Lord Bethell contributions to the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020


Thu 16th January 2020 European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill (Lords Chamber)
Committee: 3rd sitting (Hansard): House of Lords
9 interactions (1,721 words)
Tue 14th January 2020 European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill (Lords Chamber)
Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard): House of Lords
16 interactions (1,252 words)

European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill Debate

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Lord Bethell

Main Page: Lord Bethell (Conservative)

European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill

(Committee: 3rd sitting (Hansard): House of Lords)
(Committee: 3rd sitting (Hansard): House of Lords)
Lord Bethell Excerpts
Thursday 16th January 2020

(8 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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To touch on the final point of the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, in yesterday’s debate we discussed hard-copy documentary evidence. I hope that we can make progress on that as well.

Lord Bethell Portrait Lord Bethell (Con) - Hansard

My Lords, I am enormously grateful for the opportunity to respond to the noble Baronesses, Lady Hamwee and Lady Miller, and to all noble Lords who have contributed to this debate on Amendments 37 and 44.

Amendment 37 refers to UK nationals in the EEA and Switzerland and protections to their state pensions and healthcare. I hope that the debate will provide a valuable opportunity to give some reassurances on some of the key and important points made by the noble Baronesses, Lady Hamwee and Lady Miller, and the noble Lords, Lord Shipley, Lord Steel, Lord Kerr, Lord Whitty, and other noble Lords.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, is quite right to state that confidence in the system is absolutely essential. This has been a difficult period for those who have felt, at times, that their benefits and arrangements might have been in jeopardy. The noble Lord, Lord McNicol, spoke movingly about the concerns of UK nationals in the EU, and EU citizens in the UK, who have cross-border lives and who are seeking reassurance that those healthcare and state pension rights will be protected. I reassure the House that that protection has been a high priority for the Government.

We have delivered certainty for the 1 million UK nationals that the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, referred to, and to the 3 million EU citizens in the UK, via the withdrawal agreement which we have reached with the EU. We have also reached a separate agreement on citizens’ rights which, in great detail, protects the rights of EEA, EFTA and Swiss nationals in the UK, and UK nationals living in those states.

Certainly, it is absolutely critical that people should feel at ease about their futures—the noble Lord, Lord Steel, touched on that point movingly. I will offer the crumb of comfort that he asked for. These agreements give citizens the certainty that they need about their rights going forward and ensure that they can continue to live their lives as they do now. That includes, importantly, the right to live, work, study and access healthcare; to receive an uprated UK state pension in the EEA and Switzerland, in line with the triple lock; and to access valued benefits.

I will tackle the question of the three-year period. I reassure the House that the uprated pension in these areas is not just for three years; that was a proposal floated under a possible no-deal arrangement. This is an uprated benefit for life. These are the key components of what I believe the noble Baroness is trying to achieve in her amendment. I make it clear to the House that these are already protected.

The Government have also gone further than the withdrawal agreement and the proposed new clause require, protecting the rights of UK nationals in the EU where it is unilaterally possible to do so. In April last year, the Government published a policy paper, Citizens’ Rights—UK Nationals in the EU, which supplemented the rights contained in the withdrawal agreement for UK nationals resident in the EU at the implementation period. I will give a few examples. In respect of family reunification when UK nationals return to the UK, there is an additional seven-year period from the end of the implementation period for UK nationals living in the EU to access higher and further education in the UK under home fee status, and with support from student finance. This offer on education has also been applied by the devolved Administrations.

I will address the proposed new clause in Amendment 37 and the specific arrangements referred to by the noble Baronesses, Lady Hamwee and Lady Miller. I reassure the House that the citizens’ rights provisions in the agreement already ensure that those who have made their lives in or plan to retire to the EU by the end of the implementation period will receive an uprated UK state pension in the EU and any associated reciprocal cover while they have the right of residence in that member state. The provisions of the agreement will protect approximately 500,000 state pensioners already in receipt of a UK state pension and approximately 190,000 UK state pensioners and their dependants for reciprocal healthcare cover across the EU, EEA, EFTA states and Switzerland.

The current arrangements go further than the amendment itself. The proposed new clause in Amendment 37 falls short of the protections offered by the agreements. That is because they ensure the protection of not only UK nationals currently in receipt of a UK state pension in the EU, but UK nationals resident in the EU who are not yet of state pension age but who might be considering retiring in the country in which they live: for example, someone who has retired early to the EU once they reach UK state pension age. I reassure those who, like the noble Lord, Lord Steel, are concerned about our EU friends. The agreements will also protect reciprocal healthcare for all those in scope of the agreements, regardless of whether they are UK nationals.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, asked about the aggregation of pensions and benefits. I reassure the House that all contributions today, made from whatever country in the EU or EFTA, and Switzerland, will be protected by the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Kerr, referred to ongoing negotiations about those who look to make onward movements beyond the implementation period. I reassure the House that those negotiations are being carried out with energy and enthusiasm. I also reassure him that his EHIC card will be valid until the end of the year—as it will be for the Bethell family, including my four children, on our forthcoming holidays.

Lord McNicol of West Kilbride Portrait Lord McNicol of West Kilbride - Hansard

The Minister said that UK pensions will be uprated “while they have the right to reside in that state”—I think I quote him correctly. But what if they move to another EU state?

Lord Bethell Portrait Lord Bethell - Hansard

Those parts of the pension that are already in the bag, as it were, will continue to be uprated, depending on where they move to. If they move to another area where there is a treaty arrangement, they will continue to benefit from the uprating arrangements relevant to the country to which they move. However, as my noble friend Lady Altmann referred to—a point I shall move on to—if they move to an area which does not have a treaty arrangement, their future contributions to the pot will be relevant to that country’s arrangements.

Lord Shipley Portrait Lord Shipley - Hansard

Can the Minister clarify something that I think he said? He referred to UK citizens who are not yet of retirement age but become entitled to a UK state pension and then move to one of the 27 countries of the EU. Will their pensions be uprated?

Lord Bethell Portrait Lord Bethell - Hansard

I am not sure that I completely understand the question. If they have qualified for the UK state pension while still in the UK, of course they will take their pension with them. If they are currently living in the EU but contemplating retiring in that country, the arrangement that we have had means that their benefits will continue while they are in that country. I hope that answers the question.

Lord Shipley Portrait Lord Shipley - Hansard

My question was whether, if someone who is currently working and then retires, receives the UK state pension outside the European Union after 1 February but then moves to an EU country after that date, their pension will be uprated in that country. Is that what the Minister said?

Lord Bethell Portrait Lord Bethell - Hansard

That is a question of sufficient complexity that I am reluctant to commit to an answer at the Dispatch Box, but I will be glad to come back to the noble Lord with a detailed response.

The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, made a good suggestion when referring to the concerns of EU citizens living in the UK about their arrangements. I reassure those citizens that the arrangements in place will preserve their current situation, so they should feel confident and reassured. Her suggestion of a country-by-country guide is a good one, which I welcome, and I will pass it on to the department as a recommendation.

My noble friend Lady McIntosh talked about the fair recognition of pension payments in the round. I cannot comment on the precise arrangements for her pensions, but I reassure her that everything that is contributed to pension pots in any EU country before the end of the implementation period will be recognised as contributions to the pension.

Lastly, my noble friend Lady Altmann talked movingly about the uprating of pensions for those who live in countries with no suitable treaty. That is way beyond the scope of this agreement. I have sympathy for those people who live in countries where there is no pensions treaty, but as she quite rightly explained, they did make that move knowing what the arrangement was. Bringing in uprating for such people would add an enormous cost to the Treasury of around £600 million a year, but it is something that remains on the Government’s radar screen.

The new clause proposed by Amendment 37 is well intentioned and is entirely supported in spirit by the Government, and that is why we have put in place the arrangements set out in the Bill. However, it is unnecessary as the agreements that the Bill will implement safeguard both healthcare and state pension rights for UK nationals living in the EU, and therefore I will ask the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, to withdraw it.

Before I do so, I will address the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, on his amendment. I thank him, the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, and others who also spoke to it. The proposed new clause is a well-intentioned and creative move. I acknowledge that there are some people in the EU, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, who would like such a measure to be enacted. But I want to be really clear with the Committee: EU treaty provisions on this matter are very straightforward. Only the nationals of EU member states are able to hold EU citizenship. When the UK ceases to be a member of the EU on 31 January, UK nationals will no longer be able to hold EU citizenship. For those who have dual nationality with another EU member state—I would guess that the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, is in this group—it will be different. However, those with only British citizenship will not be EU citizens.

We have worked hard to ensure that the effect on people’s lives will be minimised. The withdrawal agreement we have reached is a fair and reciprocal agreement with the EU on citizens’ rights. It provides certainty and a means for all UK citizens living in the EU and EU citizens resident here in the UK at the end of the implementation period to be able to continue to live their lives broadly as they do now. These rights as provided by the withdrawal agreement will take the status of international law, having a direct effect in EU member states under EU law and in the UK under Clause 5 of the Bill. These provisions are meaningful and give people who are concerned about this the security that they need.

Will the attitude to citizenship ever change? The British Government will of course always listen to the EU about benefits that might come to UK nationals. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, alluded to, to date, associate citizenship has not been formally proposed to the UK in the negotiations as we leave the EU and I do not believe that it is our place to propose new policies that would require making changes to fundamental and significant EU legal principles such as EU citizenship. But we always keep an open mind to suggestions from our EU partners and I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, that that open mind remains.

European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill Debate

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Department: Home Office

European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill

(Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard): House of Lords)
(Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard): House of Lords)
Lord Bethell Excerpts
Tuesday 14th January 2020

(8 months, 1 week ago)

Lords Chamber
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Home Office
Lord Howarth of Newport Portrait Lord Howarth of Newport (Lab) - Hansard

My Lords, Clause 13(5) contains a Henry VIII power; it is admittedly constrained by the specific subject matter and context of the Bill, but is none the less within those constraints a wide-ranging power:

“The power to make regulations … may … be exercised by modifying any provision made by or under an enactment.”

Henry VIII clauses are in principle objectionable, and in principle the Government ought always to explain to us why they think they are justified.

Lord Bethell Portrait Lord Bethell (Con) - Hansard

My Lords, I am enormously grateful for the opportunity to respond to the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter of Kentish Town, and others. I thank all those who have contributed to this debate.

The noble Baroness put it very well; the importance of this measure should not be underestimated. As we leave the EU, protecting the rights of UK nationals in the EU and EU citizens in the UK, including EEA, EFTA and Swiss nationals remains a massive priority for this Government. It is a commitment that we have delivered very clearly in the withdrawal agreement, the EEA EFTA separation agreement and the Swiss citizens’ rights agreement. For those noble Lords who have enjoyed the pleasure of reading those pages, it is a really hefty chunk of the withdrawal agreement. The detailed and complex nature of these commitments is testified to by the large number of pages taken up describing them. For brevity’s sake, I will not go through these pages and will refer to EU citizens and agreements thereafter.

The dynamic nature of the EU’s social security co-ordination rules means that, following the end of the implementation period, updates at the EU level to the EU social security co-ordination regulations will be reflected in the agreement and therefore apply to those citizens within the scope of the agreement. The current social security system is dizzyingly complex. These updates are also very complex; they include minute changes to things such as definitions, the templates in which organisations communicate with each other and the line by line minutiae of the regulations. They ensure the clarity and delivery of benefits for citizens and the operational viability of the overall system. This clause ensures that the appropriate authorities, including the devolved Administrations, have the power to make regulations to align the domestic statute book with the amendments made in these regulations.

A question was asked about Henry VIII powers. I reassure the House that these provisions are focused solely on the regulations described in Part Two, Title III of the withdrawal agreement relating to social security co-ordination, as well as to the supplement, and deal only with matters arising.

Lord Howarth of Newport Portrait Lord Howarth of Newport - Hansard

The Minister pointed out that the regulations are extraordinarily complex. Would he accept that, the greater the complexity, the greater the need for accountability?

Lord Bethell Portrait Lord Bethell - Hansard

No, that is a neat way of putting things, but it is not quite the point I was trying to make, which is that they are very closely defined in terms of breadth and that the detail of the regulations is so minute that it would waste the time of these Houses to go through them line by line. It is important for solidity and confidence in the system that they are expedited quickly and resolved without delay. Without wishing to give the game away regarding what I am about to say, the bottom line is that we simply do not have the legislative capacity in these Houses to go through all the complexity of the details as they arise at an EU level.

Viscount Hailsham - Hansard

That is a serious statement to make. My noble friend is saying that Parliament cannot do its job. Does that not mean that these matters need to be considered by the commission on the constitution—and preferably a royal commission?

Lord Bethell Portrait Lord Bethell - Hansard

No; my noble friend puts it well, but I am alluding to the fact that there is a hierarchy of priority, and there are matters of significant policy and implementation that are of a sufficiently high level to warrant the attention of the House. However, this clause refers to matters of an operational nature, which are there to implement the agreed clauses of the withdrawal agreement.

There is no question of this clause being used to bring in new policy, new arrangements or the kinds of policy changes that, frankly, would warrant discussion in the Houses. That is the reassurance that I am trying to communicate to the House, that any changes in the actual policy and arrangements and the benefits of those in the 5 million, whom the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, accurately referred to, are absolutely not part of either the intention or the way in which these clauses are written.

Lord Howarth of Newport Portrait Lord Howarth of Newport - Hansard

If there is no intention to change policy, why is Clause 13(5) in there?

Lord Bethell Portrait Lord Bethell - Hansard

All the arrangements within this part of the Bill are heavily constrained to Title III of Part Two of the withdrawal agreement. There is therefore no need to escalate to questions of policy; if there are questions of policy, they will be brought to the House but in a completely different way. The purpose of this clause is to make sure that there are no conflicts or inconsistencies in domestic law that refer to the current commitments within the withdrawal agreement, which could give unfair treatment and uncertainty about the rights and benefits of the 5 million in the group of people who benefit from these arrangements. It allows Ministers to protect the entitlements—

Baroness Hamwee Portrait Baroness Hamwee - Hansard

Can the Minister point us to where in the clause we can find reassurance that, if there is a change in policy, it will not be dealt with through regulations?

Lord Bethell Portrait Lord Bethell - Hansard

That reassurance is not in the clause; it just does not provide the necessary powers, and without those powers, the ability to change policy does not exist. I hope that noble Lords will agree that the way in which it is written is tightly refined around the specific arrangements of implementing the detailed clauses in the withdrawal agreement. That is its confined and determined nature. What it does, in a focused way, is to allow Ministers to protect the entitlements of those in the scope of the agreements, and only that. It includes both EU citizens living in the UK, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, explained, and UK nationals who have chosen to work in or retire to EU member states before the end of the implementation period. Many of those people will have lifetime rights within that agreement which may last many decades, and the effect of the changes of EU regulations will continue to need to be tweaked during those decades.

This power is therefore essential to give the Government the flexibility that we need to provide legal certainty to individuals subject to these rules as the EU social security co-ordination regulations evolve over time. We have an important duty to protect the social security co-ordination rights of those in this scope, to give them that confidence, and for the lifetime of these agreements. This power enables us to protect those rights, and without prejudice to any future system that would apply to those not covered by these agreements.

It is important to note that the power is restricted to making provisions which implement, supplement or deal only with matters arising out of the relevant sections in the agreement relating to social security co-ordination; I reassure the House on that point. That is why we cannot accept this amendment, which would sunset the powers to make regulations only two years after the end of the limitation period, whereas the withdrawal agreement social security co-ordination provisions have no such sunset and potentially may last decades for many people. To put an expiration date on the power could therefore prevent the UK ensuring—

Lord Kerr of Kinlochard Portrait Lord Kerr of Kinlochard (CB) - Hansard

I understand the point the Minister is making and that the scope of action is limited to the areas covered in the withdrawal agreement—I understand all that. However, would it not be more reassuring to recipients if the sunset clause were there, and if changes could be made only after the expiry of the period by primary legislation? I understand the argument, but if the argument is reassurance, surely it is more reassuring to people that changes could be made only by primary legislation than that they could be made using these Henry VIII powers laid out in these provisions.

Lord Bethell Portrait Lord Bethell - Hansard

My Lords, the point is well made, and I understand the desire of the Houses to keep scrutiny on measures, which is entirely fair. However, in this case, confidence, solidity and a sense of commitment can be promised and delivered by the Government only if they do not have the fear that the pipeline of legislation going through the House might delay important technical changes and hold up the delivery of these benefits. It would put a huge pressure on these Houses of a kind that is not realistic or reasonable to have the entire legislative timetable of our proceedings held hostage to the microchanges and small needs of EU social security regulations and improvements, which may in decades to come affect only hundreds of thousands of people and require small administrative changes in regulations.

Viscount Hailsham - Hansard

Hundreds of thousands is quite a lot.

Lord Bethell Portrait Lord Bethell - Hansard

My noble friend puts it well; I am not trying to brush off hundreds of thousands. I am trying to communicate a sense of this long tail of microregulatory changes, which are technically incredibly important. However, the priority is to demonstrate commitment and security to those millions of people today who will look to the Government to make a commitment to deliver those in years to come. To put an expiration date on the power could therefore inadvertently prevent the UK ensuring that its statute book complies with its international obligations under the agreements, and put in jeopardy the Government’s unequivocal guarantee to protect citizens’ rights. I therefore urge the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter of Kentish Town, to withdraw this amendment.

Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Portrait Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town - Hansard

I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, to the Bill; I assume that this is only the first of his outings on it. I thank my noble friend Lord Howarth, the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham. I urge the Government to listen to what they say.

Perhaps the Government are saying that there will be so many small technical changes—but we would need to know that. If there was a sunset clause—possibly for longer than two years, as the noble Viscount suggested —we could see whether we are talking about lots of changes, but the Minister has not answered the question of why this cannot be dealt with more properly in a detailed statutory scheme where we will have a greater handle, or a greater grip, on these sorts of amendments.

I am concerned about what is referred to as “complex” or “technical” or a “tweak”. Over the past 10 or 15 years, we have seen pension regulations change: as we brought in civil partnerships, the right to a pension or the age of dependants also changed. These are big issues. These are not small tweaks where you report to this pension authority rather than that one. As has been said, some big issues could be addressed here without giving people outside this House enough time to comment on them. Remember, we are talking about people in Spain and Luxembourg, for example; by the time they hear that a statutory instrument is coming, it will probably have been passed. We are talking about a group of people who are very disparate and yet could be seriously affected by what is said to be a tweak.

I am still slightly concerned that, by enabling this to be there for all time, changes may be made to people’s death benefits, pensions or health provision, for example, without a proper discussion here. It would be a good idea, after I withdraw the amendment, for the Government to look closely at our Select Committee’s recommendation on whether there is a better method of achieving what the Government want to achieve, perhaps through moving an amendment to put in a sunset clause. Perhaps it could be for five years; in that time, we really would be able to see whether it is working as envisaged. Just having an open-ended commitment for all time on issues that will possibly affect people’s pensions or benefit payments seems to be a wide-ranging Henry VIII power.