Since the EU referendum result was first announced in June 2016, Labour has been pushing for EU citizens here in the UK and Brits who have made a life for themselves in another EU country, not to be caught up in the Brexit negotiations.
We led a debate in Parliament less than two weeks after the referendum result, calling on the Government to give EU citizens already here in the UK the right to stay, thereby creating the right conditions for other EU Governments to reciprocate the offer to British citizens in their countries. The Government refused and decided to tie up the future of this group of 4 million people – those working in our NHS and teaching in our schools, Brits retired abroad not knowing if their pension rights will continue – with the outcome of the Brexit negotiations.
The decision to keep these people waiting until March 2019 to find out their future prospects, and with the threat of ‘no deal’ hanging over them even then, is completely unacceptable. As one of Labour’s Shadow Brexit Ministers since October 2016, I’ve been pushing the Government to see sense on this and find a solution as soon as possible.
I’ve led calls in Parliament for the Government to change its approach, worked with groups representing the people affected - the 3 million and British in Europe - to make sure the Government is considering the issue properly, and asked dozens of questions of the Government about the offer it has finally made on this issue in the early part of the Brexit negotiations.
The Government’s offer falls short of what Labour has been calling for and the commitment we made in our manifesto to “immediately guarantee existing rights for all EU nationals living in Britain and secure reciprocal rights for UK citizens who have chosen to make their lives in EU countries.” By delaying for a year, the Government allowed the European Commission to make the first offer, and then responded with a less generous offer that would see people lose rights, have to re-apply to stay here even if they’ve been granted permanent residence before, and with no guarantee about how these rights will be secured into the future.
It isn’t just the uncertainty and worry for the people affected that is causing a problem. Our public services and the economy are suffering too. Our NHS faces an even deeper crisis, as EU staff leave to where they can plan for their futures and applications to our universities from EU students are falling, threatening thousands of jobs in cities like Sheffield.
For now at least, EU nationals in the UK have the same rights as before, which is why it’s also hugely concerning that whilst the Government fails to provide certainty about the future, companies are reportedly discriminating against EU nationals. I’ve written to the Secretary of State about this – there can be no excuse for unlawful discrimination - by companies, by employers or by public service providers.
This issue is one of the first being dealt with in the Brexit negotiations. If the Government can’t even reach agreement on this relatively simple issue, it does not bode well for the rest of the negotiations covering hugely complex issues from our future trading relationship to crime and justice cooperation. Labour will continue to fight for citizens to be put first, and for this issue to be resolved quickly.