When Boris Johnson brought back his Brexit bill to this new majority-Conservative parliament, the debate shifted from whether the UK would leave the European Union to what kind of country we will become when we do.
No longer having to court the votes of moderate MPs, Johnson is now trying to strip away the commitments he made. Gone are the pledges not to water down workers’ rights and environmental standards. Gone is the commitment to reunite unaccompanied refugee children with their families. Gone is Johnson’s promise to automatically guarantee in law the rights of EU citizens living in the UK.
Each of those U-turns by Johnson and his Conservative Party show that their vision for our country is mean and heartless. It couldn’t be more different from the Liberal Democrat vision of a United Kingdom that is open, compassionate and fair.
That’s why Liberal Democrat MPs fought hard to restore those protections in the House of Commons, and Liberal Democrat peers are continuing that fight now the Withdrawal Agreement Bill is passing through the House of Lords. And in the House of Lords we can win.
Take child refugees. They have been forced to flee their homes and separated from their families. They are some of the most vulnerable people in the world, and we must do all we can to protect them. The UK has a proud history of providing sanctuary to those in need, but now the Conservative government is turning its back on child refugees and failing to live up to our obligations to them.
Liberal Democrats have been fighting for these rights for years. Along with the principled and tireless peer Lord Dubs, who came to the UK as a refugee himself in 1939, we have tabled an amendment that would protect the rights of lone refugee children to be reunited with their family members after Brexit.
We have also tabled a separate amendment to guarantee the rights of the 3.6 million EU citizens living in the UK.
These are our friends and our families, our carers and our colleagues, and Johnson made them a promise – both during the 2016 referendum campaign and when he moved into Downing Street last summer. He promised that their rights to continue living and working in the UK after Brexit would be automatically guaranteed in law.
But Johnson has broken that promise. Instead, the Tory government is forcing EU citizens to apply for “settled status” by the end of June 2021. Those who don’t get it by that arbitrary deadline will be left effectively undocumented and exposed to the Conservatives’ “hostile environment”.
This means tens or even hundreds of thousands of EU citizens will be at risk of eviction, detention or even deportation – despite recent government denials. It runs the risk of another Windrush scandal waiting to happen, but on an even bigger scale.
That is why Liberal Democrats have tabled an amendment to stand up for EU citizens and hold Johnson to account to what he promised: to guarantee their rights automatically in law. Again, with cross-party support we can win.
Liberal Democrats have always taken our role of scrutinising government legislation very seriously, working hard to protect individual rights and freedoms and standing firm for the values we believe in. Even with the limited time available, our approach to the Withdrawal Agreement Bill is no different.
Dick Newby is leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords