Sir Ed Davey MP and Tom Brake MP: Government must honour the draft agreement on citizens’ rights - the fingers-crossed situation is inhumane and unjustifiable
Liberal Democrat Spokespeople Ed Davey and Tom Brake are leading calls for the Government to ringfence the draft withdrawal agreement chapter on citizens' rights.
The result of the EU referendum changed an awful lot: the Prime Minister, the economic outlook, Britain’s political discourse and our standing in the world. But there are 3.6 million people whose lives have been affected more than most. These are the citizens of other EU countries who live in the UK.
For them, the referendum created a cloud of uncertainty that they’ve been living under ever since. Would they be able to continue to live, work and study here if the UK leaves the EU?
After months of campaigning by the Liberal Democrats, the3million and other groups, we secured a promise from the Government that those rights would be protected. The draft Withdrawal Agreement does, thankfully, include protections for both EU citizens in the UK and the 1.2 million British citizens living elsewhere in the EU. EU citizens who’ve lived here for five years or more will be entitled to “settled status”: the right to continue living and working in the UK indefinitely after Brexit.
However, that Withdrawal Agreement is still just a draft – and the Conservative Government’s chaotic approach to the negotiations means that there is no guarantee it will be finalised before 29th March next year. For the 3.6 million, the uncertainty remains.
In fact, that uncertainty was heightened even further last week, beginning with a calamitous performance by Immigration Minister Caroline Nokes in front of the Home Affairs Select Committee. Far from guaranteeing the rights of EU citizens after Brexit, she said that they would be subject to the same immigration checks as new arrivals, with no documentation to demonstrate their rights.
The Home Secretary soon contradicted his Minister, only for the Prime Minister’s spokesperson to contradict them both. “The work is ongoing and we will set out the details in due course,” he said, as if he was talking about a new extension on his house or his holiday plans for Christmas – not the lives of 3.6 million people.
This confusion, delay and indecision is completely unacceptable. The Conservative Government is holding millions of people in limbo while Ministers fight amongst themselves.
The Liberal Democrats demand better. The Government must offer a way out of this mess by giving the people a final say on the deal, with the option of an Exit from Brexit. And those EU citizens who’ve lived here for five years or more should be given a vote this time.
In the meantime, the Government must guarantee – in law – the rights of all EU citizens living in the UK, regardless of the outcome of the Brexit negotiations. The chapter of the draft Withdrawal Agreement that protects citizens’ rights – both of EU citizens here and British citizens abroad – needs to be ring-fenced, so that it comes into effect even in the event of ‘no deal’.
Anything less than that just isn’t good enough. Without it, Ministers are essentially saying to EU citizens: “Trust us, we’re the Home Office.” Yet at every step of the way, the Home Office has shown that it can’t be trusted.
The contradictory statements about employer checks are just the latest example.
There are the EU citizens who’ve been wrongly refused British citizenship – including Liberal Democrat Councillor and former Mayor of Ipswich Inga Lockington, who has lived in the UK since 1979.
There’s the smartphone app that the Home Office has designed for people to scan their passports with when applying for settled status, but which doesn’t work on iPhones.
And there’s the Home Office’s general record of hostility and incompetence on everything to do with immigration, from the Windrush scandal to its treatment of asylum seekers.
At every step of the way, the Home Office has failed to give EU citizens any reason to trust that their future is in safe hands. There are now fewer than five months to go until Brexit day and yet these citizens continue to live under a cloud of uncertainty.
So many questions remain unanswered about what Brexit will mean. Honouring the agreement on citizens’ rights is the minimum the Tory government should do to provide certainty. The current fingers-crossed situation is inhumane and unjustifiable.
Liberal Democrats will continue to work with colleagues from all parties to fight for the future of EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens living in the rest of the EU. These citizens are our friends, neighbours, colleagues and family. They are part of the fabric of our society and their rights must not be gambled with.
Sir Ed Davey is the Lib Dem Spokesperson for Home Affairs & MP for Kingston and Surbiton. Tom Brake is the Lib Dem Spokesperson for Exiting the European Union & MP for Carshalton and Wallington