Brexit: European Union-derived Rights - Motion to Resolve

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:15 pm on 4th April 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Ludford Baroness Ludford Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Exiting the European Union) 8:15 pm, 4th April 2017

My Lords, I note that the route of resolution is that chosen by the Opposition to “pursue in other ways” the interests of EU citizens and parliamentary control, rather than voting, as far as possible, those guarantees into legislation three weeks ago. These Benches were reproached by the Opposition on 13 March for falsely raising people’s hopes when we know that the Government will not change their mind. I respectfully point out that a section in an Act would have been more persuasive even than a resolution initiated by Her Majesty’s Opposition.

None the less, the cause of guarantees for EU and British citizens and their families is one for which I am more than ready once more to speak up. I concur wholeheartedly with the remarks of everyone who has spoken. In particular, the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, made a very effective point that there is nothing more mentally debilitating than uncertainty, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft, who said that a guarantee for EU citizens would be enlightened self-interest, as well as morally right.

The point has been very well made that EU migrants make a vital and positive economic and social contribution to the UK. That is indeed why Ministers have said over recent weeks that there will not be a reduction in EU workers in various major sectors of the economy, representing over one-third of EU nationals currently employed. This is going to make life quite difficult for the Government as they try to square their Brexit promise of immigration cuts with the needs of the economy. I am confident that we will end with the continuation of a large amount of inward migration from the EU but without having the rights pertaining to membership of the single market, including the rights of EU citizens of free movement across the rest of the EU.

The economic realities ought, in all justice, to lead the Government to make life easier for EU free movers already here. The way to do that is to put their minds at rest. There are many months—maybe 18 months—before any Brexit deal becomes clearer or, worse, the cliff-edge scenario reappears. Every day of delay, every hour, perpetuates an economic and moral scandal for which there is no justification. A unilateral announcement by the Government that all rights of EU citizens, acquired and in the process of acquisition, would be guaranteed is essential.

It is unclear why the Home Office has been making life such a misery for applicants for proof—which they do not need—of permanent residence rights. However, it has been doing so, to the extent of rejecting people with the peremptory injunction “make arrangements to leave”. The infamous 85-page form and requirements that, in the words of one person, make acquiring Catholic sainthood look simple, have made life very difficult indeed.

The European Commission, as we know, takes the view that a requirement for so-called comprehensive sickness insurance is a breach of EU law for people who are entitled to use the National Health Service. Infringement proceedings are said to be ongoing and the Minister may wish to comment on that, but the practical question is why have the UK Government allowed EEA citizens to use the NHS continuously without ever once, until now, telling them that they needed to have, what has been interpreted as, in practice, private medical insurance? Many people have lived here for decades and the authorities have never asked them for it.

Let me quote from a student about the difficulties this raises. He writes that,

“to avoid the risk of deportation I was forced to incur the expense of £50 per month for private medical coverage. In the absence of a clear instruction of what ‘comprehensive’ means, I had to buy an expensive package, which I will (hopefully) most likely never use. As a student, I don’t have to tell you the kind of unnecessary burden that this is on my budget … it feels like I’m being forced to pay a tax to a corporation—like a gift given to private insurers by the Tories— his words—

“considering that the pool of students seeking insurance will invariably be young, low risk and low cost”,

for insurance companies. He asks me, and I am asking the Minister, whether the noble Lord can clarify on behalf of the Government what is meant by “comprehensive” in the phrase “comprehensive sickness insurance”? People are having to buy expensive policies because there is no clarity on exactly what is needed. That could at least help mitigate the cost.

Could the Government also tell us whether they are going to introduce a new, less bureaucratic route than that currently operated by the Home Office—something which is a more light-touch mechanism, some kind of conversion, to indefinite leave to remain? That would be fully justified by the history of EU-acquired rights.

On the other resolution, many commentators last week praised the less strident tone of the Prime Minister’s Article 50 notification letter to President Tusk and the accompanying Statement to the House compared to her January speech, such as the absence of the “no deal is better than a bad deal” threat. However, that phrase was repeated in the White Paper the next day on the great repeal Bill and so the threat of hard Brexit is not dead. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, made an interesting prediction of the odds—I do not know which way it is; I am not a gambling person—and the prospect having got more likely. Hence the need for the amendment to the Article 50 Bill, tabled originally by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, and which became Motion B1 at ping pong.

The Liberal Democrats remain of the view that a political promise, in the words of the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, made by the Prime Minister in good faith is no substitute for an obligation in an Act of Parliament. That obligation should enshrine the need for parliamentary approval of withdrawal, future relations and a no deal scenario. That is why we pushed it to the vote on the central question of who is the master, Ministers or Parliament?

We did not succeed in that legislation and so I welcome the suggestion in the Motion of a Joint Committee. I would like to know the progress on discussions. I believe there have been attempts to get closer liaison between our own EU Select Committee and the Brexit Committee in the other place, including at staff level, but I am not aware where that has got to. Our EU Select Committee last year proposed a new specific European Union withdrawal committee but I do not think that has made any obvious progress. Perhaps the noble Baroness will tell us what prospects there are for a Joint Committee.

We on these Benches will support anything which makes a reality of the parliamentary control which is vital and on which the Government have proven reluctant in the past nine months. We need that to happen, even if it is through a resolution rather than legislation.