HL Deb 26 October 1993 vol 549 cc772-5

2.58 p.m.

Lord Desai asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether the term "foreigners", as used by the Secretary of State for Social Security, includes citizens of European Community countries.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Social Security (Viscount Astor)

My Lords, yes.

Lord Desai

My Lords, is it quite right that he should do so? Is the Minister aware that under the law which we passed there cannot be a distinction between UK citizens and nationals of other European Community countries? Is it not unconstitutional for the Secretary of State to use the term, having just participated in the Maastricht debate as part of the Cabinet which wanted to put Britain at the heart of Europe?

Viscount Astor

No, my Lords, it is not. Of course it is right to say that we are all citizens of Europe now. But Article 8 of the Maastricht Treaty introduces the concept of citizenship of the European Union. This confirms some existing rights and introduces some new ones; for example, the right to vote in local elections. It does not give an unrestricted right to settle in any of the member states. We want to stop benefit tourism, and we are considering a number of measures in this area that would bring us into line with other member states of the Community, including a residence test similar to that of our EC partners.

Lord Ennals

My Lords, is it not an unfortunate term to use? Does the Minister agree that we got used to terms such as this during the pro- and anti- Maastricht debate? Is it not apparent that some Ministers are now moving to language which seeks to imply difference between ourselves and our colleagues in Europe, and is that not a very disturbing development? We saw it at the Conservative Party Conference, did we not?

Viscount Astor

No, my Lords. I reject what the noble Lord says. We are citizens of Europe. We are still subject to the Crown in this country. We do not owe our allegiance to President Mitterrand any more than the French owe their allegiance to Her Majesty the Queen. If the word "foreigner" is derogatory, how is it that for many years we have called the department which is dedicated to improving our relations with other countries the Foreign Office?

Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is a very satisfactory French phrase: "Vive la différence"?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I am sure that the House is grateful for the comment of my noble friend.

Baroness Robson of Kiddington

My Lords, may I ask the Minister whether the term "foreigner" is the right one? I married an Englishman in 1940. I took him to Sweden in 1945. I was told that an Englishman is never a foreigner, wherever he is, in whatever part of the world he happens to he in. Would it not therefore be better to refer to these people as "non-nationals"?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I looked up the definition of the word "foreigner". It says: a person from another country; or alien. I looked up the definition of the word "alien". It says: a person who is not a citizen of the country where he is living, or a being from another world. I have to tell noble Lords that we are not aware of any extra-terrestrial benefit fraud yet.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that I agree with him that his definition of the word "foreigner" is correct, and any English national who goes to Berlin or Paris will find that the same definition is practised there? Arising from this question, can the Minister give an assurance that after the Maastricht Treaty comes into operation on 1st November, there will be no duties placed on so-called citizens of the European Union? Also, can he ensure that Mr. Lilley's policies, if I can put it that way, are put into operation by ensuring that no laws are imposed on the people of this country by foreigners without the consent of the British Parliament?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I can tell the noble Lord that the measures announced earlier this year by my right honourable friend to restrict access to income support, housing benefit and council tax benefit to persons from abroad, admitted on the condition that they are no burden on the public purse, apply only to people from outside the European Community. The proposal to introduce a test similar to the residence requirement in other European Community countries will apply to everyone, including citizens of other member states and citizens of non-member states.

Lord Morris

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the term "foreigners" is a marked improvement on the term much beloved of the Foreign Office not so many years ago; namely, "aliens"?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, it is quite simple. If we go to someone else's country, we are a foreigner in that country. It is in no way a derogatory term; it is a fact of life.

Lord Bonham-Carter

My Lords, is the Minister aware that "Welshman" means foreigner? Are Welshmen foreigners in their own country, and would he like to take the advice of the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I can assure the noble Lords, Lord Bonham-Carter and Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos, that they are of course not foreigners in this country, and never will be.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, the people of Wales will be extremely grateful to the noble Viscount. He gives us some assurance to go on with. Is he aware that we regard ourselves as both Welsh and British?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the noble Lord makes an extremely important point.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, perhaps I may belatedly but genuinely welcome the noble Viscount to his new portfolio. We should have welcomed him last week. It is clear that he is enjoying it.

The Minister will have heard Mr Lilley's speech at the Conservative Party Conference denouncing EC nationals for "scrounging" (to use his word) off our social security system. Is the Minister aware of the Written Answer given by Mr. Burt, the junior Social Security Minister, in June, when he wrote: The only group of EC citizens and their families who can claim social security without qualification", for example, child benefit, are those who are working or who have worked in the, United Kingdom."—[Official Report, Commons, 7/6/93; col. 143.]; in other words, those who have paid British taxes and British national insurance? Did the Secretary of State know that? If he did not, surely he should. But if he did, why was he apparently misleading Tory Party conference and the country with such xenophobic remarks as "benefit tourism"?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I have to say to the noble Baroness that the Secretary of State knew rather better the rules that apply than the noble Baroness does. Different considerations apply to different benefits and different categories of people. Not all EC nationals have unrestricted right to live anywhere in the EC. Only workers have unconditional right to live anywhere in the Community and have equal access to benefits and other services. Others have the right to live in another EC country only if they have enough income not to need to claim safety net benefits from their host state. That is the position.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, is it not possible to take far too seriously the remarks made by Ministers of the Crown at their own party conference when there is perpetual competition—and, indeed, "competition" is the operative word—for the usual spate of standing ovations?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I am delighted that the noble Lord looks at our conference so carefully; that he obviously studies it in great detail and follows it with such care.

Lord Howie of Troon

My Lords, like most Members of this Chamber, I am a foreigner in most parts of the world, including here. I heard Mr. Lilley's speech. I must say that it was on television; I was not actually there. If he did not intend to use the word "foreigner" in a derogatory sense, what did he actually mean?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, what he said was: It is beyond the pale when foreigners come here expecting our hand-outs". That is the point. We do not want benefit tourism. It is important that everybody in this country gets the benefits to which they are entitled. If people in this country get benefits to which they are not entitled, it is only taking away money from those who should get the benefit.

Lord Howie of Troon

My Lords, did the Minister hear his inflection on the word "foreigner"?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I think that I have explained the definition of the word "foreigner" quite clearly, and I have explained quite clearly what the Secretary of State said, what he meant, and the changes that we intend to introduce.

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