Independent Monitoring Authority on citizens’ rights: MPs endorse chair appointment

The UK parliament justice committee has approved the appointment of former Tory MEP Sir Ashley Fox as chair of the new body to oversee the rights of EU citizens in Britain.

The Independent Monitoring Authority (IMA) is being set up under the EU withdrawal agreement and the parallel deals between the UK and the countries of the European Free Trade Association (Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Switzerland). Its role is to uphold the rights of EU and EFTA citizens who live in the UK and Gibraltar before the end of the Brexit transition.

The chair of the Authority is appointed by the Ministry of Justice with the endorsement of the parliament’s justice committee.

Committee members gave this week the green light to the designated candidate, “subject to” certain “considerations”.

MPs notably sought clarifications on how the IMA will “actively seek to assist EU citizens in safeguarding their rights” after Sir Ashley said the Authority is not a “complaints-handling body”.

In the appointment report, MPs stressed that the Authority is required to make a judgment on all complaints it receives, has the power to initiate investigations and, if necessary, take legal action.

‘Not dealing with individual complaints’

During the pre-appointment hearing, on November 24, Sir Ashley told MPs that the IMA has a duty to ensure rights are “both protected and promoted”. The IMA should monitor “what the public authorities are doing” and “ensure that they are upholding the rights of EU citizens,” he added.

However, he did not want to “raise hopes” that the Authority will deal with individual complaints.

EU citizens have to apply for a new residence scheme by 30 June 2021, and obtain ‘settled status’ to secure their legal position in the UK.

Citizens’ rights groups, however, have raised concerns about the number of people being granted only pre-settled status (42% of the 4,067,200 concluded applications on 31 October 2020), which guarantees limited rights and has to be converted into full status at a later stage.

Campaigners have also warned that many, especially the most vulnerable, may unintentionally become unlawful residents if they fail to apply by the deadline.

Answering questions from MPs, Sir Ashley said that “it is not the role of the IMA to encourage EU citizens to apply” for the new residence scheme, but it is their duty to comply with new rules by the deadline.

On their part, he added, UK public authorities “have a duty to ensure that vulnerable individuals” such as people in care homes, elderly and incapable of applying “are aware of their rights”.

‘Sympathy’ for physical residence document

At the hearing, MPs discussed the requests from citizens’ rights organisations to provide settled status holders with a physical document to prove their lawful residence in the UK. The complications of checking the digital-only status and the penalties for employers and landlords who hire or rent to unlawful residents will otherwise incentivise discrimination, according to groups such as the3million.

In a recent report, the parliament committee on the future relationship with the European Union supported the request.

Questioned by committee chair Hilary Benn in this regard, Sir Ashley said that under the withdrawal agreement the UK can use an electronic form of identification and it is not the role of the IMA “to prescribe the manner in which rights are protected.”

“We just need to wait and see if that works in practice,” he continued.

He then admitted “having a little scepticism” about a digital only system. “I have some sympathy for those EU citizens who say that they would like a piece of paper or a plastic card as physical evidence. If I was in their position, I would want the same,” he said.

He also argued that if the system will not work well, the IMA “has powers” to ensure that the government introduces a proper one.

Reaching out to EU citizens

The first job of the IMA, Sir Ashley told MPs, will be to “reach out” to EU citizens and groups that represent them, as well as UK public authorities and EU embassies.

“We want to encourage EU citizens to report to us when they encounter problems, because we need that data to identify whether there is a systemic problem with some part of the public sector in the United Kingdom,” he said.

One idea in discussion is the setting up of a citizens’ forum, a permanent body of 150 EU citizens who would share their experience of dealing with UK public authorities, Sir Ashley said.

A former MEP

Sir Ashley Fox is a former Conservative Party Member of the European Parliament. He led Tory MEPs from 2014 until 2019.

Sir Ashley served on the board of the Conservative Party for five years and in 2019 was knighted for political and public service by outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May.

Given these roles, MPs questioned Ashley Fox on how he will carry out his functions “in a manner independent from government”. They also invited him to confirm in writing that “he will neither seek nor hold elected public office” nor “undertake any role within any political party” while he is IMA’s chair.

Before being an MEP, Sir Ashley worked as a solicitor and was a councillor in Bristol. Earlier he spent a year as an English assistant in France. Sir Ashley said he campaigned for the UK to remain the EU, but now “politicians should respect that [EU referendum] result”.

“I applied for this role… because I want to play my part in ensuring the best possible relations between the United Kingdom and the European Union,” he told MPs.

“It is incumbent upon the United Kingdom to respect the withdrawal agreement and the rights of EU citizens as part of that agreement… and I want to play my part in ensuring that those rights are respected,” he added.

The IMA’s role

Based in Swansea, Wales, the Independent Monitoring Authority will start operating on January 1 2021.

The Authority will provide annual reports to the Specialised Committees on Citizens’ Rights set up under the agreements with the EU and EFTA countries.

Other than the chair, who is appointed for four years that can be extended for a second term, the IMA will have six other non-executive members and 65 staff.

According to Jill Rutter, senior fellow at the Institute for Government, a think tank promoting good governance in the UK, the Independent Monitoring Authority should focus on three priorities: the impacts of the lack of a physical proof of status for EU citizens covered by the withdrawal agreement, the plan to avoid a cliff-edge after the settled status deadline, and a clear and simple upgrade from pre-settled to settled status.

The Independent Monitoring Authority website is https://ima-citizensrights.org.uk/.

Claudia Delpero © all rights reserved

Photo: Sir Ashley Fox at the European Parliament, by Vincent Van Doornick © European Union 2019 – Source : EP.

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