Everyone in Southwark will probably know someone who’s an EU citizen and whose life has been thrown into disarray by the EU referendum decision last June.
As part of our EU membership, EU citizens have been allowed to come and live here. They have children and grandchildren living here. They work in and are part of the local community. It is unthinkable that they would be deported and their families split up because the UK has decided to leave the EU.
Worry amongst EU citizens here is palpable. All MPs have seen it in our advice surgeries. One of my constituents, an Italian woman, has been here for 30 years. She cannot work anymore because she is unwell, and her residency rights are now at risk. Another constituent from France told me she felt like ‘a second class citizen’, and for the first time in 25 years she felt unsure of her future and unwanted in the UK.
It is not just EU nationals and their families who are worried for their futures, so are the employers for whom they work. How will our NHS find the nurses we need if they seek work elsewhere through fear they will not be allowed to stay? It is not as if we are training nurses and midwives ourselves. With the Tory cuts to nursing bursaries, the number of student nurse applications has fallen by 23%.
People from countries which have more recently joined the EU, such as Poland, Romania and Bulgaria, are working in sectors that could not manage without them—in our care homes, agriculture and our tourism industry. Employers in food production are already reporting more difficulty in getting the workers they need.
The Prime Minister has been sending out mixed messages. On the one hand, she says that anyone who is lawfully here has nothing to worry about. On the other hand, she says she cannot commit to giving them residency rights because their future must be part of the Brexit negotiations. It is wrong to use the lives of 3 million people and their families as a bargaining chip. They cannot be used as a human shield as the Government battles it out in Europe on behalf of our UK citizens in other countries. It is because of the Brexit decision, not the fault of EU citizens here, that UK citizens will lose their residency rights in other EU countries. We must decide what is fair and right and do it.
That’s why as chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) I tabled an amendment to the Article 50 Bill to protect the rights of EU citizens who were lawfully living in the UK at the time of the referendum in June, of which there are many in Southwark. Disappointingly the Government voted this down in the Commons, despite support from MPs across all parties. Labour Peers and Lords members of the JCHR will now work together to press for an EU residence rights amendment throughout the Lords’ debate on Article 50 this week. I will continue to monitor the amendment’s progress and do all I can to secure EU citizens’ rights before Brexit negotiations begin.