New pledges of better protection for Britons living in the EU after Brexit are close, a Conservative MP has claimed after what he describes as a “hard battle” with the UK prime minister and his cabinet.
Sir Roger Gale, in letters to Boris Johnson and in parliamentary questions, has insisted the government can – and should – take stronger action to protect Britons’ rights, especially in a no-deal.
This would include a lifetime right to uprated state pensions, exported disability benefits, and pensioners’ healthcare paid for by the UK – all issues the UK can guarantee now if it wants to.
Sir Roger said: “It’s been a hard battle and I’ve had to hold their feet to the fire but matters are moving in the right direction.”
He is now awaiting written confirmation of improvements from the prime minister.
It comes as deputy chairman of the British in Europe campaign group and retired barrister Jeremy Morgan QC told the House of Lords that the UK should do more for Britons in the EU.
Mr Johnson recently wrote to Sir Roger repeating the government’s pledges so far, such as uprating until 2022 in a no-deal and an intention to negotiate new arrangements for this to continue.
He said the government is seeking agreements with individual states to continue the status quo on healthcare until the end of next year, which, he said, had been achieved with Spain.
It has also pledged, if necessary, to pay for any healthcare for six months while people organise alternative arrangements.
Mr Johnson wrote: “Despite our continued efforts, I do recognise that healthcare arrangements may not be straightforward and people may experience some difficulties.” However, Sir Roger replied, saying that the current pledges “offer no comfort whatsoever” to British citizens in countries such as France.
In Parliament, he told cabinet minister Michael Gove, “there is woefully inadequate provision for the healthcare and pensions of expat UK citizens”.
He said the prime minister had now pledged to take his concerns seriously.
“We met and he gave undertakings that are to be confirmed in a letter.
“I am also meeting with the health and pensions ministers so we have a coordinated approach. I will wait to see the letter and want to know things are right before I say everything is OK, but we are moving in the right direction.”
He said the government has focussed more on helping EU citizens who live abroad in the UK but not yet done enough for its own citizens overseas.
“My view is we should take responsibility for, and pay for, all of those who are, at the point of our departure, resident in another EU country, even though it excludes people like me.”
Sir Roger has a French second home and has considered spending several months a year here in retirement.
“Given they’ve already taken a hit in the exchange rate, and they’ve taken their decisions on the basis that we would be part of the EU and they would receive full pension and healthcare and exportable benefits, to change the rules in the middle of the game is not the proper way to treat UK citizens who in most cases have worked most of their life in the UK.”
As things stand, he said, unless it is possible to negotiate new arrangements bilaterally, healthcare will in future also be difficult for second home-owners who, like himself, cannot obtain private insurance due to pre-existing conditions but stand to lose the Ehic card.
“People like me may, perhaps, have to rethink our plans but at the very least we must protect residents in France, who made their choice on the basis of one set of circumstances and can’t move back.”
Retired barrister Mr Morgan, who lives in Italy, also spoke out on uprating. Speaking to the House of Lords EU Committee with fellow barrister Adrian Berry, he compared it to other matters in the UK’s gift, such as immigration rights.
Campaigners for Britons abroad are concerned that, with or without a deal, no protection is in place for British people who may wish to move back to the UK with family members who are not British citizens.
After a no-deal, or after any deal transition period, they would have to meet ordinary British immigration criteria, including means thresholds. Rules could become even more restrictive if the UK proceeds with plans for an Australian-style points system prioritising young, highly-qualified workers.
Mr Morgan told the peers: “If there’s one message I would hope this committee would pass on, it’s this.
“There is a British policy of not uprating pensions of its pensioners who live in another country unless there’s a reciprocal agreement with that country. Within the EU it had to uprate because there is an anti-discrimination provision in the EU treaties.
“There was a British woman who went to live in South Africa as a pensioner and brought action against the government to secure equality with British pensioners in the UK and in countries with reciprocal agreements.
“She failed, including in the House of Lords and European Court of Human Rights. The comparison she attempted to draw was held not to be fair.
“One of the messages the British government seems to have been given is that ‘if we give you a guarantee that we’ll uprate your pensions for life or that you can have the right to bring foreign spouses back if you are a Briton living in the EU now and want to come back in five years’ time to look after an ageing parent… if we give you any of those things, someone will sue us and claim discrimination’.
“I urge this committee to reject that. Our view is simply this: to bring a successful claim of that sort against the government, you would have to show they were not treating like as like.
“The simple answer is that when British citizens moved to Europe they had a set of rights, like lifelong pension increases, which is being taken away.
“Surely, if someone has moved, living basically on the state pension and little else, which has depreciated due to the fall in sterling, and which is very low compared to other countries, surely that person who planned their lives on the basis that they would get increases for life, is entitled to do so.
“And if the British government says ‘we accept that distinction – that we should continue to do what EU regulations required us to do’, then no claim by a person who had moved to a country where there were no such rights would be likely to succeed. So the government needs to come up with much better reasons if it’s not going to pay pension increases and, frankly, we don’t think there are any.”
He added that many Britons in the EU live in “real hardship”.
“There’s an impression given by the tabloids that they are all supping prosecco on a terrace in Tuscany. But there are huge numbers who made a very rational decision to move because their pension would go further in places like rural France or Spain and are in desperate straits as a result of this.”
EU Committee chairman Lord Morris said: “We are touching on issues about people making lifelong decisions. Anyone who has spoken to Britons abroad knows at first hand their concerns. We will study your observations very carefully.”
Mr Morgan also addressed the UK government’s offer to individual EU states to keep the status quo on healthcare until the end of next year in ano-deal. However, he said that the EU “frowns upon” any states doing “mini deals” with the UK while they are trying to obtain an overall Brexit deal.
“There has been an ‘agreement’, in inverted commas, with Spain, but I believe it’s just a mutual understanding to do the same thing,” he said.
NEW CAMPAIGN: A British woman living in Normandy has launched a campaign called ‘British Pensioners for Justice’ demanding pension uprating and healthcare rights for life. Writer and retired journalist Christine Esteve gathered support at an anti-Brexit protest and is setting up a website and social media. For details email: email@example.com
She said: “I’m angry. I contacted the DWP before I moved and asked if my pension would be secure and guaranteed if I retired abroad in the EU, and they said ‘yes’.”