Baroness Ludford (LD)
My Lords, I very much regret the end of free movement rights. This has often been presented as a one-way system, as if it applied only to nationals of other EEA countries inward to the UK, but it has of course been a two-way system, and something over 1 million UK citizens have taken advantage of their free movement rights to live, work and settle in other EU and EEA countries. When I was an MEP, I was proud to work on the 2004 citizens’ rights directive, which is often called the free movement directive. We did not get everything we wanted, as the European Parliament did not have quite the rights over legislation that it has today. However, it allowed lots of people who were not particularly well off to take advantage of EU rights to move, live and work abroad—it was democratised, if you like.
I fear that there could well be resentment in future, as divisions appear between those who retain a right to move around and those who do not. I also think that some British citizens who currently enjoy EU free movement rights may not fully have taken on board what is about to hit them. When I talk about divisions, for instance, there are those who will be able to get an Irish passport. I declare an interest here: apparently—I did not realise this until a few years ago—I am already an Irish citizen because my mother was born in Dublin. I have not yet got round to applying for the passport. I put it off partly in the hope that somehow Brexit would be averted, and also because I feel a little sheepish about my right to it. But I have not had to apply for Irish citizenship, as it has sort of fallen out of the sky, courtesy of my mother—or her mother, I should say.
There will also be people with means who will be able to move abroad. We know that it is possible to buy so-called golden passports in some EU countries. There are also investor visas. One way or another, it is not going to be the rich who will be affected by the grab of free movement rights.
This Bill is largely about the future of EU and EEA citizens in the UK and them coming under immigration control, but as the organisation British in Europe so splendidly details, we must remember the difficulties for UK citizens in EEA countries.
Reference has been made to Amendments 4 and 5, which my noble friend Lady Hamwee will probably talk about. The noble Lord, Lord Pannick, talked about Amendment 3. These amendments are similar in that they are objecting to wording about powers,
“capable of affecting the interpretation, application or operation of any provision … under the Immigration Acts … or … capable of affecting the exercise of functions”.
The two committees that have very helpfully reported to us—the Constitution Committee and the Delegated Powers Committee—have pointed out the legal complexity of immigration law. It is a complicated policy area. I think it was the Constitution Committee that said,
“the complexity of law had developed to the point that it was a serious threat to the ability of lawyers and judges to apply it consistently—not to mention raising rule-of-law concerns as to the ability of the general public to understand the law to which they are subject.”
This is the system into which we are catapulting EEA citizens who, up to now, have enjoyed the protection of EU law. I hope they continue to enjoy the complete protection of the withdrawal agreement, but noises off in the last 24 hours have not reassured people of the Government’s commitment to upholding all the provisions of the agreement.
This is a complex area. I know we are going to talk about the Immigration Rules on a later amendment but, as this Bill does not set out the domestic immigration framework that will apply to EEA citizens, there is understandable nervousness. One of the things that people are worried about is a retrospective demand to show private health insurance—the famous “comprehensive sickness insurance”. The Minister will know that it is interpreted by the European Commission—and was always understood when we were legislating on the citizens’ rights directive—that in a country such as the UK, which has a national health service, free at the point of delivery, the right to use the NHS is the comprehensive sickness insurance for people paying tax and national insurance. They should not be required to have private health insurance. There is a lot of worry that when people come to apply for citizenship the Government will say, “Show us that you had private health insurance all the time that you have been resident in the UK.” Perhaps the Minister will be able to reassure me on that point.
Colleagues in my party and, indeed, people in other parties believe that there should be an automatic system instead of the EU settlement scheme, which is an application system. A letter went to the Prime Minister yesterday from representatives of five parties, including my friend in the other place Alistair Carmichael MP, urging the Government, even at this stage, to replace the settled status process with an automatic right to stay for EU citizens, guaranteed in primary legislation, as a declaratory system. It is something that we have persistently asked for and will not stop asking for. I see that the Minister looks dismayed.
One group—I think it was Law Society of Scotland—raised an interesting question. Perhaps the Minister can clarify this. It asked whether Clause 1 is necessary in the light of powers in the EU withdrawal Act 2018 for Ministers to repeal retained EU law. I would be grateful for her guidance on that subject.
Finally, I thoroughly support Amendment 61 on EEA citizens having access to eGates, which the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, will speak to.