Good afternoon. This is the second evidence session, and it will be a mixture of people who are with us physically and people who are here virtually, so we will have to cope as best we can. Our first witnesses are a representative of British in Europe, via audio link, and Professor Bernard Ryan. We have until about 2.40 to take that evidence. I will go first of all to the Minister, then to the Opposition spokesman. Is anybody else desperate to ask a question at the moment? You can put up your hand and intimate to the Clerk that you would like to speak.
Those of you who are sitting at the back of the hall—you are very welcome, by the way—are equally members of this Committee. Apparently if you want to speak, you have to go to a microphone over there. Are we all happy to start the session? We have to ring our witnesses now, so please be patient.
We are ready to start with our first panel of witnesses. Thank you for coming today. This session will have to end at 2.40pm.
It was about what implications you see for British citizens in Europe regarding social security co-ordination provisions in the Bill.
May I start by thanking the Committee for asking us to give evidence, even in this rather strange way? The social security provisions are crucial for UK citizens in the EU. They govern pensions, pension increases, healthcare, other benefits, and the aggregation of the equivalent of national insurance contributions made in different countries, without which some people would fail to meet the minimum contribution period for pensions or other benefits. Those provisions are preserved in UK law by the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 so there should be no impact. However, as is made clear in the briefing note that we prepared and that has, I hope, been circulated, we are worried about clause 5 because that clause creates a regulation-making power wide enough to modify rights under the withdrawal agreement. We entirely accept that in the explanatory note the Government say that they do not intend to have an impact on our withdrawal agreement rights, but we are worried about that on two grounds, and the concerns are twofold.
First, as a constitutional issue it is wrong to create a power in a regulation that might breach an international treaty. If that is to be done, it should be done by primary legislation after a proper debate. Secondly, and more practically, those social security provisions that are listed in the Bill are right up there with UK immigration law for complexity. It is Byzantine complexity, and that is no exaggeration. It would not be difficult for an unintended breach to slip through. Therefore, to prevent a breach of a treaty by mistake, it is important that any such amendment be made through primary legislation after a proper debate.
Q Speaking as a Minister, a Minister cannot make a regulation that breaches international law, just to be clear on that point. Would you have concerns if, for example, an agreement on social security co-ordination was reached but the legislation did not allow the Government to quickly implement it?
A Minister cannot breach international law in regulations. Would you have any concerns if the legislation, for example, did not empower a Minister to quickly implement an agreement in relation to social security co-ordination if one was reached with the European Union before
Yes. Effectively, there are negotiations ongoing, and the issue is what happens if the Government reached an agreement and wished to implement it before that time.
I should start by saying that we were fairly careful in the representations that we made. We are a group that represents British citizens in Europe who are affected by Brexit and were there before Brexit. We have tended not to get into policy post the end of the transition period, simply because it is not within our remit to do so. It is for others to express views on that. Clearly, if a further agreement is made for rights that extend to others beyond those who are already in the EU, it is important that the Government should be able to implement that, but whether that is by primary legislation or regulations made at the time for that purpose is a matter for this Committee to decide. I do not think British in Europe would have a strong view about it.
By the way, I do not know how our other witness is going to hear you. The acoustics are not brilliant, and I suspect that they are quite a long way away. They are already having difficulty hearing anyway, so speak up loudly, slowly and clearly. Sorry to interrupt.
Professor Bernard Ryan:
I will do my best.
I obviously welcome clause 2. I see it as addressing a longstanding gap in immigration law, which is a lack of clear provision for Irish citizens, notwithstanding the fact that there has not been a policy or practice of placing restrictions on them. As I see it, the clause addresses the legal status of Irish citizens who enter the United Kingdom from outside the common travel area, so I wholeheartedly welcome it.
There are some finer points where one might point to potential problems down the road. I identified several in my evidence. First, in regards to family migration, it is still left open a little whether Irish citizens who will have the freedom to enter and reside will be in the same position as British citizens with regard to sponsoring family members in every respect. I think that is something that could be addressed.
There is also a difficulty relating to deportation and exclusion. I certainly would not argue that Irish citizens should be exempt from those. They are citizens of another state, as it were, so it should be possible to deport and exclude, but what is the threshold is going to be? We know that the general threshold is conducive to the public good, but in practice that is not the threshold that is used for Irish citizens because of the common travel area. There is a much higher standard, so could that be written into legislation or could commitments be obtained during the passage of the Bill about how those powers will be used in relation to Irish citizens in the future?
My third suggestion would be to consider the situation of persons of Northern Ireland, to use the recent jargon. The Belfast Agreement, of course, permits people from Northern Ireland to identify as British, Irish or both, so for a focus on identifying as Irish, is there really sufficient provision in immigration law for people to do that? They are not guaranteed full equality as regards to family sponsorship, but they do not have immunity from deportation and exclusion either unless they assert British citizenship. In the grand scheme of things, it is a detailed point, but it is important in the Northern Irish context—[Interruption.]
Q In relation to deportation for Irish citizens, since 2007 the UK Government’s policy position has been to deport Irish citizens, as you mentioned, only where a court has recommended deportation in sentencing, or where the Secretary of State concludes, due to the exceptional circumstances of the case, that the public interest requires deportation. Are you aware of any examples of that happening in practice in recent history, and what were the circumstances?
May I continue, Professor Ryan, on deportation? This very same issue arose this time last year, in a previous Bill Committee. Is it right that, at that time, the Immigration Minister made a commitment to the higher threshold, even though it was not in the Bill? Do I recall that correctly?Q
Professor Bernard Ryan:
That is correct. I believe it was in the Committee stage, in the light of the evidence, perhaps, that the Minister made that commitment. Those commitments are obviously welcome, from my perspective.
Professor Bernard Ryan:
It is obviously stronger if it is put in the Bill. If it is not, policy can always be changed. Going back to the wider clause, one strength of what has been done is that it gives clarity to Irish citizens on their position in the United Kingdom. That, in a sense, is the issue with deportation. What are the arrangements going to be? What are the standards going to be? Having things in legislation, rather than in policy, is obviously stronger, from the perspective of Irish citizens.
Q May I ask a couple of questions about family rights? In your written evidence, you say that Irish citizens in the UK will be able to be joined by non-EEA family members, because they will be treated as settled persons, essentially. Is that right?
Professor Bernard Ryan:
My main concern regards Irish citizens who are not yet resident in the United Kingdom. It is the case that Irish citizens are treated as settled once they commence residence. From that point, as things stand, they will clearly be able to sponsor, but what about the Irish citizens planning to come with their non-British or non-Irish family? They will need entry clearance. How will it work for them?
Is that because the fact that they are not in the UK obviously means that they cannot be treated as settled persons? Okay. I will ask Mr Morgan a question, if he is able to hear.
I would like to highlight a particular hardship that UK citizens living in the EEA will face after March 2022. The background is that, in the negotiations over the withdrawal agreement, citizens’ rights were a first priority for both sides, and reciprocity was the watchword. In other words, whatever we got, they got, and vice versa. That was a clear, underlying consideration in the negotiations.
However, the right of citizens to return with their families to their country of origin was deemed outside the scope of the negotiations, and the result is a serious inequality between UK citizens in the EU and EU citizens in the UK, in which, perhaps rather perversely, the discrimination is by the UK against its own citizens. We put forward an amendment in our briefing paper, which has been picked up as amendment 14. This is not the place to analyse the issue in great detail, but I would like to look at the comparison that we draw there between two groups in the case study—a UK citizen living in the EU and an EU citizen living in the UK.
It is a familiar story: a young UK citizen gets on their bike and goes to find work in the EU. They meet someone there, they marry and have a family, and they settle there. At the time when the UK citizen leaves, they have parents in the UK who are in middle to late middle age and are perfectly healthy. The reassurance was there, both for the UK citizen and their parents, that should either parent or both parents become infirm and need to be cared for by their child, there would be no problem about the UK citizen returning with family to look after them.
Years later, say in 2030, one parent might be by herself and need that care. After March 2022, the UK national will be able to return with their EU partner only if their partner can enter under the new points-based system—we have yet to see it, but that is likely to be quite difficult—or if they can meet the minimum income requirement, which is £18,600, as I am sure you all know. It has already been estimated that about 40% of the people living in the UK would be unable to meet that requirement, but matters are complicated for those returning from abroad by the UK rules on what income counts for such purposes. The income of the partner—let us say, in this case, the EU partner—will not count unless they are already in the UK and have been earning that income for six months. So it is a Kafkaesque situation: you cannot get in unless you have the income, but your income counts only if you have already got in.
In practice, the UK national has to earn the minimum income requirement on their own, while at the same time caring for their parent. It will simply be impossible for many people—probably most. In practical terms, the other option is to move the UK parent, who is now elderly and frail, to an unfamiliar country where, for language reasons, they will be unable to speak to the doctors or anyone else. It is well established in the literature that any move, for someone of that age, is difficult. Think how much worse it would be in such conditions; for most people, it is not a serious option.
In practice, it means that UK citizens have to choose between their parents and the family they have made in the EU—a heart-rending choice that nobody should have to make. It is not a choice that a comparable EU citizen of the UK has to face, because they have an absolute right to return to their EU country with a partner they met in the UK, and it is not a requirement that the UK citizen now living in the EU had faced when they moved, because at that time they had a right to do so. It is a case of moving the goalposts long after the event. It is a real worry for many thousands of people in that situation. Be they young or old, most people who have left the UK will have parents back there. It is a worry in the sense that people worry about it; it may not become a practical reality, because who knows what will happen in the future? But it is a real concern, which could be got rid of by passing amendment 14 and removing both the injustice and the discrimination.
Also, Mr Morgan, if you can hear me, what do you think would be the consequences or the likelihood of British people moving to the European Union if the social security provisions that are currently in place, which allow for aggregation and recognition of contributions, were to change in the future?Q
I think it would reduce such migration considerably, because the aggregation of contribution rules are absolutely vital. Most countries, including the UK, have minimum periods of contribution: unless you have contributed for the minimum period or contributed the minimum amount, you do not get any pension at all, so you are making your contribution, possibly without any benefit. The great advantage of the social security co-ordination rules is that they enable you to aggregate periods spent in different countries in the EU, including the UK, and you therefore overcome any such barrier, provided you have worked, in all, long enough to meet the requirements. In Britain, I think, the minimum contribution period is 10 years; in Italy, where I live, it is 20 years. These are substantial barriers.
All I can say, speaking as one of the many people in Europe who have taken advantage of the ability to move, is that we feel it would be a significantly reduced opportunity for young people in the UK now. Seventy-nine per cent of UK citizens living in Europe at present are of working age or younger. It is not a case, as some stereotypes have it, that we are all pensioners. I happen to be one, but I am one of the minority. Seventy-nine per cent are of working age or younger, who have taken advantage of the opportunities that the movement that we have been able to have has given to us personally but also, in terms of cultural exchange and awareness of practice in different countries, to Britain as a whole. They have established a considerable presence in Europe and it would be a pity for that not to be continued.
Q This may not be an issue in which you are involved, but in relation to British owners of properties—second homes, for example—in Europe, the Government are obviously willing to welcome people here on six-month visitor visas but the same, as I understand it, is not necessarily true of other European countries, which would apply the 90 out of 180 days rule in the Schengen arrangements. Would that be a concern for British owners of property in Europe, in your experience?
Yes, it would, quite clearly. There are also questions as to whether they will be able to own property at all. Again, speaking of Italy, unless some bilateral arrangement is made, it will not be possible for British nationals to buy properties after the end of the transition unless they are resident in Italy. I am sure there are similar provisions in other countries.
Q Professor Ryan, in relation to British-born children of Irish nationals, are there any particular concerns that we ought to be aware of in relation to this legislation?
Professor Bernard Ryan:
Thank you very much for bringing that up. One of the issues at present is that not only is there a lack of clarity about immigration status, but also it feeds into the lack of clarity as regards acquisition of nationality in two scenarios. One is British-born children—children born to Irish parents, and also Irish citizens wishing to naturalise. Because it is very often not clear on what basis Irish citizens are here, to the extent that it is not clear the question arises, “Are they without time limits and have they ever been in breach of immigration laws?” It is necessary also, from the perspective of the smooth working of British citizenship law, to absolutely tie down and clarify that Irish citizens are here, and on what basis. And yes, it will remove any possible question as regards children of Irish parents being British citizens and as regards access to naturalisation by Irish citizens who want it.
The Dublin regulations deal with a situation where, for example, an economic migrant or an asylum seeker who present themselves in the UK can be repatriated to the country where they first claimed asylum, and indeed deal with family reunion. Professor Ryan, will this Bill have any implications for the operation of the Dublin arrangements? Could the Bill be improved to enshrine some of its obligations on that statute book, or is that completely unnecessary?Q
Professor Bernard Ryan:
I think you are bringing us into the question of the common travel area as such and its operation. That would be my interpretation of your question. One of the things I would expect to see in the future would be, if the United Kingdom does not stay within the Dublin system with the EU, that there will be an arrangement with the Irish Republic as regards asylum seekers, because of the open border. It would be logical to do that. I personally would prefer it if the common travel area, conceived as immigration control and co-operation between the two states, were on a more transparent, and maybe more statutory, footing—but that is a much bigger question. That is to some extent a different one from the status of Irish citizens, which is what the clause deals with. So, yes, in the end I would like to see the common travel area framed more transparently than it is at present.
Q I have a question for British in Europe. You talked about inequalities. Is it not the case that there is currently an inequality whereby EU or EEA citizens living in the UK have better rights than British citizens in terms of bringing spouses into the country, because the £18,600 income rule does not apply? Indeed, if a British citizen can determine that they are resident in the EU under the so-called Surinder Singh case, they can apply to have that rule addressed. Would you say that by addressing that inequality, we are ensuring that British citizens would have the same rights as everyone else, rather than the current unusual situation in which it is easier for an EU citizen to bring a spouse into the UK?
Q Professor Ryan, while we have the opportunity, I want to ask you further about the third group of issues you addressed in your briefing paper—the provisions of the Good Friday agreement. It seems from your paper that the issue is that, in order to assert certain rights—protection against deportation, for example, or perhaps access to some family rights—people would have to assert their British citizenship, which, reading between the lines, you say is not really consistent with the Belfast agreement. Your solution is to put some sort of equivalence in the Bill for all persons of Northern Ireland. Is that a fair summary?
Professor Bernard Ryan:
Yes. Actually, I am borrowing that idea to some extent from Alison Harvey, from whom I believe you are hearing evidence later on. She has written a paper for the two human rights commissions in Ireland on the birthright provisions in the Belfast agreement, and her eventual solution is that people of Northern Ireland should be granted the right of abode—the status given to British citizens—which takes away their need to identify as British in order to get the equivalent outcomes. Both the things I raised—family sponsorship and deportation/exclusion—would be addressed by that route. I come at it from thinking about Irish citizens or people identifying as Irish citizens and how they should be protected, so I would say that an alternative route is to focus on that and somehow put in additional protections for the people of Northern Ireland to address the Irish citizens within them.