Yesterday’s parliamentary debacle underlined once again the shambolic nature of our current leadership, and the lack of policy and direction at the heart of government, as we head towards the avoidable disaster that is Brexit.
Most worrying is the government’s continued disregard for EU citizens’ rights – both on an individual and collective level. Yesterday illustrated the inconsistent incoherent way the government is approaching this most fundamental of issues.
Theresa May has done the very thing she promised not to (for both UK citizens living in the EU and EU citizens residing here): treating people and families as a political football.
In the middle of this ongoing turmoil MP Alberto Costa was forced to resign having proposed an amendment to the forthcoming Brexit vote. His popular amendment required the government to seek 'at the earliest opportunity a joint UK-EU commitment to adopt' the part of the withdrawal agreement securing the rights of EU citizens in the UK and British nationals settled in the EU, whatever the outcome of Brexit negotiations.
Home secretary Sajid Javid stated he saw ‘nothing wrong’ with the proposal, even though it had been publicly rejected by the prime minister just a day previously. Parliamentary custom then required Costa to resign from his role as a parliamentary private secretary on the basis that government members do not amend government motions. In the aftermath of this confusion his amendment garnered around 140 signatures before being confirmed as official policy, avoiding a parliamentary vote.
Looking more widely at the settlement issue and the government’s proposed action plan for managing the EU populace resident here, many are now suggesting the settled status registration system is an unnecessary and aggressive reaction to a problem that doesn’t really exist. Labour MP Stephen Doughty has described it as discriminatory due to its requiring EU citizens to request rights already in existence. He has rightly pointed out that “if people are having to secure those rights then, by definition, they don’t have those rights”, and “you are at risk of having Windrush all over again".
The influential House of Lords EU Select Committee yesterday wrote to the home secretary to express a number of concerns about the EU Settlement Scheme. It felt:
- That publicity for the scheme has been inadequate and ill-judged.
- The application process is not accessible to all.
- Lack of physical proof of status will disadvantage those without access to online technology, and leave EU nationals facing major difficulties if the system fails or they need to prove their status to other governments.
- Absence of a systematic scheme to move people from pre-settled status to settled status would store up significant problems for the future.
The scheme is an extremely poor relation to the European principle of free movement of workers. EU citizens came to the UK to work, often bringing family members and children, and having children in the UK. These taxpayers who benefit our economy on at least two fronts (through tax and increasing our economic outputs) deserve a better deal.
Requiring individuals to prove five years’ residence to obtain ‘settled status’ is not only degrading and petty, but goes against the grain of what the European project is about. EU countries are our neighbours and allies. When we mistreat EU citizens we mistreat the bloc as a whole. As a country, inside or outside the European Union, we must not be led into a false belief that we can continue to prosper as a nation without keeping our allies close. And on a human level is it not basic decency to uphold the rights taken for granted for many years?
As we have seen previously with the Windrush scandal, rights can be seemingly granted by UK governments only to be snatched away years later. The UK must now be bound by yesterday’s commitment to EU citizens’ rights, and ensure that our friends living here as rightful residents are both protected and cherished for as many years as they choose to live in the UK. And we need to dump the unnecessary settled status project as soon as possible.
Gary McIndoe is founder and managing director of business immigration law firm Latitude Law