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BREXIT

OPINION: I moved to Spain expecting free healthcare for life

Sue Wilson describes the immediate panic among Brits in Spain provoked by a statement on healthcare post-Brexit earlier this week, and explains why it's not as bad as it seems.

OPINION: I moved to Spain expecting free healthcare for life
Archive photo of an ambulance outside a Spanish hospital. Photo: AFP

As part of the British government’s no-deal communications programme, it issued a statement on Monday September 23rd outlining healthcare access for Brits living in EU 27 countries.

In the event of a no-deal Brexit, the statement committed the government to funding six months of healthcare for more than 180,000 UK nationals, i.e. those already receiving free health cover, specifically pensioners and students. The announcement caused immediate panic and anxiety amongst British citizens in Spain.

READ MORE: 'It's torture': How ailing pensioners in Europe have become the human cost of Brexit

During March 2019, the Spanish government issued its Royal Decree to protect Brits in Spain. In the event of a no-deal Brexit, this decree guarantees us continuing healthcare until the end of 2020.

However, the offer only stands if the British government reciprocates regarding the treatment of Spanish citizens in the UK.  Whilst the Spanish offer isn’t concrete, it did reassure the British community in Spain that our host country has our best interests at heart.

On Monday, we naturally assumed that the latest statement from the British government overruled the earlier one from the Spanish government. The story received considerable press coverage throughout the UK and Europe, which reinforced those widespread assumptions.

Those relying on free healthcare, or expecting to do so in the future, asked how they would afford private healthcare, or if they would even qualify for private health insurance with pre-existing medical conditions. Apart from genuine concerns about funding future healthcare, many were also worried they would be left with no alternative but to return to the UK to use the NHS.

Within a few hours, we realised that the statement from the British government did not apply to British citizens in Spain – just those living in the rest of the EU.

READ MORE: Healthcare in Spain after Brexit: What you need to know

The British Embassy was quick to clarify the situation with an update that was welcome, informative and prompt. There was, however, no further communication from the British government – they merely updated their website to confirm that the offer of six months healthcare did not apply to those of us in Spain.

The website stated: “The UK and Spain have each taken steps to ensure that people living in each country can continue to access healthcare as they do now until at least 31 December 2020. This means that your healthcare access will remain the same after 31 October 2019, whatever the Brexit scenario”.

With £100 million being spent by the government on no-deal propaganda, this latest government cock-up did nothing to improve the standing of the British government in the eyes of Brits abroad.

We have been ignored for too long, left out of the conversation and treated as bargaining chips. After years of paying in to the British system, it’s worrying to think we might not receive what’s due to us.  For the government to then get its facts wrong, but not bother to inform us directly of their mistake, begins to look not so much like carelessness as a lack of interest.

Like thousands of others, I moved to Spain expecting free healthcare for life. I paid into the National Health Service for 38 years. I did not envisage paying for private healthcare or prescription charges in my retirement.

National Health Insurance has that name for a reason. When you pay into an insurance policy for years, you expect payback when it’s required. Whether I spend my retirement in Bradford, Bournemouth or Barcelona should not make any difference to the cover I receive.

The British government had better wise up and make a firm commitment on healthcare and pensions. The costs to the Exchequer are far less if we stay where we are, than if we return to the UK for medical treatment. Bearing in mind the serious problems already facing the NHS, does the government want thousands of angry pensioners, perhaps with expensive healthcare needs, turning up in Westminster?

By Sue Wilson – Chair of Bremain in Spain

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BRITS IN EUROPE

Brits in Europe won right to vote for life in UK but questions remain

After years of campaigns and promises British citizens living abroad finally won the lifelong right to vote in UK general elections in April 2022. But campaigners say more needs to be done to allow all those Britons abroad to be able cast their votes easily.

Brits in Europe won right to vote for life in UK but questions remain

What’s in the law?

The Elections Act 2022 introduced several changes to the current legislation on electoral participation. Among these, it removed the rule by which British citizens lose their voting rights in the UK if they have lived abroad for more than 15 years

The new rules also abolished the requirement to have been previously registered in the UK electoral roll to become an overseas voter. In addition, the registration in the electoral roll will now last up to three years instead of only one year.

It is estimated that these changes could increase the number of overseas voter registrations by some 3 million. But the way new measures will be applied in practice is still to be defined.

READ ALSO: ‘Mixed feelings’ – British citizens in Europe finally get right to vote for life

Defining the practicalities

Under the new law, Britons living abroad will have to register to vote in the last place they were registered in the UK. This means that people who have never lived in the UK will be ineligible to vote, regardless of how long they have been overseas, while those who left when they were children will be able to use a parent or guardian’s address.

But given that the UK does not require residents to register with local councils, how to prove previous UK residence? “Typical documents accepted as a proof of residence are Council tax or utilities bills, but not everyone will have them or will have kept them in an international move,” says Fiona Godfrey, co-founder of the British in Europe coalition.

Ballot papers are pictured in stacks in a count centre as part of the 2019 UK general election. (Photo by ANDY BUCHANAN / AFP)

Other questions concern how people will effectively cast their ballot. UK citizens overseas will be able to vote by post or by proxy or in person at their polling station if they are in the UK at the time of the election. However, few people are likely to travel to the UK for an election and in the past there have problems and delays with postal voting.

The Electoral Commission has recommended that overseas electors appoint a proxy to vote on their behalf. But who could that be for people who have been away from their constituency for a long time?

New secondary legislation will have to answer these questions, defining how to be included in the electoral roll and how to exercise the voting right in practice.

According to British in Europe, the government should present draft legislation in the first half of the year so that the parliament can adopt it before summer and registrations of overseas voters can start in the autumn.

British in Europe survey

British in Europe are currently running a survey to understand the difficulties UK citizens abroad may face in the registration and voting process, as well as their intention to participate in elections.

The survey asks for instance which documents people can access to prove their previous residence in the UK, what problems they had voting in the past, and if and how they plan to vote in the future.

“We need to get an up-to-date picture of British citizens living around the world and have information to make recommendations to the government, as it prepares secondary legislation,” Godfrey said. “If millions of people will exercise their voting rights, there will be consequences for council registration offices, post office and authorities that will manage the process, among other things” she argued.

The right to vote concerns only UK parliamentary elections and national referendums, not elections in the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, or at local level.

The survey is open to UK citizens living anywhere in the world and is available at this link.

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