Queen allows MPs to debate 300 year ban on foreign workers

June 15, 2009 at 1:53 pm Leave a comment

thequeen
by Tony Grew

A debate on a private member’s bill had an unusual start on Friday when the Queen placed “her prerogative and interest” at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of the bill.

At the second reading of the Crown Employment (Nationality) Bill the Comptroller of Her Majesty’s Household, John Spellar, told the House:

“I have it in command from Her Majesty the Queen to acquaint the House that Her Majesty, having been informed of the purport of the Bill, has consented to place her prerogative and interest, so far as they are affected by the Bill, at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of the Bill.”

The private member’s bill was proposed by Andrew Dismore, who told MPs this this was his seventh attempt to introduce it.

“Twice—once a couple of years ago and once last year—I got as far as Report, so I hope to make a little more progress this time,” he said.

His bill seeks to end the restrictions placed on the employment of non-UK nationals in civil capacities under the Crown, which have been in place for more than 300 years.

The Act of Settlement of 1700 provides that  “no person born out of the Kingdoms of England, Scotland, or Ireland, or the dominions thereunto belonging…shall be capable…to enjoy any office or place of trust, either civil or military.”

“That prohibition has been amended over the years, and does not apply to Commonwealth citizens, citizens of Ireland or British protected persons employed in a civil capacity,” Mr Dismore said.

“In place of the current system, the Bill would open up all civil employment under the Crown to applicants of any nationality, apart from such positions as would be rightly restricted to UK nationals—about 5 per cent. under rules made by the Minister responsible for the Department concerned.”

Mr Dismore said that a battery of amending legislation had been passed over the years.

“The Aliens’ Employment Act 1955, under which the prohibitions were relaxed so that aliens could be employed if they were either appointed in a country outside the UK, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man in a capacity appearing to the Minister to be appropriate for aliens, or employed in accordance with a certificate issued by a Minister with the consent of the Minister for the civil service.

“In 2006-07, only 66 people were employed under the certificates, 37 of whom were in the Ministry of Defence.

“The European Communities (Employment in the Civil Service) Order 1991 amended the 1955 Act so as to allow nationals of member states of the European Community, and their spouses and certain children, to take up civil employment under the Crown, apart from “public service” posts within the meaning of the European Community treaty.”

“What we have seen is basically a plethora of interacting and interchanging laws, regulations, rules, treaties and so forth, making it incredibly complicated to work out exactly what is what,” he said.

“My Bill will simplify all that lot, sweep away the complex spider’s web that people have to negotiate and produce some simple and straightforward rules.”

Mr Dismore said that 780,000 residents of working age are not United Kingdom, Commonwealth or EEA (European Economic Area) nationals, and are thus excluded entirely.

“In London, a diverse world city, 330,000 people—7 per cent. of the working-age population—are entirely excluded not just from the higher echelons of the civil service, but even from applying for the most junior social security clerk’s job in the Department for Work and Pensions.

“It is no wonder that we sometimes have difficulty in filling civil service jobs in the capital when such a high proportion of my fellow Londoners are entirely out of the equation.”

For the Liberal Democrats, David Heath said:

“There are certain rites and annual events of this House that mark the passing of the seasons, and one of them is the Second Reading of the Crown Employment (Nationality) Bill on behalf of the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore).

“I find it unbelievable that we are still discussing, in this groundhog day way, exactly the same Bill year after year, when it is perfectly obvious that its provisions are sensible.

“It makes a very minor change to the enactments that affect the civil service, and there is no adequate reason why the Government cannot accept it.

“They might wish to do so with amendment, but the principle behind it must, I am sure, be agreed on both sides of the House.”

For the Conservatives, Nick Hurd said he regretted “we are looking at just one small corner of the painting and not at the wider canvas of the role and status of the civil service.”

He said the law as it stands is “rooted in a different age and it is complex, it has been amended on many occasions and, unsurprisingly, it is a mess.”

“In 2009, it makes no sense that someone from Nigeria can apply for a job in the civil service here, but someone from the United States cannot do so,” he said.

“In the past, the law might have been justified by concerns about securing allegiance to the Crown, but that justification evaporated with the relaxing of eligibility for members of the EU.

“In any case, the oath of loyalty to the Crown is now a question of contract, above all, and the Bill does nothing to change the right of Ministers to reserve sensitive posts for UK nationals.”

Making her debut at the despatch box, Angela E Smith, the new Cabinet Office minister, said that although she could not support the bill, “I think it contains considerable merit, although some issues will require further discussion.”

She then set out at length the current situation.

“The interrelationship of EC and UK law has created what is commonly referred to in the civil service as the alien spouse anomaly, whereby a Chinese national married to a French national who was working in UK could be deemed eligible for civil service employment by extension of their spouse having exercised their freedom of movement rights,” she told the House.

“But if the same Chinese national were married to a UK national working in the UK, they would not be deemed eligible, thereby giving more rights to EEA nationals and their families than to UK nationals.

“It is worth noting—this is where I have some disagreement with my hon. Friend’s analysis, though he is essentially right in practice—that the consequence of the freedom of movement rights does not represent a complete bar on the spouses of UK nationals.

“UK nationals themselves may have gained their rights by exercising freedom of movement or are open to that, as any other EEA national is.

“If they have triggered those rights, their spouse may well be eligible for Crown employment, irrespective of their nationality.

“However, it is accepted that in reality an EEA national living and working in the UK is more likely to be able to show that they have engaged their freedom of movement rights than a UK national living in the UK.”

Ms Smith said the issues raised merit further reflection, “which is why I suggest that the Bill go forward for consideration in Committee.”

“The Bill has been subject to consultation with Her Majesty the Queen, as it would have two identifiable impacts on the Crown,” she told MPs.

“As the House has been informed, Her Majesty has asked the House to be acquainted that, having been informed of the purport of the Bill, she has consented to place her prerogative and interest, so far as they are affected by the Bill, at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of the Bill.”

Tory MP Christopher Chope said that Ms Smith had spent “some 51 minutes setting out her reservations about the Bill.”

“Given that it has such a historical background and has been considered iteratively over many weeks, months and years, it comes as a bit of a surprise to find that the Minister—who is at this moment talking to the Bill’s promoter—or her predecessor did not spend more time talking to the promoter to find a form of words more acceptable to the Government.

“I congratulate the hon. Lady on learning the skill of articulating reservations at great length, albeit that she read them from her brief.

“We welcome her as a new recruit to the Government frontbench on this subject. Perhaps next time she will be able to articulate at similar length without having to refer to any notes.”

A vote was called for – Ayes 29, Noes 2.

The Deputy Speaker declared that the Question was not decided because fewer than 40 Members had participated in the Division (Standing Order No. 41).

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