MPs have heaped pressure on ministers to guarantee the right of EU citizens in Britain to remain after Brexit ahead of a crucial vote this month.
A report from the Commons Exiting the EU select committee has condemned Home Office processes for considering permanent residence applications as “not fit for purpose” after it emerged that almost a third of requests are being refused.
Stories have emerged of applications rejected on a technicality, including that of a Scottish woman whose French husband was refused permanent residence because he split a 23-year stretch living in the UK with three years in South Africa. The Pollet family are now moving to Scandinavia with their two-year-old son.
In the absence of a blanket guarantee, EU nationals seeking to ensure their right to remain in the UK must provide proof of residence and employment for the duration of their stay, despite the law requiring five years’ residence to qualify.
It means families who have lived in Britain for decades having to prepare bundles of documents running to 85 pages, without knowing whether or not they will be accepted by the Home Office.
The report calls for EU citizens in the UK and British citizens in Europe to continue to have the same access to healthcare as they do now. MPs also say the government should consider whether different parts of the UK should have their own immigration priorities after Brexit, and if EU citizens should retain preferential immigration status.
Labour MP Hilary Benn, the chairman of the committee, called the current system “disproportionately burdensome” and said it “goes far beyond what is required to prove residence over a five-year period”.
The report comes ahead of a showdown between the government and the Lords over legislation needed to trigger the formal Brexit process by a government deadline of 31 March.
Peers defied ministers to vote for an amendment calling for a unilateral guarantee within three months of Brexit being formally triggered.
The decision means a potential delay to the legislation as the government marshals MPs to vote against the amendment in the Commons, with the potential for a Tory rebellion.
Benn said EU citizens have been left “living under a cloud of uncertainty” since the referendum.
“Although the government has said it wants EU citizens to be able to remain, this has not offered sufficient reassurance that the rights and status that they have enjoyed will be guaranteed. It should now do so.”
SNP MP Joanna Cherry, who sits on the committee, called on Labour MPs to “have the courage of their convictions” and back the Lords amendment when it returns to the Commons.
“The UK government can no longer be allowed a free pass to treat EU nationals as bargaining chips,” she said. “The House of Lords’ amendment offers that opportunity; Labour must back the SNP and grasp it, and the Tories must end their political posturing.”