The government should now make a unilateral decision to safeguard the rights of EU nationals living in Britain, says a unanimous report from the Exiting the EU Committee of the House of Commons, published today, which also calls for the government to urgently implement a major overhaul of the system so that it can cope with the additional pressures from Brexit.
The influential cross-party Committee, chaired by Labour’s Hilary Benn, includes leading political voices from both sides of the referendum, including Conservatives Michael Gove, Dominic Raab and Peter Lilley who were prominent in campaigning for a Leave vote. The Committee’s reform proposals should carry weight with the government and with political parties across the House.
The Committee says that the current system for EU nationals applying for permanent residence is “not fit for purpose”. It calls on the government to urgently introduce a major overhaul, recommending the implementation of several of the reform proposals made by the British Future inquiry on this subject, so that the system can cope with the increased pressure of three million applications, including the following reforms:
- Introducing a streamlined, localised system to process the bulk of cases.
‘We call on the government, as a matter of urgency, to look to streamline the system. While there will always be complex cases that can require detailed consideration, it should be possible to clarify the status of the vast majority of individuals simply using a localised and streamlined system as proposed by British Future’, says the committee report.
The model proposed by the British Future inquiry was that the network of Local Authority Nationality Checking Services could be authorised to play a key role in clearing the bulk of cases, with a Home Office ‘complex cases unit’ dealing with applications that could not be green-lighted at that level.
- Using existing government data to reduce the ‘disproportionate burden’ on applicants.
The Brexit Committee report proposes that ‘a simple way to streamline the system is for the government ‘to use the data it already holds on applicants rather than asking applicants to go back over their personal records for many years to duplicate that information’. The Committee report notes that, after the use of HMRC and DWP data was proposed in evidence by both British Future and by Nicholas Hatton of the EU nationals group, the 3 million, the MPs asked the chief executive of HMRC, Jon Thompson, whether this was feasible. HMRC confirmed it has the legal powers to play such a role, and that its current systems which could be used for this purpose by the government to verify up to five years of employment history. So the committee calls on the government and the HMRC to now set out publicly what they can do to share information to achieve this.
- Changing the current health insurance requirements.
The committee expresses concern that one-third of applications are currently being refused. Changes will be required to avoid up to a million initial refusals, leading to protracted appeals, increased pressure on home office resources, or the risk of a large part of the resident population of EU nationals being unable to secure their status.
The committee recommends that the government should state that access to the NHS as a resident is considered sufficient to fulfil the Comprehensive Sickness Insurance requirement. In making this recommendation, the committee report quotes British Future director Sunder Katwala giving evidence that changing this rule “was the single thing that would make most difference” to reducing the refusal rate, since there had been so little publicity of the rule change in 2004 that a great many people were simply unaware of it.
- That the government should prioritise agreements on healthcare and on pensions.
The report notes that access to healthcare and pensions uprating are among the key concerns of British nationals in the EU and European nationals in the UK and should be negotiating priorities for the UK government in talks with the 27 EU governments.
- That the Home Office needs to be transparent about the resources needed.
‘The government needs to be preparing now’, the report says. The committee highlights several other issues that the government needs to clarify to get an effective system in place: the need for government to propose a cut-off date for permanent residence; the process to secure the settlement rights of those with less than five year’s residence; clarifying the rights of those living in Britain as the spouse or child of a UK national, and the rules for resident EU nationals who wish to bring family members to live with them; and the process of certification, which needs to be simple, relatively inexpensive for those going through the system, and offer clarity to EU nationals themselves, and to potential employers and landlords, that they have the right to reside and work in the UK.
Britain should be willing to negotiate a new preferential migration scheme with Europe, say MPs
The Exiting the EU Committee report also calls on the government to set out its thinking on a post-Brexit immigration policy for Britain. One open question about the shape of a post-Brexit immigration policy is whether the UK will now adopt similar rules for EU and non-EU immigration, or whether the Prime Minister could seek to negotiate a different system for European migration to the UK after free movement as part of a broader post-Brexit deal with the EU.
British Future has set out a detailed model of how such a new post-free movement preferential migration system could work, in our report last October, Britain’s Immigration Offer to Europe.
The Brexit Committee recommends that it could be “beneficial for the UK government to indicate in the negotiations that it is willing to consider preferential access for EU citizens in its post-Brexit immigration policy”.
Support for a preferential approach was the one issue which was not unanimous: the report’s appendix reveals that Conservative MP Peter Lilley being the sole member to vote against this recommendation.
However, the committee’s 10-1 vote in favour of a preferential option in negotiations was backed by influential pro-Brexit Conservative MPs including Michael Gove and Dominic Raab.
This does suggest a striking level of agreement across parties for the government to keep this option open – and to pursue a preferential migration system if it is part of a successful overall deal, rather than restricting the Prime Minister’s negotiating hand by insisting that the EU and non-EU rules will have to be identical.