A legally-binding agreement guaranteeing the payment of state pensions and social welfare between the UK and Ireland has been officially signed and is awaiting parliamentary approval by MPs and TDs in London and Dublin.
Last week, Ireland’s Minister for Social Protection, Regina Doherty, brought a motion to the Dáil that it must vote to approve the recently-signed “terms of the convention on social security” between the two states.
Under the Common Travel Area arrangement, Irish and UK citizens have certain social and movement rights and privileges living in each other’s jurisdictions. This includes the freedom to work and study and access to healthcare, education and social security benefits like pensions and child benefit.
The UK government said in a statement that the agreement includes details that workers are only allowed to pay into one social security benefit scheme at a time.
“It also ensures that social security contributions paid by UK and Irish citizens can be used to meet entitlement criteria for accessing benefits in each other’s state,” they said.
Other agreements pertaining to social rights under the Common Travel Area are close to completion, according to both governments.
But a human rights expert studying the aftermath of the UK leaving the EU told the Irish World that British and Irish government officials are now only “waking up to the urgency of everyday rights issues” created by Brexit.
Almost 135,000 Irish residents were in receipt of British state pensions as of August 2016, up from 133,300 two years earlier, according to data from the UK’s Department of Work and Pensions. About 70,000 of these were also in receipt of a private British pension.
Dr Ben Warwick, a law lecturer who has been researching human rights in Ireland post-Brexit, welcomed the news of the agreement on social rights but said an “overarching framework agreement” may a better way of “restating the closeness” of the relationship between the UK and Ireland.
“The Common Travel Area has been written in sand for decades, and sector-by-sector agreements offer a practical way of giving it a firm legal footing,” he said.
“There is a slight concern that in creating a patchwork of agreements, the big picture about the special place of each other’s nationals gets lost.”
Dr Warwick warned that the agreement “only covers one area” and that there is “no timeline coming from either government about when other sectoral agreements might follow”.
“There are suggestions and hints coming out of government that agreements on health, education and possibly security could follow,” he said. “However, these agreements need to be concluded soon to give people certainty about their rights, especially in a no-deal scenario.”
Jerry Moriarty, CEO of the Irish Association of Pension Funds, said the signed agreement is “reassuring” for the “many” Irish people in the UK and British people in Ireland.
“While many of these settle down, many others do eventually move back home,” he said. “Having a seamless system of recognising each other’s social welfare systems makes this process much easier. It is also important to the many people who live near the border and may often spend time working in either the Republic or Northern Ireland.”
Last month, an Oireachtas committee on human rights heard that the Irish and British governments need to provide “clarification” the Common Travel Area. Experts said that the agreement in its current guise “endangers the rights of the Irish living in Britain”.
The Irish World has previously reported about how Irish citizens living in the UK should consider registering as EU citizens under the UK’s proposed settled status scheme to protect their existing rights.
In a report presented to a Good Friday Agreement Human Rights committee, law academics, including Dr Warwick, said Irish citizens here are being misled about their status under the Common Travel Area.
The report recommended that the Irish and UK governments should agree “a new intergovernmental Common Travel Area treaty”. This would mean formalising common immigration rules, travel and residency rights and other social, policing and security arrangements.
Regina Doherty said last week that the proposals should now be referred to the Select Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection, which, no later than 5th March, should be ready to vote on.
Earlier this month, the British Ambassador to Ireland, Robin Barnett, wrote in a blog post that the Immigration and Social Security Coordination Bill going through parliament chambers “reaffirms the UK government’s intention to protect [CTA] arrangements and preserve the special relationship we have with Ireland after the UK leaves the EU”.
“Where new domestic legislation in the UK is needed to ensure the continuation of the CTA and the rights that come with it, my government is taking urgent action to put it in place before 29 March,” he said.
“Officials across the whole of government in both countries have worked together to create a solid framework for the CTA, to ensure that the rights and privileges UK and Irish nationals enjoy in each other’s countries will continue, whatever the circumstances of the UK’s exit from the EU.”.
Amidst the no-deal emergency legislation proposed by the Irish government last month, were measures to ensure that reciprocal healthcare arrangements, including pension payments, were to be continued between Ireland and the UK in the event of a disorderly divorce from the EU.
Last year, one pension provider was advising its Ireland-based pension recipients to open bank accounts in the UK in order to avoid the loss of payments.
Pension Insurance Corporation wrote to its members, stating: “As it stands, insurance providers may not be able to continue paying out to overseas bank accounts after Britain leaves the EU in March 2019.”
The insurer, which pays pensions to 150,000 people in Britain and Ireland, said that if a deal on future banking arrangements is not reached by March, it “will need to pay your pension into a UK bank account”.
Without a deal, insurers and pension providers would be legally barred from sending out payments, leaving policies, in some cases, dormant on their accounts.
Huw Evans, the Director General of the Association of British Insurers, told MPs last year that it may be “illegal” to pay private pensions to many retired British expats, including Irish citizens, if the UK crashes out of the EU without a deal.
“That is a perfectly plausible risk in the future if no agreement is reached in some countries of the EU,” he said.