There are many laws that come before the House of Lords that I disagree with. But there are few that deserve the label ‘tragedy’, as does the Immigration Bill that came before us yesterday.
Baroness Williams of Trafford, the government minister introducing the Bill, set it out plainly: “the heart of this bill is that it ends free movement”.
She said it. This bill ends, deliberately and bluntly, something deeply precious that has been available to hundreds of millions of people for decades. A freedom, an opportunity, a wider life.
It is a tragedy that we are, in a stroke, preparing to reduce the freedoms and opportunities of 450 million European citizens, limiting their chances to come to the UK, to contribute their skills, their knowledge, their energy, to our life.
But I focused on the reverse loss – the far greater loss – of 66 million Britons, particularly our young people.
For denying free movement from the EU to the UK also means the reverse – we lose free movement in the EU, in more than a score of other countries spread across the good part of a whole continent.
Lots of the debate has focused on economics, as far too much of our national debate assumes that people exist to serve the economy and not the reverse. But I focused on people, their lives, their hopes, their loves, and even their whims.
The chance to up sticks and move, to stop in your travels, to experiment and change – an opportunity for Britons this bill wipes out.
Movement I believe is integral to the nature of our species – indeed the nature of our genus, when you look at how far even our ancestor Homo erectus spread around this planet. As Bruce Chatwin observed, it’s often only movement that will let a baby find rest.
We’re denying that possibility, that freedom, to ourselves.
Yesterday, I had to declare an interest, although I know that it is one that is obvious as soon as I open my mouth and my Australian accent emerges. I was born and grew up in one place, which I didn’t much like, and decided to see what was on the other side of the world, being lucky enough to have that open to me.
Now of course huge numbers of people in the world move not by choice, but by force of war and civil conflict, climate emergency and nature crisis. And we should be working towards a world where no one has to move.
But we should also want a world where everyone can move – make choices – as they choose.
That’s an option always available to the rich – there are always ways. Losing freedom of movement is a profound issue of inequality. It is those without the cash, the connections, the languages, who’ll be stuck, while the few wander the globe at will.
That’s spelt out plainly in the government’s plans – a potential migrant’s value will be judged almost entirely by the money they can earn. Scant memory there of that doorstep applause for the people who we identified at the recent height of the Covid-19 epidemic as central to our continued existence.
During the Brexit debate, those advocating building this wall between us and the rest of our continent tried to suggest that there was some kind of equality being reduced in taking away rights in Europe that are denied to much of the rest of the world.
That failed to acknowledge that freedom of movement was a two-way street. We enjoyed rights, and offered rights in return.
We’re not going to see a sudden increase in freedom as a result of this Bill, only a loss.
We only had three minutes yesterday in the House, so I focused on the big issue, the tragedy.
There will be ways in which the House of Lords might make this bill slightly less disastrous, prevent children being torn away from their parents, couples from each other, protect child refugees, stop Henry VIII powers – and in the committee stage of the debate, when amendments are considered, I’ll join in that. (The House has already shown some resolve on the child refugee issue, that I hope it will revisit.)
But yesterday I asked Lords to consider a bold, brave step, to stop a tragedy and stand up for a deeply precious right – Freedom of Movement.
This country is in a very deep and dangerous hole in an unstable, uncertain world. This could be a chance to start climbing out rather than digging deeper.