EU citizens in the UK must not be stripped of their rights after Brexit
The Immigration Bill leaves EU citizens in limbo after Brexit. Promises of future action and soothing words from ministers is not enough - legislative protection must be guaranteed, writes Harriet Harman
Much of parliament’s work is done by select committees, in both the Lords and the Commons. Many people are aware of their inquiries and reports – like the Public Accounts Committee’s exposé of industrial-scale tax avoidance. But what remains largely invisible to the public is the continuous scrutiny running across every aspect of government activity that select committees perform in their weekly meetings.
And sometimes we come across huge issues which have simply fallen beneath the radar. One such is the complete absence of guarantees of the rights for the 3 million EU citizens who will obtain settled status.
There’s been much public and parliamentary focus on the registration process including who can register as settled, how to get past the frequently crashing website, how people will know that they must register, the fee imposed and then reimbursed.
But there’s been no such focus on what you actually get once you’re in this new category of EU settler – and whether any of the rights will be guaranteed by law.
The government website reassuringly asserts that “the rights and status of EU, EEA and Swiss citizens living in the UK will remain the same until 30 June 2021”. And that “if you apply to the EU settlement scheme successfully, you’ll be able to continue living and working in the UK after 30 June 2021”.
"The new clause will place a duty on the government to reinstate each and every right
But the Joint Committee on Human Rights’ scrutiny reveals that while the immigration and social security coordination (EU withdrawal) bill is completely unequivocal in stripping away the existing status of the 3 million EU citizens living in the UK, it is silent on the rights that go with this new status of settled EU citizen.
Currently, EU citizens broadly have all the rights of UK citizens including being able to send their children to school, to use the NHS, to go to uni, to claim benefits, the right to work and move in and out of the country freely. The bill gives the government power to grant the settled EU citizens any or all of these rights by statutory instrument. But there are two major problems here.
First, there is no duty on the government to give settled EU citizens any of the rights that they have now and which the bill removes. There’s a power, but no obligation. And second, what rights will they get? Will they be exactly the same as they have now or might they be different? The bill says nothing about this.
The immigration and social security coordination (EU withdrawal) bill has already been through deep scrutiny in its committee stage, including the issue of trying to protect EU citizens from the evident and woeful failures which afflicted the Windrush settlement scheme. But the problem of the absence of rights for settled EU citizens only surfaced in the deliberations of the Joint Committee on Human Rights as we gave it the routine scrutiny we undertake to check every bill’s human rights implications.
It’s not acceptable that while you lose rights by law, their reinstatement depends on ministerial assurances of future action and soothing words on a government website.
Fortunately, the Human Rights Committee has the support of a team of top-notch legal advisers. They spotted this gaping hole and were on hand to draft a new clause for the bill which will place a duty on the government to reinstate each and every right that EU citizens in this country currently have. As a joint committee of both houses, our members can advance this in both the Commons and Lords stages of the bill.
And committees are also on hand to scrutinise the statutory instruments which will be needed from the Home Office, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Education Department and many others. Currently, the estimates are that Brexit will require the government to bring forward up to 1,000 new SIs. I suspect it might be many more.
But, in any event, each one will come under the eagle eyes of our select committees. As we aim to guarantee the rights of EU citizens, we can certainly guarantee more work for clerks and members of select committees and their legal advisers.
Harriet Harman is Labour MP for Camberwell and Peckham, and chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights