The House of Lords has voted by a large margin of 102 in favour of guaranteeing the rights of EU citizens in the UK after Brexit. With 358 in favour to 256 against, the Lords backed an amendment to the Article 50 bill, the bill giving the Prime Minister the power to trigger the Brexit process.
The amendment said that when the UK leaves the EU, EU citizens should keep all the rights they currently have, regardless of what happens during the Brexit negotiations. The debate on 1 March came down on the correct side, but we can’t and shouldn’t pin our hopes on the unelected second chamber. The matter will be decided in the House of Commons, which has already rejected a similar demand. And time is short: the government wants to invoke Article 50 by the end of March.
Before that happens — and beyond — we must build the largest possible campaign to defend the rights of EU migrants – including UK migrants in other EU states. Nearly three million citizens of other EU member states live in the UK, and the government is arguing that their rights should not be guaranteed until the UK receives similar guarantees from the EU about the 1.2 million UK citizens living in other member states. In short, the Tories are using EU citizens living in the UK as a bargaining chip. That is wrong, said the Lords, and they were right.
The arguments they made were moral, and also practical: for example, 55,000 EU nationals work as doctors and nurses in the NHS. EU migrants are now living in fear, unable to make plans about their homes, their children’s schools, their futures. This insecurity also strengthens the hands of unscrupulous employers who can use it to ratchet up exploitation. Trade unions should campaign for employers to provide legal advice and pay costs for migrant workers to strengthen their legal status.
We must build a movement ready to resist any expulsions, and fight the rise in xenophobia that is an inevitable consequence of the Brexit process. Unison helped to organise a “Right to Remain” day of action on 20 February. That is a good start – now we must build living campaigns in every workplace and every town to make that policy effective. We must argue for the rights of all people to travel, work and live freely where they choose.
Biggest EU national populations living in the UK Poland – 853,000 Republic of Ireland – 331,000 Romania – 175,000 Portugal – 175,000 Source: Office of National Statistics
Biggest populations of UK citizens in other EU member states Spain – 310,000 Republic of Ireland – 255,000 France – 185,000 Source: United Nations
The cuts get worse
The cuts get worse. That’s Philip Hammond’s 8 March Budget in a nutshell. As we go to press on 7 March, Hammond may dispense some sops for local authority social care. It is conceivable the government will row back on its pre-programmed denial of Housing Benefit to 18-21 year olds. The income tax threshold will probably be raised, reducing tax bills a little for many and more for the rich. But the Tories’ rolling, cumulative cuts will continue.
The freeze (in nominal terms: i.e., real-terms cut) in working-age benefits will continue. Government departments are being asked to outline further spending cuts of 3% and 6%. Schools are due to lose £3 billion a year by 2020. The government is introducing emergency legislation to override a court decision limiting its cuts in Personal Independent Payments to disabled people. The disabled have suffered worse from the cuts than anyone else.
Another large group which has suffered exceptionally is lone parents: according to the Women’s Budget Group, the cumulative impact of changes in taxes, benefits and spending on public services between 2010 and 2020 will be a 19% cut in living standards for lone mothers, and 15% for lone fathers.
Real incomes after housing costs look like falling between 2014–15 and 2021–22 for the poorest 15% of households on average, so the government is planning for an increase in income inequality over the coming years. The official rate of poverty after housing costs is on track to rise from 21.3% in 2014–15 to 23.6% in 2021–22.
Pensioners have suffered from the cuts, too. But less. The Tories look like increasing the state pension again, while working-age benefits are frozen. Incomes for households headed by 25-44 year olds are still not back to their level before the 2008 crisis, while average pensioner household incomes have grown by 9 per cent in the same period.
Average pensioner incomes after housing costs are now higher than those of average working-age households. A fundamental reason is that pensioners are active and influential in political parties, and they vote. Young people are as generous and lively in activism as ever, but in sporadic, intermittent, scattered ways: they are less active in consistent week-by-week political movement-building, and they vote less.
The Corbyn surge gave the Labour Party an opening to change that imbalance and bring a fresh generation into week-by-week political activism. As yet, that opportunity is largely being wasted. Turning that round is central to building a movement to push back the cuts.