‘We can’t sleepwalk into another Windrush’

MPs voice cross-party support for protecting the rights of all five million EU and UK citizens threatened by Brexit

Images: Marcus Rose

UNISON EU members urged the government to “truly safeguard” citizens’ rights, regardless of the final outcome of the Brexit negotiations, in a major Westminster rally and lobby yesterday

They joined colleagues from citizens’ rights groups the3million and British in Europe to form a human chain from Parliament Square to Downing Street, where they presented a letter of demands to prime minister Theresa May.

Later the campaigners met with their MPs in Westminster – where they found a cross-party selection of politicians very much on their side.

With the UK set to leave the EU on 29 March 2019, negotiations between the British government and Brussels continue to be stuck in a rut – with the very real prospect of no deal being made by that date.

But as one rally speaker commented yesterday: “No deal is not an option for the five million living in limbo.”

Shadow Brexit minister Paul Bloomfield later echoed that sentiment when he addressed the lobby and warned: “We can’t sleepwalk into another Windrush.”

Although Theresa May has guaranteed EU citizens their right to remain in the UK, questions remain about the validity of that guarantee and the actual rights they will enjoy in the years to come.

As things stand, the rights at risk include:

  • automatic mutual recognition of some professional qualifications;
  • the right to be joined by existing family members, partners and descendants of any nationality after transition;
  • entitlement to all social security benefits, equal to UK citizens.

As for Britons in Europe, they could become illegal residents in their host states, with no legal status after March 2019.

UNISON general secretary Dave Prentis was one of the signatories of the letter delivered to No 10, which stated that no deal would have “disastrous and wide-reaching personal consequences for this group of citizens on both sides of the Channel.

“We therefore urge you to take steps now to remove citizens’ rights from the straitjacket of ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’.”

Instead of Ms May’s unilateral guarantee, the letter calls on both the UK and the EU to honour – and improve upon – the agreement on citizens’ rights already made in the draft withdrawal agreement, whatever the final deal.

Among the individuals speaking at the rally in Parliament Square, UNISON member Saba Moussa spoke of the “anger, sadness and bitterness” of those people “whose lives have been shattered”.

Some have gone home, she said. Those who intend to stick it out in the UK would benefit from joining a union, such as UNISON, which would support them through the confusing months ahead.

“My concern is our rights,” she added. “I don’t want to become a second-class citizen.”

Another UNISON member, Virginie Clerc Lusandu, told the crowd that she and her young son had recently been victims of a racially motivated assault.

And inside Westminster, Lib Dem MP Ed Davey told the lobby: “A lot of damage has been done and a lot of trust has been lost. A lot of discrimination is occurring.”

Mr Davey said he wanted assurances from the government that it would act to ensure EU citizens do not continue to face discrimination after Brexit, whether from employers or individuals.

He went further, saying: “Every EU citizen who stays after Brexit should have a full right to participate in civic life – voting, standing for Parliament, whatever.”

Mr Bloomfield revealed that he had recently been informed by the immigration minister that even the victims of slavery and trafficking in the UK would be subject to the £65 charge for settled status.

“The callousness of expecting the victims of modern slavery to pay to establish their right to remain sets a new low, even for this government,” he said. He added that Labour has argued that all EU nationals should have the opportunity to declare rather than apply for settled status, and that there should be no charge.

Stuart McDonald of the Scottish National Party voiced a similar intention. While the Scottish government has committed to paying for settled status for its public-sector employees, it too is saying that no-one in the UK should have to pay the fee at all.“This is your home,” he told the lobby.

The SNP has also guaranteed the right for EU nationals to vote in Scottish parliamentary elections and is establishing its own advice service to help them through settled status. “We’re doing our best to make the best of a bad situation,” Mr McDonald said.

French senator Olivier Cadic, a special guest on the day, took the idea of voting further, declaring: “I think the British government should give the people the final say on the deal. And this time they must give EU citizens in the UK a vote.”