OPINION: Nobody should be forced to choose between family in the UK or in Spain

Sue Wilson analyzes the UK's controversial Immigration Bill and why it's important for Brits in Spain.

OPINION: Nobody should be forced to choose between family in the UK or in Spain
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The British government has recently faced a string of defeats in the House of Lords over its controversial Immigration Bill.

Against the backdrop of the Conservative Party conference, and some toxic anti-asylum-seeker rhetoric from Home Secretary, Priti Patel, members of the House of Lords emphatically voted against the government’s plans.

The five government defeats largely concerned amendments about the rights of immigrants in the UK. Not least the Dubbs amendment, aimed to protect the rights of unaccompanied child refugees. However, the Lords are also concerned with the rights of British citizens living in the EU.

For people protected by the Withdrawal Agreement, the Lords propose provisions for UK citizens “to return to the United Kingdom accompanied by, or to be joined in the United Kingdom by, close family members”.

Peers also backed not placing financial restrictions on Brits returning to the UK with their EU families from March 2022. 

For those residing in the EU, the issue of being separated from close family members is important.

While many people intend to spend their whole lives in Spain, our personal circumstances or plans can easily change. This is highly relevant for people with family in two or more countries.

How can anyone choose between a dependent in the UK and one in Spain? Nobody should be forced to make that decision.

Thanks to Brexit, we must adjust to a new normality. It rubs salt in our wounds that the EU is more willing to protect our rights – including freedom of movement – than the British government has ever been.

When the Brexit talks started, our freedom of movement was on the negotiating table. It did not remain there for long, once prime minister, Theresa May, insisted on her red lines. To ensure that EU citizens’ rights in the UK were restricted, the rights of UK citizens in the EU became collateral damage in the negotiations.

During her time as Home Secretary, May was renowned for the “hostile environment” towards immigrants and the controversial “go home” vans.

Anti-immigration feeling already existed in the UK, but it reached new heights during the Brexit campaign. It still prevails at the Conservative party conference, with workers who protect the human rights of asylum seekers being insultingly labelled “do-gooders” and “leftie lawyers”

.We don’t have empirical evidence to suggest that most of the British public is anti-immigrant. Indeed, industry – not least the NHS and care sector – has called for a more flexible approach to EU immigration. Recent speeches by the government, and the Immigration Bill itself, have done nothing to suggest their opinion on immigration has softened.

What comes next regarding the controversial Immigration Bill, and does the position of the House of Lords make any difference? While the Lords don’t make law, their strong opposition to any proposed government plans can impact a bill passing through parliament.

When the Immigration Bill returns to the House of Commons, MPs will debate the Lords’ amendments. Consequently, some MPs may be persuaded to soften their stance. At the very least, the Lords have raised the key issues to public and media scrutiny, as well as slowing the process of the bill passing into law.

As has been proved recently by other notable U-turns, the British government is willing to change its plans to avoid any humiliating defeat in the House of Commons. We must hope that the opinions of the Lords have filtered down to wavering MPs.

It might help the cause if you email your own MP and request a show of compassion for immigrant families in the UK and in the EU.

By Sue Wilson – Chair of Bremain in Spain


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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.