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Irish citizens: entitlement to enter or remain without leave

Part of Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:15 am on 26th February 2019.

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Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration, Asylum and Border Control) 10:15 am, 26th February 2019

Clause 2 concerns the special status of Irish citizens in the UK in immigration law. It is probably fair to say that although we often refer to the common travel area, and although we know how it works in practice and have a broad idea of the practical reasons why it exists, the actual law here is pretty obscure, vague and not very well understood. I apologise if I have maligned any Committee members who are in fact experts in this area of immigration law.

In recent years it probably has not been a concern, largely because free movement means that it has not really mattered. That now changes completely if free movement is stopped, and clause 2 is one of the steps that we need to take to ensure that the status of Irish citizens here is protected. Parts of clause 2 are welcome because, if clause 2 were not part of the law, although Irish citizens could still come to the UK without immigration control if they were coming from another part of the common travel area, if free movement ended they would have no such right if they arrived in the UK from outside the common travel area, whether on a plane from New York or a train from Paris. Clause 2 confirms the right of Irish citizens to enter and remain without permission—even if free movement rights end—irrespective of where they entered the UK from, unless they are subject to a deportation order, exclusion order or international travel ban.

The question is: does clause 2 go far enough? The evidence received in writing and heard at hearings suggests that it does not. There are other aspects of the special status that we need to have a look at as well. There is one sense in which clause 2 appears to undermine the special status afforded to Irish citizens, and that is in relation to deportation.

As Professor Ryan pointed out in his evidence, the clause provides that Irish citizens may be deported under the general deportation laws of this country—those that apply to everybody else—under the Immigration Act 1971. Those apply to: a person whose deportation the Secretary of State deems conducive to the public good, including under the controversial mandatory deportation provisions of the UK Borders Act 2007; a person whom a court recommends for deportation at the time of conviction for a criminal offence punishable by imprisonment; and a family member of a person who is or has been ordered to be deported.

The clause would also introduce a specific new power to exclude Irish citizens from the United Kingdom if the Secretary of State considers that to be conducive to the public good. However, in doing so the Bill does not imply any particular special protection regarding the threshold for the deportation or exclusion of Irish citizens. The stated policy of the Government in 2007, according to the then Immigration Minister, was:

“Irish citizens will only be considered for deportation where a court has recommended deportation in sentencing or where the Secretary of State concludes, due to the exceptional circumstances of the case, the public interest requires deportation.”—[Official Report, 19 February 2007; Vol. 457, c. 4WS.]

That is a higher test than would be applied by clause 2, and we heard evidence suggesting that the clause would water down the position of Irish citizens. In that regard, it might be useful to note that, by virtue of their exemption from Irish immigration law, British citizens are completely immune from deportation and exclusion under Irish law. Indeed, other evidence sent to us from a group of academics goes further, and asks why, if Irish citizens are “not foreign” according to the Ireland Act 1949, we need to retain the power to deport them at all. Ireland has not retained the equivalent power.

Professor Ryan raised a further important question about whether, to comply with the Belfast agreement, there should be an exemption from deportation and exclusion for Irish citizens who are from Northern Ireland. Under the Belfast agreement, both Governments recognised the birthright of all people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves as, and be accepted as, Irish, British or both, as they may so choose. As Professor Ryan puts it:

“There is a risk that, as formulated, the deportation and exclusion clauses will fail to respect the right of a person from Northern Ireland who wishes to identify as an Irish citizen.”

He questions whether it is compatible with the Belfast agreement to require a person from Northern Ireland to assert their British identity in order to resist deportation to Ireland. There might even be circumstances in which UK nationality had been renounced.

Those are the issues that amendment 28 is designed to address. It seeks to enshrine in law what is supposedly current Government practice, instead of watering down that standard on deportation. It also seeks to ensure that clause 2 does not in any way undermine the Belfast agreement. I am sure that everyone in this room today would agree that it is important that we get these things right. My final observation in that regard is that, according to Professor Ryan, as I have said, there is no provision in Irish law to deport UK nationals.

Amendment 29 probes the Government, seeking an explanation of what the exact position will be of Irish nationals who seek to have family members join them—if and when the normal family rules in the immigration rules are applied to them. As we will come to later—perhaps today, or on Thursday—I absolutely hate those draconian and restrictive rules, but at least they are there, allowing British citizens and settled persons to be joined by family members. As Professor Ryan points out, the immigration rules will allow for UK citizens returning to the UK to be accompanied by non-UK or Irish family, and for UK citizens and settled persons already here to be joined by non-UK or Irish family. That last bit should apply simply enough to Irish nationals as well, because clause 2, if passed, would appear to mean that Irish persons would be treated as settled persons for the purposes of the rules. I should be grateful for confirmation that that is the case.

The second problem is that it seems, from the clause’s drafting, that Irish persons moving here with such family would not be able to use the rules in the way that a UK citizen could, because they would not yet be settled persons. The Irish person would need to come here first and become settled, and their family would join them later. Another issue is whether the rules in other respects will treat the family members of an Irish citizen in precisely the same way as they treat family members of UK citizens. In particular, if a UK national has a UK national child here, as we all know, the child would not cause the financial threshold to increase if any application was made by an overseas spouse to join them. Would the presence of an Irish citizen child of an Irish citizen result in the financial threshold being increased for any spouse coming to join that family?

Amendment 29 simply seeks to ensure that Irish citizens will be treated in the same way as UK nationals. I will not press it to a vote, however, because as the Committee on the Administration of Justice, a cross-community human rights organisation in Northern Ireland, rightly points out, it may need to be tweaked to ensure that it does not prevent Irish citizens from benefiting from the more favourable treatment that EU families may continue to enjoy for a period through retained EU law, in comparison with UK citizens and settled persons encumbered with the immigration rules. The amendment should probably preclude less favourable treatment rather than different treatment. The CAJ’s submission goes further, supporting the view of the human rights commissions that the common travel area is “written in sand” and warning of “other gaps”, including in relation to social rights.

I conclude with several questions for the Minister. Why do we seem to be watering down the rights of Irish nationals, including with respect to deportation? Are the provisions in danger of undermining the Belfast agreement in relation to people in Northern Ireland? Why not simply put current Government practice on deportation into statute? What provisions will there be for families of Irish nationals in future? Is the Minister willing to revisit the issue, so that we can ensure that the status of Irish citizens is properly and comprehensively protected, rather than being left to obscure practices and rules “written in sand”?