why not wait for that rather than using Section 8 powers? I look forward to the Minister’s reply.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, for her contribution and questions and congratulate her on her stamina in these matters. I will try to answer all the points raised.
The noble Baroness asked how the EU provisions to be disapplied became deficient or redundant. Prior to the end of the transition period, through the EU freedom of movement of persons rights, EEA and Swiss citizens had access to certain benefits, services and education entitlements. When the freedom of movement of EEA citizens ceased at the end of the transition period, the application of these rights became redundant, as the rights granted by these provisions have been redundant since the close of the transition period. They represent the deficiency arising from retained EU law. The regulations clarify the situation already in effect.
The noble Baroness asked what rights the provisions to be disapplied still grant. First, let me clarify that these regulations should not be understood as implying that these provisions continue to grant rights outside of the relevant matters as per Regulation 1(4). The department involved in these regulations examined the provisions as they relate to the benefits and services covered in the relevant matters and is confident that these rights are redundant as they relate to the relevant matters. We are disapplying them to clarify the position that is already in effect.
The noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, asked what would happen if these provisions were allowed to remain on the statute book. These redundant provisions are not in line with domestic legislation on immigration and access to benefits and services. They therefore create confusion in the statute book. Not disapplying them would leave this deficiency in UK law unaddressed. It could also mean that EEA nationals who are not eligible for benefits or services could bring legal challenges against the Government to try to bypass domestic legislation by instead relying on those retained EU freedom of movement provisions. This would set back progress on implementing the public’s decision to leave the EU and end freedom of movement.
The noble Baroness asked me to clarify whether that was a change in policy. The answer is categorically no. These regulations do not effect any policy change; they are a technical rectification of the statute book to clarify the position already in effect after the end of the transition period. She asked why the regulations were being laid now. Why not let these retained provisions be sunsetted by a reform and revocation Bill? Work on the regulations was initiated independently of the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill under Section 8 powers from the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. Those powers allow Ministers to address deficiencies in retained law. Section 8 powers expire on 31 December 2022, thereby creating a need to lay these regulations.
The noble Baroness also asked whether any rights still applied. Rights and entitlement for EEA citizens set out in the withdrawal agreement and domestic legislation still apply.
These regulations are a technical rectification to ensure that UK law functions with legal clarity. The retained EU provisions that they disapply are redundant, and that deficiency should be corrected. This instrument will not change the policy in place regarding any rights currently enjoyed by EEA nationals in the UK. However, it will bring greater clarity to the UK statute book. I therefore commend the regulations to the Committee.