Christine Jardine: Government ‘promises’ mean EU citizens must apply to stay in the UK

The row over EU citizens' rights suggests the government has learned nothing from the Windrush scandal. Picture: Getty
The row over EU citizens' rights suggests the government has learned nothing from the Windrush scandal. Picture: Getty
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Apply. It’s just one word but it sparked a Twitter storm this weekend.

Descriptions like “chilling”, “shameful” and “degrading” have been used.

I can’t argue with any of them.

Inhumanity wasn’t on the ballot paper in 2016.

After all the Conservative government’s assurances about protecting the rights of citizens from other parts of the EU, it turns out those same people will have to apply to stay in their own homes.

Many of the 3.8 million non-UK, EU citizens who live, and work, in this country have been here for decades.

In Edinburgh we have Scotland’s highest concentration of citizens – 39,000 – from other parts of the EU.

They pay tax, they have friends, partners or even, in many cases, children who were born here.

Many have bought homes, built businesses or fill vital roles in our NHS or our education system.

Now they are having to ask permission to stay via a shiny new page on the government’s immigration website.

I am not afraid to say that I’m embarrassed, ashamed may be more accurate, that people who have contributed to our economic prosperity are being treated this way.

And just who, and what grounds, will decide their fate?

It’s almost as if this government has learned nothing from the outrage provoked by the Windrush scandal this past summer.

Reading the web page itself I could see so many ambiguities, so many technicalities, that it is not clear exactly what the terms are and who will qualify.

My own thoughts immediately jumped to several constituents who came to see me during this past year concerned about exactly this situation. Would they have to leave? What about their jobs, their children’s education?

There was one French couple who have been here all their working lives. They pay tax, national insurance and their children were born here.

Their passports are EU ones like mine, but the French version.

Their children’s passports, on the other hand, are more contentious.

Although both were born here only one of them is automatically a British citizen. The other has to, that word again, apply, for citizenship.

And just to add insult to injury, there’s a price.

£65 for an adult may not seem like a lot, but it’s the principle.

It’s the same unacceptable principle that questioned the right of those immigrants from the Commonwealth, the Windrush generation, who found their original welcome unceremoniously withdrawn.

As my constituents themselves put it: “One day you are a citizen, with all the same rights as everybody else. The next you are not.”

They will lose part of their identity, their right to vote in the Scottish and council elections, whereas today they could be candidates. Elected representatives.

I’m sure that not everyone reading this will agree with me, of course.

Immigration was, we are always told, a central argument for the Leave campaign in the referendum.

But since then we have heard, and are now beginning to experience, the damage that will be done in a number of sectors if we lose that vital influx of workers.

Fruit picking has had a lot of attention. Many producers are concerned at the potential loss of a seasonal workforce.

But at the Scottish Affairs Committee this year we heard evidence of the damage that could be done to our higher education sector if staff – and students – leave.

At my own daughter’s graduation at Edinburgh University we heard a moving address from the creator of the Erasmus scheme, Dr Hywel Ceri Jones.

Named after the Dutch philosopher and religious figure who was central influence in the Renaissance, it allows students to study anywhere in the EU to gain not just qualifications, but a broader experience.

As he talked of the vision that had prompted his work I looked down at the assembled, diverse students and a list of names with origins across the continent.

I thought about the contribution they could make here to our economy. If we encourage them.

At the Scottish Affairs Committee too I thought about the damage that could be done to our economy across the UK if we lose those tens of thousands of talented individuals.

The Royal Colleges of GPs, Midwives and Nurses have all called for a rethink because of the potential impact on the NHS.

And in the hospitality and tourist sector in Edinburgh one estimate puts the number of non-UK, EU workers at 50 per cent.

It’s no secret that my party, the Liberal Democrats, are committed to the EU and our continued membership.

I’ve said here many times that, now that we know the full implications of Brexit and the deal proposed, the people should have the final say.

Just as I don’t believe people voted to make themselves poorer, I don’t believe they voted to see their neighbours denied the right to their own homes and livelihoods.

And that is not being dramatic. I’m sure that many of you, like me, have at least one friend or colleague who is looking at that website today.

Worrying about their future. Will it be here? Will they even apply?