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Duty to Report on the Associated rights of the Common Travel Area

Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:45 am on 18th June 2020.

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“(1) The Secretary of State must publish a report detailing the associated rights of the Common Travel Area no later than 30 days after the day on which this Act is passed.

(2) The report under subsection (1) shall specify—

(a) the scope of reciprocal rights under the Common Travel Area;

(b) the scope of retained EU rights and benefits under the EU Settlement Scheme; and

(c) the correlation and differences between (a) and (b).

(3) The Secretary of State must lay a copy of the report before both Houses of Parliament.”—

This new clause aims to ensure that Ministers set out in detail the scope of ‘reciprocal rights’ of the CTA, and compare and contrast them with rights that can be retained under Part II of the Withdrawal Agreement (as provided for under the EU Settlement Scheme).

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Holly Lynch Holly Lynch Shadow Minister (Home Office)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

We have been through a great deal of this subject matter earlier in the debate on clause 2. I was grateful to the Minister for some of the clarity he was able to provide at that stage. New clause 27, however, goes that little bit further and asks the Government to produce a report on the associated rights given to citizens in the common travel area.

The aim of this proposed change is to ensure that Ministers set out in detail the scope of what has been officially referred to as the reciprocal rights of the common travel area, and to compare and contrast them with the rights that can be retained under part two of the withdrawal agreement, as provided for domestically under the EU settlement scheme. The Minister’s predecessor stated that Irish citizens do not need to apply to the EU settlement scheme because of the CTA, but since then the Government have instead suggested that individuals whose immigration status is covered by the CTA may wish to register under the EU settlement scheme. Inevitably, this has caused a degree of confusion about possible gaps between where free movement rights finish and CTA rights start.

As highlighted by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, the EU SS is enshrined in law through the withdrawal agreement. Comparatively, however, the CTA is upheld essentially by a gentlemen’s agreement, the non-legally binding memorandum of understanding between the UK and Ireland on the CTA of May 2019. A report on the associated rights of the CTA would therefore be incredibly helpful to ensure that Irish citizens can receive equal rights to EEA and Swiss nationals.

We also believe that the report on the associated rights granted through the CTA would provide scope to begin to answer the pertinent questions about clause 2 raised during the evidence given by our expert witnesses. As previously discussed, while we welcome the provisions set out in clause 2 for Irish citizens, there is still outstanding ambiguity regarding the status and legality of the associated rights that are prescribed by the common travel area.

We believe that it would be incredibly welcome if the Government were to take this opportunity to clarify any ambiguity before the Bill takes effect. A report would provide unequivocal guidance on the status of Northern Irish citizens who identify solely as Irish. It would hopefully guarantee the same provisions for deportation and exclusion as those for Northern Irish citizens who identify as British. It would also clarify issues raised by the Committee on the Administration of Justice on questions relating to cross-border provisions and the right to vote in referendums. More must also be done to tackle the current problematic loophole whereby someone with an Irish passport is not granted protections on arriving in the UK, because they have travelled from a country outside the common travel area. Professor Ryan illustrated the opacity surrounding the status of acquisition of British nationality for British-born children, children born to Irish parents and Irish citizens wanting to naturalise. He stressed that this is currently an unanswered question in British citizenship law.

Finally, the report could also lead to a more sustained debate on Alison Harvey’s proposal on the right to abode, which was raised during evidence. The right to abode would grant citizens a plethora of citizenship rights, while simultaneously safeguarding people’s right to identify solely as Irish. We hope the new clause will catalyse discussions on this issue that will lead to a definitive conclusion.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration, Asylum and Border Control), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Attorney General)

I can be very brief. I echo and support what the shadow Minister has said. I am not going to repeat what I said on clause 2; that is a welcome clause, although we have one or two concerns about the detail. What this whole debate has shown us is that, even though we are told that the common travel area pre-existed the European Union and everything is fine, in actual fact it is hard to discern what precisely is involved in the CTA and precisely what rights it confers on individuals.

My understanding from the debate we had last week is essentially that the Government propose to progress this in a rather piecemeal way, changing bits and bobs of the legislation on different subjects to ensure that Irish citizens will continue to enjoy equivalent rights in this country. Okay, that will get us to where we want to be, but it does prohibit us from having a comprehensive overview of what progress has been made and what exactly we are trying to achieve by restoring the common travel area and making sure that there is not a loss of rights because of the loss of free movement.

The new clause would be genuinely be helpful for MPs to understand what the CTA is all about, what exactly the Government are trying to achieve and what progress they are making towards that. It is a genuinely helpful suggestion.

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I thank the hon. Member for Halifax for tabling new clause 27 because it gives me a chance briefly to outline the Government’s commitments to maintaining the common travel area arrangements, including the associated rights of British and Irish citizens in each other’s states, and the status of Irish citizens under the EU settlement scheme arrangements.

For brief background, the common travel area is an arrangement between the UK and the Republic of Ireland, as well as the Isle of Man, Guernsey and Jersey. It allows British and Irish citizens to travel freely between the UK and Ireland, and to reside in either jurisdiction. It also facilitates the enjoyment of several associated rights and privileges—in effect, by forming one area for immigration entry purposes.

As mentioned when we debated clause 2, both the UK Government and the Irish Government have committed to maintaining the CTA. The CTA is underpinned by deep-rooted historical ties, and maintaining it has been and continues to be a shared objective of both nations. Crucially, it predates the UK’s and Ireland’s membership of the European Union. It has been agreed with the EU that the UK and Ireland can continue to make arrangements between ourselves when it comes to the CTA.

Irish citizens in the UK and British citizens in Ireland will continue to have access to their CTA associated rights. Both Governments confirmed that position on 8 May 2019, when we signed a common travel area memorandum of understanding, which I have mentioned previously to the Committee. It is worth noting that that also builds on our commitments in the Belfast agreement that are part of international law.

The Government continue to work closely with the Irish Government to ensure that our citizens can access their rights as set out in the memorandum of understanding. This has been and will continue to be taken forward through bilateral instruments, and we have committed to updating domestic legislation. This is why we are proposing clause 2 of this Bill, which will ensure that Irish citizens can enter and remain in the UK without requiring permission, regardless of where they have travelled from, except in a very limited number of circumstances, which we debated under clause 2.

New clause 27 would also require the Government to publish details of the rights and benefits provided by the EU settlement scheme. The European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020 protects the residence rights of European economic area citizens who are resident in the UK by the end of the transition period and eligible family members seeking to join a relevant EEA citizen in the UK after that time. EEA citizens and their family members can apply under the EU settlement scheme for UK immigration status, so that they can continue to work, study, and, where eligible, access benefits and services such as free NHS treatment. We continue to make every effort to ensure that people are aware of the benefits of applying to the EU settlement scheme.

The Government have always been clear that Irish citizens will not be required to do anything to protect their common travel area rights, and that is confirmed in clause 2. While Irish citizens resident in the UK by 31 December 2020 can apply to the EU settlement scheme if they wish, they do not need to. Their eligible family members can apply to the scheme, whether or not the Irish citizen has done so. However, Irish citizens resident in the UK by 31 December 2020 may wish to apply to the scheme to make it easier to prove their status in the UK in the event of their wishing to bring eligible family members to the UK in the future under the provisions of the withdrawal agreement. After the transition period, once free movement rights end, Irish citizens will continue to be able to bring family members to the UK on the same basis as a British citizen.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration, Asylum and Border Control), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Attorney General) 12:00 pm, 18th June 2020

Given what the Minister says, people will have to decide whether they want to apply for the EU settlement scheme, or whether they want to continue to rely on their CTA rights. They could make that decision much more easily if they knew precisely what their CTA rights would be. Can he say anything about when the Government will take forward a programme of work to ensure that Irish citizens continue to enjoy the rights that they have now? When can people can see this on the statute book, rather than just hear it being spoken about? People are describing these as rights written in the sand.

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

Clause 2 explicitly puts Irish citizens’ rights on the statute book and removes the anomaly by which an Irish citizen is treated differently depending on how they enter the country—whether they arrive on a flight from Dublin or a flight from Brussels, whether under EEA free movement or CTA rights. That difference is removed completely by clause 2; it makes it clear that the same position applies, however an Irish citizen arrives in the United Kingdom.

I am very much a supporter of the provisions of the Belfast agreement, under which a person can identify as British, Irish or both. Effectively, in the United Kingdom, the person will be treated as if they were a British citizen, in terms of their rights, including their right to live here, and the services they can access. There is a very tiny number of exceptions. On this Committee, we have all struggled, as have the witnesses, to find in recent times and under modern legislation an example of an Irish citizen being deported from the United Kingdom. The position outlined in a written statement in 2007—and yes, I know who was in government in 2007—still stands, and we have not had any representations from the Irish Government on changing that. I suspect that if we looked to behave in an unreasonable way towards an Irish citizen, the Irish Government would be very clear in their response.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration, Asylum and Border Control), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Attorney General)

The Minister is obviously doing his bit by putting clause 2 into the Bill, but what I am really asking—I suspect that he does not have the answer today—is what other work is under way across Government to make sure that Irish citizens have rights on housing, health and everything else on exactly the same basis as before, and to make sure that the loss of free movement rights does not mean that they will be in a worse position. Some sort of timetable on what is going on, and how the change is being processed, would be useful for lots of citizens.

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I thank the hon. Member for quite a constructive intervention. He obviously will appreciate that those arriving after the transition period would not have free movement rights, but those arriving before are covered by the withdrawal agreement. I am more than happy to get a letter to him setting out how we will make sure of the position that he mentions. I suspect that his concern is that when an Irish citizen is in the United Kingdom, talking to a person at a Department for Work and Pensions office, or a landlord, and presents them with an Irish passport, it should be understood inherently that it has exactly the same status in terms of renting, or accessing a service or employment, as a British passport, particularly given the different commentary. I am more than happy to set out in writing to the Committee the work that will be done on that point.

In summary, the Government have already made clear the rights available to individuals under the common travel area and the EU settlement scheme following the end of free movement, and we will continue to do so. I therefore respectfully ask the hon. Member for Halifax not to press the new clause for the reasons I have outlined.

Photo of Holly Lynch Holly Lynch Shadow Minister (Home Office)

I welcome the fairly constructive way in which the Minister has engaged on this point. The points made in intervention by my friend from the SNP, the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, do still stand. I reinforce that there will continue to be a desire and unanswered questions in this area. There are certainly merits to committing more of what we have discussed to primary legislation, but I will not press the new clause at this point. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.