It’s not very often, or ever, that I praise Harriet Harman but I must now do so now for her amendment to the Article 50 bill:
“Nothing in this Act shall affect the continuation of those residence rights enjoyed by EU citizens lawfully resident in the United Kingdom on 23 June 2016, under or by virtue of Directive 2004/38/EC, after the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union”
The rights of the 3 million EU citizens in the UK should have been guaranteed long before now. It would put millions of anxious minds to rest and send a strong positive message to Europe and the world. Theresa May’s recent Brexit speech has cleared the air somewhat with our European friends, this would be a grand gesture of goodwill to warm relations further before Brexit negotiations.
The Home Offices’ developing “hostility policy” towards EU citizens currently existing in a state of ominous uncertainty in the UK must end now. The reassuring sounds from the Government ring hollow when people who have lived, worked and paid taxes for years – even had families with British spouses – are facing intimidating threats from the Home Office and being used as bargaining chips for Brexit negotiations.
That is not what I voted for. According to ICM’s post-referendum research carried out for British Future 84% of the British people (including 77% of Leave voters) agree with me and want existing EU nationals to stay and any future changes to apply only to new migrants. They know it’s the right thing to do.
Many EU citizens who intend to remain in the UK are now panic stricken and have begun the process of applying for a permanent residency card in order to document the rights they have acquired via EU treaties. This is when they are faced with the ugly hostility of the Home Office and the maddening bureaucracy designed to be difficult, confusing and off putting.
The PR process is absurdly convoluted; a stressful 85-page form that requires a ridiculous amount of documentation including five years’ worth of P60s, utility bills and a diary record of every time the individual has left the country during the five year period on which the rely for permanent residence. People who have made minor mistakes in the form have been faced with letters telling them to prepare to leave the country written in language that is designed to scare them.
It’s a national disgrace and the Government should put a stop to it right now. If we want to prove that Britain is still an open, tolerant and liberal country we need to stop using human beings as negotiating capital. This is not a game and they are not bargaining chips.
The Home Office has repeatedly said it cannot guarantee the rights of EU citizens in the UK unless the rights of the 1.2 million British people in the EU are reciprocated. This is nonsense. The idea that we would carry out the implied threat of mass deportations is a twisted fantasy that shames us all.
A sudden loss of legal rights would turn the lives of millions of people upside down, the matter should be settled as soon as possible. The Prime Minister should make a make a clear and unequivocal commitment to protect the status of EU nationals. Those already lawfully resident in the UK should not see a change in their status and must be offered permanent residence.
That alone is not enough. The Government should modernise and simplify the permanent residence application by aiming to drastically reduce the length of the forms (it used to be a mere 13 pages long, it’s now 85) and making the whole process more user friendly.
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The application is full of ridiculous and unnecessary questions that should be cut out. I doubt anyone genuinely guilty of war crimes, terrorist activities or genocide is going to declare it in these forms, for example. In asking whether an applicant to provide to declare every time they have left the country, whether for a holiday or quick weekend excursion, the Government is being unreasonable. Instead they need only ask them if they have left the UK for more than six months within a 12-month period.
Reducing the number of documents that must be submitted and accepting certified copies rather than insisting on originals would go a long way to making the process less arduous. This would also pave the way for an online alternative to the current print and post method because the relevant documents could be uploaded. In 2017, it really is absurd that this cannot be done online.
Another major obstacle for applicants is proving access to comprehensive sickness insurance. EU nationals living and working here who wish to apply for permanent residence are taxpayers making a long-term commitment to this country. They are paying for the National Health Service; the Government should accept this contribution as sickness insurance.
An unequivocal commitment to protect the status of EU nationals will go some way to proving that the vote to leave the EU is not an act of hostility towards them (despite what a minority of xenophobes believe). However, to truly respect the rights of EU nationals residing in the UK we must simplify the bureaucratic nightmare they face and end the current hostile approach.
In considering the future of our immigration policy, we must not forget the enormous social and economic benefits of EEA immigration. We have invited into our country some of the most industrious, entrepreneurial and well-educated people that Europe has to offer. They have greatly contributed to our society and as we strive to conserve our current assets – from existing trade links to access to joint programmes – let’s not forget they are our greatest asset of all.
Ben Kelly is an Executive Director of Conservatives for Liberty.