LCHR’s Response to the Government’s Policy Paper on Citizens’ Rights

Last week saw the first government pronouncement on the impact of Brexit upon citizens’ rights after a year defined by uncertainty for the 3 million EU citizens living in the UK and 1.2 million expats living in Europe. Yet despite the titular promise to finally “safeguard” the rights of these citizens, the proposal falls short in many crucial areas – creating a credibility gap that Labour must be prepared to fill.

The proposed “settled status” system was met with disappointment from negotiators, campaigners and citizens alike, with Michel Barnier calling for “more ambition, clarity and guarantees.” As well as making the cut-off date up for debate, the key difference is that whilst the EU wishes to guarantee the exact continuation of rights for UK citizens, the UK demands the incorporation of both groups into the framework of British law. This would result in a reduction of current rights, such as freedom of movement and the ability to emigrate with a family member.

The decision to intentionally begin negotiations with a proposal significantly under the EU’s offer is guaranteed to extend the protracted anxiety of millions. The fact that those who are most affected could not vote for Brexit, and that 77% of leave voters supported letting EU migrants stay, means that ensuring continued residence is a matter of moral urgency. Gambling with the lives of those who have most to lose from the negotiations is as needless as it is damaging.

Much of the outcry has centred around the proposals’ lack of “detail and clarity” regarding exactly how rights would be protected. The government document is littered with vague language prefixing essential rights, such as the hazy promise to “seek to protect” healthcare rights. It is unclear why the government would wish to leave themselves such legal wriggle room in their “serious and generous offer” to secure the rights of 4 million individuals.

The proposal does have some welcome elements, particularly the commitment to drop the requirement for comprehensive sickness insurance and the indication that applying for settled status will be as “light touch” as possible.

However, this will only form the tip of the bureaucratic mountain of immigration protocol that the Brexit select committee recently labelled as “disproportionately burdensome.” The government must expand on this commitment if they are to shake off the suspicion that their immigration system is designed to deter, rather than to control.

Much of the impasse stems from the mistrust with which Europe sees the UK’s immigration system, which is hardly unwarranted given Theresa May’s creation of a “hostile environment” as Home Secretary, and her government’s pointless, divisive drive towards reducing immigration to the “tens of thousands”. The UK’s particularly harsh spousal migration policy has been at the centre of disputes, as it provides a tangible example of how British law would reduce the rights of EU and UK citizens living abroad.

Following the government’s proposal, Labour has a clear opportunity to become the party of a logical and humane Brexit.

To ensure this, Labour must continue its year-long campaign to unilaterally guarantee the exact continuation of rights for EU citizens, a stance that has been vindicated by the EU’s mirror offer for UK citizens.

Where the government seeks to hide behind technicalities and vague language, Labour must be unequivocal and robust in its assurances of citizens’ rights.

Above all, Labour must escalate its brave commitment to sweeping immigration reform that saw the manifesto promise to scrap the aforementioned spousal migration threshold. By recognising that we are at a moment of national reflection, Labour can maximise its newfound position of strength to push for an immigration system that is universally fit for purpose in a post-Brexit world.

Joe Duffy is the Campaign Intern for the Labour Campaign for Human Rights. 

This article was written as part of our dedicated Brexit and Human Rights Campaign.

Citizens’ Rights and Family Immigration: How the EU negotiations demonstrate the flaws in Britain’s family immigration system.

As we pass the anniversary of the Brexit referendum, this whirlwind year has perhaps been hardest on those whose freedom to stay in their country of residence remains unresolved. The lives, security and futures of the 3 million EU citizens living in the UK, and the 1.2 million British expats living in the EU, have been reduced to one of the “main cards” that the government have regularly implied they are willing to trade away. Theresa May’s decision to begin the negotiations on citizens’ rights with an offer significantly below the EU’s demands is sure to prolong the anxiety of millions.

Yet there is one area in which EU citizens may have a post-Brexit advantage.

In 2012, the then Home Secretary Theresa May introduced a law demanding that any British citizen with a spouse from outside the EU must earn an annual income of £18,600 or above (or £22,400 when including a child) before their partner can come to live with them. It is estimated that the threshold excludes 41% of the British working population whilst disproportionately penalising women. This places an unjust means-test upon the ability to live with loved ones, and implies that the right to a family life is only available to those who can afford it.

A curious effect of the minimum income requirement is that it makes it comparatively easier for EU citizens to bring non-EU family to live with them. In an ongoing court case, an EU legal advisor stated that the Algerian husband of a woman with dual Spanish-British citizenship had the right to join her in the U.K, due to EU rights that protected her prior to her British citizenship. The EU negotiating team have separately demanded that these rights apply to “current and future family members”, even after the divorce or death of the initial right-holder.

It therefore possible that, decades down the line, a descendant from an EU citizen living in the UK could have the truly global access to family life that is denied to the children and grandchildren of non-EU citizens.

Although this is unlikely, the crucial point is that the current dispute over EU citizenship rights has reflected how the failures within our immigration system affect everyone living in Britain.

On Friday the Prime Minister argued that she wanted EU citizens to have the same post-Brexit rights as UK residents, but without the jurisdiction of European courts they would likely be subject to minimum income requirements. When a guarantee of rights has the effect of increasing the number of people at risk of being unjustly denied a life with their family, it is clear that the entire system urgently needs reform.

Labour have repeatedly, and rightly, pledged to unilaterally guarantee the exact continuation of citizenship rights for EU citizens. The manifesto promised to replace income thresholds entirely. This is a very welcome stance.

But can Labour, and all progressives, learn from the protracted ordeal of EU citizens and demand the further reform that is required to place human rights at the centre of our immigration system? Minimum income requirements are just one aspect of the ‘hostile environment’ which Theresa May intentionally created as Home Secretary. If the election taught the left one thing, it is to think big and unapologetically about key issues. The example of EU citizenship rights shows that this approach is desperately needed in order for all British people to have equal access to a family life.

Joe Duffy is the Campaign Intern for the Labour Campaign for Human Rights

This article was written as part of our dedicated Brexit and Human Rights Campaign.