The House of Commons debate on the position of EU Nationals

James Brokenshire, The Minister for Immigration, responded to questions on EU nationals living in the UK in the House of Commons on 4 July 2016. As the position of EU nationals living and working in the UK and UK nationals living and working in the EU is uncertain as a result of the Brexit decision, we thought it appropriate to report some of the debate below.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Theresa May) was asked to make a statement on the legal status of EU nationals residing in the United Kingdom in the event of the United Kingdom’s leaving the European Union. James Brokenshire, the Minister for Immigration gave the reply.

He said “EU nationals make an invaluable contribution to our economy, our society and our daily lives. They should be assured that, as the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary have repeatedly said, there will be no immediate change in their status in the UK. The Prime Minister has made it clear that decisions on issues relating to the UK’s exit will be for a new Prime Minister. I am therefore not in a position to make new policy announcements this afternoon.

The discussions that we have with the European Union to agree the arrangements for the UK’s exit will undoubtedly reflect the immense contribution made by EU citizens to our economy, our NHS and our schools, and in so many other ways; but they must also secure the interests of the 1.2 million British citizens who live and work elsewhere in the EU.

The Home Secretary was clear yesterday when she said that we should seek to guarantee that the rights of both groups were protected, and that this would be best done through reciprocal discussions with the European Union as part of the negotiations to leave the EU. It has been suggested that the Government could now fully guarantee EU nationals living in the UK the right to stay, but that would be unwise without a parallel assurance from European Governments regarding British nationals living in their countries. Such a step might also have the unintended consequence of prompting EU immigration to the UK.

It is in the best interests of all for the Government to conduct detailed work on this issue, and for the new Prime Minister to decide the best way forward as quickly as possible. In the meantime, let me stress that EU nationals continue to be welcome here. We have seen some truly abhorrent hate crimes perpetrated against EU nationals in the past week or so, and we will not stand for attacks of that kind. They must be, and will be, tackled in the strongest possible terms.

EU nationals can have our full and unreserved reassurance that their right to enter and to work, study and live in the UK remains unchanged, but to pre-empt future discussions at this point would risk undermining our ability to protect the interests of EU and British citizens alike, and to secure the best outcome for both”.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Labour) said that people are not bargaining chips. “It is deeply offensive to assume that this country retrospectively changes the rights of its citizens. It is a duty of Government to allow people to live their lives and to make arrangements and predictions. We have 3 million EU citizens in this country, and 1.2 million British people live in the EU. They have a right to expect the Government to make clear statements.”

Mr Brokenshire responded: “I entirely understand the basic premise of the right hon. Lady’s point, which is that we should seek to reassure EU nationals here in the UK and British citizens in other EU countries. On that broad premise, we are not poles apart. The question is about how we achieve that objective, which raises several complex issues. She will understand that we are talking about not only the right to reside, but employment rights, the right to study, entitlement to benefits, access to public services, and the ability to be joined by family members.”

He later said “it is important that we look at the reciprocal rights and at how we do this at an EU level, rather than with individual member states. I think that is the right approach to take. However, it is important to view this in the round, viewing the role and responsibilities of British citizens who are in other European countries, and ensuring that the actions we take do not have unintended consequences for them.”

Ms Karen Buck (Labour) noted there are 36,000 EU passport holders in the London borough of Westminster—almost one in eight of the population. Mr Brokenshire added that about 50,000 EU citizens are working within the NHS. He said the contribution that they make is absolutely essential. He underlined the points that he made earlier about the certainty that they have now in relation to existing EU rights, and working towards a position where the government can give clarity moving forward.

Our conclusion from the debate is that whilst nothing has changed with regard to current freedom of movement and the single market, there is regrettably a great deal of uncertainty for those in the firing line, namely EU nationals. It is highly desirable for there to be certainty quickly, but on the basis of the Minister’s statement, there appears no chance of that happening. One of the risks is that many of the talented among the EU nationals, in the absence of taking up residence or passport rights here, will decide to create certainty for themselves by moving to another country. The government should take action quickly to prevent this.

Tom Redfern