Monday, 9 January 2017

Undivided, Here's My Brexit Demand: Protect The Statutory Legal Rights Of EU Nationals In The UK And British Nationals In The EU

In a blogpost on the Labour party from last week, (http://sassysvensknorsk.blogspot.co.uk/2017/01/all-smoke-but-no-firing-needed-yet-my.html), I said that I'd do something that I think every Millennial in the UK, regardless of whether they voted to Remain, Leave, if they couldn't vote (due to being under the age of 18 but over 16) or perhaps chose not to vote in the EU Referendum (which resulted in a majority of voters choosing to Leave the EU) should do. I was asked by the Undivided social media team to answer what would appear to be on the surface a simple question: what is my key demand as a young person (Millennial) that I want to see included as part of any Brexit negotiation undertaken by the Conservative Government? I attempt to answer that question below.

For me, my biggest Brexit concerns relate to any possible negative changes that could be made in the legal treatment of citizens from EU countries who reside in the UK and likewise the treatment of UK citizens based in the EU. I firmly believe that the UK Government has got to be careful to not rock the boat, which is why I was surprised that Theresa May has not had the foresight to guarantee the Right to Remain for all workers, students and their relatives who happen to be in the UK prior to the date of actual Brexit, predicted to be in spring 2019 at the earliest. Why on earth does Mrs May think that it's acceptable to treat people like cattle who can be branded and traded at will with little concern shown on the surface for guaranteeing their welfare? If I was a primary school teacher who had come to the UK in 1976 and had kept my Swedish citizenship throughout my teaching career, why should I feel as if I should be made to face the possibility of leaving the UK just because I refused or didn't need to gain British citizenship? If I had given loyal service and hard graft to the people of the UK, I think it would be appropriate to know that I was valued enough by the UK to allow me to stay here as long as I wanted and claim the benefits and Government aid that I would be entitled to as a hard grafter. That should be clear to any British citizen, whether they voted to Leave or to Remain in the EU.

Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott in her New Statesman article from the 19th December 2016 on the right for EU nationals to remain in the UK is pretty enlightening (http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2016/12/leavers-and-remainers-can-unite-eu-nationals-have-right-remain-here). The fact that it would take 140 years for permanent residency permits to be processed for all European Economic Area (EEA) nationals living in the UK at the start of 2016 at the current rate of processing is startling. The number of EU nationals applying for residency has risen from 37,618 in June 2015 to nearly 100,000 at the start of June 2016. Processing documentation could cost the Home Office £100 million a year and require 3000 staff to help with the administration. Great news for job creation but bad news for the public purse!

I do not believe, for example, that jobseekers from the EU should be automatically put off registering with Jobcentre Plus and gaining the Right to Reside in that way as some UKIP voters have suggested. We already have restrictions for new jobseekers from the EU on claiming out-of-work benefits (they have to have resided in the UK, Isle of Man, Channel Islands or Ireland -"the Common Travel Area" for at least 3 months). I'm sympathetic to suggestions that jobseekers should do some research on job opportunities and perhaps try to secure interviews in their chosen occupational area in the area of the country they wish to reside in before coming to the UK. There should be an expectation that EU based jobseekers would have made an effort to learn rudimentary English or would enrol in English Language classes (such as ESOL) soon after they arrive in the UK as the All Party Parliamentary Group on Social Integration have suggested should happen, but I don't believe it's practical to make that a mandatory legal requirement unless the Government increases funding for ESOL courses in colleges across the country for all migrants to have access to. A £20 million budget is not enough to do this.

I am not sympathetic to any vein of thought espoused by those on the so-called far-right  (more like Alt-Right) of the UK political spectrum who want to see employment rights curtailed for workers from the EU. They should continue to receive the same pay (at least the NLW), the same maternity and paternity rights, the same right to strike and protest and the same right to protection from unfair dismissal that are enjoyed by British workers doing the same job on the same contract with the same company. It's not acceptable to suggest that in-work benefits should be reduced or abolished for workers who have bothered to graft their guts out in our hospitals, our fields and our warehouses just because they are not British citizens and happen to hold Swedish, Irish or Polish citizenship. To take such actions in my book would be in violation of our Equality Act 2010 (EA) because we should not discriminate legally on the basis of race and that currently includes nationality (race is a protected characteristic). I believe the EA should not be amended to take nationality out of anti-discrimination protection. If far-right Brexiteers do not receive the demands they "require" from the EU negotiating tables in Brussels, it is not the fault of Irish nurses, Polish brickies or Romanian strawberry pickers. The Government cannot be allowed to take punitive measures here using our legislation out of anger or spite. Workers from the EU must have the same employment rights as someone who is a British citizen. That means right to access Housing Benefit as well as Child Benefit, Child Tax Credits (if the child/children reside in the UK for most of the year -i.e. 9/12 months). If a worker from the EU loses their job, I think they should still be encouraged to look for work in the UK, especially if they have decided to marry and raise a family here. They should also be entitled to claim a form of Jobseekers Allowance and keep their Housing Benefit to be able to survive whilst they look for work. If an employee or worker from the EU can no longer work due to ill health through no fault of their own, I think they should be entitled to access out-of-work benefits and not be told "you're no good to us anymore, go back to your own country so they can pay your medical bills". Short term bouts of illness should still be covered by Statutory Sick Pay.

Equally, if the EU national is self-employed, they should be entitled to the same minimum rights as a British self-employed national. That means not being discriminated against (EA again) and to make sure your safety is protected whilst you are working for a employer (under the Health And Safety At Work Act). If a worker from the EU who still has citizenship in an EU country decides to retire here, they should be treated with the same respect as someone who is a British citizen who has decided to spend their retirement on Spain's Costa Del Sol. Also, if a young person comes to study in the UK from the EU, they should be welcomed with open arms, not face slurs and insults based on their nationality. I'm in favour of taking students out of being subject to immigration target figures because their primary goal is to study and graduate with an university degree or course certificate and not to seek full time work or claim benefits. In fact, as the Department for Business, Investment and Skills (BIS) has pointed out, international students made an economic contribution of £14 billion in 2014/15 and that's meant to rise to £26 billion by 2025. Diane Abbott has pointed out that most students return to their home country anyways. EU students may require a Tier-2 work visa post-Brexit (as non-EU students currently need) but the numbers of students who have applied for them in the past is small (under 6,000 in 2014/15). Leaving the EU shouldn't detract us from welcoming students who are EU nationals but let's make sure that we reconsider the Tier 2 visa requirement for all students and instead encourage a few more to stay in the UK after graduation!

Reciprocation of rights is a must....

Naturally I would like to see an attempt by EU countries to guarantee the right to remain for UK citizens, whether they happen to be students, employees or workers. The UN currently estimates that there are 1.3 million UK expats living in Europe, with 319,000 in Spain, 249,000 in Ireland and 171,000 in France. Some commentators such as John Springford (Director of Research at the Centre of European Reform) have pointed out that there could be revenge reforms pushed in countries in response to the UK's decision to leave the EU. Springford believes that the Spanish Government could ask British retirees to pay for their own healthcare or remove access to healthcare outright. I think such comments could be construed as fearmongering in an attempt to get the Government to restrict access to healthcare here and it won't work. Besides, the UK receives £49 million to treat EU nationals residing in the UK and I have no doubt that the UK Government will continue paying for the healthcare of UK citizens in the EU, when they qualify for subsidised healthcare. I don't see that changing after the Brexit process is completed.

Theresa May has to insist that the EU countries and the UK adhere to the Vienna Convention 1969 which states that the "termination of a treaty does not affect any right, obligation or legal situation of the parties created through the execution of a treaty prior to its termination". This should mean that British citizens abroad who reside abroad retain the right to remain in their chosen country and enjoy acquired rights under international law. There is no way that EU countries will deport British citizens who haven't broken any of their laws provided the UK doesn't deport EU nationals who are innocent. EU countries will respect individual property rights, so those who own property on the Costa Brava or Costa Del Sol but don't reside there won't have their property confiscated by the Spanish Government. The Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA) which I want to see retained by the UK Government provides for the right to an education, freedom of speech, religious practice etc. and versions of the HRA do exist in EU countries such as Sweden as well as in Norway. Anti-discriminatory laws should also be strong enough to stop workers from being workers from being denied any statutory rights based on their British nationality. I sincerely doubt that Sweden would stop British employees working in Sweden being entitled to the Annual Leave Act 1977 or Working Hours Act 1982. Of course a perk of being a worker in Sweden is that you get 12 public holidays, 25 paid days leave in addition to having time off to attend the dentist and rehabilitation. Even posted workers (those employed in the UK but working in Sweden) get minimum annual paid leave and are subject to maximum work periods. I think I'm more jealous of Swedish workers than they are of UK ones!

The only area I could see changing relates to jobseekers in the UK who travel to find work in the EU post-Brexit and tourists who want to spend a few weeks in the EU. I believe that jobseekers may become subject to rules already placed on non-EU jobseekers to restrict access to benefits during their first few months in their new country. In Sweden, jobseekers from outside the EU or the EEA (European Economic Area) have to gain a work permit before they enter the country; that includes having a valid passport and having the prospective job offer including the salary and occupational pension validated by a trade union before the permit is issued. Jobseekers from outside the EU or EEA will get a residency permit as it is likely they will be staying in Sweden beyond a 3 month period, but those who are going to Sweden for less than 3 months to work need to get a visa in addition to a work permit. All very expensive (a permit costs about SEK2000 or £180...far more than obtaining a British passport!) It is likely that EU nationals wanting to enter the UK will need to seek similar permits and visas, as I highlighted at the start of my post. All that extra bureaucracy just to leave the EU...oh dear.

So there you have it. My Brexit demand is that legal rights remain the same for EU nationals in the UK as they do for British citizens and vice versa as enshrined in the Vienna Convention. 1.3 million British citizens in Europe and 3 million people from the EU should not have to worry about having rights taken away from them as a result of the Brexit process. That's why I'll be backing Melanie Onn's Workers' Rights (Maintenance of EU Standards) Bill to safeguard workers' rights that have been derived from EU legislation (such as the Working Time Directive) and watching out for any changes to legal rights of workers from the EU that may contravene the HRA or EA. It truly is a red line for me and it should be for you too!