There could be more love for people from the European Economic Area living in the UK. That’s the message that transpires from a House of Commons Home Affairs committee report published on Valentine’s Day.
Six hundred days after the referendum that decided the UK exit from the European Union, the report criticizes the continued uncertainty over the status of EU nationals living in Britain. It says that this situation is creating anxiety for EU citizens and uncertainty for UK businesses, preventing them from planning for the future.
Published at the end of an inquiry that started in October, the report acknowledges that there are “issues left outstanding” from phase one of Brexit negotiations. And as the white paper on immigration is delayed, MPs urge the government to “set out now clear and accessible guidance on the rights that EU27 and UK citizens can expect to exercise after Brexit”.
“Issues left outstanding”
The paper calls for clarity in particular on the status of citizens from the European Economic Area (which includes the EU but also countries like Norway and Switzerland) and of those from other countries who live in the UK based on EU derived rights (e.g. non-EU partners of EU citizens).
Citizens of Norway, Iceland, Lichtenstein and Switzerland living in the UK, and third-county nationals who are in the UK under EU-derived rights based on previous legal judgments currently face even greater anxieties than EU nationals. The government should specify that EEA citizens will have the same rights as EU nationals and should clarify that they will be covered by the same registration process.
Other aspects that need urgent clarification, according to MPs, are the legal status of EU nationals who have not registered by the time the “grace period” is over, the status of EU nationals who arrive after March 2019, the status of EU citizens who have lived in the UK for more than five years but have had an absence in another EU country for more than 6 months or are temporarily not living in the UK in March 2019, the rights of posted workers and of future spouses of EU and UK citizens.
The paper also calls for more details on the legal implications of applying for settled status prior to the UK leaving the EU.
In addition, MPs ask whether employers, landlords and banks will be asked to check registration documents for EU citizens in the way they are required to do for non-EU citizens. “We would have serious concerns about extending the so called ‘hostile environment’ to EU citizens given the scale of errors and the absence of any evidence that it is fair or effective,” committee members said.
“The litany of questions that remain over the status of EU citizens is causing needless anxiety and uncertainty, both for EU citizens and their families and for employers who need to plan. Ministers need to provide urgent answers,” said committee chair Yvette Cooper.
Nicolas Hatton, chair of citizens’ rights organisation the3million, added: “Today’s report confirms fears we have had for 600 days: that the British government is unwilling to find a solution to citizens rights. It is still using EU citizens as bargaining chips in the Brexit negotiations.
As regards the transition period following Brexit, MPs do not believe two new registration schemes – one for existing EU residents and one for new arrivals – are feasible. This would be required to distinguish two groups of EU nationals with different rights, as the Prime Minister does not want people arriving after March 2019 to have the same entitlements of those in the UK before that date.
“If Ministers intend different arrangements for EU citizens arriving after March 2019 from the registration scheme for EU citizens who are currently resident here, they should have plans for systems, resources and recruitment already in place,” MPs argued.
The Government needs to be realistic about the lack of time left to make substantial changes to the border arrangements for either goods or people before March 2019 without significant disruption or security challenges.
MPs recommend to keep existing arrangements during the transition period. This is in line with the EU position, which says that all EU rules, including free movement of people and related rights, should continue unchanged until the end of 2020.
Skip steps to citizenship?
MPs are equally concerned that the Home Office has been allocated insufficient resources and staff “to be sure of a smooth registration process” and “to cope with additional border requirements on people or goods”.
“The evidence we have received in this inquiry has revealed a picture of Home Office teams struggling with a lack of resources, high turnover of staff and unrealistic workloads,” the committee said.
“A lack of experienced staff and pressure to meet targets has meant that mistakes are being made that have life-changing consequences,” it added. “Unless urgent action is taken to address recruitment, retention and training failures we fear that additional Brexit pressures mean performance will deteriorate even further.”
One of the solutions MPs propose to overcome the difficulties is to simplify procedures and to scrap the requirement of permanent residence to obtain British citizenship. MPs said: “We recommend that the government remove the requirement for EEA nationals to obtain a permanent residence document before applying for citizenship. The process is bureaucratic and unnecessary and scrapping it would immediately free up much needed resources and make it easier for people to apply for citizenship – something which we believe the government should seek to encourage.”
Responding to the report, the Home Office dismissed accusations of not preparing sufficiently as “ridiculous” and denied there is uncertainty for EU citizens living in the UK. A statement says: “The agreement reached with the EU in December safeguards their rights and enables them to stay in the UK by applying for settled status. The application scheme will be digital, streamlined and user-friendly and we plan to launch it on a voluntary basis in the second half of the year. We will publish further details in the coming months before it goes live.”
Claudia Delpero © all rights reserved.
Photo via Pixabay.
This article was published on February 14, 2018 and was updated on February 18 with the reponse from the Home Office.