This week’s Lambeth council meeting saw an important debate on the future of the thousands of EU citizens living in our borough. The debate took place against the backdrop of another week of crisis and chaos in the Brexit negotiations. The government was forced on the day of the meeting to suspend the progression of the EU Withdrawal Bill for a second time and once more we had to witness the spectacle of Tory politicians contradicting each other on how the government should handle this critical issue. Theresa May’s most recent letter on freedom of movement was described as “worthless” by a leading campaign group while there was yet another call from Tory Brexiters for us to leave the EU without a deal.
The government’s strategy, if it can be called that, is not only falling apart, but is leaving the UK’s 3.6 million EU citizens in an inacceptable state of limbo. As councillors, we are increasingly hearing from EU residents anxious about whether they and their families will be able to stay in this country when Britain finally exits the EU. During the council debate, we heard what this means in practice for people who have spent decades contributing to our economy, our public services and enriching the diversity of our borough.. Families are understandably nervous about what plans to make for their future, for their children and for their businesses. The same situation faces thousands of British citizens, born, or with families in Lambeth, and now living in the EU, who are being left in with the same dreadful uncertainty.
As Labour councillors said repeatedly during the debate, it is completely unacceptable that the government is leaving millions with this degree of anxiety, treating their rights as nothing more than a bargaining chip. We heard passionate contributions from my colleagues: from Councillor Tiedemann and Councillor Davie about the fears of their own family members, from Councillor Guilherme Rosa about the anxiety of Lambeth’s very large Portuguese community and from Councillor Holland about the anxieties caused for our residents told to place their trust in a Home Office that time and again has treated non-UK nationals with contempt.
By contrast, from our Conservative opponents we simply got a typically uncaring and short-sighted view, as they failed to stand up for the rights of EU citizens’ in Lambeth and British citizens living in the EU.
While Lambeth’s Tories once again put their friends in Westminster ahead of the needs of Lambeth residents, we passed the motion with the intention of sending a clear message that EU citizens should have their rights protected: that needs to be a key and central part of the UK’s negotiating position. We cannot and should not abandon our friends and neighbours who have contributed so much to life of this borough and our country; socially, culturally and economically.
It is now time for the government to stop the indecision, the division and the callous disregard for people’s lives and get on with ensuring that the rights and freedoms of EU citizens, and British citizens abroad, are fully protected in any final Brexit deal.
Leader of Lambeth Council