Parliamentary Committees and Public Enquiries
Printable version

Government must act now to safeguard rights of EU citizens in UK

The Government should now make a unilateral decision to safeguard the rights of EU nationals living in the UK, the cross-party Exiting the European Union Committee has unanimously agreed in its report. The MPs are also calling on the Government to seek to ensure that UK nationals already resident in other EU countries – and EU citizens already living here – do not lose their rights to healthcare and pensions after Brexit.

Chair's comments

Hilary Benn MP, Exiting the EU Committee Chair, said:

"EU citizens who have come to live and work here have contributed enormously to the economic and cultural life of the UK. They have worked hard, paid their taxes, integrated, raised families and put down roots.

They did not have a vote in the referendum, but the result has left them living under a cloud of uncertainty. They are understandably concerned about their right to remain, and their future rights to access education and healthcare. Equally, Brits who live and work on the continent are worried about their right to work and access healthcare after Brexit.

EU nationals in the UK and UK nationals in the EU are aware of the forthcoming negotiations, but they do not want to be used as bargaining chips. Although the Government has said it wants EU citizens to be able to remain, this has not offered sufficient reassurance that the rights and status that they have enjoyed will be guaranteed. It should now do so."

Report findings

All parties to the negotiations must put the resolution of the rights of all EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU as their first priority. It would be unconscionable, the committee believes, for EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU not to have clarity about their status for another two years. The Government has made it clear it wants an early agreement to protect the rights of EU nationals in the UK and of UK nationals living in other member states. The Committee commends its commitment to this outcome. It is regrettable that this has not yet proved possible.

Healthcare for UK nationals in the EU

Continuing access to healthcare, on the same terms as they can now, is a particular concern for UK nationals resident in the rest of Europe. In setting out its negotiating position the Government should seek to ensure that EU nationals here and nationals elsewhere in the EU do not lose any of the rights to healthcare they currently hold.

Pensions for UK nationals in the EU

The Government should seek the continuation of existing reciprocal arrangements for pension uprating for UK citizens living in other EU member states and for EU citizens living in the UK. The Government also needs to clarify whether it will seek to continue to cooperate on EU-wide mechanisms to enable pension contributions in different Member States to be aggregated.

EU nationals in the UK

A major concern for EU citizens in the UK is that their right to remain and work in the UK will not be protected after the UK leaves the EU. The UK does not have a comprehensive database of who is here so the first task for the Government will be to work out how to identify the estimated three million EU citizens here who rely upon free movement as a basis for their right to remain. Ministers will also need to set a cut-off date for EU citizens arriving in the UK. Those who arrive before this date should retain the right to qualify for permanent residence after they have been here for five years. The Government should decide and announce a date as soon as possible.

Permanent residence system for EU nationals 

The current process by which EU nationals can apply for permanent residence after having lived in the UK for five years is not fit for purpose, the report concludes. EU nationals currently have to fill in an 85 page form that is too complex and onerous to be used to clarify the status of up to three million people, the MPs warn. The Committee is calling on the Government to streamline the system as a matter of urgency if it intends the permanent residence system to be the basis for enabling EU to stay in the UK after Brexit.

Hilary Benn MP commented:

"The permanent residence application process is disproportionately burdensome and involves collection of information which goes far beyond what is required to prove residence over a 5-year period. While there will always be complex cases that require detailed consideration, it should be possible to clarify the status of the vast majority of individuals already here by simply using a streamlined system.

We were told that at pre-referendum rates of processing, giving residence documents to all potentially eligible applicants using the current system would take the equivalent of 140 years."

The Government must not create or retain a system with unrealistic administrative hurdles, so that a substantial proportion of applications are declared invalid or refused. To do so runs the risk of either directing a large number of individuals into an appeal mechanism, prolonging anxiety and further draining Home Office resources, or leaving a number of individuals who fail in their application and decide to stay living and working illegally in the UK.

Managing the permanent residency application process for three million people represents a considerable challenge for the Home Office.  The Government needs to be preparing for this task now and Ministers must be transparent about the financial and human resources required. The Home Office is not processing applications for permanent residence fast enough and is currently rejecting, for whatever reason, one third of those applications it is processing. This could potentially amount to one million people.

The Government also needs to set out what it proposes to do with large numbers of people who have not established permanent residence once the UK leaves the EU. If the Government plans to replace the permanent residence process with another system, then it must do so as soon as possible.

Immigration after Brexit

The report argues there could be benefit in the UK Government indicating in the negotiations that it is willing to consider preferential access for EU citizens in its new immigration policy. An abrupt reduction in the number of EU workers in the UK would cause disruption in a number of sectors. The Government has made it clear that its priority is to control migration from the EU; however it will not necessarily reduce net migration in the short-term.

The Government needs to take steps to train, or further incentivise training, to ensure that skilled workers are available to fill jobs in sectors currently featuring a large number of EU nationals.
Uncertainty regarding possible changes to the immigration system after Brexit need to be reduced. The Government should set out how it will establish a new system for immigration to be in place within two years of triggering Article 50 and what the rules for EU migrants will be once free movement ends. The Government should also respond to the proposals from the devolved governments and from London for geographic work visas, which would allow EU citizens to work in particular parts of the UK, and must set out as speedily and fully as possible whether it is considering such a geographic element to future immigration policy, and if so, for which parts of the UK.


It is estimated that 3.2 million citizens of EU countries live in the UK and an estimated 1.2 million UK citizens live in other EU countries.

Free healthcare is currently available to UK pensioners across the EU. There are currently estimated to be 190,000 recipients of the UK state pension living in the EU, mainly in Spain, France and Ireland and the UK pays for their healthcare.

The UK state pension is uprated on the triple lock—the higher of the rate of inflation, the rate of increase in wages, or 2.5%. This is passed on to British recipients abroad but only in an EEA country or where there is a reciprocal social security agreement.

Permanent residency

EU citizens who have been living in the UK for five years at the point we leave the EU will already have a right to remain. The number of applications for permanent residency in the UK has doubled over the past year and is expected to carry on increasing. There were 4,000 grants of permanent residence in the third quarter of 2015, compared to grants of 14,500 in the third quarter of 2016.

If the Government triggers Article 50 in March then the prescribed timetable would result in the UK leaving the EU in March 2019. Those who have less than three years residence on the date Article 50 is triggered will therefore not be able to apply for permanent residence before the UK is expected to leave because they will not have accrued five years residence in the UK.

On 19 December 2016 the Joint Committee on Human Rights published a report calling on the Government to give an undertaking to protect the residency rights of EU nationals in the UK.

Further information


Channel website:

Share this article

Latest News from
Parliamentary Committees and Public Enquiries

Biometric Authentication for Dummies DOWNLOAD YOUR FREE COPY!