Our children are being put at risk over Brexit – only a Final Say vote can protect their futures
The rush to issue residents of EU nationality with a new post-Brexit status may well leave many children with less secure rights than those to which they are currently legally entitled to
After this week’s parliamentary shenanigans, those who are unsure as to what the next steps should be in determining the UK’s future relationship with the European Union would be well advised to consider the options from the perspective of children.
There are more than 13 million children in the UK. They have had no say in our decision to leave the EU, despite the fact that they are likely to be more profoundly affected by its impact than any other group.
The short- and long-term consequences of a hard Brexit for children are unthinkable. In Northern Ireland, a hard border would potentially place thousands of children out of reach of the vital mental health and educational services on which they rely on a daily basis.
More generally, a no-deal Brexit would seriously jeopardise children’s safety if it led to the withdrawal of the UK from vital cross-border police and judicial cooperation mechanisms. We are living in a time where the threats to children’s safety are ever more complex, sophisticated and widespread.
Developments in the online environment and digital media offer just a glimpse of the cross-jurisdictional phenomena that the UK has never had to deal with on its own, without the support of EU cooperation mechanisms. Indeed, the very fact that no single member state could cope with these issues alone is the reason that EU intervention was so unanimously supported in the first place.
Consider also the thousands of teachers, healthcare and social workers who work with children. Without access to EU-managed, centralised criminal records checks, we could have no idea whether newly appointed professionals in these sectors pose a threat.
The settlement of EU citizens – one of the most prominent features of the proposed agreement – could also undermine children’s best interests. The rush to issue residents of EU nationality with new post-Brexit status may actually leave many children with less secure rights than those to which they are currently legally entitled – or worse still, an absence of residence rights altogether.
Research indicates that there are more than 900,000 children of non-Irish EU citizen parents living in the UK – an estimated 239,000 of them were born in this country to parents who claim to be UK citizens. This data suggests that while many of these children will need to acquire EU-settled status along with their parents, a significant proportion potentially have rights to British citizenship.
However, the relatively light-touch, fast-track nature of the EU settlement scheme – coupled with the inaccessibility of immigration advice, representation and lack of legal aid – may well make it more appealing (and cheaper) for adults acting on behalf of children in their care to pursue EU settlement applications as opposed to more secure residence rights.
Perhaps a more worrying finding of the research is that some parents may wrongly believe that their children are British because they were born here and may not apply to settle their status at all, leaving such children in legal limbo.
A second referendum is still a very real possibility. And it offers the only opportunity to fully consider the potential impact of Brexit on children. Certainly, children’s practitioners and experts, like so many others, were complacent in the lead-up to the first referendum.
But a second campaign would look quite different. Practitioners would confront the public with the overwhelming evidence and a consensus of experts working in the field that leaving the EU, whichever way you look at it, is not in children’s best interests.
It will make them poorer; it will close off opportunities to study, travel and build careers abroad; it will narrow their cultural horizons; it will jeopardise their relationships and contact with family members living in other EU countries; it will expose them to risk online and offline in the absence of robust and long term cross-national cooperation with the security services. It may even limit their access to new medicines and appropriate healthcare.
A Final Say referendum would provide children, who have so far been the silent witnesses of Brexit, with the chance to stake their claim in the debates. Their political awareness of the issues, like all others, has been significantly heightened over the past two years. Many of those denied the opportunity to vote in the last referendum will have come of age.
Those still too young to vote can do much to encourage adults charged with their futures to reflect on and take responsibility for the objectionable long term implications of Brexit for young people. The impact of the “Ring Your Granny” campaign and the institution of the citizens’ assembly during the Irish referendum on same-sex marriage tell us that we should never underestimate the potential of our children to shift attitudes and coax adults into considering new perspectives on these momentous constitutional milestones.
Helen Stalford is a professor of law and director of the European Children’s Rights Unit at the University of Liverpool