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Amendment 1

European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill - Committee (1st Day) – in the House of Lords at 3:22 pm on 14th January 2020.

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Lord Greaves:

Moved by Lord Greaves

1: Before Clause 7, insert the following new Clause—“Rights of European citizens resident in the United Kingdom(1) This section applies to citizens of the EU, EEA and EFTA nationals and Swiss citizens who are ordinarily resident in the United Kingdom on exit day.(2) Except as provided for in this Act, following exit day all persons mentioned in subsection (1) have the rights, status and obligations which applied to them before that day.(3) The provisions in this section apply to the children and other dependent relatives of such persons whether or not they were ordinarily resident in the United Kingdom on exit day.(4) The rights referred to in subsection (2) may not be amended or removed except by primary legislation.”

Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Liberal Democrat

My Lords, it seems slightly odd that we launch into Committee at Clause 7 but that is the way it is. It comes at the beginning of Part 3 of the Bill, which is the extremely important part referring to the European citizens who now live and work among us and the question of what will happen to them when we leave the European Union. It is about settled status and the future of a very important part of our community.

This is the first time that the details and principles behind the settlement scheme have really come to Parliament. Before now, the matter has been dealt with through orders and regulations under the Immigration Act and by ministerial diktat. It is interesting that today the Law Commission is saying that the Immigration Rules are not fit for purpose and proposing that they have a thorough rewrite. Can the Minister tell us when the Government will respond to that and whether it is likely to happen? It would be very welcome indeed.

This is not a carefully honed amendment that can be fitted into the Bill; that will come in Amendments 2 and 3 tabled by my noble friend Lord Oates. It is a declamatory amendment; it states a principle and a promise made, which very large numbers of the people it affects—European citizens living here—believe has not been, and is not being, carried out in full.

Before the referendum, back in 2016, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Priti Patel issued a statement. It was not a government Statement, but they are now the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster—who has been tasked with getting Brexit done—and the Home Secretary, so they are pretty important people in the present Government. The statement said:

“There will be no change for EU citizens already lawfully resident in the UK. These EU citizens will automatically be granted indefinite leave to remain in the UK and will be treated no less favourably than they are at present.”

The words “automatically” and “no less favourably” are now in considerable doubt.

On television this morning, the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, was talking about really important things in relation to the Elizabeth Tower and Big Ben. He explained that

“we need to restore the clapper in order to bong Big Ben on Brexit night, and that is expensive. The bongs cost £500,000 … but we are working up a plan so that people can bung a bob for a Big Ben bong.”

I had to read this carefully—and listen to it carefully on the BBC this lunchtime—to be quite sure of the last word. I am assured that it did end in a “g” and was not some other word which might have meant something different, and which I might have had difficulty saying in your Lordships’ House. Having said that

“we need to restore the clapper in order to bong Big Ben on Brexit night” the Prime Minister continued that they

“have not quite worked out how to do it.”

Yesterday at Second Reading, I said that people who have won the Brexit debate should not be triumphalist. People may be euphoric and have the kind of “paroxysms of joy” that the Prime Minister has described in the Sunday Times—the suggestion was that there would be a baby boom as a result of these paroxysms, which is why I wondered whether the word “bong” was right—but that will not do any good in bringing this country together and healing the serious wounds that have been, and continue to be, caused by the whole Brexit debate. Many people in this country, far from being full of paroxysms of joy, sexual or otherwise, are full of dismay and distress—

Noble Lords:

Oh!

Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Liberal Democrat

Noble Lords can moan. People are crying when they go to sleep at night and when they wake up in the morning, and all they get from the unfeeling, hard-headed Tories is moans. People are feeling a sense of loss, which is akin to bereavement and a grieving process has only just begun. In these circumstances, triumphalist behaviour, festivals of Brexit and all the rest will simply make things worse. The people who feel it the most are the many citizens of the EU who live, work and take part in our communities in every way. There are said to be 3.6 million of them—that was the guess of the Office for National Statistics, although a lot of people think it is rather more. In addition to the EU citizens there are families, UK citizens, spouses, partners, relatives and friends. Families and marriages have already broken up as a result.

People came here on the basis of law. They were given promises on the basis of trust, and some of those promises are being broken. They know that whatever goes into British law now, there is no longer European law that can protect them in future against a British Government who want rid of as many of them as possible. I should declare an interest of a sort, in that one of my daughters is married to an EU citizen who comes from Denmark. They are going through traumas as a result of what is happening, as are many other people, and they are relatively well off and settled.

Professor Tanja Bueltmann of Northumbria University, working together with the campaign group the3million, carried out a settled-status survey between 20 November and 20 December last year of people living in this country. No fewer than 3,171 individuals responded to the survey with detailed written testimonies which, as a social scientist, she suggests is a phenomenal response rate for this kind of survey. The material that she now has amounts to 245,000 words in free-text comments, which is quite a lot. She tells me that the report is due to be released next week, and I hope we will have it here in time for our deliberations on Report. She says:

“The Settled Status Survey will provide unprecedented insights into the situation of EU/EEA and Swiss citizens, as well as non-EU/EEA and Swiss family members, in the UK and their experiences of the EUSS scheme. They need it. Fear and anxiety remain common sentiments expressed regularly and this is also reflected in the Survey. That fear and anxiety need to be taken away, and having something tangible to hold—physical proof of status—would go a very long way towards achieving that.”

That is something that we will discuss later.

I am particularly concerned about what the Government are doing about the prevention of discrimination in the transition period or the implementation period—call it what you will. I am fearful that on 31 January some things may happen in some places that could be reminiscent of events in Germany in the early 1930s. I am worried about this because there is that sentiment among a hostile minority of the population. I would like to know what the Government are doing to try to stop that happening.

There is a lot of evidence. The Independent published an article on Saturday headed:

“EU settlement scheme delays leave people ‘unable to get jobs or housing’.”

Landlords and employers are simply saying no if people do not have settled status or because they are a European citizen and their future is unknown. That is particularly true if they have pre-settled status and no guarantees beyond five years.

Photo of Lord Grocott Lord Grocott Labour 3:30 pm, 14th January 2020

The noble Lord just made a comparison—I am slightly reeling from it—between Britain on 1 February of this year and Nazi Germany in 1933. Could he elaborate on that a little, because that seems to me to be stretching the point a bit?

Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Liberal Democrat

We will see. What we know is that the day after the referendum, people’s windows were put in, people were abused in the street and paint was daubed on people’s houses. That is the kind of thing I am talking about. From talking to European citizens here, I know of people who are now reluctant to go into shops if they are not known in them, because of their accent and the attitude people might have towards them. This is quite widespread; I am not saying it is very frequent, but it is going on. I know plenty of instances of people being abused in the street and shouted at, and even more instances when people have, quite kindly, said to people, “I suppose you’ll be going home now.” That is happening all the time. It happened immediately after the referendum and I am very worried that on 1 and 2 February there will be a wave of this kind of thing. Police statistics show that the number of racially motivated offences has increased significantly since June 2016. I am not making it up; it is happening. Noble Lords who perhaps live a sheltered life might get out there a bit more and find out what is going on.

I believe that the Government are not fulfilling their promises—or promises that three leading members of the Government made—and the least they ought to do is explain why and apologise for it. I do not imagine that they will do that, but they ought to. The least we ought to do is make appropriate amendments to the Bill—some of those coming through—to improve it. If the House of Commons throws it out, so be it. That is our duty as unelected people on behalf of people who did not have votes. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord McNicol of West Kilbride Lord McNicol of West Kilbride Opposition Whip (Lords)

My Lords, the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, would grant an automatic continuation of pre-exit-day rights and immigration status for EU citizens resident in the United Kingdom. This is a position that the Labour Party has consistently supported. Indeed, the party put forward amendments to that effect when the original Article 50 Bill was considered. However, the then Prime Minister resisted any amendments to that Bill on this issue.

The Government waited a long time to announce that they would unilaterally guarantee the rights of EU citizens resident in the UK, even in the event of a no-deal exit. However, regarding this amendment, the reality is that the settled status scheme has now been operational for some time and the withdrawal agreement was negotiated on the existence of such a scheme. As such, while we sympathise with the thrust behind the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, we believe that a better approach is to reform the current system, as the next group of amendments aims to do.

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister for Equalities (Department for International Development)

My Lords, I thank the noble Lords, Lord Greaves and Lord McNicol, for their comments. The initial points made by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, were about Immigration Rules. There will be an update in March. He made some points about Big Ben; I was not sure what they were. He also talked about gloating, but I do not observe any member of your Lordships’ House gloating over the Bill and I concur with the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, that comparing the UK on 31 January to Nazi Germany is a step too far.

To get to the point of what the noble Lord eventually said, we reject the proposed new clause in Amendment 1. It is well intentioned but unnecessary; it conflicts with our general implementation of the withdrawal agreement, the EEA EFTA Separation Agreement and the Swiss citizens’ rights agreement. For brevity, I will refer to these as the agreements. My references to EU citizens should likewise be taken to include these EEA/EFTA and Swiss nationals, and their family members.

Citizens’ rights have been a priority in negotiations and the Government have delivered on that commitment, reaching agreements that provide certainty to EU citizens in the UK and to UK nationals in the EU that they can continue to live, work, study and access benefits and services broadly as now. Clauses 5 and 6 create a conduit pipe, which makes the rights and obligations contained in the agreements available in UK law. This is intended to replicate the way that EU law applied in the UK while the UK was a member state, and these clauses ensure that the rights contained in the agreements are available to EU citizens in the UK. The agreements provide certainty and protect the rights of EU citizens lawfully resident in the UK before the end of the implementation period. Existing close family members, including children of those covered in the agreements, will also have a lifelong right to family reunion. The as-yet unborn children of EU citizens will also be protected. This protection applies equally to UK nationals in their member state of residence and is guaranteed by the withdrawal agreement.

The UK has already introduced the EU settlement scheme, which is the means for EU citizens to obtain the status that confers rights under the agreements. The scheme provides a quick and easy way to do this, and it is a success. According to the latest internal figures, over 2.8 million applications have been received and 2.5 million grants of status made. The Home Office is processing up to 20,000 applications a day. We are working tirelessly with communities up and down the country to raise awareness and keep up this momentum. The scheme already allows EU citizens protected by the agreements to obtain UK immigration status, which enables them to remain here permanently after exit. The proposed new clause is therefore unnecessary, as it conflicts with the purpose and operation of the scheme.

Finally, the proposed new clause makes reference to those resident in the UK on exit day, at the end of this month. As the noble Lord should know, rights under the agreements are conferred on those resident in the UK at the end of the implementation period, which is at the end of this year. The proposed new clause therefore does not align with our obligations under the agreements. I hope that has reassured the noble Lord on the concerns expressed through this new clause and I ask him to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I will certainly withdraw the amendment and I am glad that the Minister discovered the error that I had made when it was too late to correct it. I thank her for that but, as I said, it is not a carefully honed amendment; it is an amendment to declare a principle. The Minister says that it declares the principle behind what the Government are doing. That is clearly not the case. It is the case in many areas, but not in all. As for the settled status scheme, it is certainly the most efficient Home Office scheme that I have come across in recent years—although that does not say very much—because of the effort that has been put into it. I thank her for that. The Minister said, and the Government keep saying, that the rights of European citizens will be broadly as now. It is “broadly” that is a weasel word.

Finally, I did not compare this country to Nazi Germany and obviously I would not do so; that would be ridiculous. What I am saying is that some of the conditions that exist in this country are similar to those that existed in Germany between the wars before the Nazis came to power. You can think that that is right or that it is wrong, but I believe it is the case. Look at the amount of racist abuse there is on social media, while if you listen to pub conversations, you can hear people saying things that perhaps three, four or five years ago they would have kept to themselves. There is an amount of abuse by a small minority of people that is not being stopped by the social controls that previously existed. That, I am afraid, is the position.

I shall give a brief example from Colne, my home town. A planning application was made to turn an old Sunday school into a mosque. It did not need permission to do that but for the changes to be made to a listed building. What happened last summer was shocking. There was outside influence and local far-right agitators stirring it up. Their behaviour during a demonstration they held on a Saturday afternoon when they brought a far-right fascist group in to occupy the town centre was the kind of thing that we really do not want. There is danger here, so I ask the Government to make renewed efforts to prevent this kind of thing happening, particularly immediately after exit day and as the end of the year approaches. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 1 withdrawn.

Clause 7: Rights related to residence: application deadline and temporary protection