The report of the Commons Committee on Exiting the EU (known to its friends as the Brexit Committee) on the rights of EU citizens resident here, and UK citizens resident in other EU countries, is a welcome contribution to a debate that has so far generated rather more heat than light.
The headlines will be for its recommendation that “the UK should now make a unilateral recommendation to safeguard the rights of EU nationals living in the UK” (in other words, that the government should accept at least the spirit of the Lords’ amendment passed last week).
This is entirely sensible; the government’s line that we need to hold back on this commitment to use as a “bargaining chip” (regardless of what you think of the morality of this approach) is flimsy at best. For it to be a useful bargaining chip, we would need a credible threat; since there is neither the political will or the administrative capacity to deport large numbers of EU citizens, this does not exist.
In the meantime, the government’s refusal to commit is damaging the UK, both directly and in terms of the UK’s image. In fact, this line is dictated far more by domestic politics – in particular, the need to show that it is the government, not Parliament, that will shape our approach to Brexit – than by the Article 50 negotiation strategy.
But the report is perhaps most useful for its thorough and detailed explanation of the administrative and bureaucratic hurdles that will remain even when a solution is agreed in principle. As I wrote back in August:
“The practical issues involved are formidable..There aren’t any ideal options – just less bad ones. But anybody who thinks that with the best will in the world this will be an easy issue to resolve is living in a fantasy world.”
The Committee echoes this, and calls on the government, as a matter of urgency, to either reform or (preferably) replace entirely the current permanent residency application process:
“The current process for consideration of permanent residency applications is not fit for purpose and, in the absence of any concrete resolution to relieve the anxiety felt by the estimated three million EU citizens resident in the UK, it is untenable to continue with the system as it stands. We recommend that the Government set out whether it intends the permanent residence system to be the basis for EU nationals to demonstrate their eligibility to reside in the UK once the UK leaves the EU.
If so then it needs to set out as a matter of urgency, how it will reform the permanent residence application system. If not, then it needs to set out what an alternative system will involve and what will be expected of EU nationals to demonstrate their eligibility to reside in the UK once the UK leaves the EU.”
Importantly, there is absolutely no reason for the government not to start on this now and to say so; in practical terms, it wouldn’t commit the government to doing anything it won’t have to do at some point anyway. The fact that it hasn’t reflects a combination of bureaucratic inertia and political unwillingness to accept the inevitable consequences (for Home Office resources, for employers, and for individuals). But reality has to kick in sometime.
The sooner this happens, the smoother the process will be, and the less unnecessary damage that will be inflicted. The Committee has a large number of detailed and practical recommendations (on the need for any process to be simple, without unrealistic administrative or technical hurdles, and for data-sharing). The government would do well to listen.
Separately, the Committee also discusses the post-Brexit immigration system, without coming to any particularly firm conclusions. But it does make two important, related points. First, that “taking back control” when it comes to immigration policy/free movement doesn’t have much to do with border control per se. The Committee quotes me:
“Ending free movement immigration control is not going to be enforced at the borders at all. It simply is not. We are still going to let people in, at Stansted and Heathrow, with French passports. They just will not have the right to work here, and that right to work will be enforced at the workplace.”
This point is fundamental – it is employers (and landlords, public services, universities, etc) who will be at the sharp end of changes to free movement. As the Committee says, “any new system will add to the regulatory burden.” Or, as I put it:
“When it comes to immigration, “taking back control” means expanding the size and role of the state.”
However, one potential advantage of this point – that what we do at border controls is not necessarily determined by what we do about individuals’ right to work in the UK – is reflected in the Committee’s acceptance that there could, in principle, be a geographic component to future policy – a Scottish work permit, or a London one. Those who say that this would require border controls at Hadrian’s Wall or the M25 simply miss the point.
There’s lots more detail on this and other issues in the report, which is certainly the best summary of this set of issues produced so far; it is well worth reading in full.
By Jonathan Portes, senior fellow at The UK in a Changing Europe. Professor of Economics and Public Policy in the Department of Political Economy at King’s College London.