Lord Jonny Oates on the Withdrawal Bill being the opportunity for the government to live up to their previous commitments to EU citizens.
First published in January 2020.
Lord Oates spoke in the House of Lords about the EU Settlement Scheme, recalling Boris Johnson’s pledge of automatic rights to EU citizens during the 2016 referendum.
Amendment 2 seeks to create a declaratory registration system to replace the existing application-based system. Its intention is, first, to continue to provide incentives for registration but to avoid making EU citizens who do not register by the deadline immediately and by definition illegal. Secondly, it seeks to ensure that EU citizens can receive physical proof of registration, which is a concern that I know has been expressed to many Members of your Lordships’ House, and indeed has been the subject of representations made by EU sub-committees.
Thirdly, it would consolidate in primary legislation both the current eligibility criteria of the EU settlement scheme Immigration Rules and the rights of those who are eligible under the scheme. Amendment 3 tries to do similar things: that is, it would establish the declaratory principle and make provision for physical proof, but it would not seek to put into primary legislation the rules and rights under the scheme.
The aim of Amendment 2 — that of seeking to put these issues into primary legislation — is to be helpful to the Government by ensuring the categorical commitment made to EU citizens, referred to by my noble friend Lord Greaves, during the referendum campaign by the current Prime Minister, the current Home Secretary and the current Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, to guarantee that those rights would be automatic and that EU citizens would be treated no less favourably than they are at present.
The current scheme does not honour that commitment.
The settled status scheme is not the automatic route to indefinite leave to remain that was promised by the leave campaigners. It is an application-based system with a finite cut-off of 30 June 2021. In fact, the only thing that is automatic about the scheme is that, after midnight on that date, any person who has not applied will be criminalised. They will be deemed to be unlawfully in the United Kingdom whether or not they are otherwise eligible for permanent residence under the scheme, and they will therefore be subject to deportation.
I echo the comments of my noble friend and others: the Home Office is clearly making strenuous efforts in this regard. But we know that, inevitably and despite its best efforts, it will not be able to reach and grant settled status to every one of the 3.6 million — we do not know the exact number — EU, EEA and Swiss citizens. Tens or even hundreds of thousands of otherwise eligible people may find themselves undocumented and criminalised in as little as 18 months’ time. Inevitably, those most at risk will be the most vulnerable: young people in care, the elderly and the marginalised.
The Government’s argument for a cut-off date seems to be that it will help avoid a repeat of the injustice inflicted by the Home Office in the Windrush scandal. But it will do nothing of the sort. It will just criminalise the latter-day Windrush people. The solution of the Home Office to the problem of Windrush seems to be simply to ensure that it will not be acting unlawfully by removing eligible people, as it was found to be in the case of the Windrush victims. It is a bizarre form of protection.
Another issue with the settled status scheme is that, unlike the indefinite leave to remain scheme, where you have a stamp in your passport, it does not provide successful applicants with physical proof of their right to be in the United Kingdom. Instead, they must rely entirely on a code issued to them by the Home Office, which has to be entered into the relevant website by whoever requires proof of their immigration status. the3million, which represents EU citizens in the UK, has highlighted the many difficulties and concerns that this inevitably will cause for EU citizens. Interactions with landlords, airline staff and other officials obliged to check immigration status will become fraught with anxiety and will be dependent on the fragility of an internet connection or the resilience of a government IT system.
Finally, and most fundamentally, the current settled status scheme rests on immigration regulations, which can be changed virtually at the stroke of a ministerial pen, and on the undertakings of Ministers. But, as we know, Ministers come and go. We know already that the commitments — categorical, without any room for confusion or misunderstanding — that were issued by the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister have not been honoured. So why should EU citizens in this country have faith that this system will not be changed at a later date?
Beyond the principles of the settled status scheme, there are also lots of concerns about how it is applied: who is actually getting settled status and who is instead getting presettled status. In summing up at Second Reading last night, the Minister, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen, said that “presettled status is a pathway to settled status,” as if it did not matter which you got — but it does. It matters very much because the rights under each are different.
We are not seeking to change anything about the rights of citizens under the EU settled status scheme, or about eligibility. We are asking, first, that the rights are placed in primary legislation to give the reassurance that EU citizens need and want, so that they can feel secure and settled in their status in this country. Secondly, we ask that their request for a means of having physical proof is answered. It may be that not everybody wants that, but there should be an option for EU citizens to have it. Lastly, we ask for a shift to a declaratory system in which eligibility is the basis on which one has rights, not the application system. As the amendment sets out, it is perfectly possible to continue to give incentives to registration while establishing a declaratory system that will ensure that a whole load of vulnerable people are not criminalised when the registration date passes in 2021. I beg to move.
Speech given on 14 January 2020 by Jonny Oates.
Watch the speech:
Lord Oates in the House of Lords. / Parliament.tv
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