Third-Country Nationals

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The Chairman: As there are no further questions, I think that we can move to the debate on the motion. In that regard, doubtless the Minister heard the point of order made by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes). The document to which the hon. Gentleman referred is not my responsibility but the Minister's, and he will respond to the point as he chooses.

Mr. Ainsworth: I beg to move,

    That the Committee takes note of European Union Documents No. 8237/01, draft Council Directive concerning the status of third-country nationals who are long term residents, and 11803/01, draft Council Directive on the conditions of entry and residence of third-country nationals for the purpose of paid employment and self-employed activities; supports the Government's position on these measures; and takes note that the Government has not opted into them but intends to maintain a constructive approach and will consider whether to opt in once their final shape is clear.

Mr. Malins: I am grateful to the Minister for the careful and courteous way in which he introduced the directives. He made it clear that the Government are not currently contemplating opting in. I support him wholeheartedly on that. Indeed, I go further and say that it would be difficult to envisage—although things might change—a situation in which we would opt in.

The Minister said that our immigration policies should be transparent, rational and flexible—he is right. They should all be fair. I noticed a slight lack of

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reality when I read the directives over the weekend—it spoilt most of my Sunday—and this morning. I read passages that seemed to say plainly that there would be a time when control over our own borders will be not in our hands but in the hands of others. If that time is not now, it was suggested, it will come shortly.

It is a fundamental principle that each member state of the EU should have control over its borders: directives should not be imposed on them from outside, particularly without their Parliaments having a full opportunity to scrutinise them. The Minister was right to agree with me that it is important for us to have control of our borders, but will that control exist in five or 10 years' time?

With regard to the directive on the status of long-term residents, we are plainly being asked to sign up at some stage to a directive that will give rights to people from outside these shores, without full and explicit permission being granted by our own elected assembly in Parliament. When I asked the Minister how many third-country nationals would be eligible, I hoped that he would give an answer at some point—and I am sure that he will do so. I believe that there are millions of third-country nationals within the EU, and it would be nonsense if an institution outside our shores were to make a decision about where those people should be entitled to reside and work.

Mr. Ainsworth: I shall try to help the hon. Gentleman: I am sorry that I was unable to find the relevant figures in the sea of paper that we have on the three directives. The estimates for third-country nationals in the EU vary between 13 million and 20 million, so he is right that there are many such people.

Mr. Malins: The issue of the expansion of the EU is relevant to this point, and I hope that the Minister will address that today, or in a letter to me. In the next few years, many more countries will be added to the EU, so in a few years after that, many more millions of people will potentially qualify to benefit from this set of directives.

The Minister has helpfully addressed several of my points, but I want to raise a few more. I do not expect them to be dealt with today, but I would be grateful if he would drop me a line to answer some of them.

On the first of these directives, a fair amount of work will have to be done to define ''stable and adequate resources'', and

    ''sickness insurance covering all risks''.

Perhaps, at some stage, the Minister could bring us up to date on that?

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey pointed out that the document appears to apply to British overseas citizens who have no right of abode in the UK. That should be considered.

When the Minister writes to me, I want him to deal with what would be the position if someone were to come here as a third-country national as a result of this directive, and they were then to find themselves out of work, for example. Can he confirm that, under this directive, it is envisaged that such a person would be as entitled as any UK citizen to the rights and benefits

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that exist in this country with regard to the national health service, education and housing? What would be the position of students?

Can the Minister confirm that applications by third-country nationals to come here as long-term residents would have to be made to this country, so that decisions would be made by us, rather than by any EU body? I also hope that he will write to me in due course about any thoughts that he might have about Treasury and judicial implications.

I also want the Minister to take a look at the phrase ''family members'' at some stage, as that is always difficult to define. I believe that it is defined somewhere in the paperwork, but I am unsure how far that goes, and the question of equal rights and long-term residence for family members is worth addressing.

Perhaps the Minister could tell us what caused the Government to reach their conclusions about the directives. What were the stumbling blocks and difficulties, and which issues, if cleared up, would make the Government much happier? Will he tell us a bit more about the discussions with other EU nations? Which countries does he think are more in favour of the adoption of the directives, and which more against? If there is a general opt-out by many countries, it will be difficult to think of the EU as having a coherent policy. If we do not opt in, will the other EU countries take our input as seriously as they might?

The second directive, which deals with entry and residence of third-country nationals in paid and self-employed work, brings us back to the subject of pensions. That is a serious issue. It is well known that, historically, there has been a large pension fund in this country, but not in many other EU countries. There have been difficulties over the years about whether any of our pension money would be transferred from our control into that of others.

Under the second directive, those who work here in the short term could take the benefits that have accrued to them, including national insurance benefits, out of the country. I have raised the issue with the Minister, and I know that he is alive to it, as it would be the first occasion that anyone could do that. Because of the difficulty of untangling NI contributions from the rest, there is a problem with not only the detail but the principle of the provisions on pensions.

The third directive raises the question of freedom to travel. On the face of it, it seems not only harmless but proper and decent to give third-country nationals freedom to travel in member states for up to three months. One does not want to be alarmist—people might want to move around for holidays—but I am anxious to know how that might work in practice. Would such people have an automatic right to travel? Would our immigration authorities be permitted discretion in not allowing entry in certain circumstances? Would the right be unchallengeable? Would there be a method to ensure that people who travelled eventually ended up where they started?

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I put that badly, but the Minister will understand my concern, which is, I think, shared by the Government. If we were to opt in, we would, under the directives, be extending many rights to 13 million people—and in due course an awful lot more. The rights relate in part to residence, in part to working and in part to travelling in an EU state.

With such large numbers, and as we have no idea who will choose to do what, it is quite important that the Government have their finger on the pulse if we ever consider opting in. They should be able to respond to any challenge to say that there might be a mass movement of people over which they have no control. That is a merely economic point, because the mass movement of people in extreme circumstances is potentially destabilising to both the country that they leave and the country to which they go.

Those are various issues to which I hope the Minister will respond in due course. I return to the basic question: do the Government want to opt in to the directives? In what circumstances will they recommend that we do so? He began his comments by agreeing with me that our control over our borders is very important and we should not let go of it, so there is a fundamental clash of ideals with the current directives, which broadly suggest something of a surrender of certain rights that we have prized for a very long time. According to current EU developments, however, we may at some future stage be expected to surrender those rights.

The Conservative party has noted and will note the directives, and we understand and support utterly the Government's current position, which is not to opt in to any of them. Does the Minister accept that we will want the most careful scrutiny of any proposals that arise as a result of further discussions? It is vital that any new proposals that the Government are happier to accept have the fullest possible scrutiny, not only in Committee but on the Floor of the House, so that the people of this country fully understand what they are being asked to assent to.

5.26 pm

Mr. Hopkins: It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr. Cran. I hope to do so again on other occasions.

These measures are unusual because, for the first time that I can recall, the Scrutiny Committee agrees with the Government about them quite forcefully. It wants one or two reassurances, but essentially it agrees. The Opposition also seem to agree with the Government's position, so in broad terms, we all agree, which is a happy circumstance.

 
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