On 1 March I cheered with joy as a result of a decision made by the House of Lords about Brexit. Normally, I see the Lords as an absurd institution. There are 813 people entitled to sit there. These unelected legislators include the 9th Duke of Wellington, the former executive director of the Tory Remain campaign, countless party donors and 26 bishops from a church with dramatically declining attendance figures; there they sit alongside people such as surgeons, film-makers and entrepreneurs who have lived the prime of their lives away from the echo chamber of politics.
It's all a bit of a rum do, as the noble lords might say. Nonetheless, when they voted by a majority of 102 to guarantee the rights of EU nationals living in the UK, it generated a spirit of hope. My cheer was multiplied many times across the nation: a coalition of the more progressive parties represented there plus many of the cross-benchers and seven Tories had made a stand for the multi-cultural society which many of us cherish.
We all know that Mrs May's government is likely to fly the flag for xenophobia and return the bill to the Lords with their amendment deleted. But someone needed to stand up against the covert coup that the hard Brexiteers are trying to inflict. Sadly, the official opposition in the Commons seems to have taken on the role of a Greek chorus and, far from giving a lead to campaigns to oppose hard Brexit and its xenophobia, they resort to mindlessly chanting 'will of the people' at every opportunity.
One of the strange features of the standoff about the residency rights of the three million EU nationals is that almost everyone in public life, apart from Norman Tebbit, says that they are in favour of them. It is in the power of the UK government to grant these rights unilaterally and prevent the three million, most of whom are regular taxpayers, feeling like bargaining chips. Mrs May indicates, without providing any detail, that she would be willing to do so were it not for the obduracy of some members of the EU27. A generous gesture like this would set a friendly tone for the negotiations but it seems that the government would rather behave petulantly and blame someone else for an unnecessary crisis.
I should probably declare an interest here. The main one is about friendship: I have or have had countless friends who have moved to the UK from another part of the world or moved to another part of the world from the UK. All these moves were perfectly legal and none of the people concerned had any notion that their rights of residency could be put at risk as a result of a referendum where they were not on the voting paper. I include non-EU nationals as well as EU nationals because often the expressions of xenophobia are pretty generalised and unfocused.
Recently, I spent 10 weeks in hospital where I was treated and cared for by a large number of people who had migrated to this country to work; many of the doctors were from South Asia and most of the nurses and healthcare assistants were from the EU. These people behaved towards me with the utmost professionalism and they should not be living under a cloud of uncertainty about their right to live and work here. Most of them were reluctant to discuss Brexit but when it was raised, it was always a subject of concern.
While people like me were encouraged by the resistance of the Lords, a member of Españoles en Reino Unido/Spaniards in the UK pointed out that even if the Lords' amendment was accepted by the government it is limited in the degree of protection which it offers. There are already a number of ways in which EU nationals can be deported if they do not meet certain financial requirements. Several EU nationals who had, in the light of the Brexit referendum, decided to regularise their residency here were distressed to discover that their applications were rejected, very often because of their failure to have taken out Comprehensive Sickness Insurance (CSI).
CSI has been around for several years but had largely been ignored because people had believed that access to healthcare, through the NHS, was based on need rather than any financial criteria. Stay-at-home parents, usually mothers, and people with unconventional work patterns found that the length of their stay in this country and the fact that their children had been born here provided no guarantee against deportation. On 1 February, new immigration regulations also came into force, enabling the Home Office to 'verify' the right of residence of EU nationals by inviting the person to prove evidence of that right. It does, rather ominously, sound as if it is based on the principle of guilty until proven innocent.
It is becoming clearer that there is a body of regulations ready and waiting to be dusted down once Brexit swings into force. Many of the younger EU nationals are working in the NHS, in universities, in the financial sector and the hospitality industry on temporary contracts or zero-hour contracts; some of these may expire if Mrs May fails to secure a harmonious trading relationship with the EU27. Some people will return to their countries of origin but others, who have built a life, a friendship circle and relationships for themselves may be unwilling to do so. They may then find themselves in the position of losing their professional position and, in the worst cases, becoming homeless.
It is unclear how the management of their reduced status would be policed because there is no system of IDs for citizens and other residents in this country; many of them might well 'go underground' and any employment they had would likely be in the shadow economy. I am not sure whether these people would be second- or third-class residents of the UK, but they would certainly not be living and working on an equal footing with people who were born here.
The requirement for citizens of the EU27 to show proof of CSI, if they fell ill and needed healthcare, would represent a break from the NHS tradition that treatment and care are free at the point of need. There would be a normalisation of the assumption that people who 'seemed foreign' because of their accent or their appearance could be asked to prove that they were entitled to access the NHS. It would represent another part of the slippery slope away from universality of access to healthcare. Some of the private providers of healthcare might choose to limit the services for which they were responsible to people with a particular insurance status. Before long, there could be a two-tier health service.
It has become a rather stale joke to say that Brexit means Brexit. What is becoming clear is that Mrs May and her team are willing to inflict a covert coup on our public relationships and social assumptions for the sake of obtaining a hard Brexit. Concern has already been expressed that there is a willingness to turn the UK into a low-tax offshore island. The situation of the EU nationals illustrates that there is also a government willingness to sacrifice our welfare state and our community cohesion for political ends. Granting immediate rights of residency to all EU nationals currently residing in the UK should become a key demand of any campaign for a fair Brexit. They all deserve more than the pieties and hand-wringing which seem to be their lot at the moment.