Third-Country Nationals

[back to previous text]

Simon Hughes: I have four more questions. First, am I right in thinking that it is perfectly compatible with the Schengen treaty and the United Kingdom opt-out from Schengen for us to sign the directives; and that third-country nationals moving between, say, the UK and the Netherlands, Belgium or France could be subject to immigration control even though they had established rights in the countries either side? Is it right that we can have the Schengen opt-out and border controls, but rights can still be given to people crossing from one country to the other?

Mr. Ainsworth: I understand what the hon. Gentleman says, but in the circumstances dictated by the directives as currently worded, we would in effect have given up a say in the collective decision on who came to the UK and in what circumstances. In those circumstances, we would have no rights to prevent people from coming here, because as currently written the directives give rights to, for example, long-term residents in second countries. If someone were resident in, say, Holland for five years, they would have an automatic right to enter the UK. We would have no ability to prevent them from doing so, and if they stayed in the UK for five years, they would have an automatic right to maintain their position within the UK.

That goes against our current opt-out arrangements. We have insisted on having the ability outside the collective decisions of the EU to control not only our borders, but decisions on who does and does not reside in our country.

Mr. Malins: The Minister will note that document No. 8237, which deals with the status of third-country nationals, refers to the rights of people who have resided in a country legally and continuously for five years. Our requirement for indefinite leave to remain is four years. Does he perceive a problem? If we opted in, would we be likely to change our conditions, or would the directive fall into line with us? Would there be a problem?

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman points out some of the potential benefits of continuing to be part of discussions, even if we decide not to opt into a particular directive. Even if there are differences between the Schengen countries and those outwith Schengen, there may be substantial benefits for the EU and other countries if the EU presents to the outside world rules that are, as far as is reasonable and practical, similar. Even if the rules for different countries were not the same, people would not be totally confused, but would understand what applies in Denmark, France or Britain. There would be substantial benefits in presenting the same face to people in the rest of the world who try to become EU residents. That is part of our thinking on why we

Column Number: 11

should continue to play a full part in discussing the directives, even if we have decided at this stage to exercise our right to opt out.

Simon Hughes: The Minister may remember that on Report of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill, there was some discussion about the fact that various people who were given asylum—in the case raised, in the Netherlands—had come over to the UK. There was no easy way to ensure that people who were entitled to claim in more than one place did not abuse the system. Have the Government considered the potential advantages of a coherent system, such as that proposed in the directives, that would allow people to transfer their claims between EU countries? Say someone is given an entitlement to remain in the Netherlands for five years but discovers that a family member has settled in the UK; that individual might want to transfer their right to the UK—or vice versa.

Such a system might solve some problems and reduce abuse. It might also ensure that people understand that there is a common system rather than different loopholes to be got through in different countries. The immigration service does not control everyone crossing every border every time.

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman will have to forgive me, because I was not part of that debate on the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill. The Government recognise that there are many advantages in maximising co-operation throughout the EU, especially on illegal immigration and asylum, and we are heavily engaged in various discussions to try to maximise the benefits of co-operation for all concerned. That does not necessarily cut across our ability or our desire to opt out of the directives.

The Committee is discussing routes to legal immigration and employment in the EU, not how to deal with illegal immigration or asylum, although those are related matters that give rise to some complications. We want the maximum degree of co-operation to tackle illegal immigration effectively and deal with legitimate asylum applications to the EU. While doing that, we want to control who enters and has a right of residence in our own country.

Simon Hughes: Page xviii of the European Scrutiny Committee's first report sets out a list of entitlements to equal treatment. For example, it refers to

    ''access to employment and self-employed activity; education and vocational training; the recognition of qualifications''

and so on. Has the Minister heard evidence of cases, or had constituency cases brought to his attention, of people who have indefinite leave to remain in this country but cannot take up jobs abroad within Europe because of their current status? Such problems have certainly affected my constituents. Can he explain the Government's understanding of how that problem has had an adverse impact on people who have a right to be here and a right to work? They should be able to work in jobs to which they are suited. Such people are often bilingual. They should be able to visit relatives

Column Number: 12

who live in another European country, but they are currently unable to have proper family links and ties because they cannot leave this country.

Mr. Ainsworth: Obviously, I am aware of such matters from both a constituency and a ministerial viewpoint. The hon. Gentleman is right. The downside of the opt-out of the Schengen area affects third-country nationals who gain permanent residence within one country. That can make it difficult for them to move, whether for employment or other reasons, within the European Union. Such a problem cannot be removed in its entirety, but it highlights the great benefits in our continuing to discuss facilitating easy transparent access to visas.

The fact that the Schengen area operates within itself is of benefit to people, because when they gain access to a Schengen visa, they can move to Germany, France or anywhere else. It is in all our interests to have easily understood fences that have to be jumped in order for people to get to the other side of the Schengen area, although we could never completely remove the problem while we maintain our current policy.

Mr. Malins: Can the Minister clear up a doubt about the first directive on long-term resident status? If a third-country national acquires long-term resident status in a country and, after a period of years, seeks to transfer that residency status to another member state, would that person have to demonstrate to the second member state that he had stable and adequate financial resources and sickness insurance to cover all risks? If that person subsequently fell on hard times, would he have access to unemployment and sickness benefits that accrue to other people in that state?

Mr. Ainsworth: As I said, it is early days and such issues need to be sorted out. However, as the directive is currently worded, the decision taken by the first country would automatically confer rights on the individual that would go beyond the first country that had taken the decision to grant permanent stay. That is our fundamental problem with the directive. There would be limited ability for the second country to make decisions limiting rights of entry, because it would have signed up to the directive and effectively pooled the decision making. The decision about residency would have been taken by the first country of entry. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Problems could arise if the directive stays in its current form.

Simon Hughes: If I am about to ask a silly question, I apologise. A couple of months ago, we legislated to change the status of British overseas territories such as St. Helena and Gibraltar. An issue was raised in the first report about the effect on people with British overseas passports rather than full UK passports. Am I right in thinking that, irrespective of our changes to legislation, the effect of the UK's opt-out to the directives would be that people with British passports that are not full passports would not be able to travel freely throughout the rest of the European Union?

Column Number: 13

Given what the Government said about their desire to give people who come from places such as St. Helena and Bermuda the fullest possible status in the UK, which was part of the motivation behind the legislation, are there any plans to give such people the right to travel throughout the EU fully, even if the Government's policy is that non-EU nationals should not? I hope that the Minister understands the question. Will we look favourably on people with British overseas passports—or whatever they are called these days? We are clearly obliged to give them more assistance in travelling and job hunting than non-EU nationals who do not have any sort of British passport?

Mr. Ainsworth: Subject to clarification if I am wrong, the answer is that the directives will not cut across or prevent individual member states from making bilateral agreements with third countries that are over and above the basic minimums in the directives. However, we have no ability to impose those decisions on the Schengen area from outside. If we have an arrangement with a British overseas territory, we cannot say that it will apply to the whole of the European Union. If the situation is not as I have said, I shall let the hon. Gentleman know. I am fairly sure that we are not precluded from entering into favourable arrangements with places such as St. Helena, and neither are France or Germany. However, we cannot say that because we have such arrangements with a third country, they should apply to the Schengen area.

5.12 pm

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 1 July 2002