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19 December 2016

Leavers and Remainers can unite on this: EU nationals have a right to remain here

The Prime Minister needs to stop treating those already living and working here as bargaining chips.

By Diane Abbott

Home Secretary Amber Rudd said recently that what could be some three million EU nationals living in the UK will need “documentation” once Britain completes a Brexit. This highlights the dangers and difficulties of the Tory leadership’s determination to put their own ideology ahead of the interests of our economy, working people and the population as a whole. Some media estimates say that processing this will cost the Home Office some £100m a year and require an estimated 3,000 extra staff.

Whilst this confirms that some form of ID would have to be introduced, we do not know the details of what the government has had in mind. In parts of the media, it has let to renewed speculation about the introduction of an ID card of some form.

There are many arguments against the introduction of ID cards to resolve this issue, not least that it could again be the start of a slippery slope to their broader introduction in Britain, perhaps becoming an internal passport, carried by anyone who might face questions about their immigration status. Of course, given the track record of the authorities the people most likely to be questioned about their immigration status would be anyone who is black, or Asian or otherwise non-white. 

In this sense, ID cards could also heighten the inequalities that have been seen with ethnically biased stop and search practices. In reality, those from minority ethnic groups would be more likely to be stopped and asked to produce an ID card, further damaging race relations. One other point to be clear on is that British overseas worker in Europe and retirees would almost certainly have to carry ID cards if we’re going to insist on this same policy in this country, further exacerbating the potential cost issues.

Already we have reports of St George’s hospital trust in London introducing a policy of passport checks for so-called health tourism reasons, which is particularly aimed at maternity care and alleged ‘health tourism’ by Nigerian mums-to-be. But it is obvious that this policy will not impact UK-born white women and could easily be targeted at UK-born black women of African and Afro-Caribbean origin. This discussion about identification mechanisms for EU citizens currently resident in Britain follows warnings last week that the Home Office would be “inundated” with “47 years’ worth” of requests for permanent residency should it fail to allow EU nationals to remain.

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Madeleine Sumption, director of the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, recently told the House of Lords EU home affairs subcommittee that the number of citizens of other EU countries in Britain could be as high as 3.9 million, saying the task of registering them after Brexit would be a “formidable logistical, bureaucratic, administrative and legal task”.

Figures published by the Office for National Statistics last week showed the number of EU nationals applying for UK residency has rocketed since last year, rising from 37,618 in June 2015 to almost 100,000 in early July 2016. One side-effect of the Brexit vote ironically seems to be a surge in applications for UK residency from overseas. There were 37,600 grants of permanent residence in the year ending September 2016, compared to 18,700 the previous year. 

These figures reflect positive decisions rather than applications themselves, so applications that are still pending are not included. It seems likely there will be more residencies granted. Indeed, the Home Office has separately indicated that there was a significant increase in applications from EEA citizens in the second quarter of 2016 that are not yet reflected in the official statistics. As the system currently only processes 25,500 permanent residence applications every year, this surge means a backlog is rapidly building up.

Furthermore, the Migration Observatory analysis suggests that if all the European Economic Area citizens living here at the beginning of 2016 applied for permanent residence in the same year, this would amount to the equivalent of around 140 years of work at recent rates of processing.

The emergence of these issues makes the Labour demand – which was so well articulated by my colleague Keir Starmer – for Theresa May to give clarity to those EU citizens who were already here on 23 June. This is a workers’ right, which could be denied if the Tory government continues to use those already living and working here as “bargaining chips”.

The Prime Minister needs to abandon her continuing refusal to guarantee that after Brexit the EU nationals who live in the UK will be able to remain. The veteran Conservative Malcolm Rifkind has put it simply – any “threat to expel EU citizens is a disgrace”. And as Keir has said the government could “pass a domestic law, dealing with the status of these individuals, and it would get cross-party support, and could be passed very swiftly.”

It is also the only practical way forward – the EU pressure group The 3 Million also warned that the scale of deportation the government would face should it not protect EU rights would be “impossible”. It would also be highly damaging. Do we really want fewer EU nationals working in the NHS, social care, the City and many other sectors?

The government has suggested the vast majority of those EU citizens already living in the UK are likely to be entitled toapply for permanent residence. It is holding a gun to our own head to threaten to expel EU nationals who are here. We would all be damaged by it.

There is no reason why we should not work together to do this – even Vote Leave campaigners argued during the campaign that EU citizens already living in the UK “will automatically be granted indefinite leave to remain in the UK and will be treated no less favourably than they are at present.” My colleague Labour MP Gisela Stuart was a highly vocal and effective leader of the leave campaign. She too has argued strongly since that EU nationals should be given guarantees of continued rights to remain and work. 

We can unite on this. Economic necessity, working peoples’rights and common decency all say EU nationals here should not be treated as “bargaining chips”. Let them stay.