An amendment to the article 50 bill guaranteeing the rights of EU nationals in the UK after Brexit is highly likely to be passed in the House of Lords, the leader of Liberal Democrat peers has said.
Dick Newby told about 500 EU citizens in Westminster that Labour peers would be supporting the amendment, which will be debated next week, though the party had indicated it would not seek to block the bill.
“There is a big difference between getting an amendment and blocking it,” he said. “The track record of the House of Lords getting amendments passed is pretty good.”
More than 1,000 EU citizens, plus other foreign nationals based in the UK, were expected in Westminster on Monday in an effort to lobby their MPs over the right to remain in Britain. Nurses, teachers, social workers and hospitality workers were among those visiting the Houses of Parliament en masse in the hope of meeting their MPs.
Meetings have been pre-agreed with about 50 MPs, including Labour’s Keir Starmer and Owen Smith and Conservatives Caroline Spelman and Philip Davies, who has warned the Lords not to try to block the article 50 bill.
Peers will begin to debate the bill on Monday. Labour has said it will not seek to wreck the government’s timetabling. However, campaigners behind the mass lobby are hopeful that the amendment on EU citizens gets through.
Theresa May has been urged repeatedly to end the uncertainty facing EU nationals and last week stressed the importance of an early deal on the matter.
However, the grassroots organisation behind Monday’s action, the3million, says it needs to keep the pressure up because there is no sign of the prime minister’s words being turned into legislative action.
The Liberal Democrat MP for Carshalton and Wallington, Tom Brake, warned that the Home Office was totally unprepared for the registration of EU citizens that would have to take place whatever deal was sealed.
“I can assure you it is going to be a disaster. The resources aren’t there, the experience isn’t there, they have shed staff recently instead of gaining them – they are going to be facing a monumental task for which they are ill equipped.”
Brake’s words echoed fears expressed by MEPs over the weekend that millions of EU nationals living in the UK would be left stranded in a legal no man’s land after the country leaves the EU because of the weaknesses of the British immigration system.
Unlike other European countries, the UK does not require EU citizens moving to work or study in the country to register, leaving the Home Office at a standing start after Brexit. “When you get into the detail of that it gets very very complicated,” said Brake.
Diane Abbott, the shadow home secretary, warned EU citizens that they faced “grotesque” Home Office delays and complications unless the Tories acted swiftly to start work on a system to process people.
Nicolas Hatton, the chairman of the3million, said: “EU citizens who came to the UK in good faith have lived through stress and anxiety since the referendum. The government has refused to grant them their rights of residence following Brexit. These are people, not bargaining chips, and they’ll be using this lobby to tell their MPs they deserve to be treated with fairness and dignity.”
Lord Newby told the gathered EU nationals: “There is a very high likelihood that an amendment that will guarantee your rights will pass in the House of Lords. That’s the good news, then it goes to the House of Commons, I suspect on 13 May.
“We have got to persuade MPs who didn’t vote for this last time to vote for this now,” he said in reference to a similar defeated amendment, proposed by the Labour MP Harriet Harman. “We all know that politicians respond to pressure. You have a huge role to play to get your family, your friends to put the pressure on MPs.”
Newby said he believed many Tory peers would support the amendment.
Sarah Ludford, the Lib Dem spokeswoman in the Lords, said it was “invidious to inflict the cruelty” on EU citizens.
Roger Casale, the former Labour MP and founder of the New Europeans, co-organisers of the mass lobby, said the government seemed to think it was “somehow in the interest of the 1.6 million UK citizens in Europe” to withhold the rights of EU nationals in the UK and make them bargaining chips in Brexit talks.
“Guess what, this is not what the UK citizens in the EU are asking for,” he said.
Casale added that there were 10 organisations representing the British in Europe that were stressing that EU nationals in the UK should be given their rights unilaterally, not as part of any negotiation.
During the lobby the European citizens will be reminding MPs that both the leave and remain campaign manifestos contained unconditional guarantees that EU citizens could stay in the UK.
Unison and the New Europeans, both involved in Monday’s action, said migrants were a vital part of the public sector workforce, including the NHS and social care.
“These millions of workers help keep the UK’s public services and economy going, but they’re being used as pawns by the government. We want Theresa May to end their uncertainty by making it clear now they have the right to stay,” said Dave Prentis, Unison’s general secretary.
The campaign is also targeting the House of Lords, with a meeting scheduled with the Lib Dem peer Barbara Janke. The former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg is also to speak to the group.
Among those joining the lobby was Nathalie Lees, 46, a teacher from France who lives in Streatham, south London. She has been in the UK for 20 years and said she decided to come to the event even though she did not get any reply to a request for a meeting with her local MP, Chuka Umunna.
“I came to make sure the voice of EU citizens is heard and we can guarantee our right to stay in the country,” she said.
German Argula Rublack, a historian at the University of London, said she had built her life in the UK and that the “uncertainty was so unfair”.
Retired district nurse Annette Bostock came to the UK as her British husband, John, a quantity surveyor, could not get work in her native Denmark. He said: “The reason we are here is to show solidarity. We just think the government ought to grant the rights unequivocally.”
They wrote to their local MP, Amber Rudd, requesting a meeting but were declined, with the home secretary citing prior commitments.
There was mixed reaction among EU nationals who talked to their MPs.
Stephane Guegan, who has been working for the NHS for 25 years, said he was pleasantly surprised by the reaction of his MP, Mims Davies, the Tory representative for Eastleigh.
“It went really well. She’s a leaver – but I told her the ‘will of the people’ was not to get rid of our rights, people did not vote for that. She was a bit taken aback and defensive at first and was just taking the party line, but when she realised I wanted a constructive conversation, she listened and we will be in touch again,” he said.
Paula Davidson, a Finn who is married to a British man and has two school-going children, said Simon Hoare, the Tory MP for North Dorset, said “it would all be fine” but that the government could not guarantee rights until they were reciprocated.
Yves Pacuad, from France, made the journey from Liverpool with his husband to meet the Labour MP Luciana Berger.
He said: “She was optimistic about the possibility of the amendment. I think it was worthwhile coming and showing your face, because some MPs haven’t done their homework and think it will all be OK. I’ve been here 25 years and even my friends think that. So it was good to meet her in the flesh and explain that it isn’t all OK.”
About the author:
Lisa O'Carroll is the Guardian's Brexit correspondent
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