Friday, 17 February 2017
Will the House of Lords betray us too?
The vote at the House of Commons over the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill on Wednesday 8th February was disappointing for the 2.9 million bewildered EU citizens in the UK as the amendment to secure their rights here unilaterally was defeated by 322 to 290 votes. None was more bewildered and felt more betrayed than the 984,000 who form the largest single contingent within the EU, namely the Polish citizens. Regrettably that sense of betrayal is within the Polish DNA, a legacy of the WWII experience when Poles were first lionized as Britain’s truest gallant allies and then discarded as victims of the Yalta Agreement. Now they sense a repeat “Deja vu” – the Polish work ethic praised 10 years ago in the British media, and now they and their children are but the largest contingent of EU citizens referred to humiliatingly by Dr Liam Fox, the International Trade Secretary, as “main cards” in the Brexit negotiations poker game. Not do they accept the argument about reciprocity. They believe that as it was the UK’s decision to leave the EU and not the other way round, it was the UK’s responsibility to declare immediately that EU citizens currently here will be allowed to stay. In any case the Polish government was one of the first in the EU to declare that UK citizens would be safe in Poland after Brexit. Many had come here more than 10 years ago out of a sense of adventure but then settled down her, set up families, prospered and contributed massively to the UK economy. Until the referendum brought in a new harsher reality, the overwhelming majority of them felt welcome in the UK and treated it as their new home.
Many Poles are only dimly aware from their media sources in Polish freebie magazines and websites that this amendment on their rights failed because of a confidential letter written that same day by the Home Secretary Amber Rudd to Conservative MPs which effectively conceded the principle that EU citizens currently here should be allowed eventually to stay but argued that the details of their status would be clarified during the passage of a new Immigration Bill at some unknown future date. The letter from the Home Secretary also concedes that the current advice to EU citizens to apply, when eligible, for “permanent residence” status, will take too long. This is hardly surprising to Poles as the Migration Observatory has calculated that it could take 140 years to register all 3 million EU citizens in the UK at the current rate at “permanent resident” applicants are processed. While many Poles who have been here more than 5 years are now resigned to the fact their legal status post-Brexit will be recognized eventually at some future date it still does not protect them and their children from insulting comments in the work place, at school and in public areas and still leaves their status as employees with pension rights and benefit entitlements unresolved. Recently a British nationalist thug pushed a young Pole under a train in Bond Street station while another Pole was killed by thugs in Harlow. They are still vulnerable to ruthless employers exploiting the current uncertainty by blackmailing them with reduced wages. This is especially true if they have been here legally paying taxes but for less than 5 years. They need their status defined now and not during the next few years. They need to know that clear demarcation date before which their post-Brexit status will be guaranteed in the knowledge that the status of those arriving after that will depend on the result of future negotiations with other EU countries.
For the time being the EU nationals issue, along with the whole Brexit Bill, has been directed to the House of Lords who will debate it in the last week of February. The Lords, in their discussion document “Brexit: acquired rights” published in December, favoured a special status that should be defined and implemented unilaterally covering all EU citizens, including students, who arrived here legally before the referendum date of June 23rd 2016. Will the House of Lords have the courage to withstand the threats of the Government and the more fanatical Brexiteers and hold to what they concluded in their report? And if they pass the amendment for an immediate unilateral guarantee will the Remainer Tories on this occasion be ready to support Labour and the smaller parties in passing the amendment in the Commons? Or will they rely again on the promises of the Home Office? Poles, like other EU citizens will want to know now, and not at some future date, if they still retain the same right as UK citizens to the minimum wage, pensions, benefits, access to education and the NHS and the right to vote in local elections as before, because they are still paying the same national insurance, income tax and council tax as before. Will they still be eligible to apply for UK membership provided they have been in the UK for more than 5 years and pass the relevant civic and language tests? The more this is delayed the more Poles may decide, despite the desperate pleas of their Anglicized children, that they have been betrayed for long enough and move back to Poland or elsewhere more reliable within the EU.
Finally, Poles want to know how this eventual recognition in their status can be administered to ensure that 3 million EU citizens can register for it as quickly as possible once the guarantee has been given. Amber Rudd in her reply to Hilary Benn has already implied that new IDs need to be issued. Poles are highly suspicious of the Home Office should they be responsible for registering EU citizens. It is apparent that local authorities are already in the best position to arrange the registration and to issue appropriate IDs to their local residents as they are already responsible for local registers of births, deaths and marriages, the electoral roll and social service and school records. They can draw on the additional resources of the Home Office and the Department of Work and Pensions where necessary, but they already have experience in issuing bus passes, blue badges and similar documents. Also, they have a less officious and more inclusive work ethic in comparison with, say, the Home Office, which tends to seek to exclude and has been responsible for a large number of much publicized blunders recently in relation to EU citizens. It is recognized that currently councils are under enormous budgeting pressures as their central government grants are reduced and they may be reluctant to take on new tasks but the administrative cost of registering EU citizens could be covered from a central fund, ring-fenced entirely for this purpose, in the hands of the Treasury. Let us remember that this will be but a one off exercise lasting at most two or three years.
It remains vital to perform this task quickly and efficiently as Poles and other EU citizens have come here in good faith covered by the UK’s adherence to EU rules and they have contributed considerably to the UK economy and to the social and cultural fabric of this nation. This is not an unpopular measure as, according to a post-referendum poll, 84% respondents believe that EU citizens living in the UK should have the right to stay. The need for speeding up the decision on the continued right of EU citizens to stay is being championed by organizations such as The 3million and by the New Europeans who are now jointly, with the support of UNISON and “A Fair Deal for Poles in UK”, organizing a Mass Lobby of Parliament on February 20th.
Last year there were 984,000 UK residents with Polish nationality. Their food shops are visible in every town centre and their language is the second most common in the UK after English. They form a sizeable minority in most parts of the UK. 97,444 of them were on London’s electoral registers last year, which is 1.6% of the total London electorate. Last year too there were more than 187,000 Polish children below the age of 14, while 23,000 children of Polish mothers are born in the UK every year. These children see their future exclusively in the UK speaking Polish at home and English at school. They helped cement their parents’ further integration into British society. Yet they too are now part of Liam Fox’s “bargaining chips”. If the government delays the guarantee to their parents about their secured right to stay, many of them will have gone and the Government will enter negotiations with an empty deck of cards.
Wiktor Moszczynski, Convenor of “A Fair Deal for Poles in UK” 15th February 2017