Documents considered by the Committee on 22 November 2017 Contents

29The free movement of EU citizens

Committee’s assessment

Politically important

Committee’s decision

Cleared from scrutiny; previously recommended for debate on the floor of the House (decision reported on 22 January 2014); drawn to the attention of the Home Affairs Committee and the Committee on Exiting the European Union

Document details

Commission Communication: Free movement of EU citizens and their families—Five actions to make a difference

Legal base


Home Office

Document Number

(35590), 16930/13, COM(13) 837

Summary and Committee’s conclusions

29.1This Communication dates back to November 2013. It constitutes the Commission’s response to a request made by the Justice and Home Affairs Council in June 2013 to “look at the implementation of free movement rules, including guidance on fighting abuse of these rules”. The request stemmed from concerns raised by the then Home Secretary (Mrs Theresa May) and her counterparts in Austria, Germany and the Netherlands that EU rules conferring a right on EU citizens to move freely within the EU were placing a strain on local services and social welfare systems. Whilst recognising that free movement was “one of the central achievements of the European integration process and one of the most visible benefits of the EU for its citizens”, they suggested that the conditions set out in the Free Movement Directive were not always respected and that Member States lacked the necessary legal tools to tackle the abuse of free movement rights effectively.360

29.2The Commission Communication considered how likely EU citizens were to migrate to another Member State, sought to clarify the rights and obligations associated with free movement, as well as the conditions and limitations provided for in EU law, and provided guidance to help national and local authorities apply EU free movement rules effectively. The Commission cited a number of independent studies which indicated that migrant EU citizens paid more in tax and social security contributions than they received in welfare benefits and had a higher rate of employment than nationals of the host State. It made clear that, in its view, EU free movement rules contained “robust safeguards” to tackle abuse and prevent unreasonable burdens being placed on the host country, and concluded:

“It is the joint responsibility of Member States and the EU institutions to uphold the right to free movement, including by countering public perceptions that are not based on facts or economic realities.”361

29.3Our predecessors requested further information on the data sources relied on by the Government to quantify the nature and extent of the abuse of free movement rules. They noted (and the Government accepted) that the majority of EU citizens who came to the UK were genuinely exercising their EU free movement rights and were not seeking to abuse or circumvent the rules. They considered that the examples of abuse cited by the Government—particularly those involving organised crime and the exploitation of vulnerable individuals lured by traffickers or manipulated into sham marriages—had a serious and negative impact on the public perception of free movement. However, they also noted that there was a lack of robust, quantitative evidence to demonstrate the scale and prevalence of abuse and fraud or the impact of free movement on local services and social welfare systems.

29.4Our predecessors recommended that the complex web of issues related to free movement within an enlarged European Union should be debated on the floor of the House. The debate recommendation was made on 22 January 2014. Events since then have vindicated their judgment that free movement was and remains an issue of great political importance and public interest. Efforts to curb free movement were at the heart of the renegotiation undertaken by the former Prime Minister (Mr David Cameron) in the run-up to the referendum on UK membership of the EU and featured prominently in the referendum campaign. Despite this high level of political and public engagement, and frequent reminders of the importance the Committee attached to the debate, both the Coalition Government and its successor failed to schedule a debate. In May 2016, shortly before the EU referendum, the then Home Secretary (Mrs Theresa May) wrote to inform our predecessors that the Government was “highly likely” to schedule a debate before the summer recess. They sent an immediate response underlining the importance of doing so before the House rose (on 15 June) for the EU referendum. As no debate was scheduled, a further request was made at official level for confirmation that the Government would make good on its promise of a debate before the summer recess. Yet again, the government failed to deliver.

29.5More than three years after the initial debate recommendation was made, our predecessor Committee took the decision to rescind its predecessors’ debate recommendation. It did so on the grounds that the 2013 Communication on which the debate would have been based had been “superseded by subsequent events, and that free movement issues, in particular those relating to the position of UK/EU nationals resident elsewhere in the EU, were being debated in other ways”. The Committee reiterated its concern “at being put in this position by Government delay”, adding:

“The importance of the issue cannot be doubted; it was a key part of the previous Prime Minister’s attempt to renegotiate the UK’s relationship with the EU, and remains salient in exit negotiations.”

29.6The Committee made clear that “prompt scheduling of debates is important” and that it expected the Government to recognise that “the scrutiny system is an important part of making sure the House has the meaningful votes the Government has promised”.362

29.7In his response, the then Leader of the House (Mr David Lidington) expresses “regret that it was not possible to schedule the debate”, adding:

“The Government is committed to delivering a range of opportunities to debate and scrutinise its approach to exiting the European Union. Since the referendum, Ministers have regularly made themselves available at the despatch box and have appeared before Committees to update the House and to answer questions on the full range of issues rising from the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union.

“Although we have taken the decision to leave the European Union, the rights and obligations of membership will apply until the moment of our departure. I recognise the continuing importance of engaging with the scrutiny process in the House of Commons and I will continue to emphasise this to Ministerial colleagues.”363

29.8The UK’s exit negotiations will encompass a vast array of complex legal and policy issues, many of which will be politically controversial. The failure to schedule a debate on the Commission’s free movement Communication does not bode well for robust Parliamentary scrutiny. We expect the Government to deliver on its commitment to engage meaningfully with the scrutiny process while the UK remains a member of the European Union. We also expect the Government to provide “a range of opportunities” to debate and scrutinise its approach to the exit negotiations in a way which is not simply expedient for the Government, but genuinely responsive to the issues Parliament considers to be politically and legally important.

29.9As our predecessors’ debate recommendation has been rescinded, we clear the Commission Communication from scrutiny but draw this chapter to the attention of the Home Affairs Committee and the Committee on Exiting the European Union.

Full details of the documents

Commission Communication: Free movement of EU citizens and their families—Five actions to make a difference: (35590), 16930/13, COM(13) 837.

Previous Committee Reports

Twenty-ninth Report HC 83–xxvi (2013–14), chapter 12 (8 January 2014) and Thirty-first Report HC 83–xxviii (2013–14), chapter 2 (22 January 2014).

360 See Directive 2004/38/EC on the right of citizens of the EU and their family members to move and reside freely within the territory of the Member States.

361 See p.13 of the Commission Communication.

362 See the letter of 15 March 2017 from the Chair of the European Scrutiny Committee to the then Leader of the House (Mr David Lidington).

363 See the letter of 31 March 2017 to the Chair of the European Scrutiny Committee.

28 November 2017