Motion E1 (as an amendment to Motion E)

Part of Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill - Commons Reasons – in the House of Lords at 5:01 pm on 21st October 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Oates Lord Oates Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change) 5:01 pm, 21st October 2020

My Lords, in moving Motion E1, which includes Amendment 5B, I give notice of my intention to test the opinion of the House, unless the Government are willing to change their position on this issue. I express my thanks to all noble Lords on all sides of the House who have so steadfastly and consistently supported this cause, in particular the original signatories to the amendment: the noble Lords, Lord Polak, Lord Kerslake and Lord McNicol of West Kilbride.

We have discussed this issue frequently over a number of years, but it appears that the Government have not been listening. Either that or perhaps I have not been listening properly, because I am still at a loss to understand the arguments that they have put forward to justify their decision to deny EEA nationals alone, among all the people residing in the United Kingdom, physical proof of their right to do so.

This issue, as we have said before, has no partisan flavour. It has been supported by Peers across the House of all parties and of none, commanding one of the largest majorities in your Lordships’ House of any amendment on this Bill. It involves no Brexit arguments; it may be happily supported by any Member, whatever their position on those past arguments. It is, quite simply, the right thing to do to alleviate the anxieties and hardship that will otherwise be visited on millions of people who have made their home with us in the United Kingdom.

In Committee, the Government appeared to advance three principal arguments against our amendment: that a system with both digital proof and physical proof would be confusing; that a digital proof is better than a physical proof because a digital proof cannot be lost; and, lastly, that the Government intend to move to a digital-by-default system in future and therefore that it makes sense for the new settled status scheme to adopt a digital-only model from the outset.

On Report, a new argument was raised—or at least advanced more vigorously—and that was of cost. As noble Lords will be aware, the Government, in rejecting our amendment, have claimed financial privilege, advancing no other argument against it. Therefore, to address the issue of financial privilege and to tackle the Government’s concerns over cost, we have removed the requirement that physical proof must be provided free of charge, which was in the original amendment. It should be noted, therefore, that this amendment in lieu requires only that the Government offer physical proof of status to those who request it; that it allows the Exchequer to charge for such a document; and that the charge is permitted under the terms of the withdrawal agreement.

The Minister told us on Report that if 89% of those with settled status sought a physical document, it would cost £100 million—I think that was at col. 472 —which, by my calculation, would mean, in order to cover costs, a charge of £28.09. I therefore question the Minister’s statement just now that the cost would be £75, and I wonder how she marries that up with the figure she gave us before. Perhaps she will say, “We would have to take into account the setting up of a whole new process”—but I do not understand that. There is a process for issuing biometric residence permits, so there is no need to set up a new process. Indeed, non-EEA citizens who are granted settled status via their spousal relationship are given biometric residence permits—so I do not understand that at all.

I would much prefer that there was no charge for a physical document—not least because our citizens abroad are being issued physical proof of status without charge, as I understand it. Nevertheless, if this is the only way that EEA citizens who have made their homes here can be given the surety and confidence that they seek, I suspect that they would probably regard the fee of £28.09 as money well spent. I hope, therefore, that this addresses the issue of costs and privilege.

As to the response to the Government’s other arguments, I shall try to be brief, both because they have already been well rehearsed in this House and because even the Government do not seem to have the heart to argue them convincingly. First, on the argument that it would be confusing to people to operate a digital system as well as physical proof of status, it remains unclear to me why the Government make this claim. It is exactly the system that exists for non-EEA citizens with indefinite leave to remain, who can access a digital proof of status and can apply for a physical document. Landlords, employers and others who are expected to check for immigration status already operate under such a system, so I fail to understand who the Government think will be confused. What is likely to be confusing, therefore, is not the presence of a physical document but its absence.

Secondly, the Government claim that digital proof is better than physical proof because digital proof cannot be lost. The answer to this is the same one we have given every time the matter has been debated. We are not suggesting the removal of digital proof or digital records; we are simply arguing that physical proof should complement digital status. None the less, on Report I questioned the Government’s repeated claims about the resilience of the digital system. I will not list all the examples that I and many other noble Lords gave of allegedly infallible systems failing, but I will simply say that almost every occasion of a failure of a major system has been preceded by claims about its robustness and the impossibility of what subsequently happened happening. Even temporary failures, however short lived, are very likely to give rise to permanent effects, because employers or landlords unable to access the system at the point when they have to decide between potential employees or tenants are very likely to give the job or rent the home to someone who can provide physical proof.

The last of the Government’s arguments was that they intend to move to a wholly digital system in future, and therefore that it makes sense for this new settled status scheme to adopt a digital-only model—except that it does not. If a digital system is to be adopted—and I have no objection to that—it should be extensively trialled in advance with widespread pilot schemes. Australia seems to be a popular country for the Government to compare itself with at the moment. Australia is, as the Minister said, just about the only country in the world to go entirely digital. It did so over a number of years. Indeed, it trialled the system over nearly two decades. So I repeat, as I have every time we have discussed this matter, that we should not conduct an experiment with the lives of millions of people who are in receipt of an entirely new status and who are understandably nervous, given the Government’s declared intention to violate the very treaty on which their status is based.

The one trial that the Government have undertaken which involved non-EU citizens who had the back-up of a physical residence card found:

“There is a clearly identified user need for the physical card at present, and without strong evidence that this need can be mitigated for vulnerable low-digital skilled users, it should be retained.”

The trial also made clear that “digital by default” does not mean “digital only”.

I asked the Minister in Committee and on Report to explain to the House what had changed since the Government made that assessment in 2018. She either could not or would not—but certainly she did not. Nor could she tell us on either occasion when the policy equality statement, which the Government have confirmed exists, will be published, beyond the entirely unsatisfactory “shortly”. I highlight again how unacceptable it is that we are being asked to decide on legislation that will affect millions of lives when the Government withhold such vital evidence.

As I said on the previous amendment in the name of my noble friend Lady Hamwee, yesterday we agreed two amendments in lieu on the issue of agri-food standards, and I was pleased to support them—but this amendment, like that of my noble friend before, deals with people’s lives. As I said on Report, ultimately the argument is not about technology, documents or computer systems but about people’s lives and whether they can feel secure in their status. This amendment would alleviate the huge anxiety which the Government’s refusal to listen and make this minor change is causing to EEA nationals, particularly the elderly, the vulnerable and those who lack technology.

In conclusion, the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, stated that the Labour Front Bench could not support my noble friend Lady Hamwee’s earlier amendment on the grounds that the matter had not been divided on in the Commons. I will draw the attention of noble Lords to the fact, which they will be aware of, that this issue was divided on in the House of Commons, and in this House received, if not the largest then one of the largest majorities of any amendment on the Bill. So I hope that my friends in the Labour Party and, indeed, my friends across all the parties in this House, and no party, will continue to support EU citizens in the virtual Lobbies tonight.

The Windrush Lessons Learned Review made it clear that a huge part of the problem was the Home Office’s refusal to listen to outside voices. Those outside voices are speaking loud and clear. I hope that this time the Government will learn the lesson and open their ears. I beg to move.