Third-Country Nationals

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Mr. Ainsworth: A lot of questions have been asked and a lot of specific points raised. Some of them are totally relevant to the directives and some go far wider, touching on such matters as entitlement cards and asylum policy. If the Committee will forgive me, I am not sure that it would be helpful if I tried to answer every single specific point now. I shall try to pick up the questions that have been asked and ensure that Members have a response to them, while dealing with the matters that need to be dealt with and with the broad situation. We are in early days with regard to the directives.

I turn first to the procedure issue picked up by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey. We supplied the Committee with all the relevant papers last week, but we all know that busy Members run into this place having read papers at the weekend, then go to the Vote Office and pick up another set. I was having considerable problems when Members were referring not to the papers but to the first or the second directive. I believe that there is a typographical error in the papers distributed by the Vote Office. I apologise for that, but it was outside the Home Office's control.

The Chairman: It is appropriate for me to say to the Committee that it has been reported to me that there was a problem with the documents at the Vote Office. Through the Clerk, I have asked for that matter to be investigated, in the light of which I shall write to you, Mr. Hughes.

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Mr. Ainsworth: So, apologies from everybody for that. I hope that it did not stand in the way of the debate.

The hon. Member for Woking talked about the surrender of national control and my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North urged us never to allow those barriers to come down. I hope that both will forgive me if I am wrong, but I picked up a very UK-centred reading of the directives from their comments. We will make a big mistake if we begin to read the directives from that point of view. We have a clear opt-out that has been accepted by and negotiated with our partners.

Many countries in the European Union have accepted and implemented the Schengen acquis, which means that they approach the issues from a completely different perspective. As the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey pointed out, such countries often have a different geographical perspective. We should not get hung up when we see intentions and desires laid out in a directive, on which we have an opt-out, that addresses not only the UK but the whole of the European Union. If free movement and the total removal of border controls exists in mainland Europe, there are no sinister motives behind saying that benefits that apply to third-country nationals, or long-term third-country residents, should be levelled out and maintained to a fairly high degree across the European Union. That is in the interests of third-country nationals and not those of either capitalism or a huge European machine that seeks to crush our national identity.

Mr. Hopkins: I do not mean to talk only about Britain, because in other countries, such as Denmark, there is increasing concern about the movements of people across frontiers. We are in a period of change and other countries have their concerns.

Mr. Ainsworth: My hon. Friend is right, but although other countries have a number of reservations they have not totally rejected the directives. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey made an important point about separating the issues from concerns about illegal immigration and claims for asylum. We have long accepted that long-term residents of our country should enjoy a status equivalent or thereabouts to that of nationals born here, which is something that also applies in other European Union countries. I hope that that will continue to apply and that there will not be a great desire to say that a long-term resident of this country should not be treated as being close to a national.

Even if we decide to opt out at the end of the day because we cannot get changes on our key concerns, there is a lot to be gained by continuing to be part of the debate because there are many rights that should apply to both our third-country nationals and third-country nationals in Germany, France and other parts of the European Union.

We are at early days with regard to the directive, and the Scrutiny Committee asked us to conduct this debate to expose the main issues. We have no problem

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with the levelling up of the arrangements on issues such as employment rights for third-country nationals. We have the fundamental difficulty that, as worded, the directives break our opt-out facility, whereby we can control our borders and the residents in our country. Unless we can make changes that effectively honour that, we will not be able to sign up to the directives.

We have not been able to assess costs because of the arrangements of the opt-out. I accept the point made by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey about having the consultation in the public domain as soon as possible. We have no desire to hide it, but there is no need to rush to it either, as we have no ability to opt in halfway through the process. Now that we have decided to exercise our opt-out, we cannot opt in to any directive halfway through the discussions. We can take a decision only at the end of the process, when a finalised document comes out of the negotiations. Then we can see whether it is acceptable to us, and opt in.

At that time, regulatory impact studies and the views of businesses, local government and other organisations will be important, and Parliament will want to know them. We should not seek to hide them, and I assure hon. Members that we will not. However, we will not be able to take any fundamental decisions on policy until we come to the end of the process, which is still a long time away. People do not need to worry that there will be some policy change, and that they will not be informed about the background views of different people before it has been considered.

Simon Hughes: I do not dissent from anything that the Minister has said, and I share his view that Britain, Denmark and Ireland are all outside Schengen, so far as I know. Certainly Britain and Ireland are, and clearly have a different starting position. That is why I asked whether they had taken the same initial view.

Will the Minister confirm whether, if we keep our opt-out at the end of the process, there is a chance of reviewing that at an agreed number of years later? That could be on our own as the United Kingdom, or with any other countries that opted out. Is it something that could always be kept under review so that, as long as a country was out, it could always go in? Once it is in, it is much more difficult to get out again.

Mr. Ainsworth: We would have to seek agreement to be allowed in at some point if we did not exercise the opt-in. We would be able to approach people and ask for that to be considered.

All the countries have entered general scrutiny reservations on long-term residents. All member states have entered reservations on the text, but not all of them have specifically stated that they oppose the

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directive. Generally on freedom of travel, a new measure needs to be drafted to meet the requirements and desires of member states, and a consensus will be difficult to achieve.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey is right to say that Denmark and Ireland have opt-outs on Schengen. Ireland has opted in to the employment directive, but has entered a general scrutiny reservation on its detail. Ireland has not opted in on freedom of movement, and Denmark does not take part in discussions on any title IV measures but can use its national law to transpose them into law within Denmark if it agrees.

I shall tackle the other main points that need to be made clear. The hon. Member for Woking mentioned a major problem on national insurance contributions. It is not a major problem with regard to our European Union partners, but it is in relation to third-country nationals. We have a pay-as-you-go scheme rather than an applied scheme, and there have been long arguments with many other countries about whether part of those payments can be effectively taken away as pension entitlements. That is not possible, because of the type of scheme that we would need to be able to do that. Part of the directives conflicts with that position. The matter is extremely difficult to resolve, and has been flagged up clearly by the British Government as a possible difficulty in any opting-in.

I should clarify one other main point, by confirming what I told the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey: British overseas nationals are treated as third-country nationals, not UK nationals. Therefore, unless we minimise any potential difficulties as far as we can, while maintaining our position, British overseas nationals travelling to the Schengen countries will experience the same problems as third-country nationals living in the United Kingdom.

I shall write to hon. Members on the specific issues that they raised, and try to take up as many as I can. I shall try to put as much information as I can in the public domain, so that people can see the current position and the potential difficulties with making progress on the directives.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

    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.

        Committee rose at five minutes past Six o'clock.

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The following Members attended the Committee:
Cairns, David
Farrelly, Paul
Francis, Dr.
Griffiths, Jane

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Hopkins, Mr.
Palmer, Dr.
Tami, Mark
Williams, Hywel

The following Members also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 119(5):

Ainsworth, Mr. Bob (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department)
Caplin, Mr. Ivor (Hove)



Gardiner, Mr. Barry (Brent, North)

Hughes, Simon (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

Malins, Mr. Humfrey (Woking)

 
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