Sir Ed Davey: Ministers are asking parliament to write a blank cheque in the long-awaited Immigration Bill
Liberal Democrat Home Affairs spokesperson Sir Ed Davey warns that "there is simply no way that the Home Office will successfully process 3.8 million applications for “settled status” by 2021" so ask the Government to address what happens after the end of freedom of movement.
Given how determined they are to end free movement after Brexit, you’d think Tory Ministers would have some idea of what should come next.
But no. More than two-and-a-half years after the referendum, there’s still no proper plan in place for what happens if free movement ends, as Theresa May has said it will, on 31st December 2020.
We were promised that it would all be spelled out in the Government’s Immigration White Paper – finally published just before Christmas, over a year late – and its long-awaited Immigration Bill, which the House of Commons debated last week.
Anyone looking for clarity in the Government’s Immigration Bill will be sadly disappointed.
It is so short, and so devoid of specifics, that it’s hard to believe it took the Government two years to write it. Just 15 pages for the biggest change to our immigration rules in almost half a century.
The Bill essentially does two things: ends free movement with the European Economic Area (excluding Ireland), and grants sweeping new powers to Ministers to change pretty much any aspect of immigration law in the future, without the need for primary legislation. These are the so-called “Henry VIII powers” that are rife in the Government’s Brexit legislation, and which dramatically reduce Parliament’s ability to debate and scrutinise new laws.
Essentially, Tory Ministers are asking Parliament to write them a blank cheque, without giving us any idea what they plan to spend it on.
This is no way to legislate on an issue that is so crucial to people’s lives, and to all our livelihoods. Without a clear, workable immigration system in place now – so that everyone has time to prepare – ending free movement in less than two years would be nothing short of disastrous for our public services, our economy, and many of the EU citizens living in the UK.
The NHS and social care providers are already struggling to recruit the staff they need, with 41,000 vacancies for nurses and 110,000 for carers in England alone. Cutting off their supply of workers from Europe will only make that problem much worse.
For employers, it would mean a choice between a huge increase in bureaucracy or a major shortage of skilled workers. Only 2% of employers currently sponsor visas for non-EU nationals. Thousands more hire EU workers and don’t need to worry about visas. But in a Brexit future they will have to grapple with the Home Office’s complex, costly system – or hire immigration lawyers to do it for them, at even greater cost.
And for many EU citizens, it will mean exposure to Theresa May’s nasty “hostile environment”. There is simply no way that the Home Office will successfully process 3.8 million applications for “settled status” by 2021. Thousands will inevitably be left without it, in the same position as the Windrush Generation: wrongfully denied access to housing and healthcare; potentially even detained and deported.
It is just not good enough for the Government to bring forward a Bill ending free movement without any policies to address these looming calamities.
The Liberal Democrats demand better, and – like on Brexit itself – MPs from all parties must work with us to assert parliamentary authority. Last week, Labour planned to abstain on the Immigration Bill. It was mid-debate by the time the Labour frontbench clocked what a mistake this was and u-turned to vote with the Liberal Democrats against the Government.
It is beyond belief that some Tory MPs were more organised in opposing the Government’s hostile immigration policies than the Labour shadow cabinet. In the end, 76 Labour MPs failed to vote against the Government and the Immigration bill passed by 63 votes.
The failure of Labour in this instance was clear. I hope that next time they will join us in saying loud and clear that any new immigration system must be debated and agreed by Parliament, not simply concocted by Ministers behind closed doors.
Rt Hon Sir Edward Davey is the Liberal Democrat Home Affairs spokesperson and the MP for Kingston and Surbiton