There was some good news announced by the Prime Minister this week when she told the House of Commons she had ordered the £65 fee for EU nationals applying for settled status will be waived. Those who have already paid the fee in the trial exercises will also be reimbursed.
There are around 3.7 million EU nationals in Britain and if they have been living in the country for five years up until the end of 2020 they can apply to receive settled status. This will entitle them to continue to reside and work here in the UK indefinitely.
Although there is obviously an administrative cost to the government in running the scheme, the charge was always wrong on many levels and its cancellation should be welcomed.
When Brexit happens, the rules-based system that governs who is entitled to what rights, be it EU nationals here or British nationals in the EU, needs to be amended to ensure that any existing rights can be transferred.
Politicians have continually said they were intent on ensuring that practically all current entitlements would continue, so long as people could provide proof of either receiving or qualifying for such rights already.
It has always troubled me that the UK government was slow to recognise that EU nationals who have settled in Britain, often raising families, working hard and paying their taxes, could suddenly find themselves without the right of continuing to stay. Yes, fine words were said about treating people fairly and wanting EU nationals to remain, but it was always with the caveat that this would be done so long as our own ex-pats were treated fairly too.
This was the wrong approach, for there was never any need to turn either group into quid-pro-quo bargaining chips.
The UK should simply have announced a unilateral declaration of intent to confirm the continuation of existing rights – immediately reassuring those people already here that they had nothing to fear. By taking what we might call the moral high ground of doing the right thing, it was always likely that other countries would then follow our lead.
Instead, despite all the assurances of the Prime Minister, our government appeared grudging, sending the wrong message by implying EU nationals were of no importance and not wanted.
This allowed other EU countries such as Austria to make the running by announcing that they would guarantee British people rights – and of course allowed opponents of Brexit to paint those advocating leaving the EU as bigots and racists. The truth is that the leaders of the Leave campaign such as Boris Johnson argued for EU citizens’ rights to be granted irrespective of the negotiations while the Prime Minister – who backed remaining in the EU – was the one person advocating rights should be withheld until negotiations were settled.
It is because of such mean-spirited behaviour by remainers such as the Prime Minister and Chancellor that Brexit supporters are so mistrusting of how the negotiations are being handled.
The idea of an administration fee was always a nonsense. When people have been working hard in the country, adopting it as their own they have been paying their taxes and contributing to its improvement and general well being. Even those that might be dependents have been contributing to the country’s exchequer through indirect taxes such as VAT, contributing well over the £65 charge. Asking them to pay to stay was nothing but an insult.
Any EU nationals who broke the law should of course be treated accordingly, but are such a small minority they presented no reason for the vast majority to be treated so discourteously.
We should welcome the Prime Minister’s climb down and make sure the registration process is as easy, smooth and efficient to emphasise our goodwill and thanks for committing to the UK.