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EU Citizens Resident in the United Kingdom (Right to Stay)

Volume 613: debated on Tuesday 12 July 2016

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a bill to grant EU citizens the right to stay resident in the UK following the UK’s withdrawal from membership of the European Union; and for connected purposes.

On 24 June, 3 million EU citizens in the UK and 1.3 million British citizens in the EU woke up to an uncertain future because while the Brexiteers had pithy slogans aplenty, our Government had no plan for the long-term future of EU citizens in the UK or the UK post-Brexit. EU citizens were unable to vote in the referendum and were therefore left without a voice during the campaign. They now find themselves without the protection of their EU citizenship rights in the UK. EU citizenship includes not just the right to live, work and study in the UK but, for example, the right to participate in local, regional and European elections.

The current Prime Minister gave an assurance that there would be no immediate change, but this now carries little weight, given that we will have a new Prime Minister tomorrow. His assurances are therefore time-limited and have an imminent sell-by date. He has offered no protection for the rights of EU citizens and Brits abroad in the future. By calling and then losing the referendum, the current Prime Minister pulled the rug out from under the feet of these citizens. He needs to get that rug out of the removals van that is parked outside No. 10 and put it back before he departs. EU citizens need certainty about their long-term future in the UK, and they need this assurance now, before their futures are used as bargaining chips in our negotiations with the EU.

The Prime Minister has just appointed a new EU commissioner to replace Jonathan Hill, rather than leaving that to his successor. He should also act now while he still has time to secure the rights of EU citizens by unconditionally granting the right to stay to all EU citizens who were resident in the UK on 23 June. He can never make full amends for triggering a chain of events that will lead to economic and diplomatic disaster for the UK, but this would help to restore a modicum of credibility in the dying day of his premiership. If he fails to do so, there are three ways in which EU citizens’ rights could be safeguarded in the future.

First, a legal challenge might rely on an appeal under article 70.1(b) of the Vienna convention on the law of treaties. However, as Professor Douglas-Scott pointed out in an article for the UK Constitutional Law Association entitled “What Happens to ‘Acquired Rights’ in the Event of a Brexit?”, there is no consensus among lawyers about the application of the convention to EU citizens living in the UK. Neither does there seem to be much scope for protecting the position of EU citizens in the UK or Brits abroad through customary international law. EU citizens might have to wait years before any rights that they might have under the convention could be tested in court.

Secondly, the Government could negotiate an agreement with EU member states to allow the right to remain on a reciprocal basis for EU citizens living in the UK and British citizens living in the EU. The problem with that approach is that it turns EU citizens into bargaining chips. Such a negotiation does not yet have a start date, and the House has already condemned it, by 245 votes to two, as wrong in principle. To barter over the future of EU citizens and Britons in the EU would be to treat EU citizens as if they were children in a divorce settlement. That would be humiliating to the individuals concerned and their families, and it would demonstrate a shameful lack of political judgment on the part of the British Government. It would also be a very weak negotiating strategy, because there is a good chance that EU member states are likely to act to guarantee the rights of British citizens unilaterally.

Unless a future UK Government intended to hold EU citizens hostage in order to achieve concessions in other areas of the negotiations, such as access to the single market, there would be nothing else to negotiate. In his evidence to the Home Affairs Committee this afternoon, I am sure that the Immigration Minister will be pressed further on this issue. There were signs over the weekend, given comments by the Foreign Secretary at the NATO summit and reports on Saturday, that the Government’s position might be softening.

The third approach, which is that proposed by my Bill, would be for the Government to legislate now to secure the rights of EU citizens unilaterally, thereby providing desperately needed certainty for all EU nationals living here. We must make EU citizens feel welcome and safe in Britain. This reassurance would also help the 1.3 million British people living in the EU, help to secure the future of the 9% of NHS doctors who work in the UK and are from the EU, and help to ensure that Britain remains open and welcoming.

Yesterday, I met the campaign organisation New Europeans, which is a voice for EU citizens in the UK, and other charities and non-governmental organisations representing migrant communities. New Europeans has gathered more than 2,000 signatures on a letter to the Prime Minister asking for the issue to be resolved now. I also draw the House’s attention to early-day motion 259 on the status of British citizens resident in the EU and EU citizens resident in the UK, which makes the same call.

As I have mentioned, following a debate on a Labour motion, the House showed by a clear majority of 245 votes to two that it favoured sorting out the situation of EU citizens living in the UK immediately. Thanks to New Europeans, in the next few days I will also be meeting the EU Commission in the UK and ambassadors to EU member states in London to discuss the issue.

It is quite clear that many EU citizens no longer feel welcome in Britain and that many are leaving. I met someone earlier this morning who said exactly that: he and his partner feel that the only thing to do is to leave the UK, and they will be doing so shortly, even though they have lived here for more than 20 years and paid significant tax during that time. They no longer feel welcome. Numbers of race hate crimes and xenophobic attacks have increased since the referendum. In London alone, where more than 800,000 EU nationals live, there have been three race hate crimes every hour. These threats and acts of discrimination will continue unless and until the Government make it clear that they will ring-fence the rights of EU citizens who were living in the UK before 24 June. Providing such clarity is the purpose of the Bill, and I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


That Tom Brake, Tim Farron, Caroline Lucas, Mark Durkan, Dr Philippa Whitford, Kevin Barron, Mr Mark Williams, Mr Alistair Carmichael, Mr Nick Clegg, Norman Lamb and Greg Mulholland present the Bill.

Tom Brake accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 21 October, and to be printed (Bill 50).