My Lords, I have Amendment 61 in this group, and I am grateful for the support that it is receiving. Clearly, the Government say that EU citizens will be allowed to continue to use e-passport gates at airports after the end of the transition period, but that is the problem. From what I can see, as a result of leaving the European Union, far from ending free movement of people, the Government are effectively opening it up to the citizens of more countries outside of the European Union, the EEA and Switzerland.
I must make it clear that, like the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, and my noble friend Lady Ludford, I am in favour of free movement. The point I am making is that lack of enforcement means that, in practice, free movement will not end at the end of the transition period.
EU, EEA and Swiss nationals have been able to use the e-passport gates at UK airports because, under European Union freedom of movement rules, they have been entitled to come to the UK without restriction. With the UK’s imminent departure from the EU, and the Government’s commitment to ending preferential immigration from the EU, the Government were faced with turmoil at the UK border if EU, EEA and Swiss nationals were not able to use the e-passport gates but had to be manually checked by Border Force staff; the queues for non-EU passport holders were already verging on the unacceptably long. Rather than remove the ability of EU citizens to use e-passport gates, the Government extended their use to citizens of Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea and the United States of America, thereby delivering on their promise not to give EU citizens preferential immigration rights, as these are now shared with the citizens of some non-EU countries.
Continued use of the e-passport gates means that, at the end of the transition period, and as set out in documentation from the Government, EU citizens will be able spend up to six months in the UK with no visa and no stamp in their passport, and with no questioning of the purpose of their visit, how long they intend to stay, or how they are going to sustain themselves financially during their time in the United Kingdom. As far as I know, there is no way of checking whether they have left the UK before the six months expires—or gone to Lille for the day at the end of that time and then stayed here for another six months.
The Government may reply that these people will not be able to work or continue to live in the UK because of the hostile environment that they have created for those who plan to live and work in the UK illegally. Under the hostile environment strategy championed by the former Prime Minister, Theresa May, when she was Home Secretary, the onus has been put on landlords, banks, employers and even hospital staff to check the immigration status of those with whom they come into contact. However, according to a report in the Times on
The IPPR analysis comes up with different numbers from those given this afternoon by the noble Lord, Lord Green of Deddington, but it paints a similar picture. According to the report in the Times, since 2015, the number of undocumented migrants leaving the UK voluntarily has fallen from about 4,000 to 2,000 a year, and the number of controlled returns supervised by the Home Office fell from about 3,000 to less than a 1,000. Research cited by the National Audit Office puts the number of people in the UK with no legal right to remain at more than a million.
Let us take the right to rent as an example: can an EU citizen or a citizen from one of the other B5JSSK countries—those who are allowed to use the e-passport gates—rent a property? Noble Lords might think not, but, in A Short Guide on Right to Rent, the Home Office advises that landlords can establish a B5JSSK national’s right to rent by checking their passport—which will of course have no stamp to show when they entered the UK—together with evidence of the date they last travelled to or entered the UK. What happened to the solely digital system for proving immigration status? This evidence might be a boarding pass or an airline, rail or boat ticket, a booking confirmation, or
“Any other documentary evidence which establishes the date of arrival in the UK in the last six months.”
The Home Office guidance also confirms that, although visitors have only six months’ leave to remain in the UK, landlords who have conducted these right-to-rent checks correctly will obtain a statutory excuse against a civil penalty for 12 months from the date of the check.
So after the transition period ends, EU citizens can rent a property for six months from the date shown on any boarding pass or airline, rail or boat ticket they present to a landlord, who can rent the property to them for up to 12 months without fear of any penalty—a day trip to Lille on the Eurostar would provide new evidence of entry into the UK within the past six months. In fact, as long as someone has a ticket or a boarding pass, they may not even have to make the journey.
I asked at Second Reading how the Government will ensure that EU citizens who use e-passport gates at UK airports leave after six months, and ensure that, as the Government has promised, they cannot
“in effect live in the UK by means of repeat continuous visits.”
After repeatedly asking for a response, last Thursday I finally received an email; I am grateful to the Minister for that, although a letter copied to others who spoke at Second Reading, with a copy placed in the Library, would be usual. The email says, among other things, that “we are satisfied” that the use of e-passport gates
“has been implemented in a way that will still allow the Home Office and these nationals”
—that is, B5JSSK nationals—
“to continue to prove their status in the UK, as we use various data sources to confirm time spent in the UK, not just date stamps, and we are able to confirm their status in the UK if needed.”
My understanding is that, before they were allowed to use e-passport gates, about 1,600 United States of America citizens a year were refused entry to the UK by UK Border Force officials, mainly on the basis of the interview conducted at the border, where, among other things, the Border Force official was not satisfied that the passenger would leave the UK at the end of their permitted visit.
I understand that e-passport gates will deny entry only if an alert has been placed on the system against the passenger prior to their arrival in the UK. EU citizens seeking to live and work in the UK illegally are extremely unlikely to have an alert against their name. What data sources are the Home Office relying on to ensure that EU citizens leave before the end of their six-month permitted visit? I understand that the National Border Targeting Centre screens incoming passengers, but that is not linked to passengers leaving the UK. If their systems do not detect—if indeed they can—that the EU citizen has not left the UK, what systems will the Government use to find that EU citizen amongst the 66 million residents and the estimated 1 million who are already illegally in the UK?
Rather than taking back control of our borders by ending free movement of people from the EU, the Government have effectively opened up free movement by adding citizens from seven more countries to the citizens of the EU member states, EEA countries and Switzerland who have unrestricted entry to the UK.
The analysis by the IPPR and the examples I have given suggest that it would be very difficult if not impossible to ensure that, once in the UK, they leave again. Apparently, the end of so-called uncontrolled immigration from the EU, itself a fallacy, was a major if not a potentially deciding factor in the referendum on our continued membership of the European Union. If leavers believe the UK is taking back control of its borders at the end of the transition period, the evidence suggests they have been misled.