David Rees, Labour AM for Aberavon
In just over a week, our 47-year membership of the European Union will come to an end. Whether you were for Leave or Remain during the referendum campaign, it will undoubtedly be a historic moment for our country.
As Chair of the National Assembly’s External Affairs Committee, my role is to examine what leaving the European Union will mean for Wales and its people. Later today (Wednesday 22 January) I will lead a debate on the floor of the Senedd to present the findings of our report on changes to freedom of movement after Brexit.
This has been a vitally important area of our work. And as our membership comes to an end, it is our fellow citizens from elsewhere in the EU that are foremost in my mind.
There are an estimated 3 million citizens from other EU countries living in the UK with around 80,000 in Wales. Many are our colleagues, neighbours, friends, and in some cases family members, living as part of our communities across the nation. Last year the UK Government launched the EU Settlement Scheme, which requires all citizens from elsewhere in the EU to apply to stay in the UK.
Securing the rights of EU citizens living here must be one of our primary aims. While the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, which is currently making its way through Parliament, will enshrine most of the rights of EU citizens in UK law, we need to do more to help EU citizens register to the EU Settlement Scheme.
We found a number of difficulties with the operation of the Scheme, including concerns about low levels of registration in Wales compared to the rest of the UK and low awareness of how and where to access advice and support.
The Scheme, which is operated by the Home Office, is also designed to be “digital by default”. The lack of physical documentation given to those who have registered with the Scheme is a cause for concern, and in the words of House of Lords EU Justice sub-committee, has “clear parallels” with the Windrush scandal.
We all, therefore, need to give reassurance to EU citizens in Wales that their status is permanent. And I will be calling on both governments, employers, and public services to provide that reassurance.
Aside from these practical aspects relating to the future of EU nationals living in Wales, I was struck by a less tangible, but nevertheless important, aspect relating to this work.
This was the message we received directly from EU citizens living in Wales about the toll that negative rhetoric around migration is having on the emotional wellbeing of those affected.
It is for this reason, that when I take my seat in the Senedd later today I will be calling on my fellow Members from across the political spectrum to reflect on the damaging effects that some of the rhetoric and language being used around immigration is having on people.
We have a duty to act on what EU citizens who took part in our focus groups told us about this sense of feeling unwelcome and unwanted in this country, many of whom have lived here for decades.
Today, we must stand together with our friends, and fellow citizens as we turn our minds to building a new relationship with our European neighbours in the months that lie ahead.